#3 in the Deadly Mystery Series
|Author||Victor J. Banis|
|Release Date||May 2009|
|Cover Artist||Deana C. Jamroz|
|Available at:||All Romance eBooks|
|Barnes & Noble (paperback)|
A painful past. A mysterious stranger. Footsteps vanishing in the fog. All Stanley wants is just to hear Tom say, “I love you.” All Tom wants is Stanley safe. And the stranger? Ah, there’s the rub–what exactly is it that he wants? Be careful what you wish for, fellows. You may get it. Dreams can be deadly.
“Gone?” Her voice went up on an ascending scale, like an opera diva’s in full song. “What do you mean, gone? They took him?”
He shook his head, trying to get his mind clear. Too much pot, and he was pretty sure the last joint had been laced with something, PCP maybe. His thoughts refused to settle, drifting like the acrid clouds of smoke that swirled in the room’s cold drafts.
“It must have been them. The baby was right there when I went into the john.” He pointed at the crib. You could see, or certainly imagine, the indentation where the baby had been. “And when I came back, they were gone, and the baby too. I ran outside but their taillights were clear down to the crossing, and then they disappeared. Just…” he shrugged, and finished lamely, “gone.”
She stared at the crib, empty now of even the blankets the child had been wrapped in, and lifted a hand to the bottom of her throat, as if choking off the anguish rising up in her. “The woman,” she said. “Delia, her name was. She said what a sweet baby he was.”
§ § § § §
“Such a sweet baby,” Delia said, while they were in the kitchen, getting beers. While the men talked man-business. Drug business.
“Yes. He’s very quiet.” Preoccupied. Wishing she were in the other room, wanting to be sure things were handled rightly. She couldn’t completely trust him, not when he was smoking.
“I lost mine.” Delia said it flatly. “No more than two weeks old.”
“Oh, I’m so very sorry. That must have been horrible.”
“Yes.” Her voice, her look, was vague, distant.
§ § § § §
“Delia, her name was. She just lost a baby. A month ago. She told me that in the kitchen, when we were getting the beers.”
He moved toward the telephone, lifted the receiver from the cradle. She crossed to him in three long strides, snatched the phone from his hand and slammed it back on the base.
“What on earth are you doing?” Her eyes wide.
“Calling the police. We’ve got to…”
“The police? Are you crazy? Do you know how much pot you’ve got there?” She jerked her head in the direction of the black plastic bags sitting on the floor. “You want the police to see that?”
“We’ll… well, we’ll hide it. We’ll put it in the trunk of the car, and…”
“And tell the police what? Tell them we had a trio of Cubans, probably illegals, over for the evening? Big time drug suppliers, from Miami? How do we explain who they were, or what they were, or what they were doing here?”
His face screwed up with the effort of thinking. “We could tell them, we could say, they were friends. Or, like, friends of friends, just passing through. We don’t have to mention drugs.”
“Great. And if the police find them, find them with our baby? What do you suppose was in that car of theirs, that big shiny Caddy they were so proud of? You think they came all this way to deliver dope to you and nobody else. I’m betting the trunk was full of goodies. A lot more than grass, I’d guess. Anyway, what kind of people do you think those men are? Use your head. Those were some bad honchos. You send the police after them, you think they’re not going to come back at us? Them, or their friends?”
He sagged—face, shoulders, everything drooping, like wet laundry. “Don’t you care, they’ve stolen our baby?”
“Care? Don’t talk crazy. Of course I care. I care a lot.” She paused, swallowed hard, looked again at the crib where her baby should have been sleeping, and back at him. “But I care about staying alive, too. And we won’t, if you call the police.” She went to one of the chairs, sank heavily into it, taking tight hold of the arms as if it might try to shake her loose, like a bucking horse, like her thoughts were bucking. “We’ve got to think this out carefully.”
“And, do what? We just let them do it, get away with it? With stealing our baby?”
She thought for a long moment. “Christ. I don’t see what else we can do. Even for the baby.” Thought for a moment more, looked again, hard, at the crib. “Besides, think about it, they took the blankets. They must mean to take care of him, they wouldn’t have taken the blankets if they didn’t. That woman, that Delia, who’s to say she wouldn’t take good care of him? Better than we could, anyway, if we were dead.”
