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Fit to Be French Fried
A Felicia’s Food Truck One-Hour Mystery
Book One
By Celia Kinsey

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Fit to Be French Fried: A Felicia’s Food Truck One Hour Mystery (Book One)©2019 Celia Kinsey. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

Chapter One

When Mrs. Dunn said she’d like to kill her pesky parrot, I had no inkling that it was Mrs. Dunn herself who’d be darkening death’s door by sundown.

Mrs. Dunn was not my all-time favorite customer. Technically, she wasn’t a customer at all in the sense that she never bought anything. Either Mrs. Dunn had lost her driver’s license, or she liked to walk for her health, but almost every day, she’d stop in on her way to or from the Whispering Palms Senior Living Complex. It didn’t matter if she was walking to the supermarket, to Senior Bingo at the Baptist Church, or to the Dollar Store; Mary Dunn never failed to take advantage of the ice water dispenser we kept next to the food truck.

Even Marge, who carries her belongings around in a black plastic bag and sleeps on the porch of the old house that serves as Bray Bay’s tiny public library, occasionally springs for a small French fry on principle.

“Because I always drink your water,” she’ll say.

Mrs. Dunn was burdened by no such sense of obligation.

“Surely you don’t really mean it when you say you want to kill Polly?” I said.

Mrs. Dunn sipped ice water from the cup she held in her right hand and tightened her grip on her shopping trolley with her left, an arm firmly clamped across the bright blue handbag she wore slung across her body. Mrs. Dunn was the sort who believes thieves are always lurking just out of the corner of one’s eye, intent on stealing one’s low-fat yogurt, bran cereal, and multi-vitamins.

“I do mean it. I really hate that bird,” Mrs. Dunn insisted. “The only reason that stupid parrot is still alive is that they’ve been after me for years to get rid of her. That dratted bird is driving me crazy, but I can’t get rid of the blasted thing on principle.”

“Perhaps your parrot is driving ‘them’ crazy, too?” I suggested. I didn’t know who “they” were, and I wasn’t about to ask. If I asked, Mrs. Dunn would remain for another ten minutes, airing her grievances and scaring away the paying customers.

“Well, Felicia,” said Mrs. Dunn, “can’t stand around all day chatting.”

Rather than placing her used paper cup into the recycling bin, she set it down on a table I’d just wiped clean. I glanced over at the serving window of the food truck. My cook, Arnie, was scowling at the back of Mrs. Dunn’s head. Arnie is a stickler for recycling.

Mrs. Dunn took an even firmer hold on her trolley, adjusted her bright blue handbag, so it hung low across her belly—the better to keep an eye on it—and shuffled off down the street back toward Whispering Palms.

We get a lot of business from the residents of Whispering Palms despite the retirement complex having its own dining room. Whispering Palms’ promotional leaflet proclaims they provide a gourmet menu approved by a state-licensed nutritionist, but most of the residents prefer my fare: good old-fashioned hot dogs, juicy hamburgers, and crispy French fries, golden brown, with a light dusting of salt.

I was just wiping up the water ring left behind by Mrs. Dunn’s abandoned cup when we got another customer, a paying one this time.

Prue, who also lives at Whispering Palms, is sweet as pie, albeit a little loopy. Even Frank, Arnie’s grumpy, geriatric Dachshund, likes her, although that may be mostly down to the dog biscuits Prue carries in her handbag.

At the sound of Prue’s voice, Frank emerged from the shaded underside of the food truck and waddled over to lean expectantly against the old lady’s ankles.

“Dear me,” Prue said as she scratched behind Frank’s ears with the tip of her cane and examined the menu written on the chalkboard propped against one of the tires. “Felicia, you must have added more options.”

It’s the same menu we’ve had for the past three years, but every time Prue sees it, she’s convinced we’ve completely overhauled our selection.

“I think I feel like a hot dog,” Prue said. “Or maybe a hamburger. Or grilled cheese. I see you do salads. Salads are healthier. Maybe I’ll have a salad.”

Prue reached into her handbag and took out a dog biscuit for Frank before stepping back and scrutinizing the menu board for another full minute.

“No, I don’t feel like a salad,” she said firmly. “Give me a large chili fry, Arnie, with plenty of cheese sauce.”

“No can do,” Arnie said. “I can give you anything on the menu except French fries. The vat is on the blink.”

I’d like to say that this equipment failure was an isolated incident, but our fry vat goes out every other week. Arnie usually gets it working again in an hour or two. I keep insisting we should just buy a new one, but the truth is, I can barely pay Arnie and my rent, and Arnie knows it.

“I’m sorry, Prue,” I said, ”whatever you’d like, it’s on the house.”

I knew I’d get a lecture from Arnie. He insists the reason we struggle to make a profit is that I give away too much free food.

“You don’t have to do that,“ Prue insisted, but she took a free hamburger.

“You’d better take off,” I told Arnie, “or you won’t make it to your niece’s recital on time.”

“Is it 3:30 already?” Arnie looked at his wrist, but he wasn’t wearing a watch.

“Must be,” I said. “The school bus just went by.”

In another ten minutes, we’d get a smattering of after-school customers, but I could handle them alone, especially since the fryer was down for the count.

“Recital?” Prue asked.

“Sammy, my niece,” Arnie said, trying not to look proud. “She’s having her piano recital today, just down the street at the middle school.”

“That’s nice,” Prue said as she bit into her hamburger. “Is this a new recipe? I’ve never had it before.”

It’s not a new recipe, and Prue’s eaten our hamburgers at least a hundred times.

Arnie raised his eyebrows at me over the top of Prue’s head and mouthed, “See you later,” before he took off on foot toward the middle school.

I sat down at the table with Prue and started to speak, but my attention was diverted by an ambulance headed in the direction of Whispering Palms, lights on, siren silent.

“Oh, dear, oh dear,” said Prue. “I wonder who it is this time.”

The residents of Whispering Palms are always getting hauled off to the hospital. Most of them come back, but some of them end up in nursing homes or, worse yet, the cemetery.

“Is someone at Whispering Palms trying to make Mary Dunn get rid of her parrot?” I asked, half because I wanted to know and half because I wanted to distract Prue from wondering which of her friends was headed to the hospital.

“You mean Polly? I guess Polly is a bit of a nuisance,” Prue said, “but I live on the other side of the complex, so that bird doesn’t bother me much.”

“Whose feathers has Polly ruffled, then? Mrs. Dunn implied that someone was mounting a campaign to deprive her of her parrot.”

“I bet it’s that Irma McFee,” said Prue. “I’ve never warmed to Mary Dunn, but that Irma is downright vicious.”

Prue doesn’t usually express strong opinions about people.

“What do you mean, ‘vicious’?” I asked

I never got my answer because two police cars, sirens blaring, rushed past. I expected the sirens to fade into the distance, but instead, they cut off abruptly.

