Chapter One

My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.

I was occupied with adjusting the angle of the back of my folding “lounger,” which I’d erected with some difficulty on the patio.

I had some warning, since I’d been aware of the buzzing of the plane for several seconds while I struggled to get the back of the lounger to settle somewhere between totally prone and rigidly upright. But Angel had one of those little tape players strapped to her waist (the plastic belt looked strange with the bikini) and the headphones and the drone of the lawn mower made her oblivious to the unusual persistence of the noise.

Circling low, I thought with some annoyance. I figured an aviator had spotted Angel and was making the most of his lucky day. Meantime, the ice in my coffee was melting and my book was lying on the little lawn table unread, while I wrestled with the stupid chair. Finally succeeding in locking the back of the lounger into a position approximating comfort, I looked up just in time to see something large falling from the little plane, something that rotated horribly, head over heels.

My gut recognized disaster seconds before my civilized self (which was pretty much just saying “Huh?”) and propelled me off the patio and across the yard to knock Angel, all five feet eleven of her, away from the handle of the mower and under shelter of an oak tree.

A sickening thud followed immediately.

In the ensuing silence, I could hear the plane buzzing away.

“What the hell was that?” Angel gasped. Her headphones had been knocked off, so she’d heard the impact. I was half on top of her; it must have looked as if a Chihuahua was frolicking with a Great Dane. I turned my head to look, dreading what I would see.

Luckily, he’d landed face down.

Even so, I was nearly sick on our newly mown grass, and Angel quite definitely was.

“I don’t know why you had to knock me down,” Angel said in a voice distinctly different from her flat south Florida drawl. “He probably missed me by, oh, thirteen inches.”

We were pushing ourselves to our feet, moving carefully.

“I didn’t want to have to buy a new lawn mower,” I said through clenched teeth. A side chamber in my mind was feeling grateful that our lawn mower was one of those that stop moving when the handle is released.

Angel was right about it being a man, judging from the clothes and the haircut. He was wearing a purple-and-white check shirt and brown pants, but the fashion police were not going to be bothering him anymore. A very little blood stained the shirt as I looked. He’d landed spread-eagled; one leg stuck out at a very un-alive angle. And then there was the way his neck was turned . . . I looked away hastily and took some long, deep breaths.

“He must be three inches into the ground,” Angel observed, still in that shaky voice.

She seemed preoccupied with measurements today.

Paralyzed by the suddenness and totality of the disaster, we stood together in the shade of the oak, looking at the body lying in the sun. Neither of us approached it. There was a stain spreading through the grass and dirt in the head area.

“And of course, the guys aren’t here today,” I said bitterly, apropos of nothing. “They’re never home when you need them.” Angel looked at me, her jaw dropping. Then she began hooting with laughter.

I was unaware I’d said anything amusing, and I was at my most librarian-ish when I added, “Really, Angel, we’ve got to stop standing around talking, and do something about this.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Angel said. “Let’s put some tulip bulbs in potting soil on top of him. They’ll come up great next year.”

“It’s way too late to put in tulips,” I told her. Then, catching myself, feeling the day had already spun out of hand, I said, “We’ve got to call the sheriff.”

“Oh, all right.” Angel stuck out her lip at me like a six-year-old whose fun had been spoiled, and laughed all the way into the house.

I hadn’t seen Angel Youngblood laugh that much in the two years she’d been my bodyguard.

She was serious enough an hour later, when Padgett Lanier was sitting on my patio with a glass of iced coffee. Lanier was perhaps the most powerful man in our county. He’d been in office in one capacity or another for twenty years. If anyone knew where all the bodies were buried in Lawrenceton, Georgia, it was this man. With a heavy body, scanty blond hair, and invisible eyelashes, Lanier wasn’t the most attractive man in my backyard, but he had a strong presence.

