Death on the High Lonesome (7 page)

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
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“Okay. And add me to that list of people who are shocked at Velma going while she was sitting in a chair having a cup of tea.”


yle Harrison showed up right after Rosie came back from lunch.

“Ready to go, Virgil?”

“As ready as I can be, not knowing where I'm going or why. Can you at least tell me how long this is going to take?”

“That's going to depend on you and the dynamic of the moment.”

“This is sounding stranger and stranger.”

Kyle merely shrugged his shoulders, then headed toward the door. Virgil got up somewhat reluctantly and followed him.

“Don't worry,” Rosie said as they headed toward the door. “Everything here is covered. Dif will be in soon. Tomorrow we'll get out to High Lonesome before anyone else gets there.”

“Okay.” Virgil gave a half wave, then stepped out into the parking lot. Kyle was standing by Virgil's car.

“Looks like I'm driving,” Virgil said.

“Actually, I'm going to ride with you to our destination, but another agent will take me back.”

“Well, I've got to know where we're going.”

“We're going to the Black Bull,” Kyle said as he got in on the passenger's side.

Virgil braked the car, then looked at Kyle, who avoided his eyes. For the next ten minutes they rode in absolute silence.

“I don't get it,” Virgil finally said. “Why are we doing this?”

“For the time being, let's just say I'm keeping a promise.”

“A promise. To who? What does this have to do with me?”

“It has to do more with you than anyone.”

“Kyle, I don't like riddles. Lately, it seems like I've had more than my share. My gut's full. I don't need another thing to ruin my night's sleep.”

Before Kyle could respond, his cell phone rang. Virgil caught most of the conversation. It was clear there had been some kind of a complication.

“Okay, okay. Tonight. It has to be tonight. We can't be here much longer. Everything is set for tomorrow. Don't forget.”

Virgil had turned off the county road into the parking lot of the Black Bull. He had gone out of his way the last couple of months to avoid where he now found himself. The crunch of stone beneath his tires was a too-familiar sound. Although the day was sun filled, the closed-up building looked dark to him. He pulled up to within a couple of feet of the stairs that led up to the covered porch in front of the building, which on a hot summer night held almost as many people outside as could be found within. The memory of the nights he had spent there made the building seem more derelict. Kyle's conversation on the phone had ended, but Virgil was all but oblivious to that fact.

“Virgil . . .” Kyle's insistent voice seemed somehow far away.

“Yes.” The car was still idling, so he turned the key in the ignition.

“I'm sorry, Virgil. There's been a change of plans.”

Virgil didn't answer, but looked at him, not understanding.

“We've got to reshuffle the deck. Things aren't working out as I planned. Here.” He took out a key from his pocket. Then he handed it to Virgil. Before Virgil could frame the question, Kyle said, “It's to the front door.”

“Why are you giving this to me?”

“You'll get the answer tonight.”


“Yes. Something's come up. So you're going to have to come back here tonight to get your answers. I'd like to tell you more, but I can't. Like I said, I made a promise. All I can say is that things are not always what they seem.”

“I don't get it.”

“You will tonight. Now, I've got to ask you to take me back. Sorry I wasted your time.”

Virgil put the key in his shirt pocket. Then he started the car. He drove slowly out of the lot. When he reached the hard surface, before he pulled out, he looked in his rearview mirror. Through the dust of the parking lot, he could see the Black Bull on the roof of the building, looking down.


hat are you doing here?” Rosita asked. “I thought you and Kyle Harrison had something going on that was going to eat up the rest of your day.”

“So did I. So did I.”

Rosita could tell by Virgil's tone that he was not a happy camper, so she didn't push.

He threw his Stetson onto his desk, sat down, riffled through some papers, picked up a pen to sign some invoices, threw the pen down a minute later, stood up, and did a lap around the office. He paused at the window, looking mutely for a long minute at nothing.

“Goddamn it.” His voice startled Rosie, who did not startle easily. When he turned away from the window, she saw a look in his eyes that evidenced a level of turmoil she hadn't seen in a long time.

“Did Alex show up?” he asked.

“We got a couple of lawbreakers back there feeling sorry for
themselves. Of course, it's the old story, they're not sorry for what they did, but that they got caught.”

“They'll feel a lot sorrier if they end up in front of Judge Harrison. Alongside of her, that TV judge is a fairy godmother.”

As Virgil was saying those words, Dif walked through the door. “Did I hear somebody comparing Myra Harrison to a fairy godmother?”

“Not likely,” Rosie said. “That woman would send her own mother to jail without a tear.”

