Rose Gardner Mystery #4
I had no idea how my life had gotten so complicated.
Sitting in an overstuffed chair in Jonah Pruitt’s living room, I stared out the window as a steady rain beaded on the glass and rolled down the pane. The weather reflected my mood. Dark and gloomy.
“How often do you think of Joe?”
I swiveled my head to look at Jonah, my friend and now therapist. He offered me a warm smile. When I found out a few weeks ago that he’d been a practicing psychologist in Texas, I asked him to consider listening to my problems. We had been meeting twice a week ever since. I had offered to pay him, but he’d responded by saying that because I’d saved his life, he would forever be the one in my debt.
Shifting my gaze to my lap, I picked at a loose thread in the hem of my shirt. “Not as often as I did a couple of weeks ago. Working helps, but the weather has been horrible this past week. I’ve had more free time, which means I’ve been seeing a lot of Violet.”
“How are things going with your sister?”
Now wasn’t that the million dollar question. When Joe walked out of my life a month ago, Violet had been more than eager to step in and coddle me. But I’d found it difficult to step back into our childhood roles—Violet as the protector and me as the helpless victim. I was tired of playing the victim, which meant Violet didn’t know how to relate to me anymore. But more importantly, the night before Joe broke up with me, Violet had confessed that she’d let half the town think I’d stolen her inheritance from our mother’s estate and used it to open our gardening nursery, forcing Violet to work for me without pay. In truth, I’d financed the nursery and allowed her to be co-owner with little investment of her own. Worst yet, she’d let people think badly of me to help hide her own indiscretion—an affair with Henryetta’s mayor, Brody MacIntosh.
I’d forgiven her, but I couldn’t forget.
“Things are still rough. We don’t see each other much except for what little interaction we have at the nursery. Until the rainy weather hit, I was away a lot working on landscaping jobs with Bruce Wayne.”
“Does she seem contrite?”
I shook my head, looking at the window again. “She says she is, but she still sneaks calls to Brody.”
Jonah sat up straighter. “What do her phone calls with Brody have to do with it?”
Closing my eyes, I heaved a sigh. Jonah knew about Violet’s affair with Brody and how her soon-to-be ex-husband Mike had threatened to take their children away if he found evidence of it. But he didn’t know everything.
“Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“No.” While I knew I could trust Jonah with my secrets, I still couldn’t bring myself to tell him the real reason for my breakup with Joe. It was too horrible to think about, let alone talk about: Joe’s father had blackmailed him into running for a state senate seat by producing false evidence that not only had Mike bribed county officials to grant him favors in his construction business, but that I had hired Daniel Crocker to kill my mother, and that Violet had been conducting an affair with Brody. Only Joe didn’t know the evidence his father had on Violet was real. And while I knew that Mike and I were innocent and could clear our names, my sister would pay for her crimes with her children. She’d told me that she and Brody wouldn’t see each other until things died down, but she talked to him in hushed tones on the phone multiple times a day.
Some days, I resented her. I resented how she’d pretended to be so perfect all these years when really she was as flawed as the rest of us. Her mistake had been colossal, and yet she only seemed to regret getting caught.
But I kept my mouth shut, because while I knew that Jonah would never tell a soul, he’d know. He’d look at her differently and treat her differently, and Violet would figure it out. I couldn’t deal with the fallout of that.
But most of all, I kept quiet to protect myself. Resentment ran like a river through my soul, deep and ugly. Jonah was a man of God, and what would he think of me if he knew that?
“I just think she should feel more guilt over having an affair is all.”
“You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings of guilt or lack thereof, Rose. Even Violet’s. You can only be responsible for yourself.”
“I know. I’m just not sure who I am anymore. The person I was before Joe is so different from the person I am now.”
“Rose, you aren’t Eliza Doolittle and Joe wasn’t your Henry Higgins.” His toothpaste-commercial smile reminded me why he was such a success in televangelical circles. “Sure, he played a part in your transformation, but you have to take ownership too.” He paused. “Your past doesn’t have to control your future. You are in charge of your future. Not your mother. Not Joe. You.”
I sucked in my lower lip and snuggled deeper into the chair. Intellectually, I knew he was right, but my mother’s voice was a constant hum in my head.
“I know your mother had a profound effect on your self-confidence, but it’s time to leave her in the past. It’s not going to happen overnight. Honestly, you might struggle with it your entire life. But the more you confront the negativity head-on, the less it can control you. When you hear that voice inside saying you can’t do something, immediately confront it and tell it that you can.”
I laughed. “I’m supposed to talk to myself? What kind of therapist are you, Jonah?”
He smiled. “Yes, talk to yourself all the time. Even out loud if you have to. We believe what we hear repeated over and over to us. Your mother told you that you were evil and worthless. You just need to retrain yourself to believe something different.”
I nodded. When he said it, it made sense.
Jonah shifted in his wingback chair and reached for his mug of tea. “Have our talks helped?” He took a sip. “Do you feel like you’re moving forward?”
“Yeah. I think I’m seeing things more clearly now. And I am moving forward. It’s been five weeks since Joe broke up with me and although I still miss him, I’ve accepted that he’s gone. I want to be happy again, and I think maybe that can really happen.”
“But something’s still not right.”
“Well, it has only been a month, so you’re still grieving. Still, I suspect the problem might be something non-Joe related. Something you seem to avoid every time I bring it up.”
I lifted my gaze. “What are you talking about?”
“Your birth mother.”
Closing my eyes, I pushed myself deeper into the cushions. “I didn’t even know she existed until about six months ago. Why should talking about her make a difference?”
“Her inheritance enabled you to start your business with Violet. Her existence and her death shaped your life in ways that had a profound effect on you. In a way, I’m facing a similar situation with my own mother. I can’t ignore how her actions have impacted my life, and neither can you when it comes to your birth mother. Of course it makes a difference.”
I pressed my mouth closed.
“Have you ever been to your farm?”
“No, Rose. Your farm. You own it. Aren’t you curious?”
I lifted my shoulder into a half-shrug as I turned back to the window. “Maybe a little.” But the truth was, I’d given a lot of thought to my birth mother over the last few weeks. Jonah asked about her almost every time we met and had done so even before our talks became official. The bottom line was that I was angry with Dora Middleton, the woman who’d given birth to me. I knew it was an irrational feeling, but there it was. If she hadn’t died in a car accident when I was less than two months old, my life would have been different.
I didn’t want to tell Jonah any of that. What kind of person would he think I was if I told him I was angry with a woman who’d died through no fault of her own, and might, in fact, have been murdered?
“I’m thinking of selling it. I put all my available money into the nursery and I can’t withdraw anything from my trust for several more years. We’re doing so well, we’re considering expanding, and I could use the cash for that.”
“Don’t make a hasty decision. The farm might be your only tangible tie to your birth mother. At least consider seeing it before you decide.”
