Authors: Lois Winston
He let loose with another string of foreign obscenities.
“Was that Russian, Ukrainian, or Serbian? And that last one...Greek? I swear, you never cease to amaze me.”
He groaned. “Gracie, what the hell do we know about solving murders?”
“Apparently about as much as the police in this county. And I’m not willing to sit back and wait for them to blunder their way to a solution, are you?”
He mulled over my words for a moment. “No. Not when my wife’s safety is at stake. So what did you have in mind?”
“We start with MOM.”
Blake stared at me as though I’d suggested we take a swim in a tank full of killer sharks. “What the hell does your mother have to do with this? And why on earth would you want to get her involved?”
“Nothing. And I don’t.”
“But you just said—”
“MOM. It’s an acronym for motive, opportunity, and method. Mystery writers use it to plot novels.”
Blake shook his head. “Mystery writers make up murders and suspects. They don’t solve real crimes. You can’t apply the same logic.”
I shrugged. “Why not? We already know two pieces of the puzzle: We know what the murder weapon was, and the killer found his opportunity when Not-Sid stepped outside for a cigar. All we need to do is figure out the motive, and we’ll find the killer.”
Blake raised an eyebrow, accompanied by
. “Oh, is that all? Well, what are we waiting for? We should have this case wrapped up by dinner.”
“Sarcasm doesn’t suit you, darling.”
“And deductive reasoning isn’t one of your strong suits, sweetheart. There are more holes in your logic than in a brick of Swiss.”
I smiled at him. “That’s why I have you to help me. I’ll do the creative thinking; you plug up the holes with that left-brained logic of yours. Between us, we’ll make a terrific team. And catch a killer.”
Blake reached for the whiskey bottle. Before he took another swig, he muttered something that sounded like a mix of Japanese and Portuguese.
I grabbed Hiram out of Blake’s hand and placed him back on the shelf. “Lattes,” I said pointing to the espresso machine.
My husband wasn’t prone to binge drinking. He wasn’t even prone to social drinking other than an occasional glass of wine at a restaurant or faculty cocktail party. The last time we’d engaged in a threesome with Hiram was the day I learned my job had packed up and moved to China, leaving me with a zero balance in my 401K and no prospect of a pension. But I wasn’t taking any chances. We both needed sober wits about us if we were going to solve Not-Sid’s murder.
After Blake added steamed milk to the espresso, I grabbed the two glass mugs and headed for the stairs. “Where are you going?” he asked.
“Upstairs to start sleuthing.”
He followed after me. “I’ll admit I’m new to the Sherlock Holmes thing, Gracie, but I’m pretty sure Sid’s killer isn’t hiding under one of our beds.”
I shoved his latte at him and settled into my desk chair. “Very funny, Dr. Watson, but since you brought up Sherlock Holmes—”
I reached for one of my how-to-write-a-mystery books. Even though I knew I was a romance writer at heart—due to a desperate need for every story to have a happily-ever-after—when I first began researching the ins and outs and ups and downs of romance writing, I had also familiarized myself with the whys and wherefores of other genres. Given that I’d now decided to transform my romantic comedy into a romantic suspense or mystery, my research was paying off.
After leafing through the first few pages, I shoved the book into Blake’s free hand and pointed to a line of text. “Read what the master says.”
Blake read out loud. “‘When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’” He lifted his gaze from the page and directed his attention back to me. “Setting aside the fact that your
is a fictional character, your point?”
“Don’t you see? One of the women Not-Sid met through Relatively Speaking probably holds the key to his murder. All we have to do is eliminate all the ones who don’t, and we’ll have our answer.”
Blake took a sip of his latte. “Or not.”
I grabbed the book out of his hand and snapped it closed. “Don’t be so negative.”
“I’m not being negative. I’m being logical. Isn’t that my role in your sleuthing scheme? Who’s to say any of the women know anything? Sid was a randy old goat living a double life. For all we know, he’s got a wife in Piscataway and a mistress in Parsippany. Maybe he’s a retired printer and destroyed his fingertips from decades of pulling zinc plates out of etching baths.”
