Sunday, July 1, 2012

Chapter 15

Of course, what happened next was the real surprise.  Piney Point's own dumb, but decidedly debonaire, deputy Danny sauntered over to Miss Van Beek and laid what my granddaddy would have called a big buzzer right on her primly painted lips.  I don't know, but I may have gasped audibly and hung on to either the bar or Jeff for support.  Billie Jo let out with a wild whoop of delight and rang the bell over the beer taps.  Jeff slowly shook his head and took one of the ice-cold bottles off my tray.

"I need a drink," he said.

"Well, if that don't beat all," said Billie Jo, replacing the bottle and pushing the tray toward me.  "Get to steppin', girl.  You got a new customer."

I glared at her and picked up the tray.  "I am definitely keeping my tips for tonight," I hissed and headed for the table closest to the stage.  Danny had gone back to tuning his guitar and conferring with his bandmates.

"Can I get you something to drink?" I asked.

"In a minute," the principal replied.  "Have a seat, would you?"

I pulled out the chair across from her and sat down.  "Listen," I began, "I want to apologize..."

She cut me off.  "Don't apologize.  I was ill-prepared when I told my secretary to get you on the phone.  You were pretty well into your tirade when I finally realized who Jake's parents actually were.  If I'd read the file more carefully first, I wouldn't even have called you.  I'd have waited to see you both on Parents Night and told you how delightful I think both of your children are."

I'm sure my mouth was hanging open.

"I was impressed with the way you stood up for Jake.  The girl I used to know wouldn't have said boo.  I've always been proud of you, but you seem to have become more assertive over the years. I also see you haven't lost your excellent taste in shoes."  She reached over and patted my hand.  "Welcome home."

"Miss Van Beek, I thought you hated me.  And Jeff, too."

She laughed.  "Goodness, no.  You were my best student.  Jeff was the nicest, kindest boy I've ever had the privilege of teaching.  Teachers have to be careful not to show favoritism, you know.  I always tried to encourage you both to excel at whatever paths you chose.  And well, I just didn't want to see you follow in the footsteps of your classmate over there, good-hearted though she may be."

"Billie Jo?  She will freely admit that her weakness is men, but she's working on making better choices," I replied in defense of my friend.  "Besides, not everyone is lucky enough to win a college scholarship.  She's done pretty well for herself, building a successful business all on her own."

"I can see that.  I'm just not sure what someone with a PhD in applied mathematics doing here waiting tables."

"Uh," I stammered.  "I'm just helping out."

"Well, I'll have a margarita then," Miss Van Beek said.  "And I really wish you'd call me Laura.  I'm really not that much older than you are.  My first year as a teacher was when you were a freshman in high school."

"I guess anyone in authority seems a lot older when you're a kid," I said.  "I'll be right back with your drink."

The door opened to let a half dozen couples in as I headed toward the bar.  I gave Billie Jo the order and turned to look at Jeff.

"So much for my number one suspect."

He laughed.  "You mean your latest number one suspect.  Give up on the mayor already?"

"No - have you?"

He ignored my question.  "Your order's up - and it looks like the Wednesday night regulars are arriving for the entertainment.  Better get busy."  Jeff stood up and looked over the crowd.

"Sizing up the potential cheaters?" I asked, balancing the margarita on my tray.

"Something like that.  See anybody you know?"

"Actually, yes.  There's that woman who introduced herself outside the school as Ariadne and Dexter's mom.  I still have no idea what her name is.  Over there, honey - the blonde in the tight sweater," I said and nudged Jeff with my elbow.

"That must be the style these days."  Jeff snickered.  "Oh - that's Tom Schams there with her.  She must be his wife.  I met him the other day.  He's the new district attorney.  I'm sure he must have told me her name but I don't remember it now."

"And you call yourself a detective."  I hurried away to deliver the drinks on my tray and start taking more orders.  Me Oh My was filling up fast.  I wasn't sure if it was for the music or the margaritas.


Turns out it wasn't either one.  Once the band started playing and its lead singer took the stage, all eyes were on what appeared to be George Strait's voice having taken over Hugh Jackman's body only to invoke the spirit of Elvis.  I made the rounds of the room a couple of times, clearing away empty glasses and beer bottles, and taking a few drink orders.  There wasn't an empty seat in the house.

Billie Jo was leaning on the bar, gazing longingly at Danny.  His George Strait baritone was crooning "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You" to the crowd, or to someone in the audience anyway.  I was pretty sure it wasn't me or Billie Jo.  I finally spotted Jeff sitting in a chair next to the ice machine.

"Think he knows "All My Exes Live in Texas?"  Here, sit with me.  There aren't any more chairs," Jeff said, pulling me onto his lap.  "I never expected these guys to be quite this good."

"Me, either," I agreed.  "It's like when Jim Nabors went from "Go-oll-lly!" to sounding like Pavarotti."

"Good analogy, but I wouldn't mention it to Danny if I were you.  Anything interesting to report?"

"No.  Other than a lot of church people around here sure can drink.  But once the music started, they all settled down to listen.  And most of the people here are with their lawfully wedded partners.  The ones that aren't, are here with the full knowledge and consent of their spouses, or so the gossip would imply.  Are you sure Jerry is a regular?"  I took a sip of Jeff's beer, made a face and handed it back to him.  "Yuck."

"You had to know there was beer in this bottle, babe.  Yes, everyone says Jerry is a regular.  And that he has been known to leave with a number of different ladies on a number of occasions."

"One at a time or as a group?"

"Don't be a smart ass."  Jeff smiled in spite of himself.

"Are any of those alleged ladies here tonight?" I asked.

"No.  Unless he's dating the garden club, but I think they actually are ladies.  It would also appear that they are Danny's fan club.  Look over there," Jeff said and pointed toward the front window table.

All  five of the demure garden club ladies were standing in the middle of the room waving their arms and dancing to the Texas swing rhythm of  "San Antonio Rose."  I squinted to determine whether they had dollar bills clutched in their hands and were preparing to storm the stage.  Probably not, I decided.

"What are you smiling at?" Jeff pulled me closer and kissed my neck.

"I was picturing those ladies rushing onstage to stuff dollar bills in Danny's jeans," I admitted and Jeff laughed out loud.  "It would be funny, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, but the last thing I want to worry about tonight is crowd control.  I'm about ready to call it a night.  What time is it?"

"Nearly midnight.  I had to snap Billie Jo out of her trance long enough for any last orders.  Danny seems to have a powerful effect on the local ladies," I said.  "We can go whenever you're ready."

The fiddle player launched into the introduction of "Faded Love."

"One more song," Jeff said.  "This is date night, after all."

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chapter 14

"So what's your plan?" I asked.  Jeff rolled down the truck window as we drove up Willow toward Main Street.  I inhaled the fresh air that smelled wonderfully like fall.

"Well, I thought I'd sit at the bar and observe the crowd while you work the room."

"Work the room?  This isn't a cocktail party, Jeff, it's a redneck bar.  What am I supposed to do, stop and chat at each table?  Show them my shoes and hope they make some old floozy cringe at the thought of having had the poor judgement to dally with Jerry Maguire?"

"Something like that," he replied.  "Do you have any better ideas?  The only thing that all of the so-called suspects have in common is that they met old Jerry at Me Oh My during its evening incarnation as the local hot spot."

"Met as in were introduced or met as in met up for their assignations?"

"As in introduced.  Unless BJ has rooms available by the hour over the bar, they met for their assignations, as you refer to their alleged sexual encounters, at Jerry's house."  He laughed and shook his head.

"What's so funny?"  I tried to get comfortable enough to breathe in my too-tight jeans.

"It just amazes me that someone who likes sex as much as you do has such a hard time actually saying the word."

"Shut up," I said, probably blushing.  He did have a point.  "Cheating sex is different than married sex.  And there, I said the word.  Are you happy?"

"I'm pretty sure the mechanics are the same, babe."

"You know what I mean."

"Yes, I do," Jeff answered, putting the truck in park and turning the engine off.  "And just so you know, I am blissfully happy with the married kind.  Now let's go inside and flirt with some cheaters."

* * * * *

"Not much of a crowd for a Wednesday night," I observed.  There were a couple of guys at the bar, a few tables occupied by groups of ladies on their mid-week night out, a bunch of guys at a table up front and several couples occupying the dimly lit booths along the back wall.  "Thought you said there was a band."

"There is," Jeff said.  "Danny and his cousins are tonight's entertainment."

I waved at Billie Jo and headed toward the bar.  Jeff whistled after me and  walked toward Danny who was up on stage tuning his guitar.  This is going to be some evening, I thought.

"What the hell are you wearing?" Billie Jo practically shouted as I hopped up on a bar stool.  "I can't believe HunkaHunka let you out of the house like that!"

"Lower your voice," I hissed.  "I'm on an undercover assignment."

"Girl, there ain't much under cover in that get up," she chortled, setting a beer bottle in front of me.  I knew it was filled with ginger ale.

"Well, I thought you would have approved, what with your unrefined, trampish taste and all."

"I'm just jealous that I couldn't stuff myself into those jeans and that sweater, honey."  Billie Jo leaned on the bar.  "Jeff told me this afternoon that you all would be in tonight.  I'm just amazed he got you to tart yourself up like that ."

"I am not tarted up," I protested.  "And this was not my idea, believe me."

"So how do you plan to gather information for your investigation, Pepper Anderson?"

I laughed.  "We're aging ourselves with that one.  Sgt. Crowley over there says I'm supposed to work the room, whatever he means by that."

"The best way to work this room is to wait tables," Billie Jo said.  "I'll even let you keep the tips.  My feet and I could sure use a night off."

"Okay," I said.  "What do I do?"

"That's right, I forgot, you're the only college girl I know who never waited tables.  You walk up to the customers, lean over a little to get your money's worth out of that barely-there sweater and ask what they're drinking.  Think you can handle that?"

"Don't be a smart ass," I said and picked up a tray and an order pad.  "I can do this."  At least I hoped I could.  I gave Jeff a thumbs-up as I headed across the room toward my first table to take their order.

Telling the ladies at the center table I'd be right back with their drinks, I walked past the stage on my way back to the bar.  "What are you doing?" Jeff asked, grabbing hold of my arm.

"Working the room.  Just like you wanted.  Can I get you all anything?" I smiled sweetly, pen poised over my order pad.  "We have seven different kinds of beer on tap and imported in bottles.  Oh wait, would you boys rather have an apple-tini?"

