Authors: Dean James
Tags: #Mississippi, #Fiction, #Closer than the Bones, #Southern Estate Mystery, #Southern Mystery, #South, #Crime Fiction, #Genre Fiction, #Cat in the Stacks Series, #Death by Dissertation, #Dean James, #Bestseller, #Deep South, #Cozy Mystery Series, #Amateur Detective, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective, #series, #Amateur Sleuth, #General, #Miranda James, #cozy mystery, #Mystery Genre, #New York Times Bestseller, #Deep South Mystery Series
Table of Contents
Cruel as the Grave
A Deep South Mystery (#1)
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the writer’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
CRUEL AS THE GRAVE
Copyright © 2000 by Dean James
E-book ISBN: 9781625173201
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
No part of this work may be used, reproduced, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without prior permission in writing from the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Avenue, Suite 2003, NY 10001, New York.
For two extraordinary women: Patricia Ruth McClain Orr and Megan Bladen-Blinkoff. When you have friends like these, anything else is secondary.
Thanks for the many years of friendship. Without your never-failing love, encouragement, and support, this never would have happened.
It’s time to express thanks to several people who have helped bring this book to the publication stage: Julie Herman, who has taught me so much and with whom I’ve shared the birthing process of several manuscripts; here we are! Can you believe it?
Deborah Adams, who has offered much encouragement over the years, and who said, “Can you write me a book?” Kaye Davis, who gave me the benefit of her considerable scientific expertise and helped me with some forensic information;
All the fine folk at The Overmountain Press who have worked so hard to give Silver Dagger Mysteries a good home;
Martha Farrington, owner of Murder by the Book, who has always encouraged and supported my writing; can you believe it’s been nearly twenty years?
Ruth Williams James, who knows better than most what hard work and dedication really mean. Mom, I literally could never have done it without you.
"love is strong as death; jealousy is cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame."
—Song of Solomon 8:6
Her eyelids drooped farther and farther as her mind slowly ceased the struggle for comprehension. The book began sliding from suddenly powerless fingers. When the heavy tome landed on her bare toes, Maggie McLendon snapped awake.
After rubbing the aching toes, she retrieved the book, inserted a marker to keep her place, and then laid the book aside, yawning as she did so. She had known ahead of time that preparing for her qualifying exams would be less than fascinating, but she hadn’t anticipated such frequent bouts of the “absolute yawners,” as one of her friends referred to these periodic feelings.
Maggie was struggling through a detailed study of the development of medieval English law, written by someone who came to a point only after having buried it in a wealth of unnecessary detail. Once more eyeing the book with distaste, she sighed. At this rate she would never make it all the way through. But she had to finish it because, turgid though it was, it was an important new work on medieval English law. She had to be able to discuss the author’s interpretations during her exams. Maggie, when she could stay awake long enough to ferret out the slim thread of the author’s argument, admitted that the man did make some interesting points. How unfortunate, though, that the interesting and provocative points were buried in paragraph after paragraph of irritatingly inept prose.
The July skies still streamed with rain, having soaked Houston ceaselessly for two days now, making her unable to concentrate on her studies. Such weather cried out for reading, of course, but not for the reading of scholarly monographs. Maggie looked wistfully at her shelves of mysteries. She had several new books by favorite authors she was itching to read, but they would have to wait until she passed her qualifying exams in mid-August. Passing these oral examinations would make her officially a Ph.D. candidate. Then she would be free to concentrate on her dissertation.
But as she moved to look out her bedroom window, she could muster little interest in the task at hand.
Time for a break,
she thought as she made herself comfortable in the window seat.
Or else put myself to sleep with that dratted book!
Gazing out at the relentless rain, Maggie again thought longingly of what she’d rather be reading. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to read a chapter or two in one of the new mysteries. Or she could pull an old favorite off the shelf. Perfect weather for that—certainly better for that than for assizes of novel disseisin and writs of right.
she thought as her eye caught the bright digits of her bedside clock across the room,
you’d better go get lunch ready instead.
The clock winked 11:53 at Maggie as she headed out of her room and padded barefoot down the stairs of the comfortable house she shared with her father.
Her father, Gerard McLendon, professor of medieval literature in one of Houston’s fine institutions of higher learning, disliked having to prepare meals as much as his only child did. One important part of their amicable living arrangement was the agreement that they would take turns making meals, and they did their best to stick to the schedules. But neither one ever minded going out to eat if the other didn’t want to cook.
From the foot of the stairs she glanced toward the front door to see whether the mail had been delivered. A pile of letters and circulars lay on the small rug in front of the door. Maggie retrieved the items, damp around the edges, then scanned briefly through the mail. Delighted to find the latest newsletter from the mystery bookstore in Houston, she tucked it under her arm as she quickly sorted through the rest of the mail. Nothing for her except the newsletter. The rest belonged either to her father or to the trash can. The circulars were jettisoned without a second glance, but she looked through her father’s letters idly as she moved toward his study at the back of the house.
