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The Luck Runs Out
A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1979 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"MY STARS AND GARTERS, Odin, I don't see how any horse alive can wear out shoes the way you do."
Clucking like a mother hen, the farrier settled the enormous Balaclava Black's massive hoof cozily into the lap of her leather apron, picked up a sharp, short-bladed knife, and began paring at the edges with deft, quick flicks. Helen Shandy, who had been Helen Marsh until a couple of months ago, stood as close as she dared, watching. She was still trying to learn her way around the sprawling complex of Balaclava Agricultural College, and the animal husbandry barns were her current field of investigation. So far, her most intriguing discovery was Flackley the Farrier.
Helen herself was petite, fair, fortyish, and daintily rounded. Miss Flackley was even smaller, pushing sixty, and not rounded at all, as far as external evidence could indicate. If she hadn't been giving a draft horse a pedicure, Mrs. Shandy would never have guessed her profession.
The farrier had on neat brown corduroy pants and jacket. Her shoes were polished brown oxfords about size four and a half. Her grizzled hair was tucked up into a dashing tam o'shanter crocheted of ombre worsted in shades of tan and rust. A harmonizing scarf was tucked into the neck of her spotless beige flannel shirt. Her hands were protected by yellow cotton gardening gloves and her face by a discreet film of cold cream. Nothing about her was out of place except the gold-rimmed bifocals that slid down her tiny nose as she exchanged the knife for a file as long as her forearm and began to smooth the hoof she'd trimmed.
"He looks as if he's loving it," Helen observed.
"Yes, Odin does enjoy being fussed over," Miss Flackley agreed. "They all do, except Loki. He's a very private horse."
"'I pay respect to wisdom, not to strength,'" Helen murmured.
"That's C. S. Lewis, isn't it?" Miss Flackley surprised her by saying. "Yes, Loki does have that thoughtful, melancholy streak in him. I suppose it comes from being the littlest."
Helen glanced along the row of eight stalls, each with its occupant's name carved on a solid walnut quarterboard above, each with one of the horse's iron shoes mounted on the lower half of the divided door. Loki's was in truth a fraction shorter than the rest. Even so, it looked tremendous to her.
"I wonder why they always hang them with the ends up," she mused. "I suppose it's some ancient superstition."
"It can't be so very ancient," replied the astonishing Miss Flackley. "Horseshoeing as we know it wasn't prevalent till the Middle Ages, though of course folks must have known long before then that the hooves of solid-ungulates tend to wear off at the edges once the poor beasts have to earn their oats by the sweat of their brows like the rest of us poor sinners here below. The old Romans used to put leather sandals on their horses, and the Japanese had 'em shuffling around in straw slippers. William the Conqueror's supposed to have brought horseshoeing to England from Europe, so it must have been common practice by the time we started colonizing America. Hold still, Odin."
She quieted the towering animal with a light pat on the flank.
"Doesn't hurt them any more than cutting your toenails if you go about it right. Where was I? Oh yes, about hanging horeshoes. There's been a good deal of controversy about that over the years, but the more enlightened modern opinion is that the points should be up. They always make me think of that Egyptian goddess with the horned headdress. Isis? Hathor? I never could keep 'em straight. Anyway, I expect she had something to do with fertility."
"They generally did," said Helen, much interested.
"On the other hand," Miss Flackley went on, "if you turn a horseshoe upside down, you get the Greek Omega, the last letter in their alphabet, as I'm sure you know better than I. So there's life and growth one way and finality the other. If you think of death as finality, I suppose you might get to thinking points up is lucky and points down is unfavorable. Of course that's only my ignorant notion. Here's Professor Stott coming, and I'm sure he could give you a more sensible answer than I."
The chairman of the animal husbandry department was indeed bearing down upon them with stately step and slow. Professor Stott, knowing that haste made waste and took off valuable poundage, had in the ripeness of his manhood developed a girth and tranquillity unequaled except perhaps by the college's prize hog, Balthazar of Balaclava.
Stott and Balthazar had a great deal in common. With his well-fleshed frame, his healthy pink skin, his bright little blue eyes set deep into firm fat, and that benign expression which bespeaks equanimity of temperament combined with firmness of principle, Professor Stott would have made a remarkably handsome pig. Catching sight of Helen, whom he liked, and Miss Flackley, whom he respected, he drew to a halt and elevated his green porkpie hat.
"Good afternoon, ladies."
"Good afternoon, Professor," said the farrier. "Mrs. Shandy was just asking me why we hang horseshoes with their points up instead of down. Perhaps you could elucidate."
Hat in hand, the man of learning pondered. At last he issued his pronouncement:
"To keep the luck from running out."
"Well, there, now," said Miss Flackley. "That goes to show, if you want an intelligent answer, go straight to the expert. How's Belinda today, Professor?"
She was referring to Balthazar's latest consort, a beautiful young sow of whom Stott had great hopes. A slight shadow passed across the distinguished man's countenance.
