Chile Death (China Bayles Series #7)by Susan Wittig Albert
Ex-lawyer turned herbalist and amateur sleuth China Bayles attends a chili cookoff where a womanizing judge dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts. And since everyone knows peanuts don't belong in a bowl of Texas chili, China knows something suspicious is afoot... See more details below
Ex-lawyer turned herbalist and amateur sleuth China Bayles attends a chili cookoff where a womanizing judge dies of an allergic reaction to peanuts. And since everyone knows peanuts don't belong in a bowl of Texas chili, China knows something suspicious is afoot...
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The recorded history of the genus Capsicum begins with Columbus, who undertook his voyage of discovery in search of (among other things) black pepper, the most valuable of Eastern spices. Columbus did not find what he was looking for, but in the opinion of many people, he bit into something much better. He became the first European to blister his tongue on a hot pepper.
"Hot Pods and Fired-up Fare"
Pecan Springs Enterprise
Most times, it isn't easy to know where to start a story, or what to include in the telling. The threads of any present moment are spliced into the weave of the past in a complex and often inexplicable way, and just when you think you've got the pattern figured out, another seems to emerge and the meaning unravels. Or to use a different metaphor, the present and the past swirl together like different colors of paint you're mixing in a bucket, one color marrying with the other in swirls that eventually belong to neither. Exactly when the two become something different than either are alone, it's impossible to say.
I know where this story begins, although I don't yet know how it ends, or what other stories may become woven into it. My life got derailed when Mike McQuaid, on temporary assignment with the Texas Rangers, was gunned down on a lonely road west of San Antonio. Until that rainy February night, I was moving along with confidence into the future, dividing my time between my business (my herb shop, Thyme and Seasons), my family (McQuaid and his twelve-year-old son, Brian, with whom I live), and a few good friends. On that night, the sky fell, and for a long time I wondered whether the darkness would ever end. But one morning, to my surprise, the sun came up, and opened a new chapter.
I also know what this story, this chapter of my life, is about. It's about partners and friends, partnership and alliance. It's about deception and death and the various ways we fail in our obligations to one another. But it's also about trust and teamwork and accepting our mutual interdependence.
But enough introduction. As Fannie Couch says, "Ain't no point messin' around. Tell the good part first and then the bad, and the rest will follow along on its own."
Fannie is widely venerated as the oracle of Pecan Springs, Texas. I guess I'd better follow her advice.
The good part is that McQuaid is not going to die. The bullet that was lodged against his spine has done the worst of its damage, and unless some unforeseen complications occur during his long recovery, he'll make it. He's a strong, tough man who has been beaten, knifed, and shot before, during the years he was a Houston cop. He is a survivor. He's surviving.
The bad part is, well ...
"He is going to walk again," Brian says fiercely. He looks up at me with his dad's eyes, steel-gray and angry at the unfair hand that fate has dealt out to his father. He pushes back the dark hair that has fallen across his forehead and says it again, to convince himself and me. "He is, China. I'm going to help him."
"Sure," I say, in as bright a tone as I can manage. Brian appears confident, but I know where his demons are corralled, and it's not fair to add mine to the herd. I give him a hard quick hug, a rare thing between us, because he is after all a boy and I am not quite his mother. "How about taking a pizza when we go see him tonight?"
"Yeah." Brian is determinedly, heartbreakingly cheerful. "With anchovies and jalapenos. And chocolate ice cream. No, Double Chocolate Fudge. He has to keep his strength up." The fierce look is back. "He's going to walk again, China. I know he is."
McQuaid's parents aren't so sure. When we meet at the hospital, Mother McQuaid is red-eyed and tearful and her smile sags under its own weight. Like Brian, she is intent on keeping McQuaid's strength up, delivering enough cookies, cakes, and hand-knitted argyle bed socks to supply every patient in the hospital.
But Dad McQuaid is angrily bluff, in turn raging at the nurses and ranting at the doctors. "Them guys're s'posed to be so smart, how come Mike ain't walkin' yet?" he demands. "What'd they learn in medical school? What're they doin' for all that money they get paid?" Then the anger empties out, and he's limp and despairing and numb. "He ain't never gonna walk agin," he says to me outside the room, wiping his eyes. I murmur disagreement but pat his shoulder, mimicking Brian's comforting gesture. I feel as if we've all been flung into deep water, and Brian and I are the only ones who can swim.
* * *
No, that's not true. There's my mother, who not only knows how to swim but is sure that she is strong enough to tow the raft, with all of us aboard.
