The Last Blue Plate Specialby Abigail Padgett
It seems impossible that two healthy female politicians could have both died from a cerebral hemorrhage within days of each other. The police hire Blue McCarron and Roxie Bouchie as consultants. The two women, who are involved professionally and personally, work with evangelical preachers, former convicts, and paintball playing plastic surgeons in order to find this… See more details below
It seems impossible that two healthy female politicians could have both died from a cerebral hemorrhage within days of each other. The police hire Blue McCarron and Roxie Bouchie as consultants. The two women, who are involved professionally and personally, work with evangelical preachers, former convicts, and paintball playing plastic surgeons in order to find this unorthodox killer.
Washington Post Book World
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At 7:05 P.M. on Friday, October 22, California State Assemblywoman Dixie Ross drove through a red light at the corner of Tenth Street and University Avenue in San Diego's Uptown District. The medical examiner's office would later release a report stating that when Dixie Ross ran that light, she was already dead.
Ross had left a dinner rally half an hour earlier and was five blocks from her destination, a political fundraiser at an art gallery called Aphid. The San Diego Union-Tribune would describe her in its Sunday edition as "a trailblazer for women in politics and a clear-eyed liberal who wasn't afraid of the boys in the back room," whatever that means. The local political scene, the paper would conclude, was already in sad disarray after the death of State Senator Mary Harriet Grossinger, sixty-three, of a massive stroke only two weeks earlier.
The paper did not point out that the statistical likelihood of two politicians from the same congressional district dying of natural causes within fourteen days of each other was not great. Almost nonexistent, really. But then most people, even.journalists, don't run around incessantly thinking about statistics like I do.
At 7:05 when a dead body ran a light, I was grazing the Aphid Gallery's appetizer table wearing a trendy little black and tan suit and a name tag that merely read BLUE MCCARRON. I hate those name tags that read HELLO, MY NAME IS... In real life, anyone approaching you with that phrase has something to sell. Usually a diet program involving all-natural vitamins at hugely inflated prices.
I also hatethat trendy little suit. The skirt's too short and makes me look bow-legged even though, at a gangly five-six and 133 pounds, I'm not. And the jacket, with its black and tan triangles each ending in a gold button, reminds me of court jesters. Wearing it, I feel a need to juggle oranges while asking riddles of kings. But I've been trying to shed my desert rat image and I was supposed to look like a political staffer for the fundraiser, so I wore my jester outfit. Also big ugly earrings and a pair of bizarre shoes I would later bury in the desert, where I live.
Burying uncomfortable clothing in the desert is one of my hobbies, but then so is the investigation of murder, lately. The San Diego County Sheriff's Department had just officially closed the Muffin Crandall case, in which I came close to getting myself killed, when I took this job designing political polls for a San Diego City Council candidate named Kate Van Der Elst. The job had seemed safe enough, but my track record for picking safe jobs hasn't been great lately.
I'm fairly sure I was scooping domestic caviar onto tiny slices of bread with a spoon designed to fit the hands of mice when the corpse of Dixie Ross ran that light. I later learned that her dark green sports utility vehicle hit the left rear bumper of a water delivery truck at the intersection of Tenth and University. Then it spun to rest after shattering the side-window glass of a white Honda Accord parked at the curb. Dixie Ross was fifty-three, had been in good health, and was wearing a seat belt during these collisions, in which her vehicle's airbags also inflated. She sustained no injuries. Nonetheless, when a teenage skateboarder reached into her car to feel for a pulse, he knew that Dixie Ross was dead.
What was clear at the Aphid Gallery was merely that Dixie was unaccountably late. Invitations to the cocktail party fundraiser, printed on paper made from jade plant cuttings, had read 6:00-8:00 P.M. Kate Van Der Elst, the political candidate for whom funds were being raised, knew she couldn't wait much longer. A speech was expected. Checks would be written. Then everybody could leave with just enough time to make their eight o'clock dinner reservations.
"Blue," Kate whispered as I watched the mayor of a wealthy suburban community neatly capture the last sturgeon egg from a blue willow plate with his little finger, "I can't start without Dixie. She's the shill!"
It was a moment only a social psychologist could love. Since I am a social psychologist, I loved it. Kate Van Der Elst had been a successful commercial real estate broker prior to her marriage sixteen years ago to Pieter Van Der Elst, the Dutch pharmaceutical baron. Before that a blonde and savvy younger Kate had gone to Sarah Lawrence and then played tennis with old money all over Western Europe. Kate does not run in circles where people say "shill" even when they mean a shill. In Kate's world the generic term "consultant" would be used, accompanied by slightly raised eyebrows suggesting a dollop of perfectly legal foul play.
