THE MAIN LINE IS MURDER
When Lt. Newkirk quizzed me about the hour before I discovered the body, I scored a disappointing U for Unsatisfactory. But, hey, it was my first interrogation, there were cops in my kitchen, more witnesses in the living room–oh, and a lawyer I heartily disliked on his way to the morgue. I was proud of myself for remembering how to make coffee. “Sorry,” I told him. “I’ll make notes when I remember.” Exasperated, the man finally said something sincere. “Please,” he begged. “Help us do our job.” So I did, just not the way he meant. Over coffee the next morning I realized what I’d been doing around three the afternoon before–crashing around under the
"Ginger Struve Barnes, the fool who rushes in," I muttered with such disgust that Barney, our aging Irish setter, had stopped wagging his tail. When I slam-dunked a bottle of all-purpose cleaner into my canvas carryall, the dog ran. “Never volunteer!” I shouted after him.
Before leaving the house I'd stuck a Post-it note on the TV. "Mop Squad duty–again. Love, Mom." At ages nine and twelve Garry and Chelsea were more than capable of finding the cookies by themselves. Also, a ninety-second jog would put the kids inside their father’s office. Finding me would be only slightly more difficult.
When I first saw Bryn Derwyn Academy, the lobby reeked of dank carpet and dusty drapes, and the furniture belonged on the curb. However, this was my husband’s first head-of-school job, and beneath his straight dark hair and green eyes he wore an ear-to-ear grin. "Has possibilities, don't you think?" he remarked, and the Mop Squad notion was born. Such is the seduction of a chronically understaffed, under-endowed private school. It needs you. Like the National Debt needs taxes, it needs you.
Now a seasonal six-foot pine loaded with mittens for orphans graced the reception area. An antique mirror and some sturdy walnut chairs lined the wall outside the auditorium, and behind me cream-and-blue Waverly-print drapes softened the tall front windows. I had pirated everything but the tree from other parts of the building in August–when anybody who might have wanted to form a committee was on vacation.
That afternoon uniformed teenagers showing the wear and tear of the day milled around waiting for transportation. Parents leading lower-school children by the hand headed for the queue of Jeeps and Mercedes. And Joanne Henry, Rip's assistant, rocked back and forth on tired feet behind the receptionist's desk.
"Aren't you about done?" she asked, eying my carryall. "The place looks great." "Two more weeks, kiddo–then never again." Parents were invited to tour the "new improved" school prior to the holiday concert, so that became my personal deadline. Joanne's attention had strayed, causing me to notice tears behind her fashionable glasses. I asked her what was wrong.
"Oh, Gin," she lamented. "You won't believe what I did this morning." Her fine, beige hair remained perfect, her dark rose knit dress contoured her compact, middle-aged body without one unflattering dent or bulge; but here she was, Rip's fencepost of stability, flustered about something that had occurred hours ago.
"I spilled coffee on my computer keyboard," she confessed. For emphasis, her eyes widened until they were distraught, gray puddles. "Did you get a shock?" "No." "Was the computer trashed?" "No." She clicked her tongue with exasperation. "The screen froze and I lost the document I was working on." That was it? "We have to get a new keyboard," she added.
Okay, I thought. No big deal. The school wasn't rich, but it could probably afford one measly keyboard. "I'm sure you didn't mean to..."
"Gin," she interrupted. "I wasn't there when it happened." "You weren't?" "I mean, I must have been, but I don't think I was." "Where do you think you were?" "In morning assembly," where announcements were read, birthdays fussed over, academic achievements and sports victories cheered. "So somebody else walked by and knocked over the cup..." Joanne pressed her lips tight and slowly shook her head. The tears behind her glasses sparkled. "We were all in assembly for Peggy's birthday." That would be two hundred thirty-nine students and twenty-seven faculty members; few enough that attendance could be taken. "Maybe you did it without realizing–maybe on your way out." If she knocked an elbow into a mug and wrecked a computer keyboard, I felt sure she would have been aware of it. Unless, as older people fear, she was losing it–clearly her reading of the situation. "I guess I must have," she reluctantly agreed. “Hi, Ms. Barnes,” chirped a fifth grade girl, who I swear used her pink glasses to look straight through me. Her mother had chosen Bryn Derwyn for its sheltered, family-like environment, and rightfully so. Already the worldly wisdom in the girl's eyes suggested the ability to blackmail at will. “Hello, Elaine,” I replied as if I weren’t the least bit afraid of her. She smiled smugly, pivoted at the tree and swaggered down the left-hand hall. Below the dark-green Bryn Derwyn uniform sweater, her white shirttail blocked out a sizeable patch of plaid kilt. Joanne had answered the phone, so I wiggled my fingers goodbye and proceeded down the right-hand hallway where Rip had established offices for Development and for Kevin Seitz, the new business manager he hired over the summer. Both doors stood open, but Kevin, whose family knew my family, had his back to the hall while he spoke into his phone. Randy Webb, the Director of Development, nodded a curt hello as I passed. I felt my back straighten and my face freeze.
“Randy,” I said as cordially as possible.
Not yet thirty, his looks were usually considered pleasing–wavy blond hair, blue eyes feathered with curly lashes, nice bones. His rolling stride made women aware of his broad shoulders and narrow hips. To me, his suavity came off as detached, even a bit arrogant.