I stared out the window at the dreary day. The thought of visiting the farm terrified me, I just wasn’t sure why.
I lifted my mouth into a tight smile. “I’m just tired. Bruce Wayne has been nursing a cold, and I’ve been doin’ both our jobs the last two work days.”
“It could be our sessions too. You’re digging through a lot of emotions in a very short period of time and it’s exhausting. Perhaps we should cut back.”
My eyes flew up and I leaned forward, gripping the arms of the chair. “No. I don’t want to cut back.”
“Okay, we’ll keep meeting twice a week for now.” He set his mug on the coffee table and rubbed his left arm. “And now I need to get to my own therapy session.”
“At least you’re not wearing the sling any more. That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” Jonah had been going to physical therapy since his mother had shot him a month ago.
“Yes, but mine is progressing much more slowly than yours, I’m sorry to say.”
I stood and picked up his mug, sparing a glance at his kitchen chair—the very one his mother had tied me to the night she almost killed me. I shuddered then moved to the sink. “Are you still having nightmares?” I asked, rinsing out the cup.
“Not as often. They’re getting better.” He stood and chuckled. “And I thought I was the one asking questions.”
“Our session is done, which means we’re back to being friends.” I turned around and picked up my sweater. “And I’m allowed to worry about you.”
“I’m healing, inside and out, so no need to worry.”
“It looked like there were more people in attendance at church yesterday.”
That mega-watt smile spread across his face again. “My TV viewership is higher than ever. Everyone loves a good scandal.” He winked at me, but I knew him well enough to see behind his shiny façade. There was pain in his eyes.
I grabbed my purse and threw an arm around his neck, pulling him into a hug. “It’s gonna be okay. For both of us.”
“Be kind to yourself, Rose,” Jonah said.
“Take your own advice, Jonah,” I teased.
I drove back to the nursery, dreading a confrontation with Violet. We had been too busy over the weekend to do much talking, but I couldn’t expect my luck to hold out. We’d had a lot of last minute pumpkin shoppers along with some return customers whose kids loved the hay bale maze we’d set up on the empty lot next door. But tomorrow was Halloween and business was bound to slow down. Despite Violet’s character flaws, she had a good head for business and had already started preparing for a Holiday Open House with live trees, ornaments, and decorations.
She was sweeping the floor when I walked in. She paused mid-stroke and watched me brush past her. “Rose, we need to talk.”
I froze. My increasing animosity must have caught her attention, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to have this conversation. I spun around to face her, taking in a deep breath. “Okay.”
“Tomorrow’s Halloween, so I’ll need to leave early to get the kids dressed in their costumes.”
“Oh.” The band around my chest loosened. “Okay.”
“We can either close early or you can man the shop. Do you have any landscaping jobs tomorrow?”
I shook my head. “We’re in the middle of one right now, but the job site’s bound to be muddy with all the rain we’ve had the last couple of days. Besides, Bruce Wayne might not even be back to work tomorrow. He’s still nursin’ that cold.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Are you sure he’s sick? Maybe he’s just off getting high with his friends.”
“Bruce Wayne hasn’t gotten high since he started working for me.”
“That you know of.”
“You don’t know him like I do, Violet.” The resentment reared its head in me, ugly and large, and there was more attitude in my voice than intended. I was tired of her always criticizing my friend and thinking the worst of him. “He loves his job and would never do anything to jeopardize that.”
She started sweeping again. “Okay … if you say so.” She paused for a second. “Do you still want to go trick-or-treating with us? Mike’s still coming,” she grumbled. “I thought about talking him out of it, but he enjoys traipsing around the neighborhood more than I do.”
She had asked me over a week ago, but since then things had gotten more and more intense between us. But I loved trick-or-treating with the kids. Maybe because Momma had never let me and Violet do it. “Yeah, I’d love to see the kids in their costumes.”
“So why don’t we just close early and you can come over and help? I’ll make a pot of chili.”
I smiled. “I’d like that.” I’d been going to Violet’s for Halloween since Ashley was a few months old and my sister dressed her as an Anne Geddes flower.
Her back straightened and she offered me a stiff smile. “Then we’re good.”
We were far from good, but we’d do for now.
I woke up the next day to my phone ringing on my nightstand. A dusky gray light filtered around my curtains, so I knew it was morning, just another overcast and dreary one.
My little dog, Muffy, whimpered when I leaned over to grab the phone. The display read 6:58 a.m., but no name appeared, just a phone number. “Hello?” I answered, still groggy.
“Rose, this is David.”
David Moore? “What’s wrong?” I shot upright, fear rushing through my veins. David was Bruce Wayne’s lifelong best friend and roommate. And also a notorious pot smoker who didn’t believe in getting out of bed before noon. So why was he calling me before seven in the morning?
“Nothin’s wrong. I’m just callin’ to tell you that Bruce Wayne can’t make it in again today.”
“Why are you calling and not Bruce Wayne?”
“Uh.” He paused. “He’s been up all night coughing and he finally got to sleep.”
“What are you doing up so early?”
“Who could sleep with all that coughing?”
Something didn’t feel right. “Has he gone to the doctor yet? He really needs to see one, David. I know he doesn’t have insurance, so tell him the nursery will pay for it.”
“Okay … I will.”
“He’s still not going to go, is he?”
He didn’t answer.
“Is he running a fever?”
“He could have bronchitis or pneumonia. He probably needs antibiotics.”
“Okay!” David sounded annoyed. “I’ll tell him.”
“David, you really need—”
“I said I’d tell him! I gotta go.” He hung up before I could say anything else.
I threw on a fluffy robe and a pair of flip-flops and took Muffy outside. My next door neighbor, Heidi Joy, waddled out her front door while I watched Muffy relieve herself on her favorite bush.
“Oh, hi, Rose.” She said, tucking her hair behind her ear self-consciously then cinching the belt of her robe over her protruding belly.
“How are you feeling?”
“Oh, you know. Tired. Same as always.” She came around the side of her house toward her trash cans. “Andy’s been picking up a lot more hours to help cover expenses, which is great, but it means he hasn’t been around as much to help me.” She spread her feet apart and leaned over to pick up a metal trash can.
I hurried over to her. “Heidi Joy, let help you with that.” I gently pushed her to the side and picked up the heavy can. “What were you thinking, trying to pick this up? You’re going to hurt yourself.”
Tears filled her eyes. “Andy already left and forgot to carry the cans out. I can’t let all these dirty diapers sit outside another week.”
I put the can down and pulled her into an awkward hug. “Then let me help you. We’re friends, right? Friends help each other. You’ve helped me plenty of times with Muffy.”
I smiled. “Then ask me, okay?”
But I knew she wouldn’t. She was too stubborn. I just needed to remember to offer my help more.
I carted her cans out to the curb and Miss Mildred, my eighty-two-year-old neighbor across the street, came out her front door wearing a housedress and curlers in her hair.
