AS THE SCREW TURNS
by Kaye George
Imogene Duckworthy reached toward the handle of Tinker’s Hardware Store. Before she could touch it, a long-haired stranger flung the door open and nearly knocked her down. He rushed down the block and around the corner. Immy stared after him for a minute, trying to place where she’d seen him before she went inside.
Belle Tinker, apple-cheeked and pear-bodied, perched on her stool at the check-out counter just inside, exuding a slight odor of cinnamon, as usual. Agamemnon, her black shorthair cat, jumped onto the countertop.
"Why is his fur all puffed up like that?" asked Immy.
"He doesn't much care for that guy." Belle waved her chubby hand at the door. "Doesn’t he live next to you? In old Mrs. Brandt's place. We don't know much about him."
Immy hadn't recognized him in the leather jacket with the collar turned up. "Oh, that was Jeremiah?” The Brandt single-wide stood next door to the one Immy shared with her mother, Hortense, and her toddler daughter, Nancy Drew Duckworthy. “Mother took brownies over when he moved in. Mrs. Brandt was his great-aunt and she willed the trailer to him."
Belle sniffed and turned a page of her movie magazine as Agamemnon vacated the countertop and jumped down. "That may be. But I don't know where he's from. Walkin' around in sneakers and holes in his jeans in this cold weather. Why doesn't he wear cowboy boots like a normal man, I wonder."
Immy had to admit it was suspicious.
A bray erupted from the back of the store. Immy flinched once, then again as Ramsey Tinker burst through the storage room door.
"Belle, we’re short again."
Immy wondered why he was just now noticing. Belle and Ramsey Tinker were short every day of their lives. Four foot ten if they were an inch, and about as wide as they were tall. Immy wasn't tall, but had a good six inches on the Tinkers.
His wife looked up from her magazine. "What is it this time?"
"Screws!" Ramsey bellowed, waddling to the front of his store. "It’s screws again!"
"Not so loud, dear," she said in a low voice when he reached the counter. "We have customers."
He looked around. "Just Immy. She don’t usually buy anything.”
“Immy is a customer, dear.”
Well, of course she was. And she was thinking of making a purchase today, too.
With his thatch of bushy gray hair, she thought he resembled a bad-tempered elf.
"That Jeremiah character was here just now, wasn’t he?" Ramsey asked.
"Memnon doesn't like him," said Belle. “He bought a big ole hammer.”
"That cat's a good judge of character," said Ramsey. "Remember how he hissed at those kids that were comin' in spittin' wads of gum in the roofing nails?"
"He’s doing some sort of project, he said."
Ramsey snorted. "He’s living in a goddam project, you ask me. That old trailer is falling apart faster ‘n he can put it back together."
"All the more business for us, dear." Belle’s smile made her rosy cheeks even rounder. "Immy says Mrs. Brandt left it to him. She was his great-aunt."
"What kinda guy wants to live in a place like that?" asked Ramsey.
His wife nodded. "There are probably doilies on all the furniture. And those ratty old lace curtains are still up."
Immy figured Jeremiah must be some sort of desperate to want to live in that old single-wide, but he'd moved in a scant two weeks after the funeral.
"It ain't natural," agreed Ramsey. "With that hammer, he could knock out our front window and rob us at night."
For that matter, Immy thought as she walked to an aisle in the middle of the small store, it wouldn't take more than a small hammer to knock out the front door. The thing was pretty flimsy.
The shop cat sauntered up to Immy and twined around her legs, purring. He was probably as glad as Immy that Ramsey’s yelling had stopped. Immy reached down and rubbed his head. She knew better than to pick him up. He would tolerate head rubbing, but that was about it He seemed to like her--somewhat, but she never trusted him.
"Look," Immy told the cat. "I’m buying a frame for my diploma. I finished the first course months ago and I should be getting a diploma for it any day now." She was studying to be a private eye and had only ten classes to go before she finished the whole course of study. "What size do you suppose I need?"
"For what, dear?" Belle had come up behind her, surprisingly quiet for such a weighty person.
Belle waved her hand at the shelf to her left. "Here they are. We have all the standard diploma sizes."
Immy reached for the eleven by fourteen inch frame. "I’ll take this one," she said.
"Are you sure? That’s the biggest one. It’s quite large."
"The logo for Stangford College is huge, fills half my computer screen. The paper I get will have to be big enough to hold it." One of the reasons Immy had decided to go with Stangford was the impressively ornate letter S on their home page.
After Immy paid for her purchase, she headed for home. Jeremiah Brandt, the object of the Tinkers' scorn, had moved next door to her own house a month and a half ago. Ramsey Tinker was right. The trailer did need a lot of work. Old Mrs. Brandt, who’d lived there for ages and ages, hadn’t done a thing to it for a long time.
