The day everything went rotten was the day the woodman went crazy in my backyard.
My mother and her husband, John Queensland, were just leaving when Darius Quattermain rattled up my driveway, his battered blue pickup pulling a trailer full of split oak. Mother (Aida Brattle Teagarden Queensland) had taken a moment from her busy day to bring me a dress she’d bought for me in Florida, where she’d been attending a convention for real estate brokers who’d sold over a million dollars worth of property in a year. John, who’s retired, had come out with Mother just because he likes being with her.
As Darius was getting out of his truck, Mother was hugging me and saying, “John isn’t feeling so well, Aurora, so we’re going back to town.” She always made it sound as though Martin and I lived on the frontier, instead of just a mile out of Lawrenceton. In fact, since there are ﬁelds all around our property, on clear days I could see the roof of her house, sitting on the edge of Lawrenceton’s nicest suburb.
I looked at John, concerned, and saw that he did indeed look puny. John golfs, and normally he looks like a hale and hearty sixty-four-year-old. Actually, John’s a handsome man . . . and a good one. But at that moment he looked old and embarrassed, as men so often are by illness.
“You better go home and lie down,” I said, concerned. “Call me if you need me, after Mother goes back to work?”
“Sure will, honey,” John said heavily, and eased into the front passenger seat of Mother’s Lincoln.
Mother gave my cheek a little brush with her lips, I thanked her again for the dress, and then while they maneuvered through turning around to head down our long driveway, I strolled over to Darius, who was pulling on heavy gloves.
I didn’t suspect it, but a perfectly ordinary day—getting Martin off to work, going to my own job at the library, coming home with nothing more than a little housework planned—was about to go spectacularly wrong.
It began slowly.
“Where you want me to unload this wood, Miz Bartell?” Darius Quattermain asked.
“This area under the stairs, I think,” I told him. We were standing by the garage, which is connected to the house by a covered walkway. On the side facing the house, there’s a stairway going up to the little apartment over the garage.
“You not afraid of bugs getting into your siding there?” Darius asked dubiously.
I shrugged. “Martin picked the spot, and if he doesn’t like it, he can move it.”
Darius gave me a strange look, almost as if he’d never seen me before, which at the time I wrote off as conservative disapproval of my attitude toward my husband.
But he got down to work. After a brief conference, I’d given him the green light to pull the trailer as close as possible, and he began unloading rapidly in the chilly air. The sky was gray, and rain was supposed to start tonight. The wind began to pick up, blowing my long tangle of brown hair into my eyes. I shivered, and stuck my hands in the pockets of my heavy red sweater. As I turned to go inside, I looked over at the roses I’d planted at the corner of the concrete porch at the back of the house, outside my kitchen. They needed pruning, and I was trying to remember if I was supposed to do it now or wait until February, when a piece of wood ﬂew by my head.
“Mr. Quattermain?” I said, whirling around. “You okay?”
Darius Quattermain, deacon of Antioch Holiness Church, began to sing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” in a manic bellow. He also kept up with his task, with one big difference. Instead of stacking the wood neatly under the stairs, Darius pitched split pieces of oak in all directions.
“Whoa!” I said loudly. Even to my own ears, I sounded panicky instead of authoritative. When the next piece of ﬁrewood missed my shoulder by only a foot or so, I retreated into the house, locking the door behind me. After a minute, I risked a peek out the window. Darius showed no signs of calming down, and there was still a lot of wood on the back of his pickup. I was thinking of it as ammunition now, instead of fuel.
I dialed the sheriff’s department, since our house is outside the city limits.
“SPACOLEC,” said Doris Post. “SPACOLEC” stands for Sparling County Law Enforcement Complex. It sounded like Doris was chewing a mouthful of gum. I ﬁgured she must be trying to quit smoking again.
“Doris, this is Aurora Teagarden.”
“Oh, hi, hon. How you doing?”
“Just ﬁne, thank you, hope you’re well. Ah—I have a situation here.”
“Is that right? What’s happening?”
“You know Darius Quattermain?”
“The black man who delivers wood? Got six kids? Wife works at Food Fantastic?”
“Right.” I peered out the window, hoping that somehow the situation would have changed for the normal. Nope. “He’s gone crazy.”
