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After a year of marriage, Judge Deborah Knott and Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant are off to New York City for a long-delayed honeymoon. January might not be the perfect time to take a bite of the Big Apple, but Dwight's sister-in-law has arranged for them to stay in her Upper West Side apartment for a week.
Deborah had been asked to deliver a package to Lieutenant Sigrid Harald of the NYPD from Sigrid's Colleton County grandmother. But when the homicide detective comes to pick it up, the package is missing and the building's super is found murdered.
Table of Contents
A Preview of The Buzzard Table
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With flirtatious ceremony, Associate Professor Steinberg, Art History, lifts the heavy silver table lighter from the coffee table in front of his brown leather couch and clicks it two or three times till the wick catches fire before holding it out to Miss Barclay, who teaches Modern Poetry. Two of their students roll their eyes at each other when Miss Barclay cups her slender hands around his, as if the flame might be blown out by a strong wind before her cigarette is fully lit.
Professor Abernathy, Modern American History, watches, too, but her steely blue eyes are narrowed in disapproval. In her opinion, a lady does not smoke—not that Miss Barclay is a lady if she lets herself be wooed by the first Jew in the long (and previously all-Protestant) history of Stillwater College. And what the dean was thinking of, she could not fathom. "A modern liberal education should include exposure to other races and other cultures," he had told the faculty search committee, but really!
Poor Miss Barclay, thinks one of the watching girls, the only sophomore in this interdisciplinary seminar. While not yet a completely dried-up old prune like Professor Abernathy, Miss Barclay has to be at least thirty-five, if not close on to forty; and although Professor Ronald Steinberg may look like the answer to a maiden's prayer with his manly pipe, graying temples, and cleft chin, she knows for a fact that he is queer, having seen him kissing a younger man on the lips a few weeks earlier. Fortunately, he had not seen her.
Had she reported him, he would have been summarily fired. Not that she ever would. In the first place, she would have to admit that she had sneaked off campus after hours to meet a boy and had wound up in a part of town strictly forbidden to Stillwater students even in broad daylight. Too, she has always enjoyed knowing things that no one else knows, and this is a particularly delicious secret. That this oh-so-proper girls' school has not only hired a Jew but a fairy as well?
On the other hand, it would serve him right if she exposed him. Of all the teachers at this small New England college, he alone mocks her accent and acts as if a Southern drawl automatically deducts ten points from her IQ. Only this morning when she correctly answered a question about Picasso, he had stared at her in exaggerated surprise and said, "Well, hush my mouth! Is the South finally dipping its toes into the twentieth century?"
It's bad enough that half the class has a crush on Professor Steinberg, something that he does nothing to discourage, but to lead poor Miss Barclay on as if he really does have a sexual interest in her? Although the sophomore considers Miss Barclay naïve and too carried away by poets who burn their candles at both ends, she likes the woman and thinks it's rotten of Professor Steinberg to toy with her emotions.
Discovering that he is a phony in one area has made her question everything else about him. He claims to have had drinks with Joan Miró and Max Ernst in Paris before the invasion and to have played chess with Marcel Duchamp when he was working on his doctorate at Columbia University. The paintings on his walls, the framed photographs, the bits and pieces of artwork scattered around the public rooms of this house—are they by important artists or merely pale imitations he has picked up down in New York?
Two senior girls arrive as Miss Barclay and Professor Abernathy take their places on the couch and prepare to lead the afternoon's discussion of how their three disciplines overlap and enhance each other.
While Professor Steinberg helps the latecomers off with their coats and scarves, the sophomore goes upstairs as if to use the bathroom. Once out of sight of the others below, she opens the door opposite the bathroom and steps into the professor's private office. The door was slightly ajar when she was up here last week. Amid the jumble of artifacts on a chest near the door, a small object had piqued her curiosity.
No chance last week to examine it closely. Now she quickly enters the room and is delighted to realize that it is even more vulgar than her original impression. Without really considering, she hastily jams it to the bottom of her capacious bookbag, shifts the items atop the chest to disguise the gap, and returns to the living room. Another girl passes her on the stairs as she descends. Before today's session ends, she knows that at least three or four others will have visited the bathroom. Even if Professor Steinberg realizes tonight that something is missing, he will have no idea which of them took it.
