I'd only had half a cup of coffee the next morning when the phone rang. I'd gotten up late after an uneasy sleep. I'd dreamed the skull was under my bed and Jack Burns was sitting in a chair by the bed interrogating me while I was in my nightgown. I was sure somehow he would read my mind and bend over to look under the bed; and if he did that I was doomed. I woke up just as he was lifting the bedspread.


After I'd poured my coffee, made my toast, and retrieved my Lawrenceton Sentinel from the front doorstep, I settled at the kitchen table for my morning read. I'd gotten the page one lead story (Sewell challenges incumbent) skimmed and was just searching for the comics when I was interrupted. I picked up the phone, convinced the call was bad news, so I was pleasantly surprised to here Amina's mom on the other end. As it turned out, my original premise was correct.

"Good morning, Aurora! It's Joe Nell Day."

"Hi, Miss Joe Nell. How you doing?" Amina bravely called my mother "Miss Aida." "Just fine, thanks, honey. Listen, Amina called me last night to tell me they've moved the wedding day up."

I felt a chill of sheer dismay. Here we go again, I thought gloomily. But this was Amina's mother. I stretched my mouth into a smile so my voice would match. "Well, Miss Joe Nell, they're both old enough to know what they're doing," I said heartily.

"I sure hope so," she said from the heart. "I'd sure hate Amina to go through another divorce."

"No, not going to happen," I said, offering reassurance I didn't feel. "This is going to be the one."

"We'll pray about it," Miss Joe Nell said earnestly. "Amina's daddy is fit to be tied. We haven't even met this young man yet."

"You liked her first husband," I said. Amina would always marry someone nice. It was staying that way that was the problem. What was this guy's name? Hugh Price. "She had so many positive things to tell me about Hugh." He was positively good-looking, he was positively rich, he was positively good in bed. I hoped he wasn't positively shallow. I hoped Amina really loved him. I wasn't too concerned about him loving Amina; I took that as an easy accomplishment since I loved her.

"Well, they're both veterans of the divorce wars, so they should know what they want and don't want. Anyway, why I called you, Aurora, moving up the wedding day means you need to come in and get fitted for your bridesmaid's dress." "Am I the only one?" I hoped desperately I could wear something personally becoming rather than something that was supposed to look good on five or six different females of varying builds and complexions. "Yes," said Miss Joe Nell with open relief. "Amina wants you to come down and pick what you want as long as it will look good with her dress, which is mint green."

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Not white. I was kind of surprised. Since Amina had decided to send out invitations and have a larger wedding because her first one was so hole-in-the-wall, I'd felt she'd do the whole kit and caboodle. I was relieved to hear she was moderating her impulse.

"Sure, I can come in this morning," I said obligingly. "I don't have to work today."

"Oh, that's just great! I'll see you then."

This was when your mother owning a dress shop was really convenient. There was sure to be something at Great Day that would suit me. If not, Miss Joe Nell would find something.

When I went upstairs to get dressed, on impulse I turned into the back bedroom, the guest room. The only guest who'd ever slept in it had been my little half brother Phillip when he used to come spend an occasional weekend with me. Now he was all the way in California; our father and his mother had wanted to get him as far away from me and Lawrenceton as possible, so he wouldn't have to remember what had happened to him here. While he was staying with me. I fought off drearily familiar feelings of guilt and pain, and flung open the closet door. In this closet I kept the things I wasn't wearing currently, heavy winter coats, my few cocktail and evening dresses... and my bridesmaid dresses. There were four of them: a lavender ruffled horror from Sally Saxby's wedding, Linda Erhardt's floral chiffon, a red velvet with white "fur" trim from my college roommate's Christmas "nuptials," and a somewhat better pink sheath from Franny Vargas's spring marriage. The lavender had made me look as if I'd been bushwhacked by a Barbie doll, the floral chiffon was not bad but in blondes' colors, the red velvet had made me look like Dolly Parton in the chest but otherwise we'd all looked like Santa's helpers, and the pink sheath I'd had cut to knee length and had actually worn to some parties over the years. I'd worn jeans to Amina's first, runaway wedding.

