In a burst of morning energy, I was singing in the shower when the telephone rang. Blessing answering machines, I barely paused in my rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." The shower is probably the only place our national anthem should be sung, especially by people with a limited vocal range, a category that definitely includes me. As I rinsed the shampoo out of my hair, I did a medley of my favorite ads. For my finale, as I toweled I warbled "Three Little Ducks." There is something to be said for living by oneself when one wants to sing unheard.


It would be hard to say why I was in such a festive mood. I had to go in to work for five hours, then come back to the town house to prepare for the party. I was pleased at the prospect of seeing Aubrey, but not goo-goo eyed. I was more or less getting used to being rich by now (though the word still gave me a thrill up my spine), and I was on standby regarding action on the skull. I squinted into my makeup mirror as I put on a little eye shadow. "I'm going to quit my job," I told my reflection, smiling. The pleasure of being able to say that! To decide, just like that! Money was wonderful.

I remembered the phone message and pressed the play button, beaming at my reflection in the mirror like an idiot, my drying hair beginning to fly around my head in a dark, wavy nimbus.

"Roe?" began the voice, faint and uncertain. "This is Robin Crusoe, calling from Italy. I called in and got your message from Phil... the guy subletting my apartment. Are you all right? He said Arthur married someone else. Can I come see you when I get back from Europe? If that's not a good idea, send a note to my old address. Well, write me either way, and I'll get it when I get back. That should be in a few weeks, probably late next month. Or earlier, I'm running out of money. Good-bye."

I had frozen when I first heard the voice begin. Now I sat breathing shallowly for a few seconds, my brush in my hand, my teeth biting my lower lip gently. My heart was beating fast, I'll admit. Robin had been my tenant and my friend and almost my lover. I really wanted to see him again. Now I would have the pleasure of composing a note that would say very delicately that I definitely wanted him to come calling when he got back. I didn't want him to get the impression I was sitting in Lawrenceton with my tongue hanging out while I panted, but I did want him to come, if he was of the same mind in a few weeks. And if I was. I could take my time composing that note.

I brushed my hair, which began to crackle and fly around even more wildly. I gathered it all together and put a band on it about halfway down its length, not as stodgy as a "real" pony tail. And I tied a frivolous bow around the band. However, I did wear one of my old "librarian" outfits that so disgusted Amina: a solid navy skirt of neutral length with a navy-and-white-striped blouse, plain support hose, and unattractive but very comfortable shoes. I cleaned my glasses, pushed them up on my nose, nodded at my reflection in the full-length mirror, and went downstairs.

If I'd known how to cha-cha, I think I would have done it going up the ramp from the employees' parking lot into the library.

"Aren't we happy today?" Lillian said sourly, sipping from her cup of coffee at the worktable in the book-mending room.

"Yes, ma'am, we are," I said, depositing my purse in my little locker and snapping the padlock shut. My only claim to fame in my history as a librarian in Lawrenceton was that I had never once lost my padlock key. I kept it on a safety pin and pinned it to my skirt or my slip or my blouse. Today I pinned it to my collar and marched off to Mr. derrick's office, humming a military tune. Or what I imagined was a military tune.

I tapped on the half-open door and stuck my head in. Mr. derrick was already at work on a heap of papers, a steaming cup of coffee at his elbow and a cigarette in the ashtray smoldering.

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"Good morning, Roe," he said, looking up from his desk. Sam derrick was married with four daughters, and, since he worked in a library, that meant he was surrounded by women from the moment he got up to the moment he went to bed. You would think he would have learned how to treat them. But his greatest and most conspicuous failure was in people management. No one would ever accuse Sam derrick of coddling anyone, or of favoritism; he didn't care for any of us, had no idea what our home lives were like, and made no allowances for any individual's personality or work preferences. No one would ever like him; he would never be accused of being unfair.

I had always been a little nervous around someone who played his emotional cards as close to his chest as Sam derrick. Suddenly leaving did not seem so simple. "I'm going to quit my job," I said quietly, while I still had some nerve. As he stared, that little bit of nerve began to trickle away. "I'm on part-time anyway, I don't feel like you really need me anymore." He kept peering at me over his half-glasses. "Are you giving me notice, or quitting, no more work as of today?" he asked finally. "I don't know," I said foolishly. After I considered a moment, I said, "Since you have at least three substitute librarians on your call list, and I know at least two of them would love to go regular part-time, I'm quitting, no more work as of five hours from now."

