She stormed back into the house. I rolled a piece of paper into my old Royal, plugged the headphones into the tape recorder, and started typing up a transcript. It reminded me of a summer job I’d had right after high school, working for Reliance Insurance to transcribe adjusters’ field tapes.
But summer was over, and now I wasn’t even getting paid.
I worked for nearly an hour, laboriously stopping and starting the tape recorder to get every word, no matter how muffled or obscure, and hoping that the batteries wouldn’t conk out until I was done. While I worked Andy drove up in his big Ford pickup. After one glance my way he stomped on into the house, ignoring my wave. Shortly thereafter the kitchen curtain lifted so they could peek out at me.
Other than that, they left me alone. The sky lost color, paling to translucence and then, as the light failed, to gray. I was typing more by touch than by sight—the batteries in my halogen head-flashlight were also growing weak, and I didn’t want to kill it before I could get new ones. The vagabond life was much more demanding of batteries than the last time I lived it.
The tape didn’t run out until most of the way through our encounter with Kyle, right up to his dinner invitation to me. Including, of course, Maud’s remark that Tony had some dirt on someone in the police hierarchy, and Kyle’s comment about Tony having police as enemies, all of which would doubtless make Officer Eva unhappy. In fact, when O’Malley and his buddy listened to the tape, I might be in real trouble. I hadn’t managed to figure out yet whether O’Malley belonged with the police-for-hire group or not, though Eva appeared to be on the straight and narrow. With law enforcement people you couldn’t always tell. They have so many opportunities to be on the take, in ways that can seem pretty innocent.
I finished the transcript and took the headphones out of my ears. A goodish pile of paper sat next to the Royal. I stretched my hands, then stepped out of the bus to unkink my back. In the backyard, Amy called to Barker. Picking up the transcript, tape recorder, and earphones, I headed for the sound.
“No, no, you silly dog.” Amy was grabbing for the rag-bone, which dangled from Barker’s smiling jaws. Each tune she grabbed, he whisked the bone away. “How can I throw it if you won’t let me have it?”
“He’s still not too strong on the fetch aspect.” I handed Amy the tape recorder and earphones. “Thanks for lending this. I’ll get you some new batteries tomorrow—think I must have worn them down.”
“Thank you, Aunt Liz.” She grinned at me. “Mom and Dad hate for me to ask for batteries, and I’m stony this week.”
“Broke?” I looked at Andy’s house. “You made money this summer.”
“Yeah, but I put it all in the market.” She snatched the bone away from Barker and tossed it to the other end of the long, narrow yard. Barker tore after it. “We have this investment group which is really getting, like, max return. But I don’t want to pull my money out, and Dad’s, like, sitting on my allowance because I blew my curfew last weekend.” She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter that much—my allowance is such a tiny, minuscule thing that I hardly miss it.”
I held up the tape and the transcript. “I want to mail these. Do you have a couple of envelopes I can use? I’ll pay you back for those as well.”
“Aunt Liz, chill.” Amy stuffed the tape recorder into the front of her overalls and hung the earphones around her neck. “You don’t have to, like, pay me back for every last little thing. I mean, I’ll cut you some slack. You’re my favorite aunt, for God’s sake.”
“You’re my favorite niece, too.”
Amy hooted. “I’m your only niece, fool!”
We smiled at each other. Then I remembered the reason why I’d come to Denver in the first place.
“Would you call your grandma for me? I guess I’m in the doghouse there again, but I want to know how she’s doing.”
“Sure.” Amy snapped her fingers for Barker. “You missed a good dinner, Aunt Liz. Maybe Mom has some leftovers—should we check?”
“I’m not really hungry.” The fast food in my stomach was making a leaden statement about heartburn.
The darkness was nearly complete. Amy’s white T-shirt glimmered, and Barker was a collection of light and dark blobs. I shivered; though not as cold as the night before, it was too brisk for the sweatshirt I wore.
“Time to go in,” Amy told Barker. He picked up the rag-bone and flourished it one more time, but she refused to be drawn. “Come on.”
“I could put him in the bus if your mom minds him inside.”
“I want him inside.” Amy stuck out her lower lip, making one of those lightning changes from mature young person to spoiled child that teenagers can accomplish at will. Then she smiled. “I’ll shut the door to my room and then all the dog hair will stay in one place.”