"Very funny.  I'm working, so I'll have a Coke.  But I think Danny needs a beer to get loosened up a little.  He just admitted that crowds make him pretty nervous."

"Well, I wouldn't exactly call this a crowd.  But I can sympathize with the nerves thing.  I'll be right back with your drinks.  And I'd better get a decent tip."

I didn't hear what Jeff said as I walked away, but I was willing to bet it had something to do collecting my tip later.  I set my tray on the bar and rattled off the orders to Billie Jo.  I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.

* * * * *

"Billie Jo, these people can really drink," I said, sitting on the  bar stool to take a break for a couple of minutes.  "It would probably be a good idea to just haul a whole keg of beer over to Al Henke and the gang at his table.  I think I've brought them twenty beers."

"They're about done for the night.  He makes his crew start work at seven in the morning so they'll be out of here soon.  Nice bunch of guys, never any trouble and they're great tippers."

"Do you see those three boys who just came in?  I don't think they're old enough to drink."

"No, they're not," Billie Jo said.  "Those are high school seniors - football team.  Just go take their order."

"But..." I started, but Billie Jo interrupted me.

"Just go," she said and reached under the bar.

I wove my way between the tables and stopped next to the teen-aged boys.  "What'll you have?"

"Whatcha got?"  the shortest of the three said, paying way too much attention to my sweater to suit me.

"Is this your first time here?" I asked, looking him in the eye.  The other two snickered.

"We'll just have a beer," the fullback said politely.

"I'll be right back," I said and put some coasters on the table.

Billie Jo had three bottles waiting on the bar for me.  "Ginger ale?" I asked, setting them on my tray.

"Yeah," she said.  "They're just kids.  No one has to know it isn't beer; they can tell their friends they went out and didn't get carded.  It happens a couple of  times a month.  We did a lot worse, if you recall."

I smiled.  "You're the boss."

I delivered the drinks to my high school customers.  "On the house," I said.  "If you need a refill, let me know."  I turned to walk away and felt an unfamiliar hand on the back of my jeans.  It was the quarterback type kid.  I leaned down next to him and spoke quietly in his ear.  He removed his hand and I continued on to the next table.

When I got back to the bar to turn in my orders, Jeff was sitting on the bar stool at the end closest to the kitchen.  "What did you say to the kid who grabbed your ass?"  He almost looked serious.

"I told him that he needed to take his hand off me for three reasons."

"Which were?"  Jeff was smiling now.

"A: I am old enough to be your mama.  Two: I don't want to embarrass you in front of your friends by punching you in the face.  And D: See that big guy over there at the bar?  That's my husband.  He's also the new chief of police who will throw you in jail for underage drinking and even worse, call your parents."

"You'd have scared my seventeen-year-old self."

"And there they go," I said.  We watched as the three terrified boys tried to slink unnoticed out the front door.  "Poor kid.  I really wouldn't have punched him.  Or called his parents."

"He didn't know that," Jeff said.  "Anything else to report besides gardening tips from the ladies at the window table?  I see some men out with women other than their wives at the back booths."

"They weren't interested in talking to me," I replied.  "The ladies by the window complimented me on my shoes and very politely ignored my sweater, or the lack thereof.  The beer guzzlers up front are too busy trying to out drink one another to pick up women.  Billie Jo says they'll be staggering out soon.  Maybe we picked the wrong night to stake this place out for grave robbing stalkers."

"Oh, I don't know," said Billie Jo.  She set three drinks on my tray.  "Look what just blew in."

"Is that who I think it is?" asked Jeff, clearly dumbstruck.

"As I live and breathe, it's Miss VanBeek."  I couldn't believe what I was seeing: our old high school teacher, now the principal at Taylor and Jake's elementary school in a bar!  The dragon lady herself was out on a school night, dressed in a pair of snug-fitting jeans, a low-cut t-shirt and, the one thing that didn't surprise me at all, a pair of pricy Tory Burch leopard flats.

I knew it.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Chapter 13

"I can mashed potato!" sang Jake, lurching across the kitchen floor.

"I can do the twist!" shrieked Taylor as she twisted lower, holding on to Zippy's front paws.

"Now tell me, baby," I sang, "Do you like it like this?"  I stirred the pot of spaghetti noodles, shaking it as best I could to the beat of the Contours' big sixties hit.

"Tell me, tell me..." the kids were singing and dancing their hearts out.

Then a voice from the kitchen door boomed, "We VanDeGelders don't dance.  We're Presbyterian."

Smart ass.  The dancers launched themselves at their father and I turned down the volume on the CD player on the kitchen counter.  Jeff sat down at the kitchen island, holding a giggling child in each arm.

"What are Vandy Gelders, Daddy?" Jake asked.

I rolled my eyes.  "Your father is poking fun at Broadway musicals," I answered.

"From Hello, Dolly," Taylor added.  "Aunt Rob has the DVD - he'll let us watch it sometime, Jake."

"Is there dancing?" Jake asked.  "I like dancing.  I can do the twist!"  He squirmed out of his father's grip and dashed off after the dogs, no doubt to convince one of them to dance with him.

"This is all your fault," Jeff said to Taylor.  "Monkey see, monkey do."

Taylor gave Jeff a kiss on the cheek.  "You love us, Daddy.  Even if we do dance.  I'll set the table, Mom."

Lord, every day I am thankful for that sweet and helpful child.  "And how was your day, dear?" I asked my husband, taking a sip before setting a cold glass of sweet tea in front of him.

"Thoroughly exciting.  Danny interviewed the whole list of suspects and other than sampling tea and cookies at practically every stop, he came up with absolutely nothing useful.  I'm hoping we're a little more successful tonight at BJ's bar.  Who's watching the kids?"

"Your dad.  He got home a little while ago.  I think he's out back resting up before dinner.  You could go call him in - it's almost ready," I suggested.

"He's not missed dinner yet; he'll come in on his own," Jeff replied.  "Oh, I brought you a present."  He held up a shopping bag from Belk.

"You went shopping?  In Mobile?"  I flashed back on the morning's odd telephone conversation.  "Ah, the shoe size inquiry."  I picked up the pot of spaghetti and poured the contents into the colander in the island sink.  "Show me - I have to finish fixing dinner."

He pulled a shoe box out of the bag and opened it.  "Well?"

He was holding a pair of purple leather flats - with a gleaming, hard-to-miss Tory Burch logo on the toes.  "Nice color, no heels, not crazy about the ostentatious logo, but I imagine that's the whole idea." I transferred the spaghetti to the large green pasta bowl and poured the sauce over it.

"The shoes are size eight and I hope this is the right size," Jeff said, now holding up an astonishingly small silver sweater with a v-neck cut down to the navel, or so it appeared.

I dropped a meatball right into the middle of the spaghetti, splashing sauce all over the front of my t-shirt.  "I don't care what size it is, I'm not wearing that," I said, adding more meatballs to the evening meal.  "Have you lost your mind?"

"I didn't pick it out.  And besides, the whole point is to get noticed."

"Believe me, you aren't going to be happy with what gets noticed if I wear that thing."

I carried the spaghetti to the table and called the kids into the kitchen for dinner.  "I smell something good for supper," said Grandpa Jack as he closed the kitchen door.  "Garlic bread?"

"Yes," I answered.  "Fresh from the grocer's freezer."

Jeff sat down at the head of the table.  "Glad you could join us," he said to his father, as Jack took his seat.

I gave Jake a boost up to the kitchen sink so he could wash his hands and took the rare opportunity to give his face a quick swipe with a paper towel.  Taylor picked up the basket of bread and delivered both it and Jake to the table.  I followed them both with a pitcher of tea.

"I'll ask the blessing," Jack said and proceeded to give thanks for the food and our little family.  I peeked at Jeff while his father was praying; his head was bowed and his eyes were closed.  A good sign.

As soon as the amen sounded, Jack exclaimed, "I am so hungry I could eat a whole Italian!"

"A what?" his sister asked.  "That doesn't make any sense.  An Italian is a person from Italy."

I stopped to trying to make sense of the majority of Jake's bizarre statements a long time ago.  But this time I was trying hard  to imagine what sort of large animal my son could possibly mean.

"No, it's not," Jake said patiently.  "It's a horse."

Jeff quickly set his glass of tea back on the table.  "You mean, stallion," he said, trying not to laugh.

"That's what I said," replied Jake.  He stabbed a meatball with his fork and began to eat it, as if it were some kind of meat popsicle.

I took the fork out of his hand and cut his meatball into manageable boy-size pieces.  I handed his fork back to him and tucked his napkin into his shirt.  "Mind your manners, please, " I said.

"So I understand you two are going for a night on the town," Pop said.  "Such as the nightlife is, here in Piney Point."

I laughed.  "It's a fact-finding mission, not a hot date."

"What is it you expect to find out?"

"Hopefully more solid information than interviewing Mr. Maguire's lady friends has gotten me so far," Jeff answered.  "And if not, well, we'll at least know who the rest of the cheating husbands and wives in town are."

"What game do they cheat at, Mom?" Jake asked.  "Daddy says it's not good to cheat when you're playing a game.  Uncle Jimmy, too."

"Life," I said, hoping to change the subject.

"If I was going to cheat, I'd cheat at Monopoly," Jake said, chewing his meatball with his mouth half open.  "Tay always beats me at that because she cheats."

"Please don't talk with your mouth full," I said.  "And Tay beats you because you're six, not because she cheats."

"Life is too boring to cheat at," he said, always having to get the last word in.  Infuriating - just like his father.

I looked at the clock - nearly seven.  "Let's just finish eating so I can clean up from dinner.  We don't want to miss the action at Me Oh My before they roll up the sidewalks in this one-stoplight town."

* * * * *

I was standing in the bedroom in my underwear, holding the tiny sweater in front of me.  "And in just what universe did you think that this miniscule, yet outrageously expensive garment, would even begin to fit me?"

"It stretches," Jeff said, leaning back on his elbows as he lounged on the bed.  "Just try it."

"Sure - if I ruin it, you can't return it.  And it is just begging to be returned."

"Babe," he replied.  "Humor me."

"It's not going to fit.  And even if I do miraculously manage to get it on, I am going to look like a silver sausage."  I held my breath as I pulled the sweater over my head and cautiously slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I pulled it down carefully, amazed that there was that much give in the fragile fabric.  It was stretched to the point of gaping holes, for all I knew.  I was afraid to look at Jeff, much less in the mirror.

