–The Library Journal
©Kindle Nation Daily 2011
Kindle Nation readers, do you have any idea how important you are to emerging authors?
Several times a month some of the best indie authors publishing on the Kindle platform share generous excerpts of their work here through the Free Kindle Nation Shorts program, and they are counting on you, and on our small staff here at Kindle Nation, to help separate work of distinction from the vast rest of it.
So far, it is working. We’ve seen Free Kindle Nation Shorts authors whose books have moved into the top 100 in the Kindle Store, and others who have signed contracts with AmazonEncore and other publishers, and others for whom entire series have caught fire. Just a couple of weeks ago one of the very first authors to be featured in this program received a rave review in the Sunday New York Times Book Review for her newly released novel. But the proof is always in the pudding, and in the few cases where you our readers have stamped “mediocre” on one of our selections, it has tended to fall where it belonged in the first place, by the wayside.
That won’t be the case this week, because we’ve got an emerging star in the house.
I’m especially pleased and confident this evening to share a generous excerpt from the debut novel in Julia Buckley’s Madeline Mann Mysteries, entitled, appropriately enough, Madeline Mann. If you’re a fan of suspense from the woman’s angle, I believe you’ll love … wait for it … “the Madman.”
For my brothers and sisters:
Bill, Claudia, Christopher, and Linda.
You have helped me know the warmth of family;
as a result, Madeline knows it too.
My capricious episodes have made me notorious in my family. Often unexpected, even by me, they are whimsical impulses I sometimes feel compelled to follow. Often my motivation is clear–as in the doll-head-shaving incident when I was seven, prompted by my older brother’s comment that my Beautiful Chrissy was “too girlie”–but sometimes the notion is a bit more mysterious, like the infamous wild ride I took in my father’s gray Celebrity when I was seventeen. I’d been a sedate driver previous to the incident and ever since, but on this afternoon some demon caused me to rocket down Alder, Webley’s quietest side street. I shot past a playground, glimpsed the pale, shocked faces of an elderly hand-holding couple in matching sweat suits, and set some aged doggies to barking. Despite some passionate last-minute braking, I rear-ended a newly minted Mr. Whippy ice cream truck and consequently alienated my father for a full month.
These sorts of occurrences earned me a nickname from both of my brothers: Madman. It wasn’t a clever creation on their part, since it’s merely an ironic combination of my first and last names, Madeline Mann, but I have a feeling Madman would have become my nickname even if I’d been christened Jill Smith. Though I’m basically a quiet, thoughtful person, I can sometimes be ruled by my impulses–based upon what I like to call the “floating vibes” I feel in a given situation. Sometimes I need to take vibe-restoring action. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a certain rightness about it within me. It’s the only way to begin this story, I’ve decided, because I never would have become involved in a murder investigation if I hadn’t, in fact, been mutinously reacting to something else.
A case in point is my hair. Jack, my upstairs neighbor for two years and my boyfriend for one, loved my brunette locks; they were fairly thick and smooth and hung straight and simple to my shoulders. When Jack and I had our first big argument one autumn night and I stormed out of his apartment and flew down the stairs to mine (we lived in the same three-flat), I was definitely in one of those unstable moods. I felt it was over, and I felt it was Jack’s fault. I was miserable but furious.
Who knows where wacky ideas come from? I simply had one. I took out my barber’s shears and carefully cut off two or three inches of my hair. I ran out to the drugstore and bought L’Oreal Preference blonde dye–“Because I’m worth it,” I murmured throatily to myself in the store aisle. I hurried home and applied the smelly stuff without further thought. I had to let it sit for forty-five minutes, during which time I played Peter, Paul, and Mary’s Ten Years Together CD and sang along with every song while I perused a Cat Fancy magazine. (I don’t have cats, but I fancy them. My landlord doesn’t.)
I took a shower, rinsed out the dye, and pampered myself with some scented powder before slipping into my favorite jeans and a gray T-shirt with Shakespeare’s face on it. I flopped into my papasan chair and considered the reading material on the steamer trunk that was my coffee table. My brother had lent me a biography of Howard Hughes and I had a Nora Roberts book from the library. Not in the mood for either, I decided. My life needed a little mystery. I opted for an Agatha Christie off the shelf above me. Eventually, three chapters into What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw!, I wandered back into the bathroom to take a look at what I’d done.
I was expecting the worst. I’d burned myself on numerous occasions–the bad perms, the “no Novocain” decision, the jalape-o eaten on a dare, the downright loony choice of watching my cousin’s colicky six-month-old for a weekend–I could go on. To my amazement, I liked what I saw in the bathroom mirror. Not only did I look perky as a blonde, I looked like I’d been born a blonde. I have green eyes and pale skin, and I’d serendipitously chosen a shade that accentuated them.
Jack had told me on more than one occasion that I was beautiful; my mother had told me that I had “good German bones.” Now, for a moment, I thought I could see what they meant. I fancied that I looked like a sort of poor man’s Elke Sommer. I pouted in front of the glass like a ferocious supermodel until I was quite sick of myself; then I decided to prowl around the building in hopes of a purposely accidental meeting with my brand-new ex, Jack.
I found him in the tiny laundry room, a small addition Mr. Altschul had built on the back of the ground floor of his large Victorian house (now three apartments accommodating the aforementioned German landlord, attractive ex-lover, and newly blonde me). Jack was stuffing all his clothes into the washer, darks and lights alike. He was obviously still angry about our fight, because he was jamming things in with extra force, as though his clothes offended him. I stepped casually into the room, ostensibly to check for an unused washing machine. Jack took one look at me and his hands flew to his stomach and one knee came up, as though I’d hurled a softball into his abdomen.
“What did you do to your hair?” he gasped.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I asked, curling a blonde strand behind my ear.
“Are you nuts?”
“Is the washer available?”
“For God’s sake, you couldn’t just talk it out with me? You had to go and turn yourself into someone else?”
“I like it. Don’t you like it?” I think my tone made clear that I wouldn’t be happy with anything but an affirmative response.
We faced each other, our unresolved argument still sitting like an iceberg between us. Since the crux of it was Jack’s tendency to control me, his protest against my hair color choice was not, I thought, the wisest response.
He finished shoving his clothes into the washer, hastily sprinkled some Tide over them, shut the lid, and cranked the knob with energy. I had always admired Jack’s athleticism, being rather sedentary myself; even now I could appreciate his well-shaped, tanned forearms as they strong-armed the coin slot. He turned to face me, trying to keep his emotions in check.
“Okay, I don’t know what you want, Maddy, but I don’t think you do either.”
“You’ve decided that for me?”
“Are you going to acknowledge that I’m an adult woman who can make her own decisions?”
“I never doubted it.” He folded his arms defensively in front of his chest. He was wearing a solid black T-shirt and some old gray jogging shorts. I felt a pang of sadness, because I used to borrow the outfit.
“You opened my mail, Jack.”
“It was a second notice–“
“It was my second notice!” I heard my voice shrilling, and I toned it down. “If I got a hundred notices, it wouldn’t change the fact that they were addressed to me!”
Jack ran a hand through his wavy brown hair. He looked around the laundry room as though hunting for inspiration among the detergent and clothespins. I felt for him. In the year we’d been together, arguments had been rare, and always resolved. This one, to his surprise, wasn’t going away.
Jack sighed and shrugged. “I’m sorry I made you angry. But I’ve got to tell you, Maddy, if I thought I was doing something wrong, I wouldn’t have done it. I mean, if you don’t know me by nowÉ”
He let the sentence hang there. We faced each other like duelists.
“I guess I feel married to you,” he continued. “I don’t think it’s a big deal for a husband to open his wife’s mail. I feel like a husband. We love each other, we sleep together, we’re monogamous, we practically live together–“
“In separate apartments.”
“Only because you want it that way. So we both have some control here, don’t we, Madeline?”
I took a deep breath and made myself unclench my fists. “I’ve got to be up early tomorrow to do some work, so I’m going to bed now. I suggest you steer clear of me unless you are willing to address the actual issue. This isn’t about love or marriage or which bed I choose to sleep in. This is about acknowledging my autonomy and my rights, just as you would for a male best friend who was your roommate.”
