Authors: Joan Hess
“One last question,” I said. “In the weeks before the incident, did you happen to notice a dark green van parked alongside the county road?”
He frowned for a moment. “Can't say I did.”
“Another last question,” I said hastily as he reached for the doorknob. “Can you give me directions to Miss Poppoy's house?”
His frown deepened, cutting furrows on his forehead. “Are you thinking those assholes who broke into her house might have shot Tuck?”
“One of my many theories,” I said, although I wasn't precisely overwhelmed with alternative suspects.
He obligingly told me how to find Miss Poppoy's house, wished me luck, and went indoors. I returned to my car, turned around, and headed off on my next fruitless mission to exonerate Sarah Swift.
I could only hope Caron and Inez were having better luck. Peter's mother would expect to see her wedding present on the mantel. Were I a devious person, I could claim it was broken during the move, but Peter had been supervising closely and might contradict me. Admitting I'd sent it to the thrift shop would nail me as incompetentâor malicious. It did not bode well for my future relationship with my mother-in-law.
I stopped the car and took out my cell phone. I was concocting a message when Caron snapped, “What?”
“Yes and no. Can we talk about this later?”
“No and no,” I said. “What's going on?”
“The lady in charge remembers unpacking it because it was so repulsive. She was going to dump it in the garbage, but one of the other ladies put it on a shelf with the other repulsive oddities. They receive a lot of them, mostly wedding presents.”
“Great! Buy it, no matter the price.”
“Wow, Mother, why didn't I think of that? In fact, I was just about to ask how much when I noticed that it wasn't there. Inez noticed, too.”
My stomach thumped unhappily. Several Anglo-Saxon expletives came to mind, but I contained myself and said, “Well, I guess that's it. Go home and start packing, dear. We'll have to slink away under cover of darkness. Once we're relocated, we'll both have to get jobs. You can work on your GED and apply for a student loan at whichever community college is closest to our shabby little apartment above a dry cleaner's establishment. It won't be as
as the Sorbonne, butâ”
“We're trying to track down the buyer, okay? The lady is on her phone calling the other ladies to see if anyone can remember who bought it.”
“That's incredibly nice of her,” I said, fanning myself with one hand. “Please give her my thanks and tell her that I'll come by with a check next week.”
“You need to thank Inez. I told the lady that I was devastated because it was a family heirloom given to me by my great-grandmother, a noted Victorian archaeologist. I even squeezed out a tear. The lady didn't buy it, so Inez told her the truth. The lady started laughing so hard she almost wet her pants. I felt like a Complete Fool.”
“You still have a few hours,” I said. “Call me when you have that thing in your hand. I'll stop by the bakery on my way home and get celebratory cupcakes.”
clairs with chocolate ganache or a seven-layer tiramisu cake. Talk to you later.”
I turned off my cell phone and dropped it in my purse. I was tempted to drive back to Farberville to join the hunt for the missing Ming Thing, but Sarah's trial would begin Tuesday whether or not I disgraced myself in Peter's mother's eyes.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Following William's directions, I drove a quarter of a mile, crossed a bridge, and turned on Wilbur Road. Miss Poppoy lived in an unassuming brick house. I was pleased to see a car parked in the driveway. I glanced in the rearview mirror to make sure I appeared respectable, walked up the sidewalk, and crossed my fingers as I rang the doorbell.
Miss Poppoy came to the door. She was barely five feet tall, and her white hair was so thin I could see liverish spots on her scalp. She looked up at me with the intensity of a squirrel. “You better not be a missionary. I've belonged to the Baptist church for seventy-nine years and I'm not interested in joining a cult.”
“No,” I said, “I'm trying to help your neighbor, Sarah Swift.”
“The trial starts Tuesday. Aren't you a day late and a dollar short?”
“I hope not. Would you mind talking to me for a few minutes?”
She stepped back and waved me inside. “I don't reckon I can be of much help, but I'll answer your questions. Can I fix you like a cup of tea?”
