CHAPTER 7

1

CLARINE MASON DIDN’T feel like dusting her husband Emmet’s picture. She didn’t feel like dusting Emmet, either.

Her feet were tired, her back ached, and she was positive she was coming down with a cold. She tossed her feather duster onto the glass-topped coffee table and plopped down on the sofa. Living by yourself didn’t make the work that much easier, not in a big old farmhouse like this one-Emmet’s family homestead, one of the original houses in the community of Chandler Grove. Trust him to stick her with a barn like this. Sure, she could skimp on the cooking and serve leftovers three times running, but the house got dusty just as fast, and now she had Emmet’s chores to do as well as her own. There was an acre of yard to mow, and screens to patch, and the back-porch steps needed fixing. Why, it would have been a load of work for a woman half her age. When folks at church asked her if she missed Emmet, the very thought of all those extra chores brought tears to her eyes, and she could say with perfect sincerity, “Oh, I do miss him! More than ever!”

The tin roof would need painting before winter.

Clarine cast a sour look at the smiling features of Emmet J. Mason, neatly encased in an art nouveau silver frame on the mantelpiece. People used to say he looked like Conway Twitty, which Emmet used to take as a compliment. The country singer and Emmet both had blue-black hair that they wore fluffed up like cotton candy, and they had beefy faces with little round eyes that shone with the sincerity of a snake-oil preacher. A lot Emmet cared about the chores or the state of her health. When had he ever cared about anything but his crazy obsession?

Well, there had been a time when Emmet had been interested in her and in his hometown, but years of exasperation had obscured those pleasant memories, replacing them with half-remembered quarrels and with the numbness that set in when nothing Emmet said or did mattered to her anymore. Clarine tried to remember the Emmet she’d married in 1958; maybe she ought to put his highschool photo on the mantelpiece instead of the later one. He’d seemed like such a nice, steady boy in those days. He had played high-school varsity football, which had impressed the shy sophomore Clarine, and he’d worked weekends in his father’s hardware store. It was understood that he was going to take over the business one day.

She had got engaged to him at seventeen, when he went in the army, and she’d written him letters on pink stationery the whole time he was stationed in Germany. Emmet did take over Mason’s Hardware in 1976, when Daddy Earl had his stroke, but by then he had lost interest in the commercial possibilities in Chandler Grove, Georgia.

“Let’s sell the store and go to California!” he’d say.

Clarine said she hadn’t lost a thing in the state of California.

“Life’s just passing me by here in the sticks!” Emmet would sigh. “I know I could make it as an actor.”

Emmet had played the role of Emily’s father in the Chandler Grove production of Our Town; the Scout reviewer had pronounced him “adequate.” The senior English class, following the play in their literature books with tiny flashlights, claimed he hadn’t missed a line.

Emmet followed up that success with a portrayal of James Oglethorpe, founder of the colony of Georgia, in the town pageant. After that, he figured the only thing keeping him out of the movies was geo graphical inconvenience.

Clarine said relocating was out of the question because she didn’t want to star in a real-life documentary about damn-fool Georgians caught in a California earthquake that they hadn’t ought to be in. And besides, there was her mother to think of, past seventy and suffering from arthritis. No, Clarine insisted, there were too many family obligations-not to mention the Mason family business-to keep them in Chandler Grove, and she wasn’t going to see Emmet throw it all away trying to become another Bob Eubanks.

She had been right, too, she thought, scowling at Emmet’s smarmy Kodachrome smile. Stay home, she’d said. You’re not slick enough for California. But talking to Emmet about show business was like Emily trying to talk to her folks in Act Three of Our Town: she just couldn’t make herself heard. In the end, Emmet trumped up a business trip to California for a hardware convention, and he announced that he was staying an extra three days to talk to some Hollywood agents.

Look what had come of that.

The day before Emmet was due back, Clarine received a phone call from the California Highway Patrol, telling her that Emmet had been killed in a car wreck on the Ventura Freeway. The accident had been so bad that the car caught fire, the officer told her. There wasn’t much left of Emmet J. Mason. Did she want him cremated?

Before she thought about it, Clarine blurted out, “You might as well. A little more heat won’t matter to Emmet at this point.”

