Earth Colors

Em Hansen Mysteries (Volume 9 of 12)

Sarah Andrews

Minotaur Books

Earth Colors
1
AS I WALKED DOWN SHERIDAN AVENUE, I FELT A MIXTURE OF NOSTALGIA and dread: nostalgia because I had spent the embryonic beginnings of my career in geology in the oil fields nearby, and dread because of the reason I had returned.
The air was cold and dry, and the great backdrop of Rattlesnake Mountain loomed like a frozen wave on the western horizon. It was late March, too early for campers (the crush of summer tourism would not begin until May, when the snowplows opened the east entrance to Yellowstone National Park), so the wide streets of Cody, Wyoming, were visited only by a smattering of vehicles, mostly pickup trucks.
I shifted the backpack child-carrier, redistributing the weight of the baby girl who was riding in it. "This town was named for Buffalo Bill Cody," I said, as I continued along the sidewalk, trying to dispel my anxiety by chatting with her in the habit I had developed when I took her along on my walks. "Buffalo Bill was a scout who became the first and last of the great Indian Show hucksters. He made a lot of money and built that hotel over there, and named it after his daughter." We were passing the Irma, a classic Victorian-Western confection that fronted proudly on Sheridan Avenue, Cody's main drag. "But when he died, he was flat busted broke, and the story goes that his widow sold his corpse to pay the bills; true or not, his burial shrine down in Denver is something of a tourist trap. Imagine living your life as best you can only to have your grave become a roadside attraction. But of course, the Buffalo Bill Historical Center was later named after him, and if he hadn't already been dead, he could have held his head up over that."
The baby gurgled conversationally as she bobbed along behind my shoulders.
"I'm going to take you to just one of the five museums housed in the Center," I told her. "The Whitney Gallery of Western Art. It's time we started on your cultural education. You just stick with Auntie Emmy. I'll start you out with some cool cowboys and Indians stuff, like Charlie Russell or my all-time favorite, Frederic Remington."
Of course, I didn't expect a seven-month-old baby to know a Remington from a gum wrapper. My real reason for taking her to the art museum was so that her mother could take a much-needed nap. Her mother was my dear pal Faye Carter Latimer, although Faye didn't use the Latimer part, out of rage. The baby was Sloane Renee Latimer, the most cheerful half-orphan you've ever met. At least, once we got her past the colic she was cheerful. The colic was dreadful. When Sloane Renee screamed, the world stank.
I truly hoped that Faye was getting some sleep. It had been a long drive up from Salt Lake City, and the purpose of our visit was worrying her even worse than it did me. Faye was here to meet with a potential client. I was just along to fill in the cracks between single motherhood and her career.
I had left Faye staring at the wall in our room at the Pawnee, a good old girl of a hotel, but many rungs below what Faye was used to on the great ladder of hostelries. My choice in booking the Pawnee had brought on one of our small but deadly fights.
"Why didn't you book us a room at the Irma?" she had inquired, keeping her voice eerily neutral.
"This was cheaper," I had replied, trying to sound matter-of-fact.
"Is this some kind of a joke, or are you trying to tell me you think it's time I began to live within my diminished means?"
She had given me the opening I had longed for, but I had dodged the issue. "I'll just take a walk while you get some rest. You'll want to be fresh for your meeting."
"Fine," she said, a sharpening in her tone telling me that it wasn't. "I'm not sure I can sleep in a place like this, but we'll see if fatigue can prevail where my silver spoon dumped me off."
Now, as I continued down Sheridan Avenue, passing shops that sold Western wear and Indian trinkets made in China, I scrutinized her words. Uncomfortable as the confrontation had been, it was the most direct communicationwe'd had since before the baby was born, and that could be seen as a positive thing. I told myself that trying to function in the outside world might pry her out of the brooding silence she had dwelt in since her husband's death.
Farther down the street, as I again shifted the baby's weight, it began to hit me that I was at least as tired as Faye--after all, we had gotten up at four and had been on the road since six, and I had done most of the driving--but I pushed this awareness down into the murk from which it had arisen.
I passed a saddlery and cast a longing glance inside. When I inherit the ranch, the first thing I'll do it buy another horse, I told myself, but I increasingly wondered if there would be anything left to inherit. For a moment the thought froze me to the sidewalk, but I forced myself back into motion.