As she sinks onto a cushion on the floor she recognizes why this theft is doubly satisfying. He will not be able to report his loss or even accuse one of them. The piece is modern and much too crude to be valuable, but even if it were, he cannot risk the questions a description of the piece might raise with both the police and the dean.
The South may be mired in the nineteenth century, she thinks, but Stillwater's dean is a direct descendant of seventeenth-century Puritans.
Neither is it the place to get the best cab accommodations. The horses are street-car derelicts, the harness gives evidence of disintegration, the carriage and the shabby unshaven driver are usually the worse for wear. One resolves not to be bothered by such small matters.
—The New New York, John C. Van Dyke, 1909
Dwight paced the kitchen, muttering about school buses that clog our morning roads and how we were going to miss our train if I didn't quit dawdling and what the hell was taking me so long, but I had a mental list of what had to be done before we could leave and I was determined to check every item twice even though we were a couple of weeks past Christmas and I wasn't Santa Claus.
- Cal and a week's worth of clean clothes over to Kate and Rob's. Check.
- Bandit and a week's worth of terrier chow to Daddy. Check.
- Amtrak tickets in Dwight's jacket pocket. Check.
- Keys to Kate's Manhattan apartment on both our keychains. Check.
- Cosmetics and warm clothes packed. Check.
("One new wool hat. Check," whispered the preacher, who lurks on the edge of my subconscious and approves of all things useful.)
("And one new black negligee," chortled the pragmatist, who shares the space and has his own opinion as to what is useful.)
- All perishables out of the refrigerator. Check.
- Gas turned off at the tank. Check.
"Let's go, shug."
"One more minute," I pleaded. "I know we're forgetting something important."
"That's what phones are for. Anything we forget to do, we can call Mama or one of the boys and they'll come take care of it."
True. My brothers and I do have keys to each other's houses. Nevertheless…
Reluctantly, I let Dwight herd me out into the frigid winter air.
After a full year of marriage, we were finally going to have a honeymoon. His sister-in-law Kate's first husband had been a successful investment banker on Wall Street. After Jake's death, she had moved down to his family farm here in our neighborhood, where she met and married Dwight's younger brother Rob, a Raleigh attorney. She had kept the apartment in Manhattan, though, and rented it furnished to a Frenchman whose business interests took him to Europe several times a year. Part of the rental agreement was that Kate would have the use of the apartment whenever he was away, which was how she could give us a week in New York as a Christmas present.
"January may not be the best time of year," Rob had teased us, "but you'll have your love to keep you warm."
We were in Dwight's pickup and halfway down our long driveway before I finally remembered.
"That package!" I cried. "We have to go back! I forgot Mrs. Lattimore's package."
He kept his foot on the gas. "No, you didn't. Your suitcase looked pretty full, so I stuck it in mine."
Relieved, I leaned back in my seat and watched the sun edge up over the horizon. It sparkled on frost-covered fields planted in winter rye and turned bare oak branches into lacy Victorian silhouettes against the early morning sky as Dwight pointed the truck toward Raleigh. He glanced over at me and smiled.
"You look like a kid on her way to a party."
I smiled back at him. "That's exactly how I feel."
Most of the time I love my life, but a whole week with no work and no family? Just Dwight and me alone together in New York? A long-bed Chevy pickup is nothing like a pumpkin coach, but I really did feel like Cinderella on her way to a ball.
Best of all, my happily-ever-after Prince Charming was driving the horses.
The Amtrak station lies on the south side of Raleigh and it was crowded with passengers waiting for the Silver Star. Although today would be my very first train trip, I had already decided it was better than flying.
Dwight found a space for the truck just a few steps from the station door. No parking decks or fees. No security lines, no taking off our shoes, no X-raying of luggage, although I wouldn't have minded seeing what was inside the small package we were taking to New York for Jane Lattimore, one of Kate's elderly connections.
