Kerry sat behind her desk the rest of the day and performed menial chores while everybody else drifted off to their critical assignments, except for Ernie who had a series of meetings. She would sign people in and notify Ernie. He would come out, greet them and usher them into his office. Eventually, one would leave and another would show up.
As they came and went, she remained in the dark. Something was up, and she felt that Ernie should have let her know who these people were, if only to satisfy her curiosity, which was a basic human trait that Ernie should take into consideration. Or didn’t he trust her? Did he think that she’d blab it all over town. Did you hear that So And So met with Ernie Donavon today?
I bet Sheila knows, she thought. And it irritated her. The notion nagged at her the rest of the afternoon until she finally sidled into Sheila’s office—okay, it was small, but it was an office—and she asked if Sheila knew what was going on. “Ernie is seeking advice from influential friends on this whole Rome City thing. When they hurt Al, they made a big mistake.”
So there it was. Of course Sheila would know. And she didn’t even have to deal with the visitors. Why couldn’t he just give her a heads-up about who these people were. It might even help her greet them in a more professional manner. But no, her job didn’t require that kind of information.
At a quarter to five, Ernie left without comment. At five o’clock on the dot, Sheila locked her office door and left. She had a date.
No problem. Kerry would attend one of Palm Court’s famous Friday pool parties, and this time she would have the whole place to herself. Why not? The temperature was pushing eighty.
When she went to her suite to change into something more comfortable, she noticed Renaud Capel’s business card on her dresser. Since when did policemen have business cards, anyway? Okay, yeah, Danny Reagan hands them out to potential witnesses—call me if you think of anything. But he’s a detective. This guy is a small town patrolman. She mixed a vodka tonic, and on her way toward the door she picked up the patrolman’s card. Don’t do it, she told herself. But she took it with her to the pool.
The first drink relaxed her and began to sweep away the frustrations of the day. It’s all small potatoes, she decided. The whole thing was just a matter of letting herself become too self-absorbed. What about me? What about my needs? Get over yourself.
She drifted back to her suite and mixed another drink. This time she took her iPad back to the pool. With her very own special music and her very own special second drinky, her inhibition, which had been steadily going south, finally crossed the Mason-Dixon line. She picked up her phone and dialed Renaud Capel’s number.
“I was cleaning out my purse and found your card. I remembered—you handed it to me, so I took it, without thinking about it. But now…why would a small-town cop hand out a business card? So I thought, why not call and see if he answers…and ask him. Maybe I missed something.” It wasn’t the line she had spend a half hour trying to come up with. It wasn’t succinct and logical. It came out rambling and chatty. Damn.
“I thought it was obvious,” he said. “If I investigate an accident or a crime, I want victims and witnesses to be able to call me first, since I have more knowledge of the case than anybody else they might talk to at the station.”
“Okay, but in a small town—”
“We have victims and witnesses…”
“But I’m neither.” Did that sound harsh or accusatory?
“I know. Sometimes people hand out business cards when they meet somebody. It’s sort of a natural thing.”
“Then I guess it’s a natural thing to be tempted to eventually call the number. That way you can decide right then and there whether or not to throw it away.” Stupid!
“You’re not going to do that, are you?”
“Keep it. You never know.”
Dead air. Crap. Just bail. Cut your losses.
“Anyway, I’m glad you called,” he said. “What’s going on in the big city tonight?”
Hmm. He’s glad I called, and he wants to chat.
“I don’t know…yet. Right now I’m just trying to chill out. It was an irritating day.”
“Yeah, me too. Trouble is, once I chill…it’s not long before I start getting bored.”
Five seconds of silence.
“Yeah,” she said, following it up with a soft laugh.
“Since we’re both kind of looking for some recovery time, I wouldn’t mind driving to Mobile if you want to hang out for a while. I’m not much of a phone guy.”
She wanted to tell him she hadn’t called hoping to strike up a conversation. She didn’t know why she had called. At least she couldn’t put it into words. But now what? He seemed interested in her, and maybe that’s all she wanted to hear. Suddenly, she had an idea.
“Why don’t I come over there? It would be kind of neat to see what people do on a Friday night in Rome City.”
Kerry’s heart began to beat faster.
“That would be great,” he said. “We could go to the Hungry Eye.”
“That strip club?”
“Well, I mean, they don’t start doing that stuff until about ten o’clock on weekends. It’s about the only place in town where there’s much going on.”
“I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t such a good idea.”
“I could always come over there. But if you really want to get out of town, see what’s happening in R.C., we could go to the diner and get buzzed on coffee.”
The guy seemed totally open to seeing her—even eager—but what was really getting Kerry’s heart pumping was a crazy idea she was now tossing around in her mind. She realized that what she had here was a rare chance to get in on the detective work. The case they had going on in Rome City was a huge deal, and she regretted getting scared and backing out when she went over to help Al pore through the city’s legal records.
