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Page 7

Chapter 7


It was Wednesday morning, three days before Christmas, when Lena Marquez awoke to find a strange man in her bed. The phone was ringing and the guy next to her made a moaning sound. He was partially covered by the sheets, but Lena was pretty sure that he was naked.

"Hello," she said into the phone. She lifted the sheet to look. Yep, he was naked.

"Lena, there's supposed to be a storm on Christmas Eve and we were going to have Mavis barbecue for Lonesome Christmas but she can't if it's raining and I yelled at Theo last night and went out and walked around in the dark for two hours and I think he thinks I'm crazy and you should probably know that Dale didn't come home last night and his new  -  uh, the other, uh  -  the woman he lives with called Theo in a panic and he  - »


"Yeah, hi, how you doing?"

Lena looked at the clock on the nightstand, then back at the naked man. "Molly, it's six-thirty."

"Thanks. It's sixty-seven degrees here. I can see the thermometer outside."

"What's wrong?"

"I just told you: storm coming. Theo doubts sanity. Dale missing."

Tucker Case rolled over, and despite being half asleep, he appeared to be ready for action.

"Well would you look at that," Lena thought to herself, then she realized she'd said it into the phone.

"What?" said Molly.

Tuck opened his eyes and smiled at her, then followed her gaze south. He pulled the sheet out of her hand and covered himself. "That's not for you. I just have to pee."

"Sorry," Lena said, pulling the sheet quickly over her head. It had been a long time since she'd had to worry about it, but she suddenly remembered a magazine article about not letting a man see you first thing in the morning unless he'd known you for at least three weeks.

"Who was that?" Molly said.

Lena made an eye tunnel in the sheet and looked out at Tucker Case, who was getting out of bed, totally unself-conscious, totally naked, his unit leading him into the bathroom, waving before him like a divining rod. She realized right then that she could always find new reasons to resent the male of the species  -  unself-consciousness was going on the list.

"No one," Lena said into the phone.

"Lena, you did not sleep with your ex again? Tell me you are not in bed with Dale."

"I'm not in bed with Dale." Then the whole night came rolling back on her and she thought she might throw up. Tucker Case had made her forget for a while. Okay, maybe she could count that as a positive toward men, but the anxiety was back. She'd killed Dale. She was going to jail. But she needed to pretend she didn't know anything.

"What did you say about Dale, Molly?"

"So who are you in bed with?"

"Dammit, Molly, what happened to Dale?" She hoped she sounded convincing.

"I don't know. His new girlfriend called and said he didn't come home after the Caribou Christmas party. I just thought you should know, you know, in case it turns out that something bad happened."

"I'm sure he's okay. He probably just met some tramp at the Head of the Slug and sold her on his workingman charm."

"Yuck," Molly said. "Oh, sorry. Look, Lena, they said on the news this morning that a big storm is coming in off the Pacific. We're going to have El Niño this year. We have to figure out something for the food for Lonesome Christmas  -  not to mention what to do if a lot of people show up. The chapel is awfully small."

Lena was still trying to figure out what to do about Dale. She wanted to tell Molly. If anybody would understand, it would be Molly. Lena had been around a couple of times when Molly had gone through her "breaks." She understood things getting out of control.

"Look, Molly, I need  - »

"And I yelled at Theo last night, Lena. Really bad. He hasn't taken off like that in a long time. I may have fucked Christmas up."

"Don't be silly, Mol, you couldn't do that. Theo understands." Meaning, He knows you're crazy and loves you anyway.

Just then, Tucker Case came back into the room, retrieved his pants from the floor, and started pulling them on.

"I've got to go feed the bat," Tuck said. He pulled a banana partially out of his front pocket.

Lena threw the sheets off her head and tried to think of something to say.

Tuck grinned, pulling the banana all the way out. "Oh, you thought I was just glad to see you?"

"Uh  -  I  -  shit."

Tuck stepped over and kissed her eyebrow. "I am glad to see you," he said. "But I have to feed the bat, too. I'll be right back."

He walked out of the room, barefoot and shirtless. Okay, he probably would be back.

"Lena, who was that? Tell me?"

Lena realized that she was still holding the phone. "Look, Molly, I'll have to call you back, okay? We'll figure something out for Friday night."

"But, I have to make amends  - »

"I'll call you." Lena hung up and crawled out of bed. If she was quick she could wash her face and get some mascara on before Tucker got back. She started zooming around the room, naked, until she felt someone watching her. There was a big bay window that looked out on a forest, and since her bedroom was on the second floor, it was like waking up in a tree house, but no one could possibly look in. She spun around and there, hanging from the gutter, was a giant fruit bat. And he was looking at her  -  no, not just looking at her, he was checking her out. She pulled the sheet off the bed and covered herself.

"Go eat your banana," she shouted at the bat. Roberto licked his chops.

There had been a time, during his bong-rat years, when Theophilus Crowe would have stated, with little reservation, that he did not like surprises, that he preferred routine over variety, predictability over uncertainty, the known over the unknown. Then, a few years ago, while working on Pine Cove's last murder case, Theo had gotten to know and fallen in love with Molly Michon, the ex-scream queen of the B-movie silver screen, and everything changed. He had broken one of the cardinal rules  -  Never go to bed with anyone crazier than yourself  -  and he'd been loving life ever since.

