READ A SAMPLE


Chasing Charlie

by

John Chabot


MONDAY

Sara knew, even before she saw him, that something wasn’t right. A red pickup truck? Hardly. Ruth, her real estate agent friend, said the guy moving in was a financial advisor from Raleigh. But this couldn’t be him—not driving a pickup truck. He should be driving something more grand, say a late model Cadillac, or a Lincoln Town Car. Maybe a Mercedes. Her image of a financial advisor was one of conservative wealth, of substance, of tasteful consumption—a stuffy little money-grubber. There was certainly no place in that picture for red pickup trucks. Granted, it looked to be in pretty good shape and the tires seemed to have a good tread. Her late husband, God rest him, had said you could tell a lot about a man from things like that.

She leaned closer to the window as she saw the truck door open. The man who got out wore blue jeans, faded at the knees, and a dark blue sweatshirt. As he came up to the sidewalk, he stopped to search through a bunch of keys. As he did, she saw the white block letters on the front of his shirt. DUKE. Well, that was something, anyway.

He was also younger than she had pictured, mid to late thirties. Medium height, but he stood straight, moved easily—had probably been an athlete. He still looked hard. Not much extra around the middle. Only a touch of gray at the temples.

He found the key he wanted and started up the steps. Just before he reached the top, he glanced her way and their eyes met. She smiled and raised her hand. Without changing expression, he turned and went on into the house, pretending not to see her.

Sara sat for a moment, considering. Ruth must have screwed up. Even if he did act like a snot, he wasn’t a financial advisor. Not really. She wondered what he was? Really.

***

The bank teller said, “Next”, and the old man approached the counter. He wore a clean shirt and slacks, but gray stubble was beginning to show on his creased cheeks, and he carried a faint aura of bourbon. He slid a slip of paper across to the young woman, and stood patiently while she keyed in the account number. After a moment she frowned, looked down at the slip of paper, then back to the computer screen. He couldn’t see the screen, but didn’t like the frown.

“I’m sorry, Sir. Are you sure this is the correct account?”

What the hell was she talking about? A tiny thrill of alarm began to tighten his shoulders.

“Of course. It’s a joint account. Wilson Mather and Charles Banner.”

The woman looked back at the screen, still frowning. “Yes, that’s right.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“Well, the withdrawal is for 200 dollars.”

“And?”

She looked around as if trying to locate her supervisor. “Sir, I’m afraid there’s not that much in the account.”

“What? There has to be. There’s a whole lot more than that.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Trying to be helpful, she said, “Maybe there was a deposit that hasn’t cleared yet.”

His eyes closed, his fingers gripping the edge of the counter. “No deposit,” he said softly. “Was there a recent withdrawal?”

She looked back to the screen and said, “Yes, Sir, a rather large one. Yesterday.”

His eyes opened, but weren’t focused on her or on anything else in the bank. His voice was very low as he asked, “How much is left?”

Almost as if it were her fault, she answered, “Ten dollars, Sir.”

He said nothing for a couple of deep breaths, then whispered, “You bastard. You lousy bastard.”

The teller looked at him sharply, but relaxed a bit as she realized he wasn’t speaking to her.

He left, muttering to himself, regretting for once his atheism. Not having a god, he couldn’t believe in hell, couldn’t believe in Charlie Banner, that sly sonofabitch, screaming in everlasting fiery torment, or in himself sitting with a glass of ice water, just out of reach, watching. He couldn’t believe in it, but he could sure as hell imagine it.

Vividly.

***

Dylan unlocked the front door and stepped into the house. He could hear each step on the bare wooden floor echoing through the empty rooms. It was somehow intimidating. He found himself walking more softly, as if he had wandered into someone else’s house, somewhere he didn’t belong. He stopped, looking around at the bare walls and curtainless windows, wondering again if this hadn’t been a mistake. Was he doing the right thing? Hell, was there a right thing?

He went out again, propping the screen door open with an old wooden chair that squatted in a corner of the porch, probably too beat-up looking for anyone to steal. The back of the pickup was full of cardboard boxes of assorted sizes, things he didn’t trust the movers to handle. He dropped the tailgate and got to work.

As he was coming down for the third load, he saw the old lady waiting for him, the one who had been watching from next door. She had short, curly gray hair and wore one of those satiny running outfits, purple, and white sneaks. Dark eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses contrasted with the silvery hair. The eyes said she was young, but they lied. Everything else—the lines in her face and neck, her seeming frailty—put her somewhere in the upper sixties, maybe even past them. She had small, delicate hands, and there didn’t seem to be much to her—which was also a lie.

  “Hi,” she said, “I’m Sara. Sara French, if you’re into last names. I live next door, but you know that, don’t you? Are you the one moving in, or just a friend helping?”

He had come down here to get away, not to get involved with neighbors. “No, it’s just me.”

“For the summer, or year-round?”

“I’m not sure. It depends on… I’m not sure.”

He saw her eyeing him expectantly, and it finally dawned what she was waiting for.

“Sorry. I’m Dylan Crooke.”

Her brown eyes lit up. “Are you one?”

“One what?”

“A crook. You could be.”

What kind of batty old broad was this? “No, nothing so colorful. I worked for a financial firm in Raleigh. Now I don’t.”

“Well, welcome to Connor Beach.” She still had that look as if she were trying to get him sorted out and classified. “Listen, we’re having a party at my place tonight. Nothing grand, just some friends. Drop by. It’ll give you a chance to meet your neighbors.”

Which was the last thing he wanted. He stammered something, but she paid no attention. She went on with, “There aren’t many people who live here year-round, not at this end of the island. Another month and you won’t be able to park on the street, what with all the surfers and sunburned office workers. Now there’s mostly just me and the young couple over there.” She nodded vaguely to somewhere across the street. “She’s an actress and he’s a novelist. And of course the Morgans, the old dears at the end of the street. We all sort of keep an eye on them. No one knows how old they are, and they’re smart enough not to tell.”

She seemed to have finally run down, so he said, “I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“I mean I’m going to be too busy. There’s a van coming with a lot of stuff. You know how it is, with the unpacking and all.” Her look said she didn’t know any such thing. He picked up another box from the truck bed, and couldn’t help meeting her dark eyes as he turned toward the stairs. “Sorry.”

He could feel her watching him as he walked away, heard her mutter, “Yes, you certainly are.”