Of course, I chose to be especially hard on him.Last month I caught him pulling out of a clinch with the aunt of one of the students. Both Randy and the woman, Tina Longmeier, were married to other people. Both were horrified that I chose that particular moment to see if the copy room required the services of the Mop Squad. And although I did not mention the incident to Rip–after all, what had I actually seen but two adults blushing furiously–Randy and I were destined to remain polite strangers. Beyond those two doors across from an empty fifth grade classroom stood an all-purpose meeting space containing a rectangular table surrounded by a dozen chairs. The Board met here as well as the Bryn Derwyn “Community,” the body of volunteers who initiated everything from fundraisers to picnics for the kids. In a corner someone, probably Randy Webb, had deposited a box of pamphlets and a brand-new groundbreaking shovel adorned with a large green bow–the optimistic symbol of the current capital campaign. Since Kevin and Randy both used the room to meet with contractors or alumni or whomever, there was also a coffee corner showing signs of careless daily use. That day my main interest was the newly discovered stash of school merchandise nobody had touched in years. I planned to put the best of it on sale the night of the holiday concert. Dumping my coat and purse on a chair, I kicked the carryall under the table, unlocked the far left cabinet, pushed up my sleeves, and began to sort through the merchandise: XL T-shirts in the school’s signature green and white, a spool of telephone cord, partial boxes of pencils and notebooks, eyeglass cases and even shot glasses sporting the school logo, and finally a gross of wool baseball caps. When nothing remained on the first shelf but dust balls and mummified bugs, I grabbed my purse and set off to borrow a Dustbuster from the Faculty Room, one of three purchased to perpetuate the Mop Squad's efforts. When I returned, the Community Room door was closed and quiet voices emanated from inside. I couldn't tell whether it was coffee talk or a meeting because of the curtain on the door, so I rapped with a knuckle. Kevin Seitz peeked out through an eighteen-inch opening. "Hi, Gin. What is it?" the business manager inquired. Behind him I could see the school's attorney, Richard Wharton, showing papers to a couple I knew to be three years behind on their tuition. Most likely, payment arrangements were being discussed. I waved the Dustbuster in the direction of the junk on the table. “I can come back.” “Thanks, Gin. Give us an hour, will you?” He shut the door. The Dustbuster was too bulky to carry around, so I set it on the floor next to the door. Then I wandered back to the lobby. From the adjacent auditorium I heard the distinctively off-key, off-beat voices of a bunch of kids singing "Silent Night" and decided to kill time listening to them rehearse. Rip slouched in a seat about five rows back, his fingers tented in front of his lips. Rather than disturb his concentration, I slipped in two rows behind him. Three gangly sixth grade boys to launched into "We Three Kings." Never mind that they were awful, the parents would swoon. Rip shifted in his seat to relieve some tension. Tension? A closer look told me he was angry as hell. During "Joy to the World" I monitored faces, especially the precocious Elaine Wrigley, who sang with the sobriety of the entire Salvation Army. Halfway through "O Little Town of Bethlehem" I got it. For the next twelve minutes I stewed and squirmed and desperately wished I could leave. Leaving, however, would have insulted those who sang. It was the ones who mouthed only a few words who would have understood, and it was on their behalf that Rip was furious. After the final "Jingle Bells" with full and enthusiastic participation, Rip congratulated the kids, dismissed them, and circled the music director with a fatherly arm. She was two-thirds his size and twice his age, and she gazed up at him as if she expected praise. I sat still, several yards away from their pocket of privacy, made more private by the racket of children dispersing. Rip's head wove back and forth sadly as he delivered the bad news. The woman stepped away, shock freezing her features. "But we've always..." she began her defense. More murmured discussion, then an audible, "We're a non-sectarian school, Nora. Not all our students are Christian." Nora's eyes widened. By now only the three of us remained in the huge room. "Well, I'm sure no one minds singing a beautiful carol. Why would they mind?" I thought of the Jewish boy whose behavior had proven my guess to be right. He simply stood there until a song came along he wanted to sing. Rip stepped back, summoning patience. "I'm sorry, Nora," he said. "You'll have to change the program; and if there isn't time to do that, you'll have to cancel." Nora inhaled. I could hear her huffing from the middle of the auditorium. "No, Mr. Barnes. No. I'd rather quit," she said. Then she scooped her purse off a chair and marched up the aisle. The door compressor wheezed with relief as it swept her through. "Hi," I said, finally alerting Rip to my presence. "Oh," he said. "You heard." "Did you have suspicions?" I asked. "Was that why you came to watch?" He nodded. "Joanne was running the program off on the copier." "What will you do now?" Rip stuffed his hands in his pockets. His eyes were puffy with fatigue. "I really hate to ask this," he said. "Really hate to ask. But do you think Didi could fill in? Just until the concert?" My first thought was, why not? Didi, my dearest friend, could sing, and every moment of her life was conducted as if she were on stage. However, Rip appreciates Didi the way Mozart might have enjoyed rock and roll–in very small doses, if at all. So my second thought was that Rip was desperate. "You sure?" I pressed. "Sure. Even Didi's got to be more politically correct than Nora."
My nutmeg-colored bangs obscured the doubt etching grooves into my forehead. Heck, everybody's new at their job for a while, even Rip. And this probably wouldn't be that big of a mistake.
So I ran home without my coat after all because Didi's latest phone number was somewhere under the lunch menus, lace snowflakes, and cartoons stuck all over the refrigerator. As it turned out, there were lots of mistakes made over the next twenty minutes, but Rip’s decision wasn’t one of them.
A bump in the road bounced Mother's chin off her chest and opened her eyes. She grimaced at the light thrown by my elderly Nissan station wagon.
