“Why, why did you have to call him your blackmailer?”
A.J., in bed at Deer Hollow, the farm she had inherited a year earlier from her Aunt Diantha, gazed reproachfully up at her mother as Elysia set a glass of water and two pain pills on the nightstand.
A trip to the doctor had resulted in the unsurprising news that A.J. had a herniated disk in her lower back. Basically, that meant the soft, gel-like substance inside one of the disks was creating pressure against the spine and nerves. It was not her first experience with back trouble, not by a long shot, but it was the first recurrence she’d had since she began practicing yoga regularly. As soon as the inflammation went down, her doctor was recommending a series of cortisone shots. For now she was on bed rest. Despite the pain, it seemed like the least of her troubles.
“Because he was, pump-poppet.”
Pump-poppet. That was even worse than straight old pumpkin. Hopefully it wouldn’t last, but her mother had called her pump-poppet three times in the last hour, and it was beginning to get old. “You’re being blackmailed?”
“Don’t preen, Mother. It’s not something to be proud of.”
Elysia opened her mouth but before she could respond further, the doorbell rang. She went to answer it. A.J. stared at the ceiling and groaned. Monster, ensconced at the foot of the bed, thumped his tail.
A.J. had missed most of the excitement-and that, she was certain, was no accident. Jake had insisted that she be taken to the local hospital to get checked out, and during the interim of that lengthy process he had questioned Elysia. Though A.J. had yet to hear the details of this informal interrogation, she was pretty sure the only reason her mother was not currently decorating a jail cell was due to it being a holiday.
“Sure, and doesn’t something smell delicious?” As the voices in the hallway approached, A.J. recognized Bradley Meagher’s Irish accent-disconcertingly reminiscent of the Lucky Charms leprechaun. Mr. Meagher was A.J.’s lawyer. He was Elysia’s lawyer, too, in addition to being one of her oldest friends.
“That will be the ham,” Elysia was saying airily.
The other ham, thought A.J. darkly.
Elysia breezed on, “I’m afraid we were a little late getting it in the oven thanks to the earlier unpleasantness.”
Earlier unpleasantness. Yes. Quite. A.J. closed her eyes and then opened them, pasting on a smile as her mother and Mr. Meagher entered her bedroom.
Mr. Meagher was short, slim, and dapper. He was as tanned as a movie star and his hair was thick and silver and elaborately coiffed. But despite these little vanities he was a shrewd and tough lawyer and a good friend.
“A.J., me wee darlin’,” Mr. Meagher said, dragging up a chair. “Now what is it you’ve done to yourself?”
A.J. summoned a weak smile. “Oh, hi, Mr. Meagher. I just turned the wrong way. I’d wish you a Happy Easter, but under the circumstances it seems…”
The Alexanders had never been a particularly “religious” family. When A.J. had been growing up most of the nationally approved holidays had been enjoyed primarily for their secular purposes. The most spiritual person she had ever known was her Aunt Diantha. Diantha’s approach was sometimes unorthodox but always sincere. A.J. was trying to appropriate some of that spirituality into her own life, but it was not an easy process. It was especially not easy on days like this.
Mr. Meagher was watching Elysia as she dragged up another chair. “Yes, yes. A strange turn to the holiday and a bad business all around,” he agreed absently. “And how are you feeling, me wee darlin’?”
Hadn’t they just covered this? A.J. opened her mouth, but Elysia was there first.
“She’s half-crocked on painkillers.” Elysia perched on the edge of the chair on the other side of A.J.’s bed, and A.J. now had the uncomfortable feeling that she was holding court in her jammies. Granted, it had worked for John and Yoko.
“I’m not half-crocked, Mother. I’m very well aware that one of us needs to keep her wits about her.”
“I do admit I’ve felt wittier.” Elysia sighed, apparently trying to disarm her companions with an unconvincing show of vulnerability.
“You’d be best to tell me the whole story,” Mr. Meagher said, looking from mother to daughter.
Elysia beckoned graciously to A.J. A.J. gave her a disbelieving look, and then launched into a terse recital of her morning’s adventures. She concluded in a bitter digression, “And how the heck am I supposed to run a yoga studio flat on my back for who knows how long?”
Elysia said, “This is why you have Lily. You see? There was method in your aunt’s madness when she made the two of you co-managers of Sacred Balance.”
“Is your back hurting, lovie?”
A.J. tossed her head on the pillow. “This is just what Lily has been hoping for.”
“Lily has been hoping you would injure your back?”
