Excerpt: Undertaking Irene

 

Chapter 1: Frenemies

 

I kind of hated swiping the brooch. It made a real fashion statement for the corpse, who, need I mention, was the best-dressed person at the Leonard T. Ahearn and Sons Funeral Home.

Nobody dresses anymore. Have you noticed? Shorts at the office. Flip-flops in church. In church. Okay, so I’m not what you’d call a churchgoer, aside from the occasional paid-mourner gig, but you get my point. It’s a matter of respect. I mean, if it were your blue-haired granny packed into that satin-lined box, all decked out in a yellow Chanel suit and Hermès scarf, with a manicure to die for, would you show up for the wake in plaid flannel dorm pants and fuzzy slippers?

Fuzzy bedroom slippers, I kid you not, as if locating an actual pair of flip-flops would have taken too much effort for the grieving granddaughter. The girl, who looked around eighteen, sat slumped in the front row between her pimply younger brother and nose-picking boyfriend, playing Angry Birds on her iPad and whining about missing Keeping Up With the Kardashians because she’d maxed out her DVR for that time slot. Your basic sullen Long Island youth.

I shouldn’t care. Colette O’Rourke wasn’t my blue-haired granny, she was an assignment. Which might come across as pretty cold considering I knew her, but it had been years since our paths had crossed. Thankfully, none of our mutual acquaintances were here at the moment.

How was I dressed? Glad you asked. Conservative gray skirt suit, crisp white blouse, two-inch black pumps. Strawberry-blond hair pulled back in a French twist. Tasteful faux pearls and just enough makeup to keep my pale brows and lashes from doing a vanishing act. It was my standard funeral-home uniform and had served me well, though if I really wanted to blend in with the mourning crowd nowadays, I should probably buy some of those light-up sneakers. Maybe a housedress and hair curlers.

My name is Jane Delaney and I do things my paying customers can’t do, don’t want to do, don’t want to be seen doing, can’t bring themselves to do, and/or don’t want it to be known they’d paid someone to do. To dead people.

No, really, it’s all legal. Well, okay, sometimes there’s a kind of gray area. Like with the brooch. Irene McAuliffe had hired me to salvage her property before it ended up six feet under the lovingly tended sod of Whispering Willows Cemetery. Had I demanded proof of ownership before accepting the assignment? Had I demanded to know why, if the brooch belonged to Irene, it was now pinned to the lifeless bosom of longtime frenemy Colette O’Rourke? No, I had not, but she’d cheerfully filled in the blanks.

Irene was a crusty old buzzard who didn’t take crap from anyone. She was also my steadiest client—my very first client, as a matter of fact, from way back when I was in high school. She’d been putting food on my table and pants on my ass for two decades. Irene had money, along with specific ideas about how she wanted that money spent. Most of those ideas had to do with imparting stern lessons to individuals who, due to the fact they’d stopped breathing air, were less than receptive to such teachable moments.

You know that saying about how revenge is best served cold? Irene believed that revenge was best served to those who were cold. A subtle distinction, I’ll grant you, and one I chose not to dwell on as I crossed myself and rose from the kneeler next to Colette’s casket. I’m not Catholic, but I have the moves down.

The brooch was a cheap bauble, but one with powerful sentimental value. Not that Irene was the sentimental type, aside from the smother-love she lavished on her toy poodle, but she’d known Colette her whole life. They’d grown up in the same grimy apartment house in Bay Ridge and had at one time been closer than sisters. The brooch had been a sweet-sixteen gift from Irene to Colette and had cost all of $4.39 back in the 1950s.

When you have no money, you remember the cost of things. Irene’s words. She’d saved up nickels and dimes from baby-sitting for weeks to buy that brooch.

Why, you might ask, if their lifelong friendship meant so much to Irene, had she boycotted Colette’s wake? Their relationship, always volatile, had been on a downward trajectory for the past decade or so, the result of an infamous row over the minimum bet in the weekly poker game Irene hosted.

