Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Penelope Panics

 Plan to Panic
   Tomorrow is Panic Day, but since I don’t blog on Thursdays, you can get an early start on panicking over whatever you like. And if you miss tomorrow, International Panic Day is coming up in June. That should give you plenty of time to prepare!

The Big P
We’ve all been there-done that from the time we were old enough to spill milk or get pinching a cookie between meals. How about tests and term papers? Work deadlines, specifically  writing deadlines for those of us who indulge in that questionable pastime! Company’s coming, and there’s no_____(insert item of choice). It’s getting ready to storm, and the kids aren’t home from school yet. The bill is due tomorrow, but we’re out of town with no checkbook. (Hooray for automatic bank drafts these days!) The dental appointment is in 15 minutes, but the car won’t start/has a flat tire/is stuck in the mud.
Penelope Pembroke doesn't panic often, but when she does...
If you’re familiar with my cozy mystery series, the pragmatic Penelope isn’t given to panic. Rash judgments, sometimes, but rarely panic. However, she has been known to lose her cool on occasion, so I thought I’d share one of those moments with you today.

From The Bogus Biker (Book 1 of the series)

All right, Penelope, now you’ve done it. Gotten yourself in a real mess this time. Why didn’t you tell him to buzz off? But, oh no, you just blindly followed a man who could well be a modern-day Jack the Ripper, down the garden path—quite literally—and rode away with him, half-naked, in the middle of the night.
As she crouched in the tight space, hardly daring to breathe, she thought she heard the sound of footsteps circling the car. She tried to wiggle lower in the seat, but it was no use. Bradley will kill me, even if someone else does it first. And Daddy will help him. Daddy…oh, Lord, how many times has he told me to think three or four times before I do something?
The single gunshot came from far away, somewhere beyond where the fertilizer shed had stood. She tensed, waiting for returning fire, but it didn’t come. Then, before she could breathe again, someone flung open her door and drug her from the car. Before she had time to feel fear, she smelled Sam’s aftershave.
“Not a sound,” he whispered close to her ear.
The debris on the unswept terrace—bits of gravel and twigs—cut into her bare feet as she stumbled along after him, trying to keep up with his long strides. In the moonlight, the gun in his hand gleamed like a lighthouse beacon promising hope. When he jerked her forward in an arc around him, she barely had time to put out her hands to break her fall.
“Stay down.”
“Shut up.” He hunkered down as if to shield her.
Her feet stung, and her arm, which he’d clutched in a death grip as he hauled her away from the car, felt numb. She buried her face against his shoulder. For one brief moment, his hand came up to stroke her hair. Then he was gone again, and before the sound of his footsteps died away, another gunshot, closer this time, shattered the dark stillness.
Don’t let him die. I don’t care who he is, I want him to be all right. I’ll think about what to do later, but for now I just want him to stay alive. She flattened herself against the damp earth of her former mother-in-law’s iris bed. The smell of the soil, honest and unchanging, calmed her.
Somehow she knew the approaching footsteps belonged to Sam, but she didn’t look up. “Keep your head down and crawl around the house to your right. There’s a utility room door…”
“I know where it is,” she interrupted.
“It’s unlocked. Open it just far enough to go in. Don’t stand up. Don’t make a sound. Now go.”
Penelope went. By the time she slid inside on the cool tile, her knees stung like her feet. She longed to wet a towel in the deep concrete sink and bathe away some of her pain, but she stayed flat on the floor behind the closed door.
Oh, Sam, be careful! Who’s out there, and what are they after? Surely there’s nothing left after the police and the drug dealers—and I—went through everything. Unless…unless whoever’s out there wants Sam. Or do they want me? I don’t know them…do I? Even if they know I took the money, they’ve got to know I don’t have it now.
A barrage of gunfire broke into her thoughts and shattered her hope for Sam as she realized he was one against several. Then she thought of the gun case in Travis’s study. Had it been broken into and ransacked? She couldn’t remember, but there was only one way to find out.
