Pride V. Prejudice: New Excerpt

Pride V. Prejudice by Joan Hess is the 20th cozy mystery featuring amateur sleuth and bookseller Claire Malloy, and this time, after being publicly embarassed by a prosecutor, she takes a case into her own hands (available April 7, 2015).

Claire Malloy, for as long as she can remember, has been the local bookseller and owner of the Book Depot and the widowed mother of teenage Caron, who frequently speaks in ALL CAPS. But her life has changed dramatically in recent years. Claire has married her longtime beau, Deputy Police Chief Peter Rosen. Still the owner of the Book Depot, Claire has passed the day-to-day running of it on to her very efficient employees. With Caron inching ever closer to college, there's but one thing that remains steadfastly unchanged—Claire's astonishing ability to attract, find, or even just randomly stumble across trouble.

Summoned for jury duty, the prosecutor on a murder case, harboring a grudge against her husband, decides to humiliate Claire and dismiss her. Having done so in spectacular enough fashion to make the local news, Claire decides that revenge will be the next dish she serves. She hunts down the defendant in the case, a woman accused of murdering her husband, and offers to help prove her innocence. And not just because Claire wants to humiliate the prosecutor. There are only two problems. One—the defendant is looking guiltier by the minute. And two—the worst day imaginable has finally come: Claire's dreaded new mother-in-law is coming to visit and life in prison is starting to look good.

1

“You have a better chance of getting on the space shuttle than you have of getting on a jury.” Luanne’s pronouncement was accompanied by a noticeably snooty smile. She was looking sleek and tan after her annual safari to the beach, but that did not excuse her attitude. Had she not been my best friend, I might have been a wee bit annoyed.

I opted to remain on a more cerebral plane. “Do you suspect I’m non compos mentis? I can assure you that I have all of my marbles in a box somewhere in the attic,” I said. We were seated at a scarred picnic table in the beer garden across the street from my cherished Book Depot, working our way through a pitcher of beer on a lovely, lazy afternoon. The sky was blue, the breeze adequate to battle the last gasp of August heat. Students from Farber College were beginning to wander in, but most of the tables were unoccupied. “I’ve never been convicted of a felony. I don’t drool or fall asleep at inopportune moments. Perry Mason would embrace me as a juror.”

“Aren’t you overlooking the inescapable fact that you’re married to the deputy chief of the Farberville Police Department?”

“There is that,” I admitted.

“And that you have a reputation for meddling in official investigations?”

“Rumors of my interference have been greatly exaggerated. I was merely assisting the police on those rare occasions when they seemed to be straying in the wrong direction.” I may have blushed slightly, as befitted my modest nature.

Luanne laughed until beer dribbled out of her mouth and her eyes watered. She finally gained control of herself and took the napkin I offered her. “Oh, yes, you tiptoe among the suspects, dropping only the slyest comments, hovering unseen in the corner at the fateful moment when the perpetrator falls to his or her knees and bleats, ‘I did it!’ The detectives scratch their heads and wonder about the identity of that Sherlockian wisp of haze.”

* * *

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I want to take a moment to thank you again for your willingness to make whatever sacrifices are necessary in order to serve on our jury. It is vital to our system in this great country that citizens such as yourselves participate in the dispensation of justice.” Prosecuting attorney Edwin Wessell, as he’d introduced himself to us, leaned forward to emphasize his sincerity. He was short and lean, with petrified dark hair, an expensive suit, and large, somewhat yellowed teeth. Unfortunately, they matched his complexion, which resembled a cheese pizza flanked by two tomato slices for ears. After sucking in a breath, he resumed telling us how we represented all things true and good in the past and present, and would have the honor of doing so in the future.

I suppose I should have been flattered to be epitomized as a flag-waving patriot, but I was mostly hungry. The day had begun well before the unreasonable hour of nine o’clock, when we’d been told to arrive at the courthouse. I’d wasted too much time trying to decide what a dedicated member of a jury would wear to do more than slurp a cup of coffee in the car. The next seven hours had been a series of forays in and out of the courtroom. We’d met Judge Lucille Priestly, a busty middle-aged woman with an emphatic chin and hooded eyes. The assistant prosecutor, a twitchy young woman, had given us a startled look before burying her nose in stacks of folders. The defendant’s attorney, a pudgy man with bristly blond hair and rosy cheeks, who might have gone to law school with the assistant prosecutor, seemed even less enthusiastic to acknowledge us, although he had admitted his name was Evan Toffle. The defendant had managed a weak smile. Her name, we’d been told, was Sarah Swift, and she was charged with first degree homicide. She wore a white blouse, and her long gray hair was loosely pinned in a bun. Her expression was more suicidal than homicidal.

