The Curse of the Shepherdess
by Bob Brill
|part 1 of 3|
“That’s got to be the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“No kidding. It’s truly hideous.”
“Why does your Aunt Penelope keep sending us stuff like this? Could she believe that we actually like it?”
“Yes, she thinks we like her gifts because we don’t have the nerve to tell her how awful they are.”
“This has got to stop. This is the worst yet.” Jack Farley turned the object over in his hands. It was a ceramic statuette about five inches high, depicting an Alpine shepherdess complete with a Little Bo Peep shepherd’s crook. The paint had been applied hurriedly. Clearly the workers in the kitsch factory were paid by the piece and had rushed through the job without regard for proper placement of color.
His wife, Nancy, said, “I’d love for it to stop, but I haven’t got the heart to hurt her feelings, so we’ll just have to go on accepting her gifts and letting them accumulate in the basement.”
“Is there anything coming up where we have to give a gift?”
“Yes, in fact, there is. Marge Toller’s son, Brad, is getting married next month. We scarcely know the boy, haven’t seen him since his high school graduation. Don’t know the bride at all. The wedding will be in Massachusetts, so we won’t be required to attend. We can just send the young couple this charming piece as a gift. Let them figure out what to do with it.”
“Perfect,” agreed her husband.
* * *
The newlyweds opened their gifts to the chorus of ooh’s and aah’s from the assembled guests. When the little shepherdess made her appearance the guests fell silent, except for Uncle Tobias, who could not entirely suppress a guffaw. The bride studied the card and asked her new husband, “Who are the Farleys, dear? I’ve never heard of them.”
“Friends of my folks. Distant friends, isn’t that right, Mom?”
“Well, it’s very cute, don’t you think?” asked the bride.
“Yes I do,” replied the groom. “It’ll look great out in the garage, next to the bicycle pump and the lawnmower.”
This tickled Uncle Tobias. A few others joined him in laughter and snickers. The bride quickly moved on to opening the next gift.
* * *
When Uncle Tobias reached his home in Florida the following night, he went straight to bed, but in the morning as he unpacked his suitcase and put his clothes away, he found a lump in one of his socks. He reached in and pulled out the little shepherdess, whose lopsided smile seemed to say “Surprise!”
Uncle Tobias collapsed in uncontrollable laughter. He rolled on the floor, holding his sides, guffawing and sputtering, barely able to get out the words, “Those two rascals. I love ’em.” All day he went about smiling, occasionally breaking out in laughter and repeating the phrase, “Those rascals.”
By evening he knew that the joke was just too good to end there. By the next day the little shepherdess was wrapped in tissue, snugged into a little shepherdess-sized box, a card written and inserted, the box sealed, addressed and taken to the post office, where the ugly little charmer sallied forth to Des Moines on the next leg of her adventures.
* * *
Dr. Preston Payne studied the card, examined the statuette, studied the card again and said to his wife across the breakfast table, “My esteemed brother seems to think this is funny. It is not funny. Listen to what he writes.”
I knew when this little gem came into my possession that it would arouse your professional interest. Of course, it doesn’t begin to match the consummate artistry with which you bring into being your dental constructions, which require the skill of the engineer, the aesthetic grace of the artist and the passion of the creator, but in its own unassuming way it possesses a charming naiveté that cannot be duplicated by the expert. Clumsy as it is, does it not affect you with its sense of soul?
Your loving brother,
“He is incorrigible,” Dr. Payne concluded.
“Quite so, my dear. I wish you would say something to him.”
“I have, on numerous occasions. It’s no use.”
Dr. Preston Payne, DDS, had a more sober disposition than his brother. Tobias theorized that a dentist named Dr. Payne should not take himself too seriously and might even profit by changing his name to Dr. Payneless.
Dr. Payne was offended by his brother’s gesture. He felt a strong urge to smash the thing to bits. His wife saw the dark flush of anger that clouded his face and hoping to discharge this anger, she said, “My dear Preston, there’s nothing you can do about Tobias. He is who he is. Let’s turn this into an opportunity. I’ve been accumulating items for the church bazaar and this will be added to my collection. Someone may offer a quarter for it and go home happy.”
“Very well, my dear. Please get it out of my sight.”
* * *
The little shepherdess stood on the table at the church bazaar all day, waiting for a buyer. All around her, items had been selected, paid for and taken away. An ancient glass orange juice squeezer, a set of steak knives, numerous jelly jars without lids, a pair of pewter candlesticks still coated with wax, even an old backgammon board with some pieces missing, all these had disappeared one by one from the table. Finally, just before closing, along came Dorothy Malone, carrying a bag filled with purchases she had no possible use for, but simply could not resist. They were such bargains. She spied the lonely shepherdess and thinking of her friend, Isabella, she was able for fifty cents to add the little figurine to her bag of goodies.