“I think those patrol cars stopped just down the street,” I told Prue. “I’m going to jog around the block and take a look.”

“What if somebody comes?” Prue protested.

“If anybody comes, tell them I’ll be right back,” I told Prue. “And if any packs of middle schoolers show up, don’t let them put their dirty little mitts in the pickle jar.”

Chapter Two

My food truck is parked at the back of a small vacant parking lot next to Hank’s carwash, so it’s impossible to see what’s going on down the street from there, but as soon as I got out to the sidewalk, I got a clear view of two police cars and an ambulance parked in front of the Quick and Pick convenience store at the corner across from the middle school.

As I walked closer, I could see a couple of EMTs clustered around someone on the ground. They had a gurney out, but they hadn’t started loading up the patient. One police car sat empty, and the other officer sat in the front seat of his cruiser, writing down notes on a clipboard.

“What’s going on?” I asked Katie, the convenience store clerk. She stood outside the front entrance of the Quick and Pick, a dazed expression on her face and an unlit cigarette dangling from her fingers.

Usually, at this time of day, there are a few kids in their late teens and early twenties—around Katie’s age—who hang around the entrance of the Quick and Pick nursing enormous sodas and smoking cigarettes in clear violation of the “no smoking” sign. There’s a rumor going around that those kids are all on drugs and that they loiter at the Quick and Pick, waiting for an opportunity to steal small change out of people’s cars when they go inside the store.

One of those kids—Zack—is Prue’s nephew, and she swears it isn’t true. At least not about him.

That day, there wasn’t anyone in front of the Quick and Pick except Katie.

“Some old lady collapsed,” Katie said. “I think she might be dead.”

The EMTs didn’t seem to think so. One of them went to the back of the ambulance and returned with more equipment.

I edged closer to the action. At first, all I could see were the old lady’s feet. One of her shoes was off, and her foot was resting on a crushed box of bran cereal. A few feet away from where the EMTs were bent over the body, a shopping trolley, empty now, lay on its side, one corner of the wire basket bent in as if it had fallen with force.

I edged around the action and crossed the sidewalk to the gutter, where I picked up three containers of low-fat raspberry yogurt, a bottle of calcium chews, and a roll of paper towels.

I arranged the items in a neat little row at the edge of the pavement while I worked up the courage to peek between the shoulders of the kneeling EMTs. I already knew who lay there on the pavement, but I wasn’t ready to look.

“Hi, Felicia.”

I set down the last of the yogurts and stood up. It was Officer Finch. Scott Finch. My high school boyfriend. High school was a long time ago, but Scott doesn’t seem to realize it. He acts like we just broke up last week and are destined to get back together before another week is out.

“What happened?” I asked him.

“Old lady passed out. A stroke or heart attack or something. There’s no ID on her, which is complicating things.”

“I know who she is,” I said, steeling myself to take a real look at the body on the ground. Mrs. Dunn had a welt across her forehead. She must have knocked her head on the trolley as she went down. That would explain why her shopping was scattered everywhere.

“That’s Mary Dunn,” I told Scott. “She’s a regular at the food truck.”

“She got any family in town?”

“I think there’s a daughter—don’t know her name—although I’ve gotten the impression she and Mrs. Dunn stop speaking to each other at regular intervals.”

“Know where Mrs. Dunn’s daughter might be at this hour?”

“I think she works at the water department, or maybe it’s the City Hall.”

The EMTs had loaded Mrs. Dunn onto the gurney and were putting her into the ambulance. They’d fitted her with an oxygen mask, so I assumed that meant she was still alive.

“What should I do with all this?” I pointed down to the items rowed up on the edge of the sidewalk and then to the damaged shopping trolley.

“It’s not a crime scene,” said Scott. “We’ll just say you are a friend of Mrs. Dunn’s, so you can return it all to her. You know where she lives?”

“At Whispering Palms.” I pointed down the street. “But I don’t know the apartment number.”

The ambulance carrying Mrs. Dunn pulled out into the street and drove off toward the medical center, lights flashing.

“If you don’t mind,” Scott said. “Can you take care of this mess?”

Scott Finch always was a lazy lay about. On Valentine’s day, our senior year, he wanted me to pick out my own card.

“Sure,” I said and started picking up the remains of Mrs. Dunn’s shopping.

The other police officer had departed even before the ambulance, and Officer Finch soon followed. Even Katie had gone back inside the Quick and Pick.

I was left alone in the parking lot.

Mrs. Dunn’s shopping was a real mess for someone who’d inexplicably collapsed. Who knew a sudden-onset health crisis could be so violent? I stuffed everything I could find back into the battered trolley—including the remaining raspberry yogurt, which had somehow managed to fly all the way over to the trash can in front of the entrance. There was a glob of yogurt on the front window of the convenience store. I picked up the busted carton and stuffed it into an empty plastic grocery sack that the wind had pasted against the side of the trash barrel. I dropped the whole mess into the garbage, then leaned the lopsided trolley against the front of the Quick and Pick and went inside.

“Did you see Mrs. Dunn collapse?” I asked Katie. She smelled faintly of cigarette smoke, and I wondered if she’d taken a smoke break in the alley while the EMTs were loading up Mrs. Dunn.

“I didn’t,” Katie said. “I was stepping outside for a quick smoke when I saw her, but she was already unconscious.” Katie lowered her voice, despite me being the only other person in the place. “Do you think she’s really dead?”

“They had oxygen on her when they loaded her in the ambulance,” I told Katie. “So I don’t think she’s dead.”

“That’s good,” Katie said. “I was afraid—”

“Afraid of what?”

“Didn’t it seem strange to you?” Katie asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I think she was attacked,” Katie said.

“Why do you think that?”

“Her groceries were scattered all over.”

“I noticed she had a bump on her forehead, but she could have hit her head on the trolley and knocked it over when she collapsed. That would explain the groceries going all over the place.”

Katie was quiet for a few seconds before she said, “I don’t know if I should tell you this—”

“Tell me what?”

“Right after I saw Mrs. Dunn on the ground, I saw somebody running away down the alley.”

“Did you see who it was?”

“Not really.”

That meant Katie did see who it was, but she didn’t want to tell me.

“Was it a man?”

Katie nodded. “There’s something else.” She reached into the front pocket of her jeans and pulled out a small shiny object, and lay it on the counter. “As soon as I saw Mrs. Dunn on the ground, I ran over to her and called 911. Then I held her hand until the ambulance arrived.”

“She was unconscious the whole time?”

“Yes, I wasn’t sure if she was breathing or not, but I held her hand anyway. It seemed like the right thing to do.”

I picked up the silver button from the counter and turned it over in my hand. “What does that have to do with this?”

“That button was in her hand.”

“Maybe she was carrying it when she collapsed,” I suggested. “What does FV stand for?”

“Fritz and Vanhauser,” Katie said. “It’s a clothing brand. A man’s clothing brand.”

