eye of the storm ~ chapter two

for the record

Chapter Two

Brandon, Florida

The last thing Grace Ann Ringer expected to see when she turned the key at her childhood home was a half-naked young guy in surfer shorts, toweling his white-blond hair dry.

“Hey, you must be Grace. Your mom’s at work. You’ve been away in Italy on some archaeology thing, huh?”

“Who the hell are you?” Grace stared.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and closed the front door in her face.

Oh sure. It’s only my house. Take your time. Grace sat her suitcase down on the porch, and started to fish around in her purse for her cell phone to call Claire. The guy was back before she could dial. His bare chest was covered now in an egg-yolk yellow T-shirt. He put on a pair of wraparound sunglasses and stepped out onto the porch.

“Sorry about that.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Randy.”

Grace did not remove her own glasses or shake his hand. Instead, her hands closed around her cell phone, pulled it out of her purse and started to punch her mom’s work number.

“Randy” held up his hands in mock surrender and grinned. “Gotta run!”

He jogged off to a Harley parked across the street that Grace hadn’t noticed when the taxi dropped her off. The back of his T-shirt had a graphic of a beer mug overflowing with suds and “Spread Some Cheer Grab Me A Beer” printed beneath it. The motorcycle fired up and the boy toy was gone.

Had Claire moved? Grace saw the pink plastic flamingo she had given her mom stuck in a low shrub by the porch steps. Nope. This is the right house, all right. Maybe menopause has changed mom’s personality. Whoa, there’s a thought. Grace couldn’t remember anyone ever being in the house when she was growing up, except for a walk-through by an exterminator or an appliance repairman. Not family. Not friends. Never a boyfriend.

“Wow…” Grace shook her head and laughed, picked up her bag and went in. The flight from Rome to Tampa via Madrid and Miami was grueling. She was eager to shuck the clothes she’d been in for more than a day, take a hot shower and crash for a few hours. She had a pile of laundry to do, mostly jeans and tees, her “dig” uniform, but that could wait.

Damn, mom. Can’t believe you’re a nurse and still smoking. Grace found a can of air freshener and walked through the small house spraying as she went. The central Florida spring morning was still cool enough to open the windows and let in some fresh air, which she did in her bedroom and the bathroom.

On her way back to lock the deadbolt on the front door, she picked up several full ash trays and dumped them into a plastic grocery bag, tied off the end, and put them in the kitchen trash can. A nearly empty glass caught her eye in the living room. Grace picked it up. Sniffed. Booze. Great. It’s not the drinking, it’s leaving it messy like that. Knowing I’m coming home. Grace herself was fastidious to a fault, and she knew it. She sighed. Just let it go. She picked up the glass and put it in the dishwasher.

Grace went back to her room, took off her travel clothes and sat cross-legged on the bed to call Claire.

“Grace! Are you home? Did you have a good flight?”

“Hi, mom. Yes, I’m home. Long flight, but no problems. I can’t wait to see you and tell you all about Italy. When we you get in?”

“My shift ends at two, so I should be home in a couple of hours.”

“Great. I’m going to take a hot shower and crash. Wake me up when you come in.”

“Okay.”

“Oh, and mom?”

“Yes?”

“Why didn’t you warn me about Randy?”

“Who?”

“You know. Randy. Your boyfriend.”

“Sweetheart, I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about. I’ve got to go. One of the preemie’s alarms is beeping.”

“Okay,” Grace said, but the phone had already gone dead.

~ ~ ~

“Sorry, boss. I screwed up.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The girl almost caught me.”

“Skeet, I ain’t gettin’ what you’re telling me. Slow down. What exactly happened?”

“Sorry. Okay. I got the cameras in place on the assignment, and was just about to leave when I saw a taxi cab pull up and the subject’s daughter got out with a suitcase and headed straight for the front door, keys in her hand.”

“Shit.”

“Tell me about it. I had to think quick. So I pulled off my shirt, threw some water on my head to make it look like I just got out of the shower, and was toweling off when I answered the door.”

“You what?”

“Well, on short notice, all I could think of was to pretend I was the mom’s boyfriend.”

“Of all the dumb . . .”

“Hang on, now. I was caught. What should I have done? Anyway, look, it worked out okay. I pulled my shirt back on, said hi, and was out of there in less than a minute. How surprised will she be when her mom lies to her about having a boyfriend?”

“Huh. You say you got the cameras in place?”

“Yes, sir. And I checked to be sure the phone bugs are still there.”

“Well, shit, Skeet, this couldn’t have worked out better if we’d planned it.”

“What? Does that mean I’m not fired?”

“Hell, no, you’re not fired. Not this time, anyway. Look, this way, the girl figures her mother’s lying, but the mother will know it’s a message from whoever’s been warning her to keep quiet. She’ll be scared shitless.”

“What should I do now?”

“Go to the pad and make sure the cameras and microphones and recorders are working. Stock up on food, so you don’t have to leave. Monitor and report. I want to hear every damn word those two women say until the daughter leaves for her new job in Pensacola next week.”

“Got it, Mr. Perlis.”