That had been the most useful bridesmaid's outfit of all. Now that I had worked myself into an absolutely great mood, what with thinking of Phillip and reviewing my history as a bridesmaid, I decided I'd better get myself in gear and go do things.

What did I need to do besides go by Great Day?

I had to go check on Madeleine and the kittens. I had to go by Mother's office; she'd asked me to on the message left on my machine, and I hadn't done it yet. I felt an urge to go check on the skull, but I decided I could be pretty sure it hadn't gone anywhere.

"Stupid," I muttered at my mirror as I braided my hair. I slapped on a little makeup and pulled on my oldest jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt. I might have to go by Mother's office, but I wasn't going to look like a junior executive. All her salespeople were sure I would go to work for Mother someday, completely disrupting their food chain. Actually, showing houses seemed like an attractive way to pass the time, and now that I had my own money -  almost - I really might think about looking into it seriously.

But of course I didn't have to work for Mother. I gave the mirror a wicked grin, picturing the furor for a happy second, before I lapsed back to reality. Wrapping the band around the end of the braid to secure it, I admitted to myself that of course I would work for Mother if I did decide to take the plunge and switch jobs. But I'd miss the library, I told myself as I checked my purse to make sure I had everything. No I wouldn't, I realized suddenly. I'd miss the books. Not the job or the people.

The prospect of possibly resigning kept me entertained until I got to Great Day. Amina's father was a bookkeeper, and of course he did the books for his wife's business. He was there when I came in, the bell over the door tinkling to announce my arrival. Miss Joe Nell was using some kind of hand-held steamer to get the wrinkles out of a newly arrived dress. She was a very attractive, fair woman in her middle forties. She'd been young when she had Amina, her only daughter. Amina's younger brother was still in graduate school. Miss Joe Nell was very religious, and, when my mother and father had gotten divorced when I was a teenager, one of my many fears was that Miss Joe Nell would disapprove of the divorce so much she wouldn't let me stay with Amina anymore. But Miss Joe Nell was a loving woman and sympathetic, too; my worry had been banished quickly.

Now she put down the steamer and gave me a hug.

"I just hope Amina's doing the right thing," she whispered. "Well, I'm sure she is," I said with a confidence I was far from feeling. "I'm sure he's a good man."

"Oh, it's not him I worry about so much," Miss Joe Nell said, to my surprise.

"It's Amina."

"We just hope she's really ready to settle this time," rumbled Mr. Day. He sang bass in the church choir, had for twenty years, and would until he could sing no more.

"I hope so, too," I admitted. And we all three looked at one another rather dolefully for a long second.

"Now, what kind of dress does Amina want me to try on?" I asked briskly.

Miss Joe Nell shook herself visibly and led me over to the formal dresses. "Let's see," she said. "Her dress, like I said, is mint green, with some white beading. I have it here, she tried on several things when she was home for your mother's wedding. I thought she was just sort of dreaming and planning, but I bet she had a little idea back then that they would move the date up." The dress was beautiful. Amina would look like an American dream in it.

"So we can coordinate my dress easily," I said in an optimistic tone. "Well, I looked at what we have in your size, and I found a few things that would look lovely with this shade of green. Even if you pick a solid in a different color, your bouquet could have green ribbons that would sort of tie it together..."

And we were off and running, deep in wedding talk. I was glad I'd braided my hair that morning, because by the time I'd finished hauling dresses off and on it would have been a crow's nest otherwise. As it was, loose hairs crackling with electricity were floating around my face by the time I was done. One of the dresses became me and would coordinate, and, though I doubted I would ever have occasion to wear it again, I bought it. Mrs. Day tried to tell me she would pay for it, but I knew my bridesmaid's duty. Finally she let me have it at cost, and we both were satisfied. Amina's dress had long, see-through sleeves and solid cuffs, a simple neckline, beaded bodice, and a full skirt, plain enough to set off the bridal bouquet but fancy enough to be festive. My dress had short sleeves but the same neckline, and it was peach with a mint green cummerbund. I could get some heels dyed to match - in fact, I thought the heels I'd had dyed to match Linda Erhardt's bridesmaid's dress might do. I promised Miss Joe Nell I'd bring them by the store to check, since my dress had to remain at Great Day to have its hem raised.

