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Three Bedrooms, One Corpse

Charlaine Harris

  My career as a real estate salesperson was short and unofficial, but not uneventful. It started in the lobby of Eastern National Bank at nine-thirty on a weekday morning with my mother glancing at her tiny, expensive gold watch.

  "I can't make it," she said with controlled savagery. A person who couldn't manage her appointments was inefficient in my mother's estimation, and to find herself coming up short in that respect was almost intolerable. Of course, her dilemma was not her fault.

  "It's those Thompsons," she said furiously, "always late! They should have been here forty-five minutes ago! Late for their own house closing!" She stared down at her tiny elegant watch as if she could change its reading by the force of her will. Her slim crossed legs were jiggling with impatience, one navy pump-shod foot swinging back and forth. When she got up, there might be a hole in the bank's ersatz oriental carpeting.

  I sat beside her in the chair I would vacate for Mrs. Thompson, when and if she showed up. A couple standing up Aida Brattle Teagarden Queensland for their own house closing was simply amazing; the Thompsons were gutsy, or so rich they wore an impervious armor of self-assurance.

  "What are you going to be late for?" I was eyeing her crossed legs enviously. My own legs will never be long enough to be elegant. Actually, my feet couldn't even touch the floor. I waved at two people I knew in the time it took my mother to answer. Lawrenceton was like that. I'd lived in this small Georgia town all my life, and figured I'd be here forever; sooner or later, I'd join my great- grandparents in Shady Rest Cemetery. Most days that gave me a warm, fluid feeling; just part of that ole Southern river of life.

  Some days it made me crazy.

  "The Bartells. He's come in from Illinois as plant manager of Pan-Am Agra, they're looking for a `really nice home,' and we have an appointment to see the Anderton house. Actually, they've been here, or he's been here, I didn't get the details--he's been here for three months living in a motel while he gets things lined up at Pan-Am Agra, and now he has the leisure to house-hunt. And he asked around for the best realtor in town. And he called me, last night. He apologized beautifully for disturbing me at home, but I don't think he was really a bit sorry. I know the Greenhouses were thinking they would get him, since Donnie's cousin is his secretary. And I'm going to be late. "

  "Oh," I said, now understanding the depths of Mother's chagrin. She had a star listing and a star client, and being late for introducing one to the other was a professional disaster.

  Getting the Anderton house listing had been a real coup in this smallish town with no multiple-listing service. If Mother could sell it quickly, it would be a feather in her cap (as if her cap needed any more adornment) and of course a hefty fee. The Anderton house might truthfully be called the Anderton mansion. Mandy Anderton, now married and living in L. A. , had been a childhood acquaintance of mine, and I'd been to a few parties at her house. I remembered trying to keep my mouth closed so I wouldn't look so impressed.

  "Listen," said Mother with sudden resolution, "you're going to meet the Bartells for me. "


  She scanned me with business eyes, rather than mother eyes. "That's a nice dress; that rust color is good on you. Your hair looks okay today, and the new glasses are very nice. And I love your jacket. You take this fact sheet and run along over there--please, Aurora?" The coaxing tone sat oddly on my mother, who looked like Lauren Bacall and acted like the very successful realtor/broker she is.

  "Just show them around?" I asked, taking the fact sheet hesitantly and sliding forward to the edge of the blue leather chair. My gorgeous brand-new rust-and-brown suede pumps finally met the floor. I was dressed so discreetly because today was the third day I'd followed Mother around, supposedly learning the business while studying for my realtor's license at night. Actually, I'd spent the time daydreaming. I would much rather have been looking for my own house. But Mother had pointed out cleverly that if I was in the office, I'd get first chance at almost any house that came up for sale.

  Meeting the Bartells might be more interesting than observing Mother and the banker going through the apparently endless paperwork-and-signature minuet that concludes a house sale. "Just till I get there," my mother said. "You're not a licensed realtor, so you can't be showing them the house. You're just there to open the door and be pleasant until I get there. Please explain the situation to them, just enough to let them know it's not my fault I'm late. Here's the key. Greenhouse Realty showed the house yesterday, but one of them must have given it to Patty early this morning; it was on the key board when I checked. "

  "Okay," I said agreeably. Not showing a rich couple a beautiful house was bound to be much more entertaining than sitting in a bank lobby.

  I stuffed my paperback into my purse, put the Anderton key on my key ring, and kept a safe grip on the fact sheet.