"Is there something wrong that we can talk about?" I came all the way into the room. "Working here is okay," I told him. "I just don't have to anymore, financially, and I feel like a change." "You don't need the money," he said in amazement. He was probably the only person working at the library, or perhaps the only person in Lawrenceton, who didn't know by now about the money. "I inherited."

"My goodness, your mother didn't die, I hope?" He actually put his pencil down, so great was his concern.

"No, no relative."

"Oh - good. Well. I'm sorry to see you go, even though you were certainly our most notorious employee for a while last year. Well, it's been longer than that now, I suppose."

"Did you think about firing me then?"

"Actually, I was holding off until you killed Lillian." I stared at him blankly until I accepted the amazing fact that Sam derrick had made a joke. I began laughing, and he began laughing, and suddenly he looked like a human being.

"It's been a pleasure," I said, meaning it for the first time, and turned and left his office.

"Your insurance will last for thirty days," he called after me, running a little truer to form.

As luck would have it, that morning at the library business was excruciatingly slow. I didn't want to tell anyone I'd quit until I was actually leaving, so I hid among the books all morning, reading the shelves, dusting, and piddling along. I didn't get a lunch break, since I was just working five hours; I was supposed to bring it with me or get one of the librarians going out to bring back something from a fast-food place, and eat it very quickly. But that would mean eating in the break room, and there was sure to be someone else in there, and having a conversation without revealing my intention would be seen as fraudulent, in a way. So I dodged from here to there, making myself scarce, and by two o'clock I was very hungry. Then I had to go through the ritual of saying good-bye, I enjoyed working with you, I'll be in often to get books so we'll be seeing each other.

It made me sadder than I thought it would. Even saying good-bye to Lillian was not the unmitigated pleasure I had expected. I would miss having her around because she made me feel so virtuous and smart by contrast, I realized with shame. ( I didn't moan and groan about every little change in work routine, I didn't bore people to tears with detailed accounts of boring events, I knew who Benvenuto Cellini was.) And I remembered Lillian finally standing by me when things had been so bad during the murders months before. "Maybe you can hunt for a husband full-time now," Lillian said in parting, and my shame vanished completely. Then I read in Lillian's face the knowledge that the only thing she had that I could possibly want was a husband. "We'll see," I told her, and held my hands behind my back so I wouldn't choke her.

I retrieved my purse and turned in my locker key, and I walked out the back door for the last time.

I went straight to the grocery store. I wanted something for lunch, I wanted something to put in the refrigerator at the house on Honor for snacks while I was there. I zoomed through the grocery store tossing boxes and produce bags in my cart with abandon. I celebrated quitting my job by getting one of the really expensive microwave meals, the kind with a neat reusable plate. This was getting fancy for me, for lunch anyway. Maybe now I would have time to cook. Did I want to learn to cook in any more detail? I could make spaghetti, and I could make pecan pie. Did I need to know anything else? I debated it as I stood in front of the microwave at the town house.

I could decide at my leisure. I was now a woman of leisure.

I liked the sound of it.

The woman of leisure decided to celebrate by buying a new outfit to wear to the Rideouts' party. I would not go to Great Day, I decided; I'd share the wealth and go to Marcus Hatfield instead. Usually Marcus Hatfield made me nervous; though it was a mere satellite of the big Atlanta store, the selection was just too great, the saleswomen too aggressively groomed. Maybe my contact with Marcia was inuring me to immaculate grooming; I felt I could face even the cosmetics-counter woman without flinching.

I pulled my skirt straight and stiffened my spine before I entered. I can buy anything in this store, I reminded myself. I marched through the doors in my hopeless librarian's outfit. I was almost immediately confronted by a curvy vision in bright flowers, perfect nails, and subtle makeup. "Hey, neighbor," exclaimed the vision. It was Carey Osland in her working getup. I could see why she preferred loafers and housedresses. She looked marvelous, almost edible, but definitely not comfortable. "I'm glad to see you," Carey was saying warmly while I was decoding her identity. "Good to see you, too," I managed.

