H O M E B O D I E S
by Barbara Paul
(First published in Malice Domestic 1 , Pocket Books,
copyright © Barbara Paul 1992)
Annie broke her arm the day before they were to leave, trying to drag a trunk down from the attic. The trunk got away from her and bounced once off her forearm on its unaccompanied journey down the stairs.
"Why didn't you call me?" Jake demanded. "You shouldn't have tried it by yourself."
"Oh, you live so far away, and I didn't think it was that heavy," Annie explained. "Don't fuss so, Jake."
"What did you need the trunk for anyway? We were just going for the weekend."
"Mama wants to borrow it. She needs an extra one."
Jake thought the accident meant their trip was off, but Annie wouldn't hear of it. She'd rescheduled all her Friday clients (Annie was a speech therapist) just to make the trip, and make it she would. So she was wearing a blue canvas sling on her arm and a brave smile on her face when he picked her up early Friday morning. Jake wedged the bonecrunching trunk into the back of his car and they were on their way.
Jake wasn't as sanguine about the trip as Annie. It wasn't the best of conditions for meeting her family; they were going to a funeral. Annie's grandfather had died, the nearest thing to a patriarch her extensive family had had. Jake would have preferred the introductions to take place under less gloomy circumstances, but no sooner had the two of them agreed to marry than Annie started talking about taking him home to meet the folks. Then word came that Grandpa Kirkland had died.
Home was a town called Wrightsville, a place Jake had been only vaguely aware of before he met Annie. Annie said everyone from both sides of the family had been born there, Kirklands and Pooles alike. She wanted their children to be born there. Jake had said "Ah" and "Um" and coughed discreetly. Annie went on that people liked to make jokes about returning to the Old Homestead, but it was heaven having a place to run to when you needed it, a place where you knew you would always be welcome.
They reached Wrightsville shortly before noon; the funeral was at two. "The house is an architectural nightmare," Annie warned with a laugh, "but inside it's roomy and comfortable." Jake saw what she meant as he pulled into the driveway. The house had been added on to many times, with no particular attention paid to matching the styles of either the earlier additions or the original structure. Most of the extensions had been tacked on to the rear, where a once-spacious back yard had provided the most room for expansion.
Jake followed Annie to the kitchen door, where cries of "Annie!" and "Mama!" rose as Annie jerked the door open with her good arm. Then she and a large woman wearing a neckbrace were hugging each other and the latter was calling out, "Annie's home!" Jake stood holding the door and watching other people crowd into the kitchen. Then both women pulled back, looked at each other, and said, "What happened?"
"Whiplash," said Annie's mother. "You?"
"Aw, baby. Does it hurt much?"
"Yes," Annie admitted. "But I have pain pills. Uncle Tedward! Cousin Bette! And Young Malcolm!" More hugging.
With a smile, Annie's mother reached out a big hand to Jake, still self-consciously holding the door. "You must be Jake -- come in, come in! I'm so glad to meet you at last. We'll sit down and get acquainted properly once this business is finished."
By "this business", Jake assumed she meant the funeral. He said, "I'm sorry about your loss, Mrs. Kirkland. It's hard, losing a father."
"Why, thank you, Jake. We're all going to miss having Grandpa Kirkland around. But he was my husband's father, not mine. And call me Mama Sue -- it's easier that way. Annie, take Jake around and make sure he meets everybody."
Easier than what? Jake wondered.
"Come on!" Annie sang out, clearly enjoying her homecoming.
"Did you bring the trunk?" Mama Sue asked.
"It's in the car -- Jake will get it later."
Jake followed Annie from room to room, pursuing a labyrinthine path he wasn't sure he could retrace on his own. At least three generations were in the house, from old folks to running children. The mood was surprisingly cheerful, as if they were all gathered for a family reunion party instead of a funeral. Jake met Aunt Dottie, Young Herbert, Grandma Kirkland (the new widow), Brother William, Malcolm Senior (who, oddly, had an ear missing), Cousin Oliver, and a number of others whose names he desperately tried to remember. There was even a Sister Kate -- whose sister, Jake couldn't quite figure out. But he understood why Annie's mother said calling her Mama Sue would be easier; there were also a Mama Marcie and a Mama June.
Jake's stomach growled; it had been a long time since breakfast. "Uncle Tedward?" Jake said questioningly to a distinguished-looking man wearing an eyepatch.
"My name's Edward, so of course I was called Teddy," the man explained pleasantly. "Somehow that eased over into Tedward as I grew older. I'm so used to 'Uncle Tedward' now that at times I forget what my real name is."
Jake looked around for Annie; he seemed to have lost her. "Uncle Tedward, I wonder if you could point me toward a bathroom. We were in the car for five hours and -- "
"Say no more, my boy. This way." Uncle Tedward led him to a narrow door opening off a landing separating two floor levels by only one step each way. Behind the narrow door was a rather spacious old-fashioned bathroom.
When he came out, Jake looked for Annie again but still couldn't spot her. He shook hands with an old man called Grandpa Poole who peered at him myopically and murmured something that sounded like "Oh yes, June's boy" and then wandered away. Jake's stomach growled again. He stopped a child running by, a little girl with a Mickey Mouse Band-Aid across her nose, and asked her to take him to the dining room; on his first trip through he'd spotted a sideboard there loaded with sandwiches.
The girl led him to the food and then darted off. Jake helped himself to a tunafish sandwich and was chewing contentedly when a man about Jake's age stepped up to the sideboard and looked over the sandwiches. He glanced at Jake and said, "You must be The Fiancé. I'm Young Malcolm." He held out his left hand.
"Jake Dietrich," Jake said, shaking his hand awkwardly.
