Authors: Cammie Eicher
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
Luther greets us with a nod as we walk behind the staff-only desk and head for the chief’s office. Dwaine’s already there with a folder he hands to Carson. I peek over my darling’s shoulder and examine the faxes. Looks like Miz Waddy’s card was used at a travel plaza yesterday morning.
“Gas and food,” Dwaine intones and Carson agrees.
I refrain from pointing out it doesn’t take great detecting to figure that out. What else would crooks on the run with an old lady get at a truck stop? Condoms from the machine in the bathroom and shirts that shout, “My folks went to Pennsylvania and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”?
The chief looks up at me and says, “Miz Waddy got any family up that way?”
Why Dwaine thinks I’m an expert on the relatives of the local business association members I don’t know. I answer truthfully, as in, “The only family she ever talks about is that cat.”
“Ah.” Dwaine’s eyes narrow. “It’s doing all right, right?”
I’d resent his implication that Miss Priss would be anything but fine, except I’m not a pet person. After all, the last animal I was responsible for was poor Precious, who sacrificed her life to save me. But Precious was a dog, and dogs are far more apt to take a bullet than cats. Felines are more likely to order an AK-47 online and lay in wait by the bedroom door if life isn’t to their liking.
In reassuring Dwaine that Miss Priss is fine and dandy, I realize there are only a couple containers of her food residing in my fridge. I make a mental note to get the key to Miz Waddy’s place so I can transfer more of her special meals to my house. I do not intend to cook for the stupid cat, so she’d better hope that Miz Waddy’s returned before the last plastic container is emptied.
Leaving Carson and the chief poring over maps of the east coast, I slip out and go down the half-block to the WFRT. Marc, the station manager, pulls me into his office for an update on the school situation. Five minutes later, I’m recording a news bulletin to interrupt the afternoon’s scheduled programming, the top country hits of the 1950s and ‘60s. The first airing slides in between “Big Bad John” and a Patsy Cline ballad. I wait to make sure it sounds good before I trek back down to rejoin Carson.
I’m not sure he knew I was gone. He and Luther are now in a deep discussion about how easy it would be to slip into Canada while the chief leans back in his chair, telephone to his ear. I try to eavesdrop on his call, but realize when he says “pepperoni and onion” that placing an order at Antonio’s Pizzeria only thinly constitutes official business.
As if prompted, my tummy decides to rumble. I realize, not only have my eating habits been erratic lately, I am definitely running low on caffeine. While not a national tragedy, a lack of coffee consumption can befuddle my brain. So I suggest Carson lend me the SUV’s keys, so I can run down to the Grab ‘N Go and bring us back a cup apiece. Luther offers some of the sludge that passes for coffee at the station, but I’d rather drink off-brand motor oil than consume that stuff.
“We’re pretty much done here.” Carson stands and stretches, arms high above his head. I manage not to swoon. “I’ll check back with you, Chief, after we grab some lunch.”
I anticipate more pancakes, but am pleasantly surprised when Carson bypasses the motel restaurant and hits the Interstate. We cruise down a couple of exits, discussing Mr. Meriweather and poor Eugene’s lack of grace, before Carson pulls off. We end up in the parking lot of a little café tucked among the motels and chain restaurants.
“I didn’t know this place was even here,” I say as we head for the door.
“Luther’s recommendation,” Carson says. “One thing that guy knows is food, so I thought we’d take a chance.”
As if by mutual agreement, we don’t talk about Miz Waddy, Miss Priss, or the growing percentage of Fortunians occupying beds at the county hospital. We actually have a boyfriend/girlfriend conversation that includes tentative plans for Thanksgiving.
“Feeling like a trip to Florida?” Carson asks.
His parents retired to the Sunshine State a few years ago and are apparently as happy as a pair of clams in their enclave of fellow retirees. I remember that his mom was once an extreme badminton champion and ask if she’s still pursuing her athletic endeavors.
Carson laughs. “She’s joined the synchronized drill team at the retiree community,” he explains. “As I understand it, they practice weekly, pushing lawn mowers in formation so they can appear in parades all over the greater Fort Lauderdale area.”
