A Hard Bargain: A Madeline Maclin Mystery #2

A Hard Bargain: A Madeline Maclin Mystery #2

After solving her first big murder case in the small town of Celosia, North Carolina, Madeline Maclin hopes at last to be taken seriously as a private investigator. She's opened ...

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

This case started with a hamburger, specifically a double deluxe three-cheese hamburger with tomato and pickle at Deely’s Burger World. Jerry and I were having a late breakfast in town while Nell finished painting the upstairs bedrooms at the Eberlin house. Nell’s smoldering gaze had warned me I’d better get Jerry out of the way before she stapled him to the wall. Since he’d already knocked over one paint can and torn the drop cloth, I understood her concern.

Jerry hit the bottom of the ketchup bottle with unnecessary force. “I don’t know why she doesn’t want me to help. It’s my house.”

“Because you create more mess than you’re worth,” I said just as a huge glop of ketchup fell on his plate, splattering his dragon-patterned tie. “Get over it. Besides, I want you to see my new office.”

The letters “Madeline Maclin, Private Investigations” weren’t quite dry on the door of my new office in the Arrow Insurance Building on Main Street. I had a desk, though, and a filing cabinet. All I needed now were cases to solve.

Jerry tried to wipe the ketchup off his tie and succeeded in adding new shades of red to the already garish dragons. Since it was a sultry Monday morning in July, he’d left his jacket at home and rolled up the sleeves of his light green shirt. I’d opted for khaki shorts and a pink tank top.

“Any jobs yet?” he asked.

“No, but lots of interested phone calls.”

“You should have tons of cases. Everybody knows you caught Juliet Lovelace’s killer.”

Two weeks ago, ex-beauty queen Kimberly Dawn Williams had been convicted of the murder of aspiring beauty queen Juliet Lovelace. Juliet’s death had been only the second murder in ten years in Celosia.

“That doesn’t translate into more work for me,” I said. “Although, I’d be happy with missing objects and philandering spouses.”

Most of the phone calls to my new detective agency were offers to judge local beauty pageants or coach contestants. My fame as a past Miss Parkland had caught up with me. People take one look and assume I’m only useful strutting down a runway. It doesn’t matter that I’ve cut my hair shorter than Jerry’s and just wear sunscreen on my face. Something about me screams “Beauty Queen.” I have my mother to thank for that.

I must have let my glum thoughts show on my sunscreened face, because Jerry looked sympathetic.

“It’ll work out, Mac. Just give it a little more time.”

Jerry is rarely serious, and even when he is, he still looks so damn cute I could glob ketchup all over him and eat him up. He’s the main reason I can’t go back to Parkland. Our friendship is teetering on the brink of full-fledged romance, but we can’t seem to get in sync. When we met ten years ago in college, Jerry was ready for a relationship, but I was involved with an art career that never got past one disastrous exhibit. Then, a few weeks ago, I was just about to declare myself when Jerry told me something that made me back off. He believes he’s responsible for the fire that killed his parents. Until I solve this mystery, I’m going to have to keep my feelings inside.

It’ll work out. Just give it a little more time.

I hope those are prophetic words, Jerry Fairweather.

Burger World filled up. People waved and smiled and said hello. Gwen Macmillan, a tiny little woman with her hair cut in an unflattering bowl style, stopped by our table and spoke to Jerry.

“Don’t forget to look up that incantation for me, Jerry. I want really big tomatoes this year.”

“I’ll have it for you by the end of the week, I promise.”

She patted his hand. “Good, good. I’ve got a cousin who beats me every year at the county fair, and this time, I’m going to be ready for her. How are you today, Madeline?”

“Fine, thanks.”

“You keep this young man on task. Make sure he finds the right spell for me. I intend to win as many blue ribbons as I can.”

She went to the counter to pick up her order. I swung a skeptical gaze to Jerry. “You’re using spells to grow vegetables now?” He grinned. “It’s  just some advice out of an old almanac. Gwen likes to think there’s magic involved.”

“You’re not getting involved in witchcraft, are you?” Jerry has a distressing habit of running scams, the more paranormal, the better. “That’s all you need.”

Before he could answer, Delores Epstein, who goes by the nickname Twenty, came bustling up. As usual, Twenty was dressed like a runway model in some alien fashion show. Her skirt had zigzag stripes of lime green and pink, and her off-the- shoulder blouse was lined with tiny red beads that jingled and clacked together like the rows of bracelets on her arms. Today, her hair was the sort of orange you see on traffic cones.

