A crash rang out, and I sat bolt upright in bed, upsetting Poirot from where he slept near my feet, and Curly Fries from next to my head. I blinked in the darkness and wiped my hand over my forehead. Gosh, was I sweaty? And a bit nauseated?
Too much pizza.
Had I imagined that noise downstairs?
I rubbed my eyes with the heels of my palms.
A bang sounded near the base of the stairs. My training kicked in, and I slipped out of bed, my steps gentle on the wooden boards. I paused at the bedroom door and listened, carefully. Another bang came, followed by a thump, and a muttered curse.
It definitely wasn’t Grizzy. And I definitely wasn’t going to sit back and let an intruder wander through her house.
“Wait here,” I whispered to the cats, then turned the doorknob and stepped out onto the landing. The lights were out, and a dark figure crept up the stairs toward me. They tripped and caught the railing, muttering again.
This definitely wasn’t a stealthy invader. Anyone who seriously wanted to hurt me or Griz would’ve probably done a better job of breaking in silently.
I reached over and flipped the switch on the wall.
Light flooded the staircase and landing. I blinked and squinted at the intruder. “Hi,” I said. “You looking for something? Like an arrest, maybe?”
The woman on the stairs froze and looked up at me. It was Dolores, the baker, her brown hair streaked with gray and fashioned into a bob. Her muddy brown eyes widened. She wore a pink sweater with cats on the front, shooting laser beams out of their eyes. “Oh.”
“Mind explaining why you’re here, Dolores? In the dead of the night?”
“I didn’t want to be seen,” she said, glancing over her shoulder and straightening. “Is anyone else home?”
Dolores sighed. “Oh my heavens, good. Listen, I’m sorry to barge in like this, but… I had to talk to you and I couldn’t risk being seen.”
I had a choice—I could kick her out, now, or let her stay and explain her case. My interest was piqued, though. Dolores had been one of the people in the Jack-O-Lantern costumes. Hadn’t she been the leader of the group? And about to tell me why they’d been there.
That meant she might know who the murderer was, or could give me a list of names.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked.
Dolores clung to the staircase’s balustrade. “Because they might see me?”
“Can we talk somewhere else? Sit down maybe?”
I tapped my thumb against my chin.
“By candlelight,” Dolores said.
“Candlelight? It’s Halloween, not Valentine’s Day, and I’m sorry, but I’m taken.”
Dolores didn’t laugh at the joke, but stared up at me, trembling now. “Please, Christie. I don’t usually debase myself like this and beg for someone to speak with me, I have my pride, but this important.”
I opened my mouth to reply and… a click and a bang forestalled me. Dolores jumped on the spot and cast a wild-eyed look back at the kitchen.
“Someone’s here. Someone—”
“Quiet,” I said, lifting a finger to my lips.
Footsteps tapped through the kitchen. The light inside it switched on, and Griselda stepped into the hallway. She did a double-take. “Dolores? What on earth are you doing here?”
“Griselda,” Dolores squeaked. “What are you doing home so late?”
“It’s 10 pm.” Grizzy checked her watch.
I tried not to blush. I’d gone to bed much earlier than usual thanks to my pizza feast with Liam. I was the type of person who just had to nap after a big meal.
“Oh.” Dolores shifted from one foot to the other. “Right. Of course. So, the Burger Bar just closed then?”
“Yes.” Grizzy looked from Dolores to me and back again. “Am I… interrupting something?”
“No,” I said.
“Yes.” Dolores cleared her throat. “Look, I need to speak to Miss. Watson about something serious. Would you mind giving us a moment alone?”
Grizzy blinked. It was her house, after all.
“Anything you need to say to me, you can say in front of Grizzy.” I came down the stairs. “Let’s talk in the kitchen.” I needed a glass of water, anyway. Something to wash down the pizza hangover and grease.
Gosh, why had I insisted on eating that last slice?
“That won’t be necessary,” Dolores said. “I’ll just… come back another time.”
“Dolores, you clearly had something important to say if you came at this hour,” Grizzy said, taking hold of the baker’s arm. “So, let’s talk about it.”
We sat down at the kitchen table, and Grizzy insisted on making coffee. A good thing too—I could barely keep my eyes open now that the excitement of an intruder had worn off.
“How did you get in, by the way?” I asked.
Dolores colored pink. “The back door lock is faulty. I jimmied it to get in.”
“I’ll get that replaced,” Grizzy said. “Arthur’s been on my case about it for the past month.”
“Apparently, with good reason.”
We waited for our coffee in silence. Grizzy brought it to the table and set it down, along with a bowl of sugar and a small pitcher of half-and-half.
Dolores helped herself but didn’t take a sip of her coffee.
“So?” Grizzy asked. “What’s going on? Is this about the murder?”
Dolores jumped and coffee splashed over the rim of her mug. “Sorry.” She grimaced.
I grabbed a cloth from the counter and handed it to her to mop up the mess.
The bakery owner worried the cloth between her fingertips. “It’s about the Pumpkin Heads.”
“The Pumpkin Heads,” I repeated. “I assume you’re talking about the group of Jack-O-Lantern wearing revelers who crowded in on a murder scene.” The very same group which had a murderous member. One of them had killed Megan. I just had to figure out who that was.
“Yes, that’s correct. We prefer being called the Pumpkin Heads. We’re a group of Halloween protestors,” Dolores continued. “We believe that children who trick-or-treat should not be allowed to TP houses or ruin the gardens of the homes they visit.”
“But that would take all the fun out of trick-or-treating,” Grizzy said.
Dolores shot her a stern look. “And you enjoy having your lawn riddled with toilet paper and your windows egged, do you?”
“No,” Grizzy said, “that’s why I give them candy. That and it’s fun.”
“It’s just that type of attitude that encourages hooligans like—”
I lifted a hand. “Wait a second. What does your protest have to do with the murder? I assume you didn’t come here to espouse your political views on Halloween?”
The fight drained out of Dolores. “No, unfortunately not. I came because I’m worried. I’ve gotten the feeling, lately, that someone has been… following me.”
“Oh dear,” Grizzy whispered.
“I think they’re worried that I’ll talk to the police. Or to you. Look, it was a Pumpkin Head who murdered Megan, and since Megan was part of the Gossip Circle… I heard that there was going to be some change up in the hierarchy of the group. That Megan was going to become Mona’s new second-in-command.”
“It stands to reason that a Pumpkin Head who was also a Gossip Circle member would have motive,” I said.
Dolores nodded, pale around the gills. “I’m the only one who has the full list of protestors,” she said. “And only two of the Gossip Circle members are a part of the Pumpkin Heads.”
A long silence followed. Grizzy leaned in and her chair creaked.
“Who?” I asked.
“Kensington McCree,” Dolores said, with another weighty pause. “And Mona Jonah.”