Gruel and Unusual Punishment (Pennsylvania Dutch Mystery Series #10)by Tamar Myers
When an imprisoned con man meets his Maker after sampling a bowl of gruel laced with arsenic, it's cruel and unusual punishment-indeed. And since Magdalena provided the last supper, she's convinced that one of his many visitors must have added the sinister
Pennsylvania Dutch Inn owner Magdalena Yoder returns in the tenth book in the mouthwatering series...
When an imprisoned con man meets his Maker after sampling a bowl of gruel laced with arsenic, it's cruel and unusual punishment-indeed. And since Magdalena provided the last supper, she's convinced that one of his many visitors must have added the sinister secret ingredient.
With the reputation of her establishment at stake, Magdalena puts on her detective bonnet to discover who in Hernia poisoned the porridge
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A teenage girl sat slouched on one of the tall kitchen stools. I vigorously discourage children as guests-if you think celebrities are the most destructive humans, think again-so I knew the child was not in residence. She did, however, have a punk look about her, one that I've come to associate with the world of entertainment.
Her hair was an impossible shade of black, with hints of maroon, and had been sculpted into spikes about four inches long that stood straight out from her head in all directions. Her ears had been pierced an obscene amount of times and resembled more the spines of spiral notebooks than auditory appendages. Even her eyebrows had been pierced, and from a ring on the left one hung a small silver skull on a chain.
Moving down, a plump body, not yet in the full throes of adolescent development, was clad in only a tube top and black spandex shorts. The latter barely covered the region Eve made famous with her fig leaf. But Eve went barefoot, I'm sure of it, whereas this girl was wearing black platform shoes with leather straps that snaked their way about chunky calves and tied just below the knee.
The child stood when she saw me scrutinizing her. "Hey lady," she said in a flat, midwestern accent, "give those eyeballs of yours a rest." I strode over to confront her. "Who are you?" I demanded.
The girl's pale blue eyes regarded me calmly. "What's the matter, Mom? You have trouble hearing, or something? I'm your daughter."
"Not even in my worst nightmare, dear. Tell me who you really are, or I'm calling the police."
The P word made her blink. "Ain't ya the famous Magdalena Yoder?"
I'm a sucker for flattery."Well, I guess I'm famous. I mean, Mel Gibson once referred to me-hey, let's stick with the program here!
Either you identify yourself, or I dial."
"Alison Miller," she said, enunciating with such exaggeration that I could see the metal stud in her tongue. "But call me Allie."
"Thank you. So, Alison, what are you doing in my kitchen?"
"Sheesh! You are deaf, ain't ya? How many times do I have to tell you that I'm your daughter?"
I turned helplessly to Freni. "You let her in, maybe you should explain."
Freni is seventy-three years old and has a figure that attests to her firm belief that green tomato pie counts as a vegetable. But when she wants to, that woman can move like greased lightning. One minute she was there, flapping about like a rooster, and the next thing I knew I felt the breeze on my face as the door to the dining room swung closed behind her.
"Uptight old lady, ain't she?"
I glared at the girl. "A good look at you would spook the horses, dear."
"I ain't your dear. Hey, what's with that old lady's getup, any-way? And what's with that funny little hat you got on? Youse actors of some kind?"
"Not hardly. She's an Amish lady, and I'm a Mennonite. I wear this funny little hat because I believe a woman should keep her head covered when she prays."
"You ain't praying now."
"That's what you think. Unfortunately my prayers aren't being answered."
She laughed, and I could see a second stud on her tongue. I wanted to gag.
"I haven't given up on calling the police," I said.
"Hey, come on, take a chill pill. I told you I'm your daughter, and I guess I am, because my dad is Aaron Miller. You know, the one who used to live across the road from you?"
"Aaron Miller?" If it hadn't been for the resistance offered by my thick cotton hosiery, I would have collapsed to the floor. As it was, I swayed. Like a tall, skinny tower of Pisa.
"You and him was married, right?"
"Then you're my mother."
"But I never gave birth!" I wailed.
"You sure?" "I ought to be. I mean, fathers can sometimes be surprised years after the fact, but we women-"
"Hey, spare me the sex talk, lady. I know how it happens. Anyway, that don't change a thing. If you were married to my dad, then you're my mom. It's as simple as that."
"Says me." There was desperation in her voice, and her face was turning red. Curiously, those areas surrounding metal were the color of cottage cheese.
"How did you get here?"
"My parents brought me."
"They're here?" I staggered to the nearest empty stool. It was almost too much effort to sit.
