Authors: Virginia Swift
A MUSTANG SALLY
For Vi and Bunk
This work of fiction would not have been possible without the expert advice, generous support, and all-around kindness of many friends. In Cody, thanks to Officer Darrell Steward of the Cody Police Department, for an introduction to police procedure; Mary Ackerman and Marty Coe, Wyoming businesswomen and early morning risers; Paul Fees, Lillian Turner, and all the good people at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center; Doug Hart and Harriet Corbett, hospitable ranchers. In Sheridan, Officer Trevor Martin patiently answered my very basic questions. Katie Curtiss and Hal Corbett have, as always, provided endless insight, guided tours of the big country, put me up, and even bought the wine. In Laramie, Kathy Jensen and Audie Blevins make me feel at home even when they’re planning the next trek to, yes, Kathmandu.
Thanks to new friends who help me navigate the writer’s world: authors Fred Harris and Stephen White; my incredible agent, Elaine Koster; my amazing editor, Carolyn Marino.
For keeping the music alive, thanks to Steve Ballou, Tom Baumgartel, Michael Davis, Henry Fountain, Catherine Kleiner, Colin Keeney, Joe Massey, Jon Myers, Craig Pinto, Bev Seckinger, and Joe Vinikow.
Here in Albuquerque, I’m grateful to Dr. Mike Crossey, for cheerfully answering my impertinent questions about matters of pathology; Dr. Beth Morgan, for other medical expertise; Kay Marcotte and the fine folks at Page One; patient readers and dear companions Beth Bailey and Melissa Bokovoy; number one consumer Karen Marcotte; the Gators and their parents; and the First Friday group. As always, Peter Swift has been my most excellent editor, audience, and beloved partner, and Sam and Annie Swift have fed my heart. Other Swift family members have sustained us all, even though we’re far away.
Finally, thank you to Violette and Henry Levkoff, who have had faith in me from the beginning. Not just for the gourmet wines and black-tie guests at the Black Orchid bookshop, or even the haute cuisine barbecues in Manhattan, but for (egad) almost half a century of love, this is for you.
Sally Alder had never been all that big on the notion that the two sexes were, in some fundamental way, opposites. She tended to believe that men and women had a lot more in common than, say, palm trees and golden retrievers, and she’d always held that any woman had the potential to be as big a jerk as any man.
But she was beginning to think that there might be some differences between the genders that were hardwired. Take, for example, the inability of male drivers to navigate supermarket parking lots. Every time you came within a hair of a head-on with some flea brain evidently unaware of the fact that all the parked cars were pointing in one (i.e., the other) direction, you just knew there’d be a guy behind the wheel. Even Hawk Green, a man who could find his way through the densest forest and navigate across the most trackless desert with the confidence of a man getting in an elevator, seemed to have a brain freeze every time he had to tackle the grocery store lot.
On this lovely Wyoming summer morning, the parking lot of the Laramie Lifeway was terrifyingly full of them, in big rusting pickups and behemoth RVs and SUVs, half of them hauling horse trailers, scaring the hell out of the regular shoppers and the mild-mannered tourist families who had the lack of imagination to be headed down the aisles in the normal way. Sally’d decided to play it safe and park halfway down an empty row, far from the store, when a long-bed king-cab Ford swerved ass-backward into the space right next to her. Just as she was opening the door of her mint-condition, 1964 1/2 Mustang and stepping out, three happy cow-pokes in plaid shirts and brand-new straw hats leaped out of the Ford in a clatter of empty beer cans, hauled a giant Coleman cooler out of the bed of the pickup, pulled the plug on the bottom, and started draining cooler water all over her new Italian sandals. She looked down into the open cooler. A ballooning plastic bag containing a loaf of Wonder bread and a half-open pack of bologna floated in two inches of cloudy fluid.
Bologna water on her new shoes.
She gave the pokes a murderous look, but they were too busy deciding that their lunch looked good enough to go another day. Fine. Maybe they’d get botulism.
To be fair, the pokes weren’t the only source of congestion. Threading her way to the store, Sally first ran afoul of a Winnebago with Nebraska plates unloading an oversize couple, tempers inflamed by raging red sunburns, fighting about whose idea it had been to spend Sunday by the pool at the Little America campground, and who had forgotten that the sun was stronger at high altitude. Then she was nearly run down by a pair of spandex-clad mountain bikers who were treating the parking lot like the rad-most slickrock at Moab. And finally, wonder of wonders, a vintage Volkswagen van sat blocking the handicapped access ramp. The van had disgorged a tribe of pierced and tattooed dreadheads in tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans, panhandling shoppers for grub money.
Jubilee Days. Every July, for one week, it was the same. Here it was only Monday morning, and already the multitude was gathering for the feast. Laramie locals had three choices: party down, hunker down, or get out.
Long experience had taught Sally to plan a combination of the three, starting with getting out. She and Hawk were taking the afternoon off and heading up to the mountains for a hike. The Laramie Range, east of town on the way to Cheyenne, wasn’t as high or as breathtaking as the Snowies, but it was a shorter drive. Hawk could get some work done in the morning, and she figured she’d get in a bout of grocery shopping. Pulling a cart out from the line of them nested together, she nearly collided with the red-faced Nebraskans. Yep, “bout” was the word.
