Friday, November 13, 2020

Death in Tesuque by Christie B. Cochrell

When opera singer Didi Vallance is found dead in her ex-husband's pool, handsome detective Gilbert Jaramillo investigates; by Christie B. Cochrell.

My father and I left Tesuque on Monday as soon as it got light. So when they found the body in the swimming pool later that morning, strangled and ingloriously dead, they guessed we'd had something to do with it - especially since the dead woman turned out to be my father's second and ex-wife, Didi. Diana Vallance, as the opera world knew her, the B+ lyric soprano famously given to temper tantrums in public places. She had been due to sing the following weekend, the opening of Tosca with the hot new Ecuadorian tenor, but would be singing only on pirate CDs from then on out.



We'd all been at my friend Francesca's wedding - my best friend from grade school, like a sister to me and a second daughter to Dad. We'd kept in touch when I left for college in Berkeley and then transferred to the Scottsdale Culinary Institute, wanting to be closer to home. Francesca had stayed in Santa Fe, started a small bookkeeping service in an old two-roomed adobe with fantastic light near the sometimes-river, and after a dozen defiantly feminist years scorning male company, fallen at first vexatiously then just as defiantly in love with Joseph Molino - the younger son of Didi's current husband. Which must sound both confusing and somehow incestuous, I know - though really it's just life in modern times.

Didi had sung Elton John's "Your Song" at the ceremony Sunday afternoon, and then "One Hand, One Heart" from West Side Story, with the bridegroom's father, Luis - an amiable baritone cast as the bumbling sacristan in the Tosca performance. (Though whether he'd go on with that under the circumstances was anyone's guess. The understudies might all be scoring big time.)

Francesca had hired me to cater the reception, Sunday evening, after the wedding. We'd set Spanish wrought-iron floor candelabras among the tables, and a line of farolitos on the low patio walls, lit by the wait staff as the dark came on. I'd given the forty-seven dinner guests tiny picadillo empanadas, pink grapefruit guacamole, and griddled cornmeal gorditas with goat cheese and roasted red peppers or with manchego and dandelion greens; and then two humongous paellas - seafood with smoked chorizo, and vegetable. A flan de naranja with a good dose of Cointreau had seen the party through until the cutting of the Mayan chile chocolate wedding cake.

Everything had seemed to go without a glitch, so a dead body in the swimming pool was, as Dad put it, "a fine howdy-do." He began nervously whistling the song from The Mikado. I remembered that the words were ominously apt.

When your time has come to perish
Then the maiden whom you cherish
Must be slaughtered, too!

The news of Didi's death came shortly after Dad and I had taken the onramp from Cerrillos Road onto I-25, heading back to Flagstaff and Sedona. When Bluetooth interrupted us, we were listening to an old Gordon Lightfoot CD, having just left Santa Fe after hiking with old friends at the Audubon Center on upper Canyon Road and then waiting forever for lunch in the patio at La Casa Sena - poblano soup, pan seared trout with green chile risotto, margaritas. Bluetooth ("blue in tooth and claw," as Dad referred to it) turned out to be a curt call from the homicide detective on the scene in Tesuque, asking (yeh, right - "asking") us to come back to help him with his investigations.

Though Dad tried to insist that he was due back in Flagstaff for a geography seminar first thing the next morning, the detective held firm. So, after all his arguments had fallen on deaf ears, or stony ground, he agreed to let the organizers of the academic conference know that something "unexpected" had come up. To put it mildly.

"It must have been that shouting match we had..." my father mused after the call ended.

"What was that about, anyway?" I had been busy dealing with the paella at the time - more satisfying than yet one more brawl between him and Didi, always way too much drama for onlookers and onlisteners.

He said nothing, concentrating on getting off I-25 just beyond and across from the Rail Runner station, to turn the car around and head back north.

"Dad?"

"I hadn't wanted to tell you," he said finally, reluctantly. "Knowing you'd only fret. Get furious. Kill the harpy yourself."

"Tell me." I felt my stomach lurch. I shouldn't have had that margarita - or maybe I should have had two more.

"No," he said, suddenly clamming up. "Not now, Nina. You'll be safer the less you know." Dad watched way too many detective shows, from Albert Campion to Zen.

I wanted badly to talk to Francesca, coolheaded even back in grade school days, but of course she was already on the flight to JFK, the first leg of their honeymoon trip to Corsica, an old stone house near St. Florent. My cell call reached her older sister, Elena, who'd planned to stay on two more days in Tesuque with her husband, Ernie, before heading back to Pagosa Springs. She was beside herself with the terrible goings on, as well as having to ride herd on their two very wound up little daughters, high on chocolate cake - which I have to admit I, too, had had a big piece of for breakfast.

