I am not an adept liar, which I think speaks well for my character. However, this deficiency has propelled me into sticky situations in the past, and I had a foreboding feeling it was about to do so again.
"Tea, Miss Parchester?" I said into the telephone receiver. "I'd love to, but I—I simply don't see when I could—well, I was planning on organizing my files, and I promised Caron that I'd drive her and Inez to the mall, and—"
Miss Emily Parchester had taught high-school students for forty years before her retirement and therefore was unimpressed with my sputtery excuses. "Oh, do bring the girls with you. I so enjoy their youthful enthusiasm. I'll see all of you at five o'clock."
Groaning, I replaced the receiver. In that my bookstore was bereft of customers, I received no sympathetic, curious, or even incurious glances. The die was cast: Miss Parchester, a mistress of manipulation, was expecting us for tea. In the past, I'd masqueraded as a substitute teacher in order to come to her rescue when she'd been accused of embezzling money from the journalism accounts and poisoning the principal. I'd done extraordinary things (among them being charged with three felonies—a personal best) when her basset hounds were kidnapped by an unscrupulous lout. Although the concept of a cup of tea should have sounded innocuous, it didn't.
I picked up the feather duster and attacked the window display. In the fierce August sunshine, pedestrians ambled by the Book Depot without so much as a look of longing at all the worthy literature crammed inside its musty, cramped confines. Business had been poor all summer, as usual, but it would pick up shortly when several thousand earnest students arrived to improve their minds, as well as their chances for lucrative employment, by enrolling at Farber College. Very few of them would do so in the liberal-arts department. Business and accounting textbooks had spilled onto the shelves once reserved for Mr. Faulkner and Miss Austen. I stocked enough slim, yellow study guides to pave the road to the Emerald City.
It occurred to me that I would be forty years old by the time the semester began. I peered at my reflection in the dusty glass, wondering if said anniversary would coincide with an outbreak of gray hair and the awakening pangs of arthritis, rheumatism, bunions, and all the other maladies that accompany old age.
I concluded I was holding up fairly well. My curly hair was predominantly red, and my mostly svelte body had not yet capitulated to gravity. This isn't to say there weren't some fine lines around my eyes and a few gray hairs. All were the result of being the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl with a propensity for melodrama and an enduring ability to keep me speculating about the quality of life at the nearest rest home. The one occasionally favored by Miss Parchester had seemed congenial, although I doubted they served cocktails in the evening. On a more positive note, visiting hours were restricted.
But not at the Book Depot. Caron burst through the door, accompanied by her ever-loyal sidekick, Inez Thornton. Caron shares my physical attributes but not my imperturbable personality—or my lack of proficiency in matters requiring mendacity. For her, right and wrong are nebulous concepts defined solely by her personal objectives at any given moment. She's not so much immoral as she is egocentric. Copernicus would have loved her.
Inez is quite the opposite, which is why I suppose they're steadfast friends. She's a composition in brown and beige, all blurred together like a desertscape done in watercolors. Her eyes are leery behind thick lenses, and her mouth is usually pursed in speculation. She has not yet mastered the art of speaking in capital letters, but she has a talented mentor.
"You said you'd drive us to the mall," Caron began accusingly. "I finished doing my hair an hour ago, and we've been Absolutely Sweltering on the front porch waiting for you. I came within seconds of having a heat stroke. Inez had to help me upstairs so I could get a glass of ice water. My face was bright red, and—"
"I said I'd take you at five o'clock, dear," I said. "I can't close the store in the middle of the afternoon."
She rolled her eyes. "And disappoint all these customers lined up at the cash register? I hate to break it to you, Mother, but you could get rid of the books and start selling auto parts—and no one would notice."
Reminding myself of the legal ramifications of child abandonment, I went behind the counter and perched on the stool. "I'd notice," I said mildly. "I can't read a carburetor in the bathtub. In any case, you, Inez, and I have been invited to have tea with Miss Parchester. I'll take you out to the mall afterward."