He went and sat on the stool next to the coal stove, fighting back the tears that threatened, and shivered despite his proximity to the heat. The glow from the stove gave his tortured face a hellish look. “People will know. People will ask, where’s the baby?”
“Who? Your mother? She hasn’t set foot in this house since the baby was born. You know how she feels about the drugs. I’m surprised she hasn’t turned us in before now. Probably for the baby’s sake. If she knew he was gone, you can bet she wouldn’t hesitate for a minute.”
“What about, well,… your Mom?”
She gave him a look of withering scorn. Her mother had never been here, inside this house. Only once since her marriage had she been to her mother’s home, and that only to confirm what she already knew in her heart—she was glad to have escaped. It was not just the poverty. Her mother lived no leaner than they did, probably she was better off, if only marginally; the difference was, her mother could never deal with the reality of her life, never would. She was the sort of woman who lived her life through the men in it. Now she was widowed, her beloved son dead in an incomprehensible Mid-East skirmish; what could her daughter be but a disappointment to her?
Which, she was painfully aware, was all she had been, while her mother wrapped herself in homilies, carefully stored up like the jars of green beans in the dusty cellar: “Darkest before the dawn.” “God never goes out but what he comes back in.” “His eye is on the sparrow.”
Drowning in artificial sweetness. It had driven her away. Better present misery than a pretense of happiness. Her mom had been just as happy to see her go away. And stay. She didn’t need a daughter to remind her of the lack of male presence in her life.
§ § § § §
She stood up as abruptly as she had sat down, began to pace the small, smoke filled room, in and out of the pale light from the bare bulb overhead. He watched her face darken, glow, darken. With each pass, she looked at the empty crib. A freight train mourned in the distance, where the tracks cleaved the town, the “haves” on one side, with their grassy lawns and tree lined streets; “have-nots” on the other, with… she looked around the room. With… she glowered at the table, at the boxes shoved against the wall, at the uncovered pine floor… with this.
They were like a cancer, those tracks, they ate at her, weighted her soul, always had. If she didn’t have them to remind her who they were, what they were… life might be something different, then, mightn’t it? If she were only shed of those damned tracks. Of living a life on this side, and not the other.
A chunk of coal popped in the stove, an exclamation mark to her thoughts. Like a snap of fingers, it brought her to a sudden standstill.
“We’ll leave,” she said, decision made in the instant, no doubts or confusion. “We’ll just disappear. Go somewhere. Florida, maybe. Or California, that’s further still. Not one of the big cities, some place smaller. Your mom’ll never find us. She’s not that sharp. And it takes money to look for people, especially if they’re a long ways away, if they don’t want to be found. What’s she going to do, come looking for us? California’s a big state.”
“California?” Something that might have been excitement penetrated the fog in his brain, made the incipient tears in his eyes glitter. “I always wanted to go to California.”
“We’ll leave tonight.” Talking quickly now, determined, everything settled. “Just take what we can carry in the car. Who cares about any of this junk?” A sweep of her hand took in all the shabby drug-man’s furnishings—wooden crates for tables, beat up unmatched chairs, wooden boards on bricks to make a bookcase, bed sheets for curtains. “We’ll write her a note, leave it in her mailbox, say you got a job offer somewhere. Not California, we’ll throw her off. New York City, say, or Detroit. Yes, Detroit, that sounds right. Tell her we’ll be in touch. By the time she gets suspicious, starts wondering, the trail will be stone cold.”
“I guess,” he said, torn. “It’s just… my baby. My son. Don’t you care?” he asked again, his tone plaintive.
“Don’t say that,” she snapped. She came to stand over him. For a moment, he thought she meant to hit him and he shrank away from her. “It pisses me off, when you say it like that. I’m trying to think for both of us, damn it.”
She took a deep breath and turned away, pacing again. “Listen to me. The baby is safe with them. They won’t kill him. They wouldn’t have taken him to kill him. Why would they? It’s the woman. She wanted a replacement for the baby she lost. Probably, he’ll be just fine with her, maybe better than he’d have been with us. They’ve got money, plenty of it. The Caddy, and the clothes they were wearing. And that what’s-his-name, Julio, did you see that ring of his? Biggest diamond I ever saw.” She came back to kneel on the floor in front of him, put her arms around him.