His jaw dropped. “Are you calling me sexist?”
“If the narrow shoe fits,” I yelled over my shoulder as I stomped out of the room.
I caught a glimpse of Mr. Altschul’s nose as he pulled it back into his apartment, and felt a blush of shame. We had turned this into One Life to Live in a matter of hours. I doubted our landlord would request our departure, since he was obviously thrilled by the fireworks, but I felt shame nonetheless. Aside from my aforementioned erratic moments, which were relatively rare, I was a reasonable, even reserved person. My brothers, Fritz and Gerhard, called this trait “the Too-Teutonic Reserve,” since they saw it as a hereditary flaw passed down by my German-immigrant parents–one that prevented meine Bruder from bonding with numerous women. My brothers liked Jack very much. They weren’t going to be thrilled by my news of a breakup, especially since they thought everything I did was irrational. They thought I chose to date Jack, a rare family-sanctioned decision, because they were there when we met and they helped to influence the outcome–about which they were, of course, wrong.
It was the guitar that made me fall in love with him. He’d been playing it on the day I moved in. (My mother had won me the apartment by chatting with Mr. Altschul in German.) I was sitting, exhausted, on top of a packing box and eating ice cream with my sweaty siblings, who had hauled in all of the heavy stuff. Suddenly, a melody wafted through the window, unmistakably played on a guitar and pretty certainly coming from the apartment above. Then a voice began singing, as though my own troubadour had come
to woo me at my window. I wondered vaguely if the singer was a professional.
“What’s that?” asked Fritz, two years my junior, distracted for a moment from his double scoop cone, his fox-like face alert, his red mustache dripping.
“A guitar, brain,” answered Gerhard, two years my elder, still studying his ice cream sandwich’s label, his dark brows furrowed above his handsome face.
“The song, I mean.” Fritz shoved what remained of his cone in his mouth and then, in an awesome feat, continued to speak: “The awhtist.”
“Gordon Lightfoot,” I ventured. He was playing “That’s What You Get for Lovin’ Me.”
“It’s acoustic,” Fritz sneered.
“That’s right. We forgot you don’t like instruments that can’t be plugged in,” Gerhard quipped.
“Or musicians who play more than one chord progression over and over,” I added spitefully, referring to Fritz’s garage band, the Grinning Bishops, who had once practiced in my parents’ garage but had mercifully moved their act to his friend Chuck’s basement. Apparently things were different now, though, because Fritz actually made more money some weeks with the band than he did working as a manager at Barnes and Noble. In any case, our family tended to remember those appalling years, the discordant notes and loud feedback still echoing in our nightmares.
Some kids grow out of that nasty argumentative phase, but my brothers and I still argue–I think, sometimes, it’s to express our closeness. We feel we have the right to be sarcastic because we’re family. We don’t strike each other or fling things, but we have potentially cruel tongues.
Still, it was my brothers I went upstairs and called now. They share an apartment, so they were able to yell at me on two extensions.
“Wait until Mom hears this,” Fritz threatened. “She’s gonna have a nutty. She was crocheting some sort of little bag for your wedding.”
“Shut up, Fritz, that’s a secret,” boomed Gerhard in my ear.
“Well, it doesn’t matter now, does it? She dumped him.” The two of them began an argument of their own, and it comforted me briefly, until I heard Jack playing his guitar upstairs. He knew I could hear him; I’d confided that to him long ago. I could even hear lyrics when my window was open, which it was now. Jack was playing “Devil Woman.” Real subtle.
“We weren’t even engaged,” I protested.
“It doesn’t matter, Madman. He’s the one she wants you to marry. Everyone does. He’s not a total loser, like some we could name, so of course you had to break up with him.” Fritz, as usual, opted for criticism over compassion.
Gerhard was gentler, by a hair. “Really, Madman, we did like him. I have to wonder if the problem isn’t just something you’re manufacturing, maybe for a little drama?”
“Okay, I’m hanging up now!” I yelled just before I slammed down the receiver.
I rubbed at my eyes. There was no one who was going to be on my side here, except maybe good ol’ Gloria Steinem, and I didn’t think she’d be returning my e-mails, or voice mails, or whatever kind of mails I might send her.
This was where Fate intervened. Jack had switched to something more melancholy; it sounded like some sort of sea chantey. I imagine he thought it would send me running up there in a diaphanous gown, seeking a night of passion in his bed. In his defense, I suppose it had happened before. I’m only human, and I do love the guitar. However, despite the sound of the lonely sailor above me, I remained on my couch, and I was back into Agatha Christie and Mrs. McGillicuddy when the phone rang. It was Fritz. He’d forgotten to tell me, in his anger, that Logan Lanford had disappeared. Naturally, Fritz was holding me personally responsible.
The following morning I walked briskly out the door, appreciatively sniffing the autumn-scented air, my mind still on Logan Lanford. Logan and I had gone to high school together, and it was I who had recommended Logan for Fritz’s band. Logan was a great musician, and I’d been concerned about him since he’d gotten fired from his public-relations job at the town hall a couple of months before. My mom worked part-time for the mayor, and I tried to pump her for information about Logan’s termination, but she merely shrugged and said that Mayor Paul had his reasons. Logan had a wife and two kids to support, so I mentioned to Fritz that Logan played bass. Fritz needed a bass player, and it seemed like the obvious solution.
I was still thinking about this, and about Fritz’s incoherent ramblings about Logan’s disappearance, when I spied Jack tinkering under the hood of my car. I was tempted to yell something, but I decided instead to catch him in the act. Furtively, catlike, I moved toward him, trying to stay in the cool shadow of the building. He must have seen me out of the corner of an eye, because he let the hood slam shut, which brought Mr. Altschul to the window with surprising speed, considering the arthritis and the lack of knee cartilage. Our landlord lingered at his ground-level window, ostensibly as a noise hunter, but quite obviously as an eavesdropper.
He had to be standing on a chair.
Jack looked ready to hare off in the other direction, but I was quick.
“What are you doing under my hood?”
“Checking your oil.” He was a bold one. He wore a look of complete indifference.
“What gave you the–who do you think–this is just so unbelievably–“
“You never check it, Madeline. Just because you’re mad at me doesn’t mean I’m going to stop caring about your safety.”
“Good timing, Jack. You couldn’t even wait a day before you displayed still another controlling behavior. I’m tempted to call the police. Really. You’ve committed a crime.”
That got his goat. “All right. Call the police. Tell them I checked your oil–which is fine, by the way–and gave you new wiper blades and filled your windshield reservoir. Tell them you’re my recently ex girlfriend, and some old habits die hard!” Jack was the kind of guy who didn’t get loud when he got angry, but he did develop some facial twitches. His one dimple would appear, just as it did when he was happy or mischievous. I stared at his dimple, too upset to meet his slate blue eyes.
He cleared his throat. “Besides. Technically, I didn’t ‘break into’ your car–you left it unlocked again.” He shrugged, as though my carelessness cleansed him of all responsibility.
I lowered my voice, aware of the long, curious nose in the window behind me. “This is what we’re fighting about, Jack: not because you’re not a good person or I don’t love certain things about you, but because you have this pathological need to control my life!”
“A lot of people would be grateful–“
“That’s not the point. All you had to do was come to me and offer, as a friend. I might have said yes, thank you, how nice of you. But you didn’t, and I’ll tell you why. Because you didn’t want to give me the option of saying no. Right, Jack?”
I had the brief satisfaction of seeing him squirm. “I didn’t mean to make you upset, Maddy. I just wanted–I felt–“
“You love her!” yelled Mr. Altschul, impatient with our labored conversation. “Mein Gott!” He slammed his window in despair, sending some very offended birds shrieking away.
We stood in silence for a moment, and then we began to laugh. It was a nice release. I was able to admire again how wonderful Jack looked when he was smiling–friendly creases at the corners of his eyes, straight white teeth, and the solitary, beloved dimple in his clean-shaven face.
“He’s taken our troubles very personally,” I said softly. “After all, that’s one hundred percent of his tenants with unhappy love lives. But I know we’re another soap opera to him. I hear him yelling at his TV all the time, like, ‘Don’t let her walk avay! Tell her you were drugged when Carly seduced you!'”
