Peerless amateur sleuth Grace Edna Edge uses well-honed business savvy to save clients from financial disaster, delve into an intriguing murder, and uncover a lethal black market for seniors’ prescriptions meds. What she can’t seem to solve is the great mystery in her own life… how to fall in love.
~ One ~
Death in the Dewey Decimals
My eyes glaze over as C. Granger Dockery cracks yet another egg. With one hand raised to shoulder level, he streams the white into a copper bowl, dropping the yolk into a smaller bowl. Now twenty minutes into funneling and speaking, he tips the containers forward to show the audience, audibly ooh-ing over his collection of golden dollops and slithery whites.
Scanning for admirers, he can see me but not Aunt Arrow, because her seat remains vacant. That’s cost me quite a few glares, holding a place for her in the second row. With C. Granger’s presentation at the top of her do-not-miss list, Aunt Arrow intended to be up front and insisted we meet at ten before two to get a prime seat. She considers C. Granger the crème de la crème of thriller writers, which, translated, means that the two of them likely found the same watering hole after they appeared together on a “Celebration of Ink” panel several years ago.
Today C. Granger’s promoting The Soufflé Conspiracy, and I’m astonished Aunt Arrow’s late. She and I go our separate ways on quite a few issues, but punctuality isn’t one of them.
I check my watch again. It’s a new one with flower petals in different colors and sizes instead of numbers. The big hand now sits on the medium-sized yellow daisy, which means Aunt Arrow’s thirty minutes late. The book signing, pastries and wine spritzers follow C. Granger’s talk, scheduled for the big hand’s arrival at the purple pansies. Which isn’t yet, so she still has some time to make it back for the soufflé puffing and assorted post-speech activities.
Aunt Arrow persuaded me to attend this all-day writers’ conference because I’m an aspirant. Along with several hundred others, we’re spread around a University of Texas ballroom, better known as the Brazos Belle, gem of Texas dance palaces. Authors have a special appreciation for names like that. Mine, by the way, is Jasmine McPherson—my pen name, that is. My real name is Grace Edna Edge, but that makes me sound more like a mystery writer, which wouldn’t work at all for promoting my romance fiction. I think marketing is one of the keys to success in this business, finding that promotional specialty, something I’ve managed to do quite cleverly in my paying work.
Professionally, I’m a forensic accountant, which involves helping individuals, nonprofits, educational institutions and companies detect fraud, check forging, embezzlement, disappearing endowments, hyped financial performance, hidden assets, that kind of thing. Unfortunately, I thrive, because fraud is a growth industry.
The subject of my most recent case was a woman who took thousands of dollars from the Parent Teachers Organization at her son’s middle school and then went on to teach there. No longer. I solved the case, as I often do, by tracing transactions—this one beginning small by siphoning funds intended to buy punch for the parent-teachers conference night, then moving on to renovation of the science lab and book donations for the school’s library. Next week I testify on behalf of a woman divorcing a well-known area businessman who’s managed to conceal almost four million dollars in property holdings abroad. And just this morning during a break, I tentatively accepted the case of a university professor who’s lost a bundle in a suspected hedge fund fraud perpetuated by a member of his church.
Surfaces can mislead. If I hadn’t read the conference program, I would have thought from this bizarre presentation that C. Granger writes cookbooks; but the program notes reveal that his newest tome “offers a Cordon Bleu chef whose personal relationships run amok in tandem with those of a sinister international cartel attempting to infiltrate Indian casinos in the southwestern United States.” I might have preferred the cookbook. Perhaps there’ll still be something useful for me after all, as he’s begun talking about his writing process, the alleged topic.
C. Granger tells us the idea for his current project began when he searched Native American lore for a puberty ceremony to help his own pubescent son deal with fallout from the second divorce. Enthralled, he then wanted to use the ceremony in a book, “but I had to make up a story where it would fit, where it would be essential to the plot.”
I’m on the edge of my padded folding chair, because that’s one of the areas I want to improve, my plotting. But instead of going ahead with the story he’s made up that requires the ceremonial, he tells us how he’s trying to stop smoking. Hypnosis. The patch. Nicotine gum. E-cigarettes. And taking up gourmet cookery. That’s where the eggs come in. He warns us that the soufflé will be ruined from the outset without proper utensils. “Use only a large whisk with thin steel wires,” he demonstrates on the unadulterated whites.
