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Page 9

Martin left for work the next morning still eyeing me warily but apparently relieved that I was quietly working on whatever reaction his revelations had raised.

I watched him walk to the garage. I had the window open to let in the cool morning air, so I heard him tell Madeleine in no uncertain terms to get off the hood of his Mercedes. Martin was so fond of his car that he would not leave it parked at the airport when he had to catch a plane, but instead invariably took one of the company cars, so the cat was living dangerously. Madeleine sauntered insolently out of the garage as Martin backed out, reversed on the concrete apron, and took off down the gravel. I went out with the bag of cat food and filled her bowl. She rewarded me with a perfunctory purr. I sat on the steps in my bathrobe and watched her eat every bit of kibble. I went through the rest of my little morning rituals in the same numb way. I'd been faced with something so bizarre it was just going to take me a little time to assimilate it.

I thought of the men some of my classmates had married: a hardware store owner, an insurance salesman, a farmer, a lawyer. My dating a police officer had been thought very exotic by my friends. Police officers were too close to the wormy side of life, the side we didn't see because we didn't turn rocks over. For whatever reason.

From our beautiful triple bedroom windows that looked out over our front yard, and across the road, to rolling fields, I spied Angel Youngblood going out for her morning run. This time she was wearing solid gold. She did her stretches, in itself an impressive sight, and then she began to run. I watched her lope down the driveway and out onto the road, long legs pumping in rhythm, blond ponytail bouncing. Angel was energetic. Soon she would be bored. I had an idea.

I was watching for her when she came back, and when I figured she'd had time to shower and dress, I called her. I'd found their number written on the pad by the telephone on Martin's desk when I'd gone to make an errand list the day before. "Angel," I said after she answered. "If you wouldn't mind coming over after you've run whatever errands you need to run, I have a project."

That morning I grasped the true beauty of the concept of having an employee. Angel and I didn't know each other, were bound by no ties of friendship or kin or community, but she was bound to help me achieve my goal. And since Angel was an employee, she had to help me without protest. She had come over in blue jeans and a T-shirt and sneakers, looking like a healthy farm girl who tossed bales of hay up to the loft with her bare hands. I had braided my hair to keep it out of the way. I had assembled a retractable metal tape measure, a pad and pencil, and a copy of the most comprehensive newspaper article dealing with the Julius's family disappearance. I'd had that stuck away in a file for years, since I'd thought of doing a presentation on it for the Real Murders Club.

I intended, of course, to find the Julius family.

I handed the article to Angel and waited till she read it.

Police continue their search for the T. C. Julius family, reported missing yesterday morning by Mrs. Julius's mother, Melba Totino. Mrs. Totino called the police after walking across to the family home from her adjacent garage apartment Saturday morning and finding no one at home. After some hours of waiting, and the discovery that the family car and truck were still in the garage, Mrs. Totino reported the disappearance. Missing are T. C. Julius, a retired army sergeant who had hoped to open a business locally; his wife, Hope; and their daughter Charity, 15. Julius is described as 5-11, 185 pounds, 46, with graying brown hair and blue eyes. Hope Julius has dark brown hair, blue eyes, is 5-4 and 100 pounds. She is 42 years old, and is suffering from cancer. Charity Julius, who had just begun attending the Lawrenceton High School, has blue eyes and shoulder-length brown hair. She is approximately 5-4 and 120 pounds.

The Juliuses had moved to Lawrenceton four months ago to be close to Mr. Julius's only surviving relative, his aunt, Essie Nyland. Mrs. Nyland is described by friends as being distraught at the disappearance, "She'd been so happy at T.C. moving here, since she's in poor health," said one neighbor, Mrs. Lyndower Dawson. "I'm afraid this will finish her." The day before the disappearance appeared to be a normal one, Mrs. Totino told local authorities. She reported spending most of the day in her own apartment and joining the family for meals, as usual. She said Harley Dim-moch, a friend of Chanty Julius's from their previous hometown of Columbia, S.C., visited the family. He left before dark, having spent the day helping Mr. Julius around the house.

In the late afternoon, local contractor Parnell Engle arrived to pour the concrete for a new patio T. C. Julius had planned at the rear of the house. He saw and spoke to Hope and Charity Julius, who both seemed normal at that time. Detective Jack Burns describes his department as "pursuing all leads with the utmost vigor."

"It doesn't look as though they left voluntarily, since the family vehicles are still in the garage," he commented. "On the other hand, there are no signs of violence and all their possessions are still here." He urged any resident who has knowledge of the Julius family to call the police station immediately.

