Appraisal for Murder
THE ONLY REASON I DIDN’T SHOOT Robby was because I couldn’t think of how to do it
without getting caught. About two weeks later I found out that in addition to embezzling from
his bank my husband also stole money from our joint IRA. I should have thought harder.
It all happened pretty fast. I like to think that if Robby had blown the money over more than a
couple months I would have wised up to it. Or, maybe not. The only bank statement I ever
looked at was my separate checking account. After all, my husband was Mr. Commercial
Banker. That’s how I met him. I was Ms. Commercial Real Estate.
But, not any more. I did not exactly flee Lakewood. I quit my job and left. There’s a
difference. And now I need a job.
I walked faster, hearing the thunk of my footsteps on the nearly deserted boardwalk. Three
months ago I could not have imagined leaving my deluxe condo in Lakewood, New Jersey
and moving into Aunt Madge’s Cozy Corner B&B in Ocean Alley. Three months ago I didn’t
know my husband had been gambling away our assets in New Jersey casinos on evenings I
thought he was at Rotary or Lions or one of his other clubs.
My memories of Ocean Alley are mixed. As a kid I especially liked the beach. It wasn’t
because of the boardwalk, cotton candy, or suntanned lifeguards, but because Aunt Madge
was a lot less strict than my parents. She also fell asleep pretty early, so I essentially had the
run of the boardwalk after she tucked me in at 8:30.
My parents also trusted me to Aunt Madge the year they were ‘working out issues’ in their
marriage, so I spent my junior year of high school with her in Ocean Alley. I was mad at
everyone about being there, including my sister, who was in graduate school and thus able to
retain some control over her life. I did a lot of roaming by myself. I had few friends, and didn’t
like the way half the boys teased me about my name. Those memories are one reason that I
didn't keep up with anyone. I visited Aunt Madge many times through the years, but when I
came to see her I didn’t stroll through town that much.
Right now, I’m especially glad I kept my own name when Robby and I married. Jolie Gentil. It’
s pronounced Zho-Lee Zhan-tee. The “J” is soft, which distinguishes my name from a
southern moniker, such as Bobbi Lee. It’s rare than anyone gets it right on the first try. As a
child I did not like this one bit. Now I consider it a useful way to recognize telemarketers.
My father is of French descent, as he will tell anyone within shouting distance if he gets the
chance. Jolie means pretty in French, and gentil means nice. Clearly, my parents were not
thinking straight when they named me. I attribute the name to the twenty-two hours my
mother was in labor, something she does not hesitate to mention.
I shivered. It was cool for October, even for the shore. I had a hooded windbreaker over my
loose-knit yellow turtleneck, which I thought went well with my dark brown hair with its blonde
highlights, the latter courtesy of whatever brand had been on sale two weeks ago when I
decided to leave Robby. I stood by him when he had his probable cause hearing, and was
greatly relieved that he later decided to plead guilty to the embezzlement charge. I didn’t think
I could take sitting behind him during a trial looking like the loyal wife. He was barely willing
to talk to me about what he had done. He acted as if this was just a slight financial setback –
as if his 401(k) account had gone down a little – rather than a federal crime.
Since Robby hadn’t had a chance to steal much from his bank and he had no prior record, his
lawyer is encouraging about no jail time if he pleads guilty and makes restitution. I don’t
figure he’ll get that fortunate. He’s lucky I’m not suing his ass for forging my name to steal
from our IRA. My father advised me that I would spend a lot in legal fees and the amount I
would recover, since Robby is broke, might not be worth the time and trouble. Fortunately, I
was able to talk my parents out of coming up from Florida for Robby’s hearing. My mother
would have made me nervous. And my father might have hit Robby.
I checked out the ocean as I quickened my pace. I know that it won’t go anyplace, but it
amazes me how different it can look from one day to another. Today the breakers were
foamier than yesterday and there was a gray cast to the sky, making the water seem darker.
The wind was from the land, so the smell of saltwater and brine did not reach the boardwalk.
I determinedly pushed thoughts of Robby out of my mind as I entered Java Jolt, one of the few
boardwalk businesses open year round. The year I lived in Ocean Alley it had been an
arcade, and I had spent a lot of time trying to make the highest score in a video game called
“Screw the Bunny.” Every time you could make the male and female bunnies run into each
other there were suddenly six more bunnies. However, if you made two females or males
collide, four vanished. I regret to say that I sometimes fed my bunny addiction with quarters
that guests left as tips on Aunt Madge’s small breakfast tables.