She’d always been the stronger one. He’d always deferred to her. He moved into her embrace, lowered his head to her shoulders. “You’re right, I know it. But, fuck, my son, though.”
“We’ll have others.” She paused, thoughtfully, and added, “Maybe sooner than you think.”
It took a moment for her meaning to sink in. He pulled back, looking into her face. “You saying…?”
She gave him a sly smile. “I think so. I’m pretty sure, actually. Which means we have to think about him, too, don’t we? We need to keep him alive. He’s got to come first now. This is best, you’ll see.”
He sighed, managed to give her a watery smile. “You’re right,” he said with more conviction.
“‘Course I am. Come on, let’s get packed up, get out of here, tonight.”
“What about the pot?”
She glowered at the plastic bags. “‘We can’t leave it here. And we can’t take it with us. Too risky. If we got stopped for something… that taillight’s still not working. If they pulled us over, searched the car…”
“We have to dump it?”
She thought about that, shook her head reluctantly. It would have been nice to have it for a nest egg, wherever they were going; but, no, it was just too dangerous. If they were going to do this, they had to disappear, completely. Getting stopped by some fool highway patrolman in Nebraska, or wherever you went through to get to California. And them without the baby. They’d call his mom, most likely. She’d say something about the baby. The fool woman never could keep her mouth shut. Then there’d be an investigation. No, it was too dangerous.
“Yes. We’ll have to dump it. We’ll go along the ridge road on our way out of town, toss it in the gully. There’s lots of dopers out that way. One of them will find it, probably, think he’s died and gone to doper heaven. Come on now, help me get our shit in the car. We’ve got to be out of here by morning.”
He grinned, happy to let her take charge, excited despite himself by the prospect of hitting the road. He loved going, going anywhere, just for the sake of movement. Itchy feet. She’d always said he had itchy feet. And California—he’d dreamed all his life of California.
“And goodbye Iowa,” he said, smiling at her, tears gone, the crib with its silent accusation all but vanished from his mind.
“Forever.” She smiled back at him with a kind of tender scorn. He was such a baby. Men were. Thank God she’d gotten him settled down before he did something really tragic. The police? We’d be dead before Christmas.
Despite everything she’d said, she hadn’t quite forgotten the empty crib herself. She glanced at it past his shoulder. She’d thought, in their brief conversation, that Delia was a little round the bend, but that could have been just the loss of her baby. It occurred to her that Delia had not said how she lost the baby. She frowned, and quickly pushed that thought aside. Women did lose their babies. It didn’t say anything about them. It didn’t mean she couldn’t be a good mother.
Anyway, what could she do about that, about any of it? Nothing was what. She had them to think about now. Them, and the baby they’d have in time. It hadn’t been quite a lie she had told him. Anyways, it was easy enough to make it true. Maybe even by the time they got to California. It would be another boy. To make up for the son he’d lost. In time, he’d forget all about the other one. It would be as if that child had never been, just one of his pot dreams.
She wouldn’t forget, she couldn’t, but she could live with it. Women were stronger that way. You did what you had to do. That’s what life was. Life had to be lived. The only question was how.
Later, there’d be time enough to cry. She could feel the tears inside her, wanting to come out, but she took them in a fierce grip and put them away, for a time when they could be wept in private. It was better that way. Someone had to be strong.
“Come on,” she said, “get those boxes off the back porch, start putting stuff in them.”
§ § § § §
“For Christ’s sake,” Julio said, taking a curve at high speed, the tires squealing. Putting distance behind them as fast as he could. What if that fool came after them, looking for his baby? Julio hadn’t seen a car parked by the house, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t one, in back maybe. “Why’d you have to take their…?”
“My baby.” She hugged the little blanket wrapped bundle to her bosom, patting him tenderly. “He’s my baby.”
“He’s my son.” She said it ferociously, her eyes flashing dementedly in the silver blue glare of the dashboard lights. “My son.”
He bit back a retort, glanced in the mirror at the still unpenetrated darkness behind them.
He thought, not for the first time, that she was probably crazy.
Women. Christ. And now a baby, to get in the way. To hold him back.
It wasn’t good for a man to be burdened.