Authors: O Little Town of Maggody
O Little Town
An Arly Hanks Mystery
(book 7 in the series)
“Where do you get your ideas?” is this writer’s least favorite question. However, I’m going to be in serious trouble if I don’t announce for all to read that the idea for this book came straight from Dorothy Cannell. In the spring of 1992, Dorothy, her husband, Julian, Sharyn McCrumb, and I explored Hannibal, Missouri—a town not oblivious to its most celebrated hometown boy. “It’s too bad Maggody doesn’t have a famous son,” Dorothy sadly opined in her melodious British accent. The conversation blossomed, and long before we arrived in Peoria, Sharyn had named Matt Montana and concocted the majority of the lyrics of his award-winning song (Dorothy and I contributed as best we could, but Sharyn is truly knowledgeable about country music) and we were singing it, to Julian’s obvious discomfort.
Three months later I was sitting on the porch of a country inn in North Carolina with Sharyn, Dorothy, Charlotte MacLeod (a.k.a. Alisa Craig), Margaret Maron, Sandy Graham, and Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Barbara Michaels and/or Elizabeth Peters). “But Mistletoe in Maggody is not a great title,” I whined as we sipped tea and nibbled crumpets. Brilliant suggestions ensued, but Barbara receives full credit for that which graces the jacket.
During the months of execution (I did have to fill in the prose), Margaret Maron and Kristen Whitbread provided tidbits of original country music lyrics. Terry Jones, Ray Guzman, and Terry Kirkpatrick fielded legal questions, while Sarah McBee and Dave Edmiston did the same with medical ones. Linda Nickle attended a country music symposium on my behalf and Martha McNair shared her knowledge of literature. Ronna Luper of Crossbrooks Graphics graciously provided information regarding the contents of the souvenir shoppe. Amy Abbott saved me numerous hours at the post office and smiled despite it all. The Fayetteville Police Department told me about a dog named Larry. Ellen Nehr provided astute editorial insights, as did Michaela Hamilton, my official editor, Danielle Perez, her adjutant; and Dominick Abel, my literary agent. Last of all, I would like to thank the Keebler elves, who kept me company while I worked into the wee hours of the night.
“You’re a detour on the highway to heaven,” sang Ruby Bee Hanks as she ran the dust mop across the minute dance floor of Ruby Bee’s Bar & Grill. Her voice wasn’t bad for a woman of modest years, she thought with a smile that lit up her chubby, well-powdered face. It weren’t nothing like Matt Montana’s, not by a long shot, but she carried the tune faithfully. That wasn’t surprising since the song came on the jukebox every five minutes from noon till midnight.
There wasn’t any question Matt Montana could sing, but nobody’d ever claimed he made the best scalloped potatoes west of the Mississippi. She’d bet her last dollar he’d never won blue ribbons at the county fair for his canned tomatoes and watermelon pickles. This last thought reminded her that she needed to check the apple pies bubbling in the oven, so she took the dust mop and went into the kitchen to get ready for the noon rush. Presuming there was one, for a change.
“I am lost on the back roads of sin,” warbled the checkout girl at Jim Bob’s SuperSaver Buy 4 Less. The proprietor, Jim Bob Buchanon, who also happened to be the mayor of Maggody among his other sins, gave her a dark look, then went out the door to the mostly empty parking lot. Beneath his noticeably simian forehead, his eyes were yellowish. Those were the two dominant physical traits that proclaimed his lineage in the Buchanon clan, although a geneticist would be quick to point out they were both recessive. There were about as many Buchanons in Stump County as there were varmints up on Cotter’s Ridge. Some Buchanons were more intelligent (and less ornery) than these same varmints, but they were few and far between—and living elsewhere. Most of the rest regarded family reunions in the same fashion young executives did singles bars.
Jim Bob leaned against the concrete block wall and watched a lone pickup truck rumble out of view. Business was bad; there was no getting around it. The cash registers weren’t pinging, and his bank balance was dwindling to a worrisome level. He shaded his eyes and looked across the highway at Ruby Bee’s Bar & Grill, which didn’t appear to be faring any better. Down the road, no one was filling up with gas at the self-service pumps, nor was anybody waddling into the Suds of Fun Launderette with a basket of dirty clothes. There weren’t any cars or RVs parked in front of Roy Stiver’s antique store, and he’d heard that Roy was threatening to close for the winter and go flop on a beach somewhere to write more of that highfalutin poetry he was so proud of. Jim Bob had written some in his day, although his had been calculated to melt comely maidens’ hearts and soften their protests. Roy’s stuff didn’t even rhyme, and gawd help you if you tried to sing it.
