In a town as peculiar as Maggody, Arkansas, it doesn’t take much to tip the community into chaos. When Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon’s SuperSaver Buy 4 Less takes out a full-page ad boasting the new supermarket’s authentic tamales, gourmet deli counter, and various other bells and whistles, every restaurateur in town fears that Jim Bob is going to put him out of business. So when it comes time for the Buy 4 Less’s gala opening, one citizen decides to play dirty, slipping something into Jim Bob’s famous tamale sauce that leaves twenty-three unsuspecting attendees sick with food poisoning—and one dead.
Was this a prank that got out of hand, or is there a maniac on the loose in Maggody? Finding out the truth will mean digging into the dangerous underbelly of Maggody’s cutthroat restaurant community, and quick-witted police chief Arly Hanks is the only woman for the job.
Joan Hess is one of the funniest mystery writers in the business, and this outlandish look into the greedy schemes of small-town business owners shows her at the top of her form. Cozy mystery fans know that once you visit Maggody, you’ll never want to leave.
Madness in Maggody is the 4th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Madness in Maggody
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1991 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"The picnic pavilion," Ruby Bee read aloud with enough sarcasm to choke the cud right out of a cow, "has comfortable seating for twenty-four diners, who will be only a few steps away from the most incredible display of hot and cold entrées in the county. Don't miss our grand opening." She whacked down the newspaper and folded her arms across her chest. "Well?"
The customer at the counter hunkered over his blue plate special and wished mightily he was elsewhere, because he knew damn well he was in for it, no matter what he said.
"Well?" Ruby Bee repeated, her eyes flashing like the one traffic light in Maggody. "Aren't you impressed with shiny plastic tabletops and an international deli only a few steps away? Everything from tamales and ribs to fresh peach cobbler and that mush they call mousse?"
"Nothing's as good as your chicken-fried steak and turnip greens, Ruby Bee. Why, when I'm hauling a load cross country, I don't think of anything else except getting back to Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill for the best home cookin' in the whole damn county."
"Are you telling me that you're not going to try their Frenchbread sandwiches and chocolate mousse?"
The trucker shoveled in the last bite of mashed potatoes, drained the iced-tea glass, and put an appropriate number of dollar bills on the counter. "I got to run," he said over his shoulder, not actually running but nevertheless making pretty good time. "See you next time, Ruby Bee."
She snatched up the newspaper and squinted at the description of meats and cheeses available for sandwiches and party platters. "Italian baby Swiss! Pro-choot-o! Kosher Polish pickles! What in tarnation's wrong with a nice bologna and cheese sandwich, with a dill pickle and potato chips on the side? I wish you'd tell me that, Gilly Jacana. I wish you'd tell me that."
Gilly was already revving the engine at the stoplight, praying it'd turn green. He swore later he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck rising like there was a spook in the back of the cab.
"Genuine homemade Mexican tamales," Geraldo Man-dozes read, struggling with the longer words. He rolled up the newspaper and began to slap it against his leg. "How in the name of sweet Jesus can a bunch of Arkansas grocery clerks make genuine Mexican tamales? I make genuine Mexican tamales because I am a genuine Mexican who came from Mexico, not from some little redneck town. You think my tamales are the best, don't you?"
Kevin Buchanon bent down so he could look through the Dairee Dee-Lishus counter window. He was nervous because Geraldo Mandozes looked like one of those banditos — what with his shiny dark hair, mustache, and stocky body — and everybody knew they could be dangerous if they got riled up. Nobody knew much about this Mexican fellow who'd bought the Dee-Lishus a couple of months back; Maggody's version of the Welcome Wagon (the contingency of church ladies who dropped by in a neighborly fashion to appraise the furniture) tended to roll right past foreigners and other suspicious types.
Kevin cleared his throat. "Sure, Geraldo, your tamales are real good."
"Sure, Geraldo. Like you said, you're a genuine spic."
A tamale hit the countertop in an explosion of greasy white paper and greasy orange chili sauce. "I did not say spic, you skinny little turd. I said Mexican, as in a person from Mexico."
"Yeah, I remember now, Geraldo ... and this tamale looks real good." Kevin fumbled with the paper until he had secured it around what would be his lunch, then scattered change on the counter and pedaled away before the genuine spic started throwing chili straight from the pot.
"A total-service supermarket with fully trained employees who are dedicated to your needs," Elsie McMay read, her head tilted back so she could see through her bifocals and also keep the perm solution from dribbling into her ears and shorting out her hearing aid (she'd read about such a fatal tragedy in a tabloid and was always careful). She stopped to dab her forehead with a tissue, then met Estelle's gaze in the mirror. "Now just where is Jim Bob finding these fully trained employees? At the Maggody Academy of Supermarket Studies?"
"I couldn't say," Estelle said, more concerned with a pesky wisp of gray hair that seemed to have a mind of its own. "Rumor has it Dahlia's going back to work for him, and as the head cook in the deli, if you can imagine that."
