I'd noticed a moving van parked in front of Robin Crusoe's apartment when I let Arthur out. Out of sheer curiosity, when the phone began to ring, I decided to take my calls on my bedside phone, which had a long cord, so I could stare out the front windows at the unloading. And the phone was ringing non-stop, as the news about Mamie Wright's murder spread among friends and co-workers. Just when I was about to dial his number, my father called. He seemed about equally concerned with my emotional health and with whether or not I still felt I could keep Phillip.
"Are you okay?" Phillip himself said softly. He is a shrieker in person, but unaccountably soft-spoken over the telephone.
"Yes, brother, I'm okay," I answered.
"Cause I really want to come see you. Can I?"
"Are you going to make pecan pie?"
"I might, if I was asked nicely."
"Please, please, please?"
"That's pretty nice. Count on the pie."
"Do you feel I'm blackmailing you?" Father asked when Phillip relinquished the phone.
"Okay, okay, I feel guilty. But Betty Jo really wants to go to this convention. Her best friend from college married a newspaperman, too, and they're going to be there."
"Tell her I'll still keep him." I loved Phillip, though at first I'd been terrified to even hold him, having no experience whatsoever with babies. To give Betty Jo credit, she's always been all for Phillip's getting to know his big sister.
After I'd hung up, the rest of the day gaped ahead of me like a black cave. Since it was my day off I tried to do day-off things; I paid bills, did my laundry.
My best friend, Amina Day, had just moved to Houston to take such a good job that I couldn't grudge her the move; but I missed her, and I'd felt very much an unadventurous village bumpkin before I'd stepped into the VFW kitchen. Amina wasn't going to believe I'd had a bona fide shocking experience right in Lawrenceton. I decided to call her that night, and the prospect cheered me. Now that the first shock of last night had worn off, it all seemed curiously unreal, like a book. I'd read so many books, both fiction and nonfiction, in which a young woman walked into a room (across a field, down the stairs, in an alley) and found the body. I could distance myself from the reality of a dead Mamie by thinking of the situation, rather than the person. I picked out all these distinctions while eating a nutritious lunch of Cheezits and tuna fish. All this thinking led me back to the depressing conclusion that so little had happened in my life for so long, that when something did I had to pick at it over and over. No moment was going to sneak by me unobserved and unanalyzed.
Clearly, some action was called for.
With the taste of lunch in my mouth it was easy to decide that that action should take the form of going to the grocery store. I made one of my methodical little lists and gathered up my coupons.
Of course the store was extra crowded on Saturday, and I saw several people who knew what had happened the night before. I found myself reluctant to talk about it to people who hadn't been there. I hadn't been asked to avoid mentioning the murder's connection to an old murder case, but I didn't see any sense in having to explain it to ten people in a row, either. Even the minimal responses I made slowed me down considerably, and forty minutes later I was only halfway through my list. As I stood at the meat counter debating between "lean" and "extra lean" hamburger, I heard a tapping noise. It grew more and more imperative, until I looked up. Benjamin Greer, the only member of Real Murders who hadn't been at the meeting the night before, was tapping on the clear glass that separated the butchers from the refrigerated meat counter. Behind him, gleaming steel machines were doing their job, and another butcher in a bloodstained apron like Benjamin's was packaging roasts.
Benjamin was stout with wispy blond hair that he swept up and over his premature bald spot. He'd tried to grow a mustache to augment his missing scalp hair, but it had given the impression that his upper lip was dirty, and I was glad to see he'd shaved the thing of. He wasn't very tall, and he wasn't very bright, and he tried to make up for these factors with a puppylike friendliness and willingness to do whatever one asked. On the down side, if his help was not needed, no matter how tactfully you expressed it, he turned sullen and self-pitying. Benjamin was a difficult person, one of those people who make you feel ashamed of yourself if you dislike him, while making it almost impossible to like him. I disliked him, of course. He'd asked me out three times, and every time, feeling deeply ashamed of myself, I'd told him no. Even as desperate for a date as I was, I couldn't stomach the thought of going out with Benjamin. He'd tried a fundamentalist church, he'd tried coaching Little League, and now he was trying Real Murders.
I smiled at him falsely and damned the hamburger meat that had led me into his sight.
