You could say that winning a beauty pageant and solving a murder have some similarities. In a pageant, you’re competing to beat the other contestants. In a murder investigation, you’re competing against a killer to bring him or her to justice. You work hard to achieve a goal, and in the end, you’ve got a crown or a criminal.
Emotionally, however, when someone is killed, you have to deal with something far more serious than a rival queen or a broken zipper. Seeing a dead body, even if it’s someone you don’t know, is disturbing no matter how many times it happens. And this has happened more times than it should. Like right now. A body stretched out at my feet in the evening light…
# # #
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
When my husband, Jerry Fairweather, inherited his eccentric Uncle Val’s old house in the small town of Celosia, North Carolina, and we moved from the much larger city of Parkland, I’d taken a big leap of faith, followed my dream, and opened a private investigation service. I thought I’d be finding lost objects, or at worst, trailing unfaithful spouses. And I did have cases like that, looking for lost umbrellas, tracking down overdue library books, and hunting through attics to solve elaborate riddles. But Celosia, like most small towns, was full of secrets and family feuds and long-held grudges. Really long.
Now, most police departments don’t want amateur sleuths getting in the way, but I was fortunate to make friends with Chief Gus Brenner. He appreciates the fact that I’m able to see things from an outsider’s perspective, and as long as I share my findings, he’s willing to let me poke around. I don’t have access to his crime lab or his network of contacts, but I have my own resources. I tend to find little things that are overlooked—things that, at first, don’t appear to be clues.
But Jerry was still figuring out what to do with his life and needed plenty of things to keep him occupied. Gus’ daughter, Nell Brenner, our resident handywoman, didn’t want him help- ing her with home repairs because he was always tripping over ladders and tracking paint everywhere. He’d worked for a while as a salesclerk at Georgia’s Books, but Georgia didn’t need him except on the occasional weekend. I was concerned that all this inactivity would lead to a rebound into his shadier world of fake séances and cons. In fact, I knew it would.
Jerry and I met in college and had been best friends for years before he realized that he was in love with me. We had worked through most of our emotional baggage—mine from being hauled around to Little Miss pageants from the time I could sit up, and his from a mistaken belief that he’d been responsible for the fire that killed his parents. I’d solved that mystery, so he had closure, and my success as a private investigator had proven to me that I was more than a pretty face in an overly sequined gown. Thanks to Jerry’s insistence, I’d taken up painting again, something I’d always loved and needed to rediscover.
However…Jerry comes from a very wealthy family and never had to work. Add that to his past feelings of unworthiness, a mischievous nature, and an open, trustworthy face, and you have the perfect con man. For about three years after we graduated, I lost track of him, hearing from him only occasionally. What he did during that time has kept coming back to haunt us.
He also had a great deal of musical talent. I kept trying to steer him toward jobs that took advantage of that. I may have given up all the pageant nonsense, but I was still competitive. I was going to reform him if it killed us both.
Jerry and I have problems and differences to sort out, but our little troubles can’t compare with the labyrinth of tangled relationships and emotions I uncovered in my new hometown. That web soon led me here, into another betrayal and murder.
“Camp Lakenwood! Camp Lakenwood! Each day is bright and new!
Camp Lakenwood! Camp Lakenwood! There’s fun for me and you!”
I groaned and buried my head under my pillow. “Jerry, for heaven’s sake.”
As was his custom, my husband had gotten up bright and early this Monday morning and decided to serenade me, not with his usual attempt at an aria, but with Camp Lakenwood’s theme song. He’d already showered and dressed and was toweling his light brown hair.
“You have to sing it at the top of your voice to really make it work,” he said.
“Not every morning.”
Last month, I’d helped Nathan Fenton solve his uncle’s riddle and win enough money to buy and renovate Camp Lakenwood. Nathan had asked Jerry to help out, and since Jerry has always been in touch with his inner child, this was an ideal job for him. I couldn’t wait to see him in his camp t-shirt and shorts. However, the camp wouldn’t be open until next June. This was October. Jerry tossed the towel in the general direction of the bathroom. “Waffles for breakfast?”
I had hoped for a few more minutes of sleep, but this was not going to happen. “Okay.”
Jerry bounded down the stairs, still singing.
“Camp Lakenwood, Camp Lakenwood, Where waffles grow on trees!
