Read A Little Learning Online

Authors: Jane Tesh

Tags: #Fiction / Mystery & Detective / General

A Little Learning

A Little Learning

A Little Learning

Jane Tesh

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2009 by Jane Tesh

First U. S. Edition 2009

Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2008942973

ISBN-13 Print: 978-1-59058-650-1 Hardcover

ISBN-13 eBook: 978-1-61595-215-1

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in, or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

Poisoned Pen Press

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Scottsdale, AZ 85251

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To all my friends at Jones School,
dedicated, talented teachers who truly made a difference
in the lives of their students


I would like to thank Dr. Jennifer Chapman and pharmacist Tim Matthews for their helpful information and Sharon Lowe for her legal advice.


A little learning is a dangerous thing.

—Alexander Pope

The one parts with its life there,
And the other loses her soul.

The Tales of Hoffmann
by Jacques Offenbach

Chapter One

I’ve often said I don’t want to have children, and now I know why. I already have three. This bright Sunday morning in September, I came downstairs to find three heads bent over a patchwork of brightly colored cards spread across the kitchen table. The black hair braided with yellow beads belonged to Denisha Simpson, age ten. The green and purple hair sticking up like wiry weeds was attached to her best friend, Austin Terrell, also ten. The light brown hair that could benefit from a good combing belonged to my best friend and new husband, Jerry Fairweather, who is thirty going on ten.

“Okay, we’ve got all the Pond Palace series except the Drawbridge of Death and the Dungeon of Despair,” Denisha said.

Austin moved one stack of cards to another. “Here’s all Bufo’s Webbed Foot Guard except for Rayford the Sticky-Tongued and Bart the Beeper.”

“Weapons over here,” Jerry said. “Sword of Destruction, Sword of Light, three Sword of Revenge cards. Can we trade one? What does Ronald have, Austin?”

“I asked him. He won’t trade.”

“Sword of Justice, Sword of Peace. We’re missing the Sword of Illusion.”

“That’s really hard to find.”

I went to the coffee maker. “Good morning, Warrior Toads.”

Three heads came up. Three voices said, “‘Justice Rules the Swamp!’”

“So I’ve heard,” I said. “How’s the collection coming along?”

“We need about twenty-five more to complete the first set,” Jerry said.

“First set?”

“Set two comes out this week and set three in December just in time for Christmas.”

“Someone is a marketing genius.”

Austin rearranged the cards. “We weren’t doing too well on our own, but when we combined our sets, we had almost all of them.”

“And Jerry bought some more,” Denisha said.

I pushed back my tangle of dark curls and poured a cup of coffee. It was typical of Jerry to spend his money on Bufo the Warrior Toad cards instead of buying normal things or paying outstanding bills, but I really couldn’t complain. Being married to him is everything I hoped it would be: intensely satisfying, especially in the bedroom, without sacrificing the fun we’ve always had together. And he was actually working. Before we’d got married, Jerry and I made a bargain that if I’d go back to my artwork, he’d give up his scams and get a legitimate job. To my surprise, Jerry had found a job at the local bookstore and enjoyed it.

“Can we go to Georgia’s today and get a few more packs?” Austin asked him.

“Sure. I’ll be working there today.”

I leaned against the counter and sipped my coffee. As for my part of the bargain, well, I hadn’t been as successful. The portrait of children I painted for the local theater had brought me a few more commissions, but I wasn’t painting as much as I should. I kept telling myself my detective work kept me busy, but that was stretching the truth.

You can’t fuss at Jerry for stretching the truth, now, can you? I told myself, and a little worrisome thought wormed its way into my mind. I looked at my slim, youthful husband, his gray eyes shining as he and Austin argued the merits of Bufo’s Glowing Sword versus Bufo’s Wart of Power. I’d known Jerry since we met in college, and he’d been very good at keeping his schemes and his problems secret from me. But I recognized the signs. Something was going on, but I couldn’t tell what.

He looked up and smiled that smile that had won my heart from the first time I met him. “What’s up with you today, Mac?”

“I thought I’d go in to my office for a while.”

“Meet you for lunch?”

“Shana wants me to meet a friend of hers. I’m hoping this will lead to another case.”

I tried to put my worries aside and concentrate on my new career. My fledgling detective agency could use all cases possible. I’d known when I moved to Celosia the small town wouldn’t have much use for a private investigator, but I’d already solved two murders.

“It’s been almost two months and no one’s felt the urge to kill,” Jerry said. “Either you’re slipping or Celosia is.”

“People are beginning to eye me strangely. I thought about putting the Grim Reaper on my business cards.”

