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Checkered Thief

Part of the Laurel London Mystery

Brassy, sassy southern babe Laurel London is back!

Once again, the entire Laurel London crew is in action, including Trixie Turner, and trying to figure out who is the mastermind behind the Glitz and Glam casino heist.

The heist king blackmails Laurel into believing Laurel’s long time best friend, Derek Smitherman, will be on the other end of the vigilante gun if she doesn’t help in stealing the money using her history of petty crime.

Cursed with a disastrous new task of putting her amateur sleuth skills to work and an increasing sense that it’s really time to get a new job, Laurel spirals and tumbles through CHECKERED THIEF with all the wisecracks and pace her fans have come to expect.

Checkered Thief

Part of the Laurel London Mystery

Checkered Thief

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Chapter One

 

Ding, ding, ding, ding.

“Whoooohoooo!” The loud, drawn out scream was louder than all of the ringing slot machines in the entire new Glitz and Glam Casino.

I didn’t have to run over and see who was making such a spectacle of herself because I already knew. Trixie Turner.

Trixie had been going to the Glitz and Glam every day since it had opened up a month ago in what used to be our dead town of Walnut Grove, Kentucky.

My fingertips were black from all of the coins I had pushed through the money-sucking slot machine’s coin entry. The little red light on the top of my machine hadn’t lit up or screamed a win like Trixie’s machine. The cherries didn’t line up in a row of three like a good machine. The black bars or the lucky sevens didn’t like each other either. Luck was not on my side.

Ding, ding, ding.

“Yes!” Trixie screamed from one aisle over. Her machine and my machine backed up to each other. The beacon on the top of her machine twirled and swirled all sorts of colors as it screeched her win through the entire casino.

I leaned over to the right where there was a little space between my machine and the guy sitting next to me to get a look at her. Her small bony hand was curled around the ball at the top of the slot machine arm. In a swift motion, Trixie’s hand pulled the ball, bringing the arm down.

Clink. Clink. Clink. The cherry Gods must’ve gotten together because the light on Trixie’s machine twirled in delight and the sound of a win echoed over the casino. Trixie jumped up, threw her arms in the air, and wiggled her tiny hips from side-to-side. Her aluminum foil hat slightly slipped to the side, but that didn’t stop the victory dance. She planted one hand on the hat and continued to do the dance with the rest of her body.

On her third full body twist, her eyes caught mine. “Laurel! I’m in the money!” she screamed and continued to do her victory dance.

“How much?” I asked between the machines, knowing she wasn’t going to get much of a payoff on the penny slots.

“Five dollars!” She twirled as happy as could be, laughing triumphantly.

“We will be eating high on the hog tonight.” I stared at her and burst out laughing. She sure did know how to let loose and have a good time. Something I was envious of.

“Do you mind?” The man on the machine next to me asked in a not-so-nice tone.

I jerked my head to the side, my honey blond hair flipped with it, nearly smacking the guy in the face. I lowered my eyelids and I glared at him.

“Actually I do.” I nodded quickly. “I do mind.” I shifted back in front of my machine and put another coin in the slot before I hit the button wondering from what stink pit of the earth he had come from. Rude.

Glitz and Glam owners and managers promised our small town nothing but unicorns, rainbows and gold, leaving all of us to believe it was going to be such an economic boost when in reality it brought us nothing but rude and greedy people.

Our little town of twelve thousand citizens had become the vacation destination for the entire state and surrounding states. Like the saying, you build it and they will come. They came all right. They came in vans, cars, trains, trucks, and chartered buses. And they came in packs. Poor old Pastor Brown and Rita, his wife, did everything they could to stop the casino from coming to our little part of the world. He even had the Holy Rollers, the old ladies of the community, protest from their crutches, wheelchairs, and black orthopedic shoes out in front of the crowd at the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

“I guess a five-dollar win is good for the penny slots.” I looked at his machine and noticed he was clearly not winning.

I leaned back over and looked at Trixie one more time before I leaned back in front of my machine and gave an eat my shit stare to the guy next to me when I caught him giving me the stink eye. I wished I could win back my pennies or punch him in the nuts. I curled my nose and growled at the machine like we were about to have a face-off.

“I’m moving over to the five-dollar slot and sticking this baby in there,” Trixie whispered in my ear startling me nearly out of my skin.

I turned around from my stool and there she stood. Her five-foot-four-inch frame topped off with that crazy tinfoil hat over her long grey hair cascading down over her shoulders stood with a five-dollar chip tightly pinched between her finger and thumb. Her mouth twitched with amusement.

“You scared me to death.” I sucked in a deep breath, holding my hand up to my heart.

Out of the corner of my eye, the man next to me was gawking at Trixie.

“I’m going right over there.” She pointed to the group of the Holy Rollers, the aforementioned casino protesters for the Friendship Baptist Church and Pastor Brown and Rita.

The old blue hairs were lined up like ducks on the five-dollar machines, popping one chip in after the other, barely giving the machine time to stop rolling.

Poor Pastor Brown, he couldn’t cut a break. The draw of a big payday was a little too exciting for the congregation of Friendship Baptist Church and too tempting to stay away. This was probably the biggest excitement, besides basement church bingo, they’d had in a long time.

“This is a big place.” She held the Glitz and Glam plastic bucket that held her winnings close to her chest protecting her new found gains. “I don’t want you to get lost from me, especially since SyFy said they are closer than ever.”

