Love and Murder in Red Satin
Ian Feldman had confessed his desire to Allie Blair over coffee an hour ago, but nothing had changed. He sucked in his gut and tugged harder on the zipper. He'd put on a couple of pounds, but slowly the fabric came together encasing him, transforming him.
He puffed out his chest, admiring his reflection in the full-length mirror. Satisfied, he glanced at his watch, ten-thirty. At least a half hour before Laura would be home. Maybe it was time to tell her. Would she still love him? Would revealing his secret eliminate the rush he got from doing this and he'd be normal?
A noise downstairs made him flinch. Oh, my god, Laura was home early. He grabbed the zipper tab then stopped. He'd told Allie how this made him feel, and she wasn't repulsed.
"Courage," he said to his reflection and went downstairs to tell his sweet wife.
But it wasn't Laura.
At seven forty-five Friday morning, Allie Blair turned her six-dollar purse upside down, dumping the contents on the sun-heated asphalt at the back door of Jake's Grocery.
"Where's the damn key?"
Crap, she didn't have it. Looking back the way she'd come, across the field separating her uncle's house from his store, she pulled the cell phone he'd loaned her from her jeans pocket. She hoped he'd be the one to answer, but naturally, Hazel answered, clearly perturbed at having to do so. The woman was nothing like Aunt Christine had been, but Allie didn't blame Uncle Jake for remarrying.
"I forgot the key," Allie said, hoping she hadn't lost it. She hadn't lost anything in a week and thought that was a sign she was getting her life back together, but signs, like husbands, could be deceptive.
"Could I borrow yours? I'll run back and get it."
"You're late enough as it is. I'll have to bring it to you."
A loud click in Allie's ear punctuated Hazel's attitude. If the store didn't open at eight, Hazel would rail at Uncle Jake again to kick Allie out of their house. Not that he'd ever do it, but she hated causing him more trouble.
With perspiration trickling between her breasts and head pounding from the Colorado July heat, she put everything back in her purse and almost cut her finger on a piece of glass. Noticing more pieces, she looked up at the light above the back door. Broken.
She scraped the glass to the side with her foot and heard Hazel coming down the worn path through the field. The woman had four inches and fifty pounds on Allie's five-foot, six-inch and a hundred and twenty pounds. At least her husband, ex-husband, had relieved her of ten pounds along with nearly everything else. For all the good it had done him.
She rubbed her temples, trying to vanquish the headache along with the bitterness. How many times had she told her therapy clients that bitterness only harms the person who harbors it? Besides, even though her ex had destroyed her financially, she would've never wished him dead. But someone had.
Hazel's arrival dispersed the images of her ex. Unlocking the back door, Hazel pushed ahead of her into the stockroom and did a left-handed uppercut to the light switch.
The air conditioning chilled the perspiration on Allie's skin, making her shiver, and the dust and stale odor made her sneeze. Hazel pointed to some blue goop spilled on the cement floor outside the office.
"That mess wasn't there when I closed up last night," Hazel snapped. "Did you come back after that class of yours?"
"No. Maybe some kind of vibration caused a bottle to fall and break."
Like Hazel slamming the back door as she locked up last night, venting her anger over Uncle Jake taking the class Allie taught on Thursday nights, "What Women Want." But it was abundantly clear all Hazel wanted was Allie out of their lives.
"Well, clean it up. I'll take the cash drawers up front and unlock the doors before those snobby old women break in."
They're about your age, Allie thought. Well, except for Thelma Hurst. She was seventy-five but young at heart. And none of them were snobs. Hazel was just pissed because they hadn't invited her to join their Just For The Hell Of It Club after she married Uncle Jake a year ago.
Allie put her purse in Uncle Jake's office where memories of Aunt Christine dying of cancer sent her to the restroom that also served as the custodial supply closet. Cleaning was good therapy for blotting out bad memories. Of course, some would never go away.
She discarded the ruptured, plastic container of liquid Tide. It had toppled off a pallet of detergent waiting to be shelved, and someone had tracked through it. On her hands and knees, she scrubbed the sticky blue goop that smelled like clothes being laundered.
The cement floor was old and pocked. Not only was the affected area now lighter than the rest of the floor, the accumulated dirt and dried goop in the gouges left a polka dot pattern. And she smelled like Tide.
Finishing, she washed her hands, aimed an exhaled breath upward to lift her bangs off her throbbing, sweaty forehead, and glanced at her watch. Twelve minutes after eight.
Hazel would've let the early-bird sales shoppers in by now, along with the other cashier. That allowed Allie a few minutes. She liked to check the produce area before Thelma Hurst met her seventy-nine-year-old admirer, Earl Evans, for their fruit and vegetable tete-a-tete. Bruised bananas, shriveled peppers, and spongy tomatoes didn't make for a romantic tryst locale. Leaving the stockroom, she nearly ran into Elise Sawyer, Thelma's daughter.
"Have you seen my mother?" Elise asked.
Allie felt like K-Mart bumping into Nordstrom. Elise always dressed well, but a gray silk suit and matching pumps to shop for groceries?
"Uh, no, but she might be in the dairy section. Excuse me."
Allie hurried in the opposite direction, knowing Thelma would be headed for the produce and Earl. True romance was hard to come by at any age, and if a little misdirection could help, she was all for it. As far as she knew, Elise didn't know her mother and Earl were sweet on each other, and apparently, the couple was content to keep it that way.
Heading for the produce, she saw Greg Weston reaching for a box of Wheaties in aisle six, his muscled arms and chest threatening to burst his blue T-shirt. She hurried past. It was bad enough he was taking her class, his handsome face smiling at her even though she'd turned down his offer of dinner. He had to shop here.
After aisle twelve, she wended her way through the islands of produce and snatched a moldy peach and two bruised plums from the table on her left. Checking the grapes as she rounded another table, she slipped and nearly fell. Congratulating herself on not dropping the peach and plums, she looked down to see what she'd stepped on.
A tomato. Another one sat on the floor a few feet away, its dried leaked contents promising more cleaning opportunities. Skipping the oranges, she hurried around the corner. Smashed tomatoes were all over the floor.
And among them sat Ian Feldman, president of High View's Chamber of Commerce, his head and shoulders leaning against the tomato table. His eyes were closed, and they'd never see anything again.
She screamed and dropped the peach and plums.
She heard people coming, but everything moved in slow motion. Except her. She couldn't move at all.
"My God, that's Ian."
Allie recognized Earl's voice.
"Good heavens, he's dead."
That was Thelma's voice.
"He's wearing my red dress!"
Oh, no, that was Laura Feldman. She shouldn't have to see her husband like this. Allie started to move to block Laura's view, but that didn't work out too well.
"I've got you," a deep voice said behind her.
She found herself in the arms of the man she'd been trying to avoid. Greg Weston's dark eyes jerked her back to reality.
"Let go of me."
"You were about to faint."
"I don't faint." She'd never fainted in her life. Not even when her husband - her dead ex-husband - had demanded a divorce.
Greg didn't let go of her. Just as she started to protest, Hazel pushed through the small crowd.
"Allison, what did you do? Aaaghhh."
"Go to the front of the store, all of you," Greg ordered. "Call 9-1-1 and wait for the police there. And don't let anyone else in."
Allie twisted free of Greg, lost her balance, and found herself back in his arms.
"My poor Ian," Laura gasped. "Ohhh ..."
Greg let go of her to catch Laura. Standing unsupported, Allie looked at Ian again. And saw the bullet hole in the red, satin evening gown where a woman's left breast should be.
All she could think was, oh, God, not again.
This was the second dead man she'd discovered in the last three weeks.