This is my most recent Coveted Dead Bird winner, from 2008. Thanks to my friend and fellow writer Shawna Marie Bryant for the title help!
PRIDE & PASTEURIZING
It is a truth universally acknowledged that an ill-tempered man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of killing.
Jane Austen probably never had to deal with a corpse. Antonia Burns stared at the purple and dead face of Eustace Perrin. Antonia had often fancied a parallel between her life and Austen’s Pride & Prejudice heroine Elizabeth Bennett. Until this night.
She’d left Eustace on the patio of the Fig Garden Swim and Racquet Club for ten minutes. Maybe twelve. Fifteen at the most.
Oh dear. She leaned closer to examine the ribbons she’d just noticed wrapped around his neck. A pink silk ribbon, just like the sash of her sister Jamie’s white eyelet dress, along with a yellow one.
Antonia whirled and hurried into the dance. Father, Father…where was he? She scanned the chaperones then wove around the dance floor until she could grasp his elbow and bring his ear to her mouth.
“Eustace is dead. Where is Jamie?”
“My dear?” Father stared at her and she nodded. “Excuse us, please.” He guided her away from the two men he’d been addressing. With an arm around her waist, they moved to the double French doors leading from the crowded dance to the concrete patio. It was quiet and cooler than the air conditioned room full of teenage perspiration, paternal pipe-smokers with cherry tobacco in the breast pocket of their suits, and the mothers clinging to glasses of Chardonnay. Just another summer evening at the club.
Father strode to the crumpled body and placed two fingers on the side of Eustace’s neck. “What happened?”
“My cheeks grew tired of forcing smiles and he wouldn’t ask Jamie to dance so I suggested we walk out here and cool off. I intended to talk about Jamie’s even temper and my own low tolerance for fools.”
Father shook his head and stood. “And then?”
“I excused myself to the powder room and I found him when I returned.”
“We must tell Reyes but we can’t leave him here alone for some unsuspecting fools to find.”
“I’ll be right back.” Antonia returned to the dance and searched for Arturo Reyes, the soother of ruffled feelings, restorer of besmirched reputations, restocker of Tanqueray, and club manager.
Why, oh why had she let Mother talk her into this? Because Mother determined to marry one of the Burns girls to Eustace Perrin, come what may. He’d already spent several afternoons calling at their home in old Fig Garden while sister Jamie persisted in trying to charm him and Mother fluttered around the parlor.
Eustace seemed determined to remain churlish, no matter the season or time of day. Poor Jamie had tried everything to coax a smile. She played his favorite piano selections, baked her special lemon scones, and even gave him a glimpse of cleavage during a tennis match.
With no encouragement to keep trying, Jamie tacitly passed him to Antonia who agreed to accompany him to the dance at the club. Only to appease Mother though. Antonia had no interest in dating, much less marrying, a disagreeable old man such as Eustace Perrin.
To be fair, he was Jamie’s elder by just a year. But with a perpetual scowl and shuffling gait, he seemed closer to Father’s age. Though he did try to peek down Antonia’s dress. She’d caught his gaze twice during dinner and his hands kept wandering when they danced. After several turns around, she’d pleaded heat exhaustion and asked to rest outside a moment.
“How’s this?” Eustace had asked, holding the door open to the patio.
“Thank you.” Antonia swept out and walked to the top step leading to the lawn. A tug on her sash pulled her back. When she turned, it slipped through the threads holding it to her waist.
“May I?” Eustace reached a hand around each side of her to tie the wide ribbon in the back.
“No.” She slipped out of his embrace and sidled away from him. “I mean, thank you, but I’ll just hold it until Jamie can—”
“Why do you avoid me?” He still held the ribbon but his eyes bored into hers with an intensity she’d not seen before.
“It’s not that. I hardly know—”
He interrupted her yet again. “I know your parents’ circumstances and I’m prepared to pay your father’s debts if you’ll consent to marry me.”
Indignation fought with revulsion mixed with relief. At last his intentions were stated. But what did he mean… “Debts? My father has no debts. The almond crop was a bit off this year, but we’re fine.”
Eustace shook his head sorrowfully. “No, my dear. Why do you think your mother aimed Jamie at me? Insipid, bland Jamie. I went along because I wanted to meet the spirited Antonia I’ve heard so much about. And you, my dear, are anything but plain and ordinary. The spark in your eye when you noticed me admiring the cut of your frock.”
“Mr. Perrin. I appreciate your attentions, but I assure you, you’re mistaken in your estimation of my regard for you. I do believe you and Jamie are well suited. When you get to know her, she is nothing like your assessment.”
“I’ve watched her and I’ve watched you. There is no comparison.” He pursed his lips and leaned in. “And I’ve made my intentions plain to your mother. She approves.”
Antonia took a step back. “Jamie is sweet and even tempered and accommodating. Everything I am not. She will make an excellent wife.”
