Stella was still laughing heartily as they drove away from Little Peavy Farm on Tuesday morning. They had left Elysia scowling over the long list of detailed chores Stella had handed over, which included things like slop pigs.
“I can’t wait till she and Big Oscar come face-to-face.”
“Who’s Big Oscar?” A.J. asked nervously, glancing back in the rearview mirror half expecting to see a mushroom cloud over the farm.
“My four-hundred-pound, prize-winning hog.”
“Oh,” A.J. said faintly.
Stella shot her a sideways look. “Don’t worry. Elysia isn’t about to risk putting her back out slopping hogs or feeding calves. She’ll hire someone to come out and take care of the heavy lifting.” She was still chortling at some evil thought. “I knew that. But she’ll have to supervise them, and the day starts at four in the morning. That alone is worth this.”
A.J. was tempted to ask Stella her side of the story regarding A.J.’s father and the supposed affair, but the idea made her stomach churn nervously. Was it really her business?
Instead she and Stella chatted about a recent s'eance Stella had held and some of the things happening at Sacred Balance.
They stopped for lunch and reached Andy’s parents’ house in Byram around one o’clock to find Andy waiting for them.
A.J. and Andy kissed lightly and she looked him over with affectionate concern. Her ex-husband and former business partner was tall and lanky with chestnut hair and blue eyes. In fact they had occasionally been mistaken for brother and sister when they were married. He had been diagnosed with MS the previous summer but, although he was a little thinner than usual, he looked healthy and happy to A.J.’s critical gaze.
“How are you?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” he told her. And then at her expression, he said, “I really am feeling pretty good right now, which is why we’re taking this trip to France. Everything seems to be in a holding pattern. I think happiness is good for my health.”
There was certainly truth to that.
A.J. reintroduced Stella to Andy. She could see from Andy’s carefully neutral expression that he remembered attending a s'eance at Stella’s house; Andy had about as much patience for the supernatural as Jake did, although he was a little more polite about it.
“Did you want a quick tour?” he asked.
A.J. had stayed at the house several times over the years with Andy and his parents, but she nodded and Andy led the way inside, showing them such refresher essentials as how to work the security system and where to find the TV remotes.
The house was comfortable and secluded, surrounded by rose bushes and tall hedges. The long trimmed lawns stretched down to the small lake in the rear. Inside, it was elegant and immaculate if slightly impersonal.
“Stella’s all set for her appointment tomorrow. For the record, I think you’re onto something with this hair salon,” Andy said as they trekked through the gleaming kitchen with its view of the lake and small pier.
“Who did you talk to?” A.J. inquired.
“I started out with some kid, but I asked for the manager and got a guy named Stewart Cabot. I said I wanted to make sure my sweet old auntie received the deluxe treatment. That she was widowed last year and was only now getting back into the swing of things after her breakdown.”
“Breakdown!” Stella looked offended at the idea that she would ever have something as feeble as a breakdown.
“You didn’t make this too complicated, did you?” A.J. said. “Stella’s got to remember her cover story.”
Andy grinned unrepentantly. “It’ll be fine. I just told them how Stella had nursed her beloved husband through his long, lingering illness-I never did say what illness, so you can pick whatever you like-and then cracked up herself. But now Auntie is ready to start her new life and I wanted her to have the full, deluxe treatment. Head-to-toe total makeover.”
Stella gave a gruff laugh. “Elysia is going to have a fit.”
“So what makes you think we’re onto something as far as The Salon goes?” A.J. inquired.
“Stewart was way too interested in all the gory details. People aren’t, you know. Even kind people aren’t that interested in all the details. Plus it was the kind of things he asked. He didn’t flat out ask about her bank balance or her net worth, but in his own diplomatic way, he pried out the information he wanted. And he was definitely interested in three points: how wealthy she is, how emotionally vulnerable, how involved is her family.
“What did you tell him?” A.J. asked.
“Very wealthy, very hard up for male companionship, and other than her self-absorbed workaholic freelance consultant daughter, I was her only relation and was going to be in France for several weeks.”
“Nice. You pretty much put her out there on a cake plate.”
“Yep.” Andy sounded pleased with himself. “I would be very surprised if they didn’t bite-and fast.”
“You think Stewie bought it?”
“Hook, line, and sinker.”
A.J. smiled and kissed him. “I knew there was some reason I wanted to keep you in my life. I just never dreamed it would be your pathological aptitude for lying.”
“For those who are called according to His purpose. As the Bard would say.”
Andy grew serious then. “Be careful, A.J. Beneath all that warmth and charm-and Stewart is a very charming guy-I got the sense that this is cold, hard business. They’re not fooling around there. I think you should wear a wig anytime you go outdoors.”
