There was only one car in the parking lot on Saturday morning when Suze McDougal's baby-blue Beetle lurched to a stop outside Sacred Balance Studio.
Quel perfecto, Suze thought, as her Volkswagen sputtered and died beside Diantha's battered Volvo. This was working out even better than she'd planned. It was nearly forty-five minutes before the Sunrise Yoga class, and Diantha was already inside. It was now or never.
Suze caught her reflection in the rearview mirror, and-remembering Jennifer Stevenson's crack about looking like Dopey-licked her fingers and tried to paste her cowlick down. She took a couple of deep calming breaths-it wouldn't do to show up breathless and flushed when she was trying to demonstrate how worthy she was to train others on achieving spiritual insight and tranquility through the ancient discipline of yoga.
Sliding out from behind the wheel, she grabbed her gym bag and locked the door. The New Jersey September morning air was crisp and invigorating despite the chill. The ancient pine trees leaning precariously over the new building that housed Sacred Balance Studio threw the parking lot in deep shade.
Diantha Mason had waged battle to keep those pine trees intact-even threatening to pull out of escrow if the new location for Sacred Balance Studio was going to mean the demise of the evergreen giants. She had not won friends over her tree-hugging stance. That was nothing new; she had won the battle to preserve the surrounding trees. That was nothing new either. Diantha won all her battles. That was one of the things Suze most admired about her.
She checked as something stirred along the edge of the lot. A fat possum with a long pink tail waddled out of the shadows and headed fearlessly for the trash dumpster at the far end. It must be an insomniac possum, Suze thought. She had never seen one in the daylight, though she had seen plenty of other critters. Diantha was as fierce a protector of the local fauna as she was the local flora-and their woodland neighbors seemed to know it. On more than one occasion squirrels, rabbits and even a timber rattlesnake had found their way into the new building on the outskirts of town.
Chuckling, Suze continued up the front steps. The glass doors were unlocked, which did not surprise her. As more staff and more classes were added, the studio rarely closed. Suze had overheard Diantha telling Lily, her protégé, that the ultimate goal was to turn Sacred Balance into a kind of twenty-four hour spiritual community center. Lily had been oddly unenthusiastic, but then Lily had not been her usual self for some weeks. In fact, Suze had overheard the two instructors arguing Wednesday evening. Weeell, if Lily was falling from favor, it just might work to other people's advantage.
Inside the building the lights were all on, which did give Suze a moment's pause. Diantha was very conscious about not wasting natural resources-or money. The entire building had been fitted out in full spectrum lighting, which made it about ten times more expensive to maintain; so Diantha was kind of a grouch about people leaving lights on after hours.
There was no response. In fact, the building seemed eerily silent. She could practically hear the potted plants photosynthesizing. Her eyes flicked to the vintage black and white art posters of women frozen in yoga positions-they seemed to be listening too. It Could Happen read the caption at the bottom of the posters. It was Diantha's motto, the slogan of the entire staff and students.
Suze shrugged away the flash of unease and kicked off her shoes. She stuffed her bag into one of the empty cubbies.
Even now Diantha was probably brewing her morning green tea in her office, one of her soothing James Asher CDs playing softly in the background. Suze tried to visualize Diantha inviting her in for a chat and a cup of tea, but the picture wouldn't quite come. Still, maybe once Suze confided her ambition and somehow convinced Diantha that she was serious, that she was ready. Heck, she'd given up fast food, hadn't she? And she'd cut up her credit cards-well, most of them-that had to mean something.
It could happen.
She swiped at her cowlick one last time before heading for the stretching room.
As she passed Diantha's office, she called out in what she hoped was a serene voice (she didn't want Diantha to accuse her of “screeching” again).
The low lights bathed the stretching room in golden luminescence. The wall of mirrors reflected the tawny sheen of the polished hardwood floors. Suze's eyes took a moment to adjust.
She froze in the doorway, recognizing Diantha lying spread out in the “corpse” position, the final relaxation pose of a good yoga session. Diantha seemed to barely breathe, her body as still as though she were in a trance, unaware of Suze or the outside world. But then no one had the control or focus of Diantha. Back in the 1960s she had studied in India with the most respected of the yogis.
Careful not to intrude by so much as a stare, Suze tip-toed in a wide arc around Diantha. Across the room she self-consciously seated herself on her mat, folding her legs into the lotus position. She inhaled slowly, exhaled evenly.
She was doing a lovely job of it, too, breathing deeply in and deeply out-her exhalations were a thing of mint-scented beauty.
Several minutes of this passed with no comment from Diantha. Could she really be observing Suze, evaluating her performance? Shit. Er-shoot. She'd never had this kind of attention from Diantha before.
Suze continued to breathe in and out. She began to feel light-headed. Instead of the calm of mind and body she was laboring for, she was tense, waiting for that familiar English drawl to cut the silence. It really wasn't like Diantha to keep quiet for so long.
Oh no. What if she had walked out? She moved like a cat; Suze might not have heard her leave.
