Thicker Than Water

The downtown storefront occupied by the fledgling Sleepyside Detective Agency was small, but the main reception area was large enough that Trixie and Honey had chosen to use it for their primary office space. They had turned one of the rooms in back into a conference room that they could use when the situation warranted, and they had designated the other one as a combination library and storage room. Mart had helped them set up an intranet so that they could share sensitive case files while avoiding some of the insecurity inherent in the internet, and they also used it to back up files to a computer dedicated for the purpose.

It was a cold Monday morning in late January when Trixie glanced at her calendar to see a vaguely familiar name. “Honey, what do you know about the prospective client we have coming in this morning? Marissa Watkins? I feel like I should know that name.”

“She was in our public speaking class our freshman year of college,” Honey said. “She was also in my Spanish class when we were sophomores. We were in the same study group, but I haven’t really kept in touch with her. We didn’t seem to have that much in common, and that was our last class together. When she called on Friday to make the appointment, she said that she wants to talk to us about her brother-in-law.”

“That’s strange,” Trixie said. “Did she say why?”

“No. She just said she didn’t want to get into it over the phone, and she’s willing to pay for the initial consultation.” She smiled ruefully. “I know she has a sister, so I suspect she thinks the brother-in-law is cheating on her sister and wants proof before confronting her.”

“Probably,” Trixie agreed. She smiled as she thought of a recent case in which a husband had suspected his wife of cheating on him. However, Trixie and Honey had discovered that she had gotten a part-time job in order to buy him an unexpected Christmas present. “That reminds me. How did Mr. Thomason react to the pictures we took for him?”

“He was ecstatic,” Honey replied. She sighed. “On the other hand, Mrs. Thomason wasn’t exactly thrilled that he didn’t trust her. I suspect he’s going to be in the doghouse for quite a while.”

“Better that than a divorce,” Trixie said. “It was nice to see unfounded suspicions for a change.”

“Definitely,” Honey agreed.

The front door opened, and a tall, slender brunette walked in. “Honey? Trixie? Thank you for agreeing to see me this morning.”

“Hi, Marissa,” Honey said. She smiled warmly at their former classmate and motioned towards a guest chair pulled up the other side of her desk. “Would you like to have a seat? Or if you prefer, we can go into the conference room for a little more privacy in case someone else comes in.”

“This is fine,” Marissa said. She sank gracefully into the plush chair. “I’ve already been to the police station, so I’m not that concerned if anyone sees me here. They didn’t take me seriously, but I’m hoping you two will.”

Trixie and Honey shared a glance, and Trixie rolled her chair over to Honey’s desk. “Okay. Honey said you wanted to speak to us about your brother-in-law. What’s going on?”

“That’s what I want to know,” their client sighed. “It’s probably best if I start at the beginning. I’m not sure either of you ever met my sister Alyssa. We’re fifteen months apart in age, and we were always rather close when we were growing up. Since we were only one grade level apart, we had a lot of the same friends and ran in the same circles up through high school.”

“Is she older or younger?” Trixie asked.

“She’s the oldest. She was always a brain and had her pick of the Ivy League schools. She chose Columbia because it was close to home. Majored in business, got her master’s degree, then came home to marry her boyfriend and help run our parents’ company.”

“Which is?”

“Watkins, Inc. They own and manage the Dutch Oven restaurant chain. Six restaurants around the region right now. The newest opened in Sleepyside just last week.”

“That’s the new restaurant out on Highland Avenue?”

Marissa nodded. “Yes. You can imagine we’ve all been busy trying to get ready for the grand opening. Hiring and training staff. Setting up the kitchen and dining room. So it makes sense that Alyssa is really tired at the end of each day, especially now that we finally opened. We all are. But the thing is, she’s just not herself. There’s something off about her, and I’ve seen her vomiting more than once.”

“She is married,” Honey tactfully pointed out. “Is it possible she’s expecting?”

“Maybe,” Marissa said doubtfully. “That was my first thought, too, and I’d love to have a little niece or nephew. She said she’s not when I asked her, though. Now, I know she might just not know it yet, but I get the feeling there’s something not quite right in her marriage. That’s why I’m here. I went to the police first, but they didn’t believe me, and I’m worried about her.”

“We’re not doctors,” Trixie said gently. “Nor are we marriage counselors.”

“I know. She refuses to see a doctor, and if my suspicious are right, no marriage counselor could help.” She slumped in her seat. “Here’s the thing. Alyssa is Mitch’s second wife. He was married before, and took his first wife to Mexico for a delayed honeymoon about a year after the wedding. They rented a small fishing boat, which Mitch says capsized. He says he tried to save her because she couldn’t swim, but a current swept her out further and she drowned. He then received a sizable insurance policy that was doubled due to the accidental death clause. I’m assuming the insurance company investigated, but I just have a bad feeling about it. Alyssa has a trust fund left to her by our grandmother, and if she dies, not only will he inherit it, but I just found out that she also has a life insurance policy she set up right after their wedding. I know it sounds crazy, but what if he’s slowly poisoning her somehow? I’ve read enough mysteries to know it’s possible.”

Honey’s eyes widened. “You said you went to the police? Where? What did they say?”

“Peekskill. They bought a house there when they got married, and I thought it would be best to go to their jurisdiction. The officer I talked to basically told me that since I can’t prove a crime has been committed, I’m at risk of being sued for slander if I make, as he put it, ‘wild accusations.’ It was only later that I realized Peekskill really isn’t that big of a town, and there’s a good chance the officer knows him, especially since Mitch did grow up there.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Trixie said. “Is there any way you can convince Alyssa to see a doctor?”

“I’ll keep trying, but I doubt it. The harder I push, the less likely she is to do it. I wish I could get her away for a few weeks, but that’s practically impossible.”

Honey nodded sympathetically. “Let us get some more information from you. We’ll start looking into Mitch’s background and his first wife’s death.” She picked up a silver Cross pen and a steno pad to take notes. “What is his full name?”

“Mitchell Poole. I’m not sure of his middle name.”

“Date of birth?”

“March 15th. He’s five years older than Alyssa, so that would have been….” she trailed off as she paused to think. “1971?”

“Is he involved with the restaurants or is he employed elsewhere?”

“He’s a financial advisor with Wilson, Johns, and Simmons in the City, but he’s usually at the restaurant every evening. He just sits at the bar watching as Alyssa works. It’s almost like he doesn’t trust her to be out of his sight.”

“What is her role? General whatever needs to be done, or does she have a specific position?”

“She’s the general manager until my parents are able to hire someone they trust to take over on a permanent basis. She also managed the one we opened in Scarsdale last year until they found someone else to run it.”

Trixie caught an almost imperceptible hint of bitterness in her voice. “If Alyssa is the manager, what is your role? Are you also a manager?”

“No,” Marissa said. “Alyssa’s more qualified and has the experience our parents want. I guess you could say I’m her assistant – I do whatever she tells me to do.”

“Does that bother you?” Trixie asked bluntly.

“Sometimes,” she admitted. “I’m used to it, though, and honestly, she does have more experience and education. I’m learning a lot from her. Plus, she’s my sister, and I love her. I’d do anything I could for her.”

“Okay,” Honey said softly. “Tell me what you know about Mitch’s first wife. Do you know her name?”

