Murder is no laughing matter--especially when it comes to marriage. So before Luanne gets in too deep with her new flame, a dentist named Dick, she'd like her best friend to do a background check. Did Dick murder his two previous wives? That's what Arkansas bookseller and amateur sleuth Claire Malloy intends to discover...
Everything Claire turns up on this would-be blue-beard keeps leading her down a slippery slope. The police are determined to prove Dick guilty of double homicide, but Claire's not so sure. Something about his story just doesn't add up. But if Dick didn't do the deed, who did? The only thing Claire knows for sure is that Luanne won't have a moment's rest until she finds out...
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November 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Tickled to Death by Joan Hess
"No," Luanne said after a goodly amount of thought, "I don't suppose he's the perfect potential mate. There's a possibility he murdered his wife."
"I suppose that could be considered a flaw," I said as I stared across the picnic table at a woman who heretofore had seemed a singular beacon of sanity in a world beset with neon. We were sitting in the beer garden on a balmy June evening for the first time in several weeks. We usually met every Wednesday, but I'd been badgered night and day by my spotty old accountant, who reputedly glows in the dark during tax season, and for most of a month I'd been hiding out in either the back of my bookstore or my bathtub (sessions in the former dictate sessions in the latter). I finally found my voice and said, "Exactly how strong is this possibility?"
"The whole thing's absurd, but the investigator from the sheriff's office continues to pester Dick several times a week. The poor baby--and I don't mean this captain, who's an anal-retentive jerk--is getting an ulcer, and his performance in the sack is indicative of his stress. Were I a saint, I wouldn't even notice, but it's become a factor."
I was perplexed by Luanne's attitude. She'd survived a divorce and a migration from a wealthy Connecticut suburb to distinctly middle-class Farberville, an amiable town of several thousand college students and twenty-odd thousand civilians. She presumably made enough money from her funky used-clothing store, Secondhand Rose, to keep herself in beer and pretzels. Her hair was dramatic--black with streaks of silver. Her Yankee-boarding-school accent was rarely discernible. And she was in the midst of an affair with a man who might have murdered his wife.
I replenished my cup from the pitcher, then said, "You're quite sure he didn't?"
"Dick wouldn't step on a spider. He's a pedodontist, and he spends his days putting braces on little teeth for great big fees. He donates time to a community clinic, attends the Episcopal church on major holidays, and calls his mother every Sunday night. He's a decent golfer and an avid racquetball player. He makes his own pesto. He can sew a button on a shirt. Does this sound like the r?sum? of a murderer?"
"Then why does the investigator keep implying that he is?" I asked with impressive reasonableness."Surely there must be some sort of case."
"Becca died in a boating accident, but Captain Gannet is determined to prove Dick masterminded it."
"A boating accident?"
Luanne automatically reached for a pack of cigarettes that was not there, sighed, and began to shred a napkin. "Dick has a gorgeous house at Turnstone Lake that he and Becca used every weekend. There's a private bird sanctuary in the area. It consists of a few thousand acres of abandoned pastures, forests, and swampy creeks, and it supports a large population of bald-headed eagles in the winter. Eagles are an endangered species, you know, as are hawks, owls, and even turkey buzzards. It's a federal offense to so much as muss their feathered heads."
"This is all terribly interesting," I said, yawning. "Shall we move on to the accident?"
"Becca received a phone call late one afternoon that an eagle was flapping about on one of the islands, so she went down to the marina to take their boat out to investigate. Halfway to the island, there was an explosion, probably caused by a propane leak in the cabin."
I gave her a Miss Marplish smile. "How do we know she received a call?"
"She left a message on Agatha Anne Gallinago's answering machine. Agatha Anne's the president of the foundation that owns the sanctuary. As soon as she arrived home and found the message, she drove to the marina to try to catch Becca before she took the boat. She and the manager at the marina both saw the explosion."
