Something about the Out of Time antique store didn’t feel quite right that Tuesday afternoon. The rattle of that annoying bell Marion Peters insisted on hanging over the front door combined with the shock of cool air against my hot skin managed to fry all my circuits and make me feel a little crazy. Kind of like the days when my kids each used to demand all my attention at once.
“Mercy, Marion,” I reached up to still the clattering noisemaker and called down the narrow building toward the soda fountain Marion used as a counter, at the back of the store. “When you goin’ to bless us all by removing this thing?”
No one answered. Strange, that. Silence is not one of Marion’s virtues. Come to think of it, her Virtue list is pretty short, if you get my meaning. And no one enters Marion’s store without her verbally pouncing on them with news of her latest purchase of quality merchandise or her daughter Valorie’s most recent show of academic brilliance.
My sweet husband, Hardy, set the bell to rattling all over again as he heaved his plaid pants a little higher and stepped inside the shop and out of the Colorado sunshine. He shot me a grin that sported his pride and joy—his lone front tooth, covered in gold. But the sight of his weathered black face and grizzled gray-black hair has filled my heart with contentment for going on thirty-eight years. ’Course, I don’t let him know that too often, or he’d be thinking he’s got me wrapped around his little finger.
Hardy shut the door and gazed up at the spastic bell. He reached to silence the thing, fingertips three inches shy of meeting their goal. His cocoa eyes rolled in my direction, waiting. You see, Hardy’s as short as I am tall.
I reached up to squelch the bell and patted him on the head, not bothering to hide my smile. “Where’d you disappear to? I looked all around the library for you, then gave up and came here.”
Hardy’s grin didn’t dim. “Went to Payton’s to talk music. He tried to sell me a book on playing the banjo.”
“You don’t play the banjo.”
“Yup. Where’s Marion?”
“How am I supposed to know? I just got here myself.” Reaching around Hardy’s slender form, I opened the door wide enough to set the bell to making noise and slammed it hard. We both cocked our ears toward the room for any sound to indicate Marion’s arrival.
Hardy guffawed. “Never thought I’d enter a place owned by Marion Peters and not hear her mouth flapping.”
I sailed past the old Broadwood concert grand piano that took up one side of the room and peered into one of the two boxes of books I’d purchased earlier in the day. Marion had grudgingly agreed to let me leave the boxes until I could fetch Hardy to haul them for me. “I suppose we can just take this box and go. Wonder where the other one is?” Where was that woman? “Marion!”
“Lot o’ wind in them lungs for an old woman.”
“You better shut your trap, Hardy Barnhart. Years of yelling after you has given me my lung capacity. Marion!”
Hardy’s eyes twinkled. “She’s giving you the silent treatment. I figure she’s still mad at you for—”
“Marion can hold a powerful grudge.”
His words came to me through the filter of my own warring thoughts. Something wasn’t right. I could feel it. Marion never left the store without flipping the sign from OPEN to CLOSED. And forgetful she’s not. Ask anyone who has ever done her wrong. I glanced back at the door. The sign definitely said OPEN.
“You go ahead and load this box into the car, I’m gonna look for the other one.”
Hardy shuffled forward. “You paid for them?”
I sent him a healthy dose of the look I made legendary with my children. “Of course.”
He held his hands up, palms out. “Just askin’. If LaTisha Barnhart is thinking of starting a life of crime, I want to make sure I get cut in on the loot.”
This man. He makes me crazy. I glanced down the length of him and smirked. “Got your drawers hitched too high again, don’t you? I can always tell—you start spouting crazy things.”
“Yeah, like the day I said, ‘I do.’ ”
“That’s not what you said. You said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ”
I peeked into the box. The old books, covers frayed and worn, were neatly stacked, and definitely the ones I’d purchased. I motioned to Hardy and he lifted the box to his shoulder. I turned and mentally itemized the merchandise in the store. Having worked at Out of Time until my youngest left for college last fall, I knew exactly where everything should be. A few dustless outlines proved recent sales had helped boost Marion’s receipts, but other than that things looked normal. And why shouldn’t they be?
The store didn’t hold much. A huge oak bookcase, a mahogany secretary, and a cherry dining room set, took up most of the twenty-one-foot length. Thanks to her going-out-of-business sale, Marion’s overpriced stock now sported tags well within the price range of Maple Gap folk. The store’s impending closing had surprised many of the citizens. Everyone figured Marion’s elite clientele of wealthy collectors both here in tourist-laden Colorado and across the United States would keep Out of Time a thriving landmark for many years.
