The snow had begun falling in the late afternoon—big, wet flakes that stuck to the rooftops of houses like dollops of marshmallow cream, and coated bare branches with hardened white chocolate, and covered the ground in fluffy cotton candy. (I’ve been off sugar for a while and it’s just killing me.)
I was sitting in the living room on a needlepoint Queen Anne armchair, gazing out the front picture window at the wintry wonderland, waiting for Mother to come downstairs. Sushi, my brown and white shih tzu, lounged on my lap, facing the window, too—but she couldn’t see anything because the diabetes had taken away her vision.
Soosh, however, seemed content, and any impartial observer who hadn’t caught sight of the doggie’s milky-white orbs would swear she was taking it all in. I imagine she could still picture what was going on outside, her ears perking every now and again at the muffled rumble of a snow plow, or the scrape, scrape, scraping of a metal shovel along the sidewalk. (Mr. Fusselman, who lived across the street in a brick Dutch Colonial, had been coming out of his house every half hour to keep the pesky snow off his front walk; I, no fool—at least where shoveling was concerned—wasn’t about to tackle ours until the very last flake had fallen.)
I sighed and gazed at the Christmas tree that was in its usual spot next to the fireplace. The fake tree, with fake white tipping (which made Sushi sneeze), had been up since early November, as Mother jumps the gun on everything. (Christmas cards go out in October.) She still decorated the tree with things I had made since the first grade, and many were falling apart, like the clay Baby Jesus that had lost its legs (makes walking on water way tougher). But mostly, hanging from the branches by green velvet ribbons, were small antique items, like red plastic cookie cutters, Victorian silver spoons, floral china teacups, and colorful Bakelite jewelry. One year, however, when I was in middle school, Mother went overboard with her antiques decorating and jammed an old sled in the middle of the tree, and it fell over, knocking our one-eyed parrot off its perch.
For those just joining in (where have you been?), I’ll lay in some backstory—all others (unless in need of a refresher course) may feel free to skip ahead to the paragraph beginning, “I stood, giving my butt cheeks a break,” etc.
My name is Brandy Borne. I’m a blue-eyed, bottle-blond, thirty-one-year-old, Prozac-prescribed recent divorcée who has moved back to her small, Midwestern Mississippi River hometown of Serenity to live with my widowed mother, who is bipolar. Mother, a spry seventy-four—she claims she’s seventy and from here on probably always will—spends her time hunting for antiques, acting in community theater, and reading mysteries with her “Red-Hatted League” gal-pals. Roger, my ex (early forties), has custody of Jake (age eleven), and they live in a beautiful home in an upscale suburb of Chicago, an idyllic existence that I forfeited due to doing something really stupid at my ten-year class reunion two years ago (involving an old boyfriend, alcohol, a condom, and poor judgment).
I have one sibling, an older sister named Peggy Sue, who lives with her family in a tonier part of town; but Sis and I have an uneasy relationship, due to the span of our ages (nineteen years) and difference in politics, temperaments, and lifestyles—not to mention clothing styles (hers, high fashion; mine, low prices). Therefore, a truce is the best we can hope for. Peggy Sue, by the way, is still ragging me for not getting a good settlement out of my busted marriage, but everything Roger and I had—which was substantial—had been earned by his brain and sweat, and I just couldn’t ask for what wasn’t mine. I do have some scruples, even if they didn’t extend to ten-year class reunions….
I stood, giving my butt cheeks a break from the uncomfortable antique chair, and replaced Sushi on the hard cushion—she jumped down, not liking it, either—and then I wandered into the library/music room to check on my latest painting.
Was I, perhaps, an artist? Someone who toiled in oil on canvas, waiting for her genius to be discovered? Hardly. Unless you count covering the bottom soles of an inexpensive pair of black high heels in red lacquer to make them look like expensive Christian Louboutin’s. (I don’t know why I bothered; inside, I’d always know they were a cheat.)
I picked up a shoe to see if it was dry, and left a fingerprint in the still-gooey paint. (Sigh.)
Mother, who also had a painting project in progress on the plastic-protected library table, was having more success. She had taken the little dead bonsai tree I had given her during her last bout with depression (I didn’t give it to her dead—she forgot to water it) and had resurrected the tiny tree (or entombed it?) by covering the brown branches with green spray paint. Brilliant!
