Arly Hanks has caught all sorts of killers since she returned home to Maggody, Arkansas, population 759, but she’s never tangled with anyone as devious as the local youth group. While chaperoning a trip to Camp Pearly Gates, Arly watches the kids as closely as she would any hardened criminal, but when teenagers have a mind to get into trouble, there’s nothing a police chief can do but limit the damage. She’s just about got the situation under control when one of the kids finds a body, and all hell breaks loose in classic Maggody manner.
The murdered woman sports a shaved head and a white robe, marking her as a Moonbeam, a member of a particularly kooky local cult. And caught between the sect and the law, Arly may be forced to sacrifice what little sanity she has left.
Nobody pokes fun at religion quite as effectively as Joan Hess. This is another laugh-out-loud entry in one of the funniest mystery series of all time.
Maggody and the Moonbeams is the 13th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Maggody and the Moonbeams
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 2001 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
To every thing, there is a season, be it football, baseball, Easter eggs, blushing brides, or professional bowling. This season in particular, heralded by the vernal equinox, had wafted in with honeysuckle-scented breezes, daffodils in starchy yellow tutus, belligerent thunderstorms, and the annual tsunami of hormones in the corridors of the high school — evidence of which could be found strewn along the banks of Boone Creek in the aftermath of moonlit nights. There may also have been a time to every purpose under the heaven, but it was hard to discern.
Especially for professional bowling.
I was in the front room (one of two, the other designated as the back room) of the red-bricked police department, situated cattycorner to the antiques store and with a clear view of the one stoplight in town, studying seed catalogues as if I might do something of a more botanical bent than planting my fanny in my cane-bottomed chair. Crime had skidded to a halt in Maggody, Arkansas, as far as I knew. The gingham curtains flapped sluggishly as I waged an internal debate: petunias versus marigolds, cucumbers versus zucchini. The possibilities were endless and the photographs lush. The tomatoes were worthy of excessive salivation when envisioned with four strips of crispy bacon and a generous slathering of mayonnaise between two slices of white bread. Only Yankees defile such perfection with lettuce.
My official title was Chief of Police Arly Hanks; defender of law, order, justice, the American way, and whatever else I'd been hired to do, having been the sole applicant with qualifications, or without, for that matter. My job mostly consisted of nailing speeders at the edge of town — I run a quality speed trap — and tracking down miscreants who failed to pay at the self-service pumps. Leaping over tall buildings in a single bound was not a challenge, since Maggody lacked them. Bank robberies were not a threat, the branch having burned to the ground a while back. Ditto the post office, as well as the Esso station out by the one-lane bridge. The block or so of what had been thriving businesses thirty years ago was now a stretch of hollow shells, the windows taped with bleached newspapers and flyers promoting events that had long since come and gone. Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King were not vying for the best location, and about all we could hope for was Toys Were Us.
There had been some bizarre moments, but these days we were reduced to Saturday night temper tantrums at the pool hall, a rare flareup on the bench outside the barbershop, and my dedicated (depending on the weather, anyway) attempts to find Raz Buchanon's moonshine operation up on Cotter's Ridge. For the most part, Maggody, Arkansas (population 755), was percolating just fine. Having come home to recuperate after a nasty divorce from a New York City advertising hotshot with silk boxers and a polyester mindset, I wanted nothing more than the opportunity to pull myself back together. And, well, a bacon and tomato sandwich, washed down with a cold beer and topped off with a slice of lemon meringue pie.
I was pondering where I might actually plant tomatoes when, to my deep dismay, the door burst open and Dahlia (nee O'Neil) Buchanon thundered into the PD. Three hundred plus pounds does thunder.
"Fire!" she shrieked.
"I don't smell smoke."
"At Ruby Bee's!"
Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill, for the unenlightened, is the establishment owned by my very own mother, whose nickname is short for Rubella Belinda, the family having an unfortunate tradition of choosing names for their melodic impact rather than pathology. The peculiar pink building is a hundred yards down the road from the PD, and the source for the majority of my carbohydrates, as well as all the local gossip, from Elsie's bunions to Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon's latest, but surely not last, excursion into infidelity.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"I mean there's a fire, darn it! I was taking the babies for a walk, then I saw the smoke and —"
I stumbled to my feet. "A fire?"
"I swear," Dahlia said, wiping her cheeks with a tissue she'd pulled from a pocket hidden among the folds of her dress, "sometimes I wonder if you was huntin' wiffle birds when God passed out the brains. Smoke's pouring out of the bar. Bocaraton liked to run me over driving out of the parking lot, and Estelle is there, screeching to high heavens. It seems to me you might want to look into this, it being your mother and all."
Dahlia was far from being the tightest-wrapped Twinkie in the carton, but she had a point. I went around her and out to the edge of the road, sidestepping the double stroller constraining a pair of pensive, thumb-sucking passengers. Smoke was indeed pouring out of the bar, and an impromptu demolition derby was shaping up. Estelle Oppers, my mother's best friend and coconspirator in high crimes and misdemeanors, was flapping her arms like a woodpecker that had chanced upon a nest of plump termites.
"Did someone call the fire department in Hasty?" I asked Dahlia.
"How am I supposed to know that? I was a fire-drill monitor in sixth grade until Miz Myner caught me smoking in the girls' restroom. I was always real careful to put my butts in the toilet, but she still took away my badge and gave it to pimply ol' Himroyd Buchanon. He cackles about it to this day." She put her fists on what I supposed were her hips and stuck her face in mine; it was likely that one of us was on a sugar-high, and not from gazing at photographs of sweet potatoes. "Why doncha ask him if he called 'em, assuming you can lure him out of the root cellar behind his house? What's it been now — four years?"
I left her grumbling and hightailed it to the parking lot. There were no flames visible, but the smoke was hard to ignore, as well as the chaotic retreat of trucks, cars, and errant husbands who had no business guzzling beer at noon with their busty sweeties from the Pot O' Gold trailer park at the south end of town.
Estelle grabbed my arm. "You got to do something!"
"Is Ruby Bee in there?"
"She's in the kitchen with the fire extinguisher. I did my best to drag her out, but —"
I yanked myself free and barged inside. The fire seemed to be contained, but I could hear Ruby Bee howling, although in outrage rather than in pain. I snatched a thick wad of napkins from a dispenser, then took a deep breath, covered my mouth and nose, and opened the kitchen door. Smoke roiled at me, stinging my eyes and seeping through the napkins to scald my throat.
Ruby Bee was wielding the fire extinguisher with the confidence of a seasoned urban firefighter, swinging back and forth as she blasted the flames licking on the stove. If she were up against a dragon, I knew where I'd put my money.
"Git out of here!" she snarled without turning around. "I already said it's under control." She added a few comments that do not bear repeating, although I will admit I was impressed with her command of four-letter words. My fiftyish mother, with her rosy face, ruffled apron tied around a thick waist, pink eye shadow, and suspiciously blonde hair, could have matched any sailor in a bar in San Diego, hands down.
Forget I said that.
The fire was pretty much gasping its last. I opened the back door and the windows, then sat on a stool and waited until she set down the fire extinguisher. She and everything else, including me, were coated with a slimy film of yellowish powder.
"Grease fire, huh?" I said.
"Guess I don't have to call in a rocket scientist after all," she said as she used her apron to blot her eyes. "What happened was I was frying up some chicken when the phone rang. Duluth was carryin' on like circus elephants was putting up tents in his backyard, then Mrs. Jim Bob came in and started yacking at me about chaperoning a field trip. Before I could get free from her, Roy knocked over the pitcher of beer on his table, Bocaraton commenced to swinging at him, and I guess I flat-out forgot about the skillet of chicken right up until the smoke started pouring out of the kitchen like Satan had been loosed from hell."
