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Sixteen

Murder On The Eightfold Path

The next morning, Tuesday, A.J. and Elysia drove back to Stillbrook to see Bradley Meagher at his home office. Mr. Meagher greeted them cordially enough although he seemed just a little stiff with Elysia.

He led the way down a short hallway to his office in the basement of the gracious old Victorian house. It was a comfortably cluttered room with a collection of mismatched and battered furniture. Framed law degrees and honorary diplomas adorned the walls. The remnants of a TV dinner sat on the table next to a long leather couch. A white cockatoo in an enormous old-fashioned birdcage scooted along his perch and harshly called out, You da bomb!

Mr. Meagher threw the bird a beleaguered glance and stepped behind his large, cluttered desk. Something about that move and the funny, half-awkward look Mr. Meagher threw Elysia as he sat down put A.J. in mind of someone retreating behind the safety of a barrier.

Well now, Mr. Meagher said briskly, staring down at the file on his desk. He began to bring them up to date on the progress in the DAs attempt to build the case against Elysia.

Yes, A.J. was now convinced that Mr. Meagher was uncomfortable with Elysia and wishing to keep both physical and emotional distance between them. A glance at her mothers face confirmed her suspicion. Elysia was watching Mr. Meagher with a perplexed expression. Perplexed and perhaps a little hurt.

The forensics report confirms that the gun used in Maddie Sutherlands murder was almost certainly the same as that used in young Massris.

A.J. remembered that Mr. Meagher must have, given the recollections of her mother and Maddie during their dinner together, known Maddie as well. He seemed businesslike and unmoved by her death. But perhaps they had not cared much for each other? Or perhaps he hid his feelings well?

Have they found the gun? A.J. asked.

No, that they havent.

Elysia drawled, Im surprised Herr Bormann-

Thatll be enough of that, me girl, Mr. Meagher broke in sharply, his face flushing. One reason youre out on bail now is Jake Oberlin spoke up for you. The DA and nearly everyone else involved in the prosecution of this case thought you too great a flight risk.

There was a hint of color in Elysias ivory face, too. She lifted a slim, dismissing shoulder, but said grudgingly, If thats true, I suppose I owe him thanks.

If its true? Mr. Meagher repeated. Tis not meself who plays games with the truth!

Elysias eyes narrowed. Whats that supposed to mean?

Mr. Meagher appeared to struggle with himself.

Hey, dude! cried the cockatoo. Lets party!

Mr. Meagher muttered a curse and rose to throw a faded blanket over the cage.

For the first time, A.J. forced herself to objectively consider whether Mr. Meagher might have had a motive to kill Dakarai. She dismissed the idea quickly, remembering Mr. Meaghers obvious shock at discovering that Elysia had been having an affair. Of course, he could have been acting; A.J. had seen plenty of TV movies where just such scenarios played out, in which case Mr. Meagher might have framed Elysia in the hope of driving her to turn to him for help.

Still. Mr. Meagher? That was pretty hard to believe-and not just because A.J. was very fond of the old rascal.

She observed him surreptitiously as he returned to his desk, and decided the idea was simply too far-fetched. Mr. Meagher probably did nurse unrequited feelings for Elysia, but that was still a long way removed from knocking off her gigolo lover. For one thing, Mr. Meagher was far too practical. Hed be bound to see that getting rid of Massri wouldnt help his own situation, nor was Elysia likely to change her feelings for him this late in the game simply out of gratitude.

Actually, now that she thought of it, A.J. wasnt exactly sure what her mothers feelings for Bradley Meagher were. She was clearly fond of him, considered him a friend but observing the uncertain way Elysia was studying her old friend, A.J. wondered if Elysia herself had ever worked out exactly what she felt for Mr. Meagher.

Mr. Meagher, whats our next move? A.J. asked. Surely the fact that the police havent found the murder weapon works in our favor?

That it does. The problem remains that there is no other viable suspect.

But all that means is the police havent found him-or her-yet. Have you been able to get any further with the SCA?

Not so far, Mr. Meagher said grimly. Im planning to make a regular nuisance of meself until someone in that bloody country and organization will talk to me.

