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Friends And Lovers
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ISBN-10: 1-77115-049-1
ISBN-13: 
Genre: Romance/Romance
eBook Length: 569 Pages
Published: November 2012



From inside the flap

A chance encounter between Cassidy Maxwell, a personable, serenely self-sufficient widow seeking a new life in a warmer part of the country, and a grizzled rancher who advises her to take a pasear through a unique community in the Southwest called the Valley, leads to Cassidyís buying a house there. Her new home comes with the benefit of having fascinating neighbors, including four single, highly individualistic men: two virile martial artists, a shy but likeable builder, and a handsome, debonair, talented architect. Eventually, the widow not only achieves unlooked-for happiness in an unconventional personal relationship, she also proves the means of enabling two close male friends to overcome dire problems in their own lives.

A murder mystery arises that proves to have enormous consequences for several of the people for whom Cassidy has come to care deeply. The suspense mounts, as a grim shadow falls over a group of people who simply canít believe that the person arrested for the crime could have committed it. A succession of suspenseful twists and turns in this uniquely fascinating narrative leads to a dramatic, heart-wrenching climax.

Friends And Lovers (Excerpt)


Chapter One

Cassidyís original itinerary had not included the Valley. A chance conversation with a grizzled rancher to whom she passed a pleasant remark as she and he moved slowly through the line in a crowded, cafeteria-style restaurant sparked intense interest. She readily owned to being a snowbird from Wyoming-a former ranchwoman wishful of buying a house in a southwestern community that had avoided becoming a tourist trap or a haven for wealthy retirees. "Iím searching for a town full of working people," she added emphatically. "Neighborly people. Iíd like it to offer a few cultural attractions, but I could do without those if the people seem the friendly sort."

Chuckling, the man nodded. "I donít blame you for not wanting to join up with a passel of rich, fuss-budgety old folks liviní elbow-to-elbow in a high-dollar retirement center," he assured the friendly, likeable woman he accurately judged to be close to sixty. "If youíre used to living on a ranch in a community full of good neighbors whoíre all different ages, youíd feel warehoused in one of those outfits. Damn, woman, you ought to take a pasear through the Valley."

Intrigued, Cassidy asked, "Is that a town?"

"The Valleyís got a town in it. The town has a name, too, but it ainít used much by the people who live there. Itís named after a gent who sure as hell wasnít somebody a town ought to be proud of. He was a mean, sneaky, gouginí trader who ripped off the early inhabitants big time. The local folks never did change the name, though.

"The townís kind of in two halves, separated by an outcrop of rocky land thatís too vertical to be good for anything much. Used to be they spoke of the Old Town and the Trading Post. But the original Trading Post burnt down in the sixties, and the land the gouginí trader once owned got subdivided into tracts that got bought by companies moving in from other states. Electronics... medical and pharmaceutical research... high-tech stuff, those outfits manufacture. The companies came because they liked the tax structure, and they did just fine. So now the locals speak of the Old Town and the New Town. Hard to find a sign with the old traderís name on it in the whole danged place."

Fascinated, Cassidy asked for directions to the Valley. When he readily obliged, she committed to memory the clear, concise information he provided. After she thanked him, he tilted his head appraisingly and drawled, "If you find the sort of home you want to buy while youíre there, youíll fit right in, maíam." Finding himself able now to select what he wished to eat for breakfast, he attended to that chore and passed on down the line.

Warmed by his friendliness, Cassidy carried her tray to a small, empty table, noting that the rancher had seated himself at a larger one occupied by a group of men he obviously knew well.

Fortified by a hearty meal of steak, eggs over easy, hash browns, wheat toast, and three cups of surprisingly tasty coffee, Cassidy slid into the driverís seat of her Toyota pickup and consulted her road map. "Sixty-two miles to the turnoff to the Valley," she mused aloud. "Amazing! A town of ten thousand people that hasnít got a single state or federal highway running through it." Glancing at her watch, she muttered, "Only twenty to seven. An hour to the turnoff. A half hour to the Old Town? Maybe a bit more. Iíll have all day in which to study the area."

The habit of talking aloud to herself had grown on her since the death of her husband ten months earlier, she suddenly realized. Pain achingly familiar stabbed her. Jutting her chin, she thrust the pain and the attendant memories from mind and concentrated on her surroundings.

Pulling out onto the highway stretching ahead like a ruled black line bisecting a wind-swept desert painted in warm shades of cream, tan, dull brown and dusky red, she glanced at the rearview mirror, to see the prosperous, bustling truck stop-restaurant, gas station, motel, bar, truck repair shop, storage buildings, and a few residences situated to the rear of the business area-fade into insignificance against the vastness of the seemingly trackless desert. Far ahead, to the south, the desert butted up against distant hills. The austere beauty of the landscape so different from the sagebrush "desert" characterizing so much of Wyomingís land area registered on a mind geared to regard wide open spaces as a far more satisfying sight than that of a crowded metropolis surrounded by sprawling, traffic-choked suburbs and gritty industrial enclaves.

The turnoff proved to be a two-lane, oiled, well-maintained secondary road with very light traffic, but Cassidy took care to obey the signs stating the speed limits for the various curves. The winding route rose sharply as it headed towards a rocky, barren ridge, crossed that rugged terrain, dropped precipitately through a steep-walled gorge, and made a ninety-degree turn to the driverís right, taking her in a northerly direction along a narrow plateau: an area bounded by a sheer cliff that plunged downward on her left and a rocky elevation that thrust upwards on her right. Gasping in delight, she looked out over the edge of the rimrock and beheld the Valley: a huge declivity longer than it was wide. Tree-covered mountains rose at both the north and the south ends, and a long, brush-covered mesa ran along the west side.

