Copyright © 2009 Meg Benjamin
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Lars Toleffson had oatmeal in his hair. He found it by accident while he was sitting drinking a beer with his brothers at the Dew Drop Inn in downtown Konigsburg, Texas. Since that was around five in the afternoon, he’d probably been wearing the oatmeal all day. He only hoped other people hadn’t noticed. Daisy, his two-year-old daughter, was learning to feed herself. She was really enthusiastic about breakfast, and sometimes her enthusiasm slopped over.
So to speak.
The only way Lars could have a beer with his brothers was through the generosity of his sisters-in-law, who’d taken Daisy with them to the park to see the city workers put up some decorations. Lars wasn’t sure what holiday was being decorated for—it was early November, but he had a feeling the decorations were probably for Christmas. Christmas was a big deal in Konigsburg, given the shopping frenzy the tourists usually went into once the season was officially open.
Lars sighed, rubbing his eyes. He adored his daughter. He’d moved to Texas to make a better life for her than she would have had in Iowa where his ex-wife lived within meddling distance, even though it meant giving up the automatic babysitting services provided by his folks. But sometimes he wished he could take a day off from being a full-time single parent.
Of course, every time he wished that, he ended up feeling like a total shit.
“Hey, bro.” His brother Pete dropped into a chair opposite him. “No dozing off at the table. At least not until you’ve listened to us talk for a few minutes. I mean, give us a chance to bore you to sleep first.”
Lars shook his head. “Sorry. Late night last night. Daisy didn’t feel like sleeping until midnight.” He’d felt like sleeping around eight-thirty himself, but that was par for the course these days.
His brother Cal pulled out a chair next to Pete. The three of them took up all the available space and some that wasn’t really available, like the area around the table where they tried to stretch their legs out. Their mother had given birth to four giants, all of them standing over six feet four. No wonder Mom had her grumpy moments.
“Hey, y’all, where’s the beer? Don’t we have a standing order by now?” Cal asked.
Pete shrugged. “Looks like she’s working her way down the tables.”
“She?” Cal raised an eyebrow.
Cal leaned forward, squinting into the darkness. The Dew Drop wasn’t well known for the candle power of its lighting. “What waitress? Ingstrom fired the waitress he had last week. Or she walked out—I’m not sure which.”
“He’s hired another one. He’s trying to upgrade the place.” Pete raised a hand, signaling. “Wonder says Ingstrom may even wash the windows one of these days.”
Cal widened his eyes in amazement. “You mean so we could actually see what this place looks like? Wouldn’t that destroy his business?”
Lars blinked. The woman standing beside the table wore a leather vest zipped over breasts the size of melons. Big melons. Her bare arms were covered in so many tattoos they looked blue. A roll of white flesh bulged between the bottom of her vest and the top of her jeans. The nametag on her left breast read Hi! My Name Is Ruby.
“Ya want anything or not?” Ruby sounded like she was getting pissed. Lars figured that would not be a good thing.
“Dos Equis,” Cal muttered.
“Corona.” Pete was staring down at the table, trying very hard not to look at Ruby’s chest, which was only inches from his nose.
Ruby turned and stalked away.
Pete watched her retreat into the darkness. “You think she’s actually going to bring us those beers? Did we order right? Were we supposed to say ‘May I’ or something?”
“I think I’m not going after her to find out.” Cal shook his head. “Where the hell does Ingstrom find them?”
“Central casting. It doesn’t matter anyway. She won’t stick it out more than a couple of days. None of them ever does. Being a barmaid at the Dew Drop is not a major career move.”
“Here she comes again,” Lars cautioned.
Ruby reappeared from the gloom and plopped three bottles in front of them. “Six bucks,” she snapped.
Pete shook his head. “We’ll run a tab.”
“Fuck that,” Ruby snarled. “Six bucks.”
All three brothers dug out their wallets and plunked their dollar bills in front of her. Ruby stalked off again.
Cal took a deep breath. “That is one terrifying female.”
“Just wait a couple of days.” Pete took a deep swallow of Corona. “The next one will be worse.”
Lars took a pull on his Lone Star. Ruby was par for the course these days. At least for his course. Maybe his brothers’ lives were going more smoothly.
“Any luck on the new babysitter front?” Cal raised an eyebrow.
Lars shook his head. “Most of the home-care people are full up at this point. There’s that Wee Care place out near Highway 16, but they charge an arm and a leg, plus I didn’t like the look of it much.”
Pete frowned. “Dirty?”