"Not bad.  Not bad at all," he said, smiling that smile of his.  Damn him.

I looked down.  All I could see was cleavage.  I slowly exhaled.  No ripping sounds - that was a good sign.  I turned to look in the mirror.  It fit - barely.  Pun intended.  Was this some of new kind of space-age one-size-fits-all fabric?  If it was, the fashion applications were endless.

"I am wearing this thing one time only, you understand."  I looked at Jeff.  "And only as a favor to you."

He laughed.  "Oh, I'm sure I can get you to wear it again sometime.  As a favor to me."

"That's what you think," I replied.  I picked up the clean pair of jeans off the chair next to the bed and stepped into them.  I glanced in the mirror as I zipped them up.

"Not tight enough," Jeff said.  "Don't you have some tighter jeans?"


"Then you need to wear the tighter ones."

"Like this tight sweater isn't going to draw enough attention?  I don't need people starting at the rest of me, too."

"Honey, just wear those tight faded jeans with the hole in the knee.  Those are perfect," Jeff suggested.

"No.  The ones I have on are fine."  I sat down to put on the purple shoes.  I held out my foot to admire them.  "I have to admit, these flats are just lovely."

Jeff was standing next to me, holding out my faded jeans.  "These jeans look great on you."

"You only think that because you are my husband and you are blind to my flaws."

"Yes," Jeff answered.  "I am blind to your flaws, but your ass is definitely not one of them.  Now put on the jeans and let's go.  We have undercover detective work to do."

I love that man.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Chapter 12

"I really like the color," I told Uncle Jimmy.  I stood back to get the full effect of the sage green wall with the oak wainscoting.  "I finished the window valances this morning and I am going to do the pillows tomorrow."

"Rob decided the bookcase needed a little work.  It's been sitting in the shop for Lord knows how long.  I gave up hope of ever selling it - and now I'm glad we didn't.  I have to put another coat of polyurethane on it when I get home this afternoon and hopefully I'll be able to bring it over in the morning.  Thought I'd get the painting done in the meantime."

My phone was ringing from somewhere over on the desk.  I hurried to catch it before the call went to voice mail.  "Hey, Jeff."

"What size shoe do you wear?"

"Eight. Why?"  I couldn't imagine my fashion-challenged husband shopping for shoes.  For me or anyone else.

"Eight," he repeated.  "What size shirt?"

"What kind of shirt?" I asked.  "A t-shirt? A sweater? A blouse?"

"You know, a top," Jeff replied, sounding exasperated.  I heard a muffled voice in the background.  "Never mind, I can figure that out.  Gotta go.  Don't forget date night.  Love you."

Well, that was strange, I thought.  Jeff does not shop for anything but groceries and home improvement materials.  Like most men, clothing is a binary concept for him: clothed or naked, on or off. I was sure I'd find out what this morning's unusual conversation was all about later.

"Push that ladder over here, would you?" asked Uncle Jimmy, moving his supplies to the other side of the room.  "And we might ought to open that window.  It'll help the walls dry a little faster."

"What do you know about Pop's lady friend, Mrs. West?" I asked.  Jeff's father had made himself scarce for the past two days; I was hoping he wasn't sick of the kids already.

There was a long pause.  "Nothing really."  Uncle Jimmy rolled more paint onto the paint roller and turned back to the wall.  "I don't think she lives in Piney Point.  If Mrs. West exists at all, she either keeps to herself or she's really new in town."

"Maybe he knows her from Mobile," I said.  "He had been living down there for a while before he agreed to come and stay up here with us.  Jeff said his dad had probably been back in Mobile longer than any place he's lived in quite a while."

"Jack never could seem to stay in any one place for very long.  When we were in high school, he couldn't wait to get out of Piney Point and see the world.  Just when it looked like he might stick around after all, well, a girl broke his heart and he took off.  Didn't see him again until he brought Jeff back home to live with his grandmother.  How old were you two - eleven?  And Jack didn't stay around long then."

"I remember.  It didn't seem like Jeff missed him very much.  And it was a long time before he'd even talk about his mother."  The memory of my husband, a lost little boy at eleven, tugged at my heart.  "I think he liked his grandmother well enough, but he always seemed to spend more time at our house or yours."

Uncle Jimmy laughed.  "Yes, he did.  Especially your house."  He wiped a paint drip off the woodwork.  "When he was about twelve, he asked me if I thought you'd marry him when you all grew up."

"I think he asked me not long after that."  I smiled at the memory - and probably blushed a little.

"What'd you tell him?"

"I said sure, but we'd have to wait. At least until I was finished with college."

"Well, sugar, that was one patient boy.  As far as he was concerned, you were the one.  He never once looked at another girl.  Even when you went and made him jealous with that Reed boy."  Jimmy gave the wall a once-over looking for spots he'd missed.

"Jealous?  I never did any such thing and if he was jealous, it sure wasn't anything I did on purpose," I said.  "Reed was my lab partner.  We were just working on chemistry projects.  Jeff knew that."

"I know, but that doesn't mean he wasn't jealous.  You have to remember, honey, you and Jeff spent practically every waking minute together from the time you were little kids.  Just thinking about you spending a couple hours with another boy, especially the country club, college boy type - well, that really got to him."

"He never said anything," I said, sitting down in Jeff's new chair, my feet barely touching the floor.

Uncle Jimmy dabbed at a spot on the wall.  "Jeff doesn't talk about things that really bother him.  You know that."

"I like to think he's gotten a little better about that over the years, but I may be wrong."

"Sugar, don't you worry about Jeff.  He's one happy man.  I couldn't be prouder of him if he were my own son.  I will have to admit that seeing Jack again over the past couple of weeks has made me want to shake the old fool and remind him how well his boy turned out in spite of having such a poor excuse for a father," Jimmy said, and shook the paintbrush for emphasis.

"Oh, he knows, Uncle Jimmy.  He does love Jeff, I think, in his own way.  Some people just aren't cut out to be fathers, the same way some people aren't really meant to be mothers."

"You're too forgiving, darlin' - you always were."  He poured more paint into the paint tray.

"No - I'm a realist.  A barking dog will always be just a barking dog," I set the chair spinning.  "I stopped expecting people to change a long time ago."

"Think your sisters will ever come around?"  Uncle Jimmy asked.  "Cooler heads might prevail now that your mama is no longer part of the equation."

I laughed just as the phone rang.  Saved by the bell, I thought.  "Hello?"

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Chapter 11

"Well, crap," I said to the ceiling and my sleeping husband.  I looked over at the clock on Jeff's side of the bed - time to get the kids up and ready for school.  I tried to slide out from under his arm.

"Where are you going?" he growled, his voice muffled by the pillow.

"Upstairs to awaken your children."  I attempted to move his arm again, to no avail.  "Jeff - it's almost seven."

"Five more minutes."

"No - everyone will be late, including you."

"I don't care."  He turned over on his back.  "Isn't it Saturday, yet?"

I was searching for my slippers under the bed.  The dogs must have made off with them again.  "Not even close.  Honey, come on.  I'll make pancakes," I offered.  "Oh, and you promised you'd do show and tell for Jake at school today.  I ironed that khaki shirt for you last night."

"You know, I only married you because you can iron like a Marine."

"That's because one taught me how.  Now get up - the dogs are waiting for you."  I stepped over Zippy and Mac on my way upstairs.  The other two must be sleeping with the kids.

Taylor's bed was already made, backpack on the table outside her door.  I heard water running in the bathroom on my way down the hall to Jake's room.  Somewhere a six-year-old boy was buried under a quilt and two dogs.

"Rise and shine, boys."  When I pulled the quilt off my sleeping son, Duncan and Willie scrambled off the bed, out the door and down the stairs.  It was sure a lot easier to get the dogs moving in the morning than the men in this house, I thought to myself.  "Jake, you can't be late - you have show and tell today."

That was all I needed to say.  Jake sat up and rubbed his eyes.  "I have to wear a red shirt," he said.  "Do I got one for today?"

"Do you have one," I corrected him.

"That's what I was asking you, Mom," he answered and slid off the bed.  "It has to be red.  All my friends are wearing red shirts today."

I smiled.  Jake was definitely the most social member of the family; the third day of school and he already had friends - plural.  I grew up here and by the time I was in sixth grade, I had only made two real friends: Billie Jo and Jeff.  I hope Taylor turned out to be more successful at relating to strangers than I had been.  I finished straightening the sheets on Jake's bed as he wandered back into his room.  "I'll get your clothes out if you fix your quilt and put the pillows in the right place, okay?"

I rummaged around in his dresser until I found a red shirt.  I put the jeans, shirt, clean underwear and socks on the end of the bed.  "You'd better be dressed and downstairs in ten minutes.  I'm making pancakes and you don't want to be late.  You know how much Daddy loves pancakes."

"Can we have blueberries?"  His face looked hopeful.  "I love blueberries."

"And I love you.  I'll see."  I hugged Jake until he started to squirm.  Time to make the pancakes.

"Coffee, babe?" Jeff asked.  He was probably on his second cup.  "Hazelnut? Mocha? Tall, grande or venti?"

"Very funny.  We don't go out for all that fancy coffee nonsense here.  I will just have a cup of tea, thank you.  Jake has requested blueberry pancakes - any objections?"  I measured pancake mix into the batter bowl.  Yes, I cheat in the kitchen when time is of the essence.

"None, whatsoever.  Bring 'em on.  I have a show and tell to attend this morning."

"Look on the bright side, Daddy," Taylor said, "if you do the show and tell it keeps Jake from telling some embarrassing story about one of us."  She did have a point.

"What's with the hair?" I asked.  Taylor's normally well-groomed hair was going in twenty different directions.

"I fell asleep on my wet hair.  I was reading and forgot to brush it out and now I have a big mess.  Can you fix it, Mom?"

I couldn't see much fix to it, other than a hat - but that's why I cut off my long hair years ago.  "Go get your brush and an elastic band.  Daddy will fix it for you.  And bring your brother with you when you come back."

Not only does Jeff know how to cook and iron his own clothes - neither of which he voluntarily does very often, mind you, he can also do a mean French braid.  I set the table and finished making breakfast while he untangled and expertly tamed Taylor's dark hair.

