Death by the Light of the Moon

 

Praise for The Claire Malloy Mystery Series

“A worthy issue; a few eccentrics; lots of ill-advised forays into danger; and a blithe heroine whose ironic reflections often produce a chuckle. Of special interest to dedicated animal-lovers.”

—
Kirkus Reviews
on
Roll Over and Play Dead

“Hess again provides lively and diverting entertainment via her brash and articulate detective.”

—
Publishers Weekly
on
Roll Over and Play Dead

“Witty, ironic, and biting…Joan Hess has an unerring comedic instinct.”

—
Bookpage

“Joan Hess fans will find a winning blend of soft-core feminism, trendy subplots, and a completely irreverent style that characterizes both series and the sleuth, all nicely onstage.”

—
Houston Chronicle

“Breezy and delightful…Claire Malloy is one of the most engaging narrators in mystery.”

—
Drood Review

“Whether she's hammering my funny bone or merely passing a feather beneath my nose, Joan Hess always makes me laugh. Murder only raises Joan Hess's wicked sense of humor. Enjoy!”

—Margaret Maron, author of
Storm Track

“Definitely entertaining. Hess deftly sprinkles red herrings and odd characters throughout.”

—
Library Journal
on
The Murder at the Murder at the Mimosa Inn


Dear Miss Demeanor
is great fun…Hess's poniard is tipped with subtle wit.”

—
Chicago Sun Times
on
Dear Miss Demeanor

“Hess's theme is a serious one, but she handles it with wit. Claire is an appealing character, and this is an engaging mystery for anyone who likes crime mixed with comedy.”

—
Booklist
on
Roll Over and Play Dead

“Hess's style—that of a more worldly Erma Bombeck—rarely flags. Amiable entertainment with an edge.”

—
Kirkus Reviews

“Joan Hess is one funny woman.”

—Susan Dunlap

“Joan Hess is the funniest mystery writer to come down the pipe since England's incomparable Pamela Branch. And oh, how well Joan writes.”

—Carolyn G. Hart

To Michael Denneny, for seven years of encouragement,
guidance, and friendship

1

“Driver,” Caron said, somehow managing to combine the imperiousness of a dowager with the poutiness of a thwarted toddler, “I demand that you stop this car right now. This whole thing is Too Absurd for words. I refuse to participate in this farce for one more mile.”

The taxi driver, a youngish man with doughy white skin and shiny black hair, obligingly pulled over to the side of the gravel road and cut off the engine. He took a stained cigarette from some mysterious hiding place, stuck it between equally stained teeth, and caught my eye in the rearview mirror.

“Whatever the little lady wants,” he said with a wink, “is okay with me. On the other hand, we might make better time if I didn't stop every other mile while you two argue.”

“A valid point,” I said. Warily, I turned to study my daughter. Her expression epitomized the intensity of every fifteen-year-old martyr whose mother continually insists on throwing her to the lions. Although we share red hair and freckles, I consider myself an agreeable sort of person, with perhaps only a tiny inclination to irritability when provoked. Caron's inclination is much steeper.

I took a deep breath, blew it out slowly, and continued. “Listen, dear, we've been over this no less than four times since we left the airport. We are going to see this through, and with a modicum of grace. Three days with your father's family will not—and I repeat, will not ruin the remainder of your life.”

“This place is dismal,” muttered the martyr. “It's hot and smelly and ugly. The mosquitoes are big enough to be barbequed. The creepy stuff on the trees looks like rotting flesh. That icky water's probably full of poisonous snakes and sludge and primeval slime.”

The driver flipped his cigarette out the window and lit another. “Yeah, we got water moccasins in the bayous, along with your coral snakes, alligators, and leeches bigger than my thumb.”

“Thank you for the insight into the local ecology,” I said, admittedly without a modicum of grace. I noted the rigidity of Caron's shoulders and tried a different tactic. “It's not going to hurt you one bit to spend some time with your grandmother and cousins. You've never even met any of them except for your Uncle Stanford, and that was more than ten years ago at your father's funeral. I know your father would have wanted you to establish a relationship with his family.”

“He couldn't stand any of them. You know perfectly well what he used to say about Miss Justicia and all those screwy people. We never once came to visit, and he choked on his eggnog when he felt compelled to send Christmas cards every year. Remember what he used to say about Uncle Stanford and his bratty kids? And about pompous—”

I cut her off before she could elaborate further for the driver's edification. “They're still members of your family. Miss Justicia was too ill to attend the funeral and that must have been very difficult for her. Now she's been kind enough to invite us to visit her for her eightieth birthday. We accepted, and we are going to have a lovely time. We are not going to sit here and sweat, nor are we going to continue to screech at the taxi driver, who is attempting to carry out his half of the bargain.”

“I don't mind,” the gentleman under discussion contributed through a cloud of gray smoke.

