Authors: Marilyn Levinson
Brian looked up from his notepad and grinned. “So you’re still leading mystery book clubs.”
“Yes. A member saw his face in the window and chased after him.”
He raised his eyebrows. “You’re kidding. Someone took off after him in the dark?”
“That’s right. Joy Lincoln’s in top shape. She’s a former FBI agent.”
Brian did a lousy job of masking his surprise, which gave me a stab of pleasure.
“She chased him across several backyards and described him to us afterward.” In time, I stopped myself from adding that my sister’s car had almost struck him.
“So you’re telling me this guy was playing peeping Tom here last night. Someone saw him and ran him off. He came back hours later and got himself killed. What was he after?”
Brian was doing a good job of scaring me. Maybe the dead man
after me. Or planning to kill my sister.
“I don’t know what he was after!” It came out stronger than I’d meant it to.
Brian frowned. “Since you live here, it makes sense that he wanted something from you.”
“Maybe he’s the one burgling houses around here.”
Brian nodded. “Maybe he is and maybe he isn’t. You’re hiding something, Lexie. I’m disappointed. You know you can talk to me.”
My face grew warm. I wanted to tell him everything Gayle had told me, but it wasn’t my story. “Believe me, Brian, I don’t know that man’s name. Maybe he wanted to see one of the book club members. Or…”
“Or?” Brian pounced on my hesitation.
A uniformed officer came to the door. He conferred with Brian in whispers.
“I’ll be back,” Brian said. “Please write down the name and address of everyone who was here last night.”
“Of course,” I said and reached for a pen and pad.
Outside, yellow tape blocked off the area of the backyard where the body still lay—as though anyone would want to go there! Well, maybe some curious kids would, once word got out. I straightened up the kitchen and left the names of the mystery book club members on the kitchen table. I was considering leaving Brian a note to say I’d gone to shower and get dressed, when he stepped back into the kitchen.
“Thanks,” he said, pocketing the list of names.
“Will you be home this afternoon?”
“Good. We’ll talk again soon.”
Was that a threat?
His voice held no affection, but when I opened the front door he put his hand on my arm.
“I’ve been so damn busy, I’m only realizing now that I’ve missed you.”
“Should you be handling this case?”
Brian gave me one of his heart-stopping grins. “Why not? You don’t know the vic, right?”
I saw him out, then headed for the bathroom. I was dressed and putting on makeup when I glanced out the window as they were removing the body. Car doors slammed. A minute later they were gone.
I was halfway to the university when it dawned on me: the kitchen door
been unlocked when I went to look at the body. Gayle had lied. She
gone outside before waking me up.
A shiver ran through me. I failed to stifle the question that filled my head.
Had Gayle killed the man before he had a chance to murder her?
I drove slowly to the university, churning over everything Gayle had done and told me since she’d turned up unexpectedly. I loved my sister and feared for her life, but part of me wondered if her story about Shawn killing her boyfriend was true.
Gayle had been an imaginative child. She had an imaginary playmate named Hans, and insisted that Mom fix a plate of food for Hans at every meal or she wouldn’t eat. She stuck to it, too, which led to our throwing out lots of food in those years. Hans attended kindergarten with Gayle, until she decided she didn’t want to share her valentine cards with him. As suddenly as he’d appeared, Hans disappeared. She never mentioned him again; it was a though he’d never existed.
In middle school and high school, she had a few dorky friends with whom she played Dungeons and Dragons and other web-based electronic games. Gayle’s grades were average, though she’d scored high enough on her SAT boards to get her into the college of her choice in Colorado. She called me late one night during finals of her freshman year, sounding frantic and out of breath. This guy she’d been dating was stalking her. I told her to calm down so she could tell me about it. Instead, she grew more agitated and angry at me for not taking her side. She hung up and refused to answer the phone when I called her back.
I called my parents to inform them of Gayle’s state of mind. My mother called the university the following morning. The dean promised to look into it, and called back later that day. Gayle had refused to talk to her, but her roommate, Linda, had plenty to say. She and her boyfriend were considering filing a complaint against Gayle. It seemed my sister had developed a crush on the guy and had taken to following him around wherever he went.
