The Murder At Murder At the Mimosa Inn
By Joan Hess
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 1986 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"Who's going to be murdered?"
"How should I know?"
"Then it's pure luck if you don't get stabbed in the back?"
"Of course not. The whole thing is arranged ahead of time. At the fateful moment, the designated victim keels over in the leeks or whatever."
"Well, what if it's you?" Peter continued with infuriating calmness. "You might end up in a coffin for the weekend, surrounded by flickering candles and funerary flower arrangements. It doesn't seem worth the price of admission."
I returned my attention to the last bite of filet on my plate, willing myself to remain unruffled despite a twinge of frustration. Until this moment, we had been chatting amiably about neutral topics, and I was beginning to admit to myself that I was attracted to the man. His opinions on the weather had coincided with my own, as had his views on used cars and the exorbitant price of hardback books. It took only one hint of mockery to undo the good work.
A waiter glided up to raise an eyebrow at the empty wine bottle. We all agreed that another bottle would be just the thing, and the waiter glided away to fetch it — and put it on the bill as well as the table.
"I will not be a victim," I said, resolved to be patient, if not charitable. "As you have pointed out so astutely, I am paying for the pleasure of solving a murder. I intend to be quite superior at it."
"Since you've had so much experience ...?"
Peter, known to his colleagues as Lieutenant Rosen of the Farbeville CID, flashed his teeth at me. We had been introduced over a corpse; there had been a bit of competition during the subsequent investigation. I had been accused of meddling. Interfering. Sticking my graceful nose into danger. Disrupting the investigation. All of that was unjust; my contribution had been invaluable — and unacknowledged. It had also led to the dinner date with Peter Rosen, although I wasn't at all sure I had been wise to accept.
He was a handsome man, in an arrogant, New Yorkish way. Curly black hair with a few gray notes, a jutting beak and deceptively mild, molasses-colored eyes. His taste in clothing was impeccable and expensive, with an emphasis on the three-piece look. Divorced, which was convenient for those of us who preferred uncomplicated relationships — if there was a relationship in the making. I certainly didn't know. However, I was willing to find out, as long as there was a free meal included in the deal, and a bottle or two of lovely red wine.
I am a mild-mannered bookseller, blessed with wit and red hair. I am widowed, self-sufficient, and a reasonably competent parent of my fourteen-year-old daughter, Caron. Those who have such a creature in the house will quickly grasp the ramifications of the age; those who do not will never believe the horror stories, so I shall subside on the topic. It will, regrettably, resurface later.
"When and where is the murder to take place?" Peter asked.
"This weekend at the Mimosa Inn, about twenty miles west of town. It used to be a retreat for some Texas oilman; now it's owned by one of Carlton's old students, Eric Vanderhan. I fed the boy spaghetti for almost four years and allowed him to babysit so that I could attend feminist lectures on the evils of motherhood. I'm going as a favor to him and his wife."
"Oh, I see," Peter murmured, nodding wisely. "As long as you're not going out of some fanciful desire to play Miss Marple, it makes perfectly good sense."
"I am going to play Miss Marple." I managed a smile, although it took some effort. "We've been asked to wear costumes for high tea Friday afternoon."
"Beside the croquet court, no doubt."
My lips began to ache, but did not fail me. "Actually, yes. Everyone is going to dress as his or her favorite detective from mystery fiction. It will enhance the ambiance of the weekend."
"Enhance the ambiance?" He was trying not to laugh, but with no great success. Teeth glinted like blunted icicles. "I can picture you skulking down some dark corridor in your orthopedic shoes, a knitting needle clutched in your hand. The murderer steps out of the shadows! A muffled scream, the lights go out — and then, a puddle of blood seeps under the door. Murder most foul!"
The waiter had reappeared in the middle of Peter's ravings. From the guarded expression on his face, I suspected he had overheard the last few words. The wine bottle was opened with undue briskness, and the waiter left for the kitchen to relate the story to the dishwasher. A slow evening, rescued by the crazies in the last booth.
"I don't find it all that amusing," I said. My patience was ebbing, as was my resolution to maintain it, and my lips were protesting like college students in the late sixties. "Murder weekends are fashionable on both coasts. They're staged on cruises, on trains and in penthouses as an exercise in deduction and quickwitted observation. I have no idea how it will be presented, but I think it will be fun — and I fully intend to win the case of champagne."
Peter picked up his glass and swirled the wine to capture the candlelight. "The idea of adults behaving like ghoulish bloodhounds leaves me cold, Claire. Murder is not a comedy — it's a tragedy, not only for the victim but also for the murderer and those around him."
He was right, of course. I had learned that he often was, much to my chagrin, but I wasn't going to admit it. Honor before honesty.