The “most attractive man” prize had to go to my husband of two years, Martin Bartell, vice president of manufacturing at Pan-Am Agra, Lawrenceton’s largest employer. Martin is a Vietnam vet, and at forty-seven he’s fifteen years older than I. He pumps iron and plays various one-on-one competitive sports regularly, so his physique is impressive, and Martin has that devastating combination of white hair and black eyebrows. His eyes are light, light brown.

Angel’s husband Shelby, who was lounging against the kitchen door, is swarthy and graying, with a Fu Manchu mustache and pockmarked cheeks. He is soft-spoken, polite, and an expert in the martial arts, as is Angel. Shelby and Martin are longtime friends.

Right now, Angel and I were the only women in sight. There were three deputies, the coroner, a local doctor, the sheriff, and our husbands. There were two men in the ambulance crew waiting to take “the deceased” to—wherever they took things like that.

Lanier gave me a thorough head-to-toes evaluation, and I realized I was wearing shorts, a halter top, and dried sweat, and that my long and wayward hair was sloppily gathered into a band on top of my head. “You musta been enjoying the sun, Miss Roe,” he said genially. “A little early in the spring for it, ain’t it?”

Now my friends call me Roe, but I’d never counted Lanier among them. I realized it was Lanier’s way of handling a problem. I’d kept my own name when I’d married Martin, a decision on my part that I don’t yet understand, since my laughable name had been the bane of my life. When you introduce yourself as “Aurora Teagarden” you’re going to get a snigger, if not a guffaw.

Padgett didn’t know whether to call me Miss Teagarden, Mrs. Teagarden, or Mrs. Bartell, or Ms. Teagarden-Bartell, and “Miss Roe” was his compromise gesture.

My husband was watching the activity by the mower, standing with the relaxed attitude of a guy who comes home every day to find a man embedded in his lawn. That is to say, Martin was trying to look relaxed, but his gaze was following every move the lawmen made, and he was very busy thinking. I could tell because his mouth was an absolutely straight line, and his arms were crossed across his chest, the fingers twiddling: his Thinking Stance. The slightly taller Shelby lounged over to stand beside Martin, his hands stuck in his jeans pockets to show how relaxed he was. With the synchronicity born of long association, the two men turned and looked at each other, some silent comment about the fallen dead man passing between them.

I hadn’t responded to Lanier, and he was waiting for me to say something.

“Well, we were taking turns mowing the lawn,” I answered. “And that’s always hot work. I did the front, so Angel took the back.” If I mow the front, I count it as my exercise for the day, and I don’t have to pop in that stupid videotape and dance in front of the TV. We live a mile out of town, in the middle of fields, and we have a very large front yard, and a big back one.

Martin, listening, shook his head absently, as he always did when my distaste for (most) strenuous physical activity crossed his mind. But he was still looking at the man embedded in our backyard.

“Do you think he’ll be recognizable when he’s turned over?” he asked the sheriff suddenly.

“No telling,” Lanier said. “We’ve never had one dropped from a plane before. Now I wonder, do you suppose that body landed here on purpose?”

He had our full attention now, and he knew it. I felt a jolt of dismay.

“Would you like some more ice coffee?” I asked. (I know it’s “iced,” but that’s not what we say.)

He glanced at his glass. “No, ma’am, I reckon I’m fine right now. Did that plane circle around before the man fell?”

I nodded. Lanier’s gaze moved to Angel, where it dwelled wonderingly. She was something to see.

“Mrs. Youngblood, you said you didn’t see it?”

“No, Sheriff. I had the lawn mower running and I was listening to a tape.” Angel, who’d pulled a white T-shirt on over her bikini, was getting plenty of surreptitious attention from the deputies and the ambulance men. It ran off her like water off a duck’s back. Angel is not pretty, but she is tall, very muscular and lean, and golden as a cheetah. Her legs are maybe a mile long.

“Miss Roe, you actually saw him fall?”

“Yes. But I didn’t see him come out of the plane. When I looked up, he was already in the air.”

