Stella knew from experience that Roy Dean Shaw wasn’t a particularly brave young buck. But then, the ones who smacked their women around rarely were.
Hunting him down was going to consume a sizable chunk of her day off, and Stella was plenty annoyed. She only took Sundays and Tuesdays off from the sewing machine shop, and lately her sideline business was eating into her free time. Today, for instance, she’d had to cancel an appointment down at Hair Lines—cut and color—for the second time, and she hadn’t done laundry all week.
It didn’t help Stella’s mood any that menopause had kicked into high gear now that her fiftieth birthday had come and gone. If widowhood had given Stella license to explore her authentic self, menopause stood under the window yelling at the bitch to come out and rumble. She felt like biting the heads off kittens—though that might actually be an asset today, given the talk she needed to have with Roy Dean.
A month ago, shortly after their first meeting, Roy Dean had called to give her his new address. It was one of the rules: all of her parolees were required to inform her of any change in their personal information. Besides address and phone number, they were required to report all their income sources and what they did in their leisure time and, most important, any new relationships with the fairer sex.
Reporting back to Stella was not optional, but her parolees were usually anxious to comply. First meetings with Stella tended to have that effect.
Second meetings—if a parolee was dim-witted enough to require one—put any lingering doubts to rest.
Stella wasn’t bound by all the bureaucratic red tape that real parole officers had to wade through. She didn’t have to fill out paperwork. She didn’t report to a boss. She didn’t have to appear in court. And she could make the parolees tell her any damn thing she wanted to know.
She couldn’t, however, always make them tell the truth. Stella had no doubt that the address Roy Dean had given her, on Cedar Street in Harrisonville, existed. She’d even lay odds that Roy Dean or one of his relatives had lived there at some point.
But a punk like Roy Dean would never give her a fact if he could spin her some fiction instead. It was in his blood.
After a late breakfast of Pop-Tarts slathered with peanut butter, Stella made a half hearted effort to get the laundry started, and paid a few bills from the bottom of the stack. Then she set out to track down Roy Dean.
She found a lead an hour later in a dank and yeasty booth in the back of the High Timer. The place was little more than a squat shed at the intersection of a couple of farm roads five miles out of town, but it was popular with local bikers, and Jelloman Nunn was exactly where she thought he’d be, enjoying a lunch of Polish sausages sizzled in the deep fryer and a mug of Busch. Jelloman was happy to see her, folding her into a hug that mashed her face against his greasy leather vest and tickled her forehead with his long, scratchy gray beard.
He was even happier to tell her what he knew. Jelloman, it turned out, had been to Roy Dean’s new place to extract payment for some weed, and Roy Dean had been sufficiently reluctant to pay up that Jelloman was irritated. So he made sure to give Stella fine, detailed directions. There were a lot of turns at landmarks like “the busted-up Esso station” and “a refrigerator somebody dumped”; Stella copied these carefully into her case notebook, which she then accidentally set down into a pool of spilled beer and had to dry off with a borrowed bar rag.
Her notebook was in sorry shape already, with a big coffee stain on the current page, and tomato sauce gluing several of the previous pages together. The tendency of her working papers to meet with misfortune dictated that every new case got its own notebook. Stella liked to pick them up in the school supplies aisle at the Wal-Mart when they went on sale. This particular one had a Happy Bunny logo and “It’s all about me. Deal with it” written on the front.
Todd Groffe, the thirteen-year-old boy who lived two doors down and spent most of his free time finding new ways to be a pain in the butt, had informed Stella that Happy Bunny was over, a dead trend. Probably why the notebook was in the half-off bin at Wal-Mart. Luckily, Stella didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about trends. “It’s all about me”? That tickled her plenty—maybe she ought to tattoo it on her arm or something.
Stella tossed some money on the bar to cover Jelloman’s lunch, and endured another boozy squeeze and a loud kiss on her ear. Back in her Jeep, Stella laid the notebook out on the passenger seat to dry, and tore out of the bar’s dirt parking lot fast enough to spin gravel.
Nothing like a drive in the country to settle a person’s spirits.
Stella’s Jeep, a sweet little green Liberty with chrome aluminum wheels and a sunroof, had been her husband Ollie’s pride and joy. He bought it new less than four months before he died and never let Stella drive it once. Ollie said she didn’t know how to handle a car that sat up off the road like that, so she kept driving the crappy little old Neon that Ollie himself had creased along a guardrail after a few too many beers coming home from a fishing trip.
Once Ollie was gone, Stella sold the Neon to a neighbor’s teenage daughter for a few hundred bucks and drove that Jeep like it had fire in the wheel wells. It never failed to light her up to take it out on the highway, with her favorite music cranked, rural Missouri flying by outside the windows.
