“I know what I heard.” Penelope Pembroke leaned across the table in the kitchen of the Amaryllis Bed and Breakfast, of which she was proprietor, and tapped the woven placemat with a well-manicured, unpolished nail. Blowing away the strand of honey-blonde hair falling across her nose, she readjusted the narrow tortoise-shell glasses perched on the end of that appendage, and leaned closer to her best friend Mary Lynn Hargrove, wife of the town’s longtime mayor. “I’m not senile, you know.”
“No one said you were.” Mary Lynn placated Penelope as she’d done since the first day they’d met in high school some thirty years earlier.
“You implied it.” Penelope reached down for the orange tabby nosing around her sneaker-clad feet and lifted him into her lap. “Abijah heard it, too.”
Mary Lynn rolled her dark eyes toward the hairline of close-cropped black curls. “The only thing that blob hears is the sound of the can opener signaling dinner.”
“He’s not a blob.”
“He’s obese. He’s going to keel over one of these days. Death by Feline Feast.”
“Oh, hush up.” Penelope stroked the cat, whose ample hindquarters hung over the edge of her lap. “Anyway, I heard what I heard.” The strand of hair drifted across one lens again, and she blew it away and tucked it firmly behind her ear, which set the long silver and turquoise earring swaying. “They specifically said the word ‘shipment’ and mentioned the Sit-n-Swill.”
“Roger Sitton gets shipments all the time. It’s a bar and grill you know. He doesn’t make moonshine in his bathtub or slaughter his barbecue out back.”
Penelope sat back and shifted the cat to distribute his weight more evenly. “These guys weren’t blessed salesmen, I’m telling you. They were, well, Mafia types.”
Mary Lynn snorted. “Mafioso? Then by all means call the police. Call the FBI. Call out the National Guard or maybe the Marines.”
The smirk on her friend’s face rankled Penelope, but she kept her cool. “I thought about calling Bradley, but he’s worse than you are. He’s convinced I lost it when I divorced his father.”
“He was fifteen then, and it got you a better settlement than if you’d waited on Travis to divorce you.”
“That’s true. I wasn’t so dumb, and I guess he knows that now. He just can’t admit I was right to dump his father, but the man couldn’t keep his blessed pants zipped. I put up with it as long as I could.”
Mary Lynn shook her head. “That’s a dead mule. So tell Brad about the men.”
“Since he got that fancy new title at the police department, he’s not that easy to talk to.”
“CID. Criminal Investigation. Detective Sergeant Bradley Pembroke. You know you’re proud of him, Pen.”
“Just so proud I can’t stand myself.” Penelope’s generous mouth parted in a wide smile. “So’s Daddy. I just wish his grandmother could’ve lived to see what he’s done.”
“Your mother would’ve been proud. So would old Mrs. Pembroke. She was crazy about him as I remember.”
“I think she knew Bradley wasn’t going to turn out like his father.” Penelope frowned. “You’re changing the subject. I know what I heard. Maybe I should tell Roger.”
“Roger Sitton has lace on his drawers, for Heaven’s sake. He’d no more be involved in a drug deal than I would.”
“Well, that’s probably true, but he could be involved without knowing it.”
“Anyway, if you’re not going to tell anyone, forget about it.”
“I’m telling you, Mary Lynn.”
“Which is about as useful as telling Abijah.” On cue, the massive feline lifted his head and stretched, then flailed his back legs to keep from sliding to the floor.
Penelope grabbed for him, and he snuggled in again, setting up a rumbling purr her father described as a distant freight train. “Don’t badmouth Abijah. No wonder he doesn’t like you.”
“He doesn’t like anybody but you, and nobody likes him, including me.” Mary Lynn took one last sip of coffee, slung her floppy zebra-striped bag over one shoulder, and ran long fingers through dark hair beginning to show a few streaks of gray. “I’ve got to get going. The new resale shop over in the strip mall is having its grand opening at two o’clock, and I promised Harry I’d be there for the ribbon-cutting. But I have to stop by the Garden Market first.”
“So you aren’t going to give me any advice?” Penelope’s slender body, still the envy of every classmate, wafted up from the chair like smoke from a pipe. When Abijah squirmed in her arms, she set him down. He stalked away and made it into the bay window in only two tries.
“I thought I just did.” Mary Lynn’s eyes ran the length of her friend’s five-foot-five frame. “I hate you, you know. You ate two kolaches to my one, and I probably gained five pounds.”
“You worry about your weight too much. Also, what you gave me wasn’t very good advice.”
“It’s all I have, and I really have to go. Thanks for the coffee and kolache, even though I like the peach ones better.”
“The bakery was out of peach.”
“Another time.” The mayor’s wife pushed open the back screen door and stepped out onto the terrace, the rubber soles of her expensive loafers making no sound on the smooth stones. “See you.”
Penelope gathered up the plates and cups and began to rinse them at the sink.
“Got anymore of those kolatsky things?”
“Kolaches. They’re full of sugar, Daddy.”
