A Death on Demand Mystery
(read or print)
Annie Laurance Darling moved swiftly. Or as swiftly as she could propel her body through air thicker than congealing Jell-O. Her hair curled in tendrils. Her skin felt as moist as pond scum. If it got any more humid, Calcutta would be a resort in comparison. She thought longingly of cool air. Maybe she would read The Yellow Room by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It was always cool in Maine. Rinehart's heroine shivered. And lit fires.
Why had she ever come to this island where the summer air was heavier than mercury? She had a sudden, unsettling, cold sensation. She knew why she'd come to the land of no-see-ums, swamps and fragrant magnolias. She'd come to Broward's Rock a few years earlier because she was running away from a close encounter with one Maxwell Darling. How weird! What if Max hadn't, in his own imperturbable, incredibly determined way, followed her? What if now she wasn't Annie Laurance Darling but just Annie Laurance? It would be a cold world indeed. She felt like flinging out her arms and embracing the humid, spongy air. What did a little heat matter?
Annie stopped at the door of her store and grinned. What could be better than a nice hot day in her own very happy comer of the world? Dear Max. And her wonderful store. She studied the name with pleasure-DEATH ON DEMAND-in tasteful gold letters. Without doubt it was the finest name for the finest mystery bookstore east of Atlanta. Smaller letters, also in gold, announced: "Annie Laurance Darling, Prop." She felt warm all over, a nice, comfortable, happy inner warmth that had nothing to do with humidity. Max. Her store. Her books. Hers to enjoy. It would, in fact, be an utterly lovely day, except for the library board. She had tried to ignore a niggling sense of uneasiness all day.
But her nerves quivered like snapping flags heralding a coming storm. The solution was obvious. Easy. No. She knew how to say no. That was all that was required to stay free of the controversy swirling around the library.
Determinedly, she stared at the Death on Demand window. She didn't really need to look at the window. After all, she'd put in the new display only last week. But it was clever, if she said so herself: a cherry-and-green-striped parasol open behind a mound of golden sand, a tipped-over beach bucket with a shower of brightly colored paperbacks spilling out-Miss Zukas and the Library Murders by Jo Dereske, Something's Cooking by Joanne Pence, Murder on a Girls' Night Out by Anne George, Memory Can Be Murder by Elizabeth Daniels Squire, and Blooming Murder by jean Hager.
Good mysteries. Fun mysteries. And that's what summer was all about: snow cones and walking fast on hot sand to plunge into cool water and mounds of mysteries; buckets of clams and kissing in the moonlight and piles of paperbacks with smoking guns or blood-dripping daggers on front covers, yellow, red and blue crime scenes on back covers.
Of course, those colorful covers were declasse today. But paperback mysteries published in the forties and fifties, oh, what great back covers they had-drawings of the manor house, sketches of the library where X marked the spot, maps of the village showing the rectory and the church, the graveyard and the shops along the high street. And, even more fun, the reader often found inside an equally colorful description of the book's contents, such as:
WHAT THIS MYSTERY'S ABOUT A bloodstained handkerchief.
The reason the cat meowed at midnight.
A dog named Petunia.
The contents of the rosewood box.
Golly, those were the great days of the mystery. And she always remembered Uncle Ambrose when she thought about old, great mysteries. Death on Demand had been his store originally, a smaller, much more masculine retreat. He'd welcomed his sister's daughter there every summer through her childhood and carefully chosen books for her: The Ivory Dagger by Patricia Wentworth, The Franchise Affair by Josephine Tey, The Secret Vanguard by Michael Innes, offering them with a gruff "Think you'll like these." Like them! She'd loved every sentence, every paragraph, every page. And especially the wonderful mysteries with maps on the back cover ... For a moment, Annie forgot all about the heat and the boxes of books to be unpacked and the mouse heads that Dorothy L. kept depositing on the kitchen steps at home and the increasing bitterness of the schism on the library board. She stood with a finger to her lip, wondering if anyone had a complete collection of all the Dell mysteries with crime maps on the back. Now that would be
Annie didn't turn at the swift, sharp clatter of shoes on the boardwalk. She recognized the voice despite its unaccustomed ferocity. Annie knew the fury wasn't directed at her. Nonetheless, she thought plaintively, this wasn't what summer was all about. But, as she took a deep breath and practiced saying no in her mind, this is what mysteries were all about-anger, power, and fractured relationships. Annie wanted to contain misery between the bright covers of books where everything came out right in the end.
