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Seven

Murder On The Eightfold Path

Wednesday stretched out, long and tedious. A.J. rested her back and caught up on her reading. She browsed articles on weight-loss vitamins, the medicinal value of whole foods, and the obesity epidemic. Epidemic was the word the article used, and as A.J. read, it appeared to be advisedly. According to the article, for the first time in history two-thirds of all Americans were overweight. Those were some pretty scary statistics.

Inevitably, all that reading about dieting made her hungry and A.J. snacked on the last of the lemon madeleines while she flipped through stories on learning to unwind, learning to get ones life back under control, and learning to balance work and play. All the while, she was conscious of Elysia prowling the house like a caged animal. Mr. Meagher had not phoned so far that day.

Maybe there isnt any news, A.J. pointed out when her mother began another lap of the antique Savonnerie carpet.

How can there be no news?

Well, theyve already arrested and charged you. So now its probably just a matter of the police continuing to collect evidence and build their case while your attorney collects evidence to mount your defense. It takes a lot longer than it does on TV.

Elysia disapproved of this. Several times already she had called the criminal lawyer Mr. Meagher had found her, but apparently he had no news either. No news was good news in A.J.s opinion, although the fact that there was no news was not for lack of trying. Elysia received several requests for interviews from both print and visual news media. To A.J.s fervent gratitude, she turned them all down.

I do have one idea, Elysia said, taking the chair catty-corner from the sofa where A.J. reclined.

Whats that? A.J. asked warily.

Elysia held up a key. We could search Dickys flat.

After what seemed like a long time, A.J. closed her mouth. What are you doing with a key to Massris place? She held up a hand. Never mind. Forget I asked.

Perhaps the possession of the key was a point in her mothers favor. After all, it would be a pretty stupid-or totally eccentric-murderess who decided to kill her victim in her own front yard when she had a key to the victims home. In fact it would be a pretty stupid murderess who killed her victim in her own front yard whether she had a key to the victims home or not.

Does Jake know you have a key to Dickys home?

Its none of his business. Elysia selected a cigarette from the silver box, but did not light it. Shed been talking about quitting for the last month or so but being charged with murder was probably not doing much for her resolve.

Was it Jakes business that her mother had a key to the murdered mans home? A.J. wasnt sure. Did he ask?

No.

A.J. studied her mothers austere profile. What on earth did you two talk about?

I assume you mean Dicky and I?

A.J. nodded.

We talked about all kinds of things. Oh, nothing of earth-shattering importance. We laughed a good deal. He was very good-natured. Very good company. He knew how to listen. Or how to pretend to listen, which is nearly as good.

Keeping in mind Stellas observations on loneliness, A.J. said, But why him?

Oh, he chose me, pumpkin. I told you I wasnt looking for anything like that.

Why do you think he chose you?

At Elysias look of affront, A.J. said, He was blackmailing you, Mother. It obviously wasnt just about your sparkling personality.

Elysia half-closed her eyes, considering. Mmm. Tactless but true. There were several of us on the cruise. Unattached women of a certain age. Dicky was very pleasant, very charming with all of us, but gradually he seemed to narrow his focus. I remember the others taking the mickey out of me about it.

Do you think you were more receptive to his advances?

I dont know that I was, Elysia said. She seemed reflective not defensive. Nor was I the wealthiest. I was, if I may say so, by far the best looking.

That goes without saying.

Thank you, pumpkin. Women my age do have a tendency to let themselves go. So I think it was probably a combination of factors. I was attractive, receptive, and sufficiently well off.

Do you think it was the first time hed ever tried anything like that?

Again Elysia seemed to have to cogitate. As much as Id like to think so no.

Why?

Elysia sighed. Looking back, I can see that it all seemed to go rather like clockwork. She clarified, As though we were on a timetable-his timetable.

So you do think he was a professional blackmailer?

It obviously wasnt full-time. He was employed by the cruise line.

But imagine what a nice supplementary income he could collect if he scored one blackmail victim per cruise.

Id like to think it wasnt quite as common as buses running Elysia made a face. I suppose it was, though. He did seem to have it down to a science.

How did he approach you? Once the deed was done, I mean. Did he present you with photos?

Yes.

Then he must have had an accomplice. Unless the camera was in his bow tie?

Elysia tittered at some mental image. Then she sobered. He did have an accomplice. One of the stewards. A little rat-faced man. Im quite sure they were in it together.

