LUCKY 18 TRUCK STOP
Lanie Delaney’s head was stuffed with real estate legal education but it was her bladder that came close to bursting, grabbing her attention a lot more fiercely than that cutesy little walking-bladder TV commercial with the big eyes ever did. She’d barely begun to investigate the gift shop but mama Nature wasn’t taking no for an answer.
Off to the restroom. Yow, close call. Wash up, check hair, the heck with makeup–she didn’t need it, not yet–except for a mild lipstick touchup. And…back to the store. They had an empty section titled S-W POTTERY but the store lady said it would be restocked within minutes. “Your timing is perfect!” Not that Lanie was a pottery connoisseur. She was, however, a curious little cat.
When she walked in, the clerk–or manager?–was placing a small piece in the section. “Tom will be bringing in the rest, any minute now.” Big smile. Not a pushy salesperson. Genuine enthusiasm for the product.
“I’ve never seen anything like this little vase.”
“Unique, isn’t it?”
“That’s it! That’s exactly it.”
“Can I hold it?”
“Sure. You break it, you buy it, but other than that, go for it.”
The vase’s thin-waisted curve was almost…feminine. She felt drawn. In her hands…it felt warm. Tingly, almost. Imagination? “You said it’s unique?”
“So far.” The gift shop lady smiled big. She knew she had a sale. “Tom Slider comes in here on his regular route. Up until now, his partner has been the potter. But S-W is getting a following, orders are increasing faster than one man can throw pots, so Tom decided he’d better learn to help on the production side, not just sales. This is the first piece he’s dared offer to the public. Or at least that’s what he told my boss.”
A thrill went through Lanie. “This is the very first? Number one?” She had to have it. Price tag, $39.95. “You know I’m going to take this one.”
“Aw-w-w, I’m a commercial success.” The male voice startled her, though she didn’t show it. Rich. Baritone. Warm honey.
She handed the little vase to the clerk with a nod confirming the sale. Turning, she confronted a man somewhat older than she’d expected. Mid-fifties, maybe. Tall but not too tall. Green baseball cap with S-W POTTERY in white embroidery across the front. Dark hair. Couldn’t see his eyes; the guy was wearing sunglasses, even indoors. Moustache. He was carrying a huge pot, roughly two feet in diameter at the belly and two feet tall, beautiful despite its bulk but nothing to her. He leaned sideways, placing the piece dead center in the display section, then straightened. Looking right at her.
“Tom Slider, I presume?”
“You have the advantage of me.” Big grin, right hand reaching forward.
She took it. “Lanie Delaney, first customer.” Her left thumb jerked up over her shoulder, indicating the clerk who was busy wrapping her purchase. Her right hand shot out of its own accord, gripped his, palm to palm, just as he reached up to lift his sunglasses out of the way.
–I nodded. At least I think I nodded. Why am I so spaced out? What happened? I must have, we shook hands, I remember that and then nothing, I think–when we connected, something happened to me. He look all normal and stuff– Lanie pulled herself together, faking it really, paid the clerk, took her vase, and escaped. Tom Slider was aware of her, gave her a parting nod and a smile as she passed him on the way out of the store. He was still placing pots; not too much time could have elapsed…got his sunglasses back on, too….
Kermit was waiting for her in the café like one pig waits for another. He’d already ordered a 16 ounce New York strip and was digging in. A spot of sauce, A-1 probably, had found its way to his otherwise pristine white shirt. She thought about telling him but decided not; what was the point? He’d just freak out, insist on getting a clean shirt from the Lincoln and changing. That would slow them down. Right now, she didn’t want to be slowed down. She wanted out of here, wanted to put time and distance between herself and that bizarre experience in the gift shop. I’m a practical girl. I don’t go in for this doo-wacka-doo stuff!
All she could handle was a chocolate malt. To go.