"Good morning," I said.
"Umph," she replied.
When she seemed alert enough, I said, "Tell me again. Why are we doing this?"
She sighed. "You know Sylvia planned Alfie's retirement party months ago. I couldn't very well let her down."
I steered into a curve.
"That part I understand." For an early start, ordinarily Mother would have stayed overnight with Rip and me. The party meant I had to be at Mother's at 5 a.m., drive to Bryn Mawr to pick up her friend Winifred "Iffy" Bigelow, then hurry along to the Pennsylvania Convention Center so Iffy could do an entry in the world-famous Philadelphia Flower Show. Apparently competition went on all week.
"What I'd really like to know is why your friend Iffy offered us maintenance passes."
"Because I don't drive, and I was sure you'd love to go."
I shook my head. "No, Mom..."
"I beg your pardon, you practically jumped at the chance."
I wagged my head. "What I actually said was, `If you need me to drive, I'll take you.'"
Mother stiffened. "Well, I'm terribly sorry to put you out. I thought you'd be delighted to avoid the crowds."
I spread my hand in a mollifying gesture. "Yes. Yes, you're absolutely right. I hate seeing the flower show an inch at a time. But what I'm trying to find out here is exactly why we were offered not one but two maintenance passes. People who belong there have trouble getting them. Why did this `Iffy' person offer them to you?"
"Her car is in the shop."
"What do you mean, why?"
"Why? W-H-Y. Why?"
I braked a little hard for a red light. "Let me put this another way. Who the hell is Iffy Bigelow?"
Mother blinked. "She came to the funeral." I understood her to mean my father's funeral since it was the only one we had attended together in the last decade.
"Mom, nobody said more than a sentence to us that day. Sometimes less."
"You'll remember," she told me confidently. She recalled details with ease. Since she considered me to be the new-improved product of Cynthia and Donald Struve, naturally I would retain whatever she had and more. "Iffy Bigelow," she prompted. "We were in high school together."
Surely I wasn't expected to remember that! I stretched to make some connection, if only to finish the conversation.
"Is her husband named Arthur, by any chance?" A few years back I took an investment course from a dry stick named Arthur Bigelow, until I caught on that you needed money to make money. Discerning my frustration, Arthur had invited me for coffee and suggested a couple ways to start a college fund for the kids. I thanked him, and we parted company. Nice enough guy, but stiff as starch.
"That's right." Mother gloated.
I tempered my astonishment. "Small world," I said, "but I still don't remember Iffy."
"You will," Mother assured me. "You will."
While my car coughed itself out in the driveway of the Bigelows' hulking brick Tudor, I squinted at the two women silhouetted by the front door light. Mother's friend had to be the short lump with the hat, but all I recognized was the set of her shoulders and the way her purse hung from her fist. She was loaded for bear.
"Oh, good," Mother remarked. "I thought we might have to pick up Julia."
"Iffy's niece. We'll be looking after the girl while Iffy's busy with her entries.”
Before I could press for more, Mother began relocating to the back seat, leaving the amenities to me. I rolled my eyes and climbed out into the chilled March air.
Iffy Bigelow shouted, "You're late," with a voice that could singe paint.
I glanced at my watch. Five twenty-two. According to Mother's schedule, we were early. When I got close enough to speak normally, I tried to correct the injustice.
"We're okay by me. Should we have synchronized watches?"
“Don't get flip with me, young woman." Mrs. Bigelow ignored my outstretched hand, so I swung it toward the younger woman cowering behind her.
"Ginger Struve Barnes," I said, maintaining my friendly expression. Not really the "girl" mother described, like me Iffy's niece was at least thirty, yet her ingenuous expression spoke of a sheltered life.
"Julia Stone," she mumbled, hesitantly accepting my handshake. Little puffs of breath condensed and dispersed around us.
I willed a little extra kindness onto my own face; adults just don't look that uncomplicated without a reason. Lord knows there were complications and undertones written all over her aunt.
Winifred Bigelow tapped a foot, and Julia jumped to retrieve a cardboard box from the stoop.
“Julia, give that to her," Iffy snapped, efficiently insulting Julia and reducing me to a flunky with one succinct phrase.
I accepted the carton with a sympathetic smile.
Meanwhile, Iffy collected a bulky potted plant off the step. Its leaves were a fistful of splayed green belts. From the center rose a tall stalk sporting a pompon of orange trumpets.
"It's a clivia," Iffy announced protectively, adding, "in perfect condition," as she cringed away from her niece.
Julia clutched her coat closed at the throat. We all paraded toward Mother, who wiggled her fingers hello through the rear window.
"Julia! Open that back door," Iffy barked.
I practiced projecting saintly patience as I slid the open carton of arrangement equipment and carefully wrapped plant materials into the rear of the car.
Julia leaned close. "I'm just out of the hospital," she confided with pride. "My psychiatrist said I was ready for an outing."
My eyes widened, and my smile went stiff. Clinical depression? Paranoia? Schizophrenia? You can't help wondering, but you don't dare ask.
"Congratulations," I said, hanging onto that smile.
We each climbed into the Nissan thinking our own thoughts.
"No expressways," commanded Mrs. Winifred Bigelow. A clue perhaps to why she felt we were late and I thought we were early?
I risked a questioning glance. No wink, no joke. She actually wanted a whistle-stop tour of the Main Line. This was developing into quite a morning.
"You're the boss," I said.
