Stella Hardesty dispatched her abusive husband with a wrench shortly before her fiftieth birthday. A few years later, she's so busy delivering home-style justice, helping other women deal with their own abusive husbands and boyfriends, that she's barely got time to run her sewing shop. Since Stella works outside of the law, she's free to do whatever it takes to be convincing—as long as she keeps her distance from the handsome devil of a local sheriff, Goat Jones.
When young mother Chrissy Shaw asks Stella for help with her no-good, husband Roy Dean, it looks like just another standard job. But then Chrissy's two-year-old son is taken, and Stella finds herself up against a much more formidable enemy.
Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry won an Anthony Award for Best First Novel and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. It was also shortlisted for Edgar, Barry, Crimespree, and Macavity Awards, and it was named to lists of the year's best mystery debuts by the Chicago Sun-Times and South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
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A Bad Day for Sorry
By Sophie Littlefield
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Sophie Littlefield
All rights reserved.
Stella knew from experience that Roy Dean Shaw wasn't a particularly brave young buck. But then, the ones who smacked their women around rarely were.
Hunting him down was going to consume a sizable chunk of her day off, and Stella was plenty annoyed. She only took Sundays and Tuesdays off from the sewing machine shop, and lately her sideline business was eating into her free time. Today, for instance, she'd had to cancel an appointment down at Hair Lines — cut and color — for the second time, and she hadn't done laundry all week.
It didn't help Stella's mood any that menopause had kicked into high gear now that her fiftieth birthday had come and gone. If widowhood had given Stella license to explore her authentic self, menopause stood under the window yelling at the bitch to come out and rumble. She felt like biting the heads off kittens — though that might actually be an asset today, given the talk she needed to have with Roy Dean.
A month ago, shortly after their first meeting, Roy Dean had called to give her his new address. It was one of the rules: all of her parolees were required to inform her of any change in their personal information. Besides address and phone number, they were required to report all their income sources and what they did in their leisure time and, most important, any new relationships with the fairer sex.
Reporting back to Stella was not optional, but her parolees were usually anxious to comply. First meetings with Stella tended to have that effect.
Second meetings — if a parolee was dim-witted enough to require one — put any lingering doubts to rest.
Stella wasn't bound by all the bureaucratic red tape that real parole officers had to wade through. She didn't have to fill out paperwork. She didn't report to a boss. She didn't have to appear in court. And she could make the parolees tell her any damn thing she wanted to know.
She couldn't, however, always make them tell the truth. Stella had no doubt that the address Roy Dean had given her, on Cedar Street in Harrisonville, existed. She'd even lay odds that Roy Dean or one of his relatives had lived there at some point.
But a punk like Roy Dean would never give her a fact if he could spin her some fiction instead. It was in his blood.
After a late breakfast of Pop-Tarts slathered with peanut butter, Stella made a half hearted effort to get the laundry started, and paid a few bills from the bottom of the stack. Then she set out to track down Roy Dean.
She found a lead an hour later in a dank and yeasty booth in the back of the High Timer. The place was little more than a squat shed at the intersection of a couple of farm roads five miles out of town, but it was popular with local bikers, and Jelloman Nunn was exactly where she thought he'd be, enjoying a lunch of Polish sausages sizzled in the deep fryer and a mug of Busch. Jelloman was happy to see her, folding her into a hug that mashed her face against his greasy leather vest and tickled her forehead with his long, scratchy gray beard.
He was even happier to tell her what he knew. Jelloman, it turned out, had been to Roy Dean's new place to extract payment for some weed, and Roy Dean had been sufficiently reluctant to pay up that Jelloman was irritated. So he made sure to give Stella fine, detailed directions. There were a lot of turns at landmarks like "the busted-up Esso station" and "a refrigerator somebody dumped"; Stella copied these carefully into her case notebook, which she then accidentally set down into a pool of spilled beer and had to dry off with a borrowed bar rag.
Her notebook was in sorry shape already, with a big coffee stain on the current page, and tomato sauce gluing several of the previous pages together. The tendency of her working papers to meet with misfortune dictated that every new case got its own notebook. Stella liked to pick them up in the school supplies aisle at the Wal-Mart when they went on sale. This particular one had a Happy Bunny logo and "It's all about me. Deal with it" written on the front.
Todd Groffe, the thirteen-year-old boy who lived two doors down and spent most of his free time finding new ways to be a pain in the butt, had informed Stella that Happy Bunny was over, a dead trend. Probably why the notebook was in the half-off bin at Wal-Mart. Luckily, Stella didn't spend a lot of time worrying about trends. "It's all about me"? That tickled her plenty — maybe she ought to tattoo it on her arm or something.
Stella tossed some money on the bar to cover Jelloman's lunch, and endured another boozy squeeze and a loud kiss on her ear. Back in her Jeep, Stella laid the notebook out on the passenger seat to dry, and tore out of the bar's dirt parking lot fast enough to spin gravel.