"I was about to ask for your professional opinion, Miss Flackley. In general, Belinda appears well and happy, yet I fancy that I detect a certain vague discomfort after mask."
"Only to be expected, I should think," Miss Flackley replied. "After all, she's due to farrow soon. Become a mother, I should have said," she amended, turning to Helen with an air of apology. "Please forgive my rude, bucolic phraseology."
"You should hear my husband's when he gets going about organic fertilizers," Helen reassured her. "But I mustn't keep you chatting if Belinda's having pains in her tum."
"Won't you come with us, Mrs. Shandy? That sow is something to see, I can tell you."
"I'll say she is!" Professor Stott's tiny blue eyes sparkled, his lips curved in a smile that might almost have been termed boyish. "Come on, Mrs. Shandy, you must meet Belinda."
"I'd love to, but some people are coming to dinner and I haven't done a thing about it. Oh, Miss Flackley," she added on impulse, "could I coax you to dine with us some night soon? How about Friday?"
"Why"—the farrier put down her file and studied the professor's wife in surprise. There was no earthly reason why she should not be invited to break bread among the faculty, but evidently she'd never been asked to do so before. Perhaps she decided it was time. In any event, she nodded her neat head.
"I should be delighted, and Friday will suit me very well. At what time shall I come?"
"Would half-past six be convenient? It's the little brick house on the Crescent."
"I know." A slight smile flitted across Miss Flackley's unpainted lips. After his eccentric behavior during the Grand Illumination at Christmastime1 there wasn't a soul around Balaclava Junction who didn't know where Peter Shandy lived. "Six-thirty is perfect."
"Good, then we'll expect you. Professor Stott, you come, too. I'll make you a noodle pudding. May I visit Belinda tomorrow, instead?"
With that portmanteau word, Professor Stott put his hat on and set his bulk in motion toward the piggery. Miss Flackley followed a respectful three paces behind. Helen tucked the collar of her storm coat more snugly around her throat, for the April wind was still raw in Massachusetts, and hurried across the campus toward home.
She'd been having a series of little dinners lately. Naturally, some people got invited oftener than others. Tonight, they were having the Enderbles, an elderly couple whom everybody adored, and Timothy Ames, Peter's most valued friend and colleague. Tim also happened to be the father of Jemmy, who had married Dave Marsh, a young relative of Helen's. Coming to keep house for Tim after his wife had been found dead behind Peter's sofa, she had soon deserted Ames for Shandy. Because she still had slight guilt feelings and because she'd developed a fondness for the crusty old gnome, Helen was going all out to be kind to Tim and the housekeeper whom Jemmy had bullied her father into hiring after Helen married Peter.
Being kind to Tim's new housekeeper was a test of friendship. Professor Ames's late wife had been domineering, nosy, overtalkative, and generally obnoxious. Left to his own choosing, Ames had inevitably saddled himself with another woman of the same type. The chief difference was that while Jemima Ames had been the sloppiest housewife who ever cluttered a kitchen, Lorene McSpee was relentlessly, indefatigably, overwhelmingly clean.
In days past, the Ames house, which stood directly across the Crescent from Shandy's, had stunk of mildew, stale smoke, and unemptied trash baskets. Now it was impossible to stroll past the place without having one's sinuses blasted by wafts of ammonia. The neighbors tried to convince each other that this change was highly laudable. Tim was lucky to get such a good worker. Besides, it was hard to find anybody at all willing to live in, which was a must because Professor Ames was deaf and getting on in years. Everybody who had Tim's interests at heart must help him hang onto this paragon of prophylaxis. So Helen had invited Lorene McSpee, too.
They'd probably survive the evening. Mary Enderble could be counted on to keep up a merry prattle. After dinner Peter would probably lure the other men into the cubbyhole he called his office, where there was literally no room for the three women to fit. Well, in a pinch, she could always take Lorene to the kitchen and compare disinfectants.
Planning menus in her head, Helen mounted the not inconsiderable rise toward the residential area. Balaclava's campus was extensive, covering a series of hills and vales, and the animal husbandry buildings were quite properly situated at the lowest and farthest part, a good three-quarters of a mile from the administration building, classrooms, and dormitories. She got home winded but organized, hung up her coat and got straight to work. When Peter came in from his afternoon classes the table was set, drinks were out, the house filled with good smells. He sniffed with satisfaction.
"How wise I was to marry you. Chicken divan and gingerbread with applesauce, if I mistake not."
"When did you ever?" She gave him a kiss. "I thought I'd set a bucket of bleach water by Mrs. McSpee's place, to make her feel at home. Whatever happened to Mr. McSpee, I wonder."
"Ate him on the wedding night, I expect."
"No, I'd say she kept him in the bath with a gallon of Lysol. Peter, I don't really think I care for that woman."
"Therein you show excellent taste and keen discernment, my love. So why in tunket did you invite her to dinner?"
"Because Tim is your friend and Jemmy's father. It was the least I could do."
"The least you could do was not invite anybody. It is not in your nature to do the least you can do. I only wish you'd expend some of that ill-directed goodwill of yours finding Tim a decent woman instead of that raving ammoniac."
