Read The Angel and the Jabberwocky Murders Online
Authors: Mignon F. Ballard
For my sister, Sue Marie Lewis, my “almost” sister and brother, Tommye Johnston and Jim Lay, and for Pam Rivers and Lizann Lutz, Augusta's best friends, with love and thanks
“Oh, I wish I were a little bar of soap! I wish I were a little bar of soap! I'd slippy and I'd slidy over everybody's hidey. Oh, I wish I were a little bar of soapâ¦”
Sighing, I flipped over in bed for the umpteenth time and buried my head under the pillow. Teddy, my six-year-old grandson, had plagued me with that ridiculous ditty all afternoon and now I couldn't get the silly song out of my head, so when thunder rattled the windows and lightning exploded like a flashbulb just outside my bedroom, I welcomed the diversion.
Clementine, however, did not. My dog awoke from her favorite sleeping spot on the kitchen rug and began to bark frantically, toenails scratching as she dashed back and forth on the hardwood floors. I was reaching for my robe to go and calm her when I heard her enormous paws pounding up the stairs to Augusta, her guardian angel. And mine.
It had been Augusta who had taken the puppy under her wing, so to speak, the year before, and now Clementine not only claimed what had been my grandmother's rag rug in the kitchen, but my favorite chair, the run of the houseâand my heart.
“Hush now, it's all right.” Augusta spoke from the top of the stairs and the dog immediately stopped barking to huddle at the angel's feet. “I think this calls for some spiced cider,” she said, gathering a voluminous cloudlike shawl about her trembling shoulders. Augusta has suffered from bouts of the shivers since that long-ago Christmas at Valley Forge, she tells me. She sat on the stairs and took the big dog's head into her lap, drawing the animal closer until they both stopped trembling, then followed me into the sitting room, where I poked futilely at the embers in the fireplace.
With an inconspicuous wave of her hand, Augusta soon had amber flames licking what had once been a limb from a black-walnut tree that had come close to crashing into the house during a late-August storm.
“Do-law! Another two inches and that thing would've slammed right into your roof,” my next-door neighbor, Nettie McGinnis, had announced, observing the sodden debris. “I'll swear, Lucy Nan, you must have a guardian angel!”
I smiled and agreed. She was right, of course, but except for me, no one was aware of Augusta's presence but my friend Ellis Saxon. A year ago, when she came to my door in response to my advertisement for a room to rent, Augusta had announced that during that particular period in her life Ellis needed a bit of divine intervention as well, and it wasn't long before her prediction proved to be true.
Warmth from the fire had taken the chill from the room when I returned from the kitchen with two steaming mugs of cider and a doggie treat for Clementine, whom I rudely dislodged from my chair. Augusta curled up with a lap robe on a corner of the sofa and the two of us sipped in companionable silence, listening to rain pounding against the house and the rhythmic thump of Clementine's tail. Another peaceful evening in Stone's Throw, South Carolina, I thought.
Of course it didn't last.
“I'm kind of worried about Claudia,” my neighbor Nettie said the next day as we attempted to clear a pathway through soggy leaves and twigs from the sidewalk out front.
Acorns crunched underfoot as I sidestepped a puddle. “What's the matter with Claudia?” I asked. Claudia Pharr was the youngest and most recent member of Stone Throw's oldest book club, the Thursday Morning Literary Society (commonly referred to as The Thursdays), which now meets on Monday afternoons.
“Moneyâor the lack of itâwould be my guess. Seems depressed. You knew her husband had to take a cut in pay when they downsized his company last year, and their oldest boy's just about ready for college.” Nettie attacked the sidewalk with accelerated strokes of her broom as she neared the end of her stretch. “Plus, I think she's bored. Needs something to do.”
“She has been unusually quiet,” I said. “But then Claudia was never much of a talker.”
My neighbor laughed. “Never had a chance with the rest of us yakkety-yakking all the time!”
“I knew she was looking for a job,” I said. “Worked for some big corporation in Charlotte before she decided to stay at home with the boys. Remember? Claudia has great organizational skillsâthink of all her volunteer work. Why, half the groups in town would fall apart without her.”
“That's all well and good, but it doesn't put food on the table.” Nettie pushed up the sleeves of her baggy brown cardigan and paused to survey the results of our efforts. “Enough of this. I made some pumpkin muffins this morning. Come on in and I'll give you a cup of coffee. We've earned a break.”
She shaded her eyes and squinted through foggy bifocals at the lanky figure crossing the lawn on the other side of the street, mailbag strapped to his sloping shoulder. “I'll swear, Bun gets later every day. Must be after three.”
“Probably takes him that long to feel his way around town,” I said. “Blind as a bat! I don't see how he reads the addresses.”
“Sometimes he doesn't.” Nettie rested on her broom. “Look at himâsee how he bends the envelope to try and make out the name. Just about every piece of mail I get is delivered in a permanent curl, and you know how he's always mixing ours up.”
I propped my broom against the low stone wall that borders our lawns as I watched the tall figure shuffling across the street at the corner. “Poor Bun. If he held those letters any closer they'd be at the back of his head.”
“Well, he never says no to a mid-afternoon snack. Tell him to wait up and I'll grab him a couple of muffins,” Nettie said, hurrying inside.
She was back with two napkin-wrapped muffins on a paper plate by the time Bun Varnadore turned in at the walk. “Thought you might like a little something for your sweet tooth,” Nettie called, meeting the letter carrier at the foot of the steps. “And you might as well give Lucy Nan her mail, too. Spare yourself another stop.”