So much for that thought.
The scent of old books and dust hung heavy in the air. A draft of cold air raised shiver bumps on my arms. I stilled myself, turned, and studied everything again, forcing deep, calming breaths. Something was eluding me. Whatever stirred my senses to high alert seemed to be strongest at the counter. I returned there and sucked in another breath. And that’s when I caught it. A certain strange scent. What was that odor?
A mental image of my grown son at the age of eight bloomed. Tyrone had been helping Hardy build a shed and had sliced his finger a good one on the saw. Tyrone gave out a yelp. I went running. Hardy’s dark chocolate face took on a milk chocolate patina at the sight of the blood, so I took charge. As Hardy hit the ground in a faint, I barked instructions to my children on how to care for their father and hustled Tyrone to the car.
I directed our old Buick through town, one hand on the wheel, the other helping Tyrone maintain pressure on the wound. I tell you, blood seeped through that towel faster than I felt comfortable with, filling the air with its copper scent.
That was it! I inhaled the air in Marion’s shop, held my breath, and then released it slowly. My stomach clenched hard. Blood.
All my senses flared, spitting warnings, making my head spin. With a hand on the counter, I steadied myself for what I knew needed to be done. As if pulled by an unseen string, I gravitated toward the only corner of the room I hadn’t already examined. Some sixth sense screamed at me, telling me to hightail it out of there. But I ignored it, my feet leading the way, my brain screaming at my toes, telling them to cease all forward movement, turn tail, and run.
I focused on the things scattered along the counter, a white envelope, an old-fashioned cash register, brochures of the store, a small bell for service. The now identified scent of blood saturated the air. My throat clenched. My feet must have finally got the message because they wouldn’t move forward at all now, so I steeled myself and leaned over the counter.
Her head lay in a pool of blood.
Cold shivers tingled along my scalp. My heart skittered. I pressed both hands flat on the counter and squeezed my eyes shut to block the horrible image as shock carried me over the edge of rational thinking into one where every impulse had its way. I opened my mouth and gave vent.
Hardy came on the run, his steps banging along the wooden floor as he skidded to a halt beside me.
“What’s wrong? What happened?”
My tongue stuck to the roof of my dry mouth.
“You getting ready to drop over or something?”
Tears glazed my eyes and turned Hardy into a fuzzy, carnival-mirror image. I raised my hand and shooed him away. “Get back,” I finally croaked. “Go back outside. You don’t need to see her.”
Hardy’s eyes got wide. “What you talking about, woman? See who? You ain’t been sniffing glue again, have you?”
He sure knew how to get to me, but I wasn’t having any of it. “You know I only did that once on a dare. Now you get.” I waited for him to retreat, instead he stared. I flicked my hands at him, hoping he’d trust me on this one. “Hardy. . .” My glance at the place where Marion now rested gave everything away.
Hardy’s expression melted into a frown. “What’s back there?” He took a step closer.
“No! You’d better not stick your nose over that counter. I’m warning you. You’ll be sorry. Don’t look.”
“Hardy’s coming around, LaTisha,” the young doctor of Maple Gap stood in the doorway of Out of Time, divested of its annoying bell at long last by the chief of police himself.
“I think he’ll be just fine.” Dr. Troy Gordon motioned me to precede him back into the store. “It’s not every day one sees a dead body.”
I stepped over to the end of the counter, careful to keep my eyes off the form flanked by the police chief and another man I’d never seen before. I gazed down at Hardy’s waxy complexion. He needed a thorough chiding, so, being the good wife that I am, I warmed to the event like a microwave on high. “I told you not to look. You never do listen.”
The doctor knelt next to my man and patted Hardy’s shoulder as he tried to sit up. “You’d better lay back down, Mr. Barnhart. You’ve had quite a shock.”
“Naw,” he grated out. “She talks to me like that all the time. Ignoring her works best.”
My tongue poised to reply, but a wave of dizziness gripped me so hard I felt myself whirling. “I’m a-thinking I’m going to lay me down, too.”
Dr. Gordon’s wide-eyed face tilted up at me, and he jumped to his feet. Just as my knees gave way, a hand jerked me backward and my body folded onto a chair.
“Head down, LaTisha.” Doc’s hand pushed my head between my knees, or as far forward as it could reach over my stomach. Diet is a four letter word, after all.
