Claire Malloy runs a bookstore in the normally quiet college town of Farberville, Arkansas - an enterprise which provides the verging-on-meager living for her and her deeply sarcastic teenage daughter Caron. So when emergency work forces Claire and Caron to abandon their apartment for a few weeks, they are in no financial position to put themselves up in style and Claire is thrilled to accept a customer's offer to let them stay at her well-stocked, well-equipped palatial home while she is traveling.
Of course, nothing is ever that easy. No sooner do Claire and Caron ensconce themselves than disquieting events start to occur - dubious people show up looking for the 'traveling' owner of the house; the owner herself turns out not to be who she claimed and is now seemingly on the run; and a dead body keeps turning up - and subsequently disappearing - around the grounds of the house. Determined, for once, to stay out of the mysterious doings, Claire's hand is finally forced when the disappearing body turns out to be only the first corpse to turn up...
About the Author
Joan Hess is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
JOAN HESS is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
The Goodbye Body
By Joan Hess
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"Rats!" I said, gripping the receiver so fiercely that it almost squealed. "I am speaking of rats, and don't think I don't know one when I see it, Mr. Kalker! This creature was the size of a large squirrel, but without the endearing bushy tail. What's more, Mr. Kalker, it was in my kitchen! What are you going to do about it?"
"Well, Ms. Malloy, I reckon you got a problem."
"Oh no, you have a problem. Not only did I see this wretched rat in the kitchen this morning, I've seen others in the garage during the last month, cavorting in the banana peels and pizza crusts provided by the downstairs tenants after they toss their plastic bags down the steps. The bags do not bounce — they split open! Every day is Mardi Gras for the rats! I've never had more than an occasional cockroach, but now hordes of them are coming in through the vents. I have mice in the cabinets, ants along the baseboards, fleas in the rugs, and flies everywhere. The downstairs tenants are slovenly, to put it politely, as well as noisy, inconsiderate, and surly."
Mr. Kalker sighed. "I'll have a word with them, Ms. Malloy, but it's damned hard to find renters in the summer. It ain't like rocket scientists are lining up to rent an apartment in an old duplex. And I still got to make the mortgage payment to the bank every month."
I paused to glance up as the door of the Book Depot opened and one of my favorite customers came inside. I wagged a finger at her, then flung myself back into the fray. "You leave me no choice, Mr. Kalker. As soon as we've concluded this pointless conversation, I'm going to call the county health department and report the duplex as a hazard. After that, I'm going to call the fire department and do the same, since the downstairs tenants have piled newspapers, boxes, magazines, and greasy rags all over the garage. Oh, and the sanitation department, which can issue violations with hefty fines. As a finale, I'll call the Farberville Police Department and offer an anonymous tip that there are drug deals taking place down there every night. It will take you months and months to do battle with the paperwork before you can collect a penny's worth of rent. Then, Mr. Kalker, which one of us will have a problem?"
"Why don't you just move out, Ms. Malloy? I just bought a nice little house on the south side of town. It needs some fixing up, but —"
"I will not move out! I've lived here for years. I can walk to my bookstore, and my daughter can walk to the high school. I like the view of the campus. At my own expense, I've painted and wallpapered, and last year I had every intention of refinishing the hardwood floors. The downstairs tenants have lived here only long enough to turn this place into a slum. Don't you care about the value of your property?"
"Hold on," he said, then covered the receiver and demanded that someone bring him a bottle of aspirin and a quart of whiskey. "All right, Ms. Malloy, I get your point. What do you want me to do?"
I tried not to sound unbearably smug. "Send over an exterminator right now to find that filthy rat and dispose of it, humanely or otherwise. Give the downstairs tenants twenty-four hours to move out. Once they're gone, the entire structure needs to be fumigated, from the garage to the attic. You'll need someone with a truck to haul away all their debris. Oh, and while we're at it, I'd like tile countertops in the kitchen and a new sink in the bathroom. That ought to do it, Mr. Kalker."
"Tile countertops?" he said, choking.
"I cannot live with countertops on which rats have prowled. You're lucky I haven't demanded new cabinets."