“Did you tell the police what you found?”

“I tried, but they didn’t seem interested. They were treating it like a medical emergency.”

“Did you tell the police about the fleeing figure in the alley?”

“I didn’t,” Katie said, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “I’m not convinced that who I saw running away had anything to do with Mrs. Dunn collapsing, and I don’t want to get an innocent person in trouble for no reason.”

“What makes you think Zack is innocent?”

“I didn’t say it was Zack.”

“You didn’t have to.”

Katie and Prue’s nephew, Zack, had an on-again, off-again relationship. Prue told me once that she hoped they’d get married before they ended up “shacking up together;” that was Prue’s quaint way of putting it. I decided against quizzing Katie on whether she and Zack were currently “on” or “off.”

“When I called 911,” Katie said, “dispatch told me help was already on the way.”

“You think the man-who-shall-remain-nameless called 911?”


“Don’t you think it’s possible that he tried to rob Mrs. Dunn, the stress triggered her collapse, and then he panicked? Don’t you think—considering that he may have intended to steal her purse but had no intention of hurting her—that he might have called 911, so help was on the way, then ran?”

“I do think Mrs. Dunn may have been attacked,” said Katie. “But I just can’t believe the person who attacked her was the man I saw running away—"

“By any chance,” I asked Katie, “was the man-who-shall-remain-nameless carrying a bright blue handbag?”

Chapter Three

Katie stared at me.

“Blue handbag?”

“Bright blue,” I told her. “Huge. You could conceal a refrigerator in that thing.”

“I didn’t see that the man who ran away was carrying anything at all.”

“Would there have been time for him to throw the bag somewhere?” I asked Katie. “Maybe take out any cash or Mrs. Dunn’s pocketbook and abandon the rest.”

“I don’t think so,“ said Katie. “But you could find out by checking the alley and the dumpster in the back. If it is there, it would be right on top. I haven’t taken out the trash since lunchtime.”

Katie stayed behind at the counter in case she got a customer, which reminded me that I’d left Prue at the mercy of roving packs of middle schoolers in search of afterschool snacks. I really should get back to the food truck before something terrible happened. Once, when I had my back turned, three seventh graders had gotten into a food fight and emptied my squeeze bottles of mustard and ketchup all over each other and the side of my food truck.

I’d just check the alley and then go straight back, I told Katie. We exchanged numbers, just in case either of us had anything to report. Then I went around the side of the convenience store, stopping to poke around in the top layer of the trash can out front.

The alley was empty. The only place to get rid of anything before vanishing out of sight at the other end was a large green dumpster.

I looked inside and saw nothing but a bunch of black plastic trash bags. There was nothing of note in the alley, certainly no bright blue handbag.

I hurried back to the food truck and was surprised to see that Prue had gone, but Arnie was back.

“I thought you were staying for the whole recital.”

“There wasn’t any recital,” Arnie said. “I got there, and the whole thing had been called off. Apparently, there’s been an outbreak of chicken pox in Bray Bay, and half the kids are down with it, so the recital has been postponed.”

“When did Prue leave?”

“As soon as I got here,” Arnie said. “Right after you left, some little girls came by wanting hot dogs, and she had quite a time explaining to them why they couldn’t have any. At least she earned that free hamburger this time. Where did you run off to?”

I was in no mood to pick a fight with Arnie. He’s my favorite person in the whole world, although I’d never admit to it. Arnie is the one thing in my life I can depend on.

“It was Mrs. Dunn,” I told Arnie. “She collapsed in the parking lot in front of the Quick and Pick.”

“Is she going to be all right?”

“I don’t know. The ambulance came and took her to the hospital.”

The rest of the afternoon was uneventful if you don’t count the one mob of eleven-year-olds who threatened Arnie with violence when he couldn’t give them fries with their burgers. I think the kids were joking, sort of.

“Shall I try and fix the fryer before I go home?” Arnie asked around seven, when we usually close up for the evening.

“Don’t bother,” I said as I placed the metal cover over the top of the vat and wondered how long those grease stains had been building up on the ceiling over the fryer. Something had to be done about that before the state health inspector showed up to do a spot check. “If you’re able to come in a little early and see if you can get it going again,” I told Arnie, “that would be great.”

I know Arnie likes to get home early in the evenings, so he can walk Frank, watch a little TV, and make himself a nice dinner that doesn’t include anything fried or grilled.

The next morning, when I arrived at the food truck at around eleven, Arnie was already there. I could smell hot fat and another oddly chemical smell I didn’t recognize, so I knew he must have gotten the fryer working again.

I stuck my head in through the open door in the back.

“What’s that weird smell?”

“This,” Arnie said, pointing to a molten mass in one of the fryer baskets. “When I got the oil heated up, something started to stink, and that’s what I found in the bottom of the fryer.”

“What is it?” I poked at the bright blue lump with a fork.

“Be careful,” Arnie warned me. “It’s still hot. You’ll burn yourself.”

“Well, it’s definitely plastic, whatever it is,” I said. “How in the world did something like that end up at the bottom of the fry vat?”

“Beats me,” said Arnie. “I may have gotten the fryer going again, but we can’t use it until it’s been emptied and thoroughly cleaned.”

I took the basket containing the melted object out back of the food truck and tucked it underneath, out of sight. Frank edged over to sniff it, then backed away, repulsed. Frank has been known to eat run-over squirrels right off the pavement. That’s how bad the thing smelled.

Lunch rush was uneventful, but it wasn’t until around 2:00 that things slowed down enough for me to think about investigating the repulsive melted mass further.

I spread out a sheet of the Bray Bay Crier on the ground—left behind by one of our lunch customers from Whispering Palms. It was the front page of the Crier, and I wasn’t surprised to see no mention of Mrs. Dunn’s collapse in front of the Quick and Pick. The residents of Whispering Palms collapse a lot, especially in the spring and fall when the weather is nice, and they venture out more.

I tried to tip the blue mass, now cooled to the consistency of a rock, out of the fryer basket, but it wouldn’t budge. I went around to the front window to ask Arnie for a knife and found Prue there, trying—as usual, without success—to decide what she wanted to order.

“Have you heard anything about how Mrs. Dunn is doing?” I asked Prue, after listing off—twice—the salad dressing we kept on hand. I just assumed that Prue would have heard about Mrs. Dunn’s collapse. Word travels fast around Whispering Palms, and there’s so little going on in Bray Bay that it doesn’t take much to get people talking.

“Mary is still at the hospital,” Prue said. “My friend Gloria went to see her. They say she had a stroke. She’s woke up, and they say she’s likely to make a full recovery. It’s a pity, though. I think it affected her mind. Mary kept telling Gloria how she was just walking along, minding her own business, and someone attacked her from behind.”

“Really?” I said. “Did Mrs. Dunn say who attacked her?”

“No. Mary claims she didn’t see who it was before she passed out, but I think she’s either imagining things or trying to get attention.”