In the next block, I sniffed at the heady scent of cinnamon rolls that spilled from a café. I stopped, realizing I hadn't had lunch. "Do you smell that, Sloane?" I asked the baby. "Just as soon as you grow more teeth, we'll try some. You're going to love cinnamon rolls." I knew that I should turn around and make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich from my stash of ingredients in Faye's car, but instead I followed my nose into the café saying, "But as your mother always says, there's no better time than the present."
I bought a roll and a cup of coffee and settled down with Sloane on my lap. The roll was fresh and sweet, without being cloyingly so, and rich in the spicy liquor that oozes so delightfully from the swirls of that pastry. I shared my prize frugally with the baby, giving her tiny bites and making mine last too, then dawdled over the coffee, relieved at the way the sugar and caffeine revived me. But no matter how slowly I savored the treat, it was soon gone, and someone else was waiting for the table, so I got up and prepared to leave.
As I pushed open the door I about collided with a man who was just coming in from outside. He had his collar turned up against the cold and his head tucked down, so I didn't see his face at first, but something about him was instantly familiar: the thickset torso, the wild brush of hair, the humble clothing designed for manual labor. Recognition registered in my gut even before it hit my brain, and when he looked up, ready to dodge me, his eyes widened as he recognized me, too.
It was Frank Barnes, my old oilfield boyfriend. I had not seen him since I left Wyoming for a better job in Denver. How many years had it been?
I started to step back, unsure of my welcome, but he grinned, so I did, too. I said, "Frank! How are you?" His hair had gone silvery gray. How old was he now? Fifty?
He clasped my shoulders with his thick, rough hands and stared happily into my eyes. Then his gaze slid sideways. As he took in the little creature that was riding papoose on my back, his mouth sagged open. "Em! You've got a ... a baby!" His eyes shot next to my left hand, checking for a wedding ring.
My stomach tightened. "She's ... I'm babysitting for a friend." Immediately I wished I had lied and claimed her as mine, because Frank had left me for--No, I left him, I asserted to myself--or more precisely, I left town to take that job, and while I was gone, he--but I suppose I never really was going to come back ...
We were being jostled now by other people who were trying to come into the restaurant, so Frank let go of my shoulders and stepped to one side, but his eyes stayed locked on Sloane Renee Latimer, his face spreading into a delighted grin. "She's beautiful," he said, offering her a callused finger to grab. He leaned his big face close to hers and said, "You certainly is. Yes, you certainly is."
The baby was totally enthralled by his big, grizzled smile. Over my shoulder, I could see that she was giving him her best drop-dead gorgeous, dimpled grin.
I smiled too, grateful that he had focused on the baby, as it gave me a moment to collect myself. Frank had passed on into the ranks of the married people, and I was still single. I was beginning to wince, now that I was almost thirty-nine, when headlines of supermarket tabloids trumpeted grim statistics about women finding partners after thirty-five.
Too quickly, Frank's gaze shifted back to me. "You're just leaving. Can you stay? I was just going to grab some--"
"Ah, sure."
Beaming with delight, he led me back toward one of the tables and helped me off with the backpack. He set it down expertly, flipping the bail out to steady it. He offered me a quick, May I? glance and then undid hershoulder harness. Lifting her expertly with one arm, he opened his jacket with the other hand and nestled her inside against his flannel shirt.
Sloane laid her little heady right down against his neck and patted his chest with one tiny hand. She gurgled with glee.
I was engulfed by the memory of how secure I had always felt in Frank's embrace.
The woman behind the counter boomed, "Hey there, Frank! Who's your buddy?"
Frank sauntered over to the counter. "Pretty little thing, huh? She's with my old friend Emmy here." To Sloane, he said, "What you having, little one? Some nice salami and Swiss? Cup of coffee? Hm?"
The woman laughed. "Your usual."
"Yeah."
She reached out and tickled the baby on one ear. "That'll be up in just a few. I'll call ya."
Frank brought Sloane back to the table and sat down. The two of them seemed lost in a love fest, he kissing and caressing, she settling down and looking drowsy for the first time all day. "What brings you to town?" he asked, his lips lost in the soft down of her hair.
"The baby's mother is taking care of some business here in Cody."
Frank raised an eyebrow in question.
