Divas and Dead Rebels

Divas and Dead Rebels
Virginia Brown

September 2012 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-205-7

Book 4 of The Diva Mystery series

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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The bestselling DIXIE DIVAS mystery series continues!

Trinket and her pals are, once again,

caught in the middle of a murder scene…

 

"Professor Sturgis is dead.”

"Hah!” replied my cousin/best friend/partner in mayhem. "I’m not that lucky.”

"It’s true,” I said as I pointed to her son’s dorm room closet. "Look for yourself. But I warn you—it’s not a pretty sight.”

My warning did not deter Bitty Hollandale from peering into the closet where the dead professor was propped against a shoe rack. She immediately recoiled. "Good lord! I thought you were joking . . . it . . . how horrible!”

I didn’t say "I told you so” although I could have. I was still too rattled myself to take a verbal swing at Bitty. What I’d thought was an untidy pile of clothing tumbling out of the closet turned out to be a professor with whom Bitty had just quarreled that very morning.

This was not a good thing.

Virginia Brown is the author of The Dixie Divas Mysteries, The Blue Suede Memphis Mysteries, and a mystery/drama, Dark River Road. As a long-time resident of Mississippi, award-winning author Virginia Brown has lived in several different areas of the state, and finds the history, romance, and intrigue of the Deep South irresistible. Although having spent her childhood as a "military brat” living all over the US, and overseas, this author of nearly fifty novels is now happily settled in and drawing her favorite fictional characters from the wonderful, whimsical Southerners she has known and loved.


Reviews

 

"Great fun with a Southern twist. These ladies may be divas in the finest Southern tradition, but their attitude is pure modern, independent female detective." -- Lindelle Nichols, NetGalley


Excerpt

Chapter 1

"Professor Sturgis is dead.”

"Hah!” replied my cousin/best friend/partner in mayhem. "I’m not that lucky.”

"It’s true,” I said as I pointed to her son’s dorm room closet. "Look for yourself. But I warn you—it’s not a pretty sight.”

My warning did not deter Bitty Hollandale from peering into the closet where the dead professor was propped against a shoe rack. She immediately recoiled. "Good lord! I thought you were joking... it... how horrible!”

I didn’t say "I told you so” although I could have. I was still too rattled myself to take a verbal swing at Bitty. What I’d thought was an untidy pile of clothing tumbling out of the closet turned out to be a professor with whom Bitty had just quarreled that very morning. This was not a good thing.

Bitty peered at him again, and asked after a moment’s silence, "But what is he doing here—in Clayton’s closet?”

"You’re asking me? How would I know?”

"Well, you’re the one who found him.”

I gave myself a mental slap to the forehead. "That doesn’t mean I know how he got here.”

"Fine. So now what do we do?”

Since my previous experience at finding dead men in closets was limited to one, I wasn’t really up on all the protocol involved. So I decided to try what hadn’thappened the last time I’d been presented with a similar scenario: "Leave him right here and call the police.”

Bitty was horrified. "We can’t do that! He has to be found somewhere else.

I rolled my eyes. Apparently, this time was not going to be much different than the last time. I wasn’t that surprised.

My name is Trinket Truevine, and my cousin Bitty Hollandale and I have lately made it a habit to become entangled in murder cases. Bitty, who is five-two without her stilettos, likes to claim that if not for her and me and our group of friends known as the Dixie Divas, no murder committed in our hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi would ever get solved. You can imagine how well that goes over with the Holly Springs Police Department.

I had no reason to believe it would be any different with the campus police at Ole Miss in Oxford.

It’s mind-boggling how Bitty and I seem to end up in the company of so many dead people lately. Who would have thought that our visit down to the University of Mississippi would create another scene from Sixth Sense? A phrase from that movie, "I see dead people,” was taking on a whole new meaning.

And now Bitty intended a replay of a past transgression that hadn’t gone well at all. I shook my head rather vigorously.

"No. I’m not doing anything you suggest. I remember how it turned out the last time I found a dead-man-in-a-closet and listened to you. I don’t want to go through the same thing again.”

"For heaven’s sake, Trinket! I was never married to this man. It’s not at all the same thing.”

"Bitty, it’s much too close for comfort.”

She looked bewildered. "Why? This isn’t even in my house. It’s a dorm room.”

"It’s a dorm room that belongs to your sons. People saw or heard you and the professor arguing this morning. Several hours later he’s dead. You know they’ll make that short leap to the next logical conclusion.”

Bitty blinked her baby blue eyes at me. I could tell she hadn’t a clue what I was talking about. Sometimes she does that just to annoy me, but maybe finding her son’s professor—who had just flunked him—dead in Clayton’s closet robbed her of enough common sense to follow the dots.

I sighed. "We really have to call the police, Bitty.”

"Oh no, we don’t,” she said emphatically. "The police might think Clayton had something to do with killing him. You don’t suppose Sturgis died a natural death, do you?”

I made myself look at the body again. It was an ugly sight, and I winced. Professor Sturgis had a wire coat hanger tied so tightly around his neck that it could barely be seen beneath folds of skin. The loop jutted incongruously along his collarbone. His face had turned deep purple, his eyes bulged and his tongue stuck out one side of his mouth. Since his hands were tied with duct tape, I rather doubted it was a natural death.

"No,” I said bluntly. "Not unless he had a heart attack while someone was killing him.”

"Oh.” Bitty looked back at the closet and put her hands on her hips. "Well, can you believe the nerve of that man? Coming here to my son’s room to be murdered!”

"I’ll call the police while you mourn the professor’s loss, dear,” I said dryly. "I hope you can manage to contain your grief long enough to explain to law enforcement that you really didn’t mean any of those things you said to Professor Sturgis outside his office today. Where everyone at Ole Miss could—and probably did—hear you.”

