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With a kitchen like that, Christ wouldn’t have needed a miracle to feed the five thousand. I could’ve done it myself, if I were healthy.
Both people in the kitchen were working. The woman sorted what looked like a few hundred bags of groceries—supplies for Murder on Cue, Inc. She was exceptionally pretty in an exceptionally pale sort of way. Her long wavy hair was so blond it was almost white, and her skin seemed outright translucent, letting all the light around her shine in to her bones. Somehow her eyes managed to appear deep without having any color. She didn’t wear rings or bracelets, but from her neck a small silver crucifix hung on a fine chain.
She met Mrs. Altar’s greeting soberly, without a smile. The depth of her eyes and the lines of her face gave the impression that she was a woman who never smiled at anyone.
“Brew, Ginny,” Mrs. Altar said, still sounding miffed, “this is Faith Jerrick. She’s the cook for the lodge.”
Instinctively I distrusted Faith Jerrick’s cooking. She was too thin to have much appreciation for food.
“That’s Art over there,” Mrs. Altar continued, pointing at the man. “Arthur Reeson. He’s the manager.”
At first all we could see of Reeson were his legs. The rest of him was buried under one of the cooktops. The noises he made suggested that he was repairing the stove’s innards. But when he heard his name mentioned, he disimmured himself and stood up.
His dark good looks contrasted strangely with Faith Jerrick’s paleness—black eyes, black hair, swarthy skin made even darker by a premature five-o’clock shadow, grease stains, and pipe dope. He was nearly as tall as I am, and his tight work shirt betrayed an indecent amount of muscle. Like the cook, he didn’t smile, but his expression only resembled a glower because his skin and brows were so dark. It was nothing personal.
“Art,” said Mrs. Altar, “this is Ginny Fistoulari and Mick Axbrewder. They’ll be with us for the rest of the week.” Deliberately disavowing us, she added, “Ginny wants to ask you something.”
When he heard our names, Reeson’s eyebrows went up. But they didn’t stay up. Instead he showed us his stains to apologize for not shaking hands. Then he nodded unnecessarily at the cooktop.
“Pilotless ignitions are a great idea.” His voice sounded permanently hoarse, as if he’d done too much shouting in his life. “If you get a gas leak, they don’t blow up the kitchen. But they’re a sonofabitch to fix.
“What did you want?”
As a general rule, Ginny wasn’t what you could call reluctant to assert herself with strangers. But she knew how to be civil about it. “Mr. Reeson,” she replied evenly, “Mr. Axbrewder and I are private investigators. Mr. Altar hired us to keep an eye on the safety and security of his guests for the next week. I’m concerned about the guns in the dining room. They’re a hazard, especially around inexperienced people. I’d like them locked up somewhere. I don’t care where, as long as you can keep the key to yourself.”
Art Reeson’s eyebrows went up again. Maybe they were on automatic, went up and down by themselves. “That’s unusual,” he said, almost croaking. “I’ve never been asked to do that before. What’s changed?”
“I can’t answer that,” Ginny said without a flicker. “I don’t know who did security for Murder on Cue in the past. I have no idea why they didn’t object to the accessibility of those guns. But I object, Mr. Reeson. I’d object in the same way if Deerskin Lodge kept cases of gelignite lying around.”
Reeson didn’t exactly avoid her eyes, but he didn’t precisely meet them, either. “I’ll have to ask the owners. They make the rules around here. I can’t touch the guns myself without permission.”
In a tone that didn’t invite discussion, Ginny said, “Please. As soon as possible.”
Brightly Mrs. Altar remarked, “Well, that’s taken care of, then,” as if a particularly thorny dispute had been successfully negotiated. At once she started talking to Faith Jerrick.
“Now, Faith, I hope you have some truly special meals planned for my guests. You’ve done wonderful things for us in the past. I expect you to surpass yourself.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the cook replied distantly.
Mrs. Altar looked Faith up and down, and sighed. “And please call me Buffy. You know I prefer that.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Faith repeated. Unlike Reeson, she had the gift of avoiding people’s eyes without making a point of it. Apparently she was a woman who didn’t argue much—and didn’t pay much attention to arguments.