“That’s a pity,” I said. “I hope she continues to recover. Have you heard when she’s getting discharged?”

“I’m sure they’ll send her to rehab for a few weeks,” Prue said. “She’s having trouble with her right side.”

“How’s your nephew doing?” I asked Prue.


Prue only has one nephew, but she always needs reassurance that he’s the one I’m asking about.

“He’s doing fine. He’s living with me right now.”

“Is he?

“Do you do his laundry?”

Prue gave me an odd look. I couldn’t blame her; it was an odd question.

I was wearing the same jeans I’d had on the day before, so I reached into my front pocket and pulled out the button Katie had taken out of the unconscious Mrs. Dunn’s hand.

“This was on the ground at the Quick and Pick,” I said. “I thought it might have come off one of his shirts.”

Prue took the button and looked at it. She shook her head and handed it back.

“I don’t think it’s Zack’s,” she said.

It was useless to question Prue any further. Prue had such a cotton candy brain that she would have been hard-pressed to provide accurate information about her own wardrobe. I put the button back in my pocket and took the knife Arnie handed out to me. Then I returned to my task of dissecting the blue blob.

The knife made short work of piercing the outside of the bundle. It took only two more cuts to expose the contents.

I poked my head around the corner of the food truck and yelled, “You guys have to come and take a look at this.”

Chapter Four

Arnie came reluctantly around the back of the food truck. He doesn’t approve of how often I go off and leave things unattended. At the beginning of our professional relationship, I had a hard time getting him to jog down to the Quick and Pick to answer the call of nature without pulling down the awning and putting up the “closed” sign.

He was so slow in coming that Prue managed to shuffle around the side of the food truck faster than he did.

“What is it?” Arnie demanded.

“Take a look at this,” I said, poking around in the entrails of the melted mass and pulling out an only-slightly-melted driver’s license—ten years expired. “Whose picture is this?”

“Mary Dunn,” Arnie read aloud. “I never knew she was a redhead. That explains a lot.”

“I’m a redhead!” I protested.

“Where did you find this?” Prue asked, looking horrified. “You don’t think someone murdered poor Mary and buried the body?”

This from a woman who’d just informed us that Mary Dunn was alive—if not well—at the Bray Bay medical center.

“It was at the bottom of the fry vat,” Arnie said.

“That thing you do the French fries in?”


“How did it get there?”

“Someone must have thrown it in there,” I said, continuing to poke around in the contents of Mary Dunn’s melted handbag.

If the handbag had been taken by a thief, he certainly had a unique sense of what was valuable. A survey of Mrs. Dunn’s pocketbook revealed several credit cards in addition to pictures of her grandchildren. At the bottom of the bag, adhered to a roll of melted breath mints, was a fat wad of twenties.

“Well, that’s it,” I announced. “I’ve got to do something about this.”

“Something about what?” Arnie asked.

“Mrs. Dunn was clearly attacked yesterday. Even she’s saying so. Some mugger took her handbag.”

“Why would anyone want to mug Mary Dunn?” Prue looked doubtful. “Who’d think she was carrying anything worth taking?”

“She was carrying things worth taking,” I said, waving the wad of twenties around. “It’s just that the mugger didn’t take them.”

“I wonder why,” Arnie said. “Do you think they got scared and threw the bag away before they had a chance to go through it?”

“There’s no way of knowing, “ I admitted, “but I’m inclined to think that mugger was looking for something other than cash or credit cards.”

“What?” Prue asked. “What else could Mary Dunn have in her handbag that anybody would want?”

“I have no idea,” I said. “But I intend to find out.”

Fifteen minutes later, in response to my call, Officer Finch was behind the food truck poking around in the remains of Mary Dunn’s handbag. Based on the blasé attitude he was taking, I don’t think he would have gotten there nearly that quickly to investigate if he didn’t believe he and I “were meant to be.”

“Somebody must have seen the old lady lying unconscious on the pavement and taken her bag,” Scott said. “It was clearly a crime of opportunity.”

“Was it?” It was far from clear to me. “It seems to me that anyone who’d steal a purse from a passed-out old lady would bother to at least take the cash out of it before throwing it away.”

“You say this was in your fryer?” Scott asked.


“You think it’s been in there since yesterday afternoon?”

“The fryer was broken yesterday, and Arnie didn’t find the handbag until he got the fryer working this morning and the oil heated up.”

Arnie had returned to man the food truck, even though our only customer was Prue, who had finally decided on a small garden salad and a bag of potato chips.

Arnie detests Scott, although I’ve never quite pinned him down on why he hates him so much. Scott’s not a terrible guy, even if he doesn’t know how to take no for an answer and only makes an effort when he’s run out of other options.

“Did you already return those groceries?” Scott asked.

“No, Mrs. Dunn’s still at the hospital and likely to be there for a while.”

“You want to take this with you, too?” Scott asked.

I just stared at him.

“Yes? No? Maybe?” Scott persisted.

“You want me to return Mrs. Dunn’s stolen property? Isn’t that more your job? Don’t you have to take it down to the station and photograph it or something?”

“I wouldn’t classify this as stolen property. It’s all still here. More like lost property.”

“Lost? So while Mrs. Dunn was lying on the pavement in front of the Quick and Pick, out cold, she somehow managed to misplace her handbag down at the bottom of our deep fat fryer?”

“Well, I’m just saying that the contents of her bag seem to be intact.”

“How could you possibly know that unless Mrs. Dunn has presented you with a written list of what she was carrying the day she collapsed?”

Scott looked at me sheepishly. He had pushed me too far, and he knew it.

“Fine,” he said. “I’ll take it down to the station.”

“And open an investigation into who mugged Mrs. Dunn in front of the Quick and Pick?”

“Nobody mugged Mrs. Dunn,” Scott said.

“How do you know?” I demanded. “Has anyone reviewed footage from the surveillance cameras in front of the Quick and Pick?”

“I’ll look into it,” Scott said, but I knew he wouldn’t.

He reached out for the handbag, but I stopped him. Carefully wrapping the melted mess in the sheet of newspaper it had been lying on, I hugged it to my chest.

“I’ll do it,” I said. “I’m sure you have more important matters to attend to.”

After Officer Finch departed, I decided that Arnie could man the fort alone.

I collected the battered shopping trolley filled with groceries I’d left covered with a black plastic trash bag behind the food truck, lay the newspaper-wrapped bundle on top, and set out for Whispering Palms. If I couldn’t find anyone home at Mrs. Dunn’s apartment, I’d leave her belongings with the manager. More importantly, returning Mrs. Dunn’s items would give me the perfect pretext for doing a bit of snooping.

When I got to Whispering Palms, I went straight to the manager’s office and asked where Mary Dunn lived.

The girl in the office—who barely tore herself away from a riveting text conversation long enough to look up Mary Dunn’s apartment number on a clipboard she kept in a desk drawer—informed me that Mrs. Dunn lived at number twenty-four.

