Deborah Sharp's debut mystery, “Mama Does Time,” is set around Mama, a true Southern woman. One night, while settling in to look for ex-beaus on COPS, Mace gets a frantic call from her mother, and she's in trouble: Mama found a body in the trunk of her car and the police think she's the killer. An excerpt.
Mama just wanted to look pretty for high-stakes bingo night at the Seminole casino.
But her beautician left the peroxide on too long, and she’s been shedding like an Angora sweater ever since. Now, it turns out a patchy dye job is the least of my mother’s worries.
It all started with a phone call. I was just about to plop down with my left-over fried chicken in front of the TV, wanting to see if I could spot any of my ex-boyfriends on Cops, when the damned thing rang.
“Mace, honey, you’ve got to come down here and help me. I’m in a lot of trouble.’’
Mama’s voice was shaking. She sounded scared, like the time the raccoon came crashing from the attic through the bathroom ceiling while my little sister, Marty, was in a bubble bath.
“Slow down, Mama,’’ I told her. “Now, take a deep breath.’’
My mother is excitable. I’m used to such calls. Maybe she needed me to solve a romantic crisis, or come pluck a snake out of the engine of her vintage turquoise convertible. I work outdoors in Himmarshee, Florida, in the wild regions north of Lake Okeechobee. I’m accustomed to snakes.
“Start at the beginning and tell me what’s wrong,’’ I said.
I heard a shuddery sigh, and then silence. She cleared her throat. Finally she spoke.
“They’ve got me down here at the police station, Mace. They think I’ve killed a man.’’
If the kitchen counter hadn’t been there for me to grab a hold of, I’d have fallen out flat on the checkerboard pattern of my linoleum floor. I leaned my back against the wall and slid down slowly until my butt hit the baseboard. There I sat, clutching the receiver and searching for the proper response when your mother announces she’s got one foot behind bars for murder.
“Just sit tight and don’t say another word. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’’
I knew my advice would go untaken. The only time Mama’s mouth is shut is when she’s chewing on something.
“There was a man’s body in my trunk, Mace.’’
A strangled sob came through the phone. Then the story started pouring out.
“There was an accident,’’ she said, running the words together. “Everything started at the Dairy Queen. Or maybe at bingo. I’d ordered me a butterscotch dip. Then, two police cars came. I couldn’t even get a second cone. A pretty young girl hit me. The man had a diamond pinky ring.’’ She stopped for a breath. “You’d better call your sisters, Mace.’’
“Not another word. Do not say another word to anyone, you hear? You can fill me in when I get there. And Mama? Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.’’
Even as I said it, I didn’t believe it. But I hoped I sounded like I did. My two sisters and I spend a lot of time reassuring our mother that things will turn out fine. The amazing thing is, they usually do. But getting Mama from Point A to Point A-OK requires delicate maneuvering, truckloads of patience, and a fair amount of prayer.
I wasn’t sure this time if all those things together would be enough.
I grabbed my keys from inside the toothy grin of a stuffed alligator head I keep on my coffee table. It’s a trapping souvenir from a ten-foot nuisance gator my cousin and I wrestled from a swimming pool. The pool’s owner, a newcomer, thought he wanted country living until the country came to call.
Within minutes, I was on my way to town to rescue Mama. I live twenty miles out, in a cottage made of native cypress cut from local swamps. But downtown Himmarshee itself isn’t much more than a bug speck on the windshield of a cattle-hauling truck. It seems like every week developers plant a new subdivision sign on former pastureland. But so far, the big cattle trucks still rumble along these narrow old highways north of Lake Okeechobee.
I opened the Jeep’s windows in addition to cranking the AC. We’re fifty miles from the nearest ocean breeze. Even at night, the summer heat in middle Florida is like a prelude to hell.
As I sped south, a full moon spilled light on fields dotted with palmetto scrub. Cows herded together under Sabal palms, dark shadows in the distance. The Monday night traffic was light. I was at the police department in no time at all.