I returned to the living room to see what was keeping Mother. We had preshow tickets this evening to the winter flea market event, and should have left a half hour ago for the county fairgrounds.
Mother and I maintained a booth at an antiques mall downtown and desperately needed to restock it with new merchandise for the holiday season. We also desperately needed to make a buck or two, since she was on a fixed income, and I wasn’t working. (Okay, I did receive alimony—that many scruples I haven’t.)
I crossed to the banister and gazed upstairs, where a good deal of banging and thumping had been going on.
“What are you doing up there?” I hollered.
Mother’s muffled voice came back. “Be down in a minute, dear—keep your little drawers on!”
In Mother’s eyes I was perpetually five. I guess if she could be perpetually seventy, I could be perpetually a kindergartner.
So I stood and waited, because there is no other choice with a diva, and in another minute Vivian Borne herself descended, wearing her favorite emerald-green velour slacks and top. Coming straight down would have lacked drama, however, and Mother halted on the landing and, with hands on hips, cast me an accusatory glare through thick-lensed glasses that magnified her eyes to owlish dimensions.
“Where,” she demanded regally, “is my raccoon coat?”
The hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I narrowed my eyes. When in doubt, answer a question with a question: “Why?”
“Why? Because I want to wear it, that’s why! What have you done with it?”
This was not as unreasonable a question as you might suspect. I had been known to take certain measures with that particular garment.
Displaying the confidence and grace of a child with a chocolate-smeared face being asked about the whereabouts of a missing cake, I said, “I…I, uh, I put it in the attic…in the trunk….”
“To store it,” I said lamely.
Mother sighed disagreeably. “Dear, you know I like to keep that coat in my closet where I can get to it. It’s my favorite!” She turned on her heels and marched back up the stairs.
You would, too, if you’d spent your formative years in that house with that woman. Nothing could strike more terror in little Brandy’s heart than the sight of her mother in that raccoon coat.
I don’t know when Mother had bought it…probably in the 1940s (judging by the severe shoulder pads) when she was in college and Father was off being a war correspondent in Germany. I’d always pictured Mother wearing the raccoon coat while riding around in an open jalopy with ten other kids, waving a school banner and shouting “Boola-boola” into a megaphone, like in an old Andy Hardy movie. (Not that there are any new Andy Hardy movies out there.)
But over the years, the coat—besides keeping moths fat and harvesting bald patches—had taken on a more disturbing significance than just the benign symbol of the bobby-soxed, jitterbugging Mother who once walked the earth with other hepcat dinosaurs. From the dawn of Brandy, that coat had been the magic armor Mother always insisted upon donning at the beginning of her manic phase (this included summer!).
Once, during my teen years, after Mother got better, I threw the coat out with the trash…then retrieved it before the garbage truck came around. After all, I reasoned, what better early warning system was there to alert me of her deteriorating condition?
And so, perhaps you now have a small understanding of just how worried I was at this moment. If not, let’s just say if we were on a submarine, a horn would be blaring ah-OOO-guh! ah-OOO-guh! and Brandy would be yelling, “Dive! Dive! Dive!”
So when Mother tromped back down the stairs wearing the full-length ratty raccoon coat, I hadn’t moved from my frozen spot by the banister. Again, she paused on the landing, this time to look at me intently.
“Brandy, darling, if you’re worried about my mental health, you needn’t be,” she said. “I am quite current on my medication.”
And, having said my piece, I shut my mouth.
Mother was frowning thoughtfully and raising a theatrical finger. “We can’t look like we have any money, dear. You know how some of those dealers are at a major flea market like this one! They’ll send the price sky-high if they think we’re women of means.”
I nodded, sighing inwardly with relief.
An eyebrow arched, Mother was studying my designer jeans and cashmere turtleneck. “What are you going to wear, dear? I mean, which coat? I suppose they won’t see what we have on underneath….”
I said, “I only have my black wool.”
Mother made a scoffing sound. “Far too good…I’ll find something for you in the front closet.”
Which was better than something from the attic.
While Mother rooted around raccoonlike in the entryway, I took the time to put Sushi out again. Diabetic animals have to pee a lot because they drink so much, and Soosh was no exception. The nice thing about winter is that she can’t stand the cold, and when she does her business, she’s quick about it—no sniffing each and every blade of grass, or checking to see if any other animal had dared trespass and soil her sacred ground.
I returned to find raccoon-coated Mother holding aloft a sad-looking, strangely stained trench coat, which I dutifully put on so we could get the heck out of there.
