Thursday, January 22, 2009

SHUFFLE, Chapter Seventeen

I took a deep, quiet breath and settled the gun firmly in my hand. Rearing up, I threw my chair backwards to make a lot of noise. The gun came up in the same motion and I two-handed aimed it, first at Aunt Lois, then at Eddy, and then back again at Aunt Lois.

Aunt Lois gasped.

Eddy, damn him, jumped straight at me.

To my own amazement, I didn’t hesitate. I pulled the trigger.


A little gun makes a big bang in an empty warehouse. Luckily for Eddy, the gun was pointed between him and his aunt when I squeezed the trigger. The bullet blasted the pile of Viagra before going through the table and into the cement floor. Eddie froze in place.

OK by me. I couldn’t use the Viagra anyway. But I bet one of the Toms would be boiling mad. I hear those pills are ten dollars each. But worth it, I hear. Worth it.

I was in control now and it was intoxicating. “Jeez, Eddy, Don’t do that again. You just caused me to ruin the love life of one of the Toms. It could have been your love life that got obliterated, buddy. Now you two get into the bathroom.”

Neither of them moved so I squeezed the trigger again. This time the bullet nicked a corner of a face-down playing card and through the face-up ace of hearts before exiting the other side of the table.

“Oops, can’t use that deck again. Those cards are marked now. I’m running out of bullets, I bet. Either one of you two want to take that bet?”

I guess they didn’t. With one hand holding her blouse closed at the missing booby buttons, Aunt Lois backed across the warehouse to the bathroom. She gave me the evil eye all the way. Eddy stumbled after her.

“Tom will get you for this!” he slurred.

“Hey," I said, "so far he’s got me for stuff that wasn’t my fault so he might as well get me for stuff that is.” I used the gun to motion him backwards some more. He didn’t like it but he went. My two shots through the table must have proved I’d shoot him if he didn’t do what I said.

I trailed after them, dragging a chair behind me. Into the bathroom they went, Aunt Lois in the lead. She shot me another dirty look but it landed harmlessly as I closed the door and crammed the chair beneath the knob.

I knew the chair trick wouldn’t hold on the slick cement for long. I needed something heavier to secure the door but there was nothing in the warehouse except more chairs, the table, and the monster truck.

Oh. The truck. I removed the chair from under the knob, opened the bathroom door again, and pointed the gun at Eddy.

“Give me the keys to the truck.”

Eddy snickered and handed them over. “You can’t drive that truck.”

“Want to bet on that?” I said as I grabbed the keys out of his hand and closed the door again, replacing the chair. I pulled myself up into the monster truck and looked around.

OK, I understood the fascination with mammoth haulers. You feel on top of the world, superior to all the little people looking up at you. I turned the key and the big machine started up, rumbling and vibrating beneath me.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the chair under the doorknob wiggle and slide down. The monster was making so much noise, I didn’t hear the chair fall. I put the truck into first gear, turned the wheels towards the bathroom door, and drove right up against it.

Shove that, Eddy. Good thing you didn’t take that bet. You would have lost ─ again. I shut the big truck down and lowered myself out of the Dodge.

Damn, I felt good. Now, let’s go see what Aunt Lois drives. It had to be something easier than the giant Dodge. A nice, simple, old lady’s car. As I grabbed her keys out of her purse, several pieces of paper fluttered out. I noticed the papers looked like a bunch of dry cleaner receipts, a big bunch of them. She must be the cleanest woman in town.

I started to place the gun back in Aunt Lois’ bag but stopped myself. It might come in handy since I didn’t know what Tom was up to. When this was all over with, I might just frame it. No, I thought. I’d trade it in for one of those little cowboy boot holster guns so I, too, could be in the in crowd.

Exiting the warehouse through the office, I headed out the front door. There sat a big, bright yellow Hummer, the only car in the lot. I guess lots of old ladies drive Hummers these days.

Damn, I should have taken a cell phone. Too late for that. I wasn’t going back into that warehouse. I was out and I was going to stay out. Maybe my own phone was still by the side of the road where it had landed when Tom and Eddy ran over the back seat of the Shade’s convertible.

I unlocked the Hummer door and climbed in. Not a big climb like the monster truck but still a climb. A quick visual of dainty Aunt Lois hauling herself into the Hummer flashed across my mind and for the first time in twenty-four hours I laughed out loud.

Eddy had mentioned Aunt Lois had dry cleaning in her car but I couldn’t believe how much was there. It filled the back seat and the Hummer had a big back seat. I thought of all those receipts in her purse. This woman had to be taking clothes to the cleaners every day.

I noticed a heap of thin, clear plastic on the floor next to a jumbled pile of pressed clothes.

Was she taking the same clothes to the cleaners every day? Why else would the pressed clothes be in a crumpled heap? But that didn’t make any sense. Why would a person do that?

I leaned down and grabbed a handfull of plastic to read the receipts still stapled to them. Crest Cleaners.

Crest Cleaners? Ca-rap.

