CHAPTER 26

"It was just three weeks ago," Gracie said to herself, "that I didn't want to go to the party at Dad's. Now I'm really glad I did." She was once again sitting on the patio at what she'd always think of as her Dad's house, with family and friends again gathered. She could almost believe it was that same day, that her Dad would come walking out the patio door any moment now to attend the grill.

But it was Clarke cooking burgers and wieners, wearing a silly apron and chef's hat. This wasn't exactly a party, more a chance for everyone to get together and talk about what had happened and how it would change their lives. Mom was here with Clay, and Candy had come along too. Justin and Zack were swimming, though this time they'd invited a couple of girls.

Aunt Jeanine was making her own drink, mostly because everyone had ignored her demands for service. Jennifer and Cindy were setting out condiments, bowls of salads and side dishes, and plate of desserts. Jim and Susan Holloway were talking to George Thompson and Jerry Wilkins. Lieutenant Freeman said he might drop by, lured by the promise of free food.

Jesse Conover was helping Clarke cook. That was one good thing to come out of all this, Gracie thought. Siblings that had never known about each other's existence had a chance to get to know each other and become friends. Mom had called him to make sure he understood that no one blamed him; she'd paid for his plane ticket so he could join the group today.

Gracie's friends were here today, too; Shawna and Cheryl, Chris and Kelly. She felt surrounded by love and friendship, yet was sitting by herself thinking how much she missed her father. She'd just decided she needed to quit wallowing in her grief and get up to talk to someone when Carrie Stephens sat down beside her.

"Hey, Carrie. You having fun?" Gracie asked.

"Yeah, sure. This is a great house, wish I had a pool," Carrie replied. "Uh, Gracie, can I ask you something?"

Gracie was a little surprised, she and Carrie weren't exactly friends. "OK, I guess."

"What's up with Zack?" Carrie asked, straight to the point. "He used to be a lot of fun, but he's changed. Oh, I'm not sorry I got to come here today, but I don't think I want to go out with Zack again."

"I think he's given up smoking dope and he's trying to figure out what he wants to do with his life," Gracie said.

"Oh, but that's wonderful!" Carrie said approvingly. "That stuff leads to hard drugs and gangs and nothing but trouble. But why would he quit?"

"It's a long story, Carrie," Gracie told her. She didn't want to say anything about Justin's stoned actions and how badly it'd scared him; without that it would be hard to explain that Zack was just following along with Justin's changed attitude. Though quite possibly Zack would've been frightened too, realizing after the fact that he might've been considered an accessory.

"But if he's straight now he should be more fun, wanting to do something besides get high or go parking," Carrie complained.

Gracie decided this was a day for truths, though she didn't have to be harsh about it. "Carrie, he's not a Bad Boy anymore, that's what's changed."

"But that's a good thing, isn't it?" Carrie asked.

"Yes, it is," Gracie said. "Except that you like Bad Boys, you think you're going to straighten them out. Now that there's no challenge, you think Zack's boring."

"That's not true!" Carrie exclaimed. "Well, maybe a little. Guys like Zack seem to have more fun than the others, but they expect me to do things I know are wrong."

"Exactly!" Gracie said. "You can't have one without the other. But hey, maybe you did get Zack to see the light, so don't give up on him too quick."

Carrie thought about that for a minute. "Yeah, I see what you mean. Thanks, Gracie. Think I'll go back to the pool, talk to Zack." Carrie got up and left.

Kelly had been hovering nearby and swooped in to take the now-empty seat. "Hi, Gracie. Thanks for inviting me."

Gracie smiled at him and said, "I'm glad you came. It's a little noisier than the picnic, but the pool's heated so we can go swimming later."

"That sounds like fun," he said. "Do you, um, have any plans for the evening? I thought maybe we could go see a movie."

"I'd love to!" Gracie replied. "This is nice, but I'll be ready for a little quieter setting before long."

"It'll be dark in the theater too. Maybe we can sit in the balcony…"

They grinned at each other in mutual anticipation.

"Hey, Kelly!" Chris called out. "You wanna play Frisbee?" Chris threw the disc towards the patio; it would've hit Gracie if Kelly hadn't jumped up to catch it first.

