The tension in our little town was as thick as blackstrap molasses. When you're used to just a dab of humidity, 80% makes people mean. And the one thunderstorm we'd had last week hadn't helped at all. Add in the 100+ temperatures we've been having, and, well, you get the picture.
With tempers flaring like they were, I guess it wasn't surprising that somebody turned up dead. Familiarity doesn't necessarily breed affection, like it says in the books, but when there's only 300 souls in a town and all of 'em are hot, sweaty and sticky, tension builds and something's gotta give. I guess Daisey Mae Ratliff got in the way.
My name is Fiona Simpson. And I want to tell you about what happened in our little town a few weeks back. I guess you could call me the town historian, seeing as I usually know just about everything that's going on in town. Since I have two years at Southern State School for Secretaries and Beauticians, folks expect me to write a column for the county newspaper. And this was big. It's not often we get a calamity, of any size.
I was walking to my shop -- Fiona's Hair Hut -- when I found her. All I saw at first was a nicely shaped leg sticking out of the mountain laurel in the Main St. park. Naturally, curiosity got the best of me. I mean, how often do you see a leg sticking out of the bushes? I moseyed over, parted the bushes, and let out a yell that would've done a rebel officer proud.
Daisey Mae (yes, that's her name and she took her share of kidding over it, I can tell you) was a pretty, young thing with a figure that popped more than a few necks and caused a few cold showers. She didn't need make-up, a beauty operator, or a personal trainer. She looked good when she got up in the morning, and I should know. Daisey Mae worked for me at the Hair Hut, and more than once her date had dropped her off at the door after an all-nighter.
Okay, so maybe Daisey Mae hadn't decided which bed she liked sleeping in the best, but I'll say this for her, she didn't sleep in every bed offered to her. Her rule, and she stuck to it, was she didn't mess with married men. They had to be separated at least six months or divorced before she'd give 'em a second look. 'Course that rare commodity, a single, never-married man, was fair game.
But no matter all that, she didn't deserve to be strangled and tossed aside, naked, like an empty beer can.
After I got a breath, I rushed up the street to Jimmy Bob's office. Jimmy Bob is my sister's second husband's oldest daughter's youngest son, so he's not exactly family, more like shirt-tail kin, but he's fairly intelligent and we've always gotten along at all the family doings; you know, weddings, funerals, barbeques, that type of thing. Plus, Jimmy Bob happens to be our local sheriff, which is, of course, why I headed to his office.
When I told Jimmy Bob what I'd found, he didn't waste time asking a lot of fool questions, just got his hat and followed me back to the park where Daisey Mae's leg was still sticking out of the mountain laurel.
While Jimmy Bob started looking around, I ran down to the shop and got a couple of extra-large towels to cover her with, and I called the mortuary like Jimmy Bob asked. We don't have an ambulance, so people around here get to ride in the hearse before their time.
When I got back, Jimmy Bob had collected whatever evidence he could find. At least, I guess he had. I handed him the towels and he just nodded. Said he'd talk to me later. Acted like I was his personal assistant.
Miffed, I headed to the shop before Minnie Lou Siverson could pitch a hissy-fit because I was late for her standing 8:00 appointment.
Well, of course, I had to tell Minnie Lou why I was late. Now, I want to make one thing perfectly clear before I go any farther. I've been accused of being a gossip-spreading busybody, but I'm here to tell you that simply ain't true. Is it my fault my fool of a husband left his tractor in gear and plowed himself under right along with the wheat stubble and left me to fend for myself? Is it my fault the only thing I knew how to do besides plow and cook was fix hair? And is it my fault that after I took the insurance money, passed the state exam and got ready to open my shop that the only available space that would work for a beauty shop just happened to be right on Main Street? I ask you, is any of that my fault?
Now, let me ask you this: is it my fault that when a bunch of women get together they share information? Pooling their resources, I think, is what its called back East. So I admit it, a lot of information passes through my shop, but, I, personally, never repeat a word that I don't know to be absolutely, positively, 100% true. On occasion, I may offer a personal observation based on my years of experience and what I see out the shop's windows, but I am not and never have been a busy body or a gossip.
That day, though, I have to admit, I did enjoy my fifteen minutes of fame. Being short-handed since Daisey-Mae wasn't coming in, Ethel and I were busier than one-armed paper-hangers. Everybody and their cousin needed a new do suddenly. Between rolling up and combing out, I barely had time to talk on the phone, let alone tell my story to anybody who asked.
When I finally closed (thirty minutes early), I walked over to Jimmy Bob's office. I was feeling a little protective about Daisey Mae since, well, I mean, after all, it was my body. I found her.
