A Conventional Corpse: A Claire Malloy Mysteryby Joan Hess
Farberville, Arkansas is playing host to its first ever mystery convention. Sponsored by the Thurber Farber Foundation and held at Farber College, Murder Comes to Campus is playing host to five major mystery writers representing all areas of the field. Dragooned into running the show when the original organizer is hospitalized, local bookseller Claire Malloy finds
Farberville, Arkansas is playing host to its first ever mystery convention. Sponsored by the Thurber Farber Foundation and held at Farber College, Murder Comes to Campus is playing host to five major mystery writers representing all areas of the field. Dragooned into running the show when the original organizer is hospitalized, local bookseller Claire Malloy finds herself in the midst of a barely controlled disaster. Not only do each of the writers present their own set of idiosyncracies and difficulties (including one who arrives with her cat Wimple in tow), the feared, distrusted, and disliked mystery editor of Paradigm House, Roxanne Small, puts in a surprise appearance at the conference. Added to Claire's own love-life woes with local police detective Peter Rosen, things have never been worse.
Then when one of the attendees dies in a suspicious car accident, Wimple the cat disappears from Claire's home, and Roxanne Small is nowhere to be found, it becomes evident that the murder mystery is more than a literary genre.
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It had thus far been a reasonably agreeable day, so the last thing I wanted to see was Sally Fromberger marching down the sidewalk, clutching a clipboard to her busom as though it specified disembarkation protocol for the Titanic. She was smiling and nodding at her fellow pedestrians; most of them managed to return the courtesy with only a faint glint of apprehension. There is nothing about Sally that suggests she might be a serial killer in disguise, despite the fact her vanity license plate reads Vegnrules. She has a significant girth, buttery yellow hair, ruddy cheeks, and a perpetual glow of pleasure. The tip-off was the clipboard, I concluded as I continued to arrange gardening books, flowerpots, and assorted tools in what I hoped would be an eye-catching display in the bookstore window.
Not that I wanted to catch eyes, mind you. I was much more interested in platinum credit cards. The Book Depot, situated in an old train station down the hill from the Farber College campus, certainly could use an influx. I suspect bookstores in small college towns like Farberville experience the same swingsa lull in January and February, followed by a flurry of activity before midterm exams, and then a sustained funeral interlude when students pull out blankets and coolers to bask in the sunny spring weather. At such times, a young man's fancy may turn to love (well, lust), but rarely to literature. Not even Elizabeth Barrett Browning can compete with Budweiser when the tanning season arrives.
"Good afternoon," Sally chirped as she came into thebookstore and beamed at me. "It looks as though we'll have perfect weather for the convention, doesn't it? This very morning I had quite a few cardinals and blue jays in my backyard, and there were darling little finches at the feeder. I assumed they were purple finches, but my husband was adamant that they were house finches."
I was tempted to put a flowerpot over my head and hope my red hair resembled roots, but instead descended from the footstool. "Would you like to buy a field guide to North American birds?"
Ignoring my admittedly silly question, Sally began to flip through the thick clutch of pages on her clipboard. "The steering committee met last night at my house to make sure nothing has been overlooked. Everyone attended except you and Dr. Shackley. He was presenting a paper at a seminar on the East Coast, so we could hardly expect him to be there." She glanced up at me with the sly look of a robin assessing the caloric content of a worm. "Your role is vital, you know. The Thurber Farber Foundation for the Humanities has invested a great deal of money in our very first mystery convention. I'm hoping the board members will be adequately impressed with the outcome to continue to fund us in the future."
"So am I," I said, wondering if I could persuade the foundation to fund me in the future, too. As much as I love my musty, dusty, cobweb-riddled bookstore, I barely make enough money to keep my peevish accountant at bay and my sixteen-year-old daughter in designer jeans. When pressed into duty, the boiler at the back of the store hisses with the virulence of a deeply-offended Victorian dowager; it's only a matter of time before it shudders to a timely deathor explodes. One would think owning a bookstore is a suitable job for a widow, but there are moments when it seems perilous.
Sally paused in case I chose to offer an explanation for my unexcused absence, then sighed with enough vigor to produce small-craft warnings on area lakes, and said, "Here are your copies of all the committee reports." She began thrusting pages at me. "Registration is approaching one hundred, and we anticipate a few more. Press releases have gone out to all regional media. The schedule of activities is finalized. Your table will be in the back of the room in which the signings will be held, and you can start setting up Friday at four o'clock. Caron and Inez will be needed to fetch our authors from the airport beginning at noon. They are still willing to do this, aren't they?"