"Did you go to hair trooper training, Daddy?" Jake asked.  He climbed into his chair at the table and looked at me expectantly and then at his empty plate, as if willing a short stack of hot blueberry pancakes to appear.

"Something like that," Jeff replied.  "But we're not going to talk about hair at show and tell today, okay?"

"Okay."  Jake's attention was diverted by the arrival of his breakfast.

"Can I come, too?" I asked, just to see what Jake would say.

"Next time, Mom," he said.  "I'm not sure what you do anyway."

Jeff burst out laughing.  "Oh, you know, Jake, secret math stuff.  Satellite surveillance, targeting systems for smart bombs - nothing very exciting."

"I know," replied Jake.  "That's why I asked you to come for show and tell instead.  You shoot people."

"You'll thank me later," Jeff said and grinned at me.

"I'm sure you'll have a lovely time.  Hey, did you have any voice mail from Danny last night?"

"Not a word.  Our grave robber may have been deterred by the stake-out.  I asked the coroner to make a big production of putting Millie back - floodlights and everything.  Along with an official seal on the crypt.  Leaving my car in front of Mr. Maguire's house last night probably wasn't necessary, but I've got to put a stop to this.  If it was a joke, it's gotten out of hand.  I have a feeling, though, that it's no joke."

"Me, too," I said.  "I'm just having a hard time figuring out the motive behind all this."

"So stop trying.  Figuring this mystery out is my job.  Don't you have more stuff to unpack, pictures to hang, cookies to bake, equations to solve?"  Jeff finished his coffee and put his napkin on the table.

"Why, yes, I do."  I made a face at him.  "Get your stuff, kids.  You can walk Daddy up the street to his car and he'll drop you off at school."

"Yay!" yelled Jake.  "Show and tell and a ride in the police car.  This is a good day!  Thanks for the pancakes, Mom."

"Breakfast was good, Mom," Taylor said.  "And I know what you do.  I mean, besides taking care of us."  She gave me a quick hug and followed her brother out the door.

"Now I feel bad," Jeff said.  "I was only kidding."  Bless his heart, he actually did look sorry.

"I know you were.  And I don't mean to interfere with your work.  You know I just can't mind my own business when it comes to solving a puzzle.  Character flaw."  I smiled.

"Just one of the many flaws I love."  He leaned down and kissed me.  "How about date night tonight? I hear the band isn't too bad up at Me Oh My."

Date night?  Oh, give me a break.  "It's a recon mission and you don't want to go alone."  I kissed him back.

 "Something like that.  Scouting enemy territory the low tech way can be dangerous," he said, heading for the door.  He turned and looked at me.  "But you know what they say, you dance with the one what brung ya."

I swear, that man thinks he's funny.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chapter 10

"And so when Jerry's afternoon guest opened the closet to get a robe, there's Millie - big as life- hanging from the closet rod.  The naked lady said she was so shocked she screamed and when Jerry saw his dead wife's corpse, he passed out cold on the floor," Jeff informed his captive audience around the dinner table.  "She thought Jerry was dead, so she called the police department and asked Libby to send Danny out, instead of calling 911."

"She really thought he was dead?" Uncle Jimmy asked.

"Well, that's her story and she's sticking to it," Jeff answered.  "When Danny got there, he checked Jerry out and called 911.   When he finally realized who the lady was, he called me.  This just keeps getting weirder and weirder.  Can I have some more chili?"

"At least we know this particular lady friend isn't the one who dug Millie up," I said, putting butter on my last chunk of still warm cornbread.

"She still might have done it the first time," Aunt Rob observed.  "She does have a penchant for designer shoes."

He was right - Her Honor might have been the original grave robber.  "Did they put Millie back right away - after the first incident?"

"Yeah," Jeff said.  "But she was interred in a crypt - it was fairly easy to get her out the first time.  It would have been just as easy this time."

"I just think it's gross," Taylor chimed in.  "Who'd even want to touch a dead body?"

"I would!" Jake said.  "Just so I could tell people I did."

"You're gross," his sister replied.  "Completely disgusting."

"I know it," Jake answered.  "Gross is good.  Daddy is gross sometimes.  Mommy said so."

"Guilty as charged," Jeff admitted, and all the male members of the family at the table laughed.  "It's a guy thing."

"The chili was great," I told Aunt Rob and started to stack up the empty bowls.  "You cooked, we'll clean up."

"Oh no, honey.  It's not a big deal. Let's just have dessert.  That cake looks divine - and I have vanilla custard from Sweet Berries to go with it.  Just bring the empty bowls to the kitchen for me."

I followed him into the kitchen and put the bowls in the sink.  "Do you think someone is just trying to scare Mr. Maguire or are they trying to scare him to death?"

"You know, I've been wondering the same thing.  He's never been a particularly likeable person and I've known him for years and years.  He was never nice to Millie and since she passed, their children will have nothing to do with him.  I can't imagine that any of these women he consorts with actually really like Jerry.  But I may be wrong."

We carried the dessert plates, cake and ice cream into the dining room only to find Jake in the middle of entertaining the group by burping the alphabet.  I know who taught him that, because the same person taught me and Jeff when we were about twelve.  Jake was surprisingly good at it; I might have to rethink just how much quality time Jake was allowed to spend with Uncle Jimmy.  At the age of six and learning socially unacceptable behavior at this accelerated rate, Jeff and I would never be able to marry this kid off.

"Thank you, Jake.  Show's over," I said.  I lifted him off his feet and sat him back down in his chair.

"I'll be here all week," he quipped, clearly enjoying the laughter that ensued.  God help us.

"Mom, will you make gourmet beanie weenies this weekend?" Taylor asked.  "You'll like them, Uncle Jimmy."

"How, may I ask, do you make beanie weenies gourmet?" he asked.

Jeff grinned.  "It's an anniversary tradition," he explained.  "We were living in California the first year we were married.  We were completely broke because Dr. Ryan here was still in school and we were still paying rent and living in that apartment off base."

"I wanted to make Jeff a nice dinner, but the budget didn't include even buying ground beef for hamburgers," I continued.  "Hot dogs were really cheap and I decided to buy some beans.  I stood there in the grocery store looking the all the different kinds of beans and I thought, well - I can at least make beans and weenies pretty to look at.  So I bought one can each of light kidney beans, dark kidney beans, cannelloni beans, pinto beans - you name it.  I even bought a can of black beans.  Of course, I also realized we'd be eating beans for a week."

"Dinner was really good.  But it wasn't pretty," Jeff said.  I smacked him on the arm and continued the story.

"I drained all the beans before I put them in the pot, along with the hot dogs, some chili powder and some barbecue sauce.  What I didn't realize was that I ought to have rinsed the black beans.  The whole pot of beans turned an ugly grey.  Not appetizing at all."

"But it was good," Jeff insisted.  "Anyway, the evening wasn't a total loss."

"Did you have dessert?" Jake asked.

"In a manner of speaking," his father answered.  "Now let's have some cake."

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chapter 9

Jeff waved at us as he unwound himself from the police car.  He intercepted Jake and the two dogs before they got to Mr. Maguire's driveway.  After leaning down to say something to his son, he pointed in our direction and Jake came racing up to Uncle Jimmy's house, with Duncan and Zippy at his heels.

"Daddy says to stay up here on the porch and mind my own business," Jake declared, climbing up onto the porch swing.  "Can I have a cookie?"

Hmph, like that message was really for Jake.  I sat down in the double rocking chair on the end of the porch closest to the action at the neighbor's house.  Uncle Jimmy laughed and handed me a glass of tea.  He sat down in the other chair, turning it slightly so that he had a decent view, too.  We are definitely related.

Taylor came out the front door with a plate of cookies and sat down next to her brother on the swing.

"You think Mr. Maguire is dead, Mom?" she asked with her mouth full.

"I have no idea," I replied.  "I am just sitting here minding my own business."

"Me, too," said Uncle Jimmy, "but it sure would be a lot easier if I had a cookie to munch on."

Jake brought us each a cookie and climbed up on my lap.  "I can see better from here," he said, crunching happily on his own afternoon snack, crumbs all over the front of his shirt.  Definitely his father's son - well, except for the nosy gene.

The ambulance arrived and parked in the driveway.  Piney Point's only two paramedics, Rick and Jamie, removed their gurney and supply bag from the back and hurried inside.  I looked at my uncle.

"Probably a good sign they hurried," he commented and took a long sip of tea.  A couple of minutes later, Jamie came back outside and got a black body bag out of the vehicle.

"Or not," I said.

I looked over at the other side of the porch; Taylor was deep in concentration over her latest reading material: Wuthering Heights.  I smiled - it hadn't taken her long to discover the school library.  Jeff would be relieved to know that boys probably weren't going to be much of an issue any time soon.

"I think our Jake had a rough day at school," Uncle Jimmy noted.  "He is down for the count."

I leaned over and looked at Jake - sure enough, he was asleep.  If I didn't know better, I would have thought that he and his father planned this little nap to keep me on the porch and out of the way of the ongoing investigation, whatever Jeff was actually investigating three houses down.  Maybe Mr. Maguire had passed - but if he did, then who called the police?

Officer Danny appeared just outside the front door of the Maguire house - followed by a person of indeterminate sex about five inches shorter, wearing a black trench coat, a black hat and dark sunglasses.  I was pretty sure it was a woman - but unless it was Carmen Sandiego, this person was going to great lengths to disguise her identity.  Maybe we were looking at the murderer; I didn't think so because she wasn't wearing handcuffs and Danny took her arm and led her to his car where he helped her into the front seat in an extremely solicitous manner.  I looked over at Uncle Jimmy.

"What do you make of that?" I asked.

He pondered for a minute.  "Did you say you made a cake for dessert tonight?"

I nodded.

"Taylor," he said, "let's you and me walk the dogs on home and pick up that cake your mama made for supper.  We can see if Grandpa Jack wants to join us for chili."

"I don't know if he'll be home.  He said something about a date tonight with his lady friend, Mrs. West."

"Well, either way, we'll be back," Uncle Jimmy said.  I watched them saunter off down the sidewalk - a little faster than usual, but I assumed the plan was to try and intercept Officer Danny as he was backing out of the driveway.  I hope it worked.

