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Seventeen

Murder On The Eightfold Path

Peg was headstrong. Didnt like not getting her way.

A.J. and Elysia were sitting in Mart Crowleys large, sunny garden sipping iced tea.

The garden was decorated with ball-sized Easter eggs and resin lambs and ducks. A giant blue inflatable bunny was lying like a puddle on the lawn.

Elysia inquired, Was there any reason to suspect your sisters death was not suicide?

Marts jaw tightened. Plenty. Peg was not the kind of person to take her own life. And I never knew her to take a sleeping pill. She was positive, forceful. Does that sound like someone who relied on sleeping pills or would kill herself?

Was she in ill health by any chance?

Nope. Strong as an ox.

She didnt leave a note or anything like that?

No. Mart added grudgingly, But even if she did kill herself, she wouldnt have left a note. Peggy had a real thing about her privacy. She wouldnt have wanted any publicity.

Did you tell the police your suspicions? asked A.J.

Sure. They didnt exactly tell me that everyone said the same thing, but I got the impression that a lot of people have trouble accepting a suicide verdict.

Elysia meditatively tapped one polished fingernail on the glass-topped table. Was your sister involved with anyone? Sometimes when romances end badly a person can experience an emotional low.

Ha! At Marts harsh laugh the birds in the feeder took flight in bright flashes of color. Not Peg. She wasnt the sentimental kind. Oh, she had her disappointing affaires de coeur, but she wasnt the kind of person to sit around brooding and feeling sorry for herself. No, she did her best to get even with the little ba-creep.

A.J. had to admire that skilful look of attentive inquiry from Elysia.

He was an artiste, Mart said. She waved her hands as though playing pat-a-cake. A sculptor. You know the kind of thing. Nudes that look like Buddhas and sumo wrestlers. My grandkids do a better job with Play-Doh. She should have known better at her age.

What happened?

What youd expect. She paid a fortune for art classes she didnt need and art supplies she never used. Why not, anyway? They were both consenting adults.

Why not, indeed, murmured Elysia.

But Peggy fell in love? A.J. suggested.

Both Elysia and Mart snickered. Bless your heart, Mart said. No, babycakes. Nothing like that. Oh, she was fond of the kid, I guess, but it was just a holiday romance. Except at home. You know the kind of thing.

Elysia sighed and nodded wisely, auditioning for the part of Woman of the World.

I dont think she gave him another thought once it was over and she was busy with her friends and charity work. But then the letters started.

What kind of letters? The penny dropped. Blackmail?

Smart girl, Mart said to Elysia. Yes, blackmail. There were pictures. Graphic pictures-and plenty of them. Well, Peg was furious, but what could she do? She had her name and position to think of. Not that Peg really cared about that kind of thing, but you know how people can be. She was on a lot of committees with a lot of stuffed shirts who would have taken a dim view of any hanky-panky.

How was she approached? E-mail? Snail mail?

Yes. Real mail. The letters were sent from Hamburg and the payments were made to a post office box in Newton.

Newton, Elysia said quickly.

Its the county seat, A.J. pointed out. We cant make too much of that.

Where did she meet this boy?

At the same time, A.J. asked, Did they meet on a cruise by any chance?

No. Mart sounded sure. No, Peggy never went on a cruise. She was deathly afraid of water. To be honest, I cant remember where she said she met him.

Where did your sister get her hair styled? Elysia asked.

Oh that overpriced place in Newton. The Salon or whatever they call it.

A.J. and Elysia exchanged looks.

Did she approach this boy after the blackmail began?

Ohhhh yes, Mart said with grim satisfaction. Did she ever. And she kept approaching him. She laughed heartily. He claimed he wasnt blackmailing her. That it was nothing to do with him. He was romancing some other rich widow by then, and Peg did her best to stick a spoke in that wheel.

Did she try approaching the woman directly?

No. I asked her about that. She said it wouldnt do any good. The woman wouldnt believe her or was too crazy about the kid to care-and Peg hadnt paid fifty thousand dollars to protect her good name just to reveal it to some stranger who was old enough to know better.