"Sorry about the left hand, but..." Young Malcolm held up his right arm to display the wrist splint he was wearing. "I don't know why, but funerals always make me hungry."
"Um. Tell me..." -- Jake couldn't bring himself to call the other man "Young" Malcolm -- "...do all these people live here?"
"In Wrightsville, you mean?" Young Malcolm asked around a mouthful of corned beef.
"In this house."
"Oh, no. Most of us have homes elsewhere, but a lot of us will be staying overnight. Kate and I are going to stay."
So Young Malcolm was married to Sister Kate. "A long drive back?" Jake asked, making conversation.
"We live in Meade."
Jake had never heard of Meade. Just then one of the Mamas came up on the other side of him and started building a Dagwood sandwich -- Mama Marcie, Jake remembered. She looked at what was left of Jake's tunafish sandwich and made a tsk-tsk sound. "Is that all you're eating? Here, try some of these artichoke hearts. Uncle Tedward made a special sour cream dressing for them." She scooped two big spoonfuls on to a plate.
"Thank you," Jake said, not mentioning that he hated artichokes. As he took the plate from Mama Marcie, he noticed half of her left forefinger was missing.
She saw him looking and gave a rueful laugh. "I did it to myself. I was watching General Hospital and chopping mushrooms at the same time and...well, I guess I got a little careless."
Jake's stomach turned over.
"Papa Ross told you that was going to happen," Young Malcolm said.
Jake put the artichokes down and said, "I, uh, I've got to go get a trunk out of the trunk."
"I'd offer to help, but..." Young Malcolm held up his wrist splint again.
"That's all right," Jake said hastily. "I can manage."
"Nonsense," said Mama Marcie, and then raised her voice. "Somebody here want to give The Fiancé a hand in moving a trunk?"
Several voices answered in the affirmative, and Jake picked out the healthiest-looking of the volunteers, a teen-aged boy who seemed to have all of his body parts intact. The two of them went out to the driveway and wrestled the trunk out of the car. Back in the kitchen, the boy said, "Where do you want it, Mama Sue?"
"Oh, down in the basement, dear, thank you."
Jake found himself on the wrong end of the trunk going down the narrow, poorly lighted stairway, but they made it to the bottom without mishap. Then just as they were moving the trunk against a wall, the boy dropped his end; Jake barely got his foot out of the way in time.
"Hey, good reflexes!" the boy said blithely.
Jake muttered something under his breath and headed back up to the kitchen. There he turned to the boy and said, "Er, thanks for your help, ah..."
"Cousin Rathbone." The boy gave him a cheery grin and headed back toward the dining room.
Jake turned to Mama Sue. "Did he say 'Rathbone'?"
"Yes, dear. His name's Basil, but no one calls him that. It's a kind of joke, you see." She and Uncle Tedward were busy putting meats in the oven to finish roasting while they were all at the funeral. "Why don't you go find Annie?" Mama Sue asked. "It's time we were leaving for the cemetery."
Jake found her in the rear living room (the house had two) talking to the little girl with the Mickey Mouse Band-Aid on her nose. "And you mustn't run around during the funeral, Little Marcie," Annie was saying earnestly. "All you kids -- you mustn't run."
"Mama already told us that," Little Marcie said.
"Well, I'm telling you again. No running! Now, scoot." The child ran away as fast as she could, and Annie turned to smile at Jake. "Time to go?"
Outside, the family's automobiles were parked all up and down the street; still, Jake wondered if there were enough to accommodate so many people. But before the mob on the sidewalk could start getting in the cars, a big Greyhound bus lumbered by, belching black smoke over everyone. "This is too much!" Malcolm Senior said. "I say we get a lawyer."
"No," a woman Jake couldn't identify chimed in, "we need to go to City Council and get an ordinance passed."
"The bus station's only a block down that way," Annie said to Jake, pointing. "They could just as easily route their coaches along Mansmann Boulevard, but they send them through this residential area instead. They say it saves time."
Malcolm Senior snorted. "Eleven minutes! It saves them eleven minutes exactly. And we get stuck with the noise and the fumes. Well, we'd better get going." Everyone seemed to head for whatever car was nearest.
"Er, should I drive?" Jake asked.
Only Cousin Rathbone heard him. "Hey," he yelled, "do we need The Fiancé's car?" Replies of "No" and "Plenty of room" floated back.
Jake followed Annie into the backseat of someone's Buick, taking care not to bump her broken arm as he settled in. A fat man sat wedged behind the driver's wheel, needlessly revving the engine. The straw-haired woman sitting next to him turned and smiled. "It's so good to see you again, Little Annie."
"And it's good to see you, Cousin Philippa. It's been a while." Then she noticed the expression on Jake's face and explained, "I was always called Little Annie to distinguish me from Mama's sister. I was named after Aunt Annie."
"Who died just last year," Cousin Philippa added with a sigh. "We all miss her."
The fat man behind the wheel pulled the car away from the curb. "Damned stupid way to go, if you ask me," he muttered.
"Now, William," Cousin Philippa said.
"Brother" William, Jake remembered, and asked, "How did she die?"
"She shoulda had that old furnace replaced years ago," Brother William growled.
"It blew up?" Jake asked, alarmed.
"Oh no, nothing like that," Annie said. "My, you are jumpy, Jake."
Cousin Philippa said, "Aunt Annie's house had a big old-fashioned coal furnace, and during the winter months she or Uncle Weldon had to go down and shovel in coal three and four times a day. One day last winter Aunt Annie evidently tripped over the shovel or something, and she fell headfirst into the furnace. Just the top half of her, you understand. It was a shock for Weldon to find her like that, ashes from the waist up." She smiled apologetically. "Aunt Annie always was a bit clumsy."
