Nov 2 2013 12:00pm
An excerpt of Hijack in Abstract, the third mystery in the Cherry Tucker series by Larissa Reinhart (available November 5, 2013).
With a classical series sold and a portrait commissioned, Cherry Tucker's art career is in Georgia overdrive. But when the sheriff asks Cherry to draw a composite sketch of a hijacker, her life takes a hairpin as the composite leads to a related murder, her local card-sharking buddy Max Avtaikin becomes bear bait and her nemesis labels the classical series “pervert art.”
Cherry's jamming gears between trailer parks, Atlanta mansions, and trucker bars searching for the hijacker who left a widow and orphan destitute. While she seeks to help the misfortunate and save her local reputation, Cherry's hammer down attitude has her facing the headlights of an oncoming killer.
There are many places you don’t want to be at zero dark thirty, but I’ve got a personal top three. One is the ER. Second is a police sta- tion. The third is your ex-boyfriend’s bedroom.
Thank God Almighty I was not in number three. Stupid does catch me occasionally, but not this night. I was nowhere near an ex- boyfriend’s bedroom.
At two forty-five in the morning, I found myself in number two. The Forks County Sheriff’s Office to be accurate. My cornflow- er blues were a bit bloodshot and blurry, but my grin matched Shep Peterson’s, who also found himself in a similar location. However, Shep had a drunk tank grin. Mine was more of a self-congratulatory grin, born from knowing that finally someone in Forks County had recognized my accomplishments in the art world. Never mind the phone call that woke me from a dead sleep and near gave me a heart attack. Or that I had to drive my sister’s Firebird because her vehicle was blocking my driveway. Or that I now sat in the junior officers’ room with a cold cup of coffee and had just realized I had forgotten to comb my bed-head designed blonde cowlicks in my bleary-eyed haste.
And to put on a bra.
The Forks County Sheriff, Uncle Will, needed my expertise. That’s all that mattered. And I was going to get paid.
Needed me for what was still a bit vague. I hoped nothing needing brushed hair and a bra.
“Wha’cho in fer?” called Shep from two desks over. “You a D and D, too?” He pitched forward in his seat, but righted himself before his arresting officer could shove him back in his chair.
“No drunk and disorderly tonight,” I said. “I’m here in an offi- cial capacity. As an artist.”
“Artist? You wanna draw my picture? Wha’s your name, darlin’?”
“Cherry Tucker,” I grinned. “Mr. Shep, you know me. I’m Ed Ballard’s granddaughter. He buys bait from you. I’ve been to your tackle shop.”
“Is very hard to meet new people in Halo,” he said, attempting to bow. “My apologies, darlin’. Think I’d remember a pretty, young thing like yourself. Look like my first wife. Even with that crazy hairdo.”
I surreptitiously finger-combed my hair. Not that I was trying to impress Shep.
Deputy Wellington slapped him back in his seat. “Shep, stop hitting on Cherry. You’re about fifty years too old for her anyway.”
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” he said and hiccuped.
Deputy Wellington fanned the space between Shep and his desk. “Just sit there and be still while I finish this paperwork.”
“That Shep again?” drawled a deep bass. “Wellington, throw him in the drunk tank and let him sleep. This room smells bad enough.”
I turned in my seat and saw Sheriff Will Thompson’s massive form filling the doorway. Before I was born, Uncle Will had made an easy transition from University of Georgia linebacker to Forks County crime buster with his quick wits, easy smile, and powerful handshake. Some would think having a close family friend as a sheriff would keep you out of trouble growing up. However, the Tucker kids were boundary testers. For Uncle Will, raising my fam- ily was as much of an act of community service as his dedication to the law.
As a twenty-six-year-old woman, I felt it my duty to make up for any of the gray hairs my teenage self might have added to Uncle Will’s head. Which is why I had no problem tumbling out of bed and driving across the county to sit in a chair and allow seventy- year-old bait shop owners to flirt with me.
That and I hoped to make a few bucks.
“Hey Uncle Will,” I called. “Are you ready for me yet?” “Bring your paper and pencils,” he said.
With my messenger bag bumping my back, I hugged my chest, figuring it best not to give an extra show to Shep and the boys. I followed Uncle Will down the hallway, waiting while he unlocked a door. The door opened and two faces turned to look at us. One I didn’t recognize, but judging by his despondent expression, I fig- ured he was probably in a mess of trouble. The other person, another deputy, I identified immediately. Hard not to recognize those brown ochre curls with the highlights I had decided were transpar- ent oxide-red lake. Or the lean, muscled body, much like Michelan- gelo’s David. Or by the strong jaw buttressing two adorable dimples that made a rare showing.
Unfortunately, I knew Deputy Luke Harper a little too well. He gave me a scant nod and turned back to the perp.
My hand snuck back to my hair and yanked on a particularly tall cowlick in back. I gritted my teeth and gave myself a quick lecture not to make a scene. We had aired our irreconcilable differences behind the local roadhouse, Red’s County Line Tap, a few months ago and I had not quite recovered.