She looked thoughtful. I hoped she intended to give in and do the rational thing. I should have known better. After a short silence, during which I was sure I smelled smoke and heard the faint crackle and pop of brain waves, she crossed the room and seized a canvas-sided bin like those motels use for dirty laundry. This one had Motel 6 printed on white canvas in bold black letters. It had probably been confiscated from the motel by a student. There could be any number of reasons it had ended up in her sons’ dorm room.

"Here, Trinket,” she said, and rolled it right up to the closet. "Help me get him into this laundry cart. He’s not that tall. He should fit, don’t you think?”

"I’m not doing this,” I said. "This is obstruction and tampering with evidence and disturbing a crime scene and probably a half dozen more charges.”

"Don’t be silly. No one will ever know he was even in here if we move him somewhere else.”

"And where do you suggest? In front of the Lyceum? Out in The Grove?” I said, naming two very public areas of the large campus. "This isn’t Weekend at Bernie’s, you know. We can’t haul around a dead man as if he were still alive.”

"This is no time to be talking about movies. Here. You take his legs, and I’ll get his... oh, his... well, maybe we should just wrap him in a blanket or something before we stuff him in the cart.”

"I... am... not... moving... him.”

Bitty ignored my carefully enunciated refusal. She tugged at Professor Sturgis until she managed to get him a few inches out of the closet. I recited one of the police codes I’ve memorized about tampering with evidence. Bitty dropped the professor’s feet to the floor. I quoted police code about disturbing a crime scene. Bitty took the blanket off one of the twin beds and draped it over Sturgis. I mentioned obstruction charges. Bitty rolled Sturgis up in the blanket and tucked in one end like a burrito.

By that time she was panting. Her blonde hair stuck to perspiration at her temples and neck. She straightened up and looked at me where I stood with my arms crossed over my chest and my mouth set in a determined line.

Her eyes narrowed, and I swear they turned as red as her scarlet lipstick. I thought for a second I saw steam come out of her ears. Then she said, "If you don’t help me get him out of here so my son doesn’t get charged with murder, I’ll tell everyone in Holly Springs that in our senior year you got so nervous when Danny Ray Bell tried to give you a hickey on the neck that you threw up on him.”

I shrugged. "So? Do you think anyone will care what happened thirty-five years ago?”

Bitty looked disgusted. "You have no shame. I’d just die if something like that was said about me.”

"No, you wouldn’t. You’d lie your way out of it.”

"True.” She thought a moment, then a smile of pure evil curved her collagen-filled lips. "Help me, or I’ll buy your parents two round trip tickets to Cairo.”

"Illinois or Egypt?”

"What do you think?”

I gasped. "You wouldn’t!”

"Try me. They’d love riding a camel along the Nile.”

I narrowed my eyes at her, but she didn’t back down a bit. She knows how to get to me, and using my parents—who are reliving their youth and forgetting their bodies are still pretty much in their seventies—was a very effective threat. I went for cajolery: "Bitty—think about it. We aren’t in Marshall County. We’re in Lafayette County. This is Oxford, not Holly Springs. We don’t know the local police here. If you move this body and get caught, you’re liable to end up in jail.”

"I’m less likely to get caught if I have someone helping me,” she said tartly. "And besides, do you really want your nephew to be blamed for something he didn’t do?”

"Of course not. But neither do I want his aunt—me—to go to jail for something she got caught doing.”

Technically, her twin sons are my second cousins. In the South we find it much easier to refer to such close blood relatives as aunt, uncle, niece or nephew rather than go through tortuous explanations. Not that Bitty always observes the finer points.

"Don’t be selfish, Trinket. Here. Grab his feet.”

I looked down at Professor Sturgis. For a smallish man, he had really big feet. Or big shoes, anyway. They stuck out from under the blue plaid blanket, cordovan wingtips with the scuffed soles showing a lot of wear. There was no way I wanted to touch him.

When I stood there staring, Bitty said, "Oh for heaven’s sake, Trinket. When did you get so squeamish? Here. I’ll cover him up so nothing shows. We’ve got to hurry and get him out of here before someone else shows up. Otherwise, it’ll be a big mess.”

"It’s going to end up in a big mess anyway, Bitty. Trust me. I know these things.”

"As long as it’s a big mess somewhere besides my sons’ dorm room, I don’t care. Now, are you going to help me or not?”

I wanted to say "or not,” but I didn’t. That’s a big character flaw of mine; I don’t always act in my own best interests.

After Bitty had Professor Sturgis completely covered from view, I found myself hefting him off the floor as far as I could get him. Don’t ever wonder if the phrase "dead weight” isn’t realistic. I can relate from my own experience that an inert object such as a corpse is heavy, bulky and troublesome to move around.

Bitty and I huffed, puffed, muttered really ugly words, and finally got the former professor up and over the side of the laundry cart. Then Bitty dropped her end. He didn’t sink down into the cart as we had hoped. Instead, Professor Sturgis contrarily stuck over the side like a tree limb. Apparently, after death the body goes through profound alterations. Like rigor mortis. The professor’s covered head and shoulders caught on one side of the cart while his feet and ankles jutted out on the other side. He’d become a straight, nearly inflexible plank.

Bitty looked exasperated. "Isn’t it too soon for him to be so... rigid?”

I counted back the hours since we’d last seen him. Somehow, in the time between our noisy encounter with the professor and our unpleasant discovery of him, he’d been murdered. "Six hours, more or less,” I replied. "Time enough, it seems.”

"Well,” said Bitty. "What do we do now?”

