Bitch Factor – Chapter 28

Bitch Factor – Chapter 28

Dixie was glad to see the word Garden separating Payne from Cafe. Regardless of the spelling, she couldn’t get past the image of hot soup in the lap or ground glass in the burgers — a restaurant dispensing pain as the house specialty. Payne Garden Cafe was a little easier to take.

Parked across the street in the Mustang, she studied the Garden Cafe and Payne Hardware, pondering what she might accomplish by going inside. She wanted to know Betsy Keyes, wanted to know her family, their routines and how those routines might have differed on the day the girl died. She wanted to know Courtney, as well. Dixie wasn’t sure how it would help her determine whether the deaths were accidental, but she needed to fill in the picture.

That Rebacca Payne was creative, she deduced from viewing the cafe’s exterior. Nestled among service stations, dry cleaners, and convenience stores, the Garden Cafe contributed a dash of vibrancy to an otherwise commonplace neighborhood street.

A glassed-in sun porch spread across the front. A terraced bed of herbs and flowers flanked the weathered boardwalk leading to the entry. Among chives, dill and other green edibles, which Dixie recognized by their hand-painted pixie signs, potted poinsettias raised red topknots to the midday sun. In one corner, a stack of flat clay pots and a box of daffodil bulbs bearing a fluorescent PLANT NOW sticker hinted at the yellow blossoms that would spring up in coming months. Dixie liked it.

She entered through a golden oak door embellished with etched glass, a large brass know and a tinkling bell. The dining-room space, surprisingly narrow, boasted eight tables, four booths, a six-stool counter, and a specialty section defined by a few well-stocked shelves.

Right away Dixie noted an array of tiny clay pots planted with the same herbs she’d seen outside. An assortment of Mason jars filled with sauces and dressings bore the “Payne Garden Cafe” label. Two shelves of commercially packaged containers held items Dixie had seen in health-food stores — roots, extracts, bulgur wheat, millet, granola, salt substitute, fructose, spice blends and exotic teas. A framed magazine article beside the specialty section touted the Garden Cafe as one of Houston’s best kept secrets, “a down-home place serving deliciously healthful food at reasonable prices.” Sounded like the best thing since apple butter.

Dixie selected a jar of spaghetti sauce with mushrooms and a package of Italian spices to supplement Parker Dann’s culinary skills and carried them into the dining area.

Taking a seat at the far end of the counter, she looked the place over. Only one table was occupied — a couple who had eyes only for each other — but the lunch crowd wasn’t officially due for another ten minutes.

Then Dixie noticed the nearest booth was also occupied, and a stillness came over her. The youngest Keyes child, Ellie, lay asleep on the padded seat, a gaily crocheted afghan covering her small body. Seeing her, Dixie realized how worried she’d been that yet another accident might have occurred in the Keyes family. Except for a chapped nose, the girl seemed fine. Brown hair tangled around her chubby cheeks, a bright Raggedy Ann doll clutched in her arms, and one bare foot thrust outside the afghan, she looked angelic and vulnerable. On the table beside her sat a Kleenex box and a prescription bottle. According to Belle’s notes, Ellie was barely six, Dixie’s age the first time Tom Scully visited her bedroom. What made a person want to defile such innocence?

Dixie realized as she watched the sleeping girl’s shallow breathing that she’d been revisiting the past much too often lately. She resolved to stop. If she continued to muddle her own childhood problems with the Keyes accidents, she’d never find the truth. As a rule, she rarely thought about the bad years. Too much good had happened in her life to dwell on misfortunes. But the world was filled with casualties of life’s dark side, and if she could save just one child from harm, perhaps the past would redeem itself.

Her breathing fell into rhythm with the rise and fall of Ellie’s chest. Then a mucus bubble formed at one tiny nostril, and Dixie smiled. A head cold was reassuringly ordinary. She plucked a tissue from the box and gently wiped Ellie’s nose, as footsteps sounded behind the counter.

Dixie turned to find a pert twenty-year-old with springy black curls and lashes like paintbrushes. Her name tag said GILLIS.

“Sorry to take so long,” She laid a menu on the counter. “I didn’t hear the bell.”