They had their little agreement, if he stayed off his drug (pot) she'd stay on hers (antipsychotics), and consequently she'd have his unmuddled attention and he'd only get the most pleasant aspects of the Warrior Babe persona that Molly sometimes slipped into. He'd learned to delight in her company and the occasional weirdness that she brought into his life.

But last night had been too much for him. He'd come through the door wanting, nay, needing to share his bizarre story about the blond man, with the only person who actually might believe him and not berate him for being a stoner, and she had chosen that precise moment to lapse into hostile batshit mode. So, he'd fallen off the wagon, and by the time he returned to their cabin that night, he had smoked enough pot to put a Rastafarian choir in a coma.

That's not what the pot patch he'd been growing had been for. Not at all. Not like the old days, when he maintained a small victory garden for personal use. No, the little forest of seven-foot sticky bud platforms that graced the edge of their lot on the ranch was purely a commercial endeavor, albeit for the right reason. For love.

Over the years, even as the prospect of ever returning to the movies became more remote, Molly had continued to work out with her giant broadsword. Stripped to her underwear, or dressed in a sports bra and sweatpants, every day in the clearing in front of the cabin she'd declare "en garde" to an imaginary partner and proceed to spin, leap, thrust, parry, hack, and slash herself breathless. Beyond the fact that the ritual kept her incredibly fit, it made her happy, which, in turn, pleased Theo to no end. He'd even encouraged her to get involved in Japanese kendo, and to little surprise, she was excellent at it, consistently winning matches against opponents nearly twice her size.

And indirectly, all this had led to Theo's growing pot commercially for the first time in his life. He'd tried other means, but banks seemed more than a little reluctant to lend him nearly a half year's salary in order to purchase a samurai sword. Well, not samurai precisely, but a Japanese sword  -  an ancient Japanese sword, made by the master swordmaker Hisakuni of Yamashiro in the late thirteenth century. Sixty thousand folded layers of high carbon steel, perfectly balanced, and razor sharp even eight hundred years later. It was a tashi, a curved cavalry sword, longer and heavier than the traditional katanas used later by samurais in ground combat. Molly would appreciate the weight during her workouts, as its heft was closer to that of the theatrical broadsword she'd brought with her as a legacy of her failed movie career. She would also appreciate that it was real, and Theo hoped that she'd see that it was his way of saying that he loved all the parts of her, even the Warrior Babe (he just liked rubbing up against some parts more than others). The tashi was now wrapped in velvet and hiding at the back of the top shelf of Theo's closet, where he used to keep his bong collection.

The money? Well, an old friend of Theo's from the stoner days, a Big Sur grower now turned wholesaler, had been happy to advance Theo the money against his crop. It was supposed to have been a purely commercial venture: get in, get out, and nobody gets hurt. But now Theo was showing up stoned for work for the first time in years, and following a bad night, he could just sense that this wasn't going to be a good day.

Then the call came in from Dale Pearson's girlfriend/wife/whatever, and the descent into hell day started.

Theo drowned his eyes in Visine and stopped at Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines for a large coffee before he headed over to Lena Marquez's house in search of her ex-husband. While it was clear from the incident at the Thrifty-Mart on Monday, and a dozen earlier incidents, that their dislike for each other bordered on hatred, it hadn't stopped them from hooking up from time to time for some familiar post-divorce sex. Theo wouldn't have even known about it, except Molly was good friends with Lena and women talked about that sort of thing.

Lena lived in a nice two-story Craftsman-style house on a half acre of pine forest that butted up to one of Pine Cove's many ranches. It was more house than she would have been able to afford working as a property manager, but then, she had put up with Dale Pearson for five years of marriage, and for five years since, so it was the least she deserved, Theo thought. He liked the sound of his hiking boots on the porch as he walked to the front door, and he thought that he and Molly should build a porch on their little cabin. He thought they could maybe get a wind chime, and a swing, have a little heater so they could sit outside on cold evenings. Then he realized, as he felt that vibration of footsteps coming to the door, that he was totally and completely baked. That they would know he was baked. That no amount of Visine or coffee was going to cover the fact that he was baked. Twenty years of functioning stoned was not going to serve him now  -  he'd lost his edge, he was no longer in the game, the eye of the tiger was bloodshot.

"Hi, Theo," Lena said, opening the door. She wore a man's oversize sweatshirt and red socks. Her long black hair, which normally flowed down her back like liquid satin, was all knotted up at the back of her head, and there was a big tangle sticking out by one ear. Sex hair.

Theo shuffled on the porch like a kid getting ready to ask the girl next door for a first date. "I'm sorry to bother you so early, but I wondered if you've seen Dale. Since Monday, I mean."

She seemed to fade away from the door, like she was ready to faint. Theo was sure it was because she knew he was high. "No, Theo. Why?"