When my parents called Gayle to say they’d be coming to pick her up, they were told that Gayle had packed up and left school. She called them days later to say she was in England. She made it clear that she didn’t want them to call her, that she didn’t need their money, and that she was finally leading the life she’d always wanted. She spent the next few years traipsing around Europe. She’d call me or our parents every few months to let us know she was all right. I worried about Gayle, but I was a single mother. Working and raising Jesse while getting my PhD took up every waking moment. I loved my sister and wished her well, but I knew nothing of her life.
I pulled into the parking spot closest to Prentiss Hall where I taught my classes, and reached for my briefcase. In broad sunlight on this crisp October morning, I told myself that even if everything she’d told me was true, Gayle had no reason to fear this Shawn while she was on Long Island. The police here could protect her. Brian would, I knew.
It was a relief to immerse myself in administrative paper shuffling and students‘ problems. Even hearing about one girl’s parents‘ divorce and another’s sick grandmother was better than dwelling on the awfulness I’d left behind. It all flooded back the moment I stepped into my car to drive home.
Where was my sister now? Had she killed that man? Was he working for Shawn? If he wasn’t, what was he doing in my backyard?
I mulled over these questions again and again, which got me nowhere. I was a mental mess by the time I turned down Magnolia Lane. When I saw no sign of a police car or the crime team, I released the lungful of air I hadn’t realized I’d been holding. I’d go bonkers if I stayed alone in my house, rehashing my concerns. I left the car in the driveway and walked across my neighbor’s lawn to ring Joy’s bell.
She looked frazzled when she opened the door, a finger to her lips. And she was still in her bathrobe. “Brandon’s sleeping. He was up all night teething.”
“And you were up with him,” I said.
“Natch,” she said sourly. “Who else?”
“Mike?” I offered.
“Mike,” Joy said, and laughed. It wasn’t a happy sound.
Puzzled, I followed her into the living room strewn with toys. Joy plunked down on the sofa and closed her eyes.
“Brandon finally fell asleep at dawn. The commotion at your house woke him up.”
“Sorry about that.”
“Not your fault.” After a minute, she said, “How weird is it that the peeping Tom from last night ends up dead in your backyard?”
“The weirdest,” I agreed.
“I’m starving,” Joy said, but made no move to get up.
“Did you eat lunch?”
She shook her head. “Nor breakfast, if I remember correctly.”
With a pang, I remembered how distracted and upset she’d been last evening. Something was dreadfully out of kilter. “What’s wrong, Joy?”
That awful laugh again. “You mean, what happened yesterday between the two times I saw you?”
“I found out Mike, the bastard, is having an affair.”
I pressed fingers to my lips to keep from laughing. Mike Lincoln was the last man on earth who would cheat on his wife.
Joy opened her eyes to gaze balefully at me. “I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but I have proof. And proof is indisputable.”
I swallowed, not at all happy to hear this. “What kind of proof are you talking about? Don’t tell me you came home and found Mike in bed with someone? Not with Mrs. Horton here.”
“Of course not! It happened when I was baking the gluten-free cookies. I’d fed the kids, and Mike was giving Brandon his bath. I went upstairs to check on things, when I heard him on the phone with my innocent baby son in his arms!”
Joy, the tough and the brave, looked like she was about to burst into tears.
“What was he saying?”
“For one thing, he called this woman ‘sweetie’.”
“He calls me that sometimes,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but he was holding the phone cupped in his hand which meant he was talking to someone he shouldn’t be talking to.”
She had a point. I was a great believer in body language.
“What else did you hear?”
Joy blew her nose. “He was setting up a date and reminded this ‘sweetie’ to make sure I didn’t get wind of it.”
I sat down beside her and put an arm around her shoulders. “The rotten bastard. What are you going to do?”
She shrugged. “Make him pay. But I haven’t decided how.”
We sat there quietly until I nudged her.
“Come in the kitchen. I’ll make us some coffee and sandwiches. Where are the kids?”
“Zack’s at soccer practice and Ruthie’s at dancing school. Thank God it wasn’t my day to carpool.”