Inez drifted out from behind the romance rack. "I thought she eloped while she was on that bus trip to the Southwest. Wouldn't that make her a missus-somebody-else?"
Caron was not interested in anyone else's marital status. "Tea?" she croaked, as horrified as if I had mentioned an invitation for a cup of arsenic. "We can't go to some dumb tea party this afternoon. I need to shop before school starts. Otherwise, I'll have to show up Stark Naked on the first day. Not only will I be expelled, but I'll be the laughingstock of Farberville High School and will have no choice but to kill myself on the steps." Clutching her throat, she staggered out of view to find a book on expediting death in the most gruesome manner within her budget.
I nodded at Inez. "Miss Parchester did indeed elope. She and Mr. Delmaro were married just across the border in Mexico, but he succumbed to a heart attack that very night while they were"—I paused to search for a seemly euphemism, even though the girls had gone through a period of reading every steamy novel in the store and undoubtedly knew more than I—"consummating the marriage. It turned out he already had a wife who'd purchased his-and-her cemetery plots, so Miss Parchester sent the remains to her and resumed her maiden name when she returned to Farberville."
"They had sex?" whispered Inez. "Miss Parchester's got to be as old as my grandmother, or maybe older. I don't think my grandmother . . ."
"That's disgusting," Caron called from the vicinity of the self-help books. "Sexuality is a function of youth. Old people should devote their energy to gardening or playing cribbage." Her head popped up long enough for her to glower at me. "Or drinking tea."
Inez was edging backward as if she expected her best friend's maniacal mother to come out from behind the counter with an ax. "My grandmother plays duplicate bridge three times a week. She says it's really a lot of fun, especially the tournaments."
"I'd like to think I have a few good years left before I need to find a hobby," I said. From behind the racks came the sound of someone humming "Happy Birthday." This did nothing to brighten my mood. I picked up the feather duster and was preparing to stalk the miscreant when the bell above the door jangled.
Peter Rosen hesitated in the doorway, possibly bemused by the ferocity of my expression and the disembodied humming. He has dark hair, a beakish nose, a perpetual tan, and white, vulpine teeth. He dresses like a very successful Wall Street mogul, from his silk tie right down to the tips of his Italian shoes. When he chooses, he can be charming. His mellow brown eyes twinkle playfully and, at more intimate times, downright provocatively.
There are other times, alas, when his eyes turn icy and his bite is quite as bad as his bark. These worst of times coincide with my civic-minded attempts to help the Farberville CID solve crimes. Peter Rosen is my lover; Lieutenant Rosen is my nemesis. Frankly, lectures and accusations of meddling do not make for a harmonious relationship.
"Are you under siege by mellifluous hornets?" he asked.
"I wish I were," I said, reluctantly lowering my weapon. I told Caron and Inez to return at five and shooed them out of the store. I then lured Peter into my office, where there was such little space that we had no choice but to press our bodies together. Certain events of the previous weekend were discussed in endearing murmurs, and when we finally returned to the front room, my face was as red as Caron's allegedly had been earlier.
Peter peered behind the racks to make sure the girls hadn't crept back inside the store. "What's the current crisis?"
"We're having tea with Miss Parchester. This ghastly scenario means they won't get to the mall until six o'clock and Caron will be forced to commit suicide in front of the entire student body."
He gave me an odd look before picking up a paperback and pretending to study its cover. "Miss Parchester lives on Willow Street, doesn't she?"
"You should know, Sherlock. You and Farberville's finest staked out her house for three solid days. It's a good thing I found her and convinced her to turn herself in before she was tackled by an overly zealous rookie." I paused in case he wanted to engage in a bit of repartee, and then added, "I'll give you a ten percent discount if you want to buy that book. I haven't read it myself, but according to the catalog, it's the best of the alien slime time-travel fantasies."
He hastily replaced it and took out a handkerchief to wipe his fingers. "So Miss Parchester invited you for a cozy tea party? Did she say anything about the purpose of it?"
