Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery) (4 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
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I gave the gal a once over. “Regina did a good job on your hair.” Indeed she had. Dana’s short dark hair sported muted highlights I hadn’t really noticed when I’d asked her about the allegations against
Valorie
Peters.

My hostess made a face. “All Regina’s talk of politics drives me a little crazy. She should run for office, as passionate as she is about things happening in this town.”

“She was on a committee with Marion a few years ago.”

“They probably disagreed on everything,” Dana said. “I’ll make us a pot of tea.”

Tea.
Oh no. The vile brew makes me burp. I almost suggested a tall glass of water in lieu of the tea, but Dana was out of sight. I huffed and decided I’d just toss it back and gulp real
quick
. That way I wouldn’t taste a thing.

I shut the door and studied the mess in the living room on my left. Anyone would guess the young woman had either just moved in or was preparing to move out. Boxes of every size covered the living room floor. One comfy armchair and a floor lamp seemed the only pieces of usable furniture.

“Looks like you’ve still got your work cut out for you,” I raised my voice to be heard.

The splash of water measured Dana’s progress on tea preparation. She appeared in the doorway that separated the kitchen from the dining room.

“I keep trying to get rid of boxes, but it seems they multiply while I’m sleeping.”

“It takes more than a week or two to get truly settled, no matter where you move.” Stepping into the living room, I gasped as the rest of the room became visible. “
Hardy’d
throw a shoe if he saw this.”

This turned out to be a polished ebony concert grand.

I trailed my fingers down the slick length of the piano, admiring every inch of the beauty, until I could see the maker’s name. Steinway. I was awestruck.

Dana flicked on the overhead light and straightened a stack of papers on the cushion of the armchair. “Hardy is welcome to
come
play anytime. Teaching doesn’t allow me much extra practice time, but I play when I can.”

I ran my finger over the silky, cool surface of the instrument. “My man would worship at your feet for a chance to play a Steinway. What model?”

“D.” She stopped beside me and played a little tune, then made a face. “Payton tuned it last week. I walked over during lunch to let him in. Got back just in time for my next class.” She waved a hand at the keyboard. “I haven’t tried it yet.”

I spread my fingers over the keys and played a C scale, the extent of my piano playing knowledge. As the sound resonated through the room, I raised my brows at Dana.

Her lips formed a straight line. “It, uh, doesn’t sound too good, does it?”

“He tunes our upright. If you’re not happy, make that boy come back and do it again.”

A low-pitched whistle signaled the impending doom of my happy tummy. Dana straightened and hurried off toward the kitchen.

Left behind, I decided to snoop. My eyes skimmed over the bookshelves beside the piano. Classics, mostly, but some of the books looked to be leftover from Dana’s days in college. By the look of things, most of the books were still in boxes.

I went over to the armchair, glanced up to make sure Dana was out of sight, and gave the papers on the cushion a cursory glance. Looked like papers on diagramming sentences or some equally horrid grammatical nightmare. On the table holding the lamp were the remains of a half-eaten cookie and a book with a tattered-edged paper marking the space. I leaned over to get a better view of the book.
Days of Reckless Gold.
The ruffled piece of paper acting as bookmark appeared as old as the book.
Interesting.

Maybe it was a letter from her great-grandfather. I glanced over my shoulder to make sure I was alone before I rifled through Dana’s personal items.
“That tea almost ready, honey?”

“Almost,” Dana called back.

Satisfied, I snatched up the book. It fell open to reveal the bookmark as an old letter.

“I like my tea with honey and sugar,” I called out, trying to keep conversation going so I would know Dana’s location.

“I’ve got both.”

 
I zoom-scanned that thing as fast as I could noting a name—Jackson Hughes—and the signature where the first name was so scrawled I couldn’t make it out, but the last I could.
Letzburg
.
Probably Dana’s relative.
Interesting.

I slowed down enough to read each word. Dana’s great-grandfather, the sheriff, had the diary of the old assayer, Jackson Hughes, and it held a scribbled drawing.
Now that’d be worth something to those interested in the history of Maple Gap.

I wanted to read further, but when I heard the rattle of teacups, I knew my time was almost up.

“Tea’s ready,
LaTisha
.”

With great care, I refolded the letter and closed the book, returning it to its original position on the table.
A nudge here, a push there.
When I turned, Dana stood in the dining room doorway, her smile frozen in place.

 
 
 

Chapter Four

 

My brain was smoking trying to come up with an excuse good enough to explain why my backside stuck up in the air and my nose hovered over Dana’s end table. I pointed at the papers on the chair, shook my head, and groaned. “Mm. Wished you’d been here to help my youngest with sentence
diagrammin
’. Lela took longer than any of the others to catch on.”

Saved my bacon from getting fried in her grease.
But how much of my little story about diagramming sentences did she believe?
Probably not much.

Shrugging it off, I took note of Dana’s decorating style as I followed her through the dining room toward the kitchen. Lace curtains, lace tablecloth, lots of knickknacks in the china cabinet—it seemed to be the only room with nary a box.

The kitchen, too, appeared fully operational.
Lace everywhere—the window, the table, even hanging over the edge of the glass-fronted cabinets.
The side door also had a thick, heavy lace valance covering almost the entire window.
Made me itch to think about it.
A silver service sat proudly on top of a table the size of a large pizza. What scared me most, though, were the dainty wire and wood kitchen chairs. I conjured an image of my broad base—if you get my meaning—overflowing that little chair until the wire bent and snapped, leaving it nothing but a coil of wire and kindling.

But Dana didn’t seem to have the least doubt her furniture would be safe. “Have a seat. You’re my first guest since I moved back.”