I imitated his German accent to the best of my ability, and Jack, grinning, nodded in recognition.
“He summarizes the plots for me when I’m stretching before a run. I guess I should stop stretching in front of the Old School.” This is what Jack called our building, because I told him that’s what Altschul means: “old school.” I realized I was softening, so I looked at my watch. “I’ve got to fly. I have to do some, uh–research.”
His eyebrows went up; he was curious. I could forgive that, because I happen to be very nosy about everything Jack does as well. However, he wasn’t going to make the mistake of asking what I was up to, not after two arguments in a row.
“Have a nice morning,” he said.
He looked rather forlorn, standing there with his windshield fluid. Things like that tempt a person to give in, but I had my principles. “Thanks.”
He touched my arm. “I have some bad habits, Maddy. I’ll work on them. You’ve been happy with me for a year, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I acknowledged.
“Just tell me it’s not over. I don’t expect you to hop back into bed with me. Right away. Just tell me you’re not going to leave me over this, okay?”
“IÉ” I hesitated, confronted by the dimple in a truly earnest expression. “I’d like to see us work things out. We’ll see.” I opened the driver’s door of my rehabbed Merkur Scorpio, a car I’d chosen because it bore my astrological sign.
“Dinner tonight?” he asked, with an appealing amount of humility.
I shut the driver’s door and rolled down the window a crack. “Let me see how the day goes. If you’re planning some kind of seductionÉ”
“I’m not, Maddy. I said I wasn’t.”
“Because what we need is communication, not sex.” This wasn’t entirely true, as one thing Jack and I had in common was a healthy zest for making love, but I was trying to make a point.
He put his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “Can you at least call and let me know? Chicken Shea takes two hours to prepare.”
Chicken Shea, I thought, suppressing a smirk. How did I end up dating a guy who named recipes after himself? Still, I happened to know that Chicken Shea was delicious, as was most of what Jack created in the kitchen.
“Fair enough,” I said grudgingly. I started to drive away.
He called out, “No charge for servicing the auto!” with a big, obnoxious smile. So much for humility. I treated him to a Madeline glare (we all have our specialties) and accelerated.
I fumed for a while as I drove into downtown Webley, but soon enough Fritz’s strange call was back on my mind, as it had been when I’d woken, showered, and consumed my solitary bowl of Cap’n Crunch. Logan Lanford, my old high school pal, had apparently just walked out of his own life. His wife, Jamie, had no idea where he was, nor did anyone in the band. I wasn’t clear, nor was Fritz, about what the rest of Logan’s family might have to say, but Fritz had suggested, not gently, that somehow it was my job to find out.
“How can you just lose your husband?” I had protested. “I mean, Jamie must have some idea–“
“Here’s a great idea, Madman,” Fritz said testily. “Since he was your amazing contribution to my band”–I wondered here how the other Bishops would view the use of that possessive pronoun–“why don’t you do us the favor of finding him? We’ve got this great gig next Saturday, and Lanford doesn’t even know it. It’s good dough too, and I think he could really use it. Otherwise the guys are going to find a replacement. I can’t blame them. But I thought it would be nice to give Lanford a chance to appear. He’s a fairly cool guy, when all is said and done.”
Ah, a glimpse into Fritz’s shallow well of compassion. It wasn’t unusual for my little brother to make his problems my problems, and I suppose I’d gotten into the habit of accepting whatever he tossed my way, but this seemed kind of silly. “Fritz, Logan and I haven’t discussed much more than the weather in the last eight years. I don’t think I’m the person who should–“
“Listen, Madman. You’re a reporter. You’re always following those vibes you’re so proud of. This guy was once one of your best friends. His wife is freaking out over this, and the band is going to be left in the lurch–“
“Oh, for goodness’ sake!” I yelled. “How hard can it be? Give me his phone number, and I’ll go talk to Jamie.”
That conversation with Fritz was the reason I was now on my way to speak with Jamie Lanford, Logan’s wife. I’d called that morning to get permission for a visit; I had heard kids crying in the background, and she’d sounded stressed almost to the breaking point.
“Hello?” she yelled over the din.
“Jamie. It’s Madeline Mann. From high school. I don’t know if you–“
“I remember you, Madeline,” she said, sounding a bit hurt. “We were in chorus together.” I had not remembered this until now. Suddenly I had a vision of Jamie as a sophomore, with shining blonde hair worn straight to her waist and freckles on her nose. She looked like someone straight out of Little House on the Prairie. Until, that is, she put on her cheerleader skirt as a junior and began turning the heads of all the boys.
“Oh, yeah. Of course. The Hallelujah Chorus–how could I forget?” I asked jovially. I felt a bit odd broaching the subject of Logan, yet I was far too curious not to mention it. “Listen, Jamie. Fritz told me that Logan’s been gone for a while. He hasn’t by any chance returned, has he?”
“Returned? No. I just don’t know what to do, Madeline–if I should call the police, or what. And these kidsÉ” She muffled the phone and yelled into the cacophony. It lessened slightly. “I’m really sick of the single-parent thing, I’ll tell you.”
“If you’re willing to let me drop by, maybe I can help you for a while. Watch the kids, talk over your options.”
Jamie and I had barely spoken since we were sixteen, so I knew what desperate straits she must be in when she jumped on the offer. “That would be great, Madeline. No one really — well, if you have the time”
I assured her that I did, and that I’d be over by noon. Never mind that I had a stack of ideas I was supposed to flesh out for my editor by Monday morning. Perhaps I was avoiding my work, just as I had been avoiding Jack. Perhaps, though, it was something else that made me feel a certain urgency about Logan Lanford.
After I hung up the phone, I called my mom at work.
“Mom,” I said.
“Madeline, I’m very busy.” Since I knew this was true, I wasn’t offended by her briskness. My father had told me the mayor was working poor Delia into an early grave. Of course, my father tends to be a bit protective, but working on a Saturday did seem like an imposition.
“I’m going to see Jamie Lanford.”
“Logan’s wife? Why are you doing that?”
If Fritz hadn’t told her, I certainly didn’t want to go into it now. “Just to talk. She’s very stressed out and she has two kids and I’m wondering what kind of care package I should bring,” I said. No one was better than Delia Mann at making impromptu care packages. Sick people, sad people, happy people, people with new jobs, new homes, new babies–they’d all received a basket from the Manns somewhere along the line. And it always looked splendid, done up with festive bows and happy wicker accents.
Now my mom was in her element and forgot that she was busy. “Lunch, of course,” she began. “You don’t have any frozen stew or chili, do you?”
“No, Mom,” I answered drily. “You’re the culinary whiz. In fact, I could use a care package, if you’re in the mood. Anyway,” I added, hearing nothing but silence, “a bucket of chicken it is.”
“But not for you, Madeline–you’re meeting us for brunch, aren’t you?
I had forgotten this. “Right,” I agreed.
She sighed. “How old are the babies?”
“Uh, I think one is three or four and one is still a baby. Not an infant, but not walking.” That had been Fritz’s impression, anyway.
“Mmmmm. Coloring book, box of crayons, jingly rattle. Apple juice boxes, butter cookies.”
“Well, geez, I’m not their fairy godmother. I’m on a writer’s salary, for Pete’s sake.”
“Someday people will do it for you. Besides, she is a friend of yours.”
“I barely know her,” I protested.
“She was in chorus with you.” Leave it to my mom to remember my memories for me.
“Yeah, you’re right. Well, thanks, Mom. Hey, one more question. Why did Logan get fired by Mayor Paul?”
She sighed again. “Madeline, I don’t know the whole story, and I don’t like to go talking about the office to people.”
“I’m not people, I’m your daughter.”
“I don’t want this in the paper.”
“I want to know what Logan did to get him fired, because he was my friend at one time.”
My mother’s voice became hushed. “There was a rumor that there was some sort of interoffice romance. The mayor said he couldn’t condone it. I didn’t hear this firsthand, though.”
I stood with my mouth open for a moment. “But he’s married,” I protested. “He has little kids.”
“It’s unsubstantiated,” Mom said. “That’s all I ever heard about it.”
