Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
From the corner of my eye, I noticed two EMTs push a gurney toward the green room. Something about the woman paramedic with the brassy-blonde hair bit my memory. A lone cameraman followed them. Maybe they had gotten here in time. Maybe Henderson would be okay. But somehow I knew Henderson was already gone.
Pain jabbed my temples, piercing like thumbtacks. No matter how much I tried to forget, to rid my mind of the awful memories, death always summoned them back—with a sucker-punch. Images of my parents’ graveside funeral assaulted with rapid fire. I’d been too late. Too late for goodbyes. Too late to save my mother.
Always too late.
With numb hands I tossed the gritty soil on my mother’s casket. My lungs dragged in moist autumn air, but my eyes remained dry as the brittle, barren trees surrounding me
What had the minister said? It didn’t matter anyway, though a part of me wished some emotion would bubble up. That I believed in a loving God. In life after death.
Nothing waited for my mother on the other side of the grave, despite what she believed. I knew Hell existed; yet it wasn’t buried beneath the ground.
It was lying right beside her.
I couldn’t help my smile as I looked at my father’s coffin. Like the pharaohs, he’d be sealed in his earthy tomb forever.
Except by the broken vessels he left behind.
The past and the present collided as Fletcher let go of my hand. It fell like an Egyptian brick, knocking the metal tray off the table. Dirt poured onto me, soiling my dignity. The room spun. I lost my balance just as I had ten years ago when I fell into my father’s open grave.
Except this time I fell into Fletcher’s embrace.
Lyndon University Studio
HOVERING BETWEEN SLUMBER AND consciousness, I nestled in secure arms. Gentle kisses dotted my cheeks. The fullness in my bladder urged me to get out of bed, but the thrill rushing through me coaxed me into lingering a bit longer in the arms of my husband. I jolted awake.
It’d been two years since Jack shared my bed.
“Mari, are you okay?”
That voice. Pressure squeezed my head as Fletcher’s face came into focus. He held a rag in his hand. “Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”
“Was this one of your practical jokes?” Face flushed and head airy, I wormed out of his arms. “Grow up!” I pushed him away and staggered to my feet. I should’ve known he’d only bring trouble. “FYI, your little joke cost me the morning show at KTXL.”
He knelt, open-mouthed. Pity-filled stares from the crew burned, penetrated; reminding me of my humiliation. I had to escape—to my dressing room.
After a quick detour to the restroom, I entered my closet-sized sanctuary, kicked off my heels, and plopped in the chair. But found no relief. Dropping my head on the vanity, I knocked over my purified water. It spilled along with my tears. Tears of embarrassment and for a lifelong dream shattered. I set the bottle upright and used half a box of Kleenex to dry the mess. A soft knock sounded on my dressing room door.
“Just a minute.” I blew my nose. “Come in.”
Elizabeth Darby’s hazel-blue eyes misted, her curly, blonde hair illuminating her angelic complexion. What a contrast to my brunette, frizzed mop and caked-on foundation.
“Oh, Mari, bless your heart. I got here as soon as they let me out of the control booth.”
My best friend since kindergarten ran to me and wrapped her arms around my shoulders. Her Texan drawl was as soothing as a pint of Ben and Jerry’s after a relationship breakup. “I had no idea he’d pull a stunt like that, but I should have seen it coming. I’m so sorry.”
Despite her I’m-not-perfect-just-forgiven T-shirt, my best friend was perfect.
Elizabeth handed me my blew-my-whole-paycheck-on-it Coach bag. “You left this in the studio.”
“Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.” Too bad she couldn’t resurrect my career. I set my oversized, red tote under the vanity and shrugged. “I didn’t have time for another job, anyway. This single-mom gig and teaching keep me busy enough. Plus, I’m the
hostess of the hit cable show ‘Archaeology Today.’ What more could I desire?”
“You can’t give up on your dream. Maybe it’s not that bad.” Elizabeth knelt and took my hands. “If you want, we can pray?”
Like that had ever worked for me. “No, that’s okay.” I pulled my hands from hers and turned toward the mirror. “You’re right. It’s probably not that bad. Can’t be worse than the last two years.” I wiped the mascara from under my eyes and tried to brush the soil from my suit, but only smudged the dirt in deeper. “I’m such a mess. Why do you put up with me?”