"Can I help you today?"

"I need something new to wear tonight."

"To the sun-deck party."

"Yes. It's so nice of the Rideouts to be giving it." "Marcia loves to entertain. There's nothing she likes better than to have a bunch of people over."

"She said she didn't like it when her husband had to be away overnight." "No. I expect you noticed she drinks a little then. She's been like that as long as I've known her, I guess... though I don't know her very well. She knows a lot of people around town, but she never seems to be close friends with anyone. Were you thinking of a sports outfit or did you want a sundress, something like that?"


"For the party."

"Oh, sorry, I was off in the clouds somewhere. Um... what are you going to wear?"

"Oh, I'm too fat to wear a sundress," Carey said cheerfully. "But you'd look real pretty in one; and, so it wouldn't be too dressy, you could wear flat sandals and go real plain on your jewelry."

I looked dubiously at the dress Carey had pulled out. Mrs. Day would never have suggested it for me. But, then, Mrs. Day didn't carry too much like this at her shop. It was orange-and-white, very pretty but very casual, and there wasn't a back to it.

"I couldn't wear a bra with that," I pointed out.

"Oh, no," Carey agreed calmly.

"I would jiggle," I said doubtfully.

"Go try it on," Carey said with a wink. "If you don't like it, we have all kinds of cute shorts sets and lightweight pants, and any of them would be just fine, but just put this dress on."

I had never had to almost completely undress to try on clothes before. I pulled on the dress and bounced up and down on the balls of my feet, my eyes on the dressing-room mirror. I was trying to gauge the amount of jiggle. I am chesty for such a small person, and there was enough jiggle to give me pause. "How is it?" Carey called from outside my cubicle. "Oh...I don't know," I said doubtfully. I bounced again. "After all, I'm going with a minister."

"He's human," Carey observed. "God made bosoms, too." "True." I turned around and observed my back. It looked very bare. "I can't carry this off, Carey," I told her.

"Let me see."

I reluctantly opened the door of the cubicle.

"Wow," said Carey. "You really look good," she said with squinted eyes. "Very sexy," she added in a conspiratorial whisper.

"I just feel too conspicuous. My back feels cold."

"He'd love it."

"I don't know about that."

I looked in a bigger mirror at the end of the row of dressing rooms. I considered. No, I decided finally. I could not go out in that dress with someone I hadn't slept with.

"I'm not going to wear it tonight, so I still need to find something else for that," I told Carey. "But I think I'll buy it anyway." Carey became the complete saleswoman. The orange-and-white dress was whisked away to be put on a hanger, and she brought several more things for me to try on. Carey seemed to be determined that I wanted to present a sexy, sophisticated image, and I became sorry I hadn't gone to Great Day. Finally we found a cotton knit shorts and shirt that represented a compromise. The shirt was scoop-necked and white with red polka dots, and the red shorts were cut very full, like a little skirt, with a long tie belt that matched the shirt. I certainly had a lot of exposed skin, but at least it wasn't on my back. Carey talked me into red sandals and red bracelet and earrings to match before I called a halt to my shopping.

When I carried my purchases back to the town house, I called Aubrey at his church. "Who's calling?" the church secretary asked, when I wanted to be connected to Aubrey.

"Roe Teagarden."

"Oh!" she said breathlessly. "Sure, Roe, I'll tell him. He's such a nice man, we just love him here at St. John."

I stared at the phone for a second before I realized I was being given a boost in my assumed effort to win the heart of their priest. The congregation of St. John's must think it was time their leader married again, and I must be respectable enough at first glance to qualify as a suitable mate. "Roe?"

"Hi, Aubrey," I said, shaking myself out of my thoughts. "Listen, would you meet me tonight at the house on Honor instead of picking me up here at the town house? I want to feed the cat before the party." "Sure. Are we supposed to bring anything? A bottle of wine?" "She didn't want me to bring anything to eat, but if you want to bring a bottle of wine, I imagine they'd be glad." A nice thought on Aubrey's part. "This is casual, right?"