“Good morning, Miss Mildred.”
“There ain’t nothing good about a morning when women are strutting around in skimpy clothes only hours after the sun has risen.”
I sighed. My robe hit mid-thigh. “Would you rather I wait until lunch time to prance around in my skimpy clothes?”
A scowl puckered her face. “Don’t you get fresh with me, young lady. Your mother’s probably rolling over in her grave right now.”
I shook my head. I had no doubts about that, but I was sure some much bigger grievances were causing all that rolling around.
As I suspected, the job site was too muddy for more work, which was just as well. Our next task was to build a three-foot-tall retaining wall. And while I could have done it on my own, it would save time if Bruce Wayne was around to help me cart the stones.
I spent the rest of the morning at two other houses, creating landscaping plans and promising estimates within the next couple of days. The last house belonged to Mary Louise Milligan, one of Violet’s friends from high school. “I saw what you did at the Murphy’s. I loved the fountain, but I really have my heart set on a water garden. A little pond in the back with some of those big-eyed fish. You know the ones. What are they called?” She tilted her head to the side, a perplexed look on her face.
We’d never made a water garden before, but I was thinking about putting one in my own backyard and had been studying the logistics of building one. It didn’t seem difficult. “Sure, we can definitely do that.”
Her face lit up with happiness and she started listing what else she wanted, ticking off each item with a finger. “I want those flowers that float on the water and a waterfall. And also some rocks stacked around to make it look artsy like Betsy’s pond.” Her hands made a somewhat pornographic shape. “Only nicer.” Her eyes widened as she nodded to stress this point.
I watched her as she continued to mime phallic shapes that were nicer than Betsy’s. “Okay,” I finally said, jotting down notes.
My head felt cloudy and my vision got fuzzy. I cringed at the familiar sensation, preparing for the awkwardness that would hit within a few seconds.
“You’re going to have a baby.”
Her eyes flew open, her face turning pale. “How did you know that?”
I forced a smile. “How could I not, Mary Louise? You’ve got a glow that’s hard to miss.” But that wasn’t the reason. Ever since I was a little girl, I’d known things about people. Things I shouldn’t have known. The information came from visions. I couldn’t control my ability, and the visions were always for the people next to me. They were usually mundane, about an unexpected visit from an in-law or the color so-and-so was going to paint her bedroom. But they were almost always awkward, especially since only a few people knew about them.
She twisted her hands in front of her, biting her lip. “But my husband Brian doesn’t know yet.”
“He’s going to be thrilled, Mary Louise.”
“How can you be so sure?”
I’d seen his bright smile when she told him in my vision. “I just am.”
When I finished my drawings—although I couldn’t bring myself to draw the anatomical rock structure—I checked the time and realized I only had ten minutes to get back downtown and meet my best friend, Neely Kate, for lunch at Merilee’s Café .
I parked my truck a block from the county courthouse where she worked and was putting change in the parking meter when I heard someone say my name from behind me.
I spun around, my heart in my throat. “Mason.”
He stopped in front of me, wearing a dress coat over his grey suit. The wind blew his dark blond hair around his face. His cheeks were tinged with pink, making his hazel irises even greener than usual. I hadn’t seen him in almost two weeks, and I was surprised by how nervous I felt.
“How are you?”
“Good. And you?” I brushed my hair back, suddenly very aware of how bad I had to look. I didn’t have on any makeup and my hair was in a messy ponytail. The knees of my jeans were muddy from the first job site and my tan sweater had a coffee stain.
Why on earth was I worried about how I looked around Mason? I’d never thought about it before. But I knew why. The last time we saw each other, we’d admitted that our feelings were more than just friendly. I’d told Mason I wasn’t ready for a relationship yet, that I was working with Jonah to figure out who I was now. Mason had said he’d wait.
His eyes softened. “I miss you, Rose.”
“I miss you too.” But I still wasn’t ready, and I could see in his eyes that he knew that. “I’m meeting Neely Kate for lunch at Merilee’s. Would you care to join us?”
He looked over his shoulder at the café. “I’d love to, but I’m meeting my friend Jeff for a working lunch. Can I get a rain check?”
“Do you really have another lunch date or are you avoiding me?”
“Rose.” Several people walked by and Mason grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to the entrance of an antique shop. “I’m not avoiding you. I’m giving you space. Do you really think I don’t want to be with you?”
I stared at the button on his coat before looking up into his eyes. “No. But I’m worried you’ll get tired of waiting for me.”
He released a soft laugh. “It’s been thirteen days since I last saw you. I’ve been waiting for you since the day you ran into me at the courthouse in July. Thirteen days is nothing.”
My heart stuttered. He’d been counting days. “Not that day. You couldn’t stand me that day.” I’d showed up late for jury duty and literally ran into Mason, making him drop his papers all over the hallway. He’d been furious.
“Okay, maybe not that day, but you definitely piqued my interest. It was soon after that.”
“But I was with Joe.”
“I know. And I’d never put you in a difficult situation, which is why I kept my feelings to myself.”
“If you’ve really waited that long, aren’t you frustrated?”
“No.” His eyes burned with an intensity I’d never seen before. “I know what I want, and I’m a patient man.”
My face flushed at his bluntness. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
“But I hate not seeing you. Can’t we just be friends until I’m ready?”
His face lit up. “Of course. I just wanted to give you some time. And now that my feelings are out in the open, I’m sure I’ll do a terrible job of keeping them to myself.”
“I’m making great progress with Jonah.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“I’m considering selling my birth mother’s farm, but Jonah thinks I should go visit it first.” Before I could stop myself, I blurted out, “Would you be interested in going out there with me?”
His mouth dropped open in surprise.
“Oh, you don’t have to. It’s just that Violet and I aren’t on the best terms right now and I don’t want to go alone, although I’m sure that Neely Kate—”
“Rose, yes.” His voice softened. “I want to come.”
“Of course. I’m honored that I’m the one you asked. Do you want to go this weekend?”
I nodded. “If you can swing it.”
“How about Sunday? I know you work at the nursery on Saturday.”
“Yeah, that sounds good.” But my stomach was in knots thinking about it.
“Great, we’ll work out the details later in the week.”
“Okay.” I paused. “But can we see each other before Sunday?” Now that we’d established he wasn’t avoiding me, I was eager to spend more time with him. Mason was one of the few people who made me feel at home with myself.
He laughed. “I have court tomorrow, but the case should be wrapped up by the end of the day. How about lunch on Thursday? At Merilee’s. You can have Neely Kate join us if you’d like.”
My chest warmed. “Lunch on Thursday. Sounds good.”
Mason pulled me into a hug, lingering for a moment before dropping his arms. “It was good seeing you, Rose.” He smiled then walked down the sidewalk to his car.
