Authors: Gillian Roberts
“No! He … of course he didn’t …” I groaned out loud at the realization that my brother-in-law would never, ever forget what I’d said about Adam. The poor boy—I’d dug him a deep pit.
“Why would anybody kill her—and in a library! She told me she felt
with books. She could trust them to be what they were, always, through time. How could anybody even think of such a thing—and how is it possible that nobody noticed? It was during work hours.”
That last one I could answer. “It happened on a sort of closed-in balcony, and the only place it leads to is the Rare Book Department, which probably isn’t that heavily trafficked. And you can’t see up there from below, either. And nobody heard anything, as far as I know. But, Beth, I have to say I don’t mean to speak ill of the … but I’m surprised she was your friend. The woman you wanted me to meet. She wasn’t at all what I’d have expected. She was so nervous and tight, and not particularly friendly.”
“I told you. She was going through this awful time. I mean
. And she was worried about a lot of things. Afraid, maybe. With cause. She wasn’t herself lately. But to be killed by a high-school student?”
“How do you know she was afraid of something?” Because if she was, and that was before Adam, didn’t it stand to reason he wasn’t the only possible suspect?
“Afraid, or really bothered by something. Sunday, at the party, she gave me a key to the new apartment. Said that if anything ever happened to her, I was to go in and clean the place out. I made a joke, but Emmy said no, this wasn’t a joke, that there was nothing to worry about, she was in fine health and intended to stay that way, but just in case, ever, she knew I was a person who could be trusted to do the right thing, and she’d explain everything, only not then. The party wasn’t the right time.”
“She gave you a key?”
“Because she trusted me. I have an idea what I’m supposed to remove, but I don’t know if I should, given that she’s been murdered. She said if anything happened, but she meant
being hit by a bus, that kind of thing. I’m in such a tangle, and I haven’t even told Sam.”
Nor would I have. Because Sam would say the obvious and logical thing: Turn the key over to the cops. Tell them about the odd message at the party. Drop back and observe.
“I think I should do it,” Beth said in a whisper. “She trusted me. A dead woman trusted me.”
And Adam trusted me. And because of my big mouth, he was now the prime suspect, and it made sense only because Adam couldn’t make sense. So if there was something that explained Emmy Buttonwood, something that pointed in another direction … “How about tomorrow, after school?” I asked.
“The police will have been there by then, won’t they? Maybe they’ll have found whatever was bothering her. I was thinking …”
“Now? In the middle of the night?”
“Amanda, it’s not even nine-thirty! Grown-ups are awake and about at this hour. I’m surprised at you.”
I was even more surprised at her. Suburban mommies weren’t tooling around now. They were making tomorrow’s lunches and polishing the counters and walking the dog. At least they were if they were Beth. The settled one my mother no longer wanted me to copy. Had I become more conservative than my older sister?
“I’m leaving now—I’ll be outside your house in a half hour,” she said. “No traffic at this hour. I’ll phone from the car when I’m a block or so away, okay? We’ll go together.”
I was nodding my assent and my wonderment. “All right.” I wouldn’t have to tell anybody. Mackenzie wouldn’t be back, I was sure. But Sam—“Are you going to tell Sam?”
“Oh! No. He’d be aghast.”
The exact word for Sam. Anybody else would be annoyed, horrified, or disgusted, but Sam was made of less contemporary material.
“I’m telling him you and Mackenzie had a huge fight and you’re on the verge of a breakup and you need your big sister to get you through this. He has no defense against girl stuff. Just play along if he asks, or if Mom calls, all right?”
If my mother called, she’d think I’d followed her advice for
the first time in my adult life. Too many roads were converging, and I hoped it wasn’t into a dead end.
We hung up. I shook myself to get my parts working and went to splash water on my face, hoping that whatever Emmy Buttonwood wanted removed was elephantine and its meaning blatantly obvious, or I’d miss it for sure.
Which would be a perfect opportunity for me to once again make things worse.
S MORE AND MORE OF ME CAME AWAKE, LESS AND LESS OF ME
could believe I was doing this—and with Beth, the mistress of practical sanity. Not that we were committing a crime, I thought. It wasn’t a crime scene we were violating, only a crime-scene victim’s condo, and I didn’t think I’d heard of a law about that.