“In my side yard. He seemed just ﬁne when he got here, but all of a sudden he started singing and chunking wood.”
“He’s still there?”
“Yes, he is. As a matter of fact . . .” I stared out the window in appalled fascination. “Um, Doris, he’s taking his clothes off now. And still singing. And chunking.”
“You locked in that house, Roe?”
“Yes, and I’ve set the security system.” Guiltily, I reached over and punched in the code. “I don’t think he means to hurt anyone, Doris. He just can’t help himself. It’s like he took drugs, or had a seizure, or something. So whoever comes out here, if they could take it real easy?”
“I’ll tell them what you said,” Doris told me. She didn’t sound bored or lackadaisical anymore. “You move away from the windows, Roe. A car’s on the way.”
I hung up and hid behind a curtain, so I could check on Darius from time to time. I needn’t have bothered to hide. I could have been on the surface of the moon for all Darius cared. He was one big brown goose pimple in the chilly breeze as he danced around buck naked, telling the sky that we would have the wedding supper when she came.
I wondered what Darius would do when he ran out of verses.
I didn’t have to wait long. He switched to “Turkey in the Straw.” Darius was having a ﬂashback to elementary school music class, I decided.
He scampered around to his own music with an impressive light-footedness for a staid middle-aged man.
I decided to call my husband.
“There’s a naked man in the backyard,” I said softly, because Darius had stopped singing and was hunting an imaginary deer.
“Anyone I know?” Martin’s voice was cautious. He wasn’t certain how seriously to take this.
“Darius Quattermain. The woodman.” “I assume you’ve called the sheriff?”
“The car’s here now.” The ofﬁcial car had just pulled up my driveway. I nodded approvingly. The siren wasn’t on and the lights stopped ﬂashing as I watched. “Jimmy Henske and Levon Suit,” I told Martin.
“Jimmy Henske, huh? Maybe I’d better come home.” And the phone was replaced ﬁrmly in its cradle. Martin has no high opinion of the sheriff’s department in Sparling County, and Jimmy Henske, who is maybe twenty-ﬁve, gawky and difﬁdent, has never inspired my husband with his competence.
But Jimmy’s a nice guy, and Levon Suit (who went to high school with me) is a very controlled deputy who is not only innately more intelligent than Jimmy but ﬁve years more experienced. I remembered that Levon had dated one of Darius’s daughters when we were juniors.
I watched, fascinated, as Levon slowly approached Darius. I was a little surprised the deputy would brave walking right up to him—but then, it was completely obvious Darius wasn’t carrying a weapon. It appeared that Darius had killed the deer and resumed singing and dancing in celebration. In fact, he was so glad to see Levon that he grabbed Levon’s hands and capered off, and for a delirious minute or two Levon trotted right along with him.
With a patience that made me proud, the two deputies coaxed Darius into their car. Jimmy hurried back to pick up Darius’s clothes, which he tossed in the front seat.
“Yessir, we’ll sing along with you all the way into town,” Jimmy was saying earnestly, as Martin parked beside the squad car. My husband emerged from the Mercedes looking, as he generally did, immaculate, prosperous, and handsome.
“Hey, Mr. Bartell!” Darius called happily, as Jimmy was shutting the car door. “I brought your wood!”
Martin stood on the covered sidewalk between our house and the garage and saw the pieces of oak scattered around the backyard, which we’d ﬁnally, expensively, had rolled and reseeded to make it smooth and grassy. Quite a few divots had been ripped out of the turf by Darius’s impromptu log toss.
“Thanks a lot, Darius,” Martin said.
I came out after the squad car had departed, all three of the occupants singing away. I mentally ﬁled away a decision to write a letter to Sheriff Padgett Lanier to commend Levon and Jimmy’s restraint and good sense.
Martin was shedding his suit coat and pulling on his own heavy gloves from the toolshed built into the back of the garage. He got the wheelbarrow, too.
Besides my heavy red cardigan, I was still wearing my work clothes, a long sleeveless denim dress over a red T-shirt, but Martin was setting such a good example that my inappropriate clothes were no excuse to be idle. I found my own gloves and helped out. As we worked, we speculated on this bizarre event and whether Darius, though clearly not in his right mind, had actually broken a law by dancing naked in our yard.
