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"But the whole idea of a leprechaun posing as, as ... as Nero Wolfe!" I was insisting. I steered my old brown Toyota through the splattering rain toward the bookstore where Wayne's friend was hosting an authors' signing. "It's so silly. Leprechauns don't solve crimes, they make shoes for elves or something. I mean, at least Greenfree's character makes sense--"
"A clairaudient alien left on earth four hundred years ago makes more sense to you than a leprechaun armchair detective?" Wayne asked, his low voice polite even as he challenged me. But there was a smile beneath that politeness. I could tell.
And, no, Wayne and I still weren't married. But it wasn't for lack of trying. After our Wedding Ritual seminar we'd decided that a tango wedding was the ticket. Sensual and beautiful. And possible for both of us: Wayne who wanted formality, and I who wanted a quick fix. But it takes two to tango, and neither one of us knew how. So we took a tango class. Makes sense, right? But for some inexplicable reason the tango teacher, Raoul Raymond, decided to fall in love with me. Me! Ms. short, dark, and A-line. How he could fall in love with me while matched with the lovely Ramona, his tall, sleek, and sexy dancing partner, was a mystery to me. But apparently Raoul didn't need any rational motivation. Or encouragement. So Wayne and I quit the tango class.
Unfortunately, that wasn't the last of Raoul. He knew where we lived. And he'd been showing up there at odd hours, his wild curly black hair flying above his rolling eyes as he made grabs at my hand in order to kiss it and swear undying love. He was about as attractiveto me as the skunks under our house at that point. And even less attractive to Wayne.
"But Greenfree's Beth Questra feels real," I went on, trying to forget the tango in all its twists and variations as I made the turn onto a straight, tree-lined lane leading to downtown Verduras. "At least to me. And it's so cool when she finds the guy that's killing all the female law students and then gets all the women together to take care of him--"
"Kate, you just told me you hate all that vigilantism, at least when it's male vigilantism."
Damn. Wayne had something there. Ted Brown's hero, Demetrius Douvert, was yet another alien left on earth (three hundred years for this poor guy) who used his clairvoyant skills to track down the evil doctor/scientist who was killing the poor through free medical clinics. But somehow it bothered me more when Douvert dealt the deadly blow to the wrongdoer in the end. Was it because Greenfree's sleuth was female?
I shook my head. Mostly to clear it. At least Greenfree's sleuth wasn't a leprechaun. Or a skunk. Skunks no longer seemed cute to me either. Skunks had taken up residence under our bedroom at the beginning of that rainy winter, pulled out our heater vents and made themselves cozy. Aromatically cozy. And then their mating season began, at least that's what the skunk man told us. And aromatic turned to bursts of choking gases floating up through our abused heater vents as the skunks argued. We'd nailed up the five access holes we'd found sometime in late January at midnight while the skunks were out shopping or whatever skunks do at night, bless their nocturnal little souls. But the skunks were undeterred, using their tiny paws to tear off airflow screens for instant access, screens Wayne and I couldn't have yanked off by hand without tools under any circumstances.
The skunk wars had begun. They tore off screens. We nailed them up. They tunneled under concrete. We blocked the tunnels. They got better uniforms, equipment, and weapons. We were not winning the war.
"Well, who did you like best?" I countered, wrenching my mind back to the present once again. Or at least the fictional present. "Greenfree or Brown?"
Wayne paused to give the question serious thought.
Unfortunately, his pause gave me all the time I needed to worry some more. About Ingrid, my friend in need. Well, at least she was a neighbor. Why I'd thought she was actually a friend, I still hadn't figured out. She'd called me from down the street, sometime during the middle of the skunk wars, to tell me that her live-in boyfriend was abusing her mentally and that she was afraid physical abuse was soon to follow. So I told her to come and stay with us. What are friends for, after all? I guess to drive you crazy, among other things. So she moved in, along with the skunks. And along with her little yapping terrier, Apollo. My cat, C.C., took one look at Apollo and swiped my leg, claws extended, before reducing Apollo to a yipping mass of hysteria. Which laid him out right alongside Ingrid in mood and temperament.
And then Ingrid's boyfriend, Bob Xavier, showed up. And was none too gently escorted out by Wayne and myself. Repeatedly.
So Wayne and I had left the house that last night of February, only too glad to shut the door on skunks of all sizes and get in the car to drive through the pelting rain to the Fictional Pleasures Bookstore in Verduras, owned by Wayne's old friend from law school, Ivan Nakagawa.
"S.X. Greenfree is the best writer, it's true," Wayne said after a few more moments of thought. And Wayne ought to know. He wrote, too. He'd even had a few short stories published which, happily, didn't feature either aliens or leprechauns. Or skunks. "Her plotting is perfect, her characters believable..."
"But?" I asked. I could hear the word in his silence.
"But Brown's got more passion going for him," he finished.
"Male passion," I pointed out.
"True," he agreed. "But I appreciate Yvette Cassell's leprechaun and his trusty female investigator, Peggy, more than you do. So it isn't just a male/female thing."
