“I believe her.” A.J. paused in the doorway adjoining the bathroom and Elysia’s bedroom. She brushed a fake spiderweb out of her face.
Elysia, sitting at the gargoyle table next to the window that looked over the back garden, briskly laid playing cards across the marble tabletop. “About what, pumpkin?”
“I don’t think Maddie killed Dicky.”
Elysia made a small, dismissive sound and set the remaining cards in the deck aside. “Of course she didn’t kill Dicky.”
“There’s no ‘of course’ about it, Mother. She certainly had motive. A much better motive than you. And she’s eccentric. She makes you look like a solid citizen.”
Elysia sniffed and turned a card over.
“It’s possible that she caught sight of him one day, realized that he had moved to this country after all-and was up to his old tricks-and in the shock of the moment, killed him.”
“In my front garden?”
“I thought you said you believed her?”
“You saw the way she reacted when I told her Dicky was dead. It was obvious the news came as a complete bombshell.”
“Maybe. But she’s an actress, after all.”
“She was never that good an actress,” Elysia stated with ruthless candor.
A.J. shrugged, stuck her toothbrush back in her mouth, and returned to the sink to finish cleaning her teeth.
“What are you doing, anyway?” she called after she had rinsed, spat, and dried her face.
“I often play solitaire when I can’t sleep.”
A.J. returned to her mother’s bedroom door. “Do you often have trouble sleeping?”
Elysia shrugged a bony shoulder and scooped up a couple of cards.
A.J. studied her, troubled. There were so many things about her mother that she still didn’t know after all this time. But then they had been strangers to each other for nearly thirty years.
“Can I ask you something?” she asked.
Elysia raised her brows, her attention still apparently on the cards.
“When you and Daddy split up for that year and we stayed in Stillbrook… what happened?”
Elysia’s hand froze on the card she was selecting. Then she picked it up, checked it, and laid it back down. “You know what happened. We decided that we had made a mistake and we reconciled.” She added firmly, “And we lived happily ever after.”
A.J. checked this against her adolescent memories. It was true that no matter how miserable her parents were, they had always been more miserable apart.
Her recollection of that particular time was especially vague. She had been the usual gawky, self-absorbed, and insecure teen-and that year had been hell on earth. Stillbrook had been the place her family came to vacation; living there, attending school there, was a very different thing. Without her father’s stabilizing presence the only person she’d had to rely on was Aunt Diantha.
But there was no point dragging up these dreary memories. The past was just that; she was committed to living in the moment.
So A.J. was surprised to hear herself ask, “What happened between you and Stella Borin?”
Elysia continued to check cards and turn them back over. At last, she said evenly, “Do you really want to know?”
“Your father had an affair with her.”
It was like being told you were related to Porky Pig-absolutely and ludicrously beyond the realm of possibility. But one look at her mother’s face told her it was not a joke.
“With the Stella Borin who lives down the road from me?” As though her mother might have confused her Stella Borins.
Elysia reaffirmed crisply, “Your father had an affair with Stella Borin.”
Even Elysia was thrown by that one. “How? All the usual ways, I suppose.” She sighed. “Your father owned Starlight Farm before we married. His family used to come up for the summer when he was a boy, and when he became successful he bought Starlight Farm. That’s how we met. I was on holiday, staying with Di.” A faint reminiscent smile touched her mouth.
A.J. said tentatively, “And he knew Stella from… before?”
“Yes.” Elysia made a face. “I can only imagine she was very different in those days.”
Maybe. Maybe not. Stella might not have been a beauty queen, but she was kind and loyal and direct. She was also refreshingly uncomplicated, and that alone had probably held charm for A.J.’s father. Not that A.J. was foolish enough to say so.
What she did say was, “And you think they had an affair?”
“I know they did.”
“Daddy admitted it?”
“Of course not.”
“Stella admitted it?”
“Not on your life.”
“My hunches are never wrong.” That seemed to be the Master Detective’s final word on the subject. Elysia went back to cheating at solitaire. But as A.J. turned to her own room, Elysia said levelly, “I forgave your father because I knew that I-or more precisely, my drinking-was to blame. I never had any doubt that he loved me, but I was not… easy to live with.”
That was putting it mildly. Still, it was a shock to think of her father… in fact it seemed wiser to set that aside for later examination. A.J. had asked. Now she knew. It certainly explained that while Elysia could forgive A.J.’s father, she still felt strong enmity for Stella. Elysia had never been of the forgive and forget philosophy.
“Good night, Mother.”
Returning to her bedroom, A.J. lay down on the large canopied bed and cautiously attempted her evening asanas. She did some very careful stretching, then, tucking her knees into her chest in Happy Baby pose, she inhaled and spread her knees, gently pulling her flexed legs toward her underarms. She could feel the tug on her lower back and across her shoulders but there was no pain, just slight discomfort.
Shins perpendicular to the mattress, A.J. contracted her feet, pulling gently and creating resistance as she drew her knees toward the sheets. So far, so good.
Pressing her buttocks into the mattress, A.J. lengthened her spine. She relaxed her neck and the base of her skull. Holding the pose, she breathed deeply and evenly for one full minute.
When A.J. finally relaxed in the sheets, she felt triumphant. She’d done it. She had finally managed to successfully complete a full series of asanas for the first time since injuring her back. Yes, these were by far the easiest of the asanas, but she was healing. All her previous work had not been in vain. It was simply a matter of patience and care. Body and mind at peace, she closed her eyes and let herself drift to sleep.
“ Wake up!” a voice hissed against her ear. A.J.’s eyes jerked open. She was confusedly aware that she was in an unfamiliar bedroom, that it was very late, and that her mother was whispering to her.
