Although he towers over his neighbors, Jim Feldster is otherwise unremarkable, except for his mastery of cow milking and his membership in every lodge, rotary club, and brotherhood that Balaclava County has to offer. And anyone who’s met his wife, Mirelle, a vicious gossip with a hysterical streak, can understand why he never misses a meeting. But one night their neighbors, the sleuthing academics Peter and Helen Shandy, wake at 2:47 a.m. to the sound of Mirelle screaming. Jim hasn’t come home, and she will lose her mind if he isn’t found quickly. None of Jim’s lodge brothers know where to find him, and Peter’s investigation turns up few clues. But when a mystery author comes to town and Mirelle is found murdered, Peter begins to wonder if the master milker is less wholesome than he appears.
Read an Excerpt
Exit the Milkman
A Professor Peter Shandy Mystery
By Charlotte MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Charlotte MacLeod
All rights reserved.
"Hi, Pete. Walking the cat?"
Professor Peter Shandy, internationally acclaimed monarch of the turnip fields, refrained with some difficulty from grinding his teeth. This was the five hundred and eighty-seventh time since the halcyon day when the Shandys had acquired a frolicsome tabby kitten that Professor James Feldster had asked Peter that same damn fool question. Peter knew, he'd kept count.
Time had passed; that beguiling scrap of feline femininity had become a gracious lady cat of exactly the right size to occupy a favorite chair or a friendly lap. She was charmingly turned out in elegant tabby stripes of gray, grayer, and grayest, accented by a jabot and gloves of purest white; she'd been named after another dainty little lady, long gone but never forgotten. A brief visit from the present Jane Austen was considered a mark of honor by those neighbors who lived around the Crescent, all except Mirelle Feldster, Jim's wife, who hated cats on principle and didn't much care for people either.
Jim himself had been one of Jane's earliest conquests. She had him well trained to pause at the street end of the Shandy's front walk long enough for her to climb his faded blue denim pant leg, poke her pink nose inside the baggy white jacket he always wore, and discover which of his regalia Jim would have festooned himself with for tonight's lodge meeting. Whatever it was, it would clank. Jim's regalia always clanked, even when Jane wasn't around to check him out.
Although Jim Feldster stood six feet five in his milking boots, he was not the sort of man who got noticed in a crowd. His only claims to recognition were two. First, he was Balaclava Agricultural College's never-surpassed expert on the fundamentals of dairy management, a course that he'd taught with unflagging zeal for the past thirty-seven years. Second, he knew more secret handshakes and esoteric passwords than any other dedicated lodge brother in Balaclava County. Maybe more than all the members of all the lodges in all the states put together. Maybe even in the entire galaxy, if those provocative theories which quantum physicists and authors of science fiction stories had been propounding for quite a while should happen to be true. As why should they not?
Peter found such erudite speculations mildly interesting to muse upon, particularly when he happened to be wandering alone at eventide through the college's extensive turnip fields, as he sometimes did for no special reason. It would never have occurred to Jim Feldster, he thought, that either quantum theory or turnips might be worth investigating. And why should they? Professor Feldster knew more than anybody else about dairy management. He'd taken the trouble to learn a vast deal about mystic rites and earned the right to clank all he wanted to at appropriate times and places. Those ought to be enough for any reasonable professor to think about.
Jim did stop long enough to watch Jane wash her paws, paying scrupulous attention to each pussywillow toe. Cleanliness being among the most fundamental of Fundamentals of Dairy Management, he honored her with a ritual pat between the ears, then clanked resolutely onward toward his secret rendezvous. Had Jane been a tomcat, Peter thought, Jim might by now have taught the intelligent creature a few secret pawshakes. Here in Balaclava County, however, fraternal organizations were still bucking the national trend toward androgyny, doing their utmost to keep their arcane doings fraternal in the strict sense of the word.
So far, the ladies of Balaclava County had shown no great inclination to storm the barricades. Helen Shandy's opinion was that they couldn't be bothered because they had better things to do. She was probably right; Helen was a librarian and librarians always knew. Anyway, whatever the reason, Brother James Feldster would have been the last of his fellows to proffer the handshake of personhood to any female intrepid enough to expect one.
It was not that professor Feldster had any antipathy to females in general. Some of his best students were of the womanly persuasion and he'd never met a cow he didn't like. His stubborn defense of the male lodge brother's last stronghold was based solely on a primal instinct toward self-preservation. Any man, even any woman, who'd ever spent five minutes in the company of Mirelle Feldster didn't need to be told why her husband joined so many lodges and never missed a meeting.
Normally Jim would have been on his way to Charlie Ross's garage. He and Peter both parked their cars at Charlie's. Parking was all but impossible around the Crescent where the Shandys, the Feldsters, and a few other faculty families lived in houses that were owned by the college and rented out to the elect. Tonight, however, was Mirelle Feldster's bridge night. This meant that she would be using the Feldster car herself. Jim must be expecting to be picked up along the way by some lodge brother.
