DEADLY ADVICE by Roberta Isleib

Chapter One

“Single again? Opportunity not tragedy!”

Dear Dr. Aster: After twenty-nine years of marriage, I'm single again. I won’t bother you with the whole pathetic story of how it came to be. But now I’m ready to dive back in to the dating world. What's the best place to meet potential partners? No singles bars please. I'm not looking for Mr. Goodbar and I don't drink anyway. Thanks in advance. Sincerely, Ready to Rock n' Roll.”

Dear Ms. Rock n' Roll: May I assume you've taken the advice I've given other readers (wink, nudge), and spent enough time alone to sort out what went wrong in your marriage? If so, get ready for a strange adventure! Believe me, the world has changed since you were last on the dating scene. You have dozens of online dating services at your fingertips offering many potential new friends. The key here is to use these services wisely and screen the respondents with care.

On the other hand, your question makes a very good, old-fashioned point: Why not meet someone with similar interests rather than a lounge lizard? Are you a tennis player? Sign up for a round robin of mixed doubles. Always wanted to play golf? Take a clinic at your local country club. Bridge, crafts, town politics, writing, church committees…the opportunities are as wide open as your interests and imagination. Even if Prince Charming doesn’t show up, you’ll have spent pleasant and productive time doing the things you love! Good luck and be careful!”

I leaned back in my chair and grimaced at the screen. Good luck and be careful! Sheesh. I write the “Late Bloomer” advice column in Bloom!, an online magazine. As a clinical psychologist taught to believe that unraveling human angst takes time, suffering, and lots of patience, playing the e-zine's expert in life confidences and love doesn't exactly come naturally. And my new editor, Jillian, is pressing hard to “youthanize” the magazine and take the women’s market by storm. I’ve had to push back, explaining that any woman can feel like a late bloomer, not just senior citizens.

But hassles aside, the column pays handsomely. And the divorce hit my wallet hard, even though it may have been good for my soul. May have.

I skimmed the draft one last time. The advice wasn’t bad and the tone was chipper, but somehow it fell a little flat. Just desserts for waiting until my drop deadline—I could feel Jillian panting at the other end of the high-speed cable, definitely pissed that she had to stay late on Friday. That kind of pressure doesn’t help Dr. Aster much when she’s trying for the breezy but personal wisdom readers expect.

Besides, I hate to push golf too hard on lonely housewives—it’s D-U-L-L, expensive, and impossible to master if you haven’t been fitted for clubs as an infant. On the other hand, you will find men on the golf course. They might have plaid pants hitched up over their beer guts, but they have the requisite anatomical features. And interest can be feigned—I did a damn good job of faking it while dating a golf psychologist last spring.

I hit send, swearing I’d start next Friday’s column this weekend. Then I went out to the waiting area and spent a few minutes straightening magazines and swabbing fingerprints off the coffee table’s glass top with Windex. Apparently my colleagues’ current caseloads don’t include obsessives. All square, I locked the doors and drove to the Hunan Wok.

On the twenty-minute ride home to my Guilford condo, the smell wafting from the back seat filled the car, nearly driving me mad. If it hadn’t been raining, I would have pulled over. I’ve learned the hard way not to carry Chinese take-out within reaching distance after a long week of listening to people’s problems. For me, drama and tragedy are great appetite stimulants. Last month, trapped for forty minutes in Friday’s rush hour traffic over the Q-bridge and through the construction zone out of New Haven, I opened the dumpling container at the half hour mark. And what are dumplings without dipping sauce? Both my upholstery and my brand-new, barely-out-of-the-plastic, three-hundred-dollar Eileen Fisher pantsuit had required professional dry-cleaning. Sometimes a physical barrier is the only way to avoid temptation.

I turned off Route One, drove past the town green, up Whitfield Street, and onto Soundside Drive. Flashes of red and blue bounced off the treetops like a bizarre outdoor disco scene. Police again? I had to lay odds on the Nelson couple at the end of the row. They’ve threatened to punch each other’s lights out several times over the past six months, screaming loudly enough for the neighbors to move from orange to red and call the cops. Mrs. Dunbarton, self-appointed condo captain, pressured me to check in on them two weeks ago.

I tried to weasel out of the assignment. “Even the cops don’t like getting involved in domestic disputes. It’s dangerous.”

