From SAY GOODBYE

Prologue and Chapter 1

PROLOGUE
7:35 A.M. Tuesday, February 17

If Norman Lyons had known he was going to die that morning, he would have worn different clothes. After tossing all night, he rose early and switched off the alarm before it sounded. Anxiety numbed him while he dressed for work in the bedroom closet, with the door closed so he wouldn't wake Hannah. He doubted his socks matched.

It took clearing off the walk and digging out his car,working up a sweat in the falling snow, to calm down. Then, there he was, snuggled in the warmth of his little Toyota, heart racing and fear pounding at his head.

The forecast called for seven inches. Snow blew right back onto the plowed highway, and the surface was treacherous. Fat flakes slapped his windshield, limiting visibility even with headlights. His glasses remained wet. He drove carefully in the right lane while he fretted about his discovery.

The car rocked as his driver-side wheels thump-thumped into a pothole hidden beneath the snow. He tensed, but the tires held, and he thanked Hannah for pressuring him to buy new ones. The jolts shocked him out of his distress. He needed to calm down. More auditors get fired than murdered, and no one would shoot him in the office. If he had to, he could find another job.

He lifted his right hand off the steering wheel, flexed stiff fingers, and braked as he approached a construction site where the highway rose above another and curved sharply to the left.

As he slowed, the large black SUV hanging behind him pulled forward. It must have four-wheel drive and want to pass, Norm thought, and might stray out of its lane on the curve. Sure enough, it crowded him. Its dark-tinted windows towered above him.

He honked his horn. I am here. Go away, please. He hugged the edge of the roadway and slowed further, so the truck could ease back into its own lane or fly by and choose whichever lane it wanted.

His car jerked, the steering wheel bucked in his hands when the larger vehicle rammed him. The impact shoved his car sideways, bouncing him in the seat belt. He fought for control.

Orange warning cones shot past. The black wall of the SUV forced him toward the wood barrier as the curve ran him out of room. Norm mashed the horn, jammed the brake and swung away from the edge. But the heavier vehicle slowed with him, pushing relentlessly. He couldn't stop.

Hannah appeared. She smiled, and her image collided with scattering cones. For a moment, he thought the barrier might hold. Seat-belted in, hands on the wheel, eyes wide, Norman Lyons hurled off the road and into space. The Toyota plunged toward a highway far below, horn wailing in distress.

CHAPTER 1
10:06 A.M. Tuesday

"Kitchen, make coffee!"

Gary Kemmerman waved his right arm around the room like a magic wand, and laughed at himself. The refrigerator always laughed at him; this time he heard the stovetop laughing, too. Again the wizard had forgotten to put up water.

His arm felt stiff as a wand. Both arms were stiff after shoveling the front walk. At age fifty-eight he was losing flexibility, and that was not all.

He almost called out, "Done shoveling, Sarah. Come on down." Tea for her, coffee for him, had been a ritual after he shoveled. He glanced toward her favorite tan sweater, still hanging over her chair in the eat-in area. He did not want to dwell on that.

Leaning back against the kitchen island, he brushed snow off his jeans and punched the Lyons' code into his cell phone, returning Hannah's call-me message. Norm usually called. The last time he'd spoken with Hannah had been weeks before. Norm's birthday was coming up; maybe she was planning a party.

She answered on the first ring. "Gary?"

"Howdy, Hannah."

"Can you come over? I really need to talk to you right now."

She sounded stressed. Could it have to do with what Norm had said? "What's up?"

"I'll tell you when you get here."

"Okay. I'm on my way."

She'd never asked him to her house alone; she treated men as if she needed a safe distance. Sometimes, that included her husband. He recalled Norm's random visits, the two of them talking sports, investments, movies. . .there were times he wondered if the man wanted to move in.

Before Gary left, he washed his bowl, cup, and spoon. That took a moment, and since he lived alone he tried to make minimal mess. He carried the cereal box into the pantry closet. Its shelves were laden with Sarah's sauce jars and pasta boxes, muffin mixes, canned fruits, and decaf teas. He set the cereal in its place. He was tired of cold cereal, and that meant he needed to buy eggs. If he could remember.

"Eggs, buy eggs," he said out loud as he pulled on his heavy coat. He waved his arms for emphasis. It was too quiet. His own voice, when he talked to himself, provided no relief.

The snow was winding down, but folded clouds kept it gray, gave the day an eight o'clock feel, rather than mid-morning. A diet of dismal weather had made him irritable—maybe Norm, too, based on this morning's chat.

He decided against wearing boots, skipped the snow-covered sidewalk and walked in the plowed street. In his twenty-four years on the block, he and Sarah had always done that. He felt odd, heading for the Lyons house and not holding Sarah's hand, helping her in the snow. It was a little thing, holding a hand you loved. Everywhere he turned, he found little things.

