Sample Day Part Two

I decided to just make this simple Sample Week on my oft-neglected blog.

The following are the first two chapters from my latest release, Innocence. While being the fourth book I’ve self published, in the character timeline, it actually takes place before the first book I published, Our Own Devils. This book introduces the characters of Malcolm ‘Mac’ Connally, Alex Pine, and others. It delves into the reasons why Omaha PI Mac Connally left the Omaha PD, his frayed relationship with his father, and how he and Alex meet.

Again, it is available for the Kindle at Amazon.com, for the Nook at BarnesandNoble.com, and in paperback from Lulu.com.

Enjoy, spread the word, and please check out my other titles!

(Also, it would be swell if you could buy them, too.)

CHAPTER ONE

 

          It was the most beautiful December I could ever recall.  The temperature was in the low sixties, the sky was clear, and thus, I could barbecue.  I knew the Greenhouse Effect was good for something.

          Mike, Trey, and I were sitting out on the balcony of the apartment I had near 120th and Pacific.  I had broken out three tender and beautiful New York strip steaks I had bought and frozen during summer and had them sizzling on the grill.  Actually, I had only started to cook the steaks.  Trey eventually commandeered the grill and took over.

          Despite all the time I’d spent with Trey Daniels over the years, he still excelled at annoying the hell out of me.  It usually happened when I was attempting to cook something for the two of us, or even just myself.  Trey was a full time chef at the French Café in the Old Market district of Omaha.  Of course, Trey had always had a holier-than-thou attitude when it came to cooking.  The only meals Trey tended to leave me with were grilled cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers; Trey conceded that I did cook one hell of a burger.

          So I left the grilling to Trey and stood in the corner of my balcony and smoked a cigarette next to Mike.  I had met Mike Lincoln during my time with the Omaha Police Department.  We had actually met in training at the state facility in Grand Island.  We had roomed together there and became close friends.  The friendship had endured through my less than friendly departure from the department and the establishing of my private business.

          I’d been out of the department for almost six months now and this was the first day I’d been able to spend with my two close friends.  Getting myself set up as a private investigator hadn’t been easy or cheap; I’d had to get my license, find a office space to set up shop (I eventually said screw it and set up in my apartment), and it was hard to pay off the ads in yellow pages and newspapers which proudly proclaimed: “Connally Investigations:  Willing to Serve”.  Mike and Trey gave me a lot of crap about that ad, thinking it sounded like the slogan for an escort service.  At least my business cards had been cheap.  For twenty bucks, I’d gotten two hundred business cards at a machine in a truck stop.  Not a bad deal, really.

          As a result of these mounting expenses, I’d been forced to take on any case that had the good fortune to come my way.  In the past few months, I had tracked down lost dogs, wallets, car and house keys, and followed possibly unfaithful spouses.  So far, my completion percentage was at least ninety percent.  Sorry, Bob, I guess you’ll have to get yourself a new billfold.

          With all of these crappy cases coming in, I had rarely spoken to Trey and Mike, let alone actually seen them.  Once I found a weekend off, I called up my two friends and invited them over.  I’d missed them terribly, despite their unyielding tendencies to give unlimited amounts of shit.

          “So, Magnum,” grinned Trey as he sprinkled seasoning on a steak, “has Higgins been giving you any grief lately?”

          Normally, this would be the average ‘so you want to be a PI like on TV’ gag.  However, I’d unconsciously worn both my black Hawaiian shirt and my Detroit Tigers cap.  I really needed to may more attention to what I put on in the mornings.

          “Yeah,” said Mike, “have you gotten any more ‘hot leads’ from Icepick?”

          They both started laughing out loud and toasted themselves from across the balcony.  We were drinking from a case of Samuel Adams beer that Trey had gotten for fifteen bucks at a Sam’s Club.  I figured Trey could give me as much shit as he wanted just as long as he let me drink his beer and he kept a close eye on my steak.

          I let the remarks pass without comment and kept on drinking my beer.  It was easy, I like beer.

