Sample text for The penguin who knew too much : a Meg Langslow mystery / Donna Andrews.


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Chapter 1
“Meg! Guess what I found in your basement?”
I looked up from the box I was unpacking to see Dad standing in the basement doorway, his round face shining with excitement.
“A body?” An unlikely guess, but Dad was a big mystery buff—perhaps if I amused him, he’d stop playing guessing games on moving day.
“Oh, rats—you already knew? Well, how soon will the police get here? I need to move the penguins—we don’t want them any more upset than they already are.”
He disappeared down the basement stairs without waiting for an answer. I abandoned my unpacking to call after him.
“Dad? I was joking. Did you really find a body? And why are there penguins in our basement? Dad!”
No answer. Should I go down to see what was happening, or call the police? Damn! I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Normally counting to ten calmed me, but today it just gave me time to realize how much more could go wrong elsewhere in the house. On cue, I heard the crash of something breaking, followed by a sheepish “Oops!” from my brother, Rob, in the front hall. In the living room, Mother ordered a brace of cousins to move the sofa to yet another location. She’d been at it for an hour, and so far only three pieces of furniture had made it from the truck to the house.
In the dining room, Mrs. Fenniman, Mother’s distant cousin and closest ally, was singing an Italian aria, changing pitch every dozen notes, which meant she’d had a few martinis already and we’d have to redo the walls after she’d painted them.
I’d only reached seven when Rob interrupted me.
“Meg? You know that big cut-glass punch bowl? Is that a particular favorite of yours?”
“Don’t you mean was it a particular favorite?” I asked as I pulled my cell phone out of my pocket. “And no, but Mother was quite fond of it, so see if you can sweep up the pieces before she notices. Broom’s over there.”
“Right-o.”
I dialed 911. I wasn’t sure the situation quite warranted 911, but I hadn’t memorized the nonemergency number for the Caerphilly Police Department and I had no idea which box contained the phone book.
“Hello—Debbie Anne?” I said when the dispatcher answered. “This is Meg Langslow.”
“Meg! How’s the move-in going? And what’s the problem?”
“Slowly. And the problem is that Dad says he’s found a body in the basement.”
“Oh, Lord,” Rob said. He stopped in the doorway, broom and dustpan in hand, the better to eavesdrop.
“Is he serious?” Debbie Anne asked after a moment. “I mean, if it’s just some kind of practical joke—”
“He sounded serious,” I said. “And I thought I should call you first instead of wasting time going to look myself, and possibly disturbing a crime scene.”
“I’ll tell Chief Burke you said so. If it turns out to be some kind of mix-up . . .”
Her voice trailed off. I knew what she was thinking. Quite apart from the major-league practical jokers in my family, there was Dad, with his well-known mystery obsession.
“If it’s a mix-up, I’ll call back right away,” I said, and hung up.
“Did he really find a body?” Rob asked.
“So he says.”
“Don’t you think you should have checked before calling the cops?”
“If he was pulling my leg, I’ll let him explain it to Chief Burke.”
“I still think you should check for yourself.”
“I’m going to—want to come?”
Rob, who fainted at the mere idea of blood, shook his head and hurried back to the hall.
I took the stairs to the basement.
The smell hit me first.
Not the rank smell of a decaying body or the tang of newly spilled blood, both of which I’d had a chance to experience while tagging along after Dad—less while he pursued his medical practice, of course, than during his repeated attempts to involve himself in murder investigations, like the protagonists of the mystery books he read by the dozen.
No, this smell was a cross between a barn in dire need of cleaning and a fish market that had lost power for a few days. I deduced that I was smelling penguins. The stench wafted from the unfinished, far end of the basement, the part under the library wing, where the concrete floor gave way to packed dirt.
I also heard muted honking and trilling noises. I followed my nose and ears.
I should have brought a flashlight. This side of the basement was not only unfinished, it was unelectrified. And to get to the far end, where Dad was, I had to traverse a part near the stairs that the pack rat former owner had turned into a perfect warren of ramshackle storage rooms.
“Chief Burke? Is that you?” Dad appeared around a corner, carrying a flashlight.
“He’s on his way,” I said. “Where’s the body?”
“This way!” Dad was grinning with obvious delight at showing off the house’s exciting new feature.
Chapter 2
Gazing at the hole, I felt slightly reassured. Surely, if the body had been buried, it would turn out to be an old one after all. Little more than a skeleton.
“Yes,” Dad said. “And not even buried very deep. It was remarkably easy to uncover—what were they thinking?”