Hannah opened the door before he could push the bell. She stepped back and swung it wide, drawing him in. He wiped his shoes. The Lyons' living room was painted off-white and furnished with small, basic pieces that lacked cohesiveness. It wasn't a warm space. Norm was a prickly guy, bright and unpredictable. You could respect him, but he was probably hard to love. He and Hannah seemed to live at arm's length, and their rooms echoed that distance.

Gary shrugged out of his coat, laid it over the couch near the door, and turned to say hello. Hannah was slender, with straight brown hair she wore in bangs, and large, sad eyes covered by larger glasses. He'd never seen her left eye twitch before.

"Thank you for coming." She spoke in a near-whisper. She was dressed in black, head-to-toe: She favored pastels, he'd never seen her in black.

"What's wrong, Hannah?"

"My Norman is dead."

That stunned him—both the news and Hannah expressing it as if she'd broken a fingernail. She continued before he could react.

"The police told me his car went off the road. They said he died in the car. They said it was an accident. They suggested I get a friend to stay with me, and they gave me a number to call about the body when I made funeral arrangements."

He wanted to comfort her, but she stood stiffly, demanding physical distance as her words screamed caution. "You call anyone yet? Besides me?"

"I spoke with Naomi as soon as I learned. She'll be here any minute now."

Naomi, Norm's younger sister, lived down the block with her husband and two kids, and she and Hannah were close. Naomi worked at a graphics company three days a week. She must have gone to work today.

"Did the police ask you to identify a body?"

Hannah crossed her arms and hugged herself. "Naomi works near where they said Norman is. She said she'd check."

"You want, I'll drive us."

Hannah stared into the abyss, swayed and righted herself. It couldn't have been easy, but she went back to matter-of-fact. "I just can't. Naomi will do it." She breathed in deeply. "They said the accident left him disfigured."

That word. He leaned back against the couch, gripped the nubby fabric and concentrated on texture. Hannah's left eye was twitching rapidly.

"Do the police know Naomi's coming?"

Hannah nodded, exaggerating the movement. "I called them back. Sergeant Schroder seemed very sorry. He asked me about our marriage, and if anything was worrying Norman." Her words petered out, and she withdrew.

So would I, so did I when Sarah died, he thought. Had Hannah told them what Norm was worried about? Did she even know? Better he said nothing about the talk in Norm's car. "They tell you how it happened?"

Hannah's eyes zeroed in on him, the force that held her together behind that look. "I'm sure my Norman was murdered. I told that to the policeman. He asked questions, and I couldn't answer them. He asked if I had facts, evidence. When I didn't know what to say, he cut me off. That policeman won't believe me. Please help me, Gary," she whispered. She stared, waiting.

So she knew. She'd told them. They still said it was an accident. He was squeezing his thumbs, and forced himself to stop. What could he do? His head rang with Sarah's words: "Don't be Mr. Logic with friends. Friends help friends."

He lifted his eyes back to hers. "Of course I'll help."

The doorbell rang.

Hannah stood rooted, as if she hadn't heard it. "My Norman was murdered," she repeated.

Torn between her and the doorbell, he moved and opened the door.

Naomi was leaning forward, ready to sprint inside. For a moment, she looked like a chubby Norm in a curly wig. Her eyes were red-rimmed. She acknowledged him with a touch as she bolted past. He turned and saw her squeeze Hannah in a desperate hug.

He wished he'd talked Norm into taking a snow day.

He was about to close the door when another woman approached, climbed the steps and stopped in front of him. The stranger was almost his height, with auburn hair pulled into a ponytail, pale skin, soft features, and expressive eyes. She wore a long blue wool coat and had a pair of gloves in her clasped hands. He saw a wedding ring and guessed she was in her forties.

"Is this the Lyons house?" she asked.

"Yes."

"Are you a relative?"

How could she know? He glanced back, and found Hannah and Naomi had gone elsewhere in the house.

"Please come in. It's cold out. We can talk inside." She followed him. He closed the door. Her bearing told him not to ask for her coat.

"I really can't stay long," she said. "I was in the neighborhood and. . . ." Her hands tugged at the gloves. "I thought the family might want me to answer questions."

"Answer questions?"

They both heard painful gasps from somewhere back in the house.

Affected by the sounds, the woman lowered her voice. "I saw it—the auto accident. The police already talked to me." She bit her lower lip. "I thought speaking with the family might provide comfort. But now seems a really bad time."

"You are. . . ?" He had matched her near-whisper.

"Natalie Strassberg. I'm a nurse at Ridgetop Hospital, so I was in the neighborhood. Who are you?"

"Gary Kemmerman. A friend and neighbor."

A heart-breaking moan floated in.

The sound further distressed her. "I'd better go. If the family wants, we can speak another time."

