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Clouds in My Coffee
The Country Club Murders
By Julie Mulhern
Henery PressCopyright © 2016 Julie Mulhern
All rights reserved.
Kansas City, Missouri
Max, his short grey tail wagging impossibly fast, met me at the door with a did-you-ask-the-butcher-for-a-bone expression on his expressive doggy face. Of course, I had.
"Let me put the groceries away first."
He sighed as if I had my priorities backward.
I unpacked the bags, putting the cucumber in the sink to be rinsed, the potatoes in a basket on the counter, and the Tab in the fridge. Max whined softly, reminding me that he was waiting.
I scratched behind his silken gray ears and gave him his bone.
I answered the phone, stretching the cord toward the sink and the waiting cucumber. "Hello."
"Ellie. We have a problem." No greeting, no endearment, no inquiry as to my day. Daddy's words chilled me.
Horrible possibilities scrolled through my brain. "Is Mother all right?" Had the stress of planning a major event finally gotten to her? Had she suffered a stroke or a nervous breakdown? Unlikely. Mother ran her events with military precision. She ate stress for breakfast.
General Westmoreland could have learned a thing or two about organizing an army from Mother. Probably he could have learned about guerilla warfare as well.
I wish I had learned those things. Mother was all too willing to instruct me, but I had no desire to learn.
Who knew that long tall vases topped by balls made of pink carnations could look so phallic? The thought never occurred to me. It probably occurred to lots of the women who helped with the luncheon. No one said a thing.
They let me venture into battle with my flak suit around my knees.
That luncheon, remembered forever as Ellison's penis party, would never have happened to Mother.
"What's happened?" My voice sounded breathless. "Is Mother all right?"
"Your mother's fine."
Relief flooded my veins.
"But we need your help."
Dread replaced relief in my blood stream.
Help could mean folding six hundred napkins into swans. I proceeded with caution. "What is it?"
Daddy cleared his throat. "Your Aunt Sis has arrived."
As far as I knew, Aunt Sis came to Kansas City for weddings and funerals. We'd had neither in years. Well, not if you didn't count Henry's funeral in June. I didn't. "I thought she was in Majorca."
"So did your mother." Daddy used his driest tone — the one he saved for occurrences that interrupted his golf game or cocktail hour.
"But she's here? Now?"
"In the kitchen as we speak."
I pictured him in his study, surrounded by pecan paneling and pictures of his family. We smiled in those pictures, hid the problems, filled in the cracks and slapped on a coat of new paint. Aunt Sis was a crack that couldn't be filled. Why had she come to Kansas City now?
"You want me to take Aunt Sis?" It wasn't really a question.
"Please." Daddy didn't beg. At least not usually.
"Mother has Aggie." Taking on a houseguest without a housekeeper sounded like a recipe for disaster.
"You can have Aggie back. I'll hire your mother a temporary assistant — a Kelly Girl. Will you take Sis? Please?"
Daddy was brilliant. A Kelly Girl! We should have hired Mother a team of Kelly Girls weeks ago.
"Also, Sis has it in her head that she wants to go to a dinner theatre. If I buy the tickets, will you go with her?"
I swallowed a sigh. "Of course. What are you going to say about moving her to my house?" Foisting off a houseguest wasn't exactly polite.
"I'll tell her your Mother is terribly busy and you'd like to spend some time with her."
I hadn't seen Aunt Sis since my wedding. She'd jetted in from someplace exotic — Majorca or Cyprus — pulled me aside thirty minutes before the ceremony and told me not to marry Henry. She had no way of knowing what he'd become — a barnacle on the ass of humanity — she just thought he was boring. Her exact words were "dull as a lengthy sermon." Unfortunately, Mother overheard. The ensuing discussion was lengthy but not dull. The two dredged up four decades' worth of slights and hurt feelings and resentment at full decibel.
Daddy ended their fight by comparing them to fish wives.
Since then their only communication has been birthday and Christmas cards.
"How long is she staying?"
Daddy grunted. Did that mean a night? A week? A month?
"How long?" I insisted.
"She hasn't said."
"I'll put her in the blue room for now."
"Thank you, Ellie. I owe you one."
Playing host to Aunt Sis couldn't come close to paying the debt I owed him. My throat tightened. "It's not a problem."
He chuckled. "You know how your aunt reinvents herself every so often?"
I made a noncommittal noise. My memories of Aunt Sis consisted of birthday gifts sent from afar and seemingly selected to annoy Mother — makeup when I was five, a lace (and completely unnecessary) brassiere when I was ten, and a Cab Calloway record when I was fifteen (Mother thought scat was something wild animals left in the woods). Then there was the year of the hookah — I still remember Mother's appalled expression (unmatched until she learned that I ran over my husband).
"How much trouble can she be?"
"You'll have to tell me what you think of the fish and the bicycle. Love you." With that, he hung up. I stared at the receiver in my hand. The fish and the bicycle? What had I gotten myself into?
I hung up the phone, climbed the back stairs with Max at my heels, and opened the door to the blue room. The room needed airing, the bed needed sheets and the dresser needed a bouquet of fresh flowers. I cracked the windows and grabbed neatly folded sheets from the linen closet. The flowers I'd collect from the garden later.