Henny Brawley, Annie's best customer, a retired teacher, and a mainstay of the Broward's Rock library board, didn't bother with a salutation. Her angular face sharp-edged as a red-tailed hawk diving for a rat, Henny yanked open the door to Death on Demand and stalked inside.
Annie followed, welcoming the initially icy waft of airconditioning that almost instantly seemed tepid, proof indeed of the summer heat, into the nineties and climbing.
"Henny, your blood pressure," she warned. She waved hello to Ingrid at the cash desk and blinked at her own reflection in a wavery antique mirror. The humidity had frizzed her blond hair. Her face was flushed with the heat. Only her gray eyes looked cool. And worried. She felt trouble coming on like a fortune-teller with a broken crystal ball. She followed Henny's clattering footsteps to the back of the store and the coffee bar.
Agatha, resident bookstore cat and imperial mistress of Annie, lifted her head languidly, her golden eyes flicking from Annie to Henny, then into the distance, quite as if she observed some infinitely fascinating, obscurely subtle scene, nirvana beyond earthly comprehension.
Annie reached out, petted the sleek black head, through long practice adroitly avoided the whip of shiny white fangs, and resisted the impulse to say vulgarly, "Come off it, Agatha." She'd found Agatha as a stray in the alley behind the bookstore a few months after she'd inherited the store from her Uncle Ambrose. But Agatha had no memory of abandonment and instead obviously considered herself to the manor born and Annie a quite fortunate serf.
Annie slipped behind the coffee bar. "Iced mocha, Henny?" Agatha watched intently.
"Iced caffe latte. Please." Henny. slid on a barstool, pointed to the tall silver-rimmed glasses. "I'll take that one."
White mugs with the names of famous mysteries in red script sat on shelves behind the coffee bar. Recently, Annie had added glasses for cool drinks. The glasses carried book names in silver script. Without comment, Annie lifted down If the Coffin Fits by Day Keene. In a moment, she handed the cool, foam-topped drink to Henny.
"I could kill that man." Henny's voice was as thin-edged as a razor.
Annie didn't have to ask the name of the intended victim. "Henny, I just got in Wendy Hornsby's latest Maggie MacGowen and it's absolutely fab-"
"Maybe with a hunting knife." Delight lifted Henny's voice.
"Not terribly original," Annie mused.
"At a skating rink?" Henny arched an eyebrow.
"Killed on Ice. William L. DeAndrea," Annie said automatically.
Henny nodded in appreciation. "Let's be more subtle. Caffeine poisoning." Her eyes glinting, she watched Annie as intently as Agatha.
Annie murmured, "Caffeine poisoning .
"The Corpse at the Quill Club. Amelia Reynolds." Henny's voice was mellowing. "Or death by whirlpool." She shot a condescending glance at Annie, waited long enough to make Annie's lack of response painfully apparent, then said casually, "Strike Three, You're Dead. R. D. Rosen."
Annie was accustomed to thumb-wrestling Henny for supremacy when it came to mystery knowledge. "Very obscure," she said stiffly.
"Actually, I think The Murder of Bud Hatch calls for something scintillatingly creative." Henny stirred her iced caffe latte and ice cubes rattled. "Piranhas in his swimming pool. Now that's a thought." Her momentary good humor evaporated faster than a sardine in Agatha's bowl. "Do you know what our most odious new resident is doing now?" Henny didn't wait for an answer. "He's gone behind my back. Contacted all the veterans' groups and called a meeting to enlist volunteers for what he's calling Points of Patriotism."
Annie pushed back a sprig of damp hair. Was the airconditioning even working? She took a deep swallow of the iced mocha-laden coffee. It jolted her system like the Anne McLean Matthews suspense novel The Cave, which was guaranteed to put a permanent shiver down the reader's back.
Henny popped down from the stool, began to pace.
That's all he has in mind, war scenes!" She faced Annie, lifted her hands in outrage.
"Testosterone tells. After all, he's a retired general. Look, Henny, why don't you compromise and..."
Henny slapped her hands on her hips. "I'd rather do a slow waltz with a boa constrictor." A bright look. "Or wrap a boa around Bud's neck. How's that for a murder weapon?" Henny squared her shoulders. "Look, Annie, I need help."
"No." It came out firm, declarative, crisp. So might Joan Hess's Claire Malloy have rejected a plea from Caron and Inez. Any plea.
"Solidarity." Henny's dark eyes bored into Annie's.
"Henny, I've got loads of books to unpack..."
"Ingrid. And she can get Duane to help her." Henny had her not- going-to- take-no- for-an-answer gleam in her eyes.
