Dec 6 2013 12:00pm
An excerpt of Once Upon a Lie, the first book in the Maeve Conlon thriller series by Maggie Barbieri (available December 10, 2013).
Maeve Conlon's life is coming apart at the seams. Her bakery is barely making ends meet, and one of her daughters spends as much time grounded as the other does studying. Her ex-husband has a new wife, a new baby, and a look of pity for Maeve that's absolutely infuriating. Her father insists he's still independent, but he's slowly and obviously succumbing to Alzheimer's. And now, her cousin Sean Donovan has been found dead, sitting in his car in a public park, shot through the head.
There was never much love lost between Maeve and Sean, and she's not exactly devastated by his death, but suddenly the police are poking around asking the family questions. It's just one more hassle Maeve doesn't have time for, until she realizes that her father, whose memory and judgment are unreliable at best, is a suspect in the murder. Maeve is determined to clear his name, but is she prepared to cope with the dark memories and long-hidden secrets that doing so might dredge up?
The recipe was simple:
Take one old guy with budding Alzheimer’s, a cast of characters who had never met a potato they didn’t like, and a dead body in a closed casket. Add accusations and recriminations to taste. Mix well and bake for two hours from either three to five or seven to nine.
Voilà. Once everything cools to a simmering rage, you have an Irish wake.
Maeve had set aside exactly seventeen minutes for paying her respects to her cousin Sean. Any longer than that and she’d be late for Rebecca’s soccer game, something she had promised her oldest would never happen again after last week’s embarrassment. Being late to the game was bad enough, but forgetting the cut-up oranges? Apparently, that was an offense punishable by death. Or at least the collective stink eye from a bunch of mothers whose greatest daily decision was grande or venti.
Traveling with an octogenarian with a faulty short-term memory was slowing her down; she was now down to thirteen minutes. Add to that the uncomfortable creeping of a pair of unruly Spanx and Maeve could feel her composure begin to crack. “Come on, Dad. Let’s get in line,” she said after signing the guest book. She looked at the names of the other mourners who had signed in before she did and noted all of the usual suspects: the McDonoughs, the Dorseys, the Trainors. All were people from her past, and all were people who, if asked, would say that they had helped raise poor, motherless Maeve. All were people who probably felt at least partially responsible for the meager success she had achieved in life. All were people who had turned a blind eye to her situation and who were therefore partially responsible for what had happened to her.
She spied her father heading toward the Giordano wake across the hall; she grabbed his arm and pulled him back. It seemed definitely more appealing as wakes went, what with the tiny yet vociferous mourners and the misplaced scent of salami wafting out, but it was not Maeve and her father’s ultimate destination. Now down to just ten minutes of meaningful visitation, she hustled him into the black-clad queue of visitors that had formed in the short time it had taken her to write her name and address in the guest book. In her head, she was listing all of the items she’d need to pick up from the store after this jaunt, spectating at a soccer game, and shuttling her dad back to the assisted-living facility. Sean Donovan’s death, and the scheduling of his wake, had proven to be incredibly ill timed.
As they approached the casket, which was closed—much to the disappointment of the gaggle of Irishwomen from the neighborhood who had turned out—Maeve surveyed the room, her eyes settling on two guys who could have been family members, their ruddy complexions and ill-fitting suits two defining features of the Conlon men. It dawned on her quickly: cops. She had been raised by one and had spent enough time around his friends that she could spot one a mile away. Two? That was easy. When they traveled in pairs, they really stood out in a crowd. The rumpled blue suits and worn cordovan loafers were a dead giveaway, no pun intended. She didn’t have to wonder what they were doing there; Sean had been found in his car in a deserted section of Van Cortlandt Park, a hole in his head that he really didn’t need, as he was prone to saying while he was alive. That his pants were around his knees and he had a glove box full of unopened condoms didn’t lend credence to his wife’s story that he had gone out for a gallon of milk, but it did lend a layer of sordidness to the story that Maeve found more than a little amusing.
“What’re the po-po doing here?” Jack asked, nodding in the direction of the cops. Over at the inappropriately named Buena del Sol, a landlocked facility for people like Jack, they watched MTV a little more than Maeve would have cared for.
She shushed him and pulled him closer. His were failing faculties, but he was in good physical shape; even still, his strength, as he tried to pull away from her, was surprising.
