Venus in Blue Jeans, page 25
Unfortunately, he didn’t have a clue. He swallowed. “Can I fix you some coffee, ma’am?”
“Oh, yes, that would be just delightful.”
Docia’s mama batted her eyes at him. Cal was pretty sure his own mother had never batted her eyes in her entire life, certainly never at him. He headed for the coffeepot, pulling a mug off the shelf.
“So you’re in partnership with Horace Rankin?” Reba’s voice sounded like warm honey, but Cal had a feeling there was vinegar underneath.
“Yes, ma’am. For a couple of months now.” Cal poured coffee and checked for cream.
“Such a sweet man, Horace,” Reba murmured.
Cal blinked at her. Horace might have been called a variety of things, but sweet definitely wasn’t one of them. Across the room, Billy Kent’s expression grew noticeably sour. After a moment he glanced toward Cal again.
“What’s that pay?” he snapped.
“Billy, don’t you go after him.” Reba’s mouth spread in another of her smooth-edged smiles. “I imagine it pays well enough, doesn’t it?”
Cal swallowed a sip of coffee. Trust the Kents to go straight for the money. “It’s a successful practice. Horace knows what he’s doing.”
Billy pursed his lips. “Not gonna tell us, huh?” He sat again. “You know your partner has a bid in on that property BK owns on West?”
“Yes sir, I know he’s working on it.” Cal sipped his coffee, watching Reba regard the scones longingly.
“Now you’re involved, I’ll tell the boys to cut the price.”
Cal gritted his teeth. Forgive me, Horace. “No sir, I don’t want you to do that. Treat us the way you would anybody else.” Reba glittered at him. Cal suddenly had the feeling he’d just won a race he hadn’t known he was in.
“Well, son, I imagine I can use my money any way I choose, but I’ll take your request under advisement.”
Billy Kent unfolded his paper once again. Reba Kent picked through the scones. Cal sighed. Apparently, he had guests for the morning, like it or not.
Docia woke to the sound of mockingbirds in the woods outside the Woodrose Inn. The air still smelled faintly of Shalimar, but the silence told her Mama had gone off somewhere.
Docia’s eyes flew open. Somewhere. Oh God, she wouldn’t!
Of course she would.
Docia jumped from the bed and rummaged quickly through the dresser drawers. At some point her mother must have gone to the apartment and picked up some of her clothes. She pulled out a navy T-shirt and clean underwear, then found a pair of khaki shorts. Sprinting toward the shower, she heard muttering from the general direction of the living room.
She darted a quick glance down the hall to see Pep planted in a patch of sunlight, wrestling with a massive rawhide chew toy. “Oh, hell,” she muttered, “along with everything else, I stole his dog.”
It took her five minutes to shower, another five to pull on her clothes, another five to coax Pep into leaving the rawhide behind. She had a distinct feeling Cal wouldn’t appreciate having an immense piece of cow skin lying around his house.
A quick check of the parking lot showed that Mama had taken the car. Docia looked down at her bruised feet. Oh, well, at least she had her running shoes this time. She pulled on her socks and shoes, tucked Pep back under her arm, and started down the road to Cal’s place.
Mama’s Mercedes was parked out in front of the barn, along with Daddy’s SUV. Docia closed her eyes, feeling her throat constrict. Things were tough enough with Cal as it was without her parents deciding now was the time to check him out. She was amazed he hadn’t tossed them out already. She only hoped they hadn’t already screwed things up before she even got there.
She limped across the yard and started up the front steps.
“Any news about Brody?” Cal handed Reba her cup of coffee, then took his seat in Uncle Ollie’s rocker again.
Billy shook his head. “Now the Rangers are after him, he likely left the state. Morris is in the county lockup, while they decide what to do with his sorry ass. The Rangers are questioning him.”
“There’s been trouble here for a while.” Cal sipped at his coffee. “I don’t know how much you heard.”
Billy nodded. “You mean shooting my daughter’s cat? Yeah, you told me.” He gave his wife a slightly sour look.
She smiled back serenely.
