A Case of Imagination: A Madeline Maclin Mystery #1

A Case of Imagination: A Madeline Maclin Mystery #1

“On this nice July morning in Parkland, North Carolina, the office of Madeline Maclin Investigations might as well have been an Egyptian tomb: hot, dusty, and dead.” It doesn't help ...

About The Author

Jane Tesh

Jane Tesh is a retired media specialist and pianist for the Andy Griffith Playhouse in Mt. Airy, North Carolina. She ...

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Chapter One

Okay, when you’ve tried everything and nothing works, it’s time to get out of town. I stared at my phone, willing it to ring. A lost dog, a missing tooth, misplaced car keys—anything. On this nice July morning in Parkland, North Carolina, the office of Madeline Maclin Investigations might as well have been an Egyptian tomb: hot, dusty, and dead. I flipped through the desk calendar, finding it hard to believe it had been only a week since I’d solved the Lundell case. Nancy Lundell had been so pleased she’d promised to call all her friends and tell them about my services. Apparently, she had none.

My lack of clients wouldn’t have been so bad except I could hear all kinds of activity from Reid Kent’s office next door and knew he was doing a brisk business without me. Around noon, he had the nerve to poke his head in my door and ask me about lunch.

“No, thanks.” Why give him more opportunity to gloat? “It’s Tuesday. I’m meeting Jerry.”

Reid’s grin widened and he made what I’m sure he thought were spooky noises. “Will he see success in your future?”

This wasn’t worth a reply. It was worth a dirty look, though, a dirty look that didn’t faze him. He parked his rear on my desk and gave his dark, carefully groomed hair a few pats as if walking all the way from next door had disturbed his coiffure.

“You know, Madeline, if this isn’t working out for you, you can always come back to Kent and Ross.”

“No, thanks.”

“Think of this as a learning experience. Why struggle with your own agency when you can be a welcome addition to mine?”

“I tried that, Reid, and I prefer to be on my own.” “But you’ve had, what, two clients?”

“Three. And all three were very satisfied.”

He gave me a pitying look. “Face it, Madeline. Nobody’s going to hire a former Miss Parkland. I don’t care if you’ve cut your hair short and don’t wear any makeup. You’re still too much of a distraction.”

“I’m supposed to take that as a compliment?” He leaned forward. “If you want to.”

“Go away, Reid.”

He laughed and hopped off the desk. “Oh, excuse me. I can see you’ve got way too much work to do.”

I heard him laughing all the way back to his office. Damn it, Reid Kent was not going to spoil my day. He’d spoiled too many of my days already. That Miss Parkland crack was what passed for witty banter with Reid. Despite his doubts and the doubts of several of my friends, I was not going to believe that my looks had anything to do with my ability. Yes, I’d had a successful pageant career. I was determined to be just as successful as an investigator.

I slung my pocketbook over my shoulder and went out, pausing to lock my door. Even though I had nothing of value, I didn’t want Reid or any of his toadies snooping in my office. A short elevator ride took me to the foyer of the Pressler Building. From there, it’s a short walk to my favorite hangout, Baxter’s Barbecue, one of the best little restaurants in this part of Parkland. Baxter’s is very plain, with wooden tables covered with plastic red and white checkered cloths, plastic forks and spoons, and cheap paper napkins. But the food is terrific: barbecue that melts in your mouth, tangy slaw, and crunchy hush puppies. I waved  to Ellis and Betsy Stone, the owners, and slid into my favorite booth in the corner. I went ahead and ordered my lunch. Jerry would be late. He’s always late.

Jeremyn Nicholas Fairweather. Sounds like the hero of one of those Regency romances, doesn’t it? One of those tall, dark, dashing Lord Byron types, the kind of impeccably dressed man who can ride, fence, gamble, and dance, all with equal grace.

Jerry’s not that. He’s a slim, youthful-looking man of medium height with light brown hair and gray eyes. You’d never believe he belongs to one of the richest families in Parkland. His older brother, Des, is a world-class concert pianist. His younger brother, Tucker, grows prize-winning roses on the family estate. Harriet, the eldest, is haughty and distant. Jerry, however, is, well, different. He doesn’t have a regular job. Right now, he was bunking with Buddy, one of his scruffy friends. And he’s given up all claims to his share of the Fairweather fortune. I’ve yet to figure out why. I can only guess it has something to do with his so-called psychic ability, which he uses for all the wrong reasons.

He arrived ten minutes late, managing to look wind-blown even on a calm day, his hair in his eyes, his tie crooked. He tossed his jacket into a chair and sat down across from me. Jerry likes to wear suits, but has unfortunate taste in ties. The tie of the day was brown, with neon-yellow pineapples.

“Sorry I’m late. I was doing a reading for Constance Shawn.” “Again?” Constance Shawn is one of several rich old ladies who like to have their palms read. I’m sure the fact that Jerry, even at the grand old age of twenty-nine, looks young and cute has something to do with their insistence. “Isn’t that the third time this week?” “She asked me.”

“You’re such a pushover. What else are you doing today?” He loosened his tie. “I have a séance at four.”

I started to tell him what I thought about that when he reached into the folds of his jacket and brought out an envelope. “I also have a house.”

“What?”

He took out a letter. “My Uncle Val left me a house.” “I thought you didn’t care about worldly goods.”

“I don’t, but this sounds interesting.” He handed the letter to me.

“Who’s Uncle Val?”

“My mother’s brother. I think he only visited one time when I was little. He didn’t like the idea of my mother marrying my dad, so he wasn’t very welcome.”

I scanned the letter. “This says he died two weeks ago and left you a house and some land in Celosia.”

“I borrowed Buddy’s VW. Let’s go look at it.” “Today?”

“Sure. You’re not doing anything, are you?” His expression changed. “Oh, sorry, Mac. That didn’t come out the way I meant it.”

“No, you’re right,” I said. “I don’t have a case. I don’t even have the hint of a case—unless you see something.”

He paused, letting his large gray eyes focus on a point some- where behind me. Then he crossed his eyes. “Nope. Sorry.”

“I can’t believe anybody buys your act.” He grinned. “What act?”

Betsy brought two large barbecue sandwiches, two orders of fries, and two large iced teas, plus a plastic basket loaded with fat hush puppies. She set everything on the table and wiped her hands on her apron. “You know, Jerry, I was wondering if you’d check on my grandma’s knee. She seems to think there’s some kind of demon interference that’s keeping it from healing.”

