Home > Grave Surprise (Harper Connelly #2)(5)

Grave Surprise (Harper Connelly #2)(5)
Author: Charlaine Harris

Every now and then, I wonder: if the lightning had hit me a little harder, if I'd gotten a few more volts--would I have become able to see who caused the deaths of the people I find? Sometimes I think such a condition would be wonderful, a truly valuable gift. Sometimes it seems like my worst nightmare.

What if the lightning had entered through my foot, or my head, instead of jumping from the sink to the electric hair curler I held in my hands... what would have happened then? I probably wouldn't be around to know. My heart would have stopped for good, instead of for a few seconds. The CPR wouldn't have worked.

By now, Tolliver might be married to some nice girl who liked to be pregnant, the kind of girl who enjoyed going to home decoration parties.

Carrying this stream of supposition to an extreme length--if I'd died that day, maybe, somehow, Cameron would not have been on the road on that day at that hour, and she would not have been taken.

It's stupid and profitless, thinking like that, of course. So I don't indulge in it very often. Right at this moment, I needed to force myself to throw off this train of thought. Instead of daydreaming, I needed to concentrate on helping Tolliver compose the press release. What he'd said to Shellie Quail had been the gist of our public policy. We began embroidering on that. It was hard to imagine that anyone would believe us; after all, what were the odds that the same people who had failed to find the body in Nashville would find it in Memphis? But we had to try.

We'd just finished printing out our statement when I had to answer the phone. The manager said, "Ms. Connelly, there are some people down here who want to come up to talk to you and Mr. Lang. Are you receiving guests?"

"Who are they, please?"

"The Morgensterns. And another lady."

Diane and Joel. My heart sank, but this had to be done. "Yes, send them up, please."

Tolliver stepped into the living room to update Art while I printed out the statement. Art read it and made a few minor changes while we waited. In two or three minutes a hand rapped on our door.

I took a deep breath and opened it, and received yet another shock in a day that had already been full of them. Detective Lacey had told us Diane was expecting another baby, but I hadn't gotten a visual with that fact. Seeing her now, there was no mistaking it. Diane Morgenstern was really, really pregnant--seven months along, at the least.

She was still beautiful. Her bitter-chocolate hair was smooth and short, and her big dark eyes owed nothing to makeup. Diane had a small mouth and a small nose. She looked like a really pretty lemur of some kind. Just at the moment, though, her expression was simply blank with shock.

Her husband, Joel, was maybe five foot ten and stocky, powerful looking. He'd been a wrestler in college. I remembered the trophies in his study in their Nashville house. He had light red hair and bright blue eyes, a ruddy complexion, and a square face with a nose like a knife blade. How did all this add to up to a man women could not ignore? I don't have the faintest idea. Joel Morgenstern was the kind of man who focused on the person to whom he was speaking, which might have been the secret of the magnetism he exuded. To Joel's credit, he didn't seem to be aware of this; or maybe he took it so for granted that he didn't even think of the effect he had on women.

In Nashville, even under the circumstances I'd noticed how the female representatives of the media clustered around him. Maybe they'd been thinking the father is always a likely suspect, maybe they'd been trying to pick holes in his story, but they'd hovered around him like hummingbirds at a big red blossom. Not too surprisingly, the police had checked over and over to see if Joel was having an affair. They hadn't found a trace of such a thing; in fact, everyone who knew Joel commented on how devoted he was to Diane. For that matter, it was universal knowledge how caring he'd been during his first wife's terminal illness.

Maybe because lightning had fried my brain, maybe because my standards of judgment were completely different, Joel just didn't affect me like he did most women.

Felicia Hart, whose sister had been Joel's first wife, trailed in after Diane and Joel. I remembered Felicia from my first encounter with the family. She had been trying hard to be a good aunt to Victor, the son that first marriage had produced. She'd been aware that Victor was a suspect in Tabitha's disappearance, and she'd been at the house constantly, perhaps imagining that the loss of their daughter had meant that Diane and Joel would not be able to focus on Victor's needs and on his legal position.