“Right over there.” I pointed. Even though I was twenty-three, she still mothered me. I didn’t mind. It was nice to be loved. “Gotcha.”

“Hi do.” Trixie gave a polite nod to the gentleman gawking at her before she sauntered over to her machine. Before she sat down, she looked back over at me and mouthed, “Watch him.”

I smiled and nodded.

“What’s her deal?” the man asked, his brows arched. “Is she drunk?”

“Excuse me?” A swift shadow of anger swept across me. I already didn’t like this guy and I just dared him to give me a reason to punch his lights out.

Trixie Turner might be a lot of things, but a drunk she was not. I owed my life to her and I was going to spend every waking second of the rest of my life making sure she was taken care of. And if a little bit of time at a casino made her happy, so be it.

“That crazy lady with tinfoil.” He pointed toward Trixie. She eased down between Sharon Fasa and Norma Allen, wasting no time with the beast in front of her. She put in her coin and flung the arm down.

“She is not crazy nor a drunk,” my teeth gnashed. “You better watch it because I don’t care what they say about southern hospitality, I will knock your lights out.” I grabbed the handle of the slot machine. Through gritted teeth, I seethed, “That’s not a warning, it’s a promise.” In a fluid motion, I pulled the arm down, releasing the handle.

Who did he think he was coming in our town with his creased tan pants, pressed collared shirt, clean-cut brown hair, and fancy slip-on shoes?

“Whoa,” he stuck his hands in the air. Hands that were as clean as a girl’s. There was no way he had seen a hard day’s work. . .ever. “Don’t go all postal on me. You two must be related.”

“You sonofabitch,” I jumped up and pulled my fist back.

“There you are.” Someone grabbed my hand from behind and pulled me close. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you,” Jax Jackson said, giving me a good squeeze and a Baptist nod to the asshole I was about to punch out.

Jax grabbed my coin bucket sitting next to my machine and dragged me away like a caveman who just killed his dinner for the week.

“What are you doing?” Jax asked sharply. I looked up at him and when our eyes met, he couldn’t help but smile. Every time I looked into his big brown eyes and saw his chiseled jaw, my heart went thump, thump just like it did the first time he had jumped into my car.

Not in a carjacking-jump-in-my-car way, a client way. I own and operate the only car service in Walnut Grove. Some would say I was a taxi, but car service sounded so much better. I’m pretty smart in the technology department, not from book learning, but I was street smart. I grew up in the orphanage right outside of Walnut Grove where Trixie was the house mom. I spent many nights with different foster families and was really rebellious. I learned about technology through hacking computers and creating all sort of havoc on our little town. Not that I was proud of my past, but it did lead me to where I was today.

I had just gotten fired from Porty Morty’s Porta-A-Let and my best friend, Derek Smitherman, had a bunch of junkers at his mechanics shop. I needed a set of wheels and the ‘62 Belvedere spoke to me. Not only did it speak to me, it spoke to everyone who needed a ride. Derek fixed it up for me and painted it bright yellow, just like a taxi. Wherever I went, someone jumped in ordering me to take them somewhere. Since I was between jobs and needed cash to pay rent, it was a no brainer. I created the Drive Me app and I had more business than I knew what to do with. Of course my clients were among the elder generation, or as I referred to them the home-of-the-near-death generation, who needed to go back and forth between doctor appointments, but their money spent just as good as the younger generation.

“You cannot go around threatening people. Especially gamblers. They are focused on their gambling and can be hostile at times. Besides, I thought those days were behind you?” Jax asked bringing me back to reality.

“They are behind me, but he was badgering me.” Anyone who knew me, knew that it put a burr in my saddle when anyone spoke ill of Trixie. She wasn’t crazy. She was what the south referred to as eccentric.

Maybe dumpster diving was her way of shopping, but it was thrifty. Not that we needed to be thrifty since I did just inherit a very large sum of money from my biological mob boss family that would last me until the day I died. That was still a secret between me, Trixie and Ben Bassman, my family lawyer from New York City.

Trixie and I still went about our daily business as if we still didn’t have money. Besides, what would we do with ourselves?

“Laurel, you are twenty-three years old.” He pointed to himself. “I’m on the law’s side and I’m the security guard here. You can’t be my girlfriend with me kicking you out each time you and Trixie want to come play the penny slots just because you get into arguments with other players.”

He was right. The casino crowd was new to Walnut Grove and had never seen Trixie like the citizens of our little town had. Everyone in Walnut Grove was used to Trixie and her ways, but not the casino crowd. Every time we came, I was threatening someone who talked about her or made fun of her.

She raised me and I saw her like my momma.

“I know.” I sighed, nuzzling my head into the warm crease of Jax’s neck. He smelled so good. The deep musk cologne drove me wild. I took another whiff before I pushed myself off of him.

Jax had come to Walnut Grove as a FBI agent on a gun smuggling tip which I ended up getting in the middle of. Jax was always coming to my rescue. Instead of leaving Walnut Grove after his case was over, he decided to stay and open up a private investigation office. Since I had a pretty good eye for criminals due to my background and my crazy knack for hacking, Jax used my expertise on a couple of cases which turned into long nights and a couple of romps under the sheets, if you know what I mean.

Our relationship had recently reached the I’m with him, he’s with me stage without saying we were a couple. I wouldn’t say we were in love, but maybe on the road there.

