Authors: Penny Warner
“Penny Warner’s charming debut mystery, DEAD BODY LANGUAGE, is a double hit with a bright, fresh heroine, deaf sleuth Connor Westphal, and a cheery, piquant background, the California gold country.”—Carolyn Hart, author of
Death in Lovers Lane
“Penny Warner has created a fascinating community of eccentrics, a delightfully complex plot and a heroine who is charming, clever and funny. DEAD BODY LANGUAGE is a treasure.”—Jill Churchill, author of
Grime and Punishment
“Penny Warner’s witty, courageous protagonist, Connor Westphal, tugs at hearts and engages minds, making for a rewarding read. Way to go, Penny!”—Diane Day, author of
Fire and Fog
A Bantam Crime Line Book/June 1997
CRIME LINE and the portrayal of a boxed “cl” are trademarks of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.
Line drawings by Frank Hildebrand.
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1997 by Penny Warner.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. For information address: Bantam Books.
Bantam Books are published by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Its trademark, consisting of the words “Bantam Books” and the portrayal of a rooster, is Registered in U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in other countries. Marca Registrada. Bantam Books, 1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036.
To Matthew and Rebecca
And to Tom, my partner in crime
I very much want to thank the following experts in their fields for assistance on detail and veracity:
Dr. Linda Barde, Director of Special Education Services and Sign Language Instructor, Chabot College, Hayward, California
Joyanne Burdett, Librarian, California School for the Deaf, Fremont, California
Colma Cemeteries, Colma, California
Linda Davis, Features Editor, Valley Times, Pleasanton, California
DCARA - Deaf Counseling and Referral Agency, San Leandro, California
Melanie Ellington, Counseling and Correctional Services, Jamestown, California
David Goll, City Editor, Valley Times, Pleasanton, California
Robert Goll, Managing Editor, Daily Ledger, Antioch, California
Kay Grant, Near Escapes, San Francisco, California
Mario Marcoli, Gold Prospector, Jamestown, California
Donna Melander, Certified Interpreter for the Deaf, Fremont, California
Sgt. Keith W. Melton, retired, California Highway Patrol
Beverly Jackson, Sign Language Instructor, Mt. Diablo Adult School, Concord, California
Mother Lode Coffee Shop, Jamestown, California
Dr. Boyd Stevens, Chief Medical Examiner, San Francisco Coroner’s office, San Francisco, California
Jacquelyn Taylor, President, San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, San Francisco, California
Many thanks to the Northern California Chapter of Mystery Writers of America, to Sisters in Crime, and to my mystery critique group: Jonnie Jacobs, Margaret Lucke, Lynn McDonald, and Sally Richards. Additional thanks to Charlie Ahern, Janet Dawson, Lucy Galen, J.D. Knight, Stacey Norris, Edward and Constance Pike, Geoffrey Pike, and Shelley Singer.
And very special thanks to Amy Kossow, Linda Allen, Casey Blaine, Cassie Goddard, and Kate Miciak.
“Just set where you are, stranger
and rest easy—
I ain’t going to be gone a second.”
The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County
licked the tip of my murder weapon, then hesitantly sipped my mug of coffee as if it were strychnine.
“Okay, I sneak up behind the principal right after biology, shoot him in the back with the gold-handled derringer, and … shit!” I threw down the pencil and ran my fingers through my bobbed hair.
You’d think living in a colorful California gold rush town called Flat Skunk, once famous for its early homicidal heritage, I’d be inspired to knock off the high school principal in some innovative way. It was, after all, part of my job.
I took another swallow of what the Nugget Café served in place of palatable coffee. I tapped my murder weapon on the table, then drew a line through my latest attempt at premeditated homicide, nearly shredding the nugget-imprinted paper napkin I’d embellished with my scrawling.
“Dammit! I can’t use a gun to kill the principal. Everyone in the school would hear it—even if I wouldn’t,” I said.
This confession garnered some attention from the
regulars at the early morning hangout. Sheriff Elvis Mercer halted mid-conversation with a look that clearly said, “Folks around here don’t talk to themselves out loud, Connor honey. And they especially don’t talk about murdering other folks.”
