A Dilly of a Death (China Bayles Series #12)by Susan Wittig Albert
China Bayles is in a pickle. The daughter of her best friend, Ruby, has turned up on her doorstep, pregnant and in need of a place to live. And her otherwise sensible husband has announced that he's bored with teaching and ready for a career change." "Say "hello" to P.I. Mike McQuaid and Associates. There aren't actually any "associates" - unless you count Ruby and… See more details below
China Bayles is in a pickle. The daughter of her best friend, Ruby, has turned up on her doorstep, pregnant and in need of a place to live. And her otherwise sensible husband has announced that he's bored with teaching and ready for a career change." "Say "hello" to P.I. Mike McQuaid and Associates. There aren't actually any "associates" - unless you count Ruby and China, of course. But the title does have a nice, official ring to it. His first client is Phoebe the Pickle Queen, owner of the biggest little pickle business in Texas. According to Phoebe, her plant manager is embezzling, and she wants McQuaid to follow the money." Meanwhile, Pecan Springs is hosting the annual Picklefest - and this year, China and Ruby are on the planning committee, along with Phoebe. But just days before the festival starts, the Pickle Queen disappears. Some say she sold her business and split; others think the answer may lie with her missing boyfriend. It's up to McQuaid and China to search for the Pickle Queen - and for clues in a case that promises to leave a very sour taste.
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Dill (Anethum graveolens) is a hardy annual member of the parsley family, native to southern Russia and the Mediterranean area. According to Prior's Popular Names of English Plants, its common name is derived from the Old Norse word dilla, which means "to lull" or "to calm." It was widely used to treat colic in babies, and every mother kept dill seeds handy to brew a soothing tea for her infants.
"It was tacky," I said indignantly. "And none of her darn business."
"I'm sorry she brought it up, China." McQuaid pushed back the heavy shock of dark hair that had fallen across his forehead. "On behalf of my mother, I sincerely apologize."
"You can't apologize on behalf of your mother, sincerely or insincerely," I retorted, trying to stay irritated, trying not to allow myself to be distracted by the affectionate smile that lurked in my husband's slate-blue eyes. "She's got to do it herself, and she won't. Or rather," I added, reluctantly fair, "she can't, because she doesn't even know she was being hurtful."
"That's why I'm doing it for her," McQuaid said, with the air of a man who has irrefutably countered his wife's best argument and feels he has won the day. He picked up his cup and pushed back his chair. "More coffee?"
It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in Pecan Springs, Texas. The June sky was gray and weepy, the live oaks dripped, and raindrops dappled the silvery puddles in the grass around our house on Limekiln Road--not a pretty day, I suppose, by most people's standards. But since I have a couple of acres of garden to water, rain means I don't have to drag hoses around for a few days, so I'm always glad to see it. This rain was gentle and well behaved, too, which made it especially welcome. Undisciplined cloudbursts and rowdy gully washers are something else again. Five inches of rain in two hours is no gift to anybody, especially when you live in the Texas Hill Country, on the wrong side of a low-water crossing. If you take a chance, you may find your vehicle sailing downstream and yourself stranded in a cottonwood tree--if you're lucky. You may also find yourself dead. People do, all the time.
Rainy Sundays are good for serious indoor pursuits, and that's what was going on at our house. McQuaid and I were sitting over coffee at the kitchen table, pursuing a discussion of something that had happened earlier that day. Brian was in his room upstairs, pursuing his interests across the vast reaches of the Internet. And Howard Cosell was stretched across my feet, his paws twitching as he pursued rabbits across the landscape of his dreams, with an occasional muffled yip of alarm when he actually managed to catch one and had to figure out what to do with the mouthful of fur.
McQuaid went to the counter and picked up the coffeepot. "Well, I suppose you can understand why Ma keeps raising the subject," he said, comfortable now that he had made the apology. "She's got a certain investment in babies. After all, I'm her son. My kids are her grandkids."