“How was the library this morning?” Martin asked, after we’d stacked the last piece of wood. I stood back, feeling sweat bead on my forehead from the exertion though the air was bracingly chilly, and smiled at him. He knew I was happier now that I’d resumed part-time work at the Lawrenceton library.
“Sam decided patrons with overdue books would be more likely to return the books if they were called personally, rather than sent a postcard. This comes from him reading some study in a magazine, of course. So guess who got to make at least ﬁfty phone calls this morning? Thank God for answering machines. I decided it wasn’t cheating to leave a message on the machine.” I watched Martin pull off his heavy gloves. “What about you?”
“I had my annual physical, followed by a morning-long meeting about implementing the new EPA regulations.” My husband Martin, who has a pirate gene stuck somewhere in his DNA, frequently gets frustrated with his job as vice president of manufacturing for Pan-Am Agra, an agricultural products company. He has not always done something so legitimate and safe.
“Sorry, honey.” I patted his shoulder sympathetically. We strolled back to return the things to our toolshed. Darius’s pickup and small trailer were still parked blocking my car in, halfway on the gravel and halfway on the grass; when I’d okayed that, I’d only expected him to be there for a little while. The ground had been nice and dry, but as I turned to go back into the house, big drops of rain began to patter down. We simultaneously thought of the truck making troughs in the softened dirt, and hurried back to check the cab of the truck.
Martin said a heartfelt and obscene word. The ignition was empty.
I looked in the passenger side. Perhaps Darius had just withdrawn the keys and tossed them on the seat to silence the little beeper that reminds you your keys are in the ignition. I do that occasionally, if I have to run back into the house for a minute or two.
“Look, Martin.” I pointed. But not at a set of keys.
Martin stuck his head in the door.
There was an open bottle of generic pain reliever, acetaminophen, on the seat.
Martin raised one eyebrow at me. “So?”
“He started acting so funny so fast, my ﬁrst thought was that he’d taken a drug. And I don’t think he’s the kind of man who would ever think of doing something so dangerous.”
Martin said, “We’d better call the sheriff’s department again.”
So once again Jimmy and Levon drove the mile out of town that got them to our house, and Jimmy pulled on plastic gloves before he picked up the pill bottle. He poured its contents onto the gloved palm of his other hand. He didn’t tell us to leave, so we watched.
Martin saw it ﬁrst. He pointed.
Levon bent over Jimmy’s palm.
“Damn,” he said in his deep voice.
One of the pills was a smidge smaller than the others, and not quite the same shade of white. It didn’t have the manufacturer’s initial on it as all the other pain relief tablets did. The difference was obvious when you were looking for it. But without some good reason to examine the medicine, who would think of doing so?
“We got another one,” Jimmy concluded, looking down at Levon.
“Someone else has been drugged?” I asked, trying to keep my voice casual and sort of insinuate the question.
“Yes’m,” Jimmy said, not catching the warning look Levon was trying to send him. “Lady last week left her purse in the cart in the grocery while she walked over to the frozen section to get some Ore-Ida hash browns. When she was driving home, she took a pill from a fancy case in her purse, that she used to carry her— well, some prescription medicine—with her. Instead of getting tranquil, she went nuts.”
“What did she do?” I asked, fascinated.
“Well . . .” Jimmy began, treating me to a grin that told me the story was going to be a good one.
“We need to be getting this back to SPACOLEC,” Levon said pointedly.
“Huh? Oh, right.” Jimmy, aware he’d been on the verge of indiscretion, ﬂushed to the roots of his reddish hair. “When one of Darius’s kids shows up, we’ll tell them you’d appreciate them moving the truck. The keys were in Darius’s pants. I coulda brought ’em out here if you’d mentioned them over the phone.”
I ﬂushed guiltily. I’d been so excited over ﬁnding the pills, I had forgotten why we’d looked in Darius’s truck in the ﬁrst place.
I watched as their car turned out of our long driveway and began the short stretch into Lawrenceton, piqued that I hadn’t gotten to hear the rest of Jimmy’s story. I wondered if my friend Sally Allison, a reporter for our local paper, had heard anything.
