Authors: Jerilyn Dufresne
"No, but she normally only talks about herself or people she's gossiping about. I didn't even know Julieanne Harmon was her sister until she practically broke my spine hugging me. This sister has that same habit. Anyway, a quick call to Georgianne will solve it."
He nodded, looking absentminded. He yelled to the sheriff and Marianne that he'd be right back, and headed toward the bathroom. I got out my phone and called Georgianne.
"Are you there already?" she asked, happiness evident in her voice.
"Do you know how big the U.S. is?" I retorted with a question of my own, mine of course was much more sarcastic. Then, as quickly as I could, I explained what happened, leaving out the part where I got us stuck here because of my inquisitive driving. Finally I got to the important part. "I didn't know you had so many sisters. And a brother too."
"Well, I don't often talk about my family, even though we are close. You are usually talking so much about yourself that I don't have the opportunity."
"Tell me about Marianne," I said before she could say anything more to irritate me.
"Well, she's the baby of the sisters, and consequently somewhat spoiled, but she's a lovely person. Why she stayed in that Podunk town I'll never know. We begged her to--"
"Thanks, Georgianne," I interrupted, knowing she could go on for hours. "We'll let you know when we get to the Grand Canyon, but we'll be here for a few days."
She said good-bye, making me grateful I didn't have to do the fake bad connection noises to end the conversation.
George exited the gas station just as I disconnected and I filled him in on what Georgianne had said.
"Well, I guess it's okay. I mean it's the only place in town." George seemed disgruntled, but I knew he'd soon be back in his usual good humor.
The three of us walked back to Marianne, with Clancy practically prancing. George dragged his feet a little. And me? Well, as an incurable optimist, I felt everything would turn out just fine.
And it did. But not before it didn't.
Marianne greeted our acceptance with enthusiasm.
"I live less than a block away, so I walked. So why don't you just pull into my driveway and I'll meet you there?" She pointed to a huge three story home situated several houses behind the gas station. It was painted colonial blue with white trim, with an attic that had dormer windows and trees that filled the yard. There were some mums blooming in the front of the house, and the grass held on to a hint of green, at least in the places that weren't covered in leaves.
"That's your house?" I couldn't help but have a tone of wonder in my voice. How could I have missed seeing the place? Mansions must run in her family. "You live there alone?"
"Yes, to both questions." She beamed as she spoke. "Well, I live alone except for Fifi and Thor."
"No. My dog and cat."
At that, Clancy's ears perked up. She loved other animals--even cats. So she pranced even more.
"Clancy and I will walk with Marianne," I said to George.
He grunted, seemingly distracted by the goings on and probably by the disruption of his perfectly planned trip.
Marianne took my arm companionably, as if we'd known each other for years.
"It will be such fun for me to have you all in my home," she said. "I don't have any children so I cherish my friends."
"Gus and Georgianne don't have children either. Do any of your siblings?" I made sure my concern shone through, instead of mere curiosity.
"None of my sisters," she said while shaking her head. "But our brother had enough for all of us. He had seven."
She looked a little wistful as she started talking, but chuckled by the time she finished.
"Julieanne once told mother that she'd used up our quota." With that, her beautiful laugh filled the area surrounding us. I knew I'd found a new friend.
George was unloading the car as we arrived, and Marianne and I each took our share of luggage.
She pulled open the unlocked door. I gave George a look that I hope he recognized as, "See! I'm not the only person who doesn't lock her door." I think he ignored me.
"Welcome to my home," Marianne said as a black Great Dane jumped on her, almost bowling her over. The Dane then turned his attention to me with the same result. When it came to George, the dog just sniffed and politely waited for a pat.
Finally the dog got to Clancy, who was waiting like the good dog she is. The much bigger dog touched Clancy's nose with his own. Finally I noticed the requisite equipment for a boy dog wasn't present, and I knew it was a she.
"Wait! This can't be Fifi?" I exclaimed.
"Why can't it be?" said Marianne and George almost simultaneously.
"'Cause that means that Thor is a cat." With that, I felt something tap against my leg. I looked down to see the tiniest cat I'd ever seen. "Thor?" I asked Marianne.
