On the way to The Barely Legal I filled Casey in on Runt’s stupidity but only after I got a solemn girlfriends-since-grade-school vow that this was a no cops ─ including husband ─ situation. She flashed her hands at me so I’d know she wasn’t crossing her fingers behind her back.
Now that I knew the web cams were at the ranch, they were easy to spot. Casey and I stood side by side in front of them on the wooden deck at the door of the trailer. There was no sign of the man Shade had sent to guard Runt’s place. So much for that promise.
“Runt,” I said, “I need to talk to you. Please call me on my cell phone.” Minutes passed with us standing there stiff as boards, like we were having a very slow photographer take our picture.
Casey and I started mugging for the camera. We pretended to drop our pants and moon Runt or whoever might be watching. We did silent movie strip teases, in which Casey did quite well, even if we didn’t remove any clothing. She had the husband-advantage on that one. We sang songs and gave ourselves American Idol critiques.
“We finally have talent here. This little girl will go far, I’m telling ya. What do you think, Simon?”
“Ever hear hogs squeal, Randy? That’s what we got….”
My cell rang. Caller ID said Rob. “Hey, Runt,” I said, relief making my voice a little high pitched.
“Good God, stop. Please. This is torture. You two sound like William Hung on estrogen.”
“What? You just sit around watching your web cams all day?”
“We need to get together, Runt. This situation can’t go on like this forever. We need a plan of action. Shade’s bringing in some stupid computer nerd from San Antonio who wants to hook up with you.”
“Watch your language, T.R. Us nerds got to stick together.” Runt hesitated for a moment. “What about Casey?” he asked, suspiciously.
“She’s cool, Runt. She’s on a girlfriend-to-girlfriend vow for cop/husband-related silence.”
“OK, I’m sending a dog to you with directions where we can meet. Come see me.”
“Can we drive there? Should we be saddling horses?”
“Don’t get your panties in a knot, Sis. Just wait for the message. And, please, no more singing. Help yourselves to the diet sodas in the fridge. And bring me a beer,” he said before hanging up.
We weren’t in the house five minutes before we heard scratching at the front door. It was Red Bull with a piece of paper looped through his collar. I started to tear up at the thought of Sloppy but it turned into a strangled laugh when I read the message.
“What?” said Casey.
“Phoo,” I said, blowing air past my lips. “It says come to the barn the back way. He’s been this close the whole time.”
Out the door we went, around the back of the trailer and through the grove of oaks dipping into the ravine, to the side door of the barn. But no one was there. Red had followed us and lay down by Tonto’s empty stall. Casey and I looked at each other.
“Let’s give him a couple of minutes,” I said, so we waited. I petted the horses and Casey scratched Red behind the ears. I noticed the horses had clean hay in their mangers and fresh water so I guess Shade’s man had truly been doing his assignment.
I felt eyeballs drilling my back. Casey must have felt them too for we both turned around at the same time. There was my favorite bald-headed cowboy silhouetted in the opened barn door frame.
“Runt!” we both exclaimed, heading towards him. Casey reached out and rubbed his bald head with her knuckles. We all started to talk at once. “You go first, Runt,” I said.
He took a deep breath. “I’m embarrassed about this. I really am, Casey. I don’t know what it is about me and computer challenges. Some guy asks me if something is possible and I have to see if it really is. I start in on one of these software problems and just have to follow it to the end.”
“It’s not me you have to defend yourself to, Runt. I’m just an old friend, sworn to silence, who happens to be a dispatcher. You’ll have to face the courts on this one unless we can figure a way out.”
“Well, I can do part of that. Ya know the virus I was telling you about, Sis? The one I buried in Sirlo’s computer systems? I think I developed a correction worm for it. The problem is, how do I get it into their computers to test it? Gettin’ the virus there was easy. Tom let me into the offices late at night. Gettin’ the antidote in will be much harder.”
“Not necessarily, Runt. Angelina Delgado, Whitey Fuller’s girlfriend, has a cousin who’s a night janitor at Sirlo’s.”
“Well, let’s go!”
“Slow down. We have to set this all up first. And what happens if the cure doesn’t do the job? Plus the worm is only half the problem. Sirlo junior will still be out to get you.”
