I hurried out of the alleyway and looked left and right, searching the street for my lead.
Mona was halfway to the corner already, walking at a brisk pace, her nose still in the air. That suited me just fine—she wouldn’t be paying much attention to what was behind her if she was too angry. I doubted she could see much over that hooked nose, with those beady, gossip-seeking eyes.
Now, there’s no need to mean.
I set off after her, tucking my hands into my pockets and adopting a casual attitude. The Clothing Boutique—run by Mrs. Nelson—had its doors open and a few hats and umbrellas stacked outside, available for purchase. I lifted a flower umbrella from the stand, fished a few bills out of my pocket and slapped them down in front of the waiting assistant.
“Thanks,” I said, striding off and opening the umbrella as I did.
“Hey! Hey, wait! You forgot your change.”
Mona had already turned the corner, and I quickened my pace, holding the umbrella over my head. Thankfully, I had a good excuse for the cover—storm clouds had started gathering. If Mona looked back, she’d see the umbrella and think nothing of it.
I took the corner at a steady pace, scanning the street for my suspect. And there she was! She’s slowed down, now, but her stride was purposeful, her gaze fixed on the road ahead. I followed her through Sleepy Creek, past stores and into the suburbs. Left, right, left again, and I lost track of just how many corners we’d taken.
The bad news was there were less people out, and if she glanced back, she’d surely notice me there. All it would take then would be for her to look a second time and realize that I was still behind her. But she didn’t so much as turn her head.
Mona slowed, hesitated, shook her head then walked over to the low, white picket gate of a house on the street. It was a squat little home, but cozy, and the front door was open, providing a glimpse of the polished hallway floor beyond.
My suspect marched up to the front porch but stopped. “Hello?” she called. “Hello, are you in there?”
I sidled up to a neighbor’s wall and leaned against it, only just out of view from Mona. I peeked at her from under the lip of my flowery umbrella.
She was definitely up to something.
“Come out here this instant,” Mona demanded.
A woman appeared on the porch, and I sucked in breath.
It was Janine! One of the Gossip Circle members who was next in line to be Mona’s second-in-command, just as Megan had been. And she was one of my suspects.
What were the chances? Two of my suspects had decided to meet, and so soon after I’d caught Mona snooping around near the crime scene. This had to mean something.
“Mona, please keep your voice down,” Janine said, patting the air. “Someone might…”
“Might what?” Mona asked. “Don’t be ridiculous. Now, get inside and let’s discuss this like proper adults.”
“Inside!” Mona pointed.
The pair entered the home, but the front door remained open.
Now was my chance. But was I really going to sneak into the suspect’s house?
No, of course not. That would only land me in trouble I didn’t need to be in—Liam was understanding, but he wasn’t ‘breaking and entering’ understanding. I still wanted information, though.
I pushed off from the wall, hurried to the gate and hopped over it. Instead of rushing up the path, I moved around the side of the building and into the alley between the house and its border fence. I tiptoed along, pausing every few steps to listen.
Sneaking around outside wouldn’t make a difference if I couldn’t actually here what was going on in there.
“—thinking?” Mona’s voice carried from a window around the back. I stopped at the corner, rather than approaching it directly on the off-chance that either of the women happened to be looking out at the back yard.
“I had to do what I had to do. If Kensington thinks that she’s going to be the one to take over, she’s got another thing coming.”
“You know how this looks, don’t you?” Mona snapped. “You’re an idiot.”
“But Mona,” Janine simpered, “I only did it because I wanted to prove that she wasn’t fit to be second-in-command. The way she’s behaved has shown that she’s clearly not fit to be in charge. You can’t be a part of the Gossip Circle if you’re creating the gossip about yourself.”
“That’s not for you to decide.” Mona was as imperious as ever. I could just picture her in all her leopard-print glory, waving her pink sunglasses around as she decreed what was allowed and what wasn’t.
But what were the women talking about? The murder? Had Janine done something to Kensington too?
“Things have changed now that Megan is gone,” Mona said, after a moment. “I’m reconsidering my options with regards to the Circle. And you. And Kensington.”
“You can’t seriously mean that you—”
“I haven’t made any decisions yet.”
“Either you stay at home and stay out of trouble or it’s over for you, Janine. Remember that.” Mona’s footsteps clopped off, and I waited. A door slammed and I slunk around the back, so that Mona wouldn’t see me in the alley when she strode past the front of the house.
I stopped after two steps, my eyes widening.
I wasn’t the only one sneaking around Janine’s house.
A young woman with blonde-gold hair was hunched over near the back door. She held something black in her hand. A gun? A phone? I couldn’t make it out. Her back was to me, though the minute she turned, she’d see me staring at her.
Back around the corner. Quick!
I skedaddled and pressed myself against the side of the house.
Movement scuffled in the back yard, and I peeked out. The woman was halfway across it, heading for the back fence. She hurried a glance over one shoulder and finally showed me her face. It was Kensington!
She’d come to spy on Janine. Or on Mona. On both of them.
The more time I spent investigating this case, the more convinced I became that this Gossip Circle business was far too serious. They were behaving like an organized crime family for Pete’s sake—having clandestine meetings and spying on one another, potentially stealing each other’s costumes.
But that thought brought me back to my initial question: who had stolen Kensington’s costume? Whoever has done it had to be the murderer. But the costume was in the police evidence room, so it wasn’t as if I could find it in someone’s house and use it as a means of accusing them of the murder.
All I had was this strange competition between Kensington and Janine for the position of Mona’s second-in-command. It had to be one of the two of them. Or Mona herself. Hadn’t she just said that she was reconsidering things? That she’d decided to change how the Gossip Circle worked?
The theme song from the Godfather played through my head and I rolled my eyes at myself.
I had to get out of here and back home. Curly Fries needed walking, and Poirot wouldn’t feed himself.
Maybe the time at home would give me a chance to figure out who’d done it. Or give me a headache. Whichever came first.