by Larissa Reinhart
This week we have a mystery short story by Larissa Reinhart featuring the main character from one of her book series, Finley Goodhart. You can also find in this same issue a review and giveaway of her latest book in this series, The Cupid Caper.
Camaros and winter don’t go together. But it wasn’t my Camaro, and I’d planned on putting many miles between me and the owner. Not that he cared about the Camaro. Lex would find it funny. Me making a getaway from him on the worst possible day with the worst possible vehicle.
I was somewhere on Georgia Highway Sixteen. Nothing but ice-bowed pines and bare hardwoods. By noon, an early twilight had descended and a wind had kicked up.
The Pig’N a Poke, a tiny roadhouse, was the only building I had seen for miles but for a few dilapidated trailers and defunct garages turned defunct antique stores. The bar was nothing more than a tin-roofed cement block. Not a place that anyone but particular locals would visit. But I remembered it. On a weekend night, you’d find guys burning their paychecks on beer, whiskey shooters, and pool. A few girlfriends and a handful of hard-eyed women would keep the jukebox flipping.
This early, vehicles in the parking lot surprised me. I didn’t like to revisit places like the Pig’N. However, Lex’s Camaro had fishtailed the last few miles. My steering wheel grip made my small shoulders ache. I figured no one would remember me. I’d be another young woman looking for a break from the weather. Not Lex’s cute “shill” who suckered college and country boys alike.
Anyway, those days were behind me.
Daylight wasn’t kind to the Pig’N. I scanned the room and chose the bar. A couple sat at a table, their trendiness jarring against the cinderblock and faded beer posters.
A waitress slapped a menu on the bar. The smoke squint lines around her eyes and red hair, a shade too bright for nature, made her appear older. “Do I know you?”
I shook my head. “I’m taking a break from driving.”
“Atlanta’s a mess.”
She pointed to the TV. The local news showed the sprawling traffic on the downtown connector. A loop of school and community closing announcements ran at the bottom.
“They came in a bit ago.” She jerked her chin toward the couple at the table. “Same reason.”
“I’m surprised y’all do lunch.”
“We don’t, but if Dale’s here, he’ll open. Thursday’s a delivery day. When that couple came, Dale called me in earlier than usual. Thought more might show with the bad roads.”
“The cook and manager. I’m Cinda if you need anything.”
“I’m Finley.” I scanned the menu. “I’ll take a barbecue plate.”
“We’re out. Also out of the chicken and Brunswick stew.”
I ordered a burger basket and Coke, then excused myself for the ladies’. Washing my hands, I smiled at the bathroom’s graphic wall scribblings. I turned to grab a paper towel, bumped the trash can, and knocked it over. Sighing, I squatted to scoop up the paper towels and spotted a white zippered bag taped beneath the toilet tank.
“What have we here?” The electrical tape pulled easily and the bag tumbled to the linoleum. I fingered the stack of bills inside, counting the twenties. A nice stash. Not serious drug money or anything. Hardly worth hiding behind a toilet.
I checked inside the tank lid, under the sink, and inside the light housings. Finding nothing, I taped the bag under the tank. Minus the stash.
The Pig’N a Poke just got interesting.
Back at the bar, I signaled Cinda for a refill. Outside, the wind howled and the tin roof sang. My fingers still itched from counting that restroom stash.
I didn’t need therapy to know I had serious issues. Lex had found that irresistible. And funny. A cop’s daughter who loved a swindle. I’d found Lex irresistible, too. It was the accent. Or the charm. Or the escapades. Whatever. I was done. Now he found himself without a Camaro. And me.
However, I found myself stuck in the Pig’N a Poke. With Temptation breathing on my neck and Lex nowhere in sight.
Another customer had arrived during my bathroom sojourn. A forty-ish man, red-faced and brawny. He’d given me a lengthy sidelong, then ignored my ignoring him and decided the weather could induce me into conversation. “I’m Arlo.”
