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by Jaqueline Girdner
Description: Kate Jasper, Marin County, California's own, organically grown, amateur sleuth returns in this fifth mystery in the series. ("Kate...is funny and smart, and seems like a best friend."--Cheri Jung, editor of OVER MY DEAD BODY!) Kate's sweetie has finally moved his malevolent mother, Vesta, out of their house and into her own condo in TEA-TOTALLY DEAD. But Vesta uses her new home to host a family reunion for each and every member of her extended family. Attendance is compulsory, even for Kate. Vesta baits, insults, and slanders all the guests but her UFO-abductee roommate, Harmony, until after-dinner tea time. Vesta can't interest anyone else in her private blend of herbal tea, which gives off the pungent bouquet of brewed sweat socks. Lucky for them, since the tea also has an extra infusion of poison that evening. By the following morning, Vesta is as dead as any affection her family might have held for her. And it's up to Kate to find the real fiend of the family.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1994
eBookwise Release Date: May 2008
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [339 KB]
Reading time: 215-302 min.
"A look at murder in the New Age that is humorous, irreverent, and compassionate, with a deft understanding of family foibles."--Margaret Lucke, author of A RELATIVE STRANGER
"You just don't understand," Wayne told me.
He kept his hands clamped on the wheel of his Jaguar and his eyes clamped on the road ahead of him, the road that was taking us north to La Risa, where Wayne's mother was living in the condo he had bought for her. We whizzed by a Safeway truck.
"But--" I tried.
"You can't understand," he explained impatiently. "It's not just Mom. It's her and her whole family. My whole family! They're not like normal families--"
"Are you scared?" I interrupted.
He turned to me, quiet for a moment. I looked into his face, a battered face dominated by a large, cauliflower nose and heavy brows that were presently lowered like curtains to shield his vulnerable brown eyes. God, I had learned to love that face.
"Scared to death," he answered softly, then turned his half-hidden eyes back to the road.
I should have figured it out sooner. Wayne was babbling. And Wayne had never babbled. Not in all the time I'd known him. When I'd first met him four years ago, he'd been shy and silent. Then he'd progressed to monosyllables. And eventually to actual speech. But never babbling. On the other hand, he hadn't faced the third day running of his family reunion before either.
"It won't be that bad," I told him. I reached a hand over to squeeze his well-muscled thigh. I wished I could give him a good hug, maybe hold him in my arms, but that wasn't a good idea while he was switching lanes. And babbling.
"It is that bad, Kate," he insisted, his usual baritone growl thinned by tension into an unnatural soprano. "You haven't been there..."
I squirmed guiltily inside my seat belt as Wayne went on. I had excused myself from the first two days of the reunion on the grounds of work. I really did have work to do. It was October, time for Jest Gifts to gear up for Christmas. Past time. I had designed new ornaments for all the legal specialties this year. So, while I had pored over mail orders, inventory lists and production schedules for items like Santas in gilded cages (for the criminal attorneys) and red-nosed reindeer in leg casts (for the personal injury specialists), Wayne had spent the last two days with his family, neglecting his own duties as owner and manager of a string of restaurants and art galleries that he had inherited from a man whose body he used to guard.
Now it was Friday evening. It was my turn to meet the Skeritt clan for a buffet dinner at Vesta's. At least they weren't coming to our house.
"...not to mention Uncle Trent's wife and daughter and granddaughter," Wayne was saying. "And Uncle Ace's grandson. And Aunt Dru and her daughter and husband--"
"I'm sorry. I missed some of that last bit," I said. "So tell me again," I prodded. "These are all your mother's side of the family--"
"I don't have a father's side of the family," he interrupted gloomily, then pressed his lips back together. His face in profile was unmoving, carved rock. But the tendons in his neck were alive and bulging with feeling. Even the veins in his arms seemed to throb.
And that was the second time Wayne had interrupted me. He didn't usually do that either. Or indulge in blatant self-pity. Guilt yes, self-pity no. Until now. Not that I blamed him. He was right, he didn't have a father's side of the family. He was an illegitimate child. His mother had been born Vesta Skeritt. She had only been a teenager some forty-three years ago when she gave birth to Wayne, listing the long-dead Enrico Caruso as the father of her baby and calling herself Mrs. Caruso. Wayne's real father had never been mentioned.
I squeezed his thigh again sympathetically. Even his thigh muscles were tensed to rock hardness.
"So, your mother has a sister and two brothers?" I prompted in a voice of forced cheer, hoping to jump-start Wayne again. Watching his veins throb in silence was even worse than listening to him babble.
"She has three sisters," Wayne answered dully. "Aunt Dru, she's the one you'll be meeting tonight. Then there's Aunt Nola, the one who couldn't come to the reunion because she's at a halfway house. She's an alcoholic." He let out a long sigh that ended in a high, keening note. Did he even know he had made the sound? "And Aunt Camille. She's the well-adjusted one. But of course, she's not coming."
I nodded. He swiveled his head around on his shoulders as he zoomed past a gold BMW. The exercise did nothing to loosen the bulging tendons in his neck. Maybe I could talk him into a professional massage after dinner tonight.
"Two brothers," he continued. "Uncle Trent, he's the dean of Fulton College now. He helped us out financially when I was growing up. But I just never could bring myself to ... to..."
"To like him?" I guessed. I was good at charades too.