“Hello, Madeline. Hello, Jerry. Have you two heard the latest news? We’re all going to be in the movies!”

“We are?” I said.

She slid into the booth next to Jerry. “I heard it from Lois at the beauty parlor. A film company is coming to Celosia to do a movie, and they’re going to need tons of extras. And guess who’s starring in the movie? Lance Henderson! Isn’t this exciting?”

I’d heard that name before. “Lance Henderson. Wasn’t he on ‘Sheriff of the Plains’ back in the Fifties?”

“And ‘Destinies,’ and ‘From These Hills,’ and ‘Jupiter’s Moons.’ I absolutely love him. Do you suppose Laura Costos will be with him? Oh, I’d die to see those two in person.”

I wouldn’t exactly die, but it would be interesting to see how old Lance and Laura were holding out these days. For a while, they starred in every big-budget TV movie and mini-series. Lance was a solid, square-jawed man with minimal acting skills. Laura got by on the strength of her wild green eyes and a couple of other outstanding features.

Jerry offered Twenty a french fry. “I remember ‘Jupiter’s Moons.’ Didn’t he play the captain?”

“Oh, yes. He’s so dashing.”

“Why would he be coming here?”

“I’m not certain of all the details, but I think the director is looking for an unspoiled small town. This will put Celosia on the map.”

Jerry brightened. “It could really help the Eberlin house.”

I tried not to sigh out loud. Jerry’s uncle Val left him the Eberlin house, eyesore of Celosia, and to my amazement, he’s decided to fix it up and live in it. So far, Jerry has decided the house would be a perfect New Age retreat, a haunted bed and breakfast, and a murder mystery tour. Movie stars in the neighborhood would not help my cause.

And what is my cause? To convince Jerry to find a real job and leave all the psychic nonsense alone. This is not just an uphill battle. This is a climb-several-hills-and-cross-many-valleys-during-a-hurricane battle. I watched as he chatted animatedly with Twenty. Now his gray eyes gleamed with a light I knew and feared. Jerry was about to have an idea.

“Wait a minute! I just thought of something terrific. What if the director needs a big old house for his movie? The Eberlin house would make a great set.”

Twenty, curse her, said, “Oh, you’re right! It would be perfect.”

“There’s plenty of room if the actors want to stay there. Then we could bill the house as ‘Seen in so and so’s  production   of “Small Town,”’ or whatever he’s going to call it. That would be excellent.” He wiped his hands on his napkin and dug in his pocket for his wallet. “When is the film company coming to Celosia?”

“I don’t know,” Twenty said. “You could check with the Chamber of Commerce.”

Jerry tossed some bills on the table. “Come on, Mac.” “Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Let me finish my cheeseburger. It might be the last calm meal I have for a while.”

“If this works out, we could advertise the house to other film companies. We might even get an entire film industry going, just like Wilmington’s.”

Twenty said, “Wouldn’t that be exciting? I’ll see you later. Must dash.”

Twenty hurried off to spread the news. I couldn’t see sleepy little Celosia as the next Hollywood East, but then, I hadn’t expected to find murder here, either.

Jerry gulped down the remains of his soda. “Let’s go.” “Think about this,” I said, which is useless to say once Jerry’s got a plan.

“But this is great publicity. Once word gets around that the Eberlin house was seen in a movie, people will want to come tour it. We can use the haunted house angle, or the attempted murder angle. Either one is golden.”

I was still trying to head Jerry off. “The director might not need a big old country house in his movie.”

“That’s what we need to find out.”

I was about to say something else, but reconsidered. Jerry looked at me impatiently. Even then, I had to admire his youthful face and wide gray eyes and the mouth I longed to kiss.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Better believe it, buster. “Okay, let’s go.”

# # #

We walked the short distance up to Main Street. Thanks to a great bookstore, a drug store that recreates the soda fountains of the Fifties, and several other clever and creative artsy shops, Celosia’s Main Street is alive and well, despite the Wal-Mart hovering at the edge of the city limits and the close proximity of Parkland, one of North Carolina’s largest cities. The Chamber of Commerce has its offices in a neat little building across the street beside the First Savings Bank and Trust. Although there’s not a lot of traffic, Jerry and I were waiting at the corner for the light to change when I heard a glad cry from down the street.

“Madeline!”

I looked and wished I hadn’t.

“Oh, wow,” Jerry said. “It’s the Pageantoids.” “What the hell are they doing here?” I said.

“Ten bucks says they’ll mention ‘visiting queen.’”

