Short Story "Special Delivery" Part 2

Continued from Monday, Part II of “Special Delivery”

The following morning, Roxanne brought pastries and coffee to her mother’s house. She felt bad about the failed poker night. From what she could see, her mother needed the practice.

Deanna scribbled away on a pad of paper and looked up only after Roxanne emptied the donuts onto a plate and slid them in front of her.

“What’s that?” Roxanne asked. “Cheat sheet for the test?”

“I’m trying to remember who was in line at the post office, yesterday. I went to pick up a package and overheard Abigail make an odd comment about someone in line.”

Roxanne shrugged. “Abigail Watts had a comment for everyone.”

“Whoever this person was, seeing them was enough to distract her from hassling me.”

“That is a big deal,” Roxanne agreed. “So who have you come up with?”

“Annie Jibbs stood right behind me.”

“Ginny Jibbs?” Roxanne referred to the woman’s unhealthy fondness for liquor.

“But that’s nothing new,” Deanna said. “Abigail had been passing her temperance flyers for years.” She went back to the list.

“Tom Simms was next in line.”

Roxanne made a sympathetic noise. “Didn’t he lose his wife a few months ago?”

Deanna nodded. “Car accident. It happened on a trip up North, in Wisconsin. I think she was visiting relatives.”

“They were married less than a year, weren’t they?” Roxanne asked. “I can hardly remember what she looked like.”

“That’s not surprising,” Deanna said. “She died a few weeks after they moved here.”

The women shared a minute of respectful silence.

“I think the next in line was Old Homer.”

Roxanne figured if anyone could intimidate Abigail Watts it would be Homer Tidwall. A prominent member of the Wilton City Counsel, he was impervious to ill will, as he possessed so much of it himself.

“I also saw that young woman with the twins, the one who’s always falling over things.”

“Carrie Hall. It must be hard to keep your balance with two three year olds hanging on you,” Roxanne said.

Deanna tossed down her pen. “I can’t remember anyone else.”

“What exactly did Abigail say?”

“Something about the person’s looks – they were too lively, or something. It just doesn’t make sense.”

“Did Ginny look too healthy for a drunk?”

“I thought she looked pasty.”

“What about Homer? Was he looking satisfied? Have there been any recent City Counsel decisions that might make him happy and tick off Abigail at the same time?”

“The City Counsel doesn’t meet until the end of the month. Besides,” Deanna added, “Homer was looking glum, as usual.”

“How did Carrie look?”

“Frazzled.”

“Was she wearing new clothes? Spending outside her budget? According to Abigail, that is.”

Deanna wrinkled her nose. “Carrie smelled like poop and there was something crusty on the front of her shirt.”

“That leaves us with Tom.” This conclusion angered Roxanne. “What did Abigail expect him to do? Cry in public? Mope for the rest of his life? There is such a thing as bearing up with dignity.”

Deanna agreed. “None of the options make any sense. But there may be someone who can give us some inside information.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “Abigail’s replacement.”

#

Mrs. Regina Potter stepped into her predecessor’s shoes with a refreshing professionalism. She retrieved packages promptly and without hassle, she greeted the public without rancor or derision, and the general fears over privacy from the post office box holders seemed to evaporate the moment she agreed to take on the job.

Deanna counted on this efficiency being a front. She waited for a lull in business and made her move. She approached the window under the pretense of asking Regina to be the sixth player in the card game next Monday night.

Regina’s response was a look of horror.

“Gambling?” The word echoed in the empty room.

“We don’t play for money,” Deanna said, trying to sooth the woman back onto friendlier ground. “It’s for practice. For my test. I’m taking a class –“

Regina waived an impatient hand. “I know all about what goes on at WACKED – card playing and astrology and Taro classes… an invitation to devilry of all kinds.” She narrowed her eyes. “People shouldn’t tempt fate.”

“It’s all for fun,” Deanna said, embarrassed.

“Fun.” Regina snorted. “There’s all sorts of fun going on in this town.” She leaned across the counter, eyes gleaming. “The stories I could tell you.” She caught herself and stood upright. “But that would be gossiping.”