“Why are we here?” he asked for not the first time that day.
“Sean, Dad. He died.”
He gasped, as he did every time she reminded him of the fact. “From what?”
In the past six days, she’d made up a different cause of death every time he asked, and she was running out of reasons her healthy, a little-over-half-century cousin had passed on. “Chronic diarrhea.”
“I hear that’s a terrible way to go,” Jack said, shaking his head sadly. He seemed genuinely chagrined despite the fact that Jack’s nickname for Sean while growing up was “shit for brains.”
Funny. She’d always thought that Jack would kill him.
The widow Donovan, Dolores, rooted in her rightful place in front of the casket, beckoned Maeve forward; Maeve felt that she had to oblige. She pulled Jack along with her, his focus on Sean’s toothsome eldest daughter, a girl who apparently thought that wearing a low-cut cocktail dress was the way to go at her father’s wake. When they finally arrived to pay their condolences, Dolores threw herself into Jack’s arms, the old man not entirely sure what he was to do with a hundred and eighty pounds of soft, quivering, taffeta-encased flesh. Maeve interceded and wedged herself between the woman and her father, whispering her condolences while wondering how she could extricate herself and Jack and get the hell out of Dodge without attracting anyone’s notice.
Two minutes to go. She raced over to the casket and knelt beside her father, his eyes closed in prayer. He may not have known who was in the casket, but he certainly remembered how to say a prayer for whoever it was. Jack was a daily communicant at the assisted-living facility, not remembering that in his old life—pre-Buena del Sol—he was a shitty Catholic who hadn’t been to church since his beloved wife’s funeral almost four decades earlier.
Maeve took in the flower arrangements piled high around the gleaming mahogany coffin; Dolores had spared no expense. She looked at the photo collage that Dolores had undoubtedly implored her daughters to create on behalf of their beloved father. Sean at the beach; Sean at the Yankee game. Sean with his hand on the shoulder of his nephew Brian as Brian was confirmed. Dolores and Sean’s wedding day. Maeve eyed the rosary beads draped over the top of the casket, wondering if Sean had even known how to say a decade of the rosary while he had walked the earth. To anyone watching, Maeve must have looked like a grief-stricken family member whispering her last good-byes to a beloved relative. She was certain she heard the sympathetic clucking of the old women who sat in the row of chairs directly behind her, touched by her studied composure in the face of an unspeakable tragedy.
Truth be told, she had more feelings for old man Giordano, laid out in the room across the hall, going to his eternal rest amid the cries of more emotional mourners, than she did for the man who lay beneath the wood on which her fingers were splayed.
“Bye, Sean,” she whispered. “See you in hell.”
The Spanx notwithstanding, Maeve was in a black mood by the time she got to the soccer game. Someone else had brought the oranges today; apparently, if the girls didn’t have them on the sidelines, one of them might die. But as with many things in her life, Maeve didn’t have the energy or the intensity to bring to the task and was glad that in addition to attending a wake in the Bronx, she hadn’t been given the role of “refreshment mom” today. She was already teetering on an emotional precipice and needed only one small push to send her careening over the side.
It was October, and with the dawning of the month came soccer and an inordinate amount of talking about citrus fruit and electrolytes. Maeve had been through it before and knew the script by heart.
Her car sat perpendicular to the field, offering her a splendid view of the game. Her cell phone rang as she was making the decision between removing the offending undergarment in her car or in the Porta-Potty adjacent to the field, both options presenting unique challenges. Charlene Harrison, the director of Buena del Sol, was in her usual high dudgeon. This time, she didn’t even offer a greeting when she heard Maeve’s voice.
“If he gets out again, he’s out of here.”
“He didn’t get out, Charlene,” Maeve said, hiking her skirt up. She did a quick check around the parking lot to make sure everyone was fixated on the game and not on her striptease. “I took him to a wake.” Jack was a wanderer, and the staff at Buena del Sol had strict orders—the guy got signed out by a responsible adult or stayed put. No ifs, ands, or buts. Jack, however, had other ideas, ideas that took him to the far reaches of Farringville and anywhere else he saw fit to go. As he reminded her almost daily, he was a grown man and grown men could do what they wanted, a statement that was only partially true. Grown men who had all of their faculties could do what they wanted; the others had to stay in the care of the staff of their assisted-living facility.
