Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery) (3 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
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“And to think he’s never had a lesson in his life.” Chief motioned me to take a seat on the sofa while he sank into the nearby armchair. The nice thick cushion felt like heaven after the hard Windsor. And speaking of things hard . . .

“Who’s going to break the news to
Valorie
?”

Chief Conrad stroked his jaw. “Why, I suppose I am.”

“She acts tough but she’s really a sensitive little thing.”

“I’ll remember that.” He flipped open a small notebook and pulled a stubby pencil from his breast pocket. “Now you told me earlier that you returned to the shop to pick up some books you had paid for this morning.”

“I told Marion I’d bring Hardy back to help me lug the books out of there. After lunch, I headed over to Marion’s, Hardy in tow, but we detoured to the library. Hardy must have got lost in the place, because I didn’t see him until we met up at the antique store. He told me later he’d left the library and come here to visit Payton.”

Conrad glanced over at Payton who had positioned himself halfway between the sitting area and Hardy. Payton nodded his affirmation. The chief scribbled something and directed another question my way. “How was Marion this morning? Anything about her behavior seem unusual?”

“She was on the phone. Talked on the thing the entire time I was there. All I got out of her was a nod when I handed her my
money,
and a grunt when I asked about picking up the boxes later.”

Chief frowned at his notebook. “Did you hear anything or see anyone?”

It was on the tip of my tongue to say no, but I slowed down to ponder the question. In the background, Hardy spat out a series of short staccato notes and slid into a song with a definite blues undertone. One of the songs he had composed. Something about the music tickled at my brain.
An impression.
I couldn’t get it to reveal itself fully.

I narrowed my eyes and focused on Hardy’s hands, hoping to force the thought into focus, but I could only recall that sickening, permeating scent of blood. “I can’t think of anything, Chief.”

“Did you by chance notice something out of place on the counter?”

And why would he be asking that unless it was important? I did recall a flash of white.
Rectangular.
An envelope or something.
I decided to reverse the table, so to speak, to see if he’d drop a little more info for me. “Was it big?”

Conrad’s right eye squinted as his lips curved slightly. “You tell me.”

Beans! The man wasn’t going to give anything away if he didn’t have to. “I think I remember glimpsing a flash of white as I stood at the counter. An envelope, I think.”

He nodded and jotted something down in his notebook.

“All right.
Let me talk to Payton and Hardy and I’ll get back to you. Someone’s got to know something. One of the officers mentioned hearing a
rumour
about a feud between Marion and Dana
Letzburg
,
Valorie’s
teacher. Do you know anything about that?”

Did
I
! “I was at Regina’s the other day and overheard Dana complaining to her that
Valorie
didn’t deserve to graduate after what she’d done.”

Conrad raised his eyebrows. “That’s it? That’s all you know?”

“Course not. I asked Dana about it as we left and she said she’d caught
Valorie
cheating.
Had evidence, too.
Marion hit the roof and accused Dana of having it out for her daughter.”

He bounced a steady tempo against his chin with the end of his pencil.
“Interesting.
Anyone else you know who had a problem with Marion?”

“Sure.
Half the town.
Regina gives her a bad haircut every chance she gets.”

“Excuse me?”

“You know, Regina
Rogane
.
The hairdresser.
She declares that Marion gets to talking and debating and it makes her so mad that she always manages to mess up her haircut. Then there’s that new guy in town, Mark Hamm, something strange there, for sure. Whenever
Valorie
would float into the shop saying she’d gone to his restaurant to eat, Marion’s lips would get tighter than a clam. She sure didn’t like the news.”

“Hmm.
You
think.
. . ?”

“Never know now days.”

I leaned forward, motioned him to come closer and lowered my voice. “Payton’s another one to keep an eye on. You know the row he’s started about this building. Marion wanted to sell to some contractors and Payton kept pushing it to be declared a historical site. When I worked here, they were always arguing back and forth over something. And he was always late on his rent.
Drove Marion crazy.”

One last note lingered in the
air,
Hardy’s dramatic ending punctuated what I’d just shared with Conrad. Hardy lifted his hands from the keyboard as Payton broke into applause. Chief and I joined in as Hardy slid off the bench and crossed over to us.

Chief gripped Hardy’s hand hard, then relaxed back into his chair and tucked the pencil behind his ear. I knew another question was on its way. “If I might ask, what made you quit working for Marion?”

Hardy fell onto the sofa beside me with a loud laugh. “Oh, she didn’t quit, Officer

Conrad, Marion fired her.
Made
Tisha
madder than a hooked fish.”

 
 
 

Chapter Three

 

“Would you hurry yourself up?” I glared at Hardy, who hung three steps behind as I hustled from Payton’s music store on Spender Avenue, past Out of Time, to the hotel on the corner where Spender intersected with Gold Street.

“I’ve not got your zest, woman. Would have driven the car around here if you’d let me.” He mopped his face with a bright red handkerchief, stuffed it into his back pocket and raised his chin. He looked like a
Banty
rooster ready to crow.
“Um.
The smells coming from Mark’s place are mighty tempting.”

As if the man didn’t know every day of the week the smell of good cooking.

Mark Hamm, owner of Your Goose is
Cooked
, managed to draw more customers off the streets with the fragrant air his restaurant produced, than for the quality of the food. I knew this to be true—I’d eaten there.

But food is not what had me hauling Hardy toward the restaurant. I wanted him to do some investigating for me while I went to another section of town. I had no patience to sit and wait until the state police did their tests to figure if Marion’s death was an accident or not. Falling against a radiator would put a hurting on someone, sure, but kill them?
Nah.
My gut told me Marion’s death was no accident. Questioning those residents of our fair town who Marion had penciled in her little black book would give me a jump start on the chief.