Dixie had hoped to meet Rebecca Payne, but the mouthwatering aromas issuing from the kitchen suggested the chef was preparing lunch.

“Gillis, I saw your magazine write-up as I walked in. It said to ask for the house specialty.” Dixie hoped it wouldn’t be yogurt or tofu. In her limited experience with “healthful” food, those ingredients seemed overrated and overly abundant.

“Today’s special is Chicken Piccata. Mrs. Payne does wonders with herbs. The Brandied Beef on Sprouted Wheat is good, too.” Gillis placed a white napkin and utensils on the counter. “Oops, there’s the buzzer. The produce truck is finally here. Be right back.”

Dixie studied the menu. After a moment, she heard a rustle behind her and turned to find a pair of solemn brown eyes staring over the top of the afghan. Ellie had pulled it high to cover her nose.

“Hello,” Dixie said.

The brown eyes blinked.

“Bet you’ve got the sniffles. I hat having the sniffles, my nose all runny and sore. Can I get you anything? a glass of water, maybe? Orange juice?”

Blink.

“Hot lemonade? That always tastes good when I feel puny, hot lemonade and raisin toast.”

This time the eyes bounced up and down as the child nodded.

“Good. I hate to eat alone.” Gillis reappeared, as if on cue. Dixie ordered the Chicken Piccata and coffee for herself, hot lemonade and raisin toast for the girl.

“That’s a nice big booth,” Dixie said, when the waitress left to turn in the order. “Think I could join you?”

The brown eyes moved side to side. “I’m kuh-tay-just.”

“Contagious?”

“Got the flu.” She coughed, a deep, phlegmy sound.

“Oh, well. I’m not one bit scared of the flu. Why, I’ve had the flu so many times I’ve lost count. If that’s all you’re worried about, you can stop worrying.”

The child was sitting up now, letting the afghan slip down to her waist. Her round brown eyes looked unconvinced.

“Your mommy tell you not to talk to strangers?”

The nod again.

“Suppose I clear it with your mommy. Then will you consider letting me share your table?”

A bright smile accompanied the nod. When Gillis returned with salad, Dixie handed her a business card with D.A. “DIXIE” FLANNIGAN printed above her telephone number and a post office box. In this case, the D.A. was for Desiree Alexandra — but few people asked. She had a thousand cards printed each year in exchange for a few pounds of pecans.

“Gillis, would you introduce me to this very cautious and slightly contagious young lady, and then ask her mother if it’s all right for us to have lunch together?”

Gillis looked uncertain, but read the name on the card exactly as it was written, introduced the little girl as Ellie, then disappeared into the kitchen.

“Happy to meet you, Ellie. Please don’t call me Ms. Flannigan. I’m Dixie, plain and simple.”

“Hi, Dixie-plain-and-simple!” Ellie piped, breaking into a fit of giggles.

“Whoa! I walked right into that one, didn’t I? Where’d you learn such a good joke?”

“From Courtney.” The light winked out of Ellie’s eyes.

Dixie didn’t want to put a damper on what promised to be a pleasant lunch. She filled the silence quickly.

“I don’t know any jokes as good as yours, but I know the best knock-knock joke in the whole world. You know what a knock-knock joke is?”

Ellie nodded, eyes wide and solemn.

“Want to hear the best knock-knock joke in the world?”

Another nod, a tiny smile.

“Okay, but I think we should warm up to the best. Let’s try this one. Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Oswald.”

“Os-wald who””

“Oswald my gum.”

The child’s giggle was high and frothy, like champagne bubbles bursting. “My turn?” she said.

“Go for it.”

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Awch.” She giggled again, anticipating her own punch line.

“Awch who?”

Giggle, giggle. “God bless you!” Giggle, giggle, giggle.

Dixie whooped, genuinely amused but also hamming it up.

“Okay, are you ready now for the world’s greatest knock-knock joke?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, you start,” Dixie said.

“Knock, knock.”

“Who’s there?”

Ellie looked blank for a moment before she realized she’d been had. Then she grinned. “You fooled me!”

“Yep. That’s me, an old fooler.”

