Venus in blue jeans, p.7

Venus in Blue Jeans, page 7

 

Venus in Blue Jeans
 



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  “Don’t charge in there yet. Not until we know if he’s still there.” He stepped in front of her, opening the door at the top of the stairs and handing her his cell. “Better call 911.”

  Docia shook her head. “Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe something just fell off a shelf. I’d feel like an idiot calling the cops.”

  “Do it anyway.” They stood listening at the top of the stairs for a moment longer, then started down.

  Cal walked ahead, his hand extended behind him to slow her. In the storeroom, he paused.

  “Where’s the light switch?”

  “Here.” Docia flipped up the master on the storeroom wall, and the bookstore blazed with light.

  Cal stepped warily through the door, with Docia close behind him. At first, she couldn’t see anything. The store looked empty.

  He stood staring around the space. “I don’t see anyone, but somebody could be hiding behind the counter or under one of the tables.”

  “I’ll take the back,” Docia said, moving away from him. Cal raised his hand to stop her, but she moved too quickly. Tough. Nobody told her what to do in her own shop, and nobody broke into her shop when she was right upstairs.

  She heard him sigh before he headed toward the front of the store. “No one here,” he called, after a moment.

  “Here either.” Docia shook her head. “Something knocked over the CD rack, though. It’s on the floor.” She glanced around the shop, then focused on the door to the storeroom. “Aw, crap.”

  The window in the storeroom stood wide open, curtains blowing in the slight evening breeze.

  “Like I said, call the cops.” Cal sighed.

  The police cruiser was there within five minutes, evidence of how little went on in town at that time of night. Clete Morris and Chief Brody both came inside.

  Brody walked around the shop, slowly, while Clete took their fairly inadequate statements.

  “What time did you get here?” Brody said, after a moment.

  “We started back from Brenner’s around eight-thirty. It’s not that far.” Cal turned to glance at her. “Five minutes?”

  “Give or take.”

  Cal nodded. “Then maybe another five or six minutes for me to check on Nico upstairs.”

  “Nico?”

  “My cat.” Docia kept her gaze on Brody. She figured a discussion of soul-searing kisses would not be relevant at this point.

  “So did you look in the front window of the store as you walked by? See anything unusual?” Brody turned back toward them again, eyes sharp.

  Docia shook her head. “We didn’t walk by the front. We turned at the corner and walked down to my apartment door.”

  “You didn’t see anybody around the shop, cars parked nearby, anything like that?”

  Cal shook his head. “We weren’t that close.”

  Clete Morris was watching Docia with narrowed eyes. His face was frozen in a permanently suspicious look that always made her feel vaguely guilty. Probably a big asset for a cop. “You sure you locked the front door when you left, Ms. Kent?”

  “Yes, I’m sure.”

  “It’d be easy to miss.”

  Morris smiled, and Docia’s skin crawled. The man had the flattest eyes she’d ever seen, no light in the depths.

  “I was there.” Cal stepped beside her. “I can vouch for what she did. She locked the door as we left.”

  “Doesn’t much matter whether it was locked or not.” Brody’s voice sounded tired. “Somebody could have gone in and out the window easy enough. No lock on it.”

  Morris turned away, while Brody walked back to the storeroom door. “On a guess, I’d say you had a burglar who maybe saw you were gone and grabbed his chance. He wouldn’t have seen you come back if you didn’t walk by the front. He must have heard you moving around upstairs and took off.”

  Morris shook his head, his mouth thinning. “No point in fingerprinting that window if you folks open and close it all the time. It’ll be covered with fingerprints already. Anything missing?”

  “I don’t think so. We don’t keep money here at night.” Beside her, Docia felt the warmth of Cal’s body. All of a sudden, she wanted them gone.

  Brody folded his notebook back in his pocket. “Look the store over. If you find anything was taken, let us know.”

  He gestured to Morris, who fell in behind him, then nodded at them both. “Get yourself a good lock for that window now, Ms. Kent. ’Night, Doc.”

  —

  Cal walked through the storeroom behind Docia, trying to figure out how to get her back into his arms again. He wasn’t sure he could remember exactly how far along they’d been when the CD rack went over, but trying to find his place again would be more fun than he’d had all month.