          “Serious, though,” said Mike. “Was it worth leaving real police work for this?”

          I shrugged.  “Sure, I guess,” I said.  “At least now I only have to put up with ass hole cops like you some of the time.”

          “Ha ha,” he said, a sour grin on his face.  Lincoln was one of the most unapparent cops at first glance.  He stood only five foot eight, had a deceptively young face considering he was as old as I was, and he had what appeared to be an average build.  That build, however, was packed with the same tight muscle he’d had since he was an All State linebacker in high school and with all of the same quickness.

          Then there was Trey who looked nothing like a gourmet chef at a high class restaurant.  He stood six two, weighed 230 solid pounds, and could quite possibly toss any man off my balcony, clear the front lawn, and land them in the parking lot.  He had the size and strength of a bouncer but had the gentle touch and patience to make a perfect soufflé.  Who knew?

          “Working on anything now,” asked Trey.

          I took a final drag off my cigarette and tossed it into the moist grass below.  “Unfortunately no,” I said.  “I wrapped up a case on Friday and I’ve just been loafing around since then.”

          Trey flipped a steak on the grill and some of the juices sizzled on the coals below it.  I had always loved that sound.  “Wow, the ever eventful life of a private investigator,” he said with a grin.  “You’ve really got it made, Mac.”

          I chuckled a little.  “Yeah, sure I do,” I said.  “Look, I’ve got my own personal chef and he brings me beer to boot.  It doesn’t get any better than this.”  I smiled at him and gave him a wink.

          “Right,” he said.  “I must have forgotten to tell you that you owe me five bucks for beer and services.”

          “Ass hole,” I muttered.  Mike only laughed and drank his beer.

          The telephone could be heard ringing from the kitchen inside my apartment.  Several seconds later, the cordless phone I’d brought outside followed suit.  Mike beat me to the phone and answered it himself.

          “Thank you for calling Malcolm Connally Investigations,” he said, trying to make his voice sound thick and husky.  “We’re willing to serve.  How may I help you?”

          Jack ass.

          Mike listened attentively to the caller and made a big show of it.  He rested his chin in his cupped left hand tapped his lips thoughtfully with his index finger when he made low noises to show that he was paying attention.  After a few minutes, he finally covered the mouthpiece with his hand and said to me, “It’s for you,” in an almost falsetto receptionist’s voice.

          I merely glared at him.

          Mike handed me the phone with a grin.  “She sounds hot, too.”

          “Oh, that’s good to know,” I said as I went inside my apartment and closed the sliding glass door behind me.  Mike and Trey burst into laughter as soon as the door was closed.  My friends…

          I waited to speak until I was in the spare bedroom I had converted into my temporary office.  The room was still pretty bare.  I’d only been in business a few months.  I at least had a desk and a small two shelf filing cabinet to hold my modest files.

          “This is Connally,” I said.  “How can I help you?

          The voice on the other end was like a warm current of air in my ear.  There was an indescribable power to the voice that, despite the hint of uncertainty it had, made me shiver.

          “Mister Connally?” she said.

          I said yes.

          “Um, I don’t expect you to remember me,” she said.  “My name is Alex Pine, we’ve seen each other but we didn’t exactly meet.  I’m an actress working at the Rose Theater in the Old Market.  A few weeks ago, you did some work for my director.”

          Oh, no.  Please don’t say it.

          “I think you tracked down like his wallet or something?”

          Damn, just what I want to remembered for.

          “His name was Eisenhagen, do you remember?”

          Unfortunately.

          “Yes, yes, I do,” I said.  That’s it, Mac, keep your head up high, no shame.  “What can I do for you, Ms. Pine?”

          She was silent for a moment.  I could tell she was nervous and ill at ease about talking to me.

          “It’s really not for me,” she said.  “I’m calling for a friend.  Actually, it’s more like for the friend of a friend, if you know what I mean.”

          It was my turn to be silent.

          “Um, to be honest,” I said.  “I don’t.  Perhaps it would be easier if we could meet and talk about your problem face to face.”