Logan and Jamie had an apartment in the Wellington, one of the nicer apartment buildings in Webley. It was near the center of town and was a fine example of the quaint, old-fashioned architecture that Webley boasted about in all of its literature. Centered between stately elms, the Wellington was one of the photographic landmarks on the town postcards in the drugstore.
When I rang Jamie’s bell, it took her a while to respond. Her voice seemed quiet over the intercom, and I wondered if she’d been sleeping.
“Come on up,” she murmured, and I took the elevator to the third floor. Jack would have encouraged me to take the stairs.
I hadn’t seen Jamie in at least eight years, but I could still tell that the woman who opened the door had changed drastically. While the high school Jamie had been prettily plump with peach-soft skin, this woman was too thin, and her face seemed dry. Her nose looked red, due perhaps to a cold or a bout of crying, and what I had remembered as sparkling, cheerful eyes now looked dully out of an expressionless face. Her hair, still yellow and silky, was now worn only shoulder length and was pulled back with a rubber band. I wondered if I’d been wrong about her being a cheerleader. This woman didn’t look like she had a spunky bone in her body.
“Come on in,” she said softly. “I like your hair. You’d never know you weren’t a blonde. I just got the baby to sleep, so we’ll have to kind of keep it down. I sure don’t want to deal with him if he wakes up too early.” She eyed me speculatively. “You have kids?”
“No. I’m not married,” I said.
“Oh ÉI thought Fritz said–“
“Fritz probably mentioned Jack. He’s the guy I’ve been seeing. Anyway, I brought some food, and some stuff for the little ones.”
“That’s so sweet. God, I’m starving.”
“Here,” I said, offering up the bucket of chicken.
She looked tempted to grab a piece but instead led me to her kitchenette, where she set down the container and dug out some paper plates and styrofoam cups.
“I already have a sinkful of dishes,” she said apologetically. She certainly did, I noted, as well as a house full of toys and scattered piles of laundry. Her living room was awash in books and Disney videos, and in the midst of those sat a boy of about four, who stared at us with his mouth open.
“Noah–food,” said his mother.
That got him in action. He tore into the kitchen and stood on a little stool in front of the sink to wash his hands.
“This is Madeline,” said Jamie. “She’s a friend of Daddy’s and mine from high school.”
Noah stared at me over his shoulder, and the water soaked the cuffs of his shirt. Jamie noticed, and she turned off the water with an abrupt gesture and a sigh. “Go get another shirt. And don’t wake up Calvin, or you’re getting him back to sleep.”
Noah trudged out of the kitchen, mumbling to himself like an old man. I went to the fridge to hunt for beverages and found only an echo inside. Trying not to look shocked, I took the apple juice boxes out of my bag and set four on the table. I unpacked the potatoes and coleslaw that had come with the chicken and steered Jamie to the table. “You start,” I said. “He’ll be here in a minute.”
She did so. I felt a stab of intense anger at Logan as I watched her eat. The woman was hungry, which meant that her kids probably were too. “I ran out for some things yesterday,” she said apologetically. “I should have picked up food too. All I got was some dinner to go. I’m just not thinking, Madeline, I’m just not thinking. It’s like I can’t function.” Her eyes were very blue as they looked searchingly into mine, and I realized with a jolt that they were beautiful. A memory came to me, unbidden and ten years in the past.
Logan had started to date Jamie. He confided to me that he liked her one cold spring day as we waited for a bus home outside school. I remembered the way he stood over me in that proprietorial way that some teenage boys have, his dark hair hanging over his forehead, his hazel eyes merry under dark brows. “I like her, Mad. She’s not you, babe, but who is? And you just want to be friends. So I think I’ll pursue a blonde now. Jamie has the most amazing eyes, cornflower blue. Maybe someday we’ll have blue-eyed babies,” he joked as he gauged my reaction. I peered down the street to see if the bus was coming. I was jealous, of course, as I always was when Logan talked about his conquests. It was true, though, that I didn’t want to be one of them. Even in my attraction to my friend Logan, I understood the folly of falling for him, and I resisted. The longer I did so, the more appealing I think I became to him. Wanting what he couldn’t have and all that. Logan usually got what he wanted. Sometimes he dated several girls at once, although he probably lied to them all. It really bugged me, the way he treated the girls at St. Roselle, but he was my friend: handsome, intelligent, musical, creative.
He had plenty of good qualities, which was why he never had a shortage of girlfriends.
I wished now, as I thought about Jamie’s empty refrigerator, that I’d made more of a point of befriending her then, and warning her that Logan wasn’t all he seemed. She probably found that out anyway. We both made the decision to let Logan get away with things. Eight years later we were both still dealing with it. My way of dealing with my growing awareness of Logan’s selfishness, even at the age of seventeen, had been to distance myself from him. By the time we had both graduated from college, we’d become almost entirely out of touch, so that when I saw him in town or at my mom’s office, it felt awkward, despite the occasional stab of nostalgia. We’d josh around halfheartedly, but we both understood that we lacked anything in common but our past.
Noah appeared in the doorway with a new shirt on his little body.
“Come here, honey. The nice lady brought us some lunch,” Jamie called.
Noah sailed to his chair, and Jamie filled his plate. Watching the boy eat made me feel like a UNICEF volunteer. I sat down with them and toyed with some mashed potatoes. I tried to broach the subject of Jamie’s problem husband.
“So Logan gave you no idea–“
“He said he was going out for some diapers,” Jamie said tonelessly. “And the thing is, we really needed them.” She started to cry, but even that didn’t stop her from eating. She wiped at her runny nose with a napkin in her left hand while she held her food in her right. “I had to take the boys out to get some the next day.”
I looked at Noah, who seemed more cheerful than his mother. He had already polished off his chicken leg. Not in a way that would satisfy my dad, who believed in munching a chicken bone until it gleamed in the light, but in a manner pretty impressive for a four-year-old boy. “I like chicken,” he said to me, kneeling on his chair for a better view of the table.
“I do too,” I responded. “I’ll give you another piece, and I’ll have one too, okay?” I pretended to make a plate for myself.
I refilled his plate, and he became almost merry. “Daddy went to see Quint,” he said.
“Oh?” I asked blankly.
“Quinn,” Jamie corrected. “Quinn Paley. A friend of Logan’s in Saugatuck. Noah is convinced that Logan went to see him, which I suppose is a possibility. He’s done it before.” Her voice was carefully toneless.
“You think Daddy went to Michigan?” I asked Noah.
“Logan could be just about anywhere,” Jamie said bitterly. “He feels entitled to spoil himself.”
It was true that Logan was egocentric; at least he had been as a teen, and he’d sailed through high school on a series of deceptions. He had continued to lie to various girlfriends, arguing to me that this was his time to play the field but still pledging his fidelity to individuals because of the rewards it brought him. I didn’t know his self-indulgent behavior would last into adulthood; I suppose I feared it, though.
He’d started dating Jamie in the spring of our senior year. I wondered vaguely what had made him commit to her above all the others. I wondered also if he still had affairs, especially in light of what my mother had told me.
Jamie was yelling at Noah. “Sit right in the chair, Noah. Sit right, or I’ll take your plate.” The threat worked, and Noah stopped swaying in his seat.
The sound of a baby’s crying floated into the kitchen.
“Shit,” Jamie said, shoving in a last forkful of slaw.
“You shouldn’t swear,” Noah called after her sternly, his little face pulled into a disapproving frown that only emphasized its pudgy cuteness.
“Sorry!” Jamie yelled contritely over her shoulder. She disappeared into a back room.
“Your mommy’s very busy around here, isn’t she?” I asked Noah.
“Yeah. But I help her, soÉ” He held out his little greasy hands, one of which still clutched a chicken leg, as if to say, “The problem is solved.”
I looked around the cluttered room. “I almost forgot. I brought you something,” I told him.
In a shot, he was out of his chair and standing in front of me, verifying the idea that little kids have no concept of personal space. I could feel his breath on my face.
“What is it?” he asked.
First I helped him wash his hands again, making sure to roll up his sleeves. We returned to the table; I pulled my tote bag into my lap and retrieved the crayons and coloring book. Noah’s eyes widened with surprise and pleasure.