"For seven dollars an hour, they'd carry the authors on their backs." I set the papers down on the counter and attempted to look like someone with a very important chore awaiting her. "If that covers everything ...?"
"These are photocopies of the page proofs for the program book. They'll give you an overview of Farber College's first `Murder Comes to the Campus.' I can't begin to tell you how excited I am, Claire. Just think of the luminaries who have agreed to be our speakers! I never expected such a response."
She didn't have to tell me how excited she was. Her face was flushed and her eyes were glittering; if the boiler didn't explode in the immediate future, she might, splattering the paperback racks with robust red corpuscles. She clearly wanted to continue, but I clasped her shoulder and steered her toward the door.
"Why don't you hurry home?" I said in a concerned voice. "It's likely people are trying to get in touch with you. Your answering machine must be jammed with messages. All of us are so grateful for your attention to details, Sally. Don't let us down now."
"It is a complex project," she said modestly, then sailed out the door to badger some other innocent soul.
I waited until it seemed safe, then went outside to admire my window display. It would not incite rabid gardeners to storm the store, but it might lure in a few green-thumbers. I most certainly was not one; the only things I grew with noticeable success were dustballs, mildew, and gray hairs. Okay, perhaps a few wrinkles, too. Gravity asserts itself at fortywith a vengeance.
Satisfied with my efforts, I went into my cramped office in back, gathered up the checkbook and a stack of invoices, and sat down behind the counter to determine if there was any way to appease some, if not all, of my creditors. Will Rogers never met publishers.
It was not an amusing way to spend a balmy afternoon, and I was gnawing on a pencil and mumbling to myself when the bell above the door jangled. I put down the pencil as Caron and Inez came across the room. "How was school?" I asked in a tritely maternal fashion.
Caron, who had mastered the art of speaking in capital letters at age fourteen, dropped her backpack on the floor and made a face reminiscent of a gargoyle gazing down from the heights of Notre Dame. "School is Such A Bore. Everybody else on the entire planet is outside, soaking up sunshine, while we're incarcerated in that dreary prison. I'm surprised the cafeteria isn't serving bread and water. What's more, the teachers seem to think their job is to torture us. All I was doing was looking out the window, for pity's sake. From the way Mrs. McLair jumped on me, you'd have thought I was skinning an armadillo."
Inez Thornton, a perfectly muted counterfoil to my melodramatic daughter, stared at her. "That's nauseating. Why would anyone skin an armadillo?"
"Who cares?" Caron picked up the pages Sally had left. "I can't believe you're involved in this dorky thing, Mother. Who would actually pay to listen to a bunch of authors talk about where they get their ideas? Mrs. McLair had this writer in to prattle to our class about poetry. My brain positively atrophied. Carrie and Emily were obliged to help me out of my desk and guide me to my next class. I had to chomp down on no less than three peppermint candies to come to my senses."
I resisted an urge to snatch the papers out of her hand. "Authors can be interesting, dear."
"Yeah, and Louis Wilderberry's going to ask me to the prom." Caron went into the office and began to open desk drawers in search of my cache of chocolate.
Inez eyed me warily. "What time are we supposed to pick them up at the airport? I have an algebra test sixth period, and I sort of said I'd help decorate the cafeteria after school for the Latin Club banquet."
"Humanum est errare," I said. "You and Caron promised Sally Fromberger a month ago that you would work Friday afternoon, all day Saturday, and Sunday until whenever."
"Yeah, a month ago," Caron said as she emerged empty-handed and picked the pages up once again. After flinging the irrelevant ones over her shoulder, she paused for a moment. "There's no reason why both of us have to make every run to the airport, Inez. We'll divvy them up so you can practice draping yourself in a bedsheet. Who's this Laureen Parks, Mother? Is she an utter bore?"
"Laureen Parks," I said with admirable restraint, "has made a significant contribution to the mystery genre. She's written over sixty novels of romantic suspense."
Inez peered at me. "Like when the heroine hears a chainsaw in the attic and goes to investigate? I never could figure out why she doesn't just call the police on her cell phone."
"She can't afford one," I muttered.
"Give Me a Break," said Caron. "This author's got to be really old to have written all those books. Inez, you get her. You can tell her how you used to obsess on Azalea Twilight's gushy books."
"That was a long time ago," Inez retorted hotly. "At least two yearsand you read her books, too."
Caron did not deign to respond. "Then, at one-fifteen, somebody named Sherry Lynne Blackstone. You'll have to get her, Inez. I absolutely cannot make polite conversation with somebody named Sherry Lynne. I'd feel obliged to drop her off at a bowling alley. Big hair makes me nervous."
