"Meg! Guess what I found in your basement?"
I looked up from the box I was unpacking to see Dad standing in the basement doorway, his round face shining with excitement.
"A body?" An unlikely guess, but Dad was a big mystery buff--perhaps if I amused him, he'd stop playing guessing games on moving day.
"Oh, rats--you already knew? Well, how soon will the police get here? I need to move the penguins--we don't want them any more upset than they already are."
He disappeared down the basement stairs without waiting for an answer. I abandoned my unpacking to call after him.
"Dad? I was joking. Did you really find a body? And why are there penguins in our basement? Dad!"
No answer. Should I go down to see what was happening, or call the police? Damn! I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Normally counting to ten calmed me, but today it just gave me time to realize how much more could go wrong elsewhere in the house. On cue, I heard the crash of something breaking, followed by a sheepish "Oops!" from my brother, Rob, in the front hall. In the living room, Mother ordered a brace of cousins to move the sofa to yet another location. She'd been at it for an hour, and so far only three pieces of furniture had made it from the truck to the house.
In the dining room, Mrs. Fenniman, Mother's distant cousin and closest ally, was singing an Italian aria, changing pitch every dozen notes, which meant she'd had a few martinis already and we'd have to redo the walls after she'd painted them.
I'd only reached seven when Rob interrupted me.
"Meg? You know that big cut-glass punch bowl? Is that a particular favorite of yours?"
"Don't you mean was it a particular favorite?" I asked as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. "And no, but Mother was quite fond of it, so see if you can sweep up the pieces before she notices. Broom's over there."
I dialed 911. I wasn't sure the situation quite warranted 911, but I hadn't memorized the nonemergency number for the Caerphilly Police Department and I had no idea which box contained the phone book.
"Hello--Debbie Anne?" I said when the dispatcher answered. "This is Meg Langslow."
"Meg! How's the move-in going? And what's the problem?"
"Slowly. And the problem is that Dad says he's found a body in the basement."
"Oh, Lord," Rob said. He stopped in the doorway, broom and dustpan in hand, the better to eavesdrop.
"Is he serious?" Debbie Anne asked after a moment. "I mean, if it's just some kind of practical joke--"
"He sounded serious," I said. "And I thought I should call you first instead of wasting time going to look myself, and possibly disturbing a crime scene."
"I'll tell Chief Burke you said so. If it turns out to be some kind of mix-up ..."
Her voice trailed off. I knew what she was thinking. Quiteapart from the major-league practical jokers in my family, there was Dad, with his well-known mystery obsession.
"If it's a mix-up, I'll call back right away," I said, and hung up.
"Did he really find a body?" Rob asked.
"So he says."
"Don't you think you should have checked before calling the cops?"
"If he was pulling my leg, I'll let him explain it to Chief Burke."
"I still think you should check for yourself."
"I'm going to--want to come?"
Rob, who fainted at the mere idea of blood, shook his head and hurried back to the hall.
I took the stairs to the basement.
The smell hit me first.
Not the rank smell of a decaying body or the tang of newly spilled blood, both of which I'd had a chance to experience while tagging along after Dad--less while he pursued his medical practice, of course, than during his repeated attempts to involve himself in murder investigations, like the protagonists of the mystery books he read by the dozen.
No, this smell was a cross between a barn in dire need of cleaning and a fish market that had lost power for a few days. I deduced that I was smelling penguins. The stench wafted from the unfinished, far end of the basement, the part under the library wing, where the concrete floor gave way to packed dirt.
I also heard muted honking and trilling noises. I followed my nose and ears.
I should have brought a flashlight. This side of the basement was not only unfinished, it was unelectrified. And to get to the far end, where Dad was, I had to traverse a part near the stairsthat the pack rat former owner had turned into a perfect warren of ramshackle storage rooms.
"Chief Burke? Is that you?" Dad appeared around a corner, carrying a flashlight.
"He's on his way," I said. "Where's the body?"
"This way!" Dad was grinning with obvious delight at showing off the house's exciting new feature.
Not a feature that had been there when my fiancé, Michael, and I bought the place, I suspected. The rambling three-story Victorian house had been so packed with junk by the previous owner that we hadn't initially realized quite how badly in need of repair it was. But I'd spent several months crawling over every inch of the place, getting rid of decades of clutter, and then several more months supervising the repairs--at least the ones we'd decided we had to do before moving in. For that matter, we'd been living on-site for months--camping out first in the ramshackle house and more recently in the barn while the house was repaired. Surely by now I'd have noticed a body lying around, even in this remote and as-yet unrenovated corner of the basement.
Dad and I emerged from the maze of storage rooms into the larger, dirt-floored open area. A couple of battery-powered Coleman lanterns hung from the ceiling, casting enough light for me to see the room. I didn't spot any penguins, though I could hear and smell them nearby. And I could see an excavation near the center of the room.
"Oh, wonderful," I said. "You didn't just find a body. You dug one up."
THE PENGUIN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Copyright © 2007 by Donna Andrews. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.