New York Times bestselling author Susan Wittig Albert transports readers to the summer of 1934, when a sensational murder shakes up the small Southern town of Darling, Alabama—and pulls in the ladies of the Darling Dahlias’ garden club, who never let the grass grow under their feet when there’s a mystery to solve…
The eleven o’clock lady has always been one of garden club president Liz Lacy’s favorite spring wildflowers. The plant is so named because the white blossoms don’t open until the sun shines directly on them and wakes them up.
But another Eleven O’Clock Lady is never going to wake up again. Rona Jean Hancock—a telephone switchboard operator who earned her nickname because her shift ended at eleven, when her nightlife was just beginning—has been found strangled with her own silk stocking in a very unladylike position.
Gossip sprouts like weeds in a small town, and Rona Jean’s somewhat wild reputation is the topic of much speculation regarding who might have killed her. As the Darling Dahlias begin to sort through Rona Jean’s private affairs, it appears there may be a connection to some skullduggery at the local Civilian Conservation Corps camp. Working at the camp, garden club vice president Ophelia Snow digs around to expose the truth…before a killer pulls up stakes and gets away with murder.
Includes Southern-style Depression-era Recipes
About the Author
Susan Wittig Albert grew up on a farm in Illinois and earned her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. A former professor of English and a university administrator and vice president, she is the New York Times bestselling author of the China Bayles Mysteries, the Darling Dahlias Mysteries, and the Cottage Tales of Beatrix Potter. Some of her recent titles include Death Come Quickly, Widow’s Tears, The Darling Dahlias and the Silver Dollar Bush, and The Tale of Castle Cottage. She and her husband, Bill, coauthor a series of Victorian-Edwardian mysteries under the name Robin Paige, which includes such titles as Death at Glamis Castle and Death at Whitechapel.
Date of Birth:1940
Place of Birth:Danville, Illinois
Education:Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
Read an Excerpt
The Darling Dahlias Club Roster, Summer 1934
Elizabeth Lacy, club president. Secretary to Mr. Benton Moseley, attorney-at-law, and garden columnist for the Darling Dispatch.
Ophelia Snow, club vice president and secretary. Holds two jobs: at the Darling Dispatch and as liaison officer in the quartermaster’s office at Camp Briarwood, the new CCC camp. Wife of Darling’s mayor, Jed Snow.
Verna Tidwell, club treasurer. Cypress County treasurer and probate clerk. A widow, Verna lives with her beloved Scottie, Clyde.
Myra May Mosswell, club communications secretary. Co-owner of the Darling Telephone Exchange and the Darling Diner. Lives with Violet Sims and Violet’s little girl, Cupcake, in the flat over the diner.
Earlynne Biddle. A rose fancier. Married to Henry Biddle, the manager at the Coca-Cola bottling plant, and works part-time in the office there. Teaches reading at Camp Briarwood.
Bessie Bloodworth. Proprietor of Magnolia Manor, a boardinghouse for genteel elderly ladies next door to the Dahlias’ clubhouse. Grows vegetables and herbs in the Manor’s backyard and manages the vegetable garden at Camp Briarwood.
Fannie Champaign Dickens. Proprietor of Champaign’s Darling Chapeaux and noted designer of women’s hats. Newly (and happily) married to Charlie Dickens, the editor of the Darling Dispatch.
Mrs. George E. Pickett (Voleen) Johnson. Widow of the former bank president and notable town matron, specializes in pure white flowers. Part owner (with Miss Tallulah LaBelle) of the Darling Savings and Trust Bank.
Mildred Kilgore. Owner and manager of Kilgore Motors. She and her husband, Roger, have a big house near the ninth green of the Cypress Country Club, where Mildred grows camellias.
Aunt Hetty Little. Gladiola lover, town matriarch, and senior member of the club. A “regular Miss Marple” who knows all the Darling secrets.
Lucy Murphy. Grows vegetables and fruit on a small market farm on the Jericho Road and supervises the kitchen at Camp Briarwood. Married to Ralph Murphy, who works on the railroad.
Raylene Riggs. Myra May Mosswell’s mother and the newest Dahlia. Cooks at the Darling Diner and lives at the Marigold Motor Court with Pauline DuBerry.
Miss Dorothy Rogers. Librarian for Darling and for Camp Briarwood. Knows the Latin name of every plant and insists that everyone else should, too. Resident of Magnolia Manor, where she plants her small flower-and-vegetable garden in very straight rows.
Beulah Trivette. Owns Beulah’s Beauty Bower, where all the Dahlias go to get beautiful and catch up on the latest news. Artistically talented, Beulah loves cabbage roses and other exuberant flowers.
Alice Ann Walker. Grows irises and daylilies, which don’t take a lot of time or attention—important for Alice Ann, who works full-time as a cashier at the Darling Savings and Trust Bank. Her disabled husband, Arnold, tends the family vegetable garden.