The small return-address label on one letter caught Maggie’s eye: “Helena McLendon, The Magnolias, 1443 Oakhurst Drive, Jackson, Mississippi.”
Smiling, she paused in the doorway to her father’s study. Helena McLendon was Gerard’s aunt, a delightful lady now in her early sixties. Maggie and her father received annual Christmas and birthday cards from her, as well as the occasional letter. She had come to Houston twice for brief visits when Maggie was younger, but they hadn’t seen her for almost ten years now.
Has it really been that long?
she asked herself.
As Maggie entered his study with the mail, Gerard McLendon looked up from his book. A smile flitted across his face as he looked at his daughter, but she could see the strain in his eyes. He laid his pipe aside and absentmindedly fanned away some of the smoke swirling about his head.
She grimaced in sympathy. “Sinuses still bothering you?”
Gerard nodded. “Once this rain lets up, maybe the demons in my head will take a few days off.”
“It can’t rain like this much longer, I hope,” she responded. “Then you’ll start feeling better. Well, here’s your mail.” She placed the stack on the desk in front of him. She had purposefully left the letter from Helena McLendon on top of the pile, and she lingered in the doorway, hoping he would offer her the letter once he had finished it.
He picked up the stack incuriously, muttering his thanks. His hand stilled as he looked intently at the return address on the first letter. Oblivious now to Maggie’s presence in the doorway, he put the other mail back down on the desk as he continued to hold the letter from his aunt in his right hand.
After a minute of silence, Gerard broke his gaze away from the letter in his hand and observed Maggie still standing in the doorway. “Was there something else?” he inquired with chilling politeness, speaking as he might to one of his students. A student, that is, with whom he was annoyed.
Maggie thought, chagrined.
I guess you don’t want to open the letter right now.
“How about some lunch? Will sandwiches do?” she asked, masking her disappointment with a cheery tone.
“Sure,” he responded, the fragment of an apologetic smile playing with the corners of his mouth. “I’ll be along in a few minutes.”
As Maggie left him, Gerard returned his attention once more to the letter. Making her way to the kitchen, she puzzled over her father’s behavior. She shook her head as she opened the refrigerator door. “I guess he’ll read the letter and tell me what she has to say eventually,” she confided to the refrigerator. “Maybe it’s just his sinuses.”
While she prepared their lunch of sliced turkey sandwiches, leftover potato salad, and iced tea, she switched her thoughts to her father’s family, most of whom she had never met. Helena, the only one she had ever seen, lived in Jackson with her elder brothers and sister in the family home. Henry, the eldest of the four McLendon siblings, was Maggie’s grandfather. She had never met him, since he and Gerard had been estranged for as long as she could remember. Her grandmother had died when Maggie was only a year old, and she had no recollection whatsoever of the woman for whom she had been named Magnolia.
Also living in the family home were Henry’s twin sister, Henrietta, and another brother, Harold. This much Gerard had told his daughter, but little else. Obviously whatever had happened to cause the rift between father and son had been bitter enough to extend to the rest of the family—except for Helena.
Maggie had naturally been curious about her father’s family when she was growing up. Her mother, Alexandra, had died when Maggie was ten, and her maternal grandparents, the Hollingsworths, had died several years before that. The McLendons were the only family Maggie had, since Alexandra and Gerard had both been only children.
Curious though Maggie had always been about her father’s relatives, she learned early on that this was a subject he refused to discuss. On the two occasions when his aunt Helena had visited them, they had all enjoyed themselves mightily. Gerard clearly adored his aunt, and she, him. But Maggie could not recall that, during any moment of the time she had spent with her great-aunt, Helena had ever mentioned any other member of the family. Perhaps someday her father would confide in her the reason for his bitterness toward the rest of his family.
Maggie had placed everything on the kitchen table and was about to summon her father, when he saved her the trouble by stalking into the kitchen. He had his pipe going again and was puffing away furiously. She started to make a laughing reference to it, but the sight of his face stopped her. Whatever was in the letter had not been good news, judging from the scowl marring the features so similar to her own.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, alarmed.
Gerard removed the pipe from his mouth and frowned into its bowl before replying. “Bad news, I’m afraid,” he said, drawing out the words.
Maggie dropped into her chair as her father sat down at his accustomed place at the table. Laying his pipe aside on the table, he focused his attention on his daughter and, for the first time, seemed to realize that she was quite naturally perturbed by his behavior.
Flashing a brief, nervous smile, he began to talk. “You probably noticed that there was a letter from Helena in the mail. According to her, my father is gravely ill and hasn’t much longer to live. He has a very bad heart and could go at any moment. She wants me to come home.”