Jim Bob figured he might as well be writin’ poetry as standing in the parking lot looking at nothing. Like the ancient oak tree out behind his house on Finger Lane, the whole damn town of Maggody was in danger of crashing down in the next gust of wind. The best he could recollect, there were still 755 citizens living along the highway and on the unpaved back roads that led to other depressing towns or petered out up in the mountains. There were more citizens buried out behind the Methodist church, but nobody he knew of had been planted lately, that is. More folks than usual seemed to have been murdered since Arly Hanks had skulked back home to become the chief of police (and the entirety of the department). But, Jim Bob added to himself, trying to be fair about it, it most likely wasn’t her fault. She hadn’t brought back a busload of muggers and rapists with her from her high-and-mighty life in Manhattan. No, she’d just brought her smart mouth and snippety way of putting her fists on her hips and staring like a goddamn water moccasin when she pretended to be listening to him. He couldn’t think when he last made her blink.
“I have got to get back on the four-lane,” the checker was singing as he stomped back inside.
He was about to fire her on the spot, when he realized she wasn’t all that unattractive, if you were willing to ignore her stained teeth and rabbity eyes and lack of chin, and concentrate on her undeniably round breasts.
“Malva, isn’t it?” he said in a right friendly voice. “Why don’t you take yourself a little break in the lounge? I’ll get us a couple of cans of soda and a box of cookies, and then you can sing me some more of that pretty song.” Malva wasn’t fooled one bit, but she was dim-witted enough to think she might get a raise (along with the rise) out of him. “Whatever you say, Mr. Buchanon.”
His fingers tingling, Jim Bob took off for the Oreos.
“So that I can see Mama again,” sang Perkins’s eldest as she maneuvered the vacuum cleaner down the hallway and deftly turned into the living room, the electrical cord whipping behind her like a skinny black sidewinder.
“I wish she’d hush up,” said Mrs. Jim Bob (a.k.a. Barbara Ann Buchanon Buchanon) as she came back into the sun-room with a fresh pot of coffee. Her hair was brown and sensible, her face devoid of the devil’s paint, her eyes mostly brown with only a few flecks of mustard. She wore a blue dress and freshly starched underwear in case there was some sort of untimely disaster and she found herself submitting her resumé to the Lord.
Elsie McMay gazed solemnly across the table. “Did you hear those hippies what own the hardware store are talking about closing up and moving away?”
“It’d be a blessing if they did. They’re lewd and lascivious, probably all sleeping in one bed. There’s a fancy French name for what they do, but I’m too good a Christian to even know what it is. I told Brother Verber to go over there and give them a word of warning about eternal damnation, and he said he would just as soon as he had the time.” Her thin lips grew thinner as she thought this over. “I seem to recall that was more than two years ago.” The mention of the pastor of the Voice of the Almighty Lord Assembly Hall led to a discussion of the latest uproar in the Missionary Society (too many ballots in the box) and several cups of coffee.
After Elsie left, Mrs. Jim Bob pulled on a sweater and went out to the front porch. It was a mite crumpy for November, maybe an ominous sign of things to come. If business was as bad as Jim Bob had sworn, then they were in trouble. He’d used all their savings to open the supermarket, even getting his hands on the nice little sum she’d inherited from Great-Uncle Arbutus Buchanon, who, for the record, was a Buchanon from her side of the family rather than Jim Bob’s.
As befitting the mayor’s wife, she had the finest house in all of Maggody, a two-story red brick structure on the top of a hill where everybody in town could see it, and a driveway that wound down to a gate with the letters J and B formed out of bricks and spanned by a wrought-iron arch. But if the store went broke, they’d be lucky to have a rusty mobile home at the Pot o’ Gold.
Mrs. Jim Bob was shivering as she went back inside to rinse out the coffee pot and have a stern word with Perkins’s eldest about the baseboards.