She inched toward the door leading into the kitchen. I’ve never shot at anything in the dark. In daylight I’m dead-on, but I can see the target. I can’t hit what I can’t see…and I could hit the wrong person.
She kept moving across the kitchen, through the dining room, into the foyer, and finally felt the threshold of Travis’s study. No moonlight lit the room, which told her the drapes were closed. Do I dare turn on a light? I don’t have a choice. I can’t pick out the right gun and ammunition without it.
She felt for his desk, her fingers crawling upward to the top until they felt the base of the brass lamp. Gritting her teeth against thoughts of the consequences, she rose to her knees, then her feet, and switched it on.
            She picked her way through the littered room until she stood in front of the gun case. It was locked, of course, but she hefted the nearby floor lamp and smashed the glass. Careful to avoid the tiny shards sparkling dangerously in the carpet, she reached for the only handgun she recognized, a forty-five, and fumbled with the box of ammunition stored next to it.
She loaded it, made sure the safety was on, and turned off the lamp before she dropped to the floor to begin the long crawl back to the utility room. Sam would expect to find her where he’d left her.
Back where she’d started, she felt around in the jumble of miscellaneous junk cluttering the lowest cabinet until she found what she was looking for—an ancient ragged pair of Travis’s tennis shoes he’d always kept handy for unexpected forays outside at night. For a big man, he’d had a small foot. She pulled the laces tight on feet which still burned from their earlier encounter with gravel.
Then she edged under the concrete sink again, bumping her head on the exposed pipes, and tried to make herself part of the back wall. Sooner than she expected, the door opened again, but the voice didn’t belong to Sam.
“The broad could be anywhere in the house.”
“I say we leave her.”
“I saw we feed her to the fish down by the wharf.”
“Why? She can’t finger us for anything.”
“I don’t like leaving things unfinished.”
“We need to get out of here, like half an hour ago. We’d have been gone if that narc hadn’t given us the slip.”
“How do you now he’s a narc? He could be a rogue dealer outside the network.”
“Whatever. He’s the one we need to go after. He knows what we look like.”
“He didn’t see you lob that grenade into the gin. It was a stupid thing to do. You could’ve gone in and picked off Holmes and the other guy like pigeons, but no, you had to alert half the county something was going down.”
“He’s figured things out by now. And if he doesn’t have the money—which I’m betting he does—he knows where it is.”
“I still say you could’ve taken care of Danny another way. Frying him wasn’t the smartest thing.”
“It took care of him, didn’t it? And it would’ve gotten the old guy if he hadn’t slipped out the back.”
“He’s taken care of now.”
“Yeah, by the same guys that’ll be coming after us. That money’s our insurance.”
“Sure, I guess. But we have to get it first. Look, let’s go. The dame isn’t going to cause us any trouble. We can always take care of her later. We know where she lives, her and the old man.”
Penelope knew the meaning of blood turning to ice water. She desperately needed to take a deep breath, but she didn’t dare do more than take small, shallow ones that, hopefully, couldn’t be heard. With the gun, she could take down one of the men but not both. She wasn’t that good.
“You coming? We’ll make one more round to turn up Bart. Until he’s dead, we’re not home free, money or no money.”
“If he’s dead, we’re not going to see the money.”
“He’ll tell us where it is. I’m betting on it.”
“How can you be sure?”
The nasty laugh echoing across the tile set Penelope’s teeth on edge. “I know something about him you don’t. Come on.”
Footsteps. The sound of a door closing. Penelope gasped for more oxygen and loosened her grip on the forty-five, realizing she hadn’t released the safety. She did so now. The door opened and closed again. She strained to identify the feet that paused at the edge of the sink. “Penelope?”
She scooted out from under the sink. “Those men have gone after you again.”
“I know.”
“One of them burned the gin.”
“I know that, too.” He reached down and hauled her to her feet. “What in God’s name…”
“Don’t be profane!” she snapped. “I got this out of Travis’s study, and yes it’s loaded, and yes, I know how to use it.”
“And you’re worried about my language.” He chuckled.
“I don’t appreciate hearing that.”
