A Nose for Murder
Francine Parker had been featured in the newspaper more times than she cared to remember. At least once a year, sometimes twice, a reporter sidled up to her counter for yet another story on The Colonnade, a popular home-cooking café where she’d worked since the late ‘70s. Management loved the coverage and customers flocked there after each story ran with its three-column photo of Francine serving roast turkey or cherry pie (depending on the season).
What she wasn’t accustomed to was landing on the front page under snarky headlines like “Nosy Parker Nabs Perp” and “Parker House Role Uncovered.” Not to mention the bad photographs that made her already noticeable nose look downright Durante-esque.
The irony that this bad press came about because of those earlier tributes wasn’t lost on Francine. Things had gone terribly wrong, and she’d had a hand in it. Make that more like both hands and two feet.
Francine had worked at The Colonnade so long she’d become known as the “veteran server.” Most of the waitstaff (or the girls, as they were called when she first started) came and went like the seasons. More than likely that was why every year the cub reporters, their young voices registering just shy of a giggle, singled her out to ask the same old questions the previous reporters had asked, as though they’d simply passed down their notebooks to the next in line.
How long have you been here? (38 years)
Have you ever married? (No)
Who’s the real Francine? (You’re looking at her)
What’s it like being here so long? (It feels like home, any regrets hidden in her well-practiced answer)
What’s your favorite pie? (Oh, for heaven’s sake, she’d think to herself, then answer coconut cream)
What’s the weirdest thing a customer ever did? (You know I can’t tell you that, though she had plenty to tell)
After so many years, the sheer volume of these stories had worn her down. It nagged at her that they treated her not so much as special as unusual. Was she odd? Had she grown into some cultural relic? She’d spent so much time behind the counter, she didn’t know anymore. She hated to admit it, but the café was her life.
For sure, the world had changed since she started working here just out of high school. But she felt she’d kept up pretty well. She knew about modern things like tattoos and body piercings—like the time she helped a customer retrieve his tongue stud from the kitchen after a new busboy removed his plate without asking if he was still working on it. Or the way she took in stride bizarre tattoos climbing up women’s chests or down men’s necks. It had taken her a while, but she even likedsome of the latest body art.
And the cars had certainly changed. No longer did anyone announce with good-hearted zeal that he had a new Cadillac. These days it was all Tesla and Mercedes, the younger owners with a not-so-quiet assumption they deserved such luxuries. As for fashions, that was easy. She’d watched hems go up and down and back again to the butt-showing miniskirts girls were wearing again. She remembered with a flush of pleasure the little swaths of fabric she’d once worn, back in the day.
For the more manly trends, she relied on Melvin, one of the busboys. (She’d tried calling these 25- to 30-year-olds “busmen,” but everyone thought she was referring to the transit drivers who came in after their shifts.)
After one particularly difficult interview, Francine asked one of the reporters why she’d chosen to talk to her. Why not any of the other servers? The young woman shrugged. “You’re like the gravy on the mashed potatoes,” as though that made any sense at all.
At the time, Francine had made a face at the reporter’s answer, which was captured when the photographer clicked his camera at that very moment. She had to beg both the reporter and photographer not to use the photo, something she accomplished only by bribing them with a whole pie to take home. Each. (That expense had made a dent in her paycheck, but it was worth every penny.)
“What the hell did that mean? And I still don’t know the answer to why me?” she mumbled aloud just as Jewel arrived to help her load fresh rolls into the warmer drawer.
“Yeah, I’ve always wondered that too,” Jewel added, tossing in another roll for emphasis.
Francine laughed. “Well, thank you for nothing.”
Jewel paused before adding, “No, what I meant was … It’s weird, but … okay, truth be known, and I’m embarrassed to admit it, I’ve been kinda jealous of the attention you get.”
“Next time, I’ll gladly make sure it’s your mug they shoot.”
“They won’t, though. I mean, how could they? I haven’t been here since, well …” Looking down at the rolls in her hand, she blurted, “since God made bread rise!”
Francine patted her on the back in a no-offense-taken gesture, then sat down and started rolling up cutlery in cloth napkins before the early-bird seniors lumbered in. At least I don’t need a walker, she thought. Yet.
The vacuum cleaner hummed as the staff wiped and filled the salt and pepper shakers crusted with dried peas, mashed potatoes, and who knew what else. Normally, Francine enjoyed these end-of-the-day rituals, but tonight worry loomed like a late-day shadow, large and out of proportion. She was still stewing about being treated like something odd—and old—but she knew she’d never figure anything out stuck inside the café. All they ever talked about was make-nice—how’re the kids, where are you going on vacation, how’s your mother doing—the same chitchat year after year. If she’d ever mentioned to a customer how much she despised that idiot in the White House or climate change or anything that mattered, the owner would put a pink slip in her next paycheck. Never mind she’d worked for Lance Olson for almost four decades.