"Yeah, that's right. Now with Uncle Ace, it's always been different." Wayne's face softened for a moment. "He was as close to a father as I had growing up. He took me camping, took me to the park and the zoo. Got me interested in weight-lifting. All kinds of stuff. And Aunt Ellen, his wife. She was a sweet-natured woman. She died about fifteen years back, some kind of cancer. It was real hard on Uncle Ace." The softness had left Wayne's face. It was carved in rock again.
I wondered what was in his mind. Was he mourning for his Aunt Ellen? Or was he remembering his childhood days when Ace hadn't been there, Vesta's "bad days" when she had beat and humiliated Wayne for a series of transgressions he had never understood?
"Ace was a professional wrestler, you know," Wayne added in a monotone.
I knew. Wayne had told me no less than four times in the last half hour. He really was rattled. What was going on at this reunion, anyway?
"Wayne?" I said tentatively.
I wasn't sure if he heard me. He let out another sigh. This one ended in a groan.
"Sweetie, what's wrong?" I asked finally.
Wayne was silent for a few heartbeats. When he answered, it was in a whisper.
"Mom's pretty angry about Shady Willows," he said. Then he rolled his shoulders a couple of times and stepped down on the gas to pull around a Volkswagen Rabbit.
"Oh," I said softly.
Now that I knew what was bothering him, I wasn't sure what I could say to him to make it better. What can you say about a mistake that was made over twenty years ago? If indeed it had been a mistake. All I knew was what Wayne had told me, his evidence dredged from his own guilt-tinged memories. That Vesta hadn't been able to cope when Wayne had left home for college at eighteen. That she had made a series of frantic phone calls, twice swallowed too many sleeping pills and finally, just about the time that Wayne was sitting down to his first midterm exam, she had gone in early to the bar where she waited tables and very calmly slit her wrists. After that, Vesta Caruso had been declared incompetent and had been committed to the Shady Willows Mental Health Facility, where she had sat drooling in front of the TV in the day room for the next twenty years or so.
Wayne's mother might still have been at Shady Willows, but a year or two ago a nosy social worker had figured out that Vesta was over-medicated. Relying on the social worker's recommendation, the hospital staff had reluctantly cut Vesta's daily dose of downers in half. Bingo! Vesta wasn't drooling anymore. She was talking. And she was angry. And Wayne felt guiltier than ever, blaming himself for not realizing that Vesta's condition had been caused by her medication. Not that there was any way he could have known.
The brief three months Vesta had subsequently spent living with Wayne and me must have been a relatively minor version of hell for us compared to what Vesta had endured at Shady Willows, but I still didn't care to repeat the experience. Ever. My own neck was tense now. My whole body was tense. I took a deep breath. She wasn't living with us anymore, I reminded myself. She had her own condo, paid for by her loving son. I took another breath.
"Don't let her manipulate you too much," I said gently into the silence.
Wayne sighed once more. "I know my mother manipulates me," he replied impatiently. Then he softened his tone. "I know it intellectually, but emotionally..." He shook his head. "I just want to make her happy, Kate. At least for a couple more days. It's her birthday tomorrow."
"You already got her the present she wanted," I grumbled. Was it jealousy that ignited my outrage over the poor little minks who had given their lives so that Vesta could have a fur coat? It was certainly too late for the minks' sakes. The coat was already sitting in a box in our living room, tied up in a great big pink bow.
"I can't expect you to like Mom, not after what she did to you," Wayne commented quietly. "After she tried so hard to split us up." He turned to me, and I glimpsed a plea in what I could see of his eyes. "But just for a few days, Kate, could you ... well, pretend?"
I gulped down my own sigh. I was a big girl, more than forty years old now. I ought to be able to handle the assignment.
"I'll do my best," I said brightly.
Five long, silent minutes later, Wayne pulled his Jaguar up to the curb in front of La Risa Green, the condominium complex where Vesta lived. And, I suddenly remembered, where Vesta's new friend and whipping girl, Harmony Fitch, lived. Harmony was a leftover from the sixties who was currently "crashing" in Vesta's spare room. She and Vesta had a lot in common, including large, unhealthy doses of paranoia and a fondness for smoking dope and plotting revenge.
As we walked up the well-groomed path to Vesta's ground-floor unit, I asked Wayne if Harmony was going to be there.
"Yeah, she is," he replied grimly. The muscles in his jaw tightened visibly. I could just imagine how the Skeritts were getting along with Harmony. I wondered if she had told them about the UFO's yet.
Wayne gave me one last chance at Vesta's front door.
"Don't have to come in if you don't want to," he offered brusquely.
"I wouldn't miss it for all the Perrier in Marin County," I replied, and pasted on what I hoped looked like a cheery smile.
"Thank you," he whispered. He bent down and kissed my smiling lips gently. I pulled him closer and the kiss heated up, melting all the resentment in my body to a small pool of lust. "I love you, Kate," he growled.
"I know," I told him huskily. "I just remembered."
Then I turned and rang the doorbell before I could change my mind and run home.
Somehow, I hadn't expected a pair of white-faced clowns to open the door. Especially clowns with weapons. The first clown had huge, sad eyes and carried an upraised, wooden baseball bat. The second one had a large red happy smile and held what looked like a space gun, or maybe a space Uzi. The gun's arm-length barrel was opaque white plastic, its trigger and butt a transparent fluorescent yellow, and on top of the whole thing was a foot and a half long, lime-green object shaped like a plump hot dog.
"Stick 'em up," the happy clown said and raised the space gun to aim the white plastic barrel at the center of my forehead.