cranky agnes column #1
Do not be seduced by those big-box come-ons, full of "complete sets" of extraneous cookware. A complete set is whatever you need, and maybe all you need is a wok and a hot place to grill your bacon. In a pinch, I can do it all with my good heavy nonstick frying pan. Besides the obvious braising, browning, and frying, I can make sauces and stirfries in it, toast cheese sandwiches and slivered almonds, use the underside to pound cutlets, and in a pinch probably swing it to defend my honor. If I could find a man that versatile and dependable, I'd marry him.
One fine August evening in South Carolina, Agnes Crandall stirred raspberries and sugar in her heavy nonstick frying pan and defended her fiancé to the only man she'd ever trusted.
It wasn't easy.
"Look, Joey, Taylor's not that bad." Agnes cradled the phone between her chin and her shoulder, turned down her CD player, where the Dixie Chicks were doing a fine rendition of "Am I the Only One," and then frowned over the tops of her fogged-up glasses at the raspberries, which were being annoying and uncooperative, much like Taylor lately. "He's a terrific chef." Which is why I'm still with him. "And he's very sweet." When he has the time. "And we've got a great future in this house together." Assuming he ever comes out here again.
Joey snorted his contempt, the sound exploding through the phone. "He shouldn't leave you out there by yourself."
"Hey, Brenda lived out here alone for years, and she did just fine," Agnes said. "I'm as tough as Brenda. I can do that, too." Of course, Brenda sold me the house and beat feet for her yacht in the middle of a marina, but--
"Nah, there's somethin' wrong with a guy who leaves a sweetheart like you alone in a big house like that. You should find somebody else."
"Yeah, like I have the time," Agnes said, and then realized that wasn't the right answer. "Not that I would. Taylor's a great guy. And anyway, I like being alone." I'm used to it.
"He's a mutt, Agnes," Joey said.
Agnes took off her glasses and turned up the heat under the raspberries, which she knew was courting disaster, but it was late and she was tired of playing nice with fruit. "Come on, Joey. I don't have time for this. I'm behind on my column, I've got--"
"And there's Rhett," Joey said. "How's Rhett?"
"What?" Agnes said, thrown off stride. She stopped stirring her berries, which began to bubble, and looked down at her dog, draped over her feet like a moth-eaten brown overcoat, slobbering on the floor as he slept. "Rhett's fine. Why? What have you heard?"
"He's a fine healthy-lookin' dog," Joey said hastily. "He looked real good in his picture in the paper today." He paused, his voice straining to be casual. "How come old Rhett was wearing that stupid collar in that picture?"
"Collar?" Agnes frowned at the phone. "It was just some junk jewelry--"
The oven timer buzzed, and she said, "Hold on," put down the phone, and took the now madly bubbling berries off the heat. Rhett picked up his head and bayed, and she turned to see what he was upset about.
A guy with a gun stood in the doorway, the bottom half of his face covered with a red bandanna.
"I come for your dog," he said, pointing the gun at Rhett, and Agnes said, "No!" and slung the raspberry pan at the guy, the hot syrup arcing out in front of it like napalm and catching him full in the face.
He screamed as the scalding fruit hit him and then dropped his gun to rip the bandanna away as Agnes stumbled to scoop up the pan and Rhett barreled into him, knocking him down so that he hit the back of his head on the marble counter by the wall and knocked off every cupcake she had cooling there before he collapsed into the doorway.
"God damn it," Agnes said breathlessly, standing over him with her pan, her heart pounding.
The guy didn't move, and Rhett began to hoover up cupcakes at the speed of light.
"Agnes?" Joey shouted from the phone on the counter. "What the fuck, Agnes?"
Agnes kicked the gun into the housekeeper's room and peered at the guy, trying to catch her breath. When he didn't move, she backed up to grab the phone off the counter. "Some guy just showed up here with a gun and tried to take Rhett," she told Joey, breathing hard. "But it's okay, I'm not angry." Miserable little rat-faced jerk.
"Where is he?"
"On the floor, across the hall doorway. He knocked himself out. I have to--"
"Get the hell out of there," Joey said, sounding like he was on the move. "Take Rhett with you."
