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"There's a flashlight under the sink in the kitchen," she said. "I've got one in my bedside table. We'll use those."

I followed a dim light that glowed from the stovetop in the kitchen and used it as a beacon to find my way. Vernell's kitchen was a mess. Dishes lay out on the countertops; pots crusted with dried food sat in the sink. Vernell's housekeeping habits had not changed with his new status. An empty fifth of Wild Turkey sat out in the middle of the kitchen table, an overturned silver tumbler next to it. I sighed and touched the bottle. Poor Vernell-his drinking was the one thing holding him back.

I walked out of the kitchen and down the hallway that led to the three-car garage. Vernell's home office was on the right, tucked away like a turtle in its shell. I stepped inside the room and flicked the flashlight around the room. A black velvet Jesus jumped out at me from the far wall, his eyes glowing. My heart flew up to my throat and I made myself count to three to calm down.

When Vernell's brother, Jimmy, died, Vernell had a vision. Jimmy appeared to him and told him, "If you paint it, they will buy." Immediately afterward, Vernell started painting Jesus on all of his satellite dishes. He did a pretty good job of it, too. Black backgrounds and gold trim around Jesus's head and arms. When Vernell got finished, it appeared that Jesus was beckoning from outer space. Jimmy must've known something about retail, because those dishes sold like hotcakes.

I moved toward the desk, slipped into Vernell's chair, and settled in for some serious snooping. Vernell was a packrat and I just knew that somewhere, under all the piles of papers and envelopes, I would find the piece of information that would unlock the entire puzzle.

Vernell owed money to everyone, and apparently hadn't been paying his bills on time. There were second and third notices from the mortgage company, the utility companies, almost every store in town, and every major credit card company. Vernell was no better at paying his bills rich than he was at paying them poor. There was even a letter from the attorney for VanScoy Mobile Homes, offering to buy Vernell out for half a million dollars. But Vernell had scrawled "better in the red than VanScoy dead" across the top of the page, crumpled it up and stuffed it in the middle of a pile of mail.

I was working away, tossing irrelevant papers onto a pile on the floor, when I heard the squeak of the floorboard behind me.

"Find anything, sweetie?" I called absently, not turning to look at her.

"Maybe that's what I should be asking you," a deep voice whispered. "Now don't move and keep those pretty little hands out where I can see them."

"Wait just a minute," I started, then stopped as a cold ring of metal bit into the back of my neck. Whoever he was, he obviously had a gun and the odds were now in his favor. In the same instant I thought of Sheila, blissfully rummaging through her father's belongings on the second floor. What if this man took Vernell, or hurt him? What if he was here to get us?

My heart started banging away in my chest and I felt lightheaded for a second. How had he gotten in? I would've sworn that Sheila had locked the door. Had he been here all along, waiting?

"Whatever you say," I said. "But there's no call for gun-play."

"Who's playing?" he answered, his voice harsh and clipped.

The gun slipped a little, trailing an icy path down my neck, slipping just beneath the collar of my shirt. It wasn't an accident. This man was in complete control.

"Where's Vernell Spivey?" he asked.

"If I knew where my ex-husband was, would I be here? And if he owes you money, take a number." My hands were shaking but I managed to keep my voice from cracking. My brain was working overtime. Who was this guy? If he hadn't taken Vernell, then what did he want? What was he doing here? And better yet, how could I get rid of him?

The gunman laughed softly. "I don't care who he owes or how much he had or hasn't got. I'm just doing my job." I stiffened as the gun nuzzled the back of my ear.

"Does your boss know you're over here threatening Vernell's wife?"

The laugh again, throaty and cruel. "The people that pay me don't care how I get the job done. They want results. So how about you tell me everything you know about your ex and his business."


Sheila's voice broke through the darkness. She was heading for the office. In a minute my daughter would come face to face with an armed gunman.

"All right," I said, staring at Vernell's cluttered desk, not daring to turn around. "Let me get rid of my daughter and I'll tell you everything you want to know. Just don't drag her into this." Please, God, don't let him get to my baby.

"Mama, are you in the office or where?"

"Just hide and let me get her to leave. Please. There's a bathroom right beside that Jesus picture. Get in there. Please!"


I heard his voice, moving behind me toward the bathroom. "You try anything at all," he said, "and your kid'll have automatic ventilation." The door opened just as Sheila made it to the edge of Vernell's office. I was praying he made it in time.

"Were you talking to someone?"

I looked up at her, my eyes flickering over toward Jesus. My chest was tight and I wanted to cry, but I had to get her away from the gunman.

I sighed and frowned, bending forward ever so slightly. "Yeah, I guess I was talking to myself. I can't make heads or tails out of his financial stuff without my reading glasses."

"Well, put'em on!"

I stared up at her, my "nice" face on. "That's just it, baby. I left them back at the house. Be a sweetie and go get them for me? Please? And why don't you stop at Wendy's on your way back and pick us up something good?"

Food did it every time for Sheila. "I don't have any money," she said, her hand automatically reaching out toward the Bank of Mom.

"My purse is on the front seat. Make sure you get a dessert too."

"No way!" Sheila frowned. "Mom, at your age weight gain is very hard to take off."

"Will you just go?"

Sheila looked hurt. "No problem. You don't need to, like, go postal." She flounced off, her footsteps dying away through the garage, the security sensor beeping as she opened the door and walked out to my car. A moment later she was back.

"I've got something in my contact," she announced and headed straight for the bathroom door.

"Wait! Don't go in there!"

Sheila stopped dead in her tracks, whirled around and favored me with a one-eyed glare. "Is it hormones, Mama, or PMS? Whatever it is, you are not holding up well under the. stress. My psychology teacher says…"

"Sheila, I don't give a rat's tail what your teacher says." I could feel my head starting to spin and little dots flashed before my eyes. I was going to have a heart attack or go crazy, one. "I just want you to go get my glasses! Time is of the essence here! Let me look at your eye."

Sheila turned sullen. "No, I'll do it myself." She walked straight into the bathroom, flicking on the light as she entered. My voice choked on her name. He had us both now. I waited for him to confront her, to march her out at gunpoint, but there was only the sound of Sheila running water and muttering under her breath.

In a few minutes she switched out the bathroom light and returned to the study. She glared at me with both eyes, humphed, and marched out of the room. I listened as she crossed the garage floor, opened the door again, and walked outside. This time I heard her slam my car door and a moment later the engine caught and Sheila peeled off out of the driveway. So much for her advice about keeping a low profile.