"What happened?"

"Oh, Nina," she wailed, recognizing my distinctive husky voice. (I'm always delighted to sing the bass parts at Sedona's annual sing-along Messiah.)

"Who found her?"

"Poor Luna." Elena and Francesca's youngest sister, who wrote horoscopes for one of the local Santa Fe papers. "She needed a swim to help get rid of her hangover, after we'd finished breakfast. Everyone got up late but you. And there it was - the body floating face down in the deep end."

"She must be freaking."

"She's had hysterics, and was mercifully given some kind of sedative."

"How do they know Didi didn't just fall into the water after all those wedding toasts?" The pool was some way off from the patio and the house, so it was possible no one would have noticed anything amiss, after Luis left to drive the bridal couple to the Albuquerque airport for their dawn departure.

"While I was calling 911, Ernie thought to call Dr. Velasquez - you know that place across Tesuque Village Road with all the horses? He's an MD. He got here first, and saw right away she'd been strangled."

"But why?" Didi and I had never gotten along, like Didi and all sorts of people, but I couldn't imagine anyone liking her that little.

"Sorry, Nina - that policeman's here again. Talk to you when you get back."



And within the hour we were back - Dad almost immediately closeted in the long dining room in the main house with Gilbert Jaramillo, a thirtyish detective with the swoony looks of Lou Diamond Phillips, but the sharp, mocking eyes of a baneful culinary arts instructor I once had.

"Noel Perry?" he'd asked, as smooth and biting as a tequila shot (with worm), appearing all set to whip out the handcuffs - right after the thumbscrews.

While I uneasily awaited my turn, I put our bags back into the adobe guesthouse shaded by huge old apricot trees where we'd stayed over the weekend - four good-sized rooms with teeny kitchens Francesca rented each summer to singers and orchestra members who came to perform at the opera house a few miles down the highway. Elena and Luna were the only family still around, besides Ernie and the two kids. Luna would be sleeping off the sedative still. When we'd arrived I'd seen Joe's older brother, Vincent, loner by temperament, prowling around the patio in those moccasin boots he always wore, but by the time I came back out it seemed he'd taken off somewhere. He wouldn't be staying there, but had likely been summoned for questioning like the rest of us.

I went back to the house along the flagstone path, to find Elena. In the leaf-stippled kitchen, doors open to the canopy of tall grandfather cottonwoods, I looked distractedly for things to throw together for a supper salad. The remains of a roast chicken and some soba noodles would do nicely, with a garlicky, gingery dressing. Elena, glad for my company, perched on a bar stool as I grated ginger root.

"Why do they think Dad did it?" I asked her.

"Didn't you hear him fighting with Didi?"

"Not to pay attention to..."

"They'd both been drinking steadily for hours at that point, when they lit into one another. Noel was really pretty vicious, overheard by almost all the guests."

I was surprised. My father was usually civilized, if peerlessly sardonic.

"About what?"

"No idea, really - just a lot of inventive cussing."

"Yes, he usually throws in a few of Shakespeare's choicer insults - 'base dunghill villain' is one of his favorites, or 'you scullion, you rampallion, you fusilarian!'"

"This was more personal than that. I was surprised, too. Vincent charged in to rescue his stepmother, but of course Didi is well able to look after herself." She looked stricken. "Or was. Or actually wasn't, I guess."

"Oh, lordy. Is Dad their only suspect?" Finding an avocado, on the verge of overripe, I took out some of my anxiety mashing it briskly with a fork for guacamole.

"They've questioned Luis Molino a lot, as well. There was some talk about the way she'd been coming on to this Ecuadorian guy in the opera. Andres Somebody. I guess he's due to be a superstar. That can't go over well with Didi's husband, mild-mannered though he may seem." I wondered if there might be professional as well as personal, romantic, jealousy.

I suddenly remembered something I had heard pass between the brothers, Joe and Vincent, near the cake table while I was cutting pieces (and pilfering tastes of Mayan chocolate icing - the only thing I ate all evening, until the guests left). I hadn't thought anything of it at the time, being focused on the job in hand - and on the seriously sharp knife.

"What are you telling me?" Vincent had demanded.

"Dad thinks she's really fallen for this guy. He's terrified."

"She wouldn't leave him, would she?" His voice had been surprisingly sharp.

"Why not? She's certainly done it before." They'd moved away then (in retrospect I wonder if Joe didn't give a sympathetic glance in my direction), and I'd gone on cutting wedding cake.

And now, a day later, Elena went on filling me in.