"And the bathroom sink?"
"Cockroaches and spiders come out of the drain. My daughter may require extended counseling."
Mr. Kalker was silent for a long moment. "Okay, Ms. Malloy, but you'll have to move out in a day or two and stay gone for a couple of weeks. I can't just snap my fingers and make an exterminator appear."
"Two weeks, then," I said in the gruff voice of a sheriff giving the boys in black hats until sundown to get out of town. I replaced the receiver and stood up to see where my sole customer was browsing. Dolly Goforth had appeared in Farberville about six months ago, and had since won my heart by buying armloads of books every time she came into the Book Depot. She was in her fifties, but handling it with great grace — as in meticulous skin and makeup, stylish silver hair, and a trim build. Her idea of casual street wear consisted of linen slacks and silk blouses, but not all of us are of the fashion school that dictates jeans and T-shirts on a daily basis.
Her head popped up from the cookbook section. "What on earth was that about, if I may be so bold to ask?"
I sank back on the stool behind the cash register. "I saw a rat in the kitchen this morning. The only reason Caron didn't have hysterics is because she's been staying with Inez. She compares the apartment to a bad address in Calcutta. Both of us have flea bites on our ankles, which is peculiar since we don't have any animals."
"Except rats," Dolly murmured.
"Is there a vaccination for the bubonic plague, or at least a cure?" I went on to relate the entirety of the conversation with dear Mr. Kalker, adding a few choice adjectives concerning the downstairs tenants. "I don't even know how many there are. They look identical, which is to say they have stringy dark hair, sallow skin, filthy clothes, and their communication skills go no further than porcine grunts. There's at least one mangy dog that barks half the night. Not that it keeps me awake, though. I'm much too busy listening to the scritching in the vents and the rustling in the cabinets. I can hear the pitter-patter of ants marching in a tight column, keeping cadence with their antennae "
Dolly brought over a stack of cookbooks, including the pricy coffee-table-sized ones with color photographs of esoteric ingredients. "It sounds as though you won the skirmish, if not the war. Why don't you come to my house after you've closed for the day? We can have a drink by the pool. I've been thinking that we ought to organize a book club. Several of the women who do fund-raising for the various charities said they might be interested, and of course we can go after the college faculty."
"I don't know if I have the energy to take on a project like that," I admitted. "Summer is not my busiest season, so I've decided to keep the store open until six every day, even on the weekends, in hopes of luring in some innocent pedestrians. Even though Caron's not in school, she finds ways to keep herself entirely too busy to help out." I smiled ruefully. "And I haven't had much sleep lately. As a kid, I watched too many movies about mutant insects rampaging across the countryside. Now I can almost hear them plotting in the living room, their tiny exoskeletons crackling with satanic glee."
"You definitely need a drink. Bring Caron and Inez, if they'd like to swim."
I agreed, and after she'd left, sat down on the stool and tried to savor my victory. The only glitch was that I didn't really have any place to stay for the next two weeks. My closest friend, Luanne Bradshaw, had turned over her vintage clothing shop and her apartment above it to a couple of grad students for the summer and was now trekking in South America or some such place. Peter Rosen, with whom I romantically tangled quite often, would be delighted to accommodate me, but I wasn't sure it would be wise. If and when I decided to marry him — and it seemed likely — I wanted to do so from a position of independence. Sally Fromberger would gladly take me in, but she'd probably discovered a way to brew coffee from tofu — and I was way too old to sleep on a futon with half a dozen cats.
Then again, the only motels I could afford might well be infested with quite a few more of the one hundred thousand species of insects than I'd been encountering. The downstairs tenants, having been evicted (at my behest), could be in an adjoining room. Not only would I be treated to their atonal, bombastic music, incessant profanities, and barking dog, but I'd also be able to overhear XXX porn movies all night.
I was still brooding when Caron and Inez came into the store. "How was the mall?" I asked idly. "Did you buy anything?"
Caron, who has my curly red hair and freckles but not my mild manner, said, "No, I'm saving up to hire a hitman. Do you think I can find one in the classified ads?"
