Barbara Allan

Chapter One
Them's the Rakes

With me toting the box of collectibles, Mother and I entered the unlocked back door and stepped into the darkness of the antiques mall. We had set up our booth yesterday and were here, bright and early, to do some pricing on the various treasures and trash we were foisting upon an unsuspecting public.

I moved to an electric panel on the wall nearby and began switching switches, illuminating the large room, section by section. When I turned back to Mother, she was heading up the center aisle toward the front of the store.

Soon I was hurrying after her and then, as I rounded the row, bumped full-force into Mother, who had doubled back, knocking the wind out of both of us.

"Dear, please," she said gasping for breath, "please don't ..."

"Don't what?"

"Don't look. It's horrible. Simply grotesque."

Despite her agitated state, and the melodramatic words, Mother seemed atypically untheatrical.

Now, I ask you ... if somebody tells you not to look, especially if it's "horrible," and "simply grotesque," what is any reasonable person going to do?


Not only are you going to look, but you have to look, you must look....

Murder wasn't the beginning. The beginning was on a lovely afternoon, not long before. Autumn in Serenity is my favorite time of the year, and this particular autumn was living up to all my expectations.

The trees lining the streets and dotting yards are at their most brilliant-leaves of scarlet, orange, and golden yellow, shimmering in the warm afternoon sunlight. We were in the throes of a glorious Indian summer, yet the nights were cool enough to wear the new fall fashions (specifically, a recently purchased bronze leather jacket from Bernardo).

Still, fall has its inherently melancholy side, a bittersweet, contemplative time-mulling what might have been ... and then the realization that, given a second chance, you'd probably do the same dumb things all over again....

After ten years of marriage, I was recently divorced (my bad), and had come home to live with my seventy-plus-year-old mother in the small midwestern town on the banks of the Mississippi River where I'd grown up. I had brought with me my share of the spoils of the marriage: Sushi, a white and brown shih tzu, who was spoiled. Roger had custody of ten-year-old Jacob back in Chicago, also spoiled.

Some might think that our newly formed household unit made quite the dysfunctional family ... Mother bipolar, Sushi blind with diabetes, me zoned out on antidepressants. But I think we functioned just fine ... as long as we all took our medication.

On my return to Serenity several months ago, we'd become unexpectedly involved in a couple of juicy local murders and performed what my mother insisted on describing as "amateur sleuthing." On this fall day, thoughts of that remarkable set of experiences were among my contemplations, sure; but I figured that adventure was a one-shot.

I had no idea, on that crisp autumn afternoon, that a sequel was looming....

Dressed in a brown Juicy Couture hoodie and Blue Cult jeans, orange Puma running shoes, my honey-blonde hair in a ponytail, I leaned on my rake, inhaling deeply, taking in the crisp, clean, humidity-free air, then exhaling with a self-satisfied sigh. Slacking on the job, I listened to the tuneless high-pitched song of the cicada bugs while watching an ever-growing number of birds perched on an electrical wire argue over who was going to lead them south for the winter.

Robin chirped, "I have seniority, so I'm most qualified."

"Hell you say!" Bluebird retorted. "You got us lost over Arkansas last year, remember? Practically got sucked into that jet's nether regions!"

Swallow interjected, "Well, I'm not flying all the way to Capistrano again. That about busted my feathers! I thought my darn wings would fall off.... CancĂșn is far enough."

Blackbird scoffed, "It's still hurricane season down there, you dolt.... You wanna get blown into raven munchies?"

Crow crowed, "Think I'll fly to Miami, then catch a steamer across the Atlantic to Europe. Heard those Italian birds are swee-eeet...."

Swallow was saying, "Hey, Robin! What's the matter? Suddenly you don't look so good...."

"Yeah," Robin answered, "I don't feel so good either. Maybe I'm gettin' that bird flu that's been going around."


"Let me outta here!"

"Been nice knowin' ya!"

And the fine-feathered friends scattered in a flap of wings.

Here I thought my life was stressful.

Sushi, stretched out lazily under a nearby oak, lifted her small furry head and yapped at me, as if to say, "Get back to work!" While Sushi couldn't see, she could hear my inactivity.

"Yeth, Maaath-tur," I said in my best Midnight Movie manner, and proceeded to corral some sneaky leaves with my rake, foiling their escape on a lucky puff of wind.

A gray squirrel (meaner than their brown cousins) decided to come down from its nest at the tippy-top of the oak. The squirrel planted itself a short distance from Sushi and-thinking the little fur ball no threat-began to taunt her.

"Na-na-na-na-na-na," the squirrel chattered, dancing back and forth just out of Sushi's reach.

"I wouldn't go there," I warned.

Sushi sat up slowly, resting on her back legs, head tilted to one side.

The taunter danced closer.


