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Authors: Elizabeth Lowell

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BOOK: Blue Smoke and Murder
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Zack watched while Jill bent over, picked up a rock, and sent it out over the pasture with a vicious snap of her arm.

“Anyway,” she said, “Mom somehow got word to her aunt.”

“Modesty Breck.”

“Yes. A few days later Modesty came and brought us to the Breck ranch. I shed my polyg clothes—bonnet and long skirts—cut off my long braids with a kitchen knife. I learned to ride, rope, brand, handle hay bales, and mend fence.”

“Your father just let your mother go?” Zach asked.

“Oh, he came to take us back. Once.”

“What happened?”

Jill’s smile was both real and cold. “Modesty ran him off with a snake gun. Told him if he ever walked on Breck land again, she’d kill him and bury him in the kitchen garden, because all he was good for was fertilizer.”

Zach laughed. “I think I would have liked your great-aunt.”

“She wouldn’t have liked you. She didn’t have any use for men.
Mom took back her maiden name and changed mine, too. None of the Breck women have entered a tabernacle since.”

“Yet you live in an overwhelmingly Mormon county.”

“That’s why I was home-schooled.”

“No wonder you don’t trust the sheriff,” Zach said. “You don’t trust anyone in civil authority.”

“Not when the Latter-day Saints are involved. Ned Purcell is an elder in the church. Every elected official around here is publicly devout. More than a few of them have plural marriages, though nobody talks about it.”

“School roll call must get monotonous,” Zach said dryly.

“Oh, they’re not stupid. Everybody but the first wife picks a last name out of a telephone book. Daddy is called uncle, except for the children of the first wife.” Jill fired another rock into the pasture. “When it comes to women, this place is stuck in the 1850s.”

“You’ll be happy to know that St. Kilda Consulting is firmly grounded in the twenty-first century,” Zach said.

“Joe Faroe certainly is. He respected my skill on the river. Actually, he enjoyed it. He really didn’t care that a female was better at something physical than he was. That’s pretty rare in a man, no matter what the year.”

“You’d like his wife.”

“I already like his son. There’s nothing wrong with Lane that a few more years won’t cure. He’s going to be a good man.”

“Full circle.”

“What?” she asked.

“From your childhood to the river where you saved Lane’s life to my knocking on your hotel room door because someone threatened to kill you. Funny thing…”

She raised an eyebrow.

Zach looked back at her. “You haven’t mentioned the paintings once.”


o problemo,” Score said into the telephone. “I’ve got the kind of evidence you can’t use in court, but he’ll sweat big bucks after you show him the airline manifest and the photos from the kiddy whorehouse in Thailand. He’ll not only pay you alimony, he’ll kiss your ass with gratitude for not selling everything to the
.” He paused. “No, the
won’t pay more for the photos than he will. Trust me on that.”

Another phone rang. Someone in the front office picked it up. Seconds later, a light blinked on his intercom, telling him that his next appointment was waiting. He wrapped up his conversation, assured the client that the photos were coming by special messenger to her lawyer, hung up, and hit the intercom button.

“Send her in,” Score said.

His door opened to one of his tech specialists. At the moment her hair was dyed black with green tips. The nose and lip studs were missing, but the tongue bell was still there.

Made him drool to think about it, so he didn’t. She was one of his best techs. He didn’t care if she showed up naked with pins stuck everywhere.

But she had a way of redlining his temper. No respect.

“Sit down,” Score said. “What do you have?”

“Not much,” Amy said. “I ran it through every electronic cleaner program we have. Still sounds like she packed the bug in a suitcase stuffed with clothes.”

“Better than nothing.”

Amy shrugged and handed over some pages of script.

A glance at the first page told Score what he already knew. The locater was alive and well. The subject was about twenty miles from the old lady’s ranch. Heading home, because there sure wasn’t anywhere else in that part of the world to go.

“Huh. Did she rent wheels?” he asked.

“If she did, the bug wasn’t in range for the transaction. But the progress of the locater is right in line with what I’d expect from a car on the road.”

“That’s the trouble with satellite phones. Too expensive for most people to keep close like a cell phone. It’s probably out of voice range a lot of the time.”

“She hasn’t used it,” Amy agreed. “Maybe she bought a cell phone.”

“Not from any carrier in Mesquite or Page.”

