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Page 5

I woke up when my alarm went off the next morning. It was 6:30, and the glass doors onto the patio showed me it was a beautiful day. I felt wonderful for about thirty seconds, until I remembered the events of the previous day, which had been a Monday.

The rest of the week wasn't going to be good.

Look on it as a challenge, I told myself briskly. Something rebellious within me muttered back that it was sick of challenges.

But I was now an official Uppity Woman, and I would not let a bad Monday ruin the rest of my week.

This new point of view got me through my morning shower and my simple hair/makeup/clothes routine. After I'd made my bed, I went out to see what I could do for my company before I left for work. I was only a part-time employee, but today I had to work six hours, and tomorrow, too.

A glance into Phillip's room told me he was still asleep. The Wynns were already up and gone, their bedroom door left half-open. They'd positioned a note where I'd left the key, telling me that they were going out for breakfast, then over to my mother's, and probably from there to the police department.

John David should be with them, and I hoped he had realized that, too. I wondered if the police were going to let them into the house anytime soon. I also wondered if they had arranged for anyone to clean up the mess in Poppy's kitchen. I knew there were professional crime-scene cleanup teams in Los Angeles and other big cities, but there sure wasn't one in Lawrenceton, and I didn't think there was such a company in Atlanta. But if there was, would they come out to Lawrenceton? Wouldn't such a service cost a great deal?

I poured myself a cup of just-perked coffee and buttered my slice of toast, so deep in my thoughts that I hardly noticed what I was doing. I was really hooked on the idea of getting that house cleaned.

I decided I would be willing to pay the fee as my way of easing the burden on my mother's family. How could I find out? My Atlanta telephone book was an old one, scrounged from a friend in the city who'd been about to toss it. I wasn't sure what the Yellow Pages listing would be under. I would call SPACOLEC and ask Arthur if he'd heard about any such service. I wasn't real excited about initiating any contact with Arthur, in case he had a relapse into thinking he was in love with me, but it was probably the quickest way to get that information. I looked up the general number and punched it in. It was very early, but with a murder case going, Arthur would be at his desk, I was fairly sure.

While I was talking to the dispatcher, I spotted a small crumpled wad of paper on my polished wooden floor, under one of the barstools at the breakfast bar. I stooped to pick it up, frowning. I don't like littering, either inside or outside. In fact, I've become kind of a crank about neatness, which my mother thinks is hilarious. While Arthur's extension rang, I flattened the little ball out.

The small piece of paper was a receipt from a gas station, the Grabbit Kwik, which was on the highway between Lawrenceton and the interstate. I shrugged, then walked around the counter so I could toss the slip into the garbage. I was mostly thinking about the phone call.

Then the time printed on the slip registered. Whoever had dropped it had gotten gas the morning before at 10:22, right about when I'd been talking to Poppy on the phone.

My fingers closed around the slip of paper. It had a slick feel, and the wrinkles in it looked gray.

"Hello?" Arthur's voice.

"Arthur, this is Roe."

After a moment's silence, Arthur said, "You call to confess?"

I laughed. I hoped that was the correct response. On the other hand, laughing about my sister-in-law's death was really outrageous. "No, it's not that easy," I said, trying to sound very sober. "I wanted to ask you if you knew of a crime-scene cleanup business in Atlanta? And if I could find someone willing to do that, when could they get into the house?"

"Yes, there's a crime cleanup business there," Arthur said. "The guy who started it up came by the office last week and left some cards. It's called Scene Clean, and this guy named Zachary Lee is the one who owns it. For all I know, he's the sole employee, too. He used to be a lab tech for the Atlanta Police Department."

"Thanks. Can you give me his number?"

Arthur dug up the card and read the information to me.

"Probably later this afternoon will be okay, as far as him getting in," Arthur said. "I think your hiring him is a good idea, if what I've read about crime-scene cleanup teams applies to Zach Lee. It could very well be that John David's insurance will pay for the bill, or maybe crime victims' compensation."

"I never thought of that." I'd made up my mind to shoulder the cost, but if insurance would cover it, all to the good.

"I hope they can get the... well, the stains... out of that rug by the back door," Arthur said.

I found that comment somewhat odd. It was a second before I responded, "The one Poppy liked so much, the one she found at some flea market? Ah ... I guess that would be a good thing. But all I care about is getting John David and Chase back into the house so they can get clothes and things they need."

