“Speak now, or forever hold your peace.”
I immediately shifted for a look-around. Sarah’s fingers, resting softly on my right paw, constricted into a vice I might not have anticipated from one who forced me to scientifically document her lunchtime fats and calories.
Just as Sarah’s tender(er) mode had activated the second the organ sounded the bride’s approach, my Pavlovian adolescence kicks in when I hear those words followed by even the slightest rustling or throat-clearing. In film – or at least the genre of film Sarah prefers come Saturday night – something cool usually happens at that point, even if it’s just me snorting at the cliché. I’ve always thought that would be sorta awesome in the real, where nobody’s spent the previous 75 minutes setting up the groom as a schmuck more concerned with his law firm than his fiancée or the bride as a haughty Type A/socialite more concerned with her law firm or her father’s law firm than her fiancée. I’m sure marital objections are not binding, or at the very least can easily be challenged in liturgical court. I mean, I’m not a monster.
It had, in fact, been some extremely old dude on Gina’s side of the aisle (unless WE were on Gina’s side of the aisle). His walker, pimped out with day-glo tennis balls a la Harvey Weinstein, was angled beside his pew. It had in fact, nearly disabled the meandering flower girl. Some people. Endangering kindergartners, dashing sophomoric hopes…
Sarah released her grip as Jeff and Gina sealed the deal. The pastor beamed.
“Friends, may I introduce for the first time anywhere, Jeffrey and Gina Planck-Tapper,” she proclaimed. Marriage is compromise, even if it means forcing everybody you know to change their Contacts or applauding the blessed hyphenation with one nerve-deadened hand.
At least it was almost dinnertime. I maddeningly earwigged “I Swear” as we awaited the yappy usher. Whatever happened to the Wedding March or the violin-y thing from Ordinary People, or even a bagpipe or some mariachi?
They’d certainly pumped up the pomp for the respective sire and sire-ess of a prominent Millington laser optometrist and Sarah’s gynecologist, whom I would have thought had seen more than enough of her without effing up our Saturday. Every photographic permutation possible was performed on the Plancks and Tappers before the band played the family onto the raised platform at the head of the Hillmont Suites East Conference Center Ballroom.
Fortunately, we were distracted from ongoing famine by a Best Of loop of Jeff and Gina’s (family-friendly) premarital moments. They were an energetic, athletic, outdoorsy duo, so I’d have to keep any (God forbid) small talk to the reception décor, which I had to admit, was very swanky in a budget Crown sort of way. Some genius – probably the damned gynecologist – had decided to frontload the toasts before the underdressed microgreens were distributed. After nearly a half-hour of grazing and gratuitous chatter, the Salmon Wellington was delivered, and I dived into the pastry like an imminently doomed archaeology student into a minor pharaoh with lingering anger management issues. My metaphors begin to wear thin when I’m hangry.
As the hangriness subsided, I signaled Sarah, who was knee-deep with her neighbor rating the father-of-the-bride’s performance and customer manner. I charade-ed my intentions and directions, she nodded confused and I thought impatiently, and I strolled briskly for the Men’s.
Which in a national hotel chain is a delightfully hidden secret. After contemplating whether to use the business center for my business, I corralled a spiffily middle-aged woman in a red blazer and brown slacks that seemed to conform to my recollection of the Hillmont’s signature logo palette. Robbi the wedding planner directed me with frosty cheer to the lobby johns. The orange-blazered president of the Millennium Three Realty Midwest Region tersely jabbed a finger toward the lobby before ducking back into his awards banquet, and a German guest in a natty green vest graciously corrected my faux pas before turning me bodily toward the men’s room sign and heading out for a University reception. I needed another fish and some Hillmont color swatches if I was to survive the evening.
Dusk was settling as I emerged from my lavatory, and the front desk pulsated with reflected red and blue. I joined an actual Hillmont employee by the front glass. Three Millington PD units were parked askew in the side lot of the B.Y.E. Mondays franchise across the hotel drive. Sarah’d made a wedding BFF – the best kind, from a spousal standpoint -- so I wandered through the sliding doors to the world beyond connubial bliss.
Curtis was conferring with a uniform when he spotted me. He conferred for roughly five minutes more, leaned inside a black Subaru at the back of the lot and the center of the hubbub, found another officer to engage for another five minutes, looked for a third, and then trudged over.
“What?” my buddy grunted.
“Just curious,” I said. “I need a vacation from a wedding.”
“Yup. Soooo, what’s up here?”
Det. Mead shrugged. “Guy got stabbed to death in his car, back there.”
“By the dumpster. Think he was meeting somebody, maybe a drug deal gone bad?”
Curtis shook his head. “Your folks must have planted you in front of the tube straight out of the womb. Look, so your not-so-youthful curiosity might be assuaged, guy manages the smoothie place out on Coolidge, a Lane Moffat. Took a blade right between the ribs, maybe a random attack or maybe, if it might titillate you, an attempted carjacking.”
“Wait. Moffat? Like the Moffat that got killed earlier this week?”
“Exactly like that,” Curtis sighed, heavily. “Sister, it would seem. One who found her.”
“Bludgeoned at the breakfast table, right?”
