Nightmare in Shining Armor

TAMAR MYERS
NIGHTMARE IN SHINING ARMOR

A Den of Antiquity Mystery

In memory of my father, whose imagination was boundless.

Contents

1

It isn't every day that a headless woman rings my…

2

“You do?”

3

There was a white stallion in my foyer. It wasn't…

4

“Out with it, you two!”

5

I'm not proud of what I did. But as I…

6

“Abby, don't you have a burglar alarm?”

7

The paramedics were the first to arrive, followed only seconds…

8

Greg and Wynnell were in the kitchen sipping hot chocolate…

9

“Who?” I demanded. “Y'all know something, don't you? Is it…

10

You can't get any lower, if you ask me, than…

11

I stared at the strange packet. It appeared to be…

12

The Rob-Bobs, bless their hearts, were exceedingly understanding when I…

13

In front of me was the Rob-Bob's salon. I don't…

14

“It was your ex-husband. Buford Timberlake.”

15

Forget the crinolines. I would have grabbed Mama by her…

16

I turned and stared. Had I not had a vision…

17

Ed Crawford answered the door on the first ring. He…

18

I gasped. “Who were they?”

19

“If that stupid sheep's eaten my bush—”

20

My first reaction was to tense up when I saw…

21

“Oh my God, you didn't quit, did you? You're having…

22

“I beg your pardon!”

23

The traffic gods were with me and it took me…

24

“Well, it seems that woman received an anonymous call from…

25

Try that as your opening line sometime. It is a…

26

I bought a silk animal print scarf at Dillard's for…

27

“If I may sit.” Both my ankle and head were…

28

“I still can't believe you're moving to Charleston,” Wynnell said…

I
t isn't every day that a headless woman rings my doorbell. You can be sure, therefore, that I examined this one closely. She was about five feet, six inches tall, sans head, which she held in her right hand. Her severed neck was abnormally large, especially considering the fact that there was a bit of it still attached to her noggin. I peered harder. Yup, there were two eyeholes about five inches down.

“Wynnell!” I cried delightedly. “I'm so glad you're early. I can use all the help I can get. The caterer got sick at the last minute, and although I have all the food, it needs assembling.”

The bloody stump blinked. “How did you know it was me?”

“Because you're my best friend. I'd recognize you no matter what you wore.” It would not have been kind of me to mention that it was Wynnell's bushy eyebrows poking through the vision slits that had tipped me off.

My buddy sighed and stepped over the threshold. Then, really seeing me for the first time, she gasped.

“Abby! How did you do it?”

“Do what?” I said with a coy smile.

“You're a foot taller. At least!”

“Am I?” I smoothed a portion of my antebellum skirt, which, suspended as it was by hoops and crinolines, puffed in all directions like an organza igloo. Incidentally, I wasn't alone under all that material. My yellow tomcat, Dmitri, had been tickling my ankles with his tail ever since I'd gotten dressed.

“Abby, tell me, or I'm going to peek.”

“No need,” I said and hoisted my hemline.

Dmitri took one look at my headless visitor, hissed, and shot out of the room like there was a pack of dogs in pursuit.

Wynnell laughed and peered more closely. “
Stilts
?”

“Greg made them. I've been practicing all week.”

Perhaps I should explain that I am normally only four feet, nine inches tall. My fiancé, Greg, is just over six feet. We would have made an odd Scarlett and Rhett without my wooden appendages. This not to say we make an odd couple in real life, but you know what I mean. Besides, if the hooped skirt gave me the opportunity to experience the rarefied strata to which the rest of you folks are accustomed, why not go for it?

“How do you manage to keep your balance?” Wynnell asked, as she bumped against the hall console.

“I don't always,” I said, remembering my
bruised right knee. “I can balance about as well as you can see. But I can't walk at all in this dress without the stilts, so I'm stuck until the party's over. You, however, are another story. Why don't set your head down on that console, take off your mask, and help me in the kitchen?”

“Be glad to.” Wynnell whipped off her rubber neck. “You'd be surprised how hot it is under here.”

I patted my voluminous skirt. “Fifteen yards of fabric is no cool breeze.”

Wynnell nodded. Her hair was damp with dew—we Southern women do
not
sweat—and her face the color of a radish.

“So what do you want me to do first?”

“Stir the punch. And taste the bowl on the left to see if it needs more pizzazz.”

“Champagne?”

“Vodka. I want this party to rock.”

“Abby, you're so bad. What will your mama say?”

“She gave me the recipe.”

“Speaking of her, did you find out what she plans to wear tonight?”

