Excerpt from Triple Exposure
Before the beginning of years
There came to the making of man
Time, with a gift of tears;
Grief, with a glass that ran;
Pleasure, with a pain for leaven;
Summer, with flowers that fell;
Remembrance fallen from heaven,
And madness risen from hell;
Strength without hands to smite;
Love that endures for a breath;
Night, the shadow of light,
And life, the shadow of death.
— Algernon Charles Swinburne,
from Atalanta in Calydon, chorus, stanza 1
The inky blackness spawned light, as it did so often on the high desert plain surrounding tiny Marfa, Texas.
Ghost lights, mystery lights — the local population claimed they’d been there since the native people roamed the land. Some supposed they were the spectral campfires of long-vanished tribes. Another contingent subscribed to the alien spacecraft theory, while still others wove explanations from the strands of science — from weather phenomena to refracted, distant headlights to jackrabbits dusted with naturally-occurring phosphorescence. Because no one could say for certain, the mystery had for decades drawn the curious, the eccentric, even the mad, and this particular night was no exception.
The telescope brought it in closer: a glowing greenish glob that first hovered and then bobbed along the dark horizon. As a great owl hooted nearby, the light seemed to trace the foothills bordering the Chinati Mountains, themselves obscured beneath the velvet cloak of night.
Green shifted into violet and then brightened to white before the glob split into twin orbs. Split, like the observer’s attention, diverted by word of a troubling new arrival. A disturbing new spark that burned into awareness, smoldering like an ember on a woolen rug.
A threat to be extinguished quickly, before the smoke burst into a wild blaze, consuming everything held dear. A threat that could be beaten out or drowned or smothered. The method didn’t matter, as long as it — as long as she — was killed.
In the shadow of the mountains, one of the two lights winked out while the other grew and strengthened. Head buzzing, the observer breathed more quickly, taking this as confirmation.
The Spirit Guides had sent a message, one that could not be ignored.
Tuesday, February 5th
With one last glance at the bruised silhouette of Mount Livermore looming in the distance, Rachel Copeland slipped through the glass door and out of the chill wind that had followed her from Philadelphia. She raked back the red-brown bangs that had blown across her eyes and took in a sight that had her sighing in relief, forgetting how eagerly she had once plotted her escape. Forgetting everything but the familiar post-lunch-rush scents. Grilled burgers and tacos. Onion rings and fries. A lingering trace of cigarette smoke, and the pine scented aroma of the liquid used for clean-up. She sniffed deeply, as if she’d pressed her nose to a bouquet of rare blooms instead of the Surgeon General’s worst nightmare.
“I told your dad you’d turn up sooner or later.” From behind the café’s counter, Patsy Copeland’s moon face smiled, not in welcome but with the satisfaction of being right. Never physically attractive, with her broad-beamed build, her serviceable smocks worn over stretch pants, and her white-streaked hair pinned tightly behind her head, she had also never made a pretense of replacing Rachel’s mother. Nor had she called her stepdaughter since the events that had changed her life last winter.
Rachel tried not to hold it against her. Tried even harder to keep the quiver in her knees from escalating into shaking she’d be powerless to hide. Instead, she reminded herself of an early lesson that her dad had taught her. Never pass up a rough landing site without a better one on the horizon.
Since the acquittal had ensured she wouldn’t be a guest of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and her attorneys’ fees had ensured she wouldn’t be solvent in the next millennium, she was fresh out of better options. Best to remember that before she popped off with a response that she’d regret.
“Good to see you, too.” She hoped her expression looked more like a smile than indigestion. Prayed that Patsy wouldn’t simply tell her to get back in her rust bucket of a van and keep driving.
Easing the worn strap of her duffel bag off a shoulder aching with fatigue, Rachel slid its weight onto the black and white tiled floor. Other than the two of them, the place was empty, with every crumb swept, each surface gleaming, and all the photos of framed gliders — or sailplanes, as enthusiasts called them — hanging straight against the sky-blue walls. Patsy kept a clean place, a tiny grill known as The Roost, not only in honor of the fliers who stopped in for a quick bite at the little airfield’s edge, but as a nod to the huge owls who couldn’t be dissuaded from nesting behind its rooftop sign. Rachel had seen one on her way inside, an enormous great horned specimen who had peered at her through sleepy, golden eyes.
She guessed one killer didn’t get overly excited upon seeing another.
Patsy gave her a once-over, taking in the travel-creased jeans and long-sleeved, ivory tee shirt Rachel wore beneath her leather jacket. “You look like you could use a good feed. How about a pizza-burger? You always used to like those.”
Rachel released the breath she had been holding at this sign that Patsy wasn’t about to send her packing. Though her stomach growled, she answered, “Thanks, but do you know where —? I have to see my dad.” One of his bear hugs was what she needed, more than any other kind of sustenance. He’d come out to stay with her for a week before the trial started but couldn’t remain long away from either his business or his frail, eighty-six-year-old mother, who’d been shielded from the news of Rachel’s “troubles”.