“Having her morning coffee. The crime scene was a mess – blood, coffee, creamer, little brain matter. Now, hold on. How do you know? The specifics haven’t gotten out yet.”
I jerked my head toward the hotel. “One of my tablemates told us all about it. I’m at the wedding Shari tried to destroy.”
“We got to talking about the kill switch clause,” I explained as we headed down the meeting room corridor. I could hear voices, laughter, applause – the wedding toasts, no doubt.
Curtis stopped. “The what clause?”
“You know, the ‘Speak now or forever blah blah blah’ thing. One of the women at the table said she was surprised the minister left it in – apparently there’ve been enough conscientious objectors over the years it’s been pretty much dropped. You know, it started in medieval times, as a warning for guests to immediately share any unknown or damaging information about the bride or groom or shut their trap for eternity. Course, back then, it was mainly if somebody knew one of the couple was already married, underage, unbaptized, or coerced into the marriage, or if Biff and Betty were too closely related.”
“Why I even pay for second tier cable...”
“Then some cousin of the bride pipes up that Shari Moffat was planning on crashing the wedding. Little Ms. Moffat apparently had dated Jeff years ago, and came back into the picture after the original wedding was canceled for COVID in 2020 and Gina got cold feet. Jeff dumped her after Gina begged him to come back, but Shari kept emailing and texting and showing up at the smoothie joint and his apartment, causing the kids to postpone the wedding a second time. Jeff got a restraining order after his crazy ex threw a cinder block through the Sultan of Smooth’s front window, then things were quiet for a while, so Gina and Jeff finally set a date. But last week, after the wedding announcement hit the paper, Shari started telling coworkers she was going to ‘shut it all down,’ then started texting Jeff again. Then, she got murdered. Now the brother’s dead? I take it you’ve talked to both families?”
Curtis stopped again, slapped his forehead dramatically. “Oh, dear…”
“Oh, (bleep) off,” I suggested as the ballroom doors beckoned.
“Your wife is wonderful, a perfect patient!” Dr. Tapper exuded over the Bruno Mars/line dance break. It was absolutely what you wanted to hear from your wife’s reproductive specialist. “Always so friendly, so polite! Never a complaint. You wouldn’t BELIEVE the whining I get.”
Oh, I would. “Boy,” I began, “One of Gina’s cousins said there were a few glitches bringing this off today.” Curtis was standing off with a glass of the kids’ and designated cops’ frothy punch, but I hoped he was attentive for pointers.
The father of the groom winced. “Cousin Dana, right. One of the worst complainers of all, and seems to expect some kind of family discount.” Pretty sure what I felt was not a ballroom draft. “Yeah, we were all pretty scared what that psycho would do today, after all the shit she put Jeff through. She actually called my wife, Kim, and begged her to ‘see reason.’ I mean, of course, it’s terrible what happened, but maybe the poor girl’s at peace now.”
“Amen.” I caught the sound of an aborted spit-take a few yards away.
“I could’ve wrung her neck,” Tessa Planck murmured. The bride’s mom was born without a library voice, but Papa Planck was either negotiating with the head caterer or preparing to Rick Flair her ass. “The balls to ask me to ‘call off’ my daughter. Jeff’s a wonderful boy, don’t get me wrong, but he’s lucky to HAVE Gina after all the crap that whacko caused. No offense to the dead.”
“Oh, no. God rest her.”
“Amen,” Planck’s expression shifted to panicked delight. “Oh, think they’re getting ready!! Lovely to meet you, Mr. Dodge! And yes, please — give us a call maybe Tuesday. You’ll be surprised how many pounds you’ll shed without those goggles.” And SHE was the marketing face of Eyes Up Front…
“I’d now like Gina and Jeff to join together at the bridal table to perform their first official duty as husband and wife…” I recognized the DJ from the WMRP morning drive billboard near the Beltway Panda Express. He was wearing his trademark Harry Caray specs and had no point of entry for Dr. Tapper’s magic hammer, so somebody apparently laid out some healthy Central Illinois-grade bucks for this shindig.
Jeff plucked the long, flat, presumably gold-plated cake knife from the mauve cloth, and Gina placed her now-ringed hand atop his. He went for the second of four tiers, and the wedding planner yelped like a gutted turkey before the bride affectionately but assertively guided the dope to a point between two burgundy roses on the broad bottom tier.
At daughter Melanie’s wedding, some helpful soul gave me a play-by-play on the science of pastry physics and point of attack. “You gotta hit that sweet spot,” she’d advised before I feigned IBS. Jeff and Gina lined up the shot. I glanced once again around the assembled wedding party, and dual images formed in my brain.
“Color My World
Of loving you…”
“DON’T TOUCH THAT CAKE!” I shouted.
There was a moment, forever frozen in my psyche, when I was surrounded by more wrath than one man should have to bear without cold-marketing auto warranty protection. Which after once attempting karaoke in front of a casino crowd wouldn’t have fazed me except for the couple jointly wielding a knife. And the new Mrs. Planck-Tapper looked to have some mad upper body strength.
“Put the knife down,” I directed, gently. “Please.”
