Elizabeth Lowell

Blue Smoke and Murder

For Evan, my rock and my joy





Something was wrong.

Heart beating wildly, Modesty Breck sat up in bed. Listening over the pounding of her pulse, she tried to understand what had jerked her out of her sleep.

The wind blew hard, swirling around the old ranch house. She ignored the sound of rushing air. In the high, desolate reaches of Arizona’s northern strip, the wind always blew.

The noise came again.

The front window groaned as someone pushed it up in the old wooden frame. Like her, groaning at every movement of her dry, brittle body. With fingers gnarled by arthritis, she found her glasses on the bedside table and shoved them into place, grateful that her hearing was still plenty good.

She fumbled under her narrow bed for the.22-caliber snake gun that was older than she was. Its lever action jammed more often than it fired, but the prowler wouldn’t know that.

When she struggled to her feet, the cold rose through the old wooden floor into her thick wool socks. Over the protests of stiff muscles and joints, she walked quietly to the bedroom door, her long flannel nightgown ragged where it touched the floor. The kitchen door was open, always, taking advantage of the residual heat from the oil stove.

A muffled thump came from the living room. Footsteps crossed the groaning wooden floor. Then a scuff when an old throw rug slipped underfoot.

Modesty smiled grimly. She didn’t need any fancy burglar alarms when she was surrounded by an old house whose every creak was as familiar as her own breathing.

From beyond the house came the triumphant yowl of one of the barn cats parading a fresh kill in the moonlight. Like everything else living on the old ranch, the feral cats earned their keep.

Modesty waited, listening to the sounds of someone sneaking around her living room, opening old cupboards and drawers, closing them, moving on.

Finding nothing.

When the intruder headed into the kitchen, Modesty knew he wouldn’t be able to see her. Quietly, avoiding the loose rugs and boards that creaked, she crept in the direction of the kitchen.

The intruder was a black shadow in the moonlight pouring through the window over the sink. The pantry door squeaked as he opened it.

She flipped on the kitchen light.

Score cursed and spun around. Just my luck. The old lady has insomnia.

“Black ski mask, just like in the news,” Modesty said, her voice as brittle as her bones. “Black coveralls and an itty-bitty flashlight. Where you from, boy?”

Score started for her.

She cocked the rifle. She would have levered in a round, but was afraid that it would jam, leaving the action open and the rifle useless except as a club.

“Go back where you came from,” Modesty said.

Darkness stared at her from the openings in the ski mask. “Take it easy, Mrs. Breck. I’m not here to hurt you.”

The voice, like the man, was low and thick. Though only a few inches taller than her five feet four inches, the man was muscular, stocky, easily twice her weight. None of it was paunch.

“That’s Miss, not Mrs. Never cared for men. Nothing but trouble.” Modesty gestured toward the back door with the rifle. “Git.”

Score took another step forward, looked at the rifle and laughed coldly. “That old.22 is more likely to blow up in your face than hurt me.”

Watching the weapon, Score came closer to Modesty without even appearing to move. He could tell by the blurred centers of the old lady’s eyes that she was half-blind. Two more gliding steps and he’d have the rifle.

She tightened her crooked finger and the trigger. “I’ll take my chances on it.”

“Lady.” Score’s temper spiked. He pulled it in. Now wasn’t the time to let his rage boil up. Save it for the gym. “You look like you could use some money. I’ve got five hundred on me. Tell me where the paintings are and it’s yours.”

Modesty felt like echoing the cat’s yowl of triumph. I knew those paintings were worth something. I’ll be able to pay those back taxes without selling off the last of the stock.

“Got all the money I need,” she said. “Now git!”

She hadn’t noticed the man moving, but suddenly the barrel of the rifle was pointed at the ceiling. With a wrench that made her hands ache, he yanked the gun out of her hands.

“Enough with the fun and games,” Score said. He glanced at the breech and saw that the rifle had jammed. With a disgusted snarl he set the old weapon on the kitchen counter. “Where are the paintings?”

