In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, we left private eye Harry Jome being choked by a squatter in a house he checked out as the offices of two private eyes who are investigating his investigation into the death of Ben Bergen, brother of Sue Longtree. The plot thickens in this installment…
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“Hi,” the bearded man said casually into my ear with a blast of disenfranchised breath.
He pushed me farther into the room, paused my strangulation and forced me to kneel. The place was a shambles, the floor stripped to the plywood foundation and strewn with nails and screws and bits of trash fluttering in the wind and rushing in through a gaping hole in the east wall.
“Look,” I said when he released me, finding some fear to put in my voice. “I just bought a fetching suit and I’d like to be able to wear it if you don’t mind. I am trespassing, but I’m trespassing for a reason.”
“Yeah,” he garbled. “Yeah. Uh yeah,” and then, finality lacing his words, “OK. So? So what?” His intonation was freakish, like he’d been taken over by an untuned radio station.
I couldn’t be sure if he was armed or encyclopedically reckless. Turning slightly, I saw that my attacker was carefully biting the skin on his thumb, and not paying me any attention He was nothing but a deadbeat with long, sand-colored hair that knotted at the top of his wide head.
“You a squatter here?” I asked.
He’d forgotten all about me. Extraordinarily blue eyes snapped suddenly and there was kindness in them, but not a lot of kindness.
“Hey,” he said.
“Many people stop by?” I asked.
“Hey,” he told me.
“Don’t be shy.”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
“Tomorrow it will be.”
“Not today though?”
He shook his head slowly.
“Nope,” he said.
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t I fucking look it?”
“More than most.” I thrust some dollar bills at him and brushed the debris off my pants.
“Who comes by here occasionally?” I asked.
“Two guys come by. They get the mail and right off. They don’t say hello or anything. Just get the mail and right off.”
“Is one of them fat and bald and shady.”
He considered the image for five seconds, narrowing his eyes, ran a hand through his knotted hair and narrowed his eyes some more.
“Yeah. And so is the other one.”
“Who else? A mean redheaded woman?”
“I’d like her a lot,” he said. “Bring her around if you can.”
All at once he lowered himself onto the floor cross-legged, rubbing his knees vigorously for warmth.
I started to leave.
“Guy named Lewishom,” he said as I was grappling away.
“What about a guy named Lewishom?”
“He came by and asked about the two guys who get their mail here.”
“What’s Lewishom look like?”
“Like ordinary. Blue sweater. Jacket. Head. Said he was a private eye and he was just curious.”
“Just curious about what?”
“About the two guys who get their mail here, and to let him know if and when they come back to get their mail.”
“What did you say to Lewishom?”
“I told him they both get their mail here.”
“Where did he say you could contact him?”
“A billiards hall. Daim’s Billiards. That was the one.”
“How about somebody named Wald?”
“No,” the guy said thoughtfully. “But I know guys by other names.”
“What kind of other names?”
“You wouldn’t know them, they’re not named Wald. Oh wait,” he said. “Wald, Wald. That sounds familiar.”
“Keep it moving along,” I said. “Maybe you’ll pick up some lint with it.”
“No,” he said. “I was wrong. It don’t sound familiar very much.”
The woman in the bonnet wagged her finger at me from a porch down the block, whose yard was filled with a gaggle of television sets in disrepair and plastic buckets overflowing.
“Thanks,” I said to her.
She said, “Vacant?” And nodding theatrically, she answered, “Vacant.”
I had another useless lead to go by, another big squeeze from all sides. Going from 51st Street back downtown was a short, wet journey, reduced to looking at the hint of a defunct metropolis. I passed a heap of cars in a fenced-in yard. Inside the parameter men were rooting for objects of value. Stained glass windows flickered at me from the white church on 46th Street, the sole business in the area that was still rolling high. On 34th Street there was the old train station, now a megalith of jagged panes of glass, a gouged exterior, one railcar out front for nostalgic reasons that had been forgotten long ago.