I said, "She's a pilot. She uses her airplane to transport things that need ... um, discreet handling. She calls her business, 'Special Deliveries.'" I laughed nervously. "It's nothing too complicated, really. She's got a potential client here--some old guy, a family friend or something--who's here to meet with some specialists at the art museum. He has some artwork that the museum wants to include in an exhibit. Collectors can be fussy who handles their treasure." I smiled, thinking of the days I first knew Faye, of all the mischief we'd gotten into. "The fact is that she doesn't really have a business. It used to be that her biggest problem in life was figuring out how to use her trust fund to dispel boredom. She bought a hot twin-engine plane and got to tooting around with expensive stuff, like jewels. Growing up with the trust fund set, I guess she knew a lot of people who needed things moved on the quiet. It was a good day when it covered her expenses."
"But then she became a mother."
"Right. Then she got pregnant. The good news was that she truly loved the man, so she married him. The bad news was that her trust fund turned into a pumpkin the instant she got hitched." I shook my head. "I don't know how well her flying service is going to mix with motherhood. I picked up a pilot's license myself along the way," I said, slipping a little personal success into the discussion.
"Really?" he said, obviously impressed.
"It's nothing as fancy as Faye has; just the basic single-engine rating. I can't fly by instruments or carry people for hire, much less fly a high-performance, twin-engine plane like Faye's, but it taught me that you've got to stay sharp and concentrate or you shouldn't be at the controls. The baby doesn't seem to need as much sleep as most babies, and when she does konk out, Faye often lies awake."
"Sleep deprivation," Frank mumbled. "Worry." He grunted empathetically. "Well, Em, you always did get yourself involved in interesting things."
I smiled uncomfortably. Frank had always said that I traveled in strange circles, going places and hanging out with people he was unlikely to meet. He had never left Wyoming, except to go to Vietnam. Now he was married, and had a son. How old would that child be now? "How's your wife?" I asked.
Frank turned and looked at me squarely, the pleasure in his eyes suddenly extinguished. "She drinks," he said. "I'm just in town to attend an Al-Anon meeting."
I made a quick study of my boots. "I'm sorry to hear."
"Yeah. Well." Suddenly he laughed. "Hey, that's what I get for foolin' around. Ya knock the lady up before you know her, and ya take home what ya catch."
I gave him an embarrassed grimace. "Tell me about your son."
Frank glanced away. "He's fine," he said, too quickly. "Growing gangbusters. Great kid." His voice caught. "A couple of challenges. School stuff. But what did he expect, with me for his dad?" Fighting his way out of his emotional logjam, Frank said, "How long you be in town?"
"Just until tomorrow, I think."
"You gotta meet him."
"I'd like that."
Now his gaze once again dropped to my left hand. "You married?" he asked, trying to make it sound like an idle question.
"No."
"Seeing someone?"
I met his eyes. This was a new Frank, a blunter, more inquiring Frank, not the reclusive soul I had known and somehow left so long ago. But the turbulence was still there, and the pain, now mixed with new agonies and the joy his son had brought him. Had fatherhood blown the restraints off his personality? "Yes, I'm seeing someone," I said, steeling myself for his reaction. "He's overseas. The Middle East. Military reservist who got called up with this current fracas. You know the pace."
Frank gave me a compassionate stare.
I couldn't stand his caring. "I'm doing great, Frank. I've been working on my master's in geology at the University of Utah. I've almost got the coursework done."
His stare eased. "That's great, Emmy."
"Thanks. I've been living at Faye's so I can help with the baby while I go to school." Realizing that this sounded pretty shiftless for a person my age, I added, "The baby's dad was killed, and ... I figured she needed a friend."
"Killed?"
I closed my eyes. This wasn't going well. Each time I tried to divert the conversation away from myself, I managed to open another door into a room I did not want to enter. "Tom was an FBI agent," I said, picking the version of the truth that was easiest to say, and easiest to understand. "He was killed in the line of duty." This wasn't precisely accurate: It avoided certain facts such as that, with the baby coming, Tom had left the Bureau so that he wouldn't have to take on risky projects. That there had been "just one more" risk he felt he had to take. That I had been with him when he died.
When I opened my eyes, Frank was staring at the baby, his face raw with emotion. He kissed her hair. Nuzzled his nose against her scalp. Clung to her as if she were a life ring cast off a boat in a storm.
She began to fuss.
"Oh, there, there," he whispered. "There, there. I'm just your old friend Frank. I don't bite."
The woman at the counter called his name, and he handed me the baby while he got his sandwich. Back at the table, Frank ate quickly, taking inhuge bites without tasting his food. The coffee he bolted after adding three little tubs of cream. As he set down the cup, he asked, "Where you staying?"
"We're just down at the Pawnee."
He nodded. His kind of place--cheap, comfortable, and unpretentious. "I'll walk you there."
