Authors: Jerusha Jones
A Mayfield Mystery — book #3
Text copyright © 2015 by Jerusha Jones
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner.
For more information about Jerusha Jones’s other novels, please visit www.jerushajones.com
Cover design by Elizabeth Berry MacKenney. www.berrygraphics.com
He swiped a trickle of sweat from his eyebrow just before the droplet had a chance to break free and splat on his pudgy cheek. I’d been querying him about the attributes of the pickup trucks in his lot for the past half hour, and he had yet to make full eye contact with me. Either I am grotesque or he was not blessed with the personality necessary to be a successful salesman.
He wasn’t sweating because of the weather. We were hunched on the leeward side of the cinderblock office, shouting snatches of sentences at each other. A bitter wind swirled and howled, whipping through the evergreen branches of the trees that marked the property line and tearing at the edges of our clothing.
I had a problem. Clarice and Emmie had dropped me off at G & M Auto Sales on the edge of Woodland city limits before they continued on to purchase a new arsenal of prepaid cell phones. The concept of divide and conquer had made sense when we divvied up the tasks earlier, but I had no way to contact Clarice at the moment. So my only option for getting home to Mayfield before dark was to convince this reticent young man to sell me a pickup, preferably a reliable one.
Not being a mechanic myself, reliability was a matter of conjecture on my part or dependence upon his opinion, which I was beginning to doubt. As far as I could tell, the young man was neither G nor M, but he was the only other ambulatory human being on the premises.
“Let’s go inside,” I shouted in his ear.
He nodded and sidled along the wall until he reached the door. A portable kerosene heater was going full blast in the tiny, cluttered office, and I immediately thawed into sniffy drippiness. I pulled off my mittens and wiped the corners of my eyes. “What’s the newest truck you have out there?”
The young man flipped up the brim of his orange hunting cap and riffled through dog-eared manila folders. “1987 Chevy Silverado.”
“Is that the red one?” I’d noticed it right off, and that was a drawback. Far too flashy. Chrome everywhere and a roll bar with KC lights.
“Yep. Sweet, huh?” He hitched his thick lips to the side and shot a stream of dark juice into a jumbo-sized McDonald’s cup on the corner of the desk.
I involuntarily flinched backward a step. “How about the brown pickup next to it?”
He shrugged, shuffled a couple more files. “1982 Dodge Ram, 203,000 miles, two owners, runs okay.”
“Do you know who the two owners were?” I asked.
He grunted softly, but pawed through the pages in the file. “Yeah.” His voice cracked, and he flushed beneath his hat. He cleared his throat and continued, “Phil Riggs. It was his old man’s truck, and he must’ve inherited it. I dated his daughter once.” Another shrug. “She was picky, that one.”
I didn’t dare ask which man she was the daughter of. Nonetheless, I instinctively trusted her judgment if she’d sent this young salesman packing. “How much?”
“Uh, $3500.” His voice had turned cagey.
I scowled at the grease smudges on the top of his hat. “With that mileage? Try again.”
His big feet scraped on the floor under the desk, but he still wouldn’t look at me. “Oh, uh, handwriting’s a little messy here. I think it’s — yeah — must be $2500.”
“I’ll give you $1800 — cash — if it starts on the first attempt.”
“Oh yeah, it’ll do that.” He jumped up and snagged a key ring off a hook on the pegboard behind him.
I pinned the paperwork to the truck’s hood with my forearms and signed on the dotted lines as the engine idled roughly underneath. Then I counted out eighteen crisp Franklins and slapped them into the young man’s outstretched palm. He was sweating again.
“I’m going to call tomorrow and talk with your boss,” I shouted cheerily over the wind. “And tell him what a help you’ve been.”
He swallowed, and for a fleeting second I got a glimpse of his skittery baby blue eyes — wide, but not so innocent.
I chuckled to myself as I pulled out of the lot. Nothing like a good threat. Those nice bills would be tucked into the office safe tonight, where they belonged.
I barely had time to get to the bank. The rest of the wad in my pocket needed to be deposited in the account I’d set up last week. Just maintaining the impression of being an upstanding citizen who uses the usual government-regulated financial channels. Never mind that the cash had actually crossed the Canadian border hidden in bags of wood pellet fuel. Undeclared, of course, but I have good reasons for that.