"The purpose of a cozy tea party is to drink tea while balancing a plate of cookies on one's knee and making genteel conversation about the weather."
"We've had a lot of complaints from Willow Street residents. May I assume you haven't been to visit Miss Parchester lately?"
I shook my head. "What kind of complaints, Peter? Is she doing something to cause problems?"
Grinning, he headed for the door. "I wouldn't dream of spoiling this particular surprise. Can I come by tonight if I bring a pizza and a six-pack?"
I agreed and watched him as he crossed under the portico and headed up the sidewalk in the direction of the campus. I tried to decipher his cryptic remarks, but I had no luck and was cheerfully diverted when that rarest of creatures, a customer, appeared with a fat wallet and a hunger to put some romantic intrigue in her life.
At five o'clock I closed the store and retreated to the office to wait for Caron and Inez, who were no more than fifteen minutes late. After a spirited argument, I allowed my darling daughter to climb into the driver's seat. Caron's sixteenth birthday loomed as alarmingly as my fortieth; she anticipated not only pink balloons and overnight popularity but also a shiny red sports car. My attempts to save her from debilitating disappointment thus far had been ignored.
"This car is a slug," she said as we pulled out of the parking lot. "Rhonda Maguire's getting a new car. She can't decide if she wants a convertible or a four-wheel drive."
Inez leaned over the seat and said, "The only reason she wants a four-wheel drive is that the boys on the football team are always drooling over them. Rhonda thinks they'll drool over her if she has one."
I closed my eyes as we lurched into the traffic flowing up Thurber Street. "Rhonda ought to be introduced to Miss Parchester's basset hounds. They'll certainly drool over her." I leaned my head against the seat and listened to the ensuing derogatory comments regarding Rhonda Maguire's latest foray into perfidy, which centered as always on her attempts to ingratiate herself with a certain junior varsity quarterback.
"What's going on?" Caron said irritably.
I opened my eyes and frowned at the cars inching around the corner to Willow Street. On the street itself, traffic was barely moving. Those on foot were making noticeably better progress; as I stared, a group of children cut across the nearest yard and jostled a more staid couple in matching Bermuda shorts. Fraternity boys who'd arrived early for rush week were drinking beer and telling what must have been hilarious jokes as they walked up the sidewalk.
"How many people did Miss Parchester invite to tea?" Inez asked with such bewilderment I could almost hear her blinking.
"Just us, as far as I know," I said, equally bewildered by the scene. Willow Street runs through the middle of the historic district. At one time, the mostly Victorian houses were the residences of the highest echelon of Farberville society, including the honorable Judge Amos Parchester. Now some of the houses had been subdivided into apartments, while others struggled like aging dowagers to maintain their facades. I couldn't conceive of any reason why the street was worthy of all this interest, but clearly something odd was happening; something, I amended, that was causing a lot of complaints to be made to the police department.
Caron continued past the corner. "I'm going to park behind the library so we won't get stuck later—when it's time to go to the mall. You Do Remember that we're going to the mall, don't you?"
"Yes, dear," I said, trying not to concoct any wild hypotheses about Miss Parchester's involvement. As we walked up the sidewalk, I was relieved to see that the crowd was gathering in front of the house beyond hers. A great tangle of shrubbery blocked my view of what ever was taking place, but from the expressions of those farther up the sidewalk, it was a doozy.
"Claire," Miss Parchester trilled from her porch, "I've already put on the kettle. Oh, and I see the girls are with you. What a lovely little party we'll have." She clasped her hands together and beamed at us as if we'd done something particularly clever by finding her house.
She may have been impervious to the traffic jam and the swelling crowd, but I wasn't. "What's going on next door?" I said as I herded the girls toward her house.
"It's rather complicated," she said. She ushered us inside and closed the front door. "And annoying, I must admit. As you know, I am a staunch defender of our constitutional rights, but I'm not sure our forefathers took this kind of thing into consideration when they penned the document."