“I’ve Got the World on a String”
In less than an hour, Violet Sims’ well-ordered life was going to change. But right now, she was enjoying what in her opinion was the very best hour of a summer’s day—the earliest hour. That was the time when she went out to work in the vegetable garden behind the Darling Diner, which she owned and managed with her friend, Myra May Mosswell. And this hour, on this Saturday, seemed especially perfect. It had been hot and sultry all week, and the day ahead was likely to be another hot one, with the prospect of a storm in the afternoon. But the morning air was still cool and fresh, the dew was a silvery sheen on the ripe and flawless tomatoes, and the sun had just begun to peer over the rooftops of the little town of Darling to see if something of interest might be happening there on this very last day of June 1934.
And yes, things were already happening, interesting or not, depending on your point of view. Next door to the diner on the east, J.D. Henderson, who helped Mr. Musgrove in the hardware store, was burning trash in an old metal barrel behind the store. Across the alley and two doors to the north on Robert E. Lee, Mrs. Vader’s rooster was letting Mr. Vader know that it was high time he jumped out of bed and started for his foreman’s job at the Pine Mill Creek, where another big lumber order from the new CCC camp down by Briar’s Swamp was waiting to be filled. In fact, Camp Briarwood had placed so many orders recently (construction materials for officers’ quarters, a headquarters building, and a mess hall) that Mr. Vader had to get up extra early to supervise the three new men he’d just hired. But he didn’t complain. Everybody was happy that the sawmill was hiring again.
On the other side of Robert E. Lee, Bill Board, the milkman, was whistling as he delivered two quarts of Board’s Best milk and a pint of Board’s Best cream to Mr. and Mrs. Hart and the three little Hart grandchildren, who lived next door to Hart’s Peerless Laundry. Bill Board was whistling because the Harts had not only doubled their dairy order but paid their bill, to boot. The laundry business was flourishing, so much so that the Harts had had to hire two colored girls from Maysville to help with the extra washing. More jobs!
And from the diner’s kitchen window came the not-so-melodic sound of Myra May Mosswell singing along with Bing Crosby’s rendition of “I’ve Got the World on a String.” The song made Violet smile as she bent over and began filling her lard bucket with fresh green beans for the noon lunch. Actually, she thought, she’d better fill two buckets while she was at it. Now that the CCC camp was shifting into high gear, business was picking up nicely. In fact, it had gotten so good that she and Myra May were finally able to pay themselves a halfway decent salary. Under her breath, Violet hummed along with the radio. She had the world on a string and the morning was off to a glorious start.
Which was exactly how she felt for the next, oh, ten minutes or so. After that, the storm clouds began to gather (metaphorically speaking) and the day went downhill in a hurry.
* * *
In the sunshine-filled kitchen, Myra May glanced up at the clock over the sink. It was six thirty, and the diner would be open for business in a half hour. Violet’s sourdough bread was baking in the oven, and it was time to get the breakfast items started. She opened the refrigerator and took out eggs and milk, in preparation for stirring up pancake batter. On the menu, the pancakes were paired with her mother Raylene’s Southern fried apples and bacon or ham. Raylene’s fried apples had become a big hit with the Darling Diner’s breakfast customers.
Over in the corner, three-year-old Cupcake was dressing her Patsy doll and warbling gleefully with the radio. “Sittin’ on a rainbow, gonna make the rain go!” she crowed, and danced the Patsy doll up and down in time to the music. Seeing the morning sun glint off her soft strawberry curls, Myra May thought that Cupcake was much cuter than little Shirley Temple, the child movie star. She was an even bigger hit with the customers than her grandmother’s fried apples. In fact, she was such a popular little girl that she had been selected as Little Miss Darling for the town’s Fourth of July celebration coming up next week.
On the other side of the kitchen partition, behind the diner’s long counter, Cupcake’s grandmother, Raylene Riggs, had just finished making a pot of coffee, and the aroma of fresh coffee filled the air. Myra May could hear Raylene singing along, too, in her odd little tuneless way: Life’s a wonderful thing as long as I’ve got that string.
The song had it right, Myra May thought as she began breaking eggs into the heavy yellow pottery bowl. Life was a wonderful thing these days—well, it was going in that direction, anyway. She was her own boss, serving good, wholesome food to customers and friends in her very own place of business. Around her were gathered the three people she loved most in the world: her dear friend Violet, their little Cupcake, and her mother, from whom she had been separated for most of her life. Best of all, the gray skies of the Depression were finally beginning to lighten, at least here in Darling, where people seemed to have more money than they’d had in the past three or four years.
And the credit for this improved state of affairs, in Myra May’s opinion, was almost entirely due to the Civilian Conservation Corps camp, a half-dozen miles south of town. Some of the local people were working at the camp in various capacities, so they had a little extra money to spend. The camp quartermaster bought supplies, equipment, and services from local merchants, like the Pine Creek Sawmill and Mann’s Mercantile and Hart’s Peerless Laundry. The camp advertised its needs in the Dispatch and bought milk, butter, eggs, and produce for the camp kitchen from the local farmers. And when the CCC boys came to town on weekends, they spent their money at the Palace Theater, the dime store, the new roller rink, the pool hall, and (of course!) the diner. A couple of months ago, Myra May had started staying open late on Friday and Saturday nights just so the boys could stop in for a hamburger or a milk shake after the last picture show.