“Thanks!” he said. “I could really use these!” He jogged over to the living room, kicking aside some toys so that he could lie on his tummy. “I have to do this before Cal wakes up. He eats crayons, which he shouldn’t, because they’re made of wack. And he breaks them, and he jumps on me,” he shared calmly as he began to shade in a clown’s hair.
“He sounds energetic. Let’s surprise your mom and tidy up this room,” I suggested. I got down on my knees and began sorting. This was partly an instinct born of living with a very tidy mother, and partly a nosy response. I wondered if there might be some clue here or there to Logan’s whereabouts. All books went in one pile, all videos in another. I found a laundry basket in one corner and began tossing toys and superheroes in it. I folded a tiny pair of sweatpants and an adult pair of jeans and set them on the arm of the chair. I shelved the books and put the videos on top of the television. I picked up some random M&M’s nearby on the carpet while I glanced at the contents of a little desk in the corner. Without actually touching things, I could see that it mostly contained bills to be paid and some personal correspondence. I stood up and tossed the candy in a wastebasket.
Now Noah had the floor all to himself. I knelt down and walked on my knees until I reached his side. I watched him color.
“So your dad has a friend named Quinn?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said to his book.
“What makes you think he went to see him?” I asked, following a hunch.
“Because that night he was mad. And I was watching him, and then he put me in his, um, lap.” He was having trouble concentrating on me while he worked.
“What was he mad about?”
Noah selected a new crayon. “Mommy was mad at him, and that makes him mad. I know because he was squeezing me harder.”
“Was he hurting you?” I asked.
“No. He told me he wasn’t mad at me.”
“Of course not. How could anyone be mad at you?”
Noah shrugged. He considered it a valid question. “He said Quint would get him out of a hole.”
My metaphorical antennae began to quiver. “Out of a hole? What did he mean by that?”
Noah smiled at me. “I was laughing. I told him he wasn’t in a hole, and he said yes he was.”
So Logan had been in trouble, and instead of confiding in his wife, he’d made some cryptic comment to his four-year-old son and then disappeared. God, you think you know someone, I thought dejectedly.
So how could this Quinn have gotten him out of trouble? Maybe with money? And if so, was he the type, I wondered, who would take the money and run while his wife and children sat in a house where the larder was bare? Sure he was, if it suited him. Not having seen Logan in such a long time made me remember only the negative things. Or maybe, from my more mature vantage point, there really was not much to admire beneath his attractive veneer.
Jamie came back in holding a smiling baby who pointed at me with a tiny finger.
“Cal sees someone new,” she said with an indulgent smile. It was the first smile I’d seen, and for the first time she looked like the pretty girl from high school. “Oh God, you cleaned my house,” she said. “You’re too nice.”
I knew that was a thank-you, and I waved it away. “You’ve got enough to do. Listen, Jamie, have you considered calling the police?”
She sat down on her couch and set the baby on the floor. The baby crawled immediately to Noah and, as predicted, picked up a crayon, put it in his mouth, and placed his diapered bottom heavily on the small of Noah’s back.
“Ow!” Noah yelled.
“Honey, take those crayons and paper to the table or Cal will have them for lunch. Here, Mommy will clear a spot for you. Did Madeline give you those? Oh, look at the pretty book!” She jogged to the table, where the remains of our lunch sat, giving off an aroma. As she cleared, she considered my question.
“I’ve thought about it, Madeline. But the thing is, Logan has taken vacations before. He feels sometimes like he needs a mental health day, or whatever. So if he’s, uh–resting–I’d hate to embarrass him with the police. But you never know. Yes, Cally, Mommy will cut up some chicken for you.”
Cal had spotted the food and was now standing precariously at the foot of the table like a little beggar.
“Wouldn’t he call you?” I asked.
“Not necessarily.” Her face reddened. “He feels guilty, and then he doesn’t want to face me. We’ve had arguments about it, butÉand the thing is, there are people I could ask for help–some neighbors, my family, you know. But this is an uncomfortable situation. I really don’t want people asking me where he is or why I’m having trouble focusing on my dailyÉreality.”
I considered her for a moment. “Isn’t it your turn to take a mental health day, Jamie?”
She rubbed at her eyes, then grabbed a rag and wiped a corner of the table so that Noah could sit down with his supplies. Once he was established, she began cutting up some chicken for her other son. Finally she responded.
“You know Logan. When you describe him to people, he sounds like this incredible pig, but when you’re with himÉ”
“He’s a pig with charisma,” I said hotly. “Where does he normally go on these vacations?”
“Here and there. Once he stayed at the Hilton in Chicago. Another time he went to his dad’s cabin in Michigan. This really gorgeous place. He took me there a couple times, and Noah’s been there. Cal has never seen it. Maybe he’s with Quinn, but he’s never done that before.”
“Can we call his dad?”
“The phone seems to be out of order, or maybe it’s off the hook. And Logan left his cell phone here. I don’t know what’s going on. His dad makes the cabin available, because he lives at his girlfriend’s place most of the time, and the cabin is basically empty for the use of Logan and his brother. I could call his dad, but it’s just too humiliating to tell him I can’t locate Logan, and could he see if Logan’s vacationing out there, you know? But I can’t drive all the way out there just to see. Noah’s got school, and Cal takes two naps a day, and–“
“Did he leave any money with you?” I asked.
Jamie flushed again. “What’s in my checking account. I still have to pay some bills, but I should have some left. Then I’ll run out to the store. I know I look totally poverty-stricken here, but I’m really not.”
I shrugged, then lied. “Luckily, Fritz tells me the band got paid for their last gig, and Logan never picked up his share. I’ll see that Fritz brings it by today.” The amount I had in mind Fritz probably wouldn’t wish to part with, but Jamie didn’t have to know.
Her relief was almost palpable. “Oh, thank God. You hate to keep borrowing from your parents, you know?”
Oh, I knew.
“I’ll get out of your hair, Jamie, butÉ” Cal, that wandering boy, had returned from the table with a piece of chicken in his mouth and another in his fist, and was now crawling into my lap. He began to play with my necklace with his free hand, wearing an expression of pudgy concentration. His thistledown hair fluttered every time I exhaled. Then he looked me full in the face and smiled, revealing chewed-up chicken and eight little teeth. I felt a pleasant, warm sensation in my midsection.
“Why don’t you give me the address of the cabin? I’m supposed to do a travel article for the paper, so maybe I can write it on, uhÉ”
“Saugatuck,” she said. “It’s a cabin just outside of Saugatuck, Michigan.”
Before I left, I handed Cal an elephant squeeze toy and some plastic keys. He pointed at them and then took them with a jubilant expression. “Gah,” he told me seriously, pointing at the elephant. Then, confidentially and so near my face I could smell his lunch on his breath, he repeated, “Gah.”
I felt a stab of love for him and had a vague desire to take him to the zoo.
I felt something much different for Logan Lanford, my old high school chum who’d grown up to be a fair-weather husband and a deadbeat dad.
On my way home, I stopped at the White Hen in Webley to get cash and make a phone call. Jack had been pushing me to get a cell phone, but so far I’d resisted out of sheer stubbornness. I jogged inside the building to do my cash transaction. I got two hundred dollars for Fritz to bring over to Jamie’s house. It nearly cleaned me out, but I’d get paid on Monday, and I intended to be at least partially reimbursed by the Grinning Bishops as well.
I made my way to the pay phone outside the front of the store, (one of the last pay phones in existence, I was guessing) near which a man stood smoking. He was a handsome Indian man of about thirty-five, with a cute Enrique Iglesias-style mole under his eye. He squinted while he inhaled, obviously enjoying every moment of his cancer risk; he smiled briefly at me when we made eye contact.
I used a calling card my parents had given me for Christmas, got a long-distance number for Quinn Paley, and dialed. The phone rang three times; the voice of a young woman answered. “Yeah?” she said.
“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “May I speak with Quinn, please?”
She’d obviously expected me to be someone else; she seemed flustered. “Oh–sorry. Quinn’s not here. Do you want me to take a message?”
“My name is Madeline Mann. I’m looking for Logan Lanford.”
There was silence at the other end of the line.
“Do you know Logan?” I asked.