“A woman was attacked in Docia’s backyard a few days ago.” Cal paused. Hard to believe that it had only been days. “Did anyone tell you about that?”
“Attacked?” Reba set her cup down with a sharp click. “At Docia’s shop? Why didn’t she let us know?”
“Because she didn’t want us rushing up here.” Billy’s voice was rough. “She thought she could handle it without us.”
“She did handle it,” Cal said quietly. “None of this was her fault. She’s a smart, resourceful woman who got targeted by a pair of crooks.”
“But why?” Reba stared, her lower lip trembling. “Why would anyone want to hurt my Docia?”
“Because that old SOB Dub Tyler hid something in my shop.” Docia limped into the barn. Cal took a quick look at her feet and narrowed his eyes. Clearly, she’d walked from town to the barn. Well, hell.
Docia kissed her mother on the cheek and scratched Nico’s ears on the way to the coffeepot. Nico hissed, and Cal suddenly realized Docia was holding Pep.
“I really appreciate both of you coming here to check on Cal.” Docia gave her parents a dry smile. “Now you can leave.”
Her parents ignored her.
“How do you know it was Dub?” Billy folded his paper and took off his glasses, reaching for the coffee. “And what would he hide in your bookstore?”
Docia picked up a raspberry scone. “I know it was Dub because Brody pretty much said it was.”
Although her voice sounded firm, Cal noticed a slight tightening around her jaw.
“They’ll catch Brody.” Her father’s eyes shot sparks. “I guarantee it.”
Docia shook her head. “Brody’s too smart to stay around here, but people will go on trying to break into the shop until we find what Dub left there. Once the news gets out that something valuable is hidden in the bookstore, other people will decide it could be worth their while to try to find it.”
Reba folded her arms across her chest. “I suppose it’s too late to keep it quiet that something was hidden there.”
Docia grimaced. “Way too late, Mama. I need to find it and get it out of there.”
“Oh, good. I do love treasure hunts.” Her mother smiled like a cat with a bowl of cream.
“No.” Docia’s voice had a slight quaver. “You don’t need to do anything. I’ll handle it. I want you both to go back home, Mama. Really.”
“Of course you can handle it.” Reba’s voice sounded like warm honey, which, Cal decided, probably wasn’t a good sign. “I didn’t mean to imply that you couldn’t, sweetheart. But things will go a lot faster if Daddy and I help.”
“That’s right.” Billy’s eyes took on a speculative gleam. “I know a guy in Corpus. Owes me a couple of favors. Found that Spanish wreck off the Mexican coast a few years ago. I’ll bet he could…”
“Jean Dickerson would be a great one to call.” Reba waved her hand in the air. “Never knew anyone so good at puzzles. She’s in Lubbock now. We could fly her down…”
“No!” Docia smacked her hand down flat on the table. “Y’all listen to me now. You are not bringing anyone else in here. No strangers. I will take care of this. I’ve got friends to help me. If you’re really good, I’ll let you help, too. Just you two, though. Nobody else!”
Reba arranged her shawl around her shoulders. “Oh, all right, darlin’ if that’s the way you want it. We can always bring them in later if we need to.” She started to get up, pushing her good foot against the floor.
Billy stepped up beside her and offered his hand.
“Thank you, sir,” she chirped and did t
Billy gave her a long-suffering smile as Reba placed her hand on his arm and let him escort her toward Cal’s front door. “We do have so much to talk about, don’t we?” she cooed, her eyes on Billy’s. “What with you not calling me when you first heard Docia was in trouble.”
Billy winced slightly.
“We’ll be at the Woodrose Inn if you want us.” Reba turned to give them another honeyed smile. “I’m sure they’ll have another room available if we ask nicely.”
As the door clicked shut behind them, Docia exhaled with a whoosh of breath. “Lock that damn door, would you? I don’t suppose you’ve got an iron bar you could put across?”
Cal shook his head. Pep was doing a little dance near his foot. Only a few moments remained before it was time for their morning walk. “So how are you?”
