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Checkered Crime

Part of the Laurel London Mystery

Laurel London is one tough cookie. Orphaned and with one heckuva checkered past, she’s grown street smart and no one is going to tell her different, even if it means getting tangled up with the wrong side of the law. After terrorizing Walnut Grove, Kentucky all her adolescent life, she’s back and she’s ready to go on the up and up. Make something of herself. Prove the citizens of Walnut Grove wrong and make them admit she’s somebody.

But when mobster Trigger Finger Tony Cardozza jumps in the back of Laurel London’s car mistaking it for a taxi, she’s up to her ears in no good.

Recently fired and checkbook in the red, when Trigger offers to pay Laurel large wads of cash to drive him where he needs to go and keep her mouth shut, she’s all in. That is, until FBI agent Jax Jackson jumps in the back of Laurel London’s car threatening to take her to jail for her past crimes if she doesn’t cooperate with the FBI by going undercover to help bring down the mob.

Laurel finds herself battling the past and good vs evil and she’s not sure which is more deadly.

Checkered Crime

Part of the Laurel London Mystery

Checkered Crime

Excerpt

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Chapter One
“Thank God you’re here,” I hollered to Derek Smitherman who had his head stuck under the hood of a car, his usual position. I slammed the door of the old VW van. “Thanks for lunch.” I waved off the guy I had hitched a ride with after our lunch date.

I adjusted my black wrap dress so it was wrapped in all the right places.

Contorting his body, Derek stood up and turned around. He took the dirty oily rag from the back pocket of his blue mechanic overalls and wiped his hands, leaving some smudging on them. He pushed the large-frame black glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

It was a shame he covered up that body; I bet every single woman in Walnut Grove, Kentucky would take their car to him for all of their repairs if he wore a white v-neck t-shirt and a pair of snug Wranglers. Most of the time women got lost in his steel-blue eyes, so bright against his black hair. But if they only knew what was underneath all the clothes…

For years Derek and I used to go skinny dipping in the river until one day our stares lingered a little too long, and we realized our bodies where no longer those of little kids. Derek had grown into a hot dude right before my eyes and I never saw it coming. Too bad I could only think of him like a brother.

“I need your help.” I stuck my hands out to the side like I was on a balance beam, trying to keep my five-foot-eight frame upright on my high-heels because the loose pieces of the beat-up concrete walkway made me a little wobbly. I grabbed the lanyard from around my neck with my Porty Morty’s ID stuck in the clear pouch and threw it in my bag. “I’m not going to need that any time soon. What about that help?”

I hopped onto a piece of concrete slab that was mostly intact, once again having to readjust the wrap dress.

“I learned my lesson a long time ago that before I agree to help you with anything that I better have all the details of what it is you want.” His brows frowned, his eyes narrowed. “Every single detail.”

“Simple. I need a car.” I took the toe of my heel and batted around a piece of loose concrete to avoid all of the questions that were going to follow.

“No way, no how am I going to help you out.” Derek looked over my shoulder at the beat-up van. His five o’clock shadow was a little thicker than normal.

The gears grinded before the driver of the VW gave us the peace sign and took off.

I took a couple steps forward and rubbed the back of my hand down his chin.

“No wonder you can’t get any ladies. Clean yourself up.” I messed up his hair.

He jerked his head back. He quirked his eyebrow questioningly.

“Who was that?” He asked in a “good ole boy” voice and jerked his head to the right, getting a better view of the VW.

“Gary. . .um. . .Barry I think.” I shrugged off his interrogation. “Lunch Date Dot Com.”

“Good grief.” Derek shook his head. “I’d rather stay single.”

Lunch Date Dot Com was a dating website where you met for lunch on your lunch breaks. I didn’t even bother to read the guy’s profile before I accepted his lunch offer because I was starving and I needed a ride to come out here and see Derek.

“So what about that car?” I wiggled my brows that were in desperate need of a wax.

Given my current money status, I was going to have to settle for Trixie’s hot pink jeweled tweezers she picked up on her weekly run to the Dollar Store.

“I don’t think so.” Derek resumed his position under the hood of the elevated car. “Besides, where is your company car from Porty Morty’s?”

“I got fired,” I murmured. I adjusted the tight black Diane Von Furstenberg dress I had picked up from the local Salvation Army. Wrapping a piece of my shoulder-length honey-colored hair behind my ear, I batted my grey eyes and used fifteen hundred dollars cash to fan my face. “I’ve got fifteen hundred dollars. You can use it to fix that little concrete problem you have.” I pointed to the chipped-up material.

