Blue Wolf: an Alix Thorssen mystery

Blue Wolf: an Alix Thorssen mystery

by Lise McClendon


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As Jackson Hole gallery owner Alix Thorssen plans an art auction to promote wolf conservation, she is plunged into a bitter feud between ranchers and environmentalists -- and an old mystery involving the strange death of a teenage boy.A reclusive artist delivers a stunning painting of a blue wolf at the auction, and asks Alix a favor: investigate the accidental shooting of Derek Wylie twenty-five years earlier. Alix finds disturbing clues to a murder and a cover-up, one that leads by tangled threads to the heated animosity right now in Jackson Hole, as the artist and her painting become the catalyst in a brewing storm of rage, guilt and dark secrets left behind in a trail of old blood.This is the fourth Alix Thorssen mystery, following Nordic Nights, Painted Truth, and The Bluejay Shaman."A few writers are gifted with a feel for place that transforms locale from mere background into a vital element of the story itself, as important as the human characters who inhabit it. Among today's fortunate few are Tony Hillerman with his mystical view of Navajo country and James Lee Burke, whose evocation of the Louisiana bayous verges on the poetic. To their number add Lise McClendon, who has taken the small resort town of Jackson Hole and the Wyoming wilderness that surrounds it, and made her own.Picturesque Jackson Hole, placid on the surface, is not without its controversies and conflicts. When a rancher, claiming self-defense, kills a wolf, the community is divided among those who view the wolf, recently reintroduced into the wild, as a threat to their livestock and those who seek to protect and preserve the greatly endangered species.All Alix Thorssen wants is a long anticipated vacation. Alas, it is not to be. Alix, who owns an art gallery in Jackson Hole, is drawn into the argument when paintings by her client, Queen Johns, are banished from an upcoming art auction because of her pro-wolf stance.In standing up for her client, Alix incurs the ire of the ranchers, which increases when she agrees to help Queen research the death of a teenager 25 years earlier. Homicide is difficult to prove after so many years until Alix realizes that past and present are linked and that justice, although long delayed, is still possible.McClendon weaves a persuasive story, as haunting as the landscape it occupies and blessedly free of manufactured melodrama. In Alix, she gives us a heroine both captivating and credible. And when you add that feel for place mentioned earlier..."-- The San Diego Union-Tribune"Blue Wolf is a mystery that stars an engaging amateur sleuth, but it is also a novel about human frailties and fears that dog a person their whole life. Lise McClendon captures the essences of the human spirit to perfection, which is why her novels are so realistic."-- Midwest Book Review"Thematically, this work is the strongest of the four Alix Thorssen novels, plus the sense of something magical occurring in the area is powerful. Its use of the fall season in Wyoming for a setting is expressive, and the well-developed characters that people this work are also a highlight... Recommended to any traditional mystery reader, especially those who enjoy works set in the contemporary West."-- Mystery News

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780615593838
Publisher: Thalia Press
Publication date: 02/04/2012
Series: Alix Thorssen Mystery , #4
Pages: 218
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.46(d)

About the Author

No matter where she sets her novels or what adventures befall her characters, one thing is certain. Strong female characters always populate a Lise McClendon novel.
-- Yellowstone Valley Woman

Lise McClendon has published eight novels, and her short stories are included in three anthologies, including Dead of Winter. She has written two mystery series featuring Alix Thorssen and Kansas City private eye Dorie Lennox. Her standalone novel, Blackbird Fly, is set in southwest France. Her romantic thriller, Jump Cut, was written as Rory Tate. For more information on Lise see her website at or her blog at
She lives in Montana.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


A hearing is set for this afternoon in the Teton County Courthouse in the shooting and killing of an endangered gray wolf on a private ranch inside Grand Teton National Park.

    Marc Fontaine, horse wrangler for the large Wooten Bar-T-Bar Ranch, has admitted to National Park Service employees that he shot the wolf on ranch acreage late last Thursday night. He says the wolf attacked him while he was checking the stock.

    Evidence is expected from wolf biologists in Yellowstone National Park, where the gray wolf was reintroduced in 1995. There are now over one hundred gray wolves living in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, which includes Grand Teton NP and Jackson Hole.