I glared at my darling daughter. "Sherry Lynne Blackstone is responsible for a goodly portion of your wardrobe. Her books have sold steadily for fifteen years. They're a bit too cozy for my taste, but she has a loyal following of cat fanciers."
Caron raised her eyebrows. "Do her cats type clues?"
"Sometimes," I conceded, "but I've been told there are a dozen web sites devoted to Wimple, Dimple, and Doolittle. Their pedigrees, what they prefer to eat, that sort of thing."
"Wimple, Dimple, and Doolittle? That sounds like a sleazy law firm. Maybe I can persuade them to sue Mrs. McLair for vernal abuse."
I resumed my glare. "Sherry Lynne Blackstone is considered to be an outstanding practitioner of the American cozy genre. She's rumored to be gracious, which is more than I can say for certain people."
Caron looked down at the schedule. "And we have Dilys Knoxwood at two o'clock. What kind of name is Dilys? It sounds so scatty. If I were named Dilys, I'd find myself twirling like a bowlegged ballerina at every opportunity. Inez, you"
"No," Inez said with surprising firmness, considering whom she was up against. "I can't leave in the middle of sixth period. All you have is study hall."
"Dilys Knoxwood," I intervened, "writes a very popular series in the classic British tradition. Her books are considered to be the epitome of the genre introduced by Dame Agatha Christie in the nineteen-twenties."
"There's nobody with that name on the list," Inez said, reading over Caron's shoulder. "I guess she'd be pretty old, like my grandmother. Maybe older. At least we're not collecting urns at the airport."
"Okay," Caron said, "I can deal with this ditzy Dilys creature just so you can take your stupid algebra test. You have to get the next one, though. I'm not about to deal with some guy named Walter Dahl. Who are these people, Mother?"
"His books don't sell well for me," I said, "but he receives rave reviews in the literary journals. In my opinion, his characters are so overwhelmed with neuroses that they spend most of their time arguing about the Freudian implications of their motives. I prefer a butler with a well-deserved grudge or a pregnant parlor maid."
Caron gazed coolly at me, then looked at Inez. "If this guy doesn't mind hanging around the airport, I could grab him, Dilys, and ..."her composure evaporated"Allegra Cruzetti! Oh my gawd, InezAllegra Cruzetti! Can you believe it? Why would she come to Farberville? She's famous! Did you read her book?"
Inez was blinking at me as though I'd added Moses to the list as an afterthought. "I thought Courting Disaster was the most thrilling book I've ever read in my entire life! I had this history paper due the next day, but I started reading and just couldn't make myself stop. There's this gorgeous African-American prosecuting attorney, and she's going after this incredibly handsome guy who may or may not have hacked up his mother, but he convinces her that he has an evil twin brother, and"
"I read a review," I said to quell the impending hysteria. "The reviewer found it competent, but that's about all. Cruzetti hopped on the bandwagon at the precise moment to garner maximum attention and a Hollywood deal. A year from now, the hot topic will be sociopathic angels."
"Allegra Cruzetti," Caron trilled with the ardor of a diva, clutching Inez's arms in what must have been a painful vise. "Just think what Rhonda Maguire will say when she finds out I picked up Allegra Cruzetti at the airport! She thinks she's so hot because her father met Carl Sagan at some dumb conference. He never made the best-seller list, did he? Allegra Cruzetti's been on Oprah. She was on the covers of People and Newsweek. She's a real author, not some dorky mystery writer. Rhonda will Absolutely Die. Do you think Ms. Cruzetti would mind if we stopped by the high school for a minute? Mrs. McLair's teeth will fly across the room."
I held up my hands. "Under no circumstances will you use Allegra Cruzetti to undo whatever damage occurred today in your English class. Your mission on Friday is to collect the authors from the airport and deliver them to the Azalea Inn. On Saturday, you and Inez will be available to drive them back and forth from the campus as they desire. On Sunday, you will take them to the airport, and then help me pack up whatever books are unsold. This is going to be an uneventful convention to celebrate the current popularity of mystery fiction. The atmosphere will be calm and dignified, as befitting the occasion. Nothing will go wrong."
Caron and Inez wandered away to conceive of ways to utilize Allegra Cruzetti for their own dark purposes. I returned my attention to outstanding bills, sold a few books over the course of the afternoon, and locked the bookstore at a civilized hour.
I was driving home to the duplex across from the campus lawn when it occurred to me to swing by the venerable building known as Old Main, the site of the convention. I'd stockpiled two dozen boxes of books written by the attending authors; locating a convenient place from which to unload them was vital. Visitors' parking places on the Farber College campus could be as elusive as checks in the mail.
