Mystery Author: Strong Women, Great Stories

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I write three series: The Loser Mysteries, The Dead Detective Mysteries & the Simon & Elizabeth (Tudor) Mysteries as well as stand-alones that offer readers "Strong Women, Great Stories."
These days I also answer to Maggie Pill, who writes a cozy sleuth series. Maggie is a lot like Peg, just younger, cooler, and funnier.

30 Days of Christmas Day 24: The Blizzard & Mrs. Beard



The Blizzard and Mrs. Beard
by Peg Herring
I slid the holdup note and a plain cloth bag across the counter toward the teller and watched her professional smile turn to a grimace of fear. “Put $10,000 in the bag or I’ll shoot the place up good.” I was proud of the note: succinct but definitely informative.
The woman looked fearfully at me, or rather at the persona I presented. A heavily padded overcoat made me look twenty pounds heavier, cotton balls in my cheeks rounded my face to a moon, smoky-tinted glasses hid my eyes, and a dark wig with a knit cap pulled over it covered my real hair. Her mascara-laden eyes searched the place helplessly. I had all the advantages, and she had none. It was a small credit union with no security on site, and outside there was a blizzard. Even if she rang her supposedly secret buzzer, it would be a long time before help arrived. The sheriff’s officers were all out helping honest citizens involved in fender-benders and worse as the storm raged.
“I don’t--we don’t have that much money here,” she began, but I cut her off.
“Yes, you do. I’ve done my homework, and I know how you folks do business. Now get my money.”
The teller next to mine, a blond with that hairstyle that looks like the person plans to join the circus right after work, gasped involuntarily. She’d overheard us, and I saw her eyes go big. Pulling the gun from my pocket I set it on the counter, laying my hand over it after I was sure they’d both seen it. “Stay where you are,” I told my teller. To the other one I said, “Get me $10,000 in twenties and fifties, or she’s dead.”
The woman hesitated only a second. “Don’t hurt her,” she begged. “I’ll get it right away.”
“Good. Don’t speak to anyone else.”  She nodded and took off at a near trot.
As good as her word, within a few minutes she returned with one of those zipper bags with the credit union’s logo on the side. I saw one of the other employees start to speak to her, but she shushed him and glared a warning. He froze when he followed her glance and saw me standing there. I shot him a threatening frown, and he hunched behind his computer like a snake slithering between two rocks.
Teller A handed me the cloth bag after transferring the money into it. “Thank you, ladies. I won’t say that we’ll meet again, but you’ll remember me.” I made my voice gravelly. I didn’t know either of them, but no sense taking chances.
I turned to go, feeling pretty satisfied until I saw the police car pull up outside. Why could I never count on luck unless it was the bad kind? I turned accusingly back to the tellers, but they’d both disappeared, probably huddled on the floor behind the counter. Swearing softly, I considered my options.
I really had done my homework, so I knew the layout of the building. There was an employee exit at the back. What were the chances that two sheriff’s cars were available in this blizzard to respond to the silent alarm? The back door it would be then.
I peered outside before exiting the building. It was a nightmare: blowing snow, lots of the stuff already on the ground, and wind that shrieked around corners like a broken Irish whistle. I couldn’t see ten feet, but that meant the cops couldn’t either. On foot, I’d be more mobile than they, and the wind would cover my tracks in minutes. I took off across the parking lot, the bag flopping at my side and the gun once more concealed in my pocket. As I passed a dumpster a block away from the credit union I shucked the coat, hat, wig, glasses, and cotton balls. Now I looked like Tim Mills and not Brando’s Don Corleone.
I had planned to move up Pine Street for two blocks and then cut back to the car I’d stashed on the cross street, Rose. Now I had to circle around, but I wasn’t worried. There were hardly any cars out today due to the storm, and with the terrible visibility, I’d be pretty much undetectable.
