"I WENT OVER TO Chris Popper's that night," Irene said. "We were meeting about how to get rid of Ariel."
Zak sat up. "What?"
"Not kill her, just get her out of the co-op. She should never have been a member in the first place, not with our jury process. But Scott had convinced Chris to let Ariel in. That was, of course, before anyone knew he and Ariel were having an affair."
She looked pensively at her son, who nodded. "Yeah, Mom. I already know that."
"But then she started in on you, and even Jake had a crush on her. For some reason she wasn't interested in him, though."
I knew why: Jake didn't have anything she needed. If he had, she would have made a run at him just as she had with Zak and Scott. And now I knew Scott's appeal: he'd been able to get her into CRAG, something Daphne Sparks felt Ariel desperately wanted in order to validate her talent as an artist.
Irene continued. "Things had gotten out of control. She needed to go. But we had to figure out how to go about it."
"What did you decide?" I asked.
"We decided to simply refund her membership dues and ask her to leave. Jake was worried that she'd want to know why. Chris and I wanted to tell her exactly why, but he didn't like that. He was ambivalent about making her leave at all, of course. He felt we were being too hard on her. He left the house in a huff."
"What time was that?" Barr asked.
"Between seven-thirty and eight."
That jibed with what everyone else had said. He nodded. "Go on.
Irene stopped pacing and cupped her elbows in her palms. "Well, with Jake acting like that, a united front wasn't going to be possible. Ruth and Chris and I decided we would approach Ariel in a week or so. After all, Chris owns the building and started the co-op. She has a lot of say about things, more than the rest of us, by default. But Scott's funeral was the next day, and she was grieving and exhausted. We needed to wait."
We all nodded, even Robin.
"So Ruth left next, and a few minutes after that I did." She passed her hand over her face. "I felt better about things at CRAC than I had in a long time, knowing that girl would be leaving." The hand dropped, and she began pacing again, back and forth in the space between the coffee table and the television. "My way home from Chris' took me by the co-op." She paced faster now. "I saw Zak's car in the parking lot, next to Ariel's little blue car. I couldn't help it. I pulled to the curb across the street and waited."
Now she stopped in front of her son. "I hated that you were seeing her."
"I know, Mom."
"She was going to hurt you terribly. I knew it. She was empty inside, and she sucked the life out of the people around her like some kind of psychological vampire. I couldn't stand that you were in there with her." As she spoke, the volume of her voice increased and her words tumbled over one another.
Her son held his hands up. "But we were breaking up that night. That's why I was there. She didn't hurt me at all. We had some fun, and then we moved on." His voice was steady, but his eyes were full of dread. I could tell he didn't want to hear any more.
"Zak," I said. Everyone turned toward me. Okay, so I was interrupting a murder confession, but I just had to know something. "Did Ariel ever come to work with you, or visit you at the Fix-It?"
"She came by all the time. For a chick, she knew a lot about cars.
"Did she ever come by when you were working on the police cars?"
"Probably. It's not like I kept track, and we usually have one or another of the city's cars in there at any given time." He glared at Barr and Robin. "You guys are rough on those vehicles, and then you don't even bother to take care of them," he spit out. The fury in his tone had nothing to do with maintaining the police department's cars; it was directed at the detectives who sat calmly on either side of him while his mother led up to a horrible revelation.
"I'm sure you're right," Barr said, and flicked a warning at me with his eyes.
I felt sure Ariel had been the one who sabotaged Scott Popper's vehicle, and Zak had at least confirmed that she had had access. Barr and Robin could follow up with him more on that later.
"Sorry, Irene," I said. "Please go on.,,
The interruption seemed to have calmed her. "I waited outside the co-op for a few minutes. I just couldn't help it. All I knew was that I wanted Zak to come out of there." She took a deep breath. "And then he did. He came out and drove away."
Her pacing resumed. "But she didn't come out. She was still in there. And I kept thinking about all the things we'd talked about at Chris', about how disruptive that girl was." Now she sent a pleading look her son's way. "I didn't know she'd broken it off with you. I didn't know." Anguish laced her tone. "Sitting there in my car in the dark, all I could think about was how she needed to go away, and not in a week or so, when Chris would be up to facing her." She stopped speaking for a few moments, but kept striding back and forth. Finally, in a quiet voice I said, "You felt threatened. She'd seduced Scott Popper, ruined the co-op for you, and then went after your son. You didn't know what she was capable of."
