Henrie O is looking forward to a quiet holiday. Instead, the ex-journalist turned sleuth awakens in a Tennessee mountain cabin to discover her friend’s nephew, his shirt stained with blood, his handsome face stricken by fear and horror.
Craig Matthews swears he didn’t kill his wife, swears he didn’t lure Patty Kay out to the playhouse of their lavish Fair Haven estate and leave her bloodied and dead. Why, then did he run away? It’s a question that draws Henrie O into the thick of a life-and-death drama, into the lives of Fair Haven’s best families, and into a world where wealth and privilege mask a hotbed of sex, lies, and desperation.
Only when Henrie O begins to question the motives of the bereaved widower, the sullen nymphet of a daughter, the irresistible ex-husband, the venomous sister, even the ingratiating schoolmaster of the exclusive school where Patty Kay was a trustee, does the truth start to emerge. But when another corpse turns up, Henrie O knows time is running out. Now she must untangle this deadly web—or become the next victim of a mind bent on murder.
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I always opt for life.
Even when it’s desperately hard to do. Even in the midst of death and travail.
That’s why I walked up the stairs from the intensive care unit, where my friend Margaret was struggling to survive, to the second floor of the hospital.
I’d first found my way upstairs in mid-morning, seeking respite from the life-and-death drama that unfolds—inexorably—in the lounge that serves the intensive care unit.
I’d slipped quietly out of the waiting area as a weary surgeon in bloodstained scrubs slowly walked toward a mid-thirties man and woman. Their faces flattened in grief as he came reluctantly closer. The doctor’s rubber soles squeaked against the marble floor. It was the only sound until the mother began to moan. Cars and youth and alcohol.
I didn’t want to see those parents grieve. It hurt too much.
So I slipped away, up the antiseptic gray stairs to the second floor and the maternity ward, where life was beginning.
Yes, there could be heartbreak here too.
But not this April afternoon.
One of the babies, a little boy, scrunched up a red, puckered face and began to cry, the utterly unmistakable mew of the newborn. God, how precious life is. I thought of my family, of my grandchildren.
It wasn’t the kind of nursery I’d expected, of course. But the only constant in life is change. A brisk nurse explained to me what appeared to be the dearth of babies. Babies today don’t stay in the nursery in bassinets with cards affixed, Baby Boy Jones, Baby Girl Smith. Today’s babies are in the room with their mothers, right from the first.
Sensible, of course.
They spend only brief periods in the nursery, for weighing, for checking.
I wandered down the hall. Many doors were open. I had other glimpses of new babies, new mothers, new adventures beginning.
I returned to Margaret’s bedside much refreshed.
The nurse moved near. “She’s conscious now, Mrs. Collins. Don’t let her talk much.”
Margaret’s hand was quiet and cool in mine. Her eyes fluttered open.
“You’re doing fine.” I spoke quietly. “I talked to the doctor. No major damage to the heart muscle. The surgery was successful.”
Her breathing was shallow, her lips bluish.
“Henrie O …”
My late husband Richard gave me, Henrietta O’Dwyer Collins, that nickname. Richard used to say I packed more surprises into a single day than O. Henry ever put in a short story.
“Be quiet now, Margaret. Rest.”
She licked her lips.
I reached for the plastic cup with ice shavings, gently spooned a cool mound on her tongue.
Margaret swallowed, closed her eyes in thanks.
The visiting period was over.
This time when I walked upstairs, it was during the shift change. A flurry of scrub-clad attendants, nurses, nursing assistants, doctors, orderlies, passed me.
So why did I notice the bone-thin woman who stood in the hallway?
Her face was hidden behind a curtain of long, straight hair as she looked down at the infant cradled in her arms.
A pale blue receiving blanket and a tiny hand. That’s all I saw within the protective embrace. Faded green scrubs sagged against the woman’s bony shoulders, exposed her thin wrists. A stethoscope dangled around her neck.
I’d passed dozens of men and women similarly attired since I brought Margaret to the hospital late last night in the throes of a heart attack.
I watched as she—nurse? nurse’s aide? doctor?—passed the nursery.
She picked up speed.
Her scuffed black leather flats slapped against the floor.
She reached the stairs, gave a swift look behind.
And saw me.
I didn’t hesitate.
“One moment, please.” I held up my hand. Imperiously, if you will. And strode quickly toward her.
She stood frozen, her face impassive, her arms curved tight as steel bands around that small, helpless bundle.
With every step I took, I became more certain of my suspicions.
I’ll never forget looking into her eyes, dull green eyes flecked with amber and despair. Straggling light hair, darker at the roots, framed a gaunt, hollow-cheeked face. Her mouth was slack, loose, straight lips that had long ago forgotten how to smile. A pulse throbbed in her throat.