“You’re something else, lady. Something else.” He pulled her against him. She smelled sweat and smoke, and her insides burned again.
“You’ve been at the gin.”
“I thought I heard them down there, but no dice.”
“Just two of them?”
“As far as I know.” His arms tightened around her. “I wouldn’t have brought you here if I’d known about them.” He turned her loose. “Stay here, and keep your head down.”           
“Don’t go, Sam. Can’t we go out the front and get to the car before they see us?”
“Too risky. Besides, I want those two.”
“You’re going to kill them?”
“If I have to.”
She shuddered.
“Things happen that way sometimes,” he said. “But it’s my immortal soul, not yours.”
Something stirred in the back of her mind. “You’re Catholic, aren’t you?”
“Lapsed. Permanently. Now stay here.” He was out the door in seconds.
Penelope considered crawling back under the sink, but her hand reached for the doorknob instead. Those men were out there, and so was Sam. Three immortal souls…but only one she cared to preserve.
Keeping close to the house, out of the moonlight, Penelope edged her way around toward the front veranda running from one end of the house to the other. Half a story off the ground and edged with waist-high boxwoods, it would provide more cover while she took a look around.
Someone, she supposed the gardener, had mowed recently. She hadn’t noticed that earlier when they came for the burial. The flagstone walk shone white in the moonlight filtering through the tall oaks dotting the lawn as it sloped to the road. She could see the remains of the gin off the road that stretched to her left.
No movement, no sound, not even the birds stirred in the branches of the trees. A couple of minutes later, she worked her way back along the same route. Then, near the cemetery, something moved.
What an idiot you are, slipping around with a loaded gun! Playing cops and robbers…cowboys and Indians. Those are the big boys out there, Penelope, people who incinerated two others in the gin, shot Travis in cold blood, and wouldn’t hesitate to kill you. She gritted her teeth. But I don’t like them playing two against one, so I guess I’m evening up the odds whether I want to or not.
Crouching low on the ground, she moved away from the house toward a black walnut tree and hugged it as she listened. The sound from the cemetery gate, always needing oil, was unmistakable. Now what? Who’s down there, and why the blessed heck would they be in the cemetery anyway? It’s wide open, except for those tall markers belonging to the first Pembrokes who built this place.
She eased her face around the tree, scraping her cheek in the process, and peered through the moonlight. Something—someone—was down there all right. Then the heard the gate again. Idiots! If you’re trying to sneak in, you could step over the blessed fence. It’s only a foot and a half high. A single gunshot sent her cowering behind the tree again.
Voices drifted up from the quiet place of rest, angry, demanding, but she couldn’t decipher them. Another gunshot, then two. She dropped to the grass and began to crawl closer. Was Sam down there?
She lost sight of the fence as a cloud drifted across the moon. At the same time, she felt someone take hold of the collar of her robe. Rolling over just as the moon reappeared, she looked up into a grinning face—not the one she’d have preferred to see. Raising the gun, she fired pointblank. Without waiting to see the result, she scrambled to her feet and ran toward the cemetery, taking the fence as she’d taken the jumps in girls’ track a million years ago, then flattened herself against the ground. Oh, Holy Mother of God, help me! I shot a man! I’ve committed murder!
“What the hell?”
She recognized the second voice from the utility room and tried to roll over, but the man’s foot in the middle of her back kept her pinned. The gun she clutched pressed painfully against her ribs.
“What the hell?”
A hand jerked her to her feet, and at the same time, easily wrested the gun from her trembling fingers. She’d heard the name he uttered before, but never directed at her personally. Without stopping to think, she spat at him. When he slapped her, she hit the ground again, and this time he pulled her up by the hair. She gritted her teeth against the pain, but her eyes filled with tears.
The man put his face close to hers. “I’m going to cut you up into little pieces and feed you to the fish in the bayou, but you’ll probably still give them indigestion!”
She felt her knees go out from under her. His arm went around her neck. “Sister, you poked your nose where it doesn’t belong.”
“Let her go, Rick.” Sam’s voice came from somewhere, but Penelope was too disoriented to guess where he might be.
