Onyx Publications
  • Locked Down for Murder

    Written By: Cheryl Rieger

    © 2021 by Cheryl Rieger

Later, social media blamed Brandon’s death on stress from the pandemic. Everybody was stir-crazy, pushed to the edge of reason, so the explanation made sense. But in our private conversations, Lisa always swore the true cause was the onion rings at Rotier's, because if we hadn’t eaten lunch there as soon as the first lockdown lifted, we probably wouldn’t have decided to kill him.

When it all began, I hadn’t seen Lisa for over ten years. In high school, Lisa was a member of one of the golden alpha-girl groups, rich in earthly possessions and beauty, the suns around whom the social life of the school circled. I drifted from one out-group to another, from the mystery book club to the math club to the theatre club, not unhappy or friendless but always aware of my lowly place in the universe. Gym class in the spring of our senior year was one of the rare times my path crossed hers. My most vivid memory of Lisa was of the two of us standing alone in the outfield in a softball game, wearing flamingo pink uniforms under a dazzling cobalt blue sky. She was tall, strong-boned, and blond, like a Viking warrior, and when I said something funny, she erupted with a deep belly laugh. Despite our difference in status, I had thought we had something in common, but maybe it was just a fleeting connection born from the exhilaration of being young, on the edge of our real lives with our whole futures ahead of us on a sunny spring day.

After graduation, I forgot about Lisa and all the other alpha-girls and went to an out-of-state college and then grad school in statistics, a profession that suited my introverted style, ending up in a job back in my hometown analyzing market research data. Saddled with student debt, I economized and found a basement studio apartment near a bus stop. My setup was lucky when the city declared the first lockdown because I could work from home while many could not, but it wasn’t long until the occasional Zoom with my mother, who’d moved to Florida for retirement with my father, wasn’t enough to satisfy even my miniscule appetite for social interaction.

My days had become a fog of isolating, handwashing, and toilet-paper hoarding. I was simultaneously terrified and bored, divorced from the world and addicted to the faces on my screens. I let my hair grow wild, and because my apartment next to the furnace was as hot as Hades, I took to wearing only tank tops and yoga pants. Aside from groceries delivered to my doorstep, my sole physical connection with the outside was the view through the wavy glass of the window above my bed, a sliver of brown winter grass and gray sky.

That Friday afternoon, I was making a few final notes on a dataset from a bridal store chain in Brazil when my cell phone buzzed.

“Hey, Mom,” I said, tapping my keyboard and closing the file. All day the TV on my dresser had looped horrifying footage of bodies stacked like cordwood in refrigerator trucks. I was more than ready for my daily ten minutes of YouTube yoga, followed by streaming British mysteries on Britbox and reading James M. Cain on my e-reader. “What’s going on?”

“I saw on your high school Facebook page there’s a Zoom reunion of some of the girls in your class tonight,” she said. “I copied the link and emailed it to you.”

“Ugh, not another Zoom,” I said. “I was on with my boss three times today. And I’ve got a date with Orville Redenbacher tonight.”

“Don’t you want to at least try to connect?” She reeled off a few names of the class leaders before she added, “And Lisa Phillips will be there, remember her?”

“Huh.” The vision of Lisa in my senior year gym class dropped into my brain. “I kinda liked Lisa.”

“There you go,” my mother said. A popular girl in her own day, she still nurtured the fantasy her daughter enjoyed a similar social eminence, and she avidly followed the Facebook page of my graduating class. Lacking an appetite for humiliation, I’d skipped my tenth high school reunion but now I was more curious than intimidated. Faces on my screen couldn’t hurt me.

At nine that evening I turned off Miss Marple, sat in bed with my tablet propped on my knees and, with a full glass of chardonnay on the bedside table, clicked on the Zoom link my mother had sent. My screen filled with nine boxes while more of them trailed off the top of the screen on the scroll. I squinted at faces, hunting for anyone I might recognize.

The get-together started about as I expected, everyone chatting and me silent, and I was beginning to wonder why I thought the get-together would be fun when Lisa spotted me. 

