Excerpt: Preserving Peaches
Chapter 1: All Talk and No Action
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Even though that’s, you know, the point of a surprise party. My fortieth birthday had come and gone two days earlier, on Thursday, March 27, with barely a blip of recognition from my nearest and dearest.
Which should have been the first clue that something was in the works, but I was too busy feeling sorry for myself to make the mental leap from Nobody loves me to I’ll bet those sneaky SOBs are planning a party.
So there I stood, Slow Learner of the Year, inside the doorway of the Crystal Harbor Historical Society, wondering why the dark entrance hall was suddenly blazing with lights and everyone I knew was hollering, “Surprise!”
And yeah, I glanced behind me to see who they were yelling at while Sexy Beast, lounging in the straw bucket tote hanging from my shoulder, gave me a look of studied exasperation.
Poodles can, too, look exasperated! That includes high-maintenance (otherwise known as slightly neurotic) seven-pound apricot poodles with prominent buckfangs and an air of princely entitlement.
Okay, that’s unfair to Sexy Beast. His buckfang isn’t that prominent.
“Look at her,” Sophie Halperin cackled to the assembled guests, while gesturing at my gobsmacked expression with her beer bottle. “Think we can safely say she never saw it coming.”
I think I can safely say that if I had seen it coming, I’d have applied a dab of makeup, done something with my strawberry-blonde hair besides corralling it into a messy ponytail (not chic messy, mind you, more sad and scary messy), and chosen an outfit that didn’t involve saggy turquoise-and-white track pants and an ancient, once-purple sweatshirt that advertised a local tattoo and piercing shop.
That’s right, I’d once plunked down cash money for the privilege of turning myself into a walking billboard for flaming skulls and nipple rings. And before you ask: No, I personally have no body modifications, if you don’t count a couple of dental fillings and a bullet scar on my left butt cheek. If neuroscientists ever decide to map my brain, they’ll find a huge chunk of gray matter devoted to It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.
The sweatshirt, that is, not getting shot in the butt, which had not, in fact, been my idea, good or otherwise. It hadn’t even been the idea of the person doing the shooting, who had not, you will be unsurprised to learn, been aiming for my posterior. That particular mishap had occurred two months earlier, in late January, and resulted, fortunately, in nothing more alarming than a grazing wound. That said, I can now state with authority that there is little in life more alarming than getting shot, no matter the location or degree of injury.
Sophie was having altogether too much fun at my expense. She was the one who’d snookered me into hauling my disheveled self to the venerable Historical Society building at eight p.m. (“on the dot, Jane!”) for what was supposed to have been a planning meeting for the town’s upcoming annual poker tournament.
A squat, graying woman in her mid-fifties, Sophie had more energy and attitude than most people half her age. I shot her a grumpy look that asked how she could do this dastardly thing to me, which she answered with a big, jolly belly laugh.
In truth, I was happy to see her enjoying herself. Not only was Sophie my closest pal, but just the day before, she’d lost her bid to remain Crystal Harbor’s mayor. It had been a tight election following a campaign marred by dirty tricks and mudslinging—by the opposition, natch. Mayor Sophie Halperin was now a civilian, or would be once Nina Wallace was sworn in a few weeks from now.
That’s right, Nina Wallace—chic, pretty, ruthless Nina Wallace—would soon be Mayor Nina Wallace. It was too depressing to contemplate, so instead I concentrated on greeting all the folks who’d shown up on that frigid March evening to help me celebrate my nosedive into middle age. Speaking of things that are, ahem, too depressing to contemplate.
A couple of dozen people had crowded into the large entrance hall, intent on bestowing hugs, birthday wishes, and absolutely hilarious barbs regarding my advancing decrepitude. As a childless divorcee of a certain age, I was tempted to cup my ear and shout, “Could you repeat that? I can’t hear you over the thunderous ticking of my biological clock.”
My parents relieved me of my jacket and my dog. Sexy Beast—SB for short—had no complaints as he was passed from person to person. He licked every face he could reach, tail wagging. And why not? Almost all the partygoers were, if not part of his immediate pack, certainly part of his extended pack. Do dogs have those, like we have extended family? In any event, they weren’t strangers and they weren’t dogs, so he was happy.
I proceeded from the entrance hall to the front parlor, then on to the dining and drawing rooms, swept along by the human tide of All My Friends in the World. The mingled aromas of savory finger foods competed with ladies’ perfumes and woodsmoke from the fireplaces. Clusters of colorful flowers spilled from an eclectic assortment of vases, bowls, and jars throughout the house. An antique sideboard supported mounds of wrapped gifts. Whoever had been put in charge of the music had done a commendable job. At the moment it was Billy Joel in a live recording of “New York State of Mind.”
