Authors: Gina Cresse
He sat on the hood of a blue and white Mustang, not nearly old enough to be a classic, but too old to be cool. He still wore his jeans three inches too long, a Western style shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows and the front unbuttoned halfway down, and that stupid black mohair cowboy hat that he’d worn on our first date. How long ago was that? God, seventeen years. I never realized how much I hated that hat until just then.
I got out of my car and approached him. He hadn’t changed much—maybe a few pounds heavier. A flood of memories came rushing into my head. We had been making wedding plans for a ceremony at the little white chapel in Yosemite, picking out rings, deciding on a date—and then the phone call at three in the morning that I wasn’t supposed to overhear. The other woman. What I wouldn’t give for a time machine.
“Well,” I said, not offering a hand or a hug. “It’s been a long time.” I wondered if—actually hoped—he’d gone bald under that hat.
“You look good, Katie.” He slid off the car and reached for me, but I backed away. Roger smiled and nodded as though he expected it—maybe even deserved it.
Inside, the restaurant buzzed with activity. Mexican music played just loud enough to be heard over the din of a hundred conversations. A huge flat-screen TV over the bar was tuned to a football game. The smell of freshly made tortillas wafted from the kitchen, and a waitress passed by with a tray of sizzling fajitas that made my mouth water.
We were seated at a booth near a window. Roger took his hat off and put it next to him on the seat. I was disappointed to see he still had all his hair. “What’s with the Mustang? I thought you’d never own anything without a bed behind the cab?” If Roger owned a pickup, I wanted to know.
“Had to sell my truck after the company suspended me.”
“So you didn’t actually lose your job.”
“Naw. I can get it back as soon as the doctor gives me a letter. I sorta went crazy after Justine divorced me. They said it was too risky to keep me working.”
“They have a rule against letting suicidal maniacs on a job site.”
“Imagine that.” I noticed the scars on his wrists. “You tried to kill yourself?”
“Naw. Not really, I don’t think. But the doctor says I’m bipolar and until he releases me I’m sorta on my own.”
Bipolar? I thought that was the latest term for manic-depressive. Somehow, I couldn’t picture Roger as manic. During the seven years that we’d lived together, he had one mood—grumpy. Justine must’ve brought out the best and worst in him. Looking at him across the table, I was thankful she came along when she did, otherwise I might actually have married him. “There’s a Motel 6 in Lodi. You ought to be able to afford that tonight.” I wanted to make it clear there’d be no chance he’d come home with me.
“I can’t stay. I have to have my face in front of a judge in Reno in the morning. Something about me not having any guns.”
I tried not to appear relieved. “Maybe you should sell the guns, at least until you get through this current disaster.”
“I ain’t selling my guns.” There was a hint of acid in his voice.
“Then go to jail. I don’t really care.” I swept my hand through the air to reinforce the statement.
“Nag, nag, nag. You haven’t changed at all.”
I leaned forward, my elbows on the table. “Why, after all these years, did you suddenly decide you had to see me?”
He fiddled with his silverware, avoiding eye contact for a moment. “Let’s start over. How’ve you been, Katie?”
“Answer my question first.”
“I just thought… if you’re not seeing anyone—”
“Oh my God!” I blurted. “You think I’d agree to get involved with you again?”
“I just figured… you might be… I’ve changed, Katie. Really.”
I glared across the table at him. What I really wanted to do was grab him by the throat and pin his head to the wall. I wanted to tell him that he’d ruined my life, that he’d broke my heart into a million pieces, and the old wives’ tale about time healing all wounds was nothing but a big fat lie.
My relationship with Roger was like the Titanic’s maiden voyage. He was my first venture into the risky waters of love. We’d stayed afloat for seven years, and he’d convinced me that we were unsinkable… but then the iceberg hit and I sank to the bottom of the icy-cold, deep, dark ocean. And that’s where I’d stayed.
