Thursday, June 4, 2020

Mystery Writers & Church Ladies Collide on a Cross-Country Train


Excerpt from INAPPROPRIATE
by Sherry Morris

I loved learning new things, which I passed along to others through my books. Well, I would pass them along once they were published. But I had to finish one of them first. Perhaps The Case of the Adorable Plumber might just be my break-out novel.

The clickty-clacking of the train, the white noise of the air circulating system and the sound of some of the other ladies typing orchestrated a very stimulating melody.

I was way into chapter three when my stomach began growling out loud. I really needed to get to those hors d’oeuvres. I glanced at Tinker Bell. 5:41. I shook her pixie dust as I stood and pushed my chair under the table. “Do we select our own rooms?” It felt good to stretch my legs. I wiggled my toes inside my sneakers.

Rosemary and the other writers looked up and then checked their watches. “My, how time flies when you are lost in your own little personal writing bubble. All right, ladies, I think we should wrap it up now.” She sorted through some papers on the table. “I have a list here. The crew has delivered your luggage to your compartments.” Rosemary shuffled papers. “Sandra Compartment A. Wendy is in B. Betty you get Compartment C. Pat…”

Great! We each get private rooms. Or broom closets. I wondered how large and opulent they were. As Rosemary droned on with our room assignments, images of fairytale castle bedchambers danced in my mind. Yeah, I knew we were on a train and only so much can be done in limited space but still I had high hopes.

“Your rooms are right through the door near where you came in.” Rosemary motioned toward it. “Make sure you grasp the handrails in the vestibule between the train cars. We don’t want anyone getting injured here on the GOOS Express, now do we…?”

When she finally finished, I blurted, “Where are the hors d’oeuvres?”

“They are in the last car. In the parlor area next to the restroom. Help yourselves. I do hope you like the selections.” Rosemary flashed her porcelain white teeth stained with fuchsia lipstick.

That was the cue for everyone to give her their deepest gratitude. We did. Then we headed for our compartments.

I stepped into mine. Darn. It wasn’t a fairytale castle bedchamber. But the retro Art Deco opulence was very tasteful.

It had mahogany paneled walls, a brass sconce and a little oscillating fan up in the corner near the ceiling. There was a small wash basin and mirror near the pocket aisle door. A wall-length oval window on the outside wall was flanked with a plush red velvet arm chair and a large red velvet sofa which apparently converted into a bed at night. The light scent of roses wafted in the air. Rosemary was great with details.

My duffle bag was stuffed almost under the sofa. I noticed an unfamiliar tapestry carpet bag stowed upon a shelf above the chair my cooler was tucked under. A newspaper stood crisply folded in a vertical holder on the window and two bottles of water glistening with condensation beckoned in the cup holders.

I counted three doors.

I smiled and tried the door apparently leading into the next compartment. Locked. Good. I didn’t need Weepy Wendy boo-hooing in at all hours. I opened the closet door. There was a stepladder folded inside. I shut the door.

I rubbed my arms and glanced up at the little fan. I’d have to figure out where to switch it off.

I pivoted and opened the bathroom door. And screamed.

So did the lady sitting on the toilet.

I retreated to the corridor and checked the lighted sign above the door. Compartment A. And that sure did look like my suitcase and cooler.

I reentered the room, leaned down and tugged my duffle bag out. Yep, Sandra Faire was clearly written in blue gel pen on the luggage tag.

The bathroom door opened.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t know anyone was using the bathroom in my compartment,” I said, blushing.

A beautiful little woman…and I mean little…the shortest little person I’d ever met stuck her hand out. “Hello, I am Mary Agnes Starr. You must be my roommate, Sandra Faire. Jesus loves you,” she said in a sweet southern accent.

“Yes he does. Thank you. And Jesus loves you, too.”

Mini Mary Agnes wanted to shake. I kept eyeing the bathroom and the sink near the door. I didn’t want to shake until she had washed her hands so I tugged the cooler out and then opened the lid.

“I brought iced teas. You want one? Go ahead and wash up. There is a little bar of soap and a fluffy hand towel on the sink. I’ll make us drinks.”

