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Authors: Lorena McCourtney

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BOOK: Invisible
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“Sorry,” she apologized. “I didn’t see you ladies standing here. May I help you?”

I described the problem. The woman asked us to wait until a deputy became available. Thea and I sat on an old, brown-vinyl couch with squishy cushions that threatened to swallow us.

We waited. And waited. Thea leaned her head back and closed her eyes. A sullen-looking man in handcuffs accompanied by an officer exited the elevator. An officer with a police dog walked by. Both ignored us.

Various people approached the horseshoe-shaped opening. A young man collected forms to fill out. A girl in burlap skirt and gold nose ring was whisked off down a hall. A young couple with a baby were sent elsewhere. Others came and went.

I sorted through the magazines on an end table.
Sports Illustrated. Body Building. Racing Pigeon Digest. Plumbing News.
People connected with crime apparently had eclectic reading tastes. I read about how some young woman acquired a belly that looked flat enough to iron on.

Then I spent a few minutes inspecting the blood blister under my left thumbnail. It had appeared several weeks ago after an encounter with a misaimed hammer while I was nailing a loose board on the back porch. The purple-red stain was slowly growing out with the nail and now bore the shape of a palm tree sprouting from a deserted island. Or perhaps it was a prehistoric creature with an elongated neck.

A different thought alarmed me. Is seeing designs in a blood blister a sign of eccentricity? Or oncoming senility? I hastily abandoned the inspection and dropped my hand in my lap.

Thea woke with a jump and a startled “where-am-I?” expression.

Okay, enough already. We’d been there almost an hour. I picked up my purse and marched to the window. I counted “one thousand and one, one thousand and two” until I’d reached a full two minutes. No one came to the window. The woman who’d spoken with us earlier had disappeared. A man glanced our way from beyond the glass square, but our presence didn’t seem to register with him, and he turned back to his computer.

I tried a polite wave. No response. I tried a genteel “yoo-hoo” through the horseshoe-shaped opening. No reaction.

Apparently this situation required stronger action. I suspected the only idea that occurred to me would instantly catapult me into Weird Little Old Lady territory.

So be it.

I put the whistle to my mouth and blew.

2

Two officers rushed to the inside of the window, and another appeared out of nowhere right at my elbow. All eyed me warily, as if uncertain whether to suspect incoherent babble or a bomb in my purse.

If I’d been a ponytailed young man with an earring, the whistle probably would have landed me in handcuffs. As it was, however, what it did was win us an immediate spot at a desk with a solicitous deputy.

Interesting. Perhaps eccentricity is an area I haven’t explored sufficiently.

Now there was much shoulder-patting and tsk-tsking.
Are we feeling faint? There, there. Just take a deep breath. Water? Here’s two big glasses of it.
After giving our names—“I’m Ivy Malone, and this is my friend Thea Pinkerton”—forms and pens were flourished, and information was taken. After which we were assured that the department would look into this and do everything possible to apprehend the villains.

Yes, they probably would do their best to capture the vandals, I conceded as Thea and I returned to the Thunderbird. But, as the officer had pointed out, their best in this situation was limited by a stingy budget. They didn’t have the manpower to do a nightly stakeout, and the patrolling officer was seldom out that way more than once a week.

Thea had again paled by the time we started back across town, and I was concerned she might be headed for another of those blackout spells. The old Thunderbird had come with air conditioning, but it hadn’t worked for several years now. Thea’s knuckles stood out like parchment-covered marbles as she clutched her purse. I watched her out of the corner of my eye. Thea was so strongly tied to the past. She kept in touch with schoolmates back to the Truman era. She regularly visited two other cemeteries in addition to Parkdale and Country Peace. The vandalism of Aunt Maude’s tombstone had hit her like a stomp on her arthritic hands. And probably wasn’t doing her heart any good, either.