“You know I’m on duty.” He gave me a quick kiss on the head. “And I’ve already been warned that if you create any more scenes, you and Trixie will be banned.” He pushed me out to arms length. His eyes flashed a do-you-understand look.

“Got it.” I pulled away, bit my lip, and gave him a pouty look that I knew was going to send his boy parts into overdrive. I ran a finger down his white button down and tucked the tip in the waist of his pants. “Come see me when you get off work. I’m sure I’ll have a few beers in me since it’s bowling night.”

“Bowling night?” He jerked away. “You never said it was bowling night.”

“It is.” I peeled back the edges of my jacket and showed him my Here For The Beer, our team name, bowling shirt.

 

Chapter Two

Walnut Grove was a small town nestled next to the Kentucky River, making it a perfect location for the Glitz and Glam Casino. Our little town made the perfect backdrop for the big old boat and the economic boost was welcome, just not the hassle that went along with it. The traffic was heavier, there were lines at all the restaurants, and people were always milling about. The good old days of smiling, waving, and knowing everyone seemed to be gone.

The orphanage was on the outskirts of town off of Main Street and that was where the community liked to keep us orphaned kids, or the bad kids, as they liked to refer to us. The orphanage was no longer up and running, but I did buy the place and fixed it up for Trixie and me. It made a beautiful home and we still loved it there.

After Trixie played a couple more rounds of the five-dollar slots, I gathered her and Norma Allen in the car and dropped Trixie off.

“I don’t understand why you are charging me to take me to Lucky Strikes,” Norma harrumphed from the back seat.

“Because you got on my app and hired me.” I drove down Main Street pass the Gas-N-Go filling station and the Windmill Hotel, our only hotel in Walnut Grove. With the casino, the place was full every night, causing Jax to lose his rented room. Not that I minded him shacking up with me.

Trixie minded. She said my shacking up was all the talk of the Friendship Baptist Sunday School class.

“But our team is playing your team tonight,” she referred to the Holy Rollers, the name of her bowling team and the same protesting blue-hairs from the Baptist church. “Which means you’d be going there anyways.”

“Business is business.” I glanced in the rearview mirror and lowered my lashes.

“I’m on a fixed income,” she protested.

“Then you shouldn’t have hired me,” I howled back.

“I was willing to give you a second chance. But I see that was a mistake.” She tapped the large face watch on her wrist. The numbers were so big, I was sure the space station used her watch to keep the time.

Just a few weeks ago, Norma Allen had boycotted my business because she said I was never on time. And she was right, but the boycott didn’t last longer than her time between weekly appointments.

“I told Trixie you needed a good clock for this car,” she rallied in the back. “She agreed that you needed to get better with managing your time.”

Norma Allen rambled on from the back seat.

Honk, honk.  The horn of the old Belvedere was pitiful. It was to be expected for an old car. Honk, honk!

“If you are going to visit our town, use the crosswalk!” I screamed out the window. “That is what it’s for!”

Norma Allen slid her body down the seat, out of view of the man giving me the bird and mouthing some sort of expletive. “You are still nuts, Laurel London.”

“I’m going to have to talk to Derek about this,” I grumbled, gripping the wheel with my fingers so they would stay put and not give the bird back to the man. “I’m so sick and tired of these people coming to our town and taking over.”

“It’s been good for the community.” Norma struggled to pull herself back up in the seat.

“All of your friends are there now, spending every dime of their inheritance hoping and dreaming they win big.” I sighed deeply. “You better be careful because you might sprain your wrist.” I joked knowing she was the cranker for the Holy Roller’s bowling team. The cranker was the power bowler on the team and neither age nor time has affected Norma’s ability to get the job done. I was the cranker on Here For The Beer, meaning Norma and I had big shoes to fill.

My mouth watered when we passed the Cow’s Lick ice cream shop. The line was out the door. “It looks like Curly Dean’s cows are in high demand.”

Curly Dean was a local farmer. She made homemade ice cream and sold it on consignment to the Cow’s Lick. She had recently opened Dean’s Florist where the old Phone Store used to be. Every day the Florist’s front window was filled with fresh cut floral designs that were just as pretty as a big fancy city florist. Curly was a whiz around her farm and her late husband Bo would be so proud of her.

Lucky Strikes Bowling Lanes was located on the corner of Oak and Grove Streets.

“”Well, what do ya know?” I pointed down Main Street to the big bowling pin that could be seen from all over town. It lit up the nighttime sky in all its glory. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen it with all its bulbs working.”

Bud and Sheila McKay owned Lucky Strikes and they had never replaced all the bulbs at once.

“I’ll be.” Norma’s mouth fell open. “Bud must’ve come into some money because he’s as tight as pages in a book.” She was right.

Sheila was always complaining about different updates they needed but Bud refused. He had us exactly where he wanted us because he was the only bowling alley in the town.

We took bowling league around here very seriously. Hell, there was nothing else to do in our town but drink beer and now go gamble all our money away. Neither of those went well together. . .trust me.

“And it’s packed.” I pulled the car into the parking lot, driving around for a couple of minutes. “Shit!” I screamed slamming on the brakes trying to avoid hitting a person. Norma slid forward in the leather seat. I rolled down the window. “What the hell? Are you trying to get hit?” I snarled at the falling-down-drunk girl. She swayed side to side with her hand in the air.

“I need a ride,” her words slurred. “You take me.”

She, like many others, mistook me for a taxi.

“Not tonight.” I pressed down on the gas and seized the opportunity to snag a spot up front. “See, I told you these visitors aren’t good for us.”