Jeff released the handle instantly (he would make an excellent husband), and the former Gina Planck-Only’s fingers tightened about the hilt. I couldn’t remember if Sarah had come strapped, but I couldn’t will myself to peek.
“What the FUCK?” Gina finally inquired.
“I get the impulse, believe me, but what he said.” I glanced back with semi-gratitude to the approaching Det. Mead. Curtis breezed past me and eased the knife from the bride’s knotted fingers with a coral reception napkin. “You pretty sure about this, Vince Vaughn?”
I nodded. “I’m sure it’s already been cleaned, but there’d be no way to know if there might be some trace unless it was handled by God knows how many people and covered in buttercream frosting and, my guess, almond cake, yom.”
A few celebrants turned a paler shade of ochre, which hopefully dissipated the hate. There were a few hundred of them vs. me and Curtis and debatably Sarah. I was about to make things worse.
“Wedding AV dude!” I called to an uncomfortably tuxed guy working a board by the band. “Can you put up a .jpg?”
He looked momentarily insulted, but gave me the thumbs-up.
“Hey, Curtis?” I asked sweetly. I made my request.
“THAT was supposed to do it?” The detective sighed. “Shit. AV dude, what’s your e-mail?”
“It’s Todd,” the tech stated with a great attempt at dignity before reciting an AOL addy. Maybe “tech” was overstating it.
“What you are about to see contains images of graphic violence,” I warned the crowd. “Maybe somebody could take the kids outside?
“Great. Now, there’s a dead guy in the parking lot across the street -- the brother of Shari Moffat, who a lot of you know. In case you’ve been in a cave or were talked into being a plus-one, Shari had sworn to stop this wedding by any means possible, publicly and adamantly. Then, a few days back, she was murdered, bludgeoned, over her morning coffee. Todd?”
Todd held up a finger.
“OK. So Shari’s brother, Lane, shows up today to confront her killer. I don’t know how he knew — my guess is the killer had been pleading with Shari to stay away, at an escalating rate of desperation. The killer agrees to a meeting, but also grabs some insurance on the way out, in case Lane has revenge in mind.”
“Good to go!” Todd hollered. “Holy shit! You sure you want me to show this?”
“Not at all,” Curtis said. “But let’s do this. Like Mr. Dodge said, this is heavy stuff, folks. This is a photo taken at the scene of Ms. Moffat’s murder three days ago. Despite Mr. Dodge’s zeal, I cropped the victim’s injuries out of the shot.”
“That’s fine.” I am nothing if not sensitive. A badly composed photo of Jeff and Gina whitewater rafting vanished from the wall behind the bride and groom, replaced by an overlit, badly composed shot of a spartan but tidy apartment kitchen. Begging the question, must forensics preclude style? All that could be seen of Shari now was her outstretched right arm and the confluence of doctored coffee, creamer, and blood soaking into a Walmart table runner.
I heard more than a few gasps, peppered with obscenities that to be fair, were reasonably dead-on, but I soldiered on nonetheless.
“Those who CAN look, I want you to study this image for a few seconds. You ever earwig a particular tune — hear a song at the store or in the car, or your partner keeps singing it incessantly though she knows country is kinda like a nail in your brain? Or he, or he. Or they. And you just can’t get it out of your skull?
“Now, have you ever EYEwigged an image or a memory? Something strikes you emotionally or physically, and you can’t get it out of your mind? Or, if you are particularly inclined toward aesthetics and design, toward visual drama or a striking color palette?
“Ok, now — if you’ve absorbed the image on the screen, take a look around the room. What hits you? And keep in mind, who had constant access to the murder weapon all day?”
She had her scarlet blazer half-off before Todd, God love his tetchy soul, smacked her with a white-hot spot. Robbi grimaced innocently at the guests, then bolted for the fire exit before wrecking herself and her mocha slacks on a floral pedestal she herself no doubt had installed. She had an eye, I’ll say that.
“The wedding trade is tougher than I would have imagined,” I mulled, as much to fill the arctic gap no car heater could dispel. “Especially after COVID. You imagine what a financial beating Robbi took over the last two years? WPP, I suppose. Wedding Planner Problems.” I paused, but it failed to land.
“This high-class, hoity wedding was probably her comeback gig, maybe her hope of survival. And Shari was determined to ruin it before the salmon en croute was served. I’m guessing Robbi went over to try reasoning with her one last time, and things got hairy. And bloody.
“And Robbi’d likely have gotten away with it, if her innate design sense hadn’t gotten in the way. As J. Edgar Hoover used to say, the murderer’s worst enemy. Hemoglobin red, Carnation French Vanilla cream, and cafe au lait, though, does kinda pop as a fashion statement.” I turned into the neighborhood. “Ah, sorry?”
Sarah’s hand found mine on the wheel. I braced, but she squeezed my fingers gently. “I’m not mad any more. Maybe just as well – Gail Yothers was going to use Robbi for her girl’s wedding, and I’ve told you how much her husband drinks at those things. But I will say this — I’m never taking you to another wedding.”
After 29 years, I was just smart enough to keep it stoic.
“Good boy,” she murmured, before starting to softly hum “I Swear.”