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In the seventh mirthful Claire Malloy mystery, Claire reluctantly attends thepremature reading of her ornery old in-law Justicia's will. But when Justiciameets a premature--and suspicious--end, Claire takes an active interest. Fromthe author of Roll Over and Play Dead. Martin's.
"Echoes of Arsenic and Old Lace flutter through this chronicle of the eccentric Malloys of Louisiana." —Kirkus Reviews
"Good morrow, Kate, for that is your name, I hear."
I blinked at the young man in the doorway. "Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing. They call me Claire Malloy that do talk of me."
"You lie, in faith, for you are call'd plain Kate, and bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst, but Kate, the prettiest Kate in Farberville. Kate of Kate Hall, my superdainty Kate, for dainties are all Kates, and therefore—"
"Mother," Caron said as she came out of my office, "who is This Person?"
"I have no idea," I admitted.
The peculiar man came into the bookstore and bowed, one arm across his waist and the other artfully posed above his head. He was dressed in a white shirt with billowy sleeves, a fringed leather tunic, purple tights, suede boots with curled toes, and a diamond-patterned conical cap topped with a tiny bell. His brown hair dangled to his shoulders, rare among the traditionally minded Farber College students. "Perchance miladies will allow me to maketh known myself?"
"This milady thinks you ought to maketh known thyself to the local police," Caron said, edging toward me. "Start with the Sheriff of Nottingham."
He stood up and swept off his cap. "Pester the Jester, or Edward Cobbinwood, if it pleaseth you all the more."
"Not especially," I said. "Would you care to explain further?"
"Okay, I'm a grad student at the college and a member of ARSE. I was assigned to talk to all the merchants at the mall and on Thurber Street about the Renaissance Fair in two weeks. We'd like to put up flyers in the store windows and maybe some banners. Fiona is hoping you'll let us use the portico in front of your bookstore for a stage to publicize the event."
"A Renaissance Fair? I haven't heard anything about this." I noticed Caron's sharp intake of breath and glanced at her. "Have you?"
She nodded. "I was going to tell you about it when you got home this evening. The AP history teacher sent a letter to everybody who's taking her course in the fall. We have to either participate in this fair thing or write a really ghastly midterm paper. I don't think she should be allowed to blackmail us like this. Inez and I are going to get up a petition and have everybody sign it, then take it to the school board. I mean, summer is supposed to be our vacation, not—"
"I get your point," I said.
"Look not so gloomy, my fair and freckled damsel," added Edward Cobbinwood. "It'll be fun. We put on a couple of Ren fairs when I was in undergraduate school. It's like a big costume party, with all kinds of entertainment and food. ARSE will stage battles, and perhaps a gallant knight in shining armor will fight for your honor."
Caron glared at him. "I am perfectly capable of defending my honor without the help of some guy dressed in rusty hubcaps."
"What's ARSE?" I asked.
"The Association for Renaissance Scholarship and Enlightenment. It's not a bunch of academics who meet once a year to read dry papers and argue about royal lineage or the positive side of the feudal system. Anybody can join. The country is divided into kingdoms, counties, and fiefdoms. The local group is Avalon. There are just a few members in town this summer, but when the semester starts in September, Fiona says—"
"Fiona Thackery," Caron said with a sigh, not yet willing to allow me to dismiss her imminent martyrdom. "The AP history teacher. I'm thinking about taking shop instead. I've always wanted to get my hands on a nail gun. Or if I take auto mechanics, I'll learn to change tires and . . . tighten bolts and stuff like that. That way, when your car falls into a gazillion bits, I'll know how to put it back together. That's a lot more useful than memorizing the kings of England or the dates of the Napoleonic Wars."
"You're taking AP history," I said. "If you want to work at a garage on the weekends, that's fine with me."
She gave me a petulant look. "Then you can write the midterm paper. Compare and contrast the concepts of Hellenism and Hebraism in The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales. Cite examples and footnote all source material. Five thousand word minimum. Any attempt at plagiarism from the Internet or elsewhere will result in a shaved head and six weeks in the stocks."
I cupped my hand to my ear. "Do I hear the lilting melody of 'Greensleeves' in the distance?"
"The only recorder I'm playing," Caron said sourly, "will have a tape in it."