All of these new customers added up to a lot more money flowing into Darling. Why, according to Mayor Jed Snow, the camp had pumped some forty-five hundred dollars into Darling’s economy in just the last month alone! Which in turn meant that Darlingians who had been flat broke and despairing could now afford to pay thirty-five cents for a meal at the diner or a dollar fifty for a new pair of shoes at the Mercantile or a quarter for a kite or an O-Boy Yo-Yo for the kids at the Five and Dime.
Sitting on a rainbow. Myra May was smiling as she beat the eggs and milk together. Yes, it was actually beginning to seem that they had put the worst of the dark clouds and hard times behind them. Life was good and getting better and better every day.
At least, that’s how Myra May felt at that instant. She would be feeling very differently a few moments from now.
* * *
On the other side of the partition, behind the lunch counter, Raylene finished with the coffee percolator and began wrapping the silverware in paper napkins, so they would be ready to set the tables as the customers came in. She was making extra wraps this morning, because she had the feeling that today was going to be a busy day—and something of a strange day, she thought, wrinkling her nose and frowning just a little.
Raylene had learned long ago to trust her feelings, for she was psychic. “Not very much, actually,” she told people when they noticed. She liked to downplay her ability so folks wouldn’t pester her to read their palms or tell their fortunes. “And mostly just about little things.”
Like what things people wanted to eat. At today’s lunch, for instance, Raylene already knew that Sheriff Buddy Norris was going to change his mind and order liver and onions instead of the usual meat loaf, while Mayor Jed Snow would go with the meat loaf instead of fried chicken, and the county commissioner, Amos Tombull, would top off his stewed chicken and dumplings with peach pie and ice cream. It was a good thing to be psychic about, as she told her daughter, Myra May. It meant having a pretty good idea of how much of everything to cook.
But occasionally there was something else. Like right now, she had a disquieting feeling that she couldn’t quite shake when she thought of the day ahead. She frowned again, catching a fleeting glimpse, in her mind’s eye, of men traipsing through the diner’s backyard and strangers coming into the place and asking questions about—
“Miz Raylene,” came an uncertain voice. “Miz Raylene, you busy?”
Raylene looked up. It was Lenore Looper, a slight, brown-haired young woman who worked the eleven-to-seven shift on the switchboard three times a week. The Darling Telephone Exchange was located in the back room of the diner. When the Exchange first opened, with only a couple of dozen customers, it had operated from seven in the morning until seven at night. Now, practically everybody in town had a phone and the Exchange had to be staffed around the clock. The girl who worked the night shift was allowed to nap on the narrow cot along one wall, as long as she kept an ear cocked for emergency calls. It looked to Raylene as if Lenore had been doing just that, for the bobby pins were falling out of her hair, her print dress was twisted, and she was rubbing the sleep out of her eyes.
Raylene reached up and turned down the volume of the Philco radio that sat on a shelf behind the counter. “What is it, Lenore?”
Lenore pulled at the bodice of her dress to straighten it. “It’s Bettina Higgens, who works over at the Beauty Bower. She just called the switchboard, askin’ about Rona Jean.”
“Rona Jean?” Raylene asked, frowning. The room seemed suddenly darker, as though a couple of the light bulbs over the counter had just burned out. “She worked the three-to-eleven shift yesterday, didn’t she?”
“Yes, ma’am. But it seems she didn’t come home last night.” Lenore yawned, covering it with a dainty hand. “Bettina is Roma Jean’s roommate. She’s asking if anybody here knows where Rona Jean might’ve went. If they do, she says would they please call her.”
Feeling a flutter of apprehension, Raylene went to the pass-through and leaned across the shelf into the kitchen. “Myra May, Bettina Higgens is calling about Rona Jean, her roommate. Seems she didn’t get home last night.”
“She didn’t?” Frowning, Myra May dropped the big whisk into the crockery bowl. “Where did she go?”
“That’s what Bettina wants to know. Any ideas?”
“Afraid not.” Myra May wiped her hands on the cotton apron she wore over her slacks and plaid blouse. “I checked her out at eleven last night, when she finished her shift. I didn’t ask where she was headed—I just figured she was going home.” She quirked an eyebrow. “But you know Rona Jean.”
As a matter of fact, Raylene did know Rona Jean, who—while she was an excellent switchboard operator when she paid attention—was a little on the wild side. She’d be late to work or ask to get off early. Or she’d be talking to one of her friends when she was supposed to be on duty and let the calls get ahead of her on the switchboard. Worst yet, she had listened in at least once on a private telephone call, which was against the Exchange’s hard-and-fast rule. Myra May had cautioned her that if she was caught listening one more time, she’d be looking for another job.
By now feeling distinctly uneasy, Raylene turned back to Lenore. “Myra May says that Rona Jean finished up here at eleven last night, and that’s the last we’ve seen of her. If Bettina is worried, she should let Sheriff Norris know, so he can keep an eye out for—”
At that moment, the back door banged open and Raylene turned to see Violet, ashen faced and trembling, in the doorway. “Come quick!” she cried breathlessly, clinging to the doorjamb for support. “It’s awful! Oh, please, please, come!”
