Authors: Joan Hess
Tags: #Bookish, #Cozy
For my beloved grandchildren,
Annabelle Hadley and Jack Benton King,
born July 8, 2010
I would like to thank Dr. Brad Hall and Dr. Jinee Rizzo, who are the Chief and Deputy Chief of Toxology in the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Department. Ms. Sarah Scott kindly helped with communication.
Dean James offered several significant observations, for which I am grateful. Dorothy Cannell and Elizabeth Peters tolerated my whines and moans for a very long time. Susan Rogers Cooper encouraged me in my bleaker moments.
Buy their books.
The weather had been milder than usual, but March was notoriously unreliable. Daffodils often struggled to keep their bright yellow blooms above a slather of snow. School administrators watched the weather forecasts and slept fitfully. Wet roads might be covered with black ice if the thermometer slipped a few degrees. Peach and apple crops could be destroyed by a single hard freeze. One never knew.
The stream, too small to be a river, careened down from the mountains and gradually settled into a meandering, listless rhythm. It had been deeper before the loggers had clear-cut swathes of hardwood trees. The consequent erosion had spilled soil and decayed matter into the stream, creating natural barriers that splintered the flow. What had been clear spring water now was muddy, obtuse.
The corpse remained submerged in the lethargic water for several days, its fingers combing the silt, its mouth clogged with detritus from the bottom of the stream. Its heavy clothing weighed it down like a burden of misfortune. The wound on the back of its skull had long ceased bleeding; more recent scrapes and cuts battered the face but drew no blood. Because of the coldness of the water, fish did only minimal damage. Had the temperature been lower, the body might not have surfaced for weeks.
A massive front swept up from the Gulf of Mexico, bringing rain and unseasonably warm temperatures. The corpse began to float upward as gas filled its cavities. The stream picked up its pace, agitating the deep, brooding pools and stirring the vegetation. The corpse rotated like an aged ballerina, snagging on underwater branches, then breaking free as it continued to rise.
The search party might have missed the dark blue bundle lodged in the roots of a tree on the far bank, had they not been methodically scouring every cranny of the stream. They gathered slowly and without enthusiasm. No one volunteered to find a way to cross the stream and examine what they supposed was the object of their mission. Someone would have to do so, they muttered to each other.
Eventually, someone did.
“A house, a house, my kingdom for a house,” I muttered as I crammed a pair of dirty jeans and several shirts under the bed. The bedroom floor still resembled an archipelago of discarded clothes. The hamper was draped with smelly socks and unmentionables. I tripped on a size-twelve sneaker, paused in midair to wonder if I could stuff it down the garbage disposal (had the garbage disposal worked, which it hadn’t in a decade), and stumbled into the bookcase. Paperbacks felleth like the gentle rain upon the place beneath.
The bathroom looked as though it had been vandalized by hordes of Avon ladies and dental assistants. Since my darling husband, Peter, my egomaniacal seventeen-year-old daughter, Caron, and I now shared the space, there were at least three toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner bottles, crusty toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, towels, hair dryers, razors, and everything else deemed essential to roam hygienically in public. The addition of a third person to the household had proven to be a geometric rather than arithmetic progression in chaos.
After returning home from what turned out to be a decidedly adventurous honeymoon in Egypt, we’d assessed the housing situation. Peter’s house had one bedroom. My apartment had two. Caron had suggested that we put her up in a suite at a hotel, but the only suites to be found in Farberville were in university dorms and did not include maid service. Since I did not consider my marriage a temporary situation, I was not about to settle for a temporary solution. Neither was Peter, who, among his other talents, comes from the old-money aristocracy of New England. This is not to say that any of them was as handsome as Peter, who has molasses-colored eyes, a defined nose, and perfect white teeth. In situations best left unspecified, he blushes adorably. At the moment, he was in the living room, drinking coffee while he read the newspaper. I fetched coffee for myself and joined him.
“I heard you fall,” he said without glancing up—or leaping to his feet to offer solace and a cool compress in case my leg was fractured and blood was dribbling down my pale face.
“Cosmetic surgery should help.”
“That bad?” He turned to the sports page.
“Not yet,” I said, “but it’s a matter of time before one of us slips in the kitchen or runs into an open door. The closets and cabinets are packed with your stuff and my stuff. Caron’s stuff is waist deep in her room. It’s a whole new level of claustrophobia in here. My office at the Book Depot seems spacious in comparison, and that’s with the boiler looming.” I sighed as loudly and despondently as I could.
He finally put aside the paper to offer sympathy in a most charmingly amorous fashion. After making sure no bones were in need of splinting, he sat back up and ran his fingers through his hair. “We can’t have Caron catching us in the middle of such unseemly behavior. She might get all kinds of ideas.”
“She already has all kinds of ideas, most of which I dearly hope I’ll never discover. She and Inez went over to the campus to troll for fraternity boys.”
“I thought she was dating that boy with the speech impediment.”
“Joel does tend to mumble when you glower at him. Perhaps he’d speak up if you stopped growling. He’s a sweet, well brought-up boy, which you already know since you checked to make sure that neither he nor anyone in his family ever received so much as a parking ticket.” I took a sip of coffee and gazed at the mishmash of art, books, furniture, and doodads. “Isn’t there a TV in that corner behind your fishing gear?”