He hurried through the swinging door to the right of the meat. I steeled myself to be nice.
"The police came to my apartment last night," he said breathlessly. "They wanted to know why I hadn't come to the meeting."
"What did you say?" I asked bluntly. The bloodstained apron was making me feel unwell. Suddenly hamburger seemed quite distasteful. "Oh, I hated to miss your presentation," he assured me, as if I'd been worried, "but I had something else I had to do." Put that in your pipe and smoke it, his expression said. Benjamin's words were as mild and apologetic and his voice was as abased as usual, but his face was another matter. I looked inquiring and waited. Definitely not the hamburger. Maybe no red meat at all.
"I'm in politics," Benjamin told me, his voice modest but his face triumphant.
"The mayoral race?" I guessed.
"Right. I'm helping out Morrison Pettigrue. I'm his campaign manager." And Benjamin's voice quivered with pride.
Whoever Morrison Pettigrue was, he was sure to lose. The name rang a faint bell, but I wasn't willing to stand there waiting to recall what I knew. "I wish you luck," I said with as good a smile as I could scrape together.
"Would you like to go to a rally with me next week?" My God, he wanted me to kick him in the face. That was the only explanation. I looked at him and thought, You pathetic person. Then I felt ashamed, of course, and that made me angry at myself, and him.
"No, Benjamin," I said with finality. I could not offer an excuse. I did not want this to happen again.
"Okay," he said, with martyrdom in his voice. "Well... I'll be seeing you." The hurt quivered dramatically just under his brave smile. The old reply came to the tip of my tongue, and I bit it back. But as I wheeled my cart away, I whispered, "Not if I see you first." As I slowed down to stare at the dog food bags, just so he wouldn't look out the window and see me speeding away as fast as I could move, I realized there were a couple of funny things about our conversation.
He hadn't asked any questions about last night. He hadn't asked who had been at the meeting, he hadn't said how strange it was that the only night he'd missed was the night something extraordinary happened. He hadn't even asked how it felt to discover Mamie's body, something everyone I'd seen today had been trying to ask me in roundabout ways.
I puzzled over it while I selected shampoo, and then decided not to worry about Benjamin Greer. Instead, I would get mad at the shelf stockers. Naturally, every kind of heavily sugared cereal based on a cartoon show was at my eye level, while cereal bought by grown-ups was stacked way above my head. I could reach them, but then the stockers had laid other boxes down on top of the row of upright boxes. If I pulled out the one I could reach, the others on top of it would come toppling down, making lots of noise and attracting lots of attention. You can tell I know from experience.
I turned sideways to maximize my stretch and stood on my tiptoes. No go. I was just going to have to switch brands or start eating cereal that tasted like bubble gum. That horrible thought galvanized me into another attempt. "Here, young lady, let me get that for you," said an unbearably patronizing voice from somewhere above me. A huge hand reached over my head, grasped the box easily, and like a crane lowered the box into my cart. I gripped the cart handle as if it were my temper. I breathed out once deeply, and then in again. I slowly turned to face my benefactor. I looked up - and up - into a comically dismayed face topped by a thatch of longish red hair. "Oh, gosh, I'm sorry," said Robin Crusoe. Hazel eyes blinked at me anxiously from behind his wire-rims. "I thought - from the back, you know, you look about twelve. But certainly not from the front."
He realized what he'd just said, and his eyes closed in horror.
I was beginning to enjoy this.
A fleeting image crossed my mind of us in an intimate situation, and I wondered if it would work at all. I couldn't help it; I began to smile. He smiled back, relieved, and I saw his charm instantly. He had a crooked smile, a little shy.
"I don't think we should talk like this," he said, indicating the difference in our heights. "Why don't I come over after I get my groceries put up? You live right by me, I think you said last night? You make me want to pick you up so I can see you better."
That so closely matched a certain image crossing my mind that I could feel my face turning red. "Please do come over. I'm sure you have a lot of questions after last night," I said.
"That would be great. My place is in such a mess that I need a break from looking at boxes."
"Okay, then. About an hour?"
"Sure, see you then - your name's really Roe?"
"Short for Aurora," I explained. "Aurora Teagarden." He didn't seem to think my name was unusual at all.
