Authors: Teresa Trent
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Women Sleuths
After my little run to the bathroom, I realized I was about to have another round with the flu. The smell of cooking dinner was now out of the picture so when Leo came home we decided to eat at the diner. The cozy restaurant was usually filled with half the town, but tonight most of the red leather booths were empty.
"What's going on?" Leo said.
"I don't know." I answered.
"Maybe the health department came through." Tyler said plopping into the booth with a thud.
Birdie came up to us her hands in her apron pocket. "Glad to see you guys. I was beginning to think I was going to be spending my Wednesday night alone."
"You don't usually work Wednesday nights, do you Birdie?"
"Actually I don't. Two of my waitresses are out sick tonight. This flu is nothing to play around with. It was pretty bad, but I'm feeling fine now. It just takes a couple of days."
"Yeah, our Zach here had it," Leo said, "but I think he's through with it. Right, Zach?"
Zach smiled weakly. He was doing okay physically, anyway.
"If you don't like the view in this booth, I can offer you any seat in the house." Birdie said as she gestured across the entire restaurant.
"Thanks, we're good here."
"I hope you're hungry because we have plenty of food going to waste back there." Birdie said. Even with the prospect of a smorgasbord nothing really sounded good.
"Can we get milkshakes?" Tyler asked.
"I guess so." I said.
The door jangled and Stan's assistant from NUTV came in. She looked around and saw the empty restaurant then her eyes landed on us. She walked over seeking us out.
"Did I miss something? Where is everybody?" She asked.
Leo rose and extended his hand to her. "Betsy, you remember Jeanette from the television station?"
"Yes, it's nice seeing you again."
"I didn't know you ate here." Jeanette spoke to Leo as if it was only the two of them in the restaurant.
"We don't usually eat here on week nights. Everyone seems to be out with the flu."
She arched her back in a catlike way making her breasts protrude. This was something not missed by either Zach or Tyler.
"Whoo. What a day. That Stan is a taskmaster. That's for sure. I'm just glad I didn't get this flu."
Birdie came around the counter with a large white plastic bag with "To Go" written on it. "Here you go, Jeanette. Hope your friend is better soon."
"Thanks Birdie I'm sure your home cooking will help."
"We aim to please. Seems like most of the town is on a take-out order basis right now."
Jeanette turned back to us. "I just wanted to tell you that your weather forecasting is a hit. Everyone in Pecan Bayou loves you."
"Now don't be saying that. I'm sure Hurricane Hal wants to come back to his job. "
"Hurricane Hal getting sick has turned out to be a good thing for us. I wouldn't mind if he was sick for another week." The way my stomach was feeling I wouldn't want to put that on anybody.
"You're terrible Jeanette." Leo said.
"I guess we just won't tell him now, will we?" She said out of the side of her hand. "I'd better get going. My friend needs his sustenance." With that she gave a little wink as if saying that her friend was a little more than a friend. Given that she was flirting with my husband I was pleased she had someone to wink about.
"Bye now. Take care Leo."
"Take care Leo." Tyler echoed in a falsetto voice once Jeanette was out the door. He bobbed his head back and forth, smiled and stuck out his chest. "Whoo! That Stan is a taskmaster."
"Who is she, Mr. Leo?" Zach said as if he had just come upon a rare treasure.
"Oh that's just a lady who works at the television station."
"Cool." Tyler said. "I want to work at the TV station."
"Stan isn't hiring any middle school employees right now." Leo said.
"Why not? It would be a lot of fun. I could operate the camera. Are you ready for your close-up Mr. Fitzpatrick?" Tyler said with his hands as he imitated an old-time camera.
"I don't think I want you as my cameraman, Tyler. A pretty girl would walk in and I would lose all my airtime."
Birdie came back over with her order pad in hand. "So do you folks know what you want to order?"
Leo glanced at each of us at the table. "I'm guessing we want hamburgers and milk shakes all around. Right guys?" I held my hand up to stop my order.
"I think I'll try some of your mother's chicken soup instead."
Later that night as Leo and I got ready for bed, I was feeling better after a generous portion of soup.
"So what did you think of that woman?" I said.
