Reelin' in Reno
"The problem, Bradley, is that I'm Las Vegas and you're ... well, you're Reno," Robyn Rogers said, her voice strong and assured over the never-ending buzz of cars headed down Second Street on their way toward Harrah's. "I'm bright lights on the marquee, miles of glitz and glamour, the Luxor and the Bellagio all rolled into one. Poor little Reno just can't keep up."
Bradley Nelson used his thumb to tilt his black cowboy hat a little farther back on his head and felt the high desert sun pounding on his forehead through the open window of Robyn's tour bus. The cracked sidewalk next to the bus was deserted except for her driver, who had stepped outside at Robyn's request a few minutes earlier.
"Look, darlin'," Bradley drawled in his best lazy-cowboy voice, "I know you're mad as a wet hen because I asked you to stop here on your way to Vegas, but I promised my mother that I'd drop in and see her when I was in town. It won't take more than an hour."
Robyn turned her catlike green eyes on him, her perfectly smooth blond hair seeming to float in the scorching afternoon breeze. "I'm not a barnyard animal, Bradley, and I don't appreciate being likened to one every time you slip into Roy Rogers mode. This isn't about stopping in Reno.It's about us. We're just not working anymore. I need a man who's my equal, a man whose career is as successful as my own. This whole country music star wanna-be thing is getting old."
Trying to contain his anger, Bradley watched the bus driver slow to a stop on the hot pavement outside, the soles of his tennis shoes looking as if they were going to melt where he stood. "Well, that's a mighty fine thing for you to say, seeing as how you're a rock star wanna-be yourself--"
"No," Robyn interrupted, standing up to pace the center aisle of the tour bus. "I'm a star already. I'm five years younger than you, and I already have a million-dollar contract from Gamble Records. I'm so far ahead of you, you'll never be able to catch up."
"I didn't realize this was a competition," Bradley said quietly, resisting the urge to add another "darlin'" to the end of his sentence.
"Come on, Bradley, if you were being honest with yourself, you'd admit that you were just using me to get a record contract from my brother-in-law. And it worked. You got your contract, but even that wasn't enough to get you onto the Top 40 charts. Or even the Top 100. That's just the way it goes in show business sometimes. Some artists are destined for greatness, while others ... well, others just aren't."
"I never used you, not to get a recording contract or for anything else." Bradley barely managed to get the words out between gritted teeth. He had never--not even once--asked Robyn to help him smooth the way with David Gamble, her brother-in-law. For her to accuse him of using her was just plain ridiculous.
"I call things the way I see them," Robyn said, shrugging nonchalantly as if his dreams meant nothing to her. Which, of course, they didn't. And why should they? She was right. She already had the fame and fortune that Bradley was working so hard to achieve. Why should she care if he succeeded or not?
"It's time for me to move on. I want someone who knows about more than just the music business; someone with a little more ... promise."
Bradley glared at the woman who had so often infuriated him over the past eight months. It took every ounce of willpower he possessed not to toss his hat into the oncoming traffic and holler the truth over the noise from outside. He had plenty of fucking promise, and he knew a hell of a lot more about a hell of a lot more things than she could have guessed. But he didn't say any of that. Instead, he stood up and walked to the door of the bus, tipped his hat to Robyn in the most gentlemanly manner he could muster, turned on his heel, and walked away.
It was all he could do not to look back to see if Robyn had come out of her tour bus to watch him walk away. She had some nerve, accusing him of using her. Hell, if anything it was the other way around. She seemed to love snapping her fingers just to see how long it took him to come running.
He had no idea why he'd put up with her for so long, but he knew for damned sure that he wasn't the one who was going to go crawling back. Let her grovel for a change.
The dry desert air barely stirred as Bradley headed down the block toward the Heart O'Reno Casino, where his mother was currently working as an accountant. On the one occasion his mother had met Robyn, the two women had been cautiously polite, but Bradley could tell that they didn't much care for each other.
So it was just as well that Robyn wasn't hanging around, making Bradley's visit with his mom stilted and uncomfortable. Not to mention that his trip out to Nashville for the Country Music Awards next week could now be made without having to work the layover in around Robyn's touring schedule.