“Hey!” Lisa said, finger waving. She was in the middle of the bottom row. Her blond hair was a short bob now, but other than that, she hadn’t changed a bit. A chat box opened on my screen. “Gym class, senior year, remember?” she typed.

“Hey, Lisa, nice to see you,” I typed back. “Those gym uniforms, am I right?”

She rolled her eyes, the movement just visible in her small box as she entered her response. “OMG, so glad those days are dead and buried.”

And that was the sum total of my interaction with the girls on my screen as one by one they dropped off—hubby’s ready for dinner, kids’ bedtimes, early morning tomorrow—and the faces of the remaining girls popped into larger and larger spaces until only Lisa and one other girl remained on the call. Eva Dupree: I remembered her. She squinted at my name in the label below my picture and smiled.

“I didn’t recognize you,” she said. “Love your hair.”

“Thanks.” That answered one question: my quarantine hairstyle would stay. Eva had won both prom queen and the lead role in the senior musical (I’d sewn costumes, unacknowledged even in the program), and I’d watched her from afar, mesmerized by her clear skin, shiny hair, and teeth that out-dazzled a snowy winter’s day. Now her heart-shaped face was drawn, her hair looked unwashed, and smudges circled her eyes. “Nice to see you, Eva. You still live here in town?”

“Yep, married and everything.” She waggled a finger in front of the camera, displaying a rock nearly the size of the ice cube in my tumbler.

“She married Brandon,” Lisa said. “You remember him?”

“I do.” For Eva’s sake, I tried to keep my dislike of Brandon off my face. He’d been the quarterback of our school’s football team. Backstage at the musical, I’d seen him grab Eva by the arm when he thought no one was looking. She’d pushed him away for a moment, then melted with him into the shadows. The heat radiating from the couple had nearly set the prop room ablaze. My heart had sunk: I’d never experience that kind of torrid love. “How’s he doing?”

Eva started to grimace and quickly pulled her expression in a different direction. “He’s pretty good,” she said with a small smile. “Rambunctious as ever. What are you up to?”

I described my life to Lisa and Eva, deemphasizing the solitary nature of my existence and underscoring my educational achievements and the international aspects of my job. After I threw around words like logistic regression and chi-square tests, they looked impressed, and I relaxed. I was beginning to believe no one cared about stupid high school groups anymore, so I was surprised when Lisa brought up senior year.

“Good old Brandon,” Lisa said. “Hard to believe you’re married to him. Remember when you started dating him, and you were still seeing Rex even though you told everyone you had broken up?”

“Oh, jeez, don’t bring that up. Big sore spot over here.” Eva laughed, sipping from a Margarita glass. “What are you up to, Lisa?”

Lisa poured another glass of wine, her third during the call. “Nada. I’m stuck at home with a three-month old and a cranky husband.” She laughed when she saw our expressions. “Don’t worry, I’m not nursing. But I am so bored I could scream.”

“I have some books I can recommend,” I said. “If you’re that bored.”

“I’ll try them,” Lisa said. “But mainly I can’t wait to get out.”

“Ditto,” Eva said. “This lockdown has me feeling trapped.”

She ran a finger across her cheek, under her eye, and my breath caught.

“Eva,” I said, leaning closer to the screen. “Is that a bruise on your face? What happened?”

“This?” She swiped her cheek with a fingertip, leaving behind a dot of red. “I tripped and banged my face on the counter.”

“God, are you bleeding?” Lisa’s face loomed larger on my screen as she inspected Eva’s image. “You better be more careful.”

Our conversation drifted to other topics—the pandemic, of course, and binge-worthy television—and before we knew it, it was after midnight.

“I gotta run, guys,” I said. “Working tomorrow.”

“Saturday?” Lisa said. “Poor you.”

I shrugged. I was glad to have the work, both for the money and for the time it filled. Weekdays had blurred into weekends, the only difference being Friday night still felt like a holiday. Old habits. 

“You guys want to talk again tomorrow?” Eva asked. “This has been really fun, and I’m going nuts here.”

Lisa nodded eagerly. “Sounds great. I’m in.”

“Me, too,” I said.

And just like that, I was in a cool crowd for the first time in my life. The next day, when I mentioned to my mother that I was seeing Lisa and Eva on Zoom, she was so pleased.

