I live in Ft. Myers, Florida, in a white frame bungalow on the beach and there isn’t much that can lure me away. Except maybe a nearly hysterical call from my best friend’s husband who had no way of knowing he was putting my life in jeopardy by asking me to fly halfway across the country.
I sometimes wonder if I would have jumped on the next plane headed toward Topeka, Kansas if I’d had any idea of the danger that lay ahead. The answer is always the same. Sure I would.
Jordan Lamar Stafford was murdered in the wee hours of the morning after his mother’s forty-fifth birthday party. According to his father, he’d been alone, walking along his neighborhood street, only a block or so from his apartment, when a shot rang out, finding its mark in Jordan’s temple. Later, the question of what he was doing on a deserted street at that hour would come up. But not yet. The loss was too abrupt, the pain too intense for the family to be troubled by those kinds of details.
Jordan was twenty-three years old, co-owner of a thriving Kansas City landscape business, and a darn likeable kid. I know. I met his parents when we worked together on a terrible movie out in Los Angeles two years before. Jordan’s mom, Ginny, was the film’s production designer. His dad, Doug, was location manager. Me? I wrote the silly story. Not the screenplay, the novel it was taken from. But that’s another tale for another time. Ginny and Doug made good on their promise, or their threat, depending on your point of view about today’s film industry, to retire and return to their Topeka, Kansas roots. Right now, racing cross-county to be at Ginny’s side, my mind was on what I might be able to offer when I got there. Doug was in the waiting area at the Kansas City International Airport when I arrived. The face I remembered as round and jovial, was dragged down by trenches that looked freshly dug. When I cleared the security ropes, he grabbed me in a fierce bear hug. “Thank God you’re here,” he said. When he finally let go, he met my eyes with a look I read as more embarrassed than grateful. “Here,” he said, grabbing my carry-on bag. “Let me get that.” I handed over the luggage and tucked my arm through his as we weaved through the crowded lobby, toward an exit. I didn’t remember Doug being particularly demonstrative so it surprised me when he patted my hand with his free one, and gave it a squeeze. Streetlamps were clicking on by the time Doug paid the parking lot attendant and pulled his Jeep Cherokee onto a road that finally put us on 1-70 West. I half expected him to pour out the story of what had been going on since word of Jordan’s death, but he was grimly silent. During the flight, I’d thought of a few hundred questions I wanted to ask, but I decided to hold them and let Doug talk first. Whenever he was ready. It was one of those awkward times in life when it feels as if it’s all a part of some staged play. It was too dramatic, too unreal, to know what to say or how to say it. I felt awkward, even tongue-tied. I don’t think Doug noticed, lost as he was in his own troubled thoughts. If the situation had been other than what it was, I would have taken in the landscape with a different eye. I’d have noticed green, rolling pastures and silhouettes of cattle on distant hills, images I’d only seen in movies and magazine photographs. Now I couldn’t get past what was in my mind’s eye—Jordan on a foggy, pre-dawn, street getting his brain shot out. I tried to shake away the mental picture, but couldn’t quite manage. Doug frowned into the gathering darkness, concentrating on a freeway nearly empty of traffic. I glanced at him, looked away again. My questions were still on hold. The silence was agonizing until he finally said, “I ‘preciate you doing this, Dena.” I couldn’t think of a response, so I said, “How is she?” He knew I was talking about Ginny. Doug’s massive shoulders hunched up then dropped down. “Like I said on the phone, she won’t talk to anybody. She just lays in bed staring at the ceiling. Not even sleeping. Just staring. I don’t know what to do. Mom doesn’t know what to do. Nobody knows what the hell to do.” I looked out the window without seeing what was out there. My husband died in a boating accident four years earlier. I had to wonder if that pain was similar to what a parent feels when they lose a child. Especially a son doctors told Ginny she could never have. “How do we get past this, Dena? How’d you do it?” I could have told him that I didn’t get past it. I could have said that the gapping hole in their life would eventually be filled by time. But the ache would never completely go away. I didn’t say that. What I said was, “We just live through it, like they say, one day at a time.” Nothing like a good ol’ cliché when you don’t have a clue how to offer anything of substance. “Is Lillian holding up?” Jordan’s death couldn’t be easy for his teen sister. “That kid’s been a rock. Did Ginny tell you she started working with me a couple of weeks ago?” “No. That’s good.” “Got her on as a production assistant.” Doug had been hired as location manager on a movie being filmed in the nearby town of Paxico, wherever that might be. I would like to have heard how the picture was coming along, but it didn’t seem like the right time to go into it, so we fell into another uncomfortable silence. I couldn’t even venture a guess as to what Doug was thinking. Probably about Jordan. Or Ginny. Or maybe he was just trying to grit his way through the pain, with his thoughts in a free-fall. It wasn’t until we passed a Topeka 28 Miles sign that he finally said, “Jordan had everything going for him, you know? His new business turned a profit the first year. Now, that’s damn impressive. Landscaping’s a tough game. Lots of competition. But he didn’t let that slow him down. No sir.” Doug tried to smile but it didn’t stay put. “Independent little cuss.” He glanced at me. “Like his dad.” I nodded an inane nod. The questions I wanted to ask vanished. I couldn’t recall a single one of them. To fill the void, I mentally tallied up what I knew about the situation to this point. Jordan was killed early Monday morning. Yesterday morning. The family wasn’t informed, though, until around four in the afternoon. Doug said on the phone the police were convinced it was a random thing, a drive-by shooting without motive or purpose. There were no suspects and no eyewitnesses. I wasn’t sure how authorities could be certain there were no suspects when the murder happened less than forty-eight hours ago, but then I don’t know a lot about police procedure. Surely there would be an investigation. Who knew what would turn up eventually? The fact the shooting happened predawn didn’t preclude someone from having gotten out of bed for a drink of water and hearing something outside their window. Maybe that person glanced out and saw something. There was nothing anyone could do now, though, but wait.
Topeka streets were pretty much empty. They reminded me of an untouched page in a children’s coloring book. I wondered if it was bleak because of the hour, or if it was always like that. If the clock on the dashboard was right, it was five of eight. I stifled a yawn and rested my head on the back of the seat. The sun had disappeared, leaving purple islands in an orange sky. Mountains of cloud pulled fingers of lavender over a city that seemed oddly hushed. I stared at a sickle of moon, feeling lost and out of place. I was used to surf at my back door and a scent of salt in the air. Doug had put the windows down during the drive. I thought I detected a hint of earth, the smell that comes from freshly tilled ground.
Sure. Like I know the scent of freshly tilled ground. Till the ground in Florida and you get a canal. Doug was still lost in a world of his own. I scratched around in my brain for something to say, but it seemed like it would be a terrible intrusion to force him into conversation, so I kept quiet. In the hour and ten minutes we’d been on the road, we had exchanged only a couple dozen words. “Too bad you couldn’t have seen it the way it was in the sixties,” Doug said, breaking the silence. “I was just a kid. Rode my bike all over the place. Town was friendly, shoppers out day and night.” His nod indicated dark buildings as we moved along downtown Sixth Street. “Not much different from what’s happening all over the country. Movie houses are gone, family-run hardware stores, cafes. Everything’s out on the highway now.” I didn’t remind him that we just came from the highway and I hadn’t seen any businesses there either. As if reading my thoughts, he added, “Over on the west side. Walmart, chain restaurants. You know the story.” I knew the sad story of a declining, mini-mart mentality America all too well. I saw it in California while I was working on the movie, and I watched it swallow up Florida. The mangroves I’d loved as a kid were pumped out now and filled with enough substance to support the weight of gaudy pink condos and cookie-cutter houses. I wondered how snow birds would feel if they knew just a few feet under their plush Florida digs, alligators swam and mated and continued to thrive despite land developers best efforts to extinguish them. Doug lapsed back into silence. An imposing structure with a lime green dome dominated the horizon to my right. I recognized the State Capitol building from pictures. I craned my neck to glimpse the famous statue of an Indian at its upper point, bathed in light and aiming an arrow toward the sky. Doug said, without taking his eyes from the road, “Ad Astra Per Aspera. Latin. It means to the stars through difficulty. The state motto.” I wondered how the stars were going to help this Topeka family get through their difficulty.
When we reached Lane Avenue Doug crossed a creek, passed a row of businesses—all but one of them boarded over—across from a lovely old church. The kind no one attends anymore. Then we drove through a neighborhood filled with tiny frame houses set on plots of ground more weeds and dirt than lawn. A couple of blocks later, he turned onto Woodlawn Avenue. Flowering shrubs, towering trees and a rainbow of blossoms filled the interior of a traffic circle visible by the light from two old-fashioned lampposts in its center. Victorian houses lined both sides of the red-brick street. It was hard to believe this pocket of charm was jammed next to urban blight, practically in the shadow of the Capitol building.