“That’s Tyrone Coderre,” said Uncle Will. “He’s going to give you a description to draw. We need a composite sketch.”
Uncle Will stopped me before I entered the room and pulled me to the side. “Can I leave Deputy Harper in there with you or do I need to call in another officer? Harper’s the one who picked up Coderre, so this is his investigation.”
“I’m quite capable of separating my personal and professional life,” I said, tilting my chin so I could eyeball Uncle Will. “You might want to ask the same of him.”
“I trust Luke not to screw up his job. You are another story.” I gave him a “why, I never” gasp.
“I’m going to be watching through the two-way.” He tapped my messenger bag. “Lucky for you, I don’t know other artists to call during the middle of the night. Wouldn’t want to be accused of nepotism. But I want a sketch while the memory is still fresh in Coderre's mind. Don’t disappoint me, Cherry.”
“So, this is an important investigation?” Excitement zipped through my veins and made my fingers tingle. “I won’t let you down. You can even deputize me if you want.”
Uncle Will chuckled. “Just draw us a good picture. That’s plenty helpful.”
“Yes, sir,” I said and snuck by him to enter the room. I nodded to the man in the black sweat suit behind the table and held out my hand. “Hello, Mr. Coderre. I’m Cherry Tucker, a local artist.”
“Don’t shake his hand,” barked Luke. “Are you crazy?”
Tyrone Coderre's cuffed hands retreated below the table, and I blew out a hard breath.
Looked like it was going to be a long night. At least the crimi- nal had manners.
Couldn’t say the same for the cop.
“How’s this?” I held up a page from my sketch pad. After a few false starts, Tyrone Coderre had settled on a long, oblong face with a rounded jaw line. The composite had shoulder-length hair, blonde and on the thinnish side, and a soft mouth. “Are you sure he’s not a girl?”
“Pretty ugly girl,” said Tyrone. “His eyes were closer together.”
I gummed out the eyes and reapplied my pencil, a sanguine oil, perfect for warm, heavy tones which erased easily on my seven- ty-pound, smooth sketch paper. Erasing was necessary when draw- ing a face from Tyrone’s memory. His first description began with “a skinny, blonde dude.”
Tyrone yawned, and as they were catching, I followed with one of my own.
“Maybe you could get us a cup of coffee, Deputy?” I asked in my prettiest drawl.
“And leave you alone with a junkie copper thief? I wouldn’t do that to Tyrone.”
“You’re a copper thief, Tyrone?” I said as I crosshatched shad- ow lines to emphasize the composite’s cheekbones. “Now why would you want to spend your nights stripping air conditioner units when you could be doing something more productive?”
“I don’t strip A/C units,” Tyrone tapped on the sketch pad.
“His nose needs to be longer.”
I grabbed my gum eraser and scrubbed at the end of the com- posite’s nose.
“Air conditioners are not enough of a challenge for Tyrone here,” said Luke. “He likes to shimmy poles for his wire.”
Tyrone smiled. “They call me the Flying Coderre.” “Were you up on a pole when you saw this guy?”
Tyrone cut his eyes to Luke. “Allegedly. At the rest stop on the
interstate near the Line Creek exit.” “What was the guy doing?” “Helping himself to a truck.”
“You don’t need to know that information,” said Luke. “Just draw.”
“I’m just curious. It’s not like I’m going to look for the guy.” Luke snorted, which was his way of saying “I don’t believe you.” We’ve had some past misunderstandings on the difference between “being helpful” and “interfering with the law.” Luke re- fused to acknowledge I can gain information as good as any cop just through my local gossip network. I call myself inquisitive and crea- tive. He calls me nosy and harebrained. He forgets my interest for crime had been honed from growing up around a county sheriff. I never wanted to be a cop, though. Not unless I could bedazzle my uniform and stonewash the polyester out of the cotton/poly blend. And those cop shoes? Forget about it.
“I don’t think the deputy trusts you.” Tyrone eyed my drawing.
“The dude was wearing a track suit. Shiny blue or black. It was hard to tell the color in the dark.”
I began sketching in a track suit collar. “I’ve given the deputy no reason not to trust me.”
Luke snorted again.
“Are you catching a cold or something?” I said. “Do you need a tissue?”
“I need you to finish up and stop talking to the perp.”
“Tyrone, let me ask you this,” I said. “If you had a girlfriend who was an artist, and you knew she had a painting deadline that involved a life study, and then found her innocently drawing this model, would you accuse her of cheating?”
“Do not talk to her, Tyrone,” said Luke.
“What’s a life study?” said Tyrone.
“Drawing the human figure using a live model.”
“Drawing somebody naked,” said Luke. “And not just anybody. Her ex-husband.”
A knock sounded on the door and we glanced at the narrow in-set window to see Uncle Will glaring at us. He twirled his finger in the wrap-it up sign and nodded at Luke.