As we exited out the front door into the chill air, I suggested, “Let’s take your car. It hasn’t been driven in a while.”
Mother had an old pea-green Audi that was stored in a stand-alone garage. “Stored” because she lost her license to drive it. Several times, however, she had used it for “emergencies”—once to help me* and again to help her grandson, Jake**—which caused her suspended license to become a revoked license.
I turned the key in the ignition and the Audi whined. How dare we wake it from its deep slumber on such a cold winter night? The car shuddered and shook and wheezed and coughed, but I forced it to life, and we backed out of the garage and into the street. I turned the Audi toward the bypass, which would lead us to a blacktop road that would then take us to the fairgrounds.
Five minutes into the trip, I sniffed the air and asked, “What smells?”
Mother was studying the winter landscape gliding past her mostly fogged-up window a little too intently. “Pardon?”
Overly casual, Mother replied, “Oh…that would be the hamburger grease.”
“Yes, dear. Hamburger grease.”
“What hamburger grease?”
She was pretending to be enthralled by the vista barely visible out her frosted view on the world. “Why, the hamburger grease I smeared on your coat.”
“It looked far too pristine, dear—I told you, we mustn’t appear as if we have much money.”
“Well, we don’t have much money!” I snapped, then grumbled, “Great. Now I look poor and smell. I love it when a plan comes together.” I powered down both front windows to get rid of the odor.
“Brandy!” Mother protested. “I’m cold.”
“Good! I hope you catch one.”
For the next ten minutes, all that could be heard was the howling wind blowing in from my window (Mother had rolled hers up) and the castanet chattering of our teeth. But before icicles had a chance to form on the end of our noses, in that jaunty Jack Frost fashion, the bright lights from the county fairgrounds could be seen, and I wheeled off the highway and into the snowy drive leading up to the main building. As I slowed to a stop in front of the large, one-story, maintenance-type structure, Mother hopped out like a hobo from a train and I proceeded on to find a parking spot in the already filled lot.
Man may be able to fly to the moon, clone animals, create bionic body parts, and keep his balance while exercising on a Body Dome. But he (or she) remains powerless to park in a straight row once the snow has obliterated the lines.
After dead-ending down two different lanes, I gave up and added to the confusion, inventing a spot along a far fence.
The temperature had dropped, and my breath mocked me by making smoke worthy of the warmest fire. Hunkered over, I trudged through the white toward the welcoming lights of the building, big wet flakes clinging to my hair and shoulders like the dandruff of a giant.
Just a few hundred feet away from the sanctuary of the building, however, I heard a long, low growl behind me. Then another. And another.
Darting out from a row of parked cars came a pack of wild dogs. They were heading straight for me and didn’t seem friendly, so I began to run (well, first I went, “Yikes!”), but the snow—nearly four inches deep now—impeded my flight, and even though the front door to the building seemed close, I knew I couldn’t make it before the dogs were on me.
I tore off my coat as the lead dog—a black mongrel apparently pissed for being passed over for the movie version of Cujo—snapped at my heels. Then I whirled, throwing the garment on top of him, and made my final dash toward the building. Reaching the door, I risked a glance over my shoulder. The pack, five in all, were tearing my trench coat to pieces!
What if I’d still been inside the thing?
As I stepped into the safety of the building, shivering with more than the chill, it finally dawned on me that the coat was what the dogs had been after—drawn by the smell of the hamburger grease.
And the scoreboard reads: Mother, one; Brandy, zero.
The flea market preshow was in full swing, and I was a little surprised by the good quality of the merchandise—these were some high-class fleas! (I’d been to some where I really had gone home with fleas.) There were at least one hundred dealers hawking their wares—furniture, china, pottery, vintage clothes, jewelry, books, toys, and assorted collectibles. The sight was dizzying, the sounds deafening, as a sea of winter-clad shoppers scurried about, trying to beat the other guy out of an early bargain.
I took a moment to gather my thoughts. Before we’d left home, Mother and I had devised a game plan and divvied up the money. Since she was the expert on glassware—that is to say, more expert than me (which isn’t saying much)—Mother was to look for such items. I, on the other hand, had more knowledge about collectibles (which also isn’t saying much) and was to cover that ground.
And because our booth already had enough furniture to sell, we agreed to ignore anything along those lines, particularly if bulky—unless the item was a steal, of course.
