Authors: Lee Mims
Tags: #mystery, #murder, #humor, #family, #soft-boiled, #regional, #North Carolina, #fiction, #Cleo Cooper, #geologist, #greedy, #soft boiled, #geology, #family member
Hiding Gladys: A Cleo Cooper Mystery
© 2013 by Lee Mims.
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First e-book edition © 2012
E-book ISBN: 9780738734392
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Cover illustration by Ken Joudrey
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Map by Bob Murray
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Did you know that
rattlesnakes don’t rattle? They buzz, actually. Sounds like an angry hornet in a jar. Now, I’m a field geologist and have had some real-life experience with these nasty-tempered creatures, so you can imagine my concern when I thought I heard one while tooling down Highway 70 east in North Carolina at seventy-five miles an hour.
Though I was inclined to believe my imagination was being fueled by a large Mickey D’s iced caramel coffee, I muted Stevie Ray Vaughan on the classic rock channel anyway and listened intently. Hearing nothing, I turned the music back on, glanced up to the rearview mirror, and got absolute confirmation that my day had just taken a decidedly bad turn.
Slithering along the top of the backseat was an eastern diamondback, flicking its tongue, menacing, outraged at being in unfamiliar surroundings. Every muscle in my body tensed—a good thing, or I’d have wet my pants. Yet, frozen with fear as I was, I was still at the wheel of a moving car. Behind me, a horn blared. Jerking back into my lane, I overcorrected. My tires dropped off the right side of the pavement and roiled a trail of dust and road debris until I regained control.
I began to brake and looked back at the rearview.
The snake was gone.
Just then, Tulip, the sweet young deerhound who’d recently adopted me, stood up in the cargo area and sniffed the air. A forty-pound dog ricocheting about inside the Jeep slinging a rattler in her jaws … not good. Nervous sweat dripped down between my breasts even as the conditioner blasted frigid air in my face. Worse, little black dots were floating before my eyes.
Perfect. I was going to pass out.
Calm down. Breathe
. To survive this, I needed a plan. At that very moment, my uninvited passenger came up with his own, sticking his head out from under the seat right between my feet. Forget calm: I shrieked like a banshee, popped my seatbelt, and jerked my legs up under me. Sitting on my feet and still screaming, I held on for dear life as the Jeep careened down the wide shoulder of the raised roadbed.
With a jaw-slamming jolt, the vehicle dropped into a drainage ditch and slid forward, spewing mud, grass, and last year’s cattails like slush from a snowplow until everything came to an abrupt halt.
Everything but me, that is. Sans seatbelt, I flew across the car, crashed into the space between the dash and the windshield, then bounced headfirst back on the passenger seat.
For a moment, the world stopped. There was dead silence. Next thing I knew, I was breaking land-speed records in an open-field dash through soybeans. Tulip streaked past me like a black and tan missile. About mid-field I stopped to gasp for breath.
Slowly, things started coming back into focus as I heard the mechanical buzzing of cicadas in the dense woods beside the bean field and felt the intense rays of the July sun beat down on my back. Tulip’s tags tinkled merrily as she bounded back to me and sat at my feet. I stroked her bony head, straightened up, and stomped back between the lush rows of hip-high plants to the edge of the field.
The sight of my beloved Jeep covered in muck and grass was enough to make me want to sit right down and cry. It looked like a wounded beast that had given up a long struggle to extricate itself from some tar pit and now lay waiting to die.
Where was my purse? In the Jeep, of course. Traffic whizzed by me as I warily crept up on the vehicle like … well, like it had a rattlesnake in it. Then I had a thought and patted the back pocket of my jeans.
Thank you, Jesus
. Instead of putting my cell phone in my purse, I’d shoved it in my back pocket, my new attempt to curb the bad habit of talking while driving. I pulled it out and checked to see if it had been damaged in the melee. It hadn’t.
Flipping it open, I grimaced, rolled my eyes even, but there was nothing else I could do. I had to call my ex-husband for help. Yes, I could have called the roadside service my insurance provided, but I needed help now, and I suspected there was a good chance Bud was on this very highway headed home to Raleigh from the North Carolina coast. He always waited until Monday mornings to return, wanting to avoid Sunday traffic.
He answered immediately. “Cleo, babe,” he chirped. “What a pleasant surprise.”
Bad as I hated it, I said, “Hey, Bud? Are you on the way back from the coast by any chance?”
“Yeah. You sound funny. You okay?”
“I’m fine. I just need a little assistance … getting out of a ditch.”
“Ditch! What happened? Where are you?”
Just the macho overreaction I’d expected. “Calm down,” I said and gave him my location.
Tulip and I were just settling down under a pine tree at the edge of the field to wait for Bud when the sound of a vehicle braking got my attention. I looked up and saw a black Ford Explorer pull onto the shoulder of the highway then back up, firing a hail of gravel against its undercarriage.
I stood, holding tightly to Tulip’s collar. Even before I could read the vanity license plate—ROCK MAN—I knew who it was. My heart started pounding again, but this time it felt good.
Nash Finley climbed out of the black SUV and hurried over. His attire—khakis, polo shirt, and Doc Martens—made it obvious he wasn’t doing field work. I wondered what he was doing down east.
