The Marriage at the Rue Morgue (A Rue and Lakeland Mystery) (5 page)

BOOK: The Marriage at the Rue Morgue (A Rue and Lakeland Mystery)
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Trudy continued, “Now I’m going to do what I was doing before and keep working on lunch.”

Lance rallied for a final round of protests. “But Noel and I hadn’t finished taking around breakfast.”

Trudy countered, “Tell me who to finish.”

And Darnell said, “Go on. None of us wants to see you again before six tomorrow evening. And I hope you’ve both had showers by then. You’re starting to smell pretty ripe yourselves.” Darnell had been our sense of humor for the past year. I didn’t know much about him, except that he had been in the building industry before getting laid off and that he was volunteering with the center while he job searched. But when he planted himself in front of the fruit table, arms crossed over his chest, I knew his muscular frame wasn’t one that either my fiancé or I would be challenging.

We went.

We should have at least picked up the license sooner. But the last two weeks had been pure chaos at work. Art had hardly been into the center as he got everything ready for commencement up at the university. Two of his doctoral students had graduated, and at Ironweed U, the dissertation advisor handed the graduate the diploma, moved said graduate’s tassel, and made a speech about that graduate’s work. The last time Art had two graduates in a single year, it had been Lance and me. Art had been completely consumed with making things perfect for this new set.

Thinking about their graduation made me think of my own. Lance and I had only been together for a little while. We had still been more lab partners and good friends at that point. Art, of course, insisted we were a couple in graduate school and didn’t know it. Now that we were getting married, Art claimed complete responsibility. He certainly deserved some credit. Indeed, he was going to be our best man tomorrow.

My mind drifted back to his distracted state of late. Sally and Gary were planning to go on to careers elsewhere, and Art had helped secure them grants and licenses. We kidded that Gary and Sally were going for a bit more funding with their PhDs than Lance and I had opted for, when what we really meant was that they had only interned here throughout their degree program, where Lance and I had both already been full-time employees. Our jokes also meant that Sally and Gary wanted a different working atmosphere. They were frustrated by Art’s constant flights of imagination, and they both wanted a larger income.

Ours was not an undertaking for financial gain. It was a career chosen for love. Sally clearly loved the work too, even though she was looking for a bit more money. Gary, though, seemed afflicted by burnout at every turn. The only person who seemed genuinely dismayed by his departure was our board chair, Stan Oeschle, and that was probably because he and Gary were related. Rumor had it that Stan paid Gary’s tuition outright.

We rode into town in Lance’s little blue truck, which we had dubbed “the primate mobile.” It
looked
like the sort of vehicle one would drive back and forth from an animal sanctuary. It hated first gear, only ground reluctantly to life in the winter, and groaned alarmingly in left turns. Its paint hadn’t been shiny in years, and patches of rust on the tailgate and body suggested we might need to replace it long before we actually wanted to get rid of it.

At the wheel, Lance said, “This whole thing is a little like planning your own funeral.”

“What do you mean?” I shifted in the passenger seat and hooked the seat belt down around my shoulders so it wasn’t actively choking me. My height had disadvantages.

“Think about it. We had to plan who would speak and think about what they might say. We had to invite the preacher, and we all wear formal clothes.”

“True.” Rather than contemplate the formalities of our wedding, Lance and I had thrown ourselves into the daily running of the center with extra gusto.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that Art had been a busy leader and we had a small staff. Mostly, Art didn’t handle the center’s day-to-day operation anymore. He had filled that role in the beginning, but more and more, he was the one who interacted with the board and maintained a strong campus presence to show the university what a rescue center affiliation could do for it. Like offering plum work-study opportunities and internships, among other things. Lance and I were used to being in charge here.

But normally, by the time university graduation rolled around, Art would have been ready to spend a few months more involved out at the center. Lance and I had planned our wedding nearly a year in advance thinking this would be the case. We were quietly grateful that circumstances had changed when Sally and Gary suddenly accelerated their dissertation research. Art had been grumbling and working around the clock getting ready for them to graduate.