“Love is like a cloud holds a lot of rain,” Emmy Lou sang as Stella drove, and she hummed along. There was just nothing in the world like old Emmy Lou’s drank-me-some-razor-bladesalong-with-my-whiskey voice to smooth out Stella’s own rough edges and ruffled feathers.
And today was turning out to be that kind of day. It wasn’t just the hot flashes and the mood swings, either. Stella wasn’t anybody’s poster child for the Serenity Prayer on her best day, but thinking about Roy Dean’s pretty wife Chrissy sitting in her living room trying not to cry, wearing long sleeves on a hot day to cover up the evidence of her husband’s displeasure—well, that just made Stella’s heart hurt.
Emmy Lou launched into “Sweet Old World.” Stella sang along, squeaking on the high notes. Emmy Lou had no trouble taking her alto voice up into soprano territory, but Stella’s own voice hunkered somewhere south. “Not much of a range” was how her junior high choir teacher put it, before making Stella a prompter, her only job to stand in the wings holding up cards during the performances. Well, screw Mrs. Goshen—Stella figured she’d sing any old damn time she wanted now.
Somebody so warm cradled in your arm
Didn’t you think you were worth anything
Stella drove past fields bright with late-spring corn, the plants not much more than ankle high, and tried to get her thoughts in order. Worrying about things that were out of your control was a waste of time on a good day, but when you were on your way to meet the kind of trouble that was probably armed and definitely dumb, it was an especially bad idea. Clear thinking, that’s what was called for.
Stella eventually found the road. A mile of cracked asphalt and weeds gave over to gravel and finally to a pair of uneven ruts that caused the Jeep to bump and lurch.
Roy Dean’s trailer hideout was down at the end of the rutted dirt road, close enough to a buggy, brackish little cove of the lake to smell the water, if not see it. Not exactly prime real estate. On the other hand, not a bad spot to hang your hat if you were hoping to avoid encounters with folks you’d rather not see, like the law, for instance, or that crazy bitch from hell your wife sicced on you.
For kicks, Stella gave the Jeep a little extra gas and held on tight, flying over the hillocks and shallows of the road until she landed on the patch of cleared earth. She hit the brakes and spun in the dirt as she pulled up in front of the trailer and turned off the ignition.
It was worse than she’d expected. The trailer seemed to be leaning on its foundations. The wood lattice that someone had nailed around the bottom had come loose, and pieces of it lay in the weeds. The siding had once been white, but that was a distant memory; rusty streaks leaked down from all the seams. One of the windows had been boarded with a sheet of plywood, but that too had separated from its moorings and hung by a single nail.
Parked next to the trailer was a truck Stella recognized, having recently followed Roy Dean so they could have their first conversation. Last time she saw the truck, it had been parked in front of a liquor store at eleven thirty on a Monday night. Like Roy Dean, the truck was hard on the eyes and didn’t look very reliable, with its dented tailgate and rust spots and low-hanging tailpipe.
Stella didn’t plan on needing it, but she got a gun out of the locked steel box bolted to the floor of the Jeep, just in case. There were currently two weapons in the box: her dad’s old Ruger .357 flat-top, and a cheap little Raven .25 semi-auto that she’d picked up on a trip to Kansas City six months back, when she’d tracked down a missing high school principal. The asshole had cleaned out his bank accounts and left his wife to face eviction while he moved into his waitress girlfriend’s apartment in Blue Hills. The gun was a little bonus that Stella had taken off the guy, along with a tall stack of cash he’d kept in the kitchen cabinets, and his wife’s good jewelry. Stella felt sorry enough for the girlfriend to give her back some of the cash before breaking a couple of the man’s fingers and working out a payment plan. The ex-principal, now a Best Buy salesman, sent his ex a tidy little sum every month.
Stella made sure.
For today’s visit with Roy Dean, she chose the Raven. She checked the magazine and chambered an extra round, then slid back the safety. The gun was a little short on firepower—it wouldn’t drop someone the size of Jelloman, for instance, barring one hell of a lucky shot—but Stella liked it for little jobs where the power of suggestion was her main weapon.
As she stepped out of the Jeep’s lovely air conditioning, heat and humidity hit her like a warm wet washcloth full of buckshot. Stella took a minute to stretch and peeled her shorts away from her thighs before crossing the dirt yard. She rapped her knuckles on the door and waited. There was something about the front doors on trailers; they never seemed to fit snug in their frames, so you always got a rattle when you knocked. That alone would keep Stella from ever living in one. That and the old twister problem—one tornado out for a joyride and you were history.
Stella heard movement inside the trailer. Banging around and cursing, mostly. After a few minutes of that, the door popped open an inch; a bloodshot eye peered out and then the door promptly slammed shut again.