"Francesca and Joe have been texting like mad, between planes. They've talked about cancelling Corsica and coming back, in case Luis is hassled by the cops. Joe worries. And you know Francesca. Always the mother hen, where Joe's concerned."



"Tell me about your friend Francesca and her husband," Detective Gilbert Jaramillo instructed. Rather gorgeous, I considered, though leaner than I typically prefer. "I'm not sure I quite follow how you're all related."

I tried to sum it up for him, our histories and various pairings over the past few years. Between all the impromptu parties among the opera folks at the guesthouse and their friends and hangers-on, and frequent suppers for much of the same crowd at the Frank-Lloyd-Wright-style house my father had lovingly built nearby in the Sangre de Cristo foothills with the money he'd inherited from his parents (a windfall which he'd sunk without reserve into that house, over my pragmatic cautions), Francesca and Joe had been thrown together almost every day, during and since that summer Joe's father was catching Didi's wandering eye - the steamy July Luis was singing Escamillo in Carmen on the nights Didi wasn't singing the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

I'd never figured out why the soprano had been tempted even momentarily by a mere adjunct professor of human geography, when she clearly gravitated to the stars, but Dad - a Noel with wit not unlike his namesake Noel Coward's - was clever and charming and fun to be with, and lavishly generous when he had anything to give. (Until, often as not, he'd spent it all.)

And I couldn't figure out how she had ended where she did.

"When did Didi - Diana - die?" I tried to fix everyone's movements the night before, but could only picture my own preparations and the subsequent cleanup, both directing the hired staff and pitching in myself. The dishy detective had already talked me through that, in exacting detail. I wasn't sure he'd tell me, but he said:

"Around eleven, it seems - in any case after her husband left to take your friend and her new husband down to the airport hotel. Everyone saw them go, and a couple of people saw her give the young couple an operatic hug before they got into the car. No one remembers seeing her after. People were pretty drunk by then, and those who thought about it any just assumed she'd gone along to Albuquerque too."

My staff had vouched for me; we'd gone on cleaning up for at least two hours, never apart, while the dance band played on and the last of the good local Gruet champagne was finished by the thirsty few. I like to get everything done and not leave it for the next day. It's tidier that way. And when we'd finished, we sat down at the thankfully peaceful table in the kitchen and ate leftover paella.

Where had my father been? I hadn't even noticed him most of the night, so sadly I couldn't help clear him.



After I was done with the detective, who'd said, "Thanks, Ms. Perry," when we got up from the dining room table (more or less the same height when standing, I noticed), I joined Dad in the shaded patio, with a pitcher of iced peppermint tea. He was looking haggard, older than his 65 years.

"So why were you and Didi fighting? You can tell me now."

"She was refusing to give up the house. I thought it only reasonable that I should have it back, now that I'm out of work." The community college in Flagstaff had let him go, come Fall semester, and he wouldn't be able to pay rent soon. I couldn't help; my apartment in Sedona was too small even for me, and both of us had been living hand to mouth for some time. Though my catering business was starting to take off, my student loans wouldn't be paid off for years, still.

Dad went on, "I'm sure Luis Molino has plenty of money to keep her more than comfortably in her faux mink and her skeins of Tahitian pearls."

"But it's your house!" I objected. He had very nicely let her stay on, when he accepted the job in Flagstaff three years ago. Didi had pleaded job and friends in Santa Fe, and Luis's older son Vincent, 30-something and perennially out of work, from what I knew of him, had moved in with the couple too, and brought his pregnant girlfriend. But now - it was ridiculous to think they could expect the same arrangement.

"You could have just told her to go!"

"Oh, Nina. That's what I didn't want to tell you." He winced. "The title was, in fact, in her name too..."

"What?" I reeled.

"I was rather carried away, you know, when we first got together."

"I do remember that," I said grimly. Always the perfect or pluperfect gentleman, my father. Pluperfect pushover, is the term some might use.

"And she'd gotten some trickster lawyer, and was claiming possession is nine-tenths of the law. Last night when she was yelling at me in those shrill soprano tones, 'the house belongs to me and to Luis!' - I just lost it. That other son of Luis's - not Joe, I'm very fond of Joe - strong-armed me when I started yelling back."

I closed my eyes, not having guessed how bad it was.

"Can I assume you didn't kill her, though?"

"You must be joking," Noel yelped. "Nina! How can you even say that? How sharper than a serpent's tooth..."

"Okay, okay - don't start quoting Shakespeare at me."



Quite everyone was badgering me one way or another; I was heartily sick of it by the next day. Francesca was texting me every ten minutes from Corsica. Around noon, the dishy detective took up where Dad left off.

"So again, you're telling me you did not hear this argument between your father and his ex-wife? And you knew nothing about the house?"

