The door opened with a gust of wind and a swirl of fallen leaves. The man that stepped into the restaurant was both familiar, and practically a stranger. Whereas my uncle had once been big, raw boned and impressive he now was bent and gray. His face was the color of ashes and lined with suppressed pain. Dark shadows turned formerly bright brown eyes into dimly banked coals not quite devoid of life. His clothes dangled loosely from a frame that had lost too much weight far too quickly.
Death was at his heels and closing in fast.
I watched as he gave a slight wave of the hand to the hostess to let her know he didn’t need help. Then, with effort, dragged himself across the room and slid into the opposite side of the booth from me.
“Hey Jerry.” I tried to make my voice sound normal, but I knew he could tell I was shocked by his appearance.
Uncle Jerry is literally the only person on the planet that can call me by that wretched nickname without ticking me off. He’s exempt. Probably because he’s the closest thing I’ve had to a father since my parents died.
And now he was dying.
“You don’t look so good kid.” He observed. “You okay.”
I lifted my hand and waggled it back and forth in a so/so gesture. I was saved further comment by the arrival of the waitress. She forced a smile as she took our order of coffee (for him) and a large soda for me.
When she was walking away Jerry said. “I’ve quit the chemo. Radiation too. I’m done.”
Shit. I wasn’t surprised. But God it hurt. My throat constricted, and I forced myself to blink back the tears. He deserved them. But he sure as hell didn’t want them. Not here. Not in public. Maybe not at all.
He’d called this meeting—called me on my cell one hour after I’d told my Gran that my marriage was over and I was staying at the Motel 6® on Third until I figured out what I was going to do.
“I want to ask you a question. And you need to be honest with me.”
I was always honest with him. It was our one rule. He’d said he could forgive me anything—up to and including murder, as long as I didn’t lie to him about it. He had to deal with liars all day every day in his business and he didn’t want that from me. He didn’t lie to me. I didn’t lie to him. Period.
I raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything. I still didn’t trust myself to speak.
The waitress returned with the coffee pot, my drink, and a couple of those little plastic tubs of creamer. She poured him his coffee, set the other items on the table and left with a quick “Call me if you need anything else.”
When she had bustled out of earshot, Jerry turned to me. “Mom says you’re divorcing Joe. You planning on staying in Linden or are you coming back?”
Back to Elm Creek? I hadn’t really considered going back to the small town where I’d grown up. I knew everyone there. Everyone knew me. There were good friends, and bitter enemies. If I went back I’d be picking back up all the baggage I’d left behind.
But it was home.
I stalled for time by saying, “I hadn’t really thought about it. There really aren’t any jobs.”
“There’s one.” He pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “You qualify for your license from all the time you spent working for me. I know I’m leaving the place kind of a mess. I’m sorry about that. But it’s yours if you want it. I figured I’d leave you the building and the business. Give your sister a bit of cash to blow through. But only if you want it.”
He was offering me his life. Elm Creek Investigations was everything to him. He’d started it from a dream after a youth spent reading Mike Hammer, Sam Spade, and Spenser novels. He’d worked hard, making a go of it against the odds.
Did I want it?
I couldn’t see. I couldn’t speak. So I just nodded.
I saw him nod through a blur of tears. He set the keys onto the table in front of me along with a bill to pay for our drinks and rose.
I rose too. And despite the fact that we were in public—and he might hate it—I threw my arms around him in a fierce hug. Even through his clothes I could feel the hard bones jutting and it hurt. Not physically, emotionally. I was going to lose him, and soon.
“Love you,” I managed to croak.
“You too.” He squeezed me hard. “More than you know.”
He let me go and shambled away.
The camper smelled like French fries from the kiddie meal he’d brought from Dixie Dan’s. The little guy had really tucked in today. The trash bag in the kitchen was full with used lunch packets, toaster tart wrappers and empty juice boxes. His boys usually ate like crazy right before they got a growth spurt.
Maybe he should bring him some bigger clothes. Hell, any new clothes.
That’s Darrell’s responsibility, he’d been telling himself. But the thing was, the boy’s father wasn’t taking responsibility—wasn’t doing a damned thing. If it had been up to Darrell the kid would’ve starved, never had a bath.