Antiques dealers—like all store retailers—depend on good pre-Christmas sales in order to make money. It can mean the difference between dealers keeping their heads above water for the entire year, or going under. But trying to figure out what tickles the public’s fancy around Christmastime is difficult; buy the wrong thing, and not only has a dealer laid out good money, he’s stuck with the item.
But before jumping into the frenzy and fray, I first had to find a new coat…because, in spite of the number of people in the building, it was freezing inside! I doubted there was any heat going at all.
I zeroed in on a table of women’s fur coats that shared space with a collection of Annalee Christmas dolls, and seeing so many of the Elves and Mice and Santas grouped together with their demented expressions was decidedly unsettling.
I pointed to the fur coats that were piled on top of each other like a bunch of sleeping critters, and asked the middle-aged lady attending the zoo, “How much?”
She studied me through her outdated, oversized round glasses, the bottom halves of which were tinted a pale pink so she didn’t have to wear blush (who came up with that dumb idea?).
“Twenty-five dollars each,” she said.
I showed disappointment in my face.
She held her ground.
I stood mine.
Then she must have taken pity on me—anyway, on my dripping wet hair and shivering body—because the woman said, “I…I do have one other fur that I didn’t put out because I’m sure it wouldn’t sell….”
“Oh, you can have it.”
I brightened. “I’ll take it! Whatever it is….”
The lady bent and rummaged under the table and then dragged out the freebie: a ratty raccoon coat, bald-patched, moth-eaten, and nearly identical to Mother’s.
I reached for my karma gratefully and thanked her.
It wasn’t until two hours later that I finally crossed paths with Mother. She was standing by a table of old toys and memorabilia, multiple bags of her flea market finds dangling from each arm while she chatted with a pudgy middle-aged man wearing a plaid coat.
As I approached, it became clear, however, that their exchange was more confrontational than conversational.
Mother was saying, “That book of Mr. Yeager’s is worth far more than one hundred dollars! That’s a famous title and it’s a first edition. Clearly, he didn’t know what he had, and you are simply out to take advantage of him.”
Mr. Yeager, I deduced, was the elderly frail-looking gentleman in a black parka, seated behind the table, and looking increasingly uncomfortable at the unfolding drama. On stage and off, Mother was famous for creating memorable scenes.
Pudgy tightened his grip on the item in dispute—a hardcover book that said Tarzan of the Apes on its dust jacket, and featured its branch-swinging hero in silhouette.
“It’s marked one hundred dollars,” he snapped at Mother, “and that’s what I’m going to pay for it!” Then he looked pointedly at Mr. Yeager, saying, “There are certain rules that dealers have to abide, you know.”
I butted in. “Just a moment…has Mr. Yeager accepted any money yet?”
Mother turned to see me, gave my raccoon coat a double take, but wasn’t thrown enough to stop her performance. (Once, when Mother was doing The Vagina Monologues, some unfortunate woman in the front row was so rude as to have a heart attack and keel over, and the paramedics came, performed CPR, then carried the revived lady out of the theater on a stretcher, while Mother never missed a line.)
“My daughter has a point,” Mother snapped back at Pudgy. “The transaction has not yet been completed, and therefore can be taken off the table, so to speak, if the dealer wishes it.”
All eyes turned to the elderly Mr. Yeager, who said in a frail voice, “I…I…do want to withdraw the book.”
“Well!” huffed Pudgy, his fat fingers still clutching the object of his desire. “This is quite unheard of, and I feel compelled to report your conduct, sir, to the organizers of this flea market.”
Now might be a good time to mention that Mr. Yeager had a helper seated beside him behind the table. She was about twenty, wearing all black, which extended from her jeans and leather jacket to her short, spiky hair. Her elfin features were not unattractive, though certainly not helped by multiple piercing (ears, eyebrows, nose) and a tattoo of barbed wire that encircled her neck.
At the threat of discrediting the old man, Goth Girl bolted out of her folding chair and flew around the table to face Pudgy.
“Oy!” she shouted in a thick Brit accent, her dark tinted lips peeled back revealing the metal grillwork on her front teeth. “You ’eard me grandad! ’E don’t wanna sell it!”
And she snatched the book out of Pudgy’s hands.
Pudgy’s mouth dropped open, closed, then opened again. “I…I’m going to report you both!”
