Erika wiped off her hand and offered it to the small man. Wes was not much more than five foot nothing and probably weighed less than the average twelve year old. He shook her hand briskly and nodded the rest of his hello.
"I am Special Agent Erika Thomason," she really liked her title I thought snidely avoiding her glance. She continued, "Of the FBI and you know about this case how again?"
Hat in hand Wes stood at our table and repeated his tale nearly word for word the story he had said over the back of the booth while shifting nervously from Erika's intense gaze. Once he had finished she asked, "How did you know Constance Shaw again?"
"That little Shaw girl? Oh, my, just by sight, Miss Thomason. Her granddaddy was a friend of Pete's over there," his head jerked back towards the unusually quiet booth. The look in Erika's eye made me yank back and tap Cinda. Softly I whispered into her nearby ear, "Agent Erika thinks Wes has something to do with Connie Shaw's murder. Can you enlighten her on Wes for me?" I was appalled at how quickly this woman was ready to blame the man. She was eager to close up her kidnapping case it sure appeared. That didn't comfort me much given her interest in helping me with my mom's death. She jumped to conclusions far too quickly.
Cinda was instantly enflamed with passion, "Wes, honey, sit down right next to the nice FBI agent. Let's tell her about all your week why don't we?" Her claws were out and she was about to swipe out at the agent's stupidity. Wes ducked his head in acceptance and slid onto the bench next to the lady. He placed his cap softly on his lap.
Wes was the local minister and had a large following out at his church. There was something going on every night and pretty much day with his attendance being nearly mandatory. He enjoyed the friends and family and didn't seem to mind all the time it took to run one of the most popular places in town. His wife, Sarah, was heavily involved in her husband's retirement career choice and if he wasn't sitting in the diner keeping a spot warm he was with her doing his good work. Together Cinda and Wes had a rousing discussion of all the passions of Wes' world and I watched the information sink into Erika's brain. She silently listened and tried to nod at the right places. Her ears were lightly tinged red showing me she was more than a bit embarrassed at being caught by us. She saw me light up another cigarette and put her hand out for one. I tapped one out and pushed the newly emptied ashtray into the center of the table. While chattering about his ministry most of the diner resumed their conversations. I tried to listen to what other diners were discussing but unfortunately both Cinda and Wes were a bit too loud.
Resigned to hearing about Wes and his church I settled in and waved down Louella and asked her to bring me a bacon cheeseburger as noon had come and gone with the table talk still going strong. We were being allowed to stay since we were providing entertainment for the whole diner and folks were paying for more food than usual to keep their spots. Cinda ordered herself a dessert. Peach cobbler with a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream was her choice. Erika, reconciled to the much deserved lecture, decided to join her in the dessert venture and ordered the apple pie crunch that was on the day's list. Much like ordering coffee too early in the diner the crunch was not a smart choice. We didn't bother to fill her in either.
My burger came and went and they were still talking good works and the town much to Erika's frustration. She had tried to push the apple crunch around like she was eating it but even Louella wasn't fooled.
"Special Agent, you want something else? Doesn't look like you much cared for the apple crunch." I could hear a snicker from the old timers little group. I had to hand it to Erika, she tried to finish another bite when I reached over and removed the fork from her hand. Food poisoning wouldn't help my mom's murder get solved.
"Louella, why don't you bring Erika here some chocolate cake?" That would help her taste buds. Erika said, "Oh, is it good here?"
"The absolute best," Louella said while removing the soggy mess that the cook insisted was a favorite. Pretty much every day the crunch was on the list of dessert items. I had yet to meet anyone who liked the apple crunch. So the claim of a favorite was another mystery of our town. A minute later she was presented with the real favorite of the diner, chocolate cake. I watched her fork off a bite hesitantly. Once she put the bite in her mouth she beamed.
