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A Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"HEY, YOU! YOU KID! Get the hell down off that cannon."
Dr. Helen Marsh Shandy ignored the yell even though it came straight from the bullhorn throat of Lumpkinton Chief of Police Wilbur J. Olson. She merely wriggled her new pink sneakers into a more secure stance atop the Civil War relic across from the soap factory, made sure her telephoto lens was on tight, doubled-checked her focus, squinted into her viewfinder, and clicked her shutter.
Olson yelled again. Helen clicked some more. Not until the chief slammed open the door of his cruiser and started trying to squeeze his fat legs out from under the steering wheel did she slip the expensive camera into its carrying case and swing herself to the ground.
"I'm sorry, Chief Olson, but I absolutely had to catch the soap-works weather vane against that magnificent sunset before the sky changed. This one's considered to be Praxiteles Lumpkin's masterpiece, you know."
And so it well deserved to be deemed. The hand-wrought copper silhouette, verdigrised with time and soap fumes, depicted a lanky man sitting in a round washtub. One skinny leg stuck out over the rim. His right hand clasped a long-handled brush with which he was scrubbing his back. The left hand was raised in a gesture of triumph, clutching a small oblong object intended to represent a bar of Lumpkin soap.
Some townsfolk considered the weather vane nothing more than a fairly clean joke. Others thought it was marvelous. Chief Olson clearly didn't give two hoots for the itinerant weather-vane artist's chef d'oeuvre, or for Helen's explanation, either.
"Ungh." He began working his legs back into the cruiser. "Aren't you Professor Shandy's wife? I thought you worked in the library over at the college."
"Yes, that's right. I'm doing this for our files. Also for a pamphlet we're helping the Balaclava County Historical Society assemble as the result of a request from the Smithsonian. The society doesn't have the resources to collect the data, but we do and I'm it, so to speak. Praxiteles offers a fascinating field for research because he's left such an impressive body of work and has never been properly documented before. Unless you count a few snapshots Canute Lumpkin's grandmother took with a folding Kodak," Helen added fairly. "They didn't come out awfully well."
Chief Olson showed no interest in counting Canute Lumpkin's grandmother's snapshots. "Huh. So that's what they're paying you for? Some women would be home about now getting their husband's supper on the table. And they wouldn't have to write a cookbook to get it ready, either."
He curved his pouty lips into a mean little smile to show Helen he'd been joking, then resumed his customary scowl. "You looked like a kid up there."
The remark sounded like an accusation, but Helen decided she might as well annoy the old tub of lard further by taking it as a compliment.
"Why, thank you, Chief Olson. I'm sure you know better now that you've seen my face."
The curator of the Buggins Collection at Balaclava Agricultural College, to give Helen her proper title, was a remarkably pretty woman. Her petite figure, blond curls, pink sweatshirt, and blue jeans could have fooled a sharper eye than Olson's. To irk him further, she added, "Praxiteles was a great-nephew of Fortitude Lumpkin, who married Druella Buggins, as you doubtless know."
Chief Olson most likely hadn't known and clearly couldn't have cared less, though he wasn't quite dumb enough to say so to Mrs. Shandy. "Cussed kids are always climbing around on that cannon," he growled. "They fall and hurt themselves and their mothers come putting the blame on me."
"I suppose a lot of the parents work in the factory."
Helen nodded toward the three-story expanse of red sandstone and dirty windows squatting across the road from the grassy triangle on which the cannon sat. Both had been here since the late 1860s, the cannon's muzzle pointing straight toward the factory's tallow room within whose vats thousands upon thousands of beeves had over the years rendered up their fat to be converted by the alchemy of potash and perfume into Lumpkin's Lilywhite for lovely young ladies, Lumpkin's Latherite for dirty old men, Lumpkin's Launderite for the washing you love to hang, and no doubt a good many more subtle saponifications of which Helen knew nothing.
She did know, of course, that this vast enterprise had grown from the pans of lye soap Druella Buggins Lumpkin had concocted long ago from kitchen fat and wood ashes and which Druella's husband, Fortitude, had peddled among the surrounding hamlets out of saddlebags slung across the rump of his trusty mare Beornia. She knew how the tiny clearing Fortitude had hacked out of the wilderness to make a home for his bride had burgeoned into a village and then to a town—all of it built, metaphorically speaking, on Druella's lye soap. Much of Lumpkinton was still farms, some of it was bedroom for the nearby city of Clavaton, but the soap works here in Lumpkin Upper Mills was its major industry. Helen wondered how soon the picture might change. Some of the younger firebrands, notably one Brinkley Swope, head man among the sesses, were complaining that the outmoded factory wouldn't be operating much longer if something wasn't done soon to improve its facilities and manufacturing methods.