He poured, added sugar, and stirred, while I eyed his profile. Tall, dark, lithe, and lean-bodied, with the shoulders of a college quarterback. Craggy face, twice-broken nose (once on the football field, once in a fight with a crazy drunk), a jagged scar across his forehead (a relic of an encounter with a doper). Not quite handsome, but close enough. And sexy. Ah, yes, sexy.
I pulled my attention back to the conversation. " 'My kids are her grandkids.' " I repeated.
"That should be singular, shouldn't it? Your son is her grandson. That is, unless you've neglected to tell me about a chapter or two in your checkered past."
"Of course it's singular," McQuaid said. He opened the refrigerator and began to rummage among the leftovers. "You can't really blame Ma for coveting a few more grandchildren, can you? Her grandmother had a whole slew of them, thirty, or something like that, and twice as many great-grandchildren. Ma must feel like a pauper in comparison."
I shuddered. "Your mother's grandmother had ten children. She never heard of Margaret Sanger. Anyway, Jill is going to produce a grandchild in six months. That should take her mind off us. I sincerely hope," I added fervently.
"It probably won't," McQuaid said. "When Ma sinks her teeth into a project, she's like a coyote with a leg of lamb. The devil could goose her, and she wouldn't let go." He took out a plastic margarine tub. "What's this?" he asked, opening the lid.
"It's a dead frog," I said. "Brian is planning an autopsy." I added with a grin, "Probably wouldn't taste very good."
While McQuaid is contemplating his son's autopsy subject with some distaste, I'll take a minute to introduce us. Mike McQuaid--formerly a Houston homicide detective and currently on the Criminal Justice faculty at Central Texas State University--is my husband.
We've been married almost two years now, after dating each other for a long time and living together for a while, on an experimental basis, to see if it would work out. We live about a dozen miles from town in a big Victorian house that a previous owner named Meadow Brook, and since the house site includes both a brook and a meadow, the name seems to fit. I've turned part of the meadow into a large herb garden, where I grow popular culinary herbs like dill, marjoram, and parsley, which I tie into fresh, fragrant bundles and sell in my shop and to the local markets.
Brian is McQuaid's fourteen-year-old son by his first wife, Sally, who drops into and out of our lives like a whimsical bad fairy. He's a smart kid whose current passions include spiders, snakes, lizards, and girls, not always (but mostly) in that order. He says he's going to be a biologist when he grows up, and judging from the live collections in his bedroom, I'd say he's already on his way.
Howard Cosell is McQuaid's crochety basset hound, who (in defiance of the fact that bassets are bred-in-the-bone rabbit chasers) would never dream of chasing a real rabbit when he's awake. He's a notably intelligent dog, but lazy; with regard to rabbits, he'd rather do an on-line search, preferably from his comfy basset basket beside the Home Comfort range in the kitchen.
And I am China Bayles, formerly a criminal defense attorney in Houston, now the owner of Thyme and Seasons Herbs and co-owner, with my best friend, Ruby Wilcox, of Thyme for Tea. And if you're thinking that dropping out of the career culture and moving to a small town is a comedown from something important, you're dead wrong. In my book, being my own boss and not having to deal with bad guys is a major upgrade. I am very happy with the way things have turned out--although at this very moment, I have to confess to being more than a little irritated by my mother-in-law.
My irritation began with our Sunday noon dinner with McQuaid's parents at their home near Seguin, a small community about thirty miles southeast of Pecan Springs. It was Mother McQuaid's seventieth birthday, and we were all gathered around the big dining room table to celebrate: Mother and Dad McQuaid, Jill (McQuaid's sister) and her husband, Pete, and McQuaid and I and Brian. When Mother McQuaid had blown out the candles on her devil's food cake, Jill lifted her glass of iced tea in a toast.
"Well, Ma," she said, "you're going to get one of your wishes, anyway." She looked around the table, smug. "Pete and I are having a baby--a boy."