Tom Senior had a young preggers mistress, a foreigner or so the name implied. He had been running all the household errands. Aunt Lois started running the errands again, especially the dry cleaning delivery and pickup. In fact, a whole wardrobe worth of dry cleaning and using her Hummer as a closet. A Crest Cleaners’ employee sick for weeks, months. An employee with a foreign-sounding name.

Weeba. Wallflower throughout high school. Too poor to go to college. Now pregnant with a married millionaire’s baby. I leaned my head against the strange steering wheel and tried to think straight, instead of the zig-zaggy thoughts I’d been having. I now had two loved ones in danger ─ Runt and Weeba. And neither knew about the other.

OK, I had to get my thoughts in order. I knew where Eddy and Lois were. They weren’t a threat to anybody since they were stuck in a windowless bathroom in the warehouse. I felt confident they would be staying exactly where they were ─ unless, of course, someone came along and moved the monster truck. Damn, I wish I had taken the keys to that monster truck! The keys and a cell phone. Too late for wish-I-hads.

Weeba was probably safe. Yeah, safe in the arms of her lover at this time of night. And good for her, I guess, although the visual of him using a walker, watching her dancing with men her own age kept popping into my head. I’d worry about Weeba tomorrow. Right now, Runt was the one who could be in danger. Who knew how Tommy was treating him at this very moment.

I stuck the key into the ignition of the Hummer and turned the engine over. It smoothly came to life like the mellow yellow it was. The beast drove great but I thought again of my faithful old Mustang just out of the shop and knew I’d be very glad to get back into that driver’s seat again. Little red convertibles, monster trucks, and Hummers are not for me. Just call me Mustang Sally, protector of friends and relatives.

Sirlo’s office building was only two blocks away, but before I headed there, I made a quick right and drove back to the scene of my kidnapping. It was a long shot that my phone would still be on the roadside and another long shot that it would be in any kind of working condition. But hey, I’m queen of the long shots lately.

I knew my cell would be mangled but it contained valuable names and phone numbers. If I didn’t go and get it, somehow it would find itself in Sonja’s hands and she’d try to take over all my customers with her wayward cowgirl approach to poker.

Little red fiberglass pieces of Shade’s car marked the crime scene. I parked the yellow Hummer and searched the road where I thought the phone might have landed, working my way back and forth in a grid formation. I didn’t have time to waste but I wanted my phone bad.

Nothing. I started back to the Hummer and was about to open the driver’s door when I heard a familiar little beep. I stood still and held my breath. There it was again. A low battery warning beep. I waited for another one, keeping myself alert for direction. In those weeds. Sure enough. But did it work?

I tested the phone by calling Runt. It rang but he didn’t answer. I didn’t bother to leave a message. I just wanted to see if the phone worked. I knew where Runt was ─ Sirlo’s!

This time when I arrived at Sirlo’s dock, the place was smothered in darkness and no friendly janitor awaited me. I drove around to the front of the building. Two cars I didn’t know were in the lot. A glow radiated from one of the rooms on the first floor. A different office from last night but the light was as good as a big X marked on a treasure map. It narrowed the game considerably.

I parked the Hummer and boldly walked to the door. It was locked, of course. I stood there counting my outs, jingling change and Hummer keys in one pocket and feeling the smooth green wad of won poker money in the other. My winnings from Dante were still in my boot, starting to rub blisters. Expensive blisters. I felt like a walking Fort Knox.

Hmmm. I pulled the Hummer keys back out of my pocket. I bet there was one special key on the ring, one that opened the door to Sirlo's. I tried each key unil the last one clicked the lock open.

I didn’t both to relock the door. After all, Tom was inside. With Aunt Lois and Eddy stashed away at the warehouse, I doubt if any more bad guys would be arriving. Anybody coming in from the outside would probably be a good guy.

Voices drifted down the hallway. An eerie feeling crawled my scalp. I mean, I was in the same place as last night, in the same clothes, with the same makeup, the same problems ─ except this time I was alone. I didn’t have faithful Casey and gutsy Consuelo for backup.

And tonight Runt was already in the building. When it all came down, it would be Runt and me against the world.

Quietly, I sneaked down the hall to the occupied office. I squatted down and peeked around the door frame. Maybe, I thought, I wouldn’t be caught out of the corner of Tom’s eye if I was way low.

Runt was at the computer. Tom was sitting behind him, cleaning his fingernails with a straightened out paperclip. No Clyde. I quickly pulled my head back into the hallway and listened. Neither man said a word for several minutes.

“Damn, Runt,” Tom finally said. “This computer snooping takes forever. I’d like to get to bed sometime tonight.”

“How do you think my sister feels?” I smiled at Runt’s concern for me.

“Mom says she’s happily playing poker,” Tom said. “Why’d we have to go through all that bullshit about biometrics and me forcing you into this, anyway?”

My smile froze on my face.

“Hey,” Runt said. “if this shit goes wrong, I want to be the fairly innocent victim in all this. She’s my alibi. You got family behind you. And family money. I got nothing until and if you get your hands on all your dad’s blackmailable secrets.