“Don’t know?” Her playful tone couldn’t mask the sincerity in her eyes. “Maybe we’re M.F.E.O.”
I tried not to raise my eyebrows, but I couldn’t help it.
“Made For Each Other. It’s Rachel’s new catchphrase.”
I thought of Hattie, my eleven year old. It’d been so long since we talked, I didn’t even know if she had a catchphrase. I’d have to remember to schedule mother-daughter quality time soon. “M.F.E.O. I like it.” My frown lifted. “Like Laverne and Shirley.”
“Lucy and Ethel.”
“Thelma and Louise.” An all-out grin spread across my face.
“Don’t tell me you haven’t seen Thelma and Louise. Two women, running from the law, breaking practically all the commandments before they fly their car off the cliff to their deaths.”
“It’s a classic. We’ll have to watch it sometime. Girls’ night out, and don’t worry, your husband won’t mind. I’m not a huge Brad Pitt fan, but trust me, you’ll be digging out your cowboy boots and inviting Stephen to play outlaw.”
Confusion clouded Elizabeth’s face.
“After watching this movie, Jack and I used to be a regular Bonnie and Clyde. Strictly in the bedroom, of course.” Boy, times like this I really missed Jack.
“Oh ... oh!” Elizabeth’s light eyes darkened. “Stephen doesn’t approve of those kind of movies.”
“Relax. It’s rated
, not triple X. Don’t tell me your religion forbids R-rated movies.”
“No, it’s not like that.” Elizabeth stood, her tone holding no judgment.
I found the nerve to ask the nagging question on my mind. “Any news about Henderson?”
“I heard he didn’t make it.” Elizabeth sighed. “I don’t want to keep you from your class.”
“And you have to get back to the studio.” I walked Elizabeth to the door. “They can’t get by without their best technical director.”
Elizabeth’s shoulders slumped. “Give a chimp my job. I’m sure he can push the buttons.”
“Everything okay?” I wrapped my arms around my fading optimist. It wasn’t like her to go Eyeore on me.
“Sure. I’m content in all things.” Elizabeth’s words lost their pep like a cheerleader in a snowstorm. “Call me later?” She stepped into the hallway and paused. “Mari, all things do work together for good. You’ll see.” Forcing a smile, she closed the door behind her.
Good? What good had come from a divorce I didn’t want? From Fletcher’s career assassination? Henderson’s death? I should probably cancel my interview and put myself out of my misery. Give up on my dream and accept that I’d be working in the same office as my exes for the rest of my life. Happy endings had never been a part of my life before. Why expect anything different today?
I found my phone and punched in the numbers for the casting director at KTXL. As much as I loved Elizabeth, I didn’t understand her. She always had a simple answer for everything. Too bad the questions always changed before I could fill in the blanks.
Before I hit send, my phone played “Walk Like an Egyptian” not “King Tut,” the ringtone Jack programmed into my iPhone when we were still together. But why would it play? Jack only called once a month to make sure the child support checks were deposited in my account on time. They always were.
“Hello. Mari Duggins.”
“It’s Jan Carson at KTXL. We’ve moved your interview to 3:00 this afternoon.”
“T-today?” I took a sip from my water bottle, hoping to revive my tongue.
“Will that be a problem?”
I glanced at my filthy suit, then at my French manicure in desperate need of a fill. “No, 3:00. I’ll be there.”
“Fabulous. We’re thrilled with the new direction the morning show is going and think you’d add an interesting dynamic to the team. Of course, there are nine other applicants with impressive credentials. Don’t forget to bring a copy of this morning’s show to the interview.”
The horrifying segment looped through my mind. Didn’t she see it? “I’m not sure I can get it in time, but I can get last week’s program.”
“Any show is fine. We’ll see you this afternoon.”
“I’m looking forward to it.” What dumb luck! I hit end, dialed my nail tech, and begged her to fit me in. To my surprise, her 1:15 had canceled. I reached for a change of clothes in my dressing room closet. Elizabeth’s words echoed in my head.
All things work together for good.
Could Elizabeth be right? Would all things work together for good?
Maybe for my career, but surely not for Professor Henderson.
Or my love life.
