Aubrey made it in forty minutes, and he was wearing his black shirt and dog collar when he rang the doorbell. Aubrey had had very dark hair when I met him, and he was graying heavily now. He'd shaved his mustache the year before, which had changed his appearance drastically. And he'd gained a few pounds, even though he played golf, tennis, and ran three times a week. Still, Aubrey was an attractive man, and Emily was very watchful around the single female members of the congregation - and some of the married ones, for that matter.
Take Poppy, for example. Emily had always been markedly cold toward Poppy, who had laughed it off.
I took a ragged breath and hugged Aubrey out of sheer thankfulness for his presence. Then I took him into the kitchen.
Somehow, the appearance of the priest gave weight and substance to the fact of Poppy's death. If the priest showed up, it had to be true. Aubrey's arrival was both a shock and a relief.
I wandered in and out of the kitchen, keeping a sharp eye on John. He looked good, considering the horror of the day. He was practically vibrating with worry over John David's absence. I thought he would not feel the impact of Poppy's death until he could be sure of his son's whereabouts and safety.
John had to be aware that we were all thinking that until John David showed up to establish his innocence, he was the chief suspect in his wife's murder.
Even John had to be thinking that.
Where the hell could John David be? I walked through the kitchen, the dining room, the formal living room, back through the family room. Then I made the circuit again. I noticed my pattern was irritating the hell out of Avery, but that was just his bad luck. It helped me think.
If I were John David, and I'd left work early, and my wife was busy, and my son was safely at his aunt's house ... I'd go visit my mistress. The answer popped into my mind with the air of finality your subconscious reserves for sure things. Whom had John David been seeing lately? I could feel my upper lip wrinkle with faint disgust at even considering such a question. I made myself comb through the half-heard rumors.
There was Patty Cloud, who'd worked for my mother for several years before becoming Mother's second in command. I'd never cared for Patty, who was a cold and manipulative woman. There was Romney Burns, the daughter of a murdered detective in the Lawrenceton Police Department. There was Linda Pocock Erhardt, whose bridesmaid I'd been; Linda, divorced for many years, had two daughters in high school, and I knew she should be at work today. She was a nurse for my doctor, Pincus Zelman.
I felt much better now that I had a mission. I slipped out of my mother's house and into my car and began touring the town. I'd never driven through Lawrenceton hunting down love nests before, and I felt queasy about doing it now. I know I'm not such a wonderful moral person. But somehow, the slipping and creeping, the surreptitiousness of it, the deceiving... well, I had to shrug and sigh all over again at my own censoriousness.
Linda's car, as I'd expected, was parked behind the doctor's office. And there was a phalanx of vehicles in the parking lot. I was 98 percent sure that Linda was inside taking temperatures and blood pressures, just as she ought to be. I called my mother's office and asked for Patty, and when she came to the phone, I told her my mother wouldn't be in for the rest of the day. Patty replied in a puzzled sort of way, saying that my mother had already called her to let her know that very thing, and I laughed weakly. "Guess we got our signals crossed in all the confusion," I said, and Patty said, "Um-hum" in a loathsomely skeptical way.
That left the least palatable alternative.
Linda and Patty were both strong women, veterans of the divorce wars, and both quite capable of making their own decisions. Romney Burns was neither of those things. Romney's apartment was a duplex, and I spotted John David's car immediately, parked in the neighbor's driveway. I assumed the neighbors were at work and that this was John David's way of casting up a smoke screen. How subtle.
Romney was a lot younger than John David. Romney was - well, she had to be less than twenty-six, I rapidly figured. And she'd lost her father less than two years before. Sandy-haired and fair, Romney had shed the weight she'd carried in high school by the time she graduated from college and returned to Lawrenceton, where she'd gotten a poor-paying white-collar job in the financial aid office of the junior college. Mother had told me Romney was the financial aid officer's assistant.
I hoped they didn't have any loan emergencies at Sparling Junior College today, because it looked like Romney was home.
I took a deep and unwilling breath before knocking on the shabby door. I would rather have been pulling my eyebrow hairs out one by one than doing this.
Naturally, Romney answered. Her light hair was a real mess, and she was clothed only in a bathrobe. It took her a second to recognize me, and when she did, she looked disgruntled. I hadn't been her father's favorite person, either.
"What are you doing here?" she snapped. She had to realize that seeing John David's sister-in-law at her door meant bad things.
