“Mara Allen on line three,” Emma said briskly over the intercom.
A.J. blinked at the phone as the call rang through. She picked up on the second trill.
“A.J.,” Mara greeted her in that carefully modulated, super-serene voice. “I was wondering if you were free for lunch?”
“Of course.” A.J. answered automatically, her gaze sweeping her day planner.
“Wonderful. Why don’t I meet you at Butterfly Bistro on Main Street at, say, eleven thirty?”
“I’ll see you then,” A.J. said cheerfully. In fact she was more curious than cheerful, and her curiosity was tinged with wariness. But at least now she might finally hear exactly what was behind these weird rumors of buyouts and takeovers.
The morning flew by. A.J. taught her Itsy Bitsy Yoga class, her Yoga for Kids, put together an ad for hiring a masseuse, and before she knew it, it was time to leave for her lunch meeting with Mara.
She opened her office door and found Suze and Emma Rice hovering.
“What did Mara Allen want?” Suze demanded in a stage whisper Lily could probably hear through the hallway walls.
A.J. threw a meaningful look at Lily’s closed office door and Emma said, “She’s upstairs teaching Attila the Hun Yoga.”
A.J. bit her lip. It would be highly inappropriate to laugh at such disrespect. It wasn’t easy to keep a straight face, though. She said truthfully, “I don’t know what Mara wants. I guess I’ll find out at lunch.”
“I know exactly what she wants,” Suze said. “She wants Sacred Balance.”
“You can’t sell to her,” Emma said. “I’ve seen those commercials of hers on late night TV. She’s like… like…”
“She’s like one of those energy vampires!” Suze exclaimed. “Like a succubus.”
Emma and A.J. said at the same time, “A what?” Suze blushed. “Maybe that’s not the right word, but she’s…”
“She’s wrong for Sacred Balance,” Emma said firmly.
“That’s okay because I have no intention of selling to her or anyone else.” A.J. slipped past them. “But I have to hear her out. I want to hear her out. I want to know what exactly is going on around here. Don’t worry. I’ll fill you in when I get back.”
Their worried expressions did not alter as she hurried out the glass doors.
Butterfly Bistro was the newest restaurant to try its luck in the troubled economy of Stillbrook. It was a small European-style caf'e with an emphasis on trendy rather than good food.
Mara was already waiting at an outside table when A.J. arrived. She was signing an autograph for a teenaged girl.
“She’s not even one of my students,” Mara said, amusedly as the girl departed. “Perhaps she’s a Sacred Balance student?”
“I’ve never seen her before.”
Mara raised her pale eyebrows. “A yoga aspirant on your own front doorstep and you didn’t know. It’s a world of endless surprises.”
That was one of Mara’s catch phrases on her infomercials. It’s a world of endless surprises.
They ordered their meals. Vegetarian and decaf for Mara, and a chicken and walnut salad for A.J.
“How is business?” Mara seemed very sincere.
“Is it? I’ll be honest. I’ve heard rumors that you’re struggling a little.”
“I’m quite sure where you heard those rumors,” A.J. said dryly. “But as much as Lily would love to believe I’m ready to throw in the towel, I feel very happy and satisfied with everything we’re achieving at Sacred Balance.”
“And what is that?” Mara was smiling, there didn’t seem to be any bite to the question, and yet A.J. couldn’t help feeling as though a pop quiz had just been sprung on her.
“Teaching our students the integration of mind, body, and spirit through the practice of yoga.”
“But there’s so much more to yoga than health and self-awareness.”
“I realize that. But-”
“When you stop to consider that Maharishi Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras are the oldest known writings available to us. Just imagine. Those sutras date back to two thousand BC…”
Mara was off and running, and A.J. listened politely, nodding noncommittally and wondering when Mara was going to get to the real point of this meeting. If her intention was to reiterate how much more she knew than A.J. about yoga and running a studio, she could have saved herself the cost of an overpriced lunch. A.J. knew only too well how much she had yet to learn.
“So you see, A.J., there are other considerations here.”
A.J. realized that Mara was looking at her expectantly. It was the same expression she used so effectively in her infomercials as she was asking viewers to reach for the phone, credit cards in hand. A.J. racked her brains trying to remember the last things Mara had said. A.J. had been thinking about Jake and the funny pause before he’d left her house on Tuesday night, about Dora and whether hers could have been the voice in Dicky Massri’s apartment, and about whether she had time to squeeze in a quick visit to Mr. Meagher’s when she and Mara finished up.
