Peggy Poe Stern, Mountain Author: Ever so common, ever so uncommon

Excerpt from #18, Better Off Dead
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First three chapters of Better Off Dead

Chapter 1

  Poison is a woman’s choice weapon. It is easy, causes a lot of pain, and with no cleanup afterwards. A gun is okay when used at a distance. I am best with a knife, although it is my least favorite weapon. That’s because I hate blood. Knives are such a messy way to kill. Blood is blue until oxygen hits it, and then it turns a velvety, deep red.  The color is rather pretty, but the color is not what bothers me. It’s the stickiness along with that horrible metallic smell, especially when the loser of the blood has become overheated with excitement.

  According to the profile of my target, he got his excitement by playing rough.

  I am a pay-by-the-hour prostitute for this job. It seems this big, blond, Dutch man has only one weakness. He is fond of slowly killing prostitutes. I am not fond of representing one, but it was the easiest, and possibly only, way to get to him without his bodyguards being present. I have my gun in my handbag, and my knife is hidden in a pocket of my dress. I have a wire in the toe of my shoe in order to convince myself I can reach my backup if needed.

  In the briefing on what to expect from my target, I was told to take him out fast or I would regret him being alive.

  First, I had to get into the room with him, which eliminated me holding the gun in my hand. I thought he would check through the peep hole for a weapon, but evidently he did not. He was trustful of prostitutes since he had been the cause of many disappearing.

  He was anxiously waiting on me - as I only had to tap on the hotel room door before it opened. He looked me up and down.

  “Too scrawny. Won’t hold out,” he accused in a strange accent. “You do. No time otherwise.”

  He grabbed my arm roughly and pulled me into the room.

  “Take dress off,” he demanded in his broken English, as his face glowed with pleasure.

  I dropped my purse on the bed, slipped the slinky, knit dress off, and placed it on the bed next to my purse, thinking he would be occupied with staring at me as I casually slid my hand to my purse. My next move would be to shoot him.

  I had chosen a black negligee to wear under the dress as a distraction. He grabbed it with ham-sized hands and ripped the expensive lace from neckline to crotch. I wasn’t expecting his sudden attack and showed my shock.

  He laughed with delight as real fear came to my face. I was well trained, but this was a big, bad man, and I was a small woman. Anyone would be a complete fool not to be afraid of him. I pressed the back of my legs against the bed. The sound of his insane laughter made me realize the immediate danger I was in. His huge arms encircled me and he lunged me onto the bed with him on top. His huge, slobbery mouth opened and he took in my entire ear and commenced biting it. I knew he tortured his victims a long time before he killed them.

  “Stop!” I screeched and started wiggling underneath his tremendous weight. He thought I was trying to escape and chuckled with delight, although he continued to grind my ear between his teeth. Lucky for me, I was lying on my dress. I found the knife handle and shoved the blade right through the dress into his side. It sunk to its hilt and then I shoved downward with all my strength. I felt him jerk with the unexpected pain. He let go of my ear.

  Words I did not understand spewed from his mouth as his huge hand went to his side. My knife was out of his side and into his neck before his hand cupped his side-wound. I hit the jugular and continued with the blade across his neck, severing his windpipe.

Like an angry grizzly bear, he came up off the bed with both my arms gripped in his hands. He staggered backward while blood spewed in my face and ran down my body. The stream of blood pumped harder with every beat of his heart.  I kicked him in the groin with the shoe that had the wire. He didn’t acknowledge the pain, if he even felt the impact. His pale eyes bugged out as he stared at me with hatred mixed with disbelief. He was having trouble breathing as well as believing I had given him a fatal cut. His eyes focused on the knife still in my hand. Like the grizzly, I knew he still had enough power to kill me. I had to get free of his hold. The way he held my arms made the knife useless, so I dropped the knife on the floor, and rammed my forehead into his nose with all the power I could manage.

  His sliced neck shot backward and the spurt of blood blinded me. I gave his knee a front-kick and felt a snap. His lips pulled back from his teeth and he tried to say something, but ended up gurgling on his own blood. His hands lost some of their grip on my blood-covered arms allowing me to jerk away from him.

  A growling sound came from his chest as he reached for me again. I put the bed between us, wondering how long it would take him to bleed-out. He bent, reaching for the knife I had dropped, but didn’t rise back up, although he tried.

  I stood there, every inch of me soaked in his stinking blood, as I watched the life struggle out of him. He managed to move his head so that he died with his eyes locked on my face, wishing he could take me out with him.

  I was unnerved.

  I expected my backup to come through the door, but there was no knock. No door opened. No one came.

  Once I was sure he was dead, I picked up my bloody dress, negligee and knife, went to the bathroom and washed them clean as I showered with my shoes on until the water ran clear. I wrung my clothes as dry as possible and put them back on.   I then wet a towel with water and soap. I cleaned my bloody shoe and handprints from the bathroom and went to the bedroom where I washed away the bloody shoe prints along with all the places where I could have left hand prints. I didn’t get close to the dead body or the blood that surrounded him.

  I remembered he had bitten my ear, and allowed myself to feel pain. I placed the towel on the floor and went back to the bathroom where I got a washcloth and drenched it with more soap. I stayed away from the blood on the floor as I leaned over the body and lathered up his mouth to remove my DNA as best I could. Once I had finished, I tossed the towel and washcloth in his pool of blood, and went out the back way in my wet clothes and clean purse. I was glad it was the middle of the night.


  I like sitting on a park bench watching children play. There is something about their naivete and innocence that ease my nerves a little. I never get tired of watching them. I need to see their innocence after I finish a job, and the job I just finished is leaning on me heavily. I couldn’t get the smell of blood off me no matter how often I washed. It hovered about me, haunting everything I did.

  I wondered what would become of the children, and of me. Which children would grow up to be happy? Which ones would end up like me, forced into a job they never wanted. Would they be haunted by the people they had killed, as I am haunted?

  I can never tell about all the things I have done and will continue to do. I am sworn to secrecy. If my usefulness comes to an end, I am toast, burned by the government agencies who own me. At present, I’m still of value to them. I know, because my private cell phone is ringing. Only Graham, an agent for Homeland Security, has access to my number.

  I don’t want to do another job. I haven’t recovered from the last assignment. I need my R and R, but that doesn’t matter.

  “Yes,” I say into the phone.

  “Be at my office in fifteen minutes,” Graham said, and hung up.

   Instantly, I stood and left the park bench.


  “Your plane leaves in an hour,” Graham told me.

  “An hour? Why the long notice this time?” He ignored my sarcasm. Needless to say, I didn’t want to leave Miami and go to the mountains much less stay in some backwoods cabin. Being I hadn’t recovered from the last job, I needed more time. Surely, he understood.

  “It’s your job,” he told me in his deadpan manner, which was more than I normally got from him when I complained.

  “I’d rather have your job. Let’s switch places,” I snapped.

  “I wish,” he said. Expression on his face suddenly showed through his usual nondescript blankness. There for a moment, he was a handsome man without all that non-caring bluntness. His no-color eyes even warmed to a cold gray.

