Read Gone in a Flash Online

Authors: Susan Rogers Cooper

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths

Gone in a Flash (5 page)

‘Shut the fuck up!’ Mr Smith said.

He took off, walking around the outside of the convenience store, circling the building before coming back to stand over Mr Jones where he still sat on the curb, rubbing his feet.

‘What’s wrong with your feet?’ Mr Smith asked.

‘Ah, they’re all fucked up. Corns, bunions, you name it,’ Mr Jones said.

Mr Smith picked the map up yet again. ‘OK, so we take a taxi to here,’ he said, pointing at a speck on the map. ‘Merleville. They may have a cab company, but even if they don’t, I’m sure we can get a ride to La Grange where we can rent another car. That way, if the cop does call the cab company here, all she’ll know is we were headed for Merleville, which is on the way to Houston, so she might think we went there.’

Mr Jones looked up at Mr Smith and smiled. ‘That’s a good one!’

Mr Smith tried not to beam at the compliment, but he
was
pleased.

VERA’S STORY
MONDAY

Since we were two hours late leaving the church, we only made it as far as Little Rock, Arkansas, before we had to stop for the night. Following the itinerary set up by Sister Edith before she left, we should have been as far as Memphis, but that surely didn’t happen. We had reservations at the Motel 6 in Memphis, so our driver, an excellent baritone, figured we’d try a Motel 6 in Little Rock. No such luck. Seems there was a jazz festival going on in Little Rock, and there wasn’t a motel room to be had in the entire city. So we kept driving, until Brother Joe, who proved to be about as worthless as tits on a boar hog, said to pull over in the parking lot of an all-night Wal-Mart.

‘Y’all go on in and use the facilities,’ he said, standing up at the head of the bus like he was in charge or something. Well, I suppose he was, but still and all. ‘Take your toothbrushes and sleepwear with you, and if anyone tries to stop you, tell them to see me. I’ll be in the front of the store.’

Personally, I’m not one for walking around a store in my nightgown and robe. I mean, I’m totally decent and all, but it just seems inappropriate. Knowing I’d have to walk back in in the morning, wearing the same thing and changing clothes, made me decide to sleep in what I had on and change my blouse in the morning. I went in the Wal-Mart, but with just my toothbrush and night cream in my purse.

So imagine everyone’s chagrin when we woke up the next morning to find out we’d been traveling most of the night. Brother Joe had taken a turn driving – he said he had a license to drive a bus, whatever. And we were back on Sister Edith’s itinerary. We should arrive in D.C. late tonight.

TUESDAY

I got up the next morning, threw a robe on over my sleep T-shirt (one of Willis’s from a Grateful Dead concert years ago – the holes aren’t in any awkward places), and headed into the kitchen.

Willis was right behind me, jeans and a button-down shirt, running shoes and crew-socks, and his briefcase. Being your own boss does have its privileges – like every day is casual Friday.

I handed him an orange juice and his vitamins, all of which he consumed in one swallow, then his cup of coffee and he was out the door by seven-ten. I went back into our bedroom, threw the robe on the floor, and crawled back into bed.

I woke up again around nine-thirty when I heard a commotion in the kitchen. One of my not-so-favorite things about building our new bedroom onto the new addition of kitchen and family room is that it was too damn close to the kitchen.

I stretched, picked the robe up off the floor, and opened the door. Alicia and Bess were in the kitchen, Bess making coffee and Alicia fixing bagels.

‘Don’t drink that,’ I said to Bess. ‘It’ll stunt your growth.’ I crawled up on a stool. ‘But make enough for me.’

‘It’s cigarettes that stunt your growth, mother,’ she said. ‘And I gave those up weeks ago.’

I started to react, then realized she was joking. Probably. I’d been joking, too, of course. Bess had just turned sixteen in the summer, and was still five foot nothing, so her growth had already been stunted by something. Her birth mother had been short, too, but more like five foot two inches. As Bess was already sixteen, I didn’t see a big growth spurt in her future. And yes, there were a lot of short jokes in the family, but she seemed to handle it well. I think knowing that Megan, at five feet ten inches, felt like an awkward behemoth around her perfectly proportioned and quite beautiful younger sister eased the pain of a few playful short jokes. With Alicia now in the works, when she stood in the middle between the other two, I had stair steps. Alicia was five-five and ninety-eight pounds, so if she leaned just a little, it almost looked like Bess/Megan. That’s a joke.