As if on cue, Duncan made a mad dash for the drivers' side door of the patrol car.  Danny rolled down the window and looked around to see if the dog's owner was nearby.  Uncle Jimmy leaned down and took hold of Duncan's collar and spoke to the patrolman for a moment.  He waved as the car pulled away from the curb and then he and Taylor continued down the street to our house.  Wily old bird, I thought and looked back at the Maguire house.  No more activity.

I wish I could say that my strategic observation post yielded any new information, but I saw or heard nothing.  It was as dull as watching paint dry and I admit that I fell asleep pondering my mental list of suspects, only to be awakened when Aunt Rob arrived home from his garden club meeting.  Jeff's car and the ambulance were still parked at the, well, whatever kind of scene it was going to turn out to be.

"I see detecting is tiring work," he said and sat down in the empty rocking chair.  "What now?"

"I'm not entirely sure," I answered.  "I do know my arm is asleep."

"Let me have our boy," he said, taking Jake from me and settling back into his chair.  I filled him in on what I knew so far, which wasn't much.  I reached over and tried unsuccessfully to close Jake's open mouth.

"You know he's just going to drool all over your shirt," I said.

"Not a big deal.  As I recall, you've thrown up on me a time or two."  Rob laughed.  "I survived."

"What can I say?  I only puke on the people I love."

Finally - some movement down the street!  The front door opened and the paramedics wheeled the gurney down the porch steps to the waiting ambulance.  Whoever was on it, and I assumed it was Jerry Maguire, was alive because Jamie was holding an IV bag aloft.  After they loaded the patient into the rig, Rick went back inside and not long afterward, he and Jeff came back out the front door carrying the body bag.  It wasn't empty anymore.  Wait - three people?  No, I told myself, I am not going to let my imagination run wild here.  I am sure Jeff will explain - at some point.

I looked over at Rob and I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing.  God forgive us, we both started to snicker.  I looked away, took a deep breath and willed myself to stop laughing.  Why, oh why, was I part of a family prone to inappropriate hilarity?

"Do. Not. Laugh," I said, as sternly as I dared.  I could feel the smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.

"Don't you look at me," Rob said.  "This is no laughing matter."

But it was; it really was.  I looked over at Aunt Rob and grinned.  "You know you want to," I said.  That was all it took.  We both gave in to an uncontrollable fit of the giggles that didn't really subside completely until Taylor and Uncle Jimmy returned a few minutes later with the cake.

"I don't know what y'all are laughing at, but I know who the lady in disguise is," Jimmy said.  He paused for dramatic effect.

"Well?" Rob said.  "We're waiting."

"I think you all should take a wild guess."

"I guess Sponge Bob!" said a sleepy-eyed Jake, delightfully oblivious to the gist of the conversation.

"And I guess that it's time for Taylor to take her brother inside and see what's on television," said Jeff from the porch steps.  "It would be really nice if my lovely wife would scoot over, let me sit down and hand me that sweet tea."  I slid to the other side of the chair seat and handed him my glass.  He drank what was left and held the glass out to Rob for a refill.  I waited patiently while Jeff drank about half of the second glass.  He was tormenting us now.  I reached over and poked him on the arm.

"What?" he asked.  "I was really thirsty."

"Tell. Us. What. Happened," I said, glaring at him.  "I sat here and minded my own business, just like you had Jake tell me to."

"Would I do that?" Jeff replied, grinning a little.  "You really didn't though.  Uncle Jimmy's little recon expedition to find out who was in the car did not go unnoticed."  He put his arm around my shoulders and leaned over to kiss me.  I turned my face away from him and his lips landed somewhere in the vicinity of my right ear.

"So don't tell us," I said.  "I'll read about it in the paper.  Next week, like everyone else in town."

It was Jeff's turn to chuckle.  "Oh, right.  Like you can hold out until next week for information."

"Isn't anyone going to guess who was in the car?" Uncle Jimmy was still waiting for someone to choose a suspect from what was turning out to be a cast of thousands.  Well, hundreds maybe.  Okay, probably less than fifty, but still.

I thought for a minute.  Who had the most to lose from any involvement in a scandal?  I mentally ran through my own list of suspects and narrowed it down to two.  I knew it couldn't possibly be one of them because I knew for a fact that she was still at her place of employment during the hubbub down the street.

"The mayor," I said, matter-of-factly.  "Right?"

And there it was again - Jeff's well-I'll-be-damned look.  I'll admit, I smirked a little.

"How does she do that?" my husband said, to no one in particular.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Chapter 8

I sent Jeff back to work feeling slightly better than when he came home for lunch.  He had decided to assign interviewing Mr. Maguire's list of possible suspects to Officer Danny - who needed some investigative experience. Jeff said Danny could also brush up a little on his people skills.  Life is so uneventful around Piney Point that Danny spent most of his time in a squad car out by the interstate exit waiting for speeders to take the left turn into town.  I was pretty sure he'd welcome the change of scenery and be happy to relieve Jeff of questioning little old ladies about their friendship with good old Jerry.

I made a German chocolate cake to take to Jimmy and Rob's for dessert and worked for a while on organizing the pantry.  Sometimes too much space is nearly as bad as not enough - but I was sure we'd eventually find a way to fill it up.  I looked up at the clock and realized I had just enough time to walk up and meet the kids at school.  I leashed up the dogs, yelled in the direction of the carriage house to let Pop know I was leaving and up Magnolia Street we went.

It was a nice afternoon stroll.  Magnolia Street is aptly named for the trees lining the wide boulevard.  The houses are old and gracious with wide, welcoming front porches and beautifully landscaped azalea beds.  In the spring, the neighborhood is a riot of color; I was looking forward to updating the flower beds around our house.  Jeff and Aunt Rob had a shared love of gardening; when we were in high school, Jeff mowed their lawn and helped out in the spring with planting their beautiful flower garden.  He was almost as proud of the fair ribbons and awards Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rob won as they were.  Jeff had helped my dad plant tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in the garden at our house.  I'll admit that we spent a lot more hours than necessary watering and weeding that little patch of ground.  We haven't had a garden since, but I was pretty sure I'd be able to talk him into planting some vegetables with the kids.  I might even help him weed and water it.

I tried not to look at Mr. Maguire's house as we walked by.  In fact, I didn't think I'd ever be able to look the man in the face again.  Knowing things you ought not to know can do that you.  Three houses down, Uncle Jimmy was sitting on the porch with a glass of tea in his hand.  I stopped at the end of his driveway.

"Hey, sugar," he called out.  "You want to come sit a spell and have some tea?"

"I'm on my way to get the kids from school; we'll stop on the way back," I answered and continued on to the corner.  Duncan led the way as we turned right and walked another block to the red brick elementary school.  There were a few cars waiting for student pick-up, but most of the parents were sitting on benches in the shade near the front entrance.  I steered my furry children to the empty bench on the end of the row and sat down.  Amazingly, the dogs sat, too.

A tall, well-dressed woman with too much makeup minced her way over to me in a designer outfit and a cloud of expensive perfume.  "Hello," she chirped and handed me a business card.  "I'm Ariadne and Dexter's mom.  Whose mom are you?"  The card actually said Ariadne & Dexter's Mom.

"Taylor and Jake.  Tay is in sixth grade and Jake is in first."  I was holding my breath, trying not to get too light-headed from the perfume.

"Oooh," she shrieked. "Ariadne is in sixth grade, too!  Maybe she knows your son."

"Taylor is a girl," I said.  And then added hastily, "Jake is a boy."

"You're so funny!  Maybe the girls can have a sleepover," she paused to take a breath.  Just then the bell rang - thank you, Lord.  I was saved from having to tell her than Taylor doesn't do sleepovers.  "Oh - here they come!" she yelped and dashed over to meet her daughter and son; well, I assumed Dexter was a boy, but you never know.

"Mom!  Mom!" Jake's voice rose over the din of children greeting parents after a long day at school.  "I have show & tell tomorrow!  I can't wait - do you think Daddy will come?"  His little feet screeched to a halt in front of me.  "Will he, oh please?"

"Honey, he told you he would.  You can ask him tonight at dinner.  Where's your sister?"

"She's talking to that boy over there.  The one with the skateboard.  See?"  Jake pointed at them, much to Taylor's chagrin.  I reached out and put his hand down.

"Don't embarrass her.  It's not polite to point," I said.  A boy, I thought and smiled to myself.  Her dad is going to be all over this.

"His brother is in my class.  His name is Ethan and his dad is the preacher at a church," Jake informed me.

"The boy Tay is talking to is Ethan?"

"No," Jake said, exasperated.  "His brother is Ethan.  I don't know that kid's name."

My daughter caught me watching her and hurried over toward us.  "Hi, Mom.  Have you been here long?"

"We been watching you talk to that boy," announced Jake, an annoying little brother through and through.

"We weren't spying," I assured her.  "The dogs and I were out for a walk and I just thought we'd walk you all home.  Or would you rather I picked you up in the car?"

"Mom, it's four blocks.  We are capable of walking.  That boy is in my class and his name is Will.  He invited me to come to his church youth group."  Taylor was walking backwards in front of me.

"That was nice,"I said, and I really thought it was.  A lot better idea than a sleepover with Ariadne and her tarted-up mother.  "You'll have to see what Daddy thinks."

"He likes baseball," she offered, knowing her father would approve of Will's sport of choice.

We had turned the corner at Magnolia.  Jake decided to race Duncan and Zippy to Uncle Jimmy's house; I stopped and readjusted the leash on my arm before the terriers took off behind them.

"Mom?  What's that police car doing at Uncle Jimmy's house?"

I looked up to see young Officer Danny standing next to the car in the driveway down the street.  Just then, Jeff pulled up along the curb, lights flashing.  But the cars weren't at Uncle Jimmy's house, they were at Mr. Maguire's house.  "Come on," I said to Taylor and we hurried down the street.

Told you something else was going to happen.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Chapter 7

A knock at the back door sent all four dogs scrambling over the sun room's wood floor into the kitchen.  Thankfully, when the barking began, I had an excuse to end the morning's interminable phone conversation with theoretical cosmologist, Dr. Arnold Schippmann of CalTech.

"I'm so sorry, Arnie - the dogs are going crazy," I said, loudly.  I guess he didn't hear me because he kept right on talking about his latest theory on dark matter.

"Hello?  Anybody home?"  Aunt Rob had successfully calmed the dogs down.

