Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
I found Matt’s keys in my bag and switched on my phone. Glancing at the screen, I cringed. Twelve messages. Had Matt gotten into trouble at the Archaeology offices? I gave Candy strict instructions not to let him out of my office, not even for a bathroom break. My stomach grumbled. All I’d managed to eat today was a donut hole and half of Danny’s protein bar. The first message played as I climbed into Matt’s Jeep.
Mom, where are you?
Mother’s guilt awakened. I had forgotten Ben.
It’s 3:00, and you’re never late.
I gunned the Jeep and sped toward Ben’s school, listening to the remaining messages. By message six, Ben and Luke had decided to walk to the corner store for a soda, but it was the eleventh message that sobered me from my interview intoxication.
It’s 3:30. Where are you? Matt’s picking us up so I’ll see you at home. Love ya.”
“Oh, no!” Passing through the intersection, I ignored the No U-Turn sign and raced toward the university wondering if I’d find the “World’s Worst Mom” award under the Christmas tree this year. Tapping the steering wheel, I spoke Matt’s name into my iPhone and waited for him to answer, hoping he had enough sense to drive to the university. He answered on the fourth ring.
“Matt, is Ben okay? Did you drive Luke home? Where are you now?”
“Chill. Everyone’s fine. They’re here with me.”
“And where’s ‘here’?”
“At your office where you sentenced me to complete boredom.”
I inhaled, sucking back lecture 135. The one on respect. “Thanks for getting Ben. Is he there? Put him on.”
The phone rustled, and my youngest said hello.
“Benny, I’m so sorry I forgot to pick you up. I had an interview at KTXL, and my cell phone was off.”
“That’s okay.” His chipper voice melted my anxiety. “Luke and I had a blast playing video games at the store. You should forget us more often.”
My spirit soared like the Benu bird. My youngest child, always the bright spot in my life. I didn’t have to worry about Ben. He would rise in brilliance and live up to his namesake. “I’ll be there soon. I promise to never forget you again.”
“Did you get the job? Can you give me and Luke a tour of the studio?”
“Slow down, kiddo. The interview went great, but I didn’t get the job yet.” Jan Carson said she’d call in a couple of days if a second interview was necessary. A couple of days seemed like eternity. “Can you put Matt on?”
Something rattled, then Matt shouted obscenities at Ben for dropping the phone. I bit my lip, pushing down the rising emotion, and lecture 22, 75, 101 on brotherly love, cursing, and controlling his anger.
“Matt, I want to thank you for getting Ben and bringing him to my office. I know it must’ve been tough deciding what to do, but that shows a lot of maturity.” When he didn’t respond I continued. “I want to let you know I’m proud of you for making the right choice.”
“So I’m not in trouble? Does that mean you’ll let me drive my Jeep home?”
“Don’t push it. Speaking of not having a car to drive, whose car did you use to get Ben and Luke?”
“Some archaeology dude’s. Not sure his name, but he said he’s coming to dinner tonight. What’s up with that?”
“Fletcher Murdock is an old friend. We’re going to catch up on what’s happening in Egypt.” Surely Fletcher had no intentions of catching up on anything else with the kids at home. I didn’t have the energy to play his cat and mouse games.
“Ben, quit it,” Matt yelled. My eardrums vibrated from the volume. “Oh, no, I gotta go. Get off that bookshelf, right now!”
Ben screamed, then a crash. I jolted in my seat. “Matt, what’s wrong?”
“Your little bird fell out of the nest.”
Lyndon University Department of Archaeology
DURING THE EXCRUCIATING TWENTY minute drive to the university, my maternal paranoia conjured up disastrous scenarios.
Ben perched on the top of my bookshelf crashing head first to the ground.
The shelf smashing against the third story window, glass shattering, and Ben falling to his death.
Ben clinging to the bookshelf and being crushed by its weight when it fell on top of him.
I dialed Matt seven times. All the calls went to voicemail. Maybe if I’d texted, I would have gotten an answer.
The closer I got to the university the more morbid my imagination. When I finally opened the door to my office, my hands were shaking like I had Parkinson’s. I gasped. Matt sat in my chair, texting, oblivious to the bookshelf creating a half teepee across my desk covered with a mess of books.
“Where are Ben and Luke?” I glared with hands on my hips.
“How should I know?” Matt rolled his eyes and swiveled his chair toward the window.