He shook his head solemnly, as if to express his dismay at the shoddy professional habits of the modern criminal class. Or perhaps at Michael’s and my shoddy housekeeping skills.
“It’s not as if we’re in the habit of tilling the soil down here,” I said. “Did you suspect it was here, or did you have some other good reason for digging a hole in the middle of our basement floor?”
“For the penguins,” Dad said. “I knew they’d be much happier with someplace to swim. So I was going to put in a pond—one of those preformed plastic ones.”
“Of course. A pond,” I said. It made sense coming from Dad, who had always had a fascination with water features. He probably loved having the penguins as an excuse. “But why not outside?”
“They’re penguins,” he exclaimed. “You can’t expect them to stay outside in the heat of a Virginia summer! In here, we can give them some air-conditioning.”
It would be a neat trick, with this end of the basement not even electrified—I could already see the giant industrial extension cords snaking through the house. And I shuddered to think what it would do to our electric bill.
“I started digging yesterday,” he went on. “But then I realized that I didn’t know how big a hole I needed. So I went to Flugleman’s garden store last night and got the precise dimensions. And almost as soon as I started work this morning—voilà!”
He pointed to his excavation. I grabbed one of the overhead lanterns, picked my way carefully to the edge of the hole, and peered in. I didn’t exactly see a body—more like a hand sticking up by itself out of the dirt. But even though I had refused to follow in Dad’s footsteps, becoming a blacksmith instead of a doctor, I had enough grasp of basic human anatomy to deduce that if the hand wasn’t still attached to a body, it had been at one point. Probably, from the size of it, a full-grown male body.
Though hands could fool you. I glanced down at my own, which were largish for a woman’s hands. Of course, at five feet, ten inches, so was the rest of me. And my work as a blacksmith wasn’t exactly conducive to maintaining elegant feminine hands. Mother had long since given up chiding me for ruining them at the forge. Even Michael didn’t pretend to find my hands beautiful, but he had pronounced them capable-looking, and made it sound like a higher compliment. One of his many positive traits.
Our subterranean visitor’s hand, like mine, looked well used rather than well cared for. Capable. On the large side. And hairier than most women’s hands.
So judging from the hand, our uninvited visitor was male. And either he worked with his hands, as I did, or he had done something useful with them in his off-hours.
And he probably hadn’t been buried beneath the basement floor all that long, I realized, with a sinking feeling. Now that I was closer, I could smell decay, even over the penguin poop. If he’d been there since the late Mrs. Sprocket owned the house, I wouldn’t have smelled anything at all. Or seen enough of him to make all these deductions.
“How recently did he die?” I asked. “Or can you tell from just the hand?”
“Longer than a day,” Dad said. “Or decomposition wouldn’t be detectable. And there’s no rigor, so presumably it has worn off. But not much longer.”
“So we’re talking days, not months or years, right?”
“Of course,” Dad said. “You could figure that out yourself.”
“I hoped I was wrong,” I said. “It would be so much easier if we could blame him on the previous owner. Anyway—ow!”
Someone—or something—had goosed me. I stumbled forward, barely avoiding the hand. My foot landed on a soft, warm body that squealed and wriggled frantically out from under me, almost toppling me over onto the hand. I glanced around to see a throng of penguins milling about us.
“Oh, dear, they’re loose again,” Dad said. “There really isn’t any place down here that will hold them. Help me take them outside, before they spoil the crime scene.”
“A little too late to worry about that,” I said. The penguins had discovered the hand and were poking and nibbling at it with their beaks, though luckily they hadn’t decided that it was edible.
“Grab a fish and lure them outside,” Dad said, taking a bucket down from an overhead hook and handing it to me.
“Yuck,” I said, but I followed orders. I grabbed something cold and slimy from the bucket and headed for the other end of the room, where concrete steps led to a set of old-fashioned slanted metal doors that provided an outlet to the yard. Behind me, I could hear Dad gently shooing the penguins. I barely had time to swing open one side of the door and scramble out before they caught up, nearly knocking me down in their eagerness to get to the fish.
I threw the fish into the yard, tossed a few more after it, and then looked around for a place to stow the penguins before they wandered off to visit the neighbors.
The duck pen. It wasn’t as if our resident duck and her adopted ducklings spent much time in it. I opened the gate, dumped most of the remaining chum at the far end, then stood waving a fish as a lure until I had all the penguins inside. Dad shut the gate behind them, and I climbed over the fence to freedom, or at least the absence of penguins underfoot.
“Good thinking!” Dad said as he put one foot up on a rail and leaned his elbows on the top of the fence. The veteran penguin wrangler, resting after a successful roundup. “That should take care of them for the time being.”