Number twenty-four was on the outskirts of the complex. To get there, I had to navigate the parking lot. The residents of Whispering Palms are not polite parkers. There seemed to be a number of drivers who adhered to the school of thought that the best way to keep one’s car free of dents and dings was to take up two spaces at once.

There was one old ratty red pickup—inexplicably protected with a brand-new, expensive-looking vinyl cover—which took up three spaces. I wondered who was so fastidious about protecting such a rundown vehicle. Perhaps the neighbors had complained, and the owner had compromised by covering it up. If that was the plan, it was a failure because the wind had blown the cover back, exposing the poor old broken-down pickup to public scorn and ridicule.

When I finally arrived at apartment twenty-four, dragging the trolley behind me, there was no question I’d found the right place. Inside, Polly, Mrs. Dunn’s parrot, was putting up quite a racket. At some point in her life, Polly must have belonged to a sailor because she was loudly informing every creature within earshot where they could go and how soon—in the most vulgar terms possible.

It was clear why Polly’s presence at Whispering Palms had managed to ruffle so many feathers.

I knocked on the door of apartment twenty-four. Polly went silent for a few seconds, only to resume her offensive tirade at an even higher volume. I felt sorry for the poor bird. I wondered if anyone had been in to feed her since Mrs. Dunn had been admitted to the hospital.

I was just raising my hand to knock again when a voice behind me said, “Mary isn’t home. She’s been taken to the hospital.”

I turned around. A tiny woman with a tight perm and a blue rinse stood at the bottom of the steps leading up to Mary Dunn’s front door.

“Hi,” I said, extending my hand. “I’m Felicia Finnigan.”

“Irma McFee,” the tiny woman said. “There’s no use knocking. No one will answer.”

Chapter Five

“Charmed,” I said.

So this was Irma, the woman Prue had described as “vicious.” Irma McFee looked like she couldn’t hurt a housefly even if she wanted to.

“Has Mrs. Dunn’s daughter been around to feed Polly?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Irma said. “And I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, that vile bird can starve to death.” Then she let loose with a string of statements not fit for print in a publication meant for family consumption.

Irma McFee might lose a fist fight with the housefly, but the poor pest would have grounds to sue for emotional distress. I wondered if Polly had actually gotten her vocabulary from Irma McFee rather than my theoretical sailor.

“I’m not sure what to do with Mrs. Dunn’s things,” I said. “She collapsed just down the street from my food truck, so I ended up with them.”

“Try the door,” Irma said. “Sometimes, she forgets to lock it.”

I wondered how Irma knew that, but I tried it anyway and was surprised when the knob turned. I wouldn’t have gone in, but I was worried that Polly might be starving, so I pushed the door open and stepped inside.

The place was a terrible mess. Mrs. Dunn appeared to be one of those people who opened cupboard doors and drawers but never closed them again.

I left the grocery trolley in the tiny vestibule and went straight to Polly’s cage in the dinette. I was rooting around in the items next to the cage, looking for birdseed to refill Polly’s empty feeding dish, when I stepped back and nearly knocked over Irma. I hadn’t even realized she’d followed me in.

“Here,” she said, reaching past me and removing Polly’s empty water bottle from the holder on the outside of her cage. “I’ll take that to the bathroom to refill it.”

I found the bag of birdseed behind a stack of books that had been knocked over. Apparently, Mrs. Dunn was a fan of legal thrillers. I refilled Polly’s dish, and she settled right down to eat. I found an empty paper cup on the counter, filled it with bird seed, and stuck it through the little door in Polly’s cage, just in case no one came back to check on her for a while.

I’d lock the door behind me when I left and inform the manager—I’d insist on seeing the manager in person this time—and let him know that there was an unattended pet locked in apartment twenty-four. Not that the management shouldn’t have figured that out on their own by now. Maybe they were letting the poor bird starve to death on purpose.

I retrieved the trolley from the foyer and unpacked it, setting the groceries in a neat row on the counter and placing the newspaper-wrapped bundle containing what was left of Mrs. Dunn’s handbag in the middle of the table in the dinette.

Irma was still not back with the water bottle, so I called out to her. She didn’t answer, which didn’t surprise me. She was probably hard of hearing.

I went in search of her. In the bathroom, which was oddly clean in contrast to the relative disorder of the remainder of the apartment, I found Polly’s refilled water bottle sitting on the rim of the pedestal sink.

I went back out into the hall. The door to the bedroom—the only other room in the tiny apartment—was shut. I called out to Irma again. No answer. I decided she must have slipped back out of the apartment while I was feeding Polly. Perhaps Irma was like Prue and got halfway through a task and then forgot what she’d started.

I was almost to the front door when a thump from the bedroom made me jump. I tiptoed back to the closed door, my heart pounding in my chest.

I grasped the doorknob and slowly turned it, then flung the door open so suddenly it hit Irma McFee so hard she fell backward.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Are you trying to kill me?” Irma demanded. Or words to that effect.

“What are you doing in here?” I asked again.

“Looking for birdseed,” said Irma defiantly. She’d managed to get back to her feet—no help from me—but her eyes kept drifting down to the floor.

“You were looking for birdseed in here? I found it in the kitchen,” I told her. “What’s that you are standing on?”

“Nothing,” said Irma.

“It looks like an envelope of photos,” I said. “Here, let me get it for you.”

I bent down to pick it up, but Irma wasn’t budging. I toyed with trying to lift Irma’s foot, which wouldn’t have been too much of an effort, considering she couldn’t have weighed more than about 80 pounds, and I’m a sturdy girl closing in on six feet tall.

“Why won’t you move your foot?” I demanded. “That looks like photos. You’re going to mess them up.”

“I’m not standing on anything,” Irma insisted. “You’re imagining things.”

I wondered if the woman was insane, and I was toying with asking her as much when the sound of the front door opening startled Irma, and she reflexively took a step toward the sound.

I grabbed the envelope and shoved it down the front of my shirt. Whoever was coming in, Irma wasn’t likely to fight me for those photos in front of them.

It turned out to be Mary’s daughter, Cynthia.

“Oh, thank goodness,” Cynthia said after I’d explained why I was there. “I thought someone had broken in again.”

“Broken in?”

“A few days ago, while my mother was at bingo, someone came in and trashed the place.”

“Trashed the place?”

“I guess she hadn’t cleaned up yet,” Cynthia said. “Mom’s normally very neat.”

“Did they take anything?” I asked.

I could feel Irma hovering in the background. I wished she’d go away, so I could milk Cynthia for information without Irma listening in.

“That was the funny thing,” Cynthia said. “It didn’t seem like they took anything. Mom even had cash laying out on the counter, and they didn’t touch it.”

“Do you think they were looking for something in particular?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Cynthia, “but I can’t imagine what.”

