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Dorothy A. Bell
Redmond, Oregon 97756
Word count 9,543
The garbled, jumbled-up syllables spewing out of Geraldine’s mouth landed on Edie’s ears like static from outer space. She shook her head to clear the channels. “Say again, Gerry, slowly this time. You were talking so fast my ears got whiplash.”
Geraldine groaned and squeezed her eyes shut. Leaning out, she looked around the side of the booth and cast a furtive glance to the occupied booths at the front of the Koffee Kup Kafe.
Considered petite, Gerry had to half-stand to get her face closer to Edie’s, bringing her boobs, which were tightly encased in a hot pink tank top, up on the table. Whispering, she repeated, “I killed Ashton. I shot him. I didn’t mean to…but the gun went off and he fell down dead.”
Edie grabbed her sister Geraldine by the wrists and dug in her fingernails. Also short, but not at all petite, she too hauled her impressive chest onto the table to get closer to Geraldine’s nose. She whispered between clenched teeth, “That’s what I thought you said. You had a gun, Gerry? Where the hell did you get a gun? Why would you want to kill Ashton?”
Gerry snatched her hands away and rubbed her wrists. She huffed impatiently and plopped her size six little tush back down in the booth. “I didn’t want to shoot anybody. The gun went off…he startled me. Mr. Ralston said he was dead. He told me to come here to the Koffee Kup and wait.”
Her torso up on the table, her size sixteen ass off the seat, Edie asked, “Ralston? Mr. Ralston…who the hell is Mr. Ralston? Where did he come from? And why would he tell you to wait here?”
Trembling, Edie flopped back down onto the booth seat. “Why didn’t you stay put, Gerry? You should never have left the scene of the crime. We’ve watched enough CSI, Murder She Wrote and Columbo to know you never leave the scene of the crime, not if you want to be found innocent. It was an accident, wasn’t it Gerry?”
Gerry sat there shaking her head at her, lips drawn up tight, eyes narrowed. Edie recognized peeved when she saw it.
“Mr. Ralston’s FBI, Edie. He said to wait for him here at the Koffee Kup, have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee, and he’d take care of everything.”
“That’s crazy, Gerry. You think that’s the rational thing to do? You think, after you murder someone, you should go to a café and have a piece of pie and a cup of coffee?”
Edie watched her sister shovel in a big forkful of pie into her mouth. She wanted a piece of chocolate pie, but she was dieting again. If she ate pie like that she’d gain ten pounds overnight. “I can’t believe you’re actually eating that. How can you sit there and eat pie—chocolate pie, with whip cream…whip cream…Gerry?”
Edie slammed her ample shoulders back against the booth. The booth shuddered. She folded her hands tightly together between her chubby thighs, prepared to put forth a bit of logic. “This Ralston guy should’ve called the cops. You should be in handcuffs. You should be down at the police station getting fingerprinted. They should have you locked up by now. When did all of this killing take place, Gerry?”
Gerry swallowed, and in a very patient and reasonable voice said, “I told you, Edie, Mr. Ralston is FBI; those guys can do a lot of things the police can’t do. He’s been investigating Ashton on suspicion of drug trafficking and wanted to ask him some questions.”
Edie took a breath, sat back in the booth, and tilted her head to the side to glare at her zany, bats-for-brains older sister. “Why is it, Gerry, that you can’t settle down to a boring life like everyone else? Why must you pull me into your dramas? This drama, this…this is serious shit.”
The problem was, as Edie saw it, that even though Gerry was her older sister by four years, mentally Gerry had never gotten past the age of twenty-two. She would forever be a petite, vivacious, blonde haired, painted lips, fingernails and toenails bimbo. In reality, Gerry could pass for a woman ten years younger than her forty-seven years, but no matter how much makeup or hair dye she applied, she would never appear anywhere near twenty again.
After Gerry’s divorce, she’d found work as a concierge at a local resort, played the field, then set aside Edie’s warnings and went ahead and answered one of those local singles ads. First letter out, she got a response from C. G. Hardenburger, of THE HARDENBURGER’s of Central Oregon, a big rancher family. C.G. required an attractive woman, between thirty and thirty-five, to join him in his retirement. His interests: parasailing, hang-gliding and downhill skiing.
Gerry, despite missing the age requirement by ten years, and knowing nothing about parasailing or hang-gliding, and never mind that she got dizzy standing on the second step of a stepladder, answered the ad post-haste. Within a month-and-a-half, she and Charles Gordon Hardenburger—known far-and-wide as Rocky—ran off to Reno to get married.
Two weeks ago, two weeks after the couple’s return from Reno, Edie had arrived in Central Oregon upon Gerry’s SOS call, enlisted to aid her in preparing for a big blowout reception. She’d begged Edie to help her, said all she would have to do is run a few errands. Edie knew better, of course.
After a long pause, and some careful organizing of her thoughts, Edie asked, “Do you think it’s true? Do you think Ashton could be a drug dealer?”
Gerry forked off a good-sized bite of the pie and placed it in her mouth. She closed her big brown eyes to savor the chocolate goo, swallowed, and rocked her head, her pretty, painted lips pursed up in a bow. “Well, I wouldn’t put anything past him. But, somehow I can’t see it. He’s so obvious. He bought a jet, for God’s sake. Who does that? And a pontoon boat. Shelly’s driving a new convertible. They both flaunt their wealth all over town. He and Shelly, diamonds dripping off their fingers, driving around town in big cars, look more like a pair of pimps than drug dealers to me.”
That made Edie laugh, her sister had voiced her opinion exactly. Edie sobered. “Okay, did this Ralston guy say when he would come get you? Did he tell you to call the police?”
Gerry made a dismissive little phhhttt noise, and wiped her mouth with a paper napkin.
Edie sat back against the cool vinyl of the booth and closed her eyes. She hadn’t had one of her headaches for months and months, but she could feel one coming on now. She sucked deeply on the straw that she’d sank into the cool glass well of icy lemonade she held between her hands. With the straw still in her mouth, she looked over her nose at her sister.