But Beth! We’d never, as long as I could remember, had anything resembling an adventure together. We’d shopped together, visited together, shared holidays, family gatherings, and childhood memories, but nothing like this. Half the reason I dragged my exhausted self out again was for the sheer implausibility of being so summoned by my older sister, whose role had always been to restrain, advise, warn, and stop me.
And who knew what H. Emily Fisher Buttonwood meant by “clearing out” her apartment? She most likely had underdeveloped housekeeping habits—cluttered drawers and closets, disorganized pantries, wash forgotten and mildewing in the machine. The list came easily to mind because it was my list, too. The same set of compulsions that had me cooking up a storm for the unknown Juliana. I had a clean-up pact, only half jokingly, with my friend Sasha, who was to save me from posthumous shame.
But if something paltry on the sin scale, like bad housekeeping, was Emmy Buttonwood’s sin, I would really regret the sleep I’d given up for this outing. I wanted something dramatically askew about her to be instantly and unambiguously
obvious, so I’d know the reason someone—someone irrefutably not Adam—would kill her.
I was conflicted in a way I’d never before experienced. Deep inside I feared and believed that Adam Evans, because of his illness and mounting frustrations—some of which I’d furthered—had killed a relative stranger. But at the same time I felt awful about having that thought and fearful that, having already overstated his case and intensified his problems, I was doing it again—jumping to conclusions and prematurely judging him. And so I managed to simultaneously believe, with equal conviction, that Adam was innocent and that Adam was guilty, that Adam was a danger and that Adam was in danger because of me. I had to find a way to get him off the hook. The one I’d planted in his soft flesh.
Of course, that hope was ridiculous. What crystalline, definitive evidence did I hope to find? Given that I knew H. Emily Fisher Buttonwood only as an efficient but humorless guide to the library’s collection, unless Beth and I saw a Maltese falcon sitting on the windowsill, a text called
How to Wind Up Dead on the Library Floor
, or at least a list on her desk called People Who Wish I Were Dead—something along those less-than-subtle lines—I couldn’t imagine how I’d recognize a discordant element that was the key to her untimely end.
When Beth called again, from around the corner, I left a superficially honest note on the kitchen table:
Beth needed me— will call in A.M. if still gone.
Then I slipped out. Macavity seemed miffed but resigned. Cats are nothing if not pragmatic.
“This is great,” Beth said by way of greeting. “Not great that Emmy …” I heard the catch in her voice again. “I only meant getting away from the routine, having you along …”
Whatever lay behind Beth’s words must be responsible for my mother’s change of tune. Beth must have been complaining about the regularity, the predictability, of her life. As we drove along, I asked. Beth looked blank. “Mom and I don’t talk about my routines. What’s to say?”
It was quiet at this hour on a weeknight, and we drove through town smoothly, passing around Washington Square, which looked mysterious and hushed.
Emmy had lived—briefly—in a brick building a few
blocks south of the square, with, to my amazement, actual on-street parking not far away.
We entered a pleasant lobby, neither pretentious nor shabby. “Sixth floor,” Beth said, pressing the elevator controls.
When the door opened, a tall, well-tailored blond man in pinstripes exited, carrying a shopping bag in one hand and sorting through a ring of keys with the other. Even in that position, he had military bearing and looked as if perhaps the wooden hanger was still inside his shirt.
“Ray?” Beth said. “Is that you?”
He turned and looked back at her quizzically. “Beth? Beth Wyman?” He seemed to be testing the name. “What are you doing here?”
“What is either of us doing here?” she asked with a nervous giggle. “I … I’m visiting my sister. She lives here. In this building. Mandy. Amanda, that is.” The nervousness in her voice made me cringe. “Amanda Pepper.”
I wasn’t sure what was going on to make her that nervous, but I was sorry she’d chosen such a transparent lie. If it mattered to anyone, it was pathetically easy to check the residents list, right next to the elevator, and see that I did not live there at all.
“This is Ray,” Beth said, ever the hostess. “Ray Button-wood. Emmy’s …”
Now I understood her discomfort.