Nothing like a drive in the country to settle a person's spirits.
Stella's Jeep, a sweet little green Liberty with chrome aluminum wheels and a sunroof, had been her husband Ollie's pride and joy. He bought it new less than four months before he died and never let Stella drive it once. Ollie said she didn't know how to handle a car that sat up off the road like that, so she kept driving the crappy little old Neon that Ollie himself had creased along a guardrail after a few too many beers coming home from a fishing trip.
Once Ollie was gone, Stella sold the Neon to a neighbor's teenage daughter for a few hundred bucks and drove that Jeep like it had fire in the wheel wells. It never failed to light her up to take it out on the highway, with her favorite music cranked, rural Missouri flying by outside the windows.
"Love is like a cloud holds a lot of rain," Emmy Lou sang as Stella drove, and she hummed along. There was just nothing in the world like old Emmy Lou's drank-me-some-razor-blades-along-with-my-whiskey voice to smooth out Stella's own rough edges and ruffled feathers.
And today was turning out to be that kind of day. It wasn't just the hot flashes and the mood swings, either. Stella wasn't anybody's poster child for the Serenity Prayer on her best day, but thinking about Roy Dean's pretty wife Chrissy sitting in her living room trying not to cry, wearing long sleeves on a hot day to cover up the evidence of her husband's displeasure — well, that just made Stella's heart hurt.
Emmy Lou launched into "Sweet Old World." Stella sang along, squeaking on the high notes. Emmy Lou had no trouble taking her alto voice up into soprano territory, but Stella's own voice hunkered somewhere south. "Not much of a range" was how her junior high choir teacher put it, before making Stella a prompter, her only job to stand in the wings holding up cards during the performances. Well, screw Mrs. Goshen — Stella figured she'd sing any old damn time she wanted now.
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn't you think you were worth anything
Stella drove past fields bright with late-spring corn, the plants not much more than ankle high, and tried to get her thoughts in order. Worrying about things that were out of your control was a waste of time on a good day, but when you were on your way to meet the kind of trouble that was probably armed and definitely dumb, it was an especially bad idea. Clear thinking, that's what was called for.
Stella eventually found the road. A mile of cracked asphalt and weeds gave over to gravel and finally to a pair of uneven ruts that caused the Jeep to bump and lurch.
Roy Dean's trailer hideout was down at the end of the rutted dirt road, close enough to a buggy, brackish little cove of the lake to smell the water, if not see it. Not exactly prime real estate. On the other hand, not a bad spot to hang your hat if you were hoping to avoid encounters with folks you'd rather not see, like the law, for instance, or that crazy bitch from hell your wife sicced on you.
For kicks, Stella gave the Jeep a little extra gas and held on tight, flying over the hillocks and shallows of the road until she landed on the patch of cleared earth. She hit the brakes and spun in the dirt as she pulled up in front of the trailer and turned off the ignition.
It was worse than she'd expected. The trailer seemed to be leaning on its foundations. The wood lattice that someone had nailed around the bottom had come loose, and pieces of it lay in the weeds. The siding had once been white, but that was a distant memory; rusty streaks leaked down from all the seams. One of the windows had been boarded with a sheet of plywood, but that too had separated from its moorings and hung by a single nail.
Parked next to the trailer was a truck Stella recognized, having recently followed Roy Dean so they could have their first conversation. Last time she saw the truck, it had been parked in front of a liquor store at eleven thirty on a Monday night. Like Roy Dean, the truck was hard on the eyes and didn't look very reliable, with its dented tailgate and rust spots and low-hanging tailpipe.
Stella didn't plan on needing it, but she got a gun out of the locked steel box bolted to the floor of the Jeep, just in case. There were currently two weapons in the box: her dad's old Ruger .357 flat-top, and a cheap little Raven .25 semi-auto that she'd picked up on a trip to Kansas City six months back, when she'd tracked down a missing high school principal. The asshole had cleaned out his bank accounts and left his wife to face eviction while he moved into his waitress girlfriend's apartment in Blue Hills. The gun was a little bonus that Stella had taken off the guy, along with a tall stack of cash he'd kept in the kitchen cabinets, and his wife's good jewelry. Stella felt sorry enough for the girlfriend to give her back some of the cash before breaking a couple of the man's fingers and working out a payment plan. The ex-principal, now a Best Buy salesman, sent his ex a tidy little sum every month.
Stella made sure.
For today's visit with Roy Dean, she chose the Raven. She checked the magazine and chambered an extra round, then slid back the safety. The gun was a little short on firepower — it wouldn't drop someone the size of Jelloman, for instance, barring one hell of a lucky shot — but Stella liked it for little jobs where the power of suggestion was her main weapon.
As she stepped out of the Jeep's lovely air conditioning, heat and humidity hit her like a warm wet washcloth full of buckshot. Stella took a minute to stretch and peeled her shorts away from her thighs before crossing the dirt yard. She rapped her knuckles on the door and waited. There was something about the front doors on trailers; they never seemed to fit snug in their frames, so you always got a rattle when you knocked. That alone would keep Stella from ever living in one. That and the old twister problem — one tornado out for a joyride and you were history.