The crackle between us when we shook hands was electric, disorienting, almost overwhelming. Especially when I lifted my sunglasses so she could see my eyes. Soul to Soul, titanium-forge-welded, hammer-on-anvil BANG! Until that instant, I’d tried fooling myself into believing I’d do the right thing, stay away from Emily’s–no, Lanie Delaney’s new life. At least she wasn’t romantically involved with my wonderful son, good ol’ greedy Kermit the Coyote. I knew this because she’d filled out a raffle form as part of Lucky 18’s promotion–first prize being a Ruger Scout rifle in .308 caliber, so the girl wasn’t afraid of firearms. In the process, she’d jokingly mentioned needing to get going so her boss didn’t leave without her. The clerk had told me when I used the excuse of my “exciting first sale” to chit-chat, pry, and otherwise play sleuth.
Look at yourself, I thought, all the while looking at her out of the corner of my eye. A hit like that, she had to feel it, yet so calm, cool, collected. Not that I could zero in directly on her expression, peripheral vision being soft focus, but I could feel her essence, the fizz of her. My stars, that girl onstage would bring down the house, first place on America’s Got Talent if she did nothing more than stood there and smiled. Heaven help the audience if she did a stage strut and wiggled her butt.
Hooked much, Tom? Yeah, I was hooked, had swallowed the iron right down into the depths, side trip to the center of my heart. Hurts so good.
She left the gift shop before I was done restocking inventory but the effect lingered behind. Seeped from the walls into me, seemed like. Helmer stopped in, congratulated me on my first pottery sale–of my own work, as opposed to the regular, established sales of pottery slung by Otis. He handed me the check for what had been sold in the past two months, I thanked him, and somehow got out of there without looking or sounding like an idiot.
So what was I going to do now?
Yeah, I knew the answer to that one. Outwardly, I was going to do absolutely nothing. But inwardly, where angst and ulcers and little demon secret thoughts live, I’d be hoping against hope that someday she would contact me. Which she could do easily enough. Every S-W pot was sold with an accompanying brochure that listed our website and email address. No phone number; Otis and I could do without that. But if she went to the website…and then sent an email…that might feel pretty safe to her, right?
Not that Lanie Delaney–I rolled the name around in my head, loving the sound of it–not that she would worry a whole lot about “safe.” Not if she really was Emily reincarnated. Emily had never been one to back down from a challenge. She was probably still looking for the train that killed her, fixing to kick its ass.
It was time to head home, though I almost forgot to fuel up the Dodge. As the miles unrolled behind me, my head began to clear, bit by bit. At some point, I remembered, Hey, fool, don’t you have a girlfriend on the Rez? Now that I thought of it, yeah, I did. I was pretty sure.
Fry me like an egg if I could remember her name.
Otis was obviously worried, with good reason. If I did something stupid and blew our cover by trying to retrieve a cute little bunny wabbbit (Lanie) from a rattlesnake den (Cavanaugh Law), we could easily lose everything. Uncle Sam doesn’t much appreciate uppity nephews who live under assumed names or transfer money without Uncle getting his cut. We were breaking all sorts of laws designed to keep the individual thoroughly wired into the Matrix.
Matrix? Old movie reference. Look it up. Keanu Reeves.
Or try The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence.
Or any other film devoted to illustrating the struggle of free men and women against oppressive, controlling, lying, cheating, corrupt governments. Bottom line, we were bucking the trend and would be slated for destruction if found out. I knew that. Even with my infatuation, lessened but not eradicated by distance, I knew that. In my head, I could even see the headlines.
MULTIMILLIONAIRE CRAZIER THAN HOWARD HUGHES.
Ninety-eight year old John Cavanaugh, reputed to be worth something north of $20,000,000, surfaced today in South Dakota. For the past six months, he’d been hiding out, possibly senile, living as a simple potter….
JOHN CAVANAUGH AKA TOM SLIDER FACES MENTAL HEARING
How crazy does one have to be to do something like this? Mr. Cavanaugh is facing seventy-three different federal charges for….
HE SAW THE OLD MAN’S FALL COMING
Fall, indeed. From prominent Montana citizen to….
“Not going to put us at risk, Otis.” My attempt at reassurance wasn’t quite doing the job. My partner, the one who avoided confrontation whenever possible, wasn’t about to Oh, yeah? me. He wasn’t built that way. But he could go to jail, too. The trust fund that cared for his Down’s syndrome daughter could be wiped out. His doctor girlfriend might or might not stand by him.
