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Page 6

I had taken a circuitous route to make sure Sally's car was indeed at the library. It was, and I dropped her off right by it with some relief. I watched her unlock it and climb in the driver's seat. I wondered what to do, and then I realized that it wasn't up to me to do anything. This situation was Perry's responsibility, and all I could do was be a friend to him so he could talk if he needed to.

I patted him on the shoulder when I passed him in the employees' lounge, and he looked up at me and nodded, a short, jerky nod of acknowledgment.

"I made an appointment with Dr. Zelman for her next week," he said. "She tries to cover it up, and she's pretty good at it, but it's getting worse and worse."

There really wasn't anything else to say.

The two remaining hours of work flew by. There were lots of people coming in and out, lots of computer use, and the book order to complete. When it was time for me to clock out, I was actually glad. There were so many ways for me to go, I couldn't pick one.

My plans for the rest of the afternoon took an unexpected turn when I went to the employee parking lot and found Bryan Pascoe leaning on my car. His office was within easy walking distance of the library; it was in the old, ambience-laden, inconvenient Jasper Building, which also held Cartland Sewell's office. So it had been easy for Bryan Pascoe to get where he was. The question was why he was there.

"Ms. Teagarden," he said.

"Hello, Mr. Pascoe," I said, and even I could hear the question clearly in my voice. It was a relief not to have to tilt my head back to look Bryan Pascoe in the eyes.

He held out his hand, and I shook it. He had fine bones. "Please call me Bryan," he said politely.

"Bryan," I murmured, and retrieved my hand. "Aurora," I said after a moment.

He nodded.

"My brother, Phillip, said you tried to call me? I would have returned your calls." I wanted to be sure Bryan Pascoe marked the fact that he was pushing.

"Yes, but I wanted to talk to you face-to-face."

"All right," I said hesitantly when he'd been at a full stop for a long moment. "Did you want to go to your office?"

"Can we walk around the block? I've been shut in my office all day."

It was brisk, but not truly cold. "Certainly," I said after an uncertain pause. What the heck was going on here? "My legs are short, I don't go at a very quick pace." Robin always seemed to be two paces ahead of me. Thinking about Robin instantly made me feel bad.

"Your legs are fine," he said, again catching me off balance, and off we went.

"Has something come up about John David?"

"Of course I've talked to Miss Burns. For the moment, she backs up John David a hundred percent. She says he was doing legal work for her."

I glanced sideways at Bryan, and he smiled at me. He had gleaming white teeth. "She's been drawing up her will, she says," Bryan added in an absolutely neutral way.

"If Poppy were alive, Romney Burns'd need it." I found myself smiling back.

"That's interesting. Did you see your sister-in-law as a jealous woman?"

I mulled that over. "I don't think she would have wanted to be humiliated, if John David decided to divorce her, or something about his little relationships became flagrant. Like him taking Romney to the company Christmas party, or something like that," I said finally. "I guess that's different from being gut-jealous."

"How do you feel about that?" the lawyer asked.

I felt like that was a strange question.

I stopped and faced him. Luckily, we were on the sidewalk by the side of the little downtown movie theater, and no one was going in or out at the moment.

"What difference does that make?" I could feel my eyebrows drawing together in a frown.

"Personal curiosity," he said.

"I don't know why you want to know." But I could see no reason to refuse to tell him, either. "I thought it was really... distasteful," I said, selecting the mildest word that would fit. "Though I'm not an angel myself, for sure."

"Why are you giving me your opinion in such a tentative way? You don't have to attach disclaimers."

"I don't know you. For all I know, you cheat on your wife every day," I said bluntly. "I hate to sound holier-than-thou."

"Why did you call me yesterday?"

"John David thought of you. You're the best, I hear."

"I am, Aurora."

I felt like I was missing something here. "I'm glad to know you're so confident," I said a little dubiously.

"I was glad to hear your voice on the phone yesterday. I've had my eye on you for quite some time."

"You think I've done something illegal?"

"No, I want to date you."

"I thought you were married, Bryan," I said, genuinely astonished. Come to think of it, he had mentioned "ex-wife" yesterday.

