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Last Scene Alive at-7

Charlaine Harris

  Last Scene Alive

  ( Aurora Teagarden - 7 )

  Charlaine Harris

  Charlaine Harris

  Last Scene Alive

  Chapter One

  When I stopped at the end of the driveway to extract my letters and magazines from the mailbox, I never imagined that in five minutes I'd be sitting at my kitchen table reading an article about myself. But my entertainment magazine had had a fascinating teaser on the cover: "Crusoe's Book Comes to the Screen (Finally)—WHIMSICAL MURDERS Goes On Location." It had taken me only seconds to flip pages to the article, which was faced by a full-page picture of my former friend Robin Crusoe, his long frame folded into a chair behind a desk piled high with books. Then, with a much deeper sensation of shock, I realized that, in a green-shaded sidebar, the small woman walking to her car, head down, was me. Not surprisingly, I decided to read the sidebar first.

  "It was a strangely jolting experience to see Aurora Teagarden in the flesh," began the writer, one Marjory Bolton.

  Strangely jolting, my tushy.

  "The diminutive librarian, whose courage and perspicuity led to the discovery of the serial killers terrorizing Lawrenceton, Georgia, is no recluse."

  Why would I be?

  "Though only in her thirties, she's experienced more excitement than most women have in their lifetimes," I read, "and though she became a widow last November, Aurora Teagarden could pass for someone ten years her junior." Well, I kind of liked that. I could see the end of my thirties if I looked real hard. I wasn't looking.

  "She comes to work at the Lawrenceton Library every day, driving her new Chevy." Would I drive someone else's? "Modest in dress and demeanor, Teagarden hardly appears to be the independently wealthy woman she is." Why would I wear designer originals (an inexplicable waste of money anyway) to my job at the library? This was absurdity.

  I skimmed the remaining paragraphs, hoping to see something that made sense. Actually, I wouldn't have minded another reference to my youthful appearance. But no. "Though Teagarden refused to let the filmmakers use her name, the main female character in the script is widely held to be based on her persona. Teagarden's mother, Aida Queensland, a multimillion-dollar real estate salesperson, attributes her daughter's distancing herself from the project to Teagarden's aversion to the memories the incidents left and to Teagarden's deeply religious heritage."

  I brought the cordless phone into the kitchen and hit an auto-dial number. "Mother, did you tell this Marjory Bolton that I came from a ‘deeply religious heritage'?" We hadn't even settled on the Episcopal Church until Mother had married John Queensland.

  My mother had the grace to sound a little embarrassed as she said, "Good evening, Aurora. She asked me if we went to church, and I said yes."

  I read through the paragraph again. "And you told her you were a multimillion-dollar real estate broker?"

  "Well, I am. And I thought I might as well get in a plug for the business."

  "Like you needed it!"

  "Business could always be better. Besides, I'm trying to get into the best position for selling the firm. One of these days I'm going to retire."

  It wasn't the first time in the past couple of months Mother had said something about selling Select Realty. Since John had had a heart attack, my mother had cut back on her work hours. Apparently, she'd also begun to think about how much longer she wanted to work.

  Two years ago, I'd have sworn she'd die while she was showing a house, but now I knew better. She'd gotten a wake-up call.

  "Listen to this," I said. " ‘Ms. Teagarden, close friend of rising power-that-be Cartland Sewell, may have political plans. Some insiders regard her as a power behind the scenes in area politics.' Who on earth could've told them that? What a bunch of..."

  "Aurora!" Mother warned.

  "Codswallop," I finished. It was a word I'd never had occasion to say out loud before.

  "I'm sure it was Bubba himself," Mother said. She was more politically astute without trying than I would be if I had a fully briefed advisor.

  "Really?" Even I could hear the wonderment in my voice.

  She sighed. "I hope you never remotely consider running for office or backing any candidate you really want to win," she advised me. "And I've got to try to remember to call him Cartland. After calling him Bubba for forty years, Cartland is a mouthful. He seems to think he has a better chance of getting elected if he goes by his christened name."