Did the little rat-faced man emigrate, too? Have you ever seen him since?

I never saw any sign of him after I left the cruise ship.

Maybe he didnt like the partnership being broken up?

Elysia tapped the unlit cigarette meditatively. I think thats weak, pumpkin. Its very hard to picture a man following another halfway across the world just to twep him for breaking up their partnership.

Twep?

Terminate with Extreme Prejudice, Elysia said tartly.

Ouch.

Qeb, the ship steward, was quite a different sort of person from Dicky. Such a trip would have been extremely difficult and frightening for him. He was rather rustic.

All right. Scratch Qeb. So it must have been one of Dickys other victims.

Elysia said nothing.

Unless he had some other means of support? Obviously he couldnt continue to work for the Egyptian cruise line, but maybe he found something else?

I doubt it. I never saw any sign of gainful employment. Frankly, it would have been a pain working our trysts around a nine-to-five schedule.

Yes, Im sure most people agree with that. Mother, are you sure you have no idea about any of Dickys other lady friends?

He wouldnt have introduced us, pumpkin.

You never heard him mention anyone? Never saw a name on a note or an envelope?

I would hardly read his mail, Anna.

This had been a sore point for a time during the tumultuous years of A.J.s parents marriage. She said bluntly, You would if you were sleuthing.

Oh. Elysias expression changed. True. But unfortunately I didnt. I suppose I didnt want to learn anything that might spoil the fun.

What about phone conversations? Or messages on his answering machine?

Elysia brightened. Actually, now that you mention it, I did hear a name once. Dora Boombox. No. Bombeck? Hmmm. Beauford. That was it. She used to ring the poor boy up all hours of night and day. She was besotted.

Besotted. Now there was a good old-fashioned word. You mean she was stalking him?

I dont know if stalking is the right word. She did grow increasingly angry and she did seem to be making rather a nuisance of herself.

Do you know if she ever threatened him?

He could be very exasperating.

So she did threaten him? Mother, maybe this Dora Beauford had something to do with Dickys death. Did you tell Jake about her?

Elysia shook her head.

Why not?

Because that was months ago, pet. I dont believe Dicky was still in contact with her.

But you dont know. Thats the kind of thing youre supposed to let the police determine.

Well, if she was still in contact, theyll know by now. They took his cell phone.

A.J. nodded absently, thinking.

Well? Elysia asked after a time.

Well what?

Elysia studied her unlit cigarette tip. Shall we try a spot of the old B &E?

A.J. stared at her in consternation. Please tell me youre joking.

Joking? Im most certainly not joking. Were discussing my life and liberty.

Its your life and liberty Im thinking of. Talk about finding the fastest possible way to get yourself thrown back in jail! I cant believe youd even suggest it.

Elysias brows raised. Never mind the lecture, pumpkin. Yes or no?

Its no. Absolutely not. Under no circumstances are we sneaking into Dickys flat.


Dicky Massri lived-formerly lived-in an innocuous two-story apartment building in Hackettstown. It looked like a hundred other places: hardy generic gardens surrounding pseudo-Colonial red brick and black shutters. It did not look like the lair of a master blackmailer.

Are you sure this place doesnt have a security guard? A.J. asked doubtfully, glancing up at the windows on the second story as they approached the complex.

Elysia didnt bother to answer that. See, she threw over her shoulder as she led the way briskly up the cement walkway to the side entrance. No crime scene tape.

A.J. followed her, watching uneasily as Elysia inserted the key in the lock and pushed open the door. Far across the expanse of patchy lawn she could see a gardener bouncing along on one of those ride-on mowers.

You know the police have probably been all over this place by now.

Elysia tossed a furtive look over her shoulder and stepped inside the apartment. A.J. followed her inside, and Elysia closed the door. The apartment smelled stale, empty.

A.J. looked around. They stood in a long, narrow living room. The walls were dove gray, the carpet white, the furniture dark and severe and modern. The only splash of color came from the primitive abstract paintings on the wall: orange, blue, and green swirls that reminded A.J. of the sort of things a hazmat team generally dealt with. It had the signature look of a mediocre interior decorator: overpriced and impersonal.

The entertainment system looked especially pricey. But there were only a handful of CDs: Englebert Humperdinck, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tom Jones. Music to seduce older ladies by. There were no DVDs.

It doesnt look like he spent a lot of time here. Is this where you used to meet?