“Awful?” Myra May was peering through the pass-through. “Come where? What’s going on, Violet?”
“It’s . . . it’s Rona Jean,” Violet gasped. “In the garage. She’s . . . she’s . . .”
But whatever Violet was going to say was lost in a long sigh. She slumped to the floor in a dead faint.
Myra May left Raylene to tend to Violet and dashed out to the ramshackle garage where she parked Big Bertha, her large green 1920 Chevrolet touring car. With 29,012 miles on her odometer, Bertha was cruising on her third carburetor and sixth set of tires, and she occasionally suffered from the hiccups. But the red-painted spokes in her wheels were bright, her green canvas top was sound, and her chrome-plated headlights twinkled. When Myra May climbed behind the wheel and revved Bertha up to her top speed of thirty-five miles an hour, she always imagined that the car was smiling.
But Bertha wasn’t smiling now, and it wasn’t Myra May behind her wheel. It was Rona Jean Hancock. She was sprawled across the front seat, the top buttons of her red dress undone, her legs splayed in an unladylike way, her head bent back at an awkward angle. On her left leg, she was wearing a silk stocking, held up by an elastic roll garter just above her knee. The right leg was bare, and her other silk stocking was wound tightly around her neck.
Sheriff Norris Investigates
“Thanks for being willing to talk to me, Violet,” Buddy Norris said, as he sat down on a straight chair next to the sofa where Violet lay.
Buddy was a lean, gangly man with brown hair and blue eyes, a look-alike (many said) for Lucky Lindy, who had flown his Spirit of St. Louis all the way to Paris, only to lose his firstborn son to a kidnapper and murderer just two years ago. The mildness of Buddy’s expression—he rarely frowned—was somewhat contradicted by the pale thread of a scar across his cheek, a souvenir of a knife fight at the Red Dog juke joint over in Maysville. He was wearing the khaki shirt and pants that passed for the Cypress County sheriff’s uniform, with the nickel-plated star pinned to his pocket flap.
He flipped to a clean page in his notebook, checking his wristwatch for the current time, seven thirty a.m., and jotting it down with the date. “So you saw that the garage doors were open and went to see why,” he said. “Is that how it happened, Violet?”
He was feeling a little awkward. A couple of years ago, Buddy had been sweet on Violet Sims, who once was one of the two young ladies he most wanted to get to know. (The other one was the girl who was out there in the front seat of Myra May’s car with her stocking wrapped around her neck, waiting for Lionel Noonan to drive up in his funeral parlor hearse and take her to Monroeville for an autopsy.) But Buddy had given up on Violet when she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in going out with him, although she said it in such a sweet way that he couldn’t feel hurt by the rejection. She simply preferred to spend her free evenings with Myra May and Cupcake in their flat over the diner.
So he had turned his attentions to Rona Jean, who maybe wasn’t as pretty as Violet but had seemed sweet and eager to please him (at least in the beginning), which was always a compliment to a fellow. He and Rona Jean had gotten along just fine, for a while. He felt a fist of hot anger tighten in his belly when he thought of what somebody had done to her, and then a quick, warm wash of sadness that was accentuated by the strains of “Goodnight, Sweetheart”—Rona Jean’s favorite song—from the radio downstairs. But this wasn’t the time or the place to dwell on that. He had to put his mind to his investigation and let nothing interfere. He poised his stub of a pencil over the page and waited.
Violet’s “Yes, that’s how it happened” was almost inaudible. Pale and wan, her soft brown hair in a mass of curls around her face, she was lying on the sofa in the apartment over the diner, where she lived with Myra May. Raylene Riggs had spread a crocheted granny afghan over her and was kneeling beside the sofa, holding her limp hand.
“Maybe just one or two questions, Buddy?” Raylene asked in a low voice. She’d said that Violet had fainted again after she and Myra May had gotten her upstairs. “This is so difficult for her. She and Rona Jean both worked in the Telephone Exchange, and they sometimes went to the movies together. They were close friends.”
Buddy hadn’t known that, actually. He scribbled the words close friends with Violet—movies in his notebook, then wondered briefly how Myra May felt about that and wrote Myra May?? with a heavy underline. When he’d been trying to get Violet to go out with him, before he’d understood about her situation, he had felt that Myra May was acting kind of jealous. Or maybe “protective” was a better word, like a mama hen ruffling her feathers and snapping her beak, hovering over her chick and not wanting anybody to get too close. He wasn’t quite sure why it was, but after Violet had made it clear that he was wasting his time, Myra May had eased up. Then he wondered who else (besides Violet, that is) Rona Jean might have counted as her close friend, and added other friends? He guessed that was something he had better find out. He bit his lip and focused on his next question.
This was Buddy Norris’ first investigation as the sheriff of Cypress County, and the fact that he was investigating a murder—and Rona Jean Hancock’s murder, on top of that—made it a lot more important than the usual humdrum routine of minor thefts, car wrecks, gambling, and moonshining that the sheriff’s office dealt with every week. Rona Jean’s murder had struck Buddy like a bolt from the blue, and investigating it was not at all what he wanted to be doing on a bright and pretty June morning.