This year, it seemed like the closer we got to our wedding, the crazier things got at the center. For one thing, we could hear construction for the new mall for most of the day. It was one of those “out” malls that was really a whole bunch of strip malls all connected. I hated it already, and it was only half finished. In fact, they started the thing before the economy went south a few years ago. Construction halted not long after the project was begun, and it had only started up again in the last few months.

I didn’t remember hearing the first wave of building at all, or even the first few weeks of this new push. But in probably the last month, it seemed like every jackhammer was in the center’s backyard. The fact that we were on two hundred square acres of woodland and the mall was a good two miles away didn’t seem to dampen the noise at all.

We humans found it a minor annoyance, but it drove the primates wild. Quite frankly, I had thought the noise would stay further away. It had made Lance’s and my work for the last couple of weeks far from routine, particularly as we had acquired the fecally dexterous rhesus right at the beginning of this period.

Art’s graduates had walked last Saturday, at which time they had stopped working for the center, leaving us even shorter of staff. And Art himself had only really gotten settled back into his summer schedule here yesterday. Which meant that whether we were using it as an avoidance tactic or not, Lance and I had been needed at the center. And that our current schedule couldn’t be helped. We had four hours this afternoon to pick up our marriage license, get centerpieces for twenty tables, shower, and get dressed for the rehearsal on my parents’ lawn.

Friday afternoon did not appear to be a popular day at the probate office, and parking was easy. “Marriage license, please,” I said to the man behind the desk. Then I added, “Oh, hi Matt!” as I belatedly recognized an old high school classmate.

“Application,” Matt corrected me. “You get the license after you do the deed.”

I said, “Um,” and he burst out laughing.

“Having a little fun on a slow day.” Matt pushed the appropriate form across the desk to Lance and me. But his joke was technically correct. The form we completed today wouldn’t be valid for anything unless we submitted it back to the court within sixty days with the signatures of our officiant and witnesses.

“When’s the wedding?” he asked us. Like many in the town of Ironweed, Matt had a country accent, and “wedding” became “weddin’.”

“Tomorrow,” I answered. Lance filled in a dozen lines about himself and his parents in silence, then pushed the form over to me.

The clerk was reading upside down as I wrote. “Cutting it mighty close, aren’t you? Most people do this part a little sooner.”

We shrugged and didn’t make eye contact, either with him or with each other. The silence grew heavy as I completed my own information. I glanced up from the sheet once and saw Lance rubbing his bald spot again. Quite a bit of his hair was still thick and black, and he wore it in a short taper cut. But the spot of scalp in the center of his skull was not something he could call “thinning” anymore. We kidded that he would ultimately bald out in the shape of his right hand, since he spent so much time worrying it over. But then, if my hands hadn’t been busy with the paperwork, I would probably have been working up some female-pattern baldness of my own. We
were
putting this until late in the game like everything else. After a decade, a change like this didn’t come gently to us.

Finally, I finished, and we pushed the form back to Matt. “All right,” he said. “Fifty dollars, and you’re on the brink of no return.” He chuckled at his own joke and didn’t seem to realize Lance and I didn’t laugh along.

“Do you take debit cards?” I asked. “Or does it have to be credit?”

“Cash only.”

“What?” Lance and I asked in unison.

For an answer, Matt pointed to the top of the form we had hastily completed. Very clearly across the top we read a demand for fifty dollars. Cash.

I said, “I don’t carry that much cash.”

“Didn’t you look into this at all before you came down?” Matt asked.

Lance and I exchanged a glance that said
no
more plainly than if we had spoken. I rummaged around in my purse, and Lance fished in his billfold, and between the two of us we came up with forty-six dollars and change.

“I guess we’ll be right back,” Lance said, patting his pockets one last time, like there might be four dollars hidden somewhere.

Matt rolled his eyes. “Look,” he said, pulling out his own wallet, “I’ll kick it in for you. Wedding present. I think if I send you out of here, you won’t be any kind of right back.”

Lance seemed dumbstruck.

I said, “Thank you,” and made a perfunctory offer to repay him. He declined, and Lance and I left the office hand in hand.

Out of the office, Lance asked, “Why wouldn’t we be back? There’s a bank machine around the corner. Doesn’t he think we want our license?”