Peter picked up the business section. “We need to find a real house.”
“We as in the two of us?”
“If you want to wait six weeks.” He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm as he stood up. “I’ve got piles of paperwork to dig through before a meeting at ten with the ATF task force. Next week, a four-day seminar, probably in Little Rock or Pine Bluff with the state and federal agents. After that, I’ll be all over the region to coordinate communication systems and interagency cooperation. The governor’s office is coming down on illegal weapons, as well as bootlegged whiskey and tobacco. You and Caron check out the housing market. When you’ve narrowed it down to a final few, I’ll look at them.” His voice rose as I began to sputter. “Whatever you like, darling. You have exquisite taste, and Caron will surely have lots of helpful comments.” He made it out the door before I could tackle him. His size-twelves did not tread lightly as he escaped down the steps and out the front door of the duplex.
I ran out of spittle to sputter. That, and my coffee was getting cold.
* * *
Angela Delmond sighed, as did I. The contribution from the backseat sounded like a death rattle. We were parked in front of a very nice house, certainly functional, with a nice kitchen and enough bathrooms to allow privacy for all occupants and the occasional guest. It had a very nice yard in a very nice neighborhood.
“Generic,” Caron pronounced grimly.
Angela took her last shot. “There’s a bakery just three blocks away. They make wonderful croissants. It would be lovely to sit on the patio on Sunday mornings and share the newspaper.”
“Be still my heart,” said a lugubrious voice behind me.
I’d lost count of the number of houses we’d seen in the last week. Along the way I’d also lost my mind. Angela had been ebullient when we began the hunt, ecstatic over walk-in closets, euphoric over bay windows, and rapturous over wine racks. Now the car was thick with gloom. Her spirit had deflated, but her exterior had not been undermined. In her midthirties, her dark hair was styled to soften her jaw; her chin was pointed, and her eyes were slightly slanted, giving her a feline air. The wardrobe I’d seen thus far cost more than my car. She’d told me one of her purses was a steal. If I’d wanted it back in the olden days, that’s the only way I could have gotten it.
Angela’s air of muted despair was a relief. She’d mastered the art of talking without pause to breathe, and I’d been inundated with details about her personal life. I was familiar with her fancy wedding at the country club, her marriage to loathsome, despicable, deceitful, womanizing Danny Delmond, and a divorce-in-progress that sounded as though it might conclude with at least one felony. I was impressed with her tenacious determination to succeed as a single woman on a playing field strewn with chauvinistic land mines. I’d been there, and it wasn’t easy.
“Let’s call it a day,” I said to her. “This is a waste of time for all of us. I really don’t want to have to build, but it’s beginning to seem like the only option.”
“Do you know how long it takes to build a house, Mother?” Caron asked. “Months And Months. By the time you’re ready to move in, I’ll be moving out to go to college. No, I take that back. We’ll all be living in a facility with padded walls. On Thursdays we’ll paint birdhouses or cut out paper snowflakes. Not even Inez will visit us. Just kill me now and spare me the agony.”
“The idea has crossed my mind,” I said over my shoulder. “Something excruciatingly painful, like puffer fish sushi.”
Caron snorted. “Golden poison frogs are more lethal, you know.”
“You get a line, I’ll get a pole,” I sang, “and we’ll all go down to the fishin’ hole.”
Angela delicately cleared her throat. “If I may interrupt for just a moment, Claire, there may be one last house for you to consider. I’d really hate for you to build. As Caron pointed out, it takes countless months. In the fall, it’s slow because the workmen disappear for the various hunting seasons—turkeys, raccoons, deer, ducks, and who knows what else. Danny is nastier than a grizzly bear during the season, ranting about how the plumber had to wait for the tile man, who was waiting for the electrician, who’d gone hunting. One of his subcontractors was killed in a shooting accident. Not surprising, when you think about all these drunks armed with rifles, stomping around the woods. I gave Danny a rifle for his birthday two years ago and told him that only sissies wear orange.”
I bit back a giggle. “One last house?”
“Made out of gingerbread,” Caron said. “I’m not hungry, so how about you drop me off at the mall?”
Angela frowned. “I’ll have to make a call and catch the owner. I’m not sure about certain legal situations.” She held up her hand before I could respond. “This house may be exactly what you’re looking for. If the owner declines, you might reconsider some of the houses we’ve seen. Or I’ll show you property, as long as you swear you won’t use Danny as your contractor. As a child, he never mastered Tinkertoys. After the first storm, you’ll be sitting on a pile of rubble.”
I confessed that I had an aversion to rubble and was willing to look at the mysterious house. Angela discussed the finer points of joint custody of pets (specifically a schnauzer named Flopsy) until she dropped us off at the duplex, promising to call later. Caron, who now had a sensible Japanese compact and a notarized statement promising her the car of her choice (within reason) after high school graduation, headed for Inez’s house to moan and whine about the abuse she’d suffered because of my maniacal insistence that she look at houses with me. I supposed I ought to go to the Book Depot and see how the new clerk had fared, but after a minuscule debate, I poured myself a glass of iced tea, picked up a mystery novel, and went out to my tiny balcony overlooking the campus.