Okay, I’ve decided that opening with someone sitting at her desk is too commonplace and mundane. But I’m not sure that opening at Ari’s sister’s house works right, because that’s a ramp-up of tension (of sorts), so perhaps it would be best if I opened with something quintessentially Texan or Southwestern. After all, this is for a new line of Southwestern-set mysteries (if things work out, she said cryptically.)
So . . . I thought of a list of stuff that wouldn’t work.
* Riding around on a horse–costs too much, and Ari’s broke
* Sitting eating a steak at Antares, that rotating restaurant atop the Hyatt downtown–ditto
* Roping calves at a rodeo–come ON, this has to make sense and fit
* Surveying the land in a hot-air balloon–couldn’t quite fit that in, either
* at Poor David’s Pub listening to Dallas’ latest discovery in music–this I liked best, but it’s too noisy at the pub and how could she hear the guy–and wouldn’t it be a pain for her to have to keep saying, “What?” or hide in the ladies’ room (flushing noises behind her) to talk? Maybe that would work, though.
So I decided to open away from the desk, but at a sort of Southwestern location. See what you think.
If you haven’t read the original, skip it and look at this instead, for I have made some cuts and changes. Under the cut.
And I still can’t get the text part of the lj cut command to display my text. It is stubborn.
: : :
I was surveying downtown Dallas from my perch at a window table on the top floor of the famous Iron Cactus eatery when my cell phone warbled to tell me what had happened to Aaron.
I had forwarded my desk phone because I’d left work a little early to beat the crowds and take advantage of the dinner gift certificate I’d won for being voted Most Helpful last quarter in customer surveys, so I answered as if I were still sitting at the Help Desk. “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.
I didn’t recognize the voice. It was a warm, resonant, and infinitely sensual bass that threatened to vibrate my love muscles along with my eardrum. I shook off its effects as best I could and assumed a professional tone. “This is Ariadne French. How can I help you?”
“Oh. Sorry, Ariadne.” He nailed the pronunciation. “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. “Actually, this is about a personal matter.”
My chest tightened. Surely he wasn’t another bill collector.
“I guess I should’ve introduced myself. My name is Gil Rousseau, and I’m Aaron’s closest neighbor.”
I felt my heart thud against my breastbone. “Aaron Beecroft?”
“Yes. Of course. Sorry; I’m not making myself clear. The purpose of my call is . . . well, I’m afraid I have sad news.”
That never meant anything good. In fact, it meant only one thing. The bombshell.
My blood chilled ten degrees. I heard myself gasp as my throat tightened up. “No.”
Gil cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you, 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.
“I’m sorry.” 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 his closest 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 car was still in the driveway, and used the key they’d exchanged to go check.”
“I apologize,” I said stiffly. “I didn’t mean to impugn your intentions.” 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 followed me into later life, just as she’d predicted. “It’s just that . . . my God, what can I say? I can’t believe it.”
“I hope I haven’t reached you at a bad time,” he 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 this number on his caller ID, and I realized, you’re probably the same Ariadne French.”
The same Ariadne as what? How many could there be?
The waitress arrived with my Southwestern eggrolls and a large side of guacamole. She pointed at my half-empty glass of DrPepper, but I waved her away.
“I thought talking to you in person would be better than sending a registered letter.”
Why would he need to send me a registered letter? I found my voice. It was cowering in the pit of my stomach, but I forced it up and out. “So Aaron made it out to Montana,” I said, half to myself.
“Montana?” He paused. “No, we’re in West Texas. Big Bend country.”
Aaron had told me he was headed for Big Sky country. So he hadn’t quite made it as far as he’d planned. Close enough.
“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 had 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. I could still see, in my mind’s eye, Ricky’s school photo enlarged and set on an easel next to his coffin, 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. “That might be difficult. Because of my job and all.” It was a lame excuse, and it sounded like one.
“Oh. Then, I suppose . . . 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. This was pushing all my buttons.
The last thing I wanted was to burst out crying in public. Other diners were already looking in my direction. I lowered my voice. “Aaron’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. 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. West Texas, of course, had cowboys just as authentic as any in Montana or Wyoming.
“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.
“You have pressing issues at work?”
“Sort of.” I wondered whether a bite of food might help the burning, but my stomach warned me not to send anything down unless I’d enjoy having it make a return trip immediately. “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’d once given 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 online (another of his schemes that hadn’t quite worked out) and quit his job in Fort Worth at a branch of the National Archives to become a software weenie.
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.
“One more detail.” Gil paused. “You’ve also been named as his literary executor. 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?
Belatedly, it struck me that he’d said he found my phone number on Aaron’s caller ID. But I hadn’t called Aaron, hadn’t even known where to find him. Gil must’ve meant my number was programmed into Aaron’s phone, or that it was the last number stored in redial. Maybe Aaron had finally called to tell me he was ready for me to come out there. To be with him. Why hadn’t he left voice mail? Why hadn’t I answered that so-important call?