She had handed it to me at Kate and Rob's Christmas dinner party and asked me to carry it up to her daughter in New York. No hint as to what it could be and too securely wrapped in heavy brown paper and tied with carpenter's string for me to sneak a look. Longer than it was wide and surprisingly heavy, the package could have held a tall can of beer or a jar of the white lightning my daddy used to make, except that it didn't gurgle.
Or rattle either, for that matter.
Okay, yeah, I did shake it. Hey, if they're strip-searching little old ladies at the airports, who's not to say a strong-willed old lady couldn't be sending a bomb north?
Mrs. Lattimore is rather wealthy and had once been a very large fish in our small-pond end of the county. She and my Stephenson grandfather were second or third cousins, once removed—a kinship so tenuous as to be meaningless anywhere except in the South. My mother had used that kinship to get Mrs. Lattimore's support for enriched school programs, but there was no social interaction. The Lattimores were connected by wealth and marriage to some of the leading families in the mid-Atlantic states, while Mother had forfeited any Junior League aspirations when she married the area's biggest bootlegger. Growing up, she may have known the three Lattimore daughters, but they had scattered as soon as they reached college age and began impressive careers in other states. Some of the grandchildren used to come for a week or two in the summer, but they kept to themselves behind the iron railings that surrounded the large Queen Anne–style house.
I had briefly met the daughter I was supposed to give the package to. Anne Lattimore Harald is a Pulitzer Prize–winning photojournalist, and the museum in Raleigh exhibited her work a few years ago. Kate introduced me at the opening reception, but there's no way she would have remembered me among so many that night.
Kate's first husband had been more closely related to the Lattimores than my weak link, and Kate kept a sort of a watching brief on Mrs. Lattimore, a thankless task since the elderly autocrat had sworn her to secrecy as her physical condition deteriorated. "She knows her daughters would try to bully her into more chemotherapy," Kate said, when I told her that I'd been commissioned to take something to New York because Dwight is a deputy sheriff.
"Aunt Jane's been sorting through the house and labeling everything so that they will know who's to get what when the time comes. Even her jewelry and her silver and her antique furniture. What could be so valuable that she'd risk letting Anne know how sick she is just so she could be sure it got to her safely?"
That Christmas dinner was the first time I'd seen Mrs. Lattimore in months and I'd been shocked by her fragility.
According to Kate, Mrs. Lattimore was convinced that chemo would only give her a few extra months. Miserable months at that. With no desire to prolong the inevitable, she intended to wait until it was clearly too late before telling her children.
"She doesn't want to spend the last year of her life bald and wretched," said Kate, "and the older I get, the more I think she has a right to make that decision for herself."
Chemotherapy has probably advanced tremendously in the twenty-one years since Mother died, but remembering how nauseated, weak, and physically depleted she was by the end of that summer, I could understand Mrs. Lattimore's reasoning. All the same, difficult as it had been for me to watch Mother struggle and suffer, the memory of that summer is precious to me, and I thought it was unfair of Mrs. Lattimore not to give her daughters the choice of being there with her while she was still able to enjoy them.
Not my decision, though. Unless I was asked a direct question by Mrs. Harald, I didn't plan to say a word.
From far down the track, the train's airhorn sounded absurdly like the whistle of the toy train Cal and I had given Dwight for Christmas. My stepson wasn't unhappy about spending the week with Kate and Rob's three children, but he was wistful about missing a train ride. At its approach, I was swept up in the same happy anticipation as the other passengers who watched the huge engine ease to a stop. No puffs of steam like the toy train, but the brakes did make a satisfactory squeal.
Soon we were wheeling our suitcases down the aisle to a pair of comfortable seats beside wide windows. Dwight stowed our things on the capacious overhead rack and snagged a couple of pillows for our necks. Legroom was at least half again what you get on a plane and there were even adjustable leg- and footrests. I know it wasn't the Polar Express, but I could have sworn that the conductor who came around to punch our tickets looked a bit like a black Tom Hanks.