I kept on. The rain was flooding into my shoes, and the instant I was back downtown I went into a loud department store and bought myself a new pair of shining wingtips.
“What do you think about that?” I asked the clerk.
“About what, sir?” the clerk asked sleepily.
“These new shoes.”
“They’re good. If we sell them they’re good.”
“You bet they are.”
On Saturday I spent the a.m. hours in my bathtub scouring old documents for any mention of the Longtree family, some photocopies of clippings, features and the rare photograph of men with beards in breeches and frigid women in billowing dresses. I perused back to the beginning. From what I could gather, the story went something like this:
In the mid-1800s they’d come over from Scotland, settled up north and didn’t budge from the area. Langley Longtree, Daddy’s great-great grandfather, was convicted of slaughtering his butcher in the old country and fled to America, disgraced but anonymous for a brief time. Apparently, Langley unsuccessfully tried to do away with some more people and eventually strangled himself in prison with his silk handkerchief. Daddy’s great grandfather, Gregory Longtree, tended the orchard and disappeared after a gruesome lynching of the mayor’s wife during a holiday weekend around 1900.
The narrative was as obvious as a madhouse frenzy, like something worse than the plot of a gothic romance by someone who didn’t like people, or cogency, very much.
As far as Daddy Longtree’s father was concerned, the only son among a legion of daughters, there wasn’t much. He built the orchard into profit and lived in relative peace until the double suicide at the inn. The daughters, however, pretty much wandered the orchard and eventually dropped off the record. History doesn’t generally notice those who don’t attempt to magnify it. The violence in the family didn’t take me aback; even in Sue Longtree there was something primitive and dreadful and cold. She was an arrogant mystery and there was no solution to her, just as there was none to her ancestors. It was a crazy story that included disappearances, reappearances of key figures, darkness and havoc. I couldn’t understand it.
I mulled over the Longtrees for about an hour, accompanied by a sloppy cello sonata by a German romantic who’d obviously had his heart broken continuously.
The sound of the rain was growing obnoxious. The tailor called to tell me that the suit might be ready on Monday. There was no chance it would be done before that. I was depressed about it but the tailor didn’t seem to care.
I showered and cursed my tailor while I examined the contents of my closet. Toweling off I passed the window and happened to notice Parker in the courtyard, shaded by a poplar and talking to a fat companion, who I guessed must have been Porter. Another man was a few yards behind them without an umbrella. Parker pointed out my apartment to his partner.
I decided to take a chance on a big detective agency with the hope that Wald was employed there, but didn’t hope for much. It was called the Bizby Detective Agency, and I walked to an office that signaled the very end of 34th Street, over by the swelling banks of the river.
I had no idea it could rain so much. Twigs and kids’ toys and cans floated down the street. The agency was in an old factory that used to manufacture rubber bands. Now the grounds were treeless and not a slip of foliage was visible.
Inside, the expansive single room building was spartan and off to both sides were labyrinthine corridors. Serious men in hats with files tucked under their arms roamed in and out of the corridors, an atmosphere hectic and mechanical, as though everybody had been spat out of a machine.
I was forwarded by a harried secretary to a cubicle in the middle of the main room of small desks, where a bluff of a woman in a brown wool suit was sitting with a file open in front of her. She had her head lowered but strained her masculine, lusty eyes to look up at me.
“I handle the men,” she said, crumpling the folder and delivering it to the wastebasket under the desk as though it were a ritual.
All around us typists hammered on keys with a sound as deafening as a catastrophic hailstorm. Occasionally all the typewriters would stop at once, and the woman would listen distantly and a little angrily until they resumed.
“One of these men you handle is someone I’m looking for,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “So?”
“I was hoping you could tell me what he’s working on so I could feel better about him bothering a case I’m on.”
The typewriters stopped again in unison and the silence lasted for about two seconds.
“That’s not something I can do.”
“Who’s the supervisor here?” I asked.
