"You haven't seen a pig, have you?" Melvin Bertram had strolled across the hallway from his office, ignoring the precarious stacks of boxes, packing paper, cleaning rags, and jumbles of unshelved books in what was supposed to be the offices of Avery Andrews, Attorney at Law.
"A pig?" I faced him, hands on my hips. Was that a smart-mouth indictment of my housekeeping?
"A pet pig," he said, not even looking at the mess that surrounded him. "Two-and-a-half feet tall, black, distinctive potbelly, waddles when she walks. Sheriff Peters put out an all points bulletin this morning."
"A pig." I stared at him. "Why's L.J. looking for a pig?"
He shrugged. "That's the most pressing threat to the citizenry's health and well-being, I suppose."
I couldn't tell whether his sarcasm was for L.J. or for the generally goofy backwater nature of Dacus and environs.
I shook my head and began unearthing a couple of chairs. "I'll let you know if I find a pig."
Melvin peered cautiously into the hardware-store bag sitting on my desk.
"Locks for the doors," I explained.
When Melvin's grandfather built the family's Main Street home near the turn of the century, the two spacious front rooms had flowed invitingly from the grand entrance hall. Now, with his investment office on the right and my law office on the left requiring separate entrances off the grand hall, I'd taken on the task of refitting the two sets of French doors with locks.
This batch of locks was my third attempt to get something that would fit the existing doors, provide enough security, and meet with Melvin's approval. I still wasn't convinced the glass-paneled doors were secure enough for our separate offices, but Melvin had argued we would simply lock the sturdy front door when both of us were gone.
If truth be told, I also wasn't convinced this whole office arrangement would work, but I'd agreed to give it a try.
"Can you help me slide these book boxes out of the way? I've got--believe it or not--a client. She's coming in a few minutes."
Melvin grabbed an open carton of books. "Don't want her suing you for personal injury."
We barely had time to shove the detritus of unpacking aside and create a conversation nook among the stacks of boxes before Magnolia Avinger arrived.
Melvin disappeared quietly across the hall into his office as soon as we heard footfalls on the porch.
The short woman with faded ginger hair and a tanned, lean face was my mother's age or older. She looked familiar--from church, I realized after a moment.
She stood taking in the entry hall, then she nodded to the sign beside Melvin's office door. "Bertram & Associates? That's Melvin Bertram?"
"You're sharing office space with him?"
I nodded. She glanced through the glass doors into Melvin's parlor before joining me in my cluttered office.
"You really need to get a sign out front so people can find you." Her tone was kind; she was simply stating the obvious, the way women of a certain age do. Equally obvious, I wasn't set up for anybody to find the law office of Avery Andrews just yet. But she'd called, and I sure wasn't situated well enough to say no to a new client.
"I do appreciate you seeing me on such short notice. I really needed to--talk to somebody."
She obviously wasn't one to waste time. "Come on back," I said. "Please excuse the mess."
I led her through the front room, which would eventually house a receptionist but now held boxes and mostly empty bookshelves. My office proper wasn't in much better shape, though I did have a desk--a massive one from my grandfather's old law office--and the two chairs Melvin had helped me arrange. We took the seats facing each other.
Magnolia Avinger skipped the preliminaries. "I couldn't take this to any of the men lawyers in town; I'm too mortified. But I'm desperate for help. I don't even know where to begin."
She handed me an envelope addressed to Innis Barker at Dacus Monument Company, the top neatly slit open. I glanced at her, trying to read a hint in her expression before I pulled out a letter handwritten on thick cream bond.
"My husband has accused me of poisoning him."
I'd never gotten a bombshell like that from a client. I held the sheet of paper and waited for elaboration.
"Before he died, my husband, Harden, gave the executor of his will instructions for his grave marker, to be forwarded after his death. Mr. Barker at the monument company had the decency to call me straightaway, as soon as he received this. Very concerned. He wanted to do the right thing."
Her hand fluttered, then rested back in her lap.
"The monument itself is so ostentatious. It'll eclipse everything else in the cemetery."
