Read an Excerpt
Rest You Merry
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"PETER SHANDY, YOU'RE IMPOSSIBLE," sputtered his best friend's wife. "How do you expect me to run the Illumination if everyone doesn't cooperate?"
"I'm sure you'll do a masterful job as always, Jemima. Isn't that Hannah Cadwall across the way ringing your doorbell?"
With a finesse born of much practice, Professor Shandy backed Mrs. Ames off his front step and shut the door. This was the seventy-third time in eighteen years she'd nagged him about decorating his house. He'd kept count. Shandy had a passion for counting. He would have counted the spots on an attacking leopard, and he was beginning to think a leopard might be a welcome change.
Every yuletide season since he'd come to teach at Balaclava Agricultural College, he'd been besieged by Jemima and her cohorts. Their plaint was ever the same:
"We have a tradition to maintain."
The tradition dated back, as Professor Shandy had taken the trouble to find out, no farther than 1931, when the wife of the then president had found a box of Japanese lanterns left over from some alumni ball of more prosperous days. Combining artistic yearnings with Yankee thrift, she decided to stage a Grand Illumination of the Balaclava Crescent on Christmas Eve. The professor had come to feel a deep sense of personal injury because it hadn't rained that night.
The Grand Illumination, blotting out for one night the drabness of the Great Depression, had been such a smashing success that the college had repeated the event every year since, with accumulating embellishments. Now during the entire holiday season the Crescent became a welter of twinkling lights, red sleighs, and students in quaint costume chanting totally superfluous injunctions to Deck the Halls. Those faculty members whose houses faced the Crescent threw themselves into the jollification. No energy shortage dimmed the multicolored blaze because the college generated its own power from methane gas.
From near and far came tourists to bask in the spectacle and be milked by the lads and lasses of Balaclava. Students sold doughnuts and mulled cider from whimsical plywood gingerbread houses, hawked song sheets, ran parking lots, or put on the guise of Santa's elves and hauled people around on old-fashioned sleds at a dollar a haul. Pictures appeared in national magazines.
However, the photographers always had to shoot around one dark spot on the gala scene. This was the home of Peter Shandy. He alone, like a balding King Canute, stood steadfast against the tide.
In the daytime his stubborn refusal to assist at the Annual Fleecing didn't matter so much. The small house of rosy old brick, framed by snow-covered evergreens, looked Christmasy just as it was. Still, it was this very picturesqueness that galled the committee most.
"You could do so much with it," they moaned.
One after another, they showered on him wreaths made of gilded pine cones, of stapled computer cards, of stuffed patchwork, of plastic fruit, of lollipops wired to bent coat hangers with little scissors attached so he could snip off goodies as desired. He always thanked the donors with what courtesy he could manage, and passed on their offerings to his cleaning woman. By now, Mrs. Lomax had the most bedizened place in town, but the small brick house on the Crescent remained stubbornly unadorned.
Left to himself, Peter Shandy would willingly have made some concession to the event: a balsam wreath or a spray of holly on the front door, and a fat white candle guttering in the parlor window after dark. He rather liked Christmas. Every year, he sent off a few decently restrained cards to old friends, attended those neighborhood parties he couldn't in decency avoid, and went off to visit relatives.
Cousin Henry and his wife, Elizabeth, were quiet people, older than Peter, who lived a three hours' journey by Greyhound from Balaclava Junction. They would thank him for the box of cigars and the basket of assorted jellies, then sit him down to an early dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Afterward, over brandy and the Christmas cigars, Henry would show his stamp collection. The professor had little interest in stamps as such, but found them pleasant enough things to count. Late in the afternoon, Elizabeth would serve tea and her special lemon cheese tarts and remark that Peter had a long ride ahead of him.
Agreeably stuffed and warm with familial attachment, the professor would slip back into the brick house somewhere around nine o'clock in the evening and settle down with a glass of good sherry and Bracebridge Hall. At bedtime he would step out the back door for a last whiff of fresh air. If it was a fine night, he might feel the urge to stay outside and count stars for a while, but for the past couple of years the Illumination Committee had scheduled fireworks, which wrought havoc with his tallies.
Altogether, too many of Shandy's Christmases had been blighted by the overwhelming holiday spirit around the Crescent. On this morning of December 21, as he stood automatically counting the petals on the bunch of giant poinsettias snipped out of plastic detergent jugs which Jemima had just forced upon him, something snapped. He thrust the loathsome artifact at Mrs. Lomax, grabbed his coat, and caught the bus for Boston.
On the morning of December 22 two men drove up to the brick house in a large truck. The professor met them at the door.
"Did you bring everything, gentlemen?"
"The whole works. Boy, you folks up here sure take Christmas to heart!"
"We have a tradition to maintain," said Shandy. "You may as well start on the spruce trees."
