Copyright © 2011 by Ed Lynskey, all rights reserved.
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For Gail R. Ritchie, with love
Within the same hour as the murder took place, Isabel Trumbo sat in her armchair dozing, an Alaskan outdoor magazine lying open on her lap. Her kid sister, Alma fidgeted in the other armchair, from time to time picking up her newspaper folded over to the day's crossword puzzle.
She had lettered in the spaces for one word across and two down. Tapping the ink pen on her pursed lips, she stared at the blanks, and her attention wandered. Of late, her life had grown too boring and predictable.
She flipped over the newspaper and browsed another editorial on Sheriff Fox's incompetence. You could tell the elections were around the corner.
Just then, Isabel roused and wetted a thumb to flip to the next page. Alma squirmed in her armchair.
"Boy, you're restless," said Isabel.
Alma glanced at her. "Is it that obvious?"
"Indeed. So put on the TV."
Alma sighed again.
"If that isn't enough excitement, go change the light bulb over the mud room."
"Why don't I try bungee jumping or something just as crazy? I'd climb up on the stepladder and tumble off." Her words too sharp, Alma softened her voice. "What's on TV?"
Isabel's eyes flicked to the TV Guide on the ottoman. "Don't the soaps still run on afternoons? When we lived on the boulevard, you watched General Hospital, so tune it in again."
"No such thing ever happened on the boulevard." Alma refolded the newspaper. "I'd rather sit and watch concrete dry than watch the soaps."
"I know what." Isabel reached under the end table, took out the game board, and rattled the Band-Aid box containing the letter tiles. "It's been a week-and-a-half since our last Scrabble game."
"The Z tile is still missing."
"Well, reading a magazine gives me enough entertainment."
"Well, my crossword puzzles are growing too sedentary."
"Ah, so you want a challenge." Isabel used a sly tone. "The blown out light bulb still waits in the mud room."
"Ha-ha. What is a Mayan unit of measure?"
"The Mayans used no unit of measure."
"Then this puzzle clue is wrong. Now, who invented the Internet?" Alma ticked off six spaces. "Al Gore, right?"
"Didn't Al save the dolphins, and Mr. Clinton invent the Internet?"
"I'd forgotten. The memory, doctors say, is the first thing to go." Alma felt a leap of fear inside her. Over the past weeks she'd come to dread the onset of Alzheimer's, and her every absentminded lapse became magnified, and it upset her.
Attuned to her sister's fear, Isabel spoke in a reassuring way. "Relax, your mind is still the proverbial steel trap."
"Really? Look at what happened to Ruth Brittle."
"Seeing how poor Ruth is is why I'd never lie to you."
"We should visit her again."
"Very soon, I believe."
"The newspaper is calling for Sheriff Fox's head again."
"He has a tough row until election time."
Alma's fling landed the crossword puzzle on the ottoman, and she elevated from her armchair. Its Tartan plaid pattern clashed with Isabel's lime green velveteen armchair. A decade ago when Isabel's husband Max had died, they'd moved in together and merged their possessions. Neither sister brought any fussy teapots, canaries, sachets, or doilies, but lots of other stuff had to either stay or go. Looking at the lime green gave Alma the willies. Her suggestion to slipcover it in a more subdued color had garnered Isabel's frosty stare, and Alma had dropped the matter.
"We'll con Jake into changing the light bulb," she said.
"Sure, let him slip off the stepladder and break a leg."
"More agile, he can climb stepladders easier than we can."
"Do you think he'll ever walk Megan down the aisle?"
"Everybody has sat on pins waiting for the big announcement."
"How much longer before they make up their minds?"
"He's the one dragging his feet."
"He has too many distractions in skirts." Alma sniffled.
"Hopefully he's stopped his tomcatting."
"Hopefully. Sounds like your allergies are back. Why don't you call Vernon Spitzer?"
"I saved out a few pills from last summer."
Isabel flipped to the next page. "Their shelf life has expired."
"They'll tide me over until we can get to the drugstore."
"Who's that young lady staying in the walk up apartments over the drugstore?"
"Several young ladies live up there."
Isabel wagged her head. "I mean the one sashaying around with barely a stitch on, and her boobs spilling out of her top like watermelons."
"Her name was on the tip of my tongue. Megan said she was Sammi Jo." Alma gave a dry smile. "So, my memory isn't slipping."
Isabel smacked her prim lips. "She'd better put on a bra, or she'll sag like an old heifer."
