Authors: Joan Hess
“A worthy issue; a few eccentrics; lots of ill-advised forays into danger; and a blithe heroine whose ironic reflections often produce a chuckle. Of special interest to dedicated animal-lovers.”
Roll Over and Play Dead
“Witty, ironic, and biting…Joan Hess has an unerring comedic instinct.”
“Joan Hess fans will find a winning blend of soft-core feminism, trendy subplots, and a completely irreverent style that characterizes both series and the sleuth, all nicely onstage.”
The Houston Chronicle
“Breezy and delightful…Claire Malloy is one of the most engaging narrators in mystery.”
The Drood Review
“Whether she’s hammering my funny bone or merely passing a feather beneath my nose, Joan Hess always makes me laugh. Murder only raises Joan Hess’s wicked sense of humor. Enjoy!”
—Margaret Maron, author of
“Definitely entertaining. Hess deftly sprinkles red herrings and odd characters throughout.”
The Murder at the Murder at the Mimosa Inn
Dear Miss Demeanor
is great fun…Hess’s poniard is tipped with subtle wit.”
The Chicago Sun Times
Dear Miss Demeanor
“Hess’s theme is a serious one, but she handles it with wit. Claire is an appealing character, and this is an engaging mystery for anyone who likes crime mixed with comedy.”
Roll Over and Play Dead
“Hess’s style—that of a more worldly Erma Bombeck—rarely flags. Amiable entertainment with an edge.”
“Joan Hess is one funny woman.”
“Joan Hess is the funniest mystery writer to come down the pipe since England’s incomparable Pamela Branch. And oh, how well Joan writes.”
—Carolyn G. Hart
One of these days I’m going to take a three-day seminar in assertiveness training. Then, with the diploma framed and hung on the wall, I will be able to look potential manipulators in the eye and say, “No.” Not “I’m sorry,” or “Well, maybe…” or even “Gee whiz, I’d like to help you out, but I’ve got yellow fever.”
In my dreams, right?
I was sitting in my cramped little office at the back of the Book Depot, and I was making grumbly noises similar to those made by the boiler on a frigid afternoon. I was doing this because, fanned in front of me like a losing poker hand, were six pages of instructions written in lavender ink by a spidery hand. Said hand belonged to Miss Emily Parchester, who was at that moment heading west in a chartered bus, accompanied by fifty stouthearted members of the American Association of Retired Teachers. Their itinerary included Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon, Carlsbad Caverns, Indian reservations, and other scenic and semiexotic ports of call.
My itinerary for the next twenty-one days included daily visits to Miss Emily’s house. While she was busily buying turquoise brooches and postcards, I was to water the African violets, collect the mail, see that a neighborhood boy mowed the yard, and feed two basset hounds named Nick and Nora.
And I was being treated to all this jolly good fun because I lacked the nerve to look tiny, sweet, wispy-haired Miss Emily in the eye and just say no. I’d tried a variety of excuses, but she’d heard them all in her forty years of teaching high school and had smiled patiently at me until I started to squirm, hung my head, and grudgingly agreed to take all six pages and commit them to memory.
So it was all my own damn fault, but that wasn’t making me feel any better. When the bell above the front door jangled, I put down the list, ordered myself to stop grumbling, and went to the front of the bookstore to see who might be so bold as to want to buy a book.
My daughter, Caron, and her dearest friend, Inez Thornton, were heading toward the cash register, larceny written across their fifteen-year-old faces. Caron has my red hair and freckles, but while I am mild-mannered and cerebral, she is explosive and hormonal. She has been speaking in capital letters for over a year and has a way of saying “Mother” that gives me goose bumps. In contrast, Inez has nondescript features, limp brown hair, and eyes that seem startled behind thick lenses. She is very much a lowercase speaker, often verging on inaudible, and is still awaiting developments.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I snapped.
Caron swung around and assessed her chances. “I was going to get the feather duster and do something about that Filthy Display in the front window. Some of those books look like they’ve been in the window since prehistoric hippies roamed Thurber Street.”
“I was going to help,” Inez said loyally, if mendaciously.
“What a wonderful idea,” I said. I went behind the counter, found the feather duster, and offered it to Caron. “If you ask politely, I’ll let you dust the entire store and even scrub the toilet in the rest room.”
I was rewarded with a dark look from my darling daughter. “That’s disgusting.” She snatched up the feather duster, then forced herself to conjure up a smile. “By the way, I need an advance on my allowance, Mother.”
“That’s nice. I’ll be in the back if you need me—and I know down to the halfpenny what’s in the cash register.”
“I really, really need an advance.”
“And I really, really need to pore over six pages of notes concerning pets, the post, and potted plants,” I said, starting for the office.