I followed her through a small living room into the kitchen. Once she'd produced cups of tea and a plate of saltine crackers, I said, “I'd like to ask you about the burglars who broke into your house last year.”
“Those shitheels?” She took a sip of tea. “If they hadn't grabbed me in the hall, I would have pulled out my Glock 19 and blown their damn faces off. I keep it in my bedside drawer, loaded and ready. I'm still kicking myself in the ass for not fetching it before I opened the door.”
She said all this in such a sweet voice that I was taken aback. I felt alarm for the next missionary who knocked on her door. Previous ones might well be buried in her backyard under the hydrangeas. “You told the deputies that you couldn't describe them. Have you recalled anything about them since then?”
“You think they shot Tuck Cunningham?”
“I don't know, but it's a possibility. No one told Sarah's lawyer about them.”
“Bastards took my television set,” she muttered. “I missed all my shows for a month. It finally turned up at a flea market in Hasty. I recognized it right off and told the lady that if she didn't give it to me, I'd report her to the police for possessing stolen property. After some finagling, she let me have it for ten bucks. If I'd had my gun in my handbag, I would have gotten it for a lot less. It was my television set, after all.”
“Have you remembered anything else about the two men? Accents, tattoos, scars, something one of them said?”
“One of them said something when I kicked him in the balls,” she said as she began to nibble on a cracker. “I don't recollect the exact phrase, but it took the Lord's name in vain. I said I wouldn't tolerate blasphemy in my home. That's when they tied me to a chair and put duct tape over my mouth. Assholes!”
“Neither of them referred to the other by name?”
“One of them did say something to the other one. He called him a jerk-off. I wasn't gonna repeat that to the nice young deputy, who was in my Sunday school class twenty years ago. Now that I think about it, it might have been a name, maybe Jerkin or Jenkin or something like that.”
“That may important, Miss Poppoy,” I said.
“Call me Poppy. Everybody else does, except for that smart-mouthed girl at the doctor's office. She calls me Ms. Popeye. One of these days I'm gonna slap the snot out of her.” Her hand tightened around the cracker, reducing it to crumbs. “And that asshole who calls himself a doctor. He's a foreigner, and his accent is so bad I can't make hide nor hair of half of what he says. When I told him I needed a prescription for medical marijuana on account of my lumbago, he had the nerve to tut-tut at me.”
“Medical marijuana isn't available in Arkansas,” I said, beginning to feel sympathy for the burglars as well as her medical team.
I had no intention of contradicting her about anything, including the weather and where the sun was going to rise in the morning. “Do you know Zachery Barnard?”
“What's he got to do with this? Do you think he shot Tuck?”
“No, not at all,” I said hastily. “He told the investigators he saw a dark green van parked in the area. He didn't notice the occupants, but I'm wondering if it could have been your intruders.”
“Casing the joint?” She snorted. “Zachery isn't what I'd call a reliable witness. He came over here one night, must have been close to midnight, to tell me that he'd seen black helicopters landing out back of his house. The old coot was bleating like a motherless calf. He was so drunk he could barely walk. I told him to get off my porch or I'd blow his sorry ass to smithereens.”
It was obvious that Zachery was not popular with his neighbors. The proprietresses of the yard sale, and now Miss Poppoy, had referred to him in decidedly unflattering terms. His credibility was sinking fast, but I wasn't ready to dismiss the reports of the dark green van.
“Then you never saw the van,” I said.
“I saw it.” She picked up her cup and studied the drowned mint leaves. “Turning on Pinkie Sheer Road, another time parked maybe a hundred feet from Sarah's mailbox. Last month when I was coming home from visiting a friend in the hospital, I came damn close to rear-ending it. It was going all of twenty miles an hour. Speed limit's sixty-five. I swerved at the last second and came near landing in the ditch. I shot that sucker the bird as I whipped past him.”
Her statement startled me. Her gesture to the driver was almost predictable, but she'd claimed the incident had taken place a month ago. I'd been focused on the previous summer. “A month ago?” I asked cautiously. “In July?”