"Sure." Arthur seemed to be coming out of his little fugue. "Well, let me know how it goes with Zachary Lee."

"Thanks," I said again. "I'll give this man a call after I check with John David." I started to say something about the Grabbit Kwik charge slip, and then I realized that by itself, it was meaningless. So, someone had stopped for gas between Atlanta and Lawrenceton? Lots of people did that every day. I needed to sit down and think of exactly who had been in my house, before this piece of paper acquired any significance.

"Roe, you're not close to John David, are you?"

I thought about it for a few seconds. "Nope, I guess not."

"If you knew something about him, in relation to Poppy's death, you'd tell me, wouldn't you?"

"Sure," I said promptly, before I could think twice. If I held back, it wouldn't be for the sake of John David, but for his father - as it happened, though, my conscience was clear. That's what I told Arthur.

He made a sort of noise in his throat, an unconvinced sound. "I'll let John David know about getting back in the house," he said. I thanked him again for the Scene Clean information, and my mind had already moved on to the slip on the counter in front of me before I hung up the phone, though I reminded myself to go back over that conversation when I didn't have anything else to worry about.

Who'd been in my house yesterday?

Marvin and Sandy Wynn, my brother, Phillip, and Cartland Sewell - the lawyer formerly known as Bubba. Oh, and Avery; he'd come in briefly, too. Could I have acquired the slip somehow? I pick up things all the time, because I hate litter. My purse is always full of other people's grocery store receipts, rubber bands, paper clips - all sorts of detritus that people leave lying around. It was faintly possible that I'd picked up the receipt myself, stuck it in my pocket or purse for later disposal.

But I tended to discount that theory. For one thing, I would not have rolled it into a ball. I would have folded it. That's just what I do. For another thing, yesterday had been kind of a tense day, what with the newness of being an Uppity Woman, Poppy's tardiness, and then the awful shock of finding her body, and I didn't think my mind had even registered litter all day long.

So, most likely, one of the people who'd come into my house had dropped the receipt. And none of them was supposed to have been anywhere around Grabbit Kwik at that hour of the morning. Marvin and Sandy Wynn were supposedly in their retirement condominium, almost three hours away. Melinda was with me. Cartland was in Mecklinburg, making a speech. Avery was - where had Avery been? At work, exactly where he was supposed to be, most likely. At least Melinda hadn't mentioned Avery being scheduled to do anything out of the ordinary.

But without saying anything to anyone else, I needed to check on all these people, just for my own peace of mind. I could think of no reason why anyone would have wanted Poppy dead, not any reason that made sense to me. I didn't really think John David would marry Romney Burns, now that he was a widower, no matter what Romney might imagine. It was somewhat easier to believe Cartland would have divorced Liz to marry Poppy (which reminded me that I was going to have to have another unpleasant conversation today). But I found myself reluctant to believe that such activity would have been reciprocated: Would Poppy have left John David, cleaved to Cartland? That was hard to imagine.

And Poppy's parents - having gone through so much hell to bring her up, it was highly unlikely they'd have snuffed her out.

My brother Phillip had been on a bus. Or so he said. No witnesses, at least none that he could produce quickly, I was sure. But why on earth would he have been interested in killing Poppy, a woman he didn't even know? Besides, he wouldn't have needed a receipt for gas. He had no vehicle.

Avery seemed happy enough with Melinda. Why would he have laid a hand on his sister-in-law?

But just at a surface level, Avery had had a better chance than anyone to be on that road at that time. He had a secretary, but she only came in in the afternoon. Avery shared a suite of offices, and the secretary, with another CPA, but essentially he worked by himself.

Someone had dropped that receipt on my floor, and none of the people who could have done it should have done it. I just didn't want to imagine that one of them was capable of driving a knife into Poppy.

As I dialed the Atlanta number, I realized something else was bothering me, but for the life of me, I couldn't put my finger on it.

"Scene Clean," said a happy male voice.

I introduced myself and explained the situation.

"Of course, I'd be glad to help you out," Zachary Lee said enthusiastically. I wondered if I were his first customer. "But I have to have the home owner's written permission, you understand. And the responsibility for the bill?"

"I'll be responsible," I said firmly. I could ask John David about the insurance coverage some other time. "Mr. Queensland can give you written permission, and I'll meet you there this afternoon at four, unless I call you and tell you otherwise." I gave the cheerful Mr. Lee my phone numbers, house and cell, John David's number, and the address on Swanson Lane.

