Authors: Lora Roberts
He’s old, I told myself. Let it go. I made him a sandwich with pimento loaf and mustard on white bread, and ate the grilled cheese myself. It was good. I spooned up some of Molly’s soup—also good—and watched the two old people at the table, and felt total isolation from them, as if we’d never been related. And yet everything they did, from my mother’s periodic sniff to my dad’s careful scrutiny of his sandwich before every bite, was familiar to me.
After lunch Dad went back to his recliner, and soon his snores mingled with the Dallas rerun. Mom wanted to do the dishes, but settled for snapping the beans I’d bought while exhaustively comparing the price of frozen beans to fresh, and concluding that I had been hopelessly extravagant to buy the fresh ones. I cleaned up the kitchen, feeling more and more closed-in. Though I had resented being called selfish, it seemed I actually was—I didn’t want to give myself over to the maintenance of my old parents. If my services were gratefully or even graciously accepted it would be one thing, but the mother who condemned my extravagance didn’t think of reimbursing me for the groceries I’d bought, and the dad who was so despising of my past actions saw nothing to commend in my present ones.
“I declare, I don’t do anything but sleep,” Mom said, after a mighty yawn.
“Go ahead, it’s what you need.”
“Maybe so.” She allowed herself to be persuaded into bed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Staggering up the steep basement stairs with a basket of clean laundry, I welcomed the sound of my dad’s snores. They were the next best thing to peace and quiet.
I put the basket on the sofa and wondered if Dad would wake up if I turned Dallas off. A knock on the door distracted me.
When I lifted the curtain and looked out, Kyle Baldridge stood on the front porch. I glanced at Dad, still sleeping, and slipped out the door.
“Liz!” Kyle grabbed my hands. “So I do have the right house. Tony pointed it out once when we were driving around, but I wasn’t sure I remembered correctly. Are you staying here?”
“My mother’s sick,” I said, taking back my hands, “which is why I’m here in the first place. I came to help out.”
He turned to survey Babe. A whining Barker hung out the window. “Is that your camper? Very adventurous.” When he turned back, the smile was gone. “Where can we talk?”
“Let’s go to my living room.” He waited for me to open the door, but I led the way to the bus. “Both my folks are sleeping. We won’t disturb them out here.”
Barker bounded out to sniff Kyle thoroughly, putting his fur down almost immediately and accepting strokes with dignity. I gestured my guest to the rear bench seat and went forward to plug the immersion heater into the cigarette lighter. Uncovering the little sink, I filled two cups with water and started one of them heating. It had been a big day for Babe’s hospitality, and it wasn’t even two o’clock.
Kyle watched my preparations with bemusement. “I need a camper,” he said. “It would make things easier on the dig.”
“You still hanging out with the archaeologists?”
He nodded. “I should have gone into that field, instead of being a broker. But, of course, the pay is lousy. This way I can support myself and still get my excavating fix a couple of times a year.” He frowned. "There’s such a great need to get these sites identified and secured. Illegal pot-hunting is on the rise, and it really compromises our knowledge of the West’s indigenous peoples.”
He talked about the site he’d been working on for a few minutes, while I transferred the heater to the other cup and plopped a homemade tea bag into his cup. I set it in front of him and he broke off. “Sorry,” he said, looking abashed. “Didn’t mean to start my spiel. It always made Tony go to sleep.”
“I enjoyed hearing about your work.” I got another tea bag out for my cup. “This is my own herbal mixture. Very calming.”
“Do you think I need calming?” He sniffed the cup and grinned at me. He wasn’t conventionally handsome, but I thought him very engaging.
“Maybe you don’t. I do.”
He looked sympathetic. “What a mess for you. Come to visit your parents and all this happens.” He leaned across the table and patted my hand. “Poor Liz.”
A little cosseting was just what I needed. “What I can’t figure out,” I confided, “is why Tony’s killer dumped his body on my parents’ doorstep. How did that person know about his connection with them?”
A frown crossed his face. “That’s a very good point. I mean, you’d been out of his life for what? The past ten years? It’s pretty mystifying, though—” He set the cup back on the table. “I seem to remember Tony talking about your parents the time he pointed out this place. Something about how your mom still treated him like a son. Maybe he talked about them to other people, too—people he was working with.”