“I remember them from the senior play,” she said, “Nice girls. I’m so glad you have some friends, honey.”

Over the next few weeks, our daily Zooms consumed more and more of my time. Neither Lisa nor Eva had paid employment, though it would be wrong to say they didn’t work, as Lisa had a baby and Eva had Brandon, who was enough of a baby to demand unreasonable amounts of her time. When she was late for a call, she always had an excuse like “I had to remake dinner, Brandon didn’t like the first one,” or “Had to finish cleaning, Brandon likes it just so.” One evening when she had to jump off as soon as we started because Brandon was yelling for her from the other room, Lisa and I stayed on the Zoom and looked at each other for several long minutes without speaking.

“Well,” she said after a while. “That Brandon is certainly a handful.”

I nodded. “Lisa, have you noticed anything strange about Eva?”

“In what way?” Lisa’s blue eyes widened. Her face was on an angle, looking at my face on the screen not at the camera, and I caught a tightening of her mouth that made me feel more confident about the topic I was about to broach.

“That Brandon is more than a handful,” I said. I took a deep breath. “I think he’s abusive.”

Lisa nodded. “I thought it was weird how last night her eyes were so puffy, and today she had a lot of makeup on. Did you notice that?”

“Yep. And when she lifted her Margarita glass, the back of her hand was scratched. Like she’d been in a fight.”

Lisa bit her lips and thought for a moment before asking, “What should we do?”

“I think we should let her know we’re here for her. Like, she can count on us, even if she’s isolated.” I hesitated before I spoke again. “But maybe you should be the one to say that. I mean, you’re way closer to her than I am.”

“We weren’t that close,” Lisa said. “She kinda two-timed me with Rex, but…” She trailed off and shook herself. Her choppy bob, already longer since our first call, brushed her shoulders. “That’s all in the past. What matters is what’s real now.”

On our next Zoom, Lisa asked Eva to close the door to the study where she had her laptop—we could see the open doorway behind her—and Eva did so, promptly sat back down, and asked what was going on. Lisa leaned into the screen in the half-profile captured by her computer’s camera.

“Eva, I’m just going to come out and say it.” Lisa gulped visibly. “We’re worried about you. Are you…is Brandon hitting you?”

“What?” Eva jerked her head back. “No, of course not.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, now confident enough of my position in the threesome to challenge her. “Every day we hear about Brandon doing some asshat thing, and your face…it looks like you’ve been hit, Eva.”

Eva stared at me onscreen, her eyes wide. Had I gone too far? Pushed into a personal space where I wasn’t wanted? The outsider feeling I had in high school swooped in on me like a vulture, ready to pick my not-dead-yet carcass.

“Sorry,” I murmured. “I shouldn’t have presumed.”

“No, you said the right thing,” Lisa said. She and I exchanged what I thought was a look, our eyes not making real contact. “Eva, we’re here for you. We have to stick together, right? Things are so nuts out there,” she waved an arm vaguely, “we have to help each other through this. And if you’re in trouble, we want you to know, we’ll do anything to help you. To keep you safe.”

Eva sat back and shrank to half her former size in the box. Then she leaned forward and said, “Thanks. It’s nice to know you have my back.” She glanced over her shoulder, as though listening to something on the other side of the door and faced us again. “Gotta run, see you tomorrow.”

And she clicked off.

“Well,” Lisa said after a few minutes. “That went well.”

“At least she said she’ll see us tomorrow,” I said. “Let’s see what she says then. Maybe she’ll be willing to talk about it.”

The next evening, the three of us gathered, all speaking in half-whispers, and Eva told us Brandon had been hitting her for years.

“Why don’t you leave him?” Lisa said. “You can come to my house. We have a spare room. You can quarantine here.”

Eva shook her head. “He’ll only find me,” she said. “And things will be worse.”

“Can you call the police?” I asked.

“I did that once and it didn’t work out well. Unless I want to press charges, their hands are tied.” Eva buried her face in her hands, muffling her voice. “I don’t want him to go to jail for losing his temper. I just want him to stop.”

