C3 Murder by Dummies: Chapter Three
One advantage to having nothing is that you can move fast. From the time Mr. Evans left my apartment, it took me exactly forty-two minutes to throw on some jean cutoffs and a shirt, stuff my feet into my cowgirl boots and pack up all my clothes. Thank God, I had a full set of matching Fifield luggage.
My brother had had a roommate in college who used to throw everything he owned into huge plastic garbage bags every time they moved. His last name was Fifield and after three or four moves, we started to refer to his garbage bags as ‘Fifield luggage’. Once I remembered there were trash bags in the camping gear, the rest was easy.
I stuffed all my clothes into the first six bags, shoes and boots went into the next four and makeup and what toiletries and personal items Jeremy had left behind in the bathroom drawer went into the last bag.
The biggest problem I faced was how to brush my teeth because, for some reason, Jeremy had absconded with my toothbrush as well as our shared tube of toothpaste.
Who does that? Is he going to actually use my toothbrush? Eeewww.
With no electricity for hot water and no towels to dry off with, I pretended to be camping and passed on the shower. But even when camping, I had to brush my teeth. I could buy a toothbrush on the way, but I needed what little cash I had in my purse and all my available credit to stay afloat for a while—possibly just to get home, given the condition of my old beater.
So, I searched the apartment for anything to use in place of a toothbrush. I checked all the cupboards and drawers in both bathrooms. Nothing.
The kitchen was next. The drawers yielded nothing more than a few old rubber bands and bag ties. The upper cupboards held even less. But when I opened the cabinet under the sink, I found myself faced with a huge dilemma. Jeremy apparently didn’t intend to clean the sinks in his new digs. He’d left behind the cleanser and the old, discarded toothbrush I used to scrub around the faucets.
I stared at the toothbrush for a few minutes.
Did I ever scrub the toilet with it? I don’t think so, since it’s in the kitchen.
I picked it up and stared, running my tongue over my teeth.
Are they really that bad? Maybe I can live with them for a few hours.
It felt like they were wearing little sweaters.
Nope, I’ve got no choice.
With the decision made, I examined the cleanser. The advertisements claimed this line of cleaning products was made from all natural materials and wouldn’t harm a child if ingested.
I’m not a child and I’m damn sure not brave enough to test their disclaimer. The way my luck is running, I’m the one in thirteen million, and all my teeth will fall out.
At least I won’t need a toothbrush then.
I remembered a camping trip with my parents when I was little. Mom had forgotten the toothpaste, so Beau and I had had to brush our teeth with salt. Toothbrush in hand, I made a mad dash for the camping gear one more time.
A few minutes later, I was giddy as I headed for the parking lot with my first load of garbage bags—and clean teeth. No fresh minty taste. But my teeth were clean, no green grit stuck in the crevices and the residual taste of the cleanser left in the toothbrush had begun to fade. Things were definitely looking up.
I returned to the apartment eight or ten times for the rest of the garbage bags and camping gear. Halfway through, I realized it wouldn’t all fit into my little car. But it was all I had left and I’d be damned if I’d leave anything behind. I dug through the boxes again and found a tarp and some rope.
I had no luggage rack on top of my car, so it took a few minutes to figure out how and what to stow up above. The ice chests would be too hard to keep tied on, so I settled on six of the filled trash bags. If I covered them with the tarp, they wouldn’t shred in the wind and they might squish down enough to stay in place. Now, where to attach the ropes?
There was no good place to tie the ropes. I’d have to roll the windows down and thread the rope through the interior, strapping my stuff to the roof by wrapping it like cotton on a reel. This meant the windows needed to remain open and I’d have to climb in and out through the driver’s-side window.
Looks like those fifteen pounds I lost last year are going to pay off.
All loaded up, I made one last tour of the apartment. I checked my watch. Plenty of time to get out of town before Hawk blew in. He’d be pissed I hadn’t waited, but he never stayed mad for long. He’d get over it when he caught up and found me safe.
I stopped in the doorway of the apartment to look over my shoulder one last time at the emptiness. Somehow, it seemed appropriate. Aunt Bea’s death heralded a new chapter in my life. I smiled when I flipped off the light switch and nothing changed. I took it as a sign the time had come to leave it all behind—this apartment, Jeremy, my old life. Everything was gone now, even the electricity. Strange as it was, the path ahead seemed exciting.
