The debut of Philly Prep English teacher and accidental sleuth, Amanda Pepper, (and of C.K. Mackenzie, homicide detective) won the World Mystery Convention's "Anthony" for best first mystery.
When the body of a colleague is found dead in Amanda's living room, she has to clear herself of suspicion — and make sure she isn't the next victim as well. And all she's got as a clue to the real killer's identity is a locket shaped like Winnie-the-Pooh.
AT 7:58 A.M. ON A WET MONDAY MORNING, TWENTY-SEVEN HOURS AFTER giving up cigarettes and a green-eyed disc jockey, I was not in a mood to socialize. Facing myself in the bathroom mirror had exhausted my conviviality. Choosing a sweater and skirt had used up my intellectual reserve.
Nonetheless, the doorbell rang. I wasn’t expecting any deliveries. The Philadelphia Inquirer had already arrived, hurled at the house with such vengeance its front page was gashed. So much for scheduled guests.
The only unexpected deliveries I receive are Nice Young Men sent C.O.D. by relatives who cannot bear the stigma of a thirty-year-old spinster schoolmarm in the family. I have tried to end their shipments by sending them clippings, statistics on delayed marriage and child-bearing. I’ve tried to convince them that it’s un-American, not to mention unfashionable, to rush into anything except high-tech careers.
They respond by sending more Nice Young Men. But the N.Y.M. don’t arrive in the mornings, anyway.
I shuffled to the front door and stared through the peephole. The act was a formality. The peephole tilted upward, like a telescope. With it I could sight the Big Dipper at appropriate times of the year, but that was all.
“Mandy? Open up! Please! It’s me, Liza.”
Surprised and puzzled, I opened the door onto Liza and the monsoon season. I was willing to lose a little of a rushed morning to find out why a near stranger would visit at this hour. Liza bolted past me, then slowed down, dribbling a damp trail around the room that serves as my kitchen, dining, and living room. She tossed her raincoat over my suede chair, shaking her black hair like a puppy. She was of the perfect-featured, small sort men treat like children or dolls, but at the moment she looked pasty instead of porcelain skinned.
“Thank God you’re here!” she exclaimed. “Don’t know what I’d have done otherwise.”
I discreetly removed the raincoat and brushed off the chair. I am not a fanatic housekeeper, but suede is impractical at best, and sopping raincoats are definitely off-limits. And now that I’d given up the disc jockey—and maybe more important, cigarettes—the chair was my only impractical and unwise love object.
I waited for a clue as to why Liza was in my living room at this ungodly hour. She shouldn’t have appeared in my life until shortly after two o’clock, and then it should have been in my classroom. Liza was a co-worker, not a friend. She was a part-time teacher of creative dramatics. She was a very good actress, onstage and off, although she was about to take early retirement from playing other people’s scripts when she married in three weeks. Along with all the rest of the English faculty, I had been at her engagement party a few weeks earlier, a joyless affair that was easy to confuse with a press conference. But perhaps I am unfair. Or jealous. Liza was marrying one of the most proper and wealthy of Philadelphians, a candidate—and likely winner—for state senator, and after that, judging by his demeanor, King of America.
“I’m exhausted,” she said in her stagy manner. “Got off the bus and walked for hours. I didn’t know where to go. If I hadn’t remembered you lived on Litton, if your house hadn’t been right here…” She collapsed extravagantly onto my sofa and leaned back against the cushions.
“What bus? From where? Why?”
She waved away my logical questions in an irritating queen-bee manner.
I put her coat on the radiator, discounted most of what she’d said—she was, as I said, fond of dramatic overstatement—and dared one more inhospitable question. “Liza, what brings you here?” I picked up my coffee cup and sipped the lukewarm brew.
“I need time,” she said between a sneeze and a yawn. “Have to think. Can’t go home. My mother’s impossible. Always was, but she’s worse since the engagement. Worried that I’ll blow it. Wants me to regain my virginity before the wedding. Anyway, this is a good place. I always tell her I’m here when I’m going to be out all night.”
I put down my coffee cup. “You tell her what?”
“You don’t mind, do you?” she asked, with no real interest in how I might feel about it. “See, my mother—”
But, as if it had heard the maternal password, the telephone rang. “Coffee, Liza?” I finally asked, because she was eyeing my cup, looking like a hungry, wet poodle. Besides, the question delayed answering the call, and I knew, in the damp center of my bones, who it had to be.
My mother always seems surprised that I answer my own phone, although I live alone. “Amanda?” she asks, terrified that a man might answer and she’d have to decide whether she was outraged or delighted. She was unsure enough to have gone through a person-to-person phase, but while that protected her innocence, it was too expensive. She switched to a discount service with horrible reception.
My mother calls because she thinks that if she pounds the word “marriage” on my head, repeats her basic message—“Get Married!”—enough times, and emphasizes the time requirement—“Get Married Soon!”—I’ll buckle under. And she has chosen early Monday mornings, she says, because I’m too hard to reach other times. I say it’s because she figures that with my resistance low anyway at the start of another week of spoiled and dull-witted adolescents (“other people’s children,” as she subtly calls them), I’ll be receptive to her message. And then she’ll have one of her sisters ship over another Nice Young Man.
“I’d love some,” Liza said, and I was hard pressed to remember what she meant until she added, “coffee.”
I nodded. My mother chirruped greetings from Florida. She had been up all night with insomnia.
“All I really need is to talk to somebody,” Liza said from the couch. My mother had the same need, and she took precedence. She began cataloging the condition of her various body parts. I held the phone on my shoulder, set out another coffee cup, and waited for the water to boil. Mama progressed from sciatica to hemorrhoids. I opened a can of cat food and put its contents in a bowl on the floor.
“Milk?” I whispered in Liza’s direction. Unfortunately, my mother’s ears are not one of her afflicted parts, and she cut short her analysis of hot flashes to question me about the milk drinker.
“A friend from school, Mother. Female.” I don’t know whether my answer disappointed or relieved her. “Liza,” I added, “the one I told you about. Who’s marrying Hayden Cole, remember?” Mother made impressed coos. I had won a few points by being in the same room with a person who believed in marriage.
“You know how sometimes you think you’re so smart?” Liza said, more or less to herself. She nodded her head, then shook it. “Then you find out you’re a stupid…” Perhaps she had rushed to me after flunking an all-night IQ test. She nervously tapped her nails against her bottom teeth, fiddled with a locket at her neck, and twisted her engagement ring. “And the two of them…”
I held up a finger, trying to signal Liza to wait for true confessions until I was finished with Mama. Liza sighed and seemed to shrink. She lit a cigarette.
I tried to inhale whatever smoke drifted my way. I certainly missed cigarettes more than the disc jockey. But then, I’d quit smoking cold turkey, and quit him only after whatever we’d had was long since dead.
“Sugar?” I whispered. Liza held up two fingers. Her metabolism worked overtime. I dumped a pack of carcinogenic sweetener in my own cup.
Since my coffee partner was not a prospective husband, my mother reminded me that I wasn’t getting any younger. I listened, meanwhile filling the cups with brown powder and boiling water.