Jeremiah had been working on it, though, and seemed to be doing a good job fixing it up. The skirting around the bottom was long gone when he moved in, but Jeremiah had tacked up some sheets of corrugated aluminum right away and it looked real nice.
Immy paused to admire Jeremiah’s latest project. She thought it looked like a cat door for his white Persian, Angelfood. The snowy fluffball ran across the sparse grass toward Immy as she walked across front yard. She didn't have to worry about this cat getting irritated and taking a chunk out of her leg like Agamemnon might. Angelfood was sweetheart through and through.
She yelled, “Hey,” at Jeremiah, who was on his hands and knees at this front door. He either ignored her or didn’t hear.
She wondered if she should spy on Jeremiah and see if he was up to no good. The Tinkers sure thought so.
Ralph Sandoval came for supper that night since Hortense was making chicken-fried chicken with white gravy and buttermilk biscuits. Ralph was half of the law enforcement team for Saltlick, Texas. The other half was the police chief.
Ralph’s arrival was marked with a noisy greeting from Immy's enthusiastic four-year-old daughter. Drew ran at Ralph full speed. He scooped her up effortlessly in his brawny arms just before her head rammed into his kneecaps. They greeted each other with tickles and giggles before Ralph set her down. He dutifully said hello to her latest Barbie doll and gave Immy a peck on the cheek.
"Hi, Mrs. Duckworthy," he said, going into the kitchen to get a better whiff of the peppery gravy Hortense was stirring at the stove. "The chicken smells good."
"Cherry cobbler for dessert." Hortense gave him a smile. Anyone who appreciated her cooking was, in her opinion, a good soul.
Immy sometimes wasn't sure if Ralph was sweeter on her or on her mother's cooking.
Later, after Ralph had sopped up the last of his gravy with a scrap of biscuit, Hortense herded Drew into the tub for her bath. Ralph and Immy grabbed the opportunity to head out the door and go for a walk.
"What do you know about that new guy, Jeremiah?" she asked when they strolled past his trailer, her small hand in his beefy one.
"Not much," said Ralph. The leafy shadows beneath the live oak in the Brandt front yard threw Ralph's face into deep relief, making it look strong, Immy thought.
"The Tinkers think he wants to rob their store."
"The Tinkers are kinda crazy, you know. They suspect everybody of something. They follow me around when I'm in there."
"You? You're a cop. You wouldn't steal things."
"Thanks, Immy." He paused to plant a soft kiss on her upturned lips.
"Agamemnon doesn't like him," Immy said.
"That damn cat doesn't like anybody but his owners."
"He likes me. I think I should check him out, though," she said.
"No, silly, Jeremiah Brandt."
Ralph stopped walking and stared at her. "What do you mean?"
Immy looked away. "Oh, you know. Just sort of keep an eye on him."
"Are you going to peek in his windows at night?"
Ralph knows me too well, Immy thought. "Um...."
"Immy, if I see you doing that, I'll have to run you in as a peeping tom."
She giggled. "I can't be a 'tom', can I? Wouldn't I have to be a 'tomasina' or maybe a 'tommie jo'?"
Ralph laughed, too. "Just don't, OK?"
After Ralph's long, deep, good-bye kiss that left her tingling and weak-kneed, Immy sat on the wooden steps in front of her trailer to recover. As soon as his truck disappeared around the corner, she felt revived and crept to the trailer next door. Light peeked out from a couple of the windows. She raised up on tiptoe to see over the nearest window sill. Behind the tattered lace curtains, she thought she saw piles of metal on the dining table, but the light inside was dim.
She heard Ralph's truck circling the block and managed to be back on her front steps by the time Ralph drove past, checking on her. She stuck her tongue out at his retreating taillights.
A few days later, Immy was back at Tinker's Hardware Store. The certificate for completing her first course that had come in the mail was disappointingly small. She had bought an eleven by fourteen frame and the flimsy piece of paper was only five inches square. A minute version of the ornate letter S huddled in the upper left hand corner. Both the title of the course--Crime Scene Investigation--and her name had been handwritten on a dotted line with a common ballpoint pen. The person didn't use calligraphy. In fact, the penmanship wasn’t very neat. And she had completed the course way back in July. It took them long enough to get this sent out.
"I need to return this," she told Belle, putting the big frame on the counter.
The woman waddled to the register from where she'd been shelving light bulbs from a cart. "A little too big?" she asked.
"Way too big."
"Don't be discouraged.” She climbed onto the stool. “At least you finished your course and got a diploma."
"Certificate. I get my diploma when I finish all fifteen courses." Hortense had set Immy straight on her terminology when she opened the envelope and complained about the size of her “diploma”. Hortense was a stickler for terminology.