I chatted with Poppy and Beau Battle, the sweet young couple who owned the local pottery studio, then with my old friend Sten Jakobsen, who’d been practicing law in Crystal Harbor for nearly five decades.
Maia Armstrong grabbed me next. I complimented her flowing silk tunic in a bold geometric pattern of garnet and ivory. She’d recently grown out her extravagant froth of Afro curls so they just brushed her shoulders. “Hmm… no chef’s jacket,” I observed. “No apron. Does this mean you didn’t cater this shindig?”
“Sophie tried to hire me,” she said, “but I turned her down. I was determined to be a civilian tonight. I recommended someone else. He’ll do a good job.”
“But not too good a job, am I right?” I teased, and she winked.
The Historical Society might seem a strange place to throw a party, but the nineteenth-century stone farmhouse—restored to its original landmark-status elegance, complete with gleaming woodwork, leaded-glass windows, and exquisitely carved fireplaces mantels—was actually a charming venue for all sorts of private affairs, including the Death Diva’s surprise fortieth birthday party.
What, you have a problem with “Death Diva”? A tad morbid, is it? I’ll have you know I earned that nickname. And yeah, I didn’t much care for it at first, but it’s kind of grown on me.
My name is Jane Delaney, and let’s just say I operate a somewhat unique freelance business. I’m one of those creative entrepreneurs you read about who saw an unmet need and devised a clever way to monetize it.
Okay, that’s not strictly accurate. If I’m being honest, I sort of stumbled into this gig more than two decades ago when I was still in high school, first as a pet sitter for the late Irene McAuliffe, then as a sort of errand girl delivering floral arrangements to the graves of her deceased poodles at the Best Friend Pet Cemetery. The ex-dogs’ names were Annie Hall, Dr. Strangelove, and Jaws. Can you tell she was a film buff? Sexy Beast had belonged to Irene, too, until her sudden demise a year earlier when I became his legal guardian.
Here’s where it gets a little weird. Irene bequeathed her big, fancy house to Sexy Beast. No, seriously. Her multimillion-dollar home now belongs to a pampered toy poodle. Well, technically, she left it to me, but he holds a life estate in the property, so during his lifetime, he’s the owner. I know, it’s a little confusing. Bottom line: As his guardian, I get to live there with him. It sure beats the crummy basement apartment I called home until a year ago. Eventually the house will be mine, free and clear, but I don’t want to think about that since it means Sexy Beast will no longer be around to share it with me.
Anyway, Irene recommended me to her friends, and before I knew it, I was delivering similar floral arrangements to human graves at the Whispering Willows Cemetery, on behalf of clients who’d moved out of the area or were really busy or, well, just too darn lazy to do it themselves. Hiring me assuaged their consciences, and it’s not as if they couldn’t afford my services. Crystal Harbor is an affluent community on the North Shore of Long Island about an hour and a half from Manhattan. I was a lower-middle-class kid from a working-class town on the South Shore, and to me, it seemed Irene and her pals had money to burn.
Before long I was doing other odd jobs of the deathy persuasion, such as scattering ashes, donating the deceased’s belongings to charity, and helping to serve and clean up during funeral receptions. Over time the scope of my assignments expanded as clients requested services that you, or any sane person for that matter, might consider somewhat eccentric. Which is a polite way of saying ghoulish.
You’d be surprised what people will ask you to do, once they realize you’re not going to swoon at the sight of a stiff. Well, maybe you wouldn’t be surprised, but I was, at first anyway. Nowadays very little fazes me. Not that I do everything I’m asked. There’s no end to the list of prospective assignments that are illegal, immoral, or too gruesome to consider. I have no problem turning those down.
Want me to disarticulate a loved one so he fits neatly into the more economical burial vessel you’ve chosen, aka the carton your Swedish bookcase arrived in? Sorry, no can do. Looking for someone to secretly mix Granny’s ashes into your bridesmaids’ face powder so the old gal can still be part of the wedding? Keep looking. This Death Diva isn’t interested. And yes, I’d recently been asked to do both of those.
A waitress floated over with a tray of hors d’oeuvres, complex constructions involving slices of filet mignon and melted cheese and other yummy stuff piled onto little rounds of garlic toast. When my mouth was crammed good and full, I heard, “Happy birthday, Jane.”
It was Bonnie Hernandez, Crystal Harbor’s chief of police, looking sleek and sophisticated as always, not to mention annoyingly young. She wore a form-fitting fuchsia dress, a polite smile, and a four-carat diamond which had been placed on her slender ring finger by my ex-husband, Dominic Faso. That’s right, Dom is stinking rich, not that it does me any good since he was the exact opposite of rich back when we split.