The two people who charged down the sidewalk looked aver- age and sane, but I knew from long experience they are two of the craziest people in North Carolina—possibly in the world. Jerry nicknamed them the “Pageantoids” because although they never compete, they live and breathe beauty pageants and all the attendant fuss. I’d met them years ago when I was serving time as a Junior Miss. I’d made the mistake of being polite to these groupies. Now they feel they know me well enough to shriek and gush whenever they see me.

Cathy Sloop, a plump, bug-eyed woman, got to me first. “Madeline, you look fabulous! We just knew that was you. I told Mitch that was you.”

Mitch Hutton, bone-thin and balding, shook my hand. “We heard you were in Celosia, and we thought we’d come see for ourselves. We heard you’d given up pageants and left Parkland to run a detective agency here. Is this true?”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Do you know my friend, Jerry Fairweather? We were on our way to a meeting, weren’t we, Jerry? It’s very nice to see you.”

It was a good try, but not good enough. The Pageantoids stood in disbelief, blocking our way.

Cathy Sloop’s eyes bugged out even further. “A detective agency? But why? You had a shot at Miss North Carolina, even Miss America!”

“Anyone can be a detective,” Mitch Hutton said, “but very few people have the looks and the talent to win a major beauty contest.”

“We thought you were here for the Miss Celosia Pageant,” Cathy said. “Wasn’t that a few Saturdays ago?”

Before I could explain that the pageant had been cancelled, Mitch said, “I can’t imagine you being a detective. It’s so dirty and low-class. Don’t you have to sit in your car for hours outside crummy hotels?”

Jerry came to my defense. “Mac just solved a murder here in town.”

The Pageantoids looked at me with horror.

“A murder?” Cathy said. “Wasn’t that dangerous?”

“Not really.” No need to go into detail about gunshots and deadly hairspray. “But the Miss Celosia Pageant was cancelled.”

This horrified them even more than the idea of murder.

Mitch stared at me. “Cancelled? But Celosia’s had one of the longest-running pageants in the state! Since 1983, right, Cathy?”

Cathy shook her head. “1984. Did they reschedule, Madeline?”

“No.”

“Now that’s a crime! What about the other girls?”

I truly resent the way pageant contestants are referred to as “girls.” You might as well go all the way and call them “bitches,” as announcers call female dogs in dog shows.

“They’ll get over it. It was good seeing you again, but I really need to go.”

Cathy Sloop clutched my arm. “You can’t possibly consider detecting as a career. The pageant world needs you, Madeline. I wish you could see the pitiful group of girls we have this year for Miss Parkland. We’re on a mission to recruit someone who can win it all, and that someone is you.”

I pried her off. “That’s very flattering, but I’ve aged out of the Miss Parkland category.”

This stopped them only a few minutes.

“But you could be a consultant,” Mitch said. “Or a  judge. Or at least a visiting queen.”

I ignored Jerry’s snicker and said, “No, thanks. Excuse me, please. I really have to go.”

Jerry and I left them on the sidewalk, still talking about their next plan of action.

“Don’t look back,” I said.

When we were a safe distance away, Jerry held out his hand.

“Pay up.”

I ignored this. “I can’t believe those two are in town. Don’t they have lives?”

“Everybody has a hobby,” he said. “Their hobby just happens to be you.”

A blast of cool air greeted us as Jerry opened the Chamber of Commerce office door. “Forget the Pageantoids. We’re on a mission here, remember?”

Patricia Hargrave, the Chamber’s secretary, confirmed the rumor. Yes, a film crew was sending a scout this weekend, and yes, Lance Henderson was scheduled to star in the movie. She wasn’t quite sure when he would arrive.

“But we are very pleased Voltage Films has chosen Celosia,” she said. She patted her hair and adjusted her collar as if preening for a screen test.

“Do you know what kind of movie they’re planning?” Jerry asked.

“No, but the director promised to meet with the city council as soon as he got here. His name is Josh Gaskins. He sounded very nice on the phone. I wonder if he’s related to the Gaskins up at Middleton? Oh, by the way, Madeline,” she said. “I may have a job for you. You find lost objects, don’t you?”

“I try,” I said. “What have you lost?”

“My very best umbrella. I know I had it last week when I went to church, and I know I had it when I went to the monthly sing along at the theater, but I can’t find it anywhere.”

It was a struggle, but I remained professional. “What color is it?”

“It’s red and has a duck head handle. It’s really the best umbrella I’ve ever had. It opens so smoothly, and it dries off in minutes. I bought it out of Riverside Rural catalog. I suppose I could order another, but they’re all out of red.”

“I’ll see what I can do, Patricia.”

