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Dear Miss Demeanor
By Joan Hess
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1987 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
Caron and Inez skittered into the Book Depot like bumper cars gone berserk. Caron's cheeks were scarlet, either from the exertion or, as I suspected, some new bout of outraged indignation. With fourteen-year-olds, indignation is a daily affair. With my daughter, it approaches an hourly schedule.
Caron is all red hair, freckles, and frowns. As an enfant terrible, her imaginary friends were all mischievous imps who knocked over lamps and terrorized the cat. Inez is quite the opposite; she may have been an imaginary friend. Her pale, blurred face hardly ever flushes, and her eyes are too deeply hidden by thick lenses to flash with fury, unbridled or otherwise. She did, however, shove back her stringy brown bangs with a gesture that neared irritation.
I eyed them with an instinctive wariness. "What's up?"
Caron slammed her books down. "You must Do Something, Mother!"
"You really must, Mrs. Malloy," Inez added over Caron's shoulder. She had not yet learned to speak in capital letters, but it was only a matter of time. Caron is an excellent tutor in the delicate art of adolescent melodrama.
"What must I do?" I asked mildly.
"It is absolutely Terrible!" Caron said, beginning to stomp up and down the bookshop aisles. "The situation is absurd, absurd, absurd! Poor Miss Parchester would never Dream of doing what — what they said she did. She is a Lady!"
Inez bobbled her head earnestly. "That's right, Mrs. Malloy. Miss Parchester is above reproach."
It was, as usual, mystifying. I raised an eyebrow, but as I opened my mouth to protest that I personally had not accused Miss Parchester of anything, a deafening roar shattered the relative tranquillity. A two-hundred-pound woodpecker tearing through the roof. A locomotive coming down the aisle. An ocean liner docking in the living room. Or, foregoing whimsy, a jackhammer a few yards from the door of my bookstore.
I buried my face in my hands as the noise continued to pulsate through every inch of my body. Caron and Inez gaped at each other, by necessity speechless. Just as I thought my head would explode, the roar stopped.
"The street crew," I said, rubbing my temples.
Caron went to the door and peered out. "What on earth is going on, Mother?"
"Powers that be have decided to take up the railroad tracks in the middle of the street, since the last train went through Farberville twenty years ago. Although I cannot fault the sentiment, the noise is driving me crazy! Didn't you see the —"
"I am too worried about Miss Parchester to concern myself with street crews," Caron interrupted. "You have to do something, Mother, before she has a Nervous Breakdown." Inez punctuated the sentiment with a sniffle.
I looked out the window as I formulated a response to their incomprehensible demand. The jackhammer man was rubbing his hands together as he studied his instrument. The gloat on his face brought to mind images of satanic Spanish inquisitors positioning their racks. Caron was right. I did have to do something.
I shooed the girls outside, locked the door, and hung a flyspecked sign on the doorknob. Until Thurber Street was once again a peaceful path to the campus, the Book Depot was closed. A week or two without an income was cheaper than a hearing aid or a trip to the butterfly farm. There were a few minor matters, such as overdue rent, groceries, Caron's allowance, and payments to the great plastic factory (I never left home without it), but I wouldn't make any money until the crew left. My clientele was too genteel to climb over sawhorses to seek literature. Or semipornographic paperback thrillers, for that matter. Somewhere in Farberville a banker sighed; I felt the icy breeze on the back of my neck, but there wasn't much to do about it.
We walked up the hill. Caron and I live in an upstairs apartment across from the Farber College campus. Although I never before considered it an especially serene location, it was a cemetery in comparison to the construction site in front of the Book Depot. The sorority girls next door produced squeals, but never machine-gun fire.
I took two aspirin, made a cup of tea, and went into the living room. "Who's Miss Parchester?"
Caron's lower lip began to inch forward. "She was the journalism teacher at the high school, before He told her that she was fired. I had her for Journalism I, and when Rosie got mononucleosis, Miss Parchester let me take over the column."
"What column?" I asked. Inevitably, it took a while to elicit coherence from Caron, but I was used to it. Motherhood has been with me for fourteen years, although it has crystallized in the last three. Razor-sharp edges and all. The dreaded developmental stage called the terrible twos has nothing over the traumatic teens.
"The Miss Demeanor column," Inez said weakly. I had to search the room for her; she was invisible on the upholstery, like a transparent plastic cover.
"Misdemeanor?" I said. "Is this some sort of legal advice to potential juvenile delinquents? Are you really qualified
"Miss Demeanor!" Caron enunciated the consonants with little sputters of irritation. "An advice column about manners and proper behavior. The students write letters about dating, eating in restaurants, and so on."
My jaw dropped in spite of my efforts to control it. "And you're giving advice about proper behavior? When did you turn into Farberville's Emily Post?"