The two halves of the town she saw to be separated by a rocky eminence topped, she noted in astonishment, by a small astronomical observatory. The Old Town, which covered the northern end of the Valley, climbed upwards towards the mesa and the tree-covered hills. The less dense New Town sprawled over a goodly portion of the wider south end of the declivity. An airport occupied a long stretch of higher-than-average ground southwest of the New Town. Greenery-lawns and trees-dotted the crowded streets of the oldest settled area. In the distance, she could see green fields at the foot of the long, flat-topped mesa.

Odd, she thought. No river runs through the Valley. Where does the water come from?

Ahead of her, the road turned sharply to the left and snaked down the rim via a series of switchbacks to the flat land below. Slowing down as she approached the curve, she glanced at the motel situated on land that sloped gently upwards on the far side of the curve in the road. A new, audible gasp escaped her as she riveted her eyes to the structure. Mindful of the pickup barreling along to her rear, she quickly tore her glance away, but not before the image imprinted itself on her mind.

That building looks as if it grew out of the ground lying against that slight upward slope, she reflected admiringly. Used to the sight of huge, garish, flashing, blocky neon signs that assaulted the senses of motorists approaching ugly motels designed solely for functionality, she marveled at the uniqueness of the carved, polished hardwood rectangle hanging by wrought iron chains from a log support. Affixed to that background, neon tubing spelled out the name in elegant but highly readable script that glowed white against the dark wood. The Inn of the Twisted Tree, she read, and smiled. Flanking the sign, an ancient pine-one indeed picturesquely twisted-rose out of a cluster of boulders to proclaim the origin of the name.

The beauty of the landscaping matched that of the two-story stone structure designed by someone who had avoided mimicking any well-known architectural style. An unconventionally shaped roof fashioned of dark grayish-green tiles extended in a graceful sweep over a balcony that ran the full length of the second story. Wrought iron grillwork set into a railing composed of stained, polished logs ornamented both the balcony and the stairwells that gave access to it. The easily read numbers on hardwood doors stained rather than painted were fashioned of wrought iron. Along the length of the ground floor, a flagged walk contrasted nicely with the slender stone pillars supporting the balcony overhead. A narrow, eye-catching border of small boulders, evergreen shrubs, and colorful flowering plants interposed itself between the front bumpers of the parked cars and the walk.

I simply must stay there tonight, Cassidy decided.

Wrenching her mind back to the task at hand, she negotiated a series of hairpin curves and emerged onto a flat stretch of road. On her right, the rocky bluff gave way to a large expanse of grassy ranchland on which Santa Gertrudis cows grazed. Gazing up the narrow valley bounded on the other side by another bluff, she saw a familiar sight: a windmill of the sort that pumped water out of wells and into stock tanks. There must be an aquifer under the surface of the valley, she surmised. Water looms large in the thinking of any rancher, she admitted wryly. Even one whoís lived for decades beside a river that provides ample water for irrigation.

That conundrum solved, Cassidy strove to sightsee while driving safely into the Old Town. Amusement prompted a low chuckle as she noted that the principal thoroughfare did not bear the designation of Main Street. "Old Stage Route," she repeated aloud. Giving the city fathers credit for originality, she sought to get a feel for what she thought of as the soul of this town that already she sensed to possess a unique character.

Abiding by the twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit posted in the business district, the sightseer drove past the Medical Professional Building, Gibsonís Saddlery and Western Wear, Haskellís Auto Supplies, Jensenís Specialty Meats, Old Town Hardware, Cantrellís Sporting Goods, Hagertyís Family Market, The Stage Stop Bar and Grill, Goldsteinís Delicatessen, and Pepperdineís Mercantile. That last establishment occupied an entire block and housed the Dry Gulch Cafe in the center of its mammoth bulk. On the other side of the street from the Mercantile, the eager beholder took note of the the Valley National Bank. That ultra-dignified establishment occupied a choice corner location on a block housing the no less dignified Statler Building on the other corner, with Giordanoís Pharmacy and Lopez Brothers Family Footwear squeezed in between the two more imposing structures.

Her leisurely drive down the business district on Old Stage Route provided a surprise. She saw no McDonaldís, no Burger King, no Arbyís, no Taco Bell, nor any of the other franchises so ubiquitous in most towns. Gratified by that unexpected discovery, she unconsciously nodded in approval.

On beholding a wide, sun-drenched plaza housing an obviously ancient church built in the Spanish style, she turned into that area and parked where she could admire the house of worship she saw to be built not of adobe, but of light tan stone blocks she instantly suspected to have been hand-hewn. Iglesia Nuestra SeŮora del Valle, a weathered wooden sign proclaimed. Our Lady of the Valley Church, Cassidy translated. How appropriate! An obviously operational Catholic elementary school flanked what she assumed to be a convent and a rectory, on an adjacent side of the square.

The sight uplifted her. That church was built by those who worshipped there, she surmised. They didnít stint either on labor or cost, and they built it to last... built for posterity. That simple but supremely graceful architecture still attests to the faith, love, and joy that attended the effort of building the church. And itís not a relic of the past preserved as an historical site, by all thatís amazing! Itís still serving as a parish church, with a school run by nuns. No... Iím wrong there, she corrected herself after reading the modest sign. Itís run by the Lay Teaching Order of St. Catherine of Siena. My word... Iíve never heard of such a thing! But itís marvelous that the church and the school still serve the community!