So they had. A couple of days after the phone call, the UPS truck had pulled up in the yard and the man made her sign for a heavy package, about the size of a shoe box, wrapped in brown paper. When Clarine took it in the house and unwrapped it, she found a blue-flowered ginger jar with a note attached that said: Enclosed are the remains of Emmet J. Mason. With our deepest sympathy, and signed by some California funeral director.

Clarine put Emmet on the mantelpiece between the carved-oak rooster clock and the silver-framed photograph. For a long time she was too shocked to feel much of anything, except an occasional flare of anger when she looked at the jar. Gradually she came to realize that Emmet had probably died happy, pursuing his silly fantasy of stardom, and that she didn’t miss him all that much. So she sold the hardware store, banked the life-insurance money, and lived as frugally as she could, because she didn’t want to run out of money in her old age. She’d never had a job in her life; couldn’t even balance a checkbook till Emmet’s death forced her to learn. She didn’t want to have to clean other people’s houses for slave wages when she was old and feeble, so she did all the chores herself, and she watched every penny.

She was about to get up and dust the mantelpiece when the telephone rang. Clarine hurried out into the hall and got it by the third ring. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Mason,” said an unfamiliar voice, notably lacking a Southern accent.

“Yes,” she said warily, ready to slam down the receiver at the first sign of a sales pitch.

“Wife of Emmet J. Mason?” he continued.

“Yes.” She didn’t bother to correct him. Best not to let strangers know you lived alone. Maybe she’d won a sweepstakes, she thought.

“This is Sergeant Gene Vega of the California Highway Patrol. I’m sorry to have to tell you that your husband Emmet J. Mason was killed in an auto accident here this morning…”

“What, again?”

Sheriff Wesley Rountree was reading this week’s edition of the Chandler Grove Scout, an activity that never took as long as his coffee break. The front page was good for about three minutes, if you read slowly, and generally consisted of one city government story, one wreck or weather story, and a heartwarming human interest piece featuring either kids or old ladies. After that came the community news, devoted to toddlers’ birthday parties or visits from out-of-state relatives. Then came the local grocery ads, accompanied by a few freebie news releases from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (THE GYPSY MOTH IS NOT YOUR FRIEND) and a page of high-school sports stories that contrived to mention the name of every conceivable person present at the event (After the third inning, Cheerleader Mascot Shannon Gentry waved to her grandmother, Mrs. Lois Andrews).

Wesley glanced at his coffee cup. It was nearly full, and he was already past the high point of the issue: the irate letter to the editor from Mr. Julian, the local curmudgeon.

Deputy Clay Taylor, on the other hand, was already on his second cup of herbal tea, deeply immersed in a crime novel. He was hunched over his desk, his rimless glasses teetering midway down his nose, lips pursed, as he turned the page of the thick paperback entitled Sergeant Luger: Crack Shot Wesley was surprised at his deputy’s choice of reading matter. Usually the Peace Corps veteran restricted his leisure study to socially significant works like The Coalition for Central American Rights Newsletter or pamphlets by groups with names like Defenders of the Ozone. Just bringing Clay’s mail back from the post office box could raise your social consciousness, the sheriff contended.

Wesley turned a page of the newspaper. “I see where the Chandlers’ niece is getting married,” he remarked. “I think we met her during the Chandler case, didn’t we? The one that kinda resembled Linda Ronstadt.”

Clay Taylor refused to rise to the conversational bait. He turned another page.

“Says here she’s studying forensic anthropology in graduate school. I used to think that meant analyzing the way different cultures talked, because back when I was in high school, speech class was called forensics. Turns out it means analyzing human remains. Interesting sort of job.”

With an absent nod in the direction of his boss, the deputy turned another page.

He must have reached a sex scene, thought Wesley, returning to his own choice of reading matter. He scanned the rest of the page and caught sight of a familiar name. “Well, Clay, looks like you got mentioned in the Scout this week,” he called out.

The reply was a grunt from behind the cover of Sergeant Luger: Crack Shot.

