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Minor Haddam, this cheerfully brazen homage to Ten Little Indians still has all the sparkle and complexity her fans have come to expect.
GREGOR DEMARKIAN WAS NOT used to thinking of Bennis Hannaford as a competent person. He wasn't even used to thinking of Bennis as an adult—and that was in spite of the fact that, if his calculations were correct, she should be turning forty sometime soon. Back on Cavanaugh Street in Philadelphia, where they both lived, Bennis was often treated like a cross between a force of nature and a certified lunatic. "Bennis the Menace," Father Tibor Kasparian called her, and everybody understood what he meant. Bennis came from a rich family out on the Main Line and had made a pile writing sword and sorcery fantasy novels: obviously, she had too much money. Bennis dated rock musicians with rings through their noses and respectable-looking politicians on the rise who turned out later to have connections with Saddam Hussein: obviously, Bennis had too little sense. "Too much," Bennis's best friend on the street, Donna Moradanyan, once said, "is practically Bennis's real name."
It was now seven o'clock in the morning on the Thursday they were supposed to go up to Maine, and Gregor was sitting in the dining room of the Boston Hilton, watching Bennis cross the carpet to join him for breakfast. Forty or not, Bennis looked good. There were streaks of gray in her great cloud of black hair—Bennis treated Lida Arkmanian's suggestions that she "do something about herself," like use lipstick or color her hair, the way a Hasidic rabbi would treat the suggestion that he ease his hunger with pork—and her hands looked longer and wirier and more muscular than they had when Gregor had first met her. Gregor was more impressed with the fact that she didn't have a line on her face and that she had managed to stay so thin.
"I haven't had any children, Gregor," Bennis would point out to him, whenever he brought this up. "What do you think it is that puts serious weight on most women?"
Gregor had known plenty of women who had put on serious weight for no good reason he could tell. That came of having lived significant portions of his life in Armenian ethnic neighborhoods. He had known other women—while he was with the FBI in Washington—who were thin to the point of emaciation but who did nothing else with their time. If you asked these women how they were, they obsessed for fifteen minutes on the exact number of calories there had been in the celery-and-lemon sandwich they'd had at noon. Bennis didn't do that, either. She was just this slight figure, five foot four and fine boned without being fragile, walking along in the costume he thought of as her uniform: Eddie Bauer blue jeans; L.L. Bean turtle-neck; J. Crew long red cotton sweater. If the major catalog companies ever went out of business, Bennis would have to go naked.
Halfway across the dining room, Bennis stopped to talk to a waiter. She smiled. She nodded. Her face lit up as if the conversation she was having was the most charming exchange she had ever engaged in in her life. The waiter, who had started out cool, thawed. Bennis talked to him a few more moments, nodded vigorously one more time, and then moved on.
"The fuss you have to go through to get waiters to go off their menus," she said as she sat down across from Gregor, "is enough to make me want to take to alcohol at dawn. Good morning, Gregor. How are you?"
"I'm fine. How are you?"
"I'm in a perfectly lousy mood. How did you expect me to be?"
"I wasn't venturing to guess."
Bennis got out her cigarettes and lit one up. "I used to live in Boston," she said, almost dreamily. "I used to own an apartment here and go out with a member of the Boston city government. I did that for years. I don't know how I stood it."
"I hate Boston, Gregor. I hate it."
Gregor shook his head. "If you ask me, it wasn't Boston you had the trouble with. It was Cambridge."
Bennis made a face, and the waiter arrived with a pitcher of orange juice.
Actually, Gregor knew exactly what was bothering Bennis, and he knew it had nothing whatever to do with Boston. The trouble had started back on Cavanaugh Street, when Bennis had decided that going up to Maine to accommodate her family was not a good enough reason to put extensive mileage on her tangerine orange two-seater Mercedes convertible. That was when she had decided to accept the invitation of a woman named Darcy Bentley to do a reading of her work and a signing at the Cambridge Full Fantasy Bookstore.
"It was the combination that should have tipped me off," Bennis said later, after it was all over, while she was lying across the bed in her hotel room smoking her first cigarette in three months. "It was that adjective full. A full fantasy bookstore in a regular small town would have been all right. A regular fantasy bookstore in a college town would have been all right. A full fantasy bookstore in a college town is asking for trouble."
What seemed to be trouble, from the beginning, was Darcy Bentley, who reacted to her first sight of Bennis Hannaford as if she had just been granted a face-to-face audience with God. Gregor had seen it happen before, in airports and restaurants, when the real fanatics among Bennis's six million or so regular readers bumped into their idol on the way to the ladies' room. Darcy Bentley was something beyond a fanatic, however. She was a slight young woman with frowsy brown hair and a frowsy white face, made only marginally interesting by a pair of very large, very dark eyes. As soon as she saw Bennis she held out her hand and gushed, "Oh. You came in disguise. I was so hoping you'd read to us in your Zedalian ceremonial robes."
