ARIEL HAD LIVED IN an apartment on the second floor of a lone twelve-plex on the corner of Maple and Pine. Someone had purchased and rehabbed the old building and painted it a sumptuous apricot with green and maroon trim. Planter boxes lining the tiny balcony railings dripped purple verbena, blood-red geraniums and lobelia in deep rich shades of sapphire. A rack in front supported a row of bikes. To the right, an expanse of asphalt hosted a series of compact and economy cars, most of them sporting parking stickers from the neighboring college. These were primarily digs for students, and nice digs at that.
I climbed the stairs, my sandals scuffing on the wooden steps, and rapped on the metal door with my knuckles. Rustling sounds came from inside, and then slowly the door opened.
"Yes?" A tall woman in her early twenties grinned down at me. Her hair was blue black, the kind that has to come out of a bottle, and it fell unfettered to a pair of impressive-and unharnessedbreasts. She was so tall I found myself staring straight at them. My face grew hot as I realized what I was doing, and I craned my neck up to look into a wide pale face with amused green eyes.
"Hi," I said. "I'm Sophie Mae Reynolds. I'm a member of the artist's co-op Ariel belonged to."
The smile faded. "Oh"
"She lived here, didn't she?"
The woman nodded.
"I'm sorry. You must be pretty shaken up by what happened."
"Yeah. I mean, well… yeah." She stepped back and held the door open. "I'm sorry. Please, come in."
I stepped into an herbal oasis. There were potted plants everywhere, at least fifty of them, clustered around every window, tucked into corners and onto bookshelves under grow lights, lining the kitchen counters. Every one of them had some kind of culinary or medical application, and sometimes both. There were lavender and rosemary, sage, oregano, and a variety of thymes. Mints were interspersed with feverfew, calendula, scented geraniums, and chamomile.
"Wow," I said. "This is amazing. Is that borage?"
She nodded, obviously pleased. "I grew it from seed. Would you like something to drink? I have some iced tea."
"That would be great, thanks."
I wandered around the little apartment in wonder. All the plants were incredibly healthy, not a yellow leaf nor leggy one among them, despite being crammed into the tiny living space.
She returned and handed me a sea-green concoction that smelled of mint. "I'm studying horticulture."
"Well, you've got the green thumb for it." I sipped from the tall glass, condensation already forming along its sides. Mint and a myriad of other herbal infusions. "This tea is lovely, um… I'm afraid I don't know your name. We only knew that Ariel lived here and that she had a roommate."
"Oh! I'm Daphne. Daphne Sparks."
"Nice to meet you. Were you and Ariel close?"
She hesitated, then seemed to make a decision. "Not really. We weren't even friends. I found the apartment, but couldn't afford it by myself, so I advertised for someone to share it with me. That was almost a year ago. Ariel answered the ad, and at first I thought she'd make a good roommate."
She blinked and looked away. "It doesn't do any good to talk bad about her now."
"No, you're right. Listen, the reason I'm here is because there's a bunch of her art over at the co-op, and we don't know who to give it to." "
I don't want it."
I laughed, then quickly covered my mouth.
Her lips twisted in wry response. "Sorry. I guess it just isn't my " style."
"But you know, I think she had potential, and if she'd been willing to learn more, Ariel might've been pretty good. That's how I met her. She was going to school, like me, only she was in the art department." "
I didn't know that."
"She dropped out. Too many classes she thought were boring, too much homework," Daphne said.
"Did she have a job?"
A half shrug. "She was a part-time hostess at The Turning Point."
"Hard to make a living doing that, even if it is the fanciest restaurant in town," I said.
Daphne snorted. "She didn't. Make a living, that is. She owes me almost two grand." She looked at the floor. "Or owed me, I guess.
Not exactly peanuts. I took a drink of cold tea.
She continued. "Ariel kept saying she was going to go back to school, then get a really good job. But really? She was determined to meet a rich guy who'd want to marry her."
"How was that working out?" I asked.
"Lots of dates, lots of overnighters she'd bring here. Not a lot of marriage proposals from what I heard. Probably didn't help that she had a thing for men who were already married." She looked at the floor. I could tell she felt bad talking about Ariel, even though she'd obviously taken advantage of Daphne. "She was also hoping her art would take off and support her. Being accepted into the coop was the first step in proving to the art world that she had real talent, she said."
The Cadyville Regional Artists' Co-op? Related in any way shape or form to the "art world"? I almost snorted. Instead, I asked, "Did she have any particular boyfriends?"
