Book excerpt

Extra Credit

A Murder 101 Mystery

Maggie Barbieri

St. Martin's Press

One
 

I wish I had seen that coming.
By “that,” I mean a beautiful crystal vase, one that my mother had lovingly carried across the border from her native Canada, rocking precariously after being knocked into by one of my party guests. My best friend, the former Father Kevin McManus, jumped to his feet, the muscle memory from his days as a boxer coming in handy as he leaped, one foot extended behind him, and caught it before it crashed to the dining room floor.
I mouthed a thank-you to him. The party was getting out of control, and as I try to live the most boring life possible, that was at odds with my usual Saturday nights in my small Westchester County village.
“Sing it, everyone! ‘And you look like one, too!’”
That’s my friend Max’s customary coda to “Happy Birthday,” a joke that never gets old. Well, maybe a little old. Thankfully, she was singing it at a birthday party for two nineteen-year-olds who were not above a little song, a little dance, and a little seltzer down your pants, as Chuckles the Clown used to say, but the rest of the partygoers were a little perplexed. Nobody really ever gets used to seeing a grown woman who is the size of a large child standing on a chair at the dining room table, wearing a paper party hat and Kanye West novelty sunglasses, singing at the top of her lungs.
But that’s Max and that’s how she rolls, as she reminds me every few days, when I try to point out that we’re getting past the age of wearing miniskirts, thigh-high boots, and blousy shirts with sayings on them. The closer we get to forty, the more she has begun dressing like a sixteen-year-old. Her husband, the gargantuan Fred Wyatt, didn’t seem to mind—he apparently preferred his wife to dress like a hipster going to an Arcade Fire concert than like the savvy businesswoman she used to portray and actually is.
My husband, Bobby Crawford, had brought two children into our marriage, twins Meaghan and Erin, both of whom looked a little shell-shocked to be surrounded by so many loved ones at one time, particularly on their birthday. Their mother, Christine, was in attendance with her second husband and family of four young stepchildren, two of them just past toddlerhood. In addition to the twins’ birthday, it was her return to the States after the family had lived in London for the past few years that was the occasion for this celebration. The girls were beyond thrilled; their mother had been gone too long for their liking, and they were happy to relieve me of my duties. Although I was not as close to Erin as I was to Meaghan, Erin and I had reached détente and she no longer referred to me as a word that rhymes with “witch.” I was just as happy as they that their mother had returned to mother them, allowing me to retire from my temporary career as “Alison Bergeron, Evil Stepmother.”
Christine’s brothers were also in attendance, including the girls’ inexplicably named Uncle Chick; they hadn’t laid eyes on him in a few years, but he had reappeared in the not-too-distant past and wanted to reconnect with his family. He rivaled Max for the title of “life of the party.” Chick, clad in bright red pants, white bucks, and a tight white T-shirt that gave new meaning to the expression “painted on,” gave a little bump and grind at the end of the song, knocking into the dining room table so hard that the cake jiggled in the center. I righted a bottle of wine that tipped perilously close to the edge and gave Crawford a look. In a case of “no good deed goes unpunished,” I had agreed to host this party and invite the two families together, not entirely sure what I had gotten myself into. Now it was clear: I had gotten myself into a raucous gathering of two very disparate tribes and wasn’t really prepared for what would transpire.
Chick held up an almost-empty bottle of Chardonnay and waved it in my face. “Do we need to make another run?” he asked.
If so, it would be our third run to the liquor store that night. The Stepkowski clan, Christine’s side of the family, had drunk every ounce of vodka, tequila, and wine that we had in the house. I’m married to an Irish cop and can drink with the best of them myself, but the Stepkowskis took the cake. Maybe that was what years of hanging around their father’s Upper West Side bar had done for them; they were hollow-legged, one and all. I looked over at Crawford, my eyes begging for a little help. “I think we’d better wrap it up on the liquor runs, Chick,” he said, a suggestion that Chick seemed to take in stride. It wouldn’t have surprised me to learn that he had his own stash of booze in his car or even planted somewhere in my house, just in case of emergency.