I lifted my head to catch the scents wafting across the street from the restaurant.
“Smells an awful lot like fried chicken.
You have any money on you?”

Hardy slipped a thin wallet from his pocket, unfolded it, and held it open for my perusal.

“Three dollars?”

He glanced down into the wallet. “Living with you makes me a poor man. I saw you snitch my ten out yesterday.”

“Only because of your overdue library books.”

Hardy folded his wallet. “Where’s the change?”

I glanced right,
then
left, making sure no one was looking in our direction, and patted my chest. “Between the two of us we’ve got nine dollars and some change,” I assured him. “I’ll give you the five and you go eat at Mark’s. Ask him some questions about Marion and
Valorie
.”

Hardy stared at me from under his bushy brows. “I’m not the nosey one. If I go there to eat, I’m
gonna
eat, not talk.”

“Was you who suggested to the chief I had a motive for murdering Marion, the least you can do is help to clear my name.”

Hardy’s brows drew together, a thoughtful look in his eyes. “Don’t know. Being married to a murderer. . . They arrest you and you move to the pen, I’ll have room for that
Grotrian
.”

“How you
gonna
pay for that thing?”

“How else?
Write a book on the torture I endured being married to a cold-blooded murderer. Probably even get a movie made about me.” His eyes shifted down the street toward Marion’s store, where Chief Conrad stood talking to the coroner. “Maybe I’ll just hitch myself down there and have a little talk with our man in blue.”

As he started off in that direction, I latched onto the back of his collar and yanked hard. “Unless you want to be the main event at the next funeral, you’d better get your skinny self back here.”

“See? I’m threatened with bodily harm every day.”

“If you hadn’t shot off your mouth to the chief about Marion firing me, I wouldn’t need you to do this.”

“She did fire you.”

How could this man be so thick? “No. I quit.”

Hardy crossed his arms, his lower lip pushed out in his classic look of pure mulishness.
“Only after she fired you.”

“And you saw how fast Conrad jumped on that. Like a man with a pimple, he was going to squeeze and squeeze until he got something.”

“Well if you didn’t do it, what are you worried about?”

“I’m not worried!”

He raised an eyebrow. “Then why are you yelling?”

“I’m not−−” My jaws snapped shut when I noticed the two patrons outside of Your Goose is Cooked, picking their teeth and staring my way. Good town folk. I waved at them and beamed a huge smile. “What’s the special today, boys? Smells like fried chicken.”

Wilbur Gates rubbed his ample stomach. “All you can eat.”

“Sounds good to me,” I trilled over at Hardy.
“What about you, honey-babe?”

“Sure,
dumplin
’,” Hardy drawled.
“Whatever you want.”

Wilbur and company moved off down the sidewalk as Hardy and I crossed the road arm- in-arm, acting fine and dandy.

I stopped at the door to the restaurant and did another quick glance up and down Gold Street to make sure no one else would be privy to my words. “You get yourself in there and do that
askin
’ before they put a ball and chain around my ankle. You’ll starve to death without me.” Before he could reply, I plunged my hand down the front of my dress and rooted around for my small stash of cash.

Hardy flashed his gold tooth.

I glowered and passed him the five-dollar bill.

“I know I’m
gonna
regret asking this, but what do you do with the coins?”

“Don’t you worry your head about
it.
You just go on in and get busy. I’ve got some investigating of my own to do. I’ll meet you back at the house.”

“I’m sure not making any promises,” he said.

“You’d better. And bring the car home so it doesn’t sit in front of the library all night.”

Hardy wasn’t even listening. Didn’t take him long to move himself when food was to be had.

After retracing my steps back to the crime scene, I crossed to the other side of the road and passed the elementary school, made a left onto Foster Court, and came to a halt opposite the combination post office and gas station. Two houses down, Dana
Letzburg’s
Victorian home sprawled on a spring green lawn.

Marion’s phone conversation that morning had involved someone else. Apparently Chief Conrad hadn’t thought to ask me if I knew who that other person might be . . .

I slid off my shoes, rubbed one aching foot over the other, rearranged the seam of my hose across my toes, and slipped back into the low-heeled pumps. This murder stuff was killing my bunions.

 
 

Generations of
Letzburgs
’ had lived in the old Victorian. Town legend marked Dana’s great-grandfather as the sheriff during the crazy days of the Gold Rush when Maple Gap raised itself from the dust. When an assayer decided to steal the miners' gold, Maple Gap almost became a ghost town, but citizens did their best to keep the men from leaving. A few townspeople pooled their money and ran an ad in some East Coast papers, inviting women to come to the little town, marry, and settle down.

Some of Maple Gap’s old timer’s still vowed that the assayer’s stash of gold had yet to be found.

One summer, after my children got wind of the legend, they had dedicated the rest of their vacation to searching for it, digging holes wherever they went. I spent the summer sending Hardy out to fill those holes and offer apologies to our rather irate neighbors.

The memory of my babies, now grown and gone, settled like a melancholy lump in my stomach as I hobbled up the short flight of steps to Dana’s front door and rang the doorbell.

Soft footsteps on hardwood, a flash of color through the glass sidelight, and the door swung open to reveal Dana. Her smile welcomed me before her words. “What a surprise, Mrs. Barnhart. I was just grading papers.”

“I thought we might sit and talk a spell.”

Dana opened the door wider and stepped back. “Come on in.”

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
13.02Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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