Melinda sat next to me at the table nearest the door. We’d kept a chair open for Poppy the whole meeting, but she’d never shown up. The room was full of Uppity Women, and they’d all turned to look at us when Poppy’s name had been called and we’d had to say she wasn’t there. The other Uppities saw a very short woman in her mid-thirties with a ridiculous amount of brown hair and a wonderful pair of green-rimmed glasses, and a taller, very slim, black-haired woman of the same age, who had a narrow and agreeable face. (I was the shorter of the two.) I am sure all the Uppities who could see that far noticed that we had matching expressions, compounded of social smiles and grim eyes. I, personally, planned to rake Poppy over the hottest coals I could find. The president of Uppity Women, Teresa Stanton, was giving us a basilisk glare.
“Then we’ll continue the meeting with our book discussion,” Teresa said, her voice clipped and businesslike. Teresa, aggressively well groomed, had that chin-length haircut that swings forward when you bend your head, as she did now to check the agenda. Her hair always did what it was told, in sharp contrast to mine. I was sure Teresa’s hair was scared not to mind.
Melinda and I sat through the book discussion in mortified silence, but we tried to look interested and as though we were thinking deep thoughts. I don’t know what Melinda’s policy was, but mine was to keep silent so I wouldn’t draw any more attention. I looked around the room, at the circular tables filled with well-dressed, intelligent women, and I decided that if none of them had ever been disappointed by a relative, they were a lucky bunch. After all, a woman hadn’t shown up for a big-deal, high-pressure social engagement. Surely that was not such a rarity.
I muttered as much to Melinda, between the book discussion and lunch, and she widened her dark eyes at me. “You’re right,” she said instantly, sounding relieved. “We’ll go by and see her after this is over, though. She can’t do this to us again.”
See? Even Melinda was taking it personally, and she’s much more well balanced than I.
We scooted out of the dining room as quickly as we politely could after Teresa had dismissed the meeting. But we were waylaid by Mrs. Cole Stewart, who inquired in her deep southern voice where Poppy was. We could only shake our heads in ignorance and mutter a lame excuse. Mrs. Cole Stewart was seventy-five, white-haired, and all of a hundred pounds, and she was absolutely terrifying. From her affronted stare, we clearly received the message that we were being charged with guilt by association.
When we got to my Volvo, Melinda said, “We’re going over there and have a few words with her.”
I didn’t say no. In fact, I’d never considered any other course of action. “Oh, yeah,” I said grimly. I was so focused on having a few choice words with Poppy that I couldn’t enjoy the clear, chilly November day, and November is one of my favorites. If we passed anyone we should have waved at, we never noticed it.
“It isn’t as if she does a lot of work around the house,” Melinda said suddenly, apropos of nothing. But I nodded, understanding the extended thought. Poppy didn’t work outside the home anymore, she had one baby, and she didn’t even take very good care of the house, though she did take good care of the baby. She should have been able to manage what was on her plate, as my mother would have put it.
As I’d half-expected, when we got to Poppy’s and saw that her car was still parked in the carport, Melinda quailed. “You go in there, Roe,” she said. “I’m liable to get so mad, I might mention a whole lot of other things besides the topic at hand.”
We exchanged a meaningful glance, the kind that encompassed a whole conversation.
I swung my legs out of the car. I noticed something on the ground by my feet, two long straps of embroidered cloth.
“Oh crap,” I said, glad only Melinda was there to hear me. I tossed them into the car for Melinda to look at, and I marched to the front door. I was mentally loaded for bear. “Poppy!” I called as I turned the doorknob of the front door of the house. The door opened. Unlocked. Since by now I knew Poppy had already had company that morning, I was not so startled by this.
I stepped into the foyer and called again. But the house was quiet. Moosie, Poppy’s cat, came to see what was happening. Moosie was a pale sylph compared to my huge feline basketball, Madeleine. The cat meowed in an agitated way and ran from hall to kitchen and back again. I’d never seen Moosie act so jittery. He was Poppy’s pampered pet, a declawed half Siamese she’d adopted from the animal shelter. Moosie was not allowed out the front door, only out the sliding glass back door, which led into a backyard enclosed all the way around with a six-foot-high privacy fence. After Moosie stropped my ankles a couple of times, I registered the fact that the sensation was sticky. I looked down and saw that my hose were stained.