    The wolf, according to local wolf trackers and forest rangers, was part of a small pack that formed last year, yet unnamed. The wolf is thought to be #145, a young black female who had not yet been trapped, tagged, or collared.

    Controversy has been swirling since the shooting about the nature of wolves, whether they attack humans. There have been very few reported cases of healthy wolves attacking men. The carcass of wolf #145 is being tested now for rabies.

"Top dog," she said.

    I looked up from the canvas and found Queen holding two hand-thrown pottery mugs. "Excuse me?"

    "The alpha male. The one with the biggest balls. That's what I see in that one, that's why I painted that cold light in his eyes. See the way he seems to lookright through you? You're nothing. He doesn't care what happens to anybody else, as long as he's top dog."

    I took a mug of tea as I set the stretched canvas of the wolf next to the others leaning against the log wall. The small cabin was as it always was—warm, lively, and smelling of paint. The artist's words rattled me for a moment.

    I squinted at the large head of the wolf. She'd painted it almost as a portrait, no landscape, no reference points, just Wolf with a capital W. Personality typing with color, the royal purple in his fur, the bluish cast to the shadows. I wasn't sure if the cold yellow of his eyes was because he was the alpha male or just because he was a wolf, but I was not artist or biologist. Only the art dealer. Sometimes that meant I had to think like a customer, not a critic. Most of the time, in fact. Anyway, I liked the piece, even though staring straight into the eyes of a huge carnivore, teeth and all, made me feel like flattening my ears and whimpering along on my belly. "It's a great piece. Very haunting."

    "Those black-powder types, they'll like the raw power," Queen said. "They'll think of themselves, won't they? If I ever did anything for a market, and I'm not saying I did in this case"—she waved her mug toward the wolf canvas—"well, let's just say I know he'll sell."

    "He? You've given him a name?"

    Queen paused with her mug on the way to her lips. She was still a striking woman at sixty-something, with long gray hair and an amazing black streak at the widow's peak over her forehead, a streak so dramatic I often wondered if it was real. But everything about Queen was so authentic, without pretense, from her weather-beaten, unpainted face and her muumuus in bright colors, even to admitting that once in a while she painted for the market. I admired her for that, and for her self-sufficiency, living at the end of the long gravel road, using only wood for fuel and cooking in the long Bocky Mountain winters, bartering with friends for food, living without a car in a motorized world, without a need for society in a crowded, people-oriented world. She had neither television nor radio, although she'd put in a telephone a few years back. If she needed company, she often said, it came down the road for her. Here was her world, complete, unique, and satisfying.

    But now she cleared her throat, a nervous crease across her brow. "No," she said. "I've given the piece a name. I call it Imminent Domain." She looked at me and smiled. "My father was a lawyer. But this is imminent, with an i."

    I raised my eyebrows and waited for more. Did this painting have some personal connection? Queen Johns guarded her past closely. I often thought of her as a paragon springing fully formed into this place. But that didn't mean I wasn't curious,

    When she didn't continue, I moved on. "I brought up some papers. Did you hear about the wolf that was shot?"

    "No." Her voice was very low. "One from Yellowstone?"

    "They think so. On the Bar-T-Bar."

    "Aaah. Bud Wooten. That son of a bitch would do something like that. Spend his last few years in some country club prison, I suppose." She squinted. "Is he still alive?"

    "Yes. Do you know him?" Another unanswered query; she only sipped tea. "They're into trail riding and horse breeding these days, not much in the way of cattle."

    "Is that where you took your horse?" she asked.

    "Right." Queen often surprised me with what she remembered of our conversations. "Old Valkyrie needed some taming."

    "Have you ridden her?"

    "No. I sold her to them. I felt bad enough about it that I haven't even visited her."

    The quick-fire questions had an edge, as if she was steering the conversation. She'd done it before when I asked about her old connections. As if people she'd once known were somehow suspect from knowing her. I opened my mouth to ask her about the Bar-T-Bar and how she knew the Wootens, but she hopped up and asked for the newspapers.

    "Thank you, Alix. You know I appreciate kindling for the stove." She smiled her crafty old smile, the one that made people tell half-funny stories about her being a witch.

    "Just don't push any small children in," I said, smiling.

