The investigation heats up at Puss’s Emporium
On the way to Puss’s Emporium the next morning, Letitia suddenly remarks, “What do you make of Polly?”
“Are you talking about her occasional rant against the Aquacizers Murder Club or the way she and Albert stared at each other?”
“Oh, yes,” agrees Maude from the back seat of my little souped-up PT Cruiser. “It was very odd. He couldn’t see her when he first came because she was facing the other direction. Then, she turned around, and he looked frightened. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Sort of. I didn’t think he looked frightened so much as surprised. Like he hadn’t expected to see her. Like he knew her from somewhere.”
“Fran told me that she thought Polly was creepy,” I say, as we turn into the driveway at Puss’s Emporium.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Letitia mutters. “We can’t figure out who murdered Winsome, so now we’re going to make up stories about people. I think you’re both angry because she wanted to put a stop to everything, and we’re having too much fun being nosy.”
I suspect Letitia is the angry one because she missed the look that passed between Polly and Albert. It isn’t evidence to her because she didn’t see it herself. We, or the police maybe, will find the killer and if Letitia hasn’t been personally involved in finding the damning evidence, it won’t matter if he’s the murderer, she won’t believe it. I’m glad Maude is here. Maybe she’ll be more alert and reasonable than my usual partner.
I park. We sit in the car for a moment while Maude adjusts her hearing aid. “Now, remember, Letitia,” I say. “We’re here to talk to Blue Hair, not Petunia.”
“Who’s Petunia?” asks Maude.
“A cat she’s fallen in love with.”
“Oh….. let’s do go see the cat first, and then we can talk to Blue Hair.”
Amateurs! I think to myself. Slowing the investigation for a cat!
Maude has clearly been here before; she isn’t surprised by Lucre Lucy and she knows exactly where to find Petunia. Exasperated, I follow Letitia and Maude down the aisle to Petunia’s station. Old ladies annoy me, but what can I do? What if Blue Hair sees us and leaves? Did that occur to either of my associates? I’ll bet not.
While they stroke the cat and plan for its future, I notice the vet from the other day jotting down numbers by her donation kitty. I have an inspiration. “Hello,” I say, smiling at her as warmly as I can. “I guess we may be adopting Petunia.”
“Good,” mutters the vet. Clearly she’s not feeling chatty.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name,” I say.
“No reason you should know it.” I look hurt and I guess she remembers the customer is always right. “It’s Bustamenté.”
“Bustamenté. My, that is unusual. While we’re here, I just wondered – did you know Adele? She used to be a vet here.”
“Yeah, I remember Adele. What’s it to you?”
Really not chatty. Rude and not chatty. “She and I used to be friends. Actually, we went to college together years and years ago. Even though, I admit, she’s much younger than me-you wouldn’t guess that, would you? I went to college quite late. (I’m over-complicating my story; tripping over every word. If she finds me silly, maybe she’ll talk.) Anyway, I thought it would be fun to see her again. If she’s still around.”
“Well, if you know her that well then you know she’s not exactly popular here. She wouldn’t be hanging around the place.”
“No. But you strike me as the kind of person who keeps up old friendships.”
“So you’re seen her recently. The two of you had a drink together, something like that?”
“Yeah. And as I said to her, it’s all for a price. You want to know something I know, you pay for it. That goes for vet info, and reports about what I see and hear.”
“Understood,” I say and hope she’s cheap. I’ve never paid anyone off before. It’s thrilling but at the same time frightening because the woman’s a block of stone and she could fall on me and that would be the end, “So you report your sightings of cops and flaky old ladies to Adele. For a price.”
“Yeah,” she says again, but smiling now. She likes that word. “Flaky.” A volunteer has taken Petunia from her cage and the girls are handing her back and forth, talking to her, oohing and ahing. We both watch them for a few moments. Then she says, on the defensive suddenly, “I don’t think she murdered Winsome, if you want to know. I’d never work for her if I thought that.”
“Oh, sure. I would never suspect her of murder either. But she may know who did it.”
“She thinks it was Albert.”
“Yeah. Anyway, what do you want to know?”
“Do you know where she lives? Do you have a phone number? How do you contact her?”
“I leave messages with Lucre Lucy. Under her left front paw. I’ve only done it just the one time, after you were here. The only time we got together was at The Nutty Irishman. There was a guy in there who seemed to know her real well, so I figure she’s living nearby. She had a daiquiri and I drank a martini. Any other details you want, honey? Remember the cost goes up with every detail.”
“A few more. All she asked of you was to let her know when we came into the store, and who we talked to, just that?”
“You don’t have a picture of her, do you?”
“No, but you’re the detective. Go to the library; look in the newspapers – January 2005 – that’s when she got sentenced. I remember the picture. She looked like some kind of movie actress. I bet everyone who saw it thought, ‘So sad, she doesn’t look like an embezzler.’”