Prosecutor Wessell finally ran out of platitudes and consulted briefly with his assistant. “As I’m sure you all know from watching television, the next process is what is called voir dire. I am going to ask you a few questions, after which my colleague will do the same. Juror number seven, I believe you noted on the questionnaire that you were detained for shoplifting.”

This perked me up. Number seven was the only one among us who had dressed for tea with the queen. Her very high heels had clattered like a jackhammer on her frequent trips to the ladies’ room, and she’d pitched a less than genteel fit when confronted with a stale sandwich for lunch. “It was a mistake,” she said coldly. “As I made clear to the police officer, my husband is a doctor and I am on the board of several charities. I merely draped the scarf around my neck to see if I liked it, and then forgot about it. The charges were dropped.”

Wessell gazed at her for a moment, his thin lips pursed. “I’m sure it was an oversight. Now, juror number three, may I ask you about encounters with the defendant at the local farmers’ market?”

My attention did not wander, but it did meander a bit. Sarah Swift’s eyes were closed, and her hands were tightly clenched on the arms of her chair. Her breathing seemed measured. Although I read the newspaper assiduously, I’d missed any articles about her purported crime. We’d been told only the essential nature of her offense: first degree homicide. I wondered whom she was accused of killing—and why.

“Juror number ten, I believe you put down your name as Claire Malloy. I found this curiously misleading. Would you care to tell the court your real name?”

“Claire Malloy,” I said in what may have sounded like a gurgle.

“‘Malloy’ is the name of your first husband, now deceased. I understand he died under mysterious circumstances.”

“He died when his car was hit by a chicken truck on a mountain road, in a heavy snowstorm.”

“Where were you at the time?”

I was baffled. “At home, with my child.”

“Was this confirmed by the investigating officers?”

Increasingly baffled, not to mention displeased. “Yes, it was. Are you accusing me of something?”

Wessell rubbed his hands together, suggesting this was merely a warm-up volley. “Why would I accuse you of a crime, Mrs. Malloy? Is there something you haven’t told us?”

I looked at the judge, who was watching me with a puzzled frown. I had an urge to slam back the ball with a wicked slice of iciness, but I reminded myself of my mild nature and inherent civility. “It was an unfortunate accident. I’m sure there’s a report somewhere, Mr. Wessell.” I did not say his name with discernible warmth. I had no idea why he was attacking me as if I’d been implicated in Carlton’s death. I hadn’t. The state police had concluded that it was the result of poor weather conditions. The driver of the chicken truck had been exonerated. I’d been informed, not questioned. “I wasn’t driving the truck. I was at home, as I said a minute ago.”

“But you have been involved in other homicides, have you not? I believe the police considered you a suspect in the brutal killing of a local writer.”

“For approximately thirty seconds. I knew the woman, but I had no reason to harm her. Her husband was found guilty and sent to prison.”

“So you say,” Wessell said with a minute sneer. “What about the other homicides, Mrs. Malloy? There have been a lot of them in your vicinity. I’d list them, but I hate to waste the court’s time. No matter where you go or what you do, someone always ends up dead.”

The jurors on either side of me shifted nervously in their chairs. I regret to say that my eyes were so rounded with astonishment that I could feel them. “There have been occasions when I assisted the police in their investigations and subsequently testified in court. But I was never, ever responsible for any homicide.”

“Yet innocent parties died. Just how many bodies have you stepped over in your so-called attempts to assist the police?”

“I have no idea,” I said flatly. “Why don’t you tell me?”

Wessell rubbed his hands again. “I don’t want to upset your fellow jurors. Let’s return to the issue of your real name, shall we?”

“My name is Claire Malloy, although that’s not what’s on my birth certificate. It is on my passport, driver’s license, credit cards, Social Security card, utility accounts, voter registration, and library card.” I glowered at him. He was lucky that the first row of jury members and a waist-high railing were between us. I am not inclined to violence, but I was ready to wipe the smirk off his face.

He turned back to his assistant for a whispered consultation. I forced myself to breathe deeply and uncurl my fists before my fingernails drew blood. I noticed the defendant was regarding me with a peculiar expression, although I couldn’t interpret it. I was fairly certain I’d never met her. Her eyes were a vivid blue, her cheekbones high and predominant, her face lined with threadlike wrinkles. If she’d wandered into the Book Depot, my bookstore on Thurber Street, she’d done so without catching my attention. I occasionally went to the farmers’ market at the town square, but I couldn’t recall having any conversations with her. When I frowned, she looked away.