“Moosie, what have you been into?” I asked. Several unpleasant possibilities crossed my mind. The cat began cleaning himself vigorously, licking at the dark patch on his side. He didn’t seem hurt or anything, just, well, catty. “Where’s Poppy?” I asked. “Where’s your momma?” I know that’s disgusting, but when you’re alone with animals, you get that way.
Poppy and John David actually had a human child, Chase, as well as the cat, but they’d had the cat longer.
“Hey, Poppy!” I yelled up the stairs. Maybe she’d gotten in the shower after her visitor left. But why would she? Even for Poppy, missing such an important engagement was very unusual. And if she’d been up to her usual shenanigans … I had to press my lips together to hold in my anger.
I stomped up the stairs, yelling Poppy’s name the whole time. She’d missed Uppity Women, and she’d missed lunch, and, by golly, I wanted to know why.
The master bedroom looked as though she’d just stepped out. The bed was made and her bathrobe was tossed across the foot of the bed. Poppy’s bedroom slippers, the slide-in kind, were in a little heap on the floor. Her brush was tossed down on her dressing table, clogged with red-gold hair.
“Poppy?” I said, less certainly this time. The bathroom door was wide open, and I could see the shower enclosure. The wall was dry. It had been quite awhile since Poppy had showered. I could see my reflection in the huge mirror that topped the two sinks, and I looked scared. My glasses were sliding down my nose, which is a very insignificant feature of my face. I’d worn the green-rimmed ones today to offset my bronze-colored jacket and tobacco brown sheath, and I took a little moment to reflect that autumn colors were really my best.
Well, I could think about myself any old time, but right now I needed to be searching. I went back down the stairs faster than I’d gone up. Melinda, waiting out in my Volvo, would be wondering what had happened to me. I, however, was wondering why the central heating was roaring away on this cool but moderate day, and why I was feeling a draft of chilly air despite the heating system’s best attempts.
I muttered a less ladylike word under my breath as I strode farther down the entrance hall to the kitchen, though striding is a moot word to use when you’re four eleven. Moosie wove in and out between my ankles and darted ahead when it suited him. The kitchen was a mess; although big and bright, it was scattered with dishes and crumbs and pieces of mail and baby bottles and car keys and the St. James Altar Guild schedule—a normal kitchen, in other words. To my left, dividing the room in half, was a breakfast bar. On the other side of it was a family dining table, positioned by the sliding glass doors so Poppy and John David could look outside while they ate. A mug of coffee was on the breakfast bar. It was full. I laid my finger against the side of it. Cold.
Over the top of the breakfast bar, I could see that the sliding glass door was open. This was the source of the intruding cool air. A sharp-edged wind from the east was gusting into the kitchen.
My scalp began to prickle.
I stepped through the narrow passage between the end of the breakfast bar and the refrigerator and looked to my right. Poppy was lying on the floor just inside the open sliding glass door. One of her brown pumps had fallen off her narrow foot. Her sweater and skirt were covered in blotches.
A spray of blood had dried on the glass of the doors.
I could hear a radio playing from the house behind Poppy’s. The tune wafted over the high privacy fence. I could hear someone splashing through the water of a pool: Cara Embler, doing her laps, as she did every day, unless her pool was actually frozen. Poppy, who had laughed about Cara’s adherence to such an uncomfortable regimen, would never laugh again. The processes of life and living, continuing in the houses all around us, had come to dead stop here in this house on Swan-son Lane.
Moosie sat by Poppy’s pathetic, horrible body. He said, “Reow.” He pressed against her side. His food bowl, on a mat by the breakfast bar, was empty.
Now I knew how Moosie’s fur had gotten stained. He’d been trying to rouse Poppy, maybe so she would feed him.
Suddenly, I had to escape from that suburban kitchen with its horrible secret. I flew out of the house, slamming the front door behind me. I had a fleeting impulse to scoop up Moosie, but taking charge of him was too much for me at that second. I dashed down the sidewalk to the curb, where Melinda was waiting. I was making the “phone” signal as I hurried, little finger and thumb pointing to mouth and ear, respectively. Melinda had turned on the cell phone by the time I got to her car.
