Book excerpt

Doing It at the Dixie Dew

A Mystery

A Beth McKenzie Mystery

Ruth Moose

St. Martin's Press

Chapter One
 
 
People don’t go to a bed-and-breakfast to die, do they? I’d never heard of it before, but let me tell you about Miss Lavinia Lovingood. She came to my bed-and-breakfast, the Dixie Dew, in Littleboro, North Carolina, checked in and “checked out.” She died. Went to bed in my Azalea Room, fresh with deep pink paint and wallpaper still damp from the hanging, and never got up.
I couldn’t believe it. There I was after my first night in the bed-and-breakfast business and I’d had six guests. Two couples and two singles. A full house. The two couples were a Mr. and Mrs. Elmer Ottinger from Hackensack and Will and Ann Dinsmore from Quebec. The singles, a Mr. Fred Fredricks from Forest Grove and a tiny ivory wisp of a woman, Miss Lavinia Lovingood, who was surely eighty plus but extremely well kept, if you know what I mean. She’d written for a room weeks ago, even before I knew I’d have a room ready. She’d written in perfect cursive on thick, monogrammed notepaper and enclosed a generous deposit for a three-night stay.
When the reservation came, Ida Plum Duckett, “my good right arm” and lifesaver in general, peeked over my shoulder and said, “Come home to die, did she?”
“Who?” I asked, wondering how somebody in Rome, Italy (not Rome, Georgia—around here you had to specify), knew about the Dixie Dew Bed-and-Breakfast. “You know her?”
“Beth Mckenzie Henry, if you knew anybody in this town, you knew a Lovingood,” Ida Plum said. “Took the whole hill in the cemetery for themselves until they daughtered out. I guess she’s the last one.”
“Imagine,” I said. “Somebody from Littleboro, North Carolina, living in Italy.” I tapped my teeth with the envelope that smelled almost good enough to eat. A smell that had a hint of citrus and some delicate, delicious spice.
Ida Plum went back to folding the sheet she’d just ironed.
I’ve always thought, next to baking smells, the smell of clean, sun-dried laundry had to be right up there with the best in the world. I’d gone to sleep most of my childhood to the whump, whump of my grandmother ironing tablecloths for some wedding reception or anniversary party she was catering.
“Lavinia Lovingood must be eighty if she’s a day,” Ida Plum said. “Grew up in that mansion near the courthouse. Married some somebody from overseas, I heard tell, went to live abroad, and nobody’s seen her since. Her mama and daddy died in a train wreck when she was eighteen or twenty and left her a bundle. In fact, a whole bunch of bundles. More bundles than anybody could count is what I always heard.” Ida Plum stacked another finished sheet beside the ironer.
I remembered when my grandmother won that ironer in some sort of giveaway at the Western Auto Store on Main Street. I’d been eight or so at the time, and when they called to tell Mama Alice she’d won she just whooped, hugged me tight and whirled me around the kitchen. “Honeybunch,” she said, “somebody up there really does like us. Maybe just a little.”
When the Littleboro Messenger, which everybody around here calls The Mess, ran her picture on the front page under the heading “Local Native Wins” we laughed until our sides ached. For years after we called it “loco native” every time the newspaper used the term. “Local Native Graduates with Honors” or “Local Native Chosen First in This and That.” Local native Margaret Alice McKenzie used that ironer to iron enough tablecloths and napkins to clothe the whole town and then some. Her catering business kept us both in jeans and sneakers, fed us and even sent me to art school in “that godforsaken Yankee land” (as my grandmother called Rhode Island). She never understood why I couldn’t go someplace sensible like Atlanta. Or Florida. “Someplace warm,” she always said when we packed my clothes each fall. “You’d save enough on wool sweaters to pay your tuition.”
That April morning rain dripped from the eaves in crystal sheets. The house needed gutters … bad. The old ones, rusted to shreds and hanging on out of habit, had been taken down and hauled off when I had the new roof put on. A new roof paid for with a bank loan bigger than the national debt … or at least that’s what it felt like to me.
I’d borrowed on the house, one of those big old barns with a wraparound porch on three sides, and the McKenzie good name. My grandmother believed in paying bills almost the same day she received them. Not owing anybody. And she believed in keeping things in good repair. A stitch in time and all that stuff. That’s why I couldn’t understand how she’d let the house “go.”
When I came home last spring, I couldn’t believe this was the same house I’d grown up in. It seemed to have fallen into disrepair overnight, peeling paint, rotten roof, rusted gutters. This was a house that had to be kept painted sparkling white, and every board seemed to slurp paint by the gallon. The painters I hired first thing after I got the loan kept buying paint and more paint, shaking their heads as they opened and stirred bucket after bucket. And I kept asking myself how it all seemed to have happened overnight. Like it had with her.