At political fundraisers like this one, the shill dramatically writes the first check while standing beside the richest guy in the room, who of course has to follow suit, starting a trend. I found the cultural slip amusing. Kate Van Der Elst, smoothing well-styled hair from her aristocratic face with both hands, didn't.
"Stop smiling like that," she said. "This is serious. Where is Dixie?"
"Way down south in the land of cotton?" a deep voice suggested, causing both Kate and me to groan.
It was Bernard Berryman, better known as BB, a gay excon hired by me to design the event. BB had hand-made the jade-plant invitation paper and sewed green tablecloths from awnings he got dirt cheap at a mortician's bankruptcy auction. BB had also taught Kate Van Der Elst about shills. Everybody else in the room knew already.
"Don't know who donated that plate of liver paste and fish eggs, but they gone now," BB noted, shooting the cuffs of a blue-and-white pinstriped Egyptian cotton shirt. "Wasn't no note when they was delivered. Had a bunch of canned figs on the plate, too, but I threw 'em away. Looked like little blind wet mummy-eyes piled on some lettuce. Not somethin' anybody'd eat."
The shirt flashed attractively beneath yellow suspenders every time he walked under any of the gallery's hundred and fifteen high-density track lights. His dark dreadlocks were conservatively fastened at the back of his neck with an antique brass napkin ring, and his brown skin gleamed like an ad for a Hershey's product in the uneven light. At the bar across the main gallery I could see a prominent radical clergyman in aviator frames and a tie-dyed gray clerical shirt observing our conversation. BB responded by sliding his hands into the pockets of knife-pleated brown gabardines and doing an F. Scott Fitzgerald stroll toward the clergyman, who quickly ordered another drink.
"I'm going to wait three minutes and then begin," Kate said.
"Do you think somebody else could begin the check-writing ritual in the event that Dixie just doesn't make it?"
Kate had a bit of an accent, the result of living in the Netherlands for fifteen years. I made a mental note to locate a speaking coach. Southern California voters prefer a John Wayne drawl to accents hinting of the Continent. In fact, many Southern California voters secretly believe there is only one continent, and it is North America, and it ends at the Mexican border. I knew that even before I started running polls for Kate Van Der Elst.
"Sure," I answered. "Any prominent wealthy person will do."
"But I don't know any of these people," Kate said, dismay coloring her alabaster cheeks a peach daiquiri color. We were even. I didn't know any of them, either.
"Just begin your speech," I said with fake gusto. "BB and I will arrange something if Dixie doesn't show within ten minutes. She's probably just stuck in traffic."
So Kate launched into her speech about saving San Diego from urban sprawl while protecting endangered things like wild button celery and spadefoot toads from imminent extinction. Somebody was taking flash photographs of her, and periodically the room froze in light. I staggered in my atrocious shoes toward one of several pocket galleries off the rear of the main room. It looked like a good place to think about what to do next.
Of course, it wasn't. It was dim and small with pinlights illuminating a strange collection of grainy, overdeveloped black-and-white photos that might have been taken by a child with a simple box camera. Some were of mountain shacks, some of dilapidated houses on concrete blocks. Others featured abandoned cars and trucks half buried in tumbleweeds or disintegrating in gullies. Some were photos of unidentifiable structures taken from odd angles, like toys left on a carpet and seen from the perspective of a passing insect. Something about the photos made me forget Kate Van Der Elst and the spadefoot toads even though I could hear her voice in the room behind me. Something about one photo in particular.
It was one of the unidentifiable structures. Just a crumbling adobe building beside a road, half its length obscured by an immense shadow. The terrain had a California high desert look, with scrubby vegetation and lots of rocks. That desert sense of things known but never revealed. I guessed that the shadow had been cast by a hill or mountain ridge behind the photographer, to the west. Lights were visible through two windows in the shadowed half of the structure, and blurry figures. The other side, illuminated by a setting sun, seemed blasted by light. Bombed. As if the photographer had captured the precise moment of some deadly explosion. In the lower right corner of the photo was a signature in spidery black ink. "Greave," it said. The name meant nothing to me, but my reaction to the photo did. My reaction was visceral and made me shaky. Fascination.
And fear. Something frightening in that scene, something terrible and close. It didn't make any sense, but these creepy little recognitions never do. Which is why I rarely talk about them. They aren't rational, and irrationality scares people. What's the point? You either understand how these things happen or you don't.