“Well, you didn’t sign him out.”
“I’m sorry?” Her dress now pulled up around her waist, she hooked a thumb into the waistband of her girdle. Charlene Harrison apparently had no idea that Maeve had more pressing matters, namely a pair of recalcitrant underpants that might require the Jaws of Life to free her from its binds.
“You should be. Do you know we almost called the police?”
“But you didn’t, right?” The last thing Maeve needed was to see her name, or that of her father, in the local paper’s police blotter. That would have tongues wagging for weeks, and she was already suspect, having gotten divorced several years earlier from a man who apparently preferred his spouses younger, fitter, and formerly the trophy wives of fellow parishioners at Blessed Sacrament Roman Catholic Church. She rolled down one side of the spandex underwear. “So we’re good?”
Charlene was letting out exasperated sighs on the other end of the phone. “We’re not good. We’re less than not good. The other night? That was inexcusable.”
“What happened the other night?”
“He was gone five hours as far as we can figure out,” Charlene said. “Could have been longer.”
That was news to Maeve. “Where was he?”
“We don’t know. All we know is that he came back on his own. So God knows, Ms. Conlon.” She paused. “God knows.”
“What night was this?” Maeve asked.
“Saturday. The twenty-ninth.”
Saturday, the twenty-ninth was the day Sean was murdered. Maeve would ask him about it, but it wouldn’t do any good. He wouldn’t have any recollection of where he had been. He told her once that he liked to walk to the park down by the river, but that was a good three-mile walk from Buena del Sol. At eighty, was he really capable of making a six-mile round-trip journey? If so, Maeve gave him credit. He couldn’t remember where his shoes were, but he could find his way to and from the park. The mind—his mind—was an incredible thing.
Charlene was still talking. “Just remember to sign him out next time.”
“Will do,” Maeve said, and snapped her phone shut. Both hands free, she pulled off the Spanx, one leg getting tangled in her stiletto heel before she threw both of them on the passenger seat, taking in deep breaths. Never again would she take for granted the ability to breathe deeply from her diaphragm. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes, wondering how long it would be before she had to tackle the onerous task of finding another home for Jack. This was his second, and the last one in the immediate vicinity. He had a bit of a wandering jones, and that made him wholly unsuited to life in an assisted-living facility, where people like Jack needed to be present and accounted for at all times.
She wondered how to get him placed under house arrest. An ankle monitor on her elderly father would be just the ticket to take one stress off her plate, but she was sure they were practically impossible to come by on the open market.
Now that she could breathe, she watched the game, noticing Rebecca on the sidelines scanning the crowd for her mother. Maeve knew she couldn’t spend the entire game in the car, even though that was her inclination and something she did on a fairly regular basis. It didn’t endear her to the other moms, and it incensed Rebecca, who felt that her mother needed to be front and center, cheering for the daughter who was playing for a college scholarship and a way out of this “sucky town,” as she liked to refer to it. Maeve had the good sense not to tell her it was actually a sucky “village,” Rebecca not really caring what Farringville was, technically.
She put her shoes back on and made her way down to the bleachers, her high heels unsuited to picking over gravel and grass, her dress feeling tighter now that she didn’t have anything pushing her belly back toward her spine. She passed a group of mothers, some of them her friends, most with an unnatural devotion to soccer, and took her place on the lowest bleacher in the stands, closest to the field but with the best view of the chain-link fence. She didn’t have the energy to climb any farther, so it would have to do. During the next time-out, she waved to Rebecca, making sure her daughter saw that she was there, in the stands, and cheering as though her life depended on it.
Sitting on the top row was her fifteen-year-old, Heather, and with her was a boy that Maeve recognized from Rebecca’s grade who was grade-A trouble. Maeve filed that away for later, thinking that she would have to tread lightly to find out about this new boy and what he had to do with her youngest. Heather avoided her mother’s gaze and was probably trying her best to squelch the embarrassment she felt at having a mother who thought nothing of showing up at a soccer game in a black dress and heels. Heather wasn’t much different from Jack when it came to memory; although Maeve had reminded her that she would be attending Sean’s wake, by the time the sentence was out of her mouth, Heather was on to something else, something in which she was the star and the only person who mattered.
