Authors: David Baldacci
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #FIC031000
Duane stirred as LuAnn passed by. “What’s going on here?” he said sleepily.
“Shut up,” LuAnn snapped back.
As his eyes focused on the situation, Duane reached across to the nightstand and pulled out a pack of Marlboros from the drawer. He grinned at Shirley as he lit up.
“Going home so soon, Shirl?” He wiped his droopy hair out of his face as he sucked contentedly on his cigarette.
Facing to the rear as she was, Shirley glared at him, her fat cheeks a deep burgundy. “You’re a piece of crap.”
Duane blew her an imaginary kiss. “I love you too, Shirl. Thanks for the visit. Made my morning.” He belly-laughed and slapped his thigh as he propped himself up on the pillow. Then LuAnn and Shirley disappeared through the doorway.
After depositing Shirley next to a rusted-out Ford engine block in the front yard, LuAnn turned back to the trailer.
Shirley stood up and shrieked, “You pulled half my hair out, you bitch.” LuAnn kept walking, not looking back. “I want my clothes. Give me my damned clothes, LuAnn.”
LuAnn turned around. “You didn’t need ’em while you were here, so I can’t see no reason why you’d need ’em now.”
“I can’t go home like this.”
“Then don’t go home.” LuAnn went up the cinder block steps to the trailer and slammed the door behind her.
Duane met her in the hallway, dressed in his boxers, an unlit Marlboro dangling from his mouth. “Does a man good to have two alleycats fighting over him. Got my blood going, LuAnn. How ’bout you stepping up to the plate? Come on, baby, give me a kiss.” He grinned at her and tried to slide an arm around her long neck. His next breath was a tortured one as her right fist smashed into his mouth, loosening a couple of his teeth. As painful as that blow was, it did not come close on the hurt scale to the knee that planted itself violently between his legs. Duane dropped heavily to the floor.
LuAnn hovered over him. “If you pull that crap again, Duane Harvey, so help me God, I’ll rip it right off and flush it down the toilet.”
“Crazy-ass woman,” he half-sputtered, half-whimpered, clutching at his groin; blood seeped through his lips.
She reached down and clamped an iron grip across his cheeks. “No,
crazy if you think for one second I’m gonna put up with that shit.”
“We ain’t married.”
“That’s right, but we live together. We got a kid together. And this place is as much mine as it is yours.”
“Shirl don’t mean nothing to me. What do you care?” He stared up at her, small tears gathering in the corners of his eyes as he continued to clutch his privates.
“Because that little fat piece of bacon is gonna waddle on down to the IGA and the beauty parlor and the damned Squat and Gobble and tell everybody that will listen all about it and I’m gonna look like the biggest piece of trash in the world.”
“You shouldn’t have left me this morning.” He struggled up off the floor. “See, this here’s all your fault. She came by to see you about something. What was I supposed to do?”
“I don’t know, Duane, how about giving her a cup of coffee instead of your dick?”
“I don’t feel so good, babe. I really don’t.” He leaned up against the wall.
She roughly pushed past him on her way to check on Lisa. “Best news I’ve heard all day.”
A minute later she marched past him again and entered the bedroom, where she proceeded to rip the sheets off the bed.
Duane sulkily watched her from the doorway. “Go ahead and throw ’em away. I don’t give a crap, you bought ’em.”
She didn’t look at him as she answered. “I’m taking ’em over to Wanda’s to wash. If you’re gonna sleep around with sluts, it ain’t gonna cost me nothing.”
As she lifted the mattress, a flash of green caught her eye. She shoved the mattress off the bed frame and then looked over at Duane. “What the hell is this?” she demanded.
Duane looked at her coldly. He sauntered into the room, scooped up the piles of cash, and stuffed them in a paper bag that had been sitting on the table beside the bed. He continued to eye her as he closed up the bag. “Let’s just say I won the lottery,” he said arrogantly.
She perceptibly stiffened at his words as though she’d been slapped flush in the face. For a moment she felt as though she would topple right over in a dead faint. Had Duane actually been behind all of this? Were he and Jackson in this together? She could not have envisioned a more unlikely pair. It couldn’t possibly be. She quickly recovered and crossed her arms. “Bull. Where’d you get it, Duane?”