The second glitch in my plan came when I got to my vehicle. The county, zealous as usual about keeping the roads clear, had plowed Rose Street, and in the process buried my car. I kicked the tire angrily: the old Chevy wasn’t much, but it was my ticket out of this stupid town. Now my ticket was under a ton of snow. It would take hours to dig it out, and I didn’t even have mittens, much less a shovel. My mind cast about for alternatives. There was no airport or train station in our little burg, and the bus stopped Mondays and Fridays, not today. I had to grimace at the irony: I had my $10,000, but I couldn’t get started on the new life I’d promised myself because of the storm I’d thought would be my protector.
The scenario at the credit union played in my head. The tellers would jabber their story to the sheriff, and he would go looking for the culprit. If he saw me in town in this weather, he’d wonder why, even if the description didn’t fit. I had a long history of conflict with authority, starting when I was eleven and keeping a steady pace over the last nine years. The only thing in life I’d been successful at was getting into trouble.
I had to get out of sight. I noticed that my hands, although used to normal cold, were getting numb. My body, clad only in a marker-decorated denim jacket and ragged blue jeans, shivered, and my hair was frosted with snow.
Moving in a bent-over slouch, I made my way back to Main Street. The dark-sensitive lamps had come on, trying to pierce the late-day gloom, but their glow was pitiful against the gray-white curtain that loomed over the area. An orange shape appeared out of the white, its rumbling engines almost unheard under the roar of the winds. A plow truck, probably the same one that had buried my car on an earlier pass.
After the plow there was nothing. Cars would be few and far between, and I peered into the driving snow anxiously. I had to find a place to hide out for a while, until the storm cleared and I could either get to my car or hitch a ride somewhere.
Ten miserable minutes later, two dim circles poked through the gloom. A car crawled toward me, wipers flapping frantically, wheels crunching on the snow that was fast refilling the plowed strip. I didn’t hesitate. As the car slowed to make a curve, I ran up, pulled the passenger door open, and leapt in. Folding myself under the dashboard, I snarled, “I’ve got a gun. Keep driving or I’ll shoot you and leave your body in the street.”
There was a stunned silence; then the car rolled slowly forward. From my crouch I saw a black wool coat, sensible black boots with Velcro closures, and a pair of wrinkled, arthritic hands. A low, carrying voice said, “I’ll drive, Timothy, but I don’t believe you would ever shoot me.”
 With dread that I hadn’t experienced since ninth grade, I looked up into the steely eyes of the only person who insisted on calling me Timothy, my former English teacher Mrs. Beard.
Without further conversation, we proceeded to Mrs. Beard’s driveway. The plow had left her a gift too, a foot-high, three-foot-wide pile of snow across the span. I held my breath as she, apparently unfazed, turned the wheel and gunned the motor at the same time. The rear end of the car slewed wildly for a moment, but then the front wheels made it through the piled snow and pulled us ahead. One spot in the drive was drifted too, but Mrs. Beard simply gunned the motor again, and we shot through, ending up so close to a shed at the side of the house that I thought we might park on top of it. The car stopped with a jolt, however, and she turned to face me for the first time. “Now let’s go inside, Timothy, and you can tell me what you’ve been up to.”
The wind whipped against me as I exited the car. Mrs. Beard fought to open her door, and instinctively I hurried around to help her. She held out a bag of groceries, and I was embarrassed to find I still held the gun I’d threatened her with. I stuck it hurriedly in my jacket pocket. She gave me that reproachful look I remembered so well but said nothing, merely bent her head against the wind and started for the house.
     We entered the covered porch and I pulled the storm-door closed against the bitter wind. Mrs. Beard led me into her home through an unlocked door, stopping in the entry to remove her boots. I hesitated for a second and then toed off my tennis shoes. My socks were wet from my trek through the snow, and I was embarrassed to see a hole in one toe. She appeared not to notice although in my experience, there wasn’t much she missed.
     First she made tea and sliced some banana bread for the two of us. Then we sat at the kitchen table together and she pulled the whole story out of me. Mrs. Beard was one of those teachers everyone admired and feared at once. She had such high expectations for all of us it was terrifying, and yet in your heart you wanted to please her by reaching those heights she envisioned for you.
