THE JULIUS FAMILY vanished six years before I married Martin Bartell. They disappeared so abruptly that some people in Lawrenceton phoned the National Enquirer to tell a reporter that the Juliuses had been abducted by aliens. I had been home from college for several years and was working in the Lawrenceton Public Library when - whatever it was - happened to T.C., Hope, and Charity Julius. And I was as full of speculation as anyone else. But as time went by with no trace of the Julius family, I forgot to wonder about them, except for an occasional frisson of creepiness when the name "Julius" came into a conversation.
Then Martin gave me their house as a wedding present. To say I was surprised to get a house is an understatement: "stunned" is more accurate. We did want to buy a house, and we had been looking at fancier homes firmly anchored in the newer suburbs of Lawrenceton, an old southern town that itself is actually in the regrettable process of becoming a commuter suburb of Atlanta. Most of the houses we'd been considering were large, with several big rooms suitable for entertainment; too big for a couple with no children, in my opinion. But Martin had this streak that yearned for the outer signs of financial health. He drove a Mercedes, for example, and he wanted our house to be a house where a Mercedes would look at home. We'd looked at the Julius house because I'd made a point of telling my friend and realtor Eileen Norris to put it on the list. I'd seen it when I was searching for a house for myself alone.
But Martin hadn't loved the Julius house instantly, as I had. In fact, I could tell he found my affection for the house strange. His arched dark eyebrows rose, the pale brown eyes regarded me questioningly.
"It's a little isolated," he said.
"Just a mile out of town. I can almost see my mother's house from here."
"It's smaller than the house on Cherry Lane."
"I could take care of it myself."
"You don't want a maid?"
"Why would I?" I don't have anything else to do, I added privately. (And that was not Martin's fault, but my own. I'd quit my job at the Lawrenceton library before I'd even met him, and as time went on, I regretted it more and more.) "There's that apartment over the garage. Would you want to rent it out?"
"I guess so."
"And the garage being separate from the house . .."
"There's a covered walkway."
Eileen tactfully poked around elsewhere while Martin and I conducted this little dialogue.
"You do wonder what happened to them," Eileen said later, as she locked the door behind her and dropped the labeled key into her purse. And Martin looked at me with a sudden illumination in his eyes.
So that's why, when we exchanged wedding gifts, I was stunned at his handing me the deed to the Julius house.
And he was equally bowled over by my gift. I'd been amazingly clever.
I'd given him real estate, too.
Choosing Martin's present had been terrifying. The plain fact was we didn't know each other that well, and we were very different. What could I give him? Had he ever expressed a want?
I sat in my brown suede-y chair in the "family" room of the townhouse I'd lived in for years now and cast my thoughts around frantically trying to think of the perfect gift. I had no idea what his previous wife had given him, but I was determined this present would be more meaningful. Madeleine the cat spilled over from my lap to the cushion, her heavy warm mass moving slightly with her purring. Madeleine seemed to know when I began thinking she was more trouble than she was worth, and she would make some demonstration of an affection I was sure was false. Madeleine had been Jane Engle's cat, and my spinster friend Jane had died and left me a fortune, so I suppose Madeleine reminded me of good things - friendship and money.
Thinking of Jane led me to think of the fact that I'd wrapped up the sale of her house, so now I had even more money. I began thinking of real estate in general - and suddenly, I knew what Martin wanted. Sophisticated corporation man Martin was from rural Ohio, oddly enough. The only obvious tie-in this had with his present life was that he now worked for Pan-Am Agra, manufacturing farming products in conjunction with some of the more agricultural Latin American countries, principally Guatemala and Brazil. Martin's father had died early in Martin's life, and his mother had remarried. Martin and his sister Barby had never gotten along with husband number two, Joseph Flocken, particularly after the death of Martin's mother. Martin had told me bitterly that the farm was falling to ruin because the stepfather was too consumed with arthritis to work it, yet he wouldn't sell, to spite Martin and his sister.
By golly, I'd buy the farm for him.
