I met my mother in front of a house on Oak Street. How perfect could that be? Every town has an Oak Street. Hearts of oak, the Old Oaken Bucket, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.
The street name would have been perfect. The house wasn't. The living room was an awkward rectangle, the bathrooms tiny and inconvenient.
As I might have anticipated, my mother was less than patient with my quibbles. If she'd been more of a stranger, she'd have had to listen quietly. As it was, she argued - until I commented that I could easily switch realtors. "In fact," I said, "I could go to Russell & Dietrich. They'd laugh all the way to the closing." After that, Mother seemed to understand that if I said I just didn't like the house, it wouldn't do to quarrel with that feeling.
So our first evening out, we came up with zip. Mother had lined up four houses to see; and I had objections to all of them.
"The couple I showed your house to this afternoon seemed to like it," she said, before climbing into her new Cadillac. But by that time all I could think of was getting back to that house.
As I let myself in, I was shivering. The evening had cooled down very quickly, and I knew our warm weather was about to end for the season. As I tickled Madeleine behind the ears, I admitted to myself that our failure was actually a relief to me. If the house-hunting process had been too easy, I would have mistrusted it. It would take forever to sell this place, anyway.
I was sure of that until about eight o'clock the next morning, when Mother phoned to tell me that the people who'd seen my house the afternoon before had called her with an offer.
"What?" I gaped at the telephone.
"What can I say? They saw it, they liked it, they made an offer. It isn't even an insulting offer." It wasn't. It was actually a little more than I had been willing to settle for.
Suddenly, I felt as if the ground were falling out beneath my feet. I was terrified. I was losing my life.
"Sorry. Just... having misgivings."
"You don't want to withdraw the house?" Mother was trying not to sound outraged.
"No. No," I said, trying to stiffen my spine. "No, I need to move. I just... when do we let them know?"
"You mean, you accept the offer?"
"I guess I do," I said, surprised to hear my voice saying the words. "I can't think of how not to. I just thought it would take months to sell this house. Months."
"Me, too," my mother said. "But this couple wants to live in the country. The house looks beautiful now. They have a son who loves to hunt. The man's father is coming to live with them, and he needs the apartment above the garage."
"Well. Counteroffer for two thousand more dollars," I said, hearing my voice as if it were coming out of someone else's mouth. "If they'll come up with that, I guess we've got a deal."
"There is one snag."
My heart gave a lurch of hope. "Oh?"
"They need it now."
"They need the house as soon as you can get out of it. If that's before we can arrange a closing, they'll pay rent. It's a domino situation. They've sold their house, the grandfather has just retired and is driving down in a van full of his stuff, and they have nowhere to put him when he gets here."
"He can't just drive up and settle here in the yard."
"No, Roe, what I meant was that he can sleep on their couch, but that's going to be pretty unsatisfactory for more than a week or two."
"So, I need to find an empty house. And buy it."
"Or we need to work something else out. Of course, you can stay with me and John for as long as you need to, but I know you don't want to put your things into storage if you can help it."
We discussed the situation for a few more minutes, and Mother agreed to get together another lineup of houses to see that afternoon. I thought I'd calmed down, but I was still shaky when I hung up.
I thought of calling Robin.
No, I would not lean.
To my disgust, I began crying. I'd done fine on my own, just fine, until I'd met Martin and decided to marry him. Now, here I was, aching to have a man to talk to, used to having someone around to consult with, used to having a companion to share every little thing. I had missed that acutely over the past year.
The phone rang again. I was almost scared to answer it. But I did, since I am an optimist.
"Hey, this is Carolina," said her accentless California voice.
"How are you?"
"Busy as hell. I just wanted to let you know I did talk to Sarah, and she says she just opened the door, said, 'Thirty minutes till you're due on the set, Miss Shaw,' and shut the door again."
"No, she didn't hear Celia say anything, and the light wasn't on in the trailer."
