Read Murder Mile High Online

Authors: Lora Roberts

Tags: #Mystery

Murder Mile High (2 page)

Two quarts of 10-30 were jammed into the space beneath the front passenger seat. I poured them in and drove on, barely pushing fifty although it was mostly downhill, watching the oil pressure light flicker on and off. By the time I got to Idaho Springs, it was full on. I knew I wouldn’t make Denver before the engine seized up.

I got off the Interstate. The first filling stations I passed didn’t have service bays. I was looking for a phone booth, so I could check the listings for a place that knew its way around old VWs. Then I spotted a garage on the corner. One of the service bays was open, with the familiar shape of a Beetle on the lift. I pulled in.

“We’re just closing,” the attendant said, greeting me with a small, fast-moving smile. His pocket called him “Hank.” A second man was bringing down the lift with the Beetle. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m losing oil.”

He cast a professional glance over the bus. “Guess we could take a look. Might be a big problem—blown head gasket, bad cylinder. Have to wait until tomorrow to fix something like that.”

I didn’t want to spend money on a motel. “But you could fix a little problem tonight?”

“Maybe.”

He showed me where to park the bus, beside a small office next to the garage bays. There were vending machines in the office, but no chairs.

I handed Hank my car key. “Where can I wait?”

“Coffee shop across the road.” He jerked his head to indicate the direction. I took out my knapsack, put Barker on the leash, and left them to it.

Barker sniffed his way up and down the road before we dashed over to Edna’s Coffee Shop. I tied him up at a handy post outside the door. The booth I chose was next to a big window from which I could see both Barker, lying on a patch of grass, and my bus being hoisted slowly up the lift across the way.

I accepted a little metal pot full of lukewarm water and a generic tea bag from the waitress, a young Hispanic woman who also waited on the other four tables of customers. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich and made some notes in my journal.

And I watched my ex-husband drive past in a white panel van.

It wasn’t really him, of course. I’d been seeing him everywhere on the road—in pickups, sports cars, sober family sedans. For almost a year, since the dramatic events that left one of my best friends dead and ended in making me a woman of property, I’d put him to rest in my mind. My marriage had been a terrible mistake, and I’d paid in many ways, not the least of which was spending a few years in a correctional facility for trying to keep him from beating me to death. He hadn’t been killed by the bullet I’d put into him, which was actually a relief. I don’t want to kill anyone, even people who deserve it.

I had welcomed the sentence that accompanied my attempted manslaughter conviction; at least my incarceration had kept him away from me. After parole, I’d gone to ground for years, afraid of being found by him, afraid of reentering the world.

During the past twelve months I hadn’t been afraid anymore. And I wasn’t afraid now—at least that’s what I told myself while I tried to eat dry chicken and even drier wheat bread. But at some level I must not have believed it. Otherwise I wouldn’t keep seeing him, as if he were dogging me, waiting for me to get back into Denver, to invade his territory. That’s how I thought of Denver now, as his territory, even though I’d grown up there and my family still lived there.

Over and over I recited my new mantra: Tony had no way of knowing I was on my way; he probably had no interest in my movements since the night I’d faced him and his threats and realized the futility of running. There was no reason for my fear. I held that thought until the panel van was lost to view.

Across the street, Hank and his pal were bringing Babe down off the rack. I paid my tab and took Barker to find out the verdict.

“It was the oil pressure regulator,” Hank told me, wiping his hands with a rag. “Lucky I had one. We keep a few in stock. The altitude seems to blow those suckers a lot. Should work okay for you now.”

I was astounded. It was just past five. I could make it to Denver that evening, and it hadn’t even cost much. My foreboding lessened, I headed back to the Interstate.

The VW bus coasted effortlessly down from the mountains, into the rounded foothills that reminded me of northern California. I seemed poised above the rolling landscape. Patches of green and gold cloaked the hills where aspens were turning. More than anything, the aspens brought my childhood back. We had made a pilgrimage every fall to see the “quakies”; my mother had insisted, over my father’s grumbles about wasted time. I wondered if she’d gone for the past fifteen autumns, if she’d be too ill this time.

As I got closer to Denver the traffic thickened. At one point I thought I saw the same panel van pass me. Once more I glimpsed the dark, springy hair and arrogant nose that had reminded me of my ex-husband. The van sped away, and I slowed a bit, content to let it get ahead and carry my ridiculous fears with it.

