Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

by Joan Hess
Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

Deader Homes and Gardens (Claire Malloy Series #18)

by Joan Hess



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Claire Malloy discovers that house-hunting can be murder—literally—in the latest entry in Joan Hess's "wildly entertaining series." (Mystery Scene)

Back from her somewhat unusual honeymoon, Claire Malloy must face the harsh reality of life with her new husband, police chief Peter Rosen, and her teenage daughter Caron—three people simply can't fit into her cosy two bedroom apartment. After a week of fruitless looking, she finally finds the perfect
place—a well preserved large house on a large plot of land in an area called Hollow Valley. There are only a few problems. Such as the real estate agent disappeared mid-showing and hasn't been seen since. And the last owner died in circumstances labeled 'accidental' but were actually both 'mysterious' and 'dubious'. The family that owned the estate is now suing the lover of the dead owner over the rights to the property. Oh, and it isn't really for sale. When the previous owner's lover dies practically at her feet, Claire decides to take matters into her own hands. After all, to get the house of her dreams, first she has to find a killer. And all's fair in love, war, and real estate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429950749
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/14/2012
Series: Claire Malloy Series , #18
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 642,978
File size: 331 KB

About the Author

About The Author

JOAN HESS is the author of both the Arly Hanks and the Claire Malloy mystery series, most recently Mummy Dearest. She now lives in Austin, Texas.

JOAN HESS is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series. She is a winner of the American Mystery Award, a member of Sisters in Crime, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. She lives in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Read an Excerpt

Deader Homes and Gardens

A Claire Malloy Mystery

By Joan Hess

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2012 Joan Hess
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-5074-9


"A house, a house, my kingdom for a house," I muttered as I crammed a pair of dirty jeans and several shirts under the bed. The bedroom floor still resembled an archipelago of discarded clothes. The hamper was draped with smelly socks and unmentionables. I tripped on a size-twelve sneaker, paused in midair to wonder if I could stuff it down the garbage disposal (had the garbage disposal worked, which it hadn't in a decade), and stumbled into the bookcase. Paperbacks felleth like the gentle rain upon the place beneath.

The bathroom looked as though it had been vandalized by hordes of Avon ladies and dental assistants. Since my darling husband, Peter, my egomaniacal seventeen-year-old daughter, Caron, and I now shared the space, there were at least three toothbrushes, shampoo and conditioner bottles, crusty toothpaste tubes, mouthwash bottles, towels, hair dryers, razors, and everything else deemed essential to roam hygienically in public. The addition of a third person to the household had proven to be a geometric rather than arithmetic progression in chaos.

After returning home from what turned out to be a decidedly adventurous honeymoon in Egypt, we'd assessed the housing situation. Peter's house had one bedroom. My apartment had two. Caron had suggested that we put her up in a suite at a hotel, but the only suites to be found in Farberville were in university dorms and did not include maid service. Since I did not consider my marriage a temporary situation, I was not about to settle for a temporary solution. Neither was Peter, who, among his other talents, comes from the old-money aristocracy of New England. This is not to say that any of them was as handsome as Peter, who has molasses-colored eyes, a defined nose, and perfect white teeth. In situations best left unspecified, he blushes adorably. At the moment, he was in the living room, drinking coffee while he read the newspaper. I fetched coffee for myself and joined him.

"I heard you fall," he said without glancing up — or leaping to his feet to offer solace and a cool compress in case my leg was fractured and blood was dribbling down my pale face.

"Cosmetic surgery should help."

"That bad?" He turned to the sports page.

"Not yet," I said, "but it's a matter of time before one of us slips in the kitchen or runs into an open door. The closets and cabinets are packed with your stuff and my stuff. Caron's stuff is waist deep in her room. It's a whole new level of claustrophobia in here. My office at the Book Depot seems spacious in comparison, and that's with the boiler looming." I sighed as loudly and despondently as I could.

He finally put aside the paper to offer sympathy in a most charmingly amorous fashion. After making sure no bones were in need of splinting, he sat back up and ran his fingers through his hair. "We can't have Caron catching us in the middle of such unseemly behavior. She might get all kinds of ideas."

