Authors: Elizabeth Spann Craig
Tags: #Mystery, #Contemporary, #Humour
T WAS NICE
to have a spy Myrtle could count on. And her neighbor, Miles, made an excellent spy. Somehow, when Myrtle looked pushy and nosy, Miles simply appeared innocuously observant. And when he asked questions, he was able to fly under Red’s radar, which wasn’t the case for Myrtle. So of course it was Miles she turned to when she needed a set of eyes over at the Beauty Box. Priority number one was to find out more about Tammy’s mysterious death. Was it an accident? Or murder?
The only problem was that she’d forgotten about the painting she’d left on Miles’ doorstep.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Miles. “I was just about to call you.”
“About Tammy’s death?”
“No, about the other atrocity…that painting you foisted on me. With the cryptic,
thinking of you
, message. I can only assume, looking at the painting, that message was meant as an insult.”
Myrtle paused. “What if I told you that I’d painted that painting in honor of our friendship and our mutual love for books?”
“I wouldn’t believe you. If you’d created something like that, you’d have put it out of its misery. You’re too much of an aesthete to have unleashed something that ghastly on the world.”
“An astute observation. No, I didn’t paint it. But Elaine did. And she
it and she thinks
love it and now she’s going to think that
love it, too. It’s supposed to be you and me, surrounded by books.”
Miles’ voice was dubious. “Are you sure? I thought it was some sort of market scene. There are so many people in it.”
“No, no, you’re looking at it wrong. Those aren’t people, they’re
“What? They couldn’t be. Oh wait. I’m looking at the painting upside-down. I see the signature.” There was some fumbling around on the other side of the phone. “And now it’s even worse. I need you to take this back, Myrtle.”
“For heaven’s sake! It’s not all that bad. Just keep it in your closet for a while until it’s my turn to curate the blasted thing. And be sure to pull it out and put it on your mantel if Elaine comes by!” Miles started to argue, so Myrtle hurried on, “But you’ve distracted me. This isn’t why I called. I wanted to talk to you about the murder at the Beauty Box. Are you up for a reconnaissance mission?”
“Can’t you find out the scoop by yourself?” Miles sounded cranky.
“I would absolutely love to, Miles. Unfortunately, I’m too high-profile.”
“They’d know that I was prying. When people think you’re being snoopy, they don’t share information—they clam up. You’ll just look haplessly oblivious and those old biddies at the salon will be falling all over themselves to fill you in. Mark my words,” said Myrtle.
Miles grouchily agreed to go.
And soon he was phoning back. It seemed like record time to Myrtle.
“I couldn’t linger too long, you know. I was beginning to look a little suspicious, lurking around outside the Beauty Box,” said Miles.
“Never mind the excuses, Miles. What
“I saw that an unusual death in Bradley is still enough of a novelty to bring out all the onlookers. And that the local gossip mill is still in full swing. There’s really no need for
The Bradley Bugle
. Everybody here gets the news just a few minutes after it happens.”
“Did you find out anything
, though?” said Myrtle, trying unsuccessfully to curb her impatience. “How did Tammy die? Was there any evidence pointing to anybody? Was it an accident or murder?”
Miles said, “I’m pretty sure it was murder. I saw the state police pull up and a forensic team with those spacesuit-looking things on. But I didn’t get any real information—it was all just people gawking.”
“That’s not a whole lot of information, Miles.” She was going to have to rethink Miles’ usefulness as a sidekick if this was all her spy could come up with.
Miles’ voice was exasperated. “Then why don’t
head over there, Myrtle. Threaten to thump those police officers with your cane if they don’t give you the scoop.”
“I don’t want to. It’s got to be about two hundred degrees out there. Besides, I don’t like rubbing shoulders with all those rubberneckers. No thanks. I bet I can make Red tell me what’s going on later.”
Myrtle bristled at the doubt in her friend’s voice. “Absolutely! Just leave it to me.”
“Traditionally you’ve had a tough time getting Red to tell you
. Isn’t he the same Red who nearly admitted you into a retirement home without your knowledge?”
“Forget all that, Miles. That’s ancient history. Red and I have an
now. I’m sure he’ll be happy to give me the scoop on the case. After all, I even wrote an investigative piece on the last murder for the paper.”