"Go ahead," Gracie told him. "I'll see you later. Think I'll go talk to Candy."

Kelly winked at her and threw the Frisbee toward Chris, then moved out into the yard so they wouldn't hit anybody else. Gracie walked over to where Candy was sitting.

"Hi, Candy. Enjoying yourself? How come you didn't bring a date?" Gracie asked.

"This is kinda nice," Candy replied. "Relaxing, you know? I don't think any of my boyfriends would like it, it's too quiet."

Gracie wasn't exactly sure how to respond to that.

"I know you thought I might've been the one who shot your dad," Candy said, rather out of the blue.

"Um, well, it's not that I thought you did," Gracie began awkwardly. "It's more like your dad seemed to think you had a good reason to. Or that he had motive to avenge you. And that thing with the mutual alibis was so hokey!" She looked embarrassed.

"I didn't get it," Candy said. "Even when Dad told me who the guy was, it never occurred to me that he'd come looking for me with some agenda. No offense, I thought he was just some old guy looking for a little fun."

"That could still be true," Gracie told her. "We'll never know, so why worry about it? I mean, since it didn't bother you, what difference does it make?"

"I've been thinking about that," Candy replied. "I didn't really want to let him pick me up, I should've listened to myself. I got real scared when that cop started asking questions and hinting that I was a murder suspect. Or that my Dad was. It's funny how you think there's nothing wrong with doing something, and it comes back to bite you in the butt."

Gracie was saved from having to answer by Clarke's bellow that lunch was served. She hoped that Candy would start thinking about the consequences of her actions, which would please Clay no end.

Everyone filled their plates and sat down at one of the tables on the lawn. Clarke raised his soda bottle in the air and offered a toast. "To friends and family. Jesse, we're glad to call you both!"

Jesse looked a bit embarrassed, but responded, "To Charles Greene."

Gracie felt a bit misty-eyed, covered it by digging into the heap of potato salad on her plate. George was at the table behind her, talking to her mother who was sitting next to her, apparently a conversation that had been started earlier.

"You'll need to re-paint the bedroom, and replace the shower door in the guest bath," George was saying. "And definitely get rid of that furniture in the den. It's too modern, you need something more traditional for buyers to see. I just happen to have some things that would look quite nice in that room."

"We've got time to make a few repairs," Clarissa said in response. "What about the dining room, do we need to get another chandelier?"

"Oh, I don't think so," George said. "It's a formal room, it looks fine. We'll put some cut flowers in a crystal vase on the buffet for the open house, but we can talk about those details later. If I may ask, what will you do with the books in the den?"

Clarissa hid a grin by taking a bite. "I'm sure we could work something out and include them as part of your commission."

Aunt Jeanine was sitting two tables away, but had apparently overheard this exchange. "What're you gonna do with the silver?" she yelled across the intervening table. "That's Grandma's silver service. It's an antique, and worth a bundle. I don't know why she left if to Charles anyway, men don't care about shit like that."

Gracie was close enough to hear her mother mumble, "Because Grandma knew you'd hock it to pay the rent." She didn't think anyone else heard. Clarissa beckoned to Jeanine, saying "Come over here a second so we don't have to shout."

Aunt Jeanine trudged over to their table. Cheryl told her, "Sit here Jeanine while I go get seconds."

Aunt Jeanine grunted as she sat in the vacated chair. "You're not planning to sell the silver are you?"

"Oh, Heavens no!" Clarissa said. "It's an heirloom, I'd never suggest selling it to strangers. But it needs to be cared for properly, stored carefully and polished regularly. And of course it would need to be insured. Just think how awful it would be if it were stuck in a storage unit somewhere and stolen. Grandma would come back to haunt anyone who let something happen to her silver service."

"I'm not afraid of no ghost," Jeanine responded truculently. "I should've had it in the first place."