Stella sighed and put her weight on the hip that didn’t cause her trouble, and settled in for a wait. This wasn’t the first time she’d had to roust someone from a trailer, and there wasn’t a whole lot to it, once you took a moment to assess the particulars of the situation. She’d already seen that the rear of the trailer backed up against a brambly thicket of bush honeysuckle, so if Roy Dean hauled his skinny ass out of a window or door on the back side, he’d have to make his way along the side of the trailer, battling the shrubs the whole way, and come out one side or the other. If he picked a window on the front side, he’d be stuck wrassling his way out for a few moments. Either way, shooting into the dirt at his feet ought to do the trick.
Minutes ticked by, and still Roy Dean didn’t appear. Stella heard the sound of heavy objects being pushed around. Incredulous, she demanded, “Roy Dean, you aren’t trying to barricade yourself in there, are you?”
There was a pause, a few moments of silence. Stella could almost picture Roy Dean knitting those scraggly eyebrows together, pursing his lips and thinking hard—as hard as he could, at any rate.
“Well … what if I am?” he finally said, his voice muffled and echoey inside the trailer. “What are you gonna do about it?”
Stella couldn’t believe it—the little asswipe was still mouthing off to her. After all the effort she’d put in. After laying it all out for him—with extra care, given his evident slow-wittedness—and explaining both what he’d done to get her attention and what the consequences would be of any further mischief. It was bad enough that she’d got the call about him yesterday—one of her sources said she had spotted a fella that looked an awful lot like Roy Dean at the concession stand of the Latham County Speedway, pulling on the long blond ponytail of his companion hard enough that she was crying and trying to get away, while he just laughed—but to give Stella lip? When she’d driven all this way? On her day off?
Stella sighed again and leveled the little Raven about two feet to the right of where she figured Roy Dean to be. She thought about the calendar sitting on her kitchen counter, with its pastel flower borders and its encouraging sayings, and she realized that she was no longer a member of its target audience.
“Fuck serenity,” she said, and shot the trailer.
She wasn’t sure whether the bullet would make it through—no telling what-all they used to line the walls of these things—but judging by Roy Dean’s startled yelp and the string of cursing that ensued, the shot had apparently made an impression.
“I’m shooting out the windows next,” she called, just to speed things along.
Sounds of the heavy objects being pushed out of the way were followed by the door being flung open and there stood Roy Dean in all his glory, sweating and panting hard, grimy boxer shorts hanging off his bony hips, a filthy white tank top leaving most of his pale chest exposed.
“Shit, Miz Hardesty, cut it out. Okay? Look, I’m invitin’ you into my home, you don’t need to go shootin’ no more.”
Stella lowered her gun hand to her side and let the Raven hang there casually. She could go from full dangle to aimed and ready to shoot in about a tenth of a second. That was a trick she’d worked on most of last winter when business was slow at the shop—sitting on her stool behind the cash register and practicing her draw, tucking the gun into the drawer when the bell at the door signaled a customer’s arrival.
She’d also taught herself to spin the thing on her finger just like Gary Cooper in High Noon, but that trick was strictly for her own enjoyment. She didn’t mind having a little flair, but she wasn’t an idiot: guns, after all, were serious business.
“You got any coffee on?” she asked as she shouldered her way past Roy Dean. Inside it didn’t smell any too fresh, and the dining table and chairs were all bunched together to the side. Presumably they had been part of the barricade that Roy Dean had been erecting to keep her out.
Roy Dean snorted, but as he circled the tiny kitchen he kept to the edges, his eye on her gun hand. Good. She liked them scared.
“It’s almost one,” he said. “Who the hell drinks coffee in the afternoon?”
“Me, as a matter of fact. But I guess I’d settle for a Coke.”
“All’s I got is beer. Coors or Coors Light.”
“Coors Light, huh? You wouldn’t be entertaining any ladies, now, would you, Roy Dean?”
“What? No, I, uh, I ain’t gone anywhere near Chrissy.”
“Can it, lover boy. Make no mistake, if you so much as look at Chrissy crosswise I’ll know before you have time to scratch your balls. And then I’ll, you know, probably come around and shoot ’em off or something.”
Roy Dean’s face darkened like a Fourth of July thunderstorm, and he leaned back against the Formica counter. The boy’s knees were probably feeling a little wobbly, if Stella had to guess. She suppressed a smile.
“I’m through with her,” he snapped. “I tol’ you that.”
“Yeah, you did, but if I recall we were kind of far along the convincing path before you managed to choke that promise out.”
Stella had been surprised that Roy Dean had lasted as long as he had on the day she taught him a lesson. Some guys folded before she even got started—especially the ones who had heard the rumors about Stella being an insane dominatrix. When she started unpacking her bag of toys, some men turned into blubbering masses of terror, ready to talk sense without much exertion on Stella’s part.