As we pulled out of Raleigh, the last call for breakfast came over the intercom and Dwight and I lurched down to the dining car, where we shared a table with a couple who had celebrated their thirtieth anniversary with a week in Florida and were now on their way back to Brooklyn. Over scrambled eggs and French toast, they gave us a list of must-do things while we were in New York. We added their suggestions to the list we'd drawn up, then they headed back to the sleeper cars and we returned to our coach.
When Dwight insisted that I take the window, I didn't argue. I put my seat back, adjusted the pillow, and watched the landscape roll past till I fell asleep to the rhythm of the wheels. When I woke, we had stopped in Rocky Mount. Dwight's own seat was as far back as it would go, his eyes were closed, and his long body was almost a straight line. Neither of us had slept more than four hours the night before. I'm a district court judge and my calendar had been jammed as we played catch-up after the holidays. Dwight is second in command at the Colleton County Sheriff's Department and he, too, had put in extra hours so that he could take this week off with a clear conscience.
Carefully, so as not to wake him, I turned my head on the pillow and studied his face, a face I had known since infancy. Indeed, he was there the day I was born. Daddy had rounded up all the boys in the yard that hot August day, packed them in the back of his pickup, and hauled them over to the hospital. After eleven sons, he was so tickled to have a daughter that he'd been sure the boys would want to see me, too, whether they were his sons or friends of his sons. Dwight swears he remembers seeing me held up to the nursery window. My twin brothers don't. "All I recall is that Daddy stopped on the way home and bought everybody ice cream cones to celebrate," says Zach.
"First time we ever had pistachio," says Adam.
"And it's not like babies were real rare in our family," Will says when the subject comes up. "But pistachio ice cream cones? Now they were few and far between."
"Only reason I remember," says Dwight with a teasing grin, "is that I'd tasted pistachio ice cream before, so you were the only thing new to me that day."
Except for his height, nothing about him is particularly memorable—ordinary nose, strong jawline, clear brown eyes, straight brown hair with an obstinate cowlick at the crown.
For years, he was just good ol' dependable Dwight, a handy escort when I was between men, a convenient shoulder to cry on when a love affair went sour, and certainly not someone who had ever made my heart flutter. Then, out of the blue, he proposed to me last year. I thought it would be a marriage of convenience for both of us, but to my complete and utter surprise, after a lifetime of taking him for granted, I found myself falling wildly in love. It was like taking a second look at a chunk of glass and discovering a diamond.
"Do I pass inspection?" he asked in a lazy voice with his eyes still closed.
"Absolutely," I said and tucked myself under his arm. With my head nestled on his chest, we both fell asleep again.
When we finally awoke for good, we were well into Virginia. In Washington, our diesel engine was changed over for an electric one, which gave us enough time to go up into Union Station and grab sandwiches to take back to our seats.
While Dwight worked on a proposal the Colleton County Sheriff's Department planned to present to the county commissioners at their February meeting, I took out my laptop to review some of the work that would be waiting for me when I got back. Most of the cases were routine, but I was truly conflicted about a custody battle that loomed on my calendar. Jenny and Max Benton are both casual friends, which is the trouble with living and working your whole life in a small town that's also the county seat. All my judicial colleagues know the Bentons one way or another and several are related through blood or marriage. I tried to recuse myself from their case when it was first assigned, but they both wanted me and they both swore they would abide by whatever ruling I made without bitching about it afterwards.
I'm cynical enough to know that won't happen. Jenny's probably counting on the fact that we serve on a charitable board together and often have lunch with some of the other members after the meetings. Max, on the other hand, has been my insurance agent ever since I had anything worth insuring. When my car was totaled last year, he got me the maximum from the underwriter and expedited the process.
Both work full-time, but Jenny's a control freak and a micromanager, who would drive me crazy if she had any say in my life. She's devoted to Jamie, the sixteen-year-old in dispute. Very conscientious about his well-being. Too conscientious, say some. She never gives him a chance to fail, and he would probably be a neurotic mess without the leavening influence of his dad.
Max is more laid-back. An ad hoc guy, he takes life as it comes and each day is filled with mostly happy surprises for him, thanks to an efficient secretary who keeps his workday on track. He loves the outdoors and takes the boy fishing and camping whenever they can sneak away—activities too unstructured for Jenny to join them.