"She already has all kinds of ideas, most of which I dearly hope I'll never discover. She and Inez went over to the campus to troll for fraternity boys."

"I thought she was dating that boy with the speech impediment."

"Joel does tend to mumble when you glower at him. Perhaps he'd speak up if you stopped growling. He's a sweet, well brought-up boy, which you already know since you checked to make sure that neither he nor anyone in his family ever received so much as a parking ticket." I took a sip of coffee and gazed at the mishmash of art, books, furniture, and doodads. "Isn't there a TV in that corner behind your fishing gear?" Peter picked up the business section. "We need to find a real house."

"We as in the two of us?"

"If you want to wait six weeks." He folded the paper and tucked it under his arm as he stood up. "I've got piles of paperwork to dig through before a meeting at ten with the ATF task force. Next week, a four-day seminar, probably in Little Rock or Pine Bluff with the state and federal agents. After that, I'll be all over the region to coordinate communication systems and interagency cooperation. The governor's office is coming down on illegal weapons, as well as bootlegged whiskey and tobacco. You and Caron check out the housing market. When you've narrowed it down to a final few, I'll look at them." His voice rose as I began to sputter. "Whatever you like, darling. You have exquisite taste, and Caron will surely have lots of helpful comments." He made it out the door before I could tackle him. His size-twelves did not tread lightly as he escaped down the steps and out the front door of the duplex.

I ran out of spittle to sputter. That, and my coffee was getting cold.

* * *

Angela Delmond sighed, as did I. The contribution from the backseat sounded like a death rattle. We were parked in front of a very nice house, certainly functional, with a nice kitchen and enough bathrooms to allow privacy for all occupants and the occasional guest. It had a very nice yard in a very nice neighborhood.

"Generic," Caron pronounced grimly.

Angela took her last shot. "There's a bakery just three blocks away. They make wonderful croissants. It would be lovely to sit on the patio on Sunday mornings and share the newspaper."

"Be still my heart," said a lugubrious voice behind me.

I'd lost count of the number of houses we'd seen in the last week. Along the way I'd also lost my mind. Angela had been ebullient when we began the hunt, ecstatic over walk-in closets, euphoric over bay windows, and rapturous over wine racks. Now the car was thick with gloom. Her spirit had deflated, but her exterior had not been undermined. In her midthirties, her dark hair was styled to soften her jaw; her chin was pointed, and her eyes were slightly slanted, giving her a feline air. The wardrobe I'd seen thus far cost more than my car. She'd told me one of her purses was a steal. If I'd wanted it back in the olden days, that's the only way I could have gotten it.

Angela's air of muted despair was a relief. She'd mastered the art of talking without pause to breathe, and I'd been inundated with details about her personal life. I was familiar with her fancy wedding at the country club, her marriage to loathsome, despicable, deceitful, womanizing Danny Delmond, and a divorce-in-progress that sounded as though it might conclude with at least one felony. I was impressed with her tenacious determination to succeed as a single woman on a playing field strewn with chauvinistic land mines. I'd been there, and it wasn't easy.

"Let's call it a day," I said to her. "This is a waste of time for all of us. I really don't want to have to build, but it's beginning to seem like the only option."

"Do you know how long it takes to build a house, Mother?" Caron asked. "Months And Months. By the time you're ready to move in, I'll be moving out to go to college. No, I take that back. We'll all be living in a facility with padded walls. On Thursdays we'll paint birdhouses or cut out paper snowflakes. Not even Inez will visit us. Just kill me now and spare me the agony."

"The idea has crossed my mind," I said over my shoulder. "Something excruciatingly painful, like puffer fish sushi."

Caron snorted. "Golden poison frogs are more lethal, you know."

"You get a line, I'll get a pole," I sang, "and we'll all go down to the fishin' hole."