Apparently they were closer to finishing than she’d realized.
“Sorry?” she said. “I missed that.”
“I’d like to make you an offer for Sacred Balance.”
“Sacred Balance is not for sale.”
“A.J.” Mara’s serenity nearly slipped. She must have been offering her best sales pitch while A.J.’s mind was wandering. No wonder she was exasperated. “I have to say that your attitude is not in keeping with the true yoga spirit.”
A.J. took a moment to consider the best way to say what she needed to say; she didn’t want to be aggressive because Mara might not realize how insulting she was. “I know I still have a great deal to learn. I know that I make mistakes. I know that I might not even be the right person to manage Sacred Balance, but the studio was left in trust to me.”
Mara opened her mouth, but A.J. kept speaking politely, but firmly. “I know some people think that the only reason I’m hanging on is out of the desire to honor my aunt’s wishes, but that’s not true. Well, it’s partly true. I do want to honor her wishes, but even more important to me is what the studio, what rediscovering yoga, has brought to my life. And that journey is something that we’re all sharing at Sacred Balance.”
Lily’s scowling face appeared in A.J.’s mind’s eye. “Well, maybe not all of us, but most of us. We’re all learning together, we’re all growing together, we’re all harvesting Aunt Di’s legacy together. So while my decision may not be the best decision from a business standpoint, I do think it is in keeping with the yoga spirit.”
Mara smiled without warmth. “You can’t say I didn’t try.”
“I would never say that.”
“It’s unfortunate that we find ourselves in the position of business competitors rather than sisters in yoga.”
“I don’t see why we can’t be both.” A.J. picked up her purse. “Thank you for lunch.”
After lunch A.J. stopped by Mr. Meagher’s office for an update.
“A.J., me wee girl,” Mr. Meagher said with every evidence of pleasure, although she couldn’t help but notice that he did look briefly past her to see if Elysia was in the vicinity.
“I just dropped by to see how things are going. Mother is getting pretty frustrated with the lack of information she’s getting from her lawyer.”
“We’re still weeks away from going to trial,” Mr. Meagher pointed out.
“I know. But…”
Mr. Meagher sighed. “Aye, aye. Your mither was never known for her patience. The truth is, there’s little news to share. Right now it’s a matter of evaluating the police investigation and evidence against her. Her defense team is searching for some reason to have the case dismissed.”
“Is that likely?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve looked at the arrest report and the evidence. The police have been meticulous. If anything, Jake erred in not arresting Elysia faster.”
A.J. knew that had been a favor to both her and her mother. She nodded.
“So defense counsel is investigating the facts, questioning prosecution witnesses, and seeking their own witnesses and forensic experts who may be able to supply a different perspective than the prosecution’s. Not the kind of thing Elysia wants to hear, I know.”
The only thing her mother wanted to hear was that all charges had been dropped and the real murderer was in custody. A.J. knew that as well as Mr. Meagher.
“Did you have any luck tracking down Massri’s gambling connections?”
Mr. Meagher had moved to the cockatoo’s cage to feed the bird a cracker through the bars. The white cockatoo watched him with its bright eyes, then took the cracker delicately in its razor-sharp beak. Mr. Meagher was saying, “I did. I’ve explored that avenue, and it’s a dead end. Oh, Massri liked to play the ponies, true enough, but he never failed to honor his gambling debts. No, if his bookie were to send enforcers after anyone it would be whoever killed young Massri.”
Watching him, A.J. once again had that uneasy feeling that perhaps Mr. Meagher was not being completely honest. She was annoyed with herself for entertaining such suspicions, yet they persisted.
“Why do you think Massri was shot in Mother’s yard?” she asked.
Mr. Meagher glanced at her quickly and then away. “Perhaps it was a matter of expediency.”
“But for all the killer knew he was shooting Massri in front of a house full of people. It was Easter morning. Well, late Easter morning-all the more reason to fear a house full of people.”
Mr. Meagher seemed to mull this over as he moved away from the birdcage to his sofa. He scraped the usual pile of newspapers off the cushions to the floor. “Perhaps there was some time factor we’re unaware of. Some reason Massri had to be eliminated right then.”
“The police found an engagement ring in a hollowed chocolate egg.”
Mr. Meagher’s expression was hard to decipher. “I was thinking more in the nature of some vital information he might have revealed.”
Mr. Meagher shook his head.
“What could Massri have known that would be time-sensitive enough to risk killing him in front of witnesses?”