I think it is a valid lead. Even Jake told me that the police have finally begun to explore the angle that Massri might have been involved in illegal activities regarding antiquities. There must be something there or they wouldnt be bothering to dig any further when theyve already charged Mother.

Now, now. The police prefer that the right villain go to prison for the crime, Mr. Meagher remonstrated automatically. But he was clearly considering her words. If new information has come to light-

Well, it must have, although I have no idea what it would be. Jake didnt confide more than that to me.

Mr. Meaghers brows rose. He reached for a legal pad and began making notes. Unfortunately there wasnt a great deal more that A.J. could tell him.

Ill talk to Jake Oberlin, he assured A.J. Put a wee bit of pressure on him.

Just make sure he understands that this was a line of investigation you were already pursuing, A.J. said, remembering some uncomfortable moments in the past between her and Jake.

Elysia sniffed dismissively but withheld comment.

What about gambling debts? A.J. suggested suddenly. Mother, did you tell Mr. Meagher about Dicky betting on horse racing?

Mr. Meagher looked up. He played the ponies? Did he indeed?

Yes, Elysia said reluctantly. But it really wasnt the sort of thing youre hoping for. Perfectly decent people do gamble for fun now and then. It doesnt always lead to losing ones home or having men named Guido turn up with baseball bats.

True, A.J. conceded. But Dicky wasnt a perfectly decent person. He was a blackmailer and probably a thief and he took advantage of vulnerable old ladies. Seeing her mothers indignant expression, A.J. added, As well as you.

Elysia subsided, mollified.


A.J. stayed in town to have lunch with her mother-Mr. Meagher excusing himself on the grounds of a prior commitment-and then drove out to the studio. The lobby was relatively quiet as classes were in session. A.J. greeted Emma and went straight to her office.

She had switched on her laptop and was glancing through the morning mail when she realized Lily had followed her into her office.

Lily said, So nice of you to join us.

Im sorry? This was a little bizarre when she had been trying all day yesterday to get Lily to schedule time with her.

Lily smiled a tight little smile. You seem to be keeping bankers hours these days. We had a problem with the upstairs restrooms this morning.

What the-? Did A.J. look like Josephine the Plumber?

But no, that wasnt fair. As co-manager, A.J. did have a responsibility to be at the studio at least as often as Lily.

What was the problem with the upstairs restroom?

One of the toilets shattered.

One of the A.J.s voice faded out. The seat shattered?

The entire toilet. Base and all. There was water everywhere.

A.J. nodded and kept nodding. She was very much afraid she might laugh. She said gravely, And so you called a plumber, I assume?

Thats right. But its more serious than that. The toilet is a symptom not the disease. I believe we need to have a meeting with every overweight student and reevaluate the progress each has made since joining Sacred Balance.

Uh

A.J. said mildly, Perhaps the toilet was defective?

The plumber didnt believe that to be the case.

Had Lily finally snapped or had she? It was very hard to believe they were having this conversation. Was Lily suggesting that students who broke their diets or missed their daily workouts shouldnt be allowed to use the restroom? What was she suggesting-beyond the fact that A.J. was not pulling her weight?

I see, A.J. said. Well, it happens that I agree with you that we should be monitoring the progress of those students who joined us with weight loss goals in mind.

Yes, we should.

Ah. There it was. The accusation unveiled at last. Lily, there is a lot going on in my life right now in case you hadnt noticed.

Yes, and very little of it seems to have to do with yoga or Sacred Balance.

A.J. swallowed her ire. Lily was perfectly correct. Yoga was pretty much the last thing on her mind these days. Youre right, she said pleasantly. But thats a temporary state of affairs. Anything else?

Lily seemed taken aback by A.J.s calm response. After a stiff second, she said, For example, this vacation you took last weekend. If you were well enough to be up and about, you should have been up and about here. Where we were short-staffed.

Whatever A.J. had been expecting, it wasnt this.

Last weekend was hardly a vacation. My back wasnt at the point where I could have conducted classes. You know that.

Arent you the one who told me your value to this organization went beyond teaching classes?