Okay, that’s something I’d like to see. Maybe we could add a lawn mower brigade to next year’s fall festival parade. The station could be a sponsor, and I’m pretty sure Tony Arlington would be willing to serve as chief pusher. The memory of him pantless with big old BooBoo Bear pops into my mind, and I begin to giggle.
Carson stares at me in confusion.
“Tony and the bear,” I say. When his laughter joins mine, my heart begins to soar. We are so meant to be together.
We decided to live dangerously and ordered the blue plate special. When the plates are set in front of us, I take a moment to admire the food before I dig in like a ravenous pigmy. The chunk ‘o meat loaf has a shiny coating of catsup on top, and the mashed potatoes are a perfect hill topped with deep dark gravy. The green beans are loaded with onion and bacon, and I’m pretty sure the fat rolls served with real butter are made from scratch.
“Goodbye cardiac health,” Carson murmurs as he takes his first forkful of the hearty meat loaf. I join him and relax in pure pleasure at the downhome goodness of my entrée. It’s exactly like my mother would have made if she cooked real food instead of ordering in.
To my delight, the mashed potatoes are the real thing, as evidenced by their lumpiness. I can handle instant mashed potatoes in a pinch, but my soul pines for ones just like these. I clean my plate down to the last green bean and am sure I can’t eat another bite.
Until our waitress rattles off the day’s desserts, that is. Torn between tapioca pudding and bread pudding with a whiskey sauce, I take Carson’s suggestion and order both. We’ll share, I tell him.
We leave the café with full stomachs and my bread pudding in a take-home container. I intend to savor every bite as we cozy up on the couch tonight, sharing a forkful with my honey from time to time. I sigh at the domestic image and hope the hiring freeze thaws pretty quickly.
The ride back to Fortuna is quiet. The radio offers up Tennessee Ernie Ford and Hank Williams as we roll down the Interstate with my breaking news breaking in just before we get back to town.
“You sound good,” Carson says, a note of surprise in his voice.
“Four years of college and ten years on the job, baby.”
“Good enough that you could get on a station anywhere.”
Uh, oh. If this is a prelude to suggesting I relocate to, say, Columbus this will be a difficult conversation. Fortuna was supposed to be a first job, the launching pad for my career, but I love the town. I even love the people. In general, that is. There are a few individuals I cross the street to avoid, but then again, so do most people.
I quickly change the subject. “How is everyone doing? Did the chief say?”
Carson knows what I mean. “No drugs in anyone’s blood, except the ones they’re supposed to be taking. The doc Dwaine talked to last said if it was just one person, the answer might be a drug interaction. But the only crossover was a generic blood pressure medicine that Mrs. Forrester and the Rev. Hayslinger take. I’ve checked with the drug company and psychological deviances like we’ve been seeing are not among the known side effects.”
Once again, he hits me with that cop talk. I love it when he talks formal to me. “So they’ll all be home soon?”
“The docs have been keeping them on some pretty heavy downers. They plan to wean them off and keep everyone undrugged one day for observation before they leave the hospital.”
I wonder to myself how the hospital’s managed to keep all this secret. Yes, total confidentiality is the order of the day on the behavioral unit, yet there have been plenty of witnesses to the madness. Still, while the grapevine in Fortuna blossoms with each new rumor, folks here have a fierce loyalty. For all I know, TV crews and wire service reporters have been flowing in and out of town and been rebuffed with every question.
Marc and I agreed to keep it on the down low for at least twenty-four more hours, just in case the Fortuna Malady claimed another victim. I think part of his reasoning was because, hey, one of us might be the next one dancing on rainbows. Me, I keep thinking about poor Eugene and how he needs a little privacy and protection.
* * * *
Miss Priss is most unhappy when we arrive home. She glares at me from the center of the kitchen table, offering a low hiss as Carson walks in behind me. I cut a large circle around her as I head for the refrigerator. Three boxes of prime feline feast left. I take one out, dump it on a paper plate, and stick it in the microwave. Thirty seconds later the dinger goes off and Miss Priss gives an elegant leap to the floor. Finding my ankles, she winds around them as I transfer the food to her dish.
“Don’t think I trust you for a minute.” I carefully set the bowl down and push it toward the stove with my foot. Miss Priss settles down on her considerable tum-tum and begins to eat.
“You’re starting to like her,” Carson says as if it were true.
