“Dear, dear. After all, it could have gone worse,” Mr. Meagher said absently, for the fifth or sixth time. They were tooling along the tree-lined highway, lush farmland, and green woodland flashing by as they headed for Starlight Farm. Monster, his head stuck out the window, sneezed loudly and wetly.
Other than Mr. Meagher and Monster, no one had had anything to say since they had left Deer Hollow. Actually, no one had had anything to say before Deer Hollow. In fact no one had had anything much to say since Elysia had delivered her scathing denunciation of her treatment at the incompetent hands of the Stillbrook Police Department-which she had concluded by challenging “the plods” to solve the murder of Dakarai Massri before she did.
It had made excellent copy-and had probably earned her the undying enmity of every single member of the Stillbrook Police Department from Chief of Police Harlan Welles to Fred the janitor. Safe to say Elysia wasn’t topping the charts with anybody pulling a salary in the legal and judicial branches either.
Not that she cared. She sat in the front seat gazing broodingly out the windshield at the vast and cloudless blue skies overhead. She had remained so since they’d said good-bye to Stella at the police station and driven to Deer Hollow to pick up Monster. A.J.’s back was beginning to give her, in Elysia’s vernacular, “gyp.” But it seemed easier to spend the night at her mother’s than try and manage on her own. Mostly because it would be difficult to keep an eye on her mother long distance, and A.J. definitely felt it behooved her to keep an eye on Elysia. Especially now that Elysia seemed determined to take an active role in solving Massri’s murder.
“Did you know they found an engagement ring in the remains of that Easter basket?” Elysia said suddenly, seeming to shake off her preoccupation.
“No,” A.J. replied. “But that’s good, right? That proves that there was no ill will between yourself and Dicky.” She tried to read Mr. Meagher’s expression in the rearview mirror.
“Those bloody fools gave me a glimpse of it. Three stones. Baguettes with a two-and-a-half carat center stone. A total of five carats. Do you have any idea what that would have cost the poor dear boy?”
“Do you remember how the poor dear boy would have raised the money?” A.J. inquired. “Because that’s what got us into this jam.” She really didn’t think she could handle her mother getting sentimental over that lying, cheating, sneaking little blackmailer. No one deserved to be murdered, but A.J. was willing to bet Massri had reaped what he sowed.
Mr. Meagher cleared his throat. “The police theorize that Massri might have tried to blackmail your mother into marriage and that’s why she shot him.”
“That’s ridiculous. That’s not logical, it’s just hokey melodrama.”
“That’s what we’re dealing with,” Elysia said. “The filth likes me for it, and that’s that.”
“Coppers,” Mr. Meagher reminded her out of the side of his mouth. “Pejorative term.”
“I remember now. I must have blocked it out of my mind. Mother, it’s not going to help things if you keep antagonizing the police or the DA or the superior court judge.”
“It’s not going to help kissing their arses either.”
A.J. caught Mr. Meagher’s gaze in the mirror. He shook his head very slightly and, unwillingly, she subsided.
When they reached Starlight Farm, however, and she saw the crime scene tape in the front yard and took in the mess that the police had made searching her mother’s home, A.J.’s anger at Jake surged again. If he didn’t believe her mother was guilty, why was he going along with this garbage? Why wasn’t he doing anything to help? Was he so ambitious that he was willing to sacrifice anything and anyone to his career?
“I’m going to sue the police department,” Elysia said, moving down the hallway and straightening the series of eighteenth-century London watercolors as she went. “Starting with that great, bloody bully boy you call a boyfriend. And I shall enjoy wringing every last penny from their coffers.”
A.J. ignored that. “Haven’t they found the weapon yet?” she asked Mr. Meagher.
“Well, surely that’s a positive.”
Elysia drawled, “They think I dumped it in the Delaware when I was driving around the countryside with my evaporated milk.”
A.J. sighed and lowered herself to the long sofa, stretching out. “I have to lie down. My back is killing me.”
Some of the hardness left Elysia’s face. “I thought you said you’d had an injection, pumpkin. Didn’t it help?”
“I’m sure it will. But it takes a little while to kick in.”
She closed her eyes. When she opened them again Elysia was setting a tray with a pot of tea and a plate of lemon madeleines on the low table.
A.J. realized she must have dozed off for a few minutes because Mr. Meagher was in the middle of saying something about the police checking into Elysia’s bank records and finding proof that she had been making payments to Massri.
