The woman on the ground was making high pitched keening sounds. An awful grating noise, but at least that meant she wasn’t dead, whoever she was. Thank all goodness..
“I’m so sorry...” Hallie wanted to explain how wrong her whole day had been -- missed flight, lost luggage, this behemoth of a rental car that was so different from her sporty Mustang. But the cold was freezing her brain, making her thoughts sluggish and foggy. She wanted to jump back into the Denali and drive home to her Malibu art studio. Or at least back to the airport.
Cutting through the void of the snowstorm, a siren’s wail announced the arrival of an ambulance. Slush sprayed all directions from approaching tires, soaking Hallie’s trousers. Seconds after the ambulance slid to a stop, two paramedics jumped out.
“If I had a nickel for every idiot driver in the world,” spat the ambulance driver.
“Oh Tug,” the injured woman moaned weakly. “My leg.”
"She ran me over!" the woman on the ground cried out with a burst of strength. "I could be dying. I think I see a bright light." She groaned dramatically.
“Naw, just the headlights on the snow,” the ambulance driver said matter-of-factly. “Don’t worry, Andrea. We’ll take care of you.”
She’s not the only one, Hallie wanted to say, rubbing the spot on her forearm, warm from the man’s hand. But she decided not to say anything. She just wanted to find her hotel and get this day over with. She bent to examine the Denali. There was a dent in the bumper. A very little dent. “That’s it?” Still, the fist sized imprint would not make the rental car company happy.
“This thing’s practically indestructible,” he said, running a hand along the front of the SUV. “Hitting a scooter with this is like chucking an apple at a concrete wall.” He paused and opened the door for her.
Climbing into the vehicle, Hallie cranked the heat up to its highest setting, then reluctantly rolled down her window, allowing the cold to seep back in. “Are the police on their way? Do you think I should go to the station and make a statement?”
“There’s no one on duty tonight,” the mayor said. “We have two deputies out here, 30 hours a week. They mostly deal with warrants and cattle in the road. We’re usually a quiet place -- not much trouble, and not much in the way of a city budget. We can’t afford to have deputies 24 hours a day.”
“Cave?” Hallie had no idea what he was talking about. Nor did she have the brain power to devote to figuring it out. She was still a little preoccupied with the thought of being charged with vehicular manslaughter. “That lady -- you must know her. The woman I, uh, collided with.”
“You mean Andrea? She owns the weekly newspaper. Everyone knows Andrea -- kind of our local celebrity. She’s even interviewed the governor a time or two.”
Hallie wondered suspiciously what a “seasonal, fresh winter garden” menu could possibly mean in this frozen, snowed-in berg. Snow Peas? Iceberg lettuce? She chuckled at her own lackluster attempt at levity. The cold and the late hour were definitely affecting the performance of her brain.
Hallie smiled, hoping to thaw the woman’s cold exterior. “I’d like one egg over-hard, and buttered toast, please.” The impromptu order was something simple and fast -- good for both her and the waitress, who obviously wanted her shift to end. Hallie belatedly realized an egg wasn’t going to cut it.
Hallie took a deep breath. The egg cracking reminded her of the accident. Now she couldn’t stop hearing the awful crunching sound the scooter had made.
“So, do you know where I could find Kobold’s Trading Company?” she asked the cook. When “Barb” didn’t reply Hallie felt compelled to go on. “I ask because I’m Phineus Kobold’s…” She stopped mid-sentence, unable to say the word “wife”
“You’re a real estate agent?” she said with a pinched look. Clearly that would not be a good thing in the cook’s eyes.
“No. I’m here… I’m his… We were… married. Many years ago.”
Barb’s eyes widened. “A pillar of this town, that’s what Finn was. Too bad about his passing.”
Hallie wasn’t sure how to respond to that. An uncomfortable emptiness filled the air. Apropos of nothing, she heard herself say, “This is my first trip to Montana."
Turning back to the grill, the woman ignored her again.
“Andrea, I think was the woman’s name. There was someone named Tug driving the ambulance, and he called her Andr-“
“Tug took Andrea in the ambulance? Andrea Linford?”
“She owns the weekly paper?”
The woman gasped. “Is she hurt? Did you hurt her?”
“Her leg was, er, broken.”
Barb dropped the metal spatula in her hand. “Out,” she commanded, removing her apron and spinning the gas grill dial to off. “The restaurant is closed. I’ve got to find Megan and drive her to the hospital.”
The expression on Barb’s face left no mistake; any further conversation as well as the egg and toast were now out of the question. Hallie debated whether or not to swipe the pie she’d already begun eating. With a tired sigh, she gathered her purse and coat and walked out into the snow.
Great. In the two hours since arriving, she had already: hit Tippy Canoe’s sweetheart, dented her rental car, and gotten herself kicked out of the late night diner.
The next morning, Hallie asked the hotel clerk to point her toward the local grocery store, so she could pick up some breakfast. Best to avoid the restaurant after last night’s unpleasant confrontation. She was still a little unsure whether or not she was kicked out just so the woman could close, or kicked out as in banned for life. But that didn’t really matter. She had bigger pots to paint. Get in, get out, get home. That was the plan.