"Maybe you'll get a bigger paper then."
It would take forever, Immy thought, to do all fifteen courses.
The bell over the door jangled and Jeremiah Brandt walked in, making his way to the aisle that held hand tools.
"Excuse me, dear," said Belle, sliding off her stool to follow Jeremiah.
Memnon ran after them, arching his back and hissing, then scurried away.
Immy could see down the aisle. Jeremiah jumped when Belle came up behind him and asked if she could help him.
"I need a small screwdriver," he said. They examined the stock and he took awhile to choose one. Belle stayed with him until he came to stand behind Immy at the counter.
"Now where were we?" Belle said to Immy, hefting herself back onto her stool with a grunt.
"We were exchanging my frame." Immy was a little miffed that Belle had left in the middle of her transaction. "I need one this size," said Immy holding out her certificate.
"Oh dear," said Belle, inspecting the small paper. "We don't carry that size. But I can order it." She reached under the counter and pulled out a thick catalog. She thumbed through several pages, before telling Immy it would probably be about a week before they could get it in. Immy shrugged and headed for the door with her scrap of a certificate. Ramsey came in from the front sidewalk where he'd been changing the sandwich sign to advertise a sale on flashlights.
Immy heard Jeremiah ask him where he could buy lumber before she exited.
"What do you want it for?" asked Ramsey, narrowing his eyes like lumber was a suspicious thing to want to buy.
The cat was back. He hooked a claw in Jeremiah's shoe lace and tugged.
Jeremiah pulled his foot away and pursed his lips before answering. "I ju...ju...just need some lu...lu...lumber."
Ramsey nodded his head, then told him he'd have to go into Wymee Falls.
The Ramseys were being extra rude today, Immy thought. She waited outside for Jeremiah to exit.
"Did Ramsey tell you where the lumber yard is?" she asked when he came out.
"Wymee Falls," he said.
Immy gave him specific directions and Jeremiah thanked her effusively. She wondered if anyone in Saltlick was being nice to him.
After a quick trip across the street to the First Bank of Saltlick, Immy remembered her mother wanted a seventy-five watt bulb for her reading lamp. She re-entered Tinker's.
"Just for tonight," Ramsey was saying.
"You don't think it would upset him too much?" said Belle.
Immy picked up the light bulb she needed and put it on the counter.
"Nothing much upsets that cat, Belle," said Ramsey
"But to be alone in here all night...I just don't know." Belle rang up the price.
"Why are you leaving Agamemnon in here at night?" asked Immy, handing over her money.
"That suspicious stranger," said Belle. "He just bought a screwdriver. He could take the door off its hinges and come in to rob us tonight."
Immy thought she, herself, could probably get through that door without any tools. "How would the cat stop him?" she asked.
"He wouldn't stop him, but he'd meow."
"We'd hear him from the house," said Ramsey.
They lived in a tiny building behind the store. The insulation on both structures must be pretty poor, thought Immy, if they could hear a cat meow back there, in the next building. The peeling yellow paint that adorned both structures wasn't the only thing that needed redoing, she figured. They didn't really have room to talk about the condition of Jeremiah Brandt's place.
Belle leaned over the counter and lowered her voice. "He stole some screws last time he was here."
"Every time he's been in here, there's hardware missing," added Ramsey. "There's almost a whole bin of half-inch set bolts gone."
"And the cap screws," added Belle. "A bunch of those are missing, too."
"I wonder if we should put a metal detector at the door," said Ramsey.
Immy cleared her throat. "Don't you think it would beep for all your customers? Most everything in here is metal."
Ramsey gave her a frown before he stalked to the back of the store.
As Immy left, the black cat reached out from under the carts by the front door, claws extended, but she dodged and left with her jeans intact.
Jeremiah's little car wasn't at his place when she got home. Probably went to the lumber yard, Immy thought.
"Mother," Immy called.
"Yes, dear." Hortense, at the other end of the kitchen, scooped a load of wet laundry from the washer into the dryer.
"Do you think we should take dinner over to the guy next door?" Immy pitched in and started folding the dry sheets piled on top of the dryer. She'd like to get inside the guy's place and see for sure if he had a lot of extra hardware. Like set bolts and cap screws.
Hortense straightened her back with a groan, then lowered her head in thought, which made her many chins even more evident than usual. Hortense was a good cook and made sure she sampled a lot of her own product.
"That would be neighborly. But I did attempt to bring him provender when he first located next door, and he declined to accept it."
"He did? You never told me that."
"I'm aware of that. He took the brownies, but declined the fried okra casserole. I was mortified that my cooking was being refused. It was like, like he thought I might be poisoning him. Or so it seemed."
"Belle and Ramsey think he's lifting stuff from them."
"What manner of stuff?"