“Potwin,” Doug said, reading my expression. “A railroad man by that name bought up this parcel when the Atchison, Topeka & The Santa Fe lines were at their peak. It was a rich little town back then. Being from the east, he never even set foot in Kansas, so far as I know. To him it was just a good investment. He had these places built for the railroad elite. You should see it at Christmastime. Jordan and I spend from Thanksgiving till about the second week in December getting our place—” His voice broke. He had referred to Jordan in present tense. It must have hit him mid-sentence there would be no more Thanksgivings spent getting the place ready for Christmas. I wanted to reach out and put my hand on his, but I held back. Finally, he pulled into the driveway of a powder-blue, three-story Victorian trimmed in white gingerbread, and came to a stop beside a bay window on the south side of the house. A sliver of kitchen was visible between white crisscross curtains. Almost every window in the place glowed invitingly, like a Thomas Kincaid painting. He turned off the ignition and opened the door on the driver’s side. “I’ll get your suitcase.” “I’ve got it.” I was already on my feet and hoisting my one piece of luggage from the backseat. I hitched up my shoulder bag and followed him along a walk that led to a wrap-around porch. When we reached the side door, Doug fished around in his pocket until he found his key ring. I tried not to gawk when we stepped inside, but it was the first time I’d ever seen a mudroom with a stained glass window and a chandelier. Mine in Florida took itself much more seriously. It was almost always filled with mud. And sand fleas. And wet beach towels. He led us along a hallway that ended where a wide staircase swept up to a second floor. The kitchen was to our right. As we passed, I glimpsed a black-and-white tiled floor and a red leather booth under a window that probably overlooked the back yard. The scent of coffee was delicious. “Lillian?” Doug called. To me, he said, “Just set your bag down here for now. Lillian will show you to your room in a bit.” “Dena!” Doug and Ginny’s daughter was one of those teenagers who can look twelve with no make-up and twenty-five when she’s all dolled up. Tonight she looked like what she was—a heartbroken nineteen-year-old. Her eyes were swollen and red-rimmed. Her hair—dark brown streaked with strands of midnight blue—probably hadn’t seen a comb since morning. “Oh my goodness,” she said, giving me a hug. “Daddy and I are so glad you’re here.” “Anything new?” Doug glanced toward the stairs to the second floor. Lillian shook her head. “She told me to go away, but she still won’t open the door.” “Well,” Doug grunted, “at least she’s talking to you.” A broad-shouldered fellow, with blonde hair cut into a ducktail, appeared in an archway that separated the hall from a huge living room. Despite the 50’s hairstyle, he had the kind of clean-cut, all-American, face young men don’t much have any more. Lillian reached for his hand, pulling him toward us. “Dena, this is Patrick.” His grip was surprisingly strong. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” Doug picked up my luggage. “I’ll set this upstairs.” “Hungry?” Lillian asked, turning to the kitchen. I shook my head. “Do you think I can I see Ginny?” “Not right now, Dena. If you aren’t too tired, we can talk in the living room. Patrick, would you bring us some coffee?” I followed her into a room that looked more like an elaborate movie set than someone’s living room. Lillian indicated a long white sofa. I sat down. She sat at the far end, falling back into a pile of white throw pillows. “It’s been a nightmare. None of us can believe it’s happening. I guess it hasn’t hit home yet. I keep thinking Jordan’s going to walk through the door any minute, laughing at the whole thing. Like it’s some big joke we all fell for.” Her voice tightened and she swallowed hard, moving her gaze to the hardwood floor. “Your dad said it was a drive-by.” Lillian raised her eyes to meet mine and nodded. “He was here for Mom’s birthday Sunday afternoon.” She pulled a pillow to her and hugged it tightly. “Mom wanted him to stay the night, but he said he had an important meeting early Monday morning and couldn’t.” “I invited him out to my place for a few beers with buddies from the film crew,” Patrick said, coming into the room with a tray. He set it on a coffee table, handed a cup to Lillian, took one for himself, and settled onto a footstool. Lillian gave him a grateful glance. “He and Cody had tickets for some kind of jazz festival Sunday night.” “Cody?” “His partner in the landscape business,” Patrick replied. The irony wasn’t lost on me. If Jordan had spent the night in the family home he wouldn’t have been murdered on a Kansas City street a few hours later. Even without spending the night, if he’d gone to Patrick’s get-together after Ginny’s party, the time frame would have been altogether different. “Doug said Ginny was at the gallery when she got the news.” I knew Ginny had opened an art studio within the first few months of their move from California. Lillian nodded. “I guess you heard my grandmother, Dad’s mom, manages the place for her.” “She told me.” “Ordinarily she’d be there at that time of day, but she was at a meeting. They’re working on an important exhibit. Grandmother is in charge of raising the funds. She speaks to women’s clubs here and over in Lawrence, trying to get their support. That’s where she was when the police went to the studio.” “You and your dad were at work?” Lillian started to answer, but moved her head up and down instead. Patrick put his hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “We were out on location. Filming in somebody’s barn, miles from nowhere. Our cell phones had to be turned off, so we didn’t know anything about what had happened until almost an hour later.” “Thank God Grandmother got back to the gallery a few minutes after the police left. She found Momma on the floor, crying hysterically. She called a doctor friend and somehow managed to get Momma home. He met them here and gave her a sedative. The police finally got through to us, but you know how it is, Dena. No matter what’s happening, you can’t just walk away from filming. It was nearly two hours before we could get here.” She put her coffee cup back on the tray, unable to go on. “It’s been pretty rough,” Patrick said. “Don’t you think I should go up and see her now?” Lillian and Patrick exchanged glances. “Daddy told her you were coming, but I’m not sure she understood, or that he got through to her.” “You mean there’s a chance she doesn’t even know I’m here?” “She keeps the bedroom door locked and won’t let anyone in. We’re not sure what she hears and what she doesn’t. She won’t talk to us.” Patrick half-smiled. “Except to tell you to go away.” Lillian nodded. “Well, yeah. That.” She got to her feet, pressing the heel of one hand against her back, arching it. “Come on. Let’s see what’s going on.” Doug was in the upstairs hallway, sitting on a tall stool, in front of a closed door. “She still won’t answer,” he said when he saw us. I rapped on the door. “Ginny? It’s Dena.” There was no answer. “Are you sure she’s all right?” “She must have fallen asleep,” Lillian said, turning to me. “She’d answer if she realized it’s you, I know she would. I decided to give it another shot. “Ginny. Can you open the door, honey?” Patrick put his arm around Lillian, but it was obvious he felt as helpless as the rest of us. “Poor kid,” Doug said. “I heard her in there walking around half the night. If she’s nodded off, she’s dead to the world.” “Let’s let her rest,” I said. Lillian tucked her arm through her dad’s. “Dena’s right. It’s getting late and you need to eat something. I’ll make some sandwiches. How’s that sound?” Following them down the steps, I wondered about Jordan’s funeral arrangements. Film companies shooting on a distance location answer to a corporate office in Hollywood, a group of fat cats with huge egos and no interest in local problems, no matter how tragic. I put off asking until Lillian had pulled sandwich makings from the refrigerator and I’d put together a fresh pot of coffee. “Marty—that’s our director—is an old friend,” Doug said. “He worked around us today, but, well, tomorrow’s a different story.” He opened a drawer and took out flatware for everyone. Then we scooted into the red leather booth, Doug and me on one side, Patrick and Lillian across from us. “Mom’s snowed, with the exhibit coming up and all. My cousin lives in town, but she’s got a houseful of guests with more on the way. I’m sorry to drag you into this, Dena, but I honest-to-God didn’t know anybody else to turn to. Not that Ginny would want her here anyway.” “Production’s way behind,” Lillian said, slathering mustard across a slice of bread. Patrick added, “A couple of days of bad weather threw the crew into a tailspin, and now this…” His face flushed and he let the sentence go unfinished. He took a bite of his sandwich, washed it down with coffee. “We don’t really have a choice. We have to be at work in the morning.” Doug stared at the food in front of him without interest. “Like we keep telling each other, we’ll get through this.” He sighed. “We’ll get through this.” “Oh. Did I mention Reverend Ketterman called?” Lillian asked. “Said he’d drop by to see Mom sometime tomorrow.” She turned to me. “He’s our minister.” Doug pressed his palms against his eyes. When he finally looked up, he said to Lillian, “You know what I keep seeing in my mind? I keep seeing Jordan handing your mom those yellow roses on her birthday. You remember what he said? He said, ‘Here, Mom. A dozen roses.’ She kind of buried her face in them then she laughed and said. ‘You silly goose. I knew we should’ve popped for a math tutor. There are only eleven roses here.’ And he said—” He paused to draw in a deep breath. “You remember what he said?” “I remember, Daddy,” Lillian whispered. Doug looked at Patrick. “You remember? You were there.” Patrick nodded. Doug struggled with the words he directed at me. “He said, ‘You’re the twelfth rose, Mom’. Now, isn’t that the sappiest damn thing you’ve ever heard in your life? You’re the twelfth rose, Mom…” He put his elbows on the table and his hands to his face without bothering to check the flow of tears.
It was after midnight when Lillian finally hugged Patrick goodnight and told him she would see him on the set in the morning. Then she turned out lights and bolted the front and back doors while I wiped down the counter in the kitchen. She slipped her arm around my waist as we went up the stairs. I had no idea where Doug got off to, but the house was big and I figured he found himself a place where he could be alone.
