Authors: Cindy Sample
Fewer people lingered outside than on my previous visit. The patio was cordoned off with that increasingly familiar yellow ribbon. I was running into crime scene tape far more frequently than a soccer mom should.
One of the deputies stood next to what resembled a gigantic black baggie. My heart plummeted two feet when I realized it was a body bag. The deputy nodded to us. “Evening, Tom. Is this the woman who was with the victim?"
"Yes, Sam. She's agreed to identify the body. Ms. McKay, are you sure you're ready?” Detective Hunter's palm rested on my back as he gazed sympathetically at me. Was this the same man who interrogated me less than two weeks ago? He appeared to have at least one compassionate vein running through his body.
"As ready as I'll ever be.” I swallowed and braced myself for the unveiling.
Sam unzipped the bag then looked at me for confirmation.
His eyes were closed, but the pale face and damp curly silver hair were undeniably recognizable.
. I gasped and frantically looked around as the butterflies in my stomach morphed into an assault team of flying pterodactyls. Hunter took one look at my face and led me over to some shrubbery alongside the patio. A hundred dollar's worth of champagne was eliminated within seconds. The detective grabbed a clean paper napkin off one of the tables and handed it to me. I wiped my mouth and face then collapsed into one of the white plastic patio chairs. I barely knew Jeremy but to see him like that was devastating.
"I take it that was Dr. Slater?"
"Yes.” I pressed my hands against my heaving stomach and tried to erase the picture of Jeremy's pallid face from my memory. “I don't know how you detectives get used to seeing dead bodies."
"Your first body is never easy."
"Well, I'm not planning on making a practice of viewing dead bodies."
"Glad to hear it. I'm not sure our sheriff's department is large enough to handle your social life."
I lasered an angry look at the detective.
"Sorry,” Hunter apologized, placing his hand on my forearm. “That was uncalled for. Look, we have to complete an in-depth interview with you, but we're shorthanded and I need to spend time with the crime techs. I hope I'm not going to regret this but I'm sending you home. I assume you drove here together."
"Yes, the valet parked his car. It's some type of large Mercedes."
"We'll need to examine his vehicle as well. One of the police officers will have to drive you to your house."
I was about to respond when the elderly gentleman who'd been seated at the back of the bar approached and introduced himself. “Hello, I'm Bill Hunter, Tom's father.” He extended his hand to me.
I checked to see if there was any icky champagne residue left on my palm before I shook his hand in response. There was a considerable resemblance between the two men. Bill Hunter's eyes were a soft faded brown and he had the same high cheekbones of his son. I detected some Native American influence in their bloodline somewhere. The senior Hunter had a very engaging smile. I recalled Detective Hunter having an equally appealing smile but it wasn't something he displayed with any frequency.
"Your mother is getting tired. Can we leave now or will you need a lift home?"
"Why don't you and Mom take off? I need to arrange transportation for Ms. McKay."
"Where do you live?” Bill Hunter asked. Detective Hunter rattled off my address.
The older Hunter looked mystified. “You two know each other? Is there something you've been keeping from me, son?” he teased.
The detective flushed. “No, Dad. I interviewed Ms. McKay a few weeks ago when her date was found...” his voice faltered.
This was the first time since I'd met Detective Hunter that he lost his composure. So he was human after all.
"Both of our children play soccer in the same league, on different teams. That's how we became acquainted,” I explained.
"So you've met our adorable granddaughter. Isn't Kristy a sweetheart?” Bill said, with pride in his voice.
"Umm, yeah. A real sweetheart.” I would have to see Kristy when she wasn't attacking players on the soccer field. It sounded like she had grandpa wrapped tight around her pinky finger.
"You don't live very far from us. We could drive you home. Are you having car problems?"
"Not exactly,” I said, grateful for his offer. I rose from the chair then glanced at Detective Hunter. His face had reddened to a dark aubergine.
"Um, Dad, I think, it would be best if she, uh...was driven home by a deputy."
A deputy? What did that mean? Were they were taking me into custody?
Bill Hunter winked at me. “I understand why you want to make sure this lovely woman gets home safe. It was nice meeting you, Laurel."