"Call the police,” I suggested again, even though I knew she’d ignore me.

She did. I could almost see the cartoon light bulb go on over her head.

"I know... we can pile up laundry all around him so that it looks like we just have a lot of dirty stuff to wash. Help me strip these beds. Oh, and we can use the boys’ clothes as filler if necessary.”

"Why not packing peanuts? Then we can just wrap this entire contraption up in brown paper and mail it to an address in New Guinea.”

I swear, I think Bitty actually considered it for a moment before shaking her blonde head so hard I heard her teeny, tiny little brain rattling around inside all that space.

"Won’t work. Unless we stick him in a freezer, he’s liable to start drawing flies fairly soon.”

"Bitty, really—aren’t you being terribly inconsiderate with Professor Sturgis? I mean, he’s dead, Bitty. Murdered. Someone killed him right here in your sons’ dorm room, and you’re acting more like he’s an inconvenience than a victim.”

Busily stripping sheets and blankets off twin beds, Bitty didn’t answer for a minute. She piled the linens atop Sturgis and stuffed what she could down into the cart so that it looked overflowing. Then she leaned so far into the cart that her voice sounded like it came from a deep well: "Yes, Trinket. I havethought about the professor’s untimely death. But if I dwell on it, I won’t be able to do what’s necessary to keep my son from being accused of his murder. I have to prevent that first.”

I had to say it. Someone would eventually, and it’d be best coming from me.

"But what if Brandon or Clayton did kill him?”

Bitty never paused in tucking linens around the body. "They didn’t. I’m sure of it. For one thing, I doubt Sturgis was killed in here at all.”

"And how did you come to that conclusion?”

"Because,” said Bitty as she straightened up and looked at me, "Sturgis has a wire coat hanger tight around his neck, and my boys don’t use those. They have only wooden hangers in their closets. See?”

When she pointed, I looked and saw that she was right. Not a single wire hanger could be seen.

I nodded. "Very good, Holmes. You’re getting better at this deduction stuff.”

"Thank you, Doctor Watson. Now here—help me push this cart out into the hall.”

That’s how I found myself pushing a dead professor in a stolen laundry cart down a hallway to an elevator. As luck would have it, a student caught the elevator doors right before they could close and slipped inside to stand next to us. I focused on shiny walls and what was probably a hidden camera in the ceiling, while Bitty flashed the young man a smile. She can’t help herself. She was born a belle. Belles flirt with any unrelated male of all ages, whether they even mean to or not. Of course, it wasn’t a flirtation of the come-on, sexual type; Bitty may be many things, but she’s not a pervert or deviant. We are in our early, earlyfifties, after all, and the student was around the age of her sons, in his late teens or early twenties.

"Hey there, sugar,” she said to the young man. "Are you doing all right today?”

He smiled back at her. People of the male persuasion tend to do that.

"Yes, ma’am. Doing great, thanks.”

"I’m glad to hear that,” said Bitty. "It’s too nice a day not to be doing great, don’t you think?”

"Yes, ma’am, I sure do.”

Such a polite, meaningless exchange to have in an elevator while hauling around the body of a dead professor. Who knew it would come back to haunt us?

When the elevator doors opened at the lobby level, Bitty and I shoved the heavy cart forward while the nice young man courteously held the doors open. Sunshine spread light through the lobby windows and backlit ancient trees on the campus as we pushed on through the front door and out onto walkways that dissected the lawns. It was the Friday before Game Day, and expensive motor homes already lined the streets. Nearby, The Grove—a large greensward dotted with huge, ancient oaks—was being sectioned off for the tailgating parties. Spray paint delineated its walkways and roadways for emergency vehicles, and all other areas were open for the array of tents to come. Very shortly, The Grove would look more like a refugee camp for the well-heeled than a peaceful campus lawn. Foot and vehicle traffic had already begun to increase.

"Which way?” I asked my fearless leader. I had no intention of being responsible for any decisions she made one way or the other. I was just an accomplice, not the master mind behind this idiocy. Not that the distinction would prevent me from drawing just as long a prison sentence as it would the master mind, of course. Maybe even longer. After all, I know better than to move anything at a crime scene. So does Bitty, but she pretends not to understand the law or recognize that there are penalties for civil disobedience.

My fearless leader looked temporarily indecisive. She gazed across the grounds with a confused expression. By that, I mean her Botox-riddled brow had the merest suggestion of a wrinkle. Then she turned to look at me, and all indecision ceased.

"You’re too noticeable, Trinket. Try to be inconspicuous.”

I lifted my brows. Unlike Bitty, I can’t afford nor do I want Botox, so I have no problem moving my facial muscles.

"Am I on fire or something? Why do you think I’m too noticeable?”

She made an impatient motion with one hand. "Because you’re an Amazon. Can’t you crouch down a little?”

Now, I think I’m fairly normal in the height range. I’m five-nine and still working my way down from being twenty pounds overweight to something more manageable. I’m not exactly King Kong material.

"I’m not that tall,” I said in my defense. "You’re just so short it seems like I’m tall to you.”

"Amazon,” Bitty insisted, and it irritated me.

"Midget,” I shot back.

Bitty’s eyes narrowed slightly. "That’s not politically correct.”

"Excuse me. Vertically challenged, brain cell deficient—uh oh. Is that Brandon and Clayton I see coming this way?”

In the distance two young men in matching hoodies with the school colors of dark blue and red walked with a blonde girl toward Dormitory Row. The tall students each had blond hair as well, and the easy stride of confidence. We’d recognize them anywhere and from any distance.

"Omigod—they can’t see us, Trinket! Push, push!”

