At first it seems like a prank. How could Veronica Landonwood be the voice on the other end of the phone when she died three decades ago? But as Arkansas bookseller and amateur sleuth Claire Malloy is about to find out, her cousin "Ronnie" is very much alive—and in trouble. And could use Claire's help…
Today, Ronnie is a renowned scientist living in Chicago. But when she was a teenager, she had a run-in with a famous Hollywood producer in Acapulco, Mexico. He attempted to sexually assault her—and she killed him. Having served time in prison, Ronnie finally put her this episode behind her…until now. Just when she has a real shot at the Nobel Prize, a ruthless blackmailer is threatening to expose the secrets of her past. Can Claire help to preserve Ronnie's reputation and keep her out of harm's way? That will depend on Claire's investigation—and what really happened on the night of the murder so many years ago…
About the Author
JOAN HESS is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
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Solitude can be a wonderful thing. It allows one to ponder the perplexities of the universe, to examine one's strengths and imperfections (no matter how infinitesimal), or even to invite a billow of whimsical ideas into one's mind. On the other hand, solitude is not a condition to be treasured when one relies on retail sales to pay the rent, and one's accountant is forever harping about quarterly tax estimates and other dreary things of that nature.
I'd dusted every rack in the Book Depot, my charmingly drafty store beside the abandoned railroad tracks. It's situated on the main drag of Farberville, the home of thirty thousand or so good-natured souls and several thousand industrious college students. After lunch, I'd arranged an artful display of cookbooks and culinary mysteries in the front window, then stood out on the sidewalk under the portico to admire my effort as pedestrians streamed by, seemingly unimpressed. By mid-afternoon, I'd worked the crossword puzzle and was reduced to trying to decipher the personal ads ("SWCF seeks BMD with IRA") when my solitude was interrupted. With a vengeance, I might add.
"Mother," Caron began as she stomped across the room, her face ablaze with the degree of indignation that only a sixteen-year-old can produce, "before you say anything, I just want you to know It Wasn't My Fault."
Her best friend and co-conspirator, Inez Thornton, soulfully shook her head. "It really wasn't, Mrs. Malloy."
I folded the newspaper and put it aside. Caron was maintaining a belligerent posture, but I could see apprehension lurking in her eyes. For the record, she and I share red hair, green eyes, and a complexion prone to random freckles. Without this physical evidence, I might have believed — or at least suspected — that she'd been swapped in the nursery, and somewhere out there was a child who spoke only in lower case letters and had never stolen frozen frogs from the high school biology department or been taken to the animal shelter in a gorilla suit. Caron has an impressively eclectic rap sheet for her age.
Inez does, too, although as an accomplice rather than a master criminal. She's soft-spoken, when she can get in a word, and she tends to observe Caron with the solemnity of a barn owl. Then again, hawks and owls are perceived differently, but that matters very little to a mouse caught in the moonlight.
"What's not your fault?" I asked reluctantly, assuming we were not about to discuss volcanic eruptions, EuroDisney, or the federal deficit.
Caron sighed. "All I was doing was trying to see who was in Rhonda's car with her. Louis has basketball practice until five, so it couldn't have been him. If she's going steady with him like she claims, then why would she have another guy in her car?"
"It was like in a movie," volunteered Inez "We stayed back so she wouldn't notice us in the rearview mirror. But then —"
"Then a moving van got in the way," Caron cut in, deftly regaining center stage. She gave me a moment to ponder the enormity of this outrage, then continued. "When we got to the corner of Willow and Thurber, Rhonda's car had vanished. I explained it to the cop."
Maternal perspicacity failed me. "Explained what?" I asked her.
"That I had to catch up with Rhonda. If the stupid moving van hadn't pulled out right in front of me, we could have found out who was in her car when they got to wherever they were going. If anyone deserved a ticket, it was the guy driving the van. I practically had to slam on the brakes not to crash into him and end up in traction at the hospital. Or paralyzed for the rest of my life."
I swooped in on the key word, which she'd tried to cloak in the torrent of verbiage. "You got a ticket, right?"