On Madison Street, I turned the ’bird into Thea’s driveway, second door down from my own. The old house on the lot between our two places welcomed us with the thud of another falling shingle. The place had been vacant since Effie McKenzie went to live with her daughter in Texas. A For Sale sign had stood in the yard for months, but they hadn’t yet been able to sell the place. Down the street, someone from the Rite-Cut Yard Service was mowing the grass and watering the magnolia trees while the Margollins were off in their motor home, digging into genealogical roots. Boys eager to do yard work no longer lived in our neighborhood.

Thea brightened. “Oh, look, there’s Kendra.”

Kendra Alexander had occupied Thea’s basement apartment for some three months now. Her little red Corolla stood in the detached carport that Thea no longer used. Thea had given up driving after the blackout spells started.

Kendra, carrying a pink plastic sack from Victoria’s Secret, came around to Thea’s side of the car. Her raspberry-red miniskirt revealed an extravagant length of leg, and her wildly tousled dark hair fit the “mane” description of the heroine of a romance novel, but her smile bloomed as sweet and friendly as a spring daisy.

She leaned down to peer in the window. “So, ladies, what have you two been up to? Dragging Main Street, scouting for eligible bachelors?”

Thea giggled. “We wouldn’t know what to do with an eligible bachelor if he threw himself across the radiator. Actually, we were taking flowers out to Aunt Maude and Uncle Romer at Country Peace.” She sobered and went on to relate what we’d found at the old cemetery.

“I’m so sorry to hear that. Why would anyone be so destructive?” Kendra’s lovely dark brows drew together in troubled indignation. “When we were out there before, I thought that other headstone might have toppled over on its own. They’re so old, you know. But to have someone do such a thing deliberately . . . Is there any way I can help?”

“We’ve just come from the county sheriff’s department. We’re hoping they’ll find out something,” I said.

“Aren’t you home early?” Thea asked Kendra.

“My boss gave me a few hours off. I’ll go back later. We’re having our Hot Summer Saturday Night Sell-A-Thon this evening. Free hot dogs and chili.” Kendra wrinkled her nose. “If you have a steel-lined stomach, come on over and chow down.”

Kendra worked in the office at Bottom-Buck Barney’s car lot on Sylvester Street, just a couple of blocks over from Madison. They were strong on “hot.” They ran “hot” coupons in their newspaper ads, and their noisy TV commercials promised “hot” deals and “hot” credit for everyone. It is the type of business that is all too common in our area since the relocation of the freeway.

“Would you like to come to church with us tomorrow morning?” I asked Kendra. Thea and I invited her regularly, but she’d accepted only twice.

Now Kendra looked at her watch, as if today’s time had something to do with tomorrow’s services. “I’m sorry. I’m meeting a friend in the morning.” She didn’t elaborate on what the plans with that friend were. “But I’ll try to go with you again one of these days.”

“Any time,” Thea said.

“Right now I’m going to go take a shower.” Kendra lifted her arms in a chicken flap. “The air-conditioning in the office is on the blink, and I feel as if I’ve been running a marathon through that hot chili.” Her expression suddenly went serious, and she tapped the window frame lightly with a fingernail that sent off iridescent shimmers. “But you two pray for me, okay? It’s . . . especially important right now.”

Kendra momentarily looked so grim, perhaps even a little frightened, and I wished she’d say more. But she just gave us a fingertip wave and flashed one of her million-dollar smiles.

We both watched her traipse to the concrete steps that led to the basement apartment, her spiked heels shortening her stride.

I like Kendra, and I pray for her. She might dress a bit skimpily, and definitely too flashy for my taste, but she is personable and sweet, considerate and helpful. A wonderful tenant, Thea said. Kendra paid her rent on time, didn’t play screaming music, didn’t overload the trash can. Yet there was something about her . . .

“Does Kendra ever strike you as . . .” I paused, trying to corral the appropriate word. “A bit mysterious?”

“Mysterious?” Thea raised her eyebrows. “In what way?”

“Don’t you wonder why a nice young woman would want to work at a sleazy place like Bottom-Buck Barney’s?”

“Jobs can be hard to find.”

True.