Laramie had four supermarkets, and Sally had shopped them all and settled on the Lifeway. It was closest to her house, she knew where everything was, and now and then she could even find a piece of fish that didn’t look like it had been forced to crawl all the way from the ocean to Wyoming. Ordinarily she found the store well enough stocked, spacious, and clean. The employees, if not uniformly friendly and helpful, were at least not generally surly and incompetent. A model consumer experience, even though she and Hawk had the habit of referring to the place as “the Death Trap.”
Today the place was nearing overload. The aisles were jammed. The shelves had already been denuded of high-demand items like hot dogs and Oreos and Velveeta, and the stock clerks were having a hard time keeping up. Sally was rushing through her own shopping and trying to get the hell out of there when, as was inevitable, she ran into someone she knew, who wanted to yak. Amber McCloskey, a University of Wyoming student who was house-sitting for Sally’s friends Edna McCaffrey and Tom Youngblood, was bearing down on her with a cart-load of trail mix, instant oatmeal, and macaroni and cheese. “Hey, Dr. Alder! How you doin’?” she said cheerfully, the metal stud in her tongue flapping up and down in a hypnotic little dance.
“Hey, Amber,” Sally returned weakly, registering two facial piercings (lip and eyebrow) she wasn’t sure she’d seen before. “How’s Edna’s house?”
“Great! Gosh, I can’t believe how big it is compared to my apartment. I don’t know how they keep it clean all the time!”
“And all those plants they’ve got—inside, outside, upstairs, downstairs, jeez, it’s practically a jungle. The water bills must be, like, gigantic! Of course, you don’t really need to water as much as they told me to,” Amber said with a laugh. “Most of what’s out there will survive or it won’t. If I was going off to do my fieldwork in Kathmandu for the summer, like Dean McCaffrey is, I sure wouldn’t have bothered planting that big vegetable garden.”
They probably shouldn’t have, Sally thought. She imagined that by the time Amber was done ignoring the garden, Edna and Tom’s yard would be a scale model of the surface of Mars. Edna wasn’t all that good at unpleasant surprises, and despite having a sterling character and excellent manners, Edna knew subtle techniques for passing the unpleasantness along. Not only was she one of Sally’s best friends, but she was also the dean of arts and sciences, and Sally was a history professor. On just about every level, Sally figured, it paid to keep Edna happy.
“Maybe I should come by and take a look at the garden,” Sally offered. “I love to weed and water—I do it to relax. You’d be doing me a favor.”
“Yeah, well, whatever. Actually, I’m glad I ran into you. The dean told me to call you if anything came up, and as it turns out, my boyfriend just asked me to go camping in Canada for a couple of weeks. We’re heading out tomorrow, so I won’t be around. I felt kind of bad about leaving the house, being as how I told Dean McCaffrey and Mr. Youngblood I’d hang around and all.”
And, er, “being as how” Edna and Tom were paying Amber for the hanging. Sally gave the girl her best professorial stare. “You’re just leaving Edna and Tom’s house for two weeks?” she asked.
“Oh, don’t worry, Dr. Alder. I was kind of freaked about taking this little trip, but everything’s all worked out. This guy called yesterday to say he was an old friend of the dean’s from Princeton, and was planning to drop by for a visit on his way out to the West Coast. He said he’d be in tomorrow, and since he didn’t have a tight timetable, he’d be glad to stick around and keep an eye on things. How about that?” Amber said.
An old friend of Edna’s from Princeton? An academic with two weeks of slack in his schedule? “Oh really? What’s the guy’s name?” Sally asked.
Amber’s face scrunched up in thought. Her facial jewelry quivered. “Something to do with an appliance, I think. Oh yeah! Stover. Sheldon Stover. He said they were colleagues at the institute.”
Sally knew that Edna had been a fellow at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, so that made sense. But she’d never heard of this Sheldon Stover. “You say he’ll be here tomorrow? Do you plan to stick around to meet him?”
Now Amber was frowning. This perfect solution to her house-sitting dilemma might have its drawbacks. “Well, actually, no. We want to get an early start, so I told this Stover guy I’d just leave a key in the mailbox. He said he was driving in from Omaha or someplace, and he’d be in around three in the afternoon. Said he was really sorry to miss Dean McCaffrey and all, but he was glad to be able to stay at her house.”
Shit. Sally figured she’d better make a point of getting over to Edna’s and check out this Stover guy. He might easily turn out to be a substantially better house-sitter than Amber McCloskey (could hardly be worse, from the sound of it), but at the very least she thought Edna would want her to show Sheldon Stover how to turn on a hose. “Well, don’t you worry about it, Amber. I’ll get over there tomorrow afternoon and meet him, give him the house and garden tour. You just have a great camping trip.”