“When Mama lay a-dyin’ on the flatbed,” sang Estelle Oppers, although the words were muffled on account of the bobby pins wobbling between her lips. More were scattered across the counter among bottles of shampoo and conditioner, combs, hair nets, plastic and foam rollers, hair dryers, curling irons, and other accoutrements of the profession she ran out of her living room.
Eilene Buchanon frowned at her reflection in the mirror as Estelle caught a wisp of brown hair and pinned it back in place. “Can you make it less fluffier on top? My niece—the one on the drill team over in Farberville—she says it makes me look like a French poodle.”
Estelle gave Eilene a hand mirror and swiveled the chair around. “I think this looks real sweet, Eilene. These teenaged girls today all think they have to wear their hair so it looks like they were lined up to be the next bride of Frankenstein.” She glanced in the mirror at her own fiery red beehive, today festooned with a row of spitcurls across her forehead. Yesterday she’d tried a two-tiered effect, but this was undeniably more becoming. “Amateurs don’t know about the artistry of cosmetology. Just the other day I offered to fix Arly’s hair—not that she’s a teenager by a good fifteen years—but she ducked her head and said her schoolmarm bun was dictated by the police manual. If that wasn’t a platter of barbecued Spam, I don’t know what is!”
“She still moping around the police department?” Eilene asked as she handed back the mirror and stood up, wondering in the back of her mind if she didn’t look just a tiny bit like a dog that answered to Gigi.
“Moping like a wet mop. I can’t tell you how many times Ruby Bee and I have tried to talk some sense in her. We might as well be arguing with a box of rocks. Arly says she’s perfectly happy to spend her days at the police department and her nights in that shabby one-room apartment, except when she’s wolfing down biscuits and gravy at Ruby Bee’s or slurping cherry limeades from the Dairee DeeLishus. The most exciting thing that’s happened to her in the last month was stopping a silver Mercedes for speeding out by the remains of Purtle’s Esso station and finding out the guy was a state senator.”
“She give him a ticket?”
“In a Noow Yark minute, and still giggling about it.”
Eilene paid Estelle and booked her next appointment. “Kind of sad, isn’t it? Arly ain’t bad looking, but she isn’t going to find herself a man in this town. At the rate things are going, this may be a ghost town afore too long. Earl keeps busy repairing burst pipes and unstopping toilets, but he hasn’t had a subcontracting job in months. He heard Ira Pickerell down at the body shop had to fire his own first cousin Jimson on account of business being so poor. I guess folks can’t afford to get their dents fixed when they have to worry about rent and groceries. Christmas is gonna be real bleak this year, if you ask me.”
Estelle went out to the front walk and stood watching as Eilene backed her car onto County 102 and drove away. As if she didn’t know business was poor these days. All she had scheduled for tomorrow was a trim for Joyce Lambertino’s little niece after school let out. She’d heard about the hippies leaving, and she wasn’t all that surprised about Ira having to get rid of Jimson. More times than not, Ruby Bee’s Bar & Grill was half-empty at noon, and happy hour was downright gloomy these days. The poultry plant in Starley City had cut back the night shift. The used-car lot was nothing but a field of weeds. Everybody was hurting.
Out by the ditch, the sign that read ESTELLE’S HAIR FANTASIES creaked in the bone-chillin’ wind. What paint that hadn’t flaked off was nearly illegible, and one corner of the sign drooped where a screw had fallen out. With a sigh, Estelle went back inside, switched on the television to her favorite soap, and settled back for an hour of somebody else’s misery.
“She warned me not to truck with girls like you,” sang Dahlia (nee O’Neill) Buchanon. She had a sweet voice, but at the moment she was so depressed that the words were oozing out like molasses on a winter morning. Her eyes kept overflowing with tears that ran down her chunky cheeks and leaked into the cracks between her numerous chins. She was slumped on the sofa of what her new husband kept describing as “our little love nest,” but anyone with a pittance of a brain could see it was nothing but the same house where she’d always lived with her granny. Her granny’d put up quite a fight when Dahlia made her move to the county old folks home; lordy, how she’d covered her ears and squawked like a chicken whenever Dahlia tried to reason with her about how nice it would be to sit with the other old ladies on the porch every day. She was still clamming up when Dahlia visited every Sunday afternoon, but she’d stop being a crybaby sooner or later.