"I just don't know," Ruby Bee was saying as I came across the dance floor. Due to the twang in her voice, as well as the whine (fruity and full-bodied), all four words were polysyllabic.
The remark was intended for her best friend and coconspirator, Estelle Oppers, who was perched on her favorite roost at the end of the bar, but I butted in anyway.
"You don't know something?" I said, my eyes wide and my jaw waggling as if I'd received a collect call from the White House. "But I've always assumed that you know everything, Ruby Bee. I am so stunned by the enormity of this revelation that I may faint in this exact spot where Popeye Buchanon tossed his cookies not more than a week ago."
Ruby Bee crossed her arms. "Suit yourself."
I eased onto a stool midway down the bar, where I could inspect the pies under glass domes. "What is it you don't know? How to calculate the circumference of a circle? What really goes on between Raz and his pedigreed sow when the drapes are drawn? Where all the flowers have gone?"
I was being a real pain, but it was so cold and windy that nothing was going on in Maggody. Nothing worthy of my attention as chief of police, that is -- as well as the entirety of the department. I'd had a deputy for a while, but he'd lost his mind and murdered the love of his life. In that he was a Buchanon, there hadn't been all that much to lose. Buchanons are scattered across Stump County like scrub pines, and a heritage of dedicated inbreeding has resulted in simian foreheads, squinty yellow eyes, and surly dispositions. If Charles Darwin had encountered the Buchanons, he might well have abandoned his life's work and checked into a monastery.
Estelle arched her carefully drawn eyebrows. "I'll tell you what I don't know -- and that's where you got that smart mouth. Sometimes you act like you was raised in a barn."
"Instead of a motel?" I said.
Ruby Bee snatched up a basket of pretzels and set them well out of my reach. "Now listen here, young lady, the Flamingo Motel's a sight better than a trailer out in the Pot O' Gold or a shack up on Cotter's Ridge. Remember all those times I washed your mouth out with soap for using nasty language? You didn't miss Sunday school more than once or twice a year, and only then if you were sick. I worked my fingers to the bone so you could wear nice clothes and -- "
"Enough," I said, conceding in hopes I could wheedle a grilled cheese sandwich out of my mother the saint. I knew my chances would be better if I waited until her nostrils quit flaring. Most of the time she comes off as a harmless, grandmotherly sort (if you overlook the pink eyeshadow and unnaturally blond hair), but she's booted many a drunken redneck out of Ruby Bee's Bar & Grill. One of them required nine stitches in his buttocks, or so the legend goes.
Estelle shot me a suspicious look, then picked up a creased flyer and said, "I realize a hundred and seventy-nine dollars ain't chicken feed, and there'll be some other expenses, but I say we ought to up and do it, Ruby Bee. I disremember when you last set foot out of the county except to go to that flea market on the other side of Hasty." She gestured at the row of empty booths along the wall. "It's not like you'll be losing a lot of business if you close for four days."
"I have plenty of customers at noon and happy hour," Ruby Bee countered coldly. "This time of day's always slow. You don't seem so busy yourself, or you wouldn't be sitting here yammering about a trip."
"A trip?" I said.
"That's right, Miss Snoopy Ears. Estelle and me are thinking about going on this four-day Elvis Presley Pilgrimage. I was always a big fan, you know. I was barely out of pigtails when I heard him on the radio, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. That first time he was on The Ed Sullivan Show, a dozen of us girls gathered in Jo Ellen's living room to watch. You should have heard the squealing! Jo Ellen's pa said it sounded like the greased-pig contest at the county fair."
Estelle deftly repositioned a bobby pin in her towering red beehive and gave Ruby Bee a sly smile. "I'd have thought you were well out of pigtails by nineteen fifty-six. Weren't you born in -- "
"Let me see that," said Ruby Bee, plucking the flyer out of Estelle's hand. "It says on the first day we go to Memphis, get checked into a motel, and have the evening free to eat supper and relax. On the second day, we spend the morning at Graceland and souvenir shops. After lunch, we drive to Tupelo to see Elvis's birthplace, the museum, and a special chapel he had built after he got rich and famous. Isn't that just like him?"
