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Twenty-three

Murder On The Eightfold Path

When A.J. returned to the living room where Stella was watching TV, Stella glanced at her and said, Not happy is she?

No.

Stella shrugged.

Its the strain of waiting, A.J. said. The DA is building his case against her and theres not much she has in the way of defense. Except that shes innocent. And that doesnt seem to count for much. This is such a long shot, but its all weve got.

Stella turned back to the TV. I dont mind helping her, she stated.

It is really generous of you, A.J. admitted. Given that Mother has never been

Stella snorted.

They watched the TV for a time, some thriller where the good guy turned out to be the bad guy despite the fact that the bad guy had never given any indication of bad guyness. All the time A.J. was trying to summon the nerve to ask Stella about the supposed affair with her father.

On the one hand she was uncomfortably aware that her parents had a right to their private lives. On the other hand it really bothered her to think that her father had had an affair. She couldnt help but remember Andys affair-and the subsequent destruction of her marriage. She hated thinking these terrible, harsh things about her beloved father.

But perhaps there was no affair?

Elysia seemed convinced that there was. And Elysia should know, right? And would hearing Stella confirm that A.J.s father had cheated on her mother really help her come to terms with the situation?

Back and forth A.J. went. If there was ever going to be a time to ask, this was it. She and Stella were alone, no one would ever know they had discussed this.

The thriller ended. The news came on. Stella didnt move and neither did A.J., but A.J. had the sense that Stella wasnt watching the television any more than she was.

Stella, A.J. said suddenly, surprising herself.

She was more startled when Stella made a sound one of her pigs might have recognized. I know what youre going to ask, A.J. Ive been waiting for you to ask for nearly a year now.

A.J. met Stellas dark, round eyes, bracing herself for the truth.

Stella said There wasnt any affair. Not the way Elysia means it. Your daddy just liked to come and have a quiet drink and talk and think. This was when your ma wasnt herself.

She was herself, A.J. said. She just happened to be a drunk.

Stella smothered a cough. Well, they were separated and your daddy was pretty miserable. He never cared about anyone like he cared about your mama.

That was certainly true. As much as A.J.s father had loved her, Elysia had come first. Elysia had also come first for Elysia at that time in her life, but how long did you continue to blame someone for hurting you once you understood that they were truly sorry and would undo the past if they could?

At some point you had to let go of the old pain and anger.

Stella was still talking. You have to understand. Id known your daddy since we were kids. Yes, we were sort of sweet on each other at one time, but that was far in the past. Once he saw Elysia, well that was it. I dont think he ever looked at another woman. But he liked to come to my place and he liked to talk. And I liked that, too.

Had Stella loved A.J.s father? A.J. had no idea and didnt think she should pry; that truly was not her business. Stella had never married. But that could mean a lot of things, including the fact that no one wanted to live with four cats.

Did Mother-

I tried to tell Elysia the truth a long time ago. She wouldnt believe me. Didnt want to hear it. If you want my opinion, I think the betrayal for Elysia was that your daddy was talking to me about private and personal things that Elysia wanted to believe no one else knew about. I dont think she ever really believed your father and I were having a romance.

There was probably a lot of truth to that.

Thank you for telling me, A.J. said.

Stella nodded, rising and tying her thick, plaid bathrobe more tightly around her burly frame. Busy day tomorrow, she said.

A.J. nodded.

Stella hesitated. I dont like your mother, I wont pretend I do, but I respect Elysia. I admire the way she pulled herself out of that gutter. It wasnt easy for her, but she got herself dried out and she made your daddy very happy those last years.

A.J. blinked back the unexpected sting in her eyes. I know. Thank you.

Sweet dreams, Stella said.


Shortly after breakfast the next morning, Stella waved good-bye to A.J. and set off in her rental car to meet Stewie at The Salon.

A.J. spent the morning surfing the Internet trying to find an agent to handle Dianthas memoirs. She was trying to figure out what was involved in putting together a cover letter when the phone on the desk she was working at began to ring.

A.J. jumped and stared at it trying to remember who, besides Andy, had the number to this house.

Stella.

A.J. glanced at the clock.

Shouldnt Stella have been back by now? How long did this personal shopping thing take? They werent driving to New York for heavens sake. Were they?

The phone rang again.

Elysia, of course. Elysia had the house number, but Elysia would try A.J.s cell phone. Except Elysia knew that A.J. had loaned Stella her cell phone for the day. So Elysia?