"Damned stupid way to go," Brother William repeated.
Jake didn't have another word to say the entire drive.
The funeral was to be a graveside ceremony. The cemetery was a large one, beautifully kept. Only five chairs had been placed by the grave, for the nearest of kin. Everyone else was expected to stand -- including Mama June, who, Jake was mildly surprised to see, was on crutches; she'd been seated when Annie introduced her back at the house and Jake had noticed nothing wrong. The five chairs were occupied by Grandma Kirkland, one middle-aged woman, and three middle- aged men, one of whom was leaning heavily upon a cane. The widow and her four children. It struck Jake that he'd not yet met Annie's father; he must be one of the three men sitting with Grandma Kirkland.
The minister began to speak, and Jake quickly concluded that either Grandpa Kirkland had been the saintliest mortal ever to walk on the face of the earth or the minister was the biggest liar he'd ever come across. Jake stole a look at Annie; her face revealed nothing of what she was feeling. Cousin Bette started snuffling into a handkerchief. The kids got fidgety as the minister droned on, but on the whole they were well behaved. Once Grandpa Poole told the minister to speak up, but that was the only unusual thing that happened.
When the minister finished his hyperbolic eulogy, Grandma Kirkland stepped forward and scattered a handful of soil over the closed coffin. One by one, her four adult children followed suit. The coffin was not lowered into the ground; that would be taken care of after the family had left.
"I've never actually seen that done before," Jake said to Annie as they walked back to Brother William's car. "The scattering of soil on the coffin, I mean. I suppose that's why the coffin was kept closed."
"Not really. It was just that the remains were in no condition to be viewed," Annie replied.
"A long, wasting illness, was it?"
"No, Grandpa Kirkland was a robust old man until the day he died. Didn't I tell you? He slipped and fell under a street-cleaning machine -- all those big brushes and things? Poor Grandpa, he didn't have a chance."
Jake's head was reeling. He could hear the others talking in the car on the way home, but he tuned out.
Brother William's car was one of the last to get back. As they parked, they could see everyone milling around another car, which now sported a crumpled fender and a smashed grill. "Of course," Jake said lightheadedly as he got out of the backseat. "Naturally." Cousin Oliver was holding the back of his neck and grimacing; Jake watched as Mama Sue took off her neckbrace and handed it to him.
Suddenly Jake needed a drink; he needed one badly. He left Annie gawking at the semi-wrecked car and headed into the house. He found his way to the dining room, where the sideboard had mysteriously been cleared of food. But there had to be something to drink. "So where's the hooch?" he asked aloud.
"It's down here," a tiny voice answered him. Jake looked down to see Little Marcie pulling open one of the doors of the sideboard to reveal at least a dozen bottles of liquor.
"Child, you are an angel in disguise," Jake said, taking out a bottle of scotch. Little Marcie giggled and ran away.
By the time the others started drifting in, Jake was working on his fourth drink. Annie walked in and spotted Jake; she sat down and put a gentle hand on his knee. "Are you all right, Jake? You look as if something's wrong."
"Oh, I'm awright, awright!" he said, slurring his words. "In fact, I jus' may be th'only one here who is awright." He finished off his drink. "No broken bones, no missing body parts." He thought a moment. "No, wai' a mint. Cousin Bathbone is awright. Nothin' wrong wi'him."
Annie laughed. "Cousin Bathbone?"
"Yep. Rasil Bathbone. He's okay."
"Yes, he does seem in good shape, doesn't he? I guess he's completely recovered by now. Oh, Mama June -- wait, let me take those crutches." She went to help the older woman.
Jake fixed himself another drink.
"Going to City Council won't stop the busses," Malcolm Senior was saying, fingering the scar on the side of his head where his ear used to be. "They'll take two years just to put the matter on the agenda."
"Well, maybe we do need a lawyer," Aunt Philippa conceded.
"Speaking of lawyers, where's Mr. Cahill?" someone asked -- Aunt Dottie, if Jake remembered correctly. "Should be here by now."
"Hey, Mama Sue, when do we eat?" Brasil Muthbone.
"Ask your Uncle Tedward -- he's doing the honors."
"Just as soon as the will's read," Uncle Tedward said.
"Uncle Will?" Jake asked tipsily. "Papa Will? Brother Will?"
Nobody paid any attention. "Why don't we ask Mr. Cahill to sue the bus people for us?" Aunt Dottie asked.
Brother William shook his head. "Cahill isn't a trial lawyer, and it may go to trial."
The one called Young Herbert said, "Isn't The Fiancé a lawyer?"
Every head in the room turned toward Jake. "'M'nengi'eer," he mumbled.
"He's an engineer," Annie translated.
"Well, maybe Cahill can recommend someone."
"Too bad The Fiancé isn't a lawyer."
"Jake," Jake said thickly. "M'name's Jake."
Grandpa Poole nodded at him pleasantly. "June's boy."
Just then a young woman Jake would have sworn he'd never laid eyes on before appeared at the door to announce Mr. Cahill had arrived and was ready to read the will. Everyone got up and trooped into one of the two living rooms -- How'd they know which one? Jake thought woozily as he weaved after them.
He and Annie found an ottoman they could share by sitting back to back; the other furniture in the room was soon filled and various cousins and uncles and the like had to lean against the walls or sit on the floor. "Annie," Jake said over his shoulder in a low voice, "which one's your father?"
"Why, you met him, Jake. He's the one with the cane. That's Papa Ross."
Jake stared at the man with the cane. "I dint meetum."
Annie sniffed. "You've had too much to drink."
