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"Good morrow, Kate; for that is your name, I hear."
I blinked at the young man in the doorway. "Well have you heard, but something hard of hearing. They call me Claire Malloy that do talk of me."
"You lie, in faith; for you are call'd plain Kate, and bonny Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst; but Kate, the prettiest Kate in Farberville. Kate of Kate Hall, my superdainty Kate, for dainties are all Kates, and therefore--"
"Mother," Caron said as she came out of my office, "who is This Person?"
"I have no idea," I admitted.
The peculiar man came into the bookstore and bowed, one arm across his waist and the other artfully posed above his head. He was dressed in a white shirt with billowy sleeves, a fringed leather tunic, purple tights, suede boots with curled toes, and a diamond-patterned conical cap topped with a tiny bell. His brown hair dangled to his shoulders, rare among the traditionally minded Farber College students. "Perchance miladies will allow me to maketh known myself?"
"This milady thinks you ought to maketh known thyself to the local police," Caron said, edging toward me. "Start with the Sheriff of Nottingham."
He stood up and swept off his cap. "Pester the Jester, or Edward Cobbinwood, if it pleaseth you all the more."
"Not especially," I said. "Would you care to explain further?"
"Okay, I'm a grad student at the college and a member of ARSE. I was assigned to talk to all the merchants at the mall and on Thurber Street about the Renaissance Fair in two weeks. We'd like to put up fliers in the store windows and maybe some banners. Fiona is hoping you'll let us use the portico in front of your bookstore for a stage to publicize the event."
"A Renaissance Fair? I haven't heard anything about this." I noticed Caron's sharp intake of breath and glanced at her. "Have you?"
She nodded. "I was going to tell you about it when you got home this evening. The AP history teacher sent a letter to everybody who's taking her course in the fall. We have to either participate in this fair thing or write a really ghastly midterm paper. I don't think she should be allowed to blackmail us like this. Inez and I are going to get up a petition and have everybody sign it, then take it to the school board. I mean, summer is supposed to be our vacation, not--"
"I get your point," I said.
"Look not so gloomy, my fair and freckled damsel," added Edward Cobbinwood. "It'll be fun. We put on a couple of Ren Fairs when I was in undergraduate school. It's like a big costume party, with all kinds of entertainment and food. ARSE will stage battles, and perhaps a gallant knight in shining armor will fight for your honor."
Caron glared at him. "I am perfectly capable of defending my honor without the help of some guy dressed in rusty hubcaps."
"What's ARSE?" I asked.
"The Association for Renaissance Scholarship and Enlightenment. It's not a bunch of academics who meet once a year to read dry papers and argue about royal lineage or the feudal system. Anybody can join. The country is divided into kingdoms, counties, and fiefdoms. The local group is Avalon. There are just a few members in town this summer, but when the semester starts in September, Fiona says--"
"Fiona Thackery," Caron said with a sigh, not yet willing to allow me to dismiss her imminent martyrdom. "The AP history teacher. I'm thinking about taking shop instead. I've always wanted to get my hands on a nail gun. Or if I take auto mechanics, I'll learn to change tires and . . . tighten bolts and stuff like that. That way, when your car falls into a gazillion bits, I'll know how to put it back together. That's a lot more useful than memorizing the kings of England or the dates of the Napoleonic Wars."
"You're taking AP history," I said. "If you want to work at a garage on the weekends, that's fine with me."
She gave me a petulant look. "Then you can write the midterm paper: 'Compare and contrast the concepts of Hellenism and Hebraism in The Divine Comedy and The Canterbury Tales. Cite examples and footnote all source material. Five-thousand-word minimum. Any attempt at plagiarism from the Internet or elsewhere will result in a shaved head and six weeks in the stocks.'"
I cupped my hand to my ear. "Do I hear the lilting melody of 'Greensleeves' in the distance?"
"The only recorder I'm playing," Caron said sourly, "will have a tape in it."
Edward seemed to be enjoying the exchange, but fluttered his fingers and strolled out of the Book Depot to bewilder and beguile other merchants along the street. He must have had a recorder tucked in his pocket, because we could hear tootling as he headed up the hill. It may have been "Greensleeves," but it was hard to be sure. I hoped he wasn't a music major.