"I can't get out, the guy's lying across the hall door. If I climb over him, he'll come to and grab me. I have to call--"
"Get out the back door--"
"I can't, Doyle's got it blocked with screen and boards. I have to hang up and call nine-one-one."
"No," Joey said, and she heard the screen door to the diner slap shut on his end of the phone. "No cops. I'm comin' over."
"What do you mean, no cops? I--"
The dognapper stirred.
"Wait a minute." Agnes put the phone on the counter and held the frying pan at the ready, hands shaking, as she craned her neck to look closer at the dognapper.
Young, just a teenager. Short. Skinny. Limp, dirty dark hair. Stupid, because if he'd had any brains, he'd have grabbed Rhett when he went out for his nightly pee. And now that he was unconscious, pretty harmless looking. She probably outweighed him by thirty pounds.
As she calmed down, she could hear Dr. Garvin's voice in her head.
How are you feeling right now, Agnes?
Well, Dr. Garvin, I am feeling a little angry that this punk broke into the house with a gun and threatened my dog.
And how are you handling that anger, Agnes?
I never touched him, I swear.
The boy opened his eyes.
"Don't move." Agnes held up her pan. "I've called the police," she lied. "They're coming for you. My dog is vicious, and you don't want to cross me, either, especially with a frying pan; you have no idea what I can do with a frying pan." She took a deep breath, and the kid glared at her, and she looked closer at his face, and winced at the lurid welts of singed skin where the raspberry had stuck. "That's gotta hurt. Not that I care."
He worked his battered jaw, and she held the frying pan higher as a threat.
"So, tell me, you little creep," Agnes said, "why were you trying to kill my dog?"
"I weren't tryin' to kill the dog," the boy said, outraged. "I wouldn't kill no dog."
"The gun, Creepoid," Agnes said. "You pointed a gun at him."
"I was just gonna take him," the boy said. "There weren't no call to get mean. I weren't gonna hurt him. Iwouldn't hurt nobody." He touched the sauce on his face and winced.
"No, you just broke into this house to terrorize me with a gun," Agnes said. "That's not hurting nobody, that's victimizing me. Do I look like a victim to you? Huh? You wouldn't have tried this crap on Brenda, would you?"
He frowned up at her, the raspberry sauce crinkling on his face. "Who's Brenda?"
"Everybody knows who Brenda is," Agnes snapped.
She took a deep shuddering breath and reached for the phone again, and he rolled to his feet and lunged for her. She yelped and smacked him hard on the head with her pan, and he staggered, and then she hit him again, harder this time, just to make sure, and he fell back onto the floor, blood seeping down the side of his face, and lay still. She felt a qualm about that, but not much, because it was self-defense. Brenda would be proud of her, he'd broken into her house and she'd defended it, he'd scared the hell out of her and--
Violence is not the answer, Agnes.
That depends on the question, Dr. Garvin.
--and she was not out of control, she was not angry, she was calm, she was shaking, but she was perfectly fine, and anyway it was a nonstick pan, not cast iron, so she was fairly certain she hadn't done any permanent damage.
Fingers crossed, anyway.
Beside him, Rhett collapsed, overcome by the number of cupcakes still on the floor.
"I hate you," she said to the unconscious boy. Then she picked up her phone and said, "Joey?"
"Don't do anything, Agnes," Joey yelled, the sounds of traffic in the background. "I'm on Route Seventeen. I'm almost there."
"That's good," Agnes said, realizing her voice was shaking, too. "He's just a kid, Joey. He said he wasn't trying to hurt anybody--"
The kid lunged to his feet, and Agnes screamed again and dropped the phone to swing the pan again, but this time he was ready for her, ducking under her arm and butting her in the stomach so that she said, "Oof!" and fell backward against the counter. He tried to backhand her, and she swung the pan again and hit him in the head, and then she couldn't stop, she hit him over and over, and he yelled, "Stop it!" and grabbed for her while she swung at him, driving him back toward the hall door, screaming,"Get out, get out, get out of this house, get out of this house!" as he lurched back, and stepped in Rhett's water dish and fell back against the wall and then through it, screaming.