With lightning speed, Sushi struck at the source of the noise; as the startled squirrel whirled to retreat, the canine caught that long bushy tail with her little sharp teeth and clamped.

The squirrel screeched (wouldn't you?) and I commanded, "Let him go, Soosh."

She reluctantly obeyed, and the squirrel scurried back up the tree to its nest-a little bit wiser, I think.

Mother-wearing a voluminous blue caftan and one of her large red hats to protect her delicate Danish skin from the rays of the sun-made a typically grand entrance (even though, technically, it was an exit) as she floated down the front porch steps, one part apparition, one part aberration.

"My goodness," she asked, "what's all the ruckus?" Her eyes, already magnified by her large thick glasses, were owl-wide.

I told her.

Mother gazed up, waggling a finger in the squirrel's general direction. "You'd better spend more time gathering acorns and not picking on a poor defenseless little doggie."

Soosh looked toward Mother's voice with a cocked head.

Then Mother added upward, "The winter of your discontent is coming, you know!"

The squirrel said nothing; he was just a bit player in Mother's production.

"Brandy," Mother said, eyes narrow yet huge, "how does a nice glass of chilled apple cider sound?"

I despise cider. "Great!"

I was not trying to make Mother feel better. I was merely willing to take any excuse to forestall further raking. Already I had a blister going between my right thumb and forefinger. Besides, the wind was picking up and all the leaves would blow into the neighbors' yards if I could just be patient.

I leaned the rake against the tree, retrieved Sushi, and followed Mother up the wide steps, across the expansive porch, and inside.

Some months ago, I had tried to talk Mother into building a ranch-style house after our old three-story stucco had been destroyed (which is another story) (available at your favorite bookseller's), pointing out that in the days to come she might find the steps a hardship.

Mother flatly refused.

"A ranch-style?" Mother screeched. "Here? On this property? Why, that would be committing architectural blasphemy!"

"Huh?" I asked. Okay, I'm not quite as articulate as Mother.

Mother gazed at me with haughty sympathy and benign contempt, as if I had a can of spaghetti on my face and was using the meatballs for brains.

"Because, my dear girl, that style would not complement the array of structures along our street."

"Array of structures-other houses, you mean."

Mother puffed up. "Why, a single-story home among these two- and three-stories would look like a ... a stumpy, filed-off tooth next to the other teeth in the block's bright, shining smile."

I didn't point out that the logical extension of her metaphorical spiel indicated that many other teeth in that "bright, shining smile" could stand some veneers or capping, or even a few Crest bleach-strips.

But Mother was on a roll. "And as for climbing the stairs when the distant day arrives that I am indeed old and gray ..."

She was old and gray! Indeed!

"... should the effort take me half an hour to accomplish, what then? What else would I have to do?"

For a romantic, Mother could be awfully pragmatic.

The new house-a virtual replica of the original three-story one-went up in record time. I asked around and found the fastest and best builders, hired them, and unleashed my secret weapon: Mother hanging around the construction site, driving the contractors crazy.

You'd have been done in six weeks, too. Maybe five.

I trailed Mother into the house and on through to the kitchen-the only room that had been modified and modernized from the old blueprints-and put Sushi down, watching her find her way to the water dish.

Mother, getting the apple cider out of the fridge, asked, "Brandy, darling, when can I expect these clothes to come down?"

She was referring to a new pair of Citizens of Humanity jeans, a plaid L.A.M.B. jacket, and a tight Theory pencil skirt (all a size smaller than I had on), which were hanging on various cabinet doors, blocking the way to forbidden foods.

"Five more pounds from now," I said.

"Good," she sighed. "Because it's most inconvenient to get into the cupboards."

"Which," I said, "is the point."

Mother continued: "And last night I came downstairs for a glass of warm milk, turned on the kitchen light, and nearly fainted from fright! Why, in my sleep-addled state, I thought we had burglars!"

Albeit chic, female ones. Standing on the kitchen counter.

"Although, Brandy, I must admit, this new diet method of yours does seem to be working."

I beamed. "Good! Then you can tell I've lost some weight?"

Mother frowned, as if my question had been a non sequitur. "Not you, dear, me ... I've shed ten pounds."

Here I'd dropped only a measly three.

Bottom line on dieting: After age thirty (which I had just reached) the only way to lose weight is to go through a divorce (not recommended) or finally get around to having your impacted wisdom teeth taken out.

To drop the poundage, and keep it off, you must make a "lifestyle" change: i.e., You can no longer eat as you used to. And the sooner you get that through your thick skull (and thicker waistband) the better.

Here's what I do now (besides hanging too-tight clothes over Temptation's Portal): I eat what I want, but only half portions. Get it? Half a steak, half a baked potato, half a roll, half a piece of pumpkin pie with half a dollop of whipped cream ...