On the face of it, Max would be the better custodial parent of a teenage boy, but Max is also a high-functioning alcoholic who has no desire to exchange malt liquor for Adam's ale. I'm told that he usually limits himself to a single shot of scotch every evening, but once or twice a year he goes on monumental benders that can last a week.
Overprotective mother or unpredictable father?
I'm sure their lawyers will present both arguments and everyone will expect the wisdom of Solomon. I just hope I don't have to get out my sword.
Our train pulled into New York right on schedule, a little after seven. Here at the tail end of rush hour, Penn Station was a confusion of shops and exits, and the space swarmed with people who all seemed to know exactly where they were going. I hadn't been there in several years and would have stopped to savor the scene if Dwight hadn't already been heading toward the Eighth Avenue escalator for a cab going uptown.
A short and skinny teenage boy might have fit into the backseat of the first taxi, but there was no way Dwight's long legs would. The second one was only marginally better, so Dwight slid into the front seat, which left me in possession of all the windows in the rear. Rather dirty windows actually, but I didn't care. By the time we got up to Kate's apartment in the West Seventies, I almost had whiplash from trying not to miss a single neon sign.
The cab let us out in front of the building's nondescript brick exterior, a block off Broadway, and we stepped into a frigid wind straight off the Hudson River. It stung our cheeks and almost blew Dwight's hat off. The inner door was locked, but before we could ring, an elderly gentleman was leaving and he courteously held the door open for us. Inside the lobby, the elevator man watched as we approached, trailing our roller bags behind us across a floor tiled in earth-tone ceramic squares. A hair or two taller than me and trim in a dark brown uniform, he had skin the color of weak tea, his dark hair was going gray, and he wore a pencil-thin gray mustache above narrow lips that pursed in disapproval. A brass name tag identified him as Sidney.
"Does Mr. Gorman know you?"
"The man who just left?" asked Dwight. "No."
"He should not have let you in." He spoke sternly in an accent that sounded slightly Asian to me. "No one is supposed to enter this building without proper identification."
I tried not to smile. This Sidney had a wiry, muscular build as if he worked out regularly, but unless he had a black belt in martial arts, no way could he have physically stopped someone Dwight's size once he was inside the lobby.
Instead of arguing, Dwight simply flipped open his wallet and held out his driver's license. "I believe Kate Bryant, the owner of 6-A, notified the super that we were coming?"
"Mrs. Bryant? Oh. You mean Mrs. Honeycutt that was." He squinted at Dwight's ID, then reluctantly stepped aside so we could enter the elevator.
Almost immediately, five more people pushed through the outer lobby door, two women and three men. Like us they were muffled and hatted against the icy wind. Laughing and chattering, they greeted Sidney by name as they converged on the elevator. The alpha female pushed back the fur-lined hood of her black parka and let a cascade of blonde hair swing free. Her face was too long and thin and her chin a bit too pointed for conventional beauty, but from the indulgent smile she was getting from ol' Sidney, she could have been a glamorous A-list movie star. There was a familiar lilt to her voice, and for a moment I wondered if I had indeed seen her before. If not on the big screen, maybe television?
Dwight and I stepped back and pushed our bags closer together. Even so, there was no room for all of them.
"Sorry, boys. You'll have to wait," the blonde said as she pulled the other woman, a small brunette, into the car with her. One of them wore a delicate spicy scent that contrasted pleasantly with the smell of cold wool.
The blonde gave us a friendly smile and then read the tag on my suitcase with blatant curiosity. "Cotton Grove, North Carolina? Where's that? Anywhere near Charlotte?"
"A few miles south of Raleigh," I said.
"Cam's from North Carolina," she said. "Do you know him?"
"Cameron Broughton. One of the left-behinds in the lobby."
I hadn't looked closely at any of the men although Cameron and Broughton are both prominent names in the state. I glanced up at Dwight, who gave a negative shrug.
"Sorry," I said.
"It's a big state, Luna," said the other woman with an amused shake of her head. "You'll have to excuse her. Cam's got her thinking that everybody in the South knows everyone else. Or is related if you go back far enough."