Back in the house, he started opening boxes, looking for the coffee maker. He found it, along with a can of coffee, and carried them into the empty kitchen. Starting the brew, he told myself he had his own problems. He was busy. He was moving, for God’s sake. He had boxes to unpack, things to put away. Lots of things. He didn’t have to explain that to nosy old ladies. Or to himself, for that matter.

Dylan had sometimes noticed that there was more than one person living up there between his ears. Sometimes it seemed to get downright crowded. While he was listening to the Whiner absolve him of his social sins, the Critic chimed in, asking why he had to take it out on others. That just made him feel lousy. Of course, he’d been feeling a lot of that lately, but this time it was different. More…churlish. It was a word he hadn’t heard in years, but it fit.

When the coffee was ready, he realized he had nothing to pour it into. Back in the living room, he rifled through more boxes until he found the one with the mugs. The first one he pulled out was Tara’s—light blue with white flowers on it. It was like grabbing something hot and he almost dropped it. Damn! He hadn’t meant to bring that one. He put it back, pulled out another, poured the coffee, and realized there was no milk. He’d just have to drink it black, make a grocery run later. That is, after the refrigerator and other things got there. There were a lot of things he had to do. A long list of things. Important things. He’d be busy. There was damn sure no time for parties.

He got out to the porch just as the moving van was pulling up and spent the next few hours getting things put where he thought they should go. As he did, thoughts kept intruding. He tried to push them out, but they wouldn’t go. He kept wondering where Tara would want the sofa, where she would have put the desk.

He reminded himself that it made no difference now. Put them anywhere.

When the movers had finally gone, he went into the bedroom to assemble the bed. He ripped open cardboard containers and took out the new headboard and frame, box springs and mattress. The old bed, the water bed, he had left in Raleigh to be sold with the house. A friend had offered to help him take it apart for the move, but he couldn’t do that. The bed had to stay. Why couldn’t he understand that? This bed was different. It was smaller, for one thing. Why would he need a king size? And who needs a waterbed?

As he assembled the frame, he began to feel that tense impatience that had been with him so much lately. He had come to the coast to get away from all that, to get away from—everything. Now it seemed that running away only reminded him of what he was trying to escape. He couldn’t win, but since when had that surprised him? What was the matter with him?

Stupid question. Just get the damned thing put together.

Attaching the headboard, one of the nuts was balky about threading onto the bolt. He swore, tried to force it, swore again and finally got it started. Tightening the last nut, the wrench slipped. His hand scraped the frame, drawing blood.

“God dammit!”

He hurled the wrench across the room, heard it hit the wall and clatter to the floor, sat back sucking at the wound, shaking in anger. What was it all for? That’s what really bothered him. What the hell was it all for? By the time he was finished, he was wading through a thick, black mood and feeling thoroughly sorry for himself. He went out onto the porch, sat on the top step and wallowed in it, enjoying its blackness. The gray sky and chilly air were perfect.

Across the street was a row of houses, beach cottages mostly, of various shapes and sizes. Most were still closed for the winter. Some, like his home, were set above the sand on pilings, the bottoms serving as carports, the sides enclosed in latticework.

One of them, several houses down, had a car pulled in below. Probably the young couple Sara had mentioned. As he sat there, another car, a blue Miata, came up the street past him and pulled in behind the other car. A woman got out. Small, reddish hair, good figure in a formfitting skirt. What had Sara said about her? An actress? He could believe it. As he watched, she pulled two grocery bags from the passenger seat and went up the steps.

Beyond the houses he could see an area of small dunes covered with wild grasses and sea oats bending in the ocean breeze. Here and there, narrow, winding paths led through the dunes to the beach beyond. From where he sat, he could just make out the gray-green of the ocean farther out, hear the distant break of its surf. He sat there for what seemed a long time, listening to the low, primitive rhythms, smelling the tang of salt air. Down by the beach, a V of pelicans, their wings barely moving, sailed along the water’s edge.

The blackness of his mood eased to a slate gray, but that just left more room for the churlish feeling.

***

Sara didn’t smile when she saw who had knocked at her door. He didn’t blame her. Who wants a churl for a neighbor?

“Sorry, “ he said.

“Again?”

“Is the invitation still open?”

“Of course. If you have time.”

“Yeah, well it’s been kind of a bad few weeks.”

She didn’t say anything to that. He had the feeling he was still being analyzed, and found himself shifting like a six-year-old caught in a lie. He asked, “What time?”

“Oh, whenever people start showing up, I guess.”

“What can I bring?”

“A bottle of wine would be nice.” She pushed the screen door open and asked, “Would you like to come in?”

He didn’t really. “Uh, no. I’ve got a mountain of boxes to unpack. You know how it is moving in. I really have to get to it.” Feeling stupid. He almost tripped backing away. 

Sara closed the screen, shaking her head. “Uh-huh. Well, we can’t expect too much too soon, can we?”

***

Leaving her room, Beth came down the wide, dark, curving stairway, along the quiet hallway, and into the sunroom. It was a large, open room, one that had been added long after the original house had been built. It made the rest of the house seem like a setting for the Addams Family. She was looking for a magazine she had been reading earlier. She was sure she’d left it in the sunroom. One of the articles had been full of beauty hints for the less well-endowed.

Her eyes swept the room, moving over the coffee table, the rattan sofa, the three paintings strung along one wall, the flower table in the corner, the…

She stopped, frowning, and turned back to face the paintings.

No, no, no. Oh, God no!

She stepped closer to examine them, to be sure, but it wasn’t necessary. She could feel the knot of awful certainty tighten her stomach. She knew.

She heard the kitchen door open and close. She left the sunroom, hurried down the dim, mahogany-paneled hall, and into the spacious kitchen. Don, her brother, had the fridge open and was staring into it, as if he was thinking about climbing in.

Don was her little brother, but only in age. He was no more than six feet, but was obviously into serious bodybuilding. Beth was nearly as tall, big and angular.

She said, “Where the hell have you been?”

Without looking up, he asked, “What do you care?”

“How about Milford? Is that where you’ve been?”

This time he straightened to look at her. “Milford? Why the hell would I go down there?”

Her eyes squinted, showing doubt. “So where have you been?”

He stood a little taller and said, “If it’s any of your business, I’ve been interviewing for a job.”

“You what?” She almost laughed. “You? Where?”

“At a bar. They need security. What’s your problem?”

“Follow me. I’ll show you.”

“Wait’ll I make a sandwich or something. I’m hungry.”

“That can wait. This is important.”

“So is making a sandwich.”

“Don, I mean important. Really, really important. Important like money or no money.”