As though conjured from her thoughts, Olson tapped Francine on the shoulder, making her jump. “Whoa! Didn’t mean to startle you, old girl. You’d gone fishin’ on me,” he said, smiling.
Uh-oh, she thought. If he’s grinning, he’s after something. She smoothed her uniform and said, “That’s okay, Mr. O. Just lost in thought. What can I do for you?”
“What makes you think I want you to do anything?”
“Ha! You got me there,” he said, chuckling. “Okay, could you work next Tuesday? One of the new kids has to be out.”
“Sure, I suppose so.”
“Atta girl! I knew I could count on you.” When he cupped his hand, Francine flinched, certain he was about to pat her on the butt. He stopped himself just in time, adding, “Your middle name ought to be old faithful,” before hurrying off to the front desk.
The nerve! And that word again—old. The word stung. Pitifully available was more like it. No real friends or family, just work and small talk. What was so damned interesting about that?
That evening on her way home, Francine stopped by the all-night pharmacy for toothpaste. She passed the magazine stand, then backed up to read a couple of cover teasers that had caught her eye. Two magazines offered quizzes that promised professional insight into her personality. She bought both.
Her easy chair felt especially good that night. As she sipped some chamomile tea (which tasted like hot dirt to her, but it helped her unwind after the late shift) Francine went to work on her personality. Half an hour later, she’d learned three things: one, she was introverted (one quiz), two, extroverted (the other quiz), and three, not to waste $10 again on magazines.
Sudden gunshots catapulted her from her chair; she almost fell as her foot tangled with the recliner’s inner workings. Her heart hammered as she looked around in a sleepy daze. The light from the television brought her back to the moment. She’d just fallen asleep watching an old movie with Richard Dreyfuss and one of Martin Sheen’s boys. They were on a stakeout, looking for some thug threatening a young woman. She switched the TV off and went to bed.
Her car refused to warm up. Even as Francine sipped a cup of hot coffee, her hands cradling the paper cup, she felt a chill. More than likely, though, that had little to do with the temperature in the car.
She couldn’t believe she was on her own stakeout.
After that movie startled her awake, the idea wouldn’t go away. Why not follow some customers around and see what their lives were like? See how—and why—her life was so different that it attracted those pesky reporters every year.
She had tried to talk herself out of it for a week, but all the details just fell into place so easily. Like the fact that now she worked mostly the evening shift, so her mornings were free for the stakeout. And after so many years, she knew where all the regulars lived. Over the years, that had always come up in their chitchat. She’d heard about more kitchen renovations, backyard pools, and more recently, grannie flats than she cared to remember. She still rented a two-bedroom apartment, and given her salary, she felt lucky it wasn’t a studio.
To start her research, she’d chosen Theresa Sanchez, a single woman who’d made it big in some startup tech firm. She was only a little younger than Francine, but they lived in different worlds. Her home was in one of the trendiest neighborhoods, and so what if it was one of the smallest on the block? That suited Francine just fine. She totally got it that she was different from the rich; she wanted to check out people who really worked for a living.
As Francine was finishing her now-cold coffee, Theresa came out and hopped into her late-model Prius. Francine slowly began to follow her, confident she knew how to do it. She wasn’t surprised that Theresa didn’t walk to work, even though her office was just a matter of blocks away. No one walked anymore, though some of them did jog. (That was something Francine knew she was out of step with. After all the ass-hauling she did at work, she couldn’t imagine dragging herself through the streets on her time off.)
Just like in the movies, Francine managed to stay three cars behind as Jennifer threaded through traffic. The onslaught of rush hour traffic made her caper even easier. Not that she learned much. The other women and men she’d singled out to follow did pretty much the same as Theresa: go to the gym, stop for coffee, head to the office. (She’d lost one man when she took advantage of the latte stop herself.) Not a lot of variety, at least during the workweek.
On her days off, she staked customers out at night and weekends. She had to laugh when she followed them to The Colonnade, speeding past before anyone recognized her. Most of them came home from work and settled in, the familiar flicker of television lighting up one window or the other. Eventually, everyone went to the mall or some kind of superstore. Even the pierced-and-tattooed customers did pretty much the same thing, with a few extra stops at vintage-clothing or Goodwill stores.
In the end, Francine was bored and disappointed. She hadn’t learned anything she hadn’t already gleaned from eavesdropping as they chowed down on pork chops and ribs or stir fry and tofu. But she was the patient type. How else could she have lasted thirty-eight years at The Colonnade?
