DEATH and the Family Tree
A Trudy Roundtree Mystery
"If I thought I could get away with it, I'd be tempted to commit murder. But I rate Hen too high. And you, too, of course."
The speaker was Lulu Huckabee, my Aunt Lulu. Hen is her son, Henry Huckabee. He's the Chief of Police here in Ogeechee, Georgia, so it shows her confidence in his integrity as well as his law enforcement skills that she wouldn't expect him to let even his mother get away with murder. It's only fair for a mother to think first of her offspring, so I wasn't especially offended that she ranked me as an afterthought. I'm used to it.
I'm Trudy Roundtree, the first and so far only female officer on Ogeechee's police force. Hen's been my boss for several years now, and although he'd probably rather have his tongue cut out and made into sausage than say so, I think he knows I'm an asset to the force. Even if he doesn't feel that way, he wouldn't fire me. In some parts of the world, that's called nepotism. Down here, we call it kinfolkin'.
With the help of Pauline at the Cut-n-Curl, Aunt Lulu marched into her sixties with battle flags flying. The color of the battle flags changes periodically. For the past few months her hair had been a sort of a cranberry color she and Pauline call "Cosmopolitan," and today I imagined the reddish highlights were what put the fire in her eyes as she talked about Della Stubbs.
We were having this exchange on my back steps. We'd been transferring bag after bag of paper plates, cups, napkins, eating utensils, and paper towels from where they'd been stored in my spacious, mostly unused, pantry to Aunt Lulu's big heavily used Cadillac, so she could take them to the Anderson Hotel. The hotel, one of Ogeechee's historic buildings, no longer functions as a hotel, but serves as headquarters for the Historical Society and the Visitor Information Center. Two stories, L-shaped, it has porches on both stories all along the inside and the bottom of the L, which faces the courthouse. Like the courthouse, it's a major icon of Ogeechee civic pride and would be the focus of Ogeechee's Bicentennial festivities.
We'd been celebrating the Bicentennial for a year, and tomorrow was what the Bicentennial Committee called the culminating activity, speeches by every living mayor the town had ever had. The speeches would take place on the courthouse lawn, and the Old South Dinner, the final Bicentennial event and the reason for all the paper goods, would be served from the hotel, which was just across the parking lot to the west of the courthouse. Unlike the featureless square boxes that serve many counties, our courthouse is built in a formal style I've heard called Greek Revival, with white stone arches and columns which accent the red brick and form a portico on the ground level as well as the second story.
"Some people," Aunt Lulu continued, "don't know how to work with other people. They have to have their fingers in every little thing. Have to have everything their own way. It's a wonder we ever got anything done. Remind me never to get on a committee with Della Stubbs again."
"Yes, ma'am," I said, even though we both knew it would be ridiculous to suppose my advice would carry any weight. Nothing under the sun would keep Aunt Lulu from having a finger in every civic pie anybody started cooking up. Furthermore, I was sure that if Aunt Lulu had been able to have her own way with things on the Bicentennial Planning Committee, she wouldn't have been so worked up, but I had the good sense not to say so.
"If Della's the one to blame for all the whoop-de-do coming to a peak right here at Christmas, I'll help you kill her," I offered.
"Well, no," Aunt Lulu admitted. "I don't blame Della for that. We all agreed to have it now. December was when the county was officially established, so there wasn't really any discussion about it. When else would you want to do it?"
"When you put it that way . . . ."
"You have no sense of history, Trudy."
That wasn't fair and she knew it. One of the projects of the Bicentennial Committee during the past year had been to research old buildings in town and provide those more than a hundr ed years old with yard signs. I think that project was Aunt Lulu's pet, since she's so proud of the Roundtree House, my house. They gave us all signs that show the name of the house and its date, framed in black-painted scrollwork. The courthouse has a sign and so does the Anderson Hotel. The Stubbs House is old, too, which might be another thing Aunt Lulu and Della Stubbs got crosswise about.
The Stubbs house was built by Willard and Eva Nell Stubbs toward the end of the 1800s. It may be a few years older than my house, but I'm not fighting about it. Their yard sign says the same thing mine does: Circa 1900.