A.J. picked the phone up and said cautiously, Hello?

What the hell is going on? Jake demanded.

Sorry?

What exactly do you think youre doing? He bit out each word.

A.J. was still trying to assimilate the fact that it was Jake and not Elysia calling. How did you get this number?

From Emma Rice. She said this was the number to call in case of emergency.

Is there an emergency?

I would say so. Where is your mother?

At home, isnt she?

No. And shes not answering her cell phone either. Did the two of you cook up some idiotic scheme like sending her undercover at the damned hair salon?

No, of course not, A.J. said guiltily, thinking of the idiotic scheme they had cooked up. Why?

Because I did a little background checking and Mabel G. Chalthoum is the name of one of the owners of The Salon.

A.J. swallowed so hard she knew Jake could hear it on the end of the line. Gloria-?

Gloria Sunday is the professional name, the stage name, of Mabel G. Chalthoum. Gloria Sunday was Massris sponsor into this country.

Gloria was Madame X.

Oh my God, A.J. said. Jake, Mother is probably at Stella Borins farm. Shes been taking care of Stellas animals while Stella-she gave another of those little gulps-tries to gather information at The Salon.

The silence was deafening.

Then, so tersely she pictured him having to chip the words out, Jake said, Ill try the farm, and hung up.

A.J. dialed Elysias cell phone. It rang and went to message.

She tried again. Same result.

But after all, Elysia often left her cell phone at home. This really meant nothing.

Would Elysia leave her cell phone behind when she believed they were in the middle of a big sting operation?

A.J. grabbed her purse, dug out Stellas phone number, and tried the farm. The circuits were busy. She realized she and Jake were probably calling at the same time. She hung up and counted to ten, then dialed again. The phone rang and rang and then an answering machine came on with Stellas brusque invitation to leave a message.

Mother, pick up, A.J. commanded. Are you there? Pick up!

Why did people always say things like that? Obviously if Elysia was there she would pick up. If she wasnt there, what was the point of asking whether she was there?

A.J. hung up and put her face in her hands.

Next to her elbow the phone rang again and A.J. snatched it up. Yes?

Its me, Jake said. You better explain to me exactly whats going on. Start at the top.

You know most of it already. A.J. began to explain into the vast and intimidating silence on the other end. She had reached the part about Stella going off with Stewie for a day of shopping when she heard a car outside.

Hang on, she said and hurried to the front door, nearly falling over Monster in her haste. She threw open the door in time to see Stella and the tall, elegant form of Stewie Cabot getting out of the rental car.

Have you talked to Elysia this morning? Stella called.

A.J. shook her head. I cant reach her.

Come on, Stella said. Weve got to find her. Stewie thinks shes in danger.

Stewie did look pretty worried. His silver hair was standing on end as though hed been running his fingers through it.

Im on the phone to Jake, A.J. said.

Tell him to get over to my place, Stella told her.

Dont move. A.J. flew back to the phone. Jake, I dont have all the details yet, but Stella is back and she says Mother may be in danger. She said you should head for Little Peavy Farm. Im on my way and Ill call you as soon as I have the details.

You stay right where you are, Jake said. Call me when youve talked to Stella. Im leaving now.

He disconnected.

A.J. grabbed her purse and keys, called to Monster, and ran to join Stella and Stewie.


I was burned, Stella said and the rental car, driven by Stewie, tore back down the highway toward Warren County and Stillbrook.

You were what? A.J. pushed Monsters head away as he leaned across her to get to her window. What was wrong with his own window? Only Monster had the answer to that one.

Burned. My cover was blown yesterday, Stella, who had clearly been hanging around Elysia too long, explained.

Im not following.

Stella looked at Stewie. Stewie, his gaze on the road ahead, said wearily, Go on. Tell her everything.

I was made at The Salon yesterday, Stella said. It turns out one of the stylists working there was a kid whod bought his calf from me a couple of years back when he was in 4-H Club. He didnt know what was at stake, naturally, but he happened to mention it today in front of Gloria.

Oh no, A.J. said.

When I got to The Salon this morning, Gloria was acting a little weird, but Stewie got me out of there before I had time to make much out of it.

Stella looked at Stewie again, but he volunteered nothing.

Well, it didnt take me long to see from the way Stewie was acting that something was wrong.

This time the look Stella gave Stewie was softer. More astonishing was the look Stewie threw Stella. Observing this, A.J. said, I thought

Oh, Stewies not gay, Stella said. Thats just something he says to keep the ladies at bay.

