Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to publish excerts from Liz Stauffer’s ‘Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club. The book can be purchased via Amazon.
Liz Stauffer wrote stories in high school, but transferred her writing skills to the corporate world after her divorce from an Air Force pilot, as a means of supporting her two young sons. Moving between educational research and the computer world, she wrote everything from political encyclopedias and travel articles, to marketing literature and software manuals. But it wasn’t until she found herself stranded in a South Dakota winter, that she returned to writing fiction.
After a successful corporate career, Liz gave up that world to travel and to write, and in some cases, to combine her two loves. Having lived in some fourteen states during her early adult years, she’s traveled to all fifty states, and to some fifty countries on four continents. When not traveling, she lives with her two dogs in Hollywood, Florida.
For several years after retiring, Liz lived six months a year in Pen Mar, Maryland, a small community nestled into the foothills of the Appalachians, straddling the Maryland/Pennsylvania border, her house just feet from the Appalachian Trail. Pen Mar, once the site of a grand summer resort built by the railroad in the late nineteenth century, is the inspiration for the site of her Thursday Morning Breakfast and Murder Club mysteries. Her protagonist, Lillie Mae Harris, shares some of her own interests. Both women love to talk, love their friends and family but also love to meet new people, love to be outside, and love to hike. Lillie Mae would bike as much as Liz does, if the country roads she cruises were supportive to biking. Liz also has a great love of the beach, which Lillie Mae finds hot and tedious.
Currently Liz is working on the third Thursday morning breakfast club mystery and is planning a grand epic that features the Pen Mar Park and Resort.
Thursday Morning Breakfast (and Murder) Club
Copyright © 2013 Liz Stauffer
Cover design by Rachel Turner
Sartoris Literary Group, Inc.
Things are not always what they seem in Liz Stauffer’s fast paced book of murder, mystery, and intrigue. When the “breakfast club” ladies of idyllic Mount Penn see bruises on Clare Ballard’s pretty face, they suspect her hot-headed husband of abusing her, but the truth is much more complicated. When violence disrupts this Appalachian village’s lazy routine, the ladies, led by the irascible Lillie Mae Harris, jump feet first into danger as bodies appear, neighbors disappear, and Clare is arrested for murder. Follow Lillie Mae and the other “breakfast club” ladies, who, armed with casseroles and pastries, help the police uncover the deep secrets this town hides beneath its perfect facade.
When she spoke the words, her voice was so low it was barely above a whisper. With the phone still ringing on the other end of the line, the sturdy woman with short, curly red hair dropped the handset back into its cradle and began to pace.
Lillie Mae Harris stopped at the front window, taking no notice of the white buds that were just opening on the two Bradford pear trees in her front yard, or the spring flowers peeping through the freshly hoed soil in the close-by flower bed.
Her thoughts were of Clare.
She had the best view in Mount Penn from this window. On a winter’s morning she could see for some thirty miles out over the valley with the big blue sky as the backdrop. The night view was even more amazing, offering a shower of dancing lights in the distance, competing only with the brightest stars.
It was now early spring and the vista had already begun to shrink even though the trees were just beginning to bud. Once the trees were filled out with big green leaves the view would pull in even more until fall, when the colors exploded and the view once again took one’s breath away. But today the scenery did nothing to still Lillie Mae’s pounding heart or quell her shaking hands. She couldn’t stop worrying about Clare. Rushing back to the phone, she scooped it up, and punched in a familiar number.
“Hello,” Alice Portman answered in her sweet Southern drawl, after just one ring. Her Jack Russell terrier, Alfred, barked in the background.
“Clare’s not answering her phone this morning,” Lillie Mae said. “I’m so worried about her, Alice. I’m not sure what to do.”
“Settle down, Lillie Mae,” Alice said, shushing Alfred. “Why are you so concerned today?”
“You were at the water meeting last night,” Lillie Mae said. “You saw how Roger was acting. Yelling and screaming like an idiot. When he’s gotten that riled up in the past, Clare’s been his punching bag.”
“Well, yes,” Alice agreed, deliberately slowing the pace of the conversation. “But, Roger was just being Roger last night, dear. Just showing off. I didn’t see anything unusual in his behavior. Certainly nothing to make you so worried this morning.”
“He was acting worse than usual,” Lillie Mae insisted, still pacing the living room floor. “And I’m sure he drank himself crazy when the meeting was finally over. That’s the real reason I’m worried, Alice. You know how he is when he drinks. What he does to Clare.”
“Roger playacts, you know, when it suits him, Lillie Mae,” Alice said, her voice still soft and cool. “He knows he’s going to make a lot of money hooking people up to the public water in a few short months, but he wants to come across as the good guy to his neighbors, not the money grubbing fool that he is. He’ll use every wile that he has to seduce the community. If the project fails, which it won’t this time, he looks like he’s the man who stopped it. If it passes, he wins big time.”
“You’re probably right, Alice,” Lillie Mae said, calming a bit. “I know Roger is shrewd. If he wasn’t always out there trying to make a deal, he wouldn’t be Roger, I guess.”
“So, stop overreacting, Lillie Mae. What’s brought all this on anyway?”