“So would I. Have you ever met her mother? Anyhow, that's what we call strict law enforcement around here. Must be why the crime rate in Hayward is so low.”

“Well, speaking of that low crime rate,” Virgil said, “since there's an unexpected gap in my day, Rosie, how about that trip out to the Thompson ranch?”

“If it'll settle you some, okay. Anything to get that burr out from under your saddle.”

A few minutes later, Rosie and Virgil were on their way to High Lonesome. They were climbing the saddleback when she spoke next. “Virgil, you've got a bit of a lead foot today. You want to tell me what's gnawing on you or do you want to keep it penned up inside while you drive us off the rimrock? I don't mind dying, but I'd like to think that they could find enough of me to bury. We go off this ridge, that's probably not going to be the case. Jimmy only went down fifty or so feet. We go off here we ain't gonna hit bottom until tomorrow and we ain't gonna look pretty.”

“Sorry,” Virgil said as he eased off the accelerator. “Guess I don't like pulling the scabs off healing wounds.”

“You talking about Ruby and the Black Bull?”

Virgil nodded. Then he explained about the aborted trip with Kyle.

“Virgil, you are one of the few people I know who can meet life head-on. Don't go back on me now. Whatever it is you're going to find out tonight, take it as it comes.”

“Guess I don't like mysteries,” he said.

“Hell, Virgil, you're in the mystery-solving business. That's why we're going where we're going. You just don't like those mysteries when they're about you.”

“You sure don't give me much slack.”

“You want that, find a stranger. We've got too much history together.”

“Well, speaking of mysteries, let's take a hard look at this one.” He had turned off onto the High Lonesome ranch road. Though everything looked the same, each knew in the quiet on the ride in, it was different. Arriving at the end of the road, the tableau was changeless. The same horses in the same corral, even down to the old horse who greeted them as they exited the car, his head hanging over the fence, waiting for some acknowledgement.

“Hold on a sec, Virgil.” Rosita reached into a bag she had brought with her, taking out a couple of apples. She quickly walked to the old horse. Virgil could hear the crunch as the horse bit into the apple sitting in the palm of Rosita's extended hand. The sound immediately brought the other two horses to the fence. Rosita had an apple for each one. When she returned, Virgil held out a clean rag that he had gotten from the car.

“There's a lot of slobber from a horse eating a juicy apple, particularly one that's lost most of his teeth.”

Rosie took the rag. “My fingers are sticky.”

“Price of a good deed. Next time, toss them on the ground or . . .”

He pointed toward the horse trough in the corner of the
corral. Rosita went over, dipped part of the rag in, then wiped her fingers.

“That's better,” she said. Virgil had already started toward the house. Rosie quickly caught up to him. Together, they walked along the path that led up to the porch. “I feel like I'm in a time warp.”

The flowers were still as bright and vivid as they were the day before. Sunlight splashed the garden, while a light breeze had the flower heads casually waving. She looked toward the porch, doing a double take when she saw the chair. The light no longer invaded the covered area. In the back of her mind, she realized that she had been in the same spot at almost the exact same time the day before. She looked again, half expecting to see Velma in the chair. She had stopped walking. Virgil turned around then, reached out his hand to her.

“It's all right, Rosie. Velma's moved on.” The touch of his hand encircling hers brought her back.

“I'm okay. It was just for a minute . . .” The thought was left incomplete.

“I know. Come on, let's get this done.” He led her a few steps forward until they stepped up onto the porch. For the next few minutes, he walked her through the timeline of the previous day.

“Let's do it again,” he said. “This time I want you to look more closely at the details. How Velma looked, the house inside, anything that seemed out of place or didn't fit. Walk through like you did yesterday.”

After she stepped off the porch, Rosita closed her eyes for an instant. Then she opened them as she stepped back up. She saw Velma in her blue print dress with the tiny white flowers. She even saw the yellow hearts in the center of each flower. A whisper of a breeze touched the white hair on Velma's head, which was
slightly turned. She saw the empty teacup on the small table that stood next to Velma's chair. Then she went through the door to the interior of the house. The open living area was to her right. She saw the step down, the fireplace on the far wall faced by the sectional sofa, and she saw the two rocking chairs near the picture window, each flanked by an end table. To the left, she saw the counter that separated the living area from the kitchen and dining areas. Everything looked as it had on the previous day.

“Well, anything?” Virgil asked.

Rosie took one last look around the room before she answered. “Exactly the same, Virgil. Nothing's changed.”

“Is there anything odd? Out of place?”

“No. No, I don't think so.”