“Don’t you think it’s strange that you’re not being hand-cuffed, guarded or even watched, Gerry? Give it a moment of thought, please?” Between clenched teeth, jaw so tight she thought her ears would fly off, she had to say, “You’re sitting here, Gerry, free as a bird. You could get up and leave. Disappear.” Edie flapped her arms like a bird for demonstration in case her sister required pictures.
“I m doing as I was told, Edie. Mr. Ralston said he would take care of things and I trust him. He’s a nice man. I know it. He had a nice voice. He didn’t yell at me. He didn’t make me feel stupid like you do,” Gerry said.
That did it. Edie snatched the forkful of pie from Gerry’s lips, forcing her to place the utensil on her plate. “We are going to talk to Conroy Davis right now. Get your purse.”
Folding her arms across her chest, Gerry puckered up. “No. I can’t”
“Because I’m supposed to wait here.”
“For how long, Gerry? An hour? Two hours? A day? Two days? How long ago did you leave the Lundendosky house? ”
Edie could see that Gerry didn’t know. She had her eyebrows pinched up over her little turned-up nose and her mouth had fallen open a little. When she put her fingers on her lips, Edie knew she had her—Gerry really didn’t know.
“Allow me to help you,” she said, being intentionally and, hopefully, irritatingly condescending. “You called me at three forty-seven. I hurried back to the ranch from the print shop on purpose to be back in time to see the Ellen DeGeneres show; her guest today was Harrison Ford. I really wanted to see that. I’d settled down in front of the TV in my little room with a bowl of cheese puffs and a seltzer when my cell phone went off. I knew it was you.
“This morning, before we left the ranch, you reminded me and Rocky that you were going over to Shelly’s after your hair appointment to pick up the crystal. Your appointment was for one-thirty. So, you were at the beauty parlor for an hour, hour-and-a-half, that would make it, let’s say, a little after three when you got to the Lundendosky house. You go inside…”
Gerry squirmed in her seat.
“Stay with me, Gerry. You go inside, you said no one answered the door but you could hear music. You go in, and you hear music coming from…where’s the music coming from, Gerry? Now, think Gerry. Where did you find the gun? I know you don’t own a gun, so where did you find it?”
“On the hall table.” Gerry bounced in her seat. “Yes, it was so little and cute sitting there in the most darling little black velvet box. I swear, Edie it looked like a toy, a little jewel, all shiny, with a silver and gold filigree design on the barrel and an inlaid pearl grip. I had to hold it.”
“Uh, huh, cute little gun in a black velvet box. You picked it up. Of course, you did. Gerry, what were you thinking?”
Gerry opened her mouth to answer. Edie cut her off with a shake of her head. “Never mind…so you went past the door to the entry level bathroom and family room. And you looked into the living room.”
“Well, no, actually I didn’t look into the livingroom. I was headed to the pool room, I thought the music was coming from there. You turn down the hall across from the living room, remember. The pool’s in the east wing. I was almost to the end of the hall. I could see the pool, then Ashton startled me and the little gun went off. He sort of came around the corner pillar at the entrance to the pool room, and the gun went off and he fell down dead.”
She choked, and her words, strangled by tears, got stuck in her throat. “I shot him, Edie. I shot him dead.”
Struck momentarily speechless, Edie sat there with her mouth open, her spit drying up like dew in the desert. Giving herself a mental shake, she drew herself up. “Okay, let’s say you shot Ashton around three-thirty or three-fifteen. You called me from here, right?”
Gerry nodded, her pinky finger in her mouth now, her brown eyes wide, unblinking.
Edie wrote everything down on the back of an old grocery list. She looked at her watch, it was almost four-thirty. “Let’s go. We can sort the rest of this out at Conroy’s office.”
Gerry had shut her eyes and sat shaking her head. “I can’t go to Conroy.”
“Gerry, I know he’s only a tax lawyer, but he’s all we’ve got. We’ve known him a long time. He’ll know what to do. We need help. You need help.”
“No, Mr. Ralston wants me to stay here.”
“Gerry, if this Ralston character is who he says he is, he won’t have any trouble finding you. Now, let’s go.”
Reluctantly, Gerry nodded. “Mr. Ralston was so sweet. He gave me a twenty-dollar bill to pay for the pie and coffee.
The kid at the cash register began to make change, then stopped. He picked up the twenty and held it up to the light, started to put it in the till, but he stopped again. Edie detected a moment of absolute jubilation on his face, then he quickly masked his delight and began to make change. Muttering something about not enough change in the drawer, he rushed to the back room with the twenty in his hand.
Edie didn’t like the look on the kid’s face. He’d left the till a little ajar. “C’mon, we got to get out of here.”
“But, I want the change. I need to give it to Mr. Ralston.”
Edie dragged her out to the street.
“There’s something funny about that twenty. Didn’t you see the kid’s face? C’mon, Gerry.”
“What? You think it was counterfeit?” Gerry asked as Edie rushed her down the street, dodging the oncoming pedestrians.
At any moment, Edie expected a squad car to come tearing down the street, sirens blaring, jumping the curb, pulling a Rockford in front of them. But nothing happened. They met a few curious faces but only in passing.
At the tax office, gossipy Karen Blasche wasn’t sitting at her receptionist desk, thank God, so they didn’t have to explain why they needed to see Conroy immediately.
Edie knocked on Conroy’s door a few times, and when he didn’t answer she simply called out his name, “Conroy, are you in? It’s Edna Bayless, Conroy?”
Opening the solid walnut door a little wider, she could see Conroy stretched out on his old, brown leather sofa.
One arm draped over his eyes, he afforded her an unnecessary view of the yellow sweat stains of the underarms of his white dress shirt. His short, stubby body didn’t stretch the full length of the six foot sofa. With his legs crossed at the ankles, and the cuffs of his gray slacks bunched up, they had a glimpse of his chalky-skinned, brown hairy shins and white crew socks.