Jake didn't answer but turned his attention to the lawyer. Mr. Cahill, it so happened, was built like a linebacker; but the appearance was deceptive. The lawyer had a prissy way of speaking that was totally at odds with his bonemangler looks and he probably would have been ineffectual in a courtroom. He seemed to be in a hurry. Wants to get out of here before somebody drops a piano on his head, Jake thought gloomily.
"Are we all here?" Cahill asked, and then without waiting for an answer: "Good. I will now proceed to read the will." He cleared his throat. " 'I, Donald Clarence Kirkland, being of sound mind and body, have decided to dispense with the usual legalistic horseshit that nobody pays attention to and get straight to the point. This is how the loot is going to be divided.' "
The first part of the will seemed to be what everyone expected, an equitable division of property and money among the widow and the four surviving children. Jake noticed the family listened to this part with barely concealed impatience. It was when Cahill got to the disposition of personal property that everyone perked up.
It seems that Grandpa Kirkland was a collector, or perhaps "accumulator" was a better word. The old man's choices of who-got-what were as arcane as what he'd actually left behind. Teen-aged Cousin Rathbone's mouth fell open when he heard he'd been bequeathed an eight-by-fourteen Art Deco wall hanging depicting a stylized sunset in the Florida keys. Cousin Philippa grumbled audibly at the news that Grandpa had left her his antique Highlander bagpipe. Grandpa Poole wondered out loud what he was expected to do with a Carrara marble faun.
" 'To my granddaughter Annie Kirkland, who never read a word of Charles Dickens in her life,' " Cahill intoned, " 'I leave my collection of first editions of Dickens's work.' "
"We read Great Expectations in school," Annie said defensively.
" 'And my beloved sloop, the Pandora ,' " Cahill went on, " 'goes to my nephew, Edward Poole, in the secure knowledge that he will maintain her in the high style the old girl deserves.' "
"Uncle Tedward!" Young Malcolm exclaimed, unbelieving. "Uncle Tedward gets the Pandora ?"
Uncle Tedward fiddled with the strap of his eyepatch. "You were expecting the boat, Young Malcolm? I'm sorry if you're disappointed, but Grandpa Kirkland promised it to me long ago."
"What's going on here?" Young Malcolm shouted. "I spent every free minute of the past two years taking care of that tub, and Grandpa told me he'd leave it to me when he died!"
"I hate to tell you guys this," Aunt Dottie spoke up, "but Grandpa Kirkland promised me the Pandora ."
"It doesn't matter if he promised it to every member of the family," Cahill said testily, "he left it to Tedward and that's that. May we get on with it?"
As he went on reading the will, the grumbling grew more open. "Diamond cufflinks?" Cousin Oliver complained. "Nobody wears cufflinks anymore!" Mama Sue was amazed to learn she now owned all her father-in-law's deep sea fishing gear. By the time Cahill was finished, the only one who looked happy with his inheritance was a twelve-year-old boy to whom Grandpa Kirkland had left a lifetime subscription to Smut magazine.
"That concludes the reading of the will," Cahill said, trying to make himself heard above the hubbub. "If you have any questions...ah, no, I suppose not. Well, then. Don't bother -- I'll see myself out." Jake was the only one who noticed him go.
"Why did he leave me his Lincoln?" Mama Marcie asked the room at large. "He knew I didn't drive."
"I'll swap you my Burger King shares for it," Young Herbert offered.
Mama Marcie looked interested. "What are they worth?"
"Don't know. Let's check the market listings." They went off in search of a newspaper.
"Does this always happen?" Jake was losing his buzz; he sounded almost sober.
"Just about," Annie said with a smile. "You know what I think? I think Grandpa Kirkland deliberately made his bequests as inappropriate as he could, just to give everybody a good time swapping and bargaining. Did you hear what he left Little Marcie? A set of power tools."
Jake shook his head. "Kind of a bad joke for Young Malcolm, though. He really wanted the Pandora ."
"I know. But last year when Grandma Poole died, she left him a Matisse everybody else wanted. Things even out." She paused to turn down Mama June's offer to swap her high-density television/entertainment center for Annie's first editions. "It'll be all right, Jake -- you'll see."
Then it was time to eat -- real food this time, not snacky stuff like sandwiches and artichoke hearts. Mama Sue was sitting this one out, gladly turning her kitchen over to Uncle Tedward and a few helpers. Uncle Tedward placed a big roast on the sideboard next to a steaming turkey; "I like to cook," he said to no one in particular. It was grab-and-sit dining; Jake loaded a plate with meat and potatoes, took a cup of strong black coffee, and looked for a seat at the enormous dining table, now rapidly filling up. He squeezed in between Brother William, the fattest person in the room, and Cousin Bette, the skinniest. Jake drank down his coffee and went for another; he wanted all his wits about him with this bunch.
Young Malcolm hadn't given up on the sloop. "What'll you take for the Pandora , Uncle Tedward?"
"Ah, I've forgotten what Grandpa Kirkland left you."
"The duelling pistols. You've always admired those."
A laugh. "But not enough to give up the Pandora for them."
"I meant in addition to cash."
Uncle Tedward chewed his meat thoughtfully. "I don't think so. But you're welcome to come for a sail whenever you like."
"That's not the same thing," Young Malcolm muttered.
"No, it isn't," Uncle Tedward agreed cheerfully.
"You want to buy the deep sea fishing gear?" Mama Sue asked him.
"I might. Let me think about it."
Little Marcie had sold her power tools to Malcolm Senior and was now trying to buy Mama June's high-density television. Jake listened to the dickering with amazement; Mama June was making no allowance at all for the fact that Little Marcie was a child, thumping a crutch against the floor in a vain attempt to intimidate her. Annie swapped her first editions for an empty lot in a rundown section of Wrightsville. "It'll be worth something someday," she said optimistically.
