SCOTT POPPER LOOKED GOOD dead.
I mean, he looked good when he was alive, too, but the nice folks at Crane’s Funeral Home really did a fantastic job. Crashing his car into a telephone pole at high speed could hardly have been kind to his face, but two days later here he was, open casket and all, looking just as handsome as ever.
And only a bit less animated than usual.
Now, that was mean. I’d spent little time around Scott, and even that in fairly large groups. That wasn’t really enough to form a studied opinion regarding someone’s social skills. Maybe he wasn’t always as dull as he’d been in my presence. Maybe he was just shy. Even if they don’t always deserve it, I do try to give the dead the benefit of the doubt.
In the pew beside me, Barr’s attention flicked from face to face, ever watchful, more out of habit than for any other reason. Scott lay in peaceful repose at the front of the church. Low music seeped out of speakers hidden behind tapestries in the apse of St. Luke’s Catholic Church, the droning organ underscoring whispered voices and the rustle of clothing as people settled into their seats. Summer was only two days old, and the warm June air smelled of greenery and Murphy’s Oil Soap. I eyed the gleaming wood pews. It must take hours to wipe them all down.
I sighed inwardly. This probably wasn’t the best time to ask Barr what he’d been going to tell me before Scott’s accident. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, admiring how he looked in his dress uniform while trying not to look obvious. I loved how his chestnut-colored hair was streaked gray at the temples, how his slightly hooked nose looked in profile, how his dark brown eyes could be warm and inviting when he looked at me, but hard as obsidian when the occasion called for it.
He frequently darted looks at Scott in the glossy walnut casket, then jerked his gaze away as if it were painful to look upon the dead for long. His eyes rested on Scott’s wife, and the muscles of his jaw slackened; he’d been clenching his teeth. Raw pity flashed across his face for a moment, then was gone, replaced with his usual mask of easy-going stoicism.
I touched his arm. He squeezed my hand in return.
Chris was a decorative blacksmith. You probably don’t have to be a big-boned, muscular gal in order to form the elaborate metal pieces that she created, but it couldn’t hurt. Nearing six feet in height, with shoulders like a linebacker, her exposed arms rippled with muscles. She wore a simple black sheath to her husband’s funeral, and her straight, peanut-butter-blonde hair hung lank on either side of her wide cheekbones, framing an expressionless face that was notable more for its precise symmetry than for classic beauty. Her blue eyes stared forward, unseeing.
Remembering how I’d felt when I’d attended my own husband’s funeral almost six years previously, I could understand the confused numbness that must have swamped her. My heart ached with empathy. At least with Mike’s lymphoma, I’d had a little time-far too little, but still-to prepare for his death. But dying in a car accident is a sneak robbery, an unexpected blow to those left behind for which there is no preparation. Suddenly, the rest of Chris Popper’s life looked different than she ever could have imagined.
She was surrounded by Ruth Black, Irene and Zak Nelson and Jake Beagle. Jake’s wife, Felicia, perfectly coifed and dressed to the nines, stood a little ways away, talking with Ruth’s ninety-year-old Uncle Thaddeus.
But someone was missing. “That disrespectful little wench,” I whispered.
Barr glanced over at me. “Who?”
“Ariel. Ariel Skylark. From the co-op. Tiny, blonde, sticks blobs of paint on great big canvases, then calls it modern art? She’s not here.”
He shook his head. “Sorry. Have I met her?”
“I guess not.” I was pretty sure any man who met Ariel remembered the occasion.
Her absence was conspicuous, though. CRAG was closed for the funeral, so there was no need for anyone to mind the store. It was downright rude of her not to show up.
The door to the street slammed shut. Daylight winked out save the dim glimmer of the stained glass windows arching above. The last viewers turned away from the coffin and found seats on the aisle as the funeral director quietly lowered the coffin lid. The priest appeared, and the funeral began.
When we walked out of the church my dark linen suit smelled so smoky I felt like I’d been in a casino bar. Father Donegan had not stinted with the incense, and if the idea was for the rising tendrils to raise Scott’s soul up to heaven, he was already well ensconced. Barr, a closet Catholic, had explained some of the service to me. I had to admit, I really liked the ritual aspect of it. My parents being dyed-in-the-wool, intellectual agnostics, I hadn’t grown up with any formal religious training. I could see how it might be nice in situations like these.
I sniffed my sleeve and wrinkled my nose. “What’s in that stuff, anyway?”
“I never thought to wonder. Frankincense and myrrh?” Barr guessed.
“I think that might just be for Christmastime. Gifts of the three wise men, and all that.”
“What? Oh. Sure. Yeah. I’m fine.” He watched a squirrel in a yard across the street snake onto a tree branch and then down the chain to raid a rustic wooden birdfeeder.
I cocked an eyebrow at him. Of course he was upset about his friend’s sudden death. But there was something more. I waited.
He took a deep breath, then turned his attention to me. Brown eyes, intelligent and discerning, met mine. “If I say this, promise not to make it into something.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Was he finally going to tell me why “we have to talk”?
“Just promise,” he said.
I took a deep breath. “Okay.”
“I was just thinking how odd it was for Scott to die in a car crash.”
Oh. Not about me. Go figure.
“Because he was a cop?” I asked.
“Well, that, for one. He had a lot of formal training for sure. But he was also an amateur racer. Stock cars.”
“Really? I had no idea.”
“Almost every Sunday he was out at the fairgrounds speedway, racing with his buddies.”
“So he knew a ton about cars. And driving.”
“Yes. Both.” “
“Do you think the crash was something besides an accident?” I asked.
His head swung back and forth. “No, no. Don’t do that. You said you wouldn’t make it into anything if I told you what I was thinking.”
I shrugged. “Okay. You’re the detective, and he was your friend.”
He reached over and tousled my hair. I ducked away from his hand, nearly twisting my ankle in my brand-new three-inch heels, and he grinned. I still wasn’t quite used to my short bob, after having hair down to my waist for most of my adult life.
I need to get going,” he said.
“You’re not going to the reception?”
Crap. In the last two days I’d asked him twice what he’d wanted to talk to me about, but he’d sidestepped me each time, telling me it could wait. Maybe it could, but I couldn’t.
“Robin’s holding down the fort back at the cop shop with a lone cadet,” he said. “She offered, since she hasn’t been in the department all that long, and she knew everyone would want to go to Scott’s funeral. But she shouldn’t have to handle everything herself for too long.”
Detective Robin Lane: Barr’s new partner. She was also, I might add, drop-dead gorgeous, a fact he pretended not to notice. It was even more irritating because she didn’t seem to realize it, either.
“I want to make an appearance at the reception and have a quick word with Chris,” I said. “And Meghan’s booked with massages all afternoon, so I need to pass on her sympathies as well.” Meghan Bly was my housemate and my best friend.
We said goodbye, and Barr walked away down the sidewalk. I watched him go, noting the lanky, confident stride. I was pretty sure he was The One, but even though he kept pushing me to move in with him, I’d resisted so far. Lately, I’d been thinking about it more seriously, about actually sharing his address on the edge of town.
The thought sent a bolt of perfectly balanced thrill and terror through my solar plexus.