Clarissa put down her fork and looked Jeanine square in the face. Jeanine never had been good at taking hints. "Jeanine, I'm sorry, but I can't in good conscience let you have it. Your apartment building's been broken into twice this year, it wouldn't be safe. And it would ruin it to dump it in storage. I don't want to seem rude, but you couldn't possibly afford the insurance premiums. I think the best thing all around is to give it to Gracie; after all, it was her great-grandmother's set. Don't you think she should have it?"

Jeanine's eyes narrowed, but she said, "Yeah, at least it'll stay in the family that way."

"Aunt Jeanine, I've been thinking," Gracie said.

"About the silver service? I guess you can use it at your wedding, people will get to see it that way."

"No, but I do really appreciate you letting me have it," she replied. "Once Dad's estate is settled, I could loan you the money to get that training you want."

Jeanine's face brightened. "You would? I'll pay you back, I swear. I can finally get a decent job and get all the things I've always wanted. But I'd pay you back first, if you'd do that for me."

"Well, I was thinking that the best way to do it would be to have you move in while you went to classes," Gracie said. Out of the corner of her eye she saw her mother's look of horror which was quickly turned into a cough.

"That'd mean I'd have to give up the apartment," Jeanine said. "Then I'd just have to get another one later."

"Yes, but the point is you wouldn't have to worry about rent or working, you could concentrate on studying," Gracie told her. "We could all see how well you're doing, and Mom and I could help you if you didn't understand something, too. Of course you'd have to help us out around the house, do your fair share of cleaning and cooking. Wouldn't that be great?"

Under the table Clarissa kicked Gracie's ankle.

"Well, I don't know," Jeanine began uncertainly. "I like where I'm at right now, I could study there just fine. Your house is bigger, I'm not sure I could vacuum all that carpet, what with my bad back and all."

"Oh, once a week would be fine, I'm sure," Gracie said airily. "And Mom doesn't like dirty dishes in the bedrooms, but that's OK, we have a dishwasher."

"Once a week?" Jeanine's voice squeaked.

"And you'd only have to cook every third day, but we like dinner at 6:30, no later."

"I don't know, Gracie. I could just get you to pay my rent and stay at my place. It'd only be six months, that's not too long. I'd rather do it that way, I'd just be in the way at your house," Jeanine told her.

Gracie shook her head, grinning. "Nope, it's a package deal. I'd have to protect my investment, make sure you finished the course. Otherwise you'd never be able to repay the loan. Whadda ya say?"

"I'll have to think about it," Jeanine said. "It sounds like you want free maid service, I'm not sure I want to do that kind of work. Especially for family. You ought to help me out, not ask me to clean your damned house."

"It seems like a fair offer to me," Gracie said. "Think about it. But let me know soon so Mom can arrange the finances. Once she invests my money I don't know if I can take any out."

"My burger's getting cold," Jeanine said. "I'm gonna go finish my lunch now."

When Aunt Jeanine had left Gracie turned to her mother and quietly said, "Don't worry Mom. I knew she'd never go for it. It required accountability. But now I can say I've made the offer so she has no grounds to complain. Not that that would stop her!"

"Gracie, you're sneaky," her mother said.

A few minutes later people were finishing their lunch and going for dessert. Jennifer and Cindy walked by Gracie's table and she invited them to sit down.

"Thanks for having us all here today," Gracie told them. "The food's great." She noticed Jennifer had a (very) small piece of chocolate cake on her plate.

"You're welcome," Jennifer said. "I thought, I mean we thought it would be nice to have everyone over. You didn't have to let us stay here and I'd like to say you're all welcome here anytime."

"What Jen's trying to say is that things have changed for everyone, and this is a chance for new beginnings. We're both very grateful," Cindy said.

"We've all been though enough anguish in the past few weeks," Clarissa said. "Cindy's absolutely right, it's a time for new beginnings, and I hope they're positive for everyone. Jennifer, you mentioned going to school the other day, have you given any thought to what courses you might take?"

"I know you, like, probably think it's silly, but I'd like to do something with fashion. I don't think I could come up with the designs, but maybe selling them. I've always had a pretty good idea of what's in style," Jennifer replied.

"I don't think that's silly at all!" Clarissa said. "Fashion merchandising can be a very rewarding area. You do have a good eye for style, and you'd make a good model for the clothes you're trying to sell."

