Book excerpt

Killing Cousins

Torie O'Shea Mysteries

Rett MacPherson

St. Martin's Press

KILLING COUSINS (Chapter One)

If anyone here has any reason why these two should not be married, speak now or forever hold your peace,” the Reverend McIlhenny said.

I just want to state for the record that I did not say a word. I just stood there in my peach satin gown, holding back tears and waiting to hear my mother and the sheriff say the words “I do.” Evidently everybody in attendance thought I was going to say something because the entire congregation looked at me. The reverend, my mother, the sheriff, everybody.

The breeze ruffled my dress, and I tried to think about the gorgeous weather on this August day and the pink and yellow roses that climbed up the trellises of the Laura Winery. My mother had picked the perfect spot to get married. High on a cliff, just north of town, the Laura Winery had attracted thousands of people for nearly seven decades. My mother had always said that if she ever remarried, she wanted to do it in the courtyard of the winery overlooking the Mississippi River. She got her wish.

It seemed like a full minute had passed since the reverend had asked his question and still everybody was staring at me. I couldn’t help but wonder just how the entire town had found out that I wasn’t real hip on this marriage. Well, I was all right with it now, but I hadn’t been at first. My mother was marrying the sheriff. And let’s just say that the sheriff and I have had a few disagreements in the past.

I have to admit that my soon-to-be stepfather, Sheriff Colin Woodrow Brooke, looked spiffy in his dusty charcoal-gray suit and spit-shined black shoes. He was a huge man, twelve years younger than my mother, tall and broad through the shoulders and just plain old big. No matter how many times I said we’d called a truce, I still couldn’t help but think mean thoughts about him. Like, just how much food did he consume in one day, anyway? I imagined feeding him was much like feeding a horse. He probably bought his food in feed sacks rather than little cardboard boxes or cans. Did he use a trough or a plate? See, I can’t help myself. What was my problem with him? Maybe it was because he was one of the few people who made me answer to authority. Yeah, that could be it.

So, there I stood next to my mother, who looked absolutely radiant in her ivory crocheted dress, imagining her soon-to-be husband on his hands and knees eating out of a trough, when they said the words “I do.”

I looked over at Mom and thought that she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. A splash of baby’s breath graced her salt-and-pepper hair, and her large brown eyes were full of joy. The sheriff had to bend down to kiss her because she was in a wheelchair, having been one of the last polio victims of the 1950s before the vaccine was made public.

And so they kissed and now I had a stepfather who was the sheriff. How fair was that? I looked over at my husband, Rudy, who was the best man, and he winked at me. He looked pretty good in his suit too, I might add.

My mother and the sheriff made their way down the aisle, and Rudy came over and grabbed my hand. “Torie,” he said. “Are you going to cry? You always cry at weddings.”

“No,” I said, as a tear ran down my cheek.

He smiled, squeezed my hand and kissed me. In the front row, my infant son Matthew wailed at the top of his lungs. I knew just how he felt.

After two hours of plastering smiles on our faces and posing just so for pictures, we all traveled back to New Kassel to the Knights of Columbus Hall in a long caravan of freshly washed cars. I was determined not to cry all the way back to town because my eyes would be swollen and everybody would know I had been crying; I was just determined not to do it. So I thought of the sheriff eating out of his trough again.

Once we were at the KC Hall, I was approached by too many people wanting too many things. The caterer wanted to know where to put the cake. My Aunt Bethany showed me the lipstick that my daughter Mary had somehow found in my purse and smeared all over her face. At least she hadn’t gotten it on the dress, and at least she had waited until after the pictures. Helen Wickland wanted to know what to do with the party favors she’d made. Chocolate party favors. I told her to put them on the tables far away from me. Tobias wanted to know when he could start playing his accordion. I wanted to say never, but I just smiled and said, “In a minute.” My grandmother insisted that I introduce her to the sheriff’s sister. And there was no putting my grandmother off. It had to be done now.

In between carrying Matthew all over the room showing off his newborn son and keeping Mary from climbing onto the wedding cake, Rudy wanted to know when we would eat. And last, but not least, no less than a dozen people approached me and asked me just who the hell had invited my father.

My mother had. They were still friends.

I wanted to go home. Eat, cry, sleep. In that order.

Instead I smiled, raised my chin a notch and took care of everything, although not necessarily in the order that I had been approached. My grandmother came first.

A while later, my husband stood and gave a touching toast. It ended with “And she’s the greatest mother-in-law in the world, and I don’t say that lightly. Because my saying it means my mother isn’t. So you take good care of her, Colin.”

Great. More tears.

I stood in the corner, watching everybody, as the newlyweds prepared to cut the cake. Next, the music and the dancing would start. I thought I could blend into the deer-brown paneling, but I did not. My best friend, Colette, walked up to me and gave me a big hug.

Colette was thirty-five and still single. Not because she couldn’t find a man, but because she couldn’t find a man. She liked plenty of men, but she was usually too much woman for them. She was my height, curvy and buxom, with lots of hair. She couldn’t help that big hair had gone out in the eighties, hers was naturally big.