  Well, I might not be politically astute like Bubba Sew-ell—excuse me, Cartland Sewell—but I could see that even my own mother had had a self-serving reason for contributing a quote to a completely unwanted, unnecessary magazine article about me.

  "Have you finished the whole article?" Mother asked, and her voice had taken on some anxiety.

  "No." That sounded ominous. I skipped over the last part of the sidebar, the part where my friend Angel Young-blood had shoved the photographer, and returned to the main body of the article, the reason for the revival of interest in yours truly.

  "After a long and frustrating wait, the grisly tale of the murders upon which Robin Crusoe's book WHIMSICAL DEATH was based is coming to the small screen as a two-part miniseries. Filmmakers hope for a more successful pairing of true-crime book and movie than Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Crusoe's sojourn in Hollywood has made him skeptical of the result. T don't know how the natives of Lawrenceton will feel about the job we're doing,‘ Crusoe admitted. 'I plan to be there for the location shoot.‘ Crusoe has another reason to be on the scene; he's the constant companion of actress Celia Shaw, who will play the Teagarden character."

  I flipped the page, just hoping. Yep, there it was—a small shot of Robin and Celia Shaw at some movie premiere party. Celia had done an Emmy-winning guest stint on ER as a sexually addicted med student, and in this picture she and Robin were whooping it up with three of the cast members. My mouth dropped open. It was one thing to have known for the past several years that Robin was in Hollywood, writing his mystery novels from there while he touted the screenplay of his book, but it was another thing entirely to see him being Hollywood.

  I examined Celia Shaw's face, the size of a fingernail, with a fascination I found hard to explain to myself. Of course, she really didn't look much like me, even like the Aurora of a few years ago. She was short, and she had notable cleavage, and her eyes were brown; those were the only points of similarity. Her face was narrower, her lips were plumper, and she had more of a nose. (I could hardly be said to have a nose at all.) And, of course, she wasn't wearing glasses. She was wearing a dress I wouldn't even have given a second glance to as I flicked through a rack. It was deep emerald green, had a sequined top, and plunged low.

  I glanced down at my own cleavage, modestly covered by the tobacco brown twin set I'd worn to work over khakis. I'd look good in that dress (I told myself loyally), but I'd be uncomfortable the entire time.

  Not that I could imagine going to any occasion where that dress would be appropriate. A few Lawrencetonians mixed in Atlanta society, as our small town came closer and closer to being absorbed in the urban sprawl of the South's great city, but I was not one of them; nor had I ever wanted to be.

  I'd never really enjoyed the social functions I had to attend or arrange as Martin's wife, and they'd been relatively modest. As the head of the large Pan-Am Agra plant, Martin had had many obligations, only some of them related to actually running the plant.

  When I looked back on the two years we'd been married, the evenings seemed a blur of entertaining higher-ups from out of town, potential customers, and representatives from the bigger accounts. We'd been invited to every charity event in Lawrenceton, and not a few in Atlanta. I'd bought the appropriate clothes, worn them, and smiled
through it all, but those social evenings hadn't been much fun. Coming home with Martin had been the good part.

  Coming home with Martin had been worth every minute of that social tedium.

  And with that memory, the heaviness I carried inside me every moment of every day came crashing back down. I actually felt the misery descend.

  Until I'd thought about the article, been distracted for a few minutes, I hadn't realized how grievous a burden I was carrying: it was the weight of my widowhood.

  As abruptly as it had engaged my interest, the magazine article repelled me. There would be strangers swarming around my hometown, strangers who were interested in me without caring about me. All the horror of those old deaths would be raked up. At least a few townspeople would be made miserable, as the deaths of their loved ones were reenacted for the titillation of whomever had a television set. There was no way to stop this from happening, apparently—no way to keep the curtain of privacy drawn around me. Already, in a national magazine, I was being depicted as mysterious, odd, and somewhat boring.

  I didn't want this movie to be made, and I didn't want those people here.