"I've promised Ingrid some time off. She and Duane are going to New Orleans to celebrate their anniversary." Momentarily diverted, Annie asked, "Have you read Voodoo River by Robert Crais? Did you know he grew up in Baton Rouge?"
'Everybody knows that. Of course I've read it. I never miss an Elvis Cole book. Now look, Annie." Henny marched to the coffee bar, planted her hands firmly on the mahogany top. "I want you to come to the board meeting tomorrow morning. I need every vote I can get."
Henny didn't wait for an answer. She whirled and darted up the central aisle.
Annie heard the slap of Henny's shoes across the heartpine floor, Ingrid's farewell, the silvery ring of the bell as the front door closed.
Dammit, she'd said no. But she was a member of the library board. Henny needed her. Henny was counting on her.
Instead of a booming echo in her mind, the little negative shriveled to a faint gasp. Maybe it was time to root around in her car for that assertiveness tape she'd bought a few years ago, listen while she drove. But actually, the island was so small, she'd never gotten past the stem opening injunction: "Speak Your Mind." It was certainly an appealing motto, but putting it into action might alienate customers, not to say friends, at an awesome rate.
Annie carried her glass "A Toast to Tomorrow by Manning Coles" to a table in front of the dusty fireplace. She'd already planned tomorrow, an early swim with Max, which could lead to other morning pleasures, books to unpack, then books to pack for the booth allotted to her for the festival, a busy, happy, cheerful day.
She didn't want to get caught up in the explosive dissension threatening to wreck the first, ever Broward's Rock festival. It had sounded like so much fun in the beginning and such a terrific way to celebrate the Fourth of July and raise money for the library. The island was teeming with tourists and the festival was sure to attract even more. It was all Henny's idea, really; a celebration of South Carolina history from the earliest days to the present. But this was history with a twist, history from a woman's perspective. The various women's groups from the churches were thrilled.
Henny, as president of the library board, was directing the overall program.
Everyone loved the idea.
Everyone except Brigadier General (retired) Charlton (Bud) Hatch. Hatch was a newcomer to the island, but he had plunged into island society, the golf club, the church, the Chamber of Commerce and the library board, with all the gusto he'd exhibited in his military career.
And now, soon, tomorrow, to be exact, two opposing forces were going to clash with a bang that would resound all over the island.
Agatha jumped up on the table, sniffed at Annie's glass, gave her a disdainful glance.
"So you don't like coffee."
Agatha bared her fangs.
"Don't be so touchy." Annie sipped the heavenly mocha, then stroked Agatha's sleek satiny fur, black as a raven's wing. "Agatha, why are humans so impossible?"
But even Agatha had no answer for that question, though she looked thoughtful.
"It was all going to be so much fun." Annie had truly gotten into the spirit of the Fourth of July plans. She looked up at the five paintings hanging on the back wall. They were a perfect addition to the festivities. Every month a local artist did watercolors of five superb (in Annie's estimation) mysteries. The first person to identify the books and authors correctly received a free book, excluding, of course, pricey collectibles, such as a signed first edition of Bitter Medicine by Sara Paretsky for $150 or a first English edition of In the Teeth of the Evidence by Dorothy L. Sayers for $240. One did have to have limits.
Once she'd tried to retire Henny from the competition, hoping to give ordinary readers a sporting chance. Henny threatened a boycott and since she was by far the store's best customer, Annie retreated.
Annie smiled as she admired this month's offerings. Henny was so absorbed in producing the festival, she'd yet to look them over. But Annie knew she would be pleased. They were so appropriate for America's favorite holiday.
In the first painting, moonlight shed its radiance over the river bank and the dark flowing water. A heavyshouldered man with short, cropped hair knelt beside a dying man. Blood bubbled from the victim's mouth and from the stab wound in his chest. The dying man was small. He wore the fancy blue, red, and gold satin clothes of a seventeenth-century continental gentleman, white lace at his wrists and collar and ribbon bows at his knees and on his shoes. On the ground lay a red velvet hat with a blue feather. The man kneeling by the body was plainly dressed in brown duffel breeches and clogs and wore no shirt, his skin pale in the moonlight.
In the second painting, a workroom held many necessary implements: a loom, a great walking wheel for spinning wool, a small flax wheel, and a quilting frame. There were rods for candle dipping and great iron pots to boil soap. Softly colored crewel yams in several shades of rose, indigo, green, and gold hung from a pole suspended in front of the fireplace. A man with a wide face and hooded eyes the color of brandy stood with a child by the quilting frame. His reddish brown hair curled over his collar. His beard and mustache were reddish brown, too. The little girl, with a pale face and reddish, brown hair, watched him intently as he pointed to the yellow tom cat on the hearth. The man and child were closely observed by a woman in a bright red cloak of felted wool who stood quietly by the door. Her slender face held restless brown eyes behind square-cut wire spectacles. Her curly brown hair was cut short.
