“I believe you, Etta Mae. But what happened that morning?”
“Well, she was in a bad mood when I got there, but that wasn’t unusual. But that day, her sitter hadn’t come in, so she was more upset than normal. I got her cleaned up, checked to be sure she still had enough of her medications, got her out of bed and her foot elevated—she has gout—and then she started accusing me of taking her gold bangle bracelet. I just laughed it off, because I’m not a thief and I thought she’d just mislaid it. Then she told me to call the sitter, Evelyn somebody, and tell her she’d better get to work or she wouldn’t have any work to get to. That’s the way she said it. ‘Tell her to get herself over here now or don’t bother coming at all.’ And she told me not to leave until Evelyn got there. Well, I waited and waited. Then I called Evelyn again on her cell and found out that she was on her way, but she’d stopped at the grocery store. So she wasn’t in any hurry to get there, and I don’t blame her, but I told her I had to leave, that I had another appointment. And she told me to go ahead, she’d be there in fifteen minutes anyway, and the client would be fine by herself. And if Evelyn says any different now, why, then she’s just not telling the truth.” Etta Mae stopped, drew a rasping breath and went on. “So that’s why I was late getting to your house, Miss Julia. I’d had to wait and wait, then run home and change clothes. I was just beside myself, because I didn’t want to miss your party.”
“I appreciate it, Etta Mae, and I’m glad you made it.” But even as I said it, I recalled how agitated and flustered and breathless she’d appeared when she got to my house. Was that really because she’d been running late or was it because she’d just committed one crime and attempted another?
Lord! What was I thinking? Not Etta Mae, no way in the world would I ever believe that. Why, she’d been collecting rent for me from the trailer park residents for years, and not a penny had ever been missing.
“And I swear, Miss Julia,” she went on, “I swear on a stack of Bibles a mile high that I didn’t touch that woman. Well, except to give her a sponge bath and change her gown and the sheets on her bed. But that’s all, and as soon as Evelyn told me to leave, I was out of there. So I couldn’t’ve been the last person with her. Her own sitter, who she’d brought from Florida with her, was practically on her doorstep.”
“I expect they’re questioning everybody who saw her that day,” I said soothingly. “It sounds like you’re in the clear, so I wouldn’t worry any more about it. Except, why do they think somebody tried to kill her?”
“I don’t know! They wouldn’t tell me a thing, and Miss Julia, they treated me like a criminal—took my picture and everything. And all they told me is that Mrs. Delacorte’s in the hospital after some kind of assault—the aggravated kind, even. And I don’t know if she’s accused me or if Evelyn has or anything at all.”
“Well, we’ll get Binkie on it. You need somebody to protect your interests. I expect she and Coleman are just gone for the day, maybe taking the baby to the dog show or something. We’ll keep trying to reach her.”
By this time, I’d turned into the Hillandale Trailer Park—one of the less desirable assets of Wesley Lloyd’s estate that Lloyd and I had inherited—and was driving down the graveled road that ran through the middle of it. I’d engaged Etta Mae some time back to manage it for me, and she’d done an excellent job getting rid of the riffraff and demanding that the residents keep the place clean and free of litter. Her own little trailer looked neat and inviting, if you cared for a residence sitting on cement blocks. There were two pots of chrysanthemums by the steps leading to the door and a couple of plastic chairs under the awning.
“Will you be all right by yourself?” I asked, as I parked beside her recently acquired red car.
“Yes’m, I guess. Just so they don’t come back for me.”
“I’ll walk in with you and see that you’re settled. You need to take it easy, Etta Mae, and try not to worry. I’m sure Binkie’ll be around by tomorrow and she’ll take care of everything.”
Etta Mae pushed open the door to her trailer, hissing through her teeth on finding it unlocked. That alone should’ve prepared us for what we saw. We weren’t, though, because who would’ve been prepared for their home to be in complete disarray?
“Who did this!” Etta Mae cried as she stood just inside the door and looked at the cushions on the floor, the drawers pulled out, food staples opened and spilled out into the sink and on the counter and books splayed out in front of a little two-shelf bookcase.
“Oh, my word,” I said, but by then Etta Mae had run down the narrow hall, stopping abruptly in the door to her bedroom.
“Look at this!” she shrieked. “Just look at this!”
I followed and looked over her shoulder into the back room and saw every scrap of clothing she owned, including her lacy underwear, piled up on the bed or flung onto the floor. All the drawers in her dresser had been pulled out and emptied, shoes had been thrown out of the closet and the whole place looked as if it had been gone through with a fine-tooth comb.
“Oh, Etta Mae,” I said, patting my chest. “Have you been robbed?”
“No. Oh no,” she said, her face red with anger and her fists clenched. “I’ve not been robbed, I’ve been
! This was
work, and I’ll bet anything it was those dang Delmont deputies who did it!”
“They can’t search without a search warrant, can they?” I asked. Then, seeing the despair on her face, I went on. “Unless you gave them permission to do it.”
“Well, I guess I did,” Etta Mae said, her shoulders slumping. “They asked if they could look around, and since I knew there was nothing to find, I said they could. But I didn’t expect them to tear up everything while they did it.”
“But why would they even want to search your home? And leave such a mess, too?”
“Looking for that blasted gold bracelet, I guess, and they didn’t care what kind of mess they left. They wanted me to know they’d been through my things. I tell you, Miss Julia, they like it when people are afraid of them.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Etta Mae,” I said, trying to calm her down. “I haven’t found that to be true with the deputies I’ve met.”
“Well,” she said through gritted teeth, “you haven’t met the ones in Delmont. This isn’t the first time they’ve had their fun with my underclothes.” She turned and stomped back to the little kitchen area of the living room. Standing there, surveying the disorder, she said, “I’m gonna sue ’em. I’m gonna sue every last one of ’em, see if I don’t.”