“Glad to meet you.” He stood with military posture, unnaturally stiff, and he shook my hand without bothering to fake warmth or cordiality. “I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, although he didn’t look like a man who’d lost anything that mattered. He had an amazingly bland face, as if life hadn’t fully happened to him. Nevertheless, he ducked his head forward in acknowledgment.
Beth stood, awkwardly, and did not offer condolences.
Ray chuckled and held up the shopping bag. “I, ah, must look stupid. Came over here after work—worked late— dinner meeting, too—because Emmy had a necklace—not valuable, amethysts, fairly old, but it was my mother’s, and her mother’s before her. I want our son to have it, not Helena. You know how Helena can be, don’t you, Beth? I’m not saying she’s greedy or grasping exactly, but … she’s a collector, let’s say. Of anything. With no clear sense of other
people’s … especially her sister … and Emmy would have wanted her son to have this necklace.”
Why was the bland blond so eagerly overexplaining? Why a shopping bag for a necklace?
Ray Buttonwood shook his head, as if despairing, but his face remained expressionless. His sorrows were not even skin deep. Beth had said he worked with Sam and was also a lawyer, but I thought lawyers needed enough acting skill to project righteous indignation and so forth. This man was a failure at showing emotion. Even faking it. Or maybe he didn’t consider us worth the effort.
“Speaking of the boy, I really must be going. Very nice to have met you, er, Amanda, and always a pleasure to see you, Beth.”
After the doors shut behind him, Beth kept looking in that direction, as if to see through them. “I wonder if Emmy had made a new will yet,” she said, “or if everything goes to the surviving spouse. They’re still married, technically, and he’d know the law, of course.”
“Why wasn’t he home with his son if he cares that much?” I asked. “The kid’s mother was killed today. Some father! Goes after a necklace—if that’s what it really was—instead of comforting his child. I don’t like him, elegant tailoring notwithstanding—” And then I remembered the man on the library stairs. “I think he was there this morning. Emmy gasped when she saw him.”
“Ray? This … you mean at the library?”
The elevator doors shut, and we soundlessly rose. A very nice building, I decided. “Just as my class began its tour,” I explained. “We were still on the stairs, in fact, and this man in that suit, with blond hair, went running up, and Emmy gasped.”
“Are you sure?”
The elevator doors opened onto a carpeted square with four doors, one on each side. Beth checked their numbers. I thought about the blond man on the staircase. “I’m sure about the gasp but not about the face. I never actually saw it.”
“Pinstripes are not exactly unusual,” Beth murmured. “After enough years with Ray, maybe Emmy had been conditioned to feel horror whenever she saw them. Plus, if memory serves me, Sam said there was a committee meeting at the office
this morning. Big doings about the practice itself. Ray’s on the committee.”
“Could Sam check that out?”
Beth shrugged. “The thing is …”
“I know. She was … it happened in the afternoon. Can you check both times?” I wasn’t sure what a morning appearance could mean, except that he knew the way to the library. Or that he set up a later meeting with his estranged wife.
“It doesn’t matter,” Beth said. “About Ray’s being there in the morning. If he was.”
“You never know.” Those three words were our mother’s settle-everything conversation stopper. She used them when confronted with logical opposition, and I saw no reason not to follow her lead.
, Mandy?” Beth said. “But truly, Sam is not going to like these questions.” She turned and faced me. “Hold on— Sam and Ray were taking a deposition this afternoon. I’m positive.”
“All afternoon? Absolutely all afternoon? No time to take a break, get fresh air, run errands? You sure?”
Beth’s expression combined disbelief, suspicion, and sorrow. “Come on—nobody rushes out for a cigarette and murders somebody instead. Especially not somebody getting ready to run for Congress, which is the rumor.”
“You know how long it takes to strangle a person?”
She looked at me with mild revulsion. “Why on earth would I? Why would you?”
“Mackenzie told me. They lose consciousness in ten to fifteen seconds. Seconds, Beth. If somebody comes up from behind, it’s over almost instantly. Without even marks of a struggle.”
Beth spoke very calmly, as if to a small child. “So I’m to find out if Ray was missing for fifteen seconds. Plus commute time, is that it?”