“I’ve been calling Clare’s house all morning and nobody answers the phone,” Lillie Mae said. “It’s stupid, I know, but I picture Clare lying on her kitchen floor, needing my help. Dead, even.”
A sigh escaped Alice’s lips. “You’re way over dramatizing this morning, Lillie Mae,” she said. “Roger’s not even home. He drove by me in that stupid yellow Hummer of his while Alfred and I were out on our early morning walk.”
“That’s good to hear,” Lillie Mae said.
“Stop imagining the worst, Lillie Mae. Clare’s probably out, too. It’s such a warm spring day. Doesn’t she usually go grocery shopping on Wednesday mornings?”
“Maybe,” Lillie Mae conceded. “Or she could be in her garden, I guess.”
“She’ll call you back when she gets to it,” Alice said, a hint of impatience in her voice.
“I doubt if she does.” Lillie Mae’s voice broke. “She rarely calls me anymore. We’ve been such good friends for so many years and I miss her, Alice. I wish I knew what I did wrong.”
“Clare’s changing, Lillie Mae. She’s getting stronger. Give the girl some space.”
“I’ve noticed a change, too,” Lillie Mae said, “since Billy went off to university. She does have more confidence, I’ll give you that.”
“Have you written your article on the water meeting for the Antioch Gazette, yet?” Alice asked. “I thought it was due today.”
“Not yet,” Lillie Mae confessed. “I’ve been too worried about Clare.”
“Maybe being busy will take your mind off things that are not really any of your business,” Alice said.
“I guess you’re right. Clare is a big girl and can take care of herself.”
“Did you hear that Clare and Dale Beavers are going to sing a duet in church on Sunday?” Alice asked, deliberately changing the subject. “They’re practicing for the county competition next month. They’re entered, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know. That is good news.” Lillie Mae smiled for the first time that morning. “Roger stopped her singing for way too many years, except for the church choir, and he didn’t really like her doing that very much.”
“Let’s hope Clare and Dale win the competition,” Alice chuckled. “That should piss off Roger rather nicely.”
“Alice!” Lillie Mae exclaimed, laughing. “I don’t think I’ve heard you say anything like that before.”
“That’s because you can’t read my thoughts.”
“Are you going over to Janet’s for supper?” Lillie Mae asked, remembering the pot luck dinner was this evening.
“Yes,” Alice said. “Janet’s throwing quite a party. She’s invited half of Mount Penn to view Pete’s new truck. Are you?”
“Harriet and Kevin are picking me up, promptly at five forty-five.”
“Don’t be late,” Alice warned. “When Harriet says five forty-five, she means five forty-five.”
“I know that well,” Lillie Mae said, then suddenly turned serious again when her thoughts returned to Clare. “I’m going to walk down to Clare’s house and check things out before I start on the article. I need to make certain she’s all right, or I won’t be able to concentrate on my work. Do you want to come along?”
“No, you go on, if it’ll make you feel better,” Alice said. “You can fill me in on the details at dinner this evening.”
* * *
Lillie Mae walked outside a few minutes later, and the cool, crisp mountain air hit her full in the face. Taking a deep breath, she glanced toward her small flower garden by the side of the patio. The daffodils had ballooned overnight. Yesterday they were just starting to open. Now they were stunning, the bright yellow blooms and the rich green stalks swaying like a colorful wave in the bright sunshine. Several tulips had popped out of their bulbs overnight as well, merging pink and red into the yellow sea.
“I’ll take Clare a bouquet,” she said to herself, knowing full well that Clare’s flowers were as plentiful as her own. But it would give her an excuse for the pop-in visit.
Ten minutes later Lillie Mae set off on her journey carrying a vase filled with tulips and daffodils. Turning the corner at her back yard, she looked at the wrap-around porch on the two-story traditional house directly across the street from her own and thought of Sam and Margaret Jenkins, the nice young couple who had been her neighbors since they moved to the mountain five years ago.
The house looked deserted that morning. Either the Jenkins had gone away or Margaret was having one of her bad days. She’d find out later how Margaret was doing, she thought as she walked down the small hill they shared and turned onto the smooth unlined blacktop of Chestnut Lane.
“Lillie Mae, over here” someone called.
Twisting her head, Lillie Mae saw Joyce and Carlos Castro, both tall and lean, and rather exotic looking, walking towards her. In sync the pair threw their hands in the air and waved. Lillie Mae nodded, the vase of flowers preventing her from waving back.
“What a lovely spring bouquet,” Joyce said, as she and Carlos drew closer.
“It’s for Clare,” Lillie Mae said, knowing it sounded silly since Clare’s gardens were the envy of the town. Her round cheeks turned a pale shade of pink.
“Really,” Joyce said. “Clare?”
“Frankly, Joyce I’m worried about her,” Lillie Mae said. “I’m using these flowers as an excuse to make sure she’s all right this morning.”
“Is she sick?” Carlos asked, a look of alarm on his handsome Roman features, his accent more pronounced than usual.
“No, not sick,” Lillie Mae said. “It’s just that I phoned her house earlier, and nobody picked up. Not even the voice mail.”
“Why are you so worried?” Joyce asked, her British accent a contrast to her husband’s Spanish tones. “Carlos and I are so out of the loop. We’ve been frightfully busy since Carlos started working on the new documentary film, you see. Do tell us what’s going on in Mount Penn.”