    "Only if they're plump!" She cackled and threw her long hair back. "Now, let's finish with the paintings. I'm not sure I have another one for you besides Imminent Domain. They want wildlife, right? That's their thing. Lions and tigers and bears. And wolves." She tapped her chin. "I might have to work up something else for your committee. How long until the auction?"

    "Two weeks. But we really need to get the brochure done this week."

    "Well, we better hope there's some dusty ol' thing in the back of the closet then."

    The dusty old thing we found was vintage Queen, a ten-year-old oil landscape done in swirling winter colors, aspens and rocks and hills with a sky only she could produce, the kind of sky that made you feel like flying. She slapped it with a dustcloth while I bit my tongue and hurried it away to be cleaned properly at the gallery. She insisted I take a few winter apples in exchange for the sack of groceries I'd brought up, a winter ration of peanut butter and sardines and cheese. Going to Queen's cabin was like stepping back to a friendly village where you shared your wealth, and it was shared with you. I always left feeling lucky.

    Jackson was quiet when I got back to town. October is a waiting month, when shop owners take vacations, when employee dormitories are hosed down and disinfected, when locals have a chance to reacquaint themselves. The air was crisp, the sky a humming blue. I made a note to wash the front plate glass as I went through the door with the canvases.

    The Second Sun Gallery normally got its share of walk-in traffic, located smack on the town square with its kitschy antler arches and grassy shade. But in October the leaves were almost all gone, scattering in gutters, brown and brittle. The walk-in trade was just as lively.

    The door chime echoed as I stepped into the silent spaces of the gallery. No employees this time of year either. A good time for the Auction for Wildlife put together to support the Teton Land Trust, a loose organization of hunters, ranchers, and conservationists. I'd been working on their auction for three years now, finding artists and art, cementing relationships that kept Second Sun afloat in the dicey gallery universe. Good for business, and a welcome break at a slow time of year.

    I propped the two canvases up on the desk in the gallery and switched on the lights. This week I'd actually sold a piece by a local artist, Martin Ditolla, that I'd had up for two years. The excitement in his voice was almost worth the wait. On my list today was to rehang the main gallery and ship the Ditolla.

    But first to clean the landscape. On the way to the storeroom the phone rang. It was Carl Mendez. "You going to the hearing?" he asked.

    "I'd have to shut down the gallery." Even as I said it I felt ridiculous. There was little business. "Don't you fly today?"

    "It's hit-and-miss. There's talk of doing some wolf-tracking now, since the climbing is slowing down."

    "Is the mountain covered now?"

    "You can't see it from your window, can you? Come out and see it yourself. Covered in white since Saturday. Dazzling."

    "So dazzling it'll probably attract more crazy climbers wanting to conquer the Grand Teat. Did you have any rescues yesterday?"

    "Not a one."

    "I'll try to get some nimrods to climb up without ropes. How's that?"

    "Anything to fly the chopper."

    Carl Mendez sounded happier than he had in a long time. He'd moved to Jackson in August after leaving the Missoula Police Department, and gotten a temporary gig as a helicopter rescue pilot for the mountain rangers. How long it would last, no one knew.

    "You and that chopper. You're inseparable."

    "Yeah, listen. I can't make dinner tonight."

    "You're not doing night flying, are you?" The protective tone in my own voice made me cringe. It occurred to me, not for the first time, that I wasn't thrilled about Carl's obsession with helicopters. He ignored my prying.

    "Let me bring you over some lunch. On my way to the hearing."

The morning was long and quiet. I cleaned, pondered frames, wrote descriptions for the brochure, rehung, repainted. Carl showed up about twelve-thirty with cream of mushroom soup in Styrofoam cups. I washed a couple of spoons, and we settled in around the gallery desk.

    "Kevin's going to testify, I heard," he said.

    "So that's why you're going." Kevin Stoddard was a Fish and Wildlife biologist who lived in the other side of Carl's Park Service cabin.

    "I haven't talked to him about it. I've been curious, though." Carl smiled. He'd cut his hair again. Now it was air force buzz, very butch. Black hair hugged his skull, showing off his square face, black eyes, warm skin. I reached over and plucked a drop of soup from his chin.

    "Have you seen any wolves out there?"

    "No. Kevin told me they're around, though, making their way toward the Elk Refuge."