Java Jolt owner Jim Regan nodded at me as I slipped off my jacket and draped it over a
chair. Although he only moved to Ocean Alley about five years ago, you’d think he had lived
here forever. He has the lean good looks of a strong surfer. All he’s missing is the sun-
enhanced blonde hair, his being brown with a hint of red.
I’m not into designer coffee, so I helped myself to the regular brew that sits on the counter in
large thermoses. Once the tourist season is over, Jim leaves an oversized sugar bowl on the
counter and you pay for your coffee on the honor system. I eyed the pastries longingly. I had
no reason to eat any; Aunt Madge has a well-stocked breakfast nook. I reached for a
chocolate chip muffin, chastising myself even before I took the first bite.
“The usual, I see,” came Joe Regan’s voice. He has a way of smirking with words that can be
“I wish you’d keep the chocolate chip ones behind the counter so I’d have to ask for them.
Then I wouldn’t be so tempted.”
“That’d be good for sales,” he said, grinning as I turned my back on him and moved toward
the two computers that sit against the window. The Cozy Corner B&B does not have Internet
service, so I do a lot of my job hunting with Joe’s open access computers.
I settled into my email inbox, where I had offers to order products as diverse as Viagra,
cappuccino recipes, and Bibles. You could buy all three and stay up all night reading
scripture. I started to giggle when the door to the coffee house opened with more vigor than
usual. The man who entered looked to be in his late twenties, and I wondered idly if he had
been at Ocean Alley High when I was. The voice confirmed it.
“Black, large, extra strong,” he said to Joe. No pleasantries here. Michael Riordan had run
for senior class president at the end of junior year. He got his butt kicked. To an outsider, this
might have seemed hard to believe, given his good looks and dark blue convertible.
However, he tended to date girls for a few months and then drop them. Thus, he was not the
candidate of the girls I heard talking about him in the bathroom in between classes. This had
not been discussed much prior to the election, in case he won.
I had my own reasons not to remember him too fondly. We were in the same homeroom,
and he came up to me the first day of eleventh grade. At lunch that day, he sat with me and
introduced me to a number of other classmates who stopped by the table. Nearly tongue-tied
in his presence, I rehearsed a couple of lame jokes and tried them at lunch the second day.
By the third day, it was as if he didn’t know me. Didn’t say hello in homeroom and sat with a
couple of cheerleaders at lunch.
In the grand scheme of life it was not a big deal. At the time, stinging from what I saw as my
parents’ rejection and mad at being away from my own friends, it really hurt. I spent a couple
of days wondering what he was saying about me to others, and the rest of the school year
practicing rude comments in case he talked to me again. No worries there. Now, I can
ruefully acknowledge he probably felt as awkward as I did – what do you say to a new kid who
doesn’t seem able to talk in your presence?
As I returned my gaze to the computer screen Michael turned slightly to his left and I could feel
him look at me. I wasn’t up for pleasantries any more than he seemed to be, so I didn’t
acknowledge his vaguely quizzical expression. I’d seen it a number of times in the ten days
since I’d moved in with Aunt Madge. The “do-I-know-her?” look. I ignored him.
My attention went to the Internet classifieds, and I searched job listings for the area. Pickings
are slim unless you want to work in a hotel or restaurant or maintain an office computer
network. This was also the sixth day in a row I had read the listing for an exciting career in the
trucking industry (“short hauls only, no overnights”), but I wasn’t up for regular tours of Jersey
and Manhattan. Since I didn’t know what I was looking for, I didn’t spend a lot of time at the
site. Despite my hopes, there just isn’t going to be something interesting, well paying, and
fun with my name on it.
The door banged again as Michael Riordan left, and I turned to meet Joe Regan’s glance. He
held up a five dollar bill. “Not exactly Mr. Personality, but he tips well.” He grinned.
“I guess so. That’s what he gave you for a cup of coffee?”
“Yep. I hear he did real well in some job in the oil industry.” Joe pocketed the bill.
“Not in Jersey, I take it.”
Joe laughed. “Nah. Texas, I think.”
“He just back here visiting?”
Joe’s expression grew serious. “Mother’s dying. Cancer.”
“That’s too bad.” Not sure what else to say, I turned back to the computer. I hadn’t seen the
guy for ten years and couldn’t recall meeting his mother, though I thought she was a friend of
I went back to the job listings, expanding my search to towns as far as twenty miles north or
south of Ocean Alley. A sidebar offered advice for job seekers. “Define your best skills and
look for jobs that use them.” That qualifies as remedial job seekers’ advice. I define my best
skill as persistence, although others tend to label this as my stubborn streak.