He gave her a funny look, but reluctantly closed the fridge door and followed her, out the door, down the hall, and into the sunroom. She stopped, looked around and said, “Notice anything?”

He looked around, but couldn’t see anything different. Then he remembered, and looked quickly at three small paintings that hung in the one shaded section of the room. Yes, they were still there, thank God. He thought she had meant…. “So?”

“You don’t see?”

“Yeah, I see. They’re right there. Don’t you see?”

She gave him a disgusted look and said, “Don, those are the copies—the ones I painted.”

He stepped closer, peering intently. “You sure?”

She didn’t bother answering that. “The question is, who knew about it?”

“How should I know?” Then it dawned on him. “Hey, you think I took ’em? No way. Maybe Mama did it. Where is the old bat, anyway?”

“At her bridge club, like every Monday.”

“Where they never play bridge.”

“It’s a social. You think Mama did it?”

“Maybe she wanted to see yours instead of the others.”

“Oh, don’t be dumb. She wouldn’t—” Her face suddenly froze, her eyes closed and her mouth tightened.

Don said, “What?”

Her expression kept moving back and forth between anger and guilt, with maybe a bit of evasiveness thrown in.

“What, Beth, what?”

She wouldn’t look at him, but said, almost whispering, “I’m not sure. Maybe, I might have…”

Don’s face was getting redder and his overdeveloped muscles were beginning to bunch. “What?”

She took a deep breath and said, very quickly, “I might have mentioned them to Charlie.”

“You what?”

“Will you please stop saying that?”

“Oh sure, now it’s all my fault.” He held his arms wide and raised his face to the heavens, as if he were being crucified. “Why? How could you do that? We finally get something going for us, finally get a way out, and you—you tell Charlie? I don’t believe it.”

“We don’t know it’s him. Not for sure.”

He took a step toward her, his eyes holding her. “Yeah, right. Like you said, who knew about it? You, me, and Charlie, that’s who.”

“Okay, you made your point. Now the question is, where did he go?”

“That’s easy—Milford. Just like you thought I did.”

“Probably, but the buyer won’t be there for a few more days, anyway. He’d need some place to stay.”

“Holed up in a motel.”

“Maybe. But Charlie is, well, thrifty.”

“You mean he’s tight.”

“He’s had some hard times.”

“So?”

She looked thoughtful, remembering. “He used to have a place in Connor Beach, just over the bridge from Milford. He said his ex lives there now.”

“Okay, that sounds good. You know where it is?”

“Not exactly, but he used to talk about it. I think I could find it.”

“Good. Let’s go.”

“We can’t. Not yet. Mama’s having the minister and his wife to dinner. She wants us to be here.”

Don looked puzzled. “I can’t think of a better reason not to be here.”

“Don, Mama would be so pissed.”

“So? Like you said, this is important. It’s about the money. A lot of money. We gotta find Charlie.”

“And if we don’t?”

“Well then, we’ll… I don’t know.”

In a softer tone, she asked, “Don, where do you live?”

He didn’t answer, but his eyes flicked upward.

“Right. In your own little room at the top of the stairs, the room you grew up in. And where do I live? Right across the hall from you. Just me and Barbie and Ken. And once every week, Mama takes out her checkbook and gives us our allowance. If we need something special, we have to go to Mama and say, ‘Please,’ like good little kids.”

Don’s shoulder muscles were doing their bunching thing again, his eyes narrowing. He said, “You had that job in Milford. That was good.”

“Thank God I did. Otherwise…”

“And I had a good thing going once.”

“Don, you went to jail for that.”

“Well, yeah.”

“It’s why we’re doing this, Don. To get away from here. To make a fresh start.”

“To get the money.”

“Yes, but let’s be smart about it. Don’t let Mama know anything’s going on.”

“But we gotta go get him.”

“Yes, but tomorrow. Before she left, Mama said she’d be going up to see Edna tomorrow. She’ll be gone for several days.”

“Edna? Why? She doesn’t even like Edna.”

“Edna and Jim are getting a divorce. Mama said she wants to be there for her.”

“Yeah, right. She wants to gloat.”

“Of course.”

 “So tomorrow, as soon as she’s out of here—“

“We head south to find Charlie and—“

“Twist his head off his scrawny little shoulders.”

“But not before we get the paintings.”

“Yeah, whatever.”

***

The music ranged from as far back as the classics of Benny Goodman, up through the soft, cool sounds of Brubeck, to some stuff Dylan remembered hearing recently, but couldn’t begin to say who the musicians were. The new groups had begun passing him by. The volume was set to provide a good upbeat mood and still allow the usual forgettable party chatter.

The best thing about the party was that nobody was trying too hard. There was none of that desperate determination to have fun. There weren’t more than a dozen people and, except for him, everyone knew everyone else. They were people who had long ago learned to relax with one another. That was helped along by Sara, who worked the room like a pro, mingling, refilling bowls of dip and crackers, talking around and over the beat of the music. She made sure he was introduced to everyone but, like most people, he promptly forgot most of the names.

He met the couple across the street. They were older than he’d pictured, more his own age. Sara’s term, “the young couple,” had led him to imagine a couple of kids just out of college. But who knew what Sara would regard as young? The man had the kind of face that would be hard to recall. Brown hair, brown eyes, average height, average everything. His name was Terry Eason. The only thing noticeable was that the beer in his hand was a Guinness, which told Dylan that he couldn’t be all bad.

If Terry was plain, his wife was a stunner. Small, but very nicely put together. She had a lot of rich auburn hair, and the kind of direct blue eyes that can nail a man to the wall. Dylan had admired the view that afternoon, but up close the effect was multiplied. He could easily see her as an actress. She wore a knitted tan vest over a blue dress that reflected her eyes. That was Kelly. Her you didn’t forget.

Sara said, “This is Dylan. He’s a crook.”

That got the reaction she was after. She smiled knowingly, leaving him to explain.

“It’s my name,” he said. “With an ‘e’ on the end.”

Terry said, “Sara says you moved in today. I’d have offered to help, but I didn’t even notice.”

“You probably had your head buried in the computer,” said Kelly.

Terry asked, “What did you do—transfer down here?”

“No, early retirement.” He didn’t feel like going into it and something in his voice or face stopped any more questions.

After an awkward silence, Sara said, “Don’t worry about him.  He keeps busy. He was almost too busy to get here tonight.”

He ignored that. To Kelly he said, “You’re an actress?”

She glanced quickly at Sara, saying, “No, I’m not. I work in advertising. In Wilmington.”

