Nightmare in Shining Armor (10 page)

BOOK: Nightmare in Shining Armor
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“That much I can tell you. It's not real armor.”

“You're sure?”

Greg cleared his throat. “Abby, please. Let Barb do her job.”

I swallowed my irritation. It was every bit as tasty as Bubba's cooking.

“By all means. Interrogate away.”

Investigator Sharp gave her head a triumphant toss. Her natural blond mane grazed my fiancé's cheek, but I could tell by his expression that he didn't mind at all.

“Well,
Mrs.
Timberlake,” she said pointedly, “you stated that you paid a visit to Mrs. Gavin Saunders to view her armor collection. Did you think it authentic?”

“I never got to see any. She had an appointment so I had to leave.”

“Through the kitchen?”

“Okay, I admit it. That was bad judgment on my part. You see, I got kind of mesmerized by all this silver in the dining room—which I didn't touch, by the way—and then I heard someone coming and I didn't want it to look like I was snooping, so I took the easy way out. But I
didn't
kill anybody. In fact, I don't even know how the widow died.”

“Evidently she was poisoned.”

“By what?”

“I was hoping you'd tell me. Did the two of you have anything to eat or drink?”

I shook my head. “It would have been lovely to have tea in that salon though. You should have seen it.”

“Abby,” Greg said gently, “there's no need for sarcasm.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Look, I don't know why you suspect me. I wouldn't have had the slightest motive. I'd never met the woman before this morning.”

Before Barbie could bombard me with her reasons, our waitress appeared. I smiled at her gratefully.

“Hey there.”

“Hey, I'm Gina and I'll be your waitress today. The buffet is $4.99 per person. Of course you could order off the menu.” She leaned forward and spoke softly. “But I don't advise it.”

“Why is that? They too busy back in the kitchen?”

Gina stepped even closer. “You have a better chance of escaping food poisoning if you eat from the buffet. It's already been tested, if you know what I mean.”

The three of us nodded. We all ordered the buffet.

Gina removed a stub of a pencil from behind her ear. “Will this be one check?”

“Certainly,” I said. “My parents here will be glad to spring for me.”

“Abb—” Greg started to chide me but stopped. Something outside our booth had caught his attention.

I
turned and stared. Had I not had a vision check within the last six months, I wouldn't have believed my peepers.

“It's Lynne Meredith,” I gasped, “and her stud muffin!”

Greg took a sip of his green tea, his eyes not leaving the new arrivals. “Funny, but I wouldn't have thought this sort of place would appeal to her.”

“It's probably a big mistake,” I said. “Maybe they were just driving by and were suddenly so overcome by hunger they couldn't drive another mile.”

Barbie reached into a blue suede handbag and took out her stenographer's pad. “Lynne Meredith? Yes, I see here that she was one of the guests at your party, Mrs. Timberlake. I had it on my list to interview her today.”

“Now is your chance, then.”

I got up and walked over to the buffet. On my way I swung past Meredith's table and gave her a meaningful glare. She had the audacity to smile
sweetly back at me. Roderick, her tennis instructor, cum boyfriend, actually winked.

When I returned to the table with my plate loaded with a pinch of everything Bubba had to offer, my two lunch companions were already digging in. Barbie, her mouth bulging with Beijing barbecue, mumbled something about the interview waiting until dessert. I readily agreed.

I was building a dike with my moo goo gai grits to keep the sweet and sour collards away from my Jell-O, when Gina made a surprise appearance. In her hands she held a platter of sizzling delicacies I hadn't seen in the buffet.

“It's for you,” she said and plopped it in front of me.

“I didn't order anything. Only the buffet.”

Gina, a tall angular girl with a myriad of freckles, jerked her thumb in Lynne Meredith's direction. “She sent it.”

“Whatever for?”

Gina shrugged. “Wouldn't say.”

I studied the platter. “What is it?”

“Bubba's special poop-poop platter.”

“You mean pu-pu?”

“That's not what Bubba calls it.”

“Well, please tell the lady thank you.”

“Tell her yourself.” Gina trotted off to take more orders. Apparently she wasn't big on tips.

 

I sampled the poop-poop platter, decided it was aptly named, and then did as my waitress in
structed. Lynne Meredith's face lit up like a jack-o'-lantern with two candles when she saw me approach.

“Hello Abby,” she said warmly. “Have a seat.”

Roderick patted the bench beside him.

“No thanks. I just wanted to thank you for the platter.”

“You're welcome.” Lynne had a smile like Doris Day's. In fact, she looked very much like a fifty-something Doris Day, except that Lynne lacked a waist.