The approach of her sons triggered an end to our disagreement. Bitty grabbed one end of the cart and started pushing, and caught up in her panic, I helped.

"Does everything at Ole Miss have to be at the top of a hill?” I muttered as the cart surged forward with a life of its own.

"Always complaining,” Bitty shot back, but I noticed that she was having as much trouble as I was hanging on to the cart. We manhandled the blamed thing down the steep sidewalk at a speed much faster than the rickety little wheels on their four corners could manage, around a bend and out of sight. Just as we got to a curb, one wheel locked up, the cart tilted, and we—and our passenger—hit the pavement. I just knew we were done for.

As usual, however, Fate smiled on Bitty. I have no idea why. Not only were no cars passing, but there were no pedestrians nearby to ask why two mature women—one of whom wore six-inch stilettos—were bobsledding a laundry cart down a sidewalk.

Fortunately, the professor did not come fully untucked from his burrito-blanket swaddling. Save for one shoe, he remained firmly encased in blue plaid. We wasted no time in getting up and rewrapping him and sticking him back in the cart. Our desperation released an enormous rush of adrenalin, because we didn’t have nearly as much trouble as we’d had in the privacy of the boys’ dorm room. I can completely understand how people are able to lift cars off loved ones when it would normally be impossible.

By the time we rounded another corner and the dormitory was well behind us, we were both too winded to talk. I sagged against the cart gasping for air, and Bitty brought it to a halt. Since she was trying to breathe too, she just pointed. I turned and looked.

There, parked against a curb in the parking lot of a concrete and red brick building with former Mississippi senator Trent Lott’s name on it, stood an empty moving truck. The sliding overhead door was open about three feet, and a pile of moving blankets were stacked neatly at one corner. It seemed to be the perfect answer to our problem. All we had to do was figure out how to get our load the rest of the way down the hill, into the lot, then up and over the high back and onto the truck’s floor. Those trucks sit pretty far off the ground.

Wordlessly, we headed for the moving truck. If only we could get there before it left, and if we could be nonchalant in loading up the professor as if he were a pricey rug, we might be able to pull this off.

By the time we got to the big yellow truck, I was wheezing for air and certain that someone would call the campus police to report two suspicious characters. Three, if they counted the corpse in the cart.

"What now, O Great Leader?” I asked when I could speak, and Bitty launched the next phase of her plan guaranteed to get us ten to twenty-five in Parchman Prison.

"Do you think you can lift the door a little bit more so we can shove him in there where no one will see him?”

"I can lift the door okay. It’s the professor that I can’t lift.”

"Don’t be silly. We got him in here, we can get him in there. Now hurry up before someone comes out and sees us.”

I looked around. What were the odds no one was watching us? I figured about ninety-ten. Not in our favor. Classes may be in session, but not all students had the same classes at the same times. Foot traffic was erratic. Traffic was steady. Maybe we could blend in. After all, it was home game weekend, and lots of people were loading and unloading stuff. I looked at Bitty.

"If we’re lucky,” I said, "only a half-dozen people are watching us right now. Act like this is normal.”

"Act like what’s normal? Shoving a dead man into the back of a truck? I’m not so sure there’s anything at all normal about that.”

I couldn’t argue with her logic. I sighed and grabbed the blanket-wrapped body by the shoulders. As I heaved, Bitty grabbed the bottom end, and we both just lifted and heaved-ho at the same time.

It wasn’t as difficult as I’d first thought. Since the professor was as rigid as a two by four, we were able to use gravity and physics to leverage his body up until he slipped right on into the opening. Bitty tucked the blanket ends around his feet. I grabbed the strap and closed the door. Then we stood there gazing at each other in mild surprise for a moment when no one came out and asked what we were doing, or tried to arrest us.

"What now, Mrs. Dillinger?” I asked as it sunk in that no one was watching.

Bitty gave me another blank look. "Who?”

"Dillinger. You know, John Dillinger, the infamous criminal back in the thirties. Johnny Depp just played him in a movie a year or so ago.”

"Well good heavens, Trinket. I’m not as old as you are. How would I know who John Dillinger was?”

Bitty likes to pretend that there are a few years difference in our ages, but there are really only a couple months between us. So I rolled my eyes.

"It’s not like I’m old enough to have been his girlfriend, but I paid attention in high school, so I learned something other than which spoon to use for dessert,” I retorted.

"You and I obviously did not take the same classes,” said Bitty, unperturbed by my retort, "and one uses the dessert spoon provided, of course. It depends upon what kind of dessert is served.”

"Excuuuseme, Miss Manners.”

Bitty smiled. "Why, of course you’re excused, dear. Now come along. Grab hold of the cart and help me pilot this thing on over to my car. I should never have listened to you and left my car at the hotel. Now we have to do all this walking around, and my feet will be killing me by suppertime.”

"That’s what you get for wearing nine-inch heels. Remember, I suggested you wear something more practical.”

"One must be well-dressed when meeting with professors, even such ill-tempered boors as Professor Sturgis.”

"Whatever happened to that old adage about not speaking ill of the dead?” I asked aloud.

Bitty waved a dismissive hand. "That was only meant for people who deserved it, I’m sure. Sturgis did not strike me as a very... considerate individual.”

I ignored that and said, "Let’s just take this stuff back to the boys’ dorm room. No point in trundling it all around town now.”

"Oh no, we have to make sure there’s no trace evidence left on any of their blankets or clothes. Don’t you watch CSI? Criminal Minds? Cops?” Bitty came to a sudden stop, and the laundry cart wobbled on its little wheels. "Trinket, I have a better idea than both of us pushing this cart all the way to the hotel.”

