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Page 9

By the time I got back to my house, Phillip was home and more than willing to help me unload the groceries - so he could find out what I'd gotten that he wanted to eat. I'd seen about half the people I knew dashing frantically through the grocery store, and all of them looked as scatterbrained as I felt, but I hadn't been so frantic that I'd forgotten to buy some snack stuff.

I told Phillip he was going to help me cook, and he stared longingly at the television before he agreed.

"How was your lunch with Robin?" I asked.

"We had ham sandwiches," Phillip said, which was not exactly the information I was after. "He's pretty cool," Phillip added almost grudgingly after I'd put away the contents of one bag. "We had a long talk about stuff. The only dumb thing about him is his name."

"I'm glad you two are getting along," I said. I was very curious to hear Robin's account of their conversation.

"You gonna marry him?"

It would be beyond coy to pretend I'd never thought of it. "If he asks me, I'll think about it," I said.

"You could ask him."

Hmmm. "No," I said. "I just don't think I could do that." Though I was a raving liberal compared to 50 percent of the people I knew in Lawrenceton, I knew asking Robin to marry me was way beyond my possibility level, even though I was now an Uppity Woman.

"Chicken," Phillip said fondly.

"Yep," I said. "That's me. Oh, by the way, I found a gas receipt on the floor Monday night. Did your friend stop for gas on her way into Lawrenceton?"

His face turned red just at the mention. "No," he said. "We stopped for gas in Rome. Remember, I took a bus into Lawrenceton."

Phillip had no reason to lie, and he'd never known Poppy. I had enough confirmation to drop him from my list. Though Emma had narrowed the list down, I needed to talk to the other people who might have dropped the receipt. I wanted to hear their stories with my own ears.

Opening the refrigerator, I poked the turkey breast with an anxious finger. It was close to being thawed. I got the package of ready-made piecrust out so it could be reaching room temperature, then took the pecans out of the freezer for the pecan pie. I handed my little brother a recipe for pumpkin pie and a can of pumpkin. "Put all of this stuff in there," I said. I got everything required out of the cabinet and put it in a clump on the counter. I pulled out my little electric mixer and a mixing bowl and set them on the counter by his stuff. "There you go," I said briskly. I turned on both of my ovens, yanked two pie plates out of the cabinet, and patted the piecrusts into place. Then I threw together the pecan pie.

Phillip worked quite a bit slower, but once he found out where the measuring spoons were and so on, he did a creditable job of preparing the pumpkin filling.

Since Robin's mom was coming, I felt obliged to follow Lizanne's example in making my own cranberry sauce, but that's the easiest thing in the world, and I got that ready while the pies were baking. Phillip ran the vacuum for me while I cooked the sweet potatoes and put them through the food processor for the sweet potato casserole, and I decided after that was done, we could rest. Every dish went into the dishwasher, I started it running, and then Phillip and I watched a stupid game show on television. We competed with each other to see who could shout out the answer the fastest, and in general we had a silly good time.

I called out for Chinese - we considered ourselves on the cutting edge, in Lawrenceton, having a Chinese restaurant that delivered - and though it was late in the evening to be eating, I was feeling relaxed, since the house looked good, I'd gotten a head start on the cooking, and, most of all, my brother just couldn't be involved in any way in Poppy's death.

Tomorrow, I would meet Robin's mother, and while I was a bit anxious about that, I figured since Robin spoke so lovingly of her, she couldn't be too formidable... . And after all, I'd been a grown woman, married and widowed, for many years now.

Just when I was feeling fairly saturated with satisfaction, the phone rang. I reached over to the table by my chair, gestured to Phillip to turn down the volume on the television, and answered it.

"Aurora," Mother said.

"Hi, Mother. How are things at your house?"

"John is doing fairly well," she said, giving me the most important news first. "John David hasn't been arrested, thank God. Melinda called. He was over at her house, and he announced he was taking the baby and they were spending the night in a motel. He said he felt like he'd been enough trouble to people and that he should spend some time with his son."

I held the phone away and gaped at it. Would wonders never cease? "That's amazing," I said, finally realizing I had to say something.

"Yes," she said a little dryly. "I thought so, too."

"Can you and John come over tomorrow to have a glass of wine with Phillip and Robin and Robin's mother?"

"His mother? His mother's in town?" Mother was shocked out of her weariness. "Oh my Lord, you should have told me!"

"Yes, she's over at his apartment now. She's coming to Thanksgiving here tomorrow." I knew Mother had too much on her shoulders right now, but it was good to hear her sounding more like her normal self. "What about you and John? If you want to come here to eat, I'll have plenty. Did John David tell you any plans he might have? Should I invite him?" Three extra adults would be stretching it, but I could manage. I had assumed that John David would be staying with John and my mother and that they'd be eating together, though celebrating would be impossible.