“Pets?” Inez said blankly. “You don’t have any pets, Mrs. Malloy. You don’t have any plants, either.”
I gave them a terse explanation of the situation, which they found highly diverting, and I once again attempted to achieve the relative sanctuary of my office. It was not to be.
“But what about my advance?” Caron wailed. “It’s the most important thing in my life. I May Die.”
Telling myself I might require months of assertiveness training, I stopped and looked back at this quivering mass of misery and despair. “What is the most important thing in your life?”
She recovered nicely. “A rock concert. It’s a week from Saturday, but the tickets go on sale today and they’ll be gone by tomorrow.”
“A rock concert is the most important thing in your life? What about developing strong moral values, making rational career decisions, seeking a higher plane of cosmic—”
“I have to see Mousse.”
I should have gone straight to the office and buried myself under invoices. Instead, I blinked and said, “Moose? As in Bullwinkle?”
“Mousse, as in chocolate.”
“Then go out to lunch,” I suggested brightly.
Inez patted Caron’s shoulders. “Mousse is the name of the absolutely hottest rock band in the entire world,” she explained to her best friend’s idiot mother. “They were on the cover of
magazine last week.”
It was late in the afternoon and I had pets and plants awaiting me. “I’m sure they’re the hottest thing since the advent of control-top panty hose, girls. If you want to go to the concert, then raid your respective piggy banks. As for this advance business, Caron, you are already advanced well into the next century and the cash register is closed. As is the discussion.”
They were howling at my back (like a pack of wild mooses, I suppose), but I made it to the office and banged the door closed. After a few minutes, things quieted down and the bell above the door jangled as they left, no doubt planning a decorous bank heist. I wished them success, in that there were not enough halfpennies in the cash register for bail.
At the end of the afternoon, I closed the bookstore, and with the six pages in my pocket, drove to Miss Emily’s house to find out what I had done to myself. Her house on Willow Street was in what had been a classy residential district back when buggies were in vogue, but now the houses had been divided into apartments and the only buggies in view were of the genus Volkswagen. The elm trees were still magnificent, as were the maples that exploded with color in the autumn. Dogwoods and redbuds were blooming, and some of the houses were almost hidden by ancient azaleas that would soon be laden with rich pink flowers.
Miss Emily lived in the bottom half of what had been the Parchester residence for several generations. She’d told me more than once how her father, a.k.a. the Judge, had presided over the town from the porch swing, swilling mint juleps and offering unsolicited yet piercing insights into the vagaries of Supreme Court decisions. Dear Mama had kept the neighborhood children in sugar cookies and her sewing circle in elderberry wine. Miss Emily had carried on the family tradition of tippling, sometimes before noon, and I dearly hoped she kept a cautious distance from the rim of the Grand Canyon.
The key was in the mailbox, as delineated in page one, paragraph three, the first two having been dedicated to expressions of gratitude. I let myself in, wrinkled my nose at the musty redolence, and went through the living room cluttered with bleached newspapers and exam booklets written by students now crotchety from rheumatism.
The kitchen had a black stove and a cracked porcelain sink. I looked out the window at the fenced yard, expecting to see dear Nick and Nora, but all I saw was a robin hopping about and a half-deflated ball. The yard was ringed with untamed bushes thick with yellow and fuchsia flowers, however, so it was likely they were out there somewhere.
Pages two through four gave explicit instructions regarding the African violets on the windowsill, kitchen table, stool, chair seats, and every inch of countertop. Feeling as though I’d been drop-kicked into the Darkest Continent, I gave them all water, pinches of food, and admonishments to stay happy and healthy (page four, penultimate paragraph).
Page five. I opened a can of dog food, divided it between two plastic bowls, added half a cup of kibble to each, and moistened that with half a cup of water, all in the amount of time it would have taken to whip up a batch of chocolate mousse, let it set, and eat it. And I was going to do this for twenty more days, I thought glumly as I picked up the bowls and, with a bit of juggling, went out to the back porch and looked around for these canine connoisseurs.
The following remarks may be considered offensive to some, or even sacrilegious, but I am not fond of dogs because they tend to snuffle, drool, and attack with either benevolence or mayhem in their small brains. They chase cars, children, birds, squirrels, and pedestrians, to name a few, and those blessed with obsessive dotage do so dressed in sweaters and boots. They also deposit things on the sidewalk.
Moving on to crimes warranting defenestration or perhaps decapitation, I am not fond of cats because they insist on having their own way, and that includes ill-timed intrusions and more arrogance than fifteen-year-olds. I am legally and morally obligated to put up with Caron, but not with a dependent four-legged mammal that sheds. And she never climbs into my lap to lick my face, sleeps on my feet, performs bodily functions in the yard, or attempts to have sex with my leg.