No, it wasn't until Barrett had opened the door wide enough to let in sunlight that he'd seen the body. I thanked Carolina and hung up.
The clock was telling me I'd be late for work. I finished yanking my clothes on, determined to go in to work as usual. I brushed my hair carefully, hoping its length and volume would obscure my bruised face and my hickeyed neck. As I hurried out to my car, unlocking it with a click of my keypad, it did cross my mind to wonder if I had managed so splendidly before I got married. Hadn't I always been looking? Hadn't I always longed to have someone to share my life with? Hadn't I always assumed I would find that person, sooner or later?
I had. And he'd violated the dream by dying on me.
I was back on a more or less even keel after I'd been at work for an hour.
Probably it was inevitable that I'd have emotional spasms of grief for some time to come, right? For the first time, I wondered if it would ever be over. Surely I'd grieved and raged enough. I'd waited almost a year to even look at another man. Granted, when I'd looked it had been more like an immersion, but I had not even thought about men until Robin reentered my life.
I was broody and worried about the house situation, but not tearful, when Robin called.
I seldom get calls at work, of course, and I was a little surprised to hear Robin's voice on the other end of the phone.
"Roe, hey, I'm back at the motel. Listen, are you free for lunch? I need to talk to you."
"Um, I guess so. Beef 'N More?"
"No." I could practically hear him shudder. "There's a pizza place on Kenneth Road. It used to be okay."
"Yeah, Trixie's. That would be all right. I get off work at twelve-thirty. Is that convenient?" It wasn't Robin's fault I'd spent the morning castigating myself for my longing to throw myself into his life.
"Sure. Is something wrong?" He didn't sound as though he really wanted to ask. I guess I hadn't been as successful as I'd hoped in keeping my voice neutral.
"I'm just fine," I said independently. "I'll see you then."
He might have sounded a little puzzled as he said goodbye, but that was okay.
As I was working the return desk, Mark Chesney came in. He was looking good today, wearing what seemed to be his work uniform of pressed blue jeans and an oxford-cloth shirt. He was carrying a small box.
"Aurora!" he said, looking as astonished to see me as I was to see him. "What are you doing here?"
"I work here," I said, trying not to sound too "duh." "You knew that, Mark. It's in the script."
"Sure," he said. "So, in real life, you really do..."
"Work in the library," I finished, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as possible.
"Okay," he said, still faintly stunned. "Here, ah, these are books that Celia had in her trailer. I guess she checked these out before we started shooting. And I brought some paperbacks that were lying around, in case the library can use them."
I glanced at the hardbacks, and then looked again. The Seventies Bombers. Political Violence in the U.S. The Black Panthers. And, sadly, Diagnosing Your Own Illness.
"She was doing research," I said, carefully balancing my voice between question and statement.
"Oh, yeah, remember? She talked about it while we were out at supper that night, I think. Her next project was a movie set in the late sixties, early seventies, about violence in the hippy era. She was playing a middle-class girl turned radical who builds a bomb in her basement with the help of an African-American friend. Based on a true story."
I nodded, as if I'd remembered all that. The truth was, I'd barely listened. I rummaged through the books. The paperbacks were an undistinguished batch of popular fiction, but we can always use books in good condition. "Thanks for bringing these in," I said. Mark turned his attention back to me. He'd been giving Perry the onceover. Perry hadn't noticed, for which I was grateful. Perry was not exactly Mr. Stable, and I couldn't ever gauge his reactions, even to more ordinary occurrences.
"Hope you get to come back to the set," Mark said politely. "We've got our new leading lady. She's flying in tonight, and we should resume shooting scenes with her tomorrow."
That must be why they'd gotten the trailer cleaned out so quickly. The new lead would need it. "Jumping into a part must be incredibly hard for an actor," I said, focusing on what he was telling me, rather than on my random thoughts. "How can anyone learn lines that fast?"
