by Claire Murray
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“Mornin’, Miss Aggie.”
The chorus of baritone and tenor voices greeted her entrance, announced by the tinkling bell above the door. She shut it quickly, leaving the harsh November chill outside and warmed herself in the fire-lit warmth of the dry goods store.
She turned to smile briefly at the men gathered around the chess and checker tables, then turned to her business.
“Good morning, Fred. I’ll have a half dozen pork chops, if you don’t mind.”
“Are you sure you’re dressed warm enough, Miss Aggie? That wind brings a pretty raw chill with it today.”
“I’m fine, Fred. I walk briskly, so that keeps me warm.”
Fred packaged her pork and added it to the order he’d already prepared for her. “I’ll have my boy bring this up to your place after closing today, so you don’t have to carry it.”
She turned and smiled as young Bill, the county’s electrician and deputy, sidled up to her.
“Miss Aggie, I worry about you being so alone out there all winter. Do you want me to come by and check the heaters and your furnace? I have some time tomorrow that isn’t booked.”
“Why thank you, Bill. That would be just fine. I’ll have an apple cake and chicken pot pie ready for you to bring home to Georgia. I hear she’s not feeling well.”
“I don’t know how you stay up on everything yet we hardly ever see you in town, Miss Aggie. But you’re right. This one’s different. Doc says Georgia has to stay in bed until the baby comes.”
Well no wonder. If you didn’t have her making babies year after year, she might have a chance to recuperate. Give the poor woman a rest! She smiled sweetly instead of voicing her thoughts.
Fred came out from the behind the counter with a large mug of hot tea and the two men escorted the wiry woman to a chess table. She sipped as she matched wits with Fred.
“That’s mate.” When Miss Aggie smiled, even her eyes smiled, crinkling at the corners and sparkling like a child who has won an award.
“Another game. I want to redeem myself.” Fred bristled at being bested, but always kept trying. “I don’t know how you beat me every time.”
“Strategy, Fred. You have to think three or more moves ahead to win at this game.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
The oft-repeated banter had the men hiding their smiles. Miss Aggie was the best chess player in town, probably in the county. Her advanced years had not dulled her wits. Fred’s grumbles were offset by his crooked smile, the scar down the side of his face a remnant of Miss Aggie’s long-gone husband’s short fuse.
“That was a nice ceremony last month, Miss Aggie. Reverend Edgewoods did a nice job, but I was surprised you included Lily Temperance in it. After all, she took Herbert away from you.”
“Time heals many wounds, Fred.” Miss Aggie did not mind discussing this in front of the others. Herbert had been gone many years and the whole county knew he’d run off with Lily, the town’s former postmistress.
“Herbert never was much of a husband, God rest his soul. Come to think of it, he wasn’t much of a man, either. He was a cheat and a fool. I’ll never forgive him for what he did to the people in this town. Running off was the best thing he could have ever done.”
The men nodded their agreement, with a few low-voiced remarks. Miss Aggie sipped the last of her tea. “Well, I have a few more errands. I better be off.”
She left amid the good-byes and Tom promising to send his son over to chop more wood in preparation for winter. From the dry goods store, Miss Aggie stopped at Reverend Edgewoods’ home next to the church. “Good morning, Ruth. Is your husband in?”
“Oh, Miss Aggie. How good to see you. Yes, he’s just finished writing Sunday’s sermon. Why don’t you come in and have some tea.”
“Oh, thank you, but no tea. If I have any more I swear I’ll float away. I had quite a large cup at Fred’s. I just wanted to make a donation to the church.” Miss Aggie followed Ruth into the pastor’s office just off their entryway and waited for Ruth to fetch him.
“Miss Aggie. How good to see you.”
My goodness. Do these people have nothing better to say than, “How good to see you.” That’s all anyone says to me since the ceremony. This town lacks imagination. Or they’re all being so polite because they think I’m some sort of saint who’ll crack under the pressure of her man being officially declared dead after so many years.
“Reverend, here’s a check for the church. I know I’ve already paid you for the ceremony, but this is extra. It’s my way of thanking you and the town, for treating me so well, despite Herbert.”
The Reverend’s eyes widened when he looked at the check. “Miss Aggie, it’s too much. I can’t take money that you might need. It wouldn’t be right.”
“No. No. It is right. Herbert was a vile man who caused a lot of harm. If his insurance money can do some good, then I’m trusting you to know how to use it.”
She pushed the check back into his hands, stood, and left. Her final stop was the beauty parlor for a cut and blow dry, a rare treat she permitted herself today. She exchanged recipes with Edith and Millie while catching up on town gossip she’d missed since the ladies bridge club met at her home two weeks earlier.
Edith, in the chair next to her, was a real estate broker and always tried to get Miss Aggie to consider moving into town. Everyone in the parlor listened in to the conversation, as Miss Aggie didn’t visit often.
“I can’t imagine staying in that isolated house Herbert moved you into. We worry about you, Miss Aggie. That road is impassible in the winter and almost too rutted to drive on in the spring.”
“It’s my home, Edith, and I’m comfortable there.”
“Don’t you worry about being stuck there all winter, cut off from everything? Isn’t it lonely?”
“Isolated isn’t the end of things, Edith. I have my preserves, the cow and chickens for milk and eggs, a huge freezer of meat; my root cellar is full of vegetables from my garden. As for lonely, I have my books, hundreds of them. They keep me great company when I get snowed in.”
Barbara Jean stopped in the middle of drying Miss Aggie’s hair. “Tell me, Miss Aggie, why did you ever keep those pigs Herbert bought? I though you hated them. Aren’t they awful…so dirty and smelly?”
“Well, Barbara Jean, they’re hogs now. That’s what they’re called when they mature. As for dirty, that’s just mud. They roll in mud to cool off because they don’t sweat. The mud protects them from bug bites, too. They’re actually quite clean animals and don’t roll in their own ‘you know what.’ That phrase just isn’t true. Truth is, I’ve grown to like having them around. They eat just about anything, so I always have a place for the food garbage. Half the town helps feed them with their garbage. Pretty soon I’ll send them off to the butcher’s knife. There’ll be fresh bacon and pork to go around the whole town from those two. Then I’ll start over with the babies they’ve given me.”
It was late afternoon by the time Miss Aggie arrived home. She stoked the fireplace and went out to feed the animals, stopping last at the hog pen.
“Well, Mr. Herbert and Ms. Lily, it’s almost time to say goodbye forever. I was waiting for the insurance check–wanted to be sure no one would ever come looking for my long lost husband and his mistress. And that’s done. No one even knows what I’ve named you two. There’s no one looking for you. And why should they? There’s no trace. After all, hogs will eat just about anything!”
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