I shook my head. “Her lips are sealed tighter than a clam at low tide. All she would say is that I was in for a big surprise.”

Wynnell frowned, her damp brows fusing like giant spiders. “Doesn't that make you nervous?”

“You bet it does. Last year she came as Mother Teresa—but that was during her nun craze.”

Wynnell, having tasted the bowl of spiked
punch, decided it need an extra wallop. She added enough imported spirits to keep Kiev humming for a month. And this from a Baptist!

“What does she want to be now?”

“A jockey.”

“A disc jockey?”

“The kind that ride horses. Her goal is to win the Kentucky Derby before her eightieth birthday.”

“Which is how far away?” Wynnell asked cagily. We Southern women would rather sweat than reveal our ages.

“She's seventy-eight.”

“Then she could make it. I wouldn't put anything past your mama.”

“Me, either!” I wailed. “That's just what I'm afraid of. She's liable to show up tonight at my Halloween party dressed as a jockey. A woman her age shouldn't wear those tight pants if you ask me.”

“Your mama's in good shape, Abby.”

“I know.” I clomped over to my new oven to take a peek at the lasagna. It was ready to come out. “But she's so embarrassing. If I know her, she'll bring a real jockey with her as her date. Then who knows what the two of them will do. At least last year, when she was a nun, that wasn't a problem.”

“That's only because the priest she brought with her was gay. At any rate, you're lucky to have her, Abby. Both my parents are dead.”

“I know,” I mumbled, “I'm a very lucky woman. I've been telling myself that all day.”

And I was a very lucky woman. I, Abigail Louise Timberlake, had not only survived my divorce
from Buford the Timber Snake, but I was now engaged to Greg Washburn, the sexiest detective on the Charlotte police force, if not the sexiest man in the entire city. My business, the Den of Antiquity, was doing gangbusters, allowing me to buy a brand-new home in the exclusive neighborhood of Piper Glen. What's more, my relationship with my two adult children had recently progressed from one of foe to one of friend.

“What was that, Abby? I couldn't hear you.”

“Maybe that's because your ears are in the other room.”

“Good one, Abby, but seriously, what did you say?”

“I've got this bad feeling,” I said.

“About?” Wynnell took a long draft from her punch cup. At that rate, there would be none left for the other guests.

“About tonight.”

“You're not talking about your mama now, are you?”

A cold chill ran up my corseted spine. “What makes you say that?”

“I didn't want to say anything, Abby, but I feel it, too.”

“Y
ou
do
?”

My friend nodded. “I'm not claiming to be psychic—we Baptists don't go in for that—but I've been feeling really spooky about tonight.”

“Spooky?” That wasn't a Wynnell sort of word.

She nodded again, this time dribbling punch down her chin. “I have this scared feeling I haven't felt since I was a kid. I almost didn't wear my costume; it was starting to really freak me out. Even at the last minute I was trying to think of something a little less gruesome. But I'd already rented this, and then when Ed said I should just stay home and watch TV with him—well, of course that left me no choice.”

“Of course,” I said through clenched teeth. Ed Crawford, Wynnell's husband of over thirty years, is the original stick-in-the mud. His idea of a party is a remote control for each hand. As usual, I'd invited Ed, and as usual, he'd turned me down.

“But,” Wynnell said, holding what was left of
her punch aloft, as if to make a toast, “I'm here. Let the good times begin.”

My new doorbell has a lovely chime, but when it rang just then, I jumped.

“Abby, you all right?”

“Yeah, just startled. Quick! Grab your head.”

I clomped, and Wynnell bumped, to the front door. I peered through the peephole first, and then flung it wide open, laughing. My dear friends, Rob Goldburg and Bob Steuben, had dressed as James Brolin and Barbra Streisand, respectively. Rob is tall and handsome and looks a bit like James anyway, but Bob's basso profundo was nothing like Streisand's voice. Still, Bob is a slight man with a prominent proboscis. Somehow he had managed to find just the right wig, and his resemblance to the megastar was uncanny.

The men seemed just as delighted by my appearance. “Oh Abby,” Bob said, “now that you've finally grown, can I have your hand-me-downs?”

“If you promise to sing for us tonight.”

“He fully intends to,” Rob said, and looked adoringly at his life-partner.

“Sing ‘Evergreen,'” Wynnell said.

James and Babs noticed the headless woman for the first time and gasped. Their reaction seemed to fluster, rather than please, Wynnell. She quickly complimented them on their costumes, then staggered off to the kitchen to fine-tune the punch.

“Is she okay?” Rob asked. His concern was genuine. The four of us worked closely in the business
together. The Rob-Bobs, as I like to call them, own the Finer Things, which is right next to my shop. Wynnell's store, Wooden Wonders, is directly across the street.

