It’s not every day that I bake a dozen red velvet cakes, learn that my boyfriend has a love child, and I witness a murder. To calm down, I invented a whole menu based on the Miranda warning. My favorite is Anything-You-Say-Can-Be-Used-Against-You Quiche. It calls for onions, smoked ham, and pepper cheese. Place ingredients in a deep-dish crust and add heavy whipping cream, salt, and pepper. Bake in a 400-degree oven until the filling is nicely browned. Serve with You-Have-the-Right-to-Remain-Silent Salsa and You-Have-the-Right-to-an-Attorney Pita Dippers.
Coop O’Malley is my lawyer and my boyfriend. He just started working at a big firm here in Charleston. The job comes with an ulcer, which is why I was home on a Saturday afternoon baking cakes instead of eating sweet tea scallops at Palmetto Place. We were supposed to meet there to celebrate Coop’s thirty-first birthday, but he’d phoned on my way out the door.
“Hey, Teeny,” he’d said. “I hate to cancel at the last minute, but my boss asked me to work overtime.”
I had no reason to doubt him. Coop was a by-the-book kind of guy. Loyal, meticulous, and hard working. That’s what had drawn me to him in the first place, way back when we were kids. I’m a spontaneous, trouble-prone gal, and he’s a cautious, rule-following guy. His personal motto is engraved on the back of his watch, semper paratus,
always prepared. My motto is merda accidit
, shit happens. Opposites attract, right?
I spent the rest of the day getting my order ready for The Picky Palate—that’s a café in the historic district. I’m a freelance baker. This is a dream job for a self-taught cook like myself, especially since this city is filled with professional chefs. I work at home and tote my pastries to the café, which sells everything on consignment. The red velvet cakes go into a revolving glass case with other Low Country favorites—shrimp and grits martinis, Benne Wafer Trifle, Pluff Mud Pie. At the end of the day, the shelves were empty.
Late that afternoon, I put the cakes into my beat-up turquoise convertible and drove to the café. The smell of buttered corn bread pulled me down the aisle, past shelves that overflowed with raffia-tied jars—gourmet jellies, lemon curd, pickled okra.
My boss stepped out of her office and put her freckled arm around my waist. “I’m going back to chef school,” Jan said. “I’m selling The Picky Palate. Would you like to buy it?”
My knees wobbled. A few months ago, I couldn’t afford a peach martini, much less a whole café. Then, on a fluke, I’d inherited the Spencer-Jackson House on Rainbow Row, along with a trust fund. I hadn’t decided what to do with either one. I’d been raised by hardcore Southern Baptists, women who were deeply suspicious of earthly treasures, and they’d taught me that the Lord was a tad capricious about giving and taking. So I hadn’t quit my job, nor had I sold my peach farm in Georgia.
I didn’t know doodly squat about running a business, but I promised Jan I’d think about her offer. As I drove home, the August heat punched against the top of my head like a fist. The minute I stepped into my kitchen, the phone rang. Before I could say hello, a lady shouted, “Quit spying on me, Teeny Templeton!”
Each word burned my ear, as if scalding water had spurted out of the receiver. I recognized the voice immediately. It belonged to Barb Browning Philpot, Coop’s high school sweetheart. They’d broken up eleven years ago, right after he’d gone away to college.
“Why are you calling me after all this time?” I asked. “And why do you think I’m spying?”
“Drop the Miss Innocent act,” Barb said. Each word left a smoking imprint on my brain. “Come near me and my daughter again, and I’ll hit you with a restraining order.”
The only thing that needed restraining was Barb’s tongue. I lifted the caller ID box. The screen showed a number with a South Carolina area code. My hand trembled as I set down the box. What was going on? I’d moved away from Bonaventure, Georgia, six months ago, but Barb still lived there with her pharmacist-husband and their ten-year-old daughter. I’d never seen the child. Or maybe I had.
Six weeks earlier, on a hot June afternoon, a little girl had shown up at Coop’s beach house, claiming he was her daddy. He’d told me that his old college roommate was behind it. Barb’s name hadn’t come up. Nor had the child returned to Coop’s house. Now, just remembering that day made my lungs flatten. I reached into my apron pocket, pulled out my asthma inhaler, and took a puff.
“Poor Teeny,” Barb said. “You can’t catch a break—or your breath. And you never will. Coop wants to dump you just like he did in high school. He’s sick of your dead rat pussy.”
I let that comment pass. “Barb, I don’t have a reason to spy on you.”
“No?” Her voice screaked up. “I saw you peeking through my window last night.”
“That’s impossible,” I said. “I was with Coop last night.” And I’d fed him shrimp tacos, red rice, and strawberry shortcake with lots of whipped cream.
“He’ll be with me tonight,” she said.
“Wrong,” I said. “He’s working.”