“What are you going to do?” I asked, ever practical. “What’s your plan?”

Eva lifted her tear-stained face. “I don’t have one,” she said.

“You will,” I responded. “When we help you.”

After that, we didn’t talk about Brandon every night, but we kept an eye on Eva’s face. One night, when she had a large band-aid on her forehead, Lisa lost her temper.

“Goddamnit, Eva,” she said. “I am so damn mad at Brandon, I could kill him.”

Eva laughed. “Join the club.”

The end of the lockdown—the first, there would be more to follow but we didn’t know it at the time—called for a celebration. For weeks we had debated ways to make the occasion special. I hadn’t been able to shake my obsession with eating onion rings, a culinary delight I couldn’t produce in my postage-stamp kitchen. 

“Just think of them,” I told my new friends. “Golden, crunchy and glistening on the outside, and silky smooth on the inside. Let’s get lunch at Rotier’s to celebrate as soon as it opens.”

“I need to bring Franny,” Lisa said. “Do they let kids in?”

“You can wear her in a pack,” I suggested. “What do you say, Eva?”

“Sounds good.” She twisted up a corner of her mouth near a bruise on her cheek. “But I was hoping for a Margarita.”

“They’ll make you one!” I clapped my hands. “It’s all set, right? Onion rings at Rotiers! And Margaritas all round!”

The morning the lockdown ended, I called into work and asked for the day off.

“Mental health day,” I told my boss.

As though Mother Nature knew the lockdown was over, flowers sprouted all over the park that lay between my apartment and my destination. I paused surreptitiously to break off three tulip heads.

The restaurant, little more than a hole-in-the-wall built in the 1930s and not updated since, was dark and crowded and smelled deliciously of hamburgers, beer and, of course, onion rings. Peering into the gloom, I spied Lisa and Eva sitting in a booth in the back room. I paused, suddenly worried I was making a big mistake. Were these girls my friends in real life, or only in the faux world of our screens?

“Hey!” Lisa stood up, wearing Franny in a front-pack, and waved to me. “I see you! We’re back here!”

I joined them, giving each an awkward hug and a tulip, and slid in next to Eva. She and Lisa had started on Margaritas already, and as soon as the waitress delivered mine, we clinked glasses in a toast.

“To friends,” I said, a little choked up.

“To friends,” Lisa and Eva echoed.

As we drank and ate—the onion rings, some shared burgers and fries, a slice of lemon chiffon pie, and multiple Margaritas—I surreptitiously studied Eva’s face. Lisa caught me looking once, and shook her head, as though warning me not to say anything. When Eva excused herself to go to the restroom, I got up to let her slide out of the booth.

Lisa watched Eva out of the corner of her eye until she was out of earshot, then leaned forward and whispered to me. “Before you got here, I asked her how things were going, and she started crying.”

“Oh no,” I said, my heart sinking.

Lisa hiccupped softly and ran her finger around the rim of her Margarita glass. By now, Franny was dozing gently on the bench next to her and the restaurant was quiet, suspended in the liminal world between the lunch and dinner crowds.  

“We have to talk to her,” she said. “We have to convince her to leave him.”

But when Eva returned from the restroom, she refused our entreaties.

“I can’t leave him,” she said, cowering in the corner of the booth. Light from a high window slatted on her face in bands of shadows. “I don’t have any money of my own.”

“What about a shelter for victims of domestic abuse?” I asked.

“I called them,” Eva said. “They’re full. Because of the pandemic.”

“Yikes.” Lisa winced. “What about a training class in something at the community college?”

Eva shook her head. “Closed. Pandemic.”

“A new job?” I wondered aloud. “Maybe as a waitress or something?”

Lisa and Eva looked at me and said in unison. “Pandemic.”

“There must be some way out,” I said. “Or something we can do together.”

“I think it’s going to be left up to fate.” Eva grinned wryly, then winced and touched the bruise on her cheek. In the dim afternoon light, it seemed darker than ever. “If he had a terrible accident, I’d be in luck. He has a couple million in an insurance policy. But what are the chances of that?”

