Heartstrings and Diamond Rings (8 page)

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
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T
he next afternoon at five o’clock, Alison sat at a table in the basement meeting room with five other board members of the East Plano Preservation League, listening to Judith Rittenaur drone endlessly about their mission statement. Judith was an uptight, sour-faced woman who thought things like mission statements were as critically important as Middle East peace accords. Alison thought they fell somewhere between the list of pool rules at her condo complex and a sticky note reminding her to take out the trash.

She shot Heather a subtle
shoot me now
look, and Heather returned the sentiment with a barely-stifled yawn. Alison returned to doodling around the edge of her agenda with a black Sharpie. If only that Sharpie had been an ice pick, she could have stabbed it into her brain and put herself out of her misery.

“Read it again with those changes,” Bea Bennett said, sounding weary in her role as president of the board. Bea was a sixty-five-year-old retired nurse. Age and experience had given her both the capacity to know what was important and the ability to wade through the crap that wasn’t. Unfortunately, protocol prohibited her from leaping over the table and ripping that piece of paper right out of Judith’s hands.

Judith cleared her throat, as if she was about to deliver a State of the Union address. “To preserve, promote and serve as an advocate for the irreplaceable historic buildings of East Plano for the economic and cultural benefit of all citizens, as well as foster an appreciation of their historic significance and encourage neighborhood revitalization through preservation, planning, and re-adaptation of the existing cityscape.”

All Alison heard was
blah, blah, blah
. Judging from the looks on the faces of the other board members, serial
blahs
were all they’d heard, too. Judith had taught eighth grade English in a private Christian school for the past thirty years, which she thought gave her the moral duty to litter their mission statement with indecipherable crap only a linguist could understand.

“Re-adaption of the existing cityscape?” Heather said. “Don’t you just mean ‘renovation’?”

“Well…yes.”

“Then why not just say that?”

“Because dull language is the plague of our civilization, that’s why.”

“It’s already too long even without all that exciting language,” Heather said. “A single short, concise sentence should be plenty.”

Across the table, Judge Jimmy shifted his considerable bulk until his chair groaned and squeaked, shaking his head with disgust. “She’s right. Damned thing’s longer than
War and Peace
.”

“Am I the only board member who takes this seriously?” Judith said.

“We’re not the freakin’ United Nations,” Judge Jimmy said. “Whittle it down.”

Judge Jimmy Todd had spent thirty years on the bench as a civil court judge, and his claim to fame was cutting to the chase. His hearings and trials were shorter than other judges’ by half.
Now, get the hell out of my courtroom
, he’d say once things were over, and people generally did. Quickly.

Now that Jimmy was retired, his wife had suggested he volunteer for something to get him out of the house. Most people liked it better when Jimmy stayed home and irritated his wife instead. Not Alison. Anybody who kept these board meetings short and to the point was her best buddy.

“But it needs to be long to get our mission across,” Judith said. “Mission statements guide an organization on its mission. You don’t shortchange your mission statement. If you shortchange your mission statement, then, well…you don’t know…”

“What your mission is?” Heather said.

Judith’s lips tightened, looking like two slices of salami that had been left out in the sun.

“The way I see it,” Heather said sweetly, “it’s a mission just to write the mission statement.”

Judith was totally humorless, but she did recognize sarcasm when she heard it, particularly when it came from Heather. Last year, Judith had proposed a really dumb change to the bylaws, then tried to strong-arm a couple of the more wimpy board members at the time into voting for it. That had been Heather’s first board meeting, and it was her input that swayed everyone back to the side of reason. That had been more than enough to earn her Judith’s eternal wrath. Heather left that meeting swearing she’d never come back, and it had taken two martinis at McCaffrey’s and a lot of begging before Alison convinced her to stay.

Finally they worked on some of the verbiage until most people seemed to agree on it, only to have Karen the Clueless ask what the difference was between a vision statement and a mission statement, launching another pointless discussion. Karen was a homely little woman in her late thirties, whom Judith had thought would be a perfect board member because she was an interior designer. As it turned out, she’d gotten that interior design degree from an Internet site that specialized in getting gullible people to spend hundreds of dollars to get a piece of paper worth absolutely nothing. She was very sweet, but to date, her chief contribution to the board had consisted of keeping the plants in the room healthy by exhaling carbon dioxide. Alison fingered her Sharpie again, wondering it was pointed enough to penetrate her skull if only she swung it hard enough.