“I’m still in the barely tolerant stage of our relationship,” I correct him. “If all goes well, we never have to go into the next stage. That’s what, anger? Denial?”
“Those of the stages of grief,” Carson refutes, “not of cat ownership.”
“Oh, she is not my cat and is never going to be.” I move closer to him; I don’t want Miss Priss to overhear, even though my voice is barely above a whisper. “As soon as Miz Waddy returns, she’s going back where she belongs.” I lean closer to my boopsy-bear. “And if that proves impossible, it’s either Luther’s or the animal shelter for her.”
“She’s not a bad cat,” Carson replies.
I pull up the legs of my jeans in response and show him the puncture wounds from Miss Priss’s earlier attack on my ankles. I was wide-awake and she was seemingly in a good mood when that attack occurred. I do not intend to spend the rest of my natural life waiting to be offed in my sleep.
All that wonderful food has made me sleepy, so I opt to call the station and talk to Marc instead of going down there. Carson disappears outside while I’m on the phone and returns with what I assume is an OBI-issued laptop. He takes off his jacket, pulls his tie from around his neck, and rolls up his sleeves. After unbuttoning the top two buttons of his crisp white shirt, he heads into the living room and sets up his mini-office on my coffee table.
I’ve gotten used to him sitting on the couch, filing reports, and checking e-mail, while I do the routine tasks of the household. Even though I’m in the kitchen trying to decide what I can make for dinner with a tin of corned beef, a half-can of cheese sauce, and a bag of frozen Brussels sprouts, I am still aware of his presence. While I love the hot and horny part of our relationship, I also adore comfortable moments like these. After studying the rest of my nearly bare cupboards, I decide calling Antonio’s to order lasagna and salad for two is the tastiest and probably safest solution.
While we’re waiting for the delivery, I grab a fast shower. I’m listening for either Carson to call my name or my phone to ring, because the very idea of a quiet evening at home seems way outside the current state of affairs. But miracle of miracles, all is quiet on the Fortuna front when I greet the delivery guy with wet hair and a nice tip. Even as we snuggle down in front of the TV to watch the local news, lasagna carryout pans in hand, there’s that same feeling of expectation. When the anchor gives his farewell and the last of my pasta is scooped from pan to mouth, I begin to accept the good fortune that’s come our way.
Back when I was kid marrying my Barbies and Kens in elaborate ceremonies, I had my life all planned. As soon as I finished high school, I was going to marry someone just like Ken, have a house full of kids, and live life in the proverbial rose-covered cottage. Eventually, though, I grew up, realized that Ken’s biological design meant poor Barbie was in for a great surprise on her wedding night, and decided true love was the only thing that would send me to the altar.
Is that what I have with Carson? I think so. But nightly phone calls and occasional weekends have kept us in that honeymoon stage of our relationship. Despite my acknowledged tendency to act before I think, I want to know him a whole lot deeper before I start washing his tidy-whities.
So I’m not disappointed in the least when he turns the TV to a music channel of songs from the big band era and asks me if I’ve been home to Clovette lately. He received an introduction to the town of my nativity during that murder investigation and keeps seeing me anyway. Personally, I think that earns him a medal for bravery, considering how many conversations he was forced to endure with those who knew me when.
Funny thing is, seeing Clovette through his eyes gave me a new appreciation for my hometown. It may be bigger than Fortuna, but it has that same sense of family and security. Once again I thank my lucky stars I wasn’t born in a city like Chicago or L.A.
“Things there never change,” I say before I tell him of my visit “up home” for my cousin’s daughter’s sister-in-law’s baby shower. The times, they are a’changing, but there still aren’t many daddies-to-be at showers in Clovette. The community room at the local bank is so popular for such occasions no one bothers to take the decorations down anymore. And let’s face it, in this day and age, it’s probably a good idea to have both wedding bells and baby bottles in the décor.
I believe Carson thinks I’m kidding when I explain the purpose of a shower is to provide things the baby will need and embarrass all the relatives. But he’s never endured those stupid games when you have to diaper a doll while blindfolded or do scrambled word puzzles while the hostess holds a stopwatch. There is nothing worse than being the only one to put the disposable diaper on the doll’s head instead of its butt or only get four words out of twenty-five in five minutes.