But the sadly ironic truth was that whoever had strangled Rona Jean had handed Buddy his first big case, the opportunity he needed to show the citizens of Darling that they had been right to elect him as their sheriff. It was a test of what he had learned so far, a measure of his abilities as an investigator. He couldn’t afford to fail.
Until several weeks ago, Buddy had been Darling’s deputy sheriff, and not an altogether popular one, at that. Some folks criticized him for his youth (he was in his late twenties but looked younger) and others for his “swagger and derring-do,” especially when he arrested Reverend Craig, the traveling revival preacher, who was driving his 1926 Studebaker sixty miles an hour out on the Jericho Road. On the front seat was a bottle of what the reverend claimed was communion fruit of the vine. When Buddy tasted it, however, the bottle proved to contain something a sight more potent than grape juice. It was Bodeen Pyle’s Panther Juice, and as illegal as sin. Nevertheless, some folks said that Buddy didn’t show good judgment when he arrested a man of God. If he was going to be sheriff, he had a lot to prove.
But Buddy was good enough to be a deputy, almost everybody agreed. He had taught himself how to take crime scene photographs and dust for fingerprints out of a book on scientific detective work that he had mail-ordered from True Crime magazine. He was especially interested in fingerprint evidence, which had been used as forensic evidence in the United States since 1911, when Thomas Jennings was convicted of murder after he broke into a Chicago home and killed the owner during an attempted burglary. Jennings left his prints on a freshly painted railing, was convicted, and hanged. Buddy didn’t have much confidence that fingerprints would ever solve a case in Darling, but he wanted to know how to use them if the opportunity ever presented itself.
All things considered, Buddy had proved himself to be a good deputy. He wasn’t afraid to wade in with his fists when that was necessary, as it sometimes was. He was strong and athletic and (having been a sprinter in high school and a regular winner of the hundred-yard dash) he got around much faster than the sheriff, who had forty years and fifty-plus pounds on him. What’s more, he rode his red Indian Ace motorcycle when he was on patrol duty, which guaranteed Sheriff Burns some serious bragging rights: Buddy was the only mounted deputy sheriff in all of southern Alabama.
In fact, everybody said that the sheriff and his deputy functioned as a pretty good team—until the sheriff was struck down dead by a rattlesnake. He was fishing all by himself below the waterfall at the very bottom of Horsetail Gorge when it happened, which was a very bad place to have a rattlesnake tuck into you. Roy Burns weighed well over two hundred pounds, and with his arthritis, he couldn’t move too fast on a good day. On a bad day, when the rattler had bitten him hard on the wrist, he didn’t make it back up to the camp. He sat down and died beside the waterfall. It took three men, a mule, and a block and tackle to hoist him out of the rocky gorge.
The county commissioners met the next week, as Amos Tombull announced somberly, “to plan for a special election to fill Sheriff Burns’ empty size twelves.” There were two candidates on the ballot, Buddy Norris and Jake Pritchard, who owned the Standard Oil station on the Monroeville highway. But although many had misgivings about Buddy, the endorsement of the Darling Dispatch helped him eke out a win. He was also helped by the fact that Jake had recently raised the price of his gasoline from ten cents a gallon to fifteen, which made some of the voters a tad bit unenthusiastic about him. Jake had the only gas station in town. Some folks may have thought that making him sheriff was giving him too much of a monopoly.
With all this in mind, Buddy knew better than anybody that, in Darling’s eyes, the investigation into Rona Jean’s murder would be a test case. His reputation, his career, and quite possibly his entire future were on the line here. Which meant that he had to take full charge of the investigation and do most of the legwork himself, rather than rely on his new deputy, Wayne Springer. Wayne, who had learned his policing over in Montgomery, already knew how to dust for fingerprints. He was working on the car right now, and doing a good job. That’s the kind of deputy he was. But everything else connected with this murder, all the interviews, all the people stuff, Buddy knew he would have to do himself.
He straightened his shoulders, suddenly aware of the burden on them. “Just a couple more questions and I’ll be finished.” He leaned forward. “When you went into the garage, Violet, did you hear anything or see anybody? Or maybe when you were out in the garden, picking beans?”
“No,” Violet whispered. “I didn’t hear a thing when I was in the garden—except for the rooster up the street and Bill Board delivering the milk and Myra May singing along with the radio. And then I saw the double garage doors open and thought I’d better close them. When I went in, at first, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. It was just too awful. The way Rona Jean was . . . all spread out, I mean. Like she’d been—” Her voice trembled and she bit down hard on her lip. “And then I saw that stocking around her neck. I just ran.” After a moment she looked up at Raylene. “I’m so sorry, dear. I spilled the bucket of beans I was picking for lunch.”
“Don’t worry about it, Violet,” Raylene said in a comforting tone. “Eva Pearl came in early to give us a hand at the counter. After the breakfast rush, I’ll send her out to pick up the beans. Or I could just open a couple of jars of that sweet corn the Dahlias canned for us last summer and make corn pudding instead. Most folks like that just as well as green beans.”
Buddy felt that the interview was getting away from him. “One more question,” he said. “Were you here when Rona Jean . . . when Miss Hancock finished her shift and left last night?”