"The problem with people like Darcy Bentley," Bennis told Gregor later, adding a tall glass of Drambuie on the rocks to her cigarette in an effort to calm herself down, "is that they don't have to take anything else seriously, so they take this seriously instead. Except they take it seriously in the wrong way. I mean, there is no Zedalia. I made it up."
"How do you know Darcy Bentley doesn't have anything else serious to worry about?" Gregor asked her.
Bennis shrugged. "That little flower-print hippie dress of hers came from Jennifer House. I'll bet it cost three hundred dollars."
In the store, Gregor didn't notice Darcy Bentley's clothes, only her face, which seemed to have taken on an odd glow. Bennis Hannaford had arrived, and Darcy Bentley was like a moon, taking its warmth from the sun.
"Oh, we're so excited to have you here," Darcy Bentley kept saying, over and over again. "You have no idea. We've been hoping for something like this for years."
Somewhere in the middle of these effusions, the door to the store swung open and another woman came in. She was shorter and fatter and older than Darcy, but her height and weight and age were beside the point. What struck Gregor was her outfit, which had gone beyond the bizarre and entered the realm of the flagrantly eccentric. On her head the fat woman wore a tall conical cap of embroidered jade green satin. From its point, two dark green satin ribbons fluttered down, as if she were a maypole. Her dress was embroidered jade green satin, too. If you could call it a dress. It fell to her feet and hung like a judge's robes or a graduation gown. It was her footwear that impressed Gregor the most, though. Each of her embroidered jade green slippers had a cluster of jingle bells on the toe. The jingle bells jingled when she walked.
"Oh, Natalia," Darcy crowed, as soon as she saw this woman come in. "I'm glad you're the first one here. This is Bennis Hannaford."
"How do you do." Instead of holding her hand out to be shaken, Natalia dropped to one knee and kissed the hem of Bennis's tweed skirt. Bennis nearly jumped out of her skin. Natalia struggled to her feet. "I see you've come in disguise," she said. "That may have been a very wise thing. I seemed to attract some of the most peculiar reactions on the bus coming over here today."
"This is Gregor Demarkian," Bennis said, in a weak voice.
Natalia was perfectly happy to shake Gregor's hand.
After that there was a lengthy silence, during which Darcy and Natalia gazed adoringly at Bennis, and Bennis cast around desperately for something to say. Gregor was just beginning to get desperate himself, when the door opened and three more women came in. Like Natalia, they were in costume, two in peaked hats and robes and one in embroidered satin trousers and an embroidered satin tunic. In Zedalia, Gregor surmised, the women of the nobility must go around exclusively in embroidered satin. Gregor had read one or two of Bennis's books, but he could never remember what was in them. With the knights and the ladies and the unicorns and the magic, they never made any sense to him. Like Natalia, the three new women dropped to the floor and kissed the hem of Bennis's skirt. Bennis leaned over until her lips were touching Gregor's ear and hissed, "I need a very large glass of Scotch and a cigarette."
Gregor needed the Scotch himself. He had never smoked. The three women stood up and smiled shyly at Bennis. Darcy Bentley introduced them as Katania, Melinda, and Allamanda. Obviously their names, like their costumes, had been taken from one novel or the other of Zedalian life. From what Gregor remembered, there was a companion world to Zedalia in Bennis's novels, called Zed. Zed was populated entirely by men. He wondered if there were little groups of men somewhere who dressed up in the costumes of Zed and practiced on each other the secret handshakes and underground codes of Zed's nobility. It was depressing to think about it, but there probably were.
"Oh, Miss Hannaford," Katania said. "I'm so glad to meet you. There are so many questions I want to ask you."
"We all want to ask you," Melinda said.
"I want you to answer one question right away," Allamanda said. "I just can't wait for the answer."
"Sure," Bennis said recklessly. "Ask away."
"Well," Allamanda said, quite seriously. "Do you write your books yourself, or are they channeled?"
It went downhill from there, way downhill, and rapidly, like a boulder falling off the side of Mount Everest. More women came in, and as they did Gregor began to realize that no one was going to show up at this reading who was not in costume. What was more, both the costumes and the behavior grew increasingly odd. At some point, the crowd reached critical mass, and they began to talk funny. Gregor caught perfectly sensible syllables, but they didn't seem to translate into words.
"Zia dum gorno rok," Darcy Bentley seemed to be saying to Natalia.
"Gorno tok dem barnia beldap," Natalia answered.
"What's going on here?" Gregor asked Bennis. "Do you know what they're talking about?"
"No," Bennis said.
"Do you know what's going on here?"
Bennis sighed. "They're speaking Zedalian," she explained. "There's a chapter in Zedalia in Winter that supposedly outlines how to translate Zedalian into English and vice versa."
"Well, you couldn't prove it by me, Gregor. I've never tried to make it work."
