Read A Hard Bargain Online

Authors: Jane Tesh

Tags: #FICTION / Mystery & Detective / General

A Hard Bargain (6 page)

“Almost a month. That’s some kind of record, isn’t it?”

“I like it here.”

“I do, too,” I said. “You still going through with the B&B idea?”

“Maybe.” He put the fresh pancakes on a clean plate and brought them to the table. “Here you go, madam. Deux flapjacks à la Fairweather.”

“Merci, Gaston.”

He sat down and passed the syrup. “What’s up with you today?”

I got the Celosia Public Library overdue list out of my pocket. There were four major offenders. James World owed
101
Ways
to
Cook
Spaghetti
. Mazie Hurwitz had yet to return
Tatting
For
Beginners
. Bruce Selden was hanging onto
The
Complete
Works
of
Emily
Dickenson
, and Pat Fenner had decided to keep
Stories
From
Great
Operas
for her own personal library.

I handed the list to Jerry. “Want to ride with me, partner? I’m headed out after some mean desperados.”

“The Library’s Most Wanted? Sure.” He set the list by his plate and read the first name. “
101
Ways
to
Cook
Spaghetti
? He should’ve worked his way through all one hundred and one by now. And Mazie Hurwitz must be a champion tatter.” He poured more syrup on his pancakes. “What is tatting, anyway?”

“Some kind of lace-making technique.”

“Oh, here’s a good book,
Stories
From
Great
Operas
. I have a copy of that.”

“Don’t start singing.”

“You’re just jealous because you don’t know any Italian.”

“Or French or German. No opera. It’s too early in the day.”

He finished his pancakes. “Okay.”

“And no Mantis Man scheme with Rick.”

“Well, I can’t promise anything there. Mantis Man is just the kind of gimmick that can really help a small town.”

“I think you can find a better way to help Celosia.”

He grinned and straightened his tie. “Let’s start by bringing some library criminals to justice.”

***

I figured someone who kept a spaghetti cookbook for six months would be large and sloppy. James World was a short, trim man. When he answered the door, I said the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said.

“Mister World, I’m Madeline Maclin and this is Jerry Fairweather. We’re from the Public Library, and we’re here for
101
Ways
to
Cook
Spaghetti
.”

“Oh, my,” he said. “I’ve been meaning to get that back. One moment, please.”

He handed over the book without a fight. Jerry looked disappointed.

“I was hoping for more drama,” he said, as we drove on to Mazie Hurwitz’s house.

Mazie was not, as her name suggested, a little old lady. She was an exotic gypsy type with dark hair down to her knees. She also handed over her book without any trouble. She smiled at Jerry.

“Are you the one who holds séances?”

“Yes, I am,” he said.

“I may call you sometime.”

“Anytime.”

I steered him back to the car.

“Now that’s more like it,” he said.

Bruce
The
Complete
Works
of
Emily
Dickenson
Seldon looked like a member of a motorcycle gang, and Pat
Stories
From
Great
Operas
Fenner was a female Pat, pale and wispy. Bruce dug around in his garage and tossed his overdue book to Jerry.

“Ever read any of them poems? They’re damn good.”

Pat Fenner had apologized over and over for her tardiness.

“I just got so caught up in the stories. They’re so complex, so moving.”

“I’m sure you can buy your own copy at Georgia’s Books,” I said.

“Really? Do you think they’d have it there?”

“If not, they can order it for you.”

“I just never thought of that.”

“Success!” Jerry said as we drove back to the library, all four books secured. “Score one for Madeline Maclin Investigations.”

“Now if I could just find Patricia’s umbrella.”

Jerry leafed through
Stories
From
Great
Operas
. “I think the Parkland Civic Opera is doing ‘Faust.’ Want to go?”

I’m not the opera fan Jerry is, but I’m not passing on any chance to be with him. “Sure.”

“Seattle’s doing the Ring Cycle this season. Wish I could afford to go see that.”

“Well, if you had a job you could afford it.”

“There’s always Mantis Man merchandise.”

I knew a giant insect was too intriguing. “You’d have to have a bankroll first.”

“Maybe.” He closed the book. “I know you don’t like Rick.”