The tricky part had been thinking of a good reason to be absent from town for a few days. I'd finally told Martin I was going to visit my best friend Amina, now living in Houston and into the second trimester of her pregnancy. I phoned Amina and asked her if she and Hugh would mind letting their answering machine screen their calls for a few days. I'd call her every night and if Martin had called me, I could call him back from Ohio. Amina thought my idea was very romantic, and reminded me she'd be driving over to Lawrenceton soon, with her husband, Hugh, for the festivities preceding the wedding and the wedding itself. "I can hardly wait to meet Martin," she said happily.
"Don't turn on your charm for him, now," I said cheerfully, and suddenly became aware I meant it. I felt quite savage when I thought about Martin being charmed by another woman.
"How charming can I be?" Amina shrieked. "I'm poking out to China, honey!"
I figured Amina probably had a slight convex curve to her tummy. We closed with our usual chatter, but my jealous reaction gave me thinking material for that flight to Pittsburgh (the nearest airport), and on the drive west in the rental car to the town nearest Martin's family's farm. This town, Corinth, a little smaller than Lawrenceton, boasted a Holiday Inn where I'd reserved a room, not being sure what else I'd find. You have to understand, for me this was an exotic adventure. Though I told myself repeatedly that other people traveled by themselves to unfamiliar places all the time, I was highly nervous. I'd studied the map repeatedly during the plane trip, I'd sat in the airport parking lot anxiously checking over the Ford Taurus I'd rented, I'd marveled over the fact that no one in the world knew exactly where I was.
My first impression of Corinth, Ohio, was of how familiar it seemed. True, the land configuration was slightly different, and the people dressed a little differently, and maybe the prevailing architecture was more heavily red brick, more often two-story... but this was a small farming center grouped around a downtown with inadequate parking space, and there were plenty of John Deere tractors in the big sales lot right outside town. I checked in to the Holiday Inn and called a realtor. There were only three listed; Corinth was modest about its salability. The company that advertised specializing in farms ("agricultural acreage") was Bishop Realty. I hesitated, my hand actually on the receiver. I was about to do some lying, and I wasn't used to it.
"Bishop Realty, Mrs. Mary Anne Bishop speaking," said a brisk voice. "This is Aurora Teagarden," I said clearly, and waited for the snicker. It was more like a snort. "I want to look at some farms in the area, specifically ones that are not in the best shape. I want somewhere pretty isolated." Mary Anne Bishop digested this in thoughtful silence.
"What size property did you want to see?" she asked finally. "Not too big," I said vaguely, since I hadn't wriggled that information out of Martin.
"I could line some things up for you to see tomorrow morning," Mrs. Bishop said. She sounded rather cautious about it. "If you could tell me - are you actually planning to farm the land? If I knew what you intended to do with it, maybe I could select properties to show you... that would suit you better." She was trying awfully hard not to sound nosy.
I closed my eyes and drew a breath, glad she couldn't see me. "I represent a small but growing religious community," I said. "We want a property that we can repair ourselves, and modify to suit our needs. We'll be doing some farming, but mostly we want the extra land for privacy." "Well," Mrs. Bishop said, "you're not Moonies, are you? Or those Druvidians?"
Druids? Branch Davidians?
"Gosh, no," I said firmly. "We're Christian pacifists. We don't believe in drinking or smoking. We don't dress funny, or ask for donations on street corners, or preach in the stores, or anything!" With an effort, Mrs. Bishop joined in my light laughter. The realtor gave me clear directions to her office, recommended a couple of restaurants for supper ("If you're allowed to do that"), and said that she'd see me in the morning. I located the soft drink machine, bought a Coke, and watched the news while sipping a bourbon-and-Coke made from the second half of my airline bottle. I was glad Mrs. Bishop wasn't there to see the conduct of this purported member of a religious cult.
After a while, feeling strangely anonymous in this little town where no one knew me, I drove around, staring through the fading light at the town Martin had known so well growing up. I went past the ugly brick high school where he had played football. Through a light drizzle in the gray spring evening, I peered at the houses where Martin must have had friends, acquaintances, girls he'd dated, boys he'd gone drinking with. Some of them, perhaps most of them, were surely still here in this town . .. maybe men he'd gone to Vietnam with. Perhaps they mentioned it as seldom as he did.