"And this purported leak?" I continued delicately. "Why not sabotage of some sort?"
"Agatha Anne smelled gas earlier that day and reported it to the manager, who admitted he hadn't done anything about it. It didn't occur to either of them that anyone would use the boat."
"If it's all so straightforward, replete with witnesses and odoriferous leakage, why is this captain suspicious of your pesto-making prince? Law enforcement agencies don't have the manpower to hound innocent citizens to any great extent. There must be some reason that you haven't mentioned."
Luanne shrugged. "Well, the night before the accident, Dick and Becca had an argument at one of the bird group's parties. She threw a piece of quiche at him, so he stormed out of the house and walked home." She was trying to sound nonchalant, but her eyes flickered nervously and the pile of white shreds was growing steadily. If she'd not quit smoking, I was quite sure she would have had a cigarette in each hand and another smoldering in an ashtray. "He was so angry that he drove back to town and didn't return until the next night. A deputy arrived shortly afterward to tell him the news."
"When did all this take place?"
"About three months ago," she said in a low mumble, no doubt hoping the chatter from the adjoining tables would drown out her words.
As the mother of a teenager, I was accustomed to such evasive tactics and adept at exposing them. "Did you meet him at the funeral, Luanne, or were you lurking behind a headstone in the cemetery?"
"I met him two weeks ago at the bank. We chatted, then ended up having coffee. One thing led to another. I really thought I'd found the perfect man. Dick's good-looking, rich, sensitive, virile ... and available. He took me to his lake house last weekend. It's not especially large, but it's equipped with every appliance in the western world, and has an enormous redwood deck. I can already imagine myself in a lacy little something, gazing at the sunset while Dick nibbles my neck and murmurs about our prenuptial contract. When he actually proposes, I shall be in the conservatory, dressed in a white frock and holding a red rose. The challenge is to find a conservatory which isn't crowded by the likes of Professor Plum and Miss Scarlet and their lead pipes and candlesticks."
The arithmetic was not challenging, especially to someone with a meticulous accountant like mine."We'll worry about the conservatory when the time comes. Perfect men do not leap into an affair ten weeks after becoming widowers. The corpse may be cold by now, granted, but has he had time to clean out her closet and throw away her toothbrush?"
"I didn't examine the toothbrushes," Luanne said with only the tiniest glint of guilt. "There are a few things in her closet, such as an Imelda Marcos shoe collection, three fur coats, and enough clothes for an entire sorority house. The woman did like to shop."
I spotted youths with frizzy ponytails unloading instruments and amplifiers by the back gate.
"I think you're out of your mind to get involved with this man, and I'll say as much in the eulogy. I need to relieve Caron at the store so that she and Inez can terrorize the mall." I finished the last swallow of beer and stood up, trying to disguise my annoyance. Luanne Bradshaw was in her mid-forties and more than old enough to date whomever she chose. If nothing else, he'd persuaded her to stop smoking. I could only hope he wouldn't persuade her to stop breathing.
She picked up her purse and we pushed our way through the throng and out to the sidewalk. Across the street, none of the pedestrians were streaming into the Book Depot, my source of income and ulcers, but that was hardly surprising. The little man who'd sold it to me had warned me not to anticipate wealth within the millennium, but I was burdened with a daughter to support. At least once a week I was reminded that I was not doing so in a style she found acceptable.
"The captain may be hounding Dick because of his first wife's death," Luanne said as we seized a break in the traffic and stepped off the curb.
I froze in the middle of the street."And there's a possibility that he murdered her, too? Luanne, you're safer standing here than allowing your neck to be nibbled by this pedodontist. You're hardly practicing safe sex if you're sleeping with Bluebeard."
"I think not," she said, shoving me into motion as a convertible filled with hooting fraternity boys bore down on us. "He didn't murder her, either. The only problem is that her death wasn't explained to Captain Gannet's satisfaction. As I said, he's anal-retentive."
"You'd better pray he's not right."