"John David needs to get his clothes on and get out here right now," I said, abandoning any attempt to put a polite gloss on the situation.
"Who?" she blustered, but she discarded that quickly. Then she straightened. "Well, maybe I better come, too, since I might be a member of the family before too long," she said, both defensive and proud.
"Oh bull," I said. "This is the third place I tried to find John David, honey. Not the first."
I saw comprehension leak into her eyes as she struggled to maintain her position. "He loves me," she said.
"Right, that's why you two are walking down Main Street arm in arm," I said, and turned my back on her. The door slammed behind me. Big surprise.
"What the hell is this about?" John David said when he joined me. He was put back together pretty well, as far as clothing goes, but his composure had big holes in it. John David had a more florid coloring than his father and brother, and fairer hair. He was a powerfully built man, and a handsome one. But I didn't like him anymore, and in my eyes, he would always be ugly.
"John David," I said slowly, suddenly realizing I'd condemned myself to breaking the news. "How long have you been here?"
"What business is it of yours?"
We faced each other, standing by my car.
"Believe me, it's my business. Tell me."
John David was no fool, and he'd picked up on the undertone.
"I've been here since I drove back from the office at eleven," he said. His voice was even. "Now, you tell me what's happened."
"It's Poppy." I met his eyes squarely.
His face began to crumple. I swear that he looked as though this were news to him.
"Poppy was attacked in your house after you left this morning."
"So she's in the hospital?" There was a desperate hopefulness on his face.
"No," I said. No point stringing this out. I took a deep breath. "She didn't survive."
He scanned my face for any sign that what I was saying wasn't true, that my words might have some other meaning.
He knew before he asked, but I guess he had to. "You mean she's dead," he said.
"Yes," I said. "When Melinda and I went to check on her, she was gone. I called the police. I'm very sorry."
Then I had to hold this man I didn't even like anymore. I had to put my arms around him and keep him from sinking to the ground while he wept. I could smell the scents of his deodorant and his aftershave, the laundry detergent that Poppy had used on his clothes - and the smell of Romney. It was intimate and disgusting.
There really was nothing more to say.
When he calmed a little bit, I told him he had to go to the police.
"Why?" he said blankly.
"They're looking for you."
"Well, now you've found me."
"They're looking for you."
That got his attention.
"You mean that they think I might have killed her?"
"They need to rule it out," I said, which was as diplomatically as I could phrase it.
"I'll have to tell them where I was."
"You think I need a lawyer before I go in?" he asked, which was the most sensible thought he'd voiced.
"I think it wouldn't hurt," I said slowly.
"I'll call Bubba," he said, and whipped his cell phone out of his pocket.
"Oh no," I said without thinking.
He stared at me.
I shook my head vehemently.
"You just call someone else, not Cartland Sewell," I said. I was hoping the earth would open up and swallow not me but John David.
If he could look any worse, he did. "All right," he said after a deadly silence. "I'll call Bryan Pascoe."
Bryan Pascoe was the toughest, meanest criminal lawyer in the county. I don't know how much that was saying, but Bryan was local, and he was tough, and he knew his law. He was around Avery's age, I thought, which meant he was a year or so older than I. I knew him only by sight. Many of the Uppity Women hoped that Bryan would become a judge in the next couple of years.
Luckily, Pascoe was not in court, and his secretary put John David through. John David tried to explain the situation, but he broke down in tears. To my acute discomfort, he pressed the telephone into my hands.
"Mr. Pascoe," I said, because I had no choice. "This is John David's sister-in-law, Aurora Teagarden."
"Of course, I remember you. I hope your mother is well?" The lawyer had one of those wonderful voices - deep, smooth, authoritative.
"She's fine," I assured him. "But we have trouble."
"People who call me always do. What can I do for you on this beautiful fall day?"
"Um. Well, this is the situation." I explained it to him as rapidly and concisely as I could while John David lay over the hood of my car, weeping. I was so glad Romney didn't come out of her duplex that I could hardly contain myself. Staying inside was incredibly smart of the girl, because I would have pounded her into a pulp. I didn't have any sympathy or tact to spare.
"Good summary," Bryan said, and I felt like he'd poured syrup on my pancakes and cut them up for me. "Lucky for both of us, I just had a client cancellation. I can meet John David at SPACOLEC in forty-five minutes."
I started to ask Bryan Pascoe what the hell I was supposed to do with my brother-in-law in the meantime, but that was hardly the lawyer's problem. "See you there in forty-five minutes, right outside the front doors," I said, and hung up.
