Thinking about the fundraiser kept me up half the night, wondering how I was going to pull it off. My mind racing, I obsessed my way through the most logical choices:
We could sell parts from jacked cars.
Or incredibly ugly clothing.
We could send Crazy Jake out to photograph weddings.
Or rent out Delmar and Reggie by the hour. They had enough groupies waiting for them every day outside the gates of Monroe Street. I had no doubt we could make a few bucks.
The solution to my problem hit as most solutions do, right around three in the morning. That gave me the rest of the night to worry about my other problem-the one involving the dead secretary and her just-as-dead-but-not-gone boss.
Believe me, even though I was thinking fundraising, I hadn’t forgotten about either Lamar or Vera Blaine. I even had a plan. The next morning, dragging from lack of sleep but looking as good as ever thanks to a little under-eye concealer, a gold-colored organic cotton tunic that brought out the fiery highlights in my hair, and a pair of khakis, I arrived at Monroe Street with a bus schedule in hand.
After all, I couldn’t show up in my Mustang when I went to look for a used car.
I convened an early-morning meeting with my teammates inside the mausoleum, the better to keep Greer from sneaking up on us, or our fans outside the fence from catching wind of our plans. Waiting for everyone to get settled, I glanced around.
Big points for Absalom. He’d agreed to enter the mausoleum, even if he was plastered against the door. Of course, he’d brought reinforcements. He had a new, small voodoo doll clutched in one hand. It was dressed in leather, and its hair was the color of popcorn-buttery, light, and fluffy.
As soon as he sat down, Delmar opened his sketchbook and got to work drawing one of the architectural details inside the mausoleum. For all I knew, it was that dental thing Ella had talked about the day before. Reggie was leaning against the wall. Sammi looked bored and a little sticky in a white vinyl top, white vinyl shorts, and a sparkling headband designed (I’m sure) to look like a halo. It was a little too out there for me, but Crazy Jake liked it. He took a picture.
I tried for a smile and hoped to hell it looked enthusiastic. This was a tough crowd; they couldn’t be easily fooled.
“We’re going to do an art show,” I said.
When my brilliant suggestion was met with stony silence, I looked around at my teammates again. “Come on, I thought you’d all be a little more enthusiastic.”
“We would, if we cared.” This from Sammi, who pulled an emery board from a purse made out of a Cheerio’s box and got to work on her nails.
“We don’t know nothin’ about art,” Reggie said. “Unless you’re talking porn.” He wiggled his eyebrows. I pretended not to notice.
“What, we’re supposed to hang with some snooty art crowd?” Delmar was not happy even thinking about this. “You expect us to sip wine and walk around some stupid, stuffy art gallery and-”
“Now, now.” From his place near the door, Absalom quieted the protests. “Let’s hear the lady out,” he said. “She’s probably as crazy as a loon, but you never know.”
I thanked him with a smile. “My mom used to chair fundraisers all the time,” I told them. “You know, for my dance school when we planned a trip to New York to see the Rockettes, or for one of the medical associations my dad belonged to, or…” I waved away the rest of the explanation. I could already see that my teammates weren’t interested. Even with Absalom’s support, I knew I’d be in trouble if I didn’t get right down to business.
“I remember when she did a couple art gallery fundraisers. They brought in a lot of people and a lot of money. And you heard what Mae said yesterday, the rules state that the team that brings in the most money is going to get extra points in the competition. But Delmar, you’re right. The people who came to those art shows, well, they were a boring crowd. Which is why we’re not going to feature some artist nobody’s ever heard of whose paintings nobody likes anyway. Our art show is bound to be way more interesting than any tea Team One could host. Our art show is going to feature all of you.”
I waited for the shouts of triumph. The ones that would proclaim my brilliance.
When all I got was blank looks, I acted like it didn’t matter and went right on.
“Absalom, you make your voodoo dolls from pieces and parts of old cars, right?”