Goth Girl, who was a good foot shorter than the portly man, shouted up into his red face, “That’s a load of bullocks, you dodgy ol’ punter! Now piss off!”
Pudgy backed away, turned, and fled, pushing his way through a number of folks who had gathered in the aisle drawn by the impromptu skit.
Impressed by Goth Girl’s moxie, I stuck out my hand. “Hi. My name’s Brandy.”
She extended one black nailed hand. “Chaz.”
Mother beamed royally at the young woman, and said, “And I’m Vivian, my dear, Brandy’s mother. You handle yourself quite well…. Have you ever heeded the siren song of the footlights?”
Chaz screwed up her face. “Put me foot where?”
“Theater,” Mother explained, pronouncing it thee-ah-tah. “I’m the current director of the Playhouse and wish to know if you’ve ever acted.”
“Oh, yeah, sure,” Chaz nodded. “This one time, I did the Artful Dodger at Holloway’s, innit?”
Mother frowned curiously. “Holloway’s? I’m not familiar with that theater…. Is it in the West End?”
“Naw,” Chaz said, “Islington.” She made a face like she’d sucked on a lemon. “Place is a pile of piss, man…full of rats and cockroaches.”
Mother gave a short laugh. “Well, many of the older buildings are like that…but still, they do have their charm.”
Chaz made the face again. “Eh? Wha’ you on about?”
I intervened. “I believe Holloway is a women’s prison, Mother—isn’t that right, Chaz?” It pays to watch BBC America.
Chaz smiled, showing the metal grillwork. “That’s right, Bran…. Mind if I call you that, luv?”
Chaz didn’t wait for my reply before going on. “Anyway, when I got outta that dump, I come straight to the States to find me granddad, yeah?” She beamed back at Mr. Yeager, who had remained seated behind the table.
Mr. Yeager nodded, smiling shyly. “That was three months ago,” the old gent said softly, “and Chaz has been living with me ever since.”
The gawkers had moved on, now that the conflict had ended, except for a man Mother’s age named Ivan Wright, who had once been mayor of Serenity, and was among the many old boys in town who Mother was convinced had the hots for her—or anyway, the warms.
Ivan interjected himself into the conversation. “Wasn’t that quite a shock, Walter?” the ex-mayor asked Mr. Yeager, his friendly tone taking the edge off his words. “I mean, having this young lady show up on your doorstep claiming to be your granddaughter? How did that happen, exactly?”
Chaz, annoyed by the intrusion—and perhaps the negative content of what Ivan said—snapped, “Well, ’e shagged me grandmum exac’ly, didn’t ’e? That’s ’ow it ’appened, innit?”
I stifled a smile. Mother didn’t, letting a grin blossom; she had something like admiration in her big eyes.
“Very succinctly put, my dear,” Mother told our newfound friend.
Walter Yeager said proudly, “My granddaughter may be blunt, Ivan, but she’s also correct. I met Elsie, her grandmother, when I was stationed in England during the Second World War. After I came back home, she wrote me that we had a son…but since I’d married, and Elsie had also found someone, we decided to keep our love child a secret.” He paused, then added, “She and I stayed in touch for a while, through the mail…but, well, as they say, time marches on….”
Chaz had gone back around the table to stand next to her grandfather; she put one black-nailed hand on his slight shoulder. “I located Granddad from some old letters in a trunk, yeah?”
Yeager looked up adoringly at the girl. “Now that my wife has passed on,” he said, “I’m thankful Chaz and I—a couple of lost souls—have found each other.” He gave her arm a squeeze. “And I’m relieved that the secret I’ve carried with me for so many years is finally out.”
Ivan smirked, just a bit. “Well, in your case it worked out, but sometimes secrets are best kept secrets…especially when nothing good can come of it.”
The remark reminded me of something that had been troubling me for weeks on end, thanks to an anonymous letter that had questioned my own parentage. I sneaked a glance at Mother. Was she keeping a secret from me? But her face looked placid, even serene.
Walter shook his head. “I used to think that way, Ivan…but not anymore…not since this little bundle from Britain appeared on my doorstep. Now I want to make it up to her, give her things I couldn’t before…and that takes money. That’s why I’m selling all my old collectibles—memories, if you will.”
Ivan’s smirk morphed into a smile. “Well, hell, I’ll buy this Hopalong Cassidy coffee mug, Walter…if that will help. A friend of mine has a son who grew up on Hoppy who’ll get a kick out of this.”
