MURDER MILE HIGH
I got most of the way through the Rockies before Babe checked out on me.
I had turned off 1-70 just past the Eisenhower Tunnel to look at the Continental Divide, and to let Barker out. Parking my blue ‘69 VW microbus (the camper version, without the pop-top) at the scenic vista, I climbed stiffly down from the driver’s seat. My niece, Amy, calls the bus Babe. I don’t even want to think about what that makes me.
While Barker sniffed the other dogs’ deposits and took his time making his own, I watched a pair of hawks hover over bare gray scree patched here and there with fresh mid-September snow. Though the air was thin I didn’t feel too dizzy. After spending three days driving through the Sierra and high plains, I’d gotten used to altitude again.
Walking around felt good—I’d been driving uphill since lunch, which I had eaten sitting at my pull-up table, with the side window slats cranked open, overlooking Glenwood Canyon.
Though I was now a relatively plutocratic home owner in Palo Alto, California, the VW bus had once been my only home, the road my only backyard. I liked being on the road again, my universe snug around me like a turtle’s shell. It had been easy to fall back into the vagabond rhythm of keeping the sink reservoir filled and heating water for instant soup with an immersion heater plugged into the lighter, or cooking rice and vegetables on the one-burner white-gas stove. In the cold evenings Barker circled his pillow before curling up to sleep, while I pulled out the bed and settled into my sleeping bag, using the battery-powered lamp that had, in that other life, been one of my few luxuries.
Being on the road was fine. What I didn’t like was the bad vibes that got stronger with every hour that brought me closer to Denver.
The previous night, we’d camped just outside of Grand Junction beside the Colorado River. The strong rush of the river filled my dreams like the thin, fragrant air filled my lungs. The headache that had dogged me since Lake Tahoe was gone when I woke up, but the sense of foreboding was omnipresent.
Why had I come? I was so happy in Palo Alto, in my small, crumbling house, with Barker growing as if every night the Dog God came in and opened a valve in one paw and blew him up another notch. Although Amy, my niece, had visited for the summer, she’d returned to Denver at the end of August, leaving a bit of blank space that quickly evolved into the peaceful solitude I value.
With some kind of remote sensor, Amy knew I was enjoying the quiet a bit too much, so she contrived to stir me up, long-distance.
It had literally been long distance. I was reading on my front porch, feeling the need of escape after a couple of weeks spent finishing an article on beneficial weeds for Organic Gardener. I’d been so deep in The Woman in White when Drake had come to tell me about the phone call that I didn’t notice him.
“Liz.” I looked up. The shadows that had been brief punctuation marks on the edge of the lawn when I’d sat down with my book now reached all the way across. A cool breeze, welcome in the stale September air, stirred the tall spires of the hollyhocks. “Liz. You have a phone call.”
“What?” I blinked up at my neighbor. Paul Drake lives in the house in front of mine, the one that faces the street. Both houses became mine after the death of their previous owner, but since I could only afford the upkeep on one, I was selling him the bigger of the two. That monthly payment was the first real financial security I’d known in the fifteen or so years of my adult life.
Drake looked at the spine of my book, then inside.
“You’re on page ninety-three,” he said, setting Wilkie Collins aside. “Come on.”
“Huh?” I looked around for Barker; he was nowhere to be seen.
“You have a phone call.” Drake tugged on my hand. “And your dog has made a new hole. Looks like he’s trying to dig up the plum tree.”
“Where is he?” The plum tree was still standing in the side yard. There was no sign of Barker.
“I shoved him in your back door. He’s not black and white any longer. He’s brown.” Drake gave my hand a squeeze. “Come on, Liz. Get the phone. It’s long distance.”
“Right.” We walked from my front door to his back door. I didn’t try to get my hand back. Drake and I are doing that old dance, made fresh and new by our modern fears of commitment, abandonment, and disease. We hadn’t gotten to the climactic pas de deux, especially with Amy around all summer, but a certain feeling that I both wanted and resisted was building.