A good Southern girl, I was raised with a modicum of manners and wondered how to segue into the question I wanted to ask. Fortunately, Lynne did it for me.

“I suppose you're wondering,” she said, “why I sent you the platter.”

“As a matter of fact, I was.”

“Are you sure you can't join us?”

Roderick patted the bench again.

I reluctantly sat.

Lynne blessed me with an ear to ear smile. “You see, dear, I'm really quite ashamed of the way I behaved last night.”

“You mean fanning the fire with your tail?”

“That, too. Although that was an accident. My intentions were good. No, I'm talking about the way I acted when you so understandably threw us out. I'm afraid I was very rude.”

I said nothing. My tongue is even nastier than Bubba's cooking.

“I'm especially ashamed,” Lynne said, “about
that Sherman comment. Roderick here really called me on that on.”

I gave Roderick a tight smile. He is an extremely good-looking young man, better looking even than Caleb, the Widow Saunders's boy toy. Money may not be able to buy happiness, but it can buy handsomeness.

“My great-great grandfather fought in the Civil War,” Roderick said. He didn't say which side, but that much was obvious. Around here “civil war” refers to Bosnia.

“Three of my great-granddaddies fought in the War of Northern Aggression,” I said.

Lynne looked like she was about to burst into song. “How fascinating! So anyway, Abby, I also wanted you to know that I didn't mean what I said about taking my business elsewhere.”

It was my turn to sing. “You didn't?”

She shook her head, and her golden pageboy locks swayed. Not a single hair broke ranks.

“Abby, I adore doing business with you. And you have such good taste.”

“Flattery will get you everywhere,” I said. I was being sincere.

“No, I mean it. I've been to all the other shops in town, and they might have some exquisite things, but you have an eye for placement. Why, just look at your home, it's like a magazine spread. Did you decorate it yourself?”

“Well, I—hey!” The fingertips on Roderick's left hand had somehow managed to find their way under my right cheek.

“Excuse me?”

“Oh, I was just about to say that I did some of the decorating.” As I spoke I slid my fork off the table and stabbed at the space beside me several times. One of fork thrusts was a direct hit, and Roderick groaned before removed the offending digits. “I'd like to say that I did it all, of course, but that wouldn't be giving credit where credit is due.”

“Oh, who helped you?”

“Superior Interiors. They're all the way out in Matthews, but they're the best. Ask for Paul.”

She nodded, but the glazed look in her eyes told me she didn't give a hoot. “Abby, I still don't know many people down here, but I feel like you and I are almost friends. That's why I hope you don't mind if I confide something intensely personal.”

I squirmed. I was glad to be back in business with the woman again, but I'd rather eat Bubba's poop-poop platter than be privy to some intimate confession. Having the boy toy with the roaming hands beside me made it seem almost sordid.

“Hey,” I said brightly, “you know I'd really like to stay and chat, but my friends will think I'm being rude.”

I started to get up.

“It's about Tweetie.”

I sat down again, but closer to the aisle. “What about her?”

Lynne and Roderick exchanged glances. He cleared his throat.

“I'm a tennis instructor,” he said.

“I know that. That's how you and Lynne met.”

“Yes, up in Ohio. But shortly after we moved here I got a job at Rivertown Hills Country Club.”

“I see.” I didn't, of course.

Roderick was undoubtedly used to small minds, because he read mine easily. “I know, you're probably wondering why a man in my position would want to work for a living.”

“You said it, dear.”

He smiled ruefully. “Lynne is very generous, but I have my pride. I like to pay my way—at least some of the time. And”—he winked again—“it keeps me buff.”

“Roderick has gorgeous abs,” Lynne purred. “You should feel them.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“No, go ahead,” Roderick said, and turned on the bench so I could cop an easy feel.

I resisted the temptation to run my hands down what appeared to be a washboard stomach. Greg's body is quite enough for me. Never mind that his abs are—well, at least they're not flabby. Still, to be absolutely honest, there was a small part of me that envied these older women their boy toys. An incredibly small part. A much bigger part of me was happy for them, and for women in general. I don't think the need to have a boy toy was an emotionally healthy place to be, but it was nice to see that after thousands of years of men having trophy wives, women were finally getting a chance to make fools out of themselves.

“So Tweetie took lessons from you?” I asked calmly.

“Yeah. In a manner of speaking. She isn't—or should I say, wasn't—cut out for sports.”

“Too much bouncing?”

“Yeah, and there was no room to swing.”

I nodded somberly. There would have been a time when I would have delighted in that conversation. But now I merely felt sorry for Tweetie. And for Buford.