"This is amazing!" Erika, for as skinny and stuffy looking as she was, definitely liked her food. The cake was pretty good but then homemade cake usually was. The mayonnaise based cake was moist and delicious. Erika whipped through the serving in record time. All the while both Cinda and Wes were still talking about the various social events of his church. Erika finished the last bit scrapping at the plate to make sure she didn't miss a crumb. Taking pity on her softly I asked, "Wes, do you have any idea who could have done this to Connie Shaw?"
Wes stopped and thought a bit then replied, "Lynn, honey, I don't rightly know who did it. I have some bad apples out there but mostly just petty thefts and indiscretions of the bedroom nature," on that he blushed bright red at having mentioned sex in front of women much less us kids. Catching his breath he went on with, "But nobody out there that seems to be bent that way. Not someone here. And your mom's death, that just defies all logic. She was a beautiful person. Never a mean word about anybody," here he trailed off and waited for something more to say. My mom never attended his church so I thought it was pretty kind of him to say. I fell silent and stared at my coffee cup. I nodded my thanks and let Erika speak.
"Mr. Godfrey, I appreciate your time in talking with me." She made it sound like she had invited him to speak to her. Very smooth maneuver. Wes nodded and slowly eased out of the booth to go back to his usual table and compare notes with what they heard and thought. This would provide conversation for the diner for months if not years. Wes was thanked by a real honest to goodness FBI agent. Even though she was only a woman, it still counted.
Louella brought the checks and picked up our empty plates confirming our time limit was up on the booth. I could see Cinda play with the idea of ordering something more but Louella walked away briskly not giving her the chance. We all went up to the cashier and paid our bills. As we walked out I noticed Frank Darnell passing by and going to join the regulars at their table. Louella turned red as Frank gave her the slow once over when passing. Darn, it looked like we would be missing some fun after all. Cinda barely was able to resist yanking me back inside to order more food. I shook my head and pulled her out the door completely. Erika walked away from us a quickly as her long legs could carry her. I guess she didn't want to talk to Cinda and me much. But without her partner, Harry, she seemed less forbidding and not nearly as astute. Her jumping on Wes showed me that she wasn't the one I wanted helping find my mom's murderer. That pretty much left me with the mysterious Harry.
We fell quiet on our way back to the beauty shop. Cinda cooked up the excuse that her ends needed to be trimmed to coax me into the other hotbed of gossip. Everyone fell quiet when we entered the shop. Margie hollered out a hello and told Cinda to have a seat in the empty chair. This told me they had planned my day well in advance of me even showing up. That's what I got for taking a long shower though I had to acknowledge I wasn't surprised. Just happy they weren't going to be messing with my hair under the guise of needing to cheer me up by making me look pretty or some such nonsense. I sat behind the chair Cinda was perched on and began to thumb through the latest fashion magazines without much interest. Turning their slick pages gave my hands something to do. Smoking wasn't forbidden but pretty much frowned upon in the shop. Given all the chemicals around the place I had no desire to see if I could make it blow to kingdom come with bad timing and a match.
Mabel Strickland sat down next to me. She was one of the town folks that spent far too much time in the beauty shop. Her blue rinse hair was nearly iridescent. She tapped my arm softly and said, "I am sure sorry to hear about your momma. You doing okay?"
I vaguely recalled her spending some time with my mom at some function I got dragged to in town. So she and my mom must have been some sort of friends. I never saw her out at the house. But then my mom didn't like folks visiting and asking a lot of questions. Her lack of work was something not commented on directly to her face but often whispered about in town. I knew it and she had probably known also. That tended to keep the visitors to a minimum.
"I am ok, thanks, Mrs. Strickland. I appreciate your concern." It never did to bother the locals. Fussing at her would just make me appear ill-mannered. I was not happy to be stuck in the beauty shop but had little choice in the matter. Margie sent over her shampoo girl to dunk her daughter in the sink. Cinda sketched me a half hearted wave as she went to begin the rituals of the beauty shop. I was happy to not be the victim of the day. A little conversation wasn't going to kill me.