I said, "Actually, we're on our way to the museums."
"My truck's parked halfway."
We loaded up and left the café. I toted the backpack over one shoulder and he carried Baby Sloane. A block down the sidewalk, Frank asked, "So your friend has an airplane?"
"Yes. A twin-engine turboprop job, goes like spit. But it's been sitting in a tie-down in Florida since before the baby was born, and she wants to bring it home to Utah. She worries about corrosion from the sea air. So if her client has the bucks, I guess she'll be doing some flying again. But in fact I'm hoping ol' Mr. Krehbeil says no, and she gets reasonable and sells the plane."
Frank stopped dead in the middle of the sidewalk. "Who'd you say her client is?"
I slapped my hands over my face in embarrassment. I couldn't believe I'd spilled the client's name. Did I think that just because Frank never left Wyoming he wasn't part of the world? "Oh, nobody," I said lamely. "Just some old geezer Faye knows."
Frank's face had gone dark as a storm cloud. "Krehbeil's not a common name."
"Please forget I said that! Look, Faye's supposed to be real discreet about this stuff, you know?"
Frank's face tightened. "You don't want to get mixed up with that bunch, Em."
"No, wait! Listen, this guy's from back East somewhere. The contact was some dude Faye knew in college, and this is his dad or something. It's got to be a different Krehbeil."
He shook his head. "Dude's the right word. You know full well there's a lot of fancy people from the East who come out here for the summer, especially that artsy set." He jerked his head to the west. "The Krehbeils got a hobby ranch outside of town here, up beyond the reservoir."
I winced. "Old money?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"Yeah, if you mean the guys who have it didn't make it. Miz Krehbeil was in her eighties, and the place goes back a generation or two."
"What do you mean, 'was in her eighties'?"
Sloane had begun to twist in his arms.
Frank said, "She died."
"That's not unusual for someone in her eighties, is it?"
Frank had begun to hunch his shoulders like he always did when something beyond his control was making him half mad and half worried. He said, "No, but there's rumors that everything wasn't quite right. Hell, Em, it was just a month or so ago."
I stared at the sidewalk.
Frank shifted the baby into a one-armed grip and reached out with the other hand to touch my arm. "Em, I know you. You wind up right in the middle of every fight that's going down. It's an instinct of yours."
Sloane was now working her way into a good fuss. I reached out and took her into my arms, shaking my head vehemently. "No way, Frank. I was a headstrong little twit when I worked around here, but I've grown up a lot, I swear it. Hey, this little baby here has taught me a lot about covering my butt so I can be here for her and be responsible. It's Faye that's out chasing trouble this time, not me. And the job won't go through anyway. Even if the old guy does want her to do it, he won't pay enough to cover the avgas it would take to fly the plane, let alone what it would take to make the plane legal to fly. It has to go through its annual airworthiness check and there are always expensive repairs, and Faye's annual FAA flight review to fly commercially is overdue. She's kidding herself. She doesn't even have a current medical clearance. Hasn't flown since she was seven months pregnant." I started moving down the sidewalk again, as much to escape Frank's words as to arrive at my destination.
Frank hurried to keep up, his scowl deepening. "She was flying an airplane at seven months?"
"That's another part of why your pal here was a preemie." On cue, the baby broke into a full bawling cry.
Frank stopped again. "Here's my truck. Get in. I'll take you to the Pawnee and we can talk to the baby's mother, find out for sure if there's really no connection."
I said, "No. Thanks for your concern, Frank, but I'm sure it's unwarranted.I'd better keep moving, rock her to sleep. You just lift her into the backpack." I turned a shoulder toward him.
He said, "Let me bounce her."
"I should go." I didn't want Frank to be there watching if I failed to settle Sloane down. I knew her every mood, knew what made her smile and what made her cry, but that did not make her mine, and at times like this, she let me know it. "I'm sorry. I think just walking quietly is the best thing, with as few distractions as possible."
"Then I'll stop by later," Frank told me, and to Sloane he said, "You're a lucky baby. Auntie Emmy's a very good mom." He gave me a look of longing. He started to walk away, but turned back. "I ... About the Krehbeils. There's really been some talk, Em."
"See you," I said, heading resolutely toward the museums.
A block farther along, I heard him call to me again. I spun around to hear what he was saying. A passing truck swallowed his words, but his lips said. "Take care." A common-enough phrase, and yet the look on his face spoke of farewell.
© 2004 by Sarah Andrews Brown.