Jake Kelley emerged from the tiny hall leading to what he called his ‘lair’. It had been the quarters for the live-in housekeeper when he was a child, but after his daughter turned the family home into a bed and breakfast, he’d taken refuge there. “I want one anyway.”
Penelope shrugged. “You know where they are.”
Jake’s tall, lean body floated across the kitchen. The sunlight glinted off his white hair which he wore short enough to be convenient and long enough to be fashionable. He helped himself to the largest pastry left in the box and took a bite. “I really like the peach ones better.”
“They were out.”
“Did those two young fellows leave right after breakfast? Anybody else coming in?”
“Yes and yes.”
“They seemed like nice youngsters.” Jake took down his favorite mug, the one with the hunting dogs on it, and poured himself some coffee.
“They were thirty if they were a day, and I don’t think they were very nice.”
“No? Left a mess upstairs, did they?”
“I haven’t been upstairs. No, I thought they seemed shifty.”
“Shifty?” Jake chuckled as he took his coffee and kolache to the table.
Penelope hesitated. At seventy-five, Jake was sharper than most men half his age, despite a stroke two years ago that had ended his employment as general manager of the Garden Market. He’d come back all the way, but by then the owner said it was past time for him to retire anyway. He hadn’t liked it much then, but in six months he’d liked his freedom a lot. She straightened from putting dishes into the dishwasher. “I overheard them talking about something that didn’t sound right to me.”
“Something about a shipment at the Sit-n-Swill.”
Jake added sugar from the grapeleaf bowl to his coffee. “Drugs.”
Penelope’s eyebrows went up. “That’s what I thought, too. Mary Lynn didn’t get it.”
“Mary Lynn doesn’t think like you.”
“But you do?”
Jake looked up and grinned. “You’re a chip off the old block, darlin’.”
“Oh, Daddy, you wouldn’t recognize Jack the Ripper if he knocked on the back door and asked to borrow the butcher knife.”
Jake’s shaggy eyebrows came together in a straight line above his slate-blue eyes. “I knew a shoplifter the minute he walked in the market. I could smell him.” He took another bite of the pastry and chewed slowly. “Dry.”
“They were in the day-old bin.”
“Maybe you should call Brad. On second thought, maybe not.”
“My feelings exactly.”
“I’m sure glad you don’t think I’m over the hill, Nellie.”
“You’re not over the hill, Daddy. You’re not even near the top. But you know Bradley.”
“I know my grandson. So what are you going to do?”
Penelope sat down. “Nothing I guess.”
“What can I do?”
“I haven’t had one of Roger’s Reubens in a long time.”
Penelope’s mouth twitched. “Neither have I.”
“Well, then, it seems to me after you check in tonight’s guests, you and I should mosey on over to the Sit-n-Swill and have one. And a beer.”
Penelope got up and wiped a few drops of water from the new granite counter top she’d had installed to replace the old-fashioned grouted tile. “I guess it couldn’t hurt.”
“I don’t think so.”
She frowned. “Daddy, do you really believe what I heard, or is this just an excuse for a beer and a Reuben?”
“And what if something happens while we’re there, and the police come? I’d rather face a firing squad than my own son.”
“Nellie, I always told you not to cross a bridge ‘til you came to it. Besides, Brad wouldn’t arrest us. He’d have to take care of Abijah, and he hates that cat.”
Penelope twisted her mouth, then nodded. “All right, Daddy. We’ll do it.”
In the Sit-n-Swill lot, Penelope parked her six-year-old SUV in the farthest available space.
“Afraid somebody might see us and be scandalized?” Jake asked.
“Everybody in town knows my car.”
“Everybody in town knows you aren’t a bar-hopper.”
“Plenty of respectable people come here,” Jake said.
“And plenty of the other kind, too.”
“So, do you have a plan?” Jake paused with his hand on the door and looked at his daughter.
“Every good Dick has a plan.”
Penelope stifled a giggle. “Detective, Daddy. I’m not a blessed detective.”
Jake chuckled. “Well, we’ll case the joint while we have our Reubens.”
This time Penelope did laugh. “You read too many who-dunits.”
“I learn a lot. Let’s see what’s going on.” Jake slid out of the car, slamming the door behind him.
A bulb was dark in the marquee lights spelling out Sit-n-Swill across the front of a stucco building the color of spicy mustard. “Roger needs to get that fixed,” Jake observed.
“I’m sure you’ll tell him about it.” Penelope stood back and let her father pull out the single gun-metal gray door. Cool air from an ancient swamp cooler mounted outside the back wall bathed her face, bringing with it the smell of cigarette smoke and beer. She stepped inside, waiting until her eyes adjusted to the dimness before she moved further. Patsy Cline’s Sweet Dreams blared from the jukebox near the front.
Roger Sitton materialized from behind the wooden bar he’d recently painted a garish red, something between overripe tomatoes and a fire engine. Bloodshot eye red, Jake called it. “Hey there, Mr. Kelley, Penelope.” He wore tight jeans and a western-style shirt, open at the neck, with its sleeves rolled to his elbows, and hand-tooled boots from some place in Texas.
“You got a bulb burned out,” Jake said.