“Where are you from? Have I seen you before?”
Cinda refreshed my Coke. “Hey, Arlo.”
“I’ll take a beer.”
Accepting the long neck, he made an air clink and smiled. “Looks like we’re not getting anywhere soon. Can I buy you one?”
“I’m good.” Arlo’s routine seemed forced. Maybe it was the circumstances, maybe he was a weird guy. Or something else was going on. Like money under the toilet. “You come here often?”
“I live nearby.” He grinned. “I work at the Tru-Buy. If you ever need anything.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”
“Oh my God.” The couple’s female half had brought her check and credit card to the bar. The news had switched from road reports to the airport. Fights had broken out over the lack of seats. “The airport’s been shut down all day?”
“Terrible, isn’t it?” I said. “Glad I’m not there.”
She scurried to her table and began a flurried, whispered conversation.
Her husband patted her hand. “It’s okay. There’s a salt truck somewhere.”
“Salt truck?” She looked confused.
As did Arlo and I. Around here, salt trucks hauled Morton’s, not saved people from storms.
Arlo glanced from the couple to me. “Don’t know why the airport shutting down would surprise anyone. It’d be first to close.”
I shrugged, studying the broadcast. “Looks like flights have been grounded since this morning. I should have paid attention to the news before venturing out.”
“Where you headed?”
“Hey, Cinda,” I called toward the kitchen. “You’ve got someone waiting on payment.”
Against her bright shock of hair, Cinda’s pallor appeared green. “I need help.”
I hopped from my stool and circled the bar to grab Cinda’s arm before she teetered in her sneakers. “What happened?”
She sagged against me. “It’s Dale.”
“Did he hurt himself? Is there blood?” I sucked in a breath. Kitchen injuries could be nasty.
Cinda shook her head. “I found him. In the freezer.”
Dale, the cook, still had on his hairnet. I stared at the hairnet a good minute, trying to pull myself together. Dale was bald and I couldn’t understand why he needed a hairnet. Unless he had hair on his forehead, which I couldn’t see due to his face-down position.
“Are you sure he’s dead?” I asked.
“What happened?” said Arlo. “Did he have a heart attack or something?”
Cinda’s fingers had remained in her mouth since we had entered the freezer. She pulled them out. “I don’t know.”
“How long’s he been in here?”
“I don’t know.” Her words came out in short gasps. “I thought he was having a smoke. Then he never showed to cook the burgers.” Tears ran down Cinda’s face. “I tried 9-1-1. Couldn’t get through.”
“Inundated with the storm.” I put an arm around Cinda. “We’ll try again later.”
“He’s not going anywhere,” said Arlo. “Let’s leave him in here.”
The metal door swung shut on Dale and his frozen tomb. I felt guilty at our hasty retreat, but not guilty enough to sit with him.
“I’m going to wash my face.” Cinda ran toward the door.
“Could you see what happened?” I focused on Arlo to keep from staring at the body. “I didn’t want to look.”
Arlo massaged his face. “Hard to tell. We could flip him over. Maybe he slipped and hit his head.”
“We shouldn’t touch him. The police…”
“Right,” said Arlo. “Poor guy.”
I calculated the odds of a dead cook and a stash of money in the bathroom.
“Cinda said Dale called her when the couple showed. I wonder if they noticed anything? Only two vehicles in the lot when I got here.”
“Good idea. Ask them the last time they saw Dale. I’ll wait here for Cinda. She’s upset.”
I was stuck. Not only for the storm, but we’d have to wait on the police and their questioning.
Dammit, why did I mess around with that money? I should hightail it. Take my chances with the storm. Let the cops sort it. Unless they find the money bag and asked questions. Then they’d look for me. Even if I replaced the money.
That stupid Camaro. Even Arlo noticed it.
My heart pounded. I took a calming breath, placed a hand to keep the door from swinging, and peeked out.