“She’s been hoping something would happen that would keep me-” A.J. broke off. “Never mind. Mother, stop stalling. I told my story. Tell yours. Who was the man killed in your front yard?”
Elysia looked uncharacteristically grave. “Dicky. Dakarai Massri.”
The name was vaguely familiar. A.J. cast her mind back to several months earlier. “The man you met in Egypt?” The young, handsome man she had seen in so many of Elysia’s vacation snapshots? She felt a sinking sensation. This was getting worse by the minute.
“Mmm.” That was it. Mmm. What did Mmm translate to in Elysiaspeak? A.J. was almost afraid to ask.
“I thought he was some kind of archeologist. Why was he blackmailing you?” She had a sudden uneasy vision of her esteemed parent thrusting antiquities down her blouse while browsing historic sites.
“Oh, you know. The usual reasons.” Elysia cast a slightly discomfited peek at Mr. Meagher who looked atypically blank-faced.
A.J. looked from one to the other of them. “Well, I mean…” This was unexpectedly awkward. “Was he threatening to expose you?”
“Yes.” Elysia suddenly tittered. “So amusing.”
“Amusing?” A.J. and Mr. Meagher chorused.
“Of course.” Elysia studied their expressions. “My dears. I’m an actress. Do you honestly imagine I could be embarrassed by a few naughty photographs after some of the films I’ve made?”
“If those blasted reviews didn’t shame me-”
“Yes, but you paid him?”
“I did. It was great fun.” Elysia sighed. “And he did need the money rather desperately, poor love. This is such a tragedy.” She seemed quite sincere.
A.J. and Mr. Meagher exchanged worried looks. “Let me get this straight,” A.J. said. “You met Dicky on your Egyptian cruise and had some kind of affair. Later he tried to extort money from you to keep him from releasing embarrassing photos. You paid him but… you’re not actually embarrassed by the photos?”
“You do have such a lovely, succinct way of putting things, pump-poppet.”
A.J. narrowed her eyes at her mother.
“Why’d you pay this villain?” Mr. Meagher cut in. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
“Why? But you’d have put a stop to it.” Elysia clearly thought this was too obvious to need spelling out. “I was enjoying myself.”
“How much did you pay him?” A.J. asked when she could.
“About ten thousand dollars.”
“Sweet Christ in heaven.” Mr. Meagher sounded faint. He had lost color-not so easy with that tan.
“Oh, that was nothing.” Elysia flipped a careless hand. “A bit more than a thousand dollars a month. He wanted much more, of course, but I-”
“You-?” echoed A.J. and Mr. Meagher. They exchanged looks again.
Elysia bit her lip looking a little abashed. “I’m afraid I did rather string him along a bit. Pretended to forget my payment dates, pretended to be hard up, that sort of thing.”
In the astounded silence that followed, the kitchen timer went off-a loud and distinct ping from down the hall.
Elysia jumped up.
“Wait!” A.J. exclaimed, and her mother paused in the doorway. “You teased him? You deliberately teased a blackmailer?”
Elysia’s scarlet mouth twitched with amusement. “You make him sound so sinister. He wasn’t, you know. Not the brightest bloke, darling Dicky. But really rather sweet. And so lovely to look at. Charming manners and a marvelous dancer. I expect I did make his life a misery sometimes. He really wasn’t cut out to be a blackmailer.” She added thoughtfully, “Yes, I suspect he felt a little guilty…”
“One of his other victims must not have been as accepting of Dicky’s bad habits.” Mr. Meagher was game but he looked a wee bit shell-shocked.
“One of his other victims must have murdered him,” A.J. said. “Do you know who else he was blackmailing? I thought he was Egyptian?”
“He was. But any nationality is capable of-”
“I mean what was he doing here in this country?”
“He’d moved here. He said he wanted to marry me.”
A.J. gulped. She couldn’t bring herself to look at Mr. Meagher. “Were you planning to… marry him?”
Elysia’s pencil thin brows shot up. “He was a blackmailer, pumpkin. I would hardly bring him into the family.”
A.J. muttered, “Who knows? You might have thought it was funny to torture him full time.”
Elysia looked unamused. She stalked away down the hall on her way to check on the dinner.
Mr. Meagher wiped a hand across his face. He and A.J. risked looking at each other once more.
“It looks very bad,” he said. “Very bad indeed.”
“But she didn’t kill him. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.”
“Aye. But… imagine hearing this malarkey…”
A.J. didn’t want to imagine it. “She doesn’t even own a gun.” She considered this uneasily. “At least… I don’t think she does.” Now there was a scary thought.