"Goodness gracious," said Inez Thornton as she came into the bookstore. Her eyes were round behind her thick lenses. "Did you see that weirdo in the purple tights?"
Inez has always been Caron's best friend through thick and thin (aka high crimes and misdemeanors). Caron, red-haired and obstinate, faster than a speeding bullet except when her alarm clock goes off in the morning, able to leap over logic in a single bound, is the dominant force. Meek, myopic Inez is but a pale understudy in Caron's pageant, but equally devious. Encroaching maturity tempers them at times. There are, of course, many other times.
"Tell me more about the letter from your history teacher," I said.
Caron grimaced. "This Renaissance Fair sounds so juvenile. Everybody has to dress up as something and go around pretending to be a minstrel or a damsel or a pirate or something silly like that. There's a meeting tomorrow afternoon at the high school so we can get our committee assignments. It's like Miss Thackery thinks we're already in her class. She shouldn't be allowed to get away with this. It's--it's unconstitutional!"
"That's right," said Inez, nodding emphatically. "Aren't we guaranteed life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?"
"I'm not sure reading Chaucer and Dante will make you all that happy, but you never know," I said. "You'll find copies on the back shelf. Help yourselves."
Rather than take me up on my generous offer, they left. I would have felt a twinge of maternal sympathy had they not been muttering for more than a month about how bored they were. I'd never been to a Renaissance Fair, but I supposed it was similar to a carnival show, with tents, booths, and entertainment--not to mention men clad in armor made of aluminum foil, bashing each other with padded sticks.
Pester the Jester did not reappear, to my relief. I've always been leery of men in tights, especially purple ones (tights, not men). The few customers who drifted in were dressed in standard summer wear and more interested in paperback thrillers and travel books than in Shakespeare. Business is sluggish in the summer, when most of the college students have gone home and their professors are either wandering through cavernous cathedrals in Europe or sifting sand at archeological digs. The academic community as a whole comprises nearly a quarter of Farberville's population of twenty-five thousand semiliterate souls. Their civilian counterparts tend to do their shopping at the air-conditioned mall at the edge of town when the temperature begins to climb.
At six I locked the doors and went across the street to the beer garden to meet Luanne Bradshaw, who owns a vintage clothing shop on Thurber Street. It could have been a hobby, not a livelihood, since she not only comes from a wealthy family on the East Coast but also divorced a successful doctor and left him barefoot in the park--or, at least, penniless in the penthouse. However, she chose to rid herself of most of her ill-gotten gains via trusts and foundations, dumped her offspring on the doorsteps of prestigious prep schools, and headed for the hinterlands. Farberville definitely falls into that category. Despite being in the throes of a midlife crisis that may well continue until she's ninety, she's disarmingly astute.
She was seated at a picnic table beneath a wisteria-entwined lattice that provided shade and a pleasant redolence. Her long, tanned legs were clearly visible in scandalously short shorts, and her black hair was tucked under a baseball cap. As I joined her, she filled a plastic cup with beer from a pitcher and set it down in front of me.
"You didn't mention Peter when you called earlier," she said by way of greeting. "Are you having prenuptial jitters? It's unbecoming in a woman of your age."
"My age is damn close to yours," I said, "and I'm not the one who scrambled all over the Andes with a bunch of virile young Australian men for six weeks."
"I kept claiming I needed to rest just so I could watch their darling butts wiggle as they hiked past me. So what's going on with Peter?"
"The captain sent him to FBI summer camp so he can learn how to protect our fair town if the terrorists attempt to create havoc by jamming the parking meters. It's a real threat, you know. The mayor will have to flee to his four-bedroom bunker out by the lake. The Kiwanis Club won't be able to have its weekly luncheon meetings at the diner behind the courthouse. The community theater won't be able to stage its endearingly inept production of Our Town for the first time in nineteen years. All hell could break loose."
Luanne failed to look properly terrified. "How long will he be gone?"
"Two weeks at Quantico, and then a week at his mother's."
"Oh," she murmured.
I took a long swallow of beer. "It's not like that. She's resigned to the idea that Peter and I are getting married, or so he keeps telling me."
"But she's not coming to the wedding."
"No, she's not," I said. "She always goes to Aspen in September to avoid the hurricane season."
"Rhode Island is hardly a magnet for hurricanes, but neither is Farberville," Luanne said as she refilled her cup and mine.