Peter didn't really give a hoot what either of the Feldsters would be doing tonight, but anybody who lived around the Crescent couldn't help knowing every last thing that went on there, willed he or nilled he. Or she. And what the Crescent knew, every last soul in Balaclava Junction would get to know because Mirelle Feldster would make sure in one way or another that they did; but not before she'd got the information twisted up, down, and sideways, blown out of context, and repainted in the murkiest colors possible.
Peter and Helen Shandy were among Mirelle's special targets though they lived circumspectly enough, never fought, didn't even raise their voices over a difference of opinion, gave no wild parties, kept their lawn mowed, and refrained from cutting down the magnificent blue spruce trees that had sheltered the small red brick house long before its present tenants had been born. Mirelle had been loudly and chronically opposed to the Shandys' touching so much as a twig until at last it dawned upon her that neither of them would ever have dreamed of assaulting their cherished spruces. Thereupon she'd executed a smart right-about-face and started bemoaning the Shandys' perversity in leaving those great, messy, dangerous old trees just where they spoiled the Feldsters' view.
Had the trees been taken away, their ever critical neighbor's only view would have been of the Shandys' bedroom windows, across which Peter and Helen were always careful to draw their curtains at bedtime. Mirelle had a habit of ducking in under the spruces with her binoculars at the ready and a glib tale of bat-watching on her lips in case they happened to catch her snooping.
The woman's chief problem seemed to be that she could find so little about the Shandys to revile, though she was always ready to do what she could with what she might find. Lately she'd taken it as a personal affront that Helen Marsh Shandy was getting so much cheap notoriety out of a stupid book she'd written about the Buggins family who, Helen claimed, had founded not only the college but all Balaclava County. (As, in fact, they had; but that didn't cut any ice with Mirelle.) Not to mention the pack of lies she'd dreamed up about an old souse called Praxiteles Lumpkin and his so-called weather vanes. Worst of all was the brazen way Helen Marsh had managed to snare herself a husband practically the same day she'd set foot on campus. And look what she'd got for her trouble. Everybody knew Peter Shandy was crazy as a coot, and always had been.
And thus it went. What Mirelle might come out with at any time of day or night depended on the often faulty connection between her fevered brain and her forked tongue. What generally resulted was either a tempest in a teapot or else just a fly in the flue. More often than not, neither Peter nor Helen was aware of their neighbor's one-sided vendetta. If they did happen to notice, they generally found the situation mildly amusing.
Jim wasn't a bad old scout, though. Peter and he sometimes shared a table in the faculty dining room. Helen and Peter wouldn't have minded having Jim over to the house for a cup of coffee now and then, but that would have meant having to ask Mirelle too; chance meetings on neutral ground were less of a risk. Tonight, Peter wished his neighbor a happy lodging and accepted Jane Austen's suggestion that he and she take a little stroll around the Crescent.
Strolling with Jane usually meant her human escort's waiting as patiently as could reasonably be expected while she manicured her claws on a convenient tree trunk or chased after a squirrel almost her own size, just to remind it which small, furry gray quadruped was running the show in this neighborhood. All things considered, Jane could be rated as no pushover but an amiable malkin, willing enough to accept any small courtesy such as a gentle pat or a compliment on her fine stand of whiskers, but ready to retire to her favorite perch in the crook of Peter's elbow if a neighbor tried to pick her up.
As they passed the Porble house, Phil Porble, the college librarian and Helen's nominal boss, remarked that Peter and Jane reminded him of Samuel Johnson and Old Hodge going out to buy oysters. Peter replied that oysters must have been a damned sight cheaper then than they were now. Jane's thoughts, as cats' meditations generally do, remained her own.
There was more than a hint of fall in the air tonight. Here in Balaclava County, the leaves were already beginning to turn. Students were moving their effects into the dormitories; tomorrow morning they'd be lining up to register for classes. Peter and his colleagues would be making last-minute changes in their schedules and giving the new lot of teaching assistants a final pep talk on how to keep a roomful of first-year students awake long enough to capture their full and complete attention.
Jane was tiring of her stroll. By the time she and Peter reached the Enderbles, who lived directly across the Crescent from the Shandys, she was up his pant leg and into his arms, yawning in that artless way young lady cats do, without bothering to cover her rose petal mouth. Jane's yawn must have been catching; John Enderble, professor emeritus of local fauna, was following her example.
"Hadn't you better go in, John?" That was his ever solicitous wife, Mary, one of the few persons whom Jane would allow to pick her up. "You know you have to narrate that program the Ameses will be filming tomorrow about the cabbage butterfly."
"Assuming we can find a butterfly, dear. And a cabbage."
"Oh, John! You silly old goofus. Tell him to go to bed, Peter."
Peter obliged. "Go to bed, John. You're a television star now, you know. Think of your public."