"Well, uh, Betsy called, and said that Dale didn't come home last night." Betsy was Dale's new wife/girlfriend/whatever. She was a waitress down at H.P.'s Cafe and over the years had become notorious for having affairs with a lot of married guys. "I was just, uh..." Why wouldn't she interrupt him? He didn't want to say that he knew that she and Dale got together for spite sex occasionally. He wasn't supposed to know."... so, uh, I was just wondering."

"Hi, who's this?" said a blond guy who had appeared shirtless behind Lena in the doorway.

"Oh, thank God," Theo said, taking a deep breath. "I'm Theo Crowe, I'm the town constable." He looked at Lena for an introduction.

"This is Tucker  -  uh, Tuck."

She had no idea what this guy's last name was.

"Tucker Case," said Tucker Case, stepping around Lena and offering his hand to shake. "I should have introduced myself to you sooner, I guess, since we're in the same business."

"What business is that?" Theo never thought of himself as being a businessman, but he guessed that he was now.

"I'm flying helicopter for the DEA," said Tucker Case. "You know, infrared, finding growers and stuff."

Clear! His heart has stopped! Code blue! Five hundred milligrams of epinephrine, direct shot to the pericardium, stat! He's flatlining, people. Clear!

"Nice to meet you," Theo said, hoping his heart failure wasn't showing. "Well, sorry to bother you. I'll just be on my way." He let go of Tuck's hand and started walking away, thinking: Don't walk stoned, don't walk stoned  -  for the love of God, how did I do this all of those years?

"Uh, Constable," Tuck said. "Why was it that you stopped by? Ouch!"

Theo turned. Lena had just punched the pilot in the arm, evidently pretty hard  -  he was massaging it.

"Uh, nothing. Just a fellow didn't go home last night, and I thought Lena might have an idea where he went." Theo was trying to back away from the house, but then stopped, remembering that he might trip on the porch steps. How would he explain that to the DEA?

"Last night? That's not even a missing person for, what, twenty-four, forty-eight hours? Ouch! Dammit, that's not necessary." Tucker Case rubbed his shoulder where Lena had punched him again.

Theo thought that she might have violence issues with men.

Lena looked at Theo and grinned, as if she was embarrassed about the punch. "Theo, Molly called me this morning and told me about Dale. I told her I hadn't seen him. Didn't she tell you?"

"Sure. Sure, she told me. I just, you know, I thought you might have some ideas. I mean, your friend is right, Dale's not really missing, officially, for another twelve hours or so, but, you know, it's a small town, and I, you know, have a job and stuff."

"Thanks, Theo," Lena said, waving to him even though he was only a few feet away and wasn't moving away from the house. The pilot was waving, too, smiling. Theo didn't like being around new lovers who had just gotten laid, especially when things weren't going that well in his own love life. They seemed smug, even if they weren't trying to be.

He spotted something dark swinging from the ceiling of the porch, right where the wind chime would have been on his and Molly's porch, if he hadn't just sacrificed their security by relapsing into dope-fiendism. It couldn't be what it looked like.

"So, that's a, uh, that looks like  - »

"A bat," said Lena.

Holy fuck, Theo thought, that thing is huge. "A bat," he said. "Sure. Of course."

"Fruit bat," Tucker Case clarified. "From Micronesia."

"Oh, right," Theo said. Micronesia was not a real place. The blond guy was fucking with him. "Well, I'll see you guys."

"See you at Lonesome Christmas on Friday," Lena said. "Say hi to Molly."

" 'Kay," Theo said, climbing into the Volvo.

He closed the car door. They went inside. He let his head hit the steering wheel.

They know, he thought.

"He knows," Lena said, her back against the front door.

"He doesn't know."

"He's smarter than he looks. He knows."

"He doesn't know. And he didn't look dumb, he looked kind of stoned."

"No, he wasn't stoned, that was suspicion."

"Don't you think if he was suspicious he might have asked where you were last night?"

"Well, he could see that, with you walking out there with your shirt off, and me looking so, you know  -  so  - »


"No, I was going to say 'disheveled. " She punched his arm. "Jeez, get over yourself."

"Ouch. That is completely out of line."

"I'm in trouble here," Lena said. "You can at least be supportive."

"Supportive? I helped you hide the body. In some countries that implies commitment."

She wound up to punch him, then caught herself, but left her fist there in the air, just in case. "You really don't think he was suspicious?"

"He didn't even ask why you have a giant fruit bat hanging out on your porch. He's oblivious. Just going through the motions."

"Why do I have a giant fruit bat hanging from the porch?"

"Comes with the package." He grinned and walked away.

Now she felt stupid, standing there, her fist in the air. She felt unenlightened, dense, silly, unevolved, all the things she thought only other people were. She followed him into the bedroom, where he was putting on his shirt.

"I'm sorry I hit you."

He rubbed his bruised shoulder. "You have tendencies. Should I hide your shovel?"

"That's a horrible thing to say." She almost punched him, but instead, trying to be more evolved, and less threatening, she put her arms around him. "It was an accident."

"Release me. I have to go spot bad guys with my helicopter," he said, patting her on the bottom.

"You're taking the bat with you, right?"

"You don't want to hang out with him?"

"No offense, but he's a little creepy."

"You have no idea," said Tuck.

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