“He’s much worse than any of your other partners. He’s just so slick. I’m afraid he’s going to slide right into jail and take you with him.”

“He’s not doing anything illegal.”

I’d given up trying to explain the finer points of fraud to Jerry. “Just don’t let him talk you into anything.”

“I’m not. I’ve got my séances. The Eberlin house is set to star in a major motion picture. I’m happy.”

“Good.” Maybe this time, he’d stay out of Rick’s schemes. “Now, what about Tucker’s wedding?”

“Can’t go.”

“Why not?”

“I’m busy that day.”

“All day? The wedding’s just an hour, maybe less.”

“You can tell me all about it.”

I don’t usually go for the low blow, but I know he loves Tucker. “Jerry, this is your little brother we’re talking about.”

“I know.”

“The wedding’s not even going to be in the house.”

Thunderclouds gathered in his eyes. “I’m not going.”

“What about Harriet? Have you gotten in touch with her yet?” I took out my cell phone. “What’s her number? I’ll call her.”

For a moment, I didn’t think he was going to answer. Then he told me Harriet’s number, and I punched it in. After three rings, Harriet answered. Her voice, as usual, was harsh, her tone suspicious.

“Who is it?”

“Good morning, Harriet. It’s Madeline Maclin.”

“What do you want?”

“Jerry and I would like to come visit. We have something to discuss with you.”

“What on earth would you have to discuss with me?”

“When would be a good time?” I figured that no time was a good time for Harriet Fairweather. I was right.

“I’m very busy,” she said.

“This won’t take long. It’s about the fire.”

Jerry looked alarmed by my bluntness. I couldn’t see Harriet’s face, of course, but imagined she looked just as horrified. “That’s none of your business.”

“Well, here, talk to Jerry.” I handed him the phone. “Tell her you have a few questions you’d like to ask.”

He tried to hand the phone back to me, but I wouldn’t let him. After a few minutes shoving the phone back and forth like a game of hot potato, he reluctantly put it to his ear.

“Hello, Harriet. Yes, I know she’s pushy.” He paused to listen. “I know it’s none of her business, but I need to know what happened. Exactly what happened.” He paused again, and I imagined Harriet repeating the Playing With Matches story. Then Jerry said, “Well, maybe I don’t believe that any more.”

There must have been shocked silence on the other end of the line. Jerry looked at me in surprise, as if he hadn’t expected to say that. “Harriet?”

She answered so forcefully, I could hear her voice. “Jeremyn Nicholas Fairweather, how dare you? After all I’ve done for you!”

“And I appreciate that,” he said, “but—”

“Why are you dragging all this up now? Will it change things? Will it bring our parents back? No! Leave it alone!”

Jerry handed me the phone. “She hung up.”

“Jerry,” I said, “that was some reaction.”

“Now you know why I don’t call her.”

“We’ll try again later.”

“What? Are you nuts?”

“To react that strongly after all these years? I think your sister is hiding something.”

“You think she set the fire?”

“Why not?”

“And blamed me? That’s crazy.”

“Why did she take care of you and your brothers? Why does she still send you money?”

“Until we started this, I thought it was because she loved me.”

“Or feels really guilty about something.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know.”

“That’s why you hired me, and I happen to know you can pay.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Harriet closed my account.”

When we stopped by the library to return the books, Joan was thrilled.

“I can’t believe you got all four! That’s wonderful. Would you track down some more?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Let me get the other list.”

Jerry grinned at me. “Madeline Maclin, Library Detective. Check her out.”

I looked around for Bernice Coleman, but she wasn’t at the desk. I did see a newspaper rack, which gave me an idea.

“Joan,” I said, when she returned with her list, “how far back do you keep newspapers?”

“I’m proud to say we have every issue of the
Celosia
News
since it began in 1925. Of course, we’ve had them all put on disks.”

“Any old issues of the
Parkland
Herald
?”

“No, but you can access any one you want through our inter-library website. I’ll show you.”

She led us to a computer station and clicked on the website. “Right up here under Reference.”

“Thanks.” I sat down.