I gazed at the back of his collar, which had enough oily rings to gird Saturn. “I'm delighted by your flexibility. Now would you be so kind as to drive on without interruption until we arrive at the house?”

As he pulled back onto the road, he looked over his shoulder at Caron. “And there's always your
Diphyllobothrium latus
, of course.”

“What's that?” she asked suspiciously.

“Tapeworms, honey. Louisiana's got the biggest tapeworms in the country, maybe the world. Be real careful about going outside in your bare feet, and for heaven's sake, don't eat any fish. Once one of those ol' tapeworms gets inside you, it sticks its hooks in your intestine and sucks away until it's fifteen or twenty feet long.”

Caron buried her face in her hands and began to whimper. On the whole, it was not an auspicious beginning for a jolly family reunion. I had to agree with Caron that the idea seemed rather flaky, but I was not about to share my reservations with her. I'd felt so guilty about my lack of contact with Carlton's family that I'd kept up the Christmas card list. But from the day of the funeral until a few weeks ago, I'd never heard from any of them, and it hardly kept me awake at night.

The ink on the invitation had been almost as washed out as my memories of the few photographs Carlton had shown me on a maudlin occasion induced by a vast quantity of cheap red wine. There had been the obligatory family portrait: Miss Justicia, seated in a high-backed wicker throne; a mangy dog at her feet and her two sullen sons on either side; several of the boys and a squatty, pigtailed cousin.

The invitation had been addressed to Caron; I was an afterthought. It had been more of a directive than an invitation, and had I not fished it out of the wastebasket in her room, it would have been rat fodder at the landfill.

“Mother!” gasped Caron, jabbing me on the leg. “Look at that horrible old house. This is too gothic for words. I am not getting out of this cab, not even for one second. You can stay and visit if you want, but I'm going back to the airport to wait for you. Nobody'll bother me. I'm positively not—”

“Yes, you are.” I leaned forward to look at the house, which indeed was intimidatingly gothic. It was a large structure with rows of dusty, blind windows, paint-flecked pillars, a wide veranda, and a general air of decades of decay. Massive trees surrounded it, their contorted branches dripping with Spanish moss (in Caron's vernacular, rotting flesh). The vast yard was clotted with sprawling shrubs and patches of spiky yellow weeds.

The driver parked behind a slinky red Jaguar and a more sedate black Mercedes. “Here we are, ladies. Malloy Manor, home of the loons.”

I shoved Caron out of the taxi, then followed her, my expression determinedly calm. “Isn't this impressive? This is such a wonderful opportunity for you to explore your roots, Caron. You can learn all about your ancestors.”

“Aunt Morticia and Uncle Lurch?”

As I opened my mouth to issue a stern maternal warning, a flash of silver passed between an opening in the azaleas on the side of the house. A raucous cry was followed by a cackling noise that might have been described as laughter—if one was in a charitable mood.

I grabbed Caron's shoulder before she could fling herself back into the sanctuary of the cab. The driver snickered and said, “That, ladies, was Miss Loony Tunes herself.”

Seconds later, a gray-haired woman in a plaid housecoat and high-topped jogging shoes skittered into view, froze long enough to give us a deeply disconcerted frown, and then continued in the direction of the cackles, which were still audible but fading.

I glanced back at the driver, who was tugging on his ear and grinning. “Don't know about that one,” he said, “but I wouldn't leave any valuables lying around my room.”

Caron stared at him, then turned on me. “If you want roots, call Alex Haley.”

I could think of no appropriate response. I waited while the driver unloaded our luggage, paid him the amount we'd agreed upon, arranged for him to pick us up Sunday afternoon, and glumly watched him drive away…to the airport, where one could catch a series of flights back to Farberville, the site of a charming bookstore, an apartment with a view of the undulating lawn of Farber College, and the amorous attentions of a cop with molasses-colored eyes, a vulpine smile, curly black hair, and talents best left described in steamier novels than this. He had his faults, but at the moment I couldn't think of any of them.

Trying not to sigh too loudly, I picked up my luggage. Caron gathered up hers, and we trudged through the weeds and up the weathered steps to the veranda. I knocked on the door. After a minute, I knocked more forcefully.

Caron brightened. “Well, I guess nobody's home. If you carry my cosmetics bag, I can handle the rest of my stuff. We can walk to the highway, and it shouldn't be too hard to hitch a ride to the airport…” Her voice dribbled off as the door inched open in a series of squeaks and protests.

He was not the sort of butler I'd read about in cozy British mysteries. Although he remained in the dimness of the foyer, I could make out stringy shoulder-length hair, some of it in his face and the rest tied back in a ponytail. Beneath an oily curtain of bangs were sunglasses, pockmarked cheeks, and thick, unsmiling lips. He wore a tattered flannel shirt over a dingy T-shirt. His jeans were fashionable, which meant they were threadbare and covered with frayed holes.

