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Ten

Murder On The Eightfold Path

A grinning skeleton leaned against the etched glass front of the long-case grandfather clock in the long reception hall of Medea Sutherlands restored Victorian mansion. The black-flocked velvet walls were lined with horror movie posters with titles like The Devouring, The Girl in the Grave, She-Wolf.

Thats Wee Geordie, Medea said cheerfully, following A.J.s gaze.

Please tell me you found him on a movie set somewhere.

Medea-Maddie Sutherland-laughed her unexpectedly raucous laugh. She was tall and mournful looking with gaunt features and black eyes beneath Joan Crawford eyebrows. In her black trousers and black turtleneck, she could have played the dour housekeeper in any number of low-budget scary movies, but in her heyday she had been cast exclusively as demon-possessed vixens or terror-stricken ing'enues.

A.J.s afraid you dug him up in the garden, Elysia remarked, and Medea laughed that deep laugh again.

Ive found interesting things in the garrrden, but no skeletons so far. Not human ones, anyway! While most of Medeas native Scottish accent had been trained out of her, she retained a small but definite Scottish burr, that charming way of rolling the Rs. Let me take you up to your rooms and then Ill give you a wee tourrr of the house.

One thing for sure, Medea seemed in good spirits. If she was aware of Dicky Massris death, it clearly wasnt ruining her day. She led them briskly down the long reception hall adorned with artfully placed fake cobwebs, gilt-framed mirrors with cracked glass, and a huge chandelier with flicker bulbs.

A.J. exchanged a glance with her mother. Elysia seemed to be taking it all in stride. The house was immaculate, so it wasnt a housekeeping issue, just some very funky ideas about home d'ecor. Medea had to be the oldest goth A.J. had met.

They reached the staircase to the second level and A.J. examined the gallery of old photographs and tintypes. Are these your family? she inquired.

No, no, Medea replied. I just like the look of their faces.

A.J. had no particular response to that, but if she had, it would have been lost as a small, furry creature came sliding down the banister. For a moment she thought it was a rat, although it looked more like a weasel. She let go of the banister and just missed stepping into Elysia, who had stopped on the stairs.

What on earth? Elysia stared as the black-and-white creature streaked past. Was that a skunk?

Medea chuckled at the very idea of such craziness. Its a ferrrret.

A ferret?

Thats right, hen. Her name is Morrrag.

Morag the ferrrret had safely reached the lower level and scampered away into the gloom. A.J. and Elysia followed Medea as she continued the trek upstairs. They reached the top landing where the statue of a mournful marble lady weeping into a hanky seemed to be commiserating with A.J. over her weekend plans.

Medea led the way down the hallway to their separate bedrooms.

You share the bath. It adjoins both bedrooms. Medea opened the white door leading into the large bathroom, but A.J.s attention was riveted to the graveyard scene painted across the far wall. No, not painted. The wall was covered in a full-sized decorative vinyl photograph of a mournful graveyard.

Uh she began, but she was talking to herself. The other two women had moved down the hallway to the next bedroom. She dropped her carryall with relief. She had insisted on carrying it upstairs, but it hadnt done her back any good.

The rest of the room was relatively ordinary: forest green walls and white trim, a large canopy bed with bone white draperies, green and white globe lamps, and a large mirror with a dragon frame and candleholder.

A.J. followed her mother and Medea; she was almost looking forward to seeing the next stage set-because thats what these macabre rooms seemed like: elaborate, tongue-in-cheek movie sets.

Elysias room was minus a mural but the gloomy paintings on the gray walls more than made up for it. The bed in her room was lacking a canopy, but it was an enormous, black, iron affair that suggested a torture device or a birdcage-although the fluffy duvet was a cozy touch. There were a couple of gargoyle wall sconces and a table by the bay windows that seemed to be of a gargoyle in the pose of The Thinker. A.J. couldnt help feeling that anything a gargoyle put that much mental energy into would not be good.

Medea was still talking cheerfully about the repairs and renovations to the mansion, most of which she had done herself.

Very thrifty, petal, Elysia remarked, when she could get a word in edgewise. Er, whats happened to whats his name? Your lord and master. Will we meet him this evening?

Medeas sharp features darkened. I told you about that, surely?

No. What?