“For the time being,” I repeated. “At least until you can take them back where they belong. And just where is that, anyway? Not in our basement, I assure you.”
“The Caerphilly Zoo,” Dad said. He had pulled out his handkerchief and was mopping his face and the shiny expanse of his bald head. “Patrick asked me to foster them for a while.”
“Patrick?”
“Patrick Lanahan. The zoo’s owner. It’s just until he gets through this bad patch he’s having.”
“What kind of a bad patch?” I asked. In our family, “bad patch” was a convenient euphemism. It could cover anything from brief cash-flow problems or minor marital discord up to a felony conviction with a sentence of twenty to life.
“Only temporary, of course,” Dad said.
“Of course. What’s wrong down at the zoo?”
“The bank was going to put a lien on the property. And if he hadn’t moved the animals out, the bank might have seized them, too.”
“Oh, so these might even be hot penguins,” I said. “Great.”
“Don’t be silly, Meg,” Dad said. “The bank didn’t want to seize the penguins. What on earth would they do with them if they did? They gave Patrick plenty of time to foster out all the animals before they filed the lien.”
“To foster out all the animals? Dad, how many animals did you take, anyway?”
“Only the penguins,” Dad said, as if hurt by my distrust.
“Ah. Only the penguins,” I repeated. Suddenly the throng of black-and-white forms busily exploring the duck pen for escape routes looked small and relatively harmless. I tried to remember what other animals they’d had at the zoo. Nothing particu-
larly dangerous, I hoped. Still, penguins were better than hyenas, weren’t they? And hadn’t the zoo had at least one elderly, ill-tempered bobcat? “So you’re stuck with the penguins until Patrick can pay his bills?”
“Just until he finishes negotiating an agreement with a new sponsor,” Dad said. “Which should be any day now.”
He was looking at the empty fish bucket with a slight frown.
“Remarkable, how much fish they eat,” he said. He glanced at the penguins, then back at the bucket, and sighed.
“Dad, just how long have you had these penguins?”
“Only two weeks.”
“They haven’t been in the basement for two weeks, have they?” I asked. I thought I’d have noticed penguins, but perhaps the preparations for the move had made me less observant than usual.
“Oh, no—I’ve been keeping them over at the farmhouse.” Although he and Mother still lived in Yorktown, about an hour to the south, a few months earlier he’d bought the farm adjacent to our new house, partly to save it from development and partly so they could come up to Caerphilly whenever they felt like meddling.
“Why couldn’t they just stay there?” I asked.
“With your mother coming up today? I didn’t think she’d be pleased.”
“And you thought I would?”
“I knew you’d cope better than your mother.”
“You mean you knew I’d complain less.”
“Oh, look! There’s Chief Burke!”
As the chief’s car pulled up, Dad hurried out to meet him, visibly relieved that something had interrupted my line of questioning.
“Glad to see you!” Dad exclaimed, reaching to shake the chief’s hand as he stepped out of the patrol car. “Though I’m sorry it had to be under these circumstances.”
“Just what are the circumstances?” the chief asked. His normally cheerful brown face wore a faint frown. “Debbie Anne had some fool story about you finding a body in the basement.”
“Yes—extraordinary, isn’t it?” Dad said. “Let me show you.”
He made a dash toward the side yard, where the battered metal cellar doors were located. The chief and I followed more slowly, and saw Dad’s head disappear into the opening just as we turned the corner of the house. The chief looked at me.
“You’ve seen this body?” he asked.
“Yes. Part of it anyway—the hand. The rest’s still buried.”
“Lord,” the chief said. “And here I was hoping for a quiet Memorial Day weekend.”
He walked over to the basement doors and frowned at them for a few moments. Since the doors weren’t doing anything to merit disapproval, I suspected that he wasn’t really all that keen on going inside. I glanced down through the doors myself and could see why. Now that my eyes were used to the bright sunlight outside, I could see little more than a few steep steps disappearing into the gloom.
“Chief?” Dad called. “Are you coming?”
“Coming,” the chief called. “I don’t see what he’s in such an all-fired hurry about,” he grumbled to me. “Body’s not going anywhere, is it?”
“You know how excited he gets about murders.”
The chief only rolled his eyes. Then he put one foot carefully on the first step, and I watched his head drop lower with each step until it vanished into the basement.
Should I follow, or stay outside to keep an eye on the penguins?
Copyright © 2007 by Donna Andrews. All rights reserved.




Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Langslow, Meg (Fictitious character) -- Fiction.
Zoo keepers -- Crimes against -- Fiction.
Women detectives -- Fiction.