  I shrugged and headed for the door, then turned back to face him as a question entered my mind.

  “Is Graham your first name or your last?” I’d done what he told me to do for five years, and I thought I had earned the right to know that much about him.

  “Neither,” he told me truthfully as a faint flicker touched his lips. “Is 771-0001 your first name or your last?” He repeated my cell phone number as a sudden twinkle showed in his eyes, but the twinkle lasted for only an instant.

  I was not and never had been a living person to him, only a cell phone number he called when a job needed done that required my specific skills. I realized it was very unusual for him to have me meet him in his office instead of in a restaurant or on a park bench.

  “Will this assignment be hazardous to my health?” I asked.

  “They all are.”

  “And this one is especially so?”

  “Piece of cake.”

  Piece of cake would be for me to fly into the Charlotte-Douglas airport, rent a car from Avis, travel to the mountains, do my job, and be back in my Miami apartment in less than a day. He had rented me a cabin in the woods for this job.

  Suddenly, all signs of friendliness disappeared and he was less than his inhuman self again.

  “You have your assignment. Never, and I repeat NEVER, forget your training.”

  He was right. There for a few moments, he and I both had forgotten our training. That was a big no-no. Forget your training and you could be the one who ended up dead. I didn’t like forgetfulness.

  The most desperate feeling took possession of me. I had the strongest urge to cross the space between us and throw my arms around him. I yearned to feel my body pressed next to his solid, muscular frame, become part of his endurance, his strength. I craved being connected to another human being if only for a few moments.

  That was not to say I missed the raw, dangerous power that oozed from him as freely as sweat on a hot day. But, I had never seen him sweat, not even when we met in the park on an above 100 degree day.

  A strange feeling overcame me. It was as though I would never see this man, who was my almost invisible boss, again. My life flashed before my eyes as a sudden premonition hit. A cold shiver ran up my backbone and puckered my flesh. He knew 771-0001 would not return.

  The shiver turned to hot anger. He was sending me to my death!

  He must have sensed my realization, for he stood, moved to the door and opened it. I moved also, stood on my tiptoes, stretched upward to reach his height, and clasp him around his neck. Of all the things he expected from me, kissing him was not one of them. Surprisingly, he reacted like a man instead of a calculating robot.

  I was right. His lips were flaming and his body rock hard, but only for a fleeting moment. He grabbed me by the shoulders, shoved me through the door, and closed it with a final click.

  “Humph!” My confounded hormones were acting up. Another unusual happening.


  When I reached the sidewalk, a taxi was waiting for me. I only had time to rush by my apartment, grab the carry-on bag I kept packed, and get to the airport in time to board the plane. I had no husband, no boyfriend, no friend, no parents, not even a dog, cat, or goldfish to miss me when I was gone. If I never returned, there would be no search for me, no missing person bulletin filed. I would be gone and forgotten as completely and as fast as yesterday morning’s mist.

  Miami sun sizzled on my bare arms as I got out of the taxi and walked to the terminal. I opened the folder Graham had given me as I went inside. The file contained the new person I had become.

  My new driver’s license had a West Virginia address and a good picture of me. I was five years older than my right age, but my birth date was correct, as was my height and weight. My name was different from any Graham had ever given me before, Monica LaSali. Instantly, Monica Lewinski came to mind. Who said Graham didn’t have a sense of humor?

  Suddenly, I was angry with myself, angry with Graham, angry with hormones, and most of all, angry with my own stupidity. I knew better than to like a kiss – any kiss. I knew better than to be attracted to a man – any man. I even knew better than to admit Graham held some attraction for me. Yet, I was wise enough to look truth in the eyes. I worked for him not only because I was good at my job, although I was good and I knew it. There was a stronger reason. Something inside me had become both attracted and dependent on Graham. I was well aware of the paradoxical psychological phenomenon where a hostage becomes attracted to their captor. In all logical conclusions, Graham was holding me hostage, and I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

  Even though there were times when I wanted to, I never lied to myself – ignore some things, maybe, but I never lied. Why hadn’t I ignored Graham today? Why didn’t I disappear to some South Sea island and give myself a name I liked? Maybe I would – after this job. I hadn’t worked for Graham without learning a few of his tricks of the trade and how to produce them.

  By the time the plane landed at Charlotte-Douglas, I had myself under control and psyched up for the job that lay ahead of me; although, I wasn’t looking forward to it. Going to the mountains during the middle of summer should be pleasant for me, but it wasn’t. I had been looking forward to early morning runs on the beach, sipping mojitos in an air-conditioned restaurant, reading novels until my mind was a total blank. In other words, I wanted a vacation. Killing wasn’t as thrilling as it once was. I no longer needed the power surge, the ability to take away an evil life.

  Maybe that was what Graham and I both had realized as we looked into each other’s eyes. I was getting fed up with this job, and just maybe he felt the same way.

  For an instant, I allowed myself to imagine that powerful body of his hunkering over mine on some South Sea island. Our coupling would be earth-moving, but what about afterwards? Would he hand me cash in an envelope, say, “Stay close. Another job in five days.” Or would he say, “Take a month’s vacation.” Or, “Get lost unless I call.” One never knew about Graham.

  Once the plane landed, I took my carry-on and made my way to the car rental. I quietly took my place in line and waited. ‘Never draw attention to yourself’, was one of the rules of business. You wanted no one to remember you. Perhaps that was one of the reasons I was good at this job. Everything about me was average. I wasn’t overly shapely, overweight, overly ugly, or over prettyly. I was the kind of woman who would be forgotten a minute after you saw me.

  “Next,” called a computer digitized voice. “Will the customer please go to line three.” I went to an empty spot in front of a woman.

  “I have a car reserved for Monica LaSali.” It always felt strange when I first used a new name. There was no end to the millions of names and identities that could be created, or to people who never existed. Monica LaSali would have parents, grandparents, school records, work history, social security card, the whole bit. When my job was completed, Monica LaSali would disappear from all records faster than she had been created.

  The Avis worker typed into the computer and found a car reserved in my new name. One glance at my driver’s license easily confirmed I was the woman in the picture.

  I left the terminal to find that a June day in Charlotte wasn’t much cooler than a June day in Miami. It was 102 degrees in Miami and 98 degrees in Charlotte. I unlocked the car door and opened it. Heat hit me like a furnace. Still no different than Miami. I got into the car, thankful it had cloth seats. At least the dark blue Honda Civic had a good air conditioner, but it still took several minutes to cool the inside of the car down.

  Hickory was still extremely hot. Lenoir was becoming comfortable. Blowing Rock was downright cold to a Miami woman. Blowing Rock appeared to be a quaint town sitting on top of the earth. Yet, I could see mountains surrounding the town that were even taller. I felt as though I had traveled upward until I had reached the top of the world.