She looked worried. “Do you charge a lot for something like this?”

“Consider it a favor.”

“Thank you, Madeline. That’s very generous. I know you want to get established here in town.”

And if it takes finding red umbrellas with duck head handles, then I’ll do it. “I’ll look around and get back to you.”

Jerry had managed to keep a straight face during all this. He waited until we were back on the street before laughing.

“Could you call this an open and shut case?” “Only if I find the damn thing.”

“Sorry, Mac. Life can’t be all thefts and murder.”

“If finding her umbrella brings me some good P.R. and more business, I can’t complain.” It wasn’t the kind of business I’d hoped for, but I had to remind myself this was Celosia, not Parkland, and I’d made the choice to move here. Still, I didn’t want all my cases to be so dinky.

Jerry and I walked back down Main Street toward my office.

“Voltage Films,” he said. “I’ve never heard of them.” “I’ll bet Georgia would know.”

We stopped in Georgia’s Books, the large, exceptionally well-stocked bookstore on Main Street, and asked the owner, Georgia Taylor, if she’d ever heard of Voltage Films. Georgia is a slim, efficient woman of about sixty with auburn tinted hair and half glasses she wears on a pearl necklace. She peered over her glasses.

“They’re probably listed in one of the film guides.” She pointed. “Right down there next to the movie magazines.”

We looked in several guides before finding a listing for Voltage Films.

“‘A small, independent company specializing in thought- provoking and experimental films,’” Jerry read aloud. “‘Recent films include “Heart Songs,” “Cabbages on the Windowsill,” and “The Ever-Prevailing Theory of Invisibility.”’” He grimaced. “Doesn’t sound like they make the kind of movies that go well with popcorn.”

“If they pay well for the use of the house, that won’t matter.”

“That’s true, but I was kind of hoping for something more exciting than cabbages on the windowsill.”

“I’m sure that’s a metaphor for blood, guts, and fast cars.”

Georgia had followed us down the aisle. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“Yes, thanks,” I said.

“Has it anything to do with the movie company that’s coming here? I haven’t seen the town in such an uproar.”

“Yes, Voltage Films is the name of the company.”

“Well, they haven’t even gotten here yet, and they’re already causing a wealth of confusion.” She readjusted her half glasses. “Madeline, I may have a case for you.”

Great, I thought. She probably needs a subscription renewed. “Hayden and I have noticed some things out of place. I’m afraid we have a shoplifter. I was wondering if you could come in and walk around the store and keep an eye out for our culprit.” “Of course.”

“We think it’s one of the Yates boys, but we’re not sure. They’re usually in here in the late afternoon. I hate to accuse anyone, but I know my store and what’s in it, and things are not where they’re supposed to be.”

“When would you like me to start?”

“Whenever you could drop by. Hayden is coming in after lunch. He can tell you more about it.”

Jerry and I thanked her for the use of the video guide and left the store.

“Shoplifting. Now that’s more like it,” Jerry said. “Yep. A regular crime wave.”

We walked on to the Arrow Insurance building near the end of Main Street.

“Okay,” I said, “don’t expect much, but it’s a start.”

Once inside the building, we took a short walk down the hall to my office. Jerry admired the sign on the door.

“Wish I had my camera,” he said.

I unlocked the door and pushed it open for him to enter. I had a small but serviceable desk, a new beige filing cabinet, and two chairs, a swivel chair for me and a beige and green armchair for my clients.

Jerry plopped into the armchair. “This is nice. It’ll make people feel comfortable when discussing those embarrassing secrets.”

“I hope so.” I sat down in the swivel chair. “The computer and printer will be delivered next Monday. The phone lines are already in.”

The window offered a view of the side yard, grass and trees and the swing set in the backyard of the neighboring house, a far cry from my hot little cubicle in Parkland. There, I had a splendid view of bricks.

Jerry looked around at the bare walls. “Any plans for decoration?”

“How about a big picture of me as Miss Parkland? That would inspire confidence.”

He grinned. “I was thinking a couple of original landscapes would brighten up the place.”

My glare warned him to drop the subject. At one time, I’d dreamed of a career as an artist. Lately, the urge had surfaced, but I kept pushing it down. The memory of my one disastrous show was still too painful.

“Maybe I’ll just get a big fish, like Ted,” I said.

As if invoking his name called him to my door, Ted Stacy looked in and said, “I thought I heard you in here. Good morning. Hi, Jerry. What do you think?”

“This is really nice,” Jerry said. “We were just saying all it needs a big fish on the wall.”

“Oh, I’ve got a new one. Come have a look.”