All morning the workmen toiled. Expressions of amazed delight appeared on the faces of neighbors and students. As the day wore on and the men kept at it, the amazement remained but the delight faded.
It was dark before the men got through. Peter Shandy walked them out to the truck. He was wearing his overcoat, hat, and galoshes, and carrying a valise.
"Everything in good order, gentlemen? Lights timed to flash on and off at six-second intervals? Amplifiers turned up to full volume? Steel-cased switch boxes provided with sturdy locks? Very well, then, let's flip on the power and be off. I'm going to impose on you for a lift to Boston, if I may. I have an urgent appointment there."
"Sure, glad to have you," they chorused, feeling the agreeable crinkle of crisp bills in their hands. From a technical point of view, it had been an interesting day.
Precisely forty-eight hours later, on Christmas Eve, Professor Shandy stepped outside for a breath of air. Around him rolled the vast Atlantic. Above shone only the freighter's riding lights and a skyful of stars. The captain's dinner had been most enjoyable. Presently he would go below for a chat with the chief engineer, a knowledgeable man who could tell to the last pulse how many revolutions per minute his engines made at any given speed.
Back on Balaclava Crescent, floodlights would be illuminating the eight life-size reindeer mounted on the roof of the brick house. In its windows, sixteen Santa Claus faces would be leering above sixteen sets of artificial candles, each containing three red and two purple bulbs, each window outlined by a border of thirty-six more bulbs alternating in green, orange, and blue.
He glanced at his watch and did rapid calculations in his head. At that precise point, the 742 outsize red bulbs on the spruce trees would have flashed on for the 28,800th time—a total of 21,369,600 flashes. The amplifiers must by now have blared out 2,536 renditions each of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus," and "All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth." They must be just now on the seventeenth bar of the 2,537th playing of "I Don't Care Who You Are, Fatty, Get Those Reindeer off My Roof."
Professor Shandy smiled into the darkness. "Bah, humbug," he murmured, and began to count the stars.CHAPTER 2
THE ENORMITY OF WHAT he had done did not hit Peter Shandy until he was halfway through breakfast on Christmas morning. Then his right hand froze in the very act of conveying a forkful of excellent pork sausage to his expectant mouth.
"What's wrong, Mr. Shandy?" asked the sympathetic purser. "Not getting seasick on us, are you?"
"It's the engines. They've stopped."
Though this was not the real cause of Shandy's perturbation, it happened to be true. For no apparent reason, the ship's great pulse had suddenly ceased to beat. The engineer threw down his napkin, made a blasphemous utterance, and leaped for the companionway. The captain rushed to the bridge, followed in order of rank by his first, second, and third mates. The steward cleared his throat deferentially.
"Well, Purser, it looks as if you and Mr. Shandy will have to finish the sausages."
"Please present my share to the ship's cat with the compliments of the season," replied the professor. "I believe I'll go try on my life jacket."
He was not particularly alarmed. Compared to what might be in store for him back at Balaclava Junction, the prospect of sudden death by drowning was not without some attraction. Also, there seemed no immediate danger, especially since they had been traveling southward along the coast. A sea anchor was thrown out to keep them riding comfortably until seagoing tugs could arrive to tow them to port. A helicopter flew overhead taking pictures for television. Shandy stayed out of camera range and meditated on his infamy.
An honorable man withal, he could see only one course of action, and he took it. When they put in at Newport News to dry-dock, he repacked his bag, bade farewell to his newfound comrades, and caught the next Greyhound to Balaclava Junction.
It was, as the bus driver remarked at rather too frequent intervals, one hell of a way to spend Christmas. Eating a greasy cheeseburger at a rest stop, Shandy thought of Elizabeth's roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. Jolting along slick roads in freezing sleet, he brooded on her lemon cheese tarts. Dozing fitfully, stiff and chilled, he would wake to regret those sausages he had donated to the ship's cat, and drop off again to dream there was somebody waiting back in the brick house on the Crescent to cook him a hot supper.
There wouldn't be, of course. Mrs. Lomax was away visiting her married daughter over the holidays and she wouldn't have worked today in any case. As he alighted in the chill dawn of December 26, not a leftover reveler, not even the tar-and-feathering committee he half expected, was to be seen. The professor turned his coat collar as high as it would go and began the precipitous climb to the Crescent, wondering at what point he would be confronted with the blinking and bellowing evidence of his ill-judged prank.
He wasn't. The brick house stood dark and silent. He might have known the doughty men of Balaclava would cope with trivia like locked doors and break-proof power boxes. Some student in the Engineering School doing a minor in felonious entry must have thrown the switches.
Relieved, yet nettled at finding his aesthetic bombshell so completely defused, Shandy jabbed his key into the lock, swung open the front door which his accomplices had wrapped like a giant Christmas present with a tumorous growth of pixie mushrooms in the middle, and stumped inside.