Arlo had joined the couple at the bar. Stephanie moaned about the ice.
“How long have you been here?” asked Arlo.
“About an hour,” said her husband.
“More like two,” said Stephanie. “The cook let us in. Remember, we had to wait for coffee until the waitress came? Took forever. I swear it took another thirty minutes for the coffee.”
Dale could have died more than an hour ago. But Stephanie seemed prone to exaggeration.
“When was the last time you saw the cook?” asked Arlo.
“Why?” said Stephanie. “Did he leave us here?”
Real smooth, Arlo.
I kept an ear toward their conversation, considering my options. I needed to know if the money was related to the cook’s death or a coincidence. His time of death was also important, considering we could be trapped with someone involved with Dale’s demise. Desperate people make for a desperate situation.
“I want to go,” said Stephanie. “It’s driving me crazy, stuck here. I have to get home.”
I knew how she felt.
“The storm’ll blow through in an hour, then you might try your luck on the roads,” said Arlo. “At least we have electricity. Might as well relax. Renee, do you play pool?”
I blew out a long breath. An hour. I could wait an hour. What could happen in an hour?
Hang on. Arlo called Stephanie Renee. Whose credit card was Renee using?
I supposed Renee could be her middle name. Maybe she didn’t like Stephanie. Or Stephanie-Renee and her husband stole credit cards. A felony in Georgia.
Homicide. Also a felony.
I wished my brain didn’t do these things.
Cinda had returned from the bathroom. She smoothed the short apron tied around her waist. After offering the husband a drink, she spun toward the kitchen door.
Before she entered, I’d backed from the door and leaned against a counter. “How about I fry us some burgers?”
“I can do it.” Her chin lifted a notch. “I called the owner. He’s in Destin. But he’s going to keep trying 9-1-1.”
“That’s good.” I studied her, wondering if she had checked the money bag. It hadn’t escaped my attention that the pouch had been in the women’s restroom and not the men’s.
“You’re nervous,” I said. “Want to talk about it?”
“Hell yes, I’m nervous. I’m responsible for everyone. Who knows when we’re getting out?” She cast a glance at the freezer. “And there’s Dale. I don’t like being here with Dale in there.”
“That’s understandable. How was Dale when you came in? Did he seem sick or anything?”
“He sounded fine on the phone.”
“But you didn’t see him when you got here?” He’d been alone with the couple. Stephanie called Renee. Determined to get away. Still here. Maybe using a stolen card. Maybe Stephanie-Renee had put the money under the toilet. For someone to pick up later? Or was she supposed to pick it up? And what happened to Dale?
Dammit. I had to examine Dale.
“I’m going to check on Dale. We never felt his pulse or anything. Just to be safe. Sometimes the cold preserves people. Slows down their heart. You never know. Maybe he’s not dead.”
“What about the customers?”
We entered the freezer again, stepping around Dale’s legs. Shuddering, I pulled in air from my mouth and blew it out my nose.
“What are you doing?” asked Cinda.
“Trying not to get sick.” I took a deep breath, squatted to Dale level, and placed my fingers on his neck. His hairnet sat lopsided. And he felt like cold gooseflesh. My stomach curdled. I gasped. “Okay, he’s not alive.”
“Maybe he fell.”
I took another breath, yanked off the hairnet, and leaned in to examine. Sure enough, there was a slight depression and broken skin over one ear. The purpling evidence of Battle’s sign hadn’t begun. He hadn’t been dead long.
“Shit,” I muttered. “Blunt force trauma.”
Cinda cocked her head. “What?”
“Yep, cracked his head.”
“That’s not what you said.”
“Same difference.” Except he didn’t hit his own head. “My mother was a nurse. Dad was a cop. I know the jargon.”
“The owner said y’all still had to pay your tabs.”
“Make it coffee.”
Cinda exited, but I stayed a moment longer. Patted Dale down. Then popped the coffee—loose grounds, perfect—stashed my emergency twenty, and shut the door. I took a slow stroll around, checking for obvious weapons.