I look around, hoping Aunt Arrow might have slipped into a seat behind me, not wanting to squeeze by disgruntled participants eyeing her empty chair. She’s easy to spot today, wearing the violet and tangerine headscarf that she’s arrayed as a turban for her public appearance. But she’s not among the sitters, and all I see moving in the background are a couple of waiters carrying large trays of wine glasses.
The other reason I’ve come with Aunt Arrow today is that she’s part of the conference program. She led a breakout session this morning on “The Colon: Where Journalism and Literature Meet.” Aunt Arrow’s recently retired as an op-ed columnist for the Austin Times. There were five breakout sessions, and we could only choose one, so I didn’t go to Aunt Arrow’s. Since that may have may have peeved her, I was glad to hear women in the restroom between sessions rate it highly for self-deprecating humor and practicality of content.
I attended the nuts and bolts panel on the effective use of detail in fiction, which turned out to be extraneous because I’m already quite accomplished in detail integration, something that’s essential to my writing. It’s not just getting the detail right, like whether my Scottish warrior is eating kippers on shortbread or bangers and mash, but making sure each detail is there for a reason, like considering whether he really needs to be eating at all if he’s going to die in the next battle scene.
I set all my stories in Scotland because I like to write about rising mist and men going forth to battle in kilts, through fields of heather and rising mist. Then, when they return to the maidens, there are some built-in efficiencies to the love scenes because I can get them right into the physical stuff without a lot of undressing of the men. So my unique offering as a writer combines undergarment efficiency and epaulets. I am the only romance writer I know of who has her male soldiers wearing both kilts and epaulets.
Although my avocation brought me to this book event, it parallels my profession. Whichever I’m working at, they both involve getting at the truth underneath the layers.
C. Granger offers a satisfied sigh as he pours all of the combined liquid, the mixing of which I’ve missed, into a buttered metal mold and moves on to how he analyzes his work. What he always does when he finishes writing for the evening is to get in bed and mentally revise what he’s written.
That’s how I work, too. After I finish my section I let it sit for a while, and I go over everything in my mind. It gives me something to do in bed. Although I might prefer other things, they aren’t in the choice set right now. I’ve slept alone both literally and figuratively, even when I was married to Earle. For four years.
We met when we were paired in an accountants’ charity golf tournament, both of us on partner tracks. He could hit the ball forever, but in unpredictable directions, and my short game wound up carrying the team, not unlike the marriage. Earle took off with an I.R.A. specialist who can’t putt and chip worth spit. All I regret is not keeping his name, McIntire, unaware at the time of where my career was heading.
As an aside, C. Granger encourages us to write what we know. It’s one of the things Aunt Arrow and I argue about. She thinks I should write a book about the decline and fall of corporate ethics, assuring me that there’s ample steamy sex in that story to satisfy my penchant.
Where the hell is she, anyway? I’m really getting worried.
“Plotting,” C. Granger begins again as he decides to add a pair of eyes to the back seat of the car traveling across the Indian reservation. Just the set of eyes. He doesn’t know if they’re human or animal. “When the driver is stopped for speeding, the policeman looks into the car, and that’s where the other pair of eyes comes in. From the back seat of the guy’s car, the eyes just stare out.”
I’m thinking we’re finally going to get through the plot and on to the spritzers, but C. Granger bends down to adjust the temperature on the portable oven prior to inserting his metal mold. Watching him purse his lips in anticipation, I expect him to connect the soufflé with his developing story, but instead, he tells us about a new computer software he’s downloaded that allows him to perform some sort of incredible split-screen editing. My teeth clench.
I feel a poke on my shoulder. I turn around and there’s my Aunt Arrow, finally, leaning in from the row behind me. Her face is red and blotchy. Before I can even whisper my concern, she motions for me to come with her.
I struggle past the re-annoyed row and nearly trip trying to keep up as Aunt Arrow rushes us toward the back of the room. By the time we reach the hallway, Aunt Arrow is sobbing.
“We have to leave,” she manages to say. “It’s terrible news. About Sally.”
“What’s happened?” I ask. Sally is Aunt Arrow’s best friend.
“Sally’s dead. They found her body in the library.”