I pulled the door shut behind me, locked it and never looked back. In the parking lot, I climbed through the window of my old beater and fired it up. The engine roared to life, smoke belched out of the tailpipe, the check engine light blinked the usual two times and the car coughed once, protesting being pressed into service one more time.
Today was Saturday and the office would be empty, a good time to swing by and pick up a few of my belongings and clean off the handful of personal files on my computer’s hard drive. I was certain they hadn’t had time to change the locks on the doors and, with any luck at all, my logon access still worked.
The front door opened with no problem and, as I’d expected, my boss had been so rattled by my exit strategy he’d forgotten to have the IT guys disable my logon id. I smiled at the thought of wiping the hard drive. But the momentary thrill wouldn’t compensate for the guilt I’d eventually suffer.
I settled for copying my personal files to a thumb drive and deleting them from the hard drive. I didn’t have many personal items on my desk, so I crammed everything into the side pouch of my beach bag, which doubled as a purse. Then I left a note with my forwarding address and cell phone number on my ex-boss’s desk so they could mail me any papers I needed to sign and, of course, the two weeks’ severance pay. I locked the door on my way out, dropped the keys back through the mail slot and left.
Time to go home.
Already, it was almost eleven o’clock. Buzzard’s Breath was two hours by car—if the car didn’t break down on the way. Pulling onto the interstate, I dug in my purse for my cell phone, to call Dal.
He picked up on the second ring. “Hey, Em, I was just about to call you.”
“Yeah, I figured as much. Just wanted to let you know I’m headed out.”
“Is Hawk there already?”
“No. I’m not waiting for him.”
“Em, you know you’re just gonna piss him off, right?” I heard the chuckle in his voice.
“Yeah, I know. But he’ll get over it.”
I pictured Dal shaking his head like always when I did something I knew wouldn’t sit well with Hawk. He replied, “Well, just be sure you answer your cell when he calls to find out where the hell you are. Because if you don’t, he’ll be on the phone chewing my ass about you ditching him.”
I laughed. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle Hawk. I’ll stop by the station when I get into town—shouldn’t be too long after noon.”
“Okay, Em, see you in a couple of hours. Drive careful and let one of us know if you run into trouble.”
“Will do. Bye.” I disconnected, leaned back in the seat and took a deep breath. The worst was over.
Almost. I still have to face Hawk when he catches up to me.
Hawk, Dal and I had been inseparable. We’d been like the Three Musketeers until we’d become teenagers. I’d been head-over-heels in love with Hawk for years but too afraid to tell him for fear he might not return my feelings. At times, I thought maybe he cared for me beyond the whole ‘sister’ thing, but then he’d go cold and seemed to barely tolerate me.
He’d kissed me once out behind Aunt Bea’s barn. But when Dal had walked around the corner and caught us, Hawk hadn’t been able to get away fast enough. He hadn’t talked to me for two weeks, even though he’d been the one to initiate the kiss.
After graduating from high school, Dal and Hawk had headed off to college together. Hurt because neither of them had asked if I wanted to go, I’d stayed behind and moved into the dorm at the local university, vowing to forget about my childhood buddies and move on with my life.
Over the years, we’d made up and gotten beyond those little hurts. The friendships we’d formed in high school were still strong and though we were only a phone call away, our lives had gone in different directions. We got together every year at Christmas and whenever there was a death or tragedy in one of our families—like now.
Hawk was protective and always flirted with me whenever we were together. But I decided it was just his personality and I moved on and dated other men. In the end, I always compared them to Hawk and they always fell short. Jeremy was the first man in a long time who had even come close to passing muster—and see how well that had worked out.
My judgment sucks pond water.
Aunt Bea had always had a soft spot for Hawk. She once told me the whole town was sure we’d get married one day. Hawk didn’t seem to be in the loop on the rumor, because he’d never asked. I guessed it was for the best. He’d become a rather private and secretive person. I didn’t even know for sure what he did for a living and I was one of his best friends. I assumed it had something to do with police work because of his degree, but whenever I asked, he’d laugh and say he’d have to kill me if he told me, and changed the subject. Then he was gone again. A man so secretive probably wasn’t good husband material, no matter how much I cared for him or how long I’d known him.
