“Mona, it’s me,” Hayley said.
“What now? You want another boat ride?”
“No. I need to know if Ned Weston ever orders seafood from your shop.”
“Everybody in town does. Ned’s no different.”
“Good. Where are you now?”
“At the Lobster Festival trying to corral my kids, who are running around raising hell right now. I got nobody working my booth.”
“I can call Gemma. She’d love to help you out. The kids adore her so they’ll listen to her and she can work the register while you’re gone.”
“Where am I going?”
“Ned Weston’s house.”
“And why am I going there?”
“To deliver fifteen lobsters he ordered.”
“But he didn’t order any lobsters.”
“You want me to keep him busy by making him think I’m an idiot who got an order screwed up so you can play Nancy Drudge?”
“I didn’t read much as a kid. Don’t read much now, come to think of it. Guess I haven’t changed much. But who the hell has time with those hellions I’m trying to raise . . .”
“Mona, I really need you to do this.”
“How long do I have to stall him?”
“Just five minutes. Until I get a chance to talk to Carrie.”
“Fine. Call Gemma and I’ll be there in ten.”
“Thank you, Mona!”
“But this is the last time I go undercover while you’re snooping.”
“Technically, you’re not going undercover. You’re just being yourself.”
“But I’m pretending that I got an order wrong, which, by the way, I never do. So I would say that’s operating undercover.”
“Not really, because going undercover is assuming a false identity . . .”
“You really want to argue with me over this right before I do you this huge favor, Hayley?”
“You’re right. Thanks for going undercover. I’m calling Gemma.”
Hayley called Gemma, who was giggling over something Reid said when she picked up. She wasn’t too happy about having to drop everything to go work at Aunt Mona’s booth, but when Reid suggested it might be fun, Gemma quickly reversed her opinion and told Hayley they were heading over there immediately.
Hayley jumped in her Subaru and raced over to the Weston house, parking a block away so Ned would not spot her car. Then she walked the rest of the way, darting behind a tree as she rounded the corner and saw Mona pulling a silver cooler out of the back of her truck and carrying it up the walk to the Weston’s doorstep and ringing the bell.
Ned answered with a puzzled look on his face and Mona broke into a big, warm smile.
“Looks like you’re putting on quite a feast tonight, Ned. Where’s my invitation?” Mona chuckled.
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Mona put down the cooler and pulled a receipt out of her jeans pocket. “Here you go. Fifteen lobsters. Billed to your account. I threw in some mussels, on the house.”
Ned snatched the receipt out of her hand and studied it. “I didn’t order any lobsters.”
That was Hayley’s cue.
Ned’s face was buried in the piece of paper, allowing Hayley a precious few moments to run out from behind the tree and up the driveway toward the back of the house.
The yard was immaculately landscaped. Ned Weston was not one to allow even one blade of grass to grow too high.
He was controlling that way.
Hayley was careful not to step in his beautiful flower bed as she reached down and picked up a few pebbles and started throwing them up at a second-story window. She knew this was Carrie’s room from the many times she had picked up or dropped off Gemma.
One time when Ned wasn’t home and the girls were blasting music in Carrie’s room and didn’t hear Hayley honking the horn outside or ringing the bell, she had to walk around and call up to them from the back yard.
Hayley tapped the window with three tiny pebbles.
None got Carrie’s attention.
She didn’t want to call her name for fear of alerting Ned so she picked up the garden hose, turned it on, and started spraying the window with water.
That did it.
Behind the waterfall of water cascading down the glass, Hayley could see Carrie looking outside.
She dropped the hose and waved at her.
Carrie opened the window. “Mrs. Powell, what are you doing here?”
“We didn’t get a chance to finish our conversation at the Lobster Festival.”
Carrie looked around fearfully. “Please. My dad is home.”
“He’s busy right now. We have a few minutes to chat.”
“What do you want?”
Hayley didn’t want to betray Gemma’s confidence. She couldn’t very well say she was aware of Mickey Pritchett’s offer of an introduction to Wade in exchange for sex. But she also didn’t have an infinite amount of time to sugarcoat it.
“You already told me you went to see Mickey Pritchett on the night he was murdered. Why?”
Carrie spoke softly, her eyes still darting back and forth for any sign of her father. “He said he’d introduce me to Wade and I was so excited, but then he said it was going to cost me and . . . and, well, I just couldn’t do something like that. Especially with him.”
“So you didn’t know he was going to proposition you until you got there that night? You just thought you were going to meet Wade?”
“No. All that happened before. I talked to Gemma about it and she told me not to do it.”
“So why did you go to his room that night, Carrie?”
“I . . . I . . . just went to tell him to forget it. I wasn’t going to go through with it.”
“That seems like a risky move. You could’ve just called the hotel and told him over the phone. Why would you put yourself in that kind of position? Mickey was a predator and he could’ve forced you to stay.”
