“There’s no law preventing me from talking to a pretty girl.”
Jack looked over to me, clearly surprised. I hoped it was the shock of recognition and not my being referred to as a pretty girl.
I turned to Tooney. “You’d better leave now.”
Tooney shrugged as if to say it had been worth a shot. He got about two steps away before turning around. Looking at me, he held his thumb and pinkie near his face mimicking a telephone receiver. “Call me,” he mouthed.
The band’s song ended just then, and their next choice was an acid-rock rendition of Elton John’s “Daniel.” These guys were bad. But at least they’d turned down their amps.
“I’m sorry to have intruded,” Jack said, picking up his beer bottle and looking awfully sheepish for a man who’d just chased someone away. “I didn’t know it was you he was talking to until I started in on him.” Humor spread across his features. “You weren’t giving him your number, were you?”
I laughed, and realized how fresh it felt to do so. “Not a chance,” I said. Then, remembering my manners, I introduced Bruce and Scott.
“Roommates? Where do you live?”
I told him.
“The old Careaux place?”
“You know it?”
Jack took another drink of his beer. “Everybody in Emberstowne knows all the painted ladies. How did the three of you wind up there? Are you renting?”
Apparently Earl hadn’t shared my history. “No,” I said. “Long story.” I looked back into the sea of happy, partying people and asked, “Are we keeping you from your friends?”
His raised an eyebrow. “Trying to get rid of me?”
“No, no,” I said too eagerly.
Bruce piped in. “Have a seat. We ordered a few appetizers to share. You’re welcome to join us.”
Jack looked to me, as though asking permission.
“We ordered southwestern egg rolls,” I said, doing my version of a tempting voice. “You wouldn’t want to pass those up, would you?”
At that moment, our food arrived. In addition to the egg rolls, we’d ordered lobster-stuffed potato skins and crab cakes. The smell of the warm delights was heady. The waiter, smart man, brought out four plates instead of three. That earned him a bump in tip from me.
“No,” Jack said as he took the seat, “I definitely don’t want to pass this up.”
Bruce asked the waiter for another round of drinks, and requested a respite from the energetic, if not quality, music. To our surprise, less than five minutes later the band took a break. Quiet music, more in keeping with the restaurant’s 1940s ambience piped in from the speakers above, soothing our frazzled senses. A moment later the restaurant manager came over and introduced himself, draping his arms over the backs of Bruce’s and Jack’s chairs. “Sorry about the music, guys. We were trying out a new band today. I just told them to take a fifteen-minute break.” Wryly, he added: “For the rest of the night.” Lifting his chin toward the bar area, he continued. “A half hour ago this place was packed. The music started and . . . look.”
We did. He was right. The crowd had thinned down to less than one-third its size.
The waiter arrived with our drinks. “This round’s on me,” the manager said. “Thanks for sticking it out.”
After expressing our thanks, we returned to our conversation. Jack asked again about “the Careaux” house, and over our flavorful treats and fresh drinks, I gave him a quick history of my family in Emberstowne. Just like Earl, Jack was surprised to find out I’d not only been born here, but that I’d spent some of my childhood here as well. “Really? How old are you?” he asked.
Bruce and Scott nearly spit out their food. “You don’t ask a woman that question,” Bruce said.
Even in the dim light I could see Jack’s cheeks color. “Sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking. Just wondered if we might have gone to grammar school together.”
I waved a hand at my roommates. “Makes sense,” I said, then told Jack my age.
He made a
ing sound, but smiled as he did so. “Nope, that makes you two years younger than me. I wouldn’t have even noticed a little girl like you.”
“You’re noticing now,” Bruce said. “So, make up for lost time.”
“Bruce!” I said. “You sure you need that next mojito? Seems to me like you might have had enough already.”
He picked up his glass and grinned at me. “I’m just sayin’.”
Jack politely pretended not to notice our interchange. He and Scott started talking about gardening while I fumed. Bruce might have good intentions, but his methods left a lot to be desired. I watched Jack as he discussed pink peonies. He wore a collared polo shirt and black pants—not quite formal dress, but a far cry from his usual T-shirt and khaki shorts. He nodded thoughtfully at Scott, then turned to me. “What do you think?”
Caught daydreaming, I had no idea what the question had been. I opened my mouth, but Bruce interrupted, saving me from having to admit I wasn’t paying attention. “Grace would love it. She’s been talking about what a mess the garden is.” He met my eyes. An outsider would never have caught the sparkle there, but I saw it for what it was. Bruce was in high matchmaking mode. “I know she would really appreciate you coming by to take a look. We could sure use a professional opinion.”
Jack looked pleased. “Great,” he said. “How about Sunday? Will you have time around, say, two in the afternoon?”
“Could we make it later?” Scott asked. “Bruce and I have to keep the store open until five.” I felt a rush of air beneath the table as Bruce’s foot smacked Scott in the leg.
“Yeah, sure,” Jack said. “What’s good for you? Six?”
“That would be great.” Scott said, shooting a glare at Bruce. “You’ll be home, too, won’t you, Grace?”
I tried not to smile at Bruce’s exaggerated eye roll. “I’ll be there,” I said. Then to Jack, “I’m looking forward to it.”
“Jack!” a male voice called to him from the front of the bar. A heavyset man held his empty glass aloft, and waved it. “You ready to lose, or what?”
Jack lifted his beer to his lips and drained it. “I better take off,” he said. “Couple of friends have a card game going tonight. I said I’d stop by.” He eased off his chair, and pointed north. “Fortunately, it’s walking distance and after three beers, I can use the exercise.”
“Do you live nearby?” I asked.
This time he pointed east. “Half a mile or so.”
I mentally calculated. That put him just over a mile away from me.
