I was dreaming of Kai when the phone rang. Its harsh tone buzzed through my brain like an angry bee, stinging me awake. I pried open my eyes and stared blearily at the alarm clock. Midnight. Thank God for Lasik surgery. At least I could see the damn thing now. My fingers reached blindly for the cell phone on my nightstand. Who the hell would bother me at this hour?
“Hello.” I mumbled into the receiver.
“Betts. Wake up. You’ve got to hear this.”
It was Candy’s voice, bright and bubbly just like always. No one else called me Betts, not even Kai. Lizzie Mae. That had been his name for me. I’d just settled into REM sleep, and she’d spoiled it. I hated her.
“Go away. I’m sleeping.” I disconnected, burying the cell phone under my pillow. She’d done this before. Couldn’t wait to thrill me with her latest conquest. Screw that. Girl talk should be mutual, and I had nothing to trade. Why else would I clutch my pillow on a Saturday night instead of curling up with him? Those days of cuddling and kisses were long gone. They say that abstinence is good for you, builds character. Phooey. If I really tried, I could feel Kai with me, holding me tight, whispering softly in my ear, lulling me to sleep. I drifted into fantasyland with a smile on my face.
The pounding wouldn’t stop. It wasn’t a migraine. It wasn’t even in my head. Some idiot was battering down the front door. My mood was less forgiving than a mama grizzly’s. Even my dog Della stayed sacked out in her crate to avoid my wrath. I grabbed a robe, belted it and lunged for the claw hammer. Not much of a weapon, but a woman couldn’t be too careful. Boston lawmakers coddled killers, not vulnerable females. I took a chance and used the peephole. Killers cap you right between the eyes if you’re not careful. All the books said so.
“Let me in. Come on, Betts.”
I’d finally get the chance to use that hammer when Candy put her perfectly pedicured toes into my house.
I switched off the burglar alarm and flung open the door. Something was very wrong. Candy was shivering, oblivious to the mascara ringing her eyes. They were her best feature, those green cat eyes. Her legs weren’t bad either. She wore a thigh-high silk dress with kitten heels. That didn’t improve my mood any. I’d wear a burqa if it covered my bony legs.
“What the hell is wrong?” I asked. “You’re a mess.”
She staunched the tears coursing down her cheeks. “Oh, Betts, he’s gone.”
“Who? You’re not making sense.” I clutched my hands to keep from shaking her.
“Tommy,” she cried. “He’s dead.”
We only knew one Tommy, Tom Yancey, our college buddy, confidant and court jester. He wasn’t dead. Impossible. I’d spoken to him only last month. A wave of guilt assailed me. He’d left messages on my machine, sent emails, too. Nothing urgent, just needed to touch base. I’d ignored them, shuffled them off to my pending list. He’d understand. We had all the time in the world.
“It can’t be,” I said. “What happened?”
Candy hiccupped, an open portal to hysteria. She’d be incoherent soon unless I did something.
“Here, follow me.”
I signaled Della to join us, since her people skills easily surpass mine. When Candy dissolves into a quivering mass, I get violent. Della licks her hand. Chalk it up to generations of herding instinct.
I filed into the kitchen and found the teakettle. British wisdom triumphed: nothing beats a nice cuppa when disaster strikes. Candy loved the soothing taste of Chamomile. Tommy insisted … I shook my head. No time for that kind of stuff. I blinked to keep from seeing him, long legs wrapped around the bar stool, sipping his mug of Earl Grey. “Real man’s brew,” he’d called it, making a muscle. “Strong like bull.”
Candy grasped her teacup like a talisman. I didn’t offer food; I knew better. That size two shape was no accident. She counted calories with nuclear precision.
“Got any Xanax?” she asked. “Or something stronger?”
“Later. Right now I need information.” I found a bottle of Glenlivit tucked away in the cupboard and poured a dollop into her cup. “OK. Tell me.”