Irma edged off before I did. I guess she wasn’t interested in trying to fight me for the envelope of photos.

As soon as I got out to my car, I opened up the envelope. It was a bit of a letdown. There were no prints inside, just a roll’s worth of negatives.

When I got back to the food truck, I asked Arnie if he knew any place in town where one could go to have photos developed.

“I think the drugstore takes them, but they send them out to Simmons’ Drug over in Eagle’s Rest,” Arnie said.

“How long does that take?”

“If you get them done here, it will take a day or two, but I think Simmons’ has a one-hour service, or at least they did back in the day. Why are you asking? Have you taken up film photography?”

I didn’t like to admit that I’d stolen an envelope of negatives from Mrs. Dunn’s apartment, even if I had my reasons, so I changed the subject by asking if we were getting low on aluminum foil again.

Ten minutes later, I cried off work for the rest of the afternoon, saying I thought I might have a migraine coming on. If you’re a migraine sufferer, you’ll know that there’s always a possibility you have a migraine coming on, but it was still stretching the truth, and I never feel good about lying to Arnie.

An hour and a half later, I was in Eagle’s Rest, sitting in my car outside the one-hour photo clutching an envelope of prints in my shaking hands. When the young man behind the counter had asked if I’d like to take a look before paying, I’d declined, although judging from his expression as he shoved them into the envelope, he’d either not looked at the pictures, or they were unremarkable. Or maybe employees of photo labs had seen so many odd and disturbing things they no longer batted an eye at much of anything.

I didn’t know what to expect.

I opened the envelope and took out the photos.

Chapter Six

They were photos of Irma McFee and some man. Every single last one of the photographs was of the same couple. In some of the photos, Irma and the man were walking on the beach; in some, they were sitting in a car, apparently engrossed in conversation; in others, they were in a restaurant—one I did not recognize as being local.

All the photos were terrible quality, taken in less than ideal conditions. Several of them were partially obscured by someone’s thumb—ostensibly Mrs. Dunn’s—over the lens.

I’d never seen the man, but several photos clearly showed he wore a wedding ring. I wondered if Irma was married. Judging by her eagerness to get her mitts on those photos, if Irma was married, it wasn’t to the man in the photos.

I decided to go to the one person I knew who’d possibly be able to identify the man in the photos—Prue.

When I knocked on the door of Prue’s apartment, Zack answered. He didn’t look surprised to see me, which I thought was a good sign.

“Is your aunt home?” I asked him. Judging by their great difference in age, Prue must be Zack’s great aunt.

Prue emerged from behind Zack and waved me into her tiny living room. Her apartment was a mirror image of Mary Dunn’s. It had a stacked washer/dryer unit in the kitchen with a basket of laundry setting in front of it. The shirts on the top of the basket definitely didn’t belong to an eighty-year-old woman.

“I have a question for you, Prue,” I said. “But before I get into that, would you mind if I got myself a drink of water?”

Without giving Prue a chance to offer to get me a glass herself, I marched into her tiny kitchen and opened the cupboard door to the right of the sink. Everyone keeps their glasses in the cupboard to the right of the sink, and Prue was no exception. While I was making a show of selecting a glass, I kept stealing glances at the man’s shirts that lay on top of the laundry basket at my feet.

I could clearly see the two shirts on top, and the buttons were not a match for the one I still had in my pocket. I filled my water glass and set it down on the very edge of the counter. Then I accidentally-on-purpose knocked it over, so it went off the edge of the counter and into the basket of laundry.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “Sometimes, I think I go through life with all the grace of a lumbering elephant.”

Then I reached down into the basket and rooted around in the shirts on the pretext of retrieving the glass.

I found what I was afraid I would find.

Halfway down the basket, I discovered a shirt with buttons that were an exact match. The shirt was even missing one of the top buttons. I stood up and put the glass I’d knocked over into the sink. I heard the front door open and turned around to glimpse Zack going out.

I took down a clean glass from the cupboard, filled it at the sink, then took the envelope of pictures into the living room to consult Prue.

“Do you know who this is?” I asked Prue as I handed her one of the pictures that showed the mystery man most clearly.

“That’s Irma,” Prue said.

“I know that’s Irma,” I said. “I had the misfortune of meeting her earlier today. Do you know who the man is?”

“That’s Bill Bradley,” Prue said. “He lives three doors down from me.”

“With his wife?”


“Who’s not Irma?”

“No, Bill’s wife’s gone to Bat and Rug. They just got a new great-grandbaby.”

“Bat and Rug? Where’s Bat and Rug?”

“You know, that city in Louisiana.”

I was pretty sure Prue meant Baton Rouge, but I didn’t want to get bogged down, so I moved on.

“Is Irma married?” I asked Prue.


“But definitely not to Bill?”

With Prue, you have to spell everything out and be perfectly clear about everything. I didn’t want to get the wrong end of the stick just because Prue was muddle-headed.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Prue. “You just never know what people are getting up to. Who would have thought it?”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

Irma and Bill were up to something, but so was Prue’s nephew Zack. Or at least it looked that way.

I headed back toward the food truck. I’d slacked off for the day. I intended to only make one stop on the way—the Quick and Pick—but instead, I made two.

A block from Whispering Palms, I saw Marge walking along the side of the street, a heavy black plastic sack containing her belongings in each hand.

I pulled up next to the curb and rolled down my window.

“Hello, Marge,” I said. “Do you want a ride?”

“Where are you going?”

“Where do you want to go?”

“I was going to go to the supermarket.”

That meant she was going to go around the back of the supermarket to see if they’d thrown out anything edible.

“Get in,” I said. “I’ll take you to the food truck, and you can eat whatever you want.”

“I don’t like to take stuff for free,” said Marge.

“It won’t be free,” I said. “I’m offering you dinner in exchange for information.”

“Oh.” Marge looked doubtful, but she climbed into the passenger seat. “Information about what?”

“You know Mary Dunn from Whispering Palms collapsed yesterday in front of the Quick and Pick?”

“Is that what happened? I saw the police go by.”

“They took her away to the hospital. She had a stroke.”

“But I don’t even know Mary Dunn, and I wasn’t at the Quick and Pick when it happened.”

“That doesn’t matter,” I said.

“I just saw the police cars go by, that’s all. I guess I did see the ambulance, too.”

I decided it was time to be completely transparent with Marge.

“I don’t think Mrs. Dunn just spontaneously collapsed from a stroke,” I said. “I think someone mugged her, and the shock triggered her stroke.”

“Oh, but I didn’t see anything bad happen. If I had, I would have done something to help.”

“Of course, you would have. I was just wondering if you saw anything unusual yesterday. If you saw the police go by, you must have been fairly close. Did you see anyone running away, for example?”


I toyed with giving Marge a physical description of Zack but changed my mind. Either Marge had seen someone running away, or she hadn’t.