We walked next door to Ted’s office. An impressive sailfish was mounted above the bookcase.

“Wow, that is neat,” Jerry said. “Took me five hours to land.”

As the guys talked about fishing, I indulged in one of my ongoing comparisons, in a desperate attempt to talk myself out of wanting Jerry. Here’s Ted Stacy, tall, dark, handsome, and successful, a real Southern gentleman, who arranged for me to rent the empty office in his building, who took me to dinner, complimented me, and made me feel welcome in Celosia with- out feeling I owed him anything in return.

And here’s Jerry. He’s not as tall as Ted, which means he’s not as tall as I am. His light brown hair has a tendency to stray. He could easily be the poster child for attention deficit disorder. He enjoys making people think he has connections with the spirit world and will relieve them of their money if they let him.

But that smile. Damn.

Ted finished his fish tale. “So I guess you’ve heard about the movie.”

“Yeah,” Jerry said. “I’m hoping they’ll use the Eberlin house for a set.”

“Depends on what kind of movie they’re making. I thought it was going to be one of those slice of life pictures where nothing happens but a lot of talking.”

“There has to be at least one car chase, or I’m not interested.”

“Excuse me?”

A timid voice made us turn. A dark-haired woman stood in the doorway clutching a large pocketbook. “I’d like to speak to Madeline Maclin,” she said.

“I’m Madeline Maclin,” I said. “What can I do for you?” She looked anxiously at Jerry and Ted.

“Please come to my office,” I said.

The woman came into my office and sat down where Jerry had been sitting. “I’ve never hired a detective before. I’m not sure if I need one.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

She kept the pocketbook in her lap as if using it for a shield. “Well, it’s not exactly a problem now, but it’s going to be. My name is Frannie Thomas, and about six months ago, I let a man named Kirby Willet store some things in my downstairs guestroom. I wasn’t using it, and he needed a place to keep some things. I thought I was doing him a favor.”

“But he hasn’t come back for his stuff.”

Her eyes went wide. “Yes. How did you know?” “I had a roommate like that once.”

“See, I didn’t really mind at first, but now my mother’s coming to live with me, and I need that room for her and her things.” I had this solved already. Frannie Thomas was too shy to confront this freeloader. “You’d like someone to contact Mister Willet and tell him to come get his property.”

“That would be great, except I don’t know where he is.” “He didn’t leave an address or phone number?”

“Oh, yes, but the phone’s been disconnected, and there’s no one living at that address anymore.”

“What kind of stuff are we talking about? Clothes?  Books?

Anything of value?”

She clutched her pocketbook tighter. “I don’t know. It’s all in boxes. I haven’t looked in them. I don’t want to go snooping through his things. I just want him to come get all that out of my room.”

“Okay. Why did you agree to store his things in the first place?”

“My friend Bernice Coleman told Kirby I had extra space in my house. He seemed like a nice man, just a little down on his luck. I wanted to help him out.”

“Your friend Bernice doesn’t know where he is?”

“No one knows where he is, and I haven’t the slightest idea of how to look for him. That’s when I thought of you. I figured if you found Juliet Lovelace’s murderer, you could find Kirby Willet.”

I was glad I already had a good reputation in town, but Juliet’s case had been overloaded with suspects. This case had the slimmest of clues. Still, it was a case. “I’ll need to have a look at the boxes. There might be something in one that can help me locate Mister Willet.”

“Can you come tomorrow afternoon around four? I’ll be over at mother’s till then helping her pack.”

We agreed on a time and my fee. Frannie Thomas took her pocketbook and left. I went back to Ted’s office. Ted and Jerry were still talking about fish.

“If you want to go fishing, the best place around here is Carson’s Lake. I’ve pulled bass out of there by the bucket loads.” Ted spread his hands apart. “One this big, I swear.”

“I have another case,” I said.

“Great,” Jerry said. “Murder? Kidnapping? Drug busting?” “Leftover boxes.”

“Boxes full of money?”

“That would be nice. Are you guys setting up a fishing trip?” “Next week, Carson’s Lake. Want to go?”

I tried to remember if I’d ever been fishing. “Sure.” And then I said something that always gets me into trouble. “I don’t think this case is going to take me very long.”

# # #

Jerry’s negotiating with his pal Buddy to buy Buddy’s Volkswagen Bug, so my blue Mazda’s been our only form of transportation lately. As we got in the car, I gave him a sideways look. “Speaking of money, how’s your cash flow these days?”

“Except for the ten bucks you owe me, no problem.”