A month later Francine tried a different approach: the domestic servant role. Servants, she knew all too well, were as good as invisible, something that would now work to her advantage. Armed with paper towels and Windex, dressed in an old black-and-white uniform (retired from the café ten years ago—and still fit!), she was free to walk around her customers’ houses while they were away and peer into windows without neighbors giving her a second look.
For her research, Francine chose a cross-section of people—professionals, artists, and a gay couple. She wanted a broad picture of the world she seemed to be out of step with.
At the home of Dr. Bledsoe, the plastic surgeon, the sun streaked the windows in his modern steel-and-glass house as soon as Francine wiped them. Even so, she could see his artwork just fine. He didn’t look so great himself, but he had tucked enough tummies and smoothed sufficient wrinkles to pay for two Matisse cutouts and one Gauguin nude.
The Chester’s baby grand piano, quiet now that the kids were all grown, sat in the front window, its gleaming black surface chocked full of family photographs of kids and dogs. The children, appearing angelic in the posed pictures, pricked Francine’s heart with an old sadness. She’d never married and being a single mom just wasn’t in her playbook back then. But before melancholia turned to melodrama, she flashed on images of customers’ screaming, rigid-bodied toddlers (soggy cracker-and-mashed-pea mess all over the banquette for her to clean off) and surly overgrown kids who’d returned to live at home, refugees from failed marriages and careers (if they’d ever found a job after college). As she swiped the window one last time, she did pause to admire the Chester children’s nice, small noses. Good genes.
One artist’s place in the city’s midtown surprised her. Francine didn’t like jumping to conclusions about people—after all, wasn’t that why she was on this quest? Tired of people doing that to her? But even a saint would have had trouble getting past this woman’s silver studded ears, lips, and nose. Plus her in-your-face décolletage decorated with serpent tattoos. And yet, she owned a modest and immaculate duplex that hosted tastefully mixed modern and antique furniture.
Stereotypes didn’t hold up at the gay guys’ home, either: dull, dingy, and cluttered with weight-lifting equipment.
On her next day off, lost in thought as she cleaned the dining room windows at her dentist’s home, she heard someone call out, “Yoo-hoo. You over there.” Couldn’t mean me, she thought and kept cleaning. The next yoo-hoo was louder, from just over her shoulder. She turned and saw a woman dressed in tight black leather pants and a low-cut jeweled blouse. At 8:30 a.m.
“I didn’t know the Muellers could afford help, what with the impending divorce and all,” she purred with Southern venom. Not true, Francine thought; she knew they’d decided to stay together. Francine had heard more than she cared to, trapped in the chair while getting a new crown, which alone could have paid for months of “help.”
“I was hoping you had a free morning,” the woman continued. “I just live next door, and you wouldn’t even need more bus money to get here.”
“Now wouldn’t that be a great savings?”
“Yes. So, I’m having a soiree week after next, and I need you a week from today. I really need help.”
Yes, you do, Francine thought, nodding. The woman took that for a yes.
“Wonderful! See you bright and early then at 7:30 a.m. sharp! The Muellers can wait till afternoon since they both have to work. Now, don’t tell them I stole you …”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
The woman made that absurd zipping motion with bejeweled fingers at trout-pout lips and tottered back home on some dangerous-looking mules. Halfway there she turned and asked, “What’s your name? I’m Mrs. George Philpot.”
“I’m Francine Smithson,” Francine answered, the last name popping into her head from a travelogue she’d watched last night about Washington, D.C. She was enjoying the farce and added, “I’m in the book, on Colonnade Street.”
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she regretted them. Ole Lady Philpot would surely break her promise and complain to the Muellers about their unreliable help. If she was at all clever, she just might put two and two together. But when she turned and saw Mrs. Philpot pick her way back home, the tight pants and mules making progress slow, Francine relaxed. Clever was not her M.O.
On Francine’s next day off, the weather turned cool with a steady drizzle. Not much good for window washing. She made a cup of tea and toasted some day-old rolls. (After all these years, her only company perks were stale bread and the odd leftover Olson couldn’t recycle into soup or hash.) She sipped her tea and reflected on what she’d learned so far.
She worked, they worked. She had a home, they had homes. Sure some of them had fancier stuff, but it was just stuff. Maybe she was being too … what was the word that psychologist who always ordered Brunswick stew liked to trot out? Ego something. Oh yes, she recalled, everyone was pathologically egocentric these days, he’d say, spewing cornbread crumbs into his beard and beyond. Was she just being too egocentric?
