Authors: Lila Dare
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
Table of Contents
Organic Skin-Care Recipes
[ABOUT THE AUTHOR]
Drop Your Baton!
Mom tiptoed closer. Someones in the house, she whispered. Listen.
I stilled myself and tried not to breathe, straining to hear. The bedside-table clock read 2:15. After a moment, I heard a scraping noise, then faint footsteps. Were they coming up the stairs or going down? I flung the sheet away and swung my knees off the bed, bumping my mom.
Sorry. Call the police, I said, already moving quickly toward the door.
Grace, my mom hissed. Grace Ann! Dont you even think
Pausing only long enough to grab Alice Roses old baton from the closet, I dashed into the hall. A bumping sound spurred me on. Clutching the baton tighter, I raced toward the door, stubbing my toe on a chair that was out of place. Hopping on one foot, I banged through the screen door and glimpsed a dark figure streaking down the alley. I started after him, but my bare feet and braless state slowed me too much.
Limping, I was headed back to the house when a swirl of red and blue lights lit up the alley.
This is the police, a harsh voice called. Drop your weapon!
The blinding glare of headlights made me scrunch my eyes closed. I wanted to point out that a baton wasnt much of a weapon.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the authors imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
TRESSED TO KILL
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / May 2010
Copyright Š 2010 by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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To my daughters,
Lily and Ellen,
who bring such joy just by being.
On the expert knowledge front, my deepest gratitude to Patrol Officer Tim Pippio of the Warner-Robbins, Georgia, police department for all things law enforcement and to Dylan Campbell of Toni & Guy for all things beauty salon. All errorsintentional or otherwiseare mine.
On the writing front, thanks to my critique group for their insightful comments that helped bring the women of Violettas salon and the town of St. Elizabeth to life: Marie Layton, Lin Poyer, and Amy Tracy. And many thanks to my other early readers, including my mother (my beloved editor-in-chief) and Don Jordahl. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the writing instructors and mentors who have inspired and encouraged me over the years and into the present: Coleen Grissom, Bob Flynn, Win and Meredith Blevins, Cornelia Read, and David Liss. Thank you all!
I am grateful to my wonderful agent, Paige Wheeler, for believing in me and my books and for working tirelessly and creatively to find my novels a home. Thanks also to Peggy Garry at Folio for keeping track of all contract details. I also thank Michelle Vega of Berkley Prime Crime for her editing expertise and Rebecca Chastain for her copyediting. I thought I was competent with commas until she got ahold of the manuscript. Annette Fiore DeFex designed a beautiful cover, and the artist, Brandon Dorman, did a splendid job capturing the feel of the book. Many thanks also to my Berkley Prime Crime publicist, Megan Swartz, and the rest of the Berkley Prime Crime team.
Most important, I thank my beloved husband, Tom, for his infinite patience and his unwavering belief that Id be a published mystery novelist one day. Ditto for my mom, Joan Hankins, who has always believed I could do anything I set my mind to. What a gift it is to have people in your life who encourage and support you.
A HALF-MOON CURL OF PLATINUM HAIR SPRANG from my scissors to join the growing pile on the floor.
Dont take too much off, Grace, Vonda Jamison cautioned, craning her neck to check my progress. Id been cutting her hair since we were in high schoolyoud think shed trust me by now.
Sit still. I tapped her head with my comb. Snip, snip. More curls drifted down. You said you wanted it short.
Short, not shorn. She slouched back against the black leatherette chair. Maybe I should go red.
I swiveled the chair so she faced me instead of the mirror. The usual salon noisescustomers chatting, water running in the shampoo basin, the phone ringingwashed around us, but I tuned them out from long practice.
Hows Ricky? I asked. When Von started talking about changing her hair color, it usually meant she and Ricky were on the outs.
Her huge sigh was all the answer I needed. After fifteen years of best-friend-hoodwed met as high school sophomoreswe were pretty good at reading each others eye rolls, shrugs, and sighs. Over again?
