Venus in blue jeans, p.26

Venus in Blue Jeans, page 26

 

Venus in Blue Jeans
 


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  “And you came back down and found Dub here all by himself?” Wonder grinned at Docia. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.” He pushed to his feet and began to prowl along the other side of the shop from Billy.

  Wonder and Billy reminded Cal of a pair of coyotes he’d once seen working a flock of sheep. He turned back to Docia. “How long had he been down here by himself when you found him?”

  “I’m trying to remember just how it happened.” Docia closed her eyes. “You told me I needed to move the cat box, Janie. Did you stick around after that? I can’t recall.”

  Janie shook her head. “I was on my way out, I’m pretty sure.”

  “So I took Nico’s box and his food and water up, and then I came down and got Nico.”

  Nico, curled on the couch beside Reba, gave Docia a disinterested glance and went back to sleep.

  “When I came down again, Dub was there.”

  “You didn’t lock the door when you took him up?” Cal frowned.

  “I didn’t know I needed to back then.” Docia’s lips firmed to a thin line. “That was back when I thought Konigsburg was this safe little town.”

  “What’d he say when you got back down here?” Billy asked from the back of the store.

  “He wanted me to hold onto the doodad again, offered to give me ten percent of the sale price.” Docia shook her head. “The old SOB had probably already hidden it by then.”

  “Where was he in the room when you came in, Docia Mae?” Her father’s voice had raised a notch.

  Docia pushed herself off the counter and started toward him, down the center aisle. “Over here.”

  Allie, Janie and Reba followed. Cal loped along in their wake, watching the stiffness reappear in Docia’s shoulders.

  She stopped in front of the Texana display case. Wonder and Billy took up positions on either side, like an honor guard, while the others gathered in front. Nico and Pep both made vaguely disgruntled sounds at being awakened again.

  “Could he have gotten into this?” Billy nodded at the case.

  “No.” Docia stopped, chewing on her lip. “I don’t think so, anyway. He wasn’t in here long enough to have picked the lock.”

  “How strong is it?” Wonder reached out and rattled the door.

  “Steve, for God’s sake!” Allie put her hand on his arm.

  Wonder grinned. “Just testing.”

  “Better look inside anyway,” Billy rumbled.

  Docia dug her keyring from her pocket and inserted a small silver key in the lock on the front.

  Cal peered over their heads, watching Docia. “Is that the only key?”

  She half turned to him. “The only one I know of. I suppose there could be others somewhere, but I bought this display case in Marfa, so I doubt Dub had one.”

  The glass door swung open, and seven heads leaned forward to see inside.

  “All I see are books.” Wonder sighed.

  Docia shrugged. “That’s all I put in it, but we can pull them out if you want.” She stepped forward and began to hand books to Wonder and Billy. Reba reached for the books on the next shelf.

  “You do that.” Allie started for the bookcase next to the display case. “I’ll look over here. Maybe he stuck something in behind the books.”

  “I’ll help.” Janie reached up to the upper shelves while Allie bent down to the lower ones.

  Cal considered all the focused energy around him. He hadn’t the faintest idea where to look himself. He was the worst puzzle-solver in his family. Crosswords, sudoku, jigsaws—he hated them all.

  But he wanted to win the prize. Docia’s prize. Whatever it was.

  The realization made his throat tight. He wasn’t sure how finding Dub Tyler’s treasure would bring them back together again, but right then he wanted—no, needed—to see if it might work. He told his nonlogical side to take a hike. He needed to get over it.

  He wandered around the room, looking at the walls, trying to notice something. Docia had bookcases everywhere, leaning against every vertical surface. Most were full almost to the ceiling. Could shorter customers even reach the top shelves? Docia herself could, but Dub couldn’t have without a ladder, so that pretty much took care of that possibility.

  The cases along the back wall were shorter, not reaching as high as the others did. The CD rack, looking a little the worse for wear after Docia’s modifications, was tucked into the corner. Antique wallpaper stretched up to the tin ceiling.

  “What’s that?” Near the Texana display case, Wonder’s voice was tense with excitement.

