Authors: Joan Hess
Stanford shook his head. “So Miss Justicia is drunker than a skunk and passed out, as usual. We'd better ask the others if one of them made the call for some bizarre reason.”
“I can assure you it wasn't Mother,” said Phoebe.
Pauline timidly touched my shoulder. “What shall we do about the taxi driver, Claire? I don't think we should require him to wait on the porch. Shall I send him on his way?”
“Oh, no,” I said. “Take him into the parlor and chat with him while I get to the bottom of this.”
She clutched her collar. “I'm not dressed to entertain gentleman callers! I would never dream of sitting in the parlor in my nightclothes. People would talk.”
I pointed my finger at the driver, who was halfway down the porch steps and no doubt hoping to disappear into the night. “Come back here. Someone called you, and I'm going to find out who it was. Was it a male or a female?”
“I dunno. The voice was low and whispery. This place's rumored to be haunted. Maybe it was a ghost.”
I gave him an icy look. “Nineteenth-century ghosts are not familiar with the concept of calling a taxi. The call was made by a person who either will climb in the backseat of your taxi or reimburse you for your time and gasoline.”
“It's not a big deal, lady.”
“No, I suppose not,” I said, gesturing more emphatically for him to come into the house, “but it's a curious deal. Would you mind waiting in the parlor for five minutes?”
“Okay, okay.” He went past me, his head lowered, and continued into the parlor as if it was the principal's office.
I turned on the light for him, closed the door, and regarded my three cosleuths. Given my druthers, I would have preferred the company of the driver to that of Stanford, Phoebe, and Pauline. I clearly had no druthers.
“Well,” I said, “let's find the person who called the driver and let him or her do whatever he or she has in mind. This is peculiar, but I don't intend to stay up all night because of it.”
“Maybe we ought to forget about it,” Stanford said with a sigh. “We're getting ourselves all stirred up over what may have been a little misunderstanding on his part.”
Phoebe frowned at the closed door that led to the parlor. “Cousin Stanford's apt to be right. Why don't I tell the driver to run along?”
“No,” I said firmly to squelch the palace revolt brewing in the foyer. “It's a very small mystery, but I'm wide-awake now and I'm going to solve it before I go back to bed.”
I started upstairs, but before my foot touched the third riser, my band of Malloy Manor irregulars (in all senses of the word) fell into line.
At the top of the stairs, we halted for a conference. After a great deal of hissing and gesturing, I shushed them and crossed the hallway to tap softly on Ellie's door.
Keith opened it, still dressed and wearing the sunglasses. “Isn't this a little late even for the Avon lady?”
“Someone in this house called for a taxi,” I told him. “The driver is waiting downstairs. Did you call him?”
“Why would I want to split in the middle of the night?”
Stanford nudged me aside. “Why would anyone wear dark glasses in the middle of the night? With that disgraceful hair and those ratty clothes, I wouldn't speak to you on the street. You look like a two-bit hoodlum.”
“Or a junkie,” Phoebe contributed.
hair,” Keith muttered, brushing even more of it in his face for emphasis. “I'm like into heavy metal, and all the guys in the band have long hair. I got a tattoo on my butt. Wanna see it?”
“Your mother, may she rest in peace, reared you to show respect for your elders,” Stanford said in a sputtery voice. “Remember how I used to take you outside and tan your bottom for sassing me? I ought toâ”
I decided we were merely rehashing old hash. “What about Ellie?” I asked Keith. “Is she planning to go somewhere tonight?”
“Naw, she's in the bathroom putting mud on her face.”
I glanced at the closed bathroom door behind us. Light glinted beneath it, and I heard running water and the faint sound of someone conversing with her perfect complexion in the mirror.
“She's got a car, anyway,” Keith added. “Why would she need to call a cab?”
“Why would anyone?” I said, making a face.
While Stanford grumbled at his hirsute offspring and Pauline made tart remarks about the risks of infection from tattoos, Phoebe went down the hall, slipped inside her room for a moment, and returned to inform us that her mother was asleep. “As well we all should be,” she concluded.
“I suppose so,” I said. “I'll go downstairs and dismiss the driver, and we can all try to get some sleep.”