Bonnie made no move to hug me or kiss my cheek. Ours was not a huggy-kissy sort of friendship. Let’s face it, it wasn’t any sort of friendship. Not only was she engaged to the man I’d spent far too long struggling to get over, but Bonnie and I had had our run-ins. We tolerated each other.
Her judgmental gaze flicked over me, lingering for an extra beat on my footwear. Don’t ask.
Didn’t I just say, don’t ask? Oh, all right, since you seem to think it’s so important. My feet were shod in plush orange bedroom slippers shaped like webbed penguin feet.
No, I did not wear them out of the house on purpose! I was in such a rush to get to Sophie’s fictional poker-tournament meeting at eight p.m. “on the dot” that I forgot to change into actual shoes before jumping into my nowhere-near-new Mazda and racing to the Historical Society.
I discovered my blunder halfway there (penguin feet have a way of catching on the brake pedal), but saw no need to run back home and change. I’d known the other members of the tournament committee forever. They might rib me about wearing slippers out of the house—again—but were unlikely to be scandalized by it. Well, except for Nina, but scandalizing that miserable woman was one of my most rewarding hobbies, so it was all good.
Now, however, the expression on Bonnie’s lovely face caused me to choke on my hors d’oeuvre and spray greasy crumbs all over her tasteful outfit. Did she know the Heimlich? More to the point, would she feel moved to perform it on me?
After what seemed an eternity of eye-bulging, tear-squirting, nose-dripping terror during which Bonnie gave my back a couple of anemic pats—what the heck was that supposed to do?—I finally managed to bully the thing down my gullet. I mumbled a tepid apology and swabbed my face with my little cocktail napkin, whereupon the two of us stood staring at each other for an excruciating half minute until Dom joined us, all smiles.
Well, he’s almost always smiling—that’s Dom—but this was the smile that said he hoped ex – Mrs. Faso Number One (that would be me) and future Mrs. Faso Number Four (you read that right) would become best buds.
And why not? After all, I got along fine with his two other ex-wives, not to mention the three kids he’d had with them. Surely Bonnie and I would hit it off eventually.
That’s one thing I’d always treasured about Dom, his sunny optimism in the face of when hell freezes over odds.
Dom had dark, wavy hair and bottomless espresso eyes, and stood a couple of inches over six feet. While not classically handsome, he nevertheless exuded a potent sex appeal. At least I’d always thought so, since the first time I set eyes on him in Mr. Bender’s eighth-grade Spanish class.
Dom gave me an enthusiastic birthday hug, which, unrepentant troublemaker that I am, I managed to prolong just past the outer edge of propriety, even treating those nice wide shoulders to a lingering caress.
What? I never claimed to be mature, so you can just zip it right now.
“So,” he said, extricating himself and pointedly avoiding his fiancée’s gaze—probably because he’d seen that stony expression before and it scared the bejesus out of him. “What were you two girls chatting about? Not me, I hope, heh heh.”
Oh, Dom, I wanted to tell him, just give it up.
His smile abruptly fell away, his attention snagged by something behind me. Before I had a chance to turn around, a masculine arm snaked around me, proffering a small snifter half-filled with a golden liquid. The ambrosial aroma informed me it was my favorite sipping tequila, the expensive añejo brand I coveted but rarely splurged on. That arm could belong to only one person.
“Thanks, Padre.” I accepted the glass and took a sip, savoring the luscious warmth that shimmied down my throat.
“Happy birthday, Jane.” Smoothly slipping between me and Dom, he pressed a chaste kiss to my cheek. I say chaste because that’s what it no doubt looked like to the casual observer. However, I’m not the only rascal who knows how to linger just a bit too long, and judging by Dom’s narrow-eyed glare, he was not all that casual an observer. I suspected the padre’s attentions toward me were motivated more by a desire to tweak Dom than any serious attraction to yours truly.
And before you get all snippy wondering how I could even think of a man of the cloth in those terms, let me assure you “Padre” is just a nickname, one I personally bestowed on Martin McAuliffe. You see, the first time I met Martin, he happened to be impersonating a priest.
Hey, I never said the guy was a candidate for sainthood. I knew precious little about the padre’s background, but I was fairly certain he possessed one of those pasts normally associated with the word mysterious. Maybe checkered. Okay, probably closer to felonious. The fact is, I didn’t want to know. Knowing might place me in the position of having to choose between my personal code of honor and my friendship with someone I’d come to care for.
