More than anything, I can tell when I get close to home because I start to regress. That, and the smell of Fresh Scent Clorox looms heavily over a
The old Victorian where I grew up was nestled on forty rolling acres of Hill Country. It had wide, shiny windows and lots of bushy green ferns. As long as I could remember the house had been polished and scrubbed within an inch of its life, as though at any moment our family would be ambushed by a pack of feral photographers from Southern Homes and Gardens.
I pulled past the wide, wraparound porch, turned the key and sat while the engine rattled to a halt. I should have stopped for gas, but there’s always a fifty-fifty chance I
can’t get the Jeep started again. So I dropped my head to the steering wheel and waited, calling up courage and resolve before walking into the high drama that is the MacKinnon household.
Home was always home, but it was different since Daddy died, and not even the Colonel’s steadfast presence could fill the void. Stephan Connor, who everybody called the Colonel, was family by proxy. He was also the best stepfather a girl could ever hope for. He made my mother happy, and while he didn’t pretend to have all the answers, he always had good advice, which was more than half the reason I’d made the trek over to my mom’s house in the middle of the week.
Between Scooter and Mark and life in general, I was feeling a little lost. And, truth be told, Mark had spooked me. I kept getting the creepy feeling that someone was watching me.
The hot Texas sun raged red on the horizon as it grudgingly yielded to twilight, and if Aunt Kat had seen it, she’d have breathed low, Celtic words about a bad storm rising.
I took a deep breath. Time to go in.
The screen door banged shut behind me and I went through the mud room into the kitchen, where the aroma of fried chicken conjured memories of Sunday dinners, cousins tumbling in the living room and the steady rumble of football on television.
Mama had just sliced a big tomato and was drying her hands on the dishtowel she’d tossed next to her martini.
“Is Clairee back from the Charity League?” I said. If there was fried chicken, it was a pretty good bet Clairee was nearby. Mama never made it past Canapés during her misspent youth at Miss Mona’s School for Fine Young Ladies, where all budding Austin debutantes are whipped into marriageable shape.
“Here somewhere,” Mama said, her voice soft as a southern breeze.
Lilianna Cauley MacKinnon Connor always reminded me of Barbara Eden from the I Dream of Jeannie reruns. She’d aged with grace, and I couldn’t remember ever seeing her without a full face of makeup and perfectly pouffed hair. When I was a little girl, I used to lay in bed and wish I had one of those warm, round Pepperidge Farm mothers. Mama had never been big, but she’d always been larger than life.
She turned from the counter and her hands flew to her perfectly rouged cheeks.
“Ah!” she said. She always did that, and it sounded like someone stepped on her foot. “Good Lord, Cauley! What have you done to your hair?”
Mama made a beeline toward me and pressed her flawlessly manicured fingertips to my forehead. “What’s wrong? You’ve got a fever. I knew it. You’ve come down with the West Nile virus.” She yelled over her shoulder, “Clairee! Get me the Vap-o-rub!”
My mother would put Vap-o-rub on a brain tumor. The truth is, out of sheer will and determination, she would probably get results.
“No, Mama, there’s no virus.” I snitched a slice of tomato. I hadn’t made it out of Canapés at Miss Mona’s either.
In the near distance, I could hear newspaper rattling and the Colonel swearing softly at CNN as it droned in the living room. Thank God for cable television.
They’d obviously been watching national news and hadn’t seen local coverage of my misadventures with Scooter. I knew this because if they had seen my altercation with SWAT on the local news, they’d have been combing my neighborhood and speed-dialing my cell phone.
Mama narrowed her eyes when she noticed the techni-color bump on my forehead. “Good Gawd, Cauley, what have you done?”
“Hunting accident,” I said, wincing as she brushed my hair back for a better look. “Does it hurt?” she said, and pressed on the bruise. “Ow!” I said. “It does now.” “Did I hear Cauley? It’s not Sunday.” Mama’s friend Clairee swept around the corner,
the sound of jangling bracelets and the scent of gardenias swirling around her. She lifted Mama’s martini. “Good Lord, Cauley, what’s happened to your hair? And you’re pale. Have you come down with The Fever?”
“I don’t have a fever,” I said, ducking out of Clairee’s red-tipped grasp. “Y’all watch too much CNN.”
They stood, staring at me like the Sisters Grimm.
I brushed past them and into the living room to kiss the Colonel on his silver-tinged temple. “Hey, Colonel.”
“It’s not Sunday.” The newspaper crinkled as he looked up from the obituary page in the Sentinel. The Colonel is not a hypochondriac or an octogenarian, but he is loyal to a fault. His sharp, blue eyes studied the bump on my head and he frowned. “You okay, Cauley Kat?”
“Jeez!” I said, but I smiled at the sound of my childhood name. I wanted to ask him what he knew about the FBI, to see if he had any speculations on why the Feds would be interested in a local suicide attempt, but that would have to wait until we were out of earshot of Thelma and Louise.