  Docia turned off the lights and stepped into the foyer below the stairs to the apartment, resting against the end of the banister. She turned back to look at him, then lifted her hand, brushing her fingers lightly along the edge of his shoulder.

  His temperature spiked up around five degrees. Cal closed his eyes, covering her hand with his own. “I need to see you again. Soon.”

  “I know.” Her voice was warm satin in the semidarkness.

  “Tomorrow night?”

  Docia sighed. “I have to go down to San Antonio tomorrow to pick up some books and see my mama. I’ll be back the next day.”

  “Friday, then?”

  Docia grinned up at him quickly. “Friday. Sure.”

  “I heard there’s a street dance next weekend.” Cal took a breath. Dances were not his favorite recreation. On the other hand, kissing Docia was definitely up there. “Care to go with me?”

  Docia narrowed her eyes. “That’s the town street dance at the beginning of the Liddy Brenner Festival. You’re certain you want to take that on?”

  “Sure.” Cal frowned. “Shouldn’t I be?”

  Docia reached up to straighten his collar, her fingers brushing against his collarbone. Cal felt like moaning. When she looked at him, she was smiling. “Ask someone to tell you about the Liddy Brenner Festival. Horace, maybe. Or Wonder Dentist. If you’re still game for it, so am I.”

  Cal reached down to wrap his arms around her waist, lifting her up a stair so that they were face-to-face, then angled his mouth against hers again. He slid his tongue deep, exploring her mouth, teeth, lips, all the warmth in between. His heart raced, and his head felt as if he’d drunk a couple of bottles of wine at dinner instead of a glass and a half. Finally, Docia gasped and pulled back. In the dim reflected light that shone down from the apartment front door, her eyes looked dazed.

  Cal grinned. “Believe me, ma’am, I’m game. Have a safe trip.” He stepped out into the street and headed toward his barn.

  If he’d looked less like Bigfoot and more like Baryshnikov, he would have danced down the avenue. As it was, he settled for whistling the Iowa State fight song.

  —

  Docia stood at the upstairs window, watching him stride away, her palms flat against the cool glass.

  Somewhere her warning bells were clanging away, reminding her she’d felt this way about Donnie once. And look at the misery that had led to.

  Well, maybe not exactly this way. Donnie’s kisses had sure never made her heart speed up the way Cal’s had. But still, in the end, her romances never came to much. She was definitely a love ’em and be left type. You know that, don’t you?

  “Yes,” she whispered, “but it could be so sweet while it lasts.”

  Chapter Six

  Margaret sat behind the cash register of Angels Unaware and watched a woman in an unfortunate pair of flower-patterned magenta capris browse through some angel figurines. Margaret loved her store. She’d started with just a few angels, along with some painted china and crystals. The angels had been her best sellers, though. Slowly but surely they had taken over the whole shop. Now angel Christmas ornaments and light-catchers hung from the ceiling, while porcelain, crystal, wooden and resin versions covered every available surface.

/>   The woman in magenta moved further into the shop toward the bookshelves. Her capris emphasized body parts that were better concealed, in Margaret’s opinion. Her husband followed behind her, eyes glazed with boredom, dodging the occasional angel light-catcher.

  Angel plaques hung on the walls, blending with a smattering of angel drawings and prints and a few cross-stitched versions. A gorgeous woven throw draped over the sofa in the window depicted an angel bending protectively over a friendly puppy.

  “Not like you,” Margaret muttered. Señor Pepe looked up at her with his mournful eyes, then settled his chin upon his paws, scrunching further into the corner.

  She’d bought him the cutest wicker basket with a scarlet velvet pillow to sleep in, but he kept trying to curl up on a chair. Margaret was tired of putting him back in the basket. The dog never understood how he was supposed to behave.

  The bell over the door tinkled cheerfully as someone new stepped into the shop. Ham Linklatter ducked around the crystal and brass angel mobiles Margaret had hanging next to the book display. “Morning, Ms. Margaret.”

  He was smiling. Or what passed for a smile with Ham anyway, sort of a grimace with rounded corners. His pale, lank hair, still wet from his morning shower, was plastered across his forehead.