Now, don’t get all excited. I mean care for in the sense that Martin and I had been through some intense stuff during the twelve short months we’d known each other. We’d even faced a pretty dangerous situation together. More than dangerous if you want to know the truth. We’d come darn close to buying the farm, not far from where we stood at that moment, as a matter of fact.
Well, a thing like that is bound to bring two people closer together, right? In a purely, you know, friendly way. It’s only natural. I certainly didn’t harbor girlish fantasies about the padre or lie in bed thinking about him or wondering how good a kisser he was or anything like that.
Are you buying any of this?
Martin and Dom exchanged curt nods. From the way Dom frowned at my glass of tequila, I could tell he wished he’d thought of it first.
And yeah, he was engaged to be married to Bonnie, but as you can probably tell, our relationship was complicated. And no, I don’t mean that kind of relationship, which ended eighteen years ago when we signed our divorce papers, a divorce I’d regretted almost immediately. Dom and I had remained platonic friends while he married those other women and had the kids I couldn’t help feeling should have been mine.
The complicated part was our lingering feelings for each other. At least that’s what I would have said a year ago—heck, even six months ago. Lately, however… not so much. As far as I was concerned, Bonnie could have him with my blessings. And he knew it.
At the moment, Dom’s fiancée was scowling at him the way he was scowling at my tequila. Reading his mind. I couldn’t help but notice she wasn’t holding a drink.
Martin turned to her. “Chief Hernandez, you’re looking particularly fetching this evening.”
Her brow furrowed for a split second before she schooled her expression and murmured a barely audible, “Um, thanks.” Like her fiancé, Bonnie had no use for the padre. For the past year she’d been looking for an opportunity to catch him red-handed at something—I don’t think she much cared what, as long as he ended up in the pokey. I just prayed he didn’t get careless or underestimate her.
He didn’t say anything about my outfit, for which I silently thanked him.
Bonnie said, “I’m going to get a glass of wine.” She turned on her heel and marched off, leaving Dom to figure it out and hurry after her.
Martin did not look sad to see them go. “Have those two cute kids set a wedding date yet?”
“Not to my knowledge,” I said.
“They’ve been engaged for, what, a year?”
“Fifteen months,” I said. “With a brief break in the middle.”
“What are they waiting for?”
Good question. I suspected Dom was the one dragging his feet, and wondered how long it would take his fiancée to run out of patience. I shrugged. “I don’t know and I couldn’t care less.”
“Uh-huh,” he said. “So tell me. How does it feel to be middle-aged?”
He stopped me with a raised palm. “I seem to recall you mentioning that middle age begins at forty. Does this ring a bell?”
It did, darn it. “That’s right, rub it in,” I said, painfully aware that my ex-husband’s fiancée was seven years younger than I. “And anyway, you have three years on me in case you forgot, Padre. Or are you going to claim it’s different for men?” I finished my shot of tequila and looked around for somewhere to deposit the empty snifter.
“It’s different, all right.” He eyed me appreciatively as he took the glass from me and set it on an antique piecrust table. “From what I can tell, women age better than men.”
“Huh. Good save.” I felt my face heat even as I reached up and yanked out my hair elastic, releasing the bedraggled ponytail and trying in vain to finger-comb the tangled mess. Martin nudged my hand away and set to work fluffing my hair, running his fingers over my scalp and pretending not to notice my shivery response. He didn’t seem to care who saw him playing hairdresser, either.
Yep, that’s right, this Harley-riding, priest-impersonating, no doubt criminally connected bad boy had a gentlemanly streak.
For the record, there was nothing wrong with the way Martin was aging. He was athletically built, his sandy hair was all present and accounted for, and those blue eyes… well, let’s just say if I didn’t know he was the bastard child of one of Irene’s stepsons, I’d wonder what Paul Newman had been up to the night he was conceived.
“There are advantages to being a decrepit forty-three year-old,” he said. “Such as being called Grandpa.”
He left that hanging there until my brain caught up with his words. “Wait, what? Grandpa?” I said, loud enough to turn heads. “Do you mean what I think you mean?”
I’d never seen him grin like that. “Lexie’s due in September.”
Lexie, as you might have guessed, was Martin’s daughter, the product of a brief high school romance. I’d attended her wedding the previous May. I suppose I should have anticipated the prospect of her making Martin a granddaddy, but when you’re a single woman—okay, a single middle-aged woman—still pining for a baby of your own, you don’t tend to think of your age peers as grandparent material.
I threw myself at the padre and treated him to a rib-cracking hug, squealing with delight. “You’re going to be a grandpa! I can’t believe it.” I pulled back and took in his euphoric expression. “I’m so happy for you, for all of you. How’s Lexie feeling?”