"It wasn't my fault," she said as she drifted behind the science fiction rack. "I may not have come to a complete stop when I turned onto Willow, but it wasn't like I barreled around the corner at fifty miles an hour and ran over some little kid on a bicycle."
I looked at Inez, who had her lower lip firmly clamped beneath her teeth. She aspires to achieve Caron's level of disregard for the facts, but she's not yet a proficient liar. "The ticket was for running a stop sign?"
"He wasn't very nice about it, especially after Caron pointed out that he'd ruined any chance we had of finding Rhonda."
I tried not to imagine that conversation. "How much does the ticket cost, Caron?"
"Seventy-five dollars," she said, peering at me over the rack to appraise my reaction. "But there's good news, too. If I take some idiotic defensive driving class, then the violation doesn't go on my record and your insurance won't go up too much. The class only costs twenty-five dollars."
"So playing private eye is going to cost you a hundred dollars," I said. "How much do you have in your piggy bank these days?"
"Nowhere near that much. I was thinking you could pay for everything, and then Inez and I can work it off here next month. You're always saying how busy you are in December, and gawd knows you could use some help with the window display. What's there now is pathetic."
"Thank you," I said.
The conversation from this point on did not take on any overtones of jocularity. Once we'd established that I was more perturbed by the cost of the crime rather than its nature, we discussed various financial strategies. The more lucrative possibilities at the mall were summarily dismissed, in that their totalitarian demands might interfere with Christmas shopping. Babysitting was much too tedious, and house work was compared to slavery in the salt mines of Siberia.
I finally gestured at the door. "Your driving privileges are suspended until this is resolved. We'll talk about it to night."
Caron's lower lip shot out. "But it's Friday night and there's a football game. How are we supposed to get there?"
"Don't go," I said without sympathy. "If I remember correctly, a year ago you decided football was, and I quote, 'nothing more than a philistine ritual in which the players' IQs are displayed on their jerseys.'"
"That was last year," she said, then shrugged and started for the door. "By the way, some woman called last night while you were at the movie with Peter. She said she'd try again. Come on Inez, let's take the railroad tracks to the bridge and go up the path. If we're lucky, no one will see us and we won't be the laughingstock of the high school Monday morning."
"Who called?" I asked.
Caron paused only long enough to say, "I think her name was Veronica Landonwood."
Seconds later the bell above the door jangled and they were gone. And I was staring at the door, my jaw dangling and my heart beating entirely too quickly. The store was drafty, but the sudden chill that raised goosebumps on my arms came from within me.
Even though I put on a sweater and kicked the rebellious boiler into a semblance of cooperation, I was still shivering when Lieutenant Peter Rosen of the Farberville CID arrived later that afternoon. He was dressed as usual in an exquisitely tailored suit and Italian shoes, courtesy of a family trust fund; he looked as if he would be more at home in a high-powered law firm than in a squad room. Even in baggy gym shorts and a sweatshirt, he's handsome enough to merit a page in a calendar. Curly brown hair, molasses-colored eyes, an aristocratic nose, flawless white teeth, and a cute derriere constitute eligibility.
"I brought capuccinos and chocolate chip cookies," announced my candidate for Mr. November. His smile faded as he looked more closely at me. "What's wrong, Claire? Are you coming down with the flu?"
"You probably should say that I look as though I'd seen a ghost," I said with an unconvincing laugh, "because in a way, I have."
"Has Mr. Grimaldi arisen from eternal rest to demand you stop contaminating his precious bookstore with romance novels, study guides, and sorority stationery?"
"Come into the office and I'll tell you," I said, allowing him to put his arm around me and give me a quick kiss. Peter and I have been working at a relationship for several years, and I regret to say that despite our ages, we tend to approach it with what might be described as adolescent ineptitude. We'd come perilously close to sharing bed and board to determine if we had any hope of long-range compatibility, but he'd been drawn into a sleazy drug case and the issue had been shelved. For the moment, anyway.