“Actually, Tony had been bothering my mom lately.” I explained about his threats, and how it had made my mother’s illness worse. “My niece thought something to do with me was preying on her mind, which is why I came out.”
“Just in time to take the rap.” His gaze was serious. “You should know, Liz, that another detective came to question me this morning. He seemed to have the idea that you killed Tony because of me.” He shrugged, spreading his hands. “I tried to explain I hadn’t seen you or heard from you in years. Not that I forgot you,” he hastened to add. “But I have to admit that long periods of time passed when no thought of you crossed my mind.”
I matched his smile. “Ditto for me. In fact, mere survival has been the foremost thing on my mind for the past few years.”
“Do you—are you involved with someone now?” He watched me closely as he said this.
“Not really.” I gripped my cup with both hands. “I don’t have much interest in relationships outside friendship. Actually, the very idea of getting close with a man scares me.”
He nodded gently. “I understand.”
“How about you? You were seeing someone when I—left.”
He thought for a moment. “So long ago—I can’t really remember. I’ve dated around. Been serious a couple of times, but it didn’t last.” He glanced up and away, as if such confiding was unusual for him. "There’s a woman at the Four Corners dig—she really interested me, for the first time in a year or so. In fact, I was downright reluctant to leave when the police called me back. But then, when I saw you—”
I burst out laughing. “Now, Kyle. Don’t say your heart stood still or anything like that.”
He grinned ruefully. “No sappy romantic lines, huh? Well, I have to say it brought back my youth, for lack of a better word.”
“You still have your youth,” I pointed out. “What are you, thirty-five, thirty-six? That’s not old.”
“Not young, either,” he insisted. “The days when we would stay out late and do wild things are gone. I feel positively middle-aged.”
“You lead an exciting life, it sounds like.” I enumerated on my fingers. “Frenzied stock trading in the pit, flinging money around with abandon. Indiana Jones-style vacations digging for the clues to ancient civilizations.” I indicated the Harley parked behind my bus. “Is that your motorcycle?” He nodded. “And you roar around town on a Harley. That doesn’t add up to middle age, if you ask me.”
He laughed. “Thanks, Liz. You always could make me feel better.”
We sat in silence for a while, sipping our tea. Under the table, Barker panted gently.
“Anyway, it’s you I’m concerned about.” He focused on me once more. “If the police are determined to pin this on you—"
“They can’t.” I spoke with more certainty than I felt. “I wasn’t here when the murder was committed—I was getting my bus fixed in Idaho Springs, with the receipt to prove it.”
Kyle cleared his throat. "The detective seemed to think you might have persuaded me to do the actual murder. Or that you hired someone.”
“You? Kill Tony over me? He suggested that to me, too, and I told him what a dumb idea it was. I mean, if that was going to happen, it would have happened ten years ago.” I laughed without amusement. “And his other idea is dumber. Like I know enough about the Denver underworld, if there is one, to hire a killer.”
His smile seemed abstracted. “Well, thanks for defending me, although, of course, I was at the dig that night—or was that the night I stayed over in Cortez? I think it might have been. It was my turn to get supplies, and I had an infected cut I wanted seen by a doctor.” His eyes clouded. “I keep thinking that I should have been around when Tony needed help. I always figured sometime he’d grow up, want to change. Be the kind of guy I would have been proud to have for a friend. Instead we grew apart, and now it’s too late.”
“It wasn’t your responsibility to monitor Tony’s behavior.” I patted his hand this time, and he turned it over to hold mine. “How would you have done it, anyway? All your interference would have accomplished was driving Tony away from you."
"That’s what I thought ten years ago,” he admitted. “But I did feel guilty about standing by while he was treating you like that—I still do. I wish I could have made things easier for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.” I spoke briskly, withdrawing my hand. “It’s over and done with. The police will find the real killer soon and let me go back to California.”
“Is that what you want?” He was intent again. “You could stay here, be near your family.”
I repressed a shudder. “No, California is home now.” I thought of my house, my garden—Drake. “I have roots there.”
“I see.” He took a deep breath. “Well, let’s hope it blows over soon. Meanwhile, is there anything I can do to help you out? If you need legal representation—”
“I’ll ask you for a recommendation,” I promised. “But it won’t come to that.”
