Amidst planning for Christmas and the annual family reunion, Torie O'Shea barely has time to indulge in her hobby, genealogical research. But preparing for the reunion--and the influx of relatives--piques her curiosity about her own family tree. When Torie discovers that her own great-grandfather was murdered, and that her great-uncle was the main suspect, she never dreams that the past history she thought was long-buried could resurface in the present in such a deadly way.
A Comedy of Heirs is a creative and delightful entry in MacPherson's popular series.
About the Author
Rett MacPherson lives in St. Louis, MO, with her husband and her two daughters.
The author of the Torie O'Shea mysteries, including Dead Man Running, Died in the Wool, and The Blood Ballad, Rett MacPherson lives in a suburb of St. Louis, MO.
Read an Excerpt
A Comedy of Heirs
By Rett MacPherson
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1999 Lauretta Allen
All rights reserved.
December in New Kassel is the greatest. I walked along Jefferson Street on my way to the Gaheimer House. The handmade dresses that I give the tours in were on hangers, draped over my shoulders. All seven of them. I tried desperately to keep them from dragging on the ground, but when you're short that's an impossible task. My wrist ached from the strain on it and I tried not to slip on the icy sidewalk.
It hadn't snowed yet. Used to be when I was a kid we got our first snow before Thanksgiving. Now, I can't remember the last time it snowed before December. It rained last night, though, and little patches of ice had frozen to the low spots on the sidewalk.
All the homes and shops were decorated for Christmas as if there might never be a Christmas again. Some of it was really tacky plastic stuff, but some, like the Gaheimer House, were decorated as authentically as possible with live greenery, candles and antiques. I passed by the lace shop with its red lights strung through the low front window and the big green sign that said CHRISTMAS SALE.
The next building was the Gaheimer House, my point of destination and the place where I am employed. I stopped on the step and looked up at the sky. It was gray-white and heavy as if it were just waiting to dump ten feet of snow on Missouri. I took a deep, cleansing breath. Yup, there was snow in those clouds, I could smell it. People laugh at me when I tell them I can smell snow. I can smell rain, too. I smiled and entered the Gaheimer House with that peculiar contentment that I get when I am reminded how much I love winter and how happy I am with my life.
"Absolutely no!" I heard Sylvia scream.
"You're not God!" I heard a woman yell back.
"God or not, you're not wearing a conventional brassiere with historic costumes!"
I went through the ballroom as quickly as possible to get to my office where all the trouble seemed to be coming from. Wilma Pershing stood in the hallway, in a blue dress with tiny little Santa Claus's printed on it, wringing her hands. She was a nicely plump old woman in her nineties. Her nearly white hair hung down loose, rather than in the braids she usually wore. Her green eyes were wide and worried. "Oh dear," she said. She covered her mouth and pointed into my office.
I turned the corner and stopped in my office doorway. Sylvia Pershing, Wilma's sister, stood behind my desk in a forest green pantsuit, shaking her finger at Helen Wickland who stood on the other side of the desk. Sylvia's hair was in its usual double braids wrapped around her head with not so much as one loose hair.
"Victory, thank goodness," Sylvia said when she saw me. Only Sylvia and my mother call me Victory. Everybody else calls me Torie. "Tell Helen she cannot wear a conventional brassiere with the historic costumes. It is abominable."
"Uh," I said, standing in the doorway. "Helen, you cannot wear a conventional brassiere with the historic costumes." The words sort of fell out of my mouth, without any great emotion.
"Thank you," Sylvia said. She seemed happy that I had sided with her until she got a good look at me. "Get those costumes up! You're dragging the floor with them. I bet you dragged them on the ground outside, didn't you? Do you know how long it takes to make those? Do you know how much money they cost?"
"Which of those questions did you want me to answer first?" I asked.
Sylvia's face turned a purplish color. "Hang them out there on the coat rack," she said. "No better yet, just give them to me. I'll take them," she demanded and took the dresses from my hand.
I shook my wrist, trying to get the blood to flow back into it. Sylvia marched out into the hall and Wilma still stood at my doorway, still wringing her hands.
"Good morning, Wilma," I said. "Your hair looks very pretty."
She reached up and touched a strand of her hair and blushed. "Why, thank you," she said, and left.
Helen stared at me from across my desk. Helen was forty-nine and fought turning fifty with every ounce of energy she had. Her frosted hair was cut short, and the frosting was so heavy that you couldn't tell which was gray and which was frosting. I think she did that on purpose. She owned the Lick-a-pot Candy Shoppe down on the corner of Hermann and Jefferson; it was her pride and joy.
"I can't thank you enough, Helen," I began. I took my brown bomber jacket off and hung it on the coat rack by the door in my office. I was wearing beat-up jeans and my husband's big olive green sweater that hung almost to my knees. It seemed as though I never wore my own clothes if I didn't have to.
Helen just stared at me. I sat down. Helen glared at me from above. "Please, sit down," I said. Helen had graciously agreed to take over giving my tours here at the Gaheimer House for the upcoming week because I was going on vacation. Being a tour guide for an old house in a historic river town is really a lot of fun. I also compile all of the genealogical data and land records and that sort of thing for the historical society. Sylvia is the president of the historical society and Wilma is the vice-president.