  “You’ve sent me all the way up to heaven this time, haven’t you, Graham?” I thought. Usually I was sent to some dirty rathole of a town. I went in fast, did my job, and got out fast. I was a hit quick and get out person. This job was to be different from any other I had done. Graham wanted names, addresses, and well-kept secrets of drug dealers and gunrunners. He also wanted the location of the cash, that was being laundered, and gold, the universal currency. I didn’t usually do this kind of recon work. Graham had others with more expertise in such kind of work. He called them his bloodhounds. I was a runner. He also had bulldogs and heavy hitters.

  I turned off the air conditioner and pulled into a Scotchsman Convenience store. It was time I asked someone for directions. I got out and stretched. I was surprised to find myself tired. I wasn’t old enough to get tired this easily, but I wasn’t a frisky twenty-year-old either. Living a hard life had taken its piece of flesh out of me.

  I went inside, got a bottle of ice water from the cooler, set it down on the counter and opened my purse. The cashier rang it up. I handed him two dollars.

  “Anything else I can do for you?” he asked in an accommodating way as he gave back my change without ever looking at me. Amazing how people did their jobs until it was nothing other than a routine, so much so even people became a routine instead of living breathing beings. I knew.

  “Can you tell me how to get to Newland?” I could tell he was a local before he spoke. He had on blue jeans that had faded naturally, and a green t-shirt. I guessed him to be about my age, but he looked ten years older in body and in face. I longed to tell him he should take better care of himself, for he was going to seed at an early age, but I used restraint.

  “There’s the easy way and the short way. Which one do you want?” he asked.

  “I’ll take the easy way.”

  “Good choice, although the short way is more scenic; plus you get to drive through downtown Blowing Rock. It’s a beautiful town, well maintained for the pleasure of the tourists. It has a lovely park where you can sit on a bench and rest a spell. You can also get plain ice cream at Kilwins or the really good Italian gelato across the street at ReVive,” he told me in his salesman’s voice.

  I wondered if he was paid extra to advertise for different businesses.

  “I’ll take the directions,” I told him with a smile. He smiled back.

  “The short way is you take Highway 221 around the backside of Grandfather Mountain. Now, the easy way is to take 321 into Boone, take a left on Highway 105 at the two-story Wendy’s, go to Linville and take a right at the red light, then keep going straight until you reach Newland.”

  “Sounds easy enough,” I told him.

  “Yeap, for most folks.”

I didn’t question his remark or take offense.

  “Thank you,” I said, and left.

  Easy nothing. If this was easy, I was glad I hadn’t taken the short way. Not only was the traffic almost as bad as in Miami, I had to stop twice more to ask directions to Newland, once in Boone and once in a place called Tynecastle. The Tynecastle place was rather small, nice, and out in the middle of nowhere. The buildings used rock construction to give an earthy appearance. I stopped and went into another Scotchsman Convenience store and asked directions.

  Newland had a different feel than other towns. I couldn’t find the correct words to describe it. I tried quiet and homey, which fit and yet weren’t exactly right. Peaceful, laid-back, a place where people slept safely during a long night, a place where parents could raise their children without being afraid of letting them out of their sight. Maybe it was a place called home.

  I was also lost as to in what direction to go next. The country town was a lot different from a city. In the country long roads went to nowhere. I knew it because I had mistakenly traveled on several of those roads already. Plus the buildings were too far apart. All this open space made me uncomfortable. I stopped at a service station/Subway to get directions this time.

  “Well-l,” drawled the woman at the Subway as she thought my question over. “It would be my guess that’s Joe Bledsoe’s cabin on Hickory Nut Gap Road.” She turned to the man at the cash register. “What do you think, Buster? Don’t that sound like Joe’s place?”

  “Sounds about right to me.” He nodded his head in confirmation as he looked out the window toward the gas pumps.

  “How do I get there?” I asked in my most mild tone of voice. I certainly didn’t want to sound as lost and out of place as I felt. Nor did I want them to see me pull my hair and cry, which I found tempting and very likely.

  “You’re in luck,” Buster told me. “Right there is Joe now. Needs him a little gas, I’d say.”

  I’d say so too, since the man had the nozzle in the gas tank of his Chevrolet truck. I wasted no time in analyzing Joe Bledsoe. He was in his forties, clean-shaven, and clean dressed in faded blue jeans and a button down collar shirt. What impressed me was his truck. It was bright red and shining with wax. I felt something akin to relief. If Joe Bledsoe was the kind of man who took care of his belongings, then I would not have to spend time cleaning crud out of the place Graham had rented for me. Graham had been known to place me in some rough places. He wasn’t the choosy type where I was concerned, at least in the accommodations he placed me in.

  “I bet he can take you to his cabin,” Buster nodded in affirmation. “You best run out there and catch him. He paid for his gas with a debit card.”

I hurried outside into the cool mountain air. “Are you Joe Bledsoe?” I asked in a much too quick and condemning tone of voice.

  He eyed me over. “Depends on who wants to know.”

  His demeanor wasn’t challenging or defensive. He was putting  me in my place for the way I had asked. I deserved it and forced myself to give him a warm smile. I always was uncomfortable when I met people. I had no trust in other human beings, and was justified in my action. I was the bad person dealing with good people and I knew it. If only I could slip in during the concealing darkness of night, do my job, and then be gone before daylight, I could tolerate myself better. I could even hide in crowded Miami and pretend I was the normal, everyday girl next door. In Miami I was.

  “Sorry if I sounded abrupt. I’m exhausted and totally bewildered. I rented a cabin for the summer and I don’t know where to find it.”

  He warmed to the female helplessness I tried to infuse into my words.

  “I see. You must be Monica uh - - -”

  “LaSali. The gentleman inside said you might show me the cabin?”

  “I’m in a mite of a hurry, but I reckon I can run a little late.” He took out his cell phone and punched in a number. “Call me,” he said into the phone and then turned to me. “Follow me and don’t dwattle.”

  I instantly got into the Honda and pulled behind the truck. He got in and drove off with me following close on his bumper. Dwattle? I suppose that was the opposite of hurry.

  Talk about a crooked road! The one Joe Bledsoe took me on could have won a prize for crooked, but he maneuvered each curve at a high rate of speed that a man might drive on a familiar road. I stayed close to his bumper although I wanted to slow down. I was greatly relieved when he took a sharp left onto a dirt track. He had to slow down and so did I.

  We were in the middle of a forest with no other houses in sight. Weeds were brushing the sides of his truck because the road was so narrow and rutted. Some even swiped at the smaller Honda. I hoped the weeds weren’t woody enough to leave scratches. I hated to see good things marred.

  Bledsoe stopped the truck in front of a log cabin a little bigger than the Miami apartment I rented. It looked rustic and forlorn. Loneliness radiated through the logs as well as the rusty tin roof. I frowned. Graham hadn’t spent a lot on my accommodations. Usually, when the job forced me to linger a few days, he did provide me with places that had creature comforts – like a bathroom, heat or air conditioning. I wasn’t sure this rustic cabin had those. I had the image of a hand-painted sign I once read. Does a bear do it in the wood?. Well, I was in the woods – way back in the woods, and I had an idea there were bears among other wild creatures.

