Daughter hunts for estranged mother's killer, unlocks family secrets
|My mother died four months ago. Her name was Margo Morgan, and she was an artist, a Bohemian, a drug addict and a hot mess. She loved her drugs — pot, heroin, hash, cocaine, meth, opioids, speedballs — and she loved washing them all down with vodka. I expected one day to get a call from the cops telling me that Margo died of a drug overdose. What I did not expect, when the cops finally called, was to learn she didn’t die of drugs. According to the police report, Margo shot herself between midnight and two, a pistol still clutched in her right hand. Except it couldn’t be suicide. Margo was left-handed.
My name is Nikki Morgan. Figuring out why people do what they do is my thing. I want to figure out how Margo, my mother, ended up shot in her artist’s studio? The cops say she shot herself. I say no. Margo loved drama. No way she’d kill herself in silence.
Margo’s murder brings me here, sitting in a rented Malibu, watching the sun break over the Napa vineyards, chugging coffee and chain-vaping Blu cigs. I look at the color photograph in my hand, its corners curled from constant smoothing and worrying. A wooden fence crosses the foreground of the photograph, behind it twist rows of grapevines and resting atop a slope in the distance is a grand blue Victorian. On the front steps of the Victorian, barely visible in the photograph, is a tall woman standing beside a small blond girl with a stuffed animal in her arm.
I stuff the photo in my jacket pocket and take a beat, staring out my car window at the same Victorian as in the photograph. I fidget. My hand trembles. I take a drag of the Blu and suck down the rest of the coffee. When I feel like this — anxious, my therapist calls it — I take long slow breaths in and out, in and out. I flip down the visor mirror to do a last double-check. My cheeks are red, my eyes pink from allergies, at least that’s my story. One last deep breath and I put the car in drive and turn left down the driveway, the gravel crunching beneath the tires. As I roll into the courtyard, the front door opens and the woman in the photograph stands tall in the door frame. Full head of gray hair, dressed at this early hour in crisp white shirt, jeans and cowboy boots.
I slide out of my seat and stand tucked behind the open car door. We take measure of each other. Then she makes the first move, crossing the courtyard and stepping around the car door, invading my space. She looks at me, her eyes flitting back and forth over my eyes, examining me. I avoid her gaze, then look at her full-on. Creases have moved onto her cheeks, her blue eyes seem pale, her mouth turns sad at the edges. She reaches up to push a strand of fly-away hair behind my ears, and I recoil, as if burned. Hurt flashes across my grandmother’s eyes.
OK, I admit it. This is not how I expected my visit with Astrid to go. I expected my grandmother and me to hug, cry, laugh, then go inside for pancakes. At thirty-one years old, I did not expect to bristle like a teenager, all drama and angst. I was six when my mother dumped me in Napa, peeling out of the driveway, and stranding me on the front steps with Astrid. My grandmother and I did well when I was in elementary school, but when I reached preteen and teenage years, she cooled. Looking back, I suspect she was protecting herself. When she looked at teenage me, she saw Margo, snarling and howling like a caged animal. She was right. I was like Margo. At eighteen, I slammed out of the Victorian and hopped a bus to San Francisco. We exchanged calls and cards for the intervening years, but not until I called her about Margo's death did we speak.
Here I am coming full circle. My mother dumps me here when I am six and with her murder she brings me back twenty-five years later.
Astrid studies me. “Nikki, honey, why are you here? Why are you here now?”
“I was clearing out Margo’s studio in Berkeley, and I found this.” I pull the photograph out of my pocket. “I found it in a book of Walt Whitman poems. Margo kept it close.” Astrid takes the photo and turns it over, reading the caption Astrid and Nikki, Napa,1978. ”That was a bad day for both of us, Nikki.”
“Astrid, Margo did not commit suicide. She was killed, and I want to find out who did it.”
At the word killed, my grandmother tears up. ”It’s sad, Nikki. Margo took off so long ago. I learned to live without her … you and I both did.” Wiping her eyes, she turns and heads into the house. She steps through the front door and turns around. “Coming, Nikki?” I follow. Somewhere in my grandmother’s memories, somewhere in this Victorian, I will find the pieces to the puzzle of who murdered Margo.