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Five

Murder On The Eightfold Path

A.J. inhaled cookie crumbs and spent an agonized couple of seconds coughing before she managed a hoarse, Im sorry?

Stella said, Elysias got a temper when shes riled.

Shes not violent. She closed off memories of her mother hurling glasses, plates, and, on one memorable occasion, a brass paperweight at her father during some of their livelier arguments. That had been back in the bad old days when alcohol had formed the foundation of Elysias daily food pyramid.

Stella, unmoved, said, Shes always had her own ideas about the law.

What does that mean?

Stella shrugged. I think Elysia believes laws are for other people.

A.J. knew her instinctive rejection of this statement was illogical. Certainly Elysia did often behave as though the laws of the land did not apply to her. Sometimes that zany attitude was sort of charming-and sometimes it wasnt.

Were not discussing exceeding the speed limit here, were talking about murder. And I cant see my mother committing cold-blooded murder. She just wouldnt.

Not cold-blooded murder, I agree, Stella said. But if she felt threatened or she was angry enough?

A.J. stubbornly shook her head despite uneasy memories of the things her mother had done back when she had been drinking. Those things could be attributed to the alcohol. And while it was true that Elysia did rather live in her own world, that was still a far cry from the sort of loss of control Stella was suggesting.

A.J. was marshaling her argument when the phone rang. Stella rose to answer it, returning a few moments later. That was the Stillbrook Streamer. They were hoping for an interview.

Yeah, well, hope springs eternal, A.J. said shortly.

Thats pretty much what I told them.

Why doesnt Mr. Meagher call?

It was a rhetorical question, but Stella replied seriously, Its a homicide charge. They might not be able to get bail. Or the judge might decide to set it high, given your mas financial resources and nationality.

A.J. stared in horror. You dont think theyll keep her?

Stella said gruffly, I think Jake wanted me here just in case.

This time A.J. was less touched by Jakes thoughtfulness.

Murder On The Eightfold Path

A.J. spent the afternoon reading through her aunts manuscript.

No thinking person can deny that we live in a time of crisis. We look around and witness financial, environmental, and social upheaval. We turn on the television and see a world at war. Our ideals, our very faith in the greater good is challenged. Yet this is also a time of extraordinary spiritual opportunity. It depends on how we respond. At the core of the most painful experiences lie the seeds of philosophical awakening, of epiphany.

A.J. reread the paragraph slowly. It was unexpectedly comforting in her particular time of trouble to read her aunts words. Dianthas memoirs were almost like hearing her speak.

The phone rang off and on, but it was always members of the press. The Stillbrook Streamer, the Star-Ledger, Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times: the papers mounting in importance as the news of Elysias arrest hit the wires. Stella staunchly fended them off but it was clear that even her nerves were growing frayed as the afternoon wore on.

It was after five oclock when Mr. Meagher finally called, and the news was not good.

Well, you see, its complicated, me wee girl, he began when A.J. picked up the phone.

What does that mean?

Were eh probably looking at tomorrow.

Tomorrow? Shes going to have to spend the night in jail. But why?

Its complicated, me darlin. Theres already a lot of media attention. Too much in the opinion of that great fascist swine of a superior court judge. Theres also the fact that your mither has considerable financial resources-as do you. Theyre viewing her as a flight risk.

You mean they might not let her out at all? A.J. felt a childish and utterly disconcerting urge to burst into tears. It had to be the combination of meds and back pain.

Dont fret, Mr. Meagher reassured her quickly. Im pulling every bloody favor I ever did anyone in this miserable town.

A.J. realized then how angry Mr. Meagher was because shed never heard him speak with anything but love for his adopted country and home. She swallowed down her anger and fear as it was clear he had plenty of his own to deal with.

So what do we do?

You just rest that back of yours and leave the rest to me. Ill have her out by tomorrow or me name isnt Bradley Jamieson Meagher.

A.J. thanked him sincerely and replaced the phone on the hook with an unsteady hand. Her anger at Jake was now sky-high even though a tiny voice in the back of her mind loyally pointed out that he probably hadnt had a choice. Part of her wrath was based on the knowledge that he apparently really did suspect her mother capable of such a crime. And even though A.J. had also experienced an uneasy twinge or two maybe partly because of that, it seemed a severe betrayal.