“I have to go back to the plant for a little while,” Martin said unenthusiastically. “I have a stack of letters to sign that need to go out.” He climbed back into his car, started it, and rolled down the window as I turned toward the kitchen door. “Don’t forget,” he called, “we’ve got dinner at the Lowrys’ house tonight.” The rain picked up a little momentum.
“I have it on the calendar,” I called back, trying not to sound dismal.
If there’d been a can in front of me, I’d have kicked it on my way into the house. It didn’t seem like a good night to eat out with people I was (at best) on cordial terms with. Close friends and homemade chili sounded good; friendly acquaintances and dressing up didn’t.
Catledge and Ellen Lowry were not soul mates of mine. But they were among the leading citizens of Lawrenceton. Catledge was the mayor for a second term and Ellen was on every board and a member of every club worth joining in our small town. Keeping the town government, ergo the Lowrys, pleased was important to Martin’s business and therefore to a great many people in Lawrenceton who depended on Pan-Am Agra for a paycheck.
“They’re not that bad,” I said out loud to my silent house. Even to me, I sounded sulky. I trudged upstairs to ﬁgure out what to wear, straightening one of the pictures hung by the staircase as I went up. Gradually the house warmed and cheered me, as it nearly always did. My house is at least sixty-ﬁve years old, and it has beautiful hardwood ﬂoors, tall windows that no standard curtains will ﬁt correctly (so every single “window treatment” has to be custom made), and a voracious appetite for electricity and gas. I love it dearly. We’d had it renovated when we married. Since we’ve been married less than three years and have no children and only one alleged pet, there’s nothing to redo yet; at least not for a basically practical person like me. I still have space on the built-in bookshelves lining the hall, and now I can afford to buy hardbacks.
I showered and shampooed, once again going through the tedious process of combing and drying my mess of hair. At least curly, wavy hair was fashionable now. It was a pleasant change to have others actually envy me my abundance, rather than peer at it with pity in their eyes.
I ﬂipped through the garments in my closet without much interest. The cerise wool dress my mother had brought me was too fancy for the occasion, so I ﬁnally decided I’d wear a long-sleeved garnet silk blouse, a black-and-garnet patterned skirt, and my black pumps. Looking at my collection of glasses—I’m very nearsighted—I had a wild impulse to select my purple-and-white-framed ones.
Oh, hell. The Lowrys would be offended if my glasses were frivolous. I got my new black-rimmed ones with the delicate gold wire-and-bead decoration and set them out on my vanity table. This morning I’d put on my favorite workday red specs, and I viewed them in the mirror with some satisfaction. They added a spark of liveliness to my unhappy face.
“So, why’m I sulking?” I asked the mirror.
That particular question never got answered because the front doorbell rang.
What a lot of visitors I was having today, if you counted the deputies coming twice.
Through the opaque oval glass pane in the front door, I saw the silhouette of a woman with a baby carrier in her arms. I assumed it was my friend Lizanne Buckley Sewell, who’d had her baby boy two months before. I disarmed the alarm and opened the door with a smile that collapsed in on itself. I stared blankly at the plump, dark, pretty young woman who stood on my front porch with a perfectly strange baby, who seemed smaller than Lizanne’s infant.
“Aunt Roe!” said the dark young woman. She looked exhausted, and she also looked as if she expected a warm welcome.
I had not the slightest idea who she was.
The next instant everything clicked, and I would have thunked myself on the forehead with the heel of my hand if I’d been alone. I was aunt to only one young woman, and that was Martin’s niece, the daughter of his sister Barby.
“Regina!” I said, hoping my recovery hadn’t been too obvious.
“For a minute there, I didn’t think you recognized me!” she said, laughing.
“Ha, ha. Come on in! And this is little . . .” Regina had had a baby? It was covered with a blue blanket and wore a red sleeper. Martin had a—great-nephew?
How could I have missed that? Granted, we don’t often see Martin’s sister and her daughter, but I would have expected a certain amount of phone calling to herald the new arrival.
“Oh, Aunt Roe! This is Hayden!”