          “It’s really not my problem, though,” she said.  Her voice had an almost astral quality to it.

          “That’s fine,” I said.  “But I think that since you’re the one calling me, perhaps we should meet and talk; you and I.  Okay?”

          “Uh, sure,” she said.  “But I’d hate to screw up your Sunday.  I’m not even sure why I called you today but. . .”  Alex Pine paused as she took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Want to talk about it over lunch tomorrow?”

          I smiled broadly.  I hadn’t even met this girl and I found myself already liking her.  “That would be just fine,” I said.  “Just tell me when and where.”

          Alex gave me the name and address of a diner in the Old Market.  I told her I was well acquainted with it and that I would have a table saved for us the next day at noon.  She thanked me for my patience.  As she said it, I could almost hear her smiling and it made me smile, too.  I said that she was welcome.

          “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me before tomorrow,” I asked.

          “No, I don’t think so,” she said.  “But did you know your business slogan kind of sounds like an ad for an escort service?”

          Poopy.

          “That’s been brought to my attention,” I said, feeling like a schmuck.  “I’ll see you tomorrow at noon.”

          We said good-bye and broke the call.

          My eyes were bright and the corners of my mouth were turned up into a goofy looking smile.  There was a spring in my step and a song in my heart.  I wasn’t really quite sure why, but they were there as I went back outside.  Mike and Trey looked at me oddly as I leaned into one corner of the balcony and tossed up a cigarette which I caught in the air with my mouth and then lit with one fluid motion of my Zippo.  I smiled at them with the cigarette in my teeth.

          Trey looked at me with blank eyes.  “What the hell’s your problem?”

          With a flourish of my hand, I said with an almost snobbish tone, “I have a client.”  I took a deep inhale of my cigarette and blew rings of smoke into the light breeze.

          Mike leaned over to Trey without taking his eyes off of me and said to him, “I think this oddly warm December weather is screwing with his head.”  Trey only nodded.

          The rest of the day was spent inside drinking good beer and eating perfectly prepared steaks and watching football.  I don’t think I stopped grinning for the rest of the day.  The Lions lost to Dallas by over thirty points and it didn’t even faze me.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

          The Old Market is to Omaha as the Quincy Market is to Boston.  It is occupied by quaint little coffee shops, out of the way stores that sell out of date vinyl records, odd little stores that sold useless nick-knacks and possible drug paraphernalia that spelled “shop” S-H-O-P-P-E, and some classy restaurants, such as Trey’s French Cafe.  Of course, there are bars, too.

          All the cultures of Omaha were pooled into the Old Market and existed there peacefully.  There were Asians, Hispanics, Anglos, Caucasians, Blacks, Jamaicans, damn near every race and nationality existing in the Old Market with a sense of cooperation and cohabitation.  I could never understand why the rest of the town had a problem with doing it.

          I parked my banged up Cavalier in a parking lot two or three blocks away from the French Cafe, took my ticket stub from the attendant, and walked down the cobblestone streets to my lunch date.  I had been referring to it as a ‘date’ to myself all morning and not knowing why.  I was going to a meeting.  I was to meet a prospective client or the friend of a prospective client, or the friend of a friend of a prospective client.  I wasn’t quite sure anymore.

          It was another sixty degree day in the Heartland and the public was out in force.  Men and women dressed either casually or for a day of heavy insider trading were walking through the market, going in and out of shops and stores.  Boys and girls already out of school for Christmas vacation walked hand in hand, a wistful glaze of young love in their eyes as they walked past me.

          For a brief and terrifying moment, I felt really old.

          I was dressed to impress.  I left my jeans and Hawaiian shirt behind at the apartment in favor of tan slacks, wing tipped cordovan suede shoes, a white button down collar dress shirt, a predominately sea blue colored tie with multicolored designs on it, and a tweed blazer.  Other than my gray suit back home, this was about as dressed up as I could possibly get.  I usually reserved the suit for weddings, funerals, public inquests, things of that sort.  On recollection, however, I probably looked like I was a recruiter for the Young Republicans.

