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PENNIES FOR HER EYESA Surf City Mystery
By James R. Preston
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2012 James R. Preston
All right reserved.
Text from Alys Winters to T. R. Macdonald Mac Rgr wnts 2 email U. OK 2 give him yr address?
T. R. Macdonald to Alys Winters I'd rather have a colonoscopy. No.
I was folding Kandi's underwear when the home invasion began. It was around nine in the evening of a chilly December day in Huntington Beach—Surf City, USA.
I know what you're thinking: I have this reputation of being sort of a tough guy, at least when I had my slightly-less-than fifteen minutes of fame on the web and in various blogs that's what they said: that I was a tough guy. So why was I folding underwear? I lost a bet, and I should have known better.
My Significant Other knows less about sports than your average housecat but she can pick hockey winners. Kandi, who is known as Mary Shaw when she is teaching at UCLA, wanted to do some work on her dissertation after working a two-hour fill-in shift across the channel at Fred's Fine Mexican Food, so we came back to my house. A great cruise off the coast of Long Beach, a plate of shrimp enchiladas and black beans at Fred's, and now hockey. Life was good. You'd think I'd learn, wouldn't you? I turned on the Kings and in the third period she looked up from her iPad and said, "they're going to win." My boys were down 3-zip and struggling to survive yet another power play. I said, "Name your stakes."
She was in the family room, sitting on my new couch with her feet tucked up under her. I smiled, because looking at Kandi always makes me smile. She's tall, with thick, lustrous, blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail while she worked, and hazel eyes that could stop traffic on the 405 freeway. Her legs are great in part because she does more serious running than I do; the other part of the reason is that they are simply great legs. She had on a faded yellow chenille bathrobe that looked good on her. Like I said, I enjoy looking at her. When she didn't answer my challenge I made highly-realistic chicken noises and danced around flapping my arms. Without looking up, she said, "Laundry. And if that was supposed to be a chicken, it was awful." That led to a pile of what my grandmother would have called "Unmentionables."
Tell me about your adventures.
Well, I once was shoved down a flight of stairs at the house next door and the people I thought were paramedics helping me instead threw me in the channel to drown. That was an adventure all right, but not one I want to talk about. I would have drowned if a teenage girl named Alys Winters hadn't jumped in and pulled me to safety.
Walking into the garage, two-car, connected to the house through a door into the right side of the entryway, those words went through my head again.
We'd spent the early afternoon off the coast of Long Beach on the Waiting for the Sun II. The Sun was a Grand Banks 65 RP, and it was one of the most amazing yachts I've ever been on, a four-million-dollar floating palace. My friend the Snake and three of his Berkeley college friends had invited us out. The Waiting For the Sun II's owner, a sixty-something named Brad Zucco, a striking blonde named Lisa June Culhane, and a tall, gray-haired woman in her sixties named Henrietta Graveline, plus Kandi, me and the Snake, made up the party. Snake's wife Cheryl was reading poetry somewhere, so she missed the party—just as well since we don't exactly get along. Henrietta had asked me about my adventures. It's not that unusual a request; like I said, I had my fifteen minutes. It turned chilly so we moved from the outside deck to the yacht's main cabin. She was sitting in the dinette, staring at me intently with wide-set gray eyes peering over the top of a wine glass, while I stood behind the ship's owner and watched Brad steer us deftly through the traffic—a few sailboats barely under way in the light wind, and the usual kayakers and kids on jet skis. We cleared the mouth of the harbor and began to roll a little in the mild swell.
Tell me about your adventures.
She'd Googled my name and wanted to know about the supertanker and the serious craziness that Kandi and I had gone through. She wanted to know about Roger Winters, and the man in the desert; like Mary, she wanted to know how I felt about it. About death, up close and personal, since I'd killed the man in the desert. And I had no answer, other than a shrug. So I talked about the silly parts, like barging into a party wet and bleeding, holding the hostess at gunpoint and how it was all right because it was a costume party and the host was dressed as Elvis. I left out the part where I had to shoot a kid.