In that classes were done for the day, I had no problem finding a metered space in front of the building. Old Main was the original landmark on campus, a two-towered brick structure that had initially housed all the classes in the early 1900s. As buildings went up, departments were dispersed, but the English department clung to the bitter end. My deceased husband had held his seminars on the first floor, and his dalliances in his office on the third floor. A lack of elevators and a preponderance of asbestos had led to Old Main's condemnation, but generous alumni and a hefty contribution from the Thurber Farber Renovation Fund had restored the building and refitted the classrooms.
According to Sally's notes (which I would never, ever question), signings were to be in a room numbered 130. I walked up the brick stairs and paused to reconnoiter. I flipped a mental coin and went right. The room in question was most definitely locked.
I headed up the high staircase to the second floor and what had once been the English department office. The stale smell of yellowing, ungraded term papers and half-eaten apples in wastebaskets indicated nothing had changed, despite the years' hiatus to a hygenic space in a building on the far side of the campus. The department was continuing its struggle to convince its majors that Beowulf, Tom Wolfe, and Virginia Woolf could lead to academic, if not financial, security.
The office was much as I remembered it, with a view across the campus lawn and a redolence of pipe tobacco, despite the campuswide ban on smoking in public buildings. The aroma was pungent, sending me into an unwanted flashback of Carlton when we'd met at a party, found some inexplicable reason to pursue the relationship, drifted into marriage and parenthoodyet never achieved that most significant emotional cohesion that transcends mundane temptations. Carlton hadn't, in any case; a snow-covered mountain road, a skidding chicken truck, and the presence of a distaff student had resulted in a scandal that the college had glossed over more deftly than a losing football season.
I realized that I was standing in the doorway with a vacant expression. The young Hispanic woman seated at a desk in the center of the room gave me what might charitably be described as an inquiring look. Had her lip not been curled and her eyes narrowed, she would have been attractive. Maybe.
"What do you want?" she said. "It's after five. The office is closed, and I'm not hereokay? You wanna drop or add, call in the morning. Doctor Shackley is out of town, so don't think you're going to see him anytime soon. Not even the Dean's gonna see him. Got that?"
"I'm supplying books for the mystery convention," I said mildly. "Will it be possible to arrange for help to transport the boxes from my car to the signing room?"
"Do I look like someone who cares about this ridiculous thing? My job is to handle the department paperwork, keep Dr. Shackley's wife out of the building, listen to the grad students gripe, and"
"A custodian, perhaps."
"Call maintenance," she said with a shrug. "When, where, whatever. Don't get your hopes up, though. I've been waiting for eleven months to get the photocopy machine fixed."
I shifted tactics. "Sounds like you're having a bad week."
"No kidding. These professors, these studentsall of them seem to think a degree in English literature should qualify them to realign the planets in the solar system, probably in alphabetical order. Go to the local bookstore and ask for a copy of a book by Herman Hesse or James Joyce. If Disney hasn't come out with the cartoon version, the best you'll get is a blank stare. Why would anyone assume there's the least bit of distinction in having read a bunch of dead authors? You know where it's at?"
I'd retreated to the point that my back bumped the door. "I suppose not."
"Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Michael Crichton, John Grisham. Those are living authors, and they write real books. I am so tired of all those calcified fossils." She shoved a lock of black hair off her forehead. "Do you know that Azalea Twilight once lived in Farberville? Right here, not more than three blocks off campus."
"Yes," I murmured, "I knew her."
"You knew Azalea Twilight? Do you know Jackie Collins?"
I shook my head. "Sorry. Is there any chance you can arrange for some assistance from maintenance on Friday? I've been told I can start moving books in at four, but I'm going to need help."
"Call 'em yourself, because like I said, I'm not here." She pulled a gray plastic cover over her computer keyboard, punched several buttons on the telephone on a corner of the desk, and took a purse out of a drawer. "Now, if you'll excuse yourself from my presence, I have better things to do than"
"I'm Claire Malloy," I said with enough warmth to heat Belaruse for the winter.
"Look, I'm just the department secretary. I can't fix the photocopy machine, dreg up some associate professors's email, or deal with the plumbing in the faculty john. Right now, being pregnant and all, I'm thinking about puking in the nearest wastebasket. You want somebody to carry in boxes, that's fine with me. This mystery convention is nothing more than one big pain in la cula. I've already got hemorrhoids. Carry in your boxes? I don't think so."
This was not going well. "Do you have the extension number?" I asked desperately.