"No,” I said without waiting to hear her idea. I just knew it would not be an idea that would benefit me. "I’m not doing it.”

Bitty smiled kindly. "That’s fine. Of course, it would probably save us a lot of walking, but why do that? We’ll just carry on like this.”

"Good,” I said. We went another yard or two, and I sighed. "Okay, what’s your idea?”

"You stay here with the cart, I’ll get a taxi and go get my car, then I’ll meet you in an alley where we can transfer the boys’ things to my trunk.”

"No.” I shook my head. "Once you leave here you’re liable to forget I exist. We stay together. That way I know we’ll either escape together or hang together.”

"A grim thought. Are you sure? Think of your poor feet.”

"My poor feet aren’t in ten-inch heels.”

"Well then, think of my poor feet.”

"You’re used to heels. You even wear them to bed. No, Cinderella, no coach and six white horses for you while I stay with the mice.”

"Honestly, I think you’re getting dementia in your old age. I’ll be visiting you down at Whitfield before long, I just know it.”

"Visiting me? You mean sharing a padded room with me.”

Bitty shot me a dark look but just said, "No, let’s go this way. We can cut through The Grove and get there much faster.”

I stopped and looked at her. "Didn’t you notice all those people working to put out the boundaries when we passed earlier? You know, the guys with cans of spray paint? Are you sure you want to push this cart past so many potential witnesses?”

"Why not? It’s a laundry cart, not a stolen car.”

As usual, Bitty missed the finer points of my concerns, so we ended up doing it exactly as she wanted. By the time we passed, the go-ahead had been given for people to stake out their spot in The Grove. So we rolled the laundry cart past a huge crowd, up and down sidewalks, all the way over to the parking lot of the Campus Inn and right up to Bitty’s car, unloaded the blankets and clothes into her trunk, then returned the cart to the dormitory laundry room. By that time we were worn out and dragging badly. It was quite a hike.

"I’m not cut out for this,” Bitty said in between huge gulps for air. "It’s too much work. Whoever said crime doesn’t pay well was right.”

"I think that saying has an entirely different meaning. However,” I said as my breathing slowed and my heart rate approached something close to a normal speed, "it can certainly apply to this situation. You do realize we’ve committed a crime, right?”

Bitty flapped one hand in dismissal of my observation. "Nonsense. We didn’t do anything other than divert attention to the actual victim instead of creating problems for innocent people.”

"Tell that to the driver of the truck. He’s liable to be arrested.”

"That’s ridiculous. All the driver has to do is tell them he didn’t have anything to do with it.”

Right. That would stand up in court for less than a nanosecond.

"Well, we can only hope the judge sees it your way,” I said after a couple more minutes went by, and we had reached the second floor dormitory room of her boys. "If he doesn’t, maybe our prison cells will be next to each other.”

"Honestly, Trinket, you worry too much about things that never happen. Try not to be so obsessive, okay?”

Before I could form a proper response, the dorm room door opened, and Brandon said, "You’re not going to believe this, but someone came in and stole all our clothes and bed linens!”

"Really,” said Bitty calmly. "Well, don’t worry about it. We can go shopping to get you some more.”

Clayton appeared next to his brother as we entered the room. It was a mess. I felt a twinge of concern. Then my concern changed into horror when Clayton said, "I already called the campus police. They’ll be here any minute to investigate.”

I looked at Bitty, and she looked back at me. Uh oh.


 

 

Chapter 2

There have been a few times in my adult life when I nearly wet myself. Only twice can I recall passing the "nearly” mark and sliding into "soggy.” This was almost one of those times. I barely made it to the dorm bathroom in time. Students are not the neatest people. It was like stepping into a primeval swamp. If some prehistoric creature had risen out of the showers, I would not have been the least surprised. Nevertheless, it did not deter me from my mission.

When I returned, two campus policemen were standing in the middle of the dorm room taking down information. Bitty was listing missing items on her fingers. Light from the windows made her huge diamond rings sparkle as she named off L.L. Bean bedding and Ralph Lauren towels. I held my breath waiting for lightning to strike her. It should. She had more gall than anyone I knew to stand there lying to law enforcement like she did it every day.

"But I have no intention of filing a claim or anything,” Bitty said while the young officer wrote on his small notepad. "I’ll replace all those items myself.”

"Yes, ma’am,” he said politely. "I’ll note that as well.”

The other officer was older and not quite as deferential. He studied Bitty, then the dorm room, and looked over a few items left behind by the bedding thieves. Laptops. CD and DVD players. Thirty-inch flat screen TV with an X-Box or Wii or whatever that was hooked up to it. He had the look of a man who recognized when something didn’t fit.

"All that was taken was bedding and some clothes?” he asked abruptly, cutting off the young policeman who had started to speak.

"Why yes, as I was telling this polite young man,” Bitty said, "it looks like all that’s been stolen are garments and luxury bedding.”

Her unuttered reproof against his rudeness was not wasted on the officer. He put one hand on his hip, far too close to the buttoned-down holster of his gun, in my opinion. I took two steps back, just in case.

"Ma’am,” he began, "there’s something fishy about—”

"My name is Mrs. Hollandale,” Bitty interrupted with one of those feline smiles that can portray bitchiness even better than words. I don’t know why she does that at the worst possible moments. All I can figure is that she has a death wish. Or at the least, an incarceration wish.

The police officer gave her a look but said in a civil tone, "Mrs. Hollandale, is it normal for your sons to leave their dorm room unlocked when they go to class?”

Bitty batted her baby blues at him. "Gracious, I’m sure it isn’t, but they can answer that much better than I can. Boys, please answer the officer’s questions.”

