As we walked around the fair grounds, folks stopped Shade here and there to talk saddles, chaps, and such. I wasn’t listening too hard since I was thinking about Runt and everything he’d told us. I still didn’t understand biometrics but I knew trouble when I saw it.
Sonja, her face full of makeup, stepped out of a group of cowboys. “Hey, T.R.,” she said. “I hear you guys are going into mud wrestling next, since your parrot and snake act didn’t work out too well last night.”
I knew that story would make its way around town. It just aggravated me to hear Sonja mention it.
“Hey, yourself,” I said. “You volunteering to be a wrestler, Sonja?”
“Maybe,” she said, shooting me a dirty look. “Depends on the pay.”
Shade looked from me, to Sonja, and then back to me again, totally confused. “I suppose you’ll fill me in later on what you ladies are talkin’ about,” he said to me. Apparently Shade hadn’t heard about our poker-slash-animal act last night.
“Shade, when ya comin’ back to a real poker room?” Sonja asked.
“T.R.’s keepin’ me pretty busy lately, Sonja.”
It was my turn to shoot a dirty look, complete with nose wrinkle.
“Well, you are!” he said, defensively.
“Come back our way anytime, Shade,” she said walking away.
“Wait. Sonja,” I spoke up quickly. “What do you hear from that brother of yours?”
“Dante?” She questioningly looked from me to Shade, then back again. Like what did I need with two men, especially when she’d like one of them herself. And I don’t mean the one that’s her brother.
“Not a thing,” she said. “If you see him, though, don’t take any of his checks. He wrote me a hot one three-weeks ago and rumor has it he has a bad one over at Barry’s place too. I don’t know what his trip is, but he’s gonna get his ass kicked if he’s not careful.”
“True story,” I said, but I was thinking I’d like to be the one doing the kicking.
“See ya another time, Shade,” Sonja said. She gave him a seductive look, then turned and wiggled and jiggled off.
“Doesn’t she wear any underwear?” I asked. “Never mind,” I said quickly. I didn’t want Shade saying anything. He just might know the answer.
“ ‘Come back anytime?’ ” I repeated, trying my best to act like Sonja.
“That was before you stepped back into my life, Stripper.”
Which would have been what…two, three days ago?
“Jeez. I’m going to the john,” I said, walking off. I was disgusted by the thought of Sonja and Shade as a couple. Or even in the same room together.
Walking through the crowd, I felt safe among the men and women at the arena. Most of them were local folks with regular jobs who cowboyed part-time. I made my way to the ladies room. Lucky for me the bathroom still had toilet paper. I hate it towards the end of a rodeo or roping event when the paper’s all gone and I have to root around in my pockets for tissue.
As I walked out of the little girls’ room, a car horn tooted. I turned towards the sound to see who it was and there was Shade’s boss’ cute little red convertible. The pretty girl in it waved and hollered out to me.
“You seen Shade?”
“Yeah. He’s on the other side of the arena,” I shouted back. “Around the back.”
“You going there? Hop in. I’ll give you a ride.”
I had to think that one over for a second, considering all that had happened recently. I didn’t know who this girl was but I knew the car was the one Shade had been driving last night and I figured even a brief ride in that convertible would cool me off a little. The afternoon was hot and standing around talking in the sun had covered me in sweat.
Anyway, she wasn’t some big, scary dude. She was a woman. No, more like a girl. If things got tough, I could take her!
“Hey, thanks,” I said, agreeing to the ride. Why not? She was going to Shade and so was I. “I absolutely love your car. Is it your dad’s?”
“Ah…yah, sure. Back there?” she said, pointing down the lane.
“Yeah, near that long horse trailer. HEY!”
Pretty Girl slammed the transmission into first and gunned the car out of the parking lot and onto the highway. Suddenly we were going fast. Very fast! She barely looked old enough to have a driver’s license, let alone drive for NASCAR.