“Laurel London, did you say fired?” Derek swiftly turned back around and waved a wrench in the air until he saw the cash. There was a little twinkle in his eye. I knew Derek like the back of my hand. He loved cash just as much as I did.

I waved the dough under his nose. “That is why I need a new car.”

When I heard a faint sniff as the cash passed his left nostril, I knew he was on the line. It was time for me to hook him and reel him in.

“Trixie will skin my hide if I take that stolen cash.”

“Stolen?” Okay. I was officially offended. “You think I stole this money? I want you to know,” I jerked my shoulders back and cocked my chin in the air. His eyes were on the cash. “This is guilt money from Morty. That no good sonofa…,” I muttered a few curse words under my breath.

“See, why do you have to go around talking like that?” Derek asked. His face contorted. “That along with your…um…sticky fingers don’t make me want to do any sort of favors for you anymore.”

“Sticky fingers? Geesh.” I threw my hands in the air. “When is this town ever going to get over that?”

“Over it?” He laughed. “Over it?”

“Yeah, heard you the first time.” I spoke softly and narrowed my eyes.

“You have pick-pocketed every single person in the town, not to mention how you hacked into the Wilsons’ accounts after they took you in.”

“Oh that. Phish!” I gestured. “That was seven years ago. I was fifteen years old. Besides, it wasn’t like you weren’t right there with me.” I tapped my temple and then brushed a strand of my hair behind my ear and again fanned myself with the money. Clearly the sticky, humid weather wasn’t doing me any favors. “I clearly remember you threading the fishing line on the Quantum Rod and Reel you had on your Christmas list. I played Santa, that’s all.” I shrugged, recalling all the crappy Christmas presents the orphanage gave all of us year after year and when I had decided to use the Wilsons’ credit card to buy all the orphans real Christmas presents.

“It was your chance to get out of the big house and you blew it.” Derek shook his head. He put the wrench in his back pocket and crossed his arms in front of him. “Anyone would have given their arm to get out of there and have a real Christmas for once.”

True, true. I didn’t have a leg to stand on with his argument.

I admired Derek. He got out of the orphanage with a great job and was working on his dream to become a police officer. He was almost finished with night classes at the University of Louisville.

“You didn’t tell me the truth about those Christmas presents or I would’ve never shown up to meet you.” Derek’s lip turned up in an Elvis kind of way exposing a small portion of his pearly white teeth and deepening the dimple on his cheek. A distant twinkle flickered in his blue eyes. “You sure were believable when you told me they bought all the presents for the orphanage. Genius in fact.” He pointed his finger at me. “I credit you for me wanting to be a cop. Since I know how you work, I’m going to be able to figure out how criminal minds work.”

“Ha, ha.” I slowly clapped my hands. “Very funny,” I sneered.

“That was then.” I waved the money again. “Before I made myself an honest girl and got a big girl job.”

“Getting fired from Porty Morty’s is a big girl job?” Derek chuckled. “How did you get fired from selling port-a-lets?”

I wasn’t sure, but I detected a little hint of sarcasm in his tone.

“Morty let me go. Something about overhead and people aren’t using port-a-potties anymore.” My mouth dipped down.

“Where are the people pooping?” Derek’s nose curled up.

“Got me.” I shrugged. “Anyway, I need a set of wheels. That old 1977 beat-up Caddy was Morty’s. He let me borrow it because my job was to get all of those outdoor venues to use Porty Morty’s at their events. He made me give it back. I need a new set of wheels to find a job before Trixie finds out. She is going to kill me when I tell her Morty let me go.”

Kill might be a strong word to use, but she wasn’t going to be happy. Trixie had been in charge of the orphanage for years. It just so happened that when I turned eighteen, the state shut down the orphanage forcing Trixie to retire.

She said I needed guidance and in no formal sort of way she became my guardian. The only mother figure I’d known. In truth, I think she was really worried about me and wanted to make sure I did well. She was the first person to ever see potential in me. Then and there I’d decided I was going to make something of myself. She got me the job with Morty and I’d been working there ever since, bringing home a steady paycheck. Not much. But it was reliable. I was able to get a studio apartment, though my rent was always a tad bit late.

“I love you like a sis’ and all, but how am I going to do that?”

