Here’s the opening chapter of the new mystery that I’m going to send out around the end of June. I like to spare bandwidth, so I put the chapter under a cut.
I don’t know why I can’t get text to work with the LJ-cut command. All I ever get is this:
BAD HEIR DAY
An Ariadne French Mystery
I clicked the mouse button to retrieve my e-mail. As slow as this old PC was, the hourglass cursor was misleading; its icon should’ve been a calendar, with pages slowly tearing off to represent the passage of time, like in an old black-and-white movie. Then I realized I’d neglected to turn my phone live for customer calls, and pecked in the code.
Obligingly, the phone rang.
A customer call and not my boss with some cranky Monday-morning request, I was sure, because it was a double ring, indicating an outside line. I prepared my phone voice.
“Aqualife Tech Support, The Fishes’ Lifeline. This is Ariadne. How may I help you?”
A tentative-sounding male voice said, “Um. I’m looking for Araliadden French?”
Pretty good pronunciation–he hadn’t entirely mangled my first name, the way most people did the first time. My name is said “R. E. Oddney,” as if I were an initial-author, like C. S. Lewis or J. K. Rowling.
A personal call coming in during work hours? Gina wouldn’t like that. But I didn’t recognize the voice. It was that of a warm, resonant, and infinitely sensual bass. Baritone? Whichever, it vibrated my love muscles along with my eardrum. I shook off its effects as best I could and assumed a professional tone. “How can I help you? This is Ariadne French.”
“Oh. Sorry, Ariadne.” He got it perfect that time. “I’m looking at some bad handwriting here. You see, it’s handwritten.” He cleared his throat.
“What’s handwritten?” My old paranoia danced in the background: if this was a customer who’d spoken to me in the past and had asked for me again, I could only hope I hadn’t given unclear or misguided advice that had resulted in a tankful of floaters and a houseful of howling, broken-hearted children who’d named every one of the fish and had trained several of them to do tricks and answer to their names. “If you’ve misplaced the manual for your aquarium, we have digital versions downloadable from our Web site. Do you have a specific aquarium problem I can help you solve?”
“Er . . . no.” He sounded mystified as to why he’d have such a thing. Well, he’d called a customer service hotline for Aqualife, and he’d reached a call center, so what did he expect? “Actually, this is about a personal matter.”
My chest chilled ten degrees. Surely not a bill collector? “Oh. How can I help you?”
“I guess I should’ve introduced myself. My name is Gil Rousseau, and I’m Aaron’s closest neighbor on the mountain.”
I felt my heart thudding against my breastbone. “Aaron Beecroft?”
“Yes. Of course. Sorry I’m not making myself clear. The purpose of my call is . . . well, it’s about your friend Aaron. I’m afraid I have sad news.”
That never meant anything good. In fact, it meant only one thing. The bombshell. I heard myself gasp. “No.”
Gil cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you this, but Aaron has passed away.”
I couldn’t find my voice. “Is this a crank call–some kind of juvenile humor–because if you think that’s funny. . . .” Oh, dear God. Please, please, Lord, let it be a prank. Please. “All of our calls are recorded for later review. But I’ll take care of that problem if you’ll only tell me you’re yanking my chain.”
“No, I’m sorry to say.” The rustle of paper formed a contrasting background for his hesitant voice. “I wish I were joking, but it’s true. Aaron was found dead in his cabin night before last by a neighbor who became worried when his lights didn’t go on two nights in a row. The neighbor decided he could’ve fallen, because his cars were still in the driveway, and used the key they’d exchanged to go check.”
“I apologize,” I said stiffly, my voice cracking like the falsetto in a boys’ choir on the edge of maturity. “I didn’t mean to impugn your kindness.” Impugn? Some officious part of my brain that handled matters when reality folded over itself and became impossibility had taken over, and apparently it was a major pedant. Sister Mary Theodosia’s voice had, indeed, followed me into later life. “I just . . . my God, what can I say? I can’t believe it.” My throat tightened up, and my voice didn’t sound like me, to my ears.
