The Vindicator occupied a storefront on Main Street, with creaky floorboards, a high ceiling of pressed tin, and a lingering odor of printer’s ink. Walter Nickles, the editor, was animated. Necktie loosened, he bustled from behind his disaster zone of a desk, took her coat, tossed it over a chair, and offered her a cup of coffee. Louisa knew better than to accept.
“I made it myself,” he said.
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Yesterday. I warmed it up.”
“What is your proposition?”
“Did you know Ralph Willis?”
“Not personally. I heard him play the organ. He gave a recital at St. Giles once a year.”
“Never made it there myself. You can get to know him a whole lot better. How would you like to write a follow-up for next week?”
“I have no training in journalism.”
“I’ll coach you.”
“Jimmy is your reporter. I’m an ordinary, middle-aged woman who has her hair done on Thursday and plays bridge with the girls on Friday.”
“By the way, your hair looks stunning.” He smiled ingratiatingly. “People still play contract bridge?”
“Yes, we do. The same deck of cards you play poker with. When Ruth Harrison retired, you asked me to take over the lifestyle column. I learned on the job, and now everyone seems to enjoy reading my pieces. They’re light, not too filling, like whipped cream. I’m not sure I can handle a police story like this, a grisly shooting.”
“No, no, no. I want an in-depth profile, a human interest story. The man and his music, or something like that. A tribute to the late artist. Talk to people who knew him, dig a little into his past, tell us why we should remember him fondly.”
“Interview friends and family?”
“You have a knack for it.”
“I don’t know.”
“This is right up your alley.”
“What if I uncover something . . . unpleasant?”
“If it’s shocking or sensational, so much the better.”
“What if people prefer not to talk?”
“Exert your powers of persuasion, your special gift.”
“I have no special gift.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Louisa. You’re a fine figure of a woman with a keen eye, a level head, and a nose for news. In your capable hands, Tittle-Tattle went from tedious social notes and stray gossip to . . . whipped cream! Now, if you’re too busy with household chores and picking the lint from the dryer vent, I understand.”
“If anything, I have too much free time.”
“Do you mean to tell me that you’re not up to the challenge? Scared to learn a new skill?”
“I’m not scared. I’m trying to be realistic.”
“How do you see the story? Walk me through it.”
“Ralph Willis drops dead in his own house. Nobody had a reason to shoot him that we know of. He was a church musician, not a drug lord or a stool pigeon, something that gets a person killed.” Louisa made a helpless gesture.
“Accidents happen. The police think it was bad luck.”
“What do you think, Walter?”
“I think you are ideally qualified to sniff out the truth.”
“How will I know the truth when I find it?”
“You’ll know. We’ll work on this together, your instinct and my expertise.”
“Assuming we dig up something, what good will it do?”
“How will it help Willis? It won’t. But I have a hunch that people know more than they’re letting on. The police are dragging their feet. Are they understaffed, not very bright, or just plain stubborn?”
“Do you want me to butt heads with Captain Ryder?”
“Wheedle him. Worm your way into his confidence. See if he has a warm, runny inside, an interest in bird-watching, something you can latch onto. The head-butting may come later. Leave that to me.”
“Is this an in-depth profile or an investigative report?”
“Make of it what you will.”
“Do I get paid?”
“Not only do you get money, you get glory—a byline. So you’ll give it a shot?”
“I’ll give it a try. Let’s watch our metaphors.”
“Good. If you’re correcting my metaphors, then you’re already on the story.”
“And this is a church-related matter. People are sensitive.”
“All the more reason for a blasphemer like me to stay in the background.”
“You don’t swear.”
“I can if provoked. Want to hear a sample?”
“Another time.” Louisa reached for her coat. “Right now, I want hear what Captain Ryder has to say.”
When Louisa got home, the sun had set. The little house on Sycamore Avenue looked gloomy in the gathering dusk. She flicked the light switch in the hall, and a lamp emitted a feeble glow.
From the living room, there was a small explosion of sneezes and snuffles. Jasper scurried into the hall as fast as his legs would carry him. Louisa peered down at the black, wrinkled face and large eyes.
“Poor Jasper! Did you miss me?” She bent to pet him, and the effort reminded her of how tired she was. “I suppose you want to go for a walk after being left in the house all day.”
Jasper wriggled in the affirmative.
