Title: The Last Dinner Party
Author: Carly M. Duncan
Author: Carly M. Duncan
When Jeanie D'Alisa is found murdered in her bedroom after hosting a dinner party in her home, detectives Anna Cole and Kristy Hicks are called to investigate the crime. Known within her community for her generous, yet unpredictable nature, Jeanie's secrets unfold as family, friends and neighbors become suspects. Anna and Kristy discover stamped passport pages revealing travels unknown and a curious relationship between Jeanie and the charming salesman who frequents the apartment building. Meryl, Jeanie's devoted and needy friend, further complicates the investigation when she phones Jeanie's sister who is studying abroad and lies to her about the cause of death. Through a muddied pool of misdirection and betrayal, will Anna and Kristy be able to assemble the clues in order to bring Jeanie's killer to justice? The path to solving the mystery becomes tangled with faces of loved ones who are revealed to be foes in this story about the lengths people will go to in order to save themselves.
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A Door Opens
She opened her eyes only once she heard the apartment’s front door close. She couldn’t even bring herself to turn over in the bed despite her discomfort, for she didn’t want a single mattress coil’s shift to alert him to the fact that she was awake. She waited a moment, lying in her bed, pausing in case he had forgotten anything, but the sound of footsteps faded into the distance.
Meryl Brunetti had been awake for twenty minutes, but she wasn’t prepared to begin the day. Not until he was gone. She didn’t want to see him, she didn’t want to talk, and she certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with anything they’d discussed the night before. She needed more time, and she needed to figure out how she felt.
Instead of waking up at seven o’clock to make him breakfast as usual, to start his day on a pleasant note, and see him out the door, she slept. Or, rather, she pretended to sleep. She’d been unable to sleep the night before. Her mind twirled with anger, despair, and uncertainty.
When she heard the sound of the shower signally the beginning of his day this morning, she felt drowsiness weigh on her eyelids, as though his impending exit might cause her relief. She felt her mind quiet, and forced herself to keep her eyes shut. She wouldn’t rise and she wouldn’t make a sound. She couldn’t bear to see his face. Not after last night. She’d have to pretend later that she’d accidentally slept in.
Maybe she could blame oversleeping on the alcohol. She’d need some excuse, given the average schedule she kept, which rivaled military rising hours. She might be able to blame a hangover for her tardiness depending how closely anyone was counting her cocktails last night. As a rule, she vowed always to have a drink in hand at any social gathering both as an accessory (she could never figure out a comfortable, natural place for her hands), and an ordinary pause in conversation (she often took a sip when she couldn’t think of the next thing she wanted to say.) As a result, she appeared to always have a glass in hand, but she rarely drank with the same fury as some of her louder, and more entertaining friends.
After he left their home, when she heard the click of the lock in place behind him, she emerged from the bed and walked with purpose to the coffee maker. She brewed the first pot of coffee for the day. There would be at least one and perhaps two that followed, depending on her afternoon.
The morning light that flooded into the apartment seemed excessive this particular morning. On any other morning, Meryl would relish in the beautiful daylight that overtook her home, but today she had the beginning of a headache, perhaps from lack of sleep, and she pulled the living room curtains closed.
She wanted to spend a rare day in her pajamas without responsibility, but she couldn’t afford such a day. She never could. Every day, there were endless duties to address. There was the grocery shopping, preparing for her next book club meeting, picking up or dropping off the dry cleaning, meeting with other mothers on various committees, baking for fundraisers, and sometimes making multiple trips to the high school to drop off a meal or some piece of sports equipment that her son had forgotten.
Meryl loved to be busy. The constant buzz of her life made her feel like more than the housewife she was, but she sometimes secretly dreamed of a day off from cooking dinner, and wished she didn’t have to have the answers to every question her family members posed. They trusted her to know all, and she usually did, but the exhausting task of running more lives than her own was far too much for her to think about today. She wished she could sleep away her thoughts and responsibilities.
The fact was she couldn’t rest today. She might never have a day to herself until her son moved away to college. That’s assuming he even applied, and then assuming he was accepted. Meryl doubted he would go far when he did pursue continuing his education. There was something about his dependence on her, which made her feel like she was getting motherhood right and at other times his lack of dependence frustrated her to no end.
Still, for now, there were things that had to be done and she was the one who had to do them. Instead of being a woman who dreamed of having a day alone to think, she’d be the ever-attentive wife, mother and neighbor with a long list of to-dos. She’d dutifully check off assignments throughout the day and feel a shallow sense of pride at the basic acts she’d accomplished.