“She’s fine,” he said. “Well, mostly fine. A little queasy once in a while.”
“Boy? Girl? Do they know yet?”
He shook his head. “Not for a few more weeks. They’re talking about doing it the old-fashioned way, waiting until the birth to find out.”
I punched his shoulder. “This is such great news.”
I flashed on Martin McAuliffe cradling an infant, a mental picture that should have appeared totally incongruous. Instead it seemed like the most natural thing in the world, and not just because I knew he’d done his share of burping and diaper changing as a teen dad—a surprising revelation that had come directly from Lexie’s mom—but because I knew Martin. I knew there were dimensions to him I never would have imagined when we first met.
All around us, the party was in full swing. A waiter paused to offer us mini crab cakes perched on little squares of fried cornbread and adorned with avocado cream and pickled onions. I knew Maia wasn’t responsible for the food tonight, but I hoped she was taking notes. The chow at this soiree was to die for.
The padre’s smile was pure silk. “That’s a sound I usually associate with something else.”
It took me a moment to realize he was referring to the ecstatic groan I emitted after popping the delicacy into my mouth. I was accustomed to his suggestive remarks, which could reliably be counted on to make me blush like a schoolgirl. This seemed to be his sole purpose in saying them, considering he never took the flirtation any further. My flustered reaction was a source of entertainment, nothing more.
This time, however, I did not blush. Nor did I avert my gaze or roll my eyes in embarrassment. In fact, I never broke eye contact with Martin as I masticated my crab cake in thoughtful (an astute observer might have said dangerous) silence, swallowed, and daintily patted my lips with my colorful cocktail napkin, which I’d just noticed was emblazoned with the words The Big Four-Uh-Oh!
To hell with these men who seemed incapable of figuring out what they wanted. First Dom and now Martin. Enough was enough. I was in no mood.
I snatched a glass of champagne from a passing tray, downed the contents in one long pull, and shoved the empty flute at the startled waiter. Not that I needed Dutch courage to give voice to my exasperation, but, well… maybe I did, just a little.
I got in Martin’s face. “You’re all talk.”
His eyebrows jerked up. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I lowered my voice, having no desire to fuel the indefatigable Crystal Harbor rumor mill. I gave his chest a nice hard poke. “Just what I said, Padre. You are all talk and no action.”
He glanced around and murmured, “What prompted this?”
“Oh gee, it couldn’t possibly be the fact that here I’ve reached the big four-uh-oh—” I flung my wrinkled cocktail napkin at him “—and the only men in my life are clueless dolts who can’t even figure out what they want, much less how to go after it.”
Martin leaned down and spoke in a near whisper. “And it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that you’ve reached the big four-uh-oh still hung up on a guy you divorced eighteen years ago.”
I couldn’t help noticing that he was the one getting flushed, for a change. Interesting. “I’m not talking about Dom,” I said. “Well, not only about Dom. And I am not still hung up on him.”
“Tell me another one,” he said. “You’ve been mooning over the guy nearly half your life, Jane. You still have all his old love letters, every birthday card he gave you since middle school. I mean, what self-respecting divorced woman keeps her freeze-dried bridal bouquet in a glass display dome?”
Okay, for the record, yes, I’d held on to the bouquet, but it’s not like I’d built a shrine to the thing in my living room. I’d kept it securely boxed up in a corner of the attic. And as for how the padre knew about the existence of all this pitiful memorabilia, it goes back to that mysterious past I mentioned earlier. The most advanced locks and security systems did little to slow him down. Believe me, I’ve tried. I didn’t doubt Martin McAuliffe knew the contents of my house better than I did.
“Obviously it’s been a while since you last snooped around my place,” I said. “All that stuff is long gone. Flowers, letters, everything. I put it out at the curb.”
Which, believe it or not, was true. I didn’t blame the padre for looking dubious, considering my history.
No, not my history of abusing the truth, my history of pining for my ex-husband. Which I’m not sure is any better, but whatever. Give me some credit.
People around us began to take note of our heated conversation. Before Martin could challenge my claim, I seized his arm and carved a path through the throng of partygoers.
“Where are we going?” he asked, as I propelled him back toward the entrance hall.
“Upstairs, where we can get a little privacy.”
I recognized the impish light in those too-blue eyes. I was in no mood.
Have I mentioned that? That I was in no damn mood?
“To talk,” I barked. “And I advise you to think long and hard before you utter whatever naughty remark just popped into your head, because I guarantee you, you will regret it.”