The wind blew me through the front doors of the bank, and I quickly filled out a deposit slip. The only teller still on duty waved me over. Her sleek silver and black hair was trimmed in a neat bob, and she had just a touch of burgundy lipstick left after a long day of smiling at customers.
“You’re Nora Ingram-Sheldon?” Big brown eyes blinked at me while her fingers clicked on the keyboard. She was one of those old-school types who could fly over a 10-key without looking.
“You must be new in town,” she murmured.
“Down the road a way,” I replied, “at Mayfield.”
“If you’ll excuse me just a moment?” She disappeared into a backroom before I had a chance to form words.
My stomach shot straight into somersaults. Something had sent her scurrying. Was my account flagged? Had the FBI issued wanted posters or do-not-serve notices to all the local banks?
I glanced around quickly for video cameras — there were several suspended below the acoustic ceiling tiles. The closest camera steadily blinked red in a most unnerving fashion.
“Here you are, sweetie.” The teller was back. She ripped my deposit receipt off the printer, stuffed it in an envelope and slid it across the counter to me. “Better hurry.” She tipped her head toward the door where an elderly man in a blue security guard uniform waited, a clutch of keys in his hand.
He wished me a good evening in a gravely voice and held the door for me. I managed a wobbly smile of thanks and ran for my truck. Was I seconds away from being identified? Halted? Sirens blaring? They already knew my name.
For what crime? I wasn’t sure, but it could be any number of things.
I slouched in the seat, panting, and watched through the bank’s large plate glass windows as lights inside the building were flicked off one by one until only the dim after-hours fixtures glowed directly over the teller counter.
I’d crumpled the envelope in my fist. It was an odd extra touch, considering the nature of the transaction. I smoothed it flat and extracted the receipt — and something else. A note.
Nora, I have your pouch — from your husband, Skip. He said you’d come. I’ll leave in about 15 minutes, in a green Buick. Please follow to my house. Selma.
One small consolation as my mind raced through the bewilderment of meeting a woman here — in the backwoods boonies of Washington State — who knew my husband and seemed to be expecting me, was that I was driving a brand-new-to-me vehicle. No time for my FBI handler, Special Agent Matt Jarvis, to slap one of his signature tracking devices on it yet. Which meant the eyes in the sky didn’t know where I was going.
I didn’t know what I’d be stepping off into either, but I’d come to trust spontaneity as safer and often more productive than careful plotting. As much as it went against my very nature, winging it had been working pretty well for me. I was still alive. Besides, given an opportunity like this, I had to take it.
Selma’s green Buick, with a watermelon-sized dent in the driver’s door, nosed out into the sparse traffic and headed south. My trusty new pickup started with a roar, lurched forward and stalled. The gear shift slid around in the gear box like it was coated with Vaseline.
I ground my teeth and jammed it more firmly into first. She started right up again, and I performed a delicate dance with the gas and clutch pedals, stuttering her through a less-than-graceful U-turn. My new set of wheels was going to get stuck with a clunker of a moniker if she wasn’t careful.
Selma was riding her brakes, waiting for me to catch up. We formed a completely obvious caravan heading slowly out of town, but there was no way for me to hang back and dodge behind intervening cars for a more subtle approach. Apart from a minivan and a farm feed delivery truck, we were the only vehicles on the road. Everyone else was either already at home sitting down to family dinner or parked on a barstool in one of the many taverns. Once the streetlights come on, there’s not much to do in Woodland.
Selma wound her way into an old residential area — tiny box houses clad in asbestos shingle siding with cracked concrete steps. Each identical house front looked like a sad face with twin windows like eyes flanking centered weather-beaten doors. In an attempt at personalization, some of the owners had installed short awnings over the windows, making their homes look sleepy as well as sad. The development had obviously been at the bottom end of working class accommodations from its beginning, hastily built for paper mill, lumber mill and port employees. The kind of neighborhood that would never have a shot at gentrification.
Selma pulled onto the concrete pad in front of a blue house — probably slate blue, but in the heavy dusk it was hard to tell how much was grimy dinginess and how much was just a poor choice in paint. My new rattletrap transportation looked right at home as I angled the two right wheels up onto the weedy patch of lawn in order to leave enough room for other cars to pass on the narrow, potholed road.