Inside, I rounded a corner into the lobby and spotted my mother — Rosalee Deveraux, sixty-two years old last Fourth of July. She was clad in an orange-sherbet-colored pantsuit and matching pumps, perched on a desk like she owned the place. Someone must have just said something funny, because Mama’s head was reared back in a laugh.
The sound was reassuring. Strange, under the circumstances, but reassuring.
“Well, look who’s here.’’ She grabbed the receptionist’s elbow and turned her in my direction. “Emma Jean, you remember my middle girl, Mace. You know, the one who works at the nature park and traps critters on the side?’’
Mama was grinning at me like I was Santa Claus bringing that baby doll she’d always wanted. “Honey, c’mon over and say hello to my bingo buddy, Emma Jean Valentine.’’
I raised an eyebrow at my mother, who appeared to be in full hostess mode.
“Nice to see you again, Ms. Valentine.’’ I extended my hand across the desk, over a decorative family of Troll dolls, to a plus-sized woman in her mid-fifties.
Emma Jean, whose short skirt was in reverse proportion to her big hair, gave me a girlish grin. It was a marked contrast to her bone-crushing handshake. I offered her the pleasantries that small town manners demand. Then I put my hands on my mother’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes.
“What in the hell’s going on, Mama? When you called, you sounded like you were strapped into Ol’ Sparky, and the warden was ready to throw the switch. Where’s your car? Where’s the body? Are you being arrested?’’
My mother licked a finger and reached over to smooth my bangs. I jerked away, like I’ve been doing since I was six.
“I’m sorry, Mace. I was awful upset, what with that poor dead man and all, God rest his soul. But Emma Jean says this brand-new detective is gonna get everything straightened out. Now, calm down, honey.’’
That was rich. Her telling me to calm down.
She swiveled on the desk back to Emma Jean. “Mace isn’t usually so excitable. My youngest, Marty, is the one who falls to pieces over the littlest things. Mace is usually my rock.’’
Emma Jean had been watching us. For all I knew, she’d concealed a tiny tape recorder somewhere on her person. That might be hard to miss, though, since her pink denim outfit looked spray-painted on. A kitty-cat pin glittered on the jacket she’d tossed over her bustier. Could one of those rhinestone eyes hold a miniature microphone to capture Mama’s confession?
I was staring at the sparkly cat, plotting how to get my mother alone, when Mama spun to Emma Jean. “Would you be a doll and fetch me a dash more of that heavenly coffee?’’ She flashed a smile so luminous it could melt snow. “Extra cream, lots of sugar.’’
Turning, my mother winked at me. She might be flighty and infuriating, but occasionally a sharp mind makes itself known from beneath that badly dyed ’do.
Emma Jean heaved herself from her leather chair. Looming over Mama, she waggled an index finger six inches from her face. The nail was bright red, with a tiny white heart. “You’re not going to run out on us, are you, Rosalee? The detective will be with you shortly. And, don’t forget, we know where you live.’’
Her tone was playful. But it seemed there might be some menace in the message.
Video: Author on ‘Mama Does Time’ (on this page) Emma Jean punched in a code and passed through a plain white door, her high heels click-clicking down the hall.
My mother sipped from the coffee dregs in her cup, then made a face. “Ice cold. And it never was nothing but lukewarm. Now I know why all my TV shows make a big deal out of bad coffee at the police station.’’
I looked around for eavesdroppers. Himmarshee isn’t exactly a criminal hotbed. We were alone in the reception area. “Should I find you a lawyer, Mama?’’
Her eyes widened. “You can’t be serious, Mace. You don’t really think I’ve murdered a man, do you? You, my own flesh and blood?’’ She shook her head. A few stray hairs floated to the surface of Emma Jean’s desk. “Your daddy’s rollin’ in his grave, girl.’’
