Two identically-dressed women stood in opposite corners of the room. Their deep blue gowns matched down to the gold thread and bunched up ruffles. The black masks were of the same feline curves and points. Their hair was the same. The only difference Ackerman could detect was in the women's attitudes. While the lady on the left spoke animatedly to a fat friar, whose hood had just slipped, the lady on the right stood rigid and quiet with a peacock one could only assume to be her beau.
Ackerman smiled. No one had given him more than a look.
As he ladled punch into a crystal glass, he heard the woman with the friar say, "—Stupid cow; it serves her right. She stole him right from under me!"
The friar puffed out his chest and shook his head. "Really, Miss Smithe; show some grace, and mind your language."
The girl drew her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. "Forgive me, Reverend. I forgot who I was talking to." Her eyes flitted to the punch bowl and then to her costume "twin." "Why don't you have a seat, and I'll fetch you some punch."
"A lovely gesture, Miss Smithe; but I'm afraid I shall not be indulging tonight. Drinking aggravates the ulcer, you know."
Not pausing to listen to the girl's subsequent fussing, Ackerman sat down several feet away on the window seat.
The women in the middle of the room now turned their attention to the instrument in the corner. Ackerman hoped they wouldn't pry and remove the cover, though he knew the bloodstains had been wiped clean.
The grouping was too far away for him to make out what they were saying, but they all seemed absorbed. What a bunch of old biddies, Ackerman said to himself.
He sipped his punch and let his gaze wander around the entire party. “Dull as tombs,” he thought. Drier than this punch, even. He thought of the flask in his hip pocket and sighed; he really oughtn't. Alcohol always gave him that strange prickly sensation in the back of his neck.
It was nearing five twenty when the doorbell rang, and a group of six women and three men were shown inside. There were several gasps followed by a whirlwind of whispers; they had spied the piano as well.
Ackerman spied something else: A stray medicine bottle near one of the piano legs. As he went to retrieve it, in respect for the homeowners, a gaggle of women swooped down upon the instrument. He pocketed the bottle and paused to listen.
"Is that it?" a witch asked an orange cat.
The cat nodded her blonde head and pointed a gloved hand. "Yes, but it was in the center of the room when they found her."
"Was she really—"
"Stuffed half inside?" a flamingo finished for her. "Yes, my dear; it's sad but true." The woman fluttered a fan and dabbed her brow. "I was there that afternoon, you know. What a sad way to go, strangled with a piano string in one's own home. Poor, dear Mildred."
"You must be very brave to speak of this, Mrs. Dent."
So, that was Gillian Cartwright—wife of the now-deceased millionaire, Lucius Dent. She had been one of Ackerman's main suspects in the Prewitt murder. She had had the motive: Greed. Aunt Prewitt left her a hefty sum, though the estate itself had been left to her nephew, Philip Janson and his wife, Martha. The Jansons had been suspects at first but, along with Miss Cartwright, they had a solid alibi. And that was before the "X" symbols began showing up all over Lena and Amherst.Ackerman moved away before he could be recognized.
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