“This is a new and intriguing side of you, Jane,” he said, as I forcefully hauled him past a grinning Sophie, my goggle-eyed parents, and Norman Butterwick, a tall, dapper fellow well into his nineties. The padre managed a quick hand-shake with the old man. “How’s it going, Norman?”
“I’m delighted to be here,” Norman said, “simply delighted. My word, wherever is Jane taking you?”
“Upstairs,” Martin said, in a voice that carried. “For privacy, she says. To ‘talk,’ she says.” And yes, he added jaunty air quotes.
I gaped at him. “You just can’t help yourself, can you?” I was past caring who heard, which was just as well because I’m pretty sure everyone in the whole dang building heard.
Howie Werker, a detective buddy of mine, called out, “It’s about time!” This statement was met with enthusiastic applause. Well, from everyone but Dom, whose sullen glower was anything but enthusiastic.
“Amen to that.” Sophie toasted us with her drink. She’d graduated from beer to something amber-colored on the rocks.
Sexy Beast was nestled in the crook of her other arm. He squirmed now, demanding to be set down. The instant she complied, he raced after the padre and me as we headed up the carpeted stairs.
The ground floor was the Historical Society’s public face, reserved for meetings and the occasional private celebration. The onetime bedrooms on the second floor had long since been converted into the Society’s utilitarian offices. I’d planned to drag Martin into one of them, close the door, and have a long-overdue conversation sprinkled with antiquated but perfectly serviceable words such as intention and commitment.
Once we stepped into the upstairs hallway, I realized the flaw in my plan. I’d expected the offices to be deserted on a Saturday evening. However, from a nearby open doorway I heard the unmistakable voice of the mayor-elect and current president of the Historical Society, Nina Wallace. She appeared to be talking on the phone. I lifted SB and held him close, hoping to keep him quiet. He gave my ear a thorough licking.
“Oh, well, that’s so sweet of you to say,” Nina gushed. “I’d be lying if I claimed I was surprised by the outcome of the election. The good people of Crystal Harbor were more than ready for a change.”
Sure they were, once Nina had poisoned their minds with lies, exaggerations, and innuendoes calculated to turn them against Sophie Halperin, who’d fulfilled her mayoral duties with honor and distinction.
I felt the padre’s warning touch on my shoulder. What did he think, that I was going to storm in there and give her what for? Did he have so little regard for my impulse control? For my ability to respond to toxic individuals in a mature and reasonable manner?
You can stop snickering.
He needn’t have worried. I had no desire to explain to Nina why I was skulking around the administrative floor, but more than that, I had no desire to talk to her. Period. I’d promised Sophie I wouldn’t cause a fuss about the dirty campaign her opponent had waged, and I kind of almost always keep my promises.
As much as it irked me, I conceded defeat and turned back toward the stairs. My cathartic confrontation with the padre would have to wait.
Martin halted my retreat, touched a finger to his lips, and cautiously peeked around the doorframe of Nina’s office. He gave a thumbs-up and yanked me down the hall. As I hurried past her office, I glanced inside and saw she had her back to us but had begun turning toward the doorway, perhaps alerted by the squeaky old floorboards. If so, she declined to investigate.
She continued to bend the ear of whoever was on the other end of the line. “My first official act will be to redecorate the mayor’s office. I mean, have you seen the place? Sophie deserved to be booted out for her decorating taste alone.” Her trilling laughter spiked my blood pressure.
Good grief, when Sophie had become mayor, she’d declined to spend a nickel of the town’s money redecorating her office, which was already pleasingly outfitted in pale earth tones with brass and marble accents. I could only wonder what changes Nina had in mind and how much they were going to cost. This was a woman with expensive tastes.
The doors to the other offices were closed. There was no way to tell whether any of them were occupied. I caught Martin’s eye and shook my head, indicating it was a lost cause.
Naturally he failed to take my lead, instead casting a critical eye at our surroundings. Clearly, his burglar’s instincts had been aroused.
And no, I can’t say with absolute certainty that the padre’s professional résumé included a section on breaking and entering. Call it an educated—and we’re talking PhD level here—guess.
I trailed him down the hallway, hissing, “Let’s get out of here, Padre. I don’t want her to—”
He shushed me and approached a door at the end of the hallway that looked different from the others. Its lower edge was about six inches higher than the carpeted floor and rested on what appeared to be the first riser of a stairway.
It made sense that this old house would have an attic. The wealthy farmer who’d built it two centuries earlier no doubt employed a live-in servant or two, and they would have slept up there.
Martin tried the doorknob. Locked.
“Come on.” I tugged on his arm, peering down the hall toward the open doorway of Nina’s office, willing her to remain inside. “Let’s go.”
He produced his wallet and extracted a credit card, whispering, “Since when are you afraid of Nina Wallace?”