“Anyway,” Lynne said, “this may be one of the nation's fastest-growing cities, but in many ways it is still a small town. I'm sure you'll be hearing rumors about Tweetie and Roderick. We want you to know right now that they're not true.”

I raised my right brow. “Oh? What kind of rumors.”

Lynne frowned, suddenly nothing at all like Doris Day. “Just rumor.”

“About an affair,” Roderick said. He laughed. “I never touched her. As you can tell, she wasn't my type.”

Lynne's frown produced creases deep enough to plant cotton. “Just what is that supposed to mean?”

“It means it's time for me to skeedaddle,” I said breezily. “Que sera sera, and adios.”

 

Investigator Sharp seemed far more interested in chatting with Greg than interrogating me. Under more normal circumstances I might have been jealous—okay, so I was a tad jealous—but mostly I was just grateful to escape the third degree. About the same time I finished my meal Barb
announced she was going over to Meredith's table. Greg had to get back to the office anyway, so our little group disbanded.

Before we parted in the parking lot, Greg invited me over to his apartment for a seven o'clock supper. He also made me promise not to do any investigating into Tweetie's death. I made that promise with my eyes closed and crossed, and two sets of fingers crossed behind my back. I tried crossing my toes without first removing my shoes, but couldn't quite do it. I figured I was pretty much covered anyway. Then, as I still had Wynnell's car, and a burning question to ask her, I headed straight for her house.

The Crawfords live on Glenkirk Road, an attractive but settled area. The lots are wooded and the houses have character, as do some of the people. The Crawfords have named their house Falling-water Too, and while it is only vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright in design, the somewhat boxy structure straddles an honest-to-goodness stream.

I parked Wynnell's car on the street and hoofed across a noisy wooden bridge, half-expecting that at any moment a troll would pop out from underneath and demand payment. I have this Billy Goat Gruff fantasy every time I visit Wynnell, and it's half the fun. This time, however, I was focused on business. There were answers I needed from Wynnell. Answers that were a matter of life and death.

E
d Crawford answered the door on the first ring. He was once a tall man, but now is slightly stooped by late middle age and sports a small paunch. His hair is thinning and has just regressed to the point that the B word might be applied. Whatever shot he has at being handsome has been compromised by a scraggly, multicolored beard. This clump of facial hair might serve a useful purpose if Ed had no chin. But he does. At any rate, it was hard to imagine what a young, nubile thing like Tweetie would see in an older man like Ed, beard or no beard. After all, the Crawfords are neither wealthy nor powerful.

“Hey Abby,” Ed said. He seemed happy to see me. “Come on in.”

There is almost no chance Ed could seduce me, but just to be on the safe side, I declined. “Is Wynnell here?”

“No, she's at the shop.”

“On a
Sunday
?” The stream under the house was noisy, and for a second I thought I hadn't heard right. Wynnell is a hard worker, and reasonably
competitive, but she never goes to work on the Lord's Day. It's her Southern Baptist upbringing, I suppose.

He shrugged. “That was my reaction exactly. She said it was your fault.”


Mine?

Ed smiled. “Well, aren't you open on Sundays now? Wynnell said she has to keep up with the competition.”

I bit my tongue. Wynnell does only a fraction of the business I do. Even a month of Sundays wasn't going to make a difference.

“I'll see her at the shop,” I said and started to leave.

“Abby, wait! Please.”

I turned. “Look, I know about you and Tweetie. I'm sure the police know by now as well. But I didn't tell them.”

He blushed. “It's not that. It's about Wynnell.”

“What about her?”

“I love her. Can you help me make her understand that?”

“Hmm, let's see. You love your wife, so you cheat on her—”

“I told her I was sorry. I told her the affair with Tweetie was over.”

“Of course it's over! Tweetie is dead.”

Ed grimaced. “Yes, she's dead, but it was over before then. Tweetie dumped me Labor Day weekend. I came clean to Wynnell last week when she got back from the cleaners.”


What?
I understood your affair was a one-night stand.”

Ed hung his head. “I had to tell Wynnell that. It would really have broken her heart to hear the truth.”

“Just how long had the affair been going on?” I demanded.

Ed's scraggly beard mashed into his chest. “Six months. Give or take a week.”

I shook my head. “How terribly thoughtful of you, dear. You have an affair with a young blond bimbo—a faux blond at that—and you think you're sparing your wife by lying some more?”

He looked up. “What do you want me to do? Make a list of all the times?”

“Of course not!”

“Abby, I know you won't believe this, but I'm really sorry. Really,
really
sorry. Wynnell is the best thing that ever happened to me. I realize that now.”

“If you're so sorry, Ed, then why don't you show it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, for instance, why didn't you come with Wynnell to the party last night?”