Meryl fancied that she could be a bit of an actress, always able to re-set her mind in order to get herself through the day. She assumed that acting came naturally to any good mother who had to drudge up patience, or happiness, or energy when they had none. She prided herself on the many roles she could fulfill for various people in her life. She at first was the supportive wife, and then the dutiful mother. She was a bright and friendly neighbor, and then a loyal confidant. She was a lot of people to a variety of people and she took pride in the range she could cover in any given day, but she was exhausted.
Before she slipped into running late, she took a deep breath and focused on the things she had to accomplish today. Meryl slipped on some beige slacks, a lavender camisole, and a bright green cardigan. If her thoughts weren’t bright and positive, at least her clothes could be. She brushed her teeth and pulled her hair slickly back into a low ponytail. She’d recently read in one of her fashion magazines – Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, she couldn’t remember which - that a low ponytail was a sign of class. From that day forth she only wore a high ponytail if she was working out, which, admittedly, wasn’t very often.
She didn’t have time today for her full makeup routine, so she put some powder on her face, evening out her skin tone and freckles, and added a deep red lipstick to finish off her look. When she first bought the lipstick, she had aimed to mimic Audrey Hepburn’s glossy red lips. Meryl had been infatuated with Audrey ever since My Fair Lady won the Academy Award for best film earlier in the year, and Meryl forced herself to believe she was just as lovely as her new favorite film star in what she hoped was the exact same shade of lipstick.
Meryl was running late, but she moved quickly with the efficiency of someone who is used to proceeding in a rapid pace. In the kitchen, she drank her first cup of coffee with the speed of a professional addict, taking a mental note of a throw rug that caught the corner of her eye in the living room, which she wanted to wash later. A plate of muffins she’d baked the afternoon before sat strategically placed on the counter ready for her errand ahead.
Meryl found great pride in her efficiencies. If there was anything in her life that she could prep in advance to ease the load in the future, she did it then, and got it out of the way. No one would ever describe her as a procrastinator. She would prep dinners in the morning, school lunches the night before. She might remove her jacket in the elevator ride up to her apartment door, so she didn’t have to bother with taking the time to remove it once she reached the hall closet. She couldn’t help but calculate the ways she could further simplify her life.
On this particular morning, she was especially relieved that she’d found the time to bake the day before. It was Meryl’s day to spend the afternoon with her ailing neighbor and friend, Lois Carter, and she always brought baked goods. They served both as a treat since Lois rarely had appropriate food to offer guests, as well as a conversation piece since Lois constantly praised Meryl for her talents in the kitchen.
Lois Carter lived upstairs with her husband, Gary, and two teenage daughters. Eighteen months ago, when Lois was diagnosed with breast cancer, the building, filled with long time dwellers and friends, rallied to support the Carter family. Many neighbors took turns visiting Lois during the recovery time in between chemo treatments, since Gary’s job in finance kept a grueling schedule, which he couldn’t afford to ignore.
Meryl didn’t work. She was a proud homemaker, so there was no excuse for any idleness on her part. She dutifully spent two regularly scheduled afternoons a week with Lois, even now that Lois was in remission and had completed the last of her treatments for what everyone hoped would be forever. While the two women often saw each other more than twice a week, the afternoon visits had a sentimental hold on them, as if the cancer would not return as long as they kept their standing dates.
Knowing Lois wouldn’t have coffee, Meryl poured a second cup into her mug before going upstairs. She did this often, for no one seemed to drink as much coffee as she required having on hand. She couldn’t think of anyone in the building who could offer her a hot cup of coffee whenever the occasion arose. As a result, Meryl kept her coffee pot fresh and hot. She could regularly be found clutching her mug while on her way too or from a friend’s apartment, or running out with it to check the mail. As a result, neighbors were often returning her dishware from all of the various places she’d leave her cup.
On the way upstairs to Lois’ apartment, Meryl passed the Superintendent, Andy Quinn, coming out from another unit and greeted him politely. “Morning, Andy,” she offered.
“Hi, Mrs. Brunetti. Going up to see Lois?” he asked. He knew the residents and their schedules as well as anyone. After the worst of Lois’ treatments, Andy would stop in to bring a soothing ginger soup his wife made in order to help ease the nausea.