Jerry pulled up a chair. “All the newspaper reports say the same thing, Mac. Mysterious house fire. Tragic accident. You’ve read it before.”

“I just want to read it again.”

After a few moments searching and arrowing up and down, I found the account of the fire. Around midnight, Harriet Fairweather, age eighteen, had frantically called for help. Firefighters responded promptly, but the downstairs was destroyed, and the bodies of Victor and Lillian Fairweather discovered in the ruins. Police determined several large candles had fallen over, setting fire to the chairs and draperies in the living room.

I looked up from my reading. Jerry had taken a dictionary from the shelf and was leafing through the thin pages, avoiding the lines of print on the screen.

“Jerry, this says Harriet called for help around midnight.”

“Yes.”

“If you caused the fire by playing with matches, what were you doing up at midnight?”

“I don’t know. I was just six years old when this happened.”

“Exactly. If you were six years old, I think you would’ve been in bed asleep. Didn’t you tell me you remember Harriet pulling you out of the house? She got you and your brothers out of bed, didn’t she? Why would you have been downstairs in the living room, lighting candles?”

He frowned. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?”

“Why would anybody have been downstairs at midnight lighting candles?”

“Maybe Mom and Dad were having a séance?”

I read the account again. It was possible that someone in the family could’ve left candles unattended. There had to be someone else besides Harriet who knew what had happened.

“Let’s stop by the bookstore,” I said. “Maybe Georgia or Hayden know of another write-up of this story.”

***

“I remember reading about it years ago,” Georgia said, as she carried a stack of books to the back of the store. “There was an article in the paper. That’s it.”

“No one wrote a book about it?”

“Not that I know of.”

Hayden was up front at the counter. “I’m sorry,” he said when we asked him about the Fairweather tragedy. “I really don’t know anything about it. My apologies, Jerry.”

“That’s okay,” Jerry said. “But what about you? Mac said something about another ghost.”

Hayden, as usual, was intensely serious. “I need you to hold a séance here. I think the store’s haunted.”

“What’s up?”

“When I’m here by myself, I hear strange noises. Footsteps, whispers, strange cries.”

This is business as usual for Hayden.

“And I find things rearranged or knocked over.”

Jerry listened very seriously. He didn’t say what I would’ve said, such as, “Are you sure it’s not kids?” or “Have you been taking your medication?”

“Sounds like a poltergeist.”

“Oh, my God. I knew it.”

“Now, don’t panic. They’re usually more mischievous than harmful.”

“Can you get rid of it?”

“Sure. Where did you find things rearranged?”

“I’ll show you.”

Hayden led us to the children’s section. Between the bookshelves was an open space with child-sized chairs and a little table. On the table was an empty plate.

“Georgia and I had some cookies for the kids. They’re all gone. And the other day when we had special treats for a book club meeting, those disappeared, too.” He pointed to the shelves. “And up there, I had a whole row of new books. Every single one was on the floor this morning.”

“Stacked in a pile?”

“No, just scattered.”

Jerry nodded. “It’s a poltergeist, all right. No problem.”

Hayden relaxed. “I knew you could take care of it. I was afraid it might have something to do with all this Mantis Man trouble.”

“What trouble?” I asked.

“The movie they plan to make. It’s really stirring up some resentment in town. I just hope it isn’t stirring up the creature.”

“Hayden, I seriously doubt that.”

But he wasn’t listening to me. “It’s like digging up a grave. You have to leave these things alone. No wonder a poltergeist is in the store.”

“What does Georgia’s Books have to do with Mantis Man?”

“I don’t know.”

He looked so troubled, Jerry said, “I’m sure it’s nothing. I’ll take care of it.”

Once outside, I frowned at Jerry. “Why in the world would you encourage him like that?”

Jerry shrugged. “He’s already decided it’s a ghost. Nothing’s going to change his mind. Might as well go with the flow.”

“But you don’t honestly believe there’s a poltergeist haunting the store.”

“Well, there could be.”

“No, there couldn’t.”

“Not gonna argue with you on this one, Mac. We’ll just see.”

When we got home, there was a message from Patricia on Jerry’s answering machine to call her right away. The director of Voltage Films was in town and interested in seeing the house.

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