“Let’s just say it’s a real good reason to be nice to me and to keep your mouth shut.”
Angrily pushing him from the room, she locked the door. She changed into jeans, sneakers, and a sweatshirt and then quickly packed an overnight bag. When she unlocked and threw open the door, Duane hadn’t budged; the bag was still clutched in his hand. She moved quickly past him, opened the door to the bathroom, and scooped up a wriggling Lisa in one arm; the dirty linen and overnight bag in her other hand, she headed for the front door.
“Where you going, LuAnn?”
“None of your damned business.”
“How long you gonna be pissed about this? I didn’t get mad at you for kicking me in the balls, did I? I done already forgot about it, in fact.”
She whirled around for a second. “Duane, you have got to be the dumbest person on the face of this earth.”
“Is that right? Well who do you think you are? Why, if it weren’t for me, you and Lisa wouldn’t even have a damned place to stay. I took you in or you wouldn’t have nothing.” He lit up another cigarette but warily kept out of range of her fist. He scrunched the match out on the tattered carpet. “So maybe instead of bitching all the time, you oughta try being nice to me.” He held up the paper bag stuffed with cash. “There’s plenty more where this came from, too, little girl. I ain’t gonna be living in this craphole much longer. You best think about it. You best think real good about that. I ain’t taking crap from you or anybody else anymore. You hear me?”
She opened the front door. “Duane, I’ll start being nice to you right now. You know how? I’m gonna leave before I kill you!” Lisa started to cry at her mother’s angry tones as though she thought they were directed at her. LuAnn kissed the little girl and cooed in her ear to calm her down.
Duane watched LuAnn march across the muddy yard, admiring her soft behind in the tight jeans. For a moment he looked around for Shirley, but she had evidently already made a run for it, naked and all.
“I love you, babe,” he yelled after LuAnn, grinning.
“Go to hell, Duane.”
he mall was far busier than it had been during her visit the day before. LuAnn was grateful for the crowds as she made a wide berth around the office she had visited earlier, though she did glance in its direction as she passed by. Through the glass panes on either side of the door it seemed dark inside. She supposed if she tried the door, it would be locked. She didn’t imagine that Jackson would have hung around long after she had left, and she assumed she had been his sole “client.”
She had called in sick to work and spent a sleepless night at a friend’s house alternating between staring at a full moon and Lisa’s tiny mouth as it randomly produced smiles, grimaces, and every expression in between while the little girl slept heavily. She had finally decided not to make a decision on Jackson’s proposal until she had some more information. One conclusion had come fairly rapidly: She would not go to the police. She could prove nothing, and who would believe her? There was no upside potential to such a move and at least fifty million reasons against it. For all her sense of right and wrong, she could not get past that one inescapable temptation: Incredible, sudden wealth was perhaps staring her in the face. She felt guilty that the decision wasn’t more black and white. However, her latest episode with Duane had only reinforced to her that Lisa could not be allowed to grow up in such an environment. Something had to give.
The mall office was at the end of a corridor on the south side of the building. LuAnn swung open the door and went in.
LuAnn stared at the source of this exclamation. Behind the counter, the young man was dressed neatly in a short-sleeve shirt, necktie, and black slacks. In his excitement, he repeatedly clicked a pen in his right hand. LuAnn stared at him, but no recognition was forthcoming.
The young man almost vaulted over the counter. “I didn’t expect you to remember me. Johnny Jarvis. I go by John now.” He extended a hand in a professional manner and then, grinning, he gave her a solid hug and spent a full minute cooing over Lisa. LuAnn pulled out a small blanket from her bag, set her daughter down on it, and gave her a stuffed animal.
“I can’t believe it’s you, Johnny. I haven’t seen you since, what, the sixth grade?”
“You were in the seventh, I was in the ninth.”
“You look good. Real good. How long you been working here?”
Jarvis grinned proudly. “After high school I went on to the community college and got my A.S. That stands for associate degree in science. Been at the mall for two years now. Started out as a data inputter but now I’ve moved up to sort of the assistant manager of mall operations.”
“Congratulations. That’s wonderful, Johnny—I mean John.”
