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Authors: Ed Lynskey

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Chapter 7

 

The
courtyard of townhouses sat where the old McDougall beef cattle farm had once thrived.
The townhouses showed wood exteriors painted with the bright colors of shamrock
green, jonquil yellow, and mimosa pink. Isabel preferred the stately brick
façade of their rambler on Church Street, but Alma liked seeing the fresh exterior
paint the townhouse owners applied every other spring. The late Ladybug Miles had
resided in the yellow end unit.

Since the
news of Ladybug’s death, Phyllis had suspended carrying on her bag lady routine.
If the townies expected her to dust off their mailboxes and silly stuff like
that, she had a surprise in store for them. Her best friend’s murder had sapped
her good humor. Her all centered on seeing that Ladybug’s killer got his or her
just deserts. Little else mattered to Phyllis.

Ladybug
had spiffed up her miniscule yard with a few nice touches. The avocado green sundial
stood near the concrete walkway, and a black deacon’s bench sat perpendicular
to the front porch. The deacon’s bench seemed out of place with her “No
Loitering” sign staked in the ground near the bottom porch step.

Isabel
admired the complementary colors of the bronze, yellow, and crimson chrysanthemum
blooms. Since girlhood, she’d liked the herbaceous odor given off by the flowers
that didn’t make her sneeze as it did some folks. The chrysanthemums reminded
her of how they hadn’t done their annual clean up, held anywhere between May
and October, at the Trumbo family cemetery plot. They raked up the fallen leaves,
planted grass seed, and scrubbed off the granite tombstones. The row of statuesque
red cedars shaded Woodrow and Gwendolyn’s tombstones. The cemetery, only a five-minute
drive from town, lay close enough to sharpen Isabel’s guilt. Doing the ritual made
her feel closer to her dead family, and she’d see to it in due course.

The empty
places left in the plot were for Alma and Louise’s interment while Isabel’s final
resting place lay between her husband Max and her son Cecil’s graves. Max had led
a long and happy life, while Cecil, pals with Joe Camel, had died much too
early. Cecil had tried to quit smoking several times, but breaking a nicotine
addiction isn’t an easy thing to do.

Sammi Jo guided
their procession over the concrete walkway to Ladybug’s front porch. Isabel and
Alma took spots sitting on the deacon’s bench as if they were resting for a
spell. Phyllis rapped her knuckles on the townhouse door. They waited and got
no response. Her follow-up knocks also went unheeded.

“Shall I use
my voodoo magic on the door lock?” asked Sammi Jo.

“By all
means, please do,” replied Isabel.

“Just
make it fast voodoo magic,” said Alma. “Somebody is going to see us doing this and
get suspicious enough to ask questions.”

Sammi Jo
stooped over and fiddled at the brass lock, using a few intricate steel tools
designed to trip its tumblers. Since her lock picking was less than legal, the
ladies decided to pretend they had dropped by, and Ladybug was slow in answering
their repeated knocks. They also pretended they hadn’t yet heard of her death.
Isabel and Alma had been too busy playing Scrabble, Sammi Jo working at the
self-storage rental facility, and Phyllis playing the town bag lady. It wasn’t
the best cover story, but it would have to suffice. Sammi Jo continued to work
on the lock while Phyllis rapped on the door and partially shielded her from
view.

Alma
, sounding tense, murmured under her breath. “What is
taking you so long, Sammi Jo?” Alma hopped up, spun the sign around to hide its
“No Soliciting” message, and plopped back down with Isabel on the deacon’s
bench.

“That’s
much better,” she said to Isabel.

Sammi Jo continued
probing with the steel tools, her eyes squinting and her tongue sticking out as
she concentrated on her task.

“Alma, take a breath and relax,” said Isabel. “Sammi Jo is doing her lock-picking best.”

“If
Phyllis keeps rapping on Ladybug’s door, her neighbors will think she has a
crazed woodpecker attacking her townhouse,” said Alma.

“I know woodpeckers
can be mighty persistent birds,” said Isabel.

“I’m not
an experienced pro.” The metallic scratches to Sammi Jo’s struggle with the
lock mechanism intensified. “Using the right key makes this operation go a lot simpler
and faster,” she said.