He avoided my skeptical expression. “Be glad to.”

“She should be here in a little while. I’d really appreciate it.” “Okay.”

Betsy moved on to the next table. I reached for the ketchup and poured it over my fries. “So now you’re healing people. That’s nice.”

“Just a little laying on of hands.”

“Good lord, Jerry, some day somebody’s going to smack the hell out of you.”

His look was pure innocence. “But if they believe, they get well. I’m saving them lots of doctor’s fees.”

“If you keep playing around like you’re psychic, some day you’re going to pay.”

“Did you check with the Psychic Patrol on that? I haven’t heard that rule.”

“Shut up and eat.”

The lush fat content of Baxter’s barbecue calmed me down. I was all set to give Jerry a few more words of advice when he looked at me with his calm gray gaze and said, “What’s the trouble?”

“If you were really psychic, you’d know.”

He put his hand to his forehead and closed his eyes. “Give me a moment to get in touch with the cosmos. Hmm. Ahh. Wait a second. It’s coming in clear. It’s a donkey’s behind. No, no. It’s Reid Kent.”

“I am so amazed and astounded. How do you do that?”

He opened his eyes. “Reid Kent’s an idiot. Is he going on about your beauty queen days? Your looks are an asset. They always have been.”

“I just want people to take me seriously.”

“They will. They do. Just because your mother dragged you to every Little Miss in the south, there’s no need to panic.”

Jerry knew the story, of course. As a kid, I had been my mother’s perfect little angel. I endured endless hours of practicing the correct way to walk and stand, the stiff ruffled dresses and overly teased hair, the ribbons, the nail polish, the curled eyelashes. At age thirteen, a “lucky growth spurt” shot me to my present height of five eleven (a good two inches taller than Jerry, as I often like to remind him) and saved me from Runway Hell. Mother was crushed that her baby doll was gone, and horrified by my taste for basketball and running track. Then, when I was nineteen and needed the money, I entered the Miss Parkland Pageant—my decision, not my mother’s. I won. Mother was thrilled, and ready for the new campaign. When I refused to go on to Miss North Carolina, she practically disowned me. We’ve hardly spoken in the eight years since.

I took a sip of tea. “Mother never got over my defection to a normal life.”

“Well, you don’t have to take it out on everyone else.” “And you don’t have to be a side-show act.”

He pointed a French fry at me. “Touché.”

I took another bite of barbecue, savoring the taste. “What does this house of yours look like?”

“The letter doesn’t say. Probably the community eyesore. I could always sell it, I suppose.”

“Let’s go see. ” “Are you serious?”

“As you said, I’m not doing anything right now.”

He looked crestfallen. “Mac, I really didn’t mean to say that.”

I leaned over the table to give his arm a friendly punch. “I know that, you idiot. Haven’t we been friends long enough?”

He smiled. “You’re going to be a success. I sense it in the deepest core of my psychic being.”

“If you’re going to talk like that, I won’t go with you.”

He laughed. “Okay, okay. I’ll try to keep it under control.”

I’d been trying to keep something under control, too, trying to ignore the feelings I almost couldn’t believe. Sitting here in Baxter’s, surrounded by the comforting smells of fries and hush puppies, and looking at my best friend’s smile, I knew in the deepest core of my being that I would go anywhere in the world with Jeremyn Nicholas Fairweather.

This was crazy. Jerry and I had been friends since we met  in college almost ten years ago. It was just that friendly feeling, wasn’t it? Lately, though, my heart had given a bizarre little jump every time he grinned at me. I found myself wondering what it would be like to brush his wayward hair out of his eyes, or take off that absurd tie—along with everything else he had on.

I was on the rebound from Bill. That had to be it. Even though my ex-husband was a lout who cared only for himself, I missed having him around the house. I missed the house, too. Maybe I was having separation anxiety. No Bill, no house, and certainly no career, the way things were going lately. Anyway, it wouldn’t do to declare my feelings to Jerry, since the only thing he was interested in right now was his lunch. He’d wonder what had gotten into his old college buddy. I wondered, too.

After casting the demon out of Betsy’s grandma, Jerry and  I drove to Celosia, a small town about a half-hour’s drive from Parkland. I’d been there a few times, mainly to check out the bookstore. As we crossed the town line, the scenery wasn’t inspiring: pastures with drooping cows, little grocery stores, abandoned gas stations. Jerry’s uncle’s house was probably a shack with a washing machine on the front porch and scrawny chickens running in the yard. Closer in the houses were larger and nicer. We passed a modern apartment complex, banks, shops, even a small mall.

“Is this Main Street?” Jerry asked. “We need to find the offices of Mason and Freer so I can pick up the keys to the house.”

“I think this is Main,” I said. “I don’t see any signs. I don’t see much of anything. That could be Amelia Earhart over there, I’m not really sure.”

We drove past the Baker Auditorium, the Wayfarer Motel, the public library, and a small park with swings, slides, and a band shell. At the band shell, a large group of people stood in clumps. I saw band members in uniforms, horses, convertibles, and clowns.

“Parade time,” I said. “What’s the occasion, I wonder? Annual Hayseed Festival?”

Jerry turned at the next corner and pulled into the gas station. He got out, unhooked the handle, and pumped some gas. Several men were standing around, so he asked them about the law office.

A lanky man in faded jeans and John Deere cap spoke around the wad of tobacco tucked in one cheek. “Down two stoplights and turn right. It’s a big brick building.”

I leaned out my window. “What’s with the parade?” “Beauty pageant this weekend. All the girls are riding in the parade.” I groaned. “Is there no escape?”

Jerry grinned. “I love beauty pageants. We’ll have to hurry and check out the house.”

“You got relatives here?” the man said. “My uncle, Val Eberlin.”

He almost choked on his tobacco. “Eberlin? Sheesh, he was a nut!” His face turned red. “Oh, sorry. No offense. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Jerry said. “I didn’t really know him. I’m here to see about the house.” He handed the man the money for the gas.

The man gave him his change. “Not planning to live in it, are you?”

“Probably not.”

“Yeah, well, sorry about the crack. He was a nice old guy, really, just, you know, weird. Had a great old car, though, a 1957 Chevy. Thing ran like a dream.”