Helen sat down, although it seemed as if it were against her will. "I'm going to kill her," she stated. "I'm going to kill her and then I'm going to go to jail."
"She's really not that bad," I said. "You were referring to Sylvia, I presume."
"Who on God's green earth do you think I was talking about?"
"Oh," I said. I smiled a big wide, fake smile. "Just pretend she's Wilma."
Helen did not find me amusing. "Why do you have to take a week's vacation in December?" she asked. "Why do you have to take a vacation at all? Ever?"
"My dad's family gets together every December. Every year, somebody sets aside their house and their town for a whole week and all week long aunts, uncles, cousins and whoever come to visit. There are activities and stuff, like caroling, and of course the big dinner. Everybody tries to make it to the big dinner."
Helen rolled her eyes.
"It's my turn to host it," I said. "Actually, it's my dad's but you don't want him hosting something like this, or all they'd get is coffee, cigarettes, and pork rinds. So, I'm hosting it for him."
"You sure you can't work and host this thing?" Helen asked, obviously still miffed at Sylvia. "She's gonna be on my case all week."
"If I want to keep my sanity, I need to be free from work to host this thing," I said. "Some of my family have really loose screws."
"I'm going to kill her and then God's going to be mad at me," Helen said. "And I think He was just starting to forgive me over the Woodstock thing."
I laughed and tried to hide it as quickly as possible.
"Well, you're about ten pounds heavier and three inches shorter than me," Helen stated, changing the subject.
"Gee thanks, Helen," I said.
"I'm just saying that I think the costumes will fit, but I may have to let the hems down," Helen said.
"Don't you even think about touching those costumes!" Sylvia yelled from the hallway as she was passing by. "Except to put them on!"
Helen and I looked at each other. Talk about Big Brother. We had Big Sylvia and that seemed to be far worse. "How does she do that?" Helen asked.
"I don't know," I said.
Sylvia came to the door of my office. "You got a package over there on the computer table," Sylvia said. "There's no return address."
"Oh, thank you," I said and got up to go get it.
"And need I remind you of what your family did to this town back in 1991, at the last Christmas reunion you hosted?" Sylvia asked.
"I was young then," I said, trying to come up with whatever excuse I could to plead my innocence to Sylvia. I sat back down at my desk with the manila envelope that was addressed to me clutched in my hands.
Wilma walked by the office, smiling and carrying a white poinsettia. Sylvia saw her and raised an eyebrow. "What are you doing with your hair down?" she asked and headed in the direction that Wilma had gone. "A woman of your age should never have her hair down." Her voice trailed off as she went farther down the hall, berating her sister over her loose hair. I wondered if there was ever a day in their lives that Sylvia hadn't berated Wilma over something.
"Really, Helen, I can't thank you enough," I said. "I really really appreciate this. You will never know."
Helen just stared at me.
"I'd offer you my firstborn, but I already promised her to Sylvia for putting the soda machine in. I hate to make you settle for second, but I only have one other child—"
"I'll take her," Helen said and laughed. The laughter told me that she would do the tours for me and she would forgive me for it.
"Just smile and say, 'Yes Sylvia,'" I said. "That's what I do."
Helen stood and walked over to get her coat. "What kind of bra do I get to go with those costumes?"
"Ask Sylvia," I said. "It's one of those weird things that push you up and all that."
Helen rolled her eyes yet again as she put her coat on. "What if you don't have anything to push up?" she asked and looked down at her rather flat chest.
"Uh, well, ..."
"Never mind," she said. "So, your whole family is coming?"
"On my dad's side."
"The whole family?"
"Not necessarily on the same day, we have it for a whole week, but yeah, there's like seventy of them or so," I said. "And they just keep coming and coming."
"Like a swarm of killer bees," Sylvia said as she walked by the office, once again in perfect timing. I couldn't imagine what it would have been like to be raised by this secret agent.
Helen stared at me, frozen, as she was putting her scarf on. I looked around the room, trying to seem innocent. "She really isn't all that bad."CHAPTER 2
"Mom," I said. "Where did I put the cake pan of Santa's face?" I was standing on top of my kitchen counter trying desperately to see into the deepest recesses of the top shelf of my kitchen cabinets.
My mother, who was working on her handmade pen and ink Christmas cards never looked up from the snowman that she was sketching. "Downstairs in the seasonal stuff."
"Are you sure? It's bakeware. Would I put bakeware in the seasonal stuff?" I asked. The deep fryer that we never use came tumbling out of the cabinet and I caught it with my right hand, my left hand keeping my balance by gripping the cabinet door.
She looked up over the rim of her granny glasses, pen poised above the paper. "Well, obviously you would put a Santa bakeware with the seasonal stuff, because you did. That's where it's at." She went back to drawing the Christmas card. She was quite the gifted artist and I am very happy the polio that claimed the use of her legs and confined her to a wheelchair did not damage her arms.
I stood there for a moment and then decided that she was probably right. I stuffed the fryer back into the cabinet and then slammed the door shut before it had a chance to jump back out at me. I jumped down off the countertop. It would be just my luck that one of my two daughters would come in while I was up there and I'd have to explain how come I was allowed up there and they were not.
