A Thrift Shop Murder – N.M. Howell, L.C. Hibbett

ONE, TWO, THREE. I counted slowly as I inhaled and exhaled. PEACE AND ZEN, I chanted internally. PEACE AND ZEN. Keep it together, Price. You are a calm, confident woman who can master life’s curve balls. “Stuff your pie holes, you saggy old bats!” I raised a hand to my mouth and squeezed my lips together to muffle my snort of nervous laughter as the old woman to my left began a fresh tirade of abuse. The surrounding mourners did not even glance over their shoulders as the woman muttered about wrinkly fartbags and hairy chins. Obviously, angry-shouting-lady was a neighborhood regular; trust me to stand next to the loopiest person at the memorial service. The wind chilled my skin and I tugged my cardigan tighter around myself; my wardrobe choice was ill-planned for an outdoor event so early in the spring. Not that I had planned to be standing in the middle of a public park attending a stranger’s funeral, mind you. No, my plan had been to dump my bags in my new apartment, soak in a hot bath while I downed a bottle of Salem’s finest organic red wine, and sleep for four solid days until starting my new job. Clearly, fate had other plans. Stupid fate. Stupid life.

Please proceed to the memorial in the park by the river for further instruction. I read the note I had found pinned to the door of my new apartment for the tenth time and scanned the small gathering for any sign of my new landlord. I had only ever spoken to the woman on the phone, and briefly at that, so all I knew was that I was looking for an older lady. Standing on my tip toes, I peered over the heads of those in front of me, searching for any sign of my new landlord and boss. A small man in black robes and a white collar teetered on top of a milk crate as he read the eulogy from what appeared to be the back of a shopping receipt. He raised his voice to be heard over the sound of two old women squabbling like demonic school girls in the front row. Maybe one of the ladies was who I was looking for? I crossed my fingers and hoped it was the woman with the laughter lines around her eyes, not the one who looked like she was sucking on a whole bag of lemons. “New in town?” A voice called from behind me, the words muffled by the wind. I dropped back down on my heels and turned toward the source of the greeting, grateful for a distraction from the bizarre ceremony. I stepped back from the crowd, turning toward the stranger.

The woman wore a knitted hat and a thick winter jacket with a white lab coat peeking out the bottom. She was tall and her hair was cropped short around her face to reveal high cheekbones. She gave me a warm smile. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before, not from around here?” “That obvious?” I asked. The woman laughed. “Yeah, I just moved here from Portland. It’s my first day in town, actually.” The woman raised her eyebrows. “And you ended up at a memorial? Yikes. Did you know the deceased?” “No, I didn’t.

” I grimaced. “It’s a bit awkward actually, I’m just picking up the keys to my new place and I was told to come here. I’m assuming my landlord is around here somewhere, but I haven’t found her yet.” I looked around at the strange assortment of mourners, ranging from elegant women with silver hair to a stunning young man wearing a pink fedora and a lime green skirt. There were no photographs beside the coffin to give any indication of who had died. “Lots of people paying their respects this afternoon; seems like a pretty tight-knit community?” “Oh yeah, you bet it is.” The woman chuckled softly. “Welcome to Salem, by the way. You’ll just love it here; it’s a great place to live.” She held out a slim hand.

“My name is Tracy. I’m sorry your introduction to our neighborhood had to be this… grim.” “Price Jones, pleased to meet you.” I returned her handshake with a smile. “And trust me, a funeral is one of the nicer ways I’ve spent my time lately.” Tracy grimaced. “That doesn’t sound great.” She nodded at the bright green trees and the sparkling water. “Well, I hope you enjoy living in Salem; it’s a little different from Portland.” “Different is exactly what I want right now,” I said.

Tracy opened her mouth to respond but was distracted by an outburst from the top of the crowd. It was the lemon-sucking old lady. “Oh, please. What a load of claptrap; she didn’t even like children. She called them hairless monkeys.” The tall, slim woman’s words carried over the crowd as though she was standing on a stage. The plump, pretty lady next to her wrung her hands together and began to whisper something, but the flustered-looking priest shushed the two old women, clearly aggrieved by the interruption to his praise of the deceased’s kindness to the local children. The taller woman dismissed him with a wave of her hand and continued to bicker with her companion. “Don’t be ridiculous, Dot. You know she thought they were filthy and smelly.

” I tried to focus on the eulogy, but the sheer disregard of the old women and for the nature of the event made for compelling viewing. You didn’t see old women placing bets and throwing insults at the funerals in Hillsdale. Unfortunately. “Boo hoo! As if you two have ever done anything decent, you withered old prunes.” Oh, man. The raised voices had provoked the tiny old woman to my left again, and she fumed as she glared at the chattering ladies, her eyes wild and her expression somewhere between menacing and hysterical. She turned to me and huffed. “Can you believe those cows? What utter witches. A pair of scagbags, that’s what they are.” DON’T LAUGH, PRICE.