If hell had a sound track, it was the sound of a bunch of overeager suburban mothers screaming the names of their daughters over and over and over again. If Maeve never heard Marcy Gerson scream the name “MEER-ANNN-DAAHHH” again, it would be too soon. That high-pitched wail haunted her dreams, even though otherwise she found Marcy pleasant to be around. Maeve plastered a smile on her face and clapped enthusiastically as the girls ran back onto the field, their time-out over.
She looked up to see her ex, Cal, slide in next to her, his infant son strapped to his chest, facing forward, his little arms flailing as Cal rearranged himself so that he could sit comfortably on the bleacher. Devon was Charles “Cal” Callahan’s latest accessory, the baby’s mother, Gabriela, being the second. He turned and waved at Heather, who gifted him with a big smile and a wave that looked sincere.
When it came to her daughters, Maeve accepted her role as creator and nurturer of all things bad and inconvenient, but she didn’t relish it.
“Glad you could come. What’s Gabriela up to? Writing a column telling us all why we should be wearing cerulean this season?” she asked, not proud. Sarcasm in this instance was beneath her, and she bit back more biting words that would just illustrate how bitter she was that her onetime friend was now her former husband’s wife.
“What’s the score?” he asked, ignoring her. He was good at that.
Maeve pointed at the scoreboard. “Three–two. We’re losing.”
Cal gave her a once-over. “I didn’t realize this game called for formal attire,” he said, pulling a cloth diaper from his back pocket and wiping the baby’s mouth.
“Oh, right.” Cal focused on the game while continuing the conversation. “How was that?”
Maeve pulled a pair of sunglasses out of her purse and put them on. “The usual. A bunch of old biddies from the neighborhood, Father Madden…”
“He’s still around?”
Father Madden had married them a long, long time ago and had been very disappointed to learn that the vows hadn’t “taken.” “He is. He’s doing the funeral in the morning.”
Maeve jumped to her feet as Rebecca launched one toward the goal, hitting the goalpost. A collective groan spread through the crowd. “To the funeral?”
The baby started fussing and Cal pulled a bottle out of his cargo shorts. He handed it to Maeve. “Hold this?” He unstrapped the baby and took him out of the contraption on his chest, sitting him upright in his lap, still facing forward. The baby was obviously a soccer fan; he was more animated than Maeve had ever seen him. Cal put the bottle in the baby’s mouth and he sucked greedily. “There was never any love lost between the two of you.”
“Me and Sean?” she asked. “You think?”
Cal watched the game until the ref blew the whistle, signaling the end of the first quarter. “I could never figure it out. He seemed like an amiable sort.”
They always do, Maeve thought. Instead, she shrugged in response.
“Jack doesn’t want to go? Granted, he was your mother’s nephew, but still…”
“Jack isn’t entirely sure who died or why. I think he’ll be fine with not attending.”
The baby finished the bottle in record time, and Maeve braced herself for the inevitable projection of undigested formula that was bound to come her way. Cal threw the baby over his shoulder to burp him. “How’s business?”
“Great,” Maeve lied.
Cal gave her a sideways glance. “Still making your fortune one cupcake at a time?”
“Something like that.”
“You’ll let me know if you need help? Especially with the wholesale thing? That’s where the money is.” The baby let out a burp that sounded as if it had started at his toes; Maeve put a little distance between herself and the baby, but the burp was unproductive. “Let me know,” he repeated.
Never. “Of course. We’re doing great, Cal. No worries.” It was typical of most of her conversations with Cal: he knew just enough and not really enough. As a result, he was low on the list of people from whom she sought advice. She went to him only if she had to and could count on one hand how many times that had been.
He finally got caught up enough in the game to leave her alone. Although he was now a stay-at-home father, the attorney in him had never completely disappeared. Once, she was used to his interrogations, but now she was out of practice and had to stay on her toes so that she didn’t let on the things she didn’t want him to know. The wholesale deal was done, gone the way of a larger manufacturer in Brooklyn who could produce cookies at an alarming speed and for far less money than Maeve’s two-person operation.