"Okay, John David." I tried to sound bracing and authoritative. I turned off his phone and stuck it into his pocket. "We need to get into my car, now." I worried about leaving John David's car where it was, but I figured I couldn't take care of every little thing. I'd have to get Melinda or Avery to come pick it up pretty quick, because as soon as the news of Poppy's death was widely known, that car in that location might as well have a big scarlet A printed on the trunk. I fished John David's keys out of his pants, got his car key off his key ring, and slipped it under the floor mat on the driver's side. Then I called Avery and gave him the heads-up on the car. At least Avery understood completely without me having to explain every little detail.
I wrangled John David into the front seat of my car, fastened his seat belt, and ran around to get in the driver's seat. It would take me all of fifteen minutes, if I drove slowly, to get to the SPACOLEC complex. What could I do for thirty minutes?
"I need to go by the house," John David said. "I need to see where it happened."
"No," I said. "You don't need to go there right now. For one thing, the police are sure to still be there. For another thing, the site needs to be cleaned up before you get in. I can tell you about it. It happened in your patio doorway. Someone came to your back door. He probably got into your backyard through one of the gates." Or maybe Poppy was trying to flee into the backyard when her attacker caught up with her, having entered from the front door? But wouldn't she have pitched forward in that case? She'd been lying on her back with her legs outside the door. No, the attack had come from in front of her when she was facing out the glass door. "She died real quick. She was stabbed."
John David insisted again that he wanted to go home, and I told him flatly that I wouldn't take him, that the first place he was going was to SPACOLEC, and that he better tell them all the truth. I listened to the words coming out of my mouth, and to my terrified delight, I sounded exactly like my mother.
"This will ruin Romney," he said, speaking so quietly, it was almost to himself.
"Poppy is more important right now than Romney Burns's reputation."
"I'm just saying," he said, placating me with a gesture of his hand that meant, Level out.
I had taken so many deep breaths, I thought I might hyperventilate. I drove very slowly and took the longest route I could imagine, but still we arrived at SPACOLEC before thirty minutes had elapsed.
Scared a policeman would spot John David in my car before the lawyer arrived, I drove out to Fuller Gospel Church and parked for a moment under the huge live oak in the old church's parking lot. The sun danced through the changing leaves as they flickered in a chilly wind. It was an oddly beautiful moment, and one I knew I would never forget - the grieving and faithless man beside me, the country church, the light among the dancing leaves.
Bryan Pascoe wasn't at all what I'd expected. Since everyone seems tall to me, I was surprised to notice that next to John David, he was actually a small man, perhaps five seven. He shook hands with me gravely and then turned all his attention to my brother-in-law.
While the lawyer listened to John David, I was able to examine him more closely. Bryan Pascoe had ash-blond hair and light blue eyes. He had the narrowest, straightest nose I'd ever seen in my life; it made him look sharp and arrogant. I didn't know him well enough to know if that was true. Right away, he told us to call him Bryan, and then he asked John David to tell him exactly what he'd done today.
"Got up at six-forty-five, usual time," John David began. His voice was dull. "Poppy stayed in bed until Chase started crying about seven. She fed him and changed him and packed his diaper bag for the day. We didn't talk much. She wasn't much of a morning person. I knew I was supposed to take Chase over to Melinda and Avery's, because it was Poppy's club day. Poppy asked me if I was going to be home on time today, because she was thinking of fixing pork chops for supper. She didn't often feel like that." For a minute, John David's mouth twisted. "She took Chase in to brush his teeth; he doesn't have many, so it just takes a second." He clamped his lips shut, and his eyes, too, holding the memory in or blocking it out - I wasn't sure which. "Poppy said since she didn't have to get ready until nine, she might get back in bed and snooze awhile longer. Since I was taking care of Chase this morning, I had to leave at seven-forty-five to get to work before nine, so I had to go then. I put Chase in my car - we've got a car seat in both cars - and I dropped him off at my brother's house. You know Avery and Melinda?"
Bryan Pascoe nodded. "I've met Avery," he said. "Go on."
"I talked to Melinda for a minute. Avery had already left for work. Melinda was worried because the sitter was late, and she couldn't leave the kids alone long enough to shower. I drove into Atlanta to work, usual terrible traffic. I got to work right at nine. I worked until about eleven." His faced reddened. "Then I told them I was feeling sick and needed to go home, so I drove back to Lawrenceton. I didn't go home. I went over to Romney Burns's house. She'd taken the afternoon off, too. I've been there ever since I got back to town, which would have been about eleven-forty-five, give or take a little. Traffic was a lot lighter coming back."