Continuing down Old Stage Route, she found that it emerged from the crowded business district and for a short time bisected heavily residential areas. At length, to her left, the road curved to the south and passed the barb-wire-fenced boundaries of what she suspected to be huge cattle ranches. Turnoffs onto roads leading to those ranches bore signs, some of which featured family names. Bransome leaped out at her. McCandless. Gutierrez. Hamilton. Ramirez. Herrera. A number of the signs consisted merely of brands. Some of the roads ended in clusters of distant buildings, but most of those dirt tracks ran up onto the mesa and vanished from sight.

The New Town disenchanted her. Although she noted approvingly the trimness of the grounds surrounding the ultra-modern, ultra-utilitarian buildings housing the headquarters and plants of the companies mentioned by the rancher, she frowned as she drove past a McDonaldís, a Dairy Queen, and a Burger King.

Franchises. Theyíre everywhere, she mourned. Theyíve intruded their dreary sameness even here. Well... at least theyíre contained in a part of town that isnít at all picturesque-oh, Lord, look at that!

Impulsively, she slowed as she passed an imposing, uniquely beautiful Convention Center that she instantly judged to have been designed by the same genius responsible for the charm of the Inn of the Twisted Tree, even though this structure nowise resembled the inn. Built on flat, stony, dull beige ground overshadowed by a steep bluff composed of stacked layers of weathered beige rock utterly devoid of vegetation, the Convention Center sported an intriguing futuristic shape and seemed to be constructed mainly of steel, glass, and wall tiles notable for bold, striking colors.

That building unerringly adapts a breathtakingly original structural design to its mundane function, and its vividness offers a sharp contrast to that harsh, arid, monochromatic setting even as it complements it, she silently exclaimed. Surely there couldnít be two local architects able to achieve such dramatic effects!

Filled with admiration, she increased her speed as she drove by two medium-sized motels bland in their aspect rather than blatantly ugly-motels situated within walking distance of the Convention Center. Those must have been here before the Center was built, she accurately surmised. Iíll bet theyíre getting a lot more business now. She slowed again so as to study a third motel of impressive size in the last stages of construction. No genius designed thatunlovely outfit, she reflected scathingly. It looks all the more repellent for being close enough to the Convention Center that itís bound to invite an unfavorable comparison.

The sightseer found herself admitting that the New Town shouted prosperity, but the sight of three raw, newly built, treeless subdivisions featuring crackerbox houses, all monotonously alike and all situated upon identically sized lots devoid of greenery, made her cringe. Oh, my aching butt, cast an eye on those disasters, she adjured her alter ego. How surpassingly depressing! Worse than that big ugly new motel.

Upon finding that the Old Stage Route metamorphosed into a numbered secondary road that would take her back to the main highway she had left early this morning, she pulled into a parking area, circled a row of parked cars, and returned the way she had come. On impulse, she turned off onto the road leading towards the observatory. To her surprise, she passed an isolated cluster of expensive, highly attractive homes flanking both sides of the road for a mile past the turnoff. Why here? she wondered as she began a steep ascent. Why, thereís a college, she exclaimed silently, on rounding a curve. One that seems almost as old an establishment as that church. Bransome College, a bronze plaque embedded in a stone block announced at the turnoff to the campus forming a relatively flat oasis of greenery nestled at the foot of the barren, nearly vertical rock formations towering above it.

Founded by the same family as the one that owns the ranch? she wondered. The buildings she saw to be old, hallowed stone edifices lovely in their design. What a beautiful place, she admitted. As mellow a set of buildings as any Ivy League campus could sport. Marvelous! Itís not a two-year community college. Itís a four-year liberal arts college, according to that sign. Iím impressed!

A short time later, after negotiating a series of hairpin, nerve-wracking curves, she gazed up at the Artemus Lowell Observatory. A bronze plaque informed her that the facility formed a part of Bransome College. Fascinated, she wondered if Artemus Lowell might have been a relation of the famous astronomer/author Percival Lowell, the founder of the observatory at Flagstaff, Arizona.

On re-entering the Old Town, she turned off Old Stage Route and began inspecting various neighborhoods. Discovering that the higher up the slopes she proceeded, the more expensive the homes looked, she sighed audibly. On beholding the entrance to a country club obviously old, exceedingly well maintained, and undoubtedly expensive to join, she concluded that the town might well sport an elite class boasting old wealth.

That isolated cluster of attractive, expensive homes on the road to the college Iíll bet belong mostly to faculty members, she speculated. I wonder if those academic types form a clique, too. Do they, perhaps, find a welcome in the club? Are the executives from those new companies allowed to join? How about the owners of those big ranches? Are there competing social cliques, or just one, based solely on oneís having an exceedingly substantial income?

Intrigued, she took a meandering route down into the heart of the town, passing a public high school, three attractive public parks, a VFW post, a public library, a large hospital, and a public elementary school. Although some of the neighborhoods featured small, old, and occasionally shabby houses set closely together on narrow, winding streets, she saw no blighted areas... no evidence of urban decay. Most of the houses she passed were uniquely individual, as were the well-kept yards.

