I’m ready to send off a partial to Yet Another Agent. Because I am a glutton for being smacked in the head with rotten tomatoes, I’m going to post the revised opening of the Marfa Lights novel again and ask whether you think it works. Remember that it’s a cozy and not a suspense/thriller, though.
MURDER BY THE MARFA LIGHTS
An Ariadne French Mystery
My sister Zoë and I weren’t dressed to kill the day I found out about Aaron, although I’ll admit that the sight of us could’ve maimed or at least bruised most guys had they walked in on us in the fading afternoon light: decked out in our finest grubbies, splattered with paint, and glowing with perspiration (because Southern ladies don’t drip with sweat; Mother had made certain we knew that. “Horses sweat; men perspire; ladies glow,” is one of Shirelle French’s mantras.)
Zoë was arguing with me about the “right” way to roll paint onto her dining room walls when the phone rescued me.
“That’s for me.” I started backing down the stepladder.
Zoë always let her machine pick up, so she didn’t object. She stepped back for a better view and pushed back her dark hair, leaving a skunk-streak of vanilla paint through her bangs. “You’re not supposed to paint W’s. I don’t care what they did on ‘Trading Spaces.’ Just go straight up and down, overlapping the edges a bit.” She demonstrated with her fuzzy roller; she’d gotten the longer stick and was taller besides, so she had her feet firmly on the floor. “Who’d be calling you here?”
“I forwarded my desk phone because it’s my night to cover help desk calls.” I had also sneaked out a little early so I could spend the weekend doing this marathon redecorating session at my sister’s.
“You and those stupid fish tanks.” She glared. “Be careful! You almost knocked over the paint can.”
We’d thrown dropcloths over the refinished hardwood floors, so it wouldn’t have been a disaster.
“Sorry.” I rushed down the bedroom hall of her 1920s cottage into the guest room and picked up the phone. “Aqualife Tech Support, The Fishes’ Lifeline. This is Ari. How may I help you?”
A tentative-sounding male voice said, “Um. I’m looking for Arialle French?”
Pretty good–he hadn’t entirely mangled my first name, the way most people did the first time. My name is Ariadne, pronounced “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 seductive 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. “I’m calling about a personal matter.”
My chest tightened. Surely he wasn’t another bill collector. The last thing I wanted was for Zoë to know they were still calling me at work.
I had signed my nephew Ricky’s admission paperwork over a year ago without a second thought. We had been desperate for him to begin the experimental treatments for his leukemia. My sister had been incapable of rational thought, and probably couldn’t have spelled her name, let alone sign on the promise-to-pay line. I hadn’t been worried about money at the time: I’d certainly never imagined that so much of the expense would go unpaid.
Before I could get too agitated, the voice set me straight. “I guess I should’ve introduced myself. My name is Gil Rousseau, Aaron’s neighbor and pastor.”
I felt my heart thud against my breastbone. “Aaron Beecroft?”
My one true love. Or so I had thought, up until he’d faded out of contact with me a few months ago.
“Yes. Of course. Sorry if 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 normally meant only one thing. “No,” I said involuntarily.
Gil cleared his throat. “I’m sorry to be the one to have to tell you, but Aaron has passed away.”
For a moment I couldn’t find my voice. “Is this a crank call–some kind of juvenile humor–because if you think it’s funny. . . .” Oh, dear God. Please, please, Lord, let it be a prank. Please.
“I’m sorry. I wish I were joking, but it’s true. Aaron was found dead in his cabin night before last by his closest neighbor. She got 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, as she’d warned me it would. “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.” As though there could be a good or an appropriate time to hear that the great love of your life, who might’ve dumped you but who really just needed space and was surely coming back eventually, had crossed over to the other side–where you don’t know when or if you’ll meet up with him again. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have called. But I found this number on his caller ID, and I realized, you’re probably the same Ariadne French.” The same Ariadne as–what? “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 was afraid to ask. Instead, what popped out was the thought uppermost in my mind. “So Aaron made it out to Montana.”
“Montana?” He paused. “No, we’re in West Texas. Big Bend country.”
Aaron had told me he was headed for Big Sky country. Well, 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 we thought we’d need for our escape from society. And then a year 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. I’m counting on you to help make Aaron’s 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 collage, still hanging on the wall of what used to be his bedroom. Whenever I looked at it, I could still see, in my mind’s eye, Ricky’s last portrait 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 eighth 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.
“Ari? Are you okay?” My sister’s words echoed down the hall.
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. We hadn’t been in touch for several months.”
I imagined 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 made a sound somewhere between a cough and throat-clearing “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. The one I thought I’d lost forever once Aaron stopped writing or calling.
I’d often wondered 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 real-life 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 as authentic as any in Montana or Wyoming.
I was choking up. “I’m afraid I couldn’t possibly get away. Pressing issues at work.” I didn’t think I wanted to go into Aaron’s house if 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 nearly gagged. It had been a while since I’d had reflux this intense.
I thought I heard a click on the line.
“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 possessed every note Aaron had ever scribbled to me (collected in a white ceramic box he’d given me one Christmas, its top embossed with a serene unicorn), and kept a collection of pressed flowers from various occasions secreted in various books. I’m very sentimental that way. A little obsessive. Aaron and I had that in common.
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 particular about his things. He had a lifelong collection of birthday cards and other mementos saved in a shoebox in his nightstand, “like a girl,” Zoë said. He claimed 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. What an intrusion.
That wasn’t at all what I wanted to do.
I wanted to go out there. Touch Aaron’s clothes. See that cabin standing in the woods. Imagine him there, living out his days in peace and serenity, maybe longing for me but reluctant to contact me, thinking I was still angry at him. Feel him sitting there at his dinner table doing his crossword puzzles in ink, like Zoë. I could sit on the edge of the bed where he’d slept. Breathe in his skin’s 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, as far as I could remember. Was this the same Aaron Beecroft I knew?