"That's the business," Mark said briskly. "She'll be studying on the plane."
"Not Meredith," I observed. He looked blank. "Meredith Askew didn't get the job."
"Oh, gosh, no. Meredith doesn't have the star quality Celia did. And that's what we need."
"Kind of hard on Meredith."
"That's the business, too," he said, shrugging. He smiled at Perry, who happened to be looking in his direction, and gave me a little wave before he left.
I picked up the medical book. A strip of paper had been inserted between the pages in the H's. Huntington's Chorea had been underlined. So the police knew, as I did now, that Celia had been aware of her problem. I wondered if she'd gone to a doctor when her symptoms had become obvious, or if she'd had some other kind of warning.
Poor thing. She'd known, and she had to have dreaded the disease's progress. But she should have been given the choice of how to deal with her death sentence. She should not have had that snatched away from her. Someone had drugged Celia, someone had strangled her, and someone had hit her in the head. She'd been killed so many ways. Had three different people wanted her to die? Or had one person caused so much damage? If so, why?
The plastic cover on The Black Panthers was torn, so I carried the whole box back to the repair area. That was a corner of the employees' lounge, the corner right by Patricia's cubicle. Nothing closed to view, here. We like to check up on each other, here at the Lawrenceton Library. The donated books would have to be processed back here, too.
After I'd placed the box on the table, I noticed that a thin manuscript was at the bottom. I fished it out. Mark had packed the script of the movie Celia had been signed up to shoot after Whimsical Death. I'd have to call him to ask if he would like to come by and retrieve it. I stuck it back in the box.
I examined our torn cover more closely. If Celia hadn't been dead, I would've had a sharp conversation with her about this book. She'd been underlining, though I admitted to myself I couldn't be sure that had been Celia. There were slips of paper stuck here and there through the pages. I flipped through, removing the slips. One had been inserted in the center of the volume, where there were pages of pictures. I glanced down at the Afros with that kind of superior amusement we give to past fads. I thought of showing some of the more outrageous ones to Patricia, as a kind of peace offering, and I looked over to her cubicle to see if she was overwhelmingly busy.
She was staring at me with the blankest face I'd ever seen. I couldn't tell if she was broadcasting fear, or anger, or just a feeling of stunned inevitability, but the emotion was strong and directed at me. Puzzled, I gave her a little wave like the one Mark Chesney had given me, and went back to weeding out the makeshift bookmarks. I risked a glance in Patricia's direction after a minute or two, and she was still sitting at her desk, but her head was bowed. I had never imagined Patricia looking defeated, or even cowed, but that was in her posture. I thought about going to speak to her. But since she was Patricia, and she didn't like me, and frankly I'd never particularly liked her, I just didn't.
The book looked like new, I thought proudly, after I'd finished replacing the cover. As I taped the last flap of plastic in place, Patricia walked by me, heels tapping on the linoleum, her trench coat belted around her tightly. She never looked in my direction. Her purse was hanging from her shoulder. She was talking rapidly into her cell phone.
"Please have him in the office by the time I get there. He's late for his orthodontist appointment," Patricia said precisely. Her eyes met mine as she pulled open the employee door and she registered nothing. I might as well have been invisible.
This was weird.
A second later Sam came out of his office, which opened into Patricia's. He looked at her desk and then he looked through the glass at me. He pointed at his secretary's empty chair and raised his hands, palms up, to ask a question.
I shrugged. I pointed to the back door and made walking motions with my fingers.
Looking unhappy and disturbed, Sam wandered back into his office. He left the door open, so he could see his paragon returning. Pale, fair, and losing hair at an alarming rate, Sam seemed an unlikely poster boy, but there was no doubt that he and Patricia had formed a mutual admiration society.
I was back at the return desk when I remembered an odd fact.
Patricia's son didn't have braces. In fact, Jerome was blessed with teeth so even and white I had remarked them. So how come she was taking him to the orthodontist?