And then there was the brooch itself. Ages ago, Colette had specified in her will that she was to be buried with it. Irene, the repository of an inexhaustible supply of obscure and suspiciously convenient Unwritten Rules, had insisted that Colette, the Recipient of the Gift, was morally bound to offer the trinket to Irene, the Giver of the Gift, if the alternative was Burial of the Gift.

Colette had greeted this pronouncement with her signature dry cackle and single-digit salute. It was on to Plan B: What better nyah-nyah than for Irene to snatch the thing from her erstwhile BFF when said BFF was in no position to do a damn thing about it?

Irene was big on getting the last word.

I know you’re wondering what this brooch looked like. It was made of some kind of white base metal, two to three inches long and in the shape of a mermaid holding a mirror and running a comb through her hair. The entire piece was heavily encrusted with fake gemstones of various shapes and sizes. The lines of the mermaid’s body were graceful and feminine, from her flowing red hair to the sweeping fan of her tail. The fishy lower parts were done in dark blue and green stones, the human upper half in cubic zirconia or whatever stood in for diamonds back then. Rhinestones probably. The perky breasts were bare and tipped with tiny red nipples—no clamshell bra for this brazen mermaid. Daring stuff for the fifties, but then, I get the sense that Irene and her friend were not exactly the shy, bookish type.

There was something just plain wrong about the sight of that sexpot mermaid in such close proximity to the rosary beads clutched in Colette’s cold fingers. Still, I was impressed by the artistry and workmanship of the piece, despite its being worth approximately what Irene had paid for it in her youth. By contrast, she was shelling out three hundred clams, pun intended, for me to snatch the thing from under the very noses of Colette’s clueless kinfolk.

The wake was scheduled for seven to nine p.m. My arrival had been timed for the final few minutes when the last visitors would be saying their good-byes and the family would be too tired and distracted to notice me liberating the brooch one-handed and slipping it into my jacket pocket as I executed a slow turn away from the casket. Plus, there’d be scant time afterward for anyone to notice something was missing. I’d practiced the moves at home and had them down. All I needed was a few seconds of alone time with the stiff.

Behind me a trio of Colette’s gal pals converged on the occupants of the front row. The eyes in the back of my head saw the old ladies bending over Colette’s son and daughter-in-law, squeezing their hands and filling their field of vision in a most fortuitous way. “Lenny Ahearn did such a nice job, she looks so natural,” they murmured, and “What a shock, I ran into her just before Easter at Whole Foods,” and “Will you be putting the house on the market? I might know someone.” What they were no doubt dying to say but didn’t have the nerve was, “What in the world possessed you to pin that vulgar brooch to a genuine Hermès scarf?

Meanwhile Fuzzy Slippers and her brother squabbled like rabid wolverines over the iPad. “It’s mine,” she hissed, jerking it out of the boy’s grasp. “I bought it with my own money.” She called him a filthy name and he responded in kind.

It was show time.

I commenced my well-rehearsed sleight of hand, angling my body to conceal my fingers as they darted over the side of the—

Feet shuffled on the carpet directly behind me. I jerked my hand back and turned to see a good-looking, fortyish man waiting to pay his respects to Colette. The man had sandy hair cropped so close it was practically shaved. He wore a black shirt and black pants. And a white clerical collar.

Can you sprain your eyeballs? Because I swear, when mine zeroed in on that collar, they practically dislocated.

A priest. I’d almost been busted by a priest.

My heart attempted to sledgehammer its way out of my ribcage as I wondered giddily which particular circle of hell was reserved for those caught stealing from the dead by a man of the cloth.

“Please.” The padre gestured toward the guest of honor and took a half step back. “Take your time. I can wait.” The words were indulgent, the body language reassuring. So why did it feel as though that unsmiling blue gaze was boring into my skull, rummaging through my brain, and reading my guilty, guilty thoughts?