"It's going to be on their sun deck, so I'm sure it is."

"Good. I'll see you at your new house at seven, then."

"That's just fine."

"I look forward to it," he said quietly.

"Me, too."

I got there early, and pulled my car all the way inside the carport so there'd be room for Aubrey's. After tending to Madeleine's needs, I thought of the clothes still in Jane's drawers. I'd cleaned out the closet, but not the chest of drawers. I pulled one open idly to see what I had to contend with. It turned out to be Jane's sleepwear drawer. Jane had had an unexpected taste in nightgowns. These certainly weren't what I'd call little-old-lady gowns, though they weren't naughty or anything like that. I pulled out the prettiest, a rose pink nylon, and decided I might actually keep it. Then I thought, Maybe I'll just spend the night here. Somehow the idea struck me as fun. The sheets on the bed were clean, changed by the maid hired to straighten everything out after Jane had gone into the hospital. Here was a gown. I'd just put a little food in the refrigerator. The air conditioner was running. There was a toothbrush in a sealed container in the bathroom, and an unopened tube of toothpaste. I would see what waking up in my new house was like.

The doorbell rang, announcing Aubrey's arrival. I answered it feeling a little self-conscious because of the scoop neckline. Sure enough, Aubrey's eyes went instantly to my cleavage. "You should have seen the one I didn't wear," I said defensively.

"Was I that obvious?" he said, a little embarrassed. "Carey Osland says God made bosoms, too," I told him, and then closed my eyes and wished the ground would swallow me up.

"Carey Osland says truly," he said fervently. "You look great."

Aubrey had a knack for taking the embarrassment out of situations. "You look nice yourself," I told him. He was wearing what would be a safe outfit at ninety percent of Lawrenceton's social occasions; a navy knit shirt and khaki slacks, with loafers.

"Well, now that we've admired each other, isn't it time to go?"

I glanced at my watch. "Right on the dot."

He offered his arm like the usher at a wedding, and I laughed and took it. "I'm going to be a bridesmaid again," I told him. "And you know what they say about women who are bridesmaids so often." Then I felt furious with myself all over again, for even introducing the subject of weddings. "They say, 'What a beautiful bridesmaid,'" Aubrey offered tactfully. "That's right," I said, relieved. If I couldn't do better than this, I'd have to keep my mouth shut all evening.

Prom my first glimpse of Marcia it was apparent to me that she lived to entertain. The food even had little mesh tents over it to keep flies off, a practical touch in Lawrenceton in the summer. The cloths covering the tables erected on the sun deck for the occasion were starched and bright. Marcia was her usual well-turned-out self, as starched and bright as the tablecloths in blue cotton shorts and blouse. She had dangly earrings and painted nails, top and bottom. She exclaimed over the wine and asked if we wanted a glass now. We refused politely and she went in to put it in the refrigerator, while Torrance, looking exceptionally tan in his white shorts and striped shirt, took our drink orders. We both took gin and tonics with lots of ice, and went to sit on the built-in bench that ran all the way around the huge deck. My feet could barely touch the deck. Aubrey sat very close when he sat next to me. Carey and Macon came in right on our heels, and I introduced them to Aubrey. Macon had met him before at a ministerial council meeting Macon had covered for the paper, and they immediately plunged into an earnest conversation about what the council hoped to accomplish in the next few months. Carey eyed my outfit and winked at me, and we talked over the men about how good Marcia and the party food looked. Then the couple who lived in the house across from Carey, the McMans, came up to be introduced, and they assumed that Aubrey and I owned Jane's house together; that we were cohabiting. As we were straightening that out, Lynn and Arthur came in. Lynn was elephantine and obviously very uncomfortable in a maternity shorts outfit. Arthur was looking a little worried and doubtful. When I saw him I felt - nothing.

When Arthur and Lynn worked their way around to us, he seemed to have shaken off whatever had been troubling him. Lynn looked a little more cheerful, too. "I wasn't feeling too well earlier," she confided as Arthur and Aubrey tried to find something to talk about. "But it seems to have stopped for the moment." "Not good - how?"