  "Thanks," Mother said suddenly.

  "Sure. "

  "You really are pretty," she said unexpectedly. "And all the new clothes you bought are so much better than your old wardrobe. "

  "Well. . . thanks. "

  "Since Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio was in that movie, your hair seems to strike people as fashionable rather than unmanageable. And," she went on in an unprecedented burst of candor, "I've always envied you your boobs. "

  I grinned at her. "We don't look like mother and daughter, do we?"

  "You look like my mother, not me. She was an amazing woman. "

  My mother had stunned me twice in one morning. Talking about the past was something she just didn't do. She lived in the here and now.

  "Are you feeling okay?" I asked nervously.

  "Yes, fine. I just noticed a little more gray this morning. "

  "We'll talk later. I'd better get going. "

  "Goodness, yes! Get over there!" Mother had looked at her watch again.


  Luckily I'd met Mother at the bank instead of going with her from the office, so I had my own car. I got to the Anderton mansion in plenty of time to park to one side so my practical little car wouldn't mar the view from the curb. Two months ago, when old Mr. Anderton had died, Mandy Anderton Morley (his sole heir) had flown in from Los Angeles for the funeral, put the house on the market the next day, and flown back out to her rich husband after clearing her father's clothes out of the master bedroom and emptying all the drawers into boxes that she had shipped to her home. All the furniture was still in place, and Mandy had indicated to my mother she would negotiate with the buyers if they wanted some or all of the furnishings. Mandy had never been a sentimental person.

  So when I unlocked the double front doors and reached in to turn on the lights in the cold, stale two-story foyer, the house looked eerily as it had when I was a child. I left the front doors open to let in some fresh air and stood just inside, looking up at the chandelier that had so awed me when I was eleven. I was sure the carpet had been replaced since then, but it seemed the same creamy color that had made me terribly conscious of any dust on my shoes. A huge brilliant silk-flower arrangement glowed on the marble table opposite the front doors. After you circled the marble table, you arrived at a wide staircase that led up to a broad landing, with double doors across from the top of the staircase echoing the double front doors below. I ran to turn the heat up so the house wouldn't be so chilly while I was not-showing it, and returned to shut the front doors. I flipped on the switch that lit the chandelier.

  I had enough money to buy this house.

  The realization gave me a tingle of delight. My spine straightened.

  Of course I'd be br
oke soon after the purchase--taxes, electricity, etc. --but I actually had the asking price.

  My friend--well, really, my friendly acquaintance--Jane Engle, an elderly woman with no children, had left me all her money and belongings. Tired of my job at the Lawrenceton Library, I'd quit; tired of living in a row of townhouses I managed for my mother, I'd decided to buy my own house. Jane's house, which I now owned, just wasn't what I wanted. For one thing, there wasn't room for our combined libraries of true and fictional crime. For another, my old flame Detective Arthur Smith, with his new wife, Lynn, and their baby, Lorna, lived right across the street.

  So I was looking for my own new home, a place just mine, with no memories and no nerve- racking neighbors.

  I had to laugh as I pictured myself eating tuna fish and Cheez-Its in the Anderton dining room. I heard a car crunch up the semicircular gravel drive. The Bartells were arriving in a spotless white Mercedes. I stepped out onto the large front porch, if you can call a stone-and-pillars edifice a porch, and greeted them with a smile. The wind was chilly, and I pulled my wonderful new fuzzy brown jacket around me. I felt the wind pick up my hair and toss it around my face. I was at the top of the front steps looking down at the Bartells as he helped his wife from the car. Then he looked up at me.

  Our eyes met. After a startled moment I blinked and collected myself.

  "I'm Aurora Teagarden," I said, and waited for the inevitable. Sure enough, sleek, dark Mrs. Bartell sniggered before she could stop herself. "My mother is delayed, which she very much regrets, and she asked me to meet you here so you could begin looking. There's so much to see in this house. "

  There, I'd done my mother proud.

  Mr. Bartell was about five ten, forty-fiveish, prematurely white-headed, with a tough, interesting face, and wearing a suit even I could tell was a major investment. His eyes, which I was trying hard to avoid, were the lightest brown I'd ever seen. "I'm Martin Bartell, Miss Teagarden," he said in an unaccented Voice of Command, "and this is my sister, Barbara Lampton. "

  "Barby," said Barbara Lampton with a girlish smile. Ms. Lampton was maybe forty, broad in the beam but camouflaging it very skillfully, and not altogether happy at being in Lawrenceton, Georgia, pop. 15,000.