This was certainly a simple-enough account.
Bryan took John David through the morning's activities and their timetable once more, quickly. Maybe the contrast was clearer because John David and I were so stunned, but I had to admire the lawyer's clarity and focus.
Then Bryan took my hand, much to my surprise. "And you, young lady," he said gravely, though I was sure he was only a year or two older than I, "tell me what your part in all this was."
Once again, I told him a compressed version.
"The Uppity Women," he said with a smile. "My ex-wife is an Uppity Woman."
By that time, he was shepherding us into the building, and I took a step back. "I'm not going in," I said.
"Of course, you need to get back to the family," Bryan Pascoe said, his voice warm and understanding, but his thick blond eyebrows flew up.
"I need not to go in here with him," I said emphatically, though unclearly. "I'm a widow," I pointed out, and though John David still looked dazed and uncomprehending, Bryan Pascoe immediately grasped my point. Any unmarried woman would be doubly suspect if she accompanied John David on this day, of all days. "Good thinking. I'll talk to you later," he said, and he and John David marched into the complex, ready to plunge into the business of justice.
Since I had to go back to the house and explain all this to John Queensland, I wondered who would have the easier time of it.
On my way back to Mother's, I stopped by the library to explain the situation and beg for some time off. Still in my nice dress, with my good pumps on, I was much admired before the condolences started rolling in. Perry Allison and Lillian Schmidt both gave me hugs, which I appreciated. After I'd accepted the first wave of sympathy, Perry said, "Oh, by the way, there's a young man here waiting for you."
Those words were not exactly the thrill they might have been. "Not my stepson?" I asked, peering in all directions so I could hide if I saw Barrett coming.
"No, no, this one's younger." Perry, who was resplendent today in deep green cargo pants and a chocolate brown shirt, pointed at the magazine area, and I looked at the young man sitting at the round table with a Gaming magazine in front of him. He was easily five nine, and he was broad-shouldered. His teenage-chic clothes had started out expensive, but now they were definitely on the grimy side. His skin was not perfect - teenage spottiness had hit him pretty hard - but it was deeply tan, and his hair had been dyed a bright metallic gold. His face looked familiar; there was something about the nose and mouth that made alarm bells sound in my head.
"I know him," I muttered. "Who is he?"
He glanced up, and his gaze returned to me after passing me over once. He got up slowly, closing the magazine and tossing it back on the rack.
"Want me to stay?" Perry asked as the teenager came over. I didn't answer him, because a hope had begun to grow in me, one I could scarcely bring myself to admit.
"Sis?" the boy said.
Oh my God - his voice had changed.
Peering up at him, I said, "Phillip?"
The next instant, muscular arms lifted me into the air and the oddly familiar face was grinning up at me.
"My brother," I said proudly to the gaping Perry. "This is my brother."
Once Phillip had replaced me on the floor, I pushed my glasses up on the bridge of my nose and grinned back at him.
"Are my dad and Betty Jo here in Lawrenceton?" I asked, amazed that I hadn't known of such a trip.
"Ah, no." He might as well have had the word apprehensive tattooed on his forehead. Hmmm.
My coworker reminded me he was present by making a little noise in his throat. "Phillip, this is Perry," I said, sure I was making Perry's day. The arrival of a long-unseen brother was great news for Lawrenceton's gossip mill.
Perry shook Phillip's hand solemnly, said he was glad to meet any brother of mine, and then found something to do on the other side of the library. Perry was not insensitive to atmosphere. After an awkward moment, I suggested to my brother that we go outside to the employees' parking lot to have a little talk. It was cooler, and gusty; I was sure it was going to rain. Phillip was wearing a tank top under an unbuttoned flannel shirt, and the breeze was way too brisk for his ensemble. His flesh looked goosey.
"I'm truly happy to see you, but you better explain why you're here," I said, trying not to sound too stern.
"Things haven't been going too good at home," he admitted, shoving his hands down in his pockets. He'd hinted as much in his E-mails, so I shouldn't have been surprised.
"Dad couldn't keep his - " I stopped abruptly and substituted a milder phrase. "Dad was not faithful to Betty Jo?"
"Right," my half brother mumbled.