Yeah, what? I mouthed toward the ceiling and my concept of the universe beyond it. A universe which in my mind is a curved grid on which everything moves at intense speeds. The past, the future, everything in between, and more. Sometimes it crosses the little band of reality in which we live and there's a buzzing sound, a scent of ozone, and some completely irrelevant thing is suddenly fraught with relevance. Usually these events are meaningless to us. I was sure this one with the photo had achieved new heights in that regard. It was pointless. But I couldn't stop staring at that photograph until the cell phone in my purse began to ring.
I should probably explain that I am not one of those people who talk on cell phones in grocery checkout lines in order to impress total strangers with my importance. I didn't even own a cell phone at that point. The one in my purse was Kate Van Der Elst's, handed to me just in case somebody called during her speech. I was also carrying a Ziploc bag holding Kate's snackhalf an apple, a stick of low-fat string cheese, and two macadamia nuts. She was on one of the fad diets that regularly sweep the country, so I had to dig the phone out from under a bag of food which was making my purse smell like an apple. The voice answering when I whispered, "This is Blue McCarron," was that of Pieter Van Der Elst, Kate's husband. He was calling from her storefront campaign headquarters a few blocks away. And his voice was strained.
"Something terrible has happened," he said, his Dutch accent turning "something" into "somezing." "Dixie Ross is dead."
"What?" I replied too loudly. "What happened?"
"I don't know. We just got the call. There was an automobile accident, but they're saying she was already... gone... by the time of the accident. She'd been at some picnic rally in north countyan organic bean growers' cooperativeand died while driving. She was on her way to Kate at the gallery. Her death was sudden. I don't know. Tell Kate I'm on my way over there."
Some of the well-dressed crowd in the main room were watch-ing me, curious about the phone call and its potential for political intrigue. There is nothing more boring than a cocktail-hour political fundraiser, and I didn't fault them for hoping this oaf in a designer suit might provide some relief. Sadly, I was about to.
After penning the news of Dixie's death on a one-hundred-percent recycled paper napkin, I waited five minutes or so for a lag in Kate's speech and then clomped toward her in my shoes-from-hell. BB noticed the look on my face and moved, pantherlike, to the precise point along a wall where I would withdraw after handing Kate the note.
What's going on? his eyes asked as I realized for the hundredth time the sort of social awareness learned in prisons. After three years behind bars for a youthful drug offense, BB misses nothing.
"Oh, my God!" Kate breathed into the microphone after I handed her the napkin, neatly capturing the full attention of all seventy-five people present. "Dixie Ross has... has died." In the ensuing seconds there was an outburst of dismay, a few strangled sobs, and finally the voice of the radical clergyman at the bar intoning, "Kate, what happened?"
"It isn't clear," Kate began as Pieter Van Der Elst burst through the door and hurried to stand at his wife's side. "Dixie was in an accident on her way here, but she wasn't injured. It seems that...."
"The call just came in to our campaign office," Pieter continued breathlessly, his pale blue eyes somber beneath a prematurely white brush-cut that always makes him look like a Renaissance monk. "There are no details as yet, but it is believed Assemblywoman Ross suffered some fatal event prior to losing control of her car. There will be an autopsy, of course. One scarcely knows what to say. We lost Mary Harriet Grossinger only two weeks ago. Now Dixie. I'm afraid I just don't know what to say."
BB had approached the clergyman during this exchange, and the man quickly slipped a white plastic tab into the collar of his shirt. Then he moved gracefully to stand before Kate's microphone. If he'd been slightly drunk two minutes earlier, he wasn't now.
"Dear Lord," he began softly as every head in the room bowed and the photographer ducked out the front door, "you have taken another of our friends and we are saddened...."
At the end of the prayer he urged continued dedication to everything Dixie had stood for. Racial justice. Funding for schools. The protection of our precious environment.
I was sorry that he left out the spadefoot toads. Kate Van Der Elst was sobbing against her husband's madras plaid shirt when the first check was written. After that there were many, many more.
"Shee-it, who this dude?" BB said quietly, his mouth close to one of my grotesque earrings. "Sucker work a crowd like putty in his hands!"
I had never seen sheer respect in BB's face before, and it took a few seconds for me to identify the emotion.
"He's a preacher, BB," I said. "They're expected to work crowds."