“By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you about book club. Are you reading this month’s selection?”
Myrtle could swear she heard a hint of a snicker. It was not becoming. “I’m really not into stories where vampires and zombies duel it out. If I’m not mistaken, that’s what the rest of our so-called book club is reading. No, Miles, this murder has put me in a Gothic frame of mind. I think Edgar Allan Poe is in order. I’ll check in with you later.”
Myrtle stepped into her living room and pulled out a battered collection of Poe’s works (“a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore…”) from her living room shelf. She sank down onto her sofa and flipped to
Sleepy from a bout of insomnia the night before, she started drowsing off as she read.
A repetitive rapping disturbed her napping. Myrtle jerked awake and hurried to her front door. Miles might have forgotten to give her an important detail from his reconnaissance mission.
She pulled the door open without looking and kicked herself for it when she saw the rodent-like features of her next door neighbor, Erma Sherman. Myrtle stood solidly in the door to make sure Erma couldn’t sneak by her and take over her living room. She was like the devil to get rid of.
“I thought I should do an elderly neighbor check,” said Erma affecting a noble look. “Considering there’s a deranged murderer around.”
Myrtle gritted her teeth. “Thanks for your concern. As you can see, though, I’m just fine. So while I appreciate your worrying, Erma, it’s misguided. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some laundry to wrangle.” She turned, but for some reason tripped over her left foot and stumbled before catching herself with her cane.
She cursed under her breath as Erma quickly used her stumble as an opening and propelled both Myrtle and herself into the house, slamming it shut behind her. “Here, Myrtle! Let me give you a hand. You should take it easy! How about a nice glass of warm milk while you put your feet up?”
Myrtle was about to tell Erma what she could do with her warm milk when she was interrupted by more incessant Erma chatter. “I hear that someone pushed Tammy down the stairs. Now who would do a thing like that?” Erma’s lips parted in a grin. “Everyone, that’s who! No one could stand her!”
“Did you get your hair done there, Erma?” It would be nice to get
sort of helpful information out of this invasion. Although there was no way that Tammy could have been responsible for the mess that was Erma Sherman’s coiffure. Not even a completely-incapacitated-by-drink Tammy.
“Sometimes. But most of my information I got from other people—friends. Women talk, you know.” Boy, do they. Especially the Erma variety of women.
There was a rap at the front door. “You’re very popular today, aren’t you?” brayed Erma. “
get the door, Myrtle! You just settle down in a chair.”
Amazingly, it was Myrtle’s housekeeper, Puddin, who saved the day. Puddin, who never showed up to clean Myrtle’s house unless all the stars were lined up just right in the heavens. Puddin, whose back got thrown at the hint of dust or dirty floors. Puddin! There she was, at the door, with her usual sullen and suspicious face with Myrtle’s cat, Pasha. Pasha, the feral black cat that Erma was horribly allergic to. Myrtle started to smile.
“Cat wants in,” grunted Puddin around a cigarette, which she hastily removed from her mouth at Myrtle’s glare. The cat streaked into the house and, with unerring instinct, launched itself at Erma.
“Cat! Cat!” squawked Erma, moving first one direction, then another, like an indecisive squirrel in the path of an oncoming car. “Let it out!”
“Cat wants in,” stated Puddin, already slouching toward the kitchen to use Myrtle’s own cleaning supplies.
“See you later!” yelled the fleeing Erma, already sneezing and leaving the front door open in her haste to leave.
“Not if I see you first,” muttered Myrtle. She closed and locked the door, leaning back against it with relief. Pasha was an angel. An absolute angel cat sent from the heavens to reward Myrtle for some sort of unknown and unusual good behavior. Pasha rhythmically bathed herself in satisfaction. She was well-aware that she was a good girl.
“Puddin,” called out Myrtle, “I’m shocked to see you. What’s put you in the cleaning mood today? I was thinking this was going to be a two-or-three reminder week, for sure.”
Puddin stuck her head through the living room door, watching Pasha. “Can’t you put that cat away? It puts hexes on me.”
“A ridiculous and harmful superstition about black cats, that I’m sick of hearing about. She’ll leave you alone if you leave her alone,” Myrtle sat down on the sofa. “And I do suggest you leave her alone.”
