Carol St. Claire
"These ain't Lindor's. Everybody knows I like the Lindor's," Carol St. Claire protested from her wheelchair. Her face pinched into a snarl like she smelled something sour.
"I'm sorry," I said and pulled back the box of chocolates I'd held out to her. "If you don't want them ..." I'd made a point to get what I thought was the good stuff, judging by the price, but sometimes good isn't good enough, I guess.
"I didn't say I don't want 'em. They just ain't the Lindor's and everybody knows that's the ones I like." She held out her hand and turned her head to the side. She'd take the chocolates, but she couldn't stand to watch herself do so.
"I promise I'll bring the right kind next time."
"Sheriff ... Reese, is it?"
"Sheriff Reese, I'm an old fart, but I ain't an idiot. I know what you come for and you won't be back once you get it."
I nodded. I'd like to be able to say truthfully that I'd make a point to come back and visit, but I doubted it as much as she did. I'm busy and my memory isn't what it used to be. I wouldn't insult her by making promises we both knew I wouldn't keep. I responded by getting to the reason I was there.
It had taken right at half an hour to get to Carol's place and there was a lot of trepidation on my part as I got out of the car, not because of the grief Mrs. St. Claire was likely to throw me while she felt me out, but at the thought of having to listen to Hunter's head clanging screams while I tried to work. I don't care for children. It's why I'm not married. When I date, I always work the conversation in that direction so they won't be surprised if I make a face like Carol St. Claire made over the chocolates when they mention having one of the little snot balls. That way she can decide immediately whether or not there will be a second meet up. The strategy had worked well, but it kept me single. The women I've known already had it all planned out. How many they want. What she'd like to name a boy or a girl. Of course, her husband will get to have a say, but it's all in the future anyway.
There I was, single and happy to be, dreading Hunter in all of his toddlerdom.
It's not that I hate kids, by the way. I'm no grouch. Really, it's the crying and the screaming and the running and the messiness that gets on my nerves. If it weren't for those things, kids would be fine.
The home was a trailer - one of those old, all metal, flat top models. This family was poor, but I was willing to wager they were better company than most. Even Mrs St. Claire, once the hard shell was peeled away.
When I got to the door, I noticed there were no sounds of screaming coming from inside. No cooooookiiiieeee! No Toooooyyyyy! There was only silence. Sweet, delicious silence, except for a low, breathy whoof - barely audible - from a bassett hound that had crawled out from under the trailer and stood to my left, looking up at me with great big eyes. Animals, I love - especially good, old fashioned porch dogs. A porch dog will go the extra mile for ya, gladly eat whatever you give it, and will always think you hung the moon. I would have called it over so I could get my hands on those ears that fell so low off the side of its head that they scrubbed the ground, but I know how dogs that live under houses get to smelling and it didn't seem like having my hands all doggish would be the best first impression.
Whoof, he half barked, half whispered again and blinked those amazing brown eyes.
"Settle down, Droopy," I chirped and knocked on the door.
Now that I'd met her, I was experiencing what Jim had told me about, but I have to say I actually enjoyed it. Women like Carol usually have a reason for their personality. They've been through a lot of what my mama called leavin's - the life stuff nobody wanted. It seems like some people take the best parts the universe has to offer and leave the bad stuff for people like Carol St. Claire to scrape up. Life wars with deep trenches and jagged wounds. Carol reminded me of my mama. Daddy was good to us right up to the day he died, but she still had her shrapnel. She had her scars. It hadn't taken her long to go after daddy left, but in the time between, I saw a lot of the same leavins in her that I thought I saw in Carol.
"Mrs. St. Claire, I'll get right to the point because somehow you don't strike me as the kind to like to beat around the bush."
"You got me so far." I like the way she pronounced far like fur. It was a throwback to our deep, southern roots. The woman was a pure classic.
"I mainly wonder what details you might be able to give me about Regina's accident."
"Weren't no accident, to start with. Maybe he didn't mean to run that car off'n the road and over the cliff, but he killed her anyhow, just by takin' her out there. Everybody said they was havin' an affair, but that ain't the way it was. Folks'll get a notion in their head - especially ones that'll kick up a controversy - and that's all they'll want to believe, whether it's true or not. That man was takin' advantage of her against her will. I know he was."
"Mama, you never told me that!" Regina surprised me. I knew she was there with us, but I didn't think she was paying too much attention. At the moment, Hunter was down for a nap, which was why I hadn't heard him when I walked up. Mrs. St. Claire brushed her off with a wave of her hand.
"I don't like to think about it. I'm only doin' it now for the sheriff so maybe Regina One can finally get some sort of justice."
Regina Two took a step back and when I glanced in her direction, I noticed her otherwise milky white skin had gone a bright shade of pink. Regina One. Had this Regina always been number two in her mother's eyes? I thought that was probably so.
"I don't know that there will be any justice served after forty years, but maybe some peace of mind is on the table," I said with a smile that was met with blank faces from both. That's when I decided to give up any hope of keeping things light.
Regina Two removed herself from the room and began to be busy at the kitchen sink, clanging the bowls and pans louder than I guess she needed to. She'd been hurt by her mother's callousness, not for the first time, I'm sure, and wanted to appear uninterested in the conversation, but I could see out of the corner of my eye that she had one ear trained toward us.
The trailer looked to have two rooms and a tiny hall to the left and a bathroom and master bedroom to the right. The living room, dining room area, which was little more than a nook, and the kitchen, all shared the middle part. We sat in what you'd call the living room that had a worn out couch and an ancient large screen TV - one of those enormous box models with a horrible, dim picture. It had come from the local thrift store. I knew it because they hadn't removed the sticker. Amy's Nu2U - We give great stuff a second chance!