"I wanted to ask you, could I maybe sell some of the jewelry and use the money to start school this summer?" Jennifer asked, a little nervously.

"It's your jewelry, dear," Clarissa told her. "You can do what you like with it. But I think that's a wonderful idea. The sooner you get started the sooner you can become self-sufficient. And this way you don't have to use your inheritance paying rent. Cindy, what about you?"

"I've given the landlord notice I've moved out, and again I'm very grateful for you letting me live here with Jen," Cindy said.

Clarissa smiled kindly. "I thought we'd been through all that! What I meant was, what will you do now?"

"I've changed to the day shift, I'll take care of the house and help Jen with her schoolwork, I guess."

"Isn't there anything else you'd like to do?" Clarissa asked.

Cindy looked a little embarrassed. "Well, some day I'd like to get into accounting. But I can do that later when we're settled somewhere."

Jennifer looked at Cindy in surprise. "You never mentioned that to me!"

"When I had trouble paying the bills school seemed out of the question," Cindy explained.

"Then I think I'll sell more jewelry and we can both go to school this summer! You can quit that lousy job and we'll help each other study." Jennifer grinned wickedly. "When I open my fashion boutique you can keep track of our profits."

Everyone laughed happily. "Hah!" Gracie said. "You guys may be going back to school, but I'm taking the summer off."

"Justin's thinking about summer school, too," Clarissa said.

"No kidding?" Gracie asked. "Taking what?"

"Some art classes, to begin with," Clarissa responded. "He's got some talent, but he's never done anything with it. He needs to find out what area he likes best, and exactly where his talents lie."

"I'd have thought he'd want to go into music," Gracie said. "He's always listening to that weird stuff, he knows a lot about it."

"I asked him about that," her mother told her. "He said he still likes the music, but he's realized the lifestyle that goes with it isn't something he wants to get involved with any more. It's not going to be easy for him to change, but I think he'll be a lot happier this way."

"Um, I know it's not exactly any of my business, but will Justin have to go to jail?" Jennifer asked.

"The DA took the circumstances into consideration and declined to file charges," Clarissa told her. "He's on probation – he knows if he messes up again they'll bring those charges back up and he'll really be in trouble. I don't think he will."

Jerry Wilkins wandered over and sat down at the table. He looked first at Jennifer, then at Clarissa; unsure quite who the hostess was he spoke to the table in general. "Ladies, thanks for a great little picnic. I surely enjoyed it."

"Glad you could come, Jerry," Jennifer said. "Since you're here, let me ask you something. What's going to happen to Jack Dunbar?"

"I got him a good lawyer, one of my best buddies. He's out on bail now. It'll be months before he goes to trial, so he'll be back at work come Monday," Jerry said. "I hope that doesn't distress you-all too much. He's a good salesman, no sense in adding to his troubles."

"After what he did?" Gracie asked. "I'd think you wouldn't want him back. What if he got mad at someone else there?"

"I think it's safe to say that won't happen," Jerry replied. "When I went to visit him in jail he told me he'd been the one with the original idea of trying to sell Bixby. Now, I know what you're thinkin', but just hold your horses a minute. Jack told me where to look in his desk, and sure 'nuff I found his notes on the deal. In his handwriting, and dated a month before Charles started talkin' about it."

"That proves he had motivation," Gracie said.

"Well now, it does that," Jerry agreed. "But it also proves he had provocation. Please understand, Ma'am. I do not approve of shootin' up yer Dad's car, but I do think he had reason to be mad. Jack will pay for what he did, but I don't believe in punishing a fellow any more than is necessary."

Gracie nodded her head. "I can see that."

"What, um…" Jerry cleared his throat. "What will happen to the fellow who killed Charles? If you don't mind my asking."

"Bill's in jail," Gracie told him. "He can't afford bail and anyway the college has fired him. I don't blame him for being hurt and angry – but his 'solution' hurt a lot of other people. The best I can figure, he just snapped. He felt betrayed and walked out of here vowing he'd never speak to Dad again. Then he started thinking, and realized he had the opportunity to kill him and maybe get away with it. If he'd had more time he would've probably cooled down and understood what a horrible plan he was contemplating. But in order to pull it off he had to act fast and he didn't have time to think."

