Blair Mallory Book 1: To Die For (Chapter Twenty-one)

We were early getting to Mom and Dad's, even though we stopped for the doughnuts and condensed milk I needed for the bread pudding. Wyatt had everything else at his house, including the size pans I needed. Yes, pans. Plural. We bought four-dozen glazed doughnuts. The smell of them made my mouth water, but I was strong and didn't even open the box.

Dad opened the door, paused while he studied my face, then said, "What happened?" in a very quiet tone.

"I totaled my car," I said, going to him for a hug; then I went on into the kitchen to face Mom. Behind me, I heard Dad and Wyatt carrying on a low-voiced conversation and I figured Wyatt was giving Dad the skinny.

In the end, I hadn't tried to conceal the bruises. Well, I did have on a pair of long pants, a light-weave cotton with pink and white stripes, and a white T-shirt tied in a knot at my waist, because if I'd worn shorts that showed the bruises on my legs, someone would have thought Wyatt was beating me and I didn't feel up to defending his honor. But I hadn't put any concealer on the bruises under my eyes, because I figured any makeup would make a mess when Mom did whatever she was bound to do to my face.

She was standing with the freezer door open, staring inside. "I meant to do a roast," she said without looking up when she heard me come in. I'm not certain she knew it was me and not Dad, but it didn't matter. "But I've been fighting with that damn computer for so long I don't have time now. What do you think about grilling-" She looked up and saw me, and her eyes went round. "Blair Mallory," she said in an accusing tone, as if I'd done this to myself.

"Car accident," I said, sitting down on one of the tall barstools at the eating bar. "My poor little car is totaled. Someone cut my brake line and I went through the stop sign into the traffic at that busy intersection just down from my house."

"This has to stop," she said, her voice tight and angry as she closed the freezer door and opened the refrigerator portion instead. "I thought the police caught the man who killed Nicole."

"They did. He didn't do it. He didn't shoot at me, either; after he shot Nicole, he didn't leave his house except to go to work. His wife alibied him, and since she's found out he was cheating on her, she's filed for divorce, so it isn't as if she's protecting him."

Mom closed the refrigerator door without taking anything out, and opened the freezer door again. Mom is scarily efficient, so this dithering told me how upset she was. This time, she pulled out a package of frozen peas and wrapped them in a clean kitchen towel. "Hold this over the bruises," she said, handing the peas to me. "What other damage do you have?"

"Just bruises. And I'm sore in every muscle. A car T-boned my car on the passenger side, so I took a huge jolt. The air bag hit me in the face and gave me a bloody nose."

"Be glad you don't wear glasses. Sally"-Sally Arledge is one of Mom's closest friends-"drove her car into the side of the house, and when the air bag hit her, it broke her glasses and her nose."

I couldn't remember Sally driving into the side of her house, and I'm sure Mom would have told me. My sisters and I had all called her "Aunt Sally" when we were little, and they palled around together-Mom and the three of us, Sally and her five. That was quite a group when we all went somewhere. Sally had four boys, then a daughter. She'd named the four boys after the Gospels, but didn't find any biblical girl's name that she liked, so they were Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Tammy. Tammy always felt left out because she didn't have a biblical name, so we'd called her Rizpah for a while, but she didn't like that either. Personally, I thought Rizpah Arledge had a ring to it, but Tammy decided to go back to being Tammy and didn't even have to have counseling.

"When did Sally drive into the house? You didn't tell me about this."

"Put the peas on your face," she said, and I obediently tilted my head back and draped the bag of frozen peas over my face. It was big enough to cover my eyes, cheekbones, and nose, and, damn, it was cold. "As for why I didn't tell you, it just happened on Saturday, while you were at the beach, and there hasn't been an opportunity since then."

Ah, the beach. I remembered it with longing. It was just a few short days ago, but then my only problem had been Wyatt. No one had been trying to kill me while I was at the beach. Maybe I should go back. Tiffany would like that. So would I, if no one would shoot me or tamper with my car while I was there.

"Did she hit the gas instead of the brake pedal?" I asked.

"No, she did it on purpose. She was mad at Jazz." Sally's husband's name is Jasper, which is likewise a biblical name, only no one calls him that; he's always been Jazz.

"So she rammed her house? That doesn't sound cost-effective."

"She was aiming for Jazz, but he dodged."

I took the bag of peas off my face and stared at Mom in astonishment. "Sally tried to kill Jazz?"

"No, she just wanted to maim him a little."

"Then she should use, like, a riding lawn mower or something, not a car."

"I'm pretty sure he could outrun a lawn mower," Mom said thoughtfully. "Though he has put on a little weight. No, I'm certain he could, because he was fast enough to get out of the way when she drove the car at him. So a lawn mower wouldn't work."

"What did he do?" I had visions of Sally catching him in the act with some other woman, like maybe her worst enemy, which would make the betrayal doubly bad.

"You know those shows on television where a husband or a wife invites these interior decorators to come into the house and redecorate a room as a surprise for the other one? While Sally was visiting her mother in Mobile last week, he did that."