On the second floor, there were four doors on either side of a hallway lit by brass wall sconces. Lillian’s room was across the hall from the master suite where I saw the door was still closed. The door down the hall from the master bedroom was also closed. The one across from that, the last door to our left, was open. Lillian stopped and reached around to click on a wall switch. Then she stepped aside to let me enter. It was a room for romance with its white wicker furniture and vases filled with dozens of pink roses. “Have your folks ever thought about making this into a B&B?” “My aunt has an edge on that market.” She turned on a bedside lamp and clicked off the overhead. “She’s got a great place just a few blocks from here.” She went to a window where she pulled a chord that brought floor-to-ceiling, blue velvet drapes together, then pointed to a pitcher on a stand. “Want me to bring up some ice water?” “No, thanks.” I put my purse on a vintage dresser. “She read your book,” Lillian said from the door. “Aunt Lois. I think I heard Mom say she read your novel.” “Did she see my movie?” I was kidding of course. Nobody saw my movie. “I’m not sure about that, but I know she wants to meet you.” She ran out of small talk and stood there for an awkward moment, like she didn’t know how to make a graceful exit. I sat on the edge of the bed and held out my hand to her. When she sat beside me, I put my arm around her. “Like your dad said, you’ll get through this. Your mom’s in shock right now, but she’ll pull herself together. She’s strong. Like you.” “Dad needs her so much.” “She’ll be back.” Lillian pulled away. “God, we’re all so damn gloomy. Jordan hated gloom.” She looked at me for a long moment. “Do you believe in heaven, Dena?” She caught me off-guard. I wasn’t prepared to get into a philosophical discussion. My ideas of heaven, hell and the hereafter changed when Alan died. I could have told Lillian about the things that happened in the weeks and months following, things that convinced me we are more than ashes after this life ends. But I wasn’t ready to talk about it and I was pretty sure Lillian wouldn’t want a lecture. So, I said, “I believe that life and love don’t end with death, if that’s what you mean.” She seemed to mull that over for a moment, but I couldn’t tell what she was thinking. Suddenly, she got to her feet. “Dad and I have to be out of here at an unholy hour, but we’ll try not to wake you.” She gave me a long, thoughtful look. “I’m just so glad you’re here. Mom will be, too, when she comes to her senses. Will you be all right tomorrow? Alone with her, I mean.” “We’ll be fine.” I hoped I wasn’t lying. “I’m not sure what time our minister’s coming by, but if you need to talk to anyone, Grandmother will be at the gallery. I left the phone number on the kitchen counter. Right now the exhibit is on her shoulders, and it’s a huge event. It couldn’t come at a worse time.” “Don’t worry about us.” “All right then.” She leaned down to kiss me on the cheek. “Goodnight.” At the door, she turned back to me. “Our cell phone numbers are on the counter, too, in case you need us.” She walked out of the room. A second or so later, I heard her door shut. I sat there feeling even more lost than I’d felt in the car. I’d come half way across the country to offer help, but I couldn’t think of a thing I could do. I got up, slipped out of my shoes and sat in a rocker beside the four-poster bed. I’d arrived feeling like Superwoman about to save the day, but now, only a few hours later, I felt like an intruder. If Ginny wouldn’t talk to her husband or to her daughter, why did I think she’d talk to me? I rocked and thought about how, if I had any sense, I’d hightail it back to my little beachfront cottage. Then I gave myself a mental kick in the butt. How could I think about abandoning Ginny at a time like that? I was tired, but it was that kind of tired where you know you’ll never get to sleep. My mind was churning with thoughts and images that were too unsettling to shut down. I kept remembering Jordan as he was in Hollywood. A neat kid. Smart. Funny. Good looking. All of that blown away in a single, senseless second. Ended by a bullet fired by a stranger. A beer can on a fence post. A target. I got up out of the rocking chair and padded across the room. I was curious about the closed door across the way. If the master suite was down the hall to my right, and Lillian’s room was beside this guest room, then the room across the hall was no doubt Jordan’s before he moved to Kansas City. Curiosity got the better of me. I crossed the hall and opened the door enough to see it was a masculine bedroom, but not obnoxiously so. There were no elk heads on the wall. It was tastefully decorated in maroon and a creamy tan, with a roll-top desk under a window defined by maroon and tan striped curtains. A vintage humpback trunk was at the foot of a bed topped by a maroon coverlet. “She kept it the way he had it,” Doug said. “In case he ever decided to move back home.” I jumped, startled. I hadn’t heard him come up behind me. For some reason, I was hit by a wave of guilt. Not that I’d planned to snitch anything from the room, but I knew instinctively I had stepped onto hallowed ground. “S’okay,” he said. “I stand in the doorway every now and then myself.” His glance swept over the bureau, the desk, the bed, the humpback trunk. Then he gently closed the door again. He took my elbow and turned me around. It was done subtly, but I got the message. “Well,” he said, rubbing a weary hand along the side of his face. “I’ll see you tomorrow night. We might get back late. You gonna be okay here with Ginny?” I assured him we would be fine. “I’m glad she won’t be alone…” He seemed to want to say more, but couldn’t finish the thought. I didn’t know how to respond, so I came up with something really clever. I said goodnight.
A couple of hours went by before I finally fell asleep. I managed to stay unconscious until something in the hall woke me. A one-eyed peek at the digital clock on the night table told me it was 6:22. I heard Doug’s muffled voice and realized he and Lillian were making their way down the staircase. I snuggled deeper into the cloud of a white down comfort. The next time I was aware of life on the planet was when a low-rider thundered along the street in front of the house. This time the digital informed me it was three minutes until eight. With a start, I remembered Ginny.
I jumped up, threw open the door, raced into the hall and stopped at the master bedroom. The door was still closed. I tried the handle, but it was locked. I rapped softly. “Ginny?” No reply. I debated about knocking more loudly, but decided against it. If she’d had a rough night, it would be thoughtless of me to wake her. I went back to the guest room to dress with a clear conscience. She’d surely surface when she got hungry. Decked out in white jeans and a blue striped tee, I went to the kitchen to fix myself a pot of coffee and see what I could find for breakfast. That’s when I noticed a TV screen built into the frig door. I stepped back and stared at the thing. I saw something like that once on the Oprah show, but I never dreamed people actually purchased such a monstrosity. Like a curious pup, I took a step closer and pushed a button on a panel of buttons, levers and doodads I couldn’t identify. The screen came to life and there was Ann Curry smiling beside the icemaker. It didn’t seem natural. I clicked off the set and pulled on what I hoped was the refrigerator handle. Nothing looked appetizing, not the pot of anchovies or the jar of caviar. Who ate this stuff? At home I’d be popping two slices of wheat bread into a toaster and unscrewing the lid on a jar of creamy peanut butter. I’d take it, with my cup of coffee, to the top step outside my back door to watch gulls cartwheel over a mostly empty beach. My neighbor to the south would probably be heading toward a rickety pier where his equally rickety fishing boat was tied-to. He’d wave at me. I’d lick peanut butter off my hand and wave back. Then I’d get up and go inside, wondering what I was going to do with the rest of the day. Like I was wondering right that moment. I spotted a dish of salmon covered with clear plastic, and a jar of dill pickles. I took a saucer from the cupboard, heaped it with pickles and cold fish, poured myself a cup of coffee, and headed toward the library I’d spotted the night before, off of the living room. I hoped Ginny wouldn’t faint when she found out I’d taken my meal outside the kitchen. I had a feeling things were done differently in the Stafford household than in my Florida cottage. Shelves were lined with every kind of book imaginable, organized into categories and alphabetized by author. There were more mystery novels than any other subject: Agatha Christie, Mary Higgins Clark, Patricia Cornwell, Nelson DeMille, Dick Francis, Mark Fuhrman, Erle Stanley Gardner, Sue Grafton, Jo Hiestand. I reached for Hiestand’s Torch Song. I vowed to be very, very careful as I eased myself on the expensive mauve sofa, holding the saucer high so as not to bump it against something accidentally. Wedged between a gazillion pillows, and half-submerged in the hollow of that wonderful couch, I picked up the Hiestand book to nibble and read. As much as I wanted to concentrate on the novel, I found my mind wandering. The room smelled of cranberries and pine, which I realized came from dozens of candles in an oversized wicker basket on the hearth. Sunlight sliced through open blinds, making rich puddles on the hardwood floor. I put the book aside and got up again. I needed to return the empty cup and saucer to the kitchen anyway. It was the perfect time to go exploring. I found a utility room tucked almost under the staircase, neat as a pin. When I went back out into the hall, I learned that a half-bath was squished in on the other side of the staircase, sharing a common wall with the utility room. Other than that, the entire downstairs was taken up by the massive living room with its two bay windows overlooking the street, the library beside it, the utility room, kitchen, and the hallway that ended at the staircase leading to the second floor. I remembered there was a third floor, at least the dormer windows visible from the outside indicated that another floor was up there. Further snooping revealed a narrow doorway at the rear of the kitchen. Opening it, a steep staircase led to what most likely had been servant’s quarters at some point in the past. It was probably where Doug slept last night. I glanced at the kitchen wall clock. It was ten after eleven and I hadn’t heard any sound in the house all morning. In a near panic, I dashed upstairs as fast as I’m capable of dashing and hurried to the master bedroom. The door was still closed. I pressed my ear against it, but heard nothing on the other side. I asked myself if it was time to worry. What if, in her despondency, Ginny did something none of us wanted to think about? What if she felt she couldn’t handle Jordan’s death or wanted to join him? I’d read about things like that happening. I raised my hand to knock