“Judith,” Bea said, “why don’t you finalize the new statement, e-mail it to everybody on the board for their review, and we’ll vote on it at our next meeting?”

“Why can’t we vote on it now?”

“Because if we vote on it now,” Bea said, “we can’t vote on it next time, and since I already said we’re voting on it next time, voting on it now would be pointless.”

While Judith’s brain was busy trying to sort all that out, Bea glanced at her agenda. “Okay. Committee reports. Alison, do you have all the houses for this year?”

“Yes. We have all four.” Alison reached into her notebook. “Here are some photos, along with the owners and addresses.”

Alison passed out the info sheets on each house, and she felt a little thrill when Bea’s eyes widened with surprise.

“You did it?” Bea said. “You got Edith Strayhorn to let us use her house?”

“I took her to tea last Saturday and told her it would be a shame if the residents of Plano never got to see the inside of such a perfect example of late nineteenth century Queen Anne architecture. She still wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, but she finally said yes.”

“We’ve been trying to get her house for years,” Bea said. “Good job.”

Alison was still glowing over that achievement. Edith’s house was a landmark in East Plano, rising in stately elegance on 15th Street. The other houses on the block were merely pale imitators.

“So what do you guys think of the other houses?” she said.

“I like the one-story bungalow,” Karen said.

In spite of the fact that the Strayhorn house was a wet dream for anyone who liked historical architecture, the bungalow was Alison’s favorite. It looked like a storybook house, with ivy climbing up trellises, beds overflowing with flowers, and the kind of front porch where people sank into wicker chairs, drank lemonade, and stayed a while. Also on the list were an early twentieth century home with fish scale and diamond shingles on the gables, and an elaborate Victorian-era cottage with a sunburst pattern above the front door.

“I’ve seen this Victorian cottage,” Judith said, pointing at one of the sheets and crinkling her nose as if she’d smelled rotten eggs sitting in a pile of dog poop. “It’s at the end of the street next door to a gas station.”

“That’s what older areas of town tend to be like,” Alison said. “If we excluded houses next to gas stations and convenience stores, we’d never be able to get houses for the tour.”

“Convenience store?” Judith said, drawing back with horror. “Are you telling me one of them is next to a
convenience store
?”

Alison sighed. Had she
said
that? “Judith. That was just an example.”

“But what a great idea,” Heather said. “If we run out of refreshments, we can hop next door for a couple of bottles of Gatorade and a box of Ding Dongs.”

Judge Jimmy and Bea snickered a little at that. Karen got a quizzical look on her face that said she thought Heather might actually be serious. And Judith looked at Heather as if she were the most shameless human being ever to draw breath.

“We need to get another house,” Judith said.

“Nah,” Heather said. “One next to a gas station is no big deal. Beats the one last year that was next to a whorehouse.”

Every bit of color drained away from Judith’s face, making her look even pastier than she already was. “
What
did you say?”

“Nothing,” Alison said. “She didn’t say anything.”

“It was that little cottage on Sixteenth Street,” Heather went on. “Those two women who lived next door did a booming business.”

Alison’s eyes drifted closed.
Ah, God. Heather, why must you always say what everybody else is thinking?

“We never knew for sure what those girls did for a living,” Bea said quickly. “Now, next on the agenda—”

“Yeah, we did,” Judge Jimmy said with a knowing nod. “I know hookers when I see ’em. They were definitely hookers.”

“But Judith doesn’t want to
hear that
,” Bea said, “so maybe we shouldn’t
talk about it
.”

Judith glared at Bea. “You told me they were actresses and that was stage makeup.”

“Well,” Heather said, “sometimes there
is
a lot of acting involved in—”

Alison kicked Heather under the table. Bea cleared her throat and looked at her agenda again. “Okay. Photographs of the houses for the program. Alison, can you do that again this year?”

“No problem.”

“Okay. On to food and beverage. Karen?”