I fingered the steering wheel, considering. The usual roar of traffic, now punctuated by a wailing siren, billowed up from the nearby freeway exit. At one time, Madison Street had been quietly residential, curving gently to a rural road below, but the city had reached out like a hungry blob of protoplasm and engulfed us. A white church with a tall steeple and a bell that could be heard for miles had stood at the intersection then. Now the street ended a few doors down from my house, at a concrete barrier decorated with red reflectors, with a breakneck drop-off to the busy exit below. Hundreds of cars now drove every day over the spot where the church had once stood.

“This isn’t an area most single, well-bred young ladies would choose to live in,” I suggested.

“We’re well-bred old ladies, and we live here. Besides, I don’t charge much rent. And it’s convenient to Kendra’s job.”

“She doesn’t seem to have any family or friends.”

“Her family is all out in California, remember?” Thea said. “And she hasn’t lived here long enough to make many friends.”

“But why did she leave California to begin with? I thought half the young women in the country wanted to
go
to California.”

“She must be part of the other half.” Thea leaned her head back against the seat. Her blue eyes went dreamy. “Maybe she left because of a broken heart. Maybe she was madly in love, and he was killed in some terrible accident. An earthquake, maybe. Or suffered some tragic fatal illness. And she just couldn’t stay there anymore after he was gone.”

“She doesn’t look as if she’s pining away. Did she ever mention anyone who got killed or died?”

Thea frowned at my practical line of thought. “No. But she probably wouldn’t. She’s a . . . what do they call it? A very private person. And often she seems so . . . lost in thought.”

True. In spite of Kendra’s usually breezy attitude—and Thea’s tendency to romanticize situations—an air of preoccupation did linger around Kendra. I sometimes saw her in one of Thea’s old lounge chairs under the weeping willow out back, sitting with a book in her lap but not reading. Just staring into space as if she were concentrating every cell in her brain on something.

Yet I also saw a lot of determination in Kendra. She’d already moved up from just filling out forms at Bottom-Buck Barney’s to a position as assistant to the manager. Perhaps Barney’s was just a stepping-stone to some higher goal Kendra had planned.

“Did she have references when she rented the apartment?”

“Oh yes,” Thea said. “Including a letter from a pastor.”

Which seemed odd, considering her lack of church contact here. “Local references?”

“No. California.”

“Did you check them out?”

“No,” Thea admitted. “I didn’t want to spend the money on long-distance calls. But I could have. They all had addresses and phone numbers. She wouldn’t have given them to me if the people were going to report that she stole the furniture or left cigarette burns in the carpet.”

True.

“Did she put up a security deposit on the apartment?”

“Oh yes. And she didn’t try to get me down on the amount. Although she didn’t have much in the way of belongings when she moved in.” Thea frowned as if she hated to admit any flaw in her perfect tenant. “Just one suitcase and a couple of boxes of household things. Most people have more.”

“She probably didn’t want to move a lot of stuff all the way from California.” My reasons for thinking Kendra mysterious were fizzling under scrutiny. Yet . . . “She’s apparently had time to make
one
friend here.”

Guilt jabbed me even as I said that. It sounded snide. Sly and gossipy. And probably quite unjustified. Just because Kendra’s young man rarely came to the apartment to pick her up, and never came in daylight, didn’t necessarily mean anything. Nor did the fact that she’d never introduced him to Thea. Those small niceties were probably as outdated as girdles and beehive hairdos.

Yet there was that evening when Thea and I were coming down the back steps after dark as he was heading for the basement entrance. He didn’t see us until he was almost on top of us, and he’d turned away so hastily that he left a big footprint in the marigold border. All we’d gotten was a glimpse of a tall, lanky man with long arms and an angular jawline. Well-dressed but older, and not the kind of hunk I’d have expected Kendra to go for. And rude. Not a word of apology for almost bowling us over.

I expected Thea to come up with an instant counterargument to my weighted comment about Kendra’s “friend.” Instead she fingered the clasp of her purse and scowled at the moss-covered concrete wall beside the basement steps.

BOOK: Invisible
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