“Did Galahad go out, too? Were you all alone, on guard duty? If you can wait a minute, we’ll trot around the block. Then it will be time for you know what.” She withheld the word “dinner” to forestall an outbreak of whining.
Louisa hung her coat on the tree walked to the kitchen. Her mug was still in the sink where she left it that morning. A plate and glass had joined it, both dirty. So Galahad had eaten lunch. A disheveled young man in socks shuffled into the kitchen.
“Good morning and good evening to you.”
“What’s for dinner?”
“I’ve had a long day, and I just this minute stepped in the door. Whatever is in the fridge is what’s on the menu.”
“You were gone all day?”
“Honestly, Galahad, sometimes you make me wonder. I have been interviewing people for an article. I walked all over town, asked pertinent questions, got evasive answers, and now I’m dead on my feet and ready to scream. Meanwhile, you lounge about the house, never lift a finger, and ignore poor Jasper, who is panting in distress.”
“Sorry. I was reading Old French and surfing academic websites for job listings. I forget about Jasper. When you’re not here, he dozes on the sofa.”
“If you made an appearance before noon, I could tell you what I am doing. Do you expect me to write you a letter? And you can at least clean up after yourself.”
“You don’t like people in your space. Remember that sign you had: ‘My Kitchen: Trespassers Will Be Boiled in Oil.’ What article?”
“The editor asked for a long piece on Ralph Willis, the man who was killed. Surely, you saw the news.”
“Today’s newspaper? I saw the front page. But you write the social column, and you don’t have to meet a deadline.”
“This is different. I suppose it’s journalism.”
“How long will it take? Will you be working on it full time?”
“I don’t know. At this rate, I’ll be running around for days. I don’t even know what the story is, how it will turn out. The police have no idea who shot Willis, and it is not at all clear that anyone cares.”
This remark caught Louisa short. Was Galahad perceptive?
“I’m an adult. If you grant kitchen privileges, I won’t break things.”
“I will think about it. For starters, you can take Jasper for a walk.” She looked at his feet. “After you put on some shoes.”
“Okay. Did you hear that, Jasper?”
Affirmative body language.
“Meanwhile, I am going to take off my shoes and soak my feet in Epsom salt.”
Louisa had a long-standing appointment every Thursday morning at the hair salon. It was part of her weekly routine. She looked forward to catching up with Phyllis, the owner, and with the other customers. And it was nice to be pampered.
The past two days had seen such a flurry of activity that she felt more in need of pampering than ever. Under a cool, overcast sky, she walked to the little shop, a converted garage tucked away on an alley. There was no sign.
“I don’t need a street presence,” Phyllis said. “Everyone knows where the shop is, and all my customers are regular.”
Once inside, Louisa was met by the familiar faces, the lights and hums of small machines, and the pervasive aroma of shampoo. There was Phyllis in her pink and white smock, an efficient woman in her thirties. She kept up with local news and issued bulletins on her children and her husband Frank, who ran a small landscape business. The junior stylist was Amber, a plump, effusive, young woman who was constantly experimenting with her own hair. Today, it was a streaky blonde arranged in strands or wisps, as though blown by the wind.
Louisa exchanged greetings all around and settled into a chair with a vinyl seat and tubular chrome arms. She was a minute early. An assortment of magazines lay on a low table, back issues of Lawn & Landscape and women’s magazines. Although Louisa no longer subscribed, she enjoyed leafing through the recipes for desserts, tips on how to clean a bath, and low-cost decorating ideas. It was part of the ritual, the immersion in family lore and the concerns of a young wife—her own life twenty-five years before.
“Louisa?” A woman’s voice summoned her from this domestic reverie. Standing behind Eleanor Clough, with a hairbrush in one hand and a dryer gun in the other, Phyllis indicated Amber, who stood beside an empty salon chair. “I’m running late. If you can hang on, I’ll be with you in a few minutes. If you don’t want to wait, Amber had a cancellation and she can get you started. It’s entirely up to you.”
Louisa checked her watch. Twenty minutes had flown by. She had chores to do, notes to organize, and the appointment at First Baptist Church in the afternoon. She laid down the magazine and stood.
“It’s a good thing you called me back to the present.” She installed herself in the salon chair. Amber smiled and draped her with a pink and white cape.