What in the hell have I gotten myself into?
But he knew the answer to that. Trouble. Big, deep shit, ”oh fuck I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison trouble.” All because he’d believed that the asshole wanted custody of his son, and believed all of the bullshit he’d been fed about how ‘the bitch’ of a mother wasn’t letting Darrell see his boy.
Mark didn’t know what Darrell was up to, but he believed, now, that it was no good. A good man doesn’t neglect his boy like that. If he knew how to get hold of the mother without getting himself hauled off to prison . . . Yeah, it would piss Darrell off. And Darrell, he’d learned just this past week, could be scary as fuck.
But that wasn’t the boy’s fault.
What am I going to do?
He really didn’t know.
He heard the sound of a vehicle bumping through the underbrush to a stop, followed by the slam of a car door.
Timmy froze, a French fry halfway to his mouth--eyes going wide enough to show the whites all around his irises. Mark had never seen a look of such abject terror on a child’s face.
“What’s up buddy?”
The little boy’s tremulous whisper was barely audible. “He’s here. I’m scared.”
“I’ll protect you buddy. Don’t you worry about a thing.”
It was only a few days until Christmas. It might have been marginally possible for me to be less in the holiday spirit, but I wouldn’t have banked on it. My uncle’s funeral had been one week before. And while I had left my husband two months ago he’d gone out of town on a temp job for his employer and hadn’t yet been served with the divorce papers.
I was looking towards the new year with more desperation than was pretty. This past year had, bar none, been the worst of my life.
Not that I’m not grateful. It could be worse.
My name, until the divorce is final is Samantha Jennings Sorrell. I am twenty-five years old and currently living with minimal possessions in a building I inherited from my Uncle Jerry. He’d said it was a mess. He wasn’t kidding.
I stepped back from the wall to look for streaks in the paint job. If there were any, I couldn’t see them by the light of the bare bulb I was using to light the place. I’d taken the shade off of Grandma Jenning’s big old lamp with the ivy pattern on it and screwed in an LED bulb that was bright enough to use as a spotlight. Thus far, using the lamp hadn’t blown a fuse so—woohoo. The electricians were due in on Tuesday, so I had three more days of iffy wiring and I was being damned careful about it. Maybe it was fine. Jerry had paid to have the part of the building that housed the theater completely re-wired. He might have had the whole thing done. I had looked for receipts. I knew he’d saved them. He was a pack rat who saved literally everything. But while I’d found gasoline receipts from clear back in the seventies when gas was less than a buck a gallon I still hadn’t managed to lay my hands on the building repairs file.
Of course I wasn’t anywhere near finished looking. There were three entire rooms on this floor filled with file cabinets, boxes, and loose papers. I couldn’t be angry with him. He’d been sick for so long. Still the thought of going through it all was so daunting I’d been tempted to build a nice toasty bonfire with the lot and start over.
The building is huge. Four stories, and it, combined with the parking lot, take up a full city block. I don’t know much about architecture so I can’t tell you what it is a fine example of. What I do know is that it’s red brick, with lots and lots of white trim and ‘gingerbread’ painted in red and turquoise. The colors are the same exact shades as are in the neon of the theater’s Marquee.
When the sign is on the colors shine in through the office window. It’s very noir and very Jerry.
The building has a turret on one corner that is five stories tall compared to the four stories of the rest of the building. The top of the turret is accessed from the building’s roof, and gives a clear view of the entire town. Since it’s the tallest thing in the area Jerry topped it with an old-fashioned lightning rod. Less than a block away is the courthouse. It is the same height as the Palace Theater Building, made of piss-yellow stone. On top of it is the local civil defense siren. I hadn’t noticed the latter until the first Tuesday of the month after I moved in, when I was wakened by a noise that could probably raise the dead. It was certainly loud enough to shake loose dust and paint chips from the apartment ceiling.
The left half of the building is taken up by the Palace. My uncle gave the theater society a hundred year lease at a dollar a year and donated God alone knew how much money for the renovations. There was one condition. One week a year they are required to run a revival of old PI and mystery movies—Sam Spade, Mike Hammer, The Maltese Falcon. Usually they do it in February, which my uncle told me was kind of a dead season for new movies.