‘Is Megan up?’ I asked the girls.

‘Not that I noticed,’ Bess said.

‘She’ll probably sleep ’til noon,’ Alicia said.

‘What do y’all have planned for the day?’ I asked.

‘Why?’ Bess asked. ‘So you can get us out the door quickly and go back to bed?’

‘Coffee,’ I said, having heard the noise from the coffee machine stop. ‘Actually,’ Bess handed me a cup, into which I emptied two packets of Equal, ‘I hadn’t thought of that, but it seems like a plan,’ I said, thinking going back to bed was an excellent idea.

Alicia turned to Bess and said, ‘You’re right. I do see where she gets it.’

‘You’re comparing me to Megan, aren’t you?’ I said. ‘That’s an awful thing to do.’

‘That’s an awful thing for a mother to say!’ said a voice from behind me.

I glanced. It was, of course, Megan. ‘It was a joke,’ I said.

‘At my expense!’ she said.

‘A joke is usually at someone’s expense. This time it was you,’ I said.

Megan went to the counter and poured herself a cup of coffee. She got the cream out of the refrigerator, poured in half a cup, then added three Equals.

‘Like a little coffee with your sweet cream?’ I asked.

‘Gosh, Mom, you are just a barrel of laughs this morning, aren’t you?’ she said and, me being queen of sarcasm, I could tell she was trying out for the role of princess.

Looking at my other two daughters, it was like they were watching a tennis match: heads going this way and that, following the play by play from the mother and daughter match in front of them.

I took my coffee and wandered into the family room, turning on the TV and honing in on
The Today Show
. Five minutes of that, and there was a break for local news. It basically all went over my head until I heard the name ‘Driscoll.’ As in the hotel. As in the hotel Willis and I stayed at in Austin, where a dead body had been found.

‘… Driscoll Hotel. The identity of the man who fell or jumped from there Sunday morning has been verified as James Unger, thirty-nine, of Houston, Texas. He was a chemist at a laboratory in Houston that he owned with his wife, Elizabeth Unger. Mrs Unger was unavailable for comment.’

‘Huh,’ I said. I picked up the landline as I had no idea where my iPhone was, and called Willis. When he picked up, I said, ‘They identified that guy who fell off the garage roof at the Driscoll.’

‘Yeah? Who?’ he asked.

‘James Unger. He was a chemist from Houston. He and his wife owned a lab there.’

‘Well, what a shit,’ Willis said. ‘I mean, if he jumped. That’s a shitty thing to do to his wife. If he fell, then hell, what an awful thing to happen.’

‘Very well put, dear,’ I said, albeit a little sarcastically. ‘I think you’ve covered all the bases.’

‘Unless, of course, as Bess mentioned, he was murdered.’

‘Then what would the correct response be?’ I asked.

‘Quite like the “if he fell” response, with an added, “the assholes!” You know, for emphasis.’

I sighed. ‘Are we terrible people?’ I asked.

‘Probably,’ he said. ‘Another call, babe, gotta go,’ and he hung up.

THREE
VERA’S STORY
TUESDAY

W
e arrived in our nation’s capital as it was turning midnight. The hotel had been notified that we were getting there pretty late, so they were ready for us. I know my place in this world, and I know God wouldn’t give me anything more than I can handle, but I figured He and I were gonna have to have a little talk about my hotel roommate. Yes, you guessed it: Rachael Donley, the separated alto who made googly eyes at Brother Joe. Since my friend and supposed roommate Gladys was down with the flu, and since Rachael didn’t have a roommate assigned, I got her.

The room was real nice, with two queen-sized beds, a kitchenette, a table and four chairs, and a large, flat-screen TV. Willis and E.J. bought me one of them last year for Christmas, and I gotta say, going back to one of them regular TVs woulda been a burden. Not that I was gonna sit around our nation’s capital and watch TV. No way. I had a few things to say to the president, and I was gonna get in to see him if it hare-lipped Texas.

So me and Rachael Donley got in our room and looked around. I wasn’t sure I could look at her because, well, I didn’t want to judge.

‘This is nice,’ she said.

‘Uh huh,’ I said.

‘Which bed do you want?’ she asked.

‘You choose,’ I said.

‘Do you want to be near the window? Or do you think it would be too cold?’ she asked.