“Is he okay?
The simmering inside my head reached a boiling point. “I’ll take that.” I snatched the phone.
“Hey, I was texting.”
“And now you’re through. Don’t even ask for it back.” I turned it off and slipped it in my bag.
“At least let me tell her I’ll text her later.”
“No way. I’m taking away your phone until this suspension business is over.”
Matt’s nostrils flared like a bull ready to charge, but instead he crossed his arms and huffed. I had to give him credit for his self-control, though his eyes and pursed lips betrayed his plotting of my untimely demise.
“I’m going to look for Ben and Luke. Start your homework.” I found Ben playing in his dad’s office with Luke. After assuring myself he was fine, I returned to my office to assess the damage to my shelf and desk. Thankfully, it was minimal.
If the shelf had come crashing down when Ben was climbing it, instead of sitting on the top, I might have been heading to the emergency room. And Matt might feel a twinge of remorse.
I gripped the side of the shelf, straining to push it up. “How about some assistance?”
“I didn’t make the mess. Get Ben and Luke to do it.” He grabbed his textbook and turned the chair toward the window behind my desk.
I clenched my teeth. Raising Matt had been increasingly more difficult the last couple of years. He’d made the teenage transition smoothly, and for a while Jack and I thought we’d bypassed the typical teenage rebellion. Then Jack left and Matt reverted to the withdrawn child he’d been when he first came to live with us. When he was six, all it took was some space and lots of love to draw Matt from his shell. He even started calling us Mom and Dad after the first year. I looked at him drumming his pencil on his textbook to the music in his head. Somehow I didn’t think it would be that easy this time around.
Gripping the side of the bookshelf, I blew out my frustration and pushed. Surprisingly, it lifted with ease.
“Here I come to save the day,” Fletcher sang in my ear.
“It’s all yours, Mighty Mouth.” I let go of the shelf and turned, studying Fletcher’s muscles as he righted the shelf. “Though I’m not sure why you’d want to be compared to a mouse. Size did always matter to you.” I smirked.
“I’m not the same punk I was in college. See.” He flexed his muscles, striking several Mr. Universe poses. “I’ve got the guns to prove it. Want to see my six pack?” He grabbed my hand and started to lift his shirt.
I pulled away, the temperature in the room rising. “No thanks, I trust you.” I fanned myself and checked the thermostat. Sixty-eight degrees. “Thanks again.”
Matt jumped from his chair. “Sheesh, you guys are pathetic.” He gathered his books. “I’m outta here.”
“Don’t leave the office,” I said as he pushed between Fletcher and I.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Then he slammed the door behind him.
“I’m sorry about Matt. The last couple of years have been hard on him. Thanks for letting him borrow your car to pick up Ben.”
“No problem. He’s a nice looking kid. He has your face.” Fletcher started to re-shelve the books.
“And my father’s attitude.” Regret flitted through me as I handed a book to Fletcher.
“I wouldn’t go that far. He seems like a good kid underneath it all. If you thought it would help, I could spend some time with him. Take him to a movie, or bowling, or whatever kids do nowadays for fun.”
“Text and Facebook.”
Fletcher laughed. “Times really have changed. Remember when we couldn’t wait to get together with the gang at the roller rink?”
A smile creased my lips. “Those were the days. I lived to escape the house. All Matt does is lock himself in his room with his gadgets.”
“At least he’s not smoking dope or breaking the law like we did.”
“Leave me out of this. I grew up a long time ago. Had to.”
“He’ll come around. He just needs some time. Like me.”
“Yeah, but look how long it took you.”
Fletcher’s eyes darkened. He turned away.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that. This day keeps getting worse. I should check on Ben.” I left Fletcher to clean my mess as I peered into the lounge. Ben and Luke circled Candy at her desk like Indians searching for a scalp. My cheeks warmed. “Boys, this is an office, not a playground!”
I gritted my teeth as they continued their chase. Candy sat immersed in her work, unaware of their activity. Just as Ben tagged Luke and then darted away, Elizabeth walked in. Ben’s sandy-brown, shaggy hair caught some air, reminding me he was long overdue for a trim.
“Luke Darby, are you respecting Mrs. Finch and this office?” Elizabeth’s soft tone contrasted with my authoritative approach.
He shook his head.
“It’s time to start your homework.” Elizabeth smiled when Luke obeyed.
