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As the only holiday-themed mystery series in print, Jane Haddam's Gregor Demarkian mysteries have been a rousing success. Her first Demarkian mystery was nominated for both an Edgar and an Anthony for Best Novel. Now she has come up with a devious mystery just for mothers--and everyone who has one--as she serves up murder at a convention of nuns. Original.
THERE WAS A HAND-LETTERED cardboard sign hanging in the display window of Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food Store, and every time Gregor Demarkian passed it he wondered if there was something about being Armenian that made people a little cracked. Then he thought of the most cracked person he knew—who happened to be a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant named Bennis Hannaford—and decided it wasn't worth worrying about. It was Sunday, the eleventh of May, a bright hot day at the beginning of what promised to be a glorious spring. Gregor Demarkian had spent twenty years of his life with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, ten of them with the Department of Behavioral Sciences. The Department of Behavioral Sciences was that division of the Bureau that helped local police forces coordinate national hunts for serial killers. Gregor had founded it but not named it, the name having been visited on him and all the agents he worked with by some second assistant bureaucrat who had had friends in Congress so long he had lost the knack of speaking English. Bright spring days while he had still been with the division had not been happy. Psychopaths responded to a warming of the weather just like anybody else. When the sun started to gleam, Dagwood Bumstead took his family to the beach and the local nutcase took his victim to a wooded hillside ten miles out of town. Or somewhere. Gregor Demarkian had started his career with the Bureau swearing he was never going to retire. He had ended it at the beginning of his wife's last painful year of battling with cancer. He had never looked back. In the midst of Elizabeth's dying, it had been hard for him to recognize how he'd come to feel about his job—it had been hard to remember he'd ever had a job—but in the years since, he'd been unable to avoid it. By the time Gregor Demarkian had left the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he had come to hate his work with a passion.
The sign in the display window of Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food Store said:
IN FOR MOTHER'S DAY—HEART-SHAPED HONEY CAKES WITHGRANNY GLASSES.
Underneath it was a heart-shaped honey cake that indeed had granny glasses, made of silver sugar pearls, and bright eyes with long lashes inside the glass frames, too. Next to the honey cake was a tiny vase of plastic flowers with MOTHER printed across the bulbed-out part at the end of it, and another vase with something incomprehensible printed on that Gregor supposed the incomprehensible thing must be mother spelled out in Armenian, but he couldn't be sure. There had been times in his life when he'd been able to do a fair job of dredging Armenian words from the pit of forgetfulness a life in major cities had confined them to, but today was not one of those times. It was hard to tell exactly what today was. It was Mother's Day, of course. No one walking down Cavanaugh Street could have mistaken it for anything else. Mother's Day might once have been a sticky-sentimental gesture by a corrupt Congress looking to do something nobody could cause a scandal over. It might have metamorphosed into one more shtick for the retail sector to exploit. On Cavanaugh Street, however, it was something like a patron saint's feast day. Gregor Demarkian had grown up on Cavanaugh Street. In those days it had been an Armenian-American immigrant ghetto, the kind of place where bricks fell off the facades of buildings and plaster crumbled from their inner walls and social workers arrived with the regularity of bowel movements to berate the population on how they were doing it all wrong. It was now Philadelphia's jewel of urban renewal, a clean place lined by town houses and floor-through condominium apartments, trendy restaurants and import boutiques, even a bookstore and a religious supply house used by all the priests in all the Eastern rite churches in the city. That this change had come about was due entirely to the way the children of Cavanaugh Street felt about their mothers, which, in Gregory's opinion, was right up there in both fanaticism and common sense with the way the people of Jonestown had felt about Reverend Jim. Gregor could just imagine one of the women of his own generation—Lida Arkmanian or Hannah Krekorian or Sheila Kashinian—giving the order for a mass march into the sea. First they'd give the order for a mass march into rubber boots.
Of course, Gregor didn't want to imply that he didn't think well of Armenian mothers. He'd had an Armenian mother of his own, once, and an Armenian grandmother, too. They were wonderful women. Bossy, maybe. A little on the hysterical side when it came to how much their children ate or how many layers they wore on perfectly nice days when no layers at all would probably have made more sense, but still—
He was past Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food Store now, almost up to the Ararat restaurant. It was eleven o'clock in the morning, nearly time for the liturgy to finish at Holy Trinity Armenian Christian Church. Any minute now, Father Tibor Kasparian would bless the congregation and Sheila Kashinian would begin to tap her foot. All the old ladies would rustle and blush and try to hide the fact that what they really wanted to do was get out to the vestibule and the front steps as quickly as possible, where they could get some serious talking done. It was to avoid church that Gregor had gone for his walk in the first place. He had nothing against church—he certainly had nothing against Father Tibor's sermons—but today ...