"Of course John and I will come over for a glass of wine, and to meet Robin's mother. But I don't think we'd be exactly up to a festive meal. I'm feeding us out of the refrigerator tomorrow, since I just couldn't work up the energy for anything else. I think we have enough food here to last us for two weeks, and we actually have a smoked turkey breast and a ham. John David is coming over here. What time would you like us to drop by?"

I had planned to serve the holiday meal at one, so we settled on three o'clock. I told mother I'd call John David at his motel and at least invite him to come eat (no matter how much I secretly hoped he would decline). I remembered one more question for my mother before I hung up.

"Has John David heard from the police about when he's going to get Poppy's body back to bury?"

"It seems as though there's a backlog in Atlanta, so it won't be until Monday at the earliest."

"Oh no." Though in a way it was a relief that Poppy's funeral wouldn't be within the next couple of days, I didn't want to think about that backlog.

"I'm so glad the Wynns decided to go back home," Mother continued. "I know they had things to take care of, because they left to come over here in such a hurry. It'll be much better if they just come back when the funeral's settled. I think they assumed they'd be making the arrangements, and it took them aback when John David told them what he was going to do."

"The Wynns are leaving? Where are they now?" I had actually forgotten about the Wynns, and to my shame, my Thanksgiving plans had never included them. I carried the cordless phone over to the door of the room the Wynns had been using and glanced inside. Their things were still there. Hmm.

"Why, I don't know." Mother sounded surprised. "Aren't they - they haven't come to your house and gotten their bags?"

"No," I said, anxiety making my voice sharp. "I haven't seen them since last night."

"I talked to them about four today," Mother said, "and they told me they were leaving. Where do you suppose they could be?"

"I don't know." I had a shameful, petulant moment of wishing someone would just do the predictable thing. I don't deal well with prolonged upheaval. "Do they have any good friends left in town?"

"You know, they didn't have a lot even when they lived here."

That was true, though I'd never posed it to myself that way.

The Wynns, tall and thin and aggressively healthy, bright and articulate, had never been the most popular ministerial couple in town. The church youth group had been popular, though, because Marvin Wynn, awkward with his own belated child, was a whiz with other people's children.

I sighed, trying to aim it away from the phone. All I wanted to do was go to bed. But I had to track down my guests, and I had to relieve my mother of this anxiety.

"I'll call around a little," I said. "I'll get back to you. Maybe they're with John David, playing with the baby. Which motel?"

I called the Lawrenceton Best Western, and John David was in.

"Poppy's folks didn't leave our key with you?" John David sounded tired, and numb. I could hear the baby crying in the background. "They wanted to get some family heirloom to take back to their house with them - something of Sandy's mother's. I told them I had no idea where it was but said they were welcome to go over there and look. They were supposed to leave my house key with you."

"How long ago was that?"

"Hours. I thought they were long gone back home."

"I guess I'll go over there and check," I said. It was the last thing in the world I wanted to do, but it was what I should do.

"Please do." There was a long pause. John David said, "I don't know what they could be doing in our house for so long. Poppy always had a very tense relationship with her parents. If you'd do this, I'd really appreciate it. I'm just not up to dealing with them tonight. This little guy is missing Poppy." I knew my stepbrother was referring to Chase, but I think he was also talking about himself.

It was pitch-black, and I didn't know what I would find over at the house on Swanson. I wanted someone to go with me, preferably someone bigger than I, or at least well armed. My dad and his wife would kill me if I took Phillip to a place where he might have any sort of bad experience. Robin's mother was at his place, and I hated to butt in on their time together; plus, it wouldn't make a good impression, would it - calling Robin to come help me, when his mom was in residence? Calling the police seemed a little over the top. I thought of Angel or Shelby Youngblood, who used to work for Martin and me -  and then I remembered they'd gone to Florida. That left only one possibility on my list. Reluctantly, I called Bryan Pascoe. That was better than calling Arthur anyway. Why'd I call a guy? Politically incorrect, huh? Because I was scared, that's why. And I figured Melinda was busy with her kids. And I didn't like Avery.

Bryan, to my near dismay, was delighted to hear from me, and willing to go to Poppy's and meet me there.

Phillip, engrossed in his TV show, gave me an offhand wave as I left. It took only five minutes to get to Poppy and John David's place, but the lawyer was already there. Bryan was wearing jeans and a sweater, which for him was really letting his hair down.

I apologized again for getting him out of his house so late in the evening.