Inez Thornton settled her thick glasses on her nose and regarded me somberly. "Rhonda Maguire was there, with Emily, Ashley, Carrie, and Aly trailing after her like suicidal lemmings. They all just stared at us. I felt as if I were half naked."
"I am not going to survive the summer," said Caron. "There is simply No Way. Why don't you have some distant cousin in Paris or Rome who needs a nanny for a few months? I can change diapers and that kind of crap. Or London, so I can show up at the end of the summer with a pretentious British accent and invite everybody over for tea and cucumber sandwiches."
"I might be able to get you a job on a potato farm in Idaho," I said without sympathy. "Better yet, you can put in some hours here and save enough money to buy a Jaguar convertible and a pair of designer sunglasses."
Caron shot me a withering look. "But then I'd be seventy-five years old, wouldn't I? My eyesight would have deteriorated so much that I couldn't get a driver's license. Maybe I could park it out front and sit there, waving like the Duchess of Farberville."
Inez had wisely sidled behind the rack of paperback fiction. "Have you been able to catch all the mice, Ms. Malloy?" she asked.
"Not exactly," I said. It did not seem prudent to elaborate. "Would the two of you like to go with me to Dolly Goforth's house later today to swim?"
"Who's that?" Caron said suspiciously.
"A very pleasant woman who has invited you to swim in her pool. Take it or leave it."
"Where does she live?"
"Good grief," I said. I took an index card out of the file box, where I keep tabs on my more loyal customers. "She lives on the hillside west of the football stadium. She reads bestsellers in hardcover and a smattering of genre fiction in paperback. She's partial to international cuisine, needlepoint, unauthorized biographies, and travel guides. More important, she has a pool. If you two aren't back here at six, I'll assume you've got better things to do, like flipping through the classified ads. Don't forget about the Yellow Pages. You might have better luck if you put on false eyelashes and miniskirt and hang around outside the Dew Drop Inn. I'm afraid I don't know what the going rate is these days for a simple hit. There may be a discount in the summer."
"I've got eleven dollars and change," Inez called helpfully. "I may be able to talk my father into an advance on my allowance."
Caron rolled her eyes, which she always did with impressive eloquence. "Come on, Inez. We can go to the library and use the Internet to search for ads for nannies and scullery maids. At least we won't be stuck here all summer, watching Rhonda suck the brains out of our former friends."
I spent the rest of the afternoon peddling books when the opportunity arose, dusting the artful display of beach books in the window that opened out to the covered brick portico of my dusty, musty bookstore in what used to be a bustling train depot, and wondering what I could do with myself while the Pied Piper worked his magic.
By six o'clock, I'd concluded that my only option was a pallet in my office. There was a tiny bathroom with a sink, which was adequate for superficial hygiene. I could put my microwave on the desk and keep my fingers crossed that it didn't blow every fuse in a six-block area.
Dolly's house was surrounded by a white brick wall made less formidable by thickets of ivy and honeysuckle. I pulled into the circular driveway and parked behind a sleek red Mercedes. The two-story house was also constructed of white brick, and probably dated to the late nineteenth century. I wouldn't have been surprised to learn it had served as the residence of the president of the college at one time, or at least a pompous state politician.
Dolly opened the front door as I came up the steps. "Let's head straight for the patio. You look exhausted. Scotch?"
"Absolutely." I followed her along a hallway that passed by a formal living room and a dining room with a table adequate to seat the U.S. Supreme Court and its clerks. All the windows had treatments, of course, and the knickknacks had not come from flea markets. Mings and things, I supposed.
She settled me down on a padded chair and returned shortly with an ice bucket, glasses, and a lovely bottle of a brand I'd tasted only in my more self-indulgent fancies. I gave her a moment to produce a peer of the realm in full regalia and a discreet string quartet, then took an appreciative sip.
"I could get used to this," I said as I gazed at the well-tended garden, weathered gazebo, and pristine pool. "Caron's convinced she was born to it, and all that stands between her and a personal maid is my pitiful inadequacies in the world of marketing."