Camp Lakenwood, Camp Lakenwood, There’s syrup in the breeze!”
By the time I staggered down to breakfast, he had orange juice, melted butter, and warm syrup on the table and was mixing his trademark batter. The kitchen stretched wide across the back of the house and hadn’t needed a lot of repair. Jerry’s Uncle Val had surprisingly modern appliances, all in good working order. We decided not to replace the old-fashioned square white wooden table with four matching hand-carved chairs to add a little retro charm. The chairs with curved backs were solid and sturdy, so I bought blue-and-white striped cushions to soften the look. Nell had pulled up the ancient curling linoleum and put down a shiny white floor decorated with blue willow leaves. I’d replaced the faded white curtains with new ruffly ones that reminded me of the freshly starched lace in my grandmother’s windows. The view outside the kitchen windows showed a field bursting with a colorful mix of wildflowers, and trees bright with red and yellow autumn leaves. The field, like the meadow in front of the house, stretched to a wooded area that belonged to the farm next door, and occasionally we’d see deer at the edge of the wood or rabbits bounding in the tall grass. The whole space was calm and peaceful—a changing scene I’d grown to love.
When we’d first moved to the old house, I hadn’t been impressed. It was a huge, two-story rambling structure, basically an old gray farmhouse, with a flat front and a wraparound porch. Quite frankly, it looked seriously haunted. It needed a lot of work, but Nell was up to the challenge, saying she’d always wanted to get her hands on the Eberlin House. The kitchen, living room, and two of the five bedrooms were now done, plus two of the three bathrooms. I’d created my art studio, and Jerry had designed and filled his music room. I was especially pleased with the living room, once a gray stuffy room crowded with heavy-footed dark furniture. The space had been transformed into a relaxing refuge in light blue, with a curved white sectional sofa sprinkled with cushions in shades of aqua and midnight, glass end tables, a glass square for a coffee table, an entertainment center along one wall, and a rebuilt carved mantel. My best painting, Blue Moon Garden, commanded center stage above the fireplace.
Thanks to all the renovations, the house was now our home. Celosia—the town name came from a little feathery flower—was becoming home, too, with a surprising number of cases for me to investigate.
Celosia-proper had about eight thousand residents, but if you counted the outlying areas, the few suburbs and farms, the number was closer to ten thousand. Not a huge population, really, when compared to the two hundred and fifty thousand who lived in the nearby city of Parkland, but I was amazed by the things that went on in our small town. It didn’t take much to set people off. I’d even solved a murder involving Miss Celosia Pageant contestants.
“How many waffles do you want, Mac?”
“Just one, thanks.” My stomach felt a little queasy. I wondered if I was coming down with something.
Jerry poured the batter into the waffle iron. “Anything happening at Madeline Maclin Investigations today?”
“Things are pretty slow.”
“No lost dogs or cheatin’ husbands?”
“Nope. Not yet. Did you check on our tires?” Our Mazda needed two new tires, and Jerry had promised to call around for the best deal.
“Fred’s Garage has some we can afford.” “Okay, we can get that done this week.”
He brought me a cup of coffee and said, “I thought I might call some friends today and see what’s going on.”
“What kind of friends and what kind of goings-on?” Jerry likes to wear flashy ties, and today’s choice was a tie decorated with green dollar bills. I wasn’t sure I liked the significance of that.
“Oh, I don’t know…the usual.”
At one time, “the usual” meant scamming people out of their hard-earned cash. I sincerely hoped Jerry wasn’t backsliding. He’d promised he was through with the illegal part of his life, but his so-called friends had a way of pulling him under.
“Please tell me you are not involved in something shady.” “Nothing shady. I just like to keep up with what’s new.” “New, as in the latest tricks?” I sipped the coffee, wondering why it didn’t taste as good as it usually did. “See, here is where we are radically different. I have absolutely no interest in what’s going on in the pageant world. Can the allure of Con World be that strong?”
“It’s a nice place to visit, but I no longer live there.”
“Yes, but you keep getting postcards saying ‘Wish you were here.’”
He checked the waffle. “I haven’t heard from anyone in a while.”
“Sometimes they just show up, like Rick.” Rick, one of Jerry’s ex-partners in crime, had invaded Celosia not long ago to take full advantage of the Mantis Man mania, even dressing up as the legendary creature and causing all kinds of havoc—that is, until he became a murder suspect.