"Coffee? Soft drink? Orange juice?" I offered.
"Beer?" he countered.
"Okay. I don't usually drink at this hour, but if anything will drive you to drink, it's moving." Feeling naughty at having a drink before five in the afternoon, I filled two glasses and joined him in the living room. I sat in the same chair I'd taken that morning when Arthur had been there, and felt incredibly female and powerful at entertaining two men in my home on the same day.
Robin, like Arthur, was impressed with the room. "I hope mine looks half this good when I've finished unpacking. I have no talent at all for making things look nice."
My friend Amina would have said I didn't either. "Are you settled in?" I asked politely.
"I got my bed put together while the moving men were unloading the rest of the van, and I've hung my clothes in the closet. At least I had a chair for the detective to sit in this morning. They carried it in right as he walked to the door."
"Arthur Smith?" I was surprised. He hadn't told me he was going to interview Robin after he left my place. I'd shut the door assuming he'd get in his car and drive off. He must have left Robin's apartment before I started spying out the front upstairs window.
"Yes, he was checking up on the way I happened to come to the club meeting - " "How did you know about it?" I interrupted with intense curiosity. "Well," he said with reddening face, "when I went to the utility company, I got to talking with Lizanne, and when she found out I write mysteries, she remembered the club. Evidently you told her about it one time." I hadn't imagined Lizanne was listening. She'd looked, as usual, bored. "So Lizanne called John Queensland, who said Real Murders was meeting that very night and visitors could come, so I asked her..."
"Just wondered," I said neutrally.
"That Sergeant Burns, he's a grim kind of man," Robin said thoughtfully. "And Detective Smith is no lightweight."
"You didn't even know Mamie, it's out of the question you could be suspected." "Well, I guess I could have known her before. But I didn't, and I think Smith believes that. But I bet he'll check. That's a guy I wouldn't like to have on my trail."
"Mamie wouldn't have gotten there before 7:00," I said thoughtfully. "And I have no alibi for 7:00 to 7:30. She had to meet the VFW president at the VFW Hall to get the key. And I think after every meeting she had to run by his house to return the key."
"Nope. Yesterday she dropped by the president's house and picked up the key. She told them she needed to get in early, she had some kind of appointment to meet someone there before the meeting."
"How'd you know that?" I was agog and indignant. "The detective asked to use the phone to call the station and I pieced that together from listening to his end of the conversation," he said frankly. Aha, another person who was curious by nature.
"Oh. So," I said slowly, thinking as I went, "whoever killed her actually had plenty of time to fix everything up. He got her to come early somehow, so he'd have buckets of time to kill her and arrange her and go home to clean up." I drained my glass and shuddered.
Robin said hastily, "Tell me about the other club members." I decided that question was the real purpose of his visit. I felt disappointed, but philosophical.
"Jane Engle, the white-haired older lady," I began. "She's retired but works from time to time substitute teaching or substituting at the library. She's an expert on Victorian murders." And then I ran down the list on my fingers:
Gifford Doakes, Melanie Clark, Bankston Waites, John Queensland, LeMaster Cane, Arthur Smith, Mamie and Gerald Wright, Perry Allison, Sally Allison, Benjamin Greer. "But Perry's only just started coming," I explained. "I guess he's not really a member."
Robin nodded, and his red hair fell across his eyes. He brushed it back absently.
That absorption in his face and the small gesture did something to me.
"What about you?" he asked. "Give me a little biography." "Not much to tell. I went to high school here, went to a small private college, did some graduate work at the university in library science and came home and got a job at the local library."
Robin looked disconcerted.
"All right, it never occurred to me not to come back," I said after a moment.
"What about you?"
"Oh, I'm going to teach a course at the university. The writer they had lined up had a heart attack.... Do you ever do impulsive things?" Robin asked suddenly. One of the strongest impulses I'd ever felt urged me to put down my wine glass, walk over to Robin Crusoe, a writer I'd known only a few hours, sit on his lap, and kiss him until he fainted.
"Almost never," I said with real regret. "Why?"
"Have you ever experienced ..."
My doorbell chimed twice.
"Excuse me," I said with even deeper regret, and answered the front door. Mr. Windham, my mail carrier, handed me a brown-wrapped package. "I couldn't fit this in your box," he explained.