With a sable shrug, Mrs. Altar turned back to Ginny and me. “I don’t know why I bother,” she admitted. “I’ve never been able to get her to use my name. Shall we go?” She gestured us out of the kitchen. As soon as we reached the relative privacy of the hall, she added, “In fact, I don’t think I’ve heard her say more than four words. Yes, no, ma’am, and sir. I think she isn’t, you know”—Buffy tapped her forehead—“all there.”
Inspired by my usual instinct to come over all manly and protective in the presence of frail women, I muttered, “Maybe she just doesn’t have anything she wants to say.” But Mrs. Altar ignored me, and Ginny had the decency not to laugh out loud.
All this moving around had just about finished me. At the moment I wasn’t especially conscious of pain. My guts had taken on a generalized throbbing that felt bearable simply because it was diffuse. But the strain of convalescence and movement and concentration had used up my strength. And I couldn’t imagine what contribution I was making. Nobody would miss me if I took a little rest somewhere.
I managed to catch Mrs. Altar before she launched another monologue. “Buffy, is there a phone I can use? I should check in with our office.” Which was patent bullshit, but maybe Mrs. Altar wouldn’t know that. “You can show Ginny the rest of the lodge while I’m on the phone.”
Fortunately Ginny could take a hint when she’s in the mood. “That’s right,” she said promptly. “Your husband gave me the impression that Deerskin Lodge has more staff than just Faith and Art. You can introduce me to them and finish showing me around while Brew makes his calls.”
“All right.” Unlike the matter of the guns, this request didn’t trouble Mrs. Altar. “There’s only one phone. Our guests aren’t supposed to spend their time talking to the rest of the world. But naturally a phone is a necessity. It’s in the manager’s office. This way.”
She steered us down a hall away from the den. In a moment she stopped in front of a door with a mail slot. “Of course,” she was saying, “the lodge doesn’t need a formal manager. The owners have an office back in Puerta del Sol. And the staff has been here for a long time. They know what to do. But Art uses this room to do his paperwork—bills and files, registrations, reservations, I don’t know what all.”
The door wasn’t locked, so she had no trouble letting us in.
It was an office, all right. I recognized it right away by the filing cabinets and desk, the adding machine and phone. Everything possible was made of wood—rustic as all hell—but the oak of the desk and chairs didn’t quite match the blond pine paneling and floorboards. Which probably didn’t matter because the lodge’s paying guests weren’t expected to come in here.
Ginny stayed outside. After a quick glance around the room, she told me, “We’ll come back for you when we’re done,” and set Mrs. Altar into motion again with a touch on her arm. Together they receded down the hall.
I heard Mrs. Altar say, “There are only two other people here. Petruchio and Amalia Carbone. Truchi and Ama. He works with Art and takes care of the grounds. She’s the housekeeper. They’ll be around somewhere, but they’ll be busy. I don’t think I’ve ever seen either of them when they weren’t busy.”
Left to myself, I went into the office and closed the door.
I wanted to lie down, but the room lacked a couch, and I didn’t think I could come up with a decent excuse for sprawling on the floor, so I sat in the chair behind the desk. It was the biggest one in the room, and it had solid armrests. Also it tilted, so that I could adjust my guts into a somewhat more comfortable position. All I wanted was to hurt less and go to sleep for a while.
But there’s something about sitting at someone else’s desk that makes you feel like looking in the drawers. I resisted the impulse briefly. Then I decided what the hell. I was a private investigator. Poking my nose in where it didn’t belong came with the territory.
Of course, I didn’t find anything interesting. The drawers held perfectly ordinary files and supplies—grocery receipts, boxes of paper clips, stuff like that. But my knees didn’t quite fit the desk, and my position while I looked through the drawers shoved them high up under the writing surface.
One knee bumped something.
Probably one of the supports. So what? And this was my first day out of bed. I had no business hunching forward and twisting the sin out of my stomach to look under the desk.
I did it anyway.
I found a pistol in a holster glued to the wood where the person at the desk could reach it easily. I unsnapped the holster, pulled out the gun.
