It’s A Ghost’s Life – Erin McCarthy

“BAILEY BURKE, do you solemnly swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” I cleared my throat. “I do.” “Does this dress make me look fat?” my best friend, Alyssa Dembowski, asked me, emerging from her dressing room at Saks. Dicey question to pose to a man, but to ask me, her bestie since high school, it was no big deal. We knew how to be honest but delicate with each other. It is truly the girl code to not let your friend go out looking less than her best, but in this case, Alyssa was worrying for no reason. She looked fabulous in the red polka dots with her dark hair. “No, you do not look fat. You look amazing and I’m completely jealous of your cleavage.” Alyssa eyed herself in the mirror and wrinkled her nose. “Vera makes me feel insecure.” I had to laugh, glancing over at Vera, who was draping herself in a fur coat that was approximately seven sizes too big for her. My grandma Burke was searching for the rack of cardigans that all looked exactly like the one million cardigans she already owned. “Vera is ninety-five years old, Alyssa. Literally ninety-five.

She had her birthday last October.” “Yeah, but look at her. She’s stylish as hell and back in the day they called her ‘Va Va Voom Vera.’ She still somehow oozes sexual confidence. I feel frumpy next to her.” “That’s insane. You are not frumpy.” “I’m old, but not deaf,” Vera said, turning toward us and pushing up her enormous round black glasses. “I can hear both of you. Alyssa, a woman needs two things in life— confidence and a red lipstick.

You’ve got the lips, now put your chin up and sell it.” That was something I personally sucked at. I go for cute, not an attempt to “sell it.” I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a slight woman with wild red hair and fair skin, being swallowed by a puffy navy blue coat with a faux fur trim. It looked cheap next to Vera’s palazzo pants, designer boots, fur, and expensive glasses and haircut. Just because it was January in Cleveland didn’t mean I needed to give into schlumpy. I usually lived by that creed as well as Vera did but it had been a particularly harsh January and I was having post-Christmas blues. All of which meant I just needed to do as Vera instructed Alyssa and put my chin up. “Sell it. Got it,” Alyssa said.

Vera came toward us and handed the fur to Alyssa. “Try this.” To me, she said, “Found any dead bodies lately?” “Not since before Christmas,” I assured her. Vera looked at Grandma Burke. “She looks so innocent.” “Margaret’s always been competitive. It used to be medals at Irish dance competitions. Now it’s dead people.” Um, what? “Grandma, I am not looking for dead people in a quest to be interesting.” I wasn’t even going to ask her not to use my middle name Margaret.

She’d been doing it since I was born and my mother had the audacity to give me a non-Christian first name. Grandma Burke is Irish, she’s stubborn, and if anyone is competitive, it’s her. She wanted to out-do Vera, who generally speaking had had a much cooler life than my grandmother. Apparently, the plan was to do it vicariously through me and my unusual brushes with death of late. Vera and Grandma Burke were an unlikely pair. Vera had grown up in Cleveland in a wealthy Jewish family before heading to Hollywood in her twenties and spending two decades modeling, acting in bit roles, and dating leading men. Eventually she’d come back and settled down, but still had her fair share of scandals and men well into her eighties. My grandmother had been married from twenty until my grandfather passed away, and prided herself on her soda bread and her ability to recite the rosary for hours on end. They had met at the cardiologist’s office at the Cleveland Clinic five years ago and for whatever reason, adored each other instantly. Now that I think about it, not much different from Alyssa and me.

We have completely opposite personalities. Neither Grandma nor Vera drive anymore, and everyone on the road is thankful for that. But for a girls’ day out of drinkie, shoppie, lunchie, as Alyssa called it, they needed me to drive. I didn’t trust them to use Lyft or Uber. Vera would just walk up to a random car and demand they drive her somewhere without ever even downloading the app. “So how do you explain you racking up dead bodies like pool balls?” Vera asked. She pulled the corner of the fur down off of Alyssa’s shoulder. “Show some skin.” “I need somewhere to go to wear this,” Alyssa said, turning and spinning, giving us all lots of shoulder. “I feel like a man killer right now.