“Maggie’s Café is donating appetizers, as always,” Karen said. “And Brennan’s Beer and Wine has agreed to donate the wine. As always.”

And, as always, Karen had poured her heart and soul into the project, always searching for new and exciting ways to improve the event.
Atta girl, Karen. Keep breathing.

And, as always, Judith’s mouth scrunched up with irritation the moment Karen spoke the word “wine.” She wasn’t above preaching that the path to hell was littered with empty alcohol bottles. Alison pitied the poor kids who had her for a teacher. If they listened to Judith, prom night was going to be a real bore.

“I just want it to be known that I’m against serving alcohol at this event,” Judith said.

“I believe we’re all aware of that,” Bea said.

“The bottom line,” Heather said, “is that alcohol loosens people up. Mimosas in the morning, wine and beer in the afternoon. They’ll buy more raffle tickets. We’ll make more money.”

“You’re a CPA,” Judith said. “Of course all you think about is the bottom line. But this isn’t just about the money.”

“So it’s not about the money?” Heather said. “Hmm. Then somebody needs to define ‘fund-raising’ for me.”

Judith’s face got all red and crinkly at that, and by the time the meeting was over, she still looked like a dried-up cranberry. She gathered her belongings and marched from the room with a snotty dismissiveness that made Alison wish she’d trip over a trash can and fall flat on her face.

“Sorry about the whorehouse thing,” Heather said as she and Alison walked up the stairs with Bea. “When Judith is around, my mouth starts moving and I can’t stop it.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bea said. “If not for the comic relief, I’d probably haul out my gun and blow her brains out.”

“You carry a gun?” Heather said.

“Hell, yes.” She looked back and forth between Alison and Heather. “Don’t you?”

“Uh…no,” Alison said.

“What kind of Texans are you?”

“Ones who don’t want to shoot ourselves in the foot,” Heather said.

“Yeah, I used to be uptight about guns, too. Then about ten years ago I got mugged in the parking garage coming off the night shift at Med City. I’ve been packing ever since.” She patted her purse and gave them a smile. “And even if the law doesn’t allow it, it makes me happy just to know I could take Judith out.”

Alison knew there was a reason she liked Bea. They had the same homicidal fantasies.

“We’re going for a drink at McCaffrey’s,” Alison said. “Want to come along?”

“Can’t. My book group’s tonight. We’re reading an autobiography of a one‑legged woman who climbed Mt. Everest. Only one leg, but plenty of balls. I like that.”

Well. What an interesting woman that would be. Anatomically speaking.

“Next time then,” Alison said.

Bea nodded and climbed into her ancient Jeep, and Alison and Heather headed down the street toward McCaffrey’s.

“Thank God,” Heather said. “If Judith ends up with a hole in her head, Bea’s an even better suspect than I am.”

“I swear next year I’m booking a tour home next to a crack house.”

“Judith would have a heart attack,” Heather said. “Oh, wait. That’s not a bad thing. Bea would save a bullet.” They turned on 15th Street to head west. “I don’t like old buildings. I hate meetings. I want to rip the head off anybody who even speaks the words ‘mission statement.’ And people like Judith Rittenaur make me insane. So tell me again why I’m on that board?”

“Because you’re a CPA, our last treasurer embezzled two thousand dollars, and we needed somebody honest.” She paused. “And I begged.”

“Oh, yeah,” Heather said with a weary frown.

“So you don’t want to help with the home tour this year?”

“If somebody else collects the money, I’ll put it in the bank. Does that count?”

“Old houses are nice,” Alison said. “Stable. Comfortable. Permanent.”

“Drafty. Musty. Creaky. With spiders and rats in the basement. I like my brand-new condo just fine, thank you.”

Just then Alison’s phone rang. She looked at the caller ID, and her heart did a tight little somersault.

“It’s him,” Alison said.

“Who?”

“Brandon.”

“So answer it.”

She stopped and punched the talk button. “Hello?”

“Hey, Alison. Brandon Scott. I just wanted to let you know I have your first match.”

Alison’s heart was suddenly beating double time. “You do?”

BOOK: Heartstrings and Diamond Rings
8.15Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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