"Arnie, Arnie - listen I have to hang up now.  My aunt is here."  A brief pause as he began to talk again.  "Arnie, I'll be waiting for your overnight envelope; I'll email you the address.  I am looking forward to working with you again.  Thank you so much and.... yes, you have a wonderful day, too."  Finally!  I ended the call and dropped the phone on the desk.  I'd been listening to him for over an hour.

"Are you busy, honey?  Because I can come back later," Aunt Rob said from the kitchen, where he was handing out dogs treats to his adoring fans.

"No, no, no," I said.  "I need a break.  I felt like I was back in school.  I love Arnie and I appreciate his intellect, but Lord - sometimes he needs to lighten up and give it a rest.  How are you today?"

"Out and about for my morning errands.  I thought I'd come and take some measurements in your - what did you tell Jeff it was? - spare room."

"I told him it was full of junk we had to unpack yet.  Then I said we had plenty of time to deal with all that stuff later.  As you might imagine, he hasn't even opened the door."  I led the way through the cluttered great room to what had originally been the formal parlor.  Aunt Rob threw open the french doors to survey his empty canvas.

"The moulding is amazing," he said, admiring the chair rail.  "It looks like it's original to the house.  We can do a lot with this room.  I'm thinking sage green on the walls."

I hoped Jeff would be surprised with his own space.  In all the places we'd lived over the years, he'd never had his own private spot.  Our big (or so we thought) house in Virginia had plenty of room for an office for Jeff - until we found out that Jake was on the way.  When we looked at this old place, I knew the minute I saw this room that it was Jeff's.  Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rob had found just the right antique desk.  I had a leather sofa stashed in the carriage house and I'd had to order a desk chair.  Who knew it was so hard to find a decent chair for a guy who's six feet four inches tall?

"You know," Rob said, "We have this wonderful barrister bookcase that would look great along this wall.  Hey - how much of that fishing fly fabric did you buy in New York last year?"

"Two bolts," I answered and Rob gasped.

"Did you say bolts?"

"I know, I know - overkill.  But Jimmy talked his friend into such a good deal and it was so perfect and well, thank God Jeff doesn't look at the credit card bills.  I wanted to be sure I had enough to upholster an armchair, make window valances and cover some pillows."  It was an amazing heavy taupe upholstery fabric with embroidered fishing flies.  Jeff was going to love it - as much as men love fabric-covered chairs and fabulous window treatments.  He might not notice the details, but I was positive he would see that it had been a labor of love .

"Honey, you have enough to cover a sofa and then some.  I'm also thinking a nice Mission lamp - no stained glass in this room - the rest of the house is saturated."  Rob smiled and shook his head.

I chose to ignore his comment about my lamp obsession.  "I have a couple of prints for the walls and Taylor has cross-stitched three fishing lures that I've had matted and framed together.  Jake's contribution is several drawings of him and his dad out fishing.  They are really excited about this, too."

"We all are - Jimmy says he should be finished with the desk this afternoon.  If the bookcase will fit where I'm seeing it, he'll give that a once over and we should be able to get everything done by this weekend.  Is that time enough for you to make the valances?"

"Sure - but you all are going to have to hang the blinds," I said sweetly.  "You know I don't do ladders."

"Where are we hanging blinds?" asked a familiar voice from the doorway.  Jeff stood there, surrounded by the dogs.  Honestly, they never bark when you'd like them to.

"Uh, we - uh," I stammered.

"In the guest room."  Aunt Rob to the rescue.  "Too much sun on that side of the house.  We decided that blinds were a better alternative than window shutters."  He shot me a panicked glance.

"Oh, okay," Jeff said.  "I thought this room was full of junk."

Shooing him and the dogs toward the kitchen, I told him that Uncle Jimmy and his dad had cleared it out to surprise me and that everything was out in the garage.  "Wasn't that nice of them?"

Jeff, typical man that he is, was staring into the open refrigerator.  "Sure.  What's for lunch?  I am starving."

"Rough morning?" I asked, taking plates out of the cupboard.  "Sit down.  I'll make you and Rob a sandwich."

"Oh - nothing for me," Rob said.  "I've got a million things to do and then the garden club at four.  They're planning the Christmas Festival of Trees already and I want to be sure I don't miss the meeting.  Last year was a disaster and well, I'll tell you about it later.  Love you both - y'all come for dinner tonight.  I've got a big pot of chili going."  With that, he was out the door and down the walk.

Jeff watched as I made him a turkey sandwich with lettuce and tomato.  I cut it in half and set the plate in front of him.  "What would you like to drink?" I asked.  "Iced tea?"  He nodded.  Hmm - a little quiet.  Either something work-related was bothering him or he had seen the credit card bills somewhere along the way.  My money was on work, but I decided to wait him out.  I filled his glass and set about making the second sandwich I was pretty sure he'd ask for in a few minutes.  Of course, he hadn't touched the first one, yet.

"I thought you were starving," I prompted.

"I guess."  He looked at me.  "I just went to see Jerry Maguire."

There it was - the conversation he had been dreading. 

"And?  How did he take it?"  I cut the second sandwich in two and put one half on Jeff's plate and took a bite of the other piece.  "I can't imagine he was too upset.  I mean, after everything that happened between the two of them."

Well, no," Jeff said.  "I don't really think he gave a crap about Millie being dug up.  He was more concerned that it was some sort of threat from one of the ladies - and I use that term loosely - he'd been seeing and dumped.  So I asked him if he could tell me who he thought the likely suspect might be."

"Yes," I said.  Sometimes you had to drag a story out of Jeff.  "Go on."

"Babe, the list is two pages long.  I'm expecting two, three - maybe four names at the most and this guy just kept giving me name after name.  It's like the Who's Who of Piney Point."

No wonder Jeff looked mildly stunned.  He still hadn't touched his lunch.  "I tell you, I'd rather track a psychotic axe murderer on PCP armed with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher through Yellowstone during bear-mating season than go and question any of these women about their assignations with old Pump-up Pecker Maguire."  Jeff leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling.

I couldn't help myself.  I burst out laughing.  I don't know what was funnier, imagining Jeff's discomfort at actually questioning any of the, ahem, ladies of our little town or picturing him hot on the trail of an armed and dangerous nutcase while being pursued through a forest  by a gang of horny bears.  He just looked at me.  The more I tried to stop laughing, the harder I giggled.

"It's not funny," he said.

"Yes," I gasped, "it is."  At that moment, the Jeff in my head was wearing a plaid Elmer Fudd hat, carrying a musket and chasing Bugs Bunny through a thicket while trying to evade Yogi Bear and Boo Boo.  You know how you laugh so hard you think you're going to pass out?  Well, I was almost there.

"Stop. It. Now.  Please," my husband said, with just a hint of a smile.  "I need to eat lunch and choking to death on a turkey sandwich isn't high on my list of ways to meet my Maker."

I put my face in my hands and willed myself to stop making light of Jeff's predicament.  Here was a decorated Marine who had willingly served his country.  His return to civilian life was continued service to his fellow citizens by tracking down and arresting fugitives from justice.  I know he loved that job, but he loves his family more and he was willing to make this move back to small town life, and a small town job, for us.  In that moment, my laughter turned to tears that I didn't want Jeff to see.  I wiped my eyes and looked up at my husband.

"I'm sorry, honey," I said.  "I know this is a big adjustment for you.  I shouldn't have laughed." 

"It's okay, babe.  It is sort of funny.  Hell, it's a lot funny - but it's still a serious matter."  He picked up the third sandwich half.  "But I am thinking of delegating the interviews to Danny.  He sure could use the experience and it would get me out of having to face these women.  I mean, one of them was our Sunday School teacher."

Danny was the police department's only other law enforcement professional.  He was long on good looks, manners and muscles, but had gotten short shrift when it came to brains - a combination that made him very popular with the younger women in town.  While Danny was not immune to the charms of the fairer sex, he did draw the line at dating married women.  Yes, perhaps he was just the man for the job.

"Good idea, dear.  Delegate."  I picked up the pitcher.  "More tea?"

Friday, January 6, 2012

Chapter 6

"Took them a while to wind down, huh?" I closed my book and put it on the table next to the bed as Jeff appeared in the doorway.

"We had to read another chapter of David Copperfield," he said.  "Jake was really fighting drifting off."

"They needed some daddy time after a steady diet of Mom and Grandpa for the past two weeks."

Jeff sat down on his side of the bed.  "I missed you guys.  I think that was the longest two weeks of my life.  No wife, no kids, no meatloaf.  No dessert."  He pulled his t-shirt over his head and tossed it into the chair.

"You poor thing - most men would have loved the vacation."  I laughed and turned on my side to face him.  "Think of all the unpacking you avoided."

"Well, there is that.  And I didn't have to drive from Virginia to Alabama in an SUV with two kids, four dogs and a cat.  Speaking of cat, where is the old dustmop?  I haven't seen him since I got home."

"When the movers arrived, Pop corralled him in the carriage house so he wouldn't run out of the open doors.  Apparently he's decided that he likes having your father for a roommate.  They may have adopted each other permanently."

"We'll see how that works out; nothing much is permanent with my dad," Jeff replied.  "Except maybe the way he likes to move around."

"He was a big help with the unpacking and the kids.  Maybe he'll stick around for a while.  I know Jake would love it; they're quite the pair.  He's been promising to take Jake fishing - and I think they've both been waiting for you to get here.  They've invited Uncle Jimmy and Aunt Rob to come along, but I can't see that happening."

"Jimmy maybe, but Rob -no.  But that is something I'd pay good money to see."  Jeff laughed.

"Aunt Rob baiting a hook?  Or even touching a fish.  Not in this lifetime."  I smiled at the thought.  "We'll make the picnic lunch while you all fish."

"Speaking of fishing, are you going to fill me in on your expedition this afternoon?"

"Oh, I'm sure I didn't find out anything you didn't already know or suspect.  You're a lot more perceptive about people that I am.  I should just learn to observe instead of asking questions."  I reached over and took Jeff's hand.  "I ended up hearing a bunch of stuff that surprised me, things that were disappointing and revelations that really just grossed me out."

"You, observant?" he laughed. "That's not how your mind works.  It's your nature to ask questions and figure out the truth for yourself.  And let's face it, honey, people do some weird stuff and then try to rationalize their behavior.  You still think of this town as the insulated little world you were raised in - but times and people change.  But you, my darlin' girl, are almost exactly the same as you were when we were kids: sweet, funny, kind and you wouldn't intentionally hurt a soul.  But for some reason, which I've never understood for somebody so damned smart, you expect people to actually treat other people with kindness because it's what you do. I hate to see you surprised and disappointed when they don't, but there's nothing I can do about it."  Jeff turned to face me.

