WELL, I HAVE TO tell you, I'd be hard pressed to find a more awkward moment than that. We both looked anywhere but at each other.
Finally, Rocky said, "Well, maybe it's not good to speak too much of the dead."
Not quite what I'd been hoping for this trip, but understandable. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, and it was obviously too soon to quiz him about his sister.
"A police detective came yesterday, with all kinds of questions. Horrible questions. I can't do it anymore." He mopped his face with the grimy rag. "I mean, how could anyone have done that-" His voice cracked, and he turned away.
"I'm so sorry," I said yet again.
He nodded, silent.
Gabi indicated the door with a jab of her chin. Once she and I were outside again, she said, "He doesn't like people to see him so upset."
"Of course," I said. "Maybe you could help me unload Ariel's art, and I'll be on my way."
"Why don't you take it back to the co-op and sell it and then send us the money," Gabi said, her voice laced with bitterness.
I'm sure my surprise showed on my face.
"She owed us a lot," Gabi said in a confiding tone.
So much for not speaking about the dead.
"Well," I said. "You might be able to sell one of the pieces. There's a note on one of them from someone who's interested in buying it."
Rocky's voice came from behind us. "I want that art. Every single piece if it. Just show me where it is."
Gabi shook her head and walked toward the house. I led him around to my truck and opened the topper. I reached for a painting.
"I'll take care of them. You go ahead in the house and have Gabi get you something to drink," he said.
I didn't mention his wife had already plied me with cider, but obediently turned around and walked toward the front steps.
"I'm sorry if I sounded rude. I want you to know how much I appreciate you driving these all the way up here."
"No problem at all," I said. I watched him fumble with one of the large canvases for a moment, but couldn't think of anything to say that would make any difference at all. I turned and went into the house.
I found Gabi sitting back at the kitchen table, working away on the pile of pea pods. Her face was red, her hands a blur.
I sat down and reached for another handful. "I'm sorry if I upset your husband."
"Oh, heck. I'm the one upset him, not you. I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut about that sister of his, even now. He wouldn't stand for it when she was alive, either." Her expression was strained with worry. "I guess now we'll never see that money."
I looked around the kitchen. The parts of the house I'd seen so far were clean, but well-worn. The vinyl in front of the sink was torn and the curtains were faded. I didn't know how much land they were able to devote to the tulip bulbs, or how much Rocky was able to bring in with his mechanical work, but the budget here seemed pretty tight.
"If it helps at all," I said, "I don't think keeping the art at the co-op would do much good. It wasn't exactly flying out the door. I doubt that you'd have seen much money from it, anyway."
Gabi's laugh was sharp. "Well, that figures. Ariel and Rocky were the only ones who ever thought she was any good."
"Well, I'm not saying she was bad," I hedged. "Just not, you know, popular with the buyers. It's possible she'd have sold more if the prices hadn't been quite so high."
The look she gave me said she didn't believe me. "Let me tell you a little something about Ariel." Another handful of peas rained into the bowl. "She was a slut."
I paused in my pea shelling, jarred by how she grated out the word.
"Oh, I know. I'm not supposed to talk about her like that. But if you knew her at all you'd know I'm telling the truth. Are you married?"
I shook my head.
"Well, I sure hope you didn't let him spend much time around her, because men were idiots whenever she was around, and that girl knew how to take advantage of it."
"I'm not sure what you mean. Oh, I know she was pretty popular with the male of the species, but how did she take advantage?" I caught myself starting to lean forward in eagerness and forced myself to sit back in my chair.
"Every which way she could," Gabi said. "I've known that family forever, grew up on the place next to here."
"Rocky married the girl next door."
She smiled. "Yep. We were meant for each other from the start."
"So you knew his sister very well."
"Too well. Here's an example of what I mean: in high school, she had an English teacher, name of Randolph Owens. Made the kids read, lots and lots, as part of his class. Ariel didn't like having to read a lot-too boring, too much work, and she sure didn't like being told exactly what she was supposed to read. So she didn't do it. Tried to fake it in class, got some CliffsNotes, you know the drill. But she wasn't clever enough to pull it off, and everyone in class knew she hadn't done any of the reading, including Mr. Owens. Heck, she even talked about it."
I glued an interested look on my face and shelled faster. So Ariel was lazy. That wasn't exactly a news flash.
"But she got an A in that class," Gabi continued. "She and Mr. Owens had an `arrangement,' if you know what I mean. He lost his job over it."
Well, that was news. "That's terrible," I said.
"Now don't be thinking she was some kind of victim. She seduced him, and she did it because his class was hard, and she didn't want to do the work in order to get a good grade. And she needed the good grade in order to up her GPA and get into college. Not that it did much good, since once she got into college she just turned around and dropped out. Maybe the professors there weren't as easy to manipulate.
"She was a user. She used people to get what she wanted, and if that meant she had to sleep with them, well, that didn't seem to bother her one bit. Didn't have much use for women in general, since her charm was somewhat lost on them. But still, there were those who saw how little and cute she was and wanted to mommy her, take care of the little thing. She wasn't above using that, either."
"But she didn't fool you," I said.
"Not for long. But her brother, my darling husband, who is just about the sweetest man on this planet in my opinion, well, she played him like a fiddle their whole lives. He's five years older'n her, but she managed him like I manage this mangy mutt here." She chucked the German shepherd under the chin as if it were a child.
"That's sad, in a way," I said. "People like that don't usually have a lot of friends. I imagine she was pretty lonely."
