…“We’ll be back in a little bit,” I said, and Nancy and I went in the front doorway. The foyer was a large area with gleaming heart-pine floors, elegant oriental rugs, and rich fabrics. The living room was to the right and was similarly decorated, with a baby grand piano in the far corner, at which a middle-aged man in a seersucker suit and thinning hair was skillfully playing cocktail lounge tunes.
To the left of the foyer was a large dining room with a massive walnut Sheraton dining table and twelve mahogany Queen Anne chairs that were pulled back against the walls of the room to provide seating. The table practically groaned under its load of scrumptious-looking goodies. The table was covered by a full-length damask tablecloth that was surely a family heirloom. China, crystal, and sterling silver filled the room with a rich glow.
The bar had been set up behind the table on the far outer wall, and we began to make our way through the throng of guests, eating, drinking, and visiting. No one paid the least bit of attention to either of us. Behind the bar was a black man dressed in black pants and a white tux shirt. He saw me coming and smiled,
“How ya’ll doin this fine spring evening,” he sang in a deep, melodic voice. “I’m Coleman, what can I fix you to drink?”
“I’ll have a couple of scotch on the rocks, and I’ll need a Jack Daniel’s for Miss Manning,” I replied.
“Yes, suh, two scotch on the rocks and one Miz Bertha coming up.”
It was clear that this was not Coleman’s first night on this gig. If he would be willing to tell it, he probably knew where all the bodies were buried. Strange that I should have thought about buried bodies at this moment. Nancy tugged on my sleeve and inclined her head back toward the buffet table.
“Do you see what I’m seeing,” she asked incredulously.
Her eyes led me to the far end of the buffet table where I saw what had caught her attention. There were two legs sticking out from under the tablecloth from the knees down. They were encased in a pair of ecru support hose rolled down to the knee joints, and were sporting a pair of very sensible black shoes. The rest of the person was hidden under the table. Guests were moving back and forth along the buffet, filing plates and talking to each other and, when they approached the legs, they were very careful to step over them without comment or any apparent concern.
“Maybe she’s had a little bit too much to drink,” I offered.
“She picked a strange place to pass out,” Nancy said.
“Well, nobody seems too concerned, so I guess we just go with the flow. There may be some ancient Canton custom involved and we don’t need to interfere. We’re only guests, after all.”
“I don’t suppose that you could just casually reach down and feel for a pulse, could you?”
“What do you want me to do, crawl under the table and give her a physical?”
“Oh, hell no, you’d probably try give her a pelvic. Let’s just take our drinks out and see what Miss Bertha thinks about it all.”
Nancy and I found Miss Bertha sitting on one of the porch swings, gently rocking and singing along with the piano, whose notes were drifting on the evening breeze. I handed Miss Bertha her drink and said as matter-of-factly as I could,
“We just saw something that seems a little unusual; there’s a lady lying under the buffet table with her legs sticking out. She’s not moving. Do you think someone should check her out?”
“Aw, shit, I can’t believe that ditzy old crow has done it again. Laura Devon is going to have a duck.”
“I take it that this is a regular event on Friday evenings?”
“Well, it’s getting much worse since her last heart attack; she just lies down and prepares to die every time she feels the least bit bad. We think she’s doing it to try to get a rise from her son, Millsap.
“Is her son here tonight?”
“Yes, he’s the little thing playing the piano. He may be a little light in his loafers, but he sure can tickle the keys.”
“Do you suppose someone might oughta give him a heads-up that Mommy is taking break amongst the hors d’oeuvres?’
“I suppose we should. Come with me and we can turn this over to Laura. After all, it is her house.”
The three of us returned to the living room and Miss Bertha quickly corralled Mrs. Devon and whispered the news. Laura Devion frowned and said, “Damn it, Bertha, I saw the silly thing’s legs sticking out into my dining room and decided not to give her the satisfaction of noticing. It only rewards her deplorable behavior. But I suppose somebody needs to check on her. Where is that young Dr. Ed Reed? I saw him and Patricia here earlier.” Miss Bertha pointed across the room to a very upscale young couple listening to the piano music.
Laura Devine walked over and said, “Dr. Reed, could I trouble you for a moment?”
“Of course, Mrs. Devon, what can I do for you?”
“If you could rather discreetly examine the person lying under my buffet table I would greatly appreciate it.”
“I beg your pardon; someone is lying under the buffet table?”