"You found her," Joel said, taking my hand and pumping it ferociously. "God bless you, you found her. The medical examiner says there's a long way to go before an official identification, but the dental charts do match. We have to keep this to ourselves, but Dr. Frierson was kind enough to let us know in person. Thank God, we can have some peace."

This was such a different reaction from the one I'd expected that I was unable to respond. Luckily, Tolliver was more collected.

"Please, Diane, Joel, sit down," he said. Tolliver is very reverent toward pregnant women.

Diane had always seemed the frailer partner in the couple, even when she wasn't so obviously carrying a child.

"Let me hug you first," she said in her soft voice, and she wrapped her arms around me. I felt her distended belly pressing against my flat one, and I felt something wiggle while she was hugging me. After a second, I realized it was the baby, kicking against her stomach. Something deep inside me clenched in a mixture of horror and longing. I let Diane go and backed away, trying to smile at her.

Felicia Hart was no hugger, to my relief. She gave me a firm handshake, though she did put her arms around Tolliver. In fact, she muttered something in his ear. I blinked at that. "Glad to see you," she said a bit loudly, addressing an area somewhere between us. Felicia was a single woman. I placed her in her early thirties. She had jaw-length glossy brown hair that curved forward, and her expertly cut bangs stayed where they were supposed to be. As a professional woman on her own, she could spend all her money on herself, and her clothes and makeup showed it. If I remembered correctly, Felicia was a financial adviser employed by a national company. Though I hadn't talked to her at any length, I knew Felicia would have to be both intelligent and bold to hold down so responsible a job with such success.

When we were all seated, Joel and Diane on the love seat, Felicia perched on one arm of it by Diane, and Tolliver and I in wing chairs on the other side of the coffee table, with Art settled uncomfortably on a chair set a bit aside, I realized I had to somehow proceed with a conversation.

"I'm so sorry," I said finally, since that was the truth. "I'm sorry I found her so late, and I'm sorry the circumstances make life even more difficult for you." It made life a hell of a lot more difficult for us, too, but this didn't seem like the moment to dwell on it.

"You're right, this doesn't look good for us," Joel said. He took Diane's hand. "We were already under suspicion. Not Felicia, of course, but Diane and I and Victor, and now that..." He had trouble going on. "Now that her body has been found here--of all the places on earth--I think the police are going to decide it was one of us all along. I almost don't blame them. It just looks bad. If I didn't know how much we loved Tabitha..." He sighed heavily. "Maybe they think we conspired together to kill our daughter. They're paid to be suspicious. They can't know it's the last thing in the world we'd do. But as long as they're focusing on us, they won't be looking for the son of a bitch who actually took her."

"Exactly," Diane said, and her hand rubbed her stomach in a circular motion. I yanked my gaze away.

"How long have the police suspected you?" Tolliver asked. When we'd been there, Tabitha had been missing for several weeks, and the police hadn't been around so much any more. But we'd been impressed at how cordial the relationship that had formed between Detective Haines, who'd been the Last Man Standing on the case, and the Morgensterns had seemed. I should have realized that the other cops might have developed other suspicions. Haines had actually gotten to know the Morgensterns a lot better than her associates.

"From the get-go," Joel said, his voice resigned. "After nosing around Vic for a while, they got the idea that Diane was guilty."

I could almost see why they'd suspect Joel, even Victor. But Diane?

"How could that be?" I said incautiously, and she flushed. "I'm sorry," I said instantly. "I'm not trying to dredge up bad memories. I was sure, always, that you and Joel were telling the truth."

"Tabitha and I had a fight that morning," Diane said. Big fat tears ran down her cheeks. "I was mad because we'd just given her a cell phone for her birthday, and she'd already exceeded her minutes. I took her cell away from her, and then I told her to go outside to water the plants around the front door, just to get her out of the house because I was so angry. She was furious, too. Spring break, and no way to communicate with her three hundred best friends. She was just into that 'Mo-THER!' stage, the eye-rolling thing." Diane wiped her face with Joel's handkerchief. "I didn't think we'd get to that until she was fifteen, and here she was, eleven years old, giving me the whole routine." She smiled in a watery sort of way. "I hated to tell the police about this really trivial conversation, but one of my neighbors overheard us arguing when she came over to ask if we were through with our paper. So then I had to relate the whole thing to the police, and they turned hostile so quickly, as if I'd been withholding important evidence from them!"