I stared at my own fingers. Four years of printmaking classes in college hadn’t affected my whorls, but maybe after a lifetime of working with corrosive chemicals without protective hand coverings, some professional printers had little left of their fingerprints. I had no idea if that was possible. I also had no clue about Not-Sid’s preretirement occupation. He’d never mentioned anything about his past.
“And don’t you think the police are already questioning the women he met through you?” continued Blake. “If there’s anything to find out, they’ll find it.”
Damn him and his logic. The world didn’t operate on logic; it operated on random whim, passion, and chaos. But Blake had started his career as a math major before he’d realized his true academic calling. Unfortunately, too many logarithms, cosines, and hypotenuses still floated around in his brain.
I shook my head. “I’ll bet Menendez intimidates those women. She’s not exactly all warm and fuzzy, you know? And an intimidated person is one who either clams up or conveniently forgets things.”
“I read it in one of my research books.”
“I’m guessing that wouldn’t be a police procedural manual on interviewing witnesses.”
“I think it was the book on character traits.” I took a step toward the bookcase that housed all my research books. “Want me to find it for you?”
“That’s okay. I’ll take your word for it.” He waved his half-empty mug in my direction. “Lead on, Holmes. I’m at your service. Where would you like to begin?”
I grabbed the list of women Not-Sid had dated and gave it a quick glance. Upon earlier perusal, nothing had jumped out at me, but I’d only spent a short amount of time with each of the women before introducing them to Not-Sid. I had no idea how much time they’d spent with him afterwards. If any. Some of them may have had second thoughts and declined what I imagined, knowing Sid, was his invitation for bagels and lox au natural.
Then again, most of these women had struck me as the type who’d suggest the au natural themselves. One thing I’d learned in the short time I’d operated Relatively Speaking—these were not my grandmother’s septuagenarians. Today’s senior women were either living active sex lives or hoping to. And not shy to speak about it. Made me shudder to think how my mother was spending her retirement down in Del Rey Beach, Florida.
Yikes! Don’t go there, Gracie.
I glanced up at Blake. “Promise me I can die first.”
“I’ll even give you permission to take up with one of your sexy students afterwards. I don’t care.”
Blake pulled me toward him and kissed the tip of my nose. “Do I want to know what precipitated this out-of-the-blue concern?”
“I don’t want to wind up desperate enough to get the hots for someone like Sid.” I swatted his chest with my palm. “Now promise me.”
Blake sighed. “I promise. Happy?”
“Okay.” I wriggled out of his arms and turned my attention back to the list of Not-Sid’s dates. “Let’s start with Sylvia Schuster. She was Not-Sid’s last hook-up this past Tuesday evening.”
“Hook-up? You do know what that means nowadays, don’t you?”
“Friends with benefits hook-up.”
Okay, so I’m not the quickest bunny in the warren. It took a minute for Blake’s words to process. “That’s not what I meant!” Ugh! Septuagenarian sex. The thought grossed me out. And made me wonder again just what my sweet widowed mother was doing down in Del Rey Beach.
But maybe Sylvia and Sid did wind up doing the horizontal jitterbug Tuesday night, thanks to me and my grand idea for a business.
Sylvia Schuster resided at Larchmont Gardens, an upscale adult community tucked away on the edge of the Watchung Reservation in Union County. No Indians. The reservation is a park and wildlife preserve in the Watchung Mountains, but Indians probably roamed the trails at one time. If I’d paid more attention back in elementary school instead of doodling in the margins of my loose-leaf notebooks, I’d probably know for sure.
Now the Reservation is the hub of a wheel whose spokes branch off into some of the priciest communities in the state, pricey enough that
Wheel of Fortune
often gives away shopping spree vacations at the local Mall at Short Hills, a mall I once loved but where I can no longer afford to shop, thanks to my current pathetic financial situation.