Fifty thousand dollars, A.J. repeated weakly. What about those blackmail payments? Did your sister ever try to find who was picking them up from the post office box? Whether it was this boy or not?

Mart said slowly, I dont know. She talked about it at one point. I dont know if she ever really did pursue it. If she did, she didnt tell me about it. Peg was private. Thats why she let them extort money from her, I guess. Me? Id have said publish and be damned. She took a defiant swig of iced tea.

Would Peg have been likely to confront the blackmailer?

Its possible. If she could have done it safely-I mean, done it and kept her secret.

She should have gone to the police, A.J. said. Both Mart and Elysia gave her scornful looks. A.J. insisted, Shes dead because she didnt speak up.

Elysia dismissed this with a graceful flutter of fingers.

A.J. ignored her and asked, Do you remember what this boys name was? Was he Egyptian, by any chance?

No. Blond and blue-eyed as I recall. His name was something like Cory. I dont remember a last name. I dont think Peg ever mentioned it.

Would you have an address for him or any idea of how to get in contact with him?

Mart shook her head.

What about your sisters papers? Do you think there might be something there that might provide a lead?

Mart scratched her head, frowning meditatively. I dont remember seeing anything, but then I wasnt looking for anything. Not to do with the kid, anyway. I tried to find some way to prove she had been blackmailed. But there was nothing. She grimaced. Im a pack rat. My sister was the opposite. She never kept anything she didnt have immediate use for. And Ive seen banks that didnt have files and paperwork as well organized as she was.

She wouldnt wish to take a chance on something falling into the wrong hands, Elysia remarked.

Exactly. Thats exactly right. She wasnt someone who left anything to chance. She didnt like to gamble.

But she took a chance when she had the affair with Cory or whatever his name was, A.J. pointed out.

The other two women stared at her. Then Mart reached over and patted her hand. Youll understand when youre older, babycakes.


They killed her, Elysia said with ghoulish satisfaction as they left Mart Crowleys quiet suburban home and started back to Stillbrook. Either way you look at it, they killed her.

If she killed herself because she was being blackmailed, I agree that philosophically and ethically the blackmailers are guilty. But I dont know how that would hold up in a court of law. I dont know that could ever be proved since she didnt leave a note.

Elysia shifted into high gear as they reached the open highway. Immaterial. She didnt kill herself. They killed her.

A.J. wasnt so sure. In fact their interview with Mart Crowley had left her less sure. That wouldnt be so easy to do, Mother. First of all, Peggy didnt typically take sleeping pills, so how would they get her to swallow an overdose?

Force-feed her. Slip them in her bedtime warm milk. I dont know. I just know they did.

But once Mart started claiming foul play the police would surely have checked for signs of violence. There couldnt have been any.

We dont know that for sure.

Well, we can find out. Jake would surely do this much for her. A.J. added, Plus how would the blackmailers have gained access to Peggys warm milk?

Elysia said exasperatedly, I was being facetious.

I know you were, but the point remains. If she didnt take the pills herself, how would they have been administered? Someone would have to have access to her home and her pills and her food or drink.

This boy she was having the affair with would have had access. This Cory.

We dont know that. According to Mart, Cory was just a boy toy. I cant imagine someone as fearful of publicity as Peggy seemed to be giving a casual sexual partner the key to her home.

Maybe he stole a key.

Maybe he did, but this is getting totally into the realm of speculation. We dont know that Cory ever had access to Peggys keys, let alone that she ever brought him home.

We need to find out.

We need to be careful, A.J. corrected. For one thing if there is some connection between Maddies death and Peggys we dont want anyone to know were poking around in this. It could prove extremely hazardous to our health.

Elysia made a disgusted sound.

Im serious, Mother. If Maddie was killed I think theres a very good chance it was because she knew something about Peggys death. Or someone thought she did. And if thats the case, they acted swiftly and ruthlessly.