It had been a long day and Jake was tired, but he persuaded Annie to go for a stroll before turning in; he needed to get out of the house for a while. They wandered past the bus station, now closed down for the night. Jake cleared his throat and said what was on his mind. "Annie, I'd like to go back to the city tomorrow. We could leave early and be back by noon."
She looked hurt. "But why, Jake? We came for the weekend -- it would be rude to leave on Saturday morning."
"Do you really think anyone would miss us?"
"Of course they'd miss us! Did something happen? Why do you want to leave?"
Because your relatives are a bunch of kooks with no idea of personal safety. "I'm uncomfortable, Annie. I don't fit in here."
"Oh, Jake!" She stopped and gave him a hug, pressing her arm cast against his back. "I know the family can be overwhelming at first, but give yourself a chance to know them a little better before you bail out. They're good people."
"Yes, they all seem nice." Nice and dangerous. "But I truly would like to go home."
She sighed. "Ah, but you see, I am home. How about a compromise? We'll leave early Sunday morning instead of waiting until late afternoon. You can stick it out one more day, can't you?"
It was Jake's turn to sigh; she looked so hurt he didn't have the heart to insist. "All right, Annie. One more day."
For a few minutes they hung on to each other there on the deserted sidewalk and then turned and walked back to the house. Jake said goodnight and went upstairs. He was sharing a room with Cousin Oliver, who spent a good forty-five minutes trying to figure out how to sleep in Mama Sue's neckbrace before giving up and taking the thing off.
Jake was awakened the next morning by Annie's hand on his shoulder and her urgent voice in his ear. "Jake, wake up! Something terrible's happened. Get up and get dressed." She went over to the next bed to wake Cousin Oliver.
Jake swung his feet to the floor. "What's wrong?"
When she was sure they were both awake, Annie said, "There's been an accident. I'm afraid Uncle Tedward is dead. He slipped on some grease on the kitchen floor and cracked his head against the corner of the table. Mama found him when she went down to start the coffee."
"Ah, hell!" Cousin Oliver said and got out of bed.
"Hurry, Jake," Annie urged and left them to get dressed.
Jake pulled his clothes on quickly; in a daze he followed Cousin Oliver downstairs. Most of the family were gathered in the dining room, some crowded into the doorway that led to the kitchen. I don't want to see this, Jake thought, and was horrified to find himself elbowing his way to the front.
Uncle Tedward lay sprawled on the kitchen floor, the back of his head a bloody mess. The grease was shiny on the tiled floor -- it looked like turkey grease -- and the corner of the table had blood on it. Papa Ross stood leaning on his cane with one hand and patting Mama Sue's shoulder with the other. "He was going to fix us all breakfast," she sniffled. "All I had to do was the coffee." Jake looked at Uncle Tedward and thought: Just how badly did Young Malcolm want that damned boat anyway? And immediately felt ashamed.
Cousin Philippa said, "Shouldn't we take him upstairs or cover him up or something?"
"No, no," Papa Ross said hurriedly. "We promised Sheriff Fleming that the next time something happened, we wouldn't touch a thing. He was quite adamant about that."
"Did you call him?"
"Yes, he's on his way."
Jake still hadn't exchanged a single word with Annie's father, but this was hardly the time to introduce himself. He eased over next to one of the two double-doored refrigerators, being careful to avoid the grease on the floor, as more members of the family crowded in for one final look at poor dead Uncle Tedward. From a distance came the sound of a siren. "Here's the sheriff," someone said unnecessarily.
Sheriff Fleming came in the back way, took one look at the mob in the kitchen, and ordered everybody out; no one budged. The sheriff was almost as fat as Brother William, and he was followed by a younger man with bulging eyes and broad features that gave him an unfortunate resemblance to a frog. Sheriff Fleming jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the frogman and said, "M'new deputy. Name's Harrelson. Now, let's see what we got here."
The sheriff hunkered down beside the body but didn't touch anything. He looked at the grease on the floor and examined the corner of the table where Uncle Tedward's head had hit. "You figure he slipped in the grease and hit his head?"
"That must be what happened," Papa Ross said.
Deputy Harrelson was studying the floor. "That's an awful lot of grease. An awful lot. How could he miss seeing it?"
"He had only one eye, Deputy," Aunt Dottie said in a tone of mild reprimand.
"Still, that's an awful lot -- looks as if somebody just took a roaster pan full of grease and sloshed it all over the floor."
A murmur ran through the family. "You can't be suggesting murder!" exclaimed the quavery voice of Grandma Kirkland, the new widow; it was the first time Jake had heard her speak.
Malcolm Senior snorted. "Damnfool way to go about murdering someone. How could the killer be sure it'd work?"
"He wouldn't have to be," Deputy Harrelson said earnestly. "It'd be easy enough to finish off the job -- a piece of pipe or a wrench would do the trick."
"Ugh!" said Annie. Somebody gagged.
Sheriff Fleming got up and walked over to drop a heavy hand on his deputy's shoulder. He lowered his voice, but not enough so that every word wasn't audible to the others in the kitchen. "Harrelson, you're new here and you don't know this family -- but believe me when I tell you it was an accident. Don't go looking for crimes where there ain't none. Now why don't you go get the camera out of the car and take pictures of all this here?"
Deputy Harrelson looked disappointed but did as he was told. Jake stared at the floor. The deputy was right; it was an awful lot of grease. He couldn't make out any skid marks, any disturbed surface that looked as if it had been caused by a slipping foot. Could the grease have been thrown on the floor after Uncle Tedward had died? The sheriff was looking the other way; Jake quickly bent down and dabbed at the grease. He sniffed his fingers; turkey grease, all right.
