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CHAPTER ONEThe woman wasn’t a typical dry-cleaning customer. She looked like Elvira–turned–Biker Babe. Or maybe Morticia Addams as a bag lady since she was dragging two huge trash bags as she came into Dyer’s Cleaners.“I’m looking for the owner—someone named Mandy Dyer,” she said.“I’m Mandy,” I said. “What can I do for you?”The Biker Babe could have been anywhere from her early twenties to late thirties. Her heavy makeup and almost-black lipstick made it hard to tell. Her long dark hair—unlike mine, which is short and brown—seemed to have been sprayed on with jetblack ink. She was wearing tight black leather pants, jacket, and boots. The only thing missing was a Harley, but of course, she couldn’t have hauled the trash bags on a motorcycle.She hoisted the bags onto the counter and gave me a bored look. “I’m helping out my boyfriend, and he wanted me to bring you these old clothes.”I looked inside one of the bags, where I could see a couple of wadded-up and faded cotton dresses, one in plaid and the other in a floral pattern. “Did he want them laundered and pressed?” The dresses certainly weren’t the type that customers brought us to be cleaned.“You kiddin’?” She snorted and shrugged the shoulders of her motorcycle jacket. “His great-aunt wanted you to have ’em.”I tried again. “And what did she want me to do with them?”“Beats me. She said you’d know.”Unfortunately, I didn’t. I dug down into one of the bags, but all I saw were more housedresses and cotton-blend housecoats, all as worn as the ones on top. “I wonder if she intended them for our clothing drive?” I asked.This was a Monday in early October, and we’d be putting out our collection box within the next few weeks for the drive that culminated just before Christmas. Mainly, we wanted children’s clothing and heavy coats for Denver’s cold winters, but I supposed we could always use the dresses—the ones that weren’t completely worn out—for residents at the battered women’s shelters.Biker Babe shrugged again.“I’ll hold on to them,” I said, starting to remove the bags from the counter, “but why don’t you ask your boyfriend’s aunt if that’s what she had in mind before we give them away?”“I can’t ask her,” the woman said. “She’s dead.”That stopped me, and I put the bags back on the counter. “Who was she?”“Thelma Chadwick, but Deke hadn’t seen her since he was a kid.”I gave a little gasp at the mention of the name. Thelma had been one of my favorite customers, an elderly woman who’d always had a great curiosity and enthusiasm for life. Even though she’d assured me she was feeling okay the last time I’d seen her, I’d assumed she died of natural causes when I read about her death in the obituaries two weeks ago.“I was really sorry to hear of her death,” I said. “Please give my condolences to Deke. I gather he’s the nephew.”“Yeah, but like I said, he didn’t even know her.”There was something wrong here. “But you said Thelma told him to give me the clothes.”“Oh, yeah, I guess I forgot to mention that. His aunt wrote it down and attached it to her will”—Biker Babe snorted—“like she had anything worth leaving in a will.”I was hung up on that first thing the woman had said. Why would Thelma leave me these bags of old clothing in a handwritten codicil to her will?And besides that, Biker Babe’s indifferent attitude toward Thelma upset me. When I saw Thelma’s obituary, I sent a sympathy note in care of her address. I’d hoped her family would receive it, but I wasn’t sure a guy with a girlfriend like this was the type of relative I would have wished for her.“I hope she wasn’t ill for long,” I said, maybe looking for some sign of caring from Biker Babe.She pulled a pack of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket, then looked around our smoke-free call office, which is what we call the customer area of the plant. She apparently thought better of lighting up. “Oh, she wasn’t sick. She had an accident, but her next-door neighbor didn’t find the body until the next day.”My heart dropped into the pit of my stomach. I had an image of poor Thelma tripping on one of the throw rugs I’d seen in her knotty-pine living room, breaking her hip, and lying on the floor for hours, unable to get up or reach the phone.I’d only been in her home one time, just a month before her death. She rented a small white frame house in east Denver, and it looked as if it had been freshly painted when I parked in her driveway that day.She told me she was going to have to find another place to live because the owner had sold the property. In preparation for the move, she’d asked if I would stop by and get some of her late husband’s clothes that she wanted to donate to the clothing drive.“I would get them myself, but they’re down in the basement,” she said, “and I can’t get down there anymore because of my arthritis.”After I collected the clothes, she invited me into the kitchen for a cup of tea. It was a big, cheerful room with canary-yellow walls.“It’s so dark in the living room with all that woodwork that I spend most of my time out here,” she said, motioning to a rocking chair next to the kitchen table. “But to tell the truth, it’ll be a relief to move. I had a prowler outside the house a few nights ago.”She went on to say that he was gone by the time the police arrived, but I could tell it still bothered her.“I don’t see why a burglar would try to break in here,” she said. “I only have one thing a person might ever want, and it’s hidden away where no one can find it.”She looked so worried that I asked her if she was feeling all right.