Jimmy Bob, dang his hide, wasn't talking -- to me or anybody, Bessie, his dispatcher said. Well, I told Bessie to hop on up and skedaddle into Jimmy Bob's office and let him know I was there. I figured he'd want to talk to me, seeing as how I was Daisey Mae's employer and all.
I was right, too. Bessie hustled out of Jimmy Bob's office and escorted me to his door like I was the governor of the state or something.
Jimmy Bob was reared back in his chair, his scuffed boots propped on the top of his desk and his Walker Feedstore cap shoved to the back of his head showing that oh-so- attractive sweatband line on his forehead.
"Well, who killed her?" I asked as soon as I shut the door in Bessie's face. No need in letting her hear everything.
"Not a clue," Jimmy Bob said. "The doctors over to Lubbock said they might know something tomorrow or the next day, but right now I don't know a blame thing."
"Was she strangled?"
"Near as I can figure. She had bruises all over her throat. I wouldn't be surprised if she was. . . " Jimmy Bob paused, his face turning redder than sun-ripe a tomato.
"Raped, Jimmy Bob?" I asked.
"Well, yeah. I mean, why else would she be buck-nekkid?"
"I'm sure I don't know, but it seems reasonable, if you ask me," I said. "I thought ya might wanna know who Daisey Mae'd been seeing."
"You do? You know she was seeing Tiny over at the garage?"
"Yep. She broke up with Cody last month. Told him she was tired of smelling cow shit all the time."
"Oh," I said in a small voice. "Did you know she had her sights set on somebody new?"
Jimmy Bob's boots hit the floor. "She did?"
"She sure did, Shug," I said, feeling a little smug. "She's dated Tiny off and on for years, but it's never took. She only sees him when she's in-between."
"Ya know who?"
"That's the funny part, I don't. You can… er…uh, could always tell when Daisey- Mae had a new man. First she'd get her hair done up special, then she'd get her nails done. And then, when she was ready to jump his bones, she'd get a pedicure, which she just happened to have Ethel do yesterday."
"Ya figger she was, uh, fixin' to hit the sheets with this guy?"
"Near as I can figure, she was. Normally, by the time she got her toes painted, me and Ethel were sick to death of hearing about her new Mr. Wonderful. But this time, whenever we'd ask, she'd just grin that big ol' grin of hers and change the subject. Of course, I had my ideas on who it might be. It had me wondering if it might not be serious."
"Well, ain't ya gonna tell me?"
"I'm thinking it might be Elbert."
"Elbert? I thought you were datin' him."
"How the hell…er…I mean, what do you mean? You know I don't date."
"Fiona, you may not date, but everybody in this county and the next knows about you and Elbert," Jimmy Bob laughed.
"I'm a respected, middle-aged, widowed, tax-paying businesswoman. I guess I got a right to have a few friends."
"Yeah, but do you fix all your friends breakfast at 5:30 every morning?" Jimmy Bob snickered like an eight-year-old with a new copy of National Geographic featuring African tribes.
"He had car trouble. . . "
"Elbert. And Dudley. And Marvin." Jimmy Bob waved his hands. "Fiona, it don't matter a stick to me who you wanna fix breakfast for. What does matter is why you think Daisey Mae was seeing Elbert when I know you was seein' him."
I felt my face flush. "We stopped seeing each other."
"When was this?"
"He dumped me," I mumbled.
"He dumped me. Elbert dumped me. Like last week's catfish, okay? Does that make you happy?"
"No, it don't. But it still don't tell me why you think Daisey Mae was seein' Elbert."
"It fits -- that's all. Elbert'd been cooling off for a couple of weeks and Daisey Mae's getting all hot-to-trot and being coy and all. Then he dumps me and the very next day Daisey Mae gets a pedicure."
"She got her toes done yesterday and wound up dead last night and you think Elbert killed her?"
"Don't you be putting words in my mouth, Jimmy Bob Black. That's not what I said. I was merely trying to help, but if you're gonna be insulting, well, I guess, I'll just leave!"
"Simmer down, Fiona. No need to go off half-cocked," Jimmy Bob said. "I wasn't tryin' to insult you, okay? It’s just strange, Elbert breaking up with you and you tellin' me he started seeing Daisey Mae."
"I ain't trying to tell you nothing at all. Except what I think. Maybe Cody got pissed ‘cause she took up with Tiny or Elbert. You know that Cody -- he's got a temper worse than a fresh-castrated bull."
"Hmm, that's true. Maybe I'll talk to him. And Elbert."
"Good. And if you find out Elbert was seeing Daisey Mae, you let me know, hear?"
