By Caroline Taylor
Of course, she was their number one suspect. She owned the place, after all. A quick examination of the books would show that Venerable Treasures was at the very least struggling. A closer look would show it trending rapidly toward failure. Veronica had been hanging on by thread, which was, she supposed, somewhat ironic, considering that she sold threads, vintage clothing for women who tended to be disillusioned, if not downright disgusted, by what passed for fashion these days.
During her “interview” with the police, she’d steadfastly denied calling in the bomb threat. “Why would I lose a day of sales?” she’d told them, and then burst into tears. “Now, I’ve lost everything!”
Which, come to think of it, was why they seemed to think she’d blown up her own business. The insurance, which she badly needed, wouldn’t pay off if she was convicted of arson. She’d go to prison. She’d have to sell the apartment, maybe even move somewhere cheaper when she got out. Start all over.
The very prospect made Veronica’s head ache. Especially because she’d been trying to save the god damn business. And maybe she could have done something different when she’d heard Audrey Lewis was back in town. At the time, panicked by the thought of her competitor wandering around the shop, chatting with Veronica’s customers, fingering the merchandise, teasing out of Paige—that idiot!—all the secret methods that Veronica had devised to entice shoppers, and then using all that proprietary information to steal customers away to her own shop: Well. She’d been burned once and did not intend to suffer the same fate. That’s why she’d picked up the phone.
“You should talk to Orville Wade,” she’d told the fat cop with the handlebar mustache. “I fired him yesterday, and he was not happy about it. People like him, they fly off the handle at the slightest provocation. I bet he was out for revenge.”
Or maybe Paige. She was a sneaky girl, that one. Veronica had been on the verge of dismissing her, too, except it was vital to have a sales clerk who looked and acted the part. It might be possible to find another tall, slender, sophisticated young woman who could wear vintage clothing with panache. But somebody who talked like Paige, who’d been to a private girls’ school and one of the Seven Sisters and didn’t mind being a sales clerk? Those were as scarce as tungsten.
She should’na done it, the bitch. First she cans him; then she rats him out to the cops. He’d only been showing up a little bit late, for Chrissake. A guy, now. He’d understand, cut you some slack. But Veronica Elmendorf was as uptight as her fuckin’ name.
“What’s a few fuckin’ minutes?” he’d wanted to say, the first time she’d yelled at him. But he knew better not to challenge her, let alone use the kind of words that made that thin upper lip of hers curl in disgust. Fuckin’ prude.
Ronnie (what he liked to call her, although only to her back) had stalked off, her ass swingin’ like a stripper down at Rosie’s. Too bad, the rest of her was flat as Kansas.
And cold as Minnesota in February. When he’d pointed out he had a wife and kids to feed, she’d turned around, hands on hips. “I have a business to run. I’ve told you over and over again to get here before the store opens, and still you show up half an hour, sometimes even a whole hour, late. I’ve had it with you, Orville. Now, get out.”
“C’mon, man,” he’d said to the thin cop with the coke-bottle glasses. “Gimme a break. I was only late a coupla times. I been workin’ there three months—three months of just standin’ around, waitin’ for some broad to drive up in her Mercedes so’s I could unload a bunch of clothes she don’t want no more. But the boss? She be throwin’ a hissy fit all the time, sayin’ she payin’ me to be there before the sun come up. Why? Weren’t no real reason to be in that early. Didn’t harm nothing making those old ladies wait a few, sitting there in their big air-cooled luxury cars, listening to that la-di-da music.”
But the cop had only shrugged. “This ain’t about you getting canned,” he’d said. “It’s about you calling in a bomb threat. Were you ever in the army, Orville? Do you know how to make a pipe bomb?”
No and no. But did those two pigs believe him? Hell, no.
Shit. What did a man have to do? Roll over and take it? Fay had had her heart set on a trip to Disney World. Little Sharonda cried her itty bitt heart out. Somebody had to pay. That’s why he’d picked up the phone.
But he’d been smart enough to use a pay phone at the Wild Horse, where he’d stopped for a few shots and a beer, mostly to get up enough nerve to face Fay. He’d seen that hoity-toity sales girl over in the corner getting sloshed with some preppy asshole wearing khaki and loafers with no socks. She was sporting a diamond the size of Canada on her left finger. Man, wouldn’t that take care of a bunch of debt.
“Look, fellas,” he’d said to the cops. “You got the wrong person here. What you want is that sales girl, Paige. She was stealin’ from the cash register, and I bet the ol’ broad found out and gave her the heave-ho. Maybe even threatened to call the cops. A girl like her landing in jail? There goes the trust fund.”
Paige Oakley examined her manicure, gratified to see that it was still holding up, despite the chaotic events lately. This might be one of those cluster fucks that actually turn out for the best. The only thing she regretted was getting drunk last night. Hangovers were so declassé. And this one might have impaired her judgment. Or not.