“You got all those cars out there.” I pointed to the field filled with abandoned cars that Derek used for parts. The grass had grown up around the tires which were probably dry-rotted, and they all had a little rust. Nothing a set of new tires and paint job couldn’t fix.

“Those old clunkers? Nah, I don’t have anything that’s reliable and good enough to drive.” He bit the side of his lip.

I waved the money again. “Morty called it compensation.” Compensation my ass. It was guilt money. “It’s all I have to get me a car. Come on. I’ve been on the straight and narrow for five years. You know it, and I know it. All I need is a car to get around so I can get another job.”

Jobs were slim pickings in our little town of twelve hundred. Louisville was only thirty minutes away and surely I could score some sort of job there.

“I don’t know.” Derek shook his head. “There really isn’t anything out there that fifteen hundred will fix.”

I put my hand up to my brows to cover the sun beaming down and scanned the field. There had to be something.

“What about that one?” I pointed to the black-and-white-colored one to the far right. Sort of off by itself.

“That old ’62 Plymouth Belvedere?” Derek laughed so hard, he was hyperventilating.

“Yeah. What’s wrong with it?” There was no humor in my voice. “Other than the faded sign on the side.”

“Come on.” He tugged his head to the side. “The engine may need a good clean up.”

“Okay.” Like I knew what that meant. I followed him to the edge of the grass and stopped to take my shoes off. The heels would’ve gotten stuck in the ground and I had to keep them clean. It was going to be a long time before I bought any new shoes. “Oh.” My face contorted. Up close I could tell the old Belvedere had seen better days.

I swiped my hand across the dusty old door.

“Taxi?” I laughed, never recalling a taxi service in Walnut Grove.

“I got that when the police academy tore down the old building on the edge of town.” He pointed to me. Derek was also training to be a deputy with the sheriff’s department. On Monday and Wednesday he drove to the University of Louisville for the police academy. “Remember? I told you about how they had us running around the old building and things popped out at us and we had to assess the situation before we pulled the trigger.”

Vaguely I remember him saying something about it.

“Still. I’m serious, Derek. I need a ride.” I tapped the car. “Even if it does say taxi.”

“Can you imagine if you drove that thing down Main Street.” He slapped his knee. “Everyone would know you were crazy, not just wonder.”

“We could repaint it,” I suggested.

“We? We?” He gestured between the two of us. “You mean me.”

“Come on,” I begged. “You are my only hope of not letting Trixie down. You don’t want to do that, do you? After she has done for us. This place.” I pointed to his garage.

Trixie owned the property and when Derek graduated from mechanic school, she gave him the run-down building that he had turned into his business.

“Oh.” He shook his finger at me. “You are good at playing the guilt card. I worked hard for this place. I went to work every morning before school and every day after school.”

“Yeah, but Trixie gave you the car to do it.” I reminded him of her other good deed.

His chest heaved up and down as he let out a heavy sigh. He knew I had him.

“The only real problem with it is the rust.” He rubbed his hands along the side of the car and walked back to the bumper. “It was garage kept and it has low mileage. I probably should have covered it with a tarp or something, but I thought I’d be using it for parts.  I suppose it would look fine if you painted it.”

“You can do that for me right?” I squinted to keep the sun out of my eyes. The skies were blue and the sun was bright.

“No. I don’t do paint,” he protested.

“I bet you could.” I tilted my head around the edge of the car to see the other side.

“Laurel, you exhaust me.” He bit the side of his lip.

I could tell he was thinking about it so I put the unexplained shadow behind me and batted my lashes. I put my hands together in a little praying way and mouthed please.

“Fine.” He jammed his hands in the pockets of his overalls. “It’s not going to be perfect,” he warned.

“I don’t care.” I smiled from ear to ear. I held the money out in front of me.

“Nope. I’m not taking the only money you have.” He shoved my hand back toward me. “Consider it an early Christmas gift.”

“You do love me.” I jumped up and down before throwing my arms around his neck.

“No. I love that Quantum Rod and Reel still.” He gave me a slight hug back.

 

Chapter Two
“Now what are we going to do?” I held the refrigerator door wide open hoping to find something, anything deep within the depths of the beat-up, dented box after Derek dropped me off. Now I wished I had taken the leftovers from Lunch Date Dot Com guy.

Meow. Henrietta, my cat, sat at my feet looking into the refrigerator.

Meow. She looked up at me and licked her lips.

“I promise I will find us something.” I sighed. “Have I ever let you down?”