Stella heard movement inside the trailer. Banging around and cursing, mostly. After a few minutes of that, the door popped open an inch; a bloodshot eye peered out and then the door promptly slammed shut again.
Stella sighed and put her weight on the hip that didn't cause her trouble, and settled in for a wait. This wasn't the first time she'd had to roust someone from a trailer, and there wasn't a whole lot to it, once you took a moment to assess the particulars of the situation. She'd already seen that the rear of the trailer backed up against a brambly thicket of bush honeysuckle, so if Roy Dean hauled his skinny ass out of a window or door on the back side, he'd have to make his way along the side of the trailer, battling the shrubs the whole way, and come out one side or the other. If he picked a window on the front side, he'd be stuck wrassling his way out for a few moments. Either way, shooting into the dirt at his feet ought to do the trick.
Minutes ticked by, and still Roy Dean didn't appear. Stella heard the sound of heavy objects being pushed around. Incredulous, she demanded, "Roy Dean, you aren't trying to barricade yourself in there, are you?"
There was a pause, a few moments of silence. Stella could almost picture Roy Dean knitting those scraggly eyebrows together, pursing his lips and thinking hard — as hard as he could, at any rate.
"Well ... what if I am?" he finally said, his voice muffled and echoey inside the trailer. "What are you gonna do about it?"
Stella couldn't believe it — the little asswipe was still mouthing off to her. After all the effort she'd put in. After laying it all out for him — with extra care, given his evident slow-wittedness — and explaining both what he'd done to get her attention and what the consequences would be of any further mischief. It was bad enough that she'd got the call about him yesterday — one of her sources said she had spotted a fella that looked an awful lot like Roy Dean at the concession stand of the Latham County Speedway, pulling on the long blond ponytail of his companion hard enough that she was crying and trying to get away, while he just laughed — but to give Stella lip? When she'd driven all this way? On her day off?
Stella sighed again and leveled the little Raven about two feet to the right of where she figured Roy Dean to be. She thought about the calendar sitting on her kitchen counter, with its pastel flower borders and its encouraging sayings, and she realized that she was no longer a member of its target audience.
"Fuck serenity," she said, and shot the trailer.
She wasn't sure whether the bullet would make it through — no telling what-all they used to line the walls of these things — but judging by Roy Dean's startled yelp and the string of cursing that ensued, the shot had apparently made an impression.
"I'm shooting out the windows next," she called, just to speed things along.
Sounds of the heavy objects being pushed out of the way were followed by the door being flung open and there stood Roy Dean in all his glory, sweating and panting hard, grimy boxer shorts hanging off his bony hips, a filthy white tank top leaving most of his pale chest exposed.
"Shit, Miz Hardesty, cut it out. Okay? Look, I'm invitin' you into my home, you don't need to go shootin' no more."
Stella lowered her gun hand to her side and let the Raven hang there casually. She could go from full dangle to aimed and ready to shoot in about a tenth of a second. That was a trick she'd worked on most of last winter when business was slow at the shop — sitting on her stool behind the cash register and practicing her draw, tucking the gun into the drawer when the bell at the door signaled a customer's arrival.
She'd also taught herself to spin the thing on her finger just like Gary Cooper in High Noon, but that trick was strictly for her own enjoyment. She didn't mind having a little flair, but she wasn't an idiot: guns, after all, were serious business.
"You got any coffee on?" she asked as she shouldered her way past Roy Dean. Inside it didn't smell any too fresh, and the dining table and chairs were all bunched together to the side. Presumably they had been part of the barricade that Roy Dean had been erecting to keep her out.
Roy Dean snorted, but as he circled the tiny kitchen he kept to the edges, his eye on her gun hand. Good. She liked them scared.
"It's almost one," he said. "Who the hell drinks coffee in the afternoon?"
"Me, as a matter of fact. But I guess I'd settle for a Coke."
"All's I got is beer. Coors or Coors Light."
"Coors Light, huh? You wouldn't be entertaining any ladies, now, would you, Roy Dean?"
"What? No, I, uh, I ain't gone anywhere near Chrissy."
"Can it, lover boy. Make no mistake, if you so much as look at Chrissy crosswise I'll know before you have time to scratch your balls. And then I'll, you know, probably come around and shoot 'em off or something."
Roy Dean's face darkened like a Fourth of July thunderstorm, and he leaned back against the Formica counter. The boy's knees were probably feeling a little wobbly, if Stella had to guess. She suppressed a smile.
"I'm through with her," he snapped. "I tol' you that."
"Yeah, you did, but if I recall we were kind of far along the convincing path before you managed to choke that promise out."
Excerpted from A Bad Day for Sorry by Sophie Littlefield. Copyright © 2009 Sophie Littlefield. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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