“What the heck,” she said. “Why not go where the action is?”
Capel told Kerry to meet him at the diner so they could go into the Hungry Eye together. She told him she’d be there at eight thirty. After their phone conversation, Kerry killed two hours fixing something to eat, getting dressed and letting her two drinks wear off.
On the drive over, she had to give herself a pep talk. Yes, she was excited about doing some important, if unauthorized, work for the agency. And a little bit scared. Maybe nervous would be a better word. But there was no denying what was going on here. Sure, seeing the card triggered this lark, but it never would have happened if she hadn’t been so taken in by his looks the moment she first laid eyes on him. There was something about his smile, even though she thought he was a shady character—at least he sometimes seemed to be involved with shady characters.
Kerry tried to convince herself that she shouldn’t let it make her feel desperate. She was a babe, and she knew it, most of the time. She wasn’t enough of a babe to always overcome the fact that she was an introvert. That was a problem in certain situations, especially in Atlanta, where she never felt up to par and she never seemed to know many people well enough to be herself. And now she was back in Mobile, where most of the guys she had gone to school with were married.
By the time she drove into Rome City she had given herself a pass for calling the guy, and had actually reached a state where she was almost fully deployed as a private detective.
They met at the diner and had a cup of coffee and piece of apple pie. Never hurts to have something in your stomach and a shot of caffeine if you’re going to be drinking, Officer Capel had said. How much drinking was he planning on doing? No telling. There certainly was a lot of it going on at the Hungry Eye when they walked in. Capel was greeted by many like a long lost friend and like a rock star by others. He just didn’t seem like a cop.
The place was noisy and crowded. The air was close, filled with cigarette smoke, B.O. and the smell of beer that had been spilled and never wiped up. Country music played on the juke box so loud that people had to yell in order to carry on a conversation. Kerry looked at Capel and grimaced. He smiled and nodded and then led her to a booth in a dark distant corner where the noise level was almost tolerable.
Kerry was relieved to have made it through the gauntlet of Hungry Eye regulars and found a relatively peaceful spot. The waitress who took their beer orders looked her over and forced a cold smile. As she watched the woman walk away, Kerry told herself she needed to decide what she wanted to get out of this escapade. Should she try her hand at serious detective work and help the agency or at least get an attagirl, or should she let the night lapse into what it was probably destined to be—a flirtatious lark?
“Is that one of your girlfriends?” She nodded toward the waitress who was now leaning on the bar, putting in their orders.
“No.” He laughed it off. “Why?”
“The way she looked at me, it was like she was ready to fight for you.”
“I didn’t get that. You know how these small towns are, though. Suspicious of strangers. If you’re a woman, I imagine you’d be extra suspicious of a high-class big city girl.”
“High class? I’m hanging out at the Hungry Eye—strip club!—in Rome City, Alabama.”
“Enjoying the hell out of it, right?”
“Absolutely.” Kerry stopped and made eye contact with the waitress as the woman set two beers on the table. When she left, Kerry gave Capel a look that said, Did you see that? She hates me. Kerry grabbed a beer and took a sip. “Anyway, Mobile is not a big city.”
They spent the next half hour engaged in small talk. Neither seemed to know what to make of the situation, how it evolved or where it might go, or where it should go. On two separate occasions, drunken friends of Capel slid into the booth beside him and demanded to know where he had been hiding such a rare beauty, or some such blather.
And then Absolon Brussel himself came over and slid in next to Kerry, acting like a gracious host and requesting an introduction. Capel told him her name and that’s all. Brussel was polite, said little more than he hoped she would enjoy her time at the Hungry Eye and then left. Kerry noticed that whenever Brussel’s eyes met Capel’s they were narrow and unblinking.
Five minutes after Brussel excused himself, the waitress came back and whispered something into Capel’s ear…and then left without looking at Kerry.
“I’ll be right back,” he said. And then he hurried off.
Odd, she thought. Not, necessarily, that he had obviously been summoned. It was just the way he responded—like he didn’t appreciate being interrupted, didn’t want to leave, but had no choice. What the hell? She took a sip of beer.
Capel was gone a long time. Maybe only ten minutes, but it seemed like a long time. Sitting there alone, massaging a sweating bottle of Coors Light, a feeling of dread swept over her. What was she doing here? This place was not only crawling with crude and creepy characters, there were bad people around, from all she had heard. How stupid could she have been? All of a sudden, the thing she wanted more than anything was to be safely behind the wheel of her car, getting the hell out of town. But then something knocked that sense of foreboding right out of her head. Jesse Yates walked into the room.
“Oh, shit.” She actually said the words to herself as soon as she saw his face, bobbing above all others, moving from the back door toward the bar. She slid to her left, up against the wall and scooted down so that the high back of the adjoining booth provided some cover.