Angela delicately cleared her throat. "If I may interrupt for just a moment, Claire, there may be one last house for you to consider. I'd really hate for you to build. As Caron pointed out, it takes countless months. In the fall, it's slow because the workmen disappear for the various hunting seasons — turkeys, raccoons, deer, ducks, and who knows what else. Danny is nastier than a grizzly bear during the season, ranting about how the plumber had to wait for the tile man, who was waiting for the electrician, who'd gone hunting. One of his subcontractors was killed in a shooting accident. Not surprising, when you think about all these drunks armed with rifles, stomping around the woods. I gave Danny a rifle for his birthday two years ago and told him that only sissies wear orange."

I bit back a giggle. "One last house?"

"Made out of gingerbread," Caron said. "I'm not hungry, so how about you drop me off at the mall?"

Angela frowned. "I'll have to make a call and catch the owner. I'm not sure about certain legal situations." She held up her hand before I could respond. "This house may be exactly what you're looking for. If the owner declines, you might reconsider some of the houses we've seen. Or I'll show you property, as long as you swear you won't use Danny as your contractor. As a child, he never mastered Tinkertoys. After the first storm, you'll be sitting on a pile of rubble."

I confessed that I had an aversion to rubble and was willing to look at the mysterious house. Angela discussed the finer points of joint custody of pets (specifically a schnauzer named Flopsy) until she dropped us off at the duplex, promising to call later. Caron, who now had a sensible Japanese compact and a notarized statement promising her the car of her choice (within reason) after high school graduation, headed for Inez's house to moan and whine about the abuse she'd suffered because of my maniacal insistence that she look at houses with me. I supposed I ought to go to the Book Depot and see how the new clerk had fared, but after a minuscule debate, I poured myself a glass of iced tea, picked up a mystery novel, and went out to my tiny balcony overlooking the campus.

* * *

Two days later, Angela called, and an hour later, I was in her car. "I am so excited!" she chirped like a sparrow on caffeine. "I know you'll love the house. It's perfect for you! Privacy, a lovely yard with a garden, four bedrooms, and four bathrooms. Although it was built in the eighteen-nineties, it was remodeled and updated three years ago. That's when the pool was put in. It comes with ten acres that slope down to a river. There's an apple orchard and a lovely view of the entire valley. As for the price — well, it's well below market value. I'd buy it myself if it weren't for this horrendous mess with Danny and his slut."

"Why isn't it on the market?" I asked.

"It's all very complicated, but nothing we girls need to worry about. My broker has experience with estate and probate issues."

"The owner is dead?" I don't believe in ghosts, but I do believe in paperwork. When an elderly uncle had died intestate, other family members had come out of the baseboards to sue each other for years while their lawyers drained the assets. "One of Us Girls doesn't want to fall in love with something that's unobtainable." And Caron claims I never listen to her.

Angela, who'd endured several days with Caron's backseat commentaries, laughed. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."

We drove to the north edge of Farberville and turned onto a blacktop road. A sign proclaimed the proximity of Hollow Valley Nursery. "As in small children?" I asked warily, imagining them darting around the woods like snotty-nosed elves.

"Trees and shrubs and flowers, but strictly wholesale. Well, they do have one sale in the autumn. I bought some red maples a year ago, and they're doing well. I'd planned to put in a row of crepe myrtles, but Danny's trying to force the sale of our house. Damned if I'm going to have work done in someone else's garden! He had the nerve to call this morning to tell me that he's taking that bimbo to our lake house this weekend. Can you imagine? I'd rather burn it down than have her sunbathing on my deck!" She ground her foot on the gas pedal as if it were the bimbo's face. Or Danny's.

I clutched my purse as we bounced over a pothole. I noticed a driveway on the right as Angela spun onto a narrow gravel road on the left. It wound through a wooded patch to the front of the purportedly perfect house. Which was, based on my first glimpse, darn close to perfect.

The house had the allure of a late nineteenth-century gingerbread manor, with gray siding and painted shingles and whimsical white trim. The front door had a transom, and the veranda stretched across the width of the front. A porch swing swayed in the breeze. Forsythia and japonicas bloomed in meticulously random beds. The trees soared beyond the second floor. Angela unlocked the front door. "It may be musty," she said. "I try to come out here to air it out, but with all these lawyer's appointments ..." She continued talking, but I stopped listening.