” “See? This is how you kill men,” Vera told me. “Not the way you do it.” “I’m not killing anyone!” Geez, you have a couple of dead bodies under your nose and people start judging. I’d only found two bodies, and one was only a thigh and an arm, so did that even count? I’d seen a third dead body, shot while lounging by the lake in swim trunks, but that turned out to be a ghost, and not an actual body, so I’m sticking with two as my final number. “Besides, I have a boyfriend. I don’t need to be a man killer.” “Oh, honey, that’s where you’re wrong. It’s harder to keep a man than it is to get one. They all go for shiny and new. You have to stay shiny.

” Great. Now Vera had me feeling as insecure as she had Alyssa. I didn’t worry a lot about losing Jake Marner, my super-hot detective boyfriend, but sometimes when he sighed, I suspected I tried him to the depths of his soul. Because did I mention I see ghosts? Marner sort of believes me but maybe not entirely, though he tries hard. It started the day my best friend, and his partner, Ryan, showed up in my kitchen talking crap and mocking my weight loss. He’d been dead eight months and then suddenly there he was, like no big deal. Wearing work boots and a flannel shirt and telling me I needed to solve his murder. Me, I’d thought it was a big deal. Because Ryan appearing to me was cool after my initial freak-out and had helped me get through some of my grief. But after Ryan appeared, so did other random ghosts and five months later it still stunned me to think that my life had become a hostess stand for the disenfranchised dead showing up for a table.

“Stay shiny. Will do.” I gave Vera a thumbs-up. She looked at me like I was a lunatic. “Let’s go to lunch. I want a martini.” I did too because it had just occurred to me clear out of the blue the next day was the one-year anniversary of Ryan’s death. I’d been so busy with Christmas and planning a trip to see my sister in Texas, and managing my home-staging business, “Put It Where?” that I hadn’t realized the anniversary was so soon. I gripped the zipper on my puffy coat and felt awash in emotion. “The old lady’s right,” a voice said right behind me.

I jumped and whirled around. Ryan was standing there. “What?” I said out loud before I realized I couldn’t have a conversation with a ghost in Saks without the disdainful sales woman calling for security. “What what?” Vera asked me. “I said I want a martini. Get the lead out, doll. I could die before we reach the restaurant.” Grandma Burke touched my elbow. “Why don’t you go ahead and get us a table. I’m going to stop at the restroom.

I like the one here in Saks. Vera, why don’t you come with me?” Grandma gave me a wink. She saw Ryan too. She’d told me that when he reappeared at Christmas after getting an eviction notice from heaven. He still hadn’t told me what he’d done to get tossed, but clearly, it wasn’t good. “I’m not wiping your ass,” Vera told Grandma Burke. “If that’s why you’re asking.” “Of course not. I have a date next week and I want your advice, but not in front of my granddaughter.” That made me forget entirely about Ryan.

“What? You have a date?” I said, scandalized. “With who?” My grandmother didn’t date. She martyred herself at the feet of widowhood. Besides, it was unlikely she’d find a man as willing to let her boss him around as my grandfather had. “See what I mean?” Grandma asked Vera. “She’s nutso.” “I understand. One of the many reasons I never had children,” Vera said. “So self- centered.” Now I was self-centered as well as being an attention-seeker going off in search of dead bodies? That seemed a little harsh.

“I’ll be at the checkout desk,” Alyssa said after Grandma and Vera shuffled off in pursuit of the restroom. Suddenly Grandma’s gesture to leave me alone with Ryan seemed thoroughly unimportant compared to the fact that she had a date. “She better be joking,” I said out loud. “Why? Can’t an old lady get laid?” Ryan asked. He always managed to incite my outrage, even as a ghost. “I beg your pardon,” I said, sounding nothing like a twenty-eight-year-old, and every inch ancient British aristocracy. “How dare you.” Ryan laughed. “You are so easy to get riled up. I love that about you.

