Homemaking is about to take on a whole new meaning for Jane Jeffry now that she's agreed to help restore and redecorate a decrepit old neighborhood mansion. The home's owner, the prosperously divorced Bitsy Burnside, considers herself to be a feminist to the max and wants an almost all-female crew to do the dirty work — prompting the quick-witted Shelley Nowack to dub the project "the House of Seven Mabels." With her best friend and decorating whiz Shelley on the estrogen-heavy team, Jane thinks this exhausting, plaster-dusty job may not be as unpleasant as it initially appeared to be.Until, of course, things start to get very messy. It begins with a series of mean-spirited "pranks" — strange odors, mysterious electrical shorts, a myriad of petty annoyances designed to impede the progress of the fixer-uppers. And then the pranks turn deadly, leaving one of the workers lying lifeless at the foot of a staircase.Tragic, yes, but an accident? Jane thinks not. And with the able assistance of Shelley, not to mention a little help from her best beau, Chicago detective Mel VanDyne, Jane's hoping she can construct a solid case and nail the assassin. Suspects are certainly in abundant supply.
The House of the Seven Mabels
Jane Jeffry had seen her son Mike off to his second year of college several weeks ago. Her daughter, Katie, started her senior year in high school, and younger son Todd moved to ninth grade. This time next year, she'd have only one child to take care of on a daily basis. And Todd would be at the age when no young man wants to hang out with his mother. He already was.
She was sitting at her kitchen table, idly flipping through her calendar. It used to be full of notations, but except for a dentist appointment in three weeks and a hair salon appointment to touch up her roots, the pages were nearly blank.
As Jane was pondering this wistfully, her next-door neighbor and best friend, Shelley Nowack, turned into her own driveway, which adjoined Jane's. Not quite fast enough to touch the pavement on only two wheels, but giving that impression. The tires of her minivan squealed as she slammed on the brakes. This was her normal mode of driving.
Shelley tapped on the kitchen door just as Jane was opening it. "You look glum," Shelley said. "I have something to cheer you up. Remember that old Victorian house that turned into such a blight when some fool divided it into crummy apartments and the druggies took it over?"
"Who wouldn't? It was one of our larger civic battles, getting the lowdown on the zoning. Someone was supposed to tear it down, I thought. Why's it still standing?"
"Because Bitsy bought it to restore."
"You don't remember Bitsy?" Shelley asked.
"I do remember her, if you mean Bitsy Burn-side. The all-time Queen of Room Mothers. I never knew a woman who could turn something like that into a full-time job."
"Bitsy's past that stage," Shelley said, airily waving this recollection aside. "Her kids are grown. She divorced that overbearing stockbroker husband and must have taken him to the cleaners. And there's gossip that she also got a huge inheritance from a childless oil baron great-uncle."
"Wow. No wonder Bitsy's moving into real estate. Why don't things like that happen to us?"
"Luck of the draw, I suppose," Shelley said.
"But even if she has wads of money, what the devil does she know about renovating a wreck of a house?"
Shelley shrugged. "I suppose with enough cash, you can buy very good advice."
"I guess I wish her well."
"Perk up, Jane. She wants to talk to us over lunch tomorrow."
"Why? She's a dangerous person to talk to. Every time I let her bend my ear, I ended up making two hundred strings of paper garlands or baking fifty-five highly decorated cupcakes."
"Because she wants to hire us."
"To make garlands?"
"Jane, get a grip and forget about garlands. And quit lolling about with your elbows on the table and make us a big pot of coffee. Use the good kind. Bitsy wants us to be her decorators. A paying job that requires a lot of shopping."
Jane's eyes lit up for a moment. "Paid to go shopping? Who would have thought life had such a thing in store for us, so to speak? But what do we know about decorating that everyone else doesn't know more about?"
"I guess she thinks we have good taste," Shelley said.
"She thinks we're patsies," Jane said, turning the tables on Shelley, who was usually the more cynical one. "I tell you, Shelley, this is going to involve something we really don't want to do. She'd be doing it herself if it were a desirable thing for her to spend time on."
"You really are grouchy today, aren't you?"
"I'm bored," Jane admitted. "I'm so seldom bored that it makes me cranky."
Widowed when her husband died in a car acci-
dent years earlier, Jane thought she'd done a pretty good job raising her children. Mike and Todd were normal boys, interested in girls and cars, but not doing anything remarkably stupid about either.
That she knew of.
Katie was a normal teenage girl, which is to say a bundle of conflicting personalities, and extremely high maintenance. Katie, who had recently decided she wanted to be called Katherine, sometimes regarded her mother as her archenemy, always as the source of food, money, and housing, and more and more frequently, as a semi-friend.
But who am I?
Jane had been wondering lately. Her role as daily cook, car pool driver, arbitrator of sibling rivalry outbreaks, and soother of hurt feelings was nearly over.
"Then this is the perfect time to turn your time and attention to something new and different," Shelley said with remarkably good cheer. "Make us that coffee before I need intravenous caffeine."
Jane got up and filled the coffeemaker, saying as she did so, "I see your point. Really I do. Our attempts to be wedding planners went up in flames. But we both need something to do now that we're free of little children. The only thing we're really good at is shopping. But I don't think this is it."
What Jane really meant was that Shelley loved shopping for anything. Jane wasn't half as enthusiastic, but had recently sprung for a few luxuries
and enjoyed spending a little money on herself for a change.
"It won't hurt to let Bitsy pay for a very nice lunch before we decide that," Shelley said, drumming a perfectly manicured nail impatiently on the kitchen table.
guess not," Jane said. "Decorators? Hmm."