I wanted to scream at him that the scars he’d left made it impossible for me to trust—that I’d gotten over him years ago, but that I’d never get over what he’d done to me, how he’d betrayed me. The worst part was that I could not even trust my own judgment. I wanted to hurt him the way he’d hurt me, but I realized I never could, not because I wasn’t that cruel, but because his heart was too cold and hard to break.
I smiled. “I’m fine, Roger. Thanks for asking.”
n Friday, my alarm clock woke me up at 5:30 AM. No way was I going to be late for my appointment with Andy Carmichael. I hiked up to the barn and fed Buster and Emlie, then filled the water trough. As usual, the cats’ bowls were licked clean. Damn raccoons. I filled the bowls and called the cats so they could at least have a bite.
After everyone else was fed, I made a light breakfast for myself—homemade granola, organic Fuji apple, fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice, and a handful of vitamins. I sorted through a half-dozen blouses before I finally picked my favorite one—a deep blue sleeveless that brought out the color of my eyes. Not that I cared what Andy Carmichael thought about my eyes, since I had no intention of giving him the time of day—but I’d enjoy not giving him the time of day more if I knew he noticed my eyes.
As I applied mascara, I listened to my favorite country music station, which was in the middle of a news break. “California Highway Patrol officer Tina Delaney held a press conference about the sniper incident,” the news commentator said. “The shootings occurred at two-thirty this morning on Highway Forty-nine, two miles north of Grass Valley. There were no injuries, but four vehicles were hit. Early reports suggest the weapon was a rifle. Witnesses report seeing a car in the vicinity and police are asking for any information.”
I started on the other eye. “Wonder if it was a Mustang,” I mused to my reflection, focused on a lone white strand of hair mixed in with my brunette curls.
“Witnesses report the car is a blue and white Mustang.”
I dropped the mascara in the sink and gaped at the radio.
Andy Carmichael’s truck pulled up to my ranch gate at precisely seven. If nothing else, he was punctual. I opened the gate for him.
“Go ahead and park behind the Prius,” I said as he pulled through. “I’ll meet you at the barn.”
In the barn, Buster stood in the crossties with my western saddle on his back and a bridle hanging from the horn. I filled a saddle bag with bottled water and snacks. Emlie, under English saddle, was tied to the hitching rail, waiting to be bridled.
“What’s this?” Andy said as he stood in the breezeway of the barn, a suspicious eye on the horses.
“This is Buster, and that’s Emlie.”
“We’re not… I thought you said you had quads.”
“Right here. They each have four legs and produce exactly one horsepower.”
He crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “I’m not checking twenty-five acres of vines from the back of a horse.”
I brushed by him, close enough for him to catch a whiff of the Elizabeth Arden Green Tea perfume I’d sprayed on this morning. I eased the snaffle bit into Emlie’s mouth and slipped the headstall over her ears. “Suit yourself.”
Once again, I passed close enough that he had to take a step back as I returned to the crossties. I patted Buster on the hip. Since Andy hadn’t turned around to leave, I bridled Buster and handed him the reins. “You ride?”
“I just told you I’m not riding your horse. If you don’t have quads, then I’ll just come back another time with mine and we’ll try this again.”
“You can come back another time, but you won’t be polluting my vines with exhaust from your vehicles. I plan on qualifying this vineyard for organic wine production with the USDA.”
He rolled his eyes like he was addressing an idiot. “Lady, I know a little about organic certification, and there’s no rule about motor vehicle exhaust.”
I checked the cinch, let down the stirrup iron on the English saddle and led Emlie through the vineyard gate, then mounted up and waited. “If you’re not going to ride, would you mind unsaddling him and putting him back in the paddock?”
Andy Carmichael glared at me as if I’d just asked him to give birth to the gelding, then he checked his cinch— revealing that he knew a thing or two about horses—and hoisted his tall, lean body into the saddle. Not that I cared or anything, but he looked good on Buster. He’d probably look good on a burro.
