"So JT is investigating this?" Kathy Fahr asked with a laugh in her voice. Kathy had taught English for almost thirty years. She'd watched me moon over JT McCord all through high school and beyond.
"Yeah, I guess so," I said.
"How about that?" Barb said. "JT investigating who killed Molly's husband. It's almost poetic justice, isn't it?"
We all paused to consider that. "It's poetic something," I agreed.
A cell phone rang somewhere. "Oh, I'm sorry," Charlene mumbled, pawing through a big blue cloth bag. "It must be Chuck."
Chuck Anderson, Charlene's husband, had started as a teller at the bank and was now in some sort of middle management position. I'd chatted with him occasionally and he'd helped me try to trace the money when Sam decamped with my cash. Chuck was nice, but I thought he was a little too protective of Charlene. But then her brothers, the Hunt construction boys, had been overly protective, too. And let's face it, what did I know about protective men? Delbert was the only man who'd tried to protect me, but his daughters had overridden him.
"I heard—" Peggy paused dramatically, "—that Shirley has her eye on JT McCord again."
"Not," someone said in disbelief. "She divorced him so fast his head spun."
Peggy shook her head. "Ellen Dawkins is a hairdresser over at the Clip Joint. She said Shirley was in there, talking about JT. Said it sounded to her like Shirley was setting her sights on JT again." Peggy shrugged. "He's a fine hunk of man."
All eyes turned to me. I tried to appear innocent. "I'm more concerned with the hunk of man they found outside my house."
People chuckled. Charlene closed her phone, looking a bit ill. I regretted my flip words. I hadn't really loved Sam, but I'd liked him. He didn't deserve to end up like this. I soon forgot it, though, as people got up and stretched, taking used dishes out to the kitchen. I got the coats I'd stored in the downstairs den, grabbing my zip-up sweatshirt jacket on the way.
Peggy watched me take my foot-long flashlight from the hook near the kitchen door as I walked out to the cars with them. "Where are you going?"
"There's a cat hanging around." I gestured toward the tool shed across the drive, twenty yards away. "Cassie adopted the poor critter. What with all the uproar today, I thought I'd check on it. I think the cat gave birth a while ago and I'm not sure where she's hiding the kittens."
Peggy gave me a brief hug. "Sorry about Cassie, but at least she's not in pain anymore."
I nodded, which was all I could do. I still got choked up at the thought of my poor calico cat, who had died in my arms just days before. She wasn't the first pet who'd died that way and wouldn't be the last, but it was always hard.
I watched as people piled into the cars they'd brought, waving them good-bye with my flashlight. Then I went down the frozen drive, picking my way carefully until the motion lights over first the garage, then the shed, came on to illuminate my way. I'd lived here most of my life and knew the place well, but in the fitful moonlight it was hard to see the path.
I went into the old wooden shed, flipping on the overhead light that swung on a chain above. It was a fifteen-by-fifteen space, somewhat tidy, with my riding mower taking up most of the room. I moved inside slowly, not anxious to startle the starved cat I'd seen lurking around for the past month. I'd set out food and water and bedding in various spots, but the coons might have gotten those offerings or her babies, if indeed she'd had them.
A noise behind me made me jump. A short piece of two-by-four clattered against my garden tool rack, rattling the hoe against my spading fork. I shone my flashlight into the corner, expecting to see the cat.
Nothing was there. The hairs on my arms tingled and my mouth was suddenly dry. I decided to put out some more food and water, then continue the search in the morning. I pushed against the door—
-- and it didn't budge.
That was weird. This door didn't have a lock. It had an outside padlock, but I never used it. The padlock just dangled on the hasp. I pushed harder on the door but it wouldn't move.
That's when I smelled the smoke.