I didn’t answer. I don’t know what my old classmate saw in my face, but Matt was right. If I had left to get money, I would not have come back. Living together was comfortable. It didn’t involve influxes of relatives, and it didn’t force us to abandon the center when we were very clearly needed there. Art had seemed so rational telling us why we had to go, how he had it covered. And he had lied. If that clerk hadn’t ponied up three dollars and sixty-five cents, we wouldn’t have had time to mess with this marriage nonsense today.

“Lance, we have to get back to the center now. Art’s about to do something stupid,” I said.

C
HAPTER
5

“No.” Now Lance was the firm one. “We’re going to have to trust him on this one. We have a wedding to get ready for, and right now we’re late for your mom’s.” It was almost humorous to see how seamlessly the two of us changed roles. Back at the center, I had been so sure that the wedding was more important, so sold on Art’s argument that we didn’t want to exhaust and then dart the animal in the heat of the day that I hadn’t seen that Art planned to do exactly that.

He might not have been an Olympic watermelon pitcher, but Art
was
a talented marksman. He had been using a dart gun when Lance and I were in elementary school, and he wouldn’t be waiting idle when he could be neutralizing the orangutan. Or else trying again to lure it. I hoped his recent close encounter with the ground had put an end to that attitude, but it was impossible to be sure.

“We need to be where we can keep an eye on Art!” I argued.

Lance shook his head. “Nope. Art can take care of himself. He knows he did something stupid, and he wants to make up for it. And the more I think about it, the more it doesn’t make sense for us to be there today. Orangutan or no, I’m getting married to you, Noel, and I don’t want to spoil that. Remember, it’s all going to be over tomorrow.” And then he pulled me into another one of those kisses like the one that had nearly made me fall over in front of the squirrel and spider monkeys.

All right then. Wedding it was.

It wasn’t that his kiss erased my doubts and worries about Art. Brave words aside, I knew he had to still be concerned. But he refocused me, reminded me that the wedding was more than a time-consuming hassle. It was a chance to smooch like high schoolers in front of our collected friends and relatives. And Art was sure to cheer us with his patented catcall.

As we left the building, my purse snagged in the security gate. The strap jerked me backwards and an alarm whooped. I pulled, but the purse remained looped.

“Hang on there.” The security guard loped over. I snaked my arm out of the offending strap, and my purse fell to one side, but not to the ground. The guard picked it up and lifted it off of a previously invisible outcropping on the smooth metal gate.

“Thanks.” I took it and followed Lance out the door, now fighting the battle of getting my purse back over my shoulder. I was so distracted that I nearly walked straight into the rescue center’s board chair, Stan Oeschle, and his wife Gert. I glanced up from my purse and there were the Oeschles coming up the steps below me.

They didn’t see us either, at first, because they were walking forwards and looking backwards, talking to Gert’s granddaughter, Natasha. Fourteen with pale skin and heavily made-up eyes and lips, she walked a few steps behind them studying a white bandage on her hand. Stan was a good friend of Art’s, and over the years, he had kicked in dollars to rescue us when the ends we were trying to stretch simply couldn’t be made to meet one another.

Lance maneuvered me out of the way before a head-on collision as Stan looked up from Natasha and said, “Hello there, lovebirds!” Then, seeing the piece of paper still in Lance’s hand, he added, “Don’t tell me you put off the marriage license until
now.

When Stan spoke, Natasha immediately stepped down and to one side and engaged in a deep study of the concrete. Lance and I didn’t answer and didn’t look at each other. Instead, we both looked past the Oeschles and stared at Natasha, who didn’t look up from the stairs. With her dark wavy hair, black outfit, and downcast eyes, she was a study in teenaged boredom. When she finished examining the steps, she looked closely at her hands, presumably studying her nail polish, which was shiny black except for the one index finger, which sported the bandage. I remembered being fifteen and worried about my appearance. A gauze strip to mess with my nails would have left me feeling seriously exposed.

BOOK: The Marriage at the Rue Morgue (A Rue and Lakeland Mystery)
9.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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