* * *
I was stewing in my own juices that April evening, as I sliced tomatoes and green onions and diced avocado for a salad. David had said he was coming in for dinner and I’d fixed a tourniere, French-Canadian meat pie I’d been longing to try. It came out of the oven smelling heavenly, and I whistled as I poured wine and tossed a salad.
But by eight—an hour later than he said he’d be here—David hadn’t arrived and hadn’t called. I sat on my impatience until eight-thirty and called him. No answer; I left a message. He didn’t call, and the evening dragged on. I put the now-cold tourniere in the fridge and picked at a bit of the salad, but I had no appetite. By ten, he still hadn’t called. It wasn’t like David at all. He simply wasn’t the kind of guy to stop for a beer and let time go while he swapped stories with someone or to simply forget he’d promised to be here. I began to worry. It stormed that night—a good East Texas thunderstorm with sideways rain, heavy thunder and frightening bolts of lightning. As long as David wasn’t on the road, the storm was not a threat, but it added to my anxiety.
David Clinkscales had been my boss when I was a paralegal in Dallas. It’s a long convoluted story, but when he decided to work from a lakeside cabin, not far from Wheeler where I once again lived, we went through several crises—and two other men on my part—and finally had been a couple for about six months. Everything suited me fine. I knew I was falling in love, but so far we weren’t tripping over each other. David came to my café two or three times a week, and we generally spent weekends together.
So by morning when I hadn’t heard from him I was less angry than worried. I could hardly send Chester Grimes, our local police chief, out to check on him. Chester and I go back to one of my previous adventures when he was on the force in Crandall. He rescued me when the brakes on my car failed on a downward slope on the highway. Chester not only got my car fixed but took me to his home where his wife, Carolyn, fed me a tuna fish salad sandwich and a glass of wine and suggested I take a nap. After protesting that I’d never sleep, I fell sound asleep. They’ve been good friends ever since, and when the chief position came up in Wheeler, Chester applied and got it.
I had no proof anything was wrong, although Chester knew me well enough to trust my instincts and would believe me. But David’s cabin was out of his jurisdiction. Perhaps David had unexpectedly been called back to Dallas and in his haste forgot to call me. About ten-thirty I called his office, casually asking if he was in. No, they hadn’t heard from him all morning and had in fact called but gotten no answer. Maybe he’d forgotten to charge his cell phone, but I didn’t believe that either.
So I plated lunches trying to get a jump on the lunch rush at the Blue Plate Café, vowing silently that when lunch was over I’d drive to the cabin. Marj came into the kitchen, interrupting my worried thoughts. She was almost breathless with excitement. “Kate, Mrs. Aldridge is asking for you. She’s here, in the café. Sittin’ at a table like she comes in every day. But she particularly wants you.”
I turned from the salad I was plating, thinking murderous thoughts about whoever this Mrs. Aldridge was. “And who is she?”
Marj scoffed. “Everybody is this county and the next knows about her. She lives up toward Canton, in a big mansion—they say she killed her husband, oh, years ago. But she doesn’t ever come out of the house, so you best hurry and find out why she’s here today.”
I had no idea why her visit was urgent if she’d been holed up in that house for all those years, but I made a deliberate effort not to snap and take my worries out on Marj. Instead, I gave her the salad plate to finish and deliver, dusted my hands, and went into the main room of the café, still wearing my apron. Of course, there was no way I could miss the woman Marj was talking about. She wore a charcoal gray flannel pants suit, slightly warm for this now-sunny April day in East Texas, with an ecru lace jabot at her neck (I prided myself on even dredging that term up from memory.) The entire outfit was stylish—or would have been twenty-five years ago. I was suddenly more aware of my apron, clean though it was, and my fly-away hair.
She rose as I approached and held out a hand. “I’m Edith Aldridge, and I appreciate you taking time to talk to me.”
“Of course. I’m Kate Chambers, Johnny’s granddaughter. Perhaps you knew her? She ran the café for well over thirty years before her death.” I gritted my teeth and remembered Gram’s lessons about manners and making customers feel welcome. A tiny part of me was still watching for David to come through those doors, but he didn’t.
Sitting back down in one of the mismatched wooden chairs, Mrs. Aldridge said, “No. I can’t say I’ve ever been here.” She looked slowly around, taking in the battered tables and chairs, the pine paneled walls, the chalkboard menu with chicken fried chicken prominently displayed as “Today’s Choice.” She looked out of place in the café, and I didn’t wonder that she’d never been there. She was probably used to dining in upscale restaurants in New York, or at least Dallas. At least before she became a recluse.
“I’d be proud to serve you lunch. The chicken fried chicken is a bit heavy but I recommend the tuna or chicken salad plate.”
“Oh, no. No, thank you, dear. I just want to talk. If you’d sit and listen, I’d be grateful.” There was none of the imperious tone I’d expected, between her appearance and Marj’s obvious awe of the woman.
But I wasn’t in a mood to sit and listen to a long story. Worry made me jittery, and I almost jumped every time the door opened. “It’s soon lunch time. I’ll be glad to listen until I’m needed. I have to be sure my customers are well taken care of. May I get you coffee or iced tea?” Funny how manners can gloss over the surface of worry.
“Iced tea would be lovely.”