“What did the two of you talk about, besides what she wanted you to do?”
“That’s all, lady. No more. Show me your money.”
“How much did she pay you?”
“Sixty dollars per old ladies’ viewing. And that’s what I expect from you. Sixty dollars for every Adele viewing. Don’t give me some sad story about your social security check being late.”
She must have seen me wince. I don’t walk around with that much money, but I rummage around in my pocket-book to demonstrate my good intentions. “How about you give me cash with my credit card?”
“How about you bring me in the money this afternoon?”
“Okay. And you just keep on telling her when you see us, okay? We don’t want her to suspect a double cross.”
“Yeah, sure. I don’t have a horse in this race, lady.”
Maude and Letitia bring their acquisition over for a last report from the vet before they sign adoption papers and walk out with Petunia. They stand there with sappy expressions on their faces, waiting for the chunky vet and me to finish. “Can you tell us if there’s anything we should know about Petunia’s health?” asks Letitia.
“She’s had all her shots, been spayed, given her monthly dose of Advantage. She’s in great shape. Let me get her medical records to take with you.” She goes over to the wall and begins going through the filing cabinets. I gaze across the floor, looking for Blue Hair. Letitia follows my eyes, and we both spot her sitting at her tea-table. There aren’t any customers around.
“Could you hang onto Petunia for just a bit?” Letitia says, limping over to stand next to the vet. “Maybe just put her back in her cage? I’ll be right back. We have to talk to someone and I don’t want to make my girl nervous.”
“Sure. She’ll be waiting for you.”
The three of us head for Blue Hair, who’s glittering like a disco ball, and seems to be expecting us. There are four chairs and four tea cups at her table this time. “It’s so good to see you again. I’m sorry I had to run out the other day. If we don’t take our breaks when they come up, we lose them.”
“It was our fault for not coming back directly,” says Letitia. “But I fell in love with a little cat, and today I’ve come back for her.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful. I’m so glad for you. It’s Petunia, isn’t it? Such a sweetie.”
I let them carry on for a few minutes. I know better than to try to change the subject in a place where cats are as important as God and cuddly as babies. Eventually, Letitia stops cooing and introduces Maude. The three of them sing one more anthem of praise to cats, and especially Petunia, until, finally, Letitia is ready to get down to business.
“Something terrible happened to us yesterday, Della, so we decided we had to carry on our investigation. You’ll never guess who showed up at the high point of our aquacize?”
“Oh, my. I’m such a bad guesser.”
“Albert Smythe showed up, that’s who.” Della’s eyes get very large and she shakes her head in disbelief.
“We have to get Winsome’s murder solved,” I add. “It’s just too awful to have madmen like Albert coming poolside to mock and threaten us.”
“Oh, I am so sorry. It must have been dreadful. As I said before, I’ll do anything I can to help you. He didn’t accuse someone at the Garden Path of doing the murder, did he?”
“No, mostly he just said we should mind our own business.”
“Oh, my. It sounds as if he’s afraid you’ll find something incriminating and he’ll go back to prison. ”
“But it’s so hard to believe that he’d kill his own mother,” moans Maude. “Did he make any threats when he was sentenced?”
“Oh, I don’t know, dear. I wasn’t there. I wouldn’t go to an affair like that. I never heard that he did, but Adele Monk, such an eccentric woman she was – she came in here before she was put away and threatened everyone. I mean the whole place. And Albert. And Winsome. She was a very scary lady, I tell you.”
“You mean she came into the store and shouted threats?” I ask. I think Blue Hair tends to exaggerate.
“That’s exactly what I mean. Scared us all to death, I can tell you, but she left before the police could come get her. I was the one who called 9-1-1, but she was out on bail and they didn’t try to catch her. I think they thought she was loony, but not really dangerous. Hah!”
“Have you seen her since she got out of jail?” I ask.
“No. At least I don’t think so. There was one day last week when I thought I saw her hovering around Lucre Lucy, but I have a powerful imagination and I probably just made it up. I haven’t been able to look at Lucy with the same fondness since the whole thing happened.” Our faces accordion into more creases than usual. “I know it seems odd, but Lucy has always seemed almost alive to me. I thought she was the funniest, sweetest thing. But since the scandal, she’s always seemed a little threatening. Like she cooperated in a crime, you know.”
“Hmmmm,” murmurs Letitia for all of us. “Have you seen Albert since he got out of jail?”
“Yes,” said Blue Hair thoughtfully. “Say, would any of you like an old-fashioned oatmeal cookie? I made them myself and just brought them in this morning. They’re low sugar.”
We all explain that we’re not the least bit hungry and no, thank you.