“Somebody murdered your friend,” I said.
“Weren’t you the one talking about kids going berserk?”
“This is different. This isn’t the same thing.” There was a kernel of disbelief in me, a need to believe that Adam had nothing to do with it. He hadn’t been angry enough, didn’t have a history of aggression. I’d been more worried about his hurting himself, about the likelihood of suicide. Without
those news stories, I don’t know that I’d have ever thought of major violence from Adam Evans.
“I’ll find out what I can,” she said, “or you’ll keep at me, I know. Although most likely Sam will resent the questions and clam up.”
“Did she have a problem with men?” I asked as Beth put the key in the door.
She shook her head and opened the door. “Just came to prefer books. She said she wanted to read them, work with them, and save them.”
Beth shrugged. “I guess preserve them. That department where she worked …” We entered an anonymously furnished space without a hint of individuality and, given Emily Fisher’s stated preferences, not even a lot of books.
Beth interpreted my surveillance. “Ray fought her to the death—” She paled. “I didn’t mean that literally.”
“Hope not. But it does indicate that you should check out his whereabouts.”
“He fought her over everything.” Beth looked shaken. “Furniture, art, books, probably every roll of toilet paper. Took everything worth anything, and that includes their son, because he stripped her to a level where she couldn’t support the boy decently. He’ll emerge with all the booty, plus looking like Mr. American Values, the valiant single father. You watch, he won’t marry his cookie until after he’s elected.”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “How could he take it all? Her son?”
“He knew he had the—” Beth clamped down on the words and shook her head. “It’s hard to divorce a lawyer. That’s why we hire them to help us divorce other people. So she wound up with nothing, and it was all very legal.”
I wasn’t satisfied, but I let it go at that, knowing I wouldn’t have to contain my curiosity for long. We were here to remove something, and I was sure that whatever it was would tell me what Beth didn’t want to, why Ray Buttonwood could bully his wife into relinquishing everything she held dear.
The room was immaculate and uncluttered. There were almost no signs of actual living having taken place in it, and the same was true of the bedroom and the kitchen. The apartment could have been a centerfold for
Home Not So Beautiful
magazine. “So,” I asked, “is she a perfect housekeeper—or is it just that he didn’t leave her enough possessions to have a single one of them be out of place?”
The sofa and chairs were upholstered with what looked like compressed dryer lint. The coffee table had a
New York Times
book review section, a bowl with cellophane-wrapped candies, and a plaster impression of a child’s hand, the sort of craft project done in nursery schools. No used coffee cups growing mold, no half-finished letters, half-done crossword puzzles, half-read newspapers, dirty dishes in the sink, unmade bed, panty hose drying over the shower curtain, dropped clothing or towels, signs of Sunday’s party. The only thing that had been out of place was her life itself, and now that was over.
I allowed myself a moment’s speculation on what someone would make of me if my living quarters were taken by surprise. It wasn’t a pretty picture, so my only recourse was to keep myself from being abruptly murdered.
“Sunday’s housewarming was sad,” Beth said, “all of us pretending this was great, that Emmy was off to a wonderful new adventure. Maybe she was, but her place was so—she couldn’t afford anything better, but she could have afforded brighter. That furniture … it all looked to me how Emmy felt lately, like a shadow that had become detached from its real person. I mean, where is—where was—she here?” Beth’s face crumpled as she slumped down onto the sofa. “Everything went so wrong for her. It was like watching somebody fall down a long flight of stairs. And now, when she was supposedly settled in, safe, with a nice, quiet job—to be murdered! In the library! And you know, she told me on Sunday that she thought she had a way out of the money problems. She thought she was going to be okay.”
I patted my sister’s shoulder and let her cry it through while I surveyed the room. Whatever Emmy had wanted removed was not hiding in plain sight.
She had escaped her marriage with at least three photographs that sat on the mantelpiece of the living room’s gas fireplace. I studied them, hoping for a handle on the dead librarian. One photo showed a woman in Jackie Kennedy clothing and bouffant, and two little dark-haired girls. Another was more
contemporary, of a boy who looked about three. I turned to Beth, holding it.