I tried not to wrinkle my nose as I took in the stench. The ceiling was black, and the burners were crusted with charcoal and solidifying spew. The infamous skillet had been reduced to an artifact that would enthrall archeologists in a century or two, presuming it was buried in the nearest landfill. What remained of the chicken was decidedly extra-crispy. "Maybe he was."
"Don't go thinking this stove ain't cleaned on a regular basis," growled Ruby Bee. "Come rain or shine, every Tuesday morning I scour and scrub until my knuckles are raw. None of this would have happened if it hadn't been for Duluth, and Mrs. Jim Bob, and —"
"It doesn't matter."
"It does, too," she wailed, sinking down on the floor and covering her face. "The ventilators are clogged. I'm gonna have to find someone to scrape it all down. Insurance will most likely replace the stove, but the health department'll insist on inspecting everything and those folks are a sight slower than molasses in December. I might ought to just up and retire to Florida."
"And do what?" I asked as I sat down beside her. "Live off the proceeds of wet T-shirt contests?"
"I reckon I could find myself a rich old man with a hankering for cornbread and turnip greens."
I hugged her until she released a breath. "I hear the pickin's are slim. Besides, where would I have breakfast every morning and supper every evening? You wouldn't want me to subsist on chili dogs and onion rings from the Dairee Dee-Lishus, would you? Before too long, I'd be borrowing dresses from Dahlia to hide my thighs."
"What does it matter? You're not going to stay here forever, Arly. You're just biding your time before you leave again. It was real hard the first time, but I got through it 'cause I had no choice. Now I can see there's nothing for you here, nothing at all. All the young folk want to leave." She was right: the only ones that stay get married right out of high school, have babies, and scratch out a living like their folks, working at the poultry plant in Starley City and dreaming of nothing more than satellite dishes and a weekend at Branson once a year. Ruby Bee went on. "I almost understand why Diesel Buchanon went to live in a cave up on Cotter's Ridge. I'm not saying I share his affinity for squirrels and rabbits — they're gamey, no matter how you stew 'em — but this was all I had left, and —"
I swallowed a mouthful of guilt. "I'll be here for the time being, okay? You may have to close for a week or two, but there's no way Stump County can function without the daily blue plate specials at Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill. There'd be no happy hour for all the hardworking souls who deserve a beer and a basket of pretzels on Friday afternoon. No line-dancing on Saturday night, no telling what out back in the Flamingo Motel afterward. You don't want those randy couples driving all the way to Farberville."
"But you're gonna leave," she said flatly.
I licked my thumb and wiped a smudge of soot off her chin. "Yeah, eventually, but not before I'm ready to go back into battle." I looked up at the ceiling, which was dripping with foam stalactites. Another few gazillion years, and Ruby Bee's kitchen could compete with Carlsbad Cavern (ten intergalactic credits for general admission; discounts for senior citizens and children under twelve). The lemon-tinted stalagmites, on the other hand, were receding with odd little fizzles and wheezes.
Do not set off a fire extinguisher in the privacy of your own home to ascertain the accuracy of all this. You'll be sorry.
I was about to add something, although I wasn't quite sure what it might be, when Ruby Bee stood up.
"I can hear Estelle caterwauling out front like a possum in heat," she said gruffly. "Go tell her to stop it before the volunteer fire department shows up and starts squirting hoses. Once those boys have tracked mud on the dance floor and soaked all the staples in the pantry, they'll expect free beer. I can't face them and their smartass wisecracks just now."
"Why don't you call it a day? I'll run everybody off and lock the door."
To my surprise, she nodded. "I reckon so. Tell Estelle I'll call her in the morning. The rest of them can swill beer at the Dew Drop Inn or that bar in Hasty. I'm too tired to deal with the likes of Duluth and Mrs. Jim Bob."
"Go clean up, then make yourself a cup of tea and spend the rest of the day watching soaps and talk shows on television. I'll call the insurance office."
