Read A Hard Bargain Online

Authors: Jane Tesh

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

A Hard Bargain (10 page)

Jake shrugged. “I’ve known stranger obsessions.”

“I don’t believe any of this.”

“Whatever he’s doing, it’s not a good idea to mess with the occult,” Jake said. “Take it from me, things can get nasty.”

Aside from irate people not happy to have been cheated out of their money, Jerry hadn’t had a close encounter with anything really evil. “The only thing Jerry has to worry about is being able to outrun his marks.”

Jake laughed. “You’re just as bad as Des. True skeptics, the both of you.”

“Somebody has to be. You know I don’t believe in any of that stuff.”

“Well, something’s happened to make Des a happier person. Guess he’s excited about his music. It’s like he’s found himself.”

“I wish Jerry could.”

Jake’s eyebrows went up. “He’s got you, hasn’t he? That ought to make him a happy man.”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh. Man, when is he gonna come to his senses?”

“Thanks, Jake.”

He grinned. “You really oughta be with me. Dealing with these Fairweathers gives us a lot in common, you know?”

I turned down Jake’s generous offer of a cheeseburger and quickie marriage in Vegas. The
Galaxy
story was wilder than I had imagined. I couldn’t picture Jerry’s father as the kind of person who’d play with the occult. As for bizarre blue flames, well, that sounded exactly like the kind of spin the
Galaxy
would put on a mysterious tragedy, especially a tragedy involving the wealthier citizens of Parkland.

I was walking down the sidewalk outside the
Galaxy
office when whom should I see but my ex-husband, Bill, and his new wife.

“Madeline, hello,” he said. “You’ve met Tina, haven’t you?”

Bill’s tall and good-looking, the kind of man you’d see on TV playing a CEO or a general. He has the commanding manner of someone who’s always gotten his way. Tina, his new wife, was small, blonde, and very pregnant. Bill always wanted a big family. This would be baby number three.

“Hello, Tina,” I said. “I believe I should say congratulations.”

Bill put his arm around Tina’s shoulders. “Thanks. It’s a girl.”

“That’s great.”

“I hear you’ve moved to Celosia,” he said. “How’s that working out for you?”

“I like it.”

“Staying with Jerry?”

“For now.”

He nodded. He’d never seen Jerry as a threat. “Still doing that detective thing?”

“Yes.”

In the awkward silence that followed, Tina glanced up anxiously at Bill. He gave her another encouraging squeeze. “Well, it was great seeing you, Madeline.”

“When’s the baby due? I’d like to send a little something for her.”

“Oh, any day now, right, sugar?” Tina blushed and didn’t reply. Bill hugged her shoulders. “We’re shooting for next weekend.”

“Then I hope everything goes well. Have you picked out a name?”

“We’re going to call her Foster.”

Foster? Good grief. What were the others called? Again, Tina blushed. I had the feeling she would’ve named her little girl something else.

Bill said, “Well, we’ve gotta run. Great to see you, Madeline. Keep in touch.”

“Okay,” I said.

I watched as Bill hustled Tina down the street. As usual, he’d gotten what he wanted: a timid, unprotesting little trophy wife who’d supplied him with children. That was fine. He had to live his life his way. I had to live mine. I just wondered if I knew what I wanted.

Right now, all I wanted to do was visit Jerry’s younger brother and see if I could find some clues to the Fairweather mystery.

***

It’s always something of a pleasant shock to see Tucker Fairweather, because he looks so much like Jerry. All the Fairweather men are blessed with slim figures and youthful looks, but Tucker is the shortest and the lightest. As usual, he was dressed in his gardening clothes, jeans, sneakers, and an old shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

“Hello, Madeline. I’ll be right with you as soon as I trim this hedge.”

I couldn’t see that the hedge needed a trim, but Tucker set to it with determined precision. Unlike Jerry, Tucker has found his purpose in life and is single-mindedly devoted to his garden. He’s certainly created a showplace. Past a rolling lawn of velvet green, roses of every variety grow in perfectly arranged rows. Fountains are filled with water lilies and surrounded by sculptures of leaping dolphins. Trellises drip with flowering vines.

I paused to admire a fat yellow rose trimmed with red. “This is nice.”

“That’s American Sunset.” He gestured with his gardening shears. “Take a look at Ivory Princess.”

