Charlie Anns 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 Bennetts 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 wasnt 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 Shugs solicitous hand hovered over his clenched left fist which lay on the table, near to her. Charlie Ann couldnt see her aunts 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 Glendas 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.
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. Im really, really busy.
Rick scratched his chin.
I-I wont keep you long, he said, but I had to come see you about something thats bothering me. It concerns your aunt.
Aunt Shug? Whats up? Is she all right?
She could be. Your aunt is one shrewd lady, but then again
Dont be so melodramatic, Rick. Why have you come?
I think someones trying to scam her. Or, rather, that someone already has.
Who? And how?
The who is Jasper Ragsdale. I thought Id come and warn you while hes not around. Im not sure about the how.
Youre making a very serious accusation.
I know. But I dont want to see your aunt ripped off like Glenda Cartwell was.
Glenda Cartwell? The name was familiar but Charlie Ann couldnt place it. Whos Glenda Cartwell?
She married Jasper Ragsdale.
Of course! Her dead mother-in-law.
Rick hesitated a few seconds before he went on.
Ive 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. Hes 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. Well have to use the living room floor. I dont have a table yet. Charlie Ann paused halfway up. But, she added, youd 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.
Its 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.
Im not with you. Why should she choose another property when she already has one that shes 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. Thats 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 Im surprised Aunt Shug didnt mention it to me. But nothing youve 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 aunts never done that before. I think hes swindled her out of that money, just like he conned Glenda over a fictitious time share in Florida. He didnt get away scot-free, though. Glenda was pregnant with Bennett and she threatened to report him to the police if he didnt marry her.
If he didnt 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 aunts face made Charlie Anns 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 dont 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 were here to warn you. Now, I dont for a minute think that Bennett will try to come anywhere near you
Bennett? Charlie Ann interrupted. Why should Bennett come here?
Hes 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?
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?
Hell not get away with it, Jasper growled. Ill find him and punish him myself, bringing disgrace on my family and ruining the one person Ive come to care so much about. Shug, honey, Im mortified.
Aunt Shug swallowed hard.
Its not your fault, Jasper.
No, its not, but I blame myself. I shouldve let him stay in jail until his trial
Charlie Ann faced Jasper.
What exactly did he do? Thats pretty high bail. And why did the police release him into your custody? Did you know hed 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 youre 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. Id have made sure he didnt come anywhere near you and bother you. Now youre upsetting your aunt. Come, honey.
Jasper took Aunt Shugs 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. Hes a wanted man and hes 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 hes being set up, Rick asserted. Jasper has no idea where Bennett is, although hes been trying to find out for years. Ive 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. Ive known Jasper longer than Ive known you and Ive 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.
Ill pretend I never heard that, Rick retorted. It should be easy enough to check. Ill just call Bennett.
In front of your very eyes. Rick flipped open his phone and started tapping in numbers.
I-Im s-sorry, muttered Charlie Ann, her voice choked with tears. I-Its just that
Rick held the phone to his ear for a few seconds before giving an exasperated sigh. Dammit. Its gone into voicemail. Hi, Ben. Rick here. Give me a buzz, man, will you, soon as possible? Looks like your dads up to his old tricks. Cheers.
Call me when he gets back to you, wont you? Charlie Ann pleaded. Ill 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. Ill 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 oclock, 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.
But it wasnt Rick. It was Cindi, one of her neighbors at her old apartment.
Hi, Charlie Ann, she trilled. Ive got a surprise for you. Your ex is sitting on my couch. Hes in a right state. Says he must speak to you. Can I pass him over?