Irene shook her head a couple of times, then paused, and stared at me. She slowly nodded. "Yes. That's really it, isn't it? I didn't know what she was going to do next, and I was afraid for Zak."
A derisive noise came from her son's throat.
"You may not have known Ariel as well as you thought," I said to him.
"Are you going to keep interrupting?" Robin asked. "Or can we get this over with?"
I sighed. So much for greasing the wheels of Irene's confession. "So what did you do next?"
"I went inside. It was dark, but I could see something on the floor, to the side of the retail counter." Her eyes blazed. "It was one of my sculptures. The one I call Athena, where she's in the warrior yoga pose?"
I nodded, though I had no idea what she was talking about.
"Someone had knocked it off the table where it was displayed. Her arm was broken. I just knew Ariel had done it, in the dark, too lazy to turn on the lights, and too uncaring to bother picking it up." She gritted out the words. "The light shone down the stairs from above. I knew she was up there. So I took the sculpture upstairs to confront her. And you know what I found?"
We all shook our heads.
"I found little Miss Ariel Skylark going through Ruth Black's things. She was taking some of that pretty, shiny fiber Thea Hawke sells, right out of Ruth's case."
Hoo boy. I hadn't been expecting that. Ruth kept a portion of her stash and fiber to use for lessons at CRAG in a small cupboard in the corner of her work area. The northern lights fiber Ariel had been clutching in her dead hand when I found her was indeed the same stuff Gabi had in her spinning basket which had sent us on such a wild goose chase. But Gabi had told the truth when she said she got the fiber from Ariel-and I'd been right when I figured Ariel wouldn't shell out the big bucks for a gift like that for her sister-in-law.
Stealing from Ruth Black. Sheesh. The list in Ariel's "con" column just kept getting longer and longer.
"You confronted her?" I prompted.
"Oh, yes. And I told her we'd decided that she had to leave the co-op. That she had a day to get all of her stuff out." Irene pressed her lips together, the anger and fear on her face again as she remembered. "She laughed at me. Said she had no intention of leaving, and that I didn't have the authority to make her. When I insisted Chris was on board with the decision, she got a nasty look on her face. Told me she wouldn't go, and that if we tried to make her, she'd take us to court. Sue the co-op."
"That's ridiculous," Zak said.
"I thought so, too," Irene said. "And I told her that. Plus, if she didn't get her ugly paintings out of the building herself, we'd take them down for her and set them in the alley so she could pick them up. Well, that made her spitting mad, and she came at me."
Her lips opened again, but no words came out. She rubbed her palm over her face and cleared her throat. When she managed to speak again, her voice was quiet. "I hit her with my Athena sculpture, and she fell down." Her eyes welled. "She just wouldn't go away. It didn't seem like we'd ever be rid of her. Thinking that made me a little nuts, you know? I saw that hank of yarn hanging over the back of the chair, and I grabbed it and wrapped it around her neck."
She met Zak's horrified gaze, shunted her eyes toward mine and whispered, "I kept it there until she was dead."
Not exactly self-defense, I thought. But an insanity plea didn't seem entirely out of the question. Poor Zak. Poor Irene, for that matter.
I kept my tone gentle. "You hit her with the sculpture first?"
Understanding registered on Robin's face. The official story was that Ariel had been strangled. How could Irene have known Ariel had been struck first unless she'd been there? She slowly rose to her feet.
"Where is it?" Barr asked, also standing.
Irene licked her lips.
"Did you get rid of it?" he pushed.
She looked at Zak. "Would it prove that I was the one who killed that girl, and not Zak?"
"I believe it might," Barr said, not committing to anything. But the look he shot my way was triumphant.
"It's outside," she said. "In my workroom. I was going to try and fix it."
And sell it in the co-op, no doubt. Nice way to get rid of a murder weapon-except she could have smashed it to pieces instead. I had to wonder if there wasn't a part of Irene that wanted to get caught.