          The meeting was at The Club Car, an oversized street car parked on the west side of one street that served lots of sandwiches and short order meals that wouldn’t kill you as fast as their counterparts at most truck stop diners.  Because I happened to like truck stop diners, but not the balls of lead they would leave in my stomach, I liked the Club Car quite a bit.

          It was agreed that I would arrive first and claim a booth for our meeting.  This way, Ms. Pine could walk up and sit down without much trouble.  If we tried it the other way around, she would have to shout across the diner for me while I wandered around aimlessly.

          I was seated in a small booth and sipping at a cup of coffee at five minutes till noon, watching coeds from one of the several high class and private colleges in town near the Market walk by.  I never in my life would have expected to see high cut shorts and bare midriffs in December.  Merry Christmas to me.

          The doors at the opposite end of the car opened.  A woman walked up the few steps into the car and in a brief moment I could feel something inside me change.  She had wavy blond hair which fell just below her shoulders.  Her mouth was slightly wider than most with full, lovely lips decorated with a lipstick the color of dull, worn velvet.  Her eyes were set perfectly on her face, her grayish-blue orbs searching the room.  Her movements were so smooth and fluid, as though she floated, rather than walked, through the room.

          She was simply the most striking and beautiful woman I had ever seen.  I immediately forgot all of my responsibilities and duties for the day and became entirely fixed on this one woman and her presence in the diner.  I desperately wanted her to sit across from me.

          And she did.

          My pulse seemed to stop and all of my senses seemed to go numb other than my sight and my olfactory sense.  I could smell an aroma about her that I could not quite place, but it felt strangely familiar as it tugged at some unknown corner of my being.

          I could still see her clearly, although everything else around her seemed fragmented and disjointed from reality; out of place in the continuity of time and space.  It was as though her presence was against the laws of physics and nature.

          “Midda Collowy?”

          Words floated past as though my ears were packed with cotton.  I closed my eyes and shook my head.  When I opened my eyes, my ears were clear and reality had settled back into its mundane uniformity.  At least the woman was still there.

          “Mister Connally?” she said.

          I took a deep breath and let it out as I spoke.  “Yes?”

          “I’m Alex Pine.”

          Sweet Jesus, thank you!

          She held out her hand and I accepted it.  On her wrist was the lingering scent of that same perfume.  She was wearing a pair of hip-hugger bell bottoms and a shiny, lime colored wrap around blouse with large, bell sleeves.  She looked good.

          “How do you do?” I said.  I was doing my best to try and sound relaxed and comfortable.

          She shrugged and smiled uncertainly.  She shifted in her seat and said, “Have you ordered yet?”

          My intention was to say, “No, I just ordered coffee.”  In reality, I said, “No, uh, coffee,” and pointed at my coffee cup like a little kid doing a show and tell.  I felt like I personally had just reverted back thousand of years in socio-evolutionary progress.

          Alex nodded and waved for a waitress to come over.  I quickly polished off my coffee in hopes that the hot fluid would burn out all of the crap in me that was preventing me from speaking like a mature adult.  Our waitress came over dressed like your average waitress from the fifties.  She looked more like an extra on Alice.  She came over smiling and looking a lot happier than an actual waitress in a Fifties diner probably ever did.

          She happily set down two glasses of water for us and handed us a pair of menus and rattled off a short list of the day’s specials.  It was odd, before I had met the enchanting Ms. Pine, I had been starving.  Now that she was seated across from me and I couldn’t help but look at her, even the coffee seemed more than I really needed.

          Our waitress smiled widely and hurried off with our orders.  I vaguely recalled hearing Alex order a bowl of some variety of soup.  I had apparently ordered half of a hot beef sandwich; news to me.

          Alex Pine shifted uncomfortably in her seat once again.  It took me a little bit to realize that my silent stare was fixed upon her.  Atta kid, Mac, leer and drool at your clients.

          I did my best to clear my throat as quietly as possible and tried to smile without looking like a lecherous sex fiend.  She blushed a little.  See how well the unobtrusive approach works, you big galoob?