"I was, for five years. We got divorced over a year ago."

"Uh-huh," I said, feeling like he'd just smacked me in the head with a dead fish, or something equally startling. "Well, Bryan, I'm real flattered, but I've been dating Robin Crusoe."

"I know." He smiled again. His smile managed to be confident, predatory, and hopeful, all at the same time. "But my sources tell me he's been flirting with Janie Spellman."

"Ouch," I said sharply. "That was below the belt. Who's your source?"

"I'm not bound by law to cover for her. My source is Janie Spellman herself, who is my cousin once removed."

"Janie is not too particular about whom she flirts with."

"I'm sorry you're angry, but you can't deny it," Bryan said unequivocally.

"I don't have to reply any way at all, deny or admit or any which thing." I glared up at him. "In fact, this part of our conversation is over." Suddenly, I thought of the gas station receipt in my purse. I couldn't let anything slip by just because I was irritated with Bryan. "Now, I need to talk business."

"Talk away." If I'd in any way ruffled Bryan, he wasn't letting it show.

I explained about finding the receipt that morning, about its significance, and told him the names of the people who'd been in my house. Then I looked at my watch and exclaimed, "Oh no! I have to be at Poppy's right now!"

"What for?" Bryan had listened to my account very carefully, which had made me feel better about him.

"The Scene Clean guy is supposed to be at John David and Poppy's house," I explained. "Someone called from SPACOLEC to say the house had been... well, released. So I called Zachary Lee and confirmed."

"I need to see the crime scene anyway. Can I come with you?"

"I guess so," I said ungraciously. We walked back to the library parking lot and I unlocked my Volvo. Bryan talked about local politics all the way over to Swanson Lane. I felt the touch of his attention every time he looked at me, and he looked at me a lot. My cheeks were hot by the time we parked behind a bright yellow van with scene clean and a logo on the side. At least there were no macabre graphics. I fussed with my keys, yanked at my purse, anything to avoid looking into the eyes of the man beside me. We got out of the car and stood at the end of the walkway leading up to the front door. A young man with Asian features was waiting for us. He was absorbed in a book.

I was nervous about going into the house again. "I'm glad Arthur released the house," I said, just to say something.

"I'll bet Arthur has had a rough couple of days," Bryan said, clearly inviting me to ask why.

"Any murder investigation ..." I said slowly. "But that's not what you're implying, is it?"

"I'm sure you have heard that Poppy used to see him. A couple of years ago?"

I thought I was going to pass right out. I could actually feel the blood rush from my head. Bryan put his left arm around me and held on to my right hand with his.

"Good God," I said, trying to gain some time. "But then he should be the last man on earth to be involved in investigating her death!"

Bryan said, "Do you feel all right? Wasn't he your fianc¨¦ at one time?"

"No," I said, shaking my head to clear it out. "No, we never... Did you do that on purpose? Spring that on me? Why?"

"You did date him."

"About a million years ago. Way before I married Martin." I gave him an incredulous look.

"I wondered if Arthur had a thing for the women in your family."

"You're confusing me." I stepped away from his arm and walked up the sidewalk to the door, just as I'd done yesterday. I faltered for a moment as that comparison hit me, then picked up my stride.

Bryan was beside me by then. "Hello," he said to the young man waiting on the ornamental bench outside Poppy's front door.

"Zachary Lee?" I asked as he rose. Zachary Lee was much taller than I'd expected, maybe six feet, and looked like a very happy mix of Caucasian and Asian.

"That's me," he said happily. "Zachary Lee, Scene Clean, at your service. I'm a certified crime-scene cleaner, and I've had extensive experience with the Atlanta Police Department. I took a course to learn how to do this properly, and I follow all safety and health regulations."

He beamed at us. Apparently, Zachary Lee enjoyed his work.

"Did the police give you the okay?" I asked.

"Yes, ma'am, and Mr. Queensland, the husband of the deceased, gave me his permission to do the job. By the way, he said to tell you thanks." Zachary's teeth were perfectly straight and white, and his eyes tilted pleasantly when he smiled, which seemed to be most of the time.

