If you are in a bookstore, reading this opening paragraph,
trying to decide whether or not to shell out your
hard-earned money, you should know that I, Brandy
Borneâthirty-one, bottle blonde, divorced, who came running
home last year to live with her bipolar motherâ am not
perfect. I make my share of mistakes. Repeatedly. I am not
always what you might call ânice.â Nobodyâs role model.
(Also, there will be parenthetical remarks. Iâve been told
the mark of a really bad writer is the overuse of
parenthetical remarks. But you wouldnât know that, if I
hadnât made a parenthetical remark just now.)
Therefore, I will understand if you replace this book on
the shelf. One favor, please, if you donât make a purchase?
Could you face the cover out? And, perhaps (if no clerks
are lurking to catch you at it), move the book to a more
prominent spot? Thank you.
So much has happened in the fourteen months since Iâve been
back in Serenity, a small Midwestern town nestled on a bend
of the mighty Mississippi, that I hardly know where to
begin. Actually, I began four books ago, but donât panicâI
can catch you up quickly, and those of you who have been
with Mother and me from the beginning (God bless you, and
no sneeze required) might appreciate a refresher.
Besides the several murder mysteries in which Mother and I
got ourselves involved (Mother a willing participant, me
not so), I had also received two disturbing anonymous
The first claimed that my much-older sister, Peggy Sueâ who
lives in a tonier part of townâwas my birth mother; the
other missive insisted that my biological father was none
other than a certain United States senator.
After confronting Sis about these obnoxious notes, she
confirmed that their contents were accurate, which put an
added strain on our already strained relationship. But we
both came to the conclusion that, for the present, we would
keep these revelations to ourselves, and not disturb the
status quo. Sis was to remain Sis, and Mother Mother . . .
which suited social-climbing Peggy Sue just fine. Me, I had
my own reasons for keeping quiet, chief among them not
disturbing an already plenty disturbed Mother, who had
stopped taking her bipolar medication a few months ago.
We now return you to the regularly scheduled mystery novel
(and there will be another mystery, and another murder,
despite my best efforts otherwise). . . .
Summer had once again arrived in Serenity, though it seemed
something of a surprise after endless snow and then
continual rain that had caused a flood from which our
little community was still recovering. These were what we
Midwesterners call the dog days: hot and humid, a literal
pressure cookerâwell, not a literal pressure cooker, but
more than just a figurative one.
And while those with money fled north to Minnesota and
Canada until the weather cooled off, we common folk holed
up in air-conditioned houses, or malls, or movie the aters,
venturing out only in the early-morning hours, or late
evening, when the heat was barely tolerable.
At the moment, I was indoors, specifically upstairs in my
bedroom, trying to find something to wear that was cool,
and cool. Because being seven months pregnant during the
summer was no picnic.
Oh! Didnât I mention that I was expecting? Sorry. Okay,
just a little more catching up. . . .
My best friend, Tina, couldnât have a baby with her husband,
Kevin (because sheâd had cervical cancer), so I volunteered
to be a surrogate mother for them. (Sometimes I am nice.)
But donât worryâIâm not going to be all, âOoooh, my back
hurts,â and âI gotta pee again,â for three hundred pages.
Nor will you have to encounter such verbs as âtrundled,â or
âwaddled.â Youâll hardly even know Iâm preggers. Just, when
you picture meâshoulderlength blond hair, blue-eyed, kinda
prettyâdonât forget to add a baby bump.
From my closet I selected an outfit Tina bought for meâa
Juicy Couture yellow sundress (from their maternity line)
and a pair of orange Havaianas (flip-flops that Iâd always
wanted but wouldnât buy myself because I couldnât pronounce
them). You see, I figure if you dress right, people wonât
think âtrundleâ or âwaddleâ when you pass them on the
Sushi, my brown-and-white, blind, diabetic shih tzu
(actually, my only shih tzu, and the only thing besides
clothes that I slunk home with after the divorce) (Jake,
twelve, was staying with his father in Chicago) (I warned
you about the parentheticals) was on the floor a few feet
away, attacking an old brown Brighton snakeskin belt as if
it were a real reptile. I used the thing to keep her busy
while I got dressed, otherwise sheâd drag out all my shoes
from the closet. I would hide the belt in the bedroom for
her to findâwhich sheâd sniff out in a nano-second, even
though she couldnât see it, having slobbered on the thing
After checking myself out in the large round mirror of my
Art Deco dressing table, feeling a pregnant woman of
thirty-one had no right to look so cute, I scooped Sushi up
and headed downstairs to find Mother.