Dorothy never discarded any cardboard boxes. She often said, mostly to herself, since no one else was much interested, “You never know when one of those boxes will come in handy.” And sure enough, as though to justify her packrat mentality, she found just the right box, and dipping into her seemingly infinite supply of styrofoam peanuts, she packed up the little shepherdess, added a note to her friend, Isabella, and sealed it up. Off she went to the post office in time for the five o’clock pickup. Home again, exhausted but happy, she kicked off her shoes and made herself a cup of tea. As she sipped it, she enjoyed the feeling of having done her good deed for the day.
* * *
Isabella Immelmann, who wrote under the pen name of Mary Markely, was the popular author of the amusing and light-hearted Peggy Plimpton series of murder mysteries. Peggy Plimpton was the quintessential air-headed, ditsy, blonde bimbo, who stumbled, fumbled and bumbled her way through the plot, yet somehow managed in each book to solve the mystery. Secretly, known to the reader, but not to the other characters, behind this persona she was a brunette with a blonde wig, had a doctorate in history and another in criminal forensics, and her real name was Diana Dove.
The rationale behind this disguise was the same as given for Clark Kent never revealing his identity as Superman. It was to protect innocent friends and loved ones from retaliation by disgruntled evil doers. But the real reason for Clark Kent’s deception, and for that of dozens of copycat superheroes — and this applied to Diana Dove as well — was that the tension introduced by keeping the identity secret, while simultaneously engaged in the action of the story, added delicious complications to the plot. Like the time Peggy Plimpton’s wig blew off when she was chasing the crooks in her convertible.
Isabella and Dorothy had been roommates in college years ago and had kept up a correspondence, even though Isabella had long since left Iowa for Seattle. She opened Dorothy’s package and diving into the styrofoam peanuts, which she liked to call ghost poop, she fished out the statuette and Dorothy’s note.
When I saw this homely little creature at the church bazaar, I immediately thought it had all the earmarks of a clue, and I know you’re always on the lookout for good clues for your Peggy Plimpton books. I hope you can use it. If not, just toss it and don’t be cross with your good friend,
Good old Dorothy, thought Isabella. She certainly has a nose for clues. Won’t she be surprised when The Case of the Chinese Fingertrap comes out and she finds one of her clues right in the title? Now let me see. I think I can use this statuette in my cat burglar story.
Now where did I leave off? Oh, yes. The big party is taking place in the grand ballroom at Lord Drillingtool’s mansion. Meanwhile the cat burglar climbs up the side of the house and enters a window in the mansard roof that leads into the bedroom of one of the maids. As the evening is winding down, a scream is heard from above. The maid, on retiring, discovers the body of the cat burglar on the floor of her room, in a pool of blood, the little shepherdess figurine clutched in his hand. Yes, that’s perfect.
The remaining guests, among them Peggy Plimpton, ascend the stairs to discover the maid in hysterics, the body, the blood, and yes, clues. The mysterious figurine. And what’s more, now let me think, yes, the dead man’s clothes are inside out, with the exception of one sock, which is missing. How’s that for clues? Oh, this is going to be good. New title: The Curse of the Shepherdess.
Isabella kept the statuette on her desk for inspiration all during the writing of the book, but as she was winding up the final edit, she tucked it back into Dorothy’s box amid the ghost poop and sent it off to her publisher, who had requested it for a cover photograph. “No need to return it,” Isabella wrote. “I’m done with the ugly little thing now.”
* * *
On his way home from work Jack Farley stopped off at the local tavern for a whiskey and spent a pleasant half hour with his friend, Porky, discussing the complexities and nuances of the art of pitching a baseball, especially as it applied to a famous major league pitcher, who had that very day come within one out of pitching a no-hitter, only to allow a home run and so lose the game.
The face with which his wife greeted him at the door caused his good mood to leak away instantly. He started to mumble an apology, but she cut him off. “It’s not you, Jack. It’s my Aunt Penelope. She called this morning to say that she is expecting to die any day now and would like us to visit her as soon as possible.”
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, my dear.” His face showed the proper degree of sympathy, while he was secretly relieved that for once he was not being blamed for some thoughtless behavior. He put his arms around her and murmured what he hoped would be interpreted as comforting sounds. Now we’re going to have to go all the way to New York, he thought, and sit in her sterile living room with all the doilies and antimacassars.
“Jack, that’s not the worst part. She’s been expecting to die for years, so it’s probably no different this time. But she insisted that when we come we should bring the little shepherdess statuette she sent us. On no account must we fail to do so.”
“But that’s...” He nearly said that’s crazy, but he didn’t want to say that, and in fact, he knew it wasn’t crazy, but what was it? He couldn’t begin to guess why she would make such a request.
“I know what you were going to say. That it’s impossible. How well I know it. What are we going to do, Jack?”
* * *
Copyright © 2010 by Bob Brill