Another car rolled in, and the man went to speak with the driver.

Jerry got in the car. “Did you see how he reacted?”

“Yes, this is just peachy,” I said. “A pageant and a nutty uncle.” By the time Jerry found the law office and parked in the small lot under a tree, people were gathering along both sides of the street.

“We might get to see the parade,” he said. “I can’t think of anything more exciting.”

I waited by the car while he went inside to sign some papers and get the key to the house. The crowd was an odd combination. There were grubby-looking families: skinny, untidy dads in overalls and caps, overweight, stringy-haired moms in stained sweat clothes, and pale, skinny, barefooted children. Then there were young upscale families: dads in expensive khakis and golf shirts, moms in designer jeans and gold jewelry, and children in name-brand tee shirts and sneakers. I know lots of people live in Celosia and commute to Parkland, so there’s plenty of money in this little town. From the size of these families, Celosia was obviously a good place to raise children. This thought was even more depressing than the droopy cows. Bill and I had fought about children practically our whole marriage.

Jerry came out, holding up a large key. We were getting in the car when the strangled sounds of a high-school band made us stop, and to Jerry’s delight the parade came staggering up the street.

“I’ve got to see this, Mac.”

We found a spot and watched. Clowns tried handstands and cartwheels. Horses snorted and shook their heads. A group of young women in sparkly gowns rode by in convertibles. The signs on the cars read: “Miss Tri-County,” “Miss Little Acres,” and “Miss Peace Haven.” A bright red Corvette drove by, carrying a stunning brunette in white. The handmade sign on the side of the Corvette read “Miss Celosia High.” She was slender and regal with dark eyes set in a heart-shaped face.

The nearest native was a stout man in overalls and a cap with a picture of a fish. Jerry asked him about the brunette.

“Juliet Lovelace,” the man answered. “Pretty little thing, ain’t she?”

“Outstanding.” Jerry watched admiringly as she rearranged the folds of her sparkly gown and shook back her long dark hair. “When’s the pageant?”

The man eyed him, and then let his gaze travel up to my face. “New in town, ain’t ya. The pageant’s run by Evan James. Runs it every year, and every year, it’s the first Saturday night in July, Baker Auditorium.”

“Thanks.”

Juliet Lovelace smiled an especially big smile at Jerry. “Whew,” he said. “Do you think she’s more than eighteen?”

I shook my head. “Dream on, junior. ‘Miss Celosia High,’ as in high school.”

“She is gorgeous.”

I pulled Jerry away. “I don’t think you need to be ogling the teenaged girls, Mr. New in Town and Likely to Be Run Out on a Rail.”

“No harm in looking, is there?” “What about Olivia?”

“Oh.” He grimaced. “That’s over.”

I couldn’t believe the feeling of relief that swept over me. “Why? I thought you two were an item.”

“An item on the marked-down sales table. She’s after me to get my money back. That’s all she talks about.”

“Well, I’d like you to get your money back, too. Then you could give it to me.”

“I don’t want any of the family money. I think I’ve made that clear.”

“And you have your super secret reasons—unless you’ve told Olivia.”

“No. That’s another reason she’s mad at me.”

Movement caught my eye. I had to look twice to believe what I saw. “Jerry, are those protest signs?”

He looked. “Who would protest a parade?” “I’m going to check it out.”

A group of three women and one man had gathered beside a large oak tree at the corner. All four carried pieces of bright yellow poster board with black letters. When I got closer, I read the signs and had my second moment of disbelief.

“Pageants Unfair To Women,” one read. Another read, “We Are Not Hunks of Meat.” The group stood tight-lipped and stony-faced while the crowd made a wide circle around them. Several people made unkind remarks or hustled their children past, glaring.

One of the upscale moms paused to scowl at the one man in the group. “Is there some reason you have to ruin everything? If you don’t like pageants, you don’t have to go.”

“It’s a free country,” the man said. He was tall and good-looking, with dark hair and dark eyes.

She shook her finger at him. “Ted Stacy, you are not setting a good example.”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Marsh, but I’m doing exactly that,” he said. “I’m exercising my rights as a citizen of the United States to speak my mind about an outdated custom that degrades all women, yourself included.”

“Well, I think you’re being ridiculous.”

“Since you were a former Miss Celosia High, I’m not sur- prised to hear you say that.”

She turned and left, her back rigid with disapproval. Ted Stacy smiled at me. “Welcome to Celosia. Ted Stacy, protester.”

“Madeline Maclin, private investigator.”

His smile widened. “Really? Evan will be glad to hear that. Celosia doesn’t have any private investigators, and he needs one. He thinks we’re sabotaging his silly pageant.”

“Sabotaging?”

“You might want to talk to him. Evan James. He runs the pageant every year. There’s been trouble at the auditorium lately.” “But we’re  not responsible,” one of the woman protesters said.

Ted Stacy said, “We just want to make people think, although it’s an uphill battle in this town.”

“I’m Samantha Terrell,” the woman said. “Are you new to Celosia, or just in town for the parade?”

“My friend and I came to check on some property he inherited,” I said. “Val Eberlin’s old house.”

All four protesters looked surprised. “Is your friend related to Val Eberlin?” Samantha Terrell asked.

“His nephew. ”

“Well, old Val was quite a character,” Ted said. “You’ll hear all sorts of stories about him.”

“What happened to him?”

“Heart attack. The mailman found him on the floor.” “Ted, we need to go,” the other woman said.

He smiled at me. “Nice meeting you, Ms. Maclin.”

I walked back to Jerry, who was waving at the other beauty queens. We stood and watched the parade until it was all the way up Main Street. The bands made up for their lack of tunefulness with a lot of rhythm, the flag team’s snappy routine, and the vigorous drum beat. The clowns threw candy to the children. The beauty queens smiled and waved.

“Did you check out the main protester?” Jerry asked.

“Ted Stacy. He said your uncle was quite a character and died of a heart attack at home.”

“Maybe I can get in touch with him in the house.”

I don’t know where he gets these ideas. “Will you stop talking like you can actually do stuff like that?”

“But wouldn’t it be neat?”

“Let’s take care of business so I can get home.” So we drove out to find Jerry’s inheritance.

Jerry squinted at the faded road signs. “Mason said the house is just a little ways outside of town.”

“Did he say what the house is worth?”