But by her next day off, she felt restless again. The last customer on her list, Chaz Meadows, had been in the night before, dining alone because his wife, Geraldine, was on a two-week visit to New England. Recalling that conversation, Francine felt buoyed knowing that one of them was out of town and the other a workaholic.
It took several tries to locate their house. Geri came from old money, and the winding streets and tall shrubbery made addresses next to impossible to find. After Francine had to turned her car around three times, she finally found the house. It sat so high atop a rolling lawn, she couldn’t see enough to know if anyone was home. She parked a few houses down the street and slowly walked up the drive, reassuring herself that if Chaz’s Jaguar were parked there, she’d be gone before he saw her. As she crested the hill, no car. She walked over to the garage to check. Empty. Time to tackle those not-so-dirty dining room windows.
Francine had been to enough of these silk-stocking homes on catering gigs that she wasn’t surprised by the tired look of the interior décor. Old money liked old rugs, old furniture, and ugly old lamps. Old is good, she thought, especially in a polished mahogany table, but it can turn musty in couches and chairs. Give her a modern sofa any day to these saggy, brocade-upholstered sectionals.
As she cleaned the windows in the back door, her foot slipped off the thick doormat, and she grabbed the doorknob to steady herself. It turned. She froze and waited for a wailing alarm. Nothing. She caught her breath and started washing again. Then she laughed. The door was open, for crying out loud. Why not have a quick look around? The back of the house was isolated from neighbors, so who’d see? Or care? She was a servant, after all. Smoothing her uniform, she stepped inside, found the alarm to make sure it wasn’t the sneaky silent type. The green light blinked a welcoming all-clear.
She stroked the gleaming kitchen countertops—marble!—and the ebony dining table. She skipped the dowdy living room and went upstairs. The main bedroom—she hated the term master bedroom; it made her think of those book covers with bare-chested men overcoming bosomy maidens—was decorated in what was politely termed traditional. Heavy brocade curtains and valances kept it dark, day and night.
After turning on a lamp, she walked around the large room, carefully picking up the porcelain Limoges figurines and opening closet doors (packed with more shoes and clothes than Macy’s). She sat at Geri’s dresser, admiring a collection of blown-glass jars and atomizers filled with creams and perfumes. Geri was close to her age, while Chaz looked a good ten years younger. No wonder she had so many anti-aging creams, Francine thought as she sprayed something floral and sweet from a cut-glass bottle. Then she almost dropped it. Someone was calling Chaz’s name. A woman. The voice too young for Geri.
Francine quickly turned off the lamp and scurried under the bed, which mercifully offered a spacious crawl space behind the dust ruffle. (Thank heavens, she thought, they don’t store all kinds of junk under the bed the way I do!) Her hasty descent had stirred dust that threatened a coughing fit, while her heart pounded so hard she feared the intruder could hear it.
The woman was now in the bedroom humming some tune and, from the sound of buttons and hooks hitting the hardwood floor, removing her clothing. The springs groaned as she slid between the sheets. She soon began to moan, doing goodness knew what. Just “what” became clear when someone else stepped into the room. The woman giggled. “Hi Chaz, I started without you.”
“Well, I’m glad I left the backdoor open,” Chaz said as his clothes began to hit the floor. “What would the neighbors think if you’d had to wait—or should I say not wait—outside?” He took such a dive onto the bed that Francine feared the frame would break and squash her.
She tried to breathe deeply, to calm herself, but she was afraid she’d suck in a dust bunny. She tried to meditate (one of those magazines had taught her how!), but that felt ridiculous under the circumstances. She needed to do somethingbecause she was on the verge of a panic attack.
When the bed began rocking, Francine imagined herself jumping from the underside of the love bed, running from the house shrieking. She’d have chuckled under different circumstances. Luckily for her—but not Danielle, the name Chaz called out a time or two—it wasn’t long before Chaz jumped out of bed and started dressing.
“I’ve got to go. I’ve got a three o’clock meeting,” he said as he rummaged through his closet. Oh dear, Francine thought, weary now from the strain of it all, she too had to be back at work by three. She’d never been late once after all these years.
Danielle wanted to bask in the afterglow, but Chaz pulled her from the bed and said, “Now get dressed. And next time, I’ll leave the key under the pot near the back door. I can’t believe you lost the one I gave you. I’ll have to spank you if you do that again.”
More giggles, followed by the unmistakable sound of hand against flesh. Then Chaz said, “I’ve got to get to work!” Francine heard him race down the steps and shout up, “Lock the door behind you. And set the alarm, Danielle.”
“I can’t remember the code,” she simpered.
“God, you are so stupid. I told you. It’s Geraldine’s birthday.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right,” she said. After a few beats she added, “Hey, don’t talk to me that way …” but Chaz’s Jaguar was already rolling down the driveway.