"It's a tradition. She goes with a big group of her widowed friends. They take over a very posh condo complex and party all day and night. Besides, it's not as if this is Peter's first marriage--or mine. I'd look pretty silly in a flouncy white dress and veil, with my teenaged daughter as maid of honor. There's no reason why she should disrupt her long-standing plans for a simple little civil ceremony in a backyard."
"She's probably afraid she'll have to eat ribs," said Luanne, "and toast the happy couple with moonshine in a jelly jar. Have you spoken to her on the phone, or received a warm letter on her discreetly monogrammed stationery?"
The topic was not amusing me. "Not yet. Peter thinks we ought to give her some time to get used to the idea, and then go for a visit. Will you loan me a pair of jodhpurs?"
"Yes, but they'll make your thighs look fat."
I brooded for a moment, then said, "Did you happen to encounter Pester the Jester this afternoon?"
"Oh, my, yes. I couldn't take my eyes off his codpiece."
I told her about the letters Caron and Inez had received from the history teacher. "They're appalled, of course, and were rambling about their constitutional right to spend the summer sulking. I didn't have the heart to remind them that they'd already had their fifteen minutes of fame a month ago, when they were interviewed by the media after that unfortunate business with the disappearing corpse."
"Fame is fleeting," Luanne said.
We pondered this philosophical twaddle while we emptied our cups. The remaining beer in the pitcher was getting warm, and a group of noisy college kids arrived to take possession of a nearby picnic table. I told Luanne I'd call her later in the week, then walked the few blocks to my apartment on the second floor of a duplex across the street from the campus lawn. A note on the kitchen table informed me that Caron and Inez had gone out for burgers with a few of their friends. It was just as well, since my culinary interests were limited to boiling water for tea and nuking frozen entrées. In the mood for neither, I settled down on the sofa to read. I hoped Peter would call, but as it grew dark outside I gave up and consoled myself with images of him on the firing range, learning how to take down grannies with radioactive dentures and toddlers with teddy bears packed with explosives. Or librarians and booksellers who refused to turn in their patrons' reading preferences to cloak-and-dagger government agencies.
What I did not want to think about was the wedding, scheduled for early September. Not because I was having second thoughts, mind you. I was confident that I loved Peter and that we would do quite nicely when we rode off into the sunset of domestic bliss, which would include not only more opportunities for adult behavior of a most delectable sort, but also lazy Sunday mornings with coffee, muffins, and The New York Times, and occasional squabbles over the relative merits of endive versus romaine. He'd been suggesting matrimonial entanglement for several years, and I'd given it serious consideration. But after my first husband's untimely and very unseemly death, I'd struggled to regain my self-esteem and establish my independence. I hadn't done too well on the material aspects, as Caron pointed out on a regular basis. However, the Book Depot was still in business, and we lived on the agreeable side of genteel poverty.
A distressingly close call with mortality had led me to reassess my situation. The emotional barrier I'd constructed to protect myself collapsed during a convoluted moment when a hit man had impolitely threatened to blow my brains out (not in those exact words, but that was the gist of the message). If commitment meant sharing a closet, then so be it.
The problem lay in my inclinations to meddle in what Lieutenant Peter Rosen felt was official police business. It wasn't simply a compulsion to outsleuth Miss Marple. In all the situations I'd found myself questioning witnesses and snooping around crime scenes, I'd never once done so for my personal satisfaction--or to make fools of the local constabulary. It just happened. Peter, with his molasses-brown eyes, curly hair, perfect teeth, and undeniable charm, never quite saw it that way. He'd lectured me, had my car impounded twice, threatened me with a jail cell, and attempted to keep me under house arrest. One had to admire his optimism.
I was going to have to sacrifice my pursuit of justice in order to maintain domestic tranquility, I thought with a sigh. Somewhere buried within the male psyche is a genetic disposition to drag home the carcass of a woolly mammoth to display to the tribe. Women, quite clearly, are above that sort of thing. We only desire to tidy things up.