“I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking. I guess a part of me hoped he might change his mind and introduce me to Wade without making me do anything for it. But it was clear when I got there that was never going to happen.”
“Did he try anything?”
“Yes. He tried to kiss me. It was so gross. He had chicken grease all over his face. I pushed him away and threatened to scream and then I ran out.”
“Did he chase you?”
“No. He was laughing. He was such an asshole.”
Hayley heard Mona’s booming voice coming from the front of the house. “Sorry for the mix-up, Ned. You and your daughter enjoy these lobsters on me. Invite some friends over.”
Ned grumbled a reply, but Hayley couldn’t make out what he said.
Time had run out.
She had to get out of there.
“So you didn’t get angry with him and do something to him? Because, let’s face it, Carrie, right now it looks like you were the last one to see him alive.”
“Me? I can’t even kill a spider! Mickey Pritchett was shot, wasn’t he? Where would I get a gun?”
She was right. It was a tough sell that Carrie Weston would show up brandishing a revolver, shoot a hole through Mickey Pritchett, and then somehow manage to drag his body out of the hotel and drive it in a huge tour bus to Albert Meadow and set it on fire.
Hayley heard the front door slam.
Ned was back in the house and probably on his way upstairs to check on Carrie.
“Okay. Thank you, Carrie.”
“Please, Mrs. Powell. My father can’t find out about any of this.”
Hayley gave her the thumbs-up and then dashed back around the house to the street and the cover of the tree.
She poked her head around to make sure Ned hadn’t spotted her and then slowly made her way back to her car.
When she reached the Subaru, there was a piece of paper underneath the windshield wiper, flapping in the breeze.
Not another parking ticket.
Hayley couldn’t afford another ticket.
But then she realized she was on a residential street. There were no parking restrictions.
She scooped up the piece of paper and unfolded it.
Was it a flyer?
No. Definitely not a flyer.
Scrawled in black magic marker were the words
SILENCE OR DEATH! YOUR CHOICE!
Hayley looked around. A stray cat sped across the street after a squirrel, which scrambled up a tree. Otherwise, the whole street was empty. Not a soul out.
Someone was following her and threatening her, and she had a pretty good idea who that person was.
Hayley knew exactly where Jesse DeSoto’s mother lived because the police had been called out a number of times to the apartment house answering disturbance calls. Hayley heard about every one on her trusty police scanner, which sat atop her refrigerator.
Jesse’s mother, Freda, who was a few grades ahead of Hayley in school, was a hard drinker and a nasty drunk who had been ejected from Randy’s bar once for picking a fight with the part-time bartender/cocktail waitress, Michelle, a sweet girl whose greatest threat to Freda was her young and pretty face.
Needless to say, Freda’s taste in men was at best questionable, and most of the neighbors’ complaints came on nights when she was blotto and beating up on her various boyfriends. A couple of them hit back, causing Freda to unleash a torrent of swear words and insults at the top of her lungs and waking up half the residents on the street.
Hayley and Freda had run into each other on occasion, shopping at the grocery store or in line at the bank, and had exchanged nods and good mornings, but other than that they kept their distance, since Freda had a grudge against Randy for kicking her out of the bar and Hayley was guilty by association.
Freda DeSoto and Mickey Pritchett would have probably been the best of friends if they had ever had the chance to meet before he burned up in that bus.
Hayley parked her car on Cottage Street and ambled down a side street toward the shore front. The apartment house where Freda lived with Jesse was in desperate need of a paint job and the roof looked like it was about to cave in. But the rent was cheap.
Still, Hayley had no idea how Freda kept herself and her son from being evicted since she never saw Freda work a day in her life. There were rumors running rampant that Jesse was supporting them with his take from the rash of robberies, but Hayley couldn’t bring herself to engage in the gossip, because she didn’t believe Freda was that atrocious a mother. Whenever she saw them together, Freda had a smile on her face, like she was proud of her son. Maybe she hadn’t known what he was up to in his spare time before, but she certainly did now that he had been arrested. She probably got one of her boyfriends to post the kid’s bail.
Hayley walked up the creaky uneven steps to the second floor of the building and knocked on a cracked and chipped door. She heard sounds from a television inside the apartment. It sounded like
Locked Up Abroad
or one of those inside prison shows they aired every weekend on MSNBC.
After a minute went by, Hayley knocked again, this time louder.
The door swung open fast, startling her, and Hayley stared into a hardened face with a grayish hue from too many packs of cigarettes and bottles of bourbon.
“Hayley Powell. What brings you to this neighborhood? You giving cooking lessons door to door now?”
“I need to talk to Jesse,” Hayley said.
“He ain’t here,” Freda growled before coughing and then snorting the phlegm in her throat up toward her nose.
“When do you expect him back, Freda?”