The man’s head spun around, but he didn’t loosen his grip on Penelope. “Bart?”
“Let her go. As they say in the movies, this is between you and me.”
Penelope tried to home in on the location of Sam’s voice, but the man’s viselike grip on her neck prevented her head from moving.
“Oh, it’s between you and me, Bart, you’re right about that. And we’ll have a nice long talk as soon as I get rid of the extra ears.”
“Let her go, or we won’t talk.”
“I think we will. I know things, remember?”
Penelope struggled a little without accomplishing anything except causing the man to tighten his grip. You know things. Sam knows things. I’m the only one who doesn’t know anything, like what I’m doing here.
“You’re wrong. You just think you know something.”
Now, Nellie, if you’re ever in a situation…you know what I mean…a jam…you go for the place you’re not supposed to know about. Jake’s words, spoken so many years ago, slammed into her mind. A knee, a fist, an elbow…anything will work. Hit hard, Nellie. In a situation like that, you can’t worry about being a lady.
Penelope considered her options. With her back to the man, a knee was out of the question, and an elbow was too high. A fist…how much damage could she do with a fist from this angle? And where will I go that he can’t find me? Not back to the house. That’s the first place he’d look, although if I could get to the study and get another gun…no, I’d have to load it, and that takes time.
“Come out where I can see you, Bart.”
“I don’t think so.” Sam’s voice seemed to move farther away.
Don’t leave me, Sam. He wouldn’t do that—or would he? He didn’t get me into bed, but he blessed sure got me into this mess. No…no, he didn’t, not on purpose anyway.
“One more chance, Rick. Let her go.”
“If you shoot, assuming you hit me, I’ll break her pretty little neck before I go down.” The man moved around a tombstone Penelope recognized as belonging to one of the earliest Pembrokes. Her mother-in-law tended the cemetery so long as she was able and often asked Penelope to come with her. Over the years, before she’d left Travis, Penelope had developed an interest in the stories of the long dead. Now she remembered this one, a little girl, a child of eleven or twelve, dead of some nameless scourge that took the young and the weak.
When the man stopped behind the waist high marker, Penelope could see it clearly. When the small weeping angel on top had broken off years ago, Travis’s mother had done what she could to mend it with mortar she’d mixed herself. It perched there still, slightly askew. Was it loose? Penelope extended her fingers to touch it.
I have to use both hands, and I can’t hit him in the…I can’t hit him there. I have to get it over my head into his face, and I have to do it hard enough to startle him into letting me go. Then I’ll run into the woods, to the ruins of the old cabin. Maybe I can find the root cellar and…
“Come on, Bart, let me see you.”
Something flew toward them, landing to the right. Another missile landed on the left. Penelope could feel the man moving his head from side to side.
Black walnuts. Sam’s throwing black walnuts. I know where he is now.
Left, right, left right, the nuts continued to fly, some landing with no sound on the grass, but others pinging against the tombstones.
Keep on, Sam. You’ve got him spooked now. He’s not holding onto me so tight. Crossing herself mentally and uttering a prayer to St. Jude, the patron saint of hopeless causes, Penelope lunged for the weeping angel and felt it fall away from the stone into her waiting hands. Raising it over her head, she thrust it backward in one swift motion. The man howled in pain. She was free.
Penelope began to sprint toward the fence. I can make the hurdle. I can do it. Daddy’s watching. He took off from work just to make this track meet. He’ll be so proud of me if I just make this last hurdle. She fell to her knees as she vaulted across the fence, but she was up and running again before she took time to catch her breath. The tennis shoes flopped but held to her feet. She’d twisted her left knee, but she was alive. If she had any chance to stay that way, she had to keep going. She heard the gunshot behind her, but she didn’t look back.

The Penelope Pembroke Cozy Mystery Series
(Books sold separately or in a set)
The Bogus Biker
The Stubborn Schoolhouse Spirit
The Feed Store Floozy
The Possum Hollow Hullabaloo
The Larcenous Legacy
Sam’s Last Stand

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