“Dammit,” said Luke. “How did you pull me into that?”
“Todd’s not really my ex-husband,” I said quickly to Tyrone, needing to defend myself despite Uncle Will’s strange ban on gossip in the interrogation rooms. “Our Vegas wedding was annulled be- fore it even began. Todd’s just a friend.”
“Why don’t you draw naked chicks?” said Tyrone. “Then everybody’d be happy.”
I glared at Tyrone for a millisecond. “The subject had to be male. And the boyfriend refused to participate even though he had the perfect physique for this specific painting.”
“Finish your picture,” said Luke.
“I don’t know about painting, but I do know something about cheating,” said Tyrone. “By the way, I think he had a necklace. Something shiny around his neck anyway. Unzip his jacket some.”
“So what do you know about cheating?” I kept my eyes on the paper. “How far down his chest did the necklace go?”
“My girl cheated on me. Not with her ex-husband though. She cheated on him, too,” said Tyrone. “The eyes still don’t look right.”
“No more cheating talk,” said Luke with a glance at the two -way mirror. “You sure you didn’t get a look at the other guys?”
“Luke might know something about cheating, too,” I said. “The subject makes him a tad uncomfortable. The grapevine says he has many admirers. They are called badge bunnies and they call him Luquified—”
“That’s enough,” snapped Luke. “What about the other guys?”
“Naw, they kept their ski masks on,” said Tyrone. “This guy was the only one who pulled his off.”
“Ski masks,” I said. “A hold up? In Forks County?”
“I tell you what,” said Tyrone. “I’d never been so scared in my life. Thought I’d fall off my pole. I didn’t move until long after they’d gone.”
“Poor Tyrone,” said Luke. “So scared he didn’t even get to col- lect his wire.”
“I thought the driver was dead,” said Tyrone. “These guys were pretty bad-ass.”
Luke pushed out of his chair and moved behind me. “This is a good likeness.”
“Thank you,” said Tyrone, as if he had sketched the portrait himself.
The door unlocked and Uncle Will strolled in to stand over the drawing. “Very good,” he said. “Let’s take this and scan it into the system.”
“Yes, sir.” Luke bent over me to tear the paper from its perfo- rated edge.
I sat beneath the cage of his arms and tried not to breathe in that specific Luke blend of pheromones and aftershave. That par- ticular concoction can prove deadly to the female libido and I didn’t want my libido getting any funny ideas. My libido had already done that dance and lost.
“By the way, Cherry,” Luke slid the whisper past my ear as he righted himself. “You might wear a bra next time you visit the sheriff’s department.”
I crossed my arms and felt my cheeks hit every shade of pink from ruby lake to vermilion extra.
“You done good, girl,” said Uncle Will. “I’ll cut you a check for your time and service. Tyrone, you sit tight.”
Tyrone blew out a sigh and laid his forehead on the table.
The three of us ambled out of the room, the sketch now in Un- cle Will’s hand. He studied it before holding up the copy to Luke.
“I’m going to make some calls,” said Will. “Someone in Atlanta might recognize him. Every county with an interstate running through it gets an occasional hijack. Guess it was our turn to get lucky.”
“Yes, sir,” said Luke.
I held my breath, knowing that anything exiting my lips could blow any chance of hearing something interesting.
“I know that look. You’re not getting any classified infor- mation from us.” Uncle Will leaned to pop a kiss on my forehead. “Go get you some sleep, sugar. Are you going to have trouble stay- ing awake on the way home?”
“I’ll be all right,” I said, yawning. “Maybe I’ll get some break-
fast. It’s close to five, isn’t it?”
“You go with her,” Uncle Will nodded to Luke. “Don’t want to hear that broken-down truck left her in a ditch. Might as well swing by the Waffle House on the interstate and see if they recognize this mug.”
“I could go for a pecan waffle,” I said. My stomach woke from its slumber and made a noise similar to a Harley with an engine knock. “Maybe some grits and bacon, too. And more coffee.”
“I’m sure the sheriff wants me to take you home first,” said
Luke, barely masking his impatience.
“The least we can do is treat her to a pecan waffle. While she’s eating you can ask a few questions.” Will fished a ten out of his wal- let and handed it to Luke. “Son, where’s your manners? I pulled Cherry out of bed to do this.”
“Yes sir,” muttered Luke, “but whose bed did you pull her out of?”
At the Waffle House, Luke ordered his regular artery clogger and slipped out of the booth to talk to the waitress hovering near the cashier stand. My early excitement had fizzled and I now felt tired and drained. I watched as Luke, holding out a copy of my sketch, strolled to the few customers sitting at the counter. Heads shook. At the last seat, a cadaverous, partially toothed man grabbed Luke’s sleeve. Luke slid onto a stool and leaned in to hear the man’s story.