Once Francine was sure Danielle was gone, she dusted herself off and sat at Geri’s dressing table and looked in the mirror. Her hair was a mess with a white feather clinging to her bangs. She pulled a tissue from a marble box and patted the sweat from her face. Oh lordy, she thought, how am I going to get out of here? She had a good memory, but remembering even favorite customers’ birthdays was beyond her powers. She wasn’t sure she needed the code—could someone leave an alarmed house and not set it off? Deadbolts were as fancy as her home protection got.
As she fiddled nervously with the bottles and jars, she sprayed a pleasant mist of something Chanel and remembered that The Colonnade kept a computer file of important customer dates. She grabbed the bedside phone and dialed.
“No, Franny, it’s Melvin. Either Maureen really needs to quit smoking or my shorts are way too tight.”
“Very funny, Melvin. Say, could you get into the computer at the reception desk and tell me Geri, er, Geraldine Meadows’ birthday?”
“I don’t know nothin’ about no computers, Miss Francine,” he answered in a fake falsetto.
“Come on, Melvin, this is really important.”
“Okay, I guess since I’m about to get my Masters in computer science, I might be able to handle that.” While he clicked away at the keyboard, he asked, “What’s the big rush? You baking her a birthday cake?”
“No, no, nothing like that.”
“Well you’d better not be baking her a cake because her birthday isn’t till December 29th. Oh, poor thing, one of those overlooked birthdays. Maybe that’s why she always seems so sad.”
“Oh, that may be another reason she’s sad. 1950.”
“Watch it, pal.” Before hanging up, Francine added, “Thanks, Melvin. I owe you.”
She wasn’t sure if the code would be 122950 or 12291950. When she tried the first one, six digits didn’t seem to satisfy the alarm god. The second try worked. She grabbed her paper towel and cleaner, found the key under the pot Chaz described, closed the door and locked it. She forced herself to walk normally down the drive, just another lowly servant off for the day. Once in her car, she sped out of the neighborhood.
Somehow, thanks to the miracle of eight green lights in a row, she made it to work by 3:06.
Only she was wearing a ten-year-old uniform that no one had seen before, except Maureen, who had a worried look on her face. “You’re not getting that Alzheimer’s are you, Franny?”
“No, nothing like that. Just a little freelance work. I’ll go change now.”
She’d kept a spare uniform at the café for years, though she couldn’t remember ever needing it. Until now. She sat in the dressing room a little longer to pull herself together. Out at the counter, her hands shook as she poured herself a glass of cold water. The rest of the evening she fumbled through every task, dropping an entire tray of rolls on the floor and spilling a pitcher of ice water across the counter. (Luckily, only one customer sat at the opposite end.)
When Irene, the evening hostess, seated Chaz in her section, Francine felt her knees go weak. She had to sit down on one of the counter stools to steady herself. After a minute, she stood, straightened her uniform, and went to work.
“Good evening, Mr. Meadows.” She could feel the coloring rising to her face.
“Hello, Francine.” He, of course, never looked up, so he didn’t notice her flushed face. Tonight, she welcomed his aloofness. “What’s good tonight? I don’t know what to have. It’s hard with Geraldine gone.”
“It certainly was,” she said. He did look up then. “Er, I mean, it must be.” She struggled to remember the specials. “Uh, our specials are chicken and dumplings and pot roast.”
“I’ll start with a martini. I worked like a dog today.”
Francine clucked her tongue. He looked up again. “Uh, and after your cocktail? How about the London broil? Isn’t that a favorite?”
“No, that’s Geraldine’s. You ought to remember—she gets that just about every time.”
“Oh, that’s right. You prefer young chicken.”
“I don’t know how young the chicken is, but yes, that red meat can kill you. I keep warning Geraldine.” He took his time with the sides, eventually choosing mashed sweet potatoes and turnip greens, cornbread andbiscuits. At least he wasn’t one of those low-carb nuts, Francine thought.
She turned in his order, sat back down on a stool, and poured another glass of ice water. That was as fresh as she’d ever been with a customer, though she was certain it had all gone right over his head. He was too content with himself to question anything she might say. Still, she needed to watch it.
She realized she’d never really seen him standing up. He was either sitting at one of her tables or lying in bed—while she was underneath. She hadn’t realized how short he was until she’d seen him walking next to Irene, who was only about 5’5”. Francine supposed he was handsome, at least that Ken-and-Barbie kind of appeal. To her he looked more like an old frat boy. A quick peek under the table confirmed it—loafers, no socks.