Needless to say, politics got involved when it came to establishing the dates on some of the places; everybody laying claim to the earliest possible date--earlier than the other buildings, at least. I stayed out of that, leaving it to Aunt Lulu to uphold the honor of the Roundtree House. Which is older? I don't really care about that. Circa 1900 is good enough for me.
"Did you know this county was carved out of another one?"
Having decided I had no sense of history, Aunt Lulu was treating me to a history lesson. "That was more than two hundred years ago. Ogeechee came along and got to be the county seat after they made a survey to find the geographic center of the county. This was as close as they could come if they didn't want to put the town in the middle of a river or a swamp."
"Yes'm, I knew that, but I wouldn't have before this year and all the marvelous work you and the rest of the Bicentennial Committee has done to educate the masses."
She looked at me with narrowed eyes, rightly suspecting me of insincerity, but reverted to her complaint about Della Stubbs.
"Della had to have the last word on everything from picking the topics for essays from the elementary school children right on up to the color of the signs we put up on the highway, and now she's trying to make everybody use her recipe for banana pudding at the Old South Dinner we're putting on after the mayors' speeches."
Ah ha. Bossiness is one thing, but slighting Aunt Lulu's banana pudding is something else. You don't often see Aunt Lulu out of sorts, but this is just the kind of thing that would do it.
"Did you just find out about the banana pudding?" I asked, wondering why she was boiling over right then.
"Yes. I thought it was all settled, but Della decreed that my recipe is too time-intensive--that's exactly what she said, like some kind of efficiency expert, like that would be more important than how it tastes--too time-intensive to make for such a big crowd! Does that make sense to you?"
Actually, it did, but I didn't say that. "Why couldn't everybody just bring their own recipe?" I asked.
She slammed the car door shut with unnecessary force and gave me a scathing look. "Because."
"Oh," I said.
"Della's idea of quality control." Aunt Lulu opened the car door to free a plastic bag that hadn't been completely inside, tucked it inside, and slammed again, not quite so forcefully. "Have you ever tasted Ione Martin's banana pudding?"
"No ma'am, but I see your point. Della must have energy to burn," I said, making an oblique effort to change the subject. "Even with all her work on the Bicentennial, she had time to organize a family reunion."
Aunt Lulu took the bait. Her willingness to support Della Stubbs on this issue demonstrated her essential fairmindedness. "Stubbses have been part of Ogeechee's history since before there was technically an Ogeechee, so having the reunion at the same time as the Bicentennial made sense. Julian Stubbs is now the oldest living ex-mayor. I always liked Julian. He did a lot for the town."
Just when I thought she was calming down, her pique flared again. "I think that's why Della crammed this speech marathon down all our throats, so Julian could be on the program and all the family would come to hear him and see what she and Willie have done with the house."
What Della and her sister, Willie, had done with the house was fix it up and open it as a bed and breakfast. The grand opening had been just before Thanksgiving, accompanied by generous coverage by The Ogeechee Beacon and a spate of smallish civic and social events on the premises, to introduce locals to what the establishment had to offer, so that they'd feel comfortable promoting it. Any new business takes a while to catch on, I'm told, so it was hard to tell how the Stubbs House Bed and Breakfast was faring.
"Funny you should mention that," I said. "I'm on my way over there. Shawna and Frank Kersey and their little boy are staying there during the reunion. Shawna invited me to come have a tour and see it decorated for Christmas before the house gets too cluttered up with relatives." My lifelong friend, Shawna Kersey, belongs to a branch of the family that fruited into Laniers and Rankins and Purvises. Della and Willie were Shawna's mother's cousins. I'm not sure what relation that makes them to Shawna.
"Maybe you'll get some ideas," Aunt Lulu said, patting the crumbling concrete supports beside the steps. "I know Teri would be glad to help." Teri is Hen's wife, and she grew on another branch of the Stubbs tree. Della and Willie were her aunts. I assumed Aunt Lulu wasn't speaking her mind about Della Stubbs quite so freely within Teri's hearing. Even Aunt Lulu might not want to push the mother-in-law/daughter-in-law thing too far.
"Why isn't Shawna staying with Nancy and Tom?" Aunt Lulu asked, tactfully not dwelling on the renovation theme.