She picked at the chicken noodle casserole Stella had fixed for their dinner, listening with half an ear as the other woman talked about a s'eance she had conducted for a recently widowed woman.

I know what people say, what they think, but it brings comfort to my clients to know theres something on the other side.

A.J. remembered what Stella had said earlier about being lonely. Loneliness led people into doing all kinds of dangerous and foolish things. Attending s'eances might even be one of the less foolhardy.

She studied Stellas weathered face. Before I met you I thought all s'eances took place in auditoriums. Well, except the ones in movies.

Thats a stage mediumship s'eance. I dont have much faith in that. I prefer the personal touch myself.

A.J. remembered the s'eance they had held after Aunt Dianthas death. It had been inconclusive-and a little scary, frankly. But she had seen all kinds of movies where people tried to solve crimes by conducting s'eances. She tried to picture summoning Dakarai Massris spirit. Did he even know who had killed him? Did people go into the afterlife as confused and misinformed as they were in the here and now?

Stella had plenty of ideas on that topic. She was still offering her theories over coffee and creamy rice pudding (Stella being apparently unfamiliar with the concept of low carbs) when Andy, A.J.s ex, called.

What the heck is going on down there? Its all over the TV that Ellies been arrested for murder, Andy demanded, uncharacteristically not even pausing for the usual civilities.

Andy and Elysia had always been close-closer than A.J. and Elysia in fact, even after Andy had left A.J. to be with another man.

On TV? gulped A.J.

Of course. Well, she is a cultural icon, he added with what A.J. couldnt help feeling was misplaced pride.

A.J. explained about Dakarai Massri, which took some doing. Andy listened in stunned-and uncharacteristic-silence.

Your mother is accused of murdering a blackmailing Egyptian gigolo? Andy repeated a little faintly when she had finished.

A.J. pleaded, Can we refer to him as a blackmailing Egyptian antiquities expert? It doesnt sound quite so seedy.

It doesnt? Andy swallowed loudly enough for A.J. to hear it clear across the New Jersey Turnpike. So what are you going to do? Prove shes innocent, I assume?

That was another reason Andy and Elysia got on so well; they both fancied themselves master detectives, with A.J. as their unwilling Watson. An unhealthy diet of TV mystery shows had persuaded them both that anyone was equipped to investigate major crime.

I dont think that would be a good idea, A.J. said firmly, just as though she hadnt been contemplating that very idea most of the afternoon. Its Jakes case and you know how he felt the last time-

Andy interrupted, Its Jakes case? Jake arrested your mother? Your boyfriend arrested your-

Thanks, Andy, I already know that part, and dont tell me Nick wouldnt do the same to your mother if his bosses at the FBI gave the order.

Well, yeah, but Nick doesnt like my mother.

A.J. had no response to that. Andys mother was hard to like, although A.J. was sort of fond of her in spite of it all.

Its ridiculous, Andy was protesting. Ellie wouldnt hurt a fly. So what are you going to do?

I dont know. Ive hired a lawyer. Well, Mr. Meagher is hiring a top notch criminal attorney for me.

An attorney? You cant let this go to trial. You cant just sit there and let that bastard railroad Ellie! Since Andy actually liked Jake, his choice of epithet indicated how worked up over this he was getting.

I cant do much about it at the moment. A.J. explained about putting her back out, and Andy was appropriately sympathetic-and momentarily diverted. She took the opportunity to ask after his own health; Andy had been diagnosed with MS the previous summer. It had been a rocky time, but thanks in part to yoga he had found a delicate balance between fighting to stay as well as possible and learning to accept what couldnt be cured.

Im holding my own, he said a little grimly.

How are things with Nick?

His voice was relaxed as he answered. The best. The best theyve ever been. Although it turns out he does have this freaky and totally unnecessary maternal streak.

A.J. chuckled. Im glad. I mean that things are good. You two deserve each other.

Im sure thats not entirely a compliment. So what about you and Jake? Has he popped the question yet? I mean, before all this happened. I assume you wont marry him if he puts Elysia in prison.