Candy’s cloud of hair gave up the ghost and escaped its clip. She raked her fingers through it, gulping. “They called. The cops. You never answer your cell phone, so they got me.”
She checked her watch. It was way too large for her, a legacy from her dad. “About an hour ago. Right before I called you. Someone, a detective I guess, said Tommy was dead.” She sobbed. “They wanted an ID, Betts. Like at the morgue. I can’t do that.”
Morgue? Just the thought gave me the willies. I’d seen that hellhole once before. Just once. My skin felt clammy, and my breathing slowed. Not again. I can’t do it either. Not again.
Candy gulped her tea and looked for more. I made this one stronger. Half the cup was pure scotch. She didn’t even notice.
“Maybe they’re mistaken,” I ventured. “Tommy might be fine.” Candy’s grim face called me a liar. She shook her head.
“They have a picture from his wallet. You know the one. Us three and Della.”
How could I forget that day? It was three months ago. I’d been cowering in my bedroom, missing Kai with all my heart, praying he’d come back. Back from the dead. I saw his cheeky grin and sparkling eyes, felt his strong arms holding me.
Just like that, they’d invaded my space. Tommy was a mess in torn jeans, sloppy tee and sandals. He’d stuffed his thick crop into a Red Sox cap just to annoy me. Candy looked much better. She’d paid good money for her torn jeans and faded blouse. Those honeyed blonde streaks cost her plenty, too.
Since Kai’s death, I’d seldom ventured outside except to work and walk Della. Couldn’t recall my last meal or decent night’s sleep. Didn’t really care.
Tommy dangled a key under my nose. “This is an intervention. Get dressed, Mrs. Buckley.”
I flinched. Hearing that name, his name, made everything surreal. Elisabeth Mae Buckley. Mrs. Kai Buckley. Aren’t there naming conventions for widows? Can I still use his name?
They camped out on the bed until I surrendered. With ill grace, I snatched an outfit from my closet and stomped into the bathroom. Tommy chattered nonstop until I reappeared.
“Well. That’s much better.” His smile was just short of a smirk. “Now, grab your things, leash Della, and follow me.”
“Where are we going?” I sounded peevish, unlike the vibrant Betts of old. “This seems more like an intrusion, an invasion of privacy.”
Candy tugged my arm. “It’s a secret. Come on. Take a risk. Live a little.”
That’s what Kai always said. Climbing Mount Washington exhilarated him. He couldn’t understand my reluctance, called me a chicken. I could still see him and Tommy strutting around the room, arms flapping, clucking like fools. Oh, God.
“What should we do?” Candy moaned. “He’s expecting us.” She pinched her skirt into a sodden mess, hiking it up to an alarming level.
“Who’s expecting us? You’re not making sense.”
She fished a tattered card out of her pocket and thrust it at me. It was an unimpressive government issue with name, rank and organization: Sergeant Mark Andrews, Homicide Division.
I shook Candy like a rag doll. “Homicide! Tommy was murdered? Why didn’t you say so?”
She cowered beside Della, whimpering. “I thought I did. The cop said someone ran Tommy down. Didn’t stop. Right outside his office.” Her tears aroused my guilt and a sneaky sense of pleasure. I’d morphed from dishrag to bully in five minutes flat. Kai would be proud.
“I’m not leaving now. Forget it.” I folded my arms and stared Candy down. Della hovered around her, eyeing me. “Besides, he’s probably gone home. Best to wait until tomorrow.” That seemed to placate her. Deferred action but a glimmer of hope.
I found a Xanax in my pocket and held it aloft. Candy’s eyes gleamed as she reached for the magic pill. Midway through she stopped, hiding her face under a mass of tangled curls.
“Maybe I shouldn’t,” she said. “You need it more than I do.”
“Don’t worry. I have plenty.” I’d stockpiled enough pharmaceuticals to pacify all of Cambridge. Those capsules had been my boon companions since Kai died. I’d had to hide them from Tommy. He didn’t approve of masking pain and threatened to flush every one of them down the drain. “Face reality. Let it all hang out.” Tommy was big on slogans.