Robin was waiting for me at Trixie's. We ordered, and while we waited for our food I told him about my house situation. Somehow it didn't seem so dire after I'd told him, and I could feel myself begin to relax. When our pizza was in front of us, he carefully wriggled a piece onto his plate and said, "We need to talk about what the police told me this morning."
This wasn't a happy opening. "Okay," I said. "Shoot."
Tracy, it turned out, was on probation ... in California. She'd just gotten out of jail for another stalking incident with another mystery writer, Carl Sonnheim. Her pursuit of him and her jealousy of his girlfriend had ended up with Carl in the hospital, his girlfriend on a plane to Canada to put some distance between her and Tracy, and Tracy in jail. While she'd been in jail, Tracy had trolled through the prison library and ended up with all of Robin's books. She'd transferred her attentions to Robin.
"Lucky you," I said.
"Right." He looked grim.
"So she came to Georgia, and got a job with Molly's? How'd she find out Molly was going to be the caterer?"
"She'd done catering work in the past and still had some professional connections. They didn't know about her troubles."
"Molly couldn't believe it, Arthur Smith kept telling me. Said Tracy was one of the best employees she'd ever had."
"Do they think Tracy killed Celia?" I had to ask.
"The drugs, the pillow... they say that doesn't sound like Tracy."
"The Emmy does?"
"Well, it's more in line with what she did to Carl. She's been spotted around town. They don't think she'll leave."
Now I felt cold all over. "Then why don't they grab her?"
"Various people have seen her, but none of those various people happen to have been cops."
"So... you're going to be careful, right?" He put his hand over mine.
"I'm thinking it's you who should be scared," I said.
"I'm thinking it's both of us."
On my way to rendezvous with my mother, I remembered that when I'd walked up to the catering table the morning of Celia's murder, Tracy had been changing into a fresh jacket.
What if the soiled jacket had had Celia's blood on it? I shuddered again, and found myself looking at everyone I passed, on foot or in vehicles, trying to spot a head of auburn hair.
But it's not my way to keep scaring myself. I didn't see Tracy, and I told myself that the odds were good I never would again.
I met my mother in front of a house on Andrews Street. This was a fancier house than the others I'd looked at, and the price reflected that. But it looked good from the curb, and I was feeling optimistic.
Thirty minutes later, I was disillusioned. How could people put so much emphasis on floor space in a bathroom, and so little on kitchen room? The master bath would have held a Third World family, while the kitchen existed to rotate around the microwave. However, it was a pretty house in other respects, and I needed a house in the worst way. I mentally short-listed this one.
The ranch on Swanson Street was beautifully decorated, but too small. Poky.
McBride Street was full of trees. Even in the October night, I could tell that both sides were lined with oaks. I'd known someone who lived here - who was it? One of my girlhood friends, I thought. When I got out on the sidewalk in front of the house, the memories poured over me. This had been her house! I couldn't quite recall her name, but it would pop into my head soon. I had always loved spending the night with her.
"Who owns this now?" I asked my mother.
"David and Laurie Martinez," she said, peering at the fact sheet in the light from the streetlight. "They got transferred to Colorado. So the house is empty."
Mother told me.
"Okay," I said, "that's not too scary."
Mother had unlocked the door while I hung back, trying to recall what had made the house so special.
We stepped into the entrance. It was floored with red tiles. The carpeted area to the left was the formal living room. The red tiles ran down the hall to culminate in the kitchen, a large room with an eat-in area. Along the hall were doors to a formal dining room, a bathroom, and two large closets.
The kitchen had just been updated with new cabinets and a new dishwasher. There was a large walk-in pantry. It lay open to a sizable family room with a fireplace. There were sliding glass doors to a patio. I was remembering as I looked. Debbie, the girl who'd lived here, had had an older brother who made my heart throb with adolescent passion. I smiled as I thought of his utter obliviousness to my adoration.