* * * *
The sun sweltering through the windshield transformed the car into a blast furnace on wheels. I cranked up the AC and tried to add cold air to the hot swirling in through the open windows. The Arizona desert was a funny place to be in October. The nights blew chilly, but as soon as the sun came out people started stripping off because it heated up real fast. The radio weatherman had predicted ninety-two degrees today, a hot front moving through.
He might have underestimated.
I scanned the area to get my bearings, wishing I had an ice-cold soda. I’d been driving on autopilot and had no clue where I was. The landmarks indicated I was about five miles north of Phoenix. I’d have to go all the way through Phoenix in heavy traffic and another thirty plus miles to get to Buzzard’s Breath.
No way I’ll make it without a pit stop.
About four miles up the road, I spotted a gas station and moved into the right-hand lane. I’d make a quick trip to the ladies’ room, grab a cold soda, and be back on the road in ten minutes or less.
As I pulled around to the side and parked, something scraped against the back window on the far side of the car. I parked, shut off the engine and shifted in my seat to get a good look.
Oh, no. That’s all I need.
The corner of the tarp I had used to cover the Fifield luggage on the top of the car was loose. I’d forgotten all about the bags up top. I grabbed my purse and hauled myself out of the driver’s-side window. The entire load had shifted and both corners of the tarp hung loose on the passenger side. I counted bags—one was missing.
“Damn. What the hell else can go wrong?” Pushed over the edge one more time by the events of the past twenty-four hours, I kicked the tires and banged on the top of the car with my purse, shouting a stream of obscenities that would’ve made Aunt Bea threaten to wash my mouth out with soap—tough soap. Lava. No Dove for these words.
About the time my tantrum lost steam, the shoulder strap on my purse broke and the bag flopped lifelessly to the ground. I stood frozen, staring at my ruined purse.
What the hell did I do to deserve the last twenty-four hours of my life? And when will it stop? Maybe I should stab myself in the forehead with a fork to make it hurt less.
The sound of a man clearing his throat made me look up. A grizzled, leathery old man in rags sat on top of a picnic table, staring at me with piercing ice-blue eyes. His toothless grin indicated he’d enjoyed my fit of temper.
“Great,” I muttered, “just what I need—an audience.”
The man grinned even broader. “And a fine performance it was.”
I rested my forehead against the top of the doorframe and prayed for patience. God, do not let me rip this man’s lips from his face. Just get me home without adding murder or mutilation to my long list of problems. Please.
I felt the old man’s gaze on me as he watched my struggle for control. I imagined he was still smiling. For some reason, that annoyed me more than anything else, but he had the good sense to remain silent and I had the good sense not to look.
After a few moments, I raised my head. Our eyes held for a moment before he spoke. “Looks like you’re having a bad day, young lady. Can I be of assistance?”
I shook my head. “No, but thank you. I lost a bag off the top of the car. I’ll have to double back and see if I can find my stuff.”
The man smiled again and hopped off the picnic table. “Here, let me help you tie this back up so you don’t lose anything more.”
Goosebumps ran up my arms at his overwhelming generosity. This was the second time today I’d seen the better side of human nature. It almost made it worth the stress I was under.
As my most unlikely rescuer was re-tying the ropes, I climbed in through the window and rooted through the camping equipment until I came up with a roll of black and white zebra-striped duct tape. I climbed out, held the roll over my head and bounced back and forth on the balls of my feet as I took a small victory lap.
“Wooo-hooo. Look what I found.”
My new friend laughed at my excitement. “Yep, that’ll do the trick. This load ain’t goin’ nowhere now.”
With the load rearranged and secured with half a roll of tape, I thanked the man and ducked into the convenience store. After a quick restroom break, I left the store with two hot dogs and two sodas. The old man was still on the picnic table. His huge smile warmed my heart when I handed him a hot dog and a soda.
“You didn’t have to do that, Miss, but it was mighty thoughtful.”
“Not a problem. I appreciate the help and that you didn’t laugh at me for throwing a tantrum.”
