Dear readers: I wrote a short story featuring some of the main characters from my hilarious new mystery novel, A BOX OF PANDORAS, and thought I'd share it here on my blog. Part II will appear tomorrow.
My first thought when I saw the purloined orchid was that I'd finally found a way to wipe the rodeo-queen smile off Mitzi Tyner's face.
I've labored in Mitzi's shadow my whole life. We were in the same grade through school, and raven-haired Mitzi was Miss Everything-All-the-Time. Homecoming queen. Class president. Head cheerleader for the Pandora Boxers (dogs, not underwear). Editor of the school newspaper, though she can barely write her own name.
I never got to be any of those things. All my ambitions were thwarted by the blinding charisma of Mitzi Tyner. My yearbook caption might as well have read: "Loretta Kimball: Most Likely to Come in Second."
I thought it would end after school, but Mitzi follows me through middle age, thwarting me. If I join a civic organization such as the Association to Beautify Pandora Creek, she joins, too, and is inevitably elected president within weeks. She's president of everything in town. Not that she ever does any work, mind you. That's left to drones like me. Mitzi believes her role is to stand around and be admired, and the people of Pandora just eat that up with a spoon.
I try to avoid all contact with her, but that's not possible in a town of two thousand souls surrounded by hundreds of miles of empty prairie. I suppose I could go stand out in the desert by myself, but I'm social by nature. I want to help people, to be involved in our community, but every time I turn around, I bump into the surgically enhanced bosom of Mitzi Tyner.
The worst is when my civic duty requires me to visit her home, which is just as overdecorated as she is. Oh, Mitzi has many lovely furnishings in that mausoleum she and Long John Tyner built on the outskirts of town, but the decor is so thrown together, it's got all the charm of a flea market. The Chinese vases and Southwestern landscapes and ceramic elephants might as well have price tags hanging on them. All of Mitzi's taste is in her mouth.
She often hosts civic events out there at the Taj U-Haul, so I'm sometimes forced to actually cross her threshold. On this day, it was a meeting of the Save Old Route 66 Committee. I'm secretary of the committee, which used to be headed up by my husband, Harley. (Of course, as soon as Mitzi joined, the downtown businessmen elected her president, but Harley didn't mind. He's got enough to do at the hardware-and-feed store that's been in his family for three generations.)
I was first to arrive for our monthly meeting, and Mitzi greeted me wearing a puffy blue frock and dangly earrings and a white apron decorated with black cows. She can't wear jeans like everyone else in Pandora. She dresses as if she expects a TV crew to stop by any minute.
"Loretta!" She always acts pleased to see me, but I know better. "Come in this house!"
I was carrying a sack full of plastic bottles of soda pop for the meeting, and it was like holding an armload of slithery babies. I followed her to the kitchen to dump my burden, and that's when I saw the orchid.
She hadn't even bothered to hide it! The orchid sat on a mahogany sideboard in her dining room, bold as you please, its drooping flowers so yellow they seemed made of sunshine. Oh, the blue ceramic pot was new, and she'd clearly pruned a couple of the leathery leaves, but that was a Yellow Lantern hybrid, and it most definitely was the one stolen from Betty Sue Lybrand.
I'd seen that rare orchid once before. I happened to stop by Betty Sue's place right after she brought it home from a flower show in Albuquerque. Just the most precious orchid you've ever seen. Must've cost hundreds of dollars, and I'm sure that didn't sit well with her husband, Archie, a shade-tree mechanic known for being tighter than new boots. Betty Sue had planned to show the orchid off at the next meeting of the Pandora Garden Society, but a sneak thief took it from her home a week ago.
Now there it was, in plain sight, with half the town's bigwigs on their way to Mitzi's house. Did she think no one would notice? Did she think we were fools?
"What a beautiful orchid!" I said as I crossed the room to examine it closer. Definitely Betty Sue's missing hybrid. "Where did you get it?"
"Isn't it pretty?" Mitzi was at the kitchen sink, opening a bottle of cheap champagne. "Nannette gave me that the other day."
Nannette Hoch is Mitzi's sidekick. She's a dried-up lemon of a woman, bitter and nasty, with only three passions in life: devotion to her church, loyalty to Mitzi and loathing of me. The feeling is mutual.
"Since when does Nannette know anything about orchids?"
"Somebody gave it to her, and she knew she'd just kill it," Mitzi said. "You know how she is with plants, bless her heart."
I nodded. Nannette was quietly banned from Garden Society meetings years ago because she could wipe out a roomful of healthy houseplants with a single jinxed exhalation.
Had Nannette stolen the orchid? I couldn't imagine that. First of all, Nannette hadn't broken one of the Ten Commandments in decades, if ever. Secondly, her bad plant karma would've killed such a delicate hybrid right away. I was surprised it survived the car ride to Mitzi's house. Nannette must've kept the windows rolled down the whole way.
The cork popped. Mitzi beamed at this accomplishment, her capped teeth shiny as truck mirrors. She poured herself a healthy fluteful, though it was barely two o'clock in the afternoon, and joined me in the dining room.
"This is a rare orchid," I said.
As if she didn't know. Betty Sue's tightwad husband had moaned to anyone who'd listen about the loss of that valuable plant.
"Why would someone sentence it to death by giving it to Nannette?"
Mitzi's smile waned while she concentrated on one of her periodic thoughts, then she flashed the high-beams again.
"You can ask her yourself," she said brightly. "I saw her out the kitchen window a minute ago. Her car was just pulling up."
My pulse quickened. Nannette wasn't a member of the Save Old Route 66 Committee, so I hadn't expected her here. Did I dare confront her? The town fathers would be arriving any second. Did I want them to find three middle-aged women in the middle of a hair-tearing fight?
(To be continued . . .)