“Oh…that’s okay.” I scooted away from the casket. “You, um, go ahead. I’ll just, you know…”

He dipped his head in thanks and approached the casket.

I sank into the chair next to Colette’s son and dragged in a deep, steadying breath, nearly gagging on the cloying scent of the floral arrangements. The three old ladies bestowed final cheek-pecks and shuffled toward the exit. Well, that particular window of opportunity had officially slammed shut. I sneaked a peek at my watch. I had a couple of minutes left. I would do this thing. I had to. The funeral was tomorrow morning. It was either swipe that brooch here and now or invest in a shovel and flashlight. I’d never failed a client, and I wasn’t about to start now.

Plus, if I had to fail a client, it sure as heck wasn’t going to be Irene McAuliffe, who’d recently become even more irritable and demanding than usual. True, we had a long history. She was the grandma I never had—though I’d be willing to bet my real grandmas never planted stinkweed on a grave or mixed an unloved one’s ashes into a bag of kitty litter. For twenty-two years I’d managed to keep out of Irene’s crosshairs. Return to her empty-handed? I had a better idea. I’d change my name and move to Rangoon. Less trauma in the long run.

Also, I could really use the three hundred bucks.

As the priest knelt and prayed, Colette’s son turned to me. He was lean and rangy, wearing a dandruff-specked corduroy sport coat and loosened tie. He looked older than the sixty or so years I knew him to be. “Thanks for coming. Patrick O’Rourke.”

The hand I shook felt rough as bark. I’d never met Patrick before, but I’d heard whispers around town, none of them flattering. Terms such as troubled and misfit and loser had followed the guy since adolescence.

He tried to introduce me to his wife, Barbara, a well-nourished bottle blonde encased in a bedazzled stretch-denim ensemble, but she was making her own grab for the iPad and yelling at their kids to shut the hell up and show some respect. “So did you know my mom?” Patrick asked me.

You might think this is where it got awkward, but in fact, I could do this part in my sleep. “Not as well as I would have liked,” I said. “I’m Mary Filcher. I just recently started working at the senior center here in Crystal Harbor. One thing about Colette, she could always drum up a poker game.”

That produced a half smile. “She was one hell of a player. Never rubbed off on me. I couldn’t manage a poker face to save my life.”

I always come armed with a factoid or two about the dearly departed. Also, I routinely leave my purse in the car so if I find myself in a tight spot, I can pretend to be an employee of the funeral home. The suit-and-pearls uniform helps to pull that one off, besides being just plain good manners. This evening, though, since I’d been observed in civilian mode actually visiting with the corpse, that particular ploy wasn’t an option.

Okay, let’s get something out of the way so we won’t have to deal with it again. I can hear you thinking, Oh, that Jane Delaney, how does she live with herself? Pretending to be something she’s not. For money. Taking advantage of grieving families. For money. Stealing from dead people. For three hundred bucks cash money.

Well, I think I explained that last thing. It wasn’t really stealing—the brooch belonged to Irene. Kind of. And anyway, this particular job wasn’t what you’d call typical, even for Irene. My usual assignments involve activities as benign as placing flowers on graves or scattering ashes at sea. Plus that thing I mentioned before, being a paid mourner, which I’ll have you know is a career with a long and distinguished… well, a long history, so don’t turn up your nose.

Okay, I’ll admit there have been a few assignments over the years that might be described as offbeat, the current one being a splendid example. And for the record, I had nothing to do with the kitty-litter episode. That was before my time.

The bottom line is, I help my clients deal with their grief and loss, and I have a strict moral code regarding what kinds of jobs I’ll accept. You think swiping jewelry is bad? You should see what I’ve turned down. Once word gets around that there’s this person called the Death Diva—no, I did not choose the nickname!—willing to perform all manner of chores for grieving folk, at reasonable rates and with the utmost discretion, well, you’re going to get the occasional kook slithering out of the woodwork. There’s a reason morgues are locked up at night.