I heard a rustling in the back seat as I backed the car into the street. Since Julia was quietly staring out the window, I surmised that Mother sensed the tension between Iffy and me and was itching to diffuse it.
"All set, are we?" she asked, sounding ominously like a kindergarten teacher.
Fortunately, Iffy's mind was elsewhere. "Cynthia. Have you seen a paper yet?" she asked my mother. "Ours didn't come."
A raised eyebrow queried me.
I turned onto Lancaster aiming for the city fifteen miles away. "Not yet," I answered. At 4:30 when my alarm went off, not even the birds were up.
"Coverage has been deplorable," Iffy complained. "They had a few photos last Saturday, a minimal spread for Sunday's official opening, and then scarcely anything the rest of the week. The largest, most prestigious show in the world–and they treat it like, like it was nothing."
"Well, it's Friday, dear. Maybe they ran out of things to say," Mother suggested.
I might have added "years ago." The spreads I'd seen on the annual nine-day event reminded me of the desperate human interest pieces they did for a recent Olympics.
I steered around a van that was turning left into Dunkin' Donuts. "Did they ever interview you?" I asked Iffy.
Iffy bristled, so apparently not.
"Now that would be a good article," Mother enthused. "Did I tell you Iffy won the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society's Grand Sweepstakes trophy last year? She earned more points in more categories than anybody else. Isn't that right, dear?" Iffy didn't respond, so Mother just kept talking. "She's making a run at it again this year, too."
Under her breath Iffy muttered, "Watch out for that pothole."
"Tell Ginger about that day when what's-his-name approved your container," Mother urged her friend.
"She doesn't want to hear that." Iffy pressed her lips tight.
"Oh yes she does." Mother punched my sleeve.
"What happened?" I asked. Julia seemed to be asleep.
"It was years ago," Iffy said dismissively.
"Yes?" I prompted. Much more of this and I'd be asleep, too.
Winifred Bigelow sighed and gazed through the windshield as if viewing a film she'd seen once too often. "My garden club was doing a table arrangement that year–do you know anything about them?”
I did, from a friend involved with the show. They are simulated dining rooms, perhaps five or six spaced side by side on either side of an aisle. Different decors, but always with a floral arrangement as the focal point. Because of the expense, I was under the impression that they were mostly prepared by garden clubs with about sixty members.
Iffy accepted my nod. "Well, I found a container that reflected the lines of a chair in the painting we had for our back wall. Miriam Snelling insisted that we use an atrocious antique vase. We argued–that is the five of us on the committee–until I noticed the chairman of the show walking by–"
"Gin," Mother interrupted. "You have to understand the power this guy had. His endorsement could make or break a career."
"–and I invited him over to give us his opinion." Iffy didn't care for the interruption, even if it did enhance her story.
"What a chance you took!" Mother exclaimed.
"He picked your container?" I asked.
"He raved about it, Gin," Mother interjected. "`Look how it reflects the lines of that chair,' he said. `It's perfect.' Made Iffy's reputation right on the spot. Isn't that right?"
"Yes. That's true."
Iffy still seemed disinclined to speak to me, so Mother elaborated. "That's right, Gin. One minute she's the token newcomer on the committee and the next minute she's an authority."
"Your club win?" I asked.
Iffy snorted. "Miriam's gladiolus overpowered the design. I told them how to fix it for Wednesday–tables are judged Saturday and again Wednesday–but they botched it." I found the container, but they botched it. Yea, team.
"You still in a club?" The question was out of my mouth before I realized it might not be tactful.
Winifred Bigelow looked at me hard. Not only had she caught my implied criticism of her people skills, my name was now in her permanent ledger. "Not at the present," she replied. Then she added, "Watch the road."
I gave her a glance. She returned a scowl, and I realized this whole conversation had been meant to humor my mother. Iffy still blamed me for being late and wanted me to know I was not forgiven.
I spoke to Mother over my shoulder. "I had no idea people take the show so seriously." This, at least, was quite true. Naively, I always thought the perfection viewed by the public was of the whimsical, "Oh, your azalea is lovely–why don't you enter it?" variety. But apparently Iffy and her ilk were not the dabblers I had imagined. Rather they were deadly serious competitors clawing their way up a social lattice I never knew existed.
My token display of interest delighted Mother. Leaning enthusiastically toward my ear, she told me, "One time Arthur wanted to take a little vacation a whole six months before the show, but Iffy refused to leave her plants. Isn't that right, dear?" Poor Arthur.
Iffy snorted. "Lots of people stay home to get ready."
"And spend any amount it takes to win," Mother added.
Iffy sighed impatiently. "Of course. There aren't any limits. You can hire an army of professionals, or you can do it yourself. The judges only care about the final result."
Mother was into it. "Once they drove some flowers four hundred miles across Africa on top of a bus at night just to fly them to Philadelphia for an exhibit. And they've hand-carried specimens down from the volcanoes of Hawaii, too. I saw it in the paper."
"Not this year," Iffy muttered.
Minutes later, with dawn's early light defining the hotels and apartment buildings, we arrived at the western border of Philadelphia. Mostly for the sake of the clivia, I bumped across City Line Avenue on yellow rather than stopping short. Julia woke up, and Mrs. Bigelow responded with a tight-lipped glower.
Naturally, Mother felt it necessary to draw Julia out of her fog and into her circle of imagined warmth. "You're probably wondering why Ginger is driving instead of me." She said. Iffy's chin jerked.
"The simple truth is I lost my license." Dramatic pause.
