Venus in Blue Jeans, page 18
Nico hissed at him, too, for good measure.
Cal followed Docia into the kitchen, placing Pep on the floor at his feet.
“I’ve still got some cheese left over from last night.” Docia dug around in her refrigerator. “And some of Allie’s bread. I should have had you snag one of Bethany’s tomatoes.”
“I could go home and get one,” Cal offered.
Nico crept into the kitchen behind them. Cal maneuvered Pep out of the cat’s strike zone with his foot.
“Naw, let’s just go with what we have.” Docia’s cell phone chirped and she pulled it out of her pocket, checking the number. “It’s Allie. Hang on.”
Cal listened to her voice as she mumbled into the phone, answering Allie’s questions about Margaret. He was surprised she hadn’t had a dozen messages waiting. Back home in Lander, people would have been stacked outside her front door with casseroles, ostensibly to help, in reality to see what was going on beyond the police tape.
Good old Lander.
“Sure,” he heard Docia say, “I’m just doing cheese sandwiches, though. No, Allie, that’s okay. No, really, you don’t need to.”
Yes, really, you need to. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Docia’s cooking, but he was a little sick of cheese.
Docia clicked her cell closed. “Allie’s coming over. Probably bringing Wonder. And some leftover soup from the restaurant.”
“Ah, friends with restaurants. If I’d only realized the possibilities in my earlier life.” Cal herded Pep across the floor as Nico morphed into stalking mode again.
Pep shrank into himself, if such a thing were possible for an already-small dog.
Nico stood, tensing for the kill. Docia grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and jerked him back. “Don’t even think about it. He’s a guest.”
Nico took a half-hearted swipe at her, then collapsed into an irritated heap on the windowsill. Clearly, nobody sympathized with his point of view.
“I don’t have any dog food.” Docia turned back to the refrigerator again. “Is it okay to give him cheese?”
Cal shook his head. “Let’s try a bowl of water for now. We can figure something out later, maybe stop at the grocery. He doesn’t look like he’s suffering from malnutrition.”
Docia poured some water into a plastic bowl and set it in front of Pep, then went to open the door for Allie.
Wonder followed her into the room. He stared at Pep, who was lapping water at Cal’s feet. “Hell! Don’t tell me you rescued him?”
“Sort of.” Cal shrugged. “I figured Margaret was out walking him when she was hit.”
“The dog was hiding in the alley.” Docia took a large pot from Allie and set it on the stove, turning on a burner underneath. “Cal talked him into coming out. It was really something to watch.”
“My friend, the dog whisperer?” Wonder’s mouth spread in a sly grin. “Although calling him a dog is stretching a point.”
“He’s adorable.” Allie knelt to look at Pep, who regarded her with alarm. She turned back to Cal. “What are you going to do with him? Board him at the clinic?”
“No, I’ll take care of him. He can stay at the barn.” Cal felt a ridiculous rush of protectiveness. Pep really wasn’t his dog. As soon as Margaret recovered… A chill moved up his spine. “Has anyone heard anything?”
“About Margaret?” Wonder shook his head. “The paramedic said they airlifted her to Austin. Hospital here isn’t really set up to treat serious head injuries.”
Docia sat with a thump at the kitchen table. “Oh, hell.”
“Okay, Wonder, get some bowls.” Allie’s voice sounded remarkably matter-of-fact. “It’s time to eat.”
Allie’s Thai curry soup tasted great, although Cal noticed Docia only took a couple of spoonfuls.
“You need to eat something, babe,” he murmured.
“Yes, Mom.” Docia gave him a dry smile, but she managed a few more bites.
When Wonder had finished tipping his bowl, he pushed back his chair, frowning. “So what was she doing here?”
Cal sighed. “I assume we’re going to talk about Margaret now?” Great way to make Docia feel better. She still hadn’t finished her soup.
Wonder nodded. “As I see it, you’ve got two central questions to answer. What was Margaret Hastings up to in your backyard and who hit her?”
