I AM ENCASED IN BILLOWING CLOUDS of silk and lace. Cumbrous Scarlett O’Hara skirt anchors me, snug bodice crushes my ribs. A filmy veil obscures the pearl choker encircling my neck.
“Exquisite,” pronounces saleslady number one. “Like an angel.”
“Five thousand,” trumpets saleslady two. “A bargain,”
“No!” I cry, ripping off the veil and tearing at the necklace. “Choking me. Can’t breathe. Take it off!”
“Take it, take it,” chorus the salesladies closing in. “Buy now, pay later. Marry now, pay later.”
“Please. Suffocating. Can’t breathe,” I gasp as—
—the alarm’s caterwaul blasted me awake. Wrenching the pillow off my face, my hand flailed around, snared the offender and smothered it mute.
“Breathe,” I commanded myself as I struggled to quiet my thudding heart. “Breathe.” Several deep diaphragmatic breaths later, I felt the oxygen rush as my muscles relaxed. A rough feline tongue began sandpapering the skin off my neck, while a hundred and five pounds of canine shifted position, nailing my feet to the bed. I groaned, pried my eyes open, and squinted at the daylight sifting through the blinds. No sun. It was one of those blustery fall days that strip the leaves from the trees, leaving them bare and exposed like undressed mannequins in a store window.
I am not a morning person. I rarely wake up overflowing with the milk of human kindness, especially after a night when I’d lain awake till two trying to balance income against outgo and coming up short. The rest of the night was a jumble of disconnected dreams, the kind, like the last, that filter in and out of your consciousness and leave you feeling trashed in the morning like a college freshman after a frat party.
I kicked off the covers. Horty whined in protest as he hit the floor. Patting his rump apologetically, I yelled to the kids to rise and shine. Well, at least rise and throw on some clothes, shining not being a requirement and certainly not on my agenda this dismal Thursday morning. Yawning, I made it to the bathroom, splashed my face with cold water, and did a half-baked job with the rest of my ablutions. Followed by the four members of our live-in menagerie, I trudged downstairs to get breakfast started. The phone rang just as the kettle whistled. I opened the back door to let Horty out, got blown back inside, and caught it on the fourth ring. “Hullo,” I grunted.
“And aren’t we in a happy mood this morning, my sweet.”
“It’s six-you-know-what-thirty in the morning, I had a horrible dream, and I haven’t had my coffee yet.”
“Uh-oh. Maybe I should call back. My news isn’t going to improve things.”
“Tell me now. Make my day.” I poured boiling water into my instant coffee and took a life-affirming sip.
“Have to take a raincheck for the weekend. Got a suspicious death.”
Now this is not your common everyday excuse for blowing off your date, but when your lover is a detective with the Bergen County Violent Crimes Unit, you deal with it with as much grace as you can manage.
This morning, even with coffee, grace was in short supply. We had planned to spend Saturday wandering around a craft fair near Lincoln Center, topping the day off with dinner and jazz in the Village.
I didn’t bother to hide my disappointment. “The whole weekend? How about Sunday? The fair will still be on.”
Notice, though, how I’m not thrown by the words suspicious death. A less experienced woman might exhibit shock or fear that there could be a killer running around her normally quiet suburban neighborhood. Not me. I’ve learned that it’s usually someone you know who does you in, or at least someone who can benefit in some way from your demise. No one except my ex could possibly benefit from mine, and I’m pretty safe on that score because having our children, a thirteen and eleven year old, living with him full-time, would have a decidedly limiting effect on his lifestyle.
“Probably won’t be able to get loose,” Ted replied. “If I do get a break I’ll try and stop by in the afternoon.”
I heaved an audible sigh. “Okay.”
“Don’t sulk. Unless this gets completely out of hand, we’ll do something next weekend. See if you can get Rich to switch his time with the kids.”
“Oh, that’ll work. He’ll have made plans to fly to the moon or at least to the Riviera.” I stood about as much chance getting Rich to give up an anticipated rendezvous as I would calling the White House and asking the President to give up golf.
“Who got whacked?” I asked in my streetwise vernacular.
“Did I say it was a homicide?”
That was his cop persona treading carefully.
“Hey, I won’t rat to the press. Who was it?”
“Nobody you know, thank God. I get to catch this one all by myself.”
That little dig was a not-so-subtle reference to my penchant for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, occasionally with the right motive which too often has plunged me into extremely deep doo-doo. Happily, Detective Sergeant Brodsky no longer considers me capable of murder. He knows I’m quite capable of wishing it on someone, even of devising heinous plots such as thumb-hanging or thumb-screwing, but when push comes to shove, the killer instinct just isn’t there.
“She is from your neck of the woods, though,” Ted went on. “Ever hear of a lady named Helena Forester?”
It rang a bell. “Isn’t she that socialite from Englewood who’s involved with all those charity functions?” Englewood’s only a few towns away from Norwood where, since the divorce, the kids and I now live.
“Was that socialite.”
I swallowed. I wasn’t feeling quite as flippant as I was pretending. “What happened?”
“Got run down by a bicycle. Tell you about it when I see you.”
He hung up without saying more.
I placed four bowls on the counter and filled three of them with Royal Canin, (that’s fancy cat food) filled one with Royal Canine, (same kind of stuff, only for dogs), set two more bowls on the table and filled them with raisin bran.
Got run down by a bicycle? No wonder Ted wasn’t calling it a homicide. But then, why was Violent Crimes investigating? Maybe it was a hit and run. A hit and run biker. I wondered if it was one of those messenger bikes. If you run down a pedestrian with a bike, do they charge you as though you’d been driving a car? What if it’s a juvenile riding the bike? Anyway, Ted’s squad isn’t usually called in on hit and runs. What was going on that Ted already knew he’d be tied up for the entire weekend?
I’ve known Ted for just over a year, and though I’m loathe to admit it even to myself, (such a response being a threat to my hard-earned independence), his touch still makes my knees go weak. Besides which, I genuinely like him, maybe even–and I say this with some trepidation–maybe even love him. I think what appeals to me most is his honesty, his basic decency, traits which, after eighteen years with a womanizing liar, I’ve come to value highly. My only problem is he’s beginning to mention the M word. Marriage, not murder. I realize many women of my not so tender years and not-so-enviable financial situation would be talking to the caterer, but it scares the hell out of me. Once burned, you know. But that’s not the crux of it. It’s what he does for a living. Talk about nightmares. It wouldn’t take a genius to figure out the genesis of this morning’s, because the one I have on a regular basis involves a couple of detectives coming to my door, faces somber, and telling me they’re terribly sorry but my husband has been–well, you get the picture.
I dream a lot. I wish I didn’t. But I have a checkered past.
I wish I didn’t.
Take the dream I had in which I saw my much-adored husband, rolling around in the hay with his not-so-honeyish honey-bun. I’ve tried to write that off as my subconscious e-mailing my conscious mind a wake-up call. But how do you explain the one in which I saw said honey-bun floating face down in a crimson-streaked pool of water? Okay, I admit wishful thinking played a part, the witch did deserve to be burned at the stake, but the fact that both dreams turned out to have a very firm basis in reality is an uncomfortable coincidence on which I’d rather not dwell.
Take my word for it, I’m not psychic. Sensitive to other people’s vibes, yes; visual, intuitive, all prerequisites for the work I do. As a biofeedback clinician, I deal with mind-body connections. The sign on my office door reads, “TO CHANGE THE PRINTOUT OF THE BODY, YOU MUST LEARN TO REWRITE THE SOFTWARE OF THE MIND.” That’s Deepak Chopra. I teach my clients how to put themselves into an alpha state much in the way monks do, in order to bring about complete relaxation. I teach them techniques to deal with their insomnia. I can almost summon the sandman at will. For them.
When I was a teenager I dreamed romantic dreams about running off with Harrison Ford or my high school French teacher. I’d sleep like a hibernating bear through the night and wake up bright-eyed and happy as a bride the morning after. If my French teacher’s still around he’s probably gone gray and jowly, but Harrison still looks pretty darned good. Of course, I do, on occasion, have the real thing–the aforementioned sexy police sergeant.
So far I’ve managed to put said sergeant’s matrimonial aspirations on hold with some relatively valid excuses: the children–they’re still emotionally fragile after the divorce and the trauma of having been acquainted with murder victims; my few more years of alimony which I desperately need and which I would lose on remarriage; and the fact that we haven’t known each other long enough, which doesn’t hold any water at all with Ted. He’s forty-five (a dangerous age for men, I hear), and I faced the big four-0 (a very scary age for women) last year, so I can’t fault him when he says it’s time we started living while the living’s good. Particularly when you realize you can walk out your door and be killed by someone riding a bike.
I finished my coffee and placed the three cat food bowls on the floor. I try to feed Luciano, Placido and José, our Siamese cats, while Horty’s outside; otherwise he’ll lick their plates clean before they’ve had a mouthful. Horty’s named after the elephant in Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, it being a toss-up as to which is bigger or eats more. If you heard my cats meowing in concert, you’d have no trouble guessing why they are named after opera singers.
I didn’t mention my conversation with Ted to Alison and Matt while they concentrated on their cereal and toast and I prattled on about wearing ponchos and making sure to take dry socks in their backpacks. As it is, I have them both seeing a therapist, the result of the aforementioned past traumatic events. Helena Forester wasn’t anyone they knew, and what had happened to her shouldn’t touch them anymore than the usual catastrophes they see every day on the news. I decided it shouldn’t affect me personally either, and resolutely put it out of my mind.
Not for long, though. It was all over the papers by Friday, and by Saturday someone had leaked the news that Violent Crimes was involved in the investigation. I have to confess to reading the stories with some interest. It seems Helena Forester was a prominent lady. A beauty in her youth, (the picture they printed was of a brittle, upper-fortyish, attractive, carefully coiffed and made-up woman), she was extremely wealthy and well-known for her business smarts and her philanthropy. According to the papers, she had established her own charitable foundation with the profits from a successful travel business, was active in support of the arts, and had received numerous commendations for her generosity. She’d been married twice, the first to a wealthy widower with a young daughter. He had expired a few years after the marriage, and some years later she had tied the knot with a high school teacher from Tenafly by the name of Andrew Klinger. Before and in-between there had been numerous liaisons, one with the late (and very married) prominent Wall Street financier, Chandler Harrington, and one with the popular soap opera actor, Brad Weber. But the most notable was a longtime affair with a lawyer by the name of Donald Grasso, a name that today has become a household word as a result of a couple of media circus trials. I’d watched him on Geraldo Friday night, exuding the enormous charm that had catapulted him to national prominence, extolling the virtues of his ex-lover. Which made me wonder why she was an ex. I can’t imagine Rich making a nice speech about me, but I’m an ex-wife. Then again, maybe if I were dead–well, I’ll never know. The high school teacher was, I thought, kind of an odd finale to such an illustrious list of high rollers. Neither marriage had resulted in children. Helena, who had kept her maiden name, had been born in Queens, New York. Very little was known of her childhood. As an adult she’d lived in New York City, briefly in Beverly Hills, ultimately in Englewood, New Jersey, and over the years had done a good deal of traveling, mostly connected with her business. I always think, when I read about someone who has crammed so much activity into her time on earth, that I’m lacking something. I mean, if I bought it in an airplane crash tomorrow, how would my obituary read? Caroline Carlin, biofeedback clinician, born, 1972, graduated Cornell University, married, divorced, leaves two wonderful children, four animals, died 2013 having done nothing memorable. At times like these, a little voice in my head says, “Take a risk, Carrie. Marry Ted. Or at least, get out there and save the whales.”
The only details given in the paper on Friday about the circumstances of Ms. Forester’s death were that the police were searching for the biker who had sped off. No mention of the death being suspicious. But on Saturday they announced that there had been a witness. No name, but the scuttlebutt had it that the witness said the biker had knocked Helena Forester down with malice aforethought. Aha. The reason for Ted’s “suspicious death.”
Ted never made it over on the weekend, and I only spoke to him once, very briefly. He was on the run and I know him well enough to know when not to press. I didn’t bring up the case. I just had time to tell him that, as expected, Rich had unbreakable plans for next weekend–a jaunt to the Bahamas, not the moon.
Rich had picked up the kids at nine on Saturday, and I’d left for my office right after they did. I usually do only brain wave training with my Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) kids on Saturday mornings, but today I had three ADD’s and one Stress Management. I was surprised that none of the mothers mentioned the incident when I went out to talk to them after each child’s session, but I guess that’s because my office is in Piermont which, while only two towns away from Norwood, is in New York State. Someone being knocked down by a bike, even with malice, just isn’t front-page news in New York. What did bring her to mind again was the call I received from Jenny Margolies canceling her session. She told me she was canceling so she could attend the funeral.
“Oh, Jenny, I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize you knew her.”
“Yes,” Jenny said tightly, “I knew her.”
“Terrible, what happened. She must’ve been a wonderful woman. According to the papers, she—”
“I don’t think wonderful is exactly the word I’d use,” Jenny interrupted. “I’m not going to the funeral to weep over her. I plan to dance on her grave.”
I repeated the remark to my best friend, Meg Reilly, when I dropped by her café, which is just down the street from my office, for lunch. Meg’s Place is where I come whenever I’m feeling gloomy. Also when I’m not gloomy, just hungry. I can feed my stomach and my soul at the same time at the same watering trough. Aside from the fact that Meg herself is a tonic for me, just walking in the door lifts my spirits. No matter the time of year, colorful spring flower arrangements burst from the huge antique vases that Meg takes on consignment from Golden Oldies, the antique shop down the street. The walls are overlaid with her unique photographs although there are no longer, as there used to be, any of her husband, Kevin, and his brother, Pete, grinning audaciously from the deck of their sleek blue and silver striped powerboat. Pete was killed at the offshore powerboat races in Key West last year. I thought Kevin would give up racing, but he’s going back again this year, exactly as Ted had prophesied. I don’t know how Meg stands it, but it’s not my business. Who am I to talk anyway? I’m with a cop. Maybe the problem lies with Meg and me. What attracts us to the adventurers?
“Wasn’t that a weird thing for Jenny to say?” I commented. “If you believe the papers, the woman was a cross between Melinda Gates and Mother Teresa.”
Meg pulled up a chair and sat down across from me. “Well, things aren’t always what they seem.”
The piece of quiche on my fork didn’t make it to my mouth. “What do you mean?”
She looked uncomfortable, gave a quick glance around, then leaned forward and whispered in my ear. “I don’t know if I should tell you this...”
Meg and I have been through the wars together. There’s almost nothing we don’t tell each other. I raised my eyebrows, pretended to be insulted. “You can’t tell me something about a perfect stranger?”
“It involves someone else. Someone you know. In a way I’d be betraying a confidence.”
Now, I would like to say that I immediately dropped the subject, not wanting to put my best friend in an untenable position, but that’s not the way it went. She’d brought it up and my curiosity was aroused. “Ted’s department’s involved, you know,” I remarked loftily. “I’ll find out.”
Meg chuckled. “Yeah, like he keeps you apprised of everything that’s happening in an ongoing investigation.”
She knew whereof she spoke. Ted could be very closed-mouthed when it came to his work. “Come on, Meg. You know I’m the soul of discretion.”
“This doesn’t go any further. You swear?”
“Franny? Franny of Golden Oldies? What’s she got to do with it?” Franny Gold is one of the gentlest, sweetest people I’ve ever known. Of indeterminate age, somewhere between seventy and eighty plus, she’s a throwback to a time when manners were the order of the day and the word damn, much less the s word, never passed a lady’s lips. She dresses straight out of the last century and serves you tea out of delicate china cups, also out of the last century. An antique shop is the perfect environment for Franny. I’ve never heard her raise her voice in all the years I’ve been going to her shop, which is just three doors down from my office. I often stop by Golden Oldies to chat and browse on my way home, and I always come away feeling as though the world is a better place than I’d thought it was when I went in.
“She came in Saturday morning totally freaked out. I’ve never seen her like that. It took three cups of chamomile to calm her down.”
Meg employs chamomile tea like other people do valium. She’d plied me with many a cup in the early days of our friendship when I was going through my divorce. “So, what was it?”
Meg lowered her voice. “Franny’s the witness the papers are talking about. She saw it happen.”
I drew in my breath. “Oh, my God. Poor Franny. No wonder she’s shook up.”
“That’s not the whole thing. She said Helena was coming out of the John Harms theater just as she, Franny, was crossing the street. Franny knows her from the shop. She was there with another lady just a few weeks ago and she owed Franny quite a bit of money for something she’d bought, so when—”
“She knew her? That has to make it—”
“Will you shut up and listen? You know Van Brunt’s a fairly quiet street. There weren’t many people around. She said the guy on the bike came around the corner from Palisade Avenue riding on the sidewalk. When he saw Helena he picked up speed and headed straight for her. He was waving something that looked to Franny kind of like a lasso. Whatever it was caught Helena on the side of the head. Franny said the woman dropped like a stone and the guy took off. It wasn’t the bike that knocked her down like the papers said. And it definitely wasn’t an accident.”