But if he was so eager to see Robyn go, why was he starting to get that panicky feeling in his gut--the one that told him he was letting go of something he shouldn't?
Bradley's steps slowed on the hot pavement. Was he making a mistake by walking away? David Gamble hadn't yet decided whether to renew Bradley's contract. Would Bradley's breakup with Robyn sway David's decision? Bradley could protest all he wanted that he wasn't using Robyn, but he'd be plumb stupid to believe this might not have some impact on his career.
Bradley turned back toward the bus.
"She's already gone, mister."
Bradley looked up, startled by the softly uttered words. A garishly bright neon sign blinked on and off in the window of the Heart O'Reno Drive-Thru Wedding Chapel, which was attached to the similarly named casino where his mother worked. A fake gorilla stood next to the glass front doors, shaking its head at him.
"She's a quick little thing, ain't she?" the gorilla said, then corrected itself. "I mean, isn't she? Isn't she?"
Bradley glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed the talking gorilla, wondering if it was the heat or Robyn's calm dismissal that had driven him insane.
The fake gorilla pulled off its furry head, and Bradley realized it wasn't a gorilla at all--it was a woman wearing a monkey suit. She shook her head as if to clear it, her long brownish-blond ponytail moving from side to side as she did.
"Boy, is it hot in there," she said, setting the gorilla head down beside her on a tiny patch of dried-up grass in front of the wedding chapel.
Shaking his own head at the surreal situation he found himself in, Bradley couldn't help but ask, "Don't you have air-conditioning?"
The woman looked at him with amused blue eyes. "Now, how would we get an air conditioner into this suit? I can barely stand up under the weight of it as it is."
Bradley shook his head, trying to make some sense of this conversation. "No, I meant don't you have air-conditioning in the building where you work?"
"Of course we do. It's not hot in there," she said, gesturing with one fur-covered hand toward the doors behind her. "It's hot in there." At this, she pointed at her chest.
"But I had to get out of there," the woman continued, still smiling as she pointed back to the doors, "because the couple using the jungle room were going at it like ... well, like animals. I figured I'd give them some privacy until they were ready to start the ceremony."
Bradley didn't quite know what to say to that, which was just as well since whatever response he might have come up with would have been interrupted when the doors behind them flew open with a crash of metal against glass. Bradley was astonished to see his mother come flying out the doors with a frantic look on her typically calm face.
Harriet Nelson didn't even pause for a second upon seeing her son standing in the middle of the sidewalk talking to a woman in a gorilla suit. Instead, she yelled, "Follow me. We've got to get out of here," and took off running down the sidewalk.
Bradley hesitated, but only until he saw a man stop just inside the doors behind them to pull a gun out from under his suit jacket. Grabbing the woman's arm, he said, "Come on."
She grabbed the head of her gorilla suit and followed him at a dead run. They'd only gone about half a block when Bradley saw his mother waving at them from inside the motor home she'd so proudly bought two years ago when she'd retired from the IRS. The engine was running, and her foot was poised over the gas pedal.
"Get in," Harriet ordered, already starting to maneuver the behemoth vehicle out into traffic.
Bradley pulled the gorilla woman into the Winnebago behind him just as his mother pulled away from the curb. The woman's foot slipped on the step as his mother jerked into traffic, and the fur went flying. Bradley tripped over the passenger seat and the momentum of the woman in the monkeysuit sent him toppling to the carpeted floor of the motor home. The woman landed full on top of him, the gorilla head she was holding in her left hand narrowly missing his head as it slammed to the floor beside him.
"I'm so sorry," the woman said softly, her voice carrying the remnants of a syrupy drawl that made Bradley think of magnolia trees and sweet tea and hot, humid nights full of chirping crickets and promise. He looked up into her pretty blue eyes and almost forgot how they had landed themselves in this position.
"Don't worry about it, darlin'," he said, helping her into a sitting position. "Having a pretty girl fall into my lap is a cause for celebration, not apology." Bradley smiled, expecting the woman to blush or at least smile back at him. Instead, she cocked her head and stared at him with an expression he couldn't read.