It was a Smith & Wesson .44 with a long, underlugged barrel, the kind of gun you use when you want to hit something small and far away and make sure it stays dead.
For no special reason except I’m an intuitive fool and can’t resist the impulse to jump to conclusions in all directions, I suddenly felt sure that Art Reeson liked guns. The owners didn’t use this desk, he did. He liked being surrounded by weaponry.
He probably didn’t want to do what Ginny had asked him.
I hesitated. Apparently he’d worked for Deerskin Lodge for a long time—and the owners certainly wouldn’t keep a manager who made a regular practice of waving guns around. Murder on Cue had never had any trouble. Maybe he was just indulging an innocent fetish.
Nevertheless where I come from people who like guns that much are always trouble. No exceptions.
Sometimes being intuitive helps. And sometimes it makes you look like an idiot. But I was too tired and sore and possibly even feverish to be reasonable, so I made a snap decision. Swinging open the cylinder, I poured out the shells and dropped them into the bottom of one of the drawers. Then I put the .44 back where I found it.
After that, like a man with a job well done, I leaned back in the chair, closed my eyes, and napped the nap of the just.
Ginny came back for me without Mrs. Altar in attendance.
I didn’t know how she managed that, and I didn’t ask. I was just glad Buffy wasn’t there to see how thorough my incapacitation had become.
From somewhere, Ginny produced a glass of water and any number of pills. My antibiotics, she said, and one or two things
to help manage the pain, but I knew her well enough to be suspicious. I was morally certain some of those pills were vitamins. She believes in vitamins, the more the merrier.
After the pills, she led me to the dining room, where Faith Jerrick put some soup on the table for us. Chicken noodle, of course. It tasted like she’d made it all by herself, fresh from a can. Compared to hospital suet, however, it didn’t taste too bad.
Eventually I felt good or at least stable enough to ask about Mrs. Altar.
“Gone back to the city.” Ginny watched me for indications I might someday recover my health. “I gather she wants a final rehearsal with her actors. She’ll pick us up with the rest of her guests early tomorrow afternoon.”
“What’re we supposed to do in the meantime?”
Ginny shrugged. “Finish here. Get you as much rest as possible.” She considered for a moment, then added, “I don’t want to go back to the apartment. El Señor’s goons might find us. We’ll check into a motel.” Nothing about the process seemed to interest her much. She lacked the mothering instincts to be a good nursemaid. On the other hand, she stuck by her own decisions. “I packed our suitcases this morning,” she concluded. “They’re in the Olds.”
Without warning, I felt sorry for myself again. For the next week, at least, I wouldn’t even be able to choose my own clothes.
Obviously a nap hadn’t improved my mood. But I still had a job to do, so I did it. I told her about the gun I’d found.
I didn’t mention emptying it. Probably too embarrassed.
She did her best to look involved. “So what does the famous Axbrewder intuition tell you about Art Reeson?”
It was my turn to shrug.
She drank down the rest of her soup. Then she said, “My sentiments exactly.”
When we were done, we drove back to Puerta del Sol. We checked into a motel. She helped me wash up because I couldn’t handle that job by myself yet. I ate more soup. Then I got as much sleep as I could.
Several times during the night, I looked over at her. She was sitting up in bed, staring at the ceiling like a woman who wanted badly to be somewhere else. Her claw lay dead on the nightstand beside her.
When I saw her like that, she scared me. I would’ve said something, but I didn’t trust myself. If I pushed her in the wrong direction—toward giving up on me—I’d be lost. Under other circumstances, I would’ve at least stayed awake with her. As it was, I couldn’t even do that.
But the next morning I felt better.
A misleading statement. The truth was, I felt like I’d spent the night wrestling with the Angel of the Lord, and all I’d gained from the experience was a whole new collection of aches and pains. And yet I did feel better. The nature of my hurts had changed. They felt less like I’d committed seppuku recently, more like the consequences of wild overexertion. Easier to live with.