Lars wasn’t sure if Pete’s jurisdiction as an assistant county attorney stretched to daycare center compliance, but he didn’t particularly want to find out.
“Not exactly. I just had a feeling Daisy would dismantle the place in under twenty minutes, given the large number of kids and limited number of caregivers.”
“And Daisy’s scientific curiosity about the Way Things Work.” Cal grinned. “Horace offered one of the large animal pens to hold her so we could keep her at the clinic, but I figured it’d never work. Plus Bethany said she’d skin both of us if we even thought about it.”
“If I didn’t do it first. This is my daughter you’re talking about. Your only niece, remember?”
Cal grinned. “Aw, come on, Lars. Knowing Dais, she’d regard it as a challenge to her mechanical abilities. She’d have that cage apart in ninety minutes, tops.”
“I’d give her an hour,” Pete mused, “but it would probably be more like forty-five minutes. Did you see what she did to my old Rubik’s Cube?”
Lars tried scowling at Cal, but it didn’t work. His younger brother had been the nicest guy in Lander, Iowa, for twenty years and was now the nicest guy in Konigsburg, Texas, as well as its most popular veterinarian.
Pete took a swig of Corona. “When does Mrs. Melendez leave?”
“End of next week.” Lars sighed again. “If I can’t get anybody by then, I’ll have to go with Wee Care until I can.”
Mrs. Melendez had been Daisy’s babysitter ever since they’d made the move to Konigsburg permanently, a week after his divorce from Sherice had become final. Now she was leaving for McAllen. Lars only hoped they hadn’t driven her out of town.
“You still running the ad in the Tribune-Zeitung?”
“Until the end of the month. I’ve only had a few calls, though, and none of them were people I wanted looking after Daisy.”
Cal grinned again. “If only you didn’t have this unreasonable prejudice against multiple body piercings.”
“Right. You never know—maybe Daisy would like tooling around the countryside in the sidecar of a Harley.” Pete took another pull on his Corona.
“You two are hilarious.” Lars sighed. Sometimes it seemed like he did nothing but sigh these days.
Pete’s forehead furrowed. “Janie would do it in a shot. So would Docia. But Daisy wouldn’t be happy stuck in the bookstore all day, and they both need to be there. We’re moving into the big tourist season from Thanksgiving through the end of December.”
Lars nodded. “I know. I appreciate them taking her when they do. They’ve been great.”
Cal leaned forward, suddenly serious. “Look, bro, we all love Daisy. We all want to help. Just ask us.”
Lars felt like sighing again, but he didn’t. His brothers were two of the main reasons he’d moved Daisy down here, his ex-wife and her presence in their former home in Iowa being the other main reason. “Thanks. If I think of anything you could do, I’ll let you know.”
“Dadee!” someone crowed.
Lars didn’t have to ask who that someone was. Only Daisy’s voice had that odd combination of Iowa and Texas, with a trace of Texican thrown in, courtesy of Mrs. Melendez.
He glanced toward the bar. Ingstrom was narrowing his eyes in the general direction of his No minors allowed on the premises sign. Both Cal and Pete occasionally brought their dogs to the Dew Drop, but Lars figured Daisy would be one step over the line.
Lars turned toward the doorway. His sisters-in-law stood just inside, like a gorgeous female version of Mutt and Jeff—six-foot redheaded Docia and five-foot-two brunette Janie.
Daisy twisted in Docia’s arms, black curls dancing wildly around her bright pink cheeks, and wearing a smile that made his heart crack in two every time he saw it.
He pushed himself to his feet, setting his half-finished beer on the table, and strode toward the door. “Hang on, sweetheart. Daddy’s on his way.”
Jessamyn Carroll gave the living room at the Lone Oak Bed and Breakfast a quick once-over before she placed Jack in his portable playpen. At least the people who’d just checked out hadn’t been pigs. Sometimes Jess wondered what the hell the guests had been up to that made the place such a mess. Sometimes she could see only too well what they’d been up to and really didn’t like thinking about it.
Jack cooed happily, reaching for his favorite plastic blocks. Based on past experience, Jess figured it would take him at least ten minutes to throw them all out of the playpen. By then she could probably have the dishes rinsed and in the dishwasher.
She grabbed a trash bag, shaking it open as she tossed in a couple of half-empty bags of chips. Too bad the guests never seemed to be into healthy stuff. She swore if they ever left some flatbread or granola bars, she’d take them home for dinner.
