I FOLLOWED THE SOUND of voices around to the backyard and found Meghan, Erin, and Ruth Black seated at the picnic table. The scent of lime-and-garlic-marinated shrimp lingered on the still-warm air.
Meghan greeted me. "Hey there. How did it go?"
"It was… odd," I said. "Hi, Ruth."
"Go get some dinner," Meghan said.
"It smells delicious. I'm surprised there's any left."
"There wouldn't be if I hadn't hidden yours away in the kitchen."
I held up a finger. "Be right back."
In the kitchen I discovered not only crustaceans grilled to pink perfection, but a pile of grilled asparagus and the remains of a gorgeous summer salad. Harvest continues late into the fall in the northwest, but can start slowly due to damp, cool springs. But lettuce, radishes, baby carrots, scallions, and various herbs were abundant in June. Meghan had added sprigs of chickweed gleaned from weeding our organic beds, a few succulent dandelion leaves, and a sprinkling of violas. I could have feasted on how pretty it was. Theoretically, at least. I added a light lemon and olive oil vinaigrette to the salad, piled shrimp and asparagus onto a stoneware plate, and returned to the group sitting in the backyard.
I slid onto the cedar picnic bench. Brodie waddled over and sat by my foot, making corgi noises in his throat. Now that I had food, I was back on his A-list.
Across the table, Meghan leaned forward, anticipation all over her face. "So? Who was she?"
I glanced at Erin, an even more petite version of her mother, and asked, "How was math camp today?"
"Fun enough," she said. "We played with Mobius strips. Mom already told us some strange woman was at Barr's house today, and you went over there to yell at him about it. So don't try to send me inside or anything."
Meghan suddenly became inordinately interested in one of our hens pecking at the tray of oyster shell in their pen. What a gossip, I thought, surprised. Maybe Barr should have asked for her help instead of mine.
"It certainly does sound like you've had a full day," Ruth said.
"That's putting it mildly." I took a bite of salad. Something peppery in there. I peered at my plate. Ah. Nasturtium leaves. I swallowed. "I either won't sleep at all tonight, or I'll sleep like the dead."
"Oh, God. Not like the dead, I mean, you know…" I rubbed my forehead.
"Whatever," Erin said. "So who was the lady at Barr's house?"
"We don't want to pry," Ruth said. "But we want to know you're okay."
So Meghan had told her, too. I couldn't blame her.
"I'm fine," I said. "It turns out he did tell me about Hannahthat's her name, Ruth. But I didn't realize they were married."
"He's not actually married now, is he?" Meghan asked.
"No, it all happened several years ago, and apparently only lasted a couple months."
"Then what's she doing here now?"
Between bites, I told them most of my conversation with Barr up until I walked outside his house. Then I found myself growing silent.
"So Barr's rich?" Erin asked.
"I guess," I said, reluctant to talk about it further. Now I understood why he'd had such a hard time telling me about his sudden wealth. The idea of having that much money bordered on the obscene.
Both Meghan and Ruth seemed to sense my unwillingness. "Are you happy with his explanation?" Meghan asked.
I hesitated, then said, "I think so."
"You know what you should do, to put it to bed once and for all?" Ruth asked.
"You should do a background check on him. Then you won't wonder. I bet Meghan's beau would give you a discount."
My lips parted in surprise. Who knew Ruth was so mercenary?
"Meghan?" she prompted.
"Well," Meghan said. "I guess I could ask Kelly about it."
Kelly O'Connell was Meghan's sort of boyfriend. The sort of part was mostly because he lived in New Jersey. They chatted on the phone for hours every night like school kids, and there'd been talk of him moving out to Cadyville once he got his private investigator's license in the state of Washington.
Hmmm. I considered the idea. It really would make me feel better to know for sure, to stop wondering if Barr was keeping anything from me. Call it trust issues if you want to, but I'd never before thought of myself as one of those walking wounded who couldn't get close to anyone. I just didn't want to be stupid.
"Will you talk to him about it tonight?" I asked Meghan.
"Urn." Her reluctance was palpable.
"You think it's a bad idea, don't you." "
11 It's not up to me."
She hesitated, then, "Is that the kind of thing you want to base your relationship on?"
After a few moments, I met her eyes and shook my head. "No. You're right. It's not. I'd hate it if he did something like that to me, and if I went ahead with it, I could never take it back."
She smiled her approval.
Ruth shrugged and changed the subject. "I brought a spinning wheel for you to practice on."