"She said her brother Kevin, the spoiled-rotten fair-haired son, is staying with them. More likely, she just wanted to check out the bed and breakfast."
"Beats me how Della and Willie think they'll make a go of a bed and breakfast business in Ogeechee. It's not like we're a big tourist destination, after all."
"Don't you think the Bicentennial will attract a lot of tourists?"
"Hasn't so far. Maybe that's why they could fill it up with relatives this week. I wonder if they're charging them. Not that I wish them ill, you understand."
"Thank goodness all this Bicentennial to-do is just about over. After tomorrow we can all relax--might even get through the whole thing without a murder."
"I hope so. Think of the scandal if Hen had to arrest you for murder. Not to mention the gap it would leave in the library board, the garden club, and the leadership of United Methodist Women."
"I'm sure Della Stubbs would step right up," Aunt Lulu said. Then, brightening, "But she'd be dead, wouldn't she?"
"Even with her alive, after tomorrow you'll get a break from her. You'll be able to get back to your Super Bowl party planning," I said.
For some reason, after Aunt Lulu first mentioned the Super Bowl party a couple of weeks earlier, she'd been uncharacteristically closemouthed about it. I wondered if I'd offended her somehow. Maybe she was just waiting till they had the details worked out.
"What are the Geezerettes up to these days?" I had asked. The Geezerettes is a bunch of Aunt Lulu's friends, not exactly a club but not exactly not a club. They call themselves that, I think, as a way of thumbing their noses at an exclusive men's club, which is exactly a club, which calls itself Ogeechee's Old Gentlemen, but is usually referred to by the irreverent as the OOG or Ogeechee's Old Geezers, or simply The Geezers. I'd suggested "the O'Geezers," but it didn't catch on. As far as I know, the Geezerettes have no regular meeting place or time, and no mission statement, but they know who they are and they get together for fun. They're usually up to something.
When I tell you that sixty\_something Aunt Lulu is on the young end of the group, you'll understand my surprise when she told me they were putting together a Super Bowl party.
"Sounds like fun," I had said cautiously, never sure what turn the collective brain of the Geezerettes might take. "But I didn't know the Geezerettes were big football fans."
"There might be a lot you don't know about us, Trudy. We like to keep up with what's going on in the world."
"I'm sure of that, Aunt Lulu. It's just that most Super Bowl parties involve men and a lot of beer. Are y'all branching out?"
She smiled. "We're branching out, but not that far."
"Have you alerted Phil?"
Phil Pittman, the heart and soul and meat and potatoes and sweat and toil of The Beacon is committed to keeping the community informed about everything of possible interest, with hoopla beforehand and pictures afterward. He's one of the best things about Ogeechee in my opinion, right up there with my job. More about Phil later.
"I don't think we need to involve the press yet, Trudy. If we decide to do a fundraiser, we'll get him in on it."
"A fundraiser for the Geezerettes?"
"No, for . . . well, a good cause."
"Y'all aren't up to something underhanded, are you? Is your branching out taking the form of something that can't stand the light of day?"
I'd meant it as a joke, but something shifty in her reaction made me wonder if they were up to something that couldn't stand the light of day.
"Don't get snippy with me, thinking you'll trick me into saying more than I mean to," she said. "I'm Henry Huckabee's mother, you know, and I'm on to tricks like that."
She'd probably taught him some of those tricks.
"The Super Bowl party is well in hand, thank you," she said now.
"You don't sound happy about it," I said. "I thought the whole point of the Geezerettes was to have fun."
"Ellen Chandler is determined to get Della in on this party. You know Ellen. Everybody's her friend."
"Ah. And Della is not your friend."
"Not a good enough friend to be a Geezerette, but Ellen has some idea for the party that she says she needs Ellen to help her pull off."
"You could give her a chance."
"Ellen or Della?"
"Both of 'em. Maybe Della's got a good side you haven't discovered."
"If I haven't found it in all the time I've known her, it's pretty well hidden," Aunt Lulu responded, and that was that. She got in her car and slammed the door one more time.
I watched her drive away and then I went back inside for my car keys, trying not to notice the peeling paint by the back porch door.
People who think not much goes on in a small town have another think coming.