Candy washed down the tranq with an alcohol chaser. To hell with consequences, desperate times called for bravery. She curled up on the couch, pulled the cashmere throw around her and sacked out with Della at her feet. I envied that childlike sense of detachment. Sleep claimed her like a lover, while it only flirted with me.
I set the alarm, slipped into my bedroom and snuggled back under the sheets. Maybe if I closed my eyes he’d find me again.
Sunlight filtered slowly through my solar shade. I lurched out of bed, wondering if it had really happened. Had I dreamed it? Maybe it was just another convoluted nightmare. I checked my clock. Nine o’clock. Jesus, Lord! Della would be desperate by now. I tore into the living room and saw my best friend calmly reading a paperback. No more hysteria. Candace Ott, beauty guru and confidante of the stars, was in the house.
“It’s true then,” I said, scanning her perfectly groomed person. She’d shed the minidress for one of mine and smoothed her French braid. No mascara trails today.
Candy nodded. “I called Sergeant Andrews. We’re meeting him at noon.” She pointed toward the kitchen. “Espresso over there, and don’t worry about Della. We already took a run around the Common.”
I staggered toward the caffeine. “Nothing’s changed. I won’t go to the morgue. I can’t.”
She waved her arms dismissively. “Not a problem. He’s coming here.”
“Here!” My synapses weren’t firing yet. I couldn’t bear that police presence, the bland, meaningless phrases like, “We’re so sorry for your loss, Mrs. Buckley,” invading my home again. “No,” I sputtered. “Call him. Cancel everything.”
Candy masked pity with a mile-wide smile. “Sorry, Betts. No can do. He’s on his way now.” She checked that ridiculous watch again. “Oops. Better get in gear. Your hair could use a shampoo.”
My hair! I’d always pampered it, obsessed about it actually. Not many natural redheads around these days, Kai always said.
“You’re right,” I said. “After all, I’m supposed to be a makeup maven, aren’t I?”
“Exactly. You have time to deep condition, too, and a face masque wouldn’t hurt.” Her smile never wavered. “Tommy would approve. You know how he was about appearances. Kai, too.”
Did I ever. The three of us had shared a college flat in Georgetown. Money wasn’t plentiful, so Candy whipped up mayonnaise hair masks, oatmeal facials and God only knew what else. Tommy was a good sport about it. We’d slopped that goop all over him, too. Whenever he brought a girlfriend home, we flaunted pictures of him wearing our handiwork. He swore that’s why he’d never married.
Armed with a dizzying array of products, I stepped into my shower. It boasted a collection of knobs, nozzles and gadgets that I’d never quite mastered. My birthday surprise, a sybaritic combo of marble, bronze and river stones fit for a monarch. Kai’s queen. I stemmed the tide of self-pity, applying myself to the beauty rituals I loved. There’s comfort in the scent of lavender and the soothing glow of honey cream. I emerged, scrubbed, perfumed and pampered, an almost believable visage of city chic. Candy’s amazing camouflage cream masked the circles under my eyes. Vanity aside, my eyes were my best feature. Deep hazel. My auburn locks looked shiny again even though I didn’t blow them dry this time. Let Johnny Law see me au naturel.
One spritz of Creed and I was ready. I chose his favorite, Silver Mountain Water. Every time he used it, Kai heaved a giant sigh, closed his eyes, and swore he was back in the Alps. He’d loved the mountains, loved them to death.
Candy nodded at my buffed-up image. “You clean up nicely, Mrs. B.”
My smile was wan at best. “Thanks. Listen, Candy. Just one thing. Cops can be ruthless. Nothing’s off limits when murder’s involved. Stay on your guard.”
She cocked her head. “Why? I certainly didn’t kill him. I loved Tommy. So did you.”
The buzzer ended our sparring. Della charged the door as I let in the law.
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