We stopped under the portico that had once protected passengers as they awaited trains that would carry them to exotic places like New Orleans and Omaha. These days they'd have a futile wait, but they could entertain themselves looking at my very dusty window display of histories and mysteries.
I made a note to utilize the feather duster on a more regular basis, then said, "I am not your mother, and it's none of my business if you want to have a meaningful relationship with a homicidal maniac."
"He's a wonderful man," she said, her voice thickening and her eyes filling with tears. "None of this is his fault. When Carlton was killed, nobody came pounding on your doors with accusations and innuendoes."
"Carlton died in a head-on collision with a chicken truck," I retorted, "and the culpable driver was standing there in a flurry of white feathers when the state police arrived. It's hardly the same situation--and it happened once, not twice. Or who knows how many times, to be brutally frank. This man could have buried a bevy of grade-school sweethearts and fianc?es along the way."
Luanne opened her mouth, then clamped it shut and stalked away without acknowledging the perspicacity of my remarks. I went inside, where Caron and Inez were entertaining each other by reading aloud from Lady Chatterley's Lover. Reminding myself the novel was a literary classic, if not precisely penned in hopes of sending fifteen-year-olds into paroxysms of snickers, I went behind the counter to make sure the contents of the cash register were not seriously depleted.
"Flowers in her public hair? That's gross!" shrieked Caron, who inherited my curly red hair and freckles but not one hint of my mild-mannered personality. She staggered out of sight behind the fiction rack, hiccuping with glee, and returned with a gardening book."Pansies of passion? Dahlias of desire? Lilies of lust?"
As far as I can determine, Caron's every act is dictated by hormones. These last few years have been a series of Broadway theater productions, but I can never tell if we're to be drawn into a dark and brooding drama or a musical comedy. Or, more frequently, an off-Broadway experimental piece that mystifies the cast as much as the audience. She has long since mastered the art of speaking in capital letters, and her lower lip sticks out most of the time to indicate her dis-pleasure with someone who has patience, maternal acumen, and stretch marks.
Inez Thornton is quite the opposite. She is limp and anemic but ever loyal. Her thick lenses disguise her occasional winces when Caron's volume rises to an unseemly level, and she keeps a judicious eye on the nearest exit. She is still in the throes of lowercase, and at the moment she was turning pink. "Hello, Mrs. Malloy," she said as if my presence would have any damper on Caron's behavior.
"Snapdragons of salaciousness!" Caron shrieked before once again disappearing.
"Aren't you two going to the mall?" I said optimistically. "Everything's on sale, and you don't want to miss a minute."
"Zinnias of zest!"
If there'd been any customers, I might have felt obliged to put a stop to this litany of floral lasciviousness, but I was curious to learn the extent of Caron's vocabulary in such matters.
"Everlastings of eroticism!"
Inez had edged in front of the self-help books and was regarding me with the wide-eyed solemnity of a seal pup. "Actually, we're not going to the mall after all. Rhonda Maguire got her driver's license this morning and she's picking up everybody for pizza."
"Dandelions of depression," came a groan.
"Afterward, some of the football players are coming to Rhonda's to swim," Inez added."Louis Wilderberry called her this afternoon."
"Wilderberries of wantonness ..."
Inez frowned at this latest contribution. "I don't think there are plants called wilderberries, Caron. His name is an anglicized version of whatever it was in German or Polish or something like that. His sister told me that at band practice."
Caron came around the rack. "Are you implying that I am botanically impaired? I know Perfectly Well that his name is German or whatever. I was attempting to make a point, not pass a course."
I shooed them away, locked the store, and walked back to our apartment, the second story of a white brick house across the street from the verdant lawn of Farber College. The Kappa Theta Eta house next to us was boarded up, and no longer were we treated to sisterly squeals at all hours of the night. I'd solved a murder for them, but apparently they'd not resolved their ensuing problems with the home office (aka National).