“Yes, you know, Friday is my day. See ya!” Meryl answered. Andy was already down the hallway and nearly out of sight before she could finish her reply. What an odd man, she thought. He was friendly, yet very removed. He remembered everyone’s name, yet he floated like a ghost through the building, preferring to remain unseen. Meryl couldn’t figure him out, and didn’t particularly wish to. She wished only to keep a polite relationship with him in case she ever needed to call upon him to help with something in her own apartment.
Upstairs, she knocked on the Carter’s door. “Lois, it’s me,” Meryl called.
“Come in, dear!” Lois replied. Then, seeing Meryl’s basket asked, “Oh, you doll. What did you bring me today?”
Meryl held the basket of baked goods up saying, “Blueberry muffins. Homemade.” She grinned proudly. She knew Lois would rave about her goodies, and she welcomed the forthcoming compliments.
“Well, come! I don’t have coffee – oh – I see you brought your own as usual. Well then, let’s sit shall we? What’s new?”
That’s how their Friday’s always began. Meryl, who loved to bake, would come bearing a starchy, sugary combination, and Lois would lead them to the living room where they would sit at opposite ends of the couch as they re-capped the latest updates on their family, children, and mutual friends. Lois prepared for Meryl’s visits by having a couple of napkins, and two glasses of water set on the coffee table. She wasn’t much of an entertainer, and the lack of cloth napkins, general décor, or even a floral arrangement never went without notice to Meryl’s extremely judgmental and meticulous mind.
Meryl’s visits were always at Lois’ home, which she seldom left. Early in her chemo treatment, Lois was urged by her doctors to keep her errands to a minimum and remain in the apartment, so she wouldn’t become exposed to germs that might interfere with her illness and treatment. Lois kept up the habit out of compulsiveness, even though she was out of immediate danger. Because Lois had very little interaction with the outside world, even to run general errands, she was always more than eager to gossip with Meryl by the time their regular visits surfaced. Lois desperately clung to the happenings of others, even when she was well enough to get out and join them.
Meryl could never quite tell what kept Lois so contained from the world, but she knew never to bring it up. The subject was touchy, and Meryl felt Lois deserved, had earned, the right to lead her life however she pleased. She had fought hard enough to keep it, after all.
Lois looked much healthier lately. During the past year, the chemo treatments molded Lois’ previously plump figure closer to resembling a skeleton. Now, her weight was coming back to her. Even the color had returned to her face and her dark brunette hair had grown in enough to develop into a severely short bob. She wore a tweed dress and looked to be in better shape than most forty-something women her age. She had energy for life that hadn't existed before her diagnosis, and the thrill of everything around her came out in the form of honest enthusiasm.
“Nothing, really. Joseph is very busy with work, but he promises we’ll go on a vacation soon. We actually got in a fight last night,” Meryl said. And, even though she’d brought up the argument, she didn’t want to get into it, didn’t want to answer Lois’ tiresome questions exploring all aspects and layers of the dispute, so she made the conscious effort to change the tone of what she was revealing. It was time to act. She couldn’t let Lois see even a hint of the serious issues that were on her mind. She had so much to think about in terms of her family and their future, but that was her own private issue to work through. She was upset with herself for mentioning her fight with Joseph at all. She certainly hadn’t planned it. It just burst out.
Revealing nothing further, Meryl sat up straight and continued, “I want Joseph and I to take some time away with each other. I’m thinking the northeast. Perhaps we’ll drive up the coast of Rhode Island and Maine. Don’t you think that’d be wonderful? Especially if I can make him go before winter? The view of fall leaves would be just incredible,” she said, not stopping, not allowing for an interruption. “Other than that, I’m helping at the high school with preparations for homecoming. Are the girls going? I swear Eddie is more excited for the game and all the visiting graduates that return for the weekend than he is for the dance. I keep asking him if he’s asked anyone to the homecoming dance, but he just shoos me away. I’m telling you, you have it easier with two teenage girls than I do with one teenage boy!”
There. She had successfully brushed right past her fight with Joseph and everything else that left her sleepless the night before. She flew so quickly over it, and onto the next thing that she hoped Lois would not back track. Meryl couldn’t be sure what she could keep secret if Lois tried to hone in on what was wrong, and it frightened her in a way Meryl was never used to feeling. She was usually a woman in full control. The idea of anything spiraling out of her control was devastating. So potentially devastating that she wouldn’t allow herself even to think of it. She focused on their children, and homecoming. A dance and teenagers were good for distractions if nothing else.