  Cal turned to see Janie reach along an upper shelf, her fingers scrambling along the top of the books. “There’s something back here.”

  “Let me help.” Allie lifted down a few books so that Janie could reach the back of the shelf.

  Her hand emerged slowly, holding a white, folded piece of paper around two feet across.

  Cal heard Docia catch her breath. “Open it, Janie.”

  Janie unfolded it, slowly. Her hands trembled against the edges. Her eyes widened. “Oh my gosh!”

  “What is it?” Allie stepped beside her, staring over her shoulder, and snickered.

  Docia took the paper from her hands. “Oh for Pete’s sake.” She held out the unfolded paper so that everyone could see.

  Across the top was printed in red and black “Secrets of the Kama Sutra”. Below were ranged a series of drawings, depicting couples in postures that were highly unlikely in Cal’s opinion, in his current physical condition anyway. He cleared his throat. “I take it this is not Dub’s paper.”

  Docia shook her head. “Somebody must have stuck it behind the books to hide it. My money’s on some local teenager.”

  “Tristram Bernhart,” Wonder said flatly. “Or Rog Matthews.”

  “Or Connie Lauren.” Janie’s chin rose. “Girls can be horndogs too.”

  Billy’s lips spread in a parody of a grin. “So, missy, how many other people have used this place for storage?”

  Docia shook her head. “I didn’t know about this one, Daddy. But I’ll keep my eye on this bookcase for a few days, just for curiosity’s sake.”

  “Back to work.” Wonder turned to the Texana case and lifted out the next book.

  Cal wandered toward the rear of the shop again, letting his mind roam. Maybe Dub could have gotten to this end of the room before Docia came back down, but what could he have done here? Stuck his paper into one of the bookcases? Why would he use those rather than one of the ones closer to the front? Would there be any advantage to doing that?

  He strolled along the bookcases, running his fingers across the smooth wood tops. The back of the shop smelled of lemon oil and paper, old and new pages, polished wood. He looked up at the antique ads and newspapers Docia had used to paper the wall, marching up to the darkness at the very top. The halo of light from the hanging chandelier didn’t reach all the way to the tin ceiling. Maybe it wasn’t supposed to.

  He moved on to the CD rack holding CDs by Texas musicians. It hadn’t been there when Dub last visited the store, so it couldn’t possibly be the hiding place. Cal flipped through Hayes Carll and Steve Earle and Joe Ely, not quite sure what he was looking for.

  One corner of the wallpaper section behind the CD rack had come loose. Cal reached out to push it back against the wall.

  And stopped.

  He took hold of the corner and slowly pulled it down further. Another piece of wallpaper showed behind it.

  He stopped and stared at the piece beneath his fingers.

  A map.

  Other maps decorated the wall at different heights. Cal stared up at them. Bright greens, red, blue, and black lines for roads. Like an old Rand McNally atlas.

  The map beneath his fingers was black and brownish white. Thin paper. The lines crudely drawn. In the corner was printed “Map of the South Western and Part of the Western States most particularly the Republic of Texas”.

  Cal took a deep breath, excitement tightening the muscles in his
chest. “Docia, could you come over here for a minute?” His voice trembled slightly.

  She moved behind him quickly, so that he felt her warmth on his back. He couldn’t take his eyes, hands, fingers away from the wall.

  “What’s up?”

  “Did you…” He cleared his throat. “Is this one of the pieces of wallpaper you put up?”

  Docia peered around his shoulder. “That’s not one of mine. No.” Her voice sounded slightly higher.

  Cal licked his suddenly dry lips. “I don’t want to pull on it.”

  Behind him, Docia sucked in a quick breath. “No. Just…hold onto it for a minute.”

  He turned to watch her move across the room. Reba looked up. “Baby, what it is?”

  “Daddy.” Docia’s voice sounded choked. “Could you come on back here for a minute, please?”

  They all came. They all stood, staring over Cal’s shoulder.

  “Holy crap,” Wonder muttered.

  “Let’s get it down.” Billy leaned forward beside Cal. “Please tell me he didn’t use chewing gum to put it up there.”