In the third painting, a shaggy white terrier jumped in a frenzy near the young woman on the towpath. She stared in horror at the body bobbing in the dark water of the canal. The shocked observer was an attractive young woman with red hair. She wore a long dress, the skirt over a bustle, and high laced white shoes, damp now from her walk through the long grass.
In the fourth painting the young typist's straight reddish, brown hair was pulled back and tied with a black ribbon at the nape of her neck. Her green eyes glittered in concentration as her fingers flew over the silver, rimmed round keys of the tall black, shiny typewriter. A copy of Pride and Prejudice lay open beside her. She was the epitome of the welldressed businesswoman in her pleated white shirtwaist.
In the fifth painting, both men were redheads. But the man with the upturned nose and deeply cleft bulldog jaw had stopped suddenly on the marble stairway landing, a spittle of blood on his mouth, his arms reaching out. A quarter-sized black powder bum around a small bullet hole marred the front of his tan linen suit jacket. The second man was bigger, taller. His face creased in concern, he appeared to be running up the marble steps, a nine-millimeter gun in one hand.
Between perusing the paintings and drinking the utterly delicious chocolate-laced coffee, Annie felt her spirits rise.
The call of an oh-so-familiar husky voice didn't exactly dampen Annie's mood. But she looked warily toward the open door to the storeroom and her mother-in-law, Laurel Darling Roethke. Actually, there were several more names before you got to Roethke, Laurel being no stranger to wedding vows. But, presently, Laurel was a widow and quite friendly with a local widower. Annie smiled determinedly. Well, everybody had a mother, including Max, of course. And really, truly, honestly, she liked Laurel, though perhaps she might have enjoyed Laurel a bit more had she stayed in Connecticut and not moved to Broward's Rock. And Annie might be even more appreciative of her mother-in-law if Laurel didn't possess a disconcerting habit of arriving unexpectedly. And often. Though perhaps it wasn't Laurel's arrival that disconcerted, but the absolute unpredictability of her enthusiasms. Since Annie had known her, they'd ranged from wedding customs (in re Annie and Max's ceremony) to Southern ghosts.
Annie felt her smile soften. Laurel had this effect on everyone, especially men, though Annie didn't stress that fact with Max. Laurel never seemed to age. Her golden hair shone like spun moonlight, her finely chiseled features were smooth and perfect, her Mediterranean-blue eyes sparkled with delight, and something more, a vivid and vital liveliness that fascinated and charmed.
However, Annie knew better than to succumb to Laurel's charm. She managed to keep her voice even, but perhaps an edge of concern was evident. "What's up, Laurel?"
"Up," Laurel repeated, as if first encountering the word. "Dear me. Yes. Of course. Parbleu, as dear Hercule would say. Up! Annie. It's simply providential that I've come to you. Up, indeed."
Annie took a deep breath. Perhaps if she closed her eyes and counted to five hundred, this apparition would be gone when she looked again.
But Laurel was across the room and Annie smelled the sweet scent of lilac and felt the light touch of Laurel's lips on her cheek.
Laurel whirled away and looked up at the watercolors over the fireplace.
"There." Laurel swept a beautifully manicured hand with fire-truck-red nails. "Up." A tinkling laugh. "Those paintings can come down."
"No." Maybe she didn't need that assertiveness tape. So might Truman have told MacArthur.
Laurel's graceful hand gave a magnanimous wave, yielding the point.
Annie wasn't fooled. She hadn't studied classical warfare, but she'd read enough Phoebe Atwood Taylor mysteries featuring Leonidas Witherall to know that when a frontal assault was repelled, watch your flank. Or as Witherall (aka Bill Shakespeare) was wont to intone: "Remember Cannae." Annie concentrated on Cannae.
"Dear Annie." Laurel's husky voice was full of Concern.
"Are you not feeling well?"
"I'm fine. Fine. Absolutely fine." But her eyes never left
Laurel's lovely face.
"You look strained." Laurel wafted near, touched Annie's brow with a light hand.
Annie backpedaled. She wondered if this was how a fly caught in a web felt. "Laurel," she said desperately, determined to frame a rational discourse, "what do you want?"