"Nothing at all, until yesterday. I'm furious."

"What do you know about the sons?"

"Joe's a great guy. Quite perfect for my friend."

"And the older? Vincent?"

"Only that he comes across as rather a weirdo... worked with horses... was in some kind of strange religious cult up in Tierra Amarilla for awhile... and has no job now, that I know of." Diligent Joe complained about that a lot, Francesca had told me.

"Are you aware of any quarrels with his father's second wife?" And your father's, the detective almost said, his amused eyes saying how strange he found the situation all around.

"Apparently he rushed to her defense when she and Dad were quarreling," I answered reluctantly, remembering what Luna had told us, and Dad had said. "But he seemed quite upset at the suggestion that she might leave Luis for this tenor everybody says she has been flirting with. Andres Somebody."

"Looking out for his father, then?"

"For himself, more likely," I retorted drily, always the cynic. I considered what I knew, and then offered it to Detective Gilbert Jaramillo, who was watching me with those unsettling eyes - rather nice eyes, really. Caramel brown. "He and his pregnant girlfriend are living in her house - my father's house, that is - for free, and he has no prospects - or interest in working, as far as anybody knows. If Didi were to take off, which I heard Joe point out to Vincent was a good bet, where would he be? Not sitting pretty in a lovely mansion in the foothills."

"Sure, but doesn't his father have plenty of money?"

"Haven't you checked?" I asked tartly, not able to resist needling him.

"In fact we have," he smiled, unneedled. "They'd be perfectly fine without the house. So that rather removes any motive for all of them, wouldn't you say?"

"There's greed," I said, still quietly fuming. "Covetousness. Thy neighbor's house, and all that. Or thy stepmother's."

Detective Jaramillo studied me, amused again. Then he relented, encouraging more speculation.

"I don't suppose there's anything on the land where your father built his house? No turquoise mines? No oil, hot springs, uranium - ?"

I relented too, putting on little plates some piƱon scones with orange zest I had made first thing when I got up, and setting one in front of him. Butter and whole cream - my preferred method of ridding oneself of detractors of any kind. One of those tricks known by devious cooks.

"Nothing we ever found," I said. "Just a wonderful old chapel out by the arroyo. Adobe, derelict - probably nothing more than mud again by now." Francesca and I had loved that place when we were young, taking candles from the house to stick into the sand between flagstones to light. On rainy days in the summer it was especially snug, but when the sun was out it was bejeweled by a stained glass panel, River of Life, set on the deep sill of one of the windows on the south-facing side, so the colors melted and ran - deep violet blue and orange, like a New Mexico sunset, the shimmer of the river down the middle, seductive indeed in that bone-dry land.

"It had a wonderful Tiffany window, if only a replica... and surely gone by now. We used to play out there; it was our secret place." Friar Lawrence's cell, where Juliet at fourteen married Romeo; the church where Joan of Arc was knighted or sainted, was called to God.

"That sounds fantastic. Why don't you show me?" the detective asked, smiling again, ruefully brushing scone crumbs off his black cotton Oxford shirt.

I hesitated, wary. It would feel like a sacrilege letting an outsider - a disbeliever - in. But it had been so long since either Francesca or I had gone there; neither it nor we were the same any more. And it was likely in literal ruins by this time. What was the harm?



He made normal conversation as we walked in from the main road, where I'd directed him to park his unmarked Tahoe, not wanting to go near the house. I was tempted to call him Gilbert, as he'd let a "Nina" or two slip, but guessed that however well we were seeming to hit it off, I shouldn't push my luck with the Law. The old song put it well - "I fought the Law and the Law won."

"Human geography - ?" he wondered. "What does that mean?"

Dad's subject had always been a bit of a puzzle to me, too, but I'd been drilled on it often enough.

"People, place, and culture. The relationships between the natural environment - land and water and the rest - and those who live there. Agriculture, migration, folk culture, language, clothing, holy sites... The whole shebang, really."

"Water rights?"

"Sure. The Milagro Beanfield War. The Garlic Testament. Food's hugely important. Consider, for instance, the Slow Food Movement."

"You mean when it takes forever to get a table at one of those popular restaurants?"

Openmouthed, I started to correct the idiot, before I saw his grin.

"Very funny, Detective," I said.

As we approached the weathered sandstone bluff, against which the little chapel had been built sometime in the past, snugly sheltered from winds (and like the line of Anasazi caves at Tsankawi, facing the southern sun), I was happy to see the building still intact - much better than I remembered it, in fact, almost as if recently repaired - and then astonished to hear flute music. Coming from where? Inside, it sounded like. Luis or Vincent Molino, I wondered? Some kind of private ceremony for Didi? I couldn't picture that, despite whatever cult Vincent had been involved with.