Behind her she heard a block hit the floor as Jack crowed. Right. Five more to go. The dishes were piled in the sink—not too many for once. She scraped some calcified cheese into the garbage disposal and ran water to soak the silverware. The coffeepot still had grounds in it. Too bad she hadn’t had time to start a compost heap yet.
Two more blocks flew over the side of the playpen. Jack was getting ambitious, doing more than one at a time.
“Slow down, mister,” Jess called over her shoulder. Jack crowed back.
She grabbed the box of dishwasher detergent and filled the dispenser. Everything was loaded now except the silverware. Another plop sounded behind her.
Please, Jack, please just let me finish this. Jess rubbed the remains of the cheese and something orange and sticky off the knives, tossing them into the dishwasher as she went.
One more plop. One more crow.
She pushed the dishwasher door closed, flipping the catch and turning the knob. The sound of water rushing into the washer mingled with Jack’s discontented squawks.
“Okay,” she muttered, “okay. If you didn’t throw them out, you’d still have them, though.”
He squawked louder, and she knelt beside the playpen, picking up the blocks. “Good arm, kid, you tossed those a good two feet this time.”
He gave her a beatific baby grin, revealing three tiny, pearl-like teeth.
“Ah, that’s Mama’s boy,” she murmured, burying her nose in his neck as she leaned in to hug him. Sweet powder, sour milk—essence of baby. Her heart contracted.
Jack squealed in delight, grabbing handfuls of her hair.
“Ouch.” She pulled his hands away gently, then reached into the toy bag. “How about some time with Mr. Wiggles?”
Jack threw his arms around the terry-cloth rabbit, then overbalanced in the other direction, landing flat on his back. For a moment he lay wide-eyed, staring up at her.
“No, it’s okay,” she cautioned. “You’re fine. You’re just startled. Don’t shriek, okay?”
But his chest was already expanding, his face flushed, as he let loose the first wail.
Jess reached down and gathered him into her arms, rubbing a hand across his back. “Hey, kid, you need to learn to roll with those punches. How are you ever going to be a captain of industry if you cry whenever you land on your ass?”
He wailed a few more times as she bounced him on her shoulder, then subsided into hiccups.
“Attaboy,” she whispered. “Just let it go.” She felt him relax in her arms, halfway to sleep. “C’mon, Jack,” she crooned. “Just let Mama finish up here, and we’ll head back home, okay?”
A few moments later, she laid him down in the playpen again, dropping a flannel blanket over his tummy as he slept.
Thirty minutes. Maybe. But no running the vacuum sweeper until he woke up. Jess headed for the bedroom to strip off the sheets. She could do the bathrooms fast if nobody had done anything really gross.
Fifteen minutes later, sheets and towels loaded into the washer and clean ones draped over her arm, she headed back into the living room to check on Jack. He still slept, one fist tucked against his cheek.
She stood in the doorway, staring at him. Jack. Her Jack. As pigheaded as she was. As ready to yell for his own way. Maybe as ready to stand up for himself in a few years. But not yet. Not now. Now he needed her to do the standing up, and the protecting.
Which meant finding yet another way to put food on the table. Managing the Lone Oak Bed and Breakfast at least gave them a place to stay, but she couldn’t bring Jack up on a diet of croissants and orange juice, even if they came with the job. And he was already growing out of the sets of onesies she’d brought with her. Even at Costco prices, a new baby wardrobe would stretch her budget.
Tomorrow she’d take another look at the Tribune-Zeitung. Maybe they’d have something other than waiting tables or data entry, preferably something she could do from home and under the radar, like her work on the gaming sites.
“Goddamn it, Barry,” she whispered, “why couldn’t you have held on for just a few more years?”
Lydia Moreland picked up her cell phone on the second ring. The phone did ring, just like a regular phone. She had, in fact, demanded that it ring like a regular phone. She despised phones that tinkled out tinny versions of classical music.
“Yes,” she snapped.
“Mrs. Moreland, it’s Charles Hampton.” Hampton always sounded like he was speaking in a hall with an echo, probably a holdover from addressing all those courtrooms.
“Yes, what is it?” She straightened a sheet of paper on her otherwise-immaculate desk.
“I just wanted to give you a progress report on our efforts to locate your…daughter-in-law.”
The pause was small, but enough to bring a wintry smile to Lydia’s lips. “Barrett’s widow. The marriage was legal, Charles. We did have it checked, remember?”
“Of course.” Hampton cleared his throat before continuing. “Yes, well, we’ve confirmed that she left the state, probably six weeks ago.”
“Probably?” She raised an eyebrow. If he were standing in front of her, she’d have narrowed her eyes at him. As it was, she made do with tone of voice.