“No picture, though. Marshal Pavlock has written up the Halliburtons’ account of how they called you to save them from the wild animal in their cellar. Listen here: A feral whine was coming from the darkness of the Halliburtons’ basement, and upon discovering that the basement light had burned out after being accidentally left on, Bryan Halliburton declined to descend into the basement armed with only a flashlight to confront the beast. They thought that it might be a wildcat, using their premises for its den, and they decided to appeal for help to the local sheriff’s department Enter the intrepid deputy T. Clay Taylor.”

With a weary sigh, the aforementioned intrepid deputy marked his place in his novel with a parking ticket and listened to Wesley’s dramatic reading. “I wish he hadn’t run that story,” he said.

Wesley chuckled. “Why not? It’s a corker. Deputy Taylor did not draw his gun as he crept slowly down the concrete steps toward the Halliburtons’ washing machine. He heard the menacing noise they had told him about. It was then that he informed them that bloodshed would not be called for.” The sheriff rattled the paper, too overcome to continue.

“All they had to do was change the battery on their smoke alarm and the noise would stop,” said Clay, supplying the story’s punch line. He shrugged. “Can I go back to my book now?”

Wesley took a sobering sip of black coffee. “What do you want to read that thing for anyhow?” he asked.

“It’s a modern parable of good and evil, full of riveting authenticity about the deadly game in the inner cities,” said Clay, consulting the back cover for blurbs.

“Oh crap,” said the sheriff. “It’s a male romance novel is what it is.”

“It’s reality,” said Clay, looking earnest as usual.

“This is reality!” said Wesley, waving the ChandlerGrove Scout. “Killer smoke alarms. Two years without firing a shot in the line of duty. That thing you’ve got is what a lot of humorless people hope is reality. Because if the world is grim and sordid, then it means they’re not missing anything.”

Clay Taylor shrugged. It wasn’t easy working with an incurable optimist when the world was going to hell in a Central American handbasket. When the phone rang a few moments later, he found himself wishing that it would be someone reporting an axe murder. That would show Wesley.

Amanda Chandler downed the last of her grapefruit juice with an expression suggesting that she would refuse the offer of an antidote. Normally, she had orange juice, hot chocolate, and sweet rolls for breakfast, but an unhappy interview with her dressmaker the week before had changed her regimen. She would not wear an empire waist to “hide her tummy,” and that was that. Perhaps no one else at the wedding would know her dress size, but she would. A new note of austerity crept into the menus at Long Meadow Farm, prompting Geoffrey to inquire if this was the anniversary of the Bataan Death March. Amanda was not amused.

“I have to go and get my hair done this morning, Elizabeth,” she announced, frowning at her niece’s plate of bacon and eggs. “I have asked the caterer to stop by this morning, and I shall leave that detail of the wedding to you.” Her tone suggested that the mere discussion of petits fours and pound cake could be fattening.

Elizabeth took a swallow of black coffee. “All right, Aunt Amanda,” she said meekly. “Is there anything in particular that I should ask for?”

The words melba toast hovered on Amanda Chandler’s lips, but she said, “Draw up a list of things you like, and ask if they can do them, and for how much. If that doesn’t work, see what they recommend. I will, of course, check with you when I return.” And change everything to suit myself was the unspoken message.

“Who are the caterers?” asked Elizabeth as an afterthought. “Anyone I know?”

“No. They are a new business. I haven’t used them before, either. They are called Earthling. Charles recommended them.”

As a reflex, Elizabeth looked around for her cousin, but Charles was gone, of course. With the wedding frenzy increasing exponentially by the hour, the Chandler men had taken to fleeing the house as early as possible each morning to avoid the day’s disruptions. Even Geoffrey, who normally kept bat’s hours, managed to wrest himself out of the house and down to the community playhouse before nine.

“I will be back in time for lunch,” said Amanda, who was changing from her reading glasses to her driving glasses. “Will you be here?”

“No. I promised Jenny Ramsay that I’d meet her for lunch.” Seeing her aunt’s look of stone-faced resignation, she added, “I’m having a salad.”

“Right. I’ll be off then. You might make a list of questions for the caterer while you wait. Goodbye.”