I'd just replaced the bedspread when the doorbell rang.
Max took off at a run. I followed more slowly. Aunt Sis must truly be driving Mother nuts if Daddy had bundled her out of the house and delivered her to me in less than fifteen minutes.
I donned a welcoming expression and opened the door.
Marjorie stood on the other side.
My smile morphed into slack-jawed shock.
Max whined softly.
"What are you doing here?"
"Is that any way to greet your sister?" She bent, picked up a Gucci suitcase, and brushed past me, stopping in the front hall to assess my house. "Did you paint? Is this the same color as the last time I was here?"
"No. I mean, yes. I mean, no, I didn't paint. It's the same color." Surprise had rendered me witless. "Mother said you couldn't come." Yet Marjorie was here, flawlessly made up and dressed as if she'd stepped off the pages of Vogue in a pair of decadent wool slacks and a silk shirt far too fashionable (unbuttoned) for my foyer. I suppose when you're married to the condom king of Cleveland, looking more chic than Halston's muse is probably the strongest armor available. My armor is designed by Diane von Furstenberg.
My sister dropped her expensive suitcase but kept her Hermes handbag hooked in the crook of her elbow. "I changed my mind."
"Does Mother know you're coming?"
"I thought I'd surprise her."
I gaped. Mother liked surprises the way Nixon liked Woodward and Bernstein.
Marjorie stepped forward and kissed the air next to my cheek. "It's lovely to see you."
"You too." I returned her air kiss and upped the ante with a half-hug.
"I can't wait to hear all the things you've been up to. Mother says you're dating Hunter Tafft."
Typical. Marjorie skipped right over multiple murders to ask about a man. "Not exactly."
A slight furrow appeared between her brows. "But Mother said —"
"Mother is wrong."
She tilted her head and smiled the superior smile of an older sister — one who was prettier, more experienced, more popular, and certainly better dressed. "Who's taking you to Mother's gala?"
My fingers smoothed the wales of my corduroys. "Hunter Tafft." His name somehow slipped through the tightly barred gate of my teeth.
"There you have it! You are dating Hunter."
"A date and dating are not the same thing." Why did I sound like my teenage self?
She lifted her gaze to the ceiling and shook her head slightly. "When it's a date to Mother's gala, they are."
I had a sneaking suspicion she might be right.
"Can your housekeeper take this upstairs for me?" She pointed to her suitcase.
"You'll have to take it yourself. Aggie is on loan." Then I remembered Aunt Sis. "I've already got someone in the blue room. I'll put you in the rose room."
"But the rose room has twin beds."
This was not news to me.
"I hate twin beds."
That wasn't news either. "You can always stay with Mother and Daddy."
"Where's Greg? Is he coming?"
"He's at home with the children." Her voice sounded flat, emotionless. Prudence's sly innuendos flashed through my memory. Uh-oh.
"Is he flying in for the gala? You're welcome here, but there's a new hotel on the Plaza — the Alameda. I don't think you've been there yet. I could book you a room."
"No, you haven't been there, or no, you don't want a room?"
With a chic flip of her wrist she flicked a stray hair back into place. "No, Greg is not coming."
"I already told you, he's at home with the children."
"Did your au pair quit?"
"What about your housekeeper? Did she quit?"
"Then why isn't he coming?"
"Just drop it, Ellison."
There was trouble in Paradise. "Do you want to talk about it?"
We stared at each other. It would be a cold day in hell before Marjorie looked for succor or support from her younger sister. I got that. But her insistence on being superior meant we'd never be close. It also rendered her right (and maybe left) flank open to attack.
"You need a better answer."
She curled the corner of her upper lip and glared at me as if I was the problem. It was the kind of look one can only give a sibling. No one else would forgive it. I might not forgive it.
Max growled softly.
The front bell rang and we stopped glowering at each other. I opened the door to Daddy and Aunt Sis.
My mother's sister wore faded jeans, a loose white shirt that failed to hide her lack of brassiere, and flip-flops. Her grey-streaked hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail.
I stared at Aunt Sis.
Daddy stared at Marjorie.
No one said a word.
Then Max shoved his nose into Sis's crotch and we all laughed, a nervous sound that belonged to people who weren't quite sure what to say.
Mother's sister grinned at me — "Ellie" — then pulled me into a hug.
Over Sis's shoulder, I saw Daddy positively gaping at Marjorie. She stepped forward and he hugged her.
"What are you doing here?" He put her through the same series of questions I had. And he got the same answers. "Is Greg at least flying in for the gala?"
"No. He's staying home with the children."
Daddy crossed his arms and scowled. "I realize Greg and your mother don't much care for each other, but he's willing to embarrass her by skipping her gala with such a weak excuse?"
"Greg didn't stay home to embarrass Mother."
Marjorie's gaze traveled from Daddy to me to Aunt Sis then back again. She adjusted the gold chains hanging around her neck. She patted her perfect hair. She chewed on the corner of her lip. "I left him."CHAPTER 2
After lobbing her grenade with all the insouciant elegance of a model walking a Parisian runway, Marjorie talked Daddy into lugging her suitcase up the front stairs. I carried Aunt Sis's.