A door banged in the foyer below. I peered over the banister, wondering if our driver had fled farelessly into the night, but I saw nothing. After a minute, however, I heard an ominously familiar droning sound.
In the bathroom, Ellie stopped murmuring compliments and began to sing “Claire de Lune.”
Pauline joined me at the banister. “This is terrible, simply terrible. Justicia promised to give up these childish pranks, but she persists at every opportunity. It's dark, the grass is wet and slippery, and all sorts of animals are in the yard at night. I could just kill her.” She hurried into the bedroom and tugged at the window until it opened with an abrupt squeal. “Perhaps we're mistaken,” she added without optimism. “We might have heard the taxi as it left.”
We crowded around her. Moonlight softened the raggedness of the yard and gave it a certain deceptive tranquillity. The inky water of the bayou glittered, as did the leaves of the tangle of trees beyond it. Several mosquitoes took advantage of the open window to zoom in for a midnight snack. Their buzzing competed with the increasingly insistent drone that was not the taxi's departure, to our collective regret.
The wheelchair came around the corner of the house, its white-haired driver bent over the controls. She narrowly missed a tree, teetered precariously on one wheel, and then, at the fateful second, regained her balance. With a triumphant cackle, she shifted into high and shot into the shadows.
Pauline snorted angrily. “I must find her before she causes herself serious harm. All that wine at dinner, and then the brandyâ¦” She squirmed through us and ran out the door.
We waited mutely at the window. Bedroom slippers flapped down the stairs like soft applause. A door banged. Seconds later, Pauline came into view and trotted away in the direction Miss Justicia had taken. It was much the same scene as I'd observed earlier, although the white gown that Pauline was wearing gave this version a macabre air.
Keith whistled softly. “Did you catch the look on her face? She's so far off her rocker, she couldn't find it, much less sit in it.”
“Don't speak of your grandmother like that,” Stanford said, leaning over my shoulder to get a better view. His hand rested on my fanny, and, after a moment, began to explore its planes and curves. Keith and Phoebe jostled for position behind us, pinning me to the windowsill.
I froze, unable to believe Stanford would take advantage of his mother's potential peril to resume his advances. I then regained my sensibility and elbowed him hard enough to elicit a muffled grunt, but no respite. I was preparing to punch him in the nose when Pauline reappeared from the bushes.
“I can't find her,” she said. “I've looked all along the paths she usually takes, but there's no trace of her. I don't hear the wheelchair.”
“We'll help you search the grounds,” I called down. I gave Stanford one last jab, a truly vicious one, and pushed my way through the group. “Well? Are you coming to find Miss Justicia before she runs into a magnolia tree?”
Stanford gave me a wounded look, although I didn't know if I'd offended his superficial sense of decorum or his rib cage. “Of course we are,” he said grimly. “All of you, step to it. Poor Miss Justicia's out there in the dark, and we have a responsibility to find her before it's too late.”
Phoebe sniffed. “It seems to me it's Cousin Pauline's responsibility. It's part of her job description.”
She caught my glower and reluctantly came across the room. Keith opened the bathroom door, tersely described the situation, and joined us with a smirky expression. “Ellie'll be down as soon as she can chip off the mask,” he reported. “With that gook on her face, she'd give Granny a heart attack. I thought only kids were into mud pies.”
I could think of one kid who'd be delighted to dabble in mudâif it was guaranteed to ward off pimples. I ascertained that said kid was asleep, then trooped downstairs with the others. As we went through the foyer, I considered inviting the taxi driver to join in the fun, but decided to leave him in isolated ignorance. As it was, his opinion of the clan was already less than flattering. Miss Loony Tunes herself, he'd said. No rebuttal came to mind.
We halted on the porch to assess the situation. A cloud drifted across the face of the moon, briefly blotting out the eerie white light. Tree frogs competed with distant bullfrogs. Mosquitoes and gnats buzzed in my ears. Birds squawked at us from deep within shadowy tunnels of foliage. Amidst this bucolic cacaphony, I did not hear the wheelchair.
“I suppose we need to fan out,” I said unenthusiastically.