“Now then, Mrs. Malloy,” Wessell said, “is it true that you remarried several months ago?”

“Yes, but I kept my last name.”

“Whom did you marry?”

“Peter Rosen.”

“Would that be Deputy Chief Peter Rosen of the Farberville Police Department?”

I clamped down on my lower lip before I blurted out a rude remark about his perspicacity. When I could trust myself, I said, “Yes, but I kept my last name. If this disqualifies me from serving on the jury, okay. Why don’t you stop badgering me and send me on my way?”

“I am not badgering you, Mrs. Malloy—or should that be Malloy-Rosen? I am simply trying to determine why you’ve attempted to hide your identity from the court. Please remember that perjury is a felony.”

The fateful straw crushed the camel’s back. I’d done my level best, but now I was so furious that I was momentarily overwhelmed by a surge of adrenaline. My jaw quivered. I closed my eyes and willed myself not to leap over the first row and the railing in order to grab Wessell’s shoulders and shake him until he begged for mercy. I would show none. I finally opened my eyes, delicately cleared my throat, and said, “I did not attempt to hide my identity. I filled out the jury questionnaire carefully and noted my husband’s name and position. I did not change my name when I remarried because of my daughter.”

“And your reputation, which is remarkable.”

“Thank you.” I did not say this with customary gratitude.

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Malloy-Rosen.”

If there had been a spotlight in the courtroom, it would have been aimed at me. I felt as though I were in a grimy interrogation room, charged with a horrific crime that would lead to the gallows. I gritted my teeth and stared at Wessell, who had clearly taken it upon himself to play the role of Bad Cop. He stared back. I willed myself not to blink. This mute exchange of hostility might have continued all afternoon if the judge had not yawned and said, “Well, Mr. Wessell?”

“I move to strike this juror for cause,” he said. “She has personal ties to the local police department and is likely to be prejudiced.”

“Juror number ten, you are dismissed,” the judge said.

There was a collective sigh of relief as I stood up and edged past the other jurors in the second row. My face was hot and my legs were unsteady, but I maintained my dignity as I headed for the door. As I went past the defendant, she looked up at me with a sympathetic smile. I felt an urge to squeeze her hand and offer a few words of encouragement. Wessell might have ordered the bailiff to shoot me if I did, however, so I continued out the door and down the hall to the exit. Once in my car, I slumped back and replayed the scene. The prosecuting attorney had attacked me as if I were a cockroach scurrying across the courtroom floor, rather than merely pointing out that I was married to a police officer and therefore apt to have a bias—a bias that one would assume was in his favor, not the defendant’s.

I considered dropping by the PD to talk to Peter, but he had mentioned an afternoon meeting with some agency that consisted of cryptic letters. Luanne had decided to take a long weekend and had scampered off with her current amour, a professor of botany who was obsessed with ferns.

I needed solitude and sanctuary. I drove through Farberville’s version of rush hour and out a county road to my perfect house. It had not been on the market when I first saw it, but a couple of murders and an exposé of illicit activity had not deterred me. As I parked by the porch, I couldn’t keep myself from gloating, although in a ladylike fashion. It was an antebellum jewel, with gray shingle gables, gingerbread trim, and ten acres of clover-strewn fields, an apple orchard, and its own indolent stream at the bottom of the hill. The spacious rooms had hardwood floors, high ceilings, and a state-of-the-art kitchen that I had not yet mastered completely. The master suite was on the first floor, with his-and-her walk-in closets, and the bathroom had a dressing table and racks to ensure that the fluffy towels were warm. French doors opened onto a private terrace. The second floor was Caron’s domain, along with guest bedrooms.

I peeled off my pantyhose, changed into shorts and a T-shirt, poured myself a drink, and went out to the terrace to ponder ways to humiliate Prosecutor Eric Wessell until he slunk back under his rock. I was certain I’d never met him before, although we could have been at the same ghastly civic banquets. I did have a reputation, but I hadn’t been involved with any cases in his jurisdiction. I tried to erase the image of his smirky face and equine teeth, the flakes of dandruff on his bony shoulders, the almost maniacal glint in his beady eyes as he tore into me with the charm of a rabid weasel.