“Oh hell, you can call me Johnny. I can’t believe you just walked on in that door. When I saw you, I thought I was gonna fall over and die. I never thought I’d see you again. I supposed you’d just gone on to New York City or something.”
“Nope, still here,” she said quickly.
“I’m kinda surprised I’ve never seen you around the mall before then.”
“I don’t get up here much. It’s a pretty long way from where I live now.”
“Have a seat and tell me what you been up to. I didn’t know you had a baby. Didn’t even know you were married.”
“I’m not married.”
“Oh.” Jarvis’s face reddened slightly. “Uh, you want some coffee or something? I just put on a fresh pot.”
“I’m kind of in a hurry, Johnny.”
“Oh, well, what can I do for you?” He suddenly looked surprised. “You aren’t looking for a job, are you?”
She looked pointedly at him. “What if I was? Something wrong with that?”
“No, I mean, course not. I just meant, you know, I never expected you to hang around here, working in no mall, that’s all.” He smiled.
“A job’s a job, ain’t it?
work here. And while we’re talking about it, exactly what am I supposed to be doing with my life?”
Jarvis’s smile quickly faded and he rubbed his hands nervously down the legs of his pants. “I didn’t mean nothing by it, LuAnn. I just always thought of you living in some castle somewhere wearing fancy clothes and driving fancy cars. I’m sorry.”
LuAnn’s anger faded as she thought back to Jackson’s proposition. Castles might be within her reach now. “It’s okay, Johnny, it’s been a long week, you know what I mean? I’m not looking for a job. What I’m looking for is a little information about one of your renters here.”
Jarvis glanced over his shoulder at the rear office area where the sounds of phones and clattering keyboards could be heard mixed with short bursts of conversation, and then he turned back to her. “Information?”
“Yeah. I came by here yesterday morning. Had an appointment.”
“That’s what I want you to tell me. It was that business on the right as you come in the mall next to the bus stop. It ain’t got no sign or anything, but it’s next to the ice cream place.”
Jarvis looked puzzled for a second. “I thought that space was still vacant. We got a lot of that. This mall isn’t exactly in the middle of a booming area.”
“Well, it wasn’t vacant yesterday.”
Jarvis walked over to the computer on the counter and started punching buttons. “What was the appointment for?”
LuAnn’s reply was immediate. “Oh, it was a sales job, you know. Pushing products door-to-door.”
“Yeah, we’ve had some people like that come in on a temporary basis. More like an interview room than anything else. If we have the space, which we usually do, we rent it out, sometimes just for the day. Especially if it’s already been built out, you know, ready-made office space.”
He pulled up a screen and studied it. As voices continued to filter in from the back office he went over and shut the door. He looked a little apprehensively at LuAnn. “So what’d you want to know?”
She noted his concerned look and glanced in the direction of the door he had just shut. “You’re not going to get in trouble over this, are you, Johnny?”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Hell, no. Remember, I’m the assistant manager here,” he said importantly.
“Well, just tell me whatever you can. Who the people are. What the business is. An address somewhere. Stuff like that.”
Jarvis looked confused. “Well, didn’t they tell you that during the interview?”
“Some of it,” she said slowly. “But I just want to make sure it’s all legit, you know. Before I accept or not. I got to buy some nicer clothes and maybe get me a car. I don’t want to do that if it’s not on the up-and-up.”
Jarvis snorted. “Well, you’re smart to do that. I mean just because we rent space to these people, it don’t mean they’re shooting straight with you.” He added anxiously, “They didn’t ask for money from you, did they?”
“No, as a matter of fact, the money they were talking about me getting was pretty unbelievable.”
“Probably too good to be true then.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” She watched his fingers sail across the computer keyboard. “Where’d you learn to do that stuff?” she said with admiration.
“What, this? That’s when I was at the community college. They got programs over there that teach you just about anything. Computers are cool.”
“I wouldn’t mind going back to school one day.”
“You were always real smart in school, LuAnn. I bet you’d pick it up like nobody’s business.”
She gave him a pretty look. “Maybe one day. Now what’cha got for me?”
Jarvis studied the screen again. “Company’s name is Associates, Inc. At least that’s what they put on the rental agreement. They leased for a week, starting yesterday in fact. Paid in cash. Didn’t give any other address. When they pay in cash we don’t really care.”