In retrospect, Winston Abelard had impaired her judgment, enough for her to accept his proposal and the ostentatious ring that came with it. Really. What did they teach these guys at Dartmouth, anyway? He was so not Arnie. But Arnie would never do. He came from the wrong side of the tracks. He’d been to State, of all things. In his often public rage against “the Man,” he’d made clear his opposition to everything her father believed in. Dad would have disinherited her in a flash.
The police had been a bother, too. But Dad would take care of them. Who the fuck did Orville Wade think he was, pointing the finger at her? The guy was a total jerk with his Seventies’ style mullet and sideburns, giving her the once-over like she was prime meat or something. Gross.
She’d only spoken to the asshole once, that she could recall. And that had been to tell him to keep his big yap shut about the funds she’d temporarily borrowed from Ronnie’s cash register. She’d meant to pay back the latest loan the next morning, only she hadn’t yet received the monthly trust fund check. Ronnie would have reconciled the register the night before, catching the three hundred dollar shortfall. But Paige had often done this, always paying the money back the next day. Still, Ronnie had changed lately. She used to shrug off these momentary losses. Now, she’d said she didn’t want it to happen again, that the accountants might do an audit at just the wrong moment. Oh, sure. At midnight?
Paige hadn’t wanted to push it. After all, the job might be boring, but it was a ready source of short-term cash and sometimes entertaining like when Paige had realized that Cordelia Merriweather must finally be nearing the end of her money. Just last week, the poor woman had sold practically every single one of her designer dresses and gowns from the 1950s. At a huge discount. Ronnie was clever that way. Like a shark, she could smell incipient poverty in the water the minute the poor woman crossed the threshold.
So Paige had done the first thing that had come to mind, the morning she’d awakened with Winston snoring away and her head feeling like an axe was buried deep in the brain tissue: She’d picked up the phone.
“You can’t be serious,” she’d said to the lard-belly cop with the Burt Reynolds mustache. “Do you know who I am?”
“Yes, ma’am, but there do seem to be irregularities with the cash register tally that Ms. Elmendorf attributes to you.”
That had both cops raising their eyebrows at one another.
The other one, who would surely see better and definitely look better with contacts, had said, “She was going to fire you the next time she caught you with your hand in the till.”
“I never stole a thing from Ronnie. She was my friend. Or at least I thought she was.”
“She was your boss.”
“So you were gonna get fired. You knew it. You phoned in the bomb threat, and then BOOM!” His fist hit the table, making Paige flinch. “We can check the phone records, you realize.”
That’s when she decided to lawyer up.
“I’m telling you, guys. It was a zoo.” Dan Benson took a swig of his beer. “A real zoo.”
“Back in the Eighties was it?” said Joe Nelson, the rookie. Mike O’Leary’s nephew often hung out with the old geezers, probably trying to pick up something useful.
“Yep. Before smartphones, Facebook, even the fucking Internet.” Dan leaned his chair back, balancing on the two back legs. That always got their attention because, considering he weighed close to two-fifty, they’d be wondering if the chair could take it. “Never solved the fucking thing, either, although we did have a pool.”
“A what?” said Joe.
“You never heard of a pool, kid?” Dan rolled his eyes. “Like the Final Four? The Super Bowl?”
The kid didn’t look much like his uncle, except for the pug nose. “Well, the chief didn’t know it, of course. But a guy’s gotta let off steam somehow.”
That got a round of chuckles from the three former cops gathered for their weekly happy hour at Moe’s on State Street.
Joe still looked a bit lost. “You guys were betting on whodunit?”
“Yep.” Dan held his hand up, touching his index finger. “First there’s the owner. Good lookin’ broad who happens to have a huge policy on the place. Could have collected five hunnerd on it, although I’m not sure they ever paid off, considering the suspicious circumstances. My money was on her.”
“That’s not much—”
“Thousand, dope. Five hundred thousand. On a place that sold used clothes. Go figure.”
“Doesn’t seem like a whole lot to me.”
Roger Ash leaned forward, patting the kid on the shoulder. Always did have a head for numbers, but the poor guy was near to blind now, despite two cataract operations. “This was more’n thirty years ago, kid. Today, that’d be like over a million.”
“Anyway,” said Dan, touching his middle finger. “Roger liked the girl.”
“He always liked the girl,” said Mike. The guy’s hair was still the color of Florida oranges, and with him pushing seventy.
When the laughter subsided, Dan went on. “Pretty young thing named Paige Overton.”
“Oakley,” said Roger. “Stuck up snob with more money than Bill Gates. Anyway, like I always told you, Dan, the phone records prove it.”
“What phone records?” said Dan. “You only got hers since the other two were smart enough to use pay phones. Doesn’t add up to squat, especially since your girl didn’t call 9-1-1.”
Roger crossed his arms, lower lip jutting forward. “Nope. She had that ol’ ace in the hole, Arnie. Why call in a stupid threat when you know a guy can actually do it?”
“Wait!” Joe held his hand out. “What guy? Who’s Arnie?”
Mike was looking at the kid like he need a brain transplant or something. “You never heard of Arnie? The Anarchist? The one who ‘supposedly’ blew up the First National Bank over in Grand Forks and might have done one in Sioux City, too?”