Hacking into business records was Score’s specialty. Cell phones, landlines, credit cards, airlines, hotels, restaurants, jewelry stores, state and federal government—if information was out there, so were Score’s clever employees.

“Maybe the cell carrier hasn’t registered her account in their main computer yet,” Amy said.

“Or maybe she got smart and bought a throwaway,” he said.

“That’ll make it tough for us.”

Score didn’t answer. He was scanning the second page of the script. “Two voices? You sure?”

“One female, same pattern as you recorded when you called her,”
Amy said, scratching her head with a pencil. “One male, identity unknown.”

Frowning, Score read the few verifiable words to come out of the mush of sound that the bug had sent to his computer. Then he swore under his breath. The word paintings had appeared more than once.

Is she talking about them being burned?

Is she selling them?

Does she really have them or were the JPEGs pre-burn files?

Is it all a scam?

Had the old lady’s grandniece been in on it from the jump?

The garbled signal didn’t have any answers. Neither did his own experience with Modesty and Jillian Breck. Modesty had died before she talked. Jill had been clever enough to avoid his trap altogether.

Even ducks know what to keep away from during hunting season. Dodging me in Mesquite didn’t exactly require big smarts on her part.

But it irritated the hell out of him.

Score tossed the script aside with a curse. “Keep after it. And if that bug moves from its present location, tell me ASAP.”

“How far? The government is dicking with the GPS again. Three-hundred-foot radius of error.”

“Set up a one-mile guard perimeter. Tell me if or when she breaks that fence. Even ten feet beyond that mile. Got it?”

“Got it.” Amy stood and headed for the door. The green tips of her hair bounced stiffly.

Score read the script again and again. Nothing new popped. Except his blood pressure. He really needed to hit the gym before someone stupid redlined his temper.

But more than a workout, he needed to find out what the Breck bitch was up to.

He looked at his calendar. He didn’t have too many appointments in the next few days that couldn’t be handled by other employees,
but he had a few he should handle. He supposed he could assign another operative to Breck.

Not likely. Not with the old lady dead. Even if they busted it down to manslaughter, I’d do hard time.

This one I keep real close.

Silently he rubbed thumb against index finger, wondering if he should get closer to the Breck woman now or risk waiting.

If she had the paintings, yes, he should be closer.

If she didn’t, no.

If. If. If.

He laughed out loud, the sound as reckless as he’d like to be. But he was too smart to be stupid.

I should cut back on the ’roids

Not yet. It’s too much fun twisting big guys’ dicks

He shook his head over the skinny runt he’d once been and went back to his calendar. If he had to, he could handle the Breck woman and not be missed from work.

He almost hoped she’d make him do it.


aitlin Crawford glanced up from the computer in her home office as her husband walked in. He looked out of place among the sleek modern furniture she loved. He was dressed like a weekend cowboy who’d never been on a horse. In the decade they had been married, she still hadn’t gotten used to his wardrobe. But she’d learned to accept it.

A rich man was entitled to his oddities.

And it was really odd that Tal had taken her for his third wife solely because she came from an upper-crust Pasadena family who could no longer afford its good breeding. He’d acquired her like one of his paintings, enjoyed parading her “class” in front of his friends and business associates, and kept on wearing his hick cowboy boots and bolo ties.

And losing money.

He has a lot to lose,
she reminded herself.
Anyone who can afford Pollock and Picasso has more money than he knows what to do with.

Caitlin’s mother hadn’t raised any stupid daughters. Caitlin might not know about the intimate details of her husband’s business transactions, but she had hired someone to keep tabs on all of
his bank accounts. Cash was her bottom line. Being raised genteel and poor in a rich neighborhood had taught her what made the world go round.

It wasn’t sex.

But her husband didn’t make finding out about his accounts easy for her. Tal was old-fashioned about more than his wardrobe. She had a house account that he generously filled and never mentioned how business was, if she should spend less or more. If it weren’t for whispers and rumors, she wouldn’t have known that federal tax collectors had been taking a very hard, long look at some of his business write-offs. She didn’t know why, or what, or how serious the government’s case was. She only knew enough to be afraid.

If Tal went down, she’d go down with him.

“How did the meeting with Lee Dunstan go?” Caitlin asked. Her tone was upbeat, her smile warm, and her stomach tight with fear.