“I did notice one strange thing,” Marge said. “About a block from the middle school, I saw a pickup I’d never seen before.”

“What did it look like?”

“It was real old and beat up.”


Marge looked surprised but nodded.

“There was a man sitting in the pickup for a long time like he was waiting for someone.”

“How long?”

“I don’t know,” Marge said. “I was just sitting on that bench they have out in front of the middle school enjoying the sun. Maybe half an hour? It was quite a while.”

“Was the man in the pickup a young man?”

“No, he was in his seventies or maybe even older.”

It couldn’t have been Zack. Nobody would ever mistake Zack for being in his seventies.

“Did you see the man leave?” I asked Marge.

“Yes. While I was sitting there, a woman about the same age came walking up real fast. I guess she must have been exercising or something. She got in the pickup with him; then they drove away.”

“Was that before or after the police cars went by?”

“Before. Several minutes before.”

I left Marge off at the food truck and told Arnie to give her anything she wanted on the house. I could tell that he was exasperated with me, but there was someplace else I had to go.

Katie had a customer when I walked into the Quick and Pick, but as soon as we had the place to ourselves, I got right to the point.

“We need to look at the recordings,” I told Katie.

“The security recordings?”

I could tell Katie didn’t want to. She might protest all she wanted about Zack not having attacked Mrs. Dunn, but the tape would settle the question one way or the other—providing the cameras covered the part of the parking lot where Mary Dunn had been attacked.

I hated to be cruel, but I had to be.

“That button was definitely off of Zack’s shirt,” I said.

Katie turned pale.

“Do you really want to be with the sort of man who mugs old ladies?”

“I don’t believe Zack mugged any old lady,” Katie said, but she didn’t come off as very convincing.

“Can we look at what the cameras saw?”

“My boss reviews the recordings on his laptop,” Katie said, “but the recordings are stored online by the security company.”

“Do you think we could log in on a phone?”

“Probably, but we don’t have the password.”

“People have the bad habit of using the same username and password for everything,” I insisted. “Surely, you must have some idea.”

Katie looked sheepish. “I looked over his shoulder once and saw his username, and the password is probably the same code we use to turn the alarm system on and off.”

She was right. But even after we got into the account, it was tedious pinpointing the time when Mrs. Dunn’s attack occurred.

Finally, we found the section where Mrs. Dunn walked into view, dragging her trolley. Even in the grainy black and white footage, it was clear she still had her big blue handbag clutched across her chest.

“I can’t look,” Katie said. “You watch it and tell me what happens.”

Chapter Seven

Katie and I had been reviewing the security footage while huddled over my phone. I’d propped it against the penny jar next to the register. Katie left the register and went over to the soda fountain and covered her eyes with her hands.

“I don’t want to know,” she insisted.

I kept watching as Mrs. Dunn advanced across the screen. A second figure came into view. I watched for another minute or so before I stopped the footage and rewound to the point where Mrs. Dunn had entered the scene alone.

“You can relax,” I told Katie. “Come look at this. It’s definitely not Zack who attacked Mrs. Dunn.”

Katie dispensed us each a fountain drink before she returned to the register. When she put mine down in front of me, her hand was still shaking. From relief, I guess.

“Watch carefully,” I said and pressed play.

Mrs. Dunn entered the scene pulling her trolley, and a few seconds later, a second figure came up on her from behind and grabbed the strap of her handbag. Mrs. Dunn tried to turn around, but her attacker shoved a plastic grocery bag over her head. While Mrs. Dunn was trying to get the sack off her face, the bag broke free, and the attacker made off with it, leaving Mrs. Dunn still struggling with the bag over her face.

“I think they used a knife to cut the strap,” I said as I paused the footage.

“Was that a child?” Katie asked. “I can’t believe a little kid would do that to an old lady.”

“That was no kid,” I said. “Far from it.”

“Who was it?” Katie asked. “They are super tiny.”

“I believe it was someone who Mrs. Dunn was blackmailing.”


“I’ll explain later,” I told Katie. “Now, I want you to see how Mrs. Dunn ended up with Zack’s button in her hand.”

I continued playing the footage.

Mrs. Dunn continued to struggle to get the bag off her face.

“She’s going to die!” Katie said.

“She didn’t die,” I reminded her. “She’s in the hospital.”

Then, from behind Mrs. Dunn, a second figure entered the scene.

“That’s Zack!” Katie said.

“He’s trying to get the bag off Mrs. Dunn’s head.”

“Why doesn’t he try from the front?” Katie asked.

“He’s probably afraid that Mrs. Dunn will fail to realize he’s just trying to help and believe he’s the one who attacked her.”

Mrs. Dunn had reached around and grabbed Zack by the front of the shirt.

“That’s when Zack’s button must have come off,” Katie said.

A second or two after Mrs. Dunn grabs Zack’s shirt, she collapses. Zack eases her down to the pavement and rips the bag off her face.

“He saved Mrs. Dunn’s life,” Katie said.

Zack bends over Mrs. Dunn for a second or two and then whips a phone out of his back pocket and makes a call. He hangs up and then stays beside Mrs. Dunn for several minutes. He keeps looking toward the street and then back down at Mrs. Dunn.

“I remember something now,” Katie said. “It’s true that I was getting ready to go out for a smoke when I found Mrs. Dunn, but just before I stepped outside, I heard something hitting the window.”

“Did you see what it was?”

“No, but looking back on it, it must have been Zack trying to get me to look outside.”

“That would explain the smear on the front window and the smashed raspberry yogurt container on the ground,” I said. “He must have thrown it at the window hoping to get you to come out and wait with Mrs. Dunn until help arrived.”

“What do we do now?” Katie asked. “We have to tell the police that someone attacked Mrs. Dunn.”

“Well, we can hardly admit to hacking into your boss’s account. Can’t you get him to find it himself?”

“He won’t want to bother,” Katie said.

“Tell you saw someone running away right after you went out and found Mrs. Dunn collapsed. That’s the truth, isn’t it?”

“But won’t that get Zack in trouble?”

“I don’t think that’s likely,” I told Katie. “He clearly wasn’t the one who attacked Mrs. Dunn. Instead, he saved her life. If you’re having a hard time getting your boss to look at the tapes, you can always lie and tell him you think someone shoplifted something while you were out front waiting for the ambulance. You might have to fudge on the time a bit, but it can’t fail to get your boss to look. We small business owners get pretty worked up when someone steals from us.”

By the time I’d convinced Katie to call her boss, it was almost six. Arnie would be gearing up to go home. I wanted to go help him with the onerous task of scrubbing out the fry vat we’d drained earlier in the afternoon, but I still had unfinished business with Irma McFee.

I sat in my car in the parking lot of the Quick and Pick and called Officer Finch.

“Don’t tell me you’re still convinced Mrs. Dunn was savagely attacked?” Scott said.