“I’m not afraid of her, I’d just rather not— Padre! No!” Suddenly I realized what he was up to. I’d seen that so-called credit card before. It was a cunning fake. I watched him slide it open to expose a set of little lock picks. “You’re going to get us arrested.”
“Did you really throw away all that stuff?” In the time it took him to whisper this, he’d picked the ancient lock and opened the door, which squeaked on its hinges. Before I had a chance to object, he pulled me onto the staircase and shut the door behind us.
Utter darkness enveloped us, disorienting me and making it difficult to get my bearings. The two drinks I’d had didn’t help. Sexy Beast yelped and I realized I was squeezing him too tightly. I relaxed my grip.
I heard the jingle of keys. A second later, a small, bright light skidded off the walls, and I realized Martin had turned on the tiny flashlight he kept attached to his key ring.
The enclosed staircase was narrow, with a curve that amplified the claustrophobic feel. The walls sported ancient, peeling paint, and the stair treads were well worn. Clearly the house’s restoration had not included the attic.
“Answer the question.” The padre started up the stairs. “Did you?”
I snatched at the hem of his black sweater, trying in vain to halt his progress. “You’re not going up there, are you?” I whispered. “Why are you going up there?”
“Just giving the lady what she wants.” He’d reached the top. The light jittered around. “A private place to chat.”
Sexy Beast didn’t like this any better than I did. He began to gripe, forming his little mouth around sounds that were clearly meant to mimic the cadence of human speech. Whenever he did that, I was always tempted to say, “Enunciate!”
Good luck shutting up SB when he was in a complaining mood. Anyone passing in the hallway was likely to hear him. Reluctantly I followed the padre up the stairs and stepped onto the attic’s wide floorboards. The flashlight barely illuminated our immediate area, leaving both ends of the huge room cloaked in impenetrable darkness. I spied a brick chimney stack and a scarred wooden trunk. And cobwebs. Lots of thick, dust-choked cobwebs festooning the rafters.
I scooted closer to Martin. “There must be a light switch.”
“None that I could find.”
My nose wrinkled. “It’s so musty.”
“More like something crawled in here and died.”
“Ew, you think so?” I said. “I don’t know, the smell’s not that strong.”
“A rat maybe. Raccoon.” The padre swept his flashlight around, but the light failed to penetrate the edges of the room. Which was just as well. I had no desire to see an ex-raccoon. “Could’ve been here for weeks,” he said, “months even. Smells fade over time.”
“That must be what’s freaking SB out,” I said. “With his high-powered schnoz, he could probably tell us the poor critter’s species, age, gender, and cause of death.”
“Not to mention its precise location.” Martin started to wander, aiming the light at the sides of the room, revealing a dilapidated chest of drawers and a stuffed armchair furry with dust and cobwebs.
“This must be where the maids slept.” I nodded toward a pair of rusted iron bedsteads pushed against opposite walls, sporting sunken mattresses and mismatched spreads.
“Cozy.” His tone was arid.
I pushed up the sleeves of my sweatshirt. “What I want to know is, why do they keep it so warm up here? It must be over eighty degrees.”
He shrugged. “It’s cold out.”
I stuck close to him. “But why heat the attic when it’s not, you know, being used for anything? I mean, it’s obvious no one’s been up here for ages. SB, will you please give it a break?” His grumbling had turned to sharp whines that skewered my brain like an icepick.
Martin tipped the flashlight under his own chin to spookily illuminate his face, which elicited a shriek of alarm from Sexy Beast and did nothing to calm my own abraded nerves. “We’re getting off-topic,” he said. “Answer the question.”
“What question?” I asked.
“Did you really throw away all those mementos from your marriage?”
“Yes! You know very well that I’m over Dom. Give me that.” I grabbed the flashlight from him and aimed it straight into his face.
“How am I supposed to know that?” he asked.
“Because you overheard us talking about it, me and Dom.” I cut Martin off as he started to respond. “Don’t you dare deny it. I know you were lurking outside my bedroom doorway that day, eavesdropping. It was back in January, right after I took a bullet in the butt and nearly drowned.”
Specifically what he’d overheard was me telling Dom, If breaking up with Bonnie is right for you, then that’s what you should do. But don’t assume I’ll be waiting to take her place. I’d accused my ex of hedging his bets, of trying to secure a commitment from me before breaking it off with Bonnie. Which I suppose made sense from the perspective of a man who couldn’t abide being alone. Dom Faso was Mr. Serial Monogamy, never remaining single for long.