"What woman?" Leo said as he brushed his teeth.
"You know ... Jeanette from NUTV. She was rude wasn't she?"
"She was?" Leo asked.
"Uh, yeah... Don't tell me you didn't even register the fact that she was ignoring your wife and children?"
"What are you talking about? Betsy, are you feeling okay?" He reached over and put his hand on my forehead.
"Hmmm, no temperature. Still though, it seems like this little bout with the flu is making you delirious."
I couldn't believe the amount of frustration that was rising up in me. I pulled his hand away and turned from him.
"Betsy don't be that way. I'm just saying that whatever it was you felt was happening just wasn't. Besides Hal should be back tomorrow so I'm finished with my on-air career."
I crawled in under the covers. Aunt Maggie had told me that she always tried to never go to bed angry with her husband, but tonight it was going to be pretty tough.
"I hope you're right." I tried to sound agreeable even if I didn't feel it. "Do you know who her sick friend is?"
Leo got into bed next to me. "No. I have no idea. Probably a boyfriend or something. Who knows? Who cares?" He reached over and gently ran his hand along my cheek, cupping my chin in his palm. "Are we okay?"
Leo's plan to leave NUTV was again postponed early the next morning.
Leo answered the phone as it jolted me from sleep. "Hello ...Yes. Really? Okay, I'll be there in a little while." Leo yawned.
"What was that?" I said. Not even rolling over from my comfortable position.
"That was Stan over at NUTV. Hal still has the flu and isn't coming in today. He asked if I could continue to fill in for the next couple of days."
"Can you? I mean do the people at your other job understand?"
"As long as I keep doing everything that needs to be done, they're fine." Leo walked to the closet to pull out some clothes.
I went downstairs to put on some coffee, and Leo joined me ten minutes later, fresh from the shower. I set down a plate of scrambled eggs and toast in front of him.
"So what do you have going on today?" Leo said.
"Now that I'm out of a job as the Happy Hinter, I plan to work on some things for my blog. I should probably call Phyllis Hamlin about the Harvest Dance. That's all."
"Uh huh." Leo said. "And when you're finished with that you just might spend a little time trying to outwit the Pecan Bayou Police and find Rocky?" Leo was really getting to know me.
"I'm way too busy for that."
"That's good to hear, Betsy. When I first met you I thought it was pretty exciting that you were a crime-solving stain-removing honest to goodness amateur sleuth. Now that I'm married to you," he reached out for my hand across the table, "and love you. I don't think it's exciting anymore. I think it's dangerous. It might be a good idea for you to see if you can get your column picked up at one of the other papers in the area. Are you sure that this new newspaper guy isn't interested?"
"He seemed pretty sure he only wants to cover hard news."
"That's a shame. All of those bloggers and columnists that Rocky included made the paper what it was. I really enjoyed some of that stuff." He admitted.
"Hey, you would still be a gutter ball wonder if you hadn't read the bowling blog." It was true, he had improved.
Leo rose from the table and started putting on his jacket. "When do you tape your Happy Hinter segment for Stan?"
"Good. I just hope I'm not there."
"Oh come on Leo, didn't you have something deep down inside you longing to hear that group of adoring fans chanting over and over again ... Is it going to rain? Is it going to rain?"
He reached over and pulled me into his arms.
"You are the only fan that I ever wanted, Mrs. Fitzpatrick." Okay, I could live with that.
Once the house was quiet, and the boys were at school, I knew I was going to go back on my promise to Leo. I found the number for Nicholas Wendell. I wondered if he had dug up anything on Edgar West.
"Glad you called. I did check up on the guy. He isn't exactly a major criminal, and what he's doing isn't against the law, but still, you could definitely say he's taking advantage of people."
"In what way?" I said as I felt my stomach starting to gurgle.
"He promises his clients incredible refunds. He tells them he has some sort of insider knowledge with the government and knows all the loopholes. They pay for his extended services, and then he doesn't deliver. He'll tell them the loophole had been closed or they don't qualify. I can see where maybe a senior citizen might be taken in by his assurances. The people he offers his services to end up paying him sixty percent of their refund check. It's all there on the contract, but in very small print … something that might get by somebody's grandmother."