Elizabeth found a notepad beside the telephone. She wandered off into the parlor, muttering, “Carrot sticks… cheese cubes… onion dip…” The prospect of interviewing a caterer made her uneasy. The word conjured up visions of a heavyset older man with an Olivier accent with a rosebud in his lapel. And he would know what kind of rose it was. Elizabeth shuddered, knowing that she was not equal to the task of directing such a being.

Her list was going badly. She had changed the flavor of the wedding cake six times-mostly from chocolate to something else and back again-when she heard the doorbell chime. “Why am I so nervous?” said Elizabeth as she walked toward the door. “I’m sure he’ll be very polite-in a condescending sort of way.”

Summoning her brightest smile, she flung open the door. “Good morning!” she called out. “I am the bride.”

“Far out,” said the visitor.

Elizabeth stared at the apparition on Aunt Amanda’s personalized Orvis doormat. It was a gaunt, bearded man in his late thirties (or forties, or fifties). He was the type that made it difficult to tell. He reminded her of somebody-matted black hair, gaunt triangular face, and burning black eyes. A photograph from her world history book back in high school. She had it now! Idly, she wondered what he was doing on her doorstep in thongs and a Rainbow Sweat Lodge T-shirt.

“Er-uh?” said Elizabeth, trying to adjust to the fact that the Admirable Crichton she had been expecting had defaulted in favor of the mad monk Rasputin. She was trying frantically to invent conversation, but nothing in English or Russian or even sign language occurred to her.

“You called for a caterer?”

Elizabeth’s eyes widened, but she managed to say, “Yes, of course. And you must be the director of Earthling.”

He shrugged. “I’m one of the group. Anybody who’d claim to be the head of the company would have to be on some kind of domination trip, and I’m not into that, but, yeah, I’m the caterer you asked for.”

“I’m Elizabeth MacPherson. Won’t you come in, Mr.-”

“Josh.”

“Come in, Josh.”

“Actually, that’s my last name,” he said, strolling into the newly waxed front hall. “Some of the members of our New Age community decided to adopt Indian names a few years back to show solidarity with the people of Bhopal, and I changed mine to Rogan Josh, because I’d seen it written somewhere. After I found out what it meant, I was going to change it, but everybody said that that would be an act of unspiritual arrogance, so I kept it. You can call me R.J.”

“What does it mean?”

He frowned. “It’s a menu item in Indian restaurants. Spiced lamb.”

Elizabeth nodded with what she hoped was polite interest. “I have this list,” she said.

“List?” He was looking around the living room.

“Yes, of some things I thought we’d have at the reception. Won’t you sit down?” She motioned him to the velvet love seat, and retrieved her notepad of scribbles and crossed-out items. “I’m afraid it’s hard to decipher. I changed my mind several times. Maybe I’d better read it to you.”

R.J. leaned back in a pose of studied meditation: eyes closed, head thrown back. He signaled for her to begin.

“Carrot sticks,” said Elizabeth. “I mean, I thought we ought to have a relish tray so that people could nibble fresh vegetables, perhaps with a dip alongside it. You know-celery, bell-pepper strips, broccoli…”

R.J. opened his eyes. “No broccoli.”

Elizabeth hesitated. “Why? Isn’t it in season?”

“Doesn’t matter,” he told her, sitting up again and peering at her list. “Broccoli is imported-” He paused for effect. “From Guatemala.”

“Oh. Well, I’m sure we can afford-”

“Guatemala has one of the most repressive and brutal military regimes in the world. By buying their agricultural products-”

“Okay! Forget the broccoli,” said Elizabeth quickly. She consulted her list. “Little sandwiches, cheese puffs, mints, coffee…”

R.J. looked grim. “Coffee,” he announced, “is sprayed with a number of pesticides that are considered too dangerous for use in the United States.”

Elizabeth glared at him. “We’ll take our chances.”

“That’s not the point. The workers who grow the coffee are endangered by the use of these compounds, and so are the animal species which make their homes-”

Iwant coffee!”

“I guess we could buy Nicaraguan coffee,” R.J. conceded. “They have the strictest pesticide laws in Central America. Fruit juice is healthier, though.”

“Fine. We’ll have an orange-juice punch.”