That proved to be impossible, so I went into my playroom, also known as the library, and sat down in front of the computer. I did a search for Sarah Swift and found articles in the local paper, the earliest more than a year old. She was accused of murdering her husband, John Cunningham (proving I wasn’t the only woman on the planet who hadn’t changed her name after getting married). They lived out in the county on an unfamiliar state highway and owned an organic blueberry farm. I closed my eyes as I visualized myself squashing a blueberry pie in Prosecutor Weasel’s face and smiling as the purple goop dripped off his bushy eyebrows, then took a breath and continued reading the screen. According to the sheriff’s department, Sarah had been at a book club gathering in Farberville the night of the incident. Alcohol had been consumed. When she returned home, she’d allegedly shot her husband in the chest with a shotgun and left him to bleed to death in the barn. The following morning she’d called the sheriff’s department, claiming she’d discovered the body when she went to the barn on her way to feed the chickens. Neighbors had acknowledged hearing a blast at midnight. Based on the sheriff’s calculations, Sarah had had adequate time to arrive home by eleven. Wessell had characterized her as a vindictive, cold-blooded killer who had ignored her husband’s pleas for help and simply gone to bed. Her fingerprints were on the shotgun, which was found in a hall closet.

“Oh, Sarah,” I said as I looked at her grainy mug shot. “Was he that awful?”

“Are you talking to the computer or to yourself?” said Caron, my offspring and occasional bane of my existence. Although we both have red hair and freckles, our dispositions are polar. Had I not personally supervised her overall well-being since birth, I would have suspected dark forces had resided under her crib and guided her stroller. She recently arrived at the heady landmark of legal majority without a felony, but there had been moments. Many moments.

She came into the library and perched on the ladder. “Either way, Mother, it’s a symptom of some icky kind of delusion. Had any chats with the potato peeler lately?”

I did not turn around. “The potato peeler made a pithy remark about a bedroom upstairs that is littered with every piece of clothing you own, as well as a goodly amount of mine. The olive tongs murmured something about my sandals and the netherworld beneath your bed. Oh, and you won’t believe what the colander—”

“I said I’d clean my room when I got home from school.” She repositioned herself on a leather chair and gave me the vastly superior look of an eighteen-year-old Pulitzer Prize–winner who moonlighted as a Parisian runway model and a CEO. “Did you get on the jury?”

“No,” I muttered.

“Peter told you they wouldn’t let you serve because of him. You should have just called the courthouse and had your name removed from the list.”

“I was willing to do my civic duty.” I turned off the computer and ushered her out of the library. “Peter may not make it home for dinner. Look in the freezer and find something to eat. I intend to dine on scotch and water, with a glass of wine for dessert.”

Caron sat down on a stool next to the marble-topped kitchen island and studied me with what might have been genuine concern. “What’s wrong with you?”

I told her about Wessell and the voir dire. She did her best not to snicker, but her efforts were less than successful. I was not yet ready to see the humor in my public embarrassment. I banged open the freezer door and said, “Pizza, microwave entrees, odd things in a freezer bag that may be hot dogs from your last pool party.”

“Can I have a party this weekend, like Sunday? Everybody’s going to the lake Monday because of Labor Day. We’re going to have a humongous picnic for all the cool seniors. Joel’s uncle is going to be there with his party barge, and Kyle’s got a ski boat.”

“As long as you clean up your room, do laundry, and replace my clothes in my closet.”

Caron’s lower lip shot out in a classic pout. She’d begun working on it in utero and perfected it before she could toddle. By first grade, she was well on the road to high crimes and misdemeanors with her accomplice, Inez Thornton. I’d bailed them out and bawled them out to no avail. Now all I could hope was that they would leave for college free of manacles. Twelve months to go, I reminded myself as I retreated to the terrace.

I must have dozed off because I almost fell off the chaise longue when Caron shook my shoulder and said, “Mother, you need to see this! It’s on TV! Hurry!”

I followed her into the living room and stood in front of the TV. The local news was on, and the weather girl was gushing about an expected thunderstorm with the possibility of lightning and thunder. As opposed to what, I did not know. “You want me to watch this?” I asked Caron.

“Wait for it,” she replied grimly.

Waiting required us to watch several commercials urging us to buy cars, join the newest health club in Farberville, and take advantage of an amazing sale on mattresses. Finally the two newscasters, Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber, appeared on the screen, their noses powdered and their smiles radiant. The distaff member of the team sobered as she gazed into the camera and said, “Today jury selection began in the trial of Sarah Swift, accused of killing her husband in a domestic confrontation. Let’s go live to our courthouse correspondent, Thomas Pomfreet. What’s happening, Thomas?”