"Like gas pains," she said, her mouth a wry twist at this confession. "Honestly, I've never been so miserable in my life. Everything I eat gives me heartburn, and my back is killing me."

"And you're due very soon?"

"Not for a couple more weeks."

"When's your next doctor's appointment?"

"In your last month, you go every week," Lynn said knowledgeably. "I'm due to go back in tomorrow. Maybe he'll tell me something." I decided I might as well admit wholesale ignorance. Lynn certainly needed something to feel superior about. She had looked sourly on my red and white shorts outfit. "So what could he tell you?" I asked. "Oh. Well, for example, he could tell me I've started dilating - you know, getting bigger to have the baby. Or he could tell me I'm effacing." I nodded hastily, so Lynn wouldn't explain what that meant.

"Or how much the baby has dropped, if its head is really far down." I was sorry I'd asked. But Lynn was looking in better spirits, and she went on to tell Aubrey how they'd decorated the nursery, segueing neatly from that domestic subject to a discussion of the break-ins on the street, which were being generally discussed. The McMans complained about the police inaction on the crimes, unaware that they were about to become very embarrassed. "You're going to have to understand," Arthur said, his pale blue eyes open wide, which meant he was very irritated, "that if nothing is stolen and no fingerprints are found, and no one sees anything, the burglar is going to be almost impossible to find unless an informant turns in something." The McMans, small and mousy and shy, turned identical shades of mortification when they realized that the new couple next door were both police detectives. After an embarrassing bumble of apologies and retractions, Carey talked about her break-in - which had occurred when she and her daughter were at Carey's folks' house for Thanksgiving two years ago - and Marcia related her experience, which had "scared her to death."

"I came back from shopping, and of course it was when Torrance was out of town; nothing happens but when Torrance is out of town" - and she gave him a knife of a glance - "and I saw the back window of the kitchen was broken out, oh you should have seen me make tracks over to Jane's house." "When was that?" I asked. "Around the time Carey's house was broken into?" "You know, it was. It was maybe a month later. I remember it was cold and we had to get the glass fixed in a hurry."

"When was your house broken into?" I asked Macon, who was holding Carey's hand and enjoying it.

"After the Laverys," he said, after a moment's thought "They're the people who owned the house you bought," he said to Arthur. "They got transferred five months ago, so I know they're relieved not to have to make two house payments. My break-in, and the Laverys', was like the others...back window, house searched and messed up, but nothing apparently taken."

"When was that?" I persisted. Arthur shot me a sharp look, but Lynn seemed more interested in her stomach, which she was massaging slowly. "Oh, sometime about a year and a half ago, maybe longer." "So Jane's house was the only one that hadn't been broken into until very recently?"

Carey, Macon, the McMans, and Marcia and Torrance exchanged glances. "I think that's right," Macon said. "Come to think of it. And it's been quite awhile since the last one, I know I hadn't thought about it in ages until Carey told me about Jane's house."

"So everyone's been broken into - everyone on the street?" Was that what Jack Burns had told me?

"Well," Marcia said, as she poured dressing on the salad and tossed it, "everyone but the Inces, whose house is on the two lots across from Macon and us. They're very, very old and they never go out anymore. Their daughter-in-law does everything for them, shopping and takes them to doctor appointments and so on. They haven't been bothered, or I'm sure Margie - that's the daughter-in-law -  would've come over and told me about it. Every now and then she comes over and has a cup of coffee after she's been to see them." "I wonder what it means?" I asked no one in particular.

An uncomfortable silence fell.

"Come on, you all, the food's all ready and waiting!" Marcia said cheerfully. Everyone rose with alacrity except Lynn. I heard Arthur murmur, "You want me to bring you something, hon?"

"Just a little bit," she said wearily. "I'm just not very hungry." It didn't seem to me that Lynn would have any room left for food, the baby was taking up so much.

Torrance went through the house to answer the front doorbell. The rest of us shuffled through the line, oohing and ahhing appropriately at the gorgeous food. It was presented in a beautiful way, all the dishes decorated and arranged as if far more important people than we were coming to taste it. Unless Marcia had had help, this table represented hours of work. But the food itself was comfortingly homely.

