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Authors: Ellen Byerrum

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General

Shot Through Velvet (3 page)

BOOK: Shot Through Velvet
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“I only talked with him on the phone,” Vic said. “And e-mail.”
“What did old Rod look like? That’s easy,” Sykes said. “I’ll be right back.”
Sykes trotted from the dye house toward the front entrance of the factory, where a Dominion Velvet sign announced the company was owned and operated by Symington Textiles, Inc. The sign was flanked by eight-by-ten pictures of the company’s various executives and managers. Sykes returned with one and handed it to Lacey.
The picture of Rod Gibbs was typical of executives’ publicity photos. Each was posed in front of the same backdrop, their heads at the same slight angle, with big pasted-on smiles. Lacey stared at the likeness for a few moments and handed the photo to Vic.
Judging from the picture, the man was in his early forties, though hard living might have made him look older. Lacey thought Rod Gibbs looked like a high school or college jock who had gone to seed after the last game. He might have started out handsome, but something had taken its toll. Perhaps drinking. His watery blue eyes were bloodshot, and his pasty white skin had taken on flab. His dark hair had thinned. His smile, however, was still toothpaste perfect. The very picture of a big fish in a small pond.
“I put that velvet on the spool myself yesterday. I tucked up the selvage on both ends so it would be perfect.” Inez sounded mournful. “I always do. Especially since it’s the last batch and all.”
“Damn it all! That filthy pig ruined my last batch of velvet!” A woman who had just walked into the dye room offered her opinion unasked. Her name was Blythe Harrington, Lacey learned later, but she was anything but
blithe
.
She looked like any soccer matron, although with an impressive set of biceps from lifting heavy velvet and running the dye house. Blythe Harrington had short dark hair in a classic suburban-mom hairdo, red glasses, and a downturned mouth. She wore a smock over long pants and a T-shirt, and steel-toed shoes.
“Wouldn’t you know it’d be the Blue Devil,” Blythe continued, much aggrieved. “Leave it to Rod Gibbs to ruin my very last spool! Just like he ruined this company.”
That didn’t sound like the man who had promised Lacey a story about how the company was headed for a sparkly new future.
Blythe grabbed a pair of scissors from her smock pocket and launched them at the body. They stuck in the victim’s thigh, not that he would feel it. The crowd gave a collective gasp.
Lacey flinched, but Vic stepped forward and put out one arm to block Blythe. “We have a crime scene here, people. Time to calm down. We need to secure the area and get the police. Has anyone called them?” He looked at Nicholson, who seemed frozen in place. Vic handed Blythe off to Nicholson, took out his cell phone, and punched in 911.
“He ruined my velvet, my very last spool. My beautiful, beautiful velvet.” Blythe was not at all sorry for her scissor toss. “If someone had to kill Rod, why did they have to spoil my velvet? I could have killed Rod myself. Asshole didn’t need to ruin my velvet.”
“I’m sure many of us would like to take all of the credit and none of the blame,” Nicholson cautioned her. “Don’t borrow trouble, Blythe.”
“Too late, Tom. Trouble is here,” Blythe said as he released her.
Kira gave Blythe a hug. “It’s going to be okay. It’s got to be.”
Kira Evans had found her voice and seemed steadier on her feet. She was a pretty but frail-looking blonde who appeared about forty, though she might be younger. She looked as if she had given her best years to the job and received little in return.
It must have even taken the heat from her bones
, Lacey thought. While others were dressed in short sleeves to deal with the factory’s heat, Kira wore a heavy turtleneck sweater and rubbed her arms as if she were chilled to the core.
“Don’t worry, Blythe,” Inez said. “Rod will never ruin anything else ever again.”
“That’s right,” Hank Richards said. He’d been quiet through the discovery of the body, but he’d been listening to everything. His face was etched with deep worry lines, and the lines grew deeper as he stared at the body. “Rod Gibbs was a ruiner. Everything he touched turned to crap.”
“Like my velvet,” Blythe complained.
“This is horrible,” Kira said.
Hank put his arm around Kira’s shoulder. “It’s not like it happened to somebody who didn’t deserve it.”
“I can’t stop staring at him,” Kira said. “He looks like something out of a monster movie.”
“Careful, honey,” Inez put in. “He might come back to life, like an alien. A big blue head might pop right out of his stomach.” Inez seemed to find Gibbs’s death funnier than the others. Lacey wondered exactly what Rod Gibbs had done to deserve this fate.
“I hope he burns in hell,” Blythe spat. “Blue flames.” She reached out to touch the spool of ruined velvet. Vic stopped her.
 