I felt a sneaking sympathy for Renee, despite her hostility and lethal mouth; she and Amy didn’t show each other their good sides very often.
She was waiting inside the back door; had been watching us, evidently. “Have you finished your homework?”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mother.”
“That dog shouldn’t be in here.
“I’ll vacuum up each and every hair he loses, Mother.”
Renee flicked a disparaging eye at the baggy overalls and turned to me. “Did you plan to leave that car of yours in front of our house forever?”
“Where did you want me to park it?”
“Down the block a little ways or something. It makes us look like white trash.”
“Maybe we are white trash, Mother. Did you ever think of that?”
I threw myself into the breach. “Could I use the bathroom, please?”
“Yeah, sure.” Renee gestured down the hall. “And you didn’t wipe off the counter after you filled the dishwasher, Amy. Do it now, please.”
Grumbling, Amy followed her mother. Barker followed Amy. I seized a few moments of noncombative peace in the bathroom.
When I came out, I could hear the muted mutter of the TV from the room Andy called his den. Barker sat outside the kitchen, gazing expectantly at the door. After a moment Amy came out and gave him the extravagant petting he thought he deserved.
I was still holding my transcript and the little tape that had the information on it. Amy led me to her room and dug out a couple of Priority Mail envelopes. “Some prospectuses came in them,” she explained. “It should hold your stuff.”
“Thanks.” I addressed the transcript to my post office box in Palo Alto and the tape to Drake’s address. Not a very clever dodge, perhaps, but if it worked in all those mystery stories, probably it would work for me. While I was sealing the envelopes, the phone rang.
“Sure,” Amy said blithely into the receiver, which she had sprung for after a warning bellow. “She’s right here.” She handed me the receiver, mouthing “Drake,” and then slipped tactfully from the room.
“Hi.” I figured I might as well get a word or two in before he started scolding me. “Wish you were here.”
“I’ll bet you do.” The sound of his voice caused a sudden stricture in my diaphragm that interfered with my breathing. “Can’t you be out of my sight for a week without getting into trouble?”
“It hasn’t been that long.” I forced my vocal cords to operate, despite their momentary paralysis.
“Are you okay?” Drake dropped the scolding tone. His voice deepened. “You sound funny.”
“I heard from some of your new friends out there.” He was making tea; I could hear his teakettle singing in the background. “First an e-mail message from the Homicide department, wanting a background check on you, and then a personal phone call just before I left from an Officer Gutierrez.”
“You shouldn’t work so late.” I made myself sound casual. “What did you tell her?”
“The truth, of course—that you don’t have the sense to keep your nose out of other people’s business, but you’re not violent, just weak in the head.” He waited a moment. “You’re supposed to laugh.”
“Maybe later.” I didn’t like the way his voice was making me feel—soft and dependent, in need of his help. I told myself to get a grip. Instead I said, “O’Malley, one of the Homicide guys, already has me pegged for it.”
“Has you pegged for—don’t be ridiculous. It’s an obvious hit. They’re probably looking into underworld or gang connections right now. The stooges are singing even as we speak.”
His robust common sense was comforting. “O’Malley mentioned this morning that women who kill their abusive husbands get off light these days. He referred to my former attempt as the first time I tried to kill my husband.”
Drake was silent for a moment. “He thinks you know something, and he’s trying to rattle it out of you.”
I took a deep breath. “I’m rattled.”
Another pause. “I never expected to hear you admit that.” He sounded worried. "This Gutierrez I talked to—she seemed okay. Just wanted the usual about any past interactions with our department.”
“So what did you say?”
“I told the truth, of course.”
‘Truth is so subjective, Drake.”
I could hear his sigh. “Do we have to have this argument again? Truth is what’s written down in our files, Liz. That’s what I told your officer friend about.”
I let it drop. “How are the roses?”
He told me how my garden grew—although his descriptions didn’t make a whole lot of sense. We spoke of our friend Bridget, of his partner Bruno. I built a picture in my mind while we talked: my little cottage tucked behind the bigger house Drake was buying from me, the tall redwoods at the back, the orderly beds of vegetables and flowers I tended there.
