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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Lowell Elizabeth
 

«Blue Smoke and Murder», Elizabeth Lowell

For Evan, my rock and my joy

 

1

NORTHERN ARIZONA

 

AUGUST

MIDNIGHT

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?”


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