then remembered Doug saying she’d gone nearly a day and a half without sleep. I talked myself into believing she needed to be left alone and wandered back downstairs. Where were her friends? Where were church members? I reminded myself that Jordan had died only day before yesterday. In Kansas City. Who in Topeka knew he was gone? Doug’s mother surely talked about it to her friends. And what about Lois, the aunt who owned a B&B somewhere in town? Where was she? I went back into the kitchen to pour myself another cup of coffee then scooted over far enough in the booth to see out the window. The backyard looked inviting. I took my coffee and went out the side door to investigate. The sky was blue and cloudless. Huge trees provided privacy from backyard neighbors. Shrubs and flowering plants were arranged in such a way the small space resembled a park with benches, birdhouses, and circular picnic table. Statues of angels peeked from behind bushes lining a walk that led to what was once a garage. It had been converted into an office or a studio. I pushed my nose against a glass inset in the door, but all I saw was my own reflection. I tried the handle. Locked. Lace curtains at the side windows were pulled together. A red-breasted robin sat on a railing and cocked its head at me. “Good morning,” I said. “You live here?” The bird moved its feet in a sideways dance, grew bored with me and flew away. Beyond the fence, the street was quiet. It gave no clue that anything could ever go wrong in this perfect neighborhood. Certainly nothing as wrong as murder. I shuddered, finished off my coffee and decided to go inside to check on Ginny again. The bedroom door was still closed and still locked. I rapped and called her name. There was no response. I lifted my hand to knock again, but decided not to and went back to the library where I retrieved the Hiestand novel from the sofa, and took it with me to the living room. Stretching out in a white wing chair, I put my feet on the footstool, breathed deeply of the scent of roses coming from a vase near the bay window. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed them the night before. Sunlight shone through the yellow petals, giving them a translucent sheen. The eleven blossoms Jordan gave his mom for her birthday. I got up and fetched myself another cup of hazelnut coffee, returned with it to the library to read some more. I could swear I was reading. I didn’t feel sleepy. Comfortable, yes, but not sleepy. So how come it was the sound of a car coming to stop beside the house that caused me to jerk my head up so quickly I nearly popped a vertebrae? My eyes flew open when I didn’t even realize they’d been shut. A grandfather clock gonged out four chimes. Was it possible three hours had slipped by since I’d entered the library? I hurried to the mudroom where I could see out a glass panel beside the door. A yellow Chrysler convertible was easing into the drive. The top was up and, while I couldn’t see who was behind the wheel, I recognized that it was a man. I opened the door as he brought the car to a halt. He cut the engine, got out, and went around to the passenger side. It took a second for me to realize it was Ginny climbing out with a bewildered expression on her face. By the time I gathered my wits the man had his arm around her and was leading to her to the porch. Ginny’s face was ghostly. Her knees wobbled. She sagged against the tall, rather thin, man who met my eyes and shook his head as they continued toward the door I held open. When she reached me, Ginny lurched out of the man’s arms and slumped into mine. “Oh, Dena!” she gasped. “Dena … Dena…” I wondered if this was the first she knew of my being there. She didn’t seem surprised to see me, just relieved. I held her up, which wasn’t easy. She was practically dead weight and she was bigger than me. Somehow we three got into the house. I was leading Ginny toward the living room where I intended to have her lie down on the sofa. No matter my intentions, it wasn’t to be. “No!” Ginny screamed. She wriggled free and began walking in a tight circle. I don’t think she was even aware of her action. I grabbed at her, and so did the man, but she fast-stepped away from us and bent over, holding her stomach. Her hair fell forward, muffling her moans. I cast the man a frantic glance, but his attention was on Ginny, not me. He was trying to coax her into a chair. That didn’t work, but she did collapse onto the oversized footstool where she put her elbows on her knees and buried her face in her hands. “Oh, my God, oh my God, oh my God,” she kept moaning. I mouthed the word “What?” to the man who was making me crazy by not explaining what was going on. Where’d he get Ginny? She had on a gray suit with black flats. A black-and-gray purse hung from her shoulder. When had she gotten dressed? When did she leave? Whose car was that? Who the hell was this guy anyway? He continued to ignore me. I dropped to my knees and placed my hands on the sides of Ginny’s face. It felt overly dramatic and awkward, but I didn’t know what else to do. She still didn’t look at me, but she did wrap her fingers around mine. I said her name softly then added, unnecessarily, “I’m here, honey.” She raised her eyes, but I didn’t recognize them. They were the eyes of a stranger, wild with anguish. With no warning, she grabbed me so quickly and so brutally the breath went out of me in a whoosh. Her body vibrated. I was reminded of the shimmy my car develops on the highway when I push it past sixty. I held her, trying to calm the spasms, while we rocked back and forth. I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “Shhhhh…shhhh…” Finally, Ginny’s sobs subsided enough that she stopped shaking so violently. A small cry, like that of a wounded animal, came from someplace deep inside her. “What the hell’s going on?” I whispered fiercely to the man. His watery eyes blinked rapidly. “She came to the church, pleading with me to take her to get Jordan’s things in Kansas City. I understand they’re still at the police station.” “How? I mean, how’d Ginny get to the church?” My head was reeling. I wasn’t in the backyard for more than half an hour. I read for how long? How long was my nap? When did she leave the house? How’d she leave without my hearing her? “She drove. The convertible is hers,” he said as if explaining to someone with a single digit IQ. I tried to think whether or not I’d seen a car parked beside the house when I went outdoors and remembered I had. That meant she had to have left while I was dozing. She wouldn’t have noticed me as she came down the stairs. But why didn’t I hear the car start up? Maybe I did. And maybe in that twilight place of half-consciousness, I dismissed the sound as a car passing in the street. It was the only explanation I could come up with, but it wasn’t good enough. I’d put my hand on Ginny’s arm when she screamed. Now I realized I was hurting her. Or would have been hurting her if she’d been more aware. I could probably have cut her with a razor and she wouldn’t have felt it. The pain she was going through was beyond anything that had to do with flesh. The man, whom I deduced to be their minister, stood there watching us for an awkward moment, which surprised me. Didn’t he routinely deal with this sort of thing? “Doug—Mr. Stafford—should probably come home,” he finally said. “Can you reach him?” “No need,” I replied. “I’ll call her mother-in-law at the gallery.” “I already did that. She said something about an art shipment having just arrived. She has to make some kind of arrangements before she can leave. She’ll be along as soon as she can close up.” He leaned to Ginny. “Jennifer, I’ve got to go now, but I’ll be free in about three hours. Do you want me to come back then?” Without looking up, she shook her head. Her sobs were quieter now. Her face was buried in her hands again as she rocked back and forth, by herself this time. The clergyman hesitated as if trying to think what else he could do. He must have realized the answer to that was “nothing” because, with little hesitant steps, he minced his way toward the front door. “My church is just a few blocks from here,” he said, letting me know I didn’t need to offer him a ride. Which I wasn’t even thinking of doing. He reached into his back pocket, brought out his wallet and removed a business card. Handing it to me, he said, “Call me later, if you will. There are several things we’re going to have to work out over the next day or so. She’s got to consider—” He was grating on my nerves. I nodded in an attempt to stop him from saying words like casket and body and funeral arrangements. Ginny didn’t need to deal with any of that right now. After he was gone, I glanced at the card in my hand. Reverend Quinn Ketterman, First Church of Our Lord, Topeka, Kansas. His cell phone number, email address, and website url were listed along the bottom edge. Ginny raised her face to look at me. Her normally serene features were set in a kind of determination that startled me. When she tried to get to her feet, she wobbled badly. I caught her, but she pushed me back. Not harshly, but firmly. “I’ve got to go to Kansas City,” she said. “No.” I put my hands on her shoulders. This time she didn’t try to shrug me away. “We need to get hold of Doug, honey.” Surely he could talk sense to her. She leaned against me. Her sobs were dry. She gagged several times. I had no idea what to do next. I wanted Doug to walk through the door. Or Lillian. Or Doug’s mother. Somebody. Anybody. I pulled Ginny’s head to my shoulder and kissed her temple while stroking a lock of hair back from her forehead. I don’t have any idea how long we stayed that way, with Ginny limp in my arms, dry-heaving. And I don’t remember the grandfather clock making any sound. Time didn’t exist. Finally, Ginny looked at me with an expression I didn’t recognize. She’d aged twenty years in one afternoon. “I have to go and get his things,” she said quietly. I started to answer when I heard a cell phone ring. Her purse had fallen to floor. That was where the sound was coming from. “Ginny?” She looked at her pocketbook like it was a reptile coiled to strike, picked it up, shoved her hand inside, pulled out the little black box, and thrust it at me. I was surprised, but recovered enough to flip it open. “Hello?” "Who’s this? Is that you, Dena? Mom just called. What’s this about Ginny driving over to the church? What the hell’s going on? Never mind. We’re on our way. Lillian’s with me.” He broke the connection. “Doug,” I said, dropping the phone back in her purse. “They’re coming home.” Ginny drew in a deep breath and wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist. The gesture was a gallant effort to pull herself together. “Paxico’s twenty-five miles away,” she said, in a surprisingly steady voice. She glanced at the grandfather clock. “They’ll have to deal with commuter traffic. They won’t be here for nearly an hour.” I hadn’t seen anything in Topeka that even resembled what I call commuter traffic, but I didn’t argue. I was too busy trying to keep up with Ginny’s quick changes. Moments ago