Brandon and Clayton, who are used to their mama’s quirks by now, just nodded. It was Brandon who said, "We always lock up. And I thought the same thing, sir. Why take just stuff like blankets and sheets and towels instead of our laptops or the TV? We’ve got all these expensive games lying around... it just seems weird.”

The officer agreed. "Is there anyone who may be pulling a practical joke on you?”

Clayton grinned. "That’s always possible. I never thought of that—do you think Heather might know something, bro?”

The last he addressed to his brother, since Brandon was seeing a rather nice young lady named Heather Lightner. I had once suspected her of murder, but I was completely wrong about that. Among other things. I don’t usually mind admitting I’m wrong. Unlike a certain person who shall remain nameless—Bitty Hollandale. Okay, so I have issues with her stubborn inability to admit when she’s wrong most of the time.

"I’ll ask her,” said Brandon, and he reached for his cell phone to call Heather. As he walked toward the open door into the hallway, one of his friends showed up.

"Hey, everything okay?” the young man asked. His eyes got a little wider when he saw the campus police standing in the middle of the room. "Uh oh, nobody’s dead, I hope.”

I thought Bitty was going to have a rigor right there. Her eyes bugged out, and her mouth dropped open, and I had to say something quick or there’s no telling what she may have blurted out. So instead of giving an answer that made some sense, I came out with: "The only thing dead in here is the Latin language.”

As jokes went, it flew right over the heads of everyone there except the young police officer. He’s the only one who got it.

"Latin has been a dead language for a lot longer than my college days,” he said, and I smiled gratefully. Everyone else just stared at me as if I had been speaking in... well, Latin. Truthfully, pig-Latin is the only foreign language I can remember.

The boys’ friend only looked confused, shook his head, and disappeared down the hallway. I wondered what on earth they were teaching students these days.

I didn’t finish college, though I had attended Ole Miss for a semester before I met my future husband and decided that sit-ins for causes like Greenpeace and Save the Whales was a lot more important than a degree. How foolish the young can be at times. I don’t have the husband anymore, but I do have our wonderful daughter, who’s married and living in Atlanta with her engineer husband. She’s smart enough to have gone back to school for another degree, even though it’s only at night right now.

Bitty had finished her college education at Ole Miss with a degree in Liberal Arts. I’m not sure what that was supposed to prepare her for, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she married a popular football jock with a penchant for making money. Unfortunately, Frank Caldwell wasn’t picky about minor things like the law and got himself into trouble with a pyramid scheme that cheated quite a few people. He’s still doing fifteen to twenty-five in a Federal prison, while Bitty divorced him, gained full custody of their twin sons, and went on to marry again. Three more times. She’s either an eternal optimist or a horrible judge of proper husband material. I lean toward the first assessment.

Her current male companion, however, makes up for all the former mistakes. He’s an excellent attorney with offices in several towns and absolutely adores Bitty. I’m quite sure that feeling is returned, although Bitty is being extremely cautious this time around. Her last divorce was a doozy. People still talk about it, especially since her senator ex-husband ended up murdered, and she was briefly a prime suspect in his death. That can traumatize some people.

Fortunately for her, Bitty is not "some people.” Instead of being traumatized, she ignored reality while I and the rest of the Dixie Divas were left to try to sort out things. Which we did rather clumsily. Now we have a local reputation for getting involved in murders. Well, I think what’s really being said is that we’ve intruded in so many police investigations we’re lucky we’re not in prison. Bitty has always led a charmed life. With all that in mind, Bitty is somewhat justified in thinking that we can get away with disturbing a murder scene. I, however, have a more pessimistic view of the situation.

So there we were, standing in the dorm room where we’d found—and moved—the body of her son’s ancient history professor, talking to police about the theft of missing blankets. Try as I might, I can never quite match Bitty’s insouciance in the face of deception.

Apparently having recovered from her moment of fright, Bitty said cheerfully, "I declare, all this fuss about some missing bed linens is enough to make my head hurt. It’s really nothing, officers, and I’ll replace their things before I leave Oxford. I’m not about to let a little thing like this ruin my visit, and especially the big game. We’re favored to beat Mississippi State by six points.”

The older officer flipped his book closed and nodded. "I hear ya on that score.”

If there’s one thing men understand, it’s football. The game inspires a dedication bordering on obsession with far too many of them. Bitty knows this. All Southern women know this, whether young or old, married or single. Football ranks right up there with beer, guns, fast cars and Jesus. Not necessarily in that order. The Top Five of Southern males rarely varies. It doesn’t really matter which brand of beer, caliber of gun, race car driver or religious preference, pigskin loyalty is unwavering.

Those of us who attended, or have family who attended, Ole Miss are just as fervently loyal as anyone else in the country is to their alma mater. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are long-time rivals. While they aren’t that far apart geographically, fans are about as far apart as you can get when it comes to their home team. This football game was about old rivalries as well as a ranking in the SEC.

It wasn’t until Bitty had walked the officers across the small room to the door and held it for them while they exited with a farewell recommendation to keep the doors locked that I drew in a deep breath. I think I’d been holding it too long. I felt definitely lightheaded.

Bitty shut the dorm room door, flipped the lock, then turned and leaned back against it. "Good God, I thought we were sunk for sure,” she said, and I didn’t know what to say in response.

Did she mean to tell Brandon and Clayton what we’d done? I wasn’t sure that was a good idea. But then, neither had been the idea of shoving a dead man into the back of a moving van, and I’d helped do that, so maybe my judgment was impaired.

"Boys,” Bitty said as she pushed away from the door and crossed to her sons, "did you leave a... mess... in your room before you left for class? Either of you?”