Gillis appeared with a tray. She set the hot lemonade in front of Ellie and Dixie’s meal across from her.

“Mommy said I can join Ellie for lunch?” Dixie asked.

“That’s right, but she did say to warn you that Ellie has a bronchial flu and might be contagious.”

“I already told her that,” Ellie said. “Come on, Dixie, sit down.”

Ellie nibbled at the toast and sipped the lemonade. Dixie put away the Chicken Piccata, which was excellent despite the green specks that Gillis assured her were fresh herbs from the garden outside the door.

Even more than the meal, Dixie enjoyed the company. But she couldn’t help envisioning Ellie’s two sisters alongside her, as they appeared in the Christmas shapshot. According to Rashly, the older girls had a different father from Ellie, yet they looked very much alike and had identical coloring.

“You don’t like your toast?”

“My tummy hurts.”

“Oh.” Dixie touched the back of her hand to the child’s forehead, not sure exactly what she should feel. Warm. Maybe the girl needed an aspirin or one of the little white prescription pills — AMOXIN, the label said. Lord, she didn’t know a thing about kids.

She called Gillis, who said Rebecca had gone next door to the hardware store to take Mr. Payne some lunch. Minutes later, Rebecca Payne appeared with Tylenol and water. Unlike her brown-haired daughters, Rebecca had radiant blond hair pulled back in a ribbon that matched her print dress. She wore a white cook’s apron over a trim figure and stood about five-foot-seven. Not quite pretty, yet attractive, she had a boobed nose and striking bottle-green eyes a bit too close together.

“The chicken was wonderful,” Dixie told her. “Every bit as good as the restaurant critic proclaimed.”

Rebecca’s smile brought her closer to beautiful. “The newspapers have been kind, but I’m not one for false modesty. I serve some of the best food in town.”

She settled Ellie for a nap. As she tucked the afghan around the child’s neck, Dixie noticed that Rebecca’s left hand was missing the first two fingers.

*

Next door, at Payne Hardware, Dixie tried to think of an item she needed at home — garden hose, faucet washers — did people browse in a hardware store? Certainly, that would give her  more time to check out Travis Payne.

 The cowbell over the door rang more insistently than the baby tinkler at the Payne Garden Cafe. The air smelled of sawdust and machine oil. From somewhere near the back, a power saw buzzed shrilly.

Dixie scanned the room for the angry face in the news clip of Dann’s arraignment. The only man in sight was a stout-nosed shopper wheeling an overburdened cart to the register.

“Get out here, Travis,” he shouted over the power-saw whine. “I’m ready to go.”

The whine ceased, and after a moment a sturdy, white-haired man in orange overalls appeared from behind a partition. Travis Payne didn’t look nearly as fierce as his photograph. The two men chatted at the register like old friends.

Sidling in that direction, Dixie feigned an interest in a shelf of clean agents. She picked up a bottle of Tarnex.

“Travis, I can’t see any advantage in that new department you’re adding,” Stout Nose stated.

“The computer center? Got to keep abreast of the times, Tate. You know that.”

Dixie heard excitement in his voice, the same excitement her hacker friends exhibited when discussing their latest passion. Travis Payne had been bitten by the computer bug.

“Pah! A money pit, that’s what it’ll turn into. Who’s going to buy a computer from a hardware store?”

“Lay you odds that department will double what the rest of the store brings in. Double it, just you watch. Soon as it’s completely stocked and I get the word out.”

“That’s what you said when you added the kitchen gadgets. Now you’ve got a truckload of pots and pans gathering dust.”

Dixie noticed a neat yellow sign that marked the kitchenware section. Others advertised plumbing, electrical, and building supplies. A bright blue sign marked the computer area.

“Everybody these days needs a personal computer,” Payne said. “Everybody. Including you, Tate. You can be my first customer.” He had finished ringing up the sale. Now he stacked the merchandise on a cart.

“If I recollect rightly, my wife was your first customer when you put in that fancy decorator section. Rugs, curtain rods, lamps — now I ask you, what kind of hardware store carries such nonsense?”