Selma cast a glance over her shoulder as she climbed out of the Buick and gave me a faint, apologetic smile. We eased past the rusty swing set that crowded the front steps. A plastic toddler bucket swing hung skewed, one of the chains broken and creaking in the shivery wind.
“My daughter and granddaughter are here,” Selma whispered. “I don’t want to speak in front of them. If you’ll just give me a minute?” She jabbed her key in the lock and bumped the front door open with her hip.
“Of course.” I stuffed my hands in my pockets and balanced on the edge of the step.
“Inside.” Selma beckoned. “Please. I didn’t mean for you to stand out in the cold.”
She was interrupted by the enthusiastic screech of a bouncy-haired little girl who launched herself off the back of a couch and into Selma’s arms. Selma rubbed noses with the child in a giggling, ritualistic greeting, then turned to me. “Mindy, say hello to Miss Nora.”
I caught a glimpse of bright brown eyes just like her grandmother’s and a shadow of red ink around Mindy’s mouth as though she’d been practicing her lipstick technique with a permanent marker before the little girl tucked her face into Selma’s neck and squirmed further into her grasp.
“I’ll be right back.” Selma carried Mindy into the next room.
I closed the door on the fog creeping down the depressing little street and winding around the legs of the swing set with the last breezy gusts of nightfall. I was pretty sure I’d just witnessed the highlight of Selma’s daily routine.
There was a marked discrepancy between Selma and her living conditions. No doubt professional clothing and a sophisticated hair style and makeup were required for her job at the bank. And she carried herself in a way that matched — with dignity and poise. But to call the house shabby would be generous.
Mindy had made a nest of blankets on the couch, but there was no hiding the multiple rips in the upholstery and wood legs that appeared to have been chewed by rodents. The newest thing in the room was a flat screen television on which the big, gaudy puppets of children’s programming flashed with rapidity. The jumble of primary-colored scenes and repetitive ditties was making me nauseous. No wonder the current batch of kids had the shortest attention spans in human history. Where’s a good book when you need one?
There were no pictures on the walls, no useless tchotchkes displayed on the nearly empty shelves of the particle board entertainment center, no magazines, and no toys for Mindy. The room reminded me of the impersonal hospitality of a low-end motel next to an interstate freeway exit ramp.
A pan clanged, and then several clicks and a whoosh indicated a gas stove had been ignited in the next room. Tense voices murmured in fits and starts between the opening and closing of cupboard doors and the shuffling of packages. Apparently dinner preparations were underway.
A house this small, with such flimsy walls, offered no privacy. I leaned against the front door and tried to pretend I couldn’t hear Selma’s daughter’s resentment. Not all the words were clear, but the tone was unmistakable. Selma pleaded in soothing tones until the other woman huffed and stomped deeper into the house and closed a door with a forceful thud that reverberated between my shoulder blades.
“Sorry about that.” Selma breezed into the living room carrying a tray loaded with china teacups, a small plate of Ritz crackers and a jar of strawberry jam. “Water’ll be ready in a minute.” She balanced the tray against her hip and tried to open a folded TV tray table with her free hand.
I stretched forward to help her. “I really don’t need to be fed.”
“I don’t have friends over very often.” Selma sighed, and those big brown eyes studied my face. “Do you mind?”
“No,” I backtracked quickly. “Of course not. This looks lovely.”
“I just knew that when you came — because your husband was so kind — that I’d like you too. He helped me at a difficult time, and I’m immensely grateful.” A piercing whistle sounded from the kitchen, and Selma darted around the corner.
I sank onto the couch with my knees bumping against the wobbly makeshift tea service and took a deep breath. I was balanced on the edge of something enormously precarious, and I was going to have to make polite small talk in order to gain entrance.
Selma bustled in with a steaming kettle. Once we had our tea bags soaking and I’d perched a couple crackers on the rim of my saucer, Selma settled at the other end of the couch, her body angled to face me.
“So you’re here now,” she ventured.
I nodded, assuming she meant my residence in May County, Washington. “Just over a month.”
“You came sooner than I thought.”
I couldn’t hold back an exasperated laugh. “I hardly know what I’m doing. Can I ask what you were expecting and why? I haven’t heard from my husband since our honeymoon. I’ve been wandering around in the dark since then.”