Agnes froze, the frying pan raised over her head as he disappeared, and then the wall was solid again, and she heard a thud, and the screaming stopped, cut off.
She stood there with the pan over her head for a moment, stunned, and then she lowered it slowly and clutched it to her chest, warm raspberry sauce and all, her heart beating like mad. She stared dumbfounded at the wall, waiting to see if he'd come rushing back through, like a ghost or something. When nothing happened, she went over and pushed cautiously with the pan on the place where the kid had disappeared.
It swung open and shut again, the hideous wallpaper that had covered it now torn along the straight edge of a doorframe.
"Oh," Agnes said, caught between amazement that there'd been a swinging door behind the wallpaper and fear that there was also a crazed moron behind there.
"Agnes!" Joey yelled on the phone.
Agnes took a deep breath and stepped back to the counter and picked it up. "What?"
"What the fuck happened?"
"There's another door in my kitchen, right next to the hall door." Agnes went back and pushed it open again, avoiding the rusted, broken nails that lined the doorway edge, and peered into the black void. "Huh."
"Where's the kid with the gun?"
"Good question." Agnes dropped her skillet on the counter, yanked open the utility drawer by the door, and got out her flashlight. She turned it on, shoved the door open with her shoulder, and pointed it into the darkness.
"What are you doing?" Joey yelled.
"I'm trying to see what's behind this door. I didn't even know it was here. Brenda never mentioned--"
"Agnes, you can explore that goddamn house later," Joey said. "Take Rhett and get the hell out of there."
"I don't think the kid's a problem anymore." Agnes held the phone with one hand and peered down into the pool of light the flashlight cast on the floor below as Rhett came to join her, pressing close to her leg so he could peer, too. "He fell into a basement. I didn't even know I had a basement back here. Brenda never said anything about one. Did you know--?" She had been playing the light around the floor, and now she stopped as it hit the moron. "Uh-oh."
"What do you mean, 'uh-oh'?"
The boy was splayed out on what looked like a concrete floor, and he did not look good.
"I think he's hurt. He's definitely not moving."
"Good," Joey said. "He fall down the stairs?"
"There are no stairs." Agnes squinted down into the darkness as the light hit the boy's face.
His eyes stared up at her, dull and fixed.
Agnes screamed, and Rhett scrambled back, stepping in the raspberry sauce, which he began to lick up.
"Oh, God," Agnes said as her throat closed in panic. "Joey, his neck's at a funny angle and his eyes are staring up at me. I think I killed him."
"No, you didn't, honey," Joey said around the traffic noise in the background. "He committed suicide when he attacked an insane woman in the stupid house she bought. I'm almost there. You stay there and don't open that door for anybody."
"He's dead, Joey. I have to call the police." This is bad. This is bad. This is not going to look good.
"The police can't help you with this one," Joey said. "You stay put. I'm gonna get you somebody until we figure this out."
"Some body. Right." Agnes clicked off the phone and looked back down at the dead body in her basement.
He looked pathetic, lying there all broken and deadeyed. Agnes swallowed, trying to get a grip on the situation.
How are you feeling right now, Agnes?
Shut the fuck up, Dr. Garvin.
Don't say "fuck," Agnes. Angry language makes us angrier.
Gosh darn, Dr. Garvin, I'm feeling ...
She put the beam on the boy again.
Okay, calm down, she told herself. Think this through.
She hadn't killed him, the basement floor had.
You hit him many times in the head with the frying pan--try explaining that one.
Okay, okay, but he'd attacked her in Brenda's house. No, in her house. So it was self-defense. Yes, he was young and pathetic and heartbreaking down there, but he'd been a horrible person.
Why do you always hit them with frying pans, Agnes?
Because that's what I always have in my hand, Dr. Garvin. If I were a gardener, it'd be hedge clippers. Think how bad that would be.
She punched in 911 on her phone, trying to concentrate on the good things: Rhett was fine, her column would be finished soon, Maria's wedding was still on track for that weekend, Two Rivers was hers--well, hers and Taylor's--pretty soon she was going to be living her dream, and her cupcakes were burning but she could make more--
There's a dead body in my basement and I lost my temper and I hit him with a frying pan many times, I was not in control--
"Keyes County Emergency Services," the police dispatcher drawled.
