This short story by Jacqueline Vick first appeared in “Futures Mystery Anthology Magazine”.
Deanna Wilder clutched her delivery notice–by now a crumpled wad–and leaned forward onto the balls of her sneakers like a sprinter preparing for takeoff. After waiting in line for twenty minutes, she now looked on the postal window as an unclaimed prize.
Behind the counter, Abigail Watts puttered about: straightening the supply of stamps in her drawer, adjusting the tape in her adding machine, recapping her rubber stamps. Her position as the lone counter clerk of the Wilton Post Office gave Abigail power, a power she delighted in and exercised with impunity. Birthday gifts from distant relatives, anticipated catalogue orders, private correspondence intended for the post office box, the fate of these lie entirely with Abigail. And so the people of Wilton put up with her probing questions, her disapproving clucks, and her malicious gossip.
When she finally called out, “Next!” her tone suggested that it was she who had been kept waiting.
Deanna slapped her notice on the counter and, with a look that threatened violence, said, “I’ve come for my package.”
Abigail leaned forward on plump arms and gave the paper a poke. “Where were we on Saturday that we couldn’t accept delivery?”
Deanna clamped down on a retort and feigned a polite laugh. “We were running errands.”
The interrogation had only begun.
“I understand you interviewed a contractor to put in your new pool.”
Abigail said the word contractor as if the man’s qualifications were suspect. “Betsy Riven saw you having lunch with him at the Main Street Café.”
Deanna, assuming the woman had been coerced into offering up this tidbit in exchange for Abigail’s services, forgave Betsy immediately. She tapped the receipt. “My package?”
Abigail continued as if Deanna had not spoken. “Mulrony’s has the best reputation in town.” This was her nephew’s construction firm. She sighed loudly. “But, I expect you know what’s best, being the one with money to throw around.”
Deanna sniffed. “It is my house,” she said, but Abigail was no longer listening. Her black eyes beaded in on a new target in the long line behind Deanna.
Abigail pursed her small lips in disapproval. “Some people are looking better than they have a right to. Much too lively for what’s right, if you know what I mean,” she muttered. Deanna turned her head. Blank looks stared back.
Abigail toddled to the back room and returned with a medium sized box.
“Buying bras through the mail again?” Abigail referred to the return label, Silky Comfort. “I’d have thought you’d want to try them on first. A woman’s shape changes after gravity sets in.”
Deanna blushed and grabbed the box. Abigail called out after her retreating form.
“See you at seven!”
Deanna ignored the raspy laughter that followed her out the door.
As she adjusted her seatbelt, Deanna decided to make a concerted effort to find somebody else, anybody else in Wilton, who knew how to play Texas Hold Em. Doing Vegas in Style was Deanna’s latest class at the Wilton Adult Center for Knowledge and Education, known to the locals as WACKED. The final exam, a Texas Hold Em tournament, was less than three weeks away. Deanna had arranged a weekly Monday night game for practice. Not wanting to give an advantage to any of her classmates, she had scrounged up five satisfactory players to join her. But Abigail was wearing on Deanna’s last nerve. As she turned the key in the ignition, Deanna Wilder decided that tonight’s game would be Abigail’s last.
Harmony Drive was a short, dead end extension off Edinburgh Road. It ended abruptly in a small thatch of thorn bushes that separated the residential area from the lawn that surrounded Champs Middle School. The people who occupied the small, ranch houses that lined the drive felt no resentment over their limited options for escape; most of them had no place to go. The majority of residents had retired years ago, and their infrequent social visits, mainly grandchildren, came to them.
Midway down the block, at a shabby white house in need of care, Abigail Watts answered her doorbell. Her large frame, illuminated by the light from her living room, filled the entryway as she peered out at her visitor.
“I’m not surprised you came,” she said, her tiny lips puckering into what could pass for a smile. She stepped aside to allow the visitor entry into her home.
She leaned out onto the porch and searched the street. Although evening had progressed to the later hours of dusk, the streetlamps remained unlit. Shadowy mounds of hedges blocked her view.
“You’ve come alone?” She turned in time to see the visitor nod. “That’s a disappointment,” she said, closing the door and leaving the street in darkness. Anyone within hearing distance would have witnessed Abigail Watts’ final words.
“Now about that letter…”
Deanna Wilder nudged her daughter, Vanessa, with a sharp elbow to the rig-cage.
Vanessa glared at the grandfather clock and said, “You promised I’d be home in time for CSI: Miami. If we start playing now, we have time for a couple of hands.”
“It’s a re-run, for God’s sake.”
Ida Nichols, Deanna’s sister-in-law, shuffled a deck of cards with the skill of a Vegas dealer. “Young people aren’t the only ones with lives. Maybe we should call her again.”
“Maybe we should.” The woman mimicking Ida was her fraternal twin, Mabel. Mabel entered the world twenty minutes after her sister, left to scrounge up whatever attributes Ida had seen fit to leave behind. Mabel stood two inches shorter than her twin, was less striking in appearance and manner, and lacked a mind of her own.