My father would say, “A smart criminal would get rid of the weapon. Most criminals aren’t that smart.” If it happened between Dale’s call and Cinda’s arrival, they wouldn’t have had much time.
The couple? Cinda? Arlo arrived after I did. But didn’t I find him odd? Or had I gotten used to his oddness? Circumstances like these bring people together.
Here I was, ready to plunge into the frozen Georgia wasteland to look for a weapon. What in the hell was wrong with me?
Lex had said, “For every scrupulous habit your mum had natured, you have undone by nurturing a criminal tendency. Bravo, Fin.” However, he believed nature would eventually win over nurture. My guilt would end our fun.
This wasn’t redemption. Finding out who killed Dale was self-preservation.
Shivering, I took a step off the stoop. No snow, but the iced gravel crackled beneath my feet. My dark hair whipped around my face, stinging my cheeks. A beater car and a van had been parked behind the roadhouse.
I held my arms and crept across the slick drive to the car. I banged on a window, cracked the ice, and peered inside. Worn seats and trash. Overflowing ashtray. Dale’s vehicle. Cinda said he took smoke breaks.
Long enough for her not to realize he was dead.
The dumpster rattled. I spun around. Then lost my balance and fell against the car. The shivers wracking my body were only partially cold induced.
Cheer up Fin, I thought. You’re not being stalked by a chainsaw-wielding psycho. Just trapped with someone who killed a cook for a half grand.
Five hundred dollars was not worth murder in my book. That meant they had homicidal tendencies. Or they were really hard up.
Neither were a good sign. Maybe I’d get lucky, find it was an accidental death and the perp had taken off without the couple noticing.
I trudged to the van. The white paneled van had Georgia plates. Not iced over like Dale’s ratty Pontiac. It had been parked a while but not as long as Dale’s.
I peered through sugar-coated windows. This driver wasn’t a smoker. But they were an eater. Two wrapped cheesecakes lay in the passenger seat. Already cut. Each serving separated by paper. Wholesale style.
Someone hollered. At the kitchen door, Arlo and Cinda watched me.
And a newcomer?
The odds just got worse.
“What are you doing out there?” called Arlo. “Come in before you catch your death.”
I minced across the icy gravel.
“What were you doing?” asked Cinda.
“Checking the conditions.” I turned to the newcomer. “Did you come in from the storm?”
She was a mysterious age, somewhere between thirty-five and fifty-five. Like Cinda, she hid it behind nicotine, tanning, and hair color. She also smelled like a distillery.
Cinda took a deep breath. “This is Leann. Dale’s wife.”
Leann narrowed bleary eyes. “Who’re you?”
“You the one been seeing my man?” asked Leann.
“No, ma’am,” I said. Evidently, Cinda had not broken the news. “I’ve stopped to wait out the storm.”
“You look familiar.” Leann wobbled forward. “I seen you here before. I’ve got a mind for faces.”
“No, ma’am.” I mentally crossed my fingers.
“Where’s Dale? I’m going to kill that sumbitch.”
“You can’t,” mumbled Cinda.
“What’d you mean?” Leann squinted at Cinda. “You making a joke?”
“No, Leann. You better come in and sit down.” Cinda chewed her lip. A fat tear slid down her face.
Leann’s squint didn’t falter. “I want to see Dale.”
I cinched my arms tighter and made no move to follow them into the restaurant. Figuring a killer was saving my own neck. His death was none of my business.
Arlo nudged me and deposited a shot glass in my hand. “Thought you could use this.”
“Thanks. When did Leann get here?”
“Just showed up. How she got here is a better question.”
I raised my brows over the bourbon.
“Walked. From their trailer down the road. Said her car spun out and slid into a ditch. Lucky she didn’t kill herself or someone else. She’s on a bender. Doesn’t feel the cold. Guess what she brought?”
