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Murder On The Eightfold Path

Lily called in sick on Friday morning and A.J.s sleuthing had to take a backseat to the scramble of trying to cover the Number One Instructors classes.

Shes flexing her muscles, Emma remarked as A.J. glanced over Lilys calendar. She really doesnt think this place could survive without her. Do you know she hasnt taken a vacation of more than two days in a row in over five years?

I know she hasnt taken one in the last year.

Five years, Emma said doggedly. This studio is her life.

She probably heard from Mara Allen yesterday that Im not going to sell Sacred Balance.

Emma looked relieved. I can see that might make her feel a mite queasy.

A.J. studied Lilys schedule and decided they could manage without trying to call Denise Farber in from her day off. If Suze can take Lilys Teens class and Simon can take the Teacher Training class and her Yin Yoga we can do this. Its my heavy day, but I can take her Vinyasa and still catch my Restorative evening class.

Dont go throwing your back out after youve just got on your feet again.

I wont. I think these months of yoga are to thank for my being back on my feet so quickly. The last time my back went out I was out of action for six weeks.

Just dont overdo it.

A.J. looked up, smiling. I think this might work pretty well, actually. Im going to hold a mini staff meeting before the evening sessions start. I want to put to bed the rumor that Im selling once and for all.

I think thats a wise move, Emma said.

A.J. went back to her office and ordered pizzas to be delivered for lunch. It was clearly going to be one of those days.

From that moment on it felt like she never stopped moving. When she had finally had a free moment late in the morning, she phoned Jake.

He didnt pick up. The most likely explanation was that he was busy and it wasnt convenient, but with their changed relationship, A.J. was finding an unexpected streak of paranoia within herself.

Hey there, its me, she said pleasantly as she left a message for him. I have a well, maybe not a lead, but Dora Beauford mentioned that shed sicced the Department of Homeland Security on Massri. She wanted him thrown out of the country. Since that never happened, she assumed the DHS never acted on her call. Im wondering if thats true. She believed hed entered the country illegally. If he didnt enter illegally, that could be a lead. Immigrants still have to be sponsored or married to a US citizen, as far as I know.

She hung up and waited for a few minutes but she didnt really expect him to call back this quickly. It wasnt an emergency after all. She left her office and went to cover the Yoga for Teens class.

The pizza delivery was a big success and the rest of the afternoon passed relatively quickly despite numerous complaints about having eaten way too much to possibly do yoga.

At the end of the afternoon during the two-hour break between the day and evening sessions, A.J. held a quick and informal staff meeting.

Its come to my attention that there are some rumors flying around. Rumors about my personal plans and my plans for Sacred Balance. Some of you may even have heard that I met with Mara Allen of Yoga Meridian yesterday for lunch.

No one said anything, but judging by the shifting in chairs, clearing of throats, and shifting of gazes, shed hit the nail right on its head.

This isnt going to be a very long meeting because the fact is my plans for Sacred Balance remain absolutely unchanged. I did meet with Mara yesterday; she did indicate she and her investors would be interested in acquiring Sacred Balance. I told her exactly what Im now telling you. Its true that I took on the responsibility of Sacred Balance because that was the wish of my aunt, but this place-and all of you-have come to mean so much more to me. Rediscovering yoga has changed my life, given it focus and balance. As far as Im concerned that journey has just begun, and I have no intention of leaving this path for another.

Simon Crider, one of the senior instructors and one of Dianthas original staff asked, I know Im speaking for most of us when I say thats excellent news. But what about the rumors we keep hearing that financially were barely keeping our head above water?

Its not true. I can tell you why I think that rumor began circulating in the first place and who I believe is behind it, but thats not productive. Were doing very well. We currently generate a pretax profit margin of twenty-five percent. Sacred Balance is not only supporting itself, its making a profit.

There was a round of applause.

And because youre all a part of that success, its only right that you should share in the rewards. Lily and I have talked about paying annual bonuses based on meeting the goals we set together as a team. Wed discussed implementing that for next year, but I think weve got a tough few months ahead of us. Yoga Meridian definitely has us in their sights. We need everyone on board and focused, and as an incentive, were going to start looking at performance bonuses for everything from increasing student enrollment to broadening your own training and expertise. Ill have more details on that later. Right now I just want to thank you for all youve done to make Sacred Balance everything it is. Were taking this journey together. I promise you that I will be with you every step of the way.