He snored softly. Gerry clutched at Edie’s arm. “Let’s get out of here before he wakes up. I don’t want to talk to him.”
Stepping back a little into the reception room, Edie confronted Gerry. “Okay, why not? You think you killed somebody. You need help. We need help. Conroy is as close as we’ve got in town to a trial lawyer.”
“I know that,” Gerry said, twisting her body out of Edie’s grasp. “It’s just that…well…he called a few months ago and asked me out to dinner. I lied. I told him I no longer dated. Now I’m married to Rocky and well…well, I feel funny about it, that’s all.”
When the office door jerked open, Edie and Gerry were more or less dragged over the threshold and into the room. Looking tousled and bleary-eyed, Conroy Davis stopped them from going to the floor by blocking them with his sturdy body. With wispy tufts of sandy hair standing out from around his ears, his bow tie dangling from his opened collar button, and the top tab on his trousers undone, he didn’t appear at all pleased to see them.
Gerry stepped behind Edie as Conroy glanced out his office door to the reception desk. “I guess Karen went home.”
He came back into his office, stopped at the corner of his desk and eyed the two women with a critical gaze. “You two look as guilty as two teeny-boppers on Halloween. You been throwing rotten eggs at the mayor’s car? You tip over the garbage cans in the park? What?”
Edie waited, hoping Gerry would spill her guts, but she hovered behind her left shoulder, her head down, studying her fingernails. Edie cleared her throat, took out her grocery list, read it through very quickly, then gave Conroy a rundown of events.
During her litany, at some point he’d sat down behind his desk, his tie now straight, his hair finger-combed, his arms folded on the top of his desk. Edie looked up from her notes and met his inscrutable gaze.
Gerry had found a place to hide in a leather upholstered mission chair near his bookcase; he turned his hard gaze on her.
Edie felt her legs start to wobble and sat down in front of his desk in another of his big, old mission chairs.
“Where’s the gun now, Gerry?” he asked quietly. The question startled Gerry. Her head jerked up, she sat a little forward in her chair, her feet barely touching the floor, and she clutched the wooden armrests. Conroy repeated his question, using his lawyer voice this time.
“I…I guess Mr. Ralston has it.”
“When did this Mr. Ralston come into the picture?”
“Well, I don’t really know.”
“Oh, please, Gerry,” Edie said, “give us a break here. Snap out of it. You’re in a lot of trouble. Conroy is trying to help you.”
“I know,” she said. Her voice breaking up, she started to whimper, her chin wobbling, tears pooling in her big, puppy-dog, brown eyes.
She visibly pulled herself together, her shoulders squaring, her chin coming up, meeting Conroy’s unflinching gaze directly. “I’ll try to remember.” She closed her eyes. “I rang the doorbell. No one answered. I opened the door and I called out for Shelly. I heard music, sixties stuff—Listen to the Falling Rain.”
Edie snorted; her sister could remember the damn tune, but everything else was fuzzy.
Gerry gave her a dark look and returned her gaze to Conroy, who remained straight-faced and inscrutable. “Anyway, I wasn’t thinking of anything but the music. I know on warm days both Shelly and Ashton like to take a swim. With the music on so loud they probably didn’t hear the doorbell. Or it could be I didn’t hear them tell me to come on in; either way, I didn’t think anything of it. Living up on the hill, they hardly ever get anyone visiting that they don’t know. They leave the doors open and unlocked all the time. Rocky doesn’t lock up the ranch either. Anyway, The hall to the pool room isn’t very well lit. When Ashton appeared so suddenly from behind the pillar I think I screamed … and I must’ve pulled the trigger.”
Her face scrunched up with concentration. “You know he almost fell on top of me. And then the gun went off. I didn’t mean to shoot the gun, I didn’t. It was an accident, really, Conroy.”
“Did Ashton say anything?”
Gerry shook her head. “Say…anything…no. And…and I think his eyes were closed. He was in his swim trunks. He looked wet…but he wasn’t wet, you know what I mean? He didn’t get me wet when he fell on me.”
“Did he open his eyes when he saw you?” Edie asked, forgetting that Conroy was in charge of this interrogation.
Gerry turned towards her in her chair, coming to the very edge of it, her hands going to her lap. “Well, I don’t recall. It all happened pretty fast…the shot, then he fell forward and I jumped aside.
“Oh! Oh, I remember I dropped the gun. It should be on the floor near the pillar, unless Mr. Ralston picked it up. But I don’t think he did. I couldn’t move. I don’t know for how long. I heard footsteps behind me. I turned and it was Mr. Ralston. Frankly I was relieved to see someone. I remember, he said he was Mr. Ralston, FBI, and he motioned for me to step aside. I put my back to the wall and he crouched down in front of Ashton’s body.”
Again, Edie had to ask, “Weren’t you afraid? You didn’t know this guy. You hadn’t ever seen him before, had you? Gerry, here’s this stranger, coming down a not very well lit hall toward you and you aren’t scared. Why the hell not?”
Gerry shook her pretty, feather-brained head and pivoted to speak to Conroy. “I wasn’t afraid. I was glad to see him. He looked nice, you know, sympathetic, and he had a kind look on his face, not really a smile, but you know, nice. He was dressed nice too. He had on a dark blue suit, with a lovely burgundy and blue silk tie, very expensive I’m sure. And he was FBI, Edie….I was relieved to see him.”
“You noticed what the man was wearing?” Edie had to say to herself, although she said it aloud.
“Go on, Gerry,” Conroy said, giving her an encouraging nod. He sat back in his chair. His hand going to his chin, he rested his head, giving Gerry his full attention.
“Well, I would say he was tall, no, maybe average, about six feet, but not more than that; he looked tall with the light behind him. He had black hair. No, maybe sort-of brownish, the light wasn’t good. And a beard. No, a mustache, and glasses. I know he was wearing glasses…at least I think he was. Sun glasses, I couldn’t see his eyes.”