"Fiona, I can't do that. This is an official po-leece investigation."
I stood and snatched my purse. "Well, I never. Here I am, trying to help and you won't tell me nothing. That's gratitude for you."
"Aw, Fiona. . . .."
"No, that's all right, Jimmy Bob. You go on with your official po-leece investigation. Maybe you'll hear about something about somebody threatening Daisey Mae. I'd tell ya, but I wouldn't want to intrude in po-leece business."
I jerked the door open and Bessie fell over.
"Did you get all that, you old bat, or you want me to repeat it?"
I stepped over Bessie and hustled out to the street. I stalked over to Tiny's to get my car. By the time I got there, I could tell my face was as red as an Elizabeth Arden lipstick. I figured my mascara was down around my nose and I could feel my hair hanging down in straggles.
"What'd ya tell Jimmy Bob?" Tiny hollered before I could open my mouth.
"None of your damn business, Tiny Sinclair. Can I get my car?"
"Nope!" Tiny folded his arms across his chest and met my glare. Of course, I had to tilt my head back. Tiny’s 6'9" and close to 300 pounds, and he,s the runt of eight brothers.
"It's damn hot out here and I want my car."
"Can't have it."
"Good Lord, you've had it all day. Isn't it ready?"
"Didn't say it weren't ready. Said you couldn't have it."
I mopped my face with my shirtsleeve, noticing a passing resemblance between it and those Tammy Faye Bakker sweatshirts that were popular for a while.
"Let's see if I've got this straight. You won't let me have my car -- even though it’s 100 degrees and the car’s ready, right?"
"Just because I won't tell you what I told Jimmy Bob?"
I propped my hands on my hips, frustrated and just mad enough to do something crazy.
"Fine! I'll walk." As I spun to leave, I had the pleasure of seeing Tiny's mouth drop open.
If Tiny had asked, I probably would've told him, but nobody's gonna force me to tell them anything.
About a mile into my walk home I heard a siren coming toward me. I jumped across the bar ditch, slipped, and fell smack-dab into the muddy bottom. Swearing and spitting, I tried to get up. The more I tried to get up, the more I slid down. So there I was like a pig in its wallow when I realized the siren had stopped.
I wiped a muddy hand across my forehead and looked up. I'll say this for Jimmy Bob, he had the decency not to laugh even, though his face was the color of an eggplant.
When he finally got himself under control, he hauled me out and gave me one of his rescue blankets he keeps in the trunk.
"How'd ya know?"
"Tiny called me. Said you walked off madder than a fresh-washed cat. Said to tell ya he'd bring your car out tonight."
"Damned old coot!"
"Fiona, that stiff-necked pride of yours is gonna get you in trouble one of these days."
"Stiff-necked pride, huh? Did he tell you why I left? Huh? ‘Cause I wouldn't tell him what I told you. How do ya like them apples?"
I heard Jimmy Bob's whiskers rasp as he rubbed his jaw. "Well, no, he didn't mention that little fact. Maybe I need to have a little talk with him on how to treat our senior citizens and police business. But, I do appreciate. . .."
"Senior citizen! How dare you, Jimmy Bob Black? I'm no more a senior citizen than. . . than. . . than. . . "
"Calm down, Fiona. You're 60 if you’re a day. You know it. I know it. Hell, everybody in town knows it. Now, hush up. I appreciate you not saying nothing to Tiny. But I am glad it worked out like this. I want you to explain that little comment you made about somebody threatenin’ Daisey Mae."
"I wouldn't to interfere in official. . ."
"Don't start, Fiona. Just tell me."
"There's no need to get huffy, Jimmy Bob. You're the one who insulted me, but. . . Well, Edna Faye Nessleton told Irma Johnson who told Oma Perkins who told Minnie Lou Siverson who me told me, that Edna Faye's daughter, Sissie, was out at Pete's Bar two weeks ago Saturday and saw Cody drunk and mouthing off about Daisey Mae. Calling her all kinds of names. He was by himself, but Elbert was out there and he said something to Cody. Evidently, there was some pushy-pushy, but no punches. Pete walked Cody out with that baseball bat he keeps under the counter, but before Cody left he said something about, ‘that g. d. b-word better not walk in front or my truck or she'll be f-word sorry.’”
Jimmy Bob slowed to turn on my lane. "So, now, you're saying Cody coulda killed her?"
"Jimmy Bob, when you get right down to it, between jealous men and old girl-friends, half the county could have killed her, but I'm not saying one particular person did. I just thought you should know Cody threatened her."
He let the car roll to a stop and turned off the engine before opening his door. He came around and opened my door. And people say gallantry is dead.