A.J. felt herself redden. There was an element of unpleasant truth to Lilys observation. Much of what Lily was saying was true. But it was only part of the truth and didnt take into account the tireless and enthusiastic effort A.J. had put into Sacred Balance over the past year. She replied, trying not to sound as testy as she felt, Thats true. I did choose to spend the weekend with my mother. This is a stressful time for her.

More stressful now, Id say. Before A.J. could respond to that, Lily said, Why not be honest? You enjoy owning the studio, you dont enjoy running it.

A.J. managed to control her instinctive reaction, settling for a terse, Not true.

Of course it is. You dont have to work. Sacred Balance is just a hobby for you. Youre dabbling in managing the studio, and thats not fair to the rest of us.

I dont know where this is coming from because Im at this studio working my tail off nearly every single day. Im here more than any other staff member-and that includes you.

Maybe at first, but nowadays youre more interested in playing amateur sleuth than teaching yoga.

You have zero idea what youre talking about.

Im not the only one to notice, A.J.

Really? A.J. sat up very straight. Well, if anyone else has concerns, they can address them to me directly.

You wouldnt be so defensive if you didnt recognize the truth of what Im saying. Look, I know you care about the studio. I know you view it as some kind of spiritual trust left to you by Di, but if you really want whats best for Sacred Balance, youll hear me out.

Here it was. A.J. had known that Lily was angling toward a particular end. She braced herself for what was without a doubt going to be unpleasant.

Go on.

Mara Allen of Yoga Meridian contacted me a few weeks ago. She and her investors are interested in making an offer for Sacred Balance.

Sacred Balance isnt for sale.

Thats emotion talking, not reason. Mara is willing to pay a lot of money for Sacred Balance. Furthermore, shes willing to let me continue as manager of the studio-I could keep on any instructor or staff member I chose. No one would have to lose their job.

No one has to lose their job now. Including me.

Lilys thin mouth twisted. Yoga Meridian, and Mara, have a lot of money behind them. Her investors are willing to pay a more than fair price.

Lily, as you keep pointing out, I dont need the money.

Its not just about you, A.J. Its about whats right for the rest of us, too. What you dont seem to understand is, if youre going to be so blindly stubborn about this, were going to lose Sacred Balance completely. We cant compete with Yoga Meridian. Theyve got everything weve got plus a day spa and hair salon. Every day we lose more customers to them.

Thats ridiculous. Yes, weve lost a few customers, but weve gained new customers, too. The turnover is normal. It balances out.

You cant really believe that. You need to look past your own ego and face facts before we lose Sacred Balance completely.

A.J. took a deep breath and then expelled it slowly.

Inhale.

Exhale.

Inh-

Okay. Youve made your pitch and Ive heard you out. Im not selling Sacred Balance to Mara Allen or anyone else. This subject is now closed.

Dont be so sure, Lily flared. The choice isnt just yours. Im willing to sell my share in Sacred Balance to Mara. Lilys black gaze met A.J.s defiantly.

You dont have a share! Despite her good intentions, A.J.s voice rose. Youre a co-manager, not a co-owner. You dont own any part of this studio.

Try running it without me.

I would love to try running it without you!

They glared at each other. Then Lily rose with a nasty little smile.

Maybe you shouldnt be so hasty, A.J. I very much doubt that youre going to want to hang around this little town managing a yoga studio now that your boyfriend has dumped you and your mother is about to be convicted of murder.

For a moment A.J. was so angry she wasnt sure she could get the words out without choking on them.

If I were you, Id get out of my office.

Lilys dark eyebrows rose haughtily, but get she did. A.J. slammed the door after her. The satisfying bang shook the pictures on the wall, and the framed photograph of Diantha fell over on its face.

Well, what were you thinking? A.J. inquired of the photo as she propped it back on the desk.

Aunt Dianthas serene smile had never been more enigmatic. Feeling sheepish at her loss of temper, A.J. took a few moments to regain her calm.

After all, what was the big deal? Surely, she should be used to Lily by now.