The living room had not changed since I was last there, unless the dust was thicker and the scent of camphor more pronounced. Stacks of yellow newspapers and faded blue composition books still teetered precariously, and the moth-eaten drapes still blocked most of the daylight. Miss Parchester appeared to be wearing the same cardigan sweater, frumpy dress, and fuzzy pink bedroom slippers.
Once we'd been supplied with tea and cookies, I repeated my question. Caron and Inez nodded, one forcefully and the other tentatively.
Miss Parchester sighed. "About a year ago, old Mr. Stenopolis died of a heart attack. He was well into his eighties and quite a neighborhood character. I remember as a child when he and Papa would exchange angry words concerning Mr. Stenopolis's disinclination to keep his grass mowed and his sidewalk swept. Papa was on the state supreme court, as I must have told you, and often entertained distinguished visitors."
"Who lives there now?" I said before we were treated to a lengthy recitation of Papa's accomplishments in the realm of jurisprudence.
"Mr. Stenopolis left the house to his nephew, Zeno Gorgias. The young man moved in two weeks ago. He's certainly charming and personable, but he has some ideas that are . . . unconventional. Mr. Stenopolis once told me that Zeno is a nationally renowned artist whose paintings sell for a great deal of money."
"Why did he move to Farberville?" Caron asked. "It's so utterly middle-class and boring. If I were famous, I'd live in New York or Los Angeles or someplace where people don't sit around and drink"—she noticed my ominous expression—"diet sodas all day."
Miss Parchester smiled sweetly at her. "He said he was tired of all the pretentious, self-appointed critics of the art world. He was living in Houston when he learned he'd inherited the house and came to have a look at it. It is a lovely old house, although Mr. Stenopolis never threw away so much as a tin can or a piece of string. The last time I was inside it, I was appalled. Every room was piled high with rubbish, odds and ends of scrap metal, jars, broken appliances, magazines, wads of aluminum foil, and so forth. I told Mr. Stenopolis that it was a firetrap, but he simply laughed. He had a very infectious laugh."
I tried once more to nudge her into the present. "This artist named Zeno moved in two weeks ago. What's he done that has lured such a crowd?"
Miss Parchester's blue eyes watered and the cup clinked as she placed it in the saucer. "He told me that he's exploring what he calls 'interactive environmental art.' People are supposed to be startled into reacting to his stimuli." She took a tissue from her cuff and dabbed her nose, then sniffled delicately and said, "He's been very successful in his goal. So far he's relied on word of mouth, but he mentioned that he's been in contact with the local television station, as well as the newspaper. Before too long everyone in Farberville will be in our heretofore peaceful neighborhood, trampling flowers, discarding litter, making it impossible for any of us to take our cars out of our driveways."
"Isn't that a public nuisance?" asked Caron, who has committed an impressive number of misdemeanors in the past and therefore been obliged to take more than a cursory interest in the law.
"I should think so," Miss Parchester said sadly, "but the authorities have refused to become involved. I'm in a muddle myself. I'm adamant in my support of freedom of speech and of religion, but walking to the grocery store is a taxing chore, as well as bending over to pick up litter or trying to salvage my zinnias. Nick and Nora are so distressed by all the confusion that they won't come out from under the back porch. I've considered joining them."
I set down my cup and saucer and gestured at the girls. "Perhaps we'd better take a look for ourselves, Miss Parchester."
Caron and Inez leapt to their feet, and we were thanking our hostess when the front door banged open and a man literally bounded into the room.
"Miss Parchester," he said, snatching her hand and noisily kissing it, "I have come to beg a favor of you. Do you have an extension cord that I might borrow?"
She tried to give him a stern look, but her cheeks were pink and she was twittering like a debutante. "Let me introduce you to my three dearest friends, Zeno. Then I'll see if I can find an extension cord in the garage."
While she rattled off names, I coolly studied him. He had long, black hair that hid his ears and flopped across his forehead when he moved. And move he did, as if he'd been wound too tightly or had imbibed an excessive amount of caffeine. His hands darted through the air and his feet scarcely made contact with the carpet. His expression shifted continuously, which is why it took me a moment to put his age at thirty despite his sweaty T-shirt, sandals, immodest gym shorts—and the Mickey Mouse beanie perched on his head. How it managed to remain on his head was as much a mystery as what he was doing next door.