I glanced at the mailing label. "Oh, it's not to me, it's to Mother," I said, puzzled.
"Well, we have to deliver by addresses, so I had to bring it here," Mr. Windham said righteously.
Of course, he was right; my address was on the package. The return address was my father's home in the city. The label itself was typed, as usual for Father. He's gotten a new typewriter, I thought, surprised. His old Smith-Corona had been the only typewriter he'd ever used. Maybe he'd mailed it to Mother from his office and used a typewriter there? Then I noticed the date. "Six days?" I said incredulously. "It took six days for this to travel thirty miles?"
Mr. Windham shrugged defensively.
My father hadn't said a word about mailing us anything. As I shut the front door, I reflected that Father hadn't sent Mother a package in my memory, certainly never since the divorce. I was eaten up with curiosity. I stopped at the kitchen phone on my way back out to the patio. She was in her office, and said she'd stop by on her way to show a house. She was as puzzled as I was, and I hated to hear that little thread of excitement in her voice. Robin seemed to be dozing in his chair, so I quietly picked up our wine glasses and washed them so I could put them away before Mother got there. I didn't need her arching her eyebrows at me. Actually, I was glad to have a breather. I'd almost done something radical earlier, and it was almost as much fun to think about nearly having done it as it would have been (maybe) to do it. When Mother came through the gate, Robin woke up - if he'd really been asleep - and I introduced them.
Robin stood courteously, shook hands properly, and admired Mother as she was used to being admired, from her perfectly frosted hair to her slim elegant legs. Mother was wearing one of her very expensive suits, this one in a champagne color, and she looked like a million-dollar saleswoman. Which she was, several times over.
"So nice to see you again, Mr. Crusoe," she said in her husky voice. "I'm sorry you had such a bad experience your first evening in our little town. Really, Lawrenceton is a lovely place, and I'm sure you won't regret living here and commuting to the city."
I handed her the box. She looked at the return address sharply, then began ripping open the wrapping while she kept up an idle conversation with Robin. "Mrs. See's!" we exclaimed simultaneously when we saw the white and black box.
"Candy?" Robin said uncertainly. He sat back down when I did. "Very good candy," Mother said happily. "They sell it out west, and in the midwest too, but you can't get it down here. I used to have a cousin in St. Louis who'd send me a box every Christmas, but she passed away last year. So Roe and I were thinking we'd never get a box of Mrs. See's again!" "I want the chocolate-almond clusters!" I reminded her. "They're yours," Mother assured me. "You know I only like the creams ... hum. No note. That's odd."
"I guess Dad just remembered how much you liked them," I offered, but it was a weak offering. Somehow the gesture just wasn't like my father; it was an impulse gift, since Mother's birthday was months away, and he hadn't been giving her a birthday present since they divorced, anyway. So, a nice impulse. But my father never did impulsive things; I came by my caution honestly. Mother had offered the box to Robin, who shook his head. She settled down to the delightful task of choosing her first piece of Mrs. See's. It was one of our favorite little Christmas rituals, and the spring weather felt all wrong suddenly.
"It's been so long," she mused. She finally sighed and lifted a piece. "Aurora, isn't this the one with caramel filling?"
I peered at the chocolate in question. I was sitting down, Mother was standing up, so I could see what she hadn't. There was a hole in the bottom of the chocolate.
It had gotten banged around in shipment?
Abruptly I leaned forward and pulled another chocolate out of its paper frill. It was a nut cluster and it was pristine. I breathed out a sigh of relief. Just in case, I picked up another cream. It had a hole in the bottom, too. "Mom. Put the candy down."
"Is this a piece you wanted?" she asked, eyebrows raised at my tone.
"Put it down."
She did, and looked at me angrily.
"There's something wrong with it, Mom. Robin, look." I poked at the piece she'd relinquished with my finger.
Robin lifted the chocolate delicately with his long fingers and peered at the bottom. He put it down and looked at several more. My mother looked cross and frightened.
"Surely this is ridiculous," she said.
"I don't think so, Mrs. Teagarden," Robin answered finally. "I think someone's tried to poison you, and maybe Roe too."
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