“You reckon he was already dead?”

I hadn’t considered that. “Yes,” I said slowly. “Yes, I think he was. Because he was . . .” I had to take a deep breath. “He was all floppy.”

Martin moved behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.

Padgett Lanier shook his glass a little to hear the ice cubes tinkle against the sides. “I wonder, when we turn the deceased over, if you all would mind taking a look at him.” He held up a placatory hand before we could respond. “I know, I know, it’s an awful thing to ask anyone, especially these ladies, but we do need to know if you have seen this man anytime or anywhere, before today.”

I had never wanted to do anything less. My husband’s hands gripped my shoulders bracingly.

“Sheriff! We’re ready when you are!” called the taller of the deputies, as he pulled on an extra pair of plastic gloves. Lanier heaved himself out of his chair and strode over to the body.

This was a process I did not want to watch, and I covered my face with my hands. I heard some sounds I definitely didn’t want to match to an image.

“You needn’t bother, ladies,” called Lanier. His voice was very unsteady. I wondered if I ought to tell him where the bathroom was. “You needn’t bother,” he said again, in a lower voice. But the people in our yard were so quiet, it was easy to hear. “I recognize him myself . . . I think.”

I dropped my hands in amazement, caught a glimpse of what was being lifted from the lawn, and put them back up hurriedly.

“Who is it?” Martin called, close to my ear.

“Detective Sergeant Jack Burns, City of Lawrenceton Police Department.”

Padgett Lanier, no doubt about it, had a certain sense of ceremony.

After some dreadful minutes, the envelope of broken bones and jellied organs that was Jack Burns’s body was maneuvered into a bag and then into the ambulance. Lanier, obviously shaken but still maintaining his official face, ambled over to the patio. I was feeling very shaky, and Angel was an interesting shade of green. I thought she might be sick again. Martin and Shelby looked even grimmer than they had before.

“How long has it been since you saw Jack Burns?” Lanier asked me. “Seems to me as though you and he never got along too well, am I right?”

“I never had any quarrel with Mr. Burns,” I said steadily. That was the truth. Jack Burns’s dislike of me had not had its basis in any one incident, but in cumulative distrust. “And I haven’t seen him in—maybe years.” Which had been fine with me; I’d feared Jack, with his blind zeal for his own brand of justice. It’s bad to have a policeman as an enemy.

“And you, Mrs. Youngblood?”

“We did have a run-in a couple of weeks ago,” Angel said calmly, though her color betrayed her. I tried not to show any surprise.

“And just what was that about—?”

“He ticketed my car downtown, for some completely bullshit city ordinance he’d looked up in the books.”

“Now why would he do that?”

Angel put her hands on her hips, and her arm muscles rippled. “I came out of the bank and found him putting a ticket on my car and we had a little talk, kind of sharp.”

“Anyone around during this little talk?”

“Sure,” Angel said wearily. “It was downtown on a Friday morning. I saw that man that works at the library with Roe—Perry Allison—and I saw that pretty round woman who works at Marcus Hatfield, the one with the dark hair who has the little girl.”

“Carey Osland,” Lanier decided.

“Right, if you say so.” Angel seemed indifferent to the question of the woman’s name.

Martin looked at me, his eyebrows arched: Did you know about this? I shook my head almost imperceptibly.

“Why do you think, Mrs. Youngblood, that a detective sergeant would give a parking ticket?”

“Because he thought it was Roe’s car,” Angel said bluntly. “We both have blue Chevettes. Mine’s the same age, I got it used. Though mine’s a slightly different shade of blue, we basically have the same car.”

“Did you have a conversation with Jack Burns?”

“Not what you would call a conversation,” Angel said dryly. “He looked kind of taken aback when he saw it was my car, but then it was like he figured if I lived out here in Roe’s garage apartment, giving me a ticket was almost as good as giving her one. And he was right, I probably was seven inches from the curb instead of six. But I wasn’t in a good mood.”