Franny gave a little cry and Lisa picked her up, cradling her in a little pink blanket. She ran her hand over Franny’s downy head and looked at me. “Remember that Agatha Christie novel you recommended? The whole plot revolved around an inheritance that followed an accident. But it wasn’t really an accident.”

A warm glow filled my chest. She had actually read one of the novels I’d recommended. I was about to ask whether she had read the next in the series when Eva interrupted.

“That’s in the movies, not in the real world,” she said.

Lisa looked a little disappointed.

“Maybe not,” I said, to keep the conversation going. “A couple million dollars could be a big motivator to…”

“To what?” Eva whispered. She grinned at me slyly. “To kill Brandon?”

Lisa kissed the top of Franny’s head. “That’s a movie plot. But in real life, it’s kind of a risk, wouldn’t you say?”

“For that kind of money, maybe it would be worth the risk,” I said. My left-brain, deprived of the pleasures of statistics for the day, hungered for a logical problem to solve. “You have to do a cost-benefit analysis. Do the math.”

“The math is easy,” Eva said. “But how do you get someone to have an accident? You’re not talking about something like a hit-and-run are you? I mean, to drive a car into someone…”

“Oh my God, no,” I said. “A hit-and-run leaves evidence. And you’d have to slam a car into a body—” I broke off, my stomach turning.

Eva tilted her head, thinking. “He could accidentally overdose on the testosterone booster he takes every morning, ha ha. Or the sleeping pills he takes every night.”

“That works!” Lisa laughed. “But how do we make sure that happens?”

I rotated to Eva. “Does Brandon drink anything on a regular basis?”

Eva snorted. “Drink anything? He has a bottle of Russian vodka in the freezer. Drinks it every night. Some nights more than others. Me, I stick to grocery store Margarita mix and the cheapest tequila I can find.”

“I wonder if the taste of vodka would cover dissolved sleeping pills,” Lisa said. “In Dame Agatha’s stories, they often use nicotine poisoning.”

“True,” I said, pleased I was no longer alone in devouring the classic tales of murder and revenge. “The nicotine is in the insecticide they keep in the gardening shed. Or they lay their hands on arsenic somehow.”

“I think we’re better off with the pills,” Lisa said thoughtfully.

“Definitely the pills,” I said. We all laughed. “Eva, we’re going off the rails here. Just remember we’re here for you, whatever happens.”

“That’s right.” Lisa reached over the table to give Eva’s hand a squeeze.

“Thanks,” Eva said. “You guys are all I have.”

“Ditto,” I said.

“Me too.” Lisa raised her empty Margarita glass. “To friends.”

For the next couple weeks, until the second lockdown began, we met once a week at Rotier’s but never had as many drinks or as many dark thoughts. Eva seemed more cheerful now that she was able to get out of the house, and Lisa and I shared relief at her good spirits whenever we had a moment alone. But the good feelings didn’t last long. At summer’s peak, dire predictions drove us back into to our bunkers, and on our nightly Zoom calls, at the mercy of pixels once again, we saw more and more evidence of Brandon’s temper. 

Late one night after our call, Lisa texted me. We agreed to meet by the suffragette monument in the park near my apartment. Under cover of darkness, we removed our masks and shared a bench, a solid social distance apart, facing opposite directions so we wouldn’t breathe on each other.

“She won’t leave him,” Lisa said. “She’ll never leave him. It’s enough to make me wonder about those pills and that vodka.”

It was as though Lisa had voiced my own thoughts. Stars swirled above the city lights in the distance and I felt dizzy. I rested my hands on the bench to steady myself. “I think we’ve got to do it.”

Lisa sucked in a breath. “We do?”

“Who else will help her?” My eyes filled with tears. “Isn’t this what friends are for?”

We talked it over and over, but really the plan as we explained it to Eva was quite simple, and it didn’t take much to convince her it was airtight.

A week later, still into lockdown, Eva mentioned that Brandon was going to Costco the next morning.

“Maybe you should go with him,” I said, remembering Eva’s suggestion she have an alibi, just in case.  

“Now that you mention it,” Eva said, perking up, “I do have some shopping to do.”

