“He wants you to retrieve what?” Lucky’s voice crackled and hissed over the phone speakers as I bounced down the dilapidated old country road. “A custom, antique lawn decoration, which holds great sentimental value.” I
“He wants you to retrieve what?” Lucky’s voice crackled and hissed over the phone speakers as I bounced down the dilapidated old country road.
“A custom, antique lawn decoration, which holds great sentimental value.” I yelled at the phone on the opposite seat.
“A pink flamingo.” He laughed. “You’re driving all the way out to podunk-nowheresville for a pink flamingo.”
“I’m driving out here for a client.”
“Whatever, boss. You couldn’t pay me enough to make that trip.”
I glanced out the windows at fields of cornstalks to my left and dense woods bordering the road on the right. “I’ve been to worse places.”
I had to think for a moment. “Torture dungeons…serial killer trophy rooms…Cleveland.”
“Yeah, real stiff competition there.”
“Look, do you have directions for me or not?”
“Sure, but why don’t you just run the GPS off your phone?”
“Because I don’t trust the signal way out here.”
There was the crackle and pop of static.
“Lucky?” I grabbed my phone and checked it.
Call dropped. No signal.
“Great.” I muttered to myself. “This is why I don’t take cases outside of the city anymore.”
When there’s other work….
A couple miles up the road an old, dilapidated service station—which looked like it hadn’t been renovated in my lifetime—clung to the roadside like a tick. I would have just driven past, directions or no, but of the two cars pulled into gravel parking lot, one bore in big letters, “Sherriff.”
Yeah, it was misspelled.
I pulled up to one of the ancient pumps. A faded paper sign was taped to it—No reader, pay inside.
Before I stepped out of the car, I made a quick check of my purse. Enough cash to fill up—not that I really needed to. My collapsible baton, in case of emergencies. And my pistol, in case of bigger emergencies.
I shuffled that last to the bottom, I wasn’t sure how kindly the local law would take to concealed weapons, permit or no.
Some days I missed the FBI badge. Not many, but some.
The bell above the door dinged an off-key note as I stepped inside. There were a few shelves of stale-looking prepackaged pastries and other equally unappetizing road food. One wall was lined with glass-doored refrigerators only one of which had nothing alcoholic in it.
So that’s how they stay in business.
Two men chatted quietly by the counter. The one to my right was a middle-aged man in a khaki police uniform. He spoke with a big smile and plenty of hand waving. Across from him was a younger man in a gray-green jumpsuit. He nodded politely but didn’t speak or smile much. A faded tag was embroidered to his chest: “Gus.”
The “Sherriff” turned that big smile on me as I approached. “Howdy, Ma’am. What brings a nice young lady like yourself out to a little hole in the wall like this?”
“Gas for one.” I jerked a thumb at my car through the front window.
The officer, whose name tag read “Nelson,” stepped aside so Gus could ring me up. “And the other, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Directions to Pattonville. My GPS doesn’t want to cooperate.”
He laughed. “Yeah, we’ve really struggled to bring some of these modern conveniences to our little town, but folks around here don’t seem to mind. As for directions, you’re in luck. I happen to be headed back that way myself. I’d be happy to escort you.”
“Oh, I’m sure you have better things to do than—”
“Nonsense.” He swatted at my objection like a fly. “It’s no trouble at all miss…?”
“Angie, Angie Brown. And it’s Mrs.” I held up the fake wedding ring I always wore when I traveled. It was the easiest way to cut short most unwanted advances.
“Apologies, Mrs. Brown.”
“You’re all set, ma’am.” Gus passed me back my change. “Do you need a hand with the pump?”
“Don’t worry about that, Gus, I’ll make sure she gets what she needs.” Nelson said before I could answer.
A look of relief passed briefly over Gus’s face before he returned to his sullen expression.
Is he relieved to not have the extra work, or that we’re leaving?
Sometimes a detective’s brain doesn’t know when to shut off.
I was perfectly capable of pumping my own gas, even with the outdated pumps, but Nelson insisted on doing it for me. While he did, he tried to regale me with some story about Gus’s grandfather building that service station out this far because he believed the big highway was sure to pass right by his doorstep. Of course, it didn’t.
It was a mediocre story, too detailed in some places. Too vague in others. I didn’t know if Nelson believed the tale, but maybe there was a kernel of truth in it. Maybe.