“One day to go, and y’all couldn’t get through it without a major crime,” the cop complained, glancing at the body. “Colorful too.”
Two of Black Martin’s finest, Officers Gavin Armstrong and Russell York, had arrived on the scene in a few minutes. Lacey put their ages at midthirties. Armstrong was an intimidatingly large man, but his freckled face and a mop of wavy light brown hair made him look like the cop next door. York was smaller, darker, and quieter. Armstrong took the lead. He walked around the dye vat over which Rod Gibbs’s body hung, and he conceded that the death “was a little baroque for Black Martin.”
He looked a little closer, and this time he sounded disgusted. “Oh, my God. Is that Rod Gibbs?”
Murder alone would be enough to merit attention in this little town, but the demise of one Rod Gibbs, and the added attraction of his new tint, seemed to be a big draw. They were soon joined by other officers. Lacey thought it must be the entire police force.
“So it’s murder?” Nicholson asked, for lack of something better to say, or maybe simply to put a name to what had happened to the gargoyle hanging in their midst.
“I’m not the medical examiner. I can’t make that determination,” Armstrong said, all business. “But hell, Tom, you know this machinery better than me. Does this look like your typical workplace accident? And just between us, I don’t think Rod climbed up there by himself, lashed himself to the spool, operated the hoist by remote control, and committed suicide. But if you’ve got a theory, I’m willing to listen. Especially if you think it was some kind of kinky sex thing.” The two cops smirked. Their fellow officers chuckled.
“That would be like Rod,” Officer York said.
“No need to be crude,” Nicholson said.
“That wasn’t crude, Tom,” Armstrong protested. “I could show you crude, but I’m holding off because of all the ladies. I got to be honest, though. Someone really had it in for old Rod.”
Vic offered his hand to the lead officer and filled him in on what he was doing there—meeting a new client for his security firm, touring the site.
Armstrong pressed his lips together. “Hell of a time to start a job like this. Client turns up dead.” Vic nodded in agreement. “You’re ex-law enforcement? You know the drill then. Stay out of our way, and we’ll get along just fine.”
“Works for me,” Vic said. “I take it there haven’t been a lot of murders around here.”
“This ain’t Richmond, or God forbid, D.C.,” the cop said. “We take personal affront to murder in Black Martin. Isn’t that right, Officer York?”
“That’s right,” York responded. “Too damn much paperwork.”
“We had a nasty killing a few years back, but it was cut-and-dried,” Armstrong said conversationally. “Love triangle gone wrong. Husband killed the wife’s boyfriend. Three witnesses. Now, that’s the way you want it. This thing looks downright complicated.”
“It’s a mess, no matter which way you look at it,” York said. “Big, soggy blue mess.”
Armstrong scanned the room and noticed Lacey for the first time. “And you are, ma’am?”
“Lacey Smithsonian. I’m a reporter for
The Eye Street Observer
.” She hoped she wouldn’t get tossed out on her cute reporter’s notebook.
Armstrong brought out that special look that cops reserve for the media. “Ah. Reporter, huh? What are y’all working on way down here in Black Martin?”
“I’m writing an article on the closing of Dominion Velvet.”
He rubbed his chin. “
Eye Street Observer
? That wouldn’t be Ms. Claudia Darnell’s little paper up in Washington?”
Lacey nodded. “You know Claudia Darnell
?