I wandered back to the kitchen where Mama and Clairee were leaning against the counter, arms crossed.
“What?” I said. “I’m fine. Can’t a girl come visit her own family in the middle of the week?”
They stared at me. “Okay,” I said. “It’s work.” “You’ve pissed somebody off,” Clairee announced as though she’d suspected it all
along. “I haven’t been at the Sentinel long enough to piss anybody off.” Mama rolled her eyes and handed me a stack of plates. “Make yourself useful,” she
said and sighed one of her trademark sighs. Great, I thought. Here it comes. “Writing those awful obituaries. Cauley, honey, it just seems so depressing.” “Well, Mama, I write about dead people. It is kind of depressing.” What I didn’t say was that the truly depressing part of my new-found career was that
because I’d screwed up at the Journal, I was stuck writing obituaries at the Sentinel and I would stay stuck until pigs sprouted wings and flew over Congress Avenue or I got the scoop on a real story.
“You know, your Aunt Shirley mentioned an opening down at Balcones Temps. It’s nice and safe and secretarial, and you don’t have to deal with any of that nasty death business. That’s how she met your Uncle Dave.”
“Mama,” I said, placing the plates on the cheery yellow tablecloth. “Uncle Dave is in prison.”
“Don’t say prison, Cauley, it’s not nice.” The woman swore like a sailor everywhere but church, and she was telling me not to
say prison. “Besides,” Mama went on, “Your Uncle Dave’s unfortunate incarceration was nothing
but a teeny little bookkeeping discrepancy. He misplaced a comma. People don’t get shot over commas.”
“No, they go to jail over embezzling,” I said, “and I hardly ever get shot at.”
“You know, if you think about it, that prison-thing isn’t so bad,” Clairee said around a sip of martini. “Now Shirley has a nice house and plenty of free time.”
Clairee had a point, but I could feel a headache coming on.
“Dinner,” Mama shouted, right in my ear. Like clockwork, the Colonel rounded the corner and we all sat.
The Colonel said Grace and passed me the plate of fried chicken. Because my sister wasn’t there to fight over it, I chose the wishbone.
“So what’s the trouble at work, honey?” Clairee said, handing me a bowl of fried okra. “Is it that man again? Mark is too old for you. Remember what happened with your husband.”
“Ex-husband,” I said.
The Colonel growled and I felt a stiff breeze blow past my shin as Mama kicked Clairee under the table. Dr. Dick was a sore subject in this household. He had hurt me. You hurt one MacKinnon, you hurt us all.
“What?” Clairee said, ignoring the fact that my mother had probably given her a hematoma just above her ankle. “I hear he’s selling body parts over the Internet.”
“He’s a broker for an organ donation center,” I said. “He makes sure people get the organs they need.”
“For a price.” Clairee forked a big chicken breast onto her plate.
I didn’t know what to say, so I busied myself by pouring gravy onto my potatoes, careful not to let it seep over onto the okra.
“You know who called me today at the Charity League?” Clairee went on. “Diego DeLeon. Turns out he just got a divorce.”
“Annulment,” my mother said, “Catholics don’t get divorced.”
I sucked in a breath, preparing for the worst. Diego’s several years older than me, and even in school he’d been a player. He was terminally hung up on the Godfather Trilogy and there were rumors his uncle was a money man with the Texas Syndicate.
“Anyway, do you know why he called the League?” Clairee said. I shrugged. “To donate a big briefcase full of unmarked tens and twenties?” “He wanted your number.” Clairee actually beamed. I dropped my fork. “My number’s unlisted.” “I know,” Clairee said. “That’s why he asked for it.” I felt like I’d swallowed the wishbone. “Clairee, my number’s unlisted for a reason.
Besides, I haven’t seen Diego DeLeon in years,” I said. “Why in the world would he just all of the sudden want my number?”
Clairee shrugged. “And I suppose he just volunteered information on his lack of marital status?” I said. “Of course not. I had to pry it out of him.” I rolled my eyes so hard I almost gave myself a concussion. “I don’t have time for a
man,” I said. “There is always time for a man, honey,” she said, waggling her gravy-coated fork at
me. Mama looked at me expectantly. I was already as uncomfortable as I could get, so I
took a deep breath and jumped right in. “I’ve already got man trouble,” I muttered, pushing the okra around my plate. They
were going to see the local news sooner or later. “Scooter Barnes.” “What the hell’s a scooterbarnes?” The Colonel said, and Clairee’s perfectly plucked
brow arched like a bat wing. “It’s not a what, it’s a who,” I said. “Remember him from school, Mama?” “Scooter Barnes who went off with the Cowboys?” Mama said. “Didn’t his wife just
leave him?” “The Dallas Cowboys?” Clairee said and clutched a hand to her heart like she was in
the middle of a fully involved triple coronary. “He married Miss Texas,” Mama said and cast me a rueful glance. “First runner up,” I said, like Mama didn’t know. Beauty pageants are blood sport in
Texas. “You know, if you’d kept up your piano lessons you could have placed . . .” Mama
said and I sighed. Genetics have been kind to me, but those cosmetically-enhanced, Amazon pageant pros would have eaten me alive.