“What the hell are you doing? STOP THIS CAR!” I shrieked, clutching the window frame to keep from being thrown around inside the car. I hadn’t thought I needed to fasten a seat belt just to go to the other side of the arena.
“Shade has a hard time hanging onto his vehicles and his girlfriends, doesn’t he?” she cooed.
“How would I know?” I replied, hanging on for dear life. “I’m not his vehicle or his girlfriend! Stop this damn car! I want out! Are you crazy or what?”
“Yeah, right! Shut up. Ride or jump. Your choice but don’t call me crazy!” She pushed a button and the door locks snapped into childproof mode. If I wanted out, it would be up and over, not through the door. Jumping could be fun but landing would suck big time.
This couldn’t be happening again, being kidnapped but for real this time. Where was my brain? I knew better than to get into a car with a stranger. A crazy stranger, at that. If I survived this, I’d never be too lazy to walk again.
I grabbed the dashboard with my left hand and the door with my right. It took concentration to keep my butt in the seat. As my body swayed with the motion of the little convertible, my mind tried to fathom the connection that Runt could have with this girl, this car, or even with Shade.
Pretty Girl flew pass the other vehicles on the road, weaving in and out of traffic, barely avoiding slower moving cars and trucks. The traffic light up ahead turned red and I mentally prepared myself to jump out when she stopped.
But we raced right through the light. We never even slowed down. Cross traffic veered away, honking angrily. An eighteen wheeler narrowly missed our rear bumper.
“Oh, shit!” I said out loud. Pretty Girl wasn’t laughing either and from the looks of her grip on the steering wheel, I think she was thinking the same thing I was. We were going to die!
Who would help Runt if this pretty little nut killed me, I wondered.
“Listen. I don’t know what this is all about,” I managed to say through tight lips, “or who the hell you are, but killing us both won’t get you anywhere. We need to stop or at least slow down and talk about this.”
Pretty Girl’s brown hair, long and lovely, whipped around her face like an America flag being raced around the rodeo arena. I felt like an old, short-haired, ugly boy next to her.
“Why? If you end up in several bloody pieces, it would sure piss Shade off!”
“I doubt it. I don’t mean anything to Shade.” A couple of papers fluttering around the floorboard flew up and out. “Wait! Shade? You mean this isn’t about Runt?”
“Runt! What’s a Runt? I saw Shade holding your hand!” She gunned the engine and we sped up even faster. “I get so mad at him sometimes!”
“Oh, well, yeah. I know that feeling,” I said, thinking fast, “but Shade was just holding my hand in the parking lot to help me around all those big mirrors.” OK, no Runt connection. In a way, I felt relieved. I was still going to die but at least I’d do it knowing this kidnapping had nothing to do with Runt.
“Shade and I are just friends,” I told Pretty Girl. “We went to school together. And the other night he came into the place where I work.”
“I know. I know where you work and what you do,” she said snidely. Oh, yeah, I forgot. The secret that everybody knows, with almost the same headline. Only this time it would read, Known Hold’em Dealer Killed During Second Kidnapping.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” I said, in an attempt to play the sympathy card.
“Go ahead. It’s not my car. Or my Daddy’s.”
“Then whose car is it?” I looked at her, momentarily distracted from the speed of the car.
She took her eyes off the road briefly, looking at me like I was the loony one. “Gimme a break. Like you don’t know whose car this is!”
“I don’t know. Really. Whose is it?” I asked with real curiosity.
“It’s Shade’s car, of course.” She spit out the words angrily.
Oh. “I really had no idea. I told you I didn’t know him well. If this is Shade’s car, who are you and why are you driving it?” I asked.
“I’m Toni, his girlfriend.” She stuck a hand towards me like she wanted me to shake it. The car took a severe swerve and she quickly put her hands back in the ten and two positions on the steering wheel.