Neely Kate was already at a table when I walked into the restaurant. Her long blonde hair was curled and very full, and she was wearing a burnt orange cardigan sweater with rhinestones around the collar and a jack-o-lantern pin. Underneath was a beige button-down collared blouse. I did a double-take. I had never seen her in any shade of beige before. Neely Kate believed in living large and that included bright colors and bling. I sat down and shrugged off my sweater, feeling happier than I had in weeks.
“Does the smile on your face have anything to do with the fact I saw you talking to the Fenton County Assistant DA just now?”
I blushed. “Maybe.”
“Are you going to go out with him or what?”
“I’m still not ready, Neely Kate. I’m working through things with Jonah.”
“Rose.” Disappointment was heavy in her voice. “Are you sure you’re not just holding back because you’re scared?”
She had a point. I’d let fear hold me back from living my life until Momma’s death. Then as I waited to be murdered or arrested for her murder, I worked my way through a list of twenty-eight things I still wanted to experience. That list changed my life. But I knew it wasn’t fear holding me back this time. I hadn’t sorted me out yet. “No. I promise. I just want to take it slow and Mason understands that. If it makes you feel any better, we’re having lunch on Thursday and he’s going with me to visit my birth mother’s farm on Sunday.”
Her smile fell. “You’re kidding.”
“I thought you’d be happy.”
“I am, but I’m stuck on the fact that you said you’re going to your birth mother’s farm.”
“Jonah thinks I need to confront my past. And her farm is part of it.”
“It’s not a very romantic date. The last time I forced you to talk about the farm, you said it’s run down and no one’s lived there for years.”
“It’s still run down, but it’s not a date, Neely Kate, not really.”
“Mason seemed happy to go with me.”
“The man would tie your shoelaces if you let him just so he could be with you.”
“Neely Kate.” The way she said it made me reconsider asking him. I didn’t want to take advantage of his kindness. He’d done enough for me.
“I’m kidding. Kind of. I’m sure he’s happy to go with you. And it could be romantic, just bring lunch and—”
“It’s not supposed to be romantic, Neely Kate. It’s supposed to be about me connecting with my past.”
“And doing it with the man of your future…” Her face lit up. “I changed my mind. It is romantic.”
A dreamy look filled her eyes. “Yes, a hopeless romantic.”
We ordered lunch, but Neely Kate only took a few bites of her sandwich before pushing it away.
“I’m not feeling very well. It must be all that Halloween chocolate Tiffany brought into our department. I’m a sucker for those mini Snickers bars, but even those have been turning my stomach.”
“That’s not like you.”
She inhaled and sat back in her seat. “I know. I’d call it a stomach bug, but it’s lasted for days. I’m so exhausted every night that I’ve been falling asleep before ten.”
“Bruce Wayne hasn’t been feeling well, either. He says it’s just a bad cold, but he’s missed three days of work, which means he’s been sick even longer because today is Tuesday and he doesn’t work on the weekends. I’m really worried about him. And what’s even weirder is David was up before seven this morning. He called me to tell me that Bruce Wayne wouldn’t be in.”
“That pothead was up before the sun rose?”
“Well…it was after the sun rose, but obviously much earlier than he usually gets up. According to David, Bruce Wayne was up coughing all night, but he refuses to go to the doctor because he doesn’t have insurance.”
“Oh, dear. I can see why you’re worried.”
“Maybe I should check on him myself. I can bring him some chicken soup so I don’t look so obvious. He hates attention.”
“That’s a great idea.”
“And if he’s really sick, maybe I’ll kidnap him and take him to the doctor myself, like it or not.”
“Well, if anyone can pull it off it’s you. You have an influence over that man that no else seems to have. It’s a good thing you use it for good instead of evil.”
I laughed, but I could see how easy it would be for someone Bruce Wayne trusted to control him. I was just glad he was trying so hard to stick to the straight and narrow path.
After ordering Bruce Wayne’s soup to go, along with a slice of apple pie, I said goodbye to Neely Kate and headed over to his house.
Bruce Wayne and David lived in a rental house in an older part of town. The first time I saw their house, the paint was peeling off the siding and the yard was overgrown. But when I stopped by again after Bruce Wayne started working for me, the bushes had been trimmed and all the weeds pulled out. Bruce Wayne had begun taking pride in his work, his life. I felt lucky to be a part of his transformation.
I wondered if Joe had felt the same about me?
The thought shot a stab of pain through my chest, but I took a deep breath and walked toward the front door. Joe was in my past. It was time to let him go.
I knocked and waited for someone to answer. After about ten seconds, I knocked again and called out, “Bruce Wayne, it’s Rose. I brought you some chicken noodle soup and a piece of apple pie. It’s from Merilee’s. Your favorite.”
When he didn’t answer, I tried the door knob, surprised to find it unlocked. Pushing the door open, I looked around the tiny living room. “Bruce Wayne?”
I stepped inside, leaving the door cracked behind me. The living room was messy; the secondhand furniture had seen better days. I looked around the corner and saw dishes piled high in the kitchen sink.
Heading down the hall, I peered into the bathroom. The trash can caught my eye and I realized that there weren’t any used tissues in it. Unless David had suddenly developed a type-A personality when it came to taking out the bathroom trash, it seemed strange.
Continuing down the hall, I peered into both empty bedrooms. One was generically messy, but it was the other that grabbed my attention. Several of the dresser drawers hung open. I walked in and found a photo of Bruce Wayne and his parents on the nightstand that looked like it dated back to his high school days. A silver necklace with a medallion lay on the dresser. I picked it up and recognized St. Jude. I’d seen him wear it a few times. But what concerned me the most was that two drawers were empty and there were multiple empty hangers in his closet.
Bruce Wayne wasn’t sick.
Bruce Wayne was gone.
I ran to my car and pulled out my cell phone. “He’s gone, Neely Kate! Bruce Wayne’s gone!”
“Oh, my God! He’s dead?”
“What?” I shook my head. “No! He’s gone. As in he packed up his clothes and left.”
“I don’t know.” My voice broke. “But if his parole officer finds out, they’ll put him back in jail. And he might not get out this time.”
She sighed. “So I guess telling Mason is out.”
“Definitely.” I fought to keep from crying. “I don’t understand. Why would he take off? He was doing so well.”
“I don’t know, Rose. What’re you goin’ to do?”
“David wasn’t at their house, so he must be at work. I’m going to swing by the Piggly Wiggly. Ten cents to the dollar he covered for Bruce Wayne this morning.” Which meant David had lied to me. My hand gripped the steering wheel. “I’m going to make him tell me what he knows.”
“Good luck. And keep me updated.”
While Bruce Wayne had been making progress at becoming a productive member of society, David had been making strides of his own. He’d been working at the Piggly Wiggly since Bruce Wayne’s trial for murder three months ago, longer than most jobs he’d held.