Lillie Mae told them about the water meeting the night before and Roger Ballard’s suspicious behavior.
“Wish you’d been there to see all the drama yourself. You see things more objectively than the rest of us Mount Penn folk. I guess it’s because you haven’t lived here very long, and you’re not as emotionally attached to this place as the rest of us.”
Carlos stepped back as if avoiding a punch. “We bought this house over ten years ago, Lillie Mae. We’re as much a part of this community as anybody else on the mountain. Sam and Margaret Jenkins are the newcomers, not us. They’ve only lived here five years.”
“But you’ve only been in your house, what four years full-time. The first six years you were just weekenders, and we don’t count that,” Lillie Mae said, failing to notice there was no smile on Carlos’ face.
Joyce noticed that Carlos was none too pleased with Lillie Mae, and interceded. “Of course, Lillie Mae, everyone who wasn’t born and raised in this area is a newcomer to you. But we love it here, and we consider Mount Penn our home.”
Joyce held her arm out and swirled her body around, a move that showed off the dancer she used to be. “How could you not? Look how lovely it all is.”
Lillie Mae’s eyes followed Joyce’s movement. Budding pear trees glowed white in most every yard, pink Japanese maple buds were ready to burst, the forsythia was in full bloom, and the rhododendron ready to pop. Joyce was right. Who wouldn’t want to live on this mountain?
“Of course you’re a part of this community,” Lillie Mae said. Thinking it best to change the subject before she stuffed her foot any deeper into her mouth, she went on. “Speaking of Sam and Margaret, have you heard any news about them? I just passed their place and it looks deserted.”
“I haven’t heard anything,” Carlos said, silently checking with Joyce.
“Sam usually lets us know if he and Margaret are going somewhere,” Joyce said.
“Margaret could be having one of her bad days,” Lillie Mae said, a frown deepening the crease in her forehead. “The change of season probably affects her more than the rest of us.”
“Poor Margaret. Too young to be housebound so much of the time.”
“At least she has some good days,” Lillie Mae said.
Carlos broke out in a laugh. “Look who’s coming down the road.”
The two ladies turned to see Sam Jenkins, some thirty feet away, walking down the mountain road. Not quite tall, but still lanky, his sandy hair ruffled, he was taking long strides, a walking cane in his hand, his eyes focused on the road, and seemingly lost in his own thoughts.”
“Hello, Sam,” Carlos called. “Over here.”
Sam raised his eyes toward the trio. “Can’t stop now, Carlos,” he said as he continued his stride down the hill. “I have to get home right away. Margaret’s been alone far too long this morning.”
“How is she?” Joyce called.
“It’s not been a good day,” Sam said. “But I’ll tell her you asked about her.”
“I’ll bring a casserole over later today for your dinner,” Joyce called back.
“Don’t go to any bother,” Sam said. “You’ve been so kind already, and we haven’t reciprocated.”
“It’s no bother,” Joyce called back. “I have an extra casserole in the freezer and don’t worry about reciprocating. They’ll be plenty of time for that when Margaret’s better.”
“See you at breakfast in the morning, Sam?” Lillie Mae called.
“We’ll be there, if we can.”
Sam waved his hand again as he walked on.
“Sam has a lot on his shoulders for such a young man,” Carlos said, watching him near his own house. “Margaret is damn lucky to have him. Not every husband would take care of his wife the way Sam takes care of Margaret.”
“Let’s hope she feels better soon,” Lillie Mae said.
Joyce nodded her head, but remained quiet, her eyes still focused on Sam’s path.
“I’ve gotta go, if I want to be at Clare’s before lunchtime,” Lillie Mae said, turning toward the street. Stepping into the road, she noticed a truck speeding toward her. Before she could move out of its way, it blew by, missing her only by a few inches. Loud rap music spewed from the open window of the older, ragged, black Ford pickup. Lillie Mae jumped back onto the curb, her stomach turning flip flops.
“Any closer that guy would have hit me!” she yelled, twisting to catch her balance.
Carlos rushed toward her, Joyce at his side. “That truck must have come out of Carl Lewis’ driveway. I didn’t get a good look, but I’d guess it was a couple of kids by the sound of the music.”
“Are you all right, Lillie Mae?” Joyce asked.
“I’ll live,” Lillie Mae said, her eyes burning holes in the back of the truck. “But no thanks to those two young people.”
“I’ve seen several cars go up that way this morning,” Carlos said, turning toward the entrance to the driveway of the local drug dealer’s trailer. “Something’s going on up there, and I doubt if it’s any good.”
“How that man continues to peddle drugs when everybody knows what he’s up to is beyond me,” Lillie Mae said, hugging the vase of flowers close to her chest. “Surely Charlie Warren could put a stop to it.”
“Charlie can only do what he can do,” said Carlos. “I hear whenever the cops raid the place, it’s clean. Somebody in the know has to be in on it all.”
“Not Charlie!’ Lillie Mae said, shocked.
“Of course not Charlie,” Carlos said. “No more honest cop ever existed. He’s a great guy and a good neighbor.”