“Florida orange juice, of course. The South American stuff comes from land that was previously either rain forest or was being used by small farmers to grow subsistence crops to feed their families.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Look,” she said, “do you do much business in catering?”

R.J. shrugged. “Sure. We did the Summer Solstice Meditation Retreat and the Crystal Channeling Workshop, and we always do the beans-and-rice fundraisers for the Central American Prayer and Protest Group. You want references?”

“No, thank you,” said Elizabeth, standing up to indicate that the interview was over. “I’ll be in touch.”

“We also have a minister,” R.J. offered. “In case you want to be married for more than one incarnation.”

“Thanks,” said Elizabeth. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Wesley Rountree left his deputy in charge of the office while he went out to talk to Clarine Mason. He wasn’t sure what sort of crime was involved here, but whatever it was seemed to be going on in California, and Wesley was sure that he could manage Clarine, hysterics and all.

When he got to the old white house on Mason Cove Road, he found Clarine waiting for him at the gate, but the hysterics were not in evidence.

“Stupidest damned thing I ever heard of!” she fumed, when he was within hailing distance.

“Well, it does seem strange,” said Wesley in the mild, amiable tone he used for domestic-violence cases, mental patients, and local politicians. “Why don’t we go in, and you tell me about it right from the beginning, and I’ll make notes.”

Clarine did not budge from the gate. “Wesley, if I’d wanted to be interviewed, I’d have called the National Enquirer. What I want is some action.”

The sheriff sighed. “I’ll do everything I can, Clarine, but first I have to get it to make sense to me.”

She pushed open the gate and motioned for Wesley to follow. “I can fix you some iced tea,” she said in a belated attempt at hospitality. “And I made some zucchini bread.”

Wesley accepted both offers, telling himself that fixing the food would help to calm the witness. Besides, with his job you never knew when you were going to miss a meal. When he was settled in the green velvet armchair, balancing a dessert plate of cake on his knee, Clarine sat down on the sofa facing him and began her story.

“It looks like I am Emmet Mason’s wife twice removed,” she remarked.

“Now, I know Emmet was killed on a trip to California. Was it five years ago?”

His widow nodded. “That’s when he went out there, anyhow. And I got this call from the highway patrol, saying that Emmet had been killed in a car wreck in Los Angeles, which I did not find difficult to believe, considering what I’ve heard about the way they drive out there.”

Wesley set down his iced tea and scribbled a few notes. “Okay. Do you remember the officer’s name?”

Clarine sighed at the stupidity of the question. “The content of the phone call-him telling me that my husband was dead-registered considerably more than the details of the caller.”

“Had to ask,” said Wesley, waving for her to continue.

“Well, the officer-whoever he was-said that Emmet had been burned beyond recognition, that he’d have to be cremated, and that they would send him back.”

“What about insurance?”

“They said they’d send a death certificate, and they did. That’s all Bob Barclay down at Georgia Colonial Health wanted to see. And, of course, the newspaper here did a nice write-up about Emmet, with a photo of him from Our Town, and I enclosed that, too.”

“All I know is what I read in the papers,” muttered Wesley, scribbling again. “So they sent the death certificate-and Emmet-back to you in the mail?”

“UPS,” said Clarine. “Of course, my first impulse was to go to California, and I said so to the officer on the phone, but he said, ‘What for?’ And I had to admit he had me there. It wasn’t like I could do anything out there. Emmet was already dead, and we didn’t know a soul west of Oklahoma. So when he offered to ship the remains back to Georgia, I said fine.”

“So by and by this package arrives, containing an urn and a death certificate.”

“Right. Now, Wesley, I just know that the next thing out of your mouth is going to be to ask me did I keep the wrapping off the package, and the answer is no. But the vase is right up there on the mantel.”

Wesley Rountree looked up at the urn in the center of the mantle. It was dark blue cloisonn?, in the shape of a ginger jar, and it was about eight inches high. Exhibit A, thought Wesley. “And he’s in there?”

“Something’s in there,” snapped Clarine. “I never opened the lid to examine the contents.”

“I reckon I will.” The sheriff sighed, starting to get up.

“Not here.”