"So how did you convince Chris and Ruth to give you an alibi for the time of the murder?" I asked, not moving from the recliner. I wanted to get as much on tape as possible.
Irene, looking paler than ever, covered her eyes with one hand for a few beats. Then she dropped her arm and said, "After I realized what I'd done, I panicked and called Chris. I told her what had happened, and she told me to get back to her place as fast as possible. I know I shouldn't have done it, that I should have just called the police and confessed right then, but I did what she said. When I got there, she told me Ruth would be there any minute, and that I should say I'd been at Chris' the whole time, hadn't left at all. That way I'd have an alibi, and both Chris and Ruth could back me up."
Ruth had told me she went back because Chris had broken down the night before the funeral. But when I was in the smithy with her, Chris had told me it was the first time she'd really cried since Scott's death. Now that made sense.
I leaned forward. "Only Chris knew she was lying. You tricked Ruth."
Irene sighed. "She could've said she'd left and come back, but after you found Ariel, she was afraid for Chris. She didn't want her to be blamed. So she fudged a little on the truth-on her own, not because I made her, or even asked her to-in order to strengthen Chris' alibi. But you have to understand, she really thought I'd been there the whole time, so she believed Chris had an alibi."
Ruth's heart had been in the right place, but she'd ended up protecting someone who'd actually killed Ariel. Chris, on the other hand, had intentionally aided and abetted. She'd had good reason to hate Ariel, too. No wonder she'd protected Irene.
"Worked out pretty well for you, didn't it?" Robin said, her lips drawing back in disgust.
Defiance flashed across Irene's features. "Until now."
"Show me the statue you hit her with," Robin said.
Irene hesitated then nodded toward her son. He'd run through the gamut of emotions as he'd listened to his mother confess to murder, and now sat stunned on the sofa with his hands still behind him. "Take the handcuffs off of him."
Robin narrowed her eyes, but after a long moment complied, pulling Zak to his feet. Metal scraped against metal as she removed them, sounding loud in the room. He rubbed one wrist, still staring at his mother.
We all filed upstairs behind Irene. Barr smiled his approval when I grabbed my tote bag off the coffee table on the way. We went through the white and beige kitchen to the back door, and outside. A small building stood in the far corner of the backyard. It was little more than a glorified shed. Together we crossed the yard, and Irene opened the door. A table and chair took up most of the interior. Shelves lining the walls held figurines in various stages of completion, as well as neat packages of clay waiting to be shaped into something more. A variety of shiny, clean tools lay in a row on the tabletop. Even here, where Irene made her art, there was little color and no decoration.
She took one of the chunky statuettes down from the shelf and held it out to Robin, who told her to put it on the table. Then she put the handcuffs on Irene and started the whole Miranda thing over again. Zak looked on with a mixture of sadness and repulsion on his face.
Irene met my eyes, and I saw that the fear she'd been carrying around seemed to be gone. Then she mouthed something at me, and nodded. I blinked.
Barr and I went outside. I gave him my tote bag, and he removed the tape recorder and turned it off. "What did she say to you?"
"She said…" I shook my head. "I think she said, `Thank you.' Can you believe that?"
The corners of his eyes crinkled, and his look was tender. "Guilt is a hard thing to carry around."
I thought about things I'd done in my own life. Not murder, but still. "Yeah. I guess you're right."
As we walked toward the patrol car, Barr sighed under his breath.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"This was such a fiasco, and it could have been avoided if my partner wasn't so pigheaded. Do you have any idea how much paperwork we're going to have to fill out now?"
"Well, at least you got your killer," I said.
"At least one of them."
"Meaning… you think Ariel killed Scott?"
He nodded. "It sounds like a possibility. I'll talk to Zak and to the other mechanics at the shop and see if I can find out anything more. It won't make him any less dead, but Chris might like to know what really happened. Might make a difference with his life insurance payout, too."
"Except Chris might be looking at some jail time, too. Don't you think?"
A rueful expression settled on his face. "What the hell was she thinking, covering for Irene like that?"
"My bet? She was thinking that in the same situation, she might have done exactly the same thing. Ariel had a real talent for inciting love and hate. Which one depended on your gender."