“But you are trained in this, aren’t you dear?” Mrs. Dunbarton said. A real professional could handle this no problem, was clearly the implication.

So I buckled and knocked on their door—softly. Maybe they wouldn’t hear and I could go home and tell the old biddy I tried. But the Nelsons had answered together, breathing whiskey clouds but admitting nothing, deflecting my tentative expressions of concern. The ranks had closed, at least against the outside world. At least against a nosy neighbor.

I glanced at my watch. Just before eight o’clock. Both Nelsons worked until six. Unlikely that they’d already had enough to drink to launch their cycle and force the complex into high alert. Besides, their end unit was completely dark.

A fire then? I sniffed the air and pressed on the accelerator, my neck muscles stiffening with fear. My sister Janice had nagged me for years to make copies of the family photos. And I’d meant to transfer my financial files to the safe deposit box. And my cookbook collection…my mother’s signed copy of The Joy of Cooking

Around the bend, there were no fire trucks in sight, but two patrol cars and a white minivan had parked in front of the condo next to mine, partially blocking my driveway. I sucked in a deep breath, grabbed my purse and an old newspaper, and struggled into a khaki raincoat—the one my ex-husband Mark insisted made me look like Sal Spade. Dumb bugger couldn’t even get his insults straight. I held the newspaper over my head against the rain and dashed to the plastic-covered policeman lounging beside the nearest cruiser.

“Excuse me, Officer. I’m Dr. Rebecca Butterman. I live next door.” I gestured to my own apartment with my purse. “What’s going on?”

“Sorry Miss,” said the uniformed man. He looked babyishly young, with a buzz haircut and a round, pink face. “Can’t really tell you anything. But the detective will want to speak with you. Hold on. I’ll call him.”

He switched his umbrella to his left hand, put his rosebud mouth to his walkie-talkie, and reported that a next-door neighbor was now available for interview. The rain began to pelt us in earnest.

A burly man in rumpled khakis and a tweed jacket emerged from the condo clutching a battered black umbrella. He strode across the lawn in our direction, then peered at me over his rain-spattered reading glasses.

“I’m Detective Jack Meigs,” he said in a deep voice. Bass, if he were singing. He extracted a wallet from his back pocket and flashed an ID. “Dr. Butterball?”

“Butterman,” I snapped.

“Sorry.” He nodded at my unit. “You live here?”

“Yes.” I frowned, swallowing another jolt of fear. “Has something happened to my neighbor?”

A third police car wheeled onto my street and cruised to a stop several yards behind Meigs. The boyish face of the young cop bobbed up to greet the arriving uniform.

“What’s up?” the new officer asked him.

“Woman ate her gun,” the rosebud lips reported, plenty loud enough to overhear.

My mouth went dry.

Meigs nudged a damp, reddish curl off his forehead, turned to the young cop, and pointed to the last cruiser. “Wait there,” he said in a grim voice.

He turned back to me. “Sorry about that. It appears to be a simple suicide.”

“Suicide?” Questions pressed into my mind, especially, why?

“What happened?” I asked the detective. “When did—?”

“Do you have a moment?” said Detective Meigs, already grasping my elbow and propelling me toward the unmarked van.

I hoisted myself into the passenger seat of the detective’s minivan, woozy and nauseous with disbelief. There’s no such thing as a simple suicide—this was hammered home to me in graduate school fifteen years ago. “The natural human urge toward preservation of self is so powerful, that rage, hopelessness, or despair has to be that much stronger to overcome it,” I remembered Dr. Novick telling my class. “Some of you will face the suicide of one of your own patients during your career.”

We’d squirmed in our seats. Which one of us would fail in such a staggering way? And why? Novick went on to lecture us about the emotional toll taken on the people left behind. Just say I’m careful—obsessive, my psychiatrist ex-husband Mark would tell you—when one of my patients hints at suicide. I don’t want to feel the terrible weight of having missed a signal they tried to send.

“Were you acquainted with the deceased?” asked the detective.

“We were neighbors. I live next door.”

My neighbor—Madeline was her name—had cooked out several nights earlier. She’d filled her small black Weber with charcoal briquettes, then soaked them with lighter fluid. Half an hour later, she’d grilled one hamburger. Hockey puck territory, I’d guessed, from the length of time it sat on the coals. I waved at her from my deck while watering the last of my impatiens and a pot of declining cherry tomatoes.