“Nine one one,” I said, gasping for breath. Melinda gave me a sharp look, but she punched in the number as I’d asked and then passed the phone to me. Did I mention that Melinda has a ton of good sense?
“The nature of your emergency?” said a distant voice.
“I’m at Eight-oh-eight Swanson Lane,” I said. “This is Aurora Teagarden. My sister-in-law has been killed.”
I never did remember the rest of that conversation. When I was sure they were coming, I pressed the button that ended the conversation, and I began to try to explain to Melinda.
But instead, I flashed on the deep wounds on Poppy’s hands, wounds incurred when she was defending her life, and I leaned over to avoid the car, my dress, and the phone while I threw up.
For the sixth or seventh time, I explained very carefully why Melinda and I had gone to Poppy’s house. Because the city police made the house off-limits instantly, Melinda and I drove right down to the police station, and from there I called my mother at Select Realty, her agency. It was a difficult conversation, over my cell phone in a public place, but one that had to be completed. Her husband, John, had had one heart attack already. Mother was terrified of another, and the news about his favorite daughter-in-law might trigger one. Mother was right to worry about that, and she thought of a few more things to worry her before we’d finished our conversation.
“Who’ll tell John David?” Mother asked. “Tell me it doesn’t have to be John.” John David was John’s second son, and the husband of the late Poppy.
“Where is he, Mother? Do you know?” The police had been asking me that quite persistently. If John David wasn’t at his company headquarters in Atlanta, I didn’t know where he’d be. He’d been a pharmaceuticals salesman for the first few years of his marriage, but recently he’d gotten a job at company headquarters in the Public Relations division. John David had always been good at turning an attractive face to the world.
“John David? He’s at work, I guess. Two o’clock on a Monday afternoon, where else would he be?”
“Do you have that phone number and address handy?”
I could hear little efficient sounds as Mother wheeled through her Rolodex. She rattled off a number, and I wrote it on a scrap of paper and handed it to the policewoman sitting across the desk. “That’s the same number,” the detective said, and I nodded.
“Will they let you go tell him?” Mother asked.
“I think the police will tell John David,” I said. “If they can find him.”
“What do you mean?”
“I already gave them that number. The police called, and the people there told the police that John David left work early today. Before noon.”
“Then where could he be?”
“I guess they’d like to know that, too,” I said, figuring a number of other shoes were about to drop.
After an appreciable pause, my mother said, “That would kill John.” Another pause: I could practically hear her thinking. “Aurora, I’ve got to go, before he hears about this some other way. You know someone’s bound to call the house and tell him there are a lot of police cars around John David’s house. Wait! Roe, where’s the baby?”
My face must have changed dramatically, because the detective stood up abruptly, sending her chair skidding a couple of feet.
“I don’t know where the baby is,” I said numbly. I couldn’t believe I’d forgotten about Chase, who was only eleven months old. “I don’t know. Maybe Melinda …” I swiveled on the hard chair, looking for my remaining sister-in-law. The next instant, I was on my feet. The detective said something, but I didn’t listen as I searched for Melinda, my heels click-clacking on the linoleum floor.
She was in a cubicle with Detective Arthur Smith, whom I knew all too well. I stuck my head in. “Roe?” she said, already apprehensive.
“Where’s the baby? Where’s Chase?”
She looked at me blankly. “Why, John David dropped him off at my house this morning. My sitter is keeping my two and Chase, so Poppy and I …” And then her face crumpled all over again.
I hotfooted it back to the telephone, which I’d stupidly left on the desk. “Chase is at Melinda’s,” I told my mother. I was limp with relief. “Evidently, John David took him over there this morning.”
“So John David was in town this morning. At least we know that.” My mother had already absorbed Chase’s safety and was moving on to other ramifications. “Listen, Roe, you’ve got my cell-phone number.” I had it all right, tattooed on my brain. “Call me the minute you know where John David is. I’ve got to get to your stepfather.”