Sara said, “Well, she should be acting. It’s not my fault she doesn’t realize it.”

Later, he wandered into the kitchen, found where the Guinness was stashed, and opened one for himself. After that, he moved around, dropping into conversations, and moving on—the expected party behavior. He found himself in the middle of two business types, long-time friends who apparently never agreed on anything. This time it was about sandbag barriers and a seawall to save the condos of Shell Island from being washed into the sea. One said it was the only sensible thing to do, while the other claimed it was messing with Nature and would end up destroying every island in the Outer Banks. There’d been talk lately about a ruling that would prohibit any more sandbagging.

“It ain’t right. You know it, I know it, everybody knows. There’s a lot of money invested here. What’s gonna happen when the sand gets washed away? You ready for that? When the houses get washed away with it, and the hotels fall into the ocean. You okay with that?”

“Man, the sand always gets washed away. Then it gets deposited somewhere else. These islands been moving back and forth ever since there were any islands. That’s the way they are. That’s the nature of ‘em.”

“Nature? What’s Nature gotta do with this? We’re talking about beachfront property.”

“And you keep messing with it, there won’t be any left. The islands’ll all be gone. Then where’s your beachfront property?”

Dylan had heard both arguments and was not about to take sides. Nature versus development. Some problems don’t have a good answer, which was probably why they argued it—no chance of anyone actually winning.

Someone else warned him of problems he’d encounter peculiar to living at the beach, such as sand, salt and the outrageous cost of hurricane insurance. After that, it was state politics, and a philosophical discussion of why the Super Bowl isn’t nearly as good as the play-offs. It was a nice crowd, not fascinating, but easy going, and for a while he was able to forget his reasons for escaping from Raleigh.

He met the Morgans, Callie and Joe. They were the ones Sara had referred to as the “old dears” at the end of the street. They had shrunk down to miniatures even smaller than Sara. They were gnomes. Joe seemed all ears and bald head. Callie wore too much lipstick of the wrong shade.

“So,” asked Callie, “how do you like beach living so far?”

“I just got here this morning.”

“Enjoy it while you can. Pretty soon we’ll be overrun with surfers and vacationers with hordes of children. And of course, the bikinis. Joe likes that part.”

“Does he? Good for him.”

“Well, yes, it probably is.”

Joe started telling him about Terry Eason. “A writer, you know, only he won’t admit it.”

“Oh, he does so,” objected Callie.

“Nope, says he’s not a writer yet. Just trying to be one. That’s why he’s writing about the murder.”

“Well, you can hardly blame him.”

“Who’s blaming him?” He turned to Dylan. “There was a murder up the street a ways. He was mixed up in it.”

She gave a wifely swat at his arm. “That’s a terrible thing to say.”

“Well, he was. Found the body, didn’t he?”

“That doesn’t make him mixed up in it.”

“Don’t know what does, then. Found the body and was right there when they caught the killer.”

She wouldn’t let him win. “Well, I like him. He’s nicer than some I could mention.”

“Didn’t say he wasn’t.”

It was a good-natured bunch, easy to be with, the kind who make you feel at home. Still, he felt like a loner, an outsider. He wanted Tara beside him. That was a constant, something he lived with, or tried to. It didn’t get better, it didn’t get worse, except now and then. It just was.

Toward the end of the evening, it got stuffy from all the hot air floating around. Sara had the front door open to catch the ocean breeze. Dylan was standing near it, and saw a man come up the front steps to the screen door. He had a tentative air, as if he wasn’t sure he had the right address, glancing in, his eyes searching. He noticed Dylan and put on a big smile. “Pardon me. I’m looking for a Kelly Banner. Any chance she’s here?”

“There’s a Kelly Somebody here. Come on in, I guess.”

The man eased through the door, looking around. He had an eager to please, puppy dog look, as if he’d wag his tail if he had one. A boyish face, but beginning to crease. Light hair, wavy, but with here and there a stray strand of gray. The stark white windbreaker he wore seemed a little thick in the middle. An overage teenager, beginning to sag.

His glance took in the room quickly, getting a few polite nods in return. Kelly came in from the kitchen carrying a tray with a big bowl of chips and some kind of greenish dip. She stopped quickly when she saw him, surprised. From the tightness of her mouth, not pleasantly surprised. There was suspicion, a sort of now-what-are-you-up-to look.

She set the tray on the table and came forward, walking tightly. Her fists were clenched. “What do you want, Charlie?”

His smile got even wider. “Just drove by the old place, saw your car there. Nobody home, then I heard the party over here. Been a long time.”

Terry moved up behind Kelly. He didn’t say anything, but she knew he was there. He had a cautious, waiting air, not sure what was going on. He put one hand on her shoulder, and she reached up and took it. A team.

Charlie noticed him too, and gave Kelly an inquisitive look. She said, “This is my husband, Terry Eason.” She made it sound like a challenge.

“Hey, good for you, Kell. Glad to see you’re getting on.” He stuck his hand out toward Terry, who had to release Kelly’s to take it. “Charlie Banner,” he said cheerfully. “I was Kelly’s first.”

She kept her eyes riveted on him. “Don’t be so sure.”

“Hey, I meant your first husband. Lighten up, Kell.”

“What are you doing here, Charlie?”

“Business, Kell, strictly business. It’s been—what, four years? I just drove 150 miles down the coast to see how you’re doing.”

“You didn’t even know I was here.”

Sara had been watching all this. She stepped in and said, “I’m Sara French. I don’t believe I’ve met you.”

Charlie turned his charm toward her. “No ma’am, but that’s my loss. Charlie Banner.”

“Well, Charlie, join the party. Would you like a beer, or maybe something a little wilder?”

Dylan wondered if she was trying to defuse the situation, or keep him around in hopes a fight would break out. He wouldn’t have bet either way.

Kelly went back to the kitchen. Charlie eased into the party, introducing himself, smiling, listening, telling a joke now and then, smiling some more. In no time he was just one of the gang.

Later, Dylan went out onto the porch and sat on the steps with his Guinness. Beach living was new to him, and he was still very much aware of the sharp, tangy smell of the breeze and the distant rumble of the surf. He had the urge to get up and walk down to the shore. He’d never been on a beach at night. 

Before he could do anything, he heard the screen door bang. Charlie came out and sat on the step beside him. He held a glass of whiskey-and-something.

“Kelly was in rare form,” he said. “I was half expecting her to throw me out. She has a temper. Always did.”

“Probably goes with the red hair.”