The senior Hunter walked to the back of the restaurant where he joined his wife. They waved as they exited. The detective and I stared at each other. Was this what novels describe as a palpable silence?
I was the first to break it. “Am I under arrest?” I asked, subdued, somber and one hundred percent sober.
He shook his head. “No, but it's not appropriate for my parents to drive you home. Plus I want an officer to check your house and make sure it's safe. Until I find out more about Dr. Slater's death, I still don't know if I should treat you as a suspect—or a potential victim."
Great. I didn't know whether I should be more afraid of a murderer running amok, or being arrested for a murder I didn't commit. He removed his tweed jacket from my shoulders. “I'll get a blanket from the EMTs. That should keep you warm. Let me see if Sam is free to take you home."
I nodded my assent then waited in the lounge for my official chauffeur. A guy hefting a huge video camera lumbered in and glanced around. He left when he noticed it was vacant except for the single woman at the bar. The TV crews had arrived. I hoped I'd be out of there before someone mentioned the dead man wasn't dining alone. It was horrible enough that Jeremy was dead. My children didn't need to see their mother's tear-streaked face plastered all over the eleven o'clock news.
Sam, the deputy I'd met previously, was assigned to transport me home. He handed me a navy blue fleece blanket, which I promptly turned into an oversized pashmina shawl. He escorted me to his patrol car which was parked a short distance from the restaurant.
I wanted to interrogate my official chauffeur, but he spent most of the drive on the phone. Once we entered the house, Sam checked all the rooms, ensured that each window was locked, and waited until all the bolts were bolted before he took off.
I stared at my watch in disbelief. It felt like three in the morning but it was only ten after eleven. I was halfway up the stairs when I realized I still hadn't eaten dinner. I didn't feel tipsy any longer so my purge behind the bushes must have eliminated the champagne I'd consumed.
Comfort food was required and any form of chocolate was the obvious choice. Unfortunately I'd skipped grocery shopping in order to clean my house. The pantry was barren when it came to my favorite food group. My quick rummage through the refrigerator scored one bruised apple. A little fiber—in Jeremy's honor.
My eyes misted as my gaze drifted to the wine glasses sitting on the counter. A tragic event certainly made a person more appreciative of the simple things in life. To have your life cut short in an instant of time was heartbreaking. I reflected on the difficulties of my life. Trying to make financial ends meet. Struggling between my career and the needs of my children.
The death of my marriage.
All of those problems were mere hiccups. I was blessed with two terrific and caring children, a mother who loved me in her own peculiar fashion, and an array of wonderful and loyal friends. Who would be mourning Jeremy's tragic death tonight?
I plodded up the stairs and put on a pair of flannel jammies, which were perfect for providing the solace I needed. Soft red ones covered with cavorting puppy dogs that my mother gave me the previous Christmas. She didn't think I needed anything sexier and she was probably right. I lay there for hours in my flannel splendor pondering the tragedy of Jeremy's death. What were his last moments like? Was it an accident? Or murder?
Was I in jeopardy? Were my children?
Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, I finally fell into a troubled sleep. I dreamt I was hanging by my fingertips from a bridge over the American River. A tall man with a bald spot on the back of his head was stomping on my hand. Finger by finger, I was losing my grip on the bridge as the turbulent river crashed against the rocks below. A siren wailed in the distance, the piercing sound increasing in volume until the siren was screaming in my ear.
The shrill ringing of the phone on my nightstand announced an unwelcome wake-up call. “Hello,” I croaked as I cradled the receiver against my left ear.
"Is that you, dear?” Good question. I wasn't so sure of the answer myself. It felt like the percussion section of a drum and bugle corps was marching through my head.
"Hello, Mother, how are things?"
"How are things?” Her voice crescendoed to a high pitch. Oh, that was unpleasant.
"Things are not good, Laurel. I'm sitting in my car in the church parking lot. You were supposed to meet me for the ten-thirty service. It's ten-twenty. Are you running late?"
Not exactly. I wasn't running at all. I'd totally forgotten I was supposed to meet my parent for the late service at church, followed by brunch in Apple Hill.