Thomas seemed startled as his boyish visage filled the screen. He regained his composure and said, “It’s been quite a day here at the Stump County courthouse. Prosecutor Wessell and defense attorney Toffle took their time questioning potential jury members. By five o’clock, the jury was finally impaneled. Judge Priestly declared that the trial will not begin until Tuesday because of the three-day holiday weekend.” He gave the camera a quirky little smile. “The highlight of the day came when Prosecutor Wessell accused a potential juror of perjury for misrepresenting her legal name. It seems that Farberville’s own Miss Marple failed to change her name after marrying a prominent member of the police department. She and Prosecutor Wessell bandied words over her involvement in a large number of local homicides. The woman was excused and left the courtroom in tears.”

I dropped onto the sofa. “That’s ridiculous! I was too furious to bother with tears. I was trying to think where to buy a weasel trap or a small bazooka.”

“He accused you of murder?” Caron said in a squeaky voice. “Never mind about the party. Is it too late to send me to boarding school?”

I decided not to mention that Wessell had as good as accused me of murdering her father. “Get online and find out, dear. I hear there’s a charming one in Greenland.”

“This is Not Funny!” She stormed upstairs. I doubted she would reappear with a laundry basket anytime soon.

Once Thomas had faded from the screen, his colleagues moved on to a bungled robbery at a convenience store. I was marginally grateful that they had not decided to produce inane banter about my humiliation. There had been no spectators in the courtroom, which meant someone had briefed the news station. I had a pretty good idea who it might have been. I went into the kitchen and was splashing water on my face when the phone rang. I had no inclination to answer it, so I let the answering machine handle it. As soon as I heard the first word, I recognized the voice of my ESL student, a Russian woman named Yelena. She assured me that she was most furious at the TV report and quite sure I hadn’t killed anybody lately. The next call came from a loyal customer, commiserating. As did the next. A professor from the drama department called to dismiss the report as sheer poppycock. It seemed every last person in Farberville had been watching the local news and was currently discussing my innocence or lack thereof.

It was clearly time to return to the terrace. Hawks circled in the sky, ever vigilant for something tasty for dinner. Grasshoppers whirred in the meadow, and butterflies landed on the lush flowers in the beds surrounding the pool. A mockingbird in the orchard ran through its repertoire. Inside the house, the telephone continued ringing with what I suspected were more condolence calls. The only sympathy I wanted was from my handsome husband, who would gaze at me with his molasses-colored eyes and promise to have Wessell’s car impounded.

An hour later I was still brooding when said husband came out to the terrace with a bottle of wine and two glasses. He fussed over me for a lovely moment, then sat down and poured the wine.

“Did you see the local news?” I asked.

“I heard about it.”

“What is wrong with that dreadful man? You’d think I vandalized his house and stole his law diploma. I can’t remember ever having met him, much less offended him.” I blinked to hold back tears. “If I did, I hope I drew blood.”

Peter leaned forward to kiss me. “I’m the cause of his animosity. He aspires to be a judge and came by the PD to ask for support. The captain locked himself in his office. I told Wessell that I was obligated to take a nonpartisan position but would not have supported him in any case. The guy’s a jerk. He has a reputation for going after women and minorities, prosecuting on minimal evidence and demanding harsh sentences. He charged a battered woman with attempted murder after she threw a skillet at her abusive husband. He’s sent a large number of black teenagers to prison for possession of pot or alcohol. Rich people are charged with misdemeanors, if charged at all, while the poor are slapped with felonies for the same offense.”

“You could have warned me,” I said sulkily.

“I didn’t realize he’s so damn vindictive.” Peter held up his hand. “No, I am not going to have him arrested for a parking violation. When jurisdiction is fuzzy, we have to work with the sheriff’s department and Wessell.”

“What about jaywalking?”

“No, and I don’t want you locked up for assault—or stealing his battery. You’re going to have to get over it.”

“Over his squished body.” I leaned back and took a sip of wine. An idea had come to mind while Peter was talking. A very fine idea. Wessell had humiliated me. Now it was time for me to humiliate him. Peter was gazing at me with a squinty, suspicious look, so I smiled and said, “You’re right, dear. I need to get over it. Shall I stick a pizza in the oven?”

Copyright © 2015 Joan Hess.

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Joan Hess is the author of both the Claire Malloy and the Maggody mystery series, a winner of the American Mystery Award, and a former president of the American Crime Writers League. A member of Sisters in Crime, she was recently recognized with a Lifetime Achievement Award from Malice Domestic. A long-time resident of Fayetteville, Arkansas, she now lives in Austin, Texas.

Comments

  1. bonitabruce

    It looks as if Joan Hess has another good one on her resume. I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

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