I closed my eyes. “Don’t say a weapon.”
I opened my eyes. “Where’s the shotgun?”
“Put it in the freezer with Dale.”
“So anyone can get at it.”
“I guess so.”
Hell had broken loose in the restaurant.
Leann hollered for the good Lord to deliver her from this wretched life. Cinda’s reserve broke and she sobbed in tune to Leann’s cries for deliverance. Stephanie-Renee gaped like they were a sideshow act. Mr. Stephanie-Renee had helped himself to the tapper and crossed the room to play pool. Alone.
Watching them, I deliberated my suspicions. Perhaps Dale had fallen and hit his head. Except the injury was behind his ear and he had fallen forward. But freakier things have happened.
I excused myself to check on the money situation.
The zippered pouch was gone. But the money was where I had left it. Divided, rolled into tubes, and inserted inside the toilet paper stacked in the utility closet.
I had a conundrum. Someone had known about the money. I had to include Dale’s wife. She could have hidden until now. A long shot, but I didn’t trust people who appeared out of thin air.
Or brought a gun.
Back in the restaurant, I studied the parking lot from the front window and thought about gambling on the weather and the police.
But some of these people were innocent. Could I leave, knowing someone else could get hurt? Was Lex right about me, wanting to redeem myself for my misspent youth?
A Buick and a used GMC Sierra truck with new plates were also parked in front. The Buick was a rental. Both had been here when I arrived. Where was Arlo’s car?
A scream broke my contemplation. I spun to face a growing cat fight.
“How could you leave him in the freezer?” screeched Leann.
“What else were we going to do?” said Cinda. “Lay him out on a pool table? We’re doing the best we can.”
“My husband’s lying in a freezer.” Leann’s arms flapped, fanning her hysteria. “I could kill you for this.”
“You just try.”
Cinda had grit. But Leann had a wiry strength and a drunk’s inability to know when to stop.
“You was seeing my Dale.” Leann circled Cinda, stumbling over her own feet. “I took care of him and I’ll fix you.”
I cleared my throat. “You took care of Dale?”
Leann swung toward me. “Yeah, I fixed his wagon. I know what he was up to.”
Stephanie-Renee spoke from her elbow lean. “What was he up to?”
I eyeballed Stephanie-Renee’s casual lean and preoccupation in Dale’s women.
“Dale was fixing on running away with Cinda.” Leann’s voice rose. “I found the money.”
Cinda shook her head. Tears streaked her makeup. Strong hands wrung the apron.
“How’d you fix Dale’s wagon?” I said. “Did you take his money?”
That’s what I wanted to know, too. Someone was leaving Dale a nice cut in the ladies’ room. A cut from what? For what?
Mr. Stephanie-Renee had turned from the pool table to rivet his attention on the scene. Behind us, the TV continued its traffic reports. Kenny Chesney warbled on the jukebox. Outside the wind howled.
Leann circled Cinda like a feral cat on a field mouse. “Where’d he get that money, Cinda?”
“Thursday is delivery day,” I said.
Leann halted and stared at me.
“Who’s got the GMC and the Buick in the parking lot?”
Cinda raised her hand.
“The Buick’s mine,” said Mr. Stephanie-Renee.
Stephanie-Renee straightened from her bar stool slouch. “What’s going on?”
“Dale didn’t have a heart attack or fall,” I said. “Dale was hit from behind.”
Leann stumbled toward me. “What are you saying?”
“We can’t know what caused his death until the autopsy. But I’d wager on the initial cause as blunt force trauma. He has a contusion behind his ear. It’ll turn purple after he thaws out.”
“Thaws out?” cried Cinda.
“My guess is a tire iron. That’d be handy. I doubt this place would have a rolling pin unless y’all make biscuits.” I looked at Cinda. “Do y’all make biscuits?”
She shook her head.
“It’s like Clue,” said Stephanie-Renee.