Sally would email Edna in Kathmandu and let her know what was up. Since Edna was out in the villages much of the time, the email connection was unreliable, but at least Sally would have made the effort. And duly notified, Edna could decide herself whether to fire Amber’s ass and have Sally get somebody else to stay in the house. Meanwhile, Sally’d better keep an eye on things over at the McCaffrey-Youngblood abode.
By now, people were bumping into each other’s carts in their haste to grab the last tube of Crest or package of Charmin. Sally hustled to the checkout counter, only to find herself dangling at the back of a tediously long line. The new issues of the check stand tabloids didn’t come out until Tuesday, and she’d already caught up with last week’s scandals from Hollywood and Washington. She’d have to fall back on
Martha Stewart Living,
which at least offered the amusing possibility of trying to imagine anyone in Laramie taking a shine to Edwardian silver teapots or water lilies.
But she knew why the line was moving so slowly. Checker trainee. That was bad enough—they always had trouble with the scanner, and had to look up the codes for fruits and vegetables—but to compound the delays, the trainee in question was one Monette Bandy, recently promoted from shelf stocking, a kid who might already be stretching her peak career potential.
As it happened, Sally knew a little more about the new checker than she might have wished, because Monette was the niece of Sally’s good friends Dickie and Mary Langham. Dickie was the sheriff of Albany County, a man with a past that didn’t bear much scrutiny. Dickie’s wife, Mary, had at one time been the crunchiest young earth mother in Laramie, raising her three children on buckwheat groats and spaghetti squash, and wondering why the kids always seemed to have Dorito breath when they came home from parties. Mary’s sister Tanya, a woman famous for her lack of common sense even in the judgment-challenged 1970s, had run off with a bad-news roughneck by the name of Pettibone “Bone” Bandy, and Monette was the result. Sally had met Monette a couple of times at barbecues at Dickie and Mary’s.
From the looks of things there in the checkout line, Monette had inherited her mother’s unerring predilection for scumbags. Just now she was flirting awkwardly with an evil-smelling fat guy in a sweaty cowboy shirt that gaped open between the snaps, barely covering a barrel belly that was slopping over a belt that didn’t manage to keep his jeans from riding down unpalatably in the back. When the guy smiled at Monette it made Sally think of medieval dentistry, but Monette was simpering and smiling back as if he was frigging Mel Gibson or something.
Then again, Monette wasn’t exactly Julia Roberts. Her mother, Tanya, and her aunt Mary had been what Sally’s family had always called “zaftig,” and Monette had added a few Twinkies to the package. She’d dyed her hair the color of number two pencils, and her teeth were a fair match for those of the guy who was hitting on her. In fact, if there was a Hollywood star Monette could be said to resemble, it would be Gene Hackman. But he would probably have gotten those teeth fixed.
“I get off in an hour,” Monette was saying to the guy. “Maybe we could go get a beer or something. I know all the good places.”
“I’d sure enough like to get a little something,” said the guy, “but I reckon my old lady would kill my ass. She’s out in the truck right now, waiting for her carton of Kools. We drove down from Worland and she ran out of cigs fifty miles back, and then the baby started screaming her head off. The wife’s ready to tear the fucking truck apart, but she’s gotta breast-feed the brat so I get to come in here and get her butts for her.”
What a prince.
“Well, if you’re in town for the rodeo, maybe later this week you can sneak off and you and me can party somewhere,” Monette suggested.
What, Sally wondered, could the girl possibly be thinking?
The guy just chuckled, leered at Monette’s chest, took a minute to give Sally an unwelcome once-over, pocketed his change, and swaggered away.
“Hey, Monette,” Sally said, loading her stuff onto the conveyor belt. “Insane in here today.”
“Yeah, it’ll be busy all week,” the girl mumbled, not looking Sally in the eye. “Jubilee Days. What do you expect? What’re these things?” she asked, holding up a plastic bag full of vegetables.
“Artichokes,” said Sally. “They’re really good.”
“Never heard of ’em.” Monette looked up the code, punched it in, went back to scanning bar codes.
“Think you’ll get out to the rodeo?” Sally asked, passing the time.
“Yeah, I’ll get there,” said Monette, eyeballing a tin of anchovies with suspicion, but passing it across the scanning glass, “if they let me out of this puke hole.” She looked wistfully out at the parking lot, where the man she’d just hit on was firing up a particularly noisy Chevy pickup and—what else—heading the wrong way down the aisle. “Everybody’s in town lookin’ for fun, and I’m stuck working afternoons and nights almost the whole week. Today’s about my only day to get it on. I got things to do.”
“Well, I guess as the newest checker in the place, everybody else must have seniority, huh?” Sally said.
Monette said, “Whatever.”
Thinking about the exchange she’d just seen, it might be a good thing for Monette to be confined to the Life-way during prime party time. Rocky Mountain rodeos always brought in more than enough of the kind of men who were looking, as the fat guy had so poetically put it, to “get a little something” from a girl witless enough to make eye contact in a bar. Monette might try to act streetwise, but Sally knew that she was only twenty-one, new in town, obviously desperate for attention, and not the brightest pixel on the screen. Sally had found the conversation she’d just witnessed disturbing, and she said nothing as Monette bagged her groceries.