There were pictures with the article: a shot of the house and a studio portrait of the family. T. C. Julius was a sturdy man with an aggressive smile and a square face. His wife, Hope, looked thin, frail, and ill, shrunken to the same size and frame as their teenage daughter. Charity Julius had shoulder-length hair that turned under neatly and an oval face like her mother's. She wasn't a pretty girl, but she was attractive, and she held herself like a girl who's used to being a force to reckon with.

"That's this house," Angel commented, studying the picture. She checked the date at the top of the article. "Over six years ago." "Where do you think they are?" I asked.

"I think they're dead," she answered without hesitation. "He just moved here. He was going to open a new business. No mention of trouble in the marriage. No mention of the daughter getting into trouble with the law. He'd just built the apartment for the mother-in-law, so he must have been able to tolerate her. No apparent reason for him to do a flit, especially taking the wife and daughter with him."

"I think they're still here. The car was still here." "But the killer could have taken them away in his or her own car," Angel objected reasonably. "What if the Dim-moch boy took them away and dumped them on the way home?"

"Then why haven't the bodies turned up?"

"Not found yet. They haven't found Hoffa, have they?" I would not be daunted. "I just think with the car here, with the bodies not having been found elsewhere, that the chances are good they're here somewhere." "So, what do you want us to do?"

"I want us to measure every wall and floor and anything else we can think of."

"You don't think the police did all that?"

"I don't know what they did, and I'm not sure I can find out. But I'll try. This is just step one."

"Step one. Huh." She thought about it for a second and shrugged. "Where do we start?"

"The apartment, I'm afraid."

"But the mother-in-law, Totino, says she was in the apartment all day. Or at least most of the day," Angel amended, checking the story again. "So we start with the least likely and eliminate that," I said. Angel looked at me consideringly. "Okay," she said, and we gathered our paraphernalia and started to work.

We were halted after an hour and a half by the arrival of Susu Hunter, who had been my friend my whole life. She hollered from the front porch. "Roe! I know you're here somewhere!"

Angel and I extracted ourselves from the toolshed at the back of the garage, dusty and warm and fairly covered with cobwebs. The toolshed was an area I had overlooked during my house renovation. You could tell Mr. Julius had intended to use it often: There was pegboard lining the walls with hooks still protruding, and a workbench with a powerful fluorescent light overhead had been added. He had also altered the doors, apparently: They were extra-wide doors that swung back completely. Now it held some boxes of tools Martin had apparently not opened since he had been transferred to Chicago and lived in an apartment instead of a house. The boxes were keeping company with a lawnmower whose pedigree I could not figure out; perhaps it had been Jane Engle's. Assorted rakes, hoes, shovels, a sledgehammer, and an ax filled out our tool repertoire. Everything was grimy.

So, as I say, when Angel and I emerged, we weren't at our best. "Look at you, Roe!" Susu said in some amazement. "What on earth have you been doing?"

"Rearranging the garage," I said, not untruthfully. We had done a certain amount of straightening since we were in there already. "Susu, this is Angel Youngblood, a new arrival to Lawrenceton."

Susu said warmly, "We're so glad to have you here! I hope you like our little town. And if you don't have a church home yet, we'd just love to have you at Calgary Baptist."

I wished I had a camera tucked in my pocket. Angel's face was a picture. But underneath the gritty life she'd led in the past few years, Angel Dunn Youngblood was a true daughter of the South. She rallied. "Thank you. We like it here very much so far. And thanks so much for inviting us to your church, but right now Shelby and I are very interested in Buddhism." I turned to Susu in anticipatory pleasure.

"How fascinating!" she exclaimed, without missing a beat. "If you ever have a free Wednesday noon, first Wednesday in the month, we'd love to have you come speak at the Welcome to Town Luncheon."

"Oh. Thanks so much. Excuse me now, I'm expecting Shelby to come home to eat in half an hour or so." And Angel retired gratefully, bounding up the stairs to their apartment. I was relieved to see a little smile - a nonmalevolent smile - on her thin lips as she shut the door behind her.

"What an interesting woman," Susu said with careful lack of emphasis.

"She really is," I said sincerely.

"How on earth did she come to be living in your garage apartment?" We began to stroll toward the house. Susu looked pretty, and a few pounds heavier than she'd been the year before.

She'd just had her hair done in a defiant blond, and she was wearing sky blue polka-dotted slacks with a white shirt.

"Oh, her husband is a friend of Martin's."

"Is he any bigger than her?"

"A little."

"No children, I guess?"

"No ..."

"Because I hate to think what size baby they'd have."

I laughed, and we began to talk about Susu's "babies," Little Jim and Bethany. Bethany was heavily involved in tap dancing, and Little Jim, the younger by a couple of years, was up to his brown belt in Tae Kwan Do. "And Jimmy?" I asked casually. "How's he doing?" "We're going to family therapy," Susu said in the voice of one determined not to be ashamed. "And though it's early to tell, Roe, I really think it's going to do us some good. We just went along for too long ignoring how we were really feeling, just scraping the surface to keep everything looking good for the people around us. We should have been more concerned about how things really were with us."