Gabi blinked. "I never really thought about it that way, but I guess you're right. 'Course she had that friend from high school. Lindsey. Thick as thieves then, and I know they're still in contact."
"Lindsey," I repeated. "I think she might have mentioned her." A bald-faced lie, that, but Gabi didn't seem to notice.
"Lindsey Drucker. Still lives here, just down Bowers Road. She's married now. She and Ariel were awful close, but they sure took different paths in life. Lindsey seems happy enough with the one she chose."
The back door opened and the kitchen filled with loud boy voices clamoring for a snack. Gabi rose and fetched a gallon of milk and a cookie jar packed to the top with old-fashioned chocolate chip cookies.
"All right, you heathens. Go out and eat on the porch, where I can just sweep up after your mess." Loading each child with a plastic glass of milk and a handful of cookies, she shooed them out of the house. They seemed content enough to go, taking Tut with them.
"Don't you feed that dog any cookies," Gabi called. "If he eats chocolate he'll die."
She sat back down and gave me a sheepish grin. "I know it would just make him sick, as much chocolate as is in those cookies, but I've learned by now that boys don't do so well with subtle differences like that. Here, have a cookie."
I looked at my watch. "Gosh. I didn't realize it was so late. I need to get going."
"Oh, stay for dinner, Sophie Mae."
"I'd love to, but I can't." I felt a little grumpy, realizing I'd spent so much time with the Kaminskis and had learned so little. The story about the high school teacher was interesting, but likely didn't have anything to do with Ariel's murder. If I hurried back to La Conner, at least I could fit in a solitary seafood dinner before having to drive back home.
"We're grilling out," Gabi said. "Got a nice fresh salmon yesterday from a friend who fishes, these peas, and there are some baby potatoes ready in the garden to cook up with them."
Hmmm. That sounded a lot like a seafood dinner right there. And, the thought niggled at me even though I tried to ignore it, I might still learn more about Ariel.
"Please? Heck, you can even spend the night. No reason to drive all the way back tonight, is there?"
Surprised by the invitation to stay overnight, I realized this woman, who didn't seem to work outside of the house, was quite lonely. The prospect of remaining longer grew on me. Maybe I could assuage Rocky a little. I even liked the energy of the boys, now clustered on the front porch playing some quieter game.
But the meal offer clinched the deal. Fresh wild salmon and produce from the garden.
"That dinner sounds terrific," I said. "I'd love to stay, thank you. But I do need to get back to Cadyville this evening."
Gabi looked pleased. "Come out and keep me company while I get us some potatoes."
I put the bowl of fresh peas on the counter, and Gabi hefted the heavy pail of shells, heading out the door to the garden. "These'll go straight into the compost pile."
"May I use your bathroom?" I asked.
"Down the hall there." She pointed through the living room to a hallway that ran behind the stairs to the second floor. "Ignore the boys' room; it's a disaster."
I peeped into the room in question as I walked to the bathroom. Disaster, heck. It looked like a superfund site.
On my way back out to join Gabi, I stopped cold. Tucked away in the corner of the toy-strewn living room sat a spinning wheel. It wasn't one of those cutesy decorative ones either; it looked a lot like a Schacht I had considered buying. A pile of seductive rovings and rolled batts overflowed a basket next to it, and the spool still on the wheel held a tasty variegated yarn in chocolate, red, and orange. The tuft of the batt left to be spun looked shiny and soft, maybe cashmere, or even silk.
Resisting the urge to plunge my hands into the basket of fiber, I hurried out to join Gabi. I found her gently digging into hills of purple potatoes, teasing out the tiny new offerings near the surface. The skins of the potatoes were iridescent in the sunlight when I rubbed off the dirt. Unlike purple beans, purple potatoes kept their color when cooked.
"These are going to be gorgeous with the bright green of the new peas," I said.
Gabi grinned. "I know. Rocky doesn't realize it, but that's one of the reasons I grow this variety. I just love the way they look with other food on the plate." "
I saw your spinning wheel in the house. Wouldn't a combination of those colors in a two-ply yarn be amazing?"
She sat back on her heels and stared at me with delight on her face. "Sophie Mae, do you spin?"
I nodded, then shrugged. "I just started, but I can't see stopping now. Never imagined something so mundane could be so addictive."
"I've been doing it for years, but it's hard to find the time."
"Years? I bet you have quite a stash of fiber and yarn." Spinners, like knitters and quitters, were known collectors of the basic "ingredients" of their craft.
She laughed. "Rocky would die if he realized how much."
"Would you show me some of it?" I asked, kneeling beside her and digging my fingers into the dark lush soil piled up around the potato plants.
"I'd love to!"
She stood and lifted the pail, which now held the delicate baby potatoes, and we went back into the house.
Rocky came in from the shop and sat at the kitchen table sipping hot coffee as Gabi and I got things ready to steam and grill. His stoicism had returned in full measure, and I was glad to see any lingering rancor between him and Gabi had vanished. Tagteaming each other and finishing each other's sentences, husband and wife told me a bit about how the tulip farm worked. Then the boys came in, and we were treated to a recounting of the day's adventures while Gabi whipped up a pie crust. She sent the twins out to cut rhubarb and pick strawberries; by the time we had a big salad together they were back with their booty and we assembled the pie.
We ate under an apple tree out back. It wasn't until after dinner and dishes were done that I got a dose of Gabi's fiber stash.