“And you call him Hayden.” I nodded with a wise look. “No nicknames.” I could hardly recall ever having been more at sea.
“No, me and Craig are set on him being called Hayden,” Regina said, trying to look ﬁrm and determined and failing completely.
Martin may not have gotten all the looks in the Bartell family—Barby and Regina are both pretty, in their way—but he’d surely gotten a disproportionate amount of the brains and resolution.
I craned out of the front door, trying to see if Craig Graham was maybe getting luggage out of the trunk. “Where’s your husband?” I asked, never imagining this would be a sensitive question.
“He didn’t come,” Regina said. Her generous mouth clamped tight.
“Oh.” I hoped I didn’t sound as blank as I felt. “And how’s your mother?” I was gesturing to Regina to come on in, still peering around in the hopes of spying a companion. She’d driven all the way from Corinth, Ohio, on her own?
“Mama’s on a cruise,” Regina said, too gaily. This gal was having serious mood swings.
“Hmmm. Where to?” I repeated my “come in” gesture, more emphatically.
“Oh, she’s taking a long one,” Regina chattered, ﬁnally stepping over the threshold. “The boat stops by some islands in the Caribbean, then over to two stops in Mexico of several days apiece, then back to Miami.”
“My goodness,” I said mildly. “She’s with a friend?”
“That guy,” Regina said, depositing the baby, still in his infant seat, on the coffee table in front of the couch and unslinging a huge diaper bag from her shoulder. There was still a fabric-care tag dangling from the shoulder strap of the diaper bag.
“That guy” was Barby’s ﬁancé, investment banker Hubert Morris, whom the divorced Barby Lampton had met when she’d bought a condo in Pittsburgh, the closest major city and airport to Corinth, Ohio, Barby and Martin’s childhood home. Though Barby hadn’t lived in Corinth since her teenage years, Regina had met her husband-to-be while she and her mother were in Corinth visiting an old friend of Barby’s. Regina had married the boy—I mean, young man—only two months later.
Martin and I had ﬂown up to Pittsburgh for the wedding, maybe seven months ago. We’d gotten the impression that the young couple would be living in very straitened circumstances. Craig Graham had been a dark, lanky no-brainer, whose greatest apparent virtue had been that he cared for Regina. He was eighteen to Regina’s twenty-one. The groom’s share of the wedding duties and expenses had been borne by Barby, who had tried to be unobtrusive about it. Of course, Martin and I had noticed. But Barby had made it clear to us (to Martin, anyway, since she seldom talked to me directly) that after the wedding, the young couple was going to be ﬁnancially independent, as far as she was concerned. She’d made some pointed remarks about who had made beds and who would be lying in them.
“Would you like a drink? Coffee or hot chocolate? Though maybe those things aren’t good for the baby.” My friend Lizanne was breast-feeding and, though I hadn’t asked, she’d generously given me a very thorough grounding on the subject. After being indoctrinated with Lizanne’s opinions on the virtues of, and necessity for, mother’s milk, I was taken aback when Regina gave me a blank look.
“Huh? No, I’m bottle-feeding,” she said, after a pause. “Gosh, if I nursed him, it’d have to be me that fed him every time.”
I kept a smile planted on my face. “So, some coffee?”
“Please.” She slumped back. “I’ve been driving for hours.”
She had driven all the way from Ohio. This was very strange, and getting stranger.
I brewed some coffee, shuddering at Regina’s protest that instant would have been ﬁne. After I’d poured a cup for each of us, adding cream and sugar to Martin’s niece’s, I listened to Regina blather about the long drive, the baby, her mother’s condo, her Aunt Cindy . . .
“Oh, I’m sorry!” she apologized. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“Aunt Cindy” was Martin’s ﬁrst wife, the mother of his only child, Regina’s cousin Barrett. I sighed internally, still kept my smile pasted on, and assured Regina that she needn’t apologize. A little corner of my brain repressed an urge to ask Regina why she wasn’t at Aunt Cindy’s instead of Uncle Martin’s, if Aunt Cindy was so great.
“Did you see Barrett on TV the other night?” Regina said enthusiastically. “Boy, didn’t he look handsome? I always call all my friends when Barrett’s going to be on television.”