She went to the window and stared out at the pine trees and meadow. Her anger slowly subsided to be replaced by sheepish humor. Oh, if only she could phone Jake to share that line about toilets being a symptom and not the disease!

She was grinning ruefully as her door opened and Suze peeked in. She whispered, Are you okay? We could hear you all the way in the front lobby.

If she ever gets knocked off, Im going to be the prime suspect.

Take a number.

They both laughed uneasily.

Is there anything I can do? Suze asked.

Keep her out of my way.

Suze nodded although they both knew that was a polite fiction. Nobody was going to prevent Lily from going where she liked and saying whatever she chose to.

When A.J. cooled down she called Jake partly because she had remembered that she had never got around to mentioning Dickys possible gambling debts, and she was quite sure her mother had never shared that information, and partly because-painful though it was to admit-she missed him and wanted to hear his voice.

Hey, he said. He sounded preoccupied but not unhappy to hear from her.

Every time we talk I forget to mention this, but Mother told me a while back that theres a possibility that Dicky had gambling debts. He used to bet regularly on horses, and she said he spent a lot of time in Atlantic City.

Is that so?

Yes. She didnt know for certain that he ever had any problems meeting payments or anything like that, but

Jake waited for her to finish, and when she didnt he said, Okay. Unfortunately its not a whole lot to go on. Any idea where in Atlantic City he used to place his bets?

I dont know. She didnt know. She didnt go on those trips. She tries to avoid casinos and that kind of environment.

Aware of Elysias history, Jake said, Right. Well, its another rock to turn over. Maybe something slimy is waiting there.

And Mother remembered something else.

He didnt quite sigh, but he sounded wary as he said, Which would be what?

A few months ago, when Mother and Dicky started up again, she said he was getting abusive phone calls from an ex-lover. A woman named Dora Beauford.

Why didnt she mention that sooner?

She doesnt think theres a connection because the woman hadnt called Dicky for a while-at least, not that she knew. I dont know that thats necessarily true. Dora might have stopped calling because he blocked her phone calls. The fact that Mother wasnt aware of her doesnt necessarily mean Dora wasnt still stalking him.

Dora Beauford you said?

Right.

Ill check it out.

After a hesitation, A.J. asked, Hows it going?

Its going. Look, A.J., Im in the middle of something. Ill give you a call later, okay?

Of course! she said quickly.

She clicked her cell shut and put her face in her hands.

The intercom buzzed.

Miz Alexander, Emma announced.

Glad for any distraction from her crumbling personal life, A.J. snatched the phone up. Mother?

I found her! Elysia said triumphantly.

Found who?

Peggy Grahams sister.

I didnt know you were looking for her.

Of course I was looking for her. Who else would know whether Peggy killed herself?

How did you find her? A.J. questioned uneasily.

Oh, you know, Elysia said airily. The thing is, pumpkin, shes agreed to meet with us this afternoon.

Meet with us?

Who else?

The police, for one.

Well, we should find out whether she has anything to say before we turn her over to the law, dont you think?

Mindful of Lilys accusations-and Jakes warnings-A.J. said, It doesnt work that way. I think maybe we should leave this to Jake.

Its always worked this way for us in the past.

Mother, you make it sound as though we ran some kind of formal criminal investigation agency. The truth is, weve just poked around in other peoples business until they got fed up and reacted-sometimes, if youll recall-violently.

Elysia scoffed at this reminder. What does it matter what the catalyst for truth is?

It matters if we blow Jakes case or get ourselves killed.

I. See. Could there be two more ominous words in the English language?

I just think-

Sharper than a serpents tooth it is to have a thankless child. Elysia interrupted with one of her favorite quotes from Shakespeare-one that A.J. hadnt heard for a few years, and would have been happy to have kept it so.

Mother.

Say no more. If youre going to abandon me in my hour of need, I shall have to manage on my own. Fortunately I still remember a trick or two from my days on 221B Baker Street.

A.J. groaned. Lily was going to love this. What time is this meeting?

Ill pick you up at the studio just after three, Elysia said immediately, cheerfully.


Fifteen | Murder On The Eightfold Path | Seventeen