One day my grandmother was baking for a wedding reception for a hundred and fifty; the next she lay crumpled in a heap at the bottom of the basement stairs, unconscious. A state she stayed in for six months in The Oaks Nursing and Rest Home. Their motto was “You Rest with the Best.” And Mama Alice had rested in the best of care. The kind that cleaned out her life savings and would have started on mine if I had any. The house would have gone next.
As it was, that was all I had left. Turning it into a bed-and-breakfast seemed to be about the only thing I could do with the “white elephant.” It wasn’t even in any condition to sell, take what I could get, get it off my hands and run, which had been one of my options. Run where? That had been my question, so I backed up and borrowed to the hilt and now I was sweating it out.
That was when Ida Plum Duckett showed up at my front door. In Littleboro you never had to run a classified ad for anything you needed. All you had to do was mention what you needed to anybody within earshot of anybody else and somebody would be on your porch within a week saying, “Heard tell you got a tree that needs downing.” Or, “Heard tell you got plumbing troubles.”
Ida Plum stood on my front porch that December day in her purple plaid coat and gray lace-up shoes, white crocheted beret and matching scarf. “Heard tell you’re trying to turn this old barn into some fancy-schmancy bed-and-breakfast thing,” she said.
I explained I wasn’t in the position to hire anybody yet. Hadn’t even started inside. Opening was months and mucho dollars down the road that sure wasn’t paved with gold. Littleboro’s not the kind of place for tourist trade. Just a dot on a lot of maps and bypassed off the Interstate. I wasn’t likely to make a fortune. Just a small living was all I wanted. In a quiet town where everybody knew everybody’s troubles and failings and forgave them.
Ida Plum said she was tired of sitting home gathering dust. She’d helped Mama Alice after I left for art school and stayed gone fifteen years. “Deserter,” Mama Alice would tease when I called or came home summers and holidays. “I’m surprised you don’t get stopped at the Mason-Dixon Line.” She knew why I stayed in New England, in Maine, though she never met him. At least I never married him. I can say that for myself.
Sherman, my black-and-white cat who had been sitting beside the front door washing a paw and looking as if he knew a secret, shot in when I opened the door. Ida Plum followed. Cat and woman marched over that threshold, chins tilted toward the ceiling like they owned the place.
“But…” I started, and before I finished the sentence Ida Plum had hung her coat on the hall tree, taken off her beret and fluffed her hair.
“Money doesn’t buy everything,” she said. “I won’t charge you what I’m worth. You couldn’t afford me.” She laughed. “Let’s just say I’m doing this as a favor for Margaret Alice.” She named an hourly figure that I quickly shook on before she could change her mind.
That was how she came to man the ironer while I polished silver and waited for Miss Lavinia Lovingood to decide to descend the stairs and come to breakfast. “Surely she doesn’t think she’ll get breakfast in bed,” I said to Ida Plum. It was nearly noon and everybody else had gone long ago. The Ottingers, who had the Periwinkle Room, left at seven, tiptoeing downstairs and taking their coffee and pecan muffins to go. The Dinsmores were through breakfast and gone by eight and Mr. Fredricks had two eggs over lightly, bacon, three cups of coffee, five muffins with fig preserves and apricot marmalade and waddled out the door before eight thirty. Only Miss Lavinia still slept.
I emptied stale coffee from Mama Alice’s silver urn, rinsed and wiped off the water spots. I’d polished her assorted silver trays, large and small, legged and not, tea service, punch bowl, cups, ladles and serving pieces, candlesticks and flatware. My grandmother had a lot of old silver. Some she’d bought at antique shops and estate sales and some she’d gotten with Green Stamps. I remembered sitting at the kitchen table licking and sticking stamps, counting the books until we had enough for this piece or that. Some of the silver had belonged to my mother, who selected the same pattern as Mama Alice. In the South, if a girl was smart she chose the same swirl of roses and ivy as her mother and someday she’d end up with service for twenty-four or thirty-six. Silver was my grandmother’s way of investing. And my inheritance, along with the house. Except the silver was in better shape. Even on a drab day it gave off a soft glow.
Ida Plum fed another pink sheet into the soft, padded lips of the ironer. “Pity the poor man who sees these sheets on his bed and thinks he’s got the wrong kind of house.” She snorted a laugh through her nose.
“I’ll send you up,” I said, and measured out beans to grind to make more coffee, this time in a smaller pot. “I’ll get you a long, blond wig and shove you up the stairs.”
“He’d jump out the window when I came in the door.” Ida Plum laughed. “My sex life died the day they carried Turner Duckett out the door, thank God. It never was much and I had enough to do without it.”
I knew Ida Plum had one daughter who’d gone straight from some women’s college in the Midwest to California and didn’t come back to Littleboro. Ever. Ida Plum visited her but didn’t stay long. She said she could never live in a place where they dried okra and arranged it instead of breading and frying it. “Pure foolishness. Some people don’t know good eating when it’s put before them.”
