Authors: Susan Rogers Cooper
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
She’d told me the night before about her contacts. I’d remarked upon the fact that she’d put a bunch of stuff in the bedside table drawer.
‘You’re gonna go off and forget that stuff,’ I’d said. ‘Sure as shooting.’
‘No, not this stuff! I’m blind as a bat, and these are my glasses,’ she said, holding up a pair of glasses that really didn’t need to be introduced, for goodness’ sake, ‘and this is my contact stuff. My eyes are weird and I can’t wear the soft contacts. Mine are glass and I can only wear them like eight hours without taking them out.’
‘That must have been hard on the bus!’ I said, more sympathetic than I should have been, under the circumstances.
‘It was difficult,’ she said, ‘but with the stop at the Wal-Mart it worked out OK.’
I patted her on the back as we headed down to breakfast.
According to Sister Edith’s itinerary, Monday was travel day, Tuesday was sightseeing day, and the meeting started on Wednesday. Very important business took place during the Southern Baptist National Meeting every year. Like voting on whether or not women could be preachers, and whether or not to baptize homosexuals, or allow them in church at all. Real important stuff like that. But also there was a lot of fun, I’d heard. I’d never been to one and I was pretty much excited, I can tell you.
But today was sightseeing, and I knew we’d be heading to the White House and I had to work on getting me an invite to see the president. I’d contacted my congressman, Avery Mapleton, and told him I’d be visiting, but he didn’t reply, which p.o.’d me some since I called people to vote for him during his last campaign. I figured he owed me. I was gonna handle him first. Then the president. I had some words for him about social security and Medicare. A lot of my friends shunned me for a while because I’d voted for a black man, but personally, I don’t care what color he is as long as he doesn’t mess with my social security and Medicare, know what I mean? So now we had to talk. I needed to keep him on the straight and narrow.
But it was gonna take a while to get there. The itinerary showed us going to Monticello in the morning, and the Smithsonian in the afternoon. She hadn’t even put in a time for the White House. But I figured, the Smithsonian’s a museum, right? How long could we hang around a museum?
‘So what do you want to do today?’ Alicia asked Bess.
Bess shrugged. ‘I dunno,’ she said. ‘Maybe we should wake up Megan.’
They were sitting on the sofa in the family room, watching MTV. E.J. was in her under-the-staircase office, writing about somebody ripping somebody else’s clothes off.
Alicia leaned her head back and screamed toward the stairs, ‘Megan!’
Bess laughed. ‘Oh, that’s gonna work!’
Alicia’s feet were in Bess’s lap. ‘I didn’t want to disturb you by getting up.’
‘Excuse me? Taking your feet off me would not disturb me! Putting your feet
me disturbed me!’
Alicia swung her long legs off Bess’s lap and the sofa, and made it to the bottom of the stairs. ‘Megan!’ she screamed. ‘Get up!’
‘Gawd! You people!’ Megan said, coming to the head of the stairs, a pillow in one hand while the other dragged her comforter. She plodded down the stairs barefoot, came into the family room and, upon seeing Bess on the sofa, said, ‘Get up!’
‘No-oo!’ Bess said, stretching the tiny negative into a two-syllable word.
Alicia had wisely chosen the comfy chair, leaving the loveseat open.
‘Take the loveseat!’ Megan told Bess. ‘My legs are too long for that. I need the sofa!’
‘So cut off your legs,’ Bess said, staring intently at the TV. ‘Ha! Did you see that?’ she squealed, turning her head toward Alicia.
Megan took that opportunity to continue Bess’s momentum to the left and pushed her off the sofa. Megan got on the sofa, bed pillow under her head, comforter covering her body.
‘You bitch!’ Bess shouted from the floor.
‘Bite me,’ Megan said calmly from the comfort of the sofa.
Getting to her feet, Bess said, ‘Mom said I couldn’t bite you anymore, even when you ask for it, but she said nothing about pulling your hair out!’ Which she proceeded to do from the head of the sofa.
‘Get your hands off me!’ Megan yelled. ‘Mom! Help!’
‘Jeez, Megan, leave Mom alone, she’s trying to work!’ Alicia said.
‘Then you help me!’ Megan pleaded, now her back was balanced like a seesaw on the arm of the sofa, her hands on Bess’s hands as they pulled her hair. ‘She’s trying to kill me!’
‘That would be fine, too,’ Bess said through gritted teeth.
‘What the hell is going on in here?’ E.J. asked, coming in. ‘Bess, let go of Megan’s hair!’
