Cara Embler was drying her short hair with a huge fluffy white towel. A little puddle of water had trickled down her legs and lay pooled at her feet. By her back door, there was a table piled high with identical towels, all snowy white and neatly folded. Organized, not prone to impulse, that was Cara.
She was surprised at my appearance in her yard, but not shocked. After all, she'd called me about Moosie. He was sunning himself on the patio, and when I came in, he jumped up and ran to me, stropping himself around my legs as he'd done on the day I'd found Poppy. I saw her two dogs looking through her set of sliding glass doors. They barked energetically when I walked through the gate and pulled it to behind me. I didn't close it all the way.
"Hi, Roe," Cara said, turning down the radio, which was sitting on a table by a matching chair. "I would have gotten all Moosie's stuff together and put him in a carrier if I'd known you were coming. I'd gotten him some cat food and some litter, and a toy."
She did love animals. "I just came over on impulse," I said, which was the truth. "Are you ready to come home with me, boy?" I lifted him up into my arms and scratched his head.
"I've enjoyed having him, but the dogs go nuts when he teases them," Cara said. The schnauzers were peering anxiously out of the glass door, yipping from time to time. They were beautiful animals, obviously well cared for. "Why'd you come in from Poppy's side?" Cara asked. She combed her short hair.
"I had to get some things out of the house for John David. Things for Chase," I replied, lying. I was feeling my way, and I was suddenly cold down to my heart. What had I done? But having come through the gate in the fence, seeing Cara's assurance, I could not stand the thought that she might walk free. I could not imagine why, out of all the women Poppy had cuckolded, this one would strike back, but I knew in my gut that Cara Embler had killed my sister-in-law.
"Want to come in? It's a little brisk out here." But Cara seemed to be used to it. She wrapped a white terry robe around her. She started to put on a pair of yellow plastic clogs, then seemed to reconsider. I wondered why. She swept a hand toward the house invitingly.
If we went inside, Arthur couldn't hear.
"How many times did you go through the fence that day?" I asked.
Cara looked stunned for a second. "What day?"
"The day Poppy died. When you killed her."
The words hung between us, enormous and terrifying.
Cara's eyes changed then. The veil she'd held between the world and herself dropped, and the real Cara looked out at me.
"You don't know anything," she said contemptuously.
"I found your husband's ID tag, the one from the hospital."
"You did, huh? That was where Stuart lost it?"
"Isn't that why?"
"Why I killed her? Over my husband poking his thing in her? If I killed everyone he fucked, there'd be a lot of dead women around Atlanta. That hospital is like Peyton Place. Granted, one in my own backyard is over the top. But consider the woman." Cara's face shone with malice. "She gets pregnant so easy, she doesn't even know who the father is. She thinks I don't even know my husband's had her, that that'll scare me! But at least I can be sure it's not him, because his sperm count is so pathetic, we had to adopt. You know how hard it is to get a healthy white male infant? Not as hard for a prominent cardiologist and his wife as it would be for a garbage man and his wife, but still... difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. And then he doesn't even love us! We brought him up as ours, we gave him everything, and he doesn't even love us!"
"How'd you know Poppy didn't know the father of her kid?" I was very uneasy at Arthur hearing this, but I had cast the die and couldn't retreat.
"She had the gall to come over here - while I was here, mind you - and ask my husband how to get samples for DNA testing! I was out of the room, of course, but I made sure I could hear every word they said. She asked Stuart to order the test through the lab his practice uses, so she could push it through without questions asked. He told me all about it. That's what he thought of your precious Poppy. He told her to get a swab from someone's mouth, or their hair with the roots on, not cut hair. Easy enough. It wasn't a court-ordered procedure. She just wanted to know."
"But if you didn't care if your husband slept with her, why'd you kill her?"
"I wanted her to die for me," Cara said. "You know, a member of Uppity Women has to die for the next person on the waiting list to get in. And I wanted in. So Poppy Queensland died for me."
I couldn't believe I'd understood her correctly. I must have been squeezing Moosie, because he protested and began to struggle. Absently, I began stroking him again, and he relaxed, bless his feline heart.
"You wanted to be in Uppity Women so much, you killed Poppy to get in?"
