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Authors: Claudia Bishop

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BOOK: A Carol for a Corpse
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“He didn’t say what he wanted. As a matter of fact, he
refused
to say what he wanted.”
“That’s why you drew a frowny face?”
“I drew a frowny face because he refused in a very rude way, and if you ask me, he’s just some kind of very obnoxious sales guy selling cemetery plots or whatever and I would have thrown the message in the trash can if you hadn’t yelled at me about taking each and every message no matter what. He was,” Dina repeated with some heat,
“rude!”
Quill obligingly threw the note from the cemetery salesman McWhirter into the wastebasket.
The phone rang. Dina said, “I’ll get it!” reached across Quill’s desk, and chirped, “Inn at Hemlock Falls and the good news is we’ve been saved by the bell and we’re not goingbroke! May I help you?” And then, “We were just talking about you, Mr. McWhirter.” Suddenly she turned bright pink. “You still don’t want to tell me why you’re harassing Ms. Quilliam? No?”
Too late, Quill jumped up and reached for the phone. Dina blew a raspberry into the receiver and hung up.
Quill sat down again and sighed. “Dina.”
“That,” Dina said, her voice trembling, “was
very
satisfying.”
“Just how exactly was he rude?”
“Mean,” Dina said. “Just out of nowhere. For no reason.” She blinked away tears, and then sat down on the couch. Quill loved the fabric—large bronze chrysanthemums on a background of cream and red. Dina’s bright purple sweater clashed horribly with the flowers. “Sorry. I must be PMS-y or something. But you know how stuff just hits you all of a sudden? When you aren’t, like, really prepared for it?”
“What did he say?” Quill persisted.
“Well, after I said that we were just talking about him, he said that he knew what to do about snippy little pieces like me.”
“Oh, dear.” Quill tugged at the curl over her left ear and regarded her receptionist. “Maybe it’s better not to . . . chirp when you answer the phone . . .”
“Chirp?”
“Chirp,” Quill said firmly. “As in giddy. It doesn’t excuse this person, of course, and if he calls back one more time, you can be sure I’ll give him a piece of my mind, but really, Dina, no chirping.”
Dina thought about this, sighed, and then said, “I was just expressing my personality.”
Quill maintained a prudent silence.
“You want coffee or anything?”
“Coffee’d be fantastic. Thanks.” She addressed Dina’s back as she went out the door. “And if you must know why I’m calling Marge back first, it’s because I want to find out how come my practically best friend in Hemlock Falls failed to warn me there was a bomb in my bus. To wit, this consultant.”
Dina turned around. “Mrs. Schmidt is practically your best friend?”
“After you and Meg, of course,” Quill said generously as she dialed Marge’s cell phone number. “Coffee. Please. That’s what best friends do—offer up coffee when the times get tough.”
“Schmidt, here,” a voice said in her ear.
“Marge, Quill here. How are you?”
“. . . I can’t come to the phone right now. Leave a message.”
Marge was not only the richest but the thriftiest person in Hemlock Falls. Once answering machines had come on the market, she’d fired her own receptionist and relied on them exclusively. Quill left a message to please call back, then called John Raintree’s office to see if she could drive to Syracuse and meet him for dinner, but discovered he was out. She knew there was no way to reach Myles. She didn’t really need to call the mayor because it was the second Tuesday of the month and the Chamber of Commerce meeting was always held in the Inn’s Tavern Lounge and she never forgot that, although occasionally she skipped meetings. Elmer had a talent for reminding people of the obvious.
She felt, suddenly, useless. And terrible about crushing Dina’s personality. All those management courses she’d taken at nearby Cornell University hadn’t done a thing for her management skills. She bit her thumbnail and brooded until she remembered that Jinny Peterson was expecting a phone call and Jinny always cheered her up.
She keyed in the GoodJobs! phone number and was delighted to finally hear a human voice.
“Thank you for returning my call, Quill.”
“I’m always glad to talk to you, Jinny. The agency’s helped us through some tight times. Dina said you were checking on Melissa Smith.”
“Is she doing well?” Jinny, one of the younger members of the prolific Peterson clan, was related by blood or marriage to half the indigenous population of Hemlock Falls. She’d gotten a master’s in social work from Ithaca College and was the logical choice to take over the directorship of GoodJobs!, the new Tompkins County service to help the unemployed.