“Follow the money,” Lillie Mae said, “and you’ll find the real culprit.”
Carlos laughed. “With all the traffic that goes up to Carl’s place each week, you’d think he’d be the man with the money. Instead he lives in a broken down old trailer. Maybe vice doesn’t pay.”
“Somebody’s making money.”
Lillie Mae nodded in agreement.
“But it sure ain’t Carl Lewis.”
“It’s too bad our closest neighbor is a drug dealer,” Joyce said, her former high spirits doused. “I just hate that man living here in Mount Penn. It’s just not right.”
“Now I really have to go.” Lillie Mae clutched the vase of flowers to her chest, and looked both ways before stepping into the street again. “Are you going to Janet’s for dinner this evening?”
“We’ll be there,” Joyce said. “And, we’ll be at breakfast in the morning, too. Take care until then.”
* * *
Roger Ballard’s yellow Hummer was not in the driveway when Lillie Mae arrived at Clare’s house a few minutes later, but Clare’s Ford Escort was. That was good news on both fronts.
Lillie Mae walked around to the back of the large white two-story house trimmed with neat green shutters, to see if Clare might be working in the garden as she often was at this time of the day. She paused when she heard Clare’s voice through the open back door. She sounded angry. Or was it scared?
Lillie Mae couldn’t tell for sure. As she neared the back of the house, Lillie Mae could see through the screen door that Clare was on the phone, her back facing the door. Ready to call out a greeting, Lillie Mae stopped when she heard what Clare said next.
“No, don’t come over here. I’m fine.”
A brief pause.
“There is nothing for you to worry about. It was an accident. Really. Roger didn’t touch me. I told you the truth about what happened.”
“We have to be careful,” Clare said, her voice quivering. “If anyone finds out what we’ve done, it would be a disaster for both of us. Roger would kill us if he knew or even suspected.”
A stab of guilt pricked Lillie Mae’s conscience. She stepped back around the side of the house and then called out a belated greeting in her loudest voice. “Clare, are you home? Lillie Mae here.” She moved again toward the back door.
“Just a minute Lillie Mae,” Clare called back. “I’ll be right there.”
Lillie Mae could hear rustling in the kitchen and what could have been Clare whispering and then hanging up the phone. Clare’s big black tomcat was at the door mewing to get out, making it impossible to hear the rest of the muffled conversation.
Clare stood at the door a few seconds later, flushed and anxious. “Thanks for stopping by, Lillie Mae,” she said, brushing a strand of dark-brown hair behind her ear as she pushed the door open with her other hand. The slight smile on her lips was not in her bright blue eyes. “What a beautiful bouquet you have with you.”
“It’s for you.” Lillie Mae stretched the vase out toward her friend.
Clare took the flowers from Lillie Mae, then ushered her into the large country kitchen. “Come in and tell me the news,” Clare said, without much enthusiasm. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
“That would be nice,” Lillie Mae said.
Clare busily arranged an impromptu coffee while Lillie Mae took a seat at the table. Watching her friend as she prepared the table, Lillie Mae was struck again at how attractive Clare was despite her years with Roger. A large-boned woman, Clare could easily be a plus-size model with curves in all the right places. Although she must be in her mid-forties by now, Lillie Mae thought she could pass for a younger woman. Only her son Billy, now a freshman at the university, gave her age away.
Clare set the table with raisin-nut muffins, butter and jam, and a plate of strawberries and fresh pineapple, then poured the coffee in the mugs at each of their places. She had set the flowers in the center of the table. Sitting opposite Lillie Mae, she passed her the plate of fruit, “These are the first strawberries out of my garden. I picked them this morning.”
Lillie Mae took one of the deep red strawberries from the bowl Clare had passed her, and popped it into her mouth. “That’s good,” she said when she had swallowed. “So sweet for an early spring berry.”
“Sweet berries always come after a cold winter.” Clare picked up a berry and tasted it.
It was then that Lillie Mae saw the bruise on her left cheek.
“That bastard!” Lillie Mae said. “What did Roger do to you?”
“Roger didn’t do anything to me, Lillie Mae,” Clare said.
“Right!” Lillie Mae exclaimed. “Roger never touches you, does he? In all the years I’ve known you, you haven’t had one bruise or broken bone, thanks to Roger Ballard, have you, Clare?”
Clare looked Lillie Mae squarely in the eyes, and said very slowly, enunciating each word. “Roger did not do this to me, Lillie Mae. It was a stupid accident I did to myself.”
“Right,” Lillie Mae said again, this time muttering under her breath.
Clare blushed. “I’ll tell you what happened if you give me the chance. You’re so judgmental, Lillie Mae. You jump to the worst conclusions with very little information, and you always have to be right. I’m not a needy little girl anymore. I can take care of myself.”
Lillie Mae stared at her friend, shocked by the outburst. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you know what I hate the most, Lillie Mae?” Clare said, ignoring her friend’s apology. “The pity. I can see it in your eyes and I can’t stand it. Why do you think I’ve been avoiding you lately?”
Tears sprang to Lillie Mae’s eyes.
“Clare I didn’t realize—again, I’m sorry,” she said, truly repentant. “Tell me what happened last night, and I promise I’ll believe you.”