"Oh. My. God." Mom and I looked at each other in horror. The thought of someone else coming into our houses and undoing what we had done, plus redecorating without having a clue what we like or dislike, was awful. I shuddered. "He got a television show decorator?"

"Not even that. He hired Monica Stevens from Sticks and Stones."

There was nothing to say to that. I was mute in the face of such a calamity. Monica Stevens had a predilection for glass and steel, which I guess was fine if you lived in an laboratory, and she liked black. A lot of black. Unfortunately, Sally's taste runs more toward cozy cottage.

I knew how Jazz had picked Monica, though: she had the biggest ad in the phone book, so poor Jazz would have figured she was very successful and popular if she could afford the biggest ad. That's just how Jazz thinks. He was also hampered by having no clue about a woman's boundaries, despite having been married for thirty-five years. If he'd just thought beforehand to ask Dad if redecorating was a good idea, this whole problem could have been avoided, because Dad has more than a clue, he has it down to an exact science. My daddy's a smart man.

"Which room did Monica do?" I asked faintly.

"Put the peas back on your face." I obeyed, and Mom said, "The bedroom."

I moaned. Sally had worked hard finding just the right pieces for her bedroom, haunting estate sales and auctions to find the perfect antiques. Some of them had been heirloom quality. "What did Jazz do with Sally's furniture?" Technically I guess it was his furniture, too, but Sally was the one who was emotionally invested in it.

"That was the kicker. Monica talked him into putting it in her consignment shop, where of course it sold right away."

"What?" I dropped the peas to stare openmouthed at Mom. I couldn't believe what I'd just heard. Poor Sally couldn't even re-create her bedroom. "Forget the car, I'd have rented a bulldozer and gone after him! Why didn't she back up and take another go?"

"Well, she was hurt. I told you it broke her nose. And her glasses, so she couldn't see, either. I don't know what's going to happen to them. I don't see how she can ever forgive him- Hello, Wyatt. I didn't see you standing there. Blair, I didn't have time to put on the roast, so we're going to grill hamburgers."

I looked around at where the two men were standing in the doorway, listening. The expression on Wyatt's face was priceless. Dad took it all in stride.

"Fine with me," Dad said affably. "I'll get the charcoal started." He went through the kitchen and out onto the deck, where he kept his monster grill.

Wyatt was a cop. He'd just heard about an attempted murder, though I knew Sally had really intended more to break Jazz's legs than to kill him. He also looked as if he'd just stepped into an alternate universe. "She can't forgive him?" he asked in a strained tone. "She tried to kill him!"

"Well, yeah," I said.

Mom said, "He redecorated her bedroom." Did we have to draw him a picture?

"I'm going outside," he said warily, and followed Dad. Actually, it sort of looked as if he was escaping. I don't know what he expected. Maybe he thought we should be discussing my personal situation, but you know that thing I have about dancing around and not thinking about something? I got it from Mom. It was much better for us to talk about Sally trying to run over Jazz than it was to think about someone trying to kill me.

The topic was like a nine-hundred-pound gorilla, though; we might put it in a corner, but we couldn't forget about it.

Siana arrived, having gone home and changed into shorts and a T-shirt. Jenni breezed in, cheerful in a pale yellow dress that went great with her skin tone, and she had to be brought up to speed on the car accident. That was the topic of conversation at the dinner table, over juicy grilled hamburgers. Actually the dinner table was the picnic table out on the deck, but the principle is the same.

"I'm going to talk to Blair's ex-husband tomorrow," Wyatt said when Mom asked what the plan of action was. "Blair says it isn't him, but statistics say I'd better have a talk with him."

I shrugged. "Knock yourself out. Like I said, I haven't seen or talked to him since the divorce."

"But he called and left a message on her answering machine when it was on the news that she'd been shot," Wyatt told my intensely interested family.

Siana leaned back and said thoughtfully to me, "It's not beyond the realm of possibility that he wants to get back together with you. He may be having trouble with his second wife."

"All the more reason for me to have a word with him," Wyatt said, with a snap in his words.

"I can't see Jason doing anything violent," Mom said. "He'd be too concerned with how it would look. He'd do anything to protect his political career."

"Would he kill to protect it?" Wyatt asked, and everyone fell silent. Jenni toyed with her silverware and didn't look at any of us.

"But I'm not threatening his political career," I pointed out. "Whatever I know about Jason is the same thing I've known about him all along; there's nothing new. So why would he suddenly decide, after five years, that he needs to kill me?"

"Maybe it isn't your situation that's changed; maybe it's his. Maybe he's planning to run for something more important than the state legislature, such as governor, or congressman."

"So he thinks he'll commit murder and get away with it? How likely is that?"

"Depends. Is he a man who's smart, or a man who just thinks he's smart?"

We all looked at each other. The problem was, Jason wasn't a dummy but neither was he anywhere near as sharp as he thought he was. "I'll give you that," I finally said. "But there's still no motive that I can see."

"You can't see any motive, period, for anyone, so that doesn't rule him out."

