Chapter OneThe Newspaper Code
copyright by Lisa J Lickel
Judy Wingate arched her brows at the sounds of dismay coming from inside Ardyth Edwards’s house. She paused in the act of rapping on the screen door, and instead cuddled her infant daughter higher in her arms.
Elizabeth kicked her in the ribs. Stifling a gasp, Judy leaned toward the screen door and then took a hasty step away when an irate face peered back.
“Well, I never!” Ardyth sniffed and huffed. “There you are.”
“Ne-never what?” Judy asked and turned sideways to keep the door from smacking her and Elizabeth as the door was pushed open.
“Sorry, dear. Come in, do. Oh my. I just don’t know how I’m going to break the news, that’s all.”
Judy followed her to the little bungalow’s kitchen. Ardyth’s green and yellow plaid tennies slapped the shiny oak floorboards all the way.
“Explain what? You’ve lost me.”
Judy’s elderly and histrionically inclined friend opened her sunny yellow refrigerator door covered with childish cat drawings, plucked out the lemonade pitcher, and poured a glass. In slow motion, she sank into a seat at the kitchen table. Ardyth stared at the telephone handset perched on the kitchen counter next to the chrome sink as if she’d wring its neck or shoot it.
Elizabeth cooed and waved her little fist.
“Oh! Where are my manners?” Ardyth bustled to pour another glassful of homemade juice.
Judy decided on a sympathetic tactic. “I can see you’re upset. Perhaps Elizabeth and I should go water the flowers ourselves this time.”
Ardyth drew in her normally plump crepe-skinned cheeks. “Well, of course I’m upset. Who wouldn’t be? I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Won’t you tell me about it?”
With a gasp and a quick glance at Elizabeth, the old lady stage-whispered, “Not in front of the baby!”
“Elizabeth is only six weeks old.” Judy held up her hand. “I promise. I won’t let her tell anyone.”
Failure to elicit a kidding rebuke, or any response, fanned Judy’s alarm. “Are you all right? Is Bryce?” Oh please, Lord! Don’t let anything happen to either of them! I love them so much. They’ve only had three years of marriage, same as Hart and me.
“It’s nothing like that. I’m sorry I scared you, honey.” Two red spots appeared on her cheeks. Ardyth stared at the floor, apparently at an uncommon loss for words, when her cat strutted into the kitchen. The brindled gray sat squarely in front of her mistress. Judy squinted. Something was definitely different.
“You!” Ardyth scolded her pet. “How could you do this to me, Cat! You’re grieving me to no end. Just wait until Bryce gets home! I don’t know what I’m going to say. How will he take the news?”
She sniffed and addressed the ceiling. “Cat’s…well, she’s—” her voice dropped to a whisper, “expect-ing.”
Judy blinked and bit the inside of her cheek. She took a deep breath, then hid her face in her daughter’s little tummy. Don’t laugh…do not laugh. “Um…you never let her outside, I thought.”
Ardyth drew her shoulders back regally. “I don’t!”
“Bryce wouldn’t let her—”
“Of course not. He knows better.”
Cat’s mistress abruptly faced the kitchen window where she braced her hands on either side of the sink as if for battle. “That Lois! That’s who.”
For a woman who named her pet cat “Cat,” Judy thought her friend was really laying it on thick. She sucked in her cheeks to hide a smirk. “You think Lois Birdseye sneaked over here and let Cat out?”
“Didn’t have to sneak. I gave her a key.”
“You mean when she watched your house when you and Bryce went on vacation last month?” Getting away from tiny Robertsville, Wisconsin after the terrifying events of Hart’s colleague’s murder and the fire and the family trouble they’d had with her grandson had been a welcome respite for the couple.
Ardyth folded her arms and nodded her head until her shoulder-length silver curls bounced. “You know what they say. When the folks are away…the cats will play.”
Cat gave a low yowl, as if affronted.
Ardyth ignored her pet and snatched up a green and yellow plaid visor that matched her footwear. “Come on, dearie, time to give old Robert Roberts a good dousing.” She grabbed a flamingo-overdosed-on-shrimp pink plastic watering can on the way out of the back door.