“But I want a woman who will challenge and excite me.” He gripped her arm and pulled her closer.
“Mr. Perrin, please!” Antonia whirled away and dashed across the patio and back inside where music still played and couples twirled and dipped on the dance floor. She caught Jamie’s eye across the room and jerked her head toward the restroom.
A minute later, they met in the powder room where Antonia quickly relayed the conversation on the patio.
“Oh, sister.” Jamie covered her mouth in dismay. “You didn’t.”
“Didn’t what? Tell that lecherous and evil man I wouldn’t marry him?” As she spoke, Antonia realized she had not actually declined. A single minded man such as Mr. Perrin may believe her to be playing hard to get. “Oh no.” Her shoulders sagged. “I’ll have to speak to him again. And tell him in no uncertain terms.”
“I’ll go.” Jamie’s expression wavered between sympathetic and doubtful before she slipped out of the restroom. Antonia had waited three minutes before following. Surely that was long enough for Jamie to convey Antonia’s regrets and perhaps change Eustace’s estimation of her own potential as a helpmeet.
When Antonia returned to the patio, there was the dead body of their erstwhile suitor and no sign of her sister.
Another scan of the room yielded Arturo talking to Mother. About what she felt sure she knew. But now was not the time for Arturo to tell her mother of their attachment. Antonia hastened to their family table, Mother looking up at Mr. Reyes, an intent expression on her face.
“Arturo–Mr. Reyes, I mean—my father asked me to invite you to join him on the terrace.” The struggle to keep from alerting Mother warred with the need to impress Arturo with the urgency of her request.
“Of course,” he said. “Mrs. Burns, may we revisit this matter in a moment?”
Mother sighed and her jaw tightened. “Most assuredly.”
Arturo’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Excuse me, Mrs. Burns. Miss Burns.” He dipped into a hint of a bow before melting into the crowd.
“Sit, child.” Mother pushed open the adjoining chair with a toe.
Antonia complied but only perched on the edge.
“We have family standards to maintain,” Mother said. “And your future is settled.”
Eustace’s words about Father’s debt came back to Antonia. “Why, Mother? Why are you so eager to marry off one of us to that disagreeable man? I hope it’s not his money.”
Mother’s eyes didn’t meet Antonia’s. “What if it is? You have no idea what it’s like, raising daughters in the Central Valley. We’re outnumbered by men who farm, men who teach, and men who govern.”
“He said something about debts.” Wanting to learn the truth fought with the urge to hurry outside to observe the arrival of the sheriff’s deputy.
“You know the market for almonds has been down recently.”
“Almonds are a super food, the market is booming.” Even as the words left her mouth, Antonia knew the boom was too little, too late. Especially given the new requirement that raw almonds must be pasteurized, at an additional cost to the farmer. All the grim looks passed between her parents and the overheard whispers in the last months became clear. “He didn’t.”
“Please tell me Father didn’t invest in the golf course instead of the pasteurizer.” The Running Horse development in southwest Fresno had become a giant money-sucking mire of mud traps and sand but Father still believed it had potential to host a PGA event. Maybe even a US Open someday. Antonia had begged him to instead put some money into the company that held contracts to pasteurize seventy percent of the almonds in Fresno County. Arturo listened to her and they now had enough to buy a home. They’d planned to secure her parents’ permission and announce their engagement tonight. Until Mother and Eustace ruined it.
“Antonia, you can pass judgment later. Right now, find Mr. Perrin and be nice. He’s already declined Jamie. If you’re not pleasing, we’ll have to encourage his interest in Marla. But I know you’re his first choice.” She winked. “Where is Jamie?”
Antonia grasped at the excuse. “I’ll look for her.” She rose and walked away, her stomach tight at Mother’s words and intent. Whoring her daughters. Antonia would have her sisters live with her and Arturo before she consented to see either of them engaged to Mr. Perrin.
Oh. She stopped in the middle of the dance floor, forcing couples to part around her. Eustace Perrin was dead. There would be no need to move out. But also no hope of rescue.
“Antonia! You’re in the way.” Marla jostled Antonia’s arm as her partner swung her around. “What’s going on? Mother’s not going to try and make me marry Mr. Pinched Face, is she?”
Antonia shook her head, barely registering the words. So Mother had already set the stage for displaying Marla. Too bad it was all for naught.
Outside Antonia found Father conferring with Arturo. The faint whine of a siren grew until it stopped abruptly just before turning into the driveway from Maroa Avenue. The lights continued, casting blue and red streaks and turning her dress into a tacky plaid. “Has anyone seen Jamie?” she asked.
“In my office,” Arturo said. “She came to me in hysterics and I asked Minerva to see to her while I approached your mother.” Her heartbeat sparked at his steady gaze.
Oh, my. Antonia averted her head to hide the heat on her cheeks as she hurried around to the half-hidden door at the rear of the building and slipped down the hall. “Jamie?”