“He calls her Lizzie. I assume it’s short for Elizabeth, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve never heard her maiden name.”

“Do you know when she died?”

“May of 1996. It wasn’t until 1998 that he and Alyssa met.”

“Was she from this area?”

“I believe so, but I’m not sure. I really don’t know that much about her.”

“When did Mitch and Alyssa get married?”

“This past August. It was only about a month ago, though, that I started noticing the change in her. It seems to be getting worse, and I’m scared we’re running out of time. I know there’s not much you can do to protect her directly, but if you could at least find any evidence that Mitch was involved in his first wife’s death, that would be enough to convince her to leave him and to take to the police.”

“You’re right,” Trixie said. “We’ll do what we can, but we’re not bodyguards. Given the criminal nature of this case, I do want to make it absolutely clear that the minute we find any sort of evidence of criminal activity, we’re going straight to the police.”

“Please.” Marissa nodded grimly. “That’s exactly why I want to hire you. They’ll believe you, even if they didn’t believe me. Just please keep me informed as well.”

“Absolutely,” Honey assured her. “Now, before we get started, we do need for you to sign a contract formally engaging our services. As we discussed on Friday, we typically ask for a deposit up front to cover the expenses involved in our investigation. We also send itemized statements on the first of the month as well as when the case is closed.”

Within a few minutes, the contract had been signed and Marissa gave them a check to cover the requested deposit. She shook their hands, then slipped out the door.

“Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting,” Trixie commented dryly.

Honey shook her head. “Not at all. I have to admit a big part of me thinks she’s overreacting. Even if she has been reading a lot of mysteries, most people don’t automatically assume poison when someone is tired and sick.”

“No, they don’t. I admit the first wife’s death does make me suspicious, but as much as I hate to say it, I can see why she didn’t get very far with the Peekskill Police Department.”

“Me, too. However, it is possible that Alyssa’s life is at stake here, and I don’t want to just brush off the gravity of the case. I want to do some background research on both the husband and Marissa. Considering her worries, I’m more than a little shocked by how bitter she sounded about Alyssa’s position.”

“True, but you and Jim didn’t grow up as brother and sister,” Trixie pointed out. “Brian, Mart, Bobby, and I all love each other, even when we haven’t always understood each other, but I suspect that we’ve all sounded a little disgruntled from time to time. You remember how irritated Mart and I got with each other back in high school. I know we went to a good college, but Hudson isn’t exactly Ivy League. If Alyssa and Marissa were at all competitive, Marissa has to feel slighted, especially since her parents are overlooking her.”

“That could be,” Honey admitted. “It was different with you and your brothers. Despite normal sibling rivalry, I’ve never known any of you to truly be resentful of each other. I mean, none of you were even remotely jealous when Mart suddenly came into money.”

“Of course not,” Trixie said. “He truly earned that, and even though he doesn’t call attention to it, you know he donates quite a bit to Jim’s school and other causes.”

“Because he’s a Bob-White. It’s what we grew up doing. Money tears a lot of families apart, though. You wouldn’t believe how many of my parents’ friends control their children by threatening their inheritance.” She grimaced. “I shouldn’t knock it. I’m convinced that was the only thing that finally got Ben to settle down.”

Trixie sighed. “So in this case, Marissa may very well have a reason to be bitter, but I don’t know how or even if that relates to our case. I think it would be a good idea for us to visit the Dutch Oven tonight to try to see the family dynamics for ourselves. It’s almost too bad it’s in Sleepyside. We’re bound to run into someone who knows us.”

“We can just go undercover,” Honey reminded her. “Nothing too outrageous, but just enough so we’re not recognized. From what I understand, the Dutch Oven chain is a lot like Bennigan’s, except it’s Dutch-themed instead of Irish. So casual, but not too casual, if that made sense.”

“It does, and good idea. Any suggestions for what to wear?”

“I think our ‘girls’ night out’ outfits. So your red wig, black mini-skirt, and blue sweater. To be safe, wear the gold-rimmed eyeglasses. I’ll do your makeup before we leave.”

“As cold as it is, that means tights,” Trixie groaned. “I’m assuming heels, too?”

“Of course,” Honey grinned. “Think of this. You can wear the outfit home and enjoy your husband’s reaction to it.”

“It wouldn’t do me any good. Dell’s working tonight, and he won’t be home until at least midnight.” Her face changed, and she frowned. “Oh gleeps. I forgot about that. I should start calling to see if anyone can watch Erica tonight. Moms and Dad were going to Bobby’s wrestling meet in Tarrytown, so they’re out. Maybe Jean and Dave will be available. They usually don’t mind short notice like this.”

“Give them a call,” Honey said. “I’ll start doing what research I can online, and I think I may quietly call a few of our other classmates that I suspect kept in touch with Marissa.”

“Sounds good. I want to head over to the library to see what I can dig up about Mitch’s first wife’s death in the newspaper archives. There should at least be a wedding announcement somewhere that gives her maiden name, but I’m hoping for an obituary, or even better, an article about the drowning. I may need to go to the city clerk’s office, too.”

“Good idea. Is your phone charged?”

Trixie looked at the small Nokia phone, then sighed. “No. It’s dead as a doornail again. It’s a good thing I have a car charger for it. I’ll plug it in when I head out to the library, then check my messages when I leave. That way, if you do call me, I’ll at least get it before I head to Peekskill if I need to.”

“That works,” Honey said. She hesitated. “You know, you really should start keeping it charged. What if there’s an emergency?”

“I know,” she admitted. “I try. I really do. I’m just so busy, and I just don’t think about it.”

“What if you got in a routine? Say, what if you plugged it in right before bed every night?”

“I never think about it then. I should probably try doing it as soon as I get in the door every night. Then again, if I did that, though, what would you and Dell have to fuss at me about?” Her blue eyes twinkled.

Honey snorted. “We’d find something, I’m sure. Don’t forget to check your messages, though. Please?”

“I won’t,” she promised. “I don’t want you to have to come looking for me in the library again.”

“It wasn’t that big of a deal,” Honey protested. “But thanks. Barring anything unexpected – and assuming you get a babysitter – should we plan to meet back here at six-thirty this evening? That would give us time to go over what we discover while we’re getting dressed.”

“Sounds great.”

Several hours later, Trixie was tired from a long afternoon spent looking at microfilm with what seemed like little to show for it. Some of the microfilm she needed was missing, and while the rest had turned up a few leads, it wasn’t as many as she had hoped. A quick supper with Erica at Wimpy’s helped, and she felt more focused as she dropped the child off at her maternal grandparents’ house for the evening. It bothered her sometimes that she was closer to Heather’s parents than she was to her actual mother-in-law, but her relationship with Dave and Jean Williams had been forged in the dark days after Heather’s unexpected death. Dave had been severely injured in the same car accident that had killed Heather, and Jean had her hands full taking care of her husband. Despite their inability at the time to help care for Erica, Trixie had made sure that they had as much time with their granddaughter as they wanted. As time passed, and Trixie’s relationship with their son-in-law evolved, they had encouraged the relationship, much to Trixie’s surprise and relief.

“We had Wimpy’s for supper!” Erica exclaimed happily as she dropped her backpack and launched herself into her grandmother’s arms.