“Because I knew Tweetie was going to be there.”

“Did Tweetie tell you that?” It was meant as a challenge. Ed's claim that it was over didn't mean squat if they were still in communication.

He blinked. “No, Wynnell told me. She said you told her.”

“Oh.” I could see now why Wynnell had been so
disappointed in Ed's refusal to come to my party. No doubt she'd wanted to rub Tweetie's face in the Crawfords' reconciliation, no matter how tenuous. Who could blame her?

“So, will you talk to Wynnell?”

“No.”

He blinked again. “Was that a no?”

“You better believe it. You two have to work this out yourselves.”

He took an anxious step forward, and I took a anxious step back. “But you won't poison her against me, will you?”

“Interesting choice of words. But no, I won't poison her against you. If she still wants you, that's her business.
If
, however, she asks what I would do in her situation—well, the answer is obvious, isn't it? I mean, Buford eventually came to his senses, too, and I didn't take him back.”

Ed's sigh of relief was downright pitiful. Even against the background of the babbling brook, it was loud.

“Tell me something,” I said. “What is it—I mean, what
was
it—you men saw in Tweetie. They weren't real, you know.”

He blushed a second time. Maybe there was hope.

“She made me feel good,” he said.

“That's disgusting.”

“No, that's not what I meant. She made me feel special.”

“Special? Special how?”

“Like I was the only man in the world.”

“And Wynnell doesn't make you feel this way?”

He shook his head. “She's always too busy. With the shop—with you. A man needs to feel special.”

I turned on a tiny heel and started to leave. Then my irritation got the better of me.

“Do you make her feel special?” I demanded.

“Well—uh, I don't know what to say.”

“It's not a million-dollar question, Ed. Do you, or do you not, say or do the things she needs to feel special?”

He said something unintelligible. The running water was starting to get on my nerves.

“Speak up, Ed. I can't hear you.”

“I said, it's not the same. I need her to make my meals. To bring me a beer now and then. And to be there when—well, you know. When I'm in the mood.”

“You're old enough to make your own damn meals, Ed. You can probably fetch your own beer, too. As for the other, well—it takes two to tango. Maybe you don't light her fire.”

He looked shocked.

Perhaps I'd been too rough. “Look, you said before that you really love her. Do you ever tell her that? Because that can go a long way to rekindle passion.”

“Of course I've told her that.”

“When was the last time?”

“Okay, so maybe it's been a while.”

“Tell her every day,” I said.

It was time to go.

 

Wooden Wonders lives up to its name. It's not that the merchandise is so spectacular that makes it remarkable, it's the fact that Wynnell has it stacked to dizzying heights. Chairs atop tables and armoires, small beds on large beds, writing desk on bureaus—just getting from one end of the store to the other is like traversing a maze. It's a wonder even Wynnell knows her way around.

I found my buddy on a stepladder trying to balance a magazine rack on top of a drop-leaf table, which was in turn precariously perched above a mahogany sideboard.

“Ashes, ashes, we all fall down,” I said.

“Very funny, Abby.” Wynnell made several critical adjustments to her teetering tower and descended. “If you're going to yell at me, do it softly. I have a splitting headache.”

“Hangover?”

“Worst I've ever had.”

I helped her fold the ladder and lean it against another, more stable, pile. “Why would I yell at you?”

“Because—well, there really is no reason.”

I wasn't born yesterday. I wasn't even born in this century.

“Don't give me that,” I said, my voice rising. “I want the whole truth and nothing but.”

“Okay, okay!” Wynnell had her hands clamped over her ears. “It's just that this Investigator Sharp woman wouldn't give up. Finally I had to tell her the truth.”


What
truth?”

Wynnell cringed. “Please, Abby. I'm not in the other room.”

Taking mercy on my friend I hissed softly. “Spit it out!”

Wynnell looked down at her feet. “I told her about Tweetie.”

I struggled with my vocal cords. “What about her?”

“I told her that you hated her.”

“But I didn't!”

“You used to. You stood right here in this shop and said, ‘I'm going to kill that woman.'”

“But that was
years
ago. Just after she took Buford away from me. Wait a minute—you didn't tell Barbie about that, did you?”

Wynnell nodded. “Abby, she was very persistent.”

I was shocked by Wynnell's betrayal. We've been through thick and thin together. There was only one excuse for this breach in friendship etiquette that made any sense.

“You sold me out to save your own skin, didn't you?”

Wynnell looked up, but she didn't have the nerve to look at me. “Abby, it looked really bad for me. I had a motive, and I was alone upstairs where the body was found. Plus, she asked me how I felt about Tweetie's death, and I couldn't lie. Not very well. I told her I was kind of—well, glad.”

