IF ONLY I could learn to say no, I wouldn’t be perched on a barstool in a redneck bar, breathing secondhand smoke and pretending to flirt with men sporting baseball caps and Confederate bandanas, their eyes riveted on my Victoria’s Secret-enhanced cleavage. I wouldn’t be tricked out in a bizarre hairstyle, frosted blue eye shadow, painted-on jeans with strategically placed slashes, and a two-sizes-too-small Harley Davidson tank top.
I hit the rewind button on my life and stopped a few days earlier, at the point where Phyllis Ross threw a cup of coffee in Nina Brown’s face. How that led to this undercover assignment—finding out who killed a middle-aged drunken woman in the parking lot of the Moonshine Inn—is quite a tale.
When I walked into one of the many Panera restaurants that dotted the Richmond, Virginia landscape I didn’t spot any rednecks. Perhaps they were traveling incognito. The Panera denizens wore standard summer garb: shorts, capris, sandals, T-shirts, with a baseball cap here and there. They sat hunched over laptops or swiping the screens of their smartphones. Some retro types chose to absorb the day’s news on paper.
Trudy Zimmerman’s long white mane made her easy to spot in a booth that overlooked Panera’s patio and the parking lot beyond. When I took the seat next to her, she introduced the woman sitting across from us as Nina Brown.
Nina Brown. Where had I heard that name? Trudy pronounced Nina like the number nine followed by a short a—Nine-ah. Short and long vowels brought back memories of long-ago school days: were vowels still a part of the teaching curriculum?
Nina’s appearance spoke volumes about her health. A heavy layer of makeup didn’t hide the shadows under her dark eyes. Vertical lines bracketed her mouth like parentheses. I wondered if she suffered from depression, perhaps brought on by a serious health condition or recent trauma.
She extended her hand. “Nice to meet you, Hazel,” she assured me in a surprisingly strong and melodious voice, one I associated with telephone sales or disc jockeys.
Trudy had called me the night before, saying she had a friend who needed a favor that apparently only I could grant.
“What sort of favor?”
“I can’t say. She made me promise not to.”
“Huh? What is this, some kind of spy operation?”
“I think you’ll be intrigued by what she has to say. Please, Hazel. Do this for me.”
“For you, huh? Who is this woman? How about a hint?”
“I can’t. I’m sworn to secrecy. Just come and hear her story. You can always say no.”
I’d laughed. “Yeah, just say no.” One would think that at my age I would have learned to say no. But I suspected I’d be filing for Medicare without mastering that useful skill. Oh well, I had two years to work on it.
“Okay, I’ll listen to what she has to say. I’ll say ‘yes’ to that.” We decided on Panera at Stony Point at eight the next morning.
Introductions made, Trudy looked at me and said, “Why don’t you get something and then we’ll chat.” I noted her party hostess tone and gave her a look.
When I returned to the booth with coffee and croissant in hand, Trudy stood to let me slide into the booth. “I might have to leave early. We have a staff meeting at nine-thirty.”
“We” referred to the library where Trudy worked. Great, I thought. I hoped Nina got her tale told before Trudy deserted me.
Nina smiled and started with an icebreaker. “So Hazel, Trudy says you two are in the same book group.”
“Yes, for, what is it, ten years now?” Trudy nodded.
Nina sipped her coffee, bleached by a heavy dose of creamer. “And you’re a writer?”
“Yes, I write romance novels for baby boomers.”
“How many books have you published?”
“Six, so far.”
“A lot of people like your books.”
I smiled. “So, what kind of work do you do?”
“Oh, nothing much right now. I help out at my . . . my sister’s non-profit.” She inhaled heavily and grabbed my arm, startling me. “I have something to ask … a favor.”
“Why, Hazel Rose and Trudy Zimmerman. Fancy meeting you here.”
“Hi, Phyllis.” In one voice Trudy and I greeted Phyllis Ross,another member of our book group. Phyllis fixed her attention on Nina—not on us. Her do-I-know-you look was a little too probing, but Phyllis wasn’t known for her subtlety.
Trudy put down her egg sandwich and wiped her mouth before making introductions. “Phyllis Ross, Nina Brown. Nina—”
“So it is you! I can’t believe it.” Phyllis pointed a shaky finger at Nina.
Nina looked alarmed. “Who are you?” she asked.
“Who am I? I’m Phyllis Lassiter Ross. Charlie Lassiter’s sister.”
“Oh! I didn’t recognize you.”
Phyllis glared. “Well, it’s been twenty years.”
I could understand why Nina didn’t recognize her. I’d seen pictures of Phyllis from her younger days and the years hadn’t been kind to her. Likely her love of the sun had accelerated the aging process.
Her face darkening with anger, Phyllis leaned over the table, hovering over Nina. Her brown-going-gray hair fanned out around her head and I covered my mug with my hand lest a stray hair invade my coffee.
“Charlie loved you, may he rest in peace,” Phyllis railed. “But you dumped him like he was yesterday’s garbage. After taking his money for that pyramid scheme.”
“Yes, two years ago.”
Charlie Lassiter had suffered a massive heart attack. At his funeral I’d met his current wife, former wife, his children and grandchildren. I felt sure he was long over Nina. So, why was Phyllis pinning his demise on her?