"No problem," he said. "I'm a full-service lawyer. Besides, all I had to do was sit around and watch a tape of Buffy the Vampire Slayer!"

I laughed, much to my own surprise.

"What are you doing for the holiday?" I asked, just to stave off going up that sidewalk and into the house. Sure enough, the house wasn't dark; even though it ought to have been. Sandy and Marvin Wynn were apparently still there. What on earth were they doing?

"I'm going to have dinner with my mother at the Assisted Living Center," Bryan said.

Again I was surprised. Somehow, I couldn't picture Bryan with his mother. "Your dad's gone?" I asked.

"Nope, he's living in Atlanta with his second wife, a very nice woman he met in his nursing home. He and my mother have been divorced for the past twenty years or so."

"And he remarried. I guess you're never too old for romance."

"Definitely not," Bryan said. "Now, what are we doing here?"

"The Wynns are in the house. They borrowed John David's key. They were supposed to come by and get their bags and leave for their home. They told my mother they'd return when the funeral was definitely scheduled. They told John David they wanted to retrieve something of Sandy's mother's, some family heirloom Poppy had. I don't believe he asked or cared what it was. They've been here much longer than that should take. And we're almost certain that Sandy was in the area the morning Poppy was killed."

Bryan considered for a minute. "So, am I here as John David's lawyer or as your bodyguard?"

I smiled again, though I don't know if he could make it out in the gloom. Poppy and John David lived in the middle of the block, and the streetlights on the corners didn't really illuminate their yard. "A bit of both," I said. "I'm worried about them. But if they're okay, I plan on being mad at them. They've been here way too long." I took a deep breath. "Mostly, this is just weird and needs to be looked into. John David asked me to do that for him."

"Clear as a bell," Bryan said.

We went up the flagstones to the front door, and after a moment's hesitation, I opened it without knocking. This wasn't the Wynns' house, after all.

Bryan shut the door behind us, and we stood in the hallway at the foot of the stairs leading up to the bedrooms, trying to make sense of what we saw. Marvin Wynn was crouched by Poppy's rolltop desk, in the small room to the right of the stairs, the room originally intended for a dining room. Both Poppy and John David used it as an office, and they each had a computer there. A large bookshelf covered one wall, and it was crammed with all kinds of books and knickknacks. Now the room was in an utter jumble. Half the books were on the floor. Marvin, crouched on the floor, was pulling the drawers out of the rolltop desk and turning them over to examine the bottoms.

He was so startled when he looked up and discovered two people observing him that he jumped, visibly. He gasped and dropped the drawer, which landed painfully on his thighs. He made another noise, this one surprising from a minister.

Poppy would not have taped a family heirloom to the bottom of the drawer.

"What are you doing?" I asked, and I didn't sound polite.

"What is it, Marv?" Sandy called from the top of the stairs. She froze when she saw us. Her large brown eyes, magnified many times by her outsize brown-framed glasses, were wide and shocked.

"What are you two doing?" I said again, with even more of an edge to my voice now. Someone had already helped himself to searching the contents of Poppy's closet and her bedroom. Now Poppy's mom and dad were ransacking the house under the guise of parental love. I was very unhappy with them. I was also angry that people I'd always respected were making a mockery of that respect by their behavior.

The Wynns appeared to be groping for an answer to my abrupt question.

"We, ah, we were looking for something. We asked John David if he'd mind."

"You told John David you were looking for an heirloom Mrs. Wynn's mom had left her," I said bluntly. 'You've been here for hours, searching this house, as far as I can see. And I'm sure whatever precious heirloom it was, Poppy wouldn't have taped it to the bottom of a drawer, or stuffed it into a book!"

The Wynns didn't seem to be able to come up with a response. Finally, Marvin said, "Who is this man with you?"

"I'm Bryan Pascoe, John David's attorney."

Sandy Wynn came farther down the stairs, the first time she'd moved since she'd called to her husband. She exchanged glances with Marvin.

"Surely you didn't need to bring a lawyer" Marvin said in his best ministerial voice. "After all, we're family here."

He could not have said anything more calculated to make my neck crawl.

"We are not family," I said clearly. "Please explain yourselves."

"Listen, missy," Sandy said. "We are thirty years older than you are, and you will treat us with some respect."

"When you deserve it."

Sandy's face sagged on its bones, making her look much older in an instant. "We were just looking for some old family things," she insisted. "We haven't found them. Since you're in such a snit, missy, we'll just leave." She said this as if it was a big threat. "We'll stop by your house and get our bags and go home. You'll excuse me, under the circumstances, if I don't write a thank-you note."