I thought there was a big problem. Jerry has declined his share of the Fairweather fortune, but somehow always has plenty of money. I know whatever he charges for his séances and Ouija board readings couldn’t be enough to live on.

“When are you going to tell me about this mysterious bankroll of yours?”

“No mystery. I’m doing just fine, thanks.”

He wasn’t going to tell me, and I knew from past experience that nagging wouldn’t help. I changed the subject. “Did you look at the college catalogue?”

“Still thinking about that.”

In an attempt to steer Jerry in some direction, I’d suggested he take some classes at Parkland Community College. He’s never done anything with his history degree. I thought he’d make a good teacher. He’s smart and entertaining and likes kids. He’s even mentioned he might like teaching. That was several wild schemes ago, back before he inherited the Eberlin house. I refuse to give up. The fact that he’s kept the house and decided to live in it is a huge step toward settling down.

Celosia’s such a small town it doesn’t take long before you’re out in the country. A couple of turns, and we were on the road to the Eberlin house. Even though the July morning was hot, I left the windows down so I could smell the fresh air and honeysuckle. A few cows looked up as we passed the fields. Jerry, as was his custom, mooed at them. Kudzu vines twisted around the abandoned tobacco sheds and rail fences. We passed more fields until we came to our own, an expanse of long grass and clover that leads up to a large house surrounded by oak trees.

“Jerry, you’re right. The house would be perfect for a horror movie.”

He pretended to be insulted. “You have to admit it looks a lot better than the first time we saw it.”

“It still has a long way to go.” I saw a flash of gray and white as a mockingbird sailed over the daylilies to perch on the battered mailbox at the end of the driveway. “Too early for the mail?”

“I’ll check.”

I stopped, and he got out to see if the mail had come. I gave the house another look. I’m still staying in one of the upstairs bedrooms. At first, living in the same house as Jerry was a throwback to our co-ed college dorm. We ate junk food, we talked about our day, watched TV on his new giant screen television. We still do those things, but now that there’s a chance for a permanent relationship, I find myself thinking of the Eberlin house as home.

Jerry got back in the car. “Nope, not yet.” Not yet.

I drove up and parked beside the white van under the large trees in the front yard. We got out and walked up the porch steps.

“Let’s see what Nell’s done so far.” He pushed open the screen door and called up the stairs. “Nell, are you through yet?”

“Hold on,” came her voice. “I’m coming down.”

Nell had on her work clothes, grubby white paint-splattered overalls and sneakers. Her dirty blonde hair was stuck in a ponytail and covered with a white baseball cap. She gave Jerry a look from her small blue eyes. “Don’t touch anything till I say so.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And get me a beer.”

Jerry keeps a supply for her in the fridge. Nell followed us into the kitchen. Jerry got her a beer and one for himself. I chose a Diet Coke.

Nell popped her beer can open and took a swig. “So when’s this movie crew going to arrive in town?”

I haven’t been in Celosia a month, but already I’ve found out that Nell hears and knows everything. “Patricia’s going to let us know.”

Nell nodded. “Wouldn’t mind having a look at Lance Henderson. Been watching him for years.”

Jerry offered her a doughnut. “You might get the chance to work with him.”

She gave him another look and then glanced at me. “What’s shorty been up to now?”

“He thinks the house would make a good movie set.”

To my surprise, Nell agreed. She took a doughnut from the box. “Hadn’t thought of that, but it sure would. What kind of movie they making?”

“We don’t know, but it could be the start of something good.”

“Hmm.” Nell took another drink. “Oh, you had a call from your brother, junior. Wants you to call back. Something about a wedding.”

Jerry set his beer can on the table, his face suddenly serious. “Okay. Thanks.” He got up and left the kitchen.

Nell’s eyebrows lifted. “It’s a long story,” I said. “Not your wedding, is it?”

“No.”

“So tell all.”

“Tucker’s getting married in a few weeks, and he wants Jerry to come.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The wedding is going to be at the Fairweather    mansion.

Jerry hasn’t been back home in over twelve years.” “Family troubles?”

“Not exactly.” I wondered how much of Jerry’s strange history I needed to share with Nell and decided the answer was none.

She reached for a second doughnut. “So why don’t Tucker get married in a church?”

“I don’t know.”

“Seems like a fine detective such as yourself would find out.” “It’s really none of my business.”

She chuckled. “Everything about that man is your business, and you know it.” From the first day, Nell had seen right through me. She finished her doughnut and her beer and tossed the can into the recycle bin by the back door. “I’ve got floors to sand.”

I thought of something I needed to ask her. “Nell, has Jerry paid you for all this work?”