Judy made her stop at the end of the walk so she could buckle Elizabeth back into her stroller. Ardyth plopped the can on an old rusty wagon, then deftly splashed water from the hose into it before twisting the faucet handle and yanking the wagon behind her down the street.
Judy had to walk fast to keep up. Occasional phrases, ones that sounded like, “If I ever catch her twitching her tail at another…” and “I’ll fix him…” echoed back.
“Hello!” Judy puffed. “Slow down!” The two of them were taking their turn to water the flower patch surrounding the statue of the founder of Robertsville. Judy had gotten used to jokes about how to tell a townie from a newcomer: the length of time it takes them to stop laughing at the ridiculous name and placement of the monument.
Robert Roberts’s formidable likeness was planted in the middle of one length of the sidewalk framing the town square. The leading ladies later formed a garden society to soften the shock of the huge statue by planting a ring of flowers about the base and widening the sidewalk like a traffic round-about. An ugly four-foot-high black metal pipe fence with menacing decorative points was added later to discourage stepping on the plants and defacing the statue.
“Wait up!” Judy called. “I’m not in as good of shape as you, yet!” Septuagenarian Ardyth, in her agitation, could have lapped twenty-seven-year-old Judy around the block. “Remember that meeting when Esme Espe asked the Garden Club—”
“Whew!” Ardyth came to a halt and blew back her bangs. “I guess we don’t need to hurry. I’m just befuddled. Yes, yes, of course I do. It was your first meeting, wasn’t it? Nice of you to volunteer. Wasn’t that long ago.”
“Two years. I’ll never forget that first time, anyway.” Judy took her time mentally conjuring up the image of Laura Reynolds, the perennial president of the club, on that occasion. The sight of Esme toddling around with her walker was about the only thing that seemed to rattle her. Blonde, chic Mrs. Reynolds, whose real estate developer attorney husband still wanted Judy’s farmland after three years of hearing “No, thanks” from Judy and Hart, had pinched her lips together so tightly her lipstick slid down her chin.
Ardyth struck a hunched-over pose and peered up at Judy, her faded bachelor button-blue eyes twinkling. “Ah don’t want you plantin’ or nothing,” she said, imitating Esme’s husky Joan Crawford voice. “Ah got a reg’lar rotation, you know. Ah kin keep up weedin’. Jes cain’t cart a wadder bucket no more.”
“I only hope I have as much energy as she does when I’m ninety-nine,” Judy said. “Do you think we dare deadhead the petunias?”
“Well, Esme’s eyesight is starting to go.”
“I heard Mayor Thompson wants to throw her a birthday party.”
Ardyth giggled. “A retirement party is what I heard.”
“I wondered why there were some red petunias mixed in with the purple this year. So, her eyes are that bad? How can she still drive?”
A few yards shy of the statue, beyond the waving plots of petunias softening the fencing that guarded Robert’s personal space, Ardyth stopped and said, “Well, when you’ve been around as long as she has, everybody knows you. They just stay out of her way when they see her old Fairlane coming.”
Judy recalled more than one occasion when the mostly blue road yacht took up more than its share of the lane. She halted beside her friend and regarded Robert. “I can’t imagine anyone whose last name was Roberts would plant the same first name on a kid.”
“It’s not exactly the same.”
Judy raised a brow. “I guess not.”
“They were frugal people, you know.” Ardyth turned a deadpan look at Judy. “Even economizing over a name.”
Judy doubled over the stroller in her laughing fit.
Elizabeth waved both little legs and burbled. Ardyth knelt to tickle the baby’s feet. “I didn’t even say a proper hello to this young lady. How are you this fine August morning, sweetheart? Such a precious thing, you are. I can’t believe it. Only six weeks ago, there we were in the middle of the night, outside in the dark, scrambling down the banks of Macsen Stream, afraid for our lives, while your husband was hanging out with Barry—”
“And you’re worried over talking about your pregnant Cat in front of her!” Judy shook her head. “You’ll give her nightmares.”
“Nonsense.” Ardyth straightened. “I’ll give nightmares to myself remembering all that. Thank heavens those monsters were caught. Well, come on. We might as well get this over with.”