Christine’s other brother, Pavel, a.k.a. Paulie, wasn’t quite as accepting of that news. “You always were a killjoy, Crawford.”
Crawford, ever stoic, accepted this pronouncement with far more grace than it called for and disappeared into the kitchen. Kevin, bless his heart, attempted to engage Paulie in conversation, and Paulie’s attention was momentarily diverted. One thing I’ve found is that even if you aren’t a priest anymore, the fact that you were, to old-school Catholics, is enough. Nobody has the cojones to ignore—never mind disobey—the defrocked Kevin McManus.
I followed close behind Crawford, leaving Fred to cut the cake and shovel it onto paper plates so that we could call it a night.
It wasn’t that long ago that Crawford had put in his papers to retire from the police department, thinking that a life of leisure would suit him just fine. His “retirement” had lasted exactly two days and one house project gone horribly awry. (Suffice it to say that you shouldn’t attempt to replumb the basement for a new bathroom if you have spent your entire adult life solving homicides.) A mere forty-eight hours after he had turned in his badge—a development that I was overjoyed to see—I was begging him to reverse his decision and don the blue blazer, white shirt, rep tie, and dress slacks that he wore every day to a very dirty and very dangerous job. The saggy gym shorts and soiled T-shirt, his new uniform, just weren’t cutting it for me. It was shortly thereafter that we had learned that Christine would be coming back to town, and his decision was made; his girls would have their mother back in their lives, leaving him guilt-free to return to the job that really was his reason for being, although he was loath to admit it.
I joined him in the kitchen. Beyond the house, in the backyard, the children of the various family members were all hell-bent, it appeared, on torturing my dog, the wonderful Trixie Bergeron-Crawford, by denying the animal her favorite tennis ball. I opened the back door and whistled for her to come in. She raced past me and flew up the steps to the bedroom, where she took refuge under my bed, if the thump above my head was any indication.
Crawford was wiping the same spot on the counter over and over and gazing out the window over the sink. “They don’t have matches out there, right?” he asked, throwing his chin toward the kids playing on the grass.
“I don’t know,” I said, alarmed. “Why?”
“It just looks like they are trying to start a bonfire,” he said, sounding far less concerned than I thought he should. I guess that’s what twenty-plus years on the police department, half of them as a homicide detective, does to you. If dead bodies were commonplace, what was a simple bonfire, assembled by the combined broods of your ex-wife’s extended family?
“You still want more kids?” I asked, harking back to a conversation that we had started the night before but never finished.
He looked less sure than when he initially brought it up.
I looked at him. “I love your girls, but this party is over,” I said, pulling open the screen door and going outside. “Hey!” I called to the group of kids huddled together over a pile of sticks. I hadn’t bothered to learn their names, figuring such information would take up too much space in my already overloaded brain. I decided right then and there that I hated other people’s kids, a quality that was probably not really desirable in a teacher, my chosen profession. I flashed on Crawford’s eager and earnest face every time he held a baby and decided that was just one more thing that separated us; he loved kids and I could go either way, my opinion of children having been shaped by these types of experiences. The kids looked up and dispersed, something they seemed used to doing with regularity. It came very easily to the multiaged crowd.
I put my hand over the pile of sticks, thankfully cool, and turned to confront the remaining children, but the backyard was empty. Satisfied that we were out of danger for the time being, I went back inside, where Crawford was handing Paulie his jacket.
“So good to see you,” he said with fake cheer, clapping his former brother-in-law on the back. He had confessed to me earlier that he had banked on never seeing any of the Stepkowskis again once he and Christine had divorced, so entertaining them was a huge sacrifice that he was willing to make for his girls.
“But I didn’t finish my cake!” Paulie protested, taking the coat and marching toward the back door. Crawford followed him with a plate of cake in his hands.
“Here.” Crawford shoved the cake into Paulie’s solar plexus. “You can enjoy it on the way home.”
