I'd never have gotten mixed up in the first murder if Mrs. Macphearson hadn't caught the flu, but I can't blame her for a capricious fate rolling the "who's turn is it to be smitten?" dice and my name--Isabel Stanley--coming up.
Isabel. Picture someone petite, fragile, done in soft pastels, lusciously formed and you'll know how I don’t look. Most people find it less stressful to call me Stan, when faced with a reality that is tall, lots of leg, and colored in brown and paste . . . with crayon.
Don't get me wrong. Being darn near invisible isn't the worst thing that can happen to you. Ask my sister Rosemary about her ex. Just be sure to do it from a safe distance. Calling her spitting mad isn't an exercise in the theoretical.
I used to be a safe distance from her and my mother until six months ago when my instinct for survival got swamped by guilt because my sister's divorce happened to coincide with our dad’s abrupt exit from this mortal coil. Since my livelihood is done with computer and sketch pad for the benefit of slightly dysfunctional children, I was able to make the move from New Orleans to Arlington, Virginia almost painlessly.
Painless isn’t possible with my mother in the mix. She’s a fundamentalist Baptist and thinks that giving life and voice to a roach named Cochran, no matter how spunky and cute, is just tacky. That it pays very well only adds insult to her imagined injury.
With that attitude, there's no way I’m telling her about my secret yearning to add romance writing to my roach credits. It won’t be an issue for some time. Romance novels are harder to write than they look and being raised by said Fundamental Baptist isn't the best preparation for writing love scenes.
Not too surprisingly, our dysfunctional little family was rubbing along about as smoothly as chalk on a blackboard when Mrs. Macphearson got the flu, sending my life screeching off into a dangerous and embarrassing new direction.
I had no premonition of impending danger when I said I'd fill in for Mrs. M during the youth choir practice. I like playing the organ and they have hot chocolate afterwards. Gourmet hot chocolate. They have to. It's January in our tiny suburb of DC and our church is old and cold. If circulation isn't restored quickly, maiming is inevitable.
Since I have an aversion to getting maimed and my blood was thoroughly thinned by my residence down South, I dressed for the impending arctic conditions. Starting with thermals, I worked my way out to jeans and a woolly mammoth sweater, finishing with snow socks and boots. I pulled my hair back in its usual braid and brushed artificial roses to a bloom along my unremarkable cheekbones. When I could do no more, I collected coat, hat and gloves, and opened the door that separated my over-the-garage apartment-by-Goodwill from my sister's House Beautiful.
Though Rosemary and I started from the same fertilized egg, she is able to manage her assets better than me . . . with the notable exception of Dag Kenyon, scum bag of the universe and the husband who came, screwed her over and went.
Down in the kitchen I found into my mother watching the war on CNN. I knew I would. Just like I knew her meticulously plucked brows would make that arc into her gray fringe when she saw my clothing choice. "Slacks for church, Isabel?"
"It's cold and I’m allergic to frostbite." I bent to root through the refrigerator for pickles.
"You'll reek of pickle if you use your fingers like that. Reverend Hilliard particularly dislikes pickles."
Pickle jar in hand, I looked up in time to catch the match-making gleam in her eye. Surely she wasn't that desperate to remove the stain of singleness from my name?
What was I thinking? Of course she was that desperate. The only thing she wanted more than my marriage to a testosterone carrier was Rosemary's ex-husband castrated and forced to live out his life as an impotent handyman for a women's sorority.
She's still got some work to do on the forgiveness thing.
"How could anyone hate pickles?" Holding her avid gaze with my limpid one, I deliberately submerged my hand in the jar, then wiped the pungent residue down the side of my jeans. If I had to, I'd hang dill around my neck to keep him away. No way I was getting intimate with a guy that close to God.
"Maybe her tight jeans will distract him from the smell," my sister Rosemary said from the doorway, with a shadowed smile. Suffering agreed with her. Our mutual assets still looked better hanging from her bones than they ever had from mine.