“Just that it was old and needed repair. He was more interested in whether or not I was going to stay.”

“So am I.”

“It might be nice.”

Since the word “stay” is rarely in Jerry’s vocabulary, I wondered what was going on. “Are you on the run from the local authorities?”

“Just the CIA.”

Why did I think I’d ever get a straight answer? I glanced at the yellow fields bordered by tall wildflowers. A rail fence wandered haphazardly along one side of the road. On the other side, more cows stared blankly from green pastures. When I saw the large two-story gray farmhouse in the middle of an unkempt meadow, I knew it must be the Eberlin house.

“It doesn’t look too bad,” Jerry said. “We’re still far away.”

“No, it’s all right.” He stopped the car to read “Eberlin” on the dented mailbox, then drove up the winding dirt driveway to park under one of the large shade trees spaced evenly around the house.

I got out and stood beside Jerry to take our first good look at the Eberlin house. If it wasn’t haunted, it should have been. It looked dirty, drafty, and full of rats. I’d be sneezing all afternoon, and Jerry would be seeing Lord knows what in all the shadows. A few of the windows were broken, a few shutters hung crookedly. The wide front porch sagged. Several wooden rocking chairs were propped upside down against the porch wall.

But Jerry seemed pleased. “You know, a paint job, a few repairs, this place could be really nice.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

We went up the uneven steps. Jerry unlocked the front door. It swung open quietly at his touch; no squeaking monster-movie sounds. We stepped inside.

The house was cool and hushed. Sunlight and leaf patterns danced on the walls. A few silver cobwebs stretched in the corners of the tall windows and trembled in the breeze from the open door. Victorian-style furniture, dark, carved wooden chairs, and a sofa with gray cushions filled the large living room. The worn gray carpet had a pattern of faded pink roses and green leaves. I tried the light switch. The power was still on. “Not bad, if you like gray. Nice marble fireplace. Furniture from the Plymouth Rock Collection. Might be worth something.”

Jerry started up the flight of dusty stairs. “Be careful. There’re a couple of loose boards here.”

Upstairs, we found five bedrooms, three bathrooms, and a parlor. One of the bedrooms obviously belonged to Val Eberlin. The large four-poster bed had cream-colored sheets and blankets. Resting on the bureau was a silver comb and brush, a handful of change, a handkerchief, and a framed picture too faded for Jerry to recognize any of the people. The bedroom smelled musty. Eberlin’s clothes hung neatly in the closet: white shirts, brown slacks, brown sweaters, and a heavy coat of beige tweed. Three pairs of brown shoes were on the closet floor, plus a walking stick and an umbrella. No other clues gave any idea what kind of man Jerry’s uncle might have been. There were no pictures on the walls, no books, no souvenirs or knickknacks.

The other bedrooms were even more featureless: beds, chairs, rugs, curtains, lamps. That was it. In the bathrooms, we found towels, soap, toilet paper, and scrubbing brushes. In the parlor was another set of Victorian furniture with light green upholstery, a marble-topped table with a fancy green lamp, light green draperies, an old phonograph, and a bookshelf with leatherbound editions of classics like The Count of Monte Cristo and Tom Sawyer.

“Doesn’t tell us a whole lot,” I said. “Maybe he stored things in the attic.” “Like an insane wife?”

He gave me a look and went up the smaller flight of stairs leading from the landing. He tried the attic door, but it was locked and the key didn’t fit.

“Can’t you pick the lock?” I asked. “I’m out of practice.”

“Didn’t you and Jeff have some sort of daring escape act?” During our college days, Jerry and his friend Jeff West had tried several paranormal schemes, each one ridiculous. They’d also tried magic acts, usually making money disappear from people’s pockets.

“I’d need my special keys.” He dusted his hands. “Guess we save that for later.”

“Seen enough?” “I like it.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Let’s check out the kitchen.”

The kitchen was downstairs at the back of the house. It was large and complete with modern appliances. I sat down in one of the sturdy white wooden chairs at the matching table. “I thought we might be cooking over a wood stove.”

Jerry checked the refrigerator, which was empty, and the cabinets, where he discovered some blue and white dishes. Then he stood for a moment, looking at the full view of the meadow from a row of wide windows with white draperies. He frowned.

“I wonder what he did. There’s no TV, no sign of any hobby, no magazines. From the looks of the meadow, he wasn’t a farmer.”

“Maybe he traveled a lot. Maybe he wasn’t home much.” “Maybe,” Jerry said. He came to the table and sat down. He had an odd, preoccupied look that meant he was actually doing some serious thinking. I wondered if he was considering staying in the house, if he might finally want to settle down. “What’s on your mind?”

“I don’t know. Something about the way the light’s coming in.”

“So do you have that special ‘feeling’?”

“I’m going to stay overnight. We can go buy some grocer- ies and a couple of toothbrushes. And we can check on the pageant.”

“You just want another look at Juliet Lovelace.”

“And you probably wouldn’t mind another look at Ted Stacy.”

“What about your séance?”

He looked at his watch. “Oops. I’ll call and say the spirits weren’t aligned. Borrow your phone?”

Jerry called and apologized for missing the big event. Then I took the phone and called to check my messages. There were none.

“This is getting depressing,” I said. “Can’t get any worse.”

“Don’t say that.”

A knock on the front door made us both jump. “Must be the Welcome Wagon,” I said.

It was something far from welcoming. Jerry opened the door.

There stood a petite platinum blonde, hands on hips. “Oh,” he said. “Hi, Olivia.”

Olivia Decker is a very pretty young woman, but she’s eternally pissed about something or another. She works for a law firm, so she’s always dressed in beautifully cut suits that show off her figure. Today’s suit was black. So was her mood. Her green eyes narrowed.

“You inherited a house and didn’t tell me?”

“I didn’t know until today. How did you find out?”

“My associate asked me if I was going to help you with the details. I told him that was the first I’d heard of any property in Celosia. Then a Mrs. Amelia Farnsworth corners me in front of the office to ask why you missed her appointment. Seems she had something important to ask her dear departed husband.”

“I just called and explained things to her.”

“You should have called and explained things to me.”

Jerry held up both hands. “Wait a minute. Skip back a couple of days. Aren’t we over?”

“Not necessarily.” She came in, looking around as if appraising the room. I could see the dollar signs dancing in those green eyes. She glanced my way. “And what’s she doing here?”