I thought my mother was a wee bit affected in calling John my stepfather, and she did on every possible occasion. After all, I’d been in my early thirties when John, a widower, had married Mother. He’d been a friend of mine before he’d dated my mother, and I felt a mixture of different obligations and attitudes toward John. I certainly never addressed him as “Step-dad.”
I hung up and faced the woman who’d been taking my statement. Her name was Cathy Trumble, and I’d never met her before. Detective Trumble was stocky and graying, with an easy-care curly hairdo and sharp, pale eyes behind rimless glasses. She was a real professional, I guess; I had no clue as to how she felt about the information I was giving her—the death of Poppy Queensland, my brother-in-law’s absence—or anything at all. It was like talking to a piece of stainless steel.
“How come you don’t have a cubicle?” I asked. I had been wandering off in my own mental world while Detective Trumble was typing into a computer, and she was a little nonplussed by my question. The Sparling County Law Enforcement Center housed the sheriff’s office, the town police, and the jail. In the world of SPACOLEC, detectives got their own little space with head-high carpeted dividers.
“I just got hired,” she explained. She seemed startled into answering the question.
I recalled Sally Allison’s story in the paper about the county having to increase its law-enforcement budget because of increased population, which had led directly to increased crime. Okay, Detective Cathy Trumble was the result. “Where do you live?” I asked, trying to be sociable. With a mother who made a living in real estate, it was a question that was second nature.
“And you had planned this lunch date with your sisters for how long?” she asked pointedly.
Okay, we weren’t going to be best friends.
“They’re my sisters-in-law, sort of once removed,” I said for what felt like the millionth time. “We’ve been planning to go to the Uppity Women together for a month. Melinda just joined three months ago, and I’ve been a member for a about half a year.”
“Oh, she’d gone as our guest twice. But today she was going to be inducted. Somebody had died to let her in,” I explained.
The clear eyes fixed me in their stare. I felt like I’d been caught in the headlights. “Somebody had died?” she said.
For the first time, I regretted not being questioned by Arthur. “Well, to get in Uppity Women—it’s really the Uppity Women’s Reading and Lunch Club, but everyone calls it Uppity Women—you have to fill a vacancy, because the bylaws limit membership to thirty,” I told Cathy Trumble. “You have to be nominated, and if they vote yes, you get on the list. The list is limited to five. Then when a member dies, the top person on the list replaces that member. Etheline Plummer died for me.”
“I understand,” Detective Trumble said unwillingly. She looked a little dazed.
“So when Linda Burdine Buckle died two weeks ago,” I said, “it was Poppy’s turn.” I patted at my cheeks with a soggy Kleenex.
“What do Uppity Women do?” Detective Trumble asked, though she sounded as though she didn’t want to hear the answer.
“Well, we talk about local politics and then we decide how we’re going to handle local issues. We have representatives at every city council meeting and school board meeting, and they give reports to the club. We decide whom we’re going to back in the primaries, and how we’re going to do it. And then we have a book we’ve all read that we discuss, and then we eat lunch.”
This didn’t seem extraordinary to me, but Trumble gave a kind of sigh and looked down at her desk. “So, you have a political agenda, and a literary agenda, and a social …”
“You all read, what? Like from the Oprah Book Club? Like The Lovely Bones?”
“Well, what was this month’s book?”
“The Sublime and the Ridiculous: Economic Currents in the Southeast. By a professor at the University of Georgia? She was supposed to come down to speak to us about it, but she got the flu.” I had read every word, but it hadn’t been easy.
The look Trumble gave me would have frozen a pond. “Could you just tell me what you’ve been doing, say last evening and this morning?” Detective Trumble asked, her voice hard despite the thinnest overlay of courtesy.
“Last night won’t do you any good,” I said, surprised she’d even tack that on. “She wasn’t killed till this morning.”
“How do you know that?” Trumble leaned forward, her eyes sharp and intent.
“About twenty different ways. First off, I talked to her this morning. Then, her clothes. She was wearing the right clothes.”
“‘The right clothes’?”
“For the meeting. Poppy usually dressed a little extreme for Lawrenceton, and Melinda and I warned her that she had to look like Missy Matron for this crowd, at least till they got to know her. So I wanted to check on what she was planning on wearing. And she told me. And it was the outfit I found her in.”