I tried to return to my novel, but the specter of the wedding still loomed. The ceremony itself would be low-key and aesthetically appropriate. Jorgeson, Peter's partner, had offered us the use of his garden. Luanne had insisted on handling the reception food and drink. I would, when I had the wherewithal, purchase a modest dress at the mall. Peter would no doubt wear one of his Armani suits. Caron was the designated maid of honor. She'd been unenthusiastic about the upcoming event, ambivalent at best, but a few weeks earlier she and Peter had gone off for a long lunch, and she'd come home in a suspiciously elated mood. Neither of them would elaborate on the negotiations.
It wasn't as though we were going to be married in a church amid all the pomp and piety, but I have an aversion to any kind of formal ceremony, especially one that obliges me to wear panty hose. I'd barely survived Caron's kindergarten graduation. Carlton and I had eloped, and ended up being married in a leaky chapel during a thunderstorm. The justice of the peace's wife had served chocolate chip cookies and flat ginger ale afterward. I remember the cookies better than I do the actual exchange of vows. Carlton must have, too, which would explain why he'd been in the company of a buxom college girl when his car collided with a chicken truck on a slippery mountain road. The college administration had done its best to hush up this particular detail, since liaisons between instructors and students were a big no-no. When a local writer threatened to expose the tawdry business, along with several other skeletons in the faculty lounge closet, she'd been conveniently silenced. I'd been high on Detective Rosen's list of suspects, which had not made for an auspicious inaugural relationship, although in retrospect, it had been flattering.
I resolved to stop fretting about the wedding, at least for the rest of the evening, and gave my attention to Lady Cashmere's stolen jewels and the mysterious light in the chapel.
The following morning I was perusing the fall reading lists from the area junior highs and high schools. Nothing was remotely controversial, indicating the religious right had cinched in the good ol' Bible Belt another notch or two. Intellectual constipation was not too far in the future. I'd gone into my tiny office to hunt up some catalogs and start calculating orders when the bell above the door jangled.
I went back into the front room, my fingers crossed that Pester the Jester was not coming back to further annoy me. A couple were waiting for me. The woman had short dark hair, a flawless complexion, and large, wide-set eyes that were already appraising me. The tiny wrinkle between her eyebrows suggested that she was less than impressed. Although she appeared to be no more than thirty years old, her white blouse and gray skirt gave her the serious demeanor of an executive assistant or a bureaucrat. That, and the briefcase she was carrying.
"Mrs. Malloy?" she said, daring me to deny it.
I chose not to be intimidated despite the mess on the counter and the cobwebs dangling from the rafters. The original structure of the Book Depot dated back to the days when passenger and freight trains had been vital to a burgeoning rural town. I still relied on an antiquated boiler for what heat I could coax out of it. Many of the cockroaches I encountered daily were likely to be nonagenarians, and some of the mice had gray whiskers. "May I help you?"
"I'm Fiona Thackery, the history teacher at the high school. I believe your daughter is taking my AP class in the fall." I nodded warily. "I'm sure she'll do fine," the woman continued. "I'm here to talk to you about the Renaissance Fair in two weeks. I realize this is short notice, but the idea came to me while I was on vacation after the semester ended. I attended one, and thought it would be a wonderful project. My students will have the opportunity to make history come alive, not only for themselves but also for all the children and the community. Profits will go to Safe Haven, the battered-women's shelter. I do hope you'll add your support."
"I'm pretty busy these days," I said, unmoved by her slick sales pitch.
Her consort cleared his throat. He was perhaps a bit older than she, but two inches shorter and significantly less polished. His face, pudgy and pale, was marred by the remnants of acne, and his hair looked as though he'd cut it himself--in the dark. He was wearing wrinkled slacks, a short-sleeved white dress shirt, and a bow tie. He reminded me of a suburban missionary. "I'm . . . ah, Julius Valens. I teach in the drama department at the college. Well, I don't teach acting or anything like that. My area is set construction, lights, technical stuff."
"Thank you, Julius," said Fiona. "I'm sure Mrs. Malloy appreciates knowing your field of expertise." She took a file out of her briefcase and handed it to me. "This is the schedule of events during the fair. I've included a copy of the information I'll be handing out to the students this afternoon, which will explain in more detail the various booths, concessions, and staged presentations over the two days. Members of ARSE will participate. Are you familiar with the organization?"
"Oh, yes," I said, "purple tights and all."