Detective Jaramillo quizzed me with his eyebrows, and then put a finger to his lips to keep me quiet, and his other hand palm-out to keep me back. He peered around the chapel door, which was standing ajar. I was surprised to see the door was new, carved pine, with an elaborate design on it - some kind of stylized cat, big and mean looking.

I was still more surprised to see over the detective's broad shoulder a man who I had never seen before, gaunt, seemingly ancient, with eyes cloudy like moonstones and a shock of white hair like Albert Einstein, sitting cross-legged, stark naked on a yoga bolster in the middle of the room, playing the flute. Eww. Anything but a lovely sight. Beside him was another, large wooden or bamboo flute tied round with colored threads, and a Shamanic drum painted with ancestors, shapeshifters (like some Luna had once showed me on an Etsy site). He didn't react to our arrival, didn't so much as hesitate a measure in the warbling song.

"Debussy," Gilbert Jaramillo said to the old man, conversationally. "'Syrinx,' no?"

I gaped at him, but the naked old flutist ignored him, and me, and played on.

The lovely window I remembered had been removed, and in its place had been installed a larger stained glass pane, another cat with pointed and tufted ears - a lynx or bobcat, I decided - in this case only the head, in triplicate, one facing forwards, and the others off to either side, with a third eye in the forward-facing forehead. Cruder than Tiffany, but compelling, and striking in its colors - an array of greens and rich deep browns, the sun scattering them across the whitewashed walls and flagstone floor as well.

Gilbert Jaramillo prowled around, apparently waiting for a break in the music when he might satisfy his curiosity and get some answers from the unresponsive tenant of the church. I was curious too, wanting to know what the stranger was doing there on private property, who in the world he was.

But I was feeling creeped out, and sad for what had been a cherished place in my childhood, profoundly holy in some indefinable and lasting way, so told the detective in a whisper, "I'll wait for you outside."

It was hot still, late in the afternoon, with only chamisa and juniper around, no tree cover, no sign of thunderstorms to cool things off. More often than not, I knew, the summer rains coincided with opera season. I'd always loved the dramatic crashes of thunder, the refreshing cloudbursts, gullywashers, running off the roofs and turning the dry beds of the arroyos into temporary rivers, stampeding like wild mustangs in a thrilling rush.

It wasn't long before Gilbert Jaramillo followed me out. He appeared to be lost in reflections himself, so we started back for the Tahoe without saying anything. But I wanted to know more about him, this rather intriguing man.

"Debussy?" I echoed him, provokingly. He smiled with genuine warmth.

"One of the famous solo flute pieces, also called 'Flute de Pan.' Based on the myth of the nymph Syrinx the wicked god Pan fell in love with. When she tried to evade him by turning herself into a water reed and hiding in the marshes, Pan cut the reeds and made pipes out of them - a crime I can't approve."

"You play the flute?" I wondered.

"Not me. My sister was the flautist. I played flamenco guitar."

"No longer?"

"No, not very often. Life gets in the way. Work, mostly. You know."

Indeed I did. I could scarcely find time to take a breath, some days. I'd learned that catering wasn't for sissies.

"What do you think about James Galway back there?" I asked him, not able to get the unsettling image out of my mind. I was sorry to realize Galway was the only flutist I could name; I think I had a CD of his once.

My companion studied me and said, "I don't know what this has to do with anything, and should probably keep it to myself until I've had a chance to check it out - but you did share your special childhood place with me. Only to be met with that. So take a look at what I found."

He handed me one of a small stack of postcards, with photos of the lynx heads in the window and the scrawny old guy draped in an animal skin. 'Guru, Shaman, Seer,' they said. 'Come into your best life, give your all to Sakadagami Sei'un-an - 'clearing away the clouds.'

"Shaman - or Shamaness? - Scheherazade, Shawarma," I declaimed in turn, a little dizzy-headed from the day and from the vision in the church. "I really ought to change my business cards."

Gilbert Jaramillo looked at me oddly. "Shawarma?"

"One of my specialties - that heavenly grilled lamb."

"I don't think I know it," he said regretfully.

"Come back to Francesca's tonight," I suggested without thinking. "That's what's for dinner."

He hesitated only for a moment.

"Okay," he said. "And you can tell me stories too, Scheherazade."

"Okay, stories. But maybe not a thousand." I felt even more dizzy-headed. I studied the card again, willing my emotions to settle down. Things were getting just a little out of hand.