    "I'll bet. Dinner served up, nice and neat."

    "Yeah, some refuge." He looked up at the canvases. "Hey, you got a wolf."

    "Do you like it?"

    He stepped up to Queen's painting and cocked his head. I liked to hear his responses to paintings, since they were completely unstudied, without any veneer of cultural bias. If he said a painting reminded him of a childhood nightmare or the color of puke, I knew it would take a certain type of collector to buy it. And probably take a long time selling.

    "The eyes are really good," he said. "And this color here in the ruff. Looks like moonlight shining on him." He looked over his shoulder at me. "How much is it?"

    "It's part of the wildlife auction. I suppose it'll go for two, three thousand."

    "Out of my league."

    "Did you want to buy it? Since when do you collect art?"

    He folded his arms and examined the painting some more. "Will you frame it?"

    "In this green wood." I lay the piece of framing wood next to the canvas on the side table in the gallery anteroom. "You really like it, don't you?"

    "If I had the money."

    "You can like it without the money."

    "Yeah, but then you begin to envy, then hate the person who can afford it. Then your whole attitude toward the piece gets twisted."

    "I see. Better not to like it at all then."

    He frowned at me. "You don't get it. Either you've got money, or you don't. If you don't, you wish you did. You wish you had the money to buy things you really love. Like this wolf. What's its name?"

    I'd been around art and moneyed folk all my working life, and I still had a hard time with this attitude. A person couldn't really own a painting, in my mind. He could pay a certain amount of money to enjoy it privately, but it belonged to anyone who viewed and enjoyed it. You couldn't stop that just by owning a painting. Ask any heiress who loans out her paintings to museums. Art, like all beauty, belongs to the beholder. Once the artist sets the beauty free, it is there for the taking, for everyone. Why be bitter about the size of your wallet when right now you are enjoying the painting as much as you ever will? Why does buying a painting affect your enjoyment of it? Viewing a painting of a wolf is the same as seeing a real wolf: a priceless memory that no one can buy, borrow, or steal.

    "The name? Imminent Domain."

    "Weird name. That's a legal term, isn't it?"

    "That's spelled differently. Eminent, with an e. This is imminent, like threatening. And domain, like where you live. I guess it means their territory is threatened."

    "I like it. Just wish I could afford it. Oh, well." He looked suddenly at his watch. "So have you got next week figured out? Pencil me in for some hikes?"

    I glanced at him, then back at the wolf. "I always take the week off to paint. It's pretty intense. I told you."

    "All painting all day makes Alix a dull girl."

    "It's not work. It's fun, it's very rewarding. It clears out the cobwebs. I get really excited. And I don't get many chances to do it nonstop for a week. Besides, I've got all the last minute auction stuff to do too."

    "So no hikes then?"

    I looked at him, his jaw tightening. "I told you that weeks ago, Carl."

    I'd been trying to work out his reaction ever since. Did he want some other kind of girl, the kind who is eager and athletic and peppy? The kind who drops everything to do whatever he wants? Did he want me to change to please him, to be someone else? Was this some kind of Latin power test? I felt a hardening of my heart, and hated it.

    "I'm late. Gotta go."

    "Let me know how it goes, will you?"

    He was half out the door. "I'll try to call tomorrow."

    I watched him walk briskly down the boardwalk, his khaki climbing pants and hiking boots a blur. He was fit and tanned and full of enthusiasm, enough to qualify any man for hunkdom. He did seem happier out of law enforcement, but how long would that last? The last two months had been interesting, having Carl around almost all the time, getting to know him on a day-in, day-out basis. And him getting used to the strange convoluted life that is my life in business in Jackson Hole. He'd caught the end of the crazy season, then watched, amazed, as things turned deadly quiet, only climbing bums and recreational vehicles touring around.

    Leaning my face against the cool glass of the window, I felt the doom again. I'd been feeling it off and on for a week, but attributed it to boredom and the lack of business. Now it sat heavily in my stomach and felt a tug from Carl Mendez. This one wasn't going to make it: that was the message. He wanted somebody I wasn't. I didn't want to change, I wanted to be me, self-sufficient, independent. Like Queen, a woman who could be solitary and happy. low did Carl—or any man—fit into that?