          “So, Ms. Pine,” I said, “what is it that I can help you with?”

          Alex sipped at her water a moment and looked out the window for a moment.  She took in a deep breath and let it out evenly as she cocked her head at an angle and looked at me.  Her opaque eyes radiated a warmth that seemed to help put me at ease.  She gave such an aura of peacefulness.

          “You know,” she said with a quiet chuckle, “it seemed a lot easier to talk to you yesterday when we were on the phone.”

          I nodded.  “It suddenly seems a lot more real now, doesn’t it,” I said.  She shrugged and nodded faintly.  I nodded with her and drank my water.  Our waitress hadn’t bothered to refill my coffee cup before she had left with our orders.  “Perhaps it would help to just start talking about it.”

          She nodded and shifted in her seat again so that she was facing me fully again.  She started turning her water glass in a tight rotation on the table with her hands.  She swallowed audibly.  In the brief moments where her hands would lift from her glass, I could see them tremble slightly.  I contemplated patting her hand.  I decided against it.

          “Take your time,” I said.  “Just start from the beginning.”

          She looked up at me and smiled with half of her mouth.  It seemed to fit her uniquely and very well.

          “It’s kind of hard,” she said.  “It really started about two months ago.  Do you remember hearing about the robbery at the State Bank?  I think it was on the news and most of the papers.”

          I nodded.

          Alex nodded back.  “I guess the guy who pulled it off got away with something like fifty thousand dollars,” she said.  “They haven’t caught him yet, don’t know who he is, where he is. . .”  Her voice softly trailed off and she went back to turning her water glass around on the table top.  I didn’t press it further for the moment, mostly because lunch had arrived.  I did order the hot beef sandwich.  It even came with mashed potatoes and gravy.  Good for me.

          We were quiet as I seasoned my sandwich and potatoes with salt and pepper and Alex sampled her soup.  It must have been okay, she had more.  It looked like some kind of a Wisconsin Cheese concoction.  I’d never been a big fan of soups with cheese as main ingredient.  Oh well, I was pretty sure that I could forgive her for it.

          She was still quiet as she broke up a couple of saltine crackers and mixed them in with her soup.  Her face held an expression of deep contemplation.  She almost looked like she’d forgotten about our conversation and why she even here.

          After having a few bites of my lunch, drinking some water, and watching her carefully, I said, “And. . .?”

          She looked up at me and smiled, her cheeks reddening.  “I’m sorry,” she said sheepishly.  “I kind of forgot myself.  I was raised in a household where we didn’t speak at meals.”  I wondered for a brief moment why she asked to meet me for lunch, then. 

          Alex took another deep breath and shook her head clear again.  When she looked at me again, her face was somewhat grave.

          “I know who did it.”

          The muscles in my jaw slackened and I stopped chewing.  I was careful not to let my mouth fall open and disgust her.  I swallowed hard and quickly drank some water to put down a few pieces that weren’t quite chewed thoroughly.  I suddenly had a monstrous craving for a cigarette.  Too bad they prohibited smoking indoors in the whole damn state.

          I chuckled nervously this time and tried to hide any signs of sudden uncertainty I had.  Too bad the nervous chuckle kind of shot that to hell.  You’re the very picture of total confidence, Mac.

          “Um, don’t you think that’s the kind of information,” I said, “that should be taken to the police?”

          Alex shrugged and made an uncertain fluttering gesture with her hands.  “Usually, yeah, I guess,” she said.  “But it’s not that simple.  I don’t know the guy who did it; I just know who he is.”  She had some more soup.  I had a bite of potato.  My meal suddenly wasn’t that great anymore.

           “This is really where it gets complicated.  I have a friend, Valerie Morgan.  She’s the branch manager at the State bank.  She met this guy, he was a student at the University campus here in the city and he started working at the bank as a summer job.  He was a teller, the only guy working there, really.  They eventually got to know each other pretty well.”

          “Were they sleeping together?”