Jean laughed. “I like Wimpy’s once in a while, too. How was school today?”

“Great! We’re starting to work on our science fair projects, and that’s a lot of fun.”

“She has her books with her so she can do her homework,” Trixie said. “I really appreciate this, Jean.”

“We’re always glad to have her over,” the older woman said. “Erica, your grandpa’s watching TV in the den. Go on in and give him a hug, too.”

“Okay, Grandma. Bye, Mommy!” She quickly gave Trixie a hug. “Love you!”

“I love you, too,” Trixie returned the embrace. “Be good for Grandma and Grandpa, munchkin. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

“I know you will,” Erica smiled. “Be careful tonight!” With a quick kiss on Trixie’s cheek, she ran off to the other room.

“Have I ever told you you’re a life saver?” Trixie sighed. “I am sorry about the short notice, but we kind of have to jump on this case.”

“We’re glad to help,” Jean reminded her. “Dave was a cop for over thirty years, and we completely understand how it is. I know you need to go, but do you have a minute or two?”

“If I didn’t, I’d make the time,” Trixie replied. “What’s up?”

She lowered her voice. “I’m assuming Dell told you that he told us you’re starting to try for a baby.”

Trixie nodded, butterflies in her stomach. It hadn’t happened yet, but they didn’t want to catch them off guard when it did. “I asked him to let you know. We didn’t want to surprise you if it does happen.”

When it happens. We do appreciate you letting us know, but I wanted to assure you that we are okay. I think I just wanted to warn you, too, that we’re going to treat any children you have just like we do Erica. They’ll be our grandchildren just as much as she is.”

Tears came unbidden to her eyes, and she found herself hugging the older woman. “And they’ll definitely think of you as grandparents. You don’t know what this means to me.”

“You and Dell are both still young, Trixie, and life has to go on. You need to chase all you can get out of life. It’s too short to do otherwise.”

“I know,” Trixie whispered. “Thank you.”

Her eyes were still glistening when she arrived at her office a few minutes later, and Honey, already wearing fitted jeans, a green v-neck sweater, and a dark brown wig immediately picked up on it. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she replied, wiping her eyes. “Have I ever said I have the best mother-in-law-in-law in the world?”

“You have the only mother-in-law-in-law in the world,” Honey laughed. “At least, I’m pretty sure you’re the only one to use that term.”

“Probably,” Trixie returned the laugh. “It works, though. So, I suppose I should go change really quick.”

“Yes, please. Then we should go over what we learned today while I do your makeup.”

“I hope you found out more than I did,” she sighed, heading towards the back room where their “undercover clothes” were kept so that they could be available on a moment’s notice. “The only thing I found noteworthy is a definite lack of information on Elizabeth’s death.”

“I did,” Honey said, following. “I’ve got my makeup kit set out in the conference room, along with your glasses.”

“Don’t forget your contacts,” she reminded her.

“I actually called several of them this afternoon,” Honey teased, picking up a small case from the desk. The contacts would change her eye color from hazel to blue, further disguising her appearance. At Trixie’s groan, she laughed. “I’m kidding, Trix. I’ll put them in as soon as you get out of the bathroom.”

Once both women were dressed, Honey expertly did their makeup to complete their look. As Trixie tried to sit patiently, she said, “So, I basically learned that there’s not much to learn. Unfortunately, it looks like someone misfiled or misplaced the month we need for the Peekskill Press, and the other local papers were silent on Elizabeth’s drowning. I found an obituary in the New York Times that listed her parents and siblings, so I found those addresses and phone numbers in the phone book. An article about their wedding mentioned her bridesmaids, so I found contact information for them, too. I’m thinking I may try to contact them tomorrow. I might get farther than I would cold-calling her parents.”

“I agree. I will say, though, that Mitch’s background seems impeccable. Graduated top of his class, and he’s been with the same firm since an internship during college. Doesn’t seem to be hurting for money. They bought a house shortly before their marriage, and it’s in one of the newer, more expensive subdivisions. I did call and talk to Tiffani Burke. She was also a classmate of ours, and she’s known Marissa and Alyssa practically all her life. I had to be careful not to let her know why I was asking questions, so I let her think I was just curious about the restaurant and realized that one of our classmates was involved. She was a little surprised by that, because she said Marissa hasn’t really been involved with the other restaurants they’ve opened.”

“Strange,” Trixie said, furrowing her brow. “She could be mistaken, though. I suspect Marissa’s not happy to advertise that she’s reporting to her sister.”

“Probably not. I suspect it would be difficult to be in that position. However, she did tell me that even though Alyssa’s busy, she’s never seen her happier.”

“I really hope Marissa is just overreacting,” Trixie sighed. “Imagine being that happy and finding out your husband is trying to kill you.”

“Imagine if he is, and you don’t find out,” Honey said grimly. “My hunch is that she is overreacting, but like we said earlier, we have to look at this as though she isn’t. At least, until we find out otherwise.”

They arrived at the restaurant during the dinner rush and were relieved to be seated in a booth with a good view of the bar area. After putting in their drink orders, they chatted idly as they glanced around the restaurant.

“We may be in trouble,” Honey hissed once their soft drinks were delivered. “Look at the end of the bar.”

“Oh great,” Trixie sighed. Dan, dressed casually in khakis and a blue polo, was sitting at the far end of the bar talking to a similarly dressed Jake Barlow. Jake had made detective after his role in the meth ring bust a few weeks earlier, and as Dell had mentioned that they had been partnered on a new case, she didn’t think it was coincidence that they were both there. “Hopefully they won’t see or recognize us.” She realized that anyone could be listening, and added, “It’s been a long time since that class we all took together, but weren’t they annoying?”

Honey smiled as she realized Trixie’s intention, and said, “Constantly. Doesn’t that guy next to them remind you of our econ instructor?”

Trixie looked again and nodded. The “econ instructor” look-alike was none other than Mitchell Poole. Tall and well-built, he was dressed as though he had come straight from work in his black dress pants, starched white button-up shirt, royal blue tie, and black wingtip shoes. His polished image made her assume the jacket was on a hanger hanging in his car. With a jacket, he would have fit right in in any restaurant in Manhattan’s financial district, but the effect was a little too dressed up for the Dutch Oven’s more casual atmosphere.

“Could I take your order?” a waitress asked.

As Honey ordered a chicken salad, Trixie had every intention of ordering only a dessert as she had eaten a burger at Wimpy’s with Erica. However, in looking through the menu, she noticed the appetizer menu had worstenbroodjes, and she was unable to resist ordering it.

“What was that you ordered?” Honey demanded once the waitress had gone to put the order in.

Trixie grinned. “Worstenbroodjes. I know I don’t need it, but Mrs. Vanderpoel taught Moms to make them, and we have them every Christmas. It’s sort of like a sausage inside a roll. I think the best way to describe it is saying it’s like a pig-in-a-blanket or a Dutch burrito.”

“Interesting,” Honey said doubtfully. “If they’re good, though, maybe we should bring Mrs. Vanderpoel here and see what she thinks. I haven’t even seen her in ages.”

“I’m sure she’d love to see you,” Trixie told her. “She was at the open house on Thanksgiving, but didn’t stay too long. Brom’s not doing too well, and she’s taking care of him so he doesn’t have to go to a nursing home.”