“I heard she wasn’t hit in the backyard.” Allie began gathering soup bowls, surreptitiously putting her own bowl on the floor for Pep. “I heard she was attacked in the alley and then dropped in Docia’s backyard.”
Cal frowned. “Who told you that?” He decided not to notice when Pep began licking the bowl enthusiastically.
“I don’t remember exactly.” Allie shrugged. “Ham Linklatter was in for lunch. Maybe he was talking about it. Anyway, that was the prevailing theory I heard.”
“So who was supposed to have hit her?” Wonder put his own bowl on the floor next to Allie’s. Pep moved on happily.
Allie shrugged again. “The ever-popular unknown drifter? Nobody had any theories about that, but the general opinion was somebody from outside Konigsburg.”
“Naturally.” Docia grimaced. “Nobody from Konigsburg could possibly do anything violent.”
“So who messed up Docia’s backyard?” Wonder leaned back in his chair, folding his hands behind his head. “What if they’re the ones who attacked Margaret?”
Allie narrowed her eyes. “Possible, I guess. Maybe some kids were trashing Docia’s backyard and Margaret stumbled onto them while she was out walking the dog.”
“And they attacked her because they were afraid she’d turn them in for littering?” Cal raised an eyebrow. Even assuming a teenage Wild Bunch, that was extreme.
“I don’t know.” Allie sighed. “Maybe something more serious was going on in the backyard. But it just seems too weird for the two events to be connected. I think the theory about Margaret being attacked in the alley makes more sense.”
“Maybe somebody thought there was something hidden in the bags.” Cal extended his hand to Pep. After a cautious moment, the dog came nearer, sniffing Cal’s fingers.
“Like what? Trash?” Wonder grimaced. “Hard to believe there was anything in there anybody wanted. Remember, we’re the ones who filled those bags.”
“Which reminds me.” Allie turned to Docia. “Who’s going to refill them now?”
Docia sighed. “I am, I guess. As soon as Brody says I can. Right now, he’s got crime scene tape all around it.”
“I can loan you Juana and Kit if you want.”
“I want.” Docia gave her a wry grin. “I’m sure they’ll love having this as part of their summer vacation experience.”
Allie sniffed. “Serves them right. The only work they’ve done for the past three weeks is run the cash register during the breakfast and noontime rush. When I was their age I had to work in my folks’ restaurant the entire summer, including busing tables and running the dishwasher. They have it altogether too easy.”
Wonder reached over to brush her hair from her forehead. “And you walked six miles to school every day in a raging ice storm.”
Allie grinned. “It was Brownsville, so ice storms weren’t a big problem. Heat stroke, on the other hand…”
Cal only half listened. When he closed his eyes, he could still see Margaret’s blond hair, stained with red. He grimaced. “Who would trash Docia’s backyard? I’m with you—I don’t buy the teenage vandals angle. But if it wasn’t them, then who? Who has it in for her enough to wreck her backyard?”
The four of them stared at each other.
“Margaret,” Wonder breathed.
Allie nodded. “Absolutely.”
“But where does that get us?” Docia shook her head. “So Margaret’s the most likely person to have thrown the trash around. She didn’t hit herself over the head, and why would anyone else bash her?”
“I assume you’re out of the running?” Wonder cocked an eyebrow.
“She’s out of the running.” Cal looked at Docia and smiled. Even when she looked exhausted, like now, she was still the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Totally.”
Wonder nodded. “Nice to know. Okay, is there anyone else who’d be around the shop at that time of night? Someone who’d go after Margaret if they saw her trashing the place?”
Docia shook her head. “If you’re thinking of Janie, forget it. She’d probably give Margaret a good talking to and call the cops.”
“Not to mention Janie’s an inch or two shorter than Margaret. I can’t see Margaret standing around and letting Janie attack.” Cal reached down to scratch Pep behind his ears. After a shaky moment, the little dog managed to clamber into his lap.
“So what we have here is this.” Wonder counted off on his fingers. “Margaret gets into your backyard. She starts strewing trash. Someone sees her. They hit her over the head to get her to stop. Still seems a little excessive.”