          She nodded.  “But it never affected the job,” she said.  “Well not directly, I guess.  I mean one day she blurted out to him how much she hated her job.  She’s been doing it for years now, you know?  And she’s just sick of it now.  A few weeks later, he calls her and tells her he’s going to save her from her rut, or whatever you want to call it.  He tells her to be at his place at such a time so he can pick her up and they can run away together.  Start a new life.  Stupid, happy shit like that.”

          She was pushing a small piece of a cracker around the bottom of her bowl with her spoon.  She had a very interesting look of frustration on her face.  The corners of her mouth were pinched inward with one side a little higher, her nose had a few new wrinkles, and her brow was furrowed.

          “What went wrong?” I asked. 

          She looked up at me almost vacantly. 

          “We know the robbery went well,” I said, “if you can actually say that.  If I remember correctly, he pulled it on a Friday–payday.  There was more money in the drawers.  If he worked at the bank he knew all of the little security precautions and the protocol a teller is supposed to follow during a robbery.  The tellers wouldn’t struggle, he knew about the dye packs and the bait money. . .”

          Alex cocked her head to the side.  “Bait money?”

          I nodded.  “Banks always keep a bundle of bills around just for a robbery,” I said.  “The serial numbers are recorded and used to track the movements of the person or persons who stole the money.  If a person really knows what their doing, they can become almost impossible to track and they won’t get caught.  Obviously, your friend screwed up somewhere, otherwise you wouldn’t be here.  So what happened?”

          Alex smiled at me.  It was impossible for me not to smile back.

          “How do you know all of this?” she said.  She rested her elbow on the table and held her arm up, resting her chin on her hand.

          I tried to act modest.  “This is what I do.  I’ve been doing this for well over six years.  I’m not about to say I know everything, but I know quite a bit.”

          She remained smiling at me for a moment.  It was warmer than the unseasonable sunshine outside.  She caught herself and went on.  “Anyway, you’re right.  He never met up with Valerie,” she said.  “He went to her place to pick her up, waited, and then left.  Valerie had decided at the last minute that she didn’t want to jeopardize the life she had—as rotten as she may think it is—for a worse alternative.”

          Our waitress finally returned to ask how our meals were and if we needed anything else.  I settled for the refill on coffee I’d been patiently waiting for since before my meal arrived.  Alex had cheesecake with blue berries.  I decided to let that pass as well.

          “He doesn’t have the girl,” I said.  “He has to go on without the woman for whom he launched this crazy campaign.  There has to be more.  Did he get out of town?”

          Alex shook her head.  “No, he didn’t,” she said.  “I don’t know what happened to him exactly, but Valerie said that he didn’t make it out of the city.”

          The coffee and cheesecake arrived along with the bill.  I tried not to get too excited about it.  I sipped at my coffee; it definitely wasn’t worth the wait.  At least Alex seemed to be enjoying her cheesecake.

          “How did you come to know all of this?” I said.  “Have you been in contact with him at all?”

          She shook her head.  “No, he called Valerie some time on Saturday.  He let her know that he was alive and okay.  She didn’t say where he was or anything, but she has a caller ID box that said it was from a pay phone here in town.  She wouldn’t tell me anything else.”

          Smooth robbery, screwed up getaway, some college kid on the lam.  It made for a good story; I only wished that I knew where it was I came into the picture.

          I leaned forward and folded my hands on the tabletop.  Alex was already half done with her cheesecake.  God, she was gorgeous.

          “Um, Ms. Pine,” I said.

          “Oh, please call me Alex.”

          I could handle that.

          “Okay, Alex,” I said.  I succeeded in not smiling like a love struck idiot as I said it.  “I hate to ask this, but why exactly are you telling me all of this?”

          Alex carefully set her fork down beside her unfinished cheesecake and folded her hands in her lap again.  “Can you help him?” she said.

          I looked at her no emotion on my face.  “What.”  It wasn’t a question.

          She brought her hands up and covered my right hand.  I felt my heart skip a beat and start working a little overtime.

          “Can you help him?”