In the daylight, Tippy Canoe was even smaller than she first thought. It was much easier to find where she was going without the snowstorm. She tracked down the address on her late husband’s estate papers.
Then she saw it: Kobold’s Trading Company, the name spelled out on a large neo-rustic painted sign over the door. Her first chance to glimpse at what she now owned.
Inching across the ice and snow from the SUV to the sidewalk, she made her way to where she could peek through the huge pane-glass windows of the storefront. Baseball caps, souvenir key chains, t-shirts with variations on a cave theme, soda pop and snacks, postcards – the usual hodge-podge that tourists stop to loiter over on their way out of town. Squinting to see deeper into the store, she could just make out a shirt that said Go Barefoot in Montana, with a large footprint in the middle.
“Honey, the new landlord is here,” hollered the woman behind the counter.
“I’m sorry,” interrupted Hallie. “You must have misheard me. Not the landlord. I just inherited the shop next door, the trading post. Or trading company. Whatever it’s called. Finn Kobold’s business.”
The woman looked confused. “David!” she called, even louder this time. “Missus Kobold is here about the key to Finn’s place.”
“Stone, actually,” she corrected. “Hallie Stone.” Though when she said it that way it sounded silly like Bond... James Bond.
“That’s right. My mistake. I forgot you and Finn were long-separated,” the woman said, nodding. “Finn told us all ‘bout that.”
The smallish woman with the huge rocks in her ears made the story sound sordid -- like something you’d see on a morning soap. Hallie wondered exactly what Finn had said. She doubted he would have told her version of the story – that he hadn’t been able to swallow his pride when her art career took off while his fizzled. That as she had begun to make a name for herself in the world of fine art the more Finn pulled away. For months she watched him become moody and depressed, even more than the normal artist’s temperament. He tuned her out, listening only to the demon that whispers in the ear of every struggling artist. The dark voice murmuring that the work is no good and the muse has fled, never to return. In the end, it was Finn that fled.
Absorbed in her own memories, Hallie hadn’t realized that a bear of a man had come to the counter and started speaking to her. And there was something about the words he was saying that Hallie did not like. Giving him her full attention now, she focused and repeated the words he’d just said.
“We meant no offense,” Melora said quickly. “We just heard about the accident this morning. Poor Andrea, after all she’s been through. Hallie right? Can I get you some coffee? Or hot cider?” She didn’t wait for an answer and brought back a steaming cup of something from the back.
The husband moved around the counter to stand next to Hallie and engaged her with a friendly nod. “With the run of bad luck Andrea’s had, this is just another kick in the head. It’s one thing after another with her." He smiled at Hallie as if prompting a response.
Uh oh. She could see where this was going. They were settling in to tell her all about Andrea’s bad luck. If she didn’t stop them now, they might launch into a history of Tippy Canoe that could eat away the whole morning. She had only come to Montana to sell Finn’s business – not to familiarize herself with the local drama.
"I completely understand how that feels. That’s why I really want to get into the shop so I can handle all of my late husband’s affairs. Find some closure.”
Looking into the faces of the couple at the counter, it was clear to Hallie that they were disappointed in her unwillingness to mull over the details. She felt guilty about playing the dead husband card, but she was determined to deal with the estate, as quickly as possible, and then go back to her brushes and her paints in Malibu and put Finn behind her. The contradiction of trying to do in one week what she hadn’t managed to do in seven years was not lost on Hallie.
Melora finally gave a sympathetic nod and retrieved a single key, which was attached by a leather tog to a piece of antler at least as long as Hallie’s forearm. The words “Kobold’s Trading Company” had been artfully painted in what Hallie recognized, after all these years, as Phineus’ chunky handwriting. An unexpected sadness welled up in her.
Did this woman have rocks in her ears as well as hanging off of them?
“I don’t think you understand,” Hallie said, speaking slowly out of sheer exasperation. “I’m not the new landlord. I only own what Finn owned. The store next door.”
“Finn owned Christiansen’s,” Melora gently corrected, also speaking slowly as if Hallie was too dense to understand what was being said. “That's the building we're standing in. Way back, this building used to be Christiansen's Department Store, where everyone came to order-in their clothes and appliances from the Sears Roebuck catalog.”
“Back in the day, Finn’s father subdivided the place into four smaller storefronts,” David added. “Everyone in town still calls it Christiansen’s. Except the tourists. They don’t know any better.”
A dim lightbulb in the back of Hallie’s mind started to brighten. The name, Christiansen’s, sounded awfully familiar. It might have been mentioned by the attorney who had spoken to her over the phone. Between shock and bad cell phone reception, the conversation had been spotty. A sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach said she was about to learn her responsibility here was much larger than she’d understood.
“Finn kept one store for himself, and rented out the other three,” Melora said. “Besides our rock and mineral shop, there’s Tumpi’s Pizzeria, two doors down, and The Frost Shoppe, next door. Just so you know, ours is the smallest of the four.”
Hallie wasn’t sure why it had been important to mention the size of the rock shop, but she had a sneaking suspicion that the logic linked somehow to the rent payment.
Not for the first time since arriving in town, Hallie found herself needing to sit down to stop the room from spinning.