Clare looked at her friend for what seemed like a full minute.
“It was so stupid,” she finally said, as if the earlier conversation hadn’t taken place. “I went to bed around ten o’clock and went straight to sleep. It had been a busy day and I was tired. When I woke up around midnight and Roger wasn’t home yet, I got worried. As you know, when Roger stays out late, he usually comes home drunk.”
Clare glanced at Lillie Mae, who was nodding, but didn’t wait for her to say anything. “Most of the time he falls asleep on the sofa in the living room, but, on the rare occasion, he wants to talk to me. All I have to do to avoid him is to hide in Billy’s room. Roger never thinks to look for me there. So, last night when I was moving to Billy’s room, I didn’t turn on the lights in case Roger came home just then, and I tripped on an old pair of his boots that he had left by the landing. I fell and hit my cheek on the wall. That’s what happened, Lillie Mae. As I told you before, Roger didn’t touch me.”
“So it really was an accident,” Lillie Mae said, thinking that indirectly Roger was as responsible for the accident as he would have been had he made the blow himself. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, Lillie Mae, there’s nothing I need from you or anybody. I’ve told you it’s not a big deal. I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine. Please, let’s not talk about it anymore. Okay?”
“Okay,” Lillie Mae said, wondering who else Clare had been trying to convince it wasn’t a big deal that morning.
The phone rang, the shrill noise blasting through the tension in the air. Clare turned pale. She looked over her shoulder at the phone, than back at Lillie Mae. “I’m not going to answer that,” she said with a nervous laugh. “I’ve been getting so many crank phone calls lately.”
Lillie Mae moved her eyes from Clare to the phone, but remained quiet.
The ringing stopped as quickly as it had begun. Clare inhaled deeply and clasped her hands, but Lillie Mae could see they were shaking.
“Let’s go outside, Lillie Mae,” Clare said, jumping to her feet. “It’s way too pretty a morning to be sitting in the house. Besides I want to show you my garden. The onions, carrots, and the spring lettuce I planted last week are already peeking through the soil.” Clare picked up a bowl off the counter. “Let’s pick some strawberries for you to take home.”
Lillie Mae glanced back over her shoulder at the phone as she followed Clare out of the house.
Lillie Mae washed her lunch plate by hand and stood gazing out the window by the sink, thinking of her morning with Clare, when she heard a tap on her back door window. Turning, she saw her next-door neighbor, Hester Franklin, gesturing wildly. Lillie Mae wiped her hands on the tea towel hanging from the stove, and rushed to answer the door.
“Oh, Lillie Mae,” Hester said, her pale hazel eyes glaring and the boney fingers of her hands wringing together as she stumbled into the room. “You’ve got to help me.”
“Hester, come in and sit down,” Lillie Mae said. “You look terrible.” She guided the shaken woman to a chair. “Take a deep breath, pull yourself together, and tell me what’s wrong.”
Trying to choke back a sob, Hester covered her face with her hands. “It’s all so awful, Lillie Mae. I don’t know how to tell you what’s happened.”
“Don’t say anything for a minute, Hester. Just settle yourself.” Lillie Mae massaged Hester’s shoulders and could feel her relax just a bit. “Let me get you a cup of coffee, dear, and then we’ll talk.”
After Hester had taken a few deep breaths, Lillie Mae walked over to the counter and poured the freshly brewed coffee she always kept available for an unexpected visitor into the two bright red coffee cups she took from the drying rack.
“It’s all so awful,” Hester repeated, watching Lillie Mae set a coffee mug on the table in front of her. Her hands still shaking, she slowly picked it up, and took a sip.
“Are you sick, Hester?” Lillie Mae asked. “Do you need me to take you to the doctor?”
“There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m perfectly well, under the circumstances. It’s so much worse than that, Lillie Mae.”
Hester used her free hand to wipe away a tear.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me,” Lillie Mae said.
Hester inhaled sharply. “It’s Patrick,” she said. “Mabel’s boy. He was arrested this morning for transporting drugs. He called me a little bit ago from the Antioch police station.”
“No!” Lillie Mae said, taken aback. “This is serious.”
“I told you it was awful,” Hester said.
“What did Patrick have to say for himself?”
“We could only talk a couple of minutes, and he wasn’t making much sense, being upset like he was,” Hester said. “He told me that he and that friend of his, Jerry Foster, went up to Carl Lewis’ place this morning to meet Roger Ballard. They were supposed to pick up some piping for Roger, but he didn’t show. Carl was there, but he told the boys he didn’t know anything about any pick up. The boys waited around Carl’s place for almost a half hour for Roger to come, and then left in none-too-pleased spirits. They were driving toward Antioch when the police stopped them.”
“Were they driving an old black pickup truck?” Lillie Mae asked, remembering her near miss earlier that morning.
“Sounds right,” Hester said. “Jerry has this beat-up old Ford truck he drives around.”
“Do the boys like loud music?” Lillie Mae asked.
“It’s horrible. They play that awful radio so loud all the time.”
“That’s what I thought,” Lillie Mae said. “So, what happened after the police stopped them?”
Hester choked back another sob. “According to Patrick the cops checked the bed of the truck and found a large package of drugs under an old blanket.”