"Yes. Isn't he precious?"
"He's such a small kitten," I said.
"Oh, no. He's full grown." She reached down and picked up the dark gray cat, then lovingly stroked its back. "He looked so pitiful when I found him, but Fifi and I both fell in love with him immediately."
She held him out for me to take. "I named him Thor to make him sound tough and give him confidence."
I gladly took him, then turned around and said to George, "Isn't he adorable? I've often thought about getting a cat for Clancy to have as a buddy."
George's answer was immediate and severe. With hurricane force he sneezed, and sneezed, and sneezed yet again.
"I'm allergic," he said as if he needed to explain.
That was all Thor needed. He jumped from my arms into George's. George instinctively caught him and the sneezing continued.
By that time I was practically rolling on the floor laughing. As George continued sneezing I decided to call upon some maturity and took Thor from him. Marianne took the cat and put it into the living room. George stopped sneezing immediately.
"I'm so sorry. But you'll be happy to know that the bedroom you'll be in has been closed up, so Thor hasn't been in there. I hope that will ease your discomfort." Marianne said.
George wiped his eyes and nose with a handkerchief he'd taken out of his pocket, and at that point all he could do was nod.
Marianne escorted us upstairs, making sure Thor wasn't following. As I looked behind us I saw Clancy, Fifi, and Thor engaged in mutual smelling. Knowing Clancy would be busy for a while, I didn't have to worry about her.
The stairs led from the foyer up one direction, then a landing, followed by a switchback to another direction. I looked down when we reached what I thought of as the mezzanine, and saw the three animals splayed out on what looked like a floor of Italian tile. The whites, blacks, and grays of the tile were a perfect backdrop for the rest of the two story foyer.
I turned back to hear Marianne say, "I'm sorry that the room isn't prepared for company. But we'll soon freshen it up." She opened the door to an opulent room, filled with golds and silvers and yellows, with pops of red and green. Normally I'm not into such flashy environments, but on this room it looked just right. The bed was an antique four-poster, or at least looked like an antique. Whether it was or not, didn't matter. It held a heavy brocade bed covering that was lightened by the flowers that adorned it.
The colors of the cover were echoed in other ways throughout the room--on the drapes, the pictures on the wall, and the accoutrements. My mouth was hanging open, but no words were coming out.
George said, "Thanks, Marianne. We really appreciate your hospitality."
"Appreciate?" I said. "Appreciate?" I turned to our hostess. "We adore your hospitality, your amazing, gracious, and gorgeous hospitality."
"I'm glad you like it. I'll leave you to get settled, and we can put fresh sheets on the bed later" was all she said, but I could tell she was pleased with my response.
As Marianne closed the door, George put his hands on my shoulders. He frequently did this in order to ensure I gave him my full attention.
"I've got to go meet the sheriff at the gas station. The county coroner should be there pretty soon." He kissed me. "The sooner we get started, the sooner we get finished."
"Okay, but I'm going with you."
"No, you're not."
"Just because we're in another town in another state doesn't mean I'm going to tell my curiosity to go dormant." My turn to kiss him. "There's no way you can make me stay here while you gallivant around town having fun."
George kissed me again, then said, "I know I can't make you stay here. I'm just suggesting you do so."
I laughed. He laughed. With that, he tripped me so I fell on the beautiful brocade bedspread.
"No, we can't," I said, still laughing.
"Because...because the bed isn't made and we can't have sex on the brocade. First of all, there's a lot of fancy embroidery and I think it might hurt. Second, it would be hard to clean." I quickly evaded his loving arms, and stood up. "Let's go, George. I really want to help. Remember, the sooner we get started, the sooner we get finished."
I stopped, proud of myself for using his own argument against him.
"You win," George admitted. "Let's hang up a few things to get the wrinkles out, and we can go."
An interesting relationship. Wrinkles hadn't entered my mind. Of course he was right.
A few moments later we opened our door and I almost tripped over Clancy, Fifi, and Thor.