Before I could say a word, Ben ran off and started army crawling under the office chairs. Though relatively pain free thanks to Cherilyn’s Midol, my mind and body were too whipped for a confrontation. Especially with a seven year old.
I turned to Elizabeth. “How was your appointment?”
“Fine.” Her countenance faded. “How’d your interview go?”
“Better than expected, but I don’t know.” A sharp pain jabbed my left shoulder. I rubbed my neck, noticing the ache in my lower back. The Midol must be wearing off. “It’s a tough business, and I’m not the youngest applicant.”
“I don’t think you have anything to worry about. You’re brilliant and beautiful.”
“So was Ann Curry, and they replaced her with someone straight out of the womb.”
“Everything will turn out fine. You’ll see. I’ve been praying for you.”
In the past I would’ve made a smart remark about the futility of blubbering to a God who never took interest in me, but if anyone could nudge the Almighty my way, it was Elizabeth. In fact, a part of me longed to believe some of her prayers had already breached the ceiling.
Before I could respond, the office door banged open. Peter Kipling stomped across the room without a word, his usually well-groomed, muddy-brown hair disheveled as if he’d combed it with a trowel. He retreated to his office and slammed his door. I shivered at the vibes he sent. I had never seen Peter so indifferent toward me. Had I done something to offend him?
I turned toward Elizabeth. “So you’re okay with taking Ben?”
“Sure, he’s no trouble. I’ll take Matt if you want me to.”
“No, I think it’s better he stays here. Fewer distractions. Why don’t you and your family stay for dinner when you bring Ben home? I already have a couple of guests. I can call Hattie and tell her to throw in a second pan of lasagna.”
“Wow. You really have your eleven year old trained. Maybe I should start teaching Rachel how to cook meals like that.”
“Don’t get too excited. It’s frozen lasagna.”
Elizabeth raised her eyebrows.
“I know, I know. It’s practically sacrilegious for an Italian to eat anything but homemade.” I felt the ground rumble as Nonna stirred in her grave. “But it’s the next best thing.”
“Yep, as close to homemade as you can get here in Lyndon and
cottage cheese. They use ricotta like you’re supposed to.” Whoever decided cottage cheese was a substitute for ricotta should have been shot, but I wasn’t about to say that in Texas.
“I love how you say ricotta with a long O and rolling your Rs and all. It sounds so Italian.” She paused. “Your offer sounds tempting.”
“Then you’ll come.”
Please say you’ll come.
My reflexes hadn’t been too quick earlier today as proven by my totaled BMW, and I wasn’t in the mood to dodge Fletcher tonight.
“I’d love to, but I don’t think I can make it. Stephen’s working late again.”
I shook my head. “Didn’t he work straight through the weekend?”
Elizabeth shrugged her shoulders. “He has an important client that has him really stressed. He’s been short tempered all week and wouldn’t be much fun to be around anyway. I’m sure he’ll be his old self when this job’s finished.”
No wonder Elizabeth’s morale seemed bruised lately. She had cushioned the fall when Stephen slipped from his pedestal. The father of the year and doting husband image had to be hard to keep up, even for someone as nearly perfect as Stephen Darby. It was nice to know my friend had real problems like the rest of us.
“Ask him to dinner. See what he says. If he can’t make it, then you and the kids come.”
Fletcher emerged from my office. “All done in there, Mari. I’ll see you tonight.” Fletcher winked, then ruffled Ben’s hair.
“Tonight?” Elizabeth whispered as she watched him leave. “Don’t tell me he’s coming.”
“I couldn’t avoid it. That’s why I
“Okay, you win. We’ll come. But I hope you know what you’re doing.”
I hadn’t a clue.
She called the boys in her Mother Theresa tone. They gathered up their stuff without incident. She turned to me and gave me a hug. “Thanks for listening and being my friend.”
I held her tight, thinking I should be the grateful one. She’s stood by my side since kindergarten. Even bailed me out on more occasions than I cared to count. Thank goodness she never kept track. If she did, I don’t think I could handle the debt.
After Elizabeth left, the silence in the office grabbed me. Though my classes had ended for the day, I had a pile of papers in my office to grade. Plus, I should really talk with Matt about his rude behavior, but wasn’t ready for round three with him. Or was it round four? I walked past my office to Peter’s, held my fist up for a second, and knocked.