“What do you want for breakfast? The kids and I had cheese toast.”

“That would be fine.”

I took my coffee to the front porch and looked out across the fields surrounding the Eberlin house, the house Jerry had inherited from his uncle. We were still in the process of remodeling. Goldenrod and white Queen Anne’s lace shimmered in the morning heat. In the oak trees, cicadas whirred like tiny buzz saws. Beyond the dusty driveway and wandering rail fence, the highway led about a mile into town where Georgia would be opening her bookstore and maybe a few minor crimes would occur. Some shoplifting, perhaps, or a serious case of littering. Something calm and normal. I really didn’t want to get involved with another murder.

After a while, Jerry came out with my cheese toast on a plate. “Breakfast is served.”

“Curb service. How nice.” I sat down in one of the rocking chairs.

Jerry perched on the porch rail and admired the view. He had on his khaki slacks, white shirt, and a yellow tie decorated with flying pigs. “And it’s going to be another hot day.”

I set my coffee cup beside my chair. “I hope Nell’s coming to install the new air conditioner.”

“She said she’d get to it today.”

The ancient upstairs unit had finally died. Fans helped a little, but in our part of North Carolina, the heat can continue long into October. “Great,” I said. The cheese toast was a perfect combination of crunchy toast and gooey cheese. “This is great, too. Have you ever thought about being a chef?”

“One career at a time, please.”

I licked an extra bit of cheese off my finger. It had taken a lot of wheeling and dealing to get Jerry to find any sort of job. I wasn’t going to push. “How are things at the bookstore?”

“I’m helping Georgia rearrange the magazines. She wants to put in a line of greeting cards.”

He continued to look at the fields, but I could tell his gaze was miles beyond the trees and wildflowers. I never dreamed he would ever settle down, much less with me in an old house in a small town, so I wondered if he missed his wandering life. I was glad Austin’s and Denisha’s Bufo obsession was keeping him occupied.

He brought his calm gray gaze back to me. “Ready for seconds?”

What a loaded question. “With the kids here?”

He grinned. “They need to go get more Bufo cards.”

“What were you thinking about just then?”

“Besides you?”

“Not getting restless, are you?”


“Not feeling the urge to sell fake pocketbooks or play mind reader?”

“Just let me hold an occasional séance and I’ll be fine.” He put his arms around me. “Actually, just let me hold you.”

We were enjoying a long soulful kiss when behind us we heard Austin say, “Eeeuww.”

Denisha said, “Austin Terrell, that’s perfectly all right now that they’re married. You ought to watch and see how it’s done.”

“There’s no way I’m kissing you!”

Denisha was unfazed. “One day you will.”

Jerry gave me another quick kiss before letting go. “Come on, kids. We’ll ride into town with Mac and see what’s at the store.”


We have just one car, my light blue Mazda, so, after dropping Jerry, Austin, and Denisha at Georgia’s Books, I went to my office. My office is located in the Arrow Insurance building, just down the hall from Ted Stacy, a tall, dark Southern gentleman, who was one of my first friends in Celosia. The letters on my door still say, “Madeline Maclin Investigations.” I’d wanted to add “Fairweather,” but Jerry convinced me that would be too long. Jerry and I had spent most of Saturday in Parkland visiting his brother, so I hadn’t had a chance to check my messages and look through my mail. Besides the usual bills and flyers, there was a card from my ex-husband, Bill, announcing the birth of his third child. I sat looking at the card for a long time. Hooray for you, Bill. He’d always wanted children, the main reason our marriage fell apart. Never mind that Bill was also domineering and thoughtless. I’d never felt any maternal stirrings, and to him, this made me less of a woman. Between Bill and my mother, who tried her best to make me into Miss America, it’s a wonder I have any sense.

Well, now Bill had babies and I had my own career so we were both happy. I had to chuckle as I read the new baby’s name. Darlan Kyle. Boy, girl, or alien?

The next piece of mail was a letter from a friend in Richmond, congratulating me on my agency. Thank you very much. I took a moment to look around the room. I had a small oak desk, bookshelves, filing cabinet, a beige and green armchair for my clients, and a view of trees and the swing set in the next yard. Pleasant and useful, a direct contrast to the hot dusty office I had with an agency in Parkland. There, I had been one of many investigators hoping for a scrap of a case. Here, I was my own boss, and even if I didn’t have a lot of work, at least I was in charge.