“Okay. But let me know if you change your mind. I really should have put them out. Your question was about Albert, wasn’t it? Whether I’ve seen him here. He came by to see Winsome a couple of weeks ago. That’s the only time, I think. His wife was here once talking to Winsome. Somebody else came by to see Bustamenté the day of the murder. I can’t remember who but I remember because we heard about Winsome’s death the same afternoon. Then Bustamenté had a visitor and I remember I thought it was odd to see anyone calling on Bustamenté on that particular day.
“Who’s Busta-whatever?” asks Maude.
“The broad-shouldered vet,” I say.
“Try to remember who she came with. It could be important,” says Letitia.
“I’m afraid I’m having a senior moment. I know it was the same day Winsome was killed… we hadn’t found out yet. It was someone I know, but I didn’t really think too much about it. Whether it was Candy or Bev or who…. There were customers here and….”
She frowns with the effort to remember, stands up, and ambles over to a plastic bag full of cookies on the counter, takes them out and methodically arranges them on yet another flowered plate, then brings them back to the table. We all watch, as if we’re hypnotized, as if her answer will mean something if only she comes up with it, but really, we haven’t a notion of whether it matters who came to see Bustamenté. One-by-one, we each choose a cookie.
“Well, I’ll let you know if I remember, I’ll call, but at this moment….”
“Could it have been Adele Monk?” I ask.
“I don’t think so but I suppose it could have been. Oh, dear.”
“Please do call if you remember,” says Maude.
“Tell me,” I say. “What do you know about Bustamenté?”
“Not much, thank goodness. She’s way over there and I’m here. I can tell you she’s rude and mean, and the only living creatures she’s fond of are cats. Not a soul besides. But I suppose we should just be grateful that for the cats’ sake….”
“Does she have friends? How well did she know Adele Monk? If she was here then, did she play any part in the scandal? Does she know Albert and Bev?”
“Oh, dear. Please. Give me a minute. I don’t know about Adele, but I guess she must have known her because she came while Adele was still here. She was a sort of assistant vet. I don’t think she had anything to do with the scandal, and I don’t know if she knows Albert or Bev, except that Bev came by to see her that one time.”
“Does she have friends?”
“Like I said, I think she only has cats.”
Among the three of us, we can’t think of another question. Blue Hair doesn’t want us to leave. She hopes we’ll tell her something to repay her for all the information she’s supplied us. Isn’t that the way gossip is supposed to work? Isn’t it a form of sharing? You tell me, I’ll tell you? Like everyone else, she doesn’t take us very seriously as investigators. Not surprising, probably. To our benefit, probably. We walk back over to the adoption area to get Petunia. Bustamenté is waiting for us, impatiently tapping her fingers on the counter. Must be lunchtime.
“Hey, Bustamenté,” I say, after the kitten has been passed into Letitia’s eager, outspread hands. “Did someone come to see you on the day of Winsome’s murder?”
Bustamenté looks at me, shaking her head, tapping her pencil. “What did I tell you? I only give up information for a price.”
“I already owe you more than I afford. It’s a simple question. Just remember, I can rat on you to Adele, and then what will you do? Where will you run and hide, Bustamenté?” It’s all bluster. Letitia and Maude look at me like they’ve never seen or heard anything like it, and they probably haven’t outside of the movies. I’m especially proud of “rat on you..” The words feel strange in my mouth, but I’ll bet I can get used to them.
“Oh shit,” says the muscle-bound veterinarian. “Just be here with the money this afternoon.” She puts down the pencil and glares at me. “Bev Smythe came one day, I don’t know which one.She came to ask me the same questions you did about Adele Monk. I told her exactly the same thing.”
“Did she pay you?” asks Letitia.
“No, she just scared me. Bad,” says Bustamenté. “She’s no little old lady.”
When we’re back in the car, I tell the girls what I learned earlier from the veterinarian, and we bicker over the $60 and whether a murder club of old ladies should recruit someone who’s frightening to keep the costs of investigating low. They finally agree to pay me half the money. “You could have gotten the same information for less,” says Letitia. “I would have scared the bejeesus out of her.”
“So what do you make of everything?” asks Maude.
“We need time to think,” I say.
“Poirot’s ‘little gray cells?’”
“So maybe tomorrow at Aquacize?”
“Sounds good. This afternoon, I’m going to the library to see if I can get a copy of the newspaper that reported the Monk woman’s sentencing. Bustamenté says her photo was a beaut; she looked like a movie star.”
“I want to come, too,” says Letitia.
“Can you bear being away from your kitten?”
“Elizabeth can watch her.”
“Oh, sure,” I say and make a mental note to do the newspaper business as fast as possible. Poor Letitia. Elizabeth indeed.
In the next post, the aquacizers are shocked when they see Adele Monk’s photo. And someone else is murdered!!!