“God, it has to work. If not, I’ll keep on trying until I get it right. I developed it. I can kill it. I know I can…at least with a little time. As for Tom, I don’t know what to do about him. I just don’t know. After watching him set fire to my place, I know he’s dangerous but I don’t really know how dangerous.”
“Oh, he’s dangerous, all right. Tom or one of his goons killed Sloppy.” I could have gone my whole life without telling my brother that.
Runt just stared at me. “And whoever killed Sloppy also grabbed me,” I continued. “He would have hurt me more if Shade hadn’t come up on us. The guy was trying to get me to tell him where you were. At the time I didn’t know anything. He could have hurt me all he wanted to and I couldn’t have told him a thing.”
Runt still hadn’t said anything. Sad faced, he turned to his horse stalls and went down the row petting each horse. Finally, he turned back to Casey and me.
“You all right?” he asked me.
“Yeah. He just stretched my neck a little. Got Shade with a couple of punches but Shade got him back too.”
Runt shook his head slowly. “I’m a big baboon, Sis. When I get out of this, I’m going to get a job digging ditches and never touch another computer again.”
I laughed at the thought. “How many times have you told Mom that?”
A delightful spark came into Runt’s eyes, then quickly faded. “I don’t want you and Casey wandering around the countryside alone. You could get hurt. These men are armed and dangerous.”
“So am I,” said Casey. Runt and I both looked at her. “Well, armed anyway.” She pulled up her jean leg. What was it with all these boot holsters? “I took that concealed weapons course so I’m licensed to carry.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway. I still don’t want you two running around alone.”
“You mean without a man,” Casey said.
Runt laughed. “You got it. I’m going to turn my cell on for the rest of the day. Call me when you contact Angelina’s cousin. I can be ready whenever. Go back to my house the way you came. And be careful. Then go home, you two. All of us being here on The Barely Legal makes me nervous. Somebody’s been coming around everyday and checking the house and another guy comes and feeds the horses.”
“Well, I know where the second man is from. Shade arranged to have the horses taken care of. Don’t worry about that guy,” I said. “But I don’t know about the first one. You be careful yourself.” I hugged Runt goodbye and Casey and I started back to the house.
“Like hell we need a man ─ well, except for Runt and Ralph,” Casey said when we were halfway to the house.
“I was hoping you’d think that way. I don’t have much of nothing to lose but you’ve got a job to protect. And a husband, children, and a dog.”
“And a new cat. So what’s your point?”
“Point? Me? My mom always said it wasn’t nice to point. But right now, I’m not feeling very nice. I’m calling Angelina.”
“I’ve got your back, Sista,” Casey said. We both opened our cell phones and punched speed dial buttons. She started arguing with Ralph about spending the night with me. I almost gagged when she told him I was hung up on Shade and needed a shoulder to lean on.
I called Angelina and told her I’d take her up on the offer of her cousin’s help ─ if her cousin was willing. “Don’t tell Whitey, though,” I cautioned. I didn’t want Shade getting wind of this or I might be placed in chains in his basement. Figuratively speaking, of course. Central Texas doesn’t have many basements.
Ten minutes later my phone rang. “It is I, Angelina,” she said in that funny way of hers. “Consuelo is working tonight, then she is off for four days.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Runt said he could be ready anytime. Tell Consuelo to meet us at the company docks at two tonight…well, two in the morning. You’re an angel, Angelina.”
“Wear work clothes,” Angelina reminded me. “People still working in middle of night sometimes.”
Yeah. Probably Tom and his cronies stealing his dad’s company’s assets. Casey was still arguing with Ralph so I called Runt.
“We’re on for tonight,” I reported. “I hope you weren’t bullshitting me about being ready to go into Sirlo’s.”
“Like I told you, Sis, I’m ready to go. I’ve got to get this mess straightened out. What time and where?”
“One-thirty behind Spur’s Country Store. We’ll be in the Mustang.”
“Got it,” He said and he hung up. Casey hung up too.
“I’m in,” she said. “Ralph’s not happy but I’m in all the way…to a point.”
“We need work clothes,” I told Casey, “so let’s hit the junk stores.”