And it had only taken an hour and a half, I discovered when I got back in my car. I remembered when I'd gone dress hunting with Sally Saxby and her mother, and four other bridesmaids. The expedition had consumed a whole very long day. It had taken me awhile to feel as fond of Sally as I had before we went dress hunting in Atlanta.

Of course, now Sally had been Mrs. Hunter for ten years and had a son almost as tall as me, and a daughter who took piano lessons. No, I would not be depressed. The dress had been found, that was a good thing. I was going by the office, that was another good thing. Then I would go see the cats at the new house, as I was trying to think of it. Then I would treat myself to lunch somewhere good.

When I turned into the rear parking lot of my mother's office, I noticed no one dared to park in her space though she was actually out of the country. I pulled into it neatly, making a mental note to tell Mother this little fact. Mother, thinking "Teagarden Homes" was too long to fit on a Sold sign, had instead named her business Select Realty. Of course this was a blatant attempt to appeal to the "up" side of the market, and it seemed to have worked. Mother was a go-get'em realtor who never let business call her if she could get out there and beat the bushes for it first. She wanted every realtor she hired to be just as aggressive, and she didn't care what the applicant looked like as long as the right attitude came across. An injudicious rival had compared Select realtors to a school of sharks, in my hearing. Marching up the sidewalk to the old home Mother had bought and renovated beautifully, I found myself wondering if my mother would consider me a suitable employee.

Everyone who worked at Select Realty dressed to the nines, so I was fairly conspicuous, and I realized my choice of jeans and T-shirt had been a mistake. I had wanted to look as unlike a realtor as I could, and I had succeeded in looking like an outdated hippie.

Patty Cloud, at the front desk, was wearing a suit that cost as much as a week's salary from the library. And this was the receptionist. "Aurora, how good to see you!" she said with a practiced smile. Patty was at least four years younger than me, but the suit and the artificial ease made her seem as much older.

Eileen Norris passed through the reception area to drop some papers labeled with a Post-it note on Patty's desk, and stopped in her tracks when she recognized me.

"My God, child, you look like something the cat dragged in!" Eileen bellowed. She was a suspiciously dark-haired woman about forty-five, with expensive clothes from the very best big women's store. Her makeup was heavy but well done, her perfume was intrusive but attractive, and she was one of the most overwhelming women I'd ever met. Eileen was something of a town character in Lawrenceton, and she could talk you into buying a house quicker than you could take an aspirin.

I wasn't exactly pleased with her greeting, but I'd made an error in judgment, and Eileen was not one to let that go by.

"I'm just dropping in to deliver a message. Mother is extending her honeymoon a little."

"I'm so glad she is," Eileen boomed. "That woman hadn't taken a vacation in a coon's age. I bet she's having a real good time." "No doubt about it."

"And you're checking up on the children while their mama's away?" There was also no doubt Eileen wasn't happy with the idea of the boss's daughter "checking up."

"Just wanted to see that the building was still standing," I said lightly. "But I do have a realty question to ask."

Mackie Knight, a young black realtor Mother had just taken on, came in just then with clients, a pair of newlyweds I recognized since their picture had been in the paper the same day Mother and John's had been. The couple looked a little dazed, and were arguing in a weary way between a house on Macree and a house on Littleton. Safely ahead of them, Mackie rolled his eyes at us as they passed through.

"He's working out good," Eileen said absently. "The younger couples don't mind having a black realtor, and the black clients love it. Now, you said you had a realty question?"

"Yes, I do. What are houses in the area right around the junior high selling for?"

Patty and Eileen snapped to attention. This was Business.

"How many bedrooms?"


"Square footage?"

"Maybe fourteen hundred."

"A house on Honor in that area just sold," Eileen said promptly. "Just a minute and I'll look that up."

