Read A Hard Bargain Online

Authors: Jane Tesh

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

A Hard Bargain

A Hard Bargain

A Hard Bargain

Jane Tesh

www.janetesh.com

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2006 by Jane Tesh

First U. S. Edition 2006

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2006929245

ISBN: 1-59058-354-X (978-1-59058-354-6) Hardcover

ISBN: 9781590583548 Hardcover

ISBN: 9781615952144 epub

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

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Epigraph

But heaven knows,
I had no thought of evil;
My only wish, my only longing
Was love, tender love,
Good and true.

—From “Faust” by Charles Gounod

Chapter One

This case started with a hamburger, specifically a double deluxe three-cheese hamburger with tomato and pickle at Deely’s Burger World. Jerry and I were having a late breakfast in town while Nell finished painting the upstairs bedrooms at the Eberlin house. Nell’s smoldering gaze had warned me I’d better get Jerry out of the way before she stapled him to the wall. Since he’d already knocked over one paint can and torn the drop cloth, I understood her concern.

Jerry hit the bottom of the ketchup bottle with unnecessary force. “I don’t know why she doesn’t want me to help. It’s my house.”

“Because you create more mess than you’re worth,” I said just as a huge glop of ketchup fell on his plate, splattering his dragon-patterned tie. “Get over it. Besides, I want you to see my new office.”

The letters “Madeline Maclin, Private Investigations” weren’t quite dry on the door of my new office in the Arrow Insurance Building on Main Street. I had a desk, though, and a filing cabinet. All I needed now were cases to solve.

Jerry tried to wipe the ketchup off his tie and succeeded in adding new shades of red to the already garish dragons. Since it was a sultry Monday morning in July, he’d left his jacket at home and rolled up the sleeves of his light green shirt. I’d opted for khaki shorts and a pink tank top.

“Any jobs yet?” he asked.

“No, but lots of interested phone calls.”

“You should have tons of cases. Everybody knows you caught Juliet Lovelace’s killer.”

Two weeks ago, ex-beauty queen Kimberly Dawn Williams had been convicted of the murder of aspiring beauty queen Juliet Lovelace. Juliet’s death had been only the second murder in ten years in Celosia.

“That doesn’t translate into more work for me,” I said. “Although, I’d be happy with missing objects and philandering spouses.”

Most of the phone calls to my new detective agency were offers to judge local beauty pageants or coach contestants. My fame as a past Miss Parkland had caught up with me. People take one look and assume I’m only useful strutting down a runway. It doesn’t matter that I’ve cut my hair shorter than Jerry’s and just wear sunscreen on my face. Something about me screams “Beauty Queen.” I have my mother to thank for that.

I must have let my glum thoughts show on my sunscreened face, because Jerry looked sympathetic.

“It’ll work out, Mac. Just give it a little more time.”

Jerry is rarely serious, and even when he is, he still looks so damn cute I could glob ketchup all over him and eat him up. He’s the main reason I can’t go back to Parkland. Our friendship is teetering on the brink of full-fledged romance, but we can’t seem to get in sync. When we met ten years ago in college, Jerry was ready for a relationship, but I was involved with an art career that never got past one disastrous exhibit. Then, a few weeks ago, I was just about to declare myself when Jerry told me something that made me back off. He believes he’s responsible for the fire that killed his parents. Until I solve this mystery, I’m going to have to keep my feelings inside.

It’ll work out. Just give it a little more time.

I hope those are prophetic words, Jerry Fairweather.

Burger World filled up. People waved and smiled and said hello. Gwen Macmillan, a tiny little woman with her hair cut in an unflattering bowl style, stopped by our table and spoke to Jerry.

“Don’t forget to look up that incantation for me, Jerry. I want really big tomatoes this year.”

“I’ll have it for you by the end of the week, I promise.”

She patted his hand. “Good, good. I’ve got a cousin who beats me every year at the county fair, and this time, I’m going to be ready for her. How are you today, Madeline?”

“Fine, thanks.”

“You keep this young man on task. Make sure he finds the right spell for me. I intend to win as many blue ribbons as I can.”

She went to the counter to pick up her order. I swung a skeptical gaze to Jerry. “You’re using spells to grow vegetables now?”

He grinned. “It’s just some advice out of an old almanac. Gwen likes to think there’s magic involved.”

“You’re not getting involved in witchcraft, are you?” Jerry has a distressing habit of running scams, the more paranormal, the better. “That’s all you need.”

