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Authors: Colleen Thompson

Triple Exposure

BOOK: Triple Exposure
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TRIPLE EXPOSURE

Colleen Thompson

To all those who dare to soar,
whether it’s in the cockpit of a plane,
the pages of a book,
or the limitless skies of the imagination.

FRAMING THE SHOT

    

“About the other day, I’m sorry. Sorry I shook you up like that. I came off a little—”

“You came down on me like a tornado, the way I remember it.” She offered a wan smile. “And you had every right to. Listen, Zeke, I had an idea that you wouldn’t want me taking that picture. But from the moment I saw you there and framed the shot, I knew it would be the best I’ve ever taken. Could be the best I ever
will
take. So, yes, I buried it deep in that proof stack in the hope you wouldn’t see it. That wasn’t right, and I
am
sorry I misled you. But I won’t ever be anything but proud of that photo.”

In her voice, he heard an echo of his own passion for his work; in her eyes, he saw a reflection of the same fears he kept buried. Fears that the ugliness of the past would overtake him, that he was helpless to outrun it no matter how many miles or years might pass. It was not pity, though, but the core of strength that drew him to her, that had him gripping her thin shoulders and leaning in to claim a kiss.

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—citing weather phenomena, refracted, distant headlights and 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 spark 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 5

   

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 cleanup. 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 stepmother. 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 a response 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 that couldn’t be dissuaded from nesting behind its rooftop sign. Rachel had seen one on her way inside, an enormous great horned specimen that 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 T-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 be away long 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 Patsy’s 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 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 observed 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 have been 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, awkward 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. That 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 Milk Shakes, 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 that 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 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 laughed, 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 on 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 an elephant to tiptoe around for very long.

“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 depart 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. She had thought of Marfa as a safe place, a refuge so remote that only the most determined would find her, and so small 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?”

BOOK: Triple Exposure
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