“Yes, and I am certain there is nothing wrong with her but a mean and hateful disposition, but I suppose one has to take every precaution in a situation like this. Just give her a quick look, if you will.”
Nancy and watched as the young doctor eased his way to the end of the table and, acting as if he had dropped his fork, slipped totally unnoticed beneath the tablecloth. In a moment, the two exposed legs slipped neatly under the table and soon Ed Reed emerged as if nothing was the least bit unusual. He strolled over to our little group and said,
“Mrs. Devine, I am sad to report that your friend is quite dead. She appears to have suffered a massive heart failure. I believe we must call the authorities and report this.”
“Dr. Reed, I really appreciate your help, and I’ll take care of everything from this point on. I have no intention of allowing that awful woman to ruin my party.”
She looked at the three of us and said, “Since you already know what’s going on, the three of you can help me clean up this mess. The first thing that I’m going to do is to call Billy Maxwell and tell him what has happened and to be sure he doesn’t send a bunch of police cars and ambulances here to make a big scene.”
Billy Maxwell was the sheriff of Hamilton County and a well-known law and order hard nose. If you got so much as a traffic ticket in his county, you got the full treatment, including a prison haircut and a cavity search. He had a female deputy of undetermined sexual preference on his force who very much enjoyed searching young women who were unlucky enough to be ensnared in Hamilton County justice. I was pretty sure Mrs. Devon would be subjected to the full Billy Maxwell treatment. Just the thought of some deputy performing a cavity search of Laura Devon boggled the mind.
What actually happened was quite different. Maxwell came to the house alone and pretty much faded into the general hub-bub. The owner of The Carroll Brothers’ Funeral Home arrived with a hearse and two attendants and parked discreetly in the back of the house. Mrs. Devon took one of her silver forks and gently tapped a crystal water goblet and, once she had everyone’s attention, said,
“Ladies and gentlemen I have just been informed that there will be a total eclipse of the moon in about five minutes; why don’t we all move onto the front verandah and observe this astronomical wonder?”
A general excitement rippled through the guests and everyone began to move toward the front of the house. When they were all gone, the two men from the funeral home brought in a collapsible gurney, and without ceremony, drug the body from under the table and removed it to the waiting hearse. It was all done in less than five minutes.
I looked at Nancy and said, “Now it ought to get really interesting. I’ll bet Maxwell tells all of us not to leave until he’s taken our statements. I’m expecting Mrs. Marple or Hercule Poirot to suddenly appear. I guess we can kiss Tico’s steaks goodbye.”
Soon everyone started to drift back into the dining room, having been informed that there had been a mistake about the eclipse. The party was back in full swing, with the piano player hammering away. Miss Bertha walked over and said, “Laura and I would like to thank the two of you for keeping cool during our recent little unpleasantness. We hope that both of you will become regulars for out little soirees.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am, I suppose someone has told the piano player that his mother is dead? He sure is taking it well.”
“We decided to wait until the party was over to mention it to him. He will be beside himself when he finds out.”
“Well, I can imagine he will; he just lost his mother.”
“Oh that won’t be a problem, they hated each other. He’ll be excited to know that she’s gone and he will be inheriting over $50,000,000 dollars. He can finally move to New Orleans and move in with his friend. She would have cut off his allowance if he had done it while she was alive. We just want him keep on playing till the party ends.”
“I don’t see how y’all will be able to keep it from him when the sheriff begins his investigation.”
“Oh, there’ll be no investigation. What’s to investigate? Billy Maxwell likes being sheriff too much to mess up our party.” She paused for a half second and her eyes flickered towards the window. “In fact, I see him pulling away as we speak.”
Sure enough, the sheriff’s car was easing away from the curb and there would be no further inquiry into the death of Norma Langston. There would be a family funeral sometime next week, and Millsap would be leaving for the Vieux Carre before they could fill in the grave.
Miss Bertha smiled at Nancy and me and said, “Now, you young people need to circulate and meet some more of our members. I’m gonna have another drink and see if there is some old coot who might like a night of perversion. Enjoy the party.”
Carl and Cathy walked up as she disappeared into the crowd. “We were about to come rescue y’all from the clutches of Bertha Manning – she’ll talk your ear off,” Cathy explained. “We’re getting bored; let’s head for Tico’s. I don’t guess anything interesting has happened to you two?”
“Nothing out of the ordinary. We’ll fill y’all in on the way.”