     I’d come into her classroom a rebellious kid who hated everyone and everything, particularly everything at school. Other teachers either disliked me or ignored me. Many were just as happy if I didn’t show up for class, so I happily obliged them. Only Mrs. Beard ever asked me where I’d been after an absence. When I told my lies, her lips got that pursed look and her eyes dropped from mine, disappointed with me again. It was in large part her ability to make me feel responsible for my life that had led me to quit school as soon as I hit sixteen. Other teachers I could ignore, blame, and ridicule. Mrs. Beard I respected too much for that.
     So now, sipping weak tea and between bites of excellent banana bread, I gave my excuses again. How I’d asked nicely at the credit union for a loan of $10,000 to get a new start somewhere outside Darwin, Michigan, and how they’d turned me down, not with a polite, “Sorry, sir,” but with a snide Who-do-you-think-you-are? attitude. How I’d needed that money and, being offended by their snootiness, consequently gone in and taken it. “I wore a disguise,” I assured her. “They won’t know it was me.”
     “Drama club, right? You were quite good in the one production you were involved in before you quit school.” Her tone was even, but I heard accusation anyway.
     “I meant to come back, or at least get my GED--” I couldn’t finish that lie.
     “I tried to contact you, you know.”
     My friends had told me. “Mrs. Beard was really unhappy when you quit,” they’d said. “She wants to talk to you.”
     “I knew you were mad at me.”
     That little frown that never left her face got deeper. “Timothy, I wasn’t mad at you. You never could figure that out, could you? I was upset that I couldn’t reach you. I’d failed somehow to show you how much potential you had. Have,” she amended.
     I rested my head in one hand, elbow propped on her immaculately white tablecloth. “I’ve never been able to get it together, you know? I keep screwing up.”
     “You can fix this, Timothy. Go back to the credit union and return the money. Tell them you’re sorry. I’ll speak for you at your trial. You’ve never been arrested for a serious crime, have you?”
     “No, some little stuff, but nothing serious.”
     “Well, then.” She glanced out the window, where the storm had pretty much buried her car. “That’s what you must do, first thing in the morning, when this storm has blown through and the roads are clear.”
     She rose from her chair. “You can’t stay in those wet clothes. I think some of my late husband’s things will fit you.” She refilled my teacup, encouraged me to have more banana bread, and disappeared up the stairs. In a few minutes she returned with corduroy pants, an oxford shirt, and one of those Arnold Palmer sweaters that no one wears any more. At her urging I went into the bathroom and tried them on. They fit all right, but I sure didn’t look like myself.
     After that Mrs. Beard showed me to her guest room, where she’d already laid out the late Mr. B’s pajamas and even a robe. “Rest tonight and don’t worry. You can make things right in the morning.”
     The day dawned sunny and bright, as is often the case after a blizzard. Mrs. Beard was cheerful as she made me pancakes and sausage, orange juice and coffee. She assured me that a man she had hired would come and shovel her out before noon, but she insisted I get to work on salvaging my life right away.
After we’d eaten she made me write a note of apology to the credit union management. “You never know,” she insisted. “They might be moved to drop the charges if the letter is well-worded--with correct spelling and punctuation, of course.” She stood over my shoulder, giving advice and making “Ah-ah!” sounds when I messed up. It was a lot like ninth grade all over again, but I didn’t mind too much. The letter, when I recopied it onto a fresh sheet, was pretty impressive.
     At a quarter to nine Mrs. Beard found me an old but beautifully made cashmere coat and, most miraculous of all, a pair of boots only about one size too big. The boots weren’t dressy enough for the coat, she said, but I’d never had any so warm, so I assured her they were fine. “Thanks for everything, Mrs. Beard. I really appreciate what you’ve done for me. Not just now, but back then, too. I knew you really cared about me, I mean, us kids.”
