“She just wants to get to know you all better,” our father said. “Now that Julia is your stepmum, I think you three should make an effort.”
“Make an effort seems to be a catchphrase of yours,” Caroline spat back at her father, mimicking his voice. “Isn’t that what you told Mum all the time? Lorraine, I think you should make an effort and keep this house clean; make an effort and lose two stone; make an effort and wear something more becoming; make an effort and paint your face—she made every effort you asked of her, and did it help her? Making an effort doesn’t feel like it’s worth making a bloody effort!” Flustered, Caroline flounced out of the living room. God, her father and his nerve!
“It’s just lunch, Caroline.” Our father raised his voice after her. We heard Caroline loudly making tea in the kitchen, clattering of a kettle, slamming cabinets.
We sat in unhappy silence. The prospect of each of us meeting alone with our father’s new bride did not inspire unity. It didn’t help that Mum’s side of the bed was barely cold.
“Your sisters seem . . . difficult,” Julia observed with a sniff.
“Well, you know how girls can be,” was all Josh could offer in reply. At nineteen, he was painfully aware that the woman before him—his new stepmother—was gorgeous. A real knockout, his friends would’ve said. He tried to resist staring at her abundant cleavage on display, thanks to Julia’s low-cut top, adding, “She’ll warm to you soon. You’ll see.”
Julia gave an exaggerated full-throated sigh, knowing full well the effect her breasts were having on the young man. “Yes, dear, I’m sure she will. That’s why I wanted to meet with you first. You seem much more approachable.” As she spoke, Julia leaned forward and rested her hand gently on his. Josh gave a little start, cheeks blazing. “You take after your mother, Joshua. I can tell. A gentle soul.”
“Oh, yes dear. Your father has told me all about her. Terrible, just terrible what happened.”
“I— I, uh, we don’t talk about that . . .”
“No, of course not.” This Julia knew too well. Her new husband—Henry—had refused to say a single word on the topic of his previous wife. In fact, there was a great deal the man wasn’t sharing with her. Julia was sure of it.
If she was going to do what she planned, she needed as much information as she could get. And the children seemed the best avenue of approach, starting with the bundle of raging male hormones before her. There was something off about Josh, and that something gave her a feeling that he was the center of the whole mystery. “Not with strangers, Joshua. But I’m family now. You can tell me anything, dear. Anything at all.”
“Your brother is, I gather, the troublemaker of the family?” Julia stirred three spoonfuls of sugar into her coffee.
Meg watched, her nose wrinkling. Her phone dinged in her pocket; she pulled it out and texted on it for a minute. She laid it on the table and said, “Not really.”
Meg was twenty-five and a year out of college, working part-time at a Starbucks and part time at the ACLU. She had a nose ring and looked perpetually bored. When the waitress came by, she ordered black coffee, perhaps to contrast the sickly-pale of Julia’s sugary drink.
“Do you know,” Julia began, looking honestly in Meg’s eyes, in a woman-to-woman manner. “You take after your mother, dearest.”
“No, I don’t,” Meg said. “I take after Mum’s last fling before she married Dad.”
Julia laughed and ran her lacquered fingernail across the rim of her coffee cup. “I don’t know anything about her, Meggie, and I’m ever so curious. You are all such darling children, smart and beautiful. I would have died to meet her.”
Meg shook her head. “She wasn’t great.”
Julia waited, but Meg just checked her phone again and didn’t elaborate. Julia decided to play her trump card.
“I heard a little,” she said, “from Josh mostly—” That wasn’t true, she’d found a box of crime scene info in the attic, but Meg didn’t need to know that. “About how your mother died.” She lowered her voice. “Wasn’t there indication of murder? And—” and she said, like a gambler laying down his royal flush with a bit of a smile, “wasn’t her body found on top of a box full of old candles? How strange!”
Meg started at the word candles and her face drained of color.
Julia sat back, forcing back a smile. She’d let her words do the work.
“I don’t want to be here. With you,” Caroline said, gritting her teeth and swallowing hard. She wouldn’t cry in front of this woman.
“I understand this is hard for you, Carol honey,” Julia cooed.
“You. Understand. Nothing,” Caroline whispered, her voice breaking on the last word. Tears rolled down her flushed cheeks.
“Then help me understand. As the middle child, I’m sure you saw everything that went on in your parent’s home,” Julia teased, knowing full well that middle children were usually the most idealistic. The ones who would try to hold a family together by sheer will. “Josh and Meg told me about the candles,” she lied.
Caroline flinched like she’d been slapped.
“It wasn’t Mum’s fault.” Caroline broke, openly weeping. “She had no one else to talk to. Dad hated her. She was desperate. She would have done anything for our family. She needed to talk to someone and that woman— she said she could help.”
“Which woman, Caroline?” Julia asked, in a far more demanding tone than she’d intended.
“Mum’s palmist. She turned to chiromancy just before the end. That woman told her about the candles, how you could— you could— ”
She couldn’t finish.
Caroline swallowed a mouthful of water and tried again. “Especially when she found out about Dad’s accounts— she didn’t know about the legal problems with his partners . . .”
“What legal problems?” Julia stopped mid-forkful, slowly returning the chicken caesar salad to its plate.
