THINGS HAD CERTAINLY BECOME complicated, I mused as I maneuvered along the country lanes leading back to the interstate. Had Ariel killed Scott Popper? I mean, she was the murder victim, right? It was ridiculous to think that she might have actually killed a policeman.
Even if she'd somehow caused his car crash, what good did knowing that do? As Gabi had pointed out, it hardly mattered what Ariel might have once done, now that she was dead.
Unless… did Chris Popper know more about her husband's death than she had let on? Did she think Ariel killed him? That could be a significantly stronger motive than an affair.
But no matter how strong the motive, Chris had an alibi. My brain hurt. Nothing was making any sense. Instead of having too little information, I suddenly had more than I could fit together, as if someone had added a few extra pieces from another box to the jigsaw puzzle.
I opened my window and inhaled the morning breeze. A high haze of cloud cover cast a veil between the sharp summer sunlight and the verdant greenery below. Soon it would burn off, and the ambient temperature would again begin to rise. Above, hawks circled and dove, hunting the small things that crept in the fields on either side of the county road.
Ahead, a sign warned that I was approaching a four-way stop. Bowers Road.
The road Ariel's high school friend lived on.
I sighed. Even if there were a few sections from another puzzle box thrown in, I obviously didn't have all the pieces of the original jigsaw, either. However much I wanted to return to my own happy home, how could I resist making this slight detour? I tossed a mental coin and turned west. Three miles later, I turned around and went back, crossing my original path and tried east. I had no idea what Lindsey Drucker's address was, or even whether her name was still the same; Gabi had said she was married. This was a stupid way to try and find her.
Almost ready to turn around again and give up, I saw it: Drucker & Sandstrom. The names were spelled out in reflective letters on the mailbox in front of a sprawling, single-level house painted dark green with wine-colored trim. A long, low barn surrounded by a series of paddocks and pasture indicated that they kept livestock, but I didn't see any horses or cows. Then the driveway curved, and I saw alpacas clustered and dotting one of the large fields. Recently sheared, they looked like teddy bears crossed with oversized poodles. There must have been a hundred of them, in shades varying from cream to brown, with a few gray and black ones thrown in.
The woman who answered the door had short red hair and wore navy shorts with a plain white cotton T-shirt. The expectant look on her smooth tan face invited me to introduce myself.
"Hi. Are you Lindsey Drucker?" I asked.
"I'm Sophie Mae Reynolds. I knew Ariel Skylark."
She tipped her head to one side, considering. "I see." Without another word she stepped back and opened the door for me.
Inside, sunlight streamed through the windows that made up the back wall of the main living space, and through a large skylight overhead. At least I thought it was the main living space, because it looked more like an artist's studio. A huge loom dominated one side of the room, with an elaborate rug in progress. The interlocking geometric design in red, cream and light brown was reminiscent of traditional Native American art, but somehow possessed a modern flair. Three easels took up the other half of the room, each displaying a landscape painting in a different stage of completion.
"Coffee?" Lindsey asked.
I shook my head. "I'm full up. Thanks, though." I walked over to the loom. "Are you the weaver?"
"I am." Her voice was deep, confident, her manner easy and unhurried.
"And the alpacas?"
"I raise them for wool and sell them for breeding."
Gabi had mentioned that she could get sheep and alpaca wool locally. Lindsey was probably one of her sources.
"My husband's the painter," she said. "He's out of town at a gallery show right now."
"It practically vibrates with creativity in here."
She smiled. And waited.
"I understand you were a good friend of Ariel's," I said, wondering what this self-possessed woman had in common with Arieland what Ariel got out of it. "I'm very sorry for your loss."
"Thank you." Sad about her friend's death, certainly, but not grief stricken. Serene. But how could I presume to know how she expressed sorrow?
She looked down, her face suddenly pinched. "We all have to go eventually, but no one deserves to die like that. The venom, the hatred behind such an act of violence. It's inconceivable."
And yet, inconceivable as it was, this was the third time I'd been involved in a murder in our little town. A woman could get a real complex about something like that.
"Everything all right?" Lindsey's concerned voice brought me back to earth.
I shook my head. "I find what happened to her upsetting, too." I'd started feeling downright sorry for myself there for a second. "Had you known Ariel for a long time?"
She took a sip of her coffee and considered me. "How did you know I knew her at all? Did she mention me?"
"Um, no. Her sister-in-law did, though. I was there last night."
"You stayed the night at the Kaminskis?"
"Friend of the family?" Obvious intelligence shone from her eyes. No way I'd get away with lying to her.
