Life is so boring in Maggody, Arkansas, population 755, the locals have resorted to reading supermarket tabloids, gobbling up every rumor of wolf men, zombies, and creatures from outer space they can get their hands on. And as the only sane woman in town, Chief of Police Arly Hanks just smiles and nods whenever her neighbors rave about the latest conspiracy theories. But to Arly’s eternal horror, it looks like Maggody is about to become ground zero for an extraterrestrial invasion. The aliens will never know what hit ’em.
It starts when strange circles appear in Raz Buchanon’s cornfields, drawing reporters, newscasters, and every nut west of the Mississippi. But as supernatural fever hits Maggody, Arly is confronted with a very terrestrial murder. There may be aliens on Main Street, but in a town this strange, how could anybody tell the difference?
Life has always been nutty in Maggody, but the madness is about to go paranormal. Master of cozies Joan Hess knows better than anyone how to push a mystery to the brink of madness—and then push it a whole lot farther.
Martians in Maggody is the 8th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Joan Hess (1949–2017) was an award-winning author of several long-running mystery series. Born in Arkansas, she was teaching preschool when she began writing fiction. Known for her lighthearted, witty novels, she created the Claire Malloy Mysteries and the Arly Hanks Mysteries, both set in Arkansas.
Read an Excerpt
Martians in Maggody
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1994 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
"It seems downright peculiar that all the alien babies are born in South America," Estelle was grumbling as I came across the tiny dance floor of Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill. She wasn't grumbling at me, or even at the comatose truck drivers in the back booth, but at the proprietress herself, who was wiping down the surface of the bar and visibly simmering over some unknown indignity. "This one here," she continued, jabbing her finger at a fuzzy photograph inside the tabloid spread in front of her, "was born in Brazil last year and already speaks seven languages and is learning calculus."
"Sez who?" countered Ruby Bee.
"Sez Dr. Raul Sancrispo, who's a child psychologist at a university in Rio de Janeiro. He took the baby to his clinic and has been observing it ever since it was born. According to him, the baby has all kinds of strange sexual organs. Poor little critter ..."
"How 'bout a beer?" I asked as I slid onto a stool at a circumspect distance down the bar and smiled politely at Ruby Bee, who happens to be, among other exasperating things, my mother. Her round face looks innocent enough, except for a few too many streaks of undulating pink eye shadow and unnaturally blond hair (courtesy of Estelle's Hair Fantasies). She always wears a crisp apron with her name embroidered on the pocket, and she can sound real sympathetic when someone's crying in his or her beer (and unwittingly making a substantive contribution to the grapevine). Then again, there are plenty of good ol' boys who've smarted off once too often and found themselves in the gravel lot, their legs crossed and their ears stinging.
She raised her carefully drawn eyebrows. "Ain't you still on duty, Ariel Hanks?"
"I'm always on duty," I pointed out mildly. "I am the entirety of the police force, which means there is no one else to come on duty should I go off duty. Hizzonor the Moron explained this to me only last week at the town council meeting, right after they voted to cut the budget so deeply you could look through the hole and see China." I glanced at Estelle. "Anything in there about alien rice forms in China?"
"Don't go smirking at me, Miss Priss. I only buy these fool things out of idle curiosity. I know darn well they're made up."
Ruby Bee banged down a beer in front of me, at the same time slyly scooting the basket of pretzels out of reach so I'd know she didn't approve of this blatant dereliction of duty. "I just hope there ain't an accident or something that requires sober judgment," she said.
"Or a holdup at the bank," Estelle added sternly.
"We don't have a bank," I said, wondering why they were both so cantankerous. Outside on the streets (the street, anyway) of Maggody, Arkansas, the sun was shining and the weeds were swaying in a warm breeze. Across the way a goodly number of the 755 residents were going in and out of Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less, and the Suds of Fun Launderette was doing a steady business as spring cleaning got under way. The bench in front of the barbershop was lined with grizzly old coots chawin' tobacco and gossiping worse than the Missionary Society. Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill was peaceful in midafternoon, but there were hungry crowds at noon and downright boisterous ones at happy hour, when draws were a dollar and the jukebox never cooled off. Rumor had it that rooms had been rented recently at the Flamingo Motel out back, but the molting neon sign still read: V CAN Y, and Ruby Bee was too diplomatic to confirm anything.
This isn't to say that three-quarters of the buildings weren't boarded up or that the merchants were getting rich, but it was a pleasant change after a cold, hard winter that dragged on until cabin fever was epidemic, if not worthy of investigation by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta.
They'd have a tough time finding us in the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains. Maggody's all of a mile long, with a single traffic light and a singular lack of charm. Tourists might gape at the odd shape of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, the charred timbers of the bank branch, the occasional drunk sprawled in the mud outside the pool hall, the blinding pinkness of the bar and grill, and ultimately the skeletal remains of Purtle's Esso station, but that's about it until the Missouri line. Unless they're enamored of cows, scrub pines, and litter, of course. There's an abundance of all three.
