Authors: Maggie Barbieri
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Divorced women, #Women Sleuths, #Mystery fiction, #Police, #Detective and mystery stories, #Police - New York (State) - New York, #Gangsters, #Women college teachers, #Crawford; Bobby (Fictitious character), #Bergeron; Alison (Fictitious character), #Bronx (New York; N.Y.), #English teachers
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“Sparklingâ¦romance, humor, and suspense blend perfectly in this exceptional cozy, the first of what hopefully will be a long series.”
“A romantic ending and the furthering of a girlfriend bond that we hope to enjoy in murder mysteries to come.”
“An entertaining debut.”
“With wit and verveâa spot-on rendering of the jungles of academia.”
“If you love Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Sara Paretsky, you'll be delighted by Maggie Barbieri.”
Diana Lively is Falling Down
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To Dea and Patrick: I love you as much as the world is big.
You've heard it before: Writing books is solitary work. But if, like me, you're fortunate enough to be surrounded by the kinds of people like the ones with whom I work, live, and call my family and friends, you never feel truly alone.
My first debt of gratitude is to perhaps the smartest, most intuitive editor in the business, Kelley Ragland. I don't say this to too many peopleâokay, I don't say this to
âbut you are
Thanks, too, to Matt Martz at St. Martin's Press for his support and for being so generous with his time.
Deborah Schneider, my agent, is always there to provide encouragement, feedback, and guidance. Thanks for believing in Alison and for finding the perfect home for her.
To my posse at NYUâAnna Pavlick, Kathy Madden, Juliet Escalon, Elizabeth Hardin, Norma Sparks, and Rosie Smithâthank you for everything. I'm happy we're on the bus together. I wish it made different stops, but hey, you can't have everything.
And to my dear friends and family members who have evolved from enthusiastic cheerleaders to astute criticsâand you know who you are, Lanceâthank you for having the courage to tell me the truth. And the good sense to tell me over a bottle of wine.
Finally, without the love of my husband, Jim, none of this would happen. Thank you to the most patient man on earth.
I have two best friends; one is a nymphomaniac and the other is a priest.
And then there's Ray.
Ray's my ex-husband and what I call a “fornicator extraordinaire.” Not that I had any firsthand knowledge of his prowess; our sex life had consisted of a weekly roll in the hay that usually took place between the end of whatever show was on and that local news program that begins with a solemn “It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your children are?” But from the women who flocked to Ray like bees to honey, it was obvious that he held some kind of sway over the opposite sex. I had either come late to the party or didn't expect much from married sex. Either way, you could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out how many affairs he had had during our marriage.
That would be four. Two with people unknown to me, one with our neighbor, and one with one of my students. Ray has, I guess what you would call in today's psychobabble, an issue with “boundaries.”
But try as I might, I had failed to cut him out of my life. His lack of boundaries made him think it acceptable to come to my house whenever he felt like it, dropping by any time he wanted, and acting as if we were amicably divorced. He still had a key and he used it whenever he wanted. I guess I didn't send off the vibe that I wanted to cut his testicles off every time I saw him.
Ray and I both teach at the same small Catholic university; Ray is the head of the Biology Department and I'm an English professor. We see each other more than we should, which is why I can't figure out why he still drops by my house “just to see how you're doing.” I'm fine! I want to scream. Leave me alone! But after having attended Catholic school myself for sixteen years, including St. Thomas, where I teach, I am unfailingly polite. I always greet him with a smile and, sometimes, a hug. And hence, because he is the least self-aware person I've ever met, and clearly doesn't know how much I detest him, he thinks we're solid. All has been forgiven.
I've spent more than one sleepless night wondering just why we married, but suffice it to say that Ray is extremely handsome and really charming. But really, my dying mother made me promise that I wouldn't become an old maid. Ladies and gentlemen: Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Stark!
It had been a long day at school. The president of the college had been demanding that a review committee be formed to reassess the English Department's curriculum; apparently, a group of students was demanding more diverse courses that took into account the changing face of the school. I had been handpicked by my boss, Sister Mary McLaughlin, to collect data from my colleagues. It was a nightmare; trying to get information from each of my colleagues, many more senior than myself at the school and many of them nuns, about what they were teaching was akin to getting the blueprints to the Pentagon. They were resentful, prickly, resistant, and clearly technophobes, because while most every other instructor at the school had a Web site with syllabi for each course they taught, the old nuns refused. Hard copy only. That complicated my task considerably. Some had been teaching close to thirty years and had been left alone during that time; asking for an accounting of their work was not something that they looked at kindly. I wasn't getting paid to do it either, which, given the St. Thomas history of low pay and long hours, wasn't surprising. So when Sister Calista, who taught American literature, practically spat at me when I asked for her syllabus, I almost gave up. Hey, Calista means “most beautiful one,” I wanted to remind her as she shut her office door on my foot, not “she who can hock a loogie.” And just because you're old and celibate doesn't give you the right to act however you want, lady. I'm of
un certain Ã¢ge
and celibate (not by choice, of course) and still manage to get along in polite society.