“Yes. Quinn and me know Logan. He hasn’t been around here in a while.”
“So you haven’t seen him in the past few days?”
“Not me. Maybe Quinn. I can ask him when he gets back.”
I was getting what I call one of my “mighty vibes.” There was something weird going on with Logan, I knew it, and not just from this phone call with an unhelpful teen. I thought for a moment. I could hear her breathing into the mouthpiece. Either she was nervous, winded, or asthmatic, I thought, tapping my car key against the wall in a staccato rhythm. “Okay. Maybe I can give you my number?” I said.
She took my home phone number willingly enough and said that she would pass on the information.
I hung up, disappointed that I hadn’t solved Jamie’s problem, and then dialed the number she’d given me for Logan’s dad. There was no answer.
I sighed, putting Jamie’s information back into my purse. Suddenly the smoking man straightened away from the wall and took another drag on his cigarette.
“That’s a musical name, Logan Lanford,” he said, without apology for his eavesdropping. “I have actually heard it before.”
That got my attention. I stepped forward. “I’m Madeline Mann,” I said. “I’m a reporter for the Wire. Do you work here?”
He tossed down his cigarette butt, reluctantly, almost affectionately. Farewell, old friend. He was one of those people who made smoking look cool. “I am the manager here. Sunil Nagubadi.” He leaned over to shake the hand I was extending.
“You said you’ve heard the name before? Logan Lanford? I’d appreciate anything you could tell me. I’m trying to locate him forÉfor a story,” I lied, feeling suddenly protective of Jamie.
“I saw the man himself. He came here the other evening. He used the phone you were using, and I was here.” He smiled charmingly. “I am a heavy smoker; I’m here more than once a day. I have a non-smoking policy, so I send myself outside.”
I liked Sunil, I decided. “You talked with him.”
“No. Merely heard the name. He said, ‘I am Logan. Logan Lanford.’ I recall the name, because I thought it was rhythmic. And alliterative. Distinct.”
“So that was all? And then did he go in to buy diapers?” I asked. “That’s what he was supposed to do; it was why he came here.”
Sunil thought, his hands thrust in his pockets. He looked more awkward without his cigarette.
“No. Perhaps he would have done so, but then his friends came.” My question had triggered a further memory. He squinted at it.
“Yes. Some men in a black car. Cadillac, maybe, or Lincoln. They pulled up next to him and rolled down the window.”
“And he got in?” I prodded.
“WellÉ” He paused, thinking. “I am not sure. I was here for a smoke, but I made a point of not eavesdropping. From what I saw he wanted to continue walking, but the car followed him. It was like a lover’s quarrel, except this seemed like a group of friends.”
“Could they have been enemies?” I asked. The weird vibes I’d been feeling were getting stronger.
The idea seemed to interest him. “I am not sure. There were not really raised voices–to make me think there was a fight. But it did seem a bit, uhÉ” He looked past me at the magazines inside as his brain scanned for a word. “Sinister!” he yelled, pleased with himself. “Yes, it seems now almost sinister the way the car followed him. Especially because it had such a quiet engine.”
“Could they be the people he called on the phone?” I asked.
He shook his head, feeling for his pack of Camels. “No. They came too immediately afterward. There wouldn’t have been time, unless they were a block away when he called.”
“But you didn’t feel the need to call the police?”
Sunil looked uncomfortable. “Well, no. It’s the memory which seems sinister. At the time, I was content to smoke and watch the car. I don’t believe the man ever got in it. I believe he walked away un–ah, undetained.”
“Did the car have any sort of distinguishing marks? Perhaps you noted a license plate number?” I asked without much hope.
Sunil thought. He had worked a new cigarette out of the pack. He lit it and took a deep drag. For a moment, the smoke smelled good. Then it started to smell like pollution.
“I cannot say that I saw a license number. I meditate while I smoke. But I think I noticed a bumper sticker.” He thought some more, puffing peacefully.
“Do you remember what it said?” I finally asked.
“No. But it was in the back window, rather than on the bumper, and it was a bright blue. I’m afraid that is all I can remember.”
I assured him it was really quite a lot, and that I appreciated his help. I shook his hand again, gave him a card that the Wire had provided me, and took my leave. I left him standing there in a trance of utter satisfaction.
Once in my car, I simply sat, watching a red tree dance in the autumn wind.
Logan Lanford. God, it had been years since I’d really thought of him. He’d been my friend. I wondered why. Certainly he’d been one of the first people to find me sexually attractive. Perhaps that was why I kept a place for him in my heart, although I hoped not. I’d gotten enough loving attention from my high school boyfriend, Tim Ashbaugh. Another name I hadn’t thought of in years, I reflected with a wry smile. By the time we’d graduated, Tim and I were talking about marriage in a rather desperate way, but we’d both gone off to college with relief, and we had rarely talked again. I hadn’t kept in touch with Logan either, once I’d left the halls of St. Roselle High School. Things have a way of changing after high school; I left many of my friends behind with a sense of inevitability. It was time to move on, I had felt, time to grow. Had Logan grown too?
I still sat, not starting the engine, considering possibilities. Logan had made a phone call. He could have called Quinn or his father and asked if he could stay for a while. It could well be that he was in Michigan, despite what the reticent girl had told me on the phone.
Another scenario existed, though, based upon Sunil’s observations. Men in a black car had talked with Logan and followed him for at least a short time. Could they have persuaded him to get in the car? Could Logan be out of touch because he was being held captive by someone? Could someone have stolen his money and left him in a ditch beside the road? No body had been reported found, at least not on the TV news. And how would the men in the car have known that Logan would pick that time and that place to go out and buy diapers, or to make a call from a pay phone? It was more likely that they wanted to speak with him about something else. Could it be that something else that had kept Logan from returning home?
Now I was immersed in the complications of his life, and I’d met his sweet wife and his wonderful little boys. I was supposed to be outlining a travel article for the paper. I’d been planning a day trip to St. Charles or somewhere similar. That much of what I’d told Jamie had been true. I’d promised Fritz that I’d look into the disappearance of Logan Lanford, only to find a family that Logan had left in the lurch. I’d basically promised Jamie that I’d drive to Michigan to see if Logan was holing up in his dad’s rustic cabin or meeting with a friend named Quinn, whom he wanted to get him “out of a hole.” I had fought with my lover over something pretty stupid, and in comparison with Logan, Jack was starting to look like Man of the Year.
To Michigan it was, I supposed, and my article could be, in fact, about the lovely little Saugatuck, which I’d visited a few times before as a kid. I had memories of ducks swimming near the docks (little Fritz had called them the “Saugaducks”), boat sails against the sunset, souvenir shops and a boat ride on Lake Michigan, and plentiful helpings of tourist food. The town was quaint and full of bed and breakfasts, so it probably wouldn’t be so bad if I made an overnighter of it.
I drove home, listening to one of the Dixie Chicks on the oldies country station make a mournful plea for her marriage in “When You Were Mine.” The woman in the song had two little children, and she asked her two-timing husband to consider them, if not her. Was this a common occurrence, then? To me, Logan’s behavior seemed like unprecedented selfishness; maybe I was na·ve.
By the time I parked the car, I had tears in my eyes. Damn those country crooners, I thought bitterly. Where do they get off trying to make people cry?
When I arrived at the Old School, it was only twelve-thirty. I had gotten to Jamie’s rather early, so I had much of the day before me. I contemplated going in to the office to get a head start on some of the next week’s work. While I debated, the phone rang. It was my mother.
“Madeline–brunch. Although it’s really lunchtime.”
“Right,” I said, my spirits falling. I had forgotten again. So much for free time. Normally the family met at the Webley IHOP for Sunday breakfast, often after attending church together. This week we had agreed to meet on Saturday because my mother was busy on Sunday, and it was my mother who strictly enforced these gatherings. She loved to see her family clustered around her, and I couldn’t fault her for that.
“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I told her. I checked my outfit: navy turtleneck, blue jeans, a tweed-look jacket, and some walking shoes. I decided they passed muster, and left the apartment. When I reached the parking lot, it was raining. Still, it was a beautiful fall day. The sky was an inexplicable shade of gray, an almost metallic sheen, and some bright leaves were plastered on my windshield, along with a note from Jack. I pulled it out from under my wiper blade and opened it only once I had reached the warm, dry interior of my car.