Phillip staggered into the bathroom as I hung up. I was relieved to see him, because I had to go to work and we had to discuss what he would do while I was gone. I began to make a list while I waited for him to emerge; he seemed to be taking yet another marathon shower.

I scrawled a number of items on an old envelope. I'd number them later. "When Memorial Service or Funeral?" I wrote, and then, "T'giving." Entries under that included, "turkey," "celery," "sweet pot.," "cran sauce." Mother had invited me over to have Thanksgiving dinner with her and John, Melinda and Avery had been scheduled to go to Melinda's parents' home in Groton, and Poppy and John David had been wavering between accepting an invitation from some college friends or throwing in with my mother's plans. Now, of course, all these arrangements would be in disarray. Poppy's murder - and, to a much lesser extent, the unexpected presence of Phillip -  naturally would alter the next few days beyond all recognition. No one in the family would want to think about the holiday, but we would all have to.

I was supposed to work today and tomorrow, though the library would be closed Thursday and Friday. Lawrenceton more or less shuts down on Thanksgiving, though not as much as it used to when I was a kid.

Phillip emerged from the steamy bathroom, wearing the bathrobe again. I was glad to see he looked pretty alert. When I offered toast or cereal, he said he didn't normally eat breakfast right after he rose. I bit my tongue to keep from pointing out he'd been up for a good thirty minutes in the shower, and he poured a glass of orange juice and sat by me on one of the high stools at the counter.

"You look ready for work," he observed. "So, what's my agenda for today?"

"If you left the bathroom in a mess, you need to go in and clean it. Remember, the Wynns are staying here," I said. Phillip looked distinctly alarmed and unhappy at continuing to live in such close proximity to unknown old people who were in the middle of such a crisis. Tough.

"Also," I said, "here is a pad and a pen. There are going to be lots of phone calls today. Please write down each one: the time, the caller, and the message. Here's my phone number at work. Every two hours, call me and let me hear the list. Some of these I'll have to act on pretty quickly. Now, there's a remote possibility people will bring food by here if they hear the Wynns are staying with me. You accept the dish, write down any instructions about heating or refrigerating it, and who brought it."

Phillip nodded. He seemed a little dazed.

"Here's the remote control for the TV. Here's the remote for the DVD player." I went over to the television cabinet and opened a door. "Here are my DVDs." I went into the kitchen, opened a drawer, extracted a key from a plastic tray. "Here's another key to the house. If you leave, please write a note saying where you've gone and when you'll be back. Do you have a watch?"

Phillip shook his head.

"Okay." I handed him a watch that had been Martin's. I'd come across it that morning when I was putting on my makeup. It wasn't an expensive watch; it was the one he'd been wearing when we got married, and I'd given him a fancier one our first Christmas together. Martin had chucked this watch in a drawer and I'd automatically packed it when I moved. It was just a mass-produced watch; there were probably millions identical to it. It was absurd to feel a pang over a bit of assembly-line metal that ran on a battery.

Phillip gave me a sharp look as he slid the watch on his arm. "I won't break it," he said defensively. My face must have been showing more than I'd thought.

"I don't think you will," I said, and hugged him, much to his surprise. "And the world won't end if you do." I hoped I wasn't being too demanding. Not only would someone performing all those little tasks be genuinely helpful; I would know where Phillip was. I'd given him a key because I wanted to show I trusted him. I wasn't sure I really did. I could not stop Phillip if he decided to leave while I was at work, and it would be ludicrous to try to find a baby-sitter for him. No, this was sink-or-swim time for my brother and me.

I just hoped we'd both survive.

Janie Spellman was working the check-in desk when I came out of the employees' lounge, my lipstick fresh and my mind preoccupied. Janie gave me a brilliant smile as she loaded books on the cart. I regarded our newest staff member with both grudging admiration and envy. When Janie had gone to school, she'd learned computer systems as a matter of course, and she could help younger patrons far more knowledgeably than I. But Janie should have gotten a job somewhere else for a couple of years before she came back to Lawrenceton. She was always getting shocked. People who had been her revered elders when she'd been in high school and college were always startling her by checking out reading material that didn't jibe with her idea of what they should be reading. People she'd gone to high school with were not always particularly happy to see her. And children said and did things that could horrify the most jaded librarian, much less a young woman who'd so recently been a child herself.