I watched the priest as he rose from the kneeler. Bless me, Father, for I have noticed what a fine, firm butt you have. You want to know why I don’t go to church? How could I pray to a God who lets a swell-looking man like that go to waste? And I don’t even care if he’s gay. Someone should have the pleasure.

Patrick yammered on about Colette’s fatal stroke, the EMTs and emergency room, all the gooey details family members seem compelled to share and that no one wants to hear. Meanwhile I kept one eye on the casket, hoping I didn’t look as impatient as I felt. I heard a low, Latinate drone as the priest prayed for Colette’s irascible soul. I saw his arm move as he blessed her with the sign of the cross.

I assumed that meant he was wrapping things up. Sure enough, within moments he was strolling toward the exit.

Show time, take two. I stood and smoothed my skirt. “I’m just going to say good-bye to your mom one last time.”

“We going to see you tomorrow?” Patrick asked. “At the funeral?”

“I wish I could, but I have work in the morning. I’m so glad I got to meet you.”

All right, so sometimes I do feel like a heel. Are you happy?

“It’s nine,” Fuzzy Slippers informed her parents as I stepped up to the casket. “Let’s go.” Her brother announced that he had stuff to do. From behind me I heard Barbara ordering them, in hushed tones, to park their butts and wait until the last visitor—that would be me—was finished.

I welcomed the bickering. Something to occupy the family while I accomplished my dark deed.

My fingers began to slink into the casket, then froze. I stood paralyzed for an endless moment, staring at Colette’s scarf, specifically at the spot on the scarf where a cheap mermaid brooch should have been pinned—the spot where it had been pinned less than two minutes earlier. Abandoning any semblance of stealth, I yanked at the scarf, peered under and around it.

Colette’s meticulously lipsticked mouth was curved in a taunting little Mona Lisa smile that I swear was new.

Behind me the boyfriend drawled, “Is that lady supposed to be, like, doing that to your grand—”

“Son of a bitch!” I took off running after the priest.

The pencil skirt and heels slowed me as I raced for the main entrance. I yanked open the heavy door and nearly took a header on the building’s rain-slick marble steps. Through the gloom and early-spring shower I spied, in a far corner of the parking lot, a dark figure mounting a motorcycle. I turned on the juice and ran straight for him.

“Hey!” I cried. “Wait!”

He seemed in no hurry, giving me hope that I could catch up to him. In the instant before his helmet settled into place, I saw clearly that it was indeed the priest, now wearing a black motorcycle jacket. With maddening calm he observed my awkward dash through the lot.

“I need to talk to—!” I tripped on a fast-food cup and went down with a screech. Pain exploded in my knee. He was still a good twenty yards away. “Stop!” I bellowed, on all fours now, struggling to rise. “Give me that damn brooch!

The priest started the motorcycle, executed a lazy turn out of the lot, and disappeared down the street.

 

Chapter 2: Heads Will Roll

 

IT WAS A quarter past nine when I reached Irene’s place, located in the snootiest neighborhood of the snootiest town in the snootiest part of Long Island’s North Shore. I was twitchy as a gerbil on crack, expecting the cell phone in my pocket to ring at any moment—my impatient client on the other end, exhibiting her usual gracious reserve. What, did you stop to pawn the damn thing? Get your ass over here, pronto. I want my brooch! I mentally rehearsed how I was going to break it to her.

The funniest thing, Irene. A priest beat me to the brooch, can you believe it? Is that just too weird or what? In my imagination Irene laughed and laughed. We laughed together, the two of us. Then she insisted on paying me the three hundred bucks anyway because I’d tried and isn’t that what really mattered?

I didn’t bother jumping in my car to chase down the sticky-fingered priest. What would be the point? In the laughably unlikely event my geriatric Civic caught up with his Harley, I would do what precisely? Sideswipe him? Run him off the road? Club him with a tire iron and ransack his pockets for a hunk of tin worth less than a Caramel Frappuccino?