“Yeah, I know. I’ll fix it.” Rogers lifted short thick fingers to smooth his thinning red hair tied back in a ponytail that fell just below his collar, and cleared his throat, which did nothing to improve the reedy tenor tone he’d developed in the past dozen years. “What can I do you for tonight?”
“A couple of Reubens,” Jake said. “And a beer for me. Bottled.” He edged Penelope toward a table against the back wall.
“It’s too noisy here,” Penelope protested.
“Good cover,” Jake mouthed, glancing up at what was probably the last swamp cooler in existence in three counties. He pulled out a chair for his daughter and took the once across from her, facing the room. “See anybody you know?” he asked.
“Not from this angle.” Penelope twisted her head to glance around and squinted through the haze of humidity generated through the metal louvers above her head. Mixed with the smoke, it made the room appear enveloped in a gauzy curtain. “No, none of the regulars. That’s odd.”
“How do you know who’s a regular here?”
“I have my sources.” Penelope used her foot to pull an empty chair farther under the table and tucked her purse in the seat.
Jake extracted a cigar from his shirt pocket and lit up.
“That’s not good for you, Daddy.”
“Smelling it, smoking it, all the same.”
“At my age, a man deserves to enjoy life.”
Roger brought their sandwiches in plastic baskets lined with waxed paper. “You want anything to drink?” he asked Penelope as he set a bottle of beer on the scarred wood table in front of Jake.
“Be right back.”
Jake peeled back the paper and took a bite of the sandwich, savoring it for a long moment before he swallowed. “Good stuff.”
“I don’t know a single soul in here,” Penelope said. “Something doesn’t feel right about that.”
“Eat your Reuben while it’s hot.”
She picked up the sandwich but stopped with it half-way to her mouth. “Listen.” Outside, a muffled roar swelled before it died. “Uh-oh. Bikers.”
“They got to eat, too.” Jake sipped his beer.
“They don’t come here to eat, Daddy. They come here to drink and raise hell.”
“Nellie, Nellie. Raise Cain, not the other.”
Her sandwich remained poised in mid-air as she watched the door fly open. It hit the jukebox and Glen Campbell’s Rhinestone Cowboy skipped two measures. Four leather-clad bikers strode in, flexing their tattooed knuckles in greeting—or threat. “Maybe we ought to leave,” Penelope whispered.
“Not ‘til I finish my Reuben. They can’t get drunk by then.” Jake took another bite and chewed slowly.
The four men straddled barstools at the red counter. Roger flipped the tops off four bottles of beer and set them down. “What else, gentlemen?”
None of them answered, just swept up the bottles and swiveled to face the room. The man on the far end fixed his gaze on Penelope. Realizing she’d been staring, she dropped her eyes and nibbled her sandwich, but her appetite had disappeared. A sudden strong odor of sweat made her aware the biker had left the bar to stand beside her. She kept her eyes down.
“Evenin’,” she heard Jake say.
“Evenin’, old timer.”
Jake chuckled. “Haven’t heard that one in a while.”
“Who’s your date?”
“No date. My daughter. The apple of my eye.”
Penelope looked up at her father. Was there a warning in his words?
The man let loose with a belly laugh, spewing droplets of warm beer in the air. Penelope covered her sandwich with her hand. “Baby girl got a name?”
Penelope tried to signal Jake with her eyes, but he said, “Nellie.”
“Nellie.” The biker jerked back the fourth chair and straddled it. “Hi-ya, Nellie.”
She wrinkled her nose at the odor and turned her face away when she noticed he wasn’t wearing a t-shirt under his leather vest.
“She’s shy,” Jake said. Penelope could hear the sarcasm in his voice, but it appeared lost on her erstwhile admirer.
A beefy hand circled her upper arm. “Well, we got to do somethin’ about that, don’t we?”
Penelope tried without success to pull away, but his fingers dug into her flesh. “You’re hurting me,” she said.
Across the table, Jake shifted in his chair. “Easy, son.”
The biker grinned but didn’t let go. “Sorry about that.”
“Please let go of my arm.”
“Pretty-please,” he taunted.
“Pretty-please,” she said with ice surrounding each word.
He laughed and tightened his grip. “With sugar on it.”
She put her lips together and shook her head, making her earrings dance. Across the table Jake swigged down the last of his beer. “Finish your sandwich, Nellie.”
“I’m not hungry,” she said.
The biker looked at Jake. “She’s not hungry.”
“Then wrap it up, and let’s go.”
Penelope complied and tried to stand up, but her backside hit the chair again, courtesy of the biker’s grip. “I want to go,” she said.
“She wants to go,” the man parroted.
“That’s what she said.” Jake leaned across the table. “Thought you fellows had a code of conduct where ladies and old-timers are concerned.”
Something flickered in the man’s eyes. His fingers flew open, releasing Penelope’s arm, and he stood up so quickly the chair overturned. She watched his eyes dart around the room and wondered what—or who—he was looking for. From the jukebox, Kenny Rogers pleaded with someone not to take their guns to town. Almost as if on cue, a single gunshot shattered the air and sent bodies scrambling for cover.
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