Trumble nodded. Good. This was the kind of fact she liked.
“So, this morning, I got up at six-thirty, showered, had coffee, read the paper, got a phone call from Melinda.” I inclined my head toward the cubicle where Arthur was “interviewing” Melinda. “We talked for maybe five minutes. I got dressed. Then I called the vet to make an appointment for my cat, and I called Sears because the ice maker on my refrigerator is acting up, and I called work to find out when I could pick up my schedule for this month, and I called my friend Sally to ask her out for her birthday.”
Detective Trumble was gaping at me. “You made all those calls this morning?”
“Well, yes. It’s my phone-call morning.”
“Your ‘phone-call morning.’”
Gosh, she seemed big on repetition. “Yes, my phone-call morning. I don’t go to work till the afternoon on most Mondays, so I make all my phone calls early. I have a list.”
She shook her head slightly, as if she were shaking off raindrops. “Okay,” she said. “So, when would you estimate these phone calls were finished?”
“Let’s see. The vet opens at eight-thirty, so I probably began around then.” Though I found it hard to believe, I again wished I were being questioned by Arthur. He knew Lawrenceton, and he knew me, and he would not make such heavy weather out of this. “You know, they don’t want to see Madeleine, so making the appointment takes awhile. The new receptionist is better about it than the old one, though.”
I am not a ditz—at least I don’t think I am; I just daydream a lot—so I was getting a wee bit tired of feeling like an airhead. “My cat. Madeleine. Had to go to the vet.”
“Your cat’s a real handful?” Comprehension was dawning. Perhaps she was a cat owner. I thought of Moosie, and wondered who was watching him. He wasn’t supposed to go out of the house. I was willing to bet the police had let him out. I was mad at myself for not telling them Moosie had been declawed before Poppy adopted her, so she wasn’t an outdoors kind of cat. I explained to the detective. To my surprise, she called the house right away.
When she hung up, she looked concerned. “Our team searching the house says none of them has seen a cat.”
“Oh no. That’s awful. That cat is declawed; he can’t make it outside that fence.”
“I’ll have the patrol cars look out for him, and I’ll alert the pound in case anyone brings him in. Give me a description before you leave. Now, let’s get back to this morning. You said your sister-in-law called you later, after you’d finished making all your phone calls?”
“Yes. The phone rang while I was getting ready to go. Poppy said Melinda and I should go on ahead, that she’d meet us there.”
“And she gave no reason for this?”
“No.” I hesitated. “She said there was something she had to take care of, and she sounded as though it was something unexpected, but other than that, no.” There’d been the moments of my inattention, but that was for my conscience alone, not for Detective Trumble’s consumption. Nothing could be done about it now. “She just said there was something she had to take care of,” I repeated.
Arthur came out of his cubicle and beckoned to Detective Trumble, who pushed up from her desk and met him on middle ground. Possibly she thought I couldn’t hear her because I was rooting around in my purse.
“Is this a fair example of a southern belle?” she murmured to my former boyfriend. I glanced up, to see her tilting her head toward me.
“Aurora?” Surprise made him a little louder than he’d intended.
“She’s a moron. Her brains are scattered over several miles of bad road.”
“Then she’s hiding something,” he said flatly.
Darn that Arthur.
I saw Melinda leaning out of Arthur’s cubicle, making little gestures at me behind his back. So far, the new detective hadn’t caught sight of Melinda, but she would soon. I shook my head violently then pasted a sweet smile on my face as Arthur leaned to one side to fix me with a glare. The minute my lips moved, I realized a sweet smile was wildly inappropriate, and I wiped my face clean, trying to come up with an expression that wouldn’t be worse.
Arthur made his way through desks and chairs on the way to Trumble’s area, and even I could read the reluctance in his gait. His whole demeanor was that of a man who’d just quit smoking but was obliged to tour the Marlboro factory.
The Marlboro factory would be me.
I should have been pleased, because God knows I’d hoped for years Arthur would get over his confused feelings about me, and he definitely had. I just didn’t know why I had to be categorized as “bad” in the process. Possibly this was a childish thought and I would be ashamed of it later. I hoped so.
“What are you up to?” he asked without preamble.