"World fulla preachers, Blue," he answered. "Half of 'em in prison. I seen preachers could talk a man down from hangin' hisself and I seen preachers could talk yo' grandma outta her walker long enough to give him a little head, but this dude solid gold!"
"The crowd's in shock, BB. And you don't understand what's happened. Two major political leaders dead within two weeks.
It's very upsetting."
"And they both ladies," he replied before easing away to begin cleaning up.
I hadn't thought of that. Another variable in a statistical setup that continued to nag. Liberal politicians are a minority on the Southern California political scene. And liberal women politicians are a very small minority of a minority. I wondered exactly how odd was the coincidence of two of them dying within weeks of each other. And of course it had to be coincidence, didn't it?
I stayed to help BB clean up after the crowd's somber exodus. Then we locked up, dropped the gallery keys through the mail slot, retrieved my Doberman, Bronte, from my truck, and walked her through the residential streets behind University Avenue. When Bronte was sufficiently exercised we headed over to Auntie Buck's Country and Western Bistro to meet Roxie, my significant other, who has no interest in politics. Not that I do, either. What I have interest in is making money, and Kate Van Der Elst was paying me well to design polls for her. Meanwhile, Dr. Roxanne Bouchie, forensic psychiatrist and line-dance coach at Auntie's, had followed through on her earlier suggestion that we work together.
"McCarron and Bouchie," our business cards read. "Consulting." I was already consulting with mall designers about how women shop, and Rox just added a new dimension. Jury selection. In the month or so since we set up business we'd gotten three jobs profiling juries for private attorneys in criminal cases. Good money and the work was interesting. Then Van Der Elst needed somebody to design polls and I took the job. After the election, I thought, I'd go back to malls and juries. After the election maybe Roxie and I would find a way to spend more time together. My life, I thought, was approaching perfect. The word itself is a warning, but I didn't notice.
"Who died?" Roxie asked when BB and I joined her at a table.
"You two look like Tales from the Crypt."
"Two ladies," BB answered succinctly before abandoning us for the dance floor and a wrenching ballad about trains.
"Dixie Ross died this evening, in her car on the way to Kate's fundraiser," I told the gorgeous black woman at whose touch my heart races, every time. Roxie has big ears and a spill of freckles across her face and wears her hair in a mop of beaded braids. The sound of those beads clacking together has become music to me. My own private symphony. Sometimes I think if Roxie knew how much I love her she'd leave town. I'll never tell her, though, because not only are we of different races, but we imagine ourselves to be mature and deeply sophisticated lesbians who are acutely aware that our "lifestyle" is full of pitfalls we're determined to avoid.
Of course, a psychiatrist and a social psychologist understand perfectly the female proclivity toward instant bonding, nesting, and total enmeshment. So quaint. We, of course, would avoid that ickiness by maintaining our separate lives, not moving in together, keeping boundaries. The result is astronomical phone bills and a lot of driving between my place out in the desert an hour and a half from San Diego if you drive like a bat out of hell, and Roxie's uptown urban condo. Still, we feel confident that we've skirted the embarrassment of typicality, at least. Meanwhile, I hoard in my heart the fact that, really, total enmeshment doesn't look all that bad to me. I have never told Roxie that sometimes I look at expensive flatware in department stores, although I have told Bronte. Hey, we all have secrets.
"Girl?" Rox asked, meaning I was supposed to tell her who Dixie Ross was and what her death might mean.
"State assemblywoman, Democrat, big on environmental issues, education, all the good stuff," I began. "She wasn't very old, fifty-three, I think. Had a chance at major office later, people say. Governor, maybe. She talked Kate Van Der Elst into running for city council after Kate and her husband moved back here from the Netherlands when he retired two years ago. Dixie had been at another political thing, a bean growers' rally or something, and was on her way to Kate's fundraiser when it happened. She just dropped dead. But what bothers me"
"Wait a minute," said Roxie the doctor. "People don't 'just drop dead.' You need a disease, organ failure, trauma, something like that."
"There will be an autopsy, Rox. We'll know then. Meanwhile, she's the second woman politician from San Diego to die in two weeks. It's weird."
Roxie swung her head, stretching her neck and setting off a soft rattle of beads. I had to lean over and kiss her cheek, which made her smile.
"Why weird?" she asked, looking at me in a way that suggested every politician from here to Cleveland could perish from gout without attracting her attention. Which was elsewhere.
"Weird statistically," I answered. "Wanna dance?"
"Not here," she said softly, as if I might not be feeling the same way.
