Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery) (5 page)

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
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“That’s what she was saying to you this morning.”

“She told me if I didn’t drop the thing with
Valorie
that I could kiss that diary good-bye.”

“Did she find it?”

Dana scraped her chair back and stood up. “I guess I’ll never know now.”

I humped my chair away from the table, understanding the silent dismissal. “You take to heart what I’ve been telling you. The police will come knocking any minute.” That’s when the craziest notion rattled through my brain. You see, the previous Sunday at church, I had seen Dana come into service by herself. Officer Mac Simpson had been there, too, holding the door for her. Later on I had caught him scooting over to offer her a place to sit. Dana had appeared to take his attention in stride, but who knew?

“Better stay clear of Officer Simpson. Won’t do you any good for people to be thinking he’s sweet on you, you being a suspect and all. Might make people think you went in together on murdering poor Marion.”

 

 
 

Chapter Five

 

No car in the driveway meant Hardy hadn’t returned home yet. Where could that man be? I couldn’t wait to get at those books in the back seat of the car. The school needed the donations desperately. That’s when it hit me.
Boxes.
Plural.
In all the excitement, I never did find that second box. I would have to make sure Chief Conrad knew it was my property. Maybe he would let me in to look for it at some point.

Our old four bedroom, clapboard sided house, enfolded me in unnatural quiet when I entered. Our youngest daughter, Lela, had left for college last fall, leaving the house quiet.
Too quiet.
Years of the constant drone of little voices whining and teenagers fighting—or was that the other way around?—made coming home now a depressing routine.

I flipped on the hall light and deposited my keys on the semi-circular hall table. The silence struck a discordant note that made my heart hurt. But before I could warm myself in the shawl of memories, a steady tickle around my waist made me frown hard. Not again. I grabbed the elastic of my hose and hiked up the steps to our bedroom.

There, I let go of the waist and pushed out my stomach. The elastic
creeped
downward and curled like an ocean wave over my belly. When it stopped mid-way down my stomach, I worked them slowly downward, then over the tender chafed skin of my thighs and tugged them free. Sweet liberation! Soft bedroom slippers completed the transformation to comfort and I imagined my bunions singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

I scanned the room. Hadn’t changed the bedspread or painted the room in close to twelve years. The walls appeared more mustard than lemon yellow and the bedspread sported broken threads. A nice blue would be a welcome change of color. That would make a fun project for Lela,
Shayna
, and me when the girls came home for Easter holiday. The boys would probably gather for a basketball game with their father.

The goodness of life swelled within me as I surveyed the walls again with new excitement. White walls would work, too. A
wedgewood
patterned border would bring class to the room. Our solid oak furniture had served us well and remained in great shape, except for that chunk taken out of the nightstand when Hardy, busy trying to hang brackets for a shelf in the room next door, had forgotten to take off his drill bit extension and . . .

That’s when I finally noticed the red light blinking on the answering machine. I leaned forward to press the play button.

Hi, Momma.

The voice of my youngest girl, Lela.

Just got in from a late class and wanted to tell you I can’t come home during Easter vacation. There’s some Algebra I need help with and the tutor is willing to work through the holiday with me. It’s free, too, so I can’t pass this up. I’ll miss you, Momma. Tell Pop to stay out of trouble.

She wasn’t coming home for the holiday.

My eyes locked on the bevy of pictures on the dresser across the room as the answering machine beeped its conclusion.
Two wedding pictures—Tyrone and Cora,
Bryton
and
Fredlynn
.
Seven high school graduations—all seven of my babies.
Five college—Tyrone,
Bryton
, Shakespeare, Mason, and
Shayna
.
Lela’s picture would be there in three and a half more years. Mason, our second youngest son, would graduate in a year.

Mine would be there soon, too. Hardy had encouraged me to
fulfil
my dream and get my degree. Dear, dear man. His selflessness made it possible, scholarships made it feasible, and my job at Marion’s had covered the rest. Until I’d quit. . . Been fired. . .
Whatever.

But even the fulfillment of my dream didn’t cover the throb of my disappointment. Lela wouldn’t be home for the holiday. For the first time I could remember, not all my babies would share the Easter holiday with Hardy and me. I forced the disappointment away. After all, the others would be here, plus Cora and
Fredlynn
, so that would make eight. Still . . .

My eyes drifted to the pictures again and the burn of tears threatened. But I had no time for all that, my latest college assignment needed to be completed before tomorrow morning, when I would meet with my virtual professor and classmates.
An essay on the intricacies of photographing a murder scene.
And what good timing.

The textbook would tell me what I needed to know, sure, but. . .

Chief Conrad’s photographer would be the best source. Other than the newly hired Mac Simpson, “Tank” Nelson was the only other officer employed by Maple Gap, and he had been a photography enthusiast for years.

On my walk back from Dana’s, the presence of two state police cars and yellow crime scene ribbon let me know that the state police had arrived from Denver. One of the uniformed men had been taking pictures, “Tank” Nelson at his side.

I gave a little bounce on the mattress that helped jettison me to my feet. Starting the paper wouldn’t be a problem, just get me in my kitchen. I worked best there. Plucking up my books and papers, I made myself a good cup of mocha, and settled at the sturdy oak dining table to sip and compose an introductory paragraph.

I scratched out a rough paragraph, rolling the words through my mind as I rose to cook. My best thinking happens when I cook. Dragging out a huge pot, I began mentally checking off the list of ingredients needed for a good, hearty stew. I chopped vegetables, then jotted a few notes for my paper and wrote a couple of paragraphs. Next break, I pressure-cooked chicken while I mixed and rolled dumplings,
then
wrote for an hour as the stew and chicken and dumplings simmered.