“I may need a lawyer, too, I guess.” He pushed the shiny hair away from his forehead, looking worried. “I mean, I have an alibi, also—being a couple hundred miles away— but that doesn’t seem to mean much to the police.”
“Did Tony ever say anything to you lately about my folks? I can’t figure out why he started hitting up my mom.”
Kyle shook his head. “I didn’t talk to him much the past year or so. He was drifting away from me, and I—just let him go. He scared me, if you want the truth. I really expected to hear that he was dead some way or other— reckless driving, getting into a brawl, something like that.” He looked bewildered. “Not like this. This just doesn’t add up for me."
“Me either.” I opened the side door, and Barker took that as permission to jump out. Kyle smiled at me and touched my cheek with one finger.
“Thanks for talking, Liz. I know we didn’t get anywhere, but it clarified some issues for me.”
“Me, too.” I was a bit at a loss for what to say. The sub-text of male-female conversation is not an open book for me. Kyle had seemed to be asking if I was interested in starting something up. If so, I felt I had given a nonverbal negative. Of course, I could be reading more into it than existed, which is always a fear of mine. “It was nice to see you again.”
“Hey, we’ll meet before you leave.” He grinned, putting on a helmet. “I’ll be in touch.”
I waved as he roared off. It did occur to me to wonder how he’d be in touch, but I figured it was one more example of taking conversational gambits too literally. What he meant, no doubt, was, so long, and thanks for the memories.
It was what I felt, anyway. Kyle was a nice guy. But talking about the past was painful for me in ways he couldn’t possibly appreciate. I just desperately wanted my mother’s health to mend, my dad to recognize that I was his daughter, no matter how wrongheaded, and myself to be tooling west on 1-70. It didn’t seem too much to ask.
Barker was sitting expectantly on the front porch. I called him back to the bus, and went in to finish the laundry.
Molly came in a little later. Dad was still snoring in his chair. The sound of the front door opening brought me from the kitchen. It took me a moment to recognize my sister.
She was in her forties, I knew, but it was hard to tell. Her hair, which had been the same medium brown shade as my own, was now blond-streaked and carefully tousled. A sweater studded with glittery fake jewels came down to mid-thigh, topping stretch pants the same delicate shade of moss green, tucked into expensive-looking leather ankle boots.
When she saw me, she stopped short. “Liz?”
“Hi, Molly.” I stayed in the archway, trying to gauge the hostility index. “Heard you wanted some help taking care of things here.”
She looked from me to Dad, who straightened up the recliner, his eyes bleary with sleep. Her well-plucked eyebrows lowered. “Are you upsetting Mom and Dad?”
I shrugged. “Dad’s more worried about the loss of his gun than he is about me.”
“His—gun?” Her hand, with its fancy silk-wrapped nails, covered her slack mouth. The blusher stood out on her suddenly whitened cheeks.
Dad didn’t notice—he was too busy railing at me. “Dang it, girl. What do you want to blab to everybody for? That gun’s going to turn up. I didn’t give you permission to talk about it.”
I smiled at him. “The family might as well know it’s gone. Maybe one of them borrowed it or something.”
“What are you saying?” Molly whirled on me. “What are you insinuating? Biff would never—”
Dad emitted a harsh cackle. "That Biff. I wondered if he’d got his mitts on it a couple of weeks ago. Saw me putting it away after we tossed out Naylor, but he didn’t say anything.”
“See what you’ve done!” Molly had tears in her eyes, threatening her perfect makeup. She came over and shook me, hard. “You put him up to this. Not back two days before you’re driving a wedge through this family again, just like you did the last time.”
I could see she was hauling off to slap me, so I twisted away. “Hold on, Molly. I don’t know anything about this Biff stuff. Dad told me I had stolen his gun a few hours ago.”
“Probably you did.” Her eyes widened. “You shot him, didn’t you? You finally killed Tony.”
Surprisingly, Dad came to my defense. “I’ve been over that with her.” His voice was brusque. “She couldn’t have done it, and I accept that. You’d better, too.” He gave Molly the stern look I remembered from my childhood. “You’re a good girl, but you go overboard,” he said austerely.