A is for Alibi Page 24

I followed her toward the back of the house. The rooms we passed looked spacious and elegant and unused: windows sparkling, the thick powder-blue carpeting still furrowed with vacuum-cleaner tracks, fresh-cut flowers in professional arrangements on glossy tabletops. The wallpaper and drapes were endless repetitions of the same blue floral print and everything smelled of Lemon Pledge. I wondered if she used it to disguise the mild scent of bourbon on the rocks that wafted after her. As we passed the kitchen, I could smell roast lamb laced with garlic.

The patio was shaded by latticework. The furniture was white wicker with bright green canvas cushions. She took up her drink from a coffee table of glass and wrought iron, plunking herself down on a padded chaise. She reached automatically for her cigarettes and a slim gold Dunhill. She seemed amused, as though I'd arrived solely to entertain her during the cocktail hour.

"Who sent you up here? Nikki or little Gwen?" Her eyes slid away from mine and she seemed to require no response. She lit her cigarette, pulling the half-filled ashtray closer. She waved a hand at me. "Have a seat.”

I chose a padded chair not far from hers. An egg-shaped swimming pool was visible beyond the shrubs surrounding the patio. Charlotte caught my look.

"You want to stop and have a swim or what?”

I decided not to take offense. I had the feeling that sarcasm came easily to her, an automatic reaction, like someone with a smoker's cough.

"So who sent you up here?" she said, repeating herself. It was the second hint I had that she wasn't as sober as she should have been, even at that hour of the day.

"Word gets around.”

"Oh, I'll bet it does," she said with a snort of smoke. "Well, I'll tell you this, sweetie pie. I was more than a piece of ass to that man. I wasn't the first and I wasn't the last but I was the fucking best.”

"Is that why he broke it off?”

"Don't be a bitch," she said with a quick sharp look, but she laughed at the same time, low in her throat, and I suspected I might have gone up in her estimation. She apparently played fast and loose and didn't object to a cut now and then in the interest of a fair game. "Sure he broke it off. Why should I have secrets these days? I had a little wingding with him before he divorced Gwen and then he came back around a few months before he died. He was like some old tomcat, always sniffin' around the same back porch.”

"What happened this last time?”

She gave me a jaded look as if none of it seemed to matter much. "He got involved with somebody else. Very hush-hush. Very hot. Screw him. He discarded me like yesterday's underpants.”

"I'm surprised you weren't a suspect," I said.

Her brows shot up. "Me?" She hooted. "The wife of a prominent judge? I never even testified and they knew damn well that I was involved with him. The cops tiptoed around me like I was a fussy baby taking an unexpected nap. And who asked 'em to? I would have told 'em anything. Hell, I didn't give a shit. Besides, they already had their suspect.”


"Sure, Nikki," she said expansively. Her gestures were relaxed, the hand with the cigarette waving languidly as she spoke. "You ask me, she was way too prissy to kill anyone. Not that anyone cared much what I thought. I'm just your Mrs. Loud-Mouth Drunk. What does she know? Who's going to listen to her? I could tell you things about anybody in this town and who'd pay attention to me? And you know how I find out? I'll tell you this. You'll be interested in this because that's what you do, too, find out about people, right?”

"More or less," I murmured, trying not to interrupt the flow. Charlotte Mercer was the type who'd barge right on if she didn't get sidetracked. She took a long drag on her cigarette, blowing smoke through her nose in two fierce streams. She coughed, shaking her head.

"Pardon me while I choke to death," she said, pausing to cough again. "You tell secrets," she went on, taking up from where she left off. "You tell the dirtiest damn thing you know and nine times out of ten, you'll net yourself something worse. You can try it yourself. I say anything. I tell stories on myself just to see what I get back. You want gossip, honey, you came to the right place.”

"What's the word out on Gwen?" I asked, testing the waters.

Charlotte laughed. "You don't trade," she said. "You got nothing to swap.”

"Well no, that's true. I wouldn't be in business, if I didn't keep my mouth shut.”

She laughed again. She seemed to like that. My guess about her was that it made her feel important to know what she knew. I was hoping she liked to show off a little bit too. She might well have heard about Gwen's affair but I couldn't ask without tipping my hand so I just waited her out, hoping to pick up what I could.

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