Grinning like the Cheshire cat, Bess let go, and Megan’s tentative balance on the seesaw sofa arm was skewed a little to the upper body, and she fell on her head on the hardwood floor of the family room.
When she landed, Bess laughed out loud. Megan jumped up and Bess ran, Megan not that far behind.
‘Girls! Stop it right this minute!’ E.J. shouted.
They didn’t stop.
‘I’m gonna kill you!’ Megan shouted.
‘You’re so fat you’ll never be able to catch me!’ Bess shouted back.
‘Mom! She called me fat!’
E.J. sighed. ‘Bess, don’t call your sister fat.’
‘Fatty, fatty two by four, couldn’t get through the kitchen door! So she starved to death!’ Bess called out, laughing as she made yet another circle around the family room.
‘I’ve got five dollars,’ Alicia said lazily. ‘Y’all got any money? We could go to the movies.’
The other two stopped, mid-run. Bess fell onto the loveseat and stuck her hand in her pocket. ‘Ooo, a ten!’
‘Let me go check my purse,’ Megan said, and headed out to the foyer where all the purses hung on the coat rack. She came back in, her purse under her arm, her wallet in her hands. ‘Three, four, ooo, a five, nine, ten, eleven, twelve. I have twelve dollars.’
‘Bring in my purse, wouldja?’ Bess asked.
‘Mine, too,’ Alicia said.
‘Get ’em yourselves,’ Megan said, ‘I have to go change.’
The girls dug through their purses and came up with a total of thirty-eight dollars. Bess had her original ten, Megan twelve, and Alicia, who’d had a five in her pocket, found six more in her purse. All together it was enough to get the three of them into the seven-dollar matinee and buy a large popcorn to share. Megan came down dressed for the movies in skin-tight jeans, a tank top and sweaters over her arm. She handed one to each of her sisters and kept one for herself.
‘It gets cold in the theater,’ she explained to her mom.
‘I understand,’ her mom said.
They then proceeded to pull sodas out of the refrigerator and stick them in the bottom of their purses.
‘OK, Mom, we’re off,’ Bess said.
‘Do you know what’s showing and what time it’s showing?’ E.J. asked.
‘No,’ all three girls said in unison. Megan said, ‘It doesn’t really matter, Mom. We’ll find something once we get there.’
‘Well, don’t get caught with those sodas. And remember to cough when you open them.’
‘Yes, ma’am, we’ve only been doing this since we were like five!’ Bess said.
And they were out the door.
The next morning had gone better for Mr Smith and Mr Jones. A trucker pulled into the Texaco station fairly early and agreed to take them as far as La Grange. From there it was a piece of cake finding a rental car agency (a different company than the last one, of course), and heading back to Black Cat Ridge.
They’d parked three doors down on the same side of the street as the Pugh home, hopeful that the cop on the other side of the Pughs wouldn’t see them. They’d been there almost half an hour when Mr Smith sat up in the new rental. ‘It’s them!’ he said excitedly. ‘They’re getting in the minivan!’
‘The one in the middle,’ Mr Jones said, ‘she’s the one that’s got the satchel thing.’
‘Yes, that’s right, Mr Jones,’ Mr Smith said.
Mr Jones looked excitedly at Mr Smith. ‘Now we can get the satchel!’
Mr Smith shook his head and gritted his teeth. ‘The satchel is in the school, remember? We can’t get it from them today. Maybe tomorrow.’
‘But what if they go to the school? What if that’s where they’re headed right now?’
Mr Smith thought about it for a moment, then pulled out after the minivan as it left the driveway. ‘OK, so we’ll follow them for a little while.’
It was Bess’s turn to drive the minivan. She pulled the seat up as far as it would go and started the engine. As they pulled into the Metroplex’s parking lot, she asked her sisters, ‘What color was that car Mrs Luna said was parked across the street from the house?’
‘Blue?’ Alicia said.
‘Yeah, I think so,’ Megan agreed.
‘Hum,’ Bess said, pulling into a parking spot only four city blocks from the theater.
‘What “hum”?’ Megan said, turning around in her shotgun seat to look behind them. ‘I don’t see a blue car!’
‘Me neither,’ Bess said, ‘but that white one has been following us since our street.’
She turned off the ignition and all three girls watched the white car slowly drive by.
‘Two dark-haired men,’ Alicia said. ‘One is taller – at least, he sits taller than the other.’
‘Is that what Mrs Luna described?’ Megan asked.