“I told you not to worry about a thing, baby. It’s all taken care of. The IRS will be sniffing up someone else’s butt real soon.”

She managed not to curse out loud. Or scream. Eighteen months ago, the head of the accounting firm Tal used for business and personal record-keeping had been indicted, tried, and sent to jail for fraud, leaving behind a lot of financial wreckage for the IRS to sift through, searching for taxes owed on unreported profits.

“I’m glad to hear it,” she said, smiling through her clenched teeth.

She just wished she believed it. But Tal never talked business with her, which left her dangling alone with her vicious fear of being poor again.

“Would you like to go over the guest list for the post-auction party?” she asked.

“I’d rather be whipped.”

Caitlin had been expecting that response. Tal had married her to add a gloss to his home, his entertaining, and his reputation. Be
cause she’d been raised to be a rich man’s wife, she was good at gloss. Since she wasn’t the type to count money that wasn’t in her hand, she’d cut the guest list down to people who could do Tal’s various business interests some good, and to hell with his freeloading shirtsleeve relatives and old acquaintances. He wouldn’t miss them unless someone pointed out their absence.

The money saved would go to her own hidden bank account, along with everything she’d skimmed from the household account.

A woman married to an older man had to look out for herself. Though Tal would never admit it, he simply wasn’t as quick as he’d been five years ago. Or even last year.

“Then I won’t bother you with the details of the party,” Caitlin said, smiling.

“You need any more money in the household account?”

“Don’t I always?”

Tal laughed and pulled a checkbook out of his jeans pocket. “Fifty do it?”


“Hell, these parties just keep getting more expensive.”

“And you keep getting more business from them.”

Tal laughed. “You got me there. Sixty it is.”

Smiling, he wrote his wife a check for sixty thousand dollars. She was a bargain at twice the price.

Class couldn’t be bought, but it could be married.


ill drove up to the old cabin, put on the parking brake of Zach’s truck, and turned off the engine. She was still rather surprised by him. When she’d said that the dirt track leading to the old homestead was hard to find unless you knew what you were looking for, he’d just handed her the keys to his truck.

Altogether an intriguing man. Unexpected, too. She could tell he liked the way she moved, but he hadn’t even hinted at a pass, much less made one.

Very intriguing.

Irritating, too. The longer she was with him, the more the idea of a pass appealed.

“Home sweet home, such as it is,” she said.

Zach closed the computer he’d been using. Silently he took in the weathered old cabin backed up against a red sandstone cliff and tucked beneath a massive old cottonwood.

He whistled softly. “And here I thought
lived with pieces of history.”

“What do you mean?”

“When I’m not on a contract for St. Kilda, I collect abandoned
industrial art—old muscle cars of the ’60s and early ’70s—and restore them. Carcheology, as it were, relics of a time before OPEC ruled. But this cabin goes back to a time before internal combustion engines owned the world, a time when seeps of crude oil in Pennsylvania weren’t worth the land they sat on.”

Jill smiled. “I’d like to have lived then.”

“You’re one of the few people I’ve ever met who could actually do it.”

The compliment surprised her. She glanced sideways at Zach. He was looking at the cabin, his light brown eyes like a hawk’s, missing nothing.

Intriguing, irritating, intelligent. Sexy in a lean, easy-moving way.

She shook her head at the direction of her thoughts. She’d never jumped a man. She wasn’t planning on starting now, no matter what her hormones were pushing for.

“What did St. Kilda say about Blanchard?” she asked, turning away from anything personal.

“There are art dealers in east Texas, and there are men with the last name of Blanchard in east Texas, but no man fits in both categories. Or woman.”

“He could have been just visiting, or looking for art.”

“He could have been a figment of his own imagination.”

She smiled rather grimly. “Yeah, that occurred to me when I saw my trashed car.”

Zach studied the weathered cabin with its thick, crooked shutters and rifle slits that had been filled in during a later, safer era. He’d seen the bones of pioneer cabins while he scoured the rural West for old muscle cars, but he’d never seen a place this old that people still occupied.

“The dude was hoping you’d bring the paintings with you,” Zach said.

“I’d have to be dumb as road apples to do that.”

Laughing, he turned and watched the sunlight burn gold and red in Jill’s hair. “You’d be surprised how dumb people are.”