So I ate my antibiotics and vitamins. I let Ginny take my temperature. I practiced dressing myself. I experimented with motel restaurant Cream of Wheat—which wasn’t a success, unless you happen to like lumpy Elmer’s glue. Then Ginny and I spent a bit of time deciding on our “cover” so that we’d know what to tell Murder on Cue’s guests.
The whole time she looked miserable. I suppose she might’ve told me what was going on if I’d asked her a direct question. But I didn’t have the nerve.
At last it was time to go. We were supposed to meet Roderick and Sue-Rose Altar in the parking lot of the Camelot Hotel a little before one. According to Ginny, Rock and Buffy chose the Camelot because that’s where their out-of-town guests stayed.
We arrived a few minutes early, but the van beat us anyway. Somehow it managed to look even bigger than it did up in the mountains. I’ve lived in apartments that were smaller.
The sliding door stood open, and a man in a suit waited beside it, looking bored. For winter in Puerta del Sol, the day was warm—he didn’t need an overcoat. For that matter, I didn’t need my sheepskin. But I didn’t have anywhere else to keep the .45.
“That,” said Ginny as she wheeled the Olds to a stop near the van, “is Roderick Altar. Sue-Rose must be getting the rest of her group together.”
When we climbed out of the Olds, the man glanced at us and nodded. If he was surprised to see Ginny carrying our suitcases, he didn’t show it. Instead he murmured, “Ms. Fistoulari.” Then he asked, “Mr. Axbrewder?”
He didn’t offer to shake hands, so I didn’t either.
He was about his wife’s height, pudgy and going bald. The remains of his hair were plastered across his scalp to disguise a patchwork of liver spots. The tight merino wool of his suit expressed money, but his face only conveyed a lack of interest. He looked like a man who used to get excited years ago—before the extra flesh on his cheeks and jowls sagged, dragging him down. Only a woman who called herself Buffy would’ve called him Rock.
“My wife’s inside.” He indicated the hotel unnecessarily. “She should be out in a few minutes.” Then he said, “Before she gets here, I want to talk to you.”
That was fine with me. I wanted to talk to him, too.
Ginny and I paused in front of him, waiting for the dullness to fade from his eyes.
It didn’t. In a flat tone, he said, “My wife tells me you objected to all those guns.”
“That’s right.” Ginny didn’t offer to justify herself.
Altar nodded. “It’s about time someone did. I don’t like guns. In fact, I don’t like hunters. They’re a hazard.”
Well, well. That was a surprise. Buffy Altar had apparently overestimated her husband’s passion for the ambience of Deerskin Lodge.
He’d given me an opening for the questions I wanted to ask. Unfortunately Ginny had questions of her own, and they weren’t the same. Before I could go ahead, she said, “I gather you don’t share your wife’s enthusiasm for these mystery camps. Why is that, Mr. Altar?”
He looked toward the hotel. Obviously he didn’t want Buffy to hear his response. When he’d satisfied himself that she wasn’t about to materialize from the asphalt, he replied, “I just told you. I don’t like hunters. ‘Solving the crime’ is hunting in another guise, that’s all. It’s an unequal contest. Even if our murderers were real—and armed—they wouldn’t stand a chance. We have them outnumbered. Secrecy is their only hope. As soon as they make a mistake, we can overpower them. The exercise is trivial by nature.”
Ginny smiled sharply. Altar may not have been interested in what he was doing, but all of a sudden she was. “I’m not sure I understand,” she commented. “Most people wouldn’t draw that parallel between game animals and murderers.”
Rock didn’t take offense—but he also didn’t take fire. “I’m not saying I approve of murder. I’m just explaining why hunting doesn’t appeal to me.”
“But aren’t you what they call a venture capitalist?” Ginny was a hunter herself, born and bred. “Isn’t that ‘hunting in another guise’? Hunting for the right people and the right opportunities to make money?”
For the first time Altar’s fleshy features lifted, and his eyes showed a hint of energy. “‘Hunting’ is the wrong word. Or it’s hunting for the opposite reason. The whole point of venture capitalism is to find valuable underdogs, the victims of unequal contests, and help them overcome bad odds, beat systems that are organized to defeat them. It’s like hunting in order to help the game escape.”