Althea is caught in a romance writer’s worst nightmare: She’s been trapped in one of her own melodramatic creations. Around her, strapping men chase after elegant women whose bosoms heave and whose bodices beg to be ripped. There’s no television, no women’s lib, and absolutely no escape. Worst of all, Althea fits right in. Everyone recognizes her as the penniless orphan rescued from a cruel uncle by a charming nobleman. Althea would rather be dead—and if she’s lucky, she will be soon.
The creator of the Claire Malloy Mysteries, which chronicle the adventures of a bookselling sleuth, Joan Hess knows better than anyone how dangerous romance novels can be. In “Death of a Romance Writer” and the other six stories in this volume, she redefines what it means to die laughing.
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Caveat Emptor and Other Stories
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1999 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
Death of a Romance Writer
The young woman hesitated at the top of the great curving staircase, grumbling rather rudely to herself as she gazed at the scene below. "Hell's bells!" she muttered under her breath. "Doesn't she like anything besides waltzes? A little New Wave rock, or at least jazz?"
In the grand ballroom ladies dressed in pastel gowns swept across the floor under the benevolent eyes of elegant gentlemen in black waistcoats and ruffled shirts. A stringed orchestra labored its way through the familiar melodies with grim concentration. Servants moved inconspicuously along the walls of the vast room, their expressions studiously blank. The same old thing, down to the canapes and sweet sherry.
Gathering up her skirt with pale, delicately tapered fingers, the woman forced herself to move down the stairs. Her heart-shaped mouth was curled slightly, and her deep jade eyes flittered across the crowd without curiosity. He would make an appearance in a few minutes, she reminded herself glumly, but perhaps she could have a bit of fun in the meantime. The fun would certainly end when he appeared — whoever he was.
"Lady Althea!" gushed a shrill, nasal voice from the shadows behind her. "I was so hoping to see you this evening. The ball is absolutely delightful."
Lady Althea, the woman repeated to herself. A silly name, as usual, invoking images of moonlit gardens and scented breezes. Why not a simple "Kate" or "Jane"? Oh, no. It was always "Desiree" or "Bianca," as if her bland personality must be disguised by alluring nomenclature.
The dowager tottered out of the shadows on tiny feet. In her seventies (hundreds, Althea sniffed to herself), the woman's face was a mesh of tiny lines, and her faded blue eyes glittered with malevolence. Her thin white hair was decorated with a handful of dusty plumes, one of which threatened to sweep across her hawkish nose with every twitch of the woman's head.
"Who're you?" Althea demanded bluntly.
The dowager raised a painted eyebrow. "I am your mother-in-law's dearest friend, Lady Althea. You had tea only yesterday at my summer home. Your first introduction to society, I believe. I'm amazed that it has slipped your mind."
"Yeah, sorry." Althea moved away from the woman's rancid breath and fluttery hands. Surely these people could be induced to brush their teeth, she thought testily. They didn't, of course. As far as she could tell, they had no bodily functions whatsoever. A few bouts of the vapors, a shoulder slashed by a duelling sword, a mysterious scar across the cheek. But nothing mundane to interrupt the flow of their lives.
Ignoring the woman's frown, Althea stood on her toes to peer around the room. He wasn't here yet. Good. Now, if she could only liven up the music and get these nameless people to loosen up a little bit, the evening might provide some amusement. A ball could be a ball, but it seldom was.
The dowager was not ready to allow Althea to escape. "Your dear mother-in-law has told me of your tragic history, and I must tell you how much I admire your courage," she hissed. Little drops of spittle landed on Althea's cheek, like a fine mist of acid rain.
"Sure, thanks," Althea said. "I'm a plucky sort, I understand. Personally, I'd rather watch television or read a confession magazine, but I never get the chance."
"Television? What might that be, my dear girl?"
Althea shook her head. "Never mind. Hey, which one of these ladies" (dames, broads) "is my mother-in-law? The one with the chicken beak or that fat slug in the corner?"
"Lady Althea! I must tell you that I am somewhat shocked by your manner," the dowager gasped. Her hand fluttered to her mouth. "I was led to believe you had been raised most properly in a convent; that you were of gentle birth and delicate nature."
"Is that so? I guess I'd better behave," Althea said dryly. She tucked a stray curl of her raven black hair into place, and checked the row of tiny seed pearl buttons on her elbow-length gloves. Now that, she told herself sternly, was the accepted and expected behavior. She glanced at the dowager.
"So which one is my mother-in-law?"
"Your mother-in-law is there," the dowager said, gesturing with a molting fan toward a grim-visaged woman sitting on a straightbacked chair. "But where is your dear husband, Lady Althea? I had such hopes of speaking to him."
"Beats me," Althea said. So she was already married, she thought with a sigh. These rapid shifts were disconcerting. Dear husband, huh! Gawd, he was probably a bodice ripper like the rest of them. And she had decided to wear her new gown — genuine silk and just the right color for her eyes. Perhaps there was enough time to change into something more expendable.
