It wasn't the food. Happy Haven Retirement Community's chef prepared delicious, artistically plated roast beef and mashed potatoes every Sunday evening.
Emma Twiggs set down her fork. No, the food wasn't the problem.
It wasn't the chatter or the whispers in the dining room, or the sidelong glances of other Happy Haven residents. Happy Haven was a hotbed of gossip and rumors. Being the topic du jour was familiar territory.
It certainly wasn't her dinner companion. Arnie Bracken was always charming, kind, and intelligent, no matter what her best friend Olli thought.
No, food, chatter, and Arnie, combined or singular, were not the cause of her uneasiness.
The problem –
"I know what you're thinking, Em," Arnie said.
"Do you?" She picked up a glass of lemon-spritzed water and tried to swallow past the tightness in her throat. She could only hope he had no idea of what she was thinking.
"Sure." He leaned forward and lowered his voice. "You're wondering how someone as fit as Jo accidentally drowned in the swimming pool."
Emma froze. Her fingers tightened on the glass. The chatter in the room faded into muted background noise. She had deliberately not been thinking about Jo. She would not think about Jo. How did Arnie know she'd been thinking about Jo?
"I'll tell you how," he said. "Jo was murdered, and Cahan murdered her."
"I am not thinking about – Murdered?" The lump in her throat expanded to the size of the Brussels sprouts on her plate. "By Todd?"
"Murdered. By Cahan. And we need to prove he did the deed."
"Arnie." Emma set the glass on the table and uncurled her fingers from it. She coughed to clear the non-existent Brussels sprout from her throat. "The paramedics told us Jo's death was accidental. An accidental drowning."
"Yeah, I know all the euphemisms they used."
Emma did too. The headline in Harmony Notes, the local daily, had read TRAGIC ACCIDENT AT HAPPY HAVEN. Unfortunate was the word murmured most frequently at the funeral service, followed closely by regrettable.
She said, "Harmony's police department and the district medical examiner agreed with the paramedics, Arnie."
A trickle of condensation wept down the side of the glass and puddled into a teardrop on the table. All the words used to describe Jo's death were wrong. Wrong and inadequate. Words were inadequate now too.
Because this was the problem she had been avoiding.
Her role in Jo's death.
"I did the research on the internet," Arnie said. "Drowning victims either sink or float. The outcome depends on factors like how much salt is in the water, the temperature of the water, and the body's buoyancy."
Arnie went on, explaining a physics law called the Archimedes' principle, water displacement, and bodily gases released in decomposition. Each word was as sharp as bullet casings pinging off pavement.
"She died in the water." He wrapped up his gruesome recitation and tapped the table with his index finger to make his point. "Bottom line is, Jo's death doesn't add up."
Emma grasped the bottom line. Jo had sunk instead of floating in Happy Haven's pool. That meant she'd had little or no air in her lungs at the time of her death.
"And that's not all." Arnie checked to make sure no one in the crowded dining room was listening. He leaned forward and began talking about investment portfolios, wills, insurance policies, and beneficiaries.
She shivered. Arnie was as reliable as the numbers he calculated for Happy Haven's finance department in his part-time job there. He hadn't reached his horrifying conclusion on a whim.
But was he right? Everybody else thought Jo's death was an accident. Accidents happened every day. People died every day.
Jo herself had said so a week ago, during what had turned out to be their last conversation. "Old people die," she'd said.
At seventy-one, Emma was uncomfortably aware the words were true. Even so, she didn't have to like thinking about death. She'd said, "We have a lot of other flaws too. We're stubborn and silly and not half as funny as we like to believe we are. We never admit to any of that. So how come everybody is so eager to talk about dying?"
Jo had laughed and shrugged. The discussion had shifted away from her upcoming doctor's appointment and back to the water aerobics certification course they had recently attended.
Arnie touched Emma's wrist.
She refocused on what was passing for their Sunday evening dinner conversation. "Everyone believes Jo's death was an accident."
"And I'm telling you they're wrong. I'm sure Cahan's guilty. And Olli could be next."
She gaped at him as her heart stuttered. Then she shoved back her chair, jumped to her feet, and hurried out of the dining room before Arnie could launch into another round of nightmarish evidence.
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