Claire Malloy believes there is just one thing better than chocolate...and it's not jumping a round in an aerobics class. Nonetheless, she gets roped into accompanying a chubby heiress named Maribeth to Faberville, Arkansas's hottest new fitness center. Personally, Claire thinks the best way for Maribeth to lose 160 unnecessary pounds would be to dump her abusive husband. But while Claire's teenage daughter Caron unsuccessfully tries every fad diet she can find (as long as it doesn't mean cutting out pizza), Claire has to admit Maribeth's commitment to diet, workouts, and supplements is working...until things go horribly wrong. Besides becoming moonstruck over the big-muscled fitness instructor, Maribeth is acting loony outside the gym as well. And when she ends up "accidentally" dead, Claire starts to exercise her instincts for crime...and hunt for a killer.
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.
Read an Excerpt
A Diet to Die For
A Claire Malloy Mystery
By Joan Hess
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1989 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
The little bell above the door of the Book Depot jangled with such fury I expected to see it sail across the room. It did not. To my regret, two teenage girls sailed across the room and skidded to a halt in front of the counter, where I was thumbing through the checkbook in hopes of something along the lines of what happened on Thirty-fourth Street.
One of them had my curly red hair, green eyes, and pale complexion, and was beginning to be able to look me in the eye without standing on her tiptoes. She was developing some of my mature physical attributes, which led to a great deal of pensive study in the bathroom mirror when she thought I wasn't watching and an artistic display of apathy about the entire business when she realized I was.
The other had limp brown hair, limp brown eyes behind thick lenses, and a limp body that was trapped somewhere between the chubbiness of childhood and a postpubescent promise of sleekness. I suspected her mother had yet to catch her preening in front of a mirror.
"Mother," the former began grimly, "do you want to know what Rhonda Maguire told Inez after fifth period?"
"Not especially," I said truthfully, although I didn't doubt for a second I was going to hear it anyway. My daughter Caron exists on a very intense plane, where nothing simply happens: it explodes, it detonates, it blusters and rages and erupts. Fifteen can do that to you, along with pimples, simmering hormones, and an inability to refrain from eye rolling, lip protruding, and other displays of histrionics. Caron's faithful sidekick, Inez Thornton, has not yet managed to grasp the delicacies of melodrama, but she's a good student and observes Caron's every gesture with wide-eyed awe.
"But it was incredibly gruesome," Inez whispered.
"So's my bank statement," I said.
Caron poked Inez. "Tell her what Rhonda Maguire said. I just want to Absolutely Die every time I so much as think about it. I mean, I thought Rhonda was one of my closest friends, but after what she —"
"What did she say?" I interrupted, bowing to the inevitable.
Inez looked thoroughly miserable, and her voice fell to a raspy whine. "Well, Rhonda said that some of the sophomore football players were watching the fourth-period girls gym class, and ... and elected Caron ... Well, they elected her Miss Thunder Thighs of Farberville High School. I didn't think it was the least bit nice. It was, like, really tacky and catty."
I glanced at the newly anointed royalty, who was hyperventilating hard enough to blow a good deal of the dust out the bookstore door. "And we were not amused?"
"No, Mother, we were Not Amused." Out came the lower lip. "I'm glad to know you think it's funny, however." The eyes rolled. "If you'll excuse me, I need to go home and look up suicide techniques in the encyclopedia. Inez, you can have my stuffed animal collection, but only if you swear on your grandmother's urn to tell everyone that Rhonda Maguire has herpes and that she passed it on to the entire football team."
"You look perfectly fine, dear," I said. "Your proportions are quite reasonable for your age."
"That's what you say, but you weren't elected Miss Thunder Thighs, were you?" she retorted without mercy. "I'll try not to bloody up the bathroom too badly."
Inez patted Caron's shoulder. "I don't see how you can ever show your face at school again. Those football players are all jerks, and Rhonda had no business listening to their crude jokes, much less repeating them to me. She knows I'm your best friend."
I repressed a sudden urge to leap across the counter and shake two pairs of shoulders. "I think you're taking this too seriously, but if you're truly upset, then why don't you go on a diet for a week or two and see if that makes you feel better? There's a whole rack of diet books in the self-help section; one of them might be appropriate."
"It probably won't do any good, but I suppose I could look at them," Caron said, iciness now replaced with despondency. She glanced at Inez. "We can do a diet together. It won't hurt you to lose a few pounds — unless, of course, you prefer to claim the title."
Inez's mouth pursed as if she were considering a response, but after a moment she nodded meekly and followed Caron around the corner of the rack. I returned my attention to the checkbook, which hadn't produced any major deposits during the minor hiatus, and I was still frowning as the two went past me and out the door, their arms laden with paperback books. I did not suggest anything so crude as payment, but I've always had an aversion to pain.
The afternoon drifted by without any further disruptions, including such annoyances as customers desiring an entire collection of hardbound textbooks. At five-thirty I locked the door of my dusty, musty bookstore and walked up Thurber Street toward my apartment. Caron and I reside in the top half of a house across from the undulating lawn of Farber College. During the winter months we have a fine view of Farber Hall, which in its youth and middle age housed the English department and thus the office of my deceased husband. Carlton had joked about the ceiling coming down on his head, but in the end — his, actually — he should have been more concerned about wet highways and errant chicken trucks.