This had been a real speech for Angel, who did not tend to be chatty. But Padgett Lanier wanted more.

“So you had words?” he prodded her.

Angel sighed. “I asked him why he was giving me a ticket and he told me I was parked too far from the curb, and he asked me how Roe was doing, had she found any more bodies lately, and I told him he was giving me a bullshit ticket, and he said he was sure there was some ordinance still on the books about public bad language, and did I want to see if I could karate-chop my way out of a jail cell.”

Lanier stared at her, fascinated. “And what did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“You didn’t respond?”

“No point to it. He’d decided he was going to give me the ticket.”

Lanier seemed nonplused. He eyed Angel a moment or two longer, then asked Martin if he’d seen Jack Burns lately.

“The last time I saw Jack Burns was two years ago, about the time I met my wife,” Martin said calmly. His fingers dug into the tight muscles of my neck and I tilted my head back.

“And you, Mr. Youngblood?”

“Hadn’t ever met him.”

“You weren’t mad about your wife getting a ticket?”

“If you park seven inches from the curb, you gotta take what’s coming to you.”

Padgett Lanier’s pale face had a tendency to flush easily. We watched now with some trepidation as he turned a tomato red. The sheriff dismissed us curtly, and turned his attention to the search his men were making in our yard. I wanted to beg them not to trample my poor little just-plowed garden, but I decided that would be unfeeling.

* * *

With the passage of a couple of hours, supper had become just possible. I called the Youngbloods’ apartment to ask Shelby and Angel if they wanted to share our meal, but Angel said she’d rather lie down than eat, and Shelby didn’t want to leave her.

Martin and I had pork chops, fried green tomatoes (a rare indulgence), Waldorf salad, and I’d made some biscuits. But we were just picking at the food. Martin had been quiet throughout the meal, which was unusual. Normally, we talked to each other at the table, before we went about our separate pursuits in the evening. (Sometimes they were mutual pursuits, but that usually came later. About bedtime.)

Our house felt very quiet after the onslaught of county and city police. We hadn’t had that many people around since the last year’s Christmas party.

“Roe, I’m worried about this,” Martin said finally. His pale brown eyes focused on me; Martin looks into the eyes of the people he’s talking to. That can be intimidating, or exciting.

“I know. I am, too, of course.”

“Not just Jack Burns being killed, but him being dumped here.”

“Of course,” I said again, not understanding what Martin was getting at.

“As Sheriff Lanier pointed out, people know that you and he didn’t get along.”

“But I was absolutely, provably on the ground when he landed. So I couldn’t have done it,” I said dismissively. “Besides which, I can’t fly a plane.”

“There’s something wrong about it.” Martin was having some problem formulating his thoughts, unusual for him. He’s used to expressing himself quickly and decisively in front of a lot of people.

I didn’t want to say “Of course,” again, but that was what I was thinking.

“How long has it been since you talked to him?” Martin asked.

“The sheriff asked me that this afternoon. The best I can recall, I haven’t seen Jack to speak to since . . . two and a half years ago at the Anderton house. Same as you.” The day Martin and I had met. He smiled at me now, warmly but briefly, to show me he, too, remembered that day very well.

“Did you think Angel reacted normally today?” Martin said suddenly.

“No, I don’t think so at all,” I said, glad he’d said it instead of me. “I don’t know what’s wrong with her. Angel’s not one to flinch away from anything unpleasant, and she has the strongest stomach of anyone I know. For some reason, this just threw her for a loop.” And I remembered Jack Burns rotating in the air, and was sorry I’d used that expression. I put my napkin by my plate and pushed the plate away.

“Something’s up with her,” Martin said. “I could tell Shelby was worried, too. And I could swear he’d never heard this story about the ticket.”

“Would you mind doing the dishes tonight?”