“I’m beginning to think you are right.” Norma grabbed her walker that was folded next to her.

“Let me help.” I jumped out and tried to grab Norma’s walker before she could, but she was a spry woman.

“I’m not that old.” She elbowed me, flinging her walker in one motion before it clicked open and locked into place. “We can’t let everyone know we kinda like each other. After all, we are on opposite teams.” Her hands gripped the sides of the walker and she pulled herself to stand. When I went to grab her arm to only assist in helping her out of the car, she glared at me.

“Fine.” I shook my head and backed away.

“Now, you give me a minute to get in there so no one sees us.” Norma didn’t wait for my answer. She just scooted along toward the front of the bowling alley.

I did what she asked and took my time getting my trunk open to get my bowling bag. I shuddered hearing more drunks stumble out of the bowling alley.

“And don’t come back!” Sheila screamed from the front doors of the bowling alley.

I jerked my head over top of the trunk of the car and got a good look at Sheila swinging her baseball bat in the air, her red hair flung around like flames of an unruly fire. The scowl on her face was not her normal happy to be having everyone here for bowling league.

I grabbed my bag and slammed the trunk shut.

“Hey,” I called out for her to wait for me. “What’s going on?”

“These damn casino people shouldn’t be able to gamble, drink and walk around freely. I wish they’d lock them people on that damn boat while they are there.” She cocked her leg to the side and pounded the tip of the bat on the ground. She had on her normal work outfit, the skintight v-neck shirt with bowling balls, black leggings, and sky high heels to compliment the look. Tonight she wore her long red hair down and it matched the color on her face and chest.

Sheila didn’t take shit from anyone.

“I can’t believe Bud is using all our savings to save this damn dump. I don’t need their damn business.” She spat toward the group stumbling their way down Grove Street and trying to carry a tune.

“I’m sorry. I had no idea you were using your savings.” I put my hand on her forearm. This was the first I’d heard of it, which was unusual with how fast gossip spread around town.

“I never thought Bud and I would have to dip into our nest egg to save this place. But he was so willing to rely on people coming in for the casino to go bowling. We didn’t count on them to just be drunks and come in here not caring and demolish the place,” she said in a discontented voice and shook her head.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked.

“I’m just mad.” She turned and stomped her way back into the bowling alley.

The sound of balls rolling down the hardwood alleys and smacking the pins replaced the sounds of the giggling and singing drunks from outside.

The lanes were taken up by the usual league teams and the bar was filled with people I didn’t recognize, which was also unusual. On a normal night, the bar was filled with regulars and I didn’t see any tonight. The people at the bar were loud and laughing. They seemed to be having a good time and this was what Sheila was probably referring to. She was used to the quiet bar with the only sound from the pins knocking against each other and maybe a “yowl” or two coming from a strike from her regulars.

Bud might be on to something. They had to be bringing in money if the bar was going to be filled up like this every night of the week due to the casino, I thought as Bud rushed around the back of the bar filling every cup that was attached to a hand. I couldn’t see his real expression from underneath his grizzly beard, but I could tell by the way the toothpick stuck between his teeth was bouncing up and down that he wasn’t in good spirits. Like we southerns loved to say, be careful what you wish for.

I decided to give him a little time before I got my bowling shoes from behind the counter. The shoes were the only thing I didn’t buy for myself only because Lucky Strikes always had enough on hand and the little extra cash was my way of contributing to the alley.

Lucky Strikes was dark and the neon lane lights gave the ambiance of the bowling alley. The lime green lights lit the side of the lanes and the bright red neon strips outlined the pin cage. Bud had a big LED TV screens installed over all the lanes with all sorts of abstract images scrolling through. TV monitors hung down from the ceiling over top of each lane with the names of players. At the far end of the left side, I could see my name on the monitor along with my Here For The Beer teammates.  It looked like some were already gearing up to play the Holy Rollers.

My best friend, Gia Picerilli was somewhere under her massive brown curly hair and va-voom chest of hers.

“’Bout time you got here,” she chomped under those bright red lips of hers. She was going down the shelf of bowling balls at the end of each lane, picking each one up, pulling it up to eye level and giving it the eyeball test before she decided on one.

“You know,” I lifted my bag in the air. “You could always get Carmine to buy a ball for you and you wouldn’t have to go through this hassle.”

“True, but it’s good for the girls.” Gia wiggled her chest. “Lifting all these balls is the only workout we get outside of the diner.”

Gia worked in her family diner, The Cracked Egg, as a waitress among other duties. The Cracked Egg was on Main Street next to the Cow’s Lick.

“She’s been getting a big workout over the past few days.” Carmine held his beer bottle up and took a long swig. He ran his sleeve across his mouth to get the drop that missed his mouth. “This casino is keeping the diner open at all hours of the night because Daddy won’t close. He claims it’s a gold mine and it might run out.”

Gia rolled her eyes and pushed her hair out of her face. “Yeah,” Gia’s eyes popped open. “I told Pop that he was going to have to stick with the closing schedule or I was going to join Carmine down at Porty Morty’s.”

“Wait.” Her words made me stop in my tracks. “Morty is hiring?” My mouth dropped. “That scum! He told me he would hire me back if he decided to get a new sales rep.”

“No, I meant help Carmine.” Gia shook her head and strutted over to the seats. She plunked down into one of the plastic seats and took her shoes off. “He could use some help with his filing. The place is a mess.”