The restaurant was too warm. I wiped the sweat off my forehead and lifted my hair off the back of my neck. Opening my purse, I scrabbled for a ponytail holder.
“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 next 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 is pretty heavy. But it had filled me with an uncharacteristic determination to get there and have a look at where it all happened.
“Oh, good.” He sounded too perky. “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 a year and a half 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? What kind of work had he found out there in the middle of the West Texas desert? Had one of his grand schemes worked out?
I stared out over the skyline as lights flickered to life in the windows of downtown buildings. Soon it would be twilight time. Aaron used to hum that tune when he worked around the house.
“I’ve taken the liberty of looking up some of the available flights.”
I hated airplanes. But flying would be the quickest way to get there. And my old Ford Escort would never live to make the trip.
“One way, of course. You’ll probably want to drive his Explorer home and pull the trailer with whatever goods you want.”
An Explorer, no less. I could’ve slapped my forehead at the irony. “That sounds reasonable. Also, I might be bringing someone with me, and that would leave our departure date open-ended.” 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.”
“You’re a 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 clattering to 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, 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.”
“You said he went to Montana.”
“I thought he had.” I shrugged. “He didn’t get quite that far.” My vision blurred, but I blinked back the tears.
“God, Ariadne. Some guy called and told you Aaron’s dead?”
I squeezed my eyes closed for a moment. 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 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. Anyway, I didn’t find out exactly what happened.” My hands were helping me talk again, flying around to illustrate my 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 plopped her feet on the leather ottoman and 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 lure 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 as her feet hit the floor again. “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. “You know I do not travel.”
Not any more, anyway. My sister had become somewhat of a recluse after my nephew Ricky–her son–died.
My cat, Mischief, wandered in, apparently having decided to brave the world outside his cat carrier. I had run by my apartment before coming to Zoë’s cottage, carrying my untouched dinner in a Styrofoam carry-out container. I reached for him, but he evaded me. Instead, he began twining around Zoë’s calves, which seemed to calm her somewhat.
Leave it to Zoë to think of all sorts of horrid, bizarre things that wouldn’t happen. 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 After God’s Heart 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 attending since he got there.” As she was trying to close her mouth, I told her more. “And also, apparently, he’s become quite the charity worker and community servant. He did a Houses for Humans build last summer, and the minister said he was marvelous. Aaron also built his own log cabin from a kit.”
My sister goggled 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? This sounds exactly like one of Aaron’s crazy schemes to get you to come out there. Bringing more money.” Levering herself up off the deep leather, she headed for her cozy kitchen. “I need a drink.”
Neither of us drank alcohol any more, but I could understand the impulse; my own 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. But that wasn’t where I was going with this. The cat followed her, and so did I. “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 guess.” I’d had to keep up the payments, because otherwise it’d have put my credit even further into the slagheap. “The man acts as if 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 Aaron 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?”
My stomach growled in response. But I couldn’t face anything heavy. “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. “Think, Airhead. Where in the HELL did Aaron get that kind of 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 as he danced around her feet. “I always figured he’d end up 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.”
“Cynic.” I crunched down on a chip. It didn’t have any flavor without the salsa.
She frowned. “What about your taking all that time off from work?”
“I arranged for a temp. The customer service help screens are pretty self-explanatory, and she can send the tough questions up to a supervisor.” I opened 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 can’t come after all. Please have everything packed up and sent to me, where I can sort it out at my convenience.” Including the cabin, no doubt. “And I’ll appreciate it if you’ll wire me the funds out of the estate to rent a large storage building right away. Just let me know what your fee will be. Sorry for the inconvenience, and, God, I can’t believe you assumed I’d go along with this.'”
“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. Anyone else would’ve given you time to think this over and let you call them back. Something’s fishy.” She eyed me disapprovingly. “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. It’s kind of nice sometimes.
“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, mail-order catalogs, and general what-have-you to the floor next to her recliner. “My head knows my pillow.”
That was supposedly an old Chinese proverb she’d picked up somewhere. But the truth was, Zoë hadn’t spent a night away from home or gone farther than the grocery store for over a year, as far as I knew. I thought a good excuse to get away was just what she might need. “You could bring your pillow.”
She shot me a look. “I can’t afford to go gallivanting around. Neither can you.”
“Aaron is paying my way out there. I mean, his estate is.”
My cat padded over to Zoë’s chair, tail vertical, and sat expectantly at her feet. She patted her lap, but he didn’t jump up.
She sighed. “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 pasted on one of her patented put-upon looks. “Honestly, Ari. Just take a couple of cardigans. Think layering.”
“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 patted her lap. “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.
“No, he’s just a good adapter. It’s a survival skill. Besides, he knew what you were up to when you hauled him over here.” She rolled her eyes, as if to say she should’ve known herself.
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, which she’d inherited 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.”
: : :
Meanwhile, why don’t you also look at Will Shetterly’s novel that he’s posting chapter-by-chapter on his LJ? For fantasy/SF fans. He’s just being generous by posting it, as it has been published by New York before and rights are apparently reverting to him now. Cool.