Authors: Lora Roberts
“I might be back in California by then.” I hoped so, desperately. “No, I don’t want to go, Kyle.” I thought of Molly’s coziness with my ex-husband. “But I’ll pass it along if I see anyone who’s interested.”
“Like Maud.” He frowned. “I left a message for her. Her answering machine says she’s not available until Monday. I know she’d want to be there.”
I shivered, thinking about Maud’s missing face, but I didn’t say anything to Kyle. Those fleas—those police officers—probably had their own ideas about letting people know of Maud’s demise.
“I’m freezing,” I said instead. “And my sister-in-law is waiting up for me.” The truth of that was obvious to anyone who glanced at the kitchen window.
Kyle fumbled for a card. “Listen, in case you don’t have my number.” He pressed the card into my hand. “You need a friend, Liz. I’m worried about you.”
"Thanks.” I was touched by that and by the expression in his eyes behind the horn-rims. But his niceness was like a barrier between us. I saw the echo of Eva’s disapproval in him, whether he judged me for it or not. His knowledge of how I’d let myself be abused in the past made it impossible for me to get close to him. I had learned the hard way to respect myself; how could anyone else who’d been there then respect me?
“Well,” Kyle said with reluctance. “I’ll be off then. Call me if you need me, okay? Promise?”
“Okay.” I watched him drive away, with a mixture of regret and relief warring within me. It’s convenient to have good reasons to avoid involvement with men. It prevents you from having to work at a relationship, risk the emotional, sometimes physical, damage that men and women cause each other.
Renee was waiting to pounce in the hall. “Who was that?” Subtlety wasn’t her strong point.
“An old friend—Kyle Baldridge. He stopped by to tell me about Tony’s funeral.”
Renee wrinkled her nose. “Why would you care about that? The man was a creep."
I felt marginally warmed by this. Everyone else in my family seemed to be on Tony’s side.
“You and I know that, but that’s not how he seemed to others.”
Renee moved into the kitchen for her omnipresent cup of coffee. I don’t know how she slept. She pointed to a cup on the counter. “I made you some herb tea—that’s what Amy said you like.”
The offer was grudging, but I accepted it anyway. The peppermint smell was clean and sharp, and seemed to cut through the muddle in my head.
“Thanks.” I took a sip and followed her lead, sitting at the high counter between the kitchen and dining room. The house was quiet, the lights low. “Where is everyone?”
“Andy’s at the union meeting, and Amy’s got homework.” The familiar hostile expression took up residence on Renee’s face again. “She’s having a very hard time settling, with you getting her all stirred up.”
“I’m sorry.” I had another calming sip of the tea. “I know it’s a drag—for both of us. It’ll be cleared up soon, and I’ll be out of here.”
Renee appeared to accept that. We were both silent for a moment.
“Will you tell Molly? About the funeral?” She spoke abruptly, her voice harsher than usual.
“Will she want to know?” I put my cup down.
“She might.” Renee gave her usual contemptuous snort, this time, however, not directed at me. “She let him get around her—hiring those wetbacks of his!” I had no trouble deciphering the envy in her voice. If Renee had been able to afford an illegal immigrant to do her scut-work, she would no doubt have had one. But since she couldn’t afford it, she was taking the high ground here. “I told her no good would come of it. I reminded her about why you’d tried to kill that bastard, but she has such a good opinion of herself. Too busy to do her own housework!” Once more, the snort. “What’s she want to be going to college for at her age? And this school board stuff. Everyone knows she just wants to get elected so Biff can graduate, finally.”
“He’s not going to graduate?”
She shrugged. “Well, he’s always in trouble. My friend who works in the school office said there was a rumor he had a gun at school, but nothing was proven. If he brings it again, they’ll suspend him."
There was a rush and a scrabbling from the hallway, and Barker bounded into the kitchen, followed closely by Amy. “Aunt Liz! You’re back. What did they want, anyway?”
Renee looked expectant, too, although she took time to admonish Amy for the chocolate she was eating. “Do you want to break out in pimples?”
“I’ll wash my face.” Amy offered the last bite of the candy to the room at large, and finished it herself when there were no takers. “So, were they grilling you?”
“Not exactly. They think they found the van I saw the night Tony was killed. Wanted me to try and identify it.”
