Authors: Cammie Eicher
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
Unfortunately, I’m right. Grimstead’s secretary tells us to come on down, that he’s due back from court in about twenty minutes. I plug my cell phone into the charger under the dash of Carson’s vehicle and am relieved it doesn’t ring from the time we leave my house until we find a parking place just down the street from the attorney’s place. I don’t know which I dread most, an SOS from Eugene or a call from Luther telling us about the latest local lunatic.
“Nice digs,” Carson offers in a sarcastic whisper as we top the stairs and step into Grimstead’s office. I sincerely hope the rent is cheap because the carpet’s got to be twenty years old, the furniture is early attic, and there’s a suspicious floor creak as we walk to the receptionist’s desk. Actually, secretary and sole employee’s desk, it turns out. She smiles before motioning toward a couple of faded velvet chairs.
“Mr. Grimstead is in,” she said, “and looking forward to meeting you. It shouldn’t be more than a few minutes.”
Apparently, lawyer time is like hospital time and “a few minutes” means whenever your name is called. I’d flipped through all the hunting magazines and was starting in on the fishing ones when the secretary announced, “Mr. Grimstead will see you now. Please follow me.”
Carson straightens his tie and squares his shoulders as he falls in behind her. Normally he’s a gentleman who has me go first, but since an official police presence is required, I figure maximum invisibility is good. When he suddenly stops, I bump into him with a small “oof,” which shoots my shadow theory. Neither of us realized that “follow me” actually meant, “here, I’ll open his office door.” Turns out that Grimstead’s desk backs onto the same wall as the secretary’s, except in another, only slightly larger room.
“Carson Hayes, Ohio Bureau of Investigation.” Carson offers his hand and a business card. I sink into the chair in the corner as the two men do the pleased-to-meet-you dance. One thing I learned long ago was that intimidation is a handy talent when dealing with attorneys, and I can’t even get Miss Priss to respect me.
As I expected, the conversation is formal. Carson asks a question; Grimstead dances away from it. The only interruption is when the secretary walks through the room with a middle-aged couple behind her and shows them through a door at the far side. That, I assume, is Louise’s office. Either that or it’s the bathroom and this is one of those couples that do everything together.
So far Carson’s managed to uncover zip from old Grimstead. Nada. Nil. All he’s learned is that Miz Waddy owns her store/living quarters outright, an inheritance from her father. That there is a provision in her will to hire a caretaker for the place as long as Miss Priss lives, in case Miz Waddy kicks off first. And that the suddenly departed Miz Waddy didn’t trust banks and had moved money from place to place in the past.
Darling Carson looks discouraged as we go back down the steps and to his car. He had high hopes, I’m sure, of tying the withdrawals to an anticipated ransom demand. Alas, the missing money might show up in another bank. But who knows where?
“She travel much?” Carson asks as we head back toward my house.
“A little,” I say. “She’d close the shop twice a year when she went to buyer’s conventions. In Atlanta, I think. Someplace in the south anyway. And she closed up two weekends a year when she traveled with her old sorority sisters.”
Carson perks up. “And you know that how?”
I ignore the poor grammar and say, “She talked about those trips when she came back. If she caught you, it would take forever before you could get away. She loved to show the photos on her phone and talk about the food. No matter where they went, she was all about the food.”
“Oh.” The one-syllable answer isn’t so much dismissive as thoughtful. I remain silent as we pull up in front of the police station. I most certainly don’t want to interfere with any brainstorm he might be having.
Dwaine is, as usual, ensconced in his office. The newspaper is folded open to the puzzle, which is half-done. That and the way he motions for us to wait while he gets more coffee makes me believe this hasn’t been the most productive day for the chief. I wonder if the hospital pays the department for bringing in the crazies—sort of a piece-rate referral fee. Or maybe they build up credit, so if old Luther gets a dog bite on duty, the P.D. gets a discount on treatment.
My mind wanders as Carson and the chief drop into cop talk. I wonder how Miss Priss is doing and if she’s the kind of cat to indulge in random destruction when she gets upset. I rather like my living room curtains and my kitchen tablecloth as they are. Claw holes would do nothing to enhance their beauty.