“What’d he do now?”
“I think he may have left a note on my car.”
“A note, huh? Like a love note? Aren’t you a little up there to be chasing after my boy?”
“Trust me. It was no love note.”
“Anyway I hear you go more for the older type, you know what I’m talking about? A stud with a fancy cowboy hat on his head and a sweet love ballad on his lips. I’m sure his bank account helps a hell of a lot, too, huh, Hayley?”
She stepped closer and cackled.
The smell of bourbon on her breath was overpowering.
“I see you read more than just my column.”
“I like to keep up on all the news in town.”
The two women stared each other down for a moment.
Hayley finally spoke. “When Jesse gets home, tell him I’m looking for him and if he knows what’s best for him, he’ll get in touch with me so we can sort this out.”
Freda shrugged. “I’ll tell him. If he comes home. I don’t know where he goes half the time. You know kids. And I don’t have time to grill him about where he’s been and what he’s been up to.”
Freda was obviously the poster child for bad parenting.
Hayley peered past the door into the living area where the TV was blasting and a half-empty bottle of bourbon sat on a TV tray. “Yes. I can see you’re very busy.”
Freda’s sneer morphed into a scowl.
She didn’t like to be insulted.
She stepped back and slammed the door in Hayley’s face.
Well, that was a waste of time.
Hayley walked carefully back down the wobbly steps and was walking up toward Cottage Street when her eye caught a glint of something.
In the alley between the apartment building and the house next door.
It was a motorcycle!
She ran over into the alley for a closer look.
It was a Harley Davidson.
Just like the one her attacker had sped off on last night.
Her suspicions were confirmed.
Jesse DeSoto was the one who tried strangling her backstage at the Criterion Theatre.
“What do you want?” a voice said behind her.
Hayley spun around.
Jesse was standing there in jeans and a ratty ripped t-shirt that said “I’m Sleeping With Your Girlfriend.”
Just like his mother.
He also had a scuffed black motorcycle helmet that he held by the strap in one hand.
“Why did you come here?” he said in a low threatening voice.
“Because I know it was you who came after me at the Wade Springer concert and tried to kill me,” Hayley said, standing her ground.
But scared out of her mind.
“You don’t know nothing,” Jesse said menacingly.
He advanced toward her, backing her up against a Dumpster at the end of the alley.
“Stay away from me,” Hayley warned.
“What are you going to do about it?” Jesse said, eyes narrowing.
He was just about on top of her when Hayley reached into her coat pocket and yanked out a small bottle of pepper spray. She pointed it right between Jesse’s eyes.
He quickly jumped back and hoisted the helmet in front of his face as a shield.
“Don’t spray me with that shit!”
Hayley sprang away from the Dumpster and knocked the helmet out of Jesse’s hand. It went clattering to the pavement and now she was the aggressor, wielding the pepper spray, pointing it at his face.
“How stupid are you, Jesse? You know I’m probably going to be the main witness against you in court! If anything happens to me, you are the first person everyone will suspect.”
“Then why did you take such a risk?”
“I needed cash to pay back my mother’s boyfriend for posting my bail . . .”
Hayley stopped cold. “Cash? Someone paid you?”
Jesse was squinting, holding his hands up to protect himself just in case Hayley let loose with the pepper spray.
“Never mind. Forget it.”
“Jesse, talk to me. Who paid you?”
“I wasn’t going to kill you or anything. I was just supposed to scare you.”
Hayley felt her cheeks flushing and her heart thumping wildly. The revelation that someone in town had hired Jesse to attack her made her head woozy.
It was almost too shocking for her to take.
But she kept the spray aimed squarely at Jesse’s face.
“I’m warning you for the last time, Jesse. Tell me or it’s one squirt and you’ll be as blind as Stevie Wonder.”
“I don’t even know who that is,” Jesse wailed, covering his eyes.
Suddenly, Hayley sensed someone rushing up behind her.
“Get away from my son, you bitch!”
Mother of the Year.
She grabbed Hayley around the neck and hauled her away from Jesse, who looked like he was going to make a run for it.
But he didn’t.
He just stood there watching his mother grapple with Hayley like some Vince McMahon women’s wrestling match gone horribly wrong.
Freda tried prying the pepper spray out of Hayley’s hand. “I’m sick of you oversexed cougars eyeing my son. He’s got enough problems.”
“I told you, I have no interest in your son.”
“That’s what the other one said. The blonde.”
“Mom!” Jesse shouted, panic in his voice.
“The one with the big rack. I saw Jesse and her hanging out together and when I told her to find someone her own age, she told me the same thing you did.”
“Stacy Jo Stanton? The country singer?”
“How the hell should I know?” Freda spat out. “I hate country music!”
It was suddenly crystal clear.
Stacy Jo Stanton hired Jesse to attack her.