Unless the killer had known the house would be empty? Was the killer someone who knew what time Elysia’s guests were arriving? Could the killer have possibly known that Elysia had left the house to try and find evaporated milk?
Mr. Meagher seemed to have no answer. He said, “Revenge perhaps?”
“Revenge against Mother?”
“I was thinking Massri, but I suppose the other is possible. I suppose someone might have wanted your mither blamed for the crime.”
That tied all too well into A.J.’s only half-considered theory that Mr. Meagher might have killed Dakarai in such a way as to put Elysia in a situation where she needed his help. It was so… so Machiavellian. But beneath his slightly foolish-seeming demeanor Mr. Meagher was a shrewd and intelligent man.
A.J. said awkwardly, “You’ve known Mother a long time.”
Mr. Meagher’s face softened. “Aye. Since she was sweet seventeen.”
“Do you think-?” She stopped. How on earth could she ask someone like Mr. Meagher if he was a) in love with her mother, b) jealous enough to kill a romantic rival, and c) crazy enough to frame the object of his romantic interest?
“Our theory is that it was another one of his blackmail victims,” she said instead. “Maybe the person just snatched the first opportunity.” Except where did Maddie’s death fit into all that? “Or if Massri was part of a blackmail ring…”
She was thinking aloud now. “Suppose he was sincere about marrying Mother?”
“I can’t see why he wouldn’t be,” Mr. Meagher said gruffly.
“Perhaps someone wanted to punish him for trying to leave the blackmail operation.”
“A ring, is it? Couldn’t Massri have been working on his own?”
“We don’t think so. It seems to be larger scale than that.”
“It’s a wee bit of a severe punishment,” Mr. Meagher pointed out. “And it wouldn’t change the fact that this person or persons would be left shorthanded.”
She thought of the sculptor named Cory who Peggy Graham had been involved with.
“Maybe the killer knew there were plenty more Dakarai Massris where he came from,” she said.
A.J. was reading through her aunt’s manuscript and trying to decide whether she should bother cooking something for dinner or if that evening might be the special night for which she was saving that tub of Oreo ice cream, when a voice echoed from down the hallway.
A.J. peeled herself off the ceiling. “Mother, what are you doing skulking around here?”
“Skulking? I am not skulking. I come bearing gifts.” Elysia held up a bag of KFC.
A.J. moaned. “I’m not supposed to eat stuff like that.”
“I don’t know why not. You spend your day working out. If anyone deserves to eat like this it’s you.”
Elysia led the way into the kitchen. A.J.-and Monster-followed hopefully.
Before long chicken, mashed potatoes, corn on the cob, and biscuits and honey had been dished up, mouth-watering aroma filling the air.
“Not that I don’t appreciate this, but why are you here?” A.J. asked, biting into a honey-slathered biscuit.
“I thought it was time to reflect and review.” Elysia shoved a purple legal pad, curling pages covered in scribbles, across the table. “I’ve made a few notes.”
“A few notes? It looks like you’re planning on writing your memoirs.”
“It’s interesting you mention that. I’ve had two offers this week for my life story.”
“Please tell me you’re not…”
“I hardly have the time,” Elysia said. “Perhaps if I wind up nicked, I’ll reconsider.”
A.J. picked up the legal pad, glancing through it. “Unfortunately we have a distinct shortage of suspects.”
“I like Dora for it,” Elysia said promptly. “She has a vengeful nature and makes no bones about wanting poor Dicky punished. She stalked him. Some of those phone messages she left were more than a little scary. She’s not afraid to take risks and they may have been partnered in illegal activities with antiquities.”
“She has an alibi.”
“I don’t believe in that alibi. Alibis can be broken, as we both know.”
“No one seems to think this one is breakable. Also I think we can scratch the theory of the homicidal bookie. Mr. Meagher says that’s a dead end.”
“Did you speak to Bradley today?” Elysia’s attention seemed focused on eating corn on the cob without dropping a single kernel.
“I did. I had a lunch meeting with Mara Allen and I stopped by his office.”
Elysia said nothing.
“So,” A.J. continued into that silence, “He says that line of inquiry can safely be closed. Dicky did gamble but he paid his debts promptly and he didn’t win more than he lost. A good customer, in other words, and they’re apparently sorry to lose him.”
Elysia seemed to be brooding.
“Which leads us to the next theory. Angry ex-lovers. Yours and Dicky’s.”
“Mine?” Elysia did look startled at that.
“I don’t have any angry ex-lovers.” Elysia’s expression altered. “You can’t be serious.”
“According to what Maddie said, Mr. Meagher has had a thing about dating you back to about one million years BC.”