“No.” Martin seemed glad to shake off whatever dark thoughts he’d been having. “Are you going out? Is it Friends of the Library night, or some church meeting?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve got to go pay my condolences to Bess Burns.”

“Roe, do you think that’s wise?”

“I’ve always liked her, even if I didn’t like him. I’ve gotten to know her at Friends meetings.”

Since I’d resumed working at the library on a part-time basis, I’d met everyone who worked there as a volunteer. And Bess Burns, since she’d retired from teaching, was one of our best workers.

Martin continued to look at me in a troubled way, but he nodded. “I don’t mind doing the dishes,” he said. “Have you fed that cat yet?”

“I’ll do it before I go,” I promised. Martin and Madeleine, the fat old cat I inherited from a friend, have a touchy relationship at best. Madeleine’s favorite perch is the hood of Martin’s Mercedes-Benz, and Martin is very proud of that car. We even got doors installed on the garage and we check to be sure they’re closed every night, but we have to search for Madeleine before we do.

I went up the stairs in a hurry, mentally selecting my visit-to-the-widow outfit. Not black, I wasn’t a member of the family . . . navy. My new navy blue dress with the white trim. I’d just bought it at Short ’N Sweet in Atlanta—a petite shop, I’m four eleven—and I glanced at the label, gloating over the smaller size I’d been buying lately, before I pulled it over my head.

Living with a health-and-exercise-conscious man like Martin, and having the athletic Angel as a companion, had had a happy result as far as my figure was concerned. I’d even gone to the beauty shop my mother patronizes, Clip Casa, and gotten Benita to streak my hair. It took hours, since it’s thick, tightly wavy, and halfway down my back. But the result was worth it. Overall, what with being happy with Martin and secure financially, I looked and felt better than I had at any time in my life.

After wiggling into pantyhose—a process I wouldn’t let Martin watch—I slid my feet into pumps and pulled my frivolous streaky hair back with a barrette. I fed Madeleine hastily, grabbed my food offering from the refrigerator, and backed out my old Chevette, a car Martin detests almost as much as he detests Madeleine’s paw prints.

Though we live a mile out of town, I can almost see the back of my mother’s house from my own backyard, and the Burns home was only one street south of hers. But it was a street that made a lot of difference; Mother’s home on Plantation was a roomy two-story with a large lot, and Bess and Jack owned a fairly modest three-bedroom ranch.

There were two cars parked in front of the Burns home, one of them a familiar blue Lincoln Continental. It would have taken Mother five minutes to walk, but she would never willingly arrive anywhere flushed with exertion. Mother was actually coming toward me with a bowl in her hand as I got out of my old car, clutching my own dish.

“What you got there?” I asked.

“A cold pasta salad. It’s all I had in the house to make.”

My mother, Aida Brattle Teagarden Queensland, is a slim, husky-voiced Lauren Bacall look-alike. She is also a very successful Realtor, and a few short years ago she married John Queensland, a retired businessman. Since then, she’s become a stepgrandmother a couple of times. Once the shock wore off, she’s enjoyed it.

I peered through the plastic wrap. “Looks good.”

“Thanks. I see you brought your Waldorf salad. Well, are you going to ring the doorbell?”

I did so, and the door swung open after the correct interval. The Burns’s neighbor to the right, Marva Clerrick, had on her formal smile. It changed into a less strained one when she recognized us.

“Am I glad to see you!” she exclaimed in a violent whisper. “The strangest people are here talking to Bess! I have no idea what’s going on!”

Marva, an athletic extrovert and the wife of my sometime boss, Sam Clerrick, was one of the most popular teachers at Lawrenceton High School and a good friend of the recently retired Bess Burns. Marva had been aptly named by parents who must have had some premonition that Marva would be able to cook, teach English during the week and Sunday School at Western Hill Baptist Church, bring up two very good girls, and cope with the moody Sam. In the summer, her off-season, Marva taught swimming at the local pool and led rug-hooking classes at Peachtree Leisure Apartments.