          I set my coffee cup down.  “I don’t know what you may think,” I said, “but I don’t help fugitives go free.”

          Alex’s eyes went wide as she realized what she had said and squeezed my hand.  “God, I’m so sorry,” she said.  “I didn’t mean it like that all, really I didn’t.  What I meant is that can you help with the other trouble he’s in?”

          “There’s more?”

          She nodded. 

          I laughed out loud as I took my hand back and reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out a twenty.  I put it under the bill and took Alex’s hand.

          “Let’s go outside and talk,” I said.  “I need a cigarette.”

 

          I stepped out into the sunlight, took in a deep lung full of crisp, fresh air, and then lit a cigarette.  The nicotine was like a warm, reassuring embrace from my mother.  I really needed to quit smoking these things.

          Alex came out of the Club Car and stood in front of me as I put on my sunglasses and took another drag of my cigarette.  She looked embarrassed and awkward with her hands clasped behind her back and staring at the ground as she kicked at a few pieces of loose gravel on the cobblestone street.  She was wearing a pair of thick soled black shoes with three or four inch heels that made her nearly as tall as I was.

          “I’ve put you in an uncomfortable situation,” she said, “haven’t I?”

          A smile formed on my face and I chuckled as I blew out some smoke.  “Lady, I’ve been in uncomfortable situations for years,” I said.  “I see no reason to stop now.  Walk with me.”

          I started walking down the sidewalk without any destination in mind.  I was just walking.  I didn’t even look at any store fronts or the signs that hung out over the sidewalk.  Alex walked right beside me, only glancing casually at the shops as we passed them.  Then sun was warm on my back as we walked.  After half a block, I took off my blazer and carried it beside me.  I rarely carried a gun since I had left the force, so I didn’t have to worry about concealing anything.

          We stopped at a corner and I tossed my cigarette butt into a drain against the curb.  I turned to Alex who was watching me carefully, as though I could snap and have a fit at any moment which would draw attention to us.  Maybe I could do it and we could say we were performance artists or some crazy shit like that.

          My head was bent down and I was looking at Alex from just under my eyebrows.  I was fighting rather hard to not light another cigarette, after the meal and listening to Alex’s story, two seemed in order.  I kept my hands in my pockets and fumbled with my Zippo instead.

          “What ‘other’ trouble,” I asked.  My voice was calm and level, my breathing was steady.  I was in total control of myself and the situation.  In all reality, however, I had no clue what was going on around me.

          Alex shrugged and shook her head.  “I’m afraid I really don’t know for sure,” she said.  “All I know is that it’s something worse than just doing the robbery.  Valerie wouldn’t tell me what.”

          “But she knows what it is?  She knows what it is he’s gotten in to?”

          Alex ran her hands through her beautiful blond hair and looked out around the area.  People were moving around, laughing and talking, carrying shopping bags, and drinking expensive cups of coffee in paper cups with crazy illustrations and almost foreign looking writing on them.  None of them robbed fifty thousand dollars, I’d bet.  Even if they did, they must have done a better job than my mysterious fugitive had.

          “I don’t even think Valerie knows for sure,” she said.

          “If Valerie has this information, why are you talking to me,” I asked.  Then I smiled at her with about as much charm as I could build up at the moment.  “Not that I haven’t enjoyed your company this last hour.”

          For a moment, Alex smiled at me as well and I could feel something tangible in the air.  It was something both visceral and emotional.  A mass of clenched nerves bunched up in my throat.  I swallowed them down.

          Alex felt it, too.  I could feel it and see it in the way her eyes seemed to shine and in the color of her face.  Perhaps, though, she didn’t comprehend it the same as I did.  She wrapped her arms around herself and stood there holding herself.

          “Valerie’s scared, I think,” she said as she rubbed her upper arms.  “She cares about him, you know?  She doesn’t want to see him get trapped or harmed in any way.  If it came down to it, she’d naturally want him to concede to the lesser of the two evils.  When I suggested that she go for help, I think she immediately thought he’d just be thrown in jail or be forced to turn himself in.  She almost had a seizure when I said she should maybe call you.  That’s why I’m here and she’s not.  Valerie doesn’t even know that I’m here.  I wanted to meet with you first because I thought that if I could talk with you and could be sure that you would try to help him, not just throw him in the clink, then Valerie would talk with you and let you help her.”

