Killer on a Hot Tin Roof (Deliah Dickenson Mystery Series #3)by Livia J. Washburn
Delilah Dickinson is looking forward to a relaxing getaway leading her literary travel agency's latest tour at the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival in New Orleans. But a group of low-key English professors waste little time drawing their claws, especially when one of them claims he can prove Williams didn't even write Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. But when the supposed real author turns up dead, Delilah knows she's got to get to the bottom of things. . .even if the truth is as dirty as all them lies! Finding a murderer amidst all the steamy affairs, squabbling, and shouts of"Shut up! / No, you shut up!" is making Delilah feel like a certain cat stuck on a certain roof. Plus there's still a killer on the loose, and if she doesn't act quickly she just may find herself starring. . .in her very own death scene!
Praise for Livia J. Washburn and Frankly My Dear, I'm Dead
"Amusing, breathlessly quick." --Publishers Weekly
"Gone with the Wind fans will cozy up to this tale." --Mystery Scene
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KILLER on a HOT TIN ROOF
By Livia J. Washburn
KENSINGTON BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Livia J. Washburn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBlanche DuBois was wrong: you can't depend on the kindness of strangers.
Not that I want to sound pessimistic, and let's face it, by the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, Blanche is more than a little nuts, anyway. But if you really want to be disillusioned about the human condition, try being a travel agent for a while.
I looked at the group of people gathered in the airport concourse and did my dead-level best not to shout, "Will all of y'all just shut up?"
Because that wouldn't have been professional, you see.
So instead I turned to Dr. Will Burke and said, "They're your colleagues. Can't you do something about them?"
He sighed. "I'll try. But remember, they're literature and theater professors. Drama comes naturally to them."
I'll say it did. At the rate they were going, I'd be a little surprised if we made it from Atlanta to New Orleans without some of them killing some of the others.
Unfortunately, given my track record with these literary-themed tours, that possibility wasn't as farfetched as it sounds.
You may have read about me in the newspapers. Delilah Dickinson. Red-headed, with a temper to match (just don't remind me of it, if you know what's good for you). Divorced, approaching middle age too doggoned fast, owner of a semi-successful small business, a travel agency specializing in literary tours. I'd come up with the idea a couple of years earlier, after leaving a big agency to go out on my own, and, for the most part, it had worked out just fine.
I say for the most part because on a couple of tours, some pretty bad trouble had cropped up, and by bad trouble, I mean murder. Those cases had been solved and the killers caught—with some help from me, if I do say so myself—but naturally, the violence and scandal involved made folks remember them a lot better than they did the dozens of other tours I'd conducted that had gone off without a hitch.
You can't blame anybody for being interested in other people's troubles. It's part of the human condition, if you want to get all high-flown and philosophical about it. But the reputation those tragedies gave my agency made it an uphill struggle to keep things running in the black. I'd managed to do that, with a lot of help from my only two employees—my daughter, Melissa, and her husband, Luke—but it hadn't been easy.
Now I had a tour headed for another easy, the Big Easy, N'Awlins its own self ... if we ever got off the ground.
Will held up his hands to get the attention of the approximately forty people who stood there with their carry-on bags around their feet. He was about my age, although his tousled blond hair gave him a bit of a boyish look. The glasses counteracted that by making him appear slightly professor-ish. We had dated off and on for a couple of years, ever since he'd found himself in the middle of my first tour—and first murder case—and I suspected it was because of his influence at the university that I was able to get the job of arranging to take this group of professors, spouses, and/or significant others to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival.
You see, that's why I had Blanche DuBois on my mind.
The loud conversations that bordered on arguments were still going on. The members of the group didn't pay any attention to Will as he stood there waving his hands a little. He said, "Uh, excuse me, everyone?"
"You're gonna have to speak up," I told him. "Just pretend they're a bunch of unruly students in a lecture hall."
He glanced at me. "None of my students ever get that unruly. They pay attention to me. I give good lectures."
"Then pretend they're a bunch of third graders who're actin' up."
Will frowned. "I don't know how to do that."
I sighed and shook my head. I'd never been a teacher myself, but I had driven carpool plenty of times when Melissa was a kid.
"Hey! Y'all settle down, or I'll tell the pilot to go on to New Orleans without us!"
That shut 'em up. Of course, it might have offended them, too, but right then, I didn't care all that much.
An austere-looking man with white hair, glasses, and a wrinkled face stared at me and said, "I beg your pardon, Ms. Dickinson?"
I was about to apologize and explain why I'd yelled at them when it struck me how much he looked like Orville Redenbacher, the guy from the old popcorn commercials on TV. That made it hard to think of anything to say.
Will, bless his heart, jumped right in. "I think what Ms. Dickinson is trying to say, Dr. Jeffords, is that we all need to show a little more decorum. You know how it is with airports now. The extra security and all that."