Cynicism, another hazard of the job.
“So, what brings you to Pattonville?” He asked when his story didn’t get the reaction he clearly wanted.
“Picking something up for a friend.” Mentioning clients on a job like this only invites complications. Before you know it, people start thinking they can get a cut, or skip the middleman all together.
Not for me.
Any idiot can keep his eyes peeled; the mark of a good detective is knowing when to shut up.
“Pretty far out of the way for a present. You know somebody out here?”
“My friend used to live out this way, a long time ago. I want to get him something that reminds him of home.”
“Can’t argue with that.” he hung the nozzle back on its hook. “Stick close to me and I’ll make sure you make into town, no trouble.”
I got back in my car and waited for him to pull out.
Small town friendly, or something else? The wedding ring didn’t seem to phase him. And I do need the directions.
He lead me down a series of progressively smaller—and bumpier—backwoods roads until eventually we turned onto a wide, brick-paved lane running by a row of old buildings.
I pulled into one of a half dozen empty parking spots on the main drag and switched off my car. My destination, Barnaby Goods and Pawn Shop, waited on the far side of the street.
Nelson waved as I climbed out of my car. He’d parked in front of a little diner on the far end of the small town. He went his way, I went mine.
I was happier about that. I didn’t have the best track record with cops. And I didn’t need any more people snooping around my business.
Barnaby Goods and Pawn Shop was an eclectic mix of cluttered store shelves, with everything from peanut butter, to souvenirs, to old bric-a-brac you find in pawn shops everywhere.
Far too many jobs brought me to one pawn shop or another.
Ol’ Barnaby, as he’d insisted on being called over the phone, waved me over to the low counter. “What can I do for you today, stranger?”
“Angola LaGrange, I called the other day about a certain item.”
“Ah, I remember. Strangest call I’ve ever had. Wait right there, I’ve got it in the back.” He ducked through a narrow door and out of sight.
I pulled out my phone. Still no signal. Fortunately, I’d downloaded the picture my client had sent me. It was an old photograph of two boys grinning mischievously over a pair of graffitied pink flamingos, one standing up, the other looking down.
I was here for the upright one.
The primary markings in the picture were the black rings around the eyes, glasses to match the boy behind it. There were some other smaller markings that were too blurry to make out.
That could be a problem. We’ll just have to see.
Ol’ Barnaby returned, cradling the faded pink flamingo like it was some priceless treasure. “You know, you’re lucky you called when you did. I’ve had a lot of interest in this old thing.”
I gave him a skeptical look as he handed the bird over so I could inspect it. “Really?”
He shrugged. “That line works better with some merchandise than others. Is this what you’re looking for?”
I turned the flamingo over in my hands, taking in the washed-out markings. The glasses were right, and other marks that might have been what was in the picture. There were also newer blemishes, but that was only to be expected. My client said the picture was from the sixties.
“Yeah, this’ll do.” I knew it was a little late for me to play it non-committal, but old habits die hard.
He shook his head as he took my money. “Why’d you drive all the way out here for that thing?”
“Because when I called you said you wouldn’t ship it to me.”
He laughed as I tucked the flamingo under one arm and headed back to my car.
Four hours of driving, each way, for a minute’s worth of work.
As I reached my car, Nelson was still standing in front of the diner. He noticed me loading up and called over, “Leaving already?”
“Got what I needed. Thanks for your help.”
“Can I talk you into staying for supper?”
I shook my head. “I’ve got a lot of driving left today. I’d rather get started before it gets dark.”
“Well, safe travels then.” he waved and headed back to the diner.
That could have been a lot more awkward. I silently thanked the fake wedding ring as I pulled back onto the road.
My phone still refused to find a signal as I retraced the twists and turns that Nelson had shown me on the way into town. Sometimes the detective brain not turning off was a good thing. It certainly made remembering directions easier.
Once I was back out on the county road, potholes and all, I turned to the bespectacled flamingo in the passenger seat. “Well, that job was simple enough.”
The sound of a large engine revving caught my attention. I turned in time to see two bright headlights rapidly getting larger.
The driver’s side door caved in as the impact threw my little car off the road into the woods. Car, flamingo, and I rolled unceremoniously down the embankment. I didn’t make it to the bottom before everything went black.
To Be Continued…
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