Oh. Oh? Apparently Stella was not a lady Stewie wanted to keep at bay, even now that he knew the truth about her. What did Stewie tell you? A.J. was looking at Stewie but asking Stella.

He confessed everything.

Everything?

The car swerved, and Stella said calmly, About the blackmail scheme. Stewie and Gloria have been running a blackmail business out of The Salon for the last five years. They got into financial trouble, you see.

I know how it looks, Stewie said. But you have to understand. Once I got into it, there wasnt any getting out. Gloria doesnt take rejection well.

I think I see, A.J. said. How did it start? Let me take a wild guess: Gloria went on a vacation cruise to Egypt five years ago?

Stewies eyes met hers in the rearview. He nodded glumly. Thats exactly how it happened. Gloria went on vacation and came back with an idea of how we could get The Salon out of the red. The way she looked at it is we were sort of providing a public service to lonely women, and it was as reasonable to be paid for that as a haircut or a paraffin bath.

Stella snorted.

Stewie said defensively, Most of our ladies could easily afford the amount we charged. We werent greedy. They enjoyed the attention and the wining and dining and the

Sex, Stella said.

Yes. And the sex. Most of them thought the social fees were a small price to pay. Its not like we continued to charge them forever. We always let them off the hook after a couple of years.

After a couple of years, A.J. repeated. You blackmailed them. Social fees? Those were penalty fees for being lonely. What a horrible thing to do to people. And, no, they werent all okay with the social fees. Peggy Graham wasnt okay with the social fees.

We didnt have anything to do with Peggy Grahams death, Stewie said quickly.

You may not have doctored her sleeping pills, but you sure did have something to do with her death. She was suffering from depression and you blackmailed her. Id say that was a contributing factor to her death. A.J. steadied her voice. What about Medea? She knew something. She called you after she learned that Peggy had killed herself and you came to her house and shot her.

No! Stewie said, and the car swerved again. Monster sat down in A.J.s lap.

Whoa, Stella cried. Lets slow down and take this one thing at a time or were going to end up in a ditch and then whatll happen to Elysia?

What will happen to Mother? A.J. demanded.

Stella looked at Stewie who shook his head. She said to A.J., You have to understand that Stewie doesnt know anything for sure-

Im afraid of Gloria, Stewie said. I think shes gone off the rails. I tried to talk her out of doing anything rash, but she was in love with young Massri, and she blames your mother for his death.

She blames my mother? As though someone elses mother were a possibility?

Stewie said heavily, She accused your mother of persecuting her and sending her undercover operative into The Salon. Thats why I got Stella out of there first thing. I wasnt sure what Gloria might do.

Yes, you were sure, A.J. said fiercely. You know exactly what she might do because shes done it twice already. She killed Massri and deliberately framed my mother. And she killed Maddie because Peggy must have told Maddie enough that Maddie suspected or knew you and Gloria were involved.

I didnt know for sure! I still dont.

If you dont, its because you dont want to see the truth of your own part in all this.

Stella said, Stewies afraid that Gloria might go to my farm to see what she can find out about me or she might go gunning for Elysia.

A.J.s heart pounded in dread. I need my cell phone, Stella. To Stewie, she said, Either way, if Gloria goes to your farm shell find my mother.

Thats what I told him when I finally got the story out of him. It took a while. Stella handed A.J. her Palm Pre and A.J. began dialing Jakes number.

If something happens to my mother A.J. couldnt finish it.

Stewie feels pretty bad about everything thats happened, Stella volunteered.

Jakes phone was busy. A.J. groaned and tried Elysias number again. Pick up. Pick up.

You dont know Gloria, Stewie said. You dont cross her and think there wont be repercussions.


The first sign that something might be seriously amiss was as they started down the road to Little Peavy Farm and spotted one of Stellas milk cows grazing contentedly by the side of the road.

Someones left the barn open, Stella exclaimed.

It was clear from her expression that if Elysia hadnt been in danger before, she would be now.

Reaching the farmhouse itself they found Jakes police SUV parked in the front yard. Aside from the police vehicle, it looked like one of those rustic scenes from a pastoral painting. Chickens, goats, a donkey wandered about the porch and grass. The front door to the farmhouse stood wide open.

Oh, no, Stella cried.

A.J. barely waited for the car to stop moving before she was out and running up the steps. She ran straight into Jake coming out the front door.

He caught her by the arms. A.J. What are you doing here?