Sure enough, I found him stocking a shelf with cereal. He stood bolt upright when he saw me, a box of Cap’n Crunch shaking in his hand. “Rose, what are you doing here?”
“I’m looking for you.”
The color drained from his face. He put the box on the shelf.
“I stopped by your house a little while ago to bring Bruce Wayne some chicken soup and apple pie. Imagine my surprise when he wasn’t home.”
David picked up another box, his hand shaking so badly the cereal inside rattled. “Maybe he went to the doctor after all.”
I put my hand on my hip. “Was he plannin’ on spending a really long time in the waiting room? ’Cause it looks like he took most of his clothes with him.”
He threw the box down and took off running.
He headed for the back exit and I followed him out the door, cornering him on the loading dock.
He turned to face me, wide-eyed. “I didn’t want to do it.”
“Do what?” I took a breath and held up my hands in surrender. “It’s okay, David. Just tell me where he is. I want to help him.”
He shook his head. “The best way you can help him is to let this go.”
None of this made any sense. My voice broke. “I don’t understand. Why did he leave?”
“I don’t know for sure. He was gone when I got home from work last night. I called you this morning to cover for him. In case he came back. If his parole officer finds out…”
“I know,” I said, the words full of worry.
David squared his shoulders. “Are you goin’ to turn him in?”
I shook my head. “No. I don’t want him to get into trouble. I want to help, but I can’t do that if I don’t know where he went and why. He wasn’t sick, was he?”
“So where was he instead of working?”
“All I know is that for the last few days he’s been leavin’ early in the morning and only coming home to sleep. And then last night, he didn’t come home at all. The other day I asked him where he was goin’, ’cause I knew he was calling in sick to work, but he insisted that I didn’t want to know. I could tell he was scared.”
“Scared of what?”
Pressing his lips together, he shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“If you hear from him, promise to call me immediately. Okay?”
“Please, David. I’m worried sick.”
“Okay.” He nodded. I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was worried too, which only made me feel worse.
“Thanks.” I headed out to my car and called Neely Kate. When she didn’t answer, I left a message telling her what I’d found out. I was deep in thought when I pulled up to the nursery, unsure what to do about Bruce Wayne. I grabbed my drawings from the truck and headed for the back to work up some estimates.
Violet was standing behind the register, but she came around the end of the counter when she saw me. “Rose, I need to tell you something.”
I stopped and blinked. “Okay.”
“I got a phone call yesterday, from the Arkansas Small Business Administration. They’ve presented us with a wonderful opportunity.”
“Oh, that sounds great.” I swiped some loose hairs from my face, my mind still stuck on Bruce Wayne. “What is it?”
“Well…” She twisted her hands in front of her, looking at the floor. “They want to feature our business. We’ll be part of a press conference and they’ll post a story about us on their website. And they’ve promised to give us that grant I applied for, the one that will let us expand into the lot next door like we’ve been talking about.”
I dropped my defenses and gave her my full attention. The grant meant I wouldn’t have to come up with the extra cash. “That sounds great, Vi. Why didn’t you tell me yesterday?”
“Well, there’s a catch.”
My back stiffened. “What is it?”
“The presentation is part of a campaign stop.”
“Joe’s?” A band constricted around my chest and I fought to take a breath. It couldn’t be.
She cringed and her words rushed out. “When I agreed, I told them you wouldn’t be here. That’s why I didn’t mention it yesterday. I didn’t want to hurt you. But they called back today and said we both had to be present. And if we’re not, we won’t get the grant.”
“I don’t understand. We’re not even in his district.”
“They said the small business administration is part of his platform; that it’s a great opportunity for both sides.”
Feeling lightheaded, I leaned against the counter. “When is it?”
“Tomorrow at one. They need to have it done as soon as possible since the election’s a week from today.”
Joe was coming to the nursery. I was going to see Joe.
“The press will be here. Joe will hand us the grant check. They’ll interview us, and that will be that.”
I didn’t know if I could stand with him in front of cameras and pretend nothing was wrong.
“Rose.” She sounded worried. “Say something.”
“I need to sit down.”
She dragged a stool from around the counter and I perched on it, resisting the urge to put my head between my knees to keep from passing out. I will not faint. Thankfully, all the recent shocks in the last few months had helped me outgrow that reaction. But apparently some shocks were still strong enough to bring it back.
“How much is the grant?”
“Large enough to build a greenhouse. We’d be two years ahead of our business plan and you wouldn’t have to get a loan or sell your farm.”
I closed my eyes.
“I’d tell them no, Rose, but it’s a grant. We don’t have pay it back.”
“Okay,” I whispered.
She released a soft groan. “I’m gonna tell them no. It’s not fair to you. Not after what that man did to you.”
I looked up into her clueless face. She had no earthly idea what he’d done to protect her and her children.
I stood up. “No. We’ll do it.”
“Are you sure?”
I headed to the back room. “I have to work on some estimates.”
She followed me to the doorway. “I’ll tell them no, Rose.”
I spun around. “No, you will not. I’m not gonna hide and pretend like I’ve done something to be ashamed of. Now I have to get to work on these estimates if we’re hosting a press conference tomorrow.”
The bell on the front door dinged and guilt covered Violet’s face.
I sighed, weary of the conversation. “I’m fine, Vi. Go.”
I spent the next two hours trying to concentrate on my work, a difficult task given all the worries weighing on my mind. I tried to call Bruce Wayne three times. The first call rang with no answer, but the other two times it went straight to voice mail. I left messages all three times, begging Bruce Wayne to call me and let me know he was okay.
I struggled to come up with an explanation for why he had fled. After all, he hadn’t run after witnessing a murder while robbing the hardware store. He’d gone to David for help. Of course, that hadn’t turned out well, and as much as I loved Bruce Wayne, I’d be the first to admit he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. He’d been a pothead for years, notorious for making the same mistakes over and over again. It stood to reason that he’d repeat his earlier behavior by seeking help from David. So if he hadn’t gone to David with his problem this time, where was he?
I was lost in thought when Violet came back and told me that it was five and she was closing the shop.
“Are you still comin’ over?”
“Yeah. I just want to get Muffy.” I felt guilty enough about leaving her home alone all day, and although our neighborhood didn’t get a lot of trick-or-treaters, I didn’t know how well she’d do if people were knocking on our door all night.
“Okay, get Muffy and come on over. The kids miss you.” She sounded wistful and I wondered if she was implying that she missed me too.
But I couldn’t bring myself to say it back.
I smiled as I pulled into my driveway, pleased by what I saw. I’d neglected my own yard most of the year, but I’d gone all out for Halloween and Thanksgiving. My front porch was decorated with hay bales and corn stalks, pumpkins and squash.
I went inside and took a short shower then changed into a clean pair of jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt. Last year I’d dressed up as Red Riding Hood—I’d had to sneak out of the house past Momma—but I didn’t feel like putting on a costume tonight. Bruce Wayne’s disappearance had stolen what little joy I’d found since losing Joe.