"I'm Aurora Teagarden," I said, "and this is Bryan Pascoe, Mr. Queensland's lawyer."

"Pleased to meet you" was said all around.

"Let me just show you the, um, site," I said, fumbling with the words. "Mr. Pascoe wants to have a look before you clean it. I'll wait here until you're through, then lock up after you."

For the first time, Zachary Lee looked less than happy, probably at the idea of us sitting around the crime scene while he worked. But I wanted to see him off the premises, and just generally keep an eye on him. The young man was probably perfectly all right, but we knew very little about him.

The house had been closed, and it smelled less than wonderful. Poppy would have been embarrassed. There was the awful smell of blood, and the more mundane odor of a much-used litter box. Once again, I was distressed that Moosie hadn't been found. Somehow, the cat's disappearance was an insult to Poppy.

"Tell me what you did yesterday when you came in," Bryan said, and I thought maybe he was distracting me. I was grateful.

"I went upstairs," I said. "No one was there. I came back down and went toward the kitchen." I guided him down the short hall into the kitchen, where everything was the same as it had been, except for fingerprint powder. We stepped around the counter, and I waved a hand weakly toward the spot where Poppy had lain. The gesture was hardly necessary. The blood was a powerful testimony. In fact, seeing it like this - dried and dark - made its impact somehow more violent.

While Zachary Lee went over to the sliding glass door to have a look outside, I felt that my head was buzzing just a bit. I put a hand out to Poppy's breakfast bar, which was laden with bright cookbooks and dried flowers, to steady myself.

Instantly, Bryan steered me out of the kitchen/dining room and into the living room. Instead of depositing me on the couch, he put his arms around me. And he didn't say a word. His left hand stroked my hair.

I really liked that silence. Robin, since words were his livelihood, never quite seemed to know when they weren't necessary.

"So, there's nothing upstairs?" Zachary Lee asked from the doorway.

I began to pull away, but Bryan Pascoe's arms tightened. "The fingerprint dust," he said. "No blood."

"Okay," the cleanup guy said, happy once again. "Why don't you two sit out by the pool? It's a beautiful day. I've got to go suit up and bring in my gear."

Bizarre as it seemed at first, that turned out to be excellent advice. As we walked out the front door and around to the gate at the side of the house (rather than crossing the bloody threshold of the sliding glass door), Bryan gave me rather unnecessary help. I have to confess I enjoyed it, after coping with Phillip and the assorted shocks of the past twenty-four hours. Sometimes I just didn't understand myself. Half of me wanted to stand upright and independent, and half of me wanted to lean against someone stronger. Possibly the answer could be found in a good partnership, in which one could take turns leaning.

In one of those unexpected little moments of clarity that make life so frightening, I realized (as I sat by the pool of a murdered woman, being comforted by an attentive lawyer) that my first marriage had not been such a partnership.

"All right?" Bryan was saying anxiously.

"Yes, I'm fine." I sounded like a polite robot. I shook myself a little. "Thank you for asking."

At that awkward juncture, another presence made itself known. Teresa Stanton, Uppity Woman par excellence, swept through the patio gate.

"Poor Aurora!" Teresa called. Teresa was a terrifying woman. I hadn't known that a pantsuit with matching jacket was the appropriate outfit to wear to the house of a murdered woman; until I saw Teresa, that is. She wore one, dark burgundy with golden brown touches, and so that was exactly the right thing. Teresa's dark hair was beautifully cut and blow-dried, so the short sides fanned back from her face, her makeup was discreet, and her teeth were perfectly white. Intelligence gleamed through her contact lenses.

"Teresa," I muttered. Bryan, of course, stood. I suddenly remembered that the woman to whom Bryan had been married was the newly rewed Teresa Stanton. Teresa Pascoe Stanton.

"I've had the devil's own time catching up to you," Teresa said.

I hardly felt I needed to apologize. "This has been a very busy day," I said noncommittally.

