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Last Scene Alive

Charlaine Harris

  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 wi
th 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. "

  "Right. "

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

  "Right. "

  "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 o
f coming out of her shell. Robin had left 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. . .

  I could sense sleep approaching now, could feel it stealing over me. I held onto the thought of Robin so I could slide under; if I looked directly at the sleep I needed, it would slip away. Tomorrow I'd check his picture in the magazine again, examine his hair for any signs of gray. I didn't have any yet, but when I spotted some, I'd have Bonita take care of it right away. . . .

  Perry and Lillian were in the library's employee lounge when I got to work, and their conversation ground to a guilty halt when I appeared. Lillian Schmidt beamed at me with her most insincere smile. Believe me, she's got quite a repertoire. Perry Allison just looked nervous, which was about par for the course for Perry. Perry is about half Lillian's age, bone thin and perpetually jumpy, while Lillian is as round and plain as a ball of coarse yarn. Perry, who's been in and out of mental facilities and drug treatment programs, is now on an even keel as long as he takes his medication. Lillian, with whom I have even less in common, is a self-centered member of a fundamentalist Christian church. These are my best work friends. Am I lucky? I stuffed my purse in one of the bright orange lockers while they covered the silence with a spate of chatter that wouldn't have deceived a reasonably intelligent child.

  "Good weather for this time of year," Lillian told Perry, who nodded his head in an alarming series of jerks.

  "Uh, Roe. We just want you to know we didn't know anything about that writer, or the article, or anything. " Perry was trying an ingratiating smile, but it was sliding off the other side of his face. Perry had a difficult life, and he didn't want me mad at him.

  "No, hon, we would've told you if we'd known a magazine writer was in the library. " Lillian's eyes were bright with excitement.

  For all her gusto in the situation, which was the way she was born, I really believed Lillian. For that matter, I believed Perry, who could be quite devious. Other librarians came and went, but we three had been yoked, somewhat off and on for. . . oh, seven or eight years.

  "Okay," I said mildly, but in such a way as to close the subject. They were probably telling the truth, but someone had talked to the writer, Marjory Bolton. I thought I could pin the betrayal on the shoulders of the aide who'd been fired last week for stealing from other employees. I was willing to bet she was already out of town and beyond reach. I suggested this to Perry and Lillian, and they jumped on the idea with enthusiasm.

  After a second or two of relaxing small talk, both put on their work faces and went through the door to the patron part of the library.

  The employee lounge was a large open room with a couple of tables and matching chairs, a small kitchen, and a large worktable in one corner where we repaired books and prepared new ones to be placed on the shelves. Then there was a half-wall with glass in the top, through which you could see Sam derrick's secretary's office. Sam's was firmly walled. His secretary wasn't at her desk, but I could see the lights in Sam's office were on. If he wanted to ask me about the article, he'd call me in. Otherwise, I knew he'd appreciate not being disturbed. Sam was a whiz with the budget, could apply for grants with one hand tied behind his back, and he was an absolutely sound administrator.

  But Sam was a dismal failure with people. Painfully aware of the fact, he tended to leave all the personnel interactions he possibly could to his secretary, a position he'd manufactured with some creative money managing. Though the job was only part-time, Patricia Bledsoe had made the most of it.

  She was coming in the back door now, dressed, as always, in painstakingly matched and ironed clothes. They weren't expensive clothes, but she had good conservative taste and was an ardent shoe polisher. Patricia - not Pat, or Patsy, or Trish - was somewhere around fifty, with skin the color of a Brach's caramel. Her hair was tamed into a short pageboy - not for Patricia the weaves and beads of more trendy African-Americans. Patricia didn't like nail polish, or dark lipstick, or high heels. Her teenager, Jerome, was not allowed to wear clothing sporting a visible brand name: no Nike, no Fubu, and no Reebok. There was a reason behind everything Patricia Bledsoe did, and if she'd ever acted spontaneously, it had been a long time ago in a galaxy far, far, away.

  Not too surprisingly, everyone depended on Patricia, but no one liked her very much. The great exception was Sam Clerrick, whom she guarded as though he was a wealthy industrial magnate.