She grabbed her wagon handle and trundled ahead of it. “Speaking of frugal, I can’t believe the school board’s not even trying to pass a resolution to build a new school. Anyone can see Robertsville Elementary is falling apart! It’s practically unsafe for you to go to teach there, let alone the children attend. And what’s going to happen by the time Elizabeth is old enough for kindergarten? I’m almost ashamed of Robertsville. Robert Roberts must be rolling in his grave.”
“Raising taxes would mean a hardship for so many people.” Judy puffed a bit in her effort to keep pace with the wagon.
“I’d rather be a little poorer than embarrassed. What’ll happen if we can’t have school? Where will the children go then? No one will want to move here. Then there’ll be no one left to pay taxes for anything. Huh!”
Judy pushed Elizabeth faster in Ardyth’s righteous wake. She couldn’t accept the dire prediction of the demise of public education in Robertsville. They’d had discussions on the subject on and off all summer as the town newspaper kept up a running report on the state of the school after the plumbing went haywire and flooded the building. That resulted in a necessary replacement of much of the tile, which in turn led to the discovery of asbestos, which led to a discovery that the maintenance fund was depleted and they were over budget.
She wasn’t going to let thoughts of a future without a teaching job ruin her morning.
Time for a lighter subject. Judy arrived at the fence surrounding Robert Roberts, his tarnished head high and the town charter held in one hand. His other hand pointed in a direction that had been debated since it was first set in place, generations ago. “Have you heard any more about moving the statue?”
Ardyth offered Judy her characteristic sniff of displeasure. “Stuff and nonsense. Mr. Roberts has been here forever. No reason for excitement.” She began to tip her watering can over the striped flowers. “This is his neighborhood, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” Judy grinned. “But, still, why did it have to go in the middle of the sidewalk? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have put it…oh, say,”— Judy swiveled on one toe to point toward the center of the green— “over there? Closer to the band shell?”
“Well, then it might get in the way of kids playing.” Ardyth reached inside the fence and plucked a few wilted blooms. “Hmm. Can’t believe Esme let this go. She’s usually so prompt with her care.”
“People have been writing letters to the paper lately. Olivia’s printed several in the Reporter. About moving the statue.”
“New folks. Don’t understand our ways.”
“They’re petitioning the Council. It’ll have to go on the agenda if enough people request it.”
“Vote it down, they will.”
“Oh, come on. You can’t tell me this is the best place to put a statue?”
Ardyth unlatched the gate of the rusty black pipe fence and pulled the wagon inside.
“Somebody smarter than me thought it was.” She bent over to reach for a waving dandelion, just around the corner of the big square cement block base of the statue. “Besides, Judge Hampton rubs Robert’s knuckles for luck on the way to court every day.”
“Luck! I doubt the judge believes in luck.” Judy glanced at Robert’s shiny knuckles, remembering last month’s trial, when her friend’s grandson and his friends had been found guilty of trespass and theft. That other boy with them, Jason, had narrowly escaped a murder rap. The incident had nearly broken Ardyth’s heart. Thus the two-week trip to Hawaii that Bryce called a second honeymoon.
The trip during which, apparently, Cat was let out of the bag—er, house. Judy sighed. “I see some weeds over here. That’s not like Esme, even with her bad eyes.” Judy left the stroller outside the pipe fence and ducked underneath a bar. “I’ll go pull these, then some more over there…um…”
“Come here, quick!”
There was no mistaking the figure that leaned in unnatural repose at the base of the statue. Esme’s flowered skirt flapped in the breeze, exposing the ruffled ends of what could only have been bloomers. She would have been absolutely mortified at the thought of people looking at her unmentionables.
Ardyth gasped and knelt. Judy’s vision blurred and a whooshing sound reverberated in her head. She reached out to Robert for support. A piece of the statue’s base came off in her hands. She closed her fist around it automatically. “Do you think…”
“We can’t touch her,” Ardyth said. “Poor Esme.”
“Is she…how could…why…who—”
“That garden claw stuck in her forehead explains quite a bit,” she replied in a grim tone. “Do you have your cell thing handy?”