I held out my coffee cup to my bottle red-haired waitress. “Did you see that picture the deputy is showing around?”
She nodded and poured. “Yeah, don’t think I’ve seen him be- fore.”
“Heard about a robbery around here? Of a truck? At the rest stop?”
“No. What like a hijack?” Her hazel eyes gleamed, and she set the coffee pot on the table for a chitchat.
“Probably a hijack,” I said. “At our interstate rest stop. That’s all I know. I’m curious, though. Not like we get a lot of hijacks around here.”
“No kidding? Truckers will sleep at that rest stop. Ones on a long haul, you know. Sometimes they’ll come out to the Gearjam- mer for a bit of fun. Me and my girlfriend have some good times there.”
“That’s over in Line Creek, right? I’ve not been to that particu- lar establishment.”
“Sugar, you should go. Them truckers are a lot of fun. We dance and they buy us drinks. Sometimes other stuff. They sure know how to party,” she giggled and glanced over her shoulder. “Oh, you’re with that cop. Never mind. He’s cute, though.”
“I am not with that cop,” I said, directing my gaze to the broad shoulders enveloped in the starchy, brown uniform. “Not anymore, anyway. I’ve never hung out with truckers, but that sounds like the kind of fun I could use in my recently single state. I don’t suppose truckers are art appreciators?”
Ponytail picked up her coffee pot. “Some of them have unique art on their cabs. And there’s always the mud flaps.”
“I did pick up some good brushes at a detail shop once,” I said. “Okay, I’m in. What’s your name anyway?”
“Dona Sullens. Thursday night is ladies’ night. Mixed drinks are free for the gals.”
“I’ll see you there,” I said. “Might bring my sister, too.”
She frowned. “Don’t bring too many girls. I don’t want an un- balanced ratio.” Her ponytail bobbed behind her as she wandered back to the counter. Approaching Luke and his grizzled friend, she stopped and shoved a coffee pot between them. Luke held his hand up, hopped off his stool, and strolled back to our booth.
“Food’s not here yet?” Luke slid onto the seat opposite me. He picked up his coffee, sipped, and curled the corner of his mouth. “Cold.”
I felt eager to get beyond Luke’s earlier rebuff and soothe the tension between us. I tuned my voice to casual and disinterested. “Did that guy on the end know anything?”
“No,” Luke set his coffee down. “That’s Clinton Hackley. He’s a
couple fuses short of running on full power. Poor guy.”
“You’re getting to know a lot of people on the job, aren’t you? And a different picture of Forks County than what you grew up in, I’m sure.”
“A high schooler’s view of their world is pretty limited. Especially if your stepdad is a Branson.” The Branson family had ruled our little neck of the woods for generations. My Grandpa’s family, the Ballards, had been around as long as the Bransons, except we didn’t have as much to show for it.
“I couldn’t wait to get out of this backwater,” Luke mused. “Funny how your view changes when you come back. Of course, now much of my meet and greet’s done from a patrol car.”
“It’s not so bad here in Backwater, Georgia,” I smiled as a plate full of waffle and bacon slid in front of me.
“Sure honey,” she said. “See you Thursday night.”
“What’s Thursday night?” asked Luke.
“I’m meeting Dona and her friends down at the Gearjammer. For Ladies’ Night.”
“You know Dona?”
“Nope. But she seems nice.”
Luke ran his hands through his curls, massaging his head. “Isn’t the Gearjammer a trucker hangout?”
“Could be,” I shrugged. “Never been there. I’m always up for trying something new.”
He laid an arm on the table. “We’ve been through this before. Just because Sheriff Thompson asked you to draw that composite, does not mean you can nose your way into this investigation.”
“Did I say I have any interest in this investigation?” I waved my fork at him. “What do I care about truck hijacks and copper thieves?”
Luke’s gray eyes narrowed into thin, steel slits. “I never said this was a hijack.”
“You said plenty, but Tyrone said more.” I grinned and slurped my coffee.
He shoveled a forkful of sausage into his mouth and glared at me.
“Anyway, if I was going to hijack a truck, I don’t think I’d stop by a Waffle House on my way back to the hideout.”
“You are actually smarter than most criminals.” Luke smiled at my brow raise. “But we need to be thorough. Not many places are open twenty-four hours.”
“What about the new gas station at the interstate exit? The SipNZip?”
“Next on my list.” He swished his biscuit in the gravy. “After I make sure you get home.”
We ate in silence, tension driving us to shovel our food like starving Dickensian orphans.
“Why are you driving Casey’s Firebird?” said Luke, breaking the strain.
“It was blocking my driveway. She moved in to get away from Pearl,” I sighed heavily on that note of family drama. It didn’t do to have your Grandpa stepping out with women who cooked better than my sister Casey. “At least there’s food in my house now.”
“Casey’s living with you, too?”
“Too?” One of those nervous giggles slipped through my teeth. “Why don’t we go to the gas station together? I’m wide awake now. They’ve got a case for donuts at the SipNZip.”