Probably would. If there was one thing Native Americans understood, it was the trouble any man faced if he got crosswise of the Great White Father in Washington. Heck, a lot of them faced plenty of trouble without getting crosswise.
Basically, Otis and I were in the clear as long as the Coyote never got wind of my whereabouts. Life was good. Problem was, I still had this thirst for Life, a willingness to take risks other people would avoid like the plague. Otis did not want the plague.
There was only one way to settle the lad down. Might not work, but then again, it might: Get him involved. Counter intuitive for sure, but…. “You’re the whiz on the computer. As long as I keep my ancient nose out of Lanie Delaney’s business–and thereby out of Kermit’s target range–how be you see what you can find on the girl? Tell you true, pard, I need an outlet for that sizzling hit I took when we shook hands and I’d like to burn off some of this weirdness before I go see Tania this evening.” I’d remembered my girlfriend’s name–Tania Snake–only when I drove by the casino on the way home.
Otis thought about that for a bit before nodding. “Yeah, you smell of new woman.”
“Uncross your eyes, Tom. I’m not saying you and this Lanie Delaney did anything but shake hands and eyeball each other. It’s just…your attitude, I guess. If I could pick up on something being different with you, and believe me, I got that the moment you came through the door, picked up the cat, and started petting it.”
I stared at him, dumbfounded. “You figured it out from the cat?”
“Hey. You’ve never picked up that cat before. Think Miss Kitty was about as surprised as I was. Not that she objected. She was liking your new vibe.”
“She was liking–”
“I can guarantee you, cowboy, Tania would not like it.”
“Sometimes I dunno why I confide in you.”
“Simple. ‘Cause you got no one else. Me either. Except Barb for me, Tania for you, but we’re a long, long way from being able to tell either one of those fine ladies our sneaky little secrets, eh?”
Otis went to his office, fired up the computer, and left me waiting on tenterhooks for nearly an hour before calling me in to give me the rundown on Lanie. I didn’t go in there often. Each of us prized his private paperwork place. I had a computer in my office, too, but Otis had become the search wizard. He even subscribed to a handful of search engines used mostly by private investigators–and monitored by law enforcement no doubt, but he assured me it would take a world class hacker to get through the VPN and other defenses he employed. For low level inquiries, we were golden.
I hoped. Paranoia never entirely leaves a truly sane mind. There really is evil out there and it’s begging for a snack.
“Interesting stuff.” My slightly pudgy partner–still adding weight, though slowly–smirked at me as I sat down. “I’ve printed out a few pages but presume you’d like a verbal recap?”
“If you please,” I said, feigning casual.
“First off, she bunks with another female. Kissy-face lovers, those two.”
“Okay, how do you know that?”
My glare cracked him up. When he’d recovered enough to pontificate without choking, he explained. “Her sweetie’s name is Karen Odela. School teacher until recently. Has her own counseling office now, private practice. Wouldja like to know how I know they’re sweet on each other? Wouldja? Wouldja?”
I sighed. Otis could act real juvenile when he felt my balloon needed piercing. My cross to bear. “Yeah. Lay it on me.”
“Aha! You asked for it and ye shall receive! Seems Ms. Delaney and Ms Odela bought a house together. Right there in the middle of Pert, your old home town. Both names on the paperwork. Ah, the beauty of public records.” His jocular tone sobered suddenly. “Think you want to try converting a couple of lezzies, Tom?”
I stared at Otis the Researcher, me speechless, him triumphant. He took that as a good sign, a sign that Reality had slapped me upside my thick head and now I’d settle down, get real about Tania–who was, I already knew, about as real as they come. I didn’t forget Tania’s name this time, though it did occur to me that if she and I went as far as sex, I’d best not forget and yell out, Lanie! Or worse, Emily! Not that I was noisy in bed. Never had been, never would be. (Note to self: Never say never.)
Had Otis understood the real reason for my silence, he would have been more alarmed than ever. This, however, I knew to keep from him: What if Lanie and her Karen weren’t lesbian? What if they were bisexual? Then I might have a real shot…no.
Shut up, Tom Slider, I silently yelled at my unruly thoughts.. You’re killing us here.