Charlie hunched his shoulders and zipped his windbreaker higher. “Wind is chilly,” he said. “Never liked the beach at night. Too damned quiet. I always felt like I was out in the country.”

He pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offered one.

“No, thanks.”

“Mind if I do?” He cupped his hands around a lighter and lit up.

Dylan asked, “You lived here?” 

Charlie aimed his glass at Terry and Kelly’s place. “Right over there. Well, we didn’t actually live there. We were in Raleigh. Used to come down on weekends and work on the place. I figured we could fix it up and sell it for a bundle. Bad luck all the way, though. Work your ass off and find out you can’t even get what you paid.”

“Sounds like bad timing.”

“Yeah, like everything else in my life.” His cigarette glowed as he pulled on it, briefly lighting his face. “Married too soon, smart too late. Now, that’s bad timing.”

Dylan began getting flashes of his own marriage, but stuffed them back out of the way.

“It wasn’t really Kelly’s fault. Not really. That’s just the way women are, know what I mean?”

“Not really. How are they?”

“No adventure. Never want to lay it on the line, go for it. Like the house there. When my dad died, he left me some money, and I figured, ‘Hey, this is opportunity.’ Once or twice in your life you get a chance to make it big. You get a stake, you gotta use it, know what I mean? You build it up, you let it ride, you multiply it. Pretty soon you don’t have to worry about it, just sit back and enjoy the ride.”

Cigarette smoke drifted by, wiping out the smell of the sea.

“But Kelly couldn’t see it. All she wanted to do was pay off our debts. Nothing wrong with that, I guess, but then there’s nothing left to work with. Hell, with that kind of thinking, you stay a working stiff all your life. Never get anywhere, never get to be anyone. Know what I mean?”

Dylan didn’t think the question needed an answer, and wasn’t in the mood to argue.

“I’m not saying the breakup was altogether her fault. God knows I’ve got faults like anyone, but that was what finally did it. She’s just too timid. No foresight. But women are like that, aren’t they?”

Dylan shrugged, not much interested. “Not the ones I’ve known.”

Charlie glanced at him, hesitating, as if he thought maybe Dylan wasn’t one hundred percent with him. He blew smoke, saying, “Makes no difference. I got no hard feelings. Matter of fact, it’s not too late.” He leaned closer, dropping his voice as if someone might overhear him. “I got a deal going could make her rich. Could make a lot of people rich. And I’m not talking comfortable. I mean rich. Real nobody-messes-with-you rich. That’s one of the reasons I’m here, to cut her in. I just hope she has the guts to go for it.”

Dylan didn’t really know these people, but from what he’d seen he thought Charlie would pay bloody hell dealing Kelly in on anything.

A car, a gray SUV, moved slowly down the street toward them. It was the first to pass since Charlie had come out. Charlie froze when he saw it, only his eyes moving as he watched it approach. Dylan glanced toward him and recognized that look of the rabbit that thinks he might have spotted the wolf. A couple were in the front, the driver staring ahead stoically as the other waved her hands and went on about something. As the streetlight lit their faces, Charlie relaxed and started breathing again. Not the wolf after all. Not this time. 

“Anything wrong?”

“Not a thing,” said Charlie, “not with a sweet deal like this.” He was back to his easygoing self again. He leaned even closer. “For that matter, there’s always room for one more. Know what I mean?”

Dylan knew what he meant. After ten years of dealing with people and their money, he’d met more than one Charlie Banner. 


TUESDAY

Dylan spent a good part of the next day emptying boxes. That was easy. The tough part was deciding where to put all the stuff. What had once fit so well and so long into the Raleigh house, now seemed homeless. There wasn’t enough cupboard space for the dishes and such, and he wondered why he had bothered to bring it all. On the other hand, with none of Tara’s clothes, there was too much closet space, too little to fill the dresser. Nothing seemed to belong in this house.

At mid-afternoon, he took a cup of coffee out onto the porch. Long streaky gray clouds filled the sky, and the wind had picked up a spring chill. After working in the house most of the day, it was refreshing. He sat on the steps, enjoying the hot coffee, breathing in the salty air. Sitting there, he became aware of the pounding of the surf out beyond the dunes. It seemed like someone, or something, calling him.  He shrugged it off, thinking he must be losing it, getting downright mystical.

He saw Sara coming up the street, running. Not frantically, not racing, but in a slow easy jog. She wore the same purple outfit he’d seen before with the white running shoes. So it wasn’t just fashion.

She saw him when she was still several houses away and slowed to a fast walk, stopping as she came even with the steps. She looked up accusingly. “Your phone’s not working.”

“I know. They keep telling me it’ll be hooked up today. Of course, they told me that yesterday, too.”

“Kelly tried to call you. They’re inviting the two of us for dinner tonight.”

Another party? As she said it, he began feeling again the urge to withdraw, to be alone. To avoid anything that might remind him of what used to be.

He’d always thought he had a pretty good poker face. It had been useful in business, letting others guess where he stood until he was ready to commit. It was a matter of control.  He was glad now that Sara hadn’t sat in on any of those sessions. She came up the walk and planted one foot on the bottom step. “Just what is your problem?”

“With what?”

“When you moved in, I had you pegged as antisocial. Then, at the party last night, you were almost human. There were people there who actually found you friendly, a real Mr. Congenial. Now someone invites you to dinner and you look like you’re up for a root canal.”

“No, I was just wondering why. Why the invitation?”

He could see her trying to hold in the exasperation. “Because you’re new here. Because they’d like to know more about you. Because they’re being neighborly.” The exasperation won out and she added, “Get over yourself, Crooke!”

***

He dressed for the occasion. Clean khakis, a shirt with a collar, and a jacket. He thought the jacket might be a bit much. This was the beach, after all. He had a rack full of ties, too, but they hadn’t been used since his last day at the office. He had sworn to wear them only for weddings and when the Queen came to dinner.

Before leaving, he went out to the screened back porch and picked up a six-pack. There was usually a breeze, and at night it was cool out there. That’s how he liked beer—cool, not cold. That way he could taste it, and if the beer’s not worth tasting, why drink it? He knew that was snobbish, but what the hell—everyone’s a snob about something.

Sara was leaving her house as he came down the steps. She had changed into black slacks and sweater, which turned her hair to a gray halo. She looked him over with mild approval, and noticed the six-pack.

“You don’t have to bring anything.”

“I know. This is special.”

“Beer?”

“I noticed Terry was drinking Guinness. This is a brown ale I made. It’s not Guinness, but it’s pretty dark—you can’t see through it.”