“My sister-in-law got killed, Arthur. I’m not ‘up to’ anything.”
“Uh-huh. Anytime you pull that fluff-headed southern eccentric routine, you’re putting out a smoke screen. I take this real serious, Roe. There’s no give in this.”
I considered my options. I looked over at Melinda again. I shrugged. She looked relieved. I was taking the burden of concealment away from her.
“We found something in the driveway when we were sitting and waiting,” I said. I looked up. Why on earth couldn’t Arthur sit down in Detective Trumble’s seat, so I wouldn’t have to strain like this? I looked down at my hands clasped on my purse, rotated my head to ease my neck.
“What did you find?”
“Ah, a baby pacifier.”
“Whose was it?” Arthur asked, his voice quite gentle. I could believe he wasn’t mad until I looked back up at him.
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“No, I’m not.”
“Your sister-in-law Melinda saw it, too.”
“And you agreed not to tell us?”
“No,” I protested. “We just don’t know for sure whose it was.”
“I think you have a real good idea.”
This was the part that was impossible to explain. I tried to think of how to get around it. I had a stroke of genius—at least it seemed to be at that moment. “It’s just a Binky,” I said. I pulled it out of my purse and handed it to Arthur.
He turned it over and over in his fingers. It was a blue Binky, and there were millions just like it.
“It could even be her baby’s,” he said. “Maybe it fell out of one of the family cars.”
Melinda had left the cubicle and inched closer to hear all this, and she looked profoundly relieved. Arthur was fairly irritated to see her when he turned around. He sighed. “Do you confirm this, Mrs. Queensland?” he asked. Melinda nodded.
“That’s where we found it. It could have come from anywhere. Roe just picked it up on her way into the house because she assumed it was Chase’s.”
Bless Melinda’s heart. I couldn’t have done better myself.
Then Melinda almost ruined it by shooting me a triumphant glance that practically screamed, But there’s more that we’ve concealed! I felt as if my purse were smoking, the contents were so hot.
“If that’s all, Detectives, we need to go to our family,” I said quickly. “Melinda’s got the baby at her house with her kids, and we have to see to John, and Avery will want to know all about it.”
“Where will you be going? In case we need to talk to you again?” Arthur was nothing if not tenacious.
“We’ll be going to my house first, to check in on the kids and the baby-sitter,” Melinda said briskly. She was glad to be back on familiar ground, where she knew what was what and she could be her normal efficient self. “Then we’ll go over to John and Aida’s house, I’m sure. You have Roe’s cell number and mine, and the house numbers, so we’d like to hear as soon as possible if you find out anything.”
The next thing I knew, we were in the parking lot of the SPACOLEC complex, and Melinda and I were hugging each other and crying. This was unprecedented, and maybe we were both a little relieved when we separated to dig in our purses for tissues.
“They’ll find out,” Melinda said.
“Yes, they will. But at least it won’t have been us who told them.”
“I don’t know why that makes me feel better,” Melinda said, giving a few hiccupping sobs, “but it does. You know if that Arthur Smith finds out we’re lying, he’ll make it hard on us, and Avery will never forgive me.”
I nodded grimly. If Melinda thought Avery was the most frightening thing facing her, she’d never seen my mother angry.
“What should we do with them?”
I pulled the cloth straps out of my purse and glared at them. They were cute as the dickens. They’d been embroidered by Poppy, who was fond of needlework, for the sons of Cartland (“Bubba”) Sewell and my friend Lizanne. The boys, Brandon and Davis, were now—well, Brandon was a toddler, and Davis was sitting up. The straps, which snapped into a circle, were designed to run through the plastic loop on a pacifier, so when the baby dropped the pacifier, it wouldn’t fall to the floor. You could run the strap around the baby’s neck, or around the brace of a car seat, or whatever. Brandon’s had his name and little bunnies embroidered on it, while Davis’s had footballs and his initials. Lizanne had loved them when Poppy had given them to her; I remembered the day she’d opened the little package. And I’d found them on the ground in Poppy’s driveway. Melinda and I exchanged a long glance, and I stuffed them back into my purse.