I didnt tell you? I thought I wrote you?

Im sure Id have remembered.

I divorrrced him, the villain.

Oh dear, Elysia said mildly. That was sudden. What happened?

It wasnt nearly sudden enough. Ought to have known better at my age.

What happened? Elysia persisted.

Medea straightened the head of a small, grinning gargoyle wall sconce. He was nothing but a forrrtune hunter.

As Elysia made the appropriate noises, her gaze found and held A.J.s. Thats terrible. What was his name again? Dick something, wasnt it? How long did the marriage last?

But Medea shook her head sharply, the subject seemingly closed. Elysia raised her shoulders in a ghost of a shrug.

Medea, once again in tour guide mode, led them back downstairs pointing out the architectural points of interest in the house as they went. One thing A.J. liked was that nearly every room had bookshelves, mostly filled with works of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Back in 1890, the house had both electric and gas lighting. Lightbulbs werent fully developed, you see, and didnae cast enough illumination to be the primary source of light. You can see the old gas lines all through the house.

Medea pointed to a place on the hardwood floor where the heating pipes fed the radiator in the parlor.

Those dont still work, do they? Elysia asked, sounding alarmed for the first time.

Medea laughed heartily at the idea. The old gas lines were disconnected long ago, although Id have liked to have the old gas lamps working in a few spots. Itd throw a very nice warm light.

Ah yes. The better to illuminate the fake cobwebs and plastic spiders.

You dont have a television? A.J. inquired.

Och, I dont have time for such nonsense! Theres too much work to be done and too many good books to read.

Ah, Elysia said. Once again her gaze met A.J.s, and once again A.J. knew exactly what her mother was thinking. Assuming they had the right Medea, Maddie was not aware that Dakarai was dead or that Elysia was suspected of killing him-unless Medea had killed him herself and was playing a clever game with them. A.J. didnt quite rule that out. Medea certainly had a dark and playful side; eccentric was a pallid word for it.

Medea finished showing them the house-the restoration work she had done was truly impressive even if her ultimate aim seemed to be to turn the place into an upscale haunted mansion-and then they went into the back garden, followed by the ferret Morag.

Isnt this lovely, Elysia murmured faintly. A shade garden.

It was indeed dark and shady in the very large and very overgrown garden. The gateposts were made of small wooden coffins topped by resin wolf skulls. There were no flowers, just grass and ivy and green vines. It looked like the sort of garden Edward Gorey might have designed had he abandoned illustrating and gone into the landscaping business. A variety of dark stone urns, pointy obelisks, and odd statues were strategically placed. A.J. recognized what appeared to be a likeness of the Minotaur and, across the lawn, a bronze version of Kali. Toward the back of the garden was a large plot lined by a knee-high, wrought iron fence as though for a vegetable garden, although it was too dark for most vegetables to thrive. Mushrooms might do well. Toadstools.

They watched the ferret scurry across the grass and disappear through the fence.

Shes visiting Angus, Medea said with grim satisfaction.

Angus?

My Persian cat. They were grrreat friends. Angus crossed last month.

A.J. stared at the fenced square and then it clicked. A miniature graveyard; a pet cemetery. Thats a graveyard?

Aye. Medea placed the pitcher of lemonade she had carried outside on the table and the three of them sat down and watched Morag weaving her swift way through the statuary and greenery. The final resting place for ma wee furry friends. Gloom settled on her like rain clouds on Ben Lomond.

This is pleasant, Elysia chimed in, in an apparent effort to dispel the doldrums. She sipped her lemonade.

Im glad you invited us, petal. Makes a nice change, doesnt it?

She looked straight at A.J., delivering her cue. Yes! A.J. said enthusiastically to cover the fact that she had been thinking she was out of her mind to have agreed to this weekend.

Its nice to have company. Its a bit lonely sometimes out here on my own, Medea admitted with seeming reluctance.

Elysia said casually, I can relate only too well. Its lovely having A.J. living so close these days.

Did you finally give up the house in London?

No. Ive been thinking of letting it go, though.

This was news to A.J. Although she and her mother had been getting along very well since she had moved to New Jersey, the idea of being permanently in each others pockets was a little disconcerting. Or was it? Maybe it was reassuring. It was just that she was not in the habit of relying on her mother, having spent most of her life learning to not rely on her.