“Far from it,” I said, leaving out the part about how Mrs. Dunn’s collapse wasn’t so much the result of a mugging as it was an attempted murder. “How would you like to join me for dinner?”

“Love to,” Scott said. “Where did you have in mind?”

“The Whispering Palms cafeteria.”

Scott laughed.

“I’m not joking,” I said. “I mean it.”

“I’ve been bugging you for months to have dinner with me,” Scott said. Years would be more like it. “Why does it have to be the Whispering Palms Cafeteria?”

“Let’s just say I’m eccentric,” I said. “Wait for me in the parking lot at 7:00.”

“Will do. I’ll be waiting in front of the Whispering Palms cafeteria at seven.”

“No,” I corrected him. “I won’t be in front of the cafeteria. Let’s meet in front of apartment seventeen.”

It took no end of convincing to talk Scott into meeting me in front of Bill Bradley’s apartment. I was taking a big gamble on Bill even being home and an even bigger gamble on Irma being with him, but the only downside was that if things didn’t go according to plan, I’d be subjected to a meal of soggy string beans and low-sodium mashed potatoes in the company of Scott Finch.

I timed my arrival at Mr. Bradley’s front door to allow me five minutes before Officer Finch showed up. I don’t usually carry a handbag, so I fished an empty plastic grocery bag—ironically, one identical to the one Irma McFee had shoved over Mrs. Dunn’s head—and placed the envelope of incriminating photographs inside.

As I walked past the battered old red pickup on the way to Bill Bradley’s door, I noticed that someone had snugged down the cover, so the vehicle was completely obscured.

I pressed the doorbell and hoped I wasn’t making a colossal mistake.

Chapter Eight

Bill opened the door and smiled broadly at me.

“What can I do for you, young lady?” he asked. “If you’re planning on asking me if I’m saved, though, I’ll spare you the effort and tell you I’m not interested.”

I was tempted to tell him that he’d better make it to confession pronto—whether he was Catholic or not—based on what he’d been up to, but I bit my tongue.

“I’m trying to find Irma McFee,” I told him. “Somebody told me she might be here.”

The broad smile dropped from Mr. Bradley’s face.

“Who told you that?” he demanded.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I thought Irma and your wife were good friends.”

Nobody had told me that; it was a wild guess, but I hit the mark.

“Sure,” Bill said grudgingly. “They get along.”

“Well, is Irma here, or isn’t she?”

“It happens that Irma is here,” Mr. Bradley said. “She came by to see my wife, but Amelia had just stepped out for a few minutes to, ah, buy toothpaste.”

Ah. The ever-so-common toothpaste emergency. I wanted to ask if Amelia had gone all the way to Baton Rouge to buy the extra special toothpaste only available across state lines, but I didn’t want to blow my cover.

“May I speak to Irma?” I asked.

“Sure,” Bill said. “Why don’t you come in?”

“It’s of rather a personal nature,” I insisted. “Perhaps Irma would like to come outside and—”

“What’s this all about?” Irma peaked out from behind Bill.

“I just thought there was something you two might like to see,” I said and produced my envelope of photographs. I didn’t even have to remove them from the envelope.

“How dare you!” Irma spat out.

Bill just looked confused.

“How dare you try to murder Mary Dunn,” I said.

“Murder?” Irma sputtered.

“Why is this woman going on about murder?” Bill interrupted. “I thought Mary Dunn had a stroke.”

“She did have a stroke,” I explained. “But there were extenuating circumstances.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Irma insisted. “I couldn’t have had anything to do with Mary Dunn’s stroke. I was at my granddaughter’s piano recital when that happened. Bill here will vouch for me. He came to pick me up.”

“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t realize you and Mary Dunn were so close that you’d know the time she collapsed.”

“Somebody—one of the staff here—told me,” Irma insisted.

“Did they? How interesting. Tell me, where was this piano recital held?”

“It was at the middle school,” Irma said, daring me to contradict her.

I took her challenge.

“If you had been at the recital in question,” I said, feeling far more pleased with myself than I had a right to be, “you’d know that it was canceled due to half the performers being down with chicken pox.”

“You’re lying,” said Irma.

“I’m not.”

“She’s lying,” Irma said to Bill. “Were you there?” Irma persisted, turning to me. “You can’t go around saying I wasn’t someplace if you weren’t there yourself.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Scott shoehorning his car into one of the few remaining parking spaces. I needed to stall for another thirty seconds before I sprung my final question on Irma McFee.

“What should I do with these pictures?” I asked her.

“Give them to me,” said Irma. “You know as well as I do that I’ve more right to them than you.”

“I’ll admit that’s true,” I said. “These pictures must have been what you were looking for when you ransacked Mrs. Dunn’s apartment. Did you and Mary fall out when you tried to make her get rid of that parrot? Was she blackmailing you into dropping your complaint?”

I didn’t pause in between questions for an answer. I could hear Scott’s footsteps approaching behind me. He had no idea he was about to become witness to a confession of assault and battery.

Irma was so overwrought that she didn’t notice we were about to have another guest at our little impromptu party.

“These photographs,” I said. “Are they what you were looking for when you tried to murder Mrs. Dunn?” I paused, relinquishing airspace for Irma to reply.

“Murder?” Irma had turned the color of a beet, and spittle was forming in the corners of her mouth. “I didn’t try to murder anyone. I was just trying to get back what was mine.”

I could feel Scott hovering in the background. I hoped he stayed quiet and let things play out.

“Is that why you attacked Mary Dunn?” I persisted.

“Attacked her? I didn’t attack her. I just politely asked her to destroy those photographs. I’ll admit, I never was at that piano recital, and yes, Mary did get a little upset at me.”

“A little upset at you? She was so upset it triggered a stroke.”

“It’s not my fault she couldn’t handle a minor difference of opinion.”

“A minor difference of opinion? Is that what you call sneaking up behind somebody, shoving a plastic bag over their head, stealing their purse, and then running away, leaving them to collapse on the ground and suffocate?”

“That’s not true!” Irma was screaming now. “How dare you say that! She was still on her feet when I left her. How was I to know she’d keel over like that? I figured she’d just take the bag off her face and be fine. I never intended to kill Mary Dunn!”

When it was all over, and Irma McFee was on the way to the station to be booked on assault and battery charges—Officer Finch seemed a little hazy on whether attempted murder charges were likely to apply—I hurried back to the food truck, hoping to find Arnie still there. I’d had it with humans, but Arnie didn’t count.

Frank came up to greet me, tail wagging. The shutter on the front of the truck was down, but there was a light on inside.

“I just finished scrubbing out the fry vat,” Arnie said.

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help.”

“How’s your head? Feeling better?”

“Much better. How would you like to go out for dinner?”

Arnie brightened up. “Sure,” he said. “But it might be best if I stopped off at home and cleaned up a little.”

“Take your time,” I told him. “I had dinner plans at the Whispering Palms cafeteria, but fortunately, they fell through.”

The End

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