I feigned a sentimental smile. "It sure is. By the way, is there any chance you might fix me a grilled cheese sandwich?"
"Then," she continued, apparently unimpressed with my ploy, "the next day we go to a little town south of Memphis to spend the night. That whole stretch is where they've got all those riverboat casinos, although from what I've heard, they don't exactly float out in the Mississippi River. They just ring 'em with concrete canals and call them that because of some state law about gambling. That evening we're gonna see a show featuring Elvis impersonators. On the fourth day we drive back to Farberville."
"I think it sounds real nice," said Estelle.
I sighed. "I think a grilled cheese sandwich sounds real nice, too."
Ruby Bee looked at me over the top of the flyer. "All you ever think about is food, Arly. You ought should spend more time fixing your hair and putting on makeup and shopping for clothes that show off your figure. That sloppy old sweater isn't gonna attract a man, and you're not getting any younger. You don't want to end up like Perkins's eldest, do you?"
That was one of the stock threats hurled at local juvenile delinquents; I'd heard it all my life, starting on the day I'd filched a dime out of her handbag to buy an ice cream cone at the Dairee Dee-Lishus. Chocolate and vanilla swirl, for the record -- or rap sheet.
I slid off the stool. "I guess I'd better go back to the PD in case someone's preparing to commit a heinous crime that will require all of my courage and cunning to solve. Only this morning the mayor of our quaint village caught a high school girl attempting to shoplift a carton of cigarettes at the supermarket. He wanted to convene a firing squad on the spot, but I convinced him that life imprisonment would be more appropriate."
"Who was it?" asked Estelle.
Ruby Bee smirked. "I'll bet it was Darla Jean McIlhaney. I see her and Heather Riley puffing away like smokestacks every time they go past me in the station wagon."
"Maybe," Estelle said, "but it sure could have been that runty Bodine girl. Lottie has her in home ec and says the girl can't even put bread in a toaster."
I buttoned up my coat and left them to their speculation. I had no doubt they'd have all the sordid details by suppertime, in that the grapevine makes a marked detour through the bar and grill, curls around Ruby Bee's private unit in the motel out back, and then takes off at a brisk clip for Estelle's Hair Fantasies.
No heinous crimes seemed to be in progress as I trudged up the road, my hands jammed in my pockets and my face lowered in an ineffectual attempt to keep grit out of my nose and eyes. The vacant buildings with yellowed newspapers taped across the windows were still vacant, as far as I could tell, and the newspapers were still bragging about the lunar landing. The bench in front of the barbershop was unoccupied. It was too early in the day for brawls at the pool hall, and the inhospitable weather might keep all but the worst of its patrons at home that evening, glued to their televisions. Roy Stiver had closed his antiques shop for the season and retreated to a more civilized climate, and what had briefly been a pawnshop (and before that, a New Age hardware store) was once again a sanctuary for field mice and spiders.
I went into the front room of the red-bricked PD, continued into the back room to pour myself a mug of coffee, and, having done the grand tour, was settled down at my desk with a magazine when the telephone rang. I answered it without enthusiasm.
"Hey, Arly," said Harve Dorfer, the esteemed sheriff of Stump County, "you done with the paperwork on that wreck by the reservoir? It turns out the driver's father is a lobbyist for the poultry industry, and the reporters are swarming like flies on a meadow muffin."
I rocked back in the cane-bottomed chair and regarded the water stains on the ceiling for inspiration. "Yeah, I have, but there's something wrong with my transmission and I need to get it fixed before I drive into Farberville. It's too damn cold to sit and wait for a tow truck."
"Colder'n a witch's tit, but that's not keeping the reporters out of my hair. First thing in the morning?"
"Okay," I muttered. "Anything else going on?"
Harve exhaled wheezily, and I could easily imagine the cigar smoke swirling around his head like exhaust fumes from a bus. By the end of the day, the evil-tempered dispatcher was the only person fearless (or perhaps feckless) enough to enter his office. "Nothing but the usual crap," he said. "Some moron ran over a gas pump in Emmet and damn near flooded the town. A preacher in Scurgeton keeps calling all the time because he's convinced that satanists are sneaking into his church at night. A woman in LaPierre swears her husband's been abducted by international terrorists, but the fellows at the garage where he works are pretty sure he ran off with a eighteen-year-old tramp. Rumors about drugs at a nightclub down past the airport, and a holdup at a convenience store. You're more than welcome to any of them."