"There's a dead body in my basement," Agnes said, and then her knees gave way and she slid down the cabinet to sit hard on the floor as she tried to explain that the kid had been going to hurt her dog, while Rhett drooled on her lap.
"A deputy is on the way, ma'am," the dispatcher said, as if dead bodies in basements were an every-evening occurrence.
"Thank you." Agnes hung up and looked at Rhett.
"I have to make cupcakes," she said, and he looked encouraging, so she got up to get the blackened cupcakes out of the oven and clean the floor and get back to work, thinking very hard about her column, and Maria's wedding that weekend, and Brenda's beautiful house thatwas now hers, and everything except the dead body in her basement and the goddamned frying pan.
Shane sat on a bar stool, in a shady nightclub on the wrong side of the tracks in a bad part of Savannah, Georgia, and tried to estimate how many people he was going to have to kill in the next hour. Optimally it would be one, but he had long ago learned that optimism did not apply to his profession. He felt his cell phone vibrate in his pocket and pulled it out with his free hand, expecting to see the GO or NO GO text message from Wilson. There were only three people who had his number, and they never called to chat. One of them was across the dance floor from him, which left two options. He glanced at the screen and was surprised to see JOEY.
Jesus. First time ever, and he calls in the middle of a job. Shane hesitated for a moment, then thought, Hell, you gave him the number for emergencies, and hit the ON button. "Uncle Joe?"
"Shane, you on a job?"
"Where you at?"
"Good," Joey said. "Close. I need you home."
Shane frowned. Home? You send me away at ten and now you want me home? "What's the problem?" he said, keeping his voice cold.
"I got a little friend needs some help. She lives just outside Keyes in the old Two Rivers mansion. Remember it?"
Fucking Keyes, SC. Armpit of the South.
"Come home and take care of my little Agnes, Shane."
You adopt another kid, Joe? Gonna take better care of this one? "I'll be there in an hour."
"I appreciate it." Joey hung up.
Shane pushed the OFF button. Joey needing help taking care of something. That was new. Old man must be getting really old. Calling him home. That was--
"I'm a Leo--and you?"
Shane turned to look at her. Long blonde hair. Bright smile plastered on her pretty face. Pink T-shirt stretched tight across her ample chest with the word Princess embroidered on it in shiny letters. Effective advertising, bad message.
"What's your sign?" she said, coming closer.
"Taurus with a bad moon rising." The hell with Joey. He had a job to do. He looked at the upstairs landing.
Two men in long black leather coats and wraparound sunglasses appeared on the landing. They took barely visible flanking positions at the top of the metal stairs, just as they had the previous evening at approximately the same time, which meant the target was in-house.
At home, so to speak.
"Do you come here often?" Princess asked, coming still closer, about three inches too close. He scooted back on his stool slightly.
"Never." He looked up again. Too many people had seen The Matrix, he decided as he took in the bodyguards' long jackets and shades.
The Matrix probably hadn't even played in Keyes yet.
Princess came in closer, her breasts definitely inside his personal space. "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a painter."
That's what Joey used to tell people. I'm a painter.
Enough with Joey.
Shane glanced across the room. Carpenter was in place, his tall, solid figure near the emergency exit, the flashing lights reflecting off his shaved ebony skull. I paint them, Carpenter cleans them. Shane noddedtoward the guards ever so slightly. Carpenter nodded back.
"That's cool." Princess began to scan past Shane, probably looking for somebody who'd play with her. She must have found him, because she smiled at Shane blankly and backed off. "Have a good one," she said, and was gone into the crowd.
The phone buzzed once more, and Shane glanced at the screen: GO. He secured the phone in his pocket, nodding once more at Carpenter, who reached into one of his deep pockets. Princess was over by the bar now, dialing on her phone with a blank look on her face as she tossed her head to get the hair out of her eyes. Then she frowned and pulled the phone away, staring at it. Shane knew no one's cell phone within two hundred feet would work now, as long as Carpenter kept the transmitter in his pocket working, jamming all frequencies.