He looked at the doll in his hands. “Not always old cars. Sometimes, when we chop one that’s really fine-you know a Hummer or a Lexus-I like to do something a little special. This one’s got bits of the leather upholstery from a BMW 335i, see.” He held up the doll. “The hair’s made out of stuffing inside the front seat of an Audi Q7,” he said. “And the body-”
I stopped him with a look. It was probably best if we didn’t know any more details. “Sammi, you have your original clothing designs you could show off, and Delmar, you’ve got your drawings.”
“I have pictures.” As if to prove it, Jake took one.
“And me?” His arms crossed over his chest, Reggie’s chin shot out. I knew a challenge when I saw one, and I was prepared for it.
“I was going to ask you to be our curator,” I said, pulling out one of the art history degree words my parents had paid a bundle for me to learn and I’d never used. “You’re going to be in charge of designing the displays and figuring out how to put it all together.”
Until Absalom breathed, “No shit!”
And with his official approval noted, the rest of the crew went right along.
“Can we sell our stuff?” Sammi asked. “I mean, if it’s on display and somebody asks-”
“I don’t see why not. And you can keep all that money.” I doubted it was how real art shows worked, but there was no way this crowd was going to cooperate otherwise. “We’ll make our money from the tickets we sell to people to get in to see the show. I know Ella will let us use space at Garden View for the exhibit, and she’s got lots of connections. We’ll get cheese and fruit and wine donated. It’s perfect.”
It apparently was. When they went out to begin the work of assessing the damage, then lifting and resetting the headstones that had been toppled over the years, my teammates were actually discussing the show and what they’d each do to prepare for it.
Did their unusual cooperation and good spirits make me complacent? Absolutely!
Which is why I wasn’t prepared when just a couple minutes later, I heard a scream that made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end.
I raced into our section and found that Absalom, Reggie, and Delmar had beaten me to the fence. Jake didn’t waste any time. He was already taking pictures of Sammi, eye to eye with that cheatin’ dog, Virgil.
The screaming I heard was coming from Virgil. I didn’t recognize his voice because it was a couple octaves higher than any guy’s ought to be. But then, he had a good excuse. Sammi had waited for him to get nice and close, then reached through the fence and grabbed him by the balls. She wasn’t about to let go, either. The more he howled, the harder she squeezed.
There was plenty of commotion, what with Virgil’s wailing, Sammi’s triumphant shouts, the rest of the team’s urging her on, and our fans outside the fence cheering like they were at a football game. That would explain how Greer and her ever-present cameraman appeared out of nowhere.
They started filming the moment Greer realized there was murder in Sammi’s eyes and her face was twisted with anger. “You got a lot of nerve comin’ here and tellin’ me Carmela’s pregnant,” Sammi yelled. “Gee, Virgil, I don’t suppose you know who the kid’s father is, do you?”
In spite of his pain, Virgil managed a smirk. It was not a good strategy.
Sammi’s face went pale. Right before a color like fire shot up her neck and into her cheeks. Honest to gosh, it looked like her head was going to explode.
That’s why I moved forward and dared to put a hand on her arm. “Sammi-”
“Don’t you touch me! Don’t you ever touch me.” She let go of Virgil and turned on me so fast, I never had a chance to react. Sure, she was shorter than me, but Sammi was all muscle, and she was worked into a frenzy. If I wasn’t so surprised, I would have fought back. But I was surprised, and her hands went around my throat before I could do anything about it.
Her fingers dug into my skin, harder, tighter, and my windpipe closed. Stars burst behind my eyes. It happened so fast, I don’t think I even had a chance to pass out, but the next thing I knew, I was lying flat on the ground and Sammi was on top of me, squeezing the life out of me.
It took all of Absalom’s muscle to drag her off, and the second he did, Delmar dropped down next to me. He put an arm around my shoulders and helped me sit up. “You OK?”
I would have answered him if I could talk. Or even drag in a breath.
Reggie was on the other side of me. He put a bottle of water to my lips.
I sipped. I sputtered. My throat opened and I gasped, hauled in a breath, coughed, and realized that I was covered with dirt. First things first. I had my image to worry about. Before I did anything else, I brushed the dust off my khakis.
“Don’t try to talk,” Reggie said, at the same time Greer stuck a microphone in my face.