“Nice to see you, too, Olivia.”

She ignored me and continued to inspect the room. “This has real possibilities. You are planning to sell it, aren’t you?”

“No, I’m planning to keep it,” Jerry said.

She faced him, eyes wide. “Keep it? You give up the Fair- weather Mansion, but you want to keep this rat trap?”

“I’m going to set up shop. Psychic Shop.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. When are you going to stop? You can’t make a living doing séances. Why don’t you take your share of your family’s money? You’re entitled to it.”

Jerry’s voice was cold. “This has nothing to do with my family.”

“Of course it does. I don’t have to be a trained psychiatrist to see what’s going on here.”

“I don’t want to talk about my family. I’ve told you.”

I hoped Olivia would push further into the taboo subject so Jerry would get angry and make her go away, but she realized her mistake and softened her approach.

“Yes, you did, and I apologize. I’m just, well, puzzled about your intentions.”

“I like this house. I want to fix it up.”

I could tell by her expression she’d decided to humor him. “Okay. Let’s talk about what it would cost.”

Olivia can go on for hours about expenses and profits. I didn’t want to look at or listen to her. “Jerry, I’m going to town for groceries.”

“Okay, thanks,” he said, but his eyes were on Olivia.

# # #

I had another reason for going back into town. Maybe there was something to the pageant sabotage. Maybe Evan James really could use my help. No harm in asking, Besides, did I really want to hang around Uncle Val’s house and watch Jerry and Olivia kiss and make up?

We had passed Baker Auditorium on our way into town,  so after a brief stop at the gas station to ask the attendant for directions, I found my way to the large brick building. I parked the VW in the shady parking lot and went inside. I smelled a faintly charred smell, as if there’d been a fire. The auditorium, which looked like it would seat about four hundred, was cool and dark. Soft gray walls and darker chairs blended with the carpets and velvety curtains that framed the stage. On stage, the twelve pageant contestants, dressed in lurid outfits of magenta, pink, and Day-Glo orange, attempted a disorganized dance number, which was set in Venice, complete with cardboard gondolas. A large man in a green caftan shouted instructions.

“No, no, Miss Peace Haven! To your left! Left! The other way! Miss Tri-County, you are two steps behind. Girls, look alive! The pageant is Saturday night!”

A voice near my elbow said, “May I help you?”

I looked down. A small woman with dark eyebrows and overlarge glasses peered up at me like a raccoon from a hole.

“I’d like to speak with Evan James.”

“Are you here about being a judge? We already have our judges.”

“No, I’m here on other business.”

She hurried down the aisle and held a brief conversation with a thin man who stood and walked up the aisle to me. With his blue suit and a yellow polka-dotted scarf folded around his neck like an ascot, he looked ready for tea at the Kentucky Derby. He had a clipboard in one hand and a yellow handkerchief in the other, which he used to wipe his brow and sparse brown hair. When he saw me, he did a double take.

“Madeline Maclin? Miss Parkland, if I’m not mistaken!”

The little raccoon woman followed him. She looked at me with new respect.

“That was some time ago,” I said.

Evan James shook my hand. “But I never forget a queen. We’re delighted to have you.”

“Before you get too delighted, I’ve traded in my tiara. I’m here to investigate your reports of sabotage.”

He blinked as if unable to process this information. “You’re not here as one of our visiting queens?”

God forbid. “I’m a private investigator, Mr. James. I understand you’re having some trouble, and I’d like to help if I can.”

He sighed and perched on the arm of the nearest seat. The little woman sat across the aisle. “This pageant’s been nothing but trouble,” he said. “One disaster after another. You can probably smell the smoke. The other day, one of our curtains caught fire. I just managed to catch it before the whole thing was destroyed. We were sent the wrong outfits for the opening number. Our musical director got sick, so I had to hire Percy.” He indicated the man in the caftan. “He and I do not share the same vision for this pageant, that’s all I can say about that. And now, for the first time in the pageant’s history, we have protesters. I can’t believe it. My pageants are always clean, decent, family entertainment. The girls in this town look forward to being in the show. We give out nice cash prizes and beautiful trophies and crowns. What’s to protest?”

“You think someone is sabotaging the pageant?”

“What else could it be? As for hiring an investigator.” He gave me a long considering look. Was he just seeing me as a visiting queen? He surprised me. “Yes. I think that’s an excellent idea.”

Shrieks of outrage came from Percy. His caftan billowed as he raised his arms. “Don’t you girls realize people are going to pay to see this? Do you want to look like idiots? Try it again.”

Evan James spoke to the little woman. “I’d better go smooth some feathers. Ms. Maclin, we’ll discuss the details later, but if you can get started right away, I’d appreciate it. The pageant’s in four days!”

“Of course. I’ll need to have a look around.”

“Certainly. Cindy, will you answer any questions she may have?”

Cindy turned to me with an eager expression. “Where would you like to go first, Ms. Maclin?”

“Madeline, please. I’d like to have a look backstage.”

While Evan James had a tense conversation with Percy about yelling at the contestants, Cindy pulled back the stage left curtain and showed me the charred edge.

“If we keep it pulled back like this, the burned places hardly show. There’s no way we could buy a new curtain in time for the pageant. It was really lucky Evan was working here that evening and smelled smoke.”

“When was this?” “Last evening.”

“Evan was the only one here?” “As far as I know.”

The curtain was thick heavy velvet. I picked up the burned end. “Did anyone call the fire department?”

“No. He was able to put the fire out. It was just smoldering, he said. Our insurance will cover the damage, so it’s really more of an annoyance than anything.”

“Do you have any idea what could have caused the fire?” Cindy shook her head. “I thought maybe a light overheated, but the lights are all there.”

She pointed to the rows of lights above us. I looked around for electric cords or outlets that may have overheated, but the floor under the curtains was bare. “Is there anyone who might be unhappy with Evan about something? Someone with a grudge?” “Oh, no. He’s a very nice man, just a bit single-minded about pageants. If he had his way, we’d have a pageant every month.”

I repressed a shudder. “What about Ted Stacy and the other protesters?”

She looked surprised. “I don’t know. This looks more like a prank, something kids would do.”

“Are there kids in town who’d set fire to curtains?”

“Not that I know of personally, but Celosia’s a small town. There’s not much for teenagers to do. Maybe some of them snuck in here to smoke and drink and got carried away.”