"It's very late for you to start home," Bryan said, sounding irritatingly reasonable. "Why don't you check into the motel here in town, instead, and start back in the morning?"

"No, young man," Marvin Wynn said. "I'm not too old to drive at night, and we want to get out of this town. The day I retired from my job here was one of the best days of my life."

I'd learned, years ago, that being a pastor is a job - a difficult and stressful one at that - but nonetheless, I found it shocking to hear the former Reverend Wynn speak in such a vicious way.

Bryan didn't respond, which was a relief. I didn't want to hear any more discussion. I just wanted the absence of the Wynns. I nudged an open book with my foot. The house was in a terrible state now. I sighed, already guessing whose task it would be to set it to rights.

Sandy and Marvin took some time getting their coats; with Bryan and me standing there, there was little opportunity for them to take anything. I hated being so suspicious, but I knew I had to be alert. This situation was completely fishy. Sandy had seemed so broken up on Monday night, but now I knew she'd already been in Lawrenceton that morning. Marvin, too, had appeared grief-stricken and miserable, at least to my eyes. And yet here they were, trashing their daughter's home.

Finally, they were at the door. Swaddled in all their winter gear (pretty much not necessary, for the night was in the fifties), the older couple looked harmless and beneficent with their silver hair and glasses.

Sandy opened her mouth to say something else insulting, but I preempted her. "What were you doing out at the Grabbit Kwik getting gas Monday morning? Have you told the police about your little trip to Lawrenceton before Poppy's body was found?"

"We never came here Monday morning," Marvin said with dignity. "I went to get my annual physical, and Sandy went to do some comparison shopping for a new stove."

"Good cover story," I said to Sandy. "Something you could spend a long time doing, with no tangible results."

If Sandy had looked tense before, she looked beleaguered now. But her lips stayed pressed together. I couldn't have wiggled one bit of truth between them.

"Key," I said tersely, holding out my hand. Sandy fished in her pocket and dropped the key on my palm, which closed around it instantly. But then I had a thought, and I opened my palm to compare this key to the one John David had loaned me. They matched.

The Wynns gave us twin glares as they left.

I sat down on the stairs when the door shut behind them. This had shaken me more than I'd realized. I was actually surprised at how much the week's events were depleting my normal energy. I'd had several of these shaky spells. Bryan sat by me. He put his arm around me, which I could have done without, but it was okay. It didn't feel sexual, not until his fingers started playing with my hair, that is.

"Do you want to call John David from here?"

"Would you?" I was just plain being weak.

"Sure," he said, but he didn't move. "What do you think they were looking for?" he asked after a moment or two.

"I don't know. Something small. And the person who was searching Poppy's closet was looking for something small, too. Something that could be hidden in a book, or a shoe box."


"That would fit. Or documents."

"What kind of documents? She left a will. Poppy and John David both made wills when Poppy found out she was pregnant."

"John David tell you that?"

"Yes. But it wasn't the first thing he said. He didn't come out with it until I asked him that specifically."

I thought Bryan was telling me that in his opinion, John David hadn't been thinking of his possible financial gain from Poppy's death. I had never considered the fact that Poppy might have some money stashed away, and I couldn't imagine where such a stash could have come from. Her dad was a minister, so his pay had been low, and he and his wife were still very much alive. If Poppy had ever gotten any substantial inheritance from another relative, I'd never heard of it. And Poppy had worked for a few years, but working for a few years as a teacher and living off the proceeds were almost a guarantee you didn't have a lot left over. "What lawyer drew up the wills?" I asked.

"Bubba Sewell."

"Hmm. You know what I wonder? I wonder if Poppy gave Bubba a key during the course of their affair."

"I hope I don't have to ask him that in court." Bryan's hand kept combing through my hair. I moved a little farther from him, and his hand dropped into his lap.

"I can ask him." Especially after our confrontation the day before (or had it been Monday?), Bubba and I were quite ready to be rude to each other. My mind moved on ahead. "Do you think ... do you suppose... that Poppy gave a key to each of her, um, men friends?"

"There'd be quite a few around, if that's the case." Bryan looked thoughtful.

"Yes." I had a lot of unpleasant thoughts circling in my tired brain. "But Bubba ..."


Suddenly, I didn't want to continue. "Nothing," I said. "While I check out the house, why don't you call John David and let him know what happened? Then we can go. I really appreciate your doing this."

"This is just the kind of thing a good lawyer does for his clients," Bryan said with a wide, sharklike smile.

