Native Floridian Deborah Sharp continues her passion for the vanishing culture, back roads and burgs of “Old Florida” in her third mystery novel, “Mama Gets Hitched.”
Small, silver-trimmed circles of tulle covered the tabletop. Mama held up what looked like two identical pieces of the fabric, one in each hand.
“Don’t tell me you can’t see the difference, Mace.” She thrust the first circle under my nose. “This is celadon.” She shook it for emphasis. The fluorescent lights of the VFW hall gave the green tulle a dull gleam. “And this,” she waved the second circle within inches of my eyes, “is honeydew.”
I batted away her hand. “Like I told you, Mama, they look exactly the same. Light green.”
She rolled her eyes and sighed heavily, as if she couldn’t stand to deal for one more minute with poor dumb trash who couldn’t tell the difference between subtle shadings of tulle. I decided I’d had just about enough of her Bridezilla routine.
“Wouldn’t you say you’re going a little nuts, Mama? Does it really matter whether every square centimeter of tulle is dyed exactly the same shade as the next? All this whoop-de-doo is kind of tacky, anyway. After all, this is your fifth trip down the aisle.”
Mama looked wounded. “You know I’ve never had a real wedding, Mace. I eloped with your daddy. And when I got married after he died … well, you know all about Husband No. 2. After that nightmare, I thought I might jinx my third try by making a big to-do. Turned out that one didn’t take either, big wedding or small. And then No. 4 and I met on that cruise and decided to have the ship’s captain tie the knot.”
I remembered. My sisters and I were horrified when Mama came home with a new husband, twenty years her junior. We also got souvenirs that said My Mother Went to Cancun and All I Got Was This Lousy T-shirt.
“Poor No. 4,” Mama said. “He didn’t seem as good a choice on dry land as he had on the high seas. Maybe I shouldn’t have mixed champagne with Dramamine. Anyway, Mace, Sally is the first man I’ve really loved since your daddy. I want this wedding to be perfect.”
Mama was marrying Salvatore Provenza — Sally — in less than a week. Under the pressure of pulling off the Ceremony of the Century in Himmarshee, Florida, she’d mutated into someone my sisters and I barely recognized. She was driving us crazy, which wasn’t the unusual part. She’s always done that. But we’d never seen Mama so obsessed over the inconsequential.
Here’s a woman who nearly landed in prison after a corpse turned up in her turquoise convertible. Then, she found an old beau keeled over dead in his Cow Hunter Chili. She’s tangled with a gator, and was nearly trampled to death during a week-long horse ride through Florida’s cattle country. And that’s just what Mama’s survived in the past year.
Now, tulle had her in a tizzy. I was ready to head out into the swamp to escape. And my sisters, Maddie and Marty, were almost willing to brave the gators and the snakes to come with me. But I knew I had to give her the customary daughterly pep talk.
“Take a deep breath, Mama,” I recited. “Everything’s going to be fine. The wedding will be incredible. You’ll be the prettiest bride ever.”
Mama perked up. She rarely misses a Sunday at Abundant Forgiveness, Love and Charity Chapel. But she must have skipped over that part in the Bible about vanity being a sin. She’s tiny, with perfect features in an unlined face. Almost sixty-three, she’s still beautiful. And she never tires of being reminded of that fact.
“I’m sorry, Mace.” She ran her hands through her platinum-hued hair. “It’s all these details. And, of course, That Woman. I’m telling you, honey, she’s getting on my last nerve!”
“That Woman” could mean only one person: C’ndee Ciancio, Sal’s cousin-in-law from his first marriage. C’ndee had swooped down from New Jersey a month ago, bragging about her wedding-planning expertise, and bulldozing her way into helping Mama. Mama went along, mainly because C’ndee was kin to Sal, and Mama loved Sal.
“Where is she, anyway?” I asked.
Glancing at her watch, Mama frowned. “Running almost twenty minutes late, just like Ronnie Hodges. We were supposed to meet him here at nine a.m. sharp to go over the catering and the hors d’oeuvres. I had to steer C’ndee off melon balls wrapped in something called ‘prosciutto.’ That might fly in Hackensack, I told her, but not in Himmarshee. We’re just a little country town. We like things simple.”
Simple? Like a Gone with the Wind–themed wedding, complete with crinolines and bridesmaids’ parasols for my sisters and me? But I wasn’t about to start the debate again about those hideous dresses. Like the South and the Civil War, I’d already lost that fight.
Mama returned her attention to the tulle, scrutinizing the circles like a jeweler examining diamonds. I looked out the window. Low, gray clouds had leaked rain all morning, making for a dreary Monday.