"I feel so gosh darn stupid."
"You shouldn't," I said as I helped her to her feet.
"Sure, and Mrs. Jim Bob is gonna admit that she played fast and loose with the ballots for the last election at the Missionary Society. I heard tell Joyce Lambertino had quite a following, due in part to her tasty green tomato relish. She must have given me three quarts, and I ain't even a member." She forced a smile. "Guess I forgot to remind her of that."
"You need a bath and an aspirin." I regarded the damage, sighed, and added, "Don't worry. I'll track down a plumber and an electrician."
"And just what am I supposed to do in the meantime, missy? Do you think running a bar and grill is a pastime for when I get tired of trading stocks on the Internet and burying my profits in mayonnaise jars out in the pasture?"
I gave her a nudge. "Go on, Ruby Bee. I'll come by later."
She took a last look at the damage and went out the back door. I returned to the barroom, switched off all the pink and red neon beer signs, put the money from the cash register in the drawer beneath it, and locked the door on my way out.
"I can't imagine where the blasted fire department is," Estelle said, fuming as much as the fire extinguisher had. "Here Ruby Bee's being burnt to a cinder, and those ol' boys are sitting in a café somewheres, eating pie and flirting with the waitresses." Her voice rose several octaves. "There ought to be a law!"
I caught her shoulder and restrained her. "The fire is out and Ruby Bee's gone to her unit to lie down. She's not in the mood for company just now, but you can drop by in an hour. A bottle of sherry might be welcome." I handed her the one I'd filched from behind the bar.
"You sure? What if —"
"Real sure. I was in there, and the fire's out. It's hard to assess the extent of the damage to the kitchen, but Ruby Bee's unharmed. It's over."
"I tried to make her let me help her, but she wouldn't let me stay. You know I would have done whatever it took. I was filling pitchers with water when she shrieked at me to call the fire department and get everybody out of the barroom. That ain't to say anyone lingered to help."
"It's okay," I repeated.
"So how bad is it?"
"She'll be out of business for at least two weeks."
Estelle gnawed on her lip for a moment. "This is so awful, Arly. She's been real short of cash since she paid taxes, and everybody knows those insurance folks can be tighter'n bark on a tree. When my pipes burst a while back, you'd have thought it was my fault from the way they sniffed around and asked downright insultin' questions." She paused to make sure her towering beehive of red hair was firmly pinned; I saw no reason to point out that one of her false eyelashes was clinging to her chin like a suicidal spider. "I had to explain on more occasions than I care to remember that I wasn't in control of the temperature that particular night. When my power went out and —"
"We'll deal with it," I said. "Please wait until the volunteer fire department comes, and then send them away. My skin is crawling from the extinguisher residue. I'd really like to take a shower and change clothes."
I offered a few more words of reassurance, elicited her promise to wait in the parking lot, and headed for my so-called efficiency apartment above Roy Stiver's antiques store. Housing's limited in Maggody, and my only other option had been one of the units in the Flamingo Motel. Ruby Bee manages to look the other way, but everybody knows that the majority of customers would rent rooms by the hour if they could. Parchment-thin walls and squeaky beds might have left me counting things other than sheep.
I'd almost made it across the road when a muck-splattered pickup truck cut me off. It was, I regret to say, operated by our local moonshiner and purveyor of fetid stenches, Raz Buchanon. His beard was encrusted with the usual accumulation of crumbs and speckles of chewing tobacco, and his teeth were awaiting their semiannual encounter with a toothbrush. If that.
"Howdy, Arly," he said. "Ruby Bee okay?"
"She's fine, and thanks for asking, Raz. I'm on my way to clean up, so if you —"
"I could see the smoke all the way from my back porch. I dint know what to make of it at first. Marjorie got to frettin' sumpthin' fierce, so I thought I'd better come see fer myself. Idalupino dun told me what happened."
Excerpted from Maggody and the Moonbeams by Joan Hess. Copyright © 2001 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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