No. A.J. added quickly, I mean no, he didnt pop the question. Anyway its way too soon for that.

Not necessarily. Sometimes all it takes is one look. Andy and Nick had fallen in love at first sight, but that was still a painful memory for A.J. Her silence must have reminded him of this, for Andy said awkwardly, But I can see how suspecting your mum of murder might put a crimp in things.

A little. The scary thing is Im sure they wouldnt have arrested her so quickly if they didnt have a mountain of evidence already.

Circumstantial, Andy scoffed.

I dont know if its circumstantial or not. We havent heard what all the evidence is. The murder happened in her front yard. She admits she was paying this man blackmail money.

Yeah, but this is Elysia. That money was probably her equivalent of the normal persons entertainment budget.

Ten thousand dollars?

Even Andy didnt have an answer for that one.

Unwillingly, A.J. admitted, Even if I wanted to, Im not exactly sure where to start, um, investigating.

Start with the victim, Andy said with brisk confidence, just as though hed been solving baffling mysteries for the last decade or so. Start with Ellies Egyptian gigolo.


The next morning Stella drove A.J. into the borough of Rutherford to receive cortisone shots. Had A.J. been feeling better she might have tried walking the thirty miles; it could hardly have wasted more time, because Stella, a nervous and unhappy chauffeur, drove as though she had a jar of unstable nitroglycerin bouncing around in the truck bed. If A.J. hadnt traveled short distances with Stella before, she might have thought she was driving slowly out of consideration for A.J.s bad back, but no such luck.

The slow drive prolonged the pain of sitting, which was, as much as A.J. hated to admit it, excruciating. But they arrived at long last at the clinic; A.J. changed into a hospital shift and lay very carefully down on the X-ray table, a small pillow under her stomach to curve her back. If this didnt work, she was considering trying acupuncture or another alternative medicine.

Her lower back was swabbed and then numbed with a local anesthetic. Then the surgeon used fluoroscopy-a live X-ray-to guide the needle toward the epidural space. A.J. closed her eyes, tuning it out. At roughly six thousand dollars a pop, she sincerely hoped this would do her good. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didnt.

Using the breathing techniques she practiced in yoga, she relaxed and tried to think positive, healing thoughts. She had been hoping that with yoga and proper exercise she might never have to go through this again.

After the epidural, she rested for twenty minutes and was then released.

Though not groggy exactly, A.J. had not slept the night before, and she was tired and emotionally drained-never mind the fact that her back was tender. She rested her head against the cab window as the truck crept toward home, Stellas deep voice a comfortable white noise in the background of her thoughts.

Her cell rang. A.J. fumbled it out of her purse and received word from Mr. Meagher that Elysia was being released on bail within the hour.

Stella obligingly, if slowly, changed direction, and A.J. worked to contain her impatience as the pickup truck moseyed on down the highway back to Stillbrook.

When they arrived they found the small town in something resembling a state of siege.

Normally the town of Stillbrook was a quiet and quaint little place, a harmonious blend of historic homes and village industry. Victorian architecture housed bakeries, boutiques, and art galleries-not to mention families that had lived in Warren County since Colonial times. In the center of town was a scrupulously neat village green, which was dutifully decked out in appropriate holiday garb at every turn of the calendar page. Currently, giant colorful Easter eggs, slightly drooping pastel balloons, and wide ribbons in pink and yellow and blue competed with the natural beauty of the blooming flower beds.

Not that the milling sightseers were paying much attention to scenic beauty-natural or otherwise. News vans were parked around the green oval of the park and a small mob seemed to have gathered outside the brick police station.

Maybe theyre planning to lynch her, Stella muttered, not sounding particularly distressed at the idea. But as they drew nearer, they saw that the crowd appeared to be mostly made up of reporters and photographers.

This is crazy, A.J. muttered.

Maybe so. It ought to make your mas day. Stella searched for any space alongside the curb wide enough to wedge the truck into.

But she hasnt made a film in over twenty years, A.J. protested, taking note of the national television logos on the long line of vans.

Doesnt matter. Easy Mason was big news once upon a time. Every naughty film and risqu'e photograph she ever posed for will be turning up.