The closer I got to the city, the more changed everything was. Where I remembered dusty plains and rolling hills, now there were acres of tract houses, their lights twinkling in the dusk, their shopping malls and discount strips blaring from the roadsides. Denver itself appeared as a vast hazy luminosity, blotting out the emerging stars, paling the deep blue of the twilight. Already the crisp mountain air was replaced with the acrid cloud of civilization.

I drove on into it, into my past, my hands in a damp death-grip on the steering wheel.

* * * *

The street my parents lived on looked narrower than I remembered. I was used to the lush shrubbery and carefully tended gardens of Palo Alto; the bare lawns and shabby house fronts seemed to signal a corresponding bareness of spirit.

My parents’ house was no longer white with dark red shutters. The asbestos siding had been painted brown, with black shutters. There was a six- or seven-year-old Chevy in the driveway. The living room curtains were closed, as were those in the front bedroom—the room that had been mine. Paint was peeling off the iron railings that imprisoned the small porch.

I drove on. I had decided to stop at my brother Andy’s house first. He and Renee could be said to owe me hospitality, since I’d put Amy up for the summer—and Renee herself had been an uninvited guest.

Andy’s house was half a mile from my parents’ place. Mom and Dad had moved across town when I was a junior in high school, to be closer to Andy after his hasty marriage. Andy and Renee still lived in the same house, but Andy had tinkered with it over the years. In place of the little tract house I remembered was a big one, with an addition on one side and a big garage growing out of the other side. It crowded the lot. The small trees I’d helped plant years ago were tall and shady, overhanging the little front yard.

Barker jumped down from the front passenger seat and burst out of the door as soon as I opened it. He was wildly curious, sniffing around the yard and whining. He ran up the sidewalk and gave one sharp, peremptory bark at the door.

Amy popped out a moment later. “Barker,” she cried. He leaped up at her—which was strictly forbidden—and she knelt on the mat to receive his embraces, glancing guiltily at me.

“I forgot to tell him ‘down,’” she said. “Hi, Aunt Liz. I’ve been waiting and waiting for you.”

“Barker’s been longing to see you, too.” I stopped at the foot of the steps up to the front porch, to give them time for their greeting. “Actually, so have I.”

“Well.” Renee spoke from the open door, scowling at Barker and giving me a half-hearted smile. “So you did come. Amy was sure you would.”

“She said Mom wants to see me.”

“She seems to.” Renee spoke reluctantly. “I don’t know why. It’s not like she’s at death’s door or anything. She just has a bad case of the flu.”

“Maybe she doesn’t want to wait until she’s dying.” I decided to leave my valise on the backseat of my bus. I might prefer my own hospitality to Renee’s that night.

“You might as well come in.” Renee stood aside. “Amy! Stop wrestling with that dog and get in and finish your dinner.”

“Am I interrupting you?” I had an impulse to turn around and leave, wondering why I was there and how bad this was going to be.

“Not at all.” Barker, never doubting his welcome for a moment, had followed Amy inside, and Renee seemed to remember a “Miss Manners” column she’d once read.

“Maybe you’d like to join us. Just roast beef, mashed potatoes, a salad.” She glanced at me when I walked past her into the hall. “Or maybe you don’t eat meat. I seem to remember a lot of vegetables—”

“I’m only an economic vegetarian.” The dinner smelled wonderful. I was, I realized, very hungry after not eating my chicken sandwich. “If I’m not putting you out—”

“No, no.” Renee led the way through the kitchen. It glistened with sleek formica cabinets, tiled counters, black glass-fronted appliances. We turned right at the breakfast bar and went into the dining room.

A small chandelier dangled from the low ceiling. The table, chairs, and buffet were a matched set, heavily carved in mock-Spanish style. A tablecloth, candles, nice dishes made a gracious picture, marred by my brother Andy, who occupied what was no doubt the head of the table, since he was there. He had a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, a full plate in front of him. He looked at me suspiciously, as if I might be impersonating myself.

The silence felt awkward. Uneasily, I broke it. “Hey, Andy.”

“Liz.” His gaze softened. “You look pretty much the same.” He would be seeing a short, ordinary-looking woman in her mid-thirties, with badly cut dark hair, wearing jeans, a sweatshirt, and a tentative smile. “Just a little—”

“Older?” I noticed the gray in his hair, the way the lower part of his face had acquired jowls.