Regina was digging at all my sore—or rather, sensitive—spots. Barrett had not come to our wedding. He’d been up for a big part, he’d told his dad, the implication clear that a new part for Barrett was more important than a new wife for his father.
And he hadn’t visited Lawrenceton in the three-plus years Martin had lived here.
But he’d found the time to come to Regina’s wedding, where he’d managed to dodge us with an almost unbelievable agility. Martin had told me he’d had a drink with Barrett in the hotel bar after I’d gone up to bed the night before the wedding, and that had been the contact he’d had with his son—whose career he’d been subsidizing.
I was beginning to wish Martin’s only niece had stayed in Ohio. I was also beginning to puzzle at the reason behind her visit. She was being mighty evasive.
“Regina,” I said, when she’d ﬁnished blathering about Barrett’s career, “I’m delighted that you came to visit, but this evening, just for a couple of hours, may be a little awkward. Your uncle and I have a long- standing dinner engagement, and though we could call and tell the Lowrys we have to take a rain check, I’m afraid—”
Regina, who happened to be holding the baby (Hayden, I reminded myself), looked up with something approaching alarm. “You two go on like you had planned. I’ll be ﬁne here. Just point me at the microwave and I’ll be glad to ﬁx my own supper. After all, I just appeared on your doorstep.”
It seemed to me—almost—that Regina was anxious to get us out of the house. I could feel my eyebrows draw together in a frown.
“Excuse me a minute,” I said. Regina, her attention focused on the baby, gave me an absent nod.
I went across the hall into the room we’d decorated as a study and a television room. Plucking the cordless phone from its stand, I plumped down on the red leather couch in front of the windows. Madeleine, the cat that lived with us, emerged from her favorite private place, the basket where we put newspapers after we’d read them. While I was punching in numbers with one hand, I was tickling Madeleine’s head with the other. One part of my mind noted that I’d have to get Madeleine out of the study before Martin got home. He and the cat enjoyed a hate-hate relationship. It had started with Madeleine deciding Martin’s Mercedes was her basking site of choice, especially when the ground was muddy and she could leave some nice footprints on the hood and windshield. Martin had retaliated by parking the Mercedes in the garage and closing the door every night. Since it was then her move in their little game, Madeleine (who ordinarily couldn’t be bothered) caught a mouse, decapitated the rodent, and put the corpse in Martin’s shoe. Then Martin . . . well, you get the idea.
“Martin Bartell’s ofﬁce,” Marnie Sands said. Her raspy voice was all business.
“Mrs. Sands, this is Aurora. I need to speak to Martin.” It had taken me weeks to stop apologizing for disturbing him.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Sands said, her voice several degrees warmer than it had been when I ﬁrst married Martin, “but Mr. Bartell’s out in the plant. Want me to page him?”
I thought of trying to tell Martin that his niece was here with an unexplained baby, over a telephone where he stood surrounded by employees. “No, that’s okay,” I told the secretary. “Please ask him to call me before he starts for home.”
I hung up the phone. I made a face, the kind of face my mother always warned me would make my features stick in permanent disgust.
I strolled back across the hall to Regina. She was putting some bottles of formula in the refrigerator.
“I just made myself at home,” she said brightly. She’d gotten out a pan and boiled some water, and an empty can of formula powder was on the counter by the sink. “It always helps to have plenty made up and ready to heat. Now, when I heat them up . . .” and she described the procedure at tedious length.
Hayden stared at me with the big round-eyed goggle some babies have. He was a cute little guy, with a pink mouth and rosy cheeks. In fact, he was strikingly fairer than Regina, who was pretty enough, but endowed with the dark complexion and wide hips her own mother’d bequeathed her. Hayden waved his arms and made a sudden gurgling sound, and Regina looked at him adoringly.
“Isn’t he wonderful?” she asked.
“He’s so cute,” I said, and tried not to sound yearning.
“Too bad Uncle Martin’s too old to have another kid,” Regina said, actually giggling at the idea.
I could feel my back stiffen and I was sure my face had followed suit.
“We talked about it,” I said in a voice of pure ice. “But unfortunately, I am not able.” Martin, who was staring ﬁfty in the face, hadn’t been able to work up any enthusiasm for starting another family, though at my just-turned birthday of thirty-six, I could still hear my biological clock ticking. Loudly.