The two older women chatted about people and places unfamiliar to A.J. It was not that she was disinterested, but she had a lot on her mind. Her attention wandered.

She tuned back in to hear Elysia inquire casually, What was his name, petal? Your handsome young villain?

Medeas face took on that unattractive flush again. Dicky. Dakarai, actually. He was Egyptian.

Elysias gaze slid to A.J.s. A.J. knew exactly what she was thinking. Dakarai was not like John or Kevin or Bill. The idea of two Egyptian men named Dakarai running around New Jersey romancing wealthy widows was pretty hard to believe.

Its a shame, Elysia said. She suggested casually, You met him on that cruise you took a few years ago, didnt you?

Aye.

Bingo.

Gloomily, Medea reached a hand out to the ferret, who had scampered up the table legs and popped through the umbrella hole in the table. Now the ferret was investigating the lemonade pitcher. She nipped gently at Medeas fingers. You miss him, pet, dont you? Medea flicked the ferrets nose and then reached for her lemonade with the air of one drowning her sorrows.

Elysia was shooting a certain commanding look A.J.s way. A.J. couldnt figure out what her mother wanted. She raised her shoulders and Elysia gave her The Look again.

Hoping she was on the right track, and not exactly sure what her mother was up to, A.J. said, Why, thats an odd coincidence!

Elysia offered a tiny smile of approval before saying, as though the thought had never occurred, Yes, that is strange. You wouldnt happen to have a photo of him, would you?

Angus? Aye.

Not Angus, petal. Dicky. Your ex.

Brow furrowed, Medea gave it some thought. Why?

Because a most unpleasant thought has occurred to me.

It looked like the unpleasantness was catching. For a lengthy few seconds Medea stared at Elysia, then she scooped up the ferret and nodded at A.J. and Elysia to follow her.

They trooped back into the house and Medea led the way to a side room painted in yellow and black-a color scheme that had all the appeal of a swarm of bees. She dropped Morag to the carpet, and the ferret darted away behind what appeared to be a marble statue of Medusa-or perhaps it was another goddess having a really bad hair day. Medea rummaged through the drawers of a tall secretary. Sheets of sandpaper and bills fell out along with photos and note cards.

Here we are. Medea handed the photograph to Elysia who stared at it for several seconds. She handed it to A.J.

The photograph showed a tanned and happy-looking Medea in the loose embrace of a handsome and virile-looking Egyptian young enough to be her son. The young man also looked happy, though not nearly as radiant as Medea.

Though the photo was a few years old, there was no mistaking Dicky Massri, and though she had been prepared for it, A.J. murmured, Good lord.

Elysia said crisply, Petal, I have some disturbing news.

Medeas brows drew together as she waited for Elysia to find the words. A.J. could see her mother considering and abandoning various approaches.

There doesnt seem to be an easy way to say this, she said at last. I knew this young man of yours. Knew him rather well. When Medea still said nothing, Elysia clarified, I met him when I was in Egypt last summer.

Medeas eyes seemed to start from her head. She opened her mouth and then closed it.

Im afraid I made the same mistake that er you did, petal.

Silence.

He could be a charming scallywag. Elysia half-swallowed the word. A.J. almost felt sorry for her although she couldnt help feeling her mother had brought it all on herself. I didnt go so far as to marry him, but-

Elysia broke off, interrupted by Medeas roar of laughter.


They dined beneath a flickering chandelier that looked like it was straight out of the Vincent Price Collection. Keeping in mind that Medea had done most of the home repairs herself, A.J. couldnt help an occasional uneasy glance at the bronze rosette medallion in the ceiling, sincerely hoping it was not going to give way anytime soon. She could have sworn she heard the occasional faint cracking of plaster-or perhaps the whisper came from the ghostly woodland scene that decorated the walls of the long, narrow room: tall pale trees and silvery mist on another of those decorative wall coverings.

But while Medea might have had a macabre sense of interior design, there was nothing wrong with her culinary instincts. Dinner was fabulous.

Barley soup with porcini mushrooms started off the meal, followed by seared scallop salad with asparagus and scallions. The main course was roasted veal loin with mashed potatoes. For dessert there was bittersweet chocolate tart with coffee mascarpone cream.