~ ~ ~

Grace almost fell asleep standing in the fine spray of the shower in the hall bath. Say what you will about the romance of the Italian countryside – and it was considerable – there was nothing like good old American plumbing. She luxuriated in the plentiful hot water, and after drying off and slathering on lotion, pulled on an old cotton sleep shirt and crawled under the covers in her bright yellow bedroom. When you’re travel-tired and jet-lagged, sleep either comes heavy like a near coma, or eludes you entirely. Grace was lucky.

She didn’t even dream, and when she woke up, the late afternoon sun leaking through the wooden shades of her room made a striped pattern of light and dark. She pulled both arms out from under the covers and stretched them up behind her head. Had it been nine months since she had been home? It felt like only a few days, and yet she knew it would take weeks to process all that had happened in Italy. Leaving Carlo had not been easy. It was probably for the best that she would be plunging into a new town, a new job, and a new life in less than a week. Besides, travelling light was her signature, and while the lithe Carlo was charming and fun, she had never thought of him as the love of her life. Truth was, she couldn’t wait to start her first professional job as a staff attorney with Brautigan, Hansen and Lee in Pensacola.

Grace heard the “thwack” sound of the aluminum-frame of the shower door down the hall, threw back the covers and slid her feet into the fuzzy old bunny slippers that were right where she had left them the last time she was home.

“Mom?” Grace called, walking down the hall.

“In here. Come on in.”

Claire’s thin frame was swallowed by a large bath towel wrapped around her and tucked at the top. Her wet brown hair was swaddled in a towel turban, and she was squeezing a line of toothpaste onto a blue toothbrush when Grace pushed open the door.

Without makeup, the new lines on Claire’s face and dark shadows under her eyes were shocking. She seemed to have aged ten years in the past nine months. What on earth’s been going on since I left? Grace recovered herself and put on a bland smile.

“Hi mom.” She learned over and gave Claire a peck on the cheek.   “Throw on some jeans and let’s go over to the hibachi grill.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be ready in fifteen.”

~ ~ ~

The neighborhood hibachi grill restaurant was a little run down, but comfortable. It didn’t matter how empty or full the tables were, Mr. Nota, the owner, insisted that customers wait at the bar for the stars to align themselves for the requisite number of diners at one of the hibachi tables. Grace and Claire perched on rickety stools at the small bar counter. A young man who looked like a younger version of Mr. Nota handed them a laminated sushi menu and asked what they wanted to drink. “Two for one Happy Hour,” he said.

Claire spoke first. “Dirty martini, vodka, dry, two olives.”

“Up or rocks?” the young bartender asked.

“Rocks.”

The bartender looked at Grace, one black eyebrow raised.

“Uhm, ah, I think I’ll have cold sake, please.”

“Yes, ma’am. Sushi?”

“Yes, thanks. You guys still do those crunchy shrimp rolls?”

“Sure do.”

“Great. Bring us an order to share.” Grace looked at Claire, who expressed her assent with a non-committal thumbs-up. Sharing a sushi appetizer at the little restaurant had been a ritual for them all during Grace’s high school years, then later when she would come home from college in Gainesville, law school at Chapel Hill, and now Italy.

Her mom looked smaller than she remembered, and her skin had the sallow tones of a smoker. When had she started biting her fingernails? Claire drank the first of her two-for-one martinis like she was very thirsty and it was a glass of water. She had only eaten one of the crunchy shrimp rolls. Grace was ravenous and had eaten her share and drunk down a glass of water before she had even taken a sip of her cold sake.

She didn’t mean to be evaluating Claire like she was a specimen, but hanging around Ariel for six months volunteering on an archaeological dig had given her a scientist’s eye that had learned to draw conclusions from physical clues of the long dead. A living subject practically screamed. It was clear her mother was unhappy, worried about something, fearful or all of the above. Was Claire ill?

When Mr. Nota gave the signal, they moved from the bar to a nearly full hibachi table. A couple with two young kids in the four to six range were on one side, a moon-eyed pair who looked like they might have just invented sex anchored one end, and Grace and Claire the other. The hackneyed show provided a foil for quickly delivered egg-drop soup and cucumber salad, followed in rapid succession by shrimp and chicken with veggies and fried rice.

By this time, the small restaurant had filled, and the din of clanging knives, the whoosh of sudden columns of fire from the middle of the grills, and shrieks of delighted or terrified children created a hurry-up-and-eat-so-we-can-get-out-of-here feeling in Grace. She had grown accustomed to the laid-back ambiance of the Italian countryside, and this noise and culinary hucksterism jangled her nerves.

She sipped the bitter green tea and dipped bites of shrimp into the ubiquitous ginger soy sauce in a small octagonal white bowl set in front of her plate while she made a mental list of the things she had to do before leaving for her new job in Pensacola next week. Number one on the list was buying a vehicle. She sold her beat-up old Honda that had carried her from her senior year of high school all the way through college at the University of Florida in Gainesville and graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new office was only a few blocks away from the condo she and Ariel had rented, and she imagined she would walk to work. Still,  she needed reliable, gas-efficient transportation. She hoped to spend a lot of time at the beach, and that was about six miles away, across two bridges.