"So, you think that's what Rocky had on West?"
"No doubt. This guy is as slimy as they come, but as long as he puts it in the contract it's just immoral not illegal."
I thought about Aunt Maggie and how important every dollar was to her, especially now that Uncle Jeeter had passed. Someone taking advantage of her seemed pretty criminal to me.
"So are you going to print that in your paper?"
"Most assuredly, and I really want to thank you. Who would have thought the
could point me toward my first real news story in this little town."
"It wasn't my story, it was Rocky's. If West was responsible for the fire you had better make sure the same thing doesn't happen to you."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"When I asked him what he was doing on the night of the fire he told me he was working late. Did you get anything on his alibi?"
"Glad you brought that up."
"If you could just come by the office today and help me connect up one more computer, then I'll be glad to tell you just where our Mr. West really was when the fire broke out at the Pecan Bayou Gazette."
"Give me about an hour." I felt the contents of my stomach rising to my throat and ran for the bathroom. I lost most of my breakfast. As I washed my face and hands I began to wonder if what I had was really the flu. Zach contracted the bug, and it ran its course within three days. I had been feeling like this for over a week. As I turned on the faucet and looked at my haggard face in the mirror it began to dawn on me. Could this be something other than the flu? Oh my God.
I refused to let the thought settle any further into my brain and ran a brush through my hair. I tried applying makeup to brighten up my complexion which with the dark circles under my eyes, was now starting to resemble a member of the Addams family.
When I parked in front of the old Gazette building forty-five minutes later I felt tears coming up, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop them. Letting my emotions go, I sobbed into my steering wheel hoping no one would see me. I was trying to pull myself together when I heard someone rapping at my car window. I looked up to see a middle aged woman with frizzy blond hair speaking into her cupped hands as if I was in some sort of underwater submarine.
"Are … you … okay?" She said slowly and deliberately. I took a deep breath and unrolled my window.
"Yes, thank you. I'm okay."
"You sure don't look okay." The woman wore jeans and a "Save the Whales" t-shirt that had seen better days.
"You are kind to ask. I used to work in this building, and I guess it just all came crashing in on me."
"Oh." She acknowledged. "Were you a reporter?"
"No, well yes. I've helped with a few stories, but mostly I wrote the Happy Hinter."
The lady gasped, and put her hand over her mouth as if I she had just come face to face with Dear Abby.
"You're the Happy Hinter? I read your column every week. I just love the advice you gave about getting dog pee out of the carpet. You have to be some kind of writer to be brave enough to write about the real problems people face. You should know we've used your suggestions down at the animal shelter. I also hear that you will do efficiency evaluations for people's businesses to help them to be more cost effective. I would just love it if you would donate your services down at the shelter."
I realized that this woman was probably the person Rocky had on his appointment calendar for the pet of the week pictures. If I "donated" an evaluation I could find out where she was on the day of the fire. "I'm sorry, I don't know your name."
"My name is Pearly. Pearly Schroeder. I'm not as famous as you are, but I run the Pecan Bayou animal shelter."
"Nice to meet you. Did you know Rocky?"
The woman stiffened. She had been resting her hand against my window sill, but now pulled it back from me. I saw a notable change in her demeanor.
"Yes, unfortunately I did." With the mention of Rocky's name she went from a cute little kitten to a Doberman Pinscher bouncing against a front door.
"I take it you and Rocky weren't friends?" I questioned.
"You take that right, dear. That was one awful man, and I know this sounds disrespectful, but I'm pretty glad that he's not around anymore to give me grief."
"Not to intrude or anything, just what was it about Rocky that you disliked?"
She quickly looked at her watch and turned back toward me. "Will you look at the time? I'm so glad you're alright, dear. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's this new newspaper across the street. I'm sure he'll want to have The Happy Hinter." With that she picked up the bag she was carrying and took off down the sidewalk. Whatever it was between her and Rocky, she wasn't going to be sharing it with me today.
I looked back in the mirror and tried to straighten myself up. It was unusual for me to break down in tears like that. When I walked into the Courier office Nicholas Wendell was leaning over a monitor.