“I hope I haven’t reached you at a bad time,” the voice said apologetically. As though there could be a good or an appropriate time to hear that the great love of your life who’d dumped you but whom you had always hoped you could get back together with has now crossed over to the other side, where you don’t know when or if you’ll meet up with him again or not. “But I found your home number on his caller ID, and I realized, you’re probably the same Ariadne French.”
The same Ariadne as what? But he kept talking. “I got your machine, but I didn’t want to leave a message, so I called the number that the machine told me was your emergency-only line.” So that was how he’d ended up calling my direct number here at Aqualife. I’d added that detail to my outgoing message after a chilling series of events the previous year involving my late nephew, events during which no one could find me. “I thought talking to you in person would be better than sending a registered letter.”
“Of course.” I found my voice. It was cowering in the pit of my stomach, but I forced it up and out through my throat. Why would he need to send me a registered letter?
“At any rate. The reason I’m calling is that Aaron named me executor of his will. And you’re his sole beneficiary.”
Aaron had a will? More to the point, Aaron had anything that was worth writing up a will for? He’d lived with very few possessions as long as I’d known him. Except for what he’d charged on my credit cards and put into my name, such as the conversion van and the camping stuff and other odds and ends in preparation for our escape from society. And then two years ago, when I couldn’t leave on Aaron’s schedule–because my nephew was dying–he left without me.
“Additionally, I’ve been unable to contact any next of kin or find anything that could lead me to them, and so I’m counting on you to help make the arrangements.”
Arrangements. Oh, no. I knew all too well what that meant. The very word brought back memories of my nephew’s funeral and the chaos surrounding it. Without thinking, I let my gaze wander to Ricky’s school photo that was stuck to the side of my filing cabinet, with his wide-eyed freckled face staring optimistically out at me from eternity. My late nephew would’ve started third grade in the fall.
When I tried to talk, I found my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth more securely than if I’d just eaten peanut butter. “That might be difficult. With my job and all.” I paused to peel my tongue loose. “Because I cover the phones, I’d need to give a few weeks’ notice to take time off.” That much was true; Gina would not like it if I sprang a vacation on her.
“Oh. I suppose, then . . . these things can be somewhat taken care of from a distance. But that’s not usually the best way.” He paused. “Do you happen to know who would be his next of kin?”
“His parents. But they’re . . . they haven’t been in contact with him for a while. I’m not sure I can help much in finding them. They’re full-time snowbirds–I mean, RV’ers. They live in their motorhome and go from resort camp to resort camp. It’s a really popular lifestyle.” I was babbling.
And I was getting nauseated. I couldn’t let myself get overwhelmed with emotion, especially not at work where the cubicle walls were little more than symbolic.
I took a deep breath. I’m normally fairly reserved, but this was pushing all my buttons. “He’s an only child. His parents are Myra and Doyle Beecroft. You could try Tempe, Arizona, where I think they landed, the last I heard. Doyle used to work for the military as a contractor. And there’s an Aunt Fannie Belle who lives in Ardmore, Oklahoma, but I don’t know what her last name is. That’s about all I know.”
I heard Gil’s pencil scratching. “I’ll give those leads a shot. But if I don’t find them, something needs to be done fairly soon.” He coughed. “It would still be helpful if you could come out in person at least for a day or two and help me clear up things, take what you may want out of the cabin, and so forth.”
His cabin in the woods. OUR cabin. The one he was going to build for me, for US, except I didn’t get the chance to go with him when he left for Big Bend country. I’d often wondered just how he liked true cowboy life after leaving faux cowboy country, here in the land where the Dallas Cowboys were nothing but a football franchise and not a group of Marlboro Men herding dogies and wearing flannel shirts, ten-gallon hats, and Wranglers–the only jeans that a working cowboy or rodeo circuit rider actually wears.
“I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly get away.” I didn’t think I wanted to go into Aaron’s house . . . the house he’d built for me out in the woods . . . when he wasn’t there waiting for me. When he’d never be there again.
Stomach acid bubbled up into the back of my throat, and I gagged. It had been a while since I’d had reflux this intense. But I still kept Maalox in my bottom desk drawer. I gulped a little to quiet things down. “You understand.”