The program had been a godsend; the county picked up half the wages for those employers who agreed to take what the
Hemlock Falls Gazette
rudely referred to as the “hard-core unemployed.” Doreen had taken on two maids for the housekeeping staff, and Meg had agreed to take Melissa on as a dishwasher, a position normally reserved for recent graduates of the Cornell School of Hotel Administration who wanted to work their way up to a responsible position in the kitchen.
“I think Melissa’s working out very well. But to tell you the truth, I’ve been so occupied with other things, I haven’t really had a chance to sit down and talk with her.”
“You
have
been through the mill,” Jinny said. “But everyone’s been rooting for you. How did the meeting with the bank go this morning?”
Quill was too used to the speed and efficiency of village gossip to take offense at this intrusiveness. “Quite well. Lydia Kingsfield’s coming in with her camera crew tomorrow. She plans to get some preliminary background for the Christmas show.”
“It’ll be such fun to see it!”
“It won’t air until next year at this time,” Quill warned her. “But we’re looking forward to it, too. From what I gather, there’s going to be a feature on the Inn in that month’s issue of
L’Aperitif
.”
“Exciting times,” Jinny said. “And it sounds as if you can take on a couple more of my clients.”
“I’ll do my best. But I haven’t kept up with the ones we’ve taken on. Let me go talk to Melissa and see how she’s doing. I’ll call you back.”
“I’ll see you at the Chamber meeting, won’t I? It can wait until then.” Jinny rang off with renewed good wishes for the Kingsfield project.
Quill sank back with a sigh of contentment and looked at her desk. It was free of the stacks of invoices, overdue notices, reminders, red slips, and overdraft notices that had haunted her for months. She’d dropped the backed-up bills in the mail as soon as she’d deposited the Kingsfields’ check.
She’d go to the kitchen and talk to Melissa. And then it would be time to celebrate the Inn’s salvation with a good lunch, a glass of the best red their sommelier, Peter Hairston, could recommend, and a large dish of Meg’s Christmas mousse.
Meg looked up from her clipboard as Quill came through the swinging doors into the kitchen and said, “Hey.”
“Hey,” Quill responded. “Anything for lunch? And after lunch, is there any of your mousse? I’m in the mood to celebrate.”
“Give me a second. I’m taking tomorrow’s lamb off the menu.”
“Why?”
“Because Loathsome Lydia loves it.”
Quill sighed.
There were two places in Meg’s kitchen where Quill liked to sit. The first was a stool at the birch-topped prep table, where Meg stood now with her clipboard. The second was the rocking chair by the cobblestone fireplace, where Quill’s dog Max lay curled blissfully asleep. She settled into the chair by the fireplace, reflecting that there were
only
two places to sit. Not for the first time, Quill thought that the kitchen could do with a bit of reorganization. The one time she’d mentioned it to Meg, she’d bounced two eight-inch sauté pans off the cobblestone fireplace mantel.
The room was large enough, with a bank of windows overlooking the herb and vegetable gardens in the back, a line of Sub-Zero refrigerators on the east wall, and sinks and dishwashers on the west wall. Meg’s ten-burner Aga stove was to the left of the doors to the dining room. The huge oak beams crossing the ceiling had been exposed, and bunches of dried herbs, sauté pans, fry pans, and pot lids hug from them all year round. Salamis, cheeses, sausage, and an occasional ham swung from them in fall and winter. Large rubber mats covered most of the flagstone floor. At this hour—about forty-five minutes away from lunch—there was a crowd of people in the kitchen, from Meg herself, and Elizabeth Chou and Mikhail Sulaiman, the two sous-chefs, on down through the dishwasher.
“I see Melissa isn’t in yet?”
Meg didn’t look up from her clipboard. From the speed of the pen, it was clear she was planning the week’s menus, a task that took all of her attention.
“Meg?”
“She comes in at noon on Mondays.”
Quill looked at the clock. Quarter to. She set the rocker going with a shove of her foot. Meg glanced at her. “How do squash soup, Parma ham with caramelized onions, and my spinach sound?”
“For lunch?” Quill said hopefully.
“For tomorrow’s lunch special.”
“It sounds terrific.”
“Good.”