  As I'd thought, there were a few people in Lawrenceton who were as glum as I was over the prospect of entertaining a film company. One of them was the aforementioned Bubba—excuse me, Cartland—Sewell's wife, my friend Lizanne. Her parents were among the victims of the pair of serial killers who had caused us all tremendous grief. Lizanne, too, had read the magazine article, I discovered later that evening.

  Lizanne said, "Roe, I imagine Bubba's boosterism got in the way of his common sense." Beautiful Lizanne has always been a tranquil woman, resolutely uninvolved in any town intrigues, and for the past two years her attention had been narrowly focused on her children, two boys she'd named Brandon and Davis. Brandon was eighteen months old, and Davis had just turned three months, so Lizanne had her hands full. In the course of our choppy telephone conversation, we were constantly interrupted. Bubba, Lizanne told me, was at a bar association meeting. I fumed at not being able to speak my mind to Bubba, but I would have settled for a nice chat with Lizanne. But in five minutes, Brandon's shrieking and the wails of the baby reached such a peak that Lizanne excused herself.

  While I washed my few dishes that cool October evening, I found myself wondering which of the unfamiliar faces in the library in recent weeks had belonged to the magazine writer. You'd think a writer for an L.A.-based entertainment weekly would have stood out like a sore thumb in our library. But the dress of our culture has become so universal, it isn't as easy to spot outsiders as it used to be.

  It struck me as particularly nasty that this woman had been able to come and stare at me and dissect me, while I'd been totally unaware. She'd said I'd turned down a request for an interview. That was so automatic that I actually might not have remembered it. But how could I have been oblivious to the fact that I was under observation? I must have been even more preoccupied than I'd thought.

  Being a widow was a full-time occupation, at least emotionally.

  Everyone (that is, my mother and her husband John, and most of my friends) had expected me to move back into town after my husband's death. Our house, a gift to me from Martin when we'd married, was a little isolated, and too large for one person. But from my point of view, I'd loved the man and I loved my home. I couldn't lose both at once.

  So I stayed in the house that had been known for years as the Julius house. When Martin had given it to me, I'd renovated it from the bottom up, and I kept it up well, though now I had to have more help in that keeping. Shelby Youngblood, Angel's husband and a close friend of my husband's, had offered to come out and do the mowing, but I'd turned him down gently. I knew Shelby, with his own yard and house and baby, had plenty to do when he had a couple of days off work. I'd hired a yard service to do most of the heavier work, but every now and then I got out and put in bedding plants, or trimmed the roses.

  With less justification than the yard service, I'd also hired a maid. Martin had always wanted me to have help in the house, but I'd felt perfectly capable of taking care of the house and cooking, though I was working at least part-time most of our marriage. Now, oddly, I was seized with the determination that the house should always look immaculate. It was as if I was going to show it to a prospective buyer any moment. I had even cleaned out all the closets. Where my new passion for absolute order and cleanliness had come from, why it possessed me, I could not tell you. The maid (whose identity kept changing—at the moment it was a heavy older woman named Catherine Quick) came in once a week and did all the heavy cleaning—the bathrooms, the kitchen, the dusting, and the vacuuming—while I did everything else. I didn't suffer a smudge on the kitchen floor or an unwashed sock. Even though only one upstairs bedroom, the downstairs study, one bathroom, and the kitchen were in any kind of regular use, I kept this regimen up month after month.

  I guess I was a little crazy: or, since I could afford a slightly kinder word, eccentric.

  As I trudged up the stairs to go to bed that night, I wondered, for the first time, if keeping the house hadn't been a mistake.

  Opening the bedroom door still gave me a little shock. One thing I had changed, a couple of months after Martin died, was our bedroom. Once fairly masculine and centered around the king-sized bed, now the big room was peach and ivory and fawn, the bed was a queen, and the furniture was more ornate. Atop the chest of drawers, there was a picture of Martin and me at our wedding. That picture was all that was bearable.

