The Easter Parade Murders excerpt

Saturday, February 5, midmorning

Isobel Santini curled into the shelter of Greg Stone’s arm. The wind was still bitter cold, as it often was at the beginning of February, although the sky was clear, promising no more snow this weekend at least. They huddled together under the bare branches of one of the many trees lining the street. With the crowds of people on the sidewalks, sitting on stadium blankets or in lawn chairs, or propped in the doorways of the businesses along the street, it seemed like it should have been warmer. People generated body heat, didn’t they?

“It’s going to start soon, isn’t it?” Isobel asked plaintively.

He chuckled and squeezed her shoulders. “Remember this parade was your idea. You wanted to get out of River Corners for the weekend.”

“Can you blame me? I swear, if Momma hints one more time that she thinks we should get engaged…!”

“She just wants you to be happy.”

Isobel shivered again and drew closer. One man weaved across the road, taking advantage of the lack of traffic to go hither and yon in anything but a straight line. His windbreaker was much too light for the time of year, and he was muttering to himself. Someone was celebrating. Or at least drinking.

Turning her attention away from the man, Isobel answered Greg. “She should just be happy about Michael and Violet and do whatever Aunt Rosa’s willing to let her help with in the planning. Then she wouldn’t have to go around dropping off bride’s wear magazines on my doorstep.”

“Are you sure it was her?”

For answer, she just looked at him. No one else in River Corners would hint so broadly that Isobel should be thinking about getting married. Well, no one other than the aforementioned Michael, her cousin who had startled the family with a marriage proposal during Thanksgiving dinner. But he wouldn’t be that subtle about it.

“Okay, you’re probably right. To be fair, though, I’ve met your aunt. She’s probably not even letting Violet help with the wedding preparations!”

That surprised a chuckle out of Isobel. “Ha. Violet’s got a backbone. She’d have to, to think about marrying into *this* family, after all. She said they’d have the wedding here, and her parents would travel for it, but she’s not only picking out her dress and the bridesmaid dresses, she refuses to even tell Aunt Rosa where they’re going for a honeymoon!”

“So what horrid confection are you going to have to wear as a bridesmaid?”

“I’m not a bridesmaid. Didn’t you know? I’m the best man.”

He opened his mouth and closed it twice before saying, “I suppose that makes sense. A tux, then?”

“Dante told me he’d help me get one fitted.”

Dante Ford, her high school boyfriend and current roommate, had the best fashion sense in River Corners. Isobel was fairly certain that Dante was helping Violet with the choice of outfits, but if they weren’t going to talk about it, she certainly wasn’t.

A siren blared down the street, and behind it, a marching band playing a remix version of “When the saints go marchin’ in.” The parade was starting. And high time, too, as another blast of wind sent shivers through Isobel.

“Remind me why we’re out here doing this instead of inside somewhere warm like a museum or bookstore. Or our hotel room?”

“Because I’ve always wanted to go to a Mardi Gras parade, and River Corners doesn’t have one.”

“I am truly shocked at this oversight. I thought River Corners had a celebration for everything.”

“No, we save the pageantry for the Easter Parade. Less bacchanalia that way.”

He frowned down at her, as if trying to decide whether the term “bacchanalia” had actually been used in the City Council meeting. Instead of asking, however, he sad, “I didn’t know anyone besides Judy Garland *did* Easter parades.”

She peered down the street. There was still nothing visible beyond the single firetruck and its accompanying police motorcycles. She couldn’t even see the band, although she could hear it between blasts of the truck’s siren. Some of the crowd pushed into the street, trying to see farther, and shoes dangling above told her that some enterprising teens had decided to go for height.

“Didn’t you pay any attention last year?” she asked without looking at him. “It was a big deal, with Sue Holstein stepping into some of the droppings left by the horses in front.”

“I’m sorry I missed it,” he said dryly, “but I was grading midterms.”

“If you’d stop giving them right before break, that wouldn’t happen. You could actually enjoy the time off like your students do.”

“True. I could wait and give the midterm the day *after* they get back from break, which would probably destroy the GPA of two-thirds of my class. They always seem to take at least a week to remember which end of the pen makes those funny black marks on the paper.”

“Or you could really mess with their vacations by giving them take-home midterms that are due when they get back.”

“Hmmmm. I might try that. Next year, of course. Can’t adjust the syllabus now.”

“No? It wouldn’t really be any different from changing the pre-Thanksgiving midterm to take-home, would it? Except maybe giving them a little warning.”

“I’ll think about it.”

“You’ve got six weeks.”

“Five. It has to be ready early for those who won’t be there.”

“Five, then. That’s plenty of time. More time than that half an hour.”

“Yes, well, some of my students complained about that. Said they’d have left town sooner if they’d known. The only reason my department chair didn’t rake me over the coals is because he’s on administrative leave.”

The history department was going to take a few years to straighten out its troubles. Murders and blackmail had robbed them of two faculty (counting the chair) and their department secretary. On the one hand, it almost guaranteed Greg a good review when he came up for tenure because of some of the work he was having to do (such as interviews for adjuncts and hiring extra teaching assistants, not to mention an extra course each semester), but on the other, it also meant that the dean was keeping a sharp eye on him.

“Okay, so take three weeks to decide I’m right, and then tell your students.”

The motorcycles had reached them by this point, and if he answered, she couldn’t hear him over the blaring horn and the siren. She turned away from the street, covering her ears.

She wasn’t the only one the noise bothered; a pair of toddlers started crying as if trying to compete, and one older lady walking by grimaced and stepped closer to the building. The man she’d noticed staggering earlier had found some shelter in the narrow gap between two buildings, where he’d curled in with his arms crossed in front of himself, and she was glad to see that he was out of the wind, although it didn’t seem he’d see much of the parade from there.

Greg tapped her on the shoulder and pointed at the street, so she obediently turned back around to watch the marching band play its way past, followed by floats covered with men wearing not much more than paint (Could that possibly provide any insulation for them?), clowns, city officials driving restored classic cars, cheerleaders, dance teams, more bands, and every other staple of a city parade.

As the street sweepers drove by, cleaning up after the parade, Greg said, “So was it worth it?”

She regarded him seriously. “I don’t know. I’m kind of disappointed. There was no bacchanalia at all.”

“There was the one float where they threw beads.”

“True.” She ran her hands up and down the gold and green strands looped over her head. “But they could have tried a little harder. Maybe a float with a champagne fountain or something?”

He laughed. “Next year, we’ll do a float with a giant champagne glass, and you can recline in it fetchingly, with your legs draped over the side.”

“What *would* the neighbors say? Besides, it would be much too cold.”

“I’d be happy to warm you up afterward.”

“We can do that now.”

“Now that sounds like a plan.”

They turned up the sidewalk to head back to their hotel, and Isobel noticed the man still in the gap between the buildings. “He must have fallen asleep. He missed it all.”

“Asleep? With that noise?” Greg asked. “More likely passed out. He wasn’t acting any too sober.”

“Fine, passed out, then. It’s still a shame that he missed it.” Isobel moved closer, thinking to shake him awake and encourage him to get out of the weather. She had almost reached him when she noticed the red stain underneath his hand. “Oh, no. Not again.”

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