"Oh, of course! No doubt! Hello, Bryan." Teresa made sure we knew she was adding the greeting as an elaborate afterthought.

"Teresa, good to see you," he said, his voice cool and un-inflected.

I tried real hard to think of a good excuse to get up and run away, but none popped to mind.

"What's that man doing there?" Teresa asked, distracted by Zachary Lee, who appeared to be wearing a space suit. He was working right inside the sliding glass door.

"He's cleaning up the blood," I said. Of course, that didn't faze Teresa.

"I'm so glad you were able to find someone who does that sort of thing," she said conversationally. "Where's your Mr. Crusoe?"

"I don't know." I refused to explain or elaborate. I wondered what she would do if I asked her where Shorty Stanton was. I was so powerfully tempted that I actually opened my mouth, but then common sense prevailed.

"Of course, all the women in the club want to know what we can do to help," Teresa said.

"Maybe Melinda needs some baby-sitting," I suggested. "Since she's got her own two kids and Poppy's boy, too."

Teresa wrote this down on her little pocket notebook. "What else?" she asked. "We've already taken food to your mother's house."

"I'd rethink backing Bubba Sewell for representative."

"Do you think he is involved with Poppy's death?" Teresa was nothing if not direct, if she thought directness would serve her purposes best.

"No, actually, I don't, but I think his reputation may take a beating if the investigation ends in a trial."

"So it's true: He was messing around with Poppy." Teresa looked very cross.

I didn't meet her eyes.

"Someone who can't keep his pants zipped," Teresa said flatly. "We don't want that in a public servant. I think we've all seen enough of that."

"True," I said.

We all fell silent, and in that sudden hush I could hear the splash of the pool across the privacy fence. Some music was playing, too; it sounded like Handel.

"Cara!" Teresa called. "Are you doing your laps? Can you take a break?"

"Is that Teresa?" a high voice hooted back.

"Yes, girl. Come over here!"

There was a little-used gate in the high privacy fence between the two properties. It made a high-pitched squeak as Cara Embler pushed it open. Cara was pulling off a swim cap as she walked toward us, and she'd wrapped a big towel around her because it was a brisk, cool day. Her hairstyle had been chosen to complement her athleticism; she wore her blond hair (now mixed with gray) short and straight. Cara had been a champion swimmer in high school and college, and someone had told me that she was training for a seniors competition. Lawrenceton people were bemused by Cara - swimming in all temperatures, goal-oriented - but they respected her dedication and her excellent physical condition. Married to a cardiologist who seemed always to be on call, Cara had a lot of time to shape as she pleased.

Though the Emblers had a son, who was studying to be an environmental engineer or something equally laudable, he was in college in northern California and seldom came home. So Cara swam, ran, dabbled in political causes, tutored kids at the junior high, and organized the annual fund-raising drive for the United Way. She had a couple of dogs, schnauzers; she was famous locally for going to any lengths to help the pound raise money, and she was ferocious about turning in animal abusers.

I couldn't understand why she hadn't been on the list for Uppity Women years ago, but I figured that by now she should be fairly close to the top of the list.

"How's John David?" Cara asked me. She plopped down into one of the lawn chairs, draping her head and neck with yet another towel. The day was cool enough that I would have been shivering had I been wet, but Cara seemed impervious to the temperature.

"About like you'd expect." Actually, I hadn't seen John David since yesterday, and I had no idea how he was holding up. But somehow, that didn't seem the right thing to confess. I was a little surprised that Cara asked. I hadn't been aware she'd ever had a conversation with John David.

"This is just awful, and in the house right behind me," Cara went on.

I hadn't thought of that. I would sure be scared, too. In fact, I'd be shaking in my shoes. But Cara seemed concerned, not frightened.

"Did you hear anything peculiar?" Teresa asked.

Cara, who was somewhere between forty and fifty, shrugged her muscular shoulders. "No, the day was just as usual. Swam in the morning, decorated the house for Thanksgiving, went to lunch with a friend, came back, did my second set of laps -  that's when I heard a lot of coming and going over here - and then in the late afternoon, I made plans for a Christmas party my husband and I are giving."