“Phyllis, I’m sorry he died, but I had nothing to do with it. I hadn’t seen him in years. As for the money, I paid him back.”
“Not according to him you didn’t. Two thousand dollars to invest in nutrition supplements.” Phyllis gave Nina the once-over. “Obviously a poor investment.”
Trudy and I looked at each other, not sure if we should intervene. But I felt like I had to do something. “Phyllis, please—” I started.
Phyllis ignored me. I hoped she wouldn’t follow in her brother’s footsteps and have a cardiac event. Could one of the device-addicted customers be a doctor? Eyes flashing, she continued to challenge Nina. “So tell me, how many children did you have?”
Nina opened her mouth as if to answer, then closed it.
“You told my brother you wanted children; you said your clock was ticking. Even though when you met him you claimed you didn’t want them.”
“I changed my mind.”
“So how many little rug rats did you have? Or was it all a ruse to get rid of Charlie?”
“I didn’t have children. I broke up with your dear brother because he was a jerk. God rest his soul, but he was a jerk!”
“He loved you and so hoped to get back together. God knows the whole family told him you weren’t worth it.”
“Yeah, I know. He stalked me for two years. And another thing—he was weird sexually.”
Weird sexually? I privately hoped she’d expand on that item. As a romance writer I was always on the lookout for new material.
Up to then the two women had kept their voices modulated, but now Nina amped up her proclamation about Charlie’s peccadillos, pulling people’s attention from their newspapers and electronic devices. It also put Phyllis over the edge. In less time than it took to blink, she picked up Nina’s mug and tossed the contents into her face, adding a few choice expletives.
Nina sat open-mouthed in shock, face and hair dripping with coffee.
I handed Nina my napkin and Trudy’s. “Are you burned?” Trudy made a dash for the napkin dispenser on a nearby condiment station.
“No, just wet.” Nina wiped her face. No doubt she could thank her over-creaming habit for cooling her coffee enough to save her from injury.
Then several things happened at once. A handsome young man whose name tag read “Todd Makin, Manager” appeared and asked if there was a problem. A member of the waitstaff trailed behind him with a wet cloth in hand.
“I’ll say there’s a problem,” said a woman who had been sitting in the booth behind us. She stood and pulled off her up-to-then pristine white jacket, now splotched with coffee. Droplets of the brew clung to the woman’s blonde curls.
By that time we were all standing and had the attention of the whole restaurant. Phyllis had vanished. Trudy handed Nina more napkins and escorted her to the restroom like she was a young child. As they walked away I noticed that Nina’s clothes hung on her, almost requiring suspenders to hold up her capris. A recent weight loss was my guess.
The irate woman spoke up. “That woman, the one with the wild hair—” she pointed out the window. Phyllis was now headed for the parking lot, her hair and loose-fitting top flowing around her. “She threw a cup of coffee at that woman in the red shirt.” She turned and pointed out Nina, now almost to the restroom.
“We’ll get you all seated at clean booths.” The manager smiled, his voice soothing. He’d make a great diplomat. Or playground referee. His assistant set to cleaning up both booths while Todd transferred our dishes.
That left me standing with the irate woman who wailed, “My beautiful jacket is just ruined!”
“Oh, the stain will come out,” I assured her. “I have the same jacket and once spilled coffee on it. Cold water works like magic. You’d better go to the restroom right away before the stain sets.”
I’m not usually called upon for impromptu performances, but I did a fair job spinning this tale. The woman looked uncertain for a moment, like she suspected a trick. Then she sighed and went to join Trudy and Nina in the restroom.
I sat in the new booth and waited for Trudy and Nina to reappear. When they did, Nina was still a bit damp.
She explained, “They only have automatic hand dryers in the restroom. They don’t dry the rest of the body too well.”
Having never found myself dripping with coffee in a restaurant, I hadn’t considered the limitations of hand dryers. Todd refreshed our beverages and offered any other services he could provide.
We assured him that we’d let him know. When he left, the three of us looked at each other and laughed. We had some “other services” in mind for the attractive Todd.
I said, “Nina, we’re sorry about Phyllis.”
Nina’s shrug suggested that she tangled with enraged women on a regular basis. “It’s okay. Charlie’s whole family hated me. They thought he was so wonderful. But he wasn’t.”
I knew Phyllis had been close to her brother and had taken it hard when Charlie died. Perhaps she had a blind side for her brother. Of course, she hadn’t known him in the same context as had Nina. Or so I hoped.
“You know,” I said, “You could file assault charges. That’s what Phyllis did, assault you.”
“No, no, no, no, no.” Nina waved both hands in front of her like they were windshield wipers. “Let’s just forget about it.”
I waited a beat for Nina to offer anything else about Charlie. When she didn’t, I said brightly, “Well, let’s start over. You said you needed a favor.”
My earlier reluctance to come to this meeting so early on a Monday morning had yielded to an eager curiosity. A woman who caused other women to throw coffee in her face had to be interesting. And a woman with a sexually weird man in the past—well, I was all ears.
Nina bit her lip and set to twisting her napkin. “Um, yes. A favor.” Nina looked around, like she feared someone might overhear her or sneak up behind her. Was she about to confess to a crime? If so, she didn’t need me, she needed a lawyer.
Leaning in close, she lowered her voice. “I want you to find out who killed my sister.”