Within seconds the dizziness began to release its grip. Something tickled down my belly. As my head cleared, I realized the sensation came from my pantyhose beginning a southern migration. Never could get a decent pair anymore.
“How do you feel?”
Doc Gordon’s voice penetrated my thoughts. I croaked a little hiccup and raised my head slowly. “I’ll be fine.” But I wanted air. Real bad. I nodded toward the door. Doc must have understood my silent plea because he gripped my arm and helped me get up. With his hand directing me, I broke out of that shop and back into the spring sunshine. He helped me get settled into one of the two Windsor chairs he’d dragged from Marion’s shop.
“I’ll bring Hardy out here, too. I daresay he’s had enough excitement in that store.”
Within minutes, Doc Gordon returned with a wan, shuffling Hardy.
“You don’t look so good,” I said as Hardy slumped down next to me and buried his face in his hands.
“Neither did she.”
I scootched my chair closer to him and squeezed his shoulders, drawing his head down to my chest. “You listen next time I tell you something. Thought you’d done gone and had a heart attack.”
I spread my hand on his slender back and wondered how, after thirty-eight years of my cooking, the man had yet to put on more than five pounds. He was too skinny. Of course, he always told me I’d gained enough for both of us.
Hardy’s voice came out muffled. “I wouldn’t leave you to have all the fun.”
The doctor reappeared. “Officer Simpson wants to talk to you, LaTisha. I told him you weren’t feeling well and to wait awhile. He’s pretty anxious to ask you some questions. Do you feel up to it?”
I twisted around in the chair and saw the young police officer standing in the doorway. I nodded at him, anxious to have the whole incident behind me. “Come on over here and get to your asking.”
Doc gave Hardy a pat on the shoulder. “I’ll be inside if you need me.”
Hardy straightened in his chair as the officer approached. I gave his complexion a good once-over before frowning at the policeman and jabbing a finger toward Hardy. “You can ask me what you need to until he’s feeling perky.”
“I just have a few questions, ma’am.”
“You new to town?”
The young officer swelled up a bit. “Yes, Mrs. Barnhart. I moved into town last week.”
I gave the newcomer a good scrub down with my eyes and wondered why I hadn’t heard of his arrival. No way was I anxious to have to go through the whole trauma of explaining how I found Marion’s body with this young fellow.
“Job doesn’t pay well,” I started out, making good and sure he knew I had the upper hand. “We just lost two men a month ago because the city council didn’t approve raises. One of them moved his family to Seattle, the other became an insurance salesman.”
“Uh, yes, ma’am.”
“I’m LaTisha Barnhart. And you?”
“I’m Officer Mac Simpson.”
“Not a bad looking boy. How old are you?”
Hardy’s voice held an edge that I recognized right away. I rolled my eyes his way. “I’m just trying to be neighborly.”
“Let the boy do his job.”
I huffed back into my chair and crossed my arms, considering. Doesn’t hurt to give the new guy a few warnings about small town living. Who knew? A murder right after a new person arrives in town. . . Suspicious if you ask me.
With Hardy getting uptight with me, I’d have to summarize my welcome speech. “You must have bought the Hartford’s place. Only house for sale that I know of. I’ll bring you some of my fried chicken. Don’t want newcomers to feel unwelcome here. I consider it my duty to make sure new people have at least one good square meal. Moving is hard work, and organizing a kitchen takes a woman’s touch. You got yourself a woman? Preferably a missus.” My eyes slid to his left hand. No ring. “We can take care of that for you, too, just give us a chance.”
Satisfied that I’d had my say, I waited for the man to begin with the questions. He blinked like a barn owl in the sunlight for a full thirty seconds.
“Hurry up and ask what you need to ask. I haven’t got all day.”
His Adam’s apple bobbed, and he cleared his throat. “I—” He glanced at the small notebook in his hand as if it contained the script he should follow. I knew the pages were blank. Noticed it right off. Not much escapes me. Ask any one of my seven children. They’ll tell you their momma not only has eyes in the back of her head, but she’s got ’em on the sides, too, and the high beams are always on.
Being that I had more education about these police things than he probably did, I decided to help him out. “You want to know what I was doing in the store and how I found Marion.”
His lips cracked a small smile. “That would be a good start. Yes.”
“The chief asked me all this already.”
“Yes, ma’am. He wanted me to ask again.”
Now if there’s one thing I don’t like to have to do is repeat myself. I tell you once. That’s it. You ask for a repeat and you might get it—slowly and with every vowel enunciated—but you ask again, and I’ll call the ear doctor and set up a fitting for you to get yourself a hearing aid.