“I’m cutting the salad stuff like you showed me.” He smacked his lips. “Good, too. You’re really missing out.”
“Thanks, Drake. I had fast food tonight.”
“Was it your first time?” He laughed. “Can’t picture you in the plastic seats, Liz.”
“I ate it before, on the way out here.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Listen up, woman. I can’t do anything illegal for you, but I might happen to find something about your ex-husband in the databases. If I think you should know it, I’ll get it to you somehow.”
“Don’t go Federal Expressing things.” Amy opened the door and peeked in. “That would just mean I’d have to pay you back, and I can’t afford it. Regular mail is fine.”
Amy bounded into the room and pointed at her computer. Puzzled, I shook my head. She scrawled something on a piece of paper and handed it to me. Drake was offering overnight mail, but I interrupted him.
“Amy has an e-mail address.” I read it to him over the phone. “She’ll pass along anything you send.”
He understood the subtext there. “Anything confidential I’ll get to you some other way. And you won’t pay me back. I’m eating your designer lettuce, remember?”
I hung up the phone after a rather lingering good-bye. Amy dove for the receiver practically before it left my hand, so I assumed that’s what she’d come back for. I headed for the bathroom with my bag of washing stuff. I needed a little time alone to sort through my reactions to that phone call.
“Gramma is still feeling poorly,” Amy announced. She was just hanging up the phone when I came back into her room. “Aunt Molly is there. She says Gramma did eat some dinner, though. And Grampa won’t talk at all, Aunt Molly says. He just grunts when she speaks to him.” Amy faltered. “She—said some stuff about you, too, but, I—I don’t remember it.”
“I can fill it in, thanks.”
“Aunt Liz, why are they all so mad at you? Seems to me that you’re the one who should be mad.”
I didn’t know how to answer that, because I agreed with Amy. Maybe that’s why they were mad. If I’d come and penitently admitted my mistakes, accepted their pronouncements on my poor judgment, perhaps I could have been forgiven. But for years I had felt that I would apologize when they did. I could perfectly understand their resentment—I shared it.
“So is Drake going to send us e-mail?” Amy put one hand lovingly on her computer. “I love to get e-mail.”
“Any kind of mail is fine with me, but the kind with a check is the best.”
Her face clouded. “You’re not getting to pick up your checks while you’re here, are you?”
I shrugged. Picking up checks wasn’t a regular occurrence in my life. Vacation pay, insurance, sick leave—not the perks of my line of work, as Drake pointed out with irritating frequency. I’m used to working without the safety net; personal responsibility is an archaic concept in our culture, but I embrace it anyway.
I didn’t dwell on thoughts of my disappearing savings. I would manage, as long as Drake didn’t let the snails get to my seedlings, which I depended on for next spring’s veggies.
“Aunt Molly said you’ll probably be arrested again and drag the family through the mud even worse, because now you’re back to calling yourself Sullivan.” Amy was still worrying over her aunt’s conversation. “But there’s almost as many Sullivans as Smiths or Browns, so I don’t know what she’s kicking about. And you’re not going to be arrested, are you?”
“Since I didn’t do the murder, they won’t be arresting me.” I tried to speak with a calm certainty. “The police will find the real killer.”
Amy looked pensive for a moment, stroking Barker’s ear and reducing him to slit-eyed ecstasy. “So is Drake missing you?” She glanced slyly at me.
“Why should he? He’s getting all my baby lettuces to himself. And there’ll be raspberries, too.”
“Come on, Aunt Liz.” Amy made an impatient face. “You know he wants to jump your bones.”
My face grew hot, despite a need to remain cool. I was at a loss for a reply. I could return a gentle reminder about making personal remarks, which would have a dampening effect on future communications. I could take some moral stance about how men and women could be friends without sex, but were Drake and I friends? Though we didn’t act on it, sexual attraction was an undercurrent in all our dealings.
I elected a change-the-subject approach. “If we’re going to talk love lives, how about yours? Who are you dating?”
“Dating?” Amy tasted the word, as if it were a foreign concept. “We don’t ‘date,’ Aunt Liz. We just sort of—” she gestured helplessly “—are. I mean, you know, we have coffee, we talk, maybe go to a show—”