“We’ve got it all on tape,” she said, as breathless as I was, though as far as I could see, she didn’t have nearly the same good reason I did. “It will make great evidence. You are going to press charges, aren’t you?”
Absalom still had a hold on Sammi, who was red in the face and breathing hard. She looked over at the sidewalk outside the fence just as I did, and seeing that Virgil was gone, some of the stiffness went out of her shoulders. She closed her eyes, leaned back against Absalom, and a single tear trickled down her cheek.
Don’t get the wrong idea. I wasn’t about to go all Ghandi or anything. I would have loved to see Sammi out of my life and locked up where she couldn’t do me-or my clothing-any more harm. But I sure wasn’t going to give Greer the satisfaction of catching my revenge on tape.
I told her no with a shake of my head.
The excitement over, a very disappointed Greer stayed around just long enough to watch Delmar and Reggie help me to my feet. I brushed off the seat of my pants, and when Sammi opened her mouth to say something-I hoped it was an apology-I stopped her.
“We’ll talk later,” I promised, each word painful and rasping. I looked down at the mess that was my outfit. “I’ve got to get cleaned up. I’ve got someplace… someplace to go.”
And God help me, I headed toward the Porta potti.
After all, I had to shop for a used car, and while I didn’t want to look too prosperous, I sure couldn’t go looking like I did.
Porta potti aside, there was one consolation in the whole ugly incident: after tussling with Sammi, I was pretty sure that talking to Bad Dog Raphael was going to be a piece of cake.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: I hate public transportation. It’s smelly. It’s dirty. It doesn’t run on my time schedule, and as fate would have it, I ended up sitting next to an old guy who smelled like stale cigars and talked to himself.
But I will say this much for it-the bus I got on near the cemetery spit me out right in front of Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation.
Even if I hadn’t looked up the address, I would have recognized the place anywhere. It was hard to miss that car up at the top of a twenty-foot pole. Or the giant mechanical bulldog driving it, the one that was waving one arm to entice buyers in.
I was there to get an overall impression, both of the Big Car Nation and of its owner, so I stood on the sidewalk for a couple minutes and looked around. My ten-minute bus ride had kept me well within the Cleveland city limits, in a neighborhood where the McDonald’s across the street was built to look like a hacienda in a Zorro movie. There was a same-day check-cashing place to the right of the car lot, and on the left, a convenience store. It had bars on the windows and a security guard outside.
Bad Dog’s car lot took up the better part of one whole block, and aside from that monstrosity of a hacienda, it was the brightest spot I could see in the urban blight that surrounded me. There was a line of cars parked along the perimeter of the lot, and every one of them was washed and shined to perfection, their attributes screaming from their windshields in red and blue crayon: AUTOMATIC! LOW MILEAGE! NEW TIRES!
Beyond the cars was a cinder-block office. It had a door on one side with a welcome sign above it and another sign below that declared HABLAMOS ESPA~NOL. To the left of the door was a picture window, and inside, I could see a couple people scurrying around. Neither of them was Bad Dog.
Before I could take another step, I was corralled by a middle-aged man with thinning hair and thick glasses. He was wearing jeans and a powder blue sport coat that had seen better days. Then again, I was dressed in khakis that had a smudge of dirt across the butt and a shirt that had a hole in one elbow. If nothing else, my walk on the cemetery wild side was teaching me to be tolerant when it came to fashion disasters.
The man’s nametag told me he was Bud. He stuck out a hand. “You look like a little lady who could use some help.”
I was nice enough not to point out that no matter how thick his glasses, there was no way I looked like a little lady. Not to anyone. Instead, I started right in.
“I need a car,” I said, and I was sure to add, “A good one,” so that I sounded serious.
I shrugged. “It has to be dependable,” I said. “And I don’t have a lot of money.”
“Dependable is not a problem.” His grin showed off crooked, yellow teeth. “How’s about you just come on in and fill out a credit application.”
“Shouldn’t we look at cars first?”
His grin got bigger. “See, that’s the mistake most folks make,” he said. “They get their hearts set on a car, then find out they can’t afford it. You don’t want that to happen to you, do you, little lady?”