Stanford nodded sharply, now assuming the mantle of a battlefield general. “Phoebe, you come with me. We'll cover the area by the old barn Claire, you and Keith go around that side of the house and work your way along the bayou. Gather up Cousin Pauline.”
I doubted Keith would be of much use should we encounter one of the less appealing denizens of the bayou, but I didn't relish the idea of wandering into the yard on my own. “Let's go,” I said to him as I went down the steps and to the driveway to check for wheelchair tracks. There were none.
We went around the corner of the house, past a ramp at the end of the porch, and into the vast wasteland of the backyard, where we found Pauline peering under a bush.
She let the branch fall. “I cannot believe Justicia would do this dreadful thing,” she said as she fell into step with us. “She's in frail health, and this can't be good for her.”
“Hey, the old girl just wants to have fun,” Keith said.
Pauline made a small noise of exasperation. “That's easy for you to say. You're not responsible for her well-being, nor are you particularly concerned about it. How long has it been since your last visitâten years?”
“Something like that,” he muttered.
“Then again,” she continued mercilessly, “how could you visit when you've been engaged in involuntary residence behind a fence topped with barbed wire?”
“So what? This place gives me the heebie-jeebies.”
I tried to ignore them as I squinted into the shadows. Miss Justicia was a tiny woman, but her wheelchair could not easily be hidden. I glanced at Pauline. “Has she ever vanished like this before?”
“I'm afraid so. Several months ago, the police picked her up more than nine miles from here and returned her. One of the officers indicated he might charge her with reckless driving and resisting arrest. She was veryâ¦indignant at the time. Luckily, he was a local boy and I was able to dissuade him from taking action that might disgrace the family.”
“She was heading this way,” I said as we walked toward the guilty bushes. I rubbed my temples and reminded myself Caron and I now had less than thirty-six hours left. It was possible I was going to spend a lot of them poking around a swampy yard for an old lady in a wheelchair, but like dental surgery, labor, and televised football games, this, too, would pass.
“Drunken driving in a wheelchair,” Keith said admiringly. “You know, that's a class act.”
Pauline stiffened. “I do not think it proper for you to snicker at your grandmother, despite her propensity for immature behavior and overindulgence.”
“All I said wasâ”
“You snickered. I distinctly heard you snicker whenâ”
“Shall we continue the search?” I interrupted. Both subsided, and we arrived at the edge of the bayou without further analyses of Miss Justicia's propensities. We followed the bank at a prudent distance. As we came around a clump of shrubbery, I saw a glint of silver in the water that was not the elusive glitter of moonlight.
I stopped in mid-step and took a deep breath. “You'd better wait here, Pauline.”
She must have seen the glint, too, because her face turned chalky. “Is thatâ¦is thatâ¦?”
“I'm afraid it might be.” I patted her on the shoulder, then gestured for Keith to accompany me. We halted at the edge of the odiferous water. As I'd suspected, the glint came from the rim of a wheel. The back of the wheelchair was visible, indicating the water was no more than a foot or two deep.
Keith took off his sunglasses and gulped. “Do you think she pushed it in here for some screwy reason?”
“Let's hope so. Go find your father and Phoebe.” Once he was gone, I gave myself a minute to dredge up some courage, then stepped out of my slippers and into the water.
It was as tepid as discarded tea as it lapped against my calves. My feet sank in several inches of silky mud that oozed between my toes. A submerged branch scraped one leg, almost eliciting a bloodcurdling scream that would have brought Stanford at a run. On the far side, something slithered into the water with a soft plop. Two fierce red eyes regarded me from within a burrow. I ordered myself not even to speculate on what might consider the mud to be its home, sweet home.
When I reached the wheelchair, I grasped the handles on the back. The thing weighed more than I'd imagined, and my footing was not what I would have preferred. It took a great deal of puffing and slipping to wrestle the chair to one side. It relented with a drawn-out slurp and a splash that caught me in the face.
Whispy white hair floated to the surface. I yanked the chair the rest of the way over and grabbed Miss Justicia's shoulder. I dragged her to the bank, laid her in the grass, and crouched beside her to listen for any sign that she was alive. Muddy water dribbled from her mouth as her jaw fell open, exposing sleek pink gums. Her eyes were flat and unseeing. Her concave chest was still.