Estelle tucked an errant whisp of bright red hair back into her beehive, took a delicate sip of sherry, and turned the page. "Listen to this, Ruby Bee. Down in Louisiana the police chased a 1990 Grand Am until it smacked into a tree. It turned out there was twenty buck-naked Pentecostals inside it, none of them hurt on account of being jammed in thicker than fleas on a wisp. They said their clothes were possessed by the devil."
Ruby Bee snorted. "Sounds like something Brother Verber might find of interest. He's all the time worried that folks are getting naked without his knowing — or without his being there to sputter about eternal damnation and Satan's handiwork."
"He ain't said much about that since he and Mrs. Jim Bob were caught up on Cotter's Ridge dressed in lacy lingerie." She turned another page. "Did you know that a family in France has been living in a hollow log since the end of World War Two? They have it fixed up real nice, although they sometimes have a problem with termites."
I finished my beer. "I guess I'll go patrol for Bigfoot, ladies. He was last seen at the Pot o' Gold, knocking on Eula Lemoy's trailer door."
"She probably invited him in," Ruby Bee said as she took my glass and swished it in the sink. "If you're in the mood to patrol, you ought to look for a black limousine that was all over town this morning. It was longer than two regular cars, and the windows were so dark nobody could see who was driving it. Dahlia said it went real slow by her house twice, and Joyce Lambertino said it was up their way. Slinky Buchanon said he saw it going across the low-water bridge, but of course, he claims he sits with his grandmother in the front pew every Sunday and she's been dead for nineteen years. Still, I can't imagine why this limousine would be creeping around town."
"I'll bet that's how Bigfoot came to Maggody," I said as I headed for the relative sanity of the street. "He's starred in enough movies to be able to afford a limo."
"It went by my house, too," Estelle said, although dismissively. "Here's where a man took his wife camping in Canada and she exploded from spontaneous combustion right there in the tent. There's an actual artist's depiction."
"Lemme see," said someone's mother.
I walked to the PD, which consists of a brick building with two rooms, one desk, three chairs (one of them the repository for junk mail), yellow and white gingham curtains, and a telephone attached to an answering machine. The red light wasn't blinking, but it rarely did. I picked up my radar gun and went back outside to run a speed trap by the school zone. With any luck at all, I could bust Bigfoot, sell my story to the Probe, and make enough money to escape a humdrum existence in a ho-hum town where nothing much ever happens.
"Did you see that limousine this morning?" Mrs. Jim Bob asked Brother Verber. They were standing outside the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, enjoying the sunshine and pondering what to do about the threatened rift in the Missionary Society. Out of deference to the weather, she wore a pale blue linen suit and was holding her white gloves in one hand. As always, her face was devoid of the devil's paint and her underwear was starched. Her lips were pinched, but that was on account of Elsie McMay's mulishness rather than her own mood, which was more mellow than usual. That very morning she'd managed a smile when Jim Bob announced he was staying late at the SuperSaver to inventory, even though she knew perfectly well that he'd stagger home stinking of whiskey and cheap perfume. He'd pay for it when the time came.
Brother Verber, who'd been lost in thought (or something closely resembling it), clasped his hands and beamed at her. She was nothing short of a source of inspiration and an obvious candidate for sainthood when her time came. She was looking particularly fetching in the Good Lord's golden glow. "See what, Sister Barbara?" he asked.
"A big black limousine went down Finger Lane this morning. I happened to notice it while I was straightening Jim Bob's dresser drawers."
"I'm afraid I didn't. I was down on my knees all morning, praying for guidance in the upcoming battle with Satan." He gave her a chance to nod approvingly, but she merely looked back at him. "Everybody knows that in the spring a young man's fancy turns to love," he went on, obliged to pull out a handkerchief to mop his neck. "I wish I could feel confident that our young will express their love by picking posies and sipping lemonade on their front porches, but they're more likely to go sneaking down to the banks of Boone Creek to engage in lustful depravity right there in the moonlight. I shudder to think how many innocent young souls will be lost to Satan in the next few months."
"What do you aim to do about it?" Mrs. Jim Bob asked curiously. Boone Creek ambled through the middle of a national forest crisscrossed by logging trails. It was likely that moonlight shone on a whole passel of idyllic clearings, and those who frequented them weren't apt to be passing out maps.
He closed his eyes as he imagined all that lustful depravity. Why, he could almost hear Satan rubbing his hands together and chuckling over ripe young bodies writhing and groaning on the very banks of the river Styx. "I've been thinking about patrolling the creek, armed with a flashlight and a Bible. If I was to chance upon a couple of young lovers fornicating on a blanket, I could fall to my knees beside them and counsel them to avoid eternal damnation by joining me in prayer. If they resist, I'll denounce them from the pulpit the very next Sunday."
Mrs. Jim Bob debated mentioning that he was more likely to end up with a load of buckshot in his backside, since most of the males in Maggody had shotguns before they had primers. However, he clearly was smitten with his idea, and she had more important things to do. "You might pray a little harder before you go tromping along the creek. I'm going to run over to Millicent Mcllhaney's to find out where she stands on this problem with Elsie."
She drove away in her pink Cadillac. After a moment of thought Brother Verber went back into the trailer that served as a rectory and started hunting through his kitchen drawers for flashlight batteries.