    Standing straight, i tried to shake it off. I doomed everything from the start; that was the way of the Viking world. Doom and gloom, maybe a happy moment here and there to divert you from the fact that all ends in fiery hell and that's that.

    Well, fuck that, I told myself. It didn't have to happen like that. I went into the bathroom and grinned at myself.

    "I'm happy." I put my shoulders back and admired my profile. "He likes my breasts. He said so. How many guys would do that?"

    All guys like tits, moron. I smacked my lips and smiled into the mirror.

    "Don't be such a gloomer."

    I gave my pale cheeks a little pinch and tugged at a piece of chapped lower lip. Get to work, I told my scruffy dishwater hair.

    I shut the bathroom door, gravitating back to my old railroad desk. In the pencil drawer I fingered the old photograph, pulling it out into the light of the gallery windows. My former partner Paolo Segundo stood with his back to the camera, tending a steaming pot on the stove, laughing back at me over his shoulder. He wore a white undershirt, the kind he called a wife-beater, with his shoulders bare. He had a small black mustache and gleaming teeth.

    The photo was old, ten years at least, from the New York days. I ran across it last summer in a box of letters too painful to read again. But the photograph drew me like a magnet, that beautiful man cooking for me, gleaming with sweat in a third-floor walk-up one New York summer. I was happy then. I tried not to think about the rest of it—the other women, the betrayals, the falling-out, the mistakes I'd made, the losing him forever. No, just this moment, as if time could stop, could be put in a glass jar like a lightning bug and admired and held close to the heart. I closed my eyes and put the photo to my forehead.

    Just one moment. Sometimes it was all you ever got. I didn't want to think that, but when I looked at Paolo from long past, I felt it down in my toes.

"Alix! Turn some music on, it's a goddamned tomb in here!"

    The voice boomed back to the storeroom, where I'd spent the afternoon framing, crating, and making busy. The biggest excitement was the discussion with Lillian, who owned the jewelry store next door, about what we were going to do about the troublesome woodpecker who had taken to waking me each morning with his attempts to dig insects out of the wood siding of my building.

    Morris Kale stood in the middle of the gallery, hands in his pockets. He stared around the room, then gave a shout of greeting as I emerged.

    "I can get Frankie to lend you some rap if he'll take his headphones off. Frankie!" He waved his hands in front of his stepson's face, but the teenager shot him a look.

    "Hi, Frankie." I waved at the boy. He didn't respond. To Morris I said, "Is he still doing any artwork?"

    "He's taking it in school. Audrey was just saying that those sessions he had with you this summer really helped."

    "Well, he's a good kid."

    In truth Frankie was a pain in the ass, moody, smart-mouthed, and lazy: the kind of teenager everyone who thought twice about having kids had nightmares about. Our sessions at my studio this summer, all four of them, were a concession to my friendship with Morris.

    "Come to look at the new paintings? I picked them up from Queen this morning. They're ready for the printer."

    I propped them on the desk in the gallery. Morris made nods and oohs, he liked them. I was pleased, as I was whenever an artist I liked and admired was approved by others. Like children, I imagined.

    Morris leaned close to imminent Domain. "This wolf. Wow." I felt a buzz happening about the wolf painting. "The energy, the intelligence she puts in there. Amazing. You go to the hearing?"

    "No," I said.

    "You should have heard them, the hunters, going on about the wolf tearing the beating heart from its prey. About the inhumanity of allowing a wolf to take down an elk because you could hear the elk's cries of pain. Somehow humanity was never something I associated with wolves. Intelligence, yes, but they aren't human, you can't think that way. You'd think some of those hunters had never blasted apart a furry animal."

    As president of the Teton Land Trust, Morris Kale had to make peace with all sides—environmentalists, hunters, ranchers, animal-righters, even hikers and bird-watchers. It was a slippery tightrope never successfully crossed, but always interesting. Today he seemed to be wearing his environmental hat.

    "And you, Morrie, you blast our furry friends?"

    "Gave it up year's ago." He gave me a friendly wink. He was tall with a yachtsman's look to him, not a hunter's. He still had a good head of hair, prematurely gray. His oversize chin dominated his face. "Already got the ego full up on diesel."

    "So that's where that belching smoke is coming from."

