Don't look left, I reminded myself. Look left and you throw up again. So I made myself look right, where I stared at an azalea bush until it blurred into a pink and green blob. Luckily for me, the police officer returned at that moment with a cardboard cup of water. I accepted it with shaking hands as he appraised me.
"Are you sure you're okay?"
I faked a smile. "Still shook up, but okay."
His nametag read Norris, and he was dark and squat and as official as a fire hydrant. He'd discovered me retching behind my brother's new forsythia and bustled off to fetch some water. Then he'd offered to track down some breath mints. I'd declined. What I wanted was a cigarette, and I wanted it fiercely.
It was the only thing I could think of that might get the dead girl out of my head.
I remembered strange details, like the rhinestone barrette just above her left ear, a clean metallic gleam in the dark clotted mass of her hair. A silver cuff bracelet encircling a slender white wrist. And the smell when I'd opened the car doorcopper sour and stale, like the bottom of a meat drawer, with a tang of something dank and sewer-ish at the edges.
I took a sip of water and willed my hands steady. And I didn't look left, where the body still slumped over the steering wheel of the white Lexus, which was still parked across the street at the curb. Up and down the cul-de-sac, Atlanta police officers clustered with EMTs from both Grady and Crawford Long. I was a part of this scene too, secluded in the back of a patrol car, protected by a ring of yellow tape and nice Officer Norris, who was just beginning to get down to business.
He took out a pen and a small notebook. "It says here your name is . . . Tai?"
I knew what he was thinking. Curly caramel blond hair, hazel eyes, pale freckled skin. Not a drop of Asian blood.
"It's a nickname. My real name is Teresa Ann Randolph. I can show you my driver's license if you want."
He wanted. I could tell he was getting suspicious, his tight appraisal cataloging my frowzy hair and unmade face, my tee-shirt and thrift store jeans. I didn't belong in this neighborhood of ivy-laced cottages and tidy window boxes, and he knew it.
"My Aunt Dotty started calling me Tai when I was a baby," I said, digging in my tote bag for my wallet. "She said it meant 'little drop of heaven,' which is totally made up, of course, but"
"This is your brother's place, correct?" He consulted his notes. "Eric Randolph?"
"Do you live here too?"
I started to explain that I'd only been in Atlanta for a week, that I'd just moved up from Savannah, that I used to have a part-time job leading ghost tours, so I usually didn't get freaked out around dead people, or cops, except that the dead people in Savannah were crumbly and six feet under, and the cops were all related to me, but I liked Atlanta cops, so far anyway.
Luckily, I caught all that before it escaped my mouth. "I'm staying here until I find an apartment."
I handed over my license. Norris scrutinized it and handed it back. "Where's your brother?"
"He left this morning for a cruise to the Bahamas."
He narrowed his eyes and underlined the word "Bahamas." Twice. I scrambled to explain.
"It's for work, some pop therapy seminar-at-sea thing. Like Dr. Phil, only on a boat. I took him to the airport this morning for his flight to Miami."
"Was he behaving out of the ordinary?"
"You mean homicidal?"
The response came out peevish, not what I'd intended. Officer Norris kept his pen poised while I scraped wax off the cup with my fingernail. Why had I decided that this was the week to quit smoking?
"What I mean is, he seemed perfectly normal. A little tense, maybe, but nothing that would have anything to do with something like . . . that."
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