I was startled, as much by the sudden envy that rose up at the back of my throat as by Jill's unexpected announcement. But I swallowed down the sourness and did my best to join in the yelps of delighted surprise and ecstatic hugs that went around the table. Jill is a couple of years older than McQuaid, which puts her in her early forties, and her mother was jubilant, having given up all hope that her daughter would get pregnant. I was pleased too, since I knew how much Jill and Pete wanted a baby and how hard they'd tried to make it happen. The whole thing would have been entirely delightful, if Mother McQuaid had not spoiled it with her next remark.
"Now it's your turn, China," she said, turning to me. "You and Mike have been married for almost two years." She gave me one of her sweetly innocent smiles. "You're not getting any younger, you know, dear. Isn't it time you were thinking of giving Brian a little brother or sister?"
By that time, I had successfully dealt with my envy--which wasn't envy at all, just surprise. "No," I said, in a firm voice that carried a little farther than I meant it to. I smiled too, showing my teeth. "No, I don't think so." I was about to say more, but McQuaid hastily cleared his throat.
"Hey," he said. "What are we waiting for? Let's cut that cake!"
Mother McQuaid ducked her head with a hurt look, as if I had smacked her. "I don't mean to interfere, of course." Hand on bosom, she heaved a dramatic sigh. "All I've ever wanted is for you children to be happy. And our Brian is such a wonderful young man. It would be so much fun for him to have a sweet little--"
"Cut that cake, Ma," Dad McQuaid interrupted sternly, "before China throws it at you." Everybody laughed, some of us more loudly than others.
McQuaid shoved Brian's frog into the refrigerator and came back to the table, where he put his hand on my shoulder and bent to drop a gentle kiss in my hair.
"Hey," he said softly, "stop scowling, China. In case it's worrying you, I'm entirely happy with the current cast of characters. Just you, me, Brian, Howard Cosell, and the occasional dead frog." Another kiss, another pat. "As far as I'm concerned, a baby isn't an essential part of the package."
"You're sure?" I asked, with more than a little anxiety. We had discussed this issue at length before we decided to get married, because the statistics aren't very promising for women over forty, which includes me. I chose a law degree and a high-octane career over marriage and kids, and by the time I'd ditched the career, created a quieter life, and opted for marriage, my biological clock was about to reach the witching hour. Children weren't likely to be a part of the package.
But as long as I'm in confessional mode, I might as well go all the way. Even if I could get pregnant, I wouldn't want to. By the time a little girl was old enough for sleepovers, I'd be past fifty. I might just be able to handle that, but say that the baby was a boy. When he was old enough to drive, I'd be past sixty. Could I cope? I don't think so.
Of course, it's probably not politically correct for me to say this, because I have several friends in their early forties who would trade their souls for a baby. But while I'm perfectly happy to cheer them on in their efforts to be fruitful and multiply, I am also perfectly happy with my own situation. Selfish? Maybe. But I've lived long enough with myself to understand the importance of maintaining my personal space, my privacy, and my autonomy. I'm learning to carry my share of the marriage, and I'm even getting comfortable with being a mother to Brian. But a family of three is quite large enough, thank you, and I'm not in favor of upping the total. I hoped McQuaid meant it when he said he hadn't changed his mind about babies.
"Yep." McQuaid sat down, regarding me thoughtfully. "I'm sure we'd manage if a baby happened along, but we've definitely got enough on our plates. You have the shop and the tearoom and all your other enterprises, and I have--" He stopped, looking uncomfortable. "I've been meaning to talk to you about this, China."
I gave him a wary look, not exactly sure about the tone of his voice. "Talk to me about what?"
He turned his coffee cup in his hands, looking down at it. "About what I want to do. With my future, I mean." He cleared his throat. "Of course, it's our future, so you've got something to say about it. I don't want the decision to be just mine."
"What decision?" I was beginning to get concerned about the direction this conversation was taking. "What are we talking about? Another career change?"