Yeager smiled. “It’s a start….”
The ex-mayor brought out his wallet, but the transaction was interrupted by a commotion nearby, punctuated by shouts of “Thief!” and “Stop him!”
Sprinting toward me came a young man in torn jeans, a navy sweatshirt, and with a stocking cap pulled down low to right above wild wide eyes. While everyone else jumped out of the young man’s way, I positioned myself so I could, at just the right moment, stick out my foot and trip him.
But the second I lifted my leg, Chaz whispered out sharply, “Bran!” and I hesitated just long enough to miss my chance.
The thief whisked by, shoving patrons out of his way, some clearing the path on their own volition—and no other would-be heroes (or heroines, either) risked tripping the kid or tackling him or otherwise keeping him from bolting out the front door. Which he did.
I frowned at Chaz, more in confusion than irritation.
She shrugged. “Sorry, Bran…thought ’e might ’urt you, mate.”
Or that I might hurt him?
In short order, the floor manager had called the police, and in less than ten minutes, a uniformed officer arrived. I wasn’t surprised that the representative of Serenity’s finest who answered the call was none other than my boyfriend, Brian Lawson, who worked the Serenity PD night shift.
As soon as Brian stepped inside, he spotted me and Mother, and shook his head as he approached us down the aisle.
“I might have known,” he said with a tiny, wry smile forming on that handsome mug. “If the Borne girls aren’t in the middle of trouble, they’re bound to be somewhere on the fringes….”
Among those who stood shivering in the blast of cold air that had come in with Officer Lawson were Chaz and the dealer who had been robbed—a gray-bearded, potbellied guy in a plaid shirt and jeans who ran a local antiques shop. Mr. Yeager remained back at his table, and Ivan had moved along.
Brian asked our group, “Who’s making the complaint?”
“Complaint, my foot!” the dealer fumed. “I want to make a charge! And I want you to actually do something about it!”
Complaint, his foot? Funny he should say that, because I’d never seen this guy on his feet before. Whenever you entered his shop, he was sitting in a rocker, reading a newspaper and letting his wife handle the customers. I figured he was more irritated about having to exert himself than getting robbed.
“All right, settle down,” Brian said, not unkindly, patting the air with a hand, “I’m here to help.” He withdrew a small tape recorder from his jacket pocket. “Let’s start with your name, and then tell me what happened.”
The dealer took a deep breath. “I’m Claude Anderson and I have one of the dealers’ tables over there…” He pointed. “…and I’d just turned my back for a second when that punk stole my money!”
Brian asked, “He came around behind the table?”
“Yes! I had the money in a plastic zipper bag—you know, like the bank gives you….”
“And where was the bag?”
“On the seat of my folding chair. I’d gotten up to make change for a customer…”
Wow, the guy was going all out all tonight.
“…and then put the bag down on it while I wrapped the purchase…and the next thing I know this thief is running off with it.”
“Can you describe him?”
Anderson said in frustration, “I only saw the back of him!” He pointed an accusatory finger at me—apparently the front of my face resembled the back of the thief’s head. “But that girl must’ve gotten a good look! He ran right past her!”
I started to say something, but shut my mouth because Chaz had moved close to me and surreptitiously took hold of my hand at my side and squeezed it. Hard.
Brian looked at me. “Well?”
“I really didn’t get that good a look,” I said. “He went by so fast—dark jeans, sweatshirt, stocking cap—that’s all I remember.”
Brian asked Chaz. “How about you?”
Chaz made an exaggerated frown and shook her head. “Seen one bloke you seen ’em all, innit?”
He turned to Mother. “What about you, Mrs. Borne? You’re generally observant.”
Mother gestured to her thick glasses, “Oh, well, I appreciate the compliment, Officer Lawson…but honestly, I didn’t see a thing…not with these poor old peepers.”
Brian sighed, hit the stop button on the recorder.
Mother added, “However, I do have one important question….”
Officer Lawson raised his eyebrows. “Which is?”
“Is there any truth to the rumor that you’re going to stop using the ten-codes like some other police departments?”
Brian gaped at Mother at this non sequitur; I stifled a groan and faded back behind Chaz.
“No, Mrs. Borne, we haven’t dispensed with them yet.”
“Good,” Mother said approvingly, tossing her head back. “It’s a most efficient system—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!”