With his chin in his hand, Conroy asked, “How old would you make him out to be, Gerry?”
“Hmmm, maybe thirty or forty…forty-five; he wasn’t fifty, I don’t think.”
“What did he say, Conroy asked. Try to remember his exact words.”
“Say? He didn’t say much. He bent over Ashton, stood, then said he didn’t find a pulse. He did pick up the little gun with his kerchief, then he laid it back where he found it. He turned around to face me and took out his badge. He showed it to me.
“He said he wanted to talk to Ashton…no, he said, Mr. Lundendosky, he wanted to talk to Mr. Lundendosky about a drug trafficking case he was working on. He said the door was open, and he heard the shot and the music and came on in. He told me not to worry. He said something about the little pea-shooter. I didn’t know what he was talking about; I guess he meant the gun. Then he gave me twenty dollars out of his inside coat pocket and told me to go down to the Koffee Kup and wait from him. He ushered me to the front door and stood there as I got in the car and left the drive. I remember, because I looked in my review mirror and he was standing in the doorway leaning on the doorjamb.”
The room went very pregnant with silence. Conroy straightened, shoved his chair back and came to his feet. He paced back and forth a few times, then came to a standstill before Gerry, leaned down and planted his hands on the armrests to pin her in.
Gerry pulled back, her chin tucked, eyes going wide, unable to avoid his gaze. “Gerry Ann Spees-Williamson-Hardenburger, do you mean to sit there and tell me, you a grown woman, a woman I always thought had good sense deep down, that you believed this man, this perfect stranger? That you believed he was FBI? This guy who just so happened to show up at the right moment?”
Gerry nodded. “I…I wanted to believe him, Connie. I was scared. I couldn’t kill anyone. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone. I couldn’t believe what I’d done. Mr. Ralston gave me a way out. I took it.”
Conroy went back to his chair behind his desk, scooted forward, grabbed the phone and began to punch in numbers. “Police Chief Potts, please.”
Edie couldn’t stay to listen to the conversation; she had to get to the bathroom now…right now.
Conroy’s posh, 1997 Lincoln Town Car climbed up the winding lane to the Lundendosky mansion. Chief Potts found Gerry’s story a bit hard to swallow, but he agreed to go to the Lundendosky home to have a look around. He was off duty now, so he could do what he wanted, but he wasn’t going to take a squad car on a wild-goose chase.
Warren Potts took up most of the room in the front seat. He stood six feet tall, barrel-chested, an intimidating man even out of uniform. Because of his long torso and narrow hips, he continually had to hitch up his trousers, even though he wore suspenders.
The huge car dwarfed poor Conroy. He sat behind the big, white steering wheel propped up on an air cushion under and behind him.
Gerry and Edie sat in the big back seat like two small children, peering out the side portholes, their heads barely reaching the top of the upholstery on the doors, their feet dangling down into the luxuriously carpeted floor.
On the way up the lane, Conroy asked Gerry, “Where did you park when you were here?”
“Right in front of the doors. I had to pick up the crystal. It’s heavy, I didn’t want to carry it very far.”
Gerry had scooted up, leaning over the front seat. Conroy asked her, “Were there any other cars?”
“Ashton’s old touring car was parked in the portico, his black Bentley beside it, and his new Dodge pickup. They were all right where they are now,” she said as they came up the circular drive before the house. “That’s Shelly’s new convertible; it wasn’t here before.”
The Lincoln hadn’t come to a stop before the big, ornately carved double doors of the house opened and Shelly Lundendosky stumbled out of the house, waving her arms in the air, yelling, “911, call 911! Help me, 911!”
Edie had always envied Shelly her statuesque height, her slender figure, her flamboyant style. Today she wore an ensemble that truly gave Shelly the appearance of a statue come to life, dressed in gold silk blouse, gold Capris, gold slippers, and a gold headband holding her short cropped curls back from her face.
At the moment, self-composure had abandoned her. She stumbled out the door, colliding into Warren. For a few moments, he had his hands full of flailing, hysterical female.
“Ashton…! Ashton, call 911. I can’t, I can’t, I tried but my fingers…call 911!”
Warren kept her propped up in the folds of his long arms, to guide her back into the house.
She planted her long legs, and Warren had to, more or less, drag her back inside. “No, don’t go in there. He’s in there. Call 911.”
Edie glanced at her watch—five thirty-eight. She hated her watch, she hated that she checked it all the time. When this was over, she vowed to throw it away.
Warren had gotten Shelly back in the house. Conroy held the door open and Edie and Gerry went inside. Warren wasted no time in relinquishing Shelly to Edie’s care. With Gerry’s help, they kept Shelly on her feet. She kept repeating that they needed to call 911 as they trooped father into the house.
Ahead of them, Warren tugged up his trousers and straightened his shirt. Conroy waved Edie to an upholstered bench to the side of the entrance. Edie could hear Warren’s voice, but couldn’t understand what he’d said. Then she heard Conroy say something. With Shelly’s head on her shoulder, Edie turned to see Conroy coming back up the hall and sat up straighter. On the other side of Shelly, Gerry’s complexion had drained of blood; she looked a hundred years old.
“He’s dead, but there’s not much blood. Warren’s called the coroner and the forensic boys. This will take awhile.” He tugged Shelly to her feet. Edie had her arm around the woman’s waist.
Taking Gerry by the elbow, Conroy said, “Let’s go in here,” guiding them into the next opened door.
Edie had known Conroy Davis for years. She and Gerry had gone to school with him, but Edie had never seen him this masterful.
The room they entered appeared to be an Orangery, with plants all over, above their heads swinging from baskets, growing in pots, as well as placed around the ornamental pool and fountain in the middle of the room and before a large expanse of multi-paned windows to the east. This room, and the entire house, Gerry had told her, was kept at an even seventy-two degrees. In no time, the hot, sweaty, sick feeling left her and Edie felt very comfortable.
