"So? ya got the itch?"
Claire looked across the room at her husband. "Oh no, don't you dare tell me you stepped in something that gave you a rash. We've planned this trip for months. You can't get sick. You can't! You know the rules--no getting sick on a vacation. Especially this--"
As Gil walked toward her, he held up his hands. "I was making a joke. You know, we've been married seven years? Isn't that supposed to be the time we get the itch to, ah, see if the grass is greener ..."
"It's not a joke, Gil," Claire told him seriously. "I heard that they did a study--"
"Is this the same 'they' who did all those other studies?" he asked. "Like the one about coffee? Elixir of life--or death in a cup? And the one on wine? One glass with a meal keeps the heart pumpin', but two--or is it three?--are lethal? 'They're' always studying bats or pigs or drunken college students, trying to uncover a secret that will fix global warming, cure cancer, or magically remove ten years' worth of wrinkles."
She grabbed his face and kissed him deeply. Not just because she adored that face of his but mostly to shut him up. And when she released him, he had that dazed look in his eyes. Even after seven years of marriage. She playfully patted his cheek. She still had it.
"Next," she said. It was the signal that the subject had been closed. Move on. Get over it.
He smiled, stood there holding her for a moment, and then led her outside.
Their Knotty Pine Cabin was situated on a forested ridge near Devil's Pool in the Ozarks, at Big Cedar Lodge. They had gotten married in the fall, seven years ago today. It was the second marriage for both. And now in their forties, with all that youthful confusion and anxiety behind them, they both considered these to be the best years of their lives.
Claire inhaled deeply. "I love the autumn," she said as Gil deposited her into a worn Adirondack chair. "I know a lot of people think this time of year is sad. It gets gloomy and cold and everything dies, but I always think of it as a breather--a time-out."
Gil pulled a matching chair up beside her and stretched out. "I never thought of it that way, but you're right. Summer is always frantic--everyone expected to run and have fun."
"And it gets so hot in St. Louis," Claire said, "that I don't know why people even want to go outside when the humidity melts the life right out of them."
"Winter used to be the best. Until I got too old for snowball fights and had to shovel, scrape, and defrost. Spring, though, now spring's a beautiful time."
"Spring break," Claire moaned. "Spring break reruns all year long on MTV, spring training, spring into action, spring cleaning."
Orange leaves drifted until caught in a gust and then were swept upward. When they finally landed, they covered the yellow and red ones, making the grass look as if it were a crazy quilt. November in Missouri was most often mild. Temperatures still climbed into the high seventies. But the air seemed more breathable. Instead of the heavy fragrance of cut grass or bushes loaded with roses, burningleaves, and smoke rising up from chimneys and fireplaces scented the crisp air. Hot dogs and hamburgers being grilled, fermenting apples, the first blast of heat from a furnace restarted after long summer days--all of it filtered through the trees and back to the couple.
"Happy anniversary, Claire." Gil reached out his hand.
She wove her fingers into his. "Happy anniversary, sweetie. Coming here was certainly one of your best ideas. It feels like we're all alone, lost in the woods."
She watched as he leaned to examine a pinecone. His red flannel shirt fit snugly, his hair was freshly cut, wispy around the ears and thinning on top. If someone had taken the time to look closely at the creases in his face, they would have said age complimented him.
"So," she asked, "do you want your present now?"
"I thought we'd wait until after dinner. Isn't Tucker taking us to Top of the Rock? He mentioned something about a new chef."
"You mean we have to wait almost the whole night?" she groaned.
Gil turned, hiding his grin. Disconnecting his hand from hers, he reached in a shirt pocket for the car keys. He wanted her to stew awhile and so took his time counting silently to ten. He had only made it to five when Claire spoke.
"Well, maybe you can wait, but I can't."
"Here you go, you big baby." He tossed her the keys. "Go look in the trunk."
Playing with the silver key chain, she pretended to be thinking very seriously about something. "No. You're right. We should wait until later."
"I hate when you do that."
"What? You hate when I admit you're right? You must be the only man in captivity who--"
"Claire, just go get the present."
She stood up. "If you insist."
Running to the car, she couldn't resist calling back to him over her shoulder, "After all, you are the boss around here."
"Tell me another one!" he shouted back.
When she returned, she was holding two packages. "Oh, look what I found in the trunk." Reading the name written across a small tag, she said, "and this one seems to be for someone named Sherlock." It had become one of her pet names for him ever since their first meeting at a mystery convention. "Is there a Sherlock here?"
"That would be me!" He raised his hand.
"Me first." Sitting back down in her chair, Claire turned the present over in her hands several times. The wrapping was red and metallic silver. A bunch of silk roses had been attached to the top.
"This is almost too pretty to open. Note the word: almost. And no card--very edgy, Gil. No one can say you're traditional."
"Just wait," he said. "The week's not over."
Carefully sliding her fingernail across the back, she sliced through the tape and the paper fell gracefully into her lap. Opening the box, she stopped and stared down at the book enclosed. Lifting it up, she couldn't hide her excitement. The dust jacket had been doctored with one of her head shots from the studio. There she was, big as day, smiling back at herself. And in large white letters across the top was the title: C is for Claire, instead of C is for Corpse, as intended by its author.
"Where did you ever ... I can't believe how thoughtful ..."
"It's a first edition. The real cover's at home, so don't worry. And I had Sue Grafton sign it for you. Look on the title page." His excitement was always the best part.
Claire eagerly flipped the pages, stopping at the inscription. "C is for celebrate! Happy anniversary, Claire. Here's to seven more years of good things for you and that wonderful husband of yours. Love, Sue." She hugged the book to her chest, unable to look at Gil, sure that tears would spill down her cheeks. She hated being the emotional one. "I love it. Thank you."
"Now me?" he asked holding up his gift.
His present had been wrapped in children's birthday paper. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck were holding cakes and mugging it up. "Ah, you certainly know what I like, don't you?" He laughed. "And there's no card on this one, either."
"I know," she said. "It's spooky how alike we are."
"You still think it's spooky? By now, I think it's normal." He ripped the paper off, turning the large sheet into confetti. When he came to the box, he lifted the cover off and shouted, "All right! I was hoping you'd get the hint."
"How could I miss?" she asked. "For the last three months, you've been leaving catalogs all over the house. And the red circle around item numbers--you're not very subtle, Gil."
Holding the boxed set up, he read, "'Midsomer Murders. Set in the seemingly benign villages of Midsomer County. Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and his brash assistant, Sergeant Troy, find that bucolic charms hide a multitude of sins.'" Gil patted the box. "Ever since our last trip to England, I can't get enough of these British mysteries." Then, reading all the fine print on the side panel, he said, "Oh, Claire, these are DVDs."
"We can always exchange them for VHS."
The car keys came sailing back into his lap. "Maybe if you run your little self back to the car, you'll find the second half of your present in the backseat."
"A DVD player? But we both agreed we didn't need one, that our tapes are good enough."
Claire pulled her chair closer to his. "We don't need anything, Gil. As long as we have our life together, we don't need any of that other stuff. But I wanted you to have it. Just because. For fun, you know?"
"I know," he said, then kissed her.
SAME TIME, SAME MURDER. Copyright © 2005 by Robert J. Randisi and Christine Matthews. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.