I was sure that Cara Embler's plans for a party would be somewhat more sophisticated and complex than mine would be. Probably the guests would be more sophisticated, too, if they were from her husband's workplace. Did you entertain cardiologists and hospital administrators the same way you did, oh, say realtors and librarians? The wine would have to be better for the hospital people... .

"Aurora," Teresa was saying none too gently. "Are you listening to me?"

"No," I said. I saw Bryan turn hastily to one side to conceal a smile. Maybe I had been a tad blunt. "Sorry, I was drifting," I murmured. "What were you saying?"

"I was reminding Cara that she was next on the list."

The day after Poppy had died.

Teresa was not Ms. Sensitive, but this was callous, even for her. We all regarded her in a long moment of silence.

"What?" she said.

"The circumstances take most of the zest out of becoming an Uppity Woman," Cara said finally, looking past Teresa's shoulder as she spoke. "Give me a call to let me know the time and place. If you leave it on my machine, I'll write it down. I can't remember anything if you tell me away from a pad and pencil."

"I know how that is," Teresa agreed. "I live by my Day Planner." She was quite oblivious to her offense.

"Who on earth is that?" Cara asked. She, too, had caught a glimpse of Zachary Lee in his space suit.

Bryan took on the duty of explaining, What a long day it had been. And there was more to come. But I roused myself to ask Cara if she'd seen Moosie.

"I'll keep an eye out for him," she promised. "He's a cute cat. I personally don't believe in declawing, but I know the rationale was that declawing would keep him from climbing the fence and wandering the neighborhood. I guess Poppy's heart was in the right place."

"She didn't have Moosie declawed," I told her. "She adopted him like that. He was in the animal shelter. Just give me a call if you catch sight of him. I know John David would like to know Moosie is safe." If John David had had a chance to think about the cat at all: In his place, I wasn't sure I would.

Cara excused herself and went back to her side of the fence. Before she left, she glanced once more at Zachary Lee, who'd opened the sliding door to clean its runners.

"You know," Teresa said in the hushed voice you reserve for passing along scandal, "Stuart Embler used to drop by to see Poppy before he headed home, at least before Poppy had the baby."

I hadn't heard Cara splashing in the water, and I hoped she was not standing right on the other side of the fence, listening. To my relief, I heard her dogs barking as she slid open her own glass patio door. They were welcoming her back into the house with rapture, it sounded like. Maybe I should get a dog, I thought. Then I thought about what Madeleine would do to a dog, and I canceled the idea.

Bryan had a certain amount of distaste in his face as he looked at his former wife, but he also looked interested. "I wonder where Stuart was yesterday around eleven," he said.

"That should be easy enough to find out. But I'd be extremely surprised if Stuart had anything to do with this. His affair with Poppy was stale, and he wouldn't care if there was a little scandal anyway. Cardiologists can call the shots. I mean, if you had a sick heart, and this guy was the best chance of your surviving, would you care if you heard he'd had an extramarital roll in the hay?"

I could see Teresa's point.

"By the way, Aurora, speaking of extramarital affairs," Teresa began, and my eyes fixed on her. "Rumor has it that you saw someone leaving this house yesterday as you pulled up."

How the hell had such a story started making the rounds?

"I'll bet it was a man. Or the wife of some man she'd been carrying on with." Teresa's face was avid.

"No," I said, my voice as cold as a Tastee-Freez Coke slush. "That is not true."

"Well, my goodness, I'm sorry, I didn't realize I was hitting a nerve. We all figured you'd about got this solved."

I don't think I blinked at all as I glared at her.

Bryan said, "Isn't there somewhere you need to be, Teresa?"

She stopped dead, her mouth open.

"You've come by, you've given your condolences, and you've gotten some suggestions of ways the Uppities can help. I'm sure you have another errand or appointment?"

"I do need to stop by the store, and phone the committee members," she said slowly. Her face was red. "Good-bye, Aurora."

Gosh, I just loved seeing Teresa upbraided. Not the most pleasant side of my character, I'm afraid. "Good-bye," I said politely and distantly, and Bryan stood as Teresa did, then opened the gate to the front yard for her.

