Pamela Paterson was enjoying her coffee, her crumb cake, and the welcoming atmosphere of her best friend’s kitchen. She was not, however, enjoying the conversation.
“We agreed,” she said at last, “that you would never again bring up the topic of Richard Larkin.”
Bettina Fraser stopped in mid-sentence, and the cheer that usually animated her mobile features vanished. “I was just saying that Wilfred had a chat with Rick this morning about gardening,” she said. “It’s May and everyone’s thinking about their yards and Richard Larkin lives right across the street. Wilfred and I can hardly avoid him. I wasn’t saying anything about . . . you know . . .” Bettina shook her head sadly. “I’ve given up on that.”
Pamela sighed. “I know. It’s just . . .” She stared into her coffee mug.
Richard Larkin was a handsome single man who had bought the house next to Pamela’s a few years earlier. His interest in Pamela had been immediate and obvious, but despite Bettina’s encouragement and even Pamela’s own daughter’s approval, Pamela had resisted his overtures. No one, she believed, could replace the dear husband she’d lost in a tragic accident long ago.
As the ensuing silence threatened to become uncomfortable, Bettina leapt up from her chair. The sudden motion startled Woofus the shelter dog, who had been napping in his favorite spot, sprawled against the kitchen wall. He watched for a moment as Bettina leaned toward Pamela, then lowered his shaggy head and closed his eyes.
“Let me warm up your coffee,” Bettina chirped, reaching for Pamela’s mug. “And I’m ready for another piece of crumb cake. How about you?”
Pamela had eaten barely half the piece already on her plate. She let Bettina take her mug and she picked up her fork and teased off a bite of crumb cake as if to acknowledge Bettina’s peacemaking gesture. “It’s delicious,” she said, “but I’m still working on my first piece.”
Bettina carried Pamela’s mug and her own past the high counter that separated the eating area of her kitchen from the cooking area. “I’ll just warm the carafe a bit,” she murmured from the stove, and she returned a few minutes later with two steaming mugs.
“I don’t see how you can drink it black,” she observed as she added a liberal amount of sugar to her own mug and followed with a generous dollop of heavy cream.”
“Habit, I guess.” Pamela shrugged.
“That’s why you’re thin and I’m not.” The comment was more a statement of fact than a lament. Bettina wasn’t thin, and she wasn’t tall, but she loved fashion. Though she and Pamela lived in a small suburban town, Bettina’s wardrobe would have delighted even the most chic urbanite. Pamela’s lack of interest in the clothes her tall, slim body could have displayed to such advantage was a constant mystery to her friend.
Bettina stirred her coffee and added a bit more cream, then helped herself to another square of crumb cake from the platter before her. But before she could take up her fork again, the doorbell chimed. Woofus raised his shaggy head and cast a troubled glance in Bettina’s direction.
“It’s okay, boy,” she cooed in a soothing voice as she rose and headed for the doorway that led to the dining room and the living room beyond. The next moment, her powers to soothe were put to a more demanding test.
Pamela heard the front door open and from the living room came Bettina’s voice, tinged with both urgency and alarm, saying, “Oh you poor dear! Whatever is the matter?”
The response was an indistinct high-pitched muddle followed by a pause. The words that followed the pause were, however, enunciated clearly: “And she was dead!”