“I'm Claire Malloy, and this is my daughter, Caron,” I said, ordering myself to hold my ground. And Caron's arm.

He froze for a moment, then brushed past us and went down the stairs. I caught a whiff of acridity, a view of headphones nestled in his hair, and the faint sound of rock music, which I presumed was blaring between his ears.

“Okay,” Caron announced. “To the airport,
tout de suite
. Enough is enough, Mother, and this is More Than Enough!”

“Why, look who's here!” boomed a voice from within the foyer. A plump man with peppery hair stepped onto the porch and began to pump my hand enthusiastically. In contrast to the mysterious butler, he wore a crisp white suit and a pink bow tie that matched his shirt. His cheeks were pale and smooth, his mouth stretched in a broad grin, and his blue eyes unmasked by sunglasses.

“Claire and little Caron,” he continued, still jerking my hand up and down as if hoping for water to spew out of my mouth. “I am charmed that you could come. How long has it been, my dear sister-in-law? I must say, you're looking prettier every time I have the good fortune to see you.”

“Stanford,” I said, trying to disengage my hand before he dislocated my shoulder. “I suppose it's been ten years.”

He released my hand, but before I could retreat to a prudent distance, he threw his arms around me and smothered me in a hug. “Since the funeral,” he said damply to my earlobe, “and such a tragedy for us all. Such a tragedy. Why, Caron was just a baby when her daddy died in that terrible automobile accident, and you had to be a brave little widow. My heart was torn to pieces, Claire.” His tongue slinked into my ear. “You poor lonely thing, you.”

I abandoned any pretense of tact and squirmed free. “It's nice to see you again,” I said coolly. “Caron and I are looking forward to spending a few days with the family.”

Stanford turned on Caron, his eyes sparkling dangerously. She'd edged all the way to the railing, and looked more than willing to tumble off backward if he moved on her. He clasped his hands together. “And haven't you grown into a pretty young lady! Your daddy would be bustin' with pride if he could see you here on the veranda.”

Caron wiggled her fingers at him but kept her other hand clamped on the railing. “Hi, Uncle Stanford.”

“Isn't she perfectly charming!” he said, easing slyly toward me. He tried to put his arm around my shoulder for another display of kinship, but I ducked at the crucial moment to grab a suitcase.

“She's perfectly charming, and we're exhausted,” I said. “Perhaps we could have a few minutes to freshen up before we meet the rest of the family?”

Stanford Malloy, Southern gentleman extraordinaire, assessed the luggage, swooped in on Caron's cosmetics bag, and grandly gestured at the open door. Caron and I picked up the rest and meekly entered Malloy Manor.

The foyer was paneled with oppressively dark squares of mahogany. On my left was a door, and beyond that a hallway as inviting as a passage in a poorly lit subway station. A staircase was directly in front of us; adjoining the bottom step and on my right was a set of double doors, the glass panes blocked by white sheers. A table held a vase of brittle flowers and a scattering of dried petals.

“Miss Justicia thought you'd like to stay in Carlton's old bedroom,” Stanford said as he herded us toward the stairs. “There's a little bathroom with it, and a fine view of the back lawn and the bayou. I'll bet Carlton used to tell you tales about how he and I fished for gars in the bayou, gigged bullfrogs, and even scared up moccasins for the hell of it.”

“Bullfrogs and moccasins and gars, oh my,” intoned a hollow voice behind me.

I rammed Stanford with a suitcase to nudge him into motion. “Who was the boy at the front door?”

He paused on the landing to wipe his forehead with a folded linen handkerchief. “That was my son, Keith. Neither he nor Ellie could come to the funeral, so I don't guess you've ever met them. Twins, though you can't tell by looking at them. Ellie's doing real fine these days; she works for a television station in Atlanta, but before too long she'll be on one of the big networks. She's got an unemployed bum for a boyfriend, but she'll grow out of it and find herself a nice lawyer or doctor to marry.”

“And Keith?”

Stanford stuffed his handkerchief in a back pocket and snorted. “He's still trying to find himself, as he's so fond of saying when he calls to try to wheedle money out of me. Last I heard, he'd found himself in a jail in New Jersey for car theft, so I was downright startled when he showed up with Ellie this morning. He's still as surly and obstinate as always. Why, he hasn't said more than two words to any of us—which is fine with me.” With a snort to punctuate the sentiment, he stomped up the remaining stairs.

A humming sound caught my attention. I looked back, to see Caron gliding up the stairs. It was unsettling, at best, and it took me a minute to realize she was perched on a seat attached to a track along the wall. As she passed by me, her luggage stacked neatly on her lap, she managed a regal nod. I managed a blink, maybe two.

We went down a dark hallway lined with family portraits. Caron stared at her ancestors with an increasingly black frown, but we arrived in our assigned room without any editorials. Once Stanford had elicited a promise that we would be down shortly, he left us alone.

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