One night Derek and I were hanging out at the river down at the docks doing what teenagers did (drinking) and we found Henrietta under a bush on the banks. Of course I took her home and didn’t tell Trixie.

Henrietta wasn’t a very quiet kitten and that night she cried and cried. I was too drunk to even hear her, but Trixie’s super-sonic ears heard. Henrietta got me and her into trouble that night. Luckily Trixie let me keep her.

Henrietta pounced into the air, bringing me back to the present situation. She batted something between her front paws. A six-legged creature scurried out from under her.

Jealous, I watched Henrietta pounce again because I knew the outcome of the play fight Henrietta thought she was doing with the insect. The insect knew it too. Dinner.

“Enjoy,” I said and turned my attention back to the refrigerator.

My stomach growled. The dried-up slice of lemon wasn’t going to cut it.

Henrietta licked her paws before running them across her ears. Satisfied with her snack, she looked back up at me.

The laptop dinged.

“Oh, live one.” I rushed over to the futon and grabbed my laptop off the side table. “Let’s see who is going to take me to lunch tomorrow.”

Right or wrong, I never turned my laptop off. The dating website tab was open and I had a new message from Bob.

“Hi Bob.” I scrolled down the screen to get a look at him. “Not bad.”

I usually didn’t go for the muscle types, especially the ones that wore wife-beater tees. Though I did have to admit, his handsomely good looks along with the pearly white smile did overcome the bulging pecs.

Meow. Henrietta had an opinion.

“Yeah. I think we might get a good juicy piece of salmon out of this one.” I quickly typed a note back to Bob.

Bing.

“And Bob answered.” I hit the open button of the message. He was unable to make a lunch date because of work, but he was more than happy to have dinner.

Hmm…dinner was a big commitment that I wasn’t sure I was willing to do only because I would feel like I needed to keep the night going. Lunch was way better because we had to get back to work. At least I used to have to get back to work.  I decided cocktails would be better and then it could extend to dinner if it went well.  I dashed off a reply to Bob and looked at Henrietta.

“Let’s go.” I grabbed her hot pink, crystal-studded leash and clipped it on her collar.

She had gotten used to being on a leash when we lived at the children’s home. The orphanage was in the country. I didn’t want her to run off. We didn’t have the extra money to buy a leash and Trixie made it clear that Henrietta was my responsibility. Derek and I had gone to Kmart to check out the cost of leashes and one stuck to my sticky fingers and fit Henrietta perfect.

Trixie never asked where I had gotten it, nor did I tell her.

The efficiency I rented was on Second Street, a street over from The Cracked Egg. Henrietta and I definitely would score some food there. My best friend Gia Picerilli’s family owned the greasy spoon, plus she worked there and knew my food situation.

I reached down and put my hand out. Henrietta brushed her back on my palm, stopping briefly to let me attached the leash. She loved going for walks.

At least it was sunny and warm, not raining like most spring days. Henrietta happily walked in front of me with her head high in the air. Sure we got strange looks from people who didn’t know us. Henrietta thought she was human. People who did know me, knew I was rarely without her.

We headed south on Second Street and left on Main. The street was already lined with parked cars. The Cracked Egg was known for its delicious food. Some people traveled forty-five minutes just to get one of Mr. Chiconi’s bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches.

Just like always, all the café tables were taken, but not my stool at the left side of the bar.

Gia poured hot steaming coffee from the glass coffeepot and talked as fast as the liquid poured out.

“What are you doing here?” Gia asked over the crowd as she made her way down the counter. She looked back at the clock on the wall behind the counter. “Why aren’t you at work?”

There was a puzzled look on her face. She pushed the pen behind her ear that was buried under her massive curly black hair that she had pulled into a low ponytail. Envy pinched me. I tucked a piece of my honey-colored, shoulder-length hair behind my ear and wished I had her full head of hair.

Gia always had that va-voom that girls loved. My va-voom was more like a torn off muffler. A little rough around the edges. I’m not saying I’m a dog, but Gia knew how to wear clothes, bright red lipstick and get a man. Me. . .not so much.

When anyone crossed me growing up, I’d take them down in a minute, never once thinking I was going to grow up one day and live among them. I was hell bent on getting out of Walnut Grove when I turned eighteen. That didn’t seem to happen.

“Well?” Gia kicked a small cage around the corner of the counter.

