September 3, 2008 

Charlie Ann’s hands trembled. She and Bennett filled most of the picture, laughing happily as they flung each other around in their extrovert wedding dance. Dollar bills of every denomination could be seen stuffed up her sleeves, peeping from her cleavage, sticking out of Bennett’s waistband and falling from his pockets. Oh, my! She had been so happy that night, and so was he. How had things gone so wrong between them?

But that wasn’t what had caught her eye.

She placed a hand over their exuberance and concentrated on the shadowy background. There, to the far right, only just in the picture, Jasper Ragsdale sat at a table facing the camera, his right hand brushing his eye. It looked as if he were crying. Yes … he must have been crying for, opposite him, Aunt Shug’s solicitous hand hovered over his clenched left fist which lay on the table, near to her. Charlie Ann couldn’t see her aunt’s face but her body language expressed sympathy at whatever she was hearing.

Just what was Jasper telling her?

But there was more.

To the left of the photo, Glenda Ragsdale was emerging from a restroom and looking towards the engrossed couple. The expression on Glenda’s face made Charlie Ann suck in her breath. Fear, suspicion and hatred were there for all to see.

The ping of the shop door downstairs startled Charlie Ann. She pushed the photo back into the box and moved towards the staircase.

“Anybody here?”

Charlie Ann peeped over the banister. Ray and Lizzie were nowhere to be seen.

“They must be working in the back room,” Charlie Ann decided. However, Rick Taylor stood at the bottom of the stairs, a briefcase in his hand, smiling up at her. “Hi!” he called.

Charlie Ann came downstairs slowly, unwillingly.

“This is a bad time, Rick,” she protested. “I’m really, really busy.”

Rick scratched his chin.

“I-I won’t keep you long,” he said, “but I had to come see you about something that’s bothering me. It concerns your aunt.”

“Aunt Shug? What’s up? Is she all right?”

“She could be. Your aunt is one shrewd lady, but then again …”

“Don’t be so melodramatic, Rick. Why have you come?”

“I think someone’s trying to scam her. Or, rather, that someone already has.”

“Who? And how?”

“The who is Jasper Ragsdale. I thought I’d come and warn you while he’s not around. I’m not sure about the how.”

“You’re making a very serious accusation.”

“I know. But I don’t want to see your aunt ripped off like Glenda Cartwell was.”

“Glenda Cartwell?” The name was familiar but Charlie Ann couldn’t place it. “Who’s Glenda Cartwell?”

“She married Jasper Ragsdale.”

Of course! Her dead mother-in-law.

Rick hesitated a few seconds before he went on.

“I’ve known the Ragsdales for years. Went to high school with Bennett. We were in the same grade. We still keep in touch – sort of. By text or e-mail. He’s doing all right, by the way.”

“Glad to hear it,” Charlie Ann said, with cold sarcasm.

Rick colored. He unzipped his briefcase and drew out a folded blueprint.

“Let me show you this,” he said, looking around for somewhere to unfold the document.

“Come upstairs. We’ll have to use the living room floor. I don’t have a table yet.” Charlie Ann paused halfway up. “But,” she added, “you’d better not be wasting my time.”

Rick spread the large plan out on the carpet and pointed to a small development huddled around a lake on the outskirts of Willoughby.

“It’s a very select development,” he said. “Your aunt chose this plot.” He pointed to a triangular piece of land at the bottom of a cul de sac.

“I’m not with you. Why should she choose another property when she already has one that she’s owned and loved for years?”

“The bed and breakfast is getting too much for her.”

“I was afraid of that.”

“Well, anyway, she wanted everything to be cut and dry before she told anyone. Last month ago she settled on that plot and said she would give us a check for fifty thousand dollars.”

Charlie Ann raised her eyebrows.

“Twenty percent. That’s a normal deposit these days. The balance was going to come out of the proceeds when she sold her Victorian.”

Charlie Ann sighed. “This is all very interesting, although I’m surprised Aunt Shug didn’t mention it to me. But nothing you’ve said so far supports your accusation.”

“I was coming to that. Yesterday morning, your aunt called us and backed out of the whole deal. She said she needed the fifty grand for an urgent personal matter. I could be wrong – and I really hope I am – but I suspect that the urgent personal matter has something to do with Jasper. They went off early this morning, the pair of them, leaving us to fix our own breakfasts. Your aunt’s never done that before. I think he’s swindled her out of that money, just like he conned Glenda over a fictitious time share in Florida. He didn’t get away scot-free, though. Glenda was pregnant with Bennett and she threatened to report him to the police if he didn’t marry her.”

“If he didn’t buy a time share, what did he do with the money?”

“He said he had debts. Anyway, Glenda never got any of her twenty thousand back.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Granddad Cartwell told Bennett, and he told me.”

The shop door pinged again.

Now who?” demanded Charlie Ann irritably, scrambling to her feet.

Rick leaned to pick up the plan but Charlie Ann turned and put a finger to her lips before going downstairs. “Aunt Shug! Jasper!” she called, and moved towards them. Something in her aunt’s face made Charlie Ann’s heart lurch. She was staring vacantly at nothing while gnawing her lip.