“This isn’t a game.” I turned toward her husband. “What’s your name? I never got your name.”
“So you’re not married to Stephanie.”
“Stephanie?” Mark blinked. “Do you mean Renee?”
Stephanie slid off her stool.
“Which is it? Stephanie or Renee? Are you a liar or a thief? According to your credit card, it’s one or the other.”
“Hey.” Mark pushed off the pool table.
“Y’all cool it. Stay right where you are, son.” Arlo pulled the shotgun from under the bar and laid it before him.
Mark halted between two tables.
Arlo looked at me. “What are you doing, Finley?”
“Working things out.” I eased from the window. “What’d you drive, Arlo? Is that your van in the back?”
“What’d you care where I park?”
“Earlier you said something about my Camaro. How’d you know I drove the Camaro? ‘Cause you saw me pull up?”
“What?” Arlo laid his hand on the rifle barrel. “I’m not getting you.”
“That van’s been warmed up recently. But beneath, it’s dry as a bone.” I moved one step at a time, sliding toward the bar. “Are you Dale’s Thursday delivery driver? He didn’t want cheesecake.”
“I told you, I work at the Tru-Buy.”
“I don’t understand what’s going on.” Leann pivoted in a lopsided circle, studying us.
“You understand more than most, Leann. Dale wasn’t just cheating you.”
“He was cheating on Cinda, too?” Leann wobbled toward the bar and grabbed it.
“How many times do I have to say I wasn’t seeing Dale.” Cinda’s hands drew into fists.
Leann turned up her banshee wail. “My Dale—”
I interrupted for everyone’s sake. “I said Dale cheated not cheated on. He was cheating his boss by not buying food from a direct wholesaler. If we looked at Dale’s inventory, the SKUs wouldn’t match the invoices. That’s collusion. How often is the owner in Florida, Cinda?”
“He’s got a condo there.”
“Easy job then. Owner’s not looking because no one is complaining. There’s food, but not everything on the menu is available.”
“Liar.” Leann lunged for the gun.
I leaped at Leann, knocking her to the ground.
“You’re the thief,” screamed Leann. “I remember you now. You was here with that English guy. Took a few boys for all they had, didn’t you? Ended in a scuffle and I kicked you both out.”
I struggled to keep her pinned. She elbowed me in the gut and shoved a hand into my face, kicking and clawing. Like wrestling an overcooked chicken. Stringy and tough.
“True.” I panted. “But I didn’t kill Dale. Look up. I’m not the one holding a gun on you.”
“True.” Arlo racked the slide. “That’d be me.”
Leann stopped wrestling and craned her neck. Kicking away, she screamed and scuttled backward. “It’s not me. It’s her. Finley.”
“I know,” said Arlo. “Except while Dale and I were skimming his boss, Dale was skimming me, and you were skimming Dale.”
“I didn’t steal nothing.”
I rubbed my bruised cheek. “You think she took from the stash Dale had planted?”
Arlo motioned with the gun. “Get up.”
Leann and I scrambled to our feet.
“Where’s my money, Finley?”
“I didn’t take your money, Arlo.”
“My money is missing.” Arlo licked his lips. “You’re a con artist?”
“Not a con artist.” I glared at Leann. “We were hustling pool. Young guys who thought they were getting something for nothing.”
“So you say,” said Arlo. “But you can’t throw stones, can you?”
“I never murdered anyone. That’s a pretty big stone.”
“We’re going to take a walk. Y’all stay here.”
“What are you going to do with us?” The words tripped over Stephanie’s trembling lips. Mark Denver put an arm around her. She shook it off. “I want to go home. I won’t say anything.”
“I wish I could believe you,” said Arlo. “I truly do.”
“She won’t.” It was time for that act of redemption. Not just to save my own skin. I couldn’t let Arlo kill these people. I continued in the cockiest drawl I could muster. “Because Steph doesn’t want hubby to know where she’s been. He was supposed to fly today. She’s worried he might’ve come back before the roads got bad.”