This was not just a wild guess. McQuaid had already made one big change in his life--from cop to university professor. After a couple of years of teaching, though, he had begun to find his classes a little boring, while the slash-and-burn politics in his department was more unnerving than street work. So he'd tried to bring a little excitement into his life by taking on an undercover narcotics investigation for the Department of Public Safety. The job had been more dangerous than he'd bargained for, though, landing him in the hospital with a bullet very close to his spine. He had survived, thank God, but with a permanent limp, a disability that meant he couldn't go back to police work even if he wanted to. Which, I was afraid, he did. Teaching was no longer much of a challenge, and he hadn't stopped hating the departmental politics. It was only a matter of time before he decided on a new direction.
"Well, it's sort of a change." The corner of McQuaid's mouth quirked, and while his voice was flat, it held an undertone of barely suppressed excitement. "What I'd like to do is hang out my shingle. As a PI, I mean. By the end of the month."
"A . . . a private investigator?" I managed. I wasn't exactly surprised, because he'd always enjoyed investigative work more than any other part of being a cop. But the suddenness of it was jolting. The end of the month was almost here.
He looked crestfallen at my lack of instant enthusiasm. "It's not as prestigious as being a university professor, I'm afraid," he said ruefully. "And it's not going to pay as well, either. I'll teach the summer courses I'm signed up for, and I'll probably teach a course or two during the year, which will help out some. But I can't predict how much I'm going to bring in from the PI work. We'll have to watch our bottom line pretty closely."
"The prestige thing isn't a problem," I said. "Or the money, either." Pecan Springs's economy is based on tourism, and both the shop and the tearoom were doing reasonably well, for small businesses. The money wasn't coming in hand over fist, but there'd be enough to tide us over until he picked up the first few clients. I looked at him, loving him. "It's the other part that I worry about. Your safety."
McQuaid raised one dark eyebrow. "Well, if it's danger that bothers you, you can stop worrying, China. The jobs I'm looking for will be purely investigative--digging up information and putting it together. Solving puzzles is what I'm good at." Reminiscently, he rubbed the scar across his forehead. "I've had enough run-ins with bad guys to last me a lifetime. I am definitely not looking for more."
I took a deep breath. "That's easy enough to say. But behind that academic facade, you're still a cop at heart. You enjoy a piece of the action. If there's a challenge out there, you'll find it." I made a face. "Or it will find you."
"I don't think so." He was boyishly pleased with himself. "Anyway, I plan to be choosy about the kinds of cases I take on. If it doesn't smell right, I don't want any part of it." He paused, expectant, his dark eyebrows cocked. "Don't you want to know the name of my business?"
"Okay, I'll bite. What's the name of your business?"
"M. McQuaid and Associates, Private Investigations," he said, with a dramatic flourish.
I tilted my head curiously. "Associates, Sherlock?"
"I thought maybe some people might be put off if they thought it was a one-man firm. Anyway, there are several people I can count on to give me a hand if I need it."
"Absolutely," I said with enthusiasm. "There's me and--"
"No, no," he broke in hastily, before I could mention Ruby. "I'm thinking of people like Bubba Harris and Tom McConnell. They're both expert investigators." Bubba is the former Pecan Springs chief of police, and Tom is retired from the Texas Rangers.
I was tempted to argue with him. After all, my work as a criminal attorney has pulled me into plenty of investigations, some of them involving very bad guys. But the fact is that I don't have time for that sort of thing any longer. Between the herb shop and the tearoom, my days are fully occupied, and I devote my spare time to getting a life.
"All I care about is your safety," I said. "If you keep your nose out of trouble, I'll keep my nose out of your business."
He grinned. "Is that a promise?"
I nodded, and he put both his hands, large and warm and strong, over mine. Through his touch, I could feel his confidence, his excitement about this new chapter in his life. "So it's okay with you if I do this?" he asked.
"It's okay," I said, and squeezed his hands to show that I meant it. "Whatever you want is fine with me. As long as it doesn't involve making babies. And doesn't get you killed."