"Your perspective is different, Peter. You deal with the reality of violence. This is a game, and everyone knows it from the beginning. The whole thing is plotted very carefully; the actors have the situation under control at all times. No one really gets hurt or does any tortured soul-searching. It's a spectator sport, and it's no more brutal than watching a boxing match or a football game."
"I suppose not," he said, "as long as everyone knows the rules of the game. ..."
"Don't be silly." I laughed. "It's only a game."
"It's a silly, mindless, juvenile game!" Caron huffed, her nostrils aquiver with postpubescent indignation. "I am not about to waste a weekend in some remote shanty, creeping around on my hands and knees to hunt for fingerprints in the grass! I'd have to jump-start my brain when it was over!"
"It's actually a very trendy thing to do, Caron," I said with sympathy and understanding, privately noting what a drain the weekend plans were beginning to put on my more admirable virtues. "All of your friends will be envious when you tell them about it."
"There's a rock concert Saturday night at the college gymnasium, Mother. Inez and I were planning to go, and —"
"You're going to the Mimosa Inn," I countered, giving her the famed maternal eye. It was supposed to cut off the argument, squelch the pleas, end the futile bargaining.
"But, Mother," Caron continued in a whine that could shatter crystal at fifty feet, "why do I have to go? I could stay here by myself, and keep the Book Depot open for you. Inez can spend the night Saturday after the concert."
"That is what terrifies me. You and Inez are capable of disaster, and the idea of turning you two loose on Farberville is irresponsible, inhumane, and possibly felonious."
I made a cup of tea and started for my bedroom, while visions of the San Francisco earthquake danced in my head. "There will be no further discussion, Caron," I added firmly. "We have a double room at the Mimosa Inn, which is in no way a 'remote shanty.' It is a luxurious country inn, with swimming and boating and all sorts of activities. You can spend two days fishing, if you wish, or participate in the murder, but you'll undoubtedly have a lovely time."
"Fishing?" she squealed. "I'm supposed to fish?" She seemed to equate it with a root canal or amputation. Sans anesthesia.
Motherhood wasn't at all what it was purported to be. I took refuge in my bedroom. As I closed the door, I heard a faint hiss of disgust drifting from the living room. The word "Worms!" punctuated the sound.
We left Farberville late Friday morning. The highway curled through a broad valley carpeted with green shag. Laconic cows munched daisies, colts dashed across pastures, hawks effortlessly spiraled in the sky. Very bucolic, I thought, ignoring the occasional sigh from the passenger's side. Caron would survive the ordeal, and a brief respite from Inez would give both of us a chance to reestablish our relationship. Inez is a sweet girl, but she tends to reinforce Caron's melodramatic side. I was convinced I had made the right decision, although the oxygen inside the car was being depleted at an alarming rate.
"There's the sign," I said cheerfully. "The Mimosa Inn is about four miles from the highway, so we ought to be there in time for lunch. Are you hungry?"
"I'm on a diet, Mother. I don't eat lunch."
I toyed with a lecture on the perils of anorexia, but left it for another time. "Well, I'm famished. The food is reputed to be excellent."
"It's probably fish. I don't see why ingesting fish is supposed to increase your intelligence, since they are probably the very stupidest of all the craniate vertebrates! They eat worms, you know."
I tightened my grip on the steering wheel and turned down the gravel road. A lovely weekend, I told myself in a controlled voice. No squabbles, no lectures. An opportunity to explore my daughter's mind, to open the channels of communication à la Spock. On the other hand, if a second victim was needed, a candidate came to mind.
We bounced along in silence. The road wound around a low mountain and past a sorry farmhouse surrounded by bleached outbuildings held upright by barbed wire, splintery boards, and a goodly amount of prayer. Caron made a gurgling noise as she stared out the window. An obscenely enormous hog had discovered nirvana in several inches of greenish mud. No comment was forthcoming, but I wondered if pork chops had just been eliminated from the diet, along with lunch.
Pastures were replaced with woods filled with oaks and scrub pines. It did not qualify as a primeval forest, only a stunted tangle of unpretentious brush and moldering leaves. Although Farberville was just a few miles away, we were in the wilderness. I do not particularly relish the outdoor life — mosquitos and poison ivy having an affinity for my flesh — but I was determined to make an effort.
We stopped at a wrought-iron gate spanning a cattle guard. The paint on the gate had peeled, but the sign hanging from it was fresh and encouraging: WELCOME TO THE MIMOSA INN.
"Excited?" I asked Caron.
"Thrilled to death," she sighed. "Fish. Worms. A bunch of old people playing games. Costume parties and croquet, for pity's sake! You don't even like champagne, Mother. You never drink it. Why do we have to come all the way out here just to —"
"I like the idea of champagne," I interrupted briskly, "and it will be fun, Caron, if you'll give it a chance. This is an exercise in mental agility, in abstract reasoning and problem solving. Why, this may prove to be more valuable than your geometry class."
