I had almost solved the case when there was a knock on my office door. I put the book of detective stories on my desk and called “Come In.” The woman who entered was in her forties, average in height, above average in haute couture, and off the scale in looks and figure.
“Mr. Tuff? I'm Shania Sharapova.”
I was afraid my tongue would stumble over her name, so I said simply “Hello.”
“I'm in charge of Blandsville's first, hopefully annual, beauty pageant.”
“I'm sorry, but I don't enter beauty contests.” She looked puzzled for a few seconds, then realized that I was being facetious and smiled.
“We don't want you as a contestant; we want you as a judge of the talent segment. We already have ten entries, local women between eighteen and twenty-five.” They clearly violated my “seniors only” rule, but I didn't want to quibble over a few decades.
I wondered if the entrants included Cleo Patter, who last year had placed fifth in a provincial contest. She had dropped in the standings when, during the talent competition, she had played the harmonica--not an esthetically appealing instrument-- and had chosen as her piece the “Funeral March” whose solemnity was lost in the waw-waw-wawing of the mouth organ. She did regain some points, however, when the fastener on the top of her bikini malfunctioned.
“Miss Patter was going to enter, but changed her mind. Perhaps she felt winning this small contest would be a come-down after last year's provincial win, and to lose would be embarrassing. One more thing, Mr. Tuff.” I thought she was going to mention money and I was prepared to refuse. After all, if I can help my town by staring at a bevy of good-looking young women in brief attire, it's the least I can do. “We received a note telling us to cancel the pageant or face dire consequences. We'd appreciate it if you could find out who sent it and why, and of course prevent the 'dire consequences'.”
She handed me the note: it had a local postmark and the writing revealed nothing except that the sender was a poor speller, ordering the pageant organizers to “cansell the contest or face dier consekwences.” Or were the misspellings merely an attempt to conceal the writer's identity?
“Most of the contestants have local sponsors—Speedy's Taxi, Mac Hammer's Carpentry, Gus's Grocery and they all want to go ahead with the contest.”
The competition was to be held in the High School gym Saturday night at seven. At six forty I parked, hoping my car would not be vandalized, although it looked as if it already had been. I had to walk a gauntlet of half a dozen female protestors, shouting “Male chauvinist pig!” and waving signs: “Beauty contests exploit women,” “IQ over eye candy,” and “Stop lusting for my body.” I resisted the temptation to pause and assure the sign-bearer that I, and likely other men, did not lust for her.
Almost on schedule, Mayor Magnus Bable, who was to mc the event, made his opening cliches and introduced the three judges of the swimsuit and evening gown segment. The applause was punctuated by boos from the feminists. I had a half dozen suspects.
In the middle of the Mayor's speech, the microphone went dead. Someone had pulled the plug. The problem was quickly rectified. I wondered if this prank was one of the 'dier consekwences'. Frustratingly, all of the protestors were in sight when the interruption occurred. Or did they have an accomplice?
The first panel of judges faced an extra challenge: one of the contestants, Miss Blandsville Mosque, competed wearing a black pantsuit and hijab, as prescribed by custom, only her face showing, although it was admittedly a pretty face. Integrationists would be delighted to see that assimilation was taking place, although it seemed to be the hosts that were being assimilated.
When the beauty judging was finished, with the results still secret, Mayor Babel introduced the talent judges: hairdresser Harry Styles, dress store owner Linus Fitzwell, and me. We also received a melange of applause and boos. There was another brief microphone malfunction. Again none of the protestors was absent when it occurred.