We still hadn't agreed on the three writers' respective literary merits when we got to the store a few blocks later. But the discussion had left me energized. I could almost forget my worries. One thing I loved about Wayne was his willingness to engage in verbal sparring on an intellectual level. Another was his refusal to engage in verbal bashing on a personal level. Wit and kindness are a rare combination.
So I gave Wayne a big hug when we got out of the car. And I followed it up by kissing his kind, homely face as the rain splashed the top of my head. I looked up into his eyes--what I could see of them under his low brows--and at his cauliflower nose. Fondly. Maybe we could have a wedding that focused on a discussion of fiction.
"Getting wet," he muttered, then kissed me back quickly before grabbing my hand to lead me to the store. The quick kiss was enough to make me wish we were home again, in the bedroom--skunks, tango teachers, and neighbors in need notwithstanding.
We tore through the rain toward the bookstore. But before we even got in the door, we were stopped by a picketer. He said nothing, just stared at us as he held up his sign. He was a small, paunchy man with burning blue eyes, wet, cropped brown hair, and a matching beard that must have been at least a foot long. How he could stand out there in that downpour was beyond me, but I decided not to ask. The picketer's sign read simply "Science Fiction = Demonic Poisoning." That was enough of a message for me.
So we swerved around him and into the doorway of Fictional Pleasures, feeling a welcome blast of heat as we entered. And then we heard the sound of someone screaming.
Not a human someone. And not an alien either, although she was lime-green with flashes of red, yellow, and blue. It was Polly Morphous Perverse, PMP for short, the bookstore's parrot.
"Squawk, scree, cash or charge, no literary merit," PMP greeted us from atop her perch behind the walnut sales counter.
"Hi, PMP," I whispered back.
Ivan Nakagawa waved from his place at the cash register and smiled a quick smile that made his eyes disappear into the rest of his bulldog face. Ivan always looked like an Asian gangster to me. Maybe his rough features and flattened nose were the commonality that had pulled him and Wayne together as friends. Or maybe just the fact that they were both plenty smart--but far too uncontentious to have stayed in the field of law.
"Wayne, Kate," he welcomed us softly as he walked around the counter. "Glad you could make it."
Ivan tilted his head at the rows of teak folding chairs he'd set up in the small foyer between the counter and complimentary tea urn, the only space in the simple white-walled room not crammed with hand-designed, floor to ceiling wooden bookshelves arranged in library-style rows to the back of the store. Bookshelves filled to the brim with fictional pleasures from literature to horror to romance, and everything in between.
Unfortunately, the chairs for the audience were not as full as Ivan's bookshelves. In fact, only one chair was occupied. A statesmanlike individual who looked to be in his early seventies sat front row and center, his pinstriped back straight as a book spine. But there were a few other people over by the tea urn: a gray-bearded man talking with a younger, well-built African-American man, and a voluptuous fifty-something woman dressed in Mao-style pajamas beside them, frowning at whatever they were saying.
Something moved in the rows of bookshelves and I caught a glimpse of yet another possible customer, a lanky young woman with long red hair who peered out at the rest of us. I'd seen her behind the shelves before, always lurking, her face usually buried in a book.
"Want a bag?" PMP squawked. "Pretty bird. Nice signature. Oh, will you shut up!"
Marcia Armeson, Ivan's second in command at the store, rushed down the center aisle that led through the shelves from the storeroom in the back, camera in hand, ready to take pictures of the stacks of books set out on the authors' signing table. Her thin lips tightened with concentration in her fragile face as she moved forward for a shot of an open book.
"Be lucky if I sell a tenth of them," Ivan whispered by our side. "The authors have already signed an awful lot of stock. But still, I understand. It's a wet night. Can't really expect a crowd."
"I understand, I understand," PMP agreed with another squawk and a familiar sigh. Ivan's sigh.
Then I heard a high, ringing voice coming from the storeroom.
"I'm telling you, it's a real bummer to be short. I take my number at the fu-fuddin' deli, and then they call it and don't even see me. I mean..."
Ivan squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. This time he didn't seem to be smiling. His expression was more one of pain. Or perhaps prayer.
"I guess it's time to begin," he announced softly as he opened his eyes again. The three prospective customers at the tea urn took their seats in the front row. Wayne and I sat behind them. But the redheaded young woman stayed where she was, unmoving, behind the wooden bookshelves.
Ivan walked down the center aisle to the back of the store, and I heard the low rumble of his words as he spoke. But then the front door opened with a blast of cold, moist air and all I could hear was the sound of rushing footsteps. I turned to see a slender moon-faced woman with oversized eyeglasses running in. She looked around as if confused for a moment, circled the chairs uncertainly, passing the authors' table slowly as she eyed the display of books, and then another burst of speed took her to the second row to sit with a thud one chair away from Wayne.
"Sounds cool," came the same high, ringing voice I'd heard before. Which of the three authors waiting back there did the voice belong to?
I didn't have to wait long for my answer.