The fact that the party's hostess, Allison Winters, had been in her underwear—black fifties costume garter belt and stockings—at the time pulled me out of memory lane and back to the present and my work. The washer and dryer, a candy-apple red pair that my wife Diana had purchased on line one night after some serious partying (I'm sure she was surprised when the delivery truck showed up and the workmen brought out the dolly and the paperwork and the products) are located at the back of our garage, close to the door to the house. We have a gray strip of carpet over the cement floor in front of the appliances, a puke-green cabinet above for supplies, and a green Formica counter for folding. Before I left Surf City for Wall Street and a promotion I'd sent my shirts out; since my return I was learning new skills, like basic plumbing (I'd been forced to replace the toilet that somebody had shot a hole in) and laundry, and was working my way up to doing something about the basketball-sized burned place on the deck out back. It's good to learn new things, keeps you from stagnating. Also, I could no longer afford the services of a dry cleaner. Okay, full disclosure—I also didn't need them.
On the way home after cruising we talked a little about the people we'd met, then the conversation had almost turned to one of those Serious Relationship Talks, but I dodged the SRT bullet when Kandi got a text about some guy questioning part of her dissertation research.
Tell me about your adventures. Henrietta Graveline was tall, with short gray hair and she looked like—
From the family room Kandi called, "That's who she reminds me of—Jamie Lee Curtis."
"Yeah, only a few years older, maybe. Same short gray hair." Then it dawned on me. "I hate it when you do that."
"Read my mind. And you knew I was going to say that."
Kandi stood in the doorway to the garage, holding her iPhone. "Of course I did. Wow, this is lucky. Kandi said she'd cover for Josie tomorrow for lunch. Good thing I looked at my calendar, because I'd forgotten completely." She slipped the phone into the robe's pocket. "So, returning to our conversation—"
"What? Right." Although I was pretty sure I knew what she was talking about.
There were two types of underwear—plain, practical cotton, always white, and Victoria's Secret in a wonderful variety of colors and styles. Kandi wore the underwear appropriate to whatever job she was doing. I dragged it out of the dryer, dumped it on the Formica counter and stuffed in a load of jeans. I started sorting the underwear into two piles—and why on earth does she have so much?—practical white and hot damn! Maybe if I pretended to be really involved in laundry she'd go back to her dissertation. Hey, it could happen. "Mac, what about my doctorate? I'll need to do an internship somewhere." She took a breath. "You do not have to answer this immediately, but, will you come with me if, as is likely, my internship is out of state?"
I'd had a good job, a wife I loved, and a future that had been planned since grade school, only the details subject to change. It was all gone. I folded a green pair of panties, making certain to line the seams up perfectly.
"Mac, I understand, I really do. You are not in a position to make life decisions; that's natural, completely natural, but I'm moving toward something, and you're, well, I'm afraid it's inevitable that you will be impacted by my actions. We are not at a point where decisions have to be made, but that point is approaching."
I kept on folding. Eventually it worked and she went back to the family room and her dissertation. When I'd earned my living as a stock market broker-analyst I'd learned to listen. She'd said, "... you will be impacted." Not, "... we'll be impacted."
Our cars, Kandi's fully-restored 1962 MGA and my Porsche Carrera, both black, were behind me. To my right there was a door leading out to the side of the house, where a cement walk ran from the front gate to the tiny back yard and boat dock. The outside lights were on, but the garage was dim. I was folding in the light that spilled in from the open door to my left, so the light from the small vent at the bottom of the outside door was relatively bright.
Tell me about your adventures.
Did Henrietta really want to know about a crazy guy who sat and stared for hours at his collection of Golden Books and who died horribly? Seated on the couch in the main cabin of the Waiting For The Sun II, she had looked at me like she meant it, but I didn't think so. For most people, violence is something best contained on TV or stories. Sanitized. In real life it's different. It can get out of hand. It leaves scars.