The rest of the evening went smoother, and she managed to keep her contact with Chaz to a minimum. As she gave him his bill, she couldn’t resist asking about Geri.
“She should be back in a week or so,” he said. “Things at the house aren’t the same without her.” No shit, Francine thought.
The next few days returned to normal. No more window washing! That was over. She hadn’t learned one useful thing she hadn’t already known. Her detective work had been a failure.
A few days later, the steady rain reminded her she’d left her raincoat at the Meadows’. The coat was too nice—and too expensive to replace—to leave there. Besides, it might cause a fuss when Geri returned and found a strange woman’s coat. She remembered where Chaz left the key and the alarm code was branded on her brain. She could retrieve it and be out in a flash.
Francine pulled the old black-and-white uniform out of the laundry bin, sniffed to make sure it was wearable one more time, dressed, and drove to the other side of town. Just like last time, there were no cars, no neighbors, no problems. She handled the key and alarm easily and was about to leave when she remembered those beautiful jars and atomizers on Geri’s dressing table. They were the height of sophistication to Francine, a far cry from her own thrifty plastic pump bottles. Just one more look and she’d be gone.
Upstairs, Francine made a face at the bed, still rumpled like the day she’d been there. Maybe Chaz had had the decency to stay at a hotel or Danielle’s. As she sat down at the dressing table to pretend for a moment, she suddenly felt woozy. She placed her hands on the table to steady herself, then patted along the surface in disbelief. It was empty. Every jar and bottle gone. Had that little tart helped herself? Surely that would be too obvious. Besides, they weren’t a young person’s temptation.
She opened the closet door, where empty hangers clanged against one another. Her stomach cramped and her heart race. She fled down the stairs. In the kitchen, she yanked open the door, stepped outside, remembered the alarm, went back in to set it. Almost out the door again, she turned around and grabbed her raincoat from the coat hooks by the back door before the alarm wailed. She ran down the driveway—never mind what the neighbors thought—and drove off too fast for the wet, curvy road. She almost plowed into a UPS truck loaded with more stuff for needy neighbors.
Francine pulled into a boutique shopping center at the end of the street and sat in her car for a long time. She patted her raincoat, trying to reassure herself that it had been worth her latest—and last—heart-stopping escapade. She couldn’t figure out why Chaz had moved all those bottles and clothes. Maybe a maid had been in to clean everything in preparation for Geri’s return. That had to be it, she thought with relief.
Francine was so cheered by her logic that she popped into a little teashop in the shopping center, the kind found only in that part of town. Pricey and frilly, it was just what she needed. The scones were moist, the tea strong, and the waitress way sweeter than anyone at The Colonnade. She hated to leave, but she couldn’t be late to work again. She pinched the last crumbs with her finger, over tipped the waitress, and drove home to change.
The next few weeks were pleasantly routine. Francine spent her days off at the occasional matinee or reading at home and drinking tea. (She’d gone back to buy a fancy pot from that teashop and started a new ritual on afternoons she was off.) She no longer blushed when Chaz sat in her station, but she did wonder when Geri would return. Hadn’t she been gone four or five weeks? She missed her. Geri was the one who asked how she was doing in a genuine way, and frankly, she was the one who left a good tip. That evening she asked. “So, Mr. Meadows, when do you expect Geri?”
He looked startled. “I’m not sure. She, uh, needed to stay on with her friend … I guess.”
“You guess? Have you talked to her?”
“Uh, not lately. She needed a break. I left her alone. She’ll be home soon—and I’m hungry.” He sounded like one of those spoiled toddlers and made her recite all the specials only to order his usual roasted chicken. Plus two martinis. And a brandy after dinner.
That was the last time Chaz came to the café. By the end of the next week, he’d reported Geri missing. (Francine later learned he was shamed into it by a concerned neighbor.) The police got involved, the newspaper went wild with the story, and the staff at The Colonnade talked about little else.
“The poor man,” Maureen said.
“She was such a lovely lady,” Melvin added.
“She’s not dead. That we know of, anyways.” Jewel said, lighting her third cigarette in a row.
The evening before, Lance Olson had roped Francine into taking the early shift the next day. Now that her detecting days were behind her, she didn’t really mind. As they gathered for their “family meal” breakfast before the café opened for the day, Jewel read the newspaper aloud. One story carried a timeline based on Chaz’s account: Geri had left on August 24th and stopped at a motel in Roanoke, Virginia, en route to Boston. She’d called home on three occasions over the next five days, but left only hi-everything’s-fine messages, which Chaz had deleted.