"Lost it?" Julia repeated.
"Can't find it anywhere."
The young woman's self-conscious giggle was just what I needed to hear. Mother, too, because I glimpsed her smug grin in my mirror.
The street soon ducked under an overpass and set us onto the tree-lined West River Drive. To our left across a brief swath of dead grass lay the Schuylkill River, black and swollen from last night's heavy rain.
While we waited for a traffic light, a trash truck lumbered across a deep brick gutter to turn left in front of us. For a moment the top-heavy vehicle wobbled precariously over my tiny car.
"Why did you stop so far into the intersection?" Iffy snapped. "Honestly, if I wanted to ride with someone this reckless, I could have taken a cab."
Determined not to lose my composure, I inquired whether coffee would be available at the Convention Center so early or whether we'd have to wait.
Iffy snorted and showed me the back of her head, and Mother leaned forward to speak into my ear. "Stage nerves," she said.
The light changed. I shifted from first to second. My muffler blew. A scraping, dragging noise suggested a broken clamp. Iffy Bigelow grumbled under her breath.
I parked under the nearest street lamp on a grassy spot between two gnarled trees. When I turned off the ignition, the silence was extreme.
Instinctively, Mother filled the vacuum. "Need any help, dear?"
Declining politely, I scrambled out of the car, but not quite fast enough to escape her next line. "Ginger's so capable–she can fix anything."
With the aid of a flashlight and the duct tape I carry in the car, I did manage to wrap a crack in the burning hot pipe just in front of the muffler. After a censorious stare, Iffy consented to the use of her wire cutters and one of the two extension cords from her box of flower arranging equipment (I'd already borrowed some gloves without asking), and in about fifteen minutes I had the muffler tied off the ground. Nothing could be done about the roar, but at least we wouldn't be throwing off sparks.
Wet grass stuck to my hair, my lined raincoat needed dry cleaning, and sometime in the very near future I would have to pay for the privilege of spending an hour on a plastic chair smelling stale cigarettes and reading old magazines and car repair jokes Scotch-taped to a plywood counter. I didn't care if Iffy Bigelow was defending her title as Big Shot of the Big Shots of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society or the world. I'd heard enough out of her. I turned on my radio–loud. To an oldies station.
Dumbstruck, Iffy stared at the horizon–presently pigeon-colored office buildings backlighted in pearl gray. On the opposite riverbank, dawn had dimmed the white lights that outline Boathouse Row.
Checking in my mirror, I saw Julia twisting a strand of hair around her finger. She looked bewildered and frail, and the thought of such an apparently sweet person incapacitated by a mental illness made me count my blessings, one of whom was petting Julia's hand and beaming motherly trust into the back of my head.
Figuring I had no Brownie points to lose, I turned up the radio. Julia added another notch to her forehead, Iffy squeezed another wrinkle into her collection, and Mother tapped in time with a free finger.
For us and all the passing parts of West Philadelphia, Jerry Lee Lewis belted out "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Courageous programming for six o'clock on a Friday morning.
I probably should have listened to the words.
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
“Today, a burglary on the 6000 block of Argonne Avenue in Bryn Mawr went horribly wrong," said the slender woman on my thirteen-inch kitchen TV. When she extended her graceful hand, the house, an elaborate collection of driftwood cubes connected by glass, appeared to rest comfortably on her palm.
"At 10:15 this morning Ms. Corinne Novak returned home early from her Sunday aerobics class. She said she had been feeling a little ill..."
The newscaster displayed flawless ivory skin and perfectly bobbed chin-length black hair. Her collarless blouse and sculpted pink suit said, "I refuse to dress like a man just to get paid like one." Very now. Very Main Line. I wouldn’t have traded places with her on a bet.
Of course, if she had a caterer on speed-dial…But no, not even then.
I extracted a smoking cookie sheet covered with cheese balls from the oven while the miniature reporter pressed on.
"Caught in the act, the burglar panicked, and the unfortunate Ms. Novak walked into the business end of a blunt instrument."
A little too Mickey Spillane perhaps, but she was new to local news and an import, too. The unfortunate Ms. Novak didn’t seem to mean a thing to her.
My cheese balls rolled around like little billiards. They smelled like cordite and looked like a kindergarten kid's first effort with clay. I poked one just for fun and burned my finger. The garbage disposal growled as I fed the ruined hors d’oeuvre into the sewage system.
"After the intruder delivered a near-fatal blow to the back of Ms. Novak's head, he got away with furs, jewelry, and a coin collection valued at eighty thousand dollars. Police believe this to be the same man who has burglarized several other homes in Chester and Montgomery counties..." Encompassing most of the Main Line, they were wealthiest counties in the state. What self-respecting burglar would bother going anywhere else?
I surveyed the inside of the refrigerator. Fortunately, tonight's guest was Rip's mentor, Gregory Burack, who was practically family. Ah. Cream cheese and mango chutney. Plunk the former on a plate, slather it with the latter, stick in one of those little cocktail spreaders with a mallard on it, throw a few crackers in a basket. Back in business.
Pink suit had begun to interview a neighbor. "I just don't feel safe here anymore," said the young mother. Due to the three-year-old straddling her hip her white blouse was wrinkled and askew. "We're putting our house up for sale," she told me sadly.
I poked the TV off with the cracker-basket hand and headed around the corner toward the men.
Our daughter, Chelsea, intercepted me at the eating end of the long main room. "May I have some money for new sneakers?" she asked quietly enough that her father and our guest couldn't hear.