"I heard about your heroics," Jerry grinned at her. "But I thought there was no real evidence against him, only the confession he gave you."

Gracie blushed. "Mom didn't want me to do it, but I was never in any real danger. It was the only way to get at the truth. I knew I was right, but I couldn't prove any of it. Once Lieutenant Freeman heard the confession he knew where to look. They found the gun, and the latex gloves Bill had worn. They kept his prints off everything but the inside of the gloves. There was gun oil and GSR on the outside, too." She used the term confidently, now that she knew what it was.

"They even used metal detectors and found the drill bit where he'd thrown it out the window," Gracie continued. "The metal shavings in its grooves matched the gun, and he hadn't worn the gloves when he chucked it so they got a fingerprint off it, too."

"That seems like it covers the main points," Jerry allowed.

"But there's more!" Gracie said. "Bill's bicycle tires match the tread marks found at the scene. There's probably thousands just like 'em, they're a common brand. But they did find evergreen sap on the bike which makes it a little more likely it'd been there."

"Sounds a little weak to me," Jerry said.

"It is, it's just a small point. Ironically the new clothes Bill bought weren't as good a disguise as he'd thought. That plaid shirt kinda stood out. The police found several students who remembered seeing a man wearing that shirt in the school parking lot, even if they hadn't recognized the professor. There was also a lifer at the campground that saw him drive in and head straight to the public shower and then burn something. They checked out the fire pit, but he'd burned the clothes pretty thoroughly."

"So you really did figure it all out from some pretty small clues."

"I just happened to know some things the police didn't, and put them into context," Gracie said humbly.

Clay, who had been to the dessert table, walked up and handed a plate to Clarissa and set one at his own place. He looked around and saw that everyone was still sitting at the tables. He raised his voice and said, "Hey, everybody, listen up! I've got something to say and I want you all to witness."

The group quieted down and turned to look at Clay with some curiosity. "I've done a lot of thinking the last couple of weeks, and I'm sure everyone else has, too. I've thought a lot about the people I know; what kind of people they were and what they were capable of."

Clay had their attention now, and heads nodded in agreement.

"I've watched how they've all weathered this storm, because how a person acts in crisis tells you a lot about their character. And last but not least, I've thought a lot about myself. What kind of character am I?"

This got a lot of laughs from the gathering, as Clay had intended.

"I've realized that I've let past mistakes guide my current life; that because of them I've been afraid to do something that would be good for me and hopefully good for others. I've realized that I love Clarissa very much."

The crowd was suddenly completely silent as everyone riveted their attention on the tableau in front of them. Gracie's hands flew to her mouth as she sucked in a breath and waited for what she knew must be coming.

Clay did it right. He got down on one knee in front of Clarissa and in a steady voice asked, "Clarissa, will you marry me?"

Clarissa grabbed Clay's hands and pulled him up with her as she stood too. "Yes, Clay, I will."

Clay pulled a small box from his pocket and opened it, presenting a sparkling engagement ring to Clarissa. Gracie could see tears of joy in her mother's eyes as she examined it before Clay removed it from the box and put it on her finger. The newly engaged couple embraced as everyone clapped and cheered.

Gracie jumped up and hugged them both, then stood aside as everyone else rushed in to congratulate them. She saw Lieutenant Freeman come around the corner of the house and stop to look at the knot of people. She ran up to meet him.

"Hi, Lieutenant. You got here at a good time!" Gracie shouted as she got closer.

"Hope I'm not so late the food's all gone," Ken said. "What's going on?"

"Oh, it's wonderful!" Gracie replied. "Clay just proposed to Mom. I'm so happy for them! And no, you didn't miss the food, there's plenty left, just help yourself."

"You go on back to your friends," Ken told her. "I'll fill a plate and come join you. When we get a chance I'd like to talk to you – I've got a real doozie of a case going, and I'd like to see what you think of the evidence."

THE END

11