Janie was also quite anxious about her single status. Though there was no discernable reason for her to be desperate, she was, and spread her nets unwisely. For one thing, Janie had cast her eyes at Perry Allison. Perry was at least fifteen years older, and I knew he was gay, but this was something Janie had not yet figured out - to be honest, it was fairly recent news to Perry himself.

Perry wasn't the only male Janie had set her sights on. Robin Crusoe was another. I was getting a little miffed about that. In fact, I was miffed at this very moment. Robin, who was supposed to be completing his postconvention book tour, was standing with his elbows on the desk behind which Janie stood, and he was smiling at her entirely too broadly. And she was simpering back at him.

I felt a rush of irritation, chased by a big dash of insecurity. I turned on my heel and went back into the employees' lounge. My hands were balled into fists and I was breathing deeply. I was being childish and unreasonable. Jealousy was beneath my dignity, and it was unattractive, too. What was wrong with me? I was one big emotional storm. This truly didn't seem like me, yet I was undeniably enraged. Janie's and Robin's shared smile had given me an utterly baseless sense of betrayal. I was so angry that I wished, not for the first time, that I were a lesbian. But a female couple probably had their share of lovers' spats, too. After all, it wasn't men I was unhappy with; it was vulnerability. I'd just had enough pain for a while.

I knew that I had a better life than maybe 90 percent of the women in the world, and I wasn't trying to be Pitiful Pearl. But after the little hurts of life that almost everyone sustains, I'd more or less just gotten through the staggering shock of losing my husband. More pain was something I hadn't signed up for when I'd succumbed to - okay, welcomed - the revival of my relationship with Robin.

"Eff him," I said. My spine straightened. That felt good. I swung a fist up and shook it. "Eff him." That felt better. I was pleasurably shocked at myself.

"Eff who?" asked my boss.

"Robin," I said after I'd jumped maybe a mile. "He's out there flirting with Janie. I just don't need that today. Actually, I don't need that any day. I need security. I need devotion." I couldn't believe I was saying this to my boss. I had known Sam forever, and I won't say we hadn't experienced some mind-to-mind talks, because we had. But he had never been anywhere close to the top of my list of confidants.

Sam patted me awkwardly on the shoulder. "Sorry about your sister-in-law," he said. I came out of my selfish absorption to register Sam's appearance. He looked awful. He was drawn and pale, and he'd visibly lost weight.

"What's up with you, Sam?" I asked with well-merited concern. I realized for the first time that Sam's problems amounted to more than missing his secretary. Sam looked really sick. In a way, I wasn't surprised.

Sam, who was in the neighborhood of fifty, had to juggle more balls than I could ever keep in the air. The city, the county, the state, the employees, the patrons - all of them had a stake in the library, and all wanted to have their say. The building maintenance, the book budget, hiring and firing . ,. and on the home front, two girls who must be in their early twenties by now, and a wife named Marva, who could do simply anything, which I found almost unforgivable.

"I didn't sleep well," Sam said. Maybe if he hadn't slept well for a month, I might have accepted his appearance, but not after one night. "Marva is stenciling a design around the top of our bedroom walls, which she just finished painting."

See what I mean?

"So I had to sleep in the guest bedroom, and the bed there leaves a lot to be desired. Plus, even with the bedroom door closed, I could still smell the paint, and it just makes me sick."

Marva had been married to Sam for thirty years, so I was willing to bet she knew that. And yet she'd painted the bedroom in November, when the windows couldn't be opened. Big message there.

"I don't expect we can give each other any advice," I said, for lack of anything else to say.

"I guess not," he said. "Good luck to you, and again, I'm sorry about Poppy. She taught with Marva for a while and came over to the house from time to time. I liked her, no matter what anyone said."

That was typical Sam. Mr. Tactful.

I trailed back out into the library, determined to earn my money. I was supposed to be checking people in and out as they used our computers, and giving them extra direction if this was needed. I'd also be filling out the paperwork for our next book order while I sat at the desk. That part was fun, the little gush of excitement at all those wonderful books coming into our library, just waiting to be picked up and read. (See, I really am a librarian at heart.) But someone had to deal with questions like how much would be charged for printing out information our patrons had found on the Internet, or how to find out the greatest ocean depth recorded, or the best way to look up whether dromedaries have two humps and camels one (or vice versa).

Robin was still there, still leaning on the desk. See, this is why I believe in gun control; because if I'd had a gun, I wouldn't have had much control over my actions.