“I am. I hand out the cases based on our consultants’ abilities and do all the follow-up work.”
“You’re Bizby?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “You a private dick?” she asked.
“We need more private dicks here.”
“Why can’t you tell me about this person I’m looking for?”
“What’s this person’s name and we’ll see where that leads us?”
“Wald?” I said.
“Walter Wald,” she said to herself. “Nothing I can tell you.”
“I bet you can tell me more than that.”
“We have strict policies here,” she said. Her head was still down and her eyes were getting used to my presence.
“So you have strict policies here. Strict policies are generally made for people who don’t comply by them.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.
“You must have something,” I said. “As one person in this rotten business to another.”
“Oh, I have a lot of files,” she said, her voice and face in monotone. Over the sound of the typewriters I had to lean close to hear what she was saying and it didn’t help that she was talking so low.
“The reason that I can’t tell you anything about Walt Wald is also something else I can’t tell you,” she said.
“I am really asking,” I said. I smiled brightly, and whether it was because no one had smiled at her in a long time, or because she saw how artificial it was, she relented.
“Mr. Walter Wald is no longer employed by Bizby,” she said.
She blinked and I blinked back at her.
“One morning,” she went on, “he was just gone. His stuff was gone. And there was a vulgar note for me taped to his chair.” The woman went on talking about the note and how rude it was and how lousy Wald was and how everybody complained that he couldn’t close a case if it had a latch, how he was probably an alcoholic. “Everybody’s an alcoholic in this business,” she said. “Except for the people who won’t admit it.”
I left through the sea of clattering, wondering what Wald was up to. Nobody so much as glanced at me.
I took an overpopulated bus north to 24th Street, where a William Florence was located. Parker and Porter hopped on at the rear of the bus and stood with their backs facing me next to a grimy fellow with a large book who kept insisting that they find a seat.
At the next stop, a guy in a blue sweater got on and went for the rear and sat adjacent to the grimy fellow with the large book. The bus was becoming some kind of hardboiled convention.
The address for William Florence was in a bland neighborhood with a grassy median running through it and one or two trees that looked like they’d just been stuck there for later use somewhere else. It was a middle-class limbo fighting hard to appear upper-class. The yards were square and zoned with short fences and uncared for thorny bushes. Some kids with dirty knees were tossing around a rubber ball and a group of yellow dogs was watching them and itching their panting faces.
I tapped on the door of a little white house with lace curtains in the windows, a reclining chair on the porch and some spilled soil on the floorboards. Boxes of wine bottles were piled here and there.
The guy who answered the door stood behind a torn screen, feeble and in layers of bulky clothing. He was past seventy but well cared for. Meticulously combed gray hair, a gray mustache that wasn’t dissimilar from a Civil War major’s. Frosty air stirred in the apartment with the clatter of a second person on the premises and the sound of the local news.
“Yes?” he asked, drawing out the word until it almost resembled another.
Inside was the sound of the local news.
“William Florence?” I asked.
“Yes?” he said again.
“Do you know someone named Ben Bergen?”
“No, is he running for office or something.” The old man leaned on the doorframe and licked his mustache.
“Not really. He’s dead.”
“Why should I vote for him, then?”
“I’m asking if you’ve heard the name.”
“I have heard it from you just now.”
Something caught Florence’s attention out in the street and his wrinkled face wrinkled some more. The kids had Parker and Porter surrounded, and the dicks were trying to remain incognito, but the kids were relentless and kept badgering them to catch their ball.
“This neighborhood,” the old man said. “Never used to be like this.”
“What did it used to be like?”
“Not like this. We used to have parades once a week.” He waited for a response and went on, “I never said it was exciting. I’m just saying it never used to be like this.”
“How about the name Longtree? That sound familiar to you?”
“You seem very confused,” he said. “I already told your friend or whomever that I don’t know the name Longtree.”
“What friend?” I asked sharply.
“Man came here this morning asking about the things you’re asking about. Don’t you have a friend who came asking?”