  I raised my eyebrows only very slightly (after all, my mother wanted to sell this house). A Barby was laughing at an Aurora? And she wasn't Mrs. Bartell, after all. But was she really his sister?

  "Nice to meet you," I said neutrally. "Now, I'm not really showing you this house, I'm not a licensed realtor, but I do have the fact sheet here in case you have any questions, and I am familiar with the layout and history of the house. "

  So saying, I turned and led the way before Martin Bartell could ask why this was any different from showing the house.

  "Barby" commented on the marble-topped table and the silk flowers, and I explained about the furniture.

  To the right of the foyer, through a doorway, was a very sizable formal living room and a small formal dining room, and to the left the same space was divided into two large rooms, a "family room" and a room that could be used for just about anything. Martin Bartell examined everything very carefully and asked several questions I was quite unable to answer, and a few I was.

  I was careful always to be looking down at the fact sheet when he turned to ask me something.

  "You could use this back room for your gym equipment," Barby remarked.

  So that was where the athletic movement and the muscles came from.

  They wandered farther back and looked through the kitchen with its informal dining nook, then into the formal dining room, which lay between the kitchen and the living room.

  Was his sister going to live with him? What would he do in a house this large? He would need a maid, for sure. I tried to think of whom I could call who might know of a reliable person. I tried not to picture myself in one of those "French maid" outfits sold in the back of those strange confession magazines. (A junior-high girl left one in the library one time. )

  All the time we were walking and looking, I kept in front of him, behind him, anywhere but facing him.

  Instead of taking the kitchen stairs, I maneuvered Martin Bartell and Barby back to the main staircase. I had always loved that broad staircase. I glanced at my watch. Where was Mother? The upstairs was really the climax of the house, or at least I'd always thought so, and she should be the one to show it. Mr. Bartell seemed content with me so far, but having me instead of Mother was like having hamburger when you'd been promised steak.

  Though I had a very strong feeling Martin Bartell didn't think so.

  This was turning out to be a complicated morning.

  This man was at least fifteen years older than I, belonged to a world I hadn't the faintest inkling of, and was silently bringing to my attention the fact that for some time now I had been dating a minister who didn't believe in premarital sex.

  And before Father Aubrey Scott, I hadn't dated anyone at all for months.

  Well, I couldn't keep them standing in the foyer while I reviewed my sex life (lack of). I mentally cracked a whip at my hormones and told myself I was probably imagining these waves of interest that washed over me. "Up these stairs is one of the nicest rooms in the house," I said determinedly. "The master bedroom. " I looked at Mr. Bartell's chin instead of his eyes. I started up, and they followed obligingly. He was right behind me as I mounted the stairs. I took a few deep breaths and tried to compose myself. Really, this was too stupid.

  "There are only three bedrooms in this house," I explained, "but all of them are marvelous, really almost suites. Each has a dressing room, a walk-in closet, and a private bathroom. "

  "Oh, that sounds wonderful," said Barby.

  Maybe they really were brother and sister?

  "The master bedroom, which is behind these double doors at the head of the stairs, has two walk-in closets. The blue bedroom is the door on the right end of the landing, and the rose bedroom is the one on the left. The extra door to the left is to a small room the Andertons used as a homework and TV room for the children. It would be a good office, or sewing room, or . . . " I trailed off. The room was useful, okay? And it would be much more suitable for Martin Bartell's exercise equipment than a downstairs, public, room. "The extra door to the right leads to the stairs that come up from the kitchen. "

  All the bedroom doors were closed, which seemed a little odd.

  On the other hand, the situation gave me a great dramatic moment. I turned both knobs simultaneously, swept open the master bedroom doors, and instantly moved to one side to give Mother's clients an unobstructed view while I glanced back to get their reaction.

  "Oh, my God!" said Barby.

  It wasn't what I'd expected.

  Martin Bartell looked very grim.

  Slowly and reluctantly, I turned to see what they were staring at.

  The woman in the middle of the huge bed was sitting propped up against the headboard, with the white silk sheets pulled up to her waist. Her bare breasts shocked the eyes first; then her face, dark and swollen. The teased and disheveled black hair had been smoothed back to some semblance of normality. Her wrists, positioned at her sides, had some leather thongs around them.