Only two weeks ago, Brinkley's brother Cronkite, demon reporter of the Balaclava County Fane and Pennon, had published a feature story about the slippage of the Lumpkin works in the world soap market. Feeling was said to be running as high as feeling ever got to run in so stodgy a place as Lumpkinton. However, Helen Shandy noticed no sign of impending riot as she bade Chief Olson farewell and headed her own car back toward the old Horsefall place, where she'd left her husband in amiable conclave with their friend Henny.
Hengist Horsefall, to give him his proper name, not that anybody ever used it, was well into his eighties. Peter, who wouldn't see sixty for a while yet, appeared a mere stripling beside him. The two were sitting out on the front porch, contemplating the sunset and stoking themselves up for the evening meal with preprandial sips of Henny's Aunt Hilda's damson gin while Henny's nephews Eddie and Ralph finished up the chores with the help of various offspring. Inside the house, nieces-in-law Marie and Jolene, a few greats, and a great-great or two were getting supper.
The Shandys hadn't meant to stay. They'd driven over to Lumpkin Corners to take pictures of some of Praxiteles Lumpkin's other artifacts, including a particularly interesting one owned by Henny himself that depicted a rooster standing on a pig's back. The Horsefalls, one and all, had insisted the Shandys take potluck with them; so Peter had remained as willing hostage while Helen, who'd saved the best till last, hoping for a fine sunset, had gone off alone to Lumpkin Upper Mills to complete her day's agenda.
It was largely thanks to Peter that the Horsefalls still owned the family farm. It had been Helen who'd helped them sell some of their antiques for enough money to build on a big wing and house the whole clan in a style they'd never expected to enjoy. The Horsefalls could have sold the weather vane, too, and wound up with sufficient wealth to build themselves a mansion, but they didn't need a mansion. They liked the old place the way it was and they were all fond of the pig and rooster; so here they were and there it was going to stay and Helen Shandy was glad. She kissed her husband, was hugged by several Horsefalls, including Henny, who wasn't about to pass up the chance to embrace a pretty woman when he might never get another, and accepted a tot of damson gin.
"Well, how did you make out at the soap works?" Jolene asked her. "Did you get your pictures?"
"I hope so," Helen replied. "The weather vane looked pretty good in the viewfinder, anyway. But I almost wound up in jail for taking them."
"What do you mean? Did Soapy Snell come out and start throwing his weight around as usual?"
"No. What happened was that I'd climbed up on that old cannon in the middle of the road in order to boost myself high enough to get a decent shot. Chief Olson happened along in his cruiser just as I was ready to shoot, and took umbrage. He thought I was a kid," Helen added rather smugly.
"Olson hates kids," grunted Young Ralph, who counted among the grown-ups now that he was a student at Balaclava.
"And he's really got a thing about that cannon," added Ralph's sister Hilary, a beautiful brunette of about fifteen and a half. "You'd think he was General Grant or somebody." She giggled. "Brinkley Swope's crazy about the cannon, too. Cronkite says Brink's planning to sneak out some dark night when nobody's looking and shoot it off."
"Blow hisself to hell an' gone if he tries," snorted Henny. "That damn cannon's prob'ly rusted out so bad inside it'd bust its bar'l if Brink so much as stood near it an' let off a real good—"
"Uncle Henny," snapped Jolene.
"I was goin' to say sneeze." The octogenarian's washed-out blue eyes were as innocent as a newborn lamb's. "Quit pickin' on me, can't you?"
"That cannon's not rusted," said Eddie. "The GAR used to keep it swabbed out long as there was any of 'em left alive, then the VFW an' the American Legion took over. Anyways, I don't s'pose Brinkley meant to stuff the damn thing full of grapeshot. A little black powder wouldn't hurt any."
"You never can tell what those Swope boys will do. And by the way, Hilly," her Aunt Marie added with a lift of the eyebrows, "what were you doing talking to Cronkite? Isn't he a little bit old for you?"
"He's twenty-five. Nine years isn't so much difference."
"Nine and a half, surely?"
"Anyway, I think older men are more interesting."
"Oh, you do, do you?" said her mother. "Seems to me last week you were finding Tommy Lomax pretty interesting and he's not even fifteen yet. You listen to me, young lady. If I ever catch you on that motorbike of Cronkite's, there'll be some fur flying around here and I don't mean maybe."
"Mama, for goodness' sake!" Hilary protested. "Cronkite gave a talk Sunday night at youth group about being a reporter and we got to ask questions afterward. I asked him one question and he answered. Big deal! He wasn't talking to me specifically, I was just one of the gang."
"Well, that's what you'd better keep on being, as far as I'm concerned. Those Swopes have a peculiar streak in 'em a yard wide, if you ask me."
"Now, Marie, there's a damn sight worse than the Swopes around here," said Ralph. "Huntley and Brinkley are doing all right at the soap works, and they pull their weight around town. Hunt's on the finance committee, and Brink practically runs the Lumpkinton Militia. Cronk's kind of a loose wheel, I have to admit, but I guess you have to be in his kind of job. How are you making out with the weather vanes, Helen?"
