Some days, police chief Arly Hanks can’t help but see Maggody, Arkansas, as little more than a cesspool of poverty, ignorance, and incest—the kind of glorified trailer park that gives the South a bad name. But hey, it’s home. So when silver-tongued televangelist Malachi Hope swoops into town, with a revivalist laser light show and plans to build a Christian theme park, Arly worries her beloved, if crazy, neighbors are about to be swindled. But it’s Malachi who should be terrified.
As the town whips itself into revival fever, it’s all Arly can do to keep Maggody from coming apart at the seams. And when the girls’ basketball coach is found dead, Arly can’t help but suspect that the murder is related to Malachi’s tent meetings. To save Maggody from itself, Arly will risk everything—in this world and the hereafter.
What Carl Hiaasen did for Florida, Joan Hess has done for the Ozarks. This is a hilarious look at small-town greed and the irresistible madness of Maggody, Arkansas.
Miracles in Maggody is the 9th book in the Arly Hanks Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
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Miracles in Maggody
An Arly Hanks Mystery
By Joan Hess
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1995 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
The so-called extraterrestrials who'd visited Maggody a few months ago had found no sign of intelligent life, and I doubted anyone else could, either. Maggody's tucked up in the northwest corner of Arkansas, but it's not some picturesque little town with storybook houses, quaint cafés, and carefree, college-bound children flying kites in a field of wildflowers. Maggody is more a hodgepodge of rusty mobile homes, uninspired tract houses, shacks, a dirty barbershop and a dirtier pool hall, and snotty children playing serial killer in an illegal dump. There may be more cars and trucks set on concrete blocks than cruising the roads. There certainly are more Buchanons; they're strewn across the county like rabbits. As a rule, rabbits are smarter than Buchanons, with damn few notable exceptions. You can spot a Buchanon a mile away by his or her yellowish eyes, simian forehead, and thick-lipped, repugnant sneer. Most of them are related to each other in more ways than one. Mayor Jim Bob Buchanon's my least favorite, with his wife, Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon (aka Mrs. Jim Bob), running a real close second.
It's hard to explain why I, Ariel Hanks, had come limping back home to this oasis of poverty and incest. The primary catalyst was the collapse of a disastrous marriage to a hotshot Manhattan advertising executive. It had taken me a while to realize his office was the only one in the agency with a sofa that made into a bed. The divorce had been far from amiable; it was the one time he'd really gone out of his way to screw me. Now it was taking me a while to convince myself that my head was on my shoulders instead of in a place where the sun don't shine (as we say in Maggody — we're partial to euphemisms).
I was entertaining all these gloomy thoughts as I drove past the town limits sign (pop. 755), past a peculiar metal structure known as the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall, past a lot of storefronts with boarded-up windows, and into the gravel lot in front of the Maggody Police Department. When I first accepted the job as chief of police, I considered putting out a sign reserving the prime parking spot. However, it didn't take long (maybe twenty minutes) to realize that the citizens weren't exactly fighting for the privilege of parking by the door. I'd twiddled my thumbs for seventeen days before someone came in to report a stolen lawn ornament (a concrete garden gnome, I seem to recollect).
The pace had picked up, though. Tourists driving through on their way to the crowded country music theaters and go-cart tracks of Branson, Missouri, would never suspect the bizarre happenings that put everyone in a tizzy and me in bed with a pillow over my head. There'd been kidnappings, murdered movie stars, booby-trapped marijuana patches, feminist rebellions, a downright psychotic period when Maggody had been the hometown of a famous country singer, and fairly recently, the most absurd string of incidents imaginable involving crop circles, aliens, and dueling tabloid reporters. And let's not forget the Bigfoot sightings.