Shane wove his way through the sweaty dancers to the bottom of the staircase and walked up, Carpenter falling in behind him. Both bodyguards stepped out, forming a human wall that he estimated weighed over 480 pounds combined with another ten pounds or so of leather coat thrown in. Which meant they trumped him by over 270.
Fortunately 210 pounds with brains could usually beat 480 pounds of dumb.
"Private office," the one on the right growled.
Shane jabbed his right hand, middle three fingers extended, into the man's voice box, then grabbed the face of the man on the left and applied pressure at just the right places with the fingertips of his left hand, thumb on one side, four fingers on the other. The man froze in the middle of reaching under his jacket, unable to move, while Carpenter caught the man to the right.
"Tell me the truth and live," Shane whispered as heleaned close, ignoring the other guard's desperate wheezing attempts to get air down his damaged windpipe. "Lie and die. Is Casey Dean here?"
"Uggh." There was the slightest twitch of the head in the affirmative.
"Uggh." A twitch side to side.
Shit. "Left foot," Shane said. "How many are in there? Tap your foot for the number."
The foot hit the ground twice, then halted.
"Good boy." Shane shifted his fingers slightly and pressed. The man dropped unconscious to the floor. Carpenter already had the other man down, sleeping with the leather. At least they'd be warm.
Shane reached inside their coats and retrieved their pistols. He placed one in his waistband in his back and kept the other one out, safety off. He stepped over them as Carpenter reached down and grabbed the back of each man's jacket and dragged them to a small janitor's closet and tumbled them in, then turned and faced the stairway to make sure no one else came up. He wasn't wearing leather.
Shane walked down the hallway to the bright red doorway with a prominent NO TRESPASSING sign hung on it. He kicked right at the lock, the wood splintered, and he stepped in and to one side, eyes taking in the dimly lit scene, pistol up, sweeping the room, gun in concert with his eyes.
Movement. Two people. A man. Seated behind a desk. A redhead standing on the other side, leaning forward, palms down on the desktop, her skimpy halter top hanging loose, exposing her breasts. Great, Shane thought. I had to hit at playtime.
He strode across the room as the man jumped up and the woman turned, looking surprised. The man wasreaching for a jacket when Shane hit him with a cat-paw fist strike to the solar plexus, making him thump back into his chair, gasping in pain and floundering, out of commission for a couple of minutes at least.
The redhead lunged at Shane, who sidestepped her claws, grabbed her from behind, and used her momentum to slam her against the desk, pinning her to it. He got one arm in a half nelson around her neck and pressed the barrel of the gun against the back of her head. He could feel her tight ass pushing back against his groin, and she began to grind as she struggled against him, putting her arms flat out on the desktop and looking over her shoulder angrily. He shoved her shoulders down on the desk and saw a small tattoo of a compass on the small of her back, just above her jeans. Like somebody needs directions there, he thought.
She pressed back harder against him.
"Stop it," he said.
"Oh, come on," she whispered. "You like it. We can work this out, you and me. I can--"
Shane pulled the gun back and tapped the barrel against the back of her skull.
The girl rubbed her head. "What the fuck?"
"This is business and you are not part of it. Stay there." Shane backed away, keeping the barrel aimed at her, and when she didn't move, he glanced at the man who was still gasping for air. Not a problem.
Then Shane reached inside his jacket and pulled out an airline ticket. He tossed the plane ticket on the desk in front of the woman. "You've got a problem, here's the solution. A voucher you can use at the airport tonight. Enough for a one-way ticket anywhere in the world."
The redhead stared at him.
"You don't ever want to come back to Savannah again," he told her. "This man hangs with bad men, andthey're going to remember you were here and come looking for you."
The girl was nodding, reaching for the ticket at the same time she tried to put her jacket on.
"You can go, but if you say anything to anyone on the way out, you will die."
The girl was still nodding like a bimbo bobblehead doll, one arm in her jacket, the other with the ticket in hand. Shane kept one eye on her struggles as he focused his attention back on the man. When she was ready and holding the ticket in one hand and her purse in the other, Shane pulled out his satellite phone and hit the speed-dial for Carpenter. "You got one civilian coming out. Redhead. Let her go."