He also asked me to never, ever, sell or lease them the parking lot.
I’d been puzzled by that, so I asked him why.
The theater society hired his ex-girlfriend, Coco, as manager of the Palace. Coco is only a couple of years older than I am. She is cute. She is clever. She is utterly self-serving but hides it for the most part behind a veneer of good looks and charm. But God help you if you cross her. I would know. It just took Jerry a little longer to figure it out. Once he had, though, the irresistible force ran straight into an utterly immovable object.
She was determined to get the parking lot.
He refused to give it up. In his final letter to me he’d made it very clear I wasn’t supposed to give it to her either.
I moved from the Motel 6® into one of the four apartments on the right half of the building’s third floor. Two of the others are filled with Uncle J’s junk. Half of the fourth floor is a beautiful, high-ceilinged space that is in desperate need of renovation that had been J’s apartment. The other half normally holds the offices of Elm Creek Private Investigations—when it hasn’t been emptied out for me to paint it.
It was the second coat of paint. I was going with a sky blue for the walls, bright white gloss for the ceiling and trims. When daylight was streaming through the turret windows it would look bright and pretty. Now, at 2:03 in the morning it just looked tired. Or maybe that was me. Damn, I was beat. I wanted desperately to stumble downstairs to my apartment and fall into bed. But I wasn’t done.
One more wall. One more coat. I can do that.
My internal pep talk was interrupted by the ring of my cell phone.
Telephone calls in the wee hours of the morning are never good news. Anything good, and a person will wait and tell you at a decent hour when you’re supposed to be awake. Middle-of-the-night calls are for deaths, accidents, drunken confessions as the bars close. Okay, maybe that last one was just me.
“Hi. Ish me.”
“I mish you. I love you. How come you don’t love me? What’d I ever do to make you hate me sho much?
Good news. The adrenaline rush of fresh fury had me awake. Bad news I was taking a middle-of-the-night drunken call from my soon-to-be-ex-if-they-can-ever-get-him-served husband. I loved him once, more than I could ever say. I might even love him still, underneath all of the frustration, hurt, and rage.
“I don’t hate you Joe. I just won’t live with you like this.” I spoke carefully.
“Yeah, right.For better, for worse. I meant that shit. Apparently you didn’t.”
Ouch. Calm. I need to be calm.
“I told you. It’s me or the drinking.”
He said nothing, but I could practically feel his resentment throbbing down the telephone line.
“I got the papers.”
I could’ve hung up at that point. Maybe even should’ve. My lawyer told me ‘don’t engage’. But, still I stayed on the line; stayed silent.
“SAY SOMETHING DAMMIT!”
A muscle by my left eye started twitching. I could actually hear my heart throbbing in my ears. Not good. People have strokes when their blood pressure gets this high. What in the hell am I supposed to say? I’m sorry? I was. Sorrier than I could even express. But I could not—would not live like we had been. I couldn’t bear to just stand by and watch him piss away all of our hopes and dreams. It hurt too damned much.
“You need to come get Gracie.”
That got my attention. I jerked so hard from the shock that I almost dropped the phone. Gracie had been his dog for her whole life. He’d gotten her as an itty bit of a puppy. Even drunk he’d refused to let me take her when I left. “What?!”
“She’s at my Mom’s. They’ve locked her in a kennel in the yard.” He was crying now. Ugly crying, harsh,wracking sobs.
“Joe . . . “
“I got another DUI. I had to sell the Airstream to bond myself out.”
Oh no. Oh shit. The Airstream had been his last big tie to his father and the good times they’d had hunting and fishing. Another DUI would be his third. ‘Three strikes you’re out.’ He was looking at going to prison. Tears sprung into my eyes, and my breath caught in my chest. He was still obviously drunk, but the tone of his voice had changed, hardening, less scattered, more resigned.
“I still love you Sam.”
“Joe . . . wait . . . . We’ll get you a lawyer. You can go into rehab again.”
“Just take care of Gracie for me. Promise me that. She loves you too.”
“Joe . . .
He hung up on me and didn’t pick up when, with trembling fingers I punched his number on speed dial.
No, no nononono. No damn it! NO!