  "That's Tonia Lee Greenhouse," remarked my mother from behind her clients. "Aurora, please go make sure Tonia Lee is dead. "

  That's my mother. Always say "please," even when you're asking someone to check the vital signs of an obvious corpse. I had touched a dead person before, but it was not an experience I wanted to repeat. However, I had taken a step forward before a strong hand closed around my wrist.

  "I'll do it," Martin Bartell said unexpectedly. "I've seen dead people before. Barby, go downstairs and sit in that big front room. "

  Without a word, Barby did as she was told. The Voice of Command even worked on a sister. Mr. Bartell, his shoulders stiff, strode acr
oss the wide expanse of peach carpet and leaned across the huge bed to put his fingers to the neck of the very deceased Tonia Lee Greenhouse.

  "As you can tell, she's definitely dead and has been for a while," Mr. Bartell said matter-of- factly enough. His nose wrinkled, and I knew he was getting a much stronger whiff than I of the very unpleasant smell emanating from the bed. "Are the phones hooked up?"

  "I'll see," said Mother briefly. "I'll try the one downstairs. " She spoke as if she'd decided that on a whim, but when I turned to look at her, her face was completely white. She turned with great dignity, and as she went down the stairs, she began to shake visibly--as though an earthquake only she could feel was rocking the staircase.

  My feet had grown roots into the thick carpet. Though I wished myself somewhere else, I seemed to lack the energy to take me there.

  "Who was this woman?" asked Mr. Bartell, still bending over the bed but with his hands behind him. He was scrutinizing her neck with some detachment.

  "Tonia Lee Greenhouse, half of Greenhouse Realty," I said. It was a little surprising to hear my own voice. "She showed this house yesterday. She had to get the key from my mother's office, but it was back there this morning. "

  "That's very remarkable," Mr. Bartell said unemphatically.

  And it surely was.

  I stood there rooted, thinking how atypically everyone was behaving. I would have put money on Barby Lampton screaming hysterically, and she hadn't squeaked after her first exclamation. Martin Bartell hadn't gotten angry with us for showing him a house with a corpse in it. My mother hadn't ordered me to go downstairs to call the police, she'd done it herself. And instead of finding a solitary corner and brooding, I was standing stock-still watching a middle-aged businessman examine a naked corpse. I wished passionately I could cover up Tonia Lee's bosom. I stared at Tonia Lee's clothes, folded on the end of the bed. The red dress and black slip were folded so neatly, so oddly, in tiny perfect triangles. I brooded over this for some moments. I would have sworn Tonia Lee would be a tosser rather than a folder. And any dress subjected to that treatment would be a solid mass of wrinkles when it was shaken out.

  "This lady was married?"

  I nodded.

  "Wonder if her husband reported her missing last night?" Mr. Bartell asked, as if the answer would be interesting, no more. He straightened up and walked back over to me, his hands in his pockets as though he were passing the time until an appointment.

  My brain was not moving so very quickly. I finally realized he was doing his best not to touch anything in the room.

  "I'm sure we shouldn't cover her up," I said wistfully. For once, I was wishing I hadn't read so much true and fictional crime, so I wouldn't know I was not supposed to adjust the corpse.

  Martin Bartell's light brown eyes looked at me very thoroughly. They had a golden touch, like a tiger's.

  "Miss Teagarden. "

  "Mr. Bartell. . . ?"

  His hand emerged from his pocket and moved up. I tensed as though I were about to be jolted by electricity. I lost the technique of staring at his chin and looked right at him. He was going to touch my cheek.

  "Is the body in here?" asked Detective Lynn Liggett Smith from perhaps three feet away.

  Downstairs, at least thirty minutes later, I had recovered my composure. I no longer felt as if I was in heat and would rip Martin Bartell's clothes off any minute. I no longer felt that he, out of all the people in the world, had the power to look underneath all the layers of my personality and see the basic woman, who had been lonely (in one particular way) for a very long time.

  In the "family room," with my mother and Barby Lampton to provide protective chaperonage, I was able to collect all my little foibles and peculiarities back together and stack them between myself and Martin Bartell.