“Now get ahold of this,” Jewel said as she read from another article: “Meadows explained his wife had planned to stay two to four weeks, which explained his delay in notifying the police. They had a modern marriage, he said, and understood that they needed time away from one another, time to reflect. (And diddle Danielle, Francine thought to herself.) The police are proceeding with inquiries and treating this as a missing person’s case. Evidence of her leaving for an extended period aligned with her travel plans. For instance, Meadows told detectives his wife had packed an extensive collection of cut-glass jars and bottles of personal beauty products along with a sizeable portion of her wardrobe. ‘She loved those jars and took them everywhere with her.’”
Next thing Francine knew, someone was patting her back and Jewel was holding a glass of water to her lips. Her friends had assumed she was choking, and Olson had been groping around trying to figure out the Heimlich. At least all the fuss saved her from awkward explanations. She couldn’t tell them Chaz was lying—and how she knew it.
They had no time to dwell on that, though, as customers were already lined up at the glass doors, looking for all the world like refugees in a bread line. To a person they frowned at Melvin as he finished vacuuming before unlocking the front door.
Later that evening Francine couldn’t recall how she’d gotten through the interminable shift. It was as though she’d just drifted from table to table, somehow not spilling anything or saying something stupid. Afterwards, as the staff readied tables for dinner service—scrubbing encrusted tabletops, filling salt and pepper shakers, rolling napkins and cutlery—no one mentioned anything out of the ordinary. (And she knew they would have; that gang never held anything back.) Around 3:30, she begged off final preparations, telling Lance Olsen she had a splitting headache. She did.
A hot bath and a Mason jar of Merlot—she’d broken too many wine glasses in the tub to use one that night—began to ease her panic. An hour later, she felt sufficiently calm to reread the newspaper account. Those bottles and jars and clothes had been removed after Geri left. At least two weeks after. But only she and Chaz knew this. (Danielle had eyes only for Chaz and would never have noticed.)
Francine tried to stop thinking about it, but she kept coming back to Geri. What if she’d been harmed? Needed help? But how could Francine expose Chaz’s lies without setting herself up for charges of breaking and entering? And who would the police believe? Chaz the rich man or her the waitress?
Francine wrestled with those thoughts till the bath water turned lukewarm. She got out of the tub, dried off, put on her flannel nightie, and went to bed. But barely slept.
Over the next week, she tried to ignore the reports of the police investigation, but it was all anyone at The Colonnade wanted to talk about. She heard that Geri’s credit cards had not been used for weeks, and her cell phone number rang without answer. The police had issued every kind of APB, so law enforcement up and down the Eastern Seaboard were looking for her late-model Mercedes. Francine hoped against hope that more clues—or better yet, Geri—would turn up.
She wondered what might have happened to this woman who’d become a friend, of sorts. They weren’t that different (except for several decimals in their checking accounts). Geri had married late in life, and she’d confessed that she’d always wondered why no man had shown any interest in her before Chaz. Francine knew that loneliness and cried for herself and her good-hearted customer. She hated to cry, especially with a schnozz like hers. It seemed to take almost half a box of Kleenex to set things right again.
After so many sleepless nights, people at work were asking her if she needed to see a doctor. About the same time, the police announced they had reached a dead end.
The staff at The Colonnade continued to read the newspaper accounts aloud during their “family meals,” though Francine wasn’t there to hear them. Lance Olson fired her after she’d told Lt. Ambrose about her own detective work. That was when the nasty headlines and ugly photographs began filling the front pages. (She took particular offense to that Nosy Parker headline.)
Now she was trapped in her home. At first she needed to avoid the paparazzi camped on her sidewalk, though eventually they’d moved on to exploit new miseries. Then she couldn’t leave because with a nose like hers and her picture plastered on front pages, people easily recognized her and said the most unpleasant things. Best to stay behind locked doors.
The D.A. decided not to press charges against her for breaking and entering, given how she had solved a murder for them. Besides, she reminded them, the door was unlocked! (At least the first time, which was the only one she confessed to.) They charged Chaz with second-degree murder, as no body was ever found, and they couldn’t prove premeditation. The case was predicated on the bottles and clothes he’d removed after she was gone—his attempt at making it look as though she’d left him for an extended stay, though he claimed to know nothing about Geri’s missing things. (He had no way of knowing Francine could counter his amateurish coverup.)
Chaz hired the city’s most notorious and expensive attorney—using Geri’s money in their joint account to pay for his defense.
The actual trial took less than a week. Neighbors got their chance to testify about the angry rows they’d heard. Francine wondered why they hadn’t said anything sooner, but the occasional row was a long way from murder. Even she’d forgotten about the times Geri came in wearing sunglasses long after the sun had set.
Francine briefly took the stand on the third day, sharing little more than the newspapers had already printed.