"Quite well, I think. I've done yours, the two horses on the old Lomax place, Gabe Fescue's cow kicking over the bucket, the big donkey and carrot on the Lumpkinton Town Hall, the figure of Justice on the county courthouse over at Clavaton, the 'Onward, Christian Soldiers' one on the Methodist church down below you, the two roosters and the grasshopper over in Balaclava Junction, the blacksmith at Forgery Point, and I was lucky enough to catch that lovely mare and foal on Mrs. Peavey's barn over in Hoddersville before the barn burned down."
"That was an awful shame," said Eddie. "Beautiful old barn like that, been in the family since the year One, just about. They blamed the fire on wet hay smoldering in the loft, but Joe Peavey's a damned careful farmer. He swears it was set. The arson squad didn't find anything, though."
"They never found the remains of the weather vane, either," said Helen. "I've got my suspicions about that, but I suppose we'll never know. But anyway, counting the soap works, I'll have nine so far and Peter has a line on another Praxiteles 'way up in Maine at a forestry school where one of his old classmates is president. It's a lumberjack felling a tree. Peter wrote asking if we could come up and take photographs. We're going to make a vacation trip of it. Peter's classes were over this past week, you know, and I've taken a leave of absence from the library to work on the weather vane project. They've asked him to speak at next year's commencement. He's going to give a speech and sing 'Trees' for an encore. Aren't you, dear?"
"No, I think I'll leaf that out of the program. Madam, do you realize we've been imposing on these good people for upward of four hours? It's half-past nine and pitch-dark out."
"Oh, what's the hurry?" Jolene protested. "We don't get to see you that often. Here, Peter, let me het up your tea for you."
"No, really, we mustn't," Helen protested. "We never intended to stay at all and we haven't even fed our cat. Jane will be furious. This has been lovely, but we've got to scoot. Can I help clear the table first?"
"With all these hired hands sitting around doing nothing? I should say not. Come on, kids, stir your stumps. Marie, how about a piece of your layer cake for Helen to take home so she won't have to think about dessert tomorrow?"
"We'd love a piece," said Helen, "not too big a one, please. Peter eats too many desserts as it is. So do I, I'm ashamed to admit."
Actually Helen wasn't more than a comfortable pound or two over the optimum weight for her delicate frame. Peter's five foot seven or eight was pretty well upholstered, but he was of a stockier build and much of what he packed was muscle. Internationally renowned as a horticulturist and agronomist, Professor Shandy still believed the best teaching was done out in the turnip fields, and could still outspade and outfork the burliest students in his classes.
Peter, Helen, and assorted Horsefalls were standing around exchanging the usual last-minute remarks when old Henny picked up his ears.
"Hark! That's the fire whistle."
They all fell silent, counting the hoots.
"Six an' three," said Ralph. "Gorry, that means the soap works!"
Then came two more hoots, louder and longer. "General alarm," yelled Eddie. "Come on, boys. See you later, Peter. We got to get down to the fire house."
He, his brother, and four of the oldest sons made a beeline for the door, grabbing boots and rubber coats as they ran. Peter and Helen quit saying they must be going, and went. Already a faint whiff of smoke was drifting over the hillside.
"God, it smells like a giant barbecue," Peter remarked as he steered carefully down the rocky dirt driveway. "I suppose that's the soap fat burning. I can remember a pan of grease catching fire on the wood stove at the farm when I was a kid. My cousin Gordy panicked and heaved a dipper of water on it, which only spread the flames. My grandmother laid him out in lavender afterward because she'd had to use up her whole keg of pickling salt putting out the fire."
"This one's going to take more than pickling salt," Helen remarked soberly. "Look, Peter, see that red glow in the sky? We must be three miles from the factory. Can you imagine what it's like over there? How do you suppose it got started?"
"Lord knows, but I expect it wouldn't have taken much. A mill that age would have been all wood construction except for the brick. Get a mile or two of planks and beams that have been soaking in soap fat for a century or two and one spark from an electrical short circuit, or an oil-soaked cleaning rag that some damn fool left to smolder in a closet, would set the whole place off. It would be like lighting a giant tallow candle."
"But they've always been extra careful about fire hazards," Helen protested. "Mrs. Lomax told me so. Those Swope boys who work there are her nephews or something, and they tell her everything. Not that she wouldn't know anyway. You know how she is. But anyway, she says they give everybody a strict warning lecture their first day on the job. They have no-smoking signs all over the place and fire drills every few weeks. Cigarettes have to be left with the timekeeper and anybody caught with a lighter or even a single match in his pocket gets fired on the spot."
Peter shook his head, as if to clear it. "Did she happen to mention whether they're still working double shifts?"
"I know they are. I saw the day shift going off and the night people coming on while I was taking my pictures. Darling, I know we ought to stay clear of the area, but isn't there some way we could at least find out if everybody got out all right?" Helen begged. "I don't think I can bear not to know."
Excerpted from Vane Pursuit by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1989 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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