Elysia had no response to that.

Why dont we put together a list of questions and Ill ask Jake-

Jake!

Yes, Jake. I dont have another police contact. Do you? Plus I believe him when hes trying to help you. If we can present him with a viable alternative suspect and motive, hell take it to the DA. So lets figure out what we need to know. Like did they investigate this Cory at all? Was there any record of where the sleeping pills were purchased? That kind of thing.

The fact that four people connected to this case are also connected to the same hairdresser is too much of a coincidence for me.

I agree. But not everyone seems to think its that amazing a coincidence. And, in fairness, The Salon is very popular. Besides, we already knew Peggy went to The Salon, A.J. reminded her. Maddie learned about her death at The Salon.

Elysia sighed. True.

They debated a short list of questions A.J. could present to Jake in hopes that he might follow up where they could not. By the time they had worked out their short list, they were pulling into the long, dirt drive that led to the farmhouse at Deer Hollow.

As A.J. got out of the SUV, Elysia leaned across and said, Anna?

A.J. bent, absently reflecting that even a week ago she would have been unable to make so simple a move without pain. Yes?

Thank you.

Of course! A.J. said quickly. She wasnt even exactly sure what her mother was thanking her for, but she was a little embarrassed.

I know you think we should trust the police and leave any further investigating to them. I couldnt do this on my own, so thank you.

A.J. nodded and let the heavy door swing shut.

She was touched, although she wasnt convinced that Elysia wouldnt have forged ahead on her own. She told herself she was acting as a moderating influence, and she hoped that was true. But as much as she wanted to leave the investigation to the police, as much as she wanted to believe that they would find Dicky Massris real killer without any help from her or Elysia, she knew things didnt always work out the way they should.

She watched the Land Rover bouncing and bumping down the dirt road back to the highway, then she turned and let herself inside the house.

It felt warm and a little stuffy, so she opened the windows and went out on the back patio to call to Monster, who came around the side of the house looking guilty in the way only a dog digging for gophers in the flower beds can look.

What have you been doing? A.J. said in the deep, deep voice she always assumed for scolding Monster-on those rare occasions he needed scolding.

Monster promptly flattened his ears and looked cowed, although what he made of the deep, deep voice was anyones guess. The deep, deep voice was actually as far as A.J.s punitive measures went. She sort of even secretly hoped that Monster might catch a few of the gophers in a display of natural selection, but shed never seen any sign of success. Which, on second thought, was perhaps a good thing.

Monster tried to change the subject by indicating it was past his dinnertime, and A.J. fed him, made herself a grilled cheese sandwich. and pulled out Dianthas box of notes and rough manuscript draft.

As always she found it centering, soothing, to read over her aunts thoughts. Diantha had been a mix of practicality and compassion. Well-educated and informed, she had also been imaginative and fiercely loyal to the causes she believed in and the people she loved. She had not been without her flaws, of course. She had also been stubborn and occasionally judgmental. Once she made up her mind, it was difficult to persuade her to see things another way, which was probably how A.J. and Lily had ended up as co-partners when anyone could see that that was a match made in Hell.

Words have tremendous power. Sometimes in the heat of the moment we forget this. We concentrate on winning the battle at hand and forget that winning a particular battle may cost us the war. Why do I speak of war and yoga in the same breath? Because our modern lives are full of conflict. Look around you. We all experience tension, conflict, anger. And what are we angry about? We believe that we have been wronged. What happens then? We scream. We scream to be heard. What then can we do for the angry among us? The first and most immediate thing we can do is listen.

A.J. jotted a couple of notes in the margin of the neatly typed page. Through the open window she could hear the sweet song of a bird settling in for the night, and Monster snuffling along the flower bed.

Monster! she growled.

The snuffling stopped. But in the silence she heard the approach of a familiar engine. Heart beating with sudden excitement, A.J. rose and looked out the front window.

Headlights were coming down the road.

The familiar four-wheel drive utility vehicle with police insignia pulled into her front yard and Jake got out.