"Well,” said Clayton, "I admit it was pretty messy when we left, but we meant to get back in time to clean it before you got here.”

"Clay has cleaning duty this week,” Brandon said promptly. "I did our laundry.”

"Is that why the laundry cart was in your room?” I asked.

Brandon looked puzzled. "Laundry cart? Oh, you mean that Motel Six thing that some of the guys brought back? No, ma’am, it was out in the hallway when we left this morning. Why would someone bring it in here?”

"It’s not the laundry cart that worries me,” Bitty said tartly, and both boys looked at her in surprise. "What do you know about the man in Clayton’s closet?”

They both looked stunned, but it was Brandon who said, "What? Someone was snooping in here? Why didn’t you tell the police? That was probably who stole our—”

Bitty held up a hand. "I took your blankets and clothes, and I’ll tell you why in a few minutes. Right now I want your sworn word that neither one of you knew anything about the man in your closet.”

"No, ma’am!” they both said in unison.

Clayton added, "Why would we let some guy mess around in our closet, anyway? It sounds stupid.”

The expressions on their faces were genuine, I thought, and I’d spent a lot of the summer in their company and felt pretty sure I could tell if they were lying. Not that I’m an expert on liars, because quite a few people have managed to fool me, I can tell you that. It’s embarrassing how many, in fact.

"Bitty,” I said, "I’d like to speak to you privately, please.”

"In a minute, Trinket.”

"No, we need to talk now. Before you say anything else.”

She looked around the rather small dorm room. "I don’t know where you think we can go to talk privately, unless you mean the closet or the dorm bathroom.”

"Neither one is clean enough. I’d rather stand neck-deep in a Louisiana swamp. No offense, boys.”

"None taken, Aunt Trinket,” said Brandon.

"It’s not thatbad,” Clayton defended himself. "I cleaned up a day or so ago.”

We all just looked at him, and he shrugged and gave a sheepish grin. "Okay, I forgot. But I meant to clean. I’ve been studying for exams, though, so that should count for something.”

"Not much,” said his brother, and Clayton smacked at him with a spiral notebook. That started one of their frequent tussles and provided a perfect distraction.

"Just step outside in the hall,” I said to Bitty. "This won’t take but a moment.”

Once in the hallway, I looked at her and said, "Don’t involve your boys. The less they know, the safer they are, and the better it is for all concerned.”

Bitty thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "You’re right. I’ll just pretend nothing happened.”

I stopped her before she went back into their room. "Uh, Bitty—you’ve already told them we found a man in their closet. We better think of some way to fix that.”

"True. Hm. Oh, I know—we can say that it must have been a practical joke. That should explain it.”

"Somehow, I think your boys will find flaws in that explanation.”

"Oh for heaven’s sake, Trinket, just let me handle it. I’ll think of something.”

Bitty tends to forget her boys aren’t ten years old any longer, so I had no great expectations for her concocting a viable explanation.

She must just love to astound me.

"Listen,” she said when she got their immediate attention by snapping her fingers at them as they wrestled on one of the stripped beds, "Trinket just reminded me that I had your clothes and bedding picked up to be cleaned, and that’s probably what the man was doing in your closet. I’d forgotten all about those arrangements, so your things will be returned as soon as the dry cleaners finish with them.”

"Why didn’t the laundry guy say something then?” asked Brandon skeptically. His face was a bit flushed and his blond hair tousled from wrestling. "It seems to me that if some guy had a woman asking him why he was in our closets, he’d have said so.”

"You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Bitty replied. "But he must have been startled, because he didn’t say a thing about it. He just left without the rest of your things. I’ll be sure to talk to the laundry about it. Now, Trinket and I are going back to the hotel and rest before we go eat supper. We’ll meet you later at Proud Larry’s if you two want to drop by for a drink and music tonight.”

The last was said more as a question than a statement, and Clayton replied, "I’ve got other plans earlier, but I’ll be by there later.”

Brandon said, "Heather and I will come by after we finish helping her sorority mom get stuff together for the Sigma Kappa tailgate party tomorrow.”

"Good. It’s going to be fun, just like always. Now, don’t you boys get into any trouble while I’m here, or I’ll be angry at you, you hear?”

"I hear, Mama,” they chorused, then looked at each other and shrugged. It was Clayton who said, "Did you talk to Professor Sturgis about my grade in his class?”

"I did, and he’s a dreadful, dreadful man to try and reason with, I swear. But don’t be too upset, sugar, because things will work out. They always do.”

I guess Bitty’s boys are so used to her whimsical impracticality that they accepted it without more questions. That can be a good thing sometimes.

Once Bitty and I were downstairs and outside the dormitory again, I said, "You’re going to have to take all their things to a laundry to be cleaned, you know.”

"I know. There are plenty in Oxford.”

"There’s Washboard Coin Laundry on University,” I said, "but I don’t know if that’s the smartest place to go. Someone might remember if you drag in a lot of clothes and linens. You don’t want anything to connect us to the blanket around the professor.”

"Well, there’s Starbrite or Oxford Fluff and Fold. Starbrite has a couple different locations. We’ll take their stuff to the one farthest away.”

"It’s a shame that we’ve become criminals,” I observed. "We’re even beginning to think like criminals. We’re covering our tracks. Now we just have to figure out some alibis.”

"Why? We weren’t there when the professor was murdered, so we shouldn’t be suspects at all.”

"That’s just it, Bitty. We have no idea when or even where he was murdered. All we can say for certain is that he was alive for his scheduled parent meeting this morning. Not to mention, for his rather loud... debate... with you over Clayton’s failing grade in his ancient history class.”