“I don’t have any friends.”
“Maybe that’s the problem. So who are you, young man?”
“I’m a private detective and–”
“Oh,” he said jovially. “Like in those books? Those Dominic Early things.”
“Just like those,” I said.
“I didn’t know there were people like in those things. I’m glad you stopped by because I wouldn’t have known that.” And he slammed the door in my face.
Down the block the kids had dispersed into small delinquent cliques elsewhere. Parker and Porter were pretending to be engrossed by an electrician fixing a telephone pole, each glancing at me. The electrician appeared irritated by the two dicks.
Who’d been asking about the Longtrees? I asked myself, and I was about to start knocking again when another bus halted, aimed downtown and thankfully vacant, at the bus stop.
Hurrying to get on I abandoned Parker and Porter. Both men hustled to catch up, waving their arms at the bus driver who paid them no attention whatsoever. Through the rear window I watched the portly men recede in their disappointed anger. Porter threw his hat on the ground and Parker picked it up and mashed it on his partner’s head. They were so cute in their routine that they weren’t even cute.
I wondered, not for the first time, whether I was as inept as they were in this Longtree debacle. I was missing something and Sue was holding out, but on what I could only conjecture.
I returned to the office, got a batch of blank paper, and waited ten minutes before Parker and Porter drifted up to the building, out of breath and started to see me. Turning with my umbrella I let them follow me to city hall.
The two hapless private dicks were seated on a bench right outside of city hall sheltered from the rain in a dilapidated gazebo. Both were in monochrome vests, sleeves rolled into sloppy bunches, suit coats folded in the empty space between them. To bait them I’d ducked into city hall carrying the stack of blank sheets and deposited the papers in the nearest wastepaper basket. I thought maybe the act would bring out their boldness and it did.
When they saw me Parker stood up, trying to be menacing and cool. His partner had given up on anything more excessive than tilting his head. Rain ran down both their faces, and I was discomfited by how closely they resembled one another.
“Jome,” Parker said in his razor-blade-on-whipped-cream voice. “Sit with us a second, huh? What do you say to that?”
Porter took the coats and set them on his lap and Parker and I sat. Three middle-aged guys sharing the silence of an existential dread. All we needed were bowler hats and canes and a box of caramel drops. We were as fascinating as ice melting in a drain. Parker and Porter moved to crunch against me.
Crisp leaves blew at our feet in a multicolored river.
“I brought my partner along,” Parker said, “because we want to know something and maybe so do you. This is my partner.” Porter smelled like cheap aftershave, and he was only about an inch smaller than Parker.
“What we’d like to know,” Parker said. “Is what it is we aren’t supposed to know.”
“What we don’t know yet,” Porter said. “Such as what’s doing at city hall these days?”
“But we are planning on knowing the facts,” Parker said.
I turned from one to the other of the private dicks, quickly evaluating the knowledge that they didn’t know a single thing about a single thing.
You two boys figure it out and I’ll be right here if you need anything,” I said.
“What stymies us,” Porter said, “is what’s going on with Sue Longtree and you and why’d you go into city hall like that?”
Parker said, “And we’re going to be around you until we find out.”
“The lady has you looking at a suicide,” Porter said.
“So what’s so big about it?” Parker asked. “It ain’t real fascinating but you and she are acting like it’s real fascinating. So why is it so fascinating?”
“What’s the real thing that’s going on here?” Porter said.
There was a little green park going brown across the street, and people in suits were hurrying around in the rain. Next to us on another bench was a man leaning our way, in full denim attire. A wind from the east blossomed and Porter clutched at the hat he’d thrown on the road a little while ago.
“Our affiliation is purely professional,” Parker said.
“Only thing professional about either of you is your absence,” I said. “And that’s debatable.”
Almost in unison they each took one of my arms in fat, quaking hands.
“Listen, Jome,” they said in a gravelly duet.
“Listen, Jome,” Parker said for a second time. “This is serious and we’re serious about it. Our employer would like to be kept abreast and our client is serious, too.”