“You make your own?” A delighted look and a wicked smile. “You know,” she said, “you’re starting to be interesting.”

Terry’s response was a little different.

Sara said, “He made it,” and Dylan saw the look creep over his face. He’d seen it before.

“Home brew?” This was followed by the smile, the one you use when you open a present and find a really hideous tie or soap on a rope. He could read Terry’s mind, something like, Oh my God, am I expected to drink this stuff?

“It’s dark,” put in Sara. “You’ll love it.”

“Love what?” Kelly asked, coming in from the kitchen.

“Beer,” said Sara. “Dylan makes his own. He has a regular bootlegging operation over there.”

“Oh, wonderful.” Kelly saw the look on Terry’s face. “You’ll have to forgive him. He used to be a CPA, and hasn’t gotten over it yet. His food doesn’t have to be cooked to death anymore, but sushi is still way down the road. Anything different is still scary.”

“Hey, what did I say?” Terry was embarrassed and trying to make the best of it. “My grandfather used to make home brew.”

It was time to save him. Dylan said, “I’ll bet he used bread yeast and brewed it in an open crock.”

“I don’t know. I guess so.”

“I’ve had some of that stuff. You have to be desperate to drink it.”

Kelly said, “Get these people some drinks, Terry.” She started toward the kitchen, but looked back and pointed to the beer. “And you can pop one of those for me.”

Despite the buildup, Sara went for gin and tonic, saying beer didn’t agree with her. Terry opened beers for Kelly and Dylan and, a little warily, one for himself. He seemed pleasantly surprised to see the deep brown color and the tan head. A different look followed his first tentative sip. “Hey, that’s good.”

“Not like your grandfather’s?”

“No way.”

Kelly came in again. “See, Terry? You tried something new and it didn’t hurt at all.” Her face radiated whatever she was feeling. With those riveting blue eyes and that figure, it was easy to see what Sara had meant. You could picture her on a stage. Even as small as she was, she’d be the center of attention. “We’re starting with seafood gumbo. It needs another few minutes to simmer.”

Dylan was starting to feel better about things. The company was easy, and he was relaxing, looking forward to a pleasant evening with nice people. Of course that’s when things headed south.

It began innocently enough with the sound of a car pulling up, doors slamming. At that time of year there was very little traffic on that road. They all looked up, listening, and heard footsteps coming up onto the porch. Terry went to see who it was. There were murmured voices, the screen door opening, and more footsteps. Terry came in looking a bit annoyed, followed by a man and a woman. He said, “These people are looking for Charlie Banner. He say anything to you about where he was staying? Dylan? Sara?”

Dylan shook his head and Sara said, “Not to me.”

Terry shrugged and said, “Hang on, I’ll get Kelly. She might be able to help.”

He went out to the kitchen, leaving them standing there, everyone looking at everyone else, trying not to stare. They weren’t an attractive couple. She was big boned. Hefty, thought Dylan. Limp blond hair worn a little too long, a flat expression that said she had stopped expecting anything good. The man had a weight lifter’s body and a big, broad face that sported a little mustache. Neither of them looked as if they’d laughed in a long time.

Kelly came in with Terry right behind her. “You’re looking for Charlie?”

The man answered. “Where is he?”

Kelly’s face tightened as she said, “I don’t know.”

“Is that right?” He stood beside his companion, glowering. The tough-guy look.

“Yes, that’s right.”

Dylan reached to the coffee table in front of him and picked up a magazine.

The woman said, “We’re sorry to bother you, but it’s very important.” She was trying to bring the tension down. “Have you seen him?”

“Yes, he came by last night. Why?”

Their eyes brightened at that. She asked, “What did he want?”

“I have no idea.”

The man said, “Oh come on, lady, you can do better than that.”

Dylan kept his eyes on the man, his hands slowly rolling the magazine into a tight cylinder.

The woman sent a for-God’s-sake-shut-up look to her companion. To Kelly she said, “That doesn’t sound like Charlie. He’d want something.”

“You’re probably right. By the way, who are you?”

She started to answer, but stopped. “It’s no matter. Did he say where he’s staying?”

Kelly had reached the end of a short fuse. “Frankly, I don’t want to know where Charlie Banner is. The only thing I want to know is why you want to know.”

The man stepped forward. He measured Terry and Dylan with an insolent glance, and then ignored them. He smiled lazily, directly at Kelly, letting his eyes drop slowly to the front of her blouse, and back to her face. “That’s none of your damned business. I’ve been nice so far, but I want to know where that son-of-a-bitch is, and if I don’t find out real soon I’m going to take this place apart. And maybe I’ll start with you.”

“Oh, will you? Who the hell do you think you’re talking to?”

Terry came around Kelly, one arm pushing her back, so mad he could hardly speak. “Get the hell out of here. Right now!”

The man’s smile broadened. This was what he wanted. He set himself, ready to swing, but saw Dylan moving up to stand just off Terry’s shoulder. In his right hand was the magazine, rolled tight, four hard, stubby inches protruding from each side of his fist. He moved the hand slowly, making sure it was seen.

The man sucked in a breath. “So what’s this? Two against one?” Dylan didn’t think that would have bothered him, but the man’s eyes kept flicking to the magazine in Dylan’s right hand—he had seen that trick before. “I take you both?”

Dylan nodded slightly, standing loosely, completely still, his face showing nothing. No anger, no threat. Nothing. Only the rolled up magazine moving rhythmically back and forth. 

The man’s eyes shifted to Terry. Fury, barely held in. Then back to Dylan’s flat, blank, emotionless stare.

He shrugged. “Come on,” he said. “These losers don’t know anything.” He walked to the door, trying to swagger. The woman followed, glancing back apologetically. Just short of the door, she stopped. “I’m sorry,” she said, “but was Doctor Mather with Charlie?”

“Who?”

“Doctor Mather. Wilson Mather. Did he—”

Dylan said, “Charlie was alone.”

“Come on, come on,” groused the man. “They don’t know shit. To hell with them.”

They went out. Footsteps on stairs, slamming car doors, the start of the engine, the squeal of wasted rubber. Silence. And the evening was still young.

***

By the time they’d reached dessert and coffee, the atmosphere was almost back to normal. Terry still wished he’d taken a swing at the guy, but Kelly’s anger had passed. Looking back, the whole thing seemed like some weird joke. Sara didn’t say much. Dylan saw her watching him, probably trying to figure out if he really was a crook.