"Dahlia O'Neill couldn't heat up a can of corn. Remember when she worked at the Kwik-Screw? All she ever did was stuff candy bars in her face and guzzle orange soda pop. It wasn't any mystery to me why she topped three hundred pounds a few years back. I once asked her real nicely where to find the kitchen matches, but I might as well've asked her in some foreign language like French."
"Or German," Estelle mumbled through a bobby pin between her lips.
"Or American." Estelle started chuckling, and then so did Elsie, and the bobby pin fell on the floor and the little pink curler unwound of its own accord, but neither one of them cared at that moment because of Estelle's undeniable wit.
"Open from seven in the morning till nine at night," Buzz Milvin read aloud, his frown getting deeper by the word. He aimed it in the direction of his mother-in-law, who was on the settee reading the directions on a bottle of medicine guaranteed to make her regular. "But that don't make no sense, Lillith. When Jim Bob hired me on as night manager, I could've sworn he said the store was going to be open later than that."
"Doesn't change your salary, does it?" Lillith said, more interested in the promises she'd just read.
"No, but ..." Buzz took a long swallow of beer as he scratched his head. "Well, it's just that I thought I'd be overseeing the cash-register lines and okaying checks and making sure the employees stayed busy. Jim Bob said he was real impressed with how I'd been line foreman at the plant for more than four years now. The money's still good, but I'm wondering if I'm gonna be a manager or a custodian."
"Excuse me, Buzz, but I've got business to attend to." Lillith headed for the kitchen.
"Jim Bob's in for a surprise if he thinks I'm mopping any floors," he said to himself, since he was the only one in the room except for his daughter, Lissie, who was in the corner whispering to her doll. "I worked my way up to line foreman 'cause I was willing to assume responsibility and keep the line at top productivity. Had to keep the guys happy, the production supervisors happy, the front office happy." He finished the beer, then with slow deliberation crumpled the can in his hand.
Lissie flinched at the sound, but she didn't say anything. She hardly ever did.
Brother Verber, the spiritual leader of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, was reading, too, but he wasn't exactly reading the full-page ad in the weekly newspaper, nor was he fretting about the impact of Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less on the various citizens of Maggody, not even those in his flock.
He was doing research. He was doing this on his couch, with the fan whirring and a pint jar of iced tea handy on the floor beside the couch. He was doing this in his pastel blue boxer shorts and nothing else, due to the heat in the silver trailer parked beside the Assembly Hall — and the intense nature of his study material.
To be honest — as all God-fearing folks should be — even during the week, he wasn't reading so much as looking, because the study material leaned heavily in the direction of photographs rather than print. But the photographs were educational, to say the least, and Brother Verber made a point of reading the captions that explained why the various participants had selected their positions and what precisely was going through their heads.
Because, Brother Verber thought as he stopped to mop his gleaming forehead and blow his fat red nose, there was depravity in Maggody and the more he knew of the origin of such sin, the better equipped he would be to wrassle with that particular devil. There were things right there in the pictures that he hadn't known were possible, much less popular with the younger set.
It was clear to him that God wanted him to study this variety of depravity, because if God hadn't wanted him to subscribe to Kittens and Tomcats, there wouldn't have been enough money in the collection plate.
He took a steadying gulp of tea and turned the page.
"Our amazing variety of fresh produce will be the lowest-priced anywhere," Ivy Sattering read with a scowl. She turned the scowl on her husband, who was flipping happily through the latest issue of Organic Gardening. "Did you hear what I said, Alex? This supermarket ad says they'll have fresh produce. If they buy in bulk, the prices will be lower than what we can afford to sell for."
"Ladybugs," Alex said wonderingly. He lit a cigarette and held the page closer to admire the amazingly symmetrical pattern of black dots on the little orange creatures. His ponytail swung like a fuzzy brown pendulum as he shook his head in awe, and behind thick spectacles, his faded eyes of indeterminate color flickered. The extent of his hallucinogenic experiences in the late sixties had left him a pleasantly addled child twenty years later. He enjoyed talking to himself in the mirror, even though he had a tendency to forget what he was going to say in the middle of a sentence.
"Would you please pay attention?" Ivy said with measured impatience, resigned to his limitations after fifteen years of marriage but not ready for sainthood just yet. "This supermarket's going to put us out of business. No one's going to come to the produce stand if they can get fruits and vegetables more cheaply elsewhere."
Alex wrenched his gaze from the ladybug ad to smile at his wife, who was attractive in a comfortable way and clearly peeved at him. "But we're organic. Our customers won't buy anything sprayed with pesticides and herbicides."
Ivy looked back at him, her eyes unblinking behind wire-rimmed glasses. "We have customers because we have the only source of fresh produce between here and Starley City. The majority of our customers would drink pesticides if it saved money."
"Whatever you say." He returned to the ladybug ad, which promised the nifty little things could rid a garden of aphids in a matter of days.