"The one from the co-op?" I was surprised she'd been allowed to remove it from the crime scene.
"No-I had an extra at the house."
"So you have three spinning wheels? Wow."
She ducked her head. "Four actually."
"That seems like a lot. Do you use all of them?"
"Well, not this one, at least not very often. That's why you should keep it as long as you want, until you decide what kind you want to get."
I grinned. "How do you know I'm going to want my own wheel?"
"Because you, my dear, are thoroughly hooked"
Meghan snorted. "I'll say."
Erin wrinkled her nose. "You're spinning yarn? Like in the olden days?"
"Well, yes. I guess so. Only, like so many things we do now, it's more for fun than out of necessity. The people who used to spin in order to cloth themselves never had that luxury."
She nodded. "Yeah, I get it. I guess there are a lot of things like that."
Ruth gestured over her shoulder toward the pen where our four pullets were quietly clucking and making the low moaning sounds that count as conversation among chickens. "Like keeping laying hens."
Meghan and I both smiled as Erin jumped in. "But the girls are necessary. How else would we get fresh eggs for breakfast right from our own backyard? Plus they give us fertilizer for the garden, and then turn around and eat all the weeds from it."
"Girls?" Ruth asked, looking amused.
"Well, they are girls, aren't they? Girl chickens," Erin said.
We all liked raising the chickens and keeping them in the backyard, but she was the most enthusiastic. She cared for them exclusively, so the burden on Meghan and I came down to occasionally buying chicken feed, grit and oyster shell. Since "the girls" would likely produce more eggs than we could possibly use in the summer, we'd told Erin she could sell the extras and keep the money for all her hard work.
"Well," I said, spearing a few leaves of chickweed from my salad and holding them up. "At least we get to eat some of our own weeds, too."
Conversation continued, and I concentrated on my dinner. As I chewed, I stubbornly pushed aside the disturbing events of the day and focused on my environment: warm friends, the beauty of the vegetable beds, the bat house mounted on a fence post, the chickens getting ready to roost for the night.
When Ruth touched my arm, I jumped. "Let's take some of these plates in," she said.
We gathered up plates and utensils, waving Meghan and Erin back when they tried to help. Erin slipped into the hen pen, as she called it, and began murmuring to her girls in a low voice. Meghan watched, smiling.
In the kitchen, I quickly set to washing the plates. I love the dishwasher, don't get me wrong, but when we grilled in the summer there were rarely enough dishes to justify starting it up. Besides, the house still held heat from the day, and it didn't seem prudent to add to it.
Ruth said, "The spinning wheel is in the living room."
"Thanks again for that. It's sweet of you to let me borrow it." "
I want you to do something, though." "
I paused in rinsing a plate. "Oh?"
I want you to go over and talk to Chris Popper."
Slowly, I dried my hands and sat down at the kitchen table. I'd been so caught up in my own drama that I'd nearly forgotten what Barr had said about Chris killing Ariel. Now I remembered my insistence that she call me if she wanted to talk, and felt torn. She'd lost her husband twice, it seemed: once to another woman and then, finally, to an accident. But would she really have killed Ariel over it? Especially after Scott was already dead?
"Barr and that woman detective think she killed Ariel," Ruth said.
There was a note of distaste in her voice when she mentioned Robin Lane. The fledgling detective had tried to bully information out of Ruth a few months previously. Ruth had been flat on her back in a hospital bed at the time and in a lot of pain. Barr was right. His partner had all the people skills of a grumpy badger.
Cautious, I inclined my head a fraction.
"Barr already told you?" Ruth said. "Well, of course he did. Will you talk to Chris before jumping to any conclusions, and make up your own mind? That's all I ask. Because you know how hard it is to lose a husband. Can you imagine how hard it would have been if, in addition to losing your husband, you'd been accused of murdering his lover on the day of his funeral?"
I blanched. Turned out I couldn't imagine it.
Barr had asked me to foster gossip amongst the CRAC crowd, and I had already offered a listening ear should Chris be interested. Complying with Ruth's request was a no brainer.
"Of course I'll talk to her," I said. "Though I'm not sure what good it will do."
She shrugged and reached for a dishtowel. "To be honest, I don't know, either. But do it anyway."
Kind of pushy, I thought. "Or you'll take away the spinning wheel?" I joked.
Ruth smiled gently.
I stared at her placid face. "You're blackmailing me?"
"Don't be ridiculous," she said. "I'm bribing you."