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TWO

SCOTT POPPER LOOKED GOOD dead.

I mean, he looked good when he was alive, too, but the nice folks at Crane's Funeral Home really did a fantastic job. Crashing his car into a telephone pole at high speed could hardly have been kind to his face, but two days later here he was, open casket and all, looking just as handsome as ever.

And only a bit less animated than usual.

Now, that was mean. I'd spent little time around Scott, and even that in fairly large groups. That wasn't really enough to form a studied opinion regarding someone's social skills. Maybe he wasn't always as dull as he'd been in my presence. Maybe he was just shy. Even if they don't always deserve it, I do try to give the dead the benefit of the doubt.

In the pew beside me, Barr's attention flicked from face to face, ever watchful, more out of habit than for any other reason. Scott lay in peaceful repose at the front of the church. Low music seeped out of speakers hidden behind tapestries in the apse of St. Luke's Catholic Church, the droning organ underscoring whispered voices and the rustle of clothing as people settled into their seats. Summer was only two days old, and the warm June air smelled of greenery and Murphy's Oil Soap. I eyed the gleaming wood pews. It must take hours to wipe them all down.


I sighed inwardly. This probably wasn't the best time to ask Barr what he'd been going to tell me before Scott's accident. I watched him out of the corner of my eye, admiring how he looked in his dress uniform while trying not to look obvious. I loved how his chestnut-colored hair was streaked gray at the temples, how his slightly hooked nose looked in profile, how his dark brown eyes could be warm and inviting when he looked at me, but hard as obsidian when the occasion called for it.

He frequently darted looks at Scott in the glossy walnut casket, then jerked his gaze away as if it were painful to look upon the dead for long. His eyes rested on Scott's wife, and the muscles of his jaw slackened; he'd been clenching his teeth. Raw pity flashed across his face for a moment, then was gone, replaced with his usual mask of easy-going stoicism.

I touched his arm. He squeezed my hand in return.

Chris was a decorative blacksmith. You probably don't have to be a big-boned, muscular gal in order to form the elaborate metal pieces that she created, but it couldn't hurt. Nearing six feet in height, with shoulders like a linebacker, her exposed arms rippled with muscles. She wore a simple black sheath to her husband's funeral, and her straight, peanut-butter-blonde hair hung lank on either side of her wide cheekbones, framing an expressionless face that was notable more for its precise symmetry than for classic beauty. Her blue eyes stared forward, unseeing.


Remembering how I'd felt when I'd attended my own husband's funeral almost six years previously, I could understand the confused numbness that must have swamped her. My heart ached with empathy. At least with Mike's lymphoma, I'd had a little time-far too little, but still-to prepare for his death. But dying in a car accident is a sneak robbery, an unexpected blow to those left behind for which there is no preparation. Suddenly, the rest of Chris Popper's life looked different than she ever could have imagined.

She was surrounded by Ruth Black, Irene and Zak Nelson and Jake Beagle. Jake's wife, Felicia, perfectly coifed and dressed to the nines, stood a little ways away, talking with Ruth's ninety-year-old Uncle Thaddeus.

But someone was missing. "That disrespectful little wench," I whispered.

Barr glanced over at me. "Who?"

"Ariel. Ariel Skylark. From the co-op. Tiny, blonde, sticks blobs of paint on great big canvases, then calls it modern art? She's not here."

He shook his head. "Sorry. Have I met her?"

"I guess not." I was pretty sure any man who met Ariel remembered the occasion.

Her absence was conspicuous, though. CRAG was closed for the funeral, so there was no need for anyone to mind the store. It was downright rude of her not to show up.

The door to the street slammed shut. Daylight winked out save the dim glimmer of the stained glass windows arching above. The last viewers turned away from the coffin and found seats on the aisle as the funeral director quietly lowered the coffin lid. The priest appeared, and the funeral began.



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