After a few minutes, I logged off, refilled my coffee cup and started a slower walk back to Aunt
Madge’s. She lives three blocks back from the ocean, which she says gives her the illusion
of being safe from hurricane damage. Ocean Alley is almost two miles long but only twelve
blocks deep, with each street that is parallel to the ocean named for a letter of the alphabet.
I’ve heard that when Ocean Alley incorporated there was a move to change the names of all
the streets and arrange them alphabetically, but the City Council could never agree on the
names so they just used letters. However, the alphabet starts with ‘B.’ The Great Atlantic
Hurricane removed the old boardwalk and most of ‘A’ Street in 1944. It’s the main reason
Aunt Madge won’t live any closer to the ocean.
At the corner of C and Main I entered the Purple Cow, Ocean Alley’s small office supply store.
If I was going to get serious about looking for a job, I probably needed some bond paper for
my resume. Of course, I had to figure out what ‘career objective’ to write on the paper. Near
the door was a white board on which someone had written, “It does not take much strength to
do things, but it requires great strength to decide on what to do.” Elbert Hubbard.
I realized the sales clerk was staring at me. What, did I dribble coffee again?
“Didn’t you go to high school here?” she asked.
“Yes, I did, but just for one year.” Her face was familiar. I didn’t have any negative memories,
so I held out my hand. “Jolie Gentil. I was here for 11th grade, but that was more than ten
She had wide eyes, which gave her the appearance of perpetual amazement, accented by
large, octagonal glasses. Thin blonde hair fell to nearly the middle of her back, and was
pulled back from her face in a large clip. She was almost four inches taller than my 5’2” and
looked as if she enjoyed the fashion of the 1970s. More important, her smile was friendly.
“I’m Ramona Argrow. We had geometry together. You did a lot better than I did.” Her voice
had a kind of dreamy quality, so I was surprised that her handshake was firm. “Where did
Her name sounded familiar, as if it should mean more than just geometry class. “Go..?”
“Why didn’t you come back to senior year?”
It was such a simple question I had not followed her logic. “My parents lived in Lakewood. I
was just down here for a year with my aunt while they sorted some stuff out.” In 11th grade, I
had said they were on a long trip through Europe.
“That’s right; your aunt has the B&B. I like her. She buys her nameplates here.”
Aunt Madge makes small little signs that she inserts in a 4x6 picture frame affixed to the wall
outside each of the guest rooms. On it she puts the name of the guests, ostensibly so they
don’t wander into the wrong rooms. One couple was quite put out by it, said they didn’t care
to advertise their whereabouts to the world. In retrospect, I suppose they were lovers out for a
jaunt. Aunt Madge still makes the signs, but now she asks each guest if they want to place
one by their door.
“She’s terrific,” I agreed. Now what? All I could remember about Ramona was that she
always had a faraway look and probably took art class, since she often carried a portfolio with
her. I had tripped over it once in geometry class. “You, uh, still paint?”
She shook her head. “Just pen and ink now. In the summer, I do caricatures of people on
the boardwalk. Pays better than here.”
“So, you never left?” As soon as I asked I regretted it. Probably sounded as if I was implying
that she should have.
“Nope. I like the beach.” She gestured in the direction of the ocean. “I walk two miles on the
sand every day.”
No wonder she was so slim. I automatically sucked in my small tummy. I always tell myself
that tomorrow I’ll eat less and lose five pounds within a month. Never happens. “Could you,
uh, help me find some bond paper?”
“Sure.” She moved toward the back of the store and I followed. “We have regular white and
ivory bond, and a couple pastel colors. The colors are more expensive.”
I could feel her eyes on me as I looked at the paper. I hadn’t planned on an audience, and it
made me nervous. In general, I don’t give a tinker’s damn what anyone thinks or if they stare
at me for an hour, but after the last couple months, I feel as if everyone is looking at me as the
wife of Robby Marcos, embezzler. I grabbed a small box of the ivory bond. “This’ll do.”
Ramona took it and walked toward the front. “Most people use this for resumes.”
I felt like saying I wasn’t ‘most people,’ but in this case, I was. “Yeah. I’m thinking of
recareering. Decided to have my mid-life crisis early.”