"You know what I gave up when I married Stuart? I was through with college - I graduated with honors - and I'd decided to go to vet school. I've loved animals all my life, and I wanted to be a veterinarian. But my husband said it would lower his status as a cardiologist if he had a wife who was an animal doctor, so I thought, Well, that's enough, being Stuart's wife. I can run the house. I can entertain. I can do charitable work. I can raise his kids. I can contribute."
"Wasn't enough?" I said in a low voice with a big quaver. Cara's face was ugly with loathing.
"It was never enough," she answered, her voice almost a growl. "We couldn't have our own children. We adopted the one baby, and Stuart decided after that, that one was enough, because he felt Henry was a lot of trouble. As if he did anything for the boy. So I took up swimming again, and I got really good, and I began winning medals, I got so good. But Stuart didn't like that, either, because he said swimming meets for seniors were silly that I should just swim for my own pleasure and have done with it."
"I hear he went with you, though, to a lot of them, right?" I was backing toward the fence. I sincerely hoped Arthur was right behind it.
"He decided it was a good advertisement - for a cardiologist to have a wife who did such a heart-healthy thing, at her age!"
I didn't have an idea in the world what to do next.
"So you really did kill her so you could get into Uppity Women?"
"I really did." Cara was almost proud.
I didn't believe her for a second. Maybe that was what Cara chose to believe, but I thought it went maybe a few miles deeper than that.
"You came back in your yard with the knife and put it back in the house, didn't you? And got back in the pool?"
"I dove into the water after I killed her, and I washed all that blood off me and the knife. I figured the chlorine would take care of it, and it did," she said. "And then I couldn't think of what to do with the knife. I didn't exactly want to put it back in the kitchen drawer." She looked at me and rolled her eyes, as though she were confessing a charming foible. "And I didn't want to stick it in the garbage, because what if my garbage got searched somehow?" I began to have a real bad feeling. She strolled over to the raised flower bed by the fence and scratched her fingers through the pine bark that the gardener had put in as mulch. "So I buried the knife in here. And here it is!"
She smiled at me.
It was at least a foot long, and wicked-looking. I was so creeped out by Cara that a toothpick would have frightened me, but at the sight of this knife, I was almost paralyzed.
I had time to think, Where the hell is Arthur? when he came flying through the gate, which crashed back against the fence and rebounded, knocking the drawn gun from his hand quite neatly.
Cara disregarded Arthur completely and leaped at me. She gave me a powerful shove.
I threw Moosie at her.
Moosie screeched and bit and drew blood on Cara's chest, and the barking of the dogs in the house reached a frantic crescendo as Cara staggered backward, ending up near the lawn furniture again. Her wet feet slipped in the puddle of water where she'd been standing, and she fell heavily. As her head hit the concrete, I landed in the pool with enough force to send me right down. My glasses were knocked off by the force of the impact, and as I plummeted deeper, I looked up and saw them drifting lazily after me to the bottom.
The water was cold, cold, cold. The shock to my system was severe, and for a long moment I seemed unable to move my limbs, unable to save myself. It was fortunate that I wasn't wearing a heavy coat or boots. I shook off the paralysis and began to force water down with my hands so I could rise. My face broke the surface and I gasped for air. The first thing I saw was Moosie's face peering out from under the table by the back door, the one that held the towels. Moosie's sense of self-preservation was far superior to mine.
Arthur was scrambling to his feet, going for the gun that had skittered to the very edge of the pool. Cara was twitching, but silent. The fall had knocked the air out of her.
I made it to the side of the pool and shoved the gun toward Arthur. I was not about to pick it up. I don't know a thing about guns, and they make me very nervous. I began to pull myself up to sit on the side of the pool. I expected Arthur would throw me a towel, or give me a hand. I didn't expect that he'd walk over to Cara and kick her in the ribs as hard as he could.
"Stop," I said. "Arthur! Stop!" I sat and shivered, my feet still in the water. I had never trembled so violently in my life. The moderate day seemed frigid now. I simply could not get up to interfere.
I was scared of Arthur, too, scared to get close enough to grab his arm. He was almost as frightening as Cara. Cara deserved every kind of punishment for killing Poppy, but I hated watching her being beaten.
He drew back his leg again, and I screamed, "No!"
My voice penetrated the fog of rage that hung around him almost palpably.
Arthur's foot touched the ground again. He shook himself, then said in a thick voice, "Cara Embler, you are under arrest for the murder of Poppy Queensland. Anything you say ..."