Mrs. St. Claire sat with her wheelchair cocked at an angle next to the couch where I was sitting. She held the box of chocolates demurely across her lap.
"Peace of mind," she said, repeating me and tapped the box with a finger that was in decent shape for an eighty year old. "I doubt it, but I've lived with it for forty years now. I reckon I can keep on without the justice. Maybe Jesus will let me peek through a window to watch the man rot in hell."
Regina Two shot her mother a look of disappointment, but didn't say anything. I won't pass judgement on the wishes of a mother's heart that had to endure a loss like that.
"Mrs. St. Claire, how much did you know about what was going on between you daughter and Tom renault? If you knew anything at all."
"Right on that second part. I didn't know nothin'. Back then we didn't take children serious when they acted strange or scared and shame on us. Regina tried to back out of goin' a bunch of times, but she never said Tom was misbehavin'. And we didn't have a choice. Didn't have family to watch her while I worked and Billy was always on the road. You mighta heard him called Truck."
"That's the way I heard it, yes."
"Anyway, I didn't know. I had my suspicions, but when I asked her if that was why she kept tryin' to get out of goin', she said no. It wasn't till I put two and two together that I knew it. Didn't nobody have to tell me."
"So as far as you know, it's still your story against the Renault's. There was never any evidence presented to you."
"I was fixin' to sue. Word got to me that the Renault's daughter Jessica had give some kind of testimony, but the family made me an offer. It was a lot of money and we needed it, so I took it. I figured suin' 'em wouldn't get me much more and there was no tellin' what folks'd start sayin' about Regina. We made it as quiet as we could."
I'm not a parent, but something inside me said I should tell Carol what Soseby told me about the way Regina actually died, but I couldn't do it. As old as she was now, would it matter? I didn't think so and this story was filled to the brim with secrets anyway. What was one more to keep an old woman as sane as possible during the time she had left?
Mrs. St. Claire leaned forward. Age had loosened her eyelids so that they drooped and her eyes themselves were naturally red and watery the way old people's usually are, but there was a new redness and more water than there should have been. The wound had never completely healed. It never would while she breathed through the lungs of motherhood.
"Now I'm gonna ask you a question, sheriff."
"Mama, be nice," came Regina Two's voice from the kitchen.
"I'm an open book, ma'am," I said and spread out my palms to show her. I knew what was coming. The same question anybody I talk to long enough asks. Why am I digging all of this up?
"It's been four decades. Regina One's done went back to dust by now, so what's this about?"
At this point, and for Carol's best interest, I lied.
"I was going through files and I found yours. It was a case that hadn't been marked closed, so I'm just tying up loose ends."
"Things that slow for ya over in Waterman? Nothin' better to do?"
I shrugged. "Looks like I can close it for good now, unless you can think of any important details you'd like me to know."
"My daughter was a good girl. She wasn't out with that man without him forcin' her to be. She was a Christian girl who'd stand in the way of an oncomin' train if that's what she had to do to warn a body, even if it meant loosing her own life. She was a guardian angel. People still talk about her, you know, and I think that might be what hurts me most about it all. They call her a demon or a ghost."
"Is that what they say?"
"Maybe you didn't know the famous ghost of Shoeshine Drop was my Regina, but I'm guessin' you did and I'm guessin' that's got somethin' to do with this visit."
"I suppose I did, but that's all the more reason for me to be here asking you about her. It's nice to know she had a kind heart. Maybe we'll get a chance to clear her name."
"I doubt that too," Carol said and started rolling herself away from me. The conversation was officially over. "People don't like change. Like I told ya, they prefer to believe what they always believed, even if they find out they were wrong. Because change is hard. People don't like change and people don't like hard. Door's right there, sheriff. You can let yourself out."
I grinned and gave Mrs. St. Claire a tiny bow. I can't say she's exactly what I want to be when I get to her age, but there's a fire about her that's attractive. A spitfire.
Regina Two offered to show me to the door anyway. Hospitality was still important to her and it hit me I was never offered anything to drink. A beverage - especially a glass of sweet tea - is a hosting staple around here and I wondered if it was a message. And dang it, now I wanted a tall, sexy glass of sweet iced tea!
Regina Two looked bashful. "I'm sorry about mama. She's that way to everybody."
"She's a perfect lady," I said and touched her shoulder. "Take care of her and cherish her for as long as she's with you."
"Enjoy the chocolates!" I hollered to Mrs. St. Claire.
"They ain't the Lindor's!" she hollered back from down the hall.
The bassett hound ended up being my escort to the cruiser, falling in behind me and sniffing at my heels. His tail wagged happily like dog's tails do when they've marked you as the best thing in their world at the moment, so I wasn't worried about getting nipped.
I was starting to feel calm for the first time in several days. There was an old porch dog that liked me and an old, sassy woman who I think liked me okay, too. Things didn't seem so gloomy for a change. At least, not until I reached the door of my cruiser and heard deputy Clark calling for me on the radio in a panic.
"Sheriff Reese, please come in! We have a situation! Please come in!"
I jumped in and immediately remembered I'd turned my cell off while I spoke with Mrs. St. Claire.
"This is Reese, go ahead."
"Oh, thank God! I'm en route to Priddis Mill Rd. Ambulance en route as well."
"What's going on, Clark?"
"They just found Gail Warren at the bottom of Shoeshine Drop."