“Oh, no. I understand about your feelings toward the deceased and all-”

“I just vacuumed,” said Clarine.

The Foxcroft Inn in Milton’s Forge had been Elizabeth’s choice of a restaurant for lunch with Jenny. Although she had never been there, she remembered newspaper ads, showing the old half-timbered building with its inn sign reminiscent of a British pub, and mentioning its Olde Worlde cuisine. It had once been a frontier tavern, back in the days when the hills of Georgia were considered The West. Elizabeth thought that this blend of style and tradition would make a suitable setting for an occasion so momentous as a luncheon with one’s maid of honor.

She parked in the gravel lot that had been laid between the inn and the old stables, then went around to the iron-hinged front door in search of Jenny. I wish I had watched the eleven o’clock news last night, thought Elizabeth. What if I don’t recognize her?

As it happened, recognizing Jenny Ramsay was not a problem, once Elizabeth was able to catch a glimpse of her within the knot of people surrounding her. The smiling blonde in a confection of pink resembled Elizabeth’s high-school friend in the same way that the picture of a rose in a plant catalogue resembles the actual flower in your ill-tended garden. Elizabeth looked at the pink linen suit and then at her own khaki skirt and scoop-neck T-shirt and then back at the vision of loveliness who was now signing an autograph for a man in a three-piece suit. It was going to be a long lunch.

“Reservation for two for lunch,” she said when the hostess finally noticed her. “MacPherson.”

“Okay,” said the hostess, consulting her list. “It could be a few minutes. We’re pretty busy. Is the other party here yet?”

Solemnly Elizabeth pointed to the crowd. “I’m having lunch with Jenny Ramsay.”

“Oh! Well, I’ll show you to your table whenever she’s ready, ma’am.”

Since Clay was no longer reading Sergeant Luger: Crack Shot when the sheriff returned, he assumed that it had been a slow afternoon at the office. “I’m back,” he announced, checking his desk for notes. Not finding any, he cleared off a spot near the pencil mug and set down a blue cloisonn? urn.

“No messages?”

“Not a thing. Hill-Bear came in a little while ago. He’s out on patrol now.”

Hill-Bear Melkerson, the other deputy, was a human St. Bernard who made up in enthusiasm what he lacked in intellect. His name was actually Hubert, but he had changed it permanently to Hill-Bear after his high-school French teacher informed him that this was its correct pronunciation. Hill-Bear was excellent at crowd control, good at breaking up fights, and passable as a traffic patrolman, but he could never be an investigator. Wesley planned to assign Clay to assist him on the Mason case while Hill-Bear attended to the normal routine.

“Finished the book, did you?” asked Wesley.

Clay shrugged. “I just skim ’em. Nice vase. You decorating the office now?”

“No. This is evidence. I want it photographed, fingerprinted, and anything else you can think of to do to it, short of opening it.”

“Is that from the Mason place? What’s going on out there?”

Wesley shook his head. “It’s a new one on me, that’s for sure. You remember when Emmet died, out there in California?”

“Vaguely.”

“About five years ago. Clarine gets a phone call telling her about the wreck. Then she gets a package containing this urn and a death certificate. I brought it along, too.”

“Fingerprints and photos, too? Okay. So, as far as Chandler Grove is concerned, Emmet is history, right? And then today Mrs. Mason gets another call from California telling her that her husband is dead?”

“Right. But this time she has more presence of mind. She writes down the officer’s name and the phone number. L.A. area code: 213. I got it here. Gene Vega. And she gets details about the accident.”

“Was it the same as before? Burned beyond recognition?”

“No. I called them back while I was out at Clarine’s place. She insisted. Wanted to get it straight as soon as possible. I got Sergeant Vega and, sure enough, he’s a real California police officer. Seemed kind of put out that we doubted him, but then I explained that we’d been through this before. He grumped a bit about clerical irregularities, but said he’d check.”

“Everything’s on computer out there,” said Clay.

Wesley made a face. “Thank you, Sergeant Luger. I know that. Anyway, he hit a few keys and told me that they had no record of an earlier demise of Emmet Mason of Chandler Grove, Georgia, in a wreck or any other way, but he was here to tell me that the present Emmet Mason was deader’n a mackerel in the L.A. morgue. I thought I might have to go out and see about it, but what do you reckon he said then?”