“Just so you know, my rate doubles for organic vineyard management,” he said as he rode Buster through the open gate. He did a double-take—at my eyes, I’m sure—as he passed me.
I smiled. “Good. I’ll expect you to work twice as hard.” I closed the gate, mounted up, and wondered if the credit limit on my Mastercard would cover his fees.
The vineyard was planted on gently rolling hills. The vines clung to heavy-gauge wire that was stretched the length of each row and fastened to six-inch diameter posts buried deep into the ground at both ends. Black plastic drip irrigation lines ran along the ground and water dripped at the base of each vine. Clusters of deep red Zinfandel grapes hung from the vines like ornaments.
Overhead, a pair of buzzards circled like big black gliders, which wasn’t an unusual sight out here in the country. Jack rabbits and squirrels often played—and lost—the risky “cross the road” game. Without the buzzards to cleanup road kill, country roads would be littered with their carcasses, and the smell would be unbearable.
Andy reined Buster to a stop and dismounted. “See that?” he said, pointing at a muddy puddle of water where the drip line looked like it had been chewed almost in half. “All this irrigation hose should’ve been strung up on the wires, out of the reach of rabbits and coyotes.”
“It was like that when I bought it.”
“That an excuse?”
“No, it’s a reason,” I said. “What will it take to fix it?”
“I’ll have a crew come in and repair the damage. We can’t raise it now with all the leaf growth, but after pruning this winter, it can be raised up and tied to the wire.”
He got back in the saddle and clucked to Buster to move on.
I decided it was time to have a little fun with Andy. “I want you to look into other irrigation materials,” I said as I trotted Emlie to catch up with him. “Copper would be coyote and rabbit proof, right?”
He gaped at me. “Are you insane?”
I shook my head.
“Married to Bill Gates?”
“Copper is the preferred material for water supply lines,” I said.
“For a house. You’re talking about miles of pipe. You know what that would cost?”
“No, that’s why I want you to find out.”
“Lady, you’re a real piece of work.”
“And when the crews are working in the vineyard, I want you to enforce a strict anti-cursing rule. Foul language has been shown to have a negative effect on water molecules, and hence, could affect grape production.”
It was hard to keep a straight face when he scowled at me, but I managed to pull it off. “No “S” word, no “GD” words, and definitely no “F” word,” I said.
“You’re presuming that they’ll speak English.”
“The vines comprehend the emotion behind the words, no matter the language.”
The look he gave me reminded me of someone who’d just swallowed a live potato bug.
I let Buster take a slight lead, and I grinned at Andy’s back. “I’d like some quotes on installing a speaker system in the vineyard, too. Do you think the vines would prefer Andrea Bocelli or Luciano Pavaratti?”
“Dean Martin,” he said over his shoulder, a hint of a laugh in his voice.
This was going to be fun.
After we returned to the barn, I made him wait while I unsaddled the horses.
“I hope you weren’t serious about wanting cash up front,” I said as I rubbed the sweaty spot behind Buster’s ears after I pulled off the bridle.
“Maybe not about the cash part, but the up front part for sure.”
When the horses were put away, I wrote him a check and made a mental note to get a cash advance to cover it. A bounced check would probably end our working relationship before it ever began. I smiled as I watched him limp, bow-legged, to his pickup, and I waved as he drove away. As soon as his truck was out of sight, I gathered up some drip irrigation connectors, fired up the engine on my quad runner, and went back to fix the breaks we found in the irrigation line.
All day long I’d been trying to convince myself Roger couldn’t be the Grass Valley sniper I’d heard about on the news that morning. Who was I kidding? Roger was losing his wife, family, home, and his job, and he was on anti-psychotic drugs.
My friend Dave was a patrolman for the CHP, so I gave him a call. Without giving any specific details, I asked him if he knew the year of the Mustang involved in the sniper incident in Grass Valley.