Kelly had just asked if anyone wanted more coffee, when they heard someone coming up the steps.

“Not again!” said Kelly.

Terry got up quickly, heading for the door, Kelly following. Dylan stood up, moving toward the door.

“Hey, doll, how ‘ya doing?”

Charlie came in with that air of “Okay, I’m here, the party can start.” Terry was obviously relieved, but Kelly was starting a fresh burn.

“What do you want, Charlie?”

“Hey, Kell, is that all you ever say? Why should I want something?”

“I know you.”

“Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t. Matter of fact, it’s not that way at all. Just the opposite.” He beamed his smile around the room like a lighthouse. “Sara, isn’t it? You had the party. And Dylan. Never forget a name.”  Coming back to Kelly, he said, “Look, I’m not here to cause trouble—last thing I want to do. That coffee smells good. Suppose I could get a cup?”

She looked him over suspiciously, then went to the kitchen. When she came back, she handed him the coffee, saying, “Sit down, Charlie. Join the party.”

When he did, she asked, “Comfy?” She was almost smiling.

Now it was his turn to be suspicious. “Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Now drink your coffee and tell us what you want.” Her sweet tone changed. “And no more bullshit, Charlie. I’ve had it up to here.”

He laughed. “Same old Kell. All right, but you’re wrong this time. This time I’m here to give you something. I said as much to Dylan last night.” He turned to him. “Am I right?”

Dylan vaguely remembered him saying something, but didn’t recall what it was.

“Right,” said Charlie. “I feel I owe you something, Kell, and I want to make it right. Now what’s wrong with that?”

“That depends on what you’re offering.”

“That’s my girl.” He glanced around to include them all, and back to Kelly. “An opportunity, Kell, an opportunity.” He made it sound like the Second Coming.

“You never change, do you Charlie?”

“Hey, you don’t even know what it is.”

“I know it would cost me.”

“Aw, come on Kell, you’re always looking at the cost. It’s the payoff that counts, and this is going to be huge. I mean really huge.”

Terry asked, “Does this have anything to do with Dr. Mather?”

“Yeah. You’ve heard of him?”

“Who is he?” asked Kelly.

“He’s the genius who’s going to make us all rich. It’s his invention.”

“Not that it means anything, Charlie, but how much would this genius cost me?”

“You gotta look at both ends, babe, cost and return.”

“How much?”

Charlie’s smile was getting strained. “I wanted to tell you about the deal before we started talking money. Don’t you think that makes sense?”

“How much?”

“It wouldn’t cost you anything.”

“And what does that mean?”

“It’s simple. We take out a homeowner’s loan on this place for, say ten thousand. No problem there. I can promise you, Kell, before the first payment is due, we’ll be—”

“Whoa, Charlie. What’s this we business? We take out a loan? As I remember, I got the house instead of alimony.”

“Absolutely. You didn’t want alimony.”

“Fat chance I’d have had collecting it.”

“Hey, babe, I’m trying to do you a favor here, that’s all. This is your chance to make it big, to step up. Don’t blow it.”

Kelly was becoming more furious by the second. “You bastard!”

Charlie shrugged. “Look, Kell, I’m only saying we should talk it over. Listen to the deal, and then make up your mind.”

He went on with a story about an invention that would soon be a money machine, but Kelly heard none of it. She saw only the face she had hoped never to see again, saw his mouth moving, heard only the drone of his voice as he went into the old familiar spiel, all confidence and smiles. She wanted to make him stop, to shut up, to go away.

She broke in, asking, “Charlie, who’s the big blonde and the clown with the muscles?”

Charlie had one of those snap-on smiles that car salesman use, the big, broad, friend-of-the-world kind that’s instantly in place. It snapped off just as quickly. “Beth and Don? Were they here? When?”

“Couple of hours ago. Maybe you ought to go find them. They were sure in a hurry to find you.”

“Oh, damn!” Charlie’s eyes flitted back and forth at nothing, the wheels in his brain trying to shift gears. “Oh, damn!”

Kelly was enjoying it. “So what’s this big opportunity, Charlie? Have some more coffee and fill us in.”

He was on his feet, heading for the door, but stopped. “What did you tell them?”

“Who?”

“Damn it, Kelly.”

“Oh, them. Nothing. I didn’t know where you were. What should I tell them if they come back?”

“Just don’t tell them I was here. Don’t tell them anything.”

“Good idea. I don’t think the big one likes you very much.”

Charlie went to the door, looked both ways cautiously, and slipped out. Kelly called after him. “Have a really nice night, Charlie.”

***

They were in Don’s car, and that made Beth wish that she had driven. Not that Don was such a bad driver, usually, but in the mood he was in she was afraid he’d get aggressive and end up banging someone, which was just about all she needed right now, thank you very much. Besides, something in the engine was beginning to make a very odd noise. It was getting late and she didn’t want them broken down on the side of the road. And besides that, she wasn’t sure he’d had his license renewed since he’d been released.

Whenever they saw a bar, they pulled up in front and Don would jump out, go in, and look around for Charlie. They didn’t know for sure he’d be in a bar but, knowing Charlie, it was as likely a place as any to find him. Don would step inside, put on his what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at face, and scan the drinkers. In a few, where the crowd was thick, he’d wander the room, peering into the booths, bunching his muscles if anyone peered back.

Not being that familiar with the Connor Beach area, they soon ran out of bars and headed rather dejectedly back north, Don going through his litany of what he’d do when he finally got his hands on Charlie.

Beth was quiet, telling herself that, after all, they couldn’t be really sure it had been Charlie, that it was unfair to condemn him without evidence. But then she remembered looking at those paintings, seeing her brushstrokes, her style, her work. And she knew it had been Charlie, but didn’t want it to be. She’d had such hopes for their future. Charlie with a real job, their being a real pair with a home of their own, with friends, neighbors, maybe even children. True, he had never spoken of the future, had made no promises, but still…

Don scowled at the windshield, saying, “So where did he stash them, that’s what I want to know. He can’t be just walking around with them.”

“Maybe he’s gone. Maybe he just got in his car and left.”

“Not a chance. You heard them. He was there last night. He didn’t stop by for nothing. I still think they’re in on it.”

“I don’t. Why would he need them? If he’s got them hidden somewhere, why not at Josie’s? That’s the logical place.”

Don gave her a nasty smile and said, “Yeah, and we both know how he found out about her, don’t we?”

“All right, so I told him. Sorry!”

“Makes no difference. When I find him, he’ll damn well tell us where they are, ‘cause I’ll beat the crap out of him till he does.”