I leaned forward, deciding I’d give this boy a second chance. This time. Since he was new and all. “I went into the store to pick up some things I bought earlier. Hardy came in after me. Something seemed funny when Marion didn’t start talking right off. That’s Marion for you. She never had any need for quiet. Anyways, I went around the counter and there she was.” I had to push hard at the sight of her that flashed in my brain. Forcing back my emotions, I went on. “Payton heard me—that’s the owner of the music store next door, don’t suppose you’ve met him yet—and he came over right after Hardy fainted. He’s the one who called you boys. That’s it.”
Officer Simpson scribbled in his book. “Did you see anything suspicious? Hear anything out of the ordinary?”
“I smelled blood.” And still did. I swallowed hard. “Took me awhile to figure out what that smell was, but I did. That’s when I thought to look behind the counter.”
Voices carried over from the doorway of the shop. The chief of police and a man I didn’t recognize talked for a minute before the stranger went back inside. Chief Chad Conrad caught my gaze and headed our way.
Simpson saw his boss coming. His expression became severe. “I must say you’re pretty calm for someone who just saw a dead body.”
I latched onto his eyeballs with mine. “Look here, I’ve had seven children, five of those are boys. Between bumps, scrapes, and breaks, there isn’t much more that’ll shock this momma. If one of them boys didn’t drop blood every day they’d thought they was girls. You feelin’ me?”
“Uh, I—” Officer Simpson’s face became a fiery red, and he gave his boss a mortified look. “Why, no, Mrs. Barnhart, I’d never—”
“That’s not to say I’m not sorry for Marion. She was a pillar in this community, but she’s also a woman who is well known for her high-handed ways and churlishness. I figure most folk wanted to give her a good push at some point or other, but that doesn’t mean I did it!”
Chief Conrad presented a slick authority figure beside his younger counterpart. He also maintained the honor of Maple Gap’s most eligible bachelor, though Officer Simpson’s hand, sans ring, might mean the chief’s days retaining that honor were numbered.
The chief leaned to whisper in Officer Simpson’s ear. Relief flooded the younger man’s face. He sent me one last, almost terrified glance and went back inside.
Conrad hooked his thumbs over the edge of his thick black belt. Squint creases on either side of his eyes, coupled with his thin lips and dark widow’s peak, gave him the look of a tough guy. “I should appoint you to the force, LaTisha. The way you intimidate people is amazing. You and I could do the good cop/bad cop routine quite well.”
Hardy snorted to life. “Yeah, but you’re a little too mean looking to be the nice guy, Chief.”
The two laughed themselves stupid at that. I crossed my arms and glared. But the idea of being a cop, an investigator, or an officer on the force. . .
“I’ve only got one more semester before I’ll have my degree in police science,” I offered, pointing a finger after the departing Officer Simpson. “Bet that boy doesn’t have one of those.”
“I can’t be too choosey at this point, LaTisha. The budget restraints are stretching us as it is.” His gaze shifted to the store, and I could almost hear his brain churning. He doesn’t know how he’s going to manage a murder investigation as short staffed as he is.
Conrad pulled his gaze from the store. “How are you two feeling?”
I glanced at Hardy, relieved to see the familiar sparkle in his eyes.
Couldn’t help but wince at Hardy’s choice of words. Chief just grinned.
My curiosity got the best of me. “How do you think it happened?”
“We won’t be sure for a while. State police are on their way with a mobile crime lab vehicle. Could be she just had a bad fall and slammed her head against that radiator.”
“She’d have to have fallen awful hard. It’s not like she weighs a lot.”
Conrad pursed his lips. “True. We’ll let the state men do their thing to find out. In the meantime, there are a few more things I need to ask you. Payton has offered us the use of his store while Nelson finishes taking pictures of the bo—”
I shook my head and ran a finger across my neck so he wouldn’t shake up Hardy again with reminders of Marion’s body.
“—uh, the details.”
“Does Hardy need to stay?” If Conrad insisted on talking bodies and blood, my man needed to leave or we’d be sweeping him up in a dustpan after he shattered.
“How about I talk to you first. While we’re talking, if Hardy could play us a tune. . . ?”
Hardy pushed to his feet. “Sure thing, as long as Payton doesn’t try to sell me anymore banjo books.” He laced his fingers together and stretched them, palm out in front of him, until his knuckles cracked. “I’m a piano man.”