A.J. was surprised at the applause she got for that one, but perhaps it was as Suze said when she dropped by her office afterward. Nobody wants to leave. But if the studio is folding, then no one wants to be the last one out the door either.

Were not folding. Were doing fine.

I believe you. I think everyone in that meeting believed you. Suze rolled her big blue eyes. But I dont think Lilys going to be happy when she hears the news.

It shouldnt be news to Lily. She sees the financial reports. She knows were doing fine.

Just dont be surprised if she needs another sick day.

She can have all the sick days she wants, A.J. said. Im planning on figuring a way to make her take a full-blown vacation.

I hear Nepal is nice this time of year.

Of course the fact was that if Lily really did take off for a month they would be stretched perilously thin, but A.J. was tempted to believe the positives would outweigh the negatives. She felt that she and Lily were fast reaching their own personal China Syndrome and that the continuing conflict between them was creating an increasingly toxic environment for staff and students alike.

Per the terms of her aunts will the only way to end their odd-couple partnership would be if one of them relinquished her position as co-manager. Or died.

Now there was a gruesome thought, but given how much of A.J.s attention these days seemed to be on crime and murder investigations, maybe it wasnt surprising. It was definitely a challenge trying to feel her way along the spiritual eightfold path while a murder investigation proceeded around her.

By the time A.J. completed the final Restorative course of the day and bade her students good night, she was genuinely exhausted. Her back was pain free and holding up to the challenge of teaching again, but she was looking forward to lying down and putting her feet up-seeing that her other options for Friday evening entertainment were severely limited.

Jake had not returned her call and, although she tried to stay optimistic and not read anything into that unusual silence, she was disheartened.

Her cell phone rang as she was pulling in the drive. A glance informed her that it was Elysia, and her spirits dropped more.

Hi! she said as cheerfully as she could.

Why dont you come by for dinner and well review the case again.

A.J. groaned inwardly. Mother, I was thinking maybe a hot bath and an early night.

We cant afford to let any grass grow under our feet. Ive been on the phone to my contacts-

Your contacts?

Yes, and Im putting together a profile of our suspects. I think youll be very interested in what Ive discovered.

Maybe tomorrow? Im really beat tonight.

The clock is ticking on me, pumpkin. Right now that bloody swine of a district attorney is weaving the rope to put around my neck-

All right! Im on my way. A.J. clicked off. Her phone immediately rang and she answered automatically. Twenty minutes, Mother. I have to pick Monster up.

Its me, Jake said gruffly.

Oh. A.J.s heart skipped a beat. Hi.

Hi. Sorry I couldnt get back to you earlier. I was tracking down a robbery suspect in Phillipsburgh.

A robbery suspect? Arent you still investigating Massris death?

Its been forcibly pointed out to me that the DAs already brought charges against your mother. Im not going to be part of any further investigation involving Elysia.

What happened?

Pretty much what youd expect. Someone noticed I appeared to be playing for the wrong team. Anyway Im looking into a rash of Texaco Fast Fares robberies.

Gas prices are pretty high.


A.J. said guiltily. Im sorry if-

Nah. Dont sweat it. Its nothing I cant handle. Look, I did some checking into this complaint Dora Beauford filed against Massri with the DHS.

Could there be anything more heartwarming than ones possibly ex-boyfriend utilizing all the resources at his command on ones behalf?

Why didnt they prosecute? Or did they?

They didnt prosecute because Massri was in this country legally. He had a sponsor. A Mabel G. Chalthoum.

Whos Mabel G. Chalthoum?

I have no idea. But she guaranteed that Massri would have a place to live and be gainfully employed. He got his visa and his green card.

If he was supposed to be guaranteed employment, what was he employed as?

Sales rep.

For what?

I dont know. There seemed to be some confusion on that point. Hey, Ive got to go, A.J. Ill talk to you later.

Wait! Just one thing. Two things.

He didnt speak.

Did you have a chance to look into whether Peggy Grahams death was suicide or not?

No, I didnt.

That was blunt enough. A.J. didnt dare push it.

Did you-could you-did you check into Mr. Meaghers movements the morning Massri was killed?

Bradley Meagher?

Jake sounded astonished. Not a usual state for him.