Stephanie’s demeanor dropped with her jaw.
“Mark’s from up north. Where they have salt trucks. He probably comes to Atlanta on business, where he met Stephanie Renee. Y’all were headed on a long weekend to Florida?”
Mark looked away.
“Mark figured if the interstates were jammed, he could take the highways out of Atlanta because he’s used to driving in bad weather. What he didn’t know, Georgia’s country highways are tree-lined. They ice over quicker than the interstates because they don’t see much sun.”
“You were on the same highway.” Mark turned stony eyes on me.
“That’s why I’m here.” I looked at Arlo. “Mark’s got a wife back home, too. No ring, but there’s a faint line on his finger. I always check. He’s not going to say anything. Now that his weekend’s blown, he wants to get the hell out.”
“That’s fine for them,” said Arlo. “But what about Cinda and Leann?”
Cinda twisted her apron.
“He killed my man.” Leann pounded the bar. “You can’t buy me off.”
“Then let the cops collect the money. Otherwise, you’re an accessory, Leann. After the fact, but an accessory. Unless you can hire a good attorney.”
Leann fell silent.
“Now Cinda,” I said. “You’re in trouble. You don’t know how long this has been going on or why. But every Thursday there’s a bag of money in the women’s toilet. You’ve made yourself available to serve early on Thursdays. And figured, like I did, the money’s dirty.”
I shot a look at Leann. “Not literally.”
“I didn’t say nothing.”
“Cinda, stealing is stealing to the law. Doesn’t matter where the money comes from. You’ve been committing theft. If it’s under five hundred dollars it’s a misdemeanor. But judging Arlo’s pissed enough to wallop Dale, I’d say you’re in for a felony.”
Cinda’s mouth open and closed.
“Better hand it over.”
She dug into her apron, pulled out a wad of twenties, and laid them on the counter.
“What about the back money?” I looked at Cinda. “That truck’ll do. I guess the down payment’s from Arlo’s take. No way you can afford the Sierra on tips, even pre-owned.”
I dangled the keys before Arlo. “In conclusion, we’re all a bunch of sinners and we’re not going to rat you out. My friend Lex would say, honor among thieves.”
Rolling his eyes, Arlo snatched the keys.
I forced a smile and pointed toward the kitchen. My hand shook. I dropped it to my side before Arlo noticed. “I’ll show you the money and you can go. Although you should quit the Tru-Buy. I’m sure they’ll put two and two together with their missing inventory.”
“How’d you know so much about us?” asked Leann.
“Learned the law from my daddy and how to keep a clear head from Mother. In my previous career, my friend taught me how to read people. You’d be surprised how easy it is.”
“Then read my mind.” Arlo pointed the gun at me.
I led Arlo to the freezer. I didn’t trust my shaky hands and Arlo couldn’t know I was scared shitless. “It’s in there.”
“You hid it with Dale?”
“I told Cinda I wanted to make sure he was really dead. It gave me the excuse to hide the money.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Then I’ll show you.” I grabbed the freezer door and yanked it open. “You stay out here. I’ll get the cash and bring it out.”
“No, you don’t. I’m coming with you.”
“Sure. Whatever you want, Arlo.”
We stepped inside. Dale still lay sprawled. Minus the hairnet.
“Stay there,” I said. “I hid it in the back. There’s not much room.”
Arlo narrowed his eyes. “You’re awful helpful. Convincing those folks not to rat me out.”
My shoulders jerked into a shrug. “I didn’t want them to get hurt.”
“Not likely.” He waved the Mossberg at me. “I don’t trust you. You’re a sneak thief.”
I shoved my hands in my pockets. “Not anymore. But I don’t want to deal with cops, either. As soon as you leave, I’m gone.”
He snaked a long gaze over me. “How ‘bout we head out together. Ditch the van and take the Camaro. I’ll keep you in money.”