Honey frowned. “I’ll make sure we get out there soon. He never had any family of his own, did he?”

Trixie shook her head. “No. He never married, at least not that I know of, and I’ve never heard him mention any siblings. Mrs. Vanderpoel is as close to family as it gets for him.”

“I’m glad he has her, at least,” Honey said.

“Me, too.”

The waitress soon brought their orders, and they returned to their idle chatter as they started eating. A few minutes later, Trixie noticed a woman who somewhat resembled Marissa going from table to table chatting with the diners. Her assumption that it was Alyssa was confirmed by a quick glance at her nametag when she eventually arrived at their table.

“How is everything?”

“Delicious,” Trixie said emphatically. “These are almost even better than my mom’s.”

Alyssa grinned. “Don’t let her hear you say that, but thanks! We made sure that our Dutch recipes are authentic, and they’re prepared right here in our kitchen.”

Suddenly, Mitch came up behind her, and she turned to him with a brilliant smile. “Excuse me, ladies, but please enjoy the rest of your meal. If you need anything, just let your server know.”

“Thank you,” Honey replied.

Both women tried to appear disinterested, but listened closely as Mitch told his wife that he was headed home for the evening. Trixie noticed the look on his face when Alyssa gave him a quick kiss and smiled despite herself. It was similar to the look of adoration Dell gave her every time he kissed her. Unless he was a consummate actor, it was not the look of a man trying to do away with his wife. She shared a glance with Honey, who had also noticed his expression.

“Mind if we join you lovely ladies?”

“I’m sorry, but we’re both married,” Honey said sweetly, smiling up at Dan. “I doubt that our husbands would approve.”

Trixie’s eyes twinkled mischievously. “And my husband happens to be rather jealous. He might make it rather difficult for you if he found out.”

Dan grinned. “I could take him. Anytime, anywhere.”

“I rather doubt that,” she said archly.

“At least take our phone numbers,” Jake said. He casually dropped a folded paper napkin on the table. “If you ever change your minds, give us a call.”

“Don’t count on it,” Honey told him. “But I’m sure two nice young gentlemen like yourselves won’t have any trouble finding some other women to pick up.”

“Sorry to bother you,” Dan replied. “Have a good evening.”

“Likewise,” Trixie told him. Honey met her eyes, and they both burst into giggles at the absurdity of the exchange. She realized that the napkin most likely did not have phone numbers written on it, but she knew that if it did, they would have fun teasing the two police detectives for a long while. Once the men were out of sight, she nonchalantly opened it to find that it was indeed the note she had expected.

“Okay, you two,” it read. “I’m assuming you’re here on a case of some kind. Finish your meal, then as soon as you can without being conspicuous, CALL ME. We need to know if your case overlaps ours.”

She silently passed the note to Honey, who read it with raised eyebrows. “Interesting.”

Trixie managed to wait until they had finished eating, paid their bill, and were once again in Honey’s car before bursting out, “How did they know?”

“This is Dan we’re talking about,” Honey reminded her. “He’s more observant than we realize sometimes.”

“I’d understand it if he had heard us talking before he walked up, because we didn’t disguise our voices, but I know we’re not loud enough that our voices should have carried to the end of the bar where they were sitting.”

Honey chuckled. “Why don’t you just ask him? Did your phone finish charging?”

“Yes, it did,” she replied. She took the phone from her purse and dialed Dan’s number. Dispensing with the usual pleasantries, she immediately demanded, “How did you know it was us?”

Dan laughed. “Would you believe me if I said it was your bone structure?”

“No. Maybe somewhat, but no.”

“I’ve seen those outfits before, Trixie,” he reminded her. “Remember when your husband and I gave you pointers on going undercover? You and Honey showed us what you had at that point. Those were two of the costumes you showed us.”

Trixie flushed. “I can’t believe I’d totally forgotten about that. Just please tell me no one else would have recognized us.”

“I don’t think so,” he assured her. “So, just what were you doing undercover?”

“Investigating a case we were contracted for this morning. The owner’s daughter hired us.”

“Which daughter?” Dan asked.

“Marissa hired us,” Trixie said. “Would it help if the four of us get together to talk?”

“Definitely,” Dan sighed. “I don’t know if you’re going to like what we have to say, though.”

She raised her eyebrow, even though she knew he couldn’t see it. “This is a weird case, Dan. I don’t like anything about it.” She glanced at the clock on the dashboard. “So does this need to be an official talk at the station?”

“No. Just a friendly get-together to compare notes. We can meet you at your office tonight if that helps.”

“I need to pick up Erica, Dan. Dell’s working, and it’s a school-night, so she’s with Jean and Dave. Is tomorrow morning too late, or do you want to come by the house in half-an-hour or so?”

“We’d like to jump on this, but tomorrow morning works. We’ll just drop by your office first thing. Thanks, Trixie.”

“No problem. See you then.” She hung up the phone and related the gist of the conversation to Honey. “We don’t have any appointments scheduled first thing, do we? I didn’t even think to ask you.”

“No, so this works well. I’m really curious to find out what they’re working on.”

Trixie nodded. “Me, too!”

Trixie was barely settled into her desk the next morning when Honey arrived bearing a large box of doughnuts from the Fourth Street Bakery. She grinned at Trixie. “I brought enough for all of us. I’m hoping we can talk them into actually giving us information instead of just taking ours. Captain Molinson and Dan are pretty good about it now, but I still don’t know Jake that well.”

“Neither do I,” Trixie admitted. “I don’t think I’ve actually officially met him yet, either. Dell said he aged quite a few years overnight with the drug bust, but he’s still relatively new to the force.”

“Having to shoot somebody would definitely age anyone,” Honey sighed. “That’s one reason I’m glad neither of us really wanted to stay on the police force. I love solving mysteries, but I’m not sure I could handle the day-in day-out grittiness of official police work.”

“Me, either,” Trixie said. “I’m glad we have the experience we do, but I think we’re both happier in the private sector.” She laughed. “Remind me I said that the next time I’m complaining about the types of cases we get.”

“Only if you’ll remind me,” she giggled. “On the other hand, no one can say this case is boring.”

“No,” Trixie replied soberly. “I had a hard time sleeping last night. I kept thinking about Alyssa. It isn’t easy being someone’s second wife anyway, and I can’t imagine how hurt she’s going to be when she finds out Marissa suspects Mitch of something this heinous. Even worse, if Marissa’s right, which I admit seems less and less likely the more we find out, she’s going to lose her husband, and that’s assuming we’re able to save her in time.”

“I agree I don’t think Mitch is trying to kill her,” Honey replied. “Nothing in their body language last night indicated any problems, and that’s hard to disguise.”

The door opened and the two police detectives sauntered in. Dan’s eyes widened when he looked at the bakery box on Honey’s desk. “Good morning! Any chance you might be willing to share whatever’s in that box? Hannah made off with half my breakfast this morning.”

“Of course,” Honey assured him. “That’s actually why I bought them. Help yourselves. We have coffee, too, if you’d like.”

“Yes, please,” Jake said, smiling shyly at Honey. “Thank you!”

“What did Hannah do?” Trixie asked.

