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Jill Churchill

Bell, Book, and Scandal


On a surprisingly mild day late in February, Jane sat out on her kitchen porch waiting for her next-door neighbor and best friend Shelley Nowack to come home. When Shelley's minivan turned into the Nowacks' driveway at about fifty miles per hour and screamed to a violent halt, Jane strolled over.

"Look what I got in today's mail," Jane said, shoving a brochure through the window of the minivan.

"Help me unload the groceries first. I have a car that's full of stuff that needs to go in the freezer," Shelley said, handing the brochure back without looking at it.

When the food was stashed away, they sat down at Shelley's kitchen table with the brochure. "A mystery conference right here in town. Cool. Are you going?"

"I want to," Jane said. "The book I'm writing isn't exactly a mystery, but I think all good novels are mysteries. At least, they need the elements of

secrets that need to be unraveled, even if there isn't a crime. Will she give the guy a second chance to straighten up his act or won't she? Is there a chance he'll be named in his rich grandfather's will? Will the child recover?"

"I never thought about it that way. You're right," Shelley agreed. "And the conference is at that fabulous hotel near that new mall we've never been to."

"I wasn't planning to stay at the hotel," Jane said. "What's the point when it's so close to home?"

"There are two points, Jane. For one thing, you learn more from people if you're staying at the hotel at conferences. Other attendees usually have drinks at the bar at night, and that's when they reveal a lot more inside poop to friends and eavesdroppers.

"The other point," Shelley went on, "is that Paul has invested in this hotel and, as such, always has a suite on hold for his use. We could stay in it for free."

Jane had often wondered just how rich the Nowacks were, but hadn't asked and never would ask Shelley. Paul's investment must have been a substantial one, however, to rate a full-time suite. But the Nowacks lived almost as modestly as Jane did. Their house was the same size as Jane's. Their children went to the same public schools as Jane's did. Their wallpaper and carpets were only slightly more expensivethan Jane's, in spite of the Nowacks' obviously being far more affluent. Shelley's husband owned an enormous chain of Greek fast-food restaurants.

"We? Would you really be interested in going with me?"

"Of course I would. I like knowing the inside poop about nearly any business. I don't think I'd go to an accountants' conference, but this one would be interesting." Looking over the brochure, she added, "I see by the schedule that there are usually two or even three tracks of speeches. You could go to one and I'd go to another and take notes for you. And late April is such a good time for a perk."

"I'll sign us both up," Jane said. "This will be really fun, I hope. Some of my favorite mystery writers are on the list of attendees. I'd love to meet them or least see and hear them in person."

"Let me jot the date down and tell Paul we need the suite that weekend if it's not already booked."

Three days later, Detective Mel VanDyne, Jane's longtime lover, dropped in after dinner and said, "I have a day off tomorrow. I've got more laundry than most armies accumulate in a week, the floors are dirty, and I'm buried in paperwork, most of which needs to be thrown away. Any way you could help me out?"

"Sure. Have you had dinner? There's leftover pot roast, gravy, and peas."

"Yes, please," he said pathetically. "All I had in the fridge was disgusting cottage cheese."

When he'd finished the leftovers, Jane said, "I have something interesting to tell you…."

"Could it wait until tomorrow? I have to go home and get a start so you won't know how sloppy my apartment really is."

"It'll hold," Jane said.

When she arrived the next morning, the cottage cheese was gone. Most of the paperwork was gone and Mel had started the first load of laundry.

Jane took charge. "Get me the vacuum and the attachments."


"All those little gadgets that came with it. You start cleaning from the top down. There are cobwebs on the ceiling. There's a tube that sucks them up, and the same tube gets the dust off the blinds. Then you do the carpet. I'll start in the front bedroom. You finish throwing trash away and put your first load of washing in the dryer."

It took three hours before almost everything was clean. When Mel started making the bed, Jane realized he didn't even know the right way to tuck the top sheet in tightly at the bottom. "Mel, stop. Don't you know how to do a nurse's corner? Watch this and do the other corner like I do this one."

He was surprised. "My mother failed to teach me that. In fact, I don't know if she knew this. She always had a maid to do things like this."

Jane sat down on the bed when they were finished. "Don't you want to hear my good news?"

"I'd rather we made good use of this bed first."

Jane smiled, slipping off her shoes while saying "Me, too."

Later, while Mel went for carryout Chinese for their lunch, Jane took a look in the fridge and decided he'd have to deal with it himself. But she'd tell him all about the writers' conference over the egg drop soup.

As time went on, Jane and Shelley received updates on activities and speakers. Jane became more excited every time she perused one of the bulletins.

"You sound as if you know who these people are," Shelley said when Jane rhapsodized about one of the additional speakers — a woman named Taylor Kensington, who wrote superb romantic suspense.

"Not to say 'know' for real. I admit I've been subscribing to a publishing magazine ever since I started this novel. I've kept track of names and reputations."

"How so?"

"There are columns about big sales of manuscripts every week or two. The magazine sometimes knows, and tells, the amount of advance paid. They always name the publisher, the author, and the agent who sold the work. Lots are nonfiction, of course."

"Advance? You mean they give a writer money before the book even comes out in the bookstores?"

"Of course. Sometimes they give advances without anything but a concept that hasn't even been written yet."

"You're kidding! I've got a lot to learn about this, I guess."

"The terms of the contracts are often interesting, too. I wouldn't let you see one, however. Nor would I show it to an ordinary attorney for fear he or she would have a stroke."

"Why is that?"

"It's something they'd know nothing about and think was indentured servitude, I understand. That's why writers need agents who are used to the weirdness of publishing contracts. I hope there will be some seminars on contracts."

"You will show me the contract!" Shelley exclaimed.

"Not until I understand the rules well enough to explain them. Oh, Shelley, I may not ever see one at all, you know."

The conference was to start on Thursday, and the Monday before, Jane set out for the grocery store early with a long list of things her two remaining children living at home could eat while she was gone. Shelley was just coming home from some errands.

"You're not letting your mother-in-law take care of them this time?" Shelley asked.


"Thelma's got a conflict. She's going to her younger sister's house in Saratoga because the sister's husband is having very serious surgery and wants someone from the family with her in the waiting room. Besides, Katie and Todd are, I hate to admit, fairly responsible and should be able to take care of themselves."



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