“Maybe she’s one of those toast-and-tea people,” I said, thinking of Miss Lavinia, and mentally chided myself for not asking when she checked in. I was learning.
“Pepto-Bismol,” Ida Plum said, folding another freshly ironed sheet into a neat pink package. “That’s the color of these sheets.”
“I’m going to overlook that remark,” I teased, and emptied the coffee into the percolator. “At my stage of the game, I can’t afford to look sale horses in the mouth.”
“PB pink is still PB pink in my book.”
“Look at them this way,” I said. “Those sheets are four-eighty-count, pima cotton. They don’t have rosebuds or poppies or apples or cherries and they were cheap. El cheapo. Bargain with a great big B.” Besides, I’d bought two dozen of them. Some for the beds and some to make tablecloths for the sunporch, which I was going to turn into a tearoom. Something Mama Alice always talked about but never did. Who in Littleboro would come to tea? There was a book club or two and there had always been the Littleboro Women’s Club and Junior Women’s Club, but most of those met only once a month. Bridge groups? Lions Club? Somehow I couldn’t see many men eating at a table covered in pink pima cotton.
“Think I ought to go tap on Miss Lavinia’s door? See if she’s all right?” I headed down the hall and had my hand on the newel post when I saw a shadow through the leaded-glass front door. Black. A man wearing black: black suit, black shirt and a white clerical collar. Below it swung a large silver cross on a chain. Father Joe Roderick. “What a bod,” I said to Mama Alice the first time I saw him. “He’s too good-looking to be a priest. It’s a shame the church got him first. What a waste.”
Father Roderick had reddish hair and enough freckles for three faces. He also had the firm and ready handshake of someone going to go fast and far in church circles. “Joe Roderick,” he said when I opened the door. “St. Ann’s.”
As if I didn’t know. St. Ann’s was the smallest church in town and the only Catholic one; blue stone, copper steeple, it sat on the corner of Main and Second. I went with Mama Alice when I was home, which wasn’t often or much. The congregation had been the same handful, with a wide gap between those in blue jeans and T-shirts and the older, more moneyed members in suits and ties, the women in pastel crepe dresses overlaid with chunky gold jewelry. The real kind. Miss Tempie Merritt still tortured the asthmatic old organ. She tormented it like she whacked the fingers of her piano pupils. I wondered if she wiped off the organ keys with alcohol after each service like she did her piano at home when each pupil left. Weird woman. I’d known her all my life and she was just plain weird. The really weird thing was, as badly as she played, she kept on playing year after year after year.
Before today I’d seen Father Joe in tennis whites much more often than his working black. He played tennis on the high school courts and cut across the track field and several vacant lots to Main. “That charm and those legs will get him places with the church and all the blue-haired ladies in this town who clip coupons and sit on their CDs,” I said to Mama Alice. “He’ll honey talk them into leaving every cent they’ve saved to the church. All he has to do is smile those sparkling whites and hug them often and they’ll melt millions.” I wasn’t worried about Mama Alice. Somehow she never seemed to get old and she certainly was no fool. Especially where money was concerned. She’d had to work too hard for what little she had. Sometimes she and I had sat in the front porch swing and watched Father Roderick dash home in time to change. He probably ended up saying Mass still damp from his shower.
Now Father Roderick, looking slightly damp from the April drizzle, stood on my front porch and handed me a gray suede handbag. “Beth, I think this belongs to your guest Miss Lovingood.”
I must have looked puzzled.
“Miss Lavinia had tea with me yesterday and forgot her handbag. My housekeeper only found it this morning cleaning my study. Would you be kind enough to give it to her with my apologies for not returning it sooner?”
“I’d be glad to,” I said, though I was sure she had not been concerned enough to let it disturb her sleep. It did give me an excuse to knock on her door. I watched Father Joe Roderick walk away. I thought, What’s a good-looking guy doing at such a going-nowhere little church?
When Miss Lavinia checked in yesterday I thought she looked exactly like her handwriting. That precise cursive. Of the old school, Mama Alice would have said, when cursive was as important as needlework and tatting, who you married, where you went and who you were seen with. Miss Lavinia wore a gray suit of some soft leather that almost glowed, a lace blouse, gloves, stockings and the most beautiful, gleaming gray shoes.
“I’m Lavinia,” she said, and extended her hand. “You must be Alice’s granddaughter Beth. I do hope my room is ready.” She signed the guest book, still wearing the largest, darkest sunglasses I’d ever seen. Bigger than those Jackie O. used to sport.