Henrietta knew the drill. The cage was for her and she knew when she got in, Gia gave her some left over salmon or ham. Henrietta’s favorite.

Gia leaned on her elbows and chomped on her gum only inches away from my face. The lines between her brows creased waiting for my answer.

“Morty Shelton fired me this morning.” I flipped my cup over. I did air quotes. “Let me go.”

My cheeks colored red. I wondered how many people got fired from selling port-a-lets.

“Fired? Did you say fired? That can’t be right. What is Morty thinking?” She shook her head like she was trying to see if it was working. I nodded. She poured the coffee in my cup and pushed the small bowl filled with creamer cups toward me. “He must not be thinking.”

“Obviously he wasn’t thinking.” Anger boiled in me. “I was the best salesperson he had. Not to mention the only salesperson he had.”

Getting people to buy things to me came naturally. In fact, I had been selling things since I was eight years old. I would “collect” items from the foster families’ houses.

All the other kids in the slammer, which was what we orphans called the orphanage, knew it too and would save the little bit of chore money we got and barter with me on the items I had “collected.” A bar of Dove always went for a lot of money. Even the five-year-old orphans didn’t want to use the cheap yellow bar with “soap” stamped on it. The smell alone made our bellies hurt.

“Carmine told me they got the big gig you have been working on. Without you that would have never happened.” Gia walked back down the counter and filled empty mugs.

Carmine Picerilli, Gia’s husband, was the only accountant in Walnut Grove. He rented out a little office in the top of the warehouse. Carmine did Porty Morty’s accounting for free in exchange for free rent. Granted, you could almost lose your life climbing the tiny metal stairs to get to Carmine’s office, but it had a great view once you were up there. His windows overlooked the entire river.

“Morty got the Underworld Music Festival account?” I asked a little louder than I probably should have. But I wanted to make sure she heard me over the crowd and clanking dishes.

Meow. Henrietta looked up at me from the little open door on the cage. Her pupils dilated.

The regular stool warmers, which were all older men from Walnut Grove that came in every single morning to catch up with each other, swiveled their bodies toward me.

I grabbed my cup and took a sip to shut me up. I couldn’t believe it. I had been working on the Underworld Music Festival account for a year.

Over a year ago I was at Food Town grocery shopping and picked up the Vogue Magazine at the checkout. That was the only time I got to read Vogue. Sometimes when I grabbed a cup of coffee at the Gas-N-Go, I’d linger at the counter and read the headlines of my favorite magazines—they were too darn expensive and so not in my budget—but the day I was in line at Food Town, I put back my milk and bought Vogue because there was an advertisement for the Underworld Music Festival.

They were having a contest where you could enter your city or town and the winner was where they would host the next festival. Walnut Grove, Kentucky was perfect. We had plenty of farm land near the river. I knew it would be great for Walnut Grove’s economy and a good client for Morty.

Visions of rows and rows of port-a-lets had danced in my head along with the dollar signs and a big bonus for me. Here we were today; the visions of dollar signs fallen and crumbled at my feet.

“Yes. Carmine said he was going to be busy the next few days trying to get all the permits needed for Morty.” The bell over the diner door dinged. “Have a seat anywhere!” Gia hollered out to the people coming into the diner. She grabbed a couple of menus and followed them to their table.

My blood was boiling. Morty hadn’t wanted to even consider the festival. When I told him about my idea for the festival, he said the family functions, the boat dock parties, funerals, and the Friendship Baptist Church revival was plenty. I knew better. The economy wasn’t growing. There was chatter that eventually Walnut Grove would just merge with Louisville and become a suburb.

Ugh.

I didn’t want that to happen. So I took matters into my own hands. In fact, I had to save up my own money to hop on the Greyhound Bus to New York and meet with the big publicity firm in charge of the festival. Little did I know that you had to have an appointment to be seen. The big doorman wasn’t about to let me in.

I scribbled my name, number, and why I was there on a used gum wrapper I had found balled up in the bottom of my purse and left it with the doorman. I hadn’t heard back so I guessed the doorman hadn’t given my “note” to the publicity firm.

Gia came back and grabbed a fresh pot of coffee off the pot stand.

“Carmine said that all the plans will be completed in a couple of weeks. I told him that you told me you were turned away at the door.” Gia talked fast.

The diner was getting busier by the minute.

“Some fancy woman with her black hair coiled into a bun on top of her head with chopsticks in it came to see Morty,” Gia snorted. “Can you imagine putting chopsticks in your hair? Did you see anything like that when you went to New York?”