“Fax, of course,” said Clay, looking bored.

The sheriff sighed. “I hate a know-it-all. But, yes, he said that in view of our limited technology hereon account of the county commissioners’ views on budget deficits-that he couldn’t use the machine they normally use to transmit data from one police department to another. But he said that they would take a picture of the corpse and fax it to us here in Georgia, and we’d see if it was all a big mistake.”

“We don’t have a fax machine, either,” Clay pointed out.

“No,” said Wesley. “But we will have when I tell the commissioners that they are laughing at us in California. Meanwhile, I scouted up a machine on my second try, and he’s sending it there.”

The deputy thought hard. “Newspaper office?”

“And let Marshall get wind of this? He was my last resort. I was going for confidentiality.”

“The florist shop!” cried Clay. “No,” he said, thinking better of it. “You said confidentiality, and there’s no way that Lucy-”

Wesley scowled. “I swore her to secrecy.”

Clay kept a straight face. “Uh-huh.” He nodded toward the blue urn on the sheriff’s desk. “And when are you going to open that?”

“I hope I don’t have to,” said Wesley.

“It’s so good to see you again!” said Jenny Ramsay, still with a hint of italics in her voice. “And just think! You’re getting married. Isn’t that exciting!”

Elizabeth smiled. “You seem to be having a pretty exciting time of it yourself, Jen.”

Jenny rolled her eyes. “Isn’t it silly?” She giggled. “It’s just part of the job, though.”

“It seems very strange for someone who’s supposed to be responsible for weather.”

“The station feels that the news team should serve as community leaders,” said Jenny. “So I do a lot of charity work and public appearances, and people seem to think they know me-because they watch me on TV every day.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, I think a lot of people are very lonely,” Jenny said, lapsing into her broadcaster-sincere tone. “When I attend one of these public events, I try to be as kind and gracious as I can, and to-you know-say something meaningful, because I know that some of those people will treasure what I have to say for the rest of their lives.”

“Well, how are things going with you?” asked Elizabeth. “I mean, besides the job. Are you seeing anybody?”

Jenny shook her head. “I have so many commitments to worthy civic projects that I hardly have time to do my laundry.” She laughed merrily. “But of course I do. My laundry, I mean. I just love the smell of clean sheets, don’t you?”

Elizabeth noticed a waitress hovering at Jenny’s elbow. “I think she wants us to order.”

The waitress blushed to the ruffle on her Martha Washington cap. “Oh, yes, ma’am! I’ll take your order if you’re ready, but I was wondering if Miss Ramsay would sign my pad here?”

Jenny opened her purse and pulled out a postcard with her photograph on it. “If you’d like to have one of these…”

“Oh, could I? Would you make it out to Kimberly?”

“Of course, Kimberly. How do you spell that?”

Elizabeth retreated behind her menu while this transaction took place, surfacing only long enough to order a chef salad and iced tea for lunch. Jenny asked for crabmeat salad and a white-wine spritzer.

“I’m sorry about the interruption,” whispered Jenny when the waitress had left. “I’m used to it by now, but I realize that it must seem strange to you.”

“I don’t mind,” said Elizabeth. “I’m glad that things are going well for you. I remember when your major role model was a television genie.”

Jenny made a face. “And now I am one!” She laughed. “Okay! That’s enough shoptalk. Now tell me all about this fianc? of yours!”

Elizabeth spent a happy ten minutes discussing Cameron Dawson and then went into detail about the wedding plans. Jenny toyed with her salad and nodded encouragingly.

“And the best part,” said Elizabeth, “is that we are invited to the Royal Garden Party in Edinburgh, and I will get to see the Queen!”

“Really!” cooed Jenny.

“Oh, not that we’ll actually have tea with the Queen, of course,” said Elizabeth, feeling that modesty was in order. “Thousands of people are invited to the garden party. Everybody queues up on the lawn of the palace of Holyroodhouse, and they have their tea standing up, while the Queen and her attendants take tea in a little tent in sight of the crowd.”