She smiled as she scanned the paper. “I’m not that far along yet.” As she reached for a
small bag, her eyes met mine. “I’m sorry about your husband’s stuff.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I didn’t realize she would know, and I didn’t like it. I could feel my face burning
and I dropped my purse as I reached in for money.
“I guess I shouldn’t have said anything,” she said. “I just…”
“It’s okay. I appreciate the sentiment.” I handed her my money. “Um, do you mind if I ask
how you heard?” I knew it wouldn’t be Aunt Madge.
“Local busybody, Elmira Washington.” She put my resume paper in the small shopping bag.
“Nobody pays much attention to her, and she doesn’t talk much to people our age. I have to
listen to her when she comes in here.” She handed me the bag. “What was your first
“I’ve been in real estate.”
“Ooh. You can make a lot of money with that here. My uncle does it.”
That’s why her name sounded familiar. Lester Argrow’s photo was plastered on a billboard
on the south side of town. “Sure. I remember his sign now. Where’s his office?”
“It’s a small one, above First Bank. He usually meets his clients in their houses or at the
Burger King. It’s easy for his clients to park at Burger King.”
Sounded as if Lester Argrow had made some conscious decisions about not becoming a
major force in the real estate industry. All I said was, “I know where First Bank is.”
“If you want some advice about getting into real estate here, just tell him you talked to me.”
She smiled again as she handed me my bag. “There’s a group planning the ten-year
reunion. I think they’re going to do it Thanksgiving weekend, because a lot of people will be
home. Even if you didn’t graduate with us you could come.”
I thanked her, made no promises about the reunion, and stepped back into the brisk October
air. I wasn’t up for seeing a lot of people until I had my wits more about me. Aunt Madge says
I’m still in the “reeling stage,” though I think I’m close to moving to what I have decided to call
a “slow spin.” I am definitely feeling better about life now that I’ve put most of my stuff in a
storage locker and left the town where people greeted me with either words of
encouragement or a sad smile.
Aunt Madge lives on the corner of D Street and Seashore. Her three-story Victorian has three
turrets and a wrap-around porch that is populated with an array of comfortable chairs and a
porch swing. She has the house repainted every three years, white with blue trim. She
repairs porch boards herself when they start to rot, though she no longer saws her own
lumber. When I was little, my sister Renée would read picture books to me as we sat on the
porch swing. She took her role as big sister very seriously, and unless she was trying to
make me do something I didn’t want to, I mostly appreciated her attention.
Aunt Madge is technically my mother’s aunt. Madge’s sister, Alva, was my late grandmother.
They grew up in Ocean Ally in what old-timers at the diner just off the beach call the ‘glory
days’ of World War II. Aunt Madge is a woman who knows her own mind. She does not often
feel a need to tell it to you, but when you look at her it's clear she is reflecting on what's going
on around her.
Where my grandmother left her hair at its natural white, Aunt Madge says white hair makes
her face look like it belongs in a casket, and she tries different colors. Today it is a very light
red; or was when I left the house, anyway. She tried deep auburn but she said it made her
look like an old lady trying to pass. As a younger one, I suppose; I didn't ask. She doesn't
use permanent color, so after twenty or thirty washes she's close to white and can try another
look. My father still laughs about the time she tried deep black, leaving a dashing white streak
straight back from her widow’s peak. He told her she looked like a skunk and she washed
her hair thirty times in one night to get it out.
I was still smiling about her ‘skunk hair’ as I climbed the front steps. Even on the porch I
could smell Aunt Madge’s cheddar cheese bread. She bakes it and a loaf of wheat every day,
and puts them out with coffee, tea and ice water at 4 p.m. She is the only one of the four
B&Bs in Ocean Alley that provides an afternoon snack. She says she does it so she can
charge more and keep the riff-raff out, but I think she does it so she has a reason to talk to her
guests. She is a lot more outgoing than I, though you never hear a word of gossip pass her
lips. I admire her for this, but it has always made it tough to get any town news out of her.
I could hear her two dogs barking from the small back yard, which is unusual; she usually
has them in the back of the house with her. Behind the large guest breakfast room is her
enclave—her huge kitchen with an old oak table, which adjoins what home magazines today
call a great room (and she calls her sitting room), her bedroom, and a large bath. At the back
of the great room is a set of back stairs, originally the servants’ stairs according to Aunt
Madge, who has none. I put my package at the foot of the main set of stairs so I would
remember to take it to my room, and made my way to her.