"Roe," he said, aiming his beautiful crinkly smile at me. It would have meant more - in fact, it would have melted my heart - if I hadn't seen him grinning at Janie just moments before. "I canceled the rest of my signings and came home last night."

"Robin," I said coolly. True librarians stay calm in the face of adversity.

He looked considerably taken aback.

"I thought you'd be happier to see me," he said uncertainly. "I thought I'd surprise you."

Janie was checking out books a little farther down the big desk.

"You seem to have found a way to keep busy while you waited," I remarked, and picked up the ringing phone. Porter Ziegler wanted to know how to get scum off the surface of his pond. I told him I'd find out, but I was registering Robin's reaction.

Robin looked a little guilty instantly. Not my imagination, then.

"Just passing the time till you came in," he said. "I know I shouldn't just come in and chatter to the librarians when they're at work. I guess I don't know that many people here in Lawrenceton yet."

And he was in Lawrenceton because of me was the subtext to that subtle plea for sympathy.

"Here I am," I said after considering several possible responses.

"Are you okay?"

He was sounding so sympathetic and caring, I felt like I was being a big idiot. Then Janie, having finished with the patron, sidled over and reached across the desk to finger Robin's coat, which was a very nice suede. In what I could only characterize as a coo, Janie said, "You're so snuggly in that coat!"

Gun control, I thought. Gun control.

"Let me leave you two to your discussion," I said lightly. I smiled at both of them with all the warmth of an alligator, then went to ask the reference librarian if she could find out about pond-scum removal. She thought for a minute and then gave me the phone number of the county agent. Porter Ziegler would surely find the answer from that individual, a man who seemed to know everything about the out-of-doors.

When I went back to the main desk, Robin was gone. Janie, looking a little sullen, was checking out some books for a bearded man who had made the library his second home. We had often speculated about Horton Aldrich. He was clean, and he never smelled, but he was noticeably shabby, and gaunt. The address he'd listed when he'd gotten his library card had turned out to be the address of the local Salvation Army store. Mr. Aldrich was prone to laugh to himself while he read the paper, which was maybe not so odd, considering the state of the world. He seldom talked directly to anyone, staff or patron, but he was nearly always through the doors right after they were unlocked, and he trotted out of them when the closing employee walked toward them with the key.

Today, Mr. Aldrich seemed to be in a jittery mood. I wondered what had happened to upset him. But he was so peculiar, I would have asked about his well-being only if he'd been bleeding or sobbing. My policy - my chickenhearted policy -  about Mr. Aldrich was, Let him be. I always tried to smile at him, I tried not to look nervous when he decided to have a conversation with me, and I made sure no other patron hogged the Atlanta paper, thus preventing Mr. Horton from reading it right away, because I'd noticed that really made his day bad.

Everyone in the world wanted to use our computers today, and the phone rang every time I put it down. I got about halfway through filling out the book order, when it should have taken me thirty minutes to do the whole thing. Phillip called at eleven o'clock, right on time, to tell me who'd phoned the house. He'd met Sandy and Marvin Wynn, who had come in briefly to retrieve an address book. Kind people had dropped off a cold-cut platter so the Wynns could have sandwiches whenever they were hungry, and a pie, though Phillip anxiously told me he didn't know what kind it was. But he swore he had the name and a description of the dish written down.

"You better have a sandwich and a piece of pie. Then you'll know what kind it is," I said.

"Shouldn't I save all this for Mr. and Mrs. Wynn?"

"Honey, I would say 'Sure' if I had any idea they were going to be eating, or caring what they ate," I said. "And you know there's no way two skinny older people like the Wynns are going to eat a whole platter of cold cuts, or a whole pie."

"Okay, that'll be lunch for me."

"Good. Who's called?"

There was a long list, including my mother (naturally), Melinda (no surprise), and Sally Allison, my friend, who was also a newspaper reporter. (Maybe I should say Sally Allison, the newspaper reporter, who was sometimes also my friend. That was definitely more accurate.) I remembered that I'd called Sally to ask her out to lunch, and I'd left a message for her to call me back. Cara Embler, Poppy's back-fence neighbor, and Teresa Stanton, president of the Uppity Women, had also tried to reach me. And, to my surprise, so had Bryan Pascoe.

Phillip seemed to be pleased that he'd been useful, and he was also happy to have HBO and MTV and lots of food. When I asked him about the state of the bathroom, there was a long moment of silence.

"Um, it'll be picked up within about ten minutes," he said defensively.