From the corner of my eye I saw the light coming from the vent in the door eclipsed twice—blink-blink—and all at once I realized I had seen that a minute ago. There was somebody in the side yard.
Now, your average homeowner might throw open the door and yell "Who's out there?" but I am no longer your average homeowner. The door is a brand-new steel fire door and the house is protected by serious electronic security installed by Kandi's cousin, my friend Chet Shaw. Recent events, the adventures Henrietta Graveline wanted to know about, have taught me a degree of caution.
I set the next pair of folded panties—red, if you must know—on the stack of other folded lingerie, stepped out of my sandals and slipped into the shadows between the cars. Once there I dropped to my knees and crawled over to the door where I peered through the small wire-mesh grating. I was wearing the Huntington Beach uniform of board shorts and t-shirt. Fortunately, the t-shirt was black. I saw booted feet, topped by dark gray pants, moving toward the back yard. As I started to get up, the dryer launched into one of its cycles and something in it, maybe the fastener on a pair of jeans, banged against the metal drum as it tumbled. Bang-bang. Pause. Bang-bang. The feet stopped, turned, and headed back toward me. They came all the way to the door. There was no rattle, no attempt to turn the knob and open the door; they just stood there. Afraid of what was coming next, I slid back into what I hoped was deeper shadow. My knees were cold from pressing against the cement, and my toes were folded uncomfortably under me. Something dark was placed on the cement next to the boots. It was easy to identify. The stock of a rifle. The figure bent and a face hidden by a dark ski mask appeared in the grating.
Well, I didn't really think it was our local SWAT team practicing stealth maneuvers.
Tell me about your adventures.
Hey, Henrietta, I seem to be having one right now, and I don't like it much, and Kandi's in the family room checking citations, the family room at the back of the house with sliding glass doors leading out to the back yard, and to the dock where there might be more people with guns.
I didn't move. Didn't breathe. After a moment the masked face went away, and then the boots. I peeked out and saw them turn the corner into the back.
Part of what I have learned, in addition to a degree of caution about things like opening your doors late at night, is that I need weapons. I own a Colt .45 automatic and a sawed-off shotgun, and I regularly carry a truncated pool cue handle that I have gone upside a few heads with, with the expected results. Unfortunately, all of my arsenal was upstairs. I mean, really, who packs heat to do laundry? I got up and ran for the door to the house, pausing only to snatch up a can of Raid from the cabinet as I passed. Up close, if I got very lucky, a shot to the eyes might slow down an opponent. And it was all I had.
Kandi was curled on the couch in the family room, in that pose that seems to be possible only to women, where your legs are folded under you and your feet are jammed up under your butt, iPad next to her, working on her dissertation. The vertical blinds covering the windows were open. I didn't look out back, just strolled over, plopped down next to her, pushed a strand of hair back over her ear and kissed her neck lightly. I whispered, "Heads up. The game is afoot and we're on the clock."
Her hand squeezed a little tighter on my forearm. She nuzzled back. "Where?"
"Side of the house, back yard, at least two, military outfits, armed, probably assault rifles." Her hand dipped into her purse and came out with the Raven .25 that she's never without. It's a tiny black automatic, six rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber, so small it was almost completely covered by her hand. With her free hand she set the iPad aside, then looked at me. Her breathing was slow and regular, her lips slightly parted, and her eyes were wide, bright with anticipation. Mary was gone. Kandi smiled at me. Deadly Kandi.
I set down the can of insecticide and pulled my phone out of my hip pocket, pushed the little button on the top, and saw the dreaded, "No service." When she tried it, hers said the same thing.
We sat for a minute. "Well, let's look," I said, stood up and looked out back.
I live in a part of Huntington Beach called Huntington Harbour, a community made up of large houses built on islands dredged out of a mud flat in the sixties. Channels connect the islands toAlamitos Bay and the Pacific. My wife's parents bought the place brand new; we moved in when they went into assisted living. I inherited it when she was killed.