Shelly had revived but wouldn’t sit down. She wanted to talk. Conroy gently pushed her back down. “You’ve had a shock, Shelly. Stay quiet for a bit, take some deep breaths. Warren will want to talk to you.”
Conroy went to the door and stood staring down the hall.
Gerry put her arm around Shelly’s waist. Shelly finally focused and asked her, “How did you get here? I mean…why?”
“I came earlier, but you weren’t here.”
Shelly nodded. “You came for the crystal. I’m sorry. I meant to be here. I was late getting out of the mall. Then my car wouldn’t start. I was out of gas. I had to call the auto club. I didn’t even think about needing gas. Ashton takes care of that.”
Shelly whimpered and started to weep quietly into her hands. “Where’s Daddy? He should be here.”
Gerry gave Shelly a hug. “Yes, of course. I’ll call him.”
“Gerry?” Edie said, “I could call him.”
“No, I’ll call him.”
Edie didn’t want to know what Gerry was going to say, how she could explain this, and sat with Shelly, her ears closed to all conversations around her.
“He’s coming, Shelly,” Gerry said, taking her place at Shelly’s side.
Edie opened her eyes, her gaze locked with her sister’s. “What did you say?”
“I told him Ashton was dead here at the house. Shelly needed him.”
“What did he say to that?”
Gerry shook her head. “He didn’t say anything for a long time, then he simply said he was on his way.”
“He didn’t ask any questions?”
Gerry shook her head and closed her eyes, eyes that, when they closed, washed tears down her cheeks.
Edie looked up, to find Conroy. He nodded at her approvingly, and went back to his post in the doorway.
Before Rocky arrived, a troop of forensic people had swarmed over the house and the grounds. The coroner approached his job with ghoulish eagerness, Edie thought.
She glanced at her watch, they’d been here all of eighteen minutes; it seemed like days. Rocky arrived about three minutes later and Shelly ran into his arms.
They were the same height and coloring. Rocky’s hair had turned from bleached-blonde to snow white, the shade accentuating the deepness of his tan. There were no flies on Rocky Hardenburger—he had the lean, fit, muscular body of a twenty-five year old man, but today, his face showed all of his sixty-two years.
“Hey, Sugar Lump,” he said to Gerry over Shelly’s shoulder, “come here. You look pale as a ghost. Can’t have my girls looking so lost and scared. Rocky’s here, we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
Edie watched Gerry fall gratefully into his arms. She opened her eyes to exchange her unspoken fear with Edie. They both knew that any happiness Gerry had found in the last few weeks died today along with Ashton Lundendosky.
Edie, out of the corner of her eye, caught sight of Warren as he came into the room, his big body filling the doorway. He cleared his throat to get their attention as the gurney carrying Ashton’s covered body passed behind him, the attendants taking it out to the ambulance.
“Mrs. Lundendosky…ah, Shelly… your husband…ah, Ashton…the coroner believes, and he’ll have to do an autopsy to make it official, that it looks like he died of drowning.”
“What?” Gerry spun around, twisting out of Rocky’s embrace. “But…but I shot him.”
Shelly yanked Gerry around by the arm. “You shot him? You said you liked Ashton.”
“Shelly,” Warren said, “your husband died of drowning.”
Gerry couldn’t shut up. Edie groaned and squeezed her eyes shut.
“But…the gun…I fired it and he fell.”
Warren came into the room a little farther, his gaze going from Shelly to Gerry then to Rocky, who had remained perfectly quiet, his jaw clenched and shoulders back.
“I know,” Warren said to Gerry.
Conroy put his arm around Gerry’s waist to steady her.
Shelly turned to her father for comfort.
Warren went on to say, “The corner found the bullet in Ashton’s toe. There wasn’t a lot of blood, so he was probably dead when you shot him.”
Gerry couldn’t stand it, of course, and had to keep flapping her gums. “If he drowned, why did he jump out at me? How did he do that?”
“I don’t know, Gerry,” Warren said, scratching his balding head. “We’ll go over everything again and try to put it together step by step.”
Warren turned to Shelly and Rocky. “I know this is rough on you, Shelly, but we have to figure out what happened here.”
Warren started by setting up private interviews. He started with Gerry, taking her down the hall to a corner of the living room. Conroy refused to let her go alone, and Warren, after a bit of protest, gave in. When Gerry returned to the Orangery, looking pale and numb, Edie was next on Warren’s list. Her statement didn’t take long, as she had it all written down on her grocery list. Rocky went with Shelly next. They were gone a long time.
Rocky and Shelly returned to the room, Shelly weeping and Rocky doing his best to console her. Warren stood in the doorway, silent and ominous, his gaze going from one suspect to the next, and stopping to focus in on Shelly and Rocky.
Conroy patted Gerry’s hand and left her to speak to the chief.
Edie heard Rocky speaking to Shelly. “I’m sorry, Sweetie. I should’ve been here. I went over to Turner, car shopping for my bride.
“Gerry, honey,Sugar Lump is capitalized” Rocky held out his hand to her. Gerry took it, and he pulled her in to his side, “we’ll get through this. We’ve got nothing to worry about. I want you both to believe me, now.”
Edie sat impressed. The man had a way about him. Yes, sir, she could almost believe him.
She heard Warren and Conroy talking. Warren said, “So it comes down to this Ralston character.” Conroy opened his mouth, but the chief’s phone rang. The sound of the device sent a shock wave through the room, they all gave a start.
“Uh, huh, uh huh, okay. Uh huh, no, I’m not surprised either, uh huh, okay. So we wait.”
Warren hung up. All gazes turned his way. “I called into the Federal Bureau of Investigation to check out this Ralston guy. He’s with the bureau all right, but your description, Gerry, we can’t make it fit. It’s kind of hard to finger somebody unless there’s an absolute way to identify the person. It would help if you could give me a specific trait to go on, a mole, scar, or even rings or tan lines, something?”