"Okay," I said, reminding myself again that I was not his mom. However, I was his older sister, and he needed to do what I asked of him. But for now, I backed off.

"I hope it's okay that I made a long-distance call on your phone?" he asked.

"Did you call your mother?"

"Okay, make that two long-distance calls."

"You called your mother and who else?"

"Um, Britta - you know, the girl who gave me a ride?"

I tried to give a mature, balanced answer. "Hell no" would not do. "Phillip, unless you're calling your parents, I don't think you should run up my phone bill," I said, keeping my voice calm and even.

"Hey, if I had any money, I'd pay you back!"

Okay, hostility alert.

"I know you would." Keep the voice calm and even, Roe. "But since you don't, you'd better hold off on the phone calls. Does Britta have an E-mail address?"


"Okay, fine. E-mail her to your heart's content, but don't visit any Web sites you have to pay for."

After a silence, Phillip said, "Okay, I'll do that from now on."

I smiled at the patron standing at the counter, who beamed back. So that was a double-purpose smile. I was really pleased at ending the conversation with Phillip on a good note.

I noticed that Janie was staying away from me, which made me happy. I figured she wasn't as oblivious as she seemed. Perry came in to begin his work hours, and he gave me a pat on the shoulder.

"Sorry about Poppy," he said. Perry had had a troubled life, but he seemed to have found his foothold now. To my surprise, I'd become his buddy, especially since his recent acknowledgment of his sexual orientation. I felt a little uncomfortable in the role, but I was so happy for Perry - and for his mother, Sally - when I watched his attitude grow more positive and cheerful, his demeanor more confident, I became resigned to assuming it.

"Had a great date last night," he said casually but very quietly.


"Yes," he said. "We went to the movies."

We talked about the film they'd seen, without Perry telling me his date's name. That was the norm in our conversations.

About fifteen minutes later, Perry's mom showed up. My friend Sally, who had always been incredibly put together, was beginning to look older. Although her hair color had once been easy to accept as natural, now that seemed increasingly unlikely. I didn't think she'd gained weight, but what she had was redistributing. She'd saved up for a face-lift, much to my surprise, but I had to wonder if she'd been to the right doctor. Her face looked smooth all right. But somehow, her skin didn't look like real skin.

Well, bless her heart. Sally had had a hard life, and she was doing her best.

"Son," she said coldly, looking at Perry.

"Hey, Mom," he said.

Uh-oh, trouble in paradise.

Sally asked me if I was ready to go to lunch. It was about 11:15, early for lunch.

"I didn't know we had a date," I said. "I called you to ask you out for your birthday, but we didn't ever get to set a date and time." Sally stared at me blankly. I became flustered. "Did I just forget? I can't believe it! I don't think I've ever just out-and-out forgotten a lunch date before." I rummaged around in my memory, trying to dredge up any conversation I'd had recently with Sally.

"Didn't we set up lunch for today when we talked yesterday?" Sally looked as surprised as I was.

"Sally, we didn't talk yesterday." I was sure of that. "I called you at work. You weren't at your desk. I left a voice-mail message."

"Of course we talked," Sally said. She looked more upset than the situation warranted. "I called you here, and you told me we would go to lunch on Tuesday, that you had something you wanted to tell me."

"Sally, that was weeks ago," I said, finally recalling the conversation. "That was right after I'd bought the new house, and I wanted to tell you I was moving."

Sally looked angry and frightened.

I turned to look at Perry, just because I had to put my eyes somewhere, and I couldn't bear to look at Sally. What on earth was happening?

Perry's face gave me a big hint.

"But today would be great," I said brightly. "Just let me go get my purse. I'll bet you did call, and I just got so upset with everything that's been happening to my family that I got all mixed up. You know me," I babbled on, walking rapidly back to the employee lounge. "I can't keep anything straight to save my soul."

I had planned on going home to lay eyes on my brother. I didn't think it was such a great idea, leaving him by himself all day. I wondered if I could combine two events in one.

I got my purse from my locker and went back out to the checkout desk, to find Sally glaring at Perry, who was looking miserable and defiant.

"I guess you know my son thinks he's gay," Sally said to me after we got in my car.

"Yes," I said cautiously.

"I must have been a terrible mother. I guess I shouldn't have divorced Steve. Or maybe Paul." Sally had been married to both Allison brothers. I'd hardly known Steve, but Paul had been a mine of emotional problems.