However, it was ticking in a malformed womb, which let Martin off the hook as far as making a decision.
I began to empty the dishwasher, all the time telling myself I’d sounded hostile and I had to calm down. Regina, who really seemed to be remarkably tactless, had stuck a sharp stick into my tenderest grievance, my inability to conceive. She was staring at me now, trying to look properly cowed, but I detected a certain— what? Satisfaction? Her eyes had the same look I saw in Madeleine’s when she’d left those footprints all over Martin’s windshield. I had a sudden inspiration.
“Would it suit you if we put you and Hayden over in the garage apartment?” I asked, trying to make my voice light and friendly.
“That would be super. I wondered when I drove up if that was a separate apartment,” Regina said. Maybe she sounded a tad disappointed that I’d changed the subject. “Hayden still gets up at night, and we’d be less likely to bother you.”
“Let’s just take your things over there,” I suggested. Taking the keys from a hook by the back door, I grabbed the big diaper bag and Regina’s purse and trotted across the covered walkway and up the stairs that ran up the side of the garage, the side toward our house. The heavy bag looped over my shoulder banged ponderously against my thigh. Though the air was colder and wetter, it wasn’t actually raining at the moment.
The apartment smelled only slightly stale. Our friends Shelby and Angel had moved out about eight weeks ago. I had been keeping the heat on so nothing would freeze or mildew, and I turned it up and glanced around as I heard Regina open her car trunk below.
The garage apartment is one very big room, with a corner walled in for a bathroom and adjacent closet. There’s a queen-sized bed, a chair and love seat and attendant tables, a television, and a small table for two in the kitchen area. It’s as pleasant as basic apartment living gets.
Regina seemed pleased.
“Oh, Aunt Roe, this is so nice,” she said, throwing a suitcase on the bed. “Before we got married, we lived in an apartment that was a lot smaller than this.”
I hated to think about that.
“Well, I hope you enjoy it,” I said at random. “You and Hayden, that is. I’ll leave you to unpack. Oh, do you have something for the baby to sleep in?” I had no idea what to do if she didn’t. But Regina assured me she had a portable travel crib. That seemed a luxurious item for a poor mother to have, and I wondered a little.
I heard the crunch of gravel as I stood in the doorway. Martin emerged from his car and stood staring at Regina’s car for a minute.
“Martin,” I called, “come up here.” Evidently he hadn’t returned to his ofﬁce before he came home.
He passed under the walkway to stare up at me. “What are you doing in the apartment?” he asked. No one had been in the apartment since Angel and Shelby had bought a house in town.
“Oh,” I said, feeling a pleasurable anticipation, perhaps tinged with a touch of malice, “you won’t guess who’s come to visit, honey!”
Looking distinctly apprehensive, Martin came up the stairs. I stood aside so he could enter the apartment.
“Uncle Martin!” cried Regina. She faced the door with a big smile stretching her generous lips, the baby pressed to her chest like a bag of groceries.
Martin’s face was priceless.
Did we know she was coming?” he asked me in a low voice as we walked over to the house.
I shook my head.
“Did we know she’d had a baby?”
I shook my head again.
“Then Barby must not know it either,” he said. “She wouldn’t keep something like that to herself.”
I didn’t think so either. I further thought that Barby would just hate the idea of being a grandmother. I was willing to bet Regina knew that, too.
“So, we don’t know why she’s here?” Martin, used to commanding information and having everything lined up and organized, was deﬁnitely on the frustrated side.
“It’d be easier to tell you what I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know why she came or how long she’s staying. I don’t know where Craig is. I have no idea what your sister knows.” And though I didn’t say it out loud to spare Martin’s feelings, I was far from certain of the provenance of the baby.
Martin stood in the kitchen drinking a glass of tea while he mulled this over. “I’ve got to go back up there and speak to her again,” he said abruptly. “Get some of this settled. We still going to the Lowrys’?”
“I don’t think we can put it off. Regina seems all right about us going, and you know how touchy Catledge is.”