“I’m sure your client is serious. Everybody’s serious.”
“What’s the drift?”
“There isn’t any drift. You said you have some information for me.” I brushed off their mitts, standing, and glared at them.
“Well,” Parker said. “When you throw us some information we can toss some back to you and we can play that till our arms get tired.”
I jerked a finger at Porter. “Why’s he so quiet all of a sudden?”
“Jome is funny,” Parker said to his partner.
“He thinks he’s funny,” Porter said.
“Yeah, and he’s not very funny.”
“He’s not very funny at all because he thinks he is.”
A woman halted a dog to urinate in front of us and the woman blushed at the three of us and walked off.
“Fuck you,” Parker said.
“I’m glad you’re being yourself again,” I said.
City hall was bristling with suits and briefcases. Somehow these goons understood less than I did about the Longtrees and Bergen.
“You’re not saying anything helpful,” Parker said.
“How about this,” Porter offered. “We’ll tell you something helpful and then you can tell us something helpful about you and Sue Longtree.”
I did my best impression of being impassive.
“All right?” Parker said.
Porter nodded. “Yeah, I think he might be OK with that.”
“There’s another guy on you,” Parker said. “Has the name of Wald and this Wald is sitting right over there.” He flicked his head toward the guy in jeans and a jean jacket and smiled.
“Thanks,” I said. “But that’s recycled news.”
“So what do you have for us?” Parker asked.
Porter said, “Because we’ve just given that to you.”
“As a gift.”
I adjusted my coat sleeves that had been crinkled by their bulbous mitts. “Once I get the drift of something I’ll be sure to let you know,” I said. I fell in with the conglomerating crowd. “See you fellows later.”
“That’s not very nice,” one of them said.
“Not very nice at all,” said the other.
When I passed him the man in denim quickly scurried to his feet and followed me along the sloshed avenue. I walked the bridge over the flooding river and he was there still, pausing when I paused. Reaching my apartment I saw him ebb and disappear further uptown. Sure that he was gone, I doubled back and took a cab to Daim’s Billiard Hall.
TO BE CONTINUED…
PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.
On the day Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota first novel is officially released, we end this multi-part excerpt from the book finding Daylene Hooker waiting up late for events to unfold in far-away Bismarck, where friend Sam is AWOL. Find more about the book here, or find the previous part 6.
Midnight in Nazareth. Daylene on the front porch, smoking the last of her older brother’s store boughts. Wondering what those pills next to his badly-hidden stash of weed would turn out to be. She wouldn’t ask. Waiting for headlights to turn off the empty highway and head into Nazareth. She couldn’t sleep anyway. Watching her chilled breath drift away and disappear into the night. They would have to pass by her house on the way home. She would look for him in the window as the truck passed, maybe offer him a wave. Maybe a karate chop.
Roxy and Joe followed the sleepy tide of students shuffling to their 8 a.m. classes. Joe felt like he was walking around a lost city, or maybe the moon; all the grass and statues and trimmed hedges made him feel like he’d snuck into a private park without permission. The only time he’d set foot on a college campus before was to see Lydia graduate last year in Minneapolis, but that was different: they had been expecting visitors.
They had been in the truck all night, criss-crossing the small grid of Bismarck streets that hugged either side of Interstate 94, hoping to get lucky.
They leaned against a statue of a bison and drank gas station coffee while students shelled in heavy jackets and backpacks filed past like zombies into a lecture hall.
Roxy mustered a weary smile. “Well, old man, you ready to go to college?”
“Long as I don’t have to eat goldfish,” he said. “Or sleep with a goat.”
They must have ducked their heads into 30 classrooms in three different buildings. Finally, Joe thought he heard the boy’s voice coming from behind a door. It was a large lecture hall, with a steep cone of desks leading down to a round floor. And sure enough, there was Sam at the bottom, sitting across a table from an old man who looked exactly the way Joe had pictured a college professor: big glasses, bald head, even a funny jacket with patches on the sleeves. All that was missing was a pipe.