There was a telling moment of silence. "A witness."
"A civilian coming out," Shane repeated.
"Roger," Carpenter said.
Shane nodded to the redhead, and she scuttled to the door and was gone.
Shane turned his attention back to the man. "Same deal for you, my friend." He slapped another ticket voucher on the desk.
"Who--?" The man coughed and tried again as he managed to sit up straighter. "Who--are--you?"
"Doesn't matter who I am," Shane said. "I'm gonna ask you some questions. Answer honestly, you take this ticket and go. Lie and die."
The man's face was shiny with pain and exertion. "What--do--you--want?"
"You were hired by the mob to kill someone the U.S. government would prefer stay alive."
"You got the wrong--"
Shane hit him, an open-handed slap that was more insult than injury. "You're wasting my time, Casey Dean," he said, and the man flinched when he heard thename. "The people I work for do not make mistakes. Unlike you."
Shane reached out and jabbed his thumb into Dean's shoulder, hitting a nerve junction, and the guy jumped as if struck by an electric shock. "Now here's the deal. You tell me what I want to know and forget about the hit, fly away, and never come back, and it's the same to me as if you were dead."
Dean rubbed his shoulder. "That's it?"
"That's it." Shane slid the ticket voucher across the desk.
"You're really gonna let me go if I tell you what you want and forget about the contract?"
"No. I'm gonna let you go if you forget about the hit and give me the names and contact information of whoever hired you and the name of the target."
Dean shook his head. "I can't give the contractor up. He'll kill me."
Shane brought the gun level with the point right between the man's eyes. "Which is worse? The possibility he might kill you in the future or the certainty I will kill you in the next ten seconds?"
"Shit." Dean slumped, looking suddenly very old. "Listen, I'm just a business manager. I'm--"
Shane pressed the muzzle of the gun hard against the man's skin just above his nose.
Dean's eyes turned inward, mesmerized by the barrel. "I'm telling you, I don't know the contractor's name. I just got a call that services were needed."
"Who's the target?"
"Didn't get it yet. I swear."
Great. Dean was an idiot, but there was a ring of truth in that.
"Listen, I'm cold. Can I get my jacket?" Dean's eyesshifted again, his voice heavy with faked innocence now.
Shane looked at him, almost pitying him in his stupidity. The dumb fuck has a plan. He pulled the gun back. "Sure." His assignment was to take out Casey Dean, world-class hitman, but if this guy was a world-class hitman, Shane was Princess's date to prom. Some guys were all PR, no game, and Dean was sure as hell turning out to be one of them.
When Dean had put on his jacket, he looked downright confident, his eyes sly as they went to the desk. "So I really don't know anything, but I'm definitely leaving town, just like you said. Okay if I get my passport from my desk drawer?"
Shane nodded. You bet. Commit suicide with my gun. That's what I'm here for.
The man turned his back and opened a desk drawer, and Shane brought his gun up.
Dean swung around, a small gun in his hand, and Shane fired two quick shots, hitting him in the chest. Dean fell back, disappearing behind the desk.
Below, the music pounded, drowning out everything. Shane walked forward, gun at the ready, and rolled the man over, surprised to find there was still a spark of life in his eyes. Not surprised to see his two shots were so tightly grouped they appeared to be one hole, but not happy to see them an inch off target.
Fucking Joey, making him lose focus. Fucking Keyes. Fucking little Agnes, too, whoever she was.
A funny look came over the man's face as Shane aimed the gun at his forehead. His eyes blinked rapidly. "Wait," he gasped. "We can make a deal."
"Oh, come on," Shane said. "You know who and what you are. You lied. You'd have completed the contract because otherwise you'd never get another job."
"No--" Dean said, and Shane fired, the round making a perfect black hole in the center of his forehead. Shane leaned over and checked Dean's pockets, finding a business card with just a phone number on it. He pocketed it.
He pulled out his cell phone and hit number 3 on the speed-dial.
It was answered on the first ring: "Carpenter."
"Painting's done. You'll have to help him on to the next world on your own, Reverend. I won't be at debrief."
There was a brief moment of silence. "Wilson won't like that."
"The target had no information on contractor or his target."