A shrug. "She was gone a lot. I was gone a lot. When we were both here we got so we avoided each other"
"She had an affair with the husband of a friend of mine. It caused a lot of pain," I said. Well, Barr had said to gossip, hadn't he?
We'd been standing as we talked, and now Daphne sat down on the overstuffed sofa. I moved to a window box and ran my fingers through the thick, gray-green leaves of a French lavender in bloom. The intense fragrance curled around me like a hug.
"Maybe your friend is the one who called," Daphne said.
I turned. "Called here?"
She nodded. "I answered. She sounded furious."
Chris hadn't mentioned calling Ariel, but that didn't mean she hadn't. And if she had, it was a sure bet she'd sound furious.
"Did she tell you her name?" I asked.
"Huh-uh. She told me to stay away from her husband, then hung up on me after I said I was Ariel's roommate."
"It must have happened quite awhile ago," I prompted.
"Nope. Just last week"
I thought about asking her what day, but that seemed to be pushing it. She already looked uncomfortable talking about Ariel's affairs as it was. Heck, between the phone calls and bringing men home all the time, I was surprised Daphne hadn't killed Ariel herself.
Of course, I couldn't know for sure she hadn't.
I fingered a tiny rosemary formed into a spiral topiary. "This is exquisite."
She gazed fondly at the little plant as if it were a child. "Thank you.
"How long had you and Ariel lived together?"
"Almost a year. The lease is coming up, and either she was going or I was, or both."
"You'd already talked about it?"
"Not really. Ariel wasn't the easiest person to talk to, so I kept putting it off."
"Not easy to talk to," I repeated.
She shook her head. "Kind of… volatile. Hard to reason with if things weren't going her way."
I finished my tea. "Thanks for this. I'll just put the glass in the kitchen, and get out of your hair."
"You're welcome." She stood.
The kitchen counter served as a half-wall separating it from the living room. More plants spilled over the window sill.
"About the art: did Ariel have any family?" I asked over my shoulder as I put my glass in the pristine sink. "I heard about a brother. Maybe he can tell me what to do with it."
"Yeah. He lives up north. His name is Rocky Kaminski. I don't know the address or the phone number, though. The police were here earlier today, and they took her address book."
I walked back into the living room. "Did they take anything else?"
Another shrug. "Some paperwork. They may've taken some things from her room; I didn't go in there with them. They just told me not to get rid of the rest of her stuff until they call me. I sure hope it's soon, because I have to find someone to share expenses right away if I'm going to stay here." She walked toward the door.
I followed. "Do you mind if I ask how her bill with you got so high?"
Daphne fidgeted with a fingernail. "It's kind of embarrassing, actually. It happened bit by bit, falling behind on this bill, and then that one. And she always had a good reason, a story about how she couldn't pay me right then, but the money was on the way. And she did come through with money sometimes. Just not all of it."
Ariel sounded like the roommate from hell.
"Good luck," I said. "If I hear of anyone who'd be interested, I'll send them your way."
"Hey, thanks. I appreciate that."
Back in the cab of my truck, I thought about the address book. Barr and/or Robin Lane would be contacting Ariel's brother. Well, of course they would; he was her next of kin. But I'd better be careful not to appear to Robin as if I was trying to interfere with her investigation. Maybe it'd be better to have one of the other coop members contact Rocky Kaminski about taking Ariel's art.
But who? Irene wouldn't do it. Jake probably shouldn't do it. And Ruth didn't even like to drive outside of town.
That was when I realized I wasn't thinking about calling Rocky Kaminski at all. I was planning a trip to La Conner.
I didn't want to give the task of following up with Ariel's brother to anyone else. I wanted to go up there, not only because I was curious about what her brother might be like, but because I wanted to get the heck out of Dodge.
The murder and Barr and his ex-wife woes were enough to escape from temporarily, but now that I thought about it, I hadn't taken even a single full day off from my business in almost a year. I wanted a mini-vacation. If I happened to find out more about Ariel's murder, so be it.
I just had to tread carefully.
On the way home, I kept expecting-even hoping-to see Barr behind me again, curious about what I'd learned from Daphne Sparks. But I didn't see the Impala.
About halfway home, however, my constant monitoring of the rearview mirror did net a nondescript economy rental car that looked an awful lot like the one Hannah had been driving. I took a few extra turns, but she stuck with me. As I parked on the street in front of the house, her car pulled up even with my truck. She glared at me for a few seconds, then slowly and deliberately smiled. It wasn't a nice smile at all. As she sped away, I resisted giving her the of one-fingered salute.
Apparently Barr had not, as he put it, sent her packing.