"Gone to see Evelyn. Here's your opener. Make yourself at home. There's coffee in the, carafe. It'll be all right. Jack. P.S. Sparks wants us at the club early. 8 P.M."
I glanced at the clock on the stove. Three o'clock. I reached for a broken-handled mug and poured the still-hot coffee.
"All right, girl," I said into the empty warehouse air, "what was it Mama always said? If you keep your chin up, your mouth won't bring you down." Something like that.
I reached for the phone and tried Sheila's private line at Vernell's palace. No answer, just her cheery voice instructing me to leave a message.
"Sweetie," I said, "it's Mama. Honey, pick up if you're there." No answer. "Sheila, when you get this, call the shop. We need to talk." Before Vernell and Jolene poisoned my baby against me.
I jammed my feet into my cowgirl boots and took a few quick swigs of coffee. First things first. Stop by the Curley-Que and cash a check. Then on to the house to grab enough clothes to get me by for a few days. I had a purple denim and rhinestone outfit hanging in the back of my closet that I'd been saving to wear for New Year's Eve at the Golden Stallion. I figured that tonight called for something special, something that made me feel good about myself no matter what people said about me. In a town the size of Greensboro, Jimmy Spivey's death was gonna be big news. People would be flocking to the club, just hoping to get a good look at the woman the police were surely labeling as their prime suspect.
Somewhere out there lived Jimmy's killer. He knew and I knew that I hadn't killed Jimmy. The cops didn't care. They had their suspect. I crammed the garage door opener into my purse and headed out. The metal grated against the track, screaming in protest as I opened the garage door. It was clearly up to me to find Jimmy's killer.
Big doin's were happening when I walked into the Curley-Que. It was Saturday afternoon, our busiest time of the week. The 'Que hummed with activity. The air was filled with the familiar stink of ammonia covered over with perfume, and everywhere you looked women sat patiently in pink smocks, waiting to be beautified.
The two new girls we'd hired when I went to full-time singing were doing customers. Bonnie was apparently heading off a crisis. She stood facing me, but unaware of my entrance. Her entire attention was focused on a short, white-haired woman.
"What do you mean, Maggie's not here?" the woman was saying, "Maggie always does me."
"I'm sorry, Neva," Bonnie said calmly, "not today. Your appointment is for next Saturday."
"Cain't be," Neva said, her voice a petulant whine. "My granddaughter's coming to take me to early church in the morning. I know I made my appointment so's I could have fresh hair when I went."
Bonnie touched her arm gently, as I'd seen her do many times with her children.
"Honey," she cooed, "I'll do you. It'll be fine."
I stood watching for a moment. Neva Jean Riddle would never stand for it.
"Nope," she said, stamping her tiny foot. "Maggie knows just how I like it. She knows about my cowlick and ever'thing." From where I stood, I could see Neva's jaw working a plug of chewing gum.
Bonnie's face was slowly flushing, and she pushed a strand of brown hair back over one ear. I could almost hear her dunking, Maggie don't pay me enough for this.
"Neva," I cried, stepping up and tapping her on the shoulder. "Let's get a smock on you, sweetie. I'll be right along. Isn't your granddaughter coming to get you tomorrow?"
Neva whirled around, a relieved smile on her face. "There you are! This 'un said you wasn't coming." She gestured toward Bonnie, who stood gaping, looking at me as if I were a ghost.
"Well, sweetie, it isn't your regular day, but I'm here, so let's get to work."
Neva toddled off toward the changing room and Bonnie practically flew toward me.
"What in the world are you doin' here?" she demanded. "And where have you been? Did you not see the paper? I've called your place a million times!"
The busy shop had come as close to a standstill as possible, given the whirring dryers. Everyone was slowly looking up, drawn like soda crackers to soup by their curiosity.
"Keep your voice down," I said.
"Whatever for?" she asked. "It ain't as if there's a soul left on this earth that don't know what's what. It's on TV, it's on the radio, and it's all over the paper. The phone's been ringing off the hook with folks looking for you."
"Like who?" Tasked, catching sight of Neva out of the corner of my eye, emerging from the dressing room swathed in a faded pink smock. I motioned to Lotus the shampoo girl to go ahead and do Neva, then turned back to Bonnie.
"I don't know. They aren't leaving names whoever they are."
"Bon, the police think I killed Jimmy. My gun is missing. Someone put Jimmy's credit card in my car. Someone's trying to make me out to look like a killer. I'm not a killer!"
Bonnie's face softened. "I know, honey."
"I'm going to make the police believe me."
"But I can't go home right now. I'm staying with one of the guys in the band until things calm down and Jimmy's killer gets arrested."
Lotus was slowly leading Neva back to the shampoo station. Bonnie's customer was shooting her impatient looks from the chair where Bonnie had temporarily abandoned her. Time was running short.
"Listen, Bon, I need a cash advance, about two hundred dollars."
"Well, Maggie, shoot, you don't have to ask. It's your business."
"I know, but can we spare it?"
Bonnie grinned and looked around the packed Curley-Que. "You ever seen us do this much business on a Saturday?" I had to admit the place did seem more crowded than usual, even for a Saturday.
"I reckon we'll make two hundred extra today alone," she said. "Just keep in touch, all right?"
I nodded. No sense worrying Bonnie. Jimmy's killer had gone to a lot of trouble to set me up. I figured it had to be someone I knew pretty well, someone who knew how to get into my house and get to my gun. I wasn't going to waste a lot of time telegraphing my next moves.
I wandered over to Neva and started my routine. She was a pretty simple job, curl and comb-out, then once every three months, a trim. I got into the rhythm quickly, winding little pink curlers around her thinning white hair.
Neva seemed to be the sole resident of Greensboro who had not heard about Jimmy, so she prattled on about her children and her granddaughter Felicia. It was the sort of one-sided conversation that required only a nod or a murmured "uh-huh," so it took me by surprise to hear another voice impatiently calling me.
"Mama, Mama! I'm talking to you!"
I dropped the curler I was holding and turned to see Sheila standing right behind me, her brown eyes pools of concern.
"Sheila! Baby, are you all right? I would've called you, but I didn't want to talk to your daddy."
Sheila's eyes were rimmed with dark circles and bloodshot. The poor kid must've been worried sick. I pulled her to me and hugged her tight. Her head folded onto my shoulder and her arms wrapped around me. In her chunky high heels, Sheila dwarfed me, favoring her daddy's side of the family for height. At least she had my red hair.
"Mama," she whispered into the side of my neck, "everybody says you killed Uncle Jimmy."
I pushed her back off my shoulder and looked her square in the eye. "Well, every one of them is wrong. I didn't." I narrowed my gaze, focusing on her tell-all brown eyes. "Did your daddy tell you that?" I asked.
"No, ma'am," she said softly, her eyes darting away from mine. Someone close to her had.
"Jolene!" I said.
The eyes sunk down to the floor. That scheming bitch. Poisoning my own daughter against me!