Mari’s Dressing Room
STARING INTO THE VANITY mirror surrounded with lights, I ignored the discomfort in my gut and forced my fingers to trace the grooves on my forehead. The tiny cracks on the once flawless surface taunted me, reminding me of my imperfections. Maybe if I had my own makeup artist like the anchors at KTXL I wouldn’t seem as old as the artifacts we studied in class.
Marianna, you shouldn’t be so concerned with your appearance; after all it’s inside that counts.
My stomach tightened.
Not the words I needed to hear from my mother.
I reapplied my anti-aging foundation, the pang in my gut fermenting, then swelling, reaching hidden transgressions I thought I had buried. I indulged the ache, then pushed it aside. I couldn’t change the past. Focusing on the present, I made a mental note to schedule my next Botox treatment. ASAP. Too bad it wasn’t an instant fix or I’d try and squeeze it in before my 3:00 interview.
After painting on my makeup like an artist restoring a relic, I changed into a comfortable Donna Karan, A-line, black skirt, slipped on my scarlet cardigan, and wrap tied it loosely on the side. The finishing touch . . . my favorite five-inch, black, leather boots with mesh upper. Perfect for class. A little too casual for my interview, but I had time to drive home and change into something more appropriate after my nail appointment. Something that screamed co-hostess of “Rise and Shine, Lyndon.”
Someone knocked. Elizabeth? “Did you forget something?”
Fletcher crept in with his tail between his legs. The morning’s humiliation played through my mind, the room suddenly warm and stuffy. “What are you doing here?” I sat at the vanity. Grabbed the powder brush.
“I came to see if you were okay.”
“Don’t do me any favors.” I jammed the brush into the powder, swirling it around and around.
“I said I was sorry. What more do you want? Blood?”
“You can start with a pint.”
“Come on. How long are you going to punish me?”
“As long as it takes.” I circled the brush over my face in quick motions, trying to avoid gazing at his reflection in the mirror.
“This isn’t just about this morning, is it?”
More powder. More brushing.
“Listen, Mari. I didn’t mean to. It was a stupid thing—”
“Cheating on your Cultural Anthropology final was stupid. Chugging a bottle of Tabasco sauce on a dare was stupid. Driving drunk after a keg party was stupid.” My jaw tensed.
“Just tell me what you want.”
“I want you to go.”
“Fine.” Fletcher turned to leave.
“Old habits die hard,” I mumbled loud enough for him to hear.
Through the mirror I saw him whip around, nostrils flaring.
I faced him, my chest burning. “What you did today was insensitive and cruel. Like when you left—”
“On a dig, Mari. Not the relationship.” He raked his hands through his dark hair and for a moment I remembered the thrill of running my fingers through his thick waves. Winsome memories fought to overpower the anguish, but the pain gnawed at me like rats on a festering wound.
I couldn’t forget. I couldn’t forgive. I couldn’t …“I was sixteen and pregnant. You weren’t there for me.” The fire from my own glare burned my cheeks.
“But Jack was.” Fletcher’s eyes lit with revelation. “Now I get it. You were barely pregnant when I left. I wanted to come home after my summer archaeology internship, but you told me not to. You said continuing on through the fall and spring was an opportunity of a lifetime. I assumed you needed some distance after you lost the baby, but it was because of Jack. I asked my best friend to take care of you while I was gone. I guess he did.”
“None of that matters anymore.”
“Yes, it does.” The veins near Fletcher’s temples pulsated. “We can’t keep dancing around what happened.”
“Then stop playing your worn-out record.”
Fletcher sighed. “Can we put this behind us? Everything. And start over?”
“There’s nothing to start over.
over.” Seventeen years over.
“Mari, I know you’ve been through a lot these past two years with the divorce. I didn’t come back to cause trouble for you or stir up bad memories. I want to be here for you if you need me.” A playful grin emerged, his eyes focused, dilated. “Any way you need me.”
The amorous sensation I’d kept at bay for years pulsed through me. I turned toward the mirror. Applied lip gloss. “I don’t have time for this. I have a 9:30 class.”
“I’ll go for now. But we’re not through with this conversation.” He left without another word, and somehow I knew he was never walking out of my life again. I straightened my bangs over my wrinkles. It would have to do for now.