” “Glad I can amuse you. Why are you at Saks?” I asked, pretending like I was talking into my cell phone. People tend to look strangely at you if you have long one-sided conversations with yourself in public, because unlike lucky me, most people didn’t see Ryan or any of the other ghosts who had been traipsing in and out of my life. “Do you need cuff links to wear for your ceremonial fall from grace?” He raised his eyebrows. “Wow, you are tense today. Marner not slipping it to you lately?” That was not the way to improve my mood. Ryan teased me mercilessly about dating Jake, and for his part, Jake frequently appeared jealous of my friendship with his former partner. Even though Ryan was dead. Not that I could blame him. Before Ryan died, I had been harboring a pretty mega-sized crush on him.

I might have possibly even confessed to loving him before trying to kiss him. One year ago tomorrow. Egad. Ever since Ryan had reappeared to me right before Christmas, Marner had been more pensive than usual. He seemed remote and that was a big bag of yuck. I didn’t like feeling like he was retreating away from me. Especially after I had endured the presence of a leg lamp for the majority of the holiday decorating season purely out of love for him. “It’s a year tomorrow,” I said testily. “I am well aware of that fact. Which is why you should be nice to me and not bitchy.

” Ryan had a special talent for making me feel guilty. “I’m not trying to be bitchy. I’m sad.” “Don’t be sad, Bai. Shit happens. But I’ll be over tomorrow because we have to talk about our assignment. I’m catching a lot of crap upstairs and I need to take this seriously.” “Take what seriously?” But he just gave me a wink. “Gotta go, yo. I’d like fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cheesecake for my death anniversary dinner.

” “You can’t even eat solids.” “I want to smell it.” “That’s very morbid.” “Tomahto, tomayto. Get some vitamin D, by the way. You look pale.” Probably because I was picturing my boyfriend’s reaction to me cooking dinner. I’m not a very good cook. I eat a lot of string cheese and chicken nuggets. My meals solo tend to look like a grade school lunch.

Ryan didn’t bother to wait for my answer though because he was already gone. Alyssa came over to me with a giant bag in her hand. “Why did I just buy a dress I don’t need and three pairs of shoes?” “Vera pressure.” “Indeed.” Alyssa, who was something of a serial dater, had been on a hiatus since she’d revenge-dated a bully from high school and then had accidently caught feelings for him. “I need to go back on a dating app. I cannot fathom the idea of spending Valentine’s Day alone this year. I have four weeks to get a guy to the point where he’s groomed to handle the big V Day without flipping out about it.” I glanced at my phone. How long had Vera and Grandma been gone? Was this a fallen-and-can’t-get-up situation? “Do you seriously care about Valentine’s Day? I thought you always said it was commercial hype.

” “It is. But I need to post pictures of myself with a hottie so that Michael can see I’m happy.” Hello. Dating to make someone else jealous did not seem like a recipe for a romantic Valentine’s Day. “There is so much wrong with what you just said. What I’m going to say is this—I’m supposed to be the insecure one, not you.” Alyssa made a face. “I’m not insecure. I’m just determined. Besides, don’t come at me with relationship advice just because you have a case of the ‘we’s.

” “What the heck is that?” “We went to dinner. We are going to the beach. We ate breakfast in bed. We spend our Saturday nights in pjs giggling on the couch together. You and Jake. You’re ‘we’ people now.” I was not going to take this personally. I had a feeling Alyssa was actually, quite possibly, in love with Michael and she needed to work that out. Also, she wasn’t totally wrong about me and Jake. We were a little gushy with each other.

