In the stately nineteenth-century homes on Philadelphia’s Delancey Street, the wilder passions scarcely ruffle the peace. Murder is unthinkable, particularly a murder involving an upscale book discussion group, of which schoolteacher Amanda Pepper is a devoted member. Nevertheless, on the day after a heated discussion of a fictional heroine’s suicide, book group member Helen Coulter falls to her death from her roof garden. Helen’s death is declared a suicide but Amanda is convinced otherwise. Why is this admirable woman dead? And if she was killed, who performed the heinous act? Amanda’s investigations will draw her into a zone of great danger, where Helen Coulter’s ice-hearted killer is once more ready to strike. . . .
I sat and thought about Helen. I could see almost any one of the rest of us becoming so distracted that we ignored the rickety temporary fence, but Helen was the least nibbertigibbety of us all. And she was intensely involved in every decision concerning the reconstruction of her house and was unlikely to lapse into sudden daydreaming while inspecting the work on the roof.
On the other hand, she hadn’t been herself the night before. Preoccupied. Agitated. Antagonistic. Maybe she hadn’t been thinking clearly.
I wished Mackenzie were home. Or anybody. Anything.
Actually, anything was, but the cat was completely occupied by his five P.M. nap and wasn’t swayed by my need for companionship.
I remembered I was supposed to make a call as part of the chain. Except I couldn’t remember whether I called Tess or Louisa, and she was Clary’s sister, so surely she already knew, even if I was supposed to call her.
I was making excuses. I decided that I’d call them both, starting with Tess. How woefully different I was from Clary Oliver, who’d efficiently organized the spreading of the sad news, who would have remembered who it was she was supposed to call. On the other hand, why hadn’t she called her own sister? Maybe she disliked Louisa as much as I did.
After hearing my news, Tess said nothing for a long time. Then, her voice tight, she said, “I can’t believe anybody could be so stupid as to put up a fence that weak.”
I’d expected something more profound from a psychologist. “They assumed nobody would be up there till the brick wall was up,” I said softly.
And then, as if she heard herself, she sighed loudly. “Sorry. I’m having trouble absorbing this. I guess I’m looking for somebody, something, anything, to blame. As if that would make it better.”
“I wish I could think of anything that could.”
We did some more of the whush-whush-whush platitudes, and then Tess seemed to regain her balance a bit. “I’ll bet everybody’s as lost about this as the two of us are,” she said. “What if…it would be good if we got together—whoever wants to—to talk as soon as possible. The sooner the better. Tomorrow night seems good.”
“Group therapy?” I wasn’t sure about this idea. It sounded too…too something. Not Helen-ish at all. Not book-club-ish.
“We’ll talk, remember her, deal with our feelings about this horrible accident. We all feel the impulse to make contact at times like these. We could help each other.”
I certainly shared that need to communicate, make some kind of contact with other people who would understand. I couldn’t think of any objection to Tess’s idea, and not only agreed, but offered the loft as the meeting space. We made rudimentary decisions about time and food—everybody would bring whatever she felt like, if anything at all. Funeral food. Folding chairs. Then we, too, hung up. I had a job now—I had to phone two people with the specific plan, which I then did, commiserating and repeating that time-filling talk.
I also had another job. I had to clean the place. It seemed frivolous and shallow to worry about such things now. But on the other hand, it beat thinking about Helen’s death.
In fact, cleaning filled time and gave me purpose, which is, perhaps, why it used to be so popular an activity with my sex.
I plumped pillows, ran a dust cloth across the oak table, straightened a stack of unread magazines, dry-mopped the floor, polished the bathroom.
And then, I was out of steam and surfaces. I tried to mark papers, but couldn’t focus on anything but Helen. That hideous fall. The way everything can change in an instant.
I tried to read a magazine. I turned pages, ripped out the cardboard inserts and ads so that the pages would lie more smoothly, and then I gave up on that, too.
When the phone rang, I grabbed it with unwholesome eagerness. I knew it was one of us—the book group woven tightly together because of this tragedy. It might even be somebody notifying me of what I’d already notified someone else. The circle would go round and round because so were we—spinning in the absolute confusion that follows having assumptions and expectations irrevocably snap.
This time, it was Louisa. I’d never called her, but she knew. She sounded subdued and unlike herself. When Louisa speaks, it’s generally in overlong, staccato bursts. Luckily, most of the time, she’s silent. Louisa is Clary Oliver’s younger sister, and I think that’s the only reason she’s in the group. She’s like a dim copy of her sister, and it’s possible she’s spent her life being angry about that, because all her energy seems to go into grievance collecting and self-pity. She’d outdone her sister only once—by having three divorces to Clary’s two. But Clary was a successful and self-supporting businesswoman, and Louisa had spun through half a dozen fizzled career plans. She was currently a consultant to nonprofits, but I had heard Helen once refer to Louisa herself as a nonprofit and, another time, as a business liability. It was assumed by everyone that Clary supported her and her children, and it was further rumored that Helen resented the time, energy, and resources given over to Clary’s younger sister.
“Did you hear?” she asked. “About Helen?”
This was late to be asking, and I was surprised that she’d call me, consider me a possible source of comfort. “It’s dreadful.”
“My sister is sick about this. Do you believe it, though?”
There was a moment’s missed beat. Then Louisa spoke again, even more slowly. “Then you didn’t hear. You don’t know.”
She paused. She paused longer. She knew something I didn’t, and she had to be sure that was perfectly clear. Her need to establish tiny footholds of power wherever, however she could was one of the many reasons I didn’t like Louisa.
“Okay,” I said. “Obviously, I don’t. What is it that I don’t know?”
She cleared her throat. “Helen’s death,” she said. “It wasn’t an accident. She did it on purpose. Helen committed suicide.”