Before he could answer, Delores Epstein, who goes by the nickname Twenty, came bustling up. As usual, Twenty was dressed like a runway model in some alien fashion show. Her skirt had zigzag stripes of lime green and pink, and her off-the-shoulder blouse was lined with tiny red beads that jingled and clacked together like the rows of bracelets on her arms. Today, her hair was the sort of orange you see on traffic cones.

“Hello, Madeline. Hello, Jerry. Have you two heard the latest news? We’re all going to be in the movies!”

“We are?” I said.

She slid into the booth next to Jerry. “I heard it from Lois at the beauty parlor. A film company is coming to Celosia to do a movie, and they’re going to need tons of extras. And guess who’s starring in the movie? Lance Henderson! Isn’t this exciting?”

I’d heard that name before. “Lance Henderson. Wasn’t he on ‘Sheriff of the Plains’ back in the Fifties?”

“And ‘Destinies,’ and ‘From These Hills,’ and ‘Jupiter’s Moons.’ I absolutely love him. Do you suppose Laura Costos will be with him? Oh, I’d die to see those two in person.”

I wouldn’t exactly die, but it would be interesting to see how old Lance and Laura were holding out these days. For a while, they starred in every big-budget TV movie and mini-series. Lance was a solid, square-jawed man with minimal acting skills. Laura got by on the strength of her wild green eyes and a couple of other outstanding features.

Jerry offered Twenty a french fry. “I remember ‘Jupiter’s Moons.’ Didn’t he play the captain?”

“Oh, yes. He’s so dashing.”

“Why would he be coming here?”

“I’m not certain of all the details, but I think the director is looking for an unspoiled small town. This will put Celosia on the map.”

Jerry brightened. “It could really help the Eberlin house.”

I tried not to sigh out loud. Jerry’s uncle Val left him the Eberlin house, eyesore of Celosia, and to my amazement, he’s decided to fix it up and live in it. So far, Jerry has decided the house would be a perfect New Age retreat, a haunted bed and breakfast, and a murder mystery tour. Movie stars in the neighborhood would not help my cause.

And what is my cause? To convince Jerry to find a real job and leave all the psychic nonsense alone. This is not just an uphill battle. This is a climb-several-hills-and-cross-many-valleys-during-a-hurricane battle. I watched as he chatted animatedly with Twenty. Now his gray eyes gleamed with a light I knew and feared. Jerry was about to have an idea.

“Wait a minute! I just thought of something terrific. What if the director needs a big old house for his movie? The Eberlin house would make a great set.”

Twenty, curse her, said, “Oh, you’re right! It would be perfect.”

“There’s plenty of room if the actors want to stay there. Then we could bill the house as ‘Seen in so and so’s production of “Small Town,”’ or whatever he’s going to call it. That would be excellent.” He wiped his hands on his napkin and dug in his pocket for his wallet. “When is the film company coming to Celosia?”

“I don’t know,” Twenty said. “You could check with the Chamber of Commerce.”

Jerry tossed some bills on the table. “Come on, Mac.”

“Whoa, hold on,” I said. “Let me finish my cheeseburger. It might be the last calm meal I have for a while.”

“If this works out, we could advertise the house to other film companies. We might even get an entire film industry going, just like Wilmington’s.”

Twenty said, “Wouldn’t that be exciting? I’ll see you later. Must dash.”

Twenty hurried off to spread the news. I couldn’t see sleepy little Celosia as the next Hollywood East, but then, I hadn’t expected to find murder here, either.

Jerry gulped down the remains of his soda. “Let’s go.”

“Think about this,” I said, which is useless to say once Jerry’s got a plan.

“But this is great publicity. Once word gets around that the Eberlin house was seen in a movie, people will want to come tour it. We can use the haunted house angle, or the attempted murder angle. Either one is golden.”

I was still trying to head Jerry off. “The director might not need a big old country house in his movie.”

“That’s what we need to find out.”

I was about to say something else, but reconsidered. Jerry looked at me impatiently. Even then, I had to admire his youthful face and wide gray eyes and the mouth I longed to kiss.

“Are you ready?” he asked.

Better believe it, buster. “Okay, let’s go.”

***

We walked the short distance up to Main Street. Thanks to a great bookstore, a drug store that recreates the soda fountains of the Fifties, and several other clever and creative artsy shops, Celosia’s Main Street is alive and well, despite the Wal-Mart hovering at the edge of the city limits and the close proximity of Parkland, one of North Carolina’s largest cities. The Chamber of Commerce has its offices in a neat little building across the street beside the First Savings Bank and Trust. Although there’s not a lot of traffic, Jerry and I were waiting at the corner for the light to change when I heard a glad cry from down the street.