The homes varied in size and costliness across neighborhoods, and sometimes down single thoroughfares. Fascinated, she drove at a crawl down narrow, crooked, tree-shaded streets, some of which bore a particular ethnic character. She identified five such areas: Mexican, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Greek. No Indian neighborhoods, she mused, using the designation she had grown up employing. She meant absolutely no offense by the term. She had never gotten used to saying "Native Americans." The way her mind worked, the indigenous Indians were Americans, and so was she: a descendant of six generations of pioneers whose forebears had emigrated long ago from England. African-Americans she viewed in the same way-simply as Americans.

Maybe the black people and the Indians didnít bother to segregate themselves here, she surmised. They never did where I grew up. They just bought whatever house they could afford on whatever street of the town had one for sale. But there werenít a large number of black people or Indians in the town nearest to my folksí ranch. These neighborhoods seem to mean that substantial numbers of certain minorities live in this town. Even so, these streets full of old but well-kept houses where one small ethnic group predominates most definitely donít qualify as what Iíd call a ghetto. Especially as the houses are so attractive!

Memories intruded, of reading about problems in ghetto areas in other states-problems that had frequently made the national news. I sure as hell never heard of any racial prejudice coming to light in our area, she reminded herself. But then, I grew up in a place far from any reservation. I guess things might well be different in towns close to reservations, where Indians form the dominant ethnic group. Even in Wyoming. But I donít know of any town in Wyoming that has a black or Hispanic ghetto, let alone racial strife making the news. Not in this year of 2006, at least!

Small shopping centers featuring Mom-and-Pop-style stores and eateries popped up here and there among the various neighborhoods. Some of those enterprises accented the ethnic diversity. She noticed far more young children playing in yards and on the sidewalks than one normally beheld in a town having a population skewed towards retirees. Liking what she saw, Cassidy nonetheless looked for houses built on an acre or two of land. She found quite a few, but those homes she judged out of her price range.

When she reached the business district, she drove down a street that ran parallel to Old Stage Route, on the north. On passing several construction firms that specialized in building structures either from stone blocks or from concrete faced with rock, she concluded that rock of building quality must be abundant somewhere close by.

As she drove by Taylorís Recreational Vehicle Sales, she noted a large number of shiny new all-terrain vehicles parked in the lot. Those must be really popular around here, she decided, same as at home.

The tallest building she had seen all day proved to be the Clermont Hotel, which rose to a height of four stories. That durable establishment built of stone blocks and adorned with floridly ornate embellishments to its facade, seemed to her to have a slightly weary look, as does a faded beauty still hopeful of being admired, even if nowadays she fails to command the degree of adulation she once considered her due. The keen observer noticed that the hotel occupied the entire long block to the rear of that on which stood the Valley National Bank and the Statler Building.

At four-thirty in the afternoon, feeling fatigued by a prolonged journey of exploration begun at a drastically early hour of the morning, Cassidy turned into the Inn of the Twisted Tree. An unobtrusive sign hanging below that proclaiming the name of the establishment assured her that they had a vacancy. Rejoicing at the sight, she drove under the overhang in front of the main entrance, parked nearby, and walked inside.

As she approached the desk, she noted that the inn sported a restaurant, a bar, and an inviting area where a continental breakfast could be enjoyed in the mornings. The prices she discovered to be no higher than those of similar, chain-owned "inns" in which she had stayed. Buoyed by the friendliness of the overly plump but nonetheless markedly attractive middle-aged woman who rented her the room, she deposited her duffel bag and her light down vest in the comfortable-looking accommodation on the ground floor, and headed for the restaurant.

A half hour later, replete with a tasty, filling, well-cooked meal, Cassidy sat back, completely relaxed, and sipped a second beer. I like the atmosphere here, she mused. I wonder if there might be any houses I could afford available in this area. Sighing, she succumbed to doubt on that score. Nevertheless, when the waitress came by with the check, she asked, "Might you know of any property close by here thatís for sale?"

"No, I donít know of any," the handsome, dark-eyed girl asserted briskly. "Thereís only one set of houses near here, and those are in the Rimrock Subdivision." A thought struck her, and she added ruminatively, "But... you know... there is a lot back there that I think might still be for sale. Franklinís Folly." Her Spanish heritage coming to the fore, she executed an eloquent shrug and laughed wryly. "You wouldnít want to buy that disaster," she opined decisively. "Have you tried contacting any realtors in the Old Town?"

"Not yet," the snowbird admitted. "I just got here. How do I get to the Rimrock Subdivision?"

"It isnít called that. Itís the dead-end street that runs north along the rim behind the inn. Rimrock Drive, itís called. The last lot is the one I think might still be for sale." On seeing the owner of the establishment walk through the door, the girl lowered her voice. "I shouldnít have used that derogatory term," she confided, smiling a trifle ruefully. "Drive up there and see for yourself. Donít take my word that itís... well... not the best buy you could find." Having laid the check on the table, she smiled mischievously on the puzzled customer and went about her business.

Cassidy debated whether or not to investigate immediately, but she decided to wait until morning. Rising, she left a generous tip, paid the bill, repaired to the bar, and indulged in two more beers. A dapper, wiry, energetic, pleasant-spoken man who she guessed to be around her own age-the man whose entry had caused the waitress to lower her voice-served her. She noted that the other patrons-five men she judged to be local businessmen having a drink after their dayís work-called the bartender "Buck" with easy familiarity. None of them evinced any undue interest in her. The bartender seemed no whit perturbed on seeing a lone woman sit at the bar and order beers. He treated her with the same courtesy he extended to his regulars.