Laurel smiled a sweet, kindly, forgiving smile, clearly willing to ignore her daughter-in-law's gaucherie. "It is not what I want, my dear child. It's simply that I've been struck with a realization." Her dark blue eyes were dreamy.
And deranged? Annie squashed the disloyal thought. But if Annie's nerves had earlier snapped like wind-tossed
pennants, now they twanged like power lines in a hurricane. Laurel delved into her mesh bag, pulled out a handful of old-fashioned hand fans, the kind with scalloped edges. "These," she said simply, "are the answer. I can envision them arranged above the fireplace in lieu of the paintings, perhaps as many as fifty of them. Oh, what a glorious sight that would be."
"Not my fireplace." The words were clipped. Maybe just thinking about that tape was helping her hold her own. But she kept trying to make some sense of Laurel's arrival. "Laurel, back up. Explain. What was the question?"
Laurel proclaimed, "It's the Fourth of July."
Annie reached out, gripped the beveled edge of the coffee bar. It was hard, real, and solid. And it wasn't the Fourth of July. "Laurel, it's not the Fourth yet."
"My dear child, of course not." Laurel's tone was kind and gentle and forbearing.
If Laurel called her dear child one more time, Annie was going to put her hair up in pigtails and wear red sneakers and if Max asked why, she'd tell him.
"But," Laurel swept on, "our dear island-"
Well, at least Annie was in good company.
"-is poised for a grand celebration of America's most glorious, soul-stirring holiday." Those dark blue eyes glowed with excitement. "And I've realized that the focus is wrong, utterly wrong. Think for a moment, Annie. What happens when you hear a Sousa march and you see the flag rippling in the breeze and watch the fireworks sparkle against the night sky?" She looked encouragingly at Annie.
Annie looked back.
Laurel's graceful hand-the one unencumbered by fans-beckoned hopefully, inviting a response.
"Uh." Annie realized this was not adequate. She cleared her throat. "Well," she temporized.
Laurel's fingers fluttered like the wings of a monarch in a hurry to get to Mexico.
Annie hadn't felt this much social pressure since she went to her senior prom. "Uh, you feel-I feel-I guess it's exciting." She continued with more confidence, "That's it. Exciting. Thrilling." She watched those mesmerizing blue eyes and knew she didn't have it right. Not yet. "Exhilarating?" she ventured.
Laurel's fingers stopped fluttering. Her smile was kindly. "Love," she said simply.
"Love?" If Laurel had suddenly begun to speak in Turkish, Annie couldn't have been more lost. "Love?"
"Annie, it's so clear. The Fourth has always been a celebration of love of country. But what is love of country?" This time Laurel didn't wait for Annie to answer, no doubt having concluded that the dear child wasn't quite bright. "Why, it's so obvious. Love of country is a love of fellow citizens. And how can we best celebrate the Fourth? Oh, it has come as a revelation to me. We can celebrate by focusing on love and there is no greater way-well, perhaps there is but one can't do that universally-" this aside was in a reflective undertone. "In any event, we can best celebrate the Fourth by calling forth Shakespeare."
Annie wondered how she was going to break it to Max. Laurel had lost it. This was surely proof. The Fourth of July and Shakespeare?
"Dear William." Laurel might have given him a hug just moments ago, her tone indicated such familiarity. "No one has ever captured the depth and breadth of love better than he. We must share the joy and vigor of his verse with all the citizenry. So," she concluded briskly, "I know you'll come to the library board meeting in the morning."
Annie stood absolutely still as Laurel darted back toward the storeroom door.
Laurel paused, gave a fleeting glance back, once again lifted the fans. "We must share love."
Annie was seized by an almost overpowering desire to follow that first precept of assertiveness training, Speak Your Mind. The Speak Your Mind that begged to be said: Laurel, sweetheart, sharing love can get you in a whole lot of trouble.
Annie managed to remain silent as her mother-in-law wafted a kiss with crimson-tipped fingers.
Annie's thoughts swirled chaotically between fireworks, love, Shakespeare, and the library.
"Why the library?" she asked aloud.
But there was no answer. A gentle dick marked the closing of the storeroom door that opened into the alley behind the shops.
Agatha looked at Annie curiously.
Annie knew her expression was odd, one of amusement struggling with uneasiness. Amusement won out. Annie grinned. "Agatha, I have a feeling the library board meeting tomorrow will have more fireworks than the Fourth. I think I'll go."
The bell over the front door tinkled. Perhaps it signaled the arrival of a customer. Surely one out of three wasn't too much to hope for. A hollow thump sounded on the heart-pine floor.