  Margaret sighed. She didn’t count a man’s appearance against him, she really didn’t. But Ham’s face looked like a death’s head—sunken cheeks, deep-set eyes, slightly buck teeth. His mirrored sunglasses usually helped to hide the effect, but when he wasn’t wearing them, he made Margaret want to shudder.

  He wasn’t wearing them now.

  He was a sweet man. He was a responsible man. Seeing as how he was one of the Konigsburg policemen, he was a catch. Why couldn’t she be attracted to him instead of Cal Toleffson?

  “How’s the angel business?” Ham grinned more widely, which made him even less attractive.

  “We’re doing quite well,” Margaret trilled. Even to her own ears she sounded unbearably prim. And normally she liked prim.

  “I was just wondering…” Ham’s eyes narrowed. “Would you be interested in hitting the Liddy Brenner Street Dance with me next Friday?”

  Margaret fumbled through her supply of excuses. Washing her hair or her dog were obviously out—nobody stayed home and did mundane things during the Liddy Brenner Festival. “Mercy, we may have to stay open late that evening,” she hedged, “what with all the tourists who’ll be in town.”

  “That’s okay, I can stop by when I get off duty.” Ham smiled again, and Margaret thought of dancing skeletons at Halloween.

  “Wonderful.” Her lips managed to move up into a stiff smile. “I’ll see you Friday, then.”

  As she watched Ham disappear up the street from the shop, Margaret reflected that somehow this was all Docia Kent’s fault. She wasn’t sure exactly how Docia had done it, but she’d managed to ruin Margaret’s festival experience. Just the way Docia’s presence in town had been ruining Margaret’s peace of mind for the past year. One of these days, Margaret would have to cut Docia Kent down to size.

  —

  At lunchtime, Cal found Wonder on the shaded patio outside Allie Maldonado’s bakery, Sweet Thing.

  Cal leaned against a live oak beside Wonder’s glass-topped table. “What are you doing here? Isn’t a place like this sort of against your Dental Oath?”

  Wonder brushed crumbs off his shirt front. “Listen, Idaho, sugar has been very, very good to me. It paid off my truck and the mortgage on the office, and I treat it with the respect it’s due.”

  Allie appeared in the doorway behind them, wiping her hands on her apron. She looked like a chef who ate her own food, rounded and rosy, something Cal approved of thoroughly. “Can I get you anything, Cal?” she asked. “We’ve got a vegetarian croissant sandwich on the lunch special.”

  “Sounds good.” He wondered briefly how she knew he was a vegetarian, then decided it must be the restaurateurs’ telegraph. Maybe Lee and Ken passed along the news when she dropped off the bread at Brenner’s. Or maybe Docia had mentioned him. The thought made him smile.

  “Bring him a bowl of the gazpacho too.” Wonder sighed and patted his stomach. “It’s terrific.”

  Allie gave him a broad, sunny smile. “Thanks. For that you get a cookie.”

  Wonder half-turned to watch her walk back into the shop, his eyes bright. Cal raised an eyebrow. Clearly, cookies weren’t the only thing Wonder was hungering for.

  He flopped into a bright blue Adirondack chair next to Wonder’s table. “Tell me about the Liddy Brenner Festival.”

  Wonder grinned, breaking off a piece of croissant. “Ah, the centerpiece of the June social calendar. Liddy Brenner. Our local heroine. During the festival we all join to pay her homage.”

  “So—” Cal sprawled back in the chair, “—how precisely do we pay her homage?”

  “No, no, Idaho.” Wonder shook his head. “First you need to ask me who Liddy was and why she’s our local heroine.”

  Cal sighed. Wonder was being his usual semi-annoying self, which meant this would take a while. “Okay, who was Liddy?”

  “A myth,” Allie said flatly. She set a large, frosted bowl on the table in front of him and handed him a soupspoon. “I never heard of her until I moved here five years ago.”

  Wonder shrugged. “Possibly mythical. It’s true that, although there were and are a lot of Brenners around here, no Liddys, Lydias or Alidas were recorded on the census records at the time. However, Texans have never let inconvenient fact interfere with juicy legend.”