I smiled at the sheriff, then took another look at the hopeless mystery puzzle I was creating for my weekly newspaper, and bit into a piece of toast. “OK, I’ll wire the P.A. system so when the principal goes into the office to make an announcement on the microphone about smoking in the bathroom—”
Zap! I jumped. A hand touched my shoulder and I hadn’t seen it coming.
It was Lacy Penzance, the self-styled town matriarch, saying something I couldn’t make out; her lips barely moved.
I turned up the volume on the hearing aid behind my left ear—the only ear that receives any sound at all—hoping it would help with reading her tight lips. To Lacy Penzance, it probably looked like I was scratching fleas.
“Thorry,” I said, swallowing my bite of toast whole and nearly lacerating my throat in the process. I coughed and slapped my chest a few times. “Sorry. What did you say?” I turned so I could see her face more clearly.
“I … you are Connor Westphal?” was all I caught.
I looked her over. I’d never seen her up close, although that wasn’t surprising even in a small town like Flat Skunk. We didn’t have a lot in common, except maybe a love of the historic Mother Lode mining town.
She was silk suits, Mercedes, Brie, women’s auxiliary; I was torn jeans, beat-up ’57 Chevy, BLT’s, and Protestant work ethic. It all added up to money—opposite sides of the coin. Although we were probably only a few years apart—I’m thirty-seven, she looked fortyish—Lacy Penzance and I were generations apart in dollars and design.
“May I sit down?”
At least that’s what I thought she said. She really didn’t use her lips for much more than sporting scarlet lipstick. I swept some toast crumbs off the table, folded the
mystery-annotated napkin, and gestured to the seat across from mine.
Lacy slid slowly and deliberately into the worn red leatherette seat. She removed her peach-tinted sunglasses, revealing red-rimmed eyes bordered by tiny crow’s-feet and smudged makeup. There was enough Obsession wafting off her to cause me to lose my appetite, especially for cold toast. But something in the meticulous facade caused me to feel a pang of sympathy for her.
Nervously, Lacy pulled a wad of carnival tickets from the black hole of her purse and set them on the gray Formica table. She spoke again; I understood very little.
Even those skilled in lipreading see only thirty to fifty percent of the words on the lips, so there’s a lot of guesswork involved. I usually carry around a little tape recorder in the event I should need something clarified later by an interpreter. But I didn’t have it with me this morning. I like to ease into Mondays. As for my hearing aid, it only helps a little. Without it I tend to hear only very low or very high sounds—bass guitars, car alarms. I often turn it off when I’m trying to write.
Without taking my eyes off her lips, I could see the tickets twisting in her slim fingers, but her comments didn’t seem to have anything to do with them.
“You own that little newspaper, the one that circulates throughout the Mother Lode?”
Little newspaper? Apparently she’d sized me up, too, and didn’t think I looked the part of publishing magnate. Maybe a lone woman in maroon jeans and an old “Oh, My God, I Forgot To Have Children” T-shirt, who talks to herself, wasn’t Lacy Penzance’s idea of a media baron. I sat up straighter to make up for the image problem and slipped my feet back into the pink moccasins I had kicked off.
“Yes, my office is—”
She interrupted before I could point across the street. “I know where your office is.” She looked intently into my eyes as she ripped off two tickets, and placed them deliberately on the table.
I was suddenly aware that we were attracting the
attention of some of the Nugget’s other patrons. Although my peripheral vision is no better than a hearing person’s, I’m not distracted by blaring boom boxes and whispered gossip, so I tend to tune in closely to visual cues. I sensed that our pairing had caused some interest in the café.
Lacy Penzance leaned in closer. “I stopped by there a few minutes ago. The gentleman in the room next to yours said you were here.”
Gentleman? I must have misread her lips that time. I would not call my office neighbor, Boone Joslin, a gentleman, even when he was clean and sober.
Jilda Renfrew, part-time waitress with manicurist aspirations, interrupted with a toothy smile much too bright for a Monday morning, and delivered the hot chocolate I had ordered. When Lacy sat back abruptly, I took a moment to pour the chocolate into my half-filled coffee cup. It had been an adjustment, breaking the Starbucks addiction, but the benefits of trading Forty-Niner football tickets for the forty-niner heritage had outweighed the modification. It was a minor change compared to the others I’d made since my move from San Francisco to Flat Skunk.