I took the pen and led Miss Lavinia upstairs. She climbed the stairs slowly, delicately, her hand barely resting on the rail as she went. She’s like an aged movie star, I thought, someone very well kept, marvelously preserved, but fragile as the thinnest crystal.
At the top of the stairs Miss Lavinia nodded like I was about to be dismissed and said, “I’ve had a difficult day.” She drew in the corners of her pale mouth. “Not unpleasant. Just difficult.”
“Let me know if I can do anything to make you more comfortable,” I said.
She turned then and said she sometimes had trouble sleeping and often got up during the night to read or write letters. “Don’t be alarmed,” she said, “if you see my light at some unusual hour or hear me moving about.” She seemed almost amused to be explaining herself.
“Okay,” I said now to Ida Plum as I geared up to go knock on Miss Lavania’s door. “And I bet you anything her suit was made of eel skin. But it would take too many eels, wouldn’t it?”
“You’re asking me?” Ida Plum said. “I wouldn’t know an eel if it bit me on the nose. All I know is if it cost a lot, and she’s wearing it, that’s probably what it is. She always had everything she wanted. Those Lovingoods lived like royalty even when they lived in Littleboro.”
“That mansion,” I said, remembering the wedding cake of a house that presided on the block behind the courthouse. For years it sat empty, never sold or rented. Miss Lavinia must have kept the taxes paid from wherever she was. Every year it fell down more and there were always the stories of how haunted it was and kids daring each other to go in, spend the night, et cetera. It finally got so covered with kudzu the garden clubs petitioned to have it torn down. That was about the time the county ran out of office space in the courthouse, bought the lot and built the annex, a redbrick building with skylights and a fountain in the courtyard that taxpayers still grumbled about being a waste.
“Do you know if she ever came back over the years?”
“She may have kept in touch with certain ones. I wasn’t in that crowd. She’s your grandmother’s generation.”
“Here I go,” I said. “It’s almost noon. Surely she won’t be upset if I wake her now.”
The upstairs hall was so quiet I even found myself tiptoeing though nobody was in the other three bedrooms.
I tapped lightly on the door and called, “Miss Lavinia!”
There wasn’t a sound. Not even a soft snore or a little cough. Everything was too quiet.
Ida Plum came up the stairs, arms full of sheets for the linen closet. “Maybe she’s hard of hearing. Did you knock hard enough?”
I knocked again, hard and loud. The old door thumped and rattled. My fist actually ached, I’d knocked so hard.
Still no answer. No sound of movement inside. Nothing.
I knocked, called, knocked again.
Ida Plum nudged me aside and inserted the master key from its nail in the linen closet.
Miss Lavinia wasn’t in bed. The room seemed to be empty. I noticed the window was open and my new lace curtains getting damp from the blowing rain. I ran to close the window and almost tripped over Miss Lavinia. She lay in a twisted lump of pink satin between the bed and the white wicker desk, one arm under and one arm out, a piece of paper nearby. The bouquet of lilacs, white tulips and Mama Alice’s parsley I’d used for greenery was overturned and scattered across the floor. Miss Lavinia’s satin slippers stood beside the bed and her matching robe lay across a chair. Her book and glasses were on the bedside table.
I touched her shoulder, a shoulder so cold I felt it through the fabric. “Oh.” I pulled back.
Ida Plum reached around me, took Miss Lavinia’s lace-covered wrist and felt for a pulse. “None,” she said. “Better call nine-one-one. They’ll get Eikenberry’s.”
The funeral home? Oh God, I thought, Oh … my … God.
“The phone.” Ida Plum put both hands on my shoulders, turned me around and marched me from the room, aimed me toward the stairs. Then she closed Miss Lavinia’s bedroom door, locked it tight, but not before I’d grabbed the piece of paper off the floor and shoved it in my pocket. I had even started to pick up the flowers before Ida Plum pulled me away. Some things you just do without thinking. It’s like automatic pilot takes over. Then someone reminds you where you are and what has happened.
In the end, Ida Plum was the one to call 9ll. I stood in the kitchen shivering like a New England winter.
I pulled the paper from my pocket and read two words scribbled in Miss Lavinia’s handwriting scrawled haphazardly across the page. “That is…” That is what? I asked. What?
I heard the MedAlert leave the fire station, wailing. The wailing got closer and louder and my grandmother’s expression “loud enough to wake the dead” kept playing in my mind.
Except nothing would ever wake Miss Lavinia again.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Ruth Moose

RUTH MOOSE is the 2013 winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. She won the PEN Award for Syndicated Fiction, the Robert Ruark Award for the Short Story, and the Sam Ragan Fine Arts Award. She has received three Pushcart nominations and a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship. She’s published three collections of short stories and six collections of poetry. She was on the Creative Writing faculty at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for fifteen years and received the Chapman Award for teaching. She lives in Pittsboro, North Carolina.