I sat down behind the desk and accepted a Styrofoam cup. "According to Caron, last night I had a call from Veronica Landonwood."
"Should I recognize that name?"
"I had a cousin with that name, although everyone called her Ronnie. She was seven years older than I, so we weren't particularly close. She was always very nice to me, though, and I was in awe of her because she lived in Hollywood. Well, technically in Brentwood, but it was close to Hollywood."
Peter took a sip of capuccino, his eyes narrowed as he watched me above the rim. "And she called last night?"
"Somebody called last night, but if it was Ronnie, I'm going to have to rethink my views on the possibility of afterlife. She died thirty years ago, Peter. I was ten at the time, and I was devastated. My only experience with death had been the loss of a nasty yellow tomcat named Colonel Mustard."
"How did she die?"
"She and her parents were in Mexico for a vacation, and their car went off a mountain road. I'd received a postcard from her only a few days before I was told about the wreck. I still have that postcard packed away somewhere."
Peter came behind me and began to massage my shoulders as I blinked back tears. "Then this is just a grotesque coincidence," he said, "or Caron wasn't paying attention and got the name wrong."
"Maybe," I said. Despite my efforts, my hand was shaking so violently I could barely raise the cup to my mouth. A wake-up call from the grave can do that.
I lingered at the bookstore well past closing time, trying to convince myself that trivial chores were, in reality, consequential. By seven o'clock, however, all my pencils were perfectly aligned and the plastic paper clips were sorted by size and color. I locked the store and drove home to the duplex across from the Farber College campus. In winter I have a view of the condemned landmark that once housed the English faculty (one of whom had been my deceased husband, Carlton, who'd had an unfortunate encounter with a chicken truck; our turbulent marriage was responsible for my current reluctance to make a commitment to Peter). The downstairs tenants moved in and out on an irregular basis. The current one was a somewhat bald, bewildered retiree from the architecture department whose wife had kicked him out of their house and taken up with her aromatherapist. Neither of us was sure what this implied.
Caron had left a note indicating that despite my hard-hearted scheme to destroy her life, she'd found a ride to the football game and would be spending the night at Inez's. I suppose I might have saved it for reference when I got around to writing my memoirs, but I tossed it in the trash and made myself a drink.
Shortly thereafter, I was in my robe and curled up on the sofa with a mystery novel. The muted strains of a Brahms concerto from the first floor mingled with the rustling of leaves outside the window and an occasional car. I was so engrossed in the wily amateur sleuth's exploration of the darkened conservatory that I let out an undignified yelp when the telephone rang.
I finally persuaded myself to pick up the receiver. "Hello?" I said with such timidity that I wasn't sure the word had been audible.
"Claire, this is Ronnie — Ronnie Landonwood."
"If this is some kind of prank, it isn't the least bit amusing. I don't know who you are or why you're doing this, but I can have a trace put on my —"
"On your seventh birthday, I sent you a tutu that I'd worn in a dance recital. You wrote me a stiff thank you note saying you planned to be a detective when you grew up and would prefer a magnifying glass on your next birthday. When you were nine, you fell out of a tree and broke your arm. Later that summer you sent me a poem that vilified Joyce Kilmer. Shall I continue?" "Hold on a minute, please," I said, then put down the receiver and went into the kitchen to splash some cold water on my face and some scotch in a glass. I sat back down on the sofa and, after a couple of sips, wiped my decidedly damp palms on my robe and picked up the receiver. "Would you care to explain?"
The woman exhaled as if she'd been holding her breath all the time I'd been trying to regain my composure. "It's a complicated story. My parents and I went to Acapulco in December of 1965. My father, who was a second-rate screenwriter, was hoping to cozy up to Oliver Pickett. Oliver was one of the most influential directors in the business, and was scouting locations in that area for his next film. He'd won an Oscar that year for a much-acclaimed medieval epic."
"I'm familiar with the name," I said, "but I still don't understand what's going on."
"Perhaps I shouldn't burden you with this. I chose to disappear all these years, and I have no right to pop up out of the blue and ask for your help. I'm sure you have a busy enough life with your bookstore and your daughter. I was just hoping that your admirable accomplishments in matters of crime —"
"How do you know all that?"