At thirteen Chelsea was four inches shorter than me, five-foot-two, and wore her cinnamon-colored hair in a short, curly fluff. Coloring alone identified us as mother and daughter, but this year our body shapes strengthened the resemblance¬–she was adding contours while I was struggling to keep mine.
"Please?" Her fluttering eyelashes were thick and dark, the better to beg with, which may be why I suddenly caught on.
When there is company in the house, parents do not say "no" as often as when we are, say, taking out the trash. Children are born knowing how to make use of such information.
"How much?" I asked.
"No way," I replied. Moving over to the Main Line when Rip became a headmaster had not meant giving up my favorite flea market. I'm pretty sure the word "frugal" was coined by someone living on a private school salary.
"Nada," I responded with emphasis as I proceeded to deliver my foolproof hors d'oeuvre to our distressed-pine coffee table. Set between a blue plaid sofa and a walk-in stone fireplace it worked, or rather it would have to until our son and his friends stopped kicking it.
Chelsea retreated down the hall past the kids' two bedrooms to our added-on family room. She made sure I could hear her footsteps. We would talk again later.
I claimed my spot on the living room sofa. Rip, diagonally across the coffee table in a wing-backed chair, continued with his story. "...so when the whole middle school left the lunchroom clucking and flapping their elbows, she came straight to my office and threatened to quit–for the third time this year."
Behind silver-rimmed glasses Greg's pale gray eyes crinkled into half moons. "What did you tell her?" he asked.
"I wanted to say I was sorry she was leaving, and I hoped she'd be happier in her next job–hell, I'd eaten her chicken as often as the kids–but I handed her a tissue and patted her on the back."
Greg waved his head. "Finding a school cook in April..."
"I know," Rip agreed. "Scarce as hen's teeth."
Naturally, we were having chicken for dinner.
Well aware that the gloppy appearance of chutney and cream cheese puts some people off, I fixed a cracker for our guest and handed it to him. I happened to like the combination, but when you’ve been raised by the most eccentric cook in Ludwig, Pennsylvania, you learn to eat anything. Once I peeked into one of my mother’s pots and discovered a nice big batch of pigs' feet.
Greg popped the cracker into his mouth and mumbled "umm."
"How's my Lisa doing?" he asked when he finished chewing.
"Fine, fine," my husband replied, leaning forward on his knees. "She's got a lot of potential as a teacher. I think she's going to be fine."
Last March when Lisa decided to switch from retail sales to teaching, she had applied for an opening at Bryn Derwyn Academy. Rip worried about the wisdom of hiring the daughter of a friend but figured that Lisa had probably learned enough to get by as a teacher at the Burack breakfast table. Hadn’t her father nurtured him through his own first year of teaching? Hadn’t he also positioned him to run his own school at the tender age of thirty-three?
True, Bryn Derwyn was a struggling upstart compared to places that had been chartered by William Penn, but it had potential that Rip was working hard to develop. Not unlike the eager young Lisa.
"Good, good." The older man nodded his pleasure over Rip's encouraging reply.
They then went on to discuss the horrors of health insurance plans for small businesses; and once again I felt left out, a feeling that was becoming all too familiar.
The stove timer interrupted my private griping, and I excused myself to put out the food. While I tossed salad and heated rolls, I eavesdropped via the pass-through to the table.
"Faculty's had cabin fever ever since the last snow...don't know how we'll raise the money for the new gym...neighbor complaining that after school the kids collect in front of his house to smoke cigarettes...ran out of lacrosse uniforms..." "Dinner's ready," I chirped to interrupt Rip's complaints. So far Greg, while bobbing his white head with understanding, had offered little in the way of advice.
The kids fixed their plates and retreated to TV tables, we adults settled down to our civilized chicken and white wine, and Greg finally responded to his protégé’s laundry list.
"They're fairly common problems, Rip," he remarked while rubbing the back of his arthritic wrist. "Sounds as if you need to develop some coping techniques."
I choked on a bit of broccoli and stared at the wise man we had invited to dinner. Could it be that Rip hadn’t completely settled into his job? Was that why he worked thirteen hours every weekday and most of Sunday while I felt like a single mother with an adult male boarder?
"How about starting a journal? Good way to blow off steam," Greg advised with a casual wave of his wine glass.
Rip snorted. When he lowered his eyes to his plate, a clump of his straight brown hair slipped onto his forehead. He raked it back with a hand.
"What's wrong with sex and booze?" he asked with a smirk. "Isn't that what everybody else does?"
My chest felt like an empty cavity. Sex and booze? Where on earth had Rip dug up that insulting, sorry-for-himself remark?
Greg carefully avoided my eyes, a sure sign that he, too, thought Rip was being a jerk. "That road leads to divorce, buddy," he told my husband. "And you don't want to throw away your best asset."
Arms crossed on the table in front of him, Rip gave Greg and me an empty glance before turning his attention to his food.
Awkward. I gazed into my wine and changed the subject. "When I was cooking, I saw a disturbing item on the news."
"Oh?" our guest prompted.
"A woman surprised a burglar in her home and he...he hit her with something."
"Yes. A few miles away. Bryn Mawr."
"That's terrible. Did they have a security system?"
"I don't know."
"Do you?" Greg inquired.
"Just Barney," I answered, referring to our aging Irish setter. Barney is friendlier than most salesmen, but noisy.