“I’m here.” Her shaky voice pierced Antonia.
“What happened?” Antonia dropped to Jamie’s side on the leather sofa in the dark paneled office. “I went back to the patio and you were gone, but Eustace…”
“I found him. But I…I just … I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move. Oh, Toni.” Jamie drew a shuddering breath.
“It’s okay.” Antonia reflexively hugged her sister close. “Arturo and Father are seeing to him.”
“I don’t understand,” Jamie said. “He was fine when you left?”
“Smug and insufferable. As usual.” Antonia stood and lowered a hand to help Jamie up. “We should go and see if Father needs anything.”
“Please, Toni. I can’t bear to go out.” Jamie’s knuckles whitened as she held her arms close. “His face, so … so purple and angry. Like he couldn’t believe what was happening.”
“Yes.” Antonia agreed. “But …” She lowered her voice. “I saw your sash.”
“You did?” Jamie’s puzzled voice announced her unconcern. “It fell off during one of the dances and Mother retrieved it. Where is your sash?”
Antonia flashed back to Eustace holding the yellow grosgrain and telling her he’d settle Father’s debt if she agreed to marry him. “I don’t know…” She stood. “I have to go. You can wait here.”
“I will.” Jamie settled herself in the thick cushions.
Antonia retraced her steps and joined Father and Arturo. Eustace’s body had been sheltered behind some drapes and a small crowd had gathered, although she heard music still drifting from the ballroom. She found her father talking with a uniformed officer and tried to catch his eye. What would Elizabeth Bennett do in this situation? Nothing came to mind but finally Father met her gaze and took his leave from the deputy.
She grasped his hands. “Is it true, Father? Did you invest in Running Horse? Are we bankrupt?”
“We’ll discuss it later.” He smoothed his hands over hers. “Did you find Jamie?”
“She’s in Arturo’s office.” Antonia turned her back to the others, moved a step away, and clutched her father’s sleeve. “But I saw her sash around his neck. The sash Mother was holding for her. Was it the murder weapon?”
“Jamie’s sash?” His brow furrowed. “Get your sisters and take them home.”
She left Father with the officer and hurried inside. Jamie seemed still in shock but came along to the banquet room. Marla whined when Antonia pulled her off the dance floor and back to their table. Mother licked her fork and set it on her dessert plate as the trio approached.
“What are you doing here, Antonia? I told you to find Mr. Perrin and—”
“He’s dead. Strangled with Jamie’s sash.”
Mother only shrugged and raised her glass. “Well, you got your wish. You don’t have to marry him. And I told you everything would turn out.”
“What are you talking about? If Father’s bankrupt because of Running Horse and the almond crop still has to be pasteurized and Mr. Perrin died with Jamie’s sash around his neck, how is everything all right?” Antonia’s voice rose with frustration.
Mother glanced around before leaning closer. “You are his espoused wife. You will inherit.”
Antonia sank into the chair. “We were not engaged. I have no claim on his estate.”
“You were affianced. You just didn’t know it yet.”
Disgust rose in Antonia like a Fresno thermometer on an August morning. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. But it doesn’t matter.”
“He changed his will this afternoon,” Mother said.
“Daddy? What’s wrong?” Marla’s voice trailed off and Antonia turned to see her father approach with the deputy and Arturo.
“Margaret. Why?” Father’s voice shook and Antonia stared at him. He couldn’t possibly mean what it sounded like.
“To save our family.” Mother stood and held her hands out. “No one else cared enough to sacrifice their comfort to ensure we have a roof over our heads and food on the table.” The deputy placed handcuffs on her wrists and closed them with a ratcheting sound that echoed in the sudden quiet of the ballroom. “Someday, darlings, you’ll understand. When he asked for Antonia’s hand, he let slip that he convinced Charles to invest in Running Horse. He ruined us and wanted my daughter in return. I did what I had to.” Mother walked out, her head high.
Father wrapped the three of them into his embrace. “I should have told her everything.”
Antonia pulled away. “It’s true? Mother killed him? How will we pay for a lawyer? When we have nothing?” Antonia closed her eyes and swayed a bit before she felt Arturo grasp her elbow.
“Not at all.” Father straightened his shoulders. “We may lose what I invested in Running Horse, but I also own a substantial part of the new pasteurizing facility. Arturo and I.”
“You do?” Could it be true? Had he listened to her? Done as she recommended?
“We have enough to pay a team of medical experts to declare your mother incompetent or temporarily insane.”
Another similarity between Antonia and Elizabeth Bennett emerged. Readers through the ages wished to throttle Mrs. Bennett. Antonia’s mother had instead done the throttling.
“She must be crazy,” Antonia said. “To kill a man instead of bidding him farewell.”
“Yes” Father said. “And we’ll hire the best defense attorneys to prove that. We Burnses may be prideful but we’re not poor.”