“Is that what he told you?” She laughed, a blade-sharp sound that cut right to my soul.
I hung up and dialed Coop’s cell phone. Not that I believed Barb for a second, but when he didn’t pick up, I felt all woozy-headed and my rear end hit the floor. I just sat there, breathing through my mouth. My bulldog, Sir, pushed his cold nose against my arm. He’s brown and white, with a smooshed-in, wrinkled muzzle. A creamy stripe runs down the center of his head, as if he’d collided with a bowl of royal icing. Normally, he calms me down, but I kept shaking.
I punched in the number to Coop’s law firm. The answering service informed me that everyone had left for the day. My throat clenched, as if I’d accidentally swallowed a cocktail onion. Was I reaching for trouble or was trouble reaching for me?
The afternoon wore on and wore me out. I called Coop three more times; he didn’t pick up, and I didn’t leave voice mail. If he wasn’t at the office, where was he? And what about that little girl who’d shown up on his porch a few weeks ago? Was she Coop’s long-lost child? He was an honorable man. I couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d gone back to Barb so he could help her raise their daughter. And he just hadn’t found the words to break up with me.
Don’t get me wrong—I love children. But I hate liars. A while back, I’d promised Jesus that I would tell the truth, and I began keeping a yearly record of my fibs. Every January first, I start a new tally, and I end it twelve months later on New Year’s Eve. This year, I’d told eighteen lies, and it was only mid-August. If I got cornered, my score could rise into the triple digits.
Coop was one of the few people who understood my preoccupation with the ninth commandment. When I was eight years old, my mama, Ruby Ann Templeton, had abandoned me at the Bonaventure Dairy Queen. She told me to run inside and buy two cones. When I came out, her car was gone. I never saw her again. Mama’s older sister, Bluette, raised me. My aunt promised to never leave, but cancer is an asshole disease that doesn’t honor promises. Last winter, she died, but she’d become my moral compass. What would she think about my dilemma?
One of her favorite mottos was “Believe but verify.” That’s what her hero, President Ronald Regan, used to say about the Russians. I wasn’t sure it applied to boyfriends, but a little verification wouldn’t hurt—just as long as the verifier wasn’t caught. I’m not a violent person. But tonight might be a different story if I found Coop and Barb doing the horizontal boogie.
I waited until 10.00 p.m., when it was full dark outside, then I opened my laptop and did a reverse search on Barb’s phone number. I got a hit for a Sullivan’s Island rental on Atlantic Avenue, a ritzy address, just 10.4 miles from me and six miles to Coop’s house on Isle of Palms.
First, I MapQuested the directions. Next, I went upstairs and dug through my closet. The rack was filled with consignment store finds: raspberry dresses, lime skirts, tangerine blouses. Unless I wanted Barb to spot me, I’d need to wear something less colorful. I pulled out a black scuba suit. A few weeks ago, I’d found it at a garage sale, and my head had filled with visions of a tropical, snorkeling vacation. Thank goodness I’d bought it, because it was my only black outfit. I put it on and stuffed my hair into a Braves baseball cap. I cringed when I passed by the foyer mirror. All I lacked was a harpoon and I could go after Moby Dick. But I wasn’t gunning for a whale. I was going after the truth and a tall, blond bitch.
I drove my convertible across the Ravenel Bridge. By the time I reached Sullivan’s Island, the wind had sucked out strands at my hair, and I looked like a rabid possum. I parked on the beach access road and walked to Barb’s rental. The night arched above me, dark as a mine shaft. A storm was blowing in from the Atlantic, and the air reeked of dead fish and pluff mud.
It wasn’t too late to turn back. I could go home and watch a Cary Grant movie, Suspicion
, and plow through a gallon of peach ice cream. I didn’t have to be a stalker-girl.No, Teeny. Keep going. You’ve got to verify.
Barb’s house sat on a jetty, a three-story brown clapboard that lorded over the cozy, old-fashioned bungalows. They were dark and shuttered, but her windows glowed with curry-colored light. I walked to the backyard and stopped beside a clump of sea oats. A wooden deck ran down the length of the house. The floodlights came on, and bright cones splashed across the grass. I moved back into the shadows, congratulating myself on my smart attire. My dark suit was the perfect camouflage.
A skinny blonde flung open a door and stepped onto the deck, her white caftan snapping in the wind. She held a martini glass, and the liquor shimmered like a melted apple. Her eyes darted this way and that way. Over the years, I’d seen Barb’s photograph in the Bonaventure Gazette
’s society pages, but I’d forgotten how pretty she was in person.
I blinked. What had gone wrong with her perfect life? Why was she living in a rental? And where was her little girl? The beam from the Sullivan’s Island lighthouse circled toward me, and I dove into the oats. My cap flew off and honey-colored frizz exploded around my shoulders.