“Unless you use another calendar, I reckon so. I don't recollect seeing it around the time those assholes broke in, but that could have been because of my cataracts. I was blinder than a bat with an eye patch. I made a coffee cake with curry instead of cinnamon, and sprinkled flour on my oatmeal. With all the driving I had to do, it was a miracle I didn't kill anybody. I guess Jesus was riding shotgun.”
On that disturbing note, I thanked her for the refreshments and asked her to call me if she thought of anything that might help Sarah.
It was time to take a shot at the sheriff.
Before I drove back to Farberville for my meeting, I decided to stop at Sarah's house. If Zachery Barnard and Miss Poppoy had seen the green van, it was possible that Sarah had seen it, too. The sheriff might take my theory more seriously if I could offer three witnesses. Miss Poppoy claimed she'd seen the van only a month ago. She'd belittled Zachery's credibility, but by her own admission, she was not in a position to cast the first pebble. Sarah's credibility would be suspect. I would have to rely on my innate charm to convince the sheriff to search for the van.
Luckily, I am well endowed. With charm, anyway.
To my chagrin, Sarah's truck was still gone. I parked in the shade and took out my cell phone. Caron answered on the penultimate ring before the dreaded voice mail message kicked in.
“What?” she said.
“I just called to see if you've made any progress,” I said, and then waited to be told that the Ming Thing was forever lost, along with any hopes I had of meeting Peter's mother with a measure of decorum.
“Maybe, but being interrupted every fifteen minutes isn't helping.”
“What does that mean?”
Caron growled in frustration. “It means we may be getting somewhere. This is a tiny bit more complicated than being sent to the grocery store for milk and bread, Mother. Inez and I were planning to give each other pedicures this afternoon. Right now my toenails look like I have scurvy. Joel will take one look at them and barf on my feet.”
I am not by nature a suspicious person, but my maternal antennae picked up on the evasive ploy. “Did you find out who bought the figurine?”
“We're dealing with it, okay? I really don't have time to make inane conversation. Save it for Peter's mother.” The connection went dead.
I did my best not to succumb to outlandish visions involving paramedics, campus police, and the Department of Homeland Security. The figurine became a stunted fiend with a wicked sense of humor, a Mongol Gingerbread Man.
Chasing down the nasty little bugger was Caron's responsibility, I lectured myself as I gazed at the barn. I had time to revisit the scene of the crime before I went to the sheriff's department, which was located near the county courthouse. Thinking of the building reminded me of my humiliation two days earlier, courtesy of County Prosecutor Edwin Wessell.
The interior of the barn remained uninspiring. Contrary to fictionalized CSI investigations, there was not a taped outline of a body. The jury would be treated to photographs, including close-ups of the bloodied corpse. They would not see the shock and horror on Sarah's face when she discovered her husbandâif she had been shocked and horrified. I sat down on a burlap bag of what I supposed was chicken feed, sneezed, and considered the conversation we'd had in her kitchen. There was something wrong with her story, and Wessell would trumpet every blemish to the jury. The shotgun blast had been so loud that it awakened Juniper Lund and sent William outside. Sarah hadn't heard it. Her lawyer could claim that she'd passed out from the excess of alcohol, but that would not impress the jury. Credible witnesses would admit that Sarah had detested Tuck and had threatened to kill him. Tuck's black eye would be attributed to Sarah. Being characterized as an abusive alcoholic would not reflect well on her.
All I had to counter the incriminating testimony was a dark green van that could belong to a real estate agent, an Avon lady, a birdwatcher, or a muddled farmer. The likelihood that Tuck had a lover was dim, based on what I'd been told about his disagreeable nature and mental condition. However, there was truth to the axiom that the spouse is the last to know. I had no idea how to find out what Tuck might have been up to when he was on his own. For that matter, I had no idea what Sarah did when she was on her own. Unhappy marriages do not lead to conversations over dinner about anything more significant than the mundane events and errands of the day.
I heard a soft footstep behind me. Before I could turn around, a petulant voice said, “Stick 'em up!”
I raised my hands. “You caught me red-handed, Billy.”