Lamont Petrel, the occupant of unit number four at the Flamingo Motel, was reading fine print on various legal documents. His thick silver hair was combed in a sweeping pompadour to draw attention away from his slightly protruding ears, and he was often mistaken for a televangelist. He had twinkly blue eyes ringed with lines, an affable voice with only a tinge of southern refinement, and a firm handshake that'd served him well in many a meeting fraught with peril. His teeth were perfect, but his smile went no deeper than his tan. His wife had told him on more than one occasion that he was a cold-blooded bastard who'd sell his grandmother's soul for a fistful of dollars and his own for a few dollars more. Lamont found that a reasonably accurate description, although he hadn't said so.
He'd already checked the infamous ad for typos, but it looked pretty good and he was pleased with his work. Jim Bob had yelped about the cost, to be sure, but Lamont had convinced his partner that advertising was the only way to go, and he'd finally won the argument.
As for the documents, the fine print was pretty spidery for his sixty-year-old eyes, but he'd instructed his attorneys to go whole hawg in terms of complicated language and meaningless legal jargon. By the time you stumbled into the fifth or sixth "wherein the fiduciary obligations of the party of the first part blah blah the reciprocity of obligations of the party of the second part, heretofore to be identified as the blah blah," it made about as much sense as the federal government's simplified tax form. Which was what Lamont wanted, because he sure as hell didn't want to stay partners with the dumbshit mayor of Maggody.
And unless Jim Bob hired himself a bunch of eagle-eyed lawyers to plow through the partnership agreements, Lamont wasn't going to have to put up with him much longer. This was going to be more of a "Slam-bang, thank you, ma'am" arrangement.
"This is the smartest thing I've ever done." Jim Bob Buchanon chortled, studying the ad like a proud papa. "Lamont wasn't crazy about running a full page, but I told him how we've got to get everybody's attention before the grand opening in two weeks. I'll bet you twenty bucks every single sucker in the county will come by for a look-see and free samples from the deli."
"Gambling is a sin," Mrs. Jim Bob said automatically.
"You know what I mean." He leaned back and put his feet on the coffee table, cringed at his wife's sharp intake of breath, and got them off real fast. "I get all fired up thinking about being the owner and manager of a great big supermarket. The whole county's gonna shop at the Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less. We got ourselves fifteen employees, and most of them's at minimum wage and glad to get it. I think I'll mosey down there and see how the roofers are doing."
"The construction supervisor assured you this morning that everything was on schedule, and more likely to remain so without your continual interference." Mrs. Jim Bob said all this without interest, being more concerned with her study of the Book of Corinthians II, because it was going to be discussed in her Sunday-school class and she intended to be prepared. Only three weeks ago, Lottie Estes had won a minor skirmish involving an obscure verse from the Gospel of Luke, and it had taken all this time for Mrs. Jim Bob to overcome the humiliation. It would not happen again.
Jim Bob finished his beer and did his level best to hold in a belch, which would make it all the harder to get his ass out of the living room and its suffocating piety. "Maybe you're right," he said magnanimously. "I guess I'll go over to the Flamingo and visit with Lamont about the grand opening. He's apt to be lonely sitting all alone in a shabby motel room with nothing to amuse hisself."
"The motel room to talk business ... or Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill to guzzle beer?"
"I'm just trying to do the neighborly thing for Lamont. You're all the time saying how it's your Christian duty to visit with those who are lonely and bereft in their time of need." He wasn't sure this made a whole helluva lot of sense, since Lamont was probably drinking bourbon and watching a football game. Jim Bob was doing neither, because the smell of whiskey made his wife nauseous and the noise of the television disturbed her Bible study. He waited for a minute, then stood up. "I'll be back before suppertime."
"Dinnertime. Common folks have supper. In this house, we have dinner."
"Right," Jim Bob muttered on his way out the door. He'd already decided to forgo comforting Lamont in order to find out if sweet Cherri Lucinda might be in the mood for company.
I was reading a travel guide to Europe. I was dressed in my uniform and sitting behind my desk at the police department, however, in deference to my position as chief of police of Maggody, Arkansas, population 755 at last count. Nobody counted very often because there wasn't much need. The outside world was not obsessed with an accurate head count, and the good citizens knew what every last person was doing and therefore could keep a running tally of births, deaths, and escapes.
I was in Maggody because I'd skulked home from a posh Manhattan existence to recuperate from a tasteless divorce (as opposed to an elegant one, in which both parties fall all over themselves to be fair about the property settlement and fondly kiss each other on the cheek on the courthouse steps ... in Disney World). It wasn't that I was covered with oozing sores; there were only a few scabs to be picked at on a regular basis. I figured it would be only a couple more years before I was ready for the real world, which wasn't ringing all that much anymore.
I was the chief of police because I was the only applicant for the position who'd had any police training. I'd managed to avoid brain petrification only by spending most of my cognizant hours imagining myself elsewhere. And not with a capital E, either, since almost anyplace else was preferable to a one-street town noted for its ornery citizens, dusty weeds, boarded-up storefronts, and artful display of litter that ranged from rusted beer cans and disposable diapers to unmentionables.
Excerpted from Madness in Maggody by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1991 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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