He felt Raylene’s curious eyes on him and shifted uncomfortably. Both she and Violet and just about everybody else in town would recall that he and Rona Jean had gone around together fairly recently. He hadn’t called her “Miss Hancock” then. In fact, on their second date she had called him “sweetheart,” in that slow, sweet, suggestive Southern voice of hers. They were trading moonlight kisses on the back porch of the house she shared with Bettina Higgens, and the Victrola was playing in the parlor. Goodnight sweetheart, ’til we meet tomorrow. Goodnight sweetheart, parting is such sorrow. And then the third time they were together, when—
But that was when Rona Jean had proved to be too . . . “dangerous” was the word that came to mind. Not the kind of woman Buddy wanted, or could afford, at this point in his life. Still, Rona Jean was dead now, and it was his job to find out who had killed her. It didn’t seem quite respectful to use her personal name when he was asking questions about the last hours of her life.
“I was, yes,” Violet said slowly. “But I didn’t see her when she left. I was upstairs here, reading. Cupcake was asleep in her crib. Myra May had gone down to check on the shift change and do a last-minute check on the kitchen, the way she usually does. Rona Jean went off at eleven, and Lenore—that’s Lenore Looper, she’s Alva Looper’s middle daughter—was scheduled to come on. Myra May always likes to see that the next girl is ready to take her shift on the switchboard before the other girl leaves. Otherwise, there could be a gap, which wouldn’t be good.”
Buddy looked down at the words close friends with Violet. “Myra May came right back upstairs after the shift change?”
Raylene slid Buddy a puzzled glance, as if she was wondering what that had to do with anything. He was glad she didn’t put the question into words, for he couldn’t have answered if she had. He was remembering once when Myra May saw him talking to Violet and had gotten kind of bent out of shape about it, to the point where she put his cup down hard on the counter and splashed hot coffee on his hand.
There was a moment’s silence. Violet looked away, her lower lip caught between her teeth, and Buddy could tell she was thinking about his question. She frowned a little.
“Right back upstairs? Well, I guess maybe not. There’s always stuff to do in the kitchen. Sometimes one or the other of us is down there until midnight.” She looked up and managed a small smile. “Breakfast for twenty-five or thirty doesn’t get cooked by wishing it would, you know, Buddy. There’s plenty of night-before work that goes into it.”
“I reckon,” Buddy said, and wrote midnite in his notebook, after Myra May. “Well, I guess that does it for me, for now anyway. I’ll maybe think of something else later.” He pocketed the notebook and pencil. “You get some rest, now, Violet. Y’hear?”
“Thank you,” Violet said, but she didn’t immediately take his advice. She raised herself up on one elbow and put out her hand, catching at his sleeve. In a low, fierce voice, she said, “You go out there and get whoever did this, you hear, Buddy? Rona Jean might’ve been a little wild, but she was a good girl at heart. I was hoping—” She fell back, closing her eyes. “She . . . she didn’t deserve to die like that. Nobody does.”
Buddy stood looking down at Violet, wondering what Violet had been hoping. But Raylene took his arm and walked him to the door. “If there’s any way Myra May and I can help,” she said in a low voice, “please let us know.”
Buddy nodded. “Thanks. Deputy Springer will come in later this morning and take everybody’s fingerprints. And maybe—”
“Fingerprints?” Raylene asked blankly. “What do you want our fingerprints for? We didn’t—” She stopped, frowning.
“I understand,” Buddy said. “But we’ve already found prints in the car, and Wayne—Deputy Springer, that is—will likely find more. We need to get the prints of everybody who has ridden in that car in the last few months so we can eliminate them. Any prints that are left might belong to the killer.” That was how it was supposed to work. Buddy had yet to see it work that way in practice. There were always unmatched, unidentified prints left over, which pretty much rendered the process useless, practically speaking.
“Oh,” Raylene said. “I see.”
“It would also help if you and Myra May and Violet could come up with a list of the people Rona Jean knew—who maybe had some kind of connection with her. People she worked with, especially.” Usually, he’d ask about family, but in this case, he already knew the answer. Rona Jean had been an orphan. She had told him once that she had nobody on this earth. “I’ll ask Bettina Higgens for a list, too,” he added.
“Poor Bettina,” Raylene said with a sigh. “This is going to be so difficult for her. She and Rona Jean were as thick as thieves.” When Buddy frowned, Raylene took a breath and added, “I didn’t intend anything special by that remark, Buddy. It was just a way of speaking. If you come in for lunch, we’ll have the information for you then.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Buddy said. But before he went back to the garage, he took a moment to jot down Bettina’s name and the phrase thick as theives. (Buddy had not been at the top of his class in spelling, and the i-before-e rule always confused him.) He was well aware that Raylene hadn’t consciously intended anything special. But everybody knew that she had the “gift,” as Aunt Hetty Little put it. She saw things other people didn’t see. Buddy couldn’t help wondering whether she might know something she didn’t know she knew.
Back at the garage, Lionel Noonan had pulled his black 1930 Packard into the alley, and he and Wayne were waiting for Buddy to tell them it was okay to put Rona Jean into the hearse for her last ride.