Well, before Ryan had reappeared and Jake had decided that his getting up at five in the morning was interrupting my sleep too much and he’d started spending more nights at his apartment. The thought made me wrinkle my nose. “Tomorrow is one year since Ryan died,” I said. “Oh, shit, that’s right.” Alyssa bit her lip. “Are you okay?” I shrugged. “I guess. I mean, I miss him.” I did miss him being alive. But his ghost helped take the sting away a little.

“It’s hard. I don’t even want to think about how his parents and his sister are going to be feeling.” “You know I suck at that kind of stuff. You’re at least tactful. I’m better at getting people drunk than comforting them.” Very true. “We all have our strengths. It doesn’t help right now that I feel like my parents hate each other and I’m worried about me and Jake.” “Why are you worried about Jake? And your parents have hated each other for years, I wouldn’t stress about that.” That almost made me laugh.

“So I’m not the only one who has noticed?” Alyssa raised her eyebrows. “Bailey. Your father cannot say anything without your mom saying the polar opposite.” “Very true.” If my father said it was cold outside when it was ten below she’d say it was because his circulation was poor from spending the seventies and eighties smoking. There was nothing he could do that was worthy of anything other than a correction, in my mother’s point of view. “I’m worried about Jake because he used to spend almost every night at my place and now he’s spending more than half the week at his apartment. He says it’s because he doesn’t want to interrupt my sleep but I feel like there’s more to it.” Alyssa didn’t know that I saw ghosts and I was frankly terrified to tell her. I wasn’t even sure why.

She was pretty open to live and let live. She’d probably find it fascinating. But I hesitated because she was a data analyst who loved math and science and in the past had expressed skepticism over the paranormal. “Don’t be paranoid. He’s being nice to you, that’s all. Or maybe your mattress sucks or something. If it bothers you, tell him you’d rather have him there than quality sleep.” That was Alyssa. She just came straight out and said what she was thinking. I was afraid to bring it up with Jake because I was afraid what his response might be.

I shrugged, noncommittal. “Okay, I’m going to find Grandma and Vera. This is taking forever.” They were both applying lipstick in front of the mirror and Vera was describing in shocking detail what she had done to her third husband backstage at the Oscars in ’63. She spotted me and said to my reflection, without turning around, “Stay shiny, remember?” “DO YOU THINK I’M SHINY?” I asked Jake later that night as we sat at a local sports bar in Lakewood near his apartment. “Hmm?” He was staring at the eight TV screens watching basketball. He wrested his gaze away from the game and glanced at me up and down. “I guess your nose is a little oily, but it’s not bad.” See? This was precisely why I was afraid to ask him anything. “That’s not what I meant,” I said, even as I raised my hand to swipe at my nose, fearful I was looking like I’d been dipped in Crisco.

After a whole afternoon of listening to Vera’s romantic escapades and worrying myself to total paranoia that Jake no longer found me attractive, I had taken extra time with my hair and makeup. I was also wearing a sweater and skinny jeans in dark colors that were a tight and sexy departure from my usual florals. Jake had given me a whistle when he’d picked me up but after that seemed to have forgotten that I existed. “What did you mean?” he asked, glancing back at the TV before blinking at me, obviously confused. “They say men like something shiny and new all the time. Am I shiny?” Jake opened his mouth and shut it again. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” His eyes drifted back to the basketball game. I sighed and picked up my gin fizz and sucked at the tiny straw. “You know what tomorrow is, don’t you?” “Sunday.

” I sucked harder. “It’s the day Ryan died.” That got his attention. He swirled his stool to be facing me. “Are you okay?” “I don’t know.” I didn’t. I had thought I was okay but I felt… weird. “Are you okay?” He nodded. “I’m still pissed and upset and I miss Ryan, but it is what it is.” I wrinkled my nose.

“Are we okay?” “Why wouldn’t we be okay?” I shrugged. Jake took my hand and caressed the back of it. “Babe, what exactly are we talking about? I know you had feelings for Ryan. But I thought we had moved past that.” Now I was the one who didn’t know what we were talking about. “Sure. Do you want fried chicken for dinner tomorrow?” He shook his head back and forth like a dog after a bath. “What? What the hell happened today? You go to lunch with the ladies and you come home broken.” He was trying to make light of all of this. Yet I couldn’t help but be insulted.