I shrugged. “I only got a glimpse of it.”
“Well, what took so long?”
“Paperwork. Bureaucracy is slow.”
Renee looked skeptical, but didn’t press the issue. “Did you get any dinner?” She was certainly fixated on feeding people, even those she didn’t particularly care for.
“We had enchiladas,” Amy chimed in. “They were great—Mom makes wonderful enchiladas.”
Renee, pleased, offered to heat one up for me, but I couldn’t face it. “No, thanks. I’ll just wash up and get out to my bus for the night.”
Amy looked disappointed. “I wanted to show you something on my computer, Aunt Liz. It’ll just take a few minutes.”
“You need to get to bed,” Renee said, putting her cup and mine into the dishwasher.
“I will, right after I show Aunt Liz.”
I followed her down the hall, Barker prancing at my heels, and wondered if Renee’s mellower mood would last.
“It’s e-mail from Mr. Drake,” Amy whispered when we got in her room. “I printed it for you.” She handed me a sheet of paper and watched eagerly while I read it.
Drake had written,
Received more inquiries from local PD. Can’t you stay out of trouble? Want me to come out and give you a hand? Please cooperate to fullest extent with local force or you’ll put yourself at risk. What’s this about Naylor visiting last Halloween? I didn’t notice any extra vampires around. Seedlings look good. See that you’re back soon to plant them. Love, Drake.
“See,” Amy said, pointing. “He signed it, ‘Love.’”
“Everyone does that.” I felt an unfamiliar ache behind my eyes. Ordinarily, I’m not much of a crier.
“Aren’t you going to answer?”
“Maybe later.” I glanced over at her computer. “How do you send e-mail, anyway?”
She gave me a brief rundown of the procedure for going on-line, and showed me what Drake’s message looked like on the screen. Then Renee stuck her head in the doorway, and I escaped to the bathroom for a quick washup, and then to my traveling bedroom with Barker. At first my gulping sobs disturbed him, but finally he settled down. Even after I let the backlog of tears out, I couldn’t sleep. The night was too full of questions, and when I closed my eyes, my brain was too full of horrible pictures.
I dreamed of stroking through the warm, embracing waters of Rinconada Pool. Weightless, I moved; effortless, I floated. In the dazzle of sun on water I saw a figure, waiting at the end of the lane. At first I thought it was Drake. Then, as I neared the end, it looked more like Andy or my father. I watched the aqua tiles that edged the pool come steadily closer, and I felt more and more agitated. Before I touched the tiles, I looked up, but the sun behind the figure’s head made it impossible for me to see the features clearly. I knew, though, that it was Tony, my dead ex-husband. And I felt menaced—by him, by the water, by the very sunlight that glinted painfully into my sleeping brain.
I woke feeling heavy with dread, the sun shining into my eyes through a chink in my curtains, and Barker’s insistent nose nudging my arm.
“Yeah, yeah.” Groggily, I put on my shoes and took him out for his morning run. The sunshine should have been a welcome change from the gloom of the past few mornings, but it couldn’t lighten my spirits. I felt disaster in the offing, and wondered if I’d be back in jail by nightfall.
Amy was waiting by the bus when I got back. “Don’t you want to send an e-mail to Drake?” She, at least, was unoppressed by the formless worries that beset me. “And then would you give me a ride to school?” She gamboled ahead of me down the sidewalk, Barker leaping around her. “Daddy’s already gone to work, and Mom says I can catch a bus.”
“Can’t you?” I paused in the door, hit by the wonderful smell of bacon. I rarely indulge in it, but that doesn’t make its perfume any easier to pass up. “If that’s what your mom wants, you should do it.”
Renee, standing in the kitchen doorway, gave me a look of grudging approval. “I’ve got some more eggs and bacon, if you want them,” she told me. “Get your stuff ready, Amy. If you have that room picked up by the time your aunt is through eating, and she wants the trouble, she can take you to school.”
I felt honored by this great favor. The breakfast was outstanding; despite her sour moods, Renee was a great cook. I complimented her sincerely, and she unbent a little farther.
“I talked to Molly this morning.” She shook her head as she refilled her coffee cup. I politely declined more hot water on my grocery-store tea bag—those aren’t strong enough to take a second dunking and still provide any flavor, let alone the caffeine I need in the morning. It ill befits my poverty-stricken lifestyle to crave good tea, but there it is.