“There were a lot of things I had seen in New York that I wished I hadn’t,” I murmured trying to take in everything Gia was telling me—getting more and more pissed with each passing breath. “There is no way they will be able to set up a festival as big as Underworld in three weeks.”

“The festival isn’t in three weeks. The planning stage should be over in three weeks. Gee, Laurel, I’m so sorry. I know how much you worked on that account.” Her perfectly lined red lips frowned.

“A year,” my voice cracked. I bit my lip trying to hold back the tears. “Over a year.”

In my spare time I had already put together a business plan that consisted of all the bands, their contact information and a preliminary schedule of events. I had even gone as far as contacting some of the big headliners and their agents in case I did hear back from the Underworld peeps.

All that work for nothing.

This whole idea of trying to get on the up and up was starting to have a stink to it.

“Damn Morty. He wants all the money and glory for himself. I landed that account.” The more I thought about it, the more pissed off I got.

“Do you know what you are going to do?” There was concern in her voice. Her eyes deepened.

“I was going to look through the help wanted ads in the Louisville Courier and see if there was a sales job.” I made myself a mental note to go by the Walnut Grove Journal and see if there were any posted jobs.

“Sales?” Gia laughed.

“What?” I asked. “I did sales for Porty Morty’s. Okay,” I admitted. “Calling my job at Porty Morty’s a sales position might be stretching it a bit but I did have to talk people into using port-a-lets at their functions.”

“Do I need to remind you about your past sales history?” Gia asked bringing up my ever-so-stained past.

Once I was sent to a young couple that had just adopted a baby from overseas and felt guilty when all their family said there were plenty of orphans in the United States. Lucky me…they decided they would try their hand at fostering. Unfortunately the husband was an undercover cop. I didn’t know about those Nanny cams, so when the good old cop and his wife played back the tapes and saw me having a vested interest in multiple items in their home, he had me arrested. Luckily, Trixie got me off…yet again.

“You can always work here.”

I lowered my eyes and curled my nose.

“Yes. I remember, but you have grown up.” She smiled one of those sympathy smiles.

Let’s just say that I was not very good at hearing complaints about Mr. Chiconi’s food when I did fill in for Gia when she had her molars removed. Needless to say…I was never asked to fill in again.

“I’m sorry, Laurel. I know you had been working so hard on that account.” Gia took in a deep breath before she let out a long sigh. Another group of people came into the diner and took the big six-top table in the front.

“How about an afternoon cocktail over at Benny’s?” I suggested because I needed a vodka.

“Laurel that’s not funny.” She didn’t find my humor enduring.

I’m glad she didn’t because if she said yes, sadly I would’ve been walking to Benny’s.

“Gia, it’s going to be fine. I’m always fine.” I was lying through my teeth. That no good Morty.

I’d love to get Morty in one of his port-a-lets and knock it over. I couldn’t help but smile at images of crap rolling down Morty’s bald head.

 

 

Chapter Three
The next day was turning out much like yesterday. Get up. Watch Henrietta hunt for a bug to eat. Look in the refrigerator at the dried lemon slice.

“Not today.” I slammed the refrigerator door shut.

Mrow. Henrietta let out a little cry of hope that I had found a morsel of food. She looked at me with her big star-shaped eyes.

“It won’t be long until I get a job,” I assured her like she knew exactly what I was saying. “I can feel it in my bones.”

Truth be told, the only thing I could feel in my bones was hunger.

“Either way,” I bent down to rub her. “I will walk to the Dollar Store if I have to and grab a couple of Parts of Meat.”

She darted underneath the futon like she knew what Parts of Meat was. Every time I had to pinch a few pennies, I would pick up a couple of cheapo cans of Parts of Meat cat food. Henrietta wouldn’t even look at her plate when she saw it.

“Snob.” I glanced at the futon. Henrietta’s long grey tail swept across the floor a few times.

I unhooked my phone from the charger and threw it in my hobo. Enough was enough. It was time I stopped moping and hoping Morty was going to call me back since The Underworld Music Festival people were in town. It wasn’t going to happen and I had to get my butt in gear.

I darted out of the efficiency and down the small metal stairs. If I walked north on Second Street and took a right on River Road, The Walnut Grove Journal was down a little ways on the left. It was located right next to Porty Morty’s.