“Don’t you dare take your hands off that wheel again!” I admonished. “And slow this car down!” Like Shade’s girlfriend was going to listen to me. A girlfriend that looked all of sixteen-years old. What was he thinking?
“Are you even old enough to drive?” I asked.
“Yes. But Daddy won’t let me get a driver’s license yet. He says I’m too reckless.”
“And I drive too fast.”
Daddy’s right again. Pretty girl was obviously a couple aces shy of a full deck and that was a polite description of her mental state. I looked behind us to see if men in white coats were chasing us waving a straight jacket.
“Shade didn’t tell you about me?” she asked.
“No-o-o. Like I said, we’re not that close.”
My nose was running from the wind in my face and I had to squint to keep the dirt out of my eyes. I stuck my hand in my pocket for one of those tissues I thought I’d have to use earlier in the restroom. They were tangled around my cell phone.
Oh. My cell phone.
I took out a tissue and blew my nose. When I put the paper hankie back into my pocket, I flipped my phone open. With my thumb I found the first speed dial button. That would be Mom and Dad in Dallas. Too far away to help and anyway, Mom would totally freak out.
I found the second button. That would be Runt. He can’t even help himself at the point in time, let alone help me. The third button, Casey!
But Casey was at work and I didn’t know if she could catch a call on her cell. I pushed her button anyway.
Toni sped through another curve. I felt my side of the car catch the wind and lift up off the ground. Toni struggled to keep it on the road. I used the distraction to slip the phone out of my pocket and placed it on the seat between my leg and the door.
Did it dial? I didn’t dare look at the small screen and I couldn’t hear anything from the phone, which was good, in a way. That meant Toni couldn’t hear anything either.
“Hey, that’s Bill and Terry’s place,” I said, a little louder than normal. I had to make sure Casey could hear me in the noisy, open air environment of the convertible ─ if she had even answered the call!
And if she had answered it, did she realize I desperately needed help? Or did she answer during a lull in our conversation and hang back up. Ca-a-a-s-s-e-e-y!
No lull. No lull. Talk, T.R.! “Why are we going past here? Isn’t that Tracey’s place? They have a new barn. I really like it. It goes with the house.” I didn’t know what I was saying. I just didn’t want a lull in the conversation. I needed to fill the air time with words. Lots of words.
“This is kidnapping, ya know. And grand theft auto. You’re going to be in big trouble for taking Shade’s convertible! Let alone me! Both those things are against the law, ya know!” I had no idea what constitutes grand theft, but it sounded good to me and I’d bet the meat wagon Toni didn’t know what it meant either. Besides, this conversation was for Casey’s benefit, more than Toni’s
“I don’t care,” said Toni. “And I don’t care about you! I don’t car about this car. I didn’t care about his truck either when I took it.”
“YOU took his truck? Now why would you do something stupid like that?”
Ca-rap. I let “stupid” slip out before I caught myself. If she objected to being called crazy, I felt fairly certain she wouldn’t like stupid.
“I-I-I mean,” I stammered, trying to cover my choice of words. “Why would a girl take her fellow’s truck for a swim? There’s the Double Tree Bridge. Where are we going? Come on, Toni, why kidnap me? Shade dates lots of women. Why pick on me?”
Casey, please be listening.
“That’s for me to know and you to find out,” she sing-songed. Oh, great. She must really be crazy to toss a kiddy retort like that around. “You won’t like it no matter where we’re going, so why ask?” Toni added.
“What do you mean I won’t like it? What are you going to do to me? There’s the horse whisperer’s place! THIS IS KID-NAP-PING!”
“You givin’ a guided tour? Shut up!” Toni snapped. “I’m tired of talking to you.”
“I don’t want to shut up. You’re kidnapping me. I got a right to talk! Isn’t there a sale at the mall or something we can go to instead?” I wrinkled my nose at the absurdity of it all. A jealous girlfriend steals Shade’s truck, then his car, and now me.