Mama always says that Daddy, who died young of a heart attack, was her one true love. Even so, she’s seen no harm in hoping Cupid will aim true again. She’s been married four times.
“Mama, tell me — quickly. What happened?’’
“Well, first I got dressed to go to bingo. What do you think of this orange, Mace?’’ She ran a hand down the pantsuit’s fabric. “Is it too much with the shoes? I was afraid with my white hair, I’d look like a Creamsicle. I did rethink an orange-and-white scarf I’d planned to wear. ’’
“The man you’re accused of killing, Mama? Remember him?’’
“Mercy, Mace. You’re wound tighter than an eight-day clock. Of course I remember. I’m the one who found the man, dead in my trunk. I was just trying to tell you how I came to be at the Dairy Queen. I’d already started out of the parking lot, when I decided at the last minute to go back and buy me a second cone.”
A photo on Emma Jean’s desk caught my mother’s eye. She traced the image with a finger, a far-away look on her face. It showed a young Emma Jean pushing a child on a swing.
“Hmmm?’’ She looked up, her eyes unfocused. “Sorry, Mace. So, that was when I felt a tap on my bumper. The cutest young girl in a red sports car had tail-ended me. Do you think I’m too old for a little sports car like that, honey?’’
“Mama,’’ I warned.
“Anyway, the girl noticed my trunk wasn’t shut right. I tried to slam it, but it wouldn’t catch. You should have seen her face when I lifted up that heavy lid to see what was making it stick.’’
I was afraid to ask.
“It was a man’s hand, catching that little metal doohickey that makes the trunk close. His sleeve was bloody. The back of his fingers were hairy. When I close my eyes, I can still see that diamond pinky ring.’’
“How’d you know he was dead?’’
She looked at me like I was slow. “I grew up on a farm, Mace. Don’t you think I’ve seen enough animals, dead and alive, to know when any one of God’s creatures has taken its last breath? Besides, his wrist was right there. I put my fingers on it real careful, and felt for a pulse. He didn’t have one. And his skin was colder than a car seat in January.’’
Mama stared out the window into the night. “There was a blanket tossed over his face.’’ Her voice sounded soft, distant. “I wasn’t about to go messing around. I watch Law and Order. You never contaminate a crime scene. And that’s what my car was, Mace, a murder scene.’’
Mama walked over to the trash and dumped her coffee cup. Then, she tore yesterday’s date — September 13 — off a wall calendar. A gift from the Gotcha Bait & Tackle shop, the calendar pictured a largemouth bass leaping over the month. When she started rubbing at a scuffmark on the wall, I knew Mama was more upset than she let on.
Putting my arm around her shoulder, I led her back to the desk. At barely five feet in her sherbet pumps, the top of her head didn’t reach my chin.
“C’mon, let’s sit down.” I lowered her gently to a chair beside the desk. “Everything will be fine.’’
“I know, Mace.’’ She managed a shaky smile. “I’m just thinking of that poor dead soul. He must have had a family. I bet someone is wondering right now where he’s at.’’
I steered her back to the Dairy Queen.
“When we found the body, the girl started screaming,” Mama said. “I believe her name was Donna. Or maybe Lonna. Before I knew it, people were pouring outside. Everyone was staring, their ice creams melting all over the asphalt lot. Policemen in two different cars came, squealing tires.’’
“What’d you tell them?’’
“That I had no idea how that man got into my trunk, of course. That I’m innocent.’’
I didn’t want to picture that conversation.
“They made me wait inside until a detective came. He had a Spanish last name. Awfully good-looking. He seemed real impatient with my answers.’’
Imagine that, I thought.
“He finally got up, all red in the face, and ordered the officers to bring me here to wait some more. He has more questions, he said. He acted like he thinks I’m guilty.”
“Is the detective someone we know, Mama?’’
“He’s brand new. Emma Jean says he used to be a policeman down in Miami, but something bad happened down there. No one talks about exactly what.’’
