Be careful, Charlotte, I thought. Don't act as if you've been set free. There's been a murder here and someone has to take the blame.
When she jerked open the street door she was face-to-face with Mady Ford, president of Burrywood's women's club, officious power behind the current "Brighten Burrywood" cleanup campaign, and royal pain in the you-know-what. Mady was almost my age but she kept her short blond hair bottle-perfect and wore clothes that belonged on a younger woman in a trendier city. Today it was a powder blue jogging suit. It contrasted sharply with Charlotte's tan twill skirt and printed cotton blouse. They stared at each other for a moment - no love was lost between them - then Mady plastered a practiced smile on her face and said, "Charlotte." Her head nodded in stiff greeting. "I need some nail polish." She waggled her long, bright nails.
Charlotte stepped past her and kept going. "The store's closed." Her voice floated back over her shoulder.
Mady's expression collapsed into angry wrinkles. At sixty she had her share. She watched Charlotte turn the corner to go to Neal's office. "Have I ever told you what I think of that woman?"
"Often, but today " My voice threatened to quit on me. "Oh, Mady " I felt my insides knot up again. "Neal's dead."
"Dead!" She tottered, as if the sidewalk had moved, and clutched at me, sharp fingernails cutting into my arm. "Dead?" She looked bewildered. "But Charlotte was moving around as if She didn't look "
It was certainly true. She hadn't looked like a grieving widow. How was I going to sort all this out? I'd always prided myself on giving subscribers the truth. How was I going to find the truth?
Mady tipped her head and looked at the office windows above the store. "Is he up there?" Her cheeks quivered. I eased her nails out of my arm, looked up too, and murmured a yes. Her arms fell to her sides as if there were heavy weights on the ends. "Was it a heart attack?"
Well Lester was the one who had to solve this murder and he should be the one giving out details. But I thought it was all right to simply say, "He was killed."
Mady shrieked and both hands slapped her cheeks. "My Lord, Diana! Killed!" Then she froze in thought. With Charlotte, shock had changed to a simmering anger - at Neal, at the world, at something. With Mady, shock was momentary too. Then more important thoughts blossomed. You don't get to be president of Burrywood's women's club without having a great imagination and a head for intrigue. She was well endowed in those departments. She stared at the wall in front of her, lips parted, eyes narrowed. When she spoke her voice sounded - as it always would when she had some kind of rumor or scandal to spread - satisfied. "It will be impossible to solve. Anyone might have done it. Anyone in town."
There was no possible rebuttal. And the list would have to include Mady herself. She and Neal had seemed to have a measure of familiarity that went well beyond friendship. I'd seen them in some pretty compromising situations.
I was about to do some probing - confrontation is a great tool for a reporter - but just then Tolliver Jackson rolled drunkenly into view around the waterfront corner of the drugstore. He's impossible to ignore; tall, handsome, well educated. Well dressed too except that now all his fine clothes have some pretty disgusting-looking stains. Uncombed and disheveled described Tolly these days. He'd been principal of the high school in the next town but had lost the job. It doesn't do to reek of liquor all the time, or snore through PTA meetings, or forget what you're talking about in the middle of conversations. When he lost his driver's license after running into the side of the school building (blood alcohol level twice what it should have been) they fired him. Now he lived alone in his parents' old house and spoiled the ambiance of Burrywood.
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