"Bibi and I were very lucky. Forty years ago he devised a modification for certain machinery that provided significantly less maintenance and therefore great savings for its owners. He turned what once had been a small shop into a factory with three hundred employees." She turned her head and wiped away a tear. "When he died, almost every one of them came to the memorial service. He was generous to a fault, providing health care, added retirement benefits, day care centers, scholarships, picnics, and holiday bonuses. They called him 'Mr. Bibi,' and their children called him 'Uncle Bibi.' He knew all of them by name."
"When did he die?"
Dolly moistened her lips. "Only a year ago. This week would have been our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary. He'd been promising me a South American cruise. We both loved ballroom dancing, especially the tango. We even entered competitions, although just for the fun of it. He was looking into buying a yacht when he had the heart attack."
"I'm so sorry," I said lamely, which is about the only way such a cliche can be said.
"Things happen." Dolly refilled our glasses, then went into the house and brought out a platter of antipasto. "I hope you like this sort of thing. Bibi and I used to indulge ourselves on special occasions. Luckily, we found a way to make every day qualify as one." She nibbled an olive, then looked at me. "You're a widow, aren't you? One of the women who volunteers at the arts center gift shop mentioned that your husband was a professor at the college."
"Yes, but I wasn't his preferred partner when it came to the tango. He was killed in a car accident some years ago." I opted not to describe the flurry of chicken feathers that had covered the highway like light snow when he'd had an unfortunate encounter on a slippery slope. "Caron and I are doing well, though. She'll graduate in two years, and I'm praying her grades will be good enough to get her a scholarship to a college in Manitoba or a design institute in Helsinki."
"Bibi and I never had children. He had a stepdaughter from his first marriage, and several nieces and nephews who spent summers with us at the lake house. Most of them came to the memorial service. We haven't been in touch since then, but that's understandable. They always seemed more fond of Bibi's money than of his second wife. He was very generous to them in his will."
The topic was making me uncomfortable, so I stood up and went to the edge of the pool. "Do you swim often?"
"Laps in the morning, for the most part. I was hoping Caron and Inez might come with you."
"They're trying to hire a hitman," I said, speculating on how much it might cost to keep the water as clear as the Caribbean but devoid of all the creepy denizens. I've never understood the allure of beaches, with all the unhealthy lumps of seaweed, crabs, bits of debris, and scuttly little bugs. And entirely too much sand.
"A hitman?" she echoed, alarmed.
I sat back down. "The delusions of postadolescent minds are beyond adult comprehension. Anyway, I doubt they'll have much luck, and by now they're probably off debating shades of toenail polish or the wisdom of dyeing their hair purple. Or shaving their heads, for that matter."
Dolly smiled as she refilled my glass. "Better than tattoos, I suppose. Claire, I had an interesting idea while I was driving home this afternoon. I've been thinking for quite some time that I'd like to visit my sister in Dallas for a few weeks. She's an invalid, and her health is, well, unpredictable. If I can persuade you to stay here while I'm gone, then I won't have to worry about the house and yard. All you'll have to do is collect the mail, make sure the pool maintenance guy shows up once a week, and water the houseplants. Caron can have her friends over to swim and barbecue by the pool. I have a big-screen TV and hundreds of videotapes. Whenever Bibi saw a movie that he liked, he bought it. The freezer in the garage is packed with hamburger meat and steaks."
"I couldn't possibly take advantage of —"
"You're not, dear. This will solve your problem as well as mine. I haven't seen my family since the funeral. I'd love the opportunity to see my sister, shop with her eldest daughter, and perhaps indulge myself at a spa for a weekend. You can water houseplants, can't you?" She held up her hand before I could speak. "Yes, I know you're going to say I'm just doing this to help you, but it's not true. Now, I've already made airline reservations to fly to Dallas tomorrow afternoon. If Caron can take me to the airport, she can use my car while I'm gone. If you slip away from the bookstore at noon, I'll give you the keys and show you how the security system works. The cleaning service comes once a week, as does the yardman."
Excerpted from The Goodbye Body by Joan Hess. Copyright © 2005 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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