Cal shrugged. “Maybe that wasn’t why they hit her.”
“I still like the alley theory myself.” Allie carried the bowls to the counter. Pep’s eyes followed her longingly.
“Maybe something else was going on.” Docia frowned.
“Something else?” Cal rubbed Pep absentmindedly, setting off a series of ecstatic shudders throughout his tiny body.
“Enough!” Docia shook her head. “I don’t know what was going on. I don’t know why she got hurt. Hell!”
Allie reached over to pat Docia’s shoulder. “It’s okay, honey. This will all blow over. You want to come stay with me?”
“Stay with you? Why…” Docia stared. “Aw, geez.”
A lump of ice formed in Cal’s gut. What if Docia had been there alone last night? What if she’d been in the backyard rather than Margaret? What if… And why hadn’t he thought of this until now?
Allie nodded. “Chances are nothing is going to happen, but I’d say it would be good to live someplace else for a few days.”
Docia folded her arms across her chest, clasping her shoulders. “I hadn’t even thought about it not being safe here.”
Cal took a deep breath. She was all right. And he’d make sure she stayed that way. “She already has another place to live if she wants to. Or if she wants to live here, I will, too.”
Wonder grinned. “Well that should do it. Especially if Pepe the Wonder Hound accompanies you.”
Pep looked up and yipped. From the windowsill, Nico snarled.
Docia lowered her head to the table. “Tell me—just when did my life go totally out of control?”
In the end, the two of them headed back to Cal’s barn, with a quick stop at the grocery for food—human and dog. Docia insisted on bringing Nico along with them, arguing he’d already been shot once. Cal figured that made it a lot less likely Nico would be shot twice, given his natural suspiciousness. On the other hand, he was willing to give the cat a spot in his barn if waking up with Docia in his bed was part of the deal.
He put Pep’s food bowl on the kitchen floor and Nico’s food bowl in the utility room.
Cal stood halfway between the pets’ bowls, narrowing his eyes. “Not quite as far apart as it’s possible to get, but probably far enough for the moment.”
Docia frowned. “Nico will want to go outside. Is it safe?”
Cal thought of the mockingbirds and cardinals living in the trees around his backyard and sighed. Safe for whom? “He’ll probably find himself some field mice to play with. Better keep him in for the first couple of days, though. Until he gets accustomed to being here.”
“The first couple of days?” Docia’s eyes widened. “How long do you think we’ll need to stay here?”
Cal smiled reassuringly. It was a lot like dealing with a skittish colt. “As long as you feel like it. It’s not a problem.”
Docia glanced away. “I don’t need to be here. I really don’t. I mean I don’t mind being here, but I don’t need to be here.”
Cal looked around the room, trying to see it from her point of view. Certainly, not as comfortable as her apartment. And the furniture was a little…sparse. Was it really that bad?
“What’s the problem, Docia?” He took a breath. “Is it me?”
She shook her head, sighing. “No. It’s not. I don’t mind being with you at all.” She gave him a smile that sent a quick jolt of pure heat to his groin.
“It’s just…everything.” She made a sweeping gesture that included most of the past two days. “I’m used to having everything covered. I’m a detail person. And now I can’t cover anything.”
You could cover me. Cal managed not to say it, but he couldn’t keep the thought from dancing through his mind.
Docia grinned at him. “Maybe later.”
He realized he’d said it after all. Well, damn.
The next morning they tried to decide what to do with the animals while they went to work. Nico kept giving Pep predatory looks. Cal had a feeling as soon as they were out the door, Pep would be reduced to a small heap of dogburger.
He rummaged through his closet and found a battered lab coat he’d worn in Kansas City.
Docia blinked at him. “You look like something from ER.”
Cal sighed. “That’s pretty much how I feel. I’m just trying to keep the house from turning into CSI.”
He scooped up Pep and dropped him in the wide lab coat pocket. Pep poked his nose over the edge.
“Come on.” Cal started for the door. “I’ll drop you off at your shop.”