“But it’s ice cream cake,” Paulie said.
Crawford thought about that a moment. “Fine. Come back in.” He took Paulie’s coat again. “But after you eat it, the party is officially over.”
Chick came into the kitchen. “Wait. We didn’t do presents yet,” he said, pulling two envelopes out of his back pocket. “I want to give my nieces their presents.”
Everyone went back into the dining room, where Meaghan and Erin were still lapping up ice cream cake and Max was regaling the group with a story about the off-camera goings-on for her show Hooters: PIs, a program that had become a ratings juggernaut. I’m not going to explain what it is; the title says it all. All I heard was “popped implant,” which really was all I needed to hear. I pulled a finger across my throat to signal to Max that discussing the ins-and-outs of shooting a show about big-breasted waitresses who investigate cheating husbands really might not be acceptable cocktail-party conversation, but she wasn’t having it.
“And Miss Downtown Abbey over there thinks it isn’t highbrow enough,” she said, shooting me a look.
“It’s Down-ton Abbey, and no, I don’t think shows about waitresses beating up cheating husbands is highbrow,” I said. “Call me crazy.”
“You’re crazy,” she said. “Tell that to the Nielsen people. You should see our ratings.” She turned back to her rapt audience, a group who clearly didn’t think they’d see the two of us throw down about a show with such high drama, if Max’s description of it was any barometer. Max claims that I don’t think what she does is “art.” It’s not. It’s titillating and salacious and possibly entertaining, but “art”? Hardly. She shook her head. “She’s so dismissive of what I do.”
I took a seat at the head of the table while Crawford grabbed the presents off the sideboard and handed them to his daughters.
The girls whipped through them. To everyone’s credit, the twins each had a pile of individualized, personal gifts to open. There were Uggs boots for Erin and a ski pass for Meaghan from her mother and her husband, Tim; Paulie and his wife, Ava, gave them both gift cards to a bookstore chain; and Crawford and I had sprung for Tiffany charm bracelets for both. Chick waited a few seconds before ceremoniously handing each of them an envelope, their names written on the front in chicken scratch only he could read. The girls looked alternately at the envelopes in their hands, then their uncle, and then their mother, who had a grim expression on her face. Her history with her brothers obviously telegraphed something to her that none of the rest of us could see, and judging by the looks of it, it wasn’t going to be good.
“I love you guys more than words can say,” he said, tearing up a bit, “and I’m sorry I haven’t been in your lives more than I have.”
I looked over at Crawford, who was studying a scratch on the sideboard with great intensity. Emotional oversharing was not his cup of tea, and it looked like that was what we were in for. Kevin, on the other hand, was eating this up. This was the party he never would have been invited to or able to attend if he were still the chaplain at St. Thomas University, ministering to a bunch of reluctant students at a Catholic college.
“The last few years have been hard for me,” Chick said. “Life has not been easy, as you might have guessed. But I’m back, and I want to be with you and be there for the big days in your lives. Your weddings! Your first babies!”
Now it was the girls’ turn to look away. They were barely halfway through college and not thinking about husbands, weddings, and babies. Christine walked over to her brother and put her arm around his waist. “It’s getting late, Chick,” she said gently, obviously not the first time she’d extracted one or another of her brothers after he had overstayed his welcome.
I attempted to communicate with Crawford telepathically. “You owe me big-time,” I shot toward him, hoping that he could read my mind. He turned and looked at me. Apparently, he could.
Chick leaned into his sister. “I had to go away for a while. You know that,” he said, looking at the girls again. “After what happened in my life, things just kind of fell apart.”
It was a story almost all of the people in the room had heard before, judging from the sympathetic sounds and soft groans coming from them. Now, though, I had a feeling that we were going to get more details than we really wanted.
From behind her novelty sunglasses, Max chimed in. “What happened?” I heard Fred grunt in his wife’s direction. “What?” she whispered. “I don’t know what happened. It sounds good.”