Okay and yes, I’d managed to deduce that the cute priest was as faux as my pearls. In lieu of a fruitless car chase, I’d hobbled back into Ahearn’s on my banged-up knee and quizzed Colette’s family about the guy. They’d never seen him before, and once Patrick had recovered from the shock of the bizarre theft, he informed me he had no interest in reporting it to the authorities. The brooch had no monetary value. He hadn’t a clue why his mother had wanted to spend eternity with the gaudy thing, much less why some “crackpot” had gone to the bother of snatching it—unless the thief was under the misguided impression it was worth something. Patrick had no intention of putting his family through a tangle of police red tape at a time like that.

I’d tried to change his mind. I wasn’t thrilled either about the idea of getting the cops involved, but face it, they were the ones with the resources. How was I supposed to track down the pilfering padre and get a second chance to swipe the brooch myself without the assistance of Crystal Harbor’s finest?

And yeah, I know how that sounds and I don’t care.

I resisted the temptation to drive at a snail’s pace and delay the inevitable confrontation. All it would take was a meandering half-hour motor tour past Crystal Harbor’s swankier gated communities in my eleven-year-old beater and I’d be the one answering to the police—though if I had to choose between them and Irene in her current belligerent mood, I might be tempted to take a swing at a cop just to spend the night in the relative safety of a holding cell.

I turned onto the curving, tree-lined drive leading to Irene’s brick-and-stone mini-mansion, set well away from its nearest neighbors on five exquisitely landscaped acres. The covered portico was flanked by white double columns. Elegant Palladian windows adorned the three peaked roofs. Every window in the place glowed, top to bottom, and not because she was expecting company. Irene liked to make her house look like a spread in Architectural Digest. She thought a low carbon footprint was something you made your housekeeper scrub off your $150-per-square-foot macassar ebony floors.

While we’re on the subject of housekeepers, it was Maria’s day off, so she wasn’t there to answer the doorbell, a chore Irene herself would perform only after an exhaustive hair and makeup inspection. Since the April rain had turned into a serious downpour, I braked in the circular cobblestone courtyard and hauled out the keys Irene had given me two decades earlier when she’d hired me as an after-school dog-sitter.

She prided herself on being able to size up people at first glance, and she must have seen something honest and dependable in my sixteen-year-old self. A few months later when her beloved toy poodle Dr. Strangelove sprinted out of the house and under the wheels of her gardener’s truck—no, not while I was watching him!—she began paying me to deliver a weekly bouquet to Best Friend Pet Cemetery. Irene was too busy to do it herself, and anyway, wasn’t it the thought that counted?

I still dog-sat a couple of times a week, and I still drove to the pet cemetery every Sunday, only now I brought three bouquets, the other two being for Annie Hall, a sweet-tempered white poodle who’d died of natural causes at fourteen, and Jaws, a plump gray poodle who’d succumbed to a tough wad of prime rib three years ago. And before you ask whether Irene ever paid me to deliver flowers to her husband Arthur’s grave, the answer is no. He’d been cremated. So there. Irene is the reason I do what I do. She helped me build my business through referrals, and I’m indebted to her.

I didn’t call out to announce my presence. Irene considered raised voices inside the house to be vulgar—unless the raised voice emanated from Irene herself, but of course in those cases there was always a perfectly legitimate reason. I was kind of surprised she hadn’t met me at the door, considering how determined she was to get her hands on that stupid brooch. I was just as happy to put off the confrontation for another few minutes while I collected myself.

I deposited my shoulder bag on the console table in the foyer, kicked off my shoes, and bent to examine my throbbing knee. It was beginning to swell and discolor, not to mention the layer of skin I’d left in Ahearn’s parking lot. I heard the scrabble of nails on ebony as Sexy Beast—SB for short—came running from the direction of the kitchen.