"I hired a private investigator. He didn't delve into your personal affairs; but he found a few articles in the newspaper morgue."
"You hired someone to spy on me?" I said.
"Only to find you," she said in a reproving voice. "I need someone I can trust. Everything I fought for and attained is in danger. If you'll allow me to finish my story, I think you'll understand the gravity of my situation."
Not at all flattered to have been the subject of a PI's report, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the curtains were tightly drawn, then said, "I'll listen to your story, but that's all I'm promising to do."
"My father borrowed enough money so that we could stay at the Hotel Las Floritas, where Oliver Pickett was staying. I expected to be utterly miserable all three weeks. My parents were at ease with the Hollywood types, but I was shy and gawky and sadly deficient in social skills. At seventeen, I'd never had a close girlfriend, much less a date. Like many tall girls, I slouched and wore drab clothes to blend into the background. My mother kept enrolling me in cotillions and etiquette classes, but none of them helped."
"I always thought you were glamorous. You knew all the current slang and told risqué jokes." I did not add that I'd never understood them, even though I'd laughed uproariously.
"Younger cousins didn't intimidate me," she said. "To return to the story, the day we arrived, Oliver Pickett's daughter came to our bungalow and introduced herself. Fran was a year younger than I, but much more sophisticated. She had streaky blonde hair, large hazel eyes, and the body of a model. My parents urged me to accept her invitation to go to the beach. From that moment until — until the tragedy, she and I whizzed around Acapulco in her father's limousine, shopping and hanging out at the beach clubs. At night while the adults were partying in hotel bars and private homes, we'd have Jorge drive us to seedy bars in the Sona Roja, where we drank margaritas until we threw up in front of the pimps and prostitutes."
"Your parents allowed this?"
"My parents did whatever Oliver said. If he'd told them to dive off the cliff at La Quebrada, they would have put on their bathing suits and started climbing. Oliver had divorced Fran's mother years earlier, and was accompanied by his so-called secretary, an aspiring actress named Debbie D'Avril. She was quite the party animal, as was Chad Warmeyer, Oliver's assistant. The five of them would start celebrating at sunset and stagger back to Las Floritas at sunrise to sleep until noon. Fran and I had virtually no supervision. Occasionally, we were deprived of the limousine when Chad was sent out to photograph a house or beach, but then we took taxis."
I grimaced as I imagined Caron and Inez in a similar situation. "You mentioned a tragedy," I murmured.
"On New Year's Eve, the adults went to a party. A few days earlier, Fran had decided that we should have our own party in her bungalow. She'd invited a dozen kids from the beach, and by midnight, there were three times that many. I drank too much and smoked pot, and eventually passed out in the master bedroom. When I awoke, everybody was gone. My hand and shirt were smeared with blood, and I was holding a knife. Oliver Pickett's body was on the balcony. Two days later I was arrested. Shortly after that, my parents rented a car to drive to Mexico City to get help at the American embassy. I was informed the next day that they'd been in a fatal car accident. A matron smuggled in a newspaper for me; I couldn't read Spanish, but I could tell that I was presumed to have been in the car with them."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Closely Akin To Murder"
Copyright © 1996 Joan Hess.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have read all of her books and just love them. Her characters are incredibly funny and when you think you know "who did it" you're surprised by the twist at the end. It's the least likely person. Great rainy day book. Hard to put down.
I have been enjoying Claire's many adventures, until now, I'm not crazy about her dislike of dogs & cats, animal lover that I am. However dragging her child to a very dangerous place and putting her in such peril is not amusing at all...........Joan Hess has a wonderful sense of humor which keeps me reading in to the night. This book I'm going to skim threw.........No mother would ever think to take a child in to the unknown to investigate a murder !! Even Claire with all her crazy nosing around wouldn't be this stupid. Sorry, thumbs down on this tale. Debbie
Joan Hess is great for a quick, fun, enjoyable read. Nice change from heavy subjects.