No, he said slowly. We had no reason to consider him a suspect. Is there reason?

I dont know. A.J. felt horrible for even making the suggestion. But if it came down to a choice between her mother and Mr. Meagher, then as fond as she was of Mr. Meagher, there was no choice. Not if he had committed murder. I think it might be worth looking into.

Like I said, Ive been removed from the case, but Ill pass the word along.

Thanks, Jake.

He grunted and disconnected.

A.J. drove to the farmhouse, changed into jeans and a T-shirt, collected Monster, and headed back to Starlight Farm.

So. To recap.

A.J. groaned and reached for another piece of toasted bread, scooping bruschetta onto it. Havent we recapped enough for one night?

They had been at it most of the evening, eating bruschetta and black olive tapenade on toasted French bread while they went over and over their suspects and theories.

The problem with our recapping, Elysia retorted, is that we seem to be closing off avenues of investigation. At this rate, Im going to believe Im guilty.

Jake is still looking into whether Peggy Graham killed herself or was murdered.

At least A.J. hoped he was.

I dont believe theres any doubt that she was murdered.

Well, there we disagree because I think theres a lot of doubt. The fact that Peggy didnt seem like someone who would commit suicide isnt indicative of anything more than she was a private person who didnt share her thoughts and feelings-and we already know that from how she reacted to being blackmailed.

Elysia scowled at her purple sheaf of notes. Can we at least agree that The Salon seems to be at the center of everything?

Yes. The Salon does seem to be the common denominator for every line of query except two: Dora Beauford and this Mabel Chalthoum, whoever she is.

And yet I find it very, very coincidental that Dora Beaufords alibi is that she was at a hair salon at the time of Dickys death. A hair salon on Easter morning?

I hadnt thought about that, A.J. admitted. That does seem odd. But Jake had to have checked. Thats not something he would miss.

Elysia looked unconvinced.

We could check ourselves, A.J. pointed out. Mr. Meagher would be able to get the name of the salon for us. Your criminal lawyer has access to all the information uncovered in the police investigation.

Ill follow up on Doras alibi, Elysia said grimly.

Just stay clear of Dora herself. I get an odd feeling from her.

Elysia brushed this aside. We also need to follow up on this Mabel Chalthoum, whoever she might be.

Yes, but we need to proceed cautiously there, too, A.J. warned. Mabel could very well be our Madame X. Dickys unknown jealous lover. She sponsored him so shes probably someone who stayed involved in his life. He never mentioned her or you never saw any signs of her?

Signs? What did you have in mind, pet? Rhino spore in the bedroom? Perhaps the hair products in the bathroom were Mabels. Which, again, leads us back to The Salon.

He never mentioned her and you never thought to ask about the details of his coming to this country?

Elysia sighed. We talked a great deal, but none of it was really of a practical nature. He did speak of his family and home in Egypt. He was a little homesick, you know. I think we avoided specifics because they would have inevitably reminded us of unpleasant reality.

Like the fact he was blackmailing you?


A.J. shook her head. Okay, well we need to investigate this Mabel. I suppose the easiest thing might be to start at The Salon. If she was a customer there, that simplifies things. What actually do you know about The Salon? The website says they opened in 1990 and that Gloria was a former model and Stewie worked for the studios.

She was a catalog model, Elysia said dismissingly. Discount clothing and farm equipment.

Well, what does that matter? She was a model. What about Stewie?

Supposedly he did work for Paramount or something like that. My understanding is that they were friends for years before their careers stalled out and they decided to take their investments and go into business together.

How successful is The Salon?


Are either of them married?

Stewies gay.

Do the words my ex-husband Andy mean anything to you?

As far as I know, Stewie is still playing the field. Gloria might be married. Shes always been close-mouthed about her private life.

Two thoughts occur to me-

Its the quality not the quantity, pumpkin.

Ha. The first is that the male and female voices we heard at Dickys apartment could have belonged to Gloria and Stewie.

Elysias eyes narrowed as she sought to remember. Did the voices sound like Gloria or Stewie?

I cant remember. Its been too long. But so far theyre the only mixed pair weve come across. Everyone else weve talked to has been pretty much a solo act. But Gloria and Stewie are both connected to The Salon and The Salon does seem to figure in here somewhere.

True. What would they have been looking for?

