After filling both mugs, Alice set the kettle on the stove. The narrow spout spurt an extra whistle, making her shoulders drift even further toward her ears. Inhaling a calming breath of chamomile and Earl Grey, she clasped both mugs by their handles and tiptoed to the kitchen table.
“So, what did you want to know?”
She placed the chamomile in front of Rebecca, seated stock-still at the head of the table. The older woman laid her manicured fingertips around the warming ceramic, heat or steam seeming to plump her dried skin. The supposed comfort, however, failed to ease the tension in each blanched knuckle.
“The little things.” Rebecca drummed against the mug, her rings clinking against the police department’s shield. “You’ve been with Jake for what? Eight years now and I’m not sure I really know you.”
“It’s only been six actually.”
Alice sat across from Rebecca’s purse where a rubber chicken poked out from the zippered opening. Peering at the toy’s beady eyes, she wondered if the chicken wanted a cup of tea too, perhaps with something stronger added. She reached for the sugar bowl instead, although her fingers itched for the whiskey in the cupboard.
Rebecca hummed, the disapproving sound she made when someone corrected her. “Six? It’s been so long it’s hard to keep count without some solid dates.”
The jab at the lack of a diamond on her own hand washed over Alice, sliding along its well-worn route. “It’s up to me and Jake to remember. I wouldn’t expect it of anyone else.” She dumped a teaspoon into her mug, and then briskly added another two.
“I didn’t know you took sugar with your tea.”
“Just Earl Grey.”
Rebecca laid a hand on her forearm, the toasting from the chamomile seeping through the sleeve of Alice’s sweatshirt.
“See Alice, it’s those little things I feel like I’ve missed picking up. I mean we live so close and see so little of one another.”
“You and Mr. Garther are so busy—”
“Bah, you make time for family. Family’s blood.”
The visceral edge to the statement made Alice shiver. Visions of stained clothes and dirtied implements swirled in her sight, reminding her of the files waiting in the spare bedroom. Taking a sip, she hoped the tea might ward off the nag of work and leave Rebecca room to find a point to her rambling.
Rebecca cupped her mug again. “What I’m saying is, when things get tough, family is who you can depend on. You’ve been with Jake long enough, you’re one of us.”
Alice couldn’t decide whether to be flattered or insulted and settled for the space in between. The foundation seemed cracked, however, and she crept onto it with delicate steps.
“Are things tough, Mrs. Garther?”
Rebecca’s bubbling laugh hit an octave Alice didn’t think the former cantatrice could reach any more, and then the other woman’s gaze plummeted into her tea.
“Jake said you were sharp. Said he liked how intelligent you are.”
Jake had complimented her on her mind before, one honed by two degrees and the library of textbooks stuffed onto her shelves, but Rebecca sounded more surprised than impressed. The barrier between compliment and jab thinned but Alice worked up an amenable grin.
“I suppose that means I should get on with it before you figure things out yourself.”
Rebecca snatched her purse. The reach tugged her blouse’s sleeve, revealing a fresh wrapping of gauze around her forearm. Thick cotton bulged beneath medical tape and Alice thought she spied a ruddy stain of dried blood. Rebecca seemed to pay it no mind, so Alice kept her mouth shut, letting the older woman continue driving the conversation as she had from the start of her unexpected visit.
“I was going through Richard’s briefcase and gym bag looking for dirtied Tupperware and socks.”
With the purse in her lap, Rebecca wiggled out the rubber chicken and tossed the fabricated fowl onto the table. The limp body smacked the hardwood, its one webbed foot paired with a severed leg.
“I found this…thing.” Rebecca tittered. “I got so damn mad I took it from Richard’s bag. It sat on the counter while I hacked at an onion. I’d planned on a stew for dinner, and….” She stroked the bandage before smoothing her satin sleeve and lifting her chin.
“I’ve never been the most graceful of people. I’d cut off the damn thing’s leg before I realized I was bleeding.”