The kid talking to him was Sam, all right.
Joe ducked his head back out into the hallway and motioned for Roxy, and together they went in and stood at the top circle of desks to listen to the heated conversation between the professor and their 17-year-old boy from Nazareth. It wasn’t exactly clear what they were arguing about, but whatever the subject, Joe and Roxy knew it was over their head. History? Philosophy, maybe. The 20 or so students scattered around the cavernous hall watched intently, some scribbling notes.
Joe whispered over to a student sitting in the back row, a kid with a moon-shaped face and glasses covered halfway with shaggy drapes of morning hair. “Hey, buddy — what class is this?”
“Senior seminar in ethics,” the kid said, not looking up from his notebook. He jabbed his pen at the notes he’d been taking. “This is great stuff.”
“Hey,” Roxy called out, suddenly remembering she was a mother who just spent dusk to dawn scouring the streets of Bismarck for this boy. She had the right to be mad. “Excuse me,” she said, cupping her hands around her mouth to make her voice echo throughout the room. “Hey down there. Remember me? Your mother?” Everyone turned to look at her; there were a few giggles. She was hoping Sam would look up at her with a look of surprise and shame, a boy embarrassed by his mother. But he didn’t look up at all.
Joe took a few of the steps slowly. “Let’s go home, son,” he said in his calm voice. He looked around at all the students who were now staring at him, making him uncomfortable in the sudden spotlight. “Come on. We don’t belong here.”
The professor who had been sitting across from Sam as they talked stood up from his chair. “Wait a minute,” he said, scratching his bald head. “You don’t even go to school here?”
“He’s a junior in high school,” Roxy said, folding her arms. “And he’s currently AWOL.”
The moon-faced boy nudged a girl sitting next to him. “This is just like that movie Good Will Hunting,” he said out loud, still writing furiously in his notebook. “Only now, Matt Damon is in high school. Awesome, man, awesome.”
Now the professor looked more closely at the boy sitting across from him. The whole classroom fell silent. Without a word, Sam grabbed his backpack off the floor and trudged up the steps of the lecture hall. He pushed open the door and burst out into the hallway, making Joe and Roxy almost run to catch up with him as he headed outside the building into the cool morning air.
Roxy began to cry. She wanted to sleep, but more than that she wanted to understand. “We were looking all over for you,” she said, grabbing at his arm. “We were so worried.”
“Why were you looking for me?” he said, turning to face them. His eyes were sharp with frustration. “You know I’ve got work to do.”
They got back to the truck and headed north toward the interstate. Joe pulled over at a Perkins and they ordered breakfast. No one ate much. Roxy pushed her coffee back and forth on the table, every so often looking at her son as if she was about to say something, but then stopping short before the words came out. Sam picked at a short stack and watched the Interstate traffic whiz by below them. Joe used the pay phone in the foyer to call James and let him know. When he came back to the table, he stopped short; Sam had moved his chair closer to Roxy, the boy’s head sunken into his mother’s chest. They were whispering to one another, Roxy’s fingers running over Sam’s shaggy hair. Joe didn’t move closer; he watched for a moment, then turned back to the lobby. He would wait a while before going back. If they asked, he would say he’d been on the phone with James. He would sit down at the table and find his appetite again, forgetting exactly what he’d ordered. He would take whatever was put in front of him.
“The Finding at the Temple” is excerpted from Zurhellen’s first novel, Nazareth, North Dakota, due out from Atticus Books April 15. Reserve your copy. Zurhellen, a native of New York City, today teaches writing upstate in New York. We’ll be running the full excerpt in installments — check back every few days for a new one.