So we managed to get to her condo before falling into each other with that unnerving hunger for which the word "love" seems less than adequate. Later I would bring up the deaths of Dixie Ross and Mary Harriet Grossinger again.
"Grossinger died of a stroke," I said into Roxie's ear.
"What if Ross had a stroke, too?"
"What if she did?"
"Well, she's dead," I noted. "Both of them are dead. That's really all we know. It's only nine-thirty, Rox. I'm going to call Kate at home, see if she and Pieter have heard anything more." Roxie merely sighed and then began pulling on clothes.
"Why are you getting dressed?" I asked.
"Because we're going to your place, of course. Blue, I know you, and I can see the handwriting on the wall. You'll turn into a pumpkin if you can't get to that computer of yours tonight and crank out three hundred charts showing why these two dead women shouldn't be dead."
She was right.
"I'll bring you breakfast in bed tomorrow," I offered. "Waffles, sunnysides, I'll make strawberry syrup from scratch."
"Deal," she answered, grinning despite the fact that she isn't exactly crazy about the desert. "It's my turn to sleep at your place, anyway. Now where did I put the Guide to Western Poisonous Snakes ?"
"It's under your scorpion coloring book," I answered as I dialed the Van Der Elst home number.
"I don't think the autopsy will be performed until Monday," Pieter told me, "but a preliminary assessment suggests that Dixie died of a lethal stroke. We're just devastated, Blue. She and Kate had known each other all their lives."
"Um, did Kate mention any medical problems Dixie had?" I asked. "Anything that might point to this?"
"That's what's so strange." He sighed. "Kate and Dixie played tennis almost daily, told each other everything. Dixie was so careful about her health, she had a physical before each campaign.
Her last exam was six months ago. She told Kate the doctor said her heart was that of a thirty-year-old. Kate had been urging her to go on this diet Kate's on, but Dixie said the medical exam proved she didn't need it. This thing just doesn't make any sense."
"No," I told Pieter Van Der Elst, "it doesn't."
Slightly more than ninety minutes later I unlocked the gate to my desert Shangri-la, an abandoned motel I was able to get for a song because it has no piped-in water. Rox was yawning in the front seat beside me, humming the final bars along with Mary Chapin Carpenter on the tape deck.
"I'm dead," she noted, heading straight for the queen-size bed in one of only two rooms actually furnished, the others unfinished and empty. It's hard for one person to fill twelve motel rooms. The bedroom is off the area which would have been the motel office, now my office. I switched on the computer even before saying good night. Then I ran Bront? in the moonlight for a few minutes and buried those god-awful shoes in a shallow grave between two cholla cactuses before going back inside to check out stroke Web sites. The last thing I thought before leaving the starry outdoor silence was of a grainy black-and- white photo of an adobe building both blasted by light and hidden in shadow. The image left a taste of ozone on the back of my tongue.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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The Last Blue Plate Special is an unusual combination of mystery, mystique, and madness. I enjoyed the injections of humor and personal insights of Blue McCarron who possesses a rare and wonderful mixture of left-brained logic (her expertise with numbers and statistics) and uncanny, right-brained intuitiveness. This is an entertaining novel told by an excellent storyteller. I am sure that the Christian Right (who is neither) will condemn the lesbian factor, but I consider that a problem of theirs, not the book's. The only down side to this novel is the repetition of the definition for social psychologist and the indulgence of unneeded trivia.
African-American prison psychiatrist Roxie Bouchie lives and works in California. While Roxie depends on her intellect to guide her, her partner and lover the highly respected social psychiatrist Blue McCarron lives on emotion and hunches. The duo provides consulting services, which include the San Diego police department as a prime client. Two state politicians, Senator Mary Grossinger and Assemblywoman Dixie Ross, died of cerebral hemorrhages two weeks apart. Blue and Roxie realize that the odds of the two women dying like this in such a short time are astronomical. A maniac, The Sword of Heaven, is murdering females in high profile positions with the only link between the two legislators¿ death being having plastic surgery at the same place. However, suspects are plentiful, but impetuous Blue decides to risk her life to flush out the Sword of Heaven killer. THE LAST BLUE PLATE SPECIAL is a very fine laid out mystery due to a horde of suspects, a land mine of red herrings, and dexterously unexpected twists and turns. Abigail Padgett uses a relationship drama starring two individuals who love and care for each other against all the odds of their making it together o crate a wonderful mystery. Though obviously targeted for fans of medical, psychological, and gay mysteries, the novel provides a mainstream appeal. Harriet Klausner