  My mother felt obligated to hold polite conversation with her clients. She had introduced herself formally, gotten over her surprise on finding out that Mr. Bartell's companion was his sister, not his wife, and had established the fact that Martin Bartell had received good impressions of Lawrenceton in the weeks he'd spent here. "It's been a pleasant change of pace after the Chicago area," he said, and sounded sincere. "Barby and I grew up on a farm in a very rural area of Ohio. "

  Barby didn't seem to enjoy being reminded.

  He explained a little about his reorganization of the local Pan-Am Agra plant to my mother, a born manager, and I kept my eyes scrupulously to myself.

  We waited for the police for a long time, it seemed. I heard familiar voices calling up and down the stairs. I'd dated Lynn Liggett's husband, Arthur Smith (before they married, of course), and during our "courtship" I'd become acquainted with every detective and most of the uniforms on Lawrenceton's small force. Detective Henske's cracker drawl, Lynn's crisp alto, Paul Allison's reedy voice . . . and then came the sound I dreaded.

  Detective Sergeant Jack Burns.

  I turned in my chair to group myself protectively with the other three. What were they talking about now? Martin Bartell had said he'd been at work every day of the three months he'd spent in Lawrenceton, and had invited Mother to tell him about the town. He couldn't have asked anyone more informed, except perhaps the Chamber of Commerce executive, a lonely man who worked touchingly hard to persuade the rest of the world to believe in Lawrenceton's intangible advantages.

  I listened once more to the familiar litany.

  "Four banks," Mother enumerated, "a country club, all the major automobile dealerships, though I'm afraid you'll have to get the Mercedes repaired in Atlanta. "

  I heard Jack Burns shouting down the stairs. He wanted the fingerprint man to "get his ass in gear. "

  "Lawrenceton is practically a suburb of Atlanta now," Barby Lampton said, earning her a hard look from my mother. Most Lawrencetonians were not too pleased about the ever-nearing annexation of Lawrenceton into the greater Atlanta area. "And the school system is excellent," my mother continued with a little twitch of her shoulders. "Though I don't know if that's an area of interest--?"

  "No, my son just graduated from college," Martin Bartell murmured. "And Barby's girl is a freshman at Kent State. "

  "Aurora is my only child," Mother said naturally enough. "She's worked at the library here for what--six years, Roe?"

  I nodded.

  "A librarian," he said thoughtfully.

  Why was it librarians had such a prim image? With all the information available in books right there at their fingertips, librarians could be the best-informed people around. About anything.

  "Now she's thinking about going into real estate, and looking for her own home at the same time. "

  "You think you'd like selling homes?" Barby said politely.

  "I'm beginning to think maybe it's not for me," I admitted, and my mother looked chagrined.

  "Honey, I know this morning has been a horrible experience--poor Tonia Lee--but you know this is not something that happens often. But I am beginning to think I'll have to establish some kind of system to check on my female realtors when they are out showing a house to a client we don't know. Aurora, maybe Aubrey wouldn't like you selling real estate? My daughter has been dating our Episcopalian priest for several months," she explained to her clients with an almost-convincing casualness.

  "Episcopalians have a reputation for being generally liberal," Martin Bartell remarked out of the blue.

  "I know, but Aubrey is an exception if that really is true," Mother said, and my heart sank. "He is a wonderful man--I've come to know him since I married my present husband, who is a cradle Episcopalian--but Aubrey is very conservative. "

  I felt my cheeks turn red in the cold room. I ran a nervous hand under the hair at my neck, loosening the strands that had gotten tucked in my jacket collar, and tilted my head back a little to shake it straight.

about Tonia Lee Greenhouse was preferable to feeling like a parakeet that is extremely excited at the prospect of being eaten by the cat.

  I thought about the loathsome way Tonia had been positioned, a parody of seductiveness. I thought about the leather thongs on Tonia's wrists. Had she been tied to the ornate wooden headboard? Old Mr. and Mrs. Anderton must be turning in their graves. I thought about Tonia Lee in life--tall, thin, with teased dark hair and bright makeup, a woman who was rumored to be often unfaithful to her husband, Donnie. I wondered if Donnie had just gotten tired of Tonia Lee's ways, if he'd followed her to her appointment and taken care of her after the client had left. I wondered if Tonia had been overcome by passion for her client and had bedded him here in the invitingly luxurious master bedroom, or if she'd had an assignation with someone she'd been seeing for a while. Maybe the house-showing had been a fictitious cover to let her romp in one of the prettiest houses in Lawrenceton.