"And just as much fun."
I glanced at her. She had almost disappeared into the vinyl upholstery of the seat. Her lower lip was extended in a mute display of petulance, but she had enough sense not to continue the remarks. She was probably counting the minutes under her breath and reminding herself that this, too, would pass.
A large lake appeared on our right. Surrounded by low mountains, it lacked the grandeur of Superior but looked adequate for sailing and swimming. Seconds later we saw the inn. I braked abruptly as my eyes widened.
"It looks like a wedding cake," Caron whispered, jolted out of her sulk by the sight. "All it needs is a pair of oversized mannequins on the turret and a ring of pink sugar roses. Are we really supposed to stay there?"
Caron's description was accurate. The Mimosa Inn was a three-story Victorian house slathered with gingerbread trim, curlicues, round windows with stained glass, turrets, weather vanes, and almost everything else one could attach to a structure without toppling it. The front of the house faced the lake over a broad expanse of lawn, and on the porch we could see large wicker chairs and potted plants. A gray wedding cake, trimmed in white, I amended silently, glad we had not arrived on a foggy day, or a dark and stormy night.
"Yes, we are," I said when I could trust my voice. As long as I didn't have to climb any spiral staircases to track down clues, or explore the cellar for pertinent cobwebs amidst the unmarked graves. I don't do cobwebs.
"Is it haunted?" Caron gulped.
"Do you believe in ghosts?"
Caron finally gained control of her dangling jaw. "No, I don't, Mother. I feel that inexplicable psi phenomena usually have a basis in paraphysical energy sources. We did a chapter on it in physics last semester. It was very informative."
She rambled on in that vein as we drove around the house to a parking area under a clump of trees. An erstwhile stable now housed cars; inside was a daunting array of Mercedes, Cadillacs, etc. My dented Japanese hatchback would prefer fresh air, I told myself as I cut off the engine. The stillness was sudden, complete. And a tad unsettling for those of us who spend our days on a busy street and our nights next to a college campus. Ah, nature at its quietest ...
While we were struggling with our suitcases (Caron's three and my overnight bag), a blond man opened the door. His extreme height and rambling gait gave him a disjointed look, as though he were a marionette controlled by a clumsy puppet-master. His wire-rimmed glasses had gray adhesive-tape cocoons at each corner, and his shirt pocket sagged under the weight of his pen collection. White socks and torn sneakers. I reminded myself that this man had written a nationally acclaimed textbook on an aspect of higher mathematics that I could not pronounce.
He grinned and flapped a hand in welcome. "Claire! I've been watching the road for you. I'm so glad that you finally came; it's going to be a splendid weekend."
"Hello, Eric," I puffed, disengaging Caron's garment bag from the back seat. I introduced him to Caron, who managed a muttered response to his enthusiastic greeting.
"And how are you, Claire?" He covered me with a hug. "I was so sorry to hear about Dr. Malloy's accident. He was a great teacher and a good friend."
But not a careful driver, I added to myself. "Thanks, Eric. I was astounded to hear you were back in the area. What on earth possessed you to buy and renovate a country inn? You were always the outdoor type, as in ivy towers and cramped offices."
"Wait until you meet my wife," he said. His face glowed as if he were a child on Christmas morning. "She's a city girl, and she's always wanted to escape to the country. Cows and chickens, that sort of thing. We saw an ad for the place. Two months later we signed the papers."
I looked up at a copper rooster rotating in the breeze. "So you gave up your faculty position — and tenure — to come here?"
"We did. The royalties from the book paid for the remodeling and furnishings. Once we start the publicity, we hope that the Mimosa Inn can pay for itself. Until then, we'll have to struggle along. I'm so glad you're here, Claire. Let's get you and Caron checked in."
I found his narrative hard to believe. Eric was as much a naturalist as I; neither of us could survive in a city park for more than an hour. I was curious to meet the woman who had lured him away from the relative safety of academia.
"So what do you think of the setting?" he said as we shuffled up a brick sidewalk with enough luggage to take a six-week safari into the remotest jungle — and dress for dinner every night.
"The house is magnificent," I said. "The lake is beautiful, the woods woody, the sky unsullied by carbon monoxide. The one thing I don't see is an orchard of mimosa trees."
"The inn is named after my wife."
"Your wife's name is Mimosa?" I twittered. Politely, I hoped.
Eric peered down at me. "Mimi. But we are going to plant mimosa trees as soon as we can afford them."
We did a Three Stooges routine in the doorway. After a round of grunts and embarrassed laughs, Caron popped out and skittered into a large open room. I followed with more dignity, gazing around at the high ceiling and antiques that rather overpowered the room. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Murder At Murder At the Mimosa Inn by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1986 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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