My cell rang again. It was Shade.
I didn’t know how to handle this call. After my big poker stand and Dant's kiss, my mind was whirling faster than a Texas tornado but I knew I had to answer the phone. To let it go to voice mail would be the same as calling out the militia. I had no doubt Shade and an army of cowboys would find us and put an end to Casey and T.R.’s Excellent Adventure.
I didn’t have to worry about my end of the conversation, though. Shade started talking right after I answered the call with my usual “Hey.”
“Why did you leave the ranch? I can protect you here, Tana Rose. You don’t know what or who’s waiting to get you out there. Stay right where you are and I’ll come get you.” He paused and took a breath. “Ah…where are you?”
“Take it easy, Shade. I’m with Casey and we’re fine. We’re just having a girl’s night out. We got our nails done and now we’re headed to the movies.” I knew better than to mention being at Texas Way, although I also knew he’d hear about it sooner or later.
I held the phone away from my ear, afraid of the explosion about to happen on the other end of the line. Instead, there was complete silence. Did we get disconnected, I wondered? I hate talking to dead air space! “Are you still there?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m here. I’m not happy but I’m here. You’re crazy to pick tonight of all nights for girl talk. Tell me where you are and I’ll come escort you.”
“With you here it wouldn’t be a girl’s night out, now would it? It’d be…a threesome.”
“That doesn’t sound so bad either, although I think Ralph might have something to say about that. Seriously, you should have a man with you.”
Didn’t I hear Runt say the same thing but in a different way a little while ago? Don’t men think we woman can take care of ourselves? He should have seen me at Texas Way. I ruled! Of course, there weren’t any guns pointing at me or men in black jumping out of nowhere to get me.
“Clyde come in?” I asked to change the subject, but also because I wanted to know.
“Yeah, but we can’t get a hold of Runt. We’re stuck here at the house waiting to hear from him by computer or phone.”
No wonder Shade was in such a bad mood. He couldn’t get a hold of Runt and I wasn’t available to tease and torment. No, he was not a happy man.
“Listen, the show’s going to start any minute. I’ve got to go.”
“Which movie you goin to?” he asked casually.
I wasn’t falling for that. “Gotta go!”
“You come back to the ranch when the movie’s over and your evening’s done!” The words all ran together so he could get it all in before I hung up.
“Well, Shade, I don’t know when done will be,” I drawled. “As for sleeping arrangements, you should have taken me up on my offer earlier today when I wanted to make plans for tonight.” I clicked the phone closed, feeling very pleased with myself.
Casey shook her head at me as so we continued to the movie house. The show could have been Oscar great, I don’t know because I couldn’t concentrate on it. My mind was a mess, thinking about the three men in my life ─ Runt, Dante, and Shade ─ and about sneaking into Sirlo’s later. The whole situation was pregnant with scary complications, starting with Angelina’s cousin Consuelo.
I didn’t know who all was in on this blackmail-slash-takeover scheme. It could be anyone from janitorial staff on up. But Consuelo was a relative of a good friend. I had to trust somebody in order for Runt and I to start straightening this mess out.
Supper was a quiet time, especially for two talkers like Casey and me. I had a margarita with my meal so dinnertime wasn’t a complete waste. After a time-killing drive around the city, we pulled up behind Spur’s right on time. As I cut the car lights and engine, Runt walked out of the trees.
This time there weren’t any hugs or greetings. We were somber as we divvied up the janitorial outfits and put them on over our regular clothes. The three of us then climbed back into the Mustang, Casey in the back seat.
“Shade couldn’t make it?” Runt asked, looking into the back seat.
“Ah…nope,” I said. Lying comes easy with practice and lying by omission is easiest of all. Casey gave me a confused look in the rearview mirror but I ignored her and started driving. We didn’t have far to go.
I stopped the car in the street at the back of Sirlo’s building. The place was lit up like the local Cow Palace nightclub.
”Damn,” said Casey. “No sneaking in with all those lights on, that’s for sure.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “Not too late to back out, Casey,” I said, still trying to keep her out of any possible trouble. She just shot me a look.
“It’s too late for me,” Runt said. “I have to do this.”
“All right, then,” I said, taking my foot off the brake and letting the Mustang roll into the lot. I parked near the dock entrance. Straightening my shoulders, I opened the car door and climbed out. Casey got out on Runt’s side and they walked around the Mustang to me.
“It’s a go, I guess,” I said. I didn’t move.
“Right. I’m ready,” Casey said. She didn’t move either.
Runt put his hands on the small of our backs. “Then let’s do it,” he said. “Quoting somebody famous, ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself.’ ”
“And guns,” I said, taking a small step.
“And knives,” said Casey. I started to turn back to the car but Runt gave me a slight push forward. We walked up the dock’s steps and through the door.
Consuelo was down the hall.