At the clinic, Horace took one look at Pep’s nose edging over Cal’s pocket and shook his head. “No. You can put the little rat into one of the pens in back, but you will not carry him around with you. Bad for business.”
“Fair enough.” Cal headed off to check out the pens.
He dragged one of the small ones into his office, then lowered Pep inside, leaving the pen door open. “You can stay in there or come out into the room, but you have to stay in the office, okay?”
Pep gave him a quick look. Cal could almost have sworn he nodded, but he never pretended animals were human. He figured Pep would stay where he was because the office was safer for a very small animal than the outside world. Particularly lately.
The patients that morning were the usual canine hypochondriacs. Or rather their owners were hypochondriacs. The animals were bored, restless and eager to be back at their normal pursuits.
Their owners wanted to know about Docia.
Their questions varied in subtlety, but mostly they wanted to know how serious his relationship with Docia was, the amount of money she’d have to pay out to square the library fund, and whether Docia had attacked Margaret.
Cal smiled and became very dense, except about the attack. He wanted to make sure nobody in town believed even briefly that Docia had been involved.
Unfortunately, this involved admitting he was Docia’s alibi. By the end of the morning he was uncomfortably aware that a large part of the city of Konigsburg was actively speculating about his sex life.
He had lunch with Horace in the break room, although he thought longingly about Allie’s soup of the day. On the other hand, he couldn’t afford to eat out every day, and eating with Horace spared him from more questions for an hour or so.
Horace dropped a piece of paper on the table in front of him. “Here—look that over sometime.”
Cal peered at the sheet. The letterhead used the kind of font he associated with two-hundred-year-old banks. “What’s BK Enterprises?”
“Investment company. Owns the land next door. That’s what they think it’s worth.”
Cal skimmed through the paragraphs of description to the figure at the bottom. He whistled softly. “Are they planning to drill for oil there?”
Horace’s moustache moved up in a faintly savage grin. “Just their first shot. Hobie and I’ll come back with a lowball bid, and
At five, Cal put his lab coat back on and dropped Pep into the pocket again, then set out for the Dew Drop, where Docia would meet him after she’d closed the shop for the day.
Wonder and Allie sat at a table in front. Wonder stared up at him. “A lab coat? You look like you’re doing a pharmaceutical commercial.”
Pep stuck his nose over the edge of his coat pocket.
Wonder groaned. “I should have known.”
Cal lifted Pep out of the pocket and placed the dog next to him on the chair. Pep jumped to the floor and clicked across to Allie, who rubbed his ears.
Wonder clucked in disgust. Pep turned and yipped at him.
“What is it, boy?” Wonder smirked. “You say Lassie’s fallen down a well?”
Ingstrom leaned on the bar. “I can think of three Health Code violations you’re into right off the bat. Probably a dozen more I don’t know about. Make him disappear, Doc.”
Cal dropped Pep back into his pocket.
Docia swept in the door a few minutes later, Janie in her wake. Her hair hung around her face in wisps and her shirt had come untucked again, the usual indications she’d had a rough day.
Allie’s brow furrowed. “Geez, Docia, you look you spent the afternoon in a wind tunnel.”
Cal raised an eyebrow. “Problems?”
She slid into her captain’s chair with a sigh and ran her fingers through her hair. “You might say that. After ignoring us for a year or so, just about everybody in town came into the shop today. If they’d only bought some books, it’d be our most successful day ever.”
“A few of them did.” Janie sat beside Cal and grinned at Pep. “And a lot of people told me they thought the shop was a really nice place and they’d be back. But most of them wanted to know about Margaret.”
“And most of them assumed I had something to do with what happened to her.” Docia scowled. “Ingstrom? Margarita, please.”
Cal watched her push curls out of her eyes. Maybe they’d have time for a little therapeutic sex before dinner.
Ingstrom appeared with a frosty mug in his hand. “Here you go. Industrial strength.” He turned to Cal. “You want anything else before you take your rat outside, Doc?”
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