Of course, to the police, this was important evidence. The fact that Diane couldn't see that only proved what I'd suspected about her when I'd met her: Diane Morgenstern was no rocket scientist. I was willing to bet that she never read crime fiction, either. If she had, she'd have known that any such revelation would make the police suspicious.

All the incident really proved was that Diane was out of touch with popular culture, in the reading-and-television-watching category.

"When did you move to Memphis?" Tolliver asked.

"About a year ago," Joel said. "We couldn't wait there, in that house, any longer." He sat up a little straighter, and as if he were reciting a credo, he said, "We had to accept the fact that our daughter was gone, and we had to leave that house ourselves. It wouldn't be fair to the new family we're starting, to have the baby there. I actually grew up in Memphis, so it felt like coming home, to me. My parents are here. And Felicia was here, along with her parents, my first in-laws. She and Victor are very close, and we figured the move would be a good thing for him. He's had a very tough time."

So everyone was happy here, except possibly Diane. It hadn't been coming home for her. It had been a move to a strange city that held many memories for her husband, memories of his first wife.

"We'd had a lot of therapy, the whole family," Diane said softly.

"We all went, Diane and I and Victor," Joel said. "Even Felicia drove over to Nashville from Memphis to go to some of the sessions."

I'd been to therapy, too.

The high school guidance counselor had been horrified when Cameron's disappearance had exposed the conditions under which we lived. "Why didn't you come to me?" she'd asked, more than once. And one time she'd shaken her head and said, "I should have noticed." I didn't blame her for not noticing; after all, we'd gone to great efforts to conceal our home life, so we could stay together. Maybe a part of me had hoped that our substandard parents would be taken away and we would be given good parents, instead; but that hadn't happened.

"When is the new baby due?" Art asked in the cheerful voice parents used when they weren't going to be having any more babies themselves.

"In five weeks," Diane said, an involuntary smile curving her lips even under the circumstances. "A healthy boy, the doctor says."

"That's great," Tolliver and I said, more or less in unison. I eyed Felicia Hart, who'd risen to stand behind the love seat. Felicia was looking less than ecstatic, perhaps even impatient. Maybe she thought the new baby would mean even more attention was diverted from Victor. It was also possible the childless Felicia was even more creeped out by pregnant women than I was.

"Today, we have to deal with Tabitha," Diane said, to give us an easement back into the grim reality of the body in the cemetery. "How... you know how she died?"

"She was suffocated," I said, not knowing any other way to say it. Severely deprived of air? Terminally oxygenless? I wasn't trying to tell myself jokes, but there are only so many ways to talk about the COD of any individual, even a child, especially to the mother.

The couple did their best to take the news on the chin, but Diane couldn't suppress a moan of horror. Felicia looked away, her face a hard mask concealing deep emotion.

There were many worse ways to die, but that would hardly be a consolation. Suffocation was bad enough. "It would be over in seconds," I said, as gently as I could. "She would be unconscious, after a tiny bit." This was an exaggeration, but I thought Diane's condition called for as much cushioning as possible. I was terrified that she would go into labor right in front of us.

Art had the strangest expression as he looked at me. It was like he'd never seen me before; like the reality of me, of what I did, had just hit him in the portly belly he carried in front of him like an announcement of his own importance.

"We should call Vic," Joel said, in his warm voice. "Excuse me for a moment." He brushed at his eyes and groped in his pocket for his cell phone. Vic, Joel's son by his first marriage, had been a sullen fifteen-year-old at the time of Tabitha's abduction. I'd glimpsed him trying hard to be tough and contained in the face of an overwhelming situation.

   
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