"Barbecued ribs!" exclaimed Aubrey happily. "Oh boy. Roe, you're just going to have to put up with me. I make a mess when I eat them." "There's not a neat way to eat ribs," I observed. "And Marcia has put out extra large napkins, I see."

"I'd better take two."

Just then I heard a familiar voice rising above the general chatter. I turned to peer around Aubrey, my mouth falling a little open in a foolish way. "Mother!" I said, in blank surprise.

It was indeed Mother, in elegant cream slacks and midnight blue blouse, impressive but casual gold necklace and earrings, and her new husband in tow. "I'm so sorry we were late," she was apologizing in her Lauren Bacall gracious woman mode, the one that always made people accept her apology. "John wasn't sure until the last minute whether he felt like coming or not. But I did so want to meet Aurora's new neighbors, and it was so kind of you to invite us..." The Rideouts gushed back, there was a round of introductions, and suddenly the party seemed livelier and more sophisticated.

Despite his tired eyes, John looked well after their honeymoon, and I told him so. For a few minutes, John seemed a little puzzled as to what exactly Aubrey was doing at the party, but when it sunk in that his minister was my date, John took a deep breath and rose to the occasion, discussing church affairs very briefly with Aubrey, just enough to make them comfortable with each other without boring the non-Episcopalians. Mother and John joined in the food line behind us, Mother sparing a cold glance for Arthur, who was sitting beside his wife and eating while giving her a solicitous look or laying his hand on her shoulder every few seconds.

"She's about to pop. I thought they just got married a few months ago," Mother hissed in my ear.

"Mom, hush," I hissed back.

"I need to talk to you, young lady," Mother responded in a low voice so packed with meaning that I began to wonder what I could have done that she'd heard of. I was almost as nervous as I'd been at six when she used that voice with me. We sat back down at the picnic tables set with their bright tablecloths and napkins, and Marcia rolled around a cart with drinks and ice on it. She was glowing at all the compliments. Torrance was beaming, too, proud of his wife. I wondered, looking at Lynn and Arthur, why the Rideouts hadn't had children. I wondered if Carey Osland and Macon would try to have another one if they married. Carey was probably forty-two, but women were having them later and later, it seemed. Macon must have been at least six to ten years older than Carey - of course, he had a son who was at least a young adult... the missing son. "While I was in the Bahamas," John said quietly into my ear, "I tried to get a minute to see if the house of Sir Harry Oakes was still standing." I had to think for a minute. The Oakes case... okay, I remembered.

"Alfred de Marigny, acquitted, right?"

"Yes," said John happily. It was always nice to talk to someone who shared your hobby.

"Is this an historical site in the Bahamas?" Aubrey asked from my right.

"Well, in a way," I told him. "The Oakes house was the site of a famous murder." I swung back around to John. "The feathers were the strangest feature of that case, I thought."

"Oh, I think there's an easy explanation," John said dismissively. "I think a fan flew the feathers from a pillow that had been broken open." "After the fire?"

"Yes, had to have been," John said, wagging his head from side to side. "The feathers looked white in the picture, and otherwise they would've been blackened."

"Feathers?" Aubrey inquired.

"See," I explained patiently, "the body - Sir Harry Oakes - was found partially burned, on a bed, with feathers stuck all over it. The body, I mean, not the bed. Alfred de Marigny, his son-in-law, was charged. But he was acquitted, mostly because of the deplorable investigation by the local police." Aubrey looked a little - what? I couldn't identify it. John and I went on happily hashing over the murder of Sir Harry, my mother to John's left carrying on a sporadic conversation with the mousy McMans across from her.

I turned halfway back to Aubrey to make sure he was appreciating a point I was making about the bloody handprint on the screen in the bedroom and noticed he had dropped his ribs on his plate and was looking under the weather. "What's the matter?" I asked, concerned.

"Would you mind not talking about this particular topic while I eat my ribs, which looked so good until a few minutes ago?" Aubrey was trying to sound jocular, but I could tell he was seriously unhappy with me. Of course I was at fault. That had the unfortunate result of making me exasperated with Aubrey, as well as myself. I took a few seconds to work myself into a truly penitent frame of mind.