Maybe she’s a climber and not a clawer. I suppress a shudder as I imagine going home to find the shower curtain yanked off the rings, the open box of laundry detergent spilled on its descent from the top of the washer to floor, or all my knick-knacks reduced to shards.
The shrill ring of a phone makes me jump. Pulled back to the moment at hand, I watch Dwaine’s face develop a scowl as he offers succinct, one-word answers like “damn” and “no!” to whoever’s on the other end. He slams the receiver down, shoves back his chair, and says to Carson, “We got another one.”
I’m assuming he means a newly nutty Fortunian and not a second disappearing shopkeeper. I hop in the back seat of the cruiser as the two men take the front. Dwaine slaps on the siren and blue lights, and we head toward the edge of town. He makes a sharp left at the last street before the incorporation sign and stands on the brakes in front of Tony Arlington’s house.
Tony is as close to a celebrity as we have in Fortuna. Back in the ‘90s, he starred in a series of TV commercials and seems to believe he’s still the teen heartthrob he was then. His singing voice isn’t bad, so he occasionally gets booked into one of the hotel lounges in the region around us, plus he can be counted on to show up for ribbon cuttings and parades. Mostly, I think, he lives off his inheritance. His late and frugal father made a nice living as the only septic service guy in town, and Tony’s an only child. Common belief is that after his mother remarried to a gynecologist and moved to Miami, Dad’s money all went to Tony.
Like I said, Tony embraces his celebrity status. So I am more than a trifle surprised to see him in his boxers and undershirt on the porch. Not only is he woefully underdressed for an October day, he’s holding what appears to be a shotgun to a large teddy bear’s head. Standing a few yards away and screaming like a fishwife is his ex-wife, who didn’t do too well in the divorce. I say that because he still lives in his father’s rather palatial home, and she resides in a 35-footer over in the trailer park.
Hanging back as Dwaine and Carson approach the scene of the chaos with due diligence, I realize I’m not the only onlooker. The mail carrier’s stopped his little truck to watch the action, and a lady with blue hair and a dachshund on a leash leans on the fence next to him. I nod and offer a smile. I am, after all, the reporter for WFRT and must be friendly at all times.
The amenities over, I turn my attention to the hollering ex, trying to make out what she’s saying. It has something to do with Tony’s parentage, his personage, and what’s going to happen to his man parts if he does anything to her BooBoo Bear.
I’m quite glad to learn the bear is hers. Not, of course, that a grown man isn’t allowed to have a five-foot teddy if he wants. It just conflicts with the macho image Tony tends to project. And it also keeps me from wondering squeamishly why a grown man would want a big, fluffy bear as company. Ooh, I am so not going there.
The two officers of the law exchange glances which I interpret as uncertainty as to whether this is typical Tony behavior or another outbreak of Fortuna Malady. My personal feeling is if they wait a while, things will sort themselves out. Either Mr. Washed Up Star and his ex will settle things or one of them will begin to demonstrate behavior like Louise’s. For all I know, some of those vampire titmice from hell escaped down here.
“You never really loved me!” The words explode from Tony. If he’s acting, I’ve gained a new appreciation for his talent. If he’s not, I’m ducking behind something before that shotgun goes off. “All you care about is this…this…yard sale reject.”
Whoa, are those fighting words. Ms. Ex launches herself toward Tony. I’m relatively sure the intent is to deprive him of his boxers before poor BooBoo Bear can be deprived of her (his?) fluffy forehead. She dives up the steps and begins yanking on a hem. Tony, showing unexpected modesty, turns to avoid a de-pantsing and ends up whapping his ex against the head with the shotgun.
Dwaine flies into action, crouching as low as his beer belly lets him and screaming, “Arlington, drop the gun!”
Carson shoves me behind the nearest bush and draws his own weapon. I watch in horrified fascination as the three men and their three guns face each other. Not even a dachshund yip breaks the tension. Anticipating a standoff that ends badly, I send a mental “I love you” to Carson and start yanking at my cuticles, my fallback stress action at moments like this. I feel like I’m trapped in a not-so-great TV crime show as Carson adjusts his stance beside Dwaine. A bubbling scream builds in my throat, but I choke it back. Everything will be all right. Carson will be all right. Even BooBoo Bear will survive.