"Well, I don't think we've heard the last of the Jerry Maguire story," I said, looking away from him.  "He is something of a ladies man and always has been, it would seem.  Remember when we were in high school and he had that accident that crippled him?"

"Yeah.  The truck backed into him at the packing plant."

"There's some speculation that it wasn't an accident.  I guess his wife thought it was the most expeditious way to, uh, neuter him."  I'm pretty sure I was blushing.

Jeff let out with a howl of laughter.  "A divorce would have been too expensive, I guess."

"I remember Aunt Rob telling a story, years and years ago, about how Millie had found out about an apartment in Mobile that Jerry had bought without her knowledge.  I guess the business actually owned it.  Well, she started following him and caught Jerry going into his little love nest with some bimbo half his age.  Millie was so enraged that the next week she followed them and set the place on fire with them inside."

"So what happened?"  Jeff was curious now.

"Nothing.  Millie came from old money and the fire was ruled accidental by her daddy's good friend the fire marshal.  Not long after, there was the incident with the truck.  I never really connected the two until Billie Jo was telling me today that Millie's elaborate neutering plan didn't work anyway."

"The truck about crushed the man to death," Jeff said, incredulously.  "He's about a foot shorter than he used to be and honestly, babe, I can't imagine that he has any real motor function anywhere below the waist anymore."

I could feel my face burning.  "I guess Jerry has a, a..." I was searching for the right word.  Oh, what is the matter with me, I thought - this is my husband I'm talking to.  "He has a prosthetic device that..."

"You have got to be kidding me," Jeff said.  "I don't even want to know how BJ knows that."

"At any rate, his philandering continued right up until the day Millie passed.  I guess Jerry has some proof that Millie was behind the alleged truck accident and she agreed not to divorce him and to let him have his dalliances.  And since he's been a free man, so to speak, Jerry has been dallying" - Jeff started to snicker at this point - "with more than his share of ladies around town, married, single and widowed."  I finished.

The snickering had turned into full scale laughter.  

"Billie Jo said that his company is well, sought after,"  I added.

Jeff's laughter had morphed into a severe case of the giggles.  I guess it really was a funny mental image - even though I couldn't for the life of me imagine how this alleged device might actually work.  I must have looked puzzled because Jeff said, "Think inflatable," and burst out laughing again.  He always seems to know what I'm thinking and I'm pretty sure that he was laughing at me now.

"It's not funny," I said and smacked him on the arm.

"Yes, it is.  The look on your face was priceless - you were mentally reverse engineering how the thing might work."  He was still grinning.

"But, Jeff,  that's not even the most interesting part," I said.  "I think I discovered a clue that pertains to Millie's unceremoniously exhumed body."

Jeff was suddenly serious.  "And what is that?"

"The shoes.  Remember Aunt Rob said that they were Tory Burch shoes?  Well, that's what Jerry buys his lady friends when he's ready to dump them.  Ruinously expensive designer shoes.  The last four ladies have each gotten a pair of Tory Burch shoes as their parting gift from the old lech."

"But Millie was rich - maybe they were her designer shoes."  Jeff was still processing the information.

"They don't normally bury people with their shoes on.  Remember I tried to make them put shoes on Daddy when he passed and they wouldn't let me?  And besides, Millie died two years ago."

"So this designer didn't make shoes two years ago?"  Jeff's knowledge of fashion runs to work boots and Levi's 501 button-fly jeans.

"Sure, but Aunt Rob said the body was wearing leopard print flats from last spring's collection.  Those couldn't have been Millie's shoes."  I smiled at the well-I'll-be-damned look on Jeff's face.

"Not bad, Miss Marple."  He pulled me closer and kissed me.  "But can we talk about something besides Jerry's alleged amorous exploits and dead women in designer shoes?"

"It's just that it might be an important clue to figuring out who dug Millie up and why."

"And I will definitely make a note in the file.  As soon as I get to work tomorrow."  Jeff kissed me again.

"You won't forget?" I asked.  "I'll remind you in the morning."

"Babe, you're killing me," Jeff said.  "Here I am hoping for a proper welcome home and you're still talking."

"As I recall, I welcomed you home quite enthusiastically on Saturday night after the kids were asleep."

"You did?" he replied, "it's been so long I can't remember."

"Jeff, it's only Monday."

"Shut up and kiss me."

What can I say?  I do as I'm told.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Chapter 5

"And after we filled up two carts at the grocery, we came home and me and Grandpa carried it all inside.  Taylor helped Mommy put everything away.  Then me and Tay did our homework while Mommy cooked the supper.  And then..." Jake stopped to take a breath and swallow his last bite of mashed potatoes.

"You mean 'Grandpa and I,' " Jeff said.  Taylor started to giggle.

"No, Daddy," Jake said.  "You weren't even home.  We carried it in."

"Give it up, Daddy," my daughter said.  "He just doesn't get it."

Alas, grammar is not my son's strong suit - but story telling is.  I think it's genetic. I decided to get a word in while Jake was chewing.  "Who's ready for dessert?"  I asked, looking around the table at empty plates.

"Me!" Jake shouted.  "Me oh my, I love pie!"  He burst into a fit of giggles.

"Honey, that's the best meatloaf I've had in a month of Sundays," Jeff said.  "But for pie, I'll even help clear the table and load the dishwasher."  Bless his heart, Jeff will eat anything I cook and never complains.  I guess living on military rations for six months at a time will make your wife's cooking seem like manna from heaven.

I'd gotten more than just information at Billie Jo's place; we came home with two of her specialties: chocolate French silk pie and sour cream apple pecan tart.  Taylor made sure I didn't forget to buy ice cream while we were at the store.

"I want some of each," Pop said as he began to stack the empty plates.  "I never did eat lunch today.  But I did win at dominoes."

"Where'd you play dominoes?" Taylor asked.  Our girl loves a game of any kind.

"BJ's place," Pop answered, taking another bite of apple tart.

"Daddy, why do they call Billie Jo BJ?" Jake asked, looking at his father expectantly.

I think Jeff inhaled half a glass of sweet tea.  He started to cough and I handed him another napkin.  Pop and I looked at each other, trying not to laugh.

"Because those are her initials, dopey," said Taylor matter-of-factly.

Of course, that's why.  I took another bite of chocolate pie.

His curiosity satisfied, Jake continued to regale us with his first-day-of-school adventures and during his momentary silences, Taylor managed to fill us on on sixth grade, her teachers and a potential new best friend.  When the pie plates were empty, Pop challenged both kids to a game of checkers and suddenly the kitchen was silent.  Jeff and I sat across the table looking at one another.

"You know, you always thought that's why everyone called your friend BJ.  I think I finally explained the real reason why after we were married," Jeff reminded me.  "It might even have been after Taylor was born."

"It was not and you know it.  I do recall that you explained her nickname to me - but I am fairly sure we were still in high school."

"And I'm fairly sure that you were completely horrified.  I don't think you spoke to her for a week."

"Well, that's a pretty, um, shocking thing to find out about your best friend.  You know I love Billie Jo, but I sure hope Taylor's new friend isn't anything like her."  I searched the apple tart pan for edible crumbs.

Jeff leaned back in his chair and looked at me intently.

"Well?" he asked.  "Anything you want to share from your undercover fact-finding mission?"

I ignored the question and carried a stack of plates to the sink.  Jeff followed me with the empty pie plates and a hand full of silverware.  As I rinsed the dishes, I handed them to him and he loaded the dishwasher.  We worked quietly for a few minutes. 

I sighed, remembering all the things BJ had told me.  "I just heard all the gossip.  Way more than Aunt Rob ever shares.  Some of it was funny, some of it was pretty enlightening and a few things were downright crazy. A couple of the things she told me were pretty, you know, awful. Shocking, really."  I wasn't going to admit it, but I was really appalled at some of the things people actually do to one another or with someone else behind their spouse's back.  I wondered if they even realized how hurtful their actions were to other people.  "I'll tell you later," I said quietly and put the last glass on the top rack.

Jeff put his arms around me from behind and rested his chin on the top of my head.  "You know, babe, in the big scheme of things, nothing really matters but our own little family.  Let's go enjoy them for a while."

And is there anything sweeter than a big, strong, gentle man who is willing to play Guitar Hero with his two adoring kids?  Oh, and not many people know this, but he knows all the words to I Love Rock and Roll.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Chapter 4

I finished folding the last towel and placed it on the top of the pile in the laundry basket.  How in the world do four people create so much laundry, I wondered.  I'd discovered that little boys were a much dirtier lot than little girls - and Taylor wasn't even the girly sort.  I hoped that didn't change when she hit the dreaded teen years. Her father had announced that she would not be dating until she was thirty, so I couldn't imagine that the latest fashion would make a big difference to her until she was at least twenty-nine.  Yeah, and monkeys are going to fly out of my butt.  I laughed out loud.

"So now laundry is funny?"  My father-in-law stood in the laundry room doorway, munching on an apple.  "There's nothing funny about Jake's dirty socks, I can tell you."

"No - I was just thinking about Jeff's ban on Taylor ever dating a teen-age boy.  If he has his way, it'll be an arranged marriage with a Nobel laureate."

"I think he's forgotten how the two of you circumvented the rules your daddy set down for you girls."

"Hardly - I think he's more aware of the various ways teenage boys come up with to ignore those rules completely," I answered.  ""I thought you were willing to submit to an interrogation over lunch?"

He took another bite of the apple.  "Well, I was but I'm about starved."

I looked at the kitchen clock.  "I need to go to the market before time to pick up the kids from school.  I'll buy you lunch at Billie Jo's - she has chicken salad on Mondays."

"I know you think you're sneaky for being so smart and all that, but I know you just want to see what you can find out at that hotbed of gossip.  And what not."  He tossed the apple core into the garbage can.  "I never get tired of this lid that opens itself."

I shook my head.  "What not?  What do you mean by that?"

"I mean your friend Billie Jo knows all the gossip.  Hotbed was probably a poor choice of words."  He chuckled and opened the back door.  "If you know what I mean."

Yes, I knew exactly what he meant.  I'll admit that I laughed, too.  Just a little.