Rocky gave Gerry a little jiggle, then took her by the hand and led her to a chair by a potted fern. He knelt down in front of her. “Close your pretty eyes, Sugar Lump.”
Edie wasn’t real familiar with Rocky Hardenburger, she’d only been in the same house with him for a week, and during that week she’d taken all of three meals with the man. And yet, she noticed something odd about him today. He came off as cool; all the time, the man didn’t sweat. But he was sweating today. He always dressed meticulously, today he wore a brown sport shirt and khaki shorts. True, it was ninety-eight degrees outside, but in this house, it was cool and very comfortable. She’d watched him play two games of tennis one afternoon, and the man didn’t sweat. But today his brown sport shirt was wet under the arms, and down the center of his back he had a wide wet stain of perspiration. Somehow, the fact of his discomfort gave Edie immense satisfaction.
“He wore glasses, I couldn’t see his eyes,” she said to Rocky, then up to Warren, who stood towering over the pair, looking down his nose at her.
“They were big glasses, like aviator glasses, tinted.”
“You said he had a beard or mustache, which? What kind? Small? Wide? What color?”
“Well, I guess it was pretty full; you know it covered up his mouth, I couldn’t see his lips. It was sort of sandy, I guess.”
“So, he had sandy colored hair? I thought you said he had light brown hair,” Warren said.
“No,” Gerry shook her head at him. “No, it was definitely on the sandy shade of brown.”
“Did you see any jewelry on his hands or anywhere?” Rocky asked, and came to his feet, his hand resting on her shoulder.
Edie thought Rocky was pretty good at this questioning thing. She added this to her list of things she was learning about Rocky Hardenburger.
“No, no jewelry. I would remember jewelry. He wore a nice suit, I told you that. But not even a tie pin. A pretty tie though, very expensive.”
Warren finally got in a question. “Were his hands brown? Were they white like Conroy’s?”
Poor Conroy stuffed his hands in the pockets of his trousers.
Gerry bounced in her seat. “He had on gloves. Nice ones. Black leather driving gloves. You have to order them online, none of the stores around here carry them.”
Warren harrhumped. “When you saw his badge did you see any numbers? Or a photo?”
“Numbers, no. I saw FBI. He said he’d take care of everything. He was a nice man.”
“Warren,” Conroy said, expelling his breath, his body language exuding impatience. “Are we going to be here awhile?”
“Maybe a couple of hours. I’m gonna wrap this up tonight one way or the other.”
Rocky put his hand under Gerry’s elbow to help her to her feet. “I think I should take Gerry, Edie and Shelly home with me. These girls need some peace and quiet and some food. I’ll come back if you need me. I don’t see what good it’ll do for all of us to hang around here all night.”
Warren puffed out his chest. “It’s a big house. We’ll all be fine right here. Conroy, you get some food up here. Shelly, is there a room where we could spread out, give ourselves some room?”
Edie heard Rocky ask Gerry, “Where’s your purse, Sugar Lump? Bet you lost it again.”
“I had it with me in the car.” Gerry looked around her, under the bench and under the chair. “It could be in Connie’s car, I guess.”
“I’ll go look,” Rocky offered.
Edie did wonder what was the big deal about Gerry’s purse. But then, this was a considerate man, a new groom, so she shrugged it off.
“Don’t trouble yourself, Rocky,” Warren said, handing Gerry her lacy little clutch purse. “It fell on the ground, I guess, when she got out of the car. One of my men picked it up. I tucked it in my shirt and forgot to give it back.”
Now Edie knew a lie when she heard it, and the chief had just told a whopper. And by the look on Rocky’s face he thought so too. Again, Edie didn’t understand what was the big deal about Gerry’s purse. Leave it to Gerry to have all the men looking out for her and her possessions.
Her sister thanked the nice man and opened her purse to find her compact. She retreated to a corner to check her makeup. Edie shook her head; it had been days since she’d checked her own makeup. As to that, she didn’t really do makeup, maybe lipstick and mascara. She wanted to go home, not to her sister’s home, but home to Mark and her kids. She wanted to be home cleaning up the supper dishes. She wanted to take a cool shower in her own bathroom, with her soap and her shampoo, her towels. She wanted to be anywhere but here in this mess.
Within the hour, Conroy had the Wild Goose Café staff setting up a feast in the Lundendosky’s game room. They set out roasted chicken breasts, basted honey ham, veggies and dip, platters of fresh fruit and baskets of warm, buttered bread.
The game room encompassed the lower level of the Lundendosky mansion, a cavernous room featuring a kitchenette, a fully equipped bathroom, five sofas, an assortment of easy chairs, a billiard table, a pool table, shuffle board, a dart board, four pinball machines and a long patio that ran the full length of the house that overlooked the valley below.
As hungry as Edie was, all she could manage was some ham and fruit. She noticed Gerry had the same. Rocky and Shelly put down sizeable portions of everything. Warren ate very little; he was spending most of his time pacing around the room looking at pictures. Edie noticed that Conroy followed him like a chubby puppy waiting for a crumb to drop.
Edie took her meager morsels off to the side where she found a squishy lazy-boy recliner, intending to close her eyes and snooze. From her vantage point, positioned on the sidelines, right on the fifty-yard line, she could observe the entire room.
She’d always had good hearing, her kids hated that. She could hear every word, or nearly every word, spoken between Warren and Conroy. By leaning the other way, she could hear the three-way conversation between Rocky, Gerry and Shelly at the wet bar. They weren’t exchanging many words at the moment, so Edie gave all of her attention to Warren and Conroy, who were making their way down to the other end of the room.
“Where do you suppose these were taken?” Warren asked, without looking in Conroy’s direction.
“Hmmm, I don’t know, maybe New Mexico or Arizona. Yeah, look, it says Nogales, Arizona.”
“That’s Rocky on the hang-glider, then? Looks like a damn fool thing to do,” Warren said.
“No. Not really, not if you know what you’re doing. I’ve never tried it, but I’ve heard it’s exciting and pretty safe.”
