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14

The next morning I ambled down to Ruby Bee's, found my favorite bar stool, and warned myself to tread very carefully if I ever again wanted to savor a square of lemon icebox pie. "Anybody home?" I called to the kitchen.

Ruby Bee came out to the bar. Her expression reeked of danger, although I'm relieved to report she no longer reeked of more tangible things. "What do you want?"

"I came to talk to you."

"What about? I got to get lunch started. The potatoes need to be peeled and the pies are awaitin' to go in the oven. If you want to talk, why don't you call somebody long distance?"

"I heard you did some of that yourself," I murmured, keeping one foot on the floor just in case.

"Did you?" she said, then wheeled around and started shifting glasses on the back counter. "Where'd you hear that?"

"From Sergeant Plover. He told me the whole story, from the calls to the…unpleasant situation in the apartment parking lot yesterday afternoon." My chin started twitching, and I realized I was, as Hammet would say, in a shitload of trouble. I covered the lower part of my face with my hands and feigned a coughing fit, all the while watching her back. It was rigid enough to withstand a bullet.

When she turned around, her stare was enough to stop said bullet in midair. "You getting a summer cold?" she said challengingly. "Is that your problem, missy?"

I nodded helplessly and coughed until I could trust myself as much as I ever would be able to. "But at least we learned where Petrel has been hiding out," I said. "It's unfortunate that he slipped away during the…ah, the situation. Plover's confident the state police will be able to run him down today. He couldn't have gone too far on foot."

"The airport's not too far. It's across the street."

"I don't think he'll make a run for Brazil. He didn't commit a crime; he simply chose to hole up in a crummy apartment for the best part of a week."

"With that woman," Ruby Bee said with a growl that would have intimidated a grizzly bear. "I could use another word if I were a mind to, but I won't. She was right uppity when I politely asked to use her bathroom to freshen up. You'd have thought I asked to use her toothbrush or prance around in her black lace underwear."

I was overcome with another fit of coughing. I finally wiped my eyes and said, "According to what I heard, you had a noticeable aroma about you that may have put her off."

"Like a cesspool being dredged after fifty years," Estelle contributed as she came across the room. "Not to mention the coffee grounds in your hair, and that curlicue of apple peel hanging off your ear, and the big ol' brown splotch on your dress, and-"

"Thank you so much for not mentioning any of that," Ruby Bee snapped. "Do you happen to recollect whose brilliant idea it was for me to climb into that nasty thing? Do you?"

Estelle tilted her head and pretended to think. "It seems to me it was a matter of height and who was going to be able to boost the other one over the side and help her out, Miss Five Foot Three On Her Tiptoes."

"Why did you climb in the dumpster?" I asked. "Plover said you claimed that you were going after evidence, but he wasn't clear what it was or why it would be in the dumpster, or even whether or not you found it."

"I was merely investigating. I was hoping to find proof that Petrel was hiding in that awful woman's apartment. I didn't, but she admitted he had been there, so it doesn't matter, does it?"

"What kind of proof?" I said, not buying a word of it.

"I really couldn't say. You realize the big game's this afternoon, doncha? I got your pink Flamingo shirt in the kitchen; wait and I'll fetch it for you."

I waited, and when she returned, tried my damnedest to badger a straight story out of her and/or Estelle. It paled after a while, so I switched to the less threatening topic of current gossip. What I heard was enough to peel the paint off a '57 Chevy. "Do you believe any of this?" I demanded.

Ruby Bee shook her head. "To tell the truth, I don't rightly know what to believe. I know Petrel wasn't breaking into Joyce's house, and I can't figure out why he'd tamper with the little cakes at his own store, much less put enough poison in one to kill Lillith Smew. But Elsie told Estelle that the Riley girl now claims he raped her-but that doesn't fit in with what Lottie said happened." She frowned at Estelle. "Do you think there were two different cheerleader tryouts?"

Estelle chewed on her lip. "Doesn't make an ounce of sense that there would be. Why would that girl go back after what happened between her and Jim Bob?"

"It's puzzling," Ruby Bee admitted, "but no more so than imagining Kevin and Dahlia carrying on like everybody said they was, and doing it right there on the porch swing, with Eilene and Earl watching television in the living room. I don't think the swing's all that wide."

"Not as wide as Dahlia," Estelle said. "But that's what Johnna Mae Nookim heard when she was buying a broom at the Emporium. She said Perkins's eldest heard all about it while she was cleaning at Mrs. Jim Bob's last week."

"But she told Elsie that she heard it from a woman in the Homemakers' Extension in Hasty not one day ago," Ruby Bee said doubtfully.

"They serve sherry after the meetings."

"During, from what I hear."

I couldn't take any more of it. I left them debating the relative merits of their sources and drove to the hospital in Farberville to pick up my shortstop. As I passed the Airport Arms, I couldn't keep from staring at the dumpster. I was still chuckling when I reached the hospital. To this day, I get a little smirky when I see one. Ruby Bee, on the other hand, gets very grim.



***** | Madness In Maggody | *****



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