  Cal pulled gently on the loosened corner. “Feels like rubber cement.”

  Billy supported the map as Cal carefully ran his fingers underneath, loosening the bond. After a few seconds, the map sagged from the wall. Billy and Cal carried it together to Docia’s worktable in the storeroom.

  “Is it very old?” Janie’s voice sounded hushed.

  Wonder shrugged. “If it’s the Republic, that means eighteen-thirties or forties. I don’t know if that counts as old for a map or not.”

  “If this is the thing Dub hid, I don’t understand what he was up to.” Billy stared down at the map and shook his head. “Or why Brody was so hot to get it.”

  Docia leaned her hands on the worktable, frowning at the slightly curled piece of paper. “What do you mean?”

  “I don’t think this would be worth enough to cause all this trouble. It sure wouldn’t be worth anything like millions of dollars.” Billy raised his gaze to hers. “Most Republic maps I’ve run across at sales bring a few hundred. Not enough to fight over.” He rubbed a hand across his chin, glancing back at the map again. “Unless there’s something more to this one than I can see right off.”

  “Maybe the printing is special. Maybe there’s a mistake on it somewhere. Maybe there’s something about it that a collector would know.” Docia shook her head. “I don’t know anything about old maps, Daddy. But Dub and Brody both thought this one was worth a fight.”

  “What’s that in the corner?” Allie leaned forward and ran her finger along the edge.

  Cal turned on a desk lamp so they could see better. The mark looked more like a squiggle.

  Janie bent down so that her eyes were a few inches above the paper. “It’s writing. Looks like a signature, only it’s all faded. I can’t make it out entirely. Looks like ‘S-s-m’.”

  Billy leaned over beside her, squinting. And then he went very still. “S-a-m.” His voice trembled slightly.

  “Sam?” Cal shook his head, wondering at the odd note in Billy’s voice. “Sam who?”

  Wonder leaned over too. Then he gripped the side of the table so tightly his knuckles turned white. “Can’t be.”

  Billy looked up, his mouth stretching in a slow, faintly predatory grin. “It is, though. Look at the curlicue underneath.”

  “It is what?” Reba snapped. “Honestly, the way you two are talking in riddles, you’d think this was a movie or something.” She looked down at the signature and gasped. “Oh my Lord! Sam Houston.”

  Docia stared at her father. “This was Sam Houston’s map? Of the Republic? It’s got to be a hoax!”

  “Dub must not have thought so,” her father said slowly.

  Docia closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “All right. Real or not, now we’ve found it. Now I can get it out of here and start to have a normal life again. Let somebody else worry about it.” She raised her gaze to where Cal stood on the far edge of the crowd. “Thank you.”

  Cal’s gut clenched. “You’re welcome.”

  Wonder squinted at the map, trying to read the lettering. “How much would something like this be worth?”

  “I don’t know exactly.” Billy shrugged. “With the right collector, a lot, more than likely.”

  Allie smiled back at Docia. “And now it’s all yours, kid.”

  There was a moment of silence, as if everyone had suddenly been frozen in place.

  “No,” Docia said, her voice slightly hoarse. “It’s not mine, it’s Dub’s. And it’s evidence. I’m going to call the Rangers. Right now!”

  “Now wait a minute, honey.” Billy patted her on the shoulder, as if he were reassuring a five-year-old. “Just think this through. Dub never told you this was his. Technically, it’s in your shop. Possession is nine-tenths of the law.”

  “It’s not mine.” Docia’s voice rose with a faint edge of hysteria. “I don’t want it! I want it out of my store. Let it be somebody else’s problem!”

  “Now, darlin’.” Her mother’s voice was back to honey again. “Just calm down. Everything’s okay.”

  “Docia, can’t we keep it a little while just to look at it?” Janie’s eyes shone. “I bet if we put it on display, we’d get lots of people in who wanted to see it. Potential customers, I mean.”

  Cal watched Docia’s eyes. The flecks in the irises were burning.

  “We could have a reception,” Allie mused. “Lee and Ken could cater.”