"That's good," McQuaid said, with evident relief. "Because I've already taken the exam and done the paperwork to get registered. With my law enforcement background, it was a piece of cake. I'm going to work out of my office here at the house, at least in the beginning. In fact, my first prospective client will be showing up"--he turned his wrist to glance at his watch--"in about ten minutes."
"Ten minutes!" I yelped. It was just like McQuaid to set everything up before he told me what he was up to. He protects his personal space almost as passionately as I do. "You were pretty sure of yourself, friend. What would you have done if I'd said I wanted you to stay at CTSU?"
He was not perturbed. "I was sure you wouldn't. And if you did, I was sure I could talk you out of it." He kissed his finger and ran it down the bridge of my nose. "I would use all my persuasive powers. You'd be putty in my hands. You wouldn't be able to resist."
"Probably not," I agreed equably, "but it might be fun to try. I'll resist, you persuade." McQuaid has always been able, ultimately, to persuade me, even when I hold back. And I had held back a lot, in the old days, for marriage (like children), wasn't high on the list of things I wanted to accomplish in my life. But McQuaid had been persistent, his pursuit surprising me, annoying me, confusing me, and finally, beguiling me. "This client of yours--who is he?"
McQuaid leaned back in his chair. "He's a she with nice deep pockets, always an asset in a client. She's Phoebe Morgan. Charlie Lipman sent her."
"Phoebe the Pickle Queen Morgan?" I stared at him. "You don't want to work for her, do you?"
"I won't know until I hear what the job is." He frowned. "Why? What's wrong with Phoebe Morgan?"
"If you don't already know," I said, "it's almost impossible to tell you."
"Try," he said.
"But you must already know something about Morgan's Pickles," I protested. "After all, you grew up in this area." Well, not exactly. He grew up in Seguin, which is far enough away so that he might not know much about the Pecan Springs locals. And his work at the university wouldn't have introduced him to--
"Pretend I never heard of it," he said. Another look at his watch. "You've got five minutes. Starting now."
I shrugged and began. The Morgans, I told him, were the crème de la crème of the Adams County aristocracy, local folk who had made good, hoisting themselves out of poverty by an impressive combination of sense, skills, and luck. In the early years of the Great Depression, Mick and Polly Morgan lived five or six miles out of town, on a piece of land that was too small to run cows and too rocky to farm. They were scraping together a bare living raising chickens when a big wind tore the chicken coops apart and scattered feathers across the county. All that Mick and Polly had left was their son, Randolph, their old house, and a half-acre plot of dead-ripe cucumbers that Polly had planted in the sandy bottomland along the creek.
Polly, however, was not intimidated by a mere windstorm. She tied on her apron and sent Randolph out to pick cucumbers, while she got out the canning kettle and her mother's secret recipe for dill pickles. When the first batch was ready, Mick loaded up the Model T and peddled Polly's pickles in Pecan Springs and nearby New Braunfels, where they went over big with the German families. Before long, there was enough demand for Polly's pickles to justify moving the operation into the new barn Mick had built. The next day, Mick hired a sign painter to paint MORGAN'S PREMIER PICKLES in big red letters on the east side of the barn, where you could see it when you drove along the county road. By the end of the year, barns all across Texas and even into Oklahoma and Arkansas sported the big red words MORGAN'S PREMIER PICKLES, their owners seduced by the promise of a free paint job on the barn, ten dollars in their overall pockets, and a case of Polly's pickles. In another couple of years, you could see MORGAN'S PREMIER PICKLES on barns in Mississippi, Georgia, and the Carolinas. People around Pecan Springs used to joke that the only thing that kept Mick from painting the name of his pickle business on the barns on the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line was the unfortunate fact that the farmers had already sold out to see rock city.