"You two better get buckled in," Harriet said from the driver's seat, reminding Bradley that he had no idea what they were doing speeding through the streets of Reno in a Winnebago.
Using the passenger seat to pull himself up off the floor, Bradley stood and held a hand out to the woman on the floor. She took his hand and staggered a bit with the jerky motions of the motor home. Bradley stepped aside and motioned for her to take the passenger seat. Then he turned to his mother and asked, "So, would you like to tell me what this is all about?"
Harriet didn't take her eyes off the road. Her compact body was huddled over the steering wheel, as if it were taking all her weight to keep the vehicle under control. Which it probably was, Bradley thought as his mother responded. "My boss is trying to kill me. That's what this is all about."
"I'm guessing he was the one with the gun?" Bradley asked.
"Yes, that's him."
"And is there any particular reason he's trying to kill you?"
His mother looked up at him then, as if deciding how much of the truth to tell. Then she yelled, "Hold on!"
Bradley clutched the back of the driver's seat as the Winnebago screeched around a corner, banging back down on all its wheels as his mother straightened out the steering wheel.
"Excuse me," the woman in the passenger seat said, as if they were on their way to a tea party instead of barreling through Reno, being chased by his mother's murderous employer. "Where are we going?"
"I don't know," Harriet answered. "I've only lived here for a few months. Do you know where we can hide this RV?"
The woman in the gorilla suit was quiet for a moment. "Yes, I think I have an idea. Take a right up here at the next light."
"Mother," Bradley began, sitting down on the floor with his back braced against the wall.
"Just a minute, dear. I've got my hands full just now," Harriet said as a shot rang out. It shattered the window next to the passenger seat, making the woman in the gorilla suit gasp and throw herself into the tight space on the floor in front of the seat.
"Turn left up ahead on Riverside," Gorilla Girl said, still hunched down on the floor. "There's an RV park about a quarter of a mile up the road. You're going to have to stop at the gate, though."
"Hmm," Harriet said, taking the left turn as fast as she could. Bradley heard the horns of several angry drivers, but didn't poke his head up to see what havoc his mother was wreaking in her wake.
"Maybe ..." The woman ducked unnecessarily as a second shot came whistling through the already broken passenger-side window.
"Maybe what, dear?" Bradley's mother prodded calmly, as if she dodged bullets every day.
"Maybe we could call ahead and tell the person at thesecurity gate that our brakes are failing and that we need him to lift the gate for us. If he shuts it behind us, we might just be able to pull this off."
"Good thinking," Harriet said. "Bradley, do you have your cell phone? I can't reach mine."
Bradley looked from his mother to the woman in the gorilla suit and back, feeling as if he'd been pushed off Robyn's tour bus and into some alternate universe. He was riding in a Winnebago with his mother and a gorilla, being shot at by some lunatic. How in the world had this happened?
"Bradley?" his mother asked. "Do you have your cell phone or not?"
Blinking rapidly, Bradley pulled his phone out of his back pocket. "What's the name of this place?" he asked the gorilla.
"Happy Days, I think," the woman answered.
Bradley dialed information and was connected at no additional charge to the Happy Days RV Park in Reno, Nevada. He told the guard at the gate the story the woman had concocted, and was relieved when the man agreed to open the gate for them.
"He said to pull straight through," Bradley told his mother as he hung up his phone. "They have an uphill drive that he says will slow you down."
Harriet nodded and pushed her foot down on the accelerator when the neon sign for the RV park came into view.
"Don't slow down when we get into the park," the woman in the gorilla suit said. "Keep heading toward the river. It's a Friday, so there should be quite a few weekend travelers camped down by the water. If you pull in next to the rest of the motor homes, you might be able to fool your boss."
"Good idea. Roll down your window so he won't see the bullet holes ... um, I'm sorry. I didn't catch your name," Bradley said.
"Delphine. Delphine Armstrong."
"Pleased to meet you, Delphine. I'm Bradley Nelson andthis is my mother, Harriet," Bradley said politely, despite the strange circumstances.