“I understand,” said Gil. “Perhaps you’d prefer that I use some of the estate’s cash to arrange a sale of the furnishings. Of course I’d need your signature to authorize it. Assuming we don’t find family, I could have someone box up his personal effects, such as his wallet, glasses, and so forth. Unless you’re not interested at all in his, ah, private papers and possessions and such?”
My breath caught in my chest; I still had every note Aaron had ever scribbled to me (collected in a white ceramic box he once gave me, its top embossed with a serene unicorn), and had a collection of pressed flowers from various occasions secreted in various books. I’m very sentimental that way. A little obsessive.
He continued. “I could get some bids on packing and sending the more valuable items. Unless you’re saying you’d like to have an estate sale, sell it all, and have me wire you the funds.”
Aaron would have HATED that. He was VERY sentimental about his things and pieces of paper, had saved all my love letters and still had them as far as I knew. Like a girl. He said it was his historian-archivist training. He’d finished up a Master’s in Archive Science before he became fascinated with personal computers and with the potential to make money trading stocks on the Internet and quit his job in Fort Worth at a branch of the National Archives. An auction would be the last thing Aaron would want. Strangers handling and bidding on his personal objects, seeing–and judging him by–the few special things he’d kept. That would be so cold.
I realized that wasn’t at all what I wanted to do.
I wanted to go out there. Touch Aaron’s clothes. Come home with keepsakes. See that cabin standing in the woods. Imagine him there, living his days in the peace and serenity, maybe longing for me but reluctant to contact me, thinking I was still angry at him. Sitting there at his dinner table doing his crossword puzzles in ink, like my sister Zoë. I could sit on the edge of the bed where he’d slept. Breathe in his musky smell from the sheets, one last time.
I’m a glutton for punishment.
Gil paused. “But even if that’s the case, you still might like to keep his personal computer and go through those files on the disk–he was writing a book, as I understand it.”
Aaron writing a book! He’d never read a book since he got out of school that I could remember. Was this the same Aaron Beecroft I knew? I used to find MY Aaron’s wallet and class ring lost under the sofa cushions regularly, and I had to remind him to change his shirt every day. He wasn’t exactly interested in the arts.
And now I was to be his literary executor?
The office was too warm. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and lifted my hair off the back of my neck. Opening my middle desk drawer, I scrabbled for a ponytail holder. Behind me, the sound of clicking stilettos warned me that the boss lady was sneaking up again.
I couldn’t be caught during a personal call of more than the approved three minutes’ duration. “Hold on a moment while I check something, please,” I said, as though talking to a customer. There wasn’t time to bring up the customer service infobase, so I had to pull a fake-out; I clicked to open the first e-mail message on my screen.
It was spam, all about how I could help this exiled African prince get his Jed Clampett-esque sixty million dollars out of Gorotoland if only I would set up a bank account here, deposit forty thousand, and then wire him the funds.
A personal phone call and crap on my screen. That was all Gina needed to see to set her off. But my luck or accumulated positive karma must’ve peeked in on me and taken pity, because Robert Frick, our Big Boss, shouted down the hall, “Gina? What’s this paperwork you’ve left on my chair?”
Her master’s voice. She had no choice. Before she could step into my cubicle, she turned to hurry back. But she threw me a look that said I’d better be doing something work-related as she took off down the hall.
The phone had been quiet too long. “Hello?” Gil said tentatively.
“I’m here.” I let out a long breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Forget what I was saying. Of course I’ll come out there. It’ll take some doing. But Monday is the Labor Day holiday, and I have two weeks’ vacation coming, so. . . .”
The knowledge that one of your life’s great loves has died too young and too suddenly gives you the strength and determination to get there and have a look at where it all happened.
“Oh, good. I’m glad you changed your mind. He was very adamant, when I witnessed this will for him last year, that you be the one to take care of things. Not that he’d expected to pass so soon, of course. He just realized that with the amount of money and goods that he’d amassed, it was his responsibility to see that they didn’t just go to the state.”
How could Aaron have a lot of stuff, only two years after he’d driven away in a second-hand conversion van pulling that near-empty third-wheel trailer that we’d just charged to me? And with no job and no prospects of one. Had this guy said “cars,” plural, in Aaron’s driveway?