“Yep. All caught up.”

“I’m a little concerned where he’s getting his money.” “Ask him.”

“I have.”

She shrugged. “As long as I get paid, I don’t really care.” She cut her little eyes at me. “You think it’s dirty money?”

“I don’t know. I keep hoping he’ll tell me.” “Probably shaking down Bigfoot for some cash.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.”

Jerry was still on the phone, so I followed Nell upstairs. I admired the paint job she’d done in one of the guestrooms, a very nice light blue. Then I went to my room. The room’s very plain. I have a large bed, a dresser, and an old fashioned chair. The walls are still their original beige. I don’t spend a lot of time in it. I’m hoping to move across the hall into Jerry’s room.

Outside, a car horn honked. Movie people already? I went to the window to see who had come to visit. A tall rangy man with a hawk-like nose climbed out of a Buick sedan.

“Damn!” Rick Rialto, one of Jerry’s former partners in psychic schemes. Of all the people in the world, this was the last person I needed right now. The only word to describe Rick is “shifty.” He is shifty from his wiry black hair to his fake alligator shoes. He came up the front porch steps and knocked on the door.

“Mac, can you get that?” Jerry called.

Oh, I’ll get that, all right. I came down the stairs and opened the door. Rick grinned that grin that never reaches his shrewd dark eyes.

“Hello, Mac, old pal.”

Jerry’s the only one who can call me Mac. I gave Rick my frostiest stare. “Rick. What are you now?”

“Rick Rialto, Animal Psychic. Where’s J?”

I continued to block the door. “He’s on the phone.”

“They told me in town this is his place now.” He looked over my shoulder at the living room, which had been gray and Victorian and now, thanks to Nell, gleamed a modern blue and white. “Nice, very nice.”

“Thanks.”

“And you two are what? Married? Living together?” “Friends.”

He smirked. “Still friends after all these years. That’s so sweet.”

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Nothing. I was in the neighborhood and just stopped by to see my old pal.”

I didn’t believe him for a minute. “Celosia’s a little off the beaten track for you.”

“I’ll say. What a hick town. But that’s to my advantage.” Jerry came up behind me and I had to stand aside. “Yo, Rick!

What brings you to the country?”

“I kinda wore out my welcome in Charlotte.” The two men shook hands and smacked each other on the back. “You’ve   got a great setup here, J. Nifty old house. Must be perfect for séances.”

“Thanks,” Jerry said. “We’re  working on it. Come on    in.

You want a drink?”

Rick interpreted my stare and grinned again. “Nah, just stopping by to see what’s up. Anybody around Celosia got a troubled pet? Goldfish a bit peaked? Cat coughing up too many hairballs?”

“Not that I know of.”

“This animal psychic deal is the best. People will believe anything you tell them about their pets. You’ve got tons of room out here. We could do cows and sheep and everything.”

“We’re kind of hoping the movie folks will want to use the house.”

“Oh, yeah, I heard about that. More gold, pal. Those actor types are way into astrology. Some of them have their own personal psychics.” He snapped his fingers. “Hey! We could get on board with this crew, whadda ya say?”

“Sure.”

I’d forgotten how easily Rick could sway Jerry. Most of the time Jerry comes up with his own wacky ideas. He doesn’t need Rick’s dubious input.

“Can you stay for supper?” Jerry asked. “I’ve got a grill out back. We can do hot dogs, steaks, whatever you like.”

“Can’t stay tonight. Got a few things cooking of my   own.

Just touching base with you. I’ll stop by tomorrow.” “Okay, great.”

I walked Rick out to his car to make sure he got in and drove away. He paused, one hand on the door. He grinned.

“You don’t like me, do you, Mac?”

“Not especially,” I said. “And it’s Madeline.”

He put on a little boy voice. “Gee, Miz Maclin, I didn’t mean to keep Jerry out so late. We were just riding our bikes backwards down Dead Man’s Hill.”

“Very funny.”

“It was Jerry’s idea to put that bag of flaming shit on Old Man Robbins’ doorstep, but I totally claim letting the air out of Coach Bob’s tires.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

He switched back to his own voice. “This is harmless, Madeline. All we have to do is tell people how wonderful they are. Actors are paranoid with low self-esteem. They love compliments.”

“But you take their money under false pretenses.” “Always have, always will.”

“I don’t think Jerry should get mixed up in this.”

He shrugged. “I can do it with or without him. Just thought he might like a piece of the action.”

“He doesn’t need your kind of action.”

His grin turned into a smirk. “You’ve convinced him to go straight, have you?”

