The man in the mohair coat lay facedown on the cobble-stone path, one arm outstretched, fingers grazing the handle of the pink woven basket that had fallen on its side. Scattered on the grass, little foil-wrapped eggs glinted in the morning sun.
It was a very nice mohair coat. Camel-colored cashmere, probably Armani-but the bloody bullet hole in the center of it did nothing for the tailoring.
It did nothing for A.J. Alexander’s nerves either-as though family holidays weren’t trying enough. Nothing says Happy Easter! like murder. For a moment she stood perfectly still in her mother’s front garden with the scent of roses and death wafting gently on the spring breeze, and tried to convince herself that she was hallucinating. Too much cream cheese on her bagel, too much Irish in her coffee. There could not be a dead body in her mother’s garden on Easter morning. It just wasn’t…
Monster, A.J.’s golden Lab, waddled forward to sniff the utterly motionless form, nudging the still hand with his wet nose, and then-before a horrified A.J. could stop him-picking up a pastel-colored hard-boiled egg in his mouth and crunching it, shell and all.
“Monster!” A.J. shrieked.
Ears flattening, he gave her a guilty look-and continued crunching.
A.J. jumped forward. Her foot slid on wet grass and yet another hard-boiled egg, and she slipped, twisting her back as she hit the ground. The pain was shocking. For an instant she lay there stunned, blinking up at the azure sky. Birds were singing cheerfully, flowers bobbed overhead-and Monster loomed into view with little bits of colored eggshell on his muzzle.
As A.J. opened her mouth to yell for help, Monster slopped her face with his rough, wet tongue. She waved him away, biting back a cry at the bolt of fire blazing down her spine. It had been over a year since she’d had any back trouble thanks to her new fitness regime, which included yoga morning and night. But even before her aborted attempt to push up, she knew it was going to be a while before she was doing anything more strenuous than Corpse Pose. Speaking of which-A.J. shuddered and turned her gaze away from the thing lying a few feet away.
She groped for her bag, shoving Monster away as he anxiously snuffled her face and hair. Finding her cell phone in her fallen bag, she dialed, her gaze returning to the body on the path. She could see now that blood was pooled on the stones beneath the man’s body. She swallowed hard.
Inside the house the phone began to shrill. A.J. could hear it ringing and ringing. No one picked up. A.J.’s tautly strung nerves ratcheted up a notch. Her mother was occasionally oblivious to those around her, but no one could be oblivious to gunshots outside the front door.
So where was she? She had a house full of people coming and… going. This sudden absence made no sense.
Unless the killer had used a silencer? A.J. instinctively rejected this notion as too James Bondian, but… was it any harder to believe than the fact that a man had been killed in Elysia Alexander’s garden?
A.J. disconnected and dialed Jake. Detective Jake Oberlin of the Stillbrook Police Department was A.J.’s current beau-in fact they had just said good-bye forty-five minutes earlier. He was scheduled to work that day, although no one was anticipating holiday homicide-and certainly not homicide hitting this close to home.
Jake answered his phone on the second ring.
“Hey,” he said. And despite the terseness of it, A.J. could hear a certain warmth that, probably due to her current predicament, closed her throat with emotion.
“It’s me,” she got out. “Something terrible has happened. There’s a dead body in mother’s front yard.”
The silence was filled with a windy blankness that indicated Jake was on the road, driving. “You’re not kidding, are you?” he said finally.
“No. I’m not kidding. Mother’s not here. I slipped and fell-” I’ve fallen and I can’t get up! Suddenly those corny old commercials weren’t so funny.
Jake said grimly, “Are you sure your mother’s not there?”
She wasn’t-and the realization terrified her. “She didn’t answer her phone. Jake, it looks like this guy was shot.”
“Are you in a secure location?”
“I’m lying in the middle of the path to the front door. I can’t get up!”
“All right. Stay calm. I’m sending help.” She heard him speaking away from the phone, his faraway voice crisp as he gave orders over his radio. Then he was back on the phone with her. “This guy, this body-do you recognize him?”
A.J. painfully lifted her head. Monster had scooped up yet another colored egg and was chomping away with that guilty but determined expression. She groaned. “Monster, no. Bad dog!”
“What is it?” Jake’s tinny voice demanded from her cell.
“Monster is eating the evidence!”
Perhaps that sounded a little more dire than she intended. “He-the victim-was carrying an Easter basket. Monster is eating the goodies.”
Jake swore and then said, “All right. Do you recognize the victim?”
A.J. studied the man who lay a few feet from her. Gucci shoes, Rolex watch, no rings. Although she couldn’t see his face, she had the impression of youth. His skin-what she could see of it-was brown and supple. His hair was black and shiny.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
Something about the shape of his head…
Surely not. Although… what on earth was a young, expensively dressed man doing delivering Easter baskets to Elysia?