“Weathered, I was going to say.” He put down his fork and pulled out the chair next to him. “Where’d Amy get to?”

“She’s in the backyard with the dog.” Renee shot me an accusing look. “I didn’t think you’d bring that fool animal. You’re not dumping him here, Liz. I’m not having any dogs getting hair all over my rugs.”

“Barker’s just visiting, like me.” I put the linen napkin in my lap—one of my grandmother’s, by the monogram. Renee appeared to live with a lot of style. “He’ll sleep in the bus at night. He’s housebroken.”

Andy passed me the platter of meat, and Renee offered me mashed potatoes. The aromas were distracting.

“So Amy told you Mom’s asking about you.” Andy’s face tightened again. “We bust our butts trying to help out, take care of her, give her whatever she needs. And our thanks is that she wants you, the one who never gave her anything but trouble.”

I held my fork suspended on its way to my mouth. “Andy, I don’t intend to impose. I’ll see her, I’ll set her mind at rest if I can, and then I’ll leave.”

“You’ll have to stay here,” Renee said mournfully. “Dad won’t let you into the house. He’s very bitter against you.”

I put down my fork. “Look, we all have reason for bad feelings, don’t you think? I’ve paid for my mistake, and I paid alone. I never got an instant’s support or encouragement from any of you the whole time Tony was regularly beating me to a pulp. I might have been able to leave him, if I’d just had someplace to go—”

Aghast, I shut up. After just a few minutes around Andy and Renee, I was whining. I had made my bed. So my mother had said when I first admitted that Tony wasn’t the man I’d thought. Marriage was a sacrament, and I had brought it on myself.

Those true words, that certainty, kept me from ever again approaching her. I had been wrong to marry Tony; I was wrong to try to kill him. I had, evidently, been wrong to expect my family to be on my side.

Being wrong was not on my agenda anymore. For the past five years, I had managed to dodge any emotional entanglements. Lately it had been getting harder and harder.

As if my train of thought had conjured it, the telephone rang and Renee said, “Oh, that’ll probably be your ‘friend’ in Palo Alto.” Her emphasis put a salacious spin on friendship. “He called earlier to see if you got here okay.”

“I’ll get it,” Amy called in the distance. We sat around the table, all chewing suspended.

“For Aunt Liz,” she said when she finally appeared in the doorway. Barker walked beside her, tongue lolling in a pleased doggy smile. “It’s Paul Drake.”

Self-consciously I went past her down the hall.

“I’ve got an extension in my room you can use,” Amy said, pointing past an open door to a wild tangle of frothy pillows, shaggy stuffed animals, and more sophisticated decor like Roman shades and a poster for Hole showing Courtney Love screaming.

Amy gave me the phone and vanished, taking Barker with her.

“So you finally got there.” Drake didn’t sound so far away. I could picture him, standing in his kitchen chopping up something exotic for dinner, the phone cradled on his shoulder.

“The bus is a flatlander. It doesn’t like mountains.” I sat amid the pillows on Amy’s bed. “I blew the oil pressure regulator today.”

“And did you just pull over and fix it?” He laughed. “It’s good to hear your voice, Liz. I was getting kind of worried.”

“Why?” The sound of his laugh did strange things to me, and I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to lie in any more beds of my own making.

“Well, that ex-husband you were so afraid of—doesn’t he live in Denver?”

“It’s a big city. He’ll never know I’m here.”

“You sound funny. Are you alone?”

“Probably.” There was a phone in the kitchen, and Renee was the world’s biggest snoop.

“Oh.” Drake was a detective, after all. “Well, listen, if you run into trouble, I know someone on the Denver force. Just try to keep your nose clean this time, okay?”

“I don’t run into trouble. It runs into me.” I knew I sounded curt, but it was either that or start pouring my insecurities all over him. “Look, Drake, I’ve got to go.”

“Call me if you need to,” he said after a pause. “Call collect.”

“Yeah, sure. I’ll be fine. Bye.”

I hung up and wiped my palm on the side of my jeans. I didn’t want to be lumping Drake in with Tony or Andy or any of the men who’d let me down. But something about being back in Denver made it seem unavoidable.

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