Not likely. Vonda and Ricky Warren had been on-again, off-again as long as Id known her. One particularly long stretch of on had resulted in a six-year marriage, twice as long as my ill-fated attempt at matrimony. When they divorced, I thought the off might be permanent, but theyd hooked up again before theyd paid off the lawyers fees. So I laughed, earning myself a glare. I deliberately changed the subject. Are you going to the meeting tonight?
Absolutely. Constance DuBois and her crowd are primed to snag all the funding for their Preserve the Rothmere Antebellum Mansion initiative. PRAM. She wrinkled her nose. How can people vote to pay for historically accurate nineteenth-century wallpaper rather than new PCs for the schools? I swear, RJs using the computer equivalent of an abacus at Jefferson Davis Elementary. Im going to make damned sure the vote goes in favor of funding the schools technology center.
Nothing got Vonda riled up faster than issues involving her eight-year-old, Richard James Warren IV. I agreed with her that the school needed to update its technology, but I also knew historical homes like the Rothmere mansion brought a lot of tourists to St. Elizabeth, Georgia. And tourists meant money for local businesses like my moms salon, my place of employment.
Choosing not to disagree with Von, I started to texturize the hair on her crown. And what about the Morestuf Mart? Do you think we should approve that at the town hall meeting?
Hell, no. Vondas answer was swift and sure. A big box store like that will eat into the profits of the downtown shops and places like Violettas. Her gesture took in the whole salon. The historic district is the primary reason tourists come to St. Elizabeth. They can get Morestufs and Home Fix-Its and what have you back in Detroit or Philly or Kalamazoothey come to St. Elizabeth for our charm and quaintness and Southern hospitality. She let her voice lapse into an exaggerated drawl. Right, sugah?
Right, I agreed, laughing. Vonda and Ricky owned a bed and breakfast on Peachtree Street, and tourists were their lifeblood, as they were for most of the town since the paper mill shut down about ten years back. Pulling out my hair dryer, I cut off further conversation as I finished Vondas hair. There. I turned the chair so she could see.
Grace, honey, youre a genius. She beamed at her reflection. Wispy bangs hung slightly over her brown eyes, giving her gamine face with its pointy chin a mysterious look. She looked great, if I did say so myself.
Youre just figuring that out? I returned her exuberant hug and walked her to the door.
See you at the meeting tonight? she asked, slipping on Jackie O sunglasses.
Wouldnt miss it, I assured her.
And neither would anyone else in town, I thought as she left, surveying the bustle in the salon. Normally, Wednesday afternoons were a bit slow, but the salon, the front half of my moms Victorian home, was packed. Mom, the Violetta the shop is named for, was doing a cut at her station near the front windows with the blinds lowered to cut the glare. Stella Michaelson, our manicurist, tackled two manicures at a time in the Nail Nook, an alcove behind the register, with her white Persian, Beauty, curled on a cushion at her feet. Althea Jenkins, my moms best friend and our part-time aesthetician, waxed and tinted brows in the small room that used to be the formal parlor but which my mom had co-opted for the salon when she decided Violettas should offer spa services. Rachel Whitley, a high-schooler and aspiring beautician, shampooed our clients in the sink of the former powder room. Wed removed all the walls (and the toilet) and replaced some of them with waist-high barriers of glass bricks, and it really opened the place up.
In addition to our regular clientele, I noticed several of what I called the
a term for high-society women I stole from my favorite Georgette Heyer Regencieswaiting for trims and mani-pedis. Not only was the town hall meeting an important budget forum, it was this weeks best opportunity to be photographed for the
St. Elizabeth Gazette
, our weekly newspaper more concerned with society events and the results of local gardening contests than the Iraq war or Wall Street projections. And that wasnt a bad thing. Living in Atlanta with Hank, Id endured enough stories of child abuse, gang violence, and political skullduggery to last me a lifetime. The upbeat stories in the
exactly suited my current mood.
