Fair Oaks, California
Elly sensed something was wrong immediately, but since she was not a woman who lived by her instincts, she did nothing. She pushed the dark, ominous feeling aside and made believe that it was her abhorrence for surprise parties that brought on this edginess. She held the grocery bag that Sable had given her and stood, obediently, on the walk leading to Gabby's front door.
This was Sable's idea—the surprise birthday party for Gabby's fiftieth birthday. It was April sixteenth, the day after taxes were due. Gabby was an Aries, but lacked many of the typical character flaws of the astrological sign. She was neither arrogant, nor selfish, nor controlling. She possessed a raw courage, and she had a rare zest for life. Gabby turned fifty today—a beautiful, vibrant, exciting fifty. Fifty on the brink of still greater things, not on the declining side of life. Elly, fifty-eight, had not had such youth or vibrancy at twenty.
Something was wrong.
Elly heard the ticktocking of Sable's heels on the flagstone walk. She, too, carried a grocery bag. There were two more bags in the trunk, all filled with the makings of a lavish champagne brunch. The idea was to arrive just prior to Gabby's waking hour—somewhere around 11:00 a.m. It was ten-thirty. They hadn't even considered coming earlier. Gabby, for all her joy of life, was as mean as a junkyard dog in the early morning.
"Don't get Daisy barking," Sable commanded in a whisper, though they stood several feet from the front door. "We don't want Gabby to know what's up until the others arrive." The others were Barbara Ann Vaughan and Beth Mahoney. The five of them formed an intimate little writers' group who relied on each other for support, critique, industry news, celebration and whatever the publishing industry threw at them. Their works were diverse, ranging from mystery to romance to academic. Gabby's house was where they always met.
Daisy. That was the trouble, Elly realized. Gabby's nine-year-old golden retriever was whining at the door. Not much more than a miserable squeak. Added was the occasional scrape of her heavy paw; she wanted out. This was not typical. If Daisy heard people outside the door, she usually got all excited. She'd woof politely, but loudly.
"Listen," Elly ordered. "That's Daisy. She's not barking."
"She probably knows it's us," Sable suggested.
Elly put her bag down on the walk and crept nearer the door. Daisy had known them all since puppyhood and it had never stopped her from barking before. She was crying!
"Eleanor!" Sable whispered furiously. She rushed up behind Elly, snatching at her sleeve. "Come away from that door! You're going to spoil it!"
"Something's wrong," Elly said loudly, punching the doorbell.
"What the hell are you doing?"
The dog still had not started barking. "Listen," Elly said. "Hear anything?"
"Not yet, but any second we're going to hear Gabby cursing on her way to the—"
"Daisy still isn't barking. Listen to her fuss. Something's wrong." Eleanor began digging through her enormous shoulder bag for her keys. She was the only one among the women who had a key to Gabby's house, given to her years ago so she could check on things while Gabby was out of town. She'd had it ever since, but never had an occasion like this in which to use it.
"Eleanor," Sable groaned. "Shit. You're going to ruin everything. What do you think you're doing?"
Elly rang the bell a couple more times, but didn't wait for a response. She slid the appropriate key into the lock. Daisy came bounding through the door, rushing past the two of them, not looking back. Out into the freedom. Out onto the grass. She looked back over her shoulder guiltily as she squatted to pee not three feet from the front walk. She'd been ready to explode, obviously.
"Jesus," Sable muttered.
"Gabby?" Eleanor called into the house. "Gabrielle? Gabby?"
"She's probably still asleep," Sable said, but she said so hopefully. "Slept through the doorbell and the yelling. Just like her. She sleeps like the—" Sable stopped herself.
Elly frowned over her shoulder briefly, then walked into the house ahead of Sable. Daisy bounded past them again, in the other direction, into the house. The sound of talking could be heard inside—television talking. Elly called out a couple more times, but softly, suspiciously.
They found her in the family room. She was lying on the couch, eyes closed. One foot was on the floor and she had a sheaf of papers on her lap. Probably manuscript pages. From a distance of three feet she could be mistaken for a sleeping girl; she was slight of build, fair complected and had hardly any gray streaking her curly, honey-blond hair. On the sofa table beside her was a can of diet soda, a glass of water and a bottle of aspirin. By the time they got there Daisy had taken her place again beside the couch, guarding. She looked up at them mournfully, as though she knew.