"When Rosie got mono, Mother, I explained that already. I was Rosie's freshman assistant. Freshmen aren't allowed to be on the newspaper staff, but Miss Parchester thought I could handle Rosie's column until she comes back to school." Caron fluffed her curls and shot me a beatific smile. "Mono can last as long as six months."
"So you're writing the column? You're in charge of etiquette at Farberville High School?"
"I was doing the column, but now the Falcon Crier has been canceled for the rest of the year. That's why you have to Do Something." The smile vanished as her chin began to quiver, and tears welled in her eyes. I was not impressed, but Inez hurried over to pat the tragic figure's tremulous shoulder.
"It is unjust, Mrs. Malloy," she said in a low voice. "Miss Parchester has been accused of embezzling money from the journalism accounts. I think she's just on some kind of leave, but he said that she couldn't even come to school until the account was audited and the money replaced. Poor Miss Parchester was distraught."
"I'm sure she was," I said. "Who's this ominous 'he' you keep mentioning?"
Caron and Inez widened their eyes at each other. "Mr. Weiss," they whispered in awed sibilance.
"Who is Mr. Weiss?" My patience was beginning to evaporate. I had a perfectly wonderful mystery novel in the bedroom. The water in the teapot was still hot. I could put myself to bed and bliss.
Caron gulped at my irreverence. "Mr. Weiss is the principal of Farberville High School, Mother."
"Oh," I said wisely, then proceeded to reiterate the bare outlines of their story, which took no time at all. Accounts short, teacher dismissed, newspaper production halted. Career in journalism thwarted in its infancy. "There's not one thing I can do about any of this, girls. I'm not a CPA, and I doubt my opinion will affect Mr. Weiss's decisions. If Miss Parchester would like a discount on paperback romances while she does a prison term, I could —"
The squeaks were almost worse than the jackhammer. "Let's be reasonable," I continued. "This is a high school problem. Surely the proper authorities can resolve this, and if Miss Parchester is as innocent as you say, then she will be back shortly, as will the newspaper and all its columns."
"You have to help," Caron said. "You have to investigate and find out who really took the money. Mr. Weiss won't do anything; he thinks Miss Parchester is a thief. By the time he hires a new teacher, Rosie will be over her mono and I won't get to write the Miss Demeanor column until I'm a senior. That'll be years from now. Eons."
"I am a bookseller, not a private eye. I have no idea how to find bugs in the accounts, nor am I in a position to find out who might be behind the heinous crime. I'm sorry about the column, but there is no way I can help Miss Parchester, Miss Demeanor, or the Falcon Crier."
Caron had recovered nicely from her semihysterical state. Slyly smiling, she said, "I told Miss Dort that you would substitute for Miss Parchester. You can snoop around between classes."
I will not elaborate on my unseemly reaction to this astounding announcement. Inez was sent home (she left briskly and gratefully), and Caron and I verbally explored the ramifications of volunteering others without prior permission, among other things. My voice might have peaked upon occasion, but for the most part I kept my temper under admirable restraint. Caron ran through her repertoire of postpubescent poses, including contrite child (ha!), defender of truth, unjustly accused victim, etc.
I had reached a new plateau of rhetorical sarcasm when the telephone rang. Stabbing my finger at Caron to keep her in place, I grabbed the receiver. "What?"
"Mrs. Malloy?" quavered an unfamiliar voice. "This is Emily Parchester. I was wondering — well, hoping — or should I say, praying — that you might be able to visit me for a cup of tea this afternoon? I realize you must be terribly busy, and I would never dream of imposing on a stranger, but I really have nowhere else to turn."
I glared at Caron as I struggled for decorum. "Miss Parchester — from the high school?"
"Formerly of the high school," she said with quiet dignity. A hiccup rather destroyed the effect. "Would you be so kind as to come to my house, Miss Malloy? I must talk to you."
I made a noise that she interpreted as agreement. After she had given me her address and a time, she bleated out a lengthy promise of gratitude and finally hung up. It took me several minutes to uncurl my fingers in order to replace the receiver — and remind myself of the legal repercussions of child abuse.
"Miss Parchester has invited me to a tea party," I told Caron when I could trust myself. "She has some wild idea that I can salvage her reputation and restore her to her position at the high school. Wherever would she get such an idea?"
Caron shrugged modestly. "I told her how you had solved those murders, and convinced her that you would help her. She's a poor old spinster, Mother, and she's all alone in the word. No one at the high school cares about her. If she loses her job, she'll just sit home by herself until she dies." My daughter, the compassionate columnist.
"In that you face the same fate, you'd better clean up your room so that your body will be discovered at some point during decomposition. Then you may clean the bathroom, finish the dishes, and begin your homework. I'm going to a tea party."
"I don't have any homework."
"Do it anyway." I closed the door with more energy than necessary and went down the stairs. To tea. All I needed was a hat and white gloves. Or a mad hatter and a dormouse.