A.J. went out on the porch to greet him. He kissed her hello-not a deep, passionate kiss, true, but not a perfunctory peck either.

This is a surprise, she said.

Yeah. Well. He followed her inside the house and down the hall to the kitchen. I thought since I was in the area Id come by and tell you what we found out on Dora Beauford.

A.J. studied his stern profile. She knew Jake well enough to know he was about to give her news he didnt want to deliver. Perhaps it was about the case against her mother. Perhaps not. Her nerves tightened.

She made herself guess out loud. Dora Beauford has an alibi.

He nodded grimly.

What kind of alibi?

She was getting her hair done.

Where?

Jake was already shaking his head. Not at The Salon.

Did you ask? She handed him a jar of ground coffee; the lid had a tendency to stick.

He opened it automatically, saying, Of course I asked. I had to verify her alibi.

Did you ask her about The Salon?

He hesitated.

You didnt. Why? What would it have hurt? Couldnt you just this once have-

Hold on. Of course I asked, he interrupted. And, yes, she was a client for a time. But I think youre pinning too much on that connection.

A.J. scooped coffee into the machine. And to think I believed Mother was jumping to conclusions. Jake, theyre running some kind of blackmail scheme out of The Salon.

If shed imagined she would surprise him with that theory, she was disappointed. Jake said, I know thats what you think-you might even be right-but nobody tried to blackmail Dora Beauford.

You questioned her about that? Specifically?

Believe it or not, A.J., I do know how to do my job.

She had the grace to blush. Sorry. Its just

I know. This time its personal.

She grimaced. Personal and painful. Jakes expression was uncompromising; he met her gaze unwaveringly. I do understand. I promise you Im following every lead.

Could Dora be lying?

He shrugged. Its always a possibility. I didnt get that feeling, though.

A.J. studied his face. But still, its too much to be a coincidence. That all of these women were connected to the same beauty salon?

I agree. Up to a point.

That point being?

Motive for murder.

Im not following. If all these women are being blackmailed-

Honey-A.J. First of all, your mother already admits that she was being blackmailed. So theres nothing new there.

But its a blackmail ring. It has to be.

Maybe. We havent proved that yet. But say youre right. From the perspective of the DA, that doesnt clear Elysia. Just the opposite.

But it has to throw some doubt. A blackmail ring means that there were other victims. Other women with a motive for wanting Massri out of the way.

Not necessarily. An argument could be made that all these women were being blackmailed but your mother is the only one who turned violent. Youve also yet to prove a connection between Massri and The Salon. Shampoo bottles in the shower arent going to hold up in court. You said it yourself: the hair care products could belong to one of his lady friends.

But then Massri himself becomes the connection. The fact that he was involved with all these women and the women all went to the same salon? That has to be significant.

He answered on what appeared to be a tangent. The other problem Ive got, from what youve managed to uncover, its these other women-the victims-who seem to be at risk. He added quickly, as A.J. opened her mouth, And from a blackmailers perspective, thats not good business.

Maybe it was better business than the alternative. Peggy Grahams sister says Peggy was aggressively pursuing whoever blackmailed her. Maybe someone was afraid of exposure.

Peggy Grahams sister? Jake inquired too politely.

Er, yes. Actually, I was going to tell you about that. She said quickly, trying to head him off, Mother is, as Im sure you could guess, really upset about Maddies death and when she remembered that Peggy Graham had a sister-

Jake interrupted. Shes snooping. Dont bother to gift wrap it. She announced to the entire world shed solve the damn case herself, and thats exactly what shes set out to do.

The assorted stress and strains of the last two weeks got the better of A.J.s temper, and she snapped, Well, do you blame her?

He stared at her for a long, bleak moment. No, he said finally. I dont blame her. Id probably try to do the same thing, but shes liable to get herself deeper in hot water-and drag you in, too.

This was such an unexpected relenting of Jakes previous attitude that A.J. didnt know what to say. He solved that problem by asking her to fill him in on what she and Elysia had learned from Mart Crowley.