  “Here you are,” Joe said to me as I reluctantly got out of the Honda. He handed me a key. “Don’t lose it,” he warned. “Cost you two bucks if you do.”

  “Thanks,” I took the key from his calloused hand as his cell phone rang. He ignored me as he answered it.

  “Hell-o?” he drawled. “Yeah, Allandro, I only called to let you know I would be running a few minutes late.”

  The caller must have asked how late as I turned my back to Joe Bledsoe as though I wasn’t listening.

  “Not much. Ten, twenty minutes. I’m on my way now.” He snapped his phone closed and stuck it into his jeans pocket.

  “Allandro?” I couldn’t stop myself from questioning. “That’s an unusual name.”

  “Yeah, Allandro Barilla” he replied as he got into his truck. “I’m building a house for him. Have a good vacation,” he added as an afterthought. “Gotta run.”

  I looked after the red truck. Now I knew the reason Graham rented this cabin for me. Allandro Barilla was the man I came here to kill.


Chapter 2

  The cabin was a cabin and that was about the best I could say about it. At least it had a functioning bathroom, plus air conditioning and heat, if a fan plus an electric heater counted. It was definitely a summer rental. I could imagine the cold air that would blow in the dry-splits I saw in the log walls. The rock fireplace was more for looks than warmth. More heat would go up the chimney than would ever enter the room. Joe had built this place for function instead of luxury. Some people probably liked the going back to nature feeling it gave. It allowed them to walk hand and hand with their ancestors of a hundred years ago.

The place would be called rustic, if I was being complimentary, destitute if I was being honest. It had the bare necessities and nothing more.

  I knew someone had made a brief attempt at cleaning it for my arrival. There were broom prints remaining in the dust on the uneven wood floor, and the tiny counter top surrounding the small sink and stove had water spots where someone had wiped it down with a damp cloth and failed to dry it. However, the place would serve my purpose, for I didn’t plan on being here long enough to complain. I would get the information Graham wanted from Barilla, kill him, and disappear. Simple as that.

  Why Graham had bothered to rent me the cabin for the summer was puzzling, but part of my training was never to question my boss or his reasons for doing what he did. My job was to do as I was told without ever knowing why. Period.

  The boss didn’t care how I did the job as long as I disappeared afterwards, never to be a suspect. I was to always appear to others as a sweet, young woman innocent of all evil thoughts or wrongdoings.

  Little did anyone suspect I was put through hell on a regular basis just to keep my skills sharp.

  My cell phone vibrated against my leg. I didn’t need to look at the caller ID. Only one person knew I was 771-0001.

  “What?” I answered it, apprehensive.

  “How’s the cabin?”


  “Good. Easier for you to wipe it clean when you leave.”

  I felt a bit bewildered to go along with apprehensive. Small talk from Graham? It didn’t happen.

  “What’s up?” I demanded, although I knew it was sort of a question.

  “Social call,” he said, and my heart skipped several beats. No way!

  “And . . .” I drew the one word out to indicate just about anything.

  “There is live music and dancing at the Pink Pig Bar-B-Q in Newland tonight. Go.”

  I was totally speechless. According to training, the less visible I was the better chance I had. I wanted to ask him questions, but knew better.

  “What time?” I said instead, hoping it didn’t sound like I was questioning him.

  “Be there at six and leave at ten.”


  “Eat,” he continued. “Be friendly, but don’t dance with anyone, ever.”

  “Can do.”

  The connection went dead. Typical Graham.

  At least I could eat barbecue, which didn’t hold much appeal. I ate light, always. I couldn’t afford an ounce of fat on my body. Toned, muscled, and quick, and never in excess of anything.

  I washed my face, combed my hair, and looked at Monica LaSali in the eight inch by ten inch mirror over the bathroom sink.

  “You’ve aged,” I told her. “Wonder where the graveyard is for aged women such as us?”

  I knew it had to be somewhere. I didn’t believe a bunch of ex-women like me would be allowed to run the streets free-of-will. How much longer did I have? Could there possibly be a few hunched-backed, gray-haired, wrinkle-faced women out there who were deadly? I didn’t think so, but I wouldn’t be surprised.


  The Pink Pig Bar-B-Q was smaller than I expected, and without the hay bales. I was disappointed at their absence. Then, I suppose that was because hay bales would have taken up too much room since the place was packed and customers were waiting in line to order at an inside counter. There was also a line of cars at the take-out window. I quickly concluded barbecue was a mountain favorite.

  From Piggy’s buried ashes such a snare

  Of barbecue is flung into the air

  That not one true believer passing by

  But shall be overtaken unaware.

  I read the sign as I stood in line for fifteen minutes just to order a garden salad. I didn’t exactly get the message of the sign, but I suppose whoever hung it up did.

  “A garden salad with honey mustard, please.”

  “No garden salad,” the lady taking orders told me with a friendly smile. “We have potato salad, macaroni salad, and Jell-O salad side dishes.”

  “Jell-O salad,” I said, not having the faintest idea what it would be.

  “And . . .?” questioned the lady.

  “That’s all.”

  She shrugged like I was odd and asked no more.

  I got half a cup of green Jell-O mixed with cottage cheese in a Styrofoam cup. The green with white dots looked interesting, but I wasn’t over-ready to dive in with the plastic spoon.

  I looked around the room hoping to find an empty table to sit at. There were three people getting up from a table for four in the far corner – no tables for one in the place. I selfishly took the table wondering what in blazes I could do to occupy myself for four long hours.

  The three older men with long, gray hair, who were setting up musical instruments, didn’t look that entertaining or musical. I concluded younger, tattooed musicians would show up anytime now.

  Instead of musicians, Joe Bledsoe and Allandro Barilla showed up. I recognized Allandro Barilla from the picture Graham had shown me. They were standing in the middle of the room with heaping plates of barbecue, baked beans, coleslaw, and hushpuppies. Joe spied me and the only empty seats at the moment. He didn’t hesitate. He and Barilla pulled out chairs and sat down without my invitation.

  “Hope you don’t mind company,” Joe said. “We’re casual here. See an empty seat and grab it. We’re all neighbors and friends in this town.”

  “That’s good to know,” I told him sweetly. I was trying not to look at Allandro, although I wanted to, and did observe every inch of him. He was short and round all over. Even his ears were round and sticking out from under black, greasy looking hair that hung to his knit shirt collar. His cheeks were round and pink. His mouth was round with tiny upper teeth showing. His teeth were not human-flat, but k-9 round like a dog’s. His lips were not pink. They were purplish in color and so dry he kept licking them with an extremely pink tongue as though they were covered in something that tasted to his liking.

  Joe chose to do the introductions.

  “This fellow with me is Allandro Barilla, and this lovely young lady is Monica LaSali, who is renting my little cabin on Hickory Nut Gap Road.”

  “Charming,” Allandro said in his most suave tone as his black, round eyes took in every inch of me.

  “Nice to meet you,” I said politely as I allowed my gaze to meet and hold Barilla’s eyes for an instant before I returned them to my salad. I wanted both of them to get the impression I was a reserved and somewhat shy woman.