"Okay," I said again, sounding, to my own ears, cautiously positive. I didn't like the carpet in the family area, but that was easy to change. Not cheap, but easy. I pointed out its poor condition, and Mother nodded.
To the right, off the kitchen and family room, were three bedrooms. One was a huge master bedroom with its own bath, and the other two, somewhat smaller, bedrooms shared a bath.
Then - and this was the neat part - a hall ran from the kitchen further back into the property. There were cabinets on both sides of the hall, making it into an elongated storage area. At the end of the hall, with its own door, was an office lined with built-in bookcases. Debbie's dad had been an architect, and he'd done a lot of work at home. I didn't need a home office myself, but... I stood in the office door, suppressing every thought that popped into my head.
I looked at everything again. I looked at the huge windows in the master bedroom, wishing the house weren't in town. It would be necessary to keep the curtains drawn most of the time. Though I thought I remembered extensive planting outside the window - that would certainly help.
"Is there a fence?" I asked. Mother stepped to the light switch panel by the door of the bedroom, and began flicking. The outside lights came on. Yes, the backyard was fenced and the enclosed area included that outside the side master-bedroom windows. Yay!
"There's another couple who say they're going to make an offer on this house after they sleep on it tonight," Mother warned. She sat on the window seat and reached up to smooth her hair. It must have been a full working day for her, but she looked, as always, smooth and composed.
"No, I think I'll take it now."
Mother's head snapped up as though I'd popped her with a rubber band.
"Let me see the utilities," I said, holding out my hand. She put the fact sheet into it somewhat dazedly.
The electric bills were a little high. I wondered how long it had been since someone had blown insulation into the attic. "Where's the attic access?" I asked, and Mother told me it was out in the garage. We trailed out to the garage, to the west side of the house, which more or less faced south. The room was just a big old bare garage with the usual oil stains and battered cabinets, but it did have a door that raised and lowered. "Is the attic floored?" I asked, and Mother had to confess she didn't know. I let down the attic access steps and mounted. There were planks over about a third of the available area.
"Who are the next-door neighbors?" Back on the ground, I dusted off my hands on my pants.
"Ah, the Cohens on one side; they're retired, they have grandchildren. On the other side the Herman sisters. They're in their forties. Both widows. I forget their married names."
I really liked the house and its layout. The square footage was comparable to the house I had now; a little less, but I didn't need any more. This house was in a good part of town, and I would have no trouble selling it if it didn't suit. I loved the red tile floors, and the redecorating would be minimal. The paint in almost every room looked as though it had just been redone.
"I'll take it."
Mother said, "It's not a coat, Roe."
"I believe I understand that."
She sighed. "You're right. You're a smart girl, and you know what you want. You always have."
Haven't always been able to get it, I told myself.
Mother pulled out her cell phone, consulted a list from her purse, and punched in some number. "David? Hi, good evening. This is Aida Queensland."
Mother listened. "Yes, I do have some good news. I have a client who's made an offer." She looked at me with one eyebrow raised. I tapped the selling price with my finger, then held up three fingers. I pointed down with my thumb.
"Three thousand less than the asking price," Mother said into the phone. "She said she'd need to replace the carpet in the family room." Pause.
"I can always counteroffer," Mother said next.
I wondered how many people had owned the house between Debbie's family and the Martinezes. I wondered where Debbie was now. Mother was doing some more listening.
"She doesn't have to wait for a loan," Mother said. "In case you think later that I was being devious, I have to tell you that the buyer is my daughter, Aurora Teagarden. She plans to pay for the house directly."
"Yes, I know, she's lucky to have that much available cash."
"Yes, it'll take a few days to get the paperwork done. But with no loan to apply for... I'll FedEx the agreement to you."
"Okay, we have a deal."
Those were my favorite words.
She hung up and nodded.
I took a deep breath.
Well, there was nothing like jumping off a cliff. In fact, I'd gotten a running start.