“I don’t blame you, but talk to Binkie first.” I walked to the sink and looked down at the mixture of flour, cornmeal, sugar and who knows what else. “Why in the world would they ruin food like this? They’ve just poured everything out with no thought of all the starving children in Africa.”
Etta Mae was seething, standing by me surveying the contents of the sink, breathing hard. “It just shows you how they think, or
think. Because who, I ask you, would be dumb enough to hide a gold bangle bracelet in a box of grits?”
My goodness, I thought but didn’t say, I would’ve thought a box of grits would be a good hiding place. But what did I know about criminal behavior?
Etta Mae whirled around, the soles of her boots crunching the grains of sugar and grits that were scattered across the linoleum. “I’m so mad I can’t see straight!”
“Pull yourself together, Etta Mae, and let’s make a start on getting this cleaned up. Then you get a few things together, because you’re not staying here by yourself. You’re going home with me.”
She didn’t want to do it, declaring at first that nobody was going to run her out of her own home. But as we began tackling the cleanup, I kept on at her.
“Just for tonight, then,” I said. “You can’t stay here after your home has been invaded like this. We’ll get the worst of it today, then we’ll come back with Lillian tomorrow and really clean this place up.”
She began dipping out the mess in the sink, filling a trash bag with cornmeal, sugar and the rest, muttering to herself the whole time. “What if the drain got stopped up. Where would I be then?” In a few minutes, she cried, “Somebody poured syrup in first. How disgusting!”
I busied myself straightening the living room, which was part of the kitchen, or vice versa; who knew? I put the cushions back on the sofa and the easy chair, then drew up an ottoman to sit on while I restacked the books in the particleboard bookcase. Interested in her reading choices, I noted one book on home care for invalids and another called
Professionalism on the Job
—both textbooks. There were a couple of books by J. A. Jance, a new paperback by Charlotte Hughes and several secondhand looking Sue Grafton paperbacks. In fact, most of her library, if one could call it that, consisted of paperback editions, but at least she was a reader, and that said a lot.
“Etta Mae,” I said, rising with difficulty from the ottoman, “I’ll go back and start separating your clothes. I’ll just fold and stack them, then you can put them where they belong.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she said, as she scrubbed the counter. “I’ll be through here after I sweep.”
“I don’t mind at all. The sooner we finish, the sooner we can leave.”
She didn’t dismiss the idea, so I figured she’d come to terms with leaving the trailer, even if for only one night.
Walking into her bedroom, I glanced around, realizing how much I was learning about Etta Mae Wiggins’s private life—as, I assumed, the deputies had, too. The books one reads and the state of one’s bedroom can certainly tell a tale. And what struck me most in that room was not the mattress on a frame with no headboard or the cheap dresser with drawers hanging out or the pitifully small lamps on the floor, but the elegant étagère on the far side of the room. A beautiful French—or maybe French-inspired—piece made of fruitwood with carefully detailed inlay and a glass bow front.
I had to go over and touch it, my breath catching in my throat as I ran my hand over the fine wood. But it was so out of place I couldn’t help but wonder how and where she’d gotten it. Then I saw the reason it was in a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of Delmont, North Carolina. One of the slender, gracefully curved Queen Anne legs on the back side had been replaced with a straight stick of wood. Damaged goods, I thought, then my heart gave a compassionate lurch as I realized that Etta Mae had attempted to match the finish by painting the stick with brown shoe polish.
I had been so taken with the piece of furniture that it was only then that I took notice of what was on the shelves in the étagère. Barbie dolls! Each one was arrayed in the finest apparel and displayed one after the other on the three shelves. Of all the things in the world to collect, I thought, who would want Barbie dolls?
Well, obviously, Etta Mae Wiggins, and who was I to criticize? I turned to the bed and began separating sweaters, underclothes, skirts, uniforms, T-shirts and blue jeans. Actually, it wasn’t a difficult job, once I started, for Etta Mae didn’t own a large wardrobe. Now, if it’d been Hazel Marie, I’d have been folding and hanging clothes the rest of the day and into the night.
I heard Etta Mae’s boots stomping down the hall as she came back to the bedroom. “I still can’t get over this,” she fumed. “They did it on purpose, I know they did.”
“I’m beginning to believe it,” I said, handing her a pile of folded underpants and brassieres. “Here, I don’t know which drawer these go in. But I’ll tell you this, Etta Mae, I am going to report it to Lieutenant Peavey. If he has a bunch of vandals in the sheriff’s department, he needs to know it and do something about it.”
“Lotta good that’ll do,” she grumbled as she put a stack of T-shirts in another drawer and slammed it shut. “It’s me, Miss Julia. I know you don’t believe it, but they wouldn’t do this kind of damage to somebody like you. Or to anybody who was somebody. But they know they can get away with it with me. I don’t have a daddy or a husband or, looks like, a lawyer, either. They know I have to take whatever they dish out.”
“Oh, Etta Mae, I don’t think that’s true.” I almost tripped over a sandal that had been slung from the closet, then said, “But I could be wrong.” Then, in an effort to distract her, I went on. “I couldn’t help but notice your lovely collection of dolls, Etta Mae. You have them beautifully displayed.”
She looked up from folding a pair of jeans, fear etched on her face. “Are they all right?” She ran around the bed to look closer. “If there’s the least bit of damage to any one of them, I’m gonna sue the whole department, I swear I am.”
“They look fine,” I assured her. “I don’t believe they’ve been touched.”
“Well, thank goodness,” she said with some relief. Then she took the hem of her T-shirt and rubbed away a smudge on the glass. “I keep it locked, so I guess if the glass isn’t broken then they didn’t put their nasty hands on them.”
“I’m glad the deputies showed some restraint. Your dolls really are lovely.”