  Patricia said, "Good morning, Ms. Teagarden. How are you today?" Her voice was as crisp as if it'd been in the vegetable drawer overnight.

  As always, I fought the terrible impulse to imitate her brisk enunciation. "I'm fine, thank you, Patricia. Did you see the magazine with the article about the movie?"

  Patricia knew what I was talking about since everyone in Lawrenceton had been buzzing about the movie company's arrival for weeks.

  "No, is there something new?" She waited politely for my answer, her beige sweater half-off. Today she was wearing a solid yellow camp shirt with a khaki skirt and yellow espadrilles. It was that kind of weather, cool in the morning and evening but still awfully hot during the day; the kind of Southern weather that makes you think summer will never, ever, be over.

  "People don't like to talk about it around me," I said matter-of-factly. "But as far as I could tell, the only thing that isn't common gossip around here is the name of the female lead, and the strange fact that there was someone in the library who was willing to talk to a reporter about me. I hate the idea that someone would do that without talking to me first," I told her.

  When her reaction came, it certainly wasn't one I'd been expecting.

  Patricia's face tensed. She froze for a beat, and then she finished shrugging off the sweater and sat in her rolling chair in front of her computer.

  "That does seem strange," she said, but it seemed to me that she was picking words out of the air at random. The secretary was deeply upset. In fact, she seemed suddenly afraid.
  I waited for a second more, but finally I knew that whatever comment Patricia had on news reporters, I wasn't going to hear it.

  She did ask me for the name of the magazine. When I told her, she just nodded in thanks and switched on her computer. I'd been dismissed. Her composure was back in place.

  Thinking of how perplexing Patricia was, I shrugged and left the staff area to start my working day in my favorite place in the whole world, the library. Any library would have done, but this one was dear to me because the shelves held some of my best friends. While I gathered the books that had come in through the after-hours book drop the night before, I puzzled over Patricia's odd reaction.

  It was the first time I'd felt curiosity in months. When I realized how refreshing it felt, I knew that it was good.

  Pushing a cart of books through the library, nodding to Mr. Harmon (who came in every morning to read the papers) , I had a flood of revelation. (What a time and place to review my life, past and future! But I suddenly realized that when I was alone, my life was the thing I worked hardest to avoid considering. )

  As I dislodged one of the cart's rollers from a worn spot in the heavy-duty carpeting, I understood - abruptly and very clearly - that my life had not been bad before I married Martin Bartell. Maybe it hadn't been what I expected, or what anyone would have predicted for me, but it had been livable, with enough surprises and bits of happiness to make it worthwhile and, above all, interesting.

  Grief was boring. This was a shallow thought about a deep subject, but it was a valid observation.

  When my loss had been fresh, passing every hour had been like hiking through a rocky terrain with a monster hiding behind every other boulder. I'd get my bank statement and remember Martin wasn't there to balance our checkbook anymore. I'd cry. I'd go to the grocery store and remember to get one chicken breast, not two. I'd suffer. There'd be no one in the house to share my day with, no one to take care of. That phase had been jagged, acute, draining, a shock wrapped around every daily occurrence. I missed Martin every day, every hour, sometimes every minute.

  But that era had faded, worn thin, and dissipated. Without noting it, I'd entered another phase. The past few months - say, the past six - had been like slogging through a gray swamp. I'd been too exhausted to even open my eyes and look around me. I had routinely forgotten whole conversations, complete transactions, significant events. Nothing had seemed important but my loss.

  Right now, just at this split second, I fully comprehended for a fact that my life would go on and there would be things in it I would enjoy.

  For the first time, that didn't seem like a betrayal of Martin. Though he'd been the picture of health and his death had been the worst kind of shock, I'd always been aware of the fact that he was fifteen years older than me -¬†¬†that probably, in the natural course of things, I'd have some living to do without him. Events had taken an unnatural course, but the result was the same.

  I was getting sniffly, so I concentrated really hard on checking in the books, getting them back to the shelves, returning the cart to its designated spot. Perry and Lillian were always very obviously tactful when my eyes looked red, God bless them, and they were again today.