She frowned. "Not all of us are fools, Mrs. Malloy. I've only been a member for a year, but I've encountered very few court jesters. Most of the men prefer to wear the garb of knights and royalty. Our fiefdom is honored to be under the leadership of the Duke and Duchess of Glenbarrens. They've offered their farm for the fair. I'd planned on holding it at the high school or even on the college campus, but we can generate more profits with the sale of ales and mead. Please let me assure you that none of the students will have anything to do with the alcoholic beverages, and any of them caught indulging will be punished."
"Were thumbscrews in use during the Renaissance?" I asked.
"I'll look into it," she said with her first attempt at a smile. It softened her face and gave her a faint glow. I realized she was quite pretty, if not a classic beauty. Julius seemed to agree with me; he was gazing at her with unabashed adoration. Ignoring him, she added, "Now what we'd like to do is stage a few short events in front of your store in order to create curiosity and start selling advance tickets. It won't be the least bit inconvenient for you. Julius will hang a few banners and set up the sound equipment. There will be sword fights, musical presentations, and crafts demonstrations. I was thinking we could do this tomorrow and Friday this week, and Monday and Wednesday next week, for no more than an hour at a time."
I considered her proposal. "I don't want access to the store blocked. I'm certainly in favor of raising money for Safe Haven, but I can't risk losing sales."
Julius nodded. "We understand that, Mrs. Malloy. It'll take no more than half an hour to set up, and about the same when it's over. So two hours, altogether."
"And," Fiona said, "it will draw a huge crowd. You can feature books on the Renaissance in your window displays."
"Erasmus is always a bestseller in the summer."
"I'm sure he is. Julius, check for outlets for the sound equipment. I'll do some measuring outside so we'll be prepared to hang the flags and banners. Thank you for your cooperation, Mrs. Malloy. We'll see you tomorrow afternoon." She was taking a tape measure from her briefcase as she went out the door.
"I don't remember agreeing to this," I said to Julius as he began to crawl along the baseboard under the front windows.
"Fiona can be forceful, but she's usually right. Last year she had to go in front of the school board to get their approval to revamp the AP reading lists. This spring almost every student who took the test scored high enough to receive college credit."
"How long has she been teaching at the high school?" I asked.
Julius plopped down on his bottom and looked up at me. "Just three years. A year ago the AP teacher retired for what was euphemistically called 'personal reasons.' According to the gossip in the teachers' lounge, she was spiking her coffee with brandy every morning and nodding off during classes. Fiona anticipated the likelihood that the woman would be fired and began campaigning for the position. She's a fighter. She made it through college on academic scholarships, while working at the campus library and tutoring on the side. She has no patience with slackers."
"Is that so?" I said, beginning to wonder how Caron would fare in the history class. Her grades were always fine, but I'd been called in for more than my fair share of teacher-parent conferences over the years. She had her own file in the principal's office, and even the custodians greeted me by name. I realized Julius was waiting for me to say something. I opted to change the subject. "Are you a member of ARSE?"
"No, I mean not yet, but I'm going to join. I've been busy with the college productions all year, and I moonlight at several community theaters in the area. My assistants this year were more trouble than help; I couldn't trust them to do anything right. And Fiona can be demanding. She bought a little house as an investment, and I'm helping her fix it up whenever I have free time. We're engaged, but it's not official until I can save up enough for a ring. I'll be up for assistant professor soon, and I'm hoping to get a decent raise. Fiona enjoys teaching, but she'd really like to stay home and have children. She says she can put all her excess energy into volunteer work."
I had no hope of finding a subject that would not lead back to Fiona Thackery. "Well, good luck," I said lamely, then picked up the catalogs I'd dropped on the counter. "I'll be in my office if you have any questions."
Julius stood up and brushed off his dusty knees. "These outlets should be adequate, although the wiring is worn. I'll bring extra fuses, just in case."
"And I'll review my fire insurance policy, just in case," I said as I headed for my cramped office.
I held my breath until I heard him leave, then settled back with the reading lists, catalogs, and order forms to try to predict how many students would prefer to buy their books (and handy yellow study guides) from the Book Depot rather than the brightly lit, sanitized chain bookstores at the mall. If I understocked, I'd lose sales, but if I overstocked, I'd be forced to return unsold copies and lose favor with my distributors. The bookseller's version of Russian roulette.