“Who’s calling, anyway?”
“It’s Amy.” He glanced at me. “Still part of your life. At least she didn’t call collect.”
“Would you have accepted?” I don’t have a phone. Drake lets me use his, which never used to be a hardship, because I didn’t get many calls. It’s not just the expense that keeps me from getting my own phone. I don’t want to be at the whole universe’s beck and call. Salespeople call you, you get a modem, you cruise the Internet, and next thing you know you’re just one cell of a vast, uncontrollable organism. I’ve opted out.
Drake opened his back door and ushered me in. “I might have, but it didn’t come up. Anyway, it’s long distance on her dime, so you might hustle a little.”
Amy was indignant. “Aunt Liz! What took you so long?”
“I was traveling.”
“Listen.” Amy wasn’t in a mood for whimsy, even my extra-special auntly brand. “They don’t want me to call you, but I am anyway. Gramma’s real sick.”
I sat down. My voice sounded calm over the thudding in my ears. “She is?”
“Yeah.” Amy gulped a little. “She had the flu when I got back, and she just never got better. She lies in bed all the tune. I even made her some of that soup—you know, like I made for you?”
“It’s good.” It was surprisingly good, considering that the rest of Amy’s culinary skills were minimal.
“She had a spoonful, but that was all. She practically doesn’t breathe, even.” Amy’s voice approached a wail. “I don’t know what to do. And Aunt Molly and Daddy just stand around and say she should go to the hospital, but they don’t make her. Grampa says it must be God’s will.” Amy dropped her voice. “Here comes Mom. I’ll call you again later.”
The phone went dead.
“Bad news?” Drake had been leaning against the sink, waiting for the kettle to boil. He’s worse than a nanny for thinking hot drinks help settle a person. He was using packaged peppermint tea bags, too, not the homemade ones I had given him.
“My mother’s sick.” I shivered a little. In the almost sixteen years since I’d left home, she had written once; we hadn’t spoken for over a decade. I had been a bad, ungrateful girl, marrying out of the Catholic faith and out of my lower-middle-class station in life. Subsequent events had only reinforced her view that if your daughter offends you, cut her off.
But she was my mother, and it wasn’t hard to rewind through the bitterness of my late teens back into my childhood, when we’d had some rapport. I couldn’t picture her old and sick. I could see her tying my ponytail ribbon on the first day of kindergarten, holding me off by the shoulders and scrutinizing my green plaid uniform, telling me that I’d do. She was proud of the A’s I brought home, supportive of my ambition to attend college, despite my father’s opposition. He felt college just made girls unfit for marriage. And when it came to marriage, I’d definitely been unfit.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Drake poured hot water on the tea bags and handed me a cup. “What’s the matter?”
“Amy didn’t really say. She’s had the flu, and she isn’t getting over it.” I dunked my tea bag up and down. “Didn’t I make you some peppermint tea bags? Where are they?”
Drake’s gaze slid away. “I used them all up.”
“You don’t like them.” I sniffed the store-bought tea. "They have a lot more flavor than this.”
“A lot more,” Drake said fervently. “So what does Amy want you to do?”
“I don’t know.” I sipped the pale tea. “Evidently my brothers and sister don’t consider it serious enough to tell me about. And Amy is a little prone to exaggeration.”
“Just a little.” Drake tried not to smile. “She was dying, I recall, when she had a cold. Convinced she’d never draw breath again.”
“A little peppermint tea fixed her right up, though.” I studied the pallid fluid in my cup. “She was on her feet in no time.”
“You should send your mother some of that tea.” Drake refused to be cowed. “Just the threat of having to drink it would cure her.”
“I’m drying the coneflowers to make tea with this fall.” I grinned at Drake. “Very good for illness, I’m told. Very nasty-tasting, too. The first time you get sick, I’ll come over and hold your nose and just pour it down the hatch.”