Lucy Mortimer, the curator of the Rothmere mansion and museum, was my next client, and Rachel was just finishing up her shampoo. Rachel gave me a two minutes signal and I got a diet root beer from the small fridge we kept behind the counter and relaxed for a moment, enjoying the way the sun slanted through the wooden blinds and striped the broad pine floorboards.
I tuned in to the conversation Mom was having with the teenage client in her chair. My mother, Violetta Terhune, leaned in over the girls shoulder. The violet tunic Mom wore contrasted nicely with her gray-white hair and her still-lovely complexion, softened with a few wrinkles. Her blue eyes, framed by rimless glasses, smiled into the girls eyes in the mirror, like they shared a secret. Her soft bosom and twenty extra pounds made her look sweet and accommodating and motherly, but Id seen that determined smile on her face more times than I could count when I was a teenager. Come to think of it, I still saw it on occasion.
Now, Mindy, honey, you know your mamas not going to like it if you come home with your beautiful hair in a Mohawkshe stroked the girls bright headand magenta stripes. Mindy started to protest, but Mom overrode her with, Let me show you what I think would look just darling on you. I saw it on that actress, you know, the one in that movie about teenage vampires living in Dallassuch twaddle!and youre way cuter than she is. And she began snipping at the girls hair, talking all the while. Mindys face went from rebellious to resigned to tentatively pleased as I watched.
And that, I thought, suppressing a smile, summed up both the delights and the irritations of living in a small Southern town. Everybody knew everybody, which created a warm sense of community. On the other hand, nothing was private and everybody thought they ought to have a say in your life, which annoyed the heck out of me. Slotting the soda can into the recycle binmy ideaI returned to my station, stopping to tell Mindy she looked fabulous and earning a smile of approval from my mom.
I WAS FINISHING UP LUCYS BLOW-OUT WHEN THE front door banged open, jingling the bells and clattering the blinds. A man entered, dressed in full Civil War regalia. Confederate gray, of course, complete with a sword. That might have seemed strange or out of place in most salons, but Walter Highsmith owned the Civil War memorabilia shop two storefronts down from Violettas and he stopped in frequently. Id long suspected he was sweet on my mom, but as far as I knew their relationship had never progressed beyond dinners, conversation, and friendship. A short, plump man with a full goatee and a mustache that he waxed into rigid loops, Walter was, I thought, a bit barmy on the whole Civil War thing. He participated in reenactments and came running over to tell Mom whenever he acquired a particularly interesting piece of memorabilia. Today, though, his chubby cheeks were flushed an angry red, and he was almost sputtering as he sought out my mother.
Hello, Walter, she greeted him, putting her combs into a jar of blue germicide. Mindy had left, eager to show off her new hair to her friends.
Do you know what this is, Miss Violetta? he asked, flapping an envelope. Its an eviction notice. That . . . that woman is throwing me out at the end of the month. Right as tourist season starts! The ends of his mustache quivered.
Oh, no, Mom said. Why would she do that?
I knew the she my mom referred to was Constance DuBois, owner of several properties on the downtown square, including the building Walter rented for Confederate Artefacts. It originally housed the DuBois Bank and Trust, which had relocated to a bigger building on the west side of town in the mid-1980s.
Ive been there nineteen years, Miss Violetta. Nineteen years! He stopped to take a deep breath. Never have I been late with the rent. And now she evicts me without so much as the courtesy of a conversation, just because she has a frienda Yankee from New Yorkwho wants to open a scrapbooking shop. Frilly ribbons and precious papers and furbelows. Fah! He threw up his hands and the letter wafted to the floor. He stamped on it. Then he pulled the sword from the scabbard at his side and ran the envelope through. Im not going to stand for it! She cant do this.
Calm down, Walter, Mom said. All eyes in the shop were on the furious Confederate colonel waving his sword around with the envelope impaled on the tip.
Despite his fussy mannerisms and mid-nineteenth-century diction, I sympathized with him. Losing his store-front on the square and relocating to some hole-in-the-wall tourists would never find would probably force him out of business.