Joe shook his head. “This chick knew Arnie, the Anarchist?”
“Knew him?” said Dan. “Hell, she used to go out with him till Daddy put the kibosh on it.”
Joe sat there, drumming his fingers on the table. “So two suspects and you couldn’t—”
“Three, son,” said Roger. “Let Dan finish.”
“The third was a fella named Orville Wade. Piece of white trash. No priors, but records showed he’d skated pretty close to the line a couple of times. The owner, Miz Elmendorf, had just fired him, and he was pretty steamed.”
“That’s where I put my money,” said Mike. “Sure, the owner had motive on the insurance angle, but the Paige girl? You ask me, if she asked ol’ Arnie to do it, it was just a whim. Girls just wanna have fun, ya know?”
“Blowing the place up was fun?” Joe said, his eyes bugging out.
“Making a phony bomb threat,” said Dan. “Go on, Mike. State your case.”
“This Orville fella. He’s gotta get revenge. Otherwise, the wife’ll give him what-for. He wouldn’t just make an empty threat; he’d go the distance.”
“But he didn’t know squat about making bombs, Mike,” said Dan.
“And he was as dim a bulb as you’d ever want to encounter in the dead of night,” added Roger. “Paige Oakley did it, and she got away with it.”
There was a moment of silence as the waitress laid down the next round of drinks.
“That should do it, Kathy,” said Dan. “Bring us the tab.”
“So,” said Joe, wiping the foam from his mouth. “Who won the pool?”
“Jesus Christ,” said Roger, laying his head on the sticky table. “Kid’s a moron.”
Dan tipped his chair forward, patting Joe on the shoulder. “Nobody, son. The money’s still there, too. Prolly worth a helluva lot more’n it was back in Eighty-five, too.”
“Oh. ’Cause you never solved it.”
“Got it in one,” said Mike, reaching for his jacket. “That’s why they call it a cold case.”
Veronica Elmendorf Bartlett drained the last of her claret, handing the glass to her husband. “Nothing more for me, darling. I’ve got a busy day tomorrow. I’m expecting a new consignment of 1970s gowns, including some Bill Blass that are to die-for. I might even take first dibs.”
Her legs, draped across Greg’s lap, were still damp from her bath. “Did I ever tell you yours is the best foot massage in the world?”
He smiled. “Oh, once or twice, I seem to recall.” His fingers wandered up to her ankles and then to her knees, slipping beneath her silk robe. “Did I ever tell you how luscious you are?”
Scooting next to her husband, Veronica slid her hand inside his open shirt. “If I was that irresistible, you’d have paid my insurance claim thirty years ago, and I’d be a wealthy woman.”
“You are a wealthy woman.”
She kissed the cleft in his chin, her favorite spot. “That is true. I have you, which is all I ever really needed.”
“Well that’s good because the claim is still being adjusted.” His hand came to a stop at her lace undies. “Such things do take time.”
“So you have often said, my dear.” She guided his hand downward. “How about you adjusting my claim right now, big boy?”
Orville Wade leaned back in the barcalounger, the empty bottle of whisky on the floor beside him. Fay and Sharonda weren’t never coming back this time. He’d begged her, practically on his knees, but she’d only looked at him, her mouth twisted in bitterness. “I tole you last time, Orville Dean Wade. You get yourself fired again, and we’re done.”
He’d still been trying to explain how it wasn’t his fault when the front door slammed shut, followed by the ignition grinding as she’d tried to get the damn truck started. If he’d only had the guts back the first time. If he’d actually done something to prove his manhood back then, Fay might of showed a little respect. But, no. He’d settled for the chicken-shit thing, threatening something that another guy—someone with real balls—had gone ahead and done. But who was that guy? Aw, hell. Who gave a shit?
Paige Oakley Abelard Montague Smith stared through the window of the log cabin at the snow falling outside. It was so fucking cold in here, she could see her breath. How had it come to this? Bound to a man she loathed by a tie far more constricting than love. Too bad Foster Montague was dead, especially because she’d been stupid enough to sign a prenup giving everything to his worthless kids. Looking back, she probably should have stayed with Winston Abelard, crashing bore that he’d turned out to be. But, then, staying hadn’t really been an option, had it? In a moment of drunken inhibition, she’d bragged about bombing Ronnie’s store to Kingdom Come, and the next day Winston had filed for divorce—not because he couldn’t stand being married to someone who’d committed a felony, mind you, but because he was jealous that she’d called Arnie.
“You coming to bed Paigey?” her husband called from the loft.
You are so stuck, now. How she hated that nickname. How she had grown to despise the man who called her that. She was trapped, while Arnie seemed to have got exactly what he wanted: living off what remained of her trust fund, sucking her dry while making her live in this godforsaken wilderness, boasting how he’d never done a lick of work for the Man and never would. Dad would roll over in his grave.
Caroline Taylor is the author of two private-eye mysteries featuring P.J. Smythe, What Are Friends For? and Jewelry from a Grave.
Check out her website at: http://www.carolinestories.com/
Copyright © 2015 Caroline Taylor. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!