"There must be a lot I don't know about good lawyers." I smiled back. I went up the stairs. The closet, of course, was still in disarray. This time, even John David's clothes and ties and coats and sweaters had been gone through. What the hell were people looking for? I was assuming that two different people (or groups of people) had gone through the house. The first intruder, the one who'd confined the search to Poppy's half of the closet, had had a specific idea of where the object - whatever it was - had been stashed. In contrast, the Wynns had used a shotgun approach.

"You could find out," Bryan said, and I looked at him blankly. I'd been lost in my thoughts. I didn't even realize for a few seconds that he had followed me and was continuing the conversation. I was too slow responding. Bryan's face wasn't too happy. "Excuse me," I said. "I was wondering what they could be looking for."

"Okay. Anything else you want to do here tonight?"

"No. I'll clean it up Friday. I'll see if my sister-in-law will help."

"Then I'll call John David." Bryan went off to use the telephone.

I sat where I was and eyed the devastation around me. I didn't see how the Wynns could have hoped to conceal their depredations. They'd have had to work all night to put things back. I wondered how they'd hoped to explain it. This looked like a go-for-broke situation. If they'd found what they needed, they wouldn't care if they couldn't explain it. For a couple who placed tremendous importance on community opinion, they were acting recklessly. That meant they were desperate.

So, they were searching for something of vital importance, something so significant to their future that their need for it eclipsed their daughter's death.

I could not understand parents like that, though I reminded myself of the notorious struggles between the Wynns and Poppy when she was in her teens. And I recalled what Emma McKibbon had told me about the Reverend Wynn's predilection for young women. Was there proof of the retired minister's dalliance with female members of his congregation? Maybe such proof was what Poppy had concealed in her home.

I shook my head, all to myself. Why would she do that? What leverage would it give her with her parents? I couldn't imagine what she would want from them; want it so badly that she'd keep such unpleasant things. And what could those things be? Pictures? I swallowed hard, disgusted at downing such an indigestible idea.

"Are you going to be sick?" Bryan, having returned from calling John David, sounded terrified at the prospect.

"No, just thinking bad thoughts."

"I talked to John David. He's baffled. I told him they said they were going home until they heard from him about the funeral - they're reverting to the original plan - and he seemed relieved. I also called Arthur Smith again and left yet another message on his voice mail at work. So far, he hasn't responded to any of my calls. I want to tell him what we found out about Sandy Wynn, and I want to tell him that the Wynns were here tonight."

"I hope he calls back soon," I said dutifully, though in truth I found it hard to care. I felt very tired, which seemed about par lately. I dragged myself to my feet. I didn't want to ask Bryan for help. My stomach curdled with anxiety. Oh boy. Maybe I was going to be sick.

I managed to get to my car without disgracing myself, and after thanking Bryan for coming out and providing moral and tactical assistance, I drove home.

Phillip was on the phone when I walked in, and he was smiling broadly, so I figured the person on the other end was a female. After a minute, I deduced it was Josh Finstermeyer's sister, Joss. After ten more minutes, I grew a wee bit exasperated and gestured to Phillip to wind up the conversation. He did so willingly enough, then told me all about what the Finstermeyers were doing for their Thanksgiving celebration - remarkably, almost exactly what we would be doing. He asked if he could go over to their house tomorrow afternoon, after we'd eaten, and I told him that would probably be okay. He beamed at me.

It was the first time I'd seen Phillip look carefree, and it made him very attractive. I felt sorry for Joss. I hoped she was a self-sufficient young woman.

"What happened with the Wynns?" Phillip asked. "I was sitting here watching TV when they came stomping in like someone had stuck a cattle prod up their - like they were really fired up. They didn't even speak."

"They were mad at me," I said, realizing I should have called ahead and warned Phillip what to expect. He didn't seem unduly shaken by the incident, and I reminded myself all over again that Phillip had been raised in a different world from the one I'd been reared in. (That made me feel old, by the way.)

Robin had learned something about Phillip over lunch, I hoped, something worth telling me. I couldn't picture my dad telling Phillip about the facts of life - well, Phillip knew the facts. What I meant, I decided, was the responsibilities.

I was aware that I was absolutely exhausted. "Phillip, I have to go to bed," I said.

"Sure, Roe. Anything you need me to do?"

"No. I just hope I'm not catching anything."

"You look kind of, ah, tired."

Nice way of saying I looked like warm Jell-O. "Yeah, I am. I'm going to call it a day. Come get me if you need me." I went into my bedroom, and after a trip to my bathroom, I pulled on my nightgown and crawled into bed. No Robin to join me tonight, I reflected as I began to get drowsy (which was almost immediately). Maybe that was good. I didn't feel up to making whoopee. I felt achy all over, my skin extra sensitive. As I drifted into sleep, I prayed that I wasn't getting the flu.

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