Early in her justice-delivering career, the thought of being suspected of favoring kinky sexual practices was intensely embarrassing, especially since the source of the rumors came about for only the most practical reasons. Being five feet six, overweight, and out of shape, Stella had managed to pull a muscle in her lower back the first time she tied up a recalcitrant jerk at gunpoint. She almost shot him by accident as she staggered around, yelping in pain. There was also the fact that the knottying skills she learned in Girl Scouts weren’t up to the task: the same guy, as Stella waved the gun around wildly, managed to get his wrists free. It was only slightly reassuring that he immediately fell over as he tried to run away, having forgotten that his ankles were still bound.
Stella realized she had to make some changes. She started a fitness program, but she knew she also needed to find a more reliable way to subdue a man. She had a vague notion of learning some paramilitary restraint techniques that might rely more on finesse than brute force, but Google searches for words like restraint and shackle kept popping up bondage sites.
Stella had never seen anything like the photos featured on those sites. The gear was fascinating, in a creepy kind of way. In the photos, lovely young ladies looked quite pleased to be trussed up like roasts ready to go in the oven. That’s when she had an inspiration: why not try the same thing on her targets and see if it got them under control?
Stella’s first purchase was a spreader bar and a yoke, which worked out better than she could have hoped. The solid metal bar had restraint cuffs at either end; once fastened they kept the legs in a spread-eagle position. Stella didn’t skimp: she went for the most expensive model she could find and made arrangements with the vendor to bulk up the padded cuffs with an extra-sturdy locking mechanism.
The yoke worked in a similar fashion. The bar had padding at the neck and wrist restraints. Stella had to fasten these herself, but generally by the time the object of her attentions had maneuvered himself into the spreader bar, a lot of the fight had gone out of him.
For a while Stella had her eye on a custom-made Saint Andrew’s cross, an arrangement of two-by-sixes that could be bolted onto the wall, with rings for restraining purposes in a variety of positions. It was well made, finished in a choice of mahogany or natural stains, by a very nice man in Ohio, who offered to drive over and install it himself.
At that point, however, Stella figured she was going a little overboard. All she really needed, after all, was to get these guys settled down enough to have a rational discussion.
Sometimes the discussion was a little one-sided. Stella did not care to be yelled at or called names—she’d had enough of that with Ollie—so she bought a selection of gags with balls or bits or rings that fitted into the mouth and kept the wearer nice and silent. Efforts to talk usually just resulted in drooling, so Stella bought a stack of cheap burp cloths at the Babies-R-Us and added them to her kit.
Roy Dean had required the full treatment. He’d shut up briefly when Stella rose up off the floor of the passenger side of his truck in the darkened liquor store parking lot, aimed a gun at his temple, and told him they were going for a drive. Stella kept the gun on him all the way out to an abandoned barn she sometimes used, but Roy Dean kept up a string of ugliness as he drove. He kept hollering right up to the moment when Stella strapped the gag behind his head, and then he glared at her malevolently and fought against the bars and restraints. It took some work with a length of rubber hose and a hammer handle, and a brief poke with the electric shock baton, until she finally judged Roy Dean rehabilitated.
When she finished up with these guys, she had a little speech she delivered while packing up her supplies. In it, she reminded the man she was about to send back into society that if anything bad were to happen to her, there was an evergrowing army of women who owed her, and who were willing to pursue vengeance on her behalf; women who, like her, had once had very little to lose, and therefore viewed the whole risk-and-return equation somewhat differently than the average person.
Some righteous scary bitches, in other words.
Roy Dean seemed like he got the message, but not even a month later here he was making a new woman cry. Stella was pretty sure it hadn’t gone any further, but she was worried that Roy Dean was the sort of woman-smacker who truly believed down in his bones that it was his God-given right to settle every disagreement with force, that it was a woman’s job to absorb a man’s disappointments and frustrations in the form of taunts and put-downs and thrown punches.
Sadly, this was the type who was most likely to pick up again where he left off with some other poor woman. Which was why Stella was here today. Without proof of the incident at the speedway, she’d limit today’s visit to a warning, but it would be Roy Dean’s last before she dialed up their next encounter to a whole new level.
“You want a beer or not?” he demanded after starting half a dozen protestations and finally giving up.
“I don’t think so. Tell you what, let’s sit down and have this chat so I can get back on my way and you can get back to your knitting, or whatever it was you were doing when I interrupted.”
Roy Dean didn’t look too happy about it, but he lowered himself into one of the dinette chairs, never taking his eyes off Stella. She propped open the trailer’s front door, so as not to miss any small breeze that might happen to wander by. Roy Dean had the blinds down in the trailer, no doubt trying to keep the place cool, but without an air conditioner it was a losing proposition. Stella almost—for a fraction of a second—felt a little bit sorry for him.
The moment passed.