The tantalizing smells energized me and the words formed in my mind. I gulped my cooled mocha and visualized the photographer taking pictures from every angle of Marion’s body. The height of the camera, aperture, weather conditions, everything needed to be documented. My essay became a mini crime scene on paper.

Finally I set my pen aside and read over the report. It read well with a few corrections, but all that work had given me a powerful hankering for pecan cake with caramel icing, so I left the essay and mixed together the ingredients. Within thirty minutes, I was sliding two round cake pans into the oven.

I reviewed the day’s events. The shock of seeing Marion’s body, crumpled and broken, superimposed over the images of my days working as her employee. My eyes burned and grief began to take small nibbles from my spirit. Marion might not have been overly kind or easy to get along with, always shoving inventory lists and packing slips into my hands wanting me to read them to her because she’d “forgot my glasses again.” But we’d shared a few laughs and, in our own way, we’d respected each other. I expect most felt that way about her.

Hmm.
One person didn’t.

Dana hadn’t appeared shaken by the
news .

Make that two people.

Payton.

I made a mental note to try to figure out what Chief had meant by saying he wanted to question Payton again. I know for sure he’d only questioned Hardy and me at the scene of the crime.

Maybe Payton’s anxiety stemmed from the idea that Chief might wonder why he and Marion fought so much. Most of the time, truth be told. Either Marion was barking at Payton for being late on his rent payment or he was nagging her not to sell the shop, reiterating its importance as a piece of Maple Gap’s history. But Chief’s pointed look at Payton when Hardy observed out loud that Payton had rearranged the pieces in his shop got me to wondering.

 
I got up and tugged a package of cornmeal from the pantry and began preparing cornbread to accompany the simmering stew. As I mixed in an egg, my mind churned over Marion’s conversation with Dana. The young gal seemed a strange mix. She catches a student red-handed in the middle of cheating, but doesn't flinch when the mother of that student turns up dead. I’d give anything to know what Chief Conrad thought of the possibility of Dana doing the dreaded deed.

And that letter bothered me, too. Dana’s great-grandfather’s letter would be a prized possession in light of his status as town legend, just as the house that had always belonged to the
Letzburgs
would remain a comfort to future ancestors. I’d have to ask Mark Hamm if he knew anything about the
Letzburgs
or the assayer, Jackson Hughes. Being that he wrote articles on the history of the town for Maple Gap’s paper, he must know some of the details of the legend.

I slid the cake pans over and made room for the cornbread, then lifted the lid of the dumplings and inhaled the rich scent.
Comfort food.
I closed my eyes and inhaled, imagining the sounds of doors slamming and childish laughter. “What’s for dinner, Momma?”

Where had the time gone?

I whipped up a piecrust, spooned in cherry pie filling,
topped
it with another crust and sprinkled sugar and cinnamon on top. I pulled out the pecan cakes and slid the cherry pie in. The cornbread needed a bit longer, so I put together the caramel frosting as I waited for the cornbread to finish and the pecan cakes to cool.

As a young mother, I’d thought the children being gone would be a relief. Now my mind reeled backward to the days of trying to keep up with the raging appetites of the growing boys. The memory made me laugh out loud. If I could bottle the smell in the kitchen at this moment and send it to them, there would be five grown men standing on the front porch, drooling.

With an ache, I realized I’d made all their favorites.
From cherry pie to cornbread and caramel-pecan cake.
Lela favored the chicken and dumplings. I hoped no one else canceled for Easter supper.

After stirring the stew, I replaced the lid and adjusted the heat. The timer on the oven went off. I snatched up the potholders, rescued the cornbread,
then
plopped a dab more softened butter into the frosting being stirred by the stand mixer.

Hardy chose that moment to enter the side door beside the stove. He came to an abrupt halt as he stared at the dishes in the sink and the food in various stages of preparation.


You
cookin

for the funeral already?”

I pointed my spatula at a chair. “
Doin
’ school work, now sit and eat.”

“I’m not hungry.” He dragged a chair out and sat. “Mark’s fried chicken is almost as good as yours.”

I glanced at the wall clock, its face a picture of all our children.
A Christmas gift from son number four.
I looked away from the beloved faces real quick and glanced outside the kitchen window. Pinks and oranges streaked the western sky. “You’re late.”

“Had a tune running through my head so I hopped over to Payton’s to run my fingers through it.”

“You’ve been there a long time.”

“Payton had closed the store.” Hardy hopped up and lifted a lid. A cloud of steam rose from the pot of beef stew. “He let me in though.”

“I think that boy still grieves over losing his last chance to play professionally.”

“Yeah.
His hand’s been bugging him a lot lately, too.”

“Maybe he should have it looked at again.”

“Too much money.
He’d like it, but the shop doesn’t make him rich. I told him he needed to stop scooting those pianos around by
himself
.
That metal sheet music display made a mess of the hardwood floors.”

“He should try flipping a rug over and sliding the piano around on that.”

Hardy rolled his eyes.
“Too late now.”
He scrunched up his face and looked at the calendar on the refrigerator. “When is he scheduled to tune our upright? It sure
is
needin

it.”

“Said he couldn’t get to it until Friday.”

Hardy jerked his head back and made a face. “What’d you say? He got a call from Dana and practically ran me out of the store so he could go tune her piano.
Didn’t know she even had one.”

“A Steinway, Model D.
She offered to let you play it.” It was my turn to be puzzled. Odd that the boy would run to do Dana’s tuning and then tell us we had to wait almost a week. “You think he’s sweet on her?”

BOOK: Murder on the Ol' Bunions (A LaTisha Barnhart Mystery)
2.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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