Elysia shook her head. She seemed uncharacteristically quiet.

They wandered into the kitchen. Another long, narrow room. Pale green walls and white tile. White stove, fridge, dishwasher, microwave. A.J. opened a cupboard and there were two plates, two coffee cups, a few glasses.

He certainly didnt eat here often.

No. We usually ate out.

A.J. opened the fridge and found it empty of food beyond a jar of green olives, three bottles of champagne, and a damp looking takeout container of moldy looking koshary.

Whatever he was spending his ill-gotten gains on, it wasnt the good life.

There was no answer. A.J. glanced around and saw that her mother had left the room. She found her in the bedroom-inside the walk-in closet to be precise-and saw that in this room spartan simplicity gave way to sybaritic luxury. The queen-sized bed had a silver brocade bedspread and was piled high with jewel-bright velvet cushions. The closet was stuffed with clothes: tailored suits, silk shirts, designer sportswear, and cashmere sweaters. There were rows and rows of expensive shoes. Dicky had possessed far more shoes than A.J. owned, even back when shed been a rising young freelancer.

Elysia methodically checked the pockets of the trousers and shirts and blazers. A.J. moved off to the bathroom and found the glass shelves packed with a variety of name-brand grooming products. Dicky also had more hair products than she did. A.J. counted shampoos and conditioners from LOccitane, Calvin Klein, and The Salon.

Returning to the bedroom, she noticed a snapshot tucked in the corner of the framed mirror over the dresser. The family grouped in front of the neutral background appeared to be Egyptian: a dignified older man, a plump, comfortable middle-aged woman, two self-conscious teenaged girls, and a little boy. Judging by clothes and haircuts, the photograph seemed quite recent. Was this Dickys family? She couldnt think of another reason for such a group portrait.

As she studied the photo, A.J. viewed Dakarai Massri for the first time as something more than a threat to her mother. She recalled how young he had been; she recognized that whatever his faults, he had been someone with hopes and fears, dreams and ambitions, disappointments and sorrows. He had a family somewhere and they had probably loved him and would soon be, if they were not already, grieving for him.

What about this bookie of his? A.J. called. Do you think Dicky might have had gambling debts he couldnt pay?

He liked to gamble, Elysia replied absently.

What did he gamble on?

Horses, mostly. But he spends-spent-a fair amount of time in Atlantic City.

A.J. sat down gingerly on the side of the bed. I dont begin to know how we would locate a bookie or investigate Dickys gambling habits.

Hmm. I admit itll take some thought. Elysia stepped out of the closet and looked around. I dont see his laptop anywhere.

Did he have a laptop? A.J. asked sharply.

One of those cute little notebook thingies.

The police must have it. Did you write him e-mails? A.J. braced herself for the answer.

You know I dont use e-mail unless I have to.

That was true, and it was one bright spot. At least Elysia would not have left an electronic trail.

They went through all the drawers in Dickys bureau and dressing table but turned up nothing more interesting than an overabundance of dress socks.

A.J. sifted through her share of the dresser drawers quickly. She wanted out of this apartment as soon as possible. All they needed was a nosy neighbor or a prospective tenant and theyd be trying to explain themselves to the local law-and good luck with that. What about his friends? Did he have any?

I met his upstairs neighbor once, Elysia said. They seemed to get on well enough.

Its so weird. Hes like the Man Who Never Was.

I assure you, pumpkin, he most definitely was.

As A.J. slid the drawer back it seemed to stick. She pulled it out, tried again, and heard something tear.

Theres something here.

A.J. pulled the drawer all the way out and Elysia rushed to take it from her.

Youre not supposed to lift!

Letting Elysia take the drawer, A.J. reached inside. Jammed into the wooden track was a crumpled greeting card. She freed it carefully, drew it out, and smoothed the stiff paper, examining it curiously.

Elaborate gold script on embossed white stock read Happy Birthday to My Husband.

Heart pounding in hope, A.J. opened the card. Beneath the usual lavish and saccharine sentiments was scrawled xo and a name: Medea.

Hey, take a look at this. She held the card out to her mother.

Elysia took the card and opened it. She seemed to go very still.

He was married, A.J. said.

Elysia said nothing.

He was already married to someone else. Married to someone named Medea. If we could find this woman, this Medea, we would probably have the answer to who killed Dicky.

