Authors: Susan Rogers Cooper
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
‘Shit!’ he said. In front of him was a sea of lockers.
‘What?’ Mr Jones asked.
‘If you were in high school, assuming you ever went to one, and I’m assuming a lot here, where would you put your shit?’
‘I dunno,’ Mr Jones said. ‘One of these lockers?’
‘Yeah, dumbass, one of these lockers. But which one?’
Mr Jones shrugged.
‘Shit,’ Mr Smith repeated. ‘Come on,’ he said in resignation, and led the way back to the rental.
I almost choked on an almond I was laughing so hard at the antics of the Buchanans, when the phone rang.
‘Hello?’ I managed.
‘Hey, babe, what’s wrong?’ my husband asked.
‘Nothing. Just busy,’ I lied.
Well, there’s only so much I’ll lie about. Evasions, half-truths, a yes when a no is in order, or vice versa, but a total invention? Not so much. I sighed. ‘I’m reading. So sue me.’
Willis laughed. ‘It’s OK. You’re allowed. Now that you’re the one bringing in the big bucks.’
‘And don’t you forget it, buster!’ I said.
‘Where are the girls?’
‘At an impromptu swimming party at the pool.’
‘Are they closing the pool tomorrow?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘You want to meet me in town for a sexy one-on-one dinner tonight?’
‘Ooo, baby,’ I said. ‘Meat and everything?’
‘I can even make it red.’
‘Let me check and see if the girls have their phones. I’ll call you back.’
They did. At least the first one I called, Bess, had hers.
‘Your dad and I are meeting in town tonight for dinner. You three are on your own. I’ll leave pizza money on the kitchen table.’
‘OK, Mom. Y’all have fun!’
I planned to.
‘That’s new,’ Mr Smith said, as they sat in the Taurus across the street from the Pugh home.
‘Huh? What’s new?’ Mr Jones asked.
‘Wake the hell up, asshole. We have a new vehicle in the mix,’ Mr Smith said.
Mr Smith sighed. ‘The woman. Mrs Pugh. She’s driving one of those new Audis. The two-seater.’
‘Cool,’ Mr Jones said, watching it turn out of the driveway.
‘The truck’s gone, the minivan’s gone, now this. That means nobody’s home, dumbshit. We can go in,’ Mr Smith said.
‘Why?’ asked Mr Jones.
Mr Smith rotated his neck, hearing and feeling the satisfying clicks. It came from gritting his teeth every time he had to communicate with Mr Jones. ‘Because maybe we can find out what locker number the bag is in,’ he said, enunciating each word, and saying it slowly. Hoping for a response other than Mr Brown’s usual ‘huh.’
‘Yeah, OK,’ Mr Jones said. ‘Both of us or just one?’
‘There are three girls,’ Mr Smith said. ‘We might have to split up.’
Mr Smith got out of the car and walked casually across the street. He knew exactly how to play this. If they acted like normal visitors, no one would bat an eyelid. Deliberately making a bit of a production, he rang the doorbell, looked at his watch, rang the doorbell again, and said, out loud, ‘I guess we’ll try the back door.’
They were walking up the driveway toward the back of the house, when the door to the house with the neighboring driveway opened and a woman came out.
‘Hey,’ she said.
She was a big woman, Latina, with a scowl on her face.
Mr Smith turned to her and smiled. ‘Hey, yourself!’ he said cheerfully.
‘The Pughs aren’t home right now,’ the Latina said.
‘That’s OK, they said we could leave something for them in the backyard,’ Mr Smith said.
‘Really? What would that be?’
The smile on Mr Smith’s face was getting tight. ‘That’s between the Pugh family and us, ma’am,’ he said.
‘I’ve seen your car parked across the street several times today, and last night,’ the woman said. ‘I find that suspicious.’
‘I’m afraid you’re being paranoid, ma’am,’ Mr Smith said.
‘No,’ she said, pulling a badge out of her pocket. ‘I’m just being a cop. Now who should I say stopped by?’
Mr Jones sprinted off and, cussing himself – and Mr Jones – Mr Smith saw no alternative but to follow him.
I was halfway to Codderville when I got a call from Luna. ‘Two guys just tried to break into your house,’ she said.
‘I really think you heard me the first time.’
‘Did you call the cops?’
the cops, Pugh. Remember?’
‘I mean the on-duty cops.’
‘No, but I got the license number. It’s a rental out of Austin. Rented to a Mr Brown on a Visa card.’
‘What’s Mr Brown’s first name?’ I asked her.