Caroline stared at Julia, both her tears and judgment clearing. “You don’t know?” she said, quickly wiping her mouth. Caroline stood up and pointed at her, accusingly, relieved to have avoided a trap. “You don’t know,” she repeated more loudly. It was a statement of fact.
He couldn’t stop staring. Finally he shook himself, stood, and said, “I need to go. Sorry.”
“Hey, Josh,” Julia called after him. “Wait, just one more question!” She hooked her purse over her shoulder and followed him out to the parking lot. “I’ve heard about your mother and the candles. Can you tell me something about that? Any teeny weeny thing?”
His jaw dropped, and without thinking he gasped, “Where did you hear that?”
She blinked, wide-eyed. “From your dad.”
That wasn’t true, but nothing like a little white lie to turn the family against each other—useful in helping secrets spill. Plus it was literally in a box in the attic, information anyone could read, even though it took some digging as no newspaper had reported a suspicious death.
Josh looked torn. He bit his lip and shifted his weight and finally blurted: “Whatever he said, it’s not true. I swear to God. You can’t even kill someone that way.”
He slammed the car door and peeled out.
“Okay,” Julia said, watching him. “On to phase two.”
Julia’s vulpine smile sat on her face and Meg felt the familiar anger building in her sternum. Julia clearly thought she was hiding the smirk but the revolting woman was so tactless that it had crept out anyway. Meg breathed in through her nose and gently out through her mouth. Composure. She needed composure. She’d let Julia get to her, hadn’t been expecting the candles remark. What had her little brother given away?
Not just given away, what had he done?
“Who cares how Mum died?” she said eventually, swallowing back the bile and relishing Julia’s blink of surprise. “I think we should talk about other things. Dad said that you wanted to get to know us better, but we know basically nothing about you.” Meg’s nose ring caught the light as she slumped back in her chair. Mum was the only one who ever truly understood her; maybe that’s why they fought so much. Nobody ever expected Meg— the tattooed free spirit— to be sharp or insightful, so she’d never tried to be. But she was good at being blunt and getting to the point. So had Mum. “You’re, what, forty-five?”
Julia choked on a mouthful of syrupy coffee. “Thirty-nine,” she corrected, eyes narrowing. “I’m an open book though, darling. All you have to do is ask.”
Meg pulled on her earlobe, boredom painted all over her face. “Yeah, so I guess the first question is, why Dad?”
Julia smiled and glanced at her wedding ring. It was, like most things Dad bought, gaudy and oversized. “Oh well, you know he has the most wonderful sense of humor—” she began, and Meg waved her hand to dismiss the prepared speech.
“Yeah, there are plenty of funny men around, though. We mostly want to know,” she said, watching Julia’s face carefully, “is whether you were screwing him before Mum died or if you waited till the dirt hit the lid.”
Julia’s charming veneer wavered and Meg threw more gas on the fire. “Also, I probably should ask if you’ve seen his bank accounts recently. You’ve got enough to support him, right?”
This time it was Meg’s turn to watch the color drain away.
“Hi, hon,” Henry said as Julia entered the living room. “How were the kids?”
“You make it sound like they’re a bunch of children,” she threw her purse down. Flustered.
“They sure can act like children,” he said bitterly. Julia perked up when she heard this. He was clearly displeased about something—and that usually meant, in this family, the dishing of some dirt.
“What do you mean?” she said, her voice softening. She sat next to him on the couch and leaned closer.
He sighed. Suddenly, she noticed, he looked very old and tired. There were bags under his eyes and white in his unshaved, scraggly beard. “It’s Josh . . .” he said finally. His voice was lower and more gravelly than normal, but it wasn’t sexy. It was tired, and it made her wince. “Josh has . . . he’s always been a troublemaker.”
Julia swallowed a laugh. So she’d been right, after all, about Josh, even though she hadn’t known it.
He patted her knee and kept talking. “Sometimes, well, let’s say Josh is very loyal to me, sometimes too loyal. I’ll have to talk to that boy.” Henry sighed. “As I’ve told you, hon, I was doing a couple of unethical things at Grunnings, and Lorraine found out. They weren’t illegal, of course. Not technically.” He laughed a little nervously, while she nodded encouragement. “But Lorraine thought so. I’d asked for a divorce a few days before and . . . ” He sighed again. “Well, she was looking for anything on me. I dunno why, if she thought maybe I’d love her more or want to stay if she got something . . .”
Julia stood and began to walk around the room, her hands behind her back. Her cheeks grew hot, trying to keep her words in, but she shut her mouth tight.
“And then we found her dead,” he finished heavily. There was a long silence. Then he said: “I thought it was a suicide at first. She was the kind who hated divorce; when we dated she said she believed in the ‘til death do us part’ part. I did too, then. Not anymore.”
He rubbed his face. “I’m worried, hon. I’m worried about Josh. I—”
When he didn’t finish, Julia stepped in, her voice compressed. “You think Josh killed her, Hemmy.” She called him by his nickname.
Henry swallowed. “Those candles—she died because she or someone else held her face in there, in that box. Suffocation or something. Someone must have made—must have made an effort to do such a thing.”
That explains that, she thought. And the final piece has fallen into place.
Julia walked over, her face cooler now, her voice under control. When she spoke, her voice was higher than he’d heard it, almost freer. She kissed him on the forehead. “Thanks, Henry,” she said coolly. “That’s all I wanted to know.”