Passing the sorority house inhabited by nubile young things with a tendency to squeal, I stopped on our front porch to collect my mail. There was no letter from Publishers Clearinghouse mentioning that the check was in the mail. I was glancing through the stack of envelopes with cellophane windows when the downstairs door opened and Joanie Powell joined me.
She was an attractive widow of moderate years, with soft brown eyes and a pleasant smile. On her first day in residence I had learned she lived in Little Rock, worked part time in a travel agency, got along well with her two grown children, and was at the college for a semester to pursue an interest in ceramics. On the second day I had learned she raised azaleas, downed an occasional beer, and had a fondness for barbecued ribs and basketball. I had also learned she was loquacious.
"Why, Claire, I was hoping I'd bump into you," she said as she took her mail from the metal box. Hers, I noticed, was addressed by hand and lacked windows.
"Oh?" I murmured cautiously.
"I wanted to invite you, Caron, and Caron's friend to a little party this weekend. I ran into an old friend of my daughter's, and I thought it would be nice for all of us to get together for tea, cake, and conversation."
"I'd love to, Joanie, but I have to work all day Saturday. My accountant has a tendency toward ulcers, and I feel responsible."
"Then we'll do it Sunday," she said briskly. "Shall we say three o'clock?"
"I don't know about Caron and Inez. They're on one of their typical rampages and may have other plans."
"I do so hope they can join us, Claire. Maribeth is in dire need of companionship, even if for only an hour or so. It took all of my wiles to persuade her to come, and I'd feel bad if no one else could be bothered."
With a brave little sniffle, Joanie went back into her apartment, leaving me to my wretched solitude on the porch. I went upstairs, kicked off my shoes, and, content in the knowledge I'd been manipulated by a master, went into the kitchen for a shot of scotch. I was savoring the serenity of early evening when Caron and Inez thudded into the room, each now carrying a sack from the market.
"We have decided to try the seven-day fruit diet," Caron announced, flourishing a banana. "It's supposed to be absolutely incredible, and you can lose up to ten pounds in one week. Imagine — ten pounds!"
"It doesn't sound healthy," I began in the dreaded maternal tone.
"But it is," Inez inserted. "The first day you eat nothing but bananas in order to enhance your potassium level. Then, on the next day, you eat nothing but oranges, for the vitamin C. On the next day —"
Caron brushed her aside to shoot me one of her finely honed defiant looks. "Actually, it's apples on the second day. They're an excellent source of something or other. Then oranges. I wish you'd pay more attention, Inez; this diet is terribly scientific and we have to do it right if we're going to lose all ten pounds in a week. I for one do not intend to behave like a fruit fly an extra week or two because you got confused about the proper sequence."
"This is scientific?" I said.
"Of course it is," Caron said haughtily. "The guy who made it up is a doctor, for pete's sake. There's a photograph of him on the back cover, and he's wearing a white coat, so he ought to know. Come on, Inez, let's get started."
The two went into the kitchen to put down the sacks, then returned, bananas in hand. I contemplated the wisdom of further discussion centering on nutritional soundness and dubious credentials, but concluded that they were young, healthy, and would survive a week of the crazy diet without any dire side effects. And be safe from scurvy, to boot.
They were nibbling righteously and I was reading the local newspaper when footsteps once again were heard on the stairs. I guiltily began to tell them about Joanie's invitation to the tea party, but then realized the footsteps were masculine and broke off before I reached the essence.
Peter Rosen, a man of great charm and innumerable talents, tapped on the door and came in. He has the curly black hair of a well-groomed poodle, eyes the color of molasses, and a pronounced beak of a nose above fine white teeth. He dresses like a bank president: power tie, three-piece suit, imported footwear, the whole routine. At certain times he and I engage in a mutually enjoyable relationship that veers perilously close to a commitment. At other times, however, it veers perilously close to a precipice — and neither of us are supplied with pitons.
Peter is a cop. He probably would argue that he's a detective in the Criminal Investigation Department of the Farberville police force, but he still has the heart of an old-fashioned, potbellied, nightstick-twirling cop. A cop who feels himself above any assistance from civilians merely doing their patriotic duty to ensure justice for all. A cop who turns splotchy and sputters whenever given a tiny bit of advice from a well-meaning woman with red hair, green eyes, and an acute mind that can solve a mystery and be home in time for the cocktail hour. In the past said woman has been rewarded with acerbity, with acrimony, with accusations that she is a snoop and a meddler.
He gave me an avuncular kiss, then continued into the kitchen and returned with a beer. Once he was settled next to me, he noticed Caron and Inez sharing a chair across the room. "Is the drama club doing a production of Tarzan?" "What's that supposed to mean?" Caron snapped.
"You two look as though you're rehearsing for the role of Cheetah."
"That's so funny I may laugh next week."