What an amazing speech for Susu Saxby Hunter to have made. I gave her a squeeze around the shoulders. "Good for you," I said inadequately and warmly. "I know if you both try, it'll work."

Susu gave me a shaky smile and then said briskly, "Come on! Show me this dream house of yours!"

Susu's dream house was the one her parents had left her, the one her grandparents had built. No house would ever measure up to it in her sight, and she was fond of dismissing our friends' new homes in new subdivisions as "houses, not homes!" But she pronounced this house a real home. "Does it ever give you the creeps?" she asked with the bluntness of old friends. "No," I said, not surprised she'd asked. Old friends or not, quite a lot of people had asked me that one way or another. "This is a peaceful house. Whatever happened."

"I'll bet sometimes you just wonder where they are."

"You're right, Susu. I do. I wonder that all the time."

Susu gave a theatrical shudder. "I'm glad it's yours and not mine," she said.

"Can I smoke?"

"No, not inside. Let's sit out on the porch. I have one ashtray to go out there on the porch furniture."

There was now a swing attached to the roof of the porch, and some pretty outside chairs arranged in a circle including the swing. There were two or three small tables available, and I found an ashtray for Susu to use. While we sat and talked of this and that, Shelby Young-blood pulled into the driveway and waved as he emerged from his car. We waved back and he ran up the stairs to his apartment to his Angel.

"Wow, he is big," Susu commented. "Not a looker, is he?"

"I think he is," I said, surprising myself.

"And you're the woman married to Hunk of the Year."

"Shelby is attractive," I said firmly. "I may be married, but I'm not blind."

"All those acne scars!"

"Just make him look lived-in."

"Does Martin come home for lunch?"

"So far, no. But he's still catching up from the time we spent away."

"Jimmy had Rotary today. Let's go in the kitchen and scrounge around for lunch." We ate ham sandwiches and grapes and potato chips, and talked about my honeymoon and the latest meeting of the Ladies' Prayer Luncheon. My old friend Neecy Dawson had objected to the guest speaker's theology in loud, persistent terms, casting the ladies into a turmoil, and causing not a few of them to express the opinion it was time Neecy met God face to face. "She was a friend of Essie Nyland's, wasn't she?" I asked casually. "Neecy? Yep. Essie was a good friend of my grandmother's, too, outlived her by twenty years, I guess. Miss Essie died... what? Six years ago now, must be. Neecy's still going strong. She still knows everyone in this town, what they've done, and when they did it."

It struck me that I could have a profitable conversation with Miss Neecy. She'd told me of the arguments between the Zinsners when they built this house. It was that conversation that had given me the idea that there might be several hidey-holes the bodies of the Julius family could be in. That was the reason for the ground-zero search Angel and I were conducting. "You remember when the Julius family vanished?" I asked. I picked up Susu's empty plate and my own and carried them over to the sink, admiring my new stoneware as I did every time I looked at it. Earth tones in a southwestern pattern... why on earth I, a native Georgian, felt compelled to have southwestern dishes I do not know.

"Yes," Susu said. "I'd just had Little Jimmy. You were working at the library, I think you'd only been there a year, right?"

"Right. Over six years ago, now." We shook our heads simultaneously at Time's inexorable march.

Susu looked at her watch and gave a little shriek. "Woops! Roe! I was supposed to pick up old Mrs. Newman at the beauty parlor ten minutes ago! I'm sorry, I've got to run! I invited myself and then I stick you with the dishes," she wailed, and yanked her car keys out of her purse on her way out the front door. I stuck the dishes unceremoniously in the dishwasher, started our supper pork chops marinating in honey and soy sauce and garlic, and sat down to make one of those lists that were supposed to make me much more efficient.

1. Finish measuring the house.

2. Talk to Miss Neecy about Essie Nyland, also the Zinsners - where was the boarded-up closet?

3. Possible to find the boyfriend, Harley Dimmoch?

4. See if Parnell Engle will tell me about the day he poured the concrete. 5. Ask Lynn or Arthur if I could see the file on the Julius disappearance, or if he would just tell me about it in detail.

6. See if I could worm anything out of Mrs. Totino's lawyer, Bubba Sewell (who was incidentally my lawyer and the husband of my friend, the former Lizanne Buckley).

I was pleased. This looked as if it would keep me busy for quite a while. Right now, busy-ness was what I wanted. Maybe while I worked on the problem of the Juliuses, the problem of my husband's secret life would sort of solve itself. Right.

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