Martin studied me for long moments that were punctuated only by SB’s increasingly frantic whining. Finally he said, “You were in an emotionally fragile state that day, Jane. I’m sure Dom won’t hold you to your words.”
Imagine my frustration when all I had to whack him with were a two-inch flashlight and a small dog in the throes of a minor meltdown.
I forced nonchalance into my tone. “I admit it took me too long to get over Dom, but I did. That chapter of my life is done. Finito. It’s time to cut my losses and move on.”
“To who, I think you mean.” I kept the light aimed at his handsome mug, third degree – style, as I said, “I’m expecting a birthday call from Victor. Did you know he asked me to move in with him in Paris?”
The padre’s gaze sharpened. He went very still. Victor Dewatre was a certifiable French hottie, the brother of a local Crystal Harbor chef who was murdered in his restaurant last fall. Victor had bunked at my place for a month during the investigation, and we’d grown quite fond of each other. Not that we’d done anything about it—anything, you know, physical—but Victor had indeed asked me to move to Paris, or at least go for an extended visit. And once I did, well, it was anyone’s guess what might happen then.
Thank you for your guess, Captain Obvious. I was trying to be coy.
As flattered as I was by the persistent attentions of my French hottie, I was still hoping a certain American hottie would step up to the plate.
The hottie in question plucked the flashlight from my fingers and turned it off. I found my eyes had adjusted to the dark. I could now make out a small window set into the far wall about ten yards behind him. There was no moon that night. The faint glow through the grimy glass came from streetlights and nearby buildings.
The padre’s voice was tight. “I think that would be a mistake.”
“You know what,” he said. “Moving to Paris. That’s just… You don’t even really know the guy.”
As diverting as it was to finally have Martin on the ropes, I found it impossible to give him my full attention. Vague shapes had begun to take form in the shadowed recesses near the window.
“I can’t see you doing that,” he continued, “pulling up stakes and abandoning everything, your whole life here, on a whim.”
I squinted, struggling to identify what I was looking at. Some sort of small desk if my guess was right, facing the window. With a chair in front of it.
“So… what?” he said. “Some French guy crooks a finger and you come running?”
I knew I wasn’t seeing what I thought I was seeing, because that was just nuts.
The padre spread his arms. “Am I talking to myself here?”
“Yeah. I mean no, just… give me that.” I took the flashlight from him again, turned it on, and started making my way toward the window. The beam of light didn’t reach that far. It quivered over the rafters, the scarred floor. I passed a broken teacup, a pile of disintegrating newspapers, a white enameled vessel I assumed was a chamber pot.
“What is it?” Martin’s hand settled on my back, grounding me. Now he was the one squinting into the gloom. “What do you see?”
I swallowed hard. “I don’t know. Nothing, probably.”
Sexy Beast didn’t think it was nothing. He scrabbled up my shoulder, clinging to my neck and giving me an earful of his displeasure.
“Okay, we’re leaving this nasty place,” I assured him in a quavering voice. “Jane just has to check something out first.”
The circle of light finally reached the desk and chair.
“Whoa,” Martin said.
“What is that?” I whispered. He didn’t answer.
Something sat in the chair. It had a human shape, but it wasn’t human, it couldn’t be. We were facing the back of the thing, which wore a peach-colored dress. A scarf encircled its neck. A navy-blue jacket was draped over the chairback.
“Some sort of, um, mannequin,” I said. It’s funny what you can convince yourself of when your brain refuses to register what all your senses are screaming at you.
Numbly I moved around the chair to take in the silhouette, and gasped. “There’s some—some sort of—of animal on its—its face.” I raised a shaky hand to point to the front of the thing’s bald, cobweb-draped head, which was tipped forward. A pale, furry something was perched there.
Martin commandeered the flashlight. Scanning the immediate area, he located a rusty fireplace poker, which he used to lift the furry object and fling it to the floor. We watched it land. It wasn’t an animal, we now saw, but a wig. A blonde wig with wavy, chin-length hair.
The beam of light returned to the “mannequin.” The padre and I groaned in unison and took a giant step back.
It was a human face, all right, the flesh now leathery, the features sunken and shriveled, as were the hands and exposed forearms. The head wasn’t bald as I’d first thought. The corpse’s dark hair was compressed under a close-fitting, beige wig cap.
Yellow rope encircled the body’s torso, securing it to the chair. The wrists were tied to the chair arms, and the ankles to the front chair legs.
The source of the room’s excessive heat became evident when I spied one of those portable oil-filled radiators, plugged into a nearby socket and cranked to high.
“Come on.” Martin took my arm. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Sexy Beast seconded that suggestion with a warbling howl that was all too easy to translate. I tried to warn you, but would you listen?