Between Arlo and dead Dale, it took all my nerve not to lose that shot of bourbon all over Arlo’s feet. “The Camaro’s stolen. You don’t want it.”
“Thought you didn’t con anymore.”
“I don’t. Just repossess ex-boyfriend’s vehicles.”
He chuckled. “You sure do have a mouth on you.”
“Let me get your money.” I took a step, tripped over Dale’s foot, and fell against Arlo.
“Watch it.” He held the gun over his head, while I caught my balance.
“Sorry.” I patted Arlo, then pointed at Dale. “I hope you hid whatever you used to hit him. He must have been stocking shelves and not seen you coming.”
“Wasn’t a tire iron. Blackjack. Always carry one. I’d eat while Dale unloaded the van. Dale’d leave my split in the bathroom. Thought it’d be safer in the gal’s than the guy’s. But he’d been short. He denied it. Accused me of trying to cheat him. I warned him, but he didn’t listen. Cinda showed before I could grab the money and take off, so I went out back, waited, then came in like usual.”
“You didn’t think it’d kill him.”
“He wasn’t any use to me dead. But I thought roughing him up might loosen his wallet. It couldn’t get out that I let him skim.”
“You’ve had practice. Guess you don’t work at the Tru-Buy. You just rip off their deliveries.”
Arlo shrugged. “All right, where’s the money?”
“I hid it in the coffee.” I pointed to the Folgers on the shelf next to Dale’s head. “I’ll get it. Let me get around you.”
I stepped into Arlo, backing him into the shelves.
“Stay where you are.” Arlo tiptoed around Dale, pulled open the coffee lid, and peeked inside.
“Give it a shake. They might have settled.” I stepped over Dale’s legs.
“Stop moving around.” Arlo reached into the can and pulled out a twenty. Slapping the lid on, he smacked the top like a drum and tucked it under his arm.
“I’ll wait here so you can get around me,” I said. “You should go first.”
“No you don’t. Back out. Slowly.”
“Okay, okay.” Holding up my hands, I slid backward. “Cinda didn’t take all the missing money, did she? I guess you found Dale’s stash, too.”
Arlo flashed a look at Dale. “You heard Leann. It’s at her house.”
“Dale was dumb enough to hide all the cash at home? With Leann always looking for liquor money?” I stopped in the freezer’s doorway. “Guess Dale was an easy mark for you. Guy like that deserves what’s coming to him.”
“Yeah, Dale wasn’t the brightest.” Arlo kicked Dale’s outstretched leg. “Hang on a minute. He’s not going to need his wallet.”
I took another step backward.
Arlo squatted, set down the coffee can, and placed the gun on his lap. He patted Dale. “Where’s his damn wallet?”
“In your pocket.” I put my hand on the freezer door.
“What?” Arlo fished out Dale’s wallet. “How?”
“Didn’t want you to notice your wallet was missing so I replaced it with Dale’s when we bumped.” I swung the freezer door shut and twisted Dale’s key into the lock.
Arlo thought he’d bought a pig in a coffee can. A five hundred dollar pig. Hardly seemed worth it. My life had only cost a lousy twenty.
Lex had always said, “Greedy sods make the best marks. Make them think it’s their idea and nearly anybody will do what you want.”
I tossed Arlo’s wallet and the freezer key, grabbed a carton of salt, and headed for the door. At least the storm had blown through. I’d have to fishtail back, but it’d be worth the risk. The police would come soon. Cinda and Leann could help them with Arlo. Whether they confessed their own parts in the crime was up to them. As Arlo said, I had no room to throw stones.
Guess I had learned something useful from Lex. He knew me better than I thought. I wanted to right my wrongs. Maybe I could right Lex’s wrongs, too.
That could be interesting. If I could make the challenge of redemption a bigger thrill than a grift, I may have him suckered.
I’d start by giving him back the damn Camaro.
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