"Oh." Dr. Jeffords blinked, then slowly nodded. "Oh, yes, of course."
That was pretty slick of Will, I thought. You can ask folks to do almost anything in an airport now, and as long as you look properly solemn when you mention "the extra security and all that," they'll go along with it.
I put a smile on my face and said, "I just think you should save all these spirited discussions for the panels when you get to New Orleans, so the other people attending the festival can get the benefit of them, too."
Another man said, "But Dr. Paige claims that the hurdles on which Brick breaks his leg have no ethnological significance."
A slender, attractive woman in her mid-thirties, with short dark hair, gave what my mama would have called an unladylike snort. "They're hurdles on a high school track," she said. "They have no ethnicity, so how can they have any ethnological significance? You might as well argue that they're gynocentric."
"Well, they could be," another man said. "If you consider Brick's obvious homosexuality and his later reaction to Maggie, the hurdles could be seen as a barrier over which Brick has to leap. When he fails to make that leap, when he fails to clear the threat of Maggie's sexuality, so to speak, or all female sexuality, as it were, then he's left a physical cripple—"
"He's disabled," yet another of the professors interrupted. "You can't say 'crippled.' He's physically disabled, which serves as a counterpoint to the emotional disability which he's already displayed by his incipient alcoholism, as well as his failure to reconcile his feelings toward Skipper—"
The man who had first brought up the hurdles said, "Yes, well, that line of argument merely reinforces my theory, which is never refuted in the text of the play, that Skipper was actually black, which again raises the issue of ethnological significance. The hurdle that Brick fails to clear is not his sexuality, but rather his racism!"
"Oh, surely you can't believe that!" the first prof said. "The historical aberration alone is enough to discredit the entire idea. Brick and Skipper were roommates in college. A black man wouldn't have been attending the same college as Brick during that time period."
The first professor sniffed and sneered. "It's what the playwright meant, whether it's historically accurate or not."
Everybody started talking at once then. I looked at Will and asked, "Did you understand all that?"
He nodded and said, "Unfortunately, yes. And they're back at it again, aren't they?"
"Let 'em fuss," I said. "I don't guess it's doing any real harm, and at least I can count heads while they're busy arguin'."
When I had done that, I realized that there weren't forty of them after all. I only had thirty-eight members of the tour accounted for.
Two were missing.
"You know everybody who's supposed to be here, right?" I asked Will.
"I think so."
I held out the clipboard with the passenger list on it. "Then go through this and tell me who's not here yet." I glanced at the giant electronic bulletin board that showed all the arrivals and departures of the flights. Our flight to New Orleans was still supposed to be on time, which meant we had about ten minutes before the boarding call. Having a couple of missing tourists now was cutting it closer than I liked.
Will took the clipboard and started glancing back and forth between the list and the group of people gathered in front of us. I could tell he was checking them off in his mind.
After a minute or so, he handed the clipboard back to me and said, "The only ones who haven't shown up are Michael Frasier and whoever he's bringing with him."
I glanced down at the list, saw the lines that read "Dr. Michael Frasier" and "Guest of Dr. Michael Frasier." I'd been able to leave that second spot unspecified when I was booking the trip, although of course I'd need the name of whoever was accompanying Dr. Frasier, and the person would have to have ID before they would be allowed to board the plane. The airlines don't allow anybody on anymore without knowing who they are.
"You know this fella Frasier?"
"Of course," Will said. "Not well, mind you. He's only been at the university for a year or so. But I've met everyone in the English Department."
"Well, he and his wife had better show up soon, or they're gonna get left behind."
"I don't think it'll be his wife coming with him."
"His girlfriend, then, if he's not married. Or his mistress, if he is."
Will shook his head. "Not that, either."
"Oh," I said. "That's all right. Nobody cares about things like that these days."
"No, no, I don't know that he's gay," Will said. "I don't know that he's not. But I'm pretty sure he's not married, and I never heard anything about a girlfriend or a boyfriend. I'm not sure he has a social life. He's pretty consumed by his work. Publish or perish, you know."
I'd heard the phrase and vaguely understood it, but I'd never had any direct experience with it, being a travel agent instead of a professor.
Before I could say anything, Will went on with relief in his voice, "Here comes Dr. Frasier now."
He was looking along the concourse in the terminal. I followed the direction of his gaze and saw two men coming toward us. The one who had to be Dr. Frasier had an air of impatience about him as he carried both bags. He looked like he wanted to stride on ahead but had to hold himself back so he wouldn't walk off and leave his companion. Every few steps, he seemed to pull himself back.
