She knew old men were prime candidates to become conspiracy theorists. They had too much time to sit around and think and talk and spin events into the way they wanted to see them. So she asked, “But Blackstone Mills has been here since the town started, hasn’t it?”
“And still putting out quality product,” one of the other men, Earl, said. “That’s why they have to put us out of business.”
Well, as much as she’d like to brush them off, the fact that a bomb had exploded here couldn’t be denied. That was deliberate malice, so someone definitely had it in for Blackstone Mills. And the police weren’t talking yet.
“I still don’t understand why anyone would want to put you out of business,” she said, hoping to get more gossip. “Wouldn’t someone local have to be in on this? Have access to the plant?”
“Oh, they were,” Mr. Farmer breathed.
“The other textile companies found someone local to do their dirty work, we’re pretty sure,” Earl said.
Farmer interrupted, “We heard about all kinds of things. Can’t keep stuff like that secret. Equipment failure and missing shipments. But it was the cotton that was the kicker.”
Now they were getting somewhere. Sadie forgot about the lines of men behind her, getting loaded up by fellow workers with their safety gear after she’d streamlined the process for them. Zach had introduced her to the lead volunteer then disappeared, which she was grateful for now, because she was pretty sure these old-timers wouldn’t be speaking to her with him around.
Especially about the damaged cotton crop her landlady had mentioned.
“What about the cotton?” she asked, pretending ignorance.
“Oh, that Zachary Gatlin boy did it,” Earl said, “though the police said he was innocent.”
“We aren’t so sure,” Farmer said. “He’s in thick with those Blackstones, so...” He shrugged. “Why they’d want to damage their own business would be a mystery, but then again, there’s a lot about all this that is.”
“But he sprayed the cotton, that’s all we know. Either somebody loaded the poison in or he did it himself.”
“Now he’s heading up recovery efforts, so who knows.”
“But poison the cotton, it did. Took a while, but they managed to get cotton in from elsewhere. Thank goodness, or the mill would have gone under by Christmas, for sure.”
It was the same story she’d heard from her landlady. Something didn’t add up, though. “Maybe somebody was trying to frame him?” she mused.
The voice from behind her had her stiffening. There was nothing like being caught red-handed talking about someone by the person in question. The men’s wide eyes clued her in to their awareness of Zach’s presence. Too bad she hadn’t been watching them while she was overthinking.
Quickly, she twisted around. “Zach, there you are. I was wondering what happened to you.”
Under his breath, so only she could hear, he said, “Didn’t sound like it.”
Her cheeks flushed hot, but she didn’t tuck her chin down the way she wanted to. Don’t show weakness. Always her first line of defense against the world.
“Gentlemen,” he said, glancing over her shoulder. “Glad to see you here. Thanks for supporting us.” Then he clasped her elbow. “If you’ll excuse us.”
He pulled her away, quickly enough that she had to double her short steps to keep up. Looking back, she noticed the men talking and laughing. Goodness only knew what they thought he wanted with her, but whatever their assumption, they thought it was amusing.
Not breaking stride, Zach marched her around the side of the parking area to a more isolated spot before turning to face her. “What was that about?”
“What do you mean?” She had a feeling her innocent look wasn’t going to work here.
She was right.
“What right do you have to talk about me, about my life, with the people of this town?”
“Well, technically the conversation didn’t start out that way—”
“I don’t care how it started.” His voice rose enough to sting her ears. “Just that it stops. Now.”