"No, I think you did the right thing there," I said, trying to sound calming and positive. This wasn't easy. "And I think you tried as hard as you could to be a good mother. Perry being gay doesn't mean you were a bad mother."

"I got him through the emotional problems and the drug abuse," she said plaintively. "It seems to me it ought to be time for him to settle down like everyone else."

I was speechless. Since Perry had discussed the orientation he'd finally revealed to himself, I had been wondering if maybe his emotional upheavals and substance abuse had been attempts to obscure it from himself. I had no idea what to say to Sally.

"Perry's a good guy," I told her. "He's well into adulthood, and he has to make his own life. You know he loves you."

Those were true things. I wasn't sure that they all tied together, but Sally seemed to gain some comfort.

She began to talk about other topics, and everything Sally said was absolutely lucid and intelligent. I began to wonder if that episode in the library had really happened.

I invited Sally in to meet my brother, and she looked over the house with interest while I talked to Phillip.

"That Pascoe guy called again," Phillip said. My brother seemed to be getting a little restless, which was what I had feared. He'd caught up on his sleeping and eating, he'd watched television and answered the phone, and now boredom was setting in.

I thought hard while I sat there, supposedly studying the list of callers. Phillip had spiky, tight handwriting, but it was legible after you'd looked at it for a minute.

I got out the Lawrenceton phone book and looked up a number I'd called several times before, but always in an official capacity. Josh Finstermeyer answered the phone, which was lucky for me.

"Josh, this is Ms. Teagarden," I began.

"I don't have a single overdue book!" Josh said anxiously. "I swear!"

"I know that," I said, trying not to sound irritable. "I have a favor to ask. If your mother doesn't have anything for you to do today, that is." Parental tasks took precedence over anything else.

"No, ma'am, my mom's at work anyway," Josh said. He sounded curious.

"You have a car, right?" He'd just earned the right to drive by himself.

"Yes, ma'am." Now he was even more curious. The good thing about Josh, whom I'd known from birth, was that he was a voracious reader. The bad thing was that he forgot to return books. We'd had our ups and downs.

"My brother is here with me, and I need to send him shopping," I told Josh. "I have to go back to work, so I was hoping you could take Phillip to the grocery store and to Wal-Mart. And if there's anything on at the Global you haven't seen already, that would be okay, too."

"So who's paying?" Josh was nothing if not businesslike.

"Gas money and movie money."

"Done. How old is this dude?"

"He's fifteen," I said.

"He's not weird looking, right?" Obviously, Josh wanted to know if Phillip was going to be an embarrassment.

"Not at all," I said gravely. "In fact, you might want to bring your sister." Josh had a twin sister, Jocelyn, called Joss. She wasn't much of a reader, unlike her brother, but she had seemed okay when she was in the library doing research for school.

"Okay. When?"

"Anytime. You know where I live? On McBride?"

"Yes, ma'am. Where's your brother from?"

"The Los Angeles area," I said grandly.

"Oh. Cool."

"So I'll leave him the money."


Of course Phillip had been listening to my conversation, and he seemed half-excited and half-scared at the idea of spending the rest of the afternoon with kids his own age who didn't know him. I could understand that. But I knew what Phillip was capable of - taking off cross-country alone - and I wanted him busy. I peeled some money out of my purse, and while Sally and Phillip talked about southern accents, I worked on a grocery list.

After Phillip vanished into the bathroom to spruce himself up, Sally and I made sandwiches from the cold-cut tray, which had enough processed meat and cheese for maybe ten people. I rummaged in the refrigerator for mayonnaise, mustard, and pickles; meanwhile, Sally was being complimentary about Phillip's manners and looks. We had a pleasant conversation while we ate, though it was strangely nonspecific. I noticed that Sally said things like "my boss" for Macon Turner, whom I knew well, and "last week" instead of Wednesday or Thursday. But this was hardly conclusive. I was just thinking maybe I had imagined Sally's earlier reality blip, when she said, "I really ought to be getting back to work." We had put all the food away, and I fished my keys out of my purse.

"Okay," I said. I needed to be getting back to work, too. "Where's your car?"

Sally's face went blank.

For a moment, I thought she just didn't understand me. "I mean, is it at the newspaper, or did you drive down to the library?" I asked.

For one horrible moment, Sally looked frightened.

"Oh, just take me back to the library," she said with a nonchalance assumed so swiftly and smoothly that I almost didn't catch that moment. If my back had been turned, I would have swallowed her act.

Sally really didn't know where her car was.

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