“I guess fall’s on its way,” I remembered saying to her. “It always makes me feel a little sad.” Damn. Just what a depressed person would not need to hear. Had she been depressed? Angry? Hopeless? Not that any of that would necessarily show itself in a casual chat.

“I didn’t know her well,” I told the detective, feeling sharp rumblings of guilt. “Enough to say hello.” I felt my lips twitch. Better tell the whole truth. “We had coffee once, but you know how things are—everyone’s busy. You mean to get together again, but it doesn’t happen.”

“Notice anything unusual the night of September 7? Visitors? Did she try to get in touch with you? Phone calls? Anything like that?”

I shook my head slowly. “We weren’t close.”

“Were you at home that evening?”

I rummaged through my purse and extracted my Palm Pilot. It seemed important to be exact. “After nine.”

“Did you hear a shot?”

I swallowed hard and looked at my calendar again. “Jesus. She’s been dead for two days?”

I pictured the woman eating a hamburger and then holding the gun to her head. Two thin layers of sheetrock separated the length of our condominium units. My neighbor never seemed to sleep: Sometimes I could follow the dialogue in the TV program she was watching—mostly crime dramas and sports. Yet in the case of a fatal gunshot, I hadn’t heard anything. How was that possible? You couldn’t hear it if you weren’t home, Rebecca.

My eyes began to tear up and I groped in my bag for a Kleenex. Dammit. I hate to cry in front of other people.

“You okay?” grunted the detective.

“I’ll be fine. I’m a psychologist,” I said. Which sounded ridiculous. I flipped the visor and checked the mirror—my hair hung in dark clumps and rivulets of mascara ran down my cheeks. Drowned rat territory. I dabbed at the worst of it, patted my nose, and stuffed the tissue back in my purse. “Would you mind telling me where you found her?”

Meigs paused. “You’re a psychologist?”

I nodded.

“What kind?”

“Clinical—private practice and adjunct faculty at Yale. Anxiety, depression, marital problems. I handle basic human unhappiness, more or less.” It’s always hard to summarize the job without sounding glib.

“Then you’re familiar with the way this works. Some of them like to leave a big mess behind. This lady was neat—or at least she tried. Bathtub.” He handed me a card. Detective Jack Meigs, Guilford Police Department. “Call if you think of anything that could be useful. But from this side, it looks open and shut.”

“Did she suffer?” I asked. Could I have saved her?

“It looked as though she intended to die fast,” said Meigs.

“Did she leave a note?”

Meigs shrugged. “We’ll take care of it from here.”

“Have you notified her family?” Who was her family? I couldn’t remember seeing anyone visit regularly. Not that I studied the woman’s habits. Not that I really knew a damn thing about her.

“We’ll take care of it.”

I gathered my things and pushed open the car door. An ambulance, silent but lights flashing, rolled up to the curb. Meigs swung open his door, stepped into the rain, and went to confer with the driver. Then he climbed Madeline’s steps, wiped his sensible brown oxfords on the mat, and disappeared into her condo.

Stopping to pluck the newspaper off the curb, I slipped back into my Honda and drove around the cruiser into the driveway. I tapped the clicker clipped to my visor. A wash of light spread over the bushes and the small yard in front of my unit. I parked, entered the apartment through the garage, and punched my code into the burglar alarm, just grateful I’d remembered to set it this morning.

All clear.

Dropping my stuff on the kitchen counter, I poured a generous glass of Lindemann’s Chardonnay. Suddenly ravenous, I tore open the sack of Chinese food and polished off most of the Szechwan chicken standing over the sink.

Through the rain-splashed window, I watched two young cops bump a gurney down the steps next door and roll my neighbor’s body to the ambulance. I turned away. It surprised me that Meigs had let slip the comment about the woman being neat. Sometimes, in a profession like that one, you must have a terrible urge to unload the haunting details.

After midnight, with my body still churning in the sheets, my mind kept circling back to Madeline. She had laid twenty feet from me—dead—for two days—and no one had noticed. Including her closest neighbor, me. Wasn’t that every single woman’s worst nightmare?

Who had finally noticed that Madeline was missing?