Deanna held back her excitement and hoped that Regina might loosen up if she was offered a bit of information first. “I heard…” Deanna looked over her shoulder, unnecessarily as the room was still empty. “I heard that somebody is looking better than they have a right to.”

Regina narrowed her eyes. “How do you mean?”

Oh, hell, Deanna thought. She picked the most obvious interpretation. “Happier.” It came out as more of a question, but Regina nodded in agreement.

“I think that with someone’s wife just dead, it would be nice to at least pretend to be in mourning.” She shook her head. “Of course, I didn’t know Patty Simms that well. Maybe she was lacking as a wife.”

“Have you seen Tom with his new lady friend?” Deanna posed the question as if she, herself, had witnessed a public groping.

Regina looked disappointed. “No. But his post office box reeks of perfume.” Regina sounded as if she was seeking approval when she explained, “I thought, it being my first day on the job, I should familiarize myself with everything.”

Deanna agreed that this was Regina’s duty.

Unfortunately, this praise caused Regina to switch on her professional persona. When Deanna asked who might be sending Tom Simms scented letters, she placed the closed sign in her window and said, “I’m sure I don’t know.”

#

Detective Grady sat across from Henrietta Pilfridge and waited for her to rouse herself. Again. For the last half hour, the old woman had alternated between animated stories about her beloved dog and deep sleep. Grady eyed the curly mop of fur stretched out in a patch of sunlight; it’s plump, white belly looked ready to pop. Henrietta’s last period of dozing started four minutes ago, and Grady was uncertain as to whether he should show himself out or if he should give the old gal a light shake. Henrietta was his final interview, and Grady hated to give up. He opted for a loud, throat-clearing cough.

Henrietta’s head jerked up and she picked up the conversation without pause.

“Maxamillion never has to tinkle at night. At least, not before I put him in the bathtub for the evening, with newspapers, of course.”

Grady covered his gag with a faked sneeze.

“So when he scratched at the door, I became concerned. That’s usually the first sign of aging, the need to tinkle all the time.” She nodded. “In people, too.”

Grady’s gaze wandered back to the regally named pooch. Maxamillion was probably closer to the last signs of aging. As if reading his mind, the dog raised his head and flapped his lips in an attempted “Woof”.

“Did you hear anything outside?” he asked. “Anything that might have caught Maxamillion’s attention?”

“I fastened the security chain and left everything in God’s hands.”

“Maybe you peeked out the window?” he prodded.

Henrietta looked offended, so he hastened to add, “I would have.”

She relented. “Maybe I did see the light from Abigail’s front door.”

“What time was this?”

She tapped her chin with her index finger. “The street lamps weren’t on but it was very near dark. This time of year…that would make it…seven forty. Give or take five minutes.”

Her specificity surprised him, and he said so.

She flushed with pleasure.

“I’ve lived here all my life. Raised three children in this house. You get to know these things, even if it’s not in a conscious way. I’ve always used the streetlights to measure the time. When the lights went on, it was time for homework.”

Grady finished his tea, pat Maxamillion on the snout and let himself out. He had confirmation that Abigail Watts’ front door was open around twenty minutes to eight. The killer could have been coming or going. This new information wasn’t much help.

#

Roxanne stepped out of the convenience store and checked the next item on her shopping list. As she opened her car door, she caught a glimpse of Tom Simms leaving Pepe’s, the Mexican restaurant next door, with a blonde woman on his arm. She closed the car door and went into the restaurant. The smell of garlic and cilantro was strong, but there was another odor, too, sickly sweet and familiar.

The hostess, a young girl in an off-the-shoulder dress of vibrant colors, grabbed a menu and greeted Roxanne.

“I’m afraid I just missed some friends of mine,” Roxanne said.

The girl toyed with the giant gardenia stuck behind her left ear.

“What’s their name?”

Roxanne thought about using Tom’s name and changed her mind. The hostess might be more interested than she looked.

“It’s embarrassing,” Roxanne said with a laugh. “She’s recently married and I don’t know her new name. She’s blonde,” Roxanne held out her hand, “about this tall. Did you see her come in with a tall, young gentleman?”