This morning, we were taking in an antique mantel clock to
be fixed; it was lovely but not keeping time. We had
snagged the clock at a tag sale because the seller (an
out-of-state relative of the deceased) didnât know its
regional value and, naturally, we kept mum, as is the
prerogative of any dealer (first rule of collecting).
Mother and I had a booth at the downtown antiques
mallâlocated in a four-story Victorian brick buildingâ and
we figured that once the clock had been cleaned and
repaired, we could sell it for five times what we paid.
Mother would take the lionâs share (or lionessâs share)
because she had spotted it first.
Our acquisition was one of only a few thousand such clocks
made right here in Serenity from about 1890 to 1920 by the
celebrated Andre Acklin, who had emigrated from Switzerland
to take advantage of the top quality wood from our lumber
mills (for clock casings), and pearl from the Mississippi
mussel shells (clock faces).
As a young man, Acklin had worked in France with Jules
Audemars and Edward Piguetâfuture founders of Audemars
Piguet Watch Companyâbut Acklin went his own way when the
other two men began to concentrate on expensive pocket
watches. Acklin preferred creating larger timepieces over
working in miniature, and also wanted to use more natural
Sadly, Serenityâs famed clockmaker died one bitter winter
afternoon in 1920, when a fire broke out in his shop on
Main Street, blotting out the cold temporarily and the
clockmaker permanently. According to local legend, some of
his precious inventory did survive.
So, naturally, when Mother and I saw an opportunity to buy
an Andre Acklin mantel clock for a song at the tag sale, we
were nearly beside ourselves with excitementâalthough we
did our best not to show it (second rule of collecting).
In the kitchen, I found Mother in all her manic glory,
standing at the sink, feverishly polishing a vintage silver
tea set that we never used. At least her energy, as of
late, had been directed toward home improvement, not
investigating some murderâreal or imagined.
Motherâage unknown because sheâd forged so many documents,
but who had claimed to be seventy-four for the past three
yearsâwas a statuesque Dane, with porcelain skin nearly
free of old age spots, wide mouth, narrow nose, prominent
cheekbones, and pale blue eyes magnified to twice their
size behind large round glasses. She wore her
shoulder-length silver-white hair in a variety of buns on a
variety of places on her head, even when she went to bed.
Today Mother graced us in a pale yellow blouse and matching
caprisâone of several new outfits Iâd gotten her because
sheâd lost so much weight during her manic phase, when she
slept little and ate even less.
Now, some of you may be asking why I didnât just talk to
her about going back on the medication. I did talk. She
Why did she refuse to listen to reason? Because, at the age
of seventy-whatever, the manic phase makes her feel like
Superwoman! Sheâs on a high that can last for months. But
then comes the inevitable depression stage (laced with
paranoia) and, inevitablyâlike a jet going three hundred
miles an hour at thirty-six-thousand feetâshe runs out of
gas and nose-dives to Earth.
I just prayed the crash wouldnât happen until after the
baby was born.
(Iâm not proud of this, but I tried crushing one of her
pills and hiding it in her favorite pastryâa vanilla cream-
hornâbut she caught on with one bite, and threw the rest of
the pastryâand her medicineâaway.) (This technique doesnât
work on Sushi, either.)
âIf you donât stop doing that,â I said, âyouâll polish the
silver right off.â
Mother held the teapot out by its ornate handle, saying
proudly, âLook, dear, I can see my face in it!â
So could I, a funhouse reflection with giant bug eyes, and
I could only wonder if it was how she viewed the world at
the momentârecognizable, if distorted.
âMother,â I said, âwe should hurryâbefore it gets too hot
âOh, yes, dear,â she said with a pensive frown. âThe
clock.â She set the teapot down and began wiping her hands
with a dishtowel. âYouâve packed it well?â
âWhat about Sushi? Do you think the little doggie would
like to go with us?â
âMoth-er,â I groaned.
Groaned, because at the mention of her name, Sushi would no
doubt come running, and did. That and the word âgoâ had her
dancing at our feet.
âOh, I am sorry,â Mother said. âThe little devil knows the
word âgo,â doesnât she? I should have spelled âgo,â instead
of said âgo.â â
âWill you please stop saying âgoâ?â
Sushi was in a frenzy now, yapping ever louder.
Mother put hands on hips. âNow you just said, âgo.â â
âThere you go again!â
We glared at each other in what was an all-too-common
occurrence around the Borne homestead: a stalemate of
I sighed. âWell, now, sheâll have to go with us.â
âI guess she will,â Mother huffed, âbecause you keep saying
I left (not trundled!) to get the dog carrier in the front
closet, Sushi underfoot, almost making me trip. Normally, I
enjoyed taking Soosh out with me on short errands, but this
time we were going to a new placeâTimmons Clock Repairâand
I didnât know if there would be another dog on the
premises, or how long we would stay . . . and, besides, we
were toting along a valuable antique.
