Please, I begged the universe, send me a witty retort.

“I’ll pick the kids up from school on Friday.” Richard jangled his car keys. “You will be home on Sunday at seven, won’t you? I don’t want to have to wait like this again.”

When he’d left, I took off my shoes and padded in stocking feet up the hardwood stairway. The doors to Jenna’s and Oliver’s rooms were ajar. Jenna was flat on her stomach, arms spread wide across a rumpled blanket, our black cat curled up between her feet. I kissed the top of her head and straightened the sheets.

In Oliver’s room, stuffed animals were dropping off the bed like fleas from a swimming dog. I picked up a bear, a lion, a dog, a hippopotamus, and lined them up on the desk so that Oliver would see them when he woke. I kissed my baby boy and headed to the kitchen with one thought in my head.

In the back of the supremely unreachable cabinet above the refrigerator, there might, just might, have been a bag of Hershey’s kisses. I dragged over a chair, clambered up, opened the cabinet door, and spied the unmistakable sheen of aluminum-covered chocolate. “Found you.” This would be medicinal. I’d eat one or two. Three, at most. Four would be too many, but—

“Mom? Mommy?”

Jenna. I jumped to the floor and ran up to her room. “What’s the matter, sweetheart?” I went to my knees beside her bed. “Another nightmare?”

“I—I think so.” She sat up. In the dim glow shed by a night-light, I could see hot sleep creases on her face. “Someone was chasing me and I tried to run, but I kept falling down and getting up and falling down.” Her strong chin trembled.

“It was just a silly dream. Slide over, sweetie.” She made room, and I pulled my daughter onto my lap. “Just a dream. Mommy’s here. Nothing’s going to hurt you. Just a silly old dream.” In time, my nonsense words calmed her. When she was soundly into the land of Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, I tucked her back into bed and gave her one more kiss.

The kitchen clock showed an ugly time when I came back to collect my PTA notes—half past midnight. A sensible person would have left the chore of typing the meeting minutes until the next day. Until the weekend, even. I took the files into the study, turned on the computer, and started typing. Heroically, I took only one chocolate break.

Well, maybe two.

Three, tops.

Chapter 2

The next morning it took me three tries to punch in the correct code for the store’s alarm system. Five hours of sleep just wasn’t enough. Once upon a time I’d pulled all-nighters with ease, but my last collegiate exam had been a long time ago.

While I turned on lights, I did the math and came up with eighteen years since I graduated from Northwestern, journalism degree in hand. As it turned out, I’d hardly needed that degree with my only newspaper job being the circulation editor for the Rynwood paper, published twice weekly. Richard and I had married straight out of college, and he hadn’t wanted me to work for the big paper in nearby Madison. “You’ll be safer here in Rynwood,” he’d said.

He was probably right, and when I paused to think about things, I realized I was content with my life. I’d answered an ad for a part-time bookstore clerk when Oliver started preschool and had progressed to store ownership. Funny how things turned out, sometimes. I loved Rynwood’s downtown with its quirky collection of stores and store owners, and I loved my brick walls, tin ceiling, and faded carpet. But most of all I loved the intoxicating scent of new books.

Once the store was bright with halogen lights, I headed to my minuscule office at the back. I dropped my purse into a desk drawer and picked up the report my manager had left last night. Clerks came and went with seasonal frequency, but Lois, the last holdover from the previous regime, was forever. For that, I was grateful— almost all of the time.

“Less two percent,” she’d written on the monthly financial figures. “Party?” This meant our September sales were down two percent from the previous year and Lois’s idea for spurring sales was a Halloween party. Which meant decorations and costumes for the staff, and cookies and cider and spooky music—probably a machine to make fog, too. Lois didn’t do things in a small way.

As I sat heavily in the scratched wooden chair, also a holdover from the last owner, the wheels squeaked. They squeaked again as I stood. Teatime—I had to make decisions, and no way could I do that without a mug of tea.

“Good morning, Beth!” Lois breezed into the tiny kitchenette. She was twenty years older than I was, three inches taller, ten pounds lighter, and, since the death of her husband, infinitely more adventurous in her clothing choices. My idea of cutting-edge fashion was adding a paisley scarf to a navy blue blazer. Today, Lois wore canvas high-top tennis shoes, a plaid kilt kept closed by a brass pin, a pink ruffled blouse that miraculously managed to go with the kilt, and noisy metal bracelets. She twirled a black velvet cape from her shoulders and pulled off her red beret, hanging them both on hooks. “Got that tea water going?” she asked. “I have a new kind of chai. Vanilla peach spice.” She waved a small box.

“Lois, about a Halloween party. I’m not sure—”

“We can afford it? Don’t worry. It’ll cost hardly a penny. We’ll print a few posters and hang them around town. We’ll make some flyers and stuff them in bags. Half sheets, to save paper.” She talked with one hand on the handle of the almost-hot teakettle. “We’ll get the staff to bring a treat each, and I have boxes and boxes of decorations at home.”

The whistle began its throaty chirping. Lois snatched it off the electric hot plate and poured water into two mugs. The tea bags steeped as she talked. “I checked the attic last night, and I have oodles of orange lights. Only things we’ll have to buy are cider and plastic cups.”

“I have cups.” The words were out before I knew I was going to say anything.

“Excellent.” Lois dunked the tea bags a few times and dropped them onto a cracked Peter Rabbit dish. The store carried child-sized dinnerware of Peter and his sisters. Breakages happened on occasion, and I had a varied collection of repaired dishes at home. The kids considered themselves too old for such babyish things, but I didn’t mind eating toast with Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cottontail.

“I’ll bring in my special Halloween CDs.” Lois wrapped her hands around the mug. “And my sister has a neighbor who has a friend who bought a fog machine for his last Halloween party. I bet I could borrow it.”

Sometimes I wondered if Lois knew whose store this was. Sometimes I wondered if I knew.

“Hello? Is anyone here? Beth?”

I put down my tea and hurried out. “Good morning . . . Oh. Hi, Debra.”

Nathan’s mother, dressed in a skirt-and-jacket set two shades darker than her pale blue eyes, put her hands on her hips. Light glinted off her multicarat engagement ring. “Is it true?” she demanded.

“Umm . . .” I tried to like Debra. She was pleasant. She watched her son’s soccer games and didn’t scream at him. She attended church every Sunday and held hands with her husband on walks. I’d even seen her brush snow off an elderly woman’s windshield, but I just couldn’t like her. Marina said it was my inferiority complex rearing its butt-ugly head. Maybe knowing Debra was afraid of water would give me an edge. Not that we were in competition.

“I couldn’t make it last night,” Debra said. “What is Agnes Mephisto doing now?”

Last night’s PTA meeting came back to me in a rush—Agnes and her anonymous donor. And since for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, there also came the remembered instant opposition to Agnes’s proposal. “Would you like a copy of the meeting minutes?” I asked.

“Just tell me what that woman is trying to do to our school this time.”

I gave her a summary, then said, “I’ll send out minutes tonight. Is your e-mail address still debra at rynwood dot com?”

She ignored my attempt to slide away from the subject of Agnes. “She’s trying to railroad us into this addition.”


Вы читаете Murder at the PTA (2010)
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