“Our
doing this was Sheriff Fox’s bright idea,” said Isabel. “If we get nabbed by one
of his deputies, he’ll have to fess up, our secret agreement with him be hanged.”

“Even
after I heard it straight from the horse’s mouth, I still don’t trust him any
further than I can throw him,” said Sammi Jo.

“That goes
double for me,” said Alma.

“Let’s
put aside our differences and give him a fair chance,” said Isabel. “We agreed
to do whatever good we can, so we’re on the hook for it.”

“The
lock pick kit he lent me is a certified dud,” said Sammi Jo. “He claimed he
confiscated it from a cat burglar they arrested.”

“Perhaps
the cat burglar wasn’t an experienced one,” said Alma.

“You
mean the cat burglar was apprenticed to a professional thief,” said Isabel.

“Why
not?” replied Alma. “Everybody has to start somewhere.”

 “That
does it for me, and I give up.” Sammi Jo stepped back from the door and
repocketed the lock pick kit. “I’ll tell Sheriff Fox to look a little harder to
find wherever he misplaced Ladybug’s door key.”

“A downstairs
window might be unlatched or raised,” said Alma. “Stroll around the townhouse and
test out each reachable window.”

Alma’s exuberance tickled Isabel. “How might that work? You or I will wriggle like a salamander
through the small space. That makes for great slapstick comedy even if we did it
without breaking anything vital.”

“Did I
say we should be the ones to do it?” asked Alma. “Sammi Jo is an athletic young
lady who is capable of wriggling through a raised window.”

Sammi Jo
wasn’t okay with Alma nominating her. “Doors are faster to enter homes than
windows are. I suggest we put off our searching Ladybug’s townhouse until later
after we get the door key.” Sammi Jo wondered if she’d forgotten or skipped a
step in her lock picking attempt. “Is there something else constructive we can be
doing?”

“I’ve
got an idea if you want to hear it,” said Phyllis.

“Everybody’s
ideas are welcome,” said Isabel. She glanced at Alma. “Especially since the
last idea I heard was so far-fetched. Imagine the Trumbo sisters wriggling like
a salamander through a raised window.”

Alma didn’t say anything snarky. One time she had no door key to their locked brick
rambler, and she’d squirmed her way through the opened bathroom window to gain
access. It wasn’t her most graceful entrance. She’d sustained a few bruises in tumbling
into the bathtub, but her idea worked.

“We
should go learn what Rosie and Lotus know,” said Phyllis. “They would’ve heard any
rumors on Ladybug’s death that have circulated around town.”

“Very
little gets by them,” said Sammi Jo.

 “They are
just who we need to see next,” said Isabel.

Isabel and
Alma arose from the deacon’s bench and headed for the parked sedan in the lot.

“It’s on
to the launderette,” Sammi Jo told Phyllis. “I should have brought my duffel
bag of dirty clothes.”

“Me,
too,” said Phyllis. “My favorite bag lady clothes are in the hamper. I may
never get around to washing them again.”

 

***

 

Clean
Vito’s was unlike any other small town’s self-service launderette. The owner Vito
Salvador didn’t tolerate dingy or drab surroundings, and he adhered to the
philosophy that a laundry outing should be a special event. Who dreamed that
doing their baskets of wash could be a pleasurable experience? His launderette
took on the pretensions of an ancient Roman temple. Its most garish architectural
feature was the gleaming white pair of Corinthian columns flanking the entrance
the four lady sleuths used.

They
heard pop singer Norah Jones croon a Hank Williams, Sr. oldie but goodie over
the in-ceiling speakers. The laundry scents filled Sammi Jo’s nose. The clean detergent
smell conjured up her imagery of wet percale sheets pinned to the washline to dry
on a breezy, sunny June afternoon.

The lady
sleuths nodded back to the patrons, but they failed to locate Rosie and Lotus. The
pair of molded plastic chairs in the break room where they sat was empty. Vito
had taped a “RESERVED” sign to the back of each chair. They accosted the thirsty
or hungry patrons schlepping into the break room to buy a soda or snack.

Sammi Jo
preferred to remain thirsty or hungry when she did her weekly laundry rather
than run the risk of Rosie and Lotus detaining her in the break room. They
could talk Sammi Jo’s ears off, so she brought a book to read while she waited.
She knew Lotus was headstrong, and she could be very opinionated at times.