Somehow or other, we all kept muddling along. My mother, the infamous proprietor of Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill as well as maven of the grapevine, might go so far as to switch the daily blue plate specials or serve popcorn instead of pretzels at happy hour, but only when she's feeling risqué. Most of the time she sticks to the traditions, one of which is to make pointed remarks about my lack of promising beaus and my biological clock, which as far as I can tell is still ticking away at thirty-four. She's more enamored of the idea of grandchildren than I am of an icy cold beer on a sultry August afternoon.
It being a sultry August afternoon, I wasn't all that thrilled as I dutifully went into the PD, glanced through the mail that had accumulated in my two-week absence, and debated calling the sheriff's office to notify the dispatcher that I was back. I finally decided against it, since there was a real danger that Sheriff Harve Dorfer actually might have something that would interfere with my immediate objective. He seems to believe I'm the only officer in the county capable of writing up a really juicy accident report or intervening in a domestic dispute out on some remote dirt road. He may be right. A goodly number of his deputies are Buchanons; I can eat an ice-cream cone without anything dribbling down my chin.
I wasn't in the mood for anything but that beer I mentioned earlier, and maybe a grilled cheese sandwich to tide me over until supper time. I made sure my bun was firmly affixed to the back of my head, applied a layer of lipstick, took my badge from a desk drawer and stuck it on my T-shirt, and walked down the road to Ruby Bee's.
There were more pickup trucks and cars in the lot than had graced the PD parking lot in the last three years. I squinted at Jim Bob's SuperSaver Buy 4 Less across the road. Heat was shimmering on the asphalt, but business was far from booming. There were a few people trudging in and out of the Suds of Fun Launderette (also part of the Jim Bob Buchanon financial empire), and the old coots were nodding on the bench in front of the barbershop. Roy Stiver was sitting in a rocking chair by the door of his antiques store, playing the redneck for a couple of tourists ogling a pie safe. My amazingly inefficient efficiency apartment is above the store; at some point down the line I was going to have to drag my suitcases upstairs and start shaking sand out of my unmentionables. The sand was likely to enhance the decor.
No one appeared to be committing any crimes, so I continued inside the bar and paused to allow my eyes to adjust to the dim light before I ambled across the dance floor. The jukebox was blaring some nasal lament of lost love, and the booths were filled with familiar (but not necessarily attractive) faces. Estelle Oppers, Ruby Bee's best friend and co-maven of the grapevine, was perched on her stool at the end of the bar. She's tall and as scrawny as a free-range chicken. The only thing different about her was her hairstyle; most of the time she piled her fire-engine red hair into a daunting beehive, but today it shot out like a frizzy explosion.
"So you're back," she said as I selected a stool far enough away from her to give me a chance to take cover should her hair begin to flicker. Her tone was accusatory, but this was not extraordinary. She and Ruby Bee are pretty much always convinced I'm doing something wrong — like not subscribing to Modern Bride magazine.
"Looks like it." I picked up a menu on the off chance it might be a chicken-fried steak day and Ruby Bee had leftovers in the kitchen. "What happened to your hair?"
She sniffed haughtily. "If you must know, I have been experimenting with a new product. What would the clientele of Estelle's Hair Fantasies think if I tried it on them and all their hair fell out?"
"Is all your hair going to fall out?"
The kitchen door opened and Ruby Bee came out, wiping her hands on a dish towel. "Might be a blessing if it did, Estelle. It looks like you were roosting on a utility pole in an electrical storm." She turned her gaze on me. "Well, are you gonna sit there and insult Estelle, or are you gonna tell us about your vacation down in Florida?"
Decisions, decisions. I put down the menu and said, "May I have a beer, please?"
Ruby Bee is often mistaken for a grandmotherly sort because of her chubby cheeks, stocky body, and starchy apron, but she's more akin to a stevedore in drag. At the moment, her eyes were snapping below several layers of undulating pink eye shadow, and her expression was sour enough to curdle milk as she banged down a mug of beer in front of me.
"At least you remembered to say please," she said. "Sometimes you act like you were raised in a barn. Last month Eula Lemoy told me you walked right past her in the produce section and didn't so much as ask about her arthritis. She's been feeling real poorly."