Miss Parchester lived in a white-shingled house in the oldest section of Farberville. At one time, the cream of society sipped iced tea on the wide verandas, and carriages rolled down the tree-lined streets on their way to the charity balls in vanished hotels.
The ancient elm trees were still there, but most of the houses had been subdivided into apartments for Farber students and transient waiters. Bustled ladies had been replaced with T-shirt-clad students armed with frisbees and beer. Subcompacts filled the carriage houses.
My battered hatchback felt no shame. I mentally straightened my hat and pulled on gloves, then went up the brick sidewalk and stopped to read the names taped on the row of black metal mailboxes. Miss Parchester lived in 1-A. Wonderful. As I hesitated, considering a brisk retreat and another discussion with Caron, a pigtailed college girl bounced through the door, sized me up with undue arrogance, and informed me that Miss Parchester lived in the first apartment on the left.
I managed an insincere nod of thanks and went inside to do my distasteful duty. Tea, sympathy, and firmness, I reminded myself in a determined voice. I was neither detective nor substitute teacher. I was a widow who needed to earn a living in order to support a treacherous, loquacious teenager until she could be tucked away in a college dormitory. Preferably at the University of Fairbanks, or Iceland Polytech.
Before my knuckles reached the door, it flew open. A tiny woman with thin white hair looked up at me as if I had just arrived in a chariot drawn by angels. She wore a black dress and a sensible, handmade cardigan. Her feet were covered by shabby pink slippers, a strange combination.
"Mrs. Malloy? How terribly kind of you to come so promptly."
"Miss Parchester, I want to thank you for offering tea, but I want you to realize —"
"Yes, of course," she said, "please come in. Caron — such a sweet child — has told me so much about you. Although she's only a freshman, she shows surprising talent, don't you think?"
She chattered in that vein as she put me on a brocade sofa, then shuffled down a dark hallway. I looked around curiously. The room was oddly shaped, and at last I deduced it had been divided to create another apartment. The ceiling was high, with an elaborate molding and elegant cornices. The windows, too, were high, but shades let in only a dull yellow light. The furniture would have given an antique dealer a stroke on the spot, if he could have seen it without the teetery piles of bleached newspapers, magazines, ancient composition books, and dust. It smelled of camphor — and dust.
Miss Parchester shuffled back in with a tray. Once I was supplied with tea and one of "mother's sugar cookies," she said, "I do so enjoy tea in the afternoon, Mrs. Malloy. The youth of today seem to prefer those vile carbonated drinks, but tea is so refreshing."
So was scotch, but I didn't mention it. "I'm afraid Caron has given you the wrong impression —"
"The tea service belonged to my great-grandmother," she continued blithely, "and has been in the family for nearly a century. My mother used to serve tea to the Judge every afternoon on the veranda, even though he might have preferred a gentleman's drink."
The woman was clearly a teacher, and a pro. I ceded to the inevitable and politely murmured, "The judge?"
"My father, Judge Amos Parchester. He served three terms on the state Supreme Court, although you're too young to have heard of him. His decisions are still noted to this day. He was an ardent defender of constitutional rights, Mrs. Malloy."
"Indeed?" What else could I say?
"Which is why I chose a career in journalism, as you must have guessed. It was, of course, unthinkable for a lady to work for a newspaper, so I chose to instruct our youth. I've taught for forty years at Farberville High School." She hiccuped on the final word, and gave me a bleary look of apology.
Miss Parchester had been nipping at the elderberry wine, I realized uneasily. The afternoon had been veering downhill, but this was more than anyone should have to put up with. I put down my teacup and said, "We need to discuss whatever nonsense Caron told you about me, Miss Parchester. I am not a detective. I am not an accountant. There is no way that I can —"
"I have never been more humiliated in my life than I was this morning, when Mr. Weiss came into my room," she said, dabbing at her cheek with a wispy handkerchief. "He accused me of being a common thief, of stealing money from the department accounts! Judge Parchester is surely rolling in his grave, and poor Mama — bless her soul — must be...."
"I cannot help you," I repeated, trying to sound steadfast.
"There must be some error in the books," she said. The flow from her watery blue eyes increased until the handkerchief was sodden. She daintily wrung it into the cup in her lap, tucked it in her cuff, and then continued, "Mr. Weiss refused to allow me to search for a discrepancy, although it must be a simple error on my part. If only you could check the deposit slips to see if they correspond with the entries, then we could determine if I indeed am responsible for this distressing situation. I had planned to retire this spring, you know, so that I could enjoy whatever pleasures I could find within the limits of my teacher retirement fund and what little I've saved. I had hoped to take up watercolor painting, or perhaps take a short bus tour."
Excerpted from Dear Miss Demeanor by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1987 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's 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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