But for the time being, I was obliged to serve dinner to Nick and Nora, after which I could drive home as quickly as possible and seek solace in a glass of scotch and water. I warily looked around the yard. “Nick? Nora?” I called in my best good-doggie voice, which, of course, wasn’t good at all.
“Who are you?” barked a voice. It really did, although at this point it was early in the game and I was still in possession of my wits, and therefore made no anthropomorphic leaps.
The man was standing in the next yard, and nearly invisible behind a lush growth of honeysuckle on the fence. He was probably in his late sixties, I decided. His face was harshly lined and weathered, his nose hooked over a bushy mustache, and his gray hair cut in an uncompromising crew cut. “I’m Claire Malloy, a friend of Miss Emily’s,” I said. “I agreed to take care of the house and dogs while she’s on a trip.”
“Culworthy here. Colonel, retired U.S. Air Force. Where’d she go?”
“Out West with a group of teachers. Do you have any idea where her dogs might be? I’d like to feed them and go home.”
“Couldn’t say. Parchester lets them run wild. No discipline, no training. Disgraceful to assume responsibility for animals and then not be able to control them.” He shaded his eyes and frowned at me as if my self-control were tenuous. “Damn disgraceful.”
“Absolutely,” I said absently as I peered around the yard for the pair of undisciplined, untrained disgraces. “Nick? Nora?”
“Silly names, too. I told Parchester she should have given them names with dignity, with significance. Mine’s Patton.”
I looked back at him, wondering if he was just a teeny-tiny bit schizophrenic. “I thought you said it was Culworthy.”
He snorted at me. “My golden retriever’s named Patton. He knows the rules. No barking after dark. No chasing squirrels. No digging in the garden.”
I nodded, then took the bowls to the porch and set them down. And was slammed from behind by a tank, or so I thought as I tried to keep from nose-diving into the goopy kibble. For a panicky moment, I envisioned Culworthy attacking me, then realized he was hardly the sort to lick my legs or dig his claws into my derriere, or even to make gurgly noises in my ear while drooling on my neck. Oh no, the unseen assailant was not Colonel Culworthy.
“Get off of me!” I yelled, still perilously close to kibble. “Damn it, Nick and Nora, get off of me!”
The gurgles receded and the slobbery tongue stopped slobbering on my leg. I stood up, reeled around, and found myself glaring at two of the fattest, ugliest basset hounds I’d ever seen. Bassets are bred to have heavy chests, but these jokers were walking wine caskets. They had stubby, misshapen legs, gunky brown eyes, wet jowls that almost brushed the ground, ears that did, and woebegone expressions. One of them made a snuffly noise at me but looked away when I frowned warningly.
“Told you so,” Culworthy cackled from behind the honeysuckle. “Patton knows his place. Never jumps on people.”
“Perhaps he’s waiting for the right moment to rip your throat out,” I said as calmly as I could, then locked my arms and glared at the miscreants. “Listen, you two, I am not going to tolerate any of that behavior. If you intend to eat for the next three weeks, you’d better watch it.”
One of them waddled forward and attempted to lick my foot, but I stepped onto the porch. Pointing a finger at him or her, I said, “That’s exactly the kind of behavior I’m talking about. You either cut it out or prepare to go on a long fast.”
They both wagged their stubby tails, feigning repentance. I shook my finger for emphasis and stalked across the porch and into the kitchen before they could make another play for my foot. Reminding myself it was all my fault, I used a dish towel to dry my leg and neck.
I was still reminding myself half an hour later, but at least I was doing so at home and with a glass of scotch in my hand. Caron and I occupy the top floor of a duplex across the street from the sloping lawn of Farber College, in loco parentis to a few thousand earnest yuppies seeking enough educational expertise to work for a generous savings and loan or a nice, clean oil company.
From the living room window we have a picturesque view of Farber Hall, with its imposing red-brick facade and towers on either end. Until it was condemned, it had housed the English faculty, one of whom had been my husband. When sprinkles of plaster dust had turned to torrential downpours of chunks, the faculty had mosied over to a bland building, where they worried only about asbestos.
I finally granted myself absolution and was settling down with the local newspaper when I heard an ominous sound. Not the snuffly approach of basset hounds from hell, but the relentless footsteps of an indignant teenager as she came upstairs to our apartment. I managed to freshen my drink and was cowering in the classifieds as Caron marched into the room.
“Everybody’s going to be there,” she said accusingly.
“Oh, really? Are you interested in a paper route? How about part-time clerical work at a hardware store?”
She flung herself into the chair across from me. I was still cowering, but I could see the newspaper turning brown as she glared at me with the warmth of a laser. “Every last person I know is going to see Mousse. Every Last Person. Even the nerds and the dweebs and the eighth graders. Rhonda Maguire’s having a slumber party after the concert.”