Estelle opted to butt in. "She told me she can't do any needlework on account of her knuckles swelling up like gnarls on a branch. When I happened to mention it to Elsie McMay while I was giving her a perm, she had the nerve to ask me if I thought Eula would be entering a quilt in the county fair this year! How's that for Christian charity?"
"I ain't surprised," Ruby Bee said as she filled a pitcher from the tap and took it to a bunch of good ol' boys in a corner booth. When she returned, she positioned herself in front of me, crossed her arms, and said, "So?"
"Is Eula entering a quilt?" I said, pretending to misunderstand her simply to amuse myself. Maggody's not a place where you find yourself rolling on the floor all that often.
"What about your vacation with that man who pretended to be a tabloid reporter just so he could snoop around town? Is he coming to visit anytime soon? Did you stop spitting out smart remarks long enough for him to get a word in edgewise?"
Estelle gazed slyly at me over the rim of her glass of sherry. "You didn't find out he was married, did you?"
"Don't be absurd!" snapped Ruby Bee. "Arly wouldn't have gone off like that with a married man — not after the awful time she had with that philanthropist of an ex-husband."
If sperm counted, he'd have been right up there with Carnegie and Mellon. I took a swallow of beer, steeled myself for the inevitable counterattack, and said, "Jules and I had a perfectly nice time. We had dinner with his friend from the tabloid, spent a lot of time on the beach, drove through the Everglades one day, and bought each other incredibly tacky souvenirs. When we were ready to go our separate ways at the airport, there was some discussion of seeing each other again. But he lives in Washington, D.C., and works for the IRS, which is kind of spooky. One night while he was asleep, I started wondering if he was dreaming about widows in bankruptcy court and bond daddies in federal prisons."
"Just exactly what were you doing in his motel room, missy?" said Ruby Bee. Bear in mind she owns the Flamingo Motel out behind the bar, and although she doesn't rent rooms by the hour, she herself will admit there are rarely any cars parked in front of the units at sunrise.
Estelle waggled a finger at me. "Men don't respect girls who take a trip to Memphis with every man they meet — particularly on the first date. You might keep that in mind if you intend to catch yourself a husband in the next month of Sundays."
"Oh, I will," I said as I finished my beer. Instead of trying to wheedle a grilled cheese sandwich out of Ruby Bee, who was huffing and puffing, I slipped off the stool. "See y'all later. I need to unpack and run a few loads at the launderette."
"That doesn't mean you ought to go running off to Washington, D.C.," Ruby Bee began. "You don't know anything about this Jules fellow except for what he told you. He didn't have any reluctance when it came to lying to me about how there was a government conspiracy to keep folks from finding out the truth about flying saucers." She was going to elaborate (at length, no doubt), when the door banged open and all three hundred pounds of Maggody's most recent bride, Dahlia (née O'Neill) Buchanon, thundered into the room. Her more typical bovine expression had been replaced with wide-eyed agitation, and her hands were flapping. Underneath her voluminous tent dress, everything quivered.
"You got to come see!" she shrieked.
"Now, Dahlia," Ruby Bee said soothingly, "you're in no condition to get all worked up like this. Why doncha sit down right here and have a nice glass of skim milk?"
Dahlia flapped harder, although her chances of becoming airborne were poor. "It's the most unbelievable thing I've ever laid eyes on! Y'all come see for yourselves!"
A few dedicated beer drinkers stayed where they were, but everybody else followed her out to the parking lot. For the first time in ages, she was right. Driving up the road at a decorous rate were, in order: a gold Cadillac, a massive motorcycle driven by a figure clad in black leather, a recreational vehicle only slightly smaller than a tennis court, a white Mercedes, a bus with darkly tinted windows, and four trucks the size of moving vans. The bus, trucks, and RV were emblazoned with the logo "Hope Is Here" in swirly gold-and-silver letters.