"Yes, your mother and I met yesterday in the employee lunchroom. It was my first day on the job," Delphine added.
"Oh, well, good," Bradley said. "Look, we need to hide your gorilla suit. I'm not sure if Mom's boss saw you in it or not, but it's better if we don't take that chance."
"Here's the turn. Hold on, everyone," Harriet warned.
Bradley braced himself between the driver's seat and the base of the small dining booth as his mother took the sharp curve. Delphine's gorilla head was not so well braced, however. It flew out of the passenger seat and rolled across the floor, hitting him about mid-thigh.
"Sorry about that," Delphine said once the motor home had straightened out. "I guess I lost my head."
Bradley pushed himself up off the floor, laughing at her lame attempt at humor. "That's all right. Why don't you unzip the rest of your costume and I'll hide it somewhere?" He paused. "You are wearing something underneath that monkey suit, aren't you?"
"Yes, of course," Delphine answered, attempting to stand up while the Winnebago swayed from side to side. Holding on to the back of her seat, she awkwardly tugged on the zipper. Bradley put a steadying hand on her fur-padded shoulder, the gorilla head resting between his feet. He helped her peel the heavy suit off as the motor home lumbered toward the river. He still had no idea what sort of trouble his mother was in, but now didn't seem the right time to ask for details. Once his mother's boss was gone, they'd have plenty of time to see what sort of mess Harriet had landed them in.
Bradley tried to be a gentleman while Delphine stripped off her monkey suit. Really, he did. However, he couldn't help but notice the smooth expanse of skin that was exposed when she tugged the suit down over her legs, or the hint of a sturdy white bra that flashed him as she pulled her arm out of the suit, her clean but well-worn T-shirt refusing to remainin place. Finally, she stood in front of him, the metamorphosis complete, and Bradley was surprised to find himself thinking that she was one hell of an attractive woman.
"Aren't you going to hide that?" she asked, startling him out of his appreciative reverie.
"Oh, yes. Sorry," he apologized sheepishly before hauling her costume to the rear of the motor home. The closets in the bedroom were both full of his mother's stuff, so Bradley yanked open the door to the postage-stamp-sized bathroom and dumped the suit into the tiny shower stall. Then he closed the door and headed toward the front of the motor home, just in time to grab the edge of a kitchen counter when his mother spun the Winnebago to a halt alongside several dozen other motor homes.
As soon as the wheels stopped turning, Bradley went to work. "Mom, you need to hide yourself in case your boss comes looking for us. Do you have a screwdriver?"
"Now's not the time for a drink, Bradley," his mother admonished.
"Not that kind of screwdriver," Bradley said, rolling his eyes heavenward. God knew he could use a drink after all that had happened to him this morning, but he had more important things to do just now. "I need to get rid of your license plate. Your boss followed us long enough to see your New Jersey plates, and I want to make it at least a little harder for him to find us."
"Oh, well, that's very bright of you, dear. All of my tools are in the storage area below the motor home, but I keep that space locked up tight."
Bradley resisted the urge to sigh. "Okay. What about a knife, then?" he asked, already yanking open drawers.
His mother wafted past him on a cloud of Enjoli perfume, pulled open the top drawer next to the stove, and handed him a butter knife. Then she said, "I'll be in the closet if you need me," turned, and walked away.
"Do you need some help?" Delphine asked, looking moreeager than he would have expected a stranger in this situation to look under the circumstances.
"I don't think so. I'll be back in a minute," Bradley said before heading outside to take care of the license plates.
He walked cautiously around the back of the motor home, looking around at the other campsites, full of brightly colored toys and barbecues and recreational vehicles. He had no idea why his mother had decided to buy an RV when she retired. It was certainly not something they'd ever done when Bradley was growing up back in Jersey. On the contrary, his roots were about as far from roughing it as they could possibly get. The great outdoors was one giant mystery to him ... but that was his own closely guarded secret. After all, it was hard to pretend to be a good ol' country boy when he knew more about computers than camping.