Why Vito tolerated
them puzzled Sammi Jo, but he didn’t seem to mind, and his patrons had grown to
regard Rosie and Lotus as a part of the launderette’s milieu. If a patron wished
to use Clean Vito’s, they could expect to bump into Rosie and Lotus hanging out
there except today they weren’t around, so Alma made inquiries.

“Haven’t
you gals heard the big news?” Vito talked around the unlit cigar poking from his
mouth. “Rosie slipped on a soap bar in her bathtub, upset the apple cart, and
broke her shinbone in two places.”

The slim,
short man with the swarthy Mediterranean features was on his knees while he took
the sodas from a carrying tray to replenish the low stock in the soft drink machine
with its front face swung open.

“That’s
awful,” said Isabel.

“I hope Rosie
is doing okay,” said Alma.

Vito
shrugged under his ginger brown sweater. “She is doing as well as can be expected
from somebody with their leg in a cast. Why are you after them if I may ask?”

“We just
want to chat with them,” replied Alma.

Vito
smiled. “Their chatting makes my patrons happy, and happy patrons are also great
repeat business patrons.”

However,
you’re also still the only game in town,
thought Alma but she asked, “Where
might we find your two mascots who are missing in action today?”

“You
might try your luck at Rosie’s house,” replied Vito. “She was decked out on her
sofa as of the last hour when she phoned me for an update on the latest news
here.”

“That
sounds like the old Rosie we know so well,” said Alma. “She must not be too
incapacitated by her injury.”

“She’ll be
returning to Clean Vito’s soon,” said Phyllis.

“I’d be
willing to stake my new launderette on it,” said Vito. “Nothing as piddly as a
broken shinbone will keep Rosie down for the long count.”

“We’ll drop
in and wish her a speedy recovery,” said Isabel.

“Sure, just
don’t break a leg while you’re doing it,” said Vito, grinning over his joke.
“Sodas, ladies?” he asked when he didn’t get any smiles from them. “It’s my
treat. I can offer you a diet cola, ginger ale, and root beer in the can.
What’s your favorite?”

“You got
any cold ginger ale?” asked Alma.

“Not yet
but give the new cans an hour, and they’ll be plenty cold to drink,” replied
Vito.

“We’ll
be certain to check back then,” said Alma. “Thanks, too.”

“It’s never
a problem,” said Vito smiling. “I’m always honored to do our own private eyes a
service. Who knows? Someday I also may have a need to call on you for a favor
in return.”

Alma didn’t bring up Ladybug’s death or ask Vito if he’d heard anything interesting about
it. He’d be receiving the tragic news soon enough. In addition, they didn’t
have the time to answer a bunch of questions so he could then turn around and ring
up Rosie and spill the beans prior to their arrival.

The lady
sleuths left the smiling Vito, proud as a Roman emperor, to lord over his empire
of humming washers and tumbling dryers. Norah Jones was now crooning a vintage Hoagy
Carmichael song on the in-ceiling speakers when they climbed back into the
sedan and scooted off down Main Street.

Chapter 8

 

Phyllis Garner
and Ladybug Miles had last gotten together for an early lunch to beat the
hordes crowding Eddy’s Deli, a favorite local eatery with expansive windows letting
in lots of sunlight, perhaps a week earlier. The exact day was lost to memory
since Phyllis found it tedious to keep track of the days. She lived with no set
schedule, so why did she bother with keeping a calendar or watching a clock?

She did recall
she had ordered Eddy’s BLT. It came with extra crispy bacon and mayonnaise on
toasted rye bread, the yummiest lunch menu item besides Eddy’s chili con carne with
grated cheddar cheese. The old-fashioned root beer was her beverage of choice. She’d
toned down her bag lady get up for the luncheon. After their meals came, the
ladies had some serious catching up to do, and the agitated Ladybug started out.

“This economic
depression the news media goes on about has gotten me down in the dumps,” she
said.

Phyllis tried
to reassure her friend. “Things have bottomed out and will turn around and get
better. You just wait and see if I’m not right about it.”

“I have
never trusted the banks, and if they fail, our money will be gone forever, and
that pill is too bitter to swallow at my ripe old age.”

“The
federal government insures our bank deposits. All the personal financial
experts advise us not to panic and to hang tough.”