The morning of what I will always think of as our first murder dawned bright and clear, just like that day of our senior year when I laughed with Lisa on the softball field. I met her on the corner near Walgreens, and we strolled separately, ten yards apart, to Eva’s townhouse. I was grateful for our masks, because with the addition of our sunglasses and baseball caps, we were unrecognizable. I had instructed Lisa to wear old clothes, so we could throw them away as soon as we got home. No one would ever link us to Brandon’s death.

The key was under the flowerpot on the steps where Eva said she always left it.

“Does she understand what we’re doing?” Lisa whispered as we crossed the threshold into Eva’s foyer.

“Absolutely,” I said, taking a quick glance around. Eva had said Brandon’s pills were in the medicine cabinet in the master bath, and when we opened the cabinet door with our blue-gloved hands, we spied the bottle right away, next to a prescription for Eva that I recognized as a tranquilizer. Pandemic stress was rampant.

Lisa started to reach for the bottle.

“Don’t touch it,” I said, pulling a pair of tongs from my pocket. I lifted the bottle with the tongs so I wouldn’t smear any of Brandon’s fingerprints already on its surface. “You open it.”

Lisa twisted the serrated cap off with a gloved hand. I dumped a dozen pills onto the counter.

“Here we go,” I said.

We had agreed to be equally involved, so we took turns dropping the pills into the bottle of vodka I retrieved from the freezer, but despite vigorous shaking, the tablets floated on the surface of the oily liquid like stubborn fish corpses.

“Crap.” Above her mask, Lisa’s eyes were panicked, and sweat rolled down her forehead. “Now what?”

“Find a bowl,” I told her. “A big one.”

We poured the vodka into the bowl, spooned out the undissolved pills, and crushed them on the countertop with spoons. We swept the powder into the bowl and poured the liquid back into the bottle. Shaken, the vodka looked as clear as a mountain stream.

“We have to get out of here,” Lisa said. She tapped her wrist where her watch was hidden by blue latex. “We’ve been here over thirty minutes.”

Still using the tongs, I jammed the bottle back into the freezer. “Let’s go.”

With the key back under the flowerpot, we parted on the sidewalk and went in different directions, still masked, sunglassed, capped, and completely unidentifiable in throw-away clothes under the unforgiving sun. I had it all figured out.

What I hadn’t factored in was the waiting. For three days, I held my breath, vibrating with anxiety. Had we put enough pills in the vodka? Was the whole effort going to be wasted? Worse, would Eva drink too many Margaritas and find herself confessing everything to Brandon? My nervousness was intensified by Eva’s brittle jokiness on our nightly Zoom calls as she downed one Margarita after another.

Finally, the text Lisa and I both hoped for and feared arrived.

bad news

brandon died

The three of us had already agreed not to talk on the phone or computer following Brandon’s demise, so every time my cell phone chimed, my apartment door rattled, or legs scissored past my basement window, my heart climbed into my throat and my gut clenched. Were the police calling? Were they outside, ready to serve a search warrant? About to pound down my door and seize my laptop? And how were Lisa and Eva holding up? Had they been questioned? Had they stayed silent?

Then Eva texted again.

heard from the coroner

accidental overdose

The funeral was held over Zoom. For the occasion I unearthed a black blouse to wear on top of my yoga pants. Lisa looked pale in her little square as we listened on mute to the words of the minister, and Eva produced enough tears to convince observers that she was truly sorry to see Brandon shuffle off his mortal coil.

The minister blamed Brandon’s death on stress from the pandemic and everyone nodded. It made so much sense.

I found myself wondering if Lisa and Eva shared my sense of distance from Brandon’s death, and the strange consequent lack of remorse. After all, we had only conspired to put crushed medication in a bottle of vodka. We hadn’t forced the poisoned alcohol into Brandon’s smug face. Everything Brandon had got, he’d deserved. But the three of us knew what had happened, and when three people share a secret…

We Zoomed a few days after the funeral, but our laughing friendship was replaced by long, nervous silences. We didn’t exactly think we were being watched, we just suddenly had nothing to say to each other. Our calls dwindled to one a week, then every few weeks, and when we hadn’t met for a while, I set up a Zoom. Eva declined, busy, but Lisa was available. When she appeared on my screen, her image was rigid, as though cut from cardboard.