“Ah, but once you cleared him, he became a model citizen.” “Until he moved on to the next unsuspecting town.”
“My friends know better than to mess with you.” Jerry opened the waffle iron to check again just as his cell phone rang. He answered. “Hello? Oh, hello, Evan.”
Evan James was the director of the Celosia Community Theater. Please let there be a job for Jerry, I prayed. A music job. He’d played for the theater’s production of The Music Man and really enjoyed it. Plus those long rehearsals took up a lot of his time. “Sure,” Jerry said, “but I thought Larissa was doing that.” He listened awhile and then said, “Yeah, I’ll have a look at it. No problem. Okay, see you.” He hung up. “Evan says Larissa Norton is sick and can’t play for Oklahoma. He wants to know if I’d do it.”
Thank you, Lord. “Sounds like fun.” “And it’s a paying gig.”
“So I won’t have time to con anyone today.”
He said this lightly, but I didn’t want him to think I didn’t trust him. “You know I love you, even when you are in the middle of some idiotic scheme.”
“And I know that my track record isn’t the best, so you have every right to be suspicious. Can you drop me off at the theater on your way to work?”
He lifted the lid of the waffle iron. The waffle met with his approval because he pried it free and plopped it on a plate. “Here you go.”
All of a sudden, waffles did not sound appealing. “I don’t think I want one, after all.”
“I’m not very hungry this morning. I hope I’m not getting the flu.”
“Would you rather have scrambled eggs?” Ugh. I must have made a convincing face.
“Okay, just coffee,” Jerry said. “I can always eat another waffle.” My stomach rumbled, so I knew I was hungry. I loved waffles, but what I really wanted was some ice cream. “Do we have any ice cream?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Some Chunky Monkey would taste good.”
“For breakfast? I mean, I’m all for it, but you usually want the standards. Hold on.” He turned from his cooking, his gray eyes wide. “Do you want a pickle with that?”
“A pickle? No. Why would I want a—” I suddenly knew where he was going with this. “Oh, no. I am not pregnant.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m more than sure. It’s probably just a stomach virus.”
“Virus Fairweather. It’s an odd name, but then again, this is the South.”
I had to grin. “Stop it. We’ve discussed this. We are not having a baby.”
He wanted children. Bill, my first husband, had wanted children, too, and now thanks to his second wife, had a whole pack of them, but with Bill it had been a matter of proving his manhood. Jerry had far better reasons for wanting to be a father: He wanted to make up for his interrupted childhood. I simply wasn’t ready, and didn’t know if I ever would be, although lately I’d found myself leaning a little more toward the idea. It was not something I spent a lot of time thinking about. Actually, I spent a lot of time trying not to think about it. I wasn’t sure what was holding me back. It certainly wasn’t Jerry, who looked at me with a mixture of humor and concern.
“How about a banana?” he asked. “That’s as close to Chunky Monkey as I can get.”
Actually, a banana sounded good. “Thanks.” What I really meant was thanks for dropping the subject, and he knew it.
# # #
As promised, and with a great sense of relief, I took Jerry by the theater. Celosia’s community theater is in the Samuel Baker Auditorium, a substantial brick building a wealthy man had donated to the city years ago. Crouched in the midst of ancient oak trees, the building resembles an old high school, but inside, the auditorium is a modern, spacious room with walls in muted shades of gray and four hundred comfortable seats with red cushions. Jerry went in through the double glass doors at the front, pausing to give me a good-bye wave.
Then I drove the short distance to my office on Main Street. Most of Celosia’s main street looks the same as it did in the late 1930s: the banks and churches made of granite blocks, the storefronts mostly brick. Trees surrounded by small gardens stand on each corner. The street lamps date back to the 1880s, and the ornate brass clock by the post office always chimes the wrong time. My office is in one of the brick buildings at the end of the street next to a parking lot. Pamela Finch was waiting outside my door. I hoped she had a case for me, but she was excited about something else.
“Madeline, I knew you’d want to hear about this. Wendall Clarke is coming back to town, and he wants to open an art gallery! Isn’t that exciting? I told him you’d be glad to help.”
“Hold on, hold on,” I said. “Help with what?”