“Better. Just a few bruises and sore feet.” Docia was turned away, pouring a cup of coffee. “How about you? Did they gang up on you?”
Cal shrugged. “Not so much. They’re worried about you. They just wanted to make sure…” He looked down at his coffee.
Docia blew out a breath. “Right, well, I guess I’m glad they care. Can you come to the bookstore tonight?”
Cal leaned against the kitchen counter, studying her. “You’re serious. You’re planning to have a treasure hunt at the bookstore?”
Docia nodded. “I’m going to invite everybody. Allie, Janie, Wonder, Lee and Ken.” She took a quick sip of coffee. “You, if you’re willing and interested. Maybe even Mama and Daddy. The more the merrier. I’m thinking of giving a prize to whoever finds the damn thing.”
“A prize?” Cal shook his head. “Like what?”
Her mouth curved up in a faint smile. “Choose your own, darlin’. Whatever you want.”
Cal’s groin tightened painfully. Even the logical part of his brain was screaming give it up! Only his Toleffson stubbornness remained, but it was enough.
He took a deep breath, turning to face her. “I’ll think about it, Docia. Horace may have stuff he needs me to do.”
Docia’s smile faded slightly as the green fire in her eyes dimmed. “Good enough, then. I guess I’ll see you when I see you.”
She grabbed a scone and headed back out the front door. Cal stared after her, feeling as if he had a hole in his chest. But the hole was in his life, and he had to figure out how to fill it.
Maybe with Docia. Maybe not. The question was, which hurt more?
Pep yipped at him, returning him to more pressing concerns. “Okay, guy, let’s go outside. Maybe I’ll come up with a way not to be the biggest asshole on the block.”
Everyone assembled at Kent’s Hill Country Books at seven that evening.
Allie brought fresh bread and cheese, along with some olives and primitivo from Lee and Ken, who were stuck at Brenner’s. Docia brought some sausage and a plate of crudités. Janie brought chocolate-chip cookies. Wonder brought a six-pack of Spaten.
Cal brought himself, along with Nico and Pep.
He’d wrestled with himself all afternoon, trying to decide whether or not to come. Horace had kicked him out of the clinic five minutes after he’d arrived and nothing needed doing at home. His logical side kept telling him Docia hadn’t really done anything wrong, but his nonlogical side still stung occasionally. He’d opened up and she hadn’t. He’d put his heart at risk, and she’d kept hers under lock and key. He was amazed at how much pain his nonlogical side could generate.
But he really needed to see Docia again. Just to make sure she was all right. Yeah, Doc, tell me another one.
Reba and Billy showed up a few minutes after he did. Billy looked at the food spread on the counter and frowned. “Didn’t know we were supposed to bring anything.”
“You’re not. Sit, Daddy.”
They all arranged themselves in the assortment of chairs Docia had apparently dragged down from the apartment and the storeroom.
Docia herself perched on the edge of the counter next to the wine. “Okay, folks, this is a treasure hunt. With a prize. The catch is I don’t know what the treasure is, and I don’t know how much it’s worth—Brody said millions, but I don’t know how much I trust his judgment. I only know it’s hidden somewhere in the shop. I also know it’s about this big—” she held her hands about two feet apart, “—and that Dub said it was, and I quote, ‘all folded up’.”
“What’s the prize?” Wonder leaned forward, eyes intent.
Docia shrugged. “I’ll take suggestions for something appropriate. More than a box of Crackerjacks, anyway.”
“If it can be folded, it must be paper,” Allie mused.
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Billy Kent picked up one of the bottles of primitivo and began pouring. “Could be cloth or plastic. Just something soft enough to fold.”
“I suppose it could be something else,” Janie mused, “but Dub was into documents and books. So wouldn’t it be more likely to be paper?”
Docia nodded. “Probably, but where does that get us?”
“Why doesn’t somebody just ask Clete Morris?” Allie reached down to scratch Nico’s ears. “Surely Brody told him. I mean, Clete’s not the brightest bulb on the tree, but even he wouldn’t be dumb enough to just search through your shop without knowing what he was looking for.”