“People here,” she said quietly, as she turned the cleaning cart over to Runt. “You push this. We’ll clean for a little bit near where they are and they will probably leave. I hope.”
Consuelo reached into her back pocket and pulled out two dust masks. She gave one to Runt and one to me, but I handed mine off to Casey. I looked at Runt. With the mask, his newly-shaved head, and his dark tan, he didn’t look anything like his old self.
Nobody would be expecting Casey here but the mask gave her an extra measure of security. The worn, paint splotched, thrift store clothes added a touch of experience to their janitorial act.
Me? Only poker players would recognize me but just in case, I spritzed my head with piney-smelling water from a cleaning spray bottle and flattened my spiky hair.
Consuelo started us cleaning the first office on the right. We didn’t mind the dusting and vacuuming. Consuelo might as well get a little work out of us in return for the favor of sneaking us in.
Walking back into the hall, she stopped by Runt’s cart and turned on the radio. Loud Latino music rocked Sirlo’s world. Consuelo smiled at us and turned on a big floor polisher.
A door opened down the way and a man yelled out. “Turn off that blasted music. That damn floor polisher is bad enough!”
Consuelo looked up innocently. “No habla Ingles, señor,” she said, and kept polishing. I was beginning to realize what a gutsy gal she was.
The door slammed shut. Consuelo looked at us and jerked her head in a come-this-way motion. We walked out of the office and paused in front of the door to the next one. She jerked her head again, drawing the three of us farther down the hall. She jerked her head at us until we were all outside the targeted office. Consuelo opened the door.
“Señor?” Consuelo said, and waved her hand around the room and then out at us in the hall. “Excusa, por favor?”
“Crap, go away,” one of the men said. I made sure I didn’t look either of them in the face.
“Excusa, por favor?” Consuelo pushed.
“Damn, Eddy,” one man said. “We might as well let them clean. I can’t make heads or tails out of what that bastard did or didn’t do to the system! We’ve got to get him over here again. Damn!”
Eddy got up from his chair and stretched. “Up to you. I’d like a beer and somethin’ to eat anyway.”
“OK, let’s go. The noise is drivin’ me crazy.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end in spite of the spritzed-on cleaning solution. The second man sounded like the guy who grabbed me the other night and killed Sloppy. I needed to hear him speak again but that could wait. Runt needed to get into that office and putter with the ‘puter.
Casey, Runt, and I all stood there like we didn’t know or care what they were talking about. I had my eyes focused on my toes.
“Excusa?” Consuelo pushed again, acting like she didn’t know what they were saying. Damn that woman had balls!
“Screw you!” Tom said and both men left the room. I watched them walk down the hall and get into the elevator. As the doors closed, one of the men turned and looked me right in the eyes. Damn, it was the Stalkin’ Starer! I quickly looked away.
Consuelo turned the polisher on again as the three of us went into the targeted office. Runt quickly sat down at the computer, slipped a disk out of his shirt, and went to work. With Consuelo in the hall, I relaxed and watched Runt type on the keyboard.
A couple of cleaning people came to talk to Consuelo. She leaned into the office. “I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, then disappeared towards the back of the building.
“The virus antidote is loading,” Runt said. “I can test it in a minute.”
Runt typed out some more stuff on the keyboard and sat there waiting. I heard the elevator door opened again and stepped out of the office, expecting to see Consuelo.
It was the Stalkin’ Starer. The other guy was right beside him. “I knew that was her!” Stalkin’ Starer roared when he saw me standing in the hall.
“Damn it,” Runt bellowed, as he realized what was happening. I scooted out the office, pulling the door shut. I heard the door lock behind me. Well, I thought, that will help Casey and Runt for thirty seconds or so.
I started running for the stairwell sign at the opposite end of the hall. I needed to draw these men away from Runt and Casey.
Up the stairs or down? My guess was they’d expect me to go down so I took the stairs up, two at a time. That was a plan I didn’t think through enough.
I boomed through the doors onto the third floor. Consuelo and the other two cleaning guys were on their hands and knees in the middle of the hall. They stood up as I raced towards them.
“Ca-rap!” I said to Consuelo as I passed her. “Ca-rap!” I said again, more to myself than anybody else. I knew more words but that one seemed to say it all.
“That way! That way! More stairs. Next floor! Construction! Hiding places!” Consuelo’s voice rat-tat-tatted the information to me like a bullets from a glock. I glanced back and saw her and the guys kneel down again and concentrate on scraping off some kind of mess. It was like nothing else mattered in their lives except that single, dirty spot.
I found the stairway and raced up another floor. Behind me I heard the door on the third floor boom open, then lots of yelling in English and Spanish. I could only imagine the plucky Consuelo, with that innocent, bewildered look. A real poker face, that one.