In keeping with its Victorian heritage, the ceilings were fifteen feet high and trimmed with crown molding. Hardwood floors glistened. The living room was spacious and sunny. Centered on one wall was a native stone fireplace, with a mantel that supported brass candlesticks and a clock with a pendulum. French doors led to a terrace. The furniture looked as if it had been selected by a very adept designer who'd mixed period pieces with more contemporary styles. There were blank spaces on the walls where art had been hung.

Angela nudged me through a doorway into a dining room with an antique mahogany table and eight chairs. The crystal chandelier sparkled wickedly. "The furniture comes with the house — unless you don't want it. I'm sure we can find a thrift store to take it."

My mind was darting too quickly to reply. The kitchen had glistening appliances, a refrigerator large enough to stash a body, and a gas cooktop out of a four-star restaurant. I knew this only because I'd been flipping through magazines featuring the transformation of woodsheds to Tuscan villas with a few gallons of paint and fabric swatches. If I learned how to turn on the appliances, friends could sit at the immense marbletop island and watch me char vegetables and flambé turkeys.

Angela and I continued into the master suite, which was the size of my duplex, give or take a few square feet. The king-sized bed was covered by a ripply white silk spread with matching pillow shams. Another set of French doors led to the back terrace. His and hers dressing rooms, a marble bathroom with a complicated shower, a spacious bathtub, skylights, and heated towel racks. The library at the front of the house had floor-to-ceiling bookcases, a ladder on wheels (be still my heart!), and a serious desk where Important Things Could Take Place.

"You're beaming like a baby," Angela said.

I tried to compose myself. "What's upstairs?"

We toured three bedrooms, all large and sunny. One had a balcony that would suit a certain person who fancied herself as Lady Macbeth one day and Juliet Capulet the next. It also had a private bathroom with a Jacuzzi. A fourth room would serve nicely as another office, should I decide to write my memoirs — or a sewing room should I be struck in the head by lightning.

As we went downstairs, Angela's cell phone rang. She looked at it, grimaced, and in a curt voice said, "Go have a look at the garden and the pool. The apple orchard is farther beyond."

I left her hissing into her phone and went outside. The terrace was made of worn bricks in a herringbone pattern. The metal table, chairs, chaise lounge, and glider were nineteen-fifties retro in cheerful colors echoed by flowers and ornamental trees. A lovely place to sip a little something and watch the sunset (if my mental compass was accurate). I continued to the pool, which had a few leaves and sticks in the deep end. It wasn't Olympic sized, but there was a decent chance it was as large as that of Caron's nemesis, Rhonda Maguire.

The apple orchard had been there for decades; limbs were gnarled but strong enough to support the abundance of small green apples. The grass between the rows of trees was green and freshly mowed. The aroma was intoxicating. I continued to the far end, where a meadow led down to a lazy stream. Clumps of trees created shady patches that begged for a quilt, a picnic hamper, and a slim volume of poetry.

Indeed, it was the perfect house — if it was available. Even if it wasn't available, I thought morosely as I walked back to the terrace, it was the perfect house.

Angela was not waiting outside, so I opened the French doors and called her name. I looked in the kitchen, living room, dining room, and master suite. She was not in any of the upstairs rooms, including the bathrooms. I came down the stairs slowly, more irritated than concerned. Irritation turned into annoyance when I opened the front door and saw that her car was no longer there. At least I could stop searching for her, I told myself as I glared at the vacated space. Why on earth would she have driven off, effectively stranding me? To give me time to admire the placement of the linen closet? To stare in awe at the cabinets above the marble countertops? To dance with glee in the laundry room?

I harrumphed for a few more minutes, then went back inside. I'd left my purse in the kitchen, and I was trying to recall if I'd brought my cell phone when I reached the doorway — and froze.

The man standing in front of the refrigerator beamed at me. "Why, hello, hello. You're early, but do come in and have a seat. Do come in and have a seat. I was about to open a bottle of very nice Bordeaux. Will you join me? Won't you join me?" He waved a corkscrew at me.


Excerpted from Deader Homes and Gardens by Joan Hess. Copyright © 2012 Joan Hess. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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