  Never had I seen more deadly eyes in the face of a man. I knew he could, and did, kill without consideration or remorse. The only thing living behind those eyes was an abnormal lust. It wasn’t the lust that came with normal passion. It was the lust for killing, for destroying life in any way possible. The more painful and humiliating the way was the better. I had known men like Barilla. It was part of my job to know and be subjected to them – before I was ordered to kill them.

  At odd moments  my job didn’t seem too bad.

  “Well-l,” Barilla strung the word out with a fake drawl in his fake Italian Jersey accent. “No husband?” Malevolent delight shined out of his eyes as his pink tongue licked faster at his dry lips.

  “He was unable to come with me,” I lied, hoping I sounded regretful. I wanted to stop his thoughts of me right then and there. I hoped a husband would do it, but I knew better with a man like Barilla.

  Barilla’s eyes were burning into my face and never looked at my hands.

  “Interesting. You’re not wearing a wedding band.”

  I allowed my face to blush as though I was easily embarrassed. “I don’t wear one. I work at a hospital with machines that have currents flowing through metal. No rings. No jewelry. It’s the rules. I could lose a finger. I find it easier to leave jewelry in a drawer than chance forgetting.”

  “Most convenient.” His eyes said he knew I was lying. “How long have you worked at the hospital?” Renewed interest touched the chubby face as though some wonderful idea had just occurred to him.

  “Since I graduated from college.”

  “What college?” Barilla continued.

  “You wouldn’t recognize the name,” I told him with honeyed sarcasm. “It was a Christian college. My father and my grandfather were both Baptist ministers. What college did you attend?” I couldn’t stop myself from asking.

  I knew he was a high school dropout and was sensitive about it. Actually, I knew almost everything about him. Graham was good at briefing.

  “I graduated from Harvard Law School,” he lied without a sign of restraint. “I practiced law in Chicago before I moved to this quaint little place.”

   “Interesting,” I said. Barilla was lying without one give-away inflection, which meant he lied frequently and with enthusiasm. I turned my attention to Joe Bledsoe. I already knew why Barilla came to this town. Yet, Bledsoe seemed to believe not only what I was saying but also what Barilla was lying about. Did he have a reading people flaw or was he being coy?

  Our discussion was halted by the loud twang of the gray- haired men who were tuning up their instruments.

  “Do you dance?” Barilla asked as the twanging eased.

  “No,” I told him firmly.

  “Didn’t think so. That’s why Baptists never have sex standing up. They’re afraid people will think they’re dancing.”

He laughed uproariously at his own joke. I didn’t crack a smile and Bledsoe didn’t either, but there was disapproval in Bledsoe’s expression.

  “Is your cabin satisfactory?” Bledsoe asked as a way of changing the subject, and shutting Barilla up.

  Bledsoe couldn’t possibly know I wanted Barilla to talk a lot. “Yes, it will do.”

  “I had planned on fixing it up some before you arrived, but Allandro has kept me busy.”

  Barilla ignored Bledsoe’s comment. “Is that all you’re eating?” Barilla eyed the remains of my Jell-O.

  “Dessert,” I told him.

  “You need ice cream in rum sauce,” he continued. “Lots of it. You’re too skinny and uptight. Getting fat and drunk would do you a world of good.”

  “Baptists don’t consume alcohol,” I told him.

  He burst out laughing and then sobered enough to talk. “You and I haven’t associated with the same Baptists.”

  “I’m sure that is true.”

  “Don’t Baptists wear makeup either?” Barilla taunted me as though he were having a great time.

  He didn’t know I cared little about makeup or his assumed insults. “My father and grandfather never wore it either. Do you?”

  Joe Bledsoe let out a burst of laughter, and Barilla had the ability to grin, although anger was rushing hot in his blood vessels. The tubby little man had the intelligence to know when he was being called a queer. I knew I should not have said such a thing. It might have been considered unprofessional, but I couldn’t resist one little jab.

  “You best get on with eating your food, and stop badgering my renter,” Joe told him with a pleasant smile. I liked the way he smiled. It made him appear to be the kindest person in the world, one you could trust with your life, or your secrets.

  “He’s not badgering me,” I said with charitable tolerance. “Although I must admit I find him rather unusual and somewhat embarrassing.”

  “It’s an incurable characteristic,” Joe said kindly. “But, you’ll find he has a heart of gold.”

  I wanted to find a sizable amount more gold as it was part of my job to do so.

  “Whoa here,” Barilla injected. “Am I detecting a reason why you’re renting Joe’s cabin? Could it be the widower and the woman without a wedding band have a sizzling history? Not to mention present and future.”

  I was genuinely shocked by his statement and so was Bledsoe. I suppose our faces showed him the truth faster than all the words we could have spoken. Barilla might have been a straight F student, but he seemed to have something on the ball where reading people was concerned.

  “I never met Mrs. LaSali before today,” Joe said. “If she wasn’t married, my thoughts might linger a while on such a studious lady, but as it is . . .” He allowed his words to trail off to indicate what he wasn’t putting into words.

  I needed to say something to neutralize what I was feeling, which was a mixture of anger and disgust. “I’ll keep your phone number in case I ever get a divorce,” I told him.

  Bledsoe took the intended compliment in stride. Unless I missed my guess, he could not care less what I thought about him. He was content with himself and did not need anyone’s approval.

  Barilla was watching us; his tongue licked a little faster.


Chapter 3

   “Joe!” came a chirpy voice. “Care if I sit with you?”

  I looked up to see a woman with bright blond hair and excessively applied makeup. She was doing everything in her power to look and act younger than her age, which could have been between sixty and seventy-five, depending if she had ever undergone the surgical scalpel. I couldn’t tell if she was an old woman who looked younger, or a young woman who looked older. I found myself looking for scars around her hairline, but her hair was fluffed around her face.

  “Hello, Hillary. Please do sit down. This is my new renter, Mrs. Monica LaSali. Mrs. LaSali, this is Hillary Clifton. Hillary owns at least half of Newland.” I got the impression that Joe was not pleased at her arrival. However, he didn’t seem at all surprised.

Hillary Clifton beamed and seemed to take his words as a compliment. Then her eyes fastened on me and she dissected every inch of my face and the part of my body that was showing above the table before she finally spoke.

  “Don’t believe a word he says,” she chuckled. “You know how men are. They tend to stretch things.” She seemed to grow weary of me fast and glanced at Barilla. “Hi, Allandro, how’s the new house coming?”

  Barilla gave her a sleazy, full-faced grin. He’s mocking her, I thought. He wants to belittle her, but she wasn’t paying attention to him. Her focus was on Joe. She was studying him as closely as she had studied me.

  “Slow,” he answered. “Joe can’t work when he has his mind on you.”

  Bledsoe kept the pleasant smile on his face, but I sensed he wanted to kick Barilla-shinbone under the table. However, Hillary Clifton’s pleasure showed at his words, for she took them at an entirely different meaning than the insult Barilla had intended.