Claudia Darnell,
The Eye
’s publisher Claudia? How does this smalltown cop know her?
Armstrong smiled as if he could read Lacey’s mind. He had a lot of teeth. “Everyone knows Claudia Darnell round these parts. Why, she’s our little hometown gal.”
Lacey thought she knew Claudia pretty well, but she didn’t know that interesting factoid. She felt like a fool, and worse, professionally uninformed. “When you say
everyone
knows Claudia Darnell, you mean—”
“Everyone in
this
town,” Nicholson offered. “Washington too, I guess. Claudia is the fair-haired country girl who grew up here and moved away. And made a big name for herself.” He didn’t add
like a traitor who forgets her roots
, but his voice conveyed that feeling.
Lacey wondered if she somehow should have known that little tidbit. Were there bad feelings toward Claudia’s newspaper because of Claudia’s history? Lacey hadn’t run her Dominion Velvet story idea past Claudia. She didn’t always even tell her editor, Mac Jones, what she was up to. Would Claudia have tried to steer her away from the story? But that was ridiculous. Reporters didn’t run story ideas by the publisher. They used their own judgment.
“Not only that.” Hank Richards joined the conversation. “Claudia Darnell is a silent partner in this factory. Why, she pulled the plug on us, along with the Blue Devil here. Claudia Darnell helped put us all out of work. But at least she isn’t feeling blue about it.”
Chapter 3
Oh holy—conflict of interest! Claudia’s part of this story? This day gets worse every second.
Lacey smiled brightly. “You learn something new every day.”
“With Claudia Darnell, there’s always been a lot to learn,” Hank said. “She was maybe a decade ahead of me in school, but there were always tales about her, if you know what I mean.”
Once a key figure in a spectacular Washington scandal,
Eye Street
publisher Claudia Darnell left town in her twenties in a blaze of notoriety. She had been a “secretary” to a married congressman and became famous for
not
typing. But Claudia had other skills. She turned out to be much smarter than the average scandal-scorched bimbo. After she had licked her wounds and learned to type, she wrote a bestselling roman à clef and proved adept at making money. A lot of it.
Claudia eventually returned to the scene of her previous alleged indiscretions, now as publisher of
The Eye Street Observer.
She also retained her famous looks and magnetism. She was a woman of a certain age, but she could still wrap men around her finger with a beguiling smile. Claudia had taken back her place in the Washington firmament, and then some.
Lacey’s publisher apparently had several little-known chapters of her history that Lacey wasn’t up on. But then, didn’t everyone have secrets? Lacey wondered how Claudia’s role would affect the Dominion Velvet story. At the very least it would require disclosing the newspaper’s relationship to the factory.
Damn it all anyway.
Lacey had to call her editor as soon as possible.
Mac’s gonna kill me,
she thought and groaned.
First a dead body, and now Claudia was involved somehow, even if only tangentially. Did she really pull the plug on this factory? Another old song began playing in Lacey’s head.
Am I blue, am I blue-hoo-hoo—
“They’re not the only ones,” Kira whispered. “Don’t forget the others that sent us down the road to ruination.”
“Looks like you got a lot more to learn, Ms. Smithsonian,” Sykes noted with a grin.
Armstrong looked at York. “Having a reporter here from a bigger paper is really gonna piss off Will Adler.” They both laughed. Armstrong turned back to Lacey. “This town may not be big enough for the two of you, Ms. Smithsonian.”
“Will Adler? Who’s he?”
Another complication?
“Local reporter for the daily scandal sheet,” Armstrong answered. “Thinks he’s Woodward and Bernstein rolled into one. He’ll show up here sooner or later. We like to take bets on how soon it’ll take him to demand his First Amendment rights. Course, you being a reporter too, and for Darnell’s paper? Hell, I don’t know what to do with the two of you. Maybe you and Adler can fight it out. I’m not giving you anything more. No comment.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Vic said. “She tends to find things out.”
Don’t forget I just witnessed the body
, Lacey thought. She smiled and remained silent.
“Journalists are a nuisance.” Armstrong stared at Lacey, hoping to make her uncomfortable. “Now, why would y’all want to go and write a story about this dead man here? Don’t they have enough dead bodies in Washington, D.C.?”
“Because it’s news, particularly with the factory closing. And if you hadn’t noticed, he is blue.” She knew the cop was just playing with her. The key was showing no fear.
“No skin off my blue suede shoes.” Armstrong shrugged his large shoulders.
“In a town like this, the Blue Devil will be the topic of conversation for quite a while,” Hank pointed out. “He might as well give folks something back, after all he’s taken.”
“That’s enough, Hank,” the cop said. “All of you. Y’all will get your chance to bitch about the Blue Devil later.”
“You knew his nickname?” Lacey asked.
Armstrong lifted an eyebrow. “We’re not as dumb as you might think. Everyone in town knew Rod Gibbs was a devil. Hell, he drove that boat of his like a speed demon. This will only cement the legend of the Blue Devil.”
BOOK: Shot Through Velvet
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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