‘As far as I can tell it’s “mister.” The kid at the car place – first day solo, of course – actually wrote that down. “Mister.” Go figure.’
‘Did they break anything? Any windows or anything?’
‘No, I nailed them in the driveway. I’d noticed that car parked across the street last night and on and off today.’
‘Well, gee, thanks for telling me!’
‘You know, Pugh, here’s the thing: why in the hell did I call and even tell you about these assholes if all you’re going to do is give me grief ?’
‘You know, Luna, I’m not that sure myself—’ I started, but I was talking to dead air. She’d hung up on me. She is
I called Willis. ‘Hey, babe,’ I said after he said hello. ‘Luna just called. Two guys tried to break into the house—’
‘So I’m turning around. We’ll have to do date night another time. I don’t want the girls coming home alone with these guys on the prowl. Luna said the car has been hanging out across the street last night and on and off today.’
‘Why didn’t she—’
‘I know! I said the same thing!’
‘Home? Good. I’d feel better if we were all there. Should I call Graham?’
I sighed. ‘I know, I know. ’Bye.’
‘We’re gonna have to change rental cars,’ Mr Smith said into the phone.
‘Why?’ Mr Brown asked.
‘Because we’ve been spotted in this one.’
‘Who saw you?’ Mr Brown asked.
Mr Brown was a bit of an unknown to Mr Smith. He’d never worked with him before. He was paying big bucks for the job, but Mr Smith hadn’t seen a penny of it yet. The gig had been set up by an older partner of Mr Brown’s, who had also set up the annoying Mr Jones. Mr Smith had still not actually met Mr Brown, only doing business over the phone. But he was aggressive and paying a whole lot more for this gig than it seemed worth – which made Mr Smith think maybe Mr Brown was connected – like with the Mexican cartels, or the Mafia, or even worse, the Russians. Mr Smith had heard some hairy things about those Russians. So he planned on being just as nice to Mr Brown as he could possibly be, and to hedge his bets whenever possible.
Should Mr Smith tell him the ‘who’ was a cop? Probably not a good idea. ‘The wife,’ he said. ‘I saw her writing down the license plate number.’
‘Maybe you were too fucking close?’ Mr Brown said.
‘Yes, sir, you’re right. We were too close. We’ll use the binoculars from now on,’ Mr Smith said, thinking it wise to agree.
‘Jesus!’ Mr Brown said and hung up.
He couldn’t really tell how pissed off Mr Brown was, as he didn’t know the man, but if heads were going to roll Mr Smith had big plans that that head would belong to Mr Jones and not to himself.
I was pacing the family room when I heard Willis’s monstrosity of a pickup pull into the driveway. I ran to the back door and opened it, meeting him as he got out of the driver’s side.
‘They’re not home yet!’ I yelled.
‘Did you call them?’ he asked, propelling me back into the house.
‘Are you an idiot? Of course I called them! I called all three of them and nobody, not one of them picked up!’
‘They’re OK. It’s a party, they probably didn’t hear—’
‘I told them to come home by seven, and now it’s seven-thirty!’
‘E.J., how many times have they, individually and as a group, been more than half an hour late? I’ll tell you. Hundreds!’
‘But there’s somebody out there trying to break into the house! What if they’re after the girls? I can’t lose another child!’ I said, burst into tears and fell to the sofa.
I could hear my ever-supportive husband sigh. ‘Ya think maybe you’re overreacting? Just a smidge?’
‘Shut up!’ I mumbled into the sofa.
‘We didn’t lose Graham. We know exactly where he is. And we know where the girls are. Do you want me to go pick them up?’
‘They have the minivan,’ I said into the sofa cushion.
‘I know that. But I can round them up and make them come home,’ he offered.
I was just about to demand that he do just that when I heard the not-so-subtle sound of the minivan’s muffler.
I jumped up and started to run for the door.
‘You really want the girls to see you like that?’ Willis said.
I looked at my reflection in the shiny aluminum toaster on the counter near where I stood. I was a mess. Mascara smeared, eyes blotchy, snot – the whole nine yards.
‘Shit,’ I said and headed for our bedroom right off the kitchen.
When I came out, all three girls were on the sofa watching TV, wearing flannel pajamas and their hair in towels. Except Megan – her hair was not in a towel. She’d taken some babysitting money last week, gone to a hairdresser and had all her beautiful, strawberry-blonde curls that almost reached to her waist cut off. She now sported a short, curly bob. As much as I hated to see the hair I’d so lovingly tended all these years gone, I had to admit the new do looked great on her. The other two, still sporting long hair, had towels twisted around their heads.