"I guess some things don't change." I tried not to sound bitter. "Listen, Phillip, please tell me they know where you are."
"Ah, not exactly." He tried to smile at me, but it didn't work.
"How'd you get here?"
"Well, a friend of mine's big brother was driving to Dallas, so I told him if he'd take me along, I'd split the gas."
"This brother didn't know how old you are?"
Sure he had. He had helped a fourteen-year-old runaway. Or was Phillip fifteen now? Yes, just barely.
"And after you got to Dallas?"
"I, uh, hitched a ride with a truck driver to Texarkana."
"He was okay?" Phillip wasn't meeting my eyes.
"He was okay. The next guy wasn't." Phillip was just shivering from cold, I hoped. After giving him a good look, I was sure.
I took a deep, deep breath, trying to keep it silent. "Do I need to take you to the doctor?" I asked very gently. "There're lots of specialists in Atlanta; they don't know you or me, and they'd never see us again."
"No," Phillip said, his face brick red. "I get what you're saying, but it didn't come to that. It was pretty intense, though." He may have thought he was smiling, but it was a grimace, compounded of fear, embarrassment, and humiliation.
"Where'd you end up?"
"I just made it partway to Memphis with the bad guy. I got another ride into the city."
"Okay." I was biting the inside of my mouth to keep my face calm. "What then?"
"Uh, I went to the college campus - you know, the University of Memphis? And I found the Student Center, and I read the notices on the bulletin board."
I wondered how he had learned to do that.
"And in those notices, there was one from two girls who needed a guy to ride with them to Birmingham. They were scared they'd have a flat tire or something, and I can at least change a flat tire. I think. Anyway, Britta never had one."
Britta. Hmm. "So they took you as far as Birmingham."
"Yeah." If possible, Phillip's face was an even deeper red. I was willing to bet those girls hadn't known his true age, either, and I was thinking even more grimly that Phillip might need a blood test. "So from Birmingham, I just rode the bus."
"I'm glad you had the money left for that."
"Uh, Britta and Margery chipped in on it."
"You had a lot of adventures," I said, smiling so I wouldn't scream. He was lucky to be alive.
"Yeah. I think, you know, I did okay." He seemed to know that sounding any more boastful than that would get him a good slap on the wrist.
"And all this time your parents haven't known where you were?"
I could not even imagine how they were feeling.
"How long has that been?" I asked in a voice I just barely managed to keep even.
"Uh, let's see. Two and a half days to Dallas, a half day to get the ride with Mr. Hammond, then the ride to Texarkana, where I helped him unload the truck, and then the other guy, the one in the pickup, that lasted about two hours, and I hid in the woods... ."
I could feel all the blood draining from my face, and I sat down on the hood of Perry's car, which was the closest.
"Hey, Roe, don't look so ... It wasn't as bad as you're probably thinking. I'd just... I'd never imagined... He probably wouldn't have actually, uh, forced me... . I just freaked."
"That's okay. That's what people do when they're faced with a scary situation. Hiding was the best way to make sure you were safe," I said reasonably, thinking I would even try calling the Psychic Friends hot line to find out who this individual was who had ripped a hole out of my brother's life. And then I'd rip a hole out of his.
"Now," I said briskly, "I think you've gotten up to four days?"
"I think so. Anyway, I did get a ride with a chartered busload of people who were going to the gambling boats at Tunica - you know, right below Memphis? But I got them to drop me off in Memphis, because I thought I probably had a better chance at getting a ride in a city. And then I met Britta and Margery."
"So, your mom and dad haven't known where you were for six days, give or take a day?"
"Uh, well, I called them, you know."
I closed my eyes. Thank God.
"I called them with my phone card, from pay phones. I'm almost out of minutes on it now. I just told them I was okay. I didn't tell them I was coming to you."
And it had never occurred to them, because they hadn't called me to ask me to be on the lookout. For some reason, that made me angry. My half brother is missing, and my own father can't call me and let me know?
I realized, looking up at his young face, that Phillip was exhausted. Though I hadn't been around for much of Phillip's youth, due to my father's taking him far away from me - on purpose - when Phillip was in elementary school, I was sure that Phillip had had as sheltered and middle-class an upbringing as his parents could provide in Southern California.
"Maybe they'll let you stay for a while," I said. "I sure would like that."
"I'm sorry they wouldn't come to your wedding, or your husband's funeral," Phillip said miserably. "I really liked Mr. Bartell, when I met him. I tried to make them let me come by myself, but they wouldn't listen."