“Abigail didn’t pick up the last three times I called,” Deanna said. “What makes you think four is the magic number?”
Roxanne, Deanna’s youngest daughter, had until now suffered the evening in silence. She set down her poker chips and said, “I’m driving over to see what’s keeping her.”
As the evening’s host, Deanna opted to remain behind in case Abigail showed up. She convinced Ida and Mabel to stay, primarily because she couldn’t trust the twins to return. Roxanne was stuck with Vanessa.
The drive across town took ten minutes, ten minutes filled with Vanessa’s complaints about her wasted evening.
“Just because Mother thinks I don’t have a life…” Vanessa fingered her curls and sniffed. “Well, if I don’t, it’s her fault. Every time she takes a class, I wind up as her guinea pig. Today it’s poker. You watch. Tomorrow it will be mind reading and I won’t have any secrets left.”
“I don’t know why you bother to argue,” Roxanne said. “I just agree with her and do what I want.”
“Then why are you spending Monday night running around town looking for some old hag?”
“You mean instead of learning the finer points of forensic science from David Caruso?” Roxanne referred to the red-headed star of CSI: Miami.
She turned the Chrysler New Yorker into the driveway of Fourteen Harmony Street and left the car idling. The windows of the house were dark.
“We probably just missed her.” She instructed Vanessa to wait and ran up to the front door.
Roxanne might have knocked harder than she intended because the door creaked open after the first hit. She leaned her head in.
There was no response.
The car headlamps cast a dim light over the living room, and Roxanne could make out the outline of a large lump in the middle of the rug. She felt along the entry wall for a switch.
Blazing light filled the room and exaggerated the purple, bloated features of Abigail Watts. Her large arms lay thrown over her head, the hem of her housedress rested in a position to expose the varicose veins threading up her plump thighs. A sickeningly sweet odor hung over the room.
Vanessa appeared at Roxanne’s side.
“What’s taking so long?” she asked. Then her eyes followed to where Roxanne pointed.
“I’m going to miss my show, aren’t I?”
Detective Sean Grady had a face like a bull and a body to match. Men who now resided at Joliet State Penitentary had mistaken his blank expression for a lack of intelligence. Others thought his shock of red hair might indicate a quick temper, but no one had ever witnessed him lose it. He sat at a small, square table opposite the Wilder sisters in Interview Room A.
“Tell me again what time you arrived at the victim’s home.”
Roxanne opened her mouth to speak, but Vanessa cut in.
“We already said. Ten minutes to eight.”
“And you’re sure of the exact time because –“
“I was watching the minutes tick away until my favorite show started.” Vanessa snorted. “Don’t worry yourself. It’s over now.”
Grady ignored her outburst and addressed Roxanne.
“You said the door wasn’t locked?”
Roxanne shifted in her seat, her rump sore after an hour on the cold, hard metal. “I only knocked once. The door opened on its own.”
“Abigail Watts was late for a poker game at your mother’s house.” Grady read from their statement. “Your mother, Deanna Wilder, tried phoning Ms. Watts three times, starting at twenty minutes after seven.”
“The game was set to start at seven,” Roxanne explained, shooting her sister a look. “Vanessa was impatient and insisted we call.”
Vanessa leaned toward the detective. “I do have better things to do than sit around playing cards with my mother.”
“I’m sure you do, Miss Wilder,” he said with practiced neutrality. He closed the file and folded his hands on the table. “I think that’s all for now.” He added the perfunctory, “Please be available for further questioning.”
Roxanne agreed for them both as Vanessa disappeared out the door.
Grady’s desk was one of several in a large open room that made up the Wilton Detective Squad Headquarters. It was now eleven o’clock at night; he had the room to himself. He scribbled notes in a manila folder that bore a handwritten label – Abigail Watts.
He considered the facts he had gathered so far.
Abigail Watts left her job at the Wilton Post Office at five-thirty in the evening, the usual time for her departure according to her boss, Leonard Miles. Leonard Miles’s reaction to the death of his long time employee was gratitude at having enough notice to find a replacement.
Abigail then proceeded to Walt’s Grocery store where she purchased a can of gourmet coffee beans and a package of lamb chops. He knew this from the dated receipt on her kitchen counter, verified by the pile of chop bones in her trash bin. The can of coffee, Starbuck’s, remained unopened at the time of her death. Walt’s had been closed since nine but Grady knew that Shirley Jakious worked the evening shift. He could question her tomorrow.
Grady reasoned that Abigail’s errand would have placed her back at home by six fifteen at the latest. Then she took the time to cook her dinner and eat it. That would place the time of death between a quarter to seven and eight o’clock at night. There were no signs of forced entry; Abigail Watts allowed her killer entry into her home.
First thing tomorrow, he would interview the neighbors. If he was lucky, someone would admit to poking their nose through their blinds around the same time that Abigail Watts received her visitor.
To be continued….