She sat down on the chair across from him and leaned her elbows on the table, resting her gun hand casually on the sticky surface.
“So you got you a new girl,” she said conversationally. “What’s her name?”
“She isn’t—I don’t got—”
“Aw, sugar, don’t try to keep secrets from Auntie Stella,” she said. “You know I’ll find out.”
Roy Dean stared at a nail-bitten thumb. “There ain’t anyone.”
“Mmm-hmm,” Stella said slowly. She let the silence stretch out in front of them, letting him cook in his own juices. Nervous wasn’t a bad way to keep these boys.
“Well, that’s real good,” she finally said, keeping her voice friendly. “I always say, it’s good to let a little time go by after a tough breakup. You know? You’ve got to give your heart a chance to recover. Who needs a rebound relationship, all that drama? Nothing but trouble. Am I right, Roy Dean, or am I right?”
Roy Dean shrugged and mumbled something that might have been assent.
“Hey, Roy Dean,” Stella said, like she’d just thought of something interesting. “I ever tell you about my returning customer special?”
Roy Dean froze for a moment, then slowly shook his head, still not looking at her.
“Well, it works like this. First time around, I look at a guy and I say to myself, ‘Stella, what are the odds we can make a decent citizen out of this moron who’s been beating up on his woman?’ I look him over good and I try to find it in my heart to give him another chance. I believe in second chances, I really do.”
After staring at his thumb miserably, the temptation evidently became too much for Roy Dean, because he stuck the thing into his mouth and started gnawing at the nail. Stella tried to suppress a wave of nausea at the sight.
“But if that same man—the one I gave a chance to, the one I didn’t nail when I had his dick in a vise—if that man gets a little full of himself and decides to pick up on his old tricks with a new lady … well, then I tend to lose all my patience.”
She leaned across the table and waited until Roy Dean flicked an increasingly terrified glance in her direction to continue. “Roy Dean, you know that tire pile out back of Vett’s body shop?”
Roy Dean took his thumb away from his mouth long enough to moisten his lips with his tongue and choke out a “yeah.”
“Well, a couple years ago, a man—a preacher, if you can believe it—came back for my returning customer special. He was smart enough not to bother his ex-wife, she and I made sure of that. But get this, he wasn’t smart enough to stay away from the lady who played the organ at the noon service. Moved her right in with him and everything. Now I’m not saying she was any kind of smart to hook up with him, but still, stupid ain’t a crime. Oh, I’m sorry, here I am babbling on, taking up all your valuable time … . What I mean to tell you is …”
She leaned even farther across the table, keeping her finger nice and easy on the trigger, though she was pretty sure she wouldn’t be needing it today, and whispered, “That preacher’s in about six pieces buried under that tire pile.”
She lowered herself slowly back onto the chair, gauging the effect her news had on Roy Dean. There was a fair amount of truth to the story—all of it, in fact, right up to the tire pile.
Stella didn’t kill the man, though. She had only one death on her hands, and she meant to keep it that way. Killing Ollie had been a case of special circumstances—she was pretty sure that when Judgment Day arrived and she was called for her audience with the Big Guy, He would understand.
Still, there were other ways to skin even the most stubborn tomcat. When the preacher took up his old ways on a new lady, Stella merely switched tactics.
Whenever a garden-variety restraint-and-reckoning first visit didn’t do the trick, Stella got creative. In this case, the preacher’s hypocrisy reminded her of a story she’d read in her English class at Prosper High School, and she slowly and carefully burned a scarlet A on the preacher’s chest with her electric prod.
If she remembered her lessons properly, poor Hester Prynne lettered in Adultery. The preacher, Stella figured, earned his for Assholism. But at least now he was a retired Asshole. Taking his shirt off was probably all a lady needed to see before she took off running.
Roy Dean left off his thumb mid-gnaw. The color drained from his face, and he blinked rapidly a few times.
“No’m,” he said, pure sincerity. “I’m off women, and if I ever take them up again, you can bet you won’t have no trouble from me.”
“She won’t have no trouble from you,” Stella clarified. “That’s what you meant, right?”
Roy Dean nodded and gulped air.
“Okay, good. Well, now, I’m glad we got that out of the way, but since I’m here I thought I’d ask about something a friend of mine saw down at the speedway.”
Stella watched carefully, especially Roy Dean’s eyes, tracking to see which way his glance darted, but he didn’t look up. “Well, I been there. Same’s about a million other folks. But I ain’t taken no woman there.”
Stella leaned back in the dinette chair, disappointed. The online criminology course she was taking from a college based in Idaho had offered up a bunch of theories about how to tell when somebody was lying. Apparently, liars looked down and to the left when they spoke. They also tended to touch their faces and turned their bodies away and showed emotions only in their mouth, not their eyes.
What a bunch of crap.