“Amber has worked on you before. She’s making great strides, and I know she’ll do a bang-up job. Won’t you, Amber?”
“I’ll do my best,” Amber said. Her giggle was not reassuring, but Louisa felt that time was of the essence. “Now as I remember, Mrs. Jones, you always have a wash and comb-out, with a light trim once a month.”
“That’s right, dear. Phyllis cut me last week.”
“You have beautiful hair, Mrs. Jones, so thick and naturally wavy.” Amber combed through Louisa’s hair in an exploratory way. “Any woman would envy you. And the gray blends nicely with the brown. Have you ever thought of coloring it?”
“Never. Once you start down that path, it’s impossible to stop.”
“Not even highlights? I tried it on myself, one shade lighter than my natural color.”
“No, thank you, dear. I confess to my share of vanity, but it has not led me into that particular temptation.”
“It was only a suggestion. I’m always trying new things and I love to talk, so if it gets to be too much, ignore me. If you will lean back, now, I’ll hose you down.”
Amber adjusted the chair by means of a long, chrome lever. Louisa leaned back and rested her neck on the lip of the specially shaped sink. Amber took up a spray nozzle attached to a hose like a black snake.
“In position, Mrs. Jones?” Amber gently soaked Louis’s hair. “You might want to close your eyes. I’ll try not to spray in them. Do you wear contact lenses?”
“No, thank goodness.”
“That really is a blessing, to have perfect vision. I wore glasses from the age of three, but now I have contacts. Did you know they can be tinted? My eyes are not naturally amethyst. I’d be blind as a bat without them. Turn your head a little to the left, please. Very good. Now a little to the right. Many people find this the most relaxing part, like a massage. The warm water runs through your hair and trickles around your ears. I like it to be warm, not hot.”
“It’s very soothing. The temperature is just right.”
Amber applied shampoo and worked the lather with her fingers. Louisa kept her eyes shut.
“Have they caught whoever shot Ralph Willis?” The voice belonged to Cecelia Gross, who was seated a few feet away. With her head engulfed by a huge helmet, she spoke louder than normal, to anyone who cared to hear.
“Not that I know of,” Louisa said, her eyes still closed.
“What a horrible thing to happen right here in our midst,” Cecelia said. “We’re all on edge, with the killer still loose.”
“I was at the funeral yesterday,” Sadie Thompson said. She too was undergoing a procedure that involved waiting, her hair pinned in an array of curls and scraps of foil. “I sing in the choir. We were all stunned. Some of us could barely get a note out. But the soloists did a marvelous job. It was heart-warming to have the music done right.”
“For a dead musician, you mean?” Cecelia asked.
“Louisa,” Sadie said, “you were there, too.”
“The newspaper asked me to write on Willis.” It was odd to carry on a conversation this way, reclining with your eyes closed.
“For your column?” Phyllis asked.
“No, a longer article, an appreciation of his life.”
“Is that why you’re gadding all over town, asking so many questions?” Cecelia asked.
“That is the way to get answers,” Louisa said.
“I’m more interested in finding the killer.”
“We all are,” Sadie said. “Are you looking for him, too, Louisa?”
“The police are,” Louisa said. “I’m trying to get the whole story.”
“Hmph,” Cecelia said. “What makes you so special?”
“Lately, I ask myself the same question,” Louisa said.
“There,” Phyllis said, removing the cape from Eleanor Clough, who had kept silent during this debate. “You’re a new woman.”
“If only that were true,” Eleanor laughed.
“Louisa,” Phyllis said, “do you want me to dry and comb you out?”
“I’m in capable hands,” Louisa said. She opened her eyes and raised her head. “Let Amber finish me off. That way we won’t need to change chairs. Is that all right with you, dear?”
“Of course, Mr. Jones. We’ll have you styled and on your way in a jiffy.”
“In that case,” Phyllis said, “I can do Mrs. Gross. Cecelia, you ought to be thoroughly cooked by now. Come on over here. Let’s yank those curlers and make you beautiful again.”
About the Author
Robert Boucheron is an architect in Charlottesville, Virginia, website boucheronarch.com. His stories, essays and book reviews are in Atticus Review, Construction, Cossack Review, Digital Americana, Milo Review, Montreal Review, Mouse Tales Press, New England Review, New Orleans Review, Niche, Poydras Review, Virginia Business, and other magazines.