Belatedly, it struck me that Gil had 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 all-important call?
The bedroom was suddenly blazing hot. I jerked the paint-splattered bandana from my head, wiped the sweat off my forehead with it, and lifted my hair off the back of my neck. With my free hand, I scrabbled in the drawer of the nightstand for a ponytail holder or rubber band, but came up empty.
“Hello?” Gil said tentatively.
“I’m here.” I let out a long breath, one I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Forget what I was saying. Of course I’ll come out there. I’ll have to make arrangements at work. But this is Friday night, 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 the thought of Aaron having made a life without me filled me with an uncharacteristic determination to get there and have a look at where it had all gone down.
“Oh, good.” He sounded too perky. The minister bearing condolences had morphed into the salesman who’d just closed the deal. “I’m glad you changed your mind. Aaron was 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 simply realized that with the amount of money and goods that he’d amassed, it was his responsibility to see that they didn’t go to the state.”
How could Aaron have a lot of stuff, only a little over a year 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 actually paid off?
“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 Navigator home and pull the trailer with whatever goods you want.”
A Lincoln Navigator, 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.
I thought I heard a faint gargling sound from the kitchen extension.
“Do you need me to wire you the funds? Or I could 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–“for the flights out over the next couple of days. Let me read them off to you.”
# # #
Before I even hung up the phone, Zoë was standing in the doorway. “Who in the hell was that?”
“You were listening in from the kitchen,” I accused, folding my arms. “You heard it all.”
“No, I didn’t. That damn speakerphone kept cutting out because the MUTE button keeps shorting. Besides, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” She shook her head, looking incredulous. “He can’t be for real. Gil Rousseau? Wasn’t that an Impressionist painter?”
I shot her a look. “See, you did hear it all. You even got his name. So just give this a rest.”
“I will not.” Her hands landed on her hips. “Some guy you’ve never met invites you out to his cabin to pick up something or another from an estate? That’s bullshit. Who died?”
This was going to blow her mind, as it had mine. “That was one of Aaron’s neighbors out in Big Bend country. He says I’ve inherited all Aaron’s stuff. I’m the only one they can find, and I’m going out there to . . . you know, make arrangements.”
“For Aaron,” she repeated dumbly. “Your Aaron?”
“No, somebody else’s Aaron. Duh! He’s been living in a cabin at the feet of the Davis Mountains.”
“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. If they ever started, I wasn’t sure I could stop them.
All our friends had eventually assumed that Aaron and I had broken up, but it had been more of an “I’ll call when I get settled” abandonment. I’d been waiting all this time, expecting somewhere in the back of my mind that he’d eventually call–even after his old cell number turned “no such subscriber”–but the dream had started to fade; I’d been trying not to think about it, let alone cling to it. Now the dream had slipped out of my grasp entirely.
My sister stared. “God, Ariadne. Some guy called and told you Aaron’s dead?” The reality of it began to register on her face.
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.
Zoë’s voice didn’t sound as tough-girl as before, either. “What in the hell happened, pardon my French?” I winced at Zoë’s favorite wordplay (since our last name is “French”–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 overpriced forty-gear bike everywhere and stuck with the yoga even after his friends”–she made air quotes with her forefingers–“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 Aaron’s final vanishing act 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 exactly which species he saw feeding and which were bathing and which were flittering around, while he was at it. “I didn’t find out all the details. I couldn’t think. There I was, expecting to answer a work question about aquarium pH, and instead the Universe slaps this on me.” My hands flew around, helping me talk. “Aaron’s left me everything, and I need to go out there right away.”
“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.”
Leave it to Zoë to think of all sorts of horrid, bizarre things that wouldn’t happen. “Spare me the wild imaginings.” But I bit my lip.
“I’m serious, 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. “Scheisse. I can’t believe you’re so naïve.”
“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.”
“I heard that part.” She tried to wither me with her glare, but I’m fairly resistant to that after thirty-odd years as her baby sister. After all, I’m only two years younger. “You know I do not travel.”
Not any more, anyway. My sister had become somewhat of a recluse after Ricky’s death last year.
Sounding as if I knew what I was getting into might help. “Okay, listen, I already thought of all the possibilities. I’ll call out there in the morning to make sure this guy is legit.”
“Call where?” She lifted one eyebrow a notch. “What did he claim to be?”
“He’s Aaron’s pastor.” I grinned as her chin hit her chest. “The associate pastor at the Church After God’s Heart. Aaron’s a member. He’s been attending since he got out there. Apparently, he became quite the charity worker and community servant. What, did the speakerphone cut out entirely while the preacher man was making my reservations online as well as making conversation? Aaron did a Houses for Humans build last summer, and he built his own log cabin from a kit.”
My sister goggled at me. “This is the same Aaron Beecroft who couldn’t change a lightbulb 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 barely over a year.” 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.” She turned and headed for her kitchen. “I need a drink.”
Neither of us drank alcohol any more, but I could understand the impulse; my own tongue was shriveling up again. “The idea that Aaron was going to church fazed me a little, too. I suppose he got religion after seeing, well, you know. After what happened to Ricky.”
Speeding up, she put more 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.
I followed her. “Aaron in church. Will wonders never cease. Anyway, so Gil is going to pick me up at the airport.”
“Already you’re on a first-name basis with this guy?”
That’s a fairly long “fragment,” but if readers are gonna lose interest a few pages in, I need to know about it.
I found and fixed a couple of repeated phrases that were probably already there when I sent the partial of this to Holly Root, too. Why would “onto her walls onto her walls” repeat like that? Just to make me look like even more of a goon? *sigh*