     She smoothed the coat collar and patted my arm. “Timothy, I’ll tell you a secret. Very often there is one student that a teacher, despite her best efforts, likes better than the others. When that student’s life is hard, she wishes she could take him into her home and make the world better for him. We can’t do it, of course. We can’t even show those students how special they are to us. It wouldn’t be fair to the rest.”
     “Really?” Was she saying that I was one she’d considered special?
     “It isn’t very professional, is it? But it’s how we feel.”
     I was embarrassed and happy at the same time. Mrs. Beard had asked about me after I quit school. She’d taken pains to let me know I was missed, encouraged me to do my best. I even remembered a lot of what she taught, Shakespeare and all that.
     A few minutes later I waded through the end-of-the-driveway drift and reached the now-plowed road. With a shovel borrowed from Mrs. Beard’s shed in hand, I trudged toward my car. It was right where I’d left it, looking sad and abandoned. The plows had cleared the area around it, leaving the car itself in a mound of snow with another pile of the stuff on its roof. I cleared one door, slung the bag inside the car and turned the ignition on to let it warm up. While it idled and warmed, I used the shovel to clear the tires. As I climbed into the car I felt the stiffness of the folded apology letter in my new coat’s pocket. I took it out, tore it into very small pieces, and threw them into the wind.
Three miles out of town, I ran into the police blockade. Because of the plowed banks of snow on either side, there was nowhere to turn off, no way to avoid the authorities ahead. My bad luck had returned, because it was the sheriff himself who stood in the road, wiggling his fingers importantly as if he could literally pull me to him with a gesture.
“Tim, what you doing out and about?”
“Just going up to Mansfield to do some shopping, Sheriff.”
“Shopping, huh? You come into a little money?
Why hadn’t I said I had a doctor’s appointment?
He had me out of the car in thirty seconds, feet spread, hands on the cold metal roof. I had tossed the gun, which was only a toy anyway, but there on the seat was the bag with all that money. I glanced at it nervously, another mistake. The sheriff’s gaze followed mine, and one eyebrow rose like the curtain on opening night.
“Over here, Billings.” A deputy who had just released the car ahead of me came over and reached in to get the bag. When they asked in pseudo-polite voices if they could look inside, what could I say? The sheriff’s expression turned downright smug when the zipper parted to reveal stacks of cash. The deputy put on a pair of gloves and then pawed through the bag like a gerbil in a corner.
“So where were you yesterday at around 4:00, Tim?” the sheriff asked.
“I was visiting a friend.”
“Your car was on the street overnight. Did this ‘friend’ let you sleep in her bed?”
“Well, technically, yeah, but not the way you’re thinking.”
“I’ll bet. I’m going to want to know the name of this friend. She could be an accessory to a crime.”
“Sheriff,” the deputy had been consulting a clipboard.
“Yeah, what?”
“This isn’t the money.”
“What?”
Billings brought the clipboard and the bag over. “There’s only two thousand here, not the ten that was stolen. Besides, the serial numbers don’t match.”
“Don’t match?”
“None of them.”  Billings looked me up and down. “And this guy isn’t at all what the teller described.”
“So where did a loser like you get two thousand in cash?” the sheriff asked. I could tell he was not a happy enforcer.
“Apparently he borrowed it. From a Mrs. Andrea Beard.” Billings handed over a note, and I tried to read it upside down as the sheriff read it right side up. “I owe Mrs. Andrea Beard $2000, which I will pay in monthly installments once I get a job somewhere outside Kelly County. Signed, Timothy Mills.”
“So Mrs. Beard helped you out, did she?”
“Y-yes, sir.”
“The old lady should know better than to throw away good money, but I suppose it’s hers to do with as she wants.” He lost interest in me and my future almost immediately. “You can be on your way, Timothy.”
I went, and quickly too. As I drove away I knew that now I had to make that new start so I could begin repaying the two thousand. When someone who knows you that well trusts you that much, you have to believe, for the first time in your life, that she was right all along.

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