Puddin shrugged. “I’ll leave soon, anyway. I went to clean the Beauty Box and the cops sent me away. Thought I’d get you out of the way since I’m here anyway.” She resentfully slapped the dust off an end table and ignored the way it immediately resettled in the same spot.
“You were at the Beauty Box this morning? What was going on over there?” asked Myrtle.
Puddin, always looking for an opportunity to chat and forgo cleaning, plopped down next to Myrtle. She put her feet up on the coffee table and leaned back, looking at the ceiling as if her visit to the Beauty Box was replaying there in digital quality. “Kat was off to one side of the salon and she looked bad. Real sick!” said Puddin with some malevolence. “White as snow while she talked with the cops. Her hands shook and she borrowed a cigarette off me. That Dina, the quiet, skinny one, was crying in a corner of the shop.”
“So you actually went
“Course! Needed to clean, didn’t I?” asked Puddin scornfully.
This expectation frequently didn’t translate into an
cleaning. Myrtle frowned back at Puddin. “Go on!”
Puddin basked in her sudden spotlight as storyteller. “Well, I heard Dina boo-hooing about what was she going to do now? Tammy was supposed to be the one putting her up. Now where’s she going to live? Where’s she going to work if the Beauty Box was to close? That sort of thing.” Puddin waved her doughy hands in the air to signify additional, nebulous Dina concerns.
“Kat was upset, too? Shocked?” asked Myrtle.
Puddin scowled. “No. She looked tough as nails, like usual. You know what she’s like. So she was lighting up the cigarette I gave her, looking kind of sick, telling the cops that she’d gone in early to get the towels from the washer to dry them for the customers. Tammy puts the towels in the washer at night and Kat puts them in the dryer in the morning. The washer and dryer are at the bottom of the stairs, down in the basement. Kat turns on the light to go down the stairs and there’s Tammy at the bottom.” Puddin nodded her head in emphasis.
Myrtle said, “Oh, okay. Those stairs are really steep, aren’t they?”
“They’re dreadful. Told them I wasn’t doing their laundry nor doing their ironing, neither. Wasn’t going down them.”
That certainly sounded likely. “So Tammy, who was highly intoxicated when I saw her yesterday, took a drunken stumble down a steep set of stairs when she was trying to put a bunch of towels down there. Case closed. I guess the police had to investigate, anyway. Probably protocol.”
Puddin was already shaking her head, looking smug. “It was murder. She had a pair of hair shears sticking out of her, too. Somebody done killed her, all right.”
“Hair shears! Are you sure?”
“I heard Kat and the police talking about it. Scissors. Jabbed right into her back, then she was shoved. Dead as a doornail.”
“And no real clues to the killer? No evidence or confessions or anything?”
Puddin shook her head. “Everybody wanted to kill her. She was blabbing secrets. But Kat probably killed her.” Here the malevolent look again. Puddin didn’t like people who were of more than average attractiveness. “For the money.”
any money? It seems unlikely,” said Myrtle.
“Had her own shop, didn’t she?” Puddin raised her eyebrows to emphasize her point. “All those customers? Bet she had some money put away.”
If she hadn’t drunk most of it in the last few weeks.
“And she’s tough, that Kat. Looks like a thug. Maybe she learned about killing up in New York,” Puddin’s eyes were big.
“I think she
tough, but she’s not as tough as she looks. Although I have to admit that with all her bodily embellishments, she bears a startling resemblance to Queequeg.”
Puddin squinted at her.
“All right, Puddin, that’s enough visiting. Might as well get your cleaning done, if you’re here.”
Puddin scowled. “Not too much, though. My back is thrown.”
Puddin had done
a surprisingly thorough job with the cleaning. She might have been so distracted thinking about the case that she accidentally did more cleaning than usual. She was even perspiring quite a bit by the time she left.
“Hot as the hinges in here,” Puddin growled as she pushed her way out Myrtle’s door.
“Hang on—those are mine!” Myrtle grabbed back her floor cleaner, ammonia, and furniture polish. “You never bring your cleaners, remember? And it’s not all that hot in here.”
“It is if you’re not a hundred years old,” said the vengeful Puddin as she kicked through the door.