“So you shifted the blame to me?”

“Abby,
please
understand.” Wynnell was pleading like my daughter Susan did when she “bor
rowed” my car to run off to West Virginia to marry the “only man I'll ever love.” Fortunately for Susan I was poor then and the car conked out going up the first mountain. Her one-and-only ditched her for a female biker who stopped to offer aid, and Susan went on to have three more “one-and-only” loves. So far.

“I'm trying to understand, dear. I'm trying to understand why my very best friend in the entire world would sic the fuzz on me.”

Wynnell laughed, but not inappropriately. “Abby, you're a hoot. I haven't heard the word ‘fuzz' used that way since the sixties. And anyway, you have to admit, you sort of implicated me last night.”

“I did.”

“You better believe it. When you got back from your interrogation, I felt like a deer standing in the headlights.”

I sighed. “Well, we're just going to have to stick together. We
know
neither of us did it. Now we just have to find out who did.”

“You're the sleuth, Abby.”

“Yeah, some sleuth. I went to ask Widow Saunders if I could take a peek at her husband's armor collection and, to make a long story short, now I'm under suspicion for another murder.”

“You're kidding! Whose?”

“The widow herself.”

Wynnell backed into a tangle of tables that nearly toppled. “Corie's dead?”

I nodded. “It happened just this morning. Ap
parently she was poisoned. I had the bad luck of being there just a few minutes earlier.”

Wynnell staggered to a tower of chairs, wrestled down the top one, and sat. “She was such a nice woman. I really liked her.”

“You knew her well?” I still could hardly believe my best friend was an expert on armor. That she might have been buddies with the crème de la crème of Charlotte society blew my mind.

“Not well, but we hit it off. I particularly like the fact that she had a younger, uh, boyfriend.”

“There seems to be a lot of that going around.”

The hedgerow eyebrows became one straight line. “Why Abby, you sound envious.”

“I'm not!” I wailed. “Greg is all the man I could ever want. It's just that I never would have considered dating a man that much younger. Now everyone's doing it.”

The hedgerow broke into clumps while she laughed. “That's why I liked Corie so much. Because she was doing exactly what Ed was doing. With one difference, however; neither Corie nor Caleb was married. No one was getting hurt.”

“Did you know she was going to run off with him to Genoa?”

“Absolutely. She was far too excited to keep it secret. She kept telling me to ‘hurry up with that damn appraisal.' She couldn't wait to start her new life. Of course she swore me to secrecy, or else I would have told you.”

“Of course,” I said, perhaps a bit snidely. “But if
she couldn't keep her own secrets, why should you?”

“A promise is a promise, Abby.”

“Wynnell, dear, did you also happen to know that Buford was the person to whom she was selling the armor collection?”

My friend paled. “Your Buford?”

“You mean you didn't know?”

She looked away. “Okay, so I knew. Abby, I would have told you, but—”

“But what? But you promised not to tell again?”

“Yeah, something like that.”

I stomped a size-four, forgetting yet again my sprain. My cry of pain made Mama, all the way down in Rock Hill, drop her can of spray starch.

“You all right?” Wynnell sounded like she genuinely cared.

“No, I'm not all right. My ankle feels like it's on fire.” I hobbled over to Wynnell and made her scoot over. “So what other secrets do you have up your sleeves?”

“Abby, please don't be angry. If you must know, I would have told you—promise or no promise, but I knew it would upset you.”

“Subterfuge upsets me.”

“Come on, Abby, be absolutely honest. You hate the fact that I was appraising something that Buford bought.”

“The man has too much money,” I mumbled. “At least half of it should be mine.”

“But look at it this way, Abby, the money he
spent on the collection was going to be money Tweetie couldn't have—not that it makes a difference now. But speaking of Buford, where is he?”

“On his way back from Tokyo. At least that's what he claims.”

Wynnell stood. I'd made her scoot too far.

“So Abby, what made you want to peek at Corie Saunders's—I mean, Buford's—armor collection?”

“I wanted to study some samples of the real thing. I thought if I could prove that the piece in which Tweetie was found was indeed the real McCoy, it would help the police with their investigation.”

My friend shook her head. “That Sharp woman already asked about that. I told her the suit found under your bed wasn't genuine.”

“And you're sure about that?”

“Well, it's not like I hung around to get a good look. But Abby, that stuff's expensive. You don't just wear it to a costume party. Besides, there are only three other collectors that I know of in Charlotte, besides the widow, who have real pieces. Two of them were at your party.”

BOOK: Nightmare in Shining Armor
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