“Caffeine is blood from the devil,” said Mary Agnes as she climbed into the chair. Her fluffy cloud-white dress could have fit one of those Just My Size Barbie dolls. She was very small boned and thin. Like a living breathing doll. The eyelet lace billowed over my cooler. She swept the angelic fabric aside.

I replaced the lid on the cooler. “I should empty this water in the sink and find some fresh ice.”

“Close the compartment door,” her voice cracked.

“Why?” I asked, creeped out. I wanted to run. We would just see about this. No way would I share a compartment with a complete stranger with poor personal hygiene. There must have been some mix-up. Dina and I had signed-up to room together. We were going to brainstorm three novels for each of us as we drifted off to sleep lulled by the rocking of the locomotive.

“Close it,” Mary Agnes whispered with an air of desperation.

I did. But I made sure not to clasp the latch and opened the gold silk drapes on the corridor window fastening them to the wall with Velcro.

As I turned toward the frightened woman, I asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Mobsters are here! I spilled my purse in the parking lot and my marbles rolled under the tire of a red limousine.” Mary Agnes wrung her hands. “I was crouching down to retrieve them…and I heard their plans.”

She’d lost her marbles all right.

“I heard this one muscle-headed guy say, “We’ll take care of Donaldson…”

“What makes you think there is anything sinister in that?”

“Because as I quietly dropped my marbles back into my purse a bunch of receipts and candy wrappers rattled. They jumped out of the car and the muscle guy pointed a gun at me and growled something like, “You didn’t hear anything, girlie.”

“This is a scene in your W-I-P, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“What?” Mary Agnes asked.

“You’re a writer. Your work-in-progress. The book you are writing.”

“Miss Faire, I am no purveyor of fiction. I read only of the scriptures. I am on a mission from God to save your heathen soul.”

I felt faint. My vacant stomach wailed. “I have to eat. Now. Low blood sugar.” Lord Jesus, save me from this kooky missionary. Amen.

I exited the compartment and dashed down the aisle not stopping until I entered the Victorian parlor car where my chapter mates were noshing. It contained four oxblood leather arm chairs flanking two small tables and a round stuffed sofa at the end. The kind I had seen in hotels. The peach paisley upholstered center was solid and you could walk around it and sit anywhere and lean back on the coordinating peach chenille cushions.

Windows on three sides offered panoramic vistas. I noticed the emergency brake and a fire extinguisher clearly labeled on the wall near the door. I peeked outside and saw a sheltered observation deck. Rain poured down beyond it. This was the last length of the locomotive. Nothing but tracks behind us.

In time with the cadence of the train I walked to a credenza near the restroom and grabbed a plate. Unfortunately, the other writers had scarfed nearly all of the hors d’oeuvres. A small amount of pâté and caviar remained. No crackers. I had an aversion to liver and fish eggs. I sagged in grave disappointment. I would have thrown up from malnourishment had I anything in me to actually come up.

“Captain Sparrow, bring me my rum!”

I snapped my head around to see Peetie-the-Parrot perched on Pat-the-Pirate’s shoulder. She always brought him to our meetings. He was a Solomon Island Eclectus, a medium sized parrot. Lime green with red and turquoise under his wings. All males of his species looked like this. The females were red with purple and turquoise. His beak looked exactly like candy corn. Boy would I love to jump inside a giant bag of candy corn and eat my way out. My tummy screeched.

I made myself a cup of hot tea and plunked in four sugar cubes. I took two in a napkin to munch on.

I weaved through the crowd, looking forward to chatting with Pat and Peetie but Contest Carly was petting the parrot by the time I got near them.

Carly, a tatooed late twenty-something award winning unpublished author, was coming close to snatching Rosemary’s contest-slut tiara. Neither was published but at least Carly’s three novel length manuscripts were complete. Rosemary had only penned one chapter which she had paid a high priced New York editor to critique. I resented her gall, entering professionally edited work in contests for unpublished authors.

I noticed Dina pacing by the back door. I couldn’t wait to switch rooms with whomever they had erroneously paired her with.

Sniffling approached. My shoulders hunched, I wished myself invisible. Harry Potter could do that with his invisible cloak. He could also cast spells. Boy would I enjoy casting a few. I popped a sugar cube in my mouth and sucked.

“Do you know Hazel just received an eight digit contract with Fathom Publishing?” Weepy Wendy asked me.