What was he doing here? A meaningless question that she threw aside in a second. No doubt he had a valid reason. Obviously, Ernie called him into the case. The question was how could she explain what she was doing sitting in the Hungry Eye?
And then suddenly a very loud amplified voice rang through the room: “Ladies and gentlemen, the waiting is over, your patience is about to be rewarded. Put your hands together for the fabulous Billie Rae?” Brussel himself had stepped onto the makeshift stage and had grabbed a microphone to introduce his main attraction. He could hardly step down fast enough to get out of the way of a wildly energetic young woman who hopped onto the bandbox, flipping her long blonde hair from side to side, throwing her ams into the air and finally thrusting her hips at the audience, now gone out of control, yelling, whistling and hooting.
Kerry was amazed at how young and pretty she was, or looked. Not what you’d expect in a place like this. The spectacle if nothing else, yanked her out of her fearful state. She even nurtured a disparaging thought about the famous Mister Yates, whose timing seemed suspiciously perfect. She quickly dismissed the notion, but when she peeked over the top of the booth, he seemed to be fully immersed in the moment. She hoped he’d stay that way long enough for her to get out the front door.
How could she possibly explain what she was doing at the Hungry Eye? Just tell the truth seemed simple enough, except that she didn’t know the truth. Any answer she could come up with would cause more embarrassment than she could stand.
Kerry’s breath was coming faster than the beat of the music as Billie Rae teased the audience. Kerry thought about sneaking out the front door and calling Capel later to explain, but then she saw him making his way back through the crowd.
“Sorry. I gotta go to work,” he said. He seemed tense. “There’s an emergency.”
She thought it was strange, but she didn’t ask why. She just wanted to get out.
“I was getting a little uncomfortable in there, anyway.”
“I shouldn’t have brought you here.”
She checked to see what Yates was doing. Still watching Billie Rae, but now he was tipping a beer bottle.
“That’s okay. Let’s go out the front,” she said.
“I can’t. Gotta get to the squad car. I’ll see you out the door. Your car’s just a block down. I’ll swing around and check on you.”
“Okay.” Kerry glanced at Yates again when she slid out of the booth and felt relatively safe as soon as she turned her back and had Capel positioned behind her, hopefully blocking Yates’s view. Still, she covered the five steps to the front door at a pace just shy of running.
The night air was cool and fresh and smelled so much better.
Capel pointed out her car, parked a block up, near the diner, which was now closed. The whole town was closed. “I’m really sorry about this.”
Kerry had hoped they could have a few parting words, but Capel ducked back into the tavern. She stood and watched him through the door for a few seconds. She couldn’t help but laugh at herself. As she walked toward her car, her mind was focused on self analysis. What the hell was all that? And what, if anything, have I learned?
As she stepped across the alley that separated the two blocks, all her silly problems where swept away in a flash of blinding white terror as she felt herself ripped away from the sidewalk in the clutches of an overwhelming brute force that was dragging her down the alley, into the darkness, her mouth covered by a huge hand, her neck squeezed in the vice of a hard, thick arm.
Her mind was reeling and spinning, racing in an unimaginable frenzy of horror. She tried to lash out with her arms, but there was nothing in front of her. She tried to kick backwards at his legs and tried to stomp on his foot, but it was all futile. Her feet barely touched the ground. She was in the clutches of a monster that she couldn’t see or even imagine. It kept dragging her, on and on, maybe for a block, maybe only ten feet. Her mind wasn’t capable of lucid perception.
Just before she felt she would lose consciousness, and—in a flicker of rational thought—accepted the fact that she would probably never come back, she felt herself stumbling, tumbling, and finally crashing to the ground. She heard grunting and swearing, panting and scraping, thuds and slaps. And then she was free—free to get up and run back toward the street, barely feeling the scrapes on her elbows and knees and the throbbing ache in her temple.
Kerry made it to Main Street but could go no farther. She leaned back against the front of an auto parts store at the alley’s entrance and nearly collapsed. She took only enough breaths to bring her to the point where she could walk. And then she stumbled back toward the Hungry Eye. Oh no! Here he comes again!
A large figure appeared from around the corner on the other side of the Hungry Eye and began to hurry toward her. She turned to run.
“Kerry! Hold up! It’s me!” It was Jesse Yates. He ran to her and pulled her into his arms.
“The son of a bitch got away.” Yates waited for a response, but Kerry could only gasp. “I never was the fastest guy on the team,” he laughed. Okay, humor was useless at the moment. He held her close while she sobbed deeply.
She remained in his arms until people started wandering out of the Hungry Eye to see what the commotion was. That’s when Kerry raised her eyes and said, “Jesse Yates, if you couldn’t catch him, nobody could.”