I gasped. “That’s not cute or funny.” My phone hang on the bar top and I saw it was my grandmother. She was normally the only person I would answer when I was with my boyfriend. But given how our current conversation was going I probably would have answered a telemarketer. “Hello?” It was almost eleven o’clock. My grandmother shouldn’t even be awake. “Grandma, are you okay?” I could hear her sniffling, which instantly terrified me. I sat up straighter. “Oh, Bailey, it’s Vera.

” “What about Vera?” I covered my left ear with my palm so I could hear her better. It was loud in the bar. “She’s dead.” My stomach dropped. I whirled around, half expecting to see Vera standing behind me in ghost form. “What?” I said, shocked to the tips of my pointed-toe boots. “We just spent the day with her!” “They found her in the backyard, frozen like a popsicle.” My jaw went south just like my stomach had. “Oh my God.” I smacked Jake’s leg.

“Vera’s dead.” “Well, shit.” My feelings exactly. TWO “WHAT HAPPENED?” I asked Grandma. “Who found her?” “Her neighbor’s dog was barking nonstop so he went out his back door to holler at him and it set his motion light off. He glanced over at Vera’s and there she was—head first in the snow.” I shuddered. “Oh my God, that’s horrible. Why would she go outside like that?” “I have no clue. Her dog died last fall so she shouldn’t have any reason to go out in weather like this.

” That was disturbing. It was January and freezing. The kind of weather where it feels like your lungs are crystallizing when you breathe outside. “What have the cops said?” “I don’t know. Bob, her neighbor, just called me and let me know and asked me if I knew who her next of kin was.” “Who is it?” “She has a niece who lives in Florida and a nephew in New York City. I don’t know about anyone else other than her stepson, but he’s in L.A. and not a blood relative.” I sipped my drink, feeling horrible.

Obviously, it wasn’t a total shock that someone at ninety-five could die, but Vera had been fine that afternoon. It made no sense. “Can I do anything to help?” “Can you take me to church tomorrow? I want to say a prayer for her and I’d rather you take me than your mother. She didn’t like Vera.” Some days I wasn’t sure who my mother liked. “Of course. Ten o’clock mass?” “Eight.” I mentally groaned. I can’t say I’ve ever been close friends with the morning. “Got it.

See you then, and, Grandma, I’m really sorry about Vera. She was a very cool person.” “Thank you, dear.” I could tell she was struggling not to cry. When I ended the call I turned to Jake. “That’s completely bizarre. My grandmother said Vera was in her back yard. Who goes into their backyard at night in the dead of January?” “Did she smoke?” Jake asked. “I don’t think so, but honestly, Vera is old school enough that if she wanted to smoke she’d do it in her house or her garage. She had one of those townhome-style condos.

Her garage is attached and her backyard is a paver patio with a small patch of grass behind it. Thank God the neighbor’s dog was barking. He found her when he opened the door to yell at his dog and the motion light turned on.” “I’m sorry, babe.” Jake squeezed my knee. “That sucks. At least you got to spend time with her today.” I nodded, distracted. All I could think was that this didn’t make sense. “Don’t you think it’s weird?” I insisted.

Marner is a homicide detective. I was surprised he wasn’t more suspicious. He paused for a heartbeat, then said, “Where did Vera live? Cleveland proper?” I shook my head. “Bratenahl.” It was a small enclave surrounded by Cleveland and Lake Erie, known for lakefront mansions and high-end condos. “Do you want me to call their department and get more details?” “Could you?” I asked, relieved. “This just feels… off.” I wasn’t sure what I was implying, exactly, just that Vera wasn’t outdoorsy in the summer. Why the hell would she be going for a stroll outside in the dead of winter. Ugh.