With that, Chick fell apart, a combination of too much booze and too much sadness building up inside until he could no longer hold it together. Great, heaving sobs came out of the sturdy, barrel-chested man, the weight of what he was thinking too much to bear. “What happened?” he asked rhetorically, tears in his eyes, staring at a spot over Max’s head. “Well, I lost everything. My wife, my best friend, my business, my staff. It all went to hell in a suitcase.”
“Isn’t it ‘handbasket’?” Max whispered to no one in particular. Fred grunted again and this time added a little muscle. “Ow!” she exclaimed, rubbing the arm that her husband had just pinched to shut her up.
“My Sassy!” Chick cried. “My dear, sweet Sassy. I just wish it had worked out.”
I looked over at Crawford, who mouthed, “I’ll tell you later.”
In my mind, I figured it was a pet. A cockatiel, a lovely Maltese. What else could a being named Sassy be?
Kevin leaned against the dining room wall, his arms crossed over his chest. Finally, a family that was as dysfunctional as his own, he seemed to be thinking. That, or he was planning how to make a quick getaway. It was hard to say.
Chick rubbed a hand over his florid face and tried to compose himself. “Sorry … sorry. Like I said, I’m back, and I want to say that I love you all very much and I’m sorry for what I put you through. All those years when you weren’t sure where I was, weren’t sure what I was doing.” He paused dramatically. “I was just trying to survive.”
Christine, obviously the recipient of a batch of recessive genes that allowed her to be beautiful, smart, and poised, unlike her roughneck brothers, kissed Chick’s cheek and rubbed his back. “We’re glad you’re back, too, Chick. Now why don’t you give the girls their presents?” she asked.
He nodded. “I need to make amends,” he said.
“Oh, boy,” I telegraphed to Crawford, whose face had turned white.
“To you, Bobby,” Chick said, gesturing toward Crawford, who was now busy staring at a hole in a window screen at the back of the dining room, his hands shoved deep in his pockets. Why he hadn’t tackled that little home improvement job while he had been retired was anyone’s guess, opting instead for a plumbing project that was clearly beyond his skill set. “Look at me, man. I’m trying to say I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Crawford said quickly. “No need to apologize.”
“No, I want to, brother. I want to tell you how sorry I am that I never accepted you into the family. How I never thought you were good enough for my little sister. How I always thought you were kind of a big stiff.”
Max couldn’t resist another interjection. “He is kind of a big stiff,” she said. Fred, Crawford’s partner on the PD and his closest friend, glared down at her from his perch on the edge of the sideboard. “Well, he is…” She trailed off.
“Really, it’s fine,” Crawford said. He’s actually not a stiff, just what I would call “measured” in his response to things. If that made him a stiff, I was completely in. “Thanks for coming,” he said, moving toward Chick to usher him from the house.
“I’m not finished.”
Crawford froze.
“Alison, you seem like a very nice lady. I never saw this guy here,” he said, hooking a thumb in Crawford’s direction, “with a professor, but hey, life’s a funny thing, right?”
And getting funnier all the time, if Kevin’s stifled guffaw was any indication.
“I hope the two of you are very happy in your life together.”
“Thank you, Chick. It has been so nice having you,” I said, getting up and going over to give him a parting embrace. Before I got to him, he started again. Apparently, he wasn’t finished.
“Christine, I love you, sis. All the best to you and Tim,” he said, nodding toward Christine’s husband. Tim was kind of a stoic sort and so far seemed to have only one facial expression, a cross between concerned and confused. I was relieved to find that indeed he did have another expression, although fear wasn’t the one I would have chosen. Chick let out a huge exhale and threw his arms wide. “I’m back! And I’m happy to be here. So open your presents, girls!”
The girls looked at their father, still dumbstruck like the rest of us. Crawford nodded his assent, and they ripped into their envelopes, taking out identical cards and opening them up at the same time.
Meaghan was the first to speak, and what she said came out in a hoarse whisper. “It’s some money.” She had better manners than that, so I knew something had to be wrong.
Erin looked at her mother, and then her father, catching a hundred-dollar bill before it fluttered to the floor. “It’s not some money. It’s a lot of freaking money.”

 
Copyright ©2012 by Maggie Barbieri

MAGGIE BARBIERI is a freelance editor as well as a mystery novelist. Her father was a member of the NYPD, and his stories provide much of the background for her novels.