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When the garishly grotesque clan of wealthy carpet-sweeper magnate Otto Broadie sweeps down upon Judith McMonigle's Hillside Manor Inn, it looks like there'll be a wild night of drinking, dining, and fortune-telling in the offing. But when their soothsayer-for-hire Madame Gushenka drops dead after someone douses her tea leaves with bug killer, harried hostess Judith and her irrepressible cousin Renie are left to clean up the mess. One of the Brodie bunch would dearly love to sweep the Madame's murder under the rug, however, and that might mean eliminating the nosy Ms. McMonigle as well. But with the help of her one-time beau, policeman Joe Flynn, Judith is determined to rattle the dust off some closeted family skeletons, in order to coax a killer out of hiding before coffee is served.
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Judith Grover McMonigle thrust the phone away from her ear a good two feet, knocked her coffee mug off the kitchen counter, and booted her cat, Sweetums, into the open cupboard under the sink. At the other end of the line, Oriana Bustamanti Brodie was covering every note of the scale, beseeching Judith to change her mind.
"We're fumigating," Oriana wailed. "Carpenter ants. It smells. It's impossible. And Otto is counting on this weekend with the family!"
A disheveled Sweetums was eyeing Judith with open hostility. His orange fur bore traces of chili beans and apple peel. Any other cat would have ignored revenge for the sake of cleanliness. In Judith's opinion, Sweetums was as unnatural as he was filthy.
"I'm sorry," Judith said, for the third time, bringing the handset up to her mouth while she threw a dish towel onto the spilled coffee and began swirling it about with her foot. "I'm booked, have been since November. "
"But you told me January wasn't a busy month!" Oriana had launched into her full-throated Act Four, Scene Three voice.
"It isn't," Judith agreed as Sweetums put a paw in the coffee, sniffed, and choked up a hairball. "Only two of the four rooms are taken, but you'd need all of them for your ... family, right?" Somehow, "family" wasn't a word she readily associated with Otto and Oriana Brodie; "horde" sprang more easily to mind.
The sigh that heaved over the phone line possessed seismic force. "Otto will be sooooo disappointed." The mezzo-soprano voice that had mesmerized indiscriminating opera lovers in second-rate houses dropped several notches. "We would have paid extra for the short notice. "
"Another time, maybe," Judith said pleasantly, if firmly, and replaced the handset as Sweetums slipped out through his cat's door into the back yard. As much as she hated turning guests away, Judith was relieved. The Brodies might be considered by many on Heraldsgate Hill to be prominent personages, given his wealth as a carpetsweeper mogul and her fleeting fame in the music world. But Oriana's demands conveyed a hint of desperation which put Judith off.
Not that she had either the time or the inclination to indulge in speculation on neighborhood eccentricities. Widowed for almost three years, she had hurled herself into establishing the family home as a bed-and-breakfast known as Hillside Manor. At the moment, she barely had time to finish mopping up the mess left by the coffee and Sweetums before her mother came thumping into the kitchen on her walker.
"Where's my Turns?" she demanded, giving the walker an extra whack for emphasis.
"Up your nose," muttered Judith, grateful that Gertrude Grover was nearly deaf as a post. More loudly she said, "Try your housecoat pocket, left-hand side." She checked the Caesar's Palace coffee mug for cracks with -one eye, while watching her mother with the other.
"Damn," breathed Gertrude, "how'd they get there?" The telephone saved Judith from having to answer. It was Dorothy Dalgleish, calling from Pinetop Falls, a small logging community some fifty-five miles to the northeast.
"0h, Mrs. McMonigle, I'm so sorry!' wailed Dorothy Dalgleish. "We're going to have to cancel this weekend. Homer is sick."
"That's a shame," said Judith with feeling, though more for herself than the ailing Homer. "I hope it's nothing serious. "
"It's always serious with Homer," Dorothy responded with a touch of annoyance. "Bronchitis, this time. He will work out in the woods in the worst weather. But that's the life of a gyppo logger. You're on your own, with no big timber company behind you . "
Judith could sympathize, at least with Homer's private initiative. "Tell him to take care. You, too. Mrs. Dalgleish."
Just DessertsBy: Mary Daheim