Mabel stared into my face and said, "Well, you just make sure you call if you need anything. I know you are staying with Margie but I will come out once you get settled back home and see how you are doing, if that is ok?"
"Sure, thanks." I smiled weakly. This whole thing was still uncomfortable but necessary. Mabel Strickland's visit to me opened a flood gate of folks hurrying over to offer their condolences. It was like some strange sort of social etiquette was in play and Mabel was the first sent in to see how I would take it. I took it like a visit to the dentist's office. A necessary evil but something I could endure for a short period of time. Margie cut her daughter's hair as slow as I had ever seen her trim a few snippets off a head. During that time there must have been a dozen women come sit next to me and touch me while offering their sympathy and empty words. At least in the diner nobody touched me. My family was not the physically demonstrative sort. Time seemed to freeze and I swore the clock went backwards.
The bell hanging over the door peeled out a new arrival. I hadn't bothered to turn around since Vivian Carter had her red nails sunk deeply into my forearm as she talked about how sorry she was to hear about my mom. Her face was no more than four inches from mine and I could tell she had enjoyed a cup of coffee scant minutes before coming in to accost me. I nodded and tried to pull back from the woman's intense gaze. She had extremely thick glasses and I found her overly magnified eyes to be more than a bit creepy. Miss Carter had been my second grade teacher and was now well into her eighties. Her ruby lips stretched back oddly considering at that moment she was saying to me, "And your sorrow can bring you closer to the church. Don't hide away come with me to the service tonight and we will pray that they find the murderer soon." Her smile I noticed then wasn't aimed at me but rather just past me. She blinked rapidly and said, "You can just walk down about seven if you want or if need be I can send Brother Art to find you."
"Excuse me, Miss," drifted from just over my shoulder and the mystery of the disturbing smile was explained. Harry Adkison had come into the shop. It was then I could hear the murmuring around the room. A buzz about who he was ran through the assorted women clustered. There happened to be no men currently in the beauty salon and but then any male would have been pretty remarkable. Having seen the effect Harry had on women I knew this was another little future town story in the making. I tried to remain calm at the fact that he was his seeking me out. I was under no illusion he had come in for a quick haircut.
"Why yes?" The overly white dentures again were flashed at Harry in a parody of a smile, Miss Carter was smitten with Harry instantly and her grin was her first overture towards him. He was extremely well mannered and took a moment to introduce himself to my old teacher.
"Excuse me for interrupting. I am Harry Adkison, from the FBI, do you mind if I speak with Gwendolyn for a moment outside? I have a few minor questions to ask and will return her shortly." His hand went out to be clawed by Miss Carter's ring encrusted fingers. I was thankful to have her nails off my arm. I could see the white crescents from her tight grip still on my skin.
"Oh, not at all. So as I was saying, Lynn, please call Brother Art if you need to be escorted. Inspector Adkison, you are more than welcome to join us. We are all praying for quick results and your presence would be very encouraging for our humble service." It was pretty scary to see her flirt. Harry was diplomatic as he said, "No need to call me Inspector, Miss Carter, I am just an agent for the FBI, we are called federal agents not inspectors. I will make no promises to joining you as we really need to be tracking any leads as they arise. I thank you for thinking of me."
With that he led me outside past the gawking patrons amid whispers and knowing looks. I was quite disgusted to see it was already dusk. I had not realized I had been trapped inside that place that long. But it did make sense. I had felt like I had been there for hours and it appeared I really had. I made a mental note to strangle Margie for making 'just a hair' cut last so long. I looked back and saw the entire salon was turned around watching us leave. Cinda sketched me a wave from the chair where her mom had been removing the curlers and pin curls she had put in her daughter's hair to set it in some elaborately overblown style. That explained some of the time. Cinda had a thick head of hair and it took a forever to curl and uncurl. I was so inundated with all the ladies I had not noticed the change from a simple hair trim to a set and style. I really was losing it. I shuddered as the wind blew across my skin.