"Yeah, but don't get your hopes up that it'll do any good." She pointed at the ceiling. "See that sprinkler? Every day for two months it leaked. I thought about moving my plants under it. The ceiling grew mold and the floorboards began to buckle, but nobody did one thing about it until it dripped on Dr. Shackley's wife's silk blouse. You can imagine how that went over." She stood up. "You're welcome to call maintenance. Tell `em to fix the photocopy machine while they're here, and take a look at the toilet in the faculty lounge. It runs, which is what I've gotta do."
She nudged me out into the hall, locked the door, and scurried down the stairs. I waited, feeling as if something catastrophic ought to occur; when nothing did, I wandered to the end of the hall and looked out the window at the crisscrossing sidewalks and newly-leafing trees. A few students were meandering homeward or toward the bars on Thurber Street, but without urgency.
Resisting the temptation to visit Carlton's former office, I went back out to my car. A call to Sally, however repugnantly cheerful she might be, would resolve the problem. If not, Caron and Inez would have to find a few minutes to help me with the boxes. The problem was far from overwhelming, and I could anticipate exceedingly healthy sales from the hundred-odd registrants. Sally had not overestimated the significance of the authors who were arriving at the end of the week. Allegra Cruzetti was the current golden child, and Laureen Parks showed up on the best-seller list on occasion; the others, with the exception of Walter Dahl, were midlist but steady sellers. And I, a die-hard fan of the genre since the age of eleven, when Carolyn Keene and I first crossed paths, would meet them. In person. Caron wasn't interested in where they got their ideas, but I was. Perhaps not on Olympusbut I wouldn't rule it out.
I may have been a bit giddy as I went back to my car and drove home. I went upstairs, imagining myself in a piercingly significant conversation with Dilys Knoxwood regarding the poisoned knitting needle in Sir Attenbury's parlor, paused in the kitchen to stick a frozen dinner in the microwave, and headed for the bathroom.
And saw the flowers on the coffee table.
Flowers, in general, are good. These, in particular, were glorious: exotic orange lilies, birds-of-paradise, magenta-streaked orchids, feathery green fronds. These, in particular, were also very bad, since I could think of only one person who might have sent them.
"Caron!" I called.
She came out of her room. "They came earlier today. The guy in the downstairs apartment accepted them from the florist, then brought them up here when I came home. I didn't know what else to do but tell him thanks."
"That's all you could do," I said as I sat down on the sofa and regarded the card held aloft in a plastic fork. "Did you read it?"
She nodded. "They're from Peter."
"All the card says is `Love, Peter.'" Caron sat down on an armchair across from me and shifted uncomfortably for a moment. "I wish you'd tell me what's going on, Mother. It does concern me, you know."
"I know it does, dear," I said, sifting through my thoughts as if I might find a nugget of coherence. "Peter seemed to think he had the solutionmine and yours and his. We were very close to establishing a household to determine if he was right."
"A household?" Caron said carefully. "As in ...?"
"Well, marriage, although I would have discussed it with you before I agreed to anything. You're old enough to put forth your thoughts. I would have listened. You and I would have made the decision."
Caron swallowed. "When Dad died, you weren't looking for my thoughts. You did all the prescribed hugging, but you might as well have been wrapped like a mummy. I know Dad was with a girl when he was killed in the accident. You've never told me how to deal with that."
"As if I knew," I said as I went across the room and dragged her up for a bone-crunching embrace. She remained limp for a moment, then reciprocated with both vigor and tears. "I haven't dealt with it, either," I added. "I do know your father adored you."
"And maybe you, but not us."
Her perspicacity went well beyond her sixteen years. Unable to respond, I squeezed her until she whimpered in protest, then retreated to the sofa. "As for Peter," I said, "when last heard from, he was in the company of his ex-wife, the lovely Leslie. Leslie has Russian wolfhounds. She is a loyal attendee of the opera season in St. Petersburg. She does something on Wall Street that makes her rich and successful. Peter's mother adores her."
"You know who you sound like?" Caron asked as she flopped back across the armchair.
"Me, when I talk about Rhonda Maguire. Remember what you always say?"
"This is entirely different," I said. "It is not about infatuation and petty jealousy. What's more, those flowers are the wrong color."
And they were, considering.
Meet the Author
Joan Hess is the winner of the American Mystery Award and the author of twelve previous Claire Malloy books, including Dear Miss Demeanor and Strangled Prose, as well as the Maggody mystery series. A member of Sisters in Crime and a former president of the American Crime Writers League, she lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
JOAN HESS is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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