“No way do I need you down there in my stuff.” Carmine’s brows lifted. “I like my mess and I know where everything is located.”

Carmine was the only accountant in Walnut Grove and his office was located in the top of Porty Morty’s warehouse down on River Road. It was low rent and perfect for what he needed.

“What’s up?” The Fiddle twins asked when they walked up with a bucket full of beer. Alex and Adam worked at Fiddle and Son’s Meats, the local meat and deli market that was next to Porty Morty’s.

“Have a beer, Laurel.” Alex Fiddle put the bucket on the small counter behind the bowling lane and pushed his glasses up on his nose.

“Thanks, Alex.” I was all too happy to take a bottle from the ice cold bucket and twist the cap off. “What’s going on with the looks?” I asked about the difference in their appearance.

They had always taken pride in their twinning and had never strayed from their look-a-like images. Lately they had been wearing it short on the sides and a little longer on top.

“I decided to grow my hair.” Adam shrugged and headed on over to the seat next to Gia to get his shoes on.

“He’s on this independent kick.” Alex rolled his eyes. “He even moved into your old apartment above the Savings and Loan,” his voice broke miserably.

“Really?” I questioned Adam’s odd behavior. “Wasn’t it his idea for you guys to buy the house on Third Street?”

“He forgot that apparently.” Alex shook his head, his deep brown eyes clouded as though he was thinking before he put the beer bottle up to his lips and downed the rest of it. He tossed the empty bottle into the trash and reached for another one. “Of course my parents are on his side. He’s finding his independence.” He put air quotes around independence.

“Oh.” I lifted my head like I knew what that meant. When someone said they were trying to find their independence, it completely confused me. I had been independent since the day I was born so I didn’t know any other way. “Hey!” I leaned into Derek Smitherman when he walked up, giving him a slight elbow to his muscled stomach.

There was no happier feeling than seeing my guy high school best friend. We had grown up in the orphanage together and we were thick as thieves. We didn’t have any secrets from each other and we knew each other inside and out.

“Where are your glasses?” The air was smacked out of me when I looked into his brown eyes. He was getting cuter and cuter by the minute. His brown hair was even styled with a bit of hair gel. He had on a teal collared shirt that was neatly tucked into a pair of khaki shorts, making him way more stylish than his normal jeans and tee look. I grabbed his chin with my fingers. “And you shaved.” I grinned noting his normal five o’clock shadow was not there and it was well past five o’clock.

“Laurel,” he stepped to the side letting the little brunette bombshell next to him be seen. “This is Brittany. Brittany this is Laurel. You already know Gia, Adam, Alex, and Gia’s husband Carmine.” His beer bottle was snugged in his hand as he pointed to each member of the bowling team.

Adam, Alex, and Carmine stumbled over themselves to greet the five-foot-four bouncy package. Not only did her long hair cascade perfectly down but her long eyelashes batted and she flashed a perfectly straight-toothed smile.

“It’s so nice to meet finally meet you.” She curled both arms around Derek’s arm, clasping them together and squeezing her body to his bicep.

“Finally?” I questioned the length of that word. “As in how long?”

“A month ago, this handsome devil asked me out, so we are celebrating our month anniversary.” She curled up on her cute pink painted toes and gingerly gave him a kiss, leaving a faint pink stained lip tattoo in Derek’s chiseled jaw.

“A month?” My mouth fell. I was as confused as a cow on AstroTurf.

“Laurel, come help me with some more beer.” Gia grabbed my arm and dragged me over to the bar.

“A month!” I yelled over the rolling balls and crashing pins. “A month?”

Clearly Derek had taken me off guard. There wasn’t one day that we didn’t go without talking. Maybe we didn’t see each other every day, but we talked.

“You knew about this?” I tapped my finger on the bar and looked at Gia. She rolled her head the complete opposite of my direction, avoiding my question. “Gia Chiconi Picerilli! Have you been hiding this from me?”

She faced me, lines creased on her forehead as her mouth spread across her face when she grimaced and gritted her teeth. “I was afraid of this reaction.” Her hand waved up and down my person. “I knew you would flip.”

“Flip? I am going to do more than flip!” I smacked my hand on the counter.

“I’ll be there in a minute!” Bud growled.

“Oh, don’t mind, Laurel.” Gia’s head gave a swift nod my way. “She just found out about Brittany.”

“Nice gal,” Bud confirmed and went back to the beer tap, filling up the lined-up frosty mugs.

“Am I the last to know?” I jerked back very offended by how my friends had covered this information up.

“We weren’t sure how you would take it since you are like Derek’s sister slash best friend slash first love.” Gia’s face scrunched as if her words caused her pain.

“Sister. Yes. Best friend? Obviously not. First love? Whatever.” I rolled my eyes. “First love?” My head twisted.

“You and I both know that Derek Smitherman has had the hots for you since the last time you went skinny dipping.” Gia was right.

Derek and I were thick as thieves. There wasn’t anything I’d do for him. We spent a lot of lazy summer days down on the river skinny-dipping until one day we stripped down and noticed we had different parts. After that, our relationship sort of changed. I could tell he was a little infatuated with me and he was a hunk that all the ladies went crazy over. I had never worried about them because I knew he wasn’t interested. But Derek and I had a big secret. No one but us knew it and if he was dating someone, he should’ve told me out of respect of the secret and respect for our relationship.