Frowning, Althea glanced across the coiffed heads of the guests to study her mother-in-law. A real loser, with a profile that ought to be illegal. Translucent blue complexion, hooded eyes, mouth tighter than a miser's purse. But the woman did have a smidgen of charm — all found in the garish diamond broach on her chest. From across the room, Althea could see the brilliance of the stone, and even the dull glow of the gold setting. Now that was charming.
Leaving the dowager puffing resentfully at the bottom of the staircase, Althea began to thread her way between the dancers. Despite her intention of finding the punchbowl, she found herself curtsying in front of her mother-in-law. Damn.
"Althea, dear child," the woman said frostily. She extended a limp white hand, as though she expected Althea to clasp it to her bosom — or kiss it, for God's sake!
Althea eyed it warily. At last she touched it timidly, then snatched her hand away and hid it behind her back. "Good evening," she said, swallowing a sour taste in the back of her throat. The diamond broach. It would keep her in penthouses and champagne for the rest of her life, if only ...
"Excrutia, this child is charming!" the dowager said, shoving Althea aside. "But where is your son? Dear Jared must be eager to present his charming bride to his friends ..."
Jared, huh. Althea brushed a black curl off her eyebrow as she checked the crowd. She was destined to be stuck with an elegant moniker, and so was he. Once, she remembered with a faint sigh, she had particularly liked a chap named Sam — but of course he had become a Derek. Sam had had bulging biceps and a busted nose, but it hadn't kept him from stirring up a bit of inventiveness between the covers. Derek, on the other hand, had spent hours gazing into her eyes and murmuring (bleating) endearments that were supposed to sweep her off her feet. Sam's approach was brisker — and a hell of a lot more interesting.
The mother-in-law was snivelling down her nose. "Where is my son, Althea? Have you already managed to ... distract him from his duties as host?"
Althea thought of several snappy remarks but again found herself in an awkward curtsy. "No, ma'am. I haven't seen him since —"
Since what? It was impossible to keep track of the convoluted framework. Since he rescued her? Married her? Raped her? Jared would never do such a thing, she amended sourly. No doubt he had kept her from being raped by one of the marauding highwaymen that accosted virgins. Considering Jared, it might have been more fun to be accosted ...
"Well, Althea," the mother-in-law snorted in a well-bred voice, "you must feel most fortunate to have snared my son. He is, after all, the owner of this charming manor and of all the land from here to the cliffs. And you, a penniless orphan, destined to become a scullery maid — had not heaven intervened on your behalf."
Sam's mother was a cheery drunkard who was still producing babies on an annual basis. This one had probably produced Jared by virgin birth. Forget that; birth was messy. Jared had no doubt simply appeared one day, lisping French and nibbling cucumber sandwiches under his nanny's approving smile.
Althea swallowed an angry response. Fluttering her thick lashes, she murmured, "Yes, ma'am, I was most fortunate to have met your son. When my father died, leaving me a penniless orphan at the mercies of my unscrupulous uncle, I feared for my life." Melodrama, pure and nauseating. Why couldn't she have been a barmaid? A bit of slap and giggle in the shadows behind the stables, a feather bed to keep warm for a guy like Sam. But instead she had to hang around with the aristocracy. Snivellers and snorters, bah!
But there was no point in worrying about this Jared fellow. Maybe he was a Sam in disguise. Maybe chickens had lips, and the moon was made of green cheese. Maybe it was time to start expecting the Easter bunny to show up with a bunch of purple eggs.
The mother-in-law person stood up imperiously and held a lace handkerchief to her nose. "I am going into the garden for a bit of fresh air," she announced. "Send Jared to me when he appears, Althea. I must speak to him; it is of the greatest importance."
Hmmm? Had the old bat noticed her repeated glances at the diamond broach? If she were to tattle to this Jared person, Althea might find herself scrubbing pots after all. It seemed prudent to assume the dutiful role.
"Please don't take a chill, Lady Excrutia," Althea said in a solicitous whine. "Shall I fetch a shawl for you from your dressing room? Allow me to bring it to you in the garden."
The dowager with the plumes beamed approvingly at Althea's meek posture. "Charming child, just charming. But look, here's Jared!"
Oh, hell. Althea tried to forget about the promised encounter in garden — for a few minutes anyway. Forcing herself into a semblance of pleased surprise, she lifted her eyes to meet those of the unknown Jared.
Oh, my God, she thought with a scowl. Another arrogant one. There went another bodice, ripped into shreds. Endless lovemaking, nothing but simmering frustration as the result. And those granite gray eyes boring into her, for God's sake! It was more than anyone should have to bear ... it really was.
"Damnedest thing I've ever seen!" The lieutenant leaned against the kitchen counter, watching the body being wheeled out of the tiny office. For the first time in his career even the paramedics were subdued. The two men waited for the medical examiner to finish wiping the inky smudges off his hands, then crowded into the room. The desk was cluttered with notebooks, chewed pencil stubs, and an overflowing ashtray. A lipstick-stained coffee cup lay on the floor in a dried brown puddle. A typewriter hummed softly, and with a snort the second of the plainclothes detectives leaned over to switch it off.