Daylene had spent the first few weeks of school flipping through the big dictionary they keep on a swivel like a gun turret, searching for just the right word. Bitch? Too common. Nemesis? Too brainy. Whore? Old territory. Scumbag-sucking Jezebel? Too complicated, too religious. She had been here about a month, long enough to realize some words were never going to make it as far as Nazareth, North Dakota. Her brother had tried to teach her some phrase in French that sounded like woolee-boolee but none of this was any help at the moment because there she was, crossing the parking lot at the SuperValu with Kathy Jubilee and her little cronies from the Country Gals Homemaker Club dead ahead, their pastel print dresses blowing in the warm September breeze like flags at a theme park. Three of them behind a table selling baked goods, which Daylene suspected were a lot like the girls who made them: bland, with way too much icing.
Kathy Jubilee saw her coming and fired the first shot. “Well ladies, look at what the cathouse dragged in.” The other two, Olivia and Dagmar, covered their mouths as they laughed.
Daylene kept walking toward the automatic doors with a smile, even though inside her head there was a trainwreck of words piling up: wooleewhorescummingsuckbitchNemebel. She took a deep breath, stopping to look at the plates neatly arranged on the table. “Cupcakes. How nice,” she said finally. “You girls raising money for another bus trip? Just how far is it to the abortion clinic, anyway?”
Olivia and Dagmar gasped. Kathy Jubilee silently folded her arms.
Oh, it was on.
“She’s got the devil inside,” Olivia said. “Someone needs to cast that devil out.”
“Oh honey,” Daylene said, picking up a cupcake and then taking her sweet time to lick off the frosting. “I got about seven devils need casting.” Then she put the cupcake back.
“Hey,” Dagmar said. “You got to pay for that.”
Daylene flipped her the bird. “You take a company check?” She knew she’d hear about this later from Martha, when she got home. Someone’s mother was bound to call and complain about the new girl destroying family values. But for the moment it was worth it. She was 17; it was always going to be worth it.
“That’s OK, ladies,” Kathy Jubilee said. “You have to take pity on the destitute.”
Honestly, Daylene wasn’t a hundred percent sure what the word meant, but she knew it sounded an awful lot like prostitute, and that was enough. “Listen, blondie,” she said to Kathy, leaning over the table. “One more comment from you or the other Spice Girls and I’m gonna rearrange your face, you got it?” She reached out to grab Kathy’s arm but suddenly all three girls behind the table turned their heads slightly, looking right past her.
From behind, Daylene heard someone clear their throat. “Any of these sugar-free?”
She turned around to face a round-faced, pudgy man wearing a brown sheriff’s uniform that didn’t quite fit. Great, she thought. One cop in the whole county and he wants cupcakes.
“Why, yes sir,” Kathy said, smoothing her dress and smiling again. She lifted up a plate of cupcakes with glittery pink and blue frosting. “I baked these myself. How many would you like?”
“Better just make it two. I’ve got to watch my figure.” He took a couple bills out of his wallet and lay them on the table. He lowered his sunglasses to examine the short, curly haired girl standing next to him, who looked like she might spontaneously combust. “You new around here, miss?” No answer, just an icy stare into space. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Daylene Hooker,” Dagmar offered quickly, her hands clasped behind her back. “Hooker, as in, you know.”
“Yeah, she just moved here,” Kathy said, handing over the cupcakes in a little paper sack. “We’re kind of taking her under our wing, you know, helping her fit in around here.”
“Well, nice to have you here, Daylene.” He tipped his hat, then started back to his car.
Kathy Jubilee scooped up the bills and dropped them in a tin box. “Thanks for supporting the Country Gals, Mr. Rodriguez,” she called after him, adding a wave with her wrist like a beauty queen.
He slid into the open door of his sheriff’s cruiser and waved back. He was probably no older than 40, but he moved like a man a lot older, rust in his joints. He said, “You girls stay out of trouble now,” looking right at Daylene as he pulled out of the parking lot.