I pushed Mother aside and lurched for the blue-jeans-covered cabinet that contained the sweets.

"Brandy, no!" Mother said, in that firm voice I'd heard a thousand times; she raised a properly scolding finger. "Stick to your guns."

"Just half a cookie!" I pleaded.

After all, I knew she didn't care about my weight. She just wanted me to lose poundage so she could have her precious kitchen cupboards unblocked.

Mother patted my arm. "Come now, dear ... drink your apple cider ... that will fill you up. Let's go out on the porch."

I scowled ...

... but followed her.

We sat in white wicker chairs, our drinks resting on a matching wicker table between us. Sushi trotted over and got up on her hind legs to sniff at what we were having. No fool, she turned up her little wet nose, then found a pool of warm sunshine on the porch floor to settle down in.

I broached a touchy subject with Mother. "Have they decided who's going to be the next permanent director of the Community Theater Playhouse?"

"Permanent" directors at the playhouse came and went.

Mother-after a lifetime of performing on the stage, and decades as Serenity's Community Theater doyenne-had begun to direct a play now and then, and had thrown her red hat into the ring of contenders.

Mr. Manley had been the director for several years until he ran off recently with the Serenity Symphony's lady bassoon player in the middle of the run of South Pacific (rumor had it they went to the South Pacific) (nothing like a dame) (nothing in the world), leaving their respective spouses adrift. Not to mention a big hole in the wind section.

Mother's sky-blue eyes turned cloudy gray. She said softly, "I'm afraid Bernice Wiley got the position."

"Oh. I'm sorry, I know how much you wanted it...." We lapsed into silence.

I didn't know much about Bernice. She and Mother formed a friendship after the flamboyant woman had moved to town a few years ago. Of course, from time to time, during our weekly phone calls, I would hear Mother mention Bernice this, and Bernice that. Mother always spoke highly of the woman and their common interests-a mutual love of antiques and the theater-but I still got the feeling that the two had an adversarial side to their relationship.

Perhaps this was because their personalities were so much alike-maybe too much....

The tension between them had become more evident this summer, during a production of Arsenic and Old Lace, in which Mother and Bernice performed the leading roles of the two murdering old ladies.

I attended a performance and thought Mother was wonderful-she really is excellent, for a local-theater performer, in her over-the-top way. I'd complimented her but also made the mistake of confessing that, for some reason, I couldn't seem to keep my eyes off Bernice.

Mother practically spat, "That's because that scene-stealing shitheel kept upstaging me!"

Since swearing was not generally Mother's style (though when it was, "shit" always played a leading role), I knew I'd struck a sore nerve.

"How so?"

"Oh, Brandy," Mother said, and looked to the sky for support, "how can you be so naive?"

"Hey, I'm not an expert on theater techniques. I haven't been in a play since the third grade." "Yes, and if your little drawers hadn't fallen to your ankles, you'd have gone on to explore your full potential as an artiste, I know."

"Thanks, Mother."

She gestured regally. "Even so, didn't you notice that every time I had a line, La Grand Dame Bernice would scratch her nose, or twitch her rear, so that the audience's attention would be diverted to her?"

"Oh." Not a very sporting thing for a so-called friend to do.

I took a sip of my cider, which was better than leaf raking (just), and said cheerfully, "You're in the next play, though-what is it again ... ?"

"Harvey," Mother said glumly. "And no, I'm not in it." "Why in heavens not?" The play was one of her favorites, or anyway the James Stewart movie version was. Mother sneered. "Because Bernice didn't cast me in the role of Elwood P. Dowd's sister ... that's why! She cast herself!" Mother swiveled toward me in her chair. "I ask you, who other than moi is as qualified to play the part of a scatterbrained neurotic old lady?"

I said, "No argument."

"Thank you! And who could best perform the scene where the sister, by mistake, is committed to the insane asylum?"

"That would be you, again."

"Of course!" Mother said. "But Bernice offered me the part of the busybody friend-with only one little scene and hardly any lines-a role I can not relate to at all!"

There I could not go; Mother is listed under "Gossip" in the Serenity Yellow Pages, or anyway should be.

Instead, I asked, "So ... what are you going to do?"

She responded, "I already have. This morning. I quit."

"The play, you mean?"

"No, dear. The the-a-tuh!"

This was dire, drastic news, indeed.

"Oh, now, Mother," I cajoled. "Don't be so hasty.... Anyway, didn't you always say there were no small roles, just small performers?"

"Then let them go find some small performers! Because the Serenity theatrical scene has seen the last of Vivian Borne!"

Trying not to get tripped up over her "scene" and "seen," I said consolingly, "Surely there'll be other roles...."

"No," Mother announced defiantly. "I'll find something else to do with my time and talents."


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