"They are very tight," my mother began.
Luckily for me the telephone rang and dislocated the conversation. Before any of us could answer it, Rosemary's eldest daughter, Candice swirled into the room and scooped up the receiver. Telephone answering is the only known benefit of having a thirteen year old in the house.
"Jeez, it's for you, Stan." She thrust the telephone at me like I'd committed a crime, then vanished like a comet, leaving a shimmering trail of hormones quivering in the air to mark her passage.
My mother stared at the place where Candice had been for a moment, then turned to look down her nose at me. "I wish you wouldn't encourage the children to call you Stan. Isabel is a lovely name."
No one needed encouragement to call me Stan, but I didn't waste breath pointing this out. "Hello?"
No one except Muir Kenyon who would be at the top of my mother's potential husband list, purely because of his lukewarm interest in me if he weren't also the brother of Rosemary's ex-husband. It's all very awkward but Muir is so clue-less he hasn't figured that out yet.
"I was wondering if you would care to join me for a cup of hot chocolate this evening? I wrote this new computer program I'd like to show you." Muir's monotone droning in my ear barely registered until he mentioned chocolate.
Somehow Muir has realized I love hot chocolate like hobbits love mushrooms, while totally missing the fact that I hate to hear about his computer programs.
"Gee, I'm sorry, Muir. Reverend Hilliard asked me to play the organ for youth choir tonight."
"Well, that shouldn't last long. It's a school night, isn't it? Can we meet afterwards? I designed this program myself--"
"I don't think so."
"I'll call you tomorrow then."
He would, too. It was depressing, but I didn't have time to dwell on it. I had to leave before I compounded my sins by being late. I hung up the telephone and shrugged on my jacket, while surreptitiously examining Rosemary from under my lashes. She seemed to be in a fairly good mood.
"Could I borrow your Mercedes, Rose? My car was raised in New Orleans and doesn't know how to put out heat."
She frowned. Rosemary is a trifle possessive with her things. When we were kids in nursery school she used to spend the whole playtime with her toys stacked in the corner, guarding them from forays by other kids. Time has not modified this tendency much. Added to the equation is my tendency to sometimes daydream while I drive, even occasionally ending up somewhere other than where I intended. Which doesn't mean I've put a scratch on anything--of hers.
I watched her struggle between her protective passion for the car she'd wrested from her husband in the divorce settlement and the lowering knowledge she needed me to drive carpool in the morning because she had a class in glue gun technique.
"The keys are in my purse. Just be careful," she muttered.
"I'll treat it like it was my own."
Her brows shot up. "Not good enough."
"None of those accidents were my fault," I protested. "New Orleans is an automotive Bermuda Triangle!"
"Cross my heart and hope to die if I don't take care of your precious car." How lightly I said those words as I pulled on my wool fedora, tugging it down over my ears. How fate must have chortled (what does a chortle sound like anyway?) while my mother tsk-tsked and adjusted the hat to a more suitable angle on my head. When she was satisfied, she gave my cheek a pat that was partly fond, partly annoyed, and let me escape out the door for my rendezvous with destiny.
As soon as I was out of her sight, I jerked my hat down again. It was cold and I'm a grownup who can do what she likes when her mother isn't looking.
When the youthful hallelujahs faded into the frigid halls, I followed the hormonal herd to the kitchen for my earthly reward: the promised gourmet hot chocolate fix. At first the brew was too hot to drink, so I wrapped my hands around my cup, letting the warmth sink into my chilled fingers while I sniffed the fragrant, heavenly steam. After a time, I blew on the surface, took a tentative sip, then closed my eyes and savored the rich bouquet, the hint of hazel nut--
"Stanley!" Jerome Jeffries, youthfully oblivious to the finer nuances of hot chocolate consumption, pulled me to one side. "We got us a job!"