It was martini time. My freezer contained two thingsâone, a bottle of Ketel One with a thick layer of frost on it, and two, a box of Klondike bars. Tonight's appetizer would be a big glass of Ketel One with three blue cheeseâstuffed olives, followed by a dinner of two Klondike bars. I figured I had hit at least two of the major food groups with that selection; suffice it to say that I'm not making any major attempt at hanging on to my “girlish figure” as my mother used to call it.
With the vodka and prepackaged ice cream calling my name, I made my way home in record time and pulled into my driveway about fifteen minutes after I had left school. Dobbs Ferry is a pretty sleepy town but its proximity to St. Thomas makes it the perfect place for me to live. I pulled into my driveway and got out of the car, nodding to Trixie, the golden retriever who belonged to my neighbors and who stood sentry on the other side of the hedgerow that divided our property.
I guess you could call Trixie my third best friend because no matter what I do, what I say, or the kind of day I've had, she loves me unconditionally. I went over to the hedgerow and stuck my hand between the prickly branches to touch her. She responded by taking my whole hand in her mouth, licking it until it was soaked, and then giving me a nice “woof” as a send-off. She knows our time together is always brief and on the clandestine side because her owners and I don't have the best relationship. So she takes what she can get and then moves on.
Although darkness had fallen and I was sorry that I hadn't installed that motion-detecting light that Ray had been on my case about for the last year of our marriage, I did manage to make my way across the backyard without incident. I also made out a shape sitting on a lounge chair on the patio outside my back door. The moon glinted off a bald pate and I recognized my ex sprawled out on the lounge chair, his briefcase open beside him. Ray is bald by choice; he thinks it gives him “street cred” or something. I just miss seeing his head covered with a thick mop of gorgeous, wavy black hair.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “Grading papers in the dark?”
He must have been dozing because he sat up with a start, the papers on his lap spilling onto the patio. “I started grading papers when I got here. It was sunny then,” he said, his voice raspy and hoarse. He stood. “How are you?” He busied himself picking up the papers and stuffing them into his leather briefcase.
I approached him tentatively. Besides his habit of dropping by unannounced, which, as I said, really annoys me, there's also the staying-way-too-long part. We didn't spend a tremendous amount of time together when we were married; I couldn't understand why we had to now. “Ray, I've got a ton of work to do tonight. I really don't have time to visit.”
“I won't stay long,” he promised. “Can I come in for a minute?”
I considered his request for a few minutes and stared at him. As long as a minute didn't turn into two hours, it would be fine. “Okay. Fine.” I opened the back door and stood aside, letting him in. “What's the matter with your voice?” I asked.
“I've got a cold,” he said. “I've had it for a few weeks. I can't seem to shake it.”
I put my briefcase on the counter and offered him some tea. I immediately felt bad for being so annoyed with him; he was clearly under the weather and I wasn't so heartless as to not have some sympathy for him. We sat at the kitchen table waiting for the water to boil and tried to think of something to talk about. Even though we had a not altogether happy history, we were never at a loss for something to talk about. That had all changed, however, when I had found out that he had slept with both our neighbor and one of my students. Even though he persisted with his drop-ins, I had been extremely frosty the last few times he had come by. He didn't seem to notice.
“Max is getting married,” I said finally. I figured that would either be a good conversation starter or something that would bring it to a screeching halt. Max is my best friend and Ray's archenemy. She hated him with a vengeance the likes of which I had never witnessed. His charm and good looks had no effect on her and I think that left Ray on shaky ground. Without his charm and good looks to fall back on, Ray is basically an empty husk.
He looked surprised. “That's something I never thought I'd hear.” He studied the top of the table. “Is she happy?”
I laughed. “Well, sure. Most people who are about to get married are happy.” Even us, I thought.
The water had begun to boil so I set about making a couple of cups of tea.
“I heard you're on the diversity council for the English Department,” he said.
I took an old lemon from a basket of fruit on the counter and examined it to find a piece that we could use in our tea. “Guilty as charged. If you find me dead in my office, Sister Calista did it.”