For Marva to be confounded by a situation, it must be strange indeed. Of course, we were agog.

“What’s going on?” I asked in a stage whisper.

“There are two men here I’ve never seen before in this town,” Marva hissed back. “And to fall out of a plane! How could that happen by accident? What was Jack doing up in a plane?”

“I hate to bring this up, but I think Jack was already dead when he came out of the plane,” I said hesitantly. No one had asked me not to tell, and if Mother found out from another source she’d never forgive me.

“Already dead?” my mother said. She and Marva stared at me with twin expressions of distaste, fascination, and horror.

“He sure looked like it,” I said, involuntarily seeing the body turning in the air. “Of course, someone else was flying the plane.”

“Oh, girl, you don’t mean you saw it?” Marva asked breathlessly.

I nodded, surprised at this failure of the rumor mill.

“I heard it was that young woman that lives in your apartment out there, the gal with all the muscles,” Marva said indignantly.

“Oh, we were both out in the backyard.”

“Did you see the airplane, too?” Mother asked.

I shrugged. “It was just a little ole plane, red and white. I didn’t notice any of the numbers on it.” It would be hard to find someone who knew less about airplanes than I did.

“I can’t believe it, in our little town,” Marva said, forgetting to whisper. “Maybe it was somebody Jack had sent to prison?”

Mother and I shrugged simultaneously, and shook our heads to back the shrug up.

“Well, see what you make of this situation here, and let me know,” Marva said. “I’ve been minding the door for an hour now, but I have to go home soon, I’ve got bread coming out of the oven and I don’t know if Sissy will remember to get it out of the loaf pan after ten minutes’ sitting.”

“Where is Bess?” my mother asked directly, tired of all this hissing by the front door.

“Straight through,” Marva said, nodding her head at the door at the rear of the foyer. “The kids haven’t gotten here yet, but she’s talked to both of them on the phone. They have long drives.” I remembered the Burns children, Jack Junior and Romney, went to different colleges in different states.

“We’ll put our bowls in the refrigerator before we talk to her,” Mother told Marva firmly.

Bess’s kitchen looked just like mine usually did, basically clean but messy around the edges, with bills sticking out of a letter caddy on the wall and an open box of teabags by a pitcher. Another neighbor was working out her helpful impulses by wiping the counter, and we smiled and nodded at each other in a subdued way.

I opened the refrigerator to put in my offering. It was half-full of similar dishes, plastic-wrapped food that people had brought to Bess Burns in her time of trouble, to help feed her surely incoming family. By noon tomorrow, there would be no available shelf space.

Somehow reassured by the correctness of the refrigerator, Mother and I made our way to the den at the back of the house.

Bess was sitting on the couch with two big men flanking her. I’d never seen either man before. They wore suits, and ties, and grim expressions, and as the slim red-haired widow blotted her face with a white handkerchief, they offered her no comfort.

“We’re so sorry,” Mother said, in a perfectly calibrated tone of sympathy calculated not to start the tears again.

“Thank you,” Bess said. Bess’s voice was almost expressionless from exhaustion and shock. The lines across her forehead and from nose to mouth looked deeper, and traces of red lipstick stood out garishly on her pale face. “I appreciate you coming, and Aurora, too,” Bess said with great effort.

I bent awkwardly across the coffee table to give her a hug. Bess, who had only retired at the end of the previous school year, was still wearing her schoolteacher clothes, one of those relaxed cotton knit pants sets with the loose tunic. Hers was blue with a giant red apple on the front. It seemed ludicrously cheerful.

“Do they know why, yet—?” my mother said, as if she had a perfect right to ask.

Bess actually opened her mouth to answer, when the blond man to her right held up a hand to silence her. He stared up at us from behind tortoise-shell-framed glasses.

“It’s still under investigation,” he said heavily.

Mother and I glanced at each other.

