When Taran got home, the rain was mostly a fine mist with a few sprinkles splattering the pavement and keeping the running streams from dying back. He had stopped at the grocery store, his uniform still damp from running in and out of the rain earlier in the day, his mind still fogged from trying to figure out what had happened at Zoe’s. In the office, he’d sat under the slight breeze the air conditioner gave off until he smelled like cigarette smoke that must have lodged in the old machine and was pumped back out on days when the old thing had to work the hardest.
Now he had a fried chicken breast, some coleslaw, lightly sweet and tangy, and a Dr. Pepper, which, he knew, probably wasn’t good for him, but he figured it was a heck of a lot better than having a beer. Because if he had a beer after a day like today he wasn’t going to stop at one, probably not at the six pack he had in the fridge, and then he’d be out driving, probably near to killing someone. And how would that look if the chief of police had to sit in the drunk tank and possibly be tried for felony drunk driving?
No. Dr. Pepper it was.
Taran tore into the chicken breast, which was juicy or greasy or both, and the liquid ran down his chin, not too hot because the warmers in the grocery weren’t all that warm, and Taran had come in late when the deli area was winding down and closing up.
Dolly Jean had given him a lot of gossip about the Masons and the Hyers. Jodie had always been a good girl, according to her, but always a bit pushy, bless her heart.
“Pushy how? Could she have made someone mad?” Taran had asked.
He’d sat in her cramped little sitting room which she said was for guests, a room in the back of the building that was probably the size of his bathroom with shelves of books that held more dust than his entire house, poor housekeeper that he was, and four wingback chairs which had probably been made around the time his grandfather was born and never touched since. There were books scattered on the floor around the edge of the walls, too, and the curtains on the lone window out to the side of the house were threadbare, though they’d once been blue, how bright, Taran wasn’t able to say.
The bulb in the lamp that Dolly Jean had turned on when she led him back there through a narrow hallway that ran beside the room the historical society was in, was probably twenty-five watts at most, and in the gloom, she might have been a ghost. Even her voice was soft and scratchy and hard to hear.
He had heard the voice of his hallucination better than he could hear her.
“Oh, I doubt anyone would ever be mad at Jodi, would they?” Dolly Jean said. “She was a nice girl. She just had ideas, you know?”
“I’m sorry. I guess I don’t,” Taran said.
“I forget sometimes how you young people are.” Dolly Jean had leaned back, defeated. “When Jodie grew up, it wasn’t as common for girls to think about boys like that, you know?”
Taran tried to smile and nod, not certain he wanted to have this conversation with Dolly Jean.
“But Jodie watched all that television and got her ideas from there, though I suspect if she’d been raised right, she wouldn’t have.”
Taran nodded, encouraging.
“And then she had ideas about the town, had even talked about running for mayor at one point. If she hadn’t been killed before that, I’d expect she’d’ve been killed for that if she’d managed to win, not that she would have, given she’d have had to run against Hank and everyone loves him.”
Taran smiled at her. He wasn’t sure about that. Hank got his share of complaints and a guy named Russ Martinez, one of the workers who had arrived in Corbin Meadow thanks to Jack Lyle, had done quite well in the last election, surprising everyone. A home-town woman like Jodie Mason-Hyer would have been a force to be reckoned with. Taran made a note about that. Could Mayor Siemens have hired someone to kill the women? Certainly he couldn’t have done it himself, though he could have had motive. Still, Taran didn’t see it.
“Anyway, you know. In my day, women didn’t do those things. They knew their place. We ran the homes and kept the families and the histories.” Dolly Jean trailed off, looking at the wall that sat between them and her little historical society. Dolly Jean had never married, never found a man that she wanted to marry, she said, although there had been gossip that she’d been jilted by a boy who went off to Raleigh. All that would be left for her, not having the education to run the library, or clearly not having the organizational skills, she’d started the historical society, keeping the history of Corbin Meadow.
“Tell me about Jodie’s parents,” Taran pressed.
Dolly Jean thought. “They were like most parents, I guess. I mean, they could have raised her to be a bit more ladylike, bless their hearts, but they were ordinary folks. I think her father was a furniture maker.”
It gelled with what Taran had learned. “And Ed?”
“Ed was a star. He was the boy everyone loved. I’m not sure how it was he ended up with Jodie. And to have only one child. That must have broken his heart.”