IT’S A FUNERAL AND THESE ARE YOUR NEW NEIGHBORS. I offered the woman an apologetic grimace and sucked in a slow breath. DEEP BREATH IN. HOLD FOR THREE SECONDS. SLOW AND STEADY BREATH OUT. I was a major self-help geek and had learned the calming technique from one of my favorite holistic wellness podcasts created by my idol, Dr. Lee. I had found myself practicing it at least a dozen times a day over the past weeks, but not usually to stop me from collapsing into hysterical laughter. That was a first. Tracy leaned closer to me as if sensing my discomfort.

She nodded toward where lemonsucker and her friend were engaging in a full-blown argument. “Don’t worry, not everyone in Salem is that crazy. I promise.” My lips curved as I looked at the two old women. The priest’s face was a deep shade of purple as he glared at them over his crumpled piece of paper and it looked as though he was on the verge of an aneurysm, but the ladies didn’t appear to be planning to relent any time soon. “Who are those two women?” I asked, turning my back to the grumbling lady beside me. “Dot Murphy and Bianca D’Arcy,” Tracy said. “Local celebrities in their own right, or so they’d have you believe. You’ll be seeing a lot of them in town. Dot is pretty sweet, but Bianca is something entirely different, I’m afraid.

That woman has a core of steel and a tongue like a whip.” “As I was saying…” The priest cleared his throat and began shouting at the top of his lungs, his cheeks flushed and his voice hoarse. “The deceased…” “So, Price?” Tracy’s voice pulled my attention away from the increasingly high-pitched man. “Who did you say your landlord was?” As if on cue, both the priest and I spoke in unison, “Agatha Bentley.” I blanched and stared at the priest. After a long moment, and with a dry mouth, I managed to whisper, “What did he just say?” “Oh, Price. I’m so sorry,” Tracy said. “But this is Mrs. Bentley’s funeral.” She placed a steadying hand on my shoulder, concern in her eyes.

“Darn it, somebody should have told you. Are you all right?” No. I was very much not all right. I was no-place-to-live, no-job-to-go-to, fiancé-kickedme-out-on-my-ass, too-proud-to-beg-one-of-my-not-so-interested-parents-to-take-me-in not all right. Shoot, shoot, shoot. I took a deep breath and lifted my chin with a smile. “Of course, I’m great, thank you. Just a little surprised.” The ceremony ended to the sharp applause of the taller of the two irreverent old women and the continued grumbling of the third old woman beside me. The crowd dispersed before I had a chance to realize what was going on and I got the sneaking suspicion that most of the people had attended out of obligation, not love.

Perhaps Agatha Bentley hadn’t been all that well-liked in the community. Maybe she wasn’t a very nice person, and this was the universe’s way of protecting me from a bad experience. I ground my teeth together and tried to convince myself the world was acting in my best interest instead of taking another gigantic poop on my already poop-stained head. As I watched the mourners flee from the park, I felt a stab of sympathy for the deceased thrift shop owner. I wondered who would stay by my coffin if I dropped dead. My cell phone contact list was jammed to the brim, but I couldn’t count a single true friend on it. Gerard, my ex-fiancé, had taken all our friends in the split, and I guessed he’d already handed them to Ivana; my friends, my bed, my life. But not my clothes. Because she had a perfect juicy butt to go with her toned tummy and her full bust. She had no need for my push-up bras or narrow leggings, so Gerard had packed those up for me and Fed-exed them with a gift hamper and a card thanking me for the seven years we’d spent together and my understanding response to his need to move on.

The note was written in his secretary’s handwriting. Douchebag. I clenched my back teeth and forced myself back to the present moment to discover the crowd had almost entirely disappeared , except for the priest, leaving the coffin alone in the middle of the park. I raised my eyebrows. What a weird funeral. Tracy hung back with me, as did the strange old lady who continued to mutter under her breath as she glared across the field at the backs of the retreating funeral guests. I was unsure whether to stick around or head back to the apartment, the note on the door had merely told me to go to the park, nothing more. “So.” Tracy turned toward me. “What are you going to do now?” I felt a swell of gratitude that I’d somehow happened upon one of the less bizarre inhabitants of downtown Salem.

It offered some comfort that I at least wasn’t totally alone while I headed toward the verge of a total meltdown. “I’ve no idea.” I shook my head. “I genuinely have no clue what I’m going to do.” “Wah, wah, wah.” My head jerked back as I stared at the old woman. “You young people are always complaining,” she sniped. “What could you possibly have to complain about apart from the fact that your pants are always ten sizes too tight for your weird skinny little bodies?” My eyes grew wide as I watched the old lady roll her eyes, clearly unimpressed with the look of me. I quickly glanced down at my stretch-denim pants and frowned. “I…” “You’ll figure it out,” Tracy interrupted, completely ignoring Bitchy Mc Grayhair.

