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Three Bedrooms, One Corpse

By:Charlaine Harris

Chapter One

A

My career as a real estate salesperson was short and unofficial, but not uneventful. It started in the lobby of Eastern National Bank at nine thirty on a weekday morning with my mother glancing at her tiny, expensive gold watch.

“I can’t make it,” she said with controlled savagery. A person who couldn’t manage her appointments was inefficient in my mother’s estimation, and to find her- self coming up short in that respect was almost intol- erable. Of course, her dilemma was not her fault. “It’s those Thompsons,” she said furiously, “always late! They should have been here forty-five minutes ago! Late for their own house closing!” She stared down at her tiny elegant watch as if she could change its reading by the force of her will. Her slim crossed legs were jiggling with impatience, one navy-pump-shod foot swinging ~ 1 ~

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~ Charlaine Harris ~

back and forth. When she got up, there might be a hole in the bank’s ersatz oriental carpeting. I sat beside her in the chair I would vacate for Mrs. Thompson, when and if she showed up. A couple stand- ing up Aida Brattle Teagarden Queensland for their own house closing was simply amazing; the Thompsons were gutsy, or so rich they wore an impervious armor of self- assurance.

“What are you going to be late for?” I was eyeing her crossed legs enviously. My own legs will never be long enough to be elegant. Actually, my feet couldn’t even touch the floor. I waved at two people I knew in the time in took my mother to answer. Lawrenceton was like that. I’d lived in this small Georgia town all my life, and figured I’d be here forever; sooner or later, I’d join my great-grandparents in Shady Rest Ceme- tery. Most days that gave me a warm, fluid feeling; just part of that ole southern river of life. Some days it made me crazy.

“The Bartells. He’s come in from Illinois as plant manager of Pan-Am Agra, they’re looking for a ‘really nice home,’ and we have an appointment to see the An- derton house. Actually, they’ve been here, or he’s been here, I didn’t get the details—he’s been here for three months living in a motel while he gets things lined up at Pan-Am Agra, and now he has the leisure to house- hunt. And he asked around for the best Realtor in town. And he called me, last night. He apologized beautifully for disturbing me at home, but I don’t think he was re- ally a bit sorry. I know the Greenhouses were thinking they would get him, since Donnie’s cousin is his secre- tary. And I’m going to be late.”

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“Oh,” I said, now understanding the depths of Mother’s chagrin. She had a star listing and a star client, and being late for introducing one to the other was a professional disaster.

Getting the Anderton house listing had been a real coup in this smallish town with no multiple-listing ser- vice. If Mother could sell it quickly, it would be a feather in her cap (as if her cap needed any more adornment) and of course a hefty fee. The Anderton house might truthfully be called the Anderton mansion. Mandy An- derton, now married and living in L.A., had been a childhood acquaintance of mine, and I’d been to a few parties at her house. I remembered trying to keep my mouth closed so I wouldn’t look so impressed. “Listen,” said Mother with sudden resolution, “you’re going to meet the Bartells for me.” “What?”

She scanned me with business eyes, rather than mother eyes. “That’s a nice dress; that rust color is good on you. Your hair looks okay today, and the new glasses are very nice. And I love your jacket. You take this fact sheet and run along over there—please, Au- rora?” The coaxing tone sat oddly on my mother, who looked like Lauren Bacall and acted like the very suc- cessful Realtor / broker she is.

“Just show them around?” I asked, taking the fact sheet hesitantly and sliding forward to the edge of the blue leather chair. My gorgeous brand-new rust-and- brown suede pumps finally met the floor. I was dressed so discreetly because today was the third day I’d fol- lowed Mother around, supposedly learning the busi- ness while studying for my Realtor’s license at night.

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~ Charlaine Harris ~

Actually, I’d spent the time daydreaming. I would much rather have been looking for my own house. But Mother had pointed out cleverly that if I was in the of- fice, I’d get first chance at almost any house that came up for sale.

Meeting the Bartells might be more interesting than observing Mother and the banker going through the apparently endless paperwork-and-signature minuet that concludes a house sale.