"Gee, Harve, I was hoping for something with a little class," I said.
"Like another rash of UFO sightings?" He guffawed at his boundless wit. "Tell ya what, if Bigfoot sticks up a shoe store, I'll give you a call. While you're waiting, write up the damn report and get it to me in the morning."
I mumbled something and hung up, annoyed at his wisecrack. Admittedly, some peculiar things had happened in Maggody since I'd slunk home to pull myself back together after a debilitating divorce from a Madison Avenue hotshot. It had taken me a long time to figure out that while I was studying menus in trendy restaurants, my so-called husband was slipping his office telephone number to waitresses. He may have worn silk ties, but his soul had proved to be strictly polyester.
I'd presumed that nothing could happen in a tarry little town with a population that hovered at seven hundred fifty-five, depending on who was doing time at the state prison at any given moment. Despite everything that had gone on, from the arrival of Hollywood movie stars to a recent invasion of militia wackos, most of the locals still considered the night Hiram's barn burned as the primo focal point of the century.
I reached for the magazine once again, but before I could get to it, the telephone rang. Doubting that it was Ruby Bee calling to say my sandwich was ready, I picked up the receiver.
"Arly, this is Eileen. Have you seen Dahlia?"
Although I most certainly had seen Dahlia (née O'Neill) Buchanon on more occasions than I cared to remember, I opted not to confuse Eileen. She has enough to worry about, what with being the mother of one of Maggody's least bright Buchanons, Kevin, and the mother-in-law of the above-mentioned Dahlia, who's in a class by herself.
"Not lately," I said. "Is she lost?"
"I'm not sure. She asked me to come over after lunch and watch the babies while she went to the supermarket. That was more than three hours ago. The babies are good as gold, but I'm getting worried about where she could be all this time."
"Did you call the supermarket?"
"I talked to Kevin, and he said she hadn't been there. Even if she decided to drive into Farberville to shop, she should've been home by now."
"Maybe you should call Wal-Mart and have her paged. She could have been overwhelmed with the array of disposable diapers and gone into a stupor." I did not add that with Dahlia, it would be hard to tell; her expression is generally that of a deeply baffled bovine.
"I suppose I could do that," Eileen said unhappily. "I know it's silly of me to get upset over this, but you'd think now that Dahlia's a mother, she'd be a sight more responsible. It's hard on her, what with Kevvie Junior fussing half the night, and then Rose Marie waking up the minute she gets him to sleep. I do everything I can to help her out while Kevin's at work, and he's real good with them when he's home, but it's still an awful burden on her."
This was not a topic I wished to explore. "Tell you what, Eileen, as soon as I finish some paperwork, I'll drive around town and look for her car. She might have gone to the county home to visit her granny, or be working her way through the menu at the Dairee Dee-Lishus."
"Thanks, Arly," Eileen said, sighing. "It's just well, you know how it is."
I replaced the receiver, but without feeling the typical stab of exasperation I seemed to be experiencing these days whenever a local resident intruded with yet another idiotic complaint. Raz Buchanon, for instance, believed he was entitled to police protection whenever the "revenooers" went after his moonshine operation somewhere up on Cotter's Ridge. The reasoning is hard to explain. Hizzoner the Moron wanted me to fix a speeding ticket with the state police. Elsie McMay felt as though her old license plate (circa 1987) made her car legal. Pathetica Buchanon could not understand why she shouldn't sell herbal remedies out of her basement; she did, after all, have a one hundred percent guaranteed cure for prostate cancer, eczema, and vaginal warts.
Take your choice.
Maggody was more than a fly splat on the map. It was a mind-set, and I wasn't sure how much longer I could survive on stimulation that peaked with running a speed trap out by the petrified remains of Purtle's Esso station. An APB for Dahlia would not result in grand drama, since odds were excellent that she'd drag in with a lame story about a sale at Kmart or a two-for-one ice cream sundae special at a café in Farberville.