Jenny wrinkled her nose. “Poor dear.”

“No,” said Elizabeth. “It’s an honor to be invited.”

“I meant the Queen,” said Jenny. “I know exactly how she feels. Every year the station has a Fourth of July picnic and people sit in the park with their little sandwiches and watch while we eat lunch in our marquees. And do you know the first thing Badger and I do when the picnic is over? We go out to lunch, because you can’t really eat anything with four thousand people staring at you every minute.”

“I suppose not,” said Elizabeth with a little laugh. She indicated her own half-eaten salad. “It’s hard to eat when you’re contemplating being the center of attention at a formal wedding, too!”

Jenny studied her carefully. “Well, I’m sure you’ll benefit from the fast,” she said judiciously. “Are you in an exercise program?”

Elizabeth was saved from a reply by the approach of a silver-haired lady who wanted to know if Miss Ramsay would autograph her napkin.

Cameron Dawson, wearing an ancient navy guernsey and needlecord jeans, was changing the air filter on the family Micra. He liked to accomplish these little tasks when he was at home because Ian was hopeless as a handyman and their mother never got around to seeing that anyone professional undertook the maintenance of the car-or the plumbing or the boiler. Cameron’s first chore upon arriving for a visit was to determine what was leaking, malfunctioning, or needed cleaning. He then set aside a portion of each day to put everything right again.

The air filter looked as if it had been rolled down a chimney. Cameron frowned, making a mental note to draw up a schedule of when things ought to be done for the car. Now that he was working outside the U.K., he couldn’t be sure of getting home often enough to keep the car from being destroyed by neglect. He must impress on them the need for regular upkeep. While he was about it, perhaps he ought to find an honest mechanic. Preferably someone who made house calls.

“Here you are,” said Ian, wheeling his bicycle in and propping it against the wall by the tool bench. “I went into the house just now, but no one was about. I might have known I’d find you here. Busy?”

“Obviously,” snapped Cameron. “I would have a good deal more leisure if you would learn how to take care of things around here.”

“Probably not,” said Ian cheerfully. “I expect I’d only render them unfixable. Machines seem to sense that I am afraid of them. It makes them hostile. I thought I’d let you know that the afternoon post has arrived.”

The only reply was a grunt from beneath the hood of the Micra.

“Seeing how you carried on so the last time you didn’t get a letter the instant it got here, I thought I would hunt you up and notify you this time. Sorry I couldn’t manage a fanfare of trumpets.”

Cameron, with a smudge of grease on one cheek, emerged from the depths of the engine and leaned against the wing (known to Elizabeth as the fender). “Well? Did I get anything?”

“A package from your betrothed. The customs form says Invitations, so I have taken care to make plans for this evening. You may address them yourself, and good luck to you. I can let you have some stamps, though, at a price.”

Cameron sighed. He had finished the air filter and was now cleaning spark plugs. “Anything else?” he called out.

“Letter from the Queen, by the look of it. Royal seal and all. You’d better wash your hands before I give it to you.”

“Read it to me.”

“Hold on. Let me set the rest of this stuff down. I wouldn’t want to tear the letter, in case you want to frame it.” He slit the envelope carefully with his penknife. “Just another invitation to the garden party. This one is to Dr. and Mrs. Cameron Dawson. So that’s all right. Elizabeth can rest easy now. It has a funny sound to it, doesn’t it?”

“What?”

“Dr. and Mrs. Makes you seem quite old, somehow.”

Cameron nodded. “I know what you mean. Well, I’ll have to call Elizabeth and tell her the good news. Really, though, I don’t think she ever doubted that she’d be allowed to attend.”

“Touching faith in authority, that. Oh, by the way, we did get one more piece of mail.”

“Yes?”

“Postcard from the gnome.”

Cameron left the car and went to see for himself. “Bloody hell!” He grinned. “Not another one! Where is he this time?”

Ian held out the card. “Alaska.”

“Not-”

“I’m afraid so. Nome.”

The front of the card bore the word Alaska in large red letters and pictured a team of grinning huskies pulling a sled. Cameron flipped the card over and read the inscription: To boldly go where Gnome man has gone before.

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