He crouched down and worked at the screws holding the license plate in place. The second screw stuck a bit, but Bradley soon had it loose. He looked around for a place to stash the thin slab of metal, and ended up burying it under a layer of dust behind the right rear wheel. Then, knowing he couldn't just leave the space empty, he looked around at the other RVs to see if he could find a plate to borrow.
When he saw a motor home with plates on the front as well as the back, he glanced to the left and right to make sure no one was watching and quickly went to work. He had the plate undone and was just standing up when a loud group of kids came around a curve in the road. Bradley nonchalantly stuck the warm license plate into the waistband at the back of his jeans and sidled around the edge of the other motor home. Just before he stepped out of sight, a big black car came roaring up behind the kids and honked its horn. Bradley guessed that the group was mostly teenagers when they refused to get out of the vehicle's way, a tactic that Bradley silently thanked them for, since he figured the driver of the black car was his mother's boss.
Ducking between RVs, Bradley raced to the back of theWinnebago and slipped the license plate into place. He fumbled with the butter knife, dropping one of the screws into the dirt in his haste. The group of teens was almost to his mother's RV now, and Bradley knew he didn't have much time to waste getting back inside. There were no other adults around, and he didn't want to be hovering around looking suspicious when the black car passed by.
Only, when the kids passed, the black car wasn't following them anymore, Bradley noticed, poking his head around the side of the Winnebago.
"Damn," he muttered. The driver must have parked the car and gone looking for Harriet on foot.
Bradley crouched down, trying to see if he could spot anyone between the motor homes. He spied a set of Italian loafers beside the RV next to them and made his move, racing to the door of his mother's vehicle.
The door flew open just as he reached the bottom step, nearly knocking him backward into the dirt. "Get in," Delphine whispered, grabbing the front of his black T-shirt. "He's right next door."
"I know," Bradley whispered back as he let her pull him inside.
"I'm sorry," Delphine apologized.
"This," she said, then stunned him by yanking her shirt over her head, pushing him up against the stove, and pressing her body against his. Bradley was too shocked to move. Fortunately, Delphine seemed to know what she was doing as she threaded her fingers through his hair and pulled his lips down to meet hers.
The second their lips met, instinct took over. Bradley splayed one hand across the small of Delphine's back, her skin warm and smooth beneath his fingers. He shifted his legs farther apart to settle her comfortably between them and used his other hand to free her hair from its ponytail.The scent of stale fur was overpowered by the clean smell of whatever shampoo she had used that morning.
Bradley moved his hand down to trace circles in the skin under her ear. When Delphine sighed and pressed closer to him, he sucked gently on her bottom lip, teasing her mouth to open under his. He felt the cool metal of the stove behind him when Delphine pulled his T-shirt from the waistband of his jeans, then felt the heat of her hands on his waist. Pressing his hips to hers, he silently urged her to do more than just tickle the skin of his back.
He blinked when, instead, she pulled back and murmured, "Do you think he's gone?"
"He who?" Bradley asked.
Delphine licked her lips, and Bradley was tempted to kiss her again until she said, "Your mother's boss."
Bradley did his best to act as if he'd just been playing along the whole time. "Oh, right." He looked up, trying not to stare at the swell of Delphine's small but quite adequate breasts. "I don't see anyone outside. But maybe we should give it a few more minutes," he suggested.
"I think we're safe," Harriet called out from the back room, dashing Bradley's hope that he and Delphine could go back to what they had been doing a few seconds ago. "I saw Dickie look through the back windows and move on."
Bradley leaned down and picked up Delphine's shirt from where she had hastily tossed it on the floor. Shielding her from his mother's view, he pulled the garment right side out and gently, but with great reluctance, held it up for her to slip her arms into. When she was all tucked in, he made his way to the back of the motor home and sat on the edge of the bed, propping one black snakeskin cowboy boot up against the faux cedar-paneled wall.
"All right, Mother. What's going on here? And who is this Dickie character?"
Delphine came into the room and slid the curtains closedbefore taking a seat on the bed a short distance from Bradley. She looked up and smiled at him, and Bradley found himself smiling back. She was awfully attractive, with her long hair and sparkling eyes and small-town charm, and, in a flash, Bradley realized that Delphine Armstrong fit his image of the perfect country girl--the kind of woman who baked cookies for the local bake sales, went to church every Sunday, and brought casseroles to her sick neighbors.