I guess this is where I admit I play keyboard in a band. Jerome, cuter than Val Kilmer, a mere twenty years old, and the guiding light of the band, recruited me shortly after I moved home. It wasn’t hard. I let myself be briefly dazzled with visions of jiving to "Wild Thing" or "I Love Rock'n Roll."
Jerome had his sights set on becoming another Harry Connick, Jr. I thought we should call ourselves "Sad," but Jerome liked "Star Dust" better. So did my mother, who also pointed out that I was too old for such nonsense. I told her that actually I was too young.
For this reason, I greeted Jerome's announcement of a new gig with some wariness.
"Please tell me it's not another anniversary?" Anniversaries made my mother start digging up blind dates. Didn't matter to her that there were good reasons these guys were still single. Scary reasons.
"This is totally not an anniversary." His mouth curved into a grin that could have taught Tom Cruise a thing or two about grinning.
"It's a rally in support of the troops of Desert Storm at Grant Park! You won't believe this, but we've been asked to play back-up for the one and only Lee Greenwood!"
I waited a moment, but he didn't grin again.
"Lee Greenwood! Wow!" I paused. "Who's Lee Greenwood?"
Jerome laughed like I had told a great joke. Laughing kinked the area around his eyes, his mouth and my mid-section. I sipped my chocolate, the scientific equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire. I tugged at the collar of my sweater. Perhaps the thermals were a mistake.
Tommy, our bass guitarist and dead ringer for Tom Cruise, mistook this for a summons and joined us. Okay, so it wasn't just the long held dream of playing in a band that made me agree to play bubble music on my weekends. I'm a Baptist, not a saint.
After more exclamations of mutual delight, we agree to get together before the rally to rehearse. I downed the last of my chocolate as I watched them leave, almost reeling when the combined heat of their cute and gourmet chocolate surged into my face, making my eyebrows sizzle and emit steam. Not content with sizzle, the heat spread out, seeking those parts of my body encased in thermal and wool. Time to get cool.
I headed for the door, but got cut off at the pass by Reverend Hilliard. I was starting to sweat buckets while the overhead lights put a halo around his cool blonde hair. He smiled at me, two rows of gleaming, reverential teeth that nearly blinded me. The guy looked like he'd been born with the clerical collar around his neck.
I fought back a sudden urge to repent of my recent lusting.
"I can't thank you enough for helping us out, Miss Stanley. I pray it didn't disarrange you too much?"
He probably had prayed. Scary thought.
"It was no problem. I'm glad to help out the kids."
He smiled again, upping my guilt level dangerously.
I quickly added, "I really have to be going. I have Rosemary's car and she likes it home by ten."
He looked at me uncertainly. I took this for consent and fled. Outside the cold air sizzled against my hot cheeks. In another moment I’d spontaneously combust. I quickly stripped off the jacket, hat and gloves, tossing them into the back seat, then slid in and started the motor. The heater blew cold. Before it could change its mind, I switched it to cold vent and opened the sunroof, welcoming the combined rush of frigid air across my gently steaming face and neck.
Earlier, snow had mixed with rain. Clouds still obscured the stars, but the air was now dry and empty. In the fitful light of the street lamps, the road gleamed slick and empty. I drove cautiously, enjoying the feel of fresh air, sweet solitude --a rare commodity in our over stocked household--and a great car to drive.
Pleasantly tired and full of chocolate, I drove in auto-pilot, my thoughts drifting to my current romance novel with its impending love scene that I still didn't know how to write.
"Get a better imagination or a lover, Stan," my agent had advised, the one time I’d let her read a draft.
"Maybe I should get a new agent," I muttered. About then I saw the stop sign and hit the brakes. Across the intersection, an unfamiliar street retreated into murk, lit only by the faint glow of the street lamps.
"Great." I’d done it again. I crossed the intersection, straining to read the signs. The names were vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place myself relative to home--
To my right, several firecrackers went off, one right after the other.
Then a man burst through the bay window of a house.
© 1998-2013 Pauline Baird Jones All rights reserved.