“Dang, Roy Dean,” Stella said. “I wish I could believe you. But I don’t, I just don’t. I mean, you’re all twitchy like—”
“You got a damn gun pointed at me!”
“Yes, I guess that’s right. Thing is, if I put it away in the truck, and come back in here all nice and friendly, it’s not going to be much of an incentive for you to say any different, is it?”
Roy Dean started to say something, then apparently realized the futility of the argument and just shrugged.
“Well, how about this,” Stella said, pushing back her chair and standing, giving her bum hip a shake. “You know I’m a friendly kind of person, right, Roy Dean? I got a lot of friends, all over the place. And not just in Prosper, either. They’re all over Missouri, and I got a few in Kansas and Arkansas … . I even got one gal all the way over in Ohio. And these nice friends of mine, if I ask them to keep a special watch out for you, maybe let me know how you’re doing, since I can’t really spend all my time babysitting—well, I’m sure they’ll be glad to keep me posted.”
Roy Dean’s chin hung lower, his lower lip jutting out.
You can run, Stella telegraphed with her expression, but you can’t hide. She stood and pushed her chair back in under the beat-up old table. “Roy Dean, you ever figure on getting a real job? You know, one with a paycheck? Benefits?”
Roy Dean’s spiky eyebrows rose up in surprise. “I done that, already, Stella. That’s what got me in this whole mess with you in the first place.”
“Really?” Stella paused at the door of the trailer, interested. “How’d you figure?”
“Well, when I was on at the Home Depot, I got this promotion, see? Thirty-five cents an hour, and Chrissy thinks suddenly we’re all moneybags, took herself over to Fashion Gal and bought her that leather jacket.”
“And this is a problem … how?” In truth, Stella figured she knew where this was headed, and felt her fingers tighten on the frame of the screen door.
“I tol’ her we couldn’t afford that! Bitch wouldn’t listen, started in on me about a few times I went out after work, while she just keeps spending my money, one fucking thing after the next—”
The Raven, as Stella raised it up and pointed at him, got his attention. Stella could feel just a faint tremor along her arm, down to her trigger finger. It would be a real shame to shoot Roy Dean by accident. And that’s what it would be, if she was provoked like that. An accident. But bad things happened every day.
“You listen to me real clear,” she hissed. “I know about that jacket. That’s the one Chrissy had on when she came to me the first time, ’cept she couldn’t get the sleeve over her sling. Roy Dean, you know what irony is?”
Roy Dean, eyes fixed on the gun, shook his head and swallowed hard.
“Well, it’s when the outcome of events isn’t what you’d guess from what all leads up to it. Like Chrissy, see, she told me she had been saving for that jacket since last fall. She said on double coupon day she’d take whatever she’d saved and put it in a jar, and finally she had enough to buy the jacket. Only the same day she buys it, she gets her arm broke and she can’t even wear it proper. See? Irony.”
Roy Dean fixed his gaze on the floor and refused to look at her. “Or another example might be us talking here,” Stella continued. “Getting everything all worked out, me spending my valuable time shaping you into a productive member of society and all, and then you say one stupid little thing and I have to shoot you dead. That would be ironic.”
She slowly lowered her gun arm, gave Roy Dean a final glare, and left.
She was still shaking a little as she bounced along the rutted track, pushing the Jeep harder than it cared to go, taking the turns fast enough that the wheels threatened to lift up off the road.
That jacket. That damn jacket. She’d listened to Chrissy’s tearful story with sympathetic fury, but only later did Stella figure out that it reminded her of something that had happened a week before she finally took care of Ollie once and for all.
It was an unremarkable Tuesday afternoon three years ago. She’d come home from the grocery with a bunch of daffodils. Jonquils, her mother had called them. Pat Collier used to grow them in every bare spot in her yard: under trees, along the fence, between rocks. Her mother was never happier than when the flower bulbs pushed their shoots up through the last of the snow, when the tight-rolled buds flung themselves open on a sunny early-spring day.
They had fresh-cut bunches for two bucks sitting in buckets of water outside the FreshWay, and Stella brought one home, thinking of her mother the entire time. Pat had been gone two years by then—pancreatic cancer, mercifully quick. As Stella was reaching up to the top shelf for her mother’s old white scallop-edged pitcher, Ollie came stomping into the kitchen, scratching his wide ass. He took one look at her flowers lying there on the counter and demanded, “Where the hell do you get off spending my money on shit like this?”
She’d started to tell him it was only two lousy dollars, started to say she’d been thinking about her mother that day, missing her, but before she could get any of those thoughts out, he’d taken a whack at her that sent her toppling off the step stool and left the pitcher lying in a dozen pieces on the floor.