My efficiency apartment above the antiques store seemed more cramped and less efficient every day. My mother's most exciting idea to date was to take an Elvis bus tour. Harve had failed to proffer an investigation centering on a zillion-dollar Brink's robbery; most of the cases foisted on me involved stolen dogs, wrecks, and pitiful domestic disputes in which I wanted to shoot all parties concerned -- innocent, guilty, and the odd by-stander -- on principle.
I needed a break.
"Honey, you know I go every year," Jim Bob Buchanon said as he scraped the last of the scalloped potatoes onto his plate. "The Municipal League meeting in Hot Springs always gives me ideas how best to oversee our community."
Mrs. Jim Bob slid her napkin into a plastic ring, then began to gather up dishes from the table. "So you say, but it seems to me there's more drinking and partying than workshops. When have you ever come home with anything more than a three-day hangover?"
There wasn't much of an answer to that, so Jim Bob took a final bite and put down his fork. "I was reckoning I'd leave Thursday and be home Sunday afternoon. I'm particularly looking forward to the session Saturday on bonds. Why, we could have us another stoplight in no time at all."
"Who else on the town council is going?"
"Roy's off in Florida, and I can't see him coming all the way back for this. Larry Joe sez he can't go on account of Joyce's mother coming to visit. Hobert ain't been back to town since he was let out on parole. It looks like I'll have to drive all that way by myself."
Mrs. Jim Bob considered suggesting she could accompany him just so she could watch his face turn as green as the solitary lima bean on his plate. However, it was not a charitable thought, so she put it aside.
"Brother Verber came by this morning," she said, raising her voice as she ran hot water in the sink. "He wants me to organize a rummage sale at the Assembly Hall. As reluctant as I am to shoulder the responsibility, I owe it to the congregation to make sure it's done properly. I shudder to think about what might happen if Eula Lemoy tries to do it. Her linen closet is a nightmare of mismatched sheets, and her medicine cabinet is overflowing with expired prescriptions, hairpins, bent tweezers, and gunky tubes of ointment. You'd never think from the way she prances around town that she has piles, would you?"
"I never would have thought that for a second," Jim Bob said sincerely. Holding in a belch so's not to give her an excuse to launch into a lecture about unseemly table manners, he stood up. "I think I'll run down to the SuperSaver and finish up some paperwork."
She looked over her shoulder at him. "Is that all you're planning to do?"
Despite the fact the oven had been off for quite a while, he felt a sudden dampness in his armpits. Her eyes weren't as yellowish as most of the Buchanons on her side of the family (her legal name being Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon), but they were real beady and, at the moment, real shrewd. There wasn't any way she could know about his plans for the weekend, he told himself as he forced a grin. "Someone's got to make sure the store doesn't run short on canned corn while I'm gone. The ladies in the Missionary Society'd whup me when I got back."
"Would they?" she murmured.
He grabbed his jacket and headed for the back door. "I may be there till midnight, checking stock and working on the payroll. No reason for you to wait up, what with your busy day tomorrow getting ready for the rummage sale. Asking you to be in charge is the only smart thing Brother Verber's done since..."
Unable to finish the sentence, he shut the door and hurried out to his truck, where a half-pint of bourbon was tucked under the seat. It was the only antidote he knew for the indigestion that invariably accompanied a dose of his wife's self-righteousness.
C'Mon Tours had no walk-in trade, since it was situated in the kitchen of a house in one of the shabbier neighborhoods in Farberville. Pesky zoning regulations made it necessary to use a post office box as an address, and not so much as a discreet brass plaque hung beside the front door of the residence.
Miss Vetchling, who served as president, office manager, secretary, bookkeeper, and receptionist gloomily thumbed through the folder marked "Elvis." With only six pilgrims lined up, she would barely break even. Certainly there would be no profit after the van rolled back to Farberville and the driver submitted the invoices for gas, motel rooms, and his fee.
She pulled out a calculator and crunched figures. She'd determined the price of the tour based on eight paying customers, and even then would have netted less than five hundred dollars to cover office overhead and unanticipated expenses. The van had more than a hundred thousand miles on the odometer, and had broken down twice on the Gala Azalea Tour to Little Rock. The windshield wipers had quit working on the Cherokee Spree to Tahlequah the preceding summer; the turn signals had done the same midway to the Branson Bonanza Weekend.