“Actually, I wouldn’t,” she said. “I’ve had men refuse to get in my raft because—”

“—you’re a girl,” Zach cut in. “Stupid. Any man who looked at more than the usual places would see that you’re an athlete.”

“Usual places?”

“Tits and ass.”

She snickered. “I think it comes with the Y gene.”

“So Y gene equals stupid?”

“It can.” She opened the truck door and slid out. “Ditto for XX. I’ve seen all kinds of stupid on the river.”

Zach got out, looked once more at their back trail. No dust, no sign of watchers. The idea of her living here alone made him twitchy. No matter how fit she was, a professional with a knife or a gun—or a torch—would make short work of her.

But he wasn’t dumb enough to say it aloud. She’d get mad, he’d get mad, and they’d get nowhere fast.

The wind picked up again, playing with the cottonwood leaves that had already fallen and tugging more free from the tree’s broad crown.

Zach followed Jill into the cabin and through the small kitchen to the pantry. She fiddled at the back of one of the cabinets, it moved, and an opening into the sandstone appeared.

“Cool,” Zach said, grinning. “My great-great-grandmother used to tell stories about living like this on a pioneer homestead in what became New Mexico. Never expected to see one of these old hiding places still in working order.”

“We lived simply, but we lived on our own terms.”

“That’s the way my mother’s family felt.” He watched as Jill bent
over and tugged at something. The much-used material of her jeans shaped a very nice ass. “Need any help?”

“Need? No. But I wouldn’t mind.”

In the name of duty, Zach crowded close to Jill until he could look into the opening. Her hips felt even better than they looked.

“The trunk?” he asked.


He rubbed past her until he could reach a handle on the old steamer trunk. The leather was worn and brittle with age, but it held when he pulled on it.

Jill lifted her end of the trunk and staggered slightly, surprised. The trunk felt a lot lighter with him on the other end. After a few bumps and missteps, they got it into the kitchen.

“Was your great-aunt’s note in here?” Zach asked.

“No. It was under the primer bucket at the sink.”

“Smart. Only someone who planned to use the pump would lift the bucket.”

“Modesty was smart. Hard, too. That’s how she survived.” She looked up at Zach. “And you’re one of the few people in my generation who knows about hand pumps and primer buckets.”

“That’s me.” He gave her a crooked smile. “Just an old-fashioned sort of guy.”

“Got a bridge to sell me, too, right?”

“Any time you’re in a buying kind of mood.”

Jill hid her smile as she bent over and opened the trunk. Zach was a lot of things, but she doubted that old-fashioned was one of them. Old-fashioned men were in a hurry to prove how strong they were. And the electronics he worked with so casually were as slick as any she’d seen. Part of her itched to get her hands on his computer. Most of her itched to get her hands on him.

With a muttered curse, she opened the trunk.

Zach saw a beaten-up leather portfolio and six rectangular packages of varying sizes. “What’s that?” he asked, touching the portfolio.

“Family stuff—fading photos and old letters, legal documents, water rights, ranch boundaries, lease-lands, and whatever else somebody thought was worth keeping for the next generation. I went through them already. None of them has anything to do with the paintings.”

“Okay. I’ll put the portfolio on the bottom of my research list.”

Right now he wanted to see the paintings that someone wanted bad enough to threaten Jill with death.

And maybe, just maybe, kill her great-aunt.

The timing of the death after the painting had been sent out for appraisal was a coincidence, to say the least. The missing, then destroyed, painting was another coincidence.

He didn’t trust coincidences.

“Modesty inherited the trunk from her sister,” Jill said, setting the tray aside. “My grandmother. She was a wannabe artist who was Thomas Dunstan’s on-again, off-again lover.”

Zach went still.
Thomas Dunstan.
No wonder some mystery man was trying to get his hands on those paintings.

“I know the name,” Zach said neutrally, eyeing the rectangles stacked neatly in the big trunk. “Fine painter. Erratic output. I’ll bet he’s pretty pricey now.”

“So I hear. There were thirteen paintings in this trunk. Twelve, now. The dude who trashed my car ripped one of the paintings to ribbons. Just a small one, but…” Her clear eyes hardened. “It was a piece of beauty, of history, and now it’s just scraps shoved into my belly bag.”