I like this outfit, Cassidy thought. A new stab of pain, evoked by her memory of drinks imbibed in a bar patronized in a large part by people she knew, unsettled her for a few moments, before she forcibly drove the memories out of the forefront of her mind. Rising, she walked out into the lobby and purchased a copy of the Valley Examiner. A short time later, she sat propped up on pillows in a luxurious queen-sized bed, intently perusing those pages of the paper that listed properties offered for sale in the Valley.

At six-thirty in the morning, Cassidy rose, indulged in a long, hot shower, dressed, and headed for the section of the lobby featuring tables and chairs, where an appetizing continental breakfast awaited her. After dawdling over her meal, she drank one more cup of coffee than she usually did. Rising, she stepped out into a bright new day. Air crisp but not uncomfortably cold invigorated her. Iíll bet itís twenty below at home on this twenty-second day of January, she reflected. Or maybe even colder. The altitudeís pretty high here, or it would be even hotter at eight AM. I like this climate. And damned if Iím not starting to love this town!

Pulling out into the eastbound lane of the secondary road that changed its name to Old Stage Route at the bottom of the hill, the would-be snowbird drove the exceedingly small fraction of a mile that separated the entrance to the inn from Rimrock Drive and turned left onto that gravel road. On her right, as she headed north, a steep, rocky hill rose. At its base a few stunted pines grew, straggling along the side of the road where a meager bank of soil sloped up against the base of the upwards-thrusting rocks. Turning her attention to her left, she slowed as the first house came in view.

A gasp of sheer awe escaped her. My God, just look at that! she adjured her alter ego.

Pulling over to the right side of the road, she feasted her eyes on the sight appearing on her left. A wide, fissured, irregular, but fairly flat outcropping of brownish-gray rock topped the rim along its length. On the edge of the formation nearest the road, the ground fell sharply off, forming a gently sloping U-shaped depression that seemed to consist of soil, not rock. The road ran down the lowest point of that depression, and the land sloped back upwards from the east side of the road to the area where the straggling stand of pines clustered against the steep elevation.

Intently, Cassidy scanned the view to her left. In back of the Twisted Tree, the hump of rock and earth that rendered the inn invisible from her present vantage point also sported stunted pines, but no tree grew out of the relatively flat rock that ran along the edge of the rim. To the north of that hump, a two-storied house rose out of the ground as if it had grown there. She saw that the dwelling was faced with stone slightly warmer in its earth tones than that on which it stood.

The architect had spurned the idea that a house should be square or rectangular. The walls curved outwards where the underlying rock had been relatively flat, and curved inward again where the underpinning exhibited weakness or undue roughness, but the non-standard shape failed to jar on the beholder. On the contrary, the overall effect was one that brought to mind storybook illustrations of magical castles. The roof, sheathed in the same dark gray-green tiles that adorned the inn, dipped with surpassing grace over the outward-curving areas and rose again at the center.

A slight difference in the color of the tile on the east side of the roof struck her as a bit odd, until the light dawned. Those must be solar tiles, she exclaimed to her alter ego. One of those construction outfits mentioned on their sign that they sold those. Marvelous!

A flagged deck ran around the entire perimeter of the house. In places, it had been laid atop the rock. In other places, fill had evidently been placed within a depression to keep the surface level all around the house, but that ploy had been cleverly disguised. The effect was one of purely natural rock sloping away from a flat, flagged deck.

Intrigued, the intent watcher saw that vines rose out of stone planters to sprawl thickly over several open-sided, lattice-roofed areas of the deck, which, like the house itself, had a multi-curved perimeter.

South of the house, just short of the area where the ground rose up to form the tree-dotted hump, Cassidy saw large raised planters (also irregular in shape) topped by thick green growth, and a small greenhouse. Flagged paths separated the planters. Closer to the house, several tables with chairs reposed on the deck, flanked by a rectangular rock structure that she judged to be a barbeque.

The side of the house that faced the road featured an inviting entry, in front of which ran a wide flagged deck. Below the outer edge of the deck, Cassidy beheld a three-car garage. The garage occupied space dug out from the sloping earthen strip of ground. A graveled driveway spanned the seventy-five-foot distance from the road to a wider graveled space fronting the garage doors. Shrewdly, the keen observer suspected that the "front" of the house was really the rear-that the main activity took place on those wide, flat decks to the north, south and west.

A narrow path wound away from the north side of the house, leading, she discovered, to the south side of the next house, which stood a considerable distance away.

Along the west side of the road, a dirt track ran, in lieu of a sidewalk. Pondering its function-Bike path? Hiking trail?-she belatedly noticed the tracks visible in the earth. ATV trail! she accurately deduced. They walk to each otherís homes along those narrow paths over the rock, but they drive ATVs down this dirt track.

Certainty struck her. The same talented architect who designed the Inn of the Twisted Tree created these marvels as well, Iíd bet my boots. Regret suffused her as she drew the inevitable conclusion. That house and land cost a veritable fortune, she mourned. I could never afford to buy anything here.

Sighing, she started the motor and drove slowly northwards. Stopping once again, she admired the second house. This one, too, sported an irregular shape that conformed to the flatness or roughness of the underlying rock. A deck surrounded it as well. But the shape in no way matched that of the first house. The color of the rock facing varied a bit from that of the first one viewed. Vines grew from planters here as well, but the overall shape and design of the overhangs differed markedly from those of the other house. The roof tiles she saw to be identical, but the shape of the roof most definitely was not.