Willis was sitting in his recliner watching TV with them. I leaned in and whispered, ‘Did you tell them?’
‘Tell them what?’ he whispered back.
‘Yeah, tell us what?’ Megan said. My God, that girl has ears.
I took the remote out of Willis’s hand – I’ve found if you don’t telegraph the move, just make a smooth grab for it and surprise them, it is possible to take a remote away from a man. It’s not easy, but it can be done. I muted the TV.
‘Hey!’ four voices said in an echoing pattern.
‘Mrs Luna saw two men trying to break into our house today. She said their car has been sitting outside our house off and on since last night. Did any of you notice anything out of the ordinary?’
Bess: ‘Uh uh.’
Megan: ‘What does “ordinary” mean?’
I rolled my eyes. Leave it to Megan. ‘Ordinary: as in the usual, the same, what has been deemed expected.’
‘Hum,’ Megan said. ‘I guess not.’
I put my hands in my pockets. I couldn’t strangle her if my hands were in my pockets.
‘Megan, don’t be a douche,’ Bess said.
‘Who are you calling a douche?’ Megan demanded.
‘No one. I didn’t
you a douche, I
you not be one,’ Bess said, which elicited a giggle from Alicia.
‘OK, girls,’ Willis said. ‘What your mom is trying to say is that these guys are hanging around for some reason and you need to be careful. Stay together. Nobody goes off on their own, got it? E.J., did Luna describe the car?’
‘No,’ I said and pulled my new iPhone out of my pocket. The five. It’s fabulous. I selected Luna’s home number and waited until she said, ‘Hello?’
‘It’s me,’ I said. ‘Describe the car please. I’m going to put you on speaker.’
‘No, don’t— I’m on speaker, right?’
‘Loud and clear,’ Willis said.
‘I hate being on speaker. Who else is listening?’
‘The girls. I think they need to know what to look out for,’ I said.
‘Well, I’ll tell you what they were driving, but I’m sure they’ve changed it by now. It was a rental, a dark blue Ford Taurus. So basically be careful of everything
a dark blue Ford Taurus.’
‘What do they look like?’ Bess asked.
‘One was short and stocky, with black hair. Swarthy-looking, but not Mexican. Not middle eastern. Not Indian – native or the other. Maybe Italian. The other one was taller, well over six foot,
well built, serious blue eyes, also dark hair.’
‘Jeez. He sounds cute,’ Megan said. ‘Maybe he was my blind date!’
I glared at my big-mouthed daughter. Yep, a chip off the old block. Me being the block, of course. ‘OK, Luna, thanks—’ I started.
‘So what have you done now, Pugh?’
‘Nothing!’ I turned to my husband. ‘Tell her!’
He gave me a look, then said into the phone, ‘To my knowledge she has not gotten herself into anything. Yet.’
‘Jeez, Willis!’ I said, while the girls punched each other and giggled. ‘I have done nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’ve thought about doing terrible things to Collette Newberry—’
‘Jason’s mom?’ Alicia said, and all three girls burst into another fit of giggles.
‘But I have as yet done nothing more than piss her off,’ I finished.
‘Well, make sure you keep it that way. If anything happens to Mrs Newberry, I’ll know where to look,’ Luna said and hung up.
To the room in general, I said, ‘Try being on a committee with her. She’d turn Mother Teresa surly.’
Mr Smith and Mr Jones turned in the dark blue Ford Taurus, walked to a nearby convenience store and used a pay phone to call a taxi.
‘Why are we doing this?’ Mr Jones asked. ‘Why didn’t we just rent another car at Codderville, for pity’s sake? My dogs are barking,’ he said, sitting down on the curb and rubbing his feet.
Mr Smith tried not to lose his temper, but did anyway. He’d done some pretty bad things in his time, but couldn’t think of anything so bad that he deserved to be stuck with this dumbass. ‘The cop saw the car, right? She knows it’s a rental. She probably called the rental agency, right? So we rent another car there, the guy’d just tell her what it was, idiot! So, we take a cab, we go here,’ he said, looking at a map, ‘place called La Grange, and rent a car there.’ He paused for breath, hoping Mr Jones would sprout a brain cell while he did so.
‘So what if she calls the cab company?’ Mr Jones asked.
‘Why the fuck would she call the cab company?’ Mr Smith demanded.
‘I dunno. ’Cause how else we gonna get around, huh? Answer me that!’