The third letter was from the Weyland Gallery, one of the many art galleries in Parkland. I frowned as I opened the letter. I didn’t know anyone at the Weyland Gallery. I’d like to know someone at the Weyland Gallery, because it’s one of the most prestigious in the city. I wondered how I’d gotten on their mailing list. My frown turned to open-mouthed astonishment as I read the letter. I’d been invited to enter the New Artists Show.

“Dear Ms. Maclin,” the letter read. “We are pleased to inform you that your application for our New Artists Show has been favorably reviewed, and we invite you to enter three pieces of your choice. Please bring your work to the Weyland Gallery on Monday, September 23. The show will be on Saturday, September 28, at 8:00 PM, followed by a champagne reception. We look forward to presenting your work to our patrons and sponsors.”

The letter was signed, “Letticia Booth, curator.”

I read the letter again. I looked at the envelope. Was this a joke? Application? Favorably reviewed? I hadn’t sent in anything in to any gallery! How had I managed to get into a show in Parkland? Who in the world knew that I even painted—


I knew something was up! Oh, my lord, I was going to wring his neck! I was punching the book store phone number furiously into my phone and growling about the various means of strangulation when I stopped. A man stood in my doorway, one hand raised as if to knock.

“I can come back,” he said.

I felt the heat rise to my face. “No, please come in. Sorry about that. A little burst of temper. Nothing serious.”

The man looked about thirty years old. He had reddish hair and little round glasses. In his neat buttoned-down shirt and sharply creased slacks, he reminded me of one of my history professors. He smiled. “A dissatisfied customer?”

“No, no. Just a little family matter. I apologize.” I held out my hand. “I’m Madeline Maclin.”

He shook my hand. “Nathan Fenton. I was hoping to find you in today.”

“Please have a seat, Mr. Fenton. What can I do for you?”

He sat down in the chair opposite my desk. “Well, here’s my problem. I’ve received a very curious gift from my late uncle, and I’m hoping you can help me figure it out.” He took a piece of paper from his pocket and slid it across the desk to me. “I’ve inherited some money from my uncle, but I can’t get it unless I solve what appears to be a riddle of some kind.”

The flowing script was easy to read. “To my nephew, Nathan Ellis Fenton, I leave a fine fortune, provided he unlocks this puzzle and finds the one true key.” The next part made little sense. “‘From west to east the river flows, from ancient times the sparrow flies. Trust animals that live in packs, and listen where the portrait lies.’” I looked up. “Do you know what any of it means?”

“There’s a river near by, but it doesn’t flow west to east.”

“What about the portrait? Have you looked behind all the pictures in your uncle’s house?”

“That’s another problem,” Nathan Fenton said. “He moved out of his house. He lived in a trailer. He didn’t take any portraits with him. I’m at a loss.”

“And the sparrow? Did he have a bird?”

“No pets. He hated animals, so the trust animals line doesn’t make any sense.”

“The poem must mean something else,” I said. “What else can you tell me about your uncle? When did he pass away?”

“Last week. He was seventy-five and had been in poor health for years.” Nathan Fenton sighed. “He wasn’t the friendliest man in the world, but he loved games and puzzles. I’m really not surprised he would leave a riddle. The trouble is, he probably sent this riddle to other people. It would be just like him to have folks competing for the same prize.”

“Was there a will of any kind?”

“Yes, he left the family home to my cousin’s wife, Victoria Satterfield, as well as enough money to maintain it. Apparently, this riddle is his idea of a treasure hunt.”

“Any idea how much money is involved?”

“Elijah did well on the stock market and owned quite a bit of land that he sold. I imagine the prize is several hundred thousand dollars, maybe even a million.”

“Who else is likely to be included in the hunt?”

“I have the one cousin, Aaron Satterfield, but Elijah could’ve sent the riddle to anyone.”

“Does your cousin live here?”

“No, he’s in Parkland.”

“Give me a few days. I’ll see what I can do.”

Fenton looked relieved. “I don’t want you to think I’m anxious about the money, but I have a chance to buy a camp about ten miles from here in Westberry. I don’t know if you’ve heard of Camp Lakenwood?”

Being in Little Miss pageants gave me no time to enjoy summer camp. “No.”

Nathan’s eyes gleamed. “It used to be a wonderful camp. I went there every summer. I learned to fish and row a canoe and build a campfire. But the owner can’t keep it up and wants to sell it. It’s my dream to fix it up and have a camp, not only for the kids who can afford it, but have it free for underprivileged children.”

“That sounds wonderful.”

“But according to Misty May, my uncle’s lawyer, I have to solve this riddle by Monday, September 23, or the money goes to—well, I honestly can’t believe this, but she says it’s true—a fund to build bat houses.”

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