I found some cheese and sliced turkey in the fridge and got to work. Joy devoured her sandwich and I made her another. When she pushed back from the table, she looked more like herself.
“Brian Donovan stopped by this morning.”
My pulse quickened. “Because you chased the dead man last night?”
“He plans to talk to everyone who was at your house last night. I was too zonked out to speak coherently so I said I’d come down to the station tonight to make a statement.”
A tremor ran up my spine. I opened my mouth to ask Joy not to mention Gayle, then decided it was too much to ask. Besides, one of the others had probably mentioned her by now. I stood to put my empty dish in the sink. “I have to go. I’ve tons of things to see to.”
Joy walked me to the front door. She seemed more relaxed when she hugged me good-bye. “Thanks for stopping by. I feel much, much better.”
“Don’t do anything rash,” I told her. “Maybe Mike was talking to his sister.”
She gave me a lopsided grin. “Sure he was. By the way, your sister’s sweet. How upset was she to find someone had been murdered in your backyard during her visit?”
My heart thumped so fiercely, I was afraid Joy could hear it. “Gayle missed the big event. She took off early this morning.”
“Really? I thought she was planning to stay with you a few days.”
“She decided to first visit friends, and spend time with me after,” I made up as I went along.
Joy saw through my lie, but thank God she interpreted it her own way.
“Don’t tell me you guys quarreled already.”
I shrugged. “Gayle and I see the world very differently.” Which was true enough.
“They’ve ID’d your corpse.” Brian leaned back in his chair and sipped his coffee.
“He’s not my corpse!” I said.
“The vic’s name is Leo Lionni. He was a soldier for a New Jersey mob, until a few years ago when he came to Long Island.”
I shuddered. “A mobster! What was he doing in my backyard last night?”
“That’s the million dollar question.”
Brian watched me as he added, “He was known around town as Len Lyons.”
The dead man’s cap flashed before me, and the pieces came together. “My God, Len! I couldn’t see his face, but I should have recognized the cap. I never saw him without it.”
“So you did know him.” Brian didn’t seem surprised.
“He fixed a few things around the house that needed attending to when I first moved in.”
Brian grimaced. “Lionni worked as a handyman when he wasn’t doing other jobs—if you get what I mean.”
“Oh.” I digested that a minute. “Is he the thief who’s been burglarizing houses in the neighborhood?”
“Looks that way. They searched his apartment. Found a cache of items he hadn’t disposed of.”
“How was he murdered?”
“Someone stabbed him in the gut.”
I sighed with relief as I remembered that Gayle had no blood on her clothes when she’d come into my bedroom this morning. “I didn’t notice a knife on the lawn.”
“We still haven’t found the weapon.”
“The crime scene people found his position very odd. They said he wouldn’t have fallen on his stomach, with his arms at his side.”
“Of course not,” I said, remembering how he’d looked this morning. “He would have been clutching his wound.” I bit my lip as I wondered. “So why did the murderer rearrange him?”
“To hide his face, or hide the bloody wound from sight.”
“From me?” I asked without thinking.
Those icy blue eyes bore into me. “From you or from someone else. You’re sure you didn’t hear anything during the night?”
I shook my head. “My windows were shut and I slept soundly.” I had a sudden thought. “Did you see signs of drag marks? Maybe he was killed then brought here.”
“No indication of that,” Brian said. “Do any of the members of your mystery book club live close by?”
“Corinne and Felicity Roberts live next door, and Joy Lincoln lives two houses away in the other direction. Marge and Evan Billings are a few blocks from here.” I pursed my lips. “But you know all that.”
He flashed a smile. “Asking questions gets me different answers.”
I blushed, remembering how I’d insisted I’d never set eyes on the murder victim.
“Who referred you to Len Lyons?”
I thought back. “I think it was Joy. I’d mentioned the house required a few repairs, and she gave me his name. She said she hadn’t needed his services, but a few of her friends had used him and were happy with his work. The Billingses recommended Len as well.” I pressed my hand to my mouth. “Oh my God! They were burgled!”