Bitty sniffed disdainfully. "Wretched man. He wouldn’t even consider makeup tests or extra work, even though Clayton had a doctor’s excuse for his absences those days. He was a very unreasonable man. No wonder someone killed him. Bless his heart.”

Those last three words are usually used to lessen mean things said about someone else. It’s considered sort of an amulet to ward off the same fate, I suppose. A modern version of garlic and St. John’s Wort in a much tidier—and less fragrant—package.

A brisk wind picked up some red and orange fallen leaves and sent them flying in a spiral across the campus lawn. November isn’t known as a very cold month in this part of the South. There have been times of freezing temperatures, but more often lately we just have cold nights and mild days. Really cold weather doesn’t arrive until January or later.

"We’re taking the bus back to The Inn,” I said when Bitty took out her cell phone to call a taxi. "It’s cheaper and probably much quicker than waiting for a taxi during home game traffic.”

Bitty lifted one eyebrow at me and dropped her cell phone back into her purse. "If you insist, dear. Let’s wait at the bus stop near the student center. It’s probably the quickest.”

Unsuspecting creature that I am, I agreed. "Okay.”

"Where are you going?” I asked when Bitty veered toward the path we had taken earlier with Professor Sturgis in the laundry cart. It occurred to me then what she was doing. As she trotted down the hill in her Prada stilettos, I guess I panicked. "No, Bitty no, don’t even go close! Criminals always return to the scene of the crime, and we don’t want to—Bitty!”

I stopped where I was on the curb, but Bitty steamrolled onward.

"I just want to see if he’s still there,” she called back to me, and I looked around to see if there was anyone close by. Traffic had picked up considerably. Cars decorated in school colors rolled past us, pedestrians strolled sidewalks and waited at red lights, and anyone looking out a window could have seen everything. That thought alone made me shiver. What if we were reported as having been seen stuffing a roll of blankets into the moving van?

I just don’t know how or why I get myself into predicaments like these, I said to myself, but really—that’s a lie. I do know how and why. I’m a lemming. A rat to Bitty’s Pied Piper call. I seem to follow along with whatever mad scheme she concocts. To be fair, she does the same for me. Not all my schemes have worked out well. But at least I plan mine more carefully. I’m not sure that’s a recommendation in my favor.

I ambled along the sidewalk toward a glass and metal bus stop. White, or blue and white buses with GPS systems powered by solar energy make it convenient to get around the campus and housing areas, and I intended to catch the next one and get myself back to The Inn as quickly as I could. I was tired, my feet hurt, and I had visions of spending years in the same eight-foot-by-eight-foot jail cell as Bitty. I’d probably end up strangling her.

Bitty joined me at the bus stop to report that the moving van was gone. "Now they’ll find him far from Clayton’s closet,” she said with obvious satisfaction.

"And far from the actual murder scene, too,” I pointed out. "How will the police know where to investigate?”

"We could always send them a little note,” Bitty suggested.

I stared at her in disbelief. "That says what? ‘Excuse us, but we moved the body of Professor Sturgis from the dormitory where he was really murdered’?”

"Honestly, Trinket, you’re always so pessimistic. Things will work out. As long as my sons aren’t implicated, it doesn’t really matter to me who the killer is. The police are very good at finding out that kind of thing. We probably need to hurry to get to the dry cleaners before they close, so I hope this bus arrives soon. Sure you don’t want me to call a taxi?”

"Yes,” I said as I saw the bus lumbering toward us. "So I’m just to forget that we ever saw a dead man, that we ever moved his body, and that you’re crazy as a Betsy bug. I’ll erase all those memories from my mind and be a clean slate. Right?”

"You’re so dramatic sometimes. Just try to have a good time tonight and forget all about Professor Sturgis. He’ll be found, and the police will track down his murderer. It’s what they do best. Good lord—how am I supposed to get on this thing?” she ended as the bus wheezed to a stop, and the door swooshed open.

I eyed her snug skirt and high heels with rather petty satisfaction. "Just hike up your skirt and hop on. I’m sure the bus driver’s been flashed before.”

I waited until we were sitting in her car and driving toward the dry cleaners before I said, "I think we’re becoming too blasé about dead bodies. We’ve seen so many in the past year that we don’t properly appreciate the horror or magnitude of murder.”

"Nonsense. If anything, I appreciate the awfulness of it much more than I would if I was sitting at the breakfast table reading about it in the paper. I just don’t let that cloud my judgment at the moment.”

"Well, isn’t that handy. I haven’t perfected that talent just yet.”

"That’s okay, honey. You’ll get it sooner or later.”

I shut my mouth so tightly my jaws ached. We turned on to Jackson Avenue right in front of an oncoming car, but my jaws didn’t unclench in time to scream. The car missed us by maybe a foot. I just closed my eyes. There was absolutely no point in trying to get Bitty to see the error of her ways. There never had been, but I still kept on working at it as if somehow I’d get through to her. But then, that would probably change her entire personality, and I didn’t really want to do that. I just wanted her to be a little more wary of getting in trouble with the police. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to follow the law.

Too bad other people don’t believe in that. Until recently, I’d never thought about murder much. Since returning home to Holly Springs, I’d come into close contact with more murder victims than I had ever dreamed possible. Not that Marshall County has experienced a dramatic rise in number of murders. No, not all the victims were killed in Marshall County.

Divas have branched out to other Mississippi counties with our involvement as well. We are not always appreciated. Law enforcement at the state level has been notified of our efforts, I’m told, so Divas had better have an excellent reason for getting involved in any future murder cases.

Apparently none of that mattered much to Bitty. We were now involved in a murder that hadn’t been discovered yet, and I was pretty sure that when it was—we’d be in it up to our necks.

 


 



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