she was incoherent. Now she was talking in a calm voice about Topeka traffic. I guess that’s the way people experiencing deep shock behave. I probably did the same thing after Alan’s death. I don’t remember. Looking back on it, it’s all a blur. I told myself that someday this would be a blur in Ginny’s mind, too. Someone would ask her what she did when she heard the news about her son. She’d think for a moment before confessing she couldn’t remember. “Why don’t I make some coffee while we wait?” I said without realizing I was using the condescending tone most people save for imbeciles, little children, and very old people. She shrugged me away and walked a few feet. “The police said Jordan’s things are being held at a police precinct in Westport.” I didn’t know Westport, but I assumed it was an area of Kansas City. She continued, utterly at peace. “I need to pick them up.” “Of course we will. Tomorrow. First thing.” “I need them now.” I had to stall until Doug got home. He’d know what to do. “Oh, honey,” I said. “We can’t leave before Doug and Lillian get here.” Grief took a nasty swipe across her features. In the blink of an eye, her face crumbled. Like a TV cartoon face, it broke into a hundred pieces. Her knees buckled again, but I caught her before she hit the floor. In the next split second, she broke from me, grabbed her purse and bolted. I was so stunned, I did nothing to stop her. A good two seconds elapsed before I chased her down the hall, through the mudroom, and out the side door. I reached the driveway just as Ginny yanked open the door on the driver’s side of her car, and jumped in. Her hands were shaking too hard to get the key into the ignition, which gave me the opportunity to make a grab at her. My timing couldn’t have been worse. She got the car started and stomped on the accelerator. I was running on instinct alone. With Ginny gunning the car in Reverse, I jogged alongside, struggling to hang onto the door handle, but I was in danger of losing my balance. “Stop!” I shouted, trying to hold on. “Stop, Ginny!” “Get away!” she shouted back. She was nearly to the street now. “Look,” I said in a rush of words. “I’ll drive you there. Just stop, Ginny. You’re in no condition to drive. Let me take you.” She jammed her foot on the brake and looked straight at me. I’d never witnessed insanity, but I have to think it looks something like what I was seeing. Her pupils were dilated to pinpoints, but her voice was so placid it raised hairs on the back of my neck. “You’ll drive me to Westport?” “Yes.” My pulse pounded in my ears. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. “You promise?” “I promise.” Her lower lip was the only hint I had that she was about to fall apart again. It trembled before she burst into tears. Without getting out of the car, she shoved the gear into PARK and scooted to the passenger seat. The engine was still running. I got in, kicking myself for reacting emotionally. It made no sense for us to drive into Kansas City. We should be waiting at the house for Doug and Lillian. And for Doug’s mother. I was certain she would be frantic if she got to the house and found us gone. She’d probably start checking hospitals. With my hand on the steering wheel, I looked at Ginny and tried to speak in a rational tone of voice. “Your mother-in-law will be worried sick if we’re gone when she gets here. And Doug, too. Don’t you think we should at least leave them a note?” She stared at me for a moment before she yanked open her purse, flipped the lid on her cell phone and punched in a single digit. Then she handed it to me. Her voice was on the verge of breaking when she said, “Tell Doug where we’re going. I don’t want to talk. Not to him, not to anybody. Just drive, Dena. You promised.” I had pulled off of Woodward and onto Third Street by the time Doug finally picked up. “It’s Dena,” I said. “I’m shaking so damn hard I dropped the phone. What’s the matter? Where’s Ginny?” “We’re on our way to Kansas City.” “You’re doing what? Dammit, Dena, put Ginny on the phone!” I tried to explain, but an avalanche of curses drowned me out. When he’d finished telling me where I could go and where I could stuff things when I got there, he drew in a long, frustrated breath and said more calmly, “I’m so f’ing mad at you, Dena Brooke, I could climb right through this phone and break your neck.” He sighed again, long and loud. “All right, all right.” The fight had gone out of him. “The police told me Jordan’s things are being held at the Westport police precinct. Is that where she wants to go?” I told him it was. “You drive. Don’t let her get behind the wheel.” “I’m driving.” “Think you can find the precinct?” Crap, I wasn’t even sure I could find Kansas City. “Just a minute. I wrote it down. It’s in my … here it is. Twelve Hundred East Linwood Boulevard. Tell Ginny the address. We both know Kansas City pretty good. We’ve lived around these parts most all our lives.” His voice sounded ancient. He told me that he would call his mother when we hung up, but I could tell he was still furious with me.
It didn’t hit me until I came to the toll on I-70 that I’d run out of the house without my purse. Here I was, breaking every speed law in the book and I didn’t have my wallet, which meant I didn’t have my driver’s license. I ripped the ticket out of the automatic dispenser and continued on, careful not to exceed the posted speed limits.
The sun was sliding out of sight. Without benefit of an Internet map, I was flying blind. Highway markers pointed me to downtown Kansas City then I was off the freeway, squinting up at street signs I couldn’t make out in the dying light. Clouds thickened. The air smelled of approaching rain. Every now and then I’d glance at Ginny, but I couldn’t even imagine what she must have been thinking, or what she saw and heard in her head. Without bothering to ask permission, I took the necessary change out of Ginny’s purse when we got to the tollbooth. I don’t think she even noticed. The security arm lifted once the coins hit their mark. By stopping to get directions from two pedestrians, and one service station attendant who spoke a smattering of English, I finally made it to the address Doug had given me—only to learn we were nowhere near Westport. It was the right address, but the wrong place. To find out I was in the wrong place, I had to park the car in a visitor’s lot and go into a building that looked, from the outside, like nobody was home. I was afraid to leave Ginny alone in the car, not just because it was dark on that side of the parking area but because I wasn’t sure what she would do if she suddenly realized she was by herself in a strange location. I ran around to her side of the car, opened the door, and reached for her the way you’d help an invalid when they got home from a hospital stay. “That’s a girl,” I said when she got to her feet and put an arm around my waist. We walked slowly toward a side entrance. If we had been in front maybe I would have noticed an inscription on the building that read Kansas City Missouri Police Department, Central Patrol Division, but it wouldn’t have meant anything to me. Nor would the fact I was on Linwood Boulevard and not Westport Road have meant anything. The two could have been interchangeable for all I knew. I was oblivious to all of that when I opened the door for Ginny. “We here?” She blinked at the stark light inside. “We’re here,” I said, with no idea of what it meant. We were here, in a room filled with desks and policemen, though no one seemed interested in the two women who just straggled in. Also, no one seemed to notice that one of those two was obviously walking wounded. I found a counter with an open cage and an African-American woman behind it who seemed bored and indifferent. The long and the short of it is that we were where we shouldn’t be and nowhere near where we needed to be. The bored woman sparked to life long enough to make a phone call when I told her what we were there to do and the names of the parties involved. When she finished with the call, she said we should be at the downtown police headquarters. I told her I thought we were downtown. Wasn’t Westport downtown? Were we not in Westport? Walking away from us, she said, “Twelfth and Locust. That’s where you need to go.” Holding onto Ginny was like hauling around a mannequin, but at least she didn’t resist. I must have looked as lost as I was feeling, because a fellow in uniform came by then and asked if I needed help. He ended up drawing a crude map on a piece of scratch paper, directing us from Here to There. Ginny kept perfectly quiet throughout this whole ordeal—until we started out the door. For no reason I know of, she turned back to the room and said to no one in particular, “Jordan was murdered. I just can’t believe it. It has to be a mistake…don’t you think?” No one seemed to hear her or, if they did, maybe they had so many weirdos wander in and out they didn’t think anything of the zombie woman making such a statement. I gave her a little squeeze and whispered, “Let’s go, Ginny.” Like an obedient child, she let me lead her out of the building and back to the car. After I fastened a seat belt around each of us, I punched in Doug’s number on Ginny’s cell phone to tell him about the inaccurate address and to give him the correct one. “I’m just now at Bonner Springs,” he said from the other end of the line. I remembered passing a road sign on I-70 with that name on it, but I had no idea how close or how far it was from where we were. “Go on downtown. We’ll see you there. Is Ginny all right?” Of course not, you twit, I wanted to say, but instead I said, “She’s holding up.” “See you as fast as I can get us there.” We hung up and I turned on the overhead to study the map the officer had sketched. The pencil marks looked foreign, hard to follow. I peered out the window, trying to orient myself. A light rain had started to fall. Great. As if it wasn’t difficult enough to read street signs without rain falling on them, too. I hit the electric switch on my armrest to roll up the window on Ginny’s side of the car, but kept the one down beside me. I started the motor and eased onto the boulevard. It was dark and I was unfamiliar with the area. Ginny rocked back and forth, making those little animal sounds again, alternating between sobs and moans, which was better than the chilling silences that went between. Cars swished by, splattering the windshield so that I had to switch on the wipers every few minutes. It wasn’t raining hard enough to keep them on, but the glass needed an occasional swipe in order to keep dirty streaks from distorting my vision. Every once in a while, I’d turn on the dome light to check the map again. When I saw the Jackson County Courthouse, I was pretty sure we were in the right neighborhood. The Kansas City Missouri Police Department headquarters is so imposing it would scare the hell out of the most law-abiding citizen. Seven, maybe eight, stories tall, the big illuminated clock, dead center under its roofline, indicated it was six forty-eight. I found a parking space at the nearly empty curb on Locust, across