But as we thumbed through the used clothing, I had a change of heart. “Casey, let me and Runt handle this. You shouldn’t be anywhere near something like this.”
“Are you kidding?” she said. “I wouldn’t miss this for anything. My life’s been too pure since I married Ralph. I miss the hell-raising the three of us girls used to get into. Besides, it’s only borderline illegal. If we get caught, we aren’t breaking and entering. We’re helping our cleaning lady friend who let us in.”
I blew air past my lips. I couldn’t disagree with her logic. We’d only be on the edge of law and order, a place I’m used to, but Casey hadn’t been there much. She might find it an uncomfortable place to be.
After the thrift store, we had time to kill so we hopped over to the hair and nail spa. As cleaning ladies, we wouldn’t need pedicures and fills for our acrylic nails but it would be fun and I needed a new paint job anyway.
“Think we have time for me to get a haircut?” Casey asked.
“We got time for that and more. Don’t you want to have my man cut your hair?”
“You still go to Mr. Ricky?”
“Yeah, but I meant my other man. Shade. He cut my hair last. Good job, don’t ya think?”
”Oh, baby. I’m a married woman. I don’t want to get close to that heat source and risk a singed chocha, no matter how good a haircut he gives. How would I ever explain that to Ralph?”
We both laughed as the beautician pumped Casey’s chair higher.
“I bet Shade’s livid right now, wondering where I’m at and what I’m doing.”
Casey just lifted her eyebrows as the beautician clipped and snipped.
“Shade’s been Shade so long I can’t remember how he even got that nickname,” Casey said.
“Me neither. I remember his other nickname, though ─ Fartguts.”
Casey laughed. “Wow. I’m getting old. I even forgot that one.”
The beautician spoke up with a knowing smile. “I remember how he got the nickname Shade.” Two other beauticians moved a little closer to Casey’s chair. Shade was a popular subject matter, apparently, and I couldn’t help but wonder how many times he’d been the hot topic in this salon and others around town.
“My daddy,” the hairdresser informed us, “worked for Shade’s daddy when he managed Goodwin’s Ranch. All the cowboys thought Fergus was a horrible name for a little kid. Such a tough little boy with such a sissy name. I think it was his grandpa’s name on his mother’s side.” She spritzed some foam on her palms and rubbed it into Casey’s hair.
A nail customer joined us, blowing on her nails and listening intently with the rest of us. I gave myself a nose wrinkle. I knew every woman in town was in love with Shade and this conversation confirmed it.
“Anyway, the cowboys started calling him Shadow because he always hung ‘round ’em, learnin’ all he could about cowboyin’.”
“I guess I don’t remember that,” the nail patron commented. “When’d he become Shade?”
This was downright funny but I’d never tell Shade. His ego was big enough.
“Hmmm. Probably in junior high. Yeah, about that time,” the hairdresser continued. “He started riding bulls and ropin’ in the Little Britches Rodeos. He got so good at rodeoin’ that the cowboys started saying they were standin’ in his shade, instead of him being their shadow. So they started callin’ him Shade. I remember him being a cocky, good looking little shit even then.
“He’s never come in here to get his hair cut. It’s so long and pretty.”
Oh, good Lord. The man’s going bald. I wondered if I should bust these ladies’ bubble and tell what I know?
The hairdresser gave a little sigh. “You could cover me with Shade anytime.”
“Sorry,” said Casey, pulling money out of her wallet and handing it to the hairdresser, “but my girlfriend here seems to have all his attention right now.”
“Really? You look too old for him…I…I…didn’t mean that the way it came out. Sorry. It’s just that he usually dates girls so young…I mean…he’s so….”
“Never mind,” Casey said, as she reached out and retrieved a dollar of the hairdresser’s tip money. “A word of advice. After you’ve got the tip, shut your mouth.”
“The man’s going bald, for goodness sakes,” I said as we walked out the door. I had to tell somebody! “And he’s not that young. Come on. I need a margarita.”
We jumped into the Mustang and were half way to our favorite Mexican food place when we passed the Texas Way poker room.
Dante’s work truck was in the lot.
To be continued Monday.