“Just till I get there,” my mother said. “You’re not a li- censed Realtor, so you can’t be showing them the house. You’re just there to open the door and be pleasant until I get there. Please explain the situation to them, just enough to let them know it’s not my fault I’m late. Here’s the key. Greenhouse Realty showed the house yesterday, but one of them must have given it to Patty early this morning; it was on the key board when I checked.” “Okay,” I said agreeably. Not showing a rich couple a beautiful house was bound to be much more enter- taining than sitting in a bank lobby.

I stuffed my paperback into my purse, put the An- derton key on my key ring, and kept a safe grip on the fact sheet.

“Thanks,” Mother said suddenly.

“Sure.”

“You really are pretty,” she said unexpectedly. “And all the new clothes you bought are so much better than your old wardrobe.”

“Well . . . thanks.”

“Since Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was in that movie, your hair seems to strike people as fashionable rather than unmanageable. And,” she went on in an

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unprecedented burst of candor, “I’ve always envied you your boobs.”

I grinned at her. “We don’t look like mother and daughter, do we?”

“You look like my mother, not me. She was an amaz- ing woman.”

My mother had stunned me twice in one morning. Talking about the past was something she just didn’t do. She lived in the here and now.

“Are you feeling okay?” I asked nervously. “Yes, fine. I just noticed a little more gray this morn- ing.”

“We’ll talk later. I’d better get going.” “Goodness, yes! Get over there!” Mother had looked at her watch again.

Luckily I’d met Mother at the bank instead of going with her from the office, so I had my own car. I got to the Anderton mansion in plenty of time to park to one side so my practical little car wouldn’t mar the view from the curb. Two months ago, when old Mr. Anderton had died, Mandy Anderton Morley (his sole heir) had flown in from Los Angeles for the funeral, put the house on the market the next day, and flown back out to her rich husband after clearing her father’s clothes out of the master bedroom and emptying all the drawers into boxes that she had shipped to her home. All the furniture was still in place, and Mandy had in- dicated to my mother she would negotiate with the buyers if they wanted some or all of the furnishings. Mandy had never been a sentimental person.

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~ Charlaine Harris ~

So when I unlocked the double front doors and reached in to turn on the lights in the cold, stale two- story foyer, the house looked eerily as it had when I was a child. I left the front doors open to let in some fresh air and stood just inside, looking up at the chan- delier that had so awed me when I was eleven. I was sure the carpet had been replaced since then, but it seemed the same creamy color that had made me terri- bly conscious of any dust on my shoes. A huge brilliant silk-flower arrangement glowed on the marble table op- posite the front doors. After you circled the marble table, you arrived at a wide staircase that led up to a broad landing, with double doors across from the top of the staircase echoing the double front doors below. I ran to turn the heat up so the house wouldn’t be so chilly while I was not-showing it, and returned to shut the front doors. I flipped on the switch that lit the chan- delier.

I had enough money to buy this house.

The realization gave me a tingle of delight. My spine straightened.

Of course I’d be broke soon after the purchase— taxes, electricity, etc.—but I actually had the asking price.

My friend—well, really, my friendly acquaintance— Jane Engle, an elderly woman with no children, had left me all her money and belongings. Tired of my job at the Lawrenceton Library, I’d quit; tired of living in a row of townhouses I managed for my mother, I’d decided to buy my own house. Jane’s house, which I now owned, just wasn’t what I wanted. For one thing, there wasn’t room for our combined libraries of true and fictional

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crime. For another, my old flame Detective Arthur Smith, with his new wife, Lynn, and their baby, Lorna, lived right across the street.

So I was looking for my own new home, a place just mine, with no memories and no nerve-racking neigh- bors.

I had to laugh as I pictured myself eating tuna fish and Cheez-Its in the Anderton dining room. I heard a car crunch up the semicircular gravel drive. The Bartells were arriving in a spotless white Mer- cedes. I stepped out onto the large front porch, if you can call a stone-and-pillars edifice a porch, and greeted them with a smile. The wind was chilly, and I pulled my wonderful new fuzzy brown jacket around me. I felt the wind pick up my hair and toss it around my face. I was at the top of the front steps looking down at the Bartells as he helped his wife from the car. Then he looked up at me.

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