Ivory Princess was a snowy white rose with just a hint of pink. “Wow. That’s beautiful.” Just beyond the white rose, an oddly colored bud was unfolding. “Is that a purple one over there?”

He beamed with pride. “Twilight Dreams. They’re very hard to grow.”

“The garden looks fantastic,” I said.

He gave the hedge another minuscule clip. “It has to look perfect for the wedding.”

“That’s one reason I’m here.”

He stopped his work, straightened, and pushed his light brown hair out of his eyes. “Couldn’t convince him, huh?”

“Not yet.”

Tucker’s eyes are exactly like Jerry’s, wide, gray, and expressive. “Don’t worry about it, Madeline. I understand.”

“Well, I don’t,” I said. “I never have.” I sat down on the nearest garden bench. “What happened here to make him so adamant about never coming home?”

Tucker clipped off a fat yellow rose and handed it to me. “Harriet always told us that something evil had happened, and we weren’t ever going to talk about it. Took me a while and a couple of good psychiatrists to sort through that one.” He looked out across the peaceful sea of blossoms. “I was only two years old. I have nothing but good memories of this house. It’s different for Des and Jerry.”

“There was a fire, right?”

“Yes, I do know that much.”

“You don’t know how it started.”

“All I remember is a lot of light and noise and Harriet pulling me through the hallway.” His grin was wry. “I was way more interested in the fire trucks.”

“And Harriet told you what? That there’d been an accident?”

He sighed and clipped a few more dead blossoms from the rose bush. “She said something evil had happened, our parents were gone, and we weren’t going to talk about it. So we didn’t.”

The yellow rose smelled like the world’s most expensive perfume. “Do you mind if I look around the house, Tucker? There might be something that’ll help me figure this out.”

“Go ahead. I’ll finish up here and join you.”

The Fairweather mansion is full of light from the open foyer to the sunny side porch to the kitchen that runs the length of the back. The color scheme is mainly yellow with lots of white trim and touches of gold. I couldn’t imagine anything evil happening here. I wandered upstairs and looked into the large bedroom that was obviously Tucker’s from the stacks of gardening magazines. I checked out the guest bedrooms and the elegant parlor with its curved balcony overlooking the garden. Then I came down the wide staircase to the living room. Here, modern slingback chairs share space with an ornate Chinese screen, and oddly shaped vases perch on delicate end tables. It’s a nice mix of styles, but the portrait over the mantel always intrigues me, a portrait of the three Fairweather boys painted just before the family tragedy. Des stands with his hand on Jerry’s shoulder. Jerry sits with baby Tucker in his lap. I’ve always wondered why Harriet isn’t in this picture.

Tucker came in, drying his hands on a dishtowel. “Care for a drink?”

“No, thanks,” I said. “Who painted this, do you know?”

“No.”

“Do you remember sitting for the portrait?”

He shook his head. “I doubt any of us could’ve sat still for that long.”

I leaned closer, trying to see a signature. “The artist probably worked from photographs. May I take it down?”

“Sure.”

He helped me lift the painting from its hooks. I turned it around, hoping for a clue. A tiny gold label said, “Parkland Studios.”

“What exactly are you looking for?” Tucker asked.

“I don’t know. Why isn’t Harriet in this picture?”

He shrugged.

I turned the painting back around and squinted at the bottom. “It isn’t signed. Maybe someone at Parkland Studios will know.”

We put the painting back where it belonged. The three boys smiled serenely from the past. “Tucker,” I said, “if the living room was destroyed in the fire, why wasn’t this painting burned?”

“I found it in Harriet’s old bedroom,” he said.

“Do you know how to get in touch with Des?”

“Des won’t want to talk about it, either,” Tucker said.

“What about Harriet, Tucker? What’s she so angry about?”

“I have no idea. She’s been angry all her life.”

I had to agree this summed up her character. “Is she coming to the wedding?”

“Actually, yes. She’s met Selene and likes her.”

“I just wish Jerry would reconsider. I think he needs to come back here and see that it’s not some nightmare place.”

“It’s okay.” He smiled. “I understand, Madeline, I really do. Tell him not to worry about it.”

But I worried about it. When was Jerry ever going to face this? And what exactly did he need to face?

***

The front windows of Parkland Studios were filled with oversized portraits of happy families, children in meadows of daisies, babies in funny costumes, brides, anniversary couples, and beaming graduates. Inside, frames of all sizes hung from gold hooks. A smiling salesman greeted me from behind a desk surrounded by more portraits.