Dead of winter. Poor choice of words. “I’m going to step outside and call them. It’s too loud in here. You wait here, babe. It’s too cold for you.” Jake was considerate about things like that. He knew I was a huge winter wimp. “Thank you. I love you.

” His eyes got dark. “I love you too. Be right back.” Restless, while waiting, I went into my camera roll and pulled up the picture of Grandma and Vera that I had impulsively snapped that afternoon. My vision blurred and I pulled my vape out of my purse and sucked on it. Technically, you weren’t supposed to in the bar, but I’d seen like five other people do it already. I usually left it at home to resist temptation but now I was glad I had it. It was just too much. Vera had seemed so vibrant. So alive.

Now she was gone. And tomorrow marked the one-year anniversary of Ryan’s death. I felt grief wash over me like an ice-cold wave. Jake came back while I was clutching my phone to my chest and sobbing. “Maybe we should go,” he said, gently. He lifted his hand for the bartender. “Sorry,” he told him. “I need to cash out. We got some bad news.” The bartender took one look at me blubbering and waved his hand.

“It’s on me, no worries. Sorry for your news.” “Thanks, man.” Jake dropped some money on the bar top for a tip and helped me off my stool. Blind from my tears and making an embarrassing hiccupping sound I couldn’t seem to control, I stumbled in my high-heeled boots. Jake caught me. “Sweetheart, that is not what we talked about. Pull it together.” Whirling around at the sound of Vera’s voice, I saw her standing three feet away in a very plain nightgown and cheetah print boots. Designer boots.