Annie's smile fled. Not a customer.
"Hello, Miss Dora. How are you today?". Ingrid sounded genuinely pleased.
Easy for Ingrid, Annie thought. Ingrid only worked here. But whatever Miss Dora Brevard wanted, Annie knew it would be made clear. Unlike Laurel. In fact, a refreshing contrast to Laurel. Annie started eagerly up the center aisle, pleased to free her mind of Shakespeare, love, the library, and the Fourth. Miss Dora Brevard was the doyenne of Chastain, South Carolina, a charming antebellum town not far from the ferry stop to Broward's Rock. Annie had first met the wily and wise elderly resident when Annie became involved in creating a mystery program for the House-and-Garden Week in Chastain. On another occasion, Annie and Max had helped Miss Dora solve a long-ago crime involving the Tarrant family.
The thump of Miss Dora's cane mingled with a hoarse commentary. "There's adequate space. Some of the books can be put away until the festival's over."
Annie's eagerness abruptly flagged, but she managed to keep her smile squarely on her face. "Miss Dora, how lovely that you could come over today." Living on the mainland seemed no deterrent to frequent island visits by Miss Dora. Annie wondered if the old lady traveled to the ferry in a horse-drawn carriage. It would be fitting.
Miss Dora was arrayed in her usual voluminous folds of black drapery that would have been perfectly appropriate at Queen Victoria's funeral. Annie always pictured a frayed leather chest in a dusky comer of an attic, chock-full of diminutive dresses in black bombazine.
Her shaggy silvery hair unfazed by the soggy summer air, Miss Dora lifted her ebony cane to point toward the back of the room. She swept past Annie, her shoes pattering against the shining floor, making a soft flutter like bat wings lifting from a cave at sunset.
Annie followed. It seemed to be a day for following.
Diverted, she again vowed to find that old assertiveness tape. For an instant, tantalizing possibilities danced in Annie's thought, examples of Speak Your Mind:
To Henny, It was such a pleasure to visit with Miss Pettigrew, the new curator of the museum. She reads more than a hundred mysteries a month and she knows more mystery trivia than you do. So there! Nyah, nyah, nyah.
To Laurel, Max absolutely, positively, beyond a shadow of a doubt, does NOT get more like you every day. Oh, God, what subterranean fear prompted that?
To Miss Dora, social arbiter for all the society that counted in Chastain, South Carolina, Whatever it is, the answer's no. I will not be bullied by you today or at any time in the future.
But tantalizing possibilities they remained.
Instead, Annie said meekly, "What can I do for you, Miss Dora?"
Miss Dora carefully eased a large cardboard portfolio onto a table, flipped it open, and peered up at Annie, her wrinkled parchment face expectant.
Annie stepped around her and looked down at a charcoal drawing: Two young women dressed in men's clothing sprang from the deep shadows beneath a live oak tree, muskets in hand, to accost a messenger escorted by two British officers.
"Nighttime. Heard the horses coming, jumped out with their guns." Miss Dora's hoarse voice was triumphant. "They got the papers, sent them to Nathanael Greene. A great help to the Colonials."
"That's very: nice," Annie began.
Miss Dora's eyes slitted. "South Carolina women always prevail."
"I'm sure they do." Annie didn't doubt it for a minute. Not even a New York minute.
Miss Dora's thin lips spread in an approximation of a smile. It reminded Annie irresistibly of the alligator that lived in the lagoon behind her house. Not a creature that she ever intended to rile.
"Miss Dora," she said heartily, "this is quite fascinating."
"Grace and Rachel Martin."
Annie looked around in bewilderment. She hadn't heard the door.
Miss Dora cleared her throat.
The front of the shop lay quiet. Annie looked back at her guest, met a disdainful gaze.
Shaggy hair bristling, Miss Dora inclined her head toward the drawing.
Annie quickly nodded. "Oh, certainly. Of course. Grace and Rachel Martin."
Miss Dora began to shake.
Annie stared at her in concern, then realized the crinkled parchment face was quivering with laughter.
Miss Dora clapped her hands together gleefully. It made no sound because she wore half-gloves. "When the girls got away with the courier's papers, they raced home. The officers and the messenger turned back. They stopped at the Martin household, demanded to be put up for the night, said they'd been waylaid by some lads and lost their papers. And they never knew the women who housed them were those very same 'lads.' Grace and Rachel."
Annie stared at the softly brushed charcoal, which gave a sense of movement to the scene. She could almost hear the ghostly hoofbeats, imagine two young women, their hearts pounding, their hands tight on the guns, willing to risk their lives for the land they loved.