Although I had decided not to dress up, I still wanted Muffy to have a costume. It was her first Halloween with me and I knew Ashley and Mikey would love it. My usually good-natured dog had other ideas. When I started to pull the bumblebee costume over her head, she tried to escape, but I managed to get it on after some wrestling. I put her on the ground, and she shook her body like she always did after a bath, tipping her head up to look at me, as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”
Since I didn’t have any children and none were in the foreseeable future, Muffy would have to bear the brunt of my overzealous desire to participate in all the holidays. And while she might not like this costume, I was sure she wouldn’t protest the Christmas presents I planned to get her.
My eyebrows lowered as I took in the yellow-and-black-striped stuffed costume that covered most of her trunk and the short gauzy wings that stuck out from its sides. The plumpness made her spindly legs look even skinnier, but her dark fur blended perfectly with the color scheme. My mouth twisted to the side as I debated whether it was worth my trouble and Muffy’s obvious reluctance to try to get the cap with the antennae fastened on her head. Ultimately, I stuffed the little hat in the bag I’d packed to take along. No sense pressing my luck.
“Okay, girl. Let’s go.”
As I let Muffy outside and turned to lock up, Heidi Joy’s four older boys came piling out of their front door, shoving and shouting, each of them clutching an orange plastic pumpkin. Muffy usually ran right to them, but this time she bolted into the front yard, throwing herself to the ground and rolling onto her back.
“Muffy! Stop that right now! You’ll mess up your costume!”
The boys ran over and stood in a semi-circle around her, their mouths hanging open. Andy, Jr. grabbed his belly and burst out into laugher. “What in the world happened to your dog? Did she jump into a hill of fire ants?”
The other boys giggled.
“What’s she wearing?”
“She’s wearin’ a Halloween costume, just like you. What’s it look like?”
His eyes narrowed. “She looks like a hot dog with mustard stripes.”
“She’s a bumblebee, not a hot dog.” I knew I sounded defensive and I was. I didn’t like it when people made fun of her.
“Where’s her stinger?” four-year-old Keith asked.
“She doesn’t have one.”
He shook his head and mumbled, “If she don’t have a stinger, she’d be dead. She don’t look like a dead bumblebee.”
Muffy continued to roll around and let out a loud fart, the smell permeating the air.
A chorus of giggles and “Ewww…” erupted from the boys.
“But it smells like she’s dyin’!” Andy, Jr. waved in front of his face and burst out laughing again.
I gave the boys a frown before scooping Muffy into my arms. “Y’all are gonna hurt Muffy’s feelings.” I looked down at Andy, Jr. “What are you supposed to be?”
“I’m a pirate.” The six-year-old tugged on the patch covering his eye. His three little brothers crowded around him, dressed as Spider-Man, a dinosaur, and a cowboy. Heidi Joy came out her front door with the baby, who was dressed as a puppy, on her hip. She was wearing a long-sleeved black T-shirt with a baby-sized skeleton overlaying an adult-sized skeleton.
Andy, Jr. held up his plastic sword and spoke in a growl, “Give me your buried treasure or I’ll make you walk the plank.”
I considered telling him he wasn’t getting anything after making fun of Muffy, but decided I could be more mature than a six-year-old. “I left you some treasure on my front porch, but it’s not buried. It’s hiding behind my pumpkins.”
The boys ran onto the porch while I shifted Muffy’s costume back into place and put her in the truck with my tote bag, hoping she wouldn’t hurt herself by trying to get the costume off in there. The boys’ squeals of delight made me smile.
“We each have our own bag!” four-year-old Keith shouted.
“You spoil them, Rose.” Heidi Joy shook her head with a smile as she transferred the baby to her other hip.
“They’re not bags full of candy, I promise. I put coloring books and a puzzle in each of them. I figured they’ll get enough sugar tonight.”
“Like I said, you spoil them.”
“I’m headed to Violet’s. Can you keep an eye on my house? After all the craziness in the neighborhood over the last few months, I’m worried about what the older kids might do, especially Thomas and his friends.” Thomas was a high school senior who seemed determined not to graduate and had gotten mixed up with Daniel Crocker’s friends. He’d made no secret that he didn’t like me and had insinuated that Crocker’s men were upset with me for helping putting their boss behind bars.
I suddenly wondered if Bruce Wayne’s disappearance was somehow tied to Daniel Crocker. When the police threatened to arrest him for the murders committed by Jonah’s mother, he’d sought refuge at Weston’s Garage, the former headquarters of Daniel Crocker’s drug and stolen car parts ring. Bruce Wayne had worked for Crocker a year ago, before he was arrested for the hardware store manager’s murder, and Crocker’s men were loyal to their own. But if Bruce Wayne had sought help at Weston’s Garage, what had scared him in the first place?
Horror spread across Heidi Joy’s face, and I realized that all the drama in our neighborhood had nearly toppled her over the edge. “Oh, don’t worry.” I tried to look comforting. “I don’t expect anything to happen. It’s a just-in-case type thing.”
She nodded, worry furrowing her brow. “Sure. Of course.”
My head tingled with the tell-tale sign of an oncoming vision. I saw a moving van outside Heidi Joy’s house, her husband Andy and his friend carting furniture into it. Autumn leaves littered the yard.
“You’re moving.” I said.
Her eyes widened and her tongue seemed tied. Finally she said, “How did you know?”
I glanced at the baby skeleton on her belly. “Call it a hunch?”
“I love having you for a neighbor, Rose. You know that. But now that it’s getting colder, it’s harder than ever to entertain these boys in that tiny house. I told Andy when we moved in that it was too small. A two-bedroom house with five boys? And another on the way…” Her voice broke.
I didn’t want to confess that I’d had those same thoughts when she’d moved in months ago. Instead, I pulled her into a hug. “I’m sorry.”
“Listen to me, belly-aching. We’re lucky to have somewhere to live after Andy lost his job and we lost our house. But he’s been working all this overtime to try and save enough money to move us into a bigger house before the baby’s born.” A lopsided grin lifted her mouth, her eyes shiny with tears. “Especially since it’s a girl.”
Heidi Joy was going to move. I wasn’t sure why that surprised me. It was probably the most logical decision they’d made in the few months I’d known them. I’d miss our chats, but I had to push my selfishness aside. “A girl! How wonderful! I know how badly you wanted a little girl.” I forced myself to sound happy. “Have you found a new place yet?”
“No. But we’re looking at a few options in a couple of days. The baby’s due in three weeks.”
“Well, that’s wonderful news. And if I can help at all, just let me know.”
“Thanks, Rose. I’ll miss you.”
“Well, it’s not like you’re leaving Henryetta, is it? We’ll still see each other.”
“Yeah.” But she sounded sad. We both knew it wouldn’t be the same.