Buddy took one more look. Her bright red lipstick was a streak of garish neon in a face that was pale as death, and her scarlet nail polish made her fingers look as if they had been dipped in blood. “All right, boys,” he said with a sigh. “Load ’er up.”
The Dahlias Bloom in Beulah’s Beauty Bower
“I just can’t believe something like this would happen in Darling.” Earlynne Biddle lowered herself into Beulah’s haircutting chair and smoothed the pink shampoo cape tied around her neck. “Rona Jean was a hardworking girl and polite to her elders—well, mostly, anyway. She didn’t have a mother to keep her on the straight and narrow, but she wasn’t any wilder than other girls her age, far as I could see. I cannot imagine who would want to up and strangle the poor thing.”
“I always feel so sorry for girls who don’t have a mother,” Beulah Trivette said sadly, combing through Earlynne’s wet brown hair. “Seems like they get off on the wrong foot in life.”
Beulah thought of her own daughter when she said that—dear little Spoonie, who always said she wanted to grow up and be a beautician, “just like Mommy.” Spoonie’s ambition delighted Beulah, for she believed there was no higher calling than making women beautiful. She considered herself an artist and had an abiding pride in what she’d accomplished, especially considering that she’d had to cross over from the wrong side of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad tracks to do it, and then take the Greyhound bus to Montgomery and get a job as a waitress to put herself through the College of Cosmetology, where she learned every single thing she needed to know “to make the ordinary woman pretty and the pretty woman beautiful.”
Now, she owned her very own Beauty Bower, which occupied what had once been a screened porch across the back of the house that she and Hank bought on Dauphin Street. Hank had enclosed it, put in electricity and a new hot water heater, and installed twin shampoo sinks and haircutting chairs and mirrors. Beulah added the finishing touches, painting the wainscoting her favorite peppermint pink, wallpapering the walls with fat pink roses, and spatter-painting the pink floor with blue, gray, and yellow.
A couple of months after she opened, business was so good that Beulah advertised for a beauty associate, and Bettina Higgens had applied. Bettina wasn’t the prettiest blossom in the garden. Her brown hair was stringy, she was thin as a rail, and she had never been to beauty school. But Beulah saw the hidden talent in Bettina’s nimble fingers and the desire in her heart, and knew that she had what it took to make women beautiful. What’s more, she was reliable, very reliable. Within a couple of weeks, the two were working elbow-to-elbow at the shampoo sinks, eight to five, six days a week.
Except this morning. The reliable Bettina wasn’t there.
“Strangled? Rona Jean Hancock?” Leona Ruth Adcock had just come into the Beauty Bower and was hearing the news for the first time. Her eyes were large in her narrow face. She looked around for a moment, then demanded shrilly, “Well, don’t everybody talk at once.”
“Yes, strangled,” Bessie Bloodworth confirmed, looking up from the Ladies’ Home Journal she was reading. “With her own stocking. Silk chiffon, I heard. Havana heel.”
“Havana heel,” Leona Ruth muttered under her breath.
Beulah glanced up at the clock and saw that it was just after nine. “I’m running a little behind this morning,” she told Leona Ruth. “I’ll do you as soon as I finish Earlynne and Bessie, Leona. I hope you don’t mind waiting.” She reached over and turned up the radio, which was broadcasting a weather report—something about a storm out in the Gulf. But whatever it was, she’d missed it. What came up next was her favorite Irving Berlin ballad, “Say It Isn’t So.”
Saturday mornings were always busy at the Beauty Bower, with ladies getting beautiful for Sunday church. But the Bower was one of the best places in town to find out what was going on (right up there with the diner and the party line, depending on which branch of it you were on), so Beulah figured that this Saturday was going to be even busier than usual. And since Bettina wasn’t there to help out, she would be doing all the shampoos and sets herself. It was going to be a long day, and another hot one, in a weeklong string of hot, steamy days. Beulah was glad for the big fan in the ceiling and the other two fans strategically placed on the counter and the floor.
“Take your time, Beulah. I’m not in a tearing hurry.” Leona Ruth took off her purple straw hat and white summer gloves and went back to the subject. “Who found her? Where?”
“Violet Sims,” Aunt Hetty said from under the hair dryer. “In the backseat of Myra May’s old Chevy.” She frowned. “Although what that girl was doing in Myra May’s garage after eleven o’clock at night is a mystery.”
“It was the front seat,” Beulah corrected, “and she’d just come off her shift at the Exchange.” She knew it didn’t matter, though. Leona Ruth never met a fact she couldn’t ignore. She would rummage up the family secrets of every sausage she ate and pass them along to everybody at her table, and if a fact or two didn’t fit her story, she changed them or just left them out. Beulah picked up her scissors. “Earlynne, how short do you want to go today?”
“About here, please.” Earlynne held a finger up to her ear. “I’m working at the plant this summer, and it’s like a blast furnace out there.” Earlynne’s husband, Henry Biddle, was the manager at the Coca-Cola plant, and she worked in the office. She glanced at Beulah in the mirror. “Poor Bettina must just be beside herself, Rona Jean being her roommate and all.”