“Teeny?” she called. “I know it’s you because I recognize your shitty hair. If you damage my sea oats, I’ll shave your head.”
I grabbed my Braves cap and stepped toward the deck. I pressed my tongue against the thin gap between my front teeth and grinned. Not because I was amused. This was my “oh shit I want to die” smile. It was involuntary, like a sneeze, and held back a slew of emotions.
Barb skewered me with a look, her eyes cold and sharp as sea glass.
“I’m not spying,” I said, and raised my lie tally to nineteen.
“Then why are you here?”
“I lost my dog.” Lie number twenty.
I thought you were
a dog.” She spoke in a slurry voice. As she veered to the edge of the deck railing, the martini sloshed out of her glass. “Why are you wearing that stupid wet suit?”
“It’s the latest style.” Lie number twenty-one. I was on a roll.
“Maybe at SeaWorld.” She laughed, a high, tinkly sound.
I dragged my shoe through the sandy grass. If only I’d brought that harpoon, I could have pinned her to the deck and force-fed her benne wafers.
She clawed her hair out of her face. “Coop just left. But he’ll be back.”
Her voice hit me like unripe peaches, each one piling up on my chest, crushing my lungs. What would it take to bring her down? Two harpoons and a Russian sub wouldn’t be enough.
“You’re making this up,” I said.
“I don’t care if you believe me. But you shouldn’t believe Coop, either. The truth doesn’t matter to a lawyer.” She put her martini glass on the deck railing, then she pulled a BlackBerry from her pocket and squinted at the keypad. “I’ve got proof he was here. Want to see his picture? Step a little nearer. But not too near or I’ll call 911.”
I squinted up at the phone and my stomach tensed. Coop’s image filled the little display screen. He sat on a white sofa, red kilim pillows heaped around him. I dragged my gaze away from the phone and looked into the living room. The same white sofa. Same pillows.
Barb flashed a triumphant smile. “I’m sorry it has to be this way. But you’re better off. You shouldn’t be with a man who doesn’t love you.”
More hard, knotty peaches landed on my chest. I wanted to toss them back, but I couldn’t move.
“Poor Teeny. You have such a look of pain in your eyes. But you’ll feel more pain when I call the police and report you for trespassing.” Barb spoke without malice, but hate blew off her in clear, wavy sheets like steam rising from a boiling soup pot. She glanced down at her phone again, her finger poised over the keypad. “You’ve got two seconds to get off my property.”
She walked back into her living room and closed the patio door. She stood there, watching me.
Tears burned the backs of my eyes as I walked around her house, through the shadowy yard. When I got near the driveway, I heard footsteps. A tall, rangy guy in a Bill Clinton mask strode toward Barb’s front door. The mask was rubber and fit over his whole head, hiding his face and hair color. The wind kicked up his black Windbreaker, showing a baggy jog suit and skinny legs. One gloved hand held a key. He opened the front door and stepped into Barb’s house.Coop?
I thought. Is that you?
My stomach cramped and I bent over double. Why did he have a key? How long had he been seeing Barb? Believe but verify, Teeny.
I hurried into her backyard, trying to ignore the tight, squished feeling in my chest. I was trespassing. But I wouldn’t do anything crazy, like throw sand. I’d just call them assholes, which was a perfectly legal thing to say, then I’d take my bulldog and leave town.
I tiptoed up the deck staircase and peered through the glass door. Barb and the masked guy were arguing. His gloves were latex, the kind favored by surgeons. Blue paper booties covered his shoes. No, he definitely wasn’t Coop. Not with those long, stringy legs.
He grabbed Barb’s neck and they veered into a table. A pottery lamp crashed to the floor and shattered. The man’s gloved fingers sank into Barb’s throat. Her face reddened, and her eyes bulged. He was murdering her. I dug my cell phone out of my rubber pocket to call the police. Before I could flip it open, my alarm went off, playing the stupid-ass theme song to The Twilight Zone
. I cupped my fingers over the phone, trying to smother the sound, but the man had heard. His head swiveled. He dropped Barb and she crumpled to the floor. He stepped over her limp body. Then he lunged toward me.
Holy crap. He’d killed her and I was next. I vaulted down the deck stairs as if a jet stream were coming out of my butt, and I flew into the terrible night.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Lee West
MICHAEL LEE WEST is the author of eight novels, including Gone With A Handsomer Man, Crazy Ladies, Mad Girls in Love, American Pie, and She Flew the Coop, as well as a food memoir, Consuming Passions. She lives with her husband on a farm in Lebanon, Tennessee, with three bratty Yorkshire terriers, a Chinese crested, assorted donkeys, chickens, sheep, and African Pygmy goats. Her faithful dog Zap was the inspiration of a character in Mermaids in the Basement.