I assured him I didn’t, and I followed him inside the cinder-block building, where I sat on a metal chair and filled out a credit application with the pen Bud took out of his shirt pocket. It leaked. When I was done, Bud trotted back in my direction. “You know, Bud…” I gave him a simmering little smile. “I was hoping to meet Bad Dog himself.”
Bud’s gaze went briefly to a door across the office marked PRIVATE. It was closed. “He’s a busy man,” he said. “I can help you just fine.”
I kept my smile firmly in place, even when Bud stepped a little closer. “I’m sure you can. It’s just that… well, I’ve seen Bad Dog on all those commercials, and it’s like… well, I feel like I practically know him. That’s why I came here in the first place. And then when I mentioned it at work… people told me…” I bucked up my courage and leaned in closer to Bud. He smelled like old socks. I held my breath and whispered, “Somebody said Bad Dog was in prison once.”
Before Bud could answer, a weird thing happened. A red carnation appeared right in front of my face. Surprised, I stepped back and slid my gaze in the direction of Bad Dog’s office. The door was open now, and Bad Dog himself was on the other end of that flower. Close enough to touch, and definitely close enough for him to hear what I’d just said.
I stepped back and looked Bad Dog over. It was, after all, what that bus ride and this nonsense about needing a car was all about. Even if I could come right out and ask if he had anything to do with Vera Blaine’s death, there was no way he was going to tell me. But that didn’t mean I couldn’t dig, just a little, and size him up while I was at it.
Like he was in the commercials I’d seen, Bad Dog was wearing an expensive suit and a smile that crinkled the corners of his dark eyes. That scar above his left eye should have been gross. Instead, it enhanced his dark and deadly image. His hair was the color of strong coffee. His voice was as rich as Dove dark chocolate. Oh yeah, Mack Raphael was suave, all right.
I told myself not to forget that if everything Quinn said about him was true, he was also unreformed and plenty dangerous.
“Thank you, Bud, I’ll take it from here.” Bad Dog dismissed the salesman with a curt nod then turned a smile on me as sleek as the Porsche my dad used to drive. “Red carnation. Get it? Bad Dog’s Big Car Nation?”
I smiled like I thought it was funny, and when he offered the flower again, I had no choice but to take it.
“I save them for the pretty customers,” he said. “For you…” He stepped back and looked me over as carefully as I had just studied him. “Maybe I should have brought out a whole dozen.”
“That’s so sweet!” I sniffed the flower because I figured that’s what I was supposed to do. “I knew you’d be just like you are in your commercials. So-”
“Handsome?” Bad Dog laughed.
Years of dating had done nothing if not taught me how to blush on command. “I was going to say friendly.”
“Yet you’re worried. About my reputation. I couldn’t help but overhear what you said to Bud. You know, about my background. Does that matter when it comes to buying a car?”
“If I can’t trust you…” I could twinkle with the best of them, and I pulled out all the stops. “Then I can’t trust your cars.”
Bad Dog laughed. “We’re going to get along just fine.”
“But only if your prices are good. And your cars are dependable. And that means, really, I need to know about-”
“Prison. Yes, of course.” Bad Dog made a gesture with one arm that invited me to walk with him. I did, and he led me outside. “Sedan or SUV?” he asked and that was that-the subject had officially been changed. “Color? Is it important? Yes, of course, color is always important to a woman. I’ve found that the more beautiful a woman is, the more she cares about color and style. I think that means you must care very, very much.”
I was supposed to be flattered. If there wasn’t that whole drug empire/murder/prison thing to consider, I actually might have been. The way it was, I could see I was going to get nowhere fast with Mack Raphael. Not if I wasn’t clever, and very, very careful.
“Sedan,” I said. “Red if you have one in my price range. I’d prefer American made, leather seats if at all possible, a moon roof, and I’d rather not have a gas guzzler. I’m all about saving the environment.”
“Of course.” He led me to a maroon Ford. No moon roof and it had more than a hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Raphael opened the driver’s door. “Get in, why don’t you? Try it out. We could take it for a test drive.”
We could, but being that alone with Mack Raphael was not in my game plan.