"Hey, bud, that's okay," I said. Of course it hadn't been, but his parents' bad behavior wasn't Phillip's fault. Martin had uncomfortably excused his son, Barrett, who had done pretty much the same thing, but Martin had been quick to become angry with my father and Betty Jo: Of course, he could see that my father had hurt me. Martin and I had stopped in to see them when we'd taken a trip to California. The visit had been very uncomfortable; the only highlight had been seeing Phil-lip.
That had been what - a year and a half ago? I figured Phillip had grown five inches in that time.
"We need to talk a little more about your trip later, and we need to call your folks, and we need to put your clothes in the wash, and you, too. You don't have any other clothes?" I was trying to sound mature and in charge, but I'd used up a lot of whatever authority I possessed when I was dealing with my errant brother-in-law.
"Uh, I left my backpack when I got out of the truck so fast," he confessed, his eyes sliding away.
"Then we'll take care of the clothes situation."
"Uh, Roe, you dating now? Mom said there was something in a gossip column in one of the movie magazines."
"Ugh. I didn't know that. I'm sure not important enough to rate that, so it must be because of Robin Crusoe, the man I'm dating. He's a writer. I knew him a long time ago, and he came back to Lawrenceton a couple of months back and we started going out."
"I read Whimsical Death." That was Robin's nonfiction book, which had made a lot of money and spread his name everywhere. "So I can just hang somewhere else when he's staying over," Phillip told me with a man-of-the-world air.
"We'll talk about that later. It's not going to be a problem. And Robin's out of town right now anyway." But I had to call him, and right away. Robin would be hurt if I didn't tell him about Poppy as soon as possible. "Now, let me go inside and let them know I have to take the rest of the afternoon off, and we'll go over to my new house. I told you I'd moved, right?"
"Okay, then." I still had my purse clutched in my left hand. I dug out my car keys and pointed out the Volvo to my brother. "You go wait in there while I run in for just a second."
"Okay," he said.
I started in the back door of the library, wondering what kind of fool I was to give my car keys to a wandering teenager, and I prayed with all my heart that he would be there when I came back.
Explaining to Sam wasn't easy, but then talking to Sam was becoming increasingly difficult. Sam was getting crankier as he got older, and since he was only in his early fifties, he had a lot of room to spare. He'd lost his perfect secretary a few months before, and he hadn't replaced her. He couldn't find anyone who even gave a hint that someday she might be almost as good as the lamented Patricia. I wondered how Sam's wife was taking his prolonged grief. I didn't know her very well, but Marva had been a junior high algebra teacher a long time, and I didn't think she'd put up with much foolishness.
To my overwhelming relief, Phillip was in the car when I opened the door. Not only was he in the car but he was sound asleep. His head was tilted back on the cushion, and when I slid into the driver's seat, I noticed that Phillip had a few long hairs on his chin. I almost burst into tears, and that would have been terrible. I drove to my house as gently as anyone can drive, and when we got there, I maneuvered my little brother (now only chronologically smaller) into the kitchen from the garage, and then into the guest bedroom. He was just barely awake.
"You get into the shower, and then you climb in the bed. I'll wash your clothes while you're asleep," I said. "I'll even call your mother for you, if that's okay."
"Would you?" Phillip was transparently grateful for that. I probably should not have offered, but I couldn't let them worry a minute longer than necessary about their son, and he was clearly in no shape for an emotional confrontation.
I kept a robe hanging in the closet in the guest room. I pointed it out to Phillip, who looked at it as if he'd never seen such a garment before. I left to give him a little privacy, and in a short time I heard the shower running - and running, and running, and running. Just when I was about to go into the bathroom to see if he'd drowned, the water cut off. I caught a glimpse of Phillip shuffling from the bathroom back into the bedroom, the robe swathed around him. His clothes - and two towels - were in a heap on the floor of the steamy bathroom, and I automatically went through the pockets of his grimy blue jeans so I wouldn't wash anything I wasn't supposed to.
I fished out his wallet, a couple of wadded tissues, a pocketknife, some loose change, and two sealed condoms.
Okay, I was horrified. Legally, my brother couldn't even drive by himself!
I had to sit down and collect myself for a minute. I was reacting as if I were Phillip's mother - and I was old enough to be Phillip's mother - but I wasn't. I was his big sister. Phillip had a perfectly functional mother, who admittedly thought I was the devil incarnate, but other than that, she seemed to be a reasonable woman.