“He’s up in the tow plane still, I ’magine. He’s putting a big group of gliders in the air. Gettin’ ready for a competition this weekend.”
“And Bobby?” A close family friend for years, the pilot/mechanic felt more like an uncle than the down-on-his-luck stray her father had taken under his wing years before.
“You know Bobby.” A trace of a smile drifted across her features before dissipating in an instant. “If that man doesn’t have his head in somebody’s engine, it’s up in the clouds.”
Patsy slapped a frosty round onto the sizzling grill, reminding Rachel that the she had never credited her stepdaughter with the sense to eat when it was needful. Smart as a whip when it comes to staying one step ahead of trouble, but not so much in the horse sense department, Patsy had summed it up not long after she had married Walter Copeland when Rachel was sixteen.
Though that was seventeen years past, Rachel still remembered the shock of the pair’s Vegas “getaway” and the rings they had returned with. As far as she’d been concerned, her dad should still be grieving for her mother, who had died suddenly a mere ten months earlier.
It still made Rachel cringe to think of the way her father’s ruddy face had split in a wide grin as he’d broken the news, his head wagging excitedly as he’d said, “And now we’ll all be a family. Isn’t that great?”
That was the day he’d hit an all-time high score on the old Clueless Meter and opened a chasm of awkwardness neither his daughter nor his new wife could find a way to bridge. Instead of bonding as he’d hoped, the two had toughed out two long years until Rachel — with Patsy’s loving guidance — had enrolled in the most distant of several liberal arts colleges to offer her a scholarship.
Rachel’s father had harbored hopes that she would return to work at his side, but she had her own dreams, even if they’d eventually imploded like an old Vegas resort. Yet what echoed through her memory was not the boom of demolition, but the clean crack of the little .38 revolver she had grown desperate enough to buy for self-defense.
The odor of the cooking burger turned her stomach, overlaid as it was by the acrid smell of gun smoke. But she said nothing, instead sitting at the counter while Patsy prepared the bun with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese, tearing a few fragrant, fresh basil leaves for good measure. The last addition meant she was taking special pains.
Considering the money issue that lay between them, Rachel figured the sandwich was the closest thing to a welcome she would get. Besides, she had decided that part of retaking control of her life was going to involve regaining at least a portion of the twenty pounds she’d dropped since last December. And Patsy, Griller of Red Meat, Maker of Milkshakes, and Fryer of damned near anything that didn’t get out of the way fast enough, was just the woman to help her put it back on. If the two of them could peacefully coexist.
Rachel eyed the broad back, which was turned to her as Patsy flipped the burger, and said doubtfully, “Listen, this — this situation, with me staying, it isn’t going to last forever.”
Patsy peered over her shoulder, “No. One of us would for damn sure kill the other —”
She cut herself off, her round face flushing and her watery, blue eyes bulging. As she stammered an apology, saying how she hadn’t meant it that way, Rachel found herself doing the last thing she would have expected.
For the first time in over a year, she laughed. So hard she couldn’t catch her breath. Waving off her stepmother’s contrition, she finally managed, “Sorry. I shouldn’t – shouldn’t have done that, but that had to be the most un-Patsy-like thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
Patsy laughed, too — a little, though caution lingered in her eyes. As she busied herself plating the burger and grabbing an ice-cold Dr. Pepper from the cooler, a light flush bloomed against her winter-pale skin, and perspiration beaded her upper lip and forehead.
“Was just a figure of speech, that’s all.” As Patsy set the meal onto the counter, the words snapped out, hard as broken bits of plastic. “Wasn’t trying to make light of — well, you know.”
Rachel sobered, recalling how much her father’s wife hated feeling embarrassed. Remembering the methods she had of serving everyone else a share of her discomfort.
Even a hard landing beats no landing at all.
“It’s probably good we got this out of the way right off,” Rachel said. “We both know what happened is too big of an elephant to tiptoe around for very long. That trunk was bound to get stepped on pretty quickly.
“A — a man died,” she went on, though her conscience echoed with the doleful tones of the prosecutor’s summation: A nineteen-year-old is not a man. Not yet. And because of Rachel Copeland’s actions, now he never will be. “It’s not something we can pretend away, no matter how much we’d like to.”
“I prayed for you, I truly did.” Patsy snatched a bag of jalapeño chips out of the rack and dropped it next to Rachel’s elbow. “Every night. That you’d get what you deserved.”
Rachel swallowed back the need to demand, What the hell is that supposed to mean? Instead, she sucked in a calming breath and answered, “I did. Thanks.” For not stepping forward as a character witness, anyway.