I got it, brought myself a glass of water, and joined her.
Her first words were, “Someone’s trying to kill me, and I need help.”
Oh, wow! I so do not need this kind of thing today. “Someone’s trying to kill you?” In spite of myself I was curious. Who would try to kill this elegant, pleasant lady?
“It’s a long story, but they get the house when I die…and I believe they expect to find a hidden fortune. Of course, they won’t. But I couldn’t convince them if I tried.”
“Who are they?”
“My late husband’s children. Three of them.”
“I’m sorry for your loss.” It was almost an automatic condolence.
“No need. He died thirty-three years ago, right in that very house. I was accused of murder but acquitted. Something about circumstantial evidence.”
I nearly spit my water across the table at her. “Did you kill your husband?” Nothing like being blunt, Kate.
No outward indignation that I’d even thought it necessary to ask. “Of course not, but the idea occasionally surfaces and feeds the children’s paranoia. Not that they’re children any more, all in their fifties or damn close. Walter provided for them comfortably, but I think they’ve run out of money. And they rehash the whole thing with each other. The more they talk about it, the angrier they become.”
Somewhere in there was a story I needed to hear in more detail…but not from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and not now. Yet I couldn’t resist asking, “How do you know they’re trying to kill you?”
She stared into space, hands calmly resting on the table, no sign of agitation, while I fidgeted and twisted my hands in my lap. “I’ve been watchful for thirty years. After I was acquitted, the judge ruled I could stay in the house until I died. Then it would revert to Walter’s children.” She paused a minute, gently twisting the ring on her left hand and thereby calling my attention to the largest diamond I’d ever seen, circled by small emeralds. “I’ve been watchful ever since.”
“I’ve installed hard-wired smoke alarms, panic buttons throughout the house. I wear a medical alert button”—she waved at a utilitarian wristband with some kind of non-clock face—“and I only eat what I myself or my trusted cook prepares for me. My lawyer is on record as knowing the facts, so I’ve thought I was safe. But last night, I found a trip-wire in the middle of the main staircase. If I hadn’t had a flashlight and spotted it, I’d have caught my ankle and cascaded down the stairs to the terrazzo floor. Undoubtedly, I would have broken my neck. I’m sure that was the hoped-for result.”
“Did you call the police?” Seemed obvious to me.
“So they’d dismiss me as a foolish old woman? No, I did not. As I said, I don’t want those vultures to know I’m on to them. There’s one more thing. Also last night someone broke into the safe in the den…my late husband’s office. They spread papers all around but I’m quite sure they didn’t find what they wanted—a treasure map. I have no idea how they bypassed the security alarm, but I’ve made arrangements today to have it upgraded, the codes changed and all that. It doesn’t rely on the telephone but has a separate communication system.”
And probably cost a fortune. I was impressed by how business-like she was.
Marj popped over to the table, curiosity written all over her face, an order pad in her hand. “You ladies doin’ all right? Can I get you something?”
I gave her my most subtle threatening look and murmured, “Everything’s fine, Marj. Thanks for asking.”
When she was gone, Edith Aldridge said, “No doubt she’s curious. Most people still believe I killed Walter. Believe me, I did many times but only in my mind. I would ask that you keep our conversation confidential. My life could depend on it. It’s not a very exciting life these days, but I’m not ready to lose it.”
“Mrs. Aldridge, why are you telling me this story?” The low hum of conversation filled the café, and as people came by they gave me one-armed hugs or patted my shoulder and asked, “How’re you doin’, Kate?” And then most of them stared with frank curiosity at my guest. I had to get to work running the cash register and after that, I was going hunting for David Clinkscales. I could hardly sit quiet as I listened to my strange guest with her bizarre story.
“I want you to find out who really killed Walter. Then I hope I can live in peace, without threats.”
Astounded. There’s no other word for it. Flat out astounded. “Mrs. Aldridge, I own a café. I cook for a living. I am not by any stretch of the imagination a detective. If you wish to keep this quiet, speak to your lawyer about a private investigator. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a business to run.” And a lover to find.
She rose immediately and extended her head. “Of course, Kate. It’s been thoughtless of me to keep you so long. You’ll come see me when you get curious enough. Here’s my private phone.” She handed me a business card and was gone before I could react.
I pocketed the card and turned toward the cash register. The next hour and a half went by with mind-numbing slowness. Only it didn’t numb my mind. Only half of me was present, smiling at people and saying I hoped they’d enjoyed their lunch. I short-changed one man—he was nice about it—and charged a woman who’d had a salad plate for chicken-fried steak.
Marj finally came up behind me. “Kate, you okay? Need me to take over? Counter’s slow, and I can do it.”
I was slipping out of my apron as I answered. “I do, Marj. I really do. I have someplace to go. I’ll be back in time for dinner. Can you wait for me?”
She nodded, and I slipped out through the kitchen. As I passed through, Gus, the wizened old dishwasher, said, “Miss Kate, that dog of yours is sure upset about something.”
Huggles, my huge, loveable doodle dog, was indeed running up and down the fence line, barking furiously, more upset than I’d ever seen him. When I slipped through the side gate, he did not run for loving. Instead, he barked at me, his tone indicating that he had something really important to tell me. But I didn’t speak Huggles’ language.