I wiped my mouth with my napkin and hopped out of the booth. “I can pick up some donuts to bring home. See you there.” “Who’re you bringing home donuts for?”
I waved at Dona and skipped out the door, pretending I hadn’t heard Luke. I needed to get to the gas station before he figured out he hadn’t stopped me.
And I didn’t want to have the conversation about my nekkid picture posing ex, Todd, living with me.
The SipNZip was a new establishment and therefore busy even at six in the morning. New businesses made us locals curious, particu- larly if we didn’t know the owners. Also made us a tad suspicious, but we’re willing to give new places the benefit of the doubt as long as they didn’t put on airs and gave a senior discount.
The SipNZip definitely didn’t put on airs. I roamed the aisles, exploring my favorite preservative laden foods, while Luke spoke to the staff. I loved shops that offered glass caged hotdog wheels and Slushy machines with neon flavored drinks. They had a carnival air that appealed to my inner kitsch. At the refrigerated wall of beverages, I found my favorite junkie copper thief rooting through the soda choices. As Tyrone was out among the public, I figured I could say hello without inducing any restraining orders.
“Hey Tyrone,” I said. “You’re out already?”
“Hey, the artist lady. Just got out and thought I’d grab some breakfast.” He grinned, holding up a bag of pork rinds and a Moun- tain Dew. “Watch your back, there, hon’.”
I glanced over my shoulder and saw a girl in a SipNZip vest pushing crates of soda toward us. She waited while Tyrone and I moved a few paces down the aisle. We watched her prop open the cooler and begin filling the plastic dividers.
“Look at that,” I said. “RC Cola and Cheerwine. This place has everything.”
“I’m more of a Dew man,” said Tyrone. “They didn’t give me anything to drink at the station other than coffee.”
“What happened? They didn’t hold you for stealing copper? Let you off for giving them the composite?”
Tyrone put a finger to his lips while we waited for a customer to move around us and snag a bottle of water from the fridge. We watched the man move down the aisle, toward the donut stand.
“Truth is,” a smile indented Tyrone’s round cheeks, “I wasn’t found with any copper on me, just in a terrible location. I was about to slide off my pole when the po-po pulled in, blueberries and si- rens blazing. The truck driver must have dialed 9-1-1 right quick. I was too scared to move, so I held on to my pole. It was dark. I fig- ured someone would see me if I tried to get down and run.”
“So Deputy Harper found you on the pole?”
“Yes, ma’am. That he did. And I did my good deed by telling the Deputy what I saw. He just got lucky that jacker took his mask off and looked up. Don’t think he saw me, though.” Tyrone pulled at his chin. “‘Course he might of, but maybe he didn’t have time to do nothing about it. The hijackers had to get out of there in a hurry.”
“You sure gave a good description. I’ve never drawn from someone else’s memory. I feel like I know the guy’s face as well as you now.”
“Sure enough,” Tyrone tapped his head. “I’ve got a mind for faces. Never remember any names, but I always remember a face.”
“That means you’re a visual learner.”
“Well, I’ll be. Too bad the teachers didn’t know that in school.” He saluted me with his pork rinds. “Well, I’ve got some work to at- tend to. Better purchase my victuals and get going.”
“Where do you work?”
“By work, I mean I’m back to the rest stop,” he winked. “I left some valuables behind.”
“Tyrone, you should not be telling me this. Besides, the police would have been all over that place. Whatever you left is evidence now.”
“We’ll see. I’m good at hiding stuff,” he waved. “Bye now, girl. You go home and get some sleep. Long night for you, too. Thanks for your help.”
With a goodbye wave to Tyrone, I continued my quest for hidden gems in the aisles of the SipNZip. Stopping before a mammoth size coffee machine, I grabbed a giant Styrofoam cup. As I sized up my choices, Luke found me and leaned his back against the counter.
“Look at this,” I said. “You can get a cappuccino, latte, cocoa, and a half dozen different shots of flavor for your espresso. All for a dollar ninety-eight. I love this place. They’ve also got a sausage bis- cuit you can heat up in their microwave. Now that’s convenient.”
Luke grunted, his gaze swiveling around the room.
“Did you see Tyrone?” I asked.
“Yep,” Luke shook his head. “I hope he learned something from tonight. But probably not.”
“Did any of the SipNZip folks recognize your hijacker?”
“I didn’t say he was a hijacker,” he snagged a small cup from the dispenser. “Pour me one, too. Please.”
“What flavor?” “Coffee.”
“You can have a latte,” I pointed at the choices. “I know you like a little cream.”
“Plain old coffee. Please.”
“What’s bugging you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t like this place.”
“What’s not to like? They don’t even have Max Avtaikin’s pok- er machines in here. You don’t have to worry about busting them for illegal payouts.”
He took his coffee, blew on it, and sipped. “Let’s go. I’ve got to talk to the state patrol before I can sleep.”