Patsy smiled, and Rachel bit into her pizza burger and chewed slowly, willing herself to taste it. Flavor had eluded her since That Night, with the exception of the sour essence of her own stomach acid.
“The basil’s a nice addition. Really brings out the tomato,” she said as a peace offering. In reality, the sandwich might as well have been made of cardboard.
Patsy puffed a little. “Started growing my own herbs, in the bay window your dad built onto the kitchen.”
“You got him to build out the window?” For years, her father had promised Rachel’s mom he would do it, just as he had promised to take her to Las Vegas. But instead, year after year, he’d put off his vows, making excuses to spend more time with her greatest rival, his planes.
Patsy turned to scrape the grill and said over her shoulder, “I didn’t exactly twist his arm. He surprised me with it for my birthday.”
Rachel choked down another bite of burger, along with her resentment. So what if her dad had learned from his mistakes with her mom? Good for him. For both of them. It wasn’t any skin off her nose.
Patsy frowned, looking as if she had more to say. But the jangling phone spared them both for the moment.
Moving with her typical efficiency, Patsy caught it on the second ring. At the same moment, Rachel heard the distant but familiar drone of a small plane’s engine. Her dad’s Piper Pawnee tow plane, from the sound. Though it had been overhauled since she’d last flown it, she would know the music of that engine anywhere.
Before Rachel could hurry to the window, Patsy speared her with a look and raised a finger. Cautioning her to silence, Rachel thought.
“No, she’s not here, and we haven’t heard from her.” Her voice was a blunt wall of resistance, without a single foothold. “I told you before, quit calling.”
Rachel’s heart thumped, and she pushed away the plate containing her half-eaten burger. Was it a reporter, or one of the same lunatics who’d called her apartment until she’d figured it was time to amscray from the City of Brotherly Love while she still could? One particularly crazy-sounding woman had somehow gotten her cell phone number, too, before Rachel had ditched it, but she had thought of Marfa as a safe place, a refuge so remote that only the most determined would find her and so small, with only a little over two thousand citizens, that outsiders easily stood out.
“She’s no murderer — the jury said so,” Patsy argued. “And they’ve got laws against harassment. Sheriff’s department’s tracing this call now.”
A moment later, she added, “Threats are only digging you in deeper, lady. Hope you’ve set aside enough for a good lawyer.”
Rachel held her breath. The woman again — she’d been the worst and most persistent. But at least she was two thousand miles away, back in Philadelphia.
A smug smile stretched Patsy’s colorless, thin lips. “Well, now. She hung up.”
And you protected me. Rachel felt both amazed and grateful. “Have you really contacted the sheriff?”
Patsy shook her head. “Harlan Castillo? Fat chance I’d call him if I was being held at gunpoint naked.”
Harlan Castillo — a deputy last time Rachel had heard — must have gotten himself elected to the top job. Patsy had been married to him years before. Rachel didn’t know what had caused their breakup, but she’d heard Patsy tell one of her few friends, “I wouldn’t cross the street to piddle on that man if he was on fire.”
Her tone of voice suggested darker possibilities. Like roasting a couple of wieners on the coals.
“So who’s been calling?” Rachel asked.
Before Patsy could answer, the belled door jingled as it opened. Rachel jumped to her feet in alarm, elbowing over her forgotten soda in her hurry.
When the woman recoiled at the sight of him, Zeke Pike knew his run was over.
Zeke, who after all this time had come to think of himself by that name, was used to people noticing him. Tall for his age since childhood, he was the kid who could never get away with anything, the one adults in authority felt compelled to make an example of and guys his own age needed to prove themselves against in fights. No avoiding it, nor the attention of what too often turned out to be the wrong kind of woman.
Six-three and over two hundred-ten pounds, with green eyes that drew too many comments, he’d had to work damned hard at blending in here, recasting his once-gregarious nature into something so sullen and aloof that other people soon considered him one particularly hard-shelled desert tortoise. On those occasions he ventured into town, they said hello, and over time, they’d grown more and more inclined to recommend his hand-crafted furniture to well-heeled out-of-towners. But for the most part, they respected his desire to be left in peace.
And they sure as hell didn’t jerk away like they were wasp-stung when he walked into a café. Which meant, he was almost certain, that the rail-thin woman staring at him with huge, brown eyes knew who he was, that she knew all about Willie Tyler. After all these years — Zeke cursed last’s fall’s decision to risk shaving that damned, scratchy beard. His pulse thundering in his ears, he almost ran out before he noticed Patsy Copeland’s head shaking.
“It’s okay. He’s fine,” She assured the younger woman. “This is Zeke Pike, Rachel. He comes in every afternoon about this time. I’ve known him — what’s it been, Zeke? Twelve years, or is it fourteen?”
Frozen to the spot, he nodded, struggling to make sense of the situation. And then the name registered. Rachel.