‘What part of “you choose” do you not understand?’ I said, finally looking at her. She seemed a little taken aback by the question, and I felt a little bad. ‘You take the window,’ I said. ‘I
do
get cold at night.’

‘OK,’ she said, and threw her suitcase on the bed closest to the window. Then she turned to me, smiled, and said, ‘Let me help you with that,’ and picked up
my
suitcase and put it on
my
bed.

Hum, I thought. This could work out to my advantage. She thinks I’m some ditsy old bat, too weak to lift a suitcase. Maybe she’ll bring me my coffee in bed in the morning. And the newspaper. There are some things about getting ready to turn eighty that might not be all that bad.

Things had not gone well the night before for Mr Smith and Mr Jones. The cab
did
take them to Merleville and let them out at the service station there, but took off before Mr Smith realized that the service station, a rundown Texaco, was the
only
establishment in Merleville. There were a few buildings, but after a second glance they all appeared to be abandoned. The Texaco seemed to be still functioning, but not at nine o’clock at night. It was closed for business. After an hour of standing around, the taxi cab remained the only vehicle they’d seen in Merleville. Mr Smith assumed there were houses somewhere, probably hidden in the trees, but he didn’t feel up to a walk that could end up being miles long. And besides, he wasn’t sure what he would say to anyone who opened a door. The thought did occur to him that he could use his gun and insist on a bed, but he thought he’d get very little sleep in that case. These country people usually had a lot of weapons. He thought seriously about calling Mr Brown, but decided to keep him out of the loop; he needed to prove he could handle these things himself, in case Mr Brown had any better-paid jobs in the future. Besides, when he tried calling earlier, Merleville appeared to be a dead zone. No cell phone service.

So he and Mr Jones sat on the cement drive of the gas station, their backs to one of the bay doors, and tried to sleep. Mr Jones appeared to have no problem, and fell asleep quite readily, his head lolling onto Mr Smith’s shoulder. Mr Smith removed it at once and scooted further away.

Mr Smith finally fell asleep around midnight, but was haunted by unfriendly dreams. He awoke around two a.m. to a voice singing the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’ very nicely.

There was a man walking down the road singing that song, with gestures and a bottle of something Mr Smith could only assume was alcohol in his right hand. Mr Smith stood up and yelled, ‘Hey!’ to the man.

The man turned, saw him and stopped, losing his balance for a second, then stood fairly steady, although weaving just a bit. ‘Well, hey, yourself, fella! You know this song?’

‘Of course—’

‘Well, then, let’s sing it together!’ And the man began again, his voice a beautiful, lilting tenor one could imagine doing a wonderful job on ‘Danny Boy.’

‘Can you help us?’ Mr Smith called out.

‘Probably not,’ the man said and smiled. He waved at Mr Smith. Mr Smith waved back.

‘We need to get to La Grange,’ Mr Smith said.

The singer shook his head sadly. ‘We all need to get somewhere, don’t we? La Grange would be a nice place to need to get to.’ His face brightened with a big smile. ‘Hey! Ya know they used to have a big ol’ whorehouse there? The Chicken Ranch! Made a Broadway show out of it! “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” was the name of it. Made a movie, too, with Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton!’ The smile faded and his sad face was again present. ‘She has really beautiful breasts, donja think?’

‘Can you take us to La Grange?’ Mr Smith begged.

‘Don’t have a car,’ the singer said. ‘If I had a car, I couldn’t drive it. Don’t have a driver’s license. See ya!’ he said, and started his sloppy march up the road, breaking into ‘Do a Little Side Step’ from
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
.

Mr Smith sat back down and eventually awoke again at four a.m. when it began to rain. This also awakened Mr Jones and the two hustled to the tiny alcove of the front door of the office of the station, with an overhang of less than three feet, and bundled up as best they could to keep out of the rain.

When Mr Smith awoke next around five a.m., he noticed two things: one, it had stopped raining, and two, a dog was peeing on him. But he didn’t bat an eye. He just closed them both and went back to sleep.

VERA’S STORY
TUESDAY

Well, she did bring me a cup of coffee the next morning, made with a Mr Coffee machine in the kitchenette, but I’m thinking she just passed the coffee over the filter without actually putting any in, it was that weak. Just as well I’m not one to complain.

She was walking around OK, so I had to ask, ‘You get them contacts in OK?’

Rachael laughed, and it was a nice laugh, I’ll give her that. ‘Yes, thank you! All’s well in that department.’

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