“That’s wonderful.” I half turned to her, smiled and made my way over to Dina.

Wendy followed me. I tried not to groan.

“It’s just not fair. The top writers get all the money. I’ll never be discovered.”

This was my cue to hug poor pitiful Wendy. Instead, I said, “You’ll do it, Wendy. It’s your turn next. You are a very brilliant author. Just wait…and as a matter of fact since Hazel is here on the train what a golden opportunity…”

“What do you mean?” She sounded timidly hopeful.

“Stick to her like glue. Study what Hazel does. Her methods. When does she write? What inspires her? What does she do to stimulate her muse? Trail her. Stick by her side.”

“You really think that might help?”

“Absolutely,” said Dina. “Now don’t waste a minute. Why, I’ll bet you’ll learn her secret! Don’t forget to keep it to yourself…until you’re bumping Hazel off the bestseller list!”

Wendy smiled for the first time in my memory. She trotted over to Hack ‘em Up Hazel, who was slurping an oyster out of its shell.

“Dina, I’ve got to get something substantial in my stomach. Somebody has to have something edible on this train. Follow me.”

She did.

We headed north past our compartments and crossed the threshold into the business car.

“I have the roommate from Hell. We have to switch,” I whispered over my shoulder.

“Mine seems delightful. A lovely little old lady called Norah. She’s napping.”

I grunted. “Must be nice.” I was so tired.

“Are you jealous of Hazel?” Dina asked.

“Nope. She’s a very sweet lady. And talented, hard working and I hope she enjoys every penny they’ll give her. I just love how she writes her guys. It’s almost like she has secret inside information on how the male psyche operates.”

After we dodged the rolling chairs in the conference room we made it to the dining car. It had been prepped for breakfast with little boxes of cereal perched on each table.

I plopped down in a booth, grabbed a box of Special K, ripped it open and gobbled it using my fingers. I washed it down with the tea.

“My mom asked about your Aunt. How is she?” I inquired.

“Working me day and night. I’m so glad her friend Marvin is moving in to help her while I’m away.” An evil smirk morphed onto Dina’s face. “He has no idea what he’s getting himself into. If you ever have to have surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome do not have both wrists repaired at the same time.”

“Why not?”

“Because she’s absolutely helpless with both hands and arms bandaged. She can’t get the dressings wet and she’s in a lot of pain. I have to wax her moustache, shave her pits and wipe her nether regions.”

My brother the conductor appeared. “The cereal is for tomorrow.”

“I’m starving. What did you eat?” I asked.

“The crew had pizza.”

“Is there any left?” I devoured it in my mind.

He shook his head. “Sorry. Hey, I’ll bet Mom brought snacks. She’s two cars ahead. Walk through the baggage car and then she’s in the next sleeper car, Compartment H.”

“Thanks!” I was halfway down the aisle before Dina caught up with me.

“Don’t get so far ahead. Do you think we should tell your brother about the red limousine?”

I stopped and whipped around. “You saw the limo, too?”

“Yeah. And those guys looked sinister. They were yelling at a midget.”

“She’s a little person. Midget is an insult. Jeeze, Dina, don’t you know anything about being politically correct?”

“Whatever. How do you know about the midget?”

“She’s my roommate, Mini Mary Agnes. She is really upset. Said they threatened Donaldson.”

“The reverend or Rosemary?” Dina asked.

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Let’s tell your brother.”

“My brother since he’s the conductor or my brother since he’s a Cocoa Beach cop?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know. I guess so. He’ll probably poo-poo it away.”

We entered the baggage car and squeezed down the aisle cluttered with boxes of Bibles and crates of food. I crinkled my nose. This car smelled like a sour mop. I stopped and scanned the area but didn’t see a crow bar. It figured. I was standing in a refrigerated food Mecca yet couldn’t access even a crumb.

I scraped the side of my ankle on a crate of cantaloupes and groaned. Mom’s green steamer trunk was next to it near the door to the sleeper lounge car. We turned the doorknob, stepped through the vestibule, opened the opposing door and entered.

This car appeared to be the mirror-reverse of ours. I heard Christian rock music accompanied by acoustic guitars. My stomach churned as my pulse raced…remembering. I wished every acoustic guitar in the world had washed away with the hurricane.