All the good houses in the Harbour back up to the water and have docks and mine was a good one. At the moment the dock only held my Boston Whaler since I had found it necessary to set fire to and sink my sailboat during one of those adventures. I didn't much like that, but at least Kandi and I had been rescued. There are big windows that look out from the family room and kitchen toward the dock and channel behind it and late at night you can sometimes hear the surf from the state beach across the highway.
Tonight a black inflatable was tied up behind my little dinghy. Two people dressed in dark gray, wearing ski masks and holding automatic weapons, stood in plain view in front of it. They looked at us; we looked at them. The rifles were pointed skyward, which I took to be a good thing.
Kandi moved a step to my left to put more distance between us and whispered, "Say something witty." We both edged to the side, presenting smaller targets. The people on the dock didn't move.
"We have armed, crazed Ninjas standing in my back yard."
"There are no indications that they are suffering any type of mental issues, and Ninjas don't wear boots, they wear little sock-like things called tabi, with split toes."
"Okay, you can be witty. Why are we whispering?"
"Our cell phones don't work and I can only conclude they have somehow done that. What do they want?"
I shook my head, then said, "There's someone upstairs."
"This is where you say, 'Stay here,' and I say, 'No way.'" Kandi didn't take her eyes off the figures on the dock.
"We go on three." She looked at me curiously. "If they wanted us dead, we'd be dead. One, two ...," I bolted for the stairs, Kandi matching me stride for stride. No hail of bullets shattered the windows.
At the top she said, "Sometimes you are so obvious." She was flushed, breathing hard and grinning.
And, no, I'm not a total sexist pig who says to the heroine, "You stay here while I go see if that really is a big drooly guy with a machete in the basement." Kandi had just spent some time in the hospital, recovering from a gunshot wound. That's why she was breathing hard. So, okay, call me a sexist pig, but anyway, I don't have a basement.
She said, "You were going to draw their fire."
The house is five-bedroom, three and a half bath. At the top of the stairs there's a landing, open on one side to the living room below. Double doors to the master suite, located on the water side, are at the end to the left, the other bedrooms, bath, and my office take up the rest of the hall.
I looked into my office just in time to see a gloved hand vanish over the windowsill. By the time I got there the gray-clad figure had pulled some kind of release and a rope ladder dropped to his feet. He picked it up and trotted for the backyard, coiling the ladder as he ran, coiling it clumsily with one hand because he was carrying a laptop computer in the other. I put one hand on the windowsill and vaulted over.
Excerpted from PENNIES FOR HER EYES by James R. Preston Copyright © 2012 by James R. Preston. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One Invasion....................1
Chapter Two Help From My Friends....................14
Chapter Three Mr. Baines Wants to Know....................29
Chapter Four Breakfast at Fred's....................45
Chapter Five The Titanium Redhead....................54
Chapter Six Sociopath....................67
Chapter Seven "Skateboarding ..."....................74
Chapter Eight The Zebra Top....................92
Chapter Nine Training....................107
Chapter Ten Alys Winters....................119
Chapter Eleven Maverick's....................126
Chapter Twelve It's Her Party....................135
Chapter Thirteen Teen Angel....................148
Chapter Fourteen Agatha Plumlee....................159
Chapter Fifteen Shoebox....................177
Chapter Sixteen Paddle-Out....................192
Chapter Seventeen Betty's Used Boards....................202
Chapter Eighteen Warehouse....................214
Chapter Nineteen Parade of Lights....................222
Chapter Twenty Plan B....................234
Chapter Twenty-One Feed Your Head....................242
Chapter Twenty-Two Moving Target....................252
Chapter Twenty-Three In the Killing Jar....................259
Chapter Twenty-Four Your Friend, Mr. Forklift....................271
Chapter Twenty-Five "... Is Not a Crime"....................283
Chapter Twenty-Six Play With Fire....................290
Chapter Twenty-Seven Invasion....................306