Roy and Lizzie emerged from the back room.

“You two still at it?” Charlie Ann exclaimed with false brightness. “I think you deserve a break. Why don’t you take an early lunch?”

The Deals looked at each other and shrugged, then put their cleaning materials down and went towards the door. Aunt Shug moved like a robot out of their way while Jasper nervously rubbed his hands. After the shop door closed, Jasper turned to Charlie Ann.

“This is the hardest and saddest day of my life. Honey, a bad situation has come up and we’re here to warn you. Now, I don’t for a minute think that Bennett will try to come anywhere near you …”

“Bennett?” Charlie Ann interrupted. “Why should Bennett come here?”

“He’s on the run, honey. Got himself in one helluva mess in California. It grieves me to say it, but it looks as if he was guilty as hell. He was remanded until he was released on bail into my custody. Your aunt, bless her dear, sweet heart, put up his bail. We went to meet him off the train at Salem this morning, but the police said he got away…”

“He skipped bail?”

“Yes, honey.”

“And my aunt has lost – how much?”

“Fifty thousand dollars.”

“Oh, Aunt Shug, Aunt Shug.” Charlie Ann ran to her aunt and threw her arms around her. Aunt Shug mechanically returned the embrace but said nothing.

“How could he do this to you?”

“He’ll not get away with it,” Jasper growled. “I’ll find him and punish him myself, bringing disgrace on my family and ruining the one person I’ve come to care so much about. Shug, honey, I’m mortified.”

Aunt Shug swallowed hard.

“It’s not your fault, Jasper.”

“No, it’s not, but I blame myself. I should’ve let him stay in jail until his trial…”

Charlie Ann faced Jasper.

“What exactly did he do? That’s pretty high bail. And why did the police release him into your custody? Did you know he’d skipped bail before you went to Salem? Who was going to hand him over to you there?”

Aunt Shug started gnawing her lip again, while doubt showed in her gray eyes.

“If you had any idea this would happen…” Charlie Ann burst out.

“Now you’re being unreasonable, Charlie Ann Huckabee,” snapped Jasper. “I thought the best place for him would be with me, where I could keep an eye on him. I’d have made sure he didn’t come anywhere near you and bother you. Now you’re upsetting your aunt. Come, honey.”

Jasper took Aunt Shug’s arm and guided her out of the door, before turning back to glare at Charlie Ann.

“If Bennett does contact you, or you find out where he is, you let me know,” he rapped. “You let me know straight away. He’s a wanted man and he’s very dangerous.”

The door shut behind them and Charlie Ann watched her aunt tottering towards her car. All of a sudden she seemed very old.

Light footsteps sounded down the stairs. Charlie Ann turned to face Rick, who regarded her gravely.

“Now we know where the fifty grand went,” he said.

“I thought you said he was doing all right,” Charlie Ann whispered.

“I think he’s being set up,” Rick asserted. “Jasper has no idea where Bennett is, although he’s been trying to find out for years. I’ve only got a telephone number and Bennett made me swear never to give it to anyone. If he turned up here, I bet Jasper would be in one hot spot. I bet your aunt gave him fifty thou in cash, but it never made its way into any court.”

“Who do I believe?” cried Charlie Ann. “I’ve known Jasper longer than I’ve known you and I’ve never heard that he swindled Glenda out of anything. For all I know, you could be foul-mouthing Jasper just because you lost a sale.”

“I’ll pretend I never heard that,” Rick retorted. “It should be easy enough to check. I’ll just call Bennett.”

“Right now?”

“In front of your very eyes.” Rick flipped open his phone and started tapping in numbers.

“I-I’m s-sorry,” muttered Charlie Ann, her voice choked with tears. “I-It’s just that…”

“I understand.”

Rick held the phone to his ear for a few seconds before giving an exasperated sigh. “Dammit. It’s gone into voicemail. … Hi, Ben. Rick here. Give me a buzz, man, will you, soon as possible? Looks like your dad’s up to his old tricks. Cheers.”

“Call me when he gets back to you, won’t you?” Charlie Ann pleaded. “I’ll give you my mobile number. Got a pen?”

Rick scribbled her number on the back of one of his cards, picked up his briefcase and turned to go. “I’ll be in touch,” he promised, and left the shop.

Charlie Ann tried to concentrate on setting up her living quarters, but every now and then she drew out the photograph and stared at it while wondering who she should believe – Rick? Or Jasper? Both stories seemed plausible.

At six o’clock, Charlie Ann decided to call it a day. She peered in the little cupboard that served as a larder, wondering what to make for a quick meal, when her mobile buzzed.

Rick? Already?

But it wasn’t Rick. It was Cindi, one of her neighbors at her old apartment.

“Hi, Charlie Ann,” she trilled. “I’ve got a surprise for you. Your ex is sitting on my couch. He’s in a right state. Says he must speak to you. Can I pass him over?”

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