She cracked one eye open.
Diantha lay motionless on her mat.
Suze's breathing slowed, she stared. Diantha was so still, her chest didn't seem to move at all. Her face was turned away.
Cautiously, Suze got to her feet. She tip-toed a few feet closer to where Diantha lay. Not a flicker of awareness from the older woman. Suze cleared her throat.
In the golden light of the stretching room, Diantha's skin looked as grey as her close cropped hair.
Reluctantly, Suze stepped forward to see her face.
What she saw had her sucking in her breath in an unapproved fashion before letting it out in a long, blood-curdling scream…
A.J.'s cell phone was ringing….
But then her cell phone was always ringing. Actually, it was more of a chirp than an actual ring. It sounded cute and friendly, like she had a pet bird in the pocket of her Versace pantsuit, but lately A.J. Alexander had come to hate the sound of her cell phone.
Maybe that wasn't the ideal reaction from an up and coming freelance marketing consultant trying to make it in the cut-throat world of big league promotion, but more and more, A.J. found herself resenting the electronic leash, resenting being on call twenty-four seven to people with more money than talent or good sense. Where had all her energy and enthusiasm gone?
“Wonderful party!” gushed a woman in a gigantic black hat. Did she think she was at Ascot or a funeral? “I was wondering…could we talk?”
Ah, a prospective client. Again A.J. was struck by her own lack of eagerness. This was her bread and butter, but she just wasn't hungry anymore.
She nodded, still smiling at the woman in black, and reached into her pocket.
“I just have to….”
“Oh, of course!” Of course. Everyone understood that people dialing-in came before the physically present.
A.J. flipped open her cell with a practiced flick of the wrist, like one of the world-weary crew of the Starship Enterprise who had been there, done that-and killed whatever got in her way.
“A.J. here,” she said crisply, offering a fleeting apologetic smile as she turned a shoulder on her perspective client. Why did women kid themselves that baggy clothes were effective camouflage for a weight problem? That dress made the poor thing look like a baby buffalo.
“Is this Anna Jolie Alexander?” The voice was male and unfamiliar. But what really registered with A.J. was the fact that he knew her full name. Not many people knew her full name-she took a lot of trouble to keep it that way.
“This is Detective Jake Oberlin of the Stillbrook Police Department.”
Stillbrook? Aunt Di. This was something to do with Aunt Di.
“Ma'am, I've got some bad news.”
Yes, the bad news was that she had reached a point in life where men called her “Ma'am.” Then his title registered. A detective? A cop? This was not good. Something not good had happened to Aunt Di.
Please don't let this not good thing be really bad thing. Please….
“What is it?”
Detective Oberlin's deep voice seemed to drop another octave or so. A.J. pressed the phone closer to her ear, closing her eyes, trying to focus on the words.
No. That couldn't be right. It was hard to hear in the crowded room. She started walking, brushing through the ribbon tails of the balloons pressing against the low ceiling of the room like orange cloud cover.
A.J. pushed open the nearest glass door and stepped outside onto the rain-slick sidewalk. Cars passed, tires hissing on the wet streets, but the rush of Manhattan traffic was soothing compared to the din inside the restaurant.
“Sorry. I didn't hear what you said.”
There was a pause and the detective said carefully, “I'm afraid I have bad news regarding a Miss Diantha Mason.”
“Aunt Di?” Miss. Aunt Di would hate that. She always insisted on “Ms.”
“Your name came up as her next of kin. You and a Mrs. Eliza Alexander. We've been unable to reach Mrs. Alexander. Looks like she lives overseas.”
“Elysia Alexander,” A.J. said. “My mother. Aunt Di's sister.” She managed to stop herself from explaining that her mum chose to live most of the year in London only occasionally staying at the New Jersey farm where they had spent most summers when A.J. was growing up. What did this unknown cop care where Elysia lived or what the relationship was? She was just stalling. She was just putting off the inevitable moment when she had to deal with whatever this bad news was. Because somehow she knew what the bad news was. She could feel it in her gut like a lump of cold snow.
A laughing couple pushed out through the glass doors and A.J. smiled with bright insincerity in their direction. “So what's happened?” she said tersely into the phone.
“There's been an accident,” Detective Oberlin said slowly and carefully. “I regret to have to tell you that your aunt is dead.”
She had been bracing herself for something like this, but it still felt like someone had knocked her down on the sidewalk.
“That's not possible,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
He said very patiently, which told her that everyone asked this same question, “Yes. I'm sorry, but there's no mistake.”
“How did it happen? When did it happen?”
“We don't have the coroner's report yet, but she was found strangled at -” His voice fell away for a moment as though he had turned from the phone.
“You said it was an accident? How is that an accident? You mean, she was murdered? Is that what you're trying to say? Is that what you're trying to tell me?”
He intoned, “Well, if I could get a word in, that's pretty much what I would have to say.”
A.J. held the phone away from her as though trying to see through the lit up screensaver of She-Ra, Princess of Power. This yokel cop dared to be smartassed about her beloved aunt's death?