And that was the start of Morgan's Premier Pickles, which by the end of the decade was the biggest little pickle business in Texas. Things went along very well, in fact--but only as long as Polly and Mick were alive. When they cashed in their dill chips and went to wander in Elysian cucumber fields, the management of Morgan's Premier Pickles fell to Randolph, who was neither as inspired as his mother nor as hardworking as his father. In fact, he didn't seem to have a brain in his head, at least as far as the family enterprise was concerned. Not to make a pun of it, things swiftly went sour in the pickle business, and for the next decade or so, Morgan's did not flourish.
The situation changed, however, when Randolph, his wife, and their son died in a plane crash. Their daughter, Phoebe Morgan Knight, recently married and about to be a mother, was the only Morgan left, and folks around here didn't expect much from her. After all, she'd only been out of college for a couple of years. If the guys at Ben's Barber Shop had been placing bets, they would have bet that Morgan's Pickles would be down the drain by Christmas, and Phoebe would be back making babies with her husband, Ed, who had been a fullback on the CTSU football team and was widely admired by the Good Old Boys.
Phoebe, however, had other ideas. Her first stop was the delivery room, where she spent the morning giving birth to a son, Brad. Two days later, she was sitting in the office of the president of Ranchers State Bank, mortgaging the Morgan property to buy new equipment and build an addition to the plant. Before the baby's first birthday, she'd ditched her grandparents' line of low-profit retail products and reorganized the plant to produce whole pickles, sliced pickles, and relish for the institutional market--all with new and highly automated equipment. This allowed her to consolidate her marketing efforts, increase productivity and efficiency, and reduce her payroll by nearly ninety percent--which did not endear her to the locals, of course. By the time Brad went off to nursery school, Morgan's was supplying pickles in two-gallon jars, five-gallon pails, and forty-gallon kegs to prisons, potato salad and pickle loaf manufacturers, and school lunchrooms from Texas to Florida. Mick and Polly would have been proud.
But Phoebe was not the easiest woman in the world to work with, and over the twenty-five years she'd been making Morgan's more profitable, she'd gotten a reputation as an ambitious, aggressive woman who knew exactly what she wanted and didn't let anybody--and that means anybody--get in her way. Folks around here can't forget that nearly 150 people used to work for Morgan's, while now the year-round staff is down to about fifteen. They don't like her, in spite of the fact that she has become a community activist, volunteering for every board in town. They call her the Pickle Queen, along with other less-flattering names, some of them rather vulgar. They--
"Very interesting," McQuaid interrupted. "You tell a good story, China. You'll have to finish later, though. I've got to get going."
"What do you think she wants?" I asked curiously. "Security for the plant, maybe?"
"I have no idea. She didn't give me any details over the phone. But I don't plan to take any security jobs, so if that's what she's after, she's out of luck." He drained his coffee cup. "Anyway, whatever the lady has on her mind, it's confidential. Which means I won't be able to tell you about it."
"A confidential tête-à-tête with the Pickle Queen?" I snickered. "Sounds like a real sweet dill to me."
McQuaid put down his cup with a loud groan.
I leaned forward. "What's green and swims in the sea?"
"Excuse me," McQuaid said, standing hastily. "I've got to get ready to see Ms. Morgan."
"Moby Pickle." I chortled. "My roommate Allie and I used to trade pickle jokes while we were studying for exams. It kept us sane. What do you get when you cross an alligator with a pickle?"
McQuaid went to the kitchen door. "I'm not biting," he said firmly. "I have more to do than sit around trading stupid pickle jokes."
"A croco-dill!" I crowed. I got up and followed him into the hall. "What business does a smart pickle go into?"
The only answer I got was the sound of McQuaid's office door closing firmly. "A dilly-catessen," I said to myself, chuckling.
And then I thought about McQuaid's announcement and sobered. This would be his third career. Would the change make him happy, at last? Could he really manage to choose the cases he wanted--and stay out of trouble?
And would a smart pickle really go into the PI business?
--from A Dilly of a Death by Susan Wittig Albert, Copyright © 2004 Susan Wittig Albert, published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher.
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