    He laughed roundly—he was getting a little round about the middle since his retirement to Jackson Hole. Only forty-two when he offloaded his daddy's lucrative New Jersey dry-cleaning chain, he'd spent six or seven years trying to spend his millions. His wife was giving him some help in that department, but I wondered if it was enough to keep the man busy.

    Now Frankie, there was a project.

    The boy was tugging on a weaving on the far wall. I clenched my jaw, blinked hard. By this time Morris had seen what he was doing and gave another ear-shattering bellow at the boy.

    "That kid." He shook his head, smiling. "He's a sweetheart." But his eyes told a different story, a sadder one.

    "How's Audrey?" I asked. Frankie's mother seemed a safer subject.

    "Been on a decorating frenzy, feathering the nest for winter. Curtains and rugs and sofas, you oughta come out and see what she's done."

    "We have a meeting at your place soon, don't we?"

    "She'll give you the grand tour, I'm sure."

    "Can't wait." I turned away, hoping Morris didn't see the lie on my face. "So, what else happened at the hearing?"

    "They had one of the wolf guys from Yellowstone come down and talk about who this goddamn wolf was, as if it had some address and social security number. Trouble is, they never tagged this one. That made him a little embarrassed."

    "What did Marc Fontaine have to say?"

    "You know him? Seemed straightforward enough. He said it was dark, he heard the horses getting restless. Thought it might be a bear. Then out of nowhere the wolf just charged him. The biologist says it's not common behavior, in fact, hardly ever happens."

    "Unless the wolf has rabies."

    "And they don't know that yet."

    "I don't see why they had the hearing before they even knew."

    "Some wolf people, an offshoot of that group protesting over the buffalo hunts up in Montana. They started calling the Fish and Wildlife office, haranguing them."

    "Was it Candace—All One All Wild?"

    "I hope not. Whoever they are, they've made some threats to Marc Fontaine too."

    When things got this twisted this early, they tended to spin into the irrational zone. Who wanted more violence? If you shot a grizzly bear in self-defense, nobody blamed you. If you shot a grizzly bear and thought it was a black bear, an easy thing to do, you got a stupid ticket. If you knew it was a grizzly bear and it wasn't attacking you, you were in deep shit. Which it was in Marc's—and the wolf's—case, we might never know.

    Morris was staring blankly at Frankie, who bobbed his head to unheard rhythms. A chill went over me, a bad vibe. Where it came from, what it meant, I didn't know.

    "I feel sorry for Marc. It's a no-win situation," Morris said softly.

    "I hope everybody calms down after the ruling."

    Morris straightened. "I better run the paintings over."

    "Let me wrap them, Morrie." The phone on the desk rang. A soft voice. "Queen? That you?"

    "Hello, Alix. Can you hear me?"

    "Yes, barely. Can you hold on a second?" I set the receiver on the desk as Morris Kale picked up the paintings.

    "I'll be careful. Frankie can hold them on his lap, it's only a few blocks. Come on, Frankie. I'll talk to you tomorrow, Alix."

    "Okay, Morrie. See ya, Frankie."

    "Tell Queen thank you, Gorgeous as usual."

    Did he know Queen? The two exited, Frankie tripping over his voluminous pants on the way down the steps.

    I picked up the phone. "Sorry, I had a customer in here. Queen?" Dial tone. "Damn."

    I looked up her number quickly and dialed. It rang a long time. I hung up, dialed again, and let it ring. At last she answered.


    "Sorry. We got cut off."

    She cleared her throat. There was a long pause. Finally I said, "I got the paintings cleaned up. They look great." Another pause. "Thanks again for the apples. I ate one on the way down, very tasty."

    Still nothing. I walked to the door of the gallery, locked it, turned the sign to Closed. I got a sudden panicky feeling.

    "Is everything all right? Are you sick?"

    "I'm fine." She sighed. "I don't know why I called. Thank you for the groceries. I hope—good-bye."

    "Wait! You told me thanks already. Was there something else?"

    "No, you're busy. I—"

    "I'm not busy. That was just Morris Kale picking up your paintings to take to the printer for the brochure. He says thanks, by the way. And I have loads of time." I pulled out the desk chair loudly. "There. I'm sitting down, I'm comfortable. Can I do something for you?"

    "Is he gone?"