Bennis didn't try to make it work now, either. When people spoke to her in Zedalian, she ignored them, and when Darcy asked her if she could read in Zedalian—"We thought it might be a relief for you to hear your work in its original language; and we all understand it here."—Bennis adamantly refused. For a moment, Gregor thought she was going to refuse to do the reading at all, but she was much too much of a professional for that. She got out the manuscript she had been working on back in Philadelphia—at readings, Bennis had explained to Gregor on the drive to Boston, the audience always prefers works in progress—and recited three pages of it with suitable vocal flourish. When people cried out "Great Goddess, hosanna," in the middle of everything, for no reason at all, she acted as if she hadn't heard them. When the reading was over and Natalia leapt to her feet to do a bell dance around a paperback copy of Zedalia in Love and War she had thrown to the floor, Bennis simply got up, went over to the desk, and took her pen out in preparation for signing books. Nobody seemed to notice that she was not participating in the festivities. Nobody seemed to notice much of anything. A lot of people had joined Natalia in her bell dance.
"What it is, I think," Bennis told Gregor back at the hotel, while she dragged on a Benson & Hedges menthol as if it were an oxygen mask, "is that people need to identify with something, and they don't want to identify with their families anymore. Families are supposed to be a drag. So instead, they identify with a fictional landscape, like Zedalia."
"If you drink any more of that stuff," Gregor told her, "you're going to be in no shape to drive us to Maine tomorrow morning."
"What worries me, Gregor, is that I might be contributing to the spread of schizophrenia. I might be causing schizophrenia that wouldn't otherwise exist in the world."
Back at the bookstore, all Bennis had been interested in was getting finished and getting out, but it hadn't been easy. The customers had hundreds of books for her to sign, and even after she'd signed them, they hadn't wanted to let her go. No sooner had Bennis pushed away the last copy of any of her books existing anywhere in the Cambridge Full Fantasy Bookstore, than Darcy Bentley and Natalia came running up, carrying something large between them that was covered by a sheet.
"Look," Darcy Bentley squealed, pulling the sheet off with her left hand. "Look what we got for you. And it was just a miracle that we were able to find it."
What they had found was a gigantic porcelain replica of a Stone Age fertility goddess, four feet high and almost as wide, with great drooping heavy breasts and a belly the size and shape of an NBA regulation basketball. Underneath the belly there were feet, but there didn't seem to be legs. On the head there were long wild tresses of hair that stood up at the ends. Around the neck curled a long snake with flashing green eyes.
The statue had flashing green eyes, too. That's because the eyes on the snake and on the statue's head were tiny green light bulbs, and the whole thing was kept working by four CC batteries and a little nest of plastic-coated wires.
"Isn't it wonderful?" Darcy demanded. "We took one look at it and knew that nothing else on earth would ever come so close to expressing the spirit of your books."
Sitting in the Hilton dining room in front of her pitcher of orange juice and an enormous fruit salad, Bennis looked more depressed than Gregor had ever remembered seeing her. She was only picking at her fresh pineapple, which was her favorite thing on earth after dark chocolate. She hadn't touched her coffee. She had drunk most of the pitcher of orange juice, but Gregor thought that that was mostly because she was hung over. She had to be hung over. After coming back from the bookstore last night, she had put away half of a large bottle of Drambuie, and no dinner.
"Come on." Gregor nudged her foot gently under the table. "Cheer up a little. We've got a long drive."
"I know we do," Bennis said. "But do you know what I was just thinking?"
"I was just thinking that they aren't alone. Those people at the bookstore last night. They're more colorful about it than most people, but most people are crazy."
Bennis nodded gloomily. "Take the people we're going up to Maine today to see. Cavender Marsh. Do you remember Cavender Marsh?"
"Movie star from the '30s," Gregor said. "Had an affair with his wife's sister. Wife died, possibly a suicide. He ran off with the sister. We've been through all this before."
"I know we have. I know we have. But bear with me. In the first place, his name isn't really Cavender Marsh. It's John Day. He was—what? My mother's first cousin once removed?"
"He was your mother's second cousin. Your mother's first cousins once removed were the children of her cousins. Your mother's second cousins are the children of your mother's parents' cousins. And there isn't anything crazy about a man changing his name when he becomes an actor. People do it all the time."
"I think you'd have to be from the Main Line to understand how a connection like my mother's second cousin could get me into a mess like this," Bennis said. "I'm from the Main Line and I barely understand it."
"I was just trying to point out that, your pessimism notwithstanding, there doesn't seem to be anything on the lunatic fringe here yet."
Bennis speared a piece of pineapple and bit off the end of it. "I think there's enough on the lunatic fringe in this thing to satisfy a psychiatrist for a decade. Her name isn't really Tasheba Kent, by the way. It's Thelma."
Excerpted from And One to Die On by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1996 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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