members of the co-op entered. First through the door was Irene Nelson. Mousy. There was just no other word for Irene. Thin hair, colorless eyes, nondescript features, wearing beige on beige on beige. I had yet to hear her say more than a dozen words in a row, though I saw her nearly every time I came to the co-op. Her sculptures were what I thought of as 'menopause art'-lots of chunky naked women shown in varying positions of prayer and/or power. We are women, hear us sing.

Dr. Jake Beagle loomed behind her. Tall, broad, and coarsefeatured, he looked more like a lumberjack of old than an MD who specialized in family medicine, but I suspected Jake's real passion lay in the nature photography he considered a hobby. He was certainly talented. But art didn't often pay the bills, and though I didn't really know her, his beautiful second wife, Felicia, looked expensive.

Trailing behind Jake was Ariel Skylark: blonde, small-boned, tan and supple as only a twenty-three-year-old can be. She had big brown eyes, pillowy lips, and a bizarre winsomeness that men seemed to find irresistible. Her oversized canvases, all of which sported untidy splotches of black and white and red paint, took up most of one wall of the co-op.

The only missing member of the core group was Chris. Barr and I had managed to get her home the evening before, and Jake had come over, as both friend and doctor. He said he'd prescribe something to help her sleep, but she'd refused to call anyone to stay with her.

The screen creaked open again, and Irene's twenty-something son, Zak, entered last. His Doc Martens thudding on the wooden floor, he was all elbows and knees ranging under long, stringy dark hair and an intriguing arrangement of hoops pierced his lips and nostrils. He managed to look bored and uncomfortable at the same time.

As everyone gathered in front of the counter, Zak and Jake both seemed hyperaware of their spatial relationship to Ariel, situating themselves near her, but not touching. Irene watched her son's antics with a look of unadulterated disgust. I was surprised that he didn't seem to notice. Ariel did though, and smiled broadly at Irene, who turned quickly away.

'I just checked in on Chris,' Jake said.

'How is she?' I asked.

'Holding up. It's hard.'

'She knows we're all here for her,' Irene said.

Ariel waved her hand in the air. 'Oh, she'll be fine. My parents died when I was sixteen, and I'm okay.'

We all stared at her.

'What? I'm just saying, people get over stuff, you know? It doesn't help anyone to make it into a big deal.'

'Time is indeed a great healer,' Ruth said, ever the diplomat.

Wow. I mean, some people called me insensitive and tactless, but those people had apparently never met Miss Ariel Skylark.

'Sophie Mae, watch your tension,' Ruth said, and I turned my attention back to my yarn.



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.'

'Mm hmm.'

'You okay?'

'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.'

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