“Welcome to Parkland Studios. How may I help you?”

“I’m interested in a portrait that was done several years ago for the Fairweather family,” I said. “The artist did such a great job, I’d love to commission him or her for my own portrait, but unfortunately, there isn’t a signature on the painting.”

The salesman turned to his computer. “Let me see if I have that on file. Fairweather, you said?”

“Yes, it’s a picture of three boys.”

“All right, one moment, please.” He typed and clicked for a while. “Well, it looks like that one was done by either Fredricka Spirtus or Monroe McKittrick. There seems to be some confusion in the records. Hmm, yes. McKittrick worked for us for several years, and then Ms. Spirtus took over for him when he left. I would say McKittrick is the artist.”

“He left, you said. When was this?”

“Looks like about twenty years ago. He found employment elsewhere.” He peered at the screen. “I’m afraid I don’t have an address, but Fredricka Spirtus is excellent. I’m sure you’d be very happy with her work.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“If you particularly want McKittrick, you could try asking Chance Baseford at the
Herald
. He’s well up on the art scene in this area.”

I felt my smile freeze and hoped I didn’t look as startled as I felt. “Thank you.”

I managed to get out of the store and back into my car before I let myself relax.

Chance Baseford was the last man on earth I’d ask for a favor. There had to be another way.

***

Transformation and Company isn’t your typical dark, cramped magic shop. It’s a huge, bright store with wide aisles, sort of like a supermarket for magicians. Jerry had filled a cart with boxes and bottles. He was chatting with one of the clerks, a lanky fellow with prominent teeth and a green top hat.

“Yeah, I really think Super-Glo works best when you don’t have a lot of time, and it’s much easier to get out of the rug than Ever-Gleam. Oh, Mac, this is Barney O’Hara, better known as the Mystic Leprechaun. Barney, Madeline Maclin.”

Barney O’Hara tipped his hat. “Pleased to meet you.”

Jerry picked up one of the bottles in his cart. “Barney and I were just debating the merits of different brands of ectoplasm.”

“Don’t go in for séances much myself,” Barney said. “Are you a magician, Ms. Maclin?”

“Private investigator.”

“Really? That’s too bad.”

I must have looked surprised because he added hastily, “Oh, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’m just looking for an assistant, and you’d be terrific, all dark and mysterious.”

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re not interested in the stage, perhaps?”

“I’ve done enough stage time in my life. Pageants.”

Barney O’Hara grinned at Jerry. “What’s she doing with you, then?”

“Old college pal.”

“If you say so.” O’Hara smiled at me. “Well, if you ever change your mind, look me up. I think we’d make a great team. See you later, Jerry.”

O’Hara went up the aisle. “That’s the tallest leprechaun I’ve ever seen,” I said.

“How’d it go with Warwick?” Jerry asked.

“It’s real money.” I didn’t tell Jerry I’d been to see Tucker, or that I’d snooped around at the
Galaxy
. “Have you finished shopping?”

“Yeah, I was just hanging around.”

“Want to swing by Baxter’s before we go home?”

“You bet.”

Jerry paid for his supplies. We drove to Baxter’s Barbecue, sat down at our favorite table near the windows and ordered sandwiches and fries. The dessert of the day was strawberry shortcake, so we ordered that, too. While we waited, Jerry practiced his sleight of hand with the sugar packets. Today he was wearing his brown tie with the yellow pineapples.

“Barney’s getting together a show for the Magic Club,” he said. “He’s a mentalist.”

I would’ve said he’s mental, but I knew Jerry meant O’Hara did a fake mind reading act. “Didn’t you and Rick play that game?”

“We had a pretty good run for a while.”

“And then you had to run pretty good for a while.”

He grinned. “Can I help it if Rick’s microphone starte Rick?’” He covered his mouth to approximate the sound of a radio. “‘Breaker, breaker, one nine oh four. We’ve got a possible four eleven and a sixteen twenty with Smokey in the bushes. That’s a big ten four, good buddy.’”

“Have you ever considered a legitimate job?”

He put his hand down. “Well, I have to now, don’t I? I haven’t forgotten our bargain.”

The waitress brought our order. For the next several minutes, we were in silent barbecue bliss. Jerry took a drink of his soda.

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