"You think a burglar would bother robbing us?" Rip asked as he topped off his wine glass. Greg and I waved away his offer to refill ours.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because this isn't exactly Bryn Mawr." He meant that in the context of the Main Line our street would be described as modest. Our house in particular had been a handyman's special purchased out of financial necessity. Another of Rip's many sore subjects–our mortgage. If he actually started a journal to list his grievances, it would soon be thick as the Philadelphia phone book. Why, I wondered was he revealing so many of these dissatisfactions tonight?
Because before he went the consultant route Greg had been there. Of course.
Quite suddenly I felt abashed. Sitting so firmly in my own seat, I had temporarily forgotten the view from Rip's. To outsiders his duties sounded like three full-time jobs. Even a school as small as Bryn Derwyn had the same areas of responsibility as a huge university. Maintenance, fundraising, PR, student recruitment, athletics, curriculum, hiring, firing, alumni, community relations, faculty this and that, student problems of every description, around and around and around again. All very human stuff, all potentially stressful.
And then Rip said, "Gin has been a bit of an alarmist ever since she solved that murder."
My ego took a short leap off a long pier.
"That was quite an accomplishment," Greg said with a sympathetic glance.
"Thank you," I replied.
"Oh yes. The police couldn't have solved it without her."
Rip had not been there to hear it, but that sentiment actually had been expressed by my old elementary school acquaintance, then a scrawny African-American kid who was now a brawny inner-city cop. Put in charge of a murder at the prestigious Philadelphia Flower Show, he soon found that he related to the victim's social strata not at all, while I at least knew how to blend. "Hi. I'm Ginger Struve Barnes. Welcome to Bryn Derwyn Academy." My mantra. My job.
Yet it was pressure from my mother that originally shamed me into investigating her friend's murder. Cynthia knew what I had already done for Bryn Derwyn, and that happened to be a story I hoped Rip would never hear.
"So now she sees sinister plots everywhere she turns." Shiny lips. Slightly goofy smile. Challenging don't-especially-care-what-I'm-saying stare. My husband was deep into about one wine too many.
"Oh I do not." I waved away the thought. Sometime when Rip might actually listen, I would explain how much that flower-show experience had rattled me. If lately I’d seemed a little preoccupied by crime, it was because I was trying to cram it back into its proper perspective.
Greg sighed. "Nobody's safe anymore. Used to be people left their doors open, looked out for each other's kids, returned wallets..."
"Returned wallets?" Rip laughed.
"I got mine back once." Our guest blushed when he said that.
"Nineteen fifty-two," he admitted with a chuckle, and we all relaxed into ourselves again.
We had coffee and pineapple pie with a walnut crust, and Rip and his mentor shifted into male conversational neutral–sports–allowing me to retreat almost willingly to my kitchen chores.
I hoped Greg would take the opportunity to share a few more coping techniques with Rip; yet if another exchange of advice occurred, it was murmured in the hall just as our guest was departing. Rip nodded somberly, maybe because Greg's point had reached its target. Or maybe he was just putting on the elaborate good manners of somebody with an alcohol buzz.
The opportunity to fine tune my reading ended when Garry shouted, "Mom, I think the Browders are fighting again."
I shrugged to Rip then kissed our guest's cheek. "Good night, Greg," I said. "I better see what's up." Actually, I was pleased to give the men one last moment of privacy.
Our eleven-year-old waited for me in the family room. Already up to his sister's height, he stretched tall in his ski pajamas, his straight brown hair slicked down from his shower. Oversized bare feet extended from his narrow legs like the last pair God gave out–take 'em or leave ‘em. I couldn't tell whether he was distressed or titillated by our neighbors’ behavior.
"What made you say the Browders are fighting?" I asked.
"You playing newspaper reporter or what?"
Garry folded back down on the floor, elbows on a sofa cushion, legs waving in the air, the Tinkertoy version of a boy.
"I just thought I'd tell you. You're the one always interested in what everybody's doing."
"You must have me confused with Nana."
I tried to muss his hair, but he pulled away.
Arms folded as if keeping to myself, I glanced uphill out of the slightly opened window at the far right end of our house.
The arguing couple's spotlighted drive was about thirty yards away, just past another narrow drive leading back to Letty MacNair's. The trunk of Eunice Browder's black Mercedes sedan gaped open.
Suddenly Ms. Real Estate herself emerged from her kitchen door, flung two suitcases inside the car's spacious cavity then slammed the lid closed. Thirty seconds later she carried out a large cardboard box, which she loaded into the back seat. Slam, slam, good-bye Sam. The Mercedes hit forty as soon as Eunice aimed it out of Beech Tree Lane.
"Thought you weren't interested," Garry said.
"Wise guy," I teased. "It's a school night, buckaroo. Head on out." That would teach him to be so astute.
I wanted to touch my husband, to reassure myself. I wanted to talk about the disturbing scene I had just witnessed and to read in Rip's eyes that, like me, he didn't want that to happen to us.
Yet when I went back down the hall, he was gone. Not literally, thank God. He had closeted himself in the cramped room off the vestibule that we call his office. With his back toward the opened door, I could see him sending his troubles off into cyberspace.
He scrolled off the screen before my hands rested on his shoulders.
"What's really wrong?" I asked.
When he swiveled to look up at me, I saw that the wine glow had dimmed, leaving him weary.
"Nothing, babe," he lied. "Just little things."
"Okay," I said, but I was lying too.
NO BONES ABOUT IT
My only choices were a) admit defeat and phone Linda, my dog-trainer friend, or b) try my last idea.