Between courses A.J. heard abbreviated versions of her mother and Medeas wild youth as fledgling actresses in the early seventies.

Och, hen, remember that time you and Dennis Waterman?

And who was being linked with Patrick McNee in the press, petal?

These recollections were followed by gales of laughter.

What about Bradley Meagher? Is that old fox still waiting in the wings, then?

Elysias smile faded. No, no. Actually, were just good friends.

Medea snorted. Tell me another. She studied Elysia with an unexpectedly worldly gleam in her dark eyes, but then changed the subject. Dyou ever think of going back on the stage?

All the time!

More hilarity.

A.J. sincerely hoped Medea was not a murderess because the more she saw of her, the more she liked her. Yes, she was an oddball, but some of the most interesting people were.

Quietly sipping her wine, which was also excellent, A.J. observed both women. Medea, still recovering from the shock of learning that Dicky was dead, downed scotch all through dinner, growing progressively more cheerful and bright. Elysia stuck to sparkling mineral water despite the glasses of wine Medea pressed on her. A.J. experienced the usual tension of watching her mother around alcohol, but Elysia showed no sign of struggling against temptation.

Over dessert she skillfully managed to steer the discussion back to Dicky, and Medea, now well and truly lubricated, seemed to let her guard down once and for all.

No fool like an auld fool!

She and Elysia shared a giggle over memories A.J. suspected they would regret her overhearing. She tried not to listen too closely, but it wasnt easy.

He was a delicious young rascal, Elysia admitted. And those back rubs!

Medea murmured agreement and A.J. resisted the temptation to cover her ears and say Lalalalalalalala!

Hard to believe its been two whole years. Medea sighed. Sometimes I think well. Water under the bridge.

Speaking of water, Elysia said lightly, how did you happen to pick that particular cruise?

Medea shook her head. I didnt. I won it. All the arrangements were made for me.

Thats an awfully nice prize. What contest was that?

Medea sketched a broad, vague gesture. Some sort of sweepstakes thingie.

A.J. asked Elysia, You didnt win your cruise trip in a contest, did you?

No. Everyone I knew seemed to have been on a cruise, and I was thinking it might be fun to get away for a time. I think my hairstylist recommended the cruise line. She said to Medea, Are you saying the sweepstakes prize covered the cost of everything?

It covered the cost of the cruise. I had to pay my own airfare.

Was there anything odd about the cruise? A.J. inquired.

Medea shook her head. Not that I recall. Other than falling in love and getting married, no. She sighed nostalgically. Wonderful nosh.

How exactly did you happen to fall in love?

Elysia and Medea exchanged looks. No sense of romance this younger generation, Elysia said sadly. A.J. uses her Palm Berry to schedule her beau.

I dont use a Palm Berry, Mother. Whatever the heck that is. I use my Palm Pre. Anyway, Im just wondering how Maddie managed to get married in a foreign country when she was only there for a cruise?

Eight sunny days and seven starrry nights, Medea said. Thats how it happened. After the cruise ended, I stayed on in Egypt until we could be married in a civil ceremony. Then I came home; I was in the middle of renovating the house. Dicky was supposed to follow when his immigration status was resolved.

What happened?

He continued to come up with excuses for why he couldnae come-meanwhile always asking me for more money. Finally, I had to face facts. The young scoundrel had no intention of joining me here.

So you divorced him?

Aye.

How did he take your decision? A.J. questioned.

Medeas mouth twisted. He tried to talk me out of it. Then he suggested that he fly here for a visit so we could try to work things out.

Didnt you want that?

I wanted it. I sent him the airfare, but he never booked the flight. When I taxed him with it, he said hed had to give it to his mother for an operation.

The old ailing mother routine, Elysia murmured. He really hadnt much imagination.

Shameless is what he was. Medea was grim. So I made my mind up and I divorced him.

Did he ever try to blackmail you? A.J. asked.

Medea looked confused. Over what?

Good question. They had been legally married, after all. I dont know. Did you ever hear from him again?

No. That I never did. Medeas expression was bleak.

Did you want to? A.J. asked, surprised.

Medeas gimlet dark eyes studied her. Aye. She reached for her scotch.


| Murder On The Eightfold Path | Eleven