Complications and the scientific names of bacteria swirled into Alice’s mind. “You should have it looked at.”
Rebecca shooed away her concern. “I’ve bandaged up worse for Jake. I can’t say so about the chicken.”
Taking another sip, Alice searched the toy’s eye again, this time for a diversion.
Rebecca plopped her purse back onto the adjoining chair and resumed her rigid grip on the mug. “I’m not sure if Jake’s told you, but a long, long time ago, his father worked as a magician.”
Gulping her mouthful, Alice kept herself still, least her movement give away the secret she’d vowed to keep for the last six weeks. She shrugged and hoped her voice expressed the same attempted naiveté. “He might have mentioned it.”
“That’s surprising. I didn’t think he’d even remember. He was so young. But then everything changed. You know the story: you get married, you buy a house, you start having kids.”
Alice forced a smile as she sat, unwed, in their apartment, without a pet let alone a child in sight.
With a sigh, Rebecca fingered the chicken’s wobbly crest. “Richard settled down and got a real job and well, the rest is history.” She faded into a contemplative quiet, one the cycling fridge interrupted before Alice reclaimed her nerve.
With a rapid flutter of her mascara-ladened lashes, Rebecca surfaced from wherever the chicken had taken her. “Precisely. I think Richard’s up to his old tricks. Literally.”
“And that’s a problem?”
“The problem is who he’s doing it for.”
Fetching a notebook from her purse, Rebecca splayed the pages, and flipped vigorously until she came to a list written in her cursive script. She set her finger beneath the first name.
“His secretary.” She moved to the next line, giving titles to each noted woman. “His accounting assistant. His boss. This librarian down at our local branch. A clerk he always uses at the grocery store—”
“Mrs. Gardener, don’t you think you’re being a little suspicious? Maybe he’s just doing it for fun, to remember the old days.”
Rebecca turned the page and tromboned the book before resuming her rant. “He’s been late, every Tuesday and Thursday for at least the past month, maybe even longer. I only noticed the pattern recently. He’s been out on the weekends too.” The next page nearly ripped as she revealed another list. “He’s got errands after errands after errands. Excuses after excuses.” After a hearty glare at her notes, Rebecca slammed the book down. “If he’s not up to something, or someone, then how do you explain it?”
Alice gaped. The truth sat on her tongue, but her promise to Jake leapt to mind. She closed her mouth, keeping the explanation trapped behind her teeth.
“Exactly,” said Rebecca into the silence. “That’s why I need your help.”
Alice sat back. “My help?”
“I can’t exactly go to any of my friends and talk about this. Think of the scandal, the rumors.”
“I imagine they wouldn’t understand.”
“Not at all. But I figured you would, with your police job you must have heard such horrible things.”
“I work in forensics. I inspect crime scenes and look for evidence.”
“I have evidence.” Snapping the notebook closed, Rebecca tapped leather cover. “And you must know someone who can look into Richard’s activities. Some kind of detective or investigator.”
“I’m not sure any of the officers I know work on these kind of domestic issues.”
Rebecca pressed her lips together and clasped her mug close. “I’d hoped you’d have some kind contact.”
Rubbing at her temple, Alice sought a verbal escape slide. “I can ask around.”
Rebecca’s face brightened and Alice held up a warning hand.
“I can’t promise anything, and who knows, maybe by then this will all have cleared up.”
“And I’ll be left behind.”
“You don’t know that’s what this is all about.”
“Trust me, I’ve seen a little more in my day than you, young lady. They all end up with eyes for the blonde and buxom.” Spinning her mug, Rebecca peered at the contents with distain. “I feel a little foolish now. Bothering you with this.”
“It’s not a bother. I feel…honored.”
Rebecca risked wrinkles with the depth of her frown. “Honored?”
“You trusted me with something personal, something delicate.”
Her brow cleared and the tension in Rebecca’s shoulders ebbed as her self-confidence reappeared. “I guess I did.”
A key rattled in the front door.