"She can't help it, you know," he said when he sat in the chair beside mine.

"I realize that she has many fine qualities."

He raised one eyebrow.

"She runs the Uppity Women smooth as a whistle," I told him. "She's organized and focused, and we do a lot of good under her leadership."

"I was married to her. I know just how organized and focused she can be."

"You said you've been divorced for a year?" Was it tacky to mention that?

"She married Shorty Stanton about seven months ago."

"He works at one of the banks, right?"

"He's the president of Southern Security," Bryan said a little dryly.


"Yes, big money."

I forbore remarking that Bryan himself couldn't be hurting for a healthy cash flow, unless he had a secret vice like gambling or drugs.

"Tell me about the car." His voice was quiet.

I stared at the crouching, dim figure of the crime-scene cleaner. He was working on the glass again now. I considered and discarded several responses.

"I didn't see any car," I said very carefully. "But I did find evidence that someone had been here before we got here."

"You know who it was," Bryan said.

I looked at him sideways. "No wonder you have such a good reputation as a lawyer."

"It's deserved, I promise you. Who was it?"

"I can't tell you that right now."

"Do you care more about this person than about your sister-in-law?"


That took him aback, but the lawyer rallied.

"You don't trust me?"

"I told you about the receipt," I remarked mildly. "And I'll tell you something else."

He turned his hand palm up, meaning, Give.

"Someone's been in the house since yesterday."

"This house?" He pointed at it, startled.


"How do you know?"

"The upstairs curtains are closed. They were open yesterday when I was up there."

Bryan stared at the curtains in the master bedroom as if they could tell him why they were pulled together. "Maybe the police closed them last night, so no one could see what they were doing," he suggested.

I shrugged. "Maybe."

Bryan seemed to give up. "Let's go check it out. I believe the man is telling you he's finished."

In fact, Zachary Lee had emerged from the house, unsuited, looking cheerful as ever. "I've got the rug rolled up and in my van; here's a receipt," he said. "I'm going to take it back to the shop and work on it. Everything else is done. You'll need to call a regular housecleaning service to get everything else back to normal."

I could feel that little frown of confusion contracting my brows. "Excuse me?"

"The upstairs. I went up to clean up the fingerprint powder."

"What about the upstairs?" I cast a sideways glance at Bryan.

"This wasn't a homicide during a burglary?"

"You had better show us what you mean," Bryan said.

This time, I walked through every room of the ground floor, and it all looked normal. Upstairs, though, was a different story. The room that had received the most attention was the master bedroom. Everything was tossed around, as if a demented child had had a field day.

"It didn't look like this when you found the body?" Bryan asked, his eyes missing nothing.

"No, it looked like a home." I couldn't think of anything else to say. "Surely the police wouldn't do this?"

"They would take the bedding to check for evidence," Bryan said. And they had. "But they wouldn't do this." Drawers were pulled out of the chest of drawers, the dressing table, the lingerie chest, the jewelry chest. Poppy's side of the small walk-in closet was demolished. Out-of-season shoes had been dumped from their neat stack of boxes, and a set of stacked cubes that had held sweaters had been disassembled and lay strewn on the floor.

This was horrible. I felt like Poppy had been violated all over again.

I told myself instantly that this was a dumb reaction. What I was seeing was just a rummage through her things, not nearly as bad as sinking a knife into her, for goodness sake! But the invasiveness of it... I thought of how much I would hate someone going through my personal stuff, and I had to sit down abruptly on the needlepoint-covered stool that was intended to occupy the kneehole of the dressing table.

Bryan did a big production number about how I was feeling - asking if he should call the paramedics (which horrified me considerably) and muttering various things about how terrible a shock I had sustained. He had called the police already, so I let him run on for a bit. Was he trying to impress me with his empathy, with his regard for me as a delicate southern flower? I was a pretty wilted blossom, if so.

I wished Robin were there. Then I slapped myself mentally. No point wishing for that. He was flirting with Janie.

Anger stiffened my spine once more.

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