"I see. Since I can't point you to any specific person, you have to consider everyone."

"But in the meantime, Wyatt, until you catch this person," Mom said, "how are you going to keep Blair safe? She can't go to work; she can't stay in her own home. I'm surprised you even let her come here."

"I thought about canceling," he admitted. "But I had to balance that against other needs. I can guard her coming and going to the car, and I can make certain no one follows us when we leave. Unless this person knows Blair and I are involved, and knows where I live, we're in the clear there. Have any of you told anyone?"

"I didn't even tell Sally," Mom said. "She isn't in any state to listen right now."

"I haven't," Siana said. "We talked about Blair getting shot, but we didn't get into personal stuff."

Jenni shook her head. "Same here."

"Then we're clear," Dad said. "It never occurred to me to talk about her private life."

"Good. Keep it that way. I know my mother hasn't said anything, either. Blair, have you told anyone?"

"Not even Lynn. We've had other stuff to talk about, you know?"

"So we'll go back to the previous arrangement. She'll stay with me, she won't go to work, and after tonight you won't see her until we catch this guy. Talk on the phone all you want, but nothing in person. Got it?"

Everyone nodded. He looked satisfied. "The detectives are canvassing Blair's neighborhood, talking to everyone, even the little kids. Maybe someone was seen around your car, and no one thought anything about it at the time."

I wasn't real hopeful on that front. Because I didn't park at the curb in the front of the building, my car wasn't as readily visible as most of the others. Someone could have approached from the rear unseen, unless a neighbor just happened to be looking out a back window at that exact time, and slid under my car without anyone seeing him from the street.

I hated it, but I'd been banking on Dwayne Bailey being the one who was trying to kill me. He was the only person I knew of with a motive, and even then he hadn't really had one; he just didn't know that I couldn't have identified him. Finding out he had an alibi that was likely legitimate left me mentally floundering, because I couldn't think of any other reason why someone would want me dead. I didn't mess around with other women's men, I didn't cheat anyone, and unless provoked, I tried to be nice to everyone. I didn't even wear white shoes after Labor Day or before Easter. Hey, I saw that movie with Kathleen Turner, and I took it to heart. I don't want the fashion Nazis coming after me.

"If it isn't personal," I said, thinking aloud, "then it's about business, right? Money. What else is there? But I haven't cheated anyone, and I didn't drive anyone out of business when I opened Great Bods. Halloran's Gym had already closed down when I bought the building and renovated it. Does anyone have any ideas here?"

All around the picnic table, heads shook from side to side. "It's a mystery," Siana said.

"What are the usual motives?" Dad asked, and started ticking them off on his fingers. "Jealousy, revenge, greed. What else? I'm discounting politics and religion, because as far as I know Blair isn't political, and she isn't a religious hothead. This isn't a case where someone gets mad and acts without thinking, right, Wyatt?"

Wyatt shook his head. "Both of the attempts were premeditated. If we play percentages, both attempts were made by a man-"

"How do you figure that?" Siana asked, intrigued as always by any intellectual discussion, even one that involved someone trying to kill me.

"The weapon used wasn't a handgun, not from that distance. We know where the shooter positioned himself, because we found the shell casing. It was a twenty-two rifle, which is common as grass in these parts, not a lot of stopping power to it, but with an accurate shot it'll kill. It's also a subsonic round. Blair bent down as the shot was fired, which is why it hit her arm instead of a vital area. Women may use handguns, but they seldom use rifles, which require practice and skill for distance shooting, and that generally isn't something a woman's interested in."

"What about the brakes?" Mom asked.

"There are four women sitting here. Do any of you know where the brake line is?"

Mom, Siana, and Jenni all looked blank. "Beneath the car," I said. "I saw you looking."

"But did you before that?"

"No, of course not."

"There are several lines and cables beneath the car. How would you know which one to cut?"

"I guess I'd have to ask someone. More likely I'd just cut everything."

"Which proves my point. Women aren't likely to know enough about a car to cut a brake line."

"Or I would get a book that showed me where the brake line is," I said. "If I really wanted to cut a brake line, I'd figure out some way to do it."

"Okay, let me ask you another question. If you wanted to kill someone, is that a method you would even think of? How would you do it?"

"If I wanted to kill someone," I mused. "First, I'd have to be really, really angry or really, really scared, like if I had to protect myself or someone I loved. Then I'd use whatever weapon was handy, whether it was a tire tool, a rock, or my bare hands."

"That's the way most women are, and there goes the premeditation down the drain. I said most women, not all, but statistically we're looking for a man. Agreed?"

Everyone nodded agreement.

"Now, if I were just pissed at someone, that's different," I said.

Wyatt got a look on his face that said he knew he shouldn't ask, but he did anyway. "How so?"

"Well, that would take some planning. Like maybe I would bribe her hairdresser to do something really awful to her hair. Things like that."

He propped his chin in his palm and stared at me, half smiling. "You're a scary, vicious woman," he said. Dad snorted with laughter and clapped him on the shoulder.

"Yeah," I said. "And don't you forget it."