“Okay. I’ll just be a minute or two with her, then I’ll come in and shower.” Thunking his glass down on the counter, he marched out again into the gathering dark and dripping rain. His white hair gleamed through the darkness.
I went upstairs to ﬁnish getting ready. As I put on makeup and jewelry and pinned my hair out of my face with a pretty black-and-gold comb, I wondered if Martin would be able to winkle any more out of his niece than I had. Martin is far more likely to ask direct questions than I am.
But he didn’t look satisﬁed when he trudged up the stairs twenty minutes later. He looked tired and worried.
After giving me a quick kiss on the neck, Martin unzipped his pants and sat on the bed to untie his shoes.
“Hey, sailor, how about it?” I asked, in my best Mae West voice.
Martin ﬂashed me a smile. He glanced at the bedside clock. “Afraid we don’t have time,” he said regretfully. “I have to shower. Two people in the meeting smoked.”
Martin hates the smell of smoke clinging to his hair and clothes.
“You could have asked them not to,” I said mildly. Martin’s asking might as well be called telling: He was the boss.
“They’re going to retire at the new year,” he said. “If that weren’t the case, I would have kicked their asses out into the hall. As of January one, I’m going to make the entire plant a smoke-free zone.”
We talked about how many smokers Pan-Am Agra employed, and mulled over other mundane topics as Martin stripped, showered, and redressed. Martin is almost thirteen years my senior, but he looks absolutely great without his clothes on, and he’s just as attractive dressed. He has snowy white hair, but his eyebrows are still black, and his eyes are a light, light brown. He lifts weights and his racquetball games are endurance tests for the younger members of the management staff.
“Didn’t you say you had your physical today?” Looking at Martin’s physique had prompted another train of thought.
“Yes,” he said, rather shortly. My wifely antennae perked, tuned in to what he wasn’t saying.
“Wasn’t everything all right?” Martin had never had a bad physical. In fact, he was usually boastful after his annual checkup, required by the plant.
“Zelman wants me to have a full battery of tests. Just because I’m getting older,” Martin added hastily, before I could even fully develop my concerned expression.
“Did he ﬁnd anything?” I asked, in the voice that said he better let me know everything.
“He said I was stressed. He just wants to run some more tests.” Martin was standing in front of his closet picking out his clothes for the evening. I understood from his tone that the subject was closed.
“We’ll schedule those right away,” I suggested.
“Sure, I’ll get Mrs. Sands to do it tomorrow. Did I tell you she’s going to be a grandmother?”
“Is she happy about it?”
“Oh, yes, she’s already named the baby and picked out a preschool. Not that her daughter knows about that . . .”
All this chatter was a delaying tactic of Martin’s, while he thought over whatever Regina had told him.
“What’d Regina say?” I asked, as he used his electric razor.
“Not much,” he admitted, sticking out his chin to shave under it. I was sitting on the toilet lid. Not for the ﬁrst time, it occurred to me how much I enjoyed being married, just sitting in the bathroom with a man while he shaved, and all the little intimacies that entailed. “I don’t think she’s going to tell us why she’s here until she’s ready.” He stretched his upper lip down over his front teeth. “I hope nothing’s happened to Craig.”
“If he’d been in a wreck or been ill, surely she’d let us know,” I said hesitantly, aware I wasn’t on Martin’s wavelength.
“I was thinking more of Craig being in trouble,” he said, pulling on a fresh shirt and tucking it in. “Do you have your lipstick on yet?”
“No,” I said, surprised.
Martin pulled me to him and gave me one of those wonderful kisses that makes my pulse jump around like a drop of oil in a hot skillet. I responded enthusiastically, and let my ﬁngers do the walking.
“Whoa! Whoa!” he said, gasping, holding me away. “Oh, later! After we come home!”
“That better be a promise,” I said lightly, giving him a ﬁnal pat and sitting at my vanity to twist the tube to apply Mad Rubies.
“Take it as sworn to,” he told me.
We should have taken twenty extra minutes and been late to the Lowrys’.
Want to keep reading? Pick up a copy of Charlaine Harris’s A FOOL AND HIS HONEY today!
Reprinted from A FOOL AND HIS HONEY by Charlaine Harris, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2009 by Charlaine Harris.