I held out my arms.
Her shoulders sagged. Tears edged down her wan cheeks. Slowly, as if the tiny creature were too heavy to be borne, she handed me the precious mewing bundle.
She whirled away, yanked open the door, plunged into the stairwell. Before the heavy door eased shut, I heard the clatter of her shoes on the cement stairs.
My arrival in the nursery caused a stir, of course.
The alarm went out immediately.
And a sobbing new mother held her baby—tiny six-pound James Allen Wilson—cradled in the sanctuary of her arms.
The head nurse caught me as I walked toward the stairs. Her ruddy face was touched with paleness, her commanding voice wavered. “They found her in the parking garage. The police are on the way. She’ll be charged with attempted kidnapping.” The nurse stopped, swallowed, briefly closed her eyes, blocking out the frightful vision of what might have been, what almost was. “God. We’re so grateful. But how did you know? How on earth did you know?”
I looked down and pointed at the head nurse’s Reeboks.
“The scrubs were right. She had a stethoscope. But have you ever seen anyone who works in a hospital wearing thin-soled leather flats?”
“Christ.” The nurse was forty-five, stocky, with an air of certitude. She cleared her throat. “I probably shouldn’t tell you. We have a doctor who wears stiletto heels. Thank God you didn’t know.”
I left it at that.
But it wasn’t simply the shoes, the wrong shoes. It was the almost half century I spent as a reporter. Body language tells so much. Without ever seeing her, I knew the stiletto-heeled doctor exuded assurance, command.
The rigid back of the kidnapper shouted fear.
And if I’d been wrong? So? I don’t embarrass easily. And I’ve learned to play my hunches. For good or ill.
It was a good day all around. They moved Margaret out of intensive care and into her room. I was relieved enough to pick up my regular schedule the next morning, my last class before spring break.
I still find it hard to see myself as an academic. Probably because I’m not an academic. But it is my pleasure to serve on a rather unique journalism faculty, one that employs retired professionals rather than degree-laden and experience-poor academics. The professors at this small college, nestled in the wooded rolling hills of southern Missouri, are people who have crafted ads, waged campaigns, worked public relations magic in the wake of industrial fiascos, and covered wars and famines and jugular politics for all kinds of media. Our students might not have contact with academics flourishing in the sanitized arena of juried journals (You kiss my ass, I’ll kiss yours), but they are exposed to how the media world really works.
I carried a small box of divinity when I visited Margaret in the afternoon.
She looked much better, her color improved, her eyes clear. Margaret has such a civilized face. I’ve seen its counterpart on tapestries in Brussels—an aquiline nose, almond-shaped eyes, a soft, rosebud mouth.
I waved away her thanks for my vigil. I know how much a handclasp matters when life hangs in the balance. Not as much as oxygen, but more perhaps than Margaret’s beardless young doctor realized.
She’d heard from her night nurse about yesterday’s excitement.
“Henrie O, only you!”
“You would have noticed in an instant.” It wasn’t simply a modest disclaimer. Margaret, also on the general news faculty, was a longtime INS correspondent in Paris. Very little escapes her.
“Perhaps. In any event, you’ve earned your holiday.” Her soft mouth looked stubborn.
We’d planned, before illness struck, to spend the spring break at Margaret’s cabin in the Cumberlands. I’d looked forward to our trip eagerly, our departure planned for Saturday morning. I dearly love Tennessee and never pass up an opportunity to visit there. Margaret grew up in Chattanooga, and the cabin had been in her family for years. Now there was only Margaret and a nephew who lived near Nashville.
I sat up straight. “Margaret, I didn’t think! Your nephew—I should call him.”
“No, no. No need. There’s nothing Craig can do and I don’t want to bother him.”
Funny how much you can read into words when you are my age. Margaret and I have a here-and-now friendship. We enjoy driving into St. Louis for art shows (everything from Turner to Monet to Klee), discussing politics (if you think today’s press coverage is savage, take a look at Charles A. Dana’s editorial invective in the New York Sun in the 1880s), and sharing discoveries of new books (Margaret likes poetry, I prefer nonfiction).
We don’t spend our lives in the past.
But we know the outlines of each other’s lives, our husbands, where we’d worked and lived, what we’d written. She was a widow too. She and Paul had no children. Her sister Eileen died several years ago. Margaret’s only family was Eileen’s son, Craig. I’d seen family photos scattered about Margaret’s house as photos are scattered about mine.
And she didn’t want me to call her nephew about her heart attack and surgery.
“He’s been very involved with his wife and her family since he married.” Her eyes slipped away from mine.
Translation: No time for an elderly aunt.