“Well, let me put it this way, Rick. I’ve convinced him to take up the piano again.”

The smirk disappeared. “No way. He was through with music.”

At that moment, the sweeping melody of “Till There Was You” came from the parlor. Jerry couldn’t have timed it better. Rick’s mouth dropped open.

“He’s playing for ‘The Music Man’ in town,” I said. “He gets in about two or three hours of practice every day. Sometimes he just plays for the hell of it.”

Rick looked at me with a new respect. “Well, I’ll be damned. Maybe you and I should team up. If you can do this, you can do anything.”

“I believe you were leaving.”

He gave me another grin and a salute and left. I went into the house, planning to sit in the parlor and listen to the music, but the phone rang.

“I’ll get it,” I said. I picked up the phone on the coffee table. “Hello. Eberlin house, Madeline Maclin speaking.”

“Oh, good,” a woman’s voice said. “You’re the very one I need to speak to. You’re the detective, right?”

“Yes. What can I do for you?”

“My name is Joan Ribileau. I’m head librarian at the Celosia Public Library, and I could certainly use your help. Do you suppose you could stop by some time today?”

Another case! Things were picking up. “Certainly,” I said. “I can come right now, if that’s convenient.”

“Wonderful. I’ll be at the front desk.”

I hung up and went to the parlor. Jerry brought “Till There Was You” to a close. “I’ve got another case,” I told him.

He took his pencil and made a mark in the music. “Told you things would get better.”

“The music sounds really good.”

“Thanks.” He turned the pages until he found “Lida Rose.” “I think this one’s my favorite.”

I wondered if he and Rick had something going he wasn’t telling me about. “Kind of odd for Rick to show up here, isn’t it?” “Yeah, I haven’t seen him since we had the Take Your Picture With a Live Unicorn business.”

“This pet psychic thing sounds pretty lame.”

“Worth a try. I’d rather see what I can drum up with the film crew, though.”

“Everything okay with Tucker?”

He kept his expression neutral. “Oh, yeah. Everything’s fine.”

He started playing “Lida Rose,” but I know “Don’t Talk to Me About This” when I hear it. However, if he thought this was the end of our discussion, he was mistaken.

I waited a few minutes and then reached over and closed the book. “Jerry, if you want me to find out what happened to your parents, you’re going to have to be a little more helpful.”

He stopped playing. “I don’t know what to tell you.” “Well, for starters, you could come back to the house  with

me and look around. You might remember something.” “That’s the trouble,” he said. “I don’t remember anything about it except what Harriet told me.”

“Did she tell you you were responsible for the fire?”

He paused as if thinking back over the years. “I knew I’d done something very wrong, but she told me everything was okay. She would take care of things. She would take care of us.”

“But I don’t understand. Did you have your own flamethrower? Were you building fires in the living room?”

“I liked playing with matches.”

I took a deep breath. “Whew. Well, that’s not good.” “I’d already been spanked for it twice.”

“So you think maybe you were playing with them again and started the fire.”

“I don’t know what else to think. There was a fire, my parents were killed, Harriet took what was left of our family and did the best she could.”

I sat down beside him on the piano bench. “Isn’t it possible something else caused the fire, and Harriet either didn’t know what it was, or knew and decided to cover up the truth?”

“But why would she do that?”

“That’s what I’m trying to find out, but you have to cooper- ate. You’re going to have to talk to Harriet.”

“Oh, man.”

“Unless there’s someone else who knows what happened.” He finally managed a smile. “That’s why I hired you.” “I’m not sure you can afford me.”

“Oh, yes, I can.”

“Which brings us back to your mystery bank.” “It’s the Harriet Fairweather Savings and Loan.”

I was so surprised I almost fell off the piano bench. “What? Harriet sends you money?”

“She said she’d always take care of us, and she has.”

I couldn’t believe he told me. “But you swore up and down you didn’t want any of the family money.”

“And she made me swear up and down I’d never tell. So you’d better not let on.” I was gaping at him, so he said, “I’m cooperating here.”

“And I appreciate it. Does she bankroll Des and Tucker, too?”

“No, they have their own money.”

I was still trying to process this information. “She just sends you money.”

“Yes, every month. Fire insurance.”

“Jerry.” The fact he could make a joke, even a black one, was encouraging.

“Well, obviously, I need help.”

I thought there could be another reason Harriet felt the need to be generous. “You do need help, and I’m going to help you. Call Harriet and tell her to expect us very soon.” I opened the music book and smoothed the pages. “Then you can get back to ‘Lida Rose.’”

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