The guy at the front of the bar waved to us, then pointed at his friend. “Time’s a wasting.”
“Coming,” Jack said. Then to me, “See you Sunday.”
“Yeah, Sunday,” was all I could manage. And then he was gone.
After enduring jibes from my roommates about not having told them about my “studly colleague,” the three of us settled up and headed home, cheery for the first time in days.
I SPENT ALL DAY SATURDAY TRANSFERRING boxes from the leaky attic to the main floor. My intent was to sort through all my mom’s stuff once and for all, then relocate the rescued “keepers” to the basement. By noon I’d managed to lug about half of the collection to the parlor, and after a quick break for lunch, I returned to the attic to get the rest.
Exhausted, both from the multiple trips up and down two flights of stairs, and the enormity of the task I faced, I stood in one of the few empty spots in the parlor and stared at the boxes of various sizes and shapes that stared back at me. Some had already suffered rain damage from the leaky roof and I decided to attack those first.
“My own personal treasure hunt,” I said aloud, thinking about my parent’s conversation from oh-so-many years ago. Would I finally find the papers my mother had so carefully secreted from me? And would I ever understand why she had? Grabbing a glass of lemonade from the fridge, I settled myself on the sofa and dug in.
An hour later, I had an enormous garbage pile of phone bills, water bills, and heating bills from the house when my grandparents owned it, but had not come across one single item of interest.
Three boxes later, after more of the same, I headed to the kitchen to refresh my lemonade and grab a ham and pickle sandwich—lots of mayo—on rye. My favorite. I stood over the sink to eat, lamenting the colossal job ahead of me, and envisioning Bruce’s and Scott’s reactions when they returned. Saturdays were their busiest days at the shop, and it was also one of the days they stayed open late.
Finishing my sandwich, I sighed. The house was too quiet. The job was too big. Exhaustion, boredom, and a full tummy combined to make me want to sleep. Which meant that I needed to move or risk losing momentum.
The moment I stepped out the back door and into the cool, fresh air, I felt my spirits lift. I strolled past the big tree next to the garage, and walked down the driveway to the sidewalk, enjoying the fleeting warmth of the setting sun whenever I passed through a break in the shadows. I walked down to the corner, around the block, and back, feeling energized and rejuvenated on my return.
Back in the parlor, I set to work once again, using one edge of a pair of scissors to slice open the next sealed box. I hadn’t even pulled up the lid when I heard a car in the driveway. Expecting it to be Scott and Bruce coming home, I scrambled to my feet and headed to the back door, only to twist around in surprise when the front bell rang.
I swung open the door and Ronny Tooney held his hands up as if to stave off my fury. “You dropped this.”
He held out a black permanent marker just like the one I’d been using in my box-inventory project. My hand reached for my back pocket, where I’d jammed it, but the marker was no longer there. I whipped the writing instrument from his hand, instinctively positioning myself tight inside the door so he would have to bowl me over if he tried to get in. “You followed me?”
His words came out in a rush. “I swear I’m not stalking you. I just need three minutes of your time. Three. That’s it. I didn’t bother you on your walk because I thought it might creep you out.”
Having him here on my doorstep, admitting he’d followed me was creeping me out plenty. Give him credit for stealth. I hadn’t even noticed anyone nearby.
“Three minutes and then I promise, if you want, I’ll leave you and Marshfield Manor alone for good.”
That was an offer too good to pass up. But I was alone in the house and not willing to let this oddball know it. The brief delay it took for me to process this ignited a spark in Tooney’s eyes. His hands at his sides again, he took a step forward, “I swear this won’t take long. Can I come in and—”
I didn’t budge from my sentry position. “How is it that you haven’t been locked up for impersonating a police officer?”
“I never did,” he said. “You and a few other people assumed I was with the police, but I never identified myself as such.”
“Really? Just like you never ‘identified’ yourself as a Marshfield employee when I caught you roaming the halls the other day? What, did you just happen to find a uniform jacket in your size at the local department store?”
He held a finger up. He had green eyes, big and blood-shot. You could see white all the way around his irises. “That’s another thing I can help you with.”
I was lost. “You want to help me order uniforms?”
“Of course not,” he said, annoyance tincturing his tone. “Tell me: What happens when an employee quits, or is fired? What happens when a uniform wears out?”
I took a breath. “Time’s up, Mr. Tooney. I have work to do.”
Frustration twisted his features, widening his already bulging eyes, and reddening his cheeks. “I’m trying to help you. I can get you in touch with Percy.”
“I have no interest in ‘getting in touch’ with him.”
“The police have released him.”
I started to shut the door.
“He knows more than he’s telling.”
You know how people say your life rushes before your eyes just before you die? Well, I think sometimes the future rushes before your eyes, right before you make a decision. I could see Tooney following me around, pestering me with his suggestions until Abe’s murder was solved. Considering the progress the detectives were making, that could be a very long time. Better to let the man have his say and be done with it.
“Fine.” I stepped out onto the porch. “Talk. And when you’re done, you will not contact me again unless I ask you to. Do we have a deal?”
He looked ready to offer a counterproposal, but thought better of it. “Yeah. I swear.”
“You swear a lot,” I said, wrapping my arms around myself. This late in the day, the shadows were heavy as the sun sank low in the west. A cool breeze snaked around us, causing me to shiver.
“I’d be happy to come in,” Tooney said.
“We’re fine right here.”
“Yeah, yeah.” As if to assuage my discomfort, he took a small step back.
“Three minutes,” I repeated.
“Percy acts stupid but the kid is really pretty shrewd. He’s got a rap sheet a mile long. It’s all misdemeanor stuff, but he’s been in and out of the Emberstowne police station so many times, I wouldn’t be surprised if they assigned him a locker.”