Peter wasn't trying to be funny; Professor Emeritus John Enderble was cutting quite a figure these days. Already widely known as the author of Our Friends the Snakes, How to Live With the Burrowing Mammals, and several other books both delightful and informative, John was capturing a new audience via Station WEED. Balaclava Agricultural College now had its own public broadcasting facility, focused exclusively on subjects of an environmental nature and subsidized by Professor Winifred Binks-Debenham, sole heiress to her late grandfather's immense fortune and an even more reliable authority on the burrowing mammals than Professor Enderble, having been one herself for a period of several years.
John was ready to exchange a few more pleasantries but Jane, on a telepathic hint from Mary, broke up the meeting by leaping out of Peter's arms and racing for home. She made a quick stop behind a clump of coral bells in a new shade that Peter was trying out, tended meticulously to the tidying-up process that she'd learned as a wee kitten in the Enderbles' sandbox, and emerged ready to quit for the night.
Not so Peter. He could not resist going into the cubbyhole that he called his office to make a few more additions and corrections to his notes, knowing perfectly well as he did so that he'd forget them once he got on his feet before his first class and just tell the students what they needed to know. And they'd listen, by gad. Professor Shandy's courses were stiff, his examinations were frequent, he marked harder than a slab of New England granite, yet his students never missed a class.
After a while, Helen came down from her own office. Getting into it was a tight squeeze; all the rooms in the old brick house were small. The Shandys themselves were no giants, however, and liked the place as it was. Helen suggested a pre-bedtime cup of chamomile tea; Peter offered an alternate suggestion.
A few days ago, Winifred Binks-Debenham had given them a jar of something purely organic made of elderberries, potato peelings, and no doubt a few more exotic odds and ends. Old habits died hard. Winifred had not been able to make herself disassemble the primitive and most likely illegal still that she'd rigged up from a banged-up stew kettle and a rusty tin funnel found in a burned-out cellar hole during her Hobbit days. Winifred's potations were never twice the same but always worth sampling. Tonight, Peter recognized a soupçon of elderberry, Helen detected a hint of chokecherry, they both got the essence of dandelion. It made a pleasant windup to a somewhat hectic day.
Having performed their usual bedtime rituals behind drawn curtains, though with scant concern as to whether Mirelle Feldster might or might not be on the prowl, Peter and Helen gave themselves over to sweet conjugal repose. Jane strolled back and forth over their recumbent bodies a few times, selected a cosy spot in the bend of Helen's knees, spent a frantic minute or so washing her own left hind leg, purred her two humans a brief lullaby, and relaxed herself into that happy hunting ground where good cats go mousing in their dreams.
Serenity reigned in the Shandys' bedroom until precisely 2:47 A.M. by the illuminated clock on the nightstand. That was when all hell broke loose. Peter shot up like a startled woodcock, struggling to get his arms into his bathrobe. Helen switched on her reading lamp and dropped a quiet word to the effect that he might find his task less perplexing if he were to turn the robe right end up. As this seemed a reasonable suggestion, Peter tried again and succeeded.
"All set. I'd better go see what the flaming perdition's going on down there. That's Mirelle Feldster's voice, isn't it? What's she screeching for?"
"Who knows? You go downstairs, Peter, I'll be right along."
Helen was not about to face her neighbor in nothing but a pink chiffon nightie. As the howling and thumping at their front door got louder and wilder, she ran a comb through her short blond curls, dabbed on a bit of lip gloss, and slipped into a fairly dashing negligee that Peter had bought her for reasons of his own. She might as well give Mirelle a chance to titillate her bridge buddies with a juicy nugget about the lewd lingerie of libertine librarians.
Oddly enough, Mirelle didn't even appear to notice Helen. She was totally caught up in her own tribulations, which Peter, by dint of some fancy yelling on his own part, managed to boil down to the simple statement that Jim hadn't come back from his lodge meeting. Mirelle thought he might have stopped in to visit the Shandys on his way home.
Of all the blithering idiocy! Normally Peter Shandy was not the sort of man to get into a shouting match with a neighbor in the dead of night. Tonight, all Mirelle's nasty digs, her bossiness, her pushiness, her damnable poking and prying and spreading false rumors got rolled up into one scabrous wad; he let her have it right between the eyes.
"Of course Jim isn't here! For God's sake, Mirelle, did you have to wake up the whole Crescent? What do you think the neighbors are saying right now?"
The question was redundant. Peter knew damned good and well what the neighbors must be saying and he didn't blame them one iota. Mirelle Feldster's dramatic outbursts were no novelty but this was the first time Peter could remember that she'd gone to such histrionic lengths. But then she might never before have had reason to; as far as he knew, Jim had never stayed out so late before. Sighing, Peter damped down his righteous indignation and assumed the role that had been forced upon him several years ago, as Balaclava's apology for Sherlock Holmes.
"What time did you get home yourself, Mirelle?"
Excerpted from Exit the Milkman by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 2003 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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.