Expensive as hell. Two grand kind of expensive. “Vera.” Her hair and makeup were fully done up. She blew me a kiss and gave me a wink. Then she was gone. There was a time I thought I might get used to ghosts just dropping in wherever I was, but nope. It was like when you were chilling on your couch and a spider runs across your arm. You freak the freak out. But I also realized instantly that what Vera had just been wearing in front of me was what she’d been wearing when she died. Every ghost who had appeared to me so far had been trapped in their final outfit (good reason to keep it classy, people). But now I knew something was shady. Vera would never step into a snowdrift in a pair of mohair high-heel boots. “What did the cops say?” I asked Jake as he gently but firmly pulled me toward the door. “They said it appears she was dazed and confused, stepped outside, and the door automatically locked behind her and she couldn’t get back in.” I clapped my hand over my mouth. “What? That’s horrible! Why wouldn’t she just go knock on the neighbor’s back door?” “They feel it was an episode of dementia.” Marner pushed open the door and waited for me to walk past him. I regretted not putting on my coat sooner. I shivered and shoved my arms through the sleeves. His response was troubling to me. Vera did not have dementia. She had her shit together more than half the people I knew. “That doesn’t make sense. She was totally lucid this afternoon. Just hours ago.” “Babe, she was old. The mind comes and goes at that age.” I zipped my coat up and yanked my hood over my head. “How long does it take to die in weather like this?” The thought of Vera out there, confused, freezing to death, made my stomach turn. “At her age? Probably not long considering they found her in a thin nightgown.” Here was my opening. “Was she wearing shoes?” He nodded as he unlocked his car and opened the passenger door for me. “Boots.” That was not specific enough. That could be anything from galoshes to snow boots to go-go boots. “What kind of boots?” Jake frowned at me. “I don’t know. Bailey, what are you worrying about exactly?” “It just doesn’t make sense,” I insisted. “Are they going to do an autopsy?” He didn’t answer me. Just shut the door and came around to the driver’s side. He turned the car on and cranked up the heat. Rubbing his palms together he turned to me. “They’re not treating it as a suspicious death. She was an old lady with a ton of medications in her kitchen and bathroom. Maybe she heard a noise outside, forgot it was January, forgot her door auto-locks, and didn’t know what to do. I don’t think there will be much of an investigation.” “Can we ask for an autopsy?” He shook his head. “No. Her family has to do that if the department doesn’t intend to.” He shifted into “reverse” and asked, “My place, right?” “Yes.” I didn’t want to be alone and we were only a few blocks from his apartment. I kept glancing in the back seat of his car, hopeful that Vera might appear. Marner might not like or totally believe that I spoke to the dead, but I could care less about his opinion on it at the moment. I needed answers from Vera. “Vera wouldn’t go outside in those boots,” I told him. “Those are Saint Laurent and they’re over two thousand dollars for a pair. She wouldn’t ruin those.” Jake sighed. “First of all, how do you know what boots she was wearing? I didn’t tell you that because the detective didn’t tell me. Not that I would know what the hell whatever French crap you just said is anyway. He just said boots.” “I saw Vera at the bar. She appeared behind us for just a second.” “Jesus,” was Jake’s response. “What are you saying you think happened to her? Someone threw her out the back door and locked her out?” “I don’t know what I’m saying.” I didn’t. Who would want to kill Vera? “Were there any signs of burglary? She probably has cash sitting around.” “They didn’t say that, no.” “So we don’t know for sure.” Jake paused. “No.” “Can you ask?” “Can’t you just ask Vera?” He waved his hand around. “Hi, Vera, nice to meet you.” “She’s not here now,” I said, frowning. “Are you even listening to me?” Marner snorted. “Oh, yeah, I’m listening to you. I’m hearing everything you’re saying.” He thought I was overreacting, clearly. I blew out a breath and tried to calm myself down. I didn’t want to fight with my boyfriend. Not when I had better things to do. Like solve Vera’s homicide. It had to be murder. I didn’t buy the dementia bit. At all. I would just have to pick my way around this delicately, with Grandma’s help. We pulled into the driveway of the duplex Marner lived in. His apartment was upstairs and we didn’t spend as much time here as we did at my house because his downstairs neighbors had just had a baby and they were cranky about my high heels and other, ahem, sounds that might drift down to them. My house in Ohio City is a free-standing Victorian. The neighbors are close, but we don’t share walls. As soon as he opened the front door downstairs, I knew the drill. Remove the highheeled boots. I almost fell over trying to pull them off in the narrow alcove. Jake had hooks there for coats and I reluctantly divested myself of my puffy coat and hung it. Then I ran quickly up the wood stairs in my socks, intending to dive onto the couch and under a blanket. “Where are you going?” Jake asked. “I kind of thought we’d go right to bed.” I knew what that meant. “Forget it, Detective,” I told him. “I’m not getting naked. It’s three degrees outside.” His eyebrows shot up. “So no fun until the cold spell snaps? Are you kidding me? I can work around flannel, I swear.” As charming as that sounded, I wasn’t exactly in the mood. “In the morning, I promise. I’ll be all warm and cozy then. Honestly, I’m too sad right now.” That made him contrite. He