“Why?” Taran asked. Not that he thought Ed had anything to do with the murders but now he was curious.
“Well, because don’t all men want a boy to follow in their footsteps? A boy to throw the football around with and to carry on the name?” Dolly Jean looked at him sharply.
“I guess,” Taran said slowly.
“I heard that your Kay might have information on this,” Dolly Jean said slyly, now with her head turned as if she didn’t dare look him straight on and meet his eyes and have to share where she’d heard that so quickly.
“Maybe,” Taran said noncommittally.
Dolly Jean nodded with feeling as if she’d just ferreted out a well-kept secret. “I’m sure you’ll be glad to see her, won’t you? You were always a nice young man and she was so flightly. Of course, what else could she be with her mother the way she was, bless her heart?”
Taran knew the town tended to think of Dixie Pugh, Kay’s mother, as a little bit crazy. A few sandwiches short of a full picnic, as they’d say. She just wasn’t quite right. And she certainly hadn’t been raised right, even now, they said that, although who knew anyone who had raised Dixie was probably dead and buried.
“You do know about the lost child, don’t you?” Dolly Jean asked, leaning forward.
“What child?” Taran asked.
“Kay didn’t tell you? Perhaps she didn’t even know herself, poor dear. Before she was born, her mother lost a child, a boy. The doctors weren’t certain Dixie’d ever have another child after that, but Dixie was always certain she’d have a girl, had the name Kay picked out long before she was even pregnant, although I’m not that thrilled with the name. And lo and behold, two years later, in spite of the doctors, she had a girl.”
It was interesting, Taran thought. He wasn’t sure what to say.
“Of course, she was always going up to her momma’s house to visit. Her daddy would have been there, I suppose, but during those times it’s her momma that girl goes to. You wouldn’t know, being a man.”
Taran waited, not quite trusting himself not to put his foot in it, being, as she said, a man.
“Anyway, rumor always had it that although Momma Fulton was a church-going woman, she wasn’t particularly god-fearing and had some doings with things that no one ought to speak of.” Dolly Jean sighed, as if the very idea made her pause. “And everyone wondered if perhaps she hadn’t worked some spell on her daughter to be sure Dixie got what she wanted.”
Taran had no idea how this was helpful. Maybe he’d been wrong to go to Dolly Jean. He wanted gossip, but he wanted gossip that might have pointed him in a direction of why someone would want Jodie Mason-Hyer and her daughter dead.
“I’m not sure how that’s helpful,” Taran said. “I had a talk with Zoe Mason-Hyer Parker earlier today because she thought she saw something in her backyard. I’m concerned that whoever is doing the killing is now after her.”
Dolly Jean drew back, eyebrows raised as if that was the most shocking thing she’d ever witnessed. “Really?”
Taran nodded, hoping he was doing the right thing.
“That child hasn’t been here more than a month, staying with her daddy, getting tongues wagging about that husband of hers out there in the wilderness and how they must live, but I can’t imagine someone wanting to kill her. She’s just a child.”
Taran waited wondering if Dolly Jean would say more.
“No one ought to push towns to be something they aren’t, Chief Rees. Particularly not women. I don’t think the universe likes that.”
And with that Dolly Jean had sat back, waiting for more questions. Nothing else she’d said had had any merit, unless you liked particularly salacious gossip and innuendo. Taran needed neither.
Dolly Jean had talked about the universe, not god. He wondered if she was aware of the things he’d seen, if those things sometimes made themselves known to others, or if she’d just heard things, particularly about Dixie Fulton Pugh, Kay’s mother, and started making up her own stories.
The problem, Taran realized, was that he was working with something he didn’t quite believe. He had a gut feeling he had experienced something, but everything in him said he was slowly going crazy and was even crazier to believe it. Was the creature he thought he’d seen involved in the murders? And if it was just a hallucination, did that have something to do with the murders? Could the women have been experiencing hallucinations before they died?
So long as he didn’t know the answer to whether he’d had a vision that was real or a hallucination about the creature, he wouldn’t really be able to do a good job of investigating anything, especially if he himself were compromised.
Taran sighed and finished his Dr. Pepper, still chewing on those ideas.
Chapter 24 will be coming next Friday. Don’t want to wait? Find the book here.