She wore a Caribbean-blue dress, cut low enough to show plenty of cleavage and hemmed high enough to show plenty of thigh. She simply loved to give old men cheap thrills, and, well, she was thrilling them tonight. She was a reporter in the big city and I loved her like a sister, not just because I didn’t have a sister, but because I have no memory of life without her. “B.C.” in my life means Before Colette.

“I don’t see you enough,” I said to her.

“I know. I’ve got deadlines, you’ve got kids. I’ve talked to more women who say they really enjoy their fifties because their kids have moved out and their jobs are winding down and they can finally enjoy life,” she said. “It’s just not fair that by the time I get there my boobs are going to be keeping company with my navel.”

“Ha. It’s obvious you don’t have kids,” I said to her and smiled.

She studied me a minute and then caught what I had said and laughed. We laughed together a moment and then she regarded me cautiously. “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m fine. This is a huge adjustment, that’s all. Remember our senior year, when you were running for homecoming queen, and you said that you didn’t care if you lost, just as long as you didn’t lose to Cindy Lou Marks?”

“Yeah,” she said. “God, she was my arch enemy. No, it was more than that. I hated her guts.”

I gestured toward the sheriff standing beside the triple-tiered wedding cake. “Meet my Cindy Lou Marks.”

“Ahh, I get it,” she said.

“Really, it’s not that bad,” I said. “I hate to admit it out loud, but a lot of this is hormones.”

“You been crying a lot since the baby was born?”

I ignored the question.

“Torie?”

“Yeah.”

“Torie O’Shea, you’ve got the baby blues. You need to go to the doctor.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said and waved a hand at her. I hate admitting that hormones actually play a part in my life. It just seems like one more thing that Mother Nature throws at women that men don’t have to deal with, and therefore, most of the time, I refuse to acknowledge it. It’s just not fair. But I suppose if you’re a man and you live in proximity to a woman, then you’ll have to deal with hormones after all. Maybe Mother Nature is fair in her own way.

“Okay,” she said. “Maybe you just need to get back to work earlier than planned.”

She was good. She always knew when to lean and when to back off. I gestured to my mother. “My baby-sitter is going to be in Alaska for three weeks. So, until she gets back, I’m kind of limited. I can’t do the tours and such. Plus, I’m not sure I could fit back in the dresses yet. All I can do is research, and then…Lord, Colette, have you ever tried to go to the library with three kids?”

“I try not to even be in the same room with three kids at the same time if I can help it,” she said and rolled her eyes. “Oh, unless they’re yours, of course.”

I smiled at her.

“I guess being a tour guide would be really difficult with children,” she said.

“You have no idea.”

“Oh, here comes the wicked witch,” Colette said and looked in the direction of my boss, Sylvia Pershing.

I stood up straighter, just because that’s the type of behavior that Sylvia has instilled in me. Sit up straight. Put your shoulders back. Elbows off the table. She walked right up to me and, without even acknowledging Colette’s presence, she said, “I’ve got work for you.”

Sylvia owned half of the town and was president of the Historical Society, where I worked, giving tours and running things. The Gaheimer house was the headquarters, and she spent most of her waking hours there. It had once belonged to an old lover of hers, and the house was a shrine in his honor. The woman was in her nineties, and somehow she always made me feel as if I didn’t do enough.

“What sort of work?” I asked. In addition to giving the tours, I was the one who compiled historical and genealogical data of the town, did displays of historical events or items, and that sort of thing. My job was also to play mediator between Sylvia and the rest of the town. The townspeople loved Sylvia’s sister, Wilma, but they weren’t nearly as fond of Sylvia. I think some of it was just a deep-rooted misunderstanding. She was actually a giving and honest woman. She just had no finesse at all.

“I’d like for you to write a biography,” she said.

“Me?” I asked, thinking for a minute she meant Colette.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why must you always ask why?” she asked. The fuchsia-colored pantsuit she wore gave her aged-gray skin a nice healthy pink glow.

“It’s my nature, Sylvia. You know how you swallow after you chew food? Well, I ask why when somebody says something,” I explained.

“It needs to be about forty thousand words,” she said.

“Why?”

She rolled her eyes and I found this funny. Sylvia was thin as a rail and wore her hair in two long braids twisted around her head every single day of her life. Wilma used to wear her hair the same way, until she realized that if she wore her hair down, it really irked her sister. Ever since, Wilma has worn her hair down.

“Because I said so,” she answered.

“That never worked with my mother, and it’s not going to work with you,” I said. “I always asked my mother why and she always gave me an answer.”

“It’s a wonder your mother’s not in the madhouse,” she said.

“Hey,” I said.

“For Pete’s sake, Sylvia, just tell her why,” Colette jumped in. “Before she has a stroke.”

“You stay out of this,” Sylvia snapped at Colette. She turned back to me. “If you must know, there’s a small press…one of the colleges, and I thought it would be nice to compile a few histories of different things in Granite County. Maybe do a small biography on a few of the more famous residents—”

“Are there any famous residents of Granite County?” Colette asked.

Sylvia ignored her completely.

“—And on some landmark places. It would be just a small print run…maybe a couple of hundred books on each subject that we could deposit in different libraries. One of the people that has always fascinated me is Catherine Finch.”