“You poor thing,” Selma murmured. “He hinted that you might arrive under duress.”
“And when did he say that?” My tone was sharp, even bitter, and I cringed at the sound.
“Let’s see—” Selma made the motions of counting backwards on her fingers. “Five or six months ago. Yes, June. It was about a week after Laney, my daughter, moved in because she’d lost her job.” Selma’s brows drew together, and she clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “For drug use. She tested positive. The union got her a re-test, and that one came back positive too.”
Not small talk. I realized we were going to have to hash through Selma’s personal problems before we could move on to mine. I returned my tea cup to the tray and kicked my shoes off. Pulling my legs up underneath me, I got comfortable for the long haul. I certainly didn’t have an exclusive on pain or disillusionment with those I loved.
“Laney’s been using drugs off and on since she was a sophomore in high school, and I was past the point of trying to rescue her against her will. But Mindy—”
“Shouldn’t have to bear the consequences of her mother’s actions,” I finished when the pause became awkward.
Selma plucked at the crease in her slacks. “Maybe I can do it right this time around — maybe. ”
“We are but dust,” I murmured. “And I can only hope we are judged more for our hearts’ intentions than for the results we achieve.”
Selma’s head popped up, her eyes round in their largeness. “Yes. Exactly.” A warm smile spread across her face. “I knew you’d understand. You’re involved with the boys’ camp at Mayfield, aren’t you?”
“They seem to have adopted me.”
“Maybe Mindy and I will run away from home and join you.” Selma laughed lightly, but I got the impression she had actually considered the possibility, and more than once.
“I first met Skip when he purchased the Mayfield property,” she continued. “The sale was handled through First Pacific Bank, where I worked at the time. I had a couple chances to talk with him and admired what he was doing — providing a permanent home for the boys’ camp. Then last June, he came and found me at Columbia Trust Bank, asked me to do a favor for him.”
Selma poked stuffing back inside a tear in the couch’s arm while she chewed her lip. “You should know that he paid me for the favor. I don’t think it was technically illegal, but the concept certainly would raise red flags with my employer.” She steadied her gaze on me, probably expecting a horrified response. “I needed the money,” she said simply, “to support Laney and Mindy. His timing — well, I couldn’t say no.”
I just nodded. I already knew Skip routinely operated on the other side of the law. I also expected that, for all the help he gave to others, he also knew how to exploit them for his purposes. I was experiencing his dichotomy firsthand and dabbling on the shady side of the law myself.
Who was I kidding? More than dabbling. And, like Selma, I knew plenty about needing money. “So Skip knew I would come to you?” I asked, just to make sure I’d heard correctly.
Selma nodded. “He didn’t tell me your name, but he said his wife might come eventually, if there was any difficulty.”
“Difficulty?” I snorted softly. That was a very mild term to describe my ordeal for the past month.
Selma scooted off the couch and jammed her hands underneath it, her cheek pressed against the cushion. Her words came out muffled. “And he gave me this to keep for you.” She kept working, pulling at something that seemed to be wedged up among the springs and stuffing.
Unfortunately, I know quite a bit about the interior of upholstered furniture from personal experience. I knelt beside her, prepared to lend assistance in the form of brute force.
But Selma shook her head with a slight grunt. “Got it.” And she dropped a padded vinyl bag in my hands.
I turned it over and traced a finger along the First Pacific Bank logo printed on the side. “What is it?”
“Bank pouch. All the banks have them. They give them out to local businesses, especially the ones that take in a lot of cash. They’re used to make after-hours deposits.”
“So it’s money?” I asked dumbly.
“I don’t know.” Selma shrugged. “I didn’t look. It’s kind of lumpy,” she pointed out.
It must have been torture for her, given custody of a secret and yet not sneaking a peek. I was pretty sure the package itself had been thoroughly examined, the way any curious kid would investigate a stumbled-upon stash of Christmas gifts — poked, prodded, shaken, sniffed. One simple zipper pull would reveal the contents.
My stomach fought against that elevator-drop feeling. I took a deep breath and glanced at Selma. Her eyes mirrored back both excited tentativeness and eagerness. And then she giggled girlishly — the same way she had when greeting Mindy — and I knew I could trust her, that I had to trust her.