Mr. Meagher didn’t bother to answer. “The affair is bad enough. He was blackmailing her-she makes no bones about it-and he was killed in her very own garden.”
“But that’s just it. If she was guilty, she’d surely try to hide the fact that he was blackmailing her. And she’d hardly kill him in her front yard.”
“This is your mither we’re speaking of. Her lover was murdered on her front step and she’s concerned with not burning the Easter dinner.”
He had a point.
A.J. said feebly, in an effort to spare his feelings, “It sounds more like she was paying him to act as a professional escort than a lover.”
Mr. Meagher seemed to have no reply. From down the hallway Elysia was humming.
They listened without looking at each other. “It’s not possible,” A.J. said finally.
Mr. Meagher vouchsafed nothing. A.J.’s heart ached for him. She had long suspected Mr. Meagher’s feelings for her mother were more than that of a dear old friend.
After a few minutes Elysia returned to the bedroom. “Dinner is ready. Shall we have it here on trays or did you need to rest, pump-poppet?”
A.J. quit rubbing her head, all efforts to soothe the ache in her temples failing. “I don’t think I’m going to get much rest, and I’m not hungry. Mother, do you have any idea who might have killed Dicky?”
“I suppose another one of his birds. Perhaps someone got jealous.” Still maddeningly untroubled, she requested Mr. Meagher’s help in the kitchen. He rose like a somnambulist obeying commands and went to do her bidding.
Shortly afterward they returned with plates laden with ham, cheese potatoes, Jell-O salad, and all the trimmings. Monster rose, wagging his tail hopefully-and was sent packing. Elysia and Mr. Meagher set up trays and arranged the plates and silverware and glasses. The food was all A.J.’s childhood favorites. The smell alone was wonderful, and she was surprised to find that despite all she’d been through that day, she was hungry.
A.J. used her nightstand to push herself upright. Sitting was the worst, but she could hardly eat lying flat. Tray settled at last across her knees, she asked, “Were there other birds-er, women?”
Neatly dissecting her ham into bite-sized sections, Elysia murmured vaguely, “Sorry?”
“Dicky. Did he have other lady friends?”
“Oh, he must’ve done. He could hardly afford to live on what I paid him.”
A.J. thought of the Armani coat, the Rolex watch, the Gucci shoes. She suspected her mother was right about Dicky supplementing his income with other victims. Perhaps blackmail was like potato chips-no one could stop at one.
She probed cautiously, “And it didn’t bother you that Dicky had other lady friends?”
Elysia looked up and laughed.
So much for that theory. “But you don’t have any idea of who these women might have been?”
Elysia shook her head. “It’s not the kind of thing he would share with me, you know. Not when he was trying to convince me we should plight our-er-troths.”
Mr. Meagher said grimly, “You must know, Elysia, how very bad this looks.”
Mr. Meagher rarely called Elysia Elysia. Even Elysia seemed to sense the gravity of the situation. Her eyes darkened. She said, “Oh yes. A.J.’s inspector will do his best to stitch me up for this, I’ve no doubt.”
“You know, in fairness to Jake, you do make a lovely prime suspect.”
“It’s not a compliment.”
“A.J.’s right,” Mr. Meagher put in. “You could well be arrested for this.”
“I’ve no doubt I will be.” Elysia nibbled on ham. “That is good. I am a bloody good cook!”
A.J. struggled to control her exasperation. “Did you tell Jake everything you told us?”
Elysia’s mouth full, she nodded pleasantly.
Of course she had. For all her love of quotations, Elyisa had apparently never heard the one about discretion being the better part of valor. “What did he say?”
“What you would expect from a man with his limited imagination.”
A.J. let that slide. “What about your alibi?”
Elysia raised an elegant shoulder. “He seems to think it’s shaky. I lost my receipt-well, who holds onto the receipt for a single container of milk? Field Marshall Rommel suggested that I might have shot poor Dicky, tossed a tin of evaporated milk in a paper sack, and taken a drive around the valley.”
“But won’t they remember you at the store?”
“One can but hope.”
“It can’t have been crowded on Easter morning. And they’ll have a surveillance camera, surely?”
“No, it wasn’t crowded, but there’s the question of when the murder occurred. The timing is going to be fairly tight. I expect the prosecution will argue that I killed poor Dicky and then went shopping to give myself an alibi.”
“The prosecution.” A.J. looked worriedly at Mr. Meagher. “But surely it won’t go to trial?”
The lawyer’s expression was not reassuring.
“What can we do?”
Elysia said, as though the answer were obvious, “We could always solve the crime ourselves.”