I joined her and greeted him, holding out my hand for the letters. It wasn't until Bun had continued on his way that I noticed one of the dog-eared envelopes hand-delivered to me was addressed to the neighbors who live two houses down. Nettie smiled when she saw it. “Wait until Bun's out of sight and then drop it in their mailbox,” she whispered, and I agreed. We wouldn't hurt his feelings for the world.
“Nettie thinks Claudia might be having financial problems,” I confided to Ellis when she dropped by later that day. Like Nettie, Claudia, and me, along with several others, Ellis Saxon is a member of The Thursdays, and what concerns one of us, usually concerns us all.
My friend nodded. “I think she's right. Unfortunately, there's not much opportunity for employment here in Stone's Throw.”
“What about the college, Lucy Nan?” Augusta asked. “Since you'll be teaching a course at Sarah Bedford this quarter, you might be in a position to hear if something becomes available.”
“I'll keep my eyes and ears open,” I said, “but I'm only there a few days a week and it's just the one course.”
“We might ask Jo Nell's friend if she knows of any opportunities,” Ellis suggested. “What's her name, Lucy Nan? You knowâthat mousy little woman who's in charge of food services at the college.”
“Willene Benson? She's a nutritionist, I thinkâoversees the cafeteria.” I shrugged. “It won't hurt to ask her.”
Augusta and I sat at the kitchen table wrapping cheese dough around pimento-stuffed olives. “Wash your hands, pull up a chair, and throw in,” she said to Ellis, who grinned and raised a brow at me, knowing the angel meant “pitch” in.
“At least you didn't ask me to
” Ellis said, dutifully following Augusta's instructions. “And why, might I ask, are we making all these olive-cheese balls?”
“Jo Nell's hosting The Thursdays next week and I promised I'd help with refreshments since her arthritis is acting up again,” I explained. It was peculiar how my cousin's ailments seemed to worsen when there was work to be done, but she'd always been there for me during life's darker days, so I didn't mind lending a hand. Besides, with Augusta's help, making them really wasn't that much of a chore.
Now Ellis examined the rows of unbaked pastries lining the cookie sheet. After they were frozen they would be transferred to a freezer bag and later baked by my cousin just before her guests arrived. A Stone's Throw favorite, the appetizers were delicious at any temperature, but when served warm they were, as my daddy used to say, “just too blamed good for most folks!”
“Would you look at that!” Ellis pointed out. “Augusta's olive-cheese balls are all exactly the same size! And how do you make them so fast?”
Augusta smiled. Today, I noticed, her eyes were exactly the same aquamarine as the dazzling necklace she wore. “You forget I have a few hundred years' experience on you,” she reminded us.
“Tell us, what's it like to be a professor?” Ellis asked me as she pinched off a wad of golden dough.
I laughed. “
I don't think so! Teaching one class a few days a week hardly qualifies me for that titleâand I had to bargain with Bellawood's board of directors to get them to agree with that arrangement.”
In my part-time position as public relations director at the restored plantation of Pentecost Pitts, one of South Carolina's early governors, I edited the monthly newsletter,
sent out news releases about upcoming events, and was often called upon to speak to organizations about the facilities there, stressing the benefits, of course, of membership and financial support. When I was approached by the local college to teach a hands-on history class on the skills of daily pioneer living, I snatched at the opportunity to spread the word. The board at Bellawood, however, had reservations.
“I should think it would be in their interest,” Augusta said.
“You'd think,” I said, “but they had a picky little point.”
“Like what?” Ellis asked.
“Like I don't know how to do all that stuff,” I told them.
Ellis made a face. “I did wonder about that, but I wasn't going to say anything.”
“Well, that's a first!” I said. Ellis Saxon and I had been best friends since we ate out of the same paste jar in Miss Jan Smith's nursery school class at Stone's Throw Presbyterian and we rarely hold anything back.
“So how do you plan to get around that little hitch?” she asked.
“By bringing in experts, naturally. The class and I will learn at the same time.” I fished the last olive from the jar and ate it. “I already have them all lined up, and I met with Joy Ellen Harper yesterday. She's the history professor I'll be working with.”
“And?” Ellis slid the sheet of pastries into the freezer.
I shrugged. “And I got the distinct impression my course had been thrust upon her.” A small-framed woman who looked to be in her mid-forties, Joy Ellen dressed in sort of a threadbare elegance and had very little to say to me.
“She'll get over it,” Ellis assured me. “When's your first class?”
“Monday, and I'll be getting a little help with my lesson plans over the weekend.” I smiled at Augusta, who raised her coffee cup to me in acknowledgment.
“Good. You can tell us all about it at The Thursdays that afternoon,” Ellis said, slinging a sweater about her shoulders. “And don't forget to put out the word for Claudia.”
“I won't,” I promised.
But when I arrived at the campus the following Monday, all thoughts of Claudia Pharr vanished from my mind.
The knot of girls whispering in the hallway outside my classroom fell silent as I approached. I recognized one of them as Celeste Mungo, the younger sister of Weigelia Jones, whom I had tutored in the literacy program a few years before. “What's up?” I asked, unlocking the classroom door.
“It's D.C.,” Celeste explained. “She's disappeared, and nobody seems to know where she is.”
“D.C. who?” The room smelled of chalk and of more than a century's accumulation of dust and grime, in spite of the freshly painted walls, and I sniffed as I dumped an armload of reference books on the desk at the front of the room and wrote my name on the board behind it.