I tried not to register my surprise. He accused her of murder, and she was worried about his taste in headstones?
"Then I learned Harden had written his own epitaph, which struck me as odd. Even after he got sick, he wouldn't talk about funeral plans or anything, except to say he refused to be cremated. He always made a rude joke about how he didn't want the evidence destroyed after I bumped him off. He'd laugh and laugh, but anyone used to his crude idea of fun paid no mind. I couldn't get any details out of him during his illness, about planning his funeral. Nothing except that sly grin of his, so I just didn't worry about it. Then he goes and orders his own grave marker, a giant stone angel to be shipped from Vietnam. Just like him to search out the cheapest source. As soon as he died, this letter was delivered."
She indicated the letter I held with another flutter of her hand.
Dear Mr. Innis Barker:
This letter is to be delivered to you by my executor after you have accepted delivery of the grave monument
Inscribe the following on the marker in the space provided beneath the angel's feet:
Know all when this you see My "faithful" wife, she poisoned me. Harden F. Avinger August 10, 1937-[add date] From misery freed, my run complete, May hers never be so.
I glanced up at Mrs. Avinger, then kept reading to avoid the embarrassed look on her face.
Within three weeks of receiving these instructions, you must complete the inscription and install the monument.
With this letter, you have received one-third the price agreed upon. Should you fail to complete the instructions TO THE LETTER, you shall FORFEIT theremaining payment due you. Final payment will be made only after the monument with its completed inscription is installed.
My executor has a duplicate copy of these instructions and is charged with seeing them fully completed before authorizing payment.
I couldn't very well ask his widow, but what kind of nut would write such a letter? I tried to tamp down the small suspicion that reared up. Maybe she had killed him. True, I liked what I saw in Magnolia Avinger's face. No theatrics, despite her dramatic problem. But what did that really tell me?
"Mr. Barker wants to do the right thing," she said, "but he's in a bind. He's already paid for the gigantic stone angel and for shipping it from Vietnam. The thing is eight feet tall! If he doesn't comply with Harden's instructions, he doesn't get repaid for that expense. He can't afford to bear that loss. Frankly," she looked down at the handkerchief she had pulled from her sweater pocket, "neither can I. Harden didn't leave our finances in very good shape. I just don't have that kind of money." She shook her head, bewildered and frustrated.
"I simply can't have that monstrosity towering over our cemetery plot. I simply can't. I'm so grateful to Innis for warning me about this. I came to you and not to Carlton Barner. He's the executor, and I thought he was a family friend, but he never even breathed a word of this to me."
I scarcely knew where to start. Ordinarily, I might have explained why Carlton Barner couldn't warn her, but I didn't think Mrs. Avinger was in a mood to hear about attorney-client privilege. Maybe later I could defend Carlton, so she wouldn't harbor hard feelings for somebody she'd known as a friend. First, though, I had some uncomfortable questions to ask her.
"Miz Avinger, how did your husband ... pass away?"
"Lung cancer. He'd had all the treatments; we battled it for three years. Wouldn't quit smoking, even with all that. Hospice helped him stay at home. His caseworker was even there with us the morning he died."
"Anything--unusual about how--" How the heck do you ask a widow about something like this? She would need to realize that, in light of what she'd face when her not-so-dearly-departed's angel made its proclamatory debut in the city cemetery, my questions would be tame.
She shrugged, her large brown eyes red-rimmed but dry. "I don't know. What's usual, really? He struggled for breath, for days. Each breath more racking than the next. I admit praying he would release himself, that he'd quit fighting. But that's all I did to hasten it. It was a horrible thing to watch. He was unconscious but struggling, fighting to stay, to breathe. A horrid, futile rattle, for hours and hours." Her voice tapered off, lost in bad memories.
"Someone was with you all through his final hours?"
She nodded. "From church or hospice or just friends. I couldn't have faced that alone." She blinked rapidly.
"Who was Mr. Avinger's doctor?"
"Oh, gosh. He had so many, here and in Greenville. Dr. Randel was his primary doctor in town. He saw an oncology group in Greenville, when he was taking treatments."