"Not exactly." I took a deep breath. "Ariel and I belong… belonged to the same artists' co-op. I drove up with her paintings, to give to her brother. One thing led to another, mostly because Gabi and I hit it off and have a common interest in spinning. I ended up staying the night. She mentioned you and Ariel were friends in high school, and what road you lived on, and when I was driving by on the way home, I sort of…" I trailed off, lame as could be.
She squinted. "I guess I still don't quite understand why you're here."
Why indeed? "Um. Well, I keep finding out things about Ariel that I hadn't known before. I thought you might be able to tell me more.
"You're simply curious, then."
Lindsey laughed, which disconcerted me further. "It's okay. Ariel was an odd little thing."
"But you were friends."
"In high school. Since then it had devolved to exchanging Christmas cards. At least most of the time. Once in awhile she still called when she needed to."
Something about the way she said that. "When she needed to?"
Lindsey inclined her head a fraction, holding my gaze.
"And when," I pushed, "was that?"
She looked speculative then seemed to make a decision. "When she started to fall back into her old habits."
This time I was the one who waited.
Another sip of coffee, followed by a small, self-deprecating smile. "Ariel and I had something in common in high school that bound us. We were both anorexic. My parents caught on, and I began seeing a local psychologist who specialized in eating disorders. Ariel's parents were both gone by then, and her brother had no idea what was going on. But once I started to get better, I convinced her to go with me. The woman who was treating me was an angel; she agreed to let Ariel share my sessions for no extra fee. By the time my mother and father found out, I was improving, so they let it continue. Over the course of two years, we both learned how to deal with having an eating disorder." She paused, watching the alpacas outside the window. "I was lucky. Staying well has been easier for me. Ariel had a difficult time."
"That explains it," I said, without thinking.
I ran my hands over my face, suddenly tired. "I keep hearing Ariel wasn't exactly, um, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, if you know what I mean. She didn't like people so much for who they were, as for what they could do for her. She cultivated those who could provide her with something she needed."
Lindsey didn't respond, continued watching the herd. I began to get a sick feeling, like I'd stepped on a puppy. I shouldn't have spoken so frankly.
Then she turned back to me. "I never really thought about it that way. But, of course, you're right. She did exactly that."
"You were awfully nice, letting her come to your sessions. It must have made it harder for you," I said, plunging in further.
"She was killing herself." The simple words, stated so matter- of-factly, gave me goose bumps.
I couldn't help asking, though, "Did you like her?"
"I accepted her. Many people didn't."
"Did you accept everything about her?"
"You mean the men?"
"You knew about the high school teacher, then. Owens."
Lindsey's expression clouded. "He should have known better. She acted tough, but she was just a kid. A wildly insecure kid. He lost his job over it, but he should have been prosecuted."
"Did you know she was recently having an affair with a married man?"
She hesitated, licking her lips. "She called me a couple of weeks ago, as a matter of fact."
Interesting. Lindsey hadn't been going to tell me that.
"Did she mention Scott Popper?"
"She talked about two men, both associated with the artists' co-op.
"She was having affairs with both of them?" So she and Jake had progressed beyond e-mails. No wonder Felicia had made that angry phone call.
Lindsey was silent.
"Listen, I know you want to keep her confidence, and I don't blame you. But she was murdered. The police are probably going to show up on your doorstep, asking these same questions. At least, I hope they are, because the people she was involved with right before she died are important, and you have information about them."
Okay, so I wasn't being particularly nice anymore.
With pity on her face-for Ariel and not for me, I hoped-she said, "Yes, she was having affairs with both of them."
"One was a cop, and the other one was a doctor, right?"
Lindsey frowned. "One was a policeman, yes. The other was a mechanic."
Oh, wow. Zak Nelson. Not exactly associated with the co-op, but close enough. No wonder he'd wanted to buy one of Ariel's giant canvases. And no wonder Irene seemed to hate Ariel so much; she knew what was going on.
"What else did she say?" I asked.
However, Lindsey was shaking her head. "No. This has gone far enough. I'm sure you're a very nice person, but I don't know you, and I shouldn't be talking to you about Ariel like this. If the police come, fine. But you're not the police, and I'd like you to leave now.
"I don't have anything else to tell you. Please. Go."
"All right. Thank you for talking to me," I said. It sounded weak. I could tell by the rueful look on her face that Lindsey regretted talking to me at all. At my insistence she had violated a personal code of ethics.
On one hand, the last twenty-four hours had gleaned a pile of new information about Ariel, some of which might be helpful in determining who murdered her.
On the other hand, I felt like dirt.