  “Juicy?” Cal took a bite of soup. It tasted of jalapeños and fresh tomatoes and lemon and cilantro. It was heavenly. This town was going to ruin him for eating anywhere else. “What was she, a madam?”

  Wonder pressed his hand to his heart. “Bite your tongue, boy! The very idea! This is our town heroine we’re talking about. She may have been mythical, but she wasn’t a loose woman.”

  Cal gritted his teeth. “Wonder, I know you’re enjoying the hell out of this, but could we just cut to the chase here?”

  Allie handed Wonder a plate with two large, golden brown crescents that smelled of cinnamon. “Here. Cookies. Eat.”

  She turned back to Cal, settling into a salmon-colored Adirondack chair on the other side of the table. “Liddy Brenner was supposedly a frontier wife and mother who lived about a mile west of where the town square is now. You hear lots of versions of the legend, but here’s what it boils down to. While her husband was off doing something manly, she was captured by some Comanches who brought her back to their village. When she got there she found the chief’s little boy was sick and she nursed him back to health. So the chief returned the favor, sent her back home and promised not to attack Konigsburg. That’s it.”

  “Interesting.” Cal sipped the iced tea Allie had put next to his plate, tasting lime and mint. “I assume that the Konigsburg settlers weren’t well known for nursing Comanche children.”

  Wonder snorted. “Probably the least believable part of the whole story. If Liddy Brenner had actually existed, she’d have shot first and asked questions later. Scratch that. She wouldn’t have asked any questions, period. But you haven’t heard the best part, the Margaret Hastings variation.”

  Cal gave an involuntary shudder. “Margaret Hastings?”

  “It’s Margaret’s festival, more or less, as she’ll be glad to point out. She got it going when she was president of the Konigsburg Merchants Association.” Wonder paused to chew a bite of his cookie with a blissful expression. “Anyway, the Hastings variation is that Liddy contracted whatever disease the chief’s kid had and, having done her part in nursing him back to health, promptly expired. With tearful farewells and benedictions to Konigsburg, of course.”

  Allie gave him a mock frown, eyes dancing. “It’s a nice story. It doesn’t emphasize killing somebody or running them off their land. And the woman ends up being the hero. I like it, myself.”

  Wonder bent from the waist. “I bow to your
superior sensibility, Ms. Maldonado. It is a nice story, albeit corny as hell. It’s also a great excuse for a party.”

  “So what goes on at this Festival?” Cal was trying to chase down the last drops of his gazpacho with his spoon, unwilling to let any of it go to waste. “What happens at the street dance?”

  Wonder shrugged. “What do you think happens, Idaho? You dance, for Christ’s sake!”

  “And you wear costumes.” Allie leaned forward to gather up the plates.

  “Dancing? Costumes?” Cal had a sinking feeling in his gut. Next they’d be asking him to sing.

  “Correction.” Wonder smirked. “The women wear costumes. A lot of them dress up like whatever the hell they think Liddy Brenner looked like. Usually involves a lot of lace and cameos. Very impractical for Texas in June.”

  “And the men?”

  Wonder looked him over through narrowed eyes. “I’d say what you’ve got on will pass for a costume of the male variety.”

  Cal looked down—he always wore scrubs at the clinic. He’d already forgotten what he’d put on that morning. Jeans and a faded denim shirt. The usual. “That’s it?”

  “Well, you can add a cowboy hat.” Wonder frowned slightly. “As long as it isn’t that one you wear when you’re working around the goats.”

  “That’s the only one I have.”

  “Then scratch the cowboy hat.” Wonder nodded decisively. “You want to attract women rather than repel them. Although in your case, it would probably take more than a little goat smell to scare them off.”

  “You look fine, Cal.” Allie smiled. “Just wear something like that. All the other men will.”

  Cal shook his head, remembering the costumes at the Lander, Iowa sesquicentennial. “You mean none of the men dress up for this?”

  “Only politicians and exhibitionists.” Wonder shrugged. “Frequently the same person, of course.”

  “You’ll like it.” Allie began stacking dishes from the table on a tray. “I’ll make sure Wonder Dentist here leaves you alone.”

 

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