“I might be able to—” “Excuse me, ladies.” A tall man with a thick mustache approached, carrying a large envelope in one hand and bouquet of flowers in the other. He cut across Tracy with a respectful nod before he fixed his attention on me. “I’m the local mayor, are you Priscilla Jones?” “Price Jones,” I corrected. “And yep, that’s me.” “Price,” the old woman spat, her voice shrill. “What kind of a stupid name is that? Young people these days have no respect for proper names.” I waited to see how Tracy and the man would react to the old woman’s insulting rant, but they stared right through her. I bit down on my lip and did my best to follow their lead. Maybe if I ignored her she’d go away? There were plenty of old people in Portland, but I’d never seen anyone quite like the three women at this funeral before.

“Price Jones, my apologies. Priscilla was written on the deeds. This is for you. Mrs. Bentley’s attorney asked me to make sure you got it.” The mayor handed me the envelope before turning to Tracy, his eyes bright and his smile wide. “And these are for you. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for Max. You truly are a miracle woman.” “Just doing my job, Larry.

Thanks.” Tracy’s expression was blank as she accepted the flowers. She turned her back to him pointedly, so she faced me once more. “Everything okay, Price?” DEEDS? DID HE SAY DEEDS? I peered inside the envelope and saw a series of large metal keys on a ring sitting amongst a thick stack of printed paper. I pulled out the key ring and inspected it, conscious of the furrows forming on my brow. Gerard’s voice rang in my ears, reminding me that most women in their late twenties were already having Botox injections to get their complexions’ fresh. As fresh as Ivana’s peachy butt, probably. I pursed my lips. “Are those Agatha’s keys?” Tracy raised her eyebrows in surprise. “Well, looks like you have a place to stay, after all.

” The mayor looked as if he were about to say something, but having been so clearly dismissed by Tracy, he turned and walked away from us with hunched shoulders and a downturned face. Tracy looked at her watch and cursed. “Oh crap, I’m going to be late for my next client. It was great meeting you, Price.” She rummaged through her pocket and pulled out a small square business card. “Here’s my card. If you need anything at all, or if you fancy grabbing a coffee, give me a call anytime. My office is just down the street from Agatha’s store.” She gave my shoulder a tight squeeze before turning and following the other mourners across the field. CHAPTER TWO I STOOD FROZEN in place as Tracy walked away and tucked the card into the envelope with the other papers.

The keys felt heavy in my hand, and I wrapped my fingers tightly around them, considering what I should do next. I needed to sit down and figure out what the hell was going on. I also figured I should at least go move my bags inside before someone stole them, hoping that they hadn’t already. Not that I had much left to steal. In the seven years we’d been together, while I had helped him through grad school and starting his yogalates business, what had been mine, had been Gerard’s. But as it turned out, what was Gerard’s, was just Gerard’s. Goodbye car, goodbye home, goodbye everything but my panties and my clothes. The bastard hadn’t even sent on my little buzzy…friends. A shadow moved at my side and I realized the old lady was still there. She glared at Tracy’s retreating back.

“Well, I’ll be, accepting flowers from the mayor, is it? I can’t believe that woman has got herself another lady date already. What a hussy.” I pinched my lips and turned my back to the cranky old woman, slowly making my way across the field toward Agatha Bentley’s apartment. To my dismay, the old woman followed, babbling incessantly. I increased my pace, hoping that she would get the hint, and I let out a sigh of relief when I noticed she had disappeared by the time I rounded the corner to the block the apartment was on. Letting out a slow breath as I held the envelope the mayor had given me against my stomach, my eyes scanned the surrounding buildings. Agatha Bentley’s property stood at the far end of a small commercial street directly adjacent to the park, and her apartment was above the thrift shop I was meant to begin work at on Monday. The building was sandwiched within a long row of three-story stone row houses. The architecture was beautiful, and all looked to be pretty old. Perfect for a thrift shop.

The thrift store was closed, but through the large glass windows I could see a surprisingly attractive display. Three tall mannequins stood in a row, decked out in pretty stylish attire. Nothing I would ever wear, mind you, but they did look super trendy. Whoever styled them had undeniably good taste. I leaned closer to the glass to peer inside, but couldn’t see much else past the front display. Taking a step back, I looked at the front of the building, wondering which of the main doors led to the upstairs apartment. I smiled with relief when I saw my bags were still tucked behind the solid stone balustrade; perhaps my luck was about to change. I climbed the front steps and tried the lock on the first door. It took a few attempts to figure out which one of the many keys to use, but luckily the door sprang open on the third try. I pulled my bags inside the dark space, shut the door behind me, leaned my back against the solid wood surface, and pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes.

I inhaled slowly through my nose and exhaled loudly through my mouth, hating the fact that even breathing reminded me of Gerard and his stupid yogalates classes. My muscles clenched at the thought of him, sending a pulse of rage through me. I was alone in a strange city with even stranger people, with no landlady and no boss, and who knew whether I still even had a job or not. Things had certainly taken a turn in my life, and I had to get back my control soon or risk losing it completely. I let my hands fall to my side, emitting an extremely loud and frustration-filled groan.

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