Meryl’s son Eddie, a senior, had a history of wild flirtation with both of Lois’ daughters. At least, he attempted to flirt with them while they happily took advantage of his admiration. He was a doting follower who would do anything for them. Margaret, a sophomore, maintained a detached crush on him intermitted, but only when she was desperate for someone older to pine for. Sandra, a senior, tried to look after Eddie in the way an annoyed older sister might protect a little brother.
“Oh, I do wish I could help with all of that, but my health comes first. You know how I am,” Lois said. It was unspoken that she wouldn’t leave her home often for fear she’d catch something and, somehow, that would allow the cancer to return. She couldn’t help herself from her superstition. She was healthy and however she maintained that successfully was good enough for her. “I hope I’ll make it to the football game at the very least. Both Margaret and Sandra don’t have dates just yet, but they’ve been window-shopping for dresses and shoes all the same. They came home the other day with magazine cut outs of the dresses I’m supposed to buy them.”
“What a treat to choose dresses,” Meryl said. “I’m already bored of ties and slacks. They’re all the same,” she sighed.
"Jeanie has been helping with the shopping. You know how she is! But you can certainly join in on the girly action if you need a break from picking out a nice tie. Their trips to the mall are bordering on obsessive."
To this, Meryl laughed, but Lois’ face turned abruptly serious, as if she’d set in her mind the pace of this conversation and knew it was the time to turn her purposeful questions in another direction. “Now, listen, Meryl, I hope you won’t be offended that I’m asking, but what’s is going on downstairs?” Lois asked.
“What do you mean?” Meryl replied, genuinely wondering and curious about the mysterious inquiry.
“I know you and Jeanie are close and you don’t have to tell me if it’s one of those things, but we’ve been hearing a lot of yelling. It’s more than usual, so that’s saying something.” She tried to add a slight chuckle, as if the topic were casual, though she really was genuinely concerned. “I wondered if she’s said anything to you. Is she okay?” Lois inquired.
Jeanie D’Alisa lived directly below Lois and diagonally across the hall from Meryl. Due mostly to proximity, Jeanie and Meryl were dear friends. The two women often spent time together, and there was an open door policy between their homes. Jeanie didn’t have any children but relied on Eddie if she needed anything when her husband, Fred, was at work. He was always at work.
Jeanie and Meryl were around the same age, but Lois was several years older than them. Jeanie often joked that Lois acted closer to her mid-fifties instead of her mid-forties. She’d even taken to calling Lois “Granny” up until her diagnosis, but stopped when Meryl told her it was inappropriate. While Meryl understood Jeanie, the vast majority didn’t appreciate Jeanie’s wild, and sometimes insensitive, sense of humor.
“Oh, she’s just fine, Lois,” Meryl said and, as she said it, she took a paused and calculated moment to glance at her watch. She normally didn’t rush through her visits with Lois, but she suddenly didn’t want to be bothered with gossip. She wanted to go home, finish her first pot of coffee and bask in the silence until her husband and son came home later in the afternoon. She wanted only silence until then, and found she wasn’t in the mood for socializing or acting the part. She didn’t want to talk about her own marital issues, the thoughts that haunted her through the night, and she certainly didn’t want to talk about Jeanie.
Meryl was appalled by Lois’ query based purely on moral principal. She was taking a strong stance against the gossip. It was Meryl’s subconscious effort to protect herself from topics relating to her. Meryl felt Lois should mind her own business, to let Jeanie work out whatever troubles were going on at home. It was Meryl’s best guess that Lois was entirely bored with her own life and needed a little action from one of her friend’s life to keep the day exciting.
While Meryl pretended to be better than any rumors they might build together, she did feel slightly guilty. On any other day, she would’ve certainly indulged Lois. She might have lead the conversation even. It was the timing, the day, and the ache in Meryl’s head that stopped her from participating in discussing the most normal, minimal, local scandals. Meryl’s moral compass could shift swiftly given a sleepless night.
“Jeanie hasn’t mentioned anything to me,” Meryl said, faking a jovial tone. “I’m sure it’s just more of the usual.” She winked as she stood, initiating her departure.
Both women knew that the usual that Meryl alluded to consisted mostly of alcohol induced arguments, fiery tempers, and passionate fights. Jeanie and Fred’s fights were generally about items of business as simple as what channel to watch, or how long it had taken Jeanie to prepare dinner. The conflicts were dramatic and sometimes frightening to outsiders looking in, but were, for better or worse, a regular occurrence in within their marriage.