"I am enchanted," he said to me, lunging for my hand.
I put it behind my back. "Welcome to Farberville, Mr. Gorgias."
He threw back his head and laughed so boisterously that I glanced uneasily at the light fixture above his head. "No one calls me anything but Zeno, my dear Claire. When I die, there will be only one word on my tombstone: Zeno. It will be the perfect summation of my life." Abruptly sobering, he spun around and caught Caron's arm. "And what do you wish as your epitaph?"
"I don't know," she mumbled.
He may have intended to try the same ploy with Inez, but she was well out of reach and still retreating. "I am sorry I cannot stay," he continued, "but I must find an extension cord. Everything is at stake—everything!"
Miss Parchester announced she would look and shuffled through the kitchen and out the back door. Caron and Inez clutched each other and warily watched him from behind a settee. If it would not have been misconstrued as an act of cowardice, I would have joined them. In a nanosecond.
"So you are a widow," Zeno said, turning back to me. "It is a crime against nature for a woman to sleep alone, you know. This is what my grandfather told me when I became a man." He shoved back his hair and gave me a disconcertingly wicked grin. "Or maybe it's a line from a movie. Who cares?"
"Why do you say I'm a widow?"
"I love women, from rosy little babies to the oldest crones with hunched backs and gnarled hands. I study them very closely. Women are more complex than men, more analytical, more likely to allow an occasional glimpse of their souls. Also, Miss Parchester told me the tragic story of how your husband was killed in a collision with a chicken truck. I wept as I envisioned the bloodstained feathers fluttering down the desolate mountain road."
Before I could respond, Miss Parchester returned empty-handed. "I can't think where else to look, Zeno," she said. "I'm sure I have one somewhere, but it's been years since I last saw it."
He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the tip of her nose. "Don't worry, my darling. After all, art should be spontaneous, and it has been dictated by fate that I shall have only one stereo speaker today. Tomorrow I may have two, three, or even a hundred!"
He bounded out the door.
"Goodness," I said as I sank down on the sofa and took a sip of cold tea. "He's energetic, isn't he?"
Caron snorted. "If you ask me, he's psychotic. He just admitted he doesn't know the difference between real life and the movies." She flung herself beside me and continued making vulgar noises to express her low opinion of Zeno, or, more probably, adults in general.
"I'm glad I don't live near him," Inez contributed, her eyes as wide as I'd ever seen them. "Does he always just barge in like that, Miss Parchester?"
"He said that doorbells limit the spontaneity of the encounter, since both parties are warned in advance. Zeno is enamored of spontaneity, among other things. It's refreshing, but also tiresome. There have been times after his visits when I've taken to my bed to recuperate, or been obliged to pour myself a glass of elderberry wine."
I didn't point out that she found other occasions to seek solace in the bottle, one of which had required some dedicated sleuthing on my part. "I guess we'd better see what Zeno is doing," I said as I stood up.
We were thanking Miss Parchester again when the doorbell rang. It's possible that at least one of us flinched, but the door stayed shut as Miss Parchester went across the room. She opened it, then gasped and stumbled backward, knocking over a pile of old yearbooks and a spindly floor lamp.
A young woman stood on the porch. Her streaky blond hair was cropped at odd angles, reminding me of the roof of a thatched cottage—after a windstorm. Her eyes were large and dark, her lashes thick with mascara, her mouth caked with scarlet lipstick. Her ample body was flawless except for a few freckles scattered on her shoulders and a puckery white scar that might have come from an appendectomy.
I could arrive at this judgment at the approximate speed of light because she was wearing only the bottom half of a string bikini and silky pink tassels on her breasts.
Excerpted from Busy Bodies by Joan Hess.Copyright © 1995 by Joan Hess.Published in May 2009 by St. Matin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
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.