“Okay,” Jake said. “Take it easy. Everything will be okay. We’ll be there before you know it.”
He disconnected. A.J. eased back into the grass and tried to relax the muscles in her back. Pain was partly mental. So if she could control the mental part… mind over matter…
She drew a long, slow breath and exhaled slowly, evenly. She took another deep breath.
If there were ever a test for the calming powers of yoga’s deep breathing exercises… well, this probably counted toward the final exam.
She paused and tried to decide if she felt better or not.
This called for more serious measures. She felt around in the grass and found one of the tiny foil-wrapped chocolate eggs.
It felt like forever, but in fact it was probably not more than thirteen minutes before A.J. heard sirens. Cautiously, she tried to turn, but any movement sent pain shooting down her spine and legs. Tears-not least due to frustration-stung her eyes. She heard the bite of tires on gravel, shortly followed by the swing of the garden gate, and then footsteps approaching. Monster, who had been sitting beside her-gently drooling-rose from his haunches, tail wagging.
“How bad is it?” Jake asked, kneeling beside A.J. He brushed his knuckles against her cheek.
She wiped her eyes. “Oh, it’s ridiculous. I just turned wrong. It’s happened before…” She pointed. “There he is.”
Jake studied the waiting corpse, then turned back to her, anxiety sitting oddly on his hard features. “Try to relax. There’s an ambulance on its way. I passed it on the road.”
He must have been flying. That was sort of… nice.
“Can you make sure my mother’s not inside? Her key is in my bag. I’ve called the house and I’ve called her cell phone and she’s not answering. I can’t understand it, because we’re having dinner in less than an hour.”
More sirens floated in the distance.
Jake was already rising, striding quickly up the cobble-stone path.
A.J. closed her eyes. The sirens drew closer. She didn’t have to look to know that emergency vehicles were filling the drive. Sirens were cut but the rumble of engines and the crackle of radios filled the spring morning. In moments uniformed personnel were flooding the crime scene.
By the time Jake returned, A.J. was answering questions for an EMT who looked young enough to still be in high school. “My blood pressure is fine,” she said as the kid wrapped the cuff around her arm. “I mean, all things considered…”
All things being the crime scene investigation going on about three feet away.
“She’s not inside,” Jake said, and some of A.J.’s tension drained away-to be replaced by bewilderment. To the EMT Jake said, “How is she?”
“We’re going to take her to County to get checked. She seems to think it’s a preexisting injury.” His tone implied A.J. would probably say anything to avoid going to the hospital.
“There are dog’s footprints in the blood,” one of the uniformed officers called over.
Monster yawned uneasily as a battery of eyes turned his way.
“Great,” Jake muttered.
A.J. guiltily met his gaze. “I couldn’t exactly drag him away.”
“I know.” Wow. Jake must be worried; he was actually reassuring her.
Voices-one voice in particular-caught A.J.’s attention, and she turned her head.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed the silken tones that had delighted a generation of men who thought bare chests and gold medallions were the height of sophistication. Other voices raised in protest, but the garden gate banged open and heels came swiftly down the walk.
The trim ankles of the British model and sometimes-actress formerly known as Easy Mason-but these days mostly known as Mother!-appeared in A.J.’s line of view. She looked up. Elysia, as Easy had been christened, was carrying a small, brown grocery bag.
Checking mid-step, she seemed to take in the tableau before her: the uniformed officers surrounding the body on the garden path, and A.J., waving off help, in the process of moving very carefully onto the collapsible gurney.
“Pumpkin!” Elysia cried, rushing forward only to stop short as A.J. braced for the onslaught.
“I’m okay,” A.J. said quickly. “My back went out again.” Biting her lip, she sank on the gurney. “Mother, where’ve you been?”
Elysia held up the small, brown bag.
“You went grocery shopping? On Easter morning?” That was Jake, sounding skeptical, and A.J. winced inwardly at his tone.
Elysia pinned him with an inimical eye. “Why yes, Inspector. I needed evaporated milk.”
“For the potatoes.”
“It didn’t occur to you before this morning that you might need evaporated milk?”
“Oh, God,” A.J. said watching her lover and mother square off against each other.
“What’s wrong?” Jake asked, seeming to remember her presence.
“Are you in pain, pumpkin?”
“Of course I’m in pain, Mother. And being called pumpkin doesn’t help. I thought something terrible had happened to you.”
Elysia stared at her. A.J. could practically see recollection dawn. Her mother turned slowly and stared at the grisly scene just a few feet away.
Elysia’s jaw dropped-a most un-Elysia-like expression.
“Do you know him?” A.J. asked uneasily.
At the same time, Jake said, “Can you identify the victim?”
Elysia stepped forward. The crime scene personnel automatically gave her room to view the man on the ground.
There was a funny silence.
“Do you recognize him?” Jake demanded.
“Blimey,” Elysia said mildly. “That’s my blackmailer.”