Miss Dora spread other drawings on the tabletop:
A stalwart woman moved among rows of injured Confederate soldiers.
A pretty girl bent over her diary, pen in hand, to write that Confederate money was losing value, with ordinary shoes costing from sixty to one hundred dollars and butter going for seven dollars a pound.
An elegant artist smoothed clay to create Joan of Arc astride a horse, her sword aloft.
"Louise Cheves McCord, Floride Clemson Lee, Anna Hyatt Huntington. Among South Carolina's finest." There was reverence in Miss Dora's raspy voice.
Miss Dora peered up at the paintings on the back wall, then at Annie. "A good half dozen will fit..."
"No." Finally, a stem, strong, unyielding declaration. Perhaps she didn't really need that assertiveness tape.
Miss Dora pursed her tiny mouth.
"Although they certainly are lovely." Annie truly was impressed. "Did you draw them, Miss Dora?" Each sketch was done with a minimum of strokes, but they radiated energy, the figures looking as if at any moment they would move.
A benign nod. "Southern women always have an understanding of the arts."
"Yes. Of course." This was a facet of Miss Dora Annie had never known. It did not, however, come as a surprise. Nothing Miss Dora did would surprise Annie.
"The front window-!'
"No." A ringing declaration.
Miss Dora's eyes slitted. "Where then?"
Annie's mouth opened. Closed.
"That Yankee refuses to permit them in the library." The dark eyes glittered with disgust.
Annie didn't have to inquire which Yankee.
Miss Dora stroked the musket held by either Grace or Rachel. "When he first came to town, he volunteered to be in charge of library displays. Henny welcomed him. Then." The single word crackled with import. "She's come to rue the day. I could have told her. Never put a Yankee in charge. He's been doing the display for several months and he says my drawings are too restricted in content." An affronted sniff. "Just another way of a man saying women's work and women's lives don't count."
Annie's eyes widened. To hear Miss Dora make the equivalent of a feminist pronouncement was so mindboggling that Annie volunteered immediately, "I'll put up some of the drawings, Miss Dora. I think they're wonderful."
Miss Dora's nodded in satisfaction, her shaggy hair swinging. She filled Annie's arms with rolled-up drawings.
"But if I were you, I'd keep after them at the library," Annie said desperately. Certainly the library had more space than she did. It was always a crush to find room for new books and posters and her used-book section was expanding at an awesome rate. She now had a complete collection of E. Phillips Oppenheim.
"Good. You'll be at the meeting tomorrow. I knew I could count on you." Miss Dora pattered up the aisle, paused long enough to look back and say with a smile-it was a smile and not a grimace, wasn't it?..." After all, you are now a South Carolina woman."
Feeling rather as though she'd been knighted, Annie clutched the rolls and listened to the brisk thump of Miss Dora's cane.
It wasn't that she was a pushover. But she couldn't be rude to the doyenne of the Low Country. Could she?
Not, apparently, in this lifetime.
She counted. Five drawings to display. And, in addition, now she definitely had to go to that board meeting. But the meeting wasn't until tomorrow morning.
Like another famous Southern heroine, she'd think about that tomorrow. And she would under no circumstances spend one more minute worrying about Brig. Gen. (ret.) Charlton (Bud) Hatch.
In a far reach of the universe, the gods of malice hooted in delight.
Annie rolled the grocery cart down the candy aisle. After all, it was the quickest way to get to produce. She needed to bring some snacks for tonight's meeting of the festival program committee. Being named chair of that committee
still rankled. just because she'd missed the library board meeting in April didn't mean Henny had the right simply to name Annie as chair of the program committee and to announce the appointment publicly at the next board meeting just after designating Annie's store as the provider of books for the festival. Annie felt a quiver of panic. She must, absolutely must, get the books packed that she intended to display in her booth Friday.
Annie picked up two sacks of candy. And she'd snag a pre-packaged mixture of carrots, cauliflower and broccoli and some kind of light dip. Something for everybody. If some people wanted to pretend they were rabbits, it was a free country.
She was debating whether to open one of the candy sacks, so she took her attention away from the cart just for an instant.
Annie felt jolted to her toes.
"Annie, I'm so sorry." Sharon Gibson owned the gift shop three doors down from Death on Demand. "Are you okay? Did I break anything?"
"No harm done. How are you, Sharon?" The Speak Your Mind was tempting: Training for the Roller Derby?