Billie Jo Byrd and I have been friends since kindergarten when she pulled the ribbons off my braids and told me that pink was a sissy color and that her mama said it clashed with red hair.  "Pink is only for strawberry blondes like me," she announced.  My five-year-old self appreciated her directness and her fashion advice.  I've never worn pink since.

BJ, as she is affectionately known by everyone who knows her, and not-so-affectionately by the wives whose husbands have been known by her, owns the busy local lunch place: Me Oh My I Love Pie.  You can order just about any sandwich or salad you can think up - there's no menu.  There is, however, a menu for the pie.  She's got apple, blueberry, cherry, raspberry - double crust or single.  Hot or cold, naked or a la mode.  There's cream pies, custard pies - and, if you show up early enough, there's several different kinds of quiche for those diners who missed breakfast but aren't quite ready for lunch.  When the lunch crowd finally dies down, she closes for a few hours and then re-opens at eight as Piney Point's version of a happenin' night spot.  There's lots of cold beer, a lukewarm live band and hot local singles - who may or may not be either hot or single.  Most likely neither one, but then, I don't judge.

Because it's really the only place in town to have lunch - and by that I mean the only place within walking distance of municipal offices, the bank, courthouse and local businesses - everyone goes to Billie Jo's place at least three times a week, if not every day.  The food's good, the prices are reasonable and in Piney Point, it's the place to see and be seen.  Couples meet and fall in love there; spouses break up and sometimes meet to sign their divorce papers over pie.  I think BJ calls that the Heartbreak Special and the coffee is free - $2.75 for pie.  Politicians conduct their business, and sometimes other affairs, there.  Billie Jo has a unique talent for eavesdropping while appearing to be completely oblivious to everyone in the room.  She's our own homegrown Hedda Hopper.  I keep telling her she should write a book; she's afraid of getting sued, or worse.  Add the things she observes and the gossip she overhears to the information she gleans from unwitting informants in, um, other places and she is a veritable font of information, a database of dirty laundry of epic proportions.  About this, I do not exaggerate.  The funny thing is, she keeps the vast majority of these delectable tidbits to herself and everyone knows it.  Billie Jo will only spill her guts to one of the few people she trusts.  One of those people is me.

Pop opened the door and we were met by the intoxicating aroma of hot grease and frying potatoes.  I didn't know about pie, but I was definitely having some french fries - extra crispy, lots of salt.  I caught BJ's eye and waved.  "Come on up and sit at the bar," she yelled.  Pop took a seat at a table full of his cronies and their never-ending game of dominoes.  I wove my way through the maze of tables and hopped up on a bar stool as BJ set a big glass of sweet tea in front of me.

"Well, hey," I said and took a sip.  Perfect - just enough sugar, just enough lemon.  Southern nectar of the gods on ice.  Life is good.

"How the hell are you?" my friend asked.  "I haven't seen you since you and HunkaHunka were here for his interview.  Then all of a sudden, I hear we've got a new police chief and he's gone and moved his nerdy smart-ass wife and two kids to town.  That was almost two weeks ago and this is the first time you drag your prissy self in here for lunch?"  She turned around to bark out what I assumed was my order to the cook.  "Seriously, it is good to see you, Mrs. Burnin' Love.  Or do I have to call you Dr. Ryan now?" 

I made a face at her.  "I'm sorry I haven't called - I was trying to get settled before the kids started school.  We haven't even been to church.  Jake has been having fits over that - he's afraid God will forget who he is.  And Jeff only just got here on Friday.  He was finishing up a case and training his replacement in DC.  It's really good to see you, too.  I can't wait to meet the new Mr. Byrd."  I smiled innocently and BJ burst out laughing.

"He's about to be the ex-Mr. Byrd.  You know that.  I tell you, life was a hell of a lot simpler before I tried to be respectable and started marrying these guys."

"Slut," I said.

"Prude," she replied.

We both shrieked with laughter.  "Lordy, I've missed you," I said.  "Now bring me some french fries and tell me every little thing about everyone you know and don't you dare leave anything out."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Chapter 3

By the time I got home, I had a mental list of people to talk to and questions to ask about a mile long.  Well, a page anyway.  I closed the garden gate and hurried after the dogs to the back porch.  I nearly tripped on the steps in my rush to answer the telephone.  Why is it that the phone always rings when you're just outside the door?  Or worse yet, in the bathroom?  I'd pondered that particular mystery of the universe on more than one occasion.  I dropped the leashes and grabbed the phone off the kitchen counter.

"Hello?"  I fished three dog treats from the jar and leaned down to distribute them to my eager companions and unhook the leads from their collars.

"Mrs. MacFayden?" a somewhat officious, but familiar, voice intoned.

"Yes," I replied.  "Erin?"

"Oh, Lord - you recognized me!  I was trying to be professional.  I told her that you don't use Jeff's last name, but she insisted that I call you Mrs. MacFayden," she said and giggled quietly.  "The dragon lady wants to talk to you," she practically whispered.  And then louder, "Yes, Principal VanBeek would like to speak with you about an important matter."

"Laying it on a little thick, aren't you?" I said.  And then I realized that Erin had transferred me to her boss, the aforementioned Dragon Lady.

"I'm not sure what you mean, Mrs. MacFayden," another cold, horribly familiar voice said.  "I'd like to speak to you about your son.  Jake, I believe."

"Yes, I believe Jake is my son."  I laughed nervously, in spite of myself.

"Still not taking anything seriously, I see," she continued.  "Well, like mother, like son.  Young Jake announced at the new students assembly this morning that his dog found a dead body on the way to school.  He said that his father would be arresting and probably hanging the bad guy who did it.  He also said, and I quote, 'My daddy used to work with Wyatt Earp' and then he stated that before that, his father shot people for a living.  You might not understand the gravity of this situation, but I simply cannot have children making up stories like this to get the attention of the other students.  You and your husband may condone this type of behavior, but I will not tolerate it."

It's a pity that Jeff wasn't there to see it, because I was speechless.  But only for a minute or so.  Principal VanBeek was not going to browbeat me - or my children. 

"Jake isn't making up stories," I said.  "Everything he said is true.  Or has an element of truth in it, from a six-year-old's limited point of view."

"A dead body?  Please, do you take me for a fool?" the principal asked indignantly.

"I don't take you for anything other than the mean-spirited woman you've always been," I answered calmly.  "We did find a body on the way to school and Jeff is investigating the crime in his official capacity as police chief here in Piney Point.  He used to work in fugitive apprehension for the US Marshal Service; if you recall any history of the American West, you would know that Wyatt Earp was indeed a Deputy US Marshal.  You might also remember that my husband joined the Marines after high school where he was trained and deployed as a sniper. Snipers, by definition, shoot people.  Let me reiterate: my son does not make up stories.  Oh, and Jeff would probably really like it if you called him Chief MacFayden.  But next time you have your secretary call me, and I really hope there is no next time, my name is Dr. Ryan."

With a satisfied smirk, I hung up the phone and did a childish victory dance right there in the kitchen.  The dogs looked at me like I was nuts.  Unfortunately, so did Jeff, from where he was leaning against the kitchen door jamb.  I wound my way around the island to the stool on the other side.

"How long have you been standing there?" I asked sheepishly.

"Long enough.  Pissed Mama Bear off, did she?"  He sat down and leaned his elbows on the counter.

"It's the first day of school, for God's sake.  She couldn't wait until one of them actually did something wrong?  I mean, it's inevitable and I know that.  They are our kids, after all.  She just couldn't wait to..."

"To what?" Jeff interrupted.  "Honey, she may not have liked us very much, but she doesn't even know our kids.  Think about it - if Jake came home and told you that he found a dead body, wouldn't you want to see it for yourself?  He's six - and as you so eloquently put it, he has a limited six-year-old point of view."

I hate that the man is so rational.  But he's usually right and while I don't always tell him so, I'm glad he is.  "I guess I was a little mean, wasn't I?  I should call her and apologize.  What was I thinking?"

"You were pretty bitchy, Dr. Ryan.  But never apologize, you don't want the enemy to think you're weak."  Jeff grinned at me.  "I thought you were going to wait for me at Uncle Jimmy's."

"Oh, I had things to do so I came on home."  I filled the tea pot with water and set it on the stove.

"Couldn't get much information out of Pop so you decided to come home and start making a list of questions to ask and people to call?"

Like I said, infuriating.  "No - I have laundry to do and..."

"Oh, yeah - housewife stuff.  Well, it's a moot point anyway."  He came around the island and got a mug out of the cupboard.  And didn't say anything else.  I waited.


"What?"  He was tormenting me now.  "I thought you had work to do.  I'm just going to have a cup of tea and get back to the office."  He slowly tore open the packet and dropped the tea bag into the mug.

"You said it was a moot point."

"Uh-huh.  You know, I've been thinking you might want to look into doing some consulting work for that astrophysicist you used to work with in California.  It would give you something to occupy your time when the kids are at school."  I caught him trying not to smile as he poured boiling water into his mug.

"You mean so I won't interfere with your criminal investigations?"

"That would be an added benefit, but I am serious about your needing something to occupy your inquisitive mind.  You know I love you, honey, but I'm the cop.  You're the mathematician.  And you have to admit, you did go off in five different directions on this alleged murder before we had any of the facts."  He was sitting down across from me again.

"Which are?"  I stirred sugar into my own mug of tea.

"The facts are these:  there was no murder.  The body buried in a shallow grave on Jerry Maguire's front lawn was already dead.  And embalmed.  The coroner identified her as Jerry's late wife, Millie.  Apparently, it was someone's idea of a sick prank to dig her up and deliver her to Jerry's lawn.  I am not looking forward to having to tell him about it when he finally gets home."

I shook my head.  "Now that's just nasty - dead and dug up.  Then dug up by a dog."  I thought for a minute.  "Are you sure it was a prank?  Maybe it was a threat of some kind."

"Honey, I beg you, call your astrophysicist friend.  What's his name?  Schippmann - that's the one.  He needs your help and you need the distraction.  And I need to get back to work."  Jeff walked behind me to put the empty mug in the sink.  He kissed me on top of the head.

"Go on, then," I said.  "I have things to do, people to call, groceries to buy.  Don't be late for dinner."

"Not to worry - nothing ever happens in Piney Point."

Maybe.  Maybe not.  I just had a feeling that something was about to.