Wheres Mother?

I dont know. Im looking for her now. Shes not inside.

They both froze at the sound of gunshots.

A.J. turned to start back down the steps, but Jake grabbed her. No.

She tried to yank free, and he gave her a hard shake, saying, Listen to me. I need you to get on the radio in my car and call for backup.

Without waiting to see if she would comply, he jumped down to the ground and sprinted off around the corner of the house. After a fraught moment, A.J. ran over to Jakes SUV, passing Stella and Stewie who were standing beside the rental car looking bewildered.

Whats happening? Stella asked.

A.J. scrambled into Jakes SUV, grabbed the radio mike, and pressed the button.

I have an emergency!

There was static and the police operator came on the line asking who she was and what was the emergency.

Officer needs assistance, A.J. said.

Maam, can you-

Tersely, A.J. spelled out the situation and then handed the radio over to Stella who was hovering in the car doorway.

Stay on the line with him.

A.J., Stella protested. Stay here!

A.J. was already racing toward the back of the house, Monster galloping behind, under the impression they were playing some new game.

She reached the back of the house and stopped, peering around the corner. There was no sign of anyone. Not Jake, not Gloria, not her mother.

Monster sat down and licked his chops, waiting for their next move.

Stay, A.J. instructed in a whisper as she started to cross from the corner of the house to the nearest little outlying shed. Monster rose, tail wagging, and followed.

The distinctly unmellow smell of pigs reached her as A.J. ran to the back of the barn. She reached it safely, glanced around the corner, and nearly jumped out of her skin. Jake leaned against the wall of the barn, his pistol in both hands, braced to fire.

He lowered the pistol and was softly, fiercely uncomplimentary, finishing with, I relied on you to make that damned call.

I did make that call!

He relaxed infinitesimally. All right then I want y- He broke off, his expression changing at the sound of voices. Stay here.

He turned, edging down the side of the barn. A.J. followed at a discreet distance, listening tensely. She could hear the excited snufflings and snorts of pigs. They must be very near the pens.

Elysias cool voice carried clearly although she sounded like she was speaking from inside the barn perhaps. Maddie was uncomfortable with Peggys obsession, and she let the friendship lapse. But when she heard about Peggys supposed suicide, she knew it was all true. She rang you up and told you she knew youd murdered Peggy.

Glorias sharp voice sounded closer. She must be on this side of the pens, guessed A.J.

We didnt have a thing to do with Peggy Grahams death. Thats the ridiculous part of it. She killed herself. It had nothing to do with us. But that pigheaded fool Maddie insisted that wed murdered her. She said she was going to the police. I told her she was making a mistake, that the situation wasnt what she imagined. I asked to meet her at her house at six. I arrived an hour early and went around the back. There was a little gate there. It was perfect. I went into the yard and she was right there, gardening. I shot her.

You used a silencer, which is why I didnt hear you.

Thats right. You can buy them right on the Internet. I lost mine in the garden. Now climb out of that pigpen or Ill shoot you and the pig.

In other circumstances A.J. would have found Jakes expression priceless.

He moved away from the safety of the barn wall, bringing his pistol up. A.J. darted forward to see. Two things happened. Jake yelled, Hold it right there. And an enormous pig suddenly burst out of its pen nearly knocking Gloria over.

Jake leaped for Gloria, who fired her pistol as she staggered. The pig, which was as big as a comfortable chair, panicked, squealing, and careened into Jake, throwing him off balance. Gloria slipped in the mud outside the pen. Elysia darted out of the pigpen, and wrestled her for the pistol she had dropped and was scrabbling to retrieve.

Elysia grabbed Glorias arm, yanked it back, and flipped Gloria right over in a move straight out of 221B Baker Street.

Freeze! Elysia cried.

Oddly enough everyone did. Jake slowly lowered his weapon, taking in the picture of Elysia triumphantly holding Glorias gun and Gloria on her back in the mud blinking up at all of them.

Even Oscar the pig seemed to pause and reflect, before sticking his pink snout out and snuffling Glorias face. She shrieked as the big, spotted pig, gave her a wet, wheezing kiss.

In the far away distance floated the sound of sirens. More immediately came the pound of footsteps as Stella and Stewie raced up to the tableau around the pigpen.

Bloody Hell, Elysia said, as Jake prudently stepped forward to remove the pistol from her hand. I finally caught my own villain!


Twenty-two | Murder On The Eightfold Path | Twenty-four