“But,” I swallowed. My insides ached with an unknown pain. “He’s my Derek. Derek and Laurel, not Derek and Brittany,” I groaned and stuck my forehead on the bar.

“What can I get ya?” Bud asked in a rush. He wiped the dirty rag on the bar in front of me, swiping my forehead. “Sorry.” He apologized when I lifted my head and glared at him.

“Four finger bourbon straight up.” My brow cocked. I dared him to question my drink.

“Laurel.” Gia’s mouth dropped. “You know you don’t handle a two finger pour, much less a four finger. Stick with beer.”

I wiggled four fingers in the air. “And keep ‘em coming.” I looked over at Brittany and Derek.

Brittany had a big grin on her face, flinging her head side to side before she snuggled up to Derek’s neck, giving him a kiss on the cheek. He looked down at her. Their eyes clung to each other. She looked at him with dreamy eyes, sending a vomit feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“Look at her,” I griped. “Her pants are so tight, I can see her religion.”

“Are you kidding me?” Gia shook her head and grabbed the bucket of beers Bud stuck in front of her. “You are dating Jax.”

I shrugged.

I was dating Jax and he was staying with me while he looked for a place, but Derek was still my best guy friend and he had kept something from me. The first something he had ever kept from me. And for a month!

Bud slid the glass in front of me. I grabbed it, lifted it to my lips, and flung my head back, letting the smooth bourbon slide down my throat, leaving me with a bit.

“Give me another one.” I slammed the glass on the counter, making Gia stomp off in a huff.

After another refill, I made my way back over to the group just in time to watch Brittany bowl.

“Yay,” I whispered, mocking Brittany when she jumped around in the air after her turn to bowl.

“What’s wrong with you?” Alex asked, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose.

“She knocked down one pin. One.” I help up one finger. “And everyone cheers for her?” I scoffed.

“Your turn!” Brittany came over with my ball in her hands. “I hear you are the cranker.”

It was bad enough she had my best friend’s attention, but she was using my ball. She even had on my extra Here For The Beer bowling shirt.

“Yeah. I’m the best.” A little water fountain of spit shot out of my mouth and onto her face. She didn’t miss a beat. She just brushed it away. “Oops.” A hiccup escaped when I giggled and then grabbed my ball from her.

The bourbon was getting to me and I did everything I could to keep it together as I took the ball from her and moseyed up to the lane. I held the ball up to my face and peered over the top. My head teetered forward and backward. I tried to keep it steady and focus on the one pin, but it swayed side to side.

I giggled, bringing my arm back and swinging it forward. I stumbled to the right and tried to focus on the ball I had flung.

“Whereditog?” My words blurred when I realized the ball was no longer attached to my fingers.

“OHMYGOD!” The scream behind me pierced my ears.

With one eye closed, so to better focus, I twirled around. Brittany was bouncing around on her left foot and cradling her right foot in her hand. My bowling ball rested on the floor next to her.

“Shit,” I giggled, realizing I had flung the ball backward into my team instead of down the lane.

A collective gasp came from the other side of the lane where the Holy Rollers stood tongue-tied watching me.

“What?” My raucous laughter filled the suddenly quiet bowling alley.

“What the hell, Laurel?” Derek’s eyes zeroed in on me in disgust. He rushed to Brittany, picked her up in his arms and carried her to the seat.

“What?” I gushed. I tried; I really did try to not smile, but the more I tried, the bigger my lips turned up. “It’s the al-ci-hol,” I said through a hiccup.

Gia ran over and grabbed my hand, dragging me to the bathroom. She flung me in the door as soon as she opened it. I tumbled in, catching myself on the wall.

“You are nuts. Do you know that?” Gia poked me with her finger.

“Ooouch! That hurts. Those are like daggers.” I grabbed her fingers and pointed to the long nails. “Do you think you could stab Brittany in her pretty little eyes with those?”

“You are going to go out there and apologize to her. Do you understand?” Gia was all up in my face.

“I didn’t mean to. I was bowling my turn.” My head tipped right as my right shoulder shrugged.

“You are going to go out there and apologize. Do you understand?”

“Didn’t you just tell me that?” I asked and smiled. “Brittany, precious Brittany. I couldn’t have planned something like that.” I laughed so hard, I thought I was going to pee my pants.

Gia even let out a giggle.

“See.” I stuck my finger in her face. “You thought it was funny.”

“No, it’s not. Your ball flew through the air and landed square on her foot.” Gia face was softening a little bit. “And the issue is that you didn’t apologize. You laughed.”

I broke out into a fit of giggles. This was definitely not like me. If I ever hurt someone, I would have immediately rushed over and helped them.

“It’s the booze.” I jabbed my face and sucked in a quick breath. “Oh no.” The room started to spin, a belch traveled up my esophagus, and I opened my mouth to let it out, only all the booze came out with it.

“Oh my, God.” Gia jumped back, out of the way of my puke. “Get in the stall!”

I barely made it in time for the next go around. I heard the door of the bathroom open and close between my heaves, and then it opened again with the click of more than Gia’s feet.

“Honey?” Sheila asked. “Are you okay?”

I heaved again. “Does it sound like I’m okay?” I knew my words came out so ungrateful and awful. “I’m so sorry. I’m so sick. I think it was the casino buffet I had with Trixie.”

“No honey, it’s the little brunette bombshell in Derek’s arms.”