Sheriff Fleming stepped gingerly around the grease over to Mama Sue and Papa Ross. "The coroner's gone huntin' for the weekend, and there's no way to get hold of him. I'm going to call Detweiler's Mortuary to come get Uncle Tedward and keep him 'til Monday morning."
Mama Sue sniffled. "We always use Sandler's Funeral Home."
"Yes'm, but Mr. Detweiler, he has a couple of those deep- freeze units, you know? So's to preserve Uncle Tedward until the coroner gets a look at him on Monday. Y'unnerstand."
Just then Deputy Harrelson came back with the camera, and this time everyone did have to leave. In the dining room, Jake asked Mama Sue what she usually did with leftover turkey drippings.
"Sometimes I save the stuff for soup," she said, "but usually I just throw it out. It's not all that tasty, you know, and not really very good for you. But remember Uncle Tedward did the cooking yesterday. He might have saved the grease."
"But what would he have been doing with it this morning? Wasn't he fixing breakfast?"
"Who knows what he was up to? Uncle Tedward loved to experiment -- maybe he'd thought up some new recipe for eggs."
"Eggs cooked in turkey grease?"
Mama Sue made a face. "It doesn't sound too likely, does it, dear?" With an apologetic smile she changed the subject. "I think it would be simpler if we just sent somebody out to get our breakfast. Oh, Young Herbert!" she called across the room and moved away. Evidently a death in the family wasn't reason enough skip the morning meal.
Jake sank into a chair at the dining room table and buried his face in his hands. What a godawful weekend. He sensed rather than saw someone sit down next to him. "Not the best way to meet the family, is it?" a voice said.
He looked up to see Young Malcolm scratching his nose with his right hand. "You're not wearing your wrist splint," Jake said.
Young Malcolm looked at the palm of his hand as if some explanation were written there. "I don't think I need it anymore. It feels all right." He flexed his wrist a couple of times.
"What happens now?"
"Well, I guess we'll all be staying on for another funeral. This is Saturday morning...Monday, I'd say. No, wait -- the coroner has to examine the body on Monday. Tuesday, then. I'm going to have to call my boss."
Jake was thinking he would not have to call his own boss, as he fully intended to hold Annie to her promise to leave early Sunday morning. He was sorry about Uncle Tedward, but Sunday morning he was OUT OF HERE.
Jake felt uneasy sitting next to Young Malcolm; he excused himself and went looking for Annie. When he found her, Jake drew her out on the front porch away from the others. "Uncle Tedward didn't have time to make a new will," he said to her, "so who gets the sloop now? Who inherits?"
Her eyebrows shot up. "It looks as if Young Malcolm's going to end up with it after all."
It was the answer he'd expected, but he still didn't understand. "Isn't he Malcolm Senior's son?"
"He is, but...well, Uncle Tedward was a widower. He had only one child, a daughter, and that's Sister Kate."
Jake nodded. "And Kate is married to Young Malcolm. That would do it, all right."
Annie looked at him oddly. "Jake, what are you thinking?"
He took a deep breath and told her his suspicion that the turkey grease had been spilled on the floor deliberately, to make Uncle Tedward's death look like an accident. "And with Young Malcolm so hot for the Pandora ..."
She was horrified. "Jake, are you out of your mind? You think one of us...would kill another one of us? You don't know what you're saying!"
"Annie, I know it's only -- "
"You don't know anything! You look at a spot of grease for ten seconds and you conclude Young Malcolm is a killer!" She was near tears. "That's a dumb murder weapon anyway -- turkey grease!"
"It's a false clue," Jake corrected. "Annie, try to calm down -- "
"Don't you tell me to calm down! You come here to my home, you accept our hospitality, and right away you decide we're not good enough for you and you want to leave! And now you come up with this stupid theory -- "
"Dammit, Annie, if you'd only listen -- "
A new voice interrupted them. "Come on, you two, don't fight. Not now." Brother William stood filling the doorway to the porch. "Save it for later."
Angrily Annie pushed past him and went back into the house. Jake heaved a big sigh and sank down sideways on the top step, leaning his back against one of the porch pillars. If Annie didn't believe him, who would?
Brother William wheezed as he lowered his considerable bulk to the step next to Jake. "Lovers' spats always seem to be a part of it, but now isn't a good time."
"I know." Jake used the pillar at his back to scratch an itch.
"You'll make it up. Annie's a good girl." The fat man looked for a softer spot on the step, couldn't find one. "It's about time we had a wedding in the family again. It's been a while. Of course, Carolyn almost got married last year."
Who the hell was Carolyn? "They called it off?"
"No, they had the church and the minister and the brides- maids and about a million guests invited -- everything was all set up. Then two nights before the wedding, Carolyn and her fella -- Ryan, his name was -- they drove up to Look-out Point. Local lovers' lane, you know. Anyway, Carolyn and Ryan were getting in a little last-minute premarital smooching when the car brakes gave way." Brother William made an over-the-cliff motion with his hand and arm. "Carolyn got out with only a few bumps and bruises, but poor Ryan was in traction for six weeks." A sigh. "Then Carolyn broke the engagement. She said he was unlucky." He shook his head. "It really was too bad. Ryan sounded like a nice fella."
My god, it's contagious! Jake fought off a wave of hysteria and fixed on something Brother William had said. "What do you mean, Ryan sounded like a nice fella? Didn't you know him?"
"Nope. Never met 'im. The time the wedding was scheduled, well, we couldn't make the trip. Philippa had both legs in casts then, all the way up to her hips."
I'm not going to ask, Jake thought, I am definitely NOT going to ask. "What happened?" he asked.
"She fell off a hang glider. A woman her age! You'd think she -- hey! What are you doing that for?"
Jake was banging his head against the pillar.