By the time she got back to the highway, Stella had herself almost under control. She slowed as she approached the cluster of gas stations and fast-food joints before the entrance ramp, and after a split second’s consideration, eased into the drivethrough lane of the Wendy’s. Not on her diet, but she hadn’t missed a workout for weeks, so that had to be a few thousand calories she’d worked off.
As the line of cars made its slow trek around the parking lot, Stella got her gun locked back up in the box. By the time she got up to the order screen, her fury had simmered back down to its usual bubbling simmer.
“Number three,” she said. “And a chocolate Frosty. Better make it a large.”
Stella visited the bottle of Johnnie Walker Black before her date, just to make sure there was enough left for a powerful belt before bed. She unscrewed the top and inhaled—held it—then replaced the cap with a mild sense of regret. She was running low—and that was an errand she couldn’t put off. Johnnie was a staple item in Stella’s pantry.
But she never drank before her standing Sunday night date with Todd Groffe. It would be bad form, since he couldn’t join her, being thirteen and all.
Todd let himself in the front door without knocking at a little after seven. “Damn them damn girls,” he said by way of greeting.
“What’d they do this time?” Stella asked, getting a couple of cans of Red Bull out of the fridge and tearing open a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
“Got in my dresser and got my damn boxers and they’re wearin’ ’em around the house over their clothes and shit. And Mom thinks it’s cute so she won’t make them take ’em off. She’s all like taking their pictures and stuff.”
Todd’s twin sisters were six. Stella, like everyone else in the world besides Todd, thought they were adorable. Todd’s father wasn’t in the picture anymore, and his mother, Sherilee, worked long hours during the week and brought work home on the weekend. They lived in a little house a few doors down from Stella, and Sherilee had a hard time with the upkeep on the place, not to mention paying the mortgage.
But on Saturdays Sherilee got the girls a sitter and took Todd out on the town. Stella admired her for that. Sherilee took her son to Burger King, to action movies, to play paintball. They went to Wal-Mart and played laser tag and mini golf.
Sunday night it was the girls’ turn, and Todd came over to Stella’s. They shared a secret passion: they were both America’s Next Top Model junkies. Stella TiVoed the show, and she and Todd ate junk food and critiqued the outfits and the judging and tried to figure out who was really nice and who was just pretending to get along with the other girls. Meanwhile, Sherilee took the girls to Disney movies and Pizza Hut and Fantastic Sams and Sears.
Tonight, though, Stella had a hard time concentrating on Tyra and her crew as they shuttled the models through a photo shoot in what looked like a muddy jungle. Her thoughts kept going back to Roy Dean and his insolent, stupid expression as he denied that he was seeing a new girl.
She had a bad feeling about this one. He might turn out to be one of the ones who required creative thinking, a step up to an intensified program of discouragement.
Stella didn’t relish this aspect of the job—the turning of the screw, the dialing up of the pressure, the creation of new varieties and levels of pain. She understood that there were people in the world—plenty of them—who got their kicks from hurting others, who experienced a rush of pleasure to see other human beings contorted in agony. Heck, if she were to advertise for an assistant—someone to wield the whip or rubber hose or cattle prod or pliers or lit cigarette so she could keep her hands clean—she’d probably have applicants lined up out the door.
But her business didn’t work that way. Stella knew too much about pain—the kind inflicted on the innocent, the defenseless, those whose worst sins were bad judgment and displaced loyalty. And she’d pledged to stop it. Not every abuser, everywhere—there were simply too many. But if it was in her power to help a woman in Sawyer County, she did so. And gradually word reached sisters and cousins and best friends and acquaintances further afield, down through the Ozarks and up to Kansas City and over to Saint Louis and—as the months grew to years and Stella learned how to turn vicious and conscience-deficient men into cowering repenters—across state lines.
Stella picked off the sons-of-bitches one by one, leaving their women free to breathe easy, to live without dread as their constant companion. And now this sideline threatened to overtake her real job, the shop she’d inherited from Ollie, supplying the women of Prosper with sewing notions and keeping their sewing machines in good working order. Every time she thought she’d earned some time off, a new woman would show up, terrified or battered or both, but finally ready to make it stop. And Stella knew what kind of courage that took—and she never turned a client away.
Though she did daydream about the day when the world straightened itself out, when the last abuser met his doom and she could go back to selling sewing machines and thread and needles full-time. Keep her highlights fresh and her nails done. Work in the garden. Bake banana bread.
Go on an occasional date with a real man.
Todd yawned and zapped the TV off with the clicker. He grabbed a last handful of Cheetos and jammed them all in his mouth at once. While he was chewing, Stella collected the Red Bull cans and folded the crocheted afghans and brushed a few crumbs off the couch.
“See ya,” Todd said, wiping his orange fingers on his baggy shorts.
“Thank you very much for inviting me, Miz Hardesty,” Stella said.
“Yeah, whatever. Bye, Stella.”