I took a deep breath. “I’m looking forward to seeing his home, actually. I might even want to come live in the cabin.” Where had THAT come from? “I mean, keep it as a weekend retreat or whatnot. It’s all so sudden.”
“Yes, I can understand that.”
“Sudden,” I repeated dumbly.
“I’ve taken the liberty of looking up some of the available flights.”
Flights? I hated airplanes. But flying would be the quickest way to get there. And my old Ford Escort would never live to get to Montana.
“One way, of course. You’ll probably want to drive his Explorer home and pull the trailer with whatever goods you want.”
Of course. What was I thinking? I grinned through my tears at the irony. And what Explorer? “Yes, I think you’re right. Also, I might be bringing a second person with me.” My sister Zoë liked nothing better than to go through other people’s things.
“Do you need me to wire you the funds? Or I could just make the reservations for you, and you can pick up the tickets at the counter at DFW, if that’d be more convenient.”
Mind reader. I’d been wondering how I could find a fare that I could afford.
“I have the flight information on my computer screen”–naturally, because the entire world sits in front of a glowing monitor all day long–“for the flights out over the next couple of days. Let me read them off to you.”
# # #
Just as I’d feared, Zoë pitched a major hissy fit.
“You’re going where to do WHAT?” My sister stared at me a moment. She leaped up out of her easy chair, her knitting rolling out of her lap and onto the burnished wood floor. “Let me get the thermometer. You must be running a temperature.”
“I am not crazy.” I pushed her back down into the recliner, setting it rocking. “I’m telling you, today I got a phone call from one of Aaron’s neighbors out in Big Bend country. And this guy says I’ve inherited all his stuff. I’m the only one they can find who can . . . you know, make arrangements.”
“For Aaron,” she repeated dumbly. “Your Aaron?”
“Right. Living at the feet of the Davis Mountains. He made good out there after all, just like he said he would.”
“God, Ariadne. And some guy called and told you Aaron’s dead?”
I blinked back tears. That word still bugged me. I couldn’t put the two words, “Aaron” and that “D” thing, together comfortably.
“What in the hell happened, pardon my French?” I winced at Zoë’s favorite pun, a family joke, but she ignored me. “I mean, Aaron was the health nut of the century. I never saw him eat red meat. He used to ride that bike everywhere and do all that yoga, even after people started razzing him about yoga being girly. He seemed like the perfect specimen.” My libido had agreed. “I’m assuming, since you didn’t say, that it wasn’t some kind of disease, not as far as they know, anyway, and also that it wasn’t a burglary or whatever. Was it his heart, or an accident, or what?”
“I don’t know.” I realized I hadn’t quizzed Gil about that aspect of it. I didn’t really want to know. The reality of this hadn’t sunk in yet; I was still in denial, thinking of Aaron as being perfectly safe, ensconced up there in his retreat, looking out his window at the birds–and typing into his computer log just which ones he saw feeding and which were bathing and which were flittering around, while he was at it. “They said somebody found him, some neighbor lady. Anyway, I didn’t find out exactly what happened.” My hands flew out in exasperation. “I couldn’t think. There I was expecting to answer a question about aquarium PH, and instead the Universe slaps this on me. That Aaron’s left me everything, and I need to come out immediately.”
“Wait a minute.” She held up her hands and windshield-wipered them back and forth to clear the slate. “How do you know this guy is legit? Maybe he’s some kind of psycho Aaron met once on the road, or in one of those crazy pubs he likes to go to, and they got bombed together, and while Aaron was schwacked he told this guy all about you and even gave him your phone numbers. For all you know, the guy is a perv, waiting out there to take you into the boonies and . . . God knows what.” She shook her head firmly. “No, Airhead. You are definitely not using that ticket, if he actually sends one. That’s a typical scheme used by Internet predators, for corn sakes. They get women to remote love nests, and the women are found months later in pieces in somebody’s chest freezer.” Her eyes bulged out of her round face. “Scheisse. I can’t believe you’re so naive.”