Dan groaned. “It’s going to be a long day, so I thought I’d make myself a good breakfast. Scrambled eggs, sausage, toast. I fried the sausage and put it on a plate next to the stove while I scrambled the eggs. I turned my back just long enough to take my toast out of the toaster, but it was long enough for that little sneak to make off with the sausage.”

“Have you tried spraying her with water to to keep her off the counter?” Honey asked. “I’ve heard that works.”

He rolled his eyes. “That only works if the cat doesn’t like water. Hannah does, and she’ll even drink from the faucet if I leave it dripping for her.”

“I’d pay good money to see that,” Jake laughed. He took the mug of coffee Honey handed him and smiled his thanks. “I grew up out in the country, and we had barn cats. I’m still getting used to the idea of cats in the house.”

“Inside’s a lot safer for them,” Dan told him seriously. “And you wouldn’t believe how much companionship Hannah provides. It’s nice to know I’m not going home to an empty house.”

“Or a needy girlfriend?” Honey asked gently. “Someday you’ll meet the right woman.”

“One who’ll take on both me and Hannah,” Dan said. “We’re a package deal now.”

“Some of us don’t mind package deals,” Trixie reminded him. “I couldn’t imagine life without Erica.”

“You’re really married?” Jake asked. “I was kind of hoping that was just part of your cover. You were looking good last night at the restaurant.”

Honey giggled as Trixie flushed. Dan smacked his arm. “Dude. Yes, she’s married. She’s married to our boss!”

Jake gulped. “Uh, you’re married to the chief?”

“No,” Trixie laughed. “Ever noticed the wedding photo on Dell’s desk?”

“Dell? Wait, you mean Captain Molinson??”

“Yes.” She bit her lip to stop her giggles. “I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself, since I don’t think we’ve actually met. I’m Trixie Molinson, and this is my sister-in-law and business partner, Madeleine ‘Honey’ Wheeler-Belden.”

“I’m sorry, Trixie. I know he’s married, and I’ve seen that picture a thousand times in the last few months, but somehow I thought you’d be a lot older.”

Dan covered his eyes. “Jake. Stop talking. Please?”

Trixie laughed again. “Don’t worry, Jake. I totally understand foot-in-mouth disease. I’ve suffered from it for years. Let’s get this out of the way, then we can get down to business. Yes, I actually married Captain Molinson. Yes, he is twenty-two years older than me, and yes, I have a step-daughter who just turned eight last month, but she’s my real daughter in every way that counts. And yes, doughnuts taste much better than feet, so go ahead and take one. If you’ve never had anything from the Fourth Street Bakery, you don’t know what you’re missing.”

“Thanks,” he said, visibly relaxing as he took a glazed doughnut from the box.

Dan set the remainder of his chocolate-filled doughnut on the edge of Trixie’s desk along with his coffee mug and took out a notebook. “So, you said that Marissa Watkins hired you. Can you tell me why?”

Honey nodded and gave him a rundown of their case so far. Dan looked thoughtful when she finished.

“Okay, I’m not sure how much I should tell you, but keep this off the record, okay?”

Both women nodded. “Of course.”

“Marissa did go to the Peekskill Police Department last week and talked to Captain Randall Scott. Not only did he go through the police academy with your husband, Trixie, but he’s known the Poole family for years. Not only that, but he’s sort of Mitch’s unofficial godfather, and he attended both of his weddings. After he did warn Marissa against spreading rumors, he also called and talked to the Captain on Friday. Molinson then assigned the case to me and Jake here.”

“So Captain Scott did take it seriously?” Trixie asked. “Marissa said he didn’t.”

“Yes, to the extent that he wanted to pass along the tip, but no, he doesn’t think Mitch is poisoning his wife. It’s more of a find out just what is going on type of situation. For one thing, he knows Elizabeth’s death was a tragic accident, and nothing more. I’m assuming Marissa didn’t tell you that the boat she was on was a deep sea fishing boat and the entire thing sank when it ran across a sandbar? Or that three people drowned that day?”

“No,” Trixie shook her head. “She said a small fishing boat. Our impression was a regular motor boat or pontoon. I spent yesterday afternoon trying to find out more about the accident, but the library is missing the microfilm that should have had any articles with details. I’d planned to contact the newspaper office today to see if I could visit their morgue.”

“It’s missing?” Jake repeated.

Trixie nodded. “The librarian thinks the microfilm was probably misfiled somewhere, but neither of us were able to find it.”

“Missing or stolen?” Honey asked suddenly. “That bothered me last night when you mentioned it, but I wasn’t sure why. It’s information that could help Mitch’s case by showing he wasn’t liable or even under suspicion for Elizabeth’s death. He wouldn’t have a motive for taking it, but if someone took it, they want it to look like he may have.”

“Who? Why?” Trixie asked. “Is it possible that Marissa really does think he’s trying to kill her sister and is manipulating the facts to make them seem more serious?”

“Or is she trying to come between her sister and brother-in-law?” Dan asked. “Captain Scott mentioned that Marissa once dated Mitch. Could she be trying to break them up for some reason?”

Trixie looked at him wide-eyed. “We did not know that. But if Alyssa really loves him, and it certainly looked like she does when we saw them last night, accusing him of murder and attempted murder would only drive a wedge between her and Marissa. Blood may be thicker than water, but trust me, there are reasons they say love is blind.”

“Would Marissa realize that, though?” Jake asked.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Honey answered. “I would think so, but who knows?”

Dan scowled. “I hate to say it, but maybe she does realize it and was trying to get the PPD to do it for her. When that failed, she came to you.”

“Not sure what that says about her confidence in our abilities,” Trixie said dryly. “And still, let’s say Alyssa gets scared of Mitch and gets a divorce. How likely is it that he’s going to start a relationship with Marissa at that point? Especially if he’s smart enough to realize she had a hand in it?”

“Any idea how long they dated or why they broke up?” Honey asked Dan.

“Captain Scott said it was only a couple of dates. He met Alyssa and they started dating a few weeks later. ”

“Ouch. That had to hurt Marissa, especially since she apparently always felt like she was in Alyssa’s shadow. It makes some sort of twisted sense that she’d want to break them up. Maybe even an ‘if I can’t have him, you can’t either’ mentality.”

“It sounds like we’re all agreed that Mitch isn’t trying to off Alyssa,” Jake said. “Even if Marissa is trying to frame him for some perverted reason of her own, we’re still just speculating at this point. Where is the proof of any of this?”

“That’s what we’ve got to get,” Honey told him. “This gives us some starting points. As tempted as I am to call Marissa and say we’re unable to continue the investigation, I do want some proof, or at least some very strong evidence before we put this case to bed.”

Trixie nodded. “Agreed. There is still a chance she’s legitimately concerned. There could be a side of Mitch we haven’t seen.”

“What motive would he have?”

“Marissa mentioned he took out a large insurance policy on her right after their marriage. She also has a trust fund, so if he’s hurting for money, that could definitely be a motive.”

“He’s not,” Jake said. “We checked into that. He has a good job and he invested most of what he got when his first wife died. The house they live in is also paid for, and we could find no evidence of any debts.”

“Another woman?” Dan asked. “But with a wife as hot as Alyssa, he’d be crazy to look elsewhere.”

Honey smacked him, but grinned. “She didn’t do too badly, either.”