"If I remember properly," he said, giving me time to take a deep, steadying breath, "in Buddhism, Sakadagami is the so-called 'once-returner' - someone in the second stage of enlightenment. Free of three chains and well on the way to loosening the final two. Our acquaintance is pleased to offer customers Nirvana." He pointed out the last lines on the card. "Or in any case a consultation, for a mere $250 an hour."

"It's hardly fair," I exclaimed, and made a dour face. "I'd happily jack up my prices too, but I all I offer is a very worldly heaven - of the culinary sort."

The detective smiled at me.

"Many might say that's a much better choice."



While the lamb was marinating in spices and lemon juice and the detective putting in a couple more hours at his computer back in Santa Fe, I e-mailed Francesca to see how she was liking Corsica, and let her know I'd been back in our chapel. I described the ancient weirdo seer with the flute.

"How creepy is that?" I added an emoticon expressing incredulous horror.

My friend answered at once, despite the time, explaining that it was too hot to sleep on the French island until almost dawn.

"Nina - I've just remembered something I'd forgotten in the blur of wedding, flight, murder, etc. A flute went missing from the guesthouse a few weeks ago. And there were other things, over the past couple of months. A silver candelabra (and matches), the Morning Singer Kachina my Aunt Lucia got from the old Hopi carver she made friends with when she was doing her ethnographic research. I can't believe those can be related to Didi's murder, but you might mention them to your hunk, in case he comes across them while he's doing his Sherlock-Holmesing."

"Didn't the police look into that already?"

A long silence between Corsica and Tesuque.

"Well - no. We didn't actually report them, other than the flute. We noticed the kachina and the candlestick were gone just after Vincent had been over one night. Joe was going to talk to him, but says he hasn't had a chance. Also, his father's been worried about all the money Vincent has gone through lately - even more than usual. He's up to something, Luis is afraid, but has no idea what."

She added a postscript, "And Joe and I have no idea who that weirdo in the church might be. Joe hasn't ever been out there. Sounds creepy, all right!"



"Interesting," Gilbert Jaramillo said, while we lingered at the table in the patio over cardamom coffee, after he'd wolfed down two huge helpings of shawarma with spiced rice and cucumber red onion salad, and Dad and Elena and kids had driven into Santa Fe to see a movie that had just come out. Luna had been picked up earlier by some of her old high school friends. "There was a candelabra and kachina on the altar at the chapel. Along with painted Shaman stones."

"I didn't see any of that." I was surprised.

"Remember the folding bamboo screen on the altar? I checked behind it."

"Ever the cop," I said snidely.

"I'm told I'm not bad at my job," the detective retorted mildly. And then murmured under his breath, "Except, of course, where you're concerned."



As my father harrumphed the next day, though, Detective Jaramillo ought to be fired - from a cannon, he said, like circus performers. He elaborated.

"With P.T. Barnum, in days of yore, or recently, the luckless performer somewhere in Chile who overshot the safety net and fractured both his knees and chin."

This is the sort of thing my father knows.

Dad was upset because he'd been questioned again at length about the fight with Didi ("can't they understand that fighting was her nature - that she lived for a good knock-down drag-out fight?"), and his dubious alibi.

"I went back to my room to jot down an idea for the talk I was supposed to give on tribal natural resource management in the age of far-right nationalism (damn the cloth-witted folly-fallen detective - and Didi, of course - for canceling that, too), and lay down for a minute just to clear my head and rest... and didn't wake up until I was wakened by some loud and drunken sex that had enthusiastically begun next door."

"Has nobody confirmed that?" I winced. I really didn't want to know if he knew who it was.

"No," he said, despondently. "Apparently the liaison was extramarital, so it's being denied."

"Coraggio," I sympathized. "If it helps you at all, I think Gilbert - Detective Jaramillo - is keeping an open mind. He's got much weirder fish to fry."

I told Dad about the flutist in the chapel. He was as horrified as I had been.

"I remember you and Francesca always loved that place!"

"Yes, it did rather upset me, even after all these years."

"Oh, Nina - I'm so sorry. Sorry the house is gone, sorry I let myself be blinded and blindsided by Didi, God rest her faithless soul."

I hugged him, sad about how old and defeated he looked. Losing his job at the college had taken much of his self-confidence already, before this new horror.

"I just worry for you," I said.

He hugged me back, a little shakily - not one of the enthusiastic bear-hugs he used to be famous for.



Late the next afternoon, when I began to agitate about having to get back to Sedona for a corporate "do" over the weekend, and putting in another protest of Dad's innocence, Gilbert Jaramillo assured me cautiously that things seemed to be moving fast.

"Has my father's alibi been confirmed yet?"

He looked amused.

"Yes - with some moderate coercion by my second-in-command. The parties involved didn't seem quite so reluctant to confess their godless tryst to her."