Lois stood with Meryl as she rose. “Are you going already? I hope it’s not something I said,” she pleaded, holding her hand to her heart in a gesture of sentimentality.
“Not at all, Lois,” Meryl lied, though flatly, so Lois would know that she was to blame for Meryl’s swift departure. “I told you, I’ve got my work cut out for me with homecoming coming up. Lots to organize. Lots to plan. Let me know if you want me to take the girls on another visit to the mall. I’d be happy to take them if you can’t. Just let me know how you’re feeling.”
“Oh, Meryl,” Lois said, “What would I do without you?”
Meryl kissed her on the cheek and said, “I’ll see you next week,” before she waved herself through the door. Outside, she closed the door behind her and sighed deeply.
Jeanie and Fred fought often and epically. They were notorious for their clashes, but Meryl knew, though Jeanie had said nothing to encourage the thought, that things had been escalating. Now that Lois expressed concern she knew it was time to delicately yet directly approach Jeanie and make sure that everything was, in fact, all right. She could use Lois’ inquiry as an excuse to raise the topic.
Even though Meryl and Jeanie spoke of everything, sometimes Jeanie held the details of her marriage off limits. Meryl assumed that Jeanie felt stronger without having to reveal that layer of her life, and so she typically didn’t pry. Meryl trusted that Jeanie would come to her in time with the details she needed to know. The vague screaming between the D’Alisas was, Meryl assumed, painful enough to endure individually. Jeanie didn't need an audience. Now that Meryl knew the yelling was reaching other levels of the apartment building, however, it was time to make sure Jeanie was aware. Jeanie would find a way to reduce the volume of her fights with her husband if she knew it was producing concern from the building. Plus, Meryl wanted to ensure that safety was not an issue.
At Jeanie’s door, Meryl knocked and waited. Jeanie didn’t work and was incredibly lenient when it came to the timing and start of each day. Most days when Meryl was making lunch for herself Jeanie was just waking. Jeanie was a night owl and preferred the darkness of night to anything the fresh morning light could offer.
Jeanie's monthly family dinner was last night. The second Thursday of every month, the D’Alisa home was an open hub for friends. It was a consistent gathering that gave Jeanie purpose and which the community could rely on. As families began to commit more to televisions with the popularity of the Andy Griffith Show and Bonanza, it was Jeanie’s dinner parties that helped everyone remain social and connected. Last night had been no different and Jeanie’s home was full of friends, family, and many of their neighbors. Even Andy Quinn had made an unexpected appearance.
Meryl had no doubt that Jeanie was still in bed nursing a hangover. She also knew she'd delay the cleaning that was required after each dinner for as long as possible. They’d tried to tidy up a bit last night, but there was still some clean up that would be left to Jeanie this morning. Jeanie would sleep in to avoid the chores. She preferred the party to the household tasks and persisted month after month with the tradition she'd proudly built for her circle and for most residents of their apartment building despite her husband’s annoyance with the trail of garbage it left behind.
When Meryl’s third round of knocking went unanswered, she tried the doorknob. Very few units in the building made a habit of locking their doors during the day. The doorknob turned and Meryl whispered, “Jeanie?”
The apartment was mostly dark. Meryl pulled the curtains back in the living room to bring day into Jeanie’s home. “Jeanie,” Meryl called again, slightly louder the second time. There was no sound. Meryl couldn’t hear the low murmurs of a telephone conversation or the dialogue of The Guiding Light, Jeanie’s favorite afternoon soap opera, on television. There was no music coming from the radio and no stream of water pouring from the bathroom. There was no sign of anyone.
At the bedroom door Meryl paused and put her ear to it. Again, only silence answered her. The silence felt eerie now, unexpected and lingering. “Jeanie?” Meryl asked.
She turned the bedroom doorknob and walked into the darkness that Jeanie’s coveted blackout shades protected. If Jeanie were asleep still, Meryl knew it was because of a hang over, so instead of opening the curtains for a drastic awakening, she walked toward the lamp on the dresser and quietly clicked it on. She turned through the shadows and saw Jeanie in bed. “Now, Jeanie. This is silly! Are you playing a joke? You scared me!” Meryl exclaimed.
Meryl would swear later that she heard the sound of a sigh, what she assumed was the sound of her friend twisting her lips into a comical grin, but when she sat on the bed, and brushed her friend’s hand she found it cold and lifeless. Meryl rushed to the window and threw open the blackout drapes. When she turned and saw Jeanie’s face she knew then that her friend was dead. She had been for hours.