When I opened it, Charlotte was flicking a feather duster over a perfume display that hadn't changed for a decade. Tendrils of wiry brown hair had escaped her bun and stuck out around her face. She glanced at me, as always giving the impression of being annoyed and discontented. The constancy of that look had often puzzled me. True, she'd had to run the store while Neal sashayed around town doing whatever it was he thought a mayor did, but the work should have been easy after so many years. There should have been time left over for doing things she enjoyed. If there were things she enjoyed. Maybe she simply enjoyed being miserable. Maybe that's why she'd stuck with Neal all these years.
So - now - how would she react to news of his death?
"Good morning, Diana." She was terse and formal and she didn't stop dusting. It was no wonder the woman had no friends. She had no social graces at all. She finished what she was doing and turned her back to me, fussing with bottles on a shelf. It was a good position if she wanted to hide her expression. The thought came without my willing it, as if I suspected she already knew Neal was dead in his office upstairs, and knew that I was here to tell her just that.
I shut and locked the door behind me, pulled down the blind that told people the store was closed, and turned back. "Charlotte." My mind raced through trite phrases, casting them aside as they surfaced. In the end I simply moved behind the counter to stand beside her, near enough to provide support in case she needed it, and said, "Neal's dead."
I heard her gasp. A bottle slipped from her fingers and shattered on the floor, releasing a jarring reek of lemon scent. She turned with agonizing slowness to face me, feet crunching on bits of glass. Her eyes were enormous. The muscles of her face sagged. "Dead!" She swayed and reached for the counter.
I grabbed her arm and turned her toward the back of the store where I knew she had a small retreat - sink, hotplate, table, and chairs. Behind us the locked door rattled, a surprised and impatient customer. Ignoring the sound, I pushed her unresisting body into a chair and sat down opposite her. She stared at the floor and I saw her swallow.
I wished I didn't have to tell her the rest. There was no good way. "He's in his office, Charlotte. Someone hit him with a walking stick."
She groaned and bent over until her forehead touched the table. "He left so early this morning." Her voice was muffled. "I should have known something was " Her voice trailed off.
Seven! That was the middle of the night for Neal. He'd usually shown up in his office about noon. He'd always claimed he was "working" in other places.
Without warning, Charlotte jerked upright and glared at the wall in front of her. Her hands were clenched and tears glistened. She seemed to be thinking something through. And then she swung around toward me, looking more angry than sorrowful. "He was a wicked man."
I was startled. Wicked? It was something of an old-fashioned word for her to use. Which exact shading did she have in mind? Amoral? Unscrupulous? Vicious? Maybe all of them.
She went on in a flat voice. "I told him someday he'd get himself killed."
Charlotte's thin-lipped anger seemed to energize her. She pushed up from the table and started for the hallway, and the stairs to the apartment. Her face was streaked, but now I guessed that tears had been from shock, not grief. "You can't get in the office that way, Charlotte." She turned to face me with a scowl, one fidgety hand on the newel post. "It's bolted from inside."
"When wasn't it?" she muttered, then started for the door to the street. A bit more wiry brown hair had escaped her bun, and her cheeks now had two bright spots of color. As she passed she glared at me and paraphrased an old song. "I'll get along without him very well."
Copyright © Lana Waite. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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