“Take your time. Anything. The slightest thing.”

Rosita walked to the front door, looked out on the front porch, then turned, letting her gaze once again roam the interior.

“I don't see anything different from yesterday, but . . .”

“But what?”

“Well, I hadn't thought about it before. It's not that it's out of place or odd. I mean, it definitely does belong.” She hesitated.

“What are you talking about?”

Rosita pointed to the counter. “The cup.”

“What about the cup?”

“It's dirty,” she said. “You can see the stains inside of it. It's dirty.”

“I don't follow,” Virgil said.

“Well someone must have been here drinking from it. Velma's cup is outside on the table. Somebody else was drinking from this cup. They must have spent some time here with her. I wonder who it was.”

“That is a very good question,” Virgil said.

*   *   *

It was a little after five when Virgil pulled into the parking lot at Hayward Memorial Hospital. He had dropped Rosie off at her car. He found Art Kincaid in his office.

“It's too early to get out of here for beer and gallows humor if that's what you're after.”

Virgil held up a plastic bag with a cup inside.

“Oh, you're here for afternoon tea.”

“Not quite,” Virgil said. “Can you run a test of some kind to determine what was in this cup?”

“It's possible, if there's some residue. What are we looking for?”

“I don't know. Velma Thompson was drinking from this cup. It was on the table next to her. I sealed it with plastic wrap. There's maybe half a teaspoon of liquid in there.”

“That should be enough. Let's see what we can find out for you, Virgil. I'll get it to the lab. We should have something for you by tomorrow.”

“Thanks, Ark. Maybe it's nothing, but I just want to make sure.”

When Virgil left the hospital there was a breeze blowing leaves around the parking lot. Virgil turned up his collar. He glanced at the sky. Scudding clouds bumped into one another. He could taste the change that was coming. He had thought about stopping by the office, but changed his mind after talking to Dif and finding out that Alex was there. Instead, he stopped by Kleman's Florist to send flowers to Alex and his wife on the birth of their baby. Karl Kleman was in the store, looking like an astronaut getting ready for liftoff.

“How's Harriet?” Virgil asked.

“Huge,” was Karl's reply. “She looks like she's going to explode. I don't know, Virgil. All these years we've wanted kids and now . . .”

“She'll be fine, Karl.”

“Oh, I know. She's sitting in the living room amidst all the stuff we got for the babies, smiling like Buddha. It's me, Virgil. I'm gonna be forty-seven on my next birthday. I don't know how to be a father. I mean, what do I know about babies? Oh, why am I complaining to you? You've no idea what I'm talking about. You've never been a father.”

Karl's words changed Virgil's plans for the rest of the day.

*   *   *

The pecan harvest was done. He saw that the trees, which only a few weeks earlier were sagging with their burden, had regained their stature. The leaves were losing their vibrant color. There was no activity that he could see in row after row on the long drive up to Crow's Nest. The last time he had actually been in the house, Audrey Hayward was still alive. The irony was that it was only then, on the last day of her life, that there existed a kind of positive respect for each other. They had always been adversaries, but deep in his bones he knew that her love for her daughter and his love for Rusty had been at the heart of their conflict. Now that Audrey was gone, in an odd way he realized she had left him in her debt, with the disclosure that Virginia was his and Rusty's child. It was a secret she had kept for twenty years. She could have gone to her grave with the knowledge, but she chose to pass it on to him. When he left Crow's Nest that day, it was after finding out that he was a father and had been, even if in name only.

As he pulled to a stop in front of the house, he thought to himself that maybe he should have called first.

“She's probably not even here.” When he knocked, Audrey's son Micah opened the door.

“Virgil, good to see you. How's everything?”

“About everything, I don't know. All I can handle is our corner of the world. Sometimes, even that's too much.”

“Yes, sometimes we get overloaded. Guess you know more about that than most.”

“Like they say, it's part of the job description. By the way, how did you make out with this year's harvest? I noticed the trees were all empty as I drove in.”

“It was a fair harvest. Trees could have used more rain. We irrigate, but we count on a little help from Mother Nature. This year she was pretty stingy. Guess in the long run, it all balances out. Anyhow, Virgil, what can I do for you?”

“I was wondering if Virginia was here.”

“Let me run upstairs. Just got in ahead of you. Been down at the office in Redbud.” Micah started for the stairs, then hesitated. “I'm glad you know, Virgil. It was a hard secret to keep all those years.”

Virgil didn't reply. Micah turned and went upstairs.

BOOK: Death on the High Lonesome
2.24Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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