The little car slowed for a curve, still moving way too fast for me to try and jump. It was hard to believe but we still weren’t very far from the roping arena, at least as the crow flew. Surely there were cops still around there.
Casey! Hook me up, girl!
We were off the paved roads now and onto dirt ones but that hadn’t slowed Toni down. Our speed hadn’t dropped below forty and mostly it had been fifty or more, way too fast for country roads. Trees blurred together as if they were one. Hackberries, pecans, post oaks, and mimosas all became a single species. Farm houses zoomed past like they were in a subdivision instead of acres apart.
The cloud of dust the car kicked up was suffocating. It felt like the front tires funneled it directly into the interior of the car. Toni had the AC on, in spite of the top being down, and it was doing a fine job of sucking in the dirt and throwing it at our faces.
“What farm road are we on? Where’re we going?” I thought I liked fast cars but I guess I only liked them when I’m doing the driving.
“To the river again,” she said.
I swallowed hard. “The river…again? Where Shade’s truck went in? YOU put Shade’s truck in the river?”
“Yes,” she said, with a smile that showed she was proud of herself.
“Wow.” I was impressed, if it was true. I didn’t know if I believed her or not. “You must be a very good swimmer.”
“I am. I’ve gotten gold medals in swimming at the Special Olympics,” she announced. “My daddy taught me how to swim in that river.”
Special Olympics medals? OK, now I believed her.
Ca-a-a-s-s-e-e-y! I was really scared now. I don’t swim well at all! I can dog paddle but not in current as fast as that river. And I hate to get water in my ears!
“Toni, why are you so pissed off at Shade? I thought you were his girlfriend.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Shade treats me bad. He doesn’t talk to me, goes out with other women….” Again she glanced my way. “…YOU! He comes home late or not at all.”
Yeah, sounds like some of my past relationships with men. ”He write you any hot checks?” I asked.
“Never mind. Do you live with Shade?”
“Kinda. My dad and I live on Shade’s ranch.”
“You mean Goodwin’s Ranch?”
“Who’s Goodwin?” she said, shooting me another you’re-stupid look.
I started to rethink some assumptions I’d made ─ the assumption this wasn’t Shade’s car, the assumption that wasn’t Shade’s ranch, the assumption I would get out of this alive, and the assumption Toni was only slightly simple-minded.
“So you stole his truck and ditched it in the river to teach him a lesson.” It wasn’t a question but a statement. I was piecing together Toni’s logic and doing it out loud, not only for Casey but for Toni too. She could correct any misconceptions on my part.
She smiled sweetly. “Yes.”
She was really a beautiful girl. Simple-minded but fantastic looking.
“And now you’re going to ditch his car in the river too.” Another statement.
“Have you and Shade ever been to the movies or out to dinner?”
“No, but someday we will. My daddy won’t let me date yet.”
OK, this girlfriend thing was all in Pretty Girl’s head, just her imagination and hormones working overtime. But her dangerous driving was all too real!
She gave me another pretty smile. “Where’s the sale in the mall?”
Whoa! What a turn-around! She switched gears faster than this little car.
“Um…er…Bonnie’s Boutique. Yeah, that cute little store right next to the food court. Prices are half off, I hear. Want to go?”
“I don’t have any money. Daddy doesn’t let me have any cash.” Toni slowed the car.
“I do,” I said. “I have money. I have credit cards too.”
“Your dad lets you have credit cards?”
My dad? Now I knew she was wacky. It’d been awhile since my dad had a say in how I spent my money.
“Sweet!” she said, oblivious of my age. “Can we go this weekend?”
Can we go before you kill me? “Um…er…my car’s in the shop. The only way we can go to the mall is in this car.” If we can keep it out of the river. “We can go now if you want....”
“I don’t have to ditch the car in the river yet. We can do that after we go shopping.”
We? My new best friend was crazy. I hope you’re listening, Casey. You and Weeba have been replaced by a new lunatic.