Theyíre all utterly unique in their design, but they all fit the underlying shape of the rock, the entranced viewer acknowledged. They all seem to be connected by footpaths that end at side doors. They all sport decks all around the outside, and garages built one level below the first floor of the house. And they all possess that quality of looking as if they grew out of the ground on which they sit.

Slowly, she proceeded past the third equally unique dwelling. In the center of the roof, she beheld a truncated, round, tower-like elevation. A wrought iron railing ran around its perimeter. Curiosity getting the best of her, she reached into the glove box, withdrew a pair of binoculars, and studied that odd feature. Thatís a telescope in the center, she silently exclaimed. I wonder if the ownerís an astronomer who works at the observatory.

After she passed the fifth house-one built in the style of all the others-she stared in shock at the last lot of the subdivision. No fairy castle rose from the rock here. Large quantities of what seemed to be blocks of stone mined from an excavation in the center lay in roughly square piles along the upward-sloping soil that abutted the expanse of rock on which the other houses had been built. The piles, which formed an untidy-looking rampart running parallel to the road, shut off her view of what lay beyond. To the north of these, an unpaved, un-graveled driveway ascended the slope.

On the north side of the driveway, which leveled out on the top of the rock layer, rose a two-story rectangular structure built of poured concrete. Its roof she saw to be sheathed in ceramic tile of a bright orange hue. The ugliness of that raw, funereal gray exterior topped by that garish orange roof seemed accentuated by the contrast with the lovely houses she had just finished viewing. The end of the rectangular structure striking her as a blight on the landscape faced the road. On the south side-the one that faced the neighboring house-she beheld three dark brown garage doors. At the end facing away from the road, an exterior stair led to the second floor. The land sloping sharply downward to the north, she saw to be thickly wooded. The road ended just beyond the driveway leading to the ugly building.

What in the everlasting hell happened here? she asked herself in disbelief. Tearing her eyes from the outre building and the piles of stone blocks, she noticed the dingy, sun-bleached sign to the right of the driveway. FOR SALE BY OWNER, she read. This lot is for sale! Her pulse-rate accelerated a bit as that fact registered. A telephone number appeared below the curt message on the sign.

Her curiosity getting the best of her, she impulsively pulled her cell phone out of her purse and dialed the number. An annoyingly chirpy computer-generated voice informed her that the number had been disconnected.

What in the hell?she silently railed. What kind of idiot fails to put his name on the sign and then lets the phone service lapse?

Cocking her head, she studied the building forming so ghastly a contrast to the homes she had just viewed. Iíll bet that second story is an apartment, she surmised. And judging by the weeds growing up around the base of that sign, this place has been for sale for some time.

Determined to learn more, she drove up the driveway, parked in the space fronting the garage doors-an area on which had been poured a plain concrete slab-and gasped in astonishment. To her left, clear blue water shimmered in the bright sun, filling a huge, rectangular excavation almost to the brim. The water-filled hole had been created in the center third of the flat area of the rock formation topping this lot. From here, she could see that the surface of the land sloped sharply downward on the whole northwestern corner of the lot.

Did someone build that... pool... or pond... or reservoir... on purpose? she asked her alter ego in shock. Was some dumb shit willing to turn the best site for a house on this lovely residential lot into a lake, leaving only this surpassingly ugly building to serve as a place in which to live? That apartment upstairs has to be really small!

Determinedly, she got out of the Toyota and climbed the stairs. On reaching the four-foot-wide deck fronting the door to the apartment, she turned and gazed outwards, given that the deck offered an excellent view of the entire lot. The flat rock surface on this lot narrowed markedly, she noted, on the northern fourth of the lot area, where the ground sloped sharply downwards. The land also sloped rather steeply towards the rim-which she assumed to be the western boundary-all along the west side. Shaking her head, she again wondered about the origin and purpose of the pond.

Turning once again, she pressed her nose against the window in the door leading to the apartment and cupped her hands around her face to reduce the glare. Peering inside, she beheld a fully equipped kitchen. The space beyond the kitchen, she saw to be unfurnished.

Nobody lives here,she told herself. I rather imagine that no one ever has lived here.

Recalling the term used by the waitress in the inn, she muttered aloud, "Franklinís Folly." Shaking her head, she thought, Thatís what the waitress called this last lot. So something unexpected must have happened... something that resulted from really bad judgment. Intrigued, she stared again into the interior. "That apartment seems to be in a finished state," she opined aloud.

Frowning, she descended the stairs and walked to a spot where she could view the three garage doors. The builder intended that concrete to be faced with rock, she concluded, after studying the gap between the face of the wall and the edge of the metal door jam. This building has been left unfinished. Briskly, she stepped off the south side of the structure, and then the east side. She noticed that the flat area to the rear of the building extended out only about fifteen feet. At that point, the land sloped steeply downward toward the north end of the lot. Thereís no possibility of the developerís selling another lot to the north, she concluded. So thereíd never be a neighbor who built a house on the north side. Walking back around, she gazed in perplexity at the edifice. Why in hell would one resident willing to live in a thirty-foot by twenty-four-foot apartment need a three-car garage? she asked herself bemusedly.

Conflicting thoughts churned in her mind. Iíve simply got to find out what happened here, she decided. Whirling about, she stared at the neighboring house, which stood quite a distance away. These lots must be around two acres in size, she estimated. That fact registered, but another rose uppermost in her churning mind. Surely the next-door neighbors know who owns this blighted lot!

Determined to get to the bottom of the mystery, she got back into the Toyota, exited the property, drove back to the last house in the row, turned into the graveled driveway, and parked.

