AN UNEXPECTED THRILL OF excitement fluttered through my solar plexus at the thought of learning more about Ariel from people who really knew her. No one I'd talked to so far had been all that close to her. The picture I'd developed was largely one-sided, and less than flattering. Maybe she was kind to animals. Maybe she mentored troubled teens. Maybe she helped out on the tulip farm every year without fail.
I mean, it was possible, right?
A few miles southeast of town, a brightly painted sign advertising Kaminski Tulip Farm hovered over a mailbox covered with stencils of tulips. The arrow at the bottom pointed down a recently graveled drive, toward a house easily visible across the fields. It was white with dark-blue trim, and a big covered porch wrapped around from the eastern-facing front door to the south side of the house. A windbreak of tall poplars, straight and precise as the pickets of a giant fence, marched along to the north. As I drove closer, I saw the impressive vegetable garden sprawled to the south, separated from the porch by a narrow strip of emerald green lawn.
It was an oasis in the brown dirt of the newly harvested fields, but in the spring, floating in the sea of daffodils and tulips of every color imaginable, the tidy and welcoming farmhouse would fade into the background.
My tires crunched up the driveway, and a huge German shepherd came barreling around the corner from the direction of what looked like a barn. Fitting the idea of Ariel into this rural background was beyond difficult. Maybe the family had originally lived in town. Perhaps Rocky was the anomaly, not his sister.
I parked behind a dark blue Suburban, opened my door and reached to pet the dog. He promptly raised his hackles and growled low in his throat. I jerked my hand back. Froze. Tried not to look him in the eye. Of course, I can't hide my emotions from humans, so I don't know why I thought I could hide them from a dog. He advanced slowly, a continual rumble issuing from deep in his chest.
"Tut! Tut, you leave her alone. Get in here." The speaker stood in the shadow of the front porch.
At first I thought she was saying, "tut, tut," bad doggie, but soon realized Tut was the monster's name. He obeyed with alacrity, bounding up the steps to the porch, tail wagging, seemingly the embodiment of man's best friend.
The woman stepped into the light and waved at me. "Don't you worry, he's all right. Come on in!"
I grabbed the gift basket and ventured up the walkway, noting the neat rows of white alyssum, yellow daisies, and purple allium that lined each side of the flagstones. Enormous baskets of fuchsias hung over the porch railing. Half a dozen bird feeders swung from giant iron hooks driven into the ground around the yard. The beneficiaries of this abundance flitted in from the poplars. Beneath the feeders, Oregon juncos and varied thrush grubbed at the fallout. The shouts of children playing carried from behind the house.
"I'm Sophie Mae Reynolds," I said. Tut watched me, but his gently waving tail signaled more of a welcome. "Are you Gabrielle Kaminski?"
The woman came down the porch steps. "That's me. Everyone calls me Gabi."
She was in her late twenties, buxom, with light brown hair drawn back into a simple pony tail. The sunlight glinted off the smoothness of it. My hand ran through my own short mop when I saw it. Gabi had brown eyes and a sprinkle of freckles across her cheeks and nose. Her lips were surprisingly pink against her tan, and they parted to reveal a slight overbite. She was taller than me, and gave the impression of bulk, mostly because of her chest.
A farmer's wife who looked like a farmer's wife ought to.
I held out the basket of soaps and preserves to her. "I'm Ariel's friend." A slight exaggeration. "I called yesterday about bringing her art up from Cadyville?"
She took the basket and smiled broadly. "Oh, look at all these goodies! That is just so nice of you."
"It's from everyone at the co-op," I said, exaggerating again.
"Well, you just tell everyone thanks, then. It's such a sweet thing to do." She turned back toward the door, still talking. "Now, I've got iced tea brewed, or there's cider from last fall. Or would you rather have a cup of coffee? I can warm some up from-oh, that's silly. I might as well make us up a fresh pot, don't you think?"
"Cider sounds delicious," I said.
I followed her inside. To the left, toys littered the living room. Straight ahead, a spacious kitchen in yellow and white. A basket of peas dominated the middle of the trestle table, and another large basket of produce sat on the counter: beets, Swiss chard, and a few early cherry tomatoes among the greens and onions. Though I'd traveled north, there was more sun and fewer trees here; a microclimate that allowed a longer growing season.
I pointed. "All that from your garden?"
She nodded as she poured out cloudy amber liquid and returned the chunky stoneware pitcher to the refrigerator. Ice cubes hissed and cracked as she handed the glass to me. I breathed in the sweet tang of apples before taking a sip of the cold homemade cider.
"Hope you don't mind if I shell some peas while we talk," she said. "We're having them for dinner, and it takes awhile to work through a big pile, you know?"
"I'll help." I sat down at the kitchen table and reached for a handful of pods.
She smiled, revealing more of the overbite. "Thanks! Just toss the empties in this pail."
"Ariel's artwork is in my pickup," I said.
"Rocky'll unload it later."
"Is he at work?" I asked, a little disappointed.
She nodded. "Putting a new transmission in Ollie Swenson's old Le Baron."
I'd told Gabi when I hoped to arrive, and received the impression Rocky would be there, too. But I didn't want to ask how long he'd be. I could stay for a while. After all, I was on vacation. In the meantime, Gabi seemed quite willing to talk to me, and she had a pile of peas to shell.
I pressed a pod between the pad of my thumb and the side of my forefinger. It opened with a popping sound. "Gabi, I'm so sorry about what happened to Ariel."
"Thanks" Her tone was light.
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She didn't seem all that broken up over her sister-in-law's death.