Zach made a mental note to check out the bag when he went back to the truck. Garland Frost would whelp a litter of green lizards if a Dunstan had been destroyed.

“Twelve paintings.” He whistled softly. “If they’re Dunstans and can be documented, they’re probably worth enough to pay taxes for the next century.”

She paused in the unwrapping of the paintings. “Really?”

“Yeah. At a minimum.”

“I know as much about the market for Western art as I do about finding, um, so-called industrial art in old junkyards,” she said.

He grinned despite the adrenaline humming in his blood.

Twelve new Dunstans. Sweet God

If they’re real

“I loved these paintings as a child,” Jill said, pulling out a fat, carefully wrapped rectangle. “I used to sneak up into the attic, where Modesty had them hidden, and look at them. That stopped when Modesty caught me. She smacked me but good.”

“And you sneaked back anyway.”

She shook her head. “Mother told me Modesty would throw us out if she caught me in the attic again. I was a kid, but I’d learned how precious shelter was when we ran away from New Eden. I never saw the paintings again until my great-aunt was dead.”

“Did Modesty say the paintings were valuable?”

“All she said about them was to stay away and never mention them again. To anyone.”

Zach really wanted to peel off the wrapping and have a look at what Jill was holding, but made himself wait. One of many things he’d learned from Frost was patience.

Of a predatory kind.

“What do you think now that you’ve seen them?” Zach asked. “Valuable or trash?”

“I look at things as an artist, not as a merchant.”

Ah, finally,
he thought.

There was information about Jill in the files from St. Kilda, but he preferred to compare facts on file with what she willingly told him.
He’d been real curious about some of those facts, given that one of Jill’s three college majors was fine art.

Some of the best counterfeiters were frustrated fine artists.

“Do you paint?” he asked.

“I studied painting in college,” she said. “I loved playing with oils, but making a living at it wasn’t likely. So I went to my second love, the river.”

He wondered what she wasn’t saying. He didn’t ask, hoping that she would keep talking. He needed her to trust him.

Part of the job,
he told himself.

But he’d never been quite so determined to win a client’s trust as he was with Jillian Breck.

“The more I learned about how to create certain effects with oils,” she continued, “the more I began to wonder if these paintings weren’t quite valuable. They’re very good. In my opinion, anyway, which isn’t worth a penny.”

Zach wanted to rip the fat rectangle out of Jill’s hands. But all he did was ask, “Didn’t your great-aunt ever have the paintings appraised?”

Jill shook her head. “My grandmother never wanted the paintings seen by anyone. Modesty agreed, and kept that promise even after her sister died.”

“That’s odd.”

She shrugged. “Modesty raised odd to an art.”

“Then why did she finally send one of the paintings out to be appraised?”

“I’m guessing it was the taxes on the ranch. We’re land poor. I just keep wondering…” Jill’s voice faded.


“If she would still be alive but for the tax bill. It’s paid now, by the way. Back taxes, death taxes, the whole greasy tortilla. It took every head of stock she owned, plus the insurance settlement for the fire
and accidental death. Next year…” Jill shook her head. “Next year the land will be on the market. Unless those paintings are worth something, I can’t afford to keep the Breck ranch. And I’m damned if I’ll hand it over to my fundamentalist brothers.”

Zach looked out the cabin’s open door, across the sloping bench of land the ranch sat on to the dry canyons and low ridges that ran all the way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon ten miles distant. The ranch was beautiful in the way of the arid West, the kind of spare, demanding beauty that most people couldn’t see.

Jill could. Her eyes and her voice told Zach that she loved the land. She was hoping the paintings would allow her to keep the ranch.

“Art is a funny business,” he said. “Getting funnier every day.”

“From what I’ve gathered online, there’s huge money in the art market.”

“And no way to value a painting but its last auction price,” he said. “Or the second-to-last price—that’s the one two people were willing to pay.”

“What do you mean?”

“Art is like everything else. It’s worth what someone’s willing to pay for it. Period. In order to make people pay more, much more, auctioneers and experts churn out a lot of blue smoke. The painting being flogged doesn’t change from one decade to the next. Only the volume and quality of blue smoke varies. And the price of the art.”

“You think my paintings are worthless?” she asked.

“I haven’t seen them, have I?”

She smiled slowly. “Thought you’d never ask.”

BOOK: Blue Smoke and Murder
8.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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