“Why?” I asked. Realizing I had—of course—asked why, I added, “Sorry.”

“Once you start researching her, you’ll understand. She was a fascinating woman,” she said.

“I know who she is—”

“But obviously you know nothing about her.”

“All right,” I said. I was rather excited about actually having something to do that I could work on from home. “When do you want me to start and when do you want it finished?”

“Right away.”

“Which was that the answer to? The former or the latter?”

“Both,” she said, and walked away.

“The nerve of that woman,” Colette said as she watched Sylvia disappear in the crowd.

“Yeah, but you gotta hope that when we’re in our nineties, if we make it to our nineties, that we’re as full of gusto,” I said.

“More like full of sh—”

“Torie,” the sheriff said, arriving just in time to cut her off. Sheriff. Colin. Dad.

“Yes?” I asked as I turned to him.

“I was wondering if you could do me a favor while we’re in Alaska?” he asked.

“In addition to feeding your malamute, and your cat, checking your mail, watering your garden and…oh, yeah, making sure your malamute doesn’t eat your cat?” I asked. “There’s something else?”

“Yes,” he said. “There’s one more thing. And I’m afraid it can’t wait. I’ll gladly pay you for your time, since it’s going to be pretty time-consuming, but I just don’t know who else to ask. It really can’t wait until I get back.”

“What’s that?” I asked, suddenly interested.

“I got the bid on an estate,” he said. He had bought an antique store in town. It had been called Norah’s Antiques, and so far, he hadn’t changed the name of it. “I’ve been trying to get some nice big estates to build up equity. When I retire, I’ll have plenty of stuff in storage to haul out and sell.”

Just the thought that I would be helping him to retire made me much more agreeable. “Okay…”

“Well, I put a bid in on this one estate. It was a doozy. Do you know who Catherine Finch was?” he asked. He was holding a clear plastic cup filled with beer in his left hand and fixing his boutonniere with his right.

“You got that estate?” I asked, impressed.

“What a coincidence,” Colette added.

“Coincidence?” the sheriff asked. “What do you mean by that?”

“My next project for the Historical Society is writing a biography of her,” I said.

He looked a little uneasy but went ahead with what he was going to say. “Yes. Well, evidently she was a famous singer back in the twenties,” he said and smiled. “She’s been dead for five years, but her estate has been held up in court this whole time. Just the fact that some of the objects were hers should bring in huge money when I resell them.”

See, that’s the problem with the antique business. How could he resell them? I couldn’t bring myself to do it. When I buy something, it gets incorporated into my family heirlooms. How can people sell antiques? Everything old should be kept. “What do you need me to do?” I asked.

“I need you to go in and start throwing out the junk and cataloging the good stuff. You know…you can throw out her toaster and her toothbrush, for crying out loud.”

“Why can’t this wait for you to get back?” I asked. It sounded to me as if he just wanted somebody else to do the dirty work for him. I did realize that getting into her house and having access to her personal belongings would give me an immense edge in writing her biography. But if I didn’t put up some sort of fight, Colin would worry about me.

“Because I didn’t buy the house. Only the stuff inside. The house and the land is to be sold and split between her heirs, and they had to fight five years just to get that. No personal item of hers is to go to her heirs. Anyway, I think the house already has a buyer. Somebody here in town. They want it as soon as possible. How was I to know this was going to happen just as I was going to Alaska?”

“Yeah, right. You planned this,” I said with a smile.

“Torie,” he said plainly.

“Of course, I’ll do it,” I said and held my hands up.

“Great. If you could just throw out the junk and try to put everything in one room. Have Rudy move the furniture for you. And catalog it as you go,” he said.

“Yes, I can do that,” I said. “I can take the kids with me.”

A grave look crossed his face. “Don’t let Mary climb on anything.”

“I won’t.” As if that were the most preposterous notion in the world.

“I’ll give the key and directions to Rudy, since he has pockets. And thanks,” he said. “I appreciate this.”

Hey, what are stepdaughters for, right? “I don’t need directions. I know exactly where it is.”

“This biography…” he started.

I could tell by the look on his face that somehow he thought my writing a biography of Catherine Finch would interfere with his estate. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, I thought the two tasks would aid each other. I was itching to get started.

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” he said. He walked away to find my mother, and then the music started up.

Colette placed her hand on my shoulder and started walking me toward the dance floor. “You know, you’ve got what, ten or fifteen years before Rachel gets married? This may be the last time you get to dance at a family member’s wedding for a long time.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Maybe they’ll play some Village People,” she said, smiling.

“I’m more in the mood for Rage Against the Machine.”

But there would be no Rage Against the Machine. The DJ started up with “Devil in a Blue Dress.” Colette smiled from ear to ear, showing all of her pearly whites, and said, “It’s not Rage Against the Machine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, like that’s a surprise.”

“So,” she said as she grabbed my hands and yanked me hard. “Let’s boogie!”

KILLING COUSINS Copyright © 2002 by Rett MacPherson.

Rett MacPherson is the author of four previous Torie O'Shea mysteries, most recently, A Misty Mourning. She lives in a suburb of St. Louis, MO.