The silver silk drapes were drawn open on all of the compartments. They were empty. I shoved Dina in front of me and reluctantly headed for the tunes.

Joel Donaldson, the surly nineteen-year-old son of the reverend and Rosemary, played piano. His dad and Andres the lifeguard strummed guitars as Rosemary sang. Surprisingly, they sounded pretty good. Mom clapped to the rhythm. I caught her eye and cocked my head toward the door.

She popped up and rushed us back to her compartment. I slid the door closed. The air conditioning drowned out the music.

“Sandra Marie Faire, where have you been? Why didn’t you tell me you discovered another dead man? I forbid you to work at that job one more day. Do you hear me? Why haven’t you been answering your phone? Did you lose it again? You had it this morning…”

When her interrogation let up so I could get a word in edge wise, I said, “Rosemary confiscated all of our phones and electronic devices which contact the outside world.”

“Why on earth would she do a thing like that? Will it disturb your reading? Have you been talking loudly on the phone again disrupting everyone around you? I’ve told you time and again. You don’t realize how loud you are speaking into the phone—”

“Mom, no. It’s not me. I have no idea what gets into Rosemary’s craw with her rules but since she’s footing the bill we all complied with Her Highness.”

“Wash your mouth out. Speaking of such a beautiful, good woman that way.”

“Mom, do you have any food? I’m starving.”

She touched my chin and looked my face over. “Sandra, you really need to eat regularly. You are going to get constipated and that will lead to diverticulitis and heart disease.”

“Mom, the food?”

“Sit down. You too, Dina. Hello, by the way.”

“Hi, Mrs. Faire.” Dina smiled and sat next to me on the royal blue velvet sofa.

Mom flipped open a suitcase and placed a cloth napkin on each of our laps. Then a hard unbreakable white plate. She dealt low-carbohydrate pumpkin seed bread, lean turkey breast, Muenster cheese and romaine lettuce slices. Then she pulled out a baggie with balsamic vinaigrette and snipped the corner with her manicure scissors. She drizzled the dressing.

I was already eating my top slice of bread before she finished.

As we gobbled the sandwiches, she said, “Lieutenant Hernandez phoned me. He was unable to reach you and has further questions regarding the homicide.”

I swallowed hard. “So the medical examiner has ruled it a homicide? Not an accidental drowning or suicide then?”

“Yes. How could you run off and not tell the police where you were going?”

I finished my sandwich and burped. Mom handed us each a bottle of water. I cracked the lid and guzzled half.

“The police commissioner and four of his officers know my whereabouts. The lieutenant found me. No biggie.”

“Sandra. That is such an immature, cavalier attitude. You are an adult. Act like one.” She took my napkin and wiped some dressing from my chin.

I handed her my plate and she gave me a banana.

Dina finished her sandwich and rinsed her plate in the sink. My mom took it and dried it with the white terry hand towel. “Did you get enough to eat? Would you like a piece of fruit? I have blueberries, oranges, apples and bananas. The bananas need to be eaten before they go soft. None of my kids will eat soft bananas. I always have to make banana nut bread with them.”

“You make the best banana nut bread, Mom.” I wished I had some now.

Dina looked at her watch and said, “It’s after six! We’re late for our first workshop.”

I stuffed my banana peel in the chrome trash slot under the sink. It pinched my finger. I kissed Mom’s cheek. “Thanks for the snack. Love you.”

She kissed me back. “I love you, baby dumpling.”

How embarrassing. She called all her kids baby dumpling. It was fine in private but it embarrassed me in front of Dina.

Mom followed us to the baggage car. I needed to persuade her to return to the crusaders. She thought I was in a book readers club. She didn’t know this was a conference for writers. She would never approve. Not that she approved of much of anything I did anyhow.

“Mom, we’ve gotta go. We’re late.”

“I heard you. Hold on a minute.” She stopped at her steamer trunk and popped the lid open. “Pick a color. Both of you.”

We looked at the sea of crayon colored wool. I selected a multicolored rainbow skein. Dina plucked out a shimmery black one.