"You finally made it. I thought you were going to stay across the street for another hour or two." After that greeting I wasn't even sure if I felt like staying. If he didn't have information on Edgar West I probably would have just turned around and gone right back out the door.
"Sorry. I'm here now. Where's your new computer?" I went to work immediately, and once I had everything installed, I asked him about the Eight-Minute Tax Man.
"So what about West?"
"I don't think he was in his office."
"How do you know that?"
"Because, I found out he had a new floor put in on the day of the fire. The workers didn't leave their until 8:30 that night. They had everything unplugged and moved off the floor, including his computers."
"But you don't know where he was exactly?" I asked.
"Still working on it."
"I thought you said you had it figured out?"
"I do partially. I'll keep looking into it... And if I have any more problems getting the office set up..."
Suddenly I had the feeling I would never be done making deals with Nicholas Wendell.
"Before you think I'm a total slacker, I did a background check on Mr. West."
"He's in debt."
"Hard to tell exactly, but his credit card rating is pretty bad."
"Not something you want to hear about your friendly neighborhood tax man. I don't even think Rocky had anything like this on him." I said.
"Yeah, I think if Rocky had dug this up, he'd be leaning back in that old chair of his making it squeak to music."
I thought about how many times I'd seen Rocky do that. That squeak in his office chair was so annoying and just to make it really irritating he would squeak it to whatever song was playing on the radio. I felt the sadness taking me over again. I straightened up. I just couldn't go there. We still didn't know if Rocky was dead or alive.
"Are you okay?" Wendell asked.
I focused on a kolache that sat on the edge of Nicholas Wendell's desk. A Texas favorite, my eyes fixed on the hot dog wrapped in dough as the odor of jalapeno peppers drifted into my nose. It looked really delicious, and I knew that if Nicholas were to turn his back for just a minute, I could consume it in one gulp. I wondered if he had any idea I was lusting after his breakfast. I tried to keep my mind on the conversation. We had been talking about Rocky. I drew a little closer to the kolache, and now as the fragrance reached my nostrils, I felt my stomach start its increasingly familiar dance.
"Would you like my kolache? I couldn't help noticing you staring at it, Mrs. Fitzpatrick. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine. There's been some flu going around our house, I'm still a little queasy."
I grabbed my purse and put some distance between myself and the kolache. "Good work Mr. Wendell. Let me know if you find out anything else." I ran out the door and threw up into a trashcan on the street. Smelling the smoke of the faded fire, the image of Rocky bouncing his squeaky chair came back to me. If Nicholas Wendell had never met Rocky, how did he know about his annoying habit with the chair? One of Birdie's waitresses had stepped outside to smoke a cigarette. She noticed me with my hands straddling each side of the trashcan.
"Oh my goodness, what's wrong?" I knew if I started throwing up in front of people the whole town would figure this out. At this point I wasn't even sure of the cause, so my explanation needed to be creative. I waved her off with one hand.
"Oh don't worry. Probably just some food poisoning, but of course, not from Birdie's. The food there is wonderful." The woman, a little taken back by my surefire answer, stepped over to the far wall and nervously sucked into her cigarette. My cell phone rang in my purse and saved me. I waved on and whispered to the waitress "I'm fine. Thanks." To Elaina and she nodded and walked on down the street.
"Mrs. Livingston-Fitzpatrick this is Principal Thompson from Nolan Ryan Middle School."
"Yes?" I became filled with dread that maybe something happened with one of the boys.
"I'm calling you because I need to come down to school right away."
"What happened? Is everything okay?"
"No need to panic. Your son and your stepson are both fine. We need you to pick up Zachary. He's being sent home today."
"Is he sick again?"
"No, I don't believe so. We found him and another boy smoking behind the bleachers between classes. This type of behavior is unacceptable, and we are sending him home from school to think about it."
"Put Zach on the phone." I heard the phone shuffling from one person to the next, and then my son's voice came over the line.
"Hi yourself. Tell me about it."
"There's not too much to tell. This is not a big deal. I know you're busy."
"I'm never too busy to find out why you're being sent home from school."
Without answering me, Zach handed the phone back to the principal.
"So we'll see you shortly, Mrs. Livingston-Fitzpatrick."