“Isn’t the theater locked at night?”

“Yes, but it’s an old building, and we don’t have an alarm system.

If somebody really wanted to get in, they probably could.”

Evan James called for Cindy to assist him for a minute. I continued my inspection of the backstage area. It was cluttered with candy wrappers, wood shavings, odd pieces of wood and plastic, and a few scraps of duct tape. The smells of wood and paint made my stomach roll. Memories surfaced of my pageant days, huddled in the dark with dozens of other little girls, our stiff dresses keeping us apart, my smile glued on, ready to walk out into that blinding white light, terrified that I’d stand with the wrong foot in front, or forget to turn the correct way and give the judges that one last flash of teeth.

Brrrr! Those days were over! I concentrated on the floor of the stage. Like most backstage floors, it could use a good sweeping. Dust bunnies rolled in the sawdust as I walked behind the back curtain past stacks of lumber, ladders, paint cans, and music stands. Chairs were stacked in one corner, and several loops of rope and electric cords hung from brackets set high in the wall.

Cindy returned, “Are you finished here, Madeline?” “Has anyone checked those electric cords?”

“They aren’t connected to anything. They’re just up there out of the way. Did you need to see anything else back here? The dressing rooms?”

“Yes, thanks.”

The dressing rooms were small with long counters and lighted mirrors. The contestants had crammed every inch with gowns, shoes, makeup, and beauty utensils. The smell of perfume and hair spray made Cindy wave her hand in front of her nose.

“I don’t know how they stand it.”

I took some deep breaths, too, but for another reason. I was going to have to do something about these pageant flashbacks. “Could you show me the rest of the building?”

Cindy led me back out on stage and down some steps to the auditorium. She pointed to a room high up in the back wall. “That’s our light booth.” We went up the aisle to the lobby where she pointed out another room. “Box office there, restrooms on either side. That’s everything on the first floor. Evan’s office is upstairs. The judges are meeting there.”

“I’d like to meet them.”

Cindy led the way up one flight of stairs to an office on the second floor of the auditorium and introduced me to the judges, Benjy Goins, a local DJ, a weary-looking man with scruffy hair and a full beard; Kimberly Dawn Williams, a former Miss Celosia, a heavily lacquered blonde wearing too much eye shadow and too much perfume; and Chuck Hofsteder, a chubby, good-natured man who’d judged several local beauty pageants.

“I remember when you won Miss Parkland,” Hofsteder said. “Pleasure to meet you, Ms. Maclin. Thought for sure you’d go on to Miss North Carolina. What happened?”

“Change of plans.”

“Well, you sure could’ve taken the crown.”

Cindy passed out some sheets of paper. “Updated agenda. Interviews start today. Tomorrow, we’ll finish interviews and have dinner at the country club. The pageant’s at eight Saturday night. I’ll have a list for each of you.”

“Anyone promising so far?” I asked the judges.

“Miss Celosia High,” Hofsteder said. “She’s got quite a lot of stage presence. Miss Peace Haven looks good, too. I’d say it’s quite a nice crop of girls.”

I never got used to the casual way everyone referred to pageant contestants as “girls.” How’s your girl doing? Is your girl up to standard? Our girl’s not feeling well. That sort of thing. This girl got really tired of the pet shop attitude. Come on, old girl. Let’s go for a run.

“Are you staying at the Wayfarer?” Hofsteder asked.

“No, a friend of mine has a house here, so I’m staying with him. You probably know it. Val Eberlin’s place.”

His broad face fell. “Really? You’re staying there? At night?”

“During the day, too,” I said. “How haunted is it?”

“Well, there’ve been a number of rumors about the place.” “Such as?”

Hofsteder seemed reluctant to elaborate. “Odd noises, strange shapes, that sort of thing.”

Kimberly Dawn Williams leaned toward me. “Did I hear you say you were staying in Val Eberlin’s house? It’s nonsense, all of it. Val was a very nice gentleman, just a little eccentric.”

“Wasn’t there half the time,” Benjy Goins said.

“What about all those lights in the attic?” Hofsteder said. “I had some people on my street ready to swear he was a mad scientist.” Kimberly Dawn dismissed this notion with a wave of her pink-tipped hand. “Nonsense. When he went off on his trips, he had timers on the lights.”

“Not that any burglar would bother that house,” Goins said. “Excuse me,” Cindy said. “Could we get back to pageant and leave the useless speculation for later?”

Chuck Hofsteder grinned and said to me, “There’s another rumor going around that Evan James is not the one in charge here.”

A short while later, when Cindy was certain they knew everything they needed to know, the judges were sent off to prepare for their interviews. I went back out through the auditorium to discuss the details of my assignment with Mr. James. He was sitting in the front row. Percy had set up a video camera on a tripod to film the dance. The contestants were making their way through the choreography with varying degrees of success. Miss Tri-County couldn’t dance at all. Miss River Valley Falls kept the beat, doing interesting things with her arms. As for Miss Celosia High, she was perfect. Elegant. Graceful. Coordinated. She caught my eye and gave me a look I had seen many times in many pageants. This young woman was a shark, and she would win if she had to savage everyone in her path.

Percy waved his hands above his head as if signaling a jet plane to land. “Stop, stop, stop! Girls, for heaven’s sake. All of you come around here and look at yourselves. I guarantee you’ll be absolutely shocked.”

They crowded around the camera to watch the playback. Some of them snickered.

Percy drew himself up. “Think it’s funny, do you? I did not choreograph a comedy routine. Look here. Juliet is the only one dancing in time to the music.”

Juliet Lovelace looked smug. The other contestants straightened and moved away from the tiny screen. They didn’t say anything, but their dark glances and rigid posture telegraphed a world of hate for Miss Celosia High.

Percy seemed oblivious to this show of resentment, or maybe he just didn’t care as long as they performed up to his standards. He clapped his hands. “Now let’s try it again.”

When Evan James saw me, he got up. “I must apologize for all the disorganization today.”

“That’s all right. I know how pageants can be. Cindy was very helpful, but I’d like to speak with the contestants.”

He checked his watch. “Oh, dear. They’re really busy today with dance rehearsal and interviews. We’re on such a tight schedule. Could you speak with them tomorrow, say, around 1:30?”

“That would be fine.”

He shook my hand. “I can’t tell you how relieved I am having a real queen on the case, Ms. Maclin.”