"Nah, not here-not at this dump, but in that little town up the road."
"Dump? Well, I'll have you know-" I caught myself. There are more important things than defending one's business, even if it is also one's residence. "Alison, are you saying that your parents are in Hernia? Where?"
"Not Hernia." She laughed. "Or Hemorrhoid, either. The other little town. The one that starts with a B."
"Uh-huh. They swung by and dropped me off. Now they're at the motel waiting for you to call. I got the number right here in my pocket."
If my blood had run any colder, I could have damaged my heart with ice crystals. It was hard to breathe.
"Hey lady, you all right?"
"I'm fine," I gasped.
Of course I wasn't. Aaron Miller-Alison's father-had been my Pooky Bear. We grew up together. Then at age eighteen, Aaron committed the ultimate act of Mennonite teenage rebellion by joining the army during the height of the Vietnam war. The moment he signed that paper the ground in Hernia literally shook, thanks to hundreds of pacifist ancestors turning over in their graves.
After the war Aaron didn't feel comfortable returning to Hernia, so he bummed around the country a bit, eventually settling in Minnesota. It wasn't until twenty-odd years later, and only when his aging, widowed father really needed him, that Aaron returned to stay. Shortly after his homecoming, I met him in the cow pasture across the road, on his farm, and promptly fell in love.
You would have too. Aaron is tall, with black hair and eyes the color of sapphires. His teeth are so white that when he smiles you have to look away or risk being blinded. His lips are like lush, ripe strawberries bursting with flavor. But more importantly, he was the most decent, kindest person I'd ever met.
I married Aaron in front of God and half of Hernia right here in my barn. We would have married in Beechy Grove Mennonite Church, but a bodacious storm blew in the night before, knocking a tree into the roof of the sanctuary. They say that what you don't know won't hurt you, but that isn't always the case. I had no idea what a naked man looked like until our wedding night, and then to suddenly see the male appendage-in all its unbridled glory-was traumatic. I still have nightmares, and Thanksgiving is forever ruined for me. I can't even look at a turkey neck now without feeling embarrassed.
But enough of that. It isn't your business anyhow. What's important for you to know is that I had absolutely no idea-not even an inkling of a hint-that my Pooky Bear had not only been married before, but was, in fact, still married. The woman-and she shall forever remain nameless as far as I am concerned- befriended him when he first moved to Minnesota. Shortly after they were married things went sour, but the marriage was never ended.
All this I learned after I'd given the man my maidenhood, making him a bigamist in the eyes of God, the law, and my neighbors. I thought then I'd heard-and seen-everything. I never dreamed there would be another shoe to drop. But apparently there was, and it was a doozy. The old woman and her kids, plus half of Hernia, could comfortably live in this one.
"Why does your father want me to call him?" My voice sounded tinny, and I wasn't sure at first I was actually speaking. I felt my lips; they were moving.
"You need to sign a consent form, that's why."
"Consent for what? He's not getting a cent of alimony. It was a phony marriage."
She laughed, treating me to yet another view of her lingual jewelry. There were actually three studs.
"You're funny, just like Dad said."
"He said that?" I shook my head vigorously to dislodge any thoughts of reconciliation. "This consent form, dear, what's it for?"
"Hey, lady, like I said, I ain't your dear. And the stupid form is about me. You gotta agree to let me stay here."
"I do? For how long?"
"How long? A week? A month?"
"A year," she said quietly. "Maybe more."
"They can't handle me. It was either you or the girls' detention center. You get to pick."
I felt like fainting. I needed to faint. With any luck I would hit my head on the corner of the kitchen table and knock myself utterly and permanently senseless. But alas, a good fainting spell was not to be had.
"Give me the number," I finally said. "I'll give your dad a call."
Aaron answered on the first ring. In fact, it wasn't even a full ring. He must have had his hand on the receiver.
"Mags, is that you?"
"Don't you call me Mags! Only folks I love get away with that."
"Sorry. So how are you, Magdalena?"
"Apparently doing better than you." I was calling from the privacy of my bedroom, and could have said anything I wanted.
"There's a multi-pierced urchin sitting in my kitchen who claims to be your daughter. Is this true?"
I could hear Aaron swallow. "I should have told you when you found out about my wife-I mean my other wife-but hey, you know me, Mags-I mean, Magdalena. I'm a coward."
"You got that right." I took a deep breath. "So what's this child doing in my kitchen? Is she really asking for asylum?"
"Well, it's a long story-"
"Then talk fast."