"Clancy, quit eavesdropping." She hung her head. I didn't know the other animals, but thought they probably wouldn't have a psychic connection with me like Clancy did, so I just petted them.
George pulled our door closed before Thor could get inside. That's when I noticed there was a huge old key sticking out of the keyhole.
"Do you think we need to lock the door and take this?" I asked.
"Marianne didn't say anything about it, so I think it's safe to leave it. Hell, she doesn't lock her house. That must mean it's safe."
"I don't lock my house and you yell at me." I couldn't help but sound a little pouty.
"This is different, Sam."
I didn't reply, knowing he was right. Back in Quincy, I'd had some bad guys after me, and still I'd neglected to lock my door. It was hard breaking old habits. But I was pleased I remembered to lock it before we left, although it was probably to make it more troublesome for Georgianne to get in rather than out of a sense of security.
We went downstairs followed by the menagerie.
Noises from the back of the house caught our attention. We followed the sounds until we found the kitchen. We saw a pair of legs sticking out from under the sink, and Marianne giving a series of instructions.
"Don't forget to get out of the way. There's still some water left in the trap. I don't want that goop to get on your pretty face."
Pretty face? I guessed it was a girl, although her bottom half fooled me--boots and what looked like coveralls. Soon the body scooted out and that's when I noticed the long, straight, raven-colored hair. Her brown skin boasted a perfect complexion and cheekbones so high and sharp that they could cut bread.
"Sam, George, this is Wilma Broadwater. Wilma, these are my guests and new friends."
Wilma wiped her hands before extending the right one for a handshake--first to me and then to George.
"God, you're beautiful!" I blurted.
"Thanks," she said, quite nonchalantly. She must have heard this compliment frequently.
George gave me the look that I'm used to receiving. He said the appropriately gentlemanly thing.
"Hi. Nice to meet you. Need any help?"
"Nah, I got it," Wilma said, shaking her head. She wiped her hands again, must have been out of habit. She looked around for her tools, picked them up, and put them in an old wooden toolbox as she asked, "Anything else, Marianne?"
"No, sweetheart," Marianne replied. "It's lunchtime though. Would you like to join us?"
Another head shake from Wilma. "No thanks. I have to get home. Johnny will be waiting for his lunch too. He's my brother." She looked at us and added the "my brother" part for us strangers.
"Let me know if the sink leaks again." Wilma turned to us. "It was nice to meet you. Marianne told me you'll be here a few days, so it's likely I'll see you before you go."
Handshakes all around, this time without Wilma wiping her hands.
I moved to help Marianne as she made sandwiches. "I'm a vegetarian, but I do eat cheese. I'll just make one with cheese and veggies on it. Is that okay?"
"Sure. Now, Detective...I mean, George, I know you have to get going, but please have a sandwich and a glass of tea before you go."
"It'll have to be fast. But thanks, that sounds good. I'm hungrier than I thought I'd be."
In the short time available to her Marianne had assembled a fancy tray of sandwiches with crudités and chips, as well as a plate containing what looked like homemade brownies. The sandwich I'd made looked sad and ordinary by comparison.
No matter, I thought, mine will still taste good.
The tea was delicious, with that ultra-sweet southern taste that starts in southern Missouri and meanders throughout the south.
"Marianne," I began, "I have a question that's been on my mind ever since we drove into town."
"You want to know why it's called Crackertown, right?" She smiled as she said it.
I nodded. "It's a name that has a very negative connotation."
"Yes, certainly. However, that has nothing to do with our town. You see, in the late 1800s there was a cracker factory built out in the country, away from everything else. For its time, it was a modern and sleek operation. Many of the hill folk came in to work there, and so some houses were built around the place." She leaned back in her seat, getting comfortable with the storytelling. "My house was built for the owner of the factory. Anyway, the factory and those houses were nicknamed Crackertown and the name stuck. The factory itself was demolished a long time ago. And a lot of the shotgun houses are gone too. However, you can still see a few of them around. The gas station, cafe, motel, some closed businesses, and some houses. All that's left of Crackertown. We're not incorporated, just a bump in the road. But I love it here."