I slid behind the steering wheel. “It was Central State, wasn’t it?” I asked him.
“If you know so much, why do you need me to confirm it?”
“Fair question. But like I said…” I skimmed a hand over the dashboard. It was spotless. “I can barely afford a car, and I can’t afford one at all if it isn’t going to last. If you’re not honest-”
“As the day is long!” He held up one hand, Boy Scout-style.
I smiled as if I was satisfied. Right before I asked, “How long ago?”
He thought he was home free. Which was why his expression clouded. “Before you were born.”
“I’m older than I look.”
“I was there from ’82 to ’90.”
And Vera Blaine had been murdered in ’84, I reminded myself. I also told myself not to lose heart. If Bad Dog could run drugs from inside the prison, surely it couldn’t be hard to arrange a hit and the frame-up of a warden he hated.
“I was a kid then,” I said. I ran my hand below the edge of the front seat, found the little lever, and moved the seat back. “It must have been terrible.”
He knew I wasn’t talking about the height of the last person to drive this car. “It was an education. Prison always is for those who are smart enough to see it that way. Believe me, I learned a powerful lesson. That’s why I’m an honest businessman today.”
He smiled down at me.
I smiled up at him while I wondered how I could tippy-toe my way back into a topic as delicate as a lengthy incarceration. Have no fear, I would have found the words.
If Absalom hadn’t shown up.
“There you are.” He strode through the line of parked cars like he had every right to be there, and when he got over to the maroon Ford, he glared. “Told you, woman, we don’t need no new car. The one you got, it’s good enough for you.”
“Family squabble?” Bad Dog looked sorry to find out I had a significant other. “Perhaps I should let you two talk privately.”
“Don’t need to talk.” Absalom reached into the car, grabbed me by the arm, and hauled me out. “We ain’t buying a car. Not today.”
I shook him off. “That doesn’t mean I can’t look.”
“Means you’re wasting this good man’s time. And you got work to do back at Monroe Street. Crazy woman works in a cemetery,” he told Bad Dog. “Which only goes to prove how really crazy she is.”
With no choice but to go along with Absalom, and itching to find out what he was up to and why he was there, I was about to walk away. Bad Dog stopped me, one hand on my arm. “Monroe Street. That’s not just any cemetery. Isn’t that the cemetery where Jefferson Lamar is buried?”
I blinked-actually, I batted my eyelashes-and asked, “Who?”
Bad Dog put a friendly hand on my back. “Just a name from the past. And not important. I hope when you both decide you need a car, you’ll come back to see me. Promise?”
I did, and with a straight face, too.
And I kept that straight face firmly in place until Absalom and I crossed the street and walked into the Mc-Donald’s parking lot.
“What the hell was that all about?” I asked him.
“You ain’t askin’ the questions today, I’m askin’ the questions,” he growled. “Like what the hell you doin’ tanglin’ with a man like Bad Dog?”
“We weren’t tangling. We were talking. About buying a car.”
“Except you don’t need a car.”
“And you-” He led me over to where my Mustang was parked. “How-”
Absalom opened the door and got behind the wheel, and I got in on the passenger side. “What-”
“Knew you were up to something you shouldn’t be up to. Figured you must be with the way you been readin’ over files and hurryin’ out at all crazy hours. Had to follow you,” he said. “Didn’t think I could do that very efficiently on a bus.”
“But…” I opened my purse, pulled out my car keys, and dangled them in front of his face. “I’ve got my keys. How did you-”
His laugh rumbled through the Mustang. “You think not having keys can stop me? You’re crazier than I told Bad Dog you were.” He wheeled out of the parking lot and cruised down Lorain Avenue, heading back toward the cemetery. At the next red light, he popped open my glove box and reached inside. He handed me the new voodoo doll I’d seen at the cemetery that morning, the one with the leather dress and the fluffy hair.
“That there is a juju guardian,” he said. “It provides protection from evil.”
And he must have known what I was going to ask, because he kept right on talking. “I don’t know what you’re up to, Pepper, but I can tell you one thing. If you’re going to go messin’ with a man like Bad Dog Raphael, you’re going to need all the protection you can get.”