At this, he chuckled. “Some days are like that.” He paused for a moment before he added, “Others are better. Where you headed?”
I stared at him a moment before I answered, “Home. I’m headed home.”
He nodded, seeming to totally understand. “Home’s a good place to be when the wheels are comin’ off.”
Stunned he’d plucked the words right out of my brain, I mumbled, ‘Thank you,” and turned toward my car.
My old wreck packed to the headliner with garbage bags duct taped to the top like a ragged zebra rug was too much. I giggled so hard at the image of it driving down the highway it took a couple tries to get my leg through the window.
All of a sudden, I didn’t have a care in the world and I waved and hollered as I backed away, “Thanks again for the help.”
I got a wave and a nod from the old man perched atop the table, as he gummed his hot dog and watched me head back the way I’d come.
Seven or eight miles down the road, I spotted dozens of shoes and boots strewn across the other side of the highway. I groaned, picturing all those hard-earned dollars destroyed by cars, and calculated the distance to the next exit. Too far to do this legally. So I pulled onto the left-hand shoulder and crept along until I found a spot to make a U-turn without high-centering my car on a boulder.
Traffic was light, so I swung onto the other side of the highway and crossed to the outside lane. It was only a few hundred feet until I came to the first of my shoes lying in the road. I pulled off the highway, parked, jumped out and searched for something to carry the shoes in.
Not to be deterred, I checked for oncoming traffic and saw only one car. I sprinted onto the highway, snagged the cowgirl boot and bolted back across the road. Unfortunately, as I returned to the car, red and blue lights come on atop the one car headed in my direction.
What were the chances?
Right now, the chances are stacked two-hundred-and-ten percent against me.
As the policeman pulled in behind my car, I stuffed the boot into an open space in the backseat. I found my driver’s license with very little effort, but my registration and insurance card were in the glove box, wedged shut by an ice chest, two sleeping bags and various and sundry other pieces of camping equipment.
Exiting the car butt first, I straightened to find the policeman standing right behind me, smiling. When I scowled, he glanced down at his clipboard and cleared his throat. “Uhm, good morning, ma’am. I need to see your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance, please.”
Still scowling, I handed him my license. “Here’s the license, but the registration and insurance card are wedged in the glove box. Are you really going to make me empty out the passenger seat to get to them?”
The officer took my license and bent to peer at me over the top of his sunglasses. “Can you tell me what you were doing in the middle of the road?”
“Shopping for shoes.”
He raised one eyebrow and stood a bit straighter, as a warning. A smart-ass attitude wouldn’t help my case any. Too bad I was beyond caring.
When I didn’t elaborate, he tried again, “Miss, this isn’t a joke. You might have put lives in danger by running out onto the highway.” With a half-grin, he continued, “Now, I can either issue you a citation and we can both be on our way, or you can explain your behavior and see if you can talk me out of it.”
I closed my eyes and rolled my shoulders. He was trying to be a good guy and I was making it hard for him. “Sorry. It’s been a really rough couple of days.”
He waited for me to continue.
“I lost a bag off the top of my car, so I came back to get my stuff and then you showed up.”
“I see.” Gazing farther up the road, he smiled again and pointed, “Then those shoes down there are yours?”
I looked in the direction he pointed. Footwear was scattered across all three lanes for at least a quarter of a mile. “Yep. You’re not going to give me a ticket for littering, too, are ya?”
He took his sunglasses off and hooked them in his pocket. “No, ma’am, I suspect we’ll find some of those shoes are beyond repair and I’m guessing that’s punishment enough. But we will have to pick them up so no one gets injured dodging flying stilettos.”
It sounded like a reprieve, so I flashed him my most dazzling smile. “You can’t begin to understand what a relief that is. Thank you.”
He chuckled and told me to stay put while he secured the area. Within ten minutes, he’d cleared one lane and put out flares to redirect traffic into the fast lane for us to gather shoes. He even had a piece of Fifield luggage in his trunk which was almost a perfect match to the set tied on top of my car.
With all the salvageable shoes stored safely into the nooks and crannies of my Fibber McGee’s closet on wheels, the officer checked to make sure the load on top of the car was securely attached this time.
“Okay, I think you’re good to go now, but I want you to stop every so often and check your load.”