“That must be Jake.” Alice sprang up, the chair’s legs scraping the tiles. “I think he was bringing home groceries.”
The lie sounded lame as it left her lips but she accepted Rebecca’s nod and skittered into the hallway, hoping to find some respite in his presence or perhaps a release from her promise.
Jake entered with a reusable bag at his hip and burst into his good-day song. “Hello my baby, hello my darling, hello my ragtime—”
Alice’s finger at her lip silenced him more quickly than a crowd could mute the Warner Brothers’ animated frog. He locked the door and swapped his burden into his other arm.
“Your mother’s here,” she whispered.
“I thought I saw her car.” Leaning in, Jake kept his voice as low. “Everything okay?”
“Besides her thinking your dad’s having an affair with half the town, everything’s peachy.”
Jake frowned. “You’re kidding me.”
“Can we tell her now?”
“Tell me what?”
At Rebecca’s prim tone, Alice grabbed Jake’s arm. His smile bloomed as he looked past her and she released him when he stepped by.
Rebecca embraced him with a squeeze on both his biceps while he pecked her cheek. “What did you have to tell me, Jake?”
“That we are going to pick you up on Friday.”
Rebecca scowled, her speculative gaze darting between them. “For what?”
“Your birthday of course.”
Her face glowed with a sudden smile and age seemed to fall from her in waves. “I didn’t think you remembered.”
“What kind of son do you think I am?”
Jake feigned hurt and she snatched his nose, wiggling it back and forth.
“Now,” said Jake as he rubbed his reclaimed nose, “I don’t want to interrupt the two of you.”
“I was just on my way out.” Rebecca patted the lump rounding her zipped and shoulder-slung purse, where Alice imagined the chicken had been stuffed beside the notebook. “And now, if you two are taking me out on Friday, I better find something to wear.” Alice spread her grin when Rebecca turned her way. “Any suggestions?”
“Something that’ll knock socks off.”
Rebecca smirked. “That I can do.”
Stepping aside, Alice allowed access to the front door.
With her hand on the knob, Rebecca stopped and pivoted. “Do you like shopping, Alice?”
Jake set a hand on her shoulder. “Of course she does.”
Keeping her glare reined, Alice forced deeper dimples.
“Then are you free tomorrow?”
A litany of excuses tumbled through her mind. The pending files she’d brought home, the hopeless garden tending, and the myriad of other errands scheduled for Sunday aligned, tempting her to say no. It seemed unfair, though, to use Richard’s tactic of errands, appointments, or the other white lies he’d been concocting to come over and practice his magic routine for Rebecca’s surprise birthday celebration.
Laying a hand on the wall, beneath their pictures from Spain, Alice braced herself for the repercussions of the truth. “I am free. I can come by, say 11?”
“That’ll be right after Richard leaves for one of his…” Rebecca grew quiet and then gave the thought an extra hum. She grinned in Cheshire cat proportions. “That’ll be perfect.”
Rebecca’s smile made her squirm, and Alice felt like a pawn in someone else’s game, one she had no choice but to play. “I guess I’ll see you then.”
“Excellent, lunch will be on me.”
Rebecca nodded in farewell to Jake, and then departed for her waiting sedan. When the door closed, Alice pressed her forehead against the panel and latched the bolt, ensuring it stayed shut.
“I can’t believe she roped me into that.”
Jake massaged her shoulders. “It’ll be fine.”
“She’s going to keep suspecting your dad.”
“Then help her find something, I don’t know, eye catching. It’ll take her mind off of this nonsense and make her feel good.”
Alice spun and cocked an eyebrow. “You want me to help your mother find something sexy?”
“And if you see something for yourself.” Jake’s smile spread.
“Right, ‘cause after a day shopping with your mother I’ll really be in the mood.”
“Stranger things have happened.”
Rolling her eyes, Alice stormed for the kitchen, where two half-drunk mugs, evidence of a conversation no doubt to be revived between clothing racks and changing rooms, waited.