God, she missed California. The vast flatness of North Dakota gave her the feeling of being marooned on a tiny island. She had been in this town maybe a month and already she’d been told stay out of trouble a half-dozen times, from teachers, supermarket checkers, old men in dusty pickup trucks, and now the town sheriff. It wasn’t a salutation, it was a warning; at least that’s the way it seemed to Daylene. She wasn’t used to living in a place that had more tractors than people. Growing up outside Vandyland as an air force brat had its drawbacks but at least it had always been easy to become translucent to the rest of the world; unless she was bleeding or calling from county lockup, life in the Santa Barbara suburbs was pretty much a lesson in invisibility. Sure, Cabrillo High had its share of Kathy Jubilees, but at least you could avoid them. Here, she had 19 kids in her entire high school class, and at the moment three of them wanted to shove a cupcake in her face.
A couple more cars had pulled up and now there was a little line forming out into the parking lot behind Daylene, who hadn’t budged from in front of the table. She realized her hands were sore from her fingers being clenched into fists for so long.
“Sorry you can’t afford the cupcake you ate,” Kathy said after her with a pouty face. “Tell you what, it’s on the house. The Country Gals care about all God’s creatures great and small, don’t we ladies?”
“That’s right,” Olivia said. “Especially the small.”
Inside the A/C was cranked like a morgue. Daylene steamed up and down all six aisles like a locomotive. She stopped in front of the deli counter, trying to remember why the hell she went to the store in the first place. She was about to walk back out when a pimply boy in a paper hat leaned on his arms from behind the counter. “What can I get you?”
She turned and stared at him. “How about a stun gun.”
“Don’t have that,” he said. “But the ground beef is in the shape of the starship Enterprise, if that helps any.”
She felt like a cigarette. “Wait,” she said, turning to face him. “It’s shaped like what?”
“You know the Enterprise? Star Trek?” Sure enough, she peered down into the glass and there was a long aluminum tray covered with a weird topography of red meat. The boy shrugged. “I don’t eat meat myself, but it’s fun to play with. Gets boring back here, you know? You should have been here last week, I made the ham salad look like Captain Picard.”
“You are one weird kid.” She studied his face more closely now; he looked familiar.
“Mr. Deegan’s class,” he said. “We built a carbon dioxide molecule together.”
“Oh, right.” She found herself looking through her bag for a pack of smokes. “How did we do, by the way?”
“I think he gave us a C, because we made carbon monoxide. He said we poisoned the whole room. But at least we poisoned everyone without them knowing, on account it’s odorless.”
Her eyes were still on the door. “I could use some of that right now.”
A cart pushed in next to Daylene and parked in front of the scale. The woman behind it bent over on her forearms with a weary smile, her eyes half-open. “Hey, Jan,” she said in a tired voice. “How’s your mom?”
The boy’s face turned pink. His posture stiffened and he cleared his throat. “She’s doing well, thanks. What can I get you, Aunt Roxy?”
Roxy now noticed the pretty girl with the curly dark hair standing next to her, and suddenly she realized she had blundered into the middle of a high school crush. She ordered a pound of the fresh ground beef and smiled at Daylene, her eyes still soft and warm but becoming sharper. “I like your tattoo a lot,” she said, pointing at the cookie monster on Daylene’s wrist. “So, are you friends with my favorite nephew Jan here?”
Before she could get a word out, Jan piped up. “We made a molecule together.”
Roxy shot Daylene a look of mock scandal, slapping a hand to her forehead as if she were about to faint. “Now that sounds like fun. Did you offer her a cigarette after, at least?”
Daylene laughed out loud; this lady was all right. And for that moment, she found herself hoping North Dakota wasn’t going to be completely impossible after all. All the women she’d seen around this town were built like bars of soap; Roxy looked out of place in her cut-off jeans and ballcap, with her freckles and sun-streaked long hair and sense of humor. She seemed to be completely comfortable in her own skin.
Now if she could only remember what she needed from the store in the first place, her day might officially be on the way to recovery.
Oh, yeah. Laz and his fucking Fruit Loops.
But Daylene wasn’t about to let her guard down. After all, she still had to pass back through the gauntlet of Country Gals waiting outside.