“Rocky gets around. Nogales, that’s pretty close to Mexico, isn’t it?”
Conroy leaned in for a closer look at the photos. “Yeah, a few miles, I suppose.” He began to tour the gallery himself, studying all the pictures. Edie had already looked at the pictures. Edie had pointed out Rocky parasailing in the Caribbean, in Canada, in Florida, Rocky hang-gliding in Arizona, New Mexico, Baja and Acapulco. There were a few pictures of Shelly and Ashton in all of those places too, but for the most part the pictures were of scenery and Rocky Hardenburger.
The photo gallery turned Edie off. She kept thinking of all the homeless people that could be helped with a fraction of the money that had gone into this house, and on those fancy trips. By the sour expression on Conroy’s face, he wasn’t impressed either.
She closed her eyes, deciding to rest, when she heard Conroy ask, “So what’s going on, Warren?”
Opening her eyes to mere slits, and turning her head a little, she sighted down to the end of the room where Warren and Conroy stood facing one another.
“Well….I’m not sure,” Warren said. He titled his head to the side and, without looking at Conroy, said, “I’m waiting for a phone call, then I’ll know where to go from here.”
“But Gerry’s off the hook, right?”
Edie held her breath.
“Oh, sure, yeah. Never a doubt in my mind. Gerry couldn’t kill a flea. The coroner all but confirmed that. Ashton drowned. The bullet in his toe came from the little Browning automatic. Even if he hadn’t drowned, that wound to his toe wouldn’t have killed him. We found the gun on the floor right where she said. Her fingerprints were all over it, no one else’s.”
“You think this Ralston guy drowned Ashton?”
Warren dipped his head. “Ralston is our mystery man, all right. But who is he? I think it’s kinda strange he told Gerry specifically to wait for him at the Koffee Kup. Makes me think he knows his way around Middleton. Seems mighty strange he showed up here when he did. Then he vanishes. If there’s a dead body, the FBI boys like to take control, run the show.”
After hearing this, Edie allowed herself to drift off to sleep. Gerry was off the hook, that’s all she needed to know.
Rocky’s voice woke her up. Edie checked her watch, it was almost seven-thirty, the sun would be going down soon.
“I need some air, for God’s sake, Warren,” Rocky said. “I’m just going out on the patio. I won’t jump off the cliff.”
“Well, now, Rocky,” Warren said in his best police chief slow drawl, “I don’t know about that. I got the idea from these pictures, you’re pretty good at jumping off cliffs. I’d feel better if you’d have a seat there by Gerry and relax—shouldn’t be much longer now.”
Rocky headed off toward the bathroom in a huff.
Edie had to smirk. Rocky in a huff—she didn’t know he could get mad. It didn’t look right on him, it looked put-on.
Warren must’ve thought so too, he tipped his head to Conroy to ask, “Are there windows in the bathroom?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“Never mind, you go with him.”
Conroy shrugged his shoulders and hustled off to the rest room.
Edie leaned too far forward and the recliner bounced down into the chair position. No one else paid any attention to her, or to Rocky and Conroy. Gerry and Shelly stood checking their hair in the mirror behind the wet bar.
The door to the rest room was on the opposite side of the room from the patio doors, not far from where Edie sat.
She bent down, pretending to adjust the strap on her sandals and heard Rocky complain, “Hey, do you mind? I’d like a little privacy, please.”
She heard Conroy say, “Sorry, but nature calls. Too much ice tea. Mind if I go first?”
Edie snickered to herself, imagining the look on Rocky’s face. Conroy Davis—who knew he had so many facets?
Edie heard the toilet flush, then water running, and soon after, Conroy emerged, adjusting his trousers and tucking in his shirt. He made his way back over to the chief, they made eye contact, and Conroy shook his head.
Warren visibly relaxed. After hitching up his pants, he let his shoulders down and took a deep breath.
Then Warren’s phone rang.
Edie heard the toilet flush in the rest room, the water running in the sink, then out of the corner of her eye she saw Rocky come back out into the room. It didn’t register with her at the time that he’d changed his clothes. He started for the wet bar, at least Edie thought he did; she wanted to hear what Warren was saying on the phone and didn’t really pay attention to Rocky.
She heard the name Ralston on Warren’s lips. Then Shelly cried out, “Daddy,” not loud, but distressful. Edie looked where she’d last seen Shelly over by the wet bar. The woman looked to be pulling herself along, using the wet bar for support, headed toward the opened patio door.
She let go of the bar, screamed, “Daddy,” then fainted dead away and disappeared behind the bar.
Warren hollered, “Shit!”
Edie had come up out of her chair and stood a few feet from the opened patio door. A man, dressed in a beige jumpsuit, sprinted off to the left of the house. That direction led toward the rim of a canyon edge which was four or five hundred feet above the town of Middleton to the east. The Middleton airport was a little south and west, but close by as the crow flies. Edie saw the man leap over scrub sage and bitterbrush as gracefully as a buck mule deer. By the time Edie realized it was Rocky, he’d traveled well away from the house, moving fast.
Warren had started to pick Shelly up off the floor, but dropped her and slammed past Edie out the opened patio door, shouting orders to his men before he gave chase.
Rocky made it to the hang-glider hanger at the highest point on the canyon wall. Stuffed under and between two old, twisted, knotted juniper trees, protected from the sun and rain, was a small canvas backpack.
He smiled, pleased with himself. As soon as Gerry had driven off for the Koffee Kup, he stashed the silver certificates and coins out here in the little pack. No one would’ve ever seen it camouflaged against the dirt and sage. Very few people knew this hanger existed. Ashton knew, and Shelly, but he doubted Gerry would’ve ever discovered it—she didn’t like to venture beyond the patio.
This afternoon, he’d come up here to have it out with Ashton. Shelly wouldn’t be home to run interference. The boy was running amuck, spending money like water, causing all kinds of talk and getting the wrong kind of attention. He hadn’t meant to drown the shit-head, but damn, the kid had gotten way too big for his britches. He’d thought to drag Ashton’s body out to the cliff but he hadn’t had time—Gerry arrived to pick up the crystal.