All three authors came trooping down the main aisle in front of Ivan. The first one to emerge was male, with a long, morose face and even longer dark hair tied back in a ponytail. I was pretty sure he wasn't the owner of the voice. Unless he had delusions of daintiness. He had to be Ted Brown. And he certainly wasn't short. Nor was the next one short, though she was definitely female. She was tall and elegant, a swan in flowing blue silk that suited her sleek, well-groomed persona. I would have bet she was S.X. Greenfree. Because the last in line had to be Yvette Cassell, the creator of the leprechaun sleuth. She was under five feet, no bigger than a leprechaun herself, with a narrow face, sharp nose, and close-set eyes under tinted glasses, her hair drawn back in a ponytail, not unlike Ted Brown's, with short uneven curls in the front.
"Damn, damn--I mean, darn notes," Yvette, if it was Yvette, exclaimed, her high voice ringing before her like an announcement as she stooped to pick up a piece of paper she'd dropped.
A moment after the trio finally reached the authors' table and sat down, each behind their respective pile of books, Ted Brown smiled. And I was surprised to see his morose features transform themselves into something handsome. Something sexy even.
"Look," he said, "a gift from a fan," and pointed at a jewel-encrusted bracelet sitting in front of S.X. Greenfree's books.
"Oh my," the elegant woman cooed from behind the books. So, she was S.X. Greenfree. Or else she was in the wrong seat. "Who?" she asked and surveyed our small crowd.
When no one answered, she smiled, picked up the bracelet, and winked. "Well, whoever you are," she said, "thank you. And you may call me Shayla."
Ivan cleared his throat and introduced the authors briefly, telling us that each would do a short reading.
He nodded toward their table and Yvette popped up like a marionette.
"I'll go first," she said and launched into a long and loving biography of her sleuth, Lovell, and his assistant, Peggy. And an even longer synopsis of each of her seven published books.
S.X. "Shayla" Greenfree picked up the jewel-encrusted bracelet from the table and fingered it with a small smile on her face. Then Yvette picked up her most recent book and opened it.
"'Chapter One,'" she began, her voice ringing through the small store. "'"A client for you, Lovell," I insisted, peering into my boss's glaring face. "A paying client ... "'"
Shayla opened the clasp on the bracelet and slid the jewels slowly onto her wrist.
"'"And don't tell me we don't need the money," I warned,"'" Yvette read on. "'"You haven't spun any gold since ... "'"
Shayla closed the bracelet around her wrist with a snap. Her face pinched for an instant. Was the bracelet too tight?
"'"No elves are getting you out of this one, Lovell,"'" Yvette continued. "'See, we did need the money. My boss had expensive tastes for a leprechaun--'"
"Kate, I..." Shayla interrupted.
Kate? I thought. She can't mean me. Was there another Kate in the audience? I looked more closely at Shayla for a breath, but I was sure I didn't recognize her. At least, pretty sure. The face of a far less elegant woman flashed before my mind's eye, but then it was gone. And Shayla wasn't smiling anymore.
"Cash or charge, hot sex, scree," PMP cut in.
Yvette glared at Shayla and PMP, and I looked quickly back at our reader. But I could see Shayla's face flush in Yvette's periphery. Shayla let out a small cough and her eyelids began to droop as Yvette went back to her reading. Was Shayla actually falling asleep?
"'I hoped our client had money,'" Yvette continued. "'It was hard to tell from the way she was dressed ... '"
Yeah, I answered myself, Shayla was falling asleep. And sure enough, S.X. Greenfree's whole upper body pitched forward onto the authors' table as Yvette read on.
The gray-bearded man in front of us jerked up in his seat, clearly startled by Shayla's sudden drop. But the younger, African-American man beside him put a hand on his shoulder.
"She's probably asleep," he whispered gently. "This happens sometimes when Yvette gets going."
Or feigning sleep, I thought. Damn, that was rude. Suddenly, I wasn't so fond of the great S.X. "Shayla" Greenfree. The most I could have said for her was that she had the grace not to snore.
After what had to be a good twenty minutes more of Yvette's reading, however, I was coming to understand Shayla's reaction. And suppressing a yawn myself.
"End of chapter Three," Yvette finally finished.
I roused myself to join in the small hand of applause, more out of relief than anything else.
Yvette turned to the fallen author next to her.
"It's your turn now, Shayla," she said, her ringing tones surprisingly good-natured. "But I'll try not to sleep through your reading."
That got a laugh, followed by an even bigger laugh when PMP added, "Stoo-pid bird, shut up, scree-scraw."
But Shayla, S.X. Greenfree, didn't move.
Yvette tapped her colleague's shoulder, a look of concern on her narrow face now.
The man with the gray beard got out of his chair hesitantly.
"Shayla?" he asked.
Then more urgently, "Shayla?"
As the man started for the authors' table, Ted Brown shook Shayla's shoulder, then pulled her by that shoulder straight up in her chair.
Shayla's face was tinted a delicate shade of blue. Perfectly matched to the flowing silk that draped her inert body.
Posted June 11, 2010
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