“Shhhh! There’s someone in the garden!”
A.J. sat up fast, biting back the exclamation of pain at her unwary movement. Elysia was already over at the window, peering through a crack in the heavy draperies.
A.J. joined her, her own eyes searching the wooded darkness below. “Is he still there?”
“I think so.” Elysia shifted so that A.J. could peer out, too.
“By that far wall.”
A.J. stared but it was impossible to discern one distinct shadow among so many. “Are you sure?”
Elysia nodded. Her own gaze seemed glued to the yard below.
Long seconds passed. A.J. became aware of how cold the wooden floor was beneath her bare feet, how much her back hurt, how tired she was. “Are you sure you weren’t dreaming? I don’t see anyone out there.”
Her mother reminded her of a bristling terrier, tense and pointy profile silhouetted by starlight. She didn’t say anything.
“Are you sure you weren’t-?”
Elysia made an exasperated noise. “I’m going down to check.”
A.J. grabbed her wrist. “What do you mean, you’re going down to check? You’re not going out there! If you really think someone is lurking in the garden, we’ll call the police.”
Elysia tried to free herself. “That’s the last thing we want to do. We need to follow this person, whoever he-or she-is.”
“You’re not on an episode of 221B Baker Street now. If someone really is down there, they could be dangerous. This could have something to do with Dicky’s death.”
“If someone is down there?” Elysia said dangerously.
“I haven’t seen anyone so far.”
“He probably sneaked off while we stood here debating it!”
“If you’re sure someone is-or was-down there, I’ll call the police.” A.J. turned away and this time Elysia grabbed her wrist.
“You can’t call the police without talking to Maddie.”
“What? Why not?”
“It’s… bad form. Bad etiquette.”
“It simply is. It’s up to one’s host or hostess-”
“Mother, this is ridiculous. If there’s a prowler, we need to call the police. I can’t believe we’re even discussing this. You can go wake Maddie up while I phone.”
“No, no,” Elysia insisted. “We’ll need to ask her first.”
“I thought you were worried about this possible prowler getting away?”
Elysia’s shoulders relaxed as she glanced back at the window. “I think it’s moot at this point. I think he’s gone.”
“You’re not making any sense.” A.J. stared at her mother’s shadowed face. “You don’t want the police to know about Maddie.”
“She’s the only lead I have,” Elysia said fiercely. “If the plods come barging in here and start interrogating her, she’ll clam up. I know her. She doesn’t like or trust coppers. And if that happens we’ll lose the only connection we have to Dicky’s blackmailing history.”
A.J. couldn’t believe they were truly having this debate. “We can’t conceal a witness.”
“She’s not a witness.”
“A suspect. Whatever she is, we can’t conceal her.”
“But we don’t have to hand her over to the coppers.”
A.J. looked worriedly from the window to her mother’s rigid form. “We’re not detectives. We don’t know what we’re doing. We might make things worse for you.”
“This prowler probably had nothing to do with Dicky. He’s probably just an ordinary, garden variety burglar.”
“Well, he’s certainly been in the garden long enough.” A.J. grabbed her bathrobe from the foot of the bed. “Okay, let’s wake Maddie and she can decide if she wants to call the police or not.”
They hurried out into the hall, feeling their way in the dark. Something warm and alive scurried out from under A.J.’s foot. She stifled a yell.
She gasped, “That ferret!”
A small narrow form glimmered palely along the floorboard and then darted down the staircase ahead of them.
They reached the top of the stairs, groping cautiously for the railing. A.J. asked, “Where is Maddie’s room in relation to ours?”
“I’m not sure.” Elysia brushed past her, moving swiftly down the staircase. “You have a look for it while I check out the garden.”
“What? We’ve already been through this!” But A.J. was talking to the empty darkness. She swore and made her halting way down the stairs in pursuit of Elysia, who had fled like a ghost through the uncertain light.
There was no sign of her on the ground floor. A.J. stumbled through the squares of moonlight and shadow until she found the dining room. She snatched the poker from the fireplace and continued through the empty rooms and out onto the sun porch. She closed the door softly behind her to keep the ferret from getting out.
A few yards ahead, she could see the spectral form of Elysia moving along the pet graveyard. Granted, most specters could not afford vintage Olga peignoir sets. The garden was damp, the leaves glistening in the faint starlight. The night smelled of wet earth and moldering leaves; it smelled creepy, like fresh graves.
A.J. caught up to Elysia. “For the record? That was not cool.”
“It’s all right,” Elysia told her. “There’s no one here.” She was peering at the wet grass. “Do you see anything? Footprints? I can’t tell in this light.”
A.J. glanced at the grass. The lawn was of the thick and durable variety. They’d have to get down on their hands and knees with a magnifying glass to examine it for crushed blades, and that was not about to happen.
“Maybe it was the ghost of Angus the cat,” she said sourly.
“Now don’t be shrewish, pumpkin,” Elysia said vaguely, moving through the overhanging tree limbs. The long, pale skirt of her nightgown trailed along the lawn as she moved away. “You were simply outmaneuvered.”
“Outmaneuvered? This isn’t a game.”
“There’s a gate back here,” Elysia’s voice floated back, sounding surprised.
A.J. followed her through the trees, still giving vent to her feelings. “You have no idea who was out here. It could have been some kid taking a shortcut home after a party or it could have been a serial rapist trying to get into the house. You didn’t know what you were going to find when you came out here.”
She fell silent, staring at the wooden gate in the back wall. Hinge creaking, it swung gently in the breeze.