Pamela Finch was tall and thin with light wispy hair. Her hair was just as excited as she was. “Well, with setting it up and running it and all that. Since you’re an artist, I figured you’d want to.” “I’m sure Mr. Clarke can handle things on his own.” I unlocked my door and invited Pamela to come into my office and sit down. My office is small, but it’s all mine and has a pleasant view of the swing set in the yard next door. The walls are paneled in golden pine, and the carpet is new, an odd beige color I wouldn’t have chosen, but it was neutral enough not to clash with anything. The dark-brown desk and olive swivel chair had belonged to the former occupant—again, not very stylish, but new and serviceable. I’d brightened up a tall bookcase by the window with books, photographs of Jerry and me in colorful frames, some topaz and emerald glass fish I’d bought in Bermuda when we were there for our wedding, a paperweight filled with pink and blue flowers, a frog my grandmother had made of multicolor patchwork fabric, and two of my smaller paintings. One was of the Queen Anne’s lace in our meadow. The other was an abstract in swirls of brown, yellow, and turquoise that Jerry had titled Fudge Ripple Gone Horribly Wrong.
I sat down behind the desk, wondering why Pamela thought I’d like to run a gallery. When I rediscovered my love of painting, I enjoyed spending whatever time I could in my studio, a remodeled upstairs parlor at our house, but I wasn’t interested in the business side of the art world and certainly didn’t feel qualified. Pamela took a seat in the green and beige client armchair, another legacy, and chatted on about Wendall Clarke, Celosia High School’s former star football player and editor of the yearbook. He’d gone to Parkland to pursue an art degree, majored in art and business, and made a fortune when one of his designs was chosen for a perfume bottle that sold well on a shopping network. “But he’s always wanted to have a gallery.”
“Why not have one in Parkland?”
“I don’t know, but I’m absolutely thrilled. I so hope he’ll put some of my work in his gallery.”
This was news. “I didn’t know you were an artist. What do you do?”
“I paint wildflowers, mostly. I’d love for you to see! Come over any time. I live on Beech Street.”
“Well, I’m very happy for Wendall and hope his gallery succeeds,” I said. “Was there something else I could do for you?”
“Oh, yes. I almost forgot! I’ve lost a very important letter. I think I know where it is, but it’s going to take forever to sort through all the papers in my shop to find it. Do you do things like that?”
At this point, I was willing to take any job. “I’d be happy to.
When would you like me to start?” “Right away.”
Pamela Finch owned a little dress shop on Main Street. “Why don’t I come by this afternoon?”
“That would be fine.” I told her my fee, and she wrote me a check. “And at three o’clock, we’re having a reception for Wendall at First Baptist. You have to come meet him.”
“If my schedule permits…” That was a laugh. My schedule permitted just about anything. But I had to admit I was curious about Wendall Clarke.
# # #
My issue with breakfast must have been a fluke, because by eleven o’clock I was seriously hungry for a cheeseburger and fries. I called Jerry and asked if he was ready for lunch.
“I am always ready for lunch.”
He was waiting for me in front of the theater. He got into the car and showed me the large book of music.
“So you’re going to do it?”
“I’ll be practicing for the rest of my life, but yes. It’s a pretty tough score.”
I glanced through the pages crammed with masses of notes. Jerry liked to joke that he lived in the musical shadow of his older brother, Des, a concert pianist, but I think Jerry is equally talented. “Looks like a challenge,” I said.
“I may have to do a little modifying. Oh, I’m officially musi- cal director. Evan wants me to round up some more musicians for the orchestra. I have a list of names to call.”
This sounded more and more like a really good, safe, involved job. “How about a cheeseburger to celebrate?”
“With or without pickles?”
I punched his arm. “Don’t start.”
# # #
Our favorite place to eat in Celosia is a little diner called Deely’s Burger World, always a popular hangout, first as an ice cream parlor and then as the quaint restaurant it is today. The diner still has its original gray-and-white Formica countertops, silver stools with red cushions that had been replaced many times, and wallpaper with faded designs of ancient slogans for Coca-Cola. We were way ahead of the noon rush and chose a booth near the front. As more people streamed in, I caught bits of discussion about Camp Lakenwood, auditions for Oklahoma, and the proposed gallery. True to form, people were already arguing about who would be the best leads in the show, and fussing over what the gallery would cost.