"So what else has come out? Can you tell me?"

He sank down into one of the patio chairs.

"I questioned Luis and Vincent Molino about the chapel, and what they might know about the renovations and inhabitant."

"From a studious distance," I reflected, "he struck me as the Santa Fe equivalent of the hermit in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia - planted for show in a picturesque landscape, like a rather eccentric garden gnome." I found for him the lines from the play (a favorite) which I'd saved as a note on my cellphone:

'What hermits do you have?'

'I have no hermits, my lady.'

'Not one? I am speechless.'

'I am sure a hermit could be found. One could advertise.'

'Advertise?'

'In the newspapers.'

'But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence.'

He laughed, and agreed that might fit the case.

"Sorry for the frivolous aside - what did you learn?"

"Vincent is for sure a serious religious fanatic. He claims he's descended from some famous martyr with the same name. He invited the 'holy man' to live there and hold services, healings, spiritual consultations. He swears the guy - who he knew at the commune in Tierra Amarilla - is an honest to God saint. A seer, for one thing - no surprise that the lynx is considered the spirit animal for seers. He's been giving the man money, as well as paying to fix up the church (including the objects he 'borrowed') and advertising the business they'd started together."

"Interesting."

Out of curiosity I looked up "Vincent" on my phone, and found a martyr who evangelized in the Pyrenees until 305 AD, and Vincenzo, Martyr of Craco, said to be one of the Theban Legion, killed dreadfully in 286 AD. There was a volcanic island in the Caribbean named Vincent too.

"Luis knew none of that; he seemed genuinely appalled to hear. And not only because of all the money poured into the gaping maw - he feels (has always felt) the house and property are rightfully your father's, still. He wants nothing to do with it. He told his wife repeatedly, he says, but hadn't gotten around to telling 'volatile' Vincent and his girlfriend."

Gilbert looked at me long and hard before continuing. I started to color, finding his look not entirely dispassionate, and not - I guessed - entirely about the serious business in hand.

"One of my colleagues remembered that a woman was strangled some years ago at a religious commune in Tierra Amarilla. I followed up - and guess what? That happened while Vincent Molino was at the commune, looking after their horses."

I gaped at him.

"The killer was never found. The marks on her neck were quite similar to those on that of the opera singer, Ms. Vallance. Some kind of rawhide lariat, hand-braided natural rawhide, used with horses, for trail riding, etc. A traditional riata, used by early vaqueros for roping."

Luna, who had come out to the patio with more peppermint tea as Gilbert was describing the lariat, looked surprised and said to me:

"Hey - I remember seeing something like that, recently."

"Where?" Gilbert asked her sharply.

"In the trunk of Vincent's car. When Joe gave me the keys to get the wedding presents out."

Horrified, I stared at her. Gilbert did too. Apparently that hadn't come out when Luna was questioned earlier.

"He was furious that Joe'd taken the keys from where he'd left them on the kitchen counter when he got a beer," she said. "It made no sense to me that he was so upset."

"It makes sense now, I think," the detective said grimly, heading out the gate towards his Tahoe, without a goodbye.



"I've got some bad news," Gilbert said, when I finally got hold of him the next day, after several fruitless attempts. "I'll be right over."

I was on tenterhooks until he got there, and then too uptight for the niceties.

"Okay - so what's up?" Was Dad in trouble after all, despite the surely damning evidence in Vincent's trunk? He'd taken off in the car early in the morning, and I hadn't seen him since. I remembered his haggard face.

"It's all over," Gilbert said gravely, picking up my empty coffee mug and studying it intently, as if for fingerprints or blood. "You're free to go, you and your father."

I stared at him. "But I thought you said bad news."

After a moment's pause he said softly, "It's bad for me. I'd much rather you didn't go."

"I've got work," I said, blushing.

"And I do too," he said, setting the coffee mug down, gently as could be.

"Can we get back to this later?" I asked, backing away, trying for time to recover my balance and senses. "Tell me what happened with Vincent."

"He denied everything at first, but soon couldn't help boasting about the favor he'd done 'the righteous and the true.' He called his stepmother a harlot, a damned soul, and said she'd got no more than what she had coming to her. He really is possessed of an extreme religious mania."

"Was that why he killed her?" I asked, stunned suddenly by the knowledge that somebody I knew could do that. "Her morality - or lack thereof?"

"Well, not just that. A lot of things concurring, and threatening his vision of his great ecstatic oneness with the Divine or the Absolute."

"What - the naked flautist?"

"Well, yes, if probably not in the basest sense. His ticket to earthly and heavenly success."

"Yikes."