"I'm sorry, Aubrey," I said quietly. I stole a peek at John out of the corner of my eye. He was looking abashed, and my mother had her eyes closed and was silently shaking her head as if her children had tried her beyond her belief, and in public at that. But she quickly rallied and smoothly introduced that neutral and lively subject, the rivalry of the phone companies in the area. I was so gloomy over my breach of taste that I didn't even chip in my discovery that my phone company could make my phone ring at two houses at the same time. Arthur said he was glad that he had been able to keep his old phone number. I wondered how Lynn felt about giving up her own, but she didn't look as if she gave a damn one way or another. Right after Arthur finished eating and they had thanked Marcia and Torrance in a polite murmur for the party, the good food, and the fellowship, they quietly left to go home.

"That young lady looks uncomfortable," Torrance commented in a lull in the telephone wars. Of course, that led to a discussion of Arthur and Lynn and their police careers, and since I was also a newcomer on the street the discussion moved logically to my career, which I was obliged to tell them - including my mother - had come to an end.

I thought if my mother's face held its mildly interested smile any longer, it would crack.

Aubrey had finished his supper finally and joined in the conversation, but in a subdued way. I thought we were going to have to talk sometime soon about my interest in murder cases and the fact that he found them nauseating. I was trying not to think about how much fun it had been to talk to John about the fascinating Oakes case...and it had occurred while the duke and duchess of Windsor were governing the islands! I'd have to catch my new stepfather alone sometime and we could really hash it over.

I was recalled to the here and now by my mother's voice in my ear. "Come to the bathroom for a moment!"

I excused myself and went in the house with her. I'd never been in the Rideouts' before, and I could only gather an impression of spotless maintenance and bright colors before I was whisked into the hall bathroom. It seemed like a teenager sort of thing to do, going into the bathroom together, and just as I opened my mouth to ask my mother if she had a date to the prom, she turned to me after locking the door and said -

"What, young woman, is a skull doing in my blanket bag?"

For what felt like the tenth time in one day I was left with my mouth hanging open. Then I rallied.

"What on earth were you doing getting a blanket out in this weather?" "Getting a blanket for my husband while he was having chills with the flu," she told me through clenched teeth. "Don't you dare try to sidetrack me!" "I found it," I said.

"Great. So you found a human skull, and you decided to put it in a blanket bag in your mother's house while she was out of town. That makes perfect sense. A very rational procedure."

I was going to have to level with her. But locked in Marcia Rideout's bathroom was not the situation.

"Mom, I swear that tomorrow I'll come to your house and tell you all about it." "I'm sure any time would be okay with you because you have no job to go to," my mother said very politely. "However, I have to earn my living, and I am going to work. I will expect you to be at my house tomorrow night at seven o'clock, when I had better hear a good explanation for what you have done. And while I'm saying drastic things, I might as well tell you something else, though since you have been an adult I have tried not to give you any advice on your affairs of the heart - or whatever. Do not sleep with my husband's minister. It would be very embarrassing for John."

"For John? It would be embarrassing for John?" Get a hold, I told myself. I took a deep breath, looked in the gleaming mirror, and pushed my glasses up on my nose. "Mother, I can't tell you how glad I am that you have restrained yourself, all these years, from commenting on my social life, other than telling me you wished I had more of one."

We looked at each other in the mirror with stormy eyes. Then I tried smiling at her. She tried smiling at me. The smiles were tiny, but they held. "All right," she said finally, in a more moderate voice. "We'll see you tomorrow night."

"It's a date," I agreed.

When we came back to the sun deck, the party had swung around to the bones found at the end of the street. Carey was saying the police had been to ask her if there was anything she remembered that might help to identify the bones as her husband's. "I told them," she was saying, "that that rascal had run off and left me, not been killed. For weeks after he didn't come back, I thought he might walk back through that door with those diapers. You know," she told Aubrey parenthetically, "he left to get diapers for the baby and never came back." Aubrey nodded, perhaps to indicate understanding or perhaps because he'd already heard this bit of Lawrenceton folklore. "When the police found the car at the Amtrak station," Carey continued, "I knew he'd just run off. He's been dead to me ever since, but I definitely don't believe those bones are his." Macon put his arm around her. The mousy McMans were enthralled at this real-life drama. My mother stared at me in sudden consternation. I pretended I didn't see it. "So I told them he'd broken his leg once, the year before we got married, if that would tell them anything, and they thanked me and said they'd let me know. But after the first day he was gone, when I was so distraught; well, after the police told me they'd found his car, I didn't worry about him anymore. I just felt mad."