Elysia opened the silver cigarette box on one of the side tables, seemed to recall that she had company, and flipped it shut again. “Is this supposed to be a big break in their case? I’ve already admitted it.”
“The point is, Elysia, it looks very damaging.” It was one of the only times A.J. could remember Mr. Meagher actually sounding sharp with her mother. Her mother seemed to hear the difference in his tone, too. Her brows drew together.
“I can’t help how it looks,” she snapped. “Nor can I help people’s narrow minds.”
Mr. Meagher reddened. He replaced his teacup and saucer on the table and rose. His accent was pronounced as he said, “I must be on me way. I’ll see meself out.”
“Good night, ladies,” Mr. Meagher said with injured dignity.
The quiet, careful closing of the front door was worse than any slamming.
Elysia groaned and dropped her face in her hands.
Jake phoned later that evening after A.J. had retired to Elysia’s comfortable guest bedroom. “I’m at your house.”
“I’m at my mother’s.”
“I figured that out. How’s your back?”
“It’s a little better, I think.”
Abruptly they were out of things to say.
Into the yawning, black silence, A.J. said, “This is… awkward.”
“I know. The DA plans on pushing all the way. He’s convinced there’s a real case here. And your mother didn’t make things better with her grand performance this afternoon.”
“She’s scared, and she’s angry.”
“I understand that, but-”
“Look, you don’t have to take that attitude with me, A.J. I don’t think your mother killed anybody. But that’s beside the point.”
As great a relief as it was to hear Jake admit even that much, she couldn’t help responding, “It shouldn’t be.”
“This is my job.”
“This is my mother.”
“And I can’t allow personal feelings to interfere with how I do my job. That wouldn’t help Elysia.”
A.J. communed within herself. “Intellectually, yes. I get it. But emotionally? This is an impossible situation. She’s having a rough time and my fraternizing with the… the enemy isn’t helping.”
“So what are you saying?”
A.J. was silent. “One day at a time? I think we just need to take things slowly for a while. I mean, if this really goes to trial-”
His voice was flat. “Okay.”
Was she glad or sorry that he accepted it so easily?
“One thing, though,” Jake said quietly. “Elysia said a lot of inflammatory things outside the station today. She challenged the police department to find the ‘real’ killer, and I don’t think I’m totally off base thinking she inferred she’d be poking her nose in if we didn’t come up with a result she liked pretty quick.”
“She was angry and emotional.”
She heard what could have been a brusque laugh. “Sure she was. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t mean every word. Do not let her drag you into some dingbat amateur detective scheme. Or you’re going to be wearing matching mother-daughter prison garb.”
“Duly noted, Detective.”
He sighed. “Okay. Well, keep me posted.”
She flipped shut the cell phone and gazed up unseeing at the shadowy corners of the moonlit ceiling.
One of A.J.’s unexpected newfound pleasures since moving to New Jersey was her morning yoga routine. Not only did she feel physically better for those few but intense minutes of stretching and limbering, but that period of quiet reflection centered her for the active day ahead. Although it had only been a couple of days since A.J. had injured her back, she was already missing her morning yoga session.
Accordingly, on the morning after her steroid shot, she went through a very cautious, abbreviated workout. She was uneasily conscious that the wrong moves could worsen her situation, but she was sure that if she proceeded carefully, all would be well. She had worked hard over the past months and didn’t want to lose the ground that she had gained.
She started by spreading a quilt on the bedroom carpet and then lying flat on her back. She stretched her arms out from her side in a straight line with her shoulders. Exhaling, she started to raise both legs perpendicular to the floor, but she immediately felt the burn in her lower back, and had to abandon the pose.
Dismayed, but still determined, she rested for a few seconds and then rolled carefully onto her left side, raising her right leg-
The pain halted her.
No way was this going to happen. She was liable to do more damage even trying. For a few seconds A.J. struggled with her frustration and fear. Had one misstep undone all the diligent work of the last months?
She refused to give up.
She sat up, moved onto her hands and knees, and keeping her spine lengthened, she stared straight ahead, breathing normally. Or as normally as she could, given her state of tension.
So far, so good.
She started the arch of Marjariasana or Cat Pose-and again she had to stop at the blaze of fierce pain.
A.J. sat down, forcing herself to breathe evenly, to resist giving into her anguish.
Her body would not cooperate.