I drove to Melinda and Avery’s house, trying to be extra careful, because I was all too aware of how dazed I was. I waited out in the driveway while Melinda ran in to check on the kids, tell the baby-sitter what had happened, and change shoes.
Highly polished flats replaced the pumps she’d been wearing. I liked Melinda more and more as I spent time with her, and not the smallest reason was her practical nature.
“Where’s Robin?” she asked as we parked in front of my mother’s house.
“He’s in Austin,” I explained. “He got nominated for some award, so he’s going to the mystery writers’ convention where they give it out. He asked me if I wanted to go, but …” I shrugged. “The convention’s over, but he’s doing some signings on the way back. He should be home on Wednesday, in time to pick up his mother at the airport.”
“You didn’t want to go with him?” she asked shyly. My relationship with Robin Crusoe, fiction and true crime writer, was new enough that the family was delicate about making any assumptions.
“I kind of did,” I said. “But he was going to be with a lot of people he knows really well, and I haven’t been with him very long.”
She nodded. You had to have a pretty firm footing in a relationship to be dragged into a massive “meet the friends” situation. “Still, he asked,” she said.
It was my turn to nod. We both knew what that meant, too.
That was our last pleasant moment for the rest of the day. Our sister-in-law had died a terrible death, a violent death, and John David still hadn’t been located. Poppy’s parents had to be called, which awful job Avery agreed to undertake. All the Queensland men were tall and attractive. Avery was certainly the most handsome CPA in Lawrenceton, but his personality did not live up to his face, which could have been devilish if there’d been any spark in it. Avery was one of those men always described as “steady,” which is what you want in an accountant, of course. He was the older brother, and had been a year ahead of me in high school. Instead of playing football like John David, Avery had played tennis; instead of being elected class president, Avery had been editor of the school paper. He’d added to the local gene pool by marrying Melinda, who’d grown up in Groton, a few miles away.
Poppy had gone to high school in Lawrenceton. She and John David had been five years behind me at the local school, which in those days had meant I was hardly aware of their existence. Her parents, who’d had her late in life, had moved to a retirement community a couple of hours’ drive away after she’d graduated. Poppy’s father, Marvin Wynn, had been the local Lutheran minister, and his wife, Sandy, had worked in the registrar’s office at the local junior college. The whole community had pitied these righteous people when Poppy, their only child, reached her teen years.
But she’d never been arrested or gotten pregnant, those two grim incidents typical of wild teen years. And by the time she’d gone to college, she’d more or less settled into a relationship with John David Queensland. It had been a tumultuous one, and they’d broken up and reconciled more times than any onlooker could count. Neither Poppy nor John David had been faithful during the off-seasons, and maybe not even when they were supposed to be going steady. This pattern seemed to have continued even after they’d eventually married, five years after they’d graduated from college and begun pursuing their careers. Amazingly, Poppy had been a great elementary school teacher. I’d heard how good she was from more than one set of parents. And John David seemed to be able to talk almost any doctor into buying his company’s pharmaceuticals.
After Poppy had had Chase, almost any onlooker would have been excused for assuming that life had settled down for these two former wild kids.
Though I’d always liked Poppy, and had often admired her terrifying habit of saying exactly what she thought, I didn’t approve of some aspects of her marriage. To me, marriage is the chance to put away the trappings of a single life and concentrate on making one good thing work really well. The cornerstone of this would have to be—in my view—faithfulness. There have to be some assumptions you make when you agree to bind your life to another person’s, and the basic assumption and maybe the most important of all is that this person will get your exclusive attention.
Poppy had had at least two flings that I knew about, and I would not have been surprised to hear there had been more. I had tried—real hard—not to judge Poppy, to enjoy the part of her I liked and ignore the part that made me queasy. I behaved this way for several reasons. The most important reason was that I was also bound to her by marriage, my mother’s marriage, and to make a family work, you have to be willing to keep your mouth shut and park your judgments by the door. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was complicate my mother’s life by causing trouble in our new family.
Another reason was my attempt to live my religion. When I’d dated our priest, Aubrey, he’d commented once or twice on my ardent wish not to cause trouble by speaking up about other people’s behavior. “You have to take a stand for what you believe,” he’d said. Well, that was true. What was the point of having beliefs if you didn’t express them and live them?