Beth said nothing. As they left town, heading north along the coast, she remembered the first time she had met Charlie. It had been at the local Jiffy Lube. Someone had told her that women never take their cars in to have the oil changed, that they never think of it, and that’s why they end up paying a bundle when the cars have to be repaired. She had considered it a terribly sexist remark, but had to admit she had no idea when her own car had last been serviced, if ever. So she had taken it in and was sitting in the waiting room, totally bored, when Charlie walked in. He had glanced at her, checked out the uninteresting magazines available, watched the totally asinine program on the television for a few minutes, and looked back at her.

He had put on his salesman smile and said, “Not much to do while we wait, is there?”

She had smiled and said nothing, but she liked the look of him, and Charlie hadn’t needed much encouragement. By the time her car was ready, they had swapped a few personal stories, he had told her a joke or two, and she had given him her number. She hadn’t thought he was serious but, amazingly, he called. They had gone out, had dinner, a few drinks, and later walked on the beach. And they talked, and Charlie had listened to her, really listened. One thing had led to several others, and hope had returned.

Beth had never wanted a hero, the knight in shining armor. Walking with him, holding his arm, she knew that what she wanted was a Charlie, someone she could be a pair with, someone to feel soft and warm with. Someone she could show to the world and say, “This is my man, isn’t he wonderful?”

They were well north of the city now, with only a few lights showing here and there in the distance. She looked out the side window at the dark rushing by, felt the tears forming in her eyes, and tried to forget what might have been.

Charlie, you son of a bitch, you’re just like all the rest.

***

Walking back to their own houses, Dylan could tell that Sara had questions. She started to say something a couple of times and stopped. What she finally asked surprised him.

“What was that thing you did with the magazine?”

He put on his serious face and said, “If I told you, I’d have to…you know.”

“What the hell. I’m already older than God.”

He thought of several smart-mouth answers to that, but said, “It’s an old trick.”

“I think it’s a trick that other guy had seen before. I was watching his eyes. He was ready to take you both until he saw it. It cooled him off.”

“It was meant to. I didn’t really want to use it.”

“A magazine?”

“Rolled tight, it’s just like having a stick in your hand. If you use it right—swing hard, driving the end into the ribs or the throat or a few other places—it’s pretty mean. One spot on the temple, it’s fatal. If you know where and how.”

They came to the steps of Sara’s house. She looked up and said, “And you know how.”

“The product of a misspent youth.”

“My parents used to call it the School of Hard Knocks.”

“Something like that. In my case it was more like a prep school for Attica.” Before she could ask anything more, he said, “Good night, Sara.”

***

Charlie dropped a pair of ice cubes into the glass and covered them with bourbon. He raised the glass and took a healthy drink. God knows he needed it. The least he could say for Josie was that she kept good whiskey.

He was aware that she was watching him—crafty little bitch. Well, let her watch. It was all part of the game. One-upmanship. Take the high ground, maneuver for position, get the advantage, be on top. Two could play.

Josie sat curled up at one end of a couch. She had a compact little body, dark hair, a wide mouth, and the big, dark eyes she’d brought with her from childhood. They gave her a look of sweet innocence.

The couch fit the rest of the room—simple, uncluttered, spare to the point of being Spartan. Very expensive. Josie seemed to be doing quite well. Selling lots of pictures. Or lots of something.

“Busy night, Charlie?”

Charlie shrugged, keeping it light. “Just went by to see the ex.”

“Shouldn’t you keep out of sight for a while?”

“I can’t sit around here forever. I’d go nuts.”

“Still, it would be safer. What about your former partners? I think they might not like being cut out, especially—”

“They were never partners. Not with me. And what do you care who you deal with?”

“I don’t. Not as long as you have the goods.”

“I have them. Don’t you worry.”

“And they’re safe? You’re sure?”

Ah, that was more like it. Two could play the game, and Charlie had the hand. Aces, by God. “Yeah, I’m sure. You bring the buyers, I’ll deliver the goods. So where the hell are these people?”

“Not people, Charlie, just one. What you have to sell isn’t all that valuable. He’ll be here when he can be. A few more days.”

“I can’t wait forever.”

“Why not, Charlie, don’t you like it here? Besides, you don’t have much choice.”

She leaned back and considered him with those big, brown eyes, teasing. That’s how Charlie thought of her, as a tease. But with a figure that would—

“Don’t leer, Charlie. And don’t think about making a deal with someone else. There is no one else. You’re a virgin in this business.”

“And you think you’re going to screw me.”

She giggled. “Oh, wouldn’t that be different? I simply mean that you need me.”

“You mean you need me. And don’t be so sure you’re the only game in town. I have contacts.”

She stood up, moved toward him. “Of course, Charlie. Fix another drink if you want.”

Charlie followed her suggestion for a second drink. As he turned back from the liquor cart he saw her, closer than she had been before, still watching him. Those eyes were beautiful, whatever was behind them.

“So, where are they, Charlie?”

“Available, don’t worry.”

“I do worry. I’ll have to see them soon to authenticate them.”

“They’re real, all right.”

“I have to know that for myself. Besides, I think I should know where they are, in case something should happen.”

He had to smile at that one. “Long as you don’t know, something’s a lot less likely to happen. Know what I mean?”

She managed to look hurt and innocent all at once. “Just what do you think I am, Charlie?”

“A thief, like me, only you do it with a very classy front.”

The little girl innocence vanished. “The classy front isn’t the difference, Charlie. I’m just smarter than you.”

***

It was nearly midnight when Charlie woke up with the vague feeling that something had changed. He was disoriented, then remembered where he was—in the guest room of Josie’s apartment. It was still dark, so why was he awake?

The wall he was facing was dimly lit. That would have to be from the bedroom door, which was behind him. He had closed that door. He turned quickly.

Josie stood like a statue, Charlie’s pants held in one hand, the other hand in one of the pockets. 

Charlie grinned. “Couldn’t resist me, huh?” He patted the bed beside him. “Come on. There’s lots of room.”

She didn’t waste time being embarrassed. She looked him over for a few seconds, her gaze stopping once in the middle of his chest, and set his pants back on the chair with the rest of his clothes. She said, “Good night, Charlie,” and left, closing the door behind her.

Charlie almost laughed. Caught the bitch, by God. When he lay back, he felt the touch of metal against his arm. He sat up quickly, his hand on the key hanging about his neck from a piece of string. Damn. She had seen it.


END OF SAMPLE