          Have you ever thought that some days reality likes to throw you unbelievable curve balls aimed directly for your head just to see how you’ll react?  Over the past two years or so, I had begun to think this was the case for me.  Lord knows that I had been ducking and taking hits on the head a lot in that time.

          “So will you help her?” said Alex.  She was looking at me with a pair of big doe eyes that were just melting me down.  Whether she was doing it intentionally or not, the doe eyes were working.  I had always been a sucker for the big doe eyes.

          My mouth was dry, my palms were sweaty, I wanted a drink and was craving another cigarette, and the big doe eyes were turning me into mush.  I am such a weak, pathetic, little man.

          “I can’t promise anything,” I said.  “What I can tell you is this:  I will listen carefully, I will not criticize or make decisions for anyone.  And most importantly, if I end up leaving this whole scenario behind without getting involved, I will not go to the police with the information I have.  Good enough?”

          Alex looked at me with wide eyes and the beginnings of a smile. 

          “Really?”

          I smiled at her.  “Really.”

          Fireworks seemed to be going off in Alex’s eyes and her whole face lit up as she lunged forward and gave me a huge hug with her arms wrapped around my neck and her body close to mine.  My pulse quickened.

          “Thank you so much,” she said, her face still buried in my neck.  Her breath on my skin gave me goose bumps and a pleasant chill.  We stood there for a moment in the embrace until we suddenly felt awkward and broke it.  We stood several feet apart, looking at each other until we finally felt awkward again.

          “Well,” I said.  “When can I meet this Valerie. . .?”

          “Morgan.”

          “Yes, Valerie Morgan,” I said.  “When may I meet with her?”

          Alex sucked up her lower lip and gnawed on it for a moment.  I was also a big sucker for lower lip sucking.  “Well, she works until around five or six in the evening,” she said.  “I should probably talk to her first and let her know that you’re on our side.  Is that okay?”

          “Certainly,” I said.  “That would definitely make things easier.  I’ll just wait for your call tomorrow then.”  I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet.  I fished out one of my discount business cards and handed it to her.  “You can call this number any time.  It also has my cellular phone number.”

          She nodded as she studied the card.  “You’re home number is the same as your office number?”

          That made me hesitate for a moment.  “Um, yes.  I have my calls forwarded to my home when I’m not in.”

          Why not?  It wasn’t entirely untrue.

          Alex Pine tucked my card into the hip pocket of her bell bottoms, her hip hugging bell bottoms.  I was incredibly envious.  I’m sure that my card’s brothers were equally envious.  After all, they were stuck in my pocket.

          Once again, we were quiet on the corner looking at each other and at the people walking past us.  I absently found my cigarettes in my jacket pocket and lit one.  “So,” I said, “would you like a ride back to your theater or whatever?”

          Alex shrugged.  “No, that’s okay.  I’m working not too far away from here.  I can just walk.  But thank you, anyway.”

          I nodded.  “Yeah, sure.  So I’ll hear from you tomorrow then?”  A small smile formed on my lips.

          She smiled back, too, a little.

          “Yes,” she said.

          My first instinct was to hug her.  We had just done it and it had felt good, why not do it again?  Instead, I held out my hand.  Alex accepted it and we shook hands.

          “Thank you, Mister Connally,” she said.  She was smiling a little wider now.

          So was I.

          “You’re welcome,” I said.  “And please, call me ‘Mac’.”

          Alex smiled more and her teeth showed.  They were white and even and dazzling.

          “Thank you, Mac.”

          She nodded almost to herself and then turned and walked off in a different direction than we had come.  I stood there and watched her walk for a while before I went back towards my car.  I was smiling happily the entire way.

          Thoughts of Alex Pine danced in my head all day.

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