“Don’t worry—it isn’t going anywhere with so much duct tape on it.”
He lowered his head to peer at me over the top of his sunglasses and I understood the threat.
“Okay, I will.” When he continued to stare, I crossed my heart and stuck my hand in the air. “I promise…really.”
One corner of his mouth pulled up in a lopsided grin and he pointed to the garbage bag sitting next to the back tire, containing all the shoes that had been broken beyond repair and their still-perfect mates. “Should I dispose of those or do you want to give them a proper burial?”
“No, I think you’d better take ’em away before I weaken and try to wear mismatched pairs.”
With a broader grin, he retrieved the bag and headed for his car. I watched him walk away, admiring the view from the back. Too bad he’s wearing a wedding ring.
Hoping this was my last climb through the window, I pulled myself up and in, settling behind the wheel. As the police car pulled around me and back onto the highway, I took some time fastening my seatbelt. No sense asking for trouble by starting up my rolling smoke bomb until my new friend was at least two blocks down the road.
When I started the car, the usual smoke spewed from the tailpipe, the engine belched and the check engine light blinked twice and stayed on. Uh-oh. There was another light I’d never noticed before—the Add Oil light.
I stared at the dash, waiting for a series of explosions to begin.
It seemed to be running fine. Well, as fine as it ever did, except for the new little ticking noise. No point in worrying about it. The car would either make it to Buzzard’s Breath or not. I wasn’t a mechanic. I didn’t have any oil with me and right now, I didn’t give a flying rat’s ass. So, off I went in search of my hometown and some much-needed rest and recuperation.
I made it to Phoenix and stopped at the first gas station I found to check the oil. It was a little low, so I added two quarts. The mark on the dipstick said it was almost full, so I added a third quart to make sure it didn’t run low again before I got to Buzzard’s Breath.
Better to have too much oil than not enough. Right?
When I started the engine again, the check engine light remained on, but the Add Oil light had gone out. I told myself one warning light was a definite improvement over two and got back on the highway.
I made it through Phoenix without any more problems. There were only another ten miles of paved road before it became dirt for the last eleven miles. I sighed with relief. I was almost within spitting distance of home.
Twelve miles outside Buzzard’s Breath, the series of explosions I’d expected earlier began. It started with a loud clanking noise and ended with a horrible bang that shook the entire car. I would’ve thought I’d been shot, but there was no blood and the engine died. I steered toward the shoulder of the dirt road with a sinking feeling that my old car had gone its last mile as it filled up with horrible, stinky gray smoke.
Sure enough, when the smoke cleared and I tried to start the engine again, there was nothing but a sad and lonely click. No roar, no belch, no cough, no smoke. The check engine light glared as if it accused me of negligence. I sat there for a moment, still not quite believing this had all happened in less than a day. Then I draped my arm across the top of the steering wheel and rested my forehead on the back of it.
My mind drifted in a numb fog and I had no idea how much time had passed. When I lifted my head and looked around, it was clear I couldn’t sit here forever. It was almost exactly the same distance back to the last gas station as it was to continue on into town and it wasn’t getting any earlier or cooler.
I climbed out and surveyed the enormous puddle of oil under the car as it soaked into the dry Arizona desert. Buzzard’s Breath was the only thing at the end of the road, so anyone who used the route was most likely a resident. I could hitch a ride if someone came by and, if not, I could always call Dal to come get me. It was a three or four hour walk and the heat was becoming unbearable.
I snagged my purse from the car, fishing out the cell phone. But when I flipped it open, there was no reception. I was in a dead zone. The good news was that I shouldn’t have to walk more than a mile or two before I got to a good spot to make a call…and there was always a chance I might get a ride.
I took another long look at my overloaded car with its windows rolled down and the ropes and duct tape forming what appeared to a huge deflated plastic zebra clinging to the roof. I chuckled. Too bad the camera on my cell phone didn’t work. I’d laugh about this one day. Hell, it was almost funny now.
I dropped my phone into my purse and attempted to slide the strap up over my shoulder, but the broken piece of leather flopped against my hip. I tucked the handbag under my arm and held my head high. Off I went, with a desperate prayer I wouldn’t be eaten by prairie dogs or mauled by a horny toad along the way.