"Yikes, as you say. The chapel with its hermit represented Vincent's salvation, to him, his 'road,' his God-given task, as disciple of the master - not to mention the lucrative Shamanic consultation business they had going. And incidentally, the Shaman - whose real name is Obadiah James (love it!) - had a hold on Vincent, making it all the more urgent that he continue the arrangement. In a moment of religious fervor Vincent confessed the earlier murder, wanting absolution, and his father confessor took advantage of a potentially lucrative situation."

I tried to take all of this in, but at the same time couldn't stop thinking about the other business I'd postponed between the detective and me. "Pay attention, Nina!" as a long-suffering teacher in grade school was always having to chide me. Gilbert was studiously looking out into the laden branches of the apricot trees, and not at me. He went on,

"At the reception, after overhearing Didi's argument with your father about the house - and by extension church; and later her sultry exchange by phone with the Ecuadorian tenor - making arrangements to meet him, just after Luis left to drive Joe and Francesca to the airport - Vincent lost all pretense of civility, and snarled insults at her."

"Didi would have loved that!"

"In turn she hurled back at him what she'd learned by chance about the drug-enhanced 'consultations' in the chapel, from someone in the opera chorus who'd been a participant in one, and said she'd make damned sure the chapel was torn down - or maybe returned to your father after all. She taunted him with Luis's objection to keeping the house from Noel, when he was being laid off from his job, and her husband's insistence that she contact her lawyer 'before another week was gone' and sign the property back over to her ex. She sealed her fate when she exulted, 'In either case your faking fakir will be thrown out, and you'll all have to slink back to that nowhere place you came from.'"

Vincent threatened to ruin Didi - 'the harlot' - first, through social media of every kind, if she didn't agree to meet him with a check to cover their expenses - transporting the hand-made lynx door and window, and keeping themselves housed and fed and kept in clover for at least a year. She agreed to get her checkbook from her room in the guesthouse and meet him in ten minutes in the studio where the wedding had taken place - to which he had the keys since he'd been the Best Man."

"Why there?" It was a graceful room, once a dance studio, with mirrors and a long barre.

"No windows, and away from the party. He guessed correctly nobody would happen on them there."

"But if they had..."

"He never thought too clearly, I'm convinced, with that religious screw loose in his head, and lots of drug use. He'd had to think fast in response to Didi's revelations - reckoning he could head off calamity by getting rid of her before she acted on her threats, with bonus points for purging the world of the evil she embodied. With her carryings-on, he thought of her as Jezebel."

"So he went to his car to get the lariat?"

"That's right - and strangled her as soon as she came in. He later moved her to the pool, figuring Noel would be the obvious suspect."

I had a moment of pure sadness for Didi, for her abbreviated life. Dad had loved her deeply once, and was probably hurting, under his cursing disdain. I'd seen him heading through the patio slowly, his dear shoulders slouched.

"I'm grateful you've figured it out," I said to Gilbert, my heart truly thankful. Then, on a lighter note, shaky again, "I think you're told you're not bad at your job."

"And I'd tell you the same," he said, smiling, "if that shawarma was your usual standard."

"But yours is here, and mine is there," I said, addressing the crux of the matter.

"Sedona isn't all that far from Santa Fe," he pointed out.

"Seven hours, give or take." Too far, by far. But there was Francesca to visit too. And my father, who would surely now reclaim his house.

"And if it were to come to such considerations, there is obviously lots of catering to be done here... and lots of detecting to be done in Sedona, I imagine. So let's not rule anything out."

"Okay, let's not," I answered him, leaning forward for a long-overdue kiss.

4 comments:

  1. Very complex and richly written murder mystery. I liked the gourmet food and high culture ambiance. Scenic descriptions and eccentric characters. Oddly charming dark humour tone also, combined with low key romance.

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  2. People like Didi are toxic. They weave webs that draw attention the bluster and spew in public nearly always at some innocent's expense. They cause bar brawls and rifts among friends. I'm pleased she ended up floating face downward. Hurrah. Now may I have some of that marinated lamb.

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  3. A delightful and complex mystery story. Loved Christie's evocative descriptions of Santa Fe, they took me right back there. Wish I had her talent in the kitchen. My mouth was watering over her exotic culinary creations, and she gave us a smorgasbord of interesting characters. I especially liked the father and his pompous quoting. Since I'm one of those rare-bird opera fans, I appreciate any writer brave enough to write about the juicily melodramatic opera world. Several witty turns of phrase also made the story sparkle. I did suspect the religious nut early on, but I've been solving and constructing mysteries since early childhood.

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  4. Always enjoy a good mystery. The revelations were well-paced, the motivations hidden until just the right moment. I found the characters interesting and the setting well-described. Very enjoyable tale.

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