“She's fine. For some reason we're both feeling spooked today. You know that saying about a goose walking over your grave? I feel as if there's an entire flock up there, just gabbling away.”

“Well, cut that out,” Bob said jovially. “This is your big night. This party is your chance to—”

“Speak of the goose,” Rob hissed softly. “Mother Goose, I mean.”

Thanks to my new height, I could look past my friends. Little Bo Peep was flouncing merrily up the walk, a live sheep in tow.

“Oh Lordy,” I moaned. “It's the Tweetie Bird. I know I invited her, but I really didn't expect her to show up. Not with Buford out of town.”

Rob put a comforting hand on my shoulder. “It's a brave woman who invites her ex and his wife, even if she doesn't mean it. You can handle this.”

I didn't have a choice, did I? I couldn't very well renege on my invitation at this point. And yes, I know I shouldn't have invited my ex-husband Buford and his wife, Tweetie, but at the time—and I truly believe this—my motives were pure. I wanted to extend an olive branch, if not for my own personal growth, then for the sake of our children. Besides, I felt a certain kinship with Tweetie. Sure, she had wronged me by sleeping with my husband, but now that she'd been his wife for several years, we were both victims. The door to Bu
ford's barn, as Tweetie so crudely put it, was never closed.

Relying on tips garnered from a college drama class, I arranged my features in a smile. “Howdy-ho, Bo. You too, Mr. Sheep.”

“Abby! Is that you?”

“As big as life—well, in this case, even bigger.”

Tweetie tossed her fake blond ringlets. “You look really great. How did you do it? Was it that stretching machine they've been advertising on TV lately? If it was, you might want to try their breast-inflator pump, too. I hear it really works.”

“Is that so?” I said, and bit my tongue. Tweetie's breasts had been enlarged several times, but not by a pump. I know this because Buford had paid for at least one of the increments in size. The bill, you see, had first come to me by mistake.

“Of course there's no crime in being flat-chested.” Tweetie thrust her manmade mammae forward like twin battering rams and prepared to enter my house.

I stepped aside. “Come on in, but the sheep stays out there.”

That stopped Little Bo Peep dead in her tracks. “I can't leave her outside, Abby.”

“Sure, you can. Just tie her to that tree in the backyard. There's plenty grass, and it isn't at all cold tonight.”

“Yes, but what if somebody steals her? She's not mine, you know. I had to pay a hundred dollars just to rent the thing.”

I tried not to laugh. “Nobody's going to steal
your sheep, dear. This is Piper Glen, not Montana.”

Tweetie pursed her lips. “Well, maybe you're right. But the man said if anything happened to her I'd have to pay him another hundred dollars.”

Behind me Babs, AKA Bob, gasped. He's a gourmand, and no doubt he was thinking about how many mutton chops he could get for a two-hundred-dollar investment.

Rob read my mind and nudged me. “And when we get tired of kabobs we can always eat fish.”

I looked beyond Tweetie to the street. A shiny black limo was parked beside the curb, and a young man dressed as Neptune had just emerged. I watched, along with the others, in envious awe as the muscle-bound God of the Sea reached in and lifted out a mermaid with a glittering silver tail. Holding her close to his bulging pectorals he started toward us across the lawn.

“What does she have that I don't?” Bob moaned.

“Big bucks,” I said. “That's Lynne Meredith.”


Who
?”

“Major antique collector from Ohio. Moved down last month. She's got to be in her fifties; but he doesn't look a day over twenty.”

Rob recoiled in mock horror. “You invited a Yankee? Wait until Wynnell hears about this.”

“She knows,” I said. It hadn't been easy telling my best friend that I'd invited a woman “from up the road a piece.” Wynnell, although a quarter Yankee herself, is decidedly prejudiced against folks above the Mason-Dixon line. If she had it her way, there would be a barbed wire fence along the entire
border. I have tried repeatedly to convince the woman that there are indeed some good Yankees—Matt Lauer, for one—but to no avail.

“Who's the stud?” Rob asked. Despite their commitment to each other, both men had their tongues hanging out like hounds after a hunt. I couldn't blame them. Tweetie and I were mesmerized by Neptune as well. Even the sheep appeared to be salivating.

I shrugged. I'd heard rumors that Lynne Meredith had a boy toy—a gigolo, if you want to be crude about it—in her employ. Apparently the rumors were true. Face it, Lynne is a plain woman with a bland personality. Vanilla yogurt is how I would describe her. And, while not substantially overweight, she has no discernible waist; hers was not the kind of midriff you wanted to see bare. It just didn't seem possible that a good looking hunk like Neptune would be in the picture unless financial remuneration was involved.