 

Chapter Three

“Here.” The lights clicked on and Trixie’s voice rang in my ear like a big gong. “Hair of the dog.”

She shoved something under my nose. I tried to open my eyes, but the light seared my retinas. My head beat like a satanic drum.

I opened my mouth to speak, but it felt like I had a mouth full of sand and some sort of tacky film was on my teeth. Even my intestines were churning with something putrid.

“Take it. Drink it.” Trixie took my hand, opened it, and stuck something cold in it. “It’s a Bloody Mary. It will help you. You have a visitor.”

“Who?” The word was barely recognizable coming out of my mouth.

“Brittany. The girl you almost took out last night.” Trixie’s feet shuffled toward the door and stopped.

“Shit.” I jumped up, spilling a little of the drink. Suddenly I was as scared as a cat in a dog pound. “Tell her I can’t see her right now.”

“Nope. From what I heard, you were meaner than a room full of rattlesnakes to that girl and you are going to make this up to Derek. Got it?” Trixie didn’t bother to wait for an answer. She shut the door behind her. Thankfully it was quiet.

“What are you looking at?” I asked Henrietta, my stray cat. Her grey body was curled up at the end of my feet. She stared at me. “You only remind me of Derek.”

Not amused. She got up, put her paws in front of her and stretched out with a big yawn to accompany it. One night while Derek, Gia, and I were being typical teenagers drinking beer down on the banks of the river, we found Henrietta. I snuck her into the orphanage, even though Trixie had a no pet rule. I thought I was being sneaky, but never figured Henrietta would meow all night long. Trixie let me keep her after I begged, but Henrietta was my responsibility. She has been my loyal companion since.

There was no way I was going to escape seeing Brittany. I would quickly apologize for my behavior and end this just like everyone wanted me to. Play by the rules, only I wasn’t meant to do that. Coloring inside the lines was not my thing.

I dragged myself out of the bed, realizing I still had on the same clothes from last night. There was something written on my arm in black marker, but it was smeared and unreadable. Jax’s side of the bed didn’t look like it had been touched. I schlepped into the bathroom and his towel was not hanging on his hook on the wall like it always was.

“Crap,” I muttered, realizing Jax didn’t come here last night. I sat there for a minute, trying to drink some of the Bloody Mary and gather my wits about me.

I could only imagine what he had heard about my behavior. Walnut Grove was small and everyone at the bowling alley got a good look at me. I tried to remember what happened after I threw up, but it was all black to me. I didn’t remember how I got home.

Going to see Jax would be the next stop after I got Brittany out of here. But I wasn’t going to see her without a quick shower. I peeled off my clothes and got a good whiff of the stink from drinking too much bourbon and then wearing it. I slid the shower doors and turned the water on full blast. I even got in and stood under the cold water, letting it bring goose bumps all over my body until the water warmed to hot. I adjusted the knobs, making the temperature just the right temperature.

I washed away all the stink and the black marker off my arm, brushed my teeth, and quickly dressed in a little blue sundress and a pair of flats. The dress was perfect because it didn’t fit snug to my body and my stomach wasn’t going to be able to take anything touching it today.

My face was tan from the great summer weather we were having, so minimal makeup was needed for my olive complexion. My grey eyes stared back at me from the mirror as I brushed my wet hair out. I was mad at myself for acting so stupid.

I glided my lip gloss over my lips and decided to let my hair air dry before I made it downstairs and into the kitchen where the smell of fresh coffee made my head feel a little better.

“Where is she?” I asked Trixie who was sitting at the table watching the SyFy channel on the small TV on the kitchen counter. I grabbed a mug out of the cabinet and filled it to the brim with coffee.

“She’s outside on the porch with a cup of coffee.” Trixie didn’t move from watching the TV. She wasn’t about to give me a pass on my behavior.

The humidity pressed through the open screen door. It was going to be a hot one today, which wasn’t going to do anything for this hangover. I pushed the bottom open with the toe of my flat, careful not to spill my coffee.

Brittany stood up from the rocker. The rocker swung back and forth behind her.

Her long brown hair tumbled around her face. Her thick brows were shaped perfectly over her blue eyes. Her lips were plump and pouty pink. She was gorgeous. She wore a gold speckled short-sleeved top paired with white shorts and a gold pair of gladiator sandals. Her big toe on her foot was bandaged.

“Ouch.” I pointed. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” She gave a forgiving smile.

“Listen,” I walked around her to sit down in the other rocker. If I didn’t, I just might have passed out on her. I gestured for her to sit. I put both my hands on my hot cup and steadied it when I sat down. She sat down and started to rock. “Please stop rocking. Or I might, you know.”

“Yeah, sure.” She immediately stopped.

“I’m sorry. It isn’t about me wanting Derek or anything. It’s me not knowing about you that threw me off.” I was eating a big piece of crow and it didn’t taste good with a hangover.

“I know. He talks about you all the time,” she said. “He said you were a little protective over him, which I get considering your pasts. And I totally forgive you so no need to apologize anymore.”

“Great. Now that we got that settled.” I got back up. I could respect her for coming here and saving me the trouble of finding her and it wasn’t like I had to keep her here because we clearly weren’t going to be best friends.

“That’s not really why I’m here.” She bit her lip. She looked anxious as she looked around as if someone were watching us. “Derek mentioned you are really good at figuring things out that most people can’t.” She gulped. “Like hacking things and doing some illegal things.”

“Did he?” I eased back into the rocking chair and took a sip of the coffee.