Just then, the door opened. My mother nudged me in the ribs and bent her head. “That’s him. That’s the detective,’’ she whispered.
“Who’s she?’’ the detective asked Mama, crooking a thumb in my direction.
I knew people were rude in Miami, but this was ridiculous. Good looks are no excuse for bad manners.
“‘She’ is Mason Bauer, Detective.’’ I used my given name and straightened to my full five-foot-ten inches. “I’m Ms. Deveraux’s daughter.’’
“And I’m Detective Martinez.’’ He gave his last name a little trill. Neither of us offered to shake hands. “You can’t be here while I talk to your mother. She may be involved in a homicide.’’
“I’m aware that a man’s body was discovered in the trunk of her car. I want to assure you my mother had nothing whatsoever to do with the man getting there.’’
“Assure away.’’ He crossed his arms over his chest and scowled. “I’m still talking to your mother alone, Ms. Bauer.’’
“Excuse me, Detective?’’ Mama held up a finger like she was trying to raise a point on orchids at the Garden Club. “That’s Miss Bauer. My daughter isn’t married. And, please, call her Mace. Everybody does.’’
“Well, they do, honey.’’ She turned back to the detective. “I gave old family surnames to all three of my girls. The youngest is Marty, which comes from Martin. We call Madison, the oldest, Maddie for short. It’s a Southern thing.”
Mama didn’t mention these fine old English names appear nowhere in our own family background, which is Scotch and German. She didn’t think it sounded as classy to name us “McDougall,’’ “Zumwald,’’ and “Schultz.’’
She raised her finger again. “I just want to add that Mace is smart, too. She graduated top in her college class at Central Florida.’’
A vein started throbbing at Martinez’s temple. I had the oddest impulse to trace it with my thumb.
I felt a flush spreading from my hairline south. “Mama, please. Nobody cares what kind of grade point average I carried ten years ago.’’
Just then, the door behind the counter swung open, rescuing me from Mama’s compulsive matchmaking. Emma Jean pushed through backwards, balancing three coffees. She propped open the door with her ample rear end, sheathed in the same bubble-gum shade as her bustier. Setting the coffees down, she turned to us.
Video: Author on ‘Mama Does Time’ (on this page) “Well, hey, Detective Martin-ez.’’ Her drawl turned his last name into two English words, Martin and Ez. “I saw you through the window as you drove up. Figured you could use a cup, too. Did y’all get an ID yet on that poor dead man in Rosalee’s trunk?’’
Martinez grabbed a coffee off the counter. He didn’t say thanks.
“Yeah, we did. One of the officers recognized him.’’ He tipped the cup to his lips, keeping his eyes fastened on my mother.
“Well, who was it?’’ Emma Jean picked up both remaining cups. As she handed one to me, I nodded my thanks.
Waiting, Martinez stared holes through Mama. Finally, he said, “His name was Jim Albert.’’
As soon as Emma Jean heard the name, she screamed and stumbled. She caught herself, but the last coffee went flying.
“Oh, Emma Jean!’’ Mama rushed to her friend’s side. “I am so sorry.’’
I was confused. Shouldn’t Emma Jean be apologizing, since she’d just ruined Mama’s pantsuit with lukewarm coffee splotches from top to bottom?
The receptionist threw herself, sobbing, into my mother’s open arms. I was afraid the impact would topple Mama, like she was the last pin on the lane at a bowling tournament. Martinez quickly stepped in as ballast.
“Am I missing something here?’’ He raised his eyebrows at me. I shrugged, as I helped him prop up a weeping Emma Jean.
“Oh, this is just getting more horrible by the minute, Detective.’’ Mama leaned around Emma Jean’s bulk to find Martinez. “Jim Albert was her boyfriend. And just last week, he got down on one knee and asked Emma Jean to marry him.’’
Excerpted from “Mama Does Time: A Mace Bauer Mystery” by Deborah Sharp. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Midnight Ink. For more information on the author, click here.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive