“When I invited her to stay at my house until she got her feet back under her, I figured that would be a few weeks, maybe a few months. I didn’t expect over a year,” Cynthia Jensen said, leaning toward the neighboring manicure table.
Monique Chapman inclined her head to the side in agreement, one diamond earring peeking out from behind her auburn hair. “Perhaps you and Liz should have defined the conditions of the invite before she moved in.”
“I know, I know,” Cynthia said. When the manicurist indicated to switch hands, she obeyed, admiring the clean lines of the French manicure. “But I felt sorry for her after John—no, wait, it was Tom—kicked her out. She had no place to stay.”
“Did you ever think that maybe she deserved to be kicked out?” Monique waved a hand in the air for emphasis, showing off her blood-red nails. Cynthia wished she had the confidence to choose such a bold color. “Liz Morrison is a user,” Monique added.
“So I’ve noticed after all this time.” Cynthia took a deep breath, regretting it when she inhaled the odor of nail polish and solvents. “Not only does she stay at the house rent-free, but she doesn’t contribute to anything. She doesn’t even buy her own groceries, just steals my food. But a year ago, I figured I had a big house with plenty of space for three people, now that my boys are off at college.”
“What does Kyle think about the extra guest in his house?”
Cynthia thought about her current husband of seven years. “Technically it is myhouse since I won it in the divorce from my first husband. Kyle and I had some arguments in the first few months, when it became obvious that Liz wasn’t going anywhere. He wanted me to kick her out, complained that I was too nice.”
“You are too nice.” Monique said.
“So I’ve been told. Hundreds of times. But I assumed that eventually Liz would get a clue and leave. I told Kyle to be patient, not that patience is really a quality of his. But I guess he ultimately resigned himself. He hasn’t said anything about her for the past couple of months.”
The manicurist indicated that Cynthia was done. She stood and walked over to the nail dryer, sliding her hands underneath the blue UV lights.
When Monique took the stool next to her, Cynthia stared at their reflections in the mirror. She thought they looked pretty good for two women fighting valiantly against middle age. She leaned down, checked out her roots. It was probably about time for her to visit her hairdresser to touch up the blond. She wished she could forego dying her hair, but Kyle always reminded her that he preferred blondes.
Monique seemed to do her own appearance assessment, then met Cynthia’s eyes in the mirror. “You don’t think it’s odd that Kyle is no longer complaining?”
“No,” Cynthia answered, then paused. She had known Monique for years: as debutantes, as young wives and mothers, as divorcées, and now as settled, mature women. They watched each other’s kids, each other’s houses, and each other’s waistlines. They knew each other better than they knew their own husbands. That wasn’t an innocent question her friend had posed.
“Why are you asking?”
“I told you, honey. Liz Morrison is an entitled user. She takes things that aren’t hers. . . . That includes husbands.”
“You . . . you think she’s sleeping with Kyle?” Cynthia’s voice resonated over the piped-in flute music. She turned around, saw some of the other women in the salon staring at them, and lowered her voice. “I have to admit, I’ve heard rumors about her at the country club. But the women there are just nasty gossips. Half the things they say aren’t true.”
“And half of them are. I believe the ones about Liz. I know she broke up at least two marriages. Maybe three,” her friend said pointedly.
“Do you have proof?”
“Of her and Kyle? No. But I’ve noticed how their behavior has changed. Last year, there’d be an expression of annoyance on his face whenever he’d look at her. And when she bothered to notice him . . . it was like she was viewing a challenge, a competition. You know, that same fierce, concentrated glare she uses on the tennis court.”
“I watched them at the Mardi Gras party a few months ago. They didn’t look at each other at all. Studiously avoided one another, if you ask me. But they disappeared for thirty minutes or so, and when they came back, she had this self-satisfied grin.” Monique picked up a wine glass the salon worker had brought over.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Cynthia didn’t know what hurt more, her husband’s betrayal or Monique’s. How could she have kept silent?
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me, wouldn’t want to believe me.” Monique gave her an intense stare. “Even now, you’re doubting me.”
“I don’t know what I believe.” Cynthia raised her hands, almost started biting her nails before Monique slapped at them.
“Don’t mess up your nails. And don’t just ignore what I’ve said. Find proof, one way or the other. For once, Cynthia Jensen, stand up for yourself.”
“I found proof.” Cynthia whispered across the table a week later, trying not to disturb the hushed atmosphere of the country club restaurant. She held her wine glass with both hands since they were shaking so much. She hadn’t even bothered to order food. Just thinking about the footage from her newly installed security cameras made her lose her appetite. She shook her head at Monique’s inquisitive look; she was in no mood to talk about it.
“I’m sorry, Cynthia. I knew it, but I was hoping, for your sake, that perhaps I had been reading the situation incorrectly.” Monique stared at the white linen tablecloth before raising her head. “I hate that woman.”
Cynthia was surprised at the animosity in her friend’s eyes. It was flattering how protective Monique was of her. “I . . . I do, too.”
Monique sliced a scallop in half before stabbing a piece. “She needs to learn a lesson.”
“I doubt she ever will. People like that never learn. They just go on finding nice people and using them.”
“Only if those people don’t stand up for themselves.”
Cynthia sighed. “You know, you’re right. I swear that from now on I will stand up for myself.”
Monique dropped her fork on her plate, the clink resounding through the restaurant. “I’m so glad to hear you say that. Then you’ll be up for my plan.”
Taking another gulp of wine—Cynthia thought she’d need it—she studied the maliciousness in her friend’s eyes. “And what is your plan?”
“You know how she’s allergic to sunflowers, right?”
Cynthia huffed out a breath. “How could I not know that? She’s always talking about it, always making us go only to her approved restaurants. I’m not even allowed to have sunflower oil in my own house.”
“Right. I have to admit, at first I thought she was only doing it for attention, especially since sunflower allergies are so rare. Until last Halloween, when she must have eaten something that had sunflower oil. She’s not that good an actress to fake her throat closing.”
“It was terrifying. I’m glad she had an EpiPen,” Cynthia said, starting to realize where her friend was going.
“You can’t be thinking of deliberately giving her something with sunflowers. She could die.”
“She won’t die. She always has those pens with her. It might worry her, but she deserves punishment for sleeping with someone else’s husband.”
Cynthia was about to protest, but Monique held up her hand.
“Besides, we won’t give her sunflower. That’s the whole point. We’ll tell her not to eat it—something with sunflower in it. So if she still eats it, it’s on her. She’d finally be punished for taking something that’s not hers.”
Cynthia just stared.
Monique rolled her eyes. “Look, it won’t cause any permanent damage. We can make, let’s say, some cookies. In fact, we have a bake sale coming up. We can say someone donated the cookies, leave them in your kitchen with a note saying ‘Don’t eat this, for bake sale’ on the box.”
Taking a deep breath, Cynthia considered. “So if she eats them, after we told her not to, it’s her fault.”
Monique leaned back in her chair. “Right. And again, she just needs to take a shot and she’ll be okay. She even has a backup, just in case the first one doesn’t work. And backups for her backups.”
Cynthia was still nervous, but it was so tempting to punish Liz for the past year of hell and for sleeping with her husband. “Well, maybe you’re right.”
“I am right. Liz will never learn until someone finally punishes her.” Monique’s eyes flashed angrily. “Didn’t you say that you were going to stand up for yourself?”
Not for the first time, Cynthia was glad she had never gotten onto Monique’s bad side. Her friend could be scary. After a few seconds, Cynthia nodded.
Monique raised her wine glass in a salute. “And when she’s all recovered, you can tell her that she shouldn’t touch things that don’t belong to her.”
Liz would no longer touch things that didn’t belong to her, Cynthia thought. The other woman wouldn’t be touching anything ever again since she hadn’t recovered from her reaction to the sunflower oil.
Cynthia stood by her husband, both staring in shock at the body on the stairs, blond hair splayed around her head. It was hard to see Liz now, since the hallway crawled with paramedics, police officers, and one man dressed in what looked like white protective gear, leaning over the body. She and Kyle had just come back from their weekly date night—something she had thought would be helpful after her disastrous first marriage. Considering how marriage number two was working out, date night obviously hadn’t done its job. That night they had gone out for dinner and dessert with awkward, stilted discussions, followed by a drive home in total silence. Usually she made an effort to keep conversation flowing, but knowing what he’d done, she was more obsessed with cheating than chatting. The first time she heard him say something that wasn’t about the weather was when he cried out after discovering Liz’s body on the stairs, her face horribly swollen and blotchy.
She tried to tune out the action at the base of the stairs, but it was hard not to notice. She had originally loved the open concept of the expansive first floor, especially when her children were young, but now, there were definitely some negatives. Not only could she see and hear what was happening where Liz’s body was lying, but she could see all the way into the kitchen as well, where the fatal cookies still sat.
“Why didn’t she use her injector?” Cynthia asked, not really to anyone in particular.
“That’s a good question,” a deep voice said.
Cynthia glanced over at the man who had just spoken, a police officer of some sort, though he wore regular clothes. He looked young, but he didn’t appear stupid. She tried to quash her rising panic as he approached.
“I’m Detective Phillips,” the young man said. “Is this your residence?”
“Yes,” she croaked, then coughed loudly, trying to hide her tension. “Thank you for coming so quickly, Detective Phillips. I’m Cynthia Jensen. This is my husband, Kyle.”
“And the deceased?” He nodded toward the floor.
Cynthia made the mistake of following his gaze. Emotions flooded her, making her voice choke again. She hadn’t meant for Liz to die. “That’s my friend. Liz Morrison.”
“And you found her here tonight?”
Cynthia nodded. “When we came home from dinner.”
“How did she come to be in your house alone?”
Cynthia took a deep breath, reminded herself that if Liz had just obeyed the sign saying that she shouldn’t touch the cookies, this would never have happened. This wasn’t her fault. “For the past year Liz has lived here with us.”
The detective eyed her husband. Cynthia guessed what he was thinking, that this was some sort of sexual arrangement among the three of them. She felt her cheeks heating.
“In the guest room. Liz had a bad turn of events and had nowhere to go. I invited her to stay here until she was better off.” Cynthia didn’t bother saying she hadn’t expected Liz to stay quite as long as she did, nor that she hadn’t offered up her husband in addition to her house.
The detective continued to regard them quietly. The silence unnerved her, so she couldn’t stop herself from blurting out, “So, she had an allergic reaction, right?”
Detective Phillips nodded toward the man in the white protective suit. “We won’t know that until the medical examiner finishes, but what made you assume that?”
She took a quick breath to calm herself. “I’ve seen her have an allergic reaction before. It was scary.” She shuddered quickly. “And she turned red in the face then too, but she just used her pen and quickly recovered, and then we went to the hospital.”
“So she has known allergies?” the detective asked.
Her husband jumped in. “Yes, to sunflowers. But she’s always careful not to eat anything with sunflowers or sunflower oil. And she carries an EpiPen with her wherever she goes.”
“Don’t you already know about her allergies?” Cynthia asked. “They are listed on her medical alert bracelet.” Of course, he had noticed it, she realized. He was just testing her.
Detective Phillips gave a slight nod of confirmation. “Can you both come with me?” He had asked politely, but Cynthia doubted she actually had a choice.
They headed toward the large chef’s kitchen. As they passed the dining area, Cynthia noticed that Liz’s purse was on the long mahogany table, turned upside down with items scattered over the tabletop and spilling onto the floor.
As Cynthia knew he would, Detective Phillips led them to the coffee bar where she had arranged a number of items for the bake sale, including—front and center—a clear plastic container full of chocolate chip cookies, Liz’s favorite. It was the only container that appeared to have been opened. Its lid was no longer tightly attached, but Cynthia’s note was still taped to it, clearly stating “Do Not Eat. For Bake Sale.” On the floor, she could see a half-eaten cookie. Liz must have dropped it when she immediately reacted to that first bite.
“Do you recognize these?” The detective pointed at the remains of the cookie and the open container.
Cynthia nodded. “Yes. Those were donated for tomorrow’s bake sale—everything on the counter was—so I left the note saying not to eat them.”
“Who donated this bin, the one the note’s on?” the detective asked, writing in a notepad.
“I . . . I don’t know, actually. We had a table at the country club for people to leave donated items.” A table Monique had carefully placed out of range of any cameras. “There was an unsigned index card in the box that said that these were vegan chocolate chip cookies—which could have been made by any of our members. Many of them are on one specialized diet or another.”
“Do you normally take donations from anonymous sources?”
She was nervous, so she overexplained. “It’s an annual fundraiser for underprivileged children. People donate items, and we sell them at a local bookstore. We don’t usually record who made what, at least not for any donation under two hundred fifty dollars. Other than noting a few people who, well, can’t bake. Those items, we donate to the trash can.”
“And why did you put a note on this container?”
Cynthia’s heart beat wildly. “It didn’t apply to just that container. I didn’t want Liz or Kyle”—she glanced at her husband—“eating any of the items for the bake sale.”
“Why do you believe there might be sunflower in these particular cookies?”
She shrugged. “Well, I’m not a baker.” Her husband nodded agreement. “But they’re vegan cookies, so maybe whoever made them used sunflower oil as a substitute for butter.”
Detective Phillips glanced up in surprise from his notebook. “What’s wrong with butter? It’s not meat.”
“Vegan doesn’t just mean no meat, but also no animal products. No dairy, no eggs, not even honey.” Cynthia almost smiled when the detective shook his head in apparent disbelief.
“And you both said she should have been carrying an injector?”
“She always had a two-pack in her purse. They come clipped together in plastic containers.” Cynthia waved a hand toward the designer bag and the mess on the table. “And she always had her purse with her when she went out.”
“Where does the purse normally stay when she’s at home?”
There was no normal when it came to Liz. She left stuff all over the house, something else that had gotten on Cynthia’s nerves. She shrugged again. “Wherever she happens to drop it.”
“We didn’t find any EpiPens in the contents of her purse,” the detective said. “Does she have any others?”
“She keeps two more on her nightstand,” Kyle replied.
Cynthia tried not to react to Kyle’s knowledge of the contents of Liz’s bedroom. Luckily, the detective was distracted, as the medical examiner called him over. Cynthia watched as they stepped away from the crowd and had a quick conversation.
“Can you show me to her room?” the detective asked when he returned.
They escorted Detective Phillips to the second floor—taking the back stairs—and into the guest room that Liz had been occupying for the past year. In contrast to the rest of the house, the room was a mess: used clothes on the loveseat and desk chair, unmade bed with the pink-and-white decorative pillows thrown on the floor. As the three of them stood in the doorway, Cynthia started to get annoyed at Liz all over again, then remembered the woman was lying dead one floor below.
There were no EpiPens on the nightstand.
“They were there the other night,” Kyle said, then cleared his throat. “I mean, I thought I saw them the other day.”
Cynthia ignored his near confession of the affair. She already knew, she had proof, but it was still hard to hear him say it out loud. She distracted herself by watching Detective Phillips, who stood in the entryway and carefully glanced around the room before walking toward the nightstand. He leaned to peer over it.
“There are two bright-yellow injectors back there clipped together. I assume they’re EpiPens.” He pointed behind the nightstand but didn’t make a move to pick them up.
Cynthia’s nerves ramped up again. The detective was being so careful. Was he treating this like a crime scene?
“They fell behind the nightstand?” Kyle asked.
“Looks that way.” Detective Phillips regarded the room again. “We’ll wait for the autopsy to confirm, but it seems to me like she had an allergic reaction to the cookies.”
Kyle spoke up. “Aren’t you going to test the cookies?”
The detective frowned. “Of course, but it might take some time. Unlike what you see on TV, we don’t have an army of experts standing idly by. But it’s fairly clear what happened, don’t you think? The medical examiner saw no evidence of a struggle. No wounds or puncture marks that could indicate the administration of poisons. All evidence points to an anaphylactic reaction to an allergen. My guess is she tried to find an EpiPen in her purse but couldn’t, then tried to make it upstairs. Sadly, your friend wasn’t a terribly careful individual.” He paused. “My condolences on your loss.”
Cynthia repeated the same trite phrase to Liz’s family at the wake four days later. She paid her respects at the casket, then walked over to Monique. They found a quiet corner in the posh funeral home and sat down.
“I still can’t believe this happened,” Cynthia said, staring over at the body.
Monique sighed. “I can’t either. I thought she always kept those stupid pens on her.”
Cynthia carefully glanced around, then leaned in closer to her friend. “I feel so guilty. So guilty that Kyle and I ended up paying for the funeral since I knew her family didn’t have much money.”
“You shouldn’t feel guilty, honey. Again, if she hadn’t eaten the cookies, she’d still be alive. And if she had been more careful, she’d also still be alive.”
Taking a deep breath, Cynthia willed herself to believe that. “I’m glad that the autopsy confirmed her anaphylactic reaction to sunflower oil, and the police didn’t investigate any further into the cookies. What would we have done if they tried to find out who had made them? Like, if they had searched for fingerprints or something?”
“Well, your fingerprints would have been found on the container, of course, since you brought it in the house. But some people do wear gloves when they cook, especially when trying to avoid cross-contamination with allergens, so it wouldn’t be that odd for there to be no other fingerprints.”
Cynthia raised her eyebrows. “Maybe. It still could look suspicious.”
“Well, if worse came to worst, I’d admit that I made the cookies. There’s no crime in baking. I’ve even been eating a vegan diet for the past two weeks, driving my husband nuts—you know how Drew loves his meat. That way, it wouldn’t seem odd that I made the cookies vegan. I mean, some people use sunflower oil anyway for health reasons, but I figured it would be more legit if I could claim I’m vegan.” Monique laughed. “I have to admit, I’m looking forward to a big steak.”
“Wow,” Cynthia said. “You put a lot of thought into this.”
“No one hurts my best friend and gets away with it,” Monique said. She stood up, smoothing down her black dress. “Anyway, we should mingle. I’m going to stay for a respectable thirty minutes or so, then I’m heading out to have that celebratory steak. I think I’ll tell Drew that I’ve realized life is short, and we shouldn’t let a diet prevent us from eating good food.”
“I understand, although I still feel too guilty to eat.” Cynthia glanced at the casket again. “See you tomorrow afternoon at the cemetery.”
Cynthia stayed until the very end of the wake. Kyle wasn’t ready to leave. While he practically kept vigil at the casket—had he actually cared for Liz?—Cynthia wandered around the room, listening to everyone’s conversations, and people weren’t avoiding speaking ill of the dead. It made Cynthia feel a little better knowing that Liz hadn’t just slept with her husband. She’d gotten around so much, it was ridiculous. It was as if Liz had been working her way through the entire alphabet: Alan, Andrew, Bart, Benjamin, Carl, Chad . . . the names went all the way to Zachary.
Clearly, the woman lacked morals. And just as clearly, Cynthia realized, she still needed to stand up for herself.
The weather the following day matched her mood. Gray clouds covered the sky, sending wet, cold rain all over the mourners. The cemetery staff had set up a tent over the burial site, but there were more people than room. Kyle held an umbrella over their heads as the priest sprinkled holy water over the casket. Cynthia was surprised that the water didn’t burn through the wood.
Once the ceremony was over, she, Kyle, and Monique walked back to the parking lot. Noticing two men standing on the sidewalk by their vehicles, Cynthia took a deep breath. She hoped she was prepared for what was about to unfold.
The first man, wearing a dark gray suit, stepped forward. “Mr. Jensen?” he asked.
Kyle lowered his eyebrows in apparent confusion, but nodded. He added a frown when the man handed him an envelope. Cynthia took the umbrella from him, enabling Kyle to open the envelope. He stared at the documents inside, then looked up, shock and anger filling his eyes. “You’re serving me with divorce papers? Now? Here?”
“It seemed appropriate, considering the cause. I’m finally standing up for myself,” Cynthia said, using the words she had practiced in the mirror that morning.
“For what reason?” he yelled.
Cynthia knew he was deliberately being loud, hoping to embarrass her publicly. He knew how important her social standing was to her, knew that she hated confrontation and, even more, that she hated having an audience.
Or at least the old Cynthia felt that way. This Cynthia had chosen this moment, and she wasn’t worried about gossip. She wanted to expose him publicly, and she wouldn’t let her nerves silence her. She’d done nothing wrong. “I don’t know.” She raised her voice. “Maybe because you slept with another woman in my house.”
He tried to appear offended. “How can you say that?”
“I have proof, Kyle. You didn’t know I had a security system installed, did you? With cameras.” She was gratified when his mouth dropped open.
“It’s not my fault. You’re the one who invited her!”
“To stay at my house, not to sleep with my husband,” Cynthia replied. “You used my house. You betrayed my trust. Fortunately, my lawyer insisted on a prenuptial, so you will no longer be using me for my money. I’m tired of being used.” She noted the approach of Detective Phillips. Leaving her husband standing in the rain, she stepped away to watch as he neared Monique.
“Monique Chapman?” the detective asked.
Monique had been viewing the proceedings with a satisfied smirk. Now she blinked a few times and nodded. “Yes, that’s me.”
Detective Phillips reached for his handcuffs. “Mrs. Chapman, you are under arrest for the murder of Elizabeth Morrison. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to have an attorney. If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed to you by the court. Do you understand these rights?”
With wide eyes, Monique ignored Detective Phillips and turned on Cynthia. “What did you do?”
“Ma’am, you need to answer my question,” Detective Phillips said.
“What? Oh yes, yes, of course I understand. I’m not an idiot. My friend might be, though,” she added, sending a poisonous glace in Cynthia’s direction.
“I’m not an idiot, Monique. I’m just tired of being used.” Cynthia stared defiantly back at her. “Like I told Kyle, I had cameras installed. Last night, after coming to a realization, I checked out the recordings from the two days before Liz died. And what did I see? You, sneaking into our house—using the key I gave you for emergencies—and removing the EpiPens from Liz’s purse. Pretty ballsy of you to do it while Liz was in the house. And then you returned the next day while we all were out and went into Liz’s room, where I’m guessing you knocked her secondary pens onto the floor, just in case she made it that far. I have to say, Monique, the black catsuit looked good, but those latex gloves you were wearing weren’t very fashionable.”
Monique glowered at her. “They’ll charge you with accessory.”
“Maybe. But as you keep saying, I did clearly mark that the cookies shouldn’t be eaten. And I’m already cooperating with the police, so my lawyer—who was very busy last night and this morning—is confident the court will have leniency on me.”
“But I did it for you!” Monique cried out. “To make her pay for what she did to you. How can you do this?”
Cynthia shook her head. “No, you didn’t do it for me. You did it for yourself. I heard all sorts of stories at the wake. Kyle wasn’t the only husband Liz slept with. There was also talk about her sleeping with your husband. You knew she slept with Andrew and you used me as an excuse, and a means, to kill Liz. She might have deserved some punishment for cheating, but not death. And I didn’t deserve a so-called friend who lied to me and easily could have made me the prime suspect in a murder.”
As her ex-best friend was handcuffed and put in the unmarked police car, Cynthia called out, “You should be happy, Monique. I’m standing up for myself, just as you always encouraged. I’m looking forward to doing it again soon—at your trial.”
Kelsey Wellington looked down at the corpse below her with great satisfaction. It had taken her almost a half hour, but she was satisfied. Then she glanced over at her husband.
“You managed three in the same time?” She was impressed by his dedication. On the table in front of him were the remains of three victims. It looked like Steven had removed every shred of delicious lobster meat from the shells.
“I couldn’t help myself. My goal is to decimate the Maine lobster population on this trip,” he said, grinning at her. She noticed some lobster meat was stuck in his teeth. “It just tastes better here.”
“It doesn’t get any fresher,” Kelsey said, nodding toward the harbor next to their picnic table. “You know these poor guys were swimming in there this morning.”
“And now they’re swimming in my belly,” Steven said, patting the body part in question.
Kelsey eyed Steven’s stomach. Despite his love of food, especially seafood, his abdomen was still as flat as the day they got married, ten years ago today. “Happy Anniversary, my love.” She raised her drink, tapped his beer cup with hers.
“Happy Anniversary!” He looked around at their surroundings. “Maine was an awesome idea for a vacation. We get good food, I get some research opportunities, and you get tons of your favorite view of rocks and water.”
She nodded. One of the things that had drawn her and Steven together was their shared love of good food and good travel. And he was right, she adored the combination of rocks and water. Their first trip had been to the rugged and remote Washington state coast—absolutely gorgeous, plus it had the bonus of delicious Dungeness crab. They’d visited the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, the fjords of Norway, Highway 1 in California. Anywhere that water met land, that was her happy place.
She tented her hands, rested her chin on them. “Remind me again, why do we live in Minnesota?”
“Because, while we love rocks and water, we also like food and a roof over our heads. My job at U of M provides those things for us. And your job as well, of course,” he hurried to add.
“There are universities here.” She waved a hand around. She rolled her eyes when her husband took a slow, deliberate look around. “I don’t mean here here. I mean here, on a coast.”
“Yes, dear. But most of them already have enough history professors, or don’t need those that specialize in the time period around the Civil War.”
“But there were no Civil War battles in Minnesota.” When he stared at her, she sighed. “None in Maine either, I know. Still, Maine is closer to Civil War battlefields.”
There was a look in his eyes that she knew meant she was about to get a history lecture. With some geography thrown in for good measure. “I’m not sure,” he began. “Let me think, the closest battle to Minnesota is probably the battle of Athens, which took place in parts of Missouri and along the Iowa border in 1861.”
She mostly tuned out, having learned much of this before. In ten years, she’d heard about most of the major and minor battles of the Civil War. She sipped her beer and listened to the sound of his voice as he talked about secessionists, bivouacs, and counterattacks. She enjoyed hearing him lecture with the sound of gentle waves in the background. She dialed back in when he mentioned the St. Albans Raid, that was new for her.
Her husband was in fine form now, using his beer cup to gesture. “Now, Vermont saw some confederate raids coming in from Canada, but those skirmishes really weren’t important. Of course, the northernmost major battle on the Eastern Theater was Gettysburg, which is about 500 miles from here. So I suppose I’d agree that Maine is closer to the major Civil War battles than Minnesota.”
“See, any college would want to hire you, smarty,” Kelsey said over the rim of her cup. She saw the pleasure in his eyes from her compliment. Many men were vain about their appearance, she knew, but Steven was vain about his knowledge.
A slight blush formed on his face. “Thank you. But unfortunately, any college would need an opening to hire me. And the only way history professorships seem to open up is if someone dies or retires.”
Kelsey knew that to be true. It had been a strain on the beginning of their marriage for him to find his first job. While they had wanted to stay near their families in North Carolina, the job search had led them to Minnesota. “Well, I’d hate to wish for that to happen to someone, but if it does…”
“Maybe someday, dear. For now, what do you say we go see more of your beloved rocks and water and take a walk? Digest some of that lobster. There’s enough moonlight to see.”
Since they had paid for their food when they had ordered, Kelsey only needed a few wipes for her hands and she was ready to go. They headed toward the beach, only about three hundred yards from the lobster pound.
As soon as she could hear the waves crashing on the beach, she took a deep sigh. “Seriously, so much better than Minnesota. The Great Lakes are, well, great, but they still can’t compete with the ocean.”
“It has its appeal,” her husband agreed. He took his shoes off, tied the laces together. “And it’s not even like Maine winters are that much worse than Minnesota winters.”
“True. I’m glad we’re here in the summer.” She followed her husband’s lead, slipped off her sandals. The sand was a little cold, but other than that, it was perfect. The briny smell of the ocean was wafting in on the breeze, the wind felt good on her skin, and the moonlight cast a romantic glow on the sea and sand. They even mostly had the beach to themselves, other than one bearded gentleman who passed by them with a curt nod.
But then something marred that perfection. “How can anyone litter this beautiful beach?” She picked up a plastic bottle and looked for a recycle bin.
“I just see a trash can,” Steven said. “I know you’d prefer to recycle it, but…”
She shrugged. “I’ll just keep it until we get back to the hotel.”
“Here.” He pulled a plastic bag out of his pocket, handed it to her. She stared at him. “What? You do this wherever we go, so I figured we should be prepared.”
She threw herself at him, gave him a smacking kiss on the mouth. “You’re awesome, you know that?” She took the bag, put the bottle inside, and grabbed his hand. “Let’s walk.”
By the time they had finished, she had collected another plastic bottle, two crushed aluminum cans of the beer variety, one single sandal, and several pretty shells that weren’t trash, but she wanted to take back to their home in Minnesota. If she couldn’t bring her house to the beach, she’d bring the beach to her house.
“It is a lovely location,” Steven said as he unlocked the car. “Let’s come back here tomorrow and go swimming.”
“Sounds good.” She threw the bag with her “treasures” into the backseat and slid into the car. “Other than heading up to Wiscasset for a lobster roll, we don’t have anything else firm planned for tomorrow or Wednesday. Thursday and Friday are your research days, right?” As usual, this vacation would be a busman’s holiday, since Steven wanted to do research at a local college that had some local Civil War era newspapers.
“That’s right. I’m looking forward to that.” He wiggled his eyebrows at her. “But I’m looking even more forward to tonight’s activities.”
“It’s funny, Steven, I hate getting up in Minnesota, but on vacation, I am raring to go.” The sun had barely peeked over the horizon and she was already showered, dressed, and enjoying a lovely breakfast from room service.
She packed their swim clothes, towels, and other items as Steven got ready, at his usual leisurely pace. Luckily, they were still up early and out the door before 7am.
“I want to walk on that rock pier,” Kelsey said. “It was too dark last night, I was worried I’d twist an ankle or something.” They walked past a few early birds set up on the beach, headed toward a manmade stone pier that jutted out about two hundred yards into the ocean.
“Sounds good to me.”
Kelsey smiled, grateful as always to be married to someone so amiable. She grabbed his hand, both for love and for some help with balance.
“Not fair,” she complained after he easily walked from one boulder to another. “You have longer legs than me. I have to hop over the gaps.”
He laughed, turning around to help her jump over the spaces. “Just be careful. Some of these rocks are wet.”
They made it out to the end of the pier without incident. Today, there was more than just a slight breeze coming off the ocean. “How do I look?” she asked Steven.
“Like Cousin It.” He tried to push her hair back from where it was blowing in front of her face, but to no avail. He pulled a hair tie from his pocket. “Here, this will help.”
Shaking her head at his uber-preparedness, she gratefully took the hair tie and pulled her long hair back into a pony tail. “Now I can see,” she said, then immediately regretted being able to do so. “Ohmygod!”
In the water right next to them, banging up against the rocks, was a floating body. It was face down, so she wasn’t certain if it was a man or a woman. Steven immediately dropped down to his knees and grabbed the person by the shoulders.
Taking out her phone, Kelsey called nine one one. “We’re at the rock pier by Joe’s Lobster Pound in Monkport. There’s a body in the water… a girl, no, a young woman,” she said as Steven managed to drag the body to the top of the boulder they were on. “I think she drowned, we will start CPR—no, wait.”
She took a closer look at the body. “There are bruises around her throat. In the shape of hands.” She swallowed hard as bile rose in her throat.
“She’s ice cold, too,” Steven said. “I don’t think that’s just because of the water temperature. And look.” He pointed toward her leg, where a line was tied around her ankle. “She was tied to a lobster trap. And it looks like a few lobsters had already started on her.”
Kelsey couldn’t hold down the bile any longer.
Kelsey picked at her spaghetti and meatballs. By mutual, unspoken agreement, they did not go out for seafood that night. “I’m not sure I can ever eat lobster again.”
Steven dropped his fork on his plate with a loud clank. “Can we not talk about this right now? I’m trying to eat.” Then he sighed, wiped his mouth with his napkin. “I’m sorry I snapped, honey. I’m just trying everything not to think about that poor girl.” He placed his napkin on the table, crossed his cutlery over his plate of chicken Marsala. “Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t eat right now anyway. No appetite.”
“That poor girl.” Kelsey repeated. “How old do you think she was?”
“Probably college aged,” Steven said. “Looked about the same age as many of my students. That edge between childhood and being an adult.” He sighed again.
“You know, I love those CSI shows, but it sucked seeing it in real life.” Kelsey spun some pasta on her fork, but then, like Steven, gave up. “I couldn’t help myself and watched them examine the body.”
He frowned at her. “What? How?” He signaled for a waiter. “Two to-go boxes please.”
Kelsey paused until the waiter left. “I wanted to respect her privacy, but sitting on the beach, waiting for my turn to talk to the police, I couldn’t stop myself from looking. It was pretty close to what you see on TV. They took lots of pictures, the medical examiner checked out the body, etc. It appeared that a tech took some samples, too, like under her fingernails in case she defended herself. I hope she fought her attacker.” She stabbed her fork through a meatball. “I hope she got him good.”
“You are braver than I am,” Steven said. “I couldn’t look at her again.”
“You were brave,” Kelsey said, defending her husband from himself. “You went in after her. And at least you didn’t get sick like I did.”
“Barely.” He looked up as the waiter came back with the to-go boxes.
“Would Signor and Signora like dessert?” the waiter asked.
“Oh God no,” they answered simultaneously.
“Brianna Taylor Yarbrough,” Kelsey read out loud.
Her husband glanced up from a historic newspaper, blinking in confusion. “Who?” he whispered.
That reminded her of her surroundings. Libraries, even university libraries, meant hushed voices, so she lowered her volume. She looked back at her own newspaper, although this one was online on her laptop. “The girl. Woman. The one who was killed.”
“They’ve identified her?” He peered closely at the newspaper in front of him, then scribbled some notes.
“Yes, and get this. You were right about her being college-aged. In fact, she was a student at this very university.”
He took off his reading glasses, gave her his full attention. “Is she? Was she?”
Kelsey scrolled down the article. She typically accompanied Steven to do his research and would find other things to read. This time, she had a murder to occupy her. “Yes. She’s a sophomore, taking summer classes, majoring in political science with a minor in history. Huh, she’s probably been in this very section.” Kelsey looked around, imagining the young lady, alive and vibrant, sitting and studying at these tables. She noticed a pair of young women: a blonde who was obviously crying, the other, a brunette, had her arm around the weeping woman. “Steven, do you have tissues?”
He reached in his pocket, drew out a tissue pack. She took it, stood up, and made her way to the crying woman.
“Here. Do you want some Kleenex?” She held out the pack.
“Thank you,” the girl sniffled. She grabbed one, blew her nose loudly. “Thank you again,” she said after taking a short time to compose herself.
“Sorry to intrude,” Kelsey said as she sat down in a chair next to her. “But, is. . .is this about Brianna?” she guessed.
That started a fresh onslaught of tears. The crying woman took another tissue.
The brunette nodded. “Yes, she and Morgan were good friends. I knew her too, but we weren’t as close.” The expression on her face made Kelsey think she didn’t particularly care for the dead woman.
“I’m so sorry, Morgan.” Kelsey reached out, held Morgan’s hand in hers. “It’s so hard to lose a good friend.”
“It’s horrible,” Morgan whispered. “She was so funny, outgoing. I can’t believe she’s dead.”
Kelsey handed her another tissue. “It is sad. She was so young.”
“Did you know her?”
Hesitating at Morgan’s question, Kelsey contemplated whether to explain how she knew Morgan. Deciding the truth would be too upsetting, she hedged her answer. “I’ve seen her a couple of times.” It wasn’t a lie. She did see her twice: once two days ago, and once in today’s article. “I’m Kelsey, by the way.”
“Hailey,” the other girl said. “And as you figured out, this is Morgan.”
“I can’t believe it,” Morgan said again. “She was so happy. Was doing so well in her classes, even said she was finally in love.”
Kelsey perked up at that. She had watched all those CSI shows. Nine times out of ten, it was the boyfriend, right? “Oh?” she asked casually. “With whom?”
Morgan shook her head. “She didn’t tell me. Said it was a secret.”
“I bet it was a professor,” Hailey said darkly. “Briana fell in love with all her professors. Or her TAs. She was always attracted to the smart ones.”
“I can’t blame her for that,” Kelsey said, glancing back at her husband, who was bent over the newspapers.
“Yeah, but she also seemed to like the married ones,” Hailey said.
“Hailey,” Morgan said in a horrified whisper. “She died. Don’t talk badly about her.”
“Fine, fine, I’ll keep quiet,” Hailey said, to Kelsey’s regret. She released Morgan, who in her scandalized reaction seemed to have finally stopped crying. “Anyway, we need to get back to reading these history notes for our exam tomorrow.” Her emphasis on the subject of history, as well as her pointed look at her over Morgan’s head, piqued Kelsey’s curiosity about the history department.
She said her goodbyes and scampered back to her computer. “I left your tissues with them, I hope you don’t mind.”
Her husband shrugged. “I have another pack.” He patted his jean pocket.
“No wonder your pants are always falling down with everything you carry.” Since she often benefited from his preparedness, she realized she shouldn’t complain. Typing the college name in her computer’s search bar, she quickly found their website, and then searched for the history department’s faculty. If it was a teacher’s assistant, she realized, he—or she, for that matter—might not be listed.
She glanced at the headshots, read some of the bios. She sniffed. These professors weren’t half as good as her husband. They had fewer publications, for one, and what little they had weren’t in as distinguished publications or as recent. She clicked back to the faculty page, scrolled down some more. “It’s him!”
“Shhh,” her husband admonished. “Him who?”
“The guy on the beach.” She gestured at her computer, pointing at an older, bearded gentleman.
He looked confused. “There were a number of people on the beach that morning. I don’t remember him.”
“No, not the morning we found her. The night before, when we went for our post dinner walk. I bet he killed her that night!”
Steven looked closer at the picture. “Hmmm, seems vaguely familiar.. . .oh, that's why. Dr. Benjamin Eckleman. He’s a well known historian. I’ve even met him a couple of times at the OAH conference.”
Kelsey nodded, recognizing Steven’s annual Organization of American Historians conference. He never missed a year. “And? What did you think?”
“Seems a nice enough fellow, though full of himself. Not sure I’d peg him as a killer.”
“No one ever recognizes killers. Every time, whenever people are interviewed about their murderous neighbors, it’s always, ‘such a nice man, keeps to himself’. Is he married?”
Steven barely reacted to her sudden change of subject. “Maybe? We don’t really talk about spouses, we just nerd out about history. I’ve gone to a number of his lectures.”
“Perfect!” Kelsey said, sweeping up her computer and placing it in her bag. She grabbed Steven’s notepad and pens, threw them in as well. “Let’s go see him.”
“But my research…” Steven stared down longingly at the yellowed newspapers, then back at her. “Okay. Let me return them.”
She used the time he took to give the newspapers back to the circulation desk to find out a) where the history department was on campus, and b) the location of Professor Eckleman’s office. She was disappointed that he didn’t have any office hours listed for the summer session.
She was even more frustrated when he wasn’t in his office. She went over to the secretary. “Do you know where Dr. Eckleman is right now? Dr. Wellington would like to pay his respects.” She gestured toward her husband; she just loved to call him doctor. After all, she knew just how hard he had worked for those degrees.
The secretary checked a schedule on her computer. “He is currently teaching a class on the effect of American wars on Native Americans. He should be finished in a little over an hour.”
“Long class,” Kelsey said as they walked away.
“Summer classes. They’re more intensive. Where are you going?” Steven said as Kelsey darted into a stairwell.
“Looking for the class.”
Steven followed her as they went down to the next floor and wandered the hallways looking for the right classroom. It took them three corridors before Steven held her back.
“That’s his voice,” he whispered.
They crept up to the door, peered through the rectangular window into a large auditorium. There were about twenty students, many of whom had a wad of tissues on their desks, Kelsey observed. She just knew that Brianna must have taken this class and her fellow classmates had found out about her death. At the bottom stood the bearded gentleman from the other night. “That’s him!” she said.
“I know, Kelsey.” She heard the eye roll in Steven’s voice. “Remember, I’ve met him. Still, the fact that he is here, even the fact that maybe he’s Brianna’s professor, doesn’t make him a killer.”
“How about that?” She gripped his arm as Eckleman turned to write something on the whiteboard. “He’s got bandages on his neck.”
Steven took a deep breath. “Well, that doesn’t look good. But. . . maybe he has a cat? I don’t know, I think we need more proof even before you go to the police with your suspicions. You know how badly it goes for professors to be accused of anything, even when it turns out they were innocent.”
Kelsey nodded. They both remembered Steven’s classmate, who had been fired from the university after a false sexual harassment claim. Even though the student later admitted she had lied, the university didn’t want the bad press. “Then let’s look for more proof. You’re the researcher!”
They headed back to the library and set up their laptop. Kelsey wasted no time heading to social media. “She might not be on Facebook, that’s for old fogies like us. But let’s check Instagram.” She quickly found photos of the young lady.
“Oh, she does look so happy,” Kelsey said sadly. “Look at her.”
There were several photos that Brianna had taken. Kelsey quickly glanced through them. “Aha! See, I told you that he was her professor.” Brianna had taken a selfie of herself in her class, with Dr. Eckleman lecturing in the background. The caption read: “Fav class!”
“Still not proof.”
She pouted at her husband. “I doubt she’d have captioned it ‘secret lover who is going to kill me someday’. Fine. Let’s look some more.” There were more photos of Brianna: at parties, in the library—Kelsey even recognized the table where Morgan had been sitting—and on the beach. “Wait!” She grabbed the laptop, pulled it closer to her. Zooming in on the picture, she pointed at the image. “Look!”
“It’s her feet.” Throughout their marriage and their relationship before that, Steven had often given her “you are crazy” looks. This one might be the winner.
“It’s her sandals, actually.” She rushed out her words, she was so excited.
“And it matches the one we found on the beach that night. I bet it fell off her foot when Eckleman was dragging her there.”
“Kelsey, it’s a flip flop. Everyone wears flip flops. I swear it’s the official footwear of female college students. And even more here, in a beach area.”
She pointed again. “Yes, but few people have these sandals. Those are Gucci sandals she’s wearing, as is the one I picked up. And those are almost $500, so they aren’t as common.”
Steven bunched up his eyebrows. “It’s a flip flop,” he repeated, this time with the sound of wonder. “Who the hell would pay that much for flip flops?”
“Not me. But we currently still have one in the car. Thank God. Yesterday, I had thought about taking that bag out of the car, but then forgot. Let’s go to the police.”
“See, I told you,” Kelsey said with a great deal of satisfaction, two days later. “Dr. Benjamin Eckleman has been charged with second degree murder. The victim, Brianna Yarbrough, had been his student for several classes, and was killed by strangulation on the evening of Monday, August 5th.” She continued reading the article. “A witness—that’s me!— placed Dr. Eckleman that same night near the location where her body had been found. The body had been tied to a lobster trap also discovered in that area, but the line had snapped, releasing the body. After conducting interviews of Yarbrough’s friends—I bet Hailey was happy to spill—
it is alleged that Eckleman and Yarbrough had been having an affair for months and aww… the autopsy revealed that she was pregnant. A paternity test is in the works.” She turned away from the computer. “And of course, we know that both his and her fingerprints were found on the sandal we found. And I’ll bet you money they’ll also find his DNA under her fingernails.”
“You are probably right, dear.” Steven turned back to his research. “You often are.”
“I was right when I decided to marry you,” she said, then paused. “Honey?”
“Of course, this means there will be opening in their history department.”