came over and sat next to me and pulled me against his chest. “I’m sorry, babe. I didn’t realize how much Vera meant to you.” I snuggled against him. “It’s just that you know, you have this fascinating life, and then you die alone in the cold? It’s horrible. Did you know she was friends with Audrey Hepburn?” “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” Jake was always pretty skilled at just letting me talk and showing the appropriate level of interest. Well, except when sports were on. But he let me ramble now. “She was married four times, but she used to joke it should only count as three because she married the same bastard twice. He was her second and fourth husband.” “How does that work? Geez.” “Apparently not well since it ended in divorce twice. But that never seemed to bother her. She painted her life as a great adventure instead of any sort of failure.” I loved that confidence she had. Vera really had been the person who rolled through her life without guilt or regrets. I wish. I could feel guilty for weeks for accidentally letting a door close in someone’s face. “That’s how it should be. So she went to Hollywood to be an actress?” “Yes. But honestly, I think she went more for the parties. I don’t think it ever bothered her that she never hit it big. She enjoyed everything she did.” Jake squeezed me closer. “You know who else did that?” I glanced up at him. Jake has a strong jaw and dark eyes. They were filled with tenderness right now. “Who?” “Ryan.” My heart squeezed. “Yeah. He did.” I half expected Ryan to show up and mock our sentimentality. When he didn’t, I kissed Jake. I was warmer already. GRANDMA WORE BLACK TO CHURCH, of course. I sat through the mass with her, going through the familiar movements learned from a childhood of kneeling, standing, shaking hands. Growing up Catholic is like being in a club. Lots of rules and rituals. Plus bingo and doughnuts. The Ladies Guild sold doughnuts and coffee after mass down in the gaping basement reception hall slash bingo parlor. I remembered when they had banned smoking at bingo. You would have thought the plagues had descended on Cleveland. The eleventh being the Plague of No Smoking. “I want a crawler,” Grandma said. “They know to put one aside for me. If some snotnosed kid snagged the last one I’m going to be PO’d.” Keeping it Christian, as usual. “I can’t walk any faster,” I told her. “There’s no crowd control.” It was all ancients shuffling, kids zipping through legs, and soccer moms creating all their fellow PTA moms. Whenever anyone asked me if I was ready to have children, moments like the threeyear-old wiping his tears on the back of his mother’s ass assured me I was most decidedly not ready. I was still in that selfish phase where I preferred my clothes minus bodily fluids from offspring, okay, thanks. Speaking of offspring, without warning I spotted Jake’s mother. Shoot. What the hell— heck, I mean, we were still on church grounds—was she doing there? She belonged to a different parish fifteen minutes east. There was no way out of it. She had seen me and was waving. Don’t get me wrong. I like Jake’s mother. I could even go so far as to say I liked Jake’s mother more than my own. She wasn’t judgmental like mine. She was kind, loving, baked lots of goodies, and laughed with abandon. She excelled at being a mother, and was a dream grandmother to Jake’s nieces and nephews, always willing to babysit but without being an interfering busybody. Thus, the problem. Jake was turning thirty in two months, and until me, I think she’d thought he was approaching his expiration date as a fresh husband. That he was souring and was going to be tossed in the “not keepable” marital trash. Ever since we’d started dating, she’d been telling me she didn’t understand why he hadn’t found a nice girl before me, that he was good-looking, right? To which of course I nod “yes” every time. She then lists his many virtues, but ultimately concludes at the end of this speech on each occasion that it was his job as a homicide detective that was scaring off women. “Except for you,” she then says. Every. Time. While patting my arm affectionately. She wants us married and procreating, STAT. He’s her only son and she’s worried he’ll morph into creepy aging bachelor. Or something like that. Normally I really don’t mind. I dodge the questions and implications but now I was feeling emotionally vulnerable because of Ryan’s death anniversary (if that’s a thing) and Vera’s, in my mind, sketchy death. “Hello, Bailey, sweetie,” she said as we finally hit the bottom of the basement steps and could spread out a little. She reached out and gave me a hug. “What brings you here?” “Hi,” I said, hugging her back. “I brought my grandmother to mass this morning.” I pointed in the direction of Grandma Burke, who had made a beeline for the crawlers. She could move fast with the right motivation. “A friend of hers passed away last night and she wanted company today.” “Oh, no, how sad. But how sweet of you.” Her look was one of genuine concern. Jake’s mom has good genes, which I admit has crossed my mind more than once. Good genetics to pass on, right? But at sixty-two she looked a decade younger. She rode her bike, did Pilates, and baked giant Italian pasta meals with an enviable balance. “What are you doing here?” I asked. “I’m going to brunch with my best friend from high school, Susan. We went to St. Augustine’s together so I just decided to go to mass with her.” She gave me a wink. “Then mimosas.” “That sounds fun.” “Mrs. M, what’s up?” The male voice made me jump. Dang it. That was Ryan. It took everything I had not to turn around and acknowledge him. Let’s just all admit that espionage is not in my future.

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