Forty minutes later, Jake was finishing off his cold Egg McMuffin and nursing a headache. The men from the mortuary had come and taken Uncle Tedward's body away; Sheriff Fleming and his under- appreciated deputy were long gone. Young Herbert and a man Jake couldn't put a name to came in with cardboard boxes filled with breakfast food. While they were all eating, someone suggested that maybe The Fiancé would take care of clean-up. They were including him in the family chores now, wasn't that nice.
Jake went to the kitchen for a plastic garbage bag and stared at a greaseless floor and a bloodless kitchen table; somebody had taken care of that clean-up quickly enough. He went through the house collecting paper cartons, cups, napkins, leftover food, thinking all the while that maybe Annie was right. Maybe he'd jumped to a big conclusion from very skimpy evidence.
When the plastic bag was full, Jake took it out back to the garbage cans, all eight of them. And all eight were full. Hold on -- the one on the end might still have some room. He started pulling out the smaller plastic bags to make room for his big one and came across something wrapped in newspaper. Curious, he opened it...and found a wrist splint. Young Malcolm's wrist splint. Why did he throw it away -- why not just save it for the next time? Then Jake noticed the splint was stained, and it felt greasy. He sniffed at it. Turkey grease.
Jake's mouth fell open when he realized he was holding evidence in his hand, evidence that would at least place Young Malcolm in the kitchen at the time the grease was sloshed/spilled/poured onto the floor. Garbage cans forgotten, ran back into the house to look for Annie. No: she'd just get mad at him again. And this was evidence he had, for crying out loud; best go straight to Sheriff Fleming with it.
The nearest phone was in a hallway separating the two living rooms. Jake looked but couldn't find a phone book. He was asking Directory Assistance for the sheriff's number when a hand reached from behind him and broke the connection. Jake watched in horror as another hand took the stained wrist splint away from him. "I don't think you want to make that call," Young Malcolm said tightly as he grabbed Jake by the upper arm. "Come on."
It's the first time I've ever been grabbed by a murderer, Jake thought idiotically. "Wh...where're we going?"
Jake was not a big man; Young Malcolm, unfortunately, was. Jake could put up only token resistance as the other man propelled him out through the back door. There was enough back yard left to accommodate an outdoor stone grill; Young Malcolm pushed the wrist splint into the ashes.
Do something! Jake thought. Scared to death, he nevertheless made a grab for splint. Young Malcolm stopped him simply by picking up a long-handled cooking fork and cracking him across the knuckles. Then Uncle Tedward's killer calmly pulled out a cigarette lighter and set fire to the wrist splint. "Should have done that in the first place," he muttered.
The rubberized parts of the splint stank and Young Malcolm had to keep relighting the fire, but eventually Jake's evidence burned away as he watched. His arm hurt where Young Malcolm was still gripping him. "Could you let go of me now?"
"Not until I'm sure you understand something." The other man looked at him closely, as if trying to see into Jake's mind. "Without the wrist splint," Young Malcolm said, "it's your word against mine. Which one of us do you think the family's going to believe? Hell, even Sheriff Fleming would take my word over yours. Without the splint, you've got nothing."
The weapon, Jake thought desperately, there has to be a weapon.
"And if you're thinking of looking for a weapon, I'll save you some time and tell you it's right there in the kitchen -- already inspected by the sheriff and cleaned up by Mama Sue. I just bashed his head against the corner of the table. That's all it took."
Jake was trying not to throw up. "How could you do it? How could you...you took a life...all because of some stupid boat?"
"Because of a promise," Young Malcolm said earnestly. "We take our promises seriously in this family, and Grandpa Kirkland promised me the Pandora . And Uncle Tedward knew it! He knew it all along. He should have refused the bequest in favor of me." He paused for a moment. "You know, I'm very fond of Annie, and I'd hate to see her lose her husband before she even marries him."
It took a moment for Jake to get his heart out of his throat. "Are you threatening me?" he asked, suddenly a tenor.
Young Malcolm considered. "Yes," he said. "Just remember -- what I did to Tedward, I can do to you. Do you understand?"
Before Jake could answer, Mama Sue opened the back door and called to them. "You busy, fellas? I need some help."
As they started back to the house, Young Malcolm muttered under his breath to Jake, "Remember."
As if Jake could ever possibly forget.
"It's Grandma Kirkland," Mama Sue said as they entered the kitchen. "She's got it into her head that she wants to pack up all of Grandpa Kirkland's clothes right now, for the Goodwill people. I'm sorry, Jake, I wouldn't have had you take the trunk down to the basement in the first place if I'd known...I thought she'd wait a while. But she's got her mind made up."
"You want us to bring the trunk up from the basement," Jake said dully. "Malcolm and me. In the basement."
"If you don't mind, dear."
"Of course we don't mind," Young Malcolm said smoothly, pushing open the door to the basement and holding it so Jake would have to go first.
Jake told himself he was being foolish, that Young Malcolm wouldn't do anything with Mama Sue right there in the kitchen. He picked his way down the narrow stairs and grabbed one of the trunk handles. Young Malcolm could see he was nervous...and did nothing at all to relieve the tension. Maybe he likes having someone afraid of him, Jake thought.
Once again he was stuck on the wrong end. Young Malcolm backed his way up the stairs, letting Jake bear most of the weight a few steps further down. All he has to do is let go of his end... Jake pushed the thought away.
"Dammit!" Young Malcolm exploded. "Someone shut the door." They edged up to within two steps of the door; Young Malcolm balanced his end of the trunk on his knee and groped behind him for the doorknob.