The boys ran off the porch. “Mommy! Let’s go trick-or-treating!”
I grabbed her arm and squeezed. “It will all work out, Heidi Joy. I promise.”
She nodded then herded her boys into a group, forcing the bigger ones to hold hands with the little ones. I climbed in my truck and watched them walk down the street, a lump in my throat.
Change was the way of the world. Only it never seemed to work in my favor.
I shook my head, irritated with my wallowing. I had more blessings I could count. I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself.
Ashley was waiting at her front door dressed as a pink princess.
“Muffy!” she shouted as we walked up, Muffy still trying to shake off her costume. “You’re so cute!”
At least somebody appreciated her costume.
Muffy jumped into her arms and licked her face, making the little girl giggle.
“Hello there, princess. Have you seen my favorite niece, Ashley?”
Giggles erupted. “It’s me, Aunt Rose!”
“Oh, my goodness! It is you!”
“And I’m your only niece.”
“When’d you get so smart?”
She put her hand on her hip and cocked her head. “I’m in kindergarten now.”
“Well, no wonder then.”
Violet was in the kitchen trying to get Mikey stuffed into a dragon costume. She twisted her head to look at me. “I thought you’d be here by now.”
“I was dressing Muffy.”
She just gave me a look.
I put a hand on my hip. “Well, she can’t go trick-or-treating without a costume.”
Her mouth pursed. “Hmm.”
“Daddy’s here!” Ashley shouted, running from the room.
Violet made an ugly face. “Yippee.”
A few moments later, Violet’s estranged husband walked into the room with Ashley on his hip, Muffy trotting behind them. He set his daughter down on the floor, laughing. “I stumbled upon this beautiful princess and her valiant mosquito.”
“Muffy’s not a mosquito, Daddy,” she giggled. “She’s a bee.”
He bowed low, sweeping his hand wide. “Excuse my mistake, my royal insect. No insult intended.”
Ashley covered her mouth, still giggling.
“I heard there was a fire-breathing dragon in the bowels of the kitchen, and as the princess’s knight in shining armor, it’s my duty to save her from the beast.”
“I don’t know about fire breathing,” Violet muttered. “But he’s passing enough gas that we could light his farts on fire. I have no idea what on earth your mother feeds him for lunch, but I wish she’d stop.”
“Violet!” I hissed.
Mike shot her a glare and snatched up Mikey. “I’m not afraid to wrestle a dragon,” he laughed as he carried the toddler into the living room, Ashley trailing behind. Muffy gave me a long look then ran after them.
“I don’t know what’s gotten into you, Violet Mae Gardner Beauregard, but you stop it right now!” I whisper-shouted.
Her eyes flew open in shock.
“I don’t care how angry you are at Mike. You be nice to him in front of your children, and you sure as tarnation should not speak badly of his mother. That woman loves them more than life itself. Not to mention that she watches your children without pay.” Unleashed, my bitterness spread through my body, saturating every word. “You have no idea how lucky you have it.”
Violet’s mouth fell open. “What in the world has gotten into you?”
“I think you should count your blessings because a lot of people have sacrificed to let you keep them.”
Her eyes narrowed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
I couldn’t believe I’d let myself say so much. “Nothing.” I walked into the other room to get away from her.
Violet acted hurt until it was time to go trick-or-treating, and then she announced that she’d decided to stay home and hand out candy. Mike and I left with the kids, Muffy trotting next to me on her leash. Ashley and Mike had coerced her into wear her antennae while I was in the kitchen with Violet, but the look of indignation on her face told me that it hadn’t been consensual. We walked down the street, Ashley not as excited as she was before we left. It felt awkward and sad without Violet, as if one leg of a three-legged stool was missing. The three of us had always taken Ashley and Mikey out together.
Mike and I stood at the end of a driveway and watched the kids walk up to a neighbor’s front door. I held Muffy’s leash, trying to keep her from flopping onto her back again. One of her wings was already dented and had a small hole in it.
“I was sorry to hear about you and Joe breaking up,” Mike said, keeping his gaze on the kids. “I hope Violet didn’t have anything to do with it.”
I sighed and mumbled, “Not how you think.”
He spun to face me. “What?”
“No. She didn’t.”
He relaxed and stuffed his hands in the front pockets of his jeans. “I miss seeing you, Rose. You’ve been like a little sister to me. I should have called to check on you, but I wasn’t sure…with Violet.” He cleared his throat. “How are you handling everything?”
“I’m better.” I wrapped my arms around my chest, my heart aching. I’d lost so much in my life recently and I just kept losing more. “I miss you too, Mike. I hope you’re doing well.”
“I’ve been better,” he sighed as the kids ran back to us. “I’ve been a helluva lot better.”
Ashley held up her pink pumpkin. “I got M&Ms, Daddy!”
“That’s awesome, my little princess!”
Melancholy hung over me the rest of the evening, seasoned with my dread of facing Joe the next day. Mike and I took the kids back to the house and went inside, stopping in the entryway. Violet was sitting on the sofa with a bottle of wine and two glasses, one partially full.
“I’m going to go ahead and head home, Vi. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Oh!” she exclaimed, jumping off the sofa and walking over to me, disappointment in her eyes. “I thought maybe you could stay and have a glass of wine with me and we could talk. We haven’t really had a chance to for weeks.”
I glanced at Mike, who awkwardly stood to the side.
“I’m really tired and I want to get plenty of rest for tomorrow. What time do I need to be there?”
“The presentation is at one, but we should both be there by twelve. I think it’ll take the whole afternoon.”
No way could I handle that. “Once my part is done, I’m out of there.”
“Okay.” She nodded.
“Aunt Rose?” Ashley tugged on the hem of my sweater. “Can Muffy sleep over with me?”
“I don’t know…” I hadn’t had any run-ins with Thomas in over a month, but I was still worried that he and his friends might try to prank my house. If Muffy was there, at least she’d be some kind of alarm system. “I kind of want Muffy to spend the night with me tonight. How about tomorrow night? If it’s okay with your mommy.”
“Can she, Mommy?” Ashley spun to face her mother. “I miss Muffy.”
“Okay, maybe Aunt Rose can bring Muffy to the shop tomorrow. She should be there for the press conference anyway. She is the nursery mascot.”
Her statement surprised me. She usually didn’t like Muffy hanging around the store.
I flashed Ashley a smile. “Muffy will be very excited. She loves having sleep-overs with you.”
Mike picked up little Mikey and put an arm around Ashley’s shoulders. “How about I get you two ready for bed?”
Violet looked surprised. “You don’t have to do that, Mike.”
He stopped and stared at her for several seconds. “I know, but I miss this. Our family.” His voice was raspy, so he cleared his throat. “I’d appreciate it if you’d let me get them ready for bed.”
For once Violet seemed at a loss for words. “Sure, Mike,” she finally said. “Thank you.”