"Please. Let me tell Norm's wife you're here." Norm's widow, he should have said. That would take getting used to.

"I'll wait, if—"

"I'll be quick."

He walked into the empty kitchen, turned left, and found both women in the dining room. Hannah was sitting in a chair, weeping almost soundlessly, shoulders shaking and tears squeezing through closed eyes. Naomi had knelt before her, distraught but providing what comfort Hannah would accept. It was not the time to interrupt. He moved unnoticed through the dining room and out its other side, circling back to the witness, who had remained exactly where he left her.

He observed her in profile before she heard his approach and turned. Hannah believed Norm had been murdered. If so, the accident might have been staged, and this woman might have useful information.

"She's sort of in shock," he said.

"I'd really better go."

"Mrs. Strassberg, please. She'll want to know about the accident. You're here, and your memory's fresh. Would you discuss what you saw with me?"

"Do you mean right now?"

"Not here. She needs space. How about my place? I'm down the block."

She frowned. "I think not."

Did she believe he was coming on to her? "I understand. Have you had lunch? Let me buy you lunch. Anywhere you choose." With lots of people around, he almost said.

She looked at him closely. "I really do have to get back to the hospital."

"Later, then? Dinner? There's a diner nearby. You pick the time."

Her expression changed. He had her attention, but he wasn't winning her trust. For the first time in a year, he wished he were clean-shaven.

"Don't you usually have dinner with your wife?" she asked.

She'd seen his wedding ring. "Sarah died of cancer last February. I promised I'd wear our ring for a year."

"I'm sorry."

"No need. I'm almost whole." He edited "pick you up" from what he was about to ask. "Can I meet you after work? Drive us to the diner, bring you back to your car?"

The woman quarter-turned, inclined to leave. "I don't get into cars with strangers."

Or houses. What had happened in her past? "What if I said I was trustworthy?"

"Would you have wanted your wife to agree to what you ask, if she were me?"

This woman was direct and intelligent: lucky Mr. Strassberg. "Sarah didn't need to clear things. She'd leave a message if she was gonna be late. I'd rather interview you in person, but we can do it by phone. Don't want to keep you from your husband."

She surprised him when she chuckled. "Why don't we compromise? Each of us can drive, and we'll go dutch. I can meet you at the Red Maple at eight. Is that the place you meant?"

He nodded, watching her eyes.

"I'm divorced," she said. "This ring" –she wagged the finger— "is for defense. And dinner is about the accident, not a date."

He followed her out. From the front stoop, before he moved, he watched her get into a gray Chevrolet and drive off.

When he went to say goodbye, he found Naomi sobbing along with Hannah. He wasn't sure what to do until Naomi caught his eye and shook her head once, a clear not now. His regrets, his questions, would have to wait. He closed the door behind him.

Gary paused on the sidewalk in front of his house, saddened and confused. A cold wind had fractured the clouds. He turned up his collar, hunched in the coat. Here was the curb where Norm had stopped hours before in the snow, the walkway he'd shoveled, and his home filled with memories.

Whether he was ready or not, his soft "of course" had been a commitment to Hannah and to Norm. He'd have to dust off his professional skills and rejoin the world, at least for a bit. He stared at his house and knew if he went right in he might change his mind, put on his robe, dive back into the wallow.

He paced, crunching snow, turned to face the Lyons' house, and then his own. A gust blew snow down his neck. What steps must he take? Naomi would tell him when it was safe to question Hannah. In the meantime he had a date—or whatever—to interview the crash witness. It would also be good to interview the investigating officer.

He pulled out his phone and punched in the number for his friend Vincent Alegretti, a lieutenant on the town police department. Vincent and his wife Angela had not been close with Norm and Hannah, but they'd been block-neighbors for a dozen years. They would be upset.

His exposed hands grew cold, but the chill air felt good. Vincent answered on the third ring.

"Hi, Vinnie. It's Gary."

"Gary who?"

"Oh, come on. I need to speak to you." He flattened a lump of snow with his left shoe.

"Beef stroganoff, chicken sorrentino, veal parmigiana, Angela's ready to cook all those things for the two of us, and you're mister no-show. You deserve a kick in the ass," his friend said.

"True. But not now."

Vincent's sigh was audible. "Did you shave today?"

"No."

"Yesterday?" He waited a bit. "We talk, you shave. Deal, my reclusive buddy?"

The sun broke through the clouds, illuminating the street. It seemed wrong, sunlight and phone calls, life going on as if nothing had happened. "Norm's dead," he said, causing a silence.

". . .Norm Lyons?"

"Yeah." He imagined his friend bent forward, bushy brows knitted, the phone folded in his thick hand.

"How? When?"

"This morning. Apparently in an auto accident. Can we meet about it?"

Lieutenant Alegretti handled Homicide.
***