Suddenly the door swung open, catching Young Malcolm's half-turned shoulder. Both men yelled as they lost their purchase and started an unstoppable tumble down the steps. Jake felt his ankle go crunch and let out a scream as both the trunk and Young Malcolm rolled right over him. It's true, Jake thought dizzily, you really do see stars. He looked up to the top of the stairs; Little Marcie was standing there holding the door, a look of innocent surprise on her face.
Jake tried to move and ended up screaming again as the pain shot up his leg. Even so, he'd fared better than Young Malcolm. The other man lay at the bottom of the stairs with his head at an impossible angle; the broken neck and staring eyes told Jake that Young Malcolm would be committing no more murders.
"That's the second dead body I've seen today," Jake said, and passed out.
The first thing he saw when he opened his eyes was the brace around Cousin Oliver's neck. Jake closed his eyes and burrowed deeper into the bed. Go away.
"How ya doin', sport?" asked Oliver's friendly voice.
Jake opened his eyes again. "Better than yesterday."
Cousin Oliver grinned. "Glad to hear it." He went out to the top of the stairway and called down, "He's awake!"
Jake cautiously moved his legs; the cast on his broken ankle was heavy. Much of Saturday was a blur. He remembered the hours in the hospital, hours when he felt safe and cared for -- feelings he had never previously harbored about hospitals. He remembered telling how Little Marcie's unexpected opening of the basement door had started Young Malcolm and the trunk rolling down the steps. He'd told the story to the family, to hospital officials, to Sheriff Fleming. Deputy Harrelson had started asking questions that made it clear he suspected Jake of engineering the accident...until the sheriff shut him up. Jake no longer considered the deputy underappreciated.
He felt a surge of gratitude toward Little Marcie; the child had unknowingly solved his problem for him -- and perhaps even saved his life. Right now he wanted to get Annie to talk a taxi driver into taking them all the way back to the city; and the sooner they started, the better. Jake glanced at the window and was surprised to see how high the sun was. The pain pills the doctor gave him had completely knocked him out; he'd slept straight through the night and most of Sunday morning.
Mama Marcie was the first up the stairs in response to Cousin Oliver's announcement that Jake was awake. "Oh, I'm not going to ask you if you're feeling better because I can see you are! Here, let me fix your pillow."
Jake let her. "Mama Marcie, I hope your daughter isn't, well, I hope she doesn't feel guilty about what happened."
"My daughter?" Mama Marcie looked puzzled. "Rita's in Alaska."
Rita? "I meant Little Marcie."
"Oh, Little Marcie's my niece. And no, she doesn't seem to feel guilty. We think she doesn't understand it was her opening the door that made Young Malcolm lose his balance. And nobody's going to tell her, right?"
Then the others started trooping in -- Mama Sue, Aunt Dottie, Cousin Rathbone, a few faces Jake still had no names for. Even Little Marcie came in; she stared big-eyed at Jake for a moment and then ran away. "William and Papa Ross send their regards," Cousin Philippa said. "Stairs are kind of hard for them."
"How's Malcolm Senior doing?" Jake asked.
"About as well as could be expected. We're planning a double funeral for Tuesday. We think Uncle Tedward and Young Malcolm would have liked it that way."
Jake was sure Uncle Tedward would have hated it. He looked over the crowd; the one face he wanted to see wasn't there. "Where's Annie?"
The others all exchanged furtive glances and left the explaining to Mama Sue. "She's gone back to the city, Jake. She took your car keys and left about an hour ago."
"Try not to get excited, dear. Annie said she had an client early Monday morning she didn't want to put off -- you know how conscientious she is about her speech therapy thing. And since you were in no condition to travel...well."
Panic hit Jake from several different directions. "She left without me? You let her go alone? That's a five-hour drive and she has a broken arm! She'll wreck the car! She'll kill herself! She didn't even tell me she was going!"
Aunt Dottie sighed. "Annie said you'd fuss."
"She's perfectly capable of making the drive," Mama Sue said soothingly. "Annie said tell you she'd call your boss and explain. And she'll be coming back next weekend to get you. So you just take the week to recuperate and before long you'll be good as new."
"She left me here?"
"Where better? Cousin Oliver is going to be right there in the bed next to you in case you need anything during the night. And the rest of the time you'll have all of us looking after you -- you'll never be alone. This is where you belong, dear. You're part of the family now."
Never before had mere words struck such a chill in Jake's soul.
Mama Sue mistook the look of terror on his face for fatigue and started shooing everybody out. "Get some rest and after a while I'll send up a nice tray. And don't you worry about a thing, Jake. We're going to take care of you." She closed the door gently behind her.
They all wandered downstairs into the front living room. "How's he doing?" Papa Ross asked.
"He'll be all right," Mama Marcie said. "A little upset because Annie left without saying goodbye, but he'll get over that."
"Lord, I hope so," Brother William wheezed. "We need a wedding in this family."
"We ought to take that trunk out and burn it," Cousin Rathbone said. "It got Annie and The Fiancé both. And Young Malcolm too, in a way."
"It's hard to believe," Aunt Dottie said sadly. "First Grandpa Kirkland, then Uncle Tedward, and now Young Malcolm. All gone within a week."
"Yeah," said Cousin Oliver in a tone of awe. "Three deaths in one week! That must be some kind of family record, isn't it, Mama Sue?"
She thought back. "I do believe you're right. Papa Sherman and Uncle Mike and Sister Pamela all died in the same month, but this is the first time we've had three in one week."
"A family record," Young Herbert agreed. "It could have been four, you know. The Fiancé came pretty damn close."
"Strange fella, that Fiancé," Brother William remarked. "Doesn't talk much."
"There he goes," Little Marcie said in her tiny voice. Cousin Rathbone joined her at the window.
The last they saw of him, Jake was heading down the street toward the bus station, stumping along as fast as Mama June's crutches would carry him.