She marched back to her desk, her high heels making little thumps on the carpet. I followed her through the unobtrusively attractive gray and blue halls to her office, second in size only to Mother's. It had probably been the second best bedroom. Mother had what had been the master bedroom, and the kitchen had the copying machine and a little snack area. The other rooms were much smaller and occupied by Mother's lesser minions. Eileen's desk was aggressively busy, papers everywhere, but they were in separate stacks, and she doubtless was capable of juggling many balls at a time.

"Honor, Honor," she muttered. She must have been looking up the price of the little house Arthur and Lynn had bought. Her ringed fingers flipped expertly through a stack of listings. "Here we go," she murmured. "Fifty-three," she said more loudly. "Are you interested in buying or selling?" I could tell Eileen was no longer concerned with my blue jeans and messy braid. "Maybe selling. I inherited the house right across the street from that house you're looking at now." I nodded at the listing sheet. "Really," Eileen said, staring. "You? Inherited?"


"And you may want to sell the house instead of living in it?"


"Is the house paid for by the previous owner? The owner doesn't owe any money on it, I mean?"

"No, it's paid for." I thought I remembered Bubba Sewell telling me that. Yes, I did. Jane had been paying on the house until her mother died, when she'd had the cash to complete buying it in one whack.

"You have a completely free house and you don't want it? I would've thought a two bedroom was just the right size for you. Not that I wouldn't love to list it for you," Eileen said, recalled to her senses.

A frail, pretty woman in her late thirties stuck her head in. "Eileen, I'm off to show the Youngman house, if you've got the key handy," she said with a teasing smile.

"Idella! I can't believe I did it again!" Eileen hit her forehead with the heel of her hand, but very lightly so as not to smear her makeup. "I'm sorry, I didn't know you had company," the woman continued. "Idella, this is Aurora Teagarden, Aida's daughter," Eileen said, rummaging through her purse. "Aurora, you may not know Idella Yates yet? She came in with us earlier this year."

While Idella and I exchanged nice-to-meet-you's, Eileen kept up with her search. Finally she unearthed a key with a large label attached. "Idella, I'm sorry," Eileen boomed. "I don't know why I don't remember to put the keys back on the keyboard. That seems to be one thing I cannot remember. We're supposed to put them back on the main keyboard, that Patty watches, every time we use a key to show a house," Eileen explained to me. "But for some reason, I just cannot get it through my head."

"Don't worry about it," Idella said sweetly, and with a nod to me she left to go show the house. She did glance at her watch rather pointedly as she left, letting Eileen know that, if she was late to meet her client, Eileen was the one to blame.

Eileen sat staring after Idella with a curiously uneasy look on her face. Eileen's face was only used to positive emotions, emerging full-blown. Something like "uneasy" sat very oddly on her strong features. "There's something funny about that woman," Eileen said abruptly and dismissively. Her face fell back into more familiar lines. "Now, about that house - do you know things like how old the roof is, whether it's on city water, how old the house itself is? Though I think all the houses in that area were built about nineteen fifty-five or so. Maybe some in the early sixties." "If I make up my mind definitely, I'll get all that information," I promised, wondering how on earth I'd find out about the roof. I might have to go through every one of Jane's receipts, unless perhaps one of her neighbors might remember the roofing crew. Roofing crews usually made their presence felt. A vagrant thought crossed my mind. What if one of the houses was older than it appeared, or had been built on the site of a much older home? Maybe there was a basement or a tunnel under one of the houses where the body had been until it had been tossed into the weeds at the end of the street? Admittedly this was a pretty stupid idea, and when I asked Eileen about it she dismissed it as it deserved. "Oh, no," she said briskly, beginning to shake her head before I even finished my sentence. "What a strange notion, Roe. That area is much too low for basements, and there wasn't anything there before the junior high was built. It was timberland."

Eileen insisted on walking me out of the office. I decided it was because I was a potential client, rather than because I was Aurora Teagarden. Eileen was not a toady.