“Are we on for tonight? Please let me know,” read Jack’s missive. Since he had already asked me this not three hours before, I thought it was overkill. It didn’t exactly make me feel like running into his arms. I would talk to him, I decided, after I got the family obligation out of the way. With a guilty glance at Jack’s window, I drove away again.
The Saturday rescheduling was actually because my mom had work to do for the mayor on Sunday in preparation for the big Webley festival on the St. Fred’s campus the following weekend (although somehow she’d ended up having to work part of Saturday too). I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel at Webley’s longest stoplight and glanced around at the clean main street. It was so shiny on this brisk fall day it seemed as if someone had been waxing and buffing all night.
Webley is an image-conscious town. It likes to see itself as an arty-literary center. Residents put a high priority on creating this appearance in town, which is why there are plenty of booksellers, stationers, crafters, and artisans gracing the main drags. True, no major writers or artists have ever been spawned in Webley–a real sore point for townies:but they’re working on it.
Webley is located more than an hour south of Chicago and is bounded on its north side mainly by cornfields; however, it is in constant competition with the thriving neighboring suburbs of Chateauville and Mosston. One of these boasts a renowned upscale shopping mall; the other has reared several notable people, all of whom are listed on the “Welcome” signs: “Welcome to Mosston, home of Joe Schmoe, Pulitzer Prize winner.” That kind of thing.
Anyway, it is the aura that counts in Webley, and there was plenty of aura at this time, thanks to the dogged labor of Mayor Don Paul and his staff of zealots. Talking to them was like listening to a promotional video, as I had unhappily discovered upon several visits to my mom at work. It was true, though, that tourism had improved under Paul’s leadership. St. Frederick’s University was in town, and a university, it was generally believed, gave a town a sense of scholarship and sophistication. Tourists came partly for this reason. They liked to shop up and down the clean, shady, shoppable boulevards, they liked to stroll on the verdant lawns of St. Fred’s, and they liked to come to the festivals, of which Webley had no shortage.
When I reached the IHOP, I pulled into the parking lot, found that the only spot was the farthest one from the door, and decided it was an appropriate repentance for the amount of food I was planning to eat. Cap’n Crunch does not fill one up for long.
Before I was even seated at the table, I realized that I’d been betrayed. Fritz and Gerhard were studiously avoiding eye contact, and I felt the high beam of my mother’s gaze upon me. She was ostentatiously looking for Jack, craning her head this way and that; he generally joined us at these brunches, and today I had opted not to bring him.
“So, are you breaking up?” My mother began her verbal attack before my bottom hit the chair. She paused briefly, at seeing me up close, to ask me in astonishment why I’d done that to my hair, but without waiting for an answer, she began to pepper me with questions about Jack, thanks to the bug planted in her ear by two disloyal brothers.
In my mind, as I waited for the food we had ordered, I began imagining a long-lost Grimm’s fairy tale by that very name, “The Two Disloyal Brothers,” in the end of which the brothers are nailed into coffins and dragged through town for their treachery. Actually I’d only come up with the ending, which I imagined again and again as the meal wore on and I viewed my fraters through narrowed eyes.
“Like I said, Mom, I just asked for a little space.” If I had smoked, I could have furiously stubbed out a cigarette about a hundred times, just for emphasis. I settled for tapping my foot. I glanced at my watch too. I should have gotten out of this, I thought. I had things to do, places to go, an explanation to make to Jack.
“Don’t tap your feet, Madeline, you’re ringing the bell for the devil,” my father warned as he admired his blueberry pancakes. Never mind that I was twenty-six and no longer intimidated by the whole devil threat. For my dad, it was a tradition. His own father had scared his little lederhosen off with the statement at their dinner table in Germany some fifty years ago.
“Space? Don’t be cliche, Madeline,” my mother said. “You have a perfectly fine young man in Jack. If you’re not careful, you could lose him,” she warned. I didn’t miss the implication that Jack could bounce back but that I, in my mother’s estimation, might not.
“He loves me, Mom. That’s not going to change overnight. And if it does, I’m better off finding it out now.”
She threw up her hands in despair, and Fritz blew some toast crumbs in my direction. “Okay, modern woman,” he said. “We’re all blown away by your independence. Now may I share some actual news?”
Despite his obnoxious introduction, I was glad enough of the potential diversion.
“What is it?” asked Gerhard, cutting a sausage link.
“The Grinning Bishops, man! We’re in the festival!”
The entire family stared in disbelief. It can’t have been the response Fritz was hoping for.
“Which festival?” I asked skeptically, expecting him to name some mining town in an unincorporated part of Alaska. Most of Fritz’s gigs were in what you’d call “unique” venues.
“St. Fred’s!” Fritz’s narrow face beamed at us all in turn. “University!” he added when we remained stationary.
“HowÉ,” I began.
“Who?” queried Gerhard.
“Our St. Fred’s University?” asked my mother, confused.
My father chewed reflectively, his expression pleasantly blank, as if he awaited a translation from the Swedish.
“They’re having a big rock fest on Saturday. We auditioned with like, a hundred bands, and we made the grade, mon frere. We’re on the bill!”
My mother, sensing a potential loss of face in the town, became all business. “Sweetheart, you have to let me sew you some nice costumes. Something neat, and tidy, and matching, so people know you’re all in the same band. You can’t wear those horrible ripped T-shirts and jeans. What would people think?”
“That we were cool?” Fritz tried.
“I think sequins would be good, Mom,” Gerhard suggested. Gerhard was a man with no loyalties, apparently.
“And hats,” I added vindictively. “Some sort of round, bowler sort of hat with a silk sash.” Here was a punishment for one disloyal brother, since the coffin was obviously not going to be a reality. I’d fix Gerhard another time.
“In fact, Mom–” My eyes lit up with sudden inspiration. I saw Fritz’s own orbs squinting in anticipation of pain. “Don’t you still have those costumes you made for the German polka band at the church show?”
My mother brightened. “Father Joe has them! He felt we could use them again some time, you know what a pack rat he is, and–“
“There’s no way, Madman, so just wipe the grin off your face! Mom, our outfits were part of the tryouts. They don’t want us pulling any changes now. It’s part of our motif. We’re the remnants of the grunge generation.” Fritz spoke passionately, the last of his omelette momentarily forgotten. “Pick on Gerhard, Mom. He never gets the treatment from you, and I happen to know he’s been dating the same girl for quite some time now.” Another traitorous moment. Is it in our blood? I wondered as I viewed Gerhard’s stricken face.
My mother’s face paled as she skewered her eldest son with a look.
Gerhard intervened before the flood of words came. “It’s three. Three dates. Girls get scared if you ask them home to meet the family too soon. They think you want a commitment right away. That’s what’s scaring Madeline.”
All faces were back on me, heads shaking slightly, as though all the evils of feminism lay within my too-human frame. I was impressed–really impressed–with Gerhard. It had taken less than five seconds to deflect my mother’s disappointment and send her back to me. I had to hand it to him. He was back to his sausage now, sawing away with a serene expression, his handsome dark head careful not to turn my way.
“You know, he’s right–,” my mother began.
“Hey! Fritz!” I yelled, desperate. “I’ve been looking into the whole Logan Lanford thing.”
Fritz frowned. A cloud had passed over the bright sun of his egotism. “Yeah, right. We may have to scramble around for a bass player now, because Madeline’s precious Logan Lanford has disappeared off the face of the earth.”
I paused with my fork in midair, wanting to argue with Fritz but ultimately wanting my French toast more. I chewed while my mother sprayed him with questions, all of which were just rephrasings of the basic idea in her first: “What do you mean, disappeared?”
Fritz made a hand gesture that was apparently supposed to represent someone disappearing. “I mean, he’s pulled a Houdini, and even Jamie doesn’t know where he is.” He turned to me. “So what did you find out?”
“I told Jamie I would follow up on some things.” I didn’t intend to go into complicated details or share my destination. Every member of my family would disapprove, if only on principle. They were in the habit of disapproving, so it would be the natural response. “She and the kids areÉwell, Logan sort of left them in the lurch. I’m really disappointed in him.”