I realized that in all the fluster of his arrival I hadn't asked Phillip exactly why he'd turned up on my doorstep. He'd said that my dad had cheated on his mother, which was all too easy to imagine, but that just didn't seem like a motivation for hitchhiking across the country. I thought something more must have happened for Phillip to taken such drastic action... though it probably hadn't seemed as scary to Phillip as it would to me, I suddenly realized. At his age, maybe Phillip didn't appreciate the evils of the world.
On the other hand, he had discovered at the age of six that bad things could and did happen to him, and I didn't know if that was a lesson that could be forgotten, no matter how young the learner. When he'd lived in Atlanta, I'd kept him for the weekend fairly often, so my dad and Betty Jo could have some couple time. And I'd enjoyed that a lot. But one weekend, Phillip had been abducted while he'd been staying with me, and he would have been killed in a horrible way if I hadn't shown up when I did; actually, if it hadn't been for Robin, Phillip and I both would have been killed. I'd bought us a little time, and the crisis had passed, but since then, my dad and Betty Jo had acted as though I'd caused the incident. They'd maintained that seeing me would further traumatize Phillip, and by moving to California and finding jobs there, they'd made sure I'd have to keep my distance. I'd only renewed un-monitored contact with my brother when he'd gotten his own computer. The first person he'd sent an E-mail to - after about twenty of his best friends - had been me. I'd been so proud.
It was time to face the music, whatever tune might be playing today. I looked up my dad's home number and punched it in.
"Hello?" The voice was Betty Jo's, and she was strung tightly.
"It's Aurora," I said. "I have Phillip."
"Oh thank God!" Betty Jo burst into tears. "Phil, pick up the other phone. Phillip's at your daughter's!"
"Is he okay?" my father asked.
"He seems to be fine. He's asleep right now." I hesitated, then decided Phillip's adventures were his to relate. "I told him I was calling you."
"How did he get there? What - did you ask him to come see you? We checked his computer, and we found out he'd been sending you E-mails."
Strike. I rolled my eyes, though no one was there to get the effect. "Then you know that I didn't invite him here. I would never do that without talking to you first. As far as I can tell, this was completely his idea. He said there was trouble at home." Counterstrike.
There was a long period of silence, way over there in California.
"Well, not to get into it now," my dad began, and Betty Jo said sharply, "He walked in on Phil while Phil was sticking it to another woman. Well, not even a woman. A girl."
This was more than I wanted to know, but it did explain Phillip's extreme reaction. I was willing to bet Phillip knew the girl.
"You two have to work out your own problems. I don't want to hear the graphic details," I said flatly. "Let Phillip stay here for a while, okay? I'd love to have him, and this house is big."
"But you have a boyfriend now," Betty Jo protested.
"If you're accusing me of setting a bad example by perhaps sleeping with my steady friend from time to time, well, I think Phillip already knows about the birds and the bees. Especially in view of what you just told me." Hell, he already engages in sex, I thought.
"He would have this week off for Thanksgiving anyway," Betty Jo said. For once, she sounded subdued. "So, maybe if he could stay for a week... we may work things out, at least decide what we're going to do."
"That might be a good thing," my father said cautiously. "Thanks, Doll."
I hated being called "Doll." But he'd always called me that, and he wasn't going to change now.
"If you need longer, he can go to school here," I said, as if accomplishing that would be a snap of the fingers. Of course, I hadn't the faintest clue how to enroll a teenager for school, but how hard could it be?
"Okay," said Betty Jo. "Okay." She sounded as though she were trying to persuade herself that this was a good idea. "I can't believe he went all the way across the country on his own. When I think of what could have happened to him..."
"Roe, thanks," my father said. For the first time, he talked to me like I was an adult. "I know you'll take care of him. I bet he just needs someone to talk to."
"I'll bet that's it," I said, trying to sound reassuring. "He'll be fine. I'll watch out for him."
"No new murders, right?" my father asked nervously.
Not since this morning.
"No, Dad," I said, as if that was silliest idea I'd ever heard. "Ha ha ha."
"Say hello to your mother for us," Betty Jo said, a sop toward courtesy. "And have Phillip call us himself the minute he gets up."
"He has a lot to answer for," my father said grimly.
"So do you!" Betty Jo told him. "Good-bye, Roe."
I was so glad to end the conversation, I almost danced.