“You can go home if you want to,” Runt added. “I’ve got a couple of more hours work here.”

My brain went numb, my body paralyzed with this unexpected knowledge. Runt was playing me! His own sister! He really was neck deep in illegal activity.

And Mom was concerned because I deal poker in an underground card room. She’s been worrying about the wrong damn child! Oh God, this will break her heart.

No wonder Aunt Lois said not to worry about Tom facing kidnapping charges. I wouldn’t dare press charges against Tom because it would reveal Runt’s part in all this mess.

I needed to get out of Sirlo’s, to run as far away from Runt as I could. Only then could I begin to think this through. I forced myself to stand up and quietly hurried to the front door.

Damn, damn, damn. And damn again. I wanted my life back, the one I had last week when all I worried about was Whitey getting raided by the cops and H.C.s from gambling boyfriends. When Runt’s computer antics were limited to high school shenanigans, and Shade was just a semi-sweet memory, not the man I might be falling in love with.

Jeez, things had been so rotten in the last twenty-four hours, I hadn’t even had time to think about Shade telling me he loved me. At this point I didn’t care if he did or not. I’d never trust another man again. If my own brother would lie to me and put my life in danger, what would a boyfriend and lover do? Well, I guess I knew one thing they’d do. They’d write me a gigantic hot check!

But all that seemed meaningless now, my won money only paper.

I scrambled into the yellow brute and drove away. Automatically I drove to Casey and Ralph’s house. It was very late but the light in their bedroom was still on. I knocked instead of ringing the bell so I wouldn’t wake the kids.

“OhmygodTana!” Casey yelled when she and Ralph opened the door. So much for being quiet. She threw her arms around me and kissed me all over my face. “We’ve been so worried! Runt and Shade are going out of their minds!”

“Yeah? Runt? Really? Can I come in? I need to talk.”

Casey opened the door wide to let me in. Then we both looked at Ralph. “Yeah, I know. Goodnight.” He pecked me on the cheek, kissed Casey on the lips, and trotted off to bed.

“He’s such a good man,” I said before I began to bawl.

Casey and I sat on her couch. In between bawling fits I told her everything. She told me Runt had refused Clyde’s help. Duh, that’s a shocker. Shade was still driving around town looking for monster trucks and going crazy with worry.

The police weren’t involved yet. Casey trusted Ralph and had told him some of the stuff but it was getting harder and harder, she said, to keep him and the other cops out of this.

I told her how I figured Weeba played into it. If it hadn’t been in the middle of the night, Casey and I would have rushed over to Weeba’s apartment. She needed us. She was preggers by a married man.

“You’ve got to call Shade and tell him you’re safe,” Casey said.

He deserved that much. “Please,” I said. “Could you call him? I just can’t talk to him right now.”

“You’re going to have to at some point.”

“I will. At some point. But not now. Not yet.

Reluctantly Casey picked up her phone and dialed.

“Shade, this is Casey. T.R.’s with me here at the house…she’s fine. Wore out more than anything…No, don’t come over. Ralph’s here with us so she’s safe. She needs a bath and sleep. She’ll be here in the morning. Come over about noon…No, I haven’t heard from Runt…I’ll tell her. Bye.”

“He says he loves you. He wanted to come over real bad.”

“How could he be in love me? We’ve only been seeing each other a few days and that hasn’t really been dating. He’s just using me for some reason.”

“T.R., don’t feel that way. I think you’ve been in love with him since you dated in high school. You just wanted more attention than he was capable of giving as a young man. I think he really loves you. And always has.

Yeah, me and every other woman in the State of Texas.

I sat up straight and pulled myself together. “I don’t want to talk about Shade. I need to get back to Sirlo’s and confront Runt. If I catch him red-handed, he can’t deny everything like he’s always done in the past when he’s been caught after the fact.”

“We need a plan,” Casey said. I smiled at the “we” part. No wonder Casey’s been one of my best friends since grade school.

“We need something that shoves it in his face,” I said.

“Yup, and rubs it all around!”

“And we need witnesses,” I said with growing confidence.

“Ah…OK…witnesses. Like in…?” she questioned.

“Like in other folks watching the action. Like in so many folks seeing what Runt’s up to, he can’t lie his way out of it.”


“Not unless you want to bet your marriage and I don’t recommend that! I mean lots of folks. Folks that stay up all night and are always looking for action.”

“Oh-h-h-h. You mean poker folker.”

I just smiled and took out my recently retrieved, dilapidated, beeping cell phone.

Thirty minutes of planning and a database text message later, we were ready to go. We both shouted goodbye to Ralph.

“It’s after one o’clock in the morning,” a doubtful Ralph yelled back but we were already on our way out the door. “It’s after one o’clock in the morning, Katie Carol,” we heard again as we jumped into the Hummer, only this time he was cut off by the slamming of the vehicle doors. It wasn’t a good sign that he’d used her whole name.

To be continued.

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