"He had one, but you were her undoing. Take your lecherous paws off me, you seducing hound!"
"You don't really mean that?"
"Actually I don't, but we haven't the time right now."
Helen refastened her blouse buttons. "To tell you the truth, Peter, I have done something. At least I've set the wheels in motion. Aren't you even going to wash your hands before the company comes?"
"My hands are clean," said her husband sternly, "and I hope I can say the same for yours. What wheels?"
"Well," said Helen, fiddling self-consciously with a pot-holder, "back when I was working in South Dakota, I had the dearest, sweetest, most absolutely precious—"
"Poodle? Lover? Goldfish?"
"Landlady. She was the sole surviving scion of an ancient family."
"She was so. Her grandfather on the paternal side had been a distinguished manufacturer of buggy whips and carriage robes. He built a palatial seven-room mansion in the Late American Gothic style."
"Did it have indoor plumbing?"
"Not exactly, but the chamber pots were tastefully decorated to match the slop bowls. Anyway, in the fullness of time, Iduna fell heir to the place. There wasn't much else for her to fall heir to, the buggy whip business having fallen on evil days, so Iduna ran it as a lodging house."
"Certainly Iduna. Iduna Bjorklund. Have you never heard of Bjorklund's Buggy Whips?"
"Oddly enough, never. Could we accelerate this narrative? They'll be here any minute."
"So will Iduna, that's what I am trying to tell you. Her house was blown to splinters by a tornado week before last. She has to earn a living and there's nothing for her out there, so I wrote and invited her here. She phoned today to tell me she's arriving Friday at half-past three."
Before Shandy had time to ejaculate, "My God!" the doorbell rang. He said it anyway and went to let in the guests.
Marriage was agreeing with Peter Shandy. He smiled oftener now. At fifty-six, he carried his five feet eight inches straight and springy, might have spared a few pounds but was by no means pudgy, and could still outwork any of his students in the turnip fields. He still wore his good gray suits, but his shirt and tie, chosen by Helen, were livelier in hue than they'd have been a few months ago.
All four guests arrived together, which wasn't surprising since Ames and the Enderbles were next-door neighbors. Mary Enderble looked like a lady leprechaun in a deep-green dress with a billowing skirt and snug basque; John Enderble, Professor Emeritus of Local Fauna, had brought along a baby kangaroo mouse in a matchbox lined with cotton. Having lost its mother in tragic circumstances, the infant was being weaned on an eyedropper that had to be held to its squeaking mouth every few minutes.
Helen was delighted with the mouse. Lorene McSpee didn't think mice in the dining room were very sanitary. She had on a pajama costume that exactly matched her complexion, brick red patterned in savage zigzags of brown and puce.
Professor Ames was wearing what he always wore, a tweed jacket with the elbows out and a pair of pants his son had outgrown sometime or other. Nevertheless, he looked strange. The trousers were pressed. His shirt was of a whiteness that abraded the eyeballs. His necktie didn't look as if it had been used to tie up tomato plants. Mrs. McSpee must have got the upper hand of him completely.
Shandy hastened to settle his old friend in the most comfortable chair before, the housekeeper could grab it. Unmanned as he'd been by the news about Iduna Bjorklund, he began to feel that the darling of South Dakota couldn't arrive too soon. Maybe they could marry her off to Tim and get rid of Lorene. It was a shame that tornado hadn't hit sooner, so that Helen wouldn't have wasted an invitation on this ghastly woman. Not that Helen didn't feel the same way, but once she'd committed the error, she couldn't weasel out.
His new wife was good at everything except hurting other people's feelings he'd discovered and Lorene McSpee had her share of sensitivity. She was belaboring that point at every opportunity, making it clear that as a domestic worker she didn't expect first-class entertainment and that she certainly wasn't getting it here.
"Oh, I don't care. Whatever you've got the most of," was her reply when Shandy asked her what she'd like to drink. When he offered scotch, she decided she'd rather have bourbon. When she got it, she sipped and made a face. At the table she picked up her fork, examined it with a clinical eye, and observed, "I'm glad you didn't get out your sterling for me, Mrs. Shandy. I don't suppose you'd go to the bother except for somebody special."
"I'd be delighted to bother if we had any," Helen replied with a rather forced smile. "The only silver we own is a trophy Peter won in a plowing contest when he was twelve."
Fortunately, the kangaroo mouse began emitting such pitiful squeaks about half an hour after they'd left the table that John Enderble decided he'd better take it home to bed. That broke, up the party, and none too soon. There was no doubt about it, Lorene McSpee had to go. Shandy made the formal declaration as he was taking off his shirt.
"Drat it, Helen, this situation is serious. That harpy has designs on Tim. Did you see her trying to cut his meat for him? What if he should turn off his hearing aid and say yes at the wrong time? That's how Jemima landed him."
"Was Jemima as awful as Lorene?"
Excerpted from The Luck Runs Out by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1979 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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