“It’s called forward thinking, Tate. Look at what’s to come, not what’s past. You’ll see –“

“I know. ‘Soon as you get the word out.’ Well, I won’t hold my breath. Be glad I’m not your business partner.” Payne opened the door and the customer wheeled his cart through, muttering, “Computers in a hardware store. That takes the cake.”

The cowbell clanged wildly as Payne shut the door.

“May I help you, ma’am?” He smiled at her, pale blue eyes twinkling, white mustache defining his bow-shaped mouth, orange overalls tight over his roundish belly. Dixie wondered if he ever moonlighted as Saint Nick.

“I’m trying to decide between these cleaners,” Dixie said.

“Take your time, ma’am. Take your time. I’ll be in the back working on some shelves when you’re ready to check out.” He scurried away, and a moment later she heard the power saw.

Travis Payne had to be ten or twelve years older than Rebecca, Dixie thought as she wandered idly down the rows of hardware, kitchen and decorator items. A man happy in his work, business apparently expanding, his wife’s business written up favorable in the press. The only dark cloud in their lives seemed to be the deaths of two children.

She found a bin full of key holders, including the kind Dann had used to hid a spare key under the chassis of his Cadillac. Payne had sold it to him. He would’ve known exactly where to look if he wanted to steal — or borrow — Dan’s car. For that matter, anyone shopping in the store that day might have observed the sale.

In the new computer area, unfinished shelves covered half of one wall. Sealed boxes of merchandise sat in the middle of the floor draped with a plastic drop cloth. Expansion in progress.

Dixie focused on the Tarnex bottle in her hand. What the hell was this stuff for, anyway? According to the label, it instantly cleaned copper, brass and other metals. Dixie wondered if it would make Kathleen’s copper teapot shine like the one pictured.

She didn’t like admitting it, but her sleuthing skills were producing less than brilliant results. At the moment, her best suspect in Betsy’s death was the salesman who had stayed late talking with Dann at the Green Hornet, the man with a butterfly tattoo. The bar wouldn’t open until late in the afternoon. she could ask Rashly to put out a bulletin with the man’s description, but she was already indebted to the homicide chief for more hours than she wanted to spend. She’d take her chances later with the bartender. Meanwhile, she might as well have a talk with Ellie’s real father, Jonathan Keyes.

Deciding the word “instant,” when applied to cleaning, had unbeatable sales appeal, she carried the Tarnex to the register. Outside, she used the cellular phone in the Mustang to call the architectural firm of Keyes & Logan. Like Ellie, the receptionist had a stuffy nose. She kept saying “excuse me,” then sniffing.

“Mr. Keyes is oud of towd today,” she said. “I can’t give oud his home dnumber, but he’ll be back in the office domorrow.”

Keyes’ home telephone was unlisted. Dixie could get it, but she didn’t like using resources unnecessarily. Tomorrow would be soon enough to meet Jonathan Keyes.

She felt more compelled, at the moment, to check on Dann. He’d been home alone with Mud for several hours. Who knew what mischief he could be cooking up?

Before leaving Spring Branch, though, she might as well visit the scene where Betsy was killed. Finding the corner, she parked, then got out and approached the intersection from the sidewalk, where Betsy had walked. A willow tree grew near the curb, bare limbs stretching over the narrow street. Shrubs with low-hanging limbs encircled the tree in a bed trimmed with bricks. In full leaf, as the limbs would’ve been in May, they could easily conceal an approaching vehicle.

Parker Dann’s house, Dixie recalled, was around the block and two streets away. The most likely route from Dann’s house to the Payne Garden Cafe, Payne Hardware, the Green Hornet or the nearest freeway would pass through this intersection.

She drove to the Paynes’ home address and discovered that it, too, was on the route to Dann’s house. In addition to seeing the girls at the cafe and hardware store, Dann would naturally have met them on occasion walking along the street or playing in their front yard.

At eleven years old, Betsy was probably mature enough to babysit her younger sisters, and with their parents working only a few blocks away, Dixie imagined the three girls spent a lot of time playing at home alone. Dann, a commissioned salesman, would have plenty of free time during the day to get to know the Keyes children, if he chose to.