It was as good a time as any to go in and see Anita Musgrave, the editor, journalist, photographer, and only employee of the paper. She’d been there as long as I could remember. Our last meeting wasn’t all that great; she was the one who I had given my essay to that fateful Christmas I had spent with Pastor Wilson.

I had written my gratitude letter that Pastor Wilson insisted I do and dropped it off to Anita who ooh’ed and ahh’ed over how great the Wilsons were for not only taking me in but also buying all the Christmas gifts for the orphans.

Anita called the local news station that just had to do a feel good story on the good Pastor and Rita. Through gritted teeth, the Pastor smiled for the camera and did an on-spot interview claiming it was God’s divine whisper that told them to give all of those nice, expensive presents to the orphans because the orphans were God’s children too, just like every other boy and girl who had a family home.

Needless to say, to this day all the participants in the situation run in the opposite direction when they see me coming toward them. That included Anita Musgrave.

Anita sat behind the big metal desk with papers scattered all over the top of it and spilling onto the floor.

“I don’t have time for fooling around.” Her head was bent in concentration. “What do you want now?” Anita asked.

I took out enough change from my hobo to pay for a paper. Anita wasn’t budging from her glare. “I would like a copy of your latest paper.”

I waited for her to respond.

The years hadn’t been so good to Anita. Her waist had thickened; her face was heavier. And she had a five o’clock shadow on her upper lip.

“Have you ever thought about making an appointment with Kim at Shear Illusions?” I ran my hands over my own thick eyebrows in need of a little grooming.

“Are you telling me you hate my hair?” She looked up, shooting me a death stare.

“Not at all. Just asking.” I looked away.

Anita was in no mood for me to give her beauty advice. Nor did it look like she was in the mood to clean up the messy joint.

“I just threw them in the dumpster outside.” She pointed to the one on the side of Porty Morty’s. “You can get one from there.”

“Fine.” I huffed and pushed the door back open.

I slipped across to the other side, putting my change back in my bag. I slid the little door on the side of the dumpster. The papers were there and so was Morty’s half-eaten breakfast sandwich.

I knew it was his because it’s what he had every day and it made him very gassy. White egg omelet with green peppers. I tried to tell him to lay off the peppers, but he never listened. He stunk the place up worse than the used port-a-lets we got back from clients.

The buzz of a speedboat got closer. There weren’t many speed boats zipping on the river this early in the morning. I scanned each direction to see where it was coming from. Suddenly the speedboat rounded the corner and glided through the turn. The person driving must not have known the river too well because the turn was one that everyone knew you didn’t drive fast around.

The closer the boat got to Porty Morty’s dock, the slower it went. The driver stood up as he steered. His hand covered his eyes as he scanned the land.

The man pulled his fancy shmancy boat up to Morty’s dock.

“That’s not a…,” I stopped myself from yelling after I realized the roar of the fast boat’s engine was way louder than my voice. “A dock for gas,” I muttered.

Boaters were always stopping at Porty Morty’s to see if there was gas or a little snack store on the dock. For years I told Morty he should invest in some sort of little gas station, but that was another good idea I had that he refused to use.

The boat driver was dressed in a white button down, white pants, and white shiny shoes. His gold watch caught the sun just right and a flash blinded me.

The sun was shining and the air was warm. I took advantage of the benches and the beautiful view of the river and sat down.

I opened the paper and thumbed right past The Hub section and to the help wanted section.

Originally, The Hub section was supposed to be about events around Walnut Grove, but turned into gossip central from an anonymous contributor. Trixie loved to keep me up to date on what was happening. So I resisted the urge, which reminded me that I had better stop by her house and let her know I had been fired before my news made The Hub section of the Walnut Grove Journal.

My eyes darted around wondering if I was going to be next week’s gossip.

I swung my feet back and forth, accidentally hitting a walnut that was under there. I watched it roll and then slid my eyes to the guy that had gotten out of the boat to tie up.

“Seriously, Morty should put up a sign that says the dock isn’t a gas station,” I said to myself and watched asshole Morty walk down the dock. “Fall in bastard,” I said hoping Morty would make a misstep right into the river.

My cell rang. I pulled it out of my bag and saw that the number on the screen of my super cheap flip phone was Derek.

“I’m driving it over,” he said. “Where are you? Home?”

“No.” I was too distracted by Morty and boat guy to listen.

“Okay. I’ll head to Trixie’s,” Derek said.

“No!” I shouted into the phone. “I haven’t told Trixie about losing my job. I would rather tell her.”