Mom handed us each a set of small wooden needles. “These should be perfect for the scarves. Let me know if you need more. Now I must go back to the crusaders. They are starting a rummy 500 tournament.”

“Good luck, Mom. Have fun.” I hurried down the aisle.

“Thanks for the food, Mrs. Faire…and the yarn and needles.”

“Tootles, girls.”

Dina whispered, “What’s with the yarn?”

“I told Mom we were reading and knitting scarfs for the military.”

“Why?”

“Because she’d have a cow if she knew I was a writer.” I heard the door to Mom’s car open as we entered the conference car. I exhaled.

I quietly slipped into the first available seat at the table and plunked my yarn and needles into my lap.

The end of Dina’s yarn had snagged the door latch and pulled her back. She stumbled. Everyone looked. “I’m fine. It’s nothing. Go on.”

I trotted back and untangled her. We took our places at the conference table. The writers passed us the handouts and I found the spot the speaker expanded on.

Anna Deerstalker said, “Exterior conflict can be as simple as a husband lamenting, ‘Cereal again?’ This could set his long-maligned wife off on a murderous rampage.”

I glanced around the table. Everyone was taking notes. Including Hack ‘em Up Hazel. This made me very curious. Why would a bestselling author need pointers in conflict? Odd indeed. I feigned a sneeze and tossed my pencil down the table. It landed on Hazel’s notes.

“God bless you,” said Weepy Wendy and Contest Carly.

“Gesundheit,” said Pat-the-Pirate.

I thanked them, begged their pardons and walked over to retrieve my pencil. Hazel flipped her notes over before I could read them. Drats. I returned to my seat.

Anna Deerstalker droned on, “There is also internal conflict in the cereal example. The husband knows he shouldn’t eat the sugar laden carbohydrates but he has a powerful sweet tooth…”

I doodled little moons and stars on my conflict worksheet. The cadence of the train rocked my body. My eyes glazed over. I tried to focus on the conflict—I really did but all I could think about was evicting the mini-missionary, stretching out in my bunk and sleeping soundly all night.

The train blasted its whistle through a grade crossing. The engineer really laid on the horn as he applied the brakes. My eyes flew open.

Anna Deerstalker asked, “Who would like to share her conflict diagram with us?”

I must’ve dozed off. I hoped I hadn’t snored. Please don’t pick me.

Bicep Betty stood. Her gnarled hands gripped the table for support. “Midge would be rid of her poor excuse for a husband before the night was through. She held him at gunpoint with a shotgun, forcing him to lie naked face down on the floor where she had broken a case of wine bottles and tied him spread eagle between the radiator and the coffee table…”

I shook my head and cringed. I didn’t want to hear the rest. Make her stop. All of her stories unfolded like this. She didn’t need help with conflict. She needed help with her twisted mind.

Dina worked on the tangle of black yarn, rolling it into a ball. I removed mine from my lap, fished out the end from the inside of the skein and circled the yarn into a precise tight little sphere. I loved the colors. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple. Just like the rainbow. I tuned Bicep Betty out.

Rosemary rushed in. “So sorry, ladies. I’m wearing two hats on this retreat. The crusaders insisted I sing for them.” She took a seat at the end of the table.

Tabloid Tilly read her conflict next. My ears perked up until I didn’t hear any juicy celebutaunt gossip. She finished quickly. Fine by me.

Anna Deerstalker asked for questions. Nobody had any. Rosemary thanked her profusely for her time and wonderful information. The ladies and I applauded. My yarn ball rolled off of my lap. I set the skein on the table and chased after it. Unfortunately, it had wrapped around the shoe on Pat-the-Pirate’s wooden leg as she tried to rise. She tripped onto the floral carpet.

“I’m so sorry, Pat! Are you all right?”

Contest Carly and Weepy Wendy helped her into a chair. I extracted the yarn and she pulled her black polyester pant leg up, adjusting her wooden leg. Yep, it really was wooden. Pat- the-Pirate indeed. No, that wasn’t nice. She was a lovely lady. Poor thing. Life wasn’t fair.

I skulked back to my seat re-rolling the ball as I went. The skein fell to the floor. I gave it a good yank to hoist it up. A metal ball chain slithered out of the end. What in the heck? I flopped it onto the table and extracted dog tags.

Dog tags?
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