Neiman Marcus, Saks, Bloomie’s, and Nordstrom. Hello (ugh!) WalMart, KMart, and Dollar Store.
We found Sylvia Schuster engrossed in a Mah Jongg game in the solarium. A diminutive dumpling of a woman with a steel gray, slightly off-center beehive, she wore a lavender polyester pantsuit that had what looked like a smear of dried grape jelly in the vicinity of her left breast. At least the stain color-coordinated with her outfit.
I waved from the doorway to catch her attention. “Hi, Mrs. Schuster. Remember me?”
She tossed a tile into the center of the card table where she sat with three other women. “One bam. I remember you. Have a seat,” she said without looking up from her rack of tiles.
“South,” said another woman, also tossing a tile into the pile.
I glanced around the room. All the other chairs were occupied, so Blake and I stood off to the side and watched as the women continued their ten-finger tap dance with the tiles. “You have any idea how this game works?” I whispered.
“Chinese gin rummy of sorts. Except they use tiles instead of cards.”
I tried to follow along but quickly gave up. When it came to card games, I stuck with Fish and Old Maid. “Greek to me,” I said.
Blake gave me
, but I detected a hint of a crinkle around his eyes and the corners of his mouth.
We watched as the four women took turns, reaching for and discarding tiles in a fashion as rapid-fire as a Mafioso with an Uzi. Trying to keep up with the quick tempo action made me dizzy. The women spoke in some kind of code as they tossed the tiles.
I soon gave up trying to figure out what they were doing and turned my attention to the plant-filled solarium. A dozen wooden card tables were scattered about the room. Four women sat at each, all tossing bams and cracks and assorted colors and compass directions. Several motorized scooters were parked around the perimeter of the room. Metal walkers stood next to many of the women’s chairs. But you’d never know these ladies had trouble getting around from the way their arthritic hands grabbed and tossed those tiles. If the Olympics held a hot potato tournament, I had no doubt every woman in that room would qualify.
Finally, Sylvia yelled, “Mahjongg!” A Cheshire grin plastered from ear to ear, she reached across the table and made a beckoning motion with the fingers and outstretched palms of both her hands. “Come to mama, my pretty green babies.”
“Fleeced again,” grumbled one of the women.
“She cheats,” said another, a generously proportioned woman with a double chin, jet black hair, and rhinestone embellished cat’s eye glasses.
Sylvia’s grin turned wicked. “Prove it, Blanche.”
“I’m working on it.”
The women took their time methodically counting out fives, tens, and twenties. “Serious stakes,” said Blake under his breath.
From my slightly obstructed vantage point, I estimated Sylvia pulled in three hundred dollars. Damn. I had to put up with the likes of Sidney Mandelbaum for six hours in order to make three Franklins. And now that Sid was gone, I wasn’t going to see that kind of money nearly as fast as I did when he was alive and eager to schmooze the elderly ladies of northern and central New Jersey.
“Maybe I should take up Mahjongg,” I said.
Blake cleared his throat in an attempt to squelch a chortle. He wasn’t successful. “You might have better luck finding a competitive Candyland league,” he suggested.
Sometimes it annoys the hell out of me that my husband knows me so well. This was one of those times.
One by one the women grudgingly handed neatly folded bundles of bills to Sylvia. After recounting each wad, she stuffed the money inside the pink and lavender floral blouse that peeked out from beneath her polyester suit jacket. “Same time next week, ladies?”
“What? You’ve already stolen what’s left of my Social Security check for this month,” said Blanche. With a grunt, she pushed away from the table and wobbled over to a burgundy scooter a few feet from where Blake and I stood. I glanced down at her legs. She wore a pair of hot pink Capri pants over sagging support hose. And I swear those were Manolos on her feet. I remembered drooling over a similar pair of strappy silver sandals with Swarovski crystals the last time I dared to window shop along Fifth Avenue.