“Thank you for reminding me, pumpkin. I’d nearly forgotten those happy days when he used to take me out for pterodactyl rides.”
“Come on, Mother. Even I’ve noticed Mr. Meagher is crazy about you.”
“He’d have to be crazy indeed to shoot someone as foolish and as harmless as poor Dicky. Bradley had no idea I was seeing Dicky, and if he had known it, he’d have quickly seen how utterly unimportant that relationship was.” Elysia’s cheeks were pink and her tone sharp. Apparently, unexpectedly, this line of inquiry was hitting a little too close to home.
“Mr. Meagher knew what time we were having Easter dinner.”
“Of course he did. So did you.”
A.J. said reluctantly, “Did he know you were leaving the house to go buy milk?”
“Of course n-” Elysia’s face froze.
Seeing her startled expression, A.J.’s heart sank. “Did he know?”
Elysia whispered, “He called to verify at what time we were eating just as I was leaving for the shop. I told him I was running out to buy a tin of milk.”
A.J. wasn’t sure what to say.
Elysia straightened. “This is bloody ludicrous,” she snapped. “Bradley Meagher is no more a murderer than I am. The case against him is utterly and ridiculously circumstantial. I refuse to discuss this line of reasoning any further.” Her eyes were very bright.
“Okay,” A.J. said mildly. She turned the page of the legal pad.
“Bradley is not a murderer.”
“Got it.” A.J. glanced over the scrawled notes on the next page. “That leaves Dicky’s vengeful ex-lovers.”
“We don’t know any of his ex-lovers except for Maddie. Which reminds me. Maddie’s death is somehow connected to Dicky’s, and Bradley Meagher wouldn’t have harmed a hair on Maddie’s head.”
A.J. said thoughtfully, “That’s a good point. What if Dicky and Maddie’s deaths have nothing to do with blackmail at all?”
“What do you mean?” Elysia looked wary, still on guard against further attempts to implicate Bradley Meagher. “They were divorced. What other connection could there be?”
“I’m not sure. I’m just brainstorming here. They were divorced, but what if there was still some financial connection? Some property or business interest they jointly owned?”
Elysia brightened. “That’s very good. Perhaps Maddie never changed her will? She was quite wealthy; although I think she spent a small fortune on that money pit she called a renovation.”
“But Dicky died first,” A.J. pointed out. “So I don’t see how that helps even if Maddie didn’t change her will. Dicky died first so anything he might have inherited from Maddie would surely be null and void.” A.J. propped her chin on her hand, thinking it over. “And where does Peggy Graham tie into this? Assuming she was murdered.”
“She had to have been murdered.”
“Maybe. But if Peggy’s tied into it, then we can probably eliminate the antiquities theft line of investigation.”
“Not so fast,” Elysia said. “Don’t forget that Mart Crowley said her sister was on a number of boards for charities and the arts. Perhaps she was on the board of some museum? Perhaps her death does tie in with the illegal sale of antiquities.”
“Not bad.” A.J. made a note to follow up on that. “There aren’t any bones in that, are there?” she added as Elysia tossed Monster a piece of chicken skin.
Monster caught it in one snap, like a hungry shark.
“Of course not.”
“There is one other theory we haven’t really even considered.”
“Maybe Dicky was telling the truth all along.”
“About you. Maybe he was serious about giving up his life of crime for you.”
To her surprise, Elysia flushed. “That’s sweet, lovie. But you needn’t worry about sparing my feelings. There were no illusions on my side.”
“But hear me out. Suppose Dicky did want out of this hypothetical blackmail ring. Suppose he wanted you to make an honest man of him. We’ve already established-well, theorized at least-that there are potentially ruthless people running some kind of extortion racket targeting single, middle-aged women. If we’re right about all that, and if it’s true that these people silenced Peggy Graham, then what wouldn’t they be willing to do to stop Dicky from bailing out?”
“Why wouldn’t they just let him go? He was hardly the type to incriminate himself by going to the police.”
“Maybe your reputation preceded you. Or maybe mine did.”
“I know it’s a stretch, but hear me out. There was a write-up on us in the Stillbrook Streamer last summer after we solved Nicole’s murder. Maybe the amateur sleuth thing factored in for Dicky’s partners in crime.” A.J. added with triumph, “And maybe that’s why he was killed in your front yard. Maybe it wasn’t someone taking a big chance, maybe it wasn’t by chance after all. Maybe it was a deliberate attempt to throw suspicion on you!”