Edward seemed to be enjoying the exchange, but fluttered his fingers and strolled out of the Book Depot to bewilder and beguile other merchants along the street. He must have had a recorder tucked in his pocket, because we could hear tootling as he headed up the hill. It may have been "Greensleeves," but it was hard to be sure. I hoped he wasn't a music major.
"Goodness gracious," said Inez Thornton as she came into the bookstore. Her eyes were round behind her thick lenses. "Did you see that weirdo in the purple tights?"
Inez has always been Caron's best friend through thick and thin (aka high crimes and misdemeanors). Caron, red-haired and obstinate, faster than a speeding bullet except when her alarm clock goes off in the morning, able to leap over logic in a single bound, is the dominant force. Meek, myopic Inez is but a pale understudy in Caron's pageant, but equally devious. Encroaching maturity tempers them at times. There are, of course, many other times.
"Tell me more about the letter from your history teacher," I said.
Caron grimaced. "This Renaissance Fair sounds so juvenile. Everybody has to dress up as something and go around pretending to be a minstrel or a damsel or a pirate or something silly like that. There's a meeting tomorrow afternoon at the high school so we can get our committee assignments. It's like Miss Thackery thinks we're already in her class. She shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. It's—it's unconstitutional!"
"That's right," said Inez, nodding emphatically. "Aren't we guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?"
"I'm not sure reading Chaucer and Dante will make you all that happy, but you never know," I said. "You'll find copies on the back shelf. Help yourselves."
Rather than take me up on my generous offer, they left. I would have felt a twinge of maternal sympathy had they not been muttering for more than a month about how bored they were. I'd never been to a Renaissance Fair, but I supposed it was similar to a carnival show, with tents, booths, and entertainment—not to mention men clad in armor made of aluminum foil, bashing each other with padded sticks.
Pester the Jester did not reappear, to my relief. I've always been leery of men in tights, especially purple ones (tights, not men). The few customers who drifted in were dressed in standard summer wear and more interested in paperback thrillers and travel books than in Shakespeare. Business is sluggish in the summer, when most of the college students have gone home and their professors are either wandering through cavernous cathedrals in Europe or sifting sand at archeological digs. The academic community as a whole comprises nearly a quarter of Farberville's population of 25,000 semi-literate souls. Their civilian counterparts tend to do their shopping at the air-conditioned mall at the edge of town when the temperature begins to climb.
At 6:00 p.m. I locked the doors and went across the street to the beer garden to meet Luanne Bradshaw, who owns a vintage clothing shop on Thurber Street. It could have been a hobby, not a livelihood, since she not only comes from a wealthy family on the East Coast but also divorced a successful doctor and left him barefoot in the park—or, at least, penniless in the penthouse. However, she chose to rid herself of most of her ill-gotten gains via trusts and foundations, dumped her offspring on the doorsteps of prestigious prep schools, and headed for the hinterlands. Farberville definitely falls into that category. Despite being in the throes of a midlife crisis that may well continue until she's ninety, she's disarmingly astute.
She was seated at a picnic table beneath a wisteria-entwined lattice that provided shade and a pleasant redolence. Her long, tanned legs were clearly visible in scandalously short shorts, and her black hair was tucked under a baseball cap. As I joined her, she filled a plastic cup with beer from a pitcher and set it down in front of me.
"You didn't mention Peter when you called earlier," she said by way of greeting. "Are you having prenuptial jitters? It's unbecoming in a woman of your age."
"My age is damn close to yours," I said, "and I'm not the one who scrambled all over the Andes with a bunch of virile young Australian men for six weeks."
"I kept claiming I needed to rest just so I could watch their darling butts wiggle as they hiked past me. So what's going on with Peter?"
"The captain sent him to FBI summer camp so he can learn how to protect our fair town if the terrorists attempt to create havoc by jamming the parking meters. It's a real threat, you know. The mayor will have to flee to his four-bedroom bunker out by the lake. The Kiwanis Club won't be able to have its weekly luncheon meetings at the diner behind the court house. The community theater won't be able to stage its endearingly inept production of 'Our Town' for the first time in nineteen years. All hell could break loose."
Luanne failed to look properly terrified. "How long will he be gone?"