“I need your help.” Her words hung between us. I nearly choked on my coffee.

It was one thing for her to be dating my best friend and me not know about it, but it was another for me to team up with her.

The morning breeze skimmed along the wooden floor of the open porch, sending chills up my legs. I did a shimmy shake as goose bumps made their way up and out of my body with the knowing the warm breeze wasn’t the culprit of the goose bumps. Something told me something was off. . .way off.

“Listen.” My words had to be chosen wisely. I was a bit of a hot head and I was so tempted to let her know that I was not happy with the situation. “Derek and I go way back, but I’m not in any position to help you out. I understand he talks about me and you want me to quietly slip into the shadows so he can focus on you, but you can’t break our bond.” Once I got started, I just couldn’t stop. Some days I wished I were like one of the windup toys. It starts full speed ahead and runs out of juice. Not me. I just kept going and going, crossing a line of no return. “Sure you are cute and dress all nice. And there is no one around here like you.” I pulled my coffee back up to my lips and blew on the steam before taking another sip. “I’m not sure why you are here or what you do, like I said, Derek and I have a bond that won’t be broken by you or anyone else. Now if you came here for an apology, I did that because I don’t want Derek to be upset.” I stood up and took a deep breath to get some good air in my lungs and get my head straight. I needed a good greasy breakfast and The Cracked Egg had just what I needed. “I’m sorry I acted up last night. I can promise you it won’t happen again.”

I took a couple of steps toward the door and passed her before she spoke up.

“I’m not here for your help with Derek,” she said in a resigned tone.

I stopped, held my cup with both hands close to my chest and squeezed my eyes closed. The chills crossed over my body and I glanced up at the wind chime Trixie had hung on a metal hook near the screen door and it was as still as a graveyard.

“I’m in a little financial trouble. Derek doesn’t know and I need your skills to help me out. On the down low.” The rocker she was sitting in swung back, smacking the front of the house when she got up. “Derek can’t know.”

“What?” I spat and turned around. Suddenly the hangover took over and sent my into a tailspin making the porch twirl and whirl. I tried to focus on Brittany, but the slow rock of the rockers made me lose all balance causing me to drop my cup, shattering it all over the porch.

“What happened?” Trixie’s voice spilled out of the house. The pitter-patter of her feet got closer and closer. She flung the door open, she had her wooden stick in her hand lifted in the air and her foil hat perched askance on top of her head. “Are they here?”

“Who is here?” Brittany eyes nervously darted back and forth between Trixie and me.

“The aliens.” Trixie’s eyes narrowed. Her head slowly slid from right to left  as she scanned the landscape.

“No,” I bent down to pick up the broken coffee mug. “I dropped my mug and broke it.”

“Aliens?” Brittany gently tugged on my arm. Her eyes bugged out of her head and her mouth dropped.

“You can go on in and finish your show.” I encouraged Trixie to get inside. Brittany had my interest up. Financial problems? That caught me off guard.

“I’m your gal when the aliens invade.” Trixie pointed her bony finger toward herself.

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Brittany did her best to keep up her appearance of the polite girl dating Derek.

Trixie moseyed back toward the door, put her hand on the screen door and walked in the house.

“Say,” Trixie said through the screen. “Why don’t you come over tonight for dinner and bring my boy.”

Trixie referred to all of us orphans as her kids and Derek was her pride and joy. It was true that most of the orphans that came through our orphanage did their time and got out of Walnut Grove. Most of them ended up in jail or became bums. Derek had that something special; he had a strong work ethic that most teenagers didn’t have.

Trixie got him a job down at the Gas-N-Go when he was sixteen. Derek loved to fiddle with cars and Clyde Yap had an eye for Trixie so he did her a favor and talked Baxter Thacker into giving Derek a job. By the end of our senior year, everyone took their cars to Derek and he even opened up his own mechanics shop while going to the police academy. Derek was a catch and Brittany knew it. That was why she needed my help.

“That sounds great.” Brittany’s voice perked up a bit. “I’m sure Derek will love it. I’ll have him call you.”

I smiled, thinking maybe Derek wouldn’t enjoy dinner with his precious, innocent Brittany.

“Good.” Trixie turned back around and disappeared into the house.

“Now that we have dinner settled.” Brittany put her cup on the table next to the rocker and rubbed her hands together. “I need to know I can count on you. Derek’s life depends on it.”

“Whoa,” I put my hands up in the air. “What do you mean Derek’s life depends on it?”

“I’m not sure if you are going to understand my predicament.” She looked toward the door. “Is Trixie listening?”

“No.”

“I’m not really Brittany.” She paced the length of the porch that spanned across the entire house.

I knew it. My nose curled. It took everything I had not to growl and claw her like Henrietta did to the field mice.

“I’m Bethany, Brittany’s identical twin sister.” She continued to talk and I eased back down into the rocker.

“Okay?” I was a bit confused. “Why did you tell Trixie you are Brittany?”

Not only was Brittany a little sketchy, so was her sister.

“Are you going to help me or not?” Bethany asked.

“It depends on what you mean by Derek’s life depending on it. Is Brittany going to hurt him by breaking his heart and you are on some sort of mission to help him?” I wasn’t following what was going on. It had to be the booze that had clouded my head.

“The outcome will determine whether Derek lives or dies.” Her eyes hooded like a hawk.

end of excerpt

Checkered Thief

is available in the following formats:

May 26, 2015

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