"… and this lunch is at Michelle's Bistro."
"Did I forget to tell you about it?" Shelley asked. "A cousin of mine hosted a family party there a month ago, with all our aunts and the other woman cousins, and it's divine. Tall food."
"Tall food?" Jane said, watching for the instant the coffee could be served so Shelley would stop that irritating tapping on the table with her fingernails.
"You know, that trendy stuff with an artful blob of sauce, a piece of fish or meat, and stuff piled on top of it in towers."
"Yeah, the kind of place you have to put on pantyhose and jewelry for," Jane said with a smile. "For a good free meal, I'll listen nicely to anyone who has anything to say. And come home and think about it while I digest the food."
When the coffee was ready and Jane and Shelley had both knocked back a bit of it and sighed with satisfaction, Shelley said, "Now, Jane, there's something else you need to know about this."
"Ah-hah! The Big Drawback! I knew there was one."
"I'm not sure it is, but here's the deal. Bitsy's fallen in with a somewhat rabid group of feminists. Suddenly she's single, her kids are grown, she's wallowing in money, and she starts a new life."
"No more cupcakes, huh?"
Shelley ignored this comment. "So this renovation is sort of part of that."
"What does that mean? 'Sort of?' " Jane asked.
Shelley brushed back an errant bit of her bangs — nervously, Jane thought, because Shelley's dark cap of hair was always neat and tidy.
"It's this way. She's chosen a female contractor and mostly hiring women workers."
Jane looked at Shelley for a long moment, then said, "How'd she find these people? When was the last time you had a girly-girly plumber fix your drains?"
"Now, Jane, don't go sexist on me," Shelley objected. "What is there to plumbing that a woman couldn't do if she wanted or needed to?"
"That's just it, Shelley. I never had the urge to investigate being a plumber even though I wield a mean plunger when I'm forced to. The difference between needing to become your own plumber at times and the desire to do it as a full-time job isn't a concept I grasp. Yes, I've dealt with stuffed toys going down the drains, but when the sewer backs up in the basement during a flood, I call a man to fix it. Men don't have much of a sense of smell. And I write the check."
"And it's a substantial check, Jane. Why shouldn't an able-bodied woman get the money?"
"I don't object to that happening," Jane said. "I've just never heard of a woman plumber."
"But Bitsy and her contractor have," Shelley said.
"Okay, okay. For a really good lunch at someone else's expense, I'll go and listen to what she has to say. But I'll have to borrow a pair of pantyhose. I ran my last ones while I was replacing the upstairs bathroom toilet seal ring," Jane joked.
"Sure you did," Shelley said with a grin. "The only reason you know that a toilet
a seal ring is because you're hung up on that do-it-yourself channel. I've caught you watching it three times now. I know you're secretly interested in this."
"Secretly, maybe. Reluctantly, for sure."
Michelle's Bistro looked like
classy place to V Jane. Shelley's highly successful businessman husband, who entertained a lot, probably wouldn't have been as impressed. It was one of the few stand-alone buildings in a new upscale mall. It looked like something that should have been perched above the Mediterranean Sea in southern France, clinging to rock face instead of what had recently been flat Illinois farmland.
Jane had dressed to the nines, found a pair of pantyhose without runs, even gone to the hairdresser earlier in the day to get her roots touched up. A hostess all in black greeted them and showed them to a secluded table at the west end of the surprisingly large restaurant. As they made their way across, Jane noticed that there were virtually no men in sight. There were only a couple of somewhat frightened-looking husbands and a busboy who looked androgynous enough to qualify as a girl.
"Is this where the well-bred feminists eat?" Jane
whispered to Shelley, who stopped dead and looked around.
Shelley looked genuinely surprised. "I didn't notice that there were so few men when I was here before. I guess they can't legally disallow them."
Jane made a muffled groaning sound, and they plowed along in the wake of the hostess, who had a long, fierce stride.
Two women were already seated at the table. Bitsy Burnside was almost unrecognizable. She'd cropped her hair short and must have had a great deal of plastic surgery since Jane had last seen her. Her eyes used to crinkle in a really cute way when she smiled. Now there was no sign of a line on her face as she rose, smiling, to greet them.
"I'm so glad you came. I can't wait to tell you all about my project." It was a banquette table, and Bitsy gestured for Jane and Shelley to sit in the middle between her and the other woman.
We're being trapped,
"This is Ms. Sandra Anderson," Bitsy said when the other woman also stepped out to shake hands. "Formerly Mrs. Somebody." Bitsy and her companion both laughed at this. "She took her mother's maiden name as her own when she divorced him. She's my contractor."
Jane considered this matrilineal introduction and wished she had the nerve to mention that the woman's mother's maiden name had almost certainly been her father's name all along. But this
wasn't the time to pick a fight. Maybe after lunch had been paid for.
Sandra Anderson, or Sandy, as Bitsy called her, was a very tall woman wearing a knockoff Armani suit in gray and taupe. The way the sleeve cuff wrinkled slightly was a tipoff that it wasn't the real thing, Jane assumed. Sandra, like Bitsy, had hair styled as a man would, but her face hadn't been done. She looked tough as nails, with a corrugated forehead and long, sad lines around her lips.
Jane scooted in and was next to Sandra, who carried a fairly large purse with a strap over her opposite shoulder. Shelley had left a space between herself and Jane to put their purses.
"Want to pile that purse up with ours?" Jane asked Sandra.
Sandra looked shocked. "No, thank you," she said, as if the suggestion had been inappropriate.