I felt as if I were eavesdropping on Martin's life. I had a book in my purse, as usual (tonight it was the paperback of Liza Cody's Stalker), and I read as I ate supper at the diner Mrs. Bishop had recommended. The menu was slightly alien - none of the southern diner standbys. But the chili was good, and it was with reluctance I left half of everything on my plate. Now that I was over thirty, gravity and calories seemed to be having a little more effect than they used to. When you're four feet, eleven inches, a few extra calories end up looking like a lot.
No one bothered me, and the waitress was pleasant, so I had a nice time. I took the light rain as a sign I should not walk or run tonight, though I'd virtuously brought my sweats and running shoes. As a palliative to my conscience, I did some stretches and calisthenics when I got back to my room. The exercise did relieve some of the cramped feeling the plane and the long car ride had caused. I checked in with Amina, who told me Martin had indeed left a message on her machine not thirty minutes ago.
I smiled fatuously, since no one was there to see me, and called him. The minute I heard his voice, I missed him with a dreadful ache. I pictured his meticulously groomed thick white hair, the black arched brows and pale brown eyes, the heavily muscled arms and chest. He was at work, he'd told Amina's machine, so I could imagine him at his huge desk, covered with piles of paper that were nonetheless neatly stacked and separate. He would be wearing a spotless white shirt, but he would have taken his tie off when the last employee left. His suit jacket would be hanging on a padded hanger on a hook in his very own bathroom.
I loved him painfully.
I couldn't remember ever having told Martin lies before, and I kept having to remind myself of where I was supposed to be.
"Is Amina talking a lot about the baby?" he asked. "Oh, yes. She's scheduled to take Lamaze in a couple of months, and Hugh's gung-ho about coaching her." I hesitated a moment. "Did you take Lamaze when Barrett was born?"
"I don't remember taking the course, but I was there when he was born, so I guess Cindy and I did," he said doubtfully.
Cindy. Wife number one, and mother of Martin's only child, Barrett, now trying to become a successful actor in Los Angeles.
Martin was saying, "Roe, is Amina being pregnant giving you ideas?" I couldn't tell how he felt from his voice. He'd spoken so much about Barrett lately I'd felt it wasn't a good time to talk about another child. "How do you feel about that?" I asked.
"I don't know. I'm pretty old to be changing diapers. It's daunting to think of starting all over again."
"We can talk about it when I get home."
We talked about a few other things Martin wanted to do when I got home. By a pleasant coincidence, I wanted to do them, too.
After I hung up, I picked up the little Corinth phone book. Before I could reconsider, I flipped to the B's.
Bartell, C. H., 1202 Archibald Street.
Now, this may sound fishy, but up until that moment I hadn't thought of Martin's former wife being in Corinth.
I discovered I was burning with the urge to see Cindy Bartell. A particularly ridiculous jealousy had flared in my heart; I wanted to see her. Wise or not, I decided to lay eyes on Cindy Bartell while I was here. I took off my glasses and relaxed on the slablike motel bed, with an uneasy feeling that I was being seriously stupid, and wracked my brain to try to remember what Cindy did for a living. Surely Martin had mentioned it at some point or other? He was not one to discuss his past much, though he seemed fascinated with the placidity of mine... .
I almost fell asleep fully dressed, and when I forced myself to get up and wash my face and put on my nightgown, I had dredged up the fact that Cindy Bartell was, or had been, a florist.
The little telephone book informed me that there was a listing for a Cindy's Flowers.
I fell asleep as if I'd been sandbagged, still not having decided if my good taste and good sense would keep me away from Cindy's shop.
The next morning I showered briskly, put my mass of long, wavy hair up in a bun that I hoped would make me look religious, went light on the makeup, and cleaned my glasses carefully. I wore a suit, a khaki-colored one with a bronze silk blouse, and modest brown pumps. I wanted to look ultrarespectable, so Mrs. Bishop would be reassured, yet I wanted the religious cult front to be objectionable enough to tempt Joseph Flocken to sell the farm to spite his stepchildren. Unfortunately, I didn't know the location of the farm, since Flocken didn't have a phone listing. I was simply hoping I'd spot it during my driving around with the real estate agent.