“I’d
like to believe it is true, but Uncle Sam isn’t doing so great financially.” Ladybug
also related her tragic news. “Did I tell you my ex died?”

Phyllis looked
at Ladybug who reminded Phyllis of the Mona Lisa except with pin curls and a
thinner face. “Which ex was that?” asked Phyllis. “Was he Number One, Two, or
Three?”

“Curt Miles
was Number Three. He was my last ex before I wised up and decided to give the
institution of matrimony the final boot.”

“Good
for you. Did Curt and you remain friendly after your divorce?”

“Curt and
I stayed on the best terms I kept with any of my exes. Refresh my memory. Did
you ever meet him?

“I never
had the pleasure. He came during your Chicago period, and I sadly didn’t make
it out to the Windy City to visit you, my loss it would now seem.”

“You
didn’t have much of a chance to visit us. Curt and I barely got past our one-year
anniversary before we broke up. You may have heard of the couples who get their
quickie Las Vegas divorces. Well, that’s how we handled ours, too.”

“I
assume there wasn’t another lady in the picture if you both stayed in touch,”
said Phyllis, pondering why Ladybug would still have feelings for him. Didn’t a
couple getting a divorce mean severing their emotional ties?

  “To my
knowledge, he was a faithful partner until the end.”

“What
happened to make your marriage end so quickly?”

“Oh, I
don’t know. I suppose we grew bored with each other’s company. On the other
hand, maybe I was growing too homesick for Quiet Anchorage since Curt said he never
wanted to live anywhere but in his native Chicago. Are you wondering how Curt
died?”

“I’m
curious but not enough to ask you it if it’s too painful to say.”

“Curt was
a jumper.” Ladybug gave Phyllis a look as bleak as ten miles of bad road. “Isn’t
that a horrid way to choose to die?”

Phyllis
nodded. “Did Curt jump off a skyscraper or a bridge?”

“He
picked the latter, and he did it in grandiose style. He bought a one-way
airline ticket to San Francisco.”

“Ah
right, now I’m with you. The iconic Golden Gate Bridge is like a suicide magnet
drawing the jumpers,” said Phyllis, shaking her head. “That’s very tragic to
hear. You have my sympathy, for what it’s worth.”

Ladybug
nodded. “It means a lot to me. The authorities have put up free suicide phones
on the south and north approaches of the bridge.” She teared up and used her index
finger to swipe away the first drops welling up in her eye corners. “Curt must
not have felt led to use the phone to call anybody.”

“Most folks
now probably use their cell phones,” said Phyllis, finding a new tissue in her
pocketbook to give Ladybug.

“Thanks,”
said Ladybug, accepting the tissue. She wiped her eyes dry with it.

“How did
you find out about his suicide?”

“Curt
told me during our last phone conversation he was headed on a trip to San Francisco, and he’d call me from there. When he never did, I got worried and contacted
the police who after some earnest convincing on my part checked up on him and then
gave me the bad news.”

“Did
Curt tell you why he was going to San Francisco?”

“He
liked to travel but only as a tourist in the Lower Forty-Eight because his home
was always in Chicago.”

“How did
you stay in touch with him?”

“Every
once in a while, he’d phone me. We made each other laugh even if it was long
distance. I can only suppose the last time he was on the bridge the good humor
was all gone from him.”

“If he
was that determined, nobody could have stopped him or talked him out of it. Did
he leave a last note offering any explanation? Many of the suicide victims do
that.”

“Then I
guess Curt bucked the trend because all the police found in his hotel room were
his two packed suitcases.”

“I’m
sorry for your grief. Is there anything I can do for you, Ladybug?”

“Thanks
but I’ll be all right now that I’ve had the chance to talk about it. Sorry I
dumped on lucky you like this. I invited you to our luncheon that was supposed
to be a fun get-together, and I’ve gone and ruined it. I should have kept quiet
about the stupid thing Curt did.”

“Oh, for
crying out loud, stop it. I’m glad you confided in me. How long have you been upset
like this?”

“Just for
a couple of days, and I know I’ll snap out of it sooner than later.”

“I don’t
mind lending you a sympathetic ear. That’s what best friends do for each other.
What are you doing to keep yourself occupied since we last talked?”