Still Elysia did not speak-and that was so odd that A.J. fell silent, too.

And in that profound silence she heard a key scrape in the front door lock and the sound of the front door opening.

Hide! gasped Elysia, attempting to shove the drawer soundlessly back in its track.

Hide where? squeaked A.J.

There was no more time than that. Elysia dove beneath the bed. Her arm poked from beneath the bed skirt, beckoning wildly to A.J., but A.J. knew there was no way her back would permit her to climb under the bed-not if she planned on ever climbing out again. She backed into the crowded walk-in closet, ducking behind the suits and silk shirts, listening tensely. Yes, someone had definitely entered the apartment.

The scent of Dickys aftershave was disconcerting. A.J. tried to blank it out and concentrate on the voices. Blanketed in sport coats and shirts, she could see nothing, and though she could hear voices, they were too low to discern more than that there were two more people in the apartment and that one was-possibly-female.

Her first panicked thought had been that she and Elysia had been discovered by the apartment complex manager, but she realized now that that was probably incorrect. The intruders sounded as though they might be arguing. Then A.J. heard the distinct slide of blinds across the front window.

Perhaps these were the hitherto unknown friends or family of the dead man? Oh God. What if they had arrived to pack all his things?

She heard the floor creak. A male voice close to the bedroom door said, I still dont see the point of this.

The answer was indistinct.

Well, we better make this fast. That gardener is coming down this way.

A muffled response.

How do I know? I dont want to take the chance of being spotted walking out of here.

Over the pounding of blood in her ears A.J. could just make out the hurried swing and bang of the kitchen cupboard doors. What were they looking for?

This was very bad. Unless they found what they were looking for in the kitchen-and given how bare the cupboards were, that was unlikely-they would undoubtedly search the bedroom and the closet.

I think youre giving him too much credit, said the same voice irritably.

And then, very distinctly, a female voice said, His answering machine is missing.

The cops will have grabbed it. The mans voice was moving away from the bedroom doorway. A temporary reprieve, A.J. knew.

A.J. hissed a frantic whisper.

A.J. poked a cautious head out of the closet and saw Elysia at the far wall with the window open. She beckoned frantically and A.J., ignoring the pain in her back, tiptoed as quickly and as silently as she could manage across the room.

Elysia shoved the window screen out of its track and into the shrubbery beneath. Can you climb? she mouthed.

A.J. had no idea if she could climb or not, but she was not about to be caught in that room. It had already occurred to her that if the intruders were not the apartment management or Massris family, one or both of them might have had something to do with his death.

From down the hall the woman said, Stop complaining. The faster we do this, the faster we get it over with.

You should have been a philosopher.

The philosopher said something very rude. A kitchen drawer banged hard.

Elysia made a cup with her hands, and A.J., biting her lip against the flare of pain shooting down her hip and leg, stepped into the makeshift step and boosted herself up. Even though she was braced for it, the pain caught her by surprise. She closed her mind to it, and hauled herself out through the wide sliding window and lowered herself to the hedge below. It made for a prickly but reasonably sturdy landing, and she half-rolled, half-wriggled off, landing gracelessly on the walkway in a shower of leaves.

Elysia came scrabbling out the window a moment later, flopped onto the hedge, and dropped to the walk.

Scarper! she gasped.

One of her best ideas in a long time, that was A.J.s opinion as she scuttled after her mother.

They hurried down the path to the parking lot. With all the gratitude of a shipwrecked sailor spotting land, A.J. recognized the blue and white Land Rover right where they had left it.

Elysia used her key fob to unlock the doors while they were still a yard away. They sprinted the last few feet and slammed inside the vehicle.

Hand to her throbbing back, A.J. gasped, That was too close!

Elysia smirked-in between pants-and turned the key in the ignition.

Never again, Mother. I must be insane to have gone along with this. I must be taking way too many pain meds. I must be-

Dont be so poor spirited, pumpkin.

If that had been the apartment manager, wed be on our way to jail right now. In fact thats probably optimistic. Never mind getting caught, we could have been in real danger. For all we know one of those people was Medea.

Elysia wrinkled her nose. I dont believe so.

I didnt catch any names. Did you?

Elysia shook her head. There was a dead leaf in her dark hair, which somehow made her certainty all the more annoying.

A.J. demanded, Well then? Why couldnt that woman have been Medea?

Elysias wide green eyes met hers. Because I know who Medea is.


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