  “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Clifton,” I told her.

  “Don’t Mrs. Clifton me. First off, I’m not a Mrs. I’m a divorcee and fancy free. Second of all, I would have it no other way. And third of all, everyone calls me Hillary.”

  “Please call me Monica,” I continued in the somewhat timid voice as I smiled at the woman.

  “She’s a preacher’s daughter,” Barilla interposed. “You know what they say about preacher’s daughters.”

  “What do they say?” I asked innocently.

  “That they’ll give you a hell-of-a ride in bed or out of it.”

  I saw Joe tense.

  “Haw,” Hillary scoffed. “Any woman will if the man’s worth his salt. Problem is most men are nothing but overfed cows instead of stallions. They lay around complicating their digestive systems, chewing their cuds, and getting fat instead of training for the Kentucky Derby. You know how that is Allandro.” Her attitude had turned into taunting and I wondered why.

  “No I don’t. Fact is I’m the original Italian Stallion. Of course, considering your age, you can’t remember such things.”

  “You’re a real shit-head, Allandro,” Hillary said, and let out a bark of laughter that turned Barilla’s round cheeks from pink to red.

  I should become friends with this woman, even though she had poor taste in men and a loud mouth. It wasn’t like we would become bosom buddies, or even friends for long. What I wanted from her was close-up knowledge of Allandro Barilla. Instinct told me she had that by the armloads.

  Something caused Hillary to stop talking and look in a different direction. Her face lost some of its vitality as anger took over. All three of us looked in the direction she was looking.

  A huge man wearing dirty work clothes with mud still on his boots had just walked through the door. A crude straw hat, with both sides curled up, covered a full head of dark hair that could use cutting. The hat looked as though it had seen many a day of sweaty heads and dirty hands. The man appeared to have received many years of worse treatment than the hat. His face, his entire body showed exhaustion.

  “Humph!” grunted Hillary as she gritted her teeth together. There was sudden anger in her I did not understand.

  “Ignore him,” Joe told her. “He has a right to eat here the same as we do.”

  “He’s filthy.”

  “He’s been doing his job and he’s hungry, the same as anyone else in here. He only wants food. He didn’t come for the entertainment.”

  “There’s such a thing as washing up.” She shook her hands as though the sight of him had dirtied them.

  “He will wash up and everybody knows it. He wants to eat on his way home. No one should begrudge a man that.”

  “Blood Camp’s not far away. He’s being disrespectful to those who come into contact with him. Everyone here wants to enjoy their meals.”

  The big man ignored her and everyone else as he headed toward the restroom.

  “He must have seen your car parked outside,” Barilla taunted Hillary with a wicked smile twisting his O shaped mouth to one side. I got the idea he would dearly love to rip Hillary apart one little jab at a time.

  “I wouldn’t put it past him,” Hillary said.

  “I thought he was your favorite grandson-in-law,” continued Barilla with glee shining out of his deadly eyes. His eyes reminded me of a snake’s that had become overly excited at what its forked tongue had picked up on. I took a closer look at the licking tongue just to make sure it wasn’t split.

  “Ex-grandson-in-law,” Hillary corrected him. “The ex is a very important distinction.”

  So, that explained her anger. I wondered how she reacted when her ex-husband showed up.

  Several minutes later, he came out of the restroom looking much cleaner, all but his straw hat. Oddly, I found him attractive in a raw, rugged way. I took a second look at him. There was something about the man, something I couldn’t put my finger on. He was familiar in a strange sort of way. I was intrigued.

  “Philly wasn’t aiming very high when she married him, was she?” Barilla took my attention away from the big man - almost.

  “No doubt her mind was on a lower area,” Hillary shot back, refusing to let Barilla score one on her. “According to Philly, you should be envious, and he’s not even Italian.”

  “You never checked that out for yourself?” Barilla asked. “What kind of grandmother are you?”

  Hillary gave him a deadly glare. “Watch it boy. I’ve been known to chew up and defecate round little boys.”

  “So I’ve heard.” Barilla was not affected by her words. I got the impression he wanted to challenge Hillary on everything she said or did. There was a genuine dislike with both of them, one that drew them together like two animals striving for dominance.

It was then that the big man looked toward our table and our eyes met and held for a moment before I quickly looked away. There was something in those dark green eyes of his that troubled me to my core. I’d seen eyes like his before, I just couldn’t remember where or when.

  He didn’t hesitate. He walked over to our table as though he had no control over what he was doing and didn’t care.

  “Joe,” he said in way of greeting. “I’ve been wanting to catch up with you, but today has been a killer-rush.”

  “Not now, Hort,” Bledsoe was quick to tell him. “Maybe some time when Hillary and Monica aren’t with us.”

  No one seemed offended, least of all Hillary. It could be because she appeared to be in some kind of a trance while giving Hort the evil eye. At least words weren’t coming out of her open mouth, but her lips were moving.

  Hort didn’t look at Hillary or Barilla. He nodded at Joe, gave me a searching look, turned and went to the end of the line to wait his turn to order. I couldn’t stop from glancing his way. Even though he looked to be slightly overweight, there was no fat detectable, regardless of where I looked. That meant his dirty shirt and work pants covered up a lot of bulging muscles. I thought of the incredible hulk and wondered if more than his eyes turned green. The thought made me smile.

  “Hort was married to Hillary’s granddaughter for a grand total of six weeks,” Joe explained to me. “Then he dumped her for no apparent reason, other than he found other women more appealing. He broke Philly’s heart. She still won’t talk about their divorce or allow anyone to discuss it in her presence.”

  “Someday I’m a gonna give that man a left-handed castration,” Hillary mumbled. “I’ll teach him to make my granddaughter the laughing stock of this town.”

  “Aren’t you a little late on that?” Barilla said. “Your granddaughter has already made herself the laughing stock of this town, just as you have.”

  “Allandro,” Joe said his name as a warning, but it did no good. Barilla continued.

  “According to local gossip,” Barilla was delighted to inform me, “Hillary has already given a lot of men what amounted to a left-hand castration during her time, and her granddaughter couldn’t draw any more laughs in this town than she already has. A man might think they both belittle themselves deliberately, if they didn’t know both of them.”

  There was a pop and Barilla grunted. I knew Hillary’s foot had accidently connected with Barilla’s shinbone.

  “Don’t get physical with me,” Barilla warned her.

  “Who would want to do a thing like that,” Hillary told him.

  They both stared at each other with malice in their eyes, which Joe and I tried to ignore. Their malice could have been sliced with a knife.

  The young musicians didn’t show up. Those gray-haired men started playing their instruments so loud it was impossible to talk. I wanted to stuff cotton in my ears and leave the Pink Pig Bar-B-Q, but Graham said to stay until ten. I would.


  I woke up to a strange sound. It was coming from some kind of motorized engine, but I couldn’t identify what kind. Since I was living so far back in the woods, I thought I’d better check it out. I jumped out of bed, still in my night gown, and ran to the cabin door.