Noting a flight of stone steps at the north end of the three-car garage, she stepped out and headed for those. On reaching the bottom, she saw a man stride around the north side of the house, to stand looking down at her. For an instant, each studied the other.

Cassidy beheld a lean, athletic-looking individual about six feet tall-a person whose age she suspected to be close to hers. His face she classed as more striking than handsome. His hair, worn in a crew cut, had once been brown, but it was now heavily streaked with gray. Unsmiling, he cocked his head slightly to one side as he stared appraisingly at her out of piercing brown eyes. He wore faded jeans and engineer boots. A black leather bomber jacket, obviously nowhere near new, hung open at the front, allowing his black tee shirt to show.

His intent scrutiny revealed a woman he accurately judged to be in her late fifties (fifty-eight, in actuality). Short brown hair styled by a highly competent hand framed an expressive face now regarding him serenely. She wore black knit pants, low-cut hiking boots, and an attractive dark-green-and-black light-weight pull-on acrylic sweater over a black turtle-necked shirt.

"The sign on the property over there says itís for sale by the owner," she announced in a clear, unaccented, non-abrasive voice. "But the ownerís name doesnít appear-just a phone number, which has been disconnected. I thought you might be able to tell me the name of the owner."

"Are you interested in buying the property?" the man thus addressed inquired in a neutral tone.

"I might be, if I could be shown the interior of the building, and if I could find out how much the owner wants for the house and land," Cassidy replied equably.

"Mm. Heíll want twice what itís worth, no doubt. Come on up. Iíll tell you what you need to know."

A bit daunted by that blunt prediction, Cassidy mounted the steps and accompanied the man to a roughly circular span of deck topped by an openwork wooden awning so thickly overgrown with vines as to seem a solid roof. A small table flanked the side door of the house. On its surface reposed a coffee maker and three oversized mugs. In the center of the area stood a larger table that had been pressed into service as a desk. Beside a laptop, the screen of which showed a screen-saver, lay a pile of books, a dog-eared spiral notebook, a sheaf of printed pages, a few sheets of notes written in a bold, clear, if slightly scrawling hand, a tent-like metal holder supporting a page of printed text heavily edited in red ink, and a mug a quarter full of black coffee. A pair of small but powerful binoculars lay amid the clutter.

He watched everything I did over there, the guest surmised, more amused than annoyed by that supposition.

"Have a seat," her host directed, pulling out a chair from the table. When the visitor seated herself facing north, with the unlovely structure visible in the distance, he set another chair opposite her. "Care for coffee?" he asked.

"If itís no trouble," she replied, noting that his face had yet to break into a smile. "I appreciate your willingness to interrupt your work to help me."

"No sweat," he declared bluntly. He filled his own mug and another for her. After handing her the steaming drink, he asked, "Do you use cream and sugar?"

"No, thanks. I drink mine black."

She noted a flicker of approval in the eyes raking her. "So youíre from Wyoming," he stated rather than asked.

Enlightenment followed a nanosecond of puzzlement. "You noticed my plates," she replied, smiling warmly.

"Right. Snowbird?"

"I hope to be."

"Iím Jason Lassiter."

"Iím Cassidy Maxwell."

Extending a hand, Jason gripped the hand the woman offered, and squeezed. Concealing surprise at the strength of her grip, he relaxed his guard, smiled a fleeting smile, and grew more loquacious.

"Mm. Well. That crapped-out wreck of a fine building lot is the property of Mickey Franklin. Heís the son of Buck Franklin, who owns the Twisted Tree. Buckís an old friend of mine. Typical of young Mickey not to put his name on the sign and leave a disconnected number showing on it," he added censoriously. "I expect the reason the numberís disconnected is that after Mickey suffered the wreck on the site, he and his wife split the sheets. They sold their house in the Old Town. Bianca moved back in with her father. Mickey acquired a new girlfriend and moved in with her. He owns a half interest in the Lucky Seven Night Club. I suppose you might be able to get him to come to the phone there if they arenít super busy, which is unlikely, but that outfit doesnít open till five in the afternoon."

"Would it be more likely that Iíd be able to speak to him if I just to go there this evening, find this Mr. Franklin, and ask him to set a time when he could show me the property?" Cassidy asked.

Frowning, Jason shook his head. "Maíam, I definitely donít think you ought to go there alone... unescorted," he stated vehemently. "Mickeyís partner, who owns the other half-interest in the club, has some pretty shady connections. Quite a few of the patrons are crude types. The club features exotic dancers, and the crowd can be pretty rowdy. I think I know where I can get hold of Mickey. Let me make a call."

"Please, call me Cassidy," the woman taken aback by that unsettling revelation urged. "Iíd be most grateful if youíd get Mr. Franklin on the phone."

This time the smile lasted a bit longer. "Iíll give it a try... Cassidy." Pulling a cell phone from the pocket of his jacket, he consulted a small address book picked up out of the sprawl of documents on the table, found a number, and dialed it.

"Hello, Lila? Jason Lassiter. Is Mickey there? Yeah... I know. Itís only nine-twenty. I didnít roust you out of bed, did I?" A chuckle escaped him as he listened to the womanís reply. "Yeah... I figured heíd need to sleep late. Well, thereís a lady sitting here on my deck whoís interested in buying Mickeyís lot. Yes... really. I expect Mickey would be willing to drive up here and talk to her, mmm? After he heaves out of the sack?" He chuckled again as he listened to her reply. "Sure. Have him call me."