“So where do we go from here?” Trixie asked. “Any chance someone else is trying to kill her and Marissa fixated on the wrong suspect?”

“Slim to none,” Dan said. “The only evidence we have that anything is wrong is Marissa’s word, and we’ve already established it can’t be trusted.” He sighed. “Not sure about you two, but Jake and I should get to the station. Part of me wants to bring all three of them down there and have them duke it out in a holding cell, but even if I could, I don’t think it would really solve anything. We’ll keep looking into this just in case, but I am going to take it down a notch on our priority list at this point. Call me if you run across something you think I should know, and we’ll do the same.”

“Thanks, Dan,” Trixie said. “We certainly will.”

Like Dan and Jake, Trixie and Honey also had other cases they were working, and even though they continued to research the case, they were unable to find any definite leads. Without sharing her suspicions about their client’s intent, Honey called Marissa a few days later to report that they’d found no evidence that Mitch was planning to kill Alyssa or that he had been involved in Elizabeth’s death. To her surprise, she asked them to keep working on it.

Two weeks after Marissa first appeared in their office, Honey received a phone call from Marissa stating that Alyssa had collapsed at work and been rushed to Sleepyside General Hospital. She called Dan, then she and Trixie raced to the hospital. Dan and Jake arrived at the hospital first, and the women could hear Marissa accosting the police detectives as they walked down the hallway.

“I want him arrested now!” Marissa demanded tearfully. “He killed my sister!”

“Now, now,” Dr. Ferris tried to soothe her. “She’s in a coma, but we’re doing all we can. There’s a good chance she’ll come through this.”

“We’ll certainly do all we can, too,” Dan assured her. “Is he here?”

“He’s on his way,” Dr. Ferris answered for her. “We called him first, but he has to catch the train from the City.”

Trixie and Honey left Dan and Jake to deal with Marissa and went to the receptionist’s desk. Honey smiled at the young woman seated there. “Hi, Sandra. Would you happen to know where my husband is right now?”

Sandra gave them a half-smile. “He’s working with a patient that came in a little while ago. I’m sorry, but I have no idea how long he will be.”

“That’s okay,” Honey said. “We’re actually here to see a patient ourselves. Could you tell me what room Alyssa Poole is in?”

“I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’ve been asked not to give that information to anyone. She’s not allowed to have visitors right now.”

“Thanks anyway,” Honey replied. With that potential avenue of information closed, they returned to the waiting room just as Dr. Ferris came out. He smiled wearily at them.

“Hi, girls. I’m assuming you’re here to see Brian?”

“I always want to see Brian,” Honey told him with a soft smile. “However, we’re actually here right now to check on a patient right now. An Alyssa Poole.”

Dr. Ferris was in his late sixties and looked every bit of it as he sighed. “Are you two investigating this?”

Trixie nodded. “I understand if we can’t see her right now, but could we at least talk to you for a couple of minutes? Somewhere private?”

“Of course, but you know I can’t tell you anything. HIPAA regulations….”

“I know,” she assured him. “We still need to talk to you.”

He led them down a hallway to an empty patient’s room and shut the door behind him. “What can I do for you?”

“Marissa came to us two weeks ago convinced that Mitch was trying to kill Alyssa. We did some digging, and we honestly thought she was exaggerating the situation. There’s nothing that seemed to indicate he would really hurt his wife. Given what we found, it looked more like Marissa was just trying to come between them for reasons of her own, but now….” Tears came to her eyes. “We must have missed something obvious, but could you please do a tox screen if you haven’t already? It looks like he really did poison her somehow.”

Dr. Ferris reached out and patted her hand. “That was the first thing we did, Trixie. We’re still waiting on the results, but rest assured we’re looking into that angle. Don’t worry about it. We’re going to do all we can for her.”

“Could Trixie and I have a few minutes in here?” Honey asked softly. “I don’t think we’re ready to go back out to the waiting room.”

“Take all the time you need,” he said kindly.

Trixie smiled her thanks through her tears, then gratefully accepted the handkerchief her friend handed to her. “I’m sorry, Honey. It’s just we complain about our cases, then we finally get one and we blow it big time. It’s our fault if Alyssa dies.”

“No, it isn’t,” Honey said, putting her arm around Trixie’s shoulders. “We’ve done all we could do, Trix. Even Dan and Jake agreed there was nothing to her claims.”

“I know, but still, a client hired us, and we let her down. We still should have prevented it somehow.”

Neither of them heard the door open, and Trixie jumped as Dan patted her shoulder. “There was nothing you could do, Trixie. Like Honey said, none of us saw this coming. It doesn’t exactly look good for the police department, either, but we know Mitch was not involved in his first wife’s death, and we couldn’t exactly bring him without probable cause.”

“We’re still not sure that Mitch is behind this,” Honey reminded them quietly. “I know Marissa thinks so, but it could be anyone. To be honest, she has more motive than anyone else.”

Dan looked at her sharply. “In what way? I get the jealousy angle, but anything else?”

“Just a thought that’s been in the back of my mind, but I suspect either Marissa or her parents would inherit if Alyssa dies and Mitch is convicted. One interesting fact we came across is that while Alyssa has a trust fund from her grandmother, Marissa does not.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Like that wasn’t a sure-fire way of causing trouble at some point?”

“I quietly talked to my dad,” Honey explained. “He knows the family. The trust fund was set up by the grandmother right after Alyssa was born, but she died before Marissa was born. I’m not accusing Marissa; I’m just saying she’s the only one I can see with a real motive.”

“True, and once we get the results of the tox screen, we’ll know which direction to go. We’ll have to investigate the husband, but given that information, I’m going to look into that angle as well.” He frowned. “I’m sorry, Trixie, Honey, but at this point, I don’t know how much more I’ll be able to share with you. I want to talk to the Captain first.”

“We understand,” Trixie said softly. She wiped her eyes again. “Will we at least be allowed to see Alyssa?”

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “She’s in ICU right now on life support, in clear view of the nurses’ station. They’ve been told not to let her have any visitors. I don’t know how quickly she’ll be moved to a room, but I’m going to ask the chief to let me post a guard outside her room when she is. I know it’s going to open a can of worms, but someone tried to kill her. Whether it was Mitch, Marissa, or a person or persons unknown, I don’t want to risk having them try again.”

“Good idea. I think we’ll wait around until we can at least talk to Marissa,” Honey said. “Then we’ll probably go back to the office. I don’t think there’s much we can do here.”

“No,” he shook his head. “Not really. Off the record, though, I’m not going to complain if you go talk to the workers at the restaurant. One of them may know something, and you may get more out of them than we could.”

Trixie nodded, a hint of a smile returning to her tear-streaked face. “I need to clean up before we do anything. Thanks, Dan.”

“No problem,” he assured her. “One more thing, you two. At this point, we most likely are dealing with an attempted murder. I don’t have to tell you to be careful, do I? You’re both like sisters to me, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Honey gave him a quick embrace. “That goes for you, too. I know we both think of you as another brother.”

“And even though I have plenty, I don’t want to lose one,” Trixie tried to joke. She took a deep breath as a thought struck her. “Wait a minute, Dan. We heard Marissa when we came in. Did it seem like she was more concerned with getting Mitch arrested than Alyssa’s condition? Isn’t that another point against her?”