“I didn’t know you were back on nights.”
He glanced at me and jerked his eyes back to his coffee. “I’m not. I just got lucky covering a shift for a buddy who got sick. Look, I don’t want to chitchat.”
“Fine,” I said, pretending not to be hurt. “I’ve got to pay for my donuts and coffee.”
I left him standing at the coffee machine and strolled to the cashier stand. Surrounded by cigarette cartons, lottery tickets, and energy drinks, a young woman with light brown hair and a pale face manned the cash register. I handed her my bag of donuts.
“And one small coffee and one large latte,” I said.
She nodded and tapped the register keys.
“This is some place. You must be doing good business.” She nodded. “Five dollars and twenty-six cents.”
I set the coffee on the counter to ferret the money from my jeans’ pocket. “You look a little low on help. Y’all taking applica- tions? I’ve got a friend who needs a job.”
A shrug. This time with an eye cut to Deputy Harper standing by the coffee machine.
“Looks like it’ll be another beautiful day.” Nothing.
Either this girl was not a morning person or she didn’t harken from around these parts. Friendly chatting was the grease that kept our community from grinding one another’s gears. “How about the Dawgs this year?”
“Five dollars and twenty-six cents.”
“Hold on,” I said, pulling a wad of bills and some change from my front pocket.
Behind me, a line had formed and took my speed as a reason to jostle me. I took a step backward, to give myself some space, and noodled a finger into the tiny, coin pocket of my jeans.
“Luke, you got a penny?” I hollered over my shoulder.
The clerk pushed the penny tray toward me.
“Can you hurry it up?” said the Atlanta commuter with the Ohio accent. “I’ve got to get to work.”
“Just one second,” I glanced at the clerk. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around Forks County. Are you new in town?”
The clerk bobbed her head and scooped up the money. The cash register pinged as she smacked a button and tossed the cash inside.
“Did that deputy show you a sketch of a man? Did you ever see him in here before?” I watched her face, curious if the employee recognized the perp. Luke wouldn’t tell me if they did.
“What sketch?” asked Ohio, reaching around me to grab a newspaper. “Has there been a hold-up? I moved way out here to get away from all that.”
The drawer to the register slammed shut, causing a jar of beef jerky to wobble and threaten to tip. “No hold-up here,” said the clerk.
“Well then, move it along, lady.” Ohio said to me and slapped his coffee, paper, and muffin on the counter. He tossed the clerk his debit card. “We finally get a quick stop out here and it’s still slow.”
“Come on, Cherry,” said Luke, grabbing the bag of donuts. “Let’s go.”
“I swear I don’t know what’s happened to the art of conversation,” I grumbled.
We strode out the shiny glass doors and past the gas pumps toward Casey’s Firebird. Luke waited while I unlocked the door, then handed me the bag of donuts.
“Thanks for the coffee.” He watched as I slid into the driver’s seat. “Are you okay to get home or do I really need to follow you? I have a mess of work to do before I can get home and get some sleep.”
“I’ve got my giant coffee to keep me company. Go do your business.”
“I do appreciate you coming out in the middle of the night to sketch the composite. It sounds like you’re doing well.”
I forced a smile. “Someone bought my so-called ‘naked’ paint- ings, so I actually have money in my checking account for once. The gallery wouldn’t say who bought them, but I have my suspicions it may be Max Avtaikin.”
“You have suspected Avtaikin of everything under the sun and now you suspect him of buying your paintings?”
“He’s an art collector and appreciator of talent such as mine.” “That’s ironic. I’d think he’d just find you a pain in the ass.”
“I believe he does that, too,” I muttered.
“I’m glad someone bought your paintings,” Luke toed my open door, “though it seems strange someone like Max Avtaikin would want naked Todd McIntosh hanging on his walls.”
“The collector sees a triptych of classical subjects. Not naked Todd. Max sees the art as an investment. It’s not like he’s going to hang them in his bedroom,” I took a big gulp of coffee as I ruminat- ed on that idea. “Naw, he sees it as an investment.”
“Didn’t make you feel weird,” Luke continued, “painting Todd naked?”
“He was merely a subject and a muse,” I said loftily and buried my mouth in my coffee cup.
“What about seeing Todd naked now? That bother you?” Luke’s gray eyes narrowed.
I choked on my coffee.
“See you around.” He grabbed his Styrofoam cup off the roof of the car.
“Todd lost his job and needed a place to stay,” I said. “I can’t turn my back on a friend.”
“I know that all too well,” said Luke. “I think the exact words were, ‘I’d break the law to help a friend.’”
“Those were your words and I just agreed. Haven’t you ever watched Les Miserables?”
“I’m the law.”
“You used to be my friend.” “I don’t date my friends.”
Ouch. “That’s too bad, because Todd and I remained friends after we broke up,” I said, seeking the chink in Luke’s armor. “I can rely on him and he can rely on me. Which is a nice feeling and probably why I married him for that millisecond.” And Todd’s kisses could sear a side of beef in one second flat. But I wasn’t going to admit that tidbit to Luke.