"How'd you discover the body?" the medical examiner asked. Like Lady Macbeth, he seemed obsessed with the invisible marks on his hands, rubbing them against each other nervously.
"The woman in the next apartment called the super. It seems the woman who lived here was a writer, and the neighbor was used to the sound of the typewriter clattering all day long. She told the super the last couple of days there was no sound, and it was driving her crazy," the first detective said.
The second snorted again. "If I lived next door to one of these writers, and had to listen to that noise all day, I might have strangled the broad myself. As it is, I have to listen to my wife screaming at the kids every night and —"
"Damnedest thing," the first repeated, shaking his head. "In twenty-nine years on the force, I've seen a lot of weird things — but I've never seen anyone strangled with a typewriter ribbon."
The medical examiner laughed. "As good as a wire or a rope, but a hell of a lot messier. All you have to do now is find someone with ink-stained hands."
The second detective was reading the titles of the paperback books on the shelf above the desk. "Look at this, Carl. Do you know what the victim wrote? Romance novels, by damn! You know the things: Sweet Moonlight, The Towering Passion of Lady Bianca, etc., etc."
"My wife reads that stuff," the first admitted. He shook his head. "I dunno why, though. Gimme a good ball game on television and a six-pack to keep me cool. That's my idea of romance — me, Budweiser, and the Yankees."
The medical examiner raised his hand in a farewell gesture. "I'll get back to you in a day or two, Carl. Don't waste your time reading the victim's books — unless you think the intellectuals of the world conspired to do her in!" Chuckling to himself, he left the two detectives exchanging glances.
"Naw, Carl," the second said, "don't get your hopes up. It was a prowler or something. Let's go talk to the doorman and the elevator operator."
The first sighed, thinking of the tedious interviews that would prove necessary, the trivial gossip that the neighbors would feel obliged to share, the dinner he would not have a chance to eat that night.
"Too bad it wasn't a suicide," he grumbled. "My wife always makes meatballs on Mondays and then goes bowling with a bunch of the girls. Good game on tonight."
"Then we'd have our note," the second added, pointing at a piece of paper sticking out of the typewriter. "But nobody, not even dippy romance writers, can strangle themselves. My money's on the neighbor; she's probably half-deaf from the noise. She just couldn't stand the sound of the typewriter any longer and went berserk. I would've."
"She's eighty-three," the first one said. He leaned over to read the manuscript page, then straightened up. "My wife will get a kick out of this, you know. Yours will, too. All women think this stuff is great — all the damned moonlight and wine and deep soulful stares! It spoils them for the real world, Marv."
"Yeah, my wife wanted me to take her out to dinner for her birthday. Hell, the babysitter drives a damn Mercedes! I can't see spending half a week's salary on fancy food."
"So what'd you do?" Carl asked as they went out the door of the office and started for the living room.
The one named Marv shrugged his shoulders. "I brought home a real nice pizza."
Lady Althea wrapped her arms around Sam's stocky waist and snuggled against him, ignoring the black smudges on his back from her previous caresses. For a long time, the horse's rhythmic clops were the only sound on the road. The moon illuminated the trees on either side of them with a silver haze, and the light breeze had an earthy redolence. At last the horse and its two riders were gone into the darkness, although a faint giggle seemed to linger in the air.
Back at the cold and lifeless manor house, the ball was over. The nameless gentility had disappeared, the orchestra vanished, the vast room as quiet as a tomb. In the center of the room lay a body. Two arrogant eyes stared at the darkened chandelier, unblinking and glazed with faint surprise. Blood had long since coagulated on the gash across his neck.
There was more blood in the garden. The figure there had the same surprised expression, and a similar slash across the neck. The bosom no longer heaved, although it had the appearance of a mountain range arising from the manicured lawn. The surface of this alpine region was smooth, except for a tiny rip in its surface where a broach had been removed hastily and without regard for the crinoline fabric.
His majesty's guards remained puzzled by the scene for a few weeks, then dismissed it from their minds. One or two of the younger ones sometimes mentioned it over pints of ale in the new roadhouse, but the older officers usually ignored them. The barmaid, always full of throaty laughter and ready for a frolic, kept them more amused on the feather beds upstairs.CHAPTER 2
Too Much to Bare
"My husband is going to kill me," Marjorie announced. It was not the first time she'd suggested the possibility. Anne had lost count. "Oh, honey," Sylvia said soothingly, "it's not as if we're taking the merchandise home, or even having a chance to do more than study it from a respectable distance. Not that I wouldn't object, should the opportunity arise — if you know what I mean!"
The three other women at the table obligingly giggled at Sylvia's comment. Marjorie, already damp with perspiration in her rumpled polyester pantsuit, flapped a pudgy hand as if to dispel any lingering aura of naughtiness. "You are such a joker," she said. "I don't know how you think of these things."
Excerpted from Caveat Emptor and Other Stories by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1999 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsDeath of a Romance Writer,
Too Much to Bare,
The Maggody Files: Death in Bloom,
A Little More Research,
The Maggody Files: Time Will Tell,
All's Well That Ends,
About the Author,