“You can come with me,” I said in an innocent voice. “He said he could book a second seat on the flight. All I have to do is call.”
She tried to wither me with her glare, but I’m fairly resistant to that after thirty-odd years as her younger sister. But leave it to Zoë to think of all these horrid, bizarre things. I was ready to answer all her charges. “You know I do not travel.”
Not any more, anyway. She’d become kind of a recluse since my nephew–her second-grader son, Ricky–was taken by a childhood disease almost two years ago.
My cat, Mischief, wandered in, apparently having abandoned his customary perch atop our grandmother’s mahogany china cabinet. He’d jumped up there as soon as I had let him out of the carrier. I reached for him, but he evaded me. Instead, he began twining around Zoë’s calves, which seemed to calm her somewhat.
Sounding as if I knew what I was getting into might help. “Okay, listen, I already thought of all those possibilities. I called out there and checked around on the guy, tried to find out if what he’d told me about himself was legit. And guess what?”
She lifted one eyebrow a notch.
“He’s a preacher.” I grinned as her chin hit her chest. “Yep, you heard right. He’s the associate pastor at the Church of Christ in town–at the bottom of the hill where the nearest town is, I mean. I called the church and confirmed he is who he said he is, and that he lives up there on the scenic side of the mountain. And guess what else?” I paused, mostly to torture her. “Aaron’s a member of the church. He’s been going for over two years.” As she was trying to close her mouth, I told her more. “And also, apparently, quite the charity worker and community servant. He did a Houses for Humans build last summer, and the minister said he was marvelous. Aaron built his own log cabin from a kit.”
She just sat there goggling at me. “This is the same Aaron Beecroft who couldn’t change a light bulb without getting a splinter? Who thought Sunday mornings were made for playing online computer games?”
I just grinned. “People change.”
“Not that much. Not in just two years.” She shook her head. “Are you sure this guy wasn’t putting you on?” Levering herself up out of the chair, she headed for her cozy kitchen. “I need a drink.”
Neither of us drank alcohol any more, but I could understand; my mouth was pretty dry. “The idea that Aaron was going to church really gigged me, too. I suppose he got religion after, well, you know, what happened to us.”
She put distance between us, because as usual she did not talk about her son, and his name was never to be mentioned in her presence. This time, though, she had nothing to worry about. That wasn’t where I was going with this. I hurried to catch up. “Anyway, so the preacher is going to pick me up at the airport. Then I can drive back pulling the trailer.”
“He still have that trailer you’ve been paying for?” I’d had to keep up the payments, because otherwise it’d have put my credit even further into the slagheap.
“I guess. Do you realize this guy claims that Aaron’s got money? A lot of it, apparently.”
“Will wonders never cease.” Zoë held a glass under the ice maker as it ground cubes to a pulp. “I wonder what kind of scam he had going. I’m sure it was a racket.” She handed me the glass of crushed ice.
I found a Diet Splurge in her fridge, cracked the top, and poured it over the ice. The bubbles were my favorite part.
“Have you eaten today?” She frowned as the cat appeared.
My stomach growled in response.
“Got any chips?” I scavenged in her pantry and found low-salt Frisbees. I dumped some in her cobalt blue serving bowl and dug the homemade salsa out of the fridge.
Zoë kept shaking her head. “I can’t believe it. How did Aaron get all that money? And, furthermore, why didn’t he think about paying you back for what he took that’d been charged on your credit cards that you’ve been struggling to pay, if he had so much? Where did this come from? Did he work? What?”
“He bought the cabin as a kit and built it himself, from what I understand. At least that’s what Gil said.”
“The preacher. The man who called me.”
“Already you’re on a first-name basis?” Momentarily her eyes closed in exaggerated disbelief. “And where in the HELL did Aaron get that kinda money? Out there, he only had half as much as you two would’ve had together, and I didn’t think he could do it on double that. He had no marketable skills of the woodsman-redneck stripe, like whittling or selling blood. Maybe he turned to selling his body.” She filled her glass with Sun Tea from a huge amber container on the countertop, ignoring the cat dancing around her feet. “I always figured he’d be in one of those trailer parks or in a shelter, until he consented to go back to working for The Man.” She nodded knowingly. “I bet that’s what you’re going to find, when you get there. A double-wide in a trailer park with artificial logs stuck on like siding.”