“Is she upset? She was pretty stirred up yesterday.”
“She said to tell you that Conchita is going back to Mom and Dad’s today, and that your Mom is better and won’t need your help.”
I smiled a little. “I’ll stop in, nevertheless. That’s why I’m here, after all.”
Renee looked at me curiously. "That’s really why you came—because your mom was sick?”
“Is there a better reason?” I savored the last bit of scrambled egg, fluffy but not dry, with little cubes of garlic jack cheese melting into it. How Andy kept out of the coronary care unit was a mystery to me. “It sounded like Mom was on her last legs, and I thought it was time we made up our differences.”
“Well, I’m surprised.” Renee added cream to her cup with a liberal hand, and left a lipstick smudge on the rim after she sipped. “Nobody in your family ever really gets over their grudges. Dan and Andy still barely speak after some investment they made went sour.” She looked at her coffee for a moment, then looked at me, her expression rueful. “As for Molly and me, I guess it’s partly my fault, but she really rubs me the wrong way. Always acting so above us—as if she was one bit better! Her with that fancy house, shopping at Lord and Taylor’s instead of K mart—well, it sticks in my craw, let me tell you.”
“I can imagine.” And I could. My sister had always had a restless need for approval from her peers, to run with the popular crowd. “So she hung around with Tony, even though I was in jail?”
“No, not then.” Renee didn’t seem to find this question strange. “Three or four years ago she met him somewhere and told me he was really charming, not the monster you said he was. They met once in a while when she needed new household help. He got her those maids, you know.”
"That’s what she said.” I still wondered why Tony had ended up importing illegal laborers, and whether this had been his sideline or his major income. I wanted to tell Eva about it, but that might lead her right to my sister, which wouldn’t do much for my future relationship with my family.
“I told Andy about them.” It took me a while to realize Renee was still dwelling on Molly’s live-in help. “He said I didn’t need help, since I didn’t have a job or do anything. And we can’t really afford it. Besides, he said, they’re illegal, and after all that publicity about it, I had to admit he had a point.” She glanced at me sideways. “I certainly don’t want to get in trouble with the police.”
“How does Molly avoid trouble? She’s running for school board and all.”
Renee shrugged. “I don’t know, but Bill makes a lot of money, and she knows people on the city council.”
I couldn’t picture Molly paying anyone off so she could have a live-in maid. Illegal immigration is a given throughout California and the Southwest. It had been no secret when I was growing up that officials would turn a blind eye to undocumented workers for a consideration.
Amy came in. “I have to leave in ten minutes,” she announced. “Didn’t you want to do something on the computer, Aunt Liz?”
I rinsed my plate and put it in the dishwasher, along with my juice glass and cup. Renee looked almost approving, until her eye happened to fall on Barker, who was licking up a fallen morsel of egg. I smiled. “He’s good at cleaning the floor, huh?”
Amy hustled me away before I could put my foot any farther into my mouth, and Barker followed us, innocent of guilt. The computer screen in Amy’s room was crowded with a multitude of symbols. My elderly computer does only one thing, or at least I know how to do one thing on it, which is to print what I write on the loud daisy wheel printer that Bridget had donated when she and Emery got a laser printer.
Flicking the mouse around expertly, Amy sat back. “Now we’re going on-line,” she announced. "Then you can send Drake an answer. Do you know what you’re going to say?”
I didn’t. But when Amy finally yielded the chair to me, and I looked at the little message screen I was supposed to fill, I found some words.
Drake, thanks for your concern. Things will be fine, and at least I don’t have to worry about Tony anymore. He wasn’t very scary last Halloween. Don’t bother coming out here; I’ll be heading home soon. Make sure you don’t let the seedlings dry out, or I won’t give you any tomatoes next summer. Liz.
“How do I send it?”
“I’ll show you.” Amy pushed me aside, then coolly read my message before clicking on a couple of boxes on the screen which I believe the computer set call buttons, for some reason. “It’s not very romantic.”
"There’s a reason for that.” I watched her while she dispatched my e-mail and opened a different file, or folder, or whatever they’re called. This one asked for the names of various stocks. She typed a series of incomprehensible letters and studied the graphs displayed on the screen.