"Things that go in bins, screws and stuff."
"What is the basis for their suspicions?"
"That the stuff is missing after he's been there, I guess."
"If he is suffering from impecuniosity, we could lend him enough money to buy screws. Maybe you should approach him and ask."
"How in the hell would I do that?"
"Language." Hortense shot her gaze to Drew, standing not far from her mother and grandmother, absorbing the conversation.
"Oops," said Immy.
"My Barbie's head comed off again," said Drew.
Immy smushed the doll’s head back onto its skinny neck and finished folding sheets, pondering their neighbor.
Hortense made brownies again, figuring he had taken them the first time and would again. Sure enough, when Immy knocked on his metal door, he opened it with a smile.
"My mother baked these for you," she said.
"Wow, do they smell good." He leaned toward her and took a big whiff. "That other batch she gave me was incredible." He took the plastic-wrapped paper plate and thanked her. she peered around him and saw piles of screws, nails, and some hinges on the table behind him.
"What's all that?" she asked.
"Hardware," he said with a frown and closed the door.
So much for getting inside intel. Maybe he WAS up to no good.
A week later, when Immy's five by five frame came in, Belle called her and Immy went to pick it up.
"Ralph said for me to get a picture hanger, too, so he can put it on the living room wall," said Immy.
"Aisle three." Belle barely glanced up from her magazine.
The packets of picture hangers hung on a pegboard above the bins of screws and nails. Immy noticed that a couple bins did look almost empty. Agamemnon lay curled in one of those bare bins. Jeremiah Brandt must be having a field day, she thought. He's robbing them blind.
Some of the picture hangers were huge, but she thought she just needed a small one for her little frame. She reached to the top row where the smallest ones hung and her purse slipped off her shoulder. When she picked it up, her car keys fell out. The metallic clatter drew Agamemnon's attention. He jumped to the floor and batted her keys underneath the shelving.
"You damn cat," Immy said, quietly, so the Tinkers wouldn't hear her maligning their pet. She waited until the black demon walked to the end of the aisle, his tail held proud and high, then she got down on all fours and reached under the shelf. No dice. He must have batted it to the very back.
"What are you doing?" squawked Ramsey, six inches behind her.
At the sound of his voice, she jerked and banged the side of her head on the metal edge. "You scared the hell out of me," she yelled, jumping up. "My car keys are under there and I can't get them out."
"Why did you put them under there?" Ramsey lifted his bushy eyebrows above his beady, suspicious eyes.
Immy sighed and pointed at the cat, vanishing at the end of the aisle. "Agamemnon did it."
Ramsey still looked doubtful but called out to Belle. "Bring a yardstick to Aisle Three!"
Belle bustled down the aisle waving a bright pink yardstick. Immy offered to fish her keys out, but Belle said she'd do it, even though it took quite a bit of effort for her to reach the floor past that round tummy. Belle took a swipe with the stick and Immy heard rattling. Belle swiped again and screws flew out. Again and again. More and more screws skittered into the aisle. Immy's keys were the last thing to shoot out.
"I think you found your missing hardware," said Immy.
Both Tinkers frowned at her.
The cat scurried up behind Belle and started batting the screws back where they'd come from.
"Memnon!" Ramsey shouted. He picked up the cat, put him in the back room, and slammed the door.
"Oh dear," murmured Belle. "Memnon is the thief."
"He must have scooped the screws out of the bins, then hit them under the shelves."
"He does like to sleep in the bins," said Belle. "What can we do now?"
Immy studied the bins as Jeremiah Brandt came up the aisle. Belle threw him a glance but didn't say anything.
"What's the matter?" said Jeremiah. "Why are you all staring at those shelves?"
Immy told him how the cat had been knocking the hardware out of the bins. She didn't tell him how he's been the main suspect in the disappearance of the stuff.
"All you have to do is put tops on the bins," he said.
"How would we do that?" said Belle.
"It wouldn't be that hard," he said. "I'll do it for you if you'd like."
"Let me talk to Ramsey about that," said Belle.
Immy bought her picture hanger and frame and left. Memnon, who had somehow escaped from the back room, got her ankle as she fled.
BIO: Kaye George, an Agatha nominated short story writer, is the author of CHOKE: An Imogene Duckworthy Mystery (Mainly Murder Press), as well as A PATCHWORK OF STORIES, a collection of her previously published stories, and THE BAVARIAN KRISP CAPER, available at Untreed Reads. FISH TALES: The Guppy Anthology contains her story, "The Truck Contest". She reviews for "Suspense Magazine", and writes for several newsletters and blogs. She, her husband, and a cat named Agamemnon live together in Texas, near Austin.
Blogs: http://travelswithkaye.blogspot.com/, her solo blog, and http://allthingswriting.blogspot.com/.