"Well, just look at yesterday," the blonde said as if scoring a definite point. She turned back to us. "Two couples came out of the hotel down the block, and just as we were passing, they realized that they were all from North Carolina and that one of them was the sister-in-law to the other woman's cousin. Cam says it happens anytime four Southerners get together. There's never the full six degrees of separation."
In keeping with the Arts and Crafts ambiance of the lobby, the small elevator was probably original to the building. Sidney had manually closed the brass accordion-type gate before turning a thick brass lever that let us rise. Once we left the lobby's fixed door, there was nothing between the gate and the ugly concrete shaft. We passed the numbered floors and stopped in front of the door marked with a large black 6.
The two women exited and Sidney unbent enough to tell us that 6-A was on the right, which made the blonde called Luna turn back with renewed interest.
"You're staying in Jordy Lacour's place? Cool! We're neighbors. How long will you be here?"
"Just a week," I told her.
"Then we'll be seeing you again," she said.
They went on down the hall to the apartment at the other end and Sidney did not linger to watch us open the door, which was just as well, given how long it would have taken us to figure out which key turned which of the two locks. I had forgotten how most city dwellers have more than one on their doors and I had a sudden flashback to the law student I'd lived with after Mother died when I dropped out of school and ran away from home. The door of Lev Schuster's West Village efficiency had three locks and a deadbolt and his jaw used to tighten if I left any of them unlocked.
In the end it didn't matter, because Dwight had barely inserted the first key before the knob turned and a stocky man filled the open doorway. His dark brown coveralls were the same shade as Sidney's uniform and his own brass name tag read PHIL. Unlike Sidney, who was so sleek and trim he could have stepped off a wedding cake, this middle-aged man filled his coveralls to the bursting point with lumpy bulges. His hair was a tangle of salt-and-ginger curls that probably sneered at combs. His square face was clean-shaven, but his bushy eyebrows more than made up for it. Like the hair on his head, his brows were so thick and wiry they reminded me of woolly bear caterpillars foretelling a hard winter. His nose looked as if it'd been broken at least once, but his smile was welcoming.
"You the people Miz Bryant said was coming?" He had a smoker's gravelly voice but no smoky odor emanated from his coveralls.
"That's right," said Dwight. "And you are?"
"Phil Lundigren. I'm the super here. There was a leak in 7-A and I was checking to make sure it didn't come through the ceiling." He reached for the handle of my suitcase. "Here, let me give you a hand with that."
He led us through the vestibule and down a short hall into the master bedroom, switching on more lights as we went. He wasn't particularly tall, but there was strength in his bulky frame, for he carried my heavy bag as if it were a feather and gently deposited it inside the door.
- " This book has plenty of suspense and the characters are well done. One of Ms. Maron's strengths is the believability of her characters. They add to the story and don't distract the reader with useless red herrings. As usual, the interplay between Dwight and Deborah is wonderfully romantic even in the midst of a murder. I have to say that I will be glad to see them back home in the next book. I just love the family dynamics and the southern ambiance in these books. Can't wait for the next book in the series!!"—imainlinefiction.blogspot.com on THREE-DAY TOWN
- "Dwight's obsession with New York gourmet delights and Deborah's passion for stylish, impractical footwear are charming, but Sigrid's slow but steady police work carries the day. Fans who have hankered for Deborah and Sigrid to find themselves in the same story will be charmed."—Kirkus on THREE-DAY TOWN
- "This is a strong addition to a series that's won Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity awards."—Publishers Weekly on THREE-DAY TOWN
- "[Maron] plots like a modern-day Christie, but the North Carolina charm is all her own."—Kirkus on CHRISTMAS MOURNING
- "Warm and authentic family relationships are the heart of this evergreen series."—Publishers Weekly on CHRISTMAS MOURNING
- "[A] winning entry and a fine holiday mystery."—Booklist on CHRISTMAS MOURNING
- "Every Margaret Maron is a celebration of something remarkable."—New York Times Book Review
- "There's nobody better."—Chicago Tribune
- On Sale
- Oct 30, 2012
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Grand Central Publishing