  I looked at it for a long moment as I pulled off my rings and put them in a pile in front of the frame. I added my watch to the little heap before I climbed into the high bed and switched on the lamp, stretching a little further to reach the switch to flick off the overhead light. I picked up the book I was reading (though for months I hadn't remembered a word of any book I read) and had completed just a page when the telephone rang. I glanced at the clock and frowned.

  "Yes?" I said curtly into the receiver.

  "Roe?" The voice was familiar, tentative and masculine.

  "Who is this?" I asked.

  "Ahhhh... it's Robin?"

  "Oh, great. Just the guy I wanted to talk to," I said, my voice saturated with sarcasm. But way down deep, I found I was really glad to hear his voice.

  "You've seen the article. Listen, I didn't write that article, and I didn't know it was going to be in the magazine, and I had nothing to do with it."


  "I mean, it's good pre-publicity for the movie, but I didn't arrange it."


  "So, at least, you already know I'm coming back to Lawrenceton?"

  "Yes." If I could stick to one syllable at a time, I might be able to restrain myself. The anger had definitely dominated that little spurt of pleasure.

  "The thing is, no matter what the article said about me and Celia, I want to see you again."

  To see how I'd aged, how I'd changed? Not for the better, I was sadly aware.

  "I heard," Robin said into my silence, "you have a house out in the country now. I hope you'll let me visit you."

  "No," I said, and hung up. It didn't really make a difference to which statement I was responding. "No," covered just about everything. Maybe, two years ago, I would have been appalled at my own rudeness. Somehow, marriage and widowhood had given me the indifference to be rude—at least from time to time.

  I lay awake in the darkness for a while, thinking over the implications of Robin's call. Was he truly hoping to renew our friendship? I didn't know why; maybe he just wanted me to be fodder for the camera. Or maybe he was just calling because Celia Shaw had told him to call. I didn't like to think of the very young actress leading Robin around by his... nose.

  Surely Robin was counting on finding the old Aurora: the one who, in her late twenties, had just discarded her high school wardrobe for something more adult; the one who was just learning to say what she thought; the one who was just on the verge of coming out of her shell. Robin had le
ft town before that process had gotten up a head of steam.

  Across the fields, my neighbor Clement Farmer's dog Robert began to bark—at the moon, at a coon, at a wandering cat or derelict dog... who knew? Robert (short for Robert E. Lee) had a barking episode just about every night. I didn't mind, this once; the noise was company for my thoughts.

  I found myself wondering how Robin himself had changed. I remembered meeting Robin when he'd moved into the row of townhouses I managed for Mother. I figured that when I'd met Robin, I'd been twenty-nine. Now I'd turned thirty-six. Why, Robin must be forty!

  When he first moved to the coast, he'd called me a lot, telling me this and that. His book had gone through three title changes, he'd had trouble getting some of the relatives of the victims and the murderers to talk to him, and one deal had been discarded in favor of another. He'd gone out to California with his agent, and I was pretty sure they'd been more to each other than agent and client but, somewhere along the way, that relationship had changed. His book, finally titled Whimsical Murder, had been finished while he was in California.

  I'd been angry with him, even then. I'd always hated the idea of a book about the crimes in Lawrenceton. I'd tried to understand his need to write the book, the conviction he'd had that this was the book that would "make" his career. Well, it had. Robin's fiction had all been reprinted in matching paperbacks, Whimsical Murder had been on the best-seller list for months, and the paperback was poised to be on the stands the week the movie opened.

  My eyes fluttered shut, for just a second of sweet oblivion. My anger against Robin slid off my mind, replaced with a more familiar melancholy.

  He'd been living in Hollywood, swimming with the sharks, off and on for the past few years. I would seem even more naive and provincial to Robin now. I'd had a certain amount of awe for him when we met, because he'd been a fairly well-known mystery writer, teaching a writer-in-residence course at a college in Atlanta. I thought of the day I'd gone into the city to meet him for lunch... I'd worn that ivory blouse with the green ivy pattern...