Today, today, today, Gregor thought. Today you're just disgruntled because Cavanaugh Street is celebrating a holiday you have no way to celebrate. In a few minutes the street will be full of people, Cavanaugh Street regulars joined by the new immigrants who had come over since the Soviet Union's fall, and you will be totally out of place.
Bennis Hannaford often said that if Gregor Demarkian didn't have a reason to take a despairingly existential view of life, he would invent one. Young Donna Moradanyan agreed with her. Donna Moradanyan had the apartment on the floor above Gregor's in the four-story brownstone that faced Lida Arkmanian's town house. Bennis had the apartment on the floor below him. Between the two of them, they did a better than fair job of running his life.
Someday, something unambiguously wonderful is going to happen in your life, Gregor told himself, and then you won't know how to behave.
Linda Melajian was standing in the middle of Ararat's front room, setting a table with restaurant flatware and frowning at the way the yellow linen napkins were folded. The napkins were yellow because they went well with Armenia's new flag, a copy of which was displayed along the side wall in a frame of flowers that always looked so fresh, somebody must have been changing them daily. Gregor reminded himself that old Deena Melajian had fled the Communist invasion in 1946 and then wondered how Linda thought she was going to get away with having skipped church just to set up for the Mother's Day crowd. Everyone who came in this afternoon was going to ask her why she couldn't make time for God.
Gregor tapped on the window. Linda looked up and waved. Gregor went on down the street. The tall front doors of Holy Trinity Church were propped open. Howard Kashinian must have come out while Gregor was watching Linda in the Ararat. Gregor speeded up his steps. It was a good thing he had someplace to go today. It would take his mind off all this hyperbolic celebration of motherhood. It would stop him from wondering what it was all these people thought he was up to—which was a question he often asked about Cavanaugh Street without getting any kind of sensible answer. Gregor didn't even think he'd mind spending the day surrounded by nuns. In Gregor's private cosmology, convents and Cavanaugh Street went together in ways mysterious and divine. They were both largely populated by women with a mission.
Donna Moradanyan's mission was to decorate as much as possible with as little excuse as possible. To that end, she had decorated the front of the brownstone where her apartment and Gregor's were with bright yellow and blue satin ribbons, bright yellow and blue satin bows, and white chiffon hearts sewn into ruffles so enthusiastic they almost seemed alive. Just how Donna Moradanyan had managed to do this, Gregor did not know. It couldn't have been easy getting those ribbons up close to the roof like that. It had to have been nearly impossible to plant that chiffon heart—the one the size of an overgrown twelve-year-old-boy—right in the center of the stones between the third and fourth floors. Did Donna fly? Did she care what having a house that looked like this did to the dignity of her neighbors?
Donna Moradanyan thought Gregor Demarkian had too much dignity, and he knew it.
Over at Holy Trinity, there were rumblings and hiccups. The congregation was beginning to emerge. Gregor hurried up his front steps, determinedly ignoring the gigantic M woven out of blue and yellow ribbons that covered the front door. Then he let himself into the foyer and looked around. Since it was Sunday, there was no mail. Since it was a holiday, there was no old George Tekemanian in the first floor apartment—old George would be spending the day with his grandson Martin and his great-grandchildren. Gregor headed on up the steps to the second floor.
It was odd to think about it now, but back when Elizabeth died, the last thing he'd thought he would do was come back to Cavanaugh Street. He hadn't even thought there would be a Cavanaugh Street to come back to.
What would his life have been like without this place?
GREGOR DEMARKIAN HAD MET Bennis Hannaford in a way he would once have refused to believe he would ever meet anyone—in the course of investigating a murder for whose solution he had no official responsibility. In fact, back in the days when he was still with the Bureau, the idea of getting involved in murder investigations—or in criminal investigations of any kind—as what amounted to an amateur would have sounded to him absurd. Like most professional policemen—and that was what a Bureau agent was, really, a professional policeman—Gregor had scant use for amateurs. Unlike so many professionals, he didn't mind amateurs in fiction much. Bennis gave him novels by Agatha Christie and Rex Stout and he read them with a fair degree of amusement. There was something about the way in which he himself had become involved in other people's murder cases, though, that made him uneasy. It made him uneasier that he had no hold on that part of his life. So far, he had been tangled up in seven of what he called his "extracurricular murders." He had become the darling of the Philadelphia Inquirer and People magazine. If one more person dared to call him "the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot," he was going to commit a murder of his own. The problem was, if he didn't commit a murder of his own, he had no guarantee that he would ever be involved in another case. It was worse than odd. It was like being visited by fairies, or having to rely for your Christmas presents on a very capricious Santa Claus. Of course, he didn't think of murder cases as Christmas presents. It was just that he sometimes wished he had more stability in his life.