  "Mackie brought her the key yesterday," I said suddenly.

  "What?" asked my mother with reproof in her voice. I had no idea what they'd been talking about.

  "Yesterday about five o'clock, while I was waiting for you in the reception room, Tonia Lee called your office and asked for the key. She said she'd been held up--if anyone was getting off work, she'd be really obliged if they could drop it off here; she'd meet them. I handed the phone to Mackie Knight. He was leaving just then, and he said he'd do it. "

  "We'll have to tell the police. Maybe Mackie was the last one to see her alive--or maybe he saw the man she was going to show the house to!"

  Then Jack Burns was in the doorway, and I sighed.

  Detective Sergeant Jack Burns was a frightening man, and he really couldn't stand me. If he could ever arrest me for anything, he'd just love to do it. Luckily for me, I'm very law-abiding, and since I had come to know Jack Burns, I'd made sure I got my car inspected right on the dot, that I parallel-parked perfectly, and that I didn't even jaywalk.

  "If it isn't Miss Teagarden," he said with a terrifying affability. "I declare, young woman, you get prettier every time I see you. And I always do seem to see you when I come to a murder scene, don't I?"

  "Hello, Jack," said my mother with a distinct edge to her voice. "Mrs. Teagarden--no, Mrs. Queensland now, isn't it? I haven't seen you since your wedding; congratulations. And these must be our new residents? Hope you don't feel like running back north after today. Lawrenceton used to be such a quiet town, but the city is reaching out to us here, and I guess in a few years we'll have a crime rate like Atlanta's. "

  Mother introduced her clients.

  "Guess you won't want this house after today," Jack Burns said genially. "Ole Tonia Lee looked pretty bad. I'm sure sorry you all ran into this, you being new and all. "

  "This could have happened anywhere," Martin said. "I'm beginning to think being a real estate agent is a hazardous occupation, like being a convenience-store clerk. "

  "It certainly does seem so," Jack Burns agreed. He was wearing a hideous suit, but I'll give him this much credit--I don't think he cared a damn about what he wore or what people thought about it.

  "Now, Mr. Bartell, I believe you touched the deceased?" he continued.

  "Yes, I walked over to make sure she was dead. "

  "Did you touch anything on the bed?"

  "No. "

  "On the table by the bed?"

  "Nothing in the bedroom," Martin said very definitely, "but the woman's neck. "

  "You notice it was bruised?"

  "Yes. "

  "You know she was strangled?"

  "It looked like it to me. "

  "You have much experience with this kind of thing?"

  "I was in Vietnam. I've had more experience with wounds. But I have seen one case of strangulation before, and this looked similar. "

  "What about you, Mrs. Lampton? You go in the room?"

  "No," Barby said quietly. "I stayed on the landing outside. When Miss Teagarden opened the doors, of course I saw the poor woman right away. Then my brother told me to go downstairs. He knows I don't have a strong stomach, so of course it was better for me to go. "

  "And you, Mrs. --Queensland?"

  "I came up the stairs just after Aurora opened the bedroom doors. I actually saw her swing them open from downstairs after I started up. " Mother explained about the Thompsons and her delegation of me to open the house for the Bartells. "Excuse me, Mr. Bartell and Mrs. Lampton. "

  "You're his sister," Jack Burns said, as if trying to get that point quite clear. He swung his baleful gaze on poor Barby Lampton.

  "Yes, I am," she said angrily, stung by the doubt in his voice. "I just got divorced, my only child's in college, I sold my own home as part of the divorce settlement, and my brother invited me to help him house-hunt down here out of sheer kindness. "

  "Of course, I see," said Jack Burns with disbelief written on every crease in his heavy cheeks.

  Martin Bartell's hair might be white, but his eyebrows were still dark. Now they were drawn together ominously.

  "When was the last time you saw Mrs. Greenhouse, Roe?" Jack Burns had switched his questioning abruptly to me.

  "I haven't seen Tonia Lee to speak to in weeks, and then it was only a casual conversation at the beauty parlor. " Tonia Lee had been having a dye job and a cut, and I'd been having one of my rare trims. She had tried the whole time to find out how much money Jane Engle had left me.

  "Mr. Bartell, had you contacted Mrs. Greenhouse about looking at any homes?" Jack Burns shot the question at the Pan-Am Agra manager as though he would enjoy beating the answer out of him. What a charmer.