“Let’s slow down some more then, way down. I have to think what I need to get at the mall. What do you want?”
“A shirt. And jeans.”
I looked past Pretty Girl. Across the pasture through a break in the trees I thought I saw flashing lights on another road. If there were sirens, I couldn’t hear them. I told myself not to get too hopeful.
“And shoes,” Toni continued. “Two pairs, one red, one black. And a bra.”
My side mirror showed flashing lights way behind us. I love you, Casey.
“Stop the car so I can check my purse to see how much money I have, Toni, and if I have my credit cards with me.”
I wanted out of that car bad! The convertible rolled to a stop and I lifted myself up to sit on the back of the seat like Shade had done last night. I swung my feet over the car door and hopped out. God, I wanted to kiss the ground. Instead, I squatted down beside the car where Toni couldn’t see the cop cars coming down the road.
“Come here and help me count my money,” I said. “I’m not very good at numbers.”
I heard the driver’s door open and close. “Me neither,” she said. “I never get to go to the mall without my dad.” Toni came around the front of the car and squatted down beside me. “This is going to be so much fun.”
Well, that made me feel bad…for about three seconds! I dumped my purse out in the dirt between us and started handing her makeup to keep her distracted. “Here’s my lipstick. It’s a pretty color. Try it. And let’s see, mascara. And blush.” I don’t even use the stuff but I was glad to find it at the bottom of my purse with all the gum wrappers and pennies.
The sheriff’s deputies found us minutes later, sitting cross-legged in the dirt next to the convertible on the side of the road. We probably looked like clowns from trying on my makeup without a mirror. The officers had turned off their overhead flashers and had slowly driven up to the empty convertible, probably worried about what they’d find.
Toni looked up as she heard their car doors shut. She didn’t have a care in the world.
“Oh, good, Toni.” I said. “Here are some friends of mine. Maybe they’ll go to the mall with us. Hi, fellows. Good timing. We want to go shopping.”
“T.R., you OK?” Darryl the Deputy asked. In high school we called him Darryl the Doper. Both hands held his gun crotch-high in front of him, barrel pointed downward.
“Yeah, I’m OK. Toni wants to go to the mall, don’t you, Toni? Can you guys take her?” Freddy from the other unit talked quietly into his shoulder mic as he approached us. He, too, had his gun out and ready, hanging intimidatingly at his side.
This time I knew they were real guns and Shade wasn’t around to accuse me of imagining them. The cops had taken circumstances seriously enough to warrant firearms. Of course, just a few minutes ago I was taking the situation serious enough to almost wet my pants.
“Oh, yeah. Sure. We can go with her to the mall. We have to make a stop first, if that’s OK.”
Yeah, a stop at the sheriff’s office.
“Fine with me. How about you, Toni?”
“Sounds great. But don’t tell my daddy ‘cause he doesn’t let me date.”
“That’s OK,” Freddy said. “This isn’t a real date.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll explain it all to him,” Darryl said.
I bet they would.
“She wants new jeans and a shirt.” It was the only thing I could think of to say. It all seemed so ridiculous, all of a sudden. She had a child’s brain in a beautiful woman’s body.
“And a new bra,” said Toni. I saw a glazed look come over the men’s eyes as they drank in her beauty and visualized the bra buying. Both deputies blinked it away quickly. Toni stood up, shaking off the dirt. She was ready to go. I scooped the rest of my junk into my purse, along with a lot of dirt.
“Cuffs?” Darryl asked me.
“Nah. But be sure to lock the doors. I don’t know her last name but her dad works with Shade Saunders. He still work at Goodwin’s place?” I asked, testing out Toni’s information. But nobody bothered to answer me. They were both busy with Toni.
“She seems to be a little….” I made a funny face and jerked my head to one side, hoping they’d get my message without me having to spell it out in front of her. ”She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
“Yeah, she’s that,” Darryl said.