“I don’t have to take a stand by telling other people they’re wrong,” I’d protested. “What business is it of mine?”
“If you love them, it’s your business,” he’d said firmly. “If their misbehavior is intruding on the happiness and well-being of others, it’s your business.”
I don’t know what Aubrey would have said about Poppy and John David, because I never asked him. I always felt I had so many weaknesses myself that the last thing I should do was point out other people’s flaws to them. So I never mentioned their infidelities to John David or Poppy, and I didn’t want them to discuss those affairs with me.
For sure, I didn’t want that.
When other people would try to tell me what my in-laws were doing, I’d just hurry the subject right past my nose.
Avery interrupted these unwelcome memories to tell us that Poppy’s parents were on their way to Lawrenceton. John, my mother, Melinda, and I were sitting around the table in the kitchen, coffee mugs in front of us … trying. Trying to think what to do next. Trying not to talk about where John David might be. Trying not to think about what to do with Chase, a baby with a dead mother and a missing father.
“At least he’s weaned,” Melinda muttered to herself.
I raised an eyebrow at her.
“I bet Avery and I end up with him,” she said, then tried to sound happier about it. “He’s a sweet baby, but …” She struggled to keep the words “I already have my hands full” locked down in her throat. “Poppy’s parents are too old, Avery’s dad and your mom are too old, and I can’t picture John David raising a kid by himself, can you?”
No, I couldn’t.
“Poppy was a good mother,” Melinda said quietly. “You wouldn’t think so, but she was.”
I nodded. “Poppy had a lot of good qualities.”
“What—excuse me, Roe, but I need to know—what actually happened to her?” Melinda asked, keeping her voice hushed.
“I think someone stabbed her,” I said, not meeting Melinda’s dark eyes. I was actually quite sure about that, but I’m no coroner, and I wasn’t going to give any final judgment on Poppy’s death.
Melinda made a little sound of horror, and I winced in sympathy. How scared Poppy must have been … how much it must have hurt. Had she hoped Melinda and I would come to save her, arrive in the nick of time?
I snatched my mind away from this fruitless conjecture and gave myself a good scolding. Poppy must have died very quickly, perhaps within a scant few seconds. Melinda pushed back from the table and left the room. Avery followed her. After a moment, I could hear the murmur of their voices coming from the living room.
My mother was watching John like a hawk, on the alert for signs of heart trouble. John was staring down at the table, studying a tablet open to a blank page. He’d stated his intention of starting a list of people he needed to contact, like the funeral home and the church, but he’d stalled. I knew that couldn’t wait any longer. I went upstairs, carrying the cordless phone into my old bedroom. I called Aubrey’s house.
“Hello.” It was the cool, composed voice of Emily, Aubrey’s wife.
“Emily, this is Aurora.” I sounded just as calm and sweet. We couldn’t stand each other.
“Hey, how are you?’
“Well, I’m fine, thanks, but we have a family trouble, and if Aubrey is handy …”
“Roe, he’s over at the country club, playing golf. Jeff Mayo asked him to make up a foursome. You know, Monday’s supposed to be his day off … .” Her voice trailed away delicately.
“Yes, and if my sister-in-law hadn’t been murdered, I wouldn’t dream of disturbing him,” I said somewhat less sweetly.
A long silence.
“He has his cell phone,” Emily admitted. “Let me give you that number.”
“Thank you so much,” I said with no expression at all. Why couldn’t I have dated a vet, or a bartender, or a farmer? Why had I dated a cop and a minister before I met my first and now deceased husband, Martin Bartell?
Who shows up in emergencies? Policemen and preachers!
I repeated the number to make sure I’d gotten it right, then bid Emily good-bye. I knew she would set the drums beating to alert the Women of the Church to the imminence of a funeral meal. Emily always did her duty.
I took a deep breath and called Aubrey before I could change my mind.
I don’t like cell phones, and I almost never turn mine on; to me, it’s an emergency tool, like a car jack or a rifle. But today I was really glad our priest had one.
He said he’d be at the house in thirty minutes.
POPPY DONE TO DEATH. Copyright © 2003 by Charlaine Harris. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.