The forth floor housed a lot of junk but I couldn’t see any hiding places that a kindergartener wouldn’t have been able to immediately spot. Big empty cans waited to be carted downstairs to the trash. Sheetrock was stacked as high as my waist. Old ceiling tiles were scattered all around. Tools, large and small, cluttered the floor. Not the hiding haven I’d hoped for.
I was trapped. A big voice in my head told me I should have gone down the stairs instead of up! Now it comes to that conclusion!
Quit shaking and think like a poker player, I ordered myself. Count your outs! But another look around the room convinced me I had no outs. I couldn’t even check. Where the hell’s an ace in the hole when you….
Oh. A hole. Otherwise known as a circulation vent. The opening measured at least two feet by three feet and was located on the wall just above the floor. Its freshly painted cover was propped on boxes nearby.
I scurried over to the vent and stabbed my head into the hole. The shaft appeared to drop straight down. Straight down!
I yanked off an earring and flung it in the vent. It clattered off the sides and bounced around, the sound growing fainter and fainter but convincing me the shaft wasn’t exactly straight down. And I didn’t hear any grinding noises when it hit bottom. Just the slight tinkle of jewelry hitting cement.
The commotion in the stairwell grew louder and closer. I decided it was play the hand I had dealt myself or fold. Of course I’d play!
I climbed into the vent and extended my legs out to touch both sides. My fingertips gripped the edge of the hole. With the help of my butt, I suspended myself over the dark downward tunnel as best I could. I needed soles made of rubber for this instead of my slick leather-soled cowboy boots but it wasn’t like I could run home and change.
The door from the stairs exploded open. It was just the motivation I needed. I let my fingers go slack and tucked my knees to my chin.
The four-floor drop was fast and frantic. I spread out my elbows, knees, and butt to slow my descent but they banged and bruised more than they braked. Rough tin edges and screw points cut my clothes and skin, and the dust I stirred up would have made breathing tough, but who was breathing.
Stopping sucked, just like I knew it would. I landed hard on my butt. Now I knew how bull riders felt at the end of their eight seconds of work.
The shaft ended in the basement. I got to my hands and knees and peered through the aluminum slats. If I couldn’t kick off the vent cover, this game would end right here. It might be awhile before anybody discovered my skeleton.
As sore as my butt was, I sat back down and braced my back against the wall. Using both my legs, I rammed the cover with the feet. Again and again and again I hammered at it. The aluminum bent and buckled. Finally one side popped off its screws. I leaned forward and peeled back a portion big enough for me to squeeze though.
I was out.
Gingerly, I stood up, testing muscles and bones. Thank goodness nothing felt broken. I needed to move fast. I didn’t want to get cornered in the basement. The escape vent was only good for a one-way ride and I had already taken it.
I did a fast, limping tour of the basement, found the door to the stairs, and hurried upward. I’m really much better at running down stairs. I just wasn’t getting much of a chance to exhibit that skill.
The stairway spilled to the dock and I rushed out just in time to see Casey and Runt jump into my Mustang. Tom was right behind them. Once again I was glad Runt and I had the habit of leaving the keys in our vehicles.
“Go! Go!” I muttered to myself, waving frantically in a go-away motion in case they were looking my way. “Go-o-o-o-o!” I didn’t want to draw attention to myself by yelling at them but I thought the words loudly.
As the Mustang roared off, I turned and ran out of the parking lot. The next couple of blocks were packed with storefronts looking out onto the street. I stopped in a doorway to catch my breath. No one seemed to be chasing me. Could we all have gotten away that easy? Had they recognized Runt and gone after him? I concentrated on getting my body to quit shaking, taking deep breaths to get my blood oxygen level back to normal.
My arms were scratched and bleeding. My favorite boots were scuffed. My butt was tender. I pulled my cell from my rear pocket. Its cover was smashed and I assumed the bruise on my butt would be at least the size of the phone. When I pushed Casey’s speed dial button, her phone started ringing. It might look terrible but the phone still worked.
“Where are you?” Casey asked, instead of her usual hello.
“I’m on the street...ah…,” I looked around. “…Tabor and 29th.”
I could hear Runt talking in the background. “We can’t come get her yet. Tom’s hot on our trail. We’ll have to lose him first.”
“I heard him,” I said. “Good luck.”
“I’ll call when we’re safe,” she said and hung up.
So. Tabor and 29th. I didn’t have a clue what to do next. There weren’t many cars on the road and it was scary down on the dark street all by myself. I guess I could call Shade to come get me…
…NOT! I’d never give him that satisfaction. Rescuing damsels in distress was totally in his line of work, but not this damsel!
Out of the darkness, a black truck headed my way. I pressed myself back into the doorway and it passed me by. I didn’t know who to dodge and who to holler at for help. An old beat-up car with multicolored fenders and doors passed by while I was hidden away.
A little red car pulled into view.
To be continued Monday.