"Is there something else, Jimmy Bob?"
"Well, as a matter of fact, Fiona, there is. I thought I'd wait while you get cleaned up and we could talk."
I shrugged and headed toward the back porch. All I really cared about was a hot bath.
Thirty minutes later, dressed in my ratty robe, the one with the deep big pockets, as I walked downstairs I patted my pocket to make sure the bulge from my .22 wasn’t noticeable. I normally keep it in my nightstand drawer next to the throat lozenges and tissues, but I felt better having it with me. Daisey Mae getting killed had me powerful upset.
I sat down at my kitchen table in front of a piece of my apple pie Jimmy Bob cut for me. As hungry as I was, I was more curious about what he wanted. It wasn’t like Jimmy Bob to hang around and I was beginning to get a bad feeling. I pushed the plate back and folded my arms on the table.
"You wanted to talk, so talk."
Jimmy Bob reared back in the chair and propped his knee against the table. "Why are so getting so involved in this, Fiona?"
"What on earth do you mean?"
He stared at me. I stared back and wondered who'd break first.
"Fiona, level with me. Tell me what the hell is going on."
"I don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about." I picked up a fork and twirled it through my fingers.
"Well, let me tell you what I see, okay?" he drawled. "I see an old friend of mine taking her car to Tiny for the first time in memory to get it checked out -- nothing specific, just checked out. Which just happens to put you walking to your shop on the one day we just happen to have a dead body show up in the park. And then, after telling all the ladies in town what you found and what you think, you trot over to my office and start dropping names like rollcall at boot-camp, all the while claiming to just want to help, acting like Ms. Injured Private Citizen when I ask you what you're up to."
"What are you trying to say, Jimmy Bob?"
Jimmy Bob set his chair on the floor and stood up. He pulled his cap down and hitched up his belt. That's when I noticed he was wearing his sheriff's belt, complete with his service revolver.
"Well, Fiona, I'm really sorry, but I'm saying I'm placing you under arrest for the murder of Daisey Mae Ratliff. You have the right to remain silent. You. . ."
"Have you gone completely crazy, Jimmy Bob? Has the heat fried what little brains you have?"
"Cut the shit, Fiona!" Jimmy Bob slammed his fist on the table. "You set this whole thing up. You killed her."
"Me? Kill one of my employees? A nice, middle-aged widow like me? You've gone off the deep-end, Jimmy Bob."
The Jimmy Bob I stared at was not the boy I'd shared beer and barbeque with. I was looking at a stranger.
"May be you didn't notice what direction I was coming from when I found you in the ditch. I was coming from your house."
"You said Tiny called you." I felt a prickle of sweat on my back.
"He did. He called the office. Bessie called me on the radio."
"You didn't pass me while I was walking."
"I took the back way. Figgered I could be here and gone before you got through haggling with Tiny."
I swallowed hard. "Why were you out here?"
"Looking for evidence, why else?" He grinned like a half-starved coyote.
"There's no evidence. I didn't kill her." Fear clanked in my stomach. I watched him, hypnotized like a bird by a mongoose.
"Is that a fact?" He grinned. "Can you explain why Daisey Mae's clothes were in your trash barrel?"
"My what?" My belly shriveled with horror. "Oh, my God! You killed her!"
"Now, Fiona, who's gonna believe I killed her? There's nothing to tie me to Daisey Mae. Nothing at all. But, you. . . well, now, that's a whole other story, ain't it? Pointing a finger at just about everybody in town. And discovering the body. Plus, Elbert dumped you for Daisey Mae. We laughed about that, Fiona. She loved goin' after your men friends, just to piss you off, you self-righteous old bitch."
"No one will believe it!"
"Sure they will. They'll believe it because it'll be easier to believe you killed her than their Andy of Mayberry sheriff."
“But why, Jimmy Bob? Why kill her?”
His lips drew back in a grimace, like a dog going after fresh meat. He could tell I was afraid and he was enjoying it. “She was gonna dump me! That gutter-crawling hussy was gonna dump me! I’m the High Sheriff and she thought she could throw me away like last week’s fried chicken.”
I groped for my .22.
"Yep, Fiona, you played right into my hands. Bessie heard everything you said and it won't take much to push her around to seeing how you were trying to protect yourself. You've been acting strange all day -- people'll chalk it up to guilt."
"But, at the trial, I'll. . .."
"You're smarter than that, Fiona. You know there won't be a trial." He pulled his service revolver. I felt like a bull's-eye had been painted on my chest.
Desperate, I pointed at the window with my left hand. "What the . .. . "
Jimmy Bob turned. I pulled my gun and fired.