“Gotcha,” said Freddy, making his own funny face with a jerk of the head. He led a smiling Toni to his squad car. As he opened the door, he looked back at me. “I told Casey you were safe but she said if you didn’t immediately talk to her this time, you weren’t goin’ to be safe for long. By the way, you look better than you did the last time I saw you.”
He winked at me. Oh, yeah. Freddy was also a volunteer fireman. I noticed neither of them asked me to the dance next Friday night. Some visuals take time to fade, I guess.
“Aren’t you going with us?” Toni asked me.
“T.R. will be along in a little bit,” Darryl said. “She has to drive the car.” He glanced back at me. “You and Shade datin’ again, T.R.?”
“No, they’re not dating,” Toni said, helpfully. “She just deals him poker, huh, T.R.?” My stomach rolled. Loose lips sink many a game room ship, so to speak.
But Darryl and Freddy both laughed.
“I didn’t hear nothin’, did you, Freddy?” Darryl asked.
“What? I can’t hear ya, Darryl. I have a bug in my good ear.”
Doors slammed. Cars started up and took turns going around the little red car, each cop headed in the opposite direction. I reached for my cell phone. It was still open on the passenger’s seat. I put it to my ear.
“Casey? You still there?”
“I’m still here. Don’t you dare hang up! Talk to me, T.R. Talk to me. And you best start at the beginning.”
Well, I thought, at least I wouldn’t be bored as I drove back to the roping arena. I put the Runt filter on my mouth so I wouldn’t mention him or his problems and started talking about what Casey really wanted to hear. Sexy Shade. Married gals live their lives vicariously through us wild single woman, even if us single gals can’t get a real date.
Fifteen minutes later I pulled into the arena parking lot. The sun was low in the sky, coloring the Texas dusk. The last of the horses had been loaded into trailers. Gear had been cleaned and put into pickups.
A couple of barrel racing girls were leaning over the fence flirting with Shade. He didn’t look like he was buying into it much. He had his back against a fence post with one boot heel hung on the bottom rail. His arms were crossed over his chest, and his hat sat low on his brow.
When Shade saw his car appear through the dust, he glanced at the girls, touched a hand to his hat, then walked towards me. The girls stared after him for a minute or two, then turned away for other game.
“You heard?” I asked him.
“From all kinds of people. Is Toni all right?”
“Yeah.” I paused. “So am I, in case you’re interested.”
“Pokerface, if there’s one thing I appreciate about you, it’s that you’re always OK.”
Now what did that mean!
Shade walked all around the car touching his precious paint job here and there. It must have checked out because he wasn’t cursing. He opened the gas cap compartment and pulled out a spare key holder.
“Just like I thought,” he said. “Empty. That girl’s smart enough.”
“And she drives as good as she swims,” I said. “She told me she belly flopped your truck into the river and then swam away.”
“Shit! I should have known! Guess I’ll have to tell the cops.”
Shade got to the driver’s side and opened the door. “I’ll drive,” he said. I was more than ready to let him. In fact, the farther away from that little car I got, the better I would feel about the world.
“The tires on your side might need to be replaced,” I said as I got back into the car on the passenger’s side. “It corners real good on two wheels, though.”
What up with him? Like this little car chase was my fault?
“At least this had nothing to do with Runt,” I commented.
It had more to do with Shade’s magnetic sex appeal than anything. It’s his fault!
“So Toni’s your girlfriend?”
“I’m hungry,” I said to change the subject. My Cheerios had long since disappeared. I needed meat and potatoes.
Something had to get through to Shade.
Shade kept facing forwards but cut his eyes to me. Oof. I wished I was preggo and he was the father. Jeez! What was I thinking?
“Stripper, you should have stopped at ‘I’m hungry.’ ”
“Just seeing if you were listening. Your place or mine?”
“Mine. After we stop by your place to get your stuff.”
“And my book.”
“Yeah, and your damn book.”
To be continued Monday.