"Get married again," Father Tibor Kasparian would have told him. "Marry Bennis," the women said—including Donna Moradanyan, Lida Arkmanian, Hannah Krekorian, Sheila Kashinian, Mary and Deborah Ohanian, Linda and Sylvia Melajian, Christie and Melissa Oumoudian ...
"Get a private detective's license," Bennis Hannaford said.
Bennis's door had a single chiffon heart on it, meaning she had come out early this morning and taken off whatever else Donna had decided to put up. Gregor pressed the buzzer on the door frame and waited.
"Come right in," a voice called from inside. "I've got goddamned plaster of paris in my goddamned hair."
Of course she had goddamned plaster of paris in her goddamned hair, Gregor thought. She's always got something going on that makes no sense and interferes fatally with whatever she's supposed to do next What Bennis was supposed to do next was to accompany him to this party at St. Elizabeth's College, where the Sisters of Divine Grace would open their first-ever nuns' convention. When Gregor had originally been told about the nuns' convention, he'd thought it was the first ever, but that had turned out not to be the case. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondolet had held one in St. Louis back in 1988.
Bennis Hannaford's foyer was taken up in large part by a plaster of pans model of Queen Zahvea's castle from Sorcerers of Zed, Witches of Zedalia. What Bennis Hannaford did for a living was write sword and sorcery fantasy novels, of which Sorcerers of Zed, Witches of Zedalia was the seventh or eighth, Gregor couldn't remember which. He wasn't disturbed by the castle because it had been where it was now for quite a while. Bennis had constructed it and then stashed it in the foyer, meaning to throw it out or donate it to one of the fan organizations. That she had never gotten around to either was entirely typical. One of the scale-model knights had fallen off his horse. Gregor put him back on and called out.
"Where are you? Why are you making plaster of paris?"
There was a clank of pots and pans from the kitchen and a not-so-muffled curse. Bennis's language was appalling, and it didn't help any when she told Gregor it was the result of all those expensive girls' boarding schools she'd been sent to. The pots stopped clanging and the door to the kitchen swung open, revealing Bennis in her spring and summer uniform of jeans that had seen better days in 1966, T-shirt that had last been clean for Richard Nixon's first inaugural, and hair that had started out tied into a knot at the top of her head but was now someplace else. Bennis Hannaford was a beautiful woman when she wanted to be, but Gregor had noticed that she very rarely wanted to be.
"Well," he said when he saw her, "you don't look ready to go to a party."
She made a face at him. "I don't have to look ready to go to a party. We don't have to be there until quarter to one and it's not even eleven thirty. Oh, by the way. Sister Scholastica called. She wanted to make sure we knew where we were going."
"I gave a talk at St. Elizabeth's once. 'The Woman Writer in Fantasy and Science Fiction.' I got a lot of people upset. Come into the kitchen. I've got to finish this idiotic model today or it won't be ready on time."
Gregor was about to ask finished on time for what—when Bennis made models to help her with her books, they didn't have any on time to be finished for—but he didn't. He merely followed Bennis's slight five-foot-four-inch frame into the kitchen and dusted off a chair to sit down on. Bennis's apartment was always an unholy mess. The cleaning lady who came in twice a week couldn't seem to get it straightened out, and neither could the cadres of older women who periodically showed up to "help Bennis out." Stack Bennis's belongings neatly away in closets and drawers and they came right back out again, springing into the air as soon as one's back was turned, as if all the storage spaces in the apartment were inhabited by evil genies with ambitions to be the spirits of jack-in-the-box toys. The same held true for dust. It didn't matter how diligently one wiped and polished. It didn't matter how many expensive sprays one used to put a shine on the woodwork. The shine would be gone and the dust would be back in less time than it took to put water on to boil for a celebratory cup of coffee.
The plaster of paris model Bennis was making seemed to be some kind of pockmarked planetary surface. It looked like the moon, but Gregor couldn't think of anyone who might want a model of the moon. Bennis put a cup down in front of him and turned on the gas under her kettle. Then she set out a spoon and the sugar bowl and a jar of instant coffee. Bennis's instant coffee wasn't bad. It wasn't Lida Arkmanian's percolated variety, but it wasn't bad. It beat what Gregor and Tibor got when they attacked supermarket sacks of specially ground coffee beans and put them in a coffeepot.
"In case you're wondering about the plaster of paris," Bennis said, "it's a topographical map of Armenia. Or I hope it is. I'm constructing it off a globe so ancient it might as well still show the world as flat, but it was the only one Lida could come up with with the borders of Armenia clearly marked, so here I am. They need it for the school. Tomorrow."
Excerpted from Murder Superior by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1993 Orania Papazoglou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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