  Wonder nodded. “Blackeyed peas, barbecue, beer. Should be a big hit.” His eyes turned dreamy. “And scones. Lots of scones.”

  “No, you barbarian!” Allie waved her hands in the air, conjuring up a banquet table. “Roasted quail on polenta squares, like they did for the art exhibit last month. With champagne. And I could do a really great tres leches cake. This is Sam Houston we’re talking about.”

  Docia’s lower lip trembled—her eyes began to fill. To Cal she looked like a woman who was very close to the end of her rope. And nobody else seemed to notice.

  “I know someone who could look at this and tell us what we’ve got,” Billy mused. “Let’s just roll it up for now. We can put it away somewhere.” He leaned toward the table.

  Cal looked at Docia’s stricken face and something hard and primitive rose in his gut. All of a sudden, he desperately wanted to punch somebody. He stepped in front of the map, blocking Billy and everyone else. “Back off! Everybody just back off! You heard what the lady said. She doesn’t want it.” He pulled himself up to his full height, towering over Billy, over everybody in the room.

  Six heads swiveled toward him.

  “Docia’s gone through hell because of this thing, and she’s had enough. If she wants it out of here, it’s out of here!” He glanced from face to face, his shoulders taut. “The map goes to the Rangers. They sort it out. If they decide to return it, then you can make plans. Until then, leave her alone.”

  Docia looked up at him, her eyes still full of tears, her lips trembling.

  Cal reached for her, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her close. She snuggled against his chest, tucking the top of her head under his chin, like a boat sliding into a safe harbor. Like she belonged there.

  Which, he finally admitted, she did.

  —

  Thirty minutes later, Docia was ready for them all to go. Cal hadn’t let go of her once during that time, but she didn’t want to push her luck. They had some serious making up to do, which couldn’t really happen until everybody else went away. But nobody was ready to do that yet.

  Daddy called the Rangers, grumbling. Allie and Janie apologized profusely and went to finish the wine and snacks. Her mama cornered Wonder to ask him about composite tooth veneers.

  Docia stayed where she was, huddled in Cal’s arms, feeling safe and warm again, what she’d been missing for the past two days. She really wanted to tell everybody to go home, but they were her friends. And the ones who weren’t her friends were her paren
ts. “I want them all to go away,” she murmured against Cal’s chest.

  “Not gonna happen, babe,” Cal murmured back. “They’re having too much fun.”

  She held herself against him for a few more moments, closing her eyes, and tried not to hear the sounds of the multiple conversations going on around her. She could smell that faint animal scent that always clung to Cal’s clothes. She hadn’t realized how much she’d missed it until now.

  Her father returned to the workroom, folding his cell phone. “Rangers are on the way. Said I’d meet them here and hand it over.”

  “I’ll stay with you,” her mother said as she reached for an olive. “I want to see what happens.”

  “Could I stay too?” Janie grinned. “I’m dying to know what they say when they see the signature.”

  “I could go back to Allie’s and get some more munchies to make it through the evening.” Wonder’s voice sounded hopeful.

  “Feel free to volunteer my kitchen, Steve.” Allie gave him a dry smile, then reached out to pat his hand.

  Docia leaned her forehead against Cal’s shoulder. “They’re not going to leave, are they?” she murmured.

  “Nope.”

  “Then let’s go away.” She lifted her face to gaze up at him, watching his eyes crinkle at the edges as he smiled. The tightness in her shoulders began to ease, replaced by tightness lower down in her body.

  Cal pushed a frizzing lock of hair away from her forehead. “To your apartment?”

  “No.” Docia took a deep breath. “To the barn. If I’m welcome there, that is.”

  Cal leaned down and kissed her temple. “Always, babe. What about the map?”

  Docia sighed. “The Rangers can have it. Daddy can have it. Hell, Janie can have it for all I care. Let them all sort it out. I’m done for the evening.”

  “Sounds good to me.” He moved his lips across her forehead. “Besides, we need to settle up.”

  Docia raised an eyebrow, pushing back so that she could look up at him again. “Settle up?”

  “You owe me.” He folded his arms across his chest. His very broad chest. “I won your prize, toots.”

 
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