Of course. This must be Walter’s daughter, the one who’d been the subject of so much talk that even a recluse couldn’t help but hear it — and form his own opinion.
From what he’d overheard, Zeke figured that unlike Willie, this so-called “victim” — the dumb son of a bitch — had no one but himself to blame for ending up on the wrong side of the grass. Out here in West Texas, such a case would have never gone to trial. But folks said he’d come from some high-dollar family with all kinds of connections, and Zeke had learned the hard way how such factors reshuffled the deck.
Rachel Copeland eyed him carefully before nodding. “Oh — sorry. I thought — I took you for someone else.”
He wondered if the kid she’d shot had been big, too. Or if, in light of her experience, she was spooked by men in general. Too bad, if that was the case, because she was a pretty thing, early thirties, maybe, with a coltish build and big, doe eyes partly hidden by long bangs. The rest of her dark, reddish hair was sleeked back in a careless ponytail that hung straight and glossy along her axle-stiff spine.
“I can go,” he suggested.
She shook her head, her face flushing. “Don’t leave, please. Come inside and have your lunch.”
Her voice triggered something in him, made him imagine himself undoing her hair, running his hands through the silken river of it, or tangling it as he laid her back and —
“Maybe that’d be best,” he said, aggravated with the direction of his thoughts. He’d been mostly celibate — with a few occasions off for bad behavior — for a lot of years now, but instead of forgetting about sex, he spent way too much time thinking on it. Made him wonder about priests and monks — how the hell they stood it, when here he was, picturing this scrawny, scared, stray kitten of a woman naked.
Patsy said, “Let me get your sandwich started. And this one’s on the house.”
He gave a dismissive snort. “Like hell it is.”
She shrugged. “Suit yourself. The chicken salad?”
He took another step inside, then cracked a rare smile. “It’s still Tuesday, isn’t it?”
He and Patsy had it all worked out. He’d show up some time after the lunch rush and have a different meal each weekday, for which he paid on Friday afternoons, in cash. Cheeseburger and fries on Mondays. Chicken salad on whole wheat with barbecue chips Tuesdays. BLT, more chips, on Wednesdays. Salad plate with cold cuts Thursdays, and chicken fried steak Fridays to reward himself for eating something green, other than his usual dill spear, the day before. Each meal was followed by a slice of whatever fresh-baked pie she had on hand — Zeke had never met one of her homemade pies he didn’t favor — and then he’d get up and walk the mile-and-a-half down the highway and long, private road leading back to his place, where he would work well into the night.
No muss, no fuss, and only the bare minimum of interaction. And better yet, he didn’t have to eat his cooking, which wouldn’t pass muster in a Third World prison.
He glanced over at his usual seat, a table near the window, as far from the possibility of conversation as a man could get. But for the first time he could remember, he didn’t immediately head to it, put his back to those present, and stare out the window to watch graceful, long-winged aircraft pulled like kites into the sky.
Though he couldn’t bring himself to make eye contact with Rachel — he was losing the knack for it — he felt words squeezing loose, working their way out of him like embedded cactus spines. He would have stopped himself if he were able, but instead, he cleared his throat and said, “What you did — they should’ve given you a medal. Most feel the same around here.”
“Glad to know I meet with your approval.” She shaded the words with equal parts relief, sarcasm, and defiance.
He liked that, liked that what she’d been through hadn’t melted down the mental toughness that had prompted her to kill rather than allowing herself to become a victim. He’d been wrong earlier, when he’d thought of a starved kitten. This was a little lioness, fallen on hard times.
“You’ll be all right.” He nodded, feeling yet another smile — two, in one day — pulling at one corner of his mouth. Then he turned back to his spot and sat to face the window, where he watched Walter Copeland turn on a dime and waggle his little plane’s wings for sheer joy before buzzing around to make his landing.
Zeke heard light steps behind him and felt, rather than saw, Rachel Copeland’s nearness as she bent to peer out, too. She smelled nice, like a lemon drop shot through with honey. He wondered if it was just her shampoo, or if the whole of her smelled so good. He shifted slightly, figuring she’d either scream or shoot him if she caught sight of what was going on beneath the table’s edge.
“That father of mine — the man never changes.”
He envied her for the affection bubbling through her words, for the ease with which she spun away and hurried out through the door. He watched her glide past a beat-up, gold van with Pennsylvania plates, break into a trot, and then run toward the airstrip. Fluid, graceful — bliss suffused her movement. The joy of her homecoming, her reunion with a parent who would always take her back, no questions asked.
Zeke had no patience for self-pity, and until that moment, he would have said — if he’d had anyone other than his horses to confide in — that he’d rooted out and vanquished the last traces from his soul. But it must be like his sex drive, something a man could fight off but never truly conquer, for at the moment, grief lanced through him, sharp and bitter and unutterably painful.
Grief that left him reeling with awareness of the price paid for his choice.