With great concentration, I lowered myself into that chair, alert to the slightest protest from the frail structure. It held solid beneath me and I sighed my relief, though my hose betrayed my earlier tugs and began to roll again.

But it was time to get down to real business. “You see the police at Out of Time on your way home from the school?” Though she taught English to the seniors, the school across from the antique store was kindergarten through 12th since Maple Gap wasn’t very big.

Her reaction to my question interested me greatly. She didn’t meet my eyes, gasp in shock, or even show a speck of curiosity. She continued the process of adding water to the silver teapot as if her entire life hinged on the completion of that task.

She flicked the lid closed and wiped the side of the pot dry. Now, either this lady knew something I didn’t, or she was one of them types who
takes
great pride in their ability not to show emotion at shocking news. She didn’t seem the latter type. Something in this girl’s brain was clicking around, and I aimed to figure out what it might be.

“It’s a small town.” She gave me a tight smile. “I stopped at the corner to fill up my car. Tom mentioned seeing you, Hardy, and Payton, with the police. I didn’t ask for details. Was Payton robbed?”

Maybe she didn’t know then. So I tried for shock value.
“Nope.
I found Marion
laying
dead in her shop.”

Dana settled the teapot on the table. “That’s too bad.” She met my gaze, eyes wide.

I searched her expression, satisfied that what I saw didn’t appear to be that of genuine surprise. By her own admission, she hadn’t asked for details from Parker, the gas station attendant. So why didn’t this girl seem the least bit flustered by news of a dead body?
Interesting indeed.

I heaped three spoonfuls of sugar and as much cream as I could fit into the cup without making it overflow, then blew on the brew. “You having that spat with Marion means you’ll be on the list of suspects.” Telling her that I had personally reinforced Chief Conrad’s suspicion didn’t seem too wise.

She didn’t look happy. “You think he’s going to question me?”

“Sure as my bunions ache.” They did, too. I shifted my weight and slid off my shoes to rub one foot against the other. My chair chose that moment to let out a grievous moan. This woman needed to get herself some real furniture. “No one dethrones Marion’s girl,
Valorie
, without releasing the terrorist inside her momma.”

“Everything I told Marion about
Valorie’s
cheating in class is true. I have evidence.”

“Don’t matter none. You’ve been here six months. Only long enough to begin the school year. People won’t trust you yet.”

Her eyes widened in disbelief. “But I was born and raised here. I taught
Valorie
when she was in my third-grade class.”

“Yeah, and you left for the city. Deep down, Maple
Gapites
don’t like city folk much.
Townsfolk’ll
think it strange to have our first murder in over a hundred years after a new person arrives in town.”

“Mac Simpson’s been here less time than I have,” Dana pointed out.

“But not long enough to know Marion or be on her bad side.”

Dana must have forgotten the intricacies of small-town life since her escape ten years ago. Despite the gal’s claim to the town as her legacy from her great-grandfather, everyone in Maple Gap knew Dana had nothing but city blood in her veins now.
Tainted blood.
You could see it in her hands. City girl hands—soft hands with big, blue veins that popped out like earthworms holding their breath.

I lifted the teacup, tested the temperature—lukewarm—raised the cup in salute, and slammed back the contents in one gulp. My belch drew a scowl of disgust from Dana.

“This here little murder is a serious thing. Townspeople don’t like to think they’re going to have to lock their doors at night. Don’t suppose such a thing sways you though, being from the big city and all, but here it’s
gonna
be in the headlines for weeks. Mark my words.”

“If the police are looking for people with a beef against Marion, they’ll have a very long list.”

“Yup.”

For a girl suspected of murder, she seemed pretty calm. On the other hand, I was a suspect, too, thanks to Hardy. Difference was
,
I knew I didn’t do it.

Dana lifted the teapot and twitched it at me asking me without words if I wanted a refill. I didn’t. But the conversation needed to continue so I could squeeze out the information I needed. With my stomach already churning more protests, I held out my teacup and pasted on my best smile as she poured. “I was in the shop this morning when you and Marion were talking on the phone.”

Dana slid the sugar bowl closer to me. “Marion called me.”

“Didn’t sound like a friendly
conversation.

“She wanted me to drop the whole thing with
Valorie
. You know how badly she wanted her to get into Stanford.” Dana’s jaw firmed. “But I can’t let
Valorie
get away with cheating. What if she’s been doing it all along? What if her valedictorian status is a sham? It would be really hurting her if I let this slide. Marion didn’t understand that.”

Right on.
I agreed wholeheartedly. “What was the whole thing about a book?”

She lifted her teacup and took a long sip. Her cup clattered onto the saucer.
“A diary.
It’s not a big deal, but I should have known better than to ask about it.”

“What diary?”

Dana blew a wisp of hair off her forehead. The brown strand fluttered upward and clung. “Instead of unpacking every box, I decided to leave some things stored. The attic is full of stuff, so I was trying to weed out and make a storage area. I sorted through some old books and donated some to the library. The rest I thought might bring a good price from collectors, so I asked Marion to sell them on consignment. She wouldn’t do it, said it was against her policy, but she agreed to buy them from me.”

I laced my fingers and digested that tidbit. Marion always took things on consignment, unless she had changed her policy since I quit.
Doubtful.
The woman hated change, but she sure delighted in finding ways to nettle people she didn’t like. “Go ahead.”

“Marion gave me a fair price, so we were both pretty happy. Later I noticed an old diary was missing that I’d wanted to keep—uh, a relative of mine wrote it. I kept meaning to ask Marion about it. Then this thing with
Valorie
happened. Long story short, when I did ask—”

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
5.07Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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