“I remember her. She came in here with Tom Simms. Daliah was her name.

Roxanne nodded encouragement.

“You just missed them.” The hostess scrunched up her nose. “It still stinks in here. Can’t you smell it?”

“I wonder what brand of perfume that is.” Roxanne said, letting her gaze rest hopefully on the girl. Off the hostess’s offended look, she added, “Like you, I want to avoid it.”

“It’s one of those crap celebrity scents. Halo.”

The hostess held up the menu. “So, are you going to eat, or what?”

Roxanne declined.

Her next stop was Bently’s Drug Store. She waited at the perfume counter while an elderly woman with pinkish-orange hair bartered extra samples out of a bored-looking employee. The old lady walked away victorious, clutching three. The sales woman sauntered over to Roxanne, mumbling under her breath.

“She comes in constantly for samples but never buys a thing.”

She threw back her head and adjusted her spectacles, trying to place a name with Roxanne’s face.

“Can I help you?”

The employee name tag, clipped to a white jacket identical to the one worn by the pharmacist, identified the woman as Marla.

“Do you ever carry Halo? It’s a celebrity perfume, although I don’t know which celebrity.”

Marla raised her brows, distinctly questioning Roxanne’s taste. “I know what it is.” She held out a bottle shaped like a woman’s bottom. “This is the last bottle, thank goodness. Please take it outside if you’re going to try it on. It gives me a headache.”

The price tag read sixty dollars.

“Pretty expensive.” Roxanne’s glance took in her surroundings.

“You mean for this place?” Marla nodded. “We had one customer who loved the stuff. That’s the only reason we have this bottle.”

Roxanne handed the perfume back. “If she’s expecting you to have it in stock, you had better keep this one”

Marla gave the bottle a shake. “Don’t worry. She’s dead.”

Roxanne opened her eyes in mock surprise. “You don’t mean the late Mrs. Simms?”

“That’s the one. She seemed to have good taste, from what I can remember, so it ran my nylons when she requested this junk.”

Roxanne agreed that it was quite shocking.

“I don’t want to talk dirt about the dead, but she was a plain girl. Maybe she was trying to make a statement.”

“Has any one else been asking after this particular perfume?”

Marla recognized an opportunity. Before answering, she asked her own question. “Do want this wrapped as a gift?”

#

Walt’s Grocery Store was Wilton’s final holdout against the giant conglomerates that threatened to do away with local butchers and bakeries. Walt’s was the kind of place where the customers knew the owner as Chuck and he, in turn, asked after their children, remembering at least their ages if not their names.

Shirley Jakious entered the work force twenty years ago as a bagger. In two years, she made checker. Now she was the head checker and one of the only original employees remaining, which made her a valuable ally to regular customers. She knew their preferences, alerted them to sales, and shook her head discretely when the quality of fresh chickens wasn’t up to her standards.

“Yeah, I remember.” Shirley snapped her gum as if it aided her concentration. “She bought Starbuck’s coffee and lamb chops. The chops weren’t even on sale.”

“Was Abigail a frugal shopper?” Grady asked.

Shirley barked out a laugh. “G&C. Generics and coupons. And her usual shopping day is Wednesday, after the sales flyers are out.”

“How was her mood?” Grady asked. “Anything unusual?”

Shirley didn’t blush, but she hesitated long enough to validate her reputation – tough on the outside, a softie on the inside. “Let’s say she was unusually smug.”

“About what?”

Shirley smacked Grady on the arm. “You know how she was, Sean. Full of hints without saying anything. I asked her if she’d won the lottery. She smirked with those little puckered lips of hers and said her salad days were over.”

Grady didn’t like the feeling that settled into the pit of his stomach. He doubted Abigail was referring to a hefty raise from the U.S. government.

Shirley wrinkled her brow and sadness settled over her features. She even stopped snapping her gum. “The thing is, instead of being happy for her, I found it kind of repulsive.”

Grady reassured her. “Abigail Watts had that effect on most people.” He added to himself, one in particular.

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