The woman traveled with rocks ... or maybe bricks. There was no way clothes weighed so much.
"I can carry that," she offered.
"Don't be silly." I hefted the enormous thing onto another step, then stopped for a rest.
"It's heavy." Aunt Sis was a master of understatement.
"It's nothing." Just last night I'd helped Grace study for a chemistry quiz, so I knew osmium was the densest of the elements — heavier than gold or platinum. Maybe my aunt had a suitcase full of osmium.
"Ellison, your face is turning red."
Maybe she carried rolls of quarters ... or what was the currency in Majorca? Pesetas? Weren't hippie types supposed to travel light? I gathered my strength and climbed four steps quickly.
"What do you have in here, Aunt Sis?"
"You couldn't ship them?"
She crinkled her nose as if the postal service was something distasteful. "I'm never in one place long enough."
My heart went out to all the porters, in all the stations, in all the cities. How many had herniated discs?
Aunt Sis peeled my fingers off the handle then lifted the case as if it was filled with cotton candy instead of multiple copies of War and Peace. She traipsed up the remaining stairs with ease. I trudged.
Daddy, looking grim, stepped out of the rose room, dropped a kiss on my forehead, nodded to Aunt Sis, then started down the stairway. At the halfway point, he turned and said, "Enjoy the theatre."
"We will," said Aunt Sis.
That was optimistic.
Aunt Sis smiled. "I bet Marjorie would love to join us."
That was ridiculously optimistic.
Daddy made no comment. He just shook his head and descended the rest of the stairs. A few seconds later the sound of the front door opening reached us.
"Goodbye," he called. Then came the sound of the door closing.
"Perhaps Grace can join us," suggested Aunt Sis.
That was beyond ridiculously optimistic.
"It's a school night. If you'd like her to join us, we could postpone..." Forever.
"No, no. Just eager to meet her. Is this my room?" Aunt Sis pushed open the door to the blue room with the front of her suitcase. "I have a feeling I'm supposed to be at the theater tonight."
"I get feelings, Ellison. They come to me from the cosmos. I had a feeling you shouldn't marry Henry, and I have a feeling there's a unique experience waiting for me at the dinner theatre."
Aunt Sis was comparing my disastrous marriage to dinner theatre? I opened my mouth then shut it. That Henry's and my marriage had played out more like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf than a refurbished version of Guys and Dolls still rankled. But kicking Aunt Sis and her overburdened suitcase out before she unpacked — no matter how tempting — would be rude. Far ruder than her thoughtless comment. I pursed my lips and focused my gaze above her left shoulder.
"Your mother wears that exact expression whenever I annoy her."
I wiped my face clean — no pursing, no furrowing, no pretending to notice a stain on the wall above her shoulder.
"I'll just unpack and then we'll catch up." She surveyed the blue room with its Sister Parish elegance, cracked windows and fresh sheets, and sniffed.
That sniff ... Aunt Sis shouldn't throw stones in the glass house of similarity. She had every nuance of Mother's sniff down.
"I was on my way to the garden to cut you some late blooming roses when Marjorie arrived. I'll do that while you unpack."
She inclined her chin and looked over imaginary readers, another one of Mother's habits. "Thank you, dear. Also, I'll need you to run a load of laundry for me."
I inclined my chin too. "I'll be happy to show you the laundry room."
She tilted her head and stared at me — the sort of considering look one uses when deciding upon a major purchase. Yes, that Pucci dress is lovely, but is it worth the price? The moment stretched.
After what seemed like an eternity, she smiled. "I'd appreciate that. Thank you."
I'd won? I'd won. And easily. Maybe Aunt Sis was less like Mother than I thought.
I took Aunt Sis to the Waldo Astoria. My friends who'd attended told me it was newer and nicer than Tiffany's Attic. Marjorie developed "plans" and couldn't join us. I didn't bother asking Grace.
We stood in the lobby, admiring the 1920s-style glamor. The owners had redone a movie theatre. I'd expected tacky. This wasn't. It was lovely.
Cassie LeCoeur waved at me from across the lobby. Sometimes that happens. You don't see someone for weeks on end and then you run into them in the oddest places. Poor Cassie. Being married to a man named Kinky LeCoeur must be a heavy cross to bear. Not that her husband's real name is Kinky. He introduces himself as Kenneth. Probably when they met in college he introduced himself as Ken. But to those of us who have known him his whole life, he'll always be Kinky. Mother says when one's last name sounds as if it might belong to a professional dancer, one must be extra careful when selecting first names. The LeCoeurs obviously never heard her wax lyrical on this point ... or maybe she waxes because of what Bob and Mary LeCoeur named their children — Kenneth Keye (show me a bunch of high school boys who won't shorten that to Kinky) and his sister Candace, called Candy.
I waved back.
"A friend of yours, dear?" asked Aunt Sis.
"More of an acquaintance."
Cassie was with her mother-in-law and looked none too happy about it. I didn't blame her.
Excerpted from Clouds in My Coffee by Julie Mulhern. Copyright © 2016 Julie Mulhern. Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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