“In case they send someone to check out the house. You said you’d been to this salon, right? Well, they’re liable to recognize you. I’d wear a wig when you go out in case they do a little reconnaissance.”
“Are you serious?”
“I am, yeah. That’s why I cooked up the workaholic consultant daughter. Talking to Stewart I got a definite sense that he’s a guy who dots his Is and crosses his Ts.”
She thought this over as they walked out to his car.
“Does Jake know what you’re up to?” Andy asked suddenly.
She was surprised at the pain that flashed through her. “Jake and I are sort of on hiatus right now.”
“Why?” Andy was staring at her in disbelief.
“Believe it or not, it’s not my choice. In fact it’s nothing to do with me at all. It’s a long story so unless you’re staying for dinner-”
He shook his head. “I want to get back. Nick will be worrying.”
“Are you okay to drive?”
Andy made a face. “Yes. Power steering, power brakes, and I know my limitations.”
They hugged and Andy got in the car.
She watched him reverse in a slow, careful arc and then start down the long, paved driveway.
When the car was lost to sight she turned and went inside.
A.J. and Stella spent the remainder of the afternoon quietly. A.J. caught up on her mail and industry reading and finished reading through her aunt’s book. They had a quiet supper and settled down to watch TV, something neither of them generally had time for.
A.J.’s phone rang and her heart sped up as she recognized the number as Jake’s.
She went into the dining room to take it, staring through the bay windows at the lake glittering in the moonlight.
She opened her mouth to greet him, but Jake beat her to the punch.
“Where are you?”
This was something she hadn’t taken into account. She had been the one contacting Jake over the past few days; she hadn’t been thinking about him initiating contact. “I-I’m taking a few days off.”
“I know. I called the studio and they said you’re going to be out for the rest of the week.”
“Yes. Just a couple of days.” She lied. “I can’t do much at the studio with my back the way it is.”
There was silence, then he said, “I thought your back was better.”
“It was. It is. I just… need a little time away.”
“What does that mean?”
“Just that. I’m taking a few days off. I haven’t had an actual vacation since I took over the studio, and I thought this might be a good time.”
There was an entirely different note in his voice as he asked, “Is Elysia going on this getaway?”
“No.” She remembered that Jake was the one who had spoken up on behalf of Elysia, had defended her when the DA and others deemed her too great a flight risk, had looked into each of her requests for information. He had a vested interest in Elysia not fleeing from justice. “Just me. And just for a couple of days.”
Racking her brains for something to say, A.J. came up with, “I was thinking about you. I had a visit from Chess yesterday.”
“Yeah?” He sounded wary.
A.J. chuckled. “Not to worry. No fur flew and all fingernails remain intact.”
He made a sound that was supposed to pass for amusement, but clearly took effort.
There was another pause and Jake said, “The reason I called was I did some looking into Peggy Graham’s death. I talked to the Andover police, looked at the ME’s report. It’s a definite suicide.”
Despite the fact that A.J. had been arguing this all along, she was startled. “Are you sure?”
“Yep. Zero doubt. She’d picked the pills up herself that afternoon. The drugstore clerk remembered her. There were no signs of violence on the body, no signs of forced entry, or that the bottle had been tampered with. Furthermore, she suffered from depression.”
“But her sister said she didn’t.”
“All I can tell you is Graham had been seeing a doctor for over a year and she’d been treated for depression. Families don’t always know everything.”
That was certainly true. A.J. was silent thinking all this over. She considered the implications of this news. Peggy’s death was not part of some larger conspiracy; she had not been silenced to protect a blackmail ring. Granted, if she was suffering from depression, the blackmail could well have figured into whatever pushed her over the edge. But it didn’t change the fact that she had not, technically, been murdered.
Which, considering their plans for Stella, was kind of a relief. Briefly A.J. considered whether to tell Jake about their undercover assignment for Stella, but she decided discretion was the better part of valor.
Into her prolonged silence, Jake said suddenly, awkwardly, “Listen, A.J… your leaving doesn’t have anything to do with something Chess said to you, does it?”
“No. Why?” A.J.’s heart dropped. “What is it you think she might have said?” Had she interrupted Chess’s announcement that Chess and Jake were resuming their former engagement? Maybe she should have shut up and let Chess talk.
“Nothing. It just seems sudden, this trip of yours.”
“No.” A.J. said, relaxing. “Word of honor. This trip has absolutely nothing to do with you or Chess.”
“All right. Well…” He was clearly at a loss and so was A.J. It was difficult to casually chat given how much she was keeping from him.
“Thanks for checking up on the Graham case for me,” she said.
“I’ll… talk to you soon.”
“Yeah. Okay.” He sounded uncertain about that.
“Bye,” A.J. said.