Pauline approached, her hands clasped. “Is Justicia dead?”
“Yes,” I said gently. I sat back on my heels and tried to let the horror of the moment drain off me like the water on my legs and forearms. “It's been at least fifteen minutes since we saw her drive across the yard. She could have been in the bayou most of that time.” I looked up as Stanford, Keith, and Phoebe came out of the bushes. “I'm afraid there's been an accident,” I told them. “Miss Justicia must have become disoriented in the dark. She went off the path and drove into the bayou. Although the water's not very deep, the wheelchair held her down.”
Stanford walked past his mother's body and stared at the wheelchair. “The damn contraption's heavier than a refrigerator, considering it's mostly a collection of hollow metal tubes. I told her time and again to get a smaller model, but she insisted on state-of-the-art technology, maximum horsepower, and front-wheel drive.” He turned back with a misty smile. “She did enjoy her wild rides around the yard. We can all take comfort in knowing she died while having a mighty fine time.”
Pauline sank to her knees and began to rock back and forth as if she was on the porch in a cane-bottomed chair. Phoebe gave me an enigmatic look as she went to Pauline and bent down to comfort her. Keith came over to the body, his hands in his pockets and his sunglasses once again hiding his eyes.
“What do we do now?” he asked.
Stanford had recovered from his nostalgic mode. “I'll call the funeral home and have them send some boys toâah, handle the situation in a discreet fashion. Cousin Pauline, did Miss Justicia ever mention a favorite funeral home?”
Pauline continued to rock mindlessly in the grass.
Pencil and notebook readied, Phoebe frowned at her. “You really must pull yourself together, Cousin Pauline. We're all aware that this tragic accident could have been averted if you'd noticed the wheelchair when you first searched for Miss Justicia, but I'm sure none of us intends to hold you fully responsible. If you can tell us Miss Justicia's preference in funeral homes, I'll take it upon myself to contact them. Otherwise, we'll simply be forced to select names at random from the Yellow Pages and discuss the various package rates.”
“Wait a minute,” I said when I could trust myself. “The first thing we have to do is call the police and tell them what happened.”
“I don't believe that's necessary,” Stanford said, crossing his arms as he peered down at me.
“Of course it's necessary. The local authorities have to be informed in the event of a fatal accident.”
He took the napkin from his pocket and wiped his forehead. “We're not going to get all carried away with calling in any damn-fool authorities. In these parts, we're accustomed to dealing with tragedy in a calm and dignified manner befitting our family's position in the community. I don't want my dear, departed mother being disturbed by some policeman she never met, much less allowed in the parlor.” He stuffed the napkin back in his pocket and said to Phoebe, “What say we stick a pin in the Yellow Pages, accept the best deal they offer, and get on with it?”
“It would be the most expedient method,” Phoebe said, looking a bit disappointed as she retired her notebook and pencil.
“And cut down on delays,” said Keith. “I can't hang around this place while the cops poke poles in the bayou and run blood tests to determine how drunk she was. I've got things to do.”
I stood up to stare at them. “You are the strangest people I've ever met, and I've met some real doozies in my day. Listen very, very carefully: The law says that the police must be called in on an accidental death. It doesn't matter if it's expedient or notâit's the law.”
Stanford mulled this over for a few seconds. “I've got it,” he said brightly. “How about we take her back to the bedroom, dress her in some nice dry pajamas, and put her in bed? The doctor can have a quick look, then fill out a death certificate saying she died peacefully in her sleep.”
“There have been very few documented cases of drowning in bed,” I said, still battling with myself to stay calm in the midst of this incredible scene. Miss Justicia gazed blindly at the moon while her intimate family debated how best to expedite her interment. I wouldn't have been overwhelmed with shock if Stanford had ordered Keith to fetch a shovel and Phoebe a prayer book. Pauline was the only one evincing any grief. The others apparently had internalized theirs and moved on to more pressing concerns.
“I suppose not,” Stanford admitted.
“I knew a smack freak who drowned in his water bed,” Keith said. “Nobody knew he was dead until the water started dripping from the ceiling of the apartment below, and that was four, maybe five days later. It was summer, too, and the dude didn't have an air conditioner.”