Mother was not to be bested on her own territory. “I am Aida Queensland, a neighbor,” she said pointedly. “I don’t believe I’ve met you?”

“I’m John Dryden from Atlanta,” he said, which was an answer that told us nothing.

I didn’t like people being rude to my mother.

“You would be Mr. Pope, then,” I said to the other man, who was darker and younger.

“Pope?” He stared at me curiously. “No. I’m Don O’Riley. From Atlanta.”

Though Mother was trying to give me a censorious face, she was really stifling a smile.

“Bess, why don’t you come with us out to the kitchen?” I said. “Show us what we should put out for you and your friends to eat.” They clearly weren’t friends, and whoever they were, they were upsetting Bess even more than she already was. “It’s so late, and I’m sure you haven’t had a thing.”

“No, I haven’t eaten,” she said, looking as though she liked being talked to directly. Before her two “friends” could stop her, she stood up and circled the coffee table to go to the kitchen with us.

The neighbor who’d been there had left, leaving behind spotless counters and a feeling of goodwill. Bess stood and stared as though she didn’t recognize her own appliances.

“Were they bothering you?” Mother asked.

“They have to, it’s their job,” Bess said, with the weary endurance of a law enforcement wife. “I shouldn’t say anything about this, but Jack knew the identity of a—person—here in town who’s been hidden . . . well, I better not say any more. They wonder if it might be related to his being killed.”

“Ah,” said Mother with great significance, which was more than I could think of to say. She turned to fiddle with a dish of spaghetti she’d gotten from the refrigerator, and I saw her eyes close as if she was wondering how in the hell she’d gotten into this kitchen hearing this fascinating but bizarre revelation.

“You saw him fall, Roe,” Bess said directly to me. The air of exhaustion was gone, and in its place was a dreadful intensity. “Was he dead when he fell, or did he die from the impact?”

“I think he was dead when he came out of the plane,” I said, trying not to cry in the face of her pain, since she was keeping her own tears in check. “I don’t think he felt a thing, or ever knew he was falling.”

“Thank you,” she said quietly.

“Mrs. Burns, here you are,” said the blond Mr. Dryden sharply, though he could have had little doubt about Bess’s location. He was tucking his glasses into his breast pocket. Without them, his face looked even more alert. “You have a phone call you need to take in the living room. Ladies, thanks for coming to see Mrs. Burns in her time of grief.”

None of us had heard the phone ring.

“We’ll just set your meal out, and then we’ll leave,” Mother said firmly. “Bess, if you need us, we’ll be right here .”

“Thanks so much,” John Dryden said—dryly. And damned if he didn’t stay in the kitchen, watching us get out paper plates (since we couldn’t feature Dryden and O’Riley helping with the dishes) and heat up spaghetti in the built-in microwave. We prepared three plates of spaghetti, Waldorf salad, and green bean casserole, and set the table as best we could, what with having to search for the forks and napkins and glasses.

“Mr. Dryden,” said my mother, as he escorted us to the front door without our having caught another glimpse of Bess, “can you tell us when the funeral will be, and the name of the funeral home? I need to arrange for some flowers.”

“I don’t believe we’re certain at this time about any of that,” Dryden said cautiously. “There has to be an autopsy.”

So Dryden was a stranger to Bess Burns, if not to Jack. Any Lawrenceton native would know the Burns’s burials would be from Jasper Funeral Home, since Jerry Saylor of Saylor’s Funeral Home had divorced Bess Burns’s sister. From the way Mother and I looked at each other, Dryden knew he’d said something significant; you could see him trying to figure it out, abandoning the attempt.

“I suppose the funeral date will be in the obituary in tomorrow’s paper?” my mother persisted.

He looked blank.

“I’m sure it will be,” he said.

We didn’t believe him for a minute.

“Jack Junior and Romney had better get home quick,” my mother said darkly as she slid her elegant legs into her car.

I drove home slowly, more questions in my mind than I’d had when I’d set out.