Carey had gotten upset, and was trying very hard not to let a tear roll down her cheeks. Marcia Rideout was staring at her, hoping her party was not going to be ruined by a guest weeping openly.

Torrance said soothingly, "Now, Carey, it's not Mike, it's some old tramp. That's sad, but it's nothing for us to worry about." He stood, holding his drink, his sturdy body and calm voice somehow immensely reassuring. Everyone seemed to relax a little. But then Marcia said, "But where's the skull? On this evening's television news they said there wasn't a skull." Her hand was shaking as she put the lid on a casserole. "Why wasn't the head there?" It was a tense moment. I couldn't help clenching my drink tighter and looking down at the deck. My mother's eyes were on me; I could feel her glare. "It sounds macabre," Aubrey said gently, "but perhaps a dog or some other animal carried off the skull. There's no reason it couldn't have been with the rest of the body for some time."

"That's true," Macon said after a moment's consideration. The tension eased again. After a little more talk, my mother and John rose to leave. No one is immune to my mother's graciousness; Marcia and Torrance were beaming by the time she made her progress out the front door, John right behind her basking in the glow. The McMans soon said they had to pay off their baby-sitter and take her home, since it was a school night. Carey Osland, too, said she had to relieve her sitter. "Though my daughter is beginning to think she can stay by herself," she told us proudly. "But for now she definitely needs someone there, even when I'm just two houses away." "She's an independent girl," Macon said with a smile. He seemed quite taken with Carey's daughter. "I'd only been around boys before, and girls are so different to raise. I hope I can do a better job helping Carey than I did raising my son." Since the Rideouts were childless, and so was I, and so was Aubrey, we had no response that would have made sense.

I thanked Marcia for the party, and complimented her and Torrance on the decorations and food.

"Well, I did barbecue the ribs," Torrance admitted, running his hand over his already bristly chin, "but all the rest of the fixing is Marcia's work." I told Marcia she should be a caterer, and she flushed with pleasure. She looked just like a department store mannequin with a little pink painted on the cheeks for realism, so pretty and so perfect.

"Every hair is in place," I told Aubrey wonderingly as we walked over to his car parked in my driveway. "She wouldn't ever let her hair do this," and I sunk my hands into my own flyaway mop.

"That's what I want to do," Aubrey said promptly, and, stopping and facing me, he ran his hands through my hair. "It's beautiful," he said in an unministerly voice.

Woo-woo. The kiss that followed was long and thorough enough to remind me of exactly how long it had been since I had biblically known anyone. I could tell Aubrey felt the same.

We mutually disengaged. "I shouldn't have done that," Aubrey said. "It makes me..."

"Me, too," I agreed, and he laughed, and the mood was broken. I was very glad I hadn't worn the orange-and-white dress. Then his hands would have been on my bare back -  I started to chatter to distract myself. We leaned against his car, talking about the party, my new stepfather's flu, my quitting my job, his retreat for priests he'd be attending that Friday and Saturday at a nearby state park.

"Shall I follow you home?" he asked, as he slid into his car. "I might spend the night here," I said. I bent in and gave him a light kiss on the lips and a smile, and then he left.

I walked to the kitchen door and went in. The moon through the open kitchen curtains gave me plenty of light, so I went to the bedroom in darkness. The contrast of quiet and dark with the talk, talk, talk I'd done that day made me sleepier than a pill would have. I switched on the bathroom light briefly to brush my teeth and shuck my clothes. Then I pulled the rose pink nightgown over my head, switched off the bathroom light, and made my way to the bed in darkness. To the quiet hum of the air-conditioning and the occasional tiny mew from the kittens in the closet, I fell fast asleep.

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