In a last-minute deal, Chaz’s attorney agreed to manslaughter. Without the body, or even signs of a struggle, the district attorney knew his case wouldn’t hold up with a jury—or on appeal. Chaz got off easy with a relatively short sentence at one of those country-club prisons.
Francine had never known such loneliness. Years ago, those breakups with boyfriends couldn’t compare. She missed the staff, every one of them.
Only Jewel and Melvin ever called; Maureen always had been a prude. Melvin cleared out her locker and brought all the odds and ends to her home, along with a whole coconut cream pie. Francine brewed coffee, and they each ate two pieces. When she started to cry, Melvin nervously began chattering, something she’d never heard from this quiet, studious man.
“You’re a crazy old woman, you know that?” he said, as he patted her hand. “Jewel told me you started all this ‘cause of those reporters coming ‘round and pestering you. I wish you’d asked me. I know why they like you, why they keep focusing on you. You’re you. Saw it when I first met you. There’s a real power in that, Franny. Not many folks have that. Certainly not that prick they arrested. You never had to prove yourself to anyone.”
“I know it must seem stupid to you, Melvin. You get out a lot more, what with college and your friends. Me, I was just behind that damn counter all the time.”
“Well, you’re out now,” he said. After a long pause, he added, “And I miss you.”
“I miss you, too, Melvin. I did get out, in my own way, and I saw enough.”
“Enough? What does that mean?”
Francine thought for a moment. “I’m still working on that.”
Over the next few weeks, Francine had nothing but time to think. She’d come to understand how at The Colonnade, she’d had a ringside seat to a world of people. She’d seen life—and death—play out like grand theater. And she’d gained a unique perspective. If you saw enough of life, she figured, you stopped being surprised every time something went wrong. There was a kind of peace in that. You could accept your place in the world.
But now she’d ruined it. All that crazy snooping she’d done over the past year had taken everything. She lay back on the bed and closed her eyes.
The doorbell startled her awake. She made her way to the front door, where the postman handed her a registered letter. As she signed, she asked, “Good heavens, what could this be?”
“Lady, if I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I’d …”
Francine slammed the door, her patience shot. She looked at the lavender envelope made of thick, expensive paper, then held it to her nose. Lilac. She turned it over twice. No return address.
She found some scissors and gently cut it open. She sat on the bed and started reading. Halfway through, she had to lie back down.
I so deeply regret the pain you must be experiencing. I feel simply terrible about it all, but you see, I am happier that I’ve been in years. That doesn’t seem right, does it? Well, for starters, I’m rid of that deadbeat husband. I should have known he married me for my money, but I’m vain and foolish—why else would I have driven all the way back for those cut-glass jars? Yes, that was me who took them. I’d left in a hurry after one of our “rows,” as the neighbors put it. More like attempted murder, if you ask me, but, of course, I don’t want anyone to do that!
We quarreled over money, again, and this time he threw me against a wall. I believe I blacked out for a moment. When I came to, he was standing over me with such fury and hatred, no concern he might have harmed me, that I finally saw the truth.
So I left, grabbing what I thought I needed. Later, I missed my nicer things and came back for them. When I saw my picture and story in the news, I thought about returning and straightening everything out. But then I figured that bastard deserved every day in hell he serves, though it sounds like he got off easy.
Because of his philandering ways, I’d been depositing money into a special offshore account, and I have plenty to live on. I have no family to speak of, only a niece whom I haven’t seen in years, so the balance of my estate can go to her without any tears on her part. And just like I’d seen on television, I parked my Mercedes downtown at a particularly rough intersection one evening. From a nearby coffee shop, I watched it disappear within an hour. Thanks to taxis, hotels, and a new car (paid for with cash), I’m somewhere safe.
Francine, you’ve made all this possible and paid a high price for it, so please accept this money order for $50,000 to help tide you over. It’s the least I can do for you.
Oh, and I hope you won’t find me rude, but you deserve better than those uncomplimentary photos I saw in the paper. I’ve made an appointment for you with my plastic surgeon (not that Bledsoe crackpot!). He gave me the most wonderful nose, among other things, and I thought you’d appreciate his talents as well. All expenses are paid, so just clear your calendar (or did I already do that for you?) and give him a call. He doesn’t know who paid, so for heaven’s sake, don’t tell him I sent you!
Perhaps we’ll meet again. I hope so, my friend. I’ve always admired you—strong and sensible, so comfortable in yourself.
Francine gently folded the letter and sat quietly. When she finally felt strong enough to stand, she straightened her skirt and walked over to her dressing table. As she glanced in the mirror, she saw a large tear tumble down her ski-slope nose for the last time.