from City Hall. Again, I helped Ginny out of the car. Again, we went inside a building that seemed cold and intimidating. First though, we had to walk to the front, where we climbed a concrete staircase that gave my calves the kind of burn I hadn’t felt since I ran a mile on the beach with Alan. Ginny sagged against me then rallied. Grasping my arm as if it were a lifeline, we marched up to the wide, glass-door entrance. My hair clung to my scalp and raindrops trickled down my collar as we ducked inside. I was surprised by the lack of metal detectors. There was no one to frisk us or to empty our pockets. There wasn’t anybody around except a BONDS clerk in a cage like the one at the Linwood precinct. I told him we were there to claim the belongings of Jordan Stafford. That elicited a long blank stare from the man, which meant either he didn’t hear me, didn’t care, or was waiting for more information. On the assumption it was the latter, I explained that Jordan had been killed Monday morning in Westport, and that an officer in the Linwood Precinct directed us here. He told me to wait, that someone would be with us shortly. Actually, it turned out to be longly. I was concerned about Ginny. She had almost no color to her face and she kept making little gasping sounds, as if it were difficult to breathe. I tightened my arm around her waist as we stood waiting for whatever was going to happen next. Several minutes later, a stocky, pleasant-faced man, in maybe his late thirties, stepped out of an elevator I hadn’t noticed until then, and approached us. “Mrs. Stafford?” he said to me. I shook my head. “No, I’m Dena Brooke, a family friend. This is Jordan’s mother. Jennifer Stafford. Her husband and daughter are on their way.” “Detective Bellucci.” He offered me his hand. “Let’s go to my office.” We went with him back to the elevator and got off in a small foyer on the second floor. He held a door open for us and pretty soon we were in what appeared to be a scene out of Law and Order, sans actors, directors and a film crew of one hundred and twenty-five. Desks occupied a large room. I counted only two other men and one woman, who paid us not the least bit of attention as we followed Bellucci to his desk in a far corner. He was either awfully neat or he had little to do. There was nothing on his desktop except a phone, a blotter pad, digital clock, two photos with their backs to us, a canister of pens and pencils, a calculator, a couple of file folders in the IN box, and several more in the OUT box. A computer was on a freestanding table, the kind typewriters occupied in the old days. Somewhere, on one of the other desks across the room, a phone rang. A subdued woman’s voice said, “Detective Florez”. My attention came back to Bellucci when he invited us to have a seat. He moved to a chair behind his desk, indicating two others across from him. “Can I get you something?” he asked. “Coffee?” “No. Thank you.” Ginny executed one of her quick-change miracles again and sat up straight. Her cheeks even flushed with a bit of pink. “How did it happen?” she asked in a steady voice. “I’m afraid it’s too soon to know the details, but we—” “Where was he?” “Where?” Bellucci leaned forward to lift a manila folder from the IN box. He opened it, scanned it briefly, closed it again. “In the twelve hundred block of Chalmer.” “Where? I mean, in someone’s home or—?” “On the street. He was on foot.” Ginny’s face fell. The pink in her cheeks disappeared. “He lives at eight-nineteen. He was almost home.” She swallowed hard. “I was told he was…he was…I was told that it was murder.” She tripped on the word murder. “How did it happen?” The look on her face was almost too painful to watch. Bellucci waited for the moment to pass before he said, “It appears to have been a drive-by shooting.” Ginny nodded. “Shooting.” She looked at me. “He was shot.” Her chin trembled again. Her voice had fallen to little more than a whisper. The detective opened a bottom drawer and unobtrusively placed a box of tissue on the edge of his desk, within easy reach. “We don’t have the details yet,” he repeated. “Where is he?” Ginny asked. “He’s at the City Morgue.” “May I see him?” Rather than respond to her question, he turned to me. “You say Mr. Stafford will be here momentarily?” “When we talked on the phone he was near Bonner Springs.” “How long ago was that?” Crud, I didn’t know. I couldn’t keep track of time. It kept stopping on me then speeding up then stopping again. I shrugged. “Just before we left the Linwood Precinct.” Ginny moved to the edge of her chair. “I’ve come to get his things.” “I’m afraid we can’t release them quite yet.” “Why not?” “We have to hold them until the investigation’s complete.” Ginny frowned. “What is there to investigate? If it was a drive-by…?” He shot me a glance that said he was reluctant to continue with that line of conversation. Nevertheless, he replied, “We follow-up on every homicide, even drive-bys.” Ginny’s eyes were full, but she was holding on. “Do you usually catch them?” she asked in a tiny voice. “The people who shoot as they drive by.” Bellucci shook his head. “Usually not, unless there are witnesses. So far, we haven’t been able to locate anyone who saw the incident.” Ginny pulled a tissue from the box and wadded it in her hand, but she still wasn’t crying. In what must have been a massive effort to remain rational, she said, “Where was he shot? Was he shot just once?” She couldn’t bring herself to say it, but I think she was asking if he died quickly, without pain. “Ballistics has determined that two shots were fired. According to the Medical Examiner’s preliminary report, your son suffered a fatal head wound. A second bullet lodged in his shoulder, but it was non-life threatening.” He could tell by Ginny’s expression he still hadn’t told her what she desperately needed to know. “It would have happened very quickly. He probably didn’t even know what hit him.” Ginny nodded, but she couldn’t look at us, so she watched her hands twist in her lap. “How can you be sure? I mean, if there were no witnesses…” She stopped and cocked her head to one side, probably trying to visualize the scene. “What time did it happen?” “Around two, two-thirty, Monday morning.” I couldn’t get the question that had been bothering me, out of my mind. Doug told me the Topeka police informed Ginny around four in the afternoon. Why did they wait so long? I had an even better question. What was Jordan doing on the street at two in the morning? He’d said he couldn’t stay the night with his family because he had an early appointment. He made it sound as if it were important. Surely he’d want to have gotten a good night’s sleep. Jordan hadn’t been a partygoer in Hollywood; I doubted he’d become one in Kansas City. The expression on Ginny’s face told me similar thoughts were racing through her mind. What came next happened so abruptly I didn’t even see Ginny get to her feet. One minute she was sitting in the chair, making a noble effort to keep herself in check then, suddenly, she was up, preparing to sprint across the room. I think Bellucci was as startled as I was. We made a grab for her at the same time, but she was already barreling toward the door. “Ginny!” I called out. I could see the detective wasn’t going to be a lot of help, so I raced down the hallway on my own. “Wait! I’ve got the car keys! Where do you think you’re going?” I suppose security could have stopped her, or me, or both of us, but no one made any attempt to keep us from sailing down the stairs. The rain had kicked up several notches while we were inside. It threw little wet darts at the top of my head as I caught up with Ginny, who had already run down the front steps, headed toward the car. I grabbed her by the arm, but that speeded me up rather than slowing her down. “What the hell are you doing, Gin?” I demanded, trotting along beside her. Without answering, she got in the Chrysler on the passenger side, and slammed the door shut. Rain pelted me from all directions while I stood there with a dumb expression on my face before I gathered enough sense to at least get in out of the weather. Once inside the car I sighed, but I didn’t know what to say. A trickle of water slid off my nose and plopped on my chest. “Take me to the City Morgue.” She said it as if she were weary to her bones. Which I’m sure she was. I started the car, realizing I had no idea which way to go. Ginny did one of those eerie mind reading things, and said, “Twenty-Fourth and Holmes. I’ll show you. Just, please, let’s go.” I shook my head, like a puppy on the beach after an ocean swim. Water stopped dripping off my lashes and I was able to see again as I pulled onto Locust. When a bolt of lightning flashed over the courthouse, I got a glimpse of roiling black clouds, but only for an instant. I dug Ginny’s cell phone from the console where I’d dropped it after the last time we spoke, and hit the one digit that rang Doug’s number. He answered before it completed the first ring. “We’re almost to Locust,” he barked before I had a chance to say anything. “We just passed the Broadway exit. We should be there in about—” “The detective said they can’t release Jordan’s things yet. We’re on our way to City Morgue.” “What? Good Lord, Dena, what the hell’s going on? I thought you were going to wait for us at headquarters.” “Ginny’s determined to go on to the morgue.” “No! Absolutely not. I forbid it.” Forbid it? I hadn’t heard a male say that since I burned my bra and started opening my own doors. “No!” he repeated. “Okay, so what do you suggest?” He didn’t answer right away. In the background, I could hear Lillian talking, but I couldn’t make out the words. Finally, he said, “All right. We’ll meet you at the morgue. Let me think where it is.” “Ginny said it’s at Twenty-Fourth and Holmes.” “Oh, yeah. That’s right. It’s over by the Truman Medical Center.” That cleared things up real good. “Where are you now?” he asked, as if I’d know. I’d finally put the window up on my side of the car, but now I rolled it down and squinted into the rain, trying to locate a street sign. “I’m, uh… still on Locust. I think we just passed Seventeenth.” “You’re headed south. Locust is going to end at Twentieth. Go west when you get to Twentieth.” How to tell the man I only know east from west at sunup and sundown? I guess he heard the frustration in my silence because he took a deep breath and said, “You’ll be turning to your right on Twentieth.” That was helpful. I know left from right. If I get confused, I can always remember which hand I use to hold a fork. “Ginny in any condition to give you directions?” “We can pray,” I replied. “I’ve already got that base covered.”
It was a little before seven-thirty when we reached the morgue. I know I saw people. I know we talked to them. But I couldn’t have identified a single soul if my life depended on it. For some reason, the edges of that memory are blurred. Maybe I was on emotional overload. What I do remember distinctly is that Ginny became nearly hysterical when she was told Jordan’s body had already been picked up for autopsy, by the Topeka coroner’s office.