“Madeline!”

I looked and wished I hadn’t.

“Oh, wow,” Jerry said. “It’s the Pageantoids.”

“What the hell are they doing here?” I said.

“Ten bucks says they’ll mention ‘visiting queen.’”

The two people who charged down the sidewalk looked average and sane, but I knew from long experience they are two of the craziest people in North Carolina—possibly in the world. Jerry nicknamed them the “Pageantoids” because although they never compete, they live and breathe beauty pageants and all the attendant fuss. I’d met them years ago when I was serving time as a Junior Miss. I’d made the mistake of being polite to these groupies. Now they feel they know me well enough to shriek and gush whenever they see me.

Cathy Sloop, a plump, bug-eyed woman, got to me first. “Madeline, you look fabulous! We just knew that was you. I told Mitch that was you.”

Mitch Hutton, bone-thin and balding, shook my hand. “We heard you were in Celosia, and we thought we’d come see for ourselves. We heard you’d given up pageants and left Parkland to run a detective agency here. Is this true?”

“Yes, it is,” I said. “Do you know my friend, Jerry Fairweather? We were on our way to a meeting, weren’t we, Jerry? It’s very nice to see you.”

It was a good try, but not good enough. The Pageantoids stood in disbelief, blocking our way.

Cathy Sloop’s eyes bugged out even further. “A detective agency? But why? You had a shot at Miss North Carolina, even Miss America!”

“Anyone can be a detective,” Mitch Hutton said, “but very few people have the looks and the talent to win a major beauty contest.”

“We thought you were here for the Miss Celosia Pageant,” Cathy said. “Wasn’t that a few Saturdays ago?”

Before I could explain that the pageant had been cancelled, Mitch said, “I can’t imagine you being a detective. It’s so dirty and low-class. Don’t you have to sit in your car for hours outside crummy hotels?”

Jerry came to my defense. “Mac just solved a murder here in town.”

The Pageantoids looked at me with horror.

“A murder?” Cathy said. “Wasn’t that dangerous?”

“Not really.” No need to go into detail about gunshots and deadly hairspray. “But the Miss Celosia Pageant was cancelled.”

This horrified them even more than the idea of murder.

Mitch stared at me. “Cancelled? But Celosia’s had one of the longest-running pageants in the state! Since 1983, right, Cathy?”

Cathy shook her head. “1984. Did they reschedule, Madeline?”

“No.”

“Now that’s a crime! What about the other girls?”

I truly resent the way pageant contestants are referred to as “girls.” You might as well go all the way and call them “bitches,” as announcers call female dogs in dog shows.

“They’ll get over it. It was good seeing you again, but I really need to go.”

Cathy Sloop clutched my arm. “You can’t possibly consider detecting as a career. The pageant world needs you, Madeline. I wish you could see the pitiful group of girls we have this year for Miss Parkland. We’re on a mission to recruit someone who can win it all, and that someone is you.”

I pried her off. “That’s very flattering, but I’ve aged out of the Miss Parkland category.”

This stopped them only a few minutes.

“But you could be a consultant,” Mitch said. “Or a judge. Or at least a visiting queen.”

I ignored Jerry’s snicker and said, “No, thanks. Excuse me, please. I really have to go.”

Jerry and I left them on the sidewalk, still talking about their next plan of action.

“Don’t look back,” I said.

When we were a safe distance away, Jerry held out his hand.

“Pay up.”

I ignored this. “I can’t believe those two are in town. Don’t they have lives?”

“Everybody has a hobby,” he said. “Their hobby just happens to be you.”

A blast of cool air greeted us as Jerry opened the Chamber of Commerce office door. “Forget the Pageantoids. We’re on a mission here, remember?”

Patricia Hargrave, the Chamber’s secretary, confirmed the rumor. Yes, a film crew was sending a scout this weekend, and yes, Lance Henderson was scheduled to star in the movie. She wasn’t quite sure when he would arrive.

“But we are very pleased Voltage Films has chosen Celosia,” she said. She patted her hair and adjusted her collar as if preening for a screen test.

“Do you know what kind of movie they’re planning?” Jerry asked.

“No, but the director promised to meet with the city council as soon as he got here. His name is Josh Gaskins. He sounded very nice on the phone. I wonder if he’s related to the Gaskins up at Middleton? Oh, by the way, Madeline,” she said. “I may have a job for you. You find lost objects, don’t you?”

“I try,” I said. “What have you lost?”

“My very best umbrella. I know I had it last week when I went to church, and I know I had it when I went to the monthly sing along at the theater, but I can’t find it anywhere.”

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