“One pageant does not a beauty queen make,” I said, trying to sound wise.
“Well, you didn’t have to do that ridiculous Indian dance for the talent competition. Right out of the blue. You looked like you were having a convulsion.”
I thought about squinting my eyes and wheezing, “I coulda been a contendah,” but reason prevailed. In Texas, there’s a pageant for every imaginable event, and even as a little girl, I knew I’d never live down being crowned Miss Elgin Grain and Feed.
“Yes, well, I don’t think Selena should have gotten as far as she did, not being a real American and all,” Clairee said.
“She’s naturalized,” I said. “She was born in Argentina, but she’s lived here in Austin since she was a baby.”
“I’m just saying . . .” Clairee said.
Mama blew out an elegant snort and then sighed. “At least I never pushed you like Selena’s mother, that awful Obregon woman,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said, smiling to myself. “Good thing.”
Mama had always pushed, but not like Selena’s mother. I remembered Selena’s mom, standing off-stage, cool and beautiful but with a permanent frown. She reminded me of Grace Kelly’s evil clone, watching every move Selena made like an Iraqi Olympic coach. In retrospect, I wondered if Mama was envious of Selena’s mother, the way I was envious of Selena.
“Selena was such a sweet little thing,” Mama said, but I could practically see the gears churning inside her pretty, platinum head. “Are you going to call Scooter?”
“The man just tried to kill himself for the second time this month.”
“Does insurance pay on suicide?” Clairee said. The Colonel choked on a big bite of chicken.
“What?” Clairee said. “These things are important when you’re starting a new relationship.”
“I’m not starting a new relationship, unless you call stopping Scooter from a date with a Derringer a relationship,” I said. “But,” I shook my head and put my fork down.
“There’s something weird going on.” “I understand his business has picked up after he started importing all those bizarre
little animals from South Africa,” Mama said. “South America,” I corrected. “Whatever,” Mama said. “You know, last time I saw him at the Chamber of
Commerce luncheon he was wearing Armani.” Mama and Clairee cast me identical stares. “You should call him,” my mother said. “And shave everything that needs shaving,” Clairee said. “Because you just never
know.” “What kind of weird thing is going on?” the Colonel said, stoically blowing right by
the shaving comment like he always did. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I said, thinking of Captain America roaming the fence
line. I’d wanted to run the whole thing by the Colonel the over-enthusiastic SWAT team and the FBI involvement which, aside from dinner, was the main reason I’d come over. But I didn’t want a bunch of meddling from the Sisters Grimm. I shrugged. “Just a feeling.”
“What you need is a gun,” Clairee announced. “Come back to the condo with me and you can pick out one of mine.”
“I have a gun,” I said. Everyone stopped eating and stared at me. The Colonel dropped his fork. “What?” “Do you have bullets?” Clairee said, dabbing her perfectly lined lips with her napkin.
“Let me get my purse . . .”
I walked out of my mom’s with a raging headache, a Tupperware full of fried chicken and a big box of bullets. And to my utter horror, I’d agreed to accept a phone call from Diego DeLeon. I wasn’t sure why he was sniffing around after nearly ten years, but it might be interesting to find out.
The Colonel walked me to the Jeep and stood, rubbing the back of his neck. “Ya know,” he said. “I saw a nice big Impala at the police auction last week. Still has the spotlight on the driver’s side door.”
“I like my Jeep.” I smiled and rose to my tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “The Impala has a top and doors,” he said, kicking a tire on my topless, doorless CJ-7. I could tell he was trying to work his way around to a difficult subject, and it was
never easy for him to talk without doing something constructive like mowing the lawn or fixing the toilet or gutting catfish in the kitchen sink.
The warm, wet air was heavy with the scent of fresh-cut grass and the chirring of night insects. In the gentle din, I tried to think of a way to ask him what he thought of an FBI agent skulking around a local suicide attempt that didn’t make me sound like I was either paranoid or in trouble.
“You know anybody in the FBI?” I finally said.
The Colonel’s sharp blue eyes narrowed. “Used to. But FBI mandatory retires at fifty- seven. Guys I know’ve been out for awhile.”
“Do you know anything about them you know, the FBI?” I said. “I mean, do you know anything about their jurisdiction?”
The Colonel gazed down at me intently. “Well, for the Feds to get involved there’d have to be some kind of federal offense. Something like interstate crime or terrorism. Or when a kid’s disappeared, or if local law invited them in. Or organized crime.”
A shiver of unease skittered up my spine. What in the world had Scooter gotten himself into?
The Colonel probably sensed I wanted to ask him something but wasn’t sure what to say, because he leaned in to kiss one of those smacking little kisses on the top of my head. “You need any money?”
I always need money, but I shook my head.
“About that gun,” he finally said. “Be careful, hon. Don’t let anybody take it and use it on you.”