The driver of the boat glanced my way. I let my hair fall down into my face to give me a little more privacy.

“What in the hell have you been doing with yourself the past couple of days?”

“Taking it easy,” I said. “Lying low. Real low.”

The sound of two men arguing made me look up. Morty and the boat guy were having a heated conversation on the dock. I made a slight part in my hair and snuck a peek at their body language. Morty’s bald head was shining like a diamond in the bright sun.

“Hey, have you passed the Dollar Store yet?” I asked knowing he was going to have to drive right past it.

“Getting ready to. Why? Trixie need some powder?” he asked.

“No. Henrietta needs a can of food.”

“Fine. I’ll stop,” he added.

“Two?” I asked, smiling.

“See you in a minute.” I could tell from his tone that I was pushing my limit.

We hung up just in time for me to see that the boater and Morty’s argument was getting heated. The man was jabbing his finger in Morty’s chest. The sunshine pinged off his big gold ring and the sunspot hit me straight in the eye.

The guy stepped one foot out of the boat and kept the other foot in. He lifted out two Styrofoam coolers, kind of like the ones Morty used to store the blue sanitizer pellets for the port-a-lets that we took to events. The smell-good kind—great for disguising the poop smell.

Morty’s five-foot frame stood firm as if he was holding his ground. He was not in his usual sweat suit attire. He was actually dressed in a nice suit I was sure had come from K-Mart since it was the only store in Walnut Grove that sold clothes of any kind. Morty never left Walnut Grove. Not even for clothes.

Damn. Morty didn’t fall in.

The man was already in the speed boat and turned the motor over giving it a little vroom. Morty greeted Pastor Wilson who was at the top of the gang plank of the dock and craning his neck to get a look at the boat. He and Morty shook hands as Morty grabbed Pastor Wilson by the elbow and jerked him around toward the building like he didn’t want the pastor looking at the boat.

Morty picked up one of the coolers and stuck it in Pastor Wilson’s arms. Morty took the other one and they disappeared into the old building.

The roaring sound of the speed boat caught my attention, though I found it strange that Pastor Wilson had paid Morty a visit. The revival wasn’t until the fall and that was months away. In the years I had worked there, Pastor Wilson never came by. Morty always went to him for the revival details since the pastor avoided me at all costs.

“Good 2 Go,” I read the name on the stern of the boat just before it rounded the corner from where it had come.

Beep, beep.

I jumped around. There was a big yellow car that had pulled up and parked behind me. Derek jumped out.

“Here.” He threw the keys toward me and held out his other hand where the yellow bag from the Dollar Store dangled from his grip.

“What is that?” I squinted and realized it was the rusty old black-and-white Belvedere that was now a rusty old yellow Belvedere. “I mean…” I swallowed hard. “You couldn’t cover up the taxi sign?” I pointed to the door and thanked my lucky stars he had given me the old cab.

“The sign kept bleeding through.” He seemed disappointed by my hesitation of no excitement. “What did you expect for free, Laurel?”

True. He did have a point. I had to keep reminding myself this set of wheels was only temporary. Only temporary.

“It’s great. It really is.” I wiggled my brows.

Trying to be cool, I threw the keys up in the air. They slipped through my fingers and landed on the ground. Epic fail. I reached down and grabbed them. Derek didn’t seem amused.

“And it’s going to help me get a job!” Damn Morty. I glanced toward the worn-down warehouse.

“Where are you going to apply first?” Derek did his best football punt on the stray walnut on the ground. Walnuts were everywhere, hence the name Walnut Grove.

“I was thinking about going to Quick Copy.” I took the help wanted ads from under my armpit. “They are hiring sales reps.”

For the first time, I felt my nerves bubbling up. I never had my own car and I never had to actually go find a job.

I gripped the keys tighter. “This is mine, right?” I had to clarify he was giving me the car and not taking my fifteen hundred dollars.

“Yes. Thanks for taking the junker off my hands.” Derek smiled. “So you know how to sell copiers, service copiers and all the products?”

What? Was this an interrogation?

“Do you doubt my abilities after all these years?” I jabbed him in the bicep. “I can learn anything. Besides annual bonuses, there is even a car that goes with the job.”

“You have a car.” We both looked back at the big yellow rusty hunk. “The world is your oyster.”

“One problem.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t like oysters.”

end of excerpt

Checkered Crime

is available in the following formats:

May 30, 2014

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