“What did Gina say about your taking all that time off?”
“She didn’t like it. But she can’t do anything. I spent the afternoon finishing a stack of slides for her big meeting, all in color and mounted in those little frames so all she has to do is flip them onto the projector, and I arranged for a temp to cover my phones for the rest of the week. The customer service help screens are pretty self-explanatory, and she can send the tough questions up to a supervisor, namely Gina.” I spread my arms. “It’s only for a week.”
Zoë’s eyelids crept to half-mast. “I still say it’s too dangerous to go. Call this dude right now and say, ‘I hate to ask you this. But please just have everything packed up and sent to me, where I can sort it out at my convenience. And wire me the funds to rent a large storage building right away. Just let me know what your fee will be. Sorry for the inconvenience, and, God, I really appreciate it.'”
“I am not about to address that man as ‘God,'” I said, just to confuse her. “Even if he is a man of the cloth.”
“Don’t try to irritate me, Ari, because it’s working.” She popped a loaded Frisbee into her mouth. “You know it’s crazy to go out there alone, when Aaron has had who-knows-what happen to him. But you’re a grown-up, so I guess you can make your own decisions about your personal safety.”
My sister is terribly overprotective of me. But then it’s understandable, after what happened to Ricky. I crunched down on a chip. It didn’t have any flavor without the salsa.
“Don’t count on me going with you, by the way.” She plopped back into her chair and made room on the coffee table for my snacks by moving her stack of mystery novels, half-completed crossword puzzle books, and general what-have-you to the floor next to her recliner. “Zeke and I already scheduled next weekend for going to Aunt Azalea’s Homelike Bed and Breakfast in Rusk. We’re riding the Texas State Railroad”–a historic restored steam engine and tourist attraction–“from there to Palestine to see the autumn colors. He’s already got the tickets. You have to order them way in advance. We were thinking of asking you along.” She tossed me a glance. “But he really seemed to want it to be just the two of us, so.”
I suspected I knew why. Zoë saw Zeke as just a very good friend who happened to be male. But Zeke had other ideas. I imagined he was going to try to take the relationship to the next level. I wished him luck, but I wasn’t sure she was ready for that. He’d find out, I supposed.
“Well, I couldn’t have gone anywhere with y’all because I can’t afford it, but Aaron is paying my way out there.” My cat followed me to Zoë’s chair, tail vertical, and sat expectantly at her feet.
“You’d better get out some sweaters. Up in the mountains like that, it’s going to be a sight cooler than it is here in Dallas.”
It was still Indian summer and rather warm in north Texas. We usually spend October and November in the upper seventies. Yet I didn’t think I’d need sweaters over Labor Day weekend. Would I?
“Can I borrow your down vest?” The quilted padding made me look like the Michelin Woman. But it was loads warmer than my own old tatty peacoat. I didn’t need a heavy coat most winters in North Texas.
She shot me one of her patented put-upon looks. “Honestly, Ari.” But I knew she would lend it to me.
“And will you take care of Mischief while I’m away?” He sidestepped me again as I reached out for him. Pretending he didn’t care, like any offended male. He knew I was leaving.
She glared. “C’mon up. Kitty-kitty-kitty,” she crooned. Obligingly, my cat hopped up into her lap, turned around a couple of times, and settled down to be loved, purring loudly.
“Traitor,” I said to him.
I handed her the cylinder of food for Rudy, my red Betta. “Don’t forget to feed the fish. You only sprinkle in a tiny bit, and once a day, at most.” Along with the cat, I’d brought Rudy in his brandy snifter, trusting that she’d cave in.
She glared at the snifter, now sitting on her polished upright Steinway–also from our grandmother. “I hope you put a coaster under that thing.”
My dependents were taken care of. There was no reason I shouldn’t go, then.
Zoë grunted and flicked the big-screen TV into noisy life. “When does your flight leave?”
“You’d better get packed.”
It’s a cozy, but Ari gets some action in this one. *grin*
Any suggestions are welcome!