“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “At least as fine as an old lady like me can be.”Thelma never talked about her illnesses the way some elderly people do, and despite the increasing ravages of arthritis, she usually had a twinkle in her eyes that made her seem younger than she really was. Maybe I should have guessed her age by her silver-white hair, which she wore in a bun. Still, I’d been surprised when I read in the obituary that she was eighty-six years old.I’m in my thirties, but the difference in our ages didn’t matter. We had a great time discussing our favorite mystery novels, even if our visits were confined to talks over the counter in the cleaners.Whenever she came by, sometimes without any cleaning to be dropped off or picked up, she always had a couple of paperback books that she wanted me to read. And one of the first things I thought about when I read the obituary was that now I would never be able to return the books she’d loaned me.Personally, I’d always felt that the reason Thelma liked me was that she was intrigued by my involvement—unintentional, I assure you—in solving several murders. True crime was her real passion, and she loved to read books about such cases.“I need you to sign something to show you got the clothes,” Biker Babe said. “Oh, yeah, and here’s a copy of the note. Deke said you wouldn’t believe it unless I gave it to you.” She pulled it out of a jacket pocket and handed it to me.I’d been staring into one of the bags of dresses in disbelief. They didn’t look like anything I’d ever seen Thelma wear. She’d favored tailored suits and dresses that were well made and would last forever.“You get what you pay for,” she’d told me once. “Look at this suit, Mandy. I bought it in 1983, and it’s still as good as new. If you buy clothes with a classic design, they never go out of style.”I read the note. It said: “Give two bags of clothes in hall closet to Mandy Dyer at Dyer’s Cleaners. She’ll know what to do with them.” It was exactly what Biker Babe had said.I realized the woman was moving restlessly from one foot to the other. “Deke wanted me to get some kind of receipt for the lawyer that you’d received this stuff.”But my mind was still on Thelma’s accident and the strange bags of clothes. “If you don’t mind my asking, what kind of accident did Thelma have?”“She fell down her basement steps. Landed on her head.”My heart zoomed up from my chest cavity and into my throat, where I could feel it pounding a warning call. Fortunately, it choked off the words I wanted to scream out about Thelma’s death. This woman had to be wrong about where the accident occurred. Thelma couldn’t have fallen down the basement stairs. She never went down to the basement. She’d told me so herself.“If you’ll just sign something, I’ll get going,” Biker Babe said impatiently.“Okay, sure.” I grabbed a scratch pad we kept on the counter and began to write: “Received from—”“What’s your name?” My voice was trembling, but I realized this would be a good way to find out who she was.She looked over at what I was writing. “Leilani.” She spelled it for me. “Leilani McLaine.” She spelled that too.“And what’s your boyfriend’s name?”“Dexter Wolfe with an e on the end, but you better just put Deke. He hates it when people call him Dexter.”I continued, my handwriting as shaky as my voice: “—as the representative of Deke Wolfe, two bags of clothes.”I reached down into one of the bags. “Do you want a breakdown of how many items are here?”“Naw.” She pinched up her face in disgust. “Just say old clothes, although who the hell would want to wear them, I don’t know.”I finished writing and signed my name. “Do you and Deke live here in Denver?”She shook her head. “No way. We’re from L.A., and I can hardly wait till we get the house cleared out so we can head back home. Deke thought his aunt probably had a lot of money, but boy, was he in for a surprise. There wasn’t nothing there except a lot of junk like this and some old paperback books.” She grabbed the note and started to leave.“How did you say she died again?”“Took a header down her basement steps.”My head was still spinning as if I’d just taken a ride in the fifty-pound dryer back in our laundry department, and my mouth felt as parched as if I had.“I guess the coroner’s office investigated her death since no one was with her when she died,” I said when I managed to pry my tongue away from the roof of my mouth.Biker Babe was almost at the door. “Yeah, that’s how they knew it was an accident.”“I wonder if they were aware that—”No, I shouldn’t say anything to her about the steps and the horrible thoughts that kept running through my mind. But why hadn’t Thelma’s next-door neighbor told the police that Thelma never went downstairs?I tried to remember her house. It faced west toward the mountains, but I didn’t know anything about her neighbors. I decided to make up something. “Uh—who found her? Was it that good friend of hers who lived just north of her place?”Leilani thought about it for a few seconds. “Naw, it was some woman who lived on the other side.” She left before I could ask any more questions.I needed to call someone at the police department and tell them about the stairs and also about the prowler. Unfortunately, the only person I could think to call was Stan Foster, the homicide detective with whom I’d had an on-again, off-again relationship until I’d broken it off in June.I wasn’t sure I wanted to call Stan and open up all those old wounds, but I was positive about one thing. I needed to let someone in a position of authority know that Thelma Chadwick could have been murdered. At the moment, I might be the only person in the world—outside of a killer—who suspected that.BUTTONS & FOES. Copyright © 2002 by Dolores Johnson. All rights reserved. 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