Billy leaned forward again. “Anybody ask the Rangers what he had to say?”
“No, Daddy.” Docia sighed. “I don’t think I’m somebody the Rangers would pass information on to. Besides, if they knew, wouldn’t they already have come here to look for it? Wouldn’t it be evidence?”
Billy stood and pulled out his cell. “’Scuse me. I’m gonna make a few calls.” He headed for the storeroom.
Reba shook her head. “He’ll find out if they know anything, but I’m with you, darlin’. I think if they knew, they’d have been here and found whatever it was.”
“So we’re back where we started.” Wonder stared at the ceiling. “What could he have hidden in here and where did he hide it?”
Cal reached across the counter and picked up an olive, trying to listen. Solving the puzzle seemed like a good first step toward getting everything straightened out, but he’d never been much good at whodunits.
Wonder surveyed the room. “Books. Seems to be the most likely thing he’d have hidden in here.”
“But he said it was folded up.” Allie shook her head. “He couldn’t have folded a book.”
Janie shrugged. “Well, maybe he hid it in a book then.”
Cal glanced around the room again. The walls were lined with loaded bookcases that reached almost to the ceiling. If Dub had hidden something in a book, they were screwed, unless they were willing to spend the whole night digging through every book in the shop.
Wonder followed his glance and groaned.
“That’s what Clete thought. Or probably Brody, since I don’t think Clete did much thinking.” Docia rubbed a hand across the back of her neck, frowning. “He was going through the Westerns when I found him that night.”
Wonder grimaced, sipping his beer. “He didn’t find anything, did he?”
Docia shook her head, her mouth tightening again.
“I suppose we could each take a bookcase.” Allie didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic about that prospect.
“No.” Cal shook his head, straightening slowly as he thought. “He wouldn’t put it in a book. That would be a really dumb thing to do. And whatever else Dub Tyler might be, he never struck me as dumb.”
One corner of Wonder’s mouth edged up. “Enlighten us, Idaho. Just why would hiding something in a book within a bookcase within a bookstore be such a bad idea.”
“Because that’s what Docia sells lots of everyday.” Cal turned back to her. “Is there anything in this store you wouldn’t sell?”
“Any book?” She shook her head. “That’s what I’m in business to do. Although we haven’t done it much lately. And I still need to settle up with the librar
“You need money?” Billy appeared in the doorway.
“No I don’t, Daddy,” Docia said firmly. “Never mind.”
Her shoulders straightened in a way that was probably imperceptible to anyone except Cal. Cal, however, had an intimate knowledge of those shoulders by now.
“What did you find out from the Rangers?” Reba cut in quickly. “Did they know anything?”
“Not that they wanted to pass on.” Billy shrugged, dropping his cell phone back in his pocket. “I’ve got a few more calls in. Maybe somebody can tell us something.”
“So to recap.” Wonder raised his voice slightly. “It’s somewhere in the store, but probably not in a book because a book might be sold and then Dub would lose his doohickey.”
“Doohickey?” Allie raised an eyebrow.
“Thingamabob, doodad, gizmo. Fill in with your term of choice.” Wonder turned back to Cal. “So it can’t be in a book, Idaho. Could it be behind one?”
Cal shrugged. “I guess. Why not?”
“Well,” Janie said hesitantly, “it would be easier for somebody else to find it if it was tucked in behind a book, wouldn’t it? I mean, if somebody took a book off the shelf and some old piece of paper was jammed in behind it, wouldn’t they tell Docia? Or me?”
“How much time did Dub have to hide it?” Billy paced around the shop, looking at bookcases.
Docia’s brow furrowed. “That’s the thing, Daddy, I don’t know exactly when he did hide it. He was here two different times. One morning when I unlocked the door to let him in, and then another time he came in when I was ready to close. It was after Nico came home, and I’d just taken him and his cat box upstairs.”
Allie turned to Janie. “Did you see him come in?”
Janie shook her head. “I think I’d already gone by then. There weren’t any customers left. Docia said she’d lock up after she took Nico back to the apartment.”
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