“Only pictures I have are family photos and such. What use are they to you?”

He stepped up so close she had to put a crick in her neck just to see the vague, blurred line of his mouth through the slit in the mask. If he had a neck, it was as thick as his upper arms.

“Don’t make me hurt you,” he warned. “Where are the paintings?”

“I’m near ninety. Pain doesn’t scare me.”

Score smiled slowly. “Yeah? How long will you be able to live here alone with every finger in your hands broken?”

Modesty made a small sound. Her greatest fear was being hauled off to some state institution to die with strangers puking and screaming around her.

I’ll walk off a cliff first. But I’ll go knowing that Jillian will be one Breck woman who won’t have to depend on some damn man to survive.

Those paintings are her future.

“The only painting I have is the one I sent to an art dealer outside Salt Lake a month ago,” Modesty said. “He wrote me the other week, said he sent it out for more opinions, and some fool lost it.”

The man’s mouth curled into a small smile. “You told the dealer there were twelve more paintings. Where are they?”

“I lied. Wanted him to think I’d give him more business.”

“I don’t believe you.” More important, Score’s client didn’t believe her.

The grandfather clock in the living room chimed, marking off the hours.

“Last warning,” he said. The surgical gloves he wore made his fists look huge, like pale bludgeons. “You’re going to get hurt bad.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

Score gave her an openhanded slap, not enough to knock her down but enough to make her ears ring. He caught her when she staggered. She winced when his fingers pressed tendon against bone.

“Listen,” he said, “I don’t get off hurting old ladies, but I do what I have to. Where are the paintings?”

“Who sent you?” she asked.

His smile was as thin as a razor. “If I told you, I’d have to kill you.”

“Bet I can guess,” she said.

“And if you guessed right, I’d still have to kill you,” he said, laughing at the old joke. Then his voice hardened. He smacked her again, carefully, aware of her frail bones and his pumped-up strength. “So cut the crap and tell me where the paintings are.”

“How do I know you won’t kill me anyway?”

He stared at her for a long moment, eyes narrowed. “You’d bargain with the devil, wouldn’t you?”

“I’ve lived my own life on my own terms,” Modesty said, the words stronger than her thin voice, as strong as the fingers biting into her upper arms. “I’m not going to change now. And if you kill me, you’ll never find those paintings.”

“Now we’re getting somewhere,” Score said beneath his breath. “You admit they exist.”

“This house was built by pioneers, people who lived alone and protected themselves. They built hidey-holes that even the Paiutes couldn’t find.”

“No problem. You’re going to show them to me.”

“The hell I am.”

“Remember when you’re screaming that I gave you a choice.”

He released one of her arms and reached into the side pocket of his coveralls. When his hand came out, it held a strip of hard white plastic, like a short, thin belt with a tongue at one end and a locking catch at the other.

Modesty could see enough to recognize it. She used plastic cable ties on the ranch all the time. They were handy and strong, the modern version of baling wire. Real good at tying things together.

Like wrists.

Swallowing past the dryness in her mouth, she played her last card. “You’ll never find the paintings.”

But as she said it, she looked past him to the pantry he hadn’t had time to search.

Score followed her glance. “Oh, I think I will.”

Without another look at her, he turned his back and strode toward the pantry.

Modesty rushed to the counter and jerked open one of the drawers. She yanked out a wood-handled butcher knife that was as old as she was. The blade had been honed so many times that the steel was half its original width. And wicked sharp.

“What the-” Score began.

She lunged for him.

Automatically he threw up his forearm to block the knife. When he felt the burn of steel on flesh, his temper roared. He hit the old lady so hard she flew one way and the knife went the other. She reeled, staggered, tripped over a kitchen chair, and fell. Her head hit the edge of the old iron cookstove. She landed in a boneless sprawl.

She didn’t move.

Swearing, Score looked at the red slash across his forearm. Blood was welling up, but not in spurts. A cut, that was all. Not even deep enough for stitches. Grappling with his temper, he looked at the old woman.

She seemed smaller, like a bundle of rags instead of a person.