"Dickie is my boss," Harriet answered, interrupting Bradley's thoughts. "And he was the one who was chasing us. I think he's the one who's deepest into this whole mess." Harriet peered cautiously into the crack between the pink flowered curtains as she spoke.
Bradley raised a hand to push his hat back on his head, but realized it must have fallen off at some point in their wild ride. He looked out of the cramped bedroom, saw his hat wedged up against the side of the passenger seat, and decided to leave it there for the moment. "Deepest into what mess?"
Harriet sat down on the edge of the bed. "The scheme to defraud the taxpayers. My boss Dickie Swanson and his friends are underreporting their income to the United States government. I knew something was wrong the first week I started working at the casino, but it took me a good two months to figure out how they were doing it. They were really pretty smart about it," she added, sounding surprised.
"But that doesn't explain why they were after you," Bradley said, wishing he'd just let Robyn drive straight through to Vegas instead of insisting they stop to visit his mother on their way. Sure, Robyn probably still would have dumped him, but at least he wouldn't be stuck right in the middle of another one of his mother's crazy situations. He supposed this was why he'd always gotten along so well with Robyn's sister, Kylie. Kylie was the only person he knew who could get herself into a mess faster than his mother could. And Bradley had grown up being Harriet'sstraight man--always ready to lend a hand with her kooky schemes. He had hoped that her retirement from the IRS would settle his mother down, but this latest fiasco proved that hope was as dead as a prize turkey on Thanksgiving morning, Bradley thought, crossing one snakeskin-clad ankle over the other. Since she'd bought this motor home and started driving across the country, taking jobs whenever something in the local want ads struck her fancy, her fiasco ratio was just as high as ever.
Harriet picked up a corner of the bedspread and proceeded to fiddle with the lacy edge. "They're after me because they think I have something of theirs," she said, not meeting her son's gaze.
Bradley raised his eyes heavenward, noting the yellowed water stain on the ceiling. "And why would they think that?"
There was a long silence, which made Bradley uncross his ankles and sit up straighter. "Mother? Why would they think that?"
"Well, because maybe I do," she said. Her lips were set in a stubborn, red-lipsticked line. Bradley knew that face. It was her "I'm right and the rest of the world is wrong" face, the same one she got when she tried to explain why the tax rules made perfect sense if you just thought them through. In all her years as an IRS auditor, she had never once even questioned whether the tax code might be unfair or even the tiniest bit too complicated.
He almost dreaded asking the next question, but he knew he had to. "What do they think you might have?"
Harriet stretched the lacy bedspread out and let it fall back to the mattress. Then she stood up. And sat back down again.
"What do they think you have, Mother?" Bradley asked again. "Poker chips? An extra roll of quarters? A handful of free-drink coupons?" He stood and leaned against the bedroom wall, propping one booted foot up against the cardboard-thin wall. Delphine sat on the edge of the bed,listening intently to their conversation, and Bradley tried to ignore her presence, tried to stay focused on his mother and whatever crazy story she was about to concoct, but it wasn't easy. There was something about Delphine Armstrong that pulled at him, made him want to sit down next to her and tell her all his secrets.
Bradley was so busy thinking about his reaction to Delphine that he almost missed his mother's response.
Almost, but not quite.
And when what she had said sank in, Bradley found himself sliding down the wall. He crouched there on the floor, his boots almost touching the toes of Delphine's tennis shoes. From down here, he could see the stunned expression in her blue eyes--an expression he was certain was mirrored in his own eyes.
"What did you say?" he asked his mother, without turning his head.
Harriet cleared her throat. "I said, they think I took three million dollars that belongs to them."
"Are they right?" Bradley asked, still watching Delphine.
He heard his mother get up and start to pace in the corner of the bedroom. Both he and Delphine turned to look at her when she sighed loudly.
"Yes," Harriet said. "I suppose they are."
Copyright © 2004 by Beverly Brandt.