Выбрать главу

She raised up slowly onto her elbows, her stick-straight red hair spilling around her freckled, tear-swollen face. She was a mess, but she stopped in midcry when she saw my face.

"It's not nearly as bad as it looks," I said.

"Oh my God! Who did that to you?" She drew her lanky frame up into a lotus position in the middle of Mama's yellow wedding-ring quilt. She was using her affected New York accent.

"Pride," I said, knowing she wouldn't let it go at that.

"Pride? You know somebody named Pride?"

I slung my purse down onto the dresser and looked into the mirror. My nose stood out between my green eyes like a Mercedes on a sucker lot. The skin around my eyes was puffy and starting to glow red and a bit purple. I touched it gently and winced. It hurt, but it wasn't broken.

"It was an accident. I ran into a door at the police department."

Sheila started to smile. "I knew you'd go see him," she said. "And after you gave me that big lecture on waiting for the boy to call you!"

That was when I knew for certain my concern for Vernell hadn't spilled over onto Sheila.

"You didn't go to school today, did you?" I asked, not quite ready to broach the Vernell subject.

Sheila's eyes narrowed and her face flushed the telltale way it does when she's done wrong.

"Did the headmaster call you?"

Sheila attends the Irving Park Country Day School because her father insists. He sees it as yet another way of clawing up into Greensboro society. I try to tell him that money can't buy breeding, but he wants his picture sprawled across the newspaper's society page, hobnobbing with the la-de-dahs at the Heart Ball.

"I had cramps," she said, sliding back down onto the bed. "I just couldn't make myself go."

Self-discipline was another one of Sheila's "opportunities for growth." She'd learned about this in her psychology class and now every time I tried to call her onto the carpet for slacking off, she'd call it a "growth opportunity" and say she was "working on it." I'd about had it with Sheila's personal growth.

"Well," I said, "it's probably for the best anyhow. We've got a problem. Your daddy's missing along with almost all of his money. I'm going to need your help."

The pretense fell away from Sheila. She sat up, started at me for a minute, and then decided I was serious.

"What happened? Where is he? Is he all right?"

I went over to her, sat down and looked straight into her eyes. "Sheila, we don't know. No one knows, but everyone's looking for him."

Sheila's face went still and pale. I could see her working to control her emotions, and it wasn't going well. She bit her bottom lip, but her chin quivered.

"Did someone hurt him?"

I reached out a hand and stroked her arm. "I don't know, honey. I'm going to find out."

"Do you think he left?"

I wasn't going to lie or sugarcoat the truth. "Some folks think so. I don't. Your dad's got his shortcomings, but he wouldn't leave you."

Sheila folded up like a hinged chair, drawing her legs up to her chest, wrapping her arms around them and laying her head on top of her knees. Her hair spilled around her like a sheet of silky satin. She sighed, her thin shoulders moving with each breath. I stretched out my hand and touched her, letting my fingers rest gently on her arm, a reminder that I was still there with her. After a minute she raised her head and it was my Sheila, back again, strong and tough.

"Okay," she said, her voice clear. "Let's go get Daddy!"

I smiled at her. "I think we should start with his castle."

"Oh, most definitely," she said. "Daddy's house is a mess. I'm sure we'll find tons of sh… um, clues, there."

She was up and moving, grabbing her small leather backpack purse and looking back at me with her usual air of impatience.

"So, like, are you coming or what?"

Mama said once, "You can't skin a rattlesnake with a toothbrush." She was cautioning me about not studying for a test in high school, but it clearly applied here. Sheila was loaded for bear, all right, and ready to go find her daddy, but what did we know about tracking down a missing person?

I thought about Detective Marshall J. Weathers and had a pang of regret. I needed his help and expertise. It would've been nice to know I could count on him, or to feel we were working together to find Vernell, but this was the same man who'd promised to call and vanished. Now he'd said he'd help me, but what kind of guarantee was that? Maybe it meant he'd file a report and forget about it. Maybe it meant less than that. Maybe it was all talk. No, Sheila and I were on our own, tracking down a man who'd cheated on me, left me, and still, in his heart of hearts, loved me.

Chapter Three

I ate, has a funny way of slapping you in the face. I don't say that on account of Tracy the police cadet whopping me with a thick, steel door. I'm just making the observation. Every time I think I'm in control and in charge of my life, something happens. Vernell's house was just another reminder.

Who knew Vernell would amount to something? I guess I thought we wouldn't starve when I ran off with him, pregnant and in love and barely as old as my Sheila is now. But I never thought he'd parlay an empty plot of land into a few million dollars' worth of hype and commotion. Vernell Spivey, The Mobile Home King. Then, Vernell Spivey, The King of the Satellite Dish.

I thought about it every time I pulled my VW up into his driveway. Don't get me wrong, I don't regret his leaving and I sure don't miss his money.

"Mama," Sheila said, her voice sharpening to get my attention. "Let's go!" Sheila, never slow to move unless it involved chores or homework, set off for the front door, her key in hand. As she moved through the early evening darkness, motion lights flashed on, lighting her way and bathing the concrete castle in a warm golden glow. By the time I reached Sheila's side, she was disarming Vernell's security system, punching her birth date into the keypad and hitting the light switch. The huge crystal chandelier lit up like a birthday cake. The marble foyer was empty and I realized I'd been holding my breath, half expecting to find Vernell's body on the cold floor.

Vernell's mansion looked just as it always did, uninviting and overdecorated. Come to think of it, it looked just like Vernell's ex-wife, Jolene. I chuckled silently and moved past Sheila.

"I'll take the downstairs," I said. "Why don't you look around upstairs?"

"Gotcha," she said, moving at warp speed to the sweeping staircase. "Remember, don't touch too much. In fact, I think I have a pair of gloves that came in my hair dye box. You want them?"

I looked up at her and choked off a laugh. Her face was set in a hard line of determination. She was going to find her daddy.

"No, baby," I said. "I'll be careful. Why don't you use them? Anyways, there's bound to be some of those yellow rubber things under the sink." Jolene would never have risked chipping a nail on something as mundane as a dish. In fact, I doubted she ever washed so much as a saucer. But there would be gloves in place, just for show, just in case she had to act like the little homemaker in front of company. Too bad the girl was doing time in Raleigh, otherwise I'd know she was somehow behind Vernell's sudden disappearance.

Sheila reached out and hit a switch, plunging the house into almost total darkness.

"What did you do that for?"

"Mama," she whispered, her disembodied voice floating out into the air above my head, "don't you watch TV? We don't want to be seen." She didn't say by what or by whom, and I let her have it her way. If it made her feel better to be in charge, well, it certainly wasn't hurting anything.