Sheila came rushing back into the house half an hour later. Her hair was windblown from my convertible and her eyes were huge.
"Mama," she said, her voice breathless with anxiety, "we've gotta lock these doors! Some guy is watching the house!"
"What?" I moved over to the window, staring outside at the well-lit driveway. I didn't see anything.
"Yeah, Mama, and he's not doing a real good job of hiding, either. When I got to the top of the street, there he was, leaning against his motorcycle and just staring back down here!"
I tried not to react. I bet this was just what he expected her to do, see him and warn me. Just his way of letting me know he was going to be on the two of us like ugly on an ape.
"It was probably just some guy smoking a cigarette. Your imagination's in overdrive, Sheila."
"You didn't see this guy, Mama. He's tall, and built like a WCW wrestler." Sheila's eyes were huge. "He was wearing nothing but black, even his hair was black. Mama, I swear to God he's watching us!"
"He wasn't wearing a helmet?" I asked.
Sheila gave an impatient shake. "No, Mama, his helmet was on the seat of his bike. It was one of those helmets with a dark windshield over the face. I'm telling you, I know he's dangerous. Once, in this movie, you know, this guy that looked just like him took this socialite captive. And she didn't want him to touch her, but he did anyway and man, Mama!"
"Sheila, stop! You are letting your imagination get the better of you. Now let's stay on task. We don't have time to fool around with strangers on motorcycles and other nonsense such as that." I looked around Vernell's office. "I don't think we're going to find a thing here. We might as well go on home."
Sheila shrugged. "Good idea, maybe that man's still up there. You'll understand me completely when you see him. I'm telling you, he's watching us."
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Honey, it's good that you've got your eyes open, because there is a slight chance that whoever is responsible for your daddy disappearing may come sniffing around us." Sheila's eyes were as big as silver dollars. "I mean, honey, Daddy did make a pile of money, at least on paper, and sometimes people get a little crazy when money's involved."
"Oh my God!" Sheila shrieked. "I could be a kidnapped debutante! I could get shoved in a trunk and…"
"Sheila! Enough! You're not even a debutante. I'm just saying be careful."
Sheila pouted. "Well, Daddy said I was going to make my debut this year."
I kept my mouth shut. Vernell probably meant to showcase Sheila on one of his mobile home commercials. I could hardly see Vernell descending the staircase at the Greensboro Country Club, dressed in his blue polyester leisure suit, escorting Sheila to her debut. No way. Besides, debuts were nothing but glorified selling blocks for young women from high-dollar families. I mean, look at the symbolism. White dresses, proud fathers. It was nothing but a meat market and nothing for my little girl.
"Come on, honey," I said. "Set the alarm and let's go home. For all I know, Vernell's been found and was only on a spur-of-the-moment vacation."
"Yeah, right," she muttered, "and I'm a computer nerd."
"All right, all right!"
We walked out through the garage and Sheila hit a switch on her remote control keychain.
"The system is armed," a disembodied voice said. "Step away from the house and resume your business."
"Where did your daddy find that thing?" I asked Sheila, but she was already sitting in the driver's seat. Great, I thought, now I get to risk life and limb twice in one night.
"Mama, I'm telling you, there was a man on a motorcycle right up here." Sheila pointed to a street lamp at the head of Vernell's cul-de-sac. I looked at the empty spot. It was only the kind of place where someone would stand if he wanted to be obvious. He was warning me. A thrill of fear ran circles around my stomach and crawled up my neck. Until now, Vernell's little sojourns into trouble hadn't been more than harmless accidents. With the arrival of an armed gunman, Vernell had stepped into a category five hurricane of bad karma.
"He's gone," she said, throwing the car into first and peeling out of Vernell's pricey neighborhood. In a few moments Sheila was whizzing across Greensboro, traveling down Battleground Avenue like it was an obstacle course and running yellow lights just as they turned red.
"Sheila, slow down!" I grabbed the sides of my seat as Sheila rushed the split between busy Battleground and Lawndale Avenue. The strip of road, crammed with restaurants and stores, was deluged by suburbanites, all looking to ease the burden of soccer practice and overtime with fast food and video games. My little VW would be no match for a chunky Suburban.
Sheila ignored me, reaching over to switch the radio from my favorite country station to her favorite alternative rock station. I leaned back and tried to breathe. One of the boys in our band, Harmonica Jack, is a big proponent of breathing as a way to nirvana. It wasn't working. To complicate the matter further, a motorcycle wove slowly in and out of traffic, following us about a football field away.
Sheila cranked up the volume, and a woman started moaning about love. Sheila sang along as if she actually knew something about angst. I shook my head and kept my eye on the moon of a mirror that clung to the passenger-side door. Sheila's purse chirped and she fumbled around inside it, all the while driving, singing and running yet another yellow light. I checked; the motorcycle was still with us. It had to be him. He was just the type to dart through red lights.
"Yeah?" Sheila said into the microsized receiver. Irving Park Country Day School apparently failed to instill cellphone etiquette into its students.
"No way!" This was followed by: "You didn't! What did he say? He does?" Sheila's voice softened. True love was apparently waiting in some distant corner of the city. Her tone changed. "No," she sighed. "I can't. We're worried sick about my dad. He's gone off somewhere. I'd better stick close to home. Maybe when he gets back." Her voice trailed off.
I was watching the motorcycle creep up, then fall back, trying to think of what to do next. Sheila's conversation drifted into my consciousness as if on a time delay.
"I think you should," I said suddenly.
Sheila looked over at me, her eyebrow raised. "Should what, Mama?"
"Spend the night with Ashley. That's who it is, isn't it? And that's what she's asking, isn't it?" I looked in the mirror again. "Might take your mind off things a little, and you have a phone. I can always reach you. Besides, nothing's gonna happen tonight. Go on."
Sheila mulled it over, then completely blew it and ran a red light, narrowly missing a blue Lincoln. This accomplished two things: We lost the motorcycle and Sheila was startled into letting me take control.
"That's it!" I said. "You go spend the night with Ashley and get a grip. Your daddy's probably fine. There's nothing you can do in a state like this. Tell her we'll be there in three minutes."
Before Sheila could come up with a good reason to protest, I had yanked her out of the car and deposited her on Ashley's doorstep. Ashley lived in one of the huge old mansions that rimmed Fisher Park. The streets were fairly dark. The house was a fortress of security and Dobermans. There was no better place to leave Sheila. Besides, if push came to shove, Ashley's mother had a black belt.