"It's Malachi Hope," Estelle breathed over my shoulder. "Smack-dab here in Maggody!"
"Who?" I asked as the last truck rolled by and the customers drifted back inside to discuss what they'd seen.
Dahlia's jaw dropped, squashing two or three of her chins. "You don't know? Malachi Hope is this really famous preacher who used to be on television on one of those cable stations. He had this show where he healed blind people and made cripples get right out of their wheelchairs and walk across the stage. Kevvie and I used to watch him every Sunday night, but then his show went off the air and we took to watching reruns of Gunsmoke. Why do you think Marshal Dillon never married Miss Kitty, Arly?"
I ignored her question, which was distressingly earnest, and frowned at Ruby Bee and Estelle. "Do you know anything about this?"
Ruby Bee gave me an innocent smile. "I may have heard some rumors, but I didn't want to bother you when you have all this laundry to do. You might even feel obliged to go run a speed trap out by the remains of Purtle's Esso station so you can get your salary this month."
"Just tell me — okay?"
"I'll tell you, Arly," said Dahlia. "Malachi Hope's gonna have a revival out at the big pasture that belongs to Burdock Grapper. It starts on Sunday and will last for a whole week! He's gonna heal everybody and save all the sinners in Stump County. Then he's gonna build this humongous theme park, and thousands of people will —"
"Theme park?" I said, addressing Ruby Bee and Estelle. "On Bur's property? What's she talking about?"
Ruby Bee wiggled her eyebrows at Estelle, who snagged Dahlia's arm and propelled her inside. She paused to collect her thoughts, and said, "What I heard is he aims to lease a thousand acres with an option to buy if he works out his financing."
I stared at her. "Does Bur have that much property?"
"No, but next to the Grapper place is a two-hundred-acre tract that Jim Bob bought from Bimbo Buchanon's widow when she had to go to the old folks' home. Beyond that is the land that belongs to Lottie Estes's second cousin Wharton. All together there'd be in the range of a thousand acres, give or take."
"What's he going to do with it?"
"Build something called 'The City of Hope.' It'll be this amusement park, with a church, rides, water slides, restaurants, a campground, and I don't know what all. It's the most foolish thing I've heard since Perkin's eldest took that correspondence course in tap dancing and made everybody in town come to a recital, but Estelle keeps insisting this preacher's nigh onto a saint and we shouldn't be questioning his motives."
"Which are?" I said encouragingly.
"Did you ever see him on television?"
"I don't watch televangelists."
"Don't go thinking I do, either, Miss Masterpiece Theatre," she said, giving me an extensive view of her flared nostrils, "but a while back Estelle made me do it one night. This Malachi Hope was the smarmiest man I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot in my day. He was so oily I don't know why he didn't slip right off his stage and go flying into the laps of all those pitiful people in wheelchairs. After he got everybody all fired up, his wife floated down from the ceiling in a billow of smoke. She was dressed up like an angel and sang gospel songs. If she hasn't been to Memphis so many times she has a key to the city, then my name isn't Rubella Belinda Hanks!"
If you think I was getting all this, then you're sorely overestimating me. "This televangelist is going to build a thousand-acre religious amusement park in Maggody?"
"I said no such thing."
"Then what did you say?" I asked blankly.
"Burdock Grapper's property starts on the far side of the low-water bridge, and Jim Bob's and Wharton's are beyond that. It's all within spittin' distance, but not inside the town limits. I heard over at the launderette that Mr. Malachi Hope's people made real sure about that."
I wrinkled my nose as the last exhaust fumes wafted over us. "Did they?" I murmured under my breath.
"You want something to eat?" asked Ruby Bee.
"No, but I'll see you long about supper time. I think I'm going to look into this Malachi Hope business. It beats doing laundry."
"You never were much for doing laundry," she said as she went inside.
I seldom fool my mother.
Excerpted from Miracles in Maggody by Joan Hess. Copyright © 1995 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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