"I'm sorry. I got home late last night and forgot to set my alarm. Why don't you go to church and we can get together for brunch afterwards. Do you still want to meet at the Cozy Apple Cafe?"
"Hmmph. You've become very inconsiderate lately, Laurel. Your social life should not be interfering with your obligations to your church. I can't imagine what Pastor Martin will think. You've missed services several weekends in a row."
Missing church was the least of my worries. My only hope was that our minister didn't find out I was a double murder suspect. “I'll be at the cafe by noon."
"All right. Don't be late."
Our family has attended the same church under the leadership of Pastor Martin for the last thirty years. He's a kindly man as I'm sure all men of the cloth are. He is also a very forgiving minister. I was certain he wouldn't hold my lack of attendance against me. Although with the rate the bodies were piling up, I might need someone who had God's ear on my side.
I dragged myself down the stairs into the kitchen. Rays of sun shimmered off my bright yellow walls, which did nothing to alleviate the throbbing in my head. I eyeballed the rooster clock. Time for at least one high-octane cup of caffeine.
I swallowed four aspirin while the coffee perked. Even my automatic drip seemed noisier than usual this morning. Despite the hangover mist hovering in my brain, I couldn't forget the events of the previous evening.
I wondered how Jeremy's body ended up in the river. Could it have been an accident? And those two men I saw talking on the riverbank. If Jeremy was the gray-haired man I had seen, the other man might have left the restaurant before anything happened. He could be totally unaware of the incident. This topic needed to be discussed with Detective Hunter.
I gazed at the clock. Not enough time. The detective would have to be contacted later. It was almost eleven-thirty and I still hadn't made it into the shower. That meant arriving at the restaurant with no makeup and bed hair. I flew up the stairs into my bedroom, slipped on a pair of khaki slacks and a coral blouse that bore two tiny spots on the front, both of which my mother would undoubtedly notice.
My hair resembled Ben's, but with an additional twenty cowlicks. The silver hairs threading their way through my copper mop seemed to be cloning one another. I reached into my closet and smashed an ivory straw hat on my head. My flat hat hair couldn't be helped.
If our pastor was his usual loquacious self the service would run over. My mother normally stayed afterwards to glean any new gossip such as job transfers, which could mean a potential listing. With a little luck, I would get to the Cozy Apple Cafe before she did.
As luck or my lack of it would have it, I hit every red light on the drive to the Apple Hill area east of Placerville. Evidently God was not happy about my missing church this morning and was punishing me accordingly. My mother's white Chrysler Le Baron, a testament to her fastidiousness, gleamed in the parking lot. I pulled into the slot next to her car.
I jogged across the asphalt parking lot and entered the restaurant. Mother was seated in a cracked red naugahyde booth not far from the cash register, dressed in a rose knit suit that complemented her platinum coloring. I smiled as I watched her pore over every inch of the large glossy menu, matching rose-colored reading glasses balanced on her straight nose. She was undeniably the most annoying woman on earth but...she was my mother.
"Church must have gotten out early.” I air kissed her cheek then slid into the opposite side of the booth.
She looked up from the menu and frowned. “What's the matter with your hair?"
Well hello to you too. I chose to ignore her comment. A bad hair day was the least of my concerns.
"How was the service? Did you hear any good gossip?” That should occupy her until I decided what to order from the extensive menu. Almost twenty-four hours had passed since anything substantial entered and remained in my stomach.
Should I continue to watch my diet or just say screw it? The cafe specialized in six different versions of eggs benedict and my favorite was a poached egg sitting on a slice of tomato perched on a crab cake, drenched with a creamy Bearnaise sauce. Breakfast didn't come much more fattening than that, unless I added bacon and fried potatoes on the side.
Engrossed in the bounty of benedicts, I missed her next question.
"Laurel, did you hear me?” Her glare was magnified fourfold by the reading glasses.
"Sorry.” I slapped the menu shut. “What did you say?"
"All the talk at church today was about the accident at the River Inn last night. They said a man fell in the river but he had drowned by the time the rescue workers could pull him out. The Parkers were dining there and saw the whole thing. Hugh Parker said the police roped off the patio with crime scene tape. Did you hear or see something while you were there?"