"Oh, I'm fine." She pulled her cart back, began to go around Annie. Sharon didn't look fine. A tall, slender blonde with alabaster skin, she was pale and drawn, and her eyes had the dull, blank look of someone whose thoughts are far away and not pleasant.
"Are you ready for the holiday?" Annie asked.
Sharon's cart stopped. "The holiday. Oh, yes, the holiday. Yes, we're all stocked." For an instant, her eyes lighted. "We've got the cutest wooden cutouts of the Statue of Liberty. Your mother-in-law made them." Momentarily, she looked puzzled. "Each one has a different quotation on it. From Shakespeare. They're just darling." Sharon laughed. "That's good, isn't it? Although I know her name isn't Darling now." And hadn't been, Annie thought to herself, for at least two or three husbands. No, four, to be accurate.
Sharon's smile fled. "Actually, Annie, I was going to call you. I can't make that meeting tonight." Her face drew down in a tight frown. "In fact, I won't be taking part in the festival." Her voice was weary.
"Sharon, what's wrong?"
"Too much to do. That's all." She swung her cart out to pass Annie, then came to a sudden halt, staring up the aisle, her face taut. For an instant, Sharon stood as if frozen, then she jerked her cart around and rushed off in the opposite direction.
Annie looked up the aisle.
The well-built man striding toward her lifted his arm. So might a trainer gesture to a dog. Was it his arrival that sent Sharon scurrying away? He lifted his arm again imperiously. Stand, Spot.
Annie looked to see if he could be gesturing toward someone else, but they were now alone in the aisle. Nope. She had to be the lucky one. But she wasn't a dog. Quite deliberately, Annie ignored him and grabbed the handle of her basket.
"Annie. Yo, Annie."
Another tantalizing Speak Your Mind phrase came unbidden:
To Brig. Gen. (ret.) Charlton (Bud) Hatch, Yo, Butthead.
Instead, she waited with a polite smile. Miss Manners would have been proud of such a triumph of civility.
"So here you are, little lady. Your clerk said you would be shopping. Always a pleasure for ladies, I know." Bud Hatch's navy polo fit him snugly, revealing a muscular chest with no vagrant fat cells. The crease in his chinos would have pleased a master tailor. He stared down at Annie, his rough-hewn features in command mold.
Annie stared back icily. Little lady indeed! "Is it more a pleasure for women than for men?"
"Beg pardon?" He looked puzzled.
"To shop!" Annie snapped.
He gave a perfunctory laugh.
Once again, Annie was tantalized with a possible Speak Your Mind:
To Brig. Gen. (ret.) Charlton (Bud) Hatch: You are welcome to take laugh lessons from my cat. When she coughs up fur balls, it sounds just like Santa's ho-ho-ho. When you laugh, you sound like a cat coughing up fur balls.
That it remained only a possibility was either a tribute to her upbringing, a result of acculturation as a female, or several years spent as a shopkeeper.
"Well, little lady, I won't keep you from your shopping. I know you have a husband to take care of. But I'm expecting your support at the board meeting tomorrow. I've gotten the word out to the merchants' association about the importance of having an all-American Fourth and how we need to focus on what made America great." He clapped Annie's shoulder. "I'll see you then."
His stride was still equal to the parade ground. He was ten feet away before Annie managed to call out, "Bud." She choked a little at using his first name, but she'd be damned if she'd call him General or Mr.
Hatch looked back impatiently. He'd told the little lady. What more was needed?
"All the board members I've spoken to", and he didn't have to know that number was comprised of herself and Henny..."are thrilled that the festival is featuring South Carolina women. At the board meeting, we plan to pass a motion commending Henny Brawley for her terrific job as festival director." Annie felt sheer joy as she shed restraining influences: to heck with upbringing, she was a new-century woman, and good old Bud wasn't a customer.
Hatch looked at her sharply. His eyes were cold.
But Annie wasn't finished. "And what did you do to Sharon Gibson?" The words were out before she thought and she regretted them mightily. Sharon obviously was greatly distressed. It wouldn't help matters for Annie to reveal that to old slab face.
But Hatch merely frowned impatiently. "Sharon Gibson? Who's she?"
Now Annie was caught by surprise. She couldn't be wrong. The only person in the entire length of the grocery aisle when Sharon turned and ran, her face twisted with anger, was Brig. Gen. (ret.) Charlton (Bud) Hatch.
And Hatch didn't even know Sharon? Or was he pretending?
Whatever the truth, Annie was puzzled.
"I'll see you tomorrow, little lady." Hatch gave her a grim smile. "You'd better count your votes."
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