The talk that struck us was news about Deely’s closing. “Had you heard anything about the restaurant closing?” I asked Jerry.
“No. I’d hate for that to happen. Let’s ask Annie.”
When Annie stopped by our table to take our order, I said, “What’s this about Deely closing the place? That’s just a local Celosian rumor, right?”
“It’s an old story going around. Deely’s been threatening to retire for years. He’s waiting for one of his sons to take over, and that could be a while because they’d sooner die than flip burgers. I’m pretty sure I’ve got job security.”
“That’s a relief,” Jerry said. “I couldn’t go on without my cheeseburgers.”
“Coming right up.”
I told Jerry about Pamela Finch. “She’s lost an important letter. I’m going to stop by her store this afternoon and help her look for it. She was much more interested in a fellow named Wendall Clarke who wants to open an art gallery in town. She thought I’d want in on the action.”
“Not really. But I do want to meet him. There’s a reception for him today at three.”
Annie brought our order, and we enjoyed happy moments in cheeseburger heaven. Then she returned to ask if we wanted more fries.
“Of course,” Jerry said.
“Oh, and Jerry, I wanted to ask you something else. I’m trying to decide between these two guys, and I know you can get in touch with the dead. I want to check in with my Aunt Gloria, because she’d give me good dating advice. Are you still holding those séances at your house? Can I get in on the next one?”
Even though he really wanted to say yes to both questions, he managed to say, “Sorry. I’m out of the séance business.”
“Couldn’t you do just one more?”
“I’m sure you can get good dating advice from someone more qualified.”
“Nobody’s more qualified than Aunt Gloria. She was married six times. How about holding one here after hours? I’ll ask Deely if it’s okay.”
“Sure.” He folded, and I kicked him under the table. “Ow! Mac, the deal was no more séances at the house.” “Annie, Jerry can’t really talk to the dead.”
She wasn’t discouraged. “But the dead might talk to him.” A little bell chimed from the kitchen. “Fries coming up.”
As she walked away, I gave my husband the eye. “The dead are not going to talk to you.”
“One more little séance. I won’t charge her for it.”
“You’re driving me crazy. What can I do to make you stop this?” The minute I said this, I knew I’d made a mistake.
“Well, now that you mention it, perhaps a little deal could be made.”
Uh, oh. “What do you mean?”
He reached across the table to take my hand. “Will you consider—just consider—the possibility of us becoming parents?” I sucked in a deep breath. “You know how I feel about this.”
“Just consider it. Think about it.”
Here’s what I thought. “We’re barely making enough money for the two of us. If you hadn’t accepted your brother’s generous birthday gift, we couldn’t pay Nell for all the repairs.”
Jerry was notorious for refusing any of his family’s fortune. Somehow his younger brother, Tucker, had convinced him to take some money for the house. “That’s true. And I would accept another generous gift for a new little Fairweather. But let me take back what I said about a deal. I don’t want you to think this is like our last bargain.”
In our last deal, Jerry had agreed to find a job if I agreed to take up my artwork again. This had been a slightly one-sided bargain because the jobs he’d found had fallen through.
“We’re getting along great right now, but maybe we could make some plans for the future. You’ve got your agency, and I’m going to find a real job, I promise.”
“I know you will. Look.” I gave his hand a squeeze. “I don’t want you to think I’m trying to manage your life.”
He grinned. “Well, you are.” “Well, you’re letting me.” “Maybe I like strong women.” “Hush.”
“Strong controlling women who want to rule the world.”
I tightened my grip. “When I’m queen, you’d better look out.” “I thought you were already queen, Miss Parkland.”
Jerry’s about the only one who can get away with calling me Miss Parkland. “Yes, during my reign I learned many important lessons about controlling the masses. You should fear my wrath.”
“That’s okay,” he said. “I know how to stage a coup.”
Annie plopped another basket of fries on the table. “There you go, Jerry. Deely says it’s okay to have the séance here, but he’d rather you do it in the back room. We can do it after he closes tonight if you like.”
He hadn’t taken his gaze from me. “It’s up to Mac.”
“You promise…” I said, “you swear on your weighted dice and marked cards that this is absolutely the last séance ever?”
He smiled the smile that had charmed me from the very first moment I met him. “I promise.”