“Somebody should strangle that slut.”
My friend Bitty Hollandale never has been one to mince words about Naomi Spencer. Even in a crowded southern café, where any casual eavesdropper might be tempted to take her words at face value, she managed to be alliterative as well as insulting.
As admirable as that talent may be, in the not so distant past she’d been assigned a caretaker of sorts to slow the flow of incriminating comments that seems to stream ceaselessly from her mouth. But that was when she had been accused of murder and really needed to watch what she said. Now that she’d been absolved, people who know her often nod and agree politely:
“Yes, Bitty, I’m sure someone will.”
After I said it, though, I was struck immediately with the realization that we were much too close to other diners who didn’t know us, and who might think she—or we—were dangerous. So I quickly added, “Bless her heart.”
Bitty lifted a freshly waxed eyebrow at me. “Trinket Truevine, you’re just saying that so I won’t be tempted to do it myself.”
Since the target of her homicidal lust stood only a couple yards away, tossing her hair and batting her eyelashes at a café patron, I thought it best that Bitty be distracted.
“Here.” I grabbed the nearest thing at hand and thrust a red plastic basket of corn muffins toward her. “Have one.”
“Honestly, Trinket, just look at her. Standing there acting so innocent when she’s probably been in the backseat of every car in Marshall County. I have a good mind to—”
Not wanting to hear what she’d do, I snatched up a muffin and stuck it right under her nose. She immediately reared back with a protective hand curved over the small dog she wore in a sequined sling across her chest.
“For heaven’s sake, put that down. Chen Ling is on a restricted diet.”
The dog—a squashed face, bug-eyed pug—eyed the corn muffin greedily. If Bitty hadn’t been holding the animal back, she probably would have swallowed the muffin in one bite.
“Bitty,” I said through gritted teeth, “stuff it.”
Something in my tone must have alerted her that I preferred discretion in a public place crowded with Memphis tourists who’d come down to Holly Springs, Mississippi for the annual Kudzu Festival.
Bitty leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Well, what I said is true and you know it.”
Since her action brought the pug even closer to the muffin I still held in my hand, I quickly dropped it back into the plastic basket. Chen Ling has an occasional lapse of memory regarding proper table manners, and I wasn’t about to risk my fingers.
The dog immediately barked a shrill protest.
“There, there, precious,” Bitty crooned. “Mama didn’t mean to crowd you. Here. Have some chicken.”
Bitty scooped up a sliver of chicken from her plate, heedless of dumpling bits clinging to it and broth oozing between her freshly manicured fingers. I pretended it was normal and did my best to ignore questioning looks from patrons at other tables. Although we sat at a small table right in the front by the window and away from others, they must be wondering what kind of service dog was carried in a hot pink baby sling studded with sequins. Most service dogs are much more discreet. Chen Ling sparkled with sequins and diamonds in her collar—yes, real diamonds—so she was anything but discreet. Or quiet. Or well-behaved. She also makes porcine sounds when she eats. Loud porcine sounds.
“Really, Bitty,” I said when I couldn’t stand the porky snorts another moment, “why Budgie allows you to bring that dog in here is beyond me.”
She didn’t even look up. After wiping the dog’s mouth with the edge of the bib tied beneath the diamond-studded collar, she kissed Chen Ling atop her furry little head. “Because we happen to be excellent customers, aren’t we, precious?”
“Precious is dribbling dumplings,” I observed. “Is that on her restricted diet?”
“As I was saying a moment ago,” Bitty continued, not at all distracted by dog dribbles or diets, “Naomi Spencer will end up in the morgue one day, mark my words.”
“We’ll all end up in the morgue, Bitty. No one lives forever.”
“Don’t be morbid, Trinket. Really, I think you may need an anti-depressant. Something strong.”
“I have something strong. It’s called zinfandel.”
“Apparently wine isn’t enough. Besides, you don’t want to become a wino, do you?”
“Lately, it’s beginning to hold a certain appeal for me. We did recently endure a great amount of stress, if you’ll recall.”
Bitty waved a hand, obviously dismissing the notion that finding her ex-husband, a newly reelected state senator, dead in her coat closet, then being charged with his murder, might be stressful.
“But everything turned out just fine, Trinket. I don’t know why you still think about it all the time.”
I sat back in my chair to gaze at my best friend—and first cousin—with an emotion close to awe. Mixed with incredulity. I should have been accustomed to her by now, since we’d been in close company ever since I’d come back to Holly Springs a little over six months ago. After my divorce I had returned to care for my elderly parents, mistakenly believing they needed a nursemaid. What I quickly discovered was that what they really needed was a travel agent, not a fifty-one year old caretaker.
Life is full of little surprises. Like Bitty. Of course, if I had pondered it in more detail, I would have remembered that she has always been like this.
Bitty is a true southern belle. Even at fifty-one—and don’t believe her when she tells you anything different—Bitty has the power to bring grown men to their knees with just a smile or bat of her eyelashes. She has the full advantage of being born a belle, as does my twin sister, Emerald. Alas, not I. Where Bitty is five foot two, a natural blonde underneath all the stuff her hairdresser uses to “enhance” the color, with a complexion like a California valley girl only partially due to expensive make-up and tanning beds, I am a hair over five foot nine and twenty pounds overweight, according to the doctor’s chart in his office. My complexion is somewhere between pale and paler, and my graying auburn hair is only recently all dark auburn thanks to a box of color I bought at Wal-Mart. So it’s easy to see where I would be justified in envying Bitty. Truthfully— I don’t.
There seems to be a great deal of impulsiveness inherited along with the Belle-gene. At least, there is in my family. My sister Emerald is married with umpteen children and still thinks nothing of coming home for my parents to wait on her hand and foot and take her shopping whenever she decides to get out of bed for a while. She rarely brings her beleaguered husband or any of her umpteen children with her. If Mama and Daddy want to see their grandchildren, they travel to Oregon for a visit. That has become much easier for them now that I’m here to look after Cherryhill and the dozens of feral cats and one neurotic dog that also inhabit my family home.
The cats stay outside in the huge old barn that Daddy has remodeled into a cat-motel. Brownie, their neurotic half-dachshund, half-beagle, lives in the house and sleeps in their bed. Until my parents go out of town. Then he sleeps in my bed with me, not something I encourage. I must admit, however, that I find it increasingly difficult to resist his canine charms. He does have an endearing quality when he chooses. And besides that, if not for his penchant for consuming indigestible objects like dental bridges and jewelry, I probably would never have met a local vet, Dr. Kit Coltrane, under rather memorable circumstances.
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