She glanced up at me without raising her head from where her hands worked rapidly over her dishtowel-draped lap. "Were you a close friend of hers?" Ping! A handful of peas bounced into the stainless steel bowl.
"Not what I'd call close, no," I said. "I only recently joined the co-op, and we hadn't had a chance to get to know one another very well. She seemed like a nice girl, though."
I was telling the truth. Until I'd heard about her mooching and affairs, Ariel had seemed like a perfectly nice girl, if a bit of an airhead who lacked empathy.
Gabi smiled uncertainly. She probably wondered why some woman who barely knew her sister-in-law had driven to La Conner to offer her sympathies. Her hands never slowed, though, and the bowl of shelled peas began to fill. The German shepherd wandered into the kitchen, black toenails clicking on the vinyl floor. I eyed him, still leery.
"Don't worry about Tut," Gabi said. "He's territorial-that's why we got him-but once he knows you're okay, everything's fine."
Still, I didn't plan on making any sudden moves. I glanced at my watch. "Does Rocky come home for lunch?"
"Oh, he'll show up pretty soon. He's out in the shop."
"I thought he was putting in a transmission," I said.
"Sure. He's a mechanic. No way could we make it on what the flowers bring in. So he has a shop around the back where locals bring anything with four wheels-and some things with two-for him to work on. Would you like to see it?"
"Yes, I would." "
I thought Rocky'd see you're here and come into the house, but he gets so involved he may not have noticed. I don't usually bother him while he's working, but he's been out there long enough. Let's go."
We got up, leaving the peas, and went out the back door. Three boys raced around the yard, yelling. One of them was waving a stick at the other two, but no one seemed to be in actual danger.
"All of those yours?" I asked.
"Only two." She pointed. "That one's Evan, and that one's " Noah. They're both six. Evan is seven minutes older."
I bet they're a handful."
She laughed. "Justin's the tall one in the red shirt. Belongs to the neighbor down the road. He might as well be mine, though, as much time as he spends here."
The shop was in what I'd thought was a barn. No horses, just horsepower. Inside, the concrete floor was pristine. Three cars awaited Rocky's attention, and the fourth hunkered over a pit in the middle of the floor.
"Dang it!" a male voice said from somewhere. "Gabi, that you? Grab that clutch spring compressor and bring it over here."
She smiled at me and went to an array of tools on a bench along one wall, searching with her eyes. "I don't see it. Oh, wait a minute, here it is." She hefted an awkward and arcane-looking contraption and walked around to the far side of the pit.
"Hey honey," Gabi said. "Ariel's friend from the co-op is here."
Rocky came around from the other side of the car, eyebrows raised. He was about five-ten, with dark, prematurely thinning hair and a hooked nose. Muscles roped through his arms and across his bare chest and abdomen.
"Hiya," he said, holding out a grimy hand. Then he flushed, pulled it back and began wiping it on a greasy rag. "Sorry. Occupational hazard."
"No problem," I assured him. Fishing in my oversized tote bag, I found the sympathy card. "I brought the paintings Ariel had on display at the co-op. And this." I held out the envelope.
He took it, carefully drew out the card, and opened it. He looked at it for a long time. His eyes moved from one signature to another, and back again. At last he looked up, and his face was wet.
"I didn't know she had so many friends. Thank you."
I swallowed, feeling like a big, fat liar. "You're very welcome."
A quick glance at Gabi. She was focused on her husband, face pinched with distress.
"Ariel was the artistic one," Rocky said. "She was the one in the family who got all the talent. I just know how to fix things." He looked at the ground and shook his head, smiling.
I was at a complete loss as to what to say; any response was bound to come across as insincere. For the gazillionth time I wished I was better at prevarication.
Luckily, Gabi stepped in. "You're a better mechanic than your sister was an artist, and you always were."
"Don't talk about her like that, Gabi." Grief laced the words. He turned to me. "She was a wonderful artist. And she was just as good as me at fixing cars and stuff. We were restoring that '69 Cougar there, together." He gestured to a maroon street rod in the corner. "Hadn't had much of a chance to work on it in the last year or so. She couldn't come up to visit much, and I only work on it when she's here."
We all spent awhile looking at the half-finished vehicle on blocks, pieces and parts arranged precisely on the tarp around it. I had a sudden flash that the car would become a mechanical shadow of Miss Haversham. I saw it a hundred years in the future, in exactly the same place, rusted, covered with dust and cobwebs, waiting for Ariel to come back and help her brother put it together again.
Rocky walked a couple steps away, as if unable to look at the Cougar anymore. The movement shook me out of my daze.
"I had no idea Ariel was mechanically inclined," I said.
His small smile didn't reach his eyes. "She didn't look like that kind of girl, she was so little and pretty, but she could take an engine apart and put it back together, have it running like a kitten in no time."
"Was it just the two of you?" I asked. "Any other brothers or sisters?"
"Nope. Just us. For years we only had one another, after both of our parents were killed in a car wreck."
"That must have been horrible. How old were you?"
"I was twenty-one," Rocky said. "Ariel was sixteen."
Right. She'd mentioned that when she more or less said Chris should just get over Scott's death. "That must have been especially difficult for her, so young," I said.
"It was hard on both of us. But I took care of her, and we got through it." The last words were clipped, and he moved farther away.
His nerves were already raw, and in my enthusiasm to understand Ariel I'd apparently overstepped the bounds of tactful behavior once again.
"I'm sorry," I said.
He smiled and shook his head. "That's okay. It's kind of hard to talk about right now, is all."
He took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and then opened them again as if making a decision. "Do you know who found her?"
Oh, God. "Um, yeah."
"I'm afraid it was me."
His eyes widened. "Oh!"