Nina's Time


The old woman was the first to arrive.  She stood inside the entrance to the room allowing her eyes to adjust to the dim light, while I sat off to one side watching her.  When she spotted me, she walked over in the halting way of some old people.  “I’m so sorry,” she said with a sad smile and sat next to me, directing her gaze at the closed casket.  I whispered a thank you and returned my eyes to the front, tracing the path of white flowers that spilled out through the double doors and into the hallway.  The flowers had been arranged in that way so they would form a corridor leading the mourners past Helen’s casket.  The mourners would come soon, I knew.  Now I was preparing for them, getting myself ready to play the part of the grieving niece.

            I looked over at the woman’s face again, thinking I’d seen it before.  The lines and creases reminded me of soft leather, but I couldn’t place her.  Her dress was old but neatly pressed, and her gray hair was gathered into a simple bun.  For several minutes she seemed to be carrying on some inner dialogue.  She turned toward me, about to say something, as a couple appeared at the open doors.  It’s already starting, I thought.  I wasn’t sure I knew them—probably former friends of Helen’s—but they seemed to know me.  They approached and leaned over me, muttering their condolences—What a terrible tragedy.  Who would want to kill Helen?  The old woman next to me turned away. 

            A man entered the room alone.  Something about him caught my eye, making me look over, but the couple partially blocked my view so that I only saw him for an instant.  Still, I thought I recognized his long-legged stride and the way he came in without looking around, like he had something on his mind.  Then the couple stepped back, and I saw him standing by the casket, staring down at it.  What I noticed at first was that he wasn’t dressed for a funeral.  He wore a casual sport coat, a knit shirt buttoned to the neck, no tie and light-colored slacks that covered the tops of his cowboy boots.  He turned his head and caught sight of me, and I realized that I knew him.  I tried not to show surprise.  He was the detective from that night at the hospital, the one who’d told me Helen had been shot.

            It seemed he was about to approach me.  By now the couple had begun moving toward the casket, which caused him to step aside.  He backed away then and took a seat on the opposite side of the room, not looking at me now.  But I was watching him, remembering the night at the hospital and remembering another time, too, when I’d had a different kind of trouble.  Two years ago, he’d been the one who’d questioned me after I was arrested over the Joe LaFont murder and its aftermath.  I wondered what he was doing here now.  He sat, showing only his profile.  Finally I turned away.  Maybe he’d simply known Helen and came to pay his respects.  Helen had had a lot of friends on the police force.

            The old woman next to me, still gazing at the casket, said, “I always thought of Helen as something special.”  I decided to forget about the detective.  “Like royalty, or something,” she went on.  Her sad smile was still in place and her words came slow.  Maybe her mind worked that way.  But her analogy had been right on: Helen had been Santa Fe royalty.  A few days earlier, when the funeral director had made his suggestions, saying how he saw something dignified but on a scale befitting her, I’d numbly gone along with him.  He was the one who had suggested the overflow of flowers.  Now I understood that he’d just wanted to ensure the ceremony would be appropriate for someone as notable as Helen Rodriguez.

            The old woman continued, “I knew her when she was a little girl, just up from Mexico.  She was something special, even then.”  Her voice had the gravelly sound of a lifelong smoker.

            “Santa Fe was different then.  A small town, really.”  She smiled.  “Senator Baca—well, he was just a state senator but still an important person around here.  When he came into her life Helen became important too.  I think she decided it was time for that.  So she married him.”  The woman made a small gesture with both hands, turning them palms up without moving her arms.  “Then he died so young, such a tragedy.  But in a way, it freed Helen.  Terrible thing to say, I know.”

            She turned to look at me as if she’d only now become aware of my presence, and I realized she’d been rambling, just an old woman with nothing but her memories.  I wondered if she even knew that Helen had been murdered.

            “That’s when she got into those other things, the business things,” she said.  “Maybe that Canyon Creek thing was a mistake.”  She shrugged.  “Helen reached too far, is all.”  She patted my hand.  “You don’t remember me, do you?  But I remember you.  You’re Nina.”  I did remember then.  She’d worked for Helen around the house when I still a young girl. 

            It was a few years back that Aunt Helen had started what later came to be known as her Canyon Creek fiasco.  This woman had no longer been around by then, but she’d obviously heard about it, as everyone else had.  When the deal fell apart, most people simply put it down to “one of those things.”  None of them knew the real story, and they never knew where the money had come from.  I knew, though, and Eddie Collins, my ex, knew.  Beyond the two of us, there was no one else, not even Roy Wyman, the lawyer who’d helped me after the Joe LaFont murder.  Joe’s murder and what followed had been the eventual undoing of Helen’s Canyon Creek plans, and probably led to her now lying cold in a casket.  I didn’t understand the connection, but I was sure there was one.



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