“Why did the detective sent us to the Jackson county facility?” I remember asking. “Until recently,” somebody—I can’t remember who—said, “we would have been the ones to perform the autopsy. Our policy recently changed. Now, if the victim is from out-of-town, we call the coroner in that jurisdiction and they pick up the body as quickly as possible. The young man you’re asking about has been gone since yesterday.” “But he lives in Westport,” I lamented. It was Ginny who explained wearily, “He’d never gotten around to having his driver’s license changed. I’ve been after him for months to take care of it. He always says he will. Tomorrow. It still has our Topeka address.” And so we left. Once more I was driving in the rain, and once more I was punching in Doug’s number on Ginny’s cell phone. The conversation was short, unpleasant, and ended with Doug snapping that he’d see us back at the house. Time clicked by. I heard a distant drum of thunder. A flash of lightning reflected in gutter crud as I drove along. Then we were on the freeway. I turned on the radio and fiddled around with the knobs until I found an oldies station playing a Perry Como ballad. I glanced at Ginny. Mercifully, she had fallen asleep. I reached over to adjust the angle of her head so she wouldn’t have a crick in her neck when she woke up. She never even stirred. I had been in the Midwest since Tuesday evening. It was now Wednesday night. How was it possible for so much to change in such a short period of time? I was having trouble taking it all in. I found myself remembering how I’d perceived the Staffords’ out in L.A. The perfect family. I’d put Ginny and Doug in a category stamped INDESTRUCTIBLE. Nothing ugly could ever happen to such nice people who loved each other so deeply. They were exempt from tragedy and confusion, and all the other things we lesser mortals have to contend with. I kept thinking, Nothing is ever as it appears to be. My mind skittered around as my mind always does when it’s confused. How did the police know the shooting occurred between two and two-thirty a.m. if there were no witnesses? I’m not a criminologist, but hadn’t I read somewhere that even a coroner can’t pinpoint death to the minute? Or even to the hour. Why was Bellucci so sure of the time? A couple of big rigs roared by, spitting gushers of water on the windshield, but mostly the road was empty. I reminded myself that I was without my driver’s license, and stayed to the limit posted then I tried to let my mind go blank, but it didn’t stay that way long. My return airline ticket was for Friday, but Ginny might need me to—do what, come to think of it? She had family who would be at her side to do everything she needed done. She had a minister who would tend to details concerning funeral services. And she probably had a network of friends from the art guild and who knows where else. I was giving myself way too much credit. In fact, I’d probably be in the way if I stayed. I decided the best thing I could do for everyone was to go on home as scheduled. “Isn’t that Doug’s Jeep?” Ginny said, leaning toward the dashboard. “Up ahead. Isn’t that his Jeep?” I wasn’t aware she was awake and, frankly, I hadn’t noticed a car ahead, even though the rain had stopped and a sliver of moon was sliding from behind a shag of cloud. My concentration had been elsewhere. “Tap the horn,” she said. Instead, I flicked the headlights. The driver, Doug or whoever, didn’t seem to notice at first. Then he slowed, moved to the shoulder of the road, and stopped. I pulled alongside so Ginny could roll down her window. “How’d you get ahead of us?” she called, sounding eerily rational. Instead of answering, he told her that Lillian wanted to be dropped off at Tabitha’s. Whoever that was. “I want to go to the morgue, Doug,” Ginny said. “I called a few minutes ago. They’re closed. Won’t open till eight in the morning.” He craned his neck to look at me. None too kindly, I noted. “Follow me,” he said, and pulled back onto the highway. Rather than turn where I expected him to turn, he continued on the freeway. Surprisingly, the closer we got to town, the more hills and trees crowded the landscape. At the Gage Boulevard exit, Doug flipped on the turn signal. We veered to the right, where trees were still abundant and even more hills rolled gently. Finally, I saw a Hot Java Café sign, and figured we must be gaining on civilization. A block or so further, an electronic billboard outside the Fidelity State Bank and Trust building informed those passing by that it was fifty-nine degrees at eight forty-two p.m. I stopped for a light behind Doug’s Jeep at Twenty-Ninth and Gage then we continued past a couple of small parks that fronted a sprawling V.A. hospital. I followed half a car length behind, as Doug turned onto Fifteenth Street. Although it was dark, it was apparent we had entered an affluent neighborhood. Houses loomed large against a night sky sprinkled with stars. I slowed the convertible behind Doug at Pembroke, where he stopped at a traffic sign then proceeded left. The street grew more narrow, trees and shrubbery more abundant. Doug slowed in front of a bungalow with a swing on its porch. A beam of light poured from the foyer, through a front door with four large glass insets. When the Cherokee stopped at the curb, the door was thrown open as if someone had been watching for its arrival. I waited with the headlights on and the motor running. A girl in her late teens or early twenties walked quickly along the front walk, toward Lillian who was emerging from the Jeep. The girl hugged Lillian, waved solemnly at Doug and Ginny, and led Lillian back to the house with one arm around her friend’s shoulder. Then the Cherokee and I continued on our way. At the corner of Huntoon and Oakley was a group of ornamental buildings beautifully lit, though none of them appeared to be open. Pockets, I was thinking. Pockets of charm, pockets of squalor. What an interesting little town, this place called Topeka. All of these things were playing around in my head when I noticed we were approaching Potwin. It came as something of a surprise to realize I was seeing color in Topeka where I had only seen gray, while Ginny, Doug and Lillian were seeing gray in their life where, only a few short days before, color had flourished. It was incredible that lives so well ordered, now centered around something as chilling as murder.
I heard the grandfather clock strike the hour of nine from inside the house as I stepped out of the Chrysler. Doug pulled the Jeep several feet ahead, nosing in almost against the studio. I went up the porch steps and waited while he helped Ginny out. Then he folded her into his arms, burying his face in her hair. Finally, he stood back and guided Ginny to where I was standing. He fiddled in his pocket for house keys, found them, opened the door, and reached for Ginny’s hand as I followed them into the house. I could smell coffee coming from the kitchen.
The woman at the booth, holding a cup in both hands, had a mane of thick white hair, a strong chin and eyes that were bright with intelligence. She wore a colorful over-blouse with what appeared to be black velvet trousers. Whatever make-up she’d started the day with, had worn away. I doubted she noticed or cared. Waving a hand toward the coffeepot, she said, “It’s fresh”, but her attention was fastened on Ginny. Doug gave the woman a hug. “Mom, I want you to meet Dena.” He straightened up and turned to me. “Dena, this is my mother. Ruth.” “I’m glad you could make it,” she said to me. I smiled, feeling like the outsider I was. “It’s good to see you up and about,” Ruth said to Ginny who was taking three mugs from the cupboard. I brought containers of cream and sugar to the table, filled my own cup, and rubbed Ginny lightly on her back as I passed by, on my way to a tall stool at the counter. I sat on it and swiveled enough to face the booth where Doug and Ginny eased in across from his mother. Then the family put their hands together on the table, making a pyramid of them. No one said anything for a very long time. I was aware of the steady drip of rain from eaves, of a tiny, throaty rumble of diminishing thunder, the scent of coffee, the ticking of the grandfather clock. “Well,” Ruth finally sighed, “there are things we need to talk about.” Ginny closed her eyes. She didn’t want to talk about things. “Where’s Lillian?” Ruth asked her son. “She’s spending the night with Tabitha.” Ruth looked at me. “Dena, will you be able to stay on for a while?” “If I’m needed, yes.” “We’d appreciate it.” Doug took a long drink from his cup. “I called Marty on our way back from Kansas City. He told me to forget about the picture and take care of what has to be done at home, but I know what a jam he’s in.” Ginny rubbed her forehead wearily. Ruth said to her son, “If you could stay home one more day, Dena and I will be able to take care of everything that needs to be done.” “I can take care of things,” Ginny protested, in a small, defiant voice. “Of course you can,” Ruth agreed. “But it will be easier with Dena here to help.” What no one was saying was the f word: funeral. “I’m going to lie down.” Ginny glanced from one of us to the other, as if asking our permission. Doug was seated on the outside. He had to stand to let her out. His arm went around her waist as she passed, but she gently pushed him away. “Please,” she said. “I need to be by myself.” I could tell it was hard for Doug to let her go, but he sat back down. “Have you talked to Lois?” he asked Ruth, once Ginny was out of the room. “I called her before I left the gallery. She wanted to come right over, but I told her you’d gone into Kansas City to get Jordan’s things.” She stopped and looked into the distance, then swallowed hard. “What the hell happened, Doug?” “I told you on the phone everything we know, Mom.” He nodded my direction without looking at me. “She and Ginny spoke to the detective in Kansas City.” He glanced at me. “What’s his name?” “Bellucci.” Ruth shifted her attention my direction. “What’d he say?” I repeated what had transpired during our brief encounter at police headquarters. Ruth said nothing for a time, letting it sink in. Then she said to Doug, “Have you had a chance to think about a service?” “I guess we’ll have it at the church.” “That makes sense.” Ruth bit her lip, staring at the top of the table. When she could trust her voice again, she said, “Why don’t I have everybody out to my place after the burial?” “Yeah. That’d be good.” I wanted to say something, but it was like waiting for the perfect breaker on an ocean shoreline. Where would I jump in? “What can I be doing?” I finally asked. Ruth said, “Just be here, Dena. Ginny’s going to need you.” I sensed that Doug and his mother needed to be alone. I told Ruth I was glad to have met her, mumbled goodnight, and slipped out of the kitchen. When I reached the upstairs landing, I could see the door to Jordan’s room was open a little. As I got closer, I saw Ginny sitting on the side of his bed, cradling the vase of yellow roses Jordan had given her only a couple of days before. The last time I’d seen those flowers, they were on a table in the living room. Ginny wasn’t aware of me in the hallway. Moonlight played through the open curtains, bathing her in a strange, but gentle, light. Her face was buried in the roses. I didn’t have the heart to intrude. I don’t know how, but we all made it through the night. I suspect no one slept but me, though my dreams were disjointed and more than a little frightening. I couldn’t remember them when I woke up at seven the next morning, but the depression they caused lingered. I went to the window, and looked out. I’d neglected to close the drapes the night before. Sunlight bathed the red-bricked street. It struck me that nothing was changed from the last time I looked, and yet nothing would ever be the same. Like a scene out of an old Andy Hardy movie, a kid came along on his bike, throwing papers into yards. At one of the houses, he missed his target by several feet. The roll of plastic landed in a bed of well-tended flowers. The only way the owner was going to be able to