He took off his coat, hat, and muffler and hung them in the hall closet. He took off his galoshes and also his shoes, for his feet had swelled from cold and too long sitting. He wiggled his toes. In spite of everything, it was good to be home.
Now for some food. In sock feet, the professor padded down the narrow hallway. The faculty dining room wouldn't be open for hours yet. In any event, he had no wish to venture out from sanctuary so hardly attained. There must be something edible in the kitchen. Hot soup would be just the ticket. Shandy was quite good at opening tins.
Intent on sustenance, he failed to watch where he was going. A sharp pain pierced the sole of his right foot, the floor moved, and he landed flat on his back.
Peter Shandy was not hurt, for the floor runner was thick, but he was extremely put out. Remembering what the engineer had said on finding the engines had stopped, he addressed the same remark to the men from Boston, and turned on the overhead light to hunt for whatever they had so carelessly dropped where he would be sure to step on it.
He borrowed another expletive. The cause of his downfall was a marble, one of his own, that had been given him long ago by a niece of Elizabeth's. This elfin sprite, Alice by name, had loved to visit at the brick house. Alice was married now and living far away, sending him snapshots of her babies instead of the paste-and-crayon creations over which she had so lovingly labored in years gone by.
Most of Alice's gifts had disintegrated, but Peter Shandy still kept her thirty-eight fried marbles in the little glass bowl they had come in. He counted them over sometimes, remembering a little girl's breathless account of how the fascinating inner crackling was achieved.
It was a blue marble he had stepped on. There were seven blue marbles, four light and three dark. This was a dark one, hard to see against the figured runner. That explained his downfall, but not why the marble was on the floor instead of the parlor whatnot.
Temporarily diverted from his quest for soup, Shandy stepped into the living room. More marbles rolled under his unprotected feet. All thirty-eight must have been spilled, but how? The Boston workmen had been deft and efficient. Furthermore, they'd had no occasion to go near the whatnot, which stood well away from any door or window, in the same corner where he'd found it when he first took over the house from a departing professor eighteen years before.
He recalled having made a final tour of the rooms just before he'd left, to make sure all parts of his plan were duly consummated. He couldn't remember noticing the marbles on the whatnot, but he'd surely have felt them underfoot. Could some tiny animal, a mouse or squirrel, have pushed them off the shelf? It would have to be a muscular rodent. Anyway, he'd better pick them up before he took another toss.
The bowl lay on the carpet, luckily unbroken. Shandy went crawling around the floor, counting aloud as he dropped the errant spheres into their receptacle.
"Thirty-four, thirty-five, thirty-six, and the one I stepped on in the hall. Must be another somewhere. Yellow with brown streaks."
But where? The rooms were small and uncluttered. Even crouching down and squinting along the pile, Shandy could detect no crackly gleam. He searched the hallway, moved chairs, at last thought to look behind the sofa. He didn't find his marble. He found Jemima Ames.
The assistant librarian was dead, no question about that. She was lying on her back, looking up at him with the same cold, fishy stare he'd seen when she handed him the bouquet cut from detergent bottles. Her mouth was slightly open, as though she might be about to deliver one last exhortation about the duty of a Crescent resident, but she never would. There was a settled look about the body, as though it had been there for some while.
The manner of her death seemed plain enough. A small stepladder brought from the kitchen lay beside her, her head propped against the edge of its flat metal top. As to why she'd climbed the stool, a plastic Santa Claus face lying across her chest gave silent answer. Feeling like a murderer, Shandy padded over to the telephone and rang campus security.
"Grimble, you'd better get over here. This is Peter Shandy."
"Yeah? Where you been?"
"I was—er—called out of town unexpectedly."
"Didn't happen to take Miz Ames with you, by any chance?" Grimble evidently thought he was being funny.
"No, but I—er—have her with me now. That's why I'm calling."
"Hang on. HI be right over."
Shandy put down the receiver. Grimble had been on the lookout for Jemima, therefore she must have been reported missing on Christmas Day, or even the day before. That could mean she'd been lying here almost the whole time he'd been gone. It would take her husband at least twenty-four hours to realize Jemima wasn't where she ought to be.
In the midst of his perturbation, the professor was ashamed to realize he was less upset over having inadvertently killed his best friend's wife than he was over not having got to heat his soup. Blaming himself for his lack of proper feeling, he nevertheless made a tentative move toward the kitchen. Then he stopped.
He might be in an even worse spot than he thought he was. Had Jemima still been alive when he skipped out of town and took ship for foreign parts without telling anybody he was going? His opinion of the assistant librarian, her ridiculous title, and her eternal badgering were well known. Everybody else thought she was a pest, too, but nobody else had gone to such lengths to spite her, and nobody else had her corpse behind his sofa.
Excerpted from Rest You Merry by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1978 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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