My relationship with Leatha has been an unhappy one, even after she sobered up a couple of years ago, married Sam, and moved from her luxurious Houston home to his rather primitive ranch near Kerrville. It's hard to forgive her for not being the mother I wanted so desperately when I was growing up, hard to forget coming home from school and finding her already embarked on her own private happy hour, which invariably ended when I put her to bed, drunk as a skunk, and cooked a frozen dinner for myself. I know, I know--it's all in the past and I should bury all those toxic memories and live with what she is now, a recovering alcoholic who desperately wants to be a part of her daughter's life. But it's been a stubborn hurt. The only time we've held one another in years was the night McQuaid was shot, when we wept with our arms wrapped around each other.
Which Leatha took as an invitation. A week after the shooting, I opened the door one afternoon and saw her lugging three suitcases, two cosmetic cases, and a carton of self-help books up the porch steps. In my surprise, I didn't protest hard enough, and the next thing I knew she had installed herself in one of the guest bedrooms of the large Victorian house that McQuaid and I leased last year. Having resprayed her silver bouffant and renewed her mauve lipstick, she came into the office where I was on the phone and the computer at the same time, checking the ad copy that was due at the Pecan Springs Enterprise office that afternoon. Brian was there, regaling me with details of the lunchtime fight he had with his friend Arnold and demonstrating the actual kung-fu punches and kicks they had traded, punctuated with pows and blams. And Howard Cosell, McQuaid's elderly and ill-tempered bassett hound, was parked under my chair, licking a sore paw and complaining in his gravelly voice that the boy was interrupting his nap.
Leatha raised her voice above these cacophonies. "You'll be spending a lot of time with Mike and you can't neglect your business," she announced briskly, "so I've come to stay for a while. As long as you need me."
I put down the phone. "I don't need--" I started to say, but Brian preempted me.
"That's cool," he said, stopping his martial arts demonstration and getting straight to the heart of the matter. "Can you make waffles for breakfast? China used to, but she's too busy right now."
"You're old enough to make your own waffles, Brian." I spoke more shortly than I intended, but I was annoyed that he'd gone over to the enemy so quickly. To my mother, I said, "Brian and I can manage for ourselves, Leatha. Anyway, Sam will get lonely--and what will happen to all your projects?"
The energy that Leatha once poured into the bottle now goes into worthwhile causes. She has taken on Kerrville's Friends of the Library, the Courthouse Restoration Project, and the Hospital Auxiliary. To judge from the newspaper clippings she sends, she is a one-woman volunteer army, always anxious to help whoever seems to need it. To be honest, I find this pungently ironic. Where was she when I needed her, forty or so years ago?
"Sam won't be lonely long," Leatha said with equanimity. "His oldest daughter by his first wife left her husband and is moving back home with the baby. And his youngest son has dropped out of college and is living in the bunkhouse." I don't try to keep up with the comings and goings of Sam's family, which seems to ebb and flow like some sort of mysterious tide. "And the projects will just have to take care of themselves for a while. I'm taking care of you, China." She smiled at Brian. "You, too, Brian. And maybe, some of these weekends, you can go to the ranch with me. That river is full of fish just dying to be caught, and Sam hung a rope swing in the cypress tree, over the swimming hole. He also bought a big brown horse named Rambo. He's got four white socks and a white blaze on his forehead -- and he's the perfect size for a big guy like you."
I gritted my teeth. Flattery, flattery.
"Rambo!" Brian squealed excitedly. "Oh, wow." He turned to me. "When can I go, China? When, huh?" Then he stopped and pulled his dark brows together, looking serious. "But maybe I better not. I better stay and cheer Dad up. He gets kinda down sometimes."
I made another effort. "Leatha," I said, "Brian and I really don't need--"
"Yes, you do," she said, very firmly. "You certainly do. Both of you."
Brian looked from one to the other of us, figuring the angles. The ranch might not be in the cards, but there were always waffles. "Blueberry is my favorite," he said.
"Mine too," she said with a bright smile that showed all her teeth. "I absolutely adore making blueberry waffles. Meanwhile, maybe you can tell me where the laundry soap lives. There's a pile of very muddy jeans in the bathroom." She wrinkled her nose. "With a monstrous creature on top. It is green."
I was bemused by the thought of my elegant mother (who for years had a maid to rinse out her stockings) actually washing Brian's grubby jeans and making blueberry waffles for him. But Brian (who is supposed to put his own jeans in the washer) was enthusiastic.
"I'll show you the soap," he offered helpfully. "The monster is Einstein. He's an iguana, and he's very smart. But he won't bite unless he's sitting in the sun."
Leatha looked startled. "In the sun?"