"She's fourteen, Magdalena. Well, almost. Her birthday's next month. Anyway, she hasn't adjusted at all to my moving back in with her mother. Started acting out about a year ago. At first it was small things like shoplifting candy bars and hair doodads. Then she started smoking dope. Drinking too. Last month she went all out and stole a car-a 1988 Ford Festiva! A banged-up one at that."
"For pity's sake."
"The hearing was the day before yesterday. The judge said she was reluctant to put someone that young into the system, but her hands would be tied if there was one more incident. She suggested we switch to a new family therapist-we've been going to one, you know-but I had a better idea."
"And that would be?" I knew what was coming. I only look stupid.
"You, of course. There is only one person on the face of this earth who could put the fear of God-and I mean that literally-into someone like my Alison."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
"And that's how it's meant." He paused, and I could hear the shrill voice of what's-her-name in the background. "So, will you?"
"For a year?" "Or less, if that's all it takes."
I wanted to ask him why. What, if anything, was in it for me? But I already knew the answer, and it might not be the same as his. The spiked, pierced, and studded child in my inn's kitchen was both my first and second chance. It was my first chance to raise a child who was chronologically under the age of twenty-one, and it was a chance for me to make up for the way I'd failed Susannah. Yes, I know, a baby would have been ideal. A baby I could raise to near perfection, I'm sure of that. But the Good Lord apparently wanted me to remain as barren as the Gobi Desert, and I would go to my grave with the fruit of my loins unplucked.
At the same time, He is a God of mercy. Had not a child just fallen into my lap-so to speak? Was this not a Heaven-sent opportunity to preach those things I know I should be practicing?And really, what did I have to lose? I know, I complain about my guests pilfering and destroying my property, but to be honest, I am heavily insured. Besides, the girl was a relative of sorts. And I'm not just talking about her sarcastic reference to me as her mom, ei-ther. You see, Aaron and I are distantly related-but not so close we couldn't have been legally married, mind you-which made this child also a relation.
"Six months," I heard myself say. "That's what I'll aim for. But if I can't handle the job, I'm sending her right back. And you pay any damages she incurs. You got that?"
I could feel his sigh of relief wafting through the tiny holes on my receiver. "Magdalena, you're a real peach, you know that?" He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Sometimes I wish you and I-"
"Stop right there!"
"Sorry." He paused. "Look, I've got all her stuff here, and the papers you need to sign. Do you want me to drop them off, or do you want to swing by here?"
That was a hard choice. Did I want to see my ex-Pooky Bear at my house, where I'd been blissfully, although unlawfully, married for a month, or did I want to visit the motel where he was holed up with his real wife? It was a choice I couldn't make.
"You know where Susannah and Melvin live?"
He didn't. I gave him directions and told him to drop everything pertaining to Alison at my sister's house. Then, rather than giving him my best pithy parting shot, I simply hung up.
I confess. For the next couple of minutes I stayed in my room, replaying in my mind some of the highlights of being Mrs. Aaron Miller-albeit a bogus one. They say beauty is only skin deep, but if that's the case, then Aaron has the epidermis of an elephant. Unfortunately, he has the soul of a snake, and I really was better off without him. Still, it was fun to imagine what might have been, and what could still be, if I had remained married to that magnificent Miller.
I was planning our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary party when my reverie was interrupted by a loud knock on the bedroom door. Knuckles that hard could only belong to Freni.
"I'll be out in a minute, dear."
"Yoder!" I put my pillow over my head. I should have known that praying mantises had hard knuckles too. The door was locked, thank heavens. Perhaps if I ignored him, he'd eventually wander off in search of other prey.
"Yoder, I need to speak to you."
"Go away," I yelled. "I'm indecent."
That should have been enough to put off any man, but of course not Melvin. "Yoder, this is very important. I have to speak to you right away."
"In that case I'll have to open the door naked," I said, just to make sure he'd understood.
"I don't give a damn what you're wearing, Yoder. Just open the door."
I sighed. I was, of course, fully clothed. And of course I would never allow a man to see me naked. Only God, Aaron, and my doctor have had that privilege. So far God's made no comment. Aaron, of course, bolted. As for Dr. Simonson, he announced his retirement a month after my last visit.
Reluctantly I opened the door. Melvin looked worse than I'd ever seen him. Both eyes were focused right on me, and he was trembling.
"What's wrong, dear?"
That's when Melvin began to cry.
--from Gruel and Unusual Punishment by Tamar Myers, Copyright © February 2002, New American Library, a division of Penguin Putnam, inc., used by permission.
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