Stella waited a few moments after Todd left, then eased the front door open and watched him skateboard down the street to his house, holding his helmet loosely by the strap, pushing off with his foot and leaping up onto the curb and back down with grace. She waited until he slipped into his own front door, using the key he wore on a shoelace around his neck, before she went back inside.
Just two doors down, but the world was a dangerous place. Anything could happen.
Good folks had to look out for one another.
One of the biggest rip-offs in the universe had to be when the pleasant buzz you took to bed with you at midnight turned itself into queasy can’t-sleep at 5 A.M. Where the hell did all that lovely sparkle go?
Stella had drained the Johnnie. She hadn’t really intended to, but some nights were like that. Some nights were for thinkin’ and drinkin’, when it seemed like you couldn’t do one without the other.
Stella rarely drank in the days before Ollie died. She’d figured that someone in the house ought to stay sober, and Ollie frequently wasn’t up to the job.
The Johnnie thing—she’d discovered Johnnie Walker Black a few weeks into her new life as a widow and was so grateful for the way it took the edge off that she started spending more and more time with the bottle. There was a stretch there, four or five months, that didn’t bear recalling—even if she could remember anything through the whiskey haze.
But these days her relationship with Johnnie was more measured. Once Stella took up exercise, jogging around the neighborhood and dragging Ollie’s barely used Bowflex out of storage, she didn’t need the alcohol-induced numbing as much. Just the nightly drink, or occasionally two … except for the rare night when two didn’t do the trick. When she needed an extra layer of fuzzy loveliness.
If only she could skip the early-morning sleeplessness that always followed.
In those pre-dawn hours Stella sometimes amused herself by imagining how she would do in the joint. It was luck more than anything that had kept the law from investigating her sideline business, but her luck couldn’t hold forever. Eventually, one of her parolees would decide to roll the dice and turn her in. Or the long arm of the law would somehow get wise enough to catch her in the act of rehabilitating a subject. Either way, questions would be asked. Leads would be followed. And when that happened, odds were good that Stella would be headed for jail.
Stella wasn’t sure she much cared. Life with Ollie had been worse than anything the prison system could dish out. Life without Ollie was better, but it was still lonely. Becoming a stone-cold enforcer had changed her, taking away any desire she’d ever had to play nice just to fit in. She called it like she saw it now. Cussed when she felt like it. Didn’t back down.
Jail didn’t scare Stella. With an assault conviction or two, she figured her reputation would precede her. Her nickname would be some variation on Hardesty, probably “Hard-ass.” Of course you didn’t get a handle like that for free; she’d probably have to shank somebody on the first day or something.
But then there was the matter of all the pairing-off that happened in women’s prison. She’d seen a TV documentary on the subject. Diane Sawyer, Stella’s favorite journalist, spent the night in jail, wearing a prison-issue jumpsuit to interview the inmates. Stella couldn’t believe how matter-of-fact the women were about their sex lives. And how creative, too, making sex toys out of bits of junk stolen here and there.
Unfortunately, Stella was pretty sure she didn’t have any latent lesbian tendencies, so all that prison action wouldn’t do her much good. It was a shame, too, because the documentary made it clear that even the homelier ladies had opportunities for love.
Stella was no beauty queen. Despite the hours she spent on the Bowflex, her muscles were still protected by a generous larding of extra pounds. Then there were the gray roots, the facial hair in odd places, the breasts heading to the equator.
But on TV she’d seen it with her own eyes: gals who didn’t have anything on her—hell, downright old, ugly gals with no access to a blow-dryer—enthusiastically reporting all the lovin’ they were getting. Diane didn’t back down, either. She listened with polite interest. She didn’t judge. Stella admired her for keeping her cool.
Diane, who made even prison duds look elegant, hadn’t seen fifty in a while herself, but she had a sort of mature sensuality that implied she’d done more in the sack than most people even dream about. She probably had mind-blowing sex five days a week.
Stella figured she might miss sex more if it had been any good when she had it.
Fucking Ollie. That thought, never far from her mind, and in a thousand different contexts, brought unexpected tears to Stella’s eyes as she lay there in the bed she’d once shared with him. This time, it was simply because he’d been such an incredibly worthless lay. All those years … all that bad sex. That wasn’t even in the top five reasons why he’d deserved what he got, but still, Stella found herself immensely sad to think of how many times she’d lain in this bed with Ollie laboring over her like a man stuffing fiberglass insulation between roof joists on a sweltering day.
Of course, it wasn’t like he had an overabundance of insulation to work with. That wayward thought cracked Stella up a little, so that when she did finally manage to fall back into a brief but deep sleep, she did so with a smile on her face and tears dried to salty tracks on her cheeks.
A BAD DAY FOR SORRY. Copyright © 2009 by Sophie Littlefield. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.