I have no idea, but that brings me to my second point, which is if there is some kind of blackmail ring being run out of The Salon, Gloria and Stewie would probably have to be involved in it. They might even be the masterminds.

Ah. Elysia sat back on the sofa, fingers pressed together prayer-style as she seemed to channel her inner master detective. Yes. I think thats an excellent point.

So if Dicky was working for them as a part of their blackmail scheme, theyd have to scramble to try and find any incriminating evidence-anything that might lead the police back to them. That would be true whether they had anything to do with his death or not.

Do you think-?

I dont know. Not necessarily. If Dicky was threatening to quit the operation and go straight, so what? So they would have to replace him. Killing him wouldnt solve that problem. It would actually make it worse because surely a full-scale homicide investigation would be the last thing theyd want.

Elysia nodded. Agreed.

And, I might be wrong about this, but I dont get the impression that Dicky was the kind of person who would consider it necessary to go to the police and make a clean break of everything as part of his going straight process.

No. Elysia smiled faintly. That would be the last thing he would do. He would be terrified of being chucked out of the country.

So I really dont see that Dickys plans to marry you would be a threat to any nefarious business going on at The Salon. I think its more likely that one of Dickys clients flipped out when she learned she was being blackmailed or used.

Madame X, Elysia said with dark satisfaction.

Yes. Weve heard about how Peggy Graham reacted to the threat of blackmail, and weve seen how Dora reacted even when she wasnt being blackmailed, so what if this Mabel Chalthoum, for example, sponsored Dicky into this country and then discovered that she was being used-maybe even blackmailed?

Elysias expression brightened. Yes. Yes, I see As the Bard said, hell hath no fury-

The Bard didnt say that, A.J. interrupted. I just read that on my box of muesli. It was William Congreve in The Mourning Bride.

The point, Elysia said patiently, is that a woman scorned is a dangerous and unpredictable creature.

Yes. And if Madame X knew about you-as Dora seems to have-that might have made everything worse. That might be the reason Dicky was shot in your front yard and suspicion thrown on you. Not because of your reputation as a sleuth, but because you were a romantic rival.

Elysia nodded slowly.

A.J. said, This Mabel may or may not be connected to The Salon, but I think The Salon remains the obvious starting point for us. But we have to proceed carefully. We cant just barge in there and start asking a bunch of questions. For one thing, if Dicky was killed by a jealous lover, Im not sure how that connects with Maddies death or Peggy Grahams. For another, were both known-you especially-by Stewie and Gloria.

Elysias face took on the grim expression it had worn in many a thrilling episode of 221B Baker Street. If your theory is correct, she said darkly, those blighters are going to pay.

A.J. murmured noncommittally. She agreed with the sentiment, but they were still a long way from being able to prove any of this.

Elysia sat up. Why, its so simple. I should have thought of it sooner. Well set up a sting operation!


A.J. might as well have saved her breath.

What we have to do is get them to blackmail one of us.

Uh, theyre already blackmailing you. Or were. And even if Dicky was running his own extortion sideline, thats still not going to work for the reasons Ive just said. They already know both of us.

Elysia subsided, scowling into some bleak distance. Then her face lit up. Andy.

No, A.J. said firmly. Absolutely not. Nick will have both our heads if we drag Andy into another murder investigation. Besides, Andys not blackmailable. Hes out. And even if he wasnt, this ring targets women. Women of a certain age and income bracket. Whoever is behind it, the focus is fine-tuned to the clientele of The Salon. I dont think thats a coincidence.

Elysia subsided, frowning. She sipped her tea. Who else do we know?

A.J. shook her head. It needs to be someone-


What? No, not expendable! It needs to be someone under the radar, but also of the right age and income bracket.

Elysia said nothing, continuing to stare off bleakly into space.

I dont know anyone like that. Shed have to be willing to go along with us, for one thing Her voice trailed as she uneasily absorbed Elysias expression.

Elysia was smiling, but it was the kind of smile that generally had the minions of evil overlords quivering in their pointy-toed boots.

Mother, warned A.J.

I have just the person in mind. Elysia practically purred the words. Yes. Yes, shell do perfectly. In fact it couldnt happen to a nicer person.


Lets ask Stella Borin. Elysias eyes were glinting like a hunting cats in the night. I believe she owes me one.

Nineteen | Murder On The Eightfold Path | Twenty-one