"Now, when is your mother coming back?" she asked. "Oh, soon, sometime this week. She wasn't definite. She just didn't want to call in to the office; maybe she was scared if she talked to one of you she'd just get to talking about work. She was just using me as a messenger to you all." All of the other offices that I passed were busy or showed signs of work in progress. Phones were ringing, papers were being copied, briefcases were being packed with paperwork.

For the first time in my life, I wondered how much money my mother had. Now that I didn't need it anymore, I was finally curious. Money was something we never talked about. She had enough for her, and did her kind of thing - expensive clothes, a very luxurious car (she said it impressed clients), and some good jewelry. She didn't play any sport; for exercise she had installed a treadmill in one of the bedrooms of her house. But she sold a lot of real estate, and I assumed she got a percentage from the sales of the realtors she employed. I was very fuzzy on how that worked, because I'd just never thought it was my business. In a moment I was not too proud of, I wondered if she'd made a new will now that John and she had married. I frowned at myself in the rearview mirror as I sat at a stoplight.

Of course, John already had plenty of money of his own, and he had two sons... I shook my head impatiently, trying to shake those bad thoughts loose. I tried to excuse myself by reasoning that it was really no wonder that I was will- and death-conscious lately, or for that matter that I was more than usually interested in money matters. But I wasn't happy with myself, so I was quicker to be displeased when I pulled into the driveway of the house on Honor to find Bubba Sewell waiting for me.

It was as if I'd conjured him up by thinking about him. "Hello," I said cautiously as I got out of the car. He got out of his and strode over to me.

"I took a chance on finding you here. I called the library and found out you were off today."

"Yes, I don't work every day," I said unnecessarily. "I came to check on the kittens."

"Kittens." His heavy eyebrows flew up behind his glasses.

"Madeleine came back. She had kittens in the closet in Jane's room." "Have Parnell and Leah been over here?" he asked. "Have they given you much trouble?"

"I think Parnell feels we're even now that I have four kittens to find homes for," I said.

Bubba laughed, but he didn't sound like he meant it. "Listen," he began, "the county bar association dinner-dance is next weekend and I wondered if you would go with me?"

I was so surprised I almost gaped at him. Not only was he reportedly dating my beautiful friend Lizanne, but also I could have sworn that Bubba Sewell was not the least bit interested in me as a woman. And though my dating schedule was certainly not heavy, I had learned long ago that it was better to be home alone with a good book and a bag of potato chips than it was to be out on a date with someone who left you cold.

"I'm sorry, Bubba," I said. I was not accustomed enough to turning down dates to be good at it. "I'm just very busy right now. But thank you for asking me." He looked away, embarrassed. "Okay. Maybe some other time."

I smiled as noncommittally as I could.

"Is everything going - all right?" he asked suddenly.

How much did he know?

"You read about the bones found around the dead end sign?" It had been below the report about Bubba's run for representative: city workers find bones. It had been a very short story; I expected a much fuller account in the next morning's paper.

Maybe, I suddenly thought, now that the law had the bones, there would be more information on the sex and age of the skeleton included in the next story. The few paragraphs this morning had stated that the bones were going to a pathologist for examination. I swam out of my thoughts to find Bubba Sewell eyeing me with some apprehension.

"The bones?" he prompted. "A skeleton?"

"Well, there wasn't a skull," I murmured.

"Was that in the paper?" he asked sharply. I'd made a mistake; as a matter of fact, the skeleton's skull-lessness had not been mentioned in the story. "Gosh, Bubba," I said coolly. "I just don't know."

We stared at each other for a minute.

"Gotta be going," I said finally. "The cats are waiting." "Oh, sure." He tucked his mouth in and then relaxed it. "Well.. .if you really need me, you know where I am. By the way, had you heard I'm running for office?" "Yes. I'd heard that, sure had." And we looked at each other for a second more. Then I marched up the sidewalk and unlocked the front door. Madeleine slithered out instantly and headed for the soft dirt around the bushes. Her litter box was only a backup system: she preferred to go out-of-doors. Bubba Sewell was gone by the time I locked the front door behind me.

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