Shane put the phone away and picked up the voucher.
Then he crossed the room to the window, reached under his shirt, retrieved the heavy-duty snap link attached to the rear of his body armor, clipped it to a bolt holding a drainpipe, turned outward and jumped, the carefully coiled bungee cord snapping out until it jerked him to a halt three feet from the street and bounced him back up half the distance. As he went down the second time, Shane pulled the quick release and landed on all fours. Right next to his Defender SUV.
A televen thirty, an hour and a half after the kid had gone screaming through her kitchen wall, Agnes pulled another pan of chocolate-raspberry cupcakes out of the oven, stopped rehearsing her story for the next wave of police--It's a nonstick frying pan, so it's really very light, it couldn't kill anybody--and wondered whatDr. Garvin would say about all of this. Well, she knew what he'd say. He'd look at her and say, "How are you feeling right now, Agnes?"
And if she said, "Fine, Dr. Garvin," he'd give her that look that said, My ass, Agnes, except court-appointed psychiatrists couldn't say that.
She tried to remember the list of terms he'd given her to help her describe how she'd felt when she hit her fiancé with the frying pan: Mean/Evil. Worthless. Revengeful. Bitchy. She remembered wondering where outraged and betrayed and sickened by the unsanitary assault on a dining surface had been. "He was actually doing her on my clean kitchen table," she'd told him, in what she'd thought was a perfectly calm voice. "I mean, Jesus Christ, of course I hit him with a frying pan!"
"Hit who with a frying pan?" Joey said from the doorway.
Agnes looked up from where she'd been talking to the cupcakes. "Am I going to go to jail for hitting the kid with the frying pan?"
"No," Joey said, mystified. "You didn't kill him, he fell through the wall. You all right?"
"Well." Agnes leaned against the counter. "There's some stuff I didn't tell you."
Joey came in and put his arm around her, the weight of muscle going to fat a comfort on her shoulders. "Like what?"
"Remember I told you I was engaged after college and my fiancé cheated on me?"
"Yeah, the bastard."
"Well, when I found out he lied to me, I kind of hit him."
"Good for you."
"In the face. With a frying pan. Nonstick. Broke his nose."
"Oh." Joey nodded, still supportive but wary now. "He file a police report?"
Agnes nodded. "He dropped the charges, though." Tell me I'm okay, Joey.
"Well, this is different. It won't--"
"And then three years ago, I got engaged to that crime reporter I told you about?"
"Yeah," Joey said, definitely on guard.
"And two years ago, he cheated on me with my assistant? And I caught him with her on my kitchen table?"
"You didn't tell me that part."
"And I hit him in the back of the head with a cast-iron skillet." Tell me I'm okay, Joey.
"Oh, shit, Agnes."
Ouch. "So if the cops look me up ..."
"Did you kill him?"
"No. They put a plate in his head. He's fine."
"You do any time?"
"Probation with court-ordered therapy and community service." Agnes leaned against Joey, grateful for his bulk beside her. "A soup kitchen. It was nice. Good people worked there." Tell me I'm okay, Joey.
"You're good people, too, Agnes." He patted her shoulder. "Don't worry. This was self-defense. You're all right."
Agnes looked up at his dear, ugly mug. "Yeah?"
"Yeah," Joey said, and looked at her straight, the way Joey always did.
"Good." She straightened up to go back to work. Self-defense was legitimate. Brenda would have pounded the kid in self-defense, too. "What were you coming in to tell me?"
He looked uncomfortable. "I called somebody to come help you, and I was waiting for him outside, andthen the next bunch of cops pulled down the drive. We got trouble."
Agnes put the cakes on the bread table. "You mean besides the cop in the hallway and the dead body in the basement?"
"The cop in the hallway is a dumb-fuck deputy, he's not trouble," Joey said. "But now we got Detective Simon Xavier comin' across your bridge."
"Who?" Agnes peeled off her oven mitt.
"Xavier," Joey said. "The one cop in Keyes who actually knows what the fuck he's doing."
Agnes felt cold. "Joey?"