“Looks like we’re getting an early jump on the rainy season. It’s barely June,” I said.
“Good thing,” Mama said. “It’s been so dry, the trees are bribing the dogs.”
The rain-slicked parking lot was deserted out front. Water droplets formed and fell from the red flowers of a jatropha branch that brushed against the window. I said a silent prayer the weekend would bring better weather for Saturday’s wedding.
Inside, it was all too obvious the VFW had served lots of meals at last night’s spaghetti dinner. A ground-beef-and-garlic-scented cloud hung in the air. We’d have to remember to light some of Mama’s aromatherapy candles in the hall before the ceremony.
Just then, the side door burst open. C’ndee rushed in, breathless, smelling of rain and White Diamonds perfume. Everything about her was big: A mass of dark, curly hair. Blood-red lips. Generous curves, emphasized by a clingy top, short skirt, and perilously high heels.
Mama looked pointedly at her watch. C’ndee pretended not to see.
“Let me tell you, there aren’t enough hours in the day!” She collapsed onto a chair next to Mama. “I found you some to-die-for bridesmaids’ gifts, Rosalee.”
She plopped a girly looking shopping bag on the table, next to an appointment book and a huge leather purse with more metal studs than a hardware store. “You’ll absolutely love them.”
“We’ll see.” Mama folded her arms over her chest.
I just hoped C’ndee hadn’t bought us animal-print thong underwear. I’d gotten an unfortunate glance at a leopard pair she wore, when she leaned over in a pair of tight hip-huggers. The undies rode up, the slacks rode down, and I learned more than I wanted to about C’ndee’s taste in lingerie.
“Where’d you park, C’ndee?” I asked. “I didn’t see you pull in out front.”
“There’s a big, muddy puddle out there. I parked in back, where it’s drier.”
I hadn’t thought to look in the back when I dropped Mama at the front door, and then waded in from a parking space in ankle-deep water. In the boots I wear for work at Himmarshee Park, I’m not as fussy about getting wet as I might be if I wore shoes like C’ndee’s. They gave her “toe cleavage,” and probably cost two weeks of my salary.
I could see Mama eyeing the sack on the table with curiosity. I pushed back my chair.
“I’m going to look in the kitchen, see if maybe Ronnie slipped in from the back parking lot, too,” I said.
Mama was already tearing at tissue paper as I walked away. C’ndee, meanwhile, lifted the two tulle swatches from the table.
“Oh, my Gawd!” she cried. “These shades are completely different! This is awful, Rosalee!”
Turning, I caught Mama’s look of vindication. Then I continued through heavy swinging doors from the dining room into the VFW’s kitchen. The lights were off. Weak sunlight peeked through the sole window, a tiny slit near the ceiling. On this gray day, it barely illuminated a corner of the big room. I felt along the wall on each side of the swinging doors.
No light switches. I picked my way carefully into the dark space.
The farther I moved from the little window, the darker the kitchen got. I could just make out the shape of a big stove, and spaghetti pots stacked on tall wire shelves. My eyes were on the shelves when I felt something slick under my boot. I hoped whoever had used the kitchen last had picked up the big stuff. I didn’t want to sprawl into grease or sauce or whatever that was on the floor.
A sliver of light shone at the far end of the kitchen, a crack of sunlight under a back door. I inched toward it, hands out to either side to catch me, or anything I might be about to run into.
Finally, I rounded a countertop and reached the door. Feeling for the switches, I flipped on all three. The kitchen gleamed. I felt bad about maligning the cooking crew. I could see extra care had been taken in scrubbing everything clean.
Which made that nasty spot I’d stepped in by the stove seem all the more strange.
Suddenly, I didn’t want to find out what was on the floor. I’d walked into something I wished I hadn’t a few times before. I hesitated, wondering if I should call Carlos Martinez, my on-again-off-again police-detective boyfriend. Things hadn’t gone so well the last time we talked. Plus, how silly would I seem if what had felt slick and scary in the dark was only a puddle of cooking oil?
I retraced my steps around the corner, toward the hulking stove. It was just on the other side where I’d slipped. I swallowed. My mouth was suddenly dry. Slowly, I rounded the big stove and looked down.
A man lay motionless on the floor. His left arm was caught under his body. The right was splayed above his head as if he were reaching out for something — or someone. I recognized brown hair going gray and the tattoo of a tiger on his muscled forearm. Ronnie Hodges.
Blood soaked his white T-shirt, and pooled onto the floor around his body. At the far edge of the dark puddle, a print from a heavy work boot was just my size.
“Mama Gets Hitched: A Mace Bauer Mystery (Book 3)” © 2010 by Deborah Sharp. Used by permission. Midnight Ink Books