A real investigator, I wanted to say, but I smiled and thanked him.

# # #

I left the VW bug in the theater parking lot and walked down Main Street heading for the bookstore—Georgia’s Bookshop. I hoped that Olivia had steamed back to Parkland, but if she stayed and if she and Jerry were going to argue all night, I’d need something to read.

I stepped inside and went over to the magazine section that stretched the length of the store. There were several customers in the broad aisles. Two women hunted through Georgia’s vast array of crochet and needlework magazines. Teenagers slouched against the back wall of the comics section, checking out the latest “Spiderman,” “Black Orchid,” and “Anthrax Monthly.” Another customer collected his weekly supply of tabloids. A woman and a small boy selected a birthday present from the children’s books.

Georgia Taylor, a slim woman who looks to be in her sixties, checked the display of best sellers in the front window, keeping her eye on a big ugly man in the classics section. He wore a cape over his gray suit, so I figured he must have been in the parade. The man gave me a brief nod and strode up to the counter, the cape swirling behind him. His domed forehead sloped back into a tangle of wild gray curls that wobbled as he gestured. His prominent teeth flashed.

“A word with you, Hayden, if you please!”

The man behind the counter was a very nice-looking young man, about Jerry’s size, with dark brown hair and blue-green eyes. “What is it this time, Prill?”

Prill tossed his curls. “How can you continue to ignore the contributions of the Futuristic Literary and Universal Feelings group? We are the mainstay of this pitiful little town’s cultural development, and we have yet to be featured in any display in this miserable excuse for a bookstore. I have repeatedly told you of our accomplishments, and you repeatedly ignore them! What’s the world coming to when a legitimate literary organization cannot get the slightest bit of help from other institutions devoted to the fine arts?”

“Prill, I’ve explained—”

“And to think of all the work we’ve done in this provincial wasteland! Poetry readings in the park, poetry teas, round robins, socials—” He broke off. “Have you read Destinies, by our vice president, Emily Nesp?”

“Yes, I have and—”

“Then you must admit the work is superior to Tebling’s drivel.” He gestured with a large, well-manicured hand to the poetry section, where poet John Tebling’s best-selling volumes were artfully displayed amidst ribbons and dried flowers.

“It’s a pleasant enough piece, but—”

“Then display it! Promote it! Good heavens, sir, do I have to think of everything?”

“Will you let me finish a sentence?” When the big man gave a slight begrudging nod, Hayden said, “I’ve told you a dozen times we have limited space and many other works to consider. And frankly, I think Miss Nesp’s work is a bit overdone.”

Prill had just enough chin to quiver with indignation. “Overdone!”

“There are a lot of meaningless words strung together.” “Meaningless! Those phrases are dynamic! ‘The tearing limb of gratitude.’ ‘Blocks of Justice wrapped in faithful timeliness.’ ‘Fragrant withering spasmodic bells.’ Excellent phrases, sir! Magnificent!”

Hayden looked around for support, but Georgia hid behind the rack of postcards. The other customers melted into the background. “Just what exactly is a tearing limb of gratitude?”

“I shouldn’t have to explain anything to you. Good heavens, man, you’re a poet! You’re one of us.”

“Not really.”

Prill leaned on the counter. “Still stuck, are you? Serves you right. You’re a stumbling block for those of us climbing the ladder of success, a high wind assailing our delicate skimmers of fancy.” He paused as if expecting applause.“Does no one around here appreciate true talent?” He turned back to Hayden.  “So, how long has it been?” “Three months,” he said.

Prill made a face. “Well, I didn’t come here to talk about your troubles. What about FLUF? They deserve recognition.” He called over his shoulder. “Georgia, I know you’re back there. You are no help whatsoever.”

“Don’t look at me,” came a voice from behind the postcards. “I just own the place.”

“Hayden, I expect you to pull strings for me.”

“I can’t pull strings for you or anyone else,” he said. “Sorry.” “Then what good are you?” Hayden laughed. “I’ll buy you a drink.”

Prill flipped back his cape. “An offensive attempt at compromise, and one I shall accept. I warn you, though, I intend to continue to plead my case.” He looked around, saw me, and said, “Young lady, are you a poetry lover?”

“I like it well enough,” I said, “if it makes sense.” “Are you familiar with the work of Emily Nesp?” “No, I’m sorry. I’ve never heard of her.”

He glared at Hayden. “You see? If you’d had her work out where people could see it, this charming young visitor to our fair town would’ve been able to ascertain for herself the beauty and wonder of Miss Nesp’s verse.”

I could tell Hayden was trying not to laugh. “I read mysteries mostly,” I said.

“Ah, then maybe you can help Hayden solve the Mystery of the Writer’s Block. Wouldn’t that be nice, Hayden? Georgia, I must fly. I’ll meet you across the street, Hayden. Don’t be late.”

He sailed out. Georgia chuckled. “I hope Gregory didn’t scare you off. He’s all wind.”

“He was very entertaining,” I said. “I’m Madeline Maclin.” “Georgia Taylor. I think I’ve seen you in the store before.” “Yes, I try to stop in whenever I’m in town.”

“I’m Hayden Amry,” the young man said.

“I actually do solve mysteries.” He had a wonderful smile. “So if you have one….”

“I don’t think you can help with this one. I haven’t had an idea in three months. I’m beginning to think I’ll never write anything again.”

“Now, now,” Georgia said. “None of that. He tends to get depressed,” she said to me. “All that artistic temperament. It’s unhealthy.”

Hayden smiled at her obvious concern. “It wouldn’t be so bad except Shana’s on the best-seller list every week. It compounds the failure.”

“Shana?” I said. “Shana Fairbourne. That’s my wife, and that’s her display over there.”

I turned to look at the large display of paperback books featuring bright red covers with stylized gold flames around embossed hearts. Shiny gold letters proclaimed in bold letters: Flames, the Provocative New Novel by Shana Fairbourne, Best-Selling Author of Suppressed Desires. I picked up one of the books. Shana Fairbourne’s picture was on the back. She was a stunning redhead.

A gorgeous wife. Okay. Talk about suppressed desires. “‘Fairbourne’ was Shana’s agent’s idea,” Hayden said.  “He didn’t care for Fields, Shana’s maiden name. Too plain, he said. And Amry was too odd. Thank goodness Shana had an exotic first name, or they’d have to invent one.”

“I’m sorry to say I’ve never read any of her books, either.” “They’re what the industry calls ‘bodice rippers,’ big sprawling sex stories set against some historical background.”

The kind of book I never read. “And what do you write?” “When I write, I write short poems that take me months to finish.”

Not something I’d read, either. “Well, I’m sure you’ll get inspiration again.”

“Thanks,” he said. “Are you in town for the pageant?”

“My friend and I came to see about the Eberlin house. His uncle left it to him.”

I was surprised to see Hayden Amry turn pale. “My goodness.

He’s not planning to live there, is he?” “Is there something wrong with it?”

“Now, now,” Georgia said to Hayden. “Don’t start putting ideas into her head. Ms. Maclin, Hayden believes in ghosts, but I don’t. You have a big old house outside of town so naturally everyone invents stories. Val Eberlin was a very nice man. He was in here often. I was very sorry to hear he’d passed away.”

“Can you tell me anything else about him? Jerry only met him when he was a child, and there aren’t many clues at the house.”

“Well, I know he liked cornflakes. Tessie Newall down at Food City says she never saw somebody buy so many boxes. He was always real polite, paid with cash. Let’s see. Occasionally he attended First Baptist Church. He always bought Girl Scout cookies from Averall Mercer’s niece. Just a nice man.”

“Yes, he was,” Hayden said. “I apologize. The house has always looked a little scary to me.”

“It looks scary to me, too,” I said.

Georgia straightened the stack of free bookmarks on the counter. “The nephew’s name is Jerry, you said?”

“Jerry Fairweather.” “And what does he do?”

As little as possible. “I guess you’d say he’s a sort of consultant.”

“Well, he’s welcome in Celosia, and you, too, dear. Are you a consultant, too?”

“In a way. I’m a private investigator.”

Hayden smiled. “So you weren’t kidding about solving mys- teries.”

“Actually, I’m looking for work, if you hear of anyone need- ing my services. I was just talking with Evan James about the trouble he’s having with the pageant.”

Georgia shook her head. “Pageants. Silly things.”

“I don’t know much about them,” Hayden said, “but if you can help Evan, that would be great. He worries about every little thing.”

“Like someone else I know,” Georgia said.

A small, hunched man slid two copies of TV Guide onto the counter and spoke to Hayden in a low voice. “Hear you have ghosts.”

“Yes, I do,” he said. “How did you find out?”

The man tapped his forehead, his long mustache drooping. “The alien network is always humming with news.” He nodded wisely and looked both ways before adding, “Want my advice?”

“Yes, of course.”

He lowered his voice even further. “Bread crumbs.” Okay.

“Any particular kind?” Hayden asked.

“White works best. You sprinkle them near all entry  ways. Ghosts won’t come in.”

“Thanks, I’ll try it.” He rang up the magazines and put them in a bag.

The man handed him several limp, faded dollars. “I’m going to a high council tonight. I’ll ask them what to do, and I’ll stop by some night. How about Friday?”

“I’d appreciate that, Bummer.”

Bummer nodded again and went out. Georgia came around to the register. “Mr. Stevenson was quite chatty.”

“He was in the mood to talk, I guess.”

“He likes you, Hayden. You’re always so patient with him.” “Well, I feel a little sorry for him,” he said. “Nobody believes his stories about being abducted by UFOs. What if he’s telling the truth? Stranger things have happened.” “Is his name really Bummer?” I asked.

“He likes to be called that,” Georgia said. “He tiptoed through one too many mushroom fields in the Sixties, dear.” She patted Hayden’s arm. “I’m so glad I have Hayden to handle all my eccentrics.”

Another customer came to the register, and Hayden went to help her. I found the magazine I wanted, paid and left the store. Across the street from Georgia’s Books was a drug store remodeled to resemble a drug store of the Fifties, complete with soda fountain, jukebox, ceiling fans, and booths with red vinyl seats. I sat down on one of the red vinyl stools at the counter. Gregory Prill got up from a booth and sat on the stool beside me.

“Allow me to buy you a drink, Ms. Maclin. I must atone for my boorish behavior in the bookstore.”

“No problem,” I said.

He snapped his fingers at the girl behind the counter. “Annie.

Two Cokes, please, and make them sing.”

Annie rolled her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

Gregory Prill fixed his bulging gaze on me. “Now then. Tell all. No secret is safe in Celosia. You’ve been seen on the street, so the town is abuzz. Who are you, and who is the cute man with you?”

I handed him one of my cards. “Madeline Maclin of Madeline Maclin Investigations. The cute man is my friend Jerry Fairweather, Val Eberlin’s nephew and new owner of the dreaded Eberlin house.”

“Nicely put.” He frowned at the card, looked at me, and frowned again. “You know, my dear, I think I’ve seen you. I do enjoy frequenting these little beauty pageants, and if I’m not mistaken, you were once a queen.”

Once a queen, always a queen. “Miss Parkland.”

“I knew it.” His frown took in my tee shirt, jeans, and sneakers. “But, my dear, this ensemble is so not you. Are you in disguise?”

“Let me put it this way,” I said. “If I never see another pageant, it will be too soon.”

“Ah,” he said. “Burnout. Understandable.” He turned my card around in his long fingers. “This is a serious business, then. You’re for hire?”

“Yes.”

Annie brought our Cokes. Prill thanked her and passed me a straw. “Good. I have a job for you.”

Two jobs in less than an hour. Could my luck finally be changing? “What can I do for you?”

“Not for me, for Hayden. The poor boy’s convinced his house is haunted.”

And two haunted houses in less than a day. “Why would he think that?”

“Because he sees things that aren’t there. Dinosaur monsters, ghostly women outside his window.”

Hayden needed to meet Jerry.

Gregory Prill reached beneath the folds of his cape and pulled out his wallet. “I want you to find out what’s going on in Hayden’s house. Something’s set him off, and I’m certain it isn’t a ghost. If someone’s playing a trick, it’s a very cruel one. What’s your fee?” I told him, and he handed me some money. “A retainer, if you will.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This is my first case of ghostbusting, but I’ll do my best.”

Gregory Prill, oddly enough, fixed me with his big goldfish eyes and said something I didn’t realize I wanted to hear.

“I know, my dear Madeline. I have every faith in you.”

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