"So Dr. Randel signed the death certificate?"
She hesitated. "I think so. All that's still something of a blur."
I scribbled on my notepad, buying time to think.
"Please, call me Maggy. Everybody does."
Her manner was direct and sensible. Maggy was slender, maybe a tennis player? Studying her face, I could see she was older than my mother. Too many years spent in the sun. Around here, that usually meant gardening.
"Thank you. Maggy. My questions may seem rude, but--"
"Ask away. I'm the one who came to you for help."
"Okay. Why would your husband accuse you of poisoning him?"
She raised both hands, beseeching. "I have no idea. It's the craziest thing I've ever heard. Harden was given to bad jokes. At least, he thought they were jokes, though few people ever laughed. No one will be laughing when that angel rises up over his plot. That's for certain."
I wanted to ask Did your husband really hate you that much? I'd been a lawyer long enough--and had observed the marriages of friends and relations for long enough--to know that more couples found themselves locked in mortal combat than bound in loving bliss.
"Maggy, getting the monument stopped is only one issue. The other is stopping the rumors."
At first, she looked puzzled, then she gave a dismissive shake of her head. "I'm not worried about that. This is a small town and Harden's stupid joke is bound to leak out, no matter what I do. I just figure if people know me and Harden, they know us both for what we were and are. Nobody else really matters. The truth will out, I always say. I just don't want that garish monstrosity perched on my head when I'm dead."
She paused, staring past my shoulder and into her own thoughts. "If I'm truthful with myself, the gaudiness of that ridiculous giant angel bothers me more than anything. I'm embarrassed to have it associated with the family, and I'm mortified at the thought of being planted underneath it. Why that should matter, it's only silly pride. But if I'm truthful with myself, it does matter."
"You also don't want the rumor and accusation following you around, either." Bad word picture--I imagined a rumor in the shape of a sepulchral angel, gliding along behind her. "Some people don't know you."
She sat a moment, thoughtful. "Guess it's not entirely rational, but rumors just don't bother me. I'm embarrassed more by the showiness, the poor taste--that's not who I am. The accusation doesn't bother me because it's so silly, no one could possibly believe it. Does that make any sense?"
Not really, but she was entitled to her inconsistencies.
"So what would you like me to do?"
"I don't really know, Avery. I want that angel stopped, but I can't afford to pay the rest of Mr. Barker's bill." She hesitated. "Do you think the police will--investigate me? How do these things work? I certainly would investigate, if I were the police."
"That's one reason why you need to confront your husband's accusation head-on. You don't want something like that haunting you." Another bad choice of words. Her mouth had a stubborn set to it.
"Did Mr. Avinger have life insurance?"
She nodded. "A small amount."
"You know a police investigation or even the accusation alone may prevent or delay your beneficiary payments. Even if the angel isn't erected, imagine the repercussions if you leave this unchallenged."
For the first time, she looked surprised. "The insurance they won't pay?"
"If they reasonably suspect you've been involved in your husband's death, they have every right to delay payment pending the investigation." I didn't want to add and demanding payment won't make you look innocent.
"Oh." Her voice was quiet. She balled her handkerchief in her hand and rubbed her fists up and down on the thighs of her khaki pants.
For the first time, she seemed subdued by what she faced.
I walked around my desk and fumbled in a drawer for a legal pad. "Jot a note to Dr. Randel, giving him permission to talk to me about your husband's case. Do you have a copy of the death certificate?"
She nodded as she took the pad and pen I offered her.
"Would you bring me a copy of that?"
I would talk to Sheriff L.J.--Lucinda Jane--Peters, but I wouldn't be trading on our old elementary school ties--more like seeking favor in spite of long-held animosities. Maybe she or DeputyRudy Mellin could clue me in on any domestic history Magnolia "Maggy" Avinger hadn't shared with me. I was glad Maggy had volunteered her innocence. I believed her, but clients don't always tell the truth and I can be gullible.
Copyright © 2007 by Cathy Pickens.