Being self-employed had not proved to be quite as invigorating as Miss Vetchling had hoped. It had seemed so very promising when she came upon the idea of arranging tours for those with modest means yet a thirst to explore the world, to feast their weary, middle-class eyes on the wondrous and even the exotic. Giddy with her own sense of derring-do, she'd used her savings to purchase the van (surely the first of a veritable fleet of sleek silver buses) and placed a small ad in the local newspaper. She'd thumbtacked flyers on bulletin boards outside grocery stores and taped them on utility poles along Thurber Street.
She knew better than to expect to make a profit during the first several months, but it seemed to her that rather than building up a roster of satisfied customers clamoring for the next tour, she was spending entirely too much time writing letters in response to their complaints. It was ridiculous to presume one would be staying in a Hilton when one was paying a pittance. She had never knowingly booked rooms in a dangerous establishment or requested a breakfast buffet of stale muffins and tepid coffee. She'd simply relied on the integrity of her colleagues in the travel industry. It was not her fault that some of them had let her down. How could she have known about dirty sheets, cockroaches, and, in one instance, a thriving drug business conducted in the lobby of the motel? None of her customers had been wounded during the raid. In all honesty, she reflected testily, it might have been the most exciting thing that would ever take place in their pedestrian little lives.
Miss Vetchling shoved a strand of gray hair out of her eyes and studied her calculations, searching for ways to economize. The married couple would share a room, as would the two women from Maggody. This left the male professor and a woman, who dotted the i's in her name with little hearts, in single rooms, unless they perchance struck up a romance on the road to Memphis. Otherwise, they might object to being roommates. Her driver had made it clear that he wouldn't so much as start the engine without the promise of a room to himself.
Perhaps it would be best to cancel the tour, she thought. As loath as she was to acknowledge failure, she was even more loath to spend her last few dollars to subsidize the pilgrimage. She would be obliged to return their money, however, which meant she might not be able to pay the long distance bill at the end of the month. Without a telephone, C'Mon Tours would go nowhere and she'd be back in some dreary office, filing papers for executives who could scarcely recite the alphabet.
A rap on the back door startled her out of her dispirited reverie. She gave herself a second to resume her composure, then gestured at the man on the porch to come into the kitchen.
He was not an imposing figure, but he was vital to her operation. He was several inches shorter than she and moved with an odd scuttle, as if he fancied himself to be a CIA operative approaching a snitch in a smoky Berlin nightclub. Liver spots and moles were sprinkled across his wrinkled brown face, and his eyes were disconcertingly cloudy for someone with a current chauffeur's license. Miss Vetchling was careful never to ride with him.
"Yes, Baggins?" she said.
"I changed the oil like you told me to," he said. "I suppose it'll make it over to Mississippi and back, but it sure as hell ain't going to pass no safety inspection when it's time to renew the plates."
"We'll worry about that at the appropriate time. At the moment, I'm trying to decide whether to cancel the tour. Only six people have signed up."
Baggins sat down across from her and looked at the figures she'd written on a pad. "Gas ain't gonna cost that much, and you're paying insurance even if the van's parked out back."
"That may be true," she conceded, not pleased to be corrected by an employee lacking a high school diploma, even one who was proficient in automotive repairs and maintenance -- skills that she suspected had been learned in prison. "That does not affect the cost of motel rooms, however. We require five rooms each night, and I've budgeted forty dollars for each. It comes out to six hundred dollars."
"I got a cousin what lives in Memphis. He might know of someplace cheaper than forty dollars."
She was pondering this when the telephone rang. "C'Mon Tours," she said into the receiver. After a moment, she continued, saying, "It does happen that we've had a cancellation for the Elvis Presley Pilgrimage, dearie. We will be able to accommodate you, but I'm afraid there's an additional charge because of last-minute adjustments. You do realize the price is per person, double occupancy, don't you?"
C'Mon Tours was back in business.
Copyright © 1998 by Joan Hess