The trouble was, Linda and her ex-husband Karl shared custody of a German shepherd named Tibor, a paragon of a dog who–if you believed his co-owners–could have written the Gettysburg address and delivered it, too. When Linda used him to demonstrate perfection at our be¬ginners’ class, the shepherd sneered as if he were Zeus gazing down from Olympus. How embarrassing would it be to confess that I can’t get our four-month-old Irish setter to do anything?
Initially, I did everything right–obtained a list of reputable breeders, called a few, asked lots of questions.
Then I did everything wrong. All we wanted was that silly Irish setter personality, not a living art object worth hundreds of dollars. So after school one day, my son Garry and I answered a local newspaper ad. A Lancaster-County farmer had bred his own two setters. He described them as “hunters” rather than show dogs and priced them accordingly. Both the man and his wife agreed that the puppies’ mother possessed a sweet, affectionate disposition, but his father was...husband and wife exchanged a glance. “We almost got rid of him,” said the woman. One more litter, said the husband’s nod. The condition of their living room conveyed that they needed the money. I cheerfully handed it over.
Driving out of their lane with our new family member snuggled in Garry’s lap, Daddy Dog pranced through the rain alongside our car, head held high like the champion he reputedly had been. Surely that glint in his eye was just pleasure over his freedom.
We named our little darling after the astonishing hockey player Wayne Gretzky, (a.k.a. The Great One), and soon learned that he had a prodigious capacity for affection. Unfortunately, he was also a scamp with an irritating sense of humor. Just this afternoon, when I wanted to relax with coffee and the morning paper, he barked at me for half an hour. He did not need to go out. He wasn’t hungry. Swatting him produced no effect. Ignoring him? No effect. Gretsky just wanted to see me jump through hoops for the fun of it.
“Okay,” I challenged. “We’ll see who’s Alpha Dog around here.”
I climbed up on the living room coffee table, put my hands on my hips, and barked right back at him.
Gretsky paused long enough to blink. Then he joined me in a ridiculous duet of opposing wills. I looked and sounded like a total idiot, but at least the kids were at Bryn Derwyn Academy’s day camp, where my husband Rip was, too, doing the zillion things headmasters do in the summer.
Since I was obviously failing as an Alplha Dog, I gave up. Gretsky kept barking, of course, and for a second, I experienced a pang of nostalgia for our previous Irish setter, Barney.
Barney and I had a rapport. If I so much as thought about walking him, he would shimmy with joy. When the kids’ bus was late, he would raise an eyebrow of concern. And the morning he bolted for the house next door, I knew for certain there was an emergency involving Letty MacNair, our reclusive older neighbor.
Unfortunately, Barney’s heart gave out shortly after that episode. All four of us Barneses cried for days.
We acquired Gretsky more as a diversion than a replacement. With time and luck, maybe that special rapport would come.
Meanwhile–aspirin. Gretsky had run off on his own silent mission, so I was free to rummage around in the kitchen junk drawer for two Bayer, which I downed with water straight from the tap.
Should I reach for a lifeline? Linda did say that anyone in the beginners’ class was free to call and discuss specific problems, so technically I wouldn’t be imposing upon our friendship. Of course, right that moment Gretsky seemed to be behaving himself.
Wrong. Our Great One scooted past me with something light blue in his mouth and his daddy’s glint in his eye.
My underwear! The little scamp had stolen a pair of my panties. Head throbbing, I set off after him.
We circled the living room coffee table. He zigged when I zagged. I lunged. With four legs to my two, a trot was enough to avoid my grasp.
Prancing lightly, knees up like a Lippizaner, he exited the living room and proceeded down the hallway past the kids’ bedrooms toward the added-on TV room just beyond.
“Come on, Gretsky, give,” I begged as I lumbered after him.
He glanced back on his way into the family room, where a sofa rose like an island centered in front of the television. We both knew he could do laps around it until I fell flat on my face.
After shutting the door behind us, I laid a wooden chair barrier-style between the back of the sofa and the bookcase.
Gretsky gracefully leaped over it on his way past.
I extracted a broom from the closet, planning to swipe the dog’s hip. Maybe he would hesitate long enough for me to retrieve my unmentionables.
The broom missed the dog’s rear by eighteen inches, but Gretsky’s eyebrows straightened with dismay. He oozed forward like Secretariat eying the stretch. I promised myself never to miss the clothes hamper again.
A fast glance and another leap over the chair.
Never mind keeping my sneakers off the upholstery, I climbed over the back of the sofa.
Gretsky faked right and bolted left. From my high position on the seat cushions I thrust the broom in front of the oncoming dog. He stopped just long enough to entice me to the floor, then rounded the broom, flew over the chair, and stood with his back to the wall like a gunfighter covering every option.
I flopped onto the sofa, arms folded over my heaving chest, and glared at him while I caught my breath.
Gretsky refused to meet my eye. Instead he sidled over to the door, which had bounced unlatched enough for him to nose his way out.
“Bad dog!” I shouted after him. As if he cared.
I rubbed the back of my neck and contemplated the phone resting on an end table. Linda really had invited her students to call anytime with questions.
“I think I need another private lesson,” I admitted as soon as the dog trainer and I had exchanged hello’s.
Her response was so uncharacteristic that my own problems fled from my mind.
“Sorry, Gin. I just...no. Sorry,” my friend told me with a quivering voice.
“What’s wrong?” I asked with apprehension.
Linda took a slow, ragged breath.
“Karl’s dead,” she said. “Tibor did it.”