  I could see Martin taking a deep breath. "Mrs. Queensland here is the only realtor I have contacted in Lawrenceton," he said firmly. "And now, if you'll excuse me, Sergeant, my sister has had enough for this morning, and so have I. I have to get back to work. "

  Without waiting for an answer, he got up and put his arm around his sister, who had risen even faster.

  "Of course," Burns said smoothly. "I'm so sorry I've been holding you all up! You just go on, now. But please, folks, keep everything you saw at the scene of the murder to yourselves. That would help us out a whole bunch. "

  "I think we'll be going, too," my mother said coldly. "You know where we'll be if you need us again. "

  Jack Burns just nodded, ran a beefy hand over his thinning no-color hair, and stood with narrowed eyes watching us leave. "Mrs. Queensland!" he called when Mother was almost out the door. "What about keys to this house?"

  "Oh, yes, I forgot. . . " And Mother turned back to tell him about Mackie Knight and the key, and I walked out into the fresh chill of the day, away from the thing in the bedroom upstairs and the fear of Jack Burns.

  And right into Martin Bartell.

  Over his shoulder I saw Barby was in the front seat of the Mercedes and buckled up already. She was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She'd waited until she was outside to shed a few tears; I admired her control. I felt a sympathetic tear trickle down my own face. One way or another, the morning had been a dreadful strain.

  I was looking at a silk tie in a shade of golden olive, with a white stripe and a thin sort of red one.

  He wiped the tear from my face with his handkerchief, carefully not touching me with his fingers.

  "Am I imagining this?" he asked very quietly.

  I shook my head, still not meeting his eyes.

  "We have to talk later. "

  I couldn't speak, for once in my life. I was terrified of seeing him again; and I would rather have shaved my head than not see him again.

  "How old are you? You're so tiny. "

  "I'm thirty," I said, and finally looked up at him.

  He said after a moment, "I'll call you. "

  I nodded, and walked quickly ov
er to my car and got in. I had to sit for a moment so I could stop shivering. Somehow I had his handkerchief clutched in my hand. Oh, that was just great! Maybe he had an old high school letter jacket I could wear? I was mad at my hormones, upset about the awful death of Tonia Lee Greenhouse, and horrified at my own perfidy toward Aubrey Scott.

  There was knock on my window that made me jump.

  My mother was bending, gesturing for me to roll the window down. "I've never met Jack Burns in his professional capacity before," she was saying furiously, "and I pray I never do again. You told me he was like that, Aurora, but I couldn't quite credit it! Why, when I sold him and his wife that house, he was just so polite and nice!"

  "Mom, I'm going to go to my place. "

  "Why, sure, Aurora. Are you okay? And poor Donnie Greenhouse . . . I wonder if they've called him yet. "

  "Mother, what you have to worry about, right now, is how that key got back on your key board. Someone at Select Realty put it there. The police are going to be all over your office asking questions just as quick as quick can be. "

  "You definitely have a mind for crime," Mother said disapprovingly, but she was thinking fast. "It's that club you were in, I expect. "

  "No. I was in Real Murders because I think that way, I don't think that way because I was in the club," I said mildly. But she wasn't listening.

  "Before I go back," said Mother suddenly, "I was thinking I should ask Martin Bartell and his sister--I can't believe a woman that age is answering to `Barby'--" This from a woman with a name like Aida. "--I should get them over to the house for dinner tomorrow night. Why don't you and Aubrey come?"

  "Oh," I said limply, horrified at the prospect. How was I going to excuse myself--"Mom, this guy I just met, well, if we see each other again, we just may have at it on the floor"?

  My mother, usually so sharp, did not pick up on my turmoil. Of course, she had a few more things on her mind.

  "I know you have to ask Aubrey first, so just give me a call. I really think I should make some gesture to try to make up to them--"

  "For showing them a house with a dead realtor in it?"

  "Exactly. "

  Suddenly my mother realized that the Anderton house was going to be impossible to move, at least for a while, and she closed her eyes. I could see it in her face, I could read her mind.

  "It'll sell sooner or later," I said. "It was too big for Mr. Bartell anyway. " "True," she said faintly. "The house on Ivy Avenue would be more appropriate. But if the sister is going to live with him, the separate bedroom suites would have been great. "

  "See you later," I said, starting my car.

  "I'll call you," she told me.

  And I had no doubt she would.