My door swung shut on that comment. I prepared to turn the ignition and gun Casey’s motor, but stopped, key in hand, by the knock on my window. I rolled down the window.
“If you go to the Gearjammer don’t mention the hijack,” said Luke. “I can just see you getting into a load of trouble at a place like a trucker bar.”
“I told you, I’m not interested in the hijack,” I said. “I’ve got no dog in the hunt. Other than curiosity.”
“Maybe I should go with you to the Gearjammer,” he said. “To make sure.”
“You are not invited to my girls’ night out. Do you hear me, Luke Harper? I’m not partying with truckers and you. You’ll stand out like a sore cop thumb and ruin my fun.”
“See you there.” He smiled with his teeth. “And I’d recommend you wear a bra.”
I slammed my arms over my chest, making him chuckle as he strolled to his cruiser.
Dangit. I might have to look into this hijack. Just to tick him off.
As I stepped through the kitchen door of my ninety-year-old bunga- low, my brother leapt into view and snatched the bag of donuts from my hand, nearly giving me a heart attack. Like a retriever with his prize dead duck, Cody carried the donut bag to the kitchen table looking very pleased. I set my empty coffee cup on the Formica counter and leaned against the door, eyeing him. My twenty-one- year-old brother wore loose sweat pants, a wife beater, and bare feet. If that wasn’t enough of a hint he’d slept in my house, his shaggy, dishwater blonde hair still bore a similar bed-head cowlick to mine. I reached behind my head to tug mine down.
“Don’t tell me you’re moving in, too,” I said. “This house cannot take another occupant.”
“I remember Grandma Jo saying five kids were raised in this house. One more visitor ain’t gonna shake the foundation,” Cody yanked a sour cream donut from the bag and tore off a hunk with his teeth. “Pearl said either me or the vehicles had to leave the farm. I can’t sell those cars until I fix them up proper.”
“I guess Grandpa’s letting Pearl do his dirty work. He’s been wanting you to clear out those vehicles for years.” I could hear the shower running in the back of the house, which blew my next plan of action. “When did you get here?”
“In time to see you tearing out of the drive in Casey’s Firebird. I thought it was Casey until I poked into the guest room and found her. Where have you been? Booty call?”
I rolled my eyes, threw my satchel on the table, and plopped into a chair. “Sheriff’s office. They needed someone to draw a de- scription for a Forks County Most Wanted poster.”
“At two in the morning?”
“Luke Harper picked up a witness to a truck hijacking. They wanted the composite sketch while it was still fresh in his mind.”
“Deputy Harper,” Cody snickered. “Sure it wasn’t a booty call?”
“Booty call?” Todd’s country baritone drawled from the hallway.
I surreptitiously eyed Todd’s stroll into the kitchen. He wore a towel slung low across his lean hips, and his longish blonde hair was slick from the shower. The rising sun streaming through my kitchen window caressed his dewy post-shower skin. Skin stretched over a body riddled with taut muscles and sweet dimples. I needed to remind Todd that roommates wore robes. Which was hard to do, seeing as how I no longer spoke to my sort-of-ex-husband.
“Dude,” said Cody, “put some britches on. You walk around my sister’s house like that?”
Todd grinned and hitched his towel higher, making me slap a hand across my eyes. Todd didn’t care a stitch about modesty. Literally.
“I’m taking a shower,” I said, hopping out of my chair. “By the way, Cody. Tell Todd I just visited the new SipNZip gas station. They only had one girl running the cash register. He should see if they need some help.”
“He’s standing right here,” Cody snagged another donut from the bag. “You don’t get my help in the silent game.”
“All right, baby,” said Todd. “I was fixing to fill out applica- tions today anyway.”
“Tell Todd that’s a good idea.” This was why I tolerated Todd as a roommate. He listened and followed orders even when I wasn’t speaking to him. That and he was awfully pretty to look at first thing in the morning.
“By the way, sister,” said Cody. “Word has gotten out about your nekkid paintings. Better expect some Come-To-Jesus- Meetings.”
“What’s so bad about painting an Ancient Greek styled figure?” I pushed past Todd and tromped down the hall to the single bathroom. “Someone needs to teach the folks in this town about classical art.”
“Someone is. Shawna Branson. And she’s the one showing Red’s customers snapshots of your nekkid Todd pictures.”
“What?” I stopped and spun around. “How does she have pho- tos of those paintings? They went to a gallery in Athens. I don’t even know who bought them.”
“Dunno,” Cody licked powdered sugar from his fingers and grabbed another donut. “Maybe she checked out that gallery when she was up in Athens for a Bulldogs game. She is an artist, you know. Told me so herself.”