But now, if we didnât take Sushi, the little furball would
surely exact her revenge, and that could mean (but would
necessarily not be limited to) any of the following: peeing
on the Oriental rug, chewing the leg / arm of a Queen Anne
chair, tearing up a feather pillow, unrolling the toilet
paper. Barricading the blind barker in the kitchen never
workedâthe one and only time we did that, she chewed off
all the corners of the lower cabinets.
I did own a rhinestone-studded dog-carrying bag, but the
pink balboa feathers made Sushi sneeze, so Iâd replaced the
bag with a baby front-pack (pink, pictured with rattles and
pacifiers and diaper pins), which was better because it
freed up my hands.
I had just strapped the front-pack on and was preparing to
deal with the dog, when the doorbell rang. Our post-
womanâshort brown hair, no make-up, athletic buildâ handed
me the mail and, after exchanging a few words with her
about how hot it was, I closed the door, then put the
correspondence on a nearby Victorian marble-top table
reserved for such things as car keys, loose change,
sunglasses, cell phones, and grocery lists.
Iâd been waiting for a rebate check on my new phoneâ which
I intended on blowing on the end-of-summer shoe sales,
because shoes would still fit after the baby cameâso I took
the time to sift through the mail.
Electric bill, water bill, church bulletin, You-Could Win-
a-Million-Dollars! notice, letter with no return address,
phone bill, fashion magazine . . .
. . . letter with no return address!
I snatched up the familiar white envelope with distinctive
computer font, but was surprised this time to see it
addressed to ...Vivian Borne.
And she was right there, instantly suspicious. âWhat is
that you have there, dear?â
I whirled, hiding the anonymous letter behind my back.
âNothing. Just more junk mail.â And I laughed a little, in
that unconvincing way the guilty do in movies.
Motherâs eyes narrowed, her voice taking on a strange,
dubious tone. âIf itâs nothing, dear, why conceal it?â
I was in a kerfuffleâshould I lie about the letter, and
increase her paranoia? Or give it to her, knowing its
contents might well send her on a downward spiral? Not the
best of options. . . .
I handed the letter over, with a âYouâre not going to like
She ignored that, and strode over to her favorite Queen
Anne needlepoint armchair, and sat regally, while I crossed
the Oriental rug to the matching needlepoint sofa, settling
as comfortably as I could on the rigid furniture.
I watched with increasing anxiety as Mother opened the
envelope, unfolded the single-sheet contents, then brought
it up closer to her glasses.
Sushi, sensing a postponement in our trip, found a stream
of sunlight to swim in, placing her head on her crossed
front paws, her lower lip protruding poutily.
I could pretty much guess what the letter said, going by
the two Iâd already received. But as Mother slowly read it
aloud, I clearly had underestimated the depth and scope of
viciousness intended by its sender.
ââSoon all will know that Brandy is not your daughter,ââ
Mother said, then paused, realizing what had just come out
of her. Then she resumed, in an atypically hushed voice.
ââ. . . and that Peggy Sue is her real mother. And Senator
Clark can kiss his political career good-bye.ââ
Motherâs hand containing the letter dropped to her lap, her
face turning ashen; then a bright red burn began at her
neck, working its way up.
She turned to me, eyes blazing. âYou knew?â
âHow long have you known?â
I shrugged, as if I were the one whoâd wrongly withheld a
secret. âA few months. First one I got was about Peggy Sue.
Second one was about Senator Clark.â
âAnd Peggy Sue? She knows that . . . you know?â
I nodded again. âShe got her own nice anonymous notes.â
Mother stood, pointing at me, jâaccuse. âAnd you kept this
from me? How could you do such a thing?â
âHey! You kept it from me for thirty years! So donât get up
on your high horse.â
Mother stared for a long moment, then nodded. Her manner
was disturbingly calm. âPoint well taken, my dear. You have
a perfect right to be miffed.â
âBut you must understand . . . we did what we thought was
âBest for whom, Mother? You and Peggy Sue, you mean?â
Mother came to join me on the couch, putting one hand on my
knee. âNo, Brandy . . . best for you. Peggy Sue couldnât
have cared for a baby properlyâshe was only eighteen, and
unmarriedâtimes were so different back then. And since the
man you thought of as your fatherâ my husband, Jonathan
Borneâhad just died, you gave me great comfort.â Her eyes
seemed about to overflow. âDid . . . did I do such a bad