“He is most likely staying with friends.” My mother shook her head, then stood up. “I must go briefly back to the office. We have some more festival business to organize.” She loved it when there was some big to-do to plan for the town. We had always been thrown very elaborate birthday parties.
She gave Fritz a kiss. “Now I can tell them my son will be part of the entertainment.” She waved at the rest of us, giving me her special motherly look of hurt mingled with warning. I was to be a good girl and reconcile with Jack, it said, after which we could arrange the wedding she felt was long overdue.
“Bye, Mom,” I called. We watched her walk briskly out of the restaurant on her sensible black heels.
I turned back to my brothers and my father, the latter wearing a look of longing now that his pancakes had been consumed. I reached for my purse.
“I’m going too.”
Fritz nodded at me. “You do that, Madman. And if you find Mr. AWOL, you can tell him that he’d better get his butt to practice tonight. By the way,” he added, “last time I saw him he told me to give you this. It’s some tape you guys made in high school.” Fritz dug in the pocket of his jacket, retrieved a cassette, and pushed it across the table. It was one of the many “party tapes” Logan and I had compiled when we were seniors, partly because Logan had inherited a very portable tape recorder. We had shared similar musical tastes and enjoyed putting together what we considered ideal music combinations. At the time, I’d been heavily into the Eurythmics, R.E.M., and the Eagles. Logan and I liked oldies. I hummed “Desperado” and turned the case over in my hands. “Why is he giving this to me?” I asked.
“I dunno. Cleaning his closets or something.” Fritz ran a smoothing finger along his red mustache. “I obviously don’t know the guy’s motivations, or I might understand why he was acting so lame. Anyway, thanks for looking into it.”
“This is not a favor to you, turncoat,” I said coldly. “I’m just curious to know what’s going on, that’s all. Call it my reporter’s instinct. Call it concern for Logan. Certainly don’t call it help for a brother who can’t keep a secret for even an entire day.”
Fritz and Gerhard had the decency to redden slightly.
“You didn’t tell us not to tell Mom,” Gerhard objected.
“Never mind,” I said. “Next time I’ll know not to consult my brothers for help.”
If I hadn’t been so upset with all the men in my life, I might not have pursued the little Logan dilemma, at least not very far. It was Fritz’s problem, after all. Knowing, however, that Jack wouldn’t approve of my digging and that my brothers didn’t think me capable of anything worth mentioning, I can admit now that rebellion was a prime factor in my decision.
I gave my father a kiss, my brothers a withering glare, and the waitress my share of the tip, and then walked into the Logan Lanford mystery at full steam.
Back in my car, my beloved little blue Scorpio, I sat for a moment, digesting food and information. I tossed Logan’s tape in the glove compartment. I would have liked to play it for the sheer nostalgia, but I didn’t have a cassette player anymore. This had been a stressful day, and it was only–I consulted my watch–two o’clock. I had plenty of time to get to Michigan while it was still daylight.
By the time I returned to the Old School, I had totally forgotten about Jack’s dinner invitation. I parked on the street in front of the building and sat there, feeling suddenly tired. Jack came out of the front door with a bag of garbage and walked it down to the parkway, where Mr. Altschul had already put out the cans for the sanitation truck. It wasn’t coming until Monday, but that was Mr. Altschul: prompt beyond reason. Jack spied me and started walking to my driver’s window.
“Oh, shoot,” I said out loud. “I’m in trouble.”
I rolled down my window and got a blast of cool air along with Jack’s regretful look.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi. I got your note,” I offered.
“Are you coming, Maddy? I need to know what to defrost.” He had his hands on the hips of his gray sweats; he looked ready to begin a brisk round of jumping jacks.
“Um, I was planning to, but–“
He sighed. “Come on, Madeline, we can’t leave things like this. Let’s resolve the argument like adults.”
I felt the sting of an implied “let you” behind that “let us”; I was tempted to roll up the window and ignore him, but a part of me was enjoying the earnest dimple that had appeared in Jack’s left cheek.
“The thing is,” I said, “I kind of walked into a situation.”
“Oh God,” he said.
It was true; I did have a tendency to become embroiled in situations of all sorts. Jack had experience with it, and he called it “Madeline being nosy.” I always pointed out that a good reporter needed to follow her nose. And Jack knew all about my sensitivity to vibes, and my need for good-vibe-restoring action. Some days he found it to be an appealing personality trait. Today didn’t seem to be one of them.
“Fritz’s new band member–“
“Your old boyfriend?” he teased. Jack knew the score about Logan but seemed to think it was funny to pretend we had been romantically involved. Or maybe he was jealous of an old intimacy, however platonic.
“Friend. He sort of, uh, disappeared. I feel responsible somehow, because I recommended him to Fritz, and then I found his wife and kids with no food in the house.”
“You think he deserted them?” Jack asked, some compassion replacing his skepticism.
I looked over his shoulder at the rustlings of a yellow maple. A sudden gust brought a leaf-fall, and the little yellow petals glittered and fluttered in the wind like gem-winged butterflies. “It sort of looks that way. But I promised his wife–it was dumb, I know–that I’d take a drive to his dad’s cabin and see if he’s holed up there.”
“A drive. Let me guess. Not local?” Jack asked.
Jack let out something like a hoot, and he was about to make a judgmental comment but saw the look on my face and bit it back. “Okay, right. Your life, your long drive.” He seemed to be mulling this over. He stood at the driver’s door, effectively trapping me in the car. Finally he said, “I should come with you.”
I stared at him. I hadn’t been planning to offer an invitation. However, despite Jack again trying to insinuate himself into my plans, I realized suddenly that a long drive alone did not seem that appealing. Jack and I had taken some fun trips together in the past.
Jack liked his own idea more and more, which I could tell by the sudden reappearance of the dimple and a slight hoisting of his pale brown eyebrows. “I do have the long weekend. Columbus Day. But I have some things to grade.É” Like Jack really wanted to sit and read reports while I was off in resort land.
“Hmm,” I said noncommittally.
“It’s supposed to be the peak color weekend,” he said thoughtfully. “And we said we wanted to take a trip this fall, right?”
We had said that. I opened my door and stood up, facing him. “I’ve got to get some stuff together. If we leave by three, we can get there by five-thirty. Six-thirty their time. You in?”
“Can we have dinner together?”
“And then we’ll probably want to stay overnight. In a B and B, maybe? I’ll foot the bill.” Jack was making a romantic face and rubbing my sore shoulders. I shrugged him off, but only halfheartedly. I was actually tempted to lie down in the grass and let him massage my whole body.
“This isn’t about romance,” I said. “It’s about sleuthing. And I’m going to write my travel article for Bill about little Saugatuck.”
“You still have to sleep somewhere,” he wheedled.
We had approached the front door, where Mr. Altschul was bent over the doorknob. He stepped away to let us enter, and I saw a series of evil-looking scratch marks around the knob and on it.
“What happened here?” I asked.
“Darn kids!” Mr. Altschul yelled. “This wasn’t here this morning, or I’d have seen it. I went out to the Jewels for a few things, and this is what I Orealfind. Trying to break in and get at my collection! They know it’s valuable!” he fumed. Mr. Altschul had a large collection of Civil War memorabilia. It all had a great deal of sentimental value and historical interest. I didn’t think it was worth all that much money, but I was no expert.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to him. “I’ll try to keep my eyes open from now on for any interlopers.” Jack agreed to be vigilant as well.
Mr. Altschul wouldn’t be consoled. “That’s a new paint job on that door!” he informed us, as if we didn’t already know. Mr. Altschul was always painting something; the house continually smelled of latex. “The nerve!” he shouted as we mounted the steps. “The absolute nerve!”
“Back to the question,” Jack murmured close to my ear.
“We’ll discuss this in the car,” I said evasively. “Now let me pack.”
“Okay,” he said, his good humor restored. “A kiss to seal the bargain?”
“First we talk, then we kiss,” I said sternly, unlocking my door. I heard him laughing as he marched to the third floor, which I interpreted as merely another effort to take control of the situation.
… continued …
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