Why did Mother care? Because Vivian Borne had her very own code number unofficially assigned by the Serenity PD; when the police radioed “ten-one-hundred” it meant that Mother was on the scene and to proceed with extreme caution.
Anderson said irritably, “Look, can we get back to my stolen money?”
Brian nodded, and told our little group, “All right, you can all go except for Mr. Anderson.” Then he took the dealer by the arm and walked him over to his table to finish the interview, leaving Mother, me, and Chaz.
Mother said to me cheerily, “Well, wasn’t that exciting? We haven’t been involved with a crime for months!”
“We’re not involved.”
“We’re witnesses, aren’t we?” She leaned close and whispered theatrically: “Incidentally, why are we covering up, dear?”
“Why aren’t we telling your nice young officer what we saw? I was simply following your lead, dear.”
“Follow this lead,” I said, and made a “zip” gesture across my mouth.
I told Mother to wait while I went to fetch the car, then turned to Chaz with a forced smile. “Can I see you outside for a moment?”
She swallowed and nodded and we stepped out into the cold and stood under the scant protection of the tin awning, our breaths pluming.
Chaz spoke first. “Thanks for keeping your gob shut, Bran, and not grassing.”
I said testily, “I know you’re involved somehow in that theft.”
“Wha’? No way, man!”
I ignored her. “And if you don’t want me to ‘grass,’ that money better be returned to me tomorrow, or I’m gonna suddenly remember all kinds of details about that boy, and no doubt so will Mother—including the spider tattoo on the side of his neck.”
Chaz spat, “Bloody hell! I told ’im to cover up that bugger!” She sighed resignedly. “You win, mate. I’ll make ’im give back the money. He just did it for me because—”
“I don’t want to know,” I snapped. “I’ve already lied once to my boyfriend, and I don’t want to do it again.”
Her eyes widened. “That screw’s your bloke?”
That sounded backward somehow.
But I said, “That’s right…so you know I mean business, ‘mate.’ I’ll come to your house tomorrow, around noon, and you’d better have that cash—every bleeding quid! Where do you live?”
“Grandad ’as a caravan at Happy Trails Trailer Court…Number 21. But I don’t want me grandad to know!”
“Don’t worry…I’ll bring some information on the value of that Tarzan book along, as an excuse.”
“Okay.” She cast her eyes downward. “Thanks, luv.”
“Why don’t you find some nice friends?”
Chaz looked up again. “Wha’? A ex-con with a funny accent like me? Who’s gonna wanna be mates with me?”
“Well…me, for one. If that money’s returned…and if you stay out of trouble, Chaz.”
“A posh lady like you?”
I snorted. “I’m not posh. Far from it. Take a closer look at this raccoon coat.” We were both shivering, so I said, “Remember, Chaz…noon tomorrow.”
She said, “I won’t let you down,” and her smile had a shyness at odds with the spiky hair, multiple piercings, and public theft.
She slipped inside.
I trudged into the snow to get the car, wondering if I’d done the right thing.
On the drive home Mother was a chatterbox, carrying on about her fabulous finds, interspersed with melodramatic rambling about poor Walter Yeager having to sell all his childhood memories. I concentrated on keeping the car on the snowy road, grunting every now and then to show I was listening, even though I wasn’t, really.
As we pulled the Audi into the garage, Mother suddenly asked, “Why did you cover up for Chaz, dear?”
I’d hoped we wouldn’t be returning to this subject, that I’d ignored her sufficiently to put it out of her mind. Out of her mind was right.
Mother sighed. “Well, I’m sure you have your reasons, and you know I’m never one to pry…. By the way, where did you get that wonderful coat? We could be twins.”
I shut off the engine and smiled nastily. “Yes, Mother, I feel like your twin…. And from now on, whenever I wear this coat, you should be afraid…you should be very, very afraid.”
Mother frowned and opened her car door. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you lately, Brandy…but I’m glad we’re both seeing our therapists tomorrow.”
“Me, too,” I said, meaning it.
Because Mother was keeping something from me that was way more important than withholding a little information from the police.
And Mother had been keeping her secret a whole lot longer.
A Trash ‘n’ Treasures Tip
Shopping can be daunting at a flea market, where treasures are often hidden among the trash—like the rare photo of Edgar Allan Poe some lucky buyer purchased for a pittance and then sold for thirty-five thousand. Bet that dealer’s kicking himself. So am I—I passed it up!