He saw us, did a right face, and started our way, taking the dignified, deliberate steps that kept him from falling. Mady made a sound of disgust. "Oh, really!" Her tolerance for other people's foibles was one on a scale of ten.
"Good morning," I said. There was no bottle in his hands but there was a suspicious bulge in his jacket pocket. Under the jacket his pale blue button-down shirt displayed a terminal case of ring-around-the-collar. And over the collar his chin sported several days' growth of whiskers.
"Good morning, Diana." He smiled and his watery blue eyes crinkled, offering a reminder of the man he had once been. What a waste! I suddenly wanted to shake some sense into him. All that pickled intelligence.
"What do you want, Tolly?" Mady snapped. If there were an Oscar for acting self-righteous, Mady would win it every year.
Tolly inclined his head in a slight bow. "My dear lady "
"I'm not your dear lady." Her lips clamped shut and her eyes narrowed. She turned and leaned toward me, gripping my arm with taloned fingers again. "Did you know Neal was trying to get rid of this old fool? Maybe Tolly killed him."
"My dear lady!" Tolly's eyes popped wide and his cheeks quivered. He looked at me in frantic appeal. "Who's dead?"
I peeled Mady's fingers off my arm once more. If she didn't stop puncturing me I'd have to get a tetanus shot. "The mayor's dead, Tolly but nobody's going to think you killed him." I faced Mady and tried to think of a polite way to tell her she was an idiot. It would be useless. I could tell her all right, but she simply wouldn't hear me.
Her face was set in angry wrinkles. "Neal was trying to evict him from his house. Tolly could have been angry enough." Tolly choked and scrabbled in a pocket. A bottle flashed out and went to his mouth. Mady's lips twisted with scorn.
I was saved from replying to her stupid theory by Lester's testy voice. He appeared from the direction of the office stairs herding Charlotte before him. "You just can't stay with him, Charlotte, that's all there is to it." He sounded as if he'd said this more than once. "There are things we have to do." She turned and glared at him. "Just make your arrangements and I'll let you know when " He stopped. Even to him it must have sounded unfeeling. "Look - I'm sorry. I know this is hard on you. I just don't know how to make it any " His unhappy voice trailed off. Murder in a small town is hard on the whole population.
Mady forgot about Tolly. She lunged, grabbed Charlotte's hand, and huddled close to her face. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Charlotte." She seemed to have changed her mind about not liking the woman. No sacrifice was too great if it kept her in the thick of things. "What can I "
Charlotte drew back. "Thank you but you can do nothing for me." She turned, went into the drugstore, and snapped the lock. Mady hissed.
Lester sighed, pulled out a kerchief, and wiped his forehead. He looked at me and jerked his thumb. "Ginger's up there now." With that he strode off.
Mady followed, trotting to keep up. Flesh bounced under her powder blue jogging suit. After a loud exchange at the door he managed to repel her. She whirled, spinning on her trendy tennies, and strode by me again, complaining bitterly. I watched until she crossed Waterfront Way and went into Winona Burrywood's railroad-car café, The Clamshack. Half the population of Burrywood dropped in there for coffee at some time during the day. It was the root of our grapevine - the best place to spread a rumor or give out news. Mady knew what she was doing.
I turned to commiserate with Tolly - we'd all suffered verbal indignities at Mady's hands - but saw only his back. It was disappearing around the corner of the drugstore, going home, to drink and hide. I wished I had the key that would let him escape the bleak life he'd made for himself.
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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