“Calling Shawna Branson an artist is like calling Ronald McDonald the King of Steaks.” Shawna Branson and I hated each other since the days when we all hung out at the Tasty Dip. When I found out she was sharing her sprinkles with my boyfriend, I wrote her number on the men’s room wall. Accompanied by an explicit drawing of Shawna’s talents. Pretty good rendering for a cement block wall and a Sharpie. Instead of throwing a hissy, she should have thanked me for making her so popular.
“Shawna’s got a gallery in Line Creek now,” Todd said. “She fancied up her art shop.”
“What new gallery?” I said, forgetting my silence rule. “Something about art,” said Todd.
“Who cares?” said Cody. Powdered sugar dotted his beard. “I tell you what you should care about. Todd, ain’t you embarrassed for people to see you in those paintings?”
Todd shrugged, slipped onto a kitchen chair, and reached for the donut bag.
“Why should he feel ashamed?” I said. “The good Lord’s seen fit to give him the perfect body structure for a work of the High Re- naissance. Anyone who thinks differently needs to get their mind out of the gutter.”
“We don’t live in High Renaissance,” said Cody. “We live in Halo, Georgia, and if you see a picture of a naked dude, your mind’s going to be in the gutter.”
“You are an idiot.”
“That may be, but for Todd’s sake and yours, I’d do something to stop Shawna from showing the town pictures of his pecker. Eve- rybody thinks y’all are perverts.”
“I don’t paint nudes all the time. It was for a show with a clas- sical theme. I do portraits of real people. With clothes on.” I waved my hand in the direction of my living room-studio with the wall full of clothed portraits. “And thanks to the friggin’ Bransons, I haven’t even done a portrait in ages. You know what she’s trying to do? Force me to stop painting or move. Run me out of my own hometown.”
The bedroom door to my left swung open. My sister Casey yawned, stretched, and rubbed her eyes. “What’s all the hollering? I don’t want to be up this early.” Her eyes took in our scene and fixed on Todd. “Well, good morning sunshine. I can get used to this roommate thing.”
“Hey Casey,” said Todd. “The town thinks Cherry and I are perverts because of those paintings Cherry did of me.”
Casey pushed her long, brown hair over a shoulder and leaned into the bedroom doorway, her eyes roving over Todd’s fine muscu- lature. “Told you those paintings were a bad idea.”
“That bad idea paid the taxes on this house for the year,” I said. “I don’t know the patron, but they bought the collection for a good price.”
She straightened from her languorous pose. “If I were you, I’d find out the buyer. See if they want any more. I’ll pose naked for a cut.”
“That’s disgusting,” I said. “You’re making my art sound as warped as the rest of the town.”
She shrugged and stepped out of the doorway. “Don’t see what the difference is between me and Todd.”
“Todd is my muse,” I said.
She and Cody exchanged a look before they began laughing hysterically.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Muse,” she gasped. “Todd’s your muse.”
“Yes,” I turned my back on Cody and Todd to give Casey a full- on stink eye. “Many great artists had a muse. Manet. Picasso. Andrew Wyeth. Steiglitz with Georgia O’Keefe, no less. Vermeer. The list goes on.” I ticked them off on my fingers.
“I bet them painters were all guys and they were doing the chicks they were painting,” said Cody.
I whirled around. “That is so sexist.”
“Am I wrong?” asked Cody.
I screwed my mouth and tightened the grip on my crossed arms.
“Thought so,” said Cody. “Todd, you better hope Cherry gets famous. You can go down in history as the first dude muse for a chick painter. And then turn in your man card.”
Todd grinned. “I think it’s kind of sexy.”
I dropped my arms and kicked the shoe molding on the wall. A fine sprinkling of plaster dusted my boot. “Dammit. This means I’ve got to go to Line Creek and deal with Shawna.”
“Hey, maybe she’ll know who bought your paintings,” said Ca- sey, turning her back on me. She walked into the bathroom and closed the door. A moment later I heard the shower running.
I gave an exasperated sigh and glanced over my shoulder at Cody and Todd. The donut bag had been crumpled and tossed onto the middle of the table. Powdered sugar and frosting coated the wooden tabletop.
“Got any coffee?” said Cody.
“There are entirely too many people living in this house,” I said. “If Shawna doesn’t run me out of town, y’all will.”
Copyright © 2013 by Larissa Reinhart.
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Growing up in a small town, Larissa Reinhart couldn't wait to move to an exotic city far from corn fields. After moving around the U.S. and Japan, now she loves to write about rough hewn characters that live near corn fields, particularly sassy women with a penchant for trouble. Hijack in Abstract is the third in the Cherry Tucker Mystery Series from Henery Press, following Still Life in Brunswick Stew (#2) and Portrait of a Dead Guy (#1), a 2012 Daphne du Maurier finalist. Quick Sketch, a Cherry Tucker prequel to Portrait, is in the mystery anthology The Heartache Motel (December 2013). She lives near Atlanta with her minions and Cairn Terrier, Biscuit.