Although I knew it was unreasonable to hope that Peter might have a moment to climb out of his hazmat suit and call me, I kept glancing at the telephone. It remained aloof. I ate a sandwich and a handful of limp carrot sticks, sold a gardening book to an elderly woman clutching an evil cat, and helped a newlywed find a cookbook for her first formal dinner party. At least I would never have to sweat over the consistency of hollandaise sauce or the presentation of raspberry mousse parfaits. Should the highly improbable specter of a dinner party loom, Peter understood the concept of caterers, having never seen his mother do more than pour tea. Other than that, any entertaining we did would involve a barbecue grill--and I would not be waving the tongs.
Late in the afternoon Caron and Inez came into the store. Their fatigued and slightly glazed looks suggested the meeting at the high school had not been brief. This time I did feel some sympathy for them, since I loathe meetings on principle. They exemplify the only legitimate reason for carrying concealed weapons.
"That bad?" I said.
Caron sat down on the stool. "Three hours' worth of 'That Bad,'" she said. "Rhonda Maguire would not shut up. She acted like her entire grade depended on convincing everybody how fascinated she was by this dumb fair. Even Miss Thackery was getting pissed off by Rhonda's incessant questions and comments. Half the class was dozing, the other half squirming like they needed to pee."
"Rhonda's knowledge of the Middle Ages is limited to Disney movies," added Inez. "King Arthur and the Seven Dwarfs meet Robin Hood and the Little Mermaid Marian. It was too pathetic."
"So what did you find out about your duties at the festivities?" I asked.
"We're on the concessions committee," Caron said, "but it's not as bad as it sounds. Some woman from ARSE, Lanya or something, is in charge. We're going out to her farm to meet her tomorrow. Supposedly she's done this before and knows how to get all the food and drinks donated. We have to round up volunteers to work at the booths, but Miss Thackery said we can recruit from her other classes. If we can pull it off, we may not have to take a shift."
Inez nodded. "Yeah, but we have to make our own costumes. Peasant blouses and long skirts. Miss Thackery has a bunch of catalogs we can look through for ideas."
"That should be interesting," I said. "What about your classmates?"
"Carrie and Emily are in charge of the pony rides," Caron said, snickering. "They get to hold the ponies' leads and walk them in a circle. Around and around and around, all day long, trying not to step in piles of pony poop. Maybe we'll take them some lemonade in the middle of the afternoon."
"Louis Wilderberry and some of the other football players are going to be pirates," Inez contributed. "First they have to set up all the tents, stages, tables, and that sort of thing, but then they can spend the rest of the day promenading around, waving their cardboard cutlasses and singing sea chanties. Some of the kids who take band are going to learn to play lutes and recorders so they can be strolling minstrels."
"And Rhonda?" I said delicately.
"This is way funny," said Caron. "She and the other cheerleaders are going to be fairies. They have to wear green leotards, flimsy little skirts, pointy ears, glittery wings, and green makeup on their faces. You know, she looked a little green when Miss Thackery told her. They have to dance on one of the stages every hour, and spend the rest of the time painting kids' faces. Another woman from ARSE volunteered to be their dance instructor, so they have to go to her house to learn how to flutter. I can hardly wait."
"It doesn't sound that bad," I said.
Inez stared at me. "Would you like to dress up like a fairy in front of all your friends? She'll look like an escapee from a preschool production of Peter Pan."
"Even Louis was snorting under his breath," added Caron. "C'mon, Inez. We'd better start calling potential concession workers. I for one am not going to peddle turkey legs and ice cream bars all day."
I watched them leave, then opened the file that Fiona Thackery had left on the counter. The Renaissance Fair would open at ten o'clock on a Saturday morning. Food and drink available included the aforementioned turkey legs, ice cream bars, and fresh lemonade, along with ale, mead, rum drinks (in honor of the pirates, I assumed), and sweets. Areas would be roped off for sword fighting and mud wrestling. At a safe distance, would-be Robin Hoods could test their skill at archery. Stage performances with dancers, magicians, musicians, and one-act plays would occur throughout the day.
On Saturday evening there would be a grand banquet presided over by the Duke and Duchess of Glenbarrens, with a feast and entertainment. Separate tickets required, limited seating, advance reservations suggested.
All in all, it seemed harmless.
Copyright © 2007 by Joan Hess. All rights reserved.