Violet watched them disappear down the hall, and there was a certain heaviness in her eyes when she turned back to me. “Are you sure you can’t stay?”
My heart ached. I longed for the days when Violet and I had been close, but lately I’d begun to wonder how close we’d really been. My faith in Violet had wavered in everything, including her role in our shared past. If she’d managed to hide an affair from me for months, what else had she hidden? I couldn’t stay tonight because it was too hard to hide my bitterness and anger. I knew I needed to confront her, but now wasn’t the time. “I’m tired. I’ve been working more with Bruce Wayne gone.”
“When is he coming back?”
“I’m not sure.” I sure wished I knew. I needed to start figuring out where he was, and what I could do to find him.
I headed home, suddenly feeling more lonely than usual. I missed Joe, but I realized it wasn’t an all-consuming feeling, like it had been for the past several weeks. The kind that sometimes stole my breath and threatened to suck me into an abyss of despair. No, the grief had turned to a nagging ache, and when I really stopped to examine it, I realized it wasn’t even necessarily Joe that I missed. It was having someone in my life to share the little things no one else cared about.
Did that mean I was ready to move on?
I pulled into my driveway and walked up to my dark front porch, looking for any signs of mischief from Thomas and his friends, but everything was in its place.
When had I become so paranoid?
Muffy was still wearing her costume, and I considered taking it off before letting her loose to go to the bathroom in the front yard, but she didn’t seem to mind it anymore, perhaps because she’d broke it in. One of her antennae had fallen off completely and the broken wing was hanging lopsided. Somehow it seemed to suit her even more now.
My eyes drifted to Thomas’s house. He was in his driveway, sitting on the back of his car with two of his friends. When Bruce Wayne had disappeared last time, it was after an encounter with Thomas at Jonah’s church. I was beginning to suspect that Bruce Wayne’s disappearance definitely had some tie to Crocker’s gang. I just didn’t know what. The question was, would Thomas tell me anything?
There was only one way to find out.
I could only imagine the harassment Muffy would endure if I took her with me in her costume, so I stripped it off before clipping her leash onto her collar. She immediately began to jump around in excitement. If only my enthusiasm matched hers. Instead, dread filled my belly like a boulder, dragging me down my steps. I forced myself to straighten my back and lift my chin as I walked. I was about to confront a handful of teenage boys. What was I so worked up about?
A giant grin spread across Thomas’s face as I approached his car. His two friends flanked him, each with a beer can in hand.
“Well, look who’s come-a-callin’.” Thomas laughed. “Here to party with us, Rose?”
I swallowed the lecture on the tip of my tongue. It would be wasted breath and wouldn’t encourage him to help me. “Have you seen Bruce Wayne Decker lately?”
Thomas’s smile turned wicked. “Nope, he’s usually hiding up your skirt when I see him.”
My face burned with anger and embarrassment. “Are you sure you haven’t seen him? Maybe out at Weston’s Garage?”
He hopped off the back of the car and strutted toward me. He was a tall and lanky seventeen-year-old who hadn’t quite grown into himself. But he could still cause me physical harm. The question was whether he’d cross that line.
“Maybe you’d like to come pay a visit and see for yourself. I know a few friends who’d love to have a chat with you.”
The hairs on my arms stood on end. “Have you seen him or not?”
He cocked an eyebrow with a smirk. “You didn’t say the magic word. Please.” The street light caught the medallion at the base of his throat.
I drew in a breath, trying to rein in my impatience. “Thomas, would you please tell me if you’ve seen Bruce Wayne?”
He leaned his face into mine, his beer breath nearly making me gag. “That wasn’t so hard, now was it?” he whispered, then grinned wider and stepped back. I got a better look at the medallion, which was a St. Jude’s charm. Funny, Thomas didn’t strike me as the religious type and his mother was Pentecostal. “I haven’t seen him since last week.”
“And when and where was that?”
“Last Friday. At Weston’s Garage. Now you owe me something.”
I took a step back. “What could I possibly have that you want?”
“I’ll let you know when I want it.” Then he started laughing again, his peanut gallery joining in, and turned his back to me.
Muffy lowered her head and released a growl. I tugged on her leash. “Come on, Muffy.”
Their laughter filled the darkness as I walked back to my house. I was surprised Miss Mildred hadn’t called the police on them yet for disturbing the peace. When I got inside, I locked all the doors and windows, more irritated than scared. Thomas was a lot of talk, but I knew one day he’d cross a line that couldn’t be uncrossed.
Muffy seemed agitated, but I finally got her calm enough to settle down for bed. I had trouble sleeping, worried as I was about Bruce Wayne and where to look for him. No, I knew where to look. I just didn’t want to go there. While I knew Thomas was a bunch of talk, I had no delusions that Crocker’s associates at Weston’s Garage wouldn’t back their threats with action. I was tempted to tell Mason what was going on, but I didn’t want to put him in a difficult situation. If I told him Bruce Wayne was missing, he’d be forced to report it. And if I asked him not to, I’d be putting his job at risk. I couldn’t do that.
I woke up the next morning to the sound of Muffy whimpering. After I checked her over to make sure she wasn’t hurt, I took her outside through the kitchen door. But she instantly bolted around the corner to the front of the house. I raced after her, but stopped in my tracks when I caught sight of my front yard.
Smashed pumpkins littered the yard and covered the porch. The hay bales had been ripped apart and strewn across the grass and the street.
With a heavy sigh of disappointment, I walked up the front steps to see if Thomas and his friends had done any permanent damage to the house. Dried-up gobs of the pumpkins and squash splattered the porch, but I didn’t see anything that couldn’t be fixed. My gaze landed on the table between my rocking chairs. Smack in the middle was a half-finished bottle of tequila.
So Thomas and his friends had staged a party on my porch.
Something shiny on the table next to the bottle caught my attention. I leaned over and picked it up, immediately recognizing it as a St. Jude’s medallion necklace. When I flipped it over, I saw an engraved snake on the other side. Here was my proof that Thomas was involved, but the necklace sparked another memory too. A month ago, someone had tried to break into the house next door to Thomas and the police had found a St. Jude’s necklace in the yard. And then there was the necklace I’d found in Bruce Wayne’s apartment. Was it some symbol of being loyal to Crocker? I let it drop from my fingers onto the table.
I considered calling the police and filing a report so I could press charges, but I doubted that Henryetta’s finest would take me seriously. When I gave my statement to Detective Taylor the day after Jonah’s mother had tried to kill me, he insinuated that I was responsible for the predicaments I’d gotten sucked into over the last few months. I could only imagine how he would react if I made the call.
“Let me get this straight, Ms. Gardner. You confronted a known hoodlum and his friends, and then you were surprised when they trashed your porch? And you say you don’t bring these things on yourself?”
The police were out. Once again, I was on my own.