“I'll find out and fill you in later,” I said. “Now be dears and go help Wynnell with the food.”

James and Babs obediently headed for the kitchen. Tweetie would have followed, but I stopped her gently.

“Like I said,
you
can come in, but not the ewe.”

A fake blond, Tweetie has trouble putting M&M's in alphabetical order. “You're not making any sense, Abby.”

“Lose the sheep.”

“All right! But if it gets stolen, you're going to pay for it.” She flounced back down the steps, her
woolly companion in tow. Despite her agitated state, she managed to brush up against Neptune, while somehow avoiding the mermaid's enormous tail.

I wasn't so lucky; I got a fin in my face while greeting the amphibious pair. But I learned that the stud muffin was Lynne Meredith's tennis instructor Roderick, who also happened to be from Ohio. With two Yankees at my party Wynnell was going to have a stroke. So be it. Lynne was filling up an enormous Myers Park home with antiques, most purchased from my shop. Besides, surely I could coax Lynne into buying
something
from Wooden Wonders.

The wolf whistle I heard as I showed the fishy couple in was all I needed to let me know that my Rhett had arrived. A minute later he swept me off my feet, and I mean that literally.

“My stilts!” I gasped. “Put me back down!”

Greg laughed. “Sorry about that. I got carried away there and forgot.”

He held me aloft while I felt for straps with my stocking covered toes. “You're a knockout, Abby, you know that?”

Greg is tall, without stilts, and has eyes like sunlit sapphires. “Thanks, dear. You're not so bad-looking yourself. But are you saying I'm more attractive now just because I'm taller?”

“No, it's just that—well—it's a guy thing, I guess.”

“So it is true? You'd prefer a taller woman! In that case, why did you make my stilts only a foot
high? Why didn't you build six-foot stilts? Then I'd
really
be a tall woman.”

Greg laughed and then smothered my protests with a kiss. “What I meant,” he said, replacing his lips with a quieting finger, “is that guys—some guys, at any rate—find change interesting.”

Some women undoubtedly found change stimulating as well. Greg's little Rhett Butler mustache, while obviously artificial, made his already scrumptious face more inviting. Were it not for my hostess duties, I'd have whisked him upstairs.

As if sensing my mood, Greg kissed me again. We might well have gone with the wind, had not my guests begun to arrive with regularity.

 

Geppetto and Pinocchio turned out to be Donald Larkin and his diminutive wife, Regina. They are Yankees as well, but have lived in the south so long even Wynnell forgets their distasteful origin. Another hundred years and three generations later and Larkin descendants might actually be included in Cotillion.

Moses, with his tablets of etched Styrofoam, was by day an interior decorator. Alan Bills is originally from Charleston, South Carolina, and as Southern as shrimp and grits. Alan does not plan to have descendants, so Cotillion is not an issue for him. Besides, he had his own coming-out party.

The real Statue of Liberty might be located in New York Harbor, but like Alan Bills, the woman with the flaming torch was Dixie born and bred. The fact that Irene Cheng was of Chinese ancestry
did not, even in Wynnell's eyes, diminish her claim to the region.

Irene is my assistant at the Den of Antiquity and one of the most capable women I know. She does, alas, suffer from an occasional lapse of judgment.

“Irene, dear,” I said gently, “put that flame out before you come in.”

“Can't I at least make my entrance first?”

“No.”

“Man, you're no fun!”

“I'm a ball, dear, but I refuse to have my new house burned to the ground.”

Irene grudgingly extinguished the flame. “My better half couldn't make it,” she said. “Had to work the night shift. Is your mama here yet?”

“Not that I know of.”

“What does that mean?”

I ushered the saucy statue inside. “I've figured out who most of these folks are, but not
all
of them. See that pair of dice there? The smaller one could be Mama. On the other hand, you know my mother would never go anywhere without her pearls clearly visible, and Miss Snake Eyes over there doesn't appear to be wearing any.

“Now, that knight in shining armor could be male or female. People were a lot shorter in those days, you know.”


Your
height?”

I gave Irene the evil eye she deserved. “Even the men were just a little over five feet tall.”

“So you think that could be your mother?”

“No. Mama's five foot even and the person in that suit—”

My voice was drowned out by the gasps of my guests. In fact so much oxygen was depleted in that moment that I began to feel light-headed.

“Abby, look!” I heard Irene say. She sounded like she was in another room.

I looked, and then willed my eyes to not see what they quite obviously saw. Mama had finally arrived.

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