"It drove by your house twice?" Eilene Buchanon asked her daughter-in-law, who was on her third piece of pecan pie and showing no signs of losing enthusiasm. "It came by here, too. I yelled at Earl to come see if he could tell who was in it, but by the time he came out of the bathroom, it was long gone."
"This sure is tasty," Dahlia (née O'Neill) Buchanon said as she licked her fingers. She paused in case another piece was forthcoming, then reluctantly set down her fork. "Kevin dint see it, either, on account of he was at work. I sure am glad Jim Bob gave him back his old job at the SuperSaver. He ain't nearly as tuckered out as when he was selling vacuum cleaners in Farberville. Kevin, I mean."
Eilene tried not to grimace as she recalled the bizarre string of incidents during Kevin's tenure at Vacu-Pro. None of them had been his fault. All of Maggody had gone flat out crazy for a month when a country music star named Matt Montana came to town, and only now were certain people able to make polite conversation when they couldn't avoid each other. "So you're adjusting to married life?" she said encouragingly.
"I reckon so, but some days I just don't know what to do with myself. Ruby Bee sez she might hire me back this summer when business picks up. Even though Brother Verber says it's a sin for a wife to work, I miss the jukebox and the laughter and the rednecks howling at me to fetch another pitcher and a basket of pretzels." She sighed so ponderously that all three hundred pounds of her quivered and flatware clinked in the drawer. "I guess I just miss the bright lights, Ma, despite bein' a respectable married woman. Sure, I got my own little home, a loving husband, a vacuum cleaner with thirty-five attachments, and a subscription to TV Guide. I fix Kevin tasty suppers every evening and biscuits and gravy every morning. All the same, something's missing from my life." She sighed again, at length and with wheezy, heartfelt misery. "When I saw that limousine, I started wondering what I'd do if it stopped out front and the back door opened and someone beckoned for me to climb inside it."
Eilene resolved to have a word with Ruby Bee.
Jim Bob scratched his bristly head as he read the article concerning the twenty Pentecostals. Why were there two pictures of a squinty-eyed little alien baby and not one of the buck-naked pilgrims, some of whom were women? He moved on to the horoscope page, where he knew he'd find a clear shot of Madam Kristen's cleavage. After he'd studied it for a long while, licking his lips and savoring a warm flush to his privates, he found his sign. It turned out to be right inspirational, if you interpreted the promise of meeting new people to mean meeting new people with cleavage like Madam Kristen's. For the first time in years Mrs. Jim Bob's suspicions were unfounded. Jim Bob hadn't screwed anybody (including her) for the best part of a month, and he was painfully aware of what was missing in his life. Just the other day he'd found himself appraising a heifer in a remote pasture beyond the low-water bridge.
The office door opened, and the newest employee shuffled in, his throat bobbling and his hands flapping like dying fish. His eyes had the same yellowish tinge as Jim Bob's, but they were noticeably blanker, and his beetlish forehead was a great deal more pronounced. Buchanons were scattered across the county like ragweed, but incest and inbreeding had taken its toll. Some of them could out-wit a possum (on a good day, anyway), but Kevin Fitzgerald Buchanon wasn't among the lucky few.
"What?" Jim Bob barked, annoyed at being interrupted while he was working.
Kevin tugged at his collar. "Kin I ask you something, Jim Bob?"
"You just did."
This resulted in a momentary silence while Kevin tried to sort this out. He finally gave up and said, "About the new schedule, I mean. It says I'm supposed to work every day from four till midnight."
"Where'd you learn to read, boy? On weekends you're working from three till midnight."
"Oh, I dint see that. Anyways, now that I have a wife, I was hoping I could have some nights off so we could go to the picture show in Starley City or even just stay home and watch television together."
"Are you implying your television set doesn't work during the day? Mrs. Jim Bob turns on those gabby morning shows the minute she gets up, and her soaps are on when I go home for lunch. Maybe you'd better get yourself a new television set."
"That ain't what I mean, Jim Bob. Dahlia's kinda moping around these days on account of not having anything much to do except things like laundry and washing dishes and —"
"Spare me the details. I got a whole pile of paperwork to do by the end of the day. If I don't get it done, I can't start figuring the paychecks. Do you want to explain this delay to all the dumbshits out there who are counting on getting paid on Friday?"
Kevin shook his head and went back to the bucket and mop in the produce aisle. He thought mebbe later he'd sneak out to the pay phone in front of the store and call his beloved in hopes of brightening up her dreary day. He knew it was dreary because she told him so every evening when he got home, sometimes explaining for the better part of an hour before she gave him his supper. He had a feeling she wasn't gonna clap her hands when he told her about the night shift.
"Get this," Darla Jean McIlhaney said to Heather Riley, both of them flopped across the bed and so bored they'd painted their toenails three times. Now they were reduced to hunting for stories in the Weekly Examiner about grotesque sexual practices. "This scientist in Germany has discovered a new diet that's guaranteed to make you lose ten pounds in one week."
Excerpted from Martians in Maggody by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1994 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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Joan Hess has written a mystery that is out of this world -- warm, witty, and entirely credible.