Thank God. Thank God she could vent her rage on this jerk because that gave her time, time to avoid dealing with pain, with grief, with loss.
“Who's in charge there?” she snapped. “I want to talk to someone in charge. Listen, Detective Overload or whatever the hell your name is, maybe this is routine for you. Maybe it never occurred to you that-”
“I apologize, ma'am,” Detective Oberlin said, his deep, calm voice slicing through her rising hysteria. “I realize that may have sounded insensitive.”
A.J. opened her mouth but all that came out was a little croaking sound.
Just as though she had said something quite intelligent, Detective Oberlin said, “We can talk more once you get here.”
“Do you know who did this?” she managed finally. “Do you have the person who…killed my aunt?”
“We haven't made an arrest.”
“But you have a suspect?”
“Like I said, we can talk in depth once you get here.”
Yes, of course. She would have to drive up to Hicksville to make the…arrangements. She would have to take charge now. She would have to be the adult. She would have to phone her mother.
Of all the discoveries of the past ten minutes, that was nearly the most shattering of all.
* * * * *
Her phone began to chirp again as she hailed a passing taxi. Her client, Devorah Volvic, was probably wondering what had happened to her. A.J. let it go to message and climbed inside the cab. She couldn't deal with Devorah right now. She couldn't seem to think past the shock of her aunt's death.
Not just death. Murder.
It made the tragedy all the more terrible. Who would do such a thing? Why? It was so unbelievable. It was surreal. Murder did not happen to people like Diantha Mason. It just…didn't.
She shivered, despite the curry-scented heat of the taxi. She realized she had left her raincoat at the restaurant. The launch party seemed like a lifetime ago.
Her phone rang again. Automatically she checked the number. A number that was as familiar as her own-because it used to be her own: Andy. She swallowed hard and hit receive.
“Sweetheart, I just heard.” Andy's voice was warm with sympathy and concern. “It's unbelievable. I just can't get my head around it. Are you all right?”
For a weird moment she considered pretending that she didn't know what he was talking about, letting him flail and flounder as he faced trying to break the dreadful news himself. Instead, she said huskily, “Thanks.”
“What do you need? What can I do?”
That was why Andy was hard to hate. He was so goddamned nice. Even when he was destroying her life he had tried to handle it in the most considerate way possible.
“How did you hear?” she asked.
“Some cop called here looking for you, and for a minute or two I sort of let him think we were still married.”
A.J. laughed without humor.
“Don't call me sweetheart,” she bit out.
“Sorry. A.J., tell me what I can do.”
“You can call Mother. She'll take it better coming from you.”
She was not serious, of course, although the truth was that Elysia would take the news better from him. A.J. was pretty sure her mother had not been totally joking when she asked to be part of Andy's half of the divorce settlement.
“She already knows,” Andy said. “I just got off the phone with her. Apparently your aunt's lawyer called her this morning-kind of a breach of etiquette, but your mother does have that effect on people.”
That was one of the effects. Suicidal urges was another.
A.J. tried to focus as Andy ran on. “She's catching the first flight out of Heathrow. She should be arriving at Liberty International tomorrow morning. I have her flight info.”
A.J. knew that the rush of resentment she felt was unreasonable-even childish. Of course Elysia was coming home, and there was no reason why she shouldn't communicate the details through Andy. She could have tried to call A.J. and been unable to reach her.
It could happen.
She tuned back in to hear Andy asking, “Did you want me to take Lula Mae while you're away?”
Lula Mae was the four-footed feline thug that A.J. roomed with. She and Andy had found Lula Mae abandoned in an alley when she was a few weeks old, on their way home from a revival screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's.
“I thought what's-his-name was allergic to cats?”
Andy said quietly, “His name is Nick, and he's fine with taking her for a few days-or however long it takes. Did you want to drop her off or shall I come and get her?”
“You can come and get her. I'm not going over there, that's for damn sure.”
There was a sharp silence filled for A.J. by the shushing of tires on wet pavement and the rattle of a window loose in its frame.
“Why won't you at least meet him?”
“I have met him, remember? Twice. Once would have been enough. We're not going to be friends; we're not going to be one big happy family; it's not like it is on the sitcoms, so get over it.”
“Have it your way,” Andy said curtly. “Anything else I can do?”
She opened her mouth, but then let it go. What a bitch she was turning into. Unhappiness did that to you.
“There is something, if you're serious. I left my coat and my client at the 212 Restaurant in Manhattan. We were in the middle of her book launch when I got the call.”
“You want me to smooth the client down?”
“I want my coat.”
“You've got it,” Andy said. “I'll see you in about an hour.”
A.J. started to click off, but Andy was still hanging on the line, not speaking. The hair prickled at the nape of her neck.
“What is it?”
He said hesitantly, “We can talk when I get there, but maybe you should think about speaking to a lawyer.”
“A lawyer? Why?”
“I just got the impression talking to that cop that…um…he…the police, that is…consider you a suspect.”