“I don’t know. Why are you asking, Kate?”
“I’m just curious.”
“You think you know who the shooter is?”
“I just want to know more about the car.”
“Okay, but tell me about the guy.”
“He’s depressed. His wife left him,” I said.
“So, we’re looking at a suicide-by-cop scenario?”
“Suicide-by-cop?” I asked.
“Yeah. Guy’s depressed, wants to end it all but hasn’t got the guts to do it himself. He starts shooting at cars, knowing eventually someone’s gonna call the cops. We show up, tell him to drop his weapon, he refuses, maybe even fires at us, and we’re forced to take him out. Happens more often than you want to know.”
I hoped I wouldn’t regret making the call. “If I tell you my suspicions and I’m wrong, it could really mess up someone’s life, okay?” Why I cared if I messed up Roger’s life was beyond me. He’d put me through hell without a twinge of guilt.
“Fair enough,” Dave finally said. “I’ll see what I can find out.”
I almost hung up when Dave’s voice stopped me. “Hey, Kate, you still there?”
“Your suspicions wouldn’t also have anything to do with that girl who went missing two nights ago, would they?”
“Beth Messina. She lives up in your neck of the woods. Lockeford. Her folks reported her missing yesterday.”
“No,” I said. “I hadn’t heard about her.”
Just as I was about to fix a turkey and havarti cheese sandwich for lunch, my phone rang. It was Monica.
“My eleven-thirty cancelled. Want to have lunch?” she said.
“Bean Sprout Café?”
“Hell, no. Rosetti’s. Ten minutes?”
There was no point in attempting to negotiate. I put the turkey and cheese back in the refrigerator. “You buying?”
“Is that the deal?”
“You pick, you buy. Besides, I’m broke.”
By the time I got cleaned up and drove to Rosetti’s, Monica was already there, soaking a piece of bread in a plate of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. She was wearing her usual work attire: putty-colored coveralls, Roper boots and a pale-blue baseball cap with ‘Valley Veterinary Clinic’ embroidered across the front.
“How’s Henry?” I asked as I pulled out a chair.
“Grouchy, as usual,” Monica said. “Never marry a cattle rancher.”
“I told you he had an ulterior motive for proposing. Only lady vet for a hundred miles who’ll work on anything bigger than a hamster.”
“And here I thought it was my good looks and charm.”
We both laughed and reached for more bread.
“So? How’d it go with Roger? You kick him like I asked?”
“No. Too many witnesses.”
“Aw hell. That wouldn’t have stopped me.”
“I can’t afford a lawyer like you can.”
“Well, if I hear about him sniffin’ around here again, I’ll have Henry and his boys run him out of town.”
“Don’t you dare. Roger’s not… he’s having some psychological problems, and he still has his gun collection. I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
“What the hell brought him back here, anyway?”
“His wife left him. He probably won’t be back. I wasn’t all the friendly to him.”
“Friendlier than his wife, I’m guessing. Just be careful.”
After lunch, I drove to Home Depot and bought motion-sensor lights for both my front and back doors. My Mastercard was declined because I’d reached my credit limit, so I stuffed it back in my wallet and fished out my new Visa card. I prayed that my grapes would be harvested soon so I could finally get paid for my crop and pay off all these credit card balances and usurious interest fees.
I’d scheduled an electrician from Valley Springs to install an automatic gate opener next week. Luckily, I’d taken out enough of a cash advance to cover both his and Andy Carmichael’s fees.
When I turned off the highway toward home, I crossed the railroad tracks that parallel Highway 12 and noticed an unmarked police car—Ford Crown Victoria with special plates and extra antennas gave it away. It was parked near the bridge over the seasonal creek that cuts through my property. I parked behind the car and got out of the Prius. A man in black jeans and a black T-shirt climbed out of the unmarked car and walked toward me. He was about fifty, with short-cropped salt and pepper hair and a muscular build.