“That’s the good Lord’s truth.” Beulah began to snip. “Bettina said she was up all night, worrying. Rona Jean gets off the switchboard at eleven, and it’s no more than six blocks’ walk. But she never got home.”
Bettina had telephoned just as Beulah was sitting down to breakfast, to say she couldn’t make it in to work that morning. Myra May had just called Bettina to tell her the tragic news about Rona Jean. She was sobbing when she relayed the story.
Beulah had been shocked almost speechless. “Oh, Bettina, honey,” she gasped. “What a horrible thing to happen! I am so sorry!”
She was, too, very sorry—but at the same time, maybe just the teensiest bit not surprised. Of course, it went without saying that murder, right here in Darling, was utterly unthinkable. But Beulah had felt from the very beginning that Bettina was making a serious mistake to ask Rona Jean to move in with her, even if it did cut the rent in half. The two girls were both in their early twenties, but they were badly mismatched, personality-wise. Bettina was shy and didn’t make friends easily (at least with people her own age—she was fine with the ladies at the Bower), while Rona Jean was just the opposite. She wasn’t any prettier than Bettina—her face was plain as a tin pie plate and her brown hair wouldn’t any more hold a curl than a horse’s tail. But she had . . . well, what Beulah would call a buxom figure, which made her popular with a certain kind of boy. As a result, Rona Jean always had more dates than she could shake a stick at, while poor Bettina didn’t go out with a boy more than once in a blue moon. Beulah had felt that there was bound to be some friction and unhappiness over this disparity, sooner or later. Now wasn’t the time to say so, though. Now was the time to stand by Bettina, in her hour of greatest need.
“I want you to go right back to bed, Bettina,” Beulah instructed. “You’ve had a terrible shock. We’ll miss you, but the Bower will survive without you for a day or two—or however long you have to be gone.”
Of course, it was a terrible time for Bettina to be away from her comb and scissors. With the new CCC camp going great guns outside of Darling, people had more money to spend, there were more doings to attend, and the beauty business had picked up. For instance, there was a dance every Saturday night at the camp, so the younger girls were coming in this afternoon to get their hair done. And coming up on Wednesday was the Fourth of July, always an exciting event in Darling, with a parade around the square and speeches on the courthouse steps and fireworks at the fairgrounds. Beulah knew that Monday and Tuesday would be a madhouse, with all the ladies wanting to look their best for the Fourth.
“Oh, I won’t be out that long,” Bettina said quickly. “Just a couple of hours, I hope. The only reason I can’t be there this morning is that Buddy Norris is coming over to ask me some questions.”
“Buddy Norris?” Beulah asked blankly. Then she remembered that Buddy had recently been elected sheriff. It was a little hard to think of him with that much responsibility, though. He’d always been kind of a big kid, zooming around on that red motorcycle and not very serious. “Questions about what?”
There was a moment’s silence. “I don’t know.” Bettina’s voice was apprehensive. “I guess about Rona Jean. About—you know. Who it was might have wanted to . . . kill her.”
Beulah laughed lightly. “I don’t know what makes Buddy Norris think you know anything about that.” She paused, then couldn’t help asking, “You don’t, do you?” What a silly question. Of course Bettina didn’t know anything. What could she possibly know?
There was another silence. Bettina took a breath. “Anyway, I’ll be in as soon as the sheriff is finished with his questions. I hope it won’t be too long.”
Now, Earlynne met Beulah’s eyes in the mirror. “Murder is a terrible thing,” she said in a significant tone. “I sincerely hope Bettina isn’t involved.”
“I can’t think of a reason why she should be,” Beulah replied evenly, plying her scissors and comb.
“The two of them were living together, weren’t they?” Leona Ruth put in. To Beulah’s annoyance, she got up, walked across the room, and plunked herself down in Bettina’s empty haircutting chair, where she turned one of the fans directly on herself.
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean Bettina is in on any of Rona Jean’s secrets.” Quietly, Beulah reached for the fan and moved it to its original position. She didn’t like to disagree with her customers—clients, she preferred to call them. She believed that true beauty came from within. It was produced by a harmony of spirit, and disagreements were definitely inharmonious. But Leona Ruth was disagreeable and mean-spirited. She could start an argument all by herself in an empty room, and Beulah had long since given up on making her truly beautiful. The most she could do was keep Leona Ruth’s hair curled, and even that was a challenge.
Excerpted from "The Darling Dahlias and the Eleven O'Clock Lady"
Copyright © 2015 Susan Wittig Albert.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Darling Dahlias Mysteries
“Albert once again tells a sweet story laced with personable characters and a strong sense of time and place. Readers can always bank on the talented author for a terrific tale.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch
“Cozy fans will be delighted…Another exceptional series.”—Booklist (starred review)
“The author of the popular China Bayles mysteries brings a small Southern town to life and vividly captures an era and culture—the Depression, segregation, class differences, the role of women in the South—with authentic period details. Her book fairly sizzles with the strength of the women of Darling.”—Library Journal
“This sweet book captures the true tone of a small town.”—The Times-Picayune
“Captivating…Charming characters, a fast-paced plot, and a strong sense of history help make this a superior cozy.”—Publishers Weekly