Dixie didn’t know where her thoughts were leading, but the proximity between Dann’s house and the Paynes’ house troubled her. The fact that Dann was friendly and attractive, with trust-me blue eyes, bothered her even more.

*

The red Frisbee sailed across the yard.

Mud dashed after it, sprang into the air like a corkscrew, and snapped it out of the sky. Parker couldn’t help admiring the dog’s grace. Ugly as a mongrel from hell, and strong enough to tear a man’s arm off, he was actually not much more than a lovable pup. Loved running. Loved attention. Loved chasing after the Frisbee.

Mud lumbered across the yard to where Parker stood waiting.

“Good boy!” He gave the dog a liver treat, his favorite. “What a fine fellow. Yes, sir!”

The treat disappeared in a gulp, Mud all eager to play again. Parker rubbed the dog’s head and patted his side.

“Okay, boy! Let’s go!” He sailed the Frisbee. As Mud ran after it, Parker closed the gap between them. They’d started playing near the porch. Now they were almost to the fence.

Earlier, Parker’d made the mistake of running too close to the front gate. Mud ripped the seat of his jeans with enough snap from those evil teeth that Parker knew the next bite would take a chunk out of his butt. He backed off fast. Now he was taking it slow and easy, and they were almost to the same spot near the gate.

So far, Mud hadn’t noticed.

“The bluebird carries the sky on his back,” Thoreau had written. Perhaps a red Frisbee carried freedom. With enough patience, Parker figured, it might carry him right through that gate, with Mud prancing happily ahead of him.

Parker had slipped the Frisbee into Flannigan’s grocery cart when they went shopping, after the cart was full enough that she wouldn’t notice. At the checkout counter, he distracted her by pointing out the latest Elvis sighting headlined on a scandal rag. If she saw the toy now and asked where it came from, he’d say, “Hell, I thought it was Mud’s. Found it right there in the yard. Think somebody’s kid threw it over the fence?”

“You’re a good fellow, Mud!” Parker gave the dog another liver treat, more pats, more praise, then sailed the Frisbee right up to the gate. “Go get it, Mud! That’s it! Good boy!” All the while running toward the gate himself. He closed the distance that Mud would have to run back, and the dog nearly stumbled when Parker wasn’t where he expected him to be. But then he lumbered happily to Parker’s feet, dropped the disk and panted, pleased as hell with himself.

This time, Parker sailed the disk toward the porch. When Mud dashed after it, Parker stepped a few feet closer to the gate.

“Good boy, Mud! Bring it here!”

The dog raced back and dropped the Frisbee. Then he looked at the gate and back at the porch, as if realizing something wasn’t quite right.

“It’s okay, boy, Yeah, you’re a good boy, good dog.” Parker spent a bit more time on the patting and praising. then he sailed the Frisbee toward the porch.

Mud’s hesitation was so slight, the disk had barely started its downward arc when he caught it. Then the dog stood looking back and forth — at Parker, at the porch, at the gate — holding the Frisbee in his mouth.

He sat down on his haunches and stared at Parker.

“Come on, Mud! Bring it here.” Taking one of the liver treats in hand, Parker offered it invitingly. “It’s okay, boy. Come on.”

Mud looked at the treat in Parker’s hand. He looked at the gate, then dropped the Frisbee, covered it with his big paws, and whined softly.

“Hey, boy, it’s okay. It’s me, your old buddy Parker.” Kneeling, he offered the treat again. “Come on fellow. That’s a good dog. Smart dog.” Smart as hell. “Bring it here.”

Mud looked at Parker’s outstretched hand, Parker sitting low to the ground now, no threat, no indication that the man might cut and run toward the forbidden gate. After a moment, the dog picked up the Frisbee, plodded to Parker’s feet, dropped the disk, and accepted the liver treat, chewing it more slowly this time, as he watched Parker with a wary eye.

They were becoming great friends, all right. Fun was fun, but the dog knew his job.

“You’re a damn good dog,” Parker said, meaning it. He picked up the red Frisbee and decided he’d pushed his luck enough for now.

 Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter, and if you’re just tuning in, you can find chapters 1-27 below.

Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. Here’s a quick, fun preview:

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