"Three weeks at Quantico, and then a week at his mother's."
"Oh," she murmured.
I took a long swallow of beer. "It's not like that. She's resigned to the idea that Peter and I are getting married, or so he keeps telling me."
"But she's not coming to the wedding."
"No, she's not," I said. "She always goes to Aspen in September to avoid the hurricane season."
"Rhode Island is hardly a magnet for hurricanes, but neither is Farberville," Luanne said as she refilled her cup and mine.
"It's a tradition. She goes with a big group of her widowed friends. They take over a very posh condo complex and party all day and night. Besides, it's not as if this is Peter's first marriage—or mine. I'd look pretty silly in a flouncy white dress and veil, with my teenaged daughter as maid of honor. There's no reason why she should disrupt her long-standing plans for a simple little civil ceremony in a backyard."
"She's probably afraid she'll have to eat ribs," said Luanne, "and toast the happy couple with moonshine in a jelly jar. Have you spoken to her on the phone, or received a warm letter on her discreetly monogrammed stationery?"
The topic was not amusing me. "Not yet. Peter thinks we ought to give her some time to get used to the idea, and then go for a visit. Will you loan me a pair of jodpurs?"
"Yes, but they'll make your thighs look fat."
I brooded for a moment, then said, "Did you happen to encounter Pester the Jester this afternoon?"
"Oh my, yes. I couldn't take my eyes off his codpiece."
I told her about the letters Caron and Inez had received from the history teacher. "They're appalled, of course, and were rambling about their constitutional right to spend the summer sulking. I didn't have the heart to remind them that they'd already had their fifteen minutes of fame a month ago, when they were interviewed by the media after that unfortunate business with the disappearing corpse."
"Fame is fleeting," Luanne said.
We pondered this philosophical twaddle while we emptied our cups. The remaining beer in the pitcher was getting warm, and a group of noisy college kids arrived to take possession of a nearby picnic table. I told Luanne I'd call her later in the week, then walked the few blocks to my apartment on the second floor of a duplex across the street from the campus lawn. A note on the kitchen table informed me that Caron and Inez had gone out for pizza with friends. It was just as well, since my culinary interests were limited to boiling water for tea and nuking frozen entrées. In the mood for neither, I settled down on the sofa to read. I hoped Peter would call, but as it grew dark outside I gave up and consoled myself with images of him on the firing range, learning how to take down grannies with radioactive dentures and toddlers with teddy bears packed with explosives. Or librarians and booksellers who refused to turn in their patrons' reading preferences to cloak-and-dagger government agencies.
What I did not want to think about was the wedding, scheduled for early September. Not because I was having second thoughts, mind you. I was confident that I loved Peter and that we would do quite nicely when we rode off into the sunset of domestic bliss, which would include not only more opportunities for adult behavior of a most delectable sort, but also lazy Sunday mornings with coffee, muffins, and The New York Times, and occasional squabbles over the relative merits of endive versus romaine. He'd been suggesting matrimonial entanglement for several years, and I'd given it serious consideration. But after my first husband's untimely and very unseemly death, I'd struggled to regain my self-esteem and establish my independence. I hadn't done too well on the material aspects, as Caron pointed out on a regular basis. However, the Book Depot was still in business, and we lived on the agreeable side of genteel poverty.
A distressingly close call with mortality had led me to reassess my situation. The emotional barrier I'd constructed to protect myself collapsed during a convoluted moment when a hitman had impolitely threatened to blow my brains out (not in those exact words, but that was the gist of the message). If commitment meant sharing a closet, then so be it.
The problem lay in my inclinations to meddle in what Lieutenant Peter Rosen felt was official police business. It wasn't simply a compulsion to outsleuth Miss Marple. In all the situations I'd found myself questioning witnesses and snooping around crime scenes, I'd never once done so for my personal satisfaction—or to make fools of the local constabulary. It just happened. Peter, with his molasses brown eyes, curly hair, perfect teeth, and undeniable charm, never quite saw it that way. He'd lectured me, had my car impounded twice, threatened me with a jail cell, and attempted to keep me under house arrest. One had to admire his optimism.
Copyright © 1992 by Joan Hess. All rights reserved.
Posted April 29, 2012
Posted August 30, 2013
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