  Hort was dumping gravel in the rutted road. I was thankful. I had already thought about driving the goat path of a road after a rain storm. It wasn’t a pleasant thought. Hort obviously knew what he was doing for the gravel wasn’t dumped in a pile. It was in a thin layer and would require little grading to make a smooth road.

  Hort must have seen me standing in the door, for he stopped the dump truck, lowered the bed, cut the engine, and came to the cabin.

  I stood still, waiting.

  “Sorry I woke you,” he said.

  “No problem,” I assured him. “I had nothing better to do than sleep late.”

  This morning he was spotlessly clean with a freshly shaved face. I could even smell the lingering aroma of soap. I think it was Irish Spring. His cheeks were ribbon smooth and I found myself wanting to reach out my hand and touch his face. I did like the feel of a man’s face after he had just shaved. I suppose it was because it was such a rare occurrence in my life.

  “Kinda feels good on occasion,” Hort said.

  “What does?” I asked, because I still had my mind on Hort shaving after he had scrubbed the dirt off his muscled body.

  “Sleeping late.”

  “Oh, yes. On occasion. Would you like a cup of coffee?” I asked, surprising myself as much as it did him. I saw no-way in his eyes, but his mouth said something different.

  “I reckon I could take five minutes off, but no more. I don’t like wasting time. I believe in doing my job, and doing it efficiently.”

  Fortunately, I had purchased a coffee pot with a time setting. The aroma of freshly perked coffee already filled the tiny cabin.

  “This place is kinda little for two people,” Hort commented as he came inside. I got the impression he was trying to scrunch up so as not to take up too much room. “Good thing you don’t have a husband or young’uns else you would be crowded in here.”

  I agreed with him on that, but I avoided making a comment as I had already told Barilla I was married and it was best not to contradict my stories. I found two mugs in the cabinet and poured coffee. I took a container of half and half from the refrigerator and a bag of sugar off the counter and set them on the table.

  “Have a seat, and help yourself,” I told him as I sat down at the table. There were only two chairs. He sat down lightly and the chair didn’t break. He held his weight solid and taunt, not deadweight. The fact confirmed my assumption he was muscled and toned instead of fat. Men without body tone sat hard and with their weight on the tailbone. Men like Hort held his weight in his upper body.

  “Thank you, Ma’am,” he said politely, but I could tell there was some type of discomfort running through him. “I didn’t mean to barge in on your dinner last night. I needed to make sure Joe still wanted the road graveled this morning before I scheduled something else.”

  “You didn’t barge in. Mine was the only table with empty seats when Mr. Bledsoe and Mr. Barilla came in.”

Amusement touched his face. “And where Joe goes, Hillary follows.”

  “I wouldn’t know about that. I do know she’s not fond of you.”

  “That’s no secret.”

  “She didn’t seem to be overly fond of Mr. Barilla either,” I commented in hopes he would give me information on Barilla. I had learned that many tiny bits of information always lead to a person’s downfall.

  “No one is fond of him.”

  “Really? Why is that?”

  He gave my face a close inspection as though he could look me in the eyes and read my mind. “You’re playing dumb, aren’t you?”

  I smiled, surprised at his perception. “I’m trying to be nice; also I want to know why everyone I’ve met so far seems to dislike Mr. Barilla.”

  “He thinks we’re all dumb hillbilly hicks and he is our lord and master.”

  “I can see that, but is it enough of a reason to dislike someone?”

  “It’s enough for folks around these parts.”

  “What’s his and Joe Bledsoe’s connection?”

  He observed me again before he answered. “Allandro needed a house built and Joe needed the money from building it.”

  “That’s it?” I questioned lightly.

  “That’s it.”

   I wasn’t prepared to believe their connection was that simple. After all, Graham had rented me this cabin from Bledsoe. He could have rented me a different place had there not been a reason. Graham was known to hold back knowledge when he wanted me to discover it. I suppose he thought it kept me on my toes.

  “They seemed to be close friends,” I continued to probe.

  “Joe is friendly with everybody, or hadn’t you noticed?”

  “I only arrived yesterday,” I told him.

  “Why?” he asked.

  “Why what?”

  “Why did you come to Newland on your vacation? Most folks don’t unless they are familiar with the place, or have a good reason for coming here. It’s not like Newland is the metropolis of well-known vacation sites.”

  I didn’t want him asking me questions, but I should give him some kind of answer. “I was looking for a quiet place.”

  I could see he didn’t believe me so I added the first thing that popped into my mind. “I’m thinking about writing a book and I didn’t want distractions.”

  He almost laughed. “Bring your computer with you?”

  “As a matter of fact, I did.”

  “Works good, don’t it.”

  I frowned. “I haven’t gotten it out of the car yet.”

  “Joe doesn’t have computer hook-up here. If I was going to write a book that would be one of the first questions I’d ask from a prospective landlord.”

  I must have looked genuinely surprised. “It didn’t occur to me. I assumed everyone had internet connection.”

  “No television or telephone, either.”

  “I’ll have a phone line put in,” I said as a solution to my problem.

  “Not till the end of summer you won’t.”

  “Why not?”

  “Phone company is backed up.”

  “But . . .” I objected.

  “Things don’t happen fast in these mountains. That’s one thing outsiders find surprising. You see, outsiders have to develop patience once they come here. We don’t have all the city conveniences and spur of the minute solutions. We’re a laid-back place with laid-back people.”

  I knew he had just given me a prick, but I ignored it. I wasn’t here to take offense from anyone. I came here to do a job and that was all I came to do.

  “What is my solution?” I asked as innocently as I possibly could.

  “Use the public library or go to the coffee shop.”

  “Coffee shop?”

  “Yeap,” Hort drawled. “We don’t have a Starbucks but we’ve got the Ugly Duckling. They serve a wicked cup of coffee. A man can hardly stand to drink it, but northerners and delicate little women claim they love the bitter taste so much they simply can’t live without it.”

  “I might love their internet.”

  “You might,” he agreed as he looked me in the eyes. I held his gaze until he looked away, but continued talking. “Folks there are a gossiping bunch. I’ve been told you can linger there long enough and you’ll find out all about every person in a twenty mile radius.” He pushed his chair back and stood up. “My five minutes are over. Thanks for the coffee. It was a lot better than what the Ugly Duckling serves a man.”

With those words said, he turned around and walked out the cabin door with his back held was ramrod straight, with wide shoulders connecting to unusually powerful arms. He was certainly a big man, but his tread was light without vibrating the wood floors. He had my full attention for there was something I should know about this man, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I needed to spend some time figuring out what I was seeing in him that was familiar.

  Hort had a very good point. I did need to take my computer to the Ugly Duckling, especially if it really was the local gossip spot. I had to find out everything about Allandro Barilla that Graham’s other sources hadn’t found out – like where he kept his secret papers and his stash of cash and gold. I had an idea guns and drugs were always kept in transit. Only a fool would hold onto those. After I found that information for Graham, my job would be easy. Much like a burning candle, life could be extinguished in seconds.