There was a crash from the direction of the old housekeeper's room, now her bedroom, and Agnes said, "That's that deputy. He keeps wandering around saying, 'So this is what Two Rivers looks like inside.' Like he's looking for something. I told him to stay in the hall. I even gave him a cupcake."
Joey jerked his head toward the housekeeper's room. "Go get him. I'll talk to Xavier."
Agnes swallowed. "Joey, am I going to jail?"
"No, honey," Joey said. "But don't hit anybody else with a goddamned frying pan."
Agnes went cold. I'm in trouble if Joey's warning me. "Right." She forced a smile for him, took a deep breath, and started for the housekeeper's room.
"Aw, wait a minute." Joey caught her arm and handed her the frying pan.
"What's this for?" she said.
"I take it back," he said. "If that deputy tries anything funny, you can use this. They can't get you for self-defense."
"Oh, funny," she said, but she took the pan and tried a smile. "Joey, you're the best."
"Go on," he said, but he blushed just the same. "You okay?"
"Yeah," she told him. "Kind of. This has been a really lousy day, but it's almost over, the cops are going to take the body away, I'm not in any trouble ... right?" She looked at him, trying not to seem anxious.
"Right," Joey said firmly, but his eyes slid away from hers.
Oh, God. Agnes smiled at him as sanely as she could and headed for her bedroom, not relieved at all.
Once in the housekeeper's room, Agnes clutched her frying pan tighter and felt her way toward the bedside lamp.
"I told you nothing happened in here," she called out, looking around for the cop. "It was all out in the kitchen." Not that I'm upset with you, sir. Please don't arrest me.
The wind blew the curtains away from the window by the bed, and she saw that the bedside table was tipped over, and then a hand clamped over her mouth and somebody said, "Shhhh," and she swung the pan up over her head hard and connected with a smack that reverberated into her shoulders.
He wrenched the pan out of her hand. "Stop it. Joey sent me."
She yanked away from him, and he let her go so that she tripped, falling against the bed, and then she fumbled on the floor for the light and clicked it on, breathing hard.
He loomed up over her as her heart pounded, a big guy, dressed in black--black pants, black T, black denim jacket--looking like he'd been hacked out of a block of wood: strong, weathered face; black, flat eyes--shark eyes, she thought--cropped dark hair going gray at the temples, now a little bloody on the right; tense, hard,squared-off body, all of it alert and concentrated on her. But the thing she noticed most, as she tried to keep from having a heart attack, was that he looked like Joey. Younger than Joey, bigger than Joey, but he looked like Joey.
She swallowed. "Who are you and what the hell are you doing in here?"
"I'm Shane. Joey sent me." He jerked his head toward the kitchen, no wasted movement. "Who's out there?"
Agnes got to her feet, wishing she had her frying pan back. "Shane. Okay, Shane, thank you for scaring the hell out of me, but this is my house, so I'll ask the questions." She took a deep breath. "Joey sent you. Why?"
"I'm here to protect some kid. Little Agnes?"
"That's me," Agnes said.
There was a silence long enough to hear crickets in, and Agnes thought, If he makes some crack about me being not little, I'm gonna hit him again, and then he spoke.
"I'm here to protect you," he said, sounding resigned. "Unless you hit me again, in which case, whoever I'm supposed to save you from can have your ass."
"Protect me." That wasn't good. She'd been worried about the police finding out about her record, but Joey thought she needed to be protected from something else, something only somebody like this guy could stave off. Which meant something was seriously wrong. Not that the guy who was now a corpse in her basement hadn't been a tip-off, but if Joey thought something was so bad that she needed this guy, it must be really bad, because a guy like this could protect her from ...
Out in the front hall, Brenda's ugly black grandfather clock began to chime the hour in big gongs that soundedlike Death's oven timer, and Agnes looked at Shane again.
Big. Broad. Dark. Strong. Handsome if you liked thugs. Looked like Joey. And he was here to keep her safe.
How are you feeling right now, Agnes?
Could be worse.
"Okay, Shane," Agnes said as Brenda's clock gonged midnight. "I got Joey in the kitchen, a cop in the front hall, a dead body in the basement, and you in my bedroom. Where do you want to start?"
Copyright © 2007 by Argh Ink and Robert J. Mayer.