He nodded reluctantly. “That doesn’t mean much, though. Everyone handles grief differently, and denial and anger are the first two of the classic stages of grief. It makes sense that she’s angry. If she’s innocent, I suspect the reality of her sister’s condition hasn’t yet sunk in for her.”

“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go wash my face.”

She gave them a watery smile and headed into the small bathroom tucked into the corner of the room. She took a few moments to compose herself, purposely ignoring Honey and Dan discussing her uncharacteristic tears. She was upset about the case, but even she realized she was overreacting.

She purposely waited until she heard Dan leave the room before washing her face and running her fingers through her unruly curls. Then she went back out to face Honey. “I’m sorry, Hon. I’m usually more together than this.”

“I know,” Honey assured her. “It’s okay. I think this got to both of us.”

She smiled gratefully. “So what now?”

“You’re going to go down to the cafeteria and get some lunch. Something hot and nourishing and then something chocolate for dessert. I’m going to go talk to Marissa, then I’ll join you.”

“If you’ll lend me your compact, I’ll come with you,” Trixie said. “I appreciate it, but it’s not fair for you to face her alone.”

Honey hesitated, then nodded. “I know I would feel the same way. Just remember that she lied to us, Trix. Even if Mitch is guilty, it doesn’t change that fact, and at this point, we can’t hesitate to let her know that we know that if we need to.” She opened her purse and took out a small makeup kit. “Here you go.”

She took it, but then handed it back. “Help? Please?” She sank down on the edge of the hospital bed. She was still on edge from her tears earlier, and while she could do her own makeup in a pinch, she wore it so seldom that Honey frequently did it for her when she was in a situation where she felt she needed to wear it. Within moments, Honey had expertly hidden the tell-tale tear stains on Trixie’s face so that, aside from her too-bright eyes, no one could tell she had been crying, and they left the room.

Instead of going straight back to the waiting room where they had last seen their client, they decided to detour by the intensive care unit in order to remind themselves of the general layout and security. A set of locked double doors separated the unit from the rest of the hallway. There was a beige telephone on the wall beside the door so that visitors could call the nurse’s station to get clearance to visit.

As they were looking, a face appeared briefly in one of the glass windows on the doors, then disappeared. They expected someone to come out, and a few moments passed without the doors opening, however, the face briefly appeared again. It was as if someone was waiting for the hallway to be empty before coming out of the unit.

“Something’s up,” Honey whispered even as Trixie raised her eyebrows. By unspoken consensus, they ducked into an adjoining hallway so that they could no longer be seen from the ICU windows.

Moments later, Marissa hurried down the hall from the ICU, slowing and obviously becoming more confident as she put distance between her and the unit where her sister lay fighting for her life.

“How did she get in?” Honey asked, continuing to whisper.

Trixie shook her head. “No idea.”

Marissa paused only long enough to take what appeared to be a wad of tissues from her pocket and drop them in a wastebasket, and as an alarm sounded behind the double doors of the ICU, she again quickened her pace.

“I think we need to find out why she’s in such a hurry, don’t you?” Honey asked softly, her eyes glinting.

Trixie nodded. “I want to check the trash can first, though. It may be important.” Her hunch that the tissues were hiding something paid off, and she used a pen from her purse to uncover a syringe and an empty Visine bottle. Instantly, her thoughts went back to an incident her first year in college in which a prank based on an urban legend about Visine had gone awry. Instead of causing the victim to spend an evening in the bathroom as expected, the water spiked with eye drops had sent the victim to the emergency room. She knew Marissa was on campus at that time and would have known about the incident as well. “Call Dan. Now.”

While Honey grabbed her cell phone, Trixie ran to the phone next to the ICU doors and asked the nurse who answered to page Dr. Ferris. When told that he was with a patient, she explained what she had found. Within moments, Brian came to the locked doors.

“What’s happening, Trixie?”

“Honey and I saw Marissa sneaking out of the ICU. She dropped something in the trashcan down the hall. We checked, and it was a tissue wrapped around a syringe and an empty Visine bottle. I think she may have injected Alyssa with it. Honey’s calling Dan right now.”

His shoulders slumped. “That would explain a lot, and unfortunately, there’s no real antidote other than treating symptoms. Even knowing that is a big help, though.” He reached out and gave her a hug. “Good work, Trix. I’ve got to get back, but thanks for letting me know.”

She returned the brief hug. “We’ll talk soon, okay?”

“That’s a promise.” He gave her a brief smile, then he turned and hurried away.

Trixie paused only long enough for a deep breath, then hurried back to where Honey was still standing guard over the wastebasket. “Thanks, Hon.”

“No problem. Dan’s on his way back with Jake to question Marissa. She doesn’t know we saw her, so he thinks she’ll stick around the hospital playing the worried sister role.” She rolled her eyes. “Of course, he warned us not to confront her. I understand why, but times like this, I’d love to actually have a little legal authority of our own.”

“I know,” Trixie agreed. “Did he say what we should do with the evidence?”

“We’re basically to stay put for now. I’m assuming he’ll stop by here once he gets here.”

Instead of Dan and Jake, it was her husband that arrived moments later, and she frowned as he scowled at them. “Now what have I told you two about staying out of police business?”

His twinkling eyes gave him away, and she teased, “But Captain, what were we supposed to do?”

Honey giggled. “I feel like I’ve gone back in time ten years.”

“Me, too,” he chuckled. “Seriously, good job spotting the evidence, both of you. A lot of people wouldn’t have thought to check the trash can.”

“It just looked suspicious,” Trixie told him. She watched as he took a few photographs of the scene, then used tweezers to put the bottle and syringe in an official evidence bag. “I promise I used my pen to see what it was, so you may be able to get fingerprints. Otherwise, I know it’s our word against hers.”

He nodded reluctantly. “Dan was filling me in on the case when Honey called. Jealousy is a powerful motive, and so is a potential inheritance, but we’ll still need to build a case. Of course, I’ll take your statements, and you’ll likely be called to testify.”

Honey nodded. “We warned her in the beginning that we would go to the police with any information if we found evidence of a crime. We also have wording in the contract she signed that basically states the same thing.” She sighed. “I just don’t understand why she hired us if she was behind it the whole time.”

“She didn’t have much confidence in us,” Trixie said softly. Once again, she found herself blinking back tears. “I suspect when we talk to her, we’ll find she was using us to help her frame her brother-in-law.”

“Instead, if it wasn’t for you two, we might have arrested him,” Dell admitted. “He would at least have been brought in for questioning. From what Dan and Jake said, she did a really good job of focusing our attention on him.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “I’ll get this catalogued and then see what they need me to do. Will you be able to come by the station later this afternoon so they can take your statements?”

“Sure,” Honey said. “Just give us a call when you’re ready.”

“We were actually on our way to the cafeteria for lunch when we saw Marissa.” Trixie looked up at him. “I don’t suppose you have time to have lunch with us?”

“I wish, but I have too much to do right now.  But unless you’re meeting Brian there, why don’t you go somewhere else? You’ve done all you can do here, and you both need a change of scenery.”

“Good idea,” she admitted. “Will you be home on time tonight?”

“Planning on it,” he assured her. “Is your cell phone charged?”

Despite her mood, she chuckled and bumped his shoulder. “Yes, it is.”