Aunt Madge was taking the breakfast dishes out of the dishwasher. Like my grandmother
and mother, she is tall and thin and stands and sits very straight. If you don’t know her, you
expect a rigid person who purses her lips a lot. As I smiled in her direction, she turned to me
and puckered her lips for an across-the-room air kiss and motioned to a chair at the kitchen
table. “Enjoy your coffee?”
“Yep.” I tossed the empty paper cup in her trash.
“Any luck?” she asked.
“Not unless I want to drive short-haul trucks or tend bar.” I settled in a chair at her large oak
table. “Or computers. Every office needs computer geeks.”
I caught sight of the larger of Aunt Madge’s two shelter-adopted mutts, Mister Rogers, who
had his nose pressed against the pane of the sliding glass door. He wagged his part-
retriever tail as he looked at me. “Want me to let the guys in?”
“Heavens no.” She turned to glare at him. “The dogs have been in the prunes again. They
have to stay outside until they do their business.” She checked the oven knob to be sure it
She has to be making this up. “Prunes. Your dogs eat prunes?”
“Whenever they can. I store them in plastic bowls now, but if I leave the pantry open, they go
in after them and chew through the bowls.” She shut the oven door. “I may have to stop
making my prune danishes.”
“That would be a loss.”
She glanced at me. “Too healthy for you?”
Mister Rogers suddenly dove off the porch and squatted in the small garden. His co-
conspirator, Miss Piggy—also part Retriever but with even more mixed parentage—looked
down at him and then peered in at me, wagging her tail. “I think you may be able to let Mister
“Oh no, he’ll be busy for awhile.”
Since she was so serious I tried not to laugh. “I ran into someone who knows you. Ramona
Argrow, at the office supply store.”
She nodded. “Nice girl. In your class, as I recall.” She sat at the table with me, bringing with
her a stack of cloth napkins that she started to fold into triangles. I grabbed a few and began
folding. She studied me for a moment and asked, “So, if no luck on the coffee shop computer
do you want me to ask around town?”
“Nope. I’m seriously thinking I should go into bartending.” She looked at me with interest,
and then realized I was kidding. We watched Miss Piggy run down the steps and Mister
Rogers took her place at the door.
“You don’t want to try real estate here? Your license would still be good, wouldn’t it?” she
“Yeah, but there’s not much of a commercial market, and I don’t see me schlepping families
with kids from beach house to beach house.”
“You did appraisal work first, what about that?” She finished her stack and reached over to
turn the knob on the electric kettle. She drinks about ten cups of hot tea every day. When it’s
really cold she adds amaretto to her evening cups.
“Maybe, but you have to know the local market and land values really well. I’m not sure
Stenner and Stenner would be interested in me now. Old man Stenner’s retired anyway,
“Yes, but his daughter took over. You may remember her; she was a class ahead of you.”
Jennifer Stenner. Of course. One of the cheerleaders Michael Riordan had dumped, now
that I thought of it. “My class, if she’s who I think. Tall, light brown hair, lots of white teeth?”
Jennifer was something of a snob, to boot.
“That’s her. Of course, she has competition now, you know.”
This interested me. “Who?”
“Older man, Harry Steele.” She poured tea into a mug. “His grandparents lived here and he
spent summers here for probably twenty years. He retired from someplace near Boston and
came here and opened Steele Appraisers.”
She was concentrating very hard on draining excess water from her teabag. “His wife died
after he retired, and he wanted something to do besides play golf and visit grandchildren. He
bought the house his grandparents owned at G and Ferry and turned the first floor into an
“Sounds like your kind of guy.”
She smiled. “He goes to First Presbyterian, too. All the women of a certain age,” her eyes
showed her amusement, “invite him to Sunday dinner.”
“Have you?” I tried to keep my tone casual. As far as I knew, she had not been interested in
anyone since Uncle Gordon died.
“Didn’t your mother teach you not to chase the boys?”
I laughed. “I don’t remember that. She was a lot younger than you. I think it was OK to at
least call them when she was dating.” I passed her my small pile of napkins. She would
probably refold them, but at least I hadn’t just watched her work.
She sipped her tea. “You could call Harry. Use my name.”
That was the second time today someone had told me that. A good sign, perhaps. I glanced
at the dogs, now sitting calmly on the porch. “They may have worn themselves out.”
She turned and looked at them. “You can let them in now, but watch where you step in the
garden until I go out there with the hose.”
I decided to take this sage advice, and to think about calling Harry.