Eleanor gasped and rushed to Gabby's side, her large purse slipping off her shoulder and crashing to the floor as she knelt. She frantically touched Gabby's brow. Sable's hand rose to cover her mouth, her eyes disbelieving and her head already shaking denial. Eleanor touched Gabby's cheeks, her neck, her hands, muttering over and over, My God My God My God, then, Oh No Oh No No No, while Sable, stunned and terrified, stood frozen, not breathing. Elly stopped touching Gabby after a few seconds and straightened herself stoically. She turned toward Sable as rigidly as a soldier. "She's dead, Sable. She's been dead for some time."
"No," Sable whispered.
Elly nodded, frowning, because by then she had noticed there was a smell of some kind. Eleanor had talked to Gabby the previous afternoon; it wasn't as though she'd begun to decompose. There were no visible signs of blood, bruises or marks. It was the smell of death and it's accompanying atrocities.
"Go back outside," Elly said calmly. "Wait for Barbara and Beth. Don't let them come in. I'm going to have to call the police."
"It wasn't old age, Sable," Eleanor said, her voice cracking. "What would you suggest?"
Sable's eyes had taken on a stricken, panicked gleam. She hugged herself to keep from shaking or being sick. Not sick with disgust, but sick with horror. Her dearest friend. Dead before her very eyes. Sable couldn't answer. Her face went white.
"Don't fall apart on me now," Eleanor instructed calmly but firmly. "Just don't. Hang on for a while. I'll join you outside in a minute. Now go."
Eleanor walked into the kitchen and picked up the cordless. She dialed 911. She figured whatever had killed Gabby hadn't been homicidal… and even if it had been, it was safe to use the phone. She didn't care very much about fingerprints and all that. The cause of death, she had already decided, hadn't been murder, but rather theft. Elly's dearest treasure had just been stolen. "Yes, ah, my name is Eleanor Fulton and I've just let myself into my friend's house to find that she's…she's… expired. Expired, I said. Dead. Dead for some time, I guess. She's very cold and white. I think it must have been natural—a heart attack perhaps. What I mean is, there doesn't seem to be any… any sign of anything. No, no, she's only fifty." She did not add "today." She noticed that the message light on Gabby's answering machine was blinking madly, something that would no doubt help the police determine how long her dearest friend had been gone. She wanted to play the messages, to hear what final words had been spoken to Gabby while she lay on the sofa, dying to late-night TV. Birthday well-wishers? Instead, she gave the police dispatcher the address and asked that there please be no sirens. This was all bad enough without flashing lights and sirens.
When she replaced the receiver she realized her hand was shaking almost violently. She tucked it under her arm like an annoying old sock and took a deep breath. She would have to call Don, Gabby's ex-husband, but she'd wait until after the police had come to the house. She might even be the one to tell the children—David and Sarah—but not without Don. She would see to that. Don would manage, somehow, to be civil to his children, or Elly might physically make her point about it. Maybe just coldcock him, something she'd had an impulse to do for years now. Gabby was much more forgiving than Eleanor.
But before she would let herself enjoy the prospect of decking Don, she went back to Gabby. She stared down at her. Over twenty years, she thought in desolation. They were young together, even though Elly felt she, herself, had never been young. They had survived things that should have killed them. The others—Sable, Barbara and Beth—might love Gabby equally, but they hadn't had her quite as long. Hadn't been through quite as much with her.
Eleanor picked up her heavy purse and looped the strap over her shoulder before she dug inside for a handkerchief. She felt her eyes and nose drip before she was even aware she was crying, and she sopped up her leaking pain as best she could, dipping the linen under her glasses.
Gabby didn't look particularly peaceful to her, or maybe that was just her own emotions projected. Was that a slight frown? Had Gabby's face recently taken on those lines without Eleanor noticing? It was lividity, she finally realized, the color drained from Gabby's face, her lips falling slack and drying out. It was outrageous that Gabby be the first to go; she was the youngest at heart of them all. Everyone depended on her to a fault. Her children still needed her desperately, and Don, divorced from her for over fifteen years, relied on her constantly. And God, not even Gabby knew how Elly needed her. Maybe we wore her out, Elly thought. But no. Gabby had never seemed worn. Nor even tired. Never.