He looked confused but he didn't ask what I meant. I could tell that he was troubled by something. I handed him his cup of tea and sat down. “What's going on, Ray?”
He shrugged. “I'm not really sure,” he said, taking a tissue from his pocket and blowing his nose. “Have you ever felt like things are falling apart?”
I resisted the urge to laugh. Have I ever felt like that? Only most of the last two years that we spent together as a married couple. I kept the sarcasm in check, though; the Ray sitting in front of me was obviously in pain and I didn't want to rub salt in the wounds. I went with a vague nod.
He chuckled but he clearly wasn't amused. “I really screwed things up, Alison.”
I nodded again. “Yes, you did.”
“And now, in addition to dealing with that fact, I feel like I'm being followed. Or watched.”
“Who would be watching you?”
He rolled his eyes; the list of suspects was lengthier than I think we both cared to admit. “Well, let's see. There's the Mob-boss father of my last girlfriend, the husband of the woman I was seeing before thatâ¦shall I continue?”
I shook my head. “You don't have to. I get it.” I took a sip of tea. “Do you think you're in danger?”
“I don't know. But the whole thing is unsettling. I feel like someone's been in my apartment, too. Nothing's missing but I've just got this feelingâ¦” He trailed off, shaking his head.
“I think we're all unsettled, Ray. Being involved in that murder investigation shook me up, too. And you were a suspect,” I said. He shot me a look; obviously he didn't want to be reminded that he had been the main suspect in his girlfriend's murder. “Well, you were. I could see why you would be nervous after what you've been through.”
He decided not to address that line of reasoning. He wrapped his hands around the mug. “Are you still dating that police detective?” he asked.
Well, there was a question with a complicated answer. The detective, Crawford, was a man whom I had met in the course of the murder investigation a few months earlier. And despite the fact that I thought I would never, under any circumstances, find another man attractive or worthy of my time, I had fallen for this guy so hard it had made my head spin. And although we were in the midst of a murder investigation in which I played a major role, we had commenced on a bit of a romantic journey, one that had been cut short by my discovery of the lovely Mrs. Crawford, his estranged, but very much legally married, spouse. Mrs. Crawford, who apparently was also a stickler for Church law; she refused to divorce Crawford until he agreed to an annulment, a bureaucratic “get out of jail free” card for divorcing Catholics. “No, I'm not really dating Crawford anymore,” I said as cryptically as I could. I was hoping we could leave it at that.
He studied my face and I guess he saw that this was not a topic we should discuss at any length. “Do you think if I spoke to him about this he would help me? I do live in his precinct.”
“If he can't help you, Ray, I'm sure he could put you in contact with the person who could.” I took a sip of the tea. “Give him a call at the precinct.”
“I'll do that.” We sat in silence for a few minutes, drinking tea. My mind kept returning to the contents of my freezer and I sneaked a glance at my watch to see what time it was. It really didn't matter what the hour was, but it was time for Ray to leave.
Dejection was etched on his gorgeous face. “Do you think that things will ever be the same between us?” he asked.
I laughed out loud. “God, I hope not!” I blurted out. I immediately regretted being so caustic. To lessen the blow, I leaned across the table and gave him a quick hug. “Ray, the fact that we can be in the same room and I don't feel like killing you is a huge step for us.”
He looked at me, not knowing whether to laugh or get mad. That was familiar territory for both of us; he never quite got me or my humor.
“I guess I have to take your word for it.” He moved back. “Besides everything,” he started, “we had some good times, right?”
“If by âeverything' you mean your four affairs, I guess we had a good day or two in between,” I said truthfully and without a trace of sarcasm.
He pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “I think it was more than a day or two, but we don't have to argue about that.”
I focused on a red wine stain on the tabletop so that I didn't have to look at him. “Tell me something, Ray.”
He raised an eyebrow. “What's that?”
“Why did you marry me?” I asked, finally prepared to hear the answer that I hadn't wanted to hear until now. “And don't give me your âI'm in love with love' bullshit or anything like that. I want the truth.” I looked up from the counter and held his gaze.
“You'll never believe me,” he said, looking down.
When he looked back up, he was smiling sadly. “Okay. The reason I married you is because I loved you. Part of me still does. I may not have shown it, but I was in love with you.”
I let out a sound that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “Oh, Ray. You can do much better than that.”
He drank the rest of his tea and got up from the table, turning to leave. “I told you that you'd never believe me.” He put his hand on the doorknob and, seeing that I had nothing else to say, quietly let himself out.