The shaggy apricot poodle barked up a storm, his tiny body charging straight toward me. It wasn’t his usual welcome. SB is the most submissive dog I’ve ever known. His usual routine is to grovel and scrape his way toward me, head bowed, tail firmly tucked under, his little legs splayed so far he barely has purchase on the slick floor. You’d think he’s beaten on a daily basis instead of being coddled like a canine pasha.

“There’s my good boy, come to Jane for scritches.” I bent to bestow the customary scratches behind his ears and love pats along his little body, but to my surprise, he did a one-eighty and dashed back toward the kitchen.

“You’ll get your treat after I pull myself together.” I had more urgent business at the moment. I pushed strands of sodden hair behind my ears as I limped across the foyer, past the curving staircase on my right to the powder room tucked beneath it. There I assessed the damage, gulping down a couple of Advil and wiping at my mascara-smeared zombie eyes.

SB followed at my heels, barking nonstop, tail lifted straight up as if he were top dog in these parts. Which he was, but until that moment, he’d never gotten the memo. “You’re not turning alpha on me, are you?” Next he’d be lifting his leg on the custom-made sideboard.

He started for the kitchen again but didn’t get far. I grabbed him up in a football hold and carried him there myself. “Enough already. I’ll give you your treat, then you have to leave me alone.” I half expected to see Irene in there, scooping ice into a cocktail shaker for her evening martini. Two drops of vermouth—not an atom more!—with an olive. She wasn’t in the breakfast room on the other side of the big granite kitchen island either.

I opened the fridge and rearranged the contents like puzzle pieces, searching. Finally at the back of the top shelf I spied the little jar of Vienna sausages Irene bought just for her pampered pet. Sexy Beast was picky in the extreme. He had little use for lowly doggie treats, preferring to save his appetite for salty, cholesterol-laden human snack foods. I’d never seen SB turn down a Vienna sausage, but that’s what he did then, wriggling in my hold and whining to be set down.

I tightened my grip on him and peered into his dark little eyes. “You’re not getting sick, are you, boy?” If he kept acting strange, I’d have to take him to the vet in the morning. Irene never took him herself. She couldn’t bear to see her precious SB in distress, and you show me a dog that does Snoopy’s happy dance when you pull up to the vet’s.

Or to the groomer’s in the case of Sexy Beast, an aversion Irene indulged by, well, not having him groomed. She refused to listen to reason on this point. As a result, the dog’s curly, peach-colored hair hung in long, unkempt mats. The hair on his head had grown so long it draped his eyes. I had no idea how he saw through that mess.

As if the matted coat weren’t enough, one of his long fangs protruded beyond his lips when he smiled. Yes, he did so smile! He wasn’t a show-quality dog by any stretch of the imagination, but Irene never applied conventional standards of perfection when selecting a puppy. She judged a prospective pet solely on personality, which I always felt said something positive about her.

Once in a great while I’d screw up my courage to trim Sexy Beast’s nails and bathe him myself in Irene’s kitchen sink. Suffice it to say, I could have charged admission. Sometimes he even ended up clean. At one point in the dim and murky past, I attempted to brush him, but a chainsaw couldn’t have gotten through those mats, and Sexy Beast knew just how to pitch his screams to make me stop trying. Not that he was in even an iota of pain—I was very gentle. He’d simply learned from experience that a shrill, girlish shriek would make most humans stop whatever irksome thing they were doing and back away in alarm.

I returned the sausages to the fridge and went in search of the lady of the house. I crossed through the breakfast room and stepped down into Irene’s sunken game room—the onetime family room back when her late husband, Arthur, and his first wife had lived in this house. Then on through to the high-ceilinged living room, which, like the rest of the house, was expensively furnished with contemporary, one-of-a-kind pieces in pale, muted tones.