Ladybug
smiled for the first time since they’d sat down at the window booth. “I’ve gone
on the local circuit of craft fairs, but the craftspeople all seem to sell the
same type of merchandise.”

“Yeah, I
run across a lot of the same craftsy stuff that has been tossed out as
rubbish,” said Phyllis as the bag lady. “Much of it I turn my nose up at taking
since who needs the duplicates.”

“The
October days are also magnificent for walking, and I’ve worn out the soles on two
pairs of shoes doing it. My jaunts are getting longer each time I go out. I
like to walk over the paths running beside the Coronet River.”

“I also do
a fair amount of walking in making my rounds.” Phyllis laughed a little. “We
should team up and do something monumental like walk from the east coast to the
west coast. We’ll make it a fundraiser to benefit our favorite charities where
our sponsors will make pledges.”

“Your
idea is wonderful, and I love it, but my new rule is to steer away from anything
to do with the west coast, especially if it’s in San Francisco.”

“I can see
why you feel like that, and it was only a suggestion. We can end our walk
anywhere you like.”

“That sounds
great and I’ll keep it in mind. There is one aspect about Curt’s death that distresses
me.” Ladybug paused as if she was considering it.

“What else
is bothering you, hon?”

“It is probably
no big deal, but the San Francisco authorities never recovered Curt’s body from
the bay.”

“Then how
do the police even know he made the jump?”

“No
motorists or pedestrians were using the bridge at the time. Even the
ironworkers doing their constant bridge maintenance hadn’t arrived. Only a
dentist named Hallsworth was out for his daily jog. He passed by Curt going the
other way on the bridge’s walkway. Hallsworth was able to identify Curt from
his driver’s license photo on file.”

“Why
didn’t Hallsworth intervene and stop Curt?”

“It all happened
so fast Hallsworth said he didn’t have the time to react. He didn’t actually
see Curt but heard him scream ‘Geronimo!’ At least he kept a little sense of
humor until the end. Anyway, Hallsworth rushed back to the bridge railing,
looked down at the bay, and saw nothing unusual bobbing on the water’s surface.
He called 911 from his cell phone and reported it to the police.”

“What
came of it?”

“What
you’d probably expect. The police filed the report of the Golden Gate Bridge claiming its next suicide victim. I’m sure it’s a drill they’ve done all too many times,
and he became the latest statistic.”

“It’s just
a tragedy,” said Phyllis. “Could this Hallsworth be a crank making up what he saw
happen on the bridge to get some attention?”

“He is a
credible eyewitness the police official told me over the phone, and I believed
her.”

Phyllis
keyed on an item. “Why did Curt pack the two suitcases he left in his room?”

“There
is nothing weird about that. He was always the neat and meticulous Felix Unger
type.”

Phyllis
knew Felix Unger was the character in the TV sitcom
The Odd Couple
she’d
watched during the early 1970s.

Ladybug sent
her blank gaze out the window into the sunny street. “I was probably the only
person left in the world who cared the slightest bit about Curt, but I don’t
feel enough concern to take the trip out to Frisco and check into the
circumstances surrounding his death.”

Phyllis
decided not to remind Ladybug that Isabel and Alma were sleuths since neither
lady liked to take long trips. Phyllis wasn’t crazy about flying either. “You
might feel better if you went anyway and got some closure out of it,” said Phyllis

“I might
find a little peace of mind,” said Ladybug “But it’s less trouble to wait here and
get through my shock. Given a little time, it will run its course, and I’ll be
back to my old chipper self.”

I certainly
do hope so for your sake, Ladybug
, thought Phyllis. She smiled with a nod at
her friend.

“I guess
I’m that hungry, after all,” said Ladybug staring her largely untouched lunch.

Phyllis
nudged her dish away from her. “Me, either,” she lied. “I ate a late
breakfast.”

“Unless
you want to order dessert, I’ll grab the check this time,” said Ladybug.

“I’m all
done,” said Phyllis. “Are you sure about paying for us?”

“Don’t
worry about it,” said Ladybug with a hollow laugh. “Believe me when I say I can
afford it.”

“Okay,
but only if you insist on it,” said Phyllis. “Thanks.”

BOOK: Ed Lynskey - Isabel and Alma Trumbo 03 - The Ladybug Song
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