The other man shuffled along at what would have to be a maddeningly slow pace to anyone who could walk normally. He bent forward slightly at the waist, and his back was humped with age. He wore a brown suit and tie over a white shirt. The shirt's collar was loose around his stringy neck. An old-fashioned brown fedora was on his head. His arms moved back and forth a little at his side as he walked, almost like a puppet's. He had to be at least eighty years old, probably more.
I leaned close to Will and said quietly, "Would it be too politically incorrect for me to say that if Frasier is gay, he has pretty odd taste in boyfriends?"
"Yes," Will said. "Anyway, maybe that's his grandfather."
That was possible. Frasier looked like he was about forty, or half the old guy's age, in other words. He was slender, with tightly curled dark hair touched here and there with gray. His suit had a slightly shabby look, sort of like the one the old man wore. The difference was that Frasier's suit looked like it was the best he could afford on his teaching salary, while the old man's looked like he had owned it for the past fifty years.
The others had started to notice Frasier and his companion, and evidently they were as puzzled as Will and I were, because they gradually fell silent. Dr. Paige, she of the short dark hair and somewhat more commonsense attitude, glared at Frasier with obvious dislike. Curious, I glanced at the list in my hand. Tamara was her first name. She didn't really look like a Tamara to me, but of course you can't always go by names. Although I've been told that I look just like a Delilah.
I was too impatient to wait while the two newcomers made their way all along the lengthy concourse. I went around the group and hurried to meet them.
"Dr. Frasier?" I said as I approached. "I'm Delilah Dickinson, the leader of the tour."
Frasier nodded pleasantly enough. "It's nice to meet you, Ms. Dickinson. I'm sorry we're late." With an expression that was half smile, half grimace, he inclined his head toward his companion. "Howard can't move very fast these days."
"That's all right. They haven't announced the boarding call for our flight yet, so you're here in time. I do need your friend's name, though, and he'll have to have his ID ready at the gate."
Before Frasier could reply, the old man said in a loud, surprisingly clear voice with a strong Southern drawl, "My name is Howard Burleson, young woman. I can speak for myself. And I don't need any identification. I know who I am."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Burleson," I told him. "I didn't mean any offense. But you, uh, have to have ID to board the plane—"
"He's got it," Frasier broke in. "Or rather, I do. They gave it to me at the home when I checked him out. I have his driver's license and social security card. Will that be enough? You don't need a passport, do you?"
I was tempted to tell him that the last time I'd checked, Georgia and Louisiana were both still in the United States, but I decided there was no point in being a smart aleck. Also, it bothered me that the state would give somebody as feeble as Howard Burleson a driver's license. But I said, "That'll be fine. Is Mr. Burleson your ... grandfather?"
Burleson waved a gnarled hand. "I'm no relation to the boy. I'm just his meal ticket to fame and fortune."
I had no idea what that meant and didn't really care. Frasier looked annoyed and I thought he was going to say something, but just then the announcement came over the loudspeaker that Flight 561 to New Orleans was now boarding at Gate 3.
"That's us," I said as I took a pen and crossed through "Guest of Dr. Michael Frasier" and printed "Howard Burleson" in the space above it. "If you'll join the others.... Have you already checked the rest of your luggage?"
Frasier hefted the two carry-ons. "This is all we have. The festival is only five days."
Only a man could go on a trip for five days and fit everything he needed into a carry-on.
But there was no point in saying that, either, so I just ushered the two of them toward the rest of the group. By now they had picked up their bags and were making their way toward Gate 3, along with everybody else who was taking that flight to New Orleans.
I gave Will a reassuring nod. Now that everybody was here, things would be all right. The professors had stopped arguing, and they looked like the low-key, intelligent, and, well, professorial bunch I'd expected them to be in the first place. From here on out, I told myself, everything would go smoothly.
That was when Howard Burleson said, "It's goin' to be wonderful to see New Orleans again. I just wish poor Tom could be there with us."
Dr. Paige said, "Tom?"
"Tom Williams, of course," Burleson said. "Or Tennessee, as he called himself."
Dr. Paige stopped in her tracks. "You knew Tennessee Williams?"
Burleson stopped, too, and looked at her, his leathery face creasing in a smile. He ignored the gentle tugs on the sleeve of his suit coat that Frasier was giving him and said, "Knew him? Tennessee Williams and I were lovers, young woman."
Chapter TwoThat stopped everybody in their tracks. I didn't really blame them. I wasn't even a professor, and I was surprised by the old man's statement. Here they were, going off to a five-day literary festival honoring one of America's most distinguished playwrights, and Howard Burleson wanted them to believe that he had been intimate with that very playwright.
At the same time, I wanted to shoo the group back into motion. The loudspeakers had already announced that our flight was boarding, and we didn't have the luxury of standing around gawking at Burleson, no matter how outrageous the claim he had just made.
Excerpted from KILLER on a HOT TIN ROOF by Livia J. Washburn Copyright © 2010 by Livia J. Washburn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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