‘You really just don’t listen, do you?’ Bess said in disgust.
‘Get off my back!’ Megan shouted.
‘Hey, guys! Give it a rest! Is that them or not?’ Alicia said.
‘I dunno,’ Bess said. She sighed. ‘Let’s just go see what’s playing, OK?’
After the girls left, I fixed myself some lunch – a small salad and some fruit – and sat down in the family room to watch the noon news. After finding out we were in for at least seven more days of sunny weather, with highs of one hundred degrees for the third day in a row, and that one of the U.T. coaches had passed out during practice the day before from the heat (and he was just sitting on the sidelines), the real news came on.
‘A couple of days ago we reported that a man fell or jumped from the parking garage at the Driscoll Hotel in downtown Austin. The police released a statement today, saying that from information gleaned from the medical examiner and the crime scene investigators, they are declaring the death of James Unger from Houston a homicide.’
‘Shit!’ I said.
‘The report states that it appears Mr Unger was pushed. His wife, Elizabeth Unger, vice president of Pharmacopia, the pharmaceutical company owned by the Ungers, is still unavailable for comment. In other news …’
I muted the TV, picked up my iPhone and dialed Willis’s number at work. ‘Guess what?’ I said when he answered.
‘The kids have all run away and we are allowed to use their college money to retire and move to the South Pacific,’ he said.
I sighed. ‘Ah, if only. No. That guy – James Unger?’
‘The guy at the parking garage at the Driscoll!’ I said. How could he not know what guy?
‘Oh, yeah, the guy who jumped or fell—’
‘Neither!’ I said with an ‘ah ha’ to my voice. ‘He was pushed!’
There was a silence on the other end of the line. ‘Oh, come on, Willis! I’m not going to go rushing back to Austin to solve the case! Give me a break!’
‘Every time I give you a break, you take a mile,’ he said.
‘That’s an inch, idiot. And besides, who the hell are you to
me anything? I am woman!’
‘Don’t roar,’ he said. ‘Please don’t roar.’
‘Then don’t start that sexist crap on me now!’ I said. ‘I called you because we were following the story, and this is a new development! That’s all. Now I’m hanging up.’
‘Please, don’t hang up on my accou—’
I think he was going to say account, but I really didn’t want to hear it. The issue of me getting involved in murder cases had not been resolved. We just didn’t talk about it. Since the upheaval of the summer there hadn’t been another murder so everything had been hunky-dory up until now. Now there was a murder. But we were very, very peripherally involved. So peripherally involved as to be totally uninvolved. So what was his problem? Did he really think I was going to jump in my Audi and rush off to Austin to SOLVE THE CASE? Jeez, was I Nancy Drew?
But jumping in my Audi and rushing off to anywhere wasn’t out of the question. That would be fun. I sat a while, the TV on mute, contemplating places I could rush off to in my Audi. Some would include Willis rushing with me, some not. As was so often the case, I wished I had a close girlfriend I could rush off with, but since the death of Terry Lester, Bess’s birth mom, there hadn’t really been any to speak of. Elena Luna, the Codderville cop who lived next door, was the closest thing I had, but we spent most of our time sniping at each other, like an old married couple. Hell, Willis and I have been married for close to twenty-five years, and we don’t snipe at each other as much as Luna and I do. Over the summer I’d got sort of tight with the woman who lived across the street, but the family had moved.
So basically I had no girlfriend to jump in the shotgun side of my Audi and rush off to have an adventure with somewhere. I suppose I could take one of my daughters, or even my mother-in-law … I got up and took my lunch dishes back into the kitchen. For obvious reasons, neither of those two ideas would work. I couldn’t take just
daughter, I’d have to take all three; and my mother-in-law? Really? Where had that thought come from? I mean, yeah, we’ve gotten along better over the past few years, but still and all. Why would I even
that? Luckily she was either in D.C. or on her way for some Baptist thing, so I couldn’t even be tempted. Getting up, I thought again about cultivating a friendship with Lacy Kent, who I’d bonded with at the school yesterday. She seemed like fun.
I headed back into my office under the stairs to have my heroine, Naomi, the passionate and exotic Jewess, seduce young Daniel, the heir to the throne of Maldovia.
It was a couple of hours later when all three girls came running in the back door screaming, ‘Mom!’
It was so loud and so forceful that the phrase I was typing, ‘width and breadth’ came out ‘width and brrrrrrrrrrrrrrr.’ I jumped up and ran into the family room.
‘What?’ I yelled back.