"Well, I'll go downstairs and see if I can find it," I said.
"Okay," Mom said.
Flipping on the basement light, I cautiously descended the steps. I don't like basements, not even mine. And ours isn't one of those nice finished basements with a family room and a bar. Ours is just the plain old concrete floor with metal suspension posts. The girls' bikes were leaning up against the west wall. Rachel's, which had yellow smily-face stickers all over it, was parked perfectly. Mary's, which was decorated only with dings and scratches, was parked just however it happened to land. My husband Rudy's workshop was in the very back. My brand-new washer-dryer was down here along with an extra refrigerator and a deep freeze. We like food.
We also had a big storage area that I actually spent one whole month buying rubber tubs for and organizing all of our junk. If it's not used enough to be upstairs in the real part of the house, it's junk. I wasn't too upset about having to haul out the seasonal tubs, because we had to put the Christmas tree up within the next few days, and I'd need the lights and ornaments anyway.
I walked over to the storage area and pulled and shoved on tubs until I found the three or four labeled Seasonal.
Then I saw something move. I screamed, my hand flying instinctively to my throat. Well, now I knew where Mary's missing rubber snake was, I tossed the rubber snake over my shoulder and grumbled.
I opened up seasonal tub number one. Red tablecloth, red tablecloth with Christmas geese, matching napkins, ta dah; cake pan in the shape of Santa's head. I put the lid back on the tub and noticed that it felt a lot colder down here in the basement than it did when I first came down.
I looked around the room. The basement door stood wide open. It wasn't wide open when I came down here. It was shut. All the way. Now it wasn't.
"Rudy?" I yelled. I couldn't imagine a single reason why he would leave the Rams game that was on television to come down here in the basement. No answer.
I never know what to do at times like this. I wanted to just walk over and close the door, but then I could be shutting Marilyn Manson in the house with me. I cleared my throat and walked on over to the door, anyway. I shut it, turned around and screamed again.
Uncle Jedidiah Keith stood at the bottom of my basement steps, smiling with a mouth full of ... well, of nothing. He didn't have any teeth. He held a filthy and ancient pipe between his gums. The whites of his eyes were as yellow as his tobacco-stained beard, and his pants were pulled up nearly to his armpits.
"Hey, Torie," he said. "Come give Uncle Jed a hug." He held his arms out wide and winked. His armpits had a permanent stain on them. This red and blue plaid shirt had to be twenty years old. "I wore my Christmas socks for you."
He didn't have to raise his pants legs for me to see them. He was expecting the next great flood and I could see bright red and green socks blazing above dingy brown work shoes.
"Uncle Jed, you scared the bejesus out of me."
"What you want to go gettin' all scared for?" he asked. "Ain't like it's Halloween or nothin'. You gettin' your holidays all mixed up, missy."
"Can't you knock?" I asked, trying to let my heart get back to some kind of regular rhythm. "Or use the upstairs door?"
He looked at me peculiarly as if I'd just suggested something really far out. "Don't never use the front door. That's for company," he said. "And I did knock, nobody answered."
"Probably because we didn't hear you upstairs," I said.
"Well, I went on up to say hello to your mother and then remembered that I forgot to shut your door," he said.
"Oh," I answered. I finally walked over and gave him a hug, but I held my breath the whole time. Sometimes he forgot what soap was for. I remember one time when I was a kid I asked him why he never took a bath and he told me that water was for drinking, not sitting in. I didn't argue with him at the time, because it seemed rather logical to a seven- year-old.
"Ya miss me?" he asked.
"Of course," I said. I started back up the steps and he followed close behind. His wife had died about ten years ago, so he usually came to these things alone. His five children were all grown with families of their own, and would attend at their own leisure.
We reached the kitchen and I flipped off the basement light and shut the door.
"Look what the cat dragged in," I said to my mother.
"Yes, I know," she answered.
"Well," Uncle Jed said, and let out a long sigh. He patted himself on the stomach and smacked his gums together, his pipe bobbing up and down as he did so. "Where's the whiskey?"
"We don't have any," I said. "We're not big drinkers, Uncle Jed."
"I ain't talkin' about drinkin'," he said. "I'm a-meanin' for medicinal purposes. Lordy, missy, every house gotta have medicine."
"And just what do you need medicine for?" I asked. "I've got Nyquil, that's about as close to whiskey as you're gonna get. It's twenty-five percent alcohol."
He scratched his head and looked around the kitchen. He was probably trying to figure out just how much Nyquil he'd have to drink to get drunk. "Well. I got this pain a-goin' in my foot. And bad eyes. Got real bad eyes—"
"Whiskey isn't going to cure bad eyes," my mother said.
Excerpted from A Comedy of Heirs by Rett MacPherson. Copyright © 1999 Lauretta Allen. 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.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A woman finds out her great-grandfather is murdered on his front porch and tries to figure out who did it. The mystery part wasn't bad but the rest of the book wasn't very exciting. Author doesn't give reasons why Torie and the sheriff can't get along, and it seemed to be missing the whole comedy part.