“Oh, dear,” Lillie Mae said. “Is Patrick into drugs?”
“No, never!” Hester exclaimed, her face now a beet red. “He swore to me he knew nothing about the drugs. He was shocked when the package was found. He swears it wasn’t there when he and Jerry took off that morning.”
“What happened then?”
“The police took the boys to the Antioch jail, Lillie Mae. Patrick’s going to be locked up like a common criminal.” Hester eyes were now the size of saucers. “And he’s asked me to come and get him out. He begged me to help him.”
“Where’s Mabel?” Lillie Mae asked.
“Mabel’s on another business trip this week. She’s always out of town on business these days, Lillie Mae. Ever since she got that new job with that big computer company all she does is travel and work.”
“What about Patrick?”
“Patrick’s stays at home by himself. He may be almost nineteen, but he’s still too young to be left alone so much. And, I’m too old to be responsible for him. He’s way too much for me to handle.”
“What did Mabel say when you called her?”
Hester hesitated. “I haven’t called her yet.”
“You have to call Mabel and tell her what’s happened,” Lillie Mae said. “You better do it right away.”
“I just can’t—not yet,” Hester said, her eyes welling up again. “You know how Mabel is, Lillie Mae. She flies off the handle at the slightest thing. I’ll call her tonight once I know more. I can’t take care of Patrick and deal with Mabel at the same time.”
“So what are you going to do now?” Lillie Mae asked.
“I’ve never been to a police station in my life, and I’m scared. I don’t even know where it is in Antioch. I need your help, Lillie Mae. Will you drive me?”
Quickly thinking what else she needed to do that afternoon, Lillie Mae decided nothing was more important than helping Hester. “Of course, I’ll drive you, dear.”
“Thank you, Lillie Mae. Thank you so much.”
“You should call Sid Firth,” Lillie Mae said. “He’s the best lawyer in these parts.”
“I called Sid before I came over here,” Hester said, pushing her coffee mug back and struggling to her feet, suddenly in a hurry. “He’s going to meet us at the police station in an hour.”
“Then let’s go. I’ll get my purse and keys and meet you by the car in ten minutes. And Hester,” Lillie Mae said, when the frightened older woman turned back to her’ “Everything will be all right.”
Lillie Mae’s heart did a flip when Hester attempted one of the saddest smiles she had ever seen.
* * *
“Pull yourself together, please,” Lillie Mae said, as she guided a flustered and disheveled Hester into the Antioch Police station. “You’ve got to be brave for Patrick.”
For the first half of the trip down the mountain and into the town, Hester seemed fine, but the closer they got to the police station, the more frantic she became. By the time Lillie Mae drove into the parking lot, Hester was a bundle of nerves, squirming like a small child. It took all Lillie Mae’s patience to get the older woman out of the car and into the small, yet forbidding building.
Sid Firth, a stocky, balding man of indeterminate age approached them as they entered the large stark room that served as the lobby.
“Thank goodness you’re here,” Hester said. Transferring her arm from Lillie Mae’s to Sid’s, she gazed up at him with glassy eyes, and asked in a voice suddenly old and frail. “Have you seen our Patrick?”
Sid looked down at Hester, his face stoic but comforting, and patted her hand. “Get a hold of yourself, my dear. I have seen Patrick and he told me what happened. Now it’s time for us to talk. Let’s go find an empty interview room.”
As if noticing her for the first time, Sid nodded toward Lillie Mae. “Thank you for driving Hester here, Lillie Mae. I know how difficult this is for her, and your being here helps make it a little easier for her. She needs to sign some papers. Will you come with us please?”
Sid guided Hester across the large room to a small office. Lillie Mae followed. The room contained a small round conference table and four folding chairs. Sid helped Hester to the chair closest to the door. Lillie Mae took the chair across from Hester, and Sid sat between the two ladies.
“Where’s Patrick now?” Hester asked.
Sid glanced at Lillie Mae, a look that pleaded with her to keep quiet. Taking Hester’s hand into his, he said. “I’m afraid the news is not good, Hester. Patrick has been taken to a holding cell and will have to stay here for now. He’s to be called in front of the judge tomorrow morning at nine o’clock for the arraignment. I’ll be there with him. I want you in the courtroom, too.”
Hester winced. “Please don’t make me come back here tomorrow, Sid. I can’t face it again. I’m an old woman.”
Squeezing Hester’s hand, Sid remained quiet for a few moments. It was only after he felt her relax that he said. “I promise I’ll stay with you during the arraignment.”
“You will do that for me?” Hester stared at Sid, the color returning to her face.
“This is Patrick’s first offense, Hester, so I’m certain we’ll be able to get him out of jail on bail by tomorrow afternoon. My assistant is making the arrangements. But, I need you here in the morning to show the judge that Patrick comes from a good family who support him.”
“Why can’t he come home with me now?” Hester asked.
“The situation is more serious than we first thought. Apparently the Alpine police have been watching Carl Lewis’ place for a couple of weeks, getting wind of some major drug deal expected to happen there. This morning the Alpine police called for a backup crew from Antioch to set up a road block, having been informed that today was the day the drug parcel was going to be passed. As you know, Patrick and Jerry were pulled over at the road block. When their truck was checked, a package was found under an old blanket in the back.”