A.J. gulped. Not that Elysia had been a porn star, but she had certainly played more than her share of scantily clad ing'enues and sirens, and the words sex kitten had been used more than occasionally in reference to her work. A.J. had outgrown her adolescent agony over her mothers colorful career; in fact she was even proud of her in a conflicted way that shed probably never admit, but the idea of all those photos of Elysia wearing hot pants, shoulder pads, teased hair-and little else-resurfacing gave her a definite qualm. No one enjoys thinking of her mother as a sex object.

Stella parked, reached under her seat, and dug out a battered-looking straw hat. You better wear this, just in case someone recognizes you.

Anything that ugly was more likely to draw attention than deflect it, but A.J. reached automatically for the hat. Why would anyone care? Its not like Ive been in hiding for all these years.

Murder changes everything, Stella said darkly.

A.J. squashed the hat down on her head and they climbed out of the truck, making their way up the sidewalk and then across the street. She could hear the murmured inquiry as to who she and Stella might be before they reached the front steps. They worked their way through the crowd, cameras whirring, and a uniformed officer let them inside where Mr. Meagher met them, appearing tired and triumphant.

Theyre bringing her in now.

Mr. Meagher looked as though he had literally done battle to get Elysia free. His tie was crooked and his usually immaculately coiffed silver hair was standing up in tufts.

Is she all right? A.J. asked tentatively.

Spitting mad, Mr. Meagher admitted.

Stella inquired curiously. How much was her bail?

Mr. Meagher named a sum and Stella whistled. A.J. barely listened to this exchange, having heard the familiar brisk footsteps on the checkerboard linoleum floor.

A stolid-faced, plump female officer appeared, escorting Elysia. She was pale and her eyes looked smudged and dark-circled. Her hair was more than a little tousled, but otherwise she looked like herself.

Ah, Stella. You didnt have to dress up on my account. Her gaze fell on A.J., taking a moment to recognize her in the oversized straw hat. And you brought Pollyanna. How sweet.

Mother. A.J. hugged her. Elysia squeezed her tightly back, and A.J. managed not to yelp as her injured back protested.

You shouldnt have come down here yourself, lovie. Or were you actually hoping to see Der Fuh-

Mr. Meagher hissed as loudly as a cobra-spying mongoose and Elysia broke off as Jake appeared in the lobby, carrying a sheaf of papers.

He stopped, nodded gravely, his gaze lingering on A.J.s, before he apparently changed his mind and walked out again.

Elysia sniffed disapprovingly. I need the loo. She turned on her heel.

A.J. exchanged looks with their companions and followed Elysia into the ladies room, where she found her mother reapplying her makeup with fierce efficiency.

Are you? A.J. cut off what was obviously a silly question. She couldnt imagine how it would feel to be jailed, but she could imagine that once shed been released, feeling clean and in control of her life again would be high priority.

Bradley tells me there are reporters out there, Elysia said, combing through her dark hair in sharp, short strokes. She twisted it up into a loose chignon and studied her wan reflection narrowly.

We can probably sneak out the back of the station, A.J. said. I can ask the desk sergeant-

Sneak out the back? Elysia stared at her. I have no intention of sneaking out the back.

I thought A.J.s voice trailed off.

You thought what? Elysia raised her elegant eyebrows. You thought I would sneak away in the night like a whipped cur?

Er, no. I thought you would prefer to slip out the back and avoid all the dumb questions and bad publicity.

You. Thought. Wrong.

All riiiiiight. Clearly ready for her close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Elysia held her head high. A.J. could just make out the ghostly obscenities scrawled on the multi-bleached wall behind her. I have no intention of going gently into that good night, she said clearly and coldly. Far from it. In fact Im going out there to give a press conference on the front steps of this dungeon.

A.J. sucked in a sharp breath. I dont think thats a good idea, Mother.

I didnt ask. You can sneak out the back if you like. Elysia moved to the door.

Wait! I really think we need to-

Elysia cut her off, throwing open the bathroom door, nearly taking out what looked like a teenaged hooker and her baby.

My public, Elysia announced crisply, awaits!


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