No. Wrong. Her body could not cooperate. This was not a matter of willpower or discipline. She could not force her injured nerves and muscles to respond the way she wished; to try to do so would merely cause more damage. Surely the lessons of the past year had as much to do with retraining her way of thinking as moving?
She drew a couple of long, calming breaths. When she had her emotions under control once more, she rose-carefully-refolded the quilt, and went to take a warm, muscle-relaxing shower.
When A.J. at last made her way to the kitchen, she found her mother whisking eggs for mushroom and cheese omelets while she watched a local TV station replay of herself on the police station steps.
“I don’t suppose the tiger-stripe jeans matter, do you?” Elysia inquired, critically studying her miniature image.
“Better than prison stripes.”
Suze MacDougal dropped by around lunchtime, full of grievances over Lily’s high-handed behavior. Suze was one of the junior instructors at Sacred Balance. A short girl with spiky yellow hair and huge blue eyes, she bore an unfortunate resemblance to Dopey the dwarf, and perhaps she was a little ditzy, but she had a good heart and was a loyal friend and employee.
“Couldn’t you just come in for a few hours? Even if you hung out in your office all day?”
A.J.’s spine gave a little twinge just considering the idea.
“I don’t think I’m going to be a lot of use at this point. I’m going to have to take it easy for a while. Standing is hard, sitting is worse, and walking hurts like heck, to be honest. I’m supposed to lie flat until it stops hurting.”
“For how long?”
As long as it took. Despite her disappointment over the morning’s failed workout, A.J. was determined to focus on the fact that her back was definitely better. She was going to have to be patient-something that did not come naturally to her-and she was going to have to have faith. But she did not believe, refused to believe, that all the months of practice and discipline could be so quickly undone by the wrong move. This was a temporary setback, that was all.
She said staunchly, “It won’t be too long.”
“There’s something going on, A.J. Lily’s up to something.”
“Like suits in the studio.”
“Suits. Suits,” Suze emphasized. “Executive types in suits being shown around the studio, kind of like investors getting the grand tour.”
“We don’t have investors. Sacred Balance is a privately held corporation.”
“Exactly. And there’s more.”
A.J. rubbed her forehead. No question: so far the day was off to a not-so-great start. “Maybe they’re potential clients, Suze. Maybe they were reporters.”
“Mara Allen from Yoga Meridian called asking for Lily.”
A.J. straightened, wincing. Yoga Meridian, located in the nearby town of Blairstown, was their biggest competitor; they had already lost two important clients to the new studio with its spa and salon facilities. “Called Lily about what?”
“No one knows. But she called twice.”
A.J. felt an odd prickling at the back of her neck. “Even so, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
“Okay, but why would Mara Allen be calling Lily? Think about it. Yoga Meridian is our only real rival. I mean, if they-if Mara-wanted to link up with Sacred Balance for some charity benefit or something, why wouldn’t she contact you?”
“Because I’m out of the office.”
“She called asking for Lily on Monday morning. Now how could she have known you were going to be out Monday morning when you didn’t even know you were going to be out?”
“Who says Mara called Monday morning?”
A.J. thought this over. Emma Rice was not given to idle gossip. Nor was she someone who got her facts wrong.
Suze said eagerly, “And if it was something like hooking up for a charity benefit, why hasn’t Lily called you to discuss it?”
“Because I’m on sick leave and it isn’t anything urgent. Because, knowing Lily, she wouldn’t think my input was necessary.”
“Why hasn’t she mentioned it to anyone at the studio?”
“Maybe there isn’t anything to tell yet. Maybe it isn’t anything at all. Maybe Mara was calling for information or to check a reference.”
“What reference? The last time anyone left Sacred Balance-” Suze broke off uncomfortably. The last time there had been an opening in Sacred Balance’s staff roster was Diantha’s murder.
A.J. brightened as a delightful thought occurred. “Maybe Mara’s offering Lily a job.”
Suze’s lips parted as she, too, was transfixed with momentary rapture. “Do you think so?” Her face fell almost at once. “But what about the executive types Lily was giving the grand tour to?”
“I don’t know, but we can’t-shouldn’t-speculate. Is everyone talking about this at the studio?”
Suze looked uncomfortable. “Well… you know what it’s like.”
A.J. did. Only too well.
“I’ll tell you what I think,” Suze said. “You’ve only been out for two days. If Lily is up to something, she’s moving pretty fast. There’s some time factor involved.” Suze stared at A.J. “Whatever this is, it’s not good.”