"I've never seen you eating bananas," he said mildly. "You're usually eating chips and dip, or pizza, or fries and bacon cheeseburgers. Bananas are healthy."
Caron stuffed the last of hers into her mouth. "Inez and I happen to be on a diet, if you must know."
Peter may have caught a glimpse of my smile, but he assumed the expression of one patently impressed by this manifestation of self-discipline. "That's admirable, but also somewhat of a shame, girls. I spotted a new pizza place out on the highway, and dropped by to invite all of you out for dinner. You two can split the supreme with seven toppings. Claire and I lack the wild abandon of youth, but perhaps we'll risk pepperoni and Italian sausage."
"Make him stop, Mother," Caron said.
"With extra cheese," he continued. "The real gooey kind that you have to rip off with your teeth."
I patted his arm. "You mustn't tempt them; they're terribly sincere about this fruit regime. Let's leave them to their bananas and try the pizza place ourselves. Furthermore, we can throw octagenarian caution to the wind and order a supreme. If you agree to skip the anchovies, I'll yield on the issue of black olives."
While we negotiated the terms, Caron and Inez whispered intently to each other. Peter and I were on our feet when Caron said, "Inez and I have concluded that it's pointless to begin a diet at night. We're not going to realize the full benefit of the banana day when we've already had all kinds of junk for breakfast and lunch. This diet is meant to be started in the morning."
"So our systems can absorb the potassium," Inez added, her eyes blinking like strobe lights.
"First thing tomorrow morning we'll begin the diet," Caron said firmly.
Inez sounded a shade more dubious as she said, "And have nothing but the allotted six bananas and twelve glasses of water."
"And not one bite of anything else."
On that rationale, we went for pizza.
The following morning I left Caron snoring gently under a comforter and a dozen stuffed animals, and went to do that which makes a minuscule yet nevertheless sincere dent in the national deficit. Saturdays are fairly good for fiction and a smattering of magazines, although the college students remain complacent on weekends and wait until midweek to dash in for study aids. My favorite aged hippie came in for the latest science fiction epic, and we had a grave conversation about the current trend toward fantasy versus old-fashioned carnivorous aliens determined to eat the inhabitants of any or all world capitals. My favorite cop came by with sandwiches. We were discussing various inconsequential things when his beeper beeped. He made a call to headquarters, cast a plaintive look at the remaining half of a turkey on rye, and went away to play detective. In that I am not a snoopy, meddlesome sort, I merely waved and agreed to a movie that night.
I was rearranging the dust in my tiny office and attempting to sneeze my nose off my face once and for all when Joanie called my name from the front of the store. Brushing at my cheeks, I went to see if she was going to allow me to weasel out of her tea party. She was not. "Good heavens," she murmured, "you look as if you just rode in from a cattle drive. In any case, I wanted to remind you that Maribeth is coming at three o'clock tomorrow, and I'm so thrilled that you and the girls will have the opportunity to meet her. She's a dear, dear girl."
"She's a friend of your daughter's?"
"They met at summer camp when they were twelve, and they were close friends until Maribeth went back east to attend a rather posh, exclusive school. My daughter insisted on a school closer to home." Joanie wandered over to the science fiction rack, but she kept shooting odd little looks over her shoulder at me. "Maribeth has a problem," she said at last.
"So do I," I said promptly. "My bank account. I'm supposed to send in my quarterly self-employment tax by the fifteenth, and I doubt those guys will accept an IOU and half a book of trading stamps."
"Maribeth has a serious problem, Claire, and you're just the one to help her."
"I don't even know her," I said, backing toward the sanctuary of my office, where the danger, in the form of rodents and an allergic reaction to the dust, was more tangible.
"But you will tomorrow. That's why I invited you." She picked up a paperback, then settled it back on the rack and began to stalk me down the aisle. "Maribeth, needs to get out, to meet people and do things. She's been back in Farberville for nearly eleven months, and I don't think the poor thing has spoken to a dozen people. She stays home all day every day, just doing housework and watching those silly soap operas on television. What kind of life is that for twenty-nine-year-old woman?"
I kept moving backward. "Maybe the life she prefers?"
"Nonsense. She's very shy, that's all. Her husband teaches business law at the college, but he's made no effort to include her in the department's social functions. In fact, I suspect he wants her to stay home and iron his shirts. It's important that you and I help her out of her pathetically lonely existence."
We were past the study aids and closing in on the young adult fiction. "If she's married, then it might be a mistake for outsiders to interfere in their relationship," I said, although without much optimism. I'd seen enough of Joanie to know that when she smelled a good cause, she was as stoppable as a freight train coming down a mountainside. "And she really may prefer to stay home. Some people do."
Excerpted from A Diet to Die For by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1989 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.
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"Hess's books are funny, acerbic, touching, terrific."Elizabeth Peters
"Hess goes about things in a lively style. Her heroine, Claire Malloy, has a sharp eye and an irreverent way of describing what she sees."The New York Times Book Review
Claire Malloy brings you right into her bookstore, her home, and the thick of her adventures. The mystery is the icing on the cake.
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