by Rob Hunter
|part 8 of 9|
So Norma had driven out here on a tractor. Said vehicle was parked in front of my cabin, still running, lights on. I slid into a dreamy reverie of Norma in her lingerie on the ride over to the General Longstreet. A little blowsy and on the fair side of forty, she still cut a fine figure.
I snapped to and cleared my throat. “Ahh... Do you have a driver waiting? Should I tip him?” I closed my eyes again and, where I had left Norma holding a pinup pose, an irregularly-shaped giant tomato filled my fantasy.
“Silly. I found it parked behind the Red Rose. I couldn’t call a cab. It’s still running because I don’t know how to turn it off. There was a Start button. No Off button.”
I went out to the tractor. I found the toggle switch and shut off the engine.
“How’d you do that?” Norma was impressed that a city slicker should know something about farm machinery. I could have strung her along.
“Tractors have two sets of switches. ‘Start’ kicks over the engine. ‘On’ and ‘Off’ enable the electrical system. The tractor is Off.” I had read about this in Boys’ Life. “You couldn’t or you wouldn’t call the cab company for a ride out here?”
“A girl has to be careful who she’s seen with. People talk.”
I decided it was time for a leap of faith. “So Wildrose snuck up and caught you and Parrish screwing in the tall grass?”
Norma froze, then coyly demurred with a chokedamp piety that insisted there had been no attraction there for her. “I was only teasing him. We went out to the old locks earthworks together. The runnin’ off was Ol’ Parrish’s idea. We just shucked down for a swim. With him being married and all and me just standin’ there and waiting. Anything I said would be an invitation.”
“Well, silly, of course. We were goin’ in swimming. Next thing he was all over me like a health inspector on a platter of bad shashlik.” The Southern Belle metaphors were slipping, along with her accent. Norma had lived too long in the North, a tarnished magnolia.
I told Norma about the Zabloski picnic and the peeing kid. “And now you want a favor.”
“A girl don’t ask a favor of just nobody.”
Almost the same words as the bottle blonde at the poison picnic. I hadn’t told her what the baby-tossing woman had said to me.
“And what do you have to offer me in trade for said favor? Shit.” I hadn’t meant for it to come out that way, but shrugging into my shirt I had gotten tangled up in the flypaper again. Norma’s demeanor promised much, but as I peeled off Charley Hoskins’ flypaper she was beginning to look like she’d rather be back on her tractor.
With a dreamy, calculating look, her eyes cleared and focused on a spot in the middle of my forehead. “Rosie Mahaffey is a very old, very, ah... dear friend of mine, Harley. He is as well a skilled bureaucrat adept at shuffling papers to the bottom of a pile. He is allowed to hold you for thirty days without charge as a material witness. After that... papers have been known to get lost, and prisoners have languished for years in the county lockup. I do hope you enjoy jail food.”
“Huh?” I said, not unreasonably.
“I want you to find me Parrish Wagstaff’s earthly remains,” said Norma. I felt my jaw hang loosely. I reached up to close it. “I have to know if it was I killed Parrish. That I could inspire a grown man with lust fierce enough to kill him.”
“Why not?” I got the distinct impression that she had lots more weaponry left in the armamentarium of coercion every pretty girl carries. This woman had achieved a flawless peeing-baby hand-off.
“I mean,” Norma said, “It got out of hand with Parrish. He was a wild man. I always thought it was his trying to impress me that killed him. Parrish, I mean? A heart attack? And I never dreamed Wildrose would be so jealous.”
“You’ve been dining out on Norma the Lethal Passion Flower for twenty years now. Why not let it rest? Ol’ Parrish the only taker?”
“Oh, Harley, that’s rude.” This with the honey-drippin’ lilt in her voice. “There was a time a decent girl wouldn’t be caught dead in the vicinity of the General Longstreet.” And here she was. With me. She adjusted her picture hat and chased some vagrant strands of hair come uncoiffed on her tractor ride.
“Miz Cawthorne?” The Miz established social distance — a defendable perimeter should things become sweaty. Norma snapped right to it like a chalk line. Breeding will tell.
“My name is Norma.”
“Norma. Now that didn’t hurt just one bit, did it, Harley? All I need is one itty-bitty favor.” She stopped to flounce the ruffles that framed her cleavage, a gesture so ingrained she did it from habit. I didn’t get my hopes up.
I tried to picture the girl Wildrose Mahaffey had fallen for when they were kids together. Her long fine hair streaming, the young blonde girl skips into a marble game, scattering aggies. The fifth-grade boys are too awed to be angry. The goddess has blessed them. They pick up their marbles and lump around, waiting for recess to end.
Norma is a butterfly, simply playing potsy or mumblety-peg will not get her back. Heartbroken fifth-grade boys shuffle back to class. She has accepted the offering of their frustration, and found it good. Norma Cawthorne, aged ten, is headed for the sandbox to do cartwheels through their castles.
She still believed herself irresistible when she turned on the charm. She was merely a drop-dead gorgeous middle-aged woman.
“And the strictly secret routine? The whole world saw you come out here on that tractor. That antique would wake the dead. And, speaking of the dead — what about Thelma? No tears for the abandoned wife? You just came home to buff your self-image as the teenage temptress. Thelma was only collateral damage.”
She sat on the edge of the bed, first daintily brushing off a landing spot with a handkerchief.
“Harley, how you do talk.” Norma Cawthorne’s hanky exuded the rich patchouli scent of the hanky clutched in Thelma’s dead hand.
“You stopped by the White Street Billiards to rub some salt in an old wound?”
“And forgot my hanky.” Super coy — she didn’t bat an eye, just adjusted her cleavage again. “Wildrose gave it back to me. How was I to know that old Thelma would kill herself?”
“Listen, Wildrose will keep his speculations close to his vest as long as it suits him. Small-town cops have long memories. You took credit for the deed; you fucked Parrish Wagstaff to death. Mahaffey admitted in front of strangers that he was an accessory.”
Norma did not flinch at the F-word.
* * *
So, what exactly had happened to Ol’ Parrish? The police weren’t interested. Thelma was beyond caring. Thelma shut herself away in the White Street Billiards and Snooker with the green baize tables and cellophane-wrapped sandwiches after Ol’ Parrish ran off. It was a lonely end.
I figured I owed Thelma something. She had consoled herself with the comfort of strangers.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
I tossed a prayer of aversion to the Cherokee Purples. “And don’t forget something nice for yourselves,” I added.
Copyright © 2009 by Rob Hunter