  I showered, dressed, and waited until Hort finished his job and was gone before I left the cabin. At least the narrow driveway was improved and Hort’s big dump truck and dozer had mashed down the scraping weeds and briars that grew alongside the road.

  The Ugly Duckling wasn’t a big place, but it was full to running over with people. I figured the place had a person for every three square feet of space. I looked around for a seat with a computer hook-up. I saw an attractive young woman with long blond hair who looked as though she was ready to curse her computer. I judged her to be a few years younger than me. The man beside her stood up, packed in his computer, and said: “See ya, Philly.”

  She lifted her hand and waved him on his way without saying anything in return.

  I took his place and hooked up my computer. If I was claiming to be a wanna-be novelist, I had better allow the residents of this small town to see me writing.

  It was a dark and stormy night, I wrote for lack of anything better. Only the lightning allowed me to see my surrounds, I continued. Cold fear gripped me like claws of some prehistoric beast. I knew my life depended on what I did in the next few moments. I wrote, pretending not to notice the beautiful young woman named Philly, although I was aware of every move and every facial expression she made. I wished I could see what she was writing on her computer, but I couldn’t. Maybe she really was the novelist I was pretending to be.

  Unexpectedly, she turned her head to observe me.

  “You must be Monica,” she said as she took in my small stature and curly black hair cut within a couple of inches of my scalp. Black wasn’t my normal color and curly wasn’t my hairs’ natural condition. Three weeks ago I had a phone message from Graham. “Have your hair shorn, have a kinky perm, and die your hair black.” I did, knowing I was being prepared for an upcoming assignment. I was surprised when he didn’t tell me to spend a week in a tanning booth and then get artificially spray tanned into deep ginger brown. Sometimes I would receive a message of “Go blond.” “Become a redhead.” Or even “Punk-rock is in style, or can you pale-up a bit?”

  I stopped typing and gave her a warm smile. “Yes,” I said. “I am.”

  “You met my grandmother last night, Hillary Clifton.”

  I longed to add that I also met her ex-husband, but decided against it.

  “I did, and you must be Philly?”

  Her smile broadened and her blue eyes twinkled knowing her grandmother had talked about her. “What did you think about her? She’s something else, isn’t she?”

  “Your grandmother?”

  “Who else would I be referring too?”

  “Interesting, to say the least,” I said. “A lovely lady.”

  “You’re being diplomatic. Grandma has never been a lady or tolerated people being diplomatic in her life, and she would be disappointed to hear your description of her.”

  I was a bit surprised at Philly’s words.

  “Grandma takes great pride in claiming to be the best whore Newland ever had.”

  A bit surprised! I was struck speechless with that information.

Philly was very pleased with herself. “Thought that might get your attention.”

  She certainly got my attention alright. Needless to say, I was shocked by hearing Philly say such a thing about her grandmother to a stranger.

  “I don’t know how to respond,” I told her.

  “A Baptist preacher’s daughter might be shocked at such bluntness. On the other hand, she might not be.”

  “I am shocked,” I told her, only to have her shake her head as though she wasn’t about to believe me. She didn’t miss a beat as she continued talking.

  “I’ve got this talent for reading people and I’ve an idea it would take a lot to really shock you. You’re just pretending to be a goody-two-shoes, right? I think you’re tough as a hard rock on the inside, while you try to sprinkle a little sugar coating on the outside for people to see.”

  “Has Sylvia Brown, the psychic, entered your body?” I asked her while still trying to maintain my good humor.

  Philly ignored that remark and continued. “Grandma was born here in Newland and raised by her grandmother until the age of eleven. That was when her grannie died and her father took her away. You see, her mother died when Grandma was born and she had no other close relatives.

  “Needless to say, her dad was a no-good who figured out how to make money with his daughter. Otherwise he would have dumped her beside some deserted road. My grandfather was one of her customers. He was enamored with her, took her away from the sordid life, and married her. Problem was he couldn’t forget what Grandma had been since the age of eleven. He tried to hide her away where no one knew her, but Grandma wasn’t about to be shamed and hidden away.”

  “Is that why they divorced?” I ventured to ask, mainly to have something to contribute to the conversation other than wide-eyed silence.

  “One of the reasons. The main reason was that Grandma grew to hate him. He wanted her to bow down and kiss his feet, so to speak, since he had rescued her from such an evil way of living.”

I could understand her grandfather’s way of thinking.

  “He was embarrassed by what had been forced on Grandma, and was determined to keep her evil beginning a secret.”

  I frowned.

  “Ahh,” she said. “I see you catch on quick. Grandma was forced to do what she did, but Grandpa wasn’t forced to be one of her customers. Grandma took that into consideration and decided Grandpa was stepping way out of line for condemning her for something she couldn’t help.”

  “At least he rescued her.”

  “That was the attitude Grandpa took with her, but Grandma didn’t see it that way. She had been used by men all her life and she decided she wasn’t going to be used by her husband, especially when she wasn’t getting paid for it.”

  Philly hushed and waited for me to say something. “I see,” I mumbled not knowing how to respond.

  “No, I don’t think you do understand. You’re wondering why I’m telling you this, since you are a stranger and my grandma is none of your business, right?”

  I nodded.

  “Grandma refuses to hide what she was or what she is to anyone, especially to a stranger. I’m telling you this so you’ll know I’m proud of my grandma.”

I had no argument with that.

  “There’s one other thing you should know.”

  “And that is?” I asked when she hesitated to continue.

  “Actually there are two things. One: keep your paws off Joe Bledsoe because my grandmother wants him, and two: stay clear of Hort Wilkes. He still belongs to me.”

  Somehow, her words didn’t sit well with me. To be honest, I was aggravated. “Listen,” I told her sharply. “I don’t care what you, or your mother, brothers, sisters, grandmother, or anyone else are - or have been. I didn’t ask for anyone’s life history, or your deepest, darkest secrets. To be honest, I don’t give a flying leap, but . . . and I repeat, BUT don’t be telling me whom I’m to put my paws on or off.”

  Much to my surprise, she smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that.”

  I didn’t believe a word of that sentence.

“I can’t stand a woman who doesn’t have the gall to stand up for   herself,” she added.


  “You heard me. I don’t want to be friends with a woman who doesn’t have her own belly of guts. I was afraid a Baptist preacher’s daughter would be nothing but another goody-two-shoes,” she grinned. “You see, I get lonely,” she said as a way of explanation. “I know everyone around here and they know me.”

  “And that makes you lonely?”

  “It makes and keeps me really lonely.”

  “And you want to use me to remedy that loneliness?”

  “Didn’t I just get through telling you that?”

  “True Confessions aren’t my bag of tea, and neither is remedying other people’s loneliness.”

  “Not even when it will remedy your own?”

  “I’m not lonely,” I told her firmly only to see her grin break into a full smile. Her face became charming and lovely in her own special way.

  She shrugged her shoulders. “Keep lying to yourself if it helps. The moment you walked in here, I knew you were the loneliest woman I have ever known – and that includes me and my grandma.”


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