Doing an eye roll, Alma switched topics. "My old folks' insurance is a rip off, so I'm letting the premium expire."
"I told you to drop it after my fiasco when Max died."
A rap came at the front door. The sisters gazed at it, then each other before Alma with a puzzled shrug volunteered to answer it. A petite lady in her mid-twenties fidgeted on the porch behind the screen door. She wore a striking blue sundress, but the dark lines bracketing her shrunken mouth and puffy eyes alarmed Alma.
"Megan, this is a surprise."
Her eyes widening, Isabel let the forgotten magazine slide between her legs to the floor. "Hello, Megan."
"Am I interrupting anything?" she asked. "Were you napping or watching your TV shows?"
"Alma suggested we should watch the concrete dry, but I vetoed it," replied Isabel.
Confusion clouded Megan's serious face. "Huh?"
"Ignore Aunt Isabel," said Alma. "Her quirky mood makes her all but impossible today."
"Come in, Megan, before you faint from sunstroke." Standing, Isabel's hand motioned at their grand niece.
Alma nudged out the screen door, and Megan almost tripped coming into the foyer. They hugged, and Alma felt Megan's frame trembled in her arms. Alma caught Isabel's troubled eyes behind Megan's back, but Isabel could only shrug in wonder.
Megan stepping back let her glance switch from Alma to Isabel and return to Alma. No doubt about it, thought Megan. Created as much alike as any sisters ever had been, their resemblance started with their matching red-and-white polka dot blouses. Since she was a young girl, she had matched their eye colors to their different personalities.
Alma flared impetuous blue eyes were always ready to spring into action while Isabel's hazel eyes viewed a calmer world. Alma was a bit heavier while Isabel a bit taller. The two aunts had been Megan's closest family since her parents' tragic death in a house fire when she was just out of high school. She'd always been proud of their grit of surviving the great depression and Second World War.
"What's wrong?" asked Isabel.
A wheat blonde, Megan twisted her watchband as her delicate-featured face drained of its natural color. She blurted it out. "Jake is dead!"
Alma reacted first. "Jake is dead?"
"Good Lord, when? ...Where?... Why?" asked Isabel.
Megan strangled on any further words. She lunged past the sisters, collapsed on their sofa, and the rising sobs racked her. Alma and Isabel hurried over and sat on each side as Megan cried into a pillow. Alma gave Megan gentle pats on the shoulder while Isabel picked up the box of tissues, and Alma plucked out three, one for them each. As an afterthought, she added a few extras.
"Pull yourself together, Megan, or we can't understand you," said Alma.
"You can let it out when you're ready." Isabel frowned her stern white eyebrows at Alma. "We're right here, aren't we, Alma?"
Feeling guilty over having tried to rush things, she agreed. "Absolutely."
"All right." Megan sat up from the sofa, dropped her hands from her distraught face, and gulped in a lungful of air. "All right." She squared her shoulders and swabbed the tissue at the corners to her tear-streaked eyes. "I'm better now." Sniffing, she sponged the runs in her mascara and managed a wan smile. "Sorry for this little meltdown on your sofa."
Isabel did a dismissive hand wave. "It's just Alma's sofa, and I've never liked it." Before Alma could object, Isabel asked, "What happened?"
"It all started when I found Jake," said Megan. "He lay on the shop floor, so I ran to him and tugged on his shoulder. I turned him over, and his shirt was all bloody. I felt his wrist but I got no pulse there. He'd been shot dead. It was awful."
"Did you see a handgun or brass shell casings?" asked Alma.
The pointed question seemed to ground Megan's focus and composure. "No, but I called the sheriff on my cell phone and waited just outside the shop. Within minutes, the deputies arrived and tied up the yellow tape. They asked me a slew of questions, but I had few answers for them." She stopped and sniffed.
"Did they expect you to solve Jake's murder?" said Alma.
"Go on," said Isabel, sending Alma a disapproving look.
Megan did. "A short while later, Sheriff Fox came in his squad car. He took me aside and asked me the same questions, but I couldn't quit thinking of Jake sprawled out dead on the shop floor."
"Sheriff Fox has such a sympathetic manner," said Alma, sarcastic.
"I told the sheriff that I only saw Jake," said Megan. "A deputy dropped me off here. I'm a just bundle of nerves. What will happen now?"
"Things will get interesting," replied the angry Isabel.
Alma pursed her lips. "Very interesting," she added.
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