retrieve it was to walk several steps into his prize blossoms. I hoped whoever lived there would be kind and not give the little fellow grief. I had a quick shower, brushed my teeth, pulled on a pair of jeans and another of the three tees I’d brought along. I felt a chill, but I knew it was me, not the weather, that was cold. I dreaded going downstairs. I didn’t know what to expect from Ginny. We had been together for hours the evening before, yet she hadn’t asked how I was or made any attempt at conversation. I needn’t have worried. She hadn’t yet left her room. Doug was talking on a phone he had pulled from the kitchen counter, to the booth. A yellow pad was in front of him, alongside a metal holder that held maybe a hundred small file cards. He jotted notes as he listened to someone on the other end of the line. I found a tall mug and went straight for the coffeepot. I made a gesture that asked if he wanted a refill. He nodded while continuing to make notes and listen. Every now and then he’d grunt. “I really appreciate this, Marty,” I heard him say, “I’ll get things squared away today at the funeral home…Yeah, we’ve got permission to film at the silo till seven. You’ll have to have Patrick clear it with the property manager if you run past that.” I slipped his cup in front of him, but I didn’t join him at the table. Instead, I stood at the counter, wondering if I should offer to fix his breakfast. “How’d you sleep?” he asked, replacing the receiver and blowing steam from his cup. I made a so-so gesture by rocking my open palm, and asked the same about Ginny. “She finally dozed off about an hour ago.” He glanced at the wall clock. “The morgue opens in fifteen minutes. She’s going to have a hissy fit if I go over there without her.” He put his elbows on the table, and lowered his head so that his eyes were pressed into the heel of his hands. Then he looked up again. “I guess I can wait. She needs the sleep…and Jordan…he’s not going anywhere.” “I’d better change my airline ticket if I’m going to stay a while longer.” I raised my brows expectantly, as if it were a question. Which it was. For all I knew, Doug would just as soon I head south. “Wh--? Oh, yeah. Do that, Dena. Maybe you wouldn’t mind addressing the funeral announcements Mom’s bringing by later this morning. I’m sorry to ask…God … there are so many. She’s lived around here her entire life. We’re related to half the town. If you meet any imbeciles while you’re in Topeka, they’re probably the offspring of our married cousins.” He got up and walked to a breadbox where he took out a loaf of seven-grain wheat, opened the package, and pulled out two dark slices. “Want some?” I shook my head. He took the cover off a four-slotted toaster, dropped in the bread, pushed down the lever. “I guess everybody in this file ought to get an invitation. The addresses are written down, all you have to do is copy them.” “Did he have a girlfriend?” “Jordan?” He shook his head. “Nothing serious. Girls were all over him—always had been—but he was at a place where getting his business up and running was the most important thing in his life. Speaking of business, I almost forgot about Cody. What the hell’s wrong with me?” He reached for the phone, dialed a number he knew by heart. I got up to take his toast out of the toaster when it popped up. I lay the slices on a paper napkin then took a cut-glass dish of butter from the refrigerator. I put the buttered toast in front of Doug as he said into the phone, “Cody? Doug.” His expression grew grim as he listened. “I know,” he said softly. “I know…Yeah, well, that’s what we were told, too. A drive-by. What the hell’s happening to our country? I’d expect this in L.A., but not Kansas City. Anyway…I’m grateful you weren’t with him.” He listened again. “I’ve been meaning to give you a call. I was wondering if you guys made it to the jazz festival Sunday evening. Then what happened? I mean, why the hell was Jordan out on the street at two in the morning?” He picked up a piece of toast like he was going to take a bite, but lost interest and put it back on the napkin. “I didn’t think so or you’d have let us know, but I had to ask…No, there’s nothing you can do out here. Ginny’s friend is here from Florida. I was thinking we’ll have the funeral at our church, Saturday, if the minister gives us the go-ahead, but I don’t know what time. Some people’ll be coming from out-of-town, so I’d guess afternoon would be best. I’d like it if you could join us at Mom’s after the burial... Good, good. Hey, Cody…if you hear anything about what Jordan was doing out on the street at that hour, let me know, will you?” He swallowed hard, reached for the mug of coffee that had grown cold, and took a long drink, listening. “Thanks. I’ll tell Ginny. I’ll let you know about the time soon’s I found out.” When he hung up, he toyed with the toast in front of him, but the color had drained from his face. I busied myself at the sink, mainly because I didn’t know what else to do. Doug got to his feet and slammed his fist on the countertop, all in one motion. “Who the hell did this to my boy!” He recovered slightly and started, unsteadily, for the door to the hallway then stopped. “Mom’ll be at the gallery, if you need her. She said she’ll drop by as soon as she can break free.” “Can’t the exhibit be cancelled?” Frankly, I was surprised it was still in the works. I assumed the gallery doors would be shut, a wreath hung, and that would be that, for a few days at least. “Not something this big. Contracts have been signed, thousands of dollars are at stake. Not our thousands. Hell, I’d take the loss and be glad of it, but it’s other people’s money. The actual show isn’t for another two weeks, thank God.” After he left the room, I rinsed our cups and wiped away toast crumbs, toying with the notion of making breakfast for Ginny and taking it up to her on a tray. Then I remembered she’d only been asleep for a couple of hours, and scrapped the idea. I picked up the card file and thumbed through it. Not surprisingly, there were at least a dozen Staffords in the S section: Walter & Mae, Perry & Eunice—Eunice had been crossed out then penciled back in. Guess somebody figured pencil was safer than pen since it didn’t look like the relationship was any too stable—Duke, Alice, Mortimer. Mortimer? Somebody actually named a kid Mortimer? Maybe they hadn’t wanted children. Lois was in there, too, as was Ruth. I stopped browsing when Doug came back into the room. He’d shaved and showered, but he still looked like hell. He said that, in case of an emergency, he could be reached at Brennan’s funeral home where he was going to choose a casket and make arrangements. From there, he planned to go on to Lardmer Monuments to pick out a headstone. I wondered if Ginny shouldn’t be in on such details, but Doug knew better than I what she was up to handling. He no sooner left than Ruth came by to deliver the invitations I was to address. After the usual greeting, she inclined her head toward the second floor. “I’ll tiptoe up and look in on her,” she said. I opened the package of note cards and envelopes, tossed away the cellophane that held them together, found a stick pen in a drawer under the counter, and arranged the card file in front of the tall stool where I intended to work for the rest of the day. When Ruth came back down, she didn’t return to the kitchen, but waved as she passed by, on her way out the front door. I called the travel agency that had arranged my flight and asked if I could keep my return open ended. That’s when I learned those kinds of courtesies are a thing of the past. For one hundred and fifty dollars I could change my return, but I had to come up with a solid date. I chose one at random, a week from Saturday, and we concluded our business. But I couldn’t focus on filling out invitations. I kept thinking about murder. Why do people point a gun at a total stranger and pull the trigger? What kind of sick thrill could that give them? Somehow I got past the A’s in the file cards and was headed into the B’s when a female voice call from the mudroom, “Anybody here?” I hadn’t heard a car pull up or the side door open. Whoever it was must have either walked or left their car out front. “In the kitchen,” I answered. By now a woman with wild dark hair was coming through the doorway. About as wide as she was tall, her muumuu swished dramatically in her wake as she swooped in on me. I liked her immediately. “Lois Lane. Doug’s cousin. I take it you’re Dena,” she said, charging into the room, “I can’t believe what’s happened, I just can’t believe it. Where’s Ginny and Doug?” “Ginny’s upstairs. She just dozed off a couple of hours ago.” “Well, thank God she let him back in his room. Did he go to work? I see the Jeep’s gone.” “No. He’s at the funeral home.” “Ruth didn’t have any details when she called last evening. What’d the police say?” I told her about the conversation with Bellucci, and our visit to the Kansas City morgue, which prompted her to shake her head and sigh as she sat on another of the tall stools at the counter. She swiveled to face the window then rotated back to me. “I don’t know what to do. I guess there isn’t anything anyone can do.” Her eyes filled with tears, but she fought them back. “We’ve got punks out there as soon blow you or me to kingdom come, but they live to be ripe old convicts that we end up supporting for the rest of their lives. How come a good guy like Jordan…?” She stopped to draw in another deep breath. “I guess I need to be contacting relatives, but I’ve got a B&B packed with people. I don’t know how I’ll find time—” “Doug asked me to send everybody an announcement.” I pointed to the card file. “I got past all of the A’s.” “When’s the service? Anybody know yet?” “He told Cody it’ll be on Saturday. I’m leaving the time blank right now. I’ll have to go back and add it after Doug talks to their minister.” “Those announcements can’t reach anybody in time. Mailing them doesn’t make sense. Nobody’s making any damn sense. You’re going to have to call them on the phone.” Why didn’t I think of that? I looked at the thick card file. She continued. “Ruth wants everybody to come to her house after the burial. Tell Doug and Ginny I’ll handle the food.” She went to the refrigerator and removed a photo I hadn’t noticed fixed in place by a holy cross magnet. She stared at it with a thoughtful expression that morphed into grief. “It’s like being custodian…” she whispered, but it was more to the picture than to me. She looked up then, as if suddenly remembering I was in the room. “Secrets, Dena. We’ve all got them…” Her voice gave away to sobs. “Crap,” she said under her breath, and pulled a paper towel from a roller fastened under a cabinet. She blew her nose into it, opened a door under the counter, and found a trashcan to toss the towel into. When she straightened back up, she sniffed and said, “Tell Ginny I was here and that I love her. She knows it, but tell her anyway, will you?” I promised I would. She returned the photo to its place on the side of the refrigerator and patted me on the shoulder as she started for the hall. “When we get past this, I have something I need to talk to you about. Not now, though. I’ve got to get back. I left the place to a teen kid blessedly free of the ravages of intelligence, and a prima donna who thinks her hands will shrivel if she douses them in scrub water.” With that, she made her exit. I was curious as to why she would want to talk to me later, but I was also curious to see who was in the photo. Jordan, Lillian and Patrick grinned at me in glossy color. Whoever snapped it had done a superb job. Jordan’s eyes twinkled. There was a dimple in his chin I’d never noticed before. Lillian was between them, an arm around each of the boys. I’d never thought of her as petite, but next to her brother and their friend, she seemed small. Patrick’s freckles peppered a face so open he reminded me of Opie in an Andy Griffith rerun. As I rubbed my thumb over Jordan’s features, it hit me again how things can change so brutally in an instant.
I hope you're enjoying reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it!