He’d thought to give Gerry the little pistol for a wedding present. He knew she’d be fascinated. It’d been dumb luck that he’d left the little box open on the hall table. He wanted to show it to Shelly. Shelly liked guns of all kinds.
Shoving Ashton’s body at Gerry, that’d been genius and fun. That diversion had given him time to cover up his wet shirt and trouser front with his suit coat and tie, and go around front to make it look like he’d just arrived.
He had a change of clothes and disguises stashed all over this house, his ranch, all of his cars and trucks, everywhere. He liked changing his identity. That was part of the fun of being FBI.
It only took him a couple of minutes to become Mr. Ralston, FBI. Poor Gerry hadn’t moved from her place in the hall, standing over Ashton’s body. Like a good little girl, she did as she was told and left him to make his get-away.
But then, Gerry had called him, told him about Ashton; he had to return to the house, he couldn’t leave—if he didn’t go back to the house it would look suspicious. Besides, he wanted to see if Warren Potts could sort out the mystery. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken Warren that long to get on to him.
He’d made a fatal mistake in telling Gerry to wait for him at the Koffee Kup and giving her that twenty. It’d been pure vanity to keep two of those silver certificates in his inside pocket. He liked giving Gerry money. She was such a child about it. He liked to hear her giggle and see her blush. He wanted to look into her purse to be sure she’d spent it. He didn’t need that silver certificate hanging around.
He’d stuck around too long, but all was not lost. He could be down to the airstrip and his plane in less than ten minutes. It would take the police at least fifteen minutes to figure out where he kept the plane. He wasn’t worried.
He quickly adjusted the little backpack on his back, then shrugged into the harness of the hang-glider. He heard Warren calling him. He heard the others headed his way but he knew better than to look up or look back.
The harness was on and he was in the process of clipping himself to the hang-glider itself when he heard the angry rattle at his neck.
He stood teetering precariously on the edge, not poised for flight, the wind wasn’t right yet. The sun was going down behind the mountains, all pink, blue and gold.
His neck and face were red and hot, soaked with salty perspiration. He felt the rattler strike from out of the confines of his backpack. The snake’s head, as it slammed its fangs into the side of his throat, felt as hard as a fist punch. The fangs penetrated deep, white-hot venom squirted into muscle. He screamed, and reacted by swatting the snake, angering it further.
When he lost his balance, he saw, in a wild instant of clarity, that he had nothing solid beneath his feet. The hang-glider lines had twisted, forcing the sheet to catch the wind in such a way as to flip it around and upside down. Eyes wide, he saw the side of the canyon coming at his face. He heard Warren shout over the edge, then a cold hard crack and a searing white-hot pain all down his side, then blackness.
The search and rescue people had a real challenge on their hands trying to get Rocky and his hang-glider off the face of the canyon wall. The snake had no intention of falling to his death and made a stand, ready to strike again if needed, nestled none too securely between Rocky’s limp body and the harness of the hang-glider.
The hang-glider hung there, with Rocky dangling from assorted harness, for nearly six hours. It took two helicopters, scores of rock climbers, and two snake handlers to finally get the job done. From the airport, Edie, Gerry, and with Conroy for support, waited. From where they stood, the hang-glider looked like a kid’s kite stuck on the rocks.
Even a month after Rocky took his last leap, Edie found herself still puzzled as to what the hell had happened. As near as she could grasp from what Warren Potts had told them, Rocky, alias Ralston, had been privately investigating his own son for drug trafficking for over four years. Then he went from investigating straight to plain trafficking. Ashton resented his father taking control of the business. Father and son had been on the outs for some time, but Shelly kept soothing their ruffled feathers.
On the day Gerry went to the Lundendosky house to pick up the crystal, Rocky had just returned from a very lucrative drug deal. He always wore a disguise for these deals, he liked to alter his personality. The cops found a stash of hair-pieces under the day bed in Rocky’s office.
For whatever reason, they’d gotten into an argument and Rocky drowned his son. Rocky held Ashton’s head under water in the Jacuzzi. The proof that Ashton had been drowned in the Jacuzzi came from the water in his lungs.
How Rocky meant to get away with murdering his son, Edie didn’t know. She suspected he meant to pin it on Gerry, make it look accidental. But Gerry couldn’t hit the broadside of a barn with a gun. She proved that, she shot Ashton in the toe, for God’s sake, hardly fatal. Rocky must’ve been very disappointed in her.
Edie figured he could’ve gotten clean away. But Gerry called him, and he came back. He came back to the scene of the crime. He shouldn’t have done that. Warren said Rocky probably came back for the silver certificates and coins. But Edie wanted to believe he came back for Gerry and Shelly.
The kid at the Koffee Kup had to turn in the silver certificate to the Department of the Treasury. But Shelly gave him a hundred dollars as a reward for being a good citizen.
The marriage between Gerry and Rocky wasn’t legit. The license proved a very convincing fake, and for a few days it looked like Gerry would end up with nothing but memories. To avoid getting tied up in court, Shelly transferred the title to the ranch to Gerry and told her to keep whatever else she found that was her father’s.
Shelly left town for Costa Rica before the week was over. The mansion sold in a month. Edie figured Shelly wanted to get out of town before Warren started asking her questions.
Edie knew for a fact that Warren was relieved not to have to ask her those questions, he had the FBI breathing down his neck as it was.
She was home now, back in her old rutty routine. Gerry called her this morning. She said she was having dinner again with Conroy Davis. He was handling all her legalities these days. She said she didn’t know how she’d ever gotten along without him. She said he’d lost ten pounds, and they were going shopping later. She’d talked him into getting a toupee.
Edie guessed that Gerry had found a new project. It wasn’t hang-gliding or parasailing, but it was something her sister knew how to do really well—she was really good at shopping.