After giving his number, he eyed his guest meditatively as he added, "Tell him he can drive to my place, if he decides to show her through the building. She can wait here to hear from him, and he wonít have to waste any time looking for her. Yeah, right. Thanks, Lila."

Turning to his guest, he explained, "Mickey closes the club at two AM, but then he has to do a lot of accounting so as to be sure that the cash taken in matches what the computerized system says ought to be there. He didnít get to bed until almost five, this morning. Lila says heíll most likely sleep till noon. She figures heíll be overjoyed to show the place to a potential buyer. You donít mind my telling her youíd wait here, do you? It seemed like the easiest thing to do."

"Of course I donít mind!" Cassidy assured him. "Iím exceedingly grateful for your help. But I feel badly about interrupting your work and causing you all this inconvenience."

"Woman, what I was doing can wait. And I donít mind admitting that Iím glad to facilitate the process, if it means that I might end up with a neighbor who actually lives over there. Care for a refill?"

As Jason filled the two mugs, his guest made a lightning assessment. This manís not the corporate type... nor the rancher type. Heís well educated... speaks in a cultured tone... but heís the man-of-action sort. Mining engineer? Retired law enforcement officer? Ex-military? He moves like a cat in a jungle.

"The same architect who designed the Twisted Tree built all these houses, didnít he?" she stated rather than asked as Jason set a steaming mug before her and sat down.

"Right. Ramon de Vargas. Heís quite famous in the Valley, and even across the state. He lives in the house thatís two houses down from this one," Jason explained. "He purposely made all of ours look similar, but theyíre the only ones that have that look. Each of his other creations in no way resembles any of the others."

"Except that they all look as if they grew out of their surroundings-isnít that so?" Cassidy queried, smiling. "The manís an absolute genius!"

Nodding, Jason smiled more broadly. "I agree. And yes, they all fit their sites to perfection."

Intrigued to find that the architect lived down the road, Cassidy asked, "What failure of judgment caused whatever disaster occurred on the last lot?"

"Failure of judgment nails it," Jason drawled. "Let me start at the beginning. All this land formerly belonged to a rancher named Cal Price. He owns that valley down below the rim. He and Buck Franklin have been close friends for many years. Buck talked Cal into selling him the site for the Twisted Tree and subdividing this rocky stretch along the rim. Five of us, and Buck... all of us old, close friends... each agreed to buy a lot. Buck bought that end one, mainly because his wife wanted him to build a house there, instead of living in back of the Twisted Tree.

"We five each built a house, but Buck figured heíd better concentrate on running his new business. Buck had a deep well drilled in back of the inn. We all shared the cost of the drilling and of having a water line laid parallel to the road. Buck did have a septic system installed on his lot, but that was as far as he got. Then his wifeís leukemia flared up again, and she passed away. He decided to go on living in the back of the Twisted Tree.

"Well... young Mickey, whose wife was the daughter of Joey Garibaldi, one of the two biggest building contractors in the Valley, decided that she wanted to live up here, in a fancy new house. Mickeyís mother spoiled him rotten. Buck finally agreed to sell the lot to his only kid, but he told Mickey heíd have to abide by the covenant we all signed-one that placed limits on what could be built and where. Mickey said he would.

"Unfortunately, Joey Garibaldi spoiled Bianca rotten. Just before she and Mickey got hitched, her father sent her to Italy for a vacation. She came back with visions of Mediterranean villas churning in her head. She persuaded Mickey to let Joey build the house. And instead of hiring Ramon, they got some cousin of Joeyís to draw up the plans.

"The resulting plan was ghastly-a three-story monstrosity three thousand seven hundred fifty square feet in area, that was to be roofed in orange tile, faced with light pink granite, and adorned with balconies and big terraces featuring carved white marble railings, on the south and west sides. The covenant states that thereís got to be a one-hundred-foot-long setback from the property line of each adjacent lot, and a seventy-five-foot setback from the road, where no building can be erected. The fifty feet next to the rim slopes off rather steeply, and the rockís of a different quality there, so thereís actually only a one-hundred foot by three-hundred foot area on each lot where a house can be built.

"The covenant also states that the houses have to be built of, or faced with, natural rock or logs and roofed with tile, but it doesnít rule out putridly pink granite and garish orange tile, damn the luck. So we had to allow that. But the five of us politely but firmly nixed the notion of the three stories. Two is maximum, except for garages built up against the edge of the rock formation, below the level of the first floor, and set back seventy-five feet from the road.

"Bianca threw a tantrum, but we didnít budge. So she then demanded that her father be allowed to excavate an eight-foot-deep basement in the rock formation. This we regarded as ridiculous-the damned hole would be fifty feet wide by seventy-five feet long-but we collectively shrugged and said okay, as long as the house didnít rise more than two stories from the surface of the ground.

"Garibaldi, who employs crews that blast and drill rock out of his quarries, reluctantly agreed, despite the huge added expense. Biancaís long-suffering father paid part of the cost, and Mickey shelled out a hell of a lot of money, most of which he borrowed, so as to give her what she wanted."

Pausing to sip his coffee, Jason shrugged in patent disapproval. His face having lost its original impassivity, he let his disgust show as he continued telling the story. "Weíd agreed that they could build a separate garage, with an apartment above, on the north side, to serve as quarters for Mickeyís chauffeur/bodyguard, even though... "

"Bodyguard?" Cassidy exclaimed in shock, interrupting the narrative.