He shuddered. “Please, Liz. Don’t get carried away with this picture of yourself as old Mother Herbalist. I’d hate to be called in to investigate a poisoning caused by one of your brews.”
I managed a smile, although it wasn’t that funny a remark. Drake is a homicide detective with the Palo Alto police department—not that they have many homicides, but when they do, he detects them. And I’ve had the ill luck to be mixed up in a couple of the investigations. Both of them had involved poison, among other things. I still didn’t like remembering them. Drake, however, seemed to have put it all behind him.
The phone rang, and since I was sitting right there, I answered it. Amy’s voice came over a clatter and rumble. “Oh, good. It’s you, Aunt Liz. I snuck out and I’m calling from a pay phone, so I don’t have long.”
“I can barely hear you.”
“I know.” She raised her voice to a shriek. “I can’t hear myself either. Aunt Liz, you’ve got to come! I sat with Gramma for a while this morning and I asked her if she wanted to see you, and she squeezed my hand so hard.”
“She wants you to come, I know she does.” Amy gulped, hurrying on before I could get a word in. “Then Grampa came in and I said I was going to call you, and he just had a terrible tantrum and said you’d never set foot in his house again and all kinds of stuff like that, and finally I had to yell at him that he was upsetting Gramma.”
“She was just laying there—crying! You have to come right now.’’
“Amy—” I took a deep breath, unconsciously shaking my head. This time she let me speak. “If Dad doesn’t want me there, I won’t even get to see her. You should know that.”
“You can stay with me. I have twin beds. It’ll be fun,” Amy said, talking over me as if I weren’t saying anything. I guess to her I wasn’t. “I’ll sneak you in while Grampa is down at the Legion Hall.”
“He still goes there?” One thing you could say about my dad, he didn’t see any point in changing perfectly good old habits and hatreds for anything newfangled.
The operator’s voice came on, and then bonging noises as Amy fed the phone more money. “Really, Aunt Liz,” she cried when she was done. “You have to come. Gramma’s counting on it.”
“It’s at least a three-day drive, maybe more, in my old car. I don’t have plane fare.” I was pointing out problems, but Amy wouldn’t have any of that.
“You can do it in less time. It just took me a couple of days on the Greyhound.” She conveniently forgot that someone else had been driving. “You could come that way—it’s kind of cheap. But it would be cheapest if you drove. Is there anything wrong with Babe?”
“Babe is as fine as can be expected after two hundred thousand miles—not really up to anything strenuous.”
“If you drove, you could bring Barker. How’s he doing?”
“He’s fine. He misses you, though.”
“Bring him.” Amy was getting quite good at being the boss. “Aunt Liz, I—I’ll be glad to see you. And so will Gramma. I think—I almost think she’s afraid of something. She won’t talk. But you can find out what it is.”
The operator spoke again.
“I’m out of change. Bye.” Amy hung up.
I looked at the receiver, as breathless as if I had been the one galloping through sentences, and gently cradled it.
“I gather you’re going to Colorado.” Drake lifted his cup to me. “Bon voyage.”
Now I was standing on top of the world, but I didn’t feel like bursting into song. The Continental Divide was a somber place, not a cheerful one. Bard Peak to the north and Grays Peak southward hid their summits in ominous clouds. The sun had gone in while I was driving through the Eisenhower Tunnel, leaving the landscape monochrome; the pines below the timberlines were charcoal accents.
I turned away from the panorama. Barker was finished; he led me back to the bus through the almost empty parking area. The rough gravel under my feet was liberally patched with oil stains; I almost didn’t notice the one that spread beneath the bus, until the sun came out and summoned dancing rainbows from its glistening black surface. For one panicky instant of flashback, I thought it might be blood. And it was—car blood, not human. Oil.
Oil dripped onto the gravel with the regularity of a pulse. The dipstick came up nearly clean, showing just a film at the bottom.