His own cell phone rang at that moment. He excused himself and walked a few feet away to answer it. When he came back, he was smiling. “Jake just called. Marissa just confessed to everything.”

“Good,” Honey sighed. “I’m so glad we’ll be able to put this case to bed.”

“Me, too,” Trixie agreed. “Me, too.”

The following Saturday morning found Trixie and Brian sitting at Honey and Brian’s dining room table, both nursing steaming mugs of hot chocolate. They had plans to meet Mart and Bobby for a rare siblings-only lunch in town, and Brian had asked her to come over early so that they could have time to talk privately first.

“So how is Alyssa doing?” she asked softly.

“It was touch and go for a while,” he replied. “At this point, we’re optimistic she’s going to pull through, but she still has a long road ahead of her.”

Trixie nodded. “And imagine how she’s going to feel when she realizes her own sister tried to kill her. In her confession, Marissa admitted she had spiked Alyssa’s drinks with Visine for several days before she finally collapsed. The injection was a last-ditch attempt to finish her off.”

Brian shuddered. “The one thing I don’t understand is why Visine? Why not a more certain poison?”

“Anyone can buy Visine without raising suspicions,” she explained. “It’s not that easy to get hold of other poisons, and well, did the Visine show up on the tox screen?”

“No.” He shook his head, then sighed. “Trixie, did this case get to you as badly as it did me?”

Trixie’s eyes widened. “You’re a doctor. Don’t you see things like this all the time?”

He curled his long fingers around the ceramic mug. “This one was different, though. One sister deliberately set out to murder the other sister in cold blood. Two people who grew up together. Who from all accounts loved each other. A sibling bond is special, Trixie. I’m not sure I ever realized how completely it could be broken.”

“Me either,” she replied. Instinctively, she reached out and put her hand on his arm. “I know we’ve had our ups and downs, and our own bond has been somewhat strained the last couple of years. I know we’d never get to the point they did, but I still don’t want it to break, Brian.”

“I don’t either. I miss my little sister.”

“I miss my big brother,” she said. She took a deep breath. “I have to ask. Why have you been so against me and Dell? Even after we got married?”

“Did I ever tell you one of my earliest memories?” he asked.

She blinked at the apparent change in subject, but shook her head.

“You had just been born, and Aunt Alicia was holding me up to the nursery window in the hospital. She pointed at you and said, ‘That’s your baby sister, Brian. Little girls are delicate, and she’ll need you to help take good care of her.'” He grinned. “Okay, so she didn’t know you yet, but I took her words to heart, Trix. You are my baby sister, and literally as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to watch out for you.”

“I understand that more now,” she admitted. “It wasn’t always easy, especially once we formed the Bob-Whites. I had four older brothers at that point, who all seemed like they were trying to stifle me.”

He patted her hand. “We weren’t trying to stifle you. We were trying to protect you. I know you and Honey are both trained detectives now, and I admit I’m glad that you both went through the police academy for extra training, even though you ultimately didn’t go that route with your careers. But back then, you had a tendency to jump into something without considering all the consequences. I still don’t know how you got through some of your adventures unscathed.”

She chose not to pursue that discussion, knowing deep down that he had a valid point. Instead, she shifted back to her original question. “But when I grew up, didn’t you want me happy?”

“Of course I did, and I still do. I love you.” He smiled ruefully. “You know, I think it might have been easier in the beginning if I’d been expecting it. This is going to sound bad, but hear me out, please?”

“I promise.”

“This goes back to when you and Jim broke up,” he told her. “I had hoped that you two would somehow make it work, but I wasn’t that surprised when you told me you were no longer dating. You both wanted very different things out of life, and to be honest, I think those things would have been incompatible over time. Either he would have resented the detective agency, or he would have talked you into being a housewife, and you would have eventually grown to resent that. But at that point, I knew Jim was safe. I knew he wouldn’t find someone else while you were dating or try to purposely hurt you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Do the names Dot Murray and Laura Ramsey ring any bells?”

He chuckled. “You weren’t dating yet when we were in Iowa, Trixie. And from what Jim told me when Laura was in town, he was just trying to be nice to her.”

“Yeah, right,” she snorted. “Obviously, I got past it, but you have no idea what that did to my self-esteem.”

“I don’t think he did, either. When you broke up, though, I honestly expected you and Dan to start dating at some point. Now, I really like Dan, and he’s like another brother, but between you and me, I hoped I was wrong. Even back then I knew Dan wasn’t the type to settle down in high school, and I didn’t want you to be just another in a long chain of girlfriends.”

“We actually talked about it,” she said reluctantly. “We even went to the movies one night, just the two of us. It was like going to the Cameo with you and Mart. Who wants to date someone who feels like a sibling?”

“Hopefully no one!” he said. “But the thing was we never really saw you dating anyone. I was glad you were focused on school, and while I know I never told you, I was really proud of you for helping take care of Erica. I know you and Honey both did in the beginning, but you really stepped up when they needed you, and you stuck with it. It’s just I never imagined that you would ever see Captain Molinson as anything more than a friend or an employer, so when I found out that you were dating, I was totally caught off guard. I didn’t want you hurt, and I didn’t know if you’d realized all you would be giving up.”

“It wasn’t your place,” she said softly. “I just needed you to be supportive of us. Not even Moms and Dad had a problem with me dating him. It was just you guys.”

“I couldn’t figure that out,” he sighed. “I think I stepped up my opposition because they weren’t even on my side. It was like no one could see the problems except for me, Mart, and Jim.”

“Did Moms ever tell you why they didn’t freak out?” she asked.

He nodded. “Yes, after I calmed down enough to ask. I think things between us would have gotten even worse if she hadn’t.”

“Probably,” she said. “But what do you think I’m giving up? I don’t look at my marriage as a sacrifice. I have a husband who loves me and a daughter I’d do anything for.”

“What about children of your own?” he asked. “And what about growing old together?”

“I’m not saying there aren’t challenges with the age difference,” she admitted. “But Brian, I don’t think of it that way, and as a doctor, you know there are no guarantees. Heather was only thirty-five when she died. Both Jim’s birth parents and Dan’s parents were in their early thirties when they died. Ruthie was only twenty! I’d rather have thirty or forty years when someone I really love than sixty or seventy with someone I’m with only because I don’t want to be alone.” She paused to let her words sink in. “As for children, Erica is my daughter. Not biologically, but we’ve talked to Dave and Jean, and we’re going to start the paperwork for me to formally adopt her soon.” She hesitated, then flushed. “We’ve also started trying to give her a brother or sister. Please, please, be happy for us when it happens. I don’t need you to judge or tell me how hard it’s going to be.”

“I won’t,” he assured her quietly. “And I’m sorry for making you think I would.” He grinned. “Just please don’t tell me how you’re trying. I don’t need those mental images.”

“I don’t want you to have them!” She looked up at him. “But seriously, can I come to you with questions when I have them? This is all new to me, and I admit it’s kind of scary.”

“Anytime. Day or night, and I mean that. That goes for anything else, too.” He stood and walked around the table to where she was sitting to put his hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry I’ve been so rough on you. Can you forgive me?”

“I already have,” she told him. She stood and drew him into a hug. “I love you, and after all, for us, blood really is thicker than water.”