Sid paused and inhaled sharply, then continued. “The package contained marijuana, cocaine, and several different kinds of prescription drugs.”
The blood drained completely out of Hester’s face and her head fell to one side. Lillie Mae, having kept her eyes on Hester during Sid’s speech, jumped out of her chair and caught her just as she started to fall.
Sid was out of his chair. “Bring us water, now, please,” he called out the office door to the tall, uniformed attendant standing outside the room.
“You gave me a shock, Sid, but I’m better now,” Hester announced a couple of minutes later after sipping from the glass of water that was brought into the room. Lillie Mae moved back to her chair when Sid pulled his chair closer to Hester, and draped his arm across her back. “Please finish what you were telling me.”
“The charge against Patrick is very serious,” Sid said, his face close to Hester’s, his arm holding her steady. “But, I want you to also know that after talking to Patrick and Jerry, I am convinced that they are innocent.”
Hester leaned toward Sid, color returning to her face. “That’s wonderful news, Sid.”
“But it’s not enough for me to believe they’re innocent, Hester. The boys are still in serious trouble with the police.”
Hester slumped back into her chair. “Please, Sid. Tell me how Patrick is doing.”
Sid sat up straighter, but kept his hand close to Hester’s shoulder. “Patrick’s confused and angry. He claims to know nothing about the drugs, and as I said before, I believe him. His story is simple enough. He and Jerry Foster went up to Carl Lewis’ place to pick up some plumbing supplies for Roger Ballard. Roger was to meet them there and pay Carl, and then tell the boys where to deliver the supplies. But when they arrived at Carl Lewis’s place, Roger wasn’t there. Carl said he knew nothing about the pickup and had not talked to Roger about it. Patrick said he called Roger’s cell phone, but got no answer. When he called Roger’s house, Clare told him she didn’t know where Roger was.”
“What’s Roger got to say about all this?” Lillie Mae asked.
“No one knows where Roger is,” Sid said. “The police are looking for him. They want to talk to him as much as I do.”
“How about Carl Lewis?” Lillie Mae asked. “Surely he must have put the package in the back of the boys’ truck.”
“Carl Lewis is missing, too, although Charlie Warren did speak to him briefly, shortly after the incident occurred. He must know the police want to talk to him again. I suspect that’s why he can’t be found.”
“Can I see Patrick?” Hester asked.
“No, Hester, I’m sorry, but you won’t be allowed to see Patrick today.”
Hester nodded as if expecting Sid’s answer.
Twitching in his chair, Sid rubbed his hand over his bald head. “There’s something else I think you should know, Hester.”
“What?” Hester asked, sitting straighter in her chair, her hands grasping the seat as if trying to forestall the next disaster.
“I’m representing Jerry Foster as well as Patrick at the arrangement tomorrow.”
“I don’t understand,” she said, confused.
“I just didn’t want you to think I wasn’t giving my all to Patrick. I am. And to be honest, I think it’s better for the two boys to go in front of the judge together. Shows uniformity. Just wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it, or to be honest, what Mabel will say when she hears.”
Hester stared at Sid as if considering what Mabel’s reaction might be. “Oh, dear,” she said, and then quickly brightened. “You’re our lawyer, Sid. We have to trust your judgment.”
“Thank you, for that, Hester,” he said, the first hint of a smile on his face since meeting the ladies.
“What else did Patrick tell you?”
Sid’s smile faded. “Patrick believes he was set up, and frankly, so do I. The boys were shocked when the officers found the drugs in their truck. And the shock wasn’t faked. We all know those two boys have been in enough mischief over the years, but never anything really serious, and never anything pertaining to drugs. And, Carl Lewis is a bad one. I wouldn’t put anything past that man.”
“What about Roger Ballard?” Hester asked. “Do you think he used those boys?”
“It certainly looks suspicious, but I’d be surprised. It’s not like Roger to involve two young boys in his doings. As shady as he’s been at times, he’s never done anything illegal. And there’s Billy. Roger adores that boy of his. Billy and Patrick are friends. Of course, Billy’s away at school just now, doing well I hear, so he’s not involved, but I don’t think Roger would set up one of his son’s friends.”
Lillie Mae, who had kept quiet longer than most people would have believed possible, piped up. “I wouldn’t put anything past Roger Ballard.”
Sid glanced toward Lillie Mae. “Patrick would agree with you Lillie Mae. He swears it was Roger who’s behind all this.”
Sid turned back to Hester. “And that’s why I’m worried, Hester. Patrick is angry. He’s saying Roger Ballard is to blame, and he’s going to make things right. When Patrick gets out of here tomorrow, I’m counting on you and Mabel to make sure the boy behaves.”
Hester’s eyes filled with tears again.
“I’ll try. But Patrick doesn’t listen to me, Sid. He will listen to Mabel, though, when she’s home. She doesn’t let him get away with much.”
“When is Mabel getting home?”
Hester cried louder.
“You haven’t called her yet, have you?” Sid said.
Hester shook her head. “You know how Mabel is. I couldn’t take any more grief. She gets so mad, you see.”
Sid stood up. “Lillie Mae, you and Hester come with me. We need to sign some papers, and when we’re done we’re going to call Mabel together.”