"Goddamnit," she whispered to Gabby. "I wasn't done with you yet."
A prominent character trait of Eleanor's was her complete lack of sentiment. She was rarely emotional, and if she was, it was usually about something political or intellectual. It was one of the things that made her an exceptional book critic. Finding Gabby, however, made her feel twenty years older and as vulnerable as a prepu-bescent girl all at once. She didn't actually cry so much as her eyes kept leaking and dripping beyond her control. Her voice remained steady and her words precisely clipped, but everything inside her quivered. She'd never felt so weak.
She stooped, hunched, as she walked out of Gabby's house. Her legs and arms were heavy and aching. Her stomach, a problem anyway, was twisted around. Being the eldest, the one who had known Gabby longest, she would be expected to take control of this situation. To know what to do. It was doubtful, she thought.
The first thing she saw was Beth Mahoney being comforted by Sable. They sat on the edge of the planter box in Gabby's front yard. Beth was the youngest of their group, girlish for her thirty-two years. She leaned her elbows on her knees and wept into her hands, the sound of her crying like distant bird-chirping. Sable was turned in Beth's direction, one of her hands gently rubbing the young woman's back while she patted her knee with the other.
Sable turned instinctively toward Elly and stood to look her over. With great relief Elly could see that Sable had composed herself on cue. It was no wonder. Sable had taught herself this trick years ago. Who knew how she was falling apart inside, how she'd fall apart later, when she was alone? If there was a vulnerable side to Sable, she kept it private. But for now, while Elly visibly sagged, Sable stood erect and assisted her toward that same planter box like she was the little old lady she felt she'd suddenly become.
"You'd better sit down," Sable instructed. "You're white as a sheet. You're wobbling. You're—"
"Please, that will do," Eleanor said, but her usual bark was barely a growl.
"Do you need a glass of water or anything?"
"No. No. I'll be all right in a minute. What have you told Dorothy?"
"To stay in the car," Sable said simply. Dorothy was Sable's housekeeper and cook. Part of the birthday surprise was to be Dorothy's preparation of brunch followed by a thorough cleaning of Gabby's house. Housekeeping was not Gabby's forte. And Dorothy would get a handsome bonus from Sable for the day's work. "Look at her," Sable said in a low, irritated voice.
Eleanor had to once again wipe the liquid from her eyes and blink to clear her vision. Dorothy sat in the backseat of Sable's Mercedes. She stared straight ahead, her hands poised atop the purse she held in her lap. She had tightly curled silver hair, a sharp nose and no chin. "Did you tell her what we found?" Elly asked.
And the sight of women weeping on the planter box had not moved her to ask if anything was wrong? Would the arrival of the police and coroner cause her to turn her head? Sable had long referred to Dorothy as the kitchen witch.
"I should have learned by now, you never exaggerate," Elly said.
A horrible insult of putts, grinding gears and angry growls caused all three women to look down the street. A partially sanded 1967 Camaro jerked noisily toward them. Barbara Ann Vaughan had a frazzled, tense look of concentration as she edged the car, gears sticking, to park behind Beth's late-model Ford. Once there, the car died. But it got real sick first, coughing and choking. Barbara actually had a car of her own, a nice, fairly new one that she rarely drove. Someone else in her household always needed a better car and it was anyone's guess what that would leave her to drive. Her sons were aged sixteen, seventeen, nineteen and twenty-one. They would not leave home while the food held out.
She had to reach outside the car to open the door and let herself out. She gripped a screwdriver that had some function to driving, pitched it back into the car and took a few seconds to gather up purse, gift and some papers. She kicked the door closed with her foot and called the car "you piece of shit" while her friends looked on. Barbara didn't immediately see that anything was wrong; she was preoccupied with her own ever-present set of problems. Plus, this was approximately the scene she expected—Sable, Beth and Elly waiting outside while the cleaning lady, who wouldn't be expected to yell "surprise," sat in the car.