Next on her shopping list was a new wardrobe. How in the heck does a young lawyer in a small coastal town dress? Had she missed the graduate school course on that little nugget? Her current wardrobe consisted of running and hiking gear, black tees and jeans, a couple of pencil skirts and strappy high heels.  She figured a trip to J. Crew, Express, and Ann Taylor would handle the basics to look professional at a reasonable price. Lucky for her, she was going to a beach town, where shorts and t-shirts were acceptable nearly everywhere. On the weekends, she planned to live in her running gear.

“Grace?”

“Sorry, Mom. I was just thinking about how much I’ve got to get done before I leave. I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, but it’s probably just jet lag catching up with me. Let’s stop by the grocery on the way home and pick up some coffee ice cream and eat it in our jammies like we used to.”

“Sounds good. I haven’t done anything that fattening since the last time you were home.”

“You’re way overdue, then, and so am I.”

They paid the tab, picked up two pints of ice cream at the neighborhood store. At home, they changed into their soft clothes and met back up in the living room for ice cream and talk.

The two women chit-chatted about Grace’s trip to Italy. Grace showed Claire photos on her laptop of the villa where she and her best friend, Ariel Lopresti, stayed.  Ariel would be Dr. Lopresti soon, now that she had completed the archaeological project work in Italy that was the final step in the research for her dissertation. She angled for, and got, a job with the University of West Florida’s Anthropology Department, and she and Grace would be sharing a rented condo on the bay in downtown Pensacola where they would both begin new jobs. Grace could hardly wait.

Claire didn’t have a lot to say. Grace tried to pry something more out of her. “Have you been feeling okay, mom?”

“Sure, why do you ask?”

“I don’t know. You just seem a little tired, or something. I just worry you’re not taking good care of yourself.” Truth is, you look miserable.

“Don’t be silly. I’m fine. It’s just this shift work. I’ve been doing it since you were a kid, and you know I love my job, but those revolving shifts can mess with your sleep cycles and make it hard to get enough deep sleep. Plus, you know, I can’t help but fret about those sick little babies in NICU. “ She reached over and patted Grace’s knee. “I’m fine, sweetie. Really.”

“Well, okay,” Grace said. “But Mom, have you considered joining a gym and maybe getting into a smoking cessation program? You’re still young enough to get fit so you can go run with me on the beach when you come to see me in Pensacola.”

Claire laughed and shook her head. “Nice try, kiddo, but that’s just not me.”

“But Mom. . . “

“Hey, I almost forgot to ask you what you meant today when you said I should have warned you about my “boyfriend.” What the heck were you talking about?”

Smooth way to change the subject, Mom. “You really don’t know? Bleached blond boy toy? Kinda cute, kinda young. Rides a Harley.”

Claire sat up straight and turned the three-way lamp on the end table a notch brighter, and leaned in toward Grace. “Grace Ann, what on earth are you talking about? Where did you see this guy?”

Grace could see from her mother’s expression that she was serious. “Here, Mom. He was in the house when the taxi delivered me from the airport this morning.”

Claire looked like she could jump out of her skin. She said, “Tell me exactly what happened. Every word.”

So she did, and as she spoke, Claire seemed to grow increasingly distraught.  “Mom, should we see if anything’s missing? Should we call the police?”

That seemed to get through to Claire. She leaned back in her chair and looked at Grace without saying anything.

“Mom? Are you okay? What about the police?”

Claire ran her right hand up and over her forehead through her hair, then stroked her nose with an index finger for a moment. Grace knew that familiar gesture.

“No, Grace, we don’t need to call anyone.” Claire’s mouth formed a smile. “The truth is, I have been seeing. . . ah. . . Randy, but I felt a little foolish about it and hadn’t planned to tell you. He shouldn’t have still been in the house when you got home.”

“Really?”

Claire looked sheepish and shrugged her shoulders.

“Way to go, Mom!” Grace said. “Far out! Are you serious about him? How did you meet? How long have you been together?”

Claire stood. “Down, girl! I’m way too tired to wade into that swamp tonight. I’m going to bed.” She reached over and squeezed Grace’s right hand, then picked up her pack of cigarettes and lighter and headed toward her bedroom. “Goodnight, Sherlock!”

“Night, Mom.” Grace double-checked to be sure all the doors were locked, then fixed herself a glass of water and turned out the lights as she walked to her bedroom.

A few minutes later she stood at the sink in the hall bathroom brushing her teeth. Mom’s a crappy liar. She doesn’t know that guy from Adam’s house cat.  Why would she lie about that? What the hell? Maybe she does and just wants to shut me down. Who knows?

Grace was still rolling the mystery around in her mind after she had gone to bed. She lay there in the dark, pondering, when she saw a light go on in the hall and listened as Claire went into the kitchen. She heard the unmistakable tinkle of ice cubes, then her mother’s footfalls returning to her room. The lights went off.

Grace turned her thoughts to Carlo and wished he were here under the covers with her. That was her last conscious thought of the night.

 

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