“Bye,” Jake answered.
In the morning Stella bade A.J. good-bye and drove the rental car into Newton to The Salon.
Even though A.J. knew it was highly unlikely that anything could possibly happen to Stella on her first visit to The Salon-and in broad daylight no less-she found herself too nervous to concentrate on anything for long.
She did her morning yoga, then, bearing Andy’s warnings in mind, she borrowed a headscarf from her ex-mother-in-law’s drawers and took Monster for a long walk down by the lake.
When she got back she read through her e-mail, answering the numerous inquiries from Sacred Balance about what her employees should do on all kinds of matters that they would never have bothered bringing to her attention were she actually in the office, charted out fun new workouts for her Itsy Bitsy, Doga, and Yoga for Kids courses, and fixed herself an omelet for lunch. Now she remembered why she didn’t do vacations anymore. What fun were vacations if you didn’t have someone to vacation with? And meanwhile, while you were not having fun, the work at the office was piling up.
Shortly after lunch A.J. heard the sound of a car in the driveway and went to the front window. The silver rental car was parked out front. A plump, silver-haired woman in Stella’s polyester pantsuit was walking up the front door.
A.J. threw the door open.
“Oh my gosh, Stella!”
Stella grinned. “Not too shabby, is it?”
“You look gorgeous.” The transformation was truly remarkable. Stella’s hair was cut and styled in short, silver layers. Her skin looked smooth and glowing, and the makeup was skillful and subtle.
“You should see my feet,” Stella said. “I never had a pedicure before.” She went straight to the oval mirror in the hallway and gazed at her reflection, shaking her head.
“They can’t be all bad,” A.J. murmured. “They do get some wonderful results.”
Stella turned away from the mirror.
“They’re sending me out with a personal buyer tomorrow.”
“Oh?” A.J. blinked. “How did that come about?”
Stella shrugged. “Stewart said that my nephew suggested the works. Total makeover from the ground up. I wasn’t sure if that was true or not, but I figured you wanted me to make myself available to the blackmailer.”
Knowing Andy’s sense of humor, A.J. could easily imagine it was true. But it did make sense. The more contact Stella had with The Salon, the better their chances of luring the blackmailer into approaching her.
“How did it go today? How did they treat you?”
“Everyone was as nice as could be. Gloria arranged weekly facial treatments for me. I agreed, but I hope no one is expecting me to spend more than two weeks out here.”
“Er, no, no.”
“A very nice young man named Alessandro cut my hair. He asked a heap of questions.”
“I’ve had the Alessandro treatment. Did he… do anything to suggest he might want to make advances toward you?”
“Toward me?” Stella was laughing at the idea. “No. He’s a kid!”
The problem-one of the problems-was that they had no idea how all this worked, and they had a timetable that did not give them much leeway. They had to hope that Stella would be recognized as a pigeon perfect for plucking and that someone would begin to lay enough of a foundation that they could show it to the police as grounds for further investigation.
The truth was they were trying to rush something that probably would take weeks, maybe months. It was a crazy plan and if they weren’t so desperate-and trading on the blackmailers feeling the same-they wouldn’t have contemplated it.
Stella, kicking off her ugly square pumps, said suddenly, “Stewart is accompanying me tomorrow. So maybe that will be the start of something.”
“Stewart’s going with you to meet the personal buyer?”
“We should call Mother. She’ll be wondering what’s happened, whether we’ve made any progress.”
Stella raised her brows but said nothing.
A.J. phoned Elysia. It was obvious that Elysia, having spent the morning trying to get Stella’s livestock fed and watered and taken care of, was not in the best of moods, but she heard the unexciting report of Stella’s day in silence and then said, “She needs to be wired.”
“Of course. We did it all the time on 221B Baker Street. It never failed. We need proof in case anything is said or suggested to her that might help us build our case.”
A.J. said, “I think it’s a little early for wiring her.”
“I don’t agree. What if we miss something crucial tomorrow?”
“Mother, we have no idea how to wire someone.”
“It can’t be very complicated.”
“It can’t? To start with, what equipment do we buy? Where do we buy it? And then, assuming we can figure out how to wire Stella properly, do not forget that the person wearing the wire will be Stella.”
“I suppose you have a point,” Elysia conceded.
“I’ll just loan her my cell phone. It has just about every app in the world.”
Elysia sniffed in disapproval.
A.J. remembered Jake’s call and informed Elysia that Peggy Graham had not been murdered.
Elysia heard this out in grim and unconvinced silence.
At last A.J. said, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, Mother. Try not to worry. We knew we wouldn’t have all the answers we needed in one day. I think it went very well today. From what Stella says everyone at The Salon was asking questions of her. I think they’re bound to have picked up all the information we wanted them to.”