SHORTLY AFTER NOON, peace came to a sudden end. My sister and her two kids arrived spilling out of their taxi with an endless stream of bags and cases. Hugs and kisses all around, little useless presents for most of us. Oohing and ahhhing at last year’s improvements on wardrobe, architecture and hairdos. After eight hours on the plane, my niece and nephew, Jennifer and Keith, were soon playing football with Mundy in the garden. They were screaming and shouting for the best throws and catches. The kids loved Mundy instantly; he was very natural around them. Something they had probably never experienced with their father or mother, since Sunny and Tom were both stiff and over caring parents, projecting a lot of their own fears and life ambitions into their kids. Jen was the older of the two, eight years old, she was a typical commerce driven child of this generation—iPhone, PlayStation and Barbie were her most uttered words. With her straight honey-blonde hair and coquettish looks, she took after my sister Sunny. In comparison, Keith, at seven years old, was a serious dark haired kid with glasses and a thoughtful hesitant manner. He had taken after his father, Tom Highler, an accountant with a Dallas oil company. Sunny and he had gone separate ways for five years now. Sunny looked a lot like me but she was the more mature one, sturdier frame and bones, a little more of the ‘Hilda’ genes. Where I had taken refuge in my diamonds, crafts and not-to-be-named adventures, she had rebelled against the hippie fraction by embracing capitalistic America to the fullest. She had become a corporate lawyer. Specializing in mergers and acquisitions, she prepared billion dollar deals that destroyed numerous jobs and economic microstructures. ‘Synergy’ was her favorite word and to the dismay of Mom and Dad, she was proud of her achievements. Define ‘dysfunctional’ in the new Millennium.
Mom finally announced, “We will eat in the garden under the trees,” and clapped her hands.
And so we did.
Thanksgiving dinner turned out to be pleasant with the occasional strained overtones that uniquely marked this family as my own. Mom had outdone herself with the cooking; the dishes she had prepared deflected any joke about non-tasty veggie food. Dad told story after story of San Diego’s social elite and their ways of ignoring the poor and underprivileged. Mundy behaved, not embarrassing me any further. Conversation circled around family affairs, catching up with neighborhood gossip and the ethical conflicts of corporate America.
Nearly two and half hours later, we finished eating, absolutely stuffed. Mundy was giving me a light neck massage; had he attempted such a stunt 24 hours ago, I would have slugged him. I bet he enjoyed the whole thing immensely. Well, my price for a good alibi. When this was over, it was my turn to let him suffer.
Sunny sat with Mom, sipping ice tea and chatting away. The kids played with the cats and helped their granddad fix something on the motorcycle. Later, Mom brought out her guitar and we sang Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez songs, the three Stone-girls in a strange sad harmony.
Mundy and I hadn’t finished our little chat from before noon so after we were able to move again and had done the dishes, we headed down to the waterfront to walk the vegetable lasagna into the ground. The sun was already gone and we wandered under yellow light, skaters and joggers buzzing by.
“Your folks are nice,” Mundy stated. His parents had been gone for many years, both taken by the Big C.
“No complaints. But you caught the gang in a good mood,” I nodded. “These family gatherings often end with loud quarrels, tears and inhabitations that last until the next time around. Your presence helped to keep us civilized.”
We were silent for a moment. Then I gave him a quick kiss.
“What was that for?” Mundy asked, rubbing his cheek.
“For being there,” I said, meaning it. He was my best friend after all.
“Did you have anything to do with the death of the watchman?” Mundy blurted out.
“Jesus, you must have been a pressure cooker all through the afternoon.”
“Come on, you can tell me, I have a right to know. I am your alibi but I won’t cover for murder.”
“Mundy, dear, I swear to you, I had nothing to do with the murder and the theft they are investigating. When I stumbled on the guy, I even checked his pulse… ”
Mundy gave a sharp breather; I could feel a hyperventilation coming up with him. “Touch! You touched the body, probably left hair and sweat, a million DNA cells and everything for the police to find.”
“I always wear gloves while I’m working, plus I am hooded up. He was already dead, though not for long, he was still warm to the touch. I finished what I was doing and left quickly,” I explained. “I’ve been in this game for a while now.”
“Game! You found him and you checked on him. Curiosity killed the cat burglar.”
“When I started, he was alive and doing his rounds. I was doing my business. I was preparing to get away when I stumbled on him dead. Did a check to see if I could help and then left. I didn’t see anyone else.”
“You know, it could have been you,” Mundy said and after I understood what he meant, realized that he was probably right. It could have been me left dead. A little scary. Actually, quite scary.
We walked a little further along the beach. Mundy stopped and sat down in the sand. “A close shave.”
“Yup, what a mess.”
“Think our alibi worked?”
I nodded. “For the police, yes, it is as good as it gets for now. The initial danger is over because a trustworthy person accounts for me and they will focus on other leads. Plus, since I was using my cash rental, they won’t find any record of my car being in this area the night before.” I hoped that they had other suspects on their list besides me.
“But this insurance guy, Flower?” We started skipping stones into the low evening surf.
“Fowler. Fowler Wynn. An old friend of mine.”
“Ironically spoken, I presume.”
“He is more like an arch enemy. Like one of those relentless detectives on TV, a fanatic when it comes to hunting down his prey. And somehow along the way, he set his sights on me as public enemy number one.”
“Sounds like a nutcase to me,” Mundy said.
“Oh no, not mad. He is sharp and thorough. Brilliant art knowledge, combined with a very suspicious mind. Ideal traits for an insurance detective. His company uses him for all of its tricky customers and major art and jewelry thefts worldwide. They probably have a file this thick on me,” I indicated with outstretched arms, “listing all the insane suspicions he’d collected over the years. But without proof, there is nothing Wynn can do to me.”
Mundy gave me a skeptical look. “Except to wait for you to make a mistake. Fingerprints, a DNA trace or an onsite arrest. A murder at the break-in perhaps?”
I looked out over the ocean. “Most likely, he will turn up tomorrow and conduct a short fused interview that ends in a shouting match between us. I hope they find the guy quickly who killed the night watchman. That will take the focus off me, again. Until the next time.”
Mundy and I kept skipping stones.
How wrong could I get?