“How are you doing?” I asked, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” she said stiffly. “How are you?”

“Same.” My stomach turned uneasily at her strange demeanor. Was it my imagination, or had she paled? The lighting on her face made it difficult to be sure.

“Have you heard anything from Eva?” she asked.

“No.” My heart began pounding in my throat. “Have you?”
“She’s getting married.” Lisa’s voice was flat. “To Rex Beaufort.”

“Rex? Rex Beaufort? The guy who played the lead in the senior play?” My fingers tapped my forehead. Maybe it was Rex I saw backstage with Eva, not Brandon as I’d remembered. “Rex?”

Lisa leaned into the screen and for an uncanny second, she seemed to stare directly into my eyes.

“I think,” she whispered, “she lied to us. Just like she lied in high school to Brandon. And to me.”

I jerked as though slapped. “She lied to us?”

“Sshh!” Lisa glanced over her shoulder and turned back to me. “I think she set us up to… you know.”

“No,” I said. A chill fell over me. “Wasn’t it our idea?”

“Think about it.” Lisa closed her eyes briefly. “She brought it up. His insurance policy. The pills. The vodka. All of it.”

“Oh God, you’re right.” I practiced some deep breathing, my head spinning. “You think she did this for the money?”

“The money and Rex. He was at the funeral service. Did you see him? The middle row on my screen. I swear he was Zooming from Eva’s kitchen.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.” I was grasping for an explanation. “He might have gone over to comfort her.”

“There was something else.” Lisa’s mouth twisted. “I didn’t say anything at the time, but when we were at Rotier’s, I thought her bruise was actually darker after she came out of the bathroom.”

“Make-up?” My chest tightened. I remembered noticing the bruise as well, but at the time had attributed its intensity to the half-light of the bar. “So, she faked it. The bruises, the hitting, all of it.”

Lisa’s eyes were scared. “What do you think we should do?”

“She used us.” The knot in my chest grew hotter and I slammed a fist into an open palm. “I can’t believe we were so stupid. We Orient-Expressed poor Brandon.”

“If I had known…” Lisa bit her lip. “I thought her lying was a teenage thing.”

“She never was our friend,” I said. “Not really.”

“But now what?” Lisa swiped tears from her reddening cheeks, her lips taut with anger. “Poor Brandon is dead and we’re the guilty parties.”

“We’re not the only ones. It was Eva’s idea, just like you said. She goaded us into it. I see it now.” My mind went into high gear. “She should pay for what she did. That’s how we’ll get justice for Brandon. I don’t know about you, but that would make me feel better.”

“But how? Everyone believes Brandon died as the result of an accident. It’s all settled. And we can’t point the finger at her without incriminating ourselves.”

“We’ll figure it out,” I said. “But no more talking on Zoom. Or on our phones. I’ll leave a note for you tonight at nine at the foot of the suffragette monument.”

For the next week, we communicated using a dead-drop method I’d learned about in a John le Carre novel, still wearing the masks the government advised even though the lockdown had been lifted. Then Lisa called me in the middle of the afternoon.

“Rex is going to be out of town for a few days,” she told me as soon as I said hello. “Eva’s meeting me for lunch today. Outside,” she added, “so we’ll be safe. I think it will be a long lunch. You’ll have plenty of time.”

“Great.” I sucked in a giant breath and added, “I’ll send her a Zoom invite for tonight. Tell her to come so we can celebrate her engagement.”

Our last Zoom call ended with multiple rounds of toasts, white wine for Lisa and me and Margaritas for Eva. My hangover was fierce, but this time I knew how to handle the waiting, and I took it in stride when, a few days later, I received a couple texts from Lisa.

bad news on the grapevine

when he got back from his trip Rex found Eva dead

apparent OD on tranqs

“Pandemic stress, according to the medical examiner,” I told my mother on the phone the next week.

“What a shame,” my mother said. “She was such a pretty girl. Are you still friends with Lisa?”

“As a matter of fact, I’m meeting her for lunch today,” I said. “Onion rings at Rotier’s. It seems we have a lot in common.”