"Yeah. Sunshine makes him frisky. It triggers his aggressive genes." He prodded Howard Cosell with his toe. "Hey, Howard, you dumb old dog. Wake up. We're going to do the laundry." Howard Cosell raised his head and bared snaggly yellow teeth, promising that he would bite, if certain people didn't go away and let him finish his nap.
Leatha had recovered her poise. "Well, come along, then," she commanded, rattling her silver bangle bracelets. "And while I'm here, it might be better to keep Einstein in the dark." She narrowed her eyes. "What about those other creatures of yours, Brian? That ... tarantula?"
"Ivan the Hairible? Oh, I still have him," he said eagerly. "Would you like to see?"
Leatha shuddered. "I think not." She turned around, surveyed me, and said, briskly, "Really, China, don't you think you ought to get your hair cut? I'm sure Mike would appreciate a less straggly you when he's able to be up and around."
Howard Cosell gave a resigned sigh and covered his eyes with his paws. I suppressed a snarl and went back to the computer. I didn't need a crystal ball to know that this arrangement was not going to work.
Through the long, anxious weeks that followed, I wasn't sure which hurt most: being with McQuaid or not being with him. Like most people, I hate hospitals--the chill white sterility of the hallways and rooms, the antiseptic smell, the curt, crisp efficiency of the nurses. I wonder if they're taught not to care in nursing school or whether those frozen faces come with the uniform--or whether they really do care and have to pretend they don't or fall apart.
But the hospital was only a backdrop to the real pain. Before the shooting, McQuaid was a big man with a big man's powerful presence, a former football quarterback and ex-cop who'd kept his strong muscles and his flat belly and--most notably--his cheerful attitude. He could be commanding and authoritative, especially when he was lecturing in one of his classes at Central Texas State University, where he's on the Criminal Justice faculty. But most of the time, he was confident and optimistic, your basic nice guy.
McQuaid was still big and still strong--it would take more than a couple of weeks on his back to change that--but the attitude was gone. Trussed up with plastic tubes, wired to machines, and able to move only his hands (even that little bit was an enormous improvement over the first few days, when he couldn't move at all), he would close his eyes and go inside himself, away from me, silent, remote, utterly despairing. I understood what took him away, but my understanding didn't ease his pain or calm his fear or bring him back from the dark place he had gone.
The suffering wasn't just his, either. For five years, McQuaid had wanted us to get married. Out of pride in my independence and self-sufficiency, I had always refused--until just before the shooting, when I woke up to the way I really felt about him and was ready to agree. But by that time, he'd gotten involved with somebody else. With Margaret Graham, a woman fifteen years younger than me, his partner in an investigation into corruption high up in the Texas Rangers' chain of command.
But although their brief affair was over and Margaret and I had become friends, the shooting changed McQuaid's view of the future--and his desire to get married. "Let's let it ride for a while" was all he'd say when I brought it up. He didn't have to tell me why. I knew that he feared he'd never be whole and healthy again, and he didn't want to burden me with his care, with half a husband.
But as I sat beside his bed, reading provocative snippets from Constance Letterman's gossip column in the Enterprise or reporting on my recent consultation with Brian's math teacher or just watching Mike sleep, I would think of the numbing moment when I feared I had lost him, and feel grateful. Whole or half, healthy or disabled, it didn't matter. McQuaid was here, he was alive, and that was enough.
Beneath the gratitude, though, I was heavy with sadness and loss. Why had I been so afraid of intimacy, of caring, of marriage? Why had I built such a wall against his love? If only I had been able to give more, we might have shared more. If only I hadn't been afraid to be vulnerable, we might have been more open with each other. If only ... if only ...
At those moments, I had to turn away to keep him from seeing the tears. I didn't want him to think I was weeping for him--for what he had been and might not ever be again. I was weeping for myself, and regretting what I had been.
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Another good China Bayles book.
I enjoyed this installment in the China Bayles series more than the last one. In this book a chili cookoff judge is murdered (at least China and Mike think he was murdered). China was back to her usual confident, independent self in this story, and thank goodness no further mention of McQuaid's indiscretions. Ruby is her usual kooky self, and I think she is the character that makes this series worth reading. China uncovers a dastardly plot on her own this time because McQuaid is recovering from a serious gunshot wound that he received in the last book. She does get advice and help though from McQuaid and from Ruby who comes just in the nick of time at the end. A really good mystery, and it restored my faith in the series.
China and McQuaid are not married in this book. Imagine how a former Texas ranger male ego would feel having become confined to a wheelchair. While that is the focus of this part of their relationship, the mystery is great as usual. You always have to enjoy a mystery when you are glad the victim has been offed.