Hester looked over her shoulder at Lillie Mae who nodded reassuringly to her.
Sid continued, his voice more stern. “Hester, you have to promise me you’ll be in court in the morning. Will you drive her, Lillie Mae?”
“Not tomorrow, Sid,” Lillie Mae rushed to say. “It’s Thursday morning breakfast. I haven’t missed one in years.”
“Then I’ll come and pick you up.” Sid took hold of Hester’s arm and led her out of the small room. “I’ll be at your house at eight fifteen.”
“Thank you, Sid,” Hester said.
“Will you check on Hester in the morning, see that she’s up and ready, Lillie Mae?” Sid looked over his shoulder at the younger woman trailing the slow moving couple.
“Of course,” she said, glancing at her neighbor. “I’ll do what I can to help.”
Hester turned to Lillie Mae, her face shrouded in misery.
“Mabel will kill that man,” Hester said, her voice barely loud enough to be heard. “I’m so scared of what’s going to happen once she hears what Roger Ballard’s done to Patrick, Lillie Mae. You’ve got to help us.”
Lillie Mae slowly nodded, too frightened to say anything.
* * *
Lillie Mae was working on the water meeting article for the Antioch Gazette at her desk in the corner of the living room, when a loud ring interrupted her thoughts. Checking the caller ID, she saw Peterson on the screen.
“Hi, Harriet,” Lillie Mae said. “What’s up?”
“I’ve been trying to call Hester all afternoon, but nobody answers her phone,” Harriet said. “Janet asked me to invite her to dinner tonight, and then pick her up when we come for you. Do you know where she is?”
Lillie Mae told her the Reader’s Digest version of her afternoon at the jail.
“I left her in bed awhile ago with her phone turned off,” Lillie Mae said. “She’s in no mood to party this evening.”
A buzz on Lillie Mae’s line interrupted them. “I have another call coming in, Harriet. Feast or famine. That’s what I always say. Do you want me to put you on hold, or call you back?”
“I’ll wait,” Harriet said. “Maybe it’s some news.”
“Lillie Mae here.”
“Lillie Mae, its Sam.”
Lillie Mae heard the fear in his voice.
“What’s wrong Sam?”
“Margaret has had an attack. It’s serious this time. She’s been vomiting, and she’s in pain.”
“Oh, dear!” Lillie Mae exclaimed, thinking what next?
“I’ve called her doctor, and he told me to bring her to the emergency room right away. He’s going to meet us there, but I have no idea how long this will take, or when we’ll be back home. I wanted to let someone know where we were going. We know how the neighbors worry about Margaret.”
“What can I do to help?”
“Thanks for asking, Lillie Mae, but there’s nothing to be done right now except for me to get Margaret to the doctor. I’ll keep you updated on her condition.”
“Let me know if I can help in any way, Sam,” Lillie Mae offered, looking out her window at the Jenkins’ house.
Lillie Mae pressed the connection on the phone. “That was Sam Jenkins on the other line,” she said. “Margaret’s had an attack, and he’s taking her to the hospital.”
“Poor Margaret,” Harriet said. “She’s gone through so much.”
Lillie Mae suddenly felt very tired. “This place has gone crazy. I wonder what’s next.”
“That’s not a good question to ask,” Harriet said.
“You’re right about that,” Lillie Mae groaned.
“Listen, girl, Kevin’s calling and I’ve got to go, too. You be ready at five forty-five, hear. We can’t be late for dinner at Janet’s this evening.”
Lillie Mae groaned again, and hung up the phone.
* * *
The rest of the afternoon was surprisingly quiet. Lillie Mae was able to finish the article she was writing for the Antioch Gazette on Mount Penn’s water project. Pressing the send button on her computer, she stood up and stretched, feeling a huge sense of relief now that one project was in her done pile. She moved to the window for a quick peek outside, and saw Carl Lewis’ old black truck parked in front of her house.
“What’s that fool doing here,” she said to the air, and then watched as Carl opened the truck door, and stepped down, and looked in her direction. She stepped back from the window hoping he hadn’t spotted her. When he took a step toward her house, blood rushed to her face, and she checked how close the phone was in case she needed help.
Although his eyes were covered by a pair of large black sunglasses, Lillie Mae felt him staring at her front door for what seemed an eternity, but was probably only a couple of seconds. Her heart raced when he took another step forward. Suddenly he turned around, and walked back up the street, this time stopping in front of Hester’s bungalow. Retracing his earlier steps, he walked toward her house again.
He’s not after me, she thought. He’s pacing. Then, she noticed how nervous he seemed as he kept turning his head back and forth, as if scanning the neighborhood for something or someone.
Finally, he crossed the street and went up on the Jenkins’ front porch. She watched him knock on their door, and then jiggle the knob, as if trying to break in. Glancing over his shoulder at her house again, he jumped off the porch and moved toward the far side of the house, disappearing from Lillie Mae’s view. He reappeared again a minute later, obviously in a hurry. He crossed the street without looking for the rare passing car. He took a cell phone out of his pocket and punched in a number before getting into his truck.
“I wonder what that was all about,” she said to herself.
Picking up the phone she called Charlie Warren.