I crossed into the foyer, on the other side of which was the dining room with its striking, one-of-a-kind table, ebony inlaid with birds-eye maple. I proceeded through it and the butler’s pantry past the kitchen to the laundry room, where I noticed a wet trail leading from the back door. Irene must have gone outside after the rain started—to accompany SB on a potty break, no doubt. The instant anything wet started falling from the sky, that dog would dig in his little heels at the threshold and struggle manfully to hold it in. Pathetic behavior for an animal billed as a water retriever. If you wanted him to go out in the rain, you had to be prepared to drag him on the leash, cooing encouragement and praise the whole time. The fact that Sexy Beast’s ratty coat was currently dry only meant that, as usual, Irene had held an umbrella over the spoiled brat while he did his business.

Next to the laundry room was a bedroom with en suite bathroom that served as a maid’s room on the rare occasions when Maria stayed overnight. I didn’t expect to find Irene in there, and my expectations were fulfilled. I opened the door to the garage and saw that all three vehicles were present and accounted for: the slick BMW sedan, the big honkin’ Lexus SUV, and the sporty little Porsche Boxster. Wheels to match a girl’s every whim. Could one of Irene’s friends have picked her up for some outing?

No way. She was wild to get her hands on that brooch. She wouldn’t have left the house this evening.

Vulgar raised voices were underrated—it was time to get this over with. “Irene!” I hollered as I reversed direction and limped back to the foyer. I trudged up the curved, thickly carpeted staircase, SB still whining and wriggling in my arms. “It’s me. Where are you?”

Once I reached the second floor, I didn’t pause on the balcony to admire the dramatic view of the foyer below but headed straight for Irene’s master suite. The sumptuously appointed bedroom was vacant, the king-size mahogany sleigh bed unmade, this being Maria’s day off. The room smelled of Chanel No. 5, Irene’s scent of choice as long as I’d known her. She wasn’t in her dressing room or either of the two walk-in closets. Ditto for the huge master bath with its whirlpool tub and thirteen-foot ceiling.

Oversize oil portraits of her last four pets adorned the second-floor hallway, in chronological order from current to deadest: Sexy Beast, Jaws, Annie Hall, and Dr. Strangelove, the names engraved on brass plaques affixed to the heavy gilt frames. I met their vacant poodley stares one by one. Where’s Mommy, fellas?

I poked my head into the other three bedrooms on the second floor, one of which served as her home office and library, and their bathrooms. No Irene.

Hundreds of skinny fingers tightened on my scalp. I did not like this one bit.

“Irene!” My knee throbbed as I hobbled back down the stairs.

I set SB on the foyer floor and the neurotic little animal charged into the kitchen again. I took my cell phone out of my purse and auto-dialed Irene’s number. If I weren’t worried about her, I could simply have left her a note—easier than breaking the news in person, certainly—gone home, iced the knee, and self-medicated with a shot of outrageously expensive aged tequila. The bottle had been a birthday present from Irene three years ago, and I dispensed it like the liquid gold it was. Another shot or two and there’d be nothing left but fumes.

I waited for Irene to answer her phone. It just rang. Which didn’t necessarily mean anything. Irene didn’t always charge her phone, and didn’t always remember to keep it with her even when it had a charge. I cocked an ear, straining for the sound of her “Theme from Shaft” ringtone, but Isaac Hayes had left the building. All I heard was more barking, from the direction of the kitchen but farther away.

Comprehension dawned as I limped in there. The one place I hadn’t checked was the basement, the entrance of which was located between the butler’s pantry and garage. The door was half-open and I peered down the stairway to see SB standing at the bottom, staring up at me expectantly. He emitted a string of demanding barks.

More steps. Oh joy.

I took them one at a time, clutching the banister for support, my knee getting stiffer by the second. SB couldn’t have expressed his impatience more eloquently if he’d been able to grab me by the lapels and shake me.

When I was halfway down I heard the muted sounds of a movie in progress. Mystery solved. Irene was in her home theater, which shared the basement with her wine cellar and a home gym with a full bath, plus storage and utility rooms. If poker had pride of place in her heart, movies were a close second. Her eclectic collection of films numbered in the thousands.