“The exact date is a little hazy, but yes. The place where she was staying has been vacant for around that length of time.”
Lydia leaned back in her chair, rolling her Montblanc ballpoint between her fingers. “And where is she now?”
“We think Texas. She mentioned Texas to friends. Before…that is, while she was still working.”
Lydia closed her eyes and clenched her jaw. Raising one’s voice was not only unladylike, it also got one nowhere with the Charles Hamptons of the world. And it showed weakness. She settled for letting her tone slide into acid. “Texas is a big place, I understand. Do you have a more exact location than that?”
“Not yet. We’re working on some leads, however.”
“Why is this so difficult, Charles? I assume you’re using private investigators. Surely, locating missing persons is fairly routine.”
“Not if they don’t want to be located. Your daughter-in-law has stopped using her credit cards. She hasn’t called anyone in Belle View since she left, nor has she sent letters. The cell phone number we have for her is no longer active, and we haven’t located a new one. She left no forwarding address with the landlord, and she paid all her bills before leaving. In cash.”
Lydia pinched the bridge of her nose. “I assume she closed out the bank accounts?”
“Yes. Both her checking and savings. And she demanded the entire amount in cash. She refused a cashier’s check.”
“There can’t have been much.” She picked up her pen again. “The house wasn’t hers. And her severance package was supposedly quite small.” In fact, Lydia had made sure that it was quite small.
“Yes, well.” Hampton cleared his throat again. “There was the bequest from Barrett.”
She stared down at the pen between her fingers for a moment, fighting the quick rush of anger. Never show emotion with an underling. One of her father’s guiding principles. “I understood that had been blocked.”
“Not all of it.” He sounded uncomfortable. “Your son left her his personal fortune in addition to his share of the corporation. We couldn’t sequester all of his money.”
“Barrett’s personal fortune.” The words had a bitter taste. Her lips twisted. “Not a great deal of that, was there?”
“That lawyer of his managed to find some for her.”
Lydia couldn’t resist. “You’re saying that Barrett’s storefront lawyer was better at his job than you are?”
She fancied she heard a quick intake of breath on the other end of the line. “We did what we could, Mrs. Moreland. We did manage to protect the majority of the money.”
She sighed. Amusing though it was to bait Hampton, it wasn’t accomplishing her purpose. “The woman did some kind of work with computers, as I recall. She’ll have to find a job to support herself and the child. Approach her that way.”
“We’ve thought of that,” he explained. “We have people watching the chat rooms where she was a member, and we’ve posted job listings at the online employment sites. So far she hasn’t shown.”
“There must be something more you can do.”
This time Hampton sounded more annoyed than defensive. “We’re doing all we can, Mrs. Moreland. However, your daughter-in-law hasn’t done anything illegal, and she doesn’t want to be found. That makes it difficult.”
That makes it difficult if you believe she has any rights in the matter. Lydia rolled her hand into a fist, keeping her voice level. “Very well, Charles. You’ll keep me posted.”
“Of course, Mrs. Moreland.”
Hampton disconnected. She could imagine his relieved expression.
She sat staring at the cell phone in her hand. Barrett’s bitch of a wife hadn’t done anything illegal because the law simply didn’t recognize the facts of this situation. She’d taken a Moreland grandchild, the only grandson, Barrett’s heir, and run away. That might not be illegal, but it was enough to make her a criminal in Lydia’s eyes.
Charles Hampton obviously was not the best person to find Barrett’s slut. In fact, he wouldn’t find her, not using his current methods. He’d give Lydia some claptrap about the woman’s rights and the child’s rights and nothing at all about the real rights, the Moreland rights.
Obviously, she needed to use someone else. Someone who’d know what to do after the woman had been located. Someone who’d make sure that she didn’t keep a Moreland child from being raised as a Moreland. Lydia needed someone who’d make sure things worked the way they were supposed to. She opened a desk drawer and pulled out her black Moreland Enterprises directory. Roy Westerman was still listed under the security division.
Her son Preston had expressed doubts about Roy’s methods in the past, but Lydia had managed to keep him on the payroll. It was always useful to have someone with the right contacts. Roy Westerman might not be able to do what she wanted himself, but he’d know someone else who could.
Her hand tightened on the phone as she punched in Roy’s number, then waited for the connection to go through. Westerman’s “Hello” was suitably brusque.
“Hello, Roy,” she purred, “it’s Lydia Moreland. I’m looking for a contractor. One with some particular skills. Perhaps we could discuss it over lunch.”