    "Nobody here but us chickens."

    She paused for a long time. "It's a favor, and I'm not used to asking for favors. I don't like it. So let's call it a bargain."

    "Okay, what are we bargaining?"

    "I have two paintings for you. You can do whatever you want with them. Sell them, auction them, burn them, I don't care."

    "Two paintings. I see. And my part of the bargain?"

    Another pause. Then the words tumbled out of her. "Twenty-five years ago next month there was a hunting accident in Jackson Hole. A boy was killed. I want to find out what happened, who investigated it, how it was undertaken, everything you can find." She paused as I mulled this. "That's all. Just information."


    "The who, what, why, where, all that. It was in the newspapers. But you might have to do some digging. Not much."

    I dug my fingers into my forehead. This was hardly what I expected. What did a woman who thrived on solitude, an occasional jar of peanut butter, and a steady supply of oil paints really need? A stack of paperbacks, a winter coat? A dog from the shelter maybe. But information on a twenty-five-year-old accident?

    "This boy," I said. "Someone close to you?"

    "If you don't want to do it, if you're too busy, just say so. I'm imposing. I know it. I thought the paintings might be enough."

    "I'm not too busy. It's just surprising, Queen. You never mentioned a boy or an accident."

    "It's not that important. If you don't want the paintings, I can find someone who does. I just thought you and I were on—oh, some wavelength. I have these feelings about people."

    "I feel that too, Queen. I always enjoy our visits. And I do want the paintings." Coming out of my fog, I did a quick calculation, and it cleared $2,500 easily, even not knowing the size or quality of the pieces. With two months until the Christmas rush, very welcome greenbacks, and easy sales here or to Santa Fe or Telluride dealer friends.

    "I just need a little more information. What, um—what was the boy's name?"

    I held my breath, hoping it wasn't a relative of someone I knew.

    "Derrie—Derek Wylie."

    I wrote it down, registering both the relief and the nervousness in her voice. My own relief: the name was unfamiliar. I asked her to spell both the names. She did so, carefully.

    "And he lived here? Anything else? A date of the accident?"

    "November nineteenth. Twenty-five years ago."

    I scribbled down the date. A long time ago. "Shouldn't be too hard to find."

    "So you'll do it."

    "Sure, Queen. I can scrape up something. If there was something in particular you were looking for, I'd know what direction to take."

    "Everything you can find. Can you make copies of reports?"

    "Newspaper stories?"

    "Or police reports."

    "All I can do is try. I don't know what sort of walls get thrown up after twenty-five years." I thought for a second. "You're sure you don't want to do it yourself? I could drive you into town, it wouldn't be a problem."

    "I never come down the hill." Her voice was harsh, clipped. Then she softened. "Besides, dear, you wouldn't get your paintings then."

    She was seducing me with those paintings. It made me wonder what I might find out about Derek Wylie. Was it some gruesome thing I'd have nighmares about? The saccharine in her voice was odd, but nothing twenty-five years old could be that terrible, could it? Besides, the paintings would be worth it.

    "I should be able to get this together in a few days. Is that soon enough?"

    "Oh, yes. I have one piece ready for you now. I didn't show it to you today. I quite like it. And the other is half finished."

    "Great." I dug into my forehead again. Why was I surprised? Queen has always been eccentric, never traveling into town, living alone off the land, in contact with only a few neighbors. Her life was a mystery to me. Why would I know about her connection with this hunting accident?

    I took a breath. I was flattered by her offer, I realized. Only an art dealer would want what she had to barter, and she'd chosen me.

    "I'll give you a call as soon as I get something."

    I hung up the phone. On the square a devil gust of wind picked up a clutter of brown leaves and dirt, twisted them into a tower, and sucked them down the street, where they disappeared behind a white Caddy pulling an Airstream trailer. They came out the other side in an angry, disorganized twist, assaulted a golden retriever tied in front of the drugstore, then disappeared around the corner.

    Where were they going, those leaves?

It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World
A Writer's Guide to Surviving and Thriving in Today's Competitive Children's Book Market

By Olga Litowinsky
Illustrated by Lonnie Sue Johnson

Walker Publishing Company, Inc.

Copyright © 2001 Olga Litowinsky. All rights reserved.

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