“Does Lydia Kingsfield like squash soup?”
“Hates it,” Meg said cheerfully. “Especially with heavy cream. Have you noticed that
L’Aperitif
has been featuring a lot of low-cholesterol recipes lately?”
Quill got up and stepped around Max, who acknowledged her existence with a lazy thump of his tail. She pulled a stool a little way from the prep table and sat on it.
“So why the change in attitude? You weren’t exactly over the moon about the deal when we were in Mark’s office, but you didn’t declare war on it, either.”
Meg put her hands over her eyes and held them there for a brief moment. “Sorry. Sorry. I’m doing the best I can.”
“You know why you hate this deal?”
“Because I’m giving up all rights to a free, independent existence?”
“Because we didn’t have a choice.”
Meg nodded her head in slow, grim agreement. “Oh, are you right about that.”
“If we’d had a choice,” Quill continued stubbornly, “we would have jumped at it. Think about this, Meg. The largest and most successful gourmet magazine in the United States is going to market the Inn at Hemlock Falls’ jams and jellies and pickles. Just for a start. And we get some money every time a customer buys one of those jars. And not only will the line use some of your own recipes, Meg, but you get to approve each product that goes out under the label.”
“There’s a bunch of other people that approve it, too,” Meg said sourly. “I have a vote, sure. But that’s it.”
“And four months out of the year—in the off-season, yet—
L’Aperitif
is going to tape the new cooking show right here in the kitchen! We’ll have swarms of people booking huge amounts of time. We’ll be so busy we’ll have to add more rooms! Expand the kitchen! I mean, let’s face it, Meg. The kitchen could do with some major remodeling.”
“But I don’t want expansion to happen,” Meg said quietly. “Do you? You remember that trip to Italy we took a few years ago to visit Corisande?”
“Of course I remember it. It was a terrific trip.” Both of them had enjoyed the time with their niece.
“And you remember that little bistro we found just outside Pompeii?”
“In the distance you could see the sea,” Quill said. “Oh, yes. I remember.”
“And just around the corner . . .”
“McDonald’s.”
“McDonald’s.” Quill sank her chin onto her hands. Those golden arches had been quite a shock. The restaurant had also been enormously busy.
“We wanted a unique, boutique-style restaurant when we started this place, and that’s what we have. I don’t want to screw it up with expansion. As a matter of fact, neither do you.”
“True.”
Meg reached up, sliced an end off the Parma ham, and dropped it onto the chopping board. She went to the dairy Sub-Zero and brought back a selection of sweet cheeses. “We’ve got Irish soda bread today. It works with the ham, weirdly enough. So”—she kept her head down as she prepared the lunch plates—“here we are. Snatched from the precipice by a conglomerate. How long do you suppose we’re going to be able to keep things the way they are?”
“I don’t know,” Quill said soberly. “Maybe never. Marge says it’s the Wal-Mart effect.”
“The what?”
“We can’t compete with big luxury chains in terms of services. And we can’t get into a price war. We can’t afford to operate on the prices we’re charging now.”
“So you’re saying we were doomed anyway?”
“Yes,” Quill said cheerfully. “We were. So isn’t it better to end up with this little compromise?”
“And you’re cheerful about this because . . .”
“Because, Meg, I’m starting to believe what Marge and John and Myles, too, have all been telling me. Not being able to pay the mortgage—it’s not totally my fault. I’ve been feeling just awful about all this. Marge said from the beginning she doubted there’s a thing I could have done differently. As a matter of fact, she says that calling up
L’Aperitif
with this idea was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. In business, that is. Of course, to Marge, business is what makes the world go round.”
“The smartest thing you’ve ever done, huh?” Meg laid her chef’s knife deliberately across the wooden board and rolled her eyes.
“Yeah.” Quill pushed her chin out in a mildly defiant gesture. “Which brings me to the point. This isn’t Loath . . . I mean Lydia Kingsfield’s fault. She didn’t come roaring in with her lawyers to take over our business. She responded very nicely to an idea I suggested. So please, please,
please
don’t serve her food she hates or that’s going to send her cholesterol sky-high, and don’t encourage the housekeeping staff to put awful stuff in her bath salts.”
“Okay,” Meg said.
BOOK: A Carol for a Corpse
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