She was able to cheer when Rebecca scored a goal early in the third quarter, and feel dismay when the game became a runaway for the other team in the final minutes of the fourth. Her mind was still in the Bronx, though, and back at the funeral home. She wondered just how much damage the bullet had done to Sean’s brain. Was death instant or had he lingered even a few seconds before dying? Did he know what was coming—not him, obviously—when the passenger-side door of the car had opened and someone had slid into the seat? Did he know it was the end or did he think he deserved one more chance? Did he have any regrets at all?
She wondered about all of this, not noticing that Cal was talking to her. “Huh?”
“A hobby,” he said, taking the baby off his shoulder.
“Yeah. You work twelve hours a day and when you’re not working, you’re taking care of the girls. Or your dad. You need a break.” He shoved the baby’s chubby legs into the carrier. “You need to do something for you.”
“Like tennis?” It was the only thing she could think of that women her age did when they were at a loss for other things to do.
“Sure. Like tennis.”
Maeve mulled that over. A hobby.
“Find something meaningful. Something that would help you relax.” He stood, pulling the baby’s feet through the holes in the carrier. “Or if it makes more sense, something that would help other people. Because if I know you, that drives you more than anything.” He was smiling, but she could sense the dig inherent in that. Doing for others and not for him. For him, that had been the downfall of her marriage.
Maeve’s mind was racing. “Or a combination of all three of those things.” You know what would help me relax? she thought. You shutting up. The smile never left her face.
Cal looked as though he had hit on something. “Right! Meaningful, relaxing, and helpful to others. That sounds like the perfect combination for you.” He leaned over and kissed the top of her head. “Now you just have to figure out what that might be.”
Maeve looked up, her ex-husband’s handsome face backlit by the late afternoon sun. She smiled. “I’ll give it some thought, Cal.” She was glad she had left the Spanx in the car. If they’d been in her bag, handy, she might have been inclined to strangle him with them, right in front of every mother in the stands. No jury in the land would convict her, she always thought, particularly if it were truly a jury of her peers: overworked, underappreciated wives and mothers who just wanted someone to clean the toilet when it was dirty and pick up a gallon of milk when there was none. Instead, she continued smiling, thinking of how she used to ignore the way he patronized her, sometimes even finding it just short of charming, chalking it up to his concern for her. Now, though, it got under her skin the way a lot of things did, things that never used to bother her but now made her blood boil, like rude customers at the store or people who let their officiousness and position hold sway over her, making her fear the worst. People like Charlene Harrison, who couldn’t contain one old man in an assisted-living facility that was a good three miles from the river the man loved so much.
“Hey, what are you thinking about?” Cal asked.
Nothing. Everything. “Just all the things on my to-do list.”
“I’ve got the girls this weekend,” he said.
She knew. Unlike him, she never forgot where the girls needed to be or what they required to live happy lives in this little village. Her brain was full, way fuller than his, with details about everyone else’s lives. How she managed to keep everything straight, while he could barely account for himself most days, was a mystery she had yet to solve. Maybe it was like the late George Carlin used to say: Women are crazy and men are stupid. And the reason that women are crazy is because men are stupid. Maeve ran through the list of activities scheduled for the girls while in Cal’s care. “And don’t forget that Heather is grounded.”
“She’s here now,” he said, pointing to his middle child, high up in the bleachers.
“This doesn’t count. She’s supporting her sister,” Maeve said, although she didn’t entirely believe it. “She wants to go to a party this weekend, but she’s grounded from going.”
Cal raised an eyebrow. “For?”
“Unauthorized Facebook use.”
“I don’t even know what that is.”
“And you don’t want to know,” she said, adjusting herself on the bleachers. It entailed putting something on Rebecca’s wall that detailed her older sister’s extensive morning toilette, inviting derision from many of Rebecca’s own classmates, not to mention Heather’s. “She doesn’t go to the party. Under any circumstances.”
He gave her a salute. “Got it, chief.”
She let that go, as it wouldn’t be the last time she would tell him about the grounding, nor would it be the last time he gave her a contemptuous salute. Pick your battles, she said to herself, breathing deeply. Even those that she chose to fight she might not win, so choosing carefully would be her goal. She looked up at him again.
Why did I ever love you? she thought. She probably knew the answer to that question, but sifting through the various emotions would take time she did not have.
Copyright © 2013 by Maggie Barbieri.
To learn more about, or order a copy, visit:
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.