Jake heard her out in mostly silence and sipped his coffee. At the end of A.J.s recital he said, Okay, so maybe Peggy Grahams decision to take action against the extortionists made someone nervous and they decided to deal with her. But it wasnt Massri, obviously, since Graham wasnt seeing him.

A.J. bit her lip. Youre saying its a dead end.

He sighed. Im saying that there does seem to be a connection between these women and The Salon, but its not enough. I dont buy the blackmail angle as sufficient motive for murder. You dont kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

Then what do you buy? Because if nothing else, its ridiculous to think my mother would shoot someone in her front garden.

Listen, you dont have to convince me. I dont believe Elysia shot Massri. I admit I initially wondered. He clarified hastily, It crossed my mind, thats all-but having interviewed her several times since the incident, I agree. Shes not our perp. But an argument like that doesnt get us anywhere. People kill other people all the time in stupid and brutal ways. Murder doesnt take a mastermind. It takes someone whose self-interest knows no boundaries, be it a brain surgeon in the Hamptons or a junkie in Harlem.

Your point being?

Youre going to have to come up with a better line of defense.

What about the scandal at the SCA?

Im still working that angle. It appears that Massri accepted bribes not to investigate allegations of illegal excavations and the smuggling of antiquities.

That sounds promising.

Maybe. Theres no question that illegal trade in antiquities is still big money. Unscrupulous collectors, private and public, are always on the lookout for valuable artifacts. High quality relics are freely available on the international market if you know where to look and so long as the interested parties are prepared to pay enormous sums. And Egyptian antiquities are pretty much as popular as ever.

Maybe Massri crossed the wrong people?

Maybe, but as far as I can tell the people he crossed were the Egyptian government and his colleagues at the SCA. I dont think either of those entities came gunning for him in Elysias front yard.

How could Massri get away with that kind of thing?

He was in the perfect position to get away with it-he was supposed to be one of the watchdogs.

Thats pretty low. Trading in national treasures.

It is, but the money being offered for some of these antiquities is mind-boggling. And the people buying arent always what youd think. More than one museum curator has been nailed in the illegal trade of antiquities. Sure, sales at reputable auction houses are supposed to be carefully monitored. I guess they are for the most part. Details of the provenance of objects are supposed to be provided.

Provenance?

Documented history of the ownership of an object. Theyre supposed to get publication details of similar pieces, and a history of the movement of objects through the market. But the system isnt foolproof. To say the least.

A.J. nodded. It was getting late and she was getting tired, although she was doing her best to seem bright and cheerful. The last thing she wanted to do was hurry Jake off. For these few hours she could pretend that everything was still good between them. That they were building toward something that might sustain them through all the years to come. Something more than friendship, although she valued Jakes friendship, too.

He yawned, glanced at his watch.

Can Dora Beaufords alibi be broken? she asked quickly, at random.

I doubt it. Only her hairdresser knows for sure.

Ouch.

You asked. He was grinning at her and she grinned back, warmly conscious of the ever present tug of liking and attraction between them. No, that hadnt changed.

Jake seemed to recollect himself. He said more seriously, Im double-checking that one. But I wouldnt pin my hopes on it. He hesitated. I guess I ought to get going.

No you oughtnt. A.J. opened her mouth. She closed it again. She wasnt going to put pressure on him. And she sure wasnt going to beg. Or even ask politely. In case it was misconstrued. This was something Jake had to work out for himself; he knew-could hardly fail to know-how she felt.

Okay, she said, rising. Thanks for stopping by.

He stared at her for a funny moment, then rose, too.

They walked out together to the front porch.

He seemed to hesitate. Night.

Night, she murmured as he kissed her cheek.

She watched him walk across the yard, boot heels scraping the flagstone walk. The door slammed as he got in the SUV. He backed up slowly, flashed the headlights at her, and drove away into the night.


Sixteen | Murder On The Eightfold Path | Eighteen