The door opened again. A woman entered, talking non-stop into the cell phone glued to her ear. Uh-oh. Constance DuBois herself, grande dame of St. Elizabeth society; former Peach Festival Princess; president or former president of the Junior League, the PTA, the Historical Preservation Society, and Save Our Shoreline; chairwoman of the Seafarers Spring Festival committee and PRAM; and evictor of Walter Highsmith. She sat on the boards of more local businesses than I could count, including her deceased husbands bank, now run by her son. I hadnt seen her since returning to St. Elizabeth from Atlanta four months ago, but a quick glance told me she hadnt changed. Same champagne-colored page-boy cut, same prominent cheekbones, same sleek body garbed in designer resort wear. Now sixty, my moms age, she could probably still fit into the debutante dress she wore at eighteen.
Lucy Mortimer stiffened in my chair, and I looked at her curiously.
Later. I said later! Constance DuBois snapped into the cell phone before closing it. She greeted my mom with a smile that hardly moved the corners of her mouth and didnt touch her eyes. Botox.
You! Walter said, his eyes bugging. What is the meaning of this? He flourished the sword in her face. The envelope jarred loose and drifted sadly to the floor.
Which words didnt you understand? Constance asked, facing him. Out. By. June.
You wont get away with this.
Cut the histrionics, Walter. She flipped a dismissive hand and turned back to my mother. Walter took a couple of heaving breaths, his gaze darting wildly around the salon, then slammed out the door without his usual polite leave-taking.
Violetta. I simply must get my highlights freshened before the town hall meeting, and my usual stylist at Chez Pierre is out with the flu. So inconvenient. So, do be a dear and squeeze me in, wont you?
Walters dramatic departure hadnt fazed Constance one bit. Her words were a command, not a plea, and I ground my teeth, watching Mom for her reaction. A muscle jumped in her jaw, but she kept a polite smile on her face.
Im sure your little place here could use the business, Constance continued. She cast a patronizing glance at the chintz-covered chairs in the waiting area, the lush ferns hanging in wire baskets from the ceiling, and the restored wooden figurehead that came from the prow of a Spanish galleon, the
, sunk off our coast in the 1500s. Adventure divers showed up every year, trying to retrieve a gold coin or emerald ring. Constance flared her nostrils at the womanly figure, as if it were vaguely offensive, and sailed over to my mothers station, seating herself in the chair. The town hall meeting starts in just over an hour, so youd better
An orchestra started playing Vivaldi, and Constance flipped open her cell. Speak. Its got to be tomorrow. No, Fridays too late. I
I stopped listening as Mom ran her hands through Constances hair, getting a feel for it. I knew what she was thinking because Id heard it a thousand times: A paying customer is a paying customer. Lets be grateful when anyone gives us their business. Its a blessing.
I had trouble seeing Constance DuBois as a blessing, but I finished off Lucys hair with a spritz of hairspray and whisked the capeviolet, of coursefrom around her shoulders. Thanks, Grace, she said, rising from the chair.
Hello, Constance, Lucy said as we passed the newcomer on our way to the register. Her voice trembled, and I wondered why she sounded so tentative.
Good afternoon, Lucy, Constance said distantly. Shouldnt you be at the mansion, clearing out?
Lucys face blanched, but she didnt say anything. What was that all about, I wondered, running her credit card. She barely lingered to sign before dashing out the door.
Whats she doing here? a voice said in my ear.
I turned to see that Althea Jenkins had come up behind me and was gazing with undisguised disdain at Constance DuBois. Althea managed to look regal even in polyester knit pantsuits, J.C. Penneys dresses, or her aestheticians smock. She had full lips and a broad nose, and a headband held her jaw-length afro, threaded with gray, back from her high forehead. Althea had a trick of thrusting her chin up just a hair, like she was inviting the world to take a swing. Just now, her chin tilted even higher than usual.