I let my eyes drift shut on a little prayer of gratitude. I told myself I’d been an idiot to worry. Irene McAuliffe might appear the delicate septuagenarian, but the coiffed and perfumed exterior she showed the world concealed a core of pure, unadulterated gristle. I’d never known her to suffer anything more serious than a head cold.

Then I remembered the bad news I was about to impart, and my sigh of relief turned into a groan of dread. Well, Irene might be spry, and I might have a bum knee, but I liked to think I was still young enough to outrun her. Good thing I’d ditched the heels.

Sexy Beast kept looking behind him to make sure I was with the program as he disappeared through the open door at the back of the darkened forty-seat theater.

 “Knock knock,” I said as I followed him inside. I could just make out Irene’s shape in the front row. “What are we watching?”

She didn’t answer, and didn’t need to. I saw right away it was Jaws playing on the jumbo screen up front, specifically the nighttime scene where police chief Brody and oceanographic researcher Matt Hooper go out in Hooper’s boat to see what they can discover about a certain toothy character who’s been chewing the scenery. Moody music helped set the tone.

I performed a mental head-smack. Of course! The Prime Rib Incident that had carried little Jaws to Poodle Heaven had occurred three years ago that day. How could it have slipped my mind? That very morning Irene had had me deliver an enormous, poodle-shaped arrangement of white roses to the pet cemetery. Whenever one of her beloved dogs died, she honored its memory by screening the film it was named for every year on the anniversary of its demise—or as colorful Captain Quint pronounced the word in the action-packed flick du jour, its de-meeze.

I’ll tell you how it had slipped my mind. If I hadn’t been so distracted by the craziness at Ahearn’s and trying to devise the best way to broach the subject—yeah, broach, another lousy pun, I’m not proud—I would have realized that of course she’d be down here watching Jaws, and saved myself all those flights of stairs on a banged-up knee.

Onscreen, Brody and Hooper discover an abandoned boat in the misty gloom. Hooper decides to go into the water to investigate. Brody is not down with that. More moody music.

“Hey, Irene?” I said, gimping my way toward her. “Think you can pause that for a minute so I can, um…” Can what? Get ready to make a run for it? This scene was less than halfway into the film. If I had to sit through the rest of it before breaking the news, I’d be a gibbering wreck by the time the credits rolled. Plus, where was her sense of urgency? Earlier she’d been wild to get her hands on that brooch.

“Did you hear me?” I reached the front row of cushy upholstered theater seats. Irene’s silhouette was eerily lit by the flickering image of Hooper, now wearing a wetsuit, slipping into the water and snorkeling under the abandoned boat with a handheld light. The music is now more ominous than moody. Whaddaya know, there’s a ragged hole in the bottom of the boat. Better poke around there, Hooper thinks, see what I can find.

I expected to see Sexy Beast curled up on Irene’s lap. Instead he paced in front of the two of us, whining piteously. “SB’s acting weird,” I said. “Has he been like this all day?” She ignored the question, and no wonder. Her favorite Jaws movie moment was fast approaching, the part where Hooper gets a head in his research, so to speak. Even though she’d seen the film countless times, even though she knew what was about to happen, she jumped and screamed every time. Okay, so did I. Then the two of us would collapse in girlish giggles.

I dropped into the seat next to hers and began to formulate my story as Hooper pried a ginormous shark tooth from the edge of the hole. See, Irene, the thing is, I had the brooch in my pocket, but then this cute fake priest wrestled me to the carpet…

Which naturally led to thoughts of lying under Father Faux, struggling in vain as he runs his hands over my clothing, leaving no pocket unturned. My jacket lacks an inside breast pocket, but he doesn’t know that, and he valiantly gropes around for one. Hmm… maybe I slipped the brooch into my bra…

The shrieking musical score snapped me out of my reverie as, right on schedule, a severed, one-eyed human head floated out of the hole in the boat.

I was proud of myself—I jumped this time but didn’t scream. Chuckling, I turned to Irene and saw that she hadn’t so much as blinked.

Then I screamed.


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