A wild female shriek erupts and it’s on. Ms. Ex rolls toward the steps, Tony’s boxers still in hand. BooBoo Bear flies over the railing as a half-naked Tony tries to swipe his boxers. The shotgun hits the porch floor, and we all duck as buckshot scatters. Carson rushes toward the enraged couple while Dwaine stands where he is, laughing his considerable-sized rear end off.
I can’t help it. My suppressed scream now erupts as a series of chuckles, which soon become flat-out hilarity. I collapse against the bushes, roaring at the normally suave and sorta sexy Tony Arlington grabbing the bear to cover his family jewels and ducking as his ex rains girly slaps on his chest and shoulders. See, this is why I should be in television. This stuff does not translate to my listeners the same way as a piece of video does to viewers.
And I seriously expect it to be on the local TV station tonight. Both the mailman and the doggie’s mama have their cell phones trained on the action.
“You okay?” Carson offers a hand to help me up. Dwaine is holding the warring parties at arm’s length, one to his left and the other at his right. BooBoo’s bow is off-kilter and all that white fur now wears a tinge of porch dust. Dwaine’s negotiating attempts work since Ms. Ex huffs away with BooBoo while Tony covers up what none of us wanted to see anyway.
“Chief says this is normal stuff for them.” Carson leads me toward the cruiser and away from Tony’s hopping attempts to redress. He’s so sweet, trying to keep me out of the embarrassment zone. I remind myself to show him the tinglers included in that pack ‘o condoms Mom left as a thank you.
He leads me past the cruiser, away from the eyes of the mailman and his cohort and behind a stand of tall firs. He pulls me close and kisses me in a way that makes me wonder how many of those tinglers we’ll go through tonight.
“You worry me to death, woman,” he said after we broke apart.
“Hey, I behaved myself.” My protest falls on deaf ears.
“What were you thinking, out there in the open like that? The way that idiot was swinging the shotgun, I thought you’d get hit for sure.”
“What can I say? I live a charmed life.” I rise on my toes to coax another kiss from Carson, but he sets me away.
“Usually this place is like a nursery school, but something weird is going on now,” he says, his face serious. “People going nuts, an old lady disappearing into thin air… I want you to do what I say or you’re staying home.”
I try to explain that as a journalist, danger is in my blood. Risk is to me what a pipe wrench is to a plumber, the tool that keeps me at the top of my game. I remind him this is my town, after all, and the good listeners of WFRT’s daily news expect me to bring both the large and small happenings of the town to their ears.
Carson responds by reminding me I nearly got killed the last time I got involved with danger. Yeah, he does have a point. But my old boyfriend’s nutso mother is living in a barred ten by ten cell at the state pen for women.
“I didn’t die then and I won’t now,” I assure him. “My fault then was in having sex with a handsome cop on a magic fingers bed.”
“And it was great.” A smile curves Carson’s lips. Quite the romantic, my sweetie. He’s already reserved the room in that Clovette motel for our one-year anniversary celebration. He tried to reserve a table at the Fork and Spoon, the long-time favorite of Clovette’s gourmet Diners, but the place doesn’t take them. I’m quite surprised, given the demand for their homemade mac and cheese and breaded tomatoes.
I’m giving thanks for the memories because Carson forgets I didn’t agree to stay home when the police scanner beckons. He’d only seen Fortuna on weekends and during crises, so he doesn’t realize a chance like this only comes once a year if I’m lucky. And I am so tired of reporting on the theft of flowers from the local cemetery or vandalism to the family of plaster deer that reside in the city park.
The last almost-big story I thought I had was when I drove to work and was aghast to see white paint all over the side of one wall at our brick city hall. I gave the morning farm report with only half a mind; the rest was on how righteous it was going to be to disclose the graffiti vandals right here in our own town. Unfortunately, by the time I got back to city hall to talk to the mayor, ladders were in place. That’s when I realized this was the mural the art students from the high school were painting to fund their annual trip to help create floats at the Rose Parade.
I’m used to the mural by now. I suppose when strangers come to town, they’re a little taken aback by a huge flying fish, the emblem of our school athletic teams, grinning at them in neon orange. If the background had been left white, the effect wouldn’t be quite as startling. But considering that it’s neon blue, supposedly to represent the nearby river, with eye-popping pink catfish dancing around in the background, it is indeed a sight to behold.