“Oh my gosh, it is you,” Nash said, concern showing in his face. “I saw the Jeep in the ditch and thought it might be yours. Glad to see you’re okay.” Then his face broke into a large grin. “I know you didn’t drive off the road because you were putting on eye liner. What happened?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” I replied sweetly.
Raising an eyebrow, Nash looked at the Jeep then back at me and tried again. “Seriously, Cleo, what happened?” He bent and scratched Tulip behind the ears. She returned his attention with a lukewarm tail wag.
“I’m not real sure.” I wasn’t sure why I was lying to Nash, except that I’ve learned the hard way not to give another geologist unnecessary information. Any talk of how a snake came to be in my car would naturally lead to where I’d been and what I’d been doing, and that was definitely not something I wanted to discuss—especially with the clever Mr. Finley. Nash worked for a small independent quarrying operation in the western part of North Carolina. I’d met him there over a year ago when that company hired me as an acquisitions consultant.
I was divorced at the time and had been for four years, but my heart was still bruised. Besides being very smart, Nash was funny and lighthearted, the kind of guy who makes you feel special. When my consulting gig ended, he’d come to Raleigh a few times and we’d had dinner. I wanted to get to know him better, but then he stopped calling. I’d wondered why and still did, thinking maybe it had been the distance.
“Long time, no see,” I said, forcing a casual tone. “What have you been up to lately?”
“Haven’t you heard, sweet pea? I’m working for GeoTech now. Sales.”
That explained the attire, but it still came as a surprise. GeoTech was the company I’d worked for before I left to start my own consulting business. I said, “Really? Hung up your rock hammer for good, did you?”
“Yeah,” he said. “More money in sales. Right now, however, I’m interested in rescuing you.” He stepped closer and rubbed my back in comforting little circles. “Maybe you fell asleep.”
I felt my shoulders relax a little. A slight hint of Hugo Boss cologne floated on the humid air. “You never know … ” I murmured, leaning into his warm hand. I was feeling a bit cold now that the adrenaline jolt had worn off.
“Let me call triple A,” Nash said, pulling out his cell. “Then I’ll get you right home and make you a drink. You look like you could definitely use one.”
Oh shit. Bud.
He was already on his way, and there wasn’t a chance in hell I could call and get him to carry on with his day. “Really, Nash,” I stammered. “I can take care of—”
The blaring horn of a white pickup drowned me out as it roared past us heading west. I turned to watch my ex-husband flash his brake lights and left-hand blinker.
I looked back at Nash. “So how did I get lucky enough to have you happen by right now?”
Nash tracked Bud’s progress as he slowed for a crossover about half a mile up. Then, turning to me, he said, “I’m headed to a couple of the down-east quarries, just checking on supplies, making sure all my contracts can be met. You know, the usual.”
“Well, I appreciate your stopping, but I’d already called Bud and … you know how he is,” I said lamely.
The truth was, how could Nash
remember? Bud had a habit of “just happening” to drop by the same restaurant in Raleigh where Nash and I were dining. Either he had a network of spies or else had managed to slip a homing device into my Jeep. But you have to admit it would be a pretty advanced tracer that would know to locate me only when my companion was male.
“Yeah, I remember,” Nash said. Then, offering me another grin—an apologetic one this time—he turned to leave. Giving a little wave, he climbed into his SUV. “You’re in good hands,” he assured me and roared off just as Bud whipped across the grass median at one of those places reserved for Highway Patrol and emergency vehicles.
“Oh, shut up,” I said to Tulip, still holding tightly to her collar as she strained to run to Bud. The mere sight of him generally sent her into quivers of delight. She whimpered and gave a dry hack as I pulled her down on her haunches.
My ex-husband, Franklin Donovan Cooper IV—ever grateful to have been nicknamed Bud—climbed out of his 4x4 Chevy and strode purposefully toward me.
“What was that jerk doing here?” he demanded.
“I’m fine,” I said. “Good of you to ask, though.”
“Oh. Sorry.” He squatted to pat my wiggling hound. “You okay, Tulip?” Then he straightened, looked over at my Jeep, and said, “What the hell happened? And, again, what was that jerk doing here?”
“Obviously, I lost control,” I said testily. “And Nash isn’t a jerk. He just happened to pass by on his way down east. He’s working in Raleigh now.”
“Uh-huh,” Bud said, then turned his attention back to my sorry-looking vehicle.
I followed him for a few steps, then stopped and called out, “And before you go any closer, where’s your Glock?”
“In my truck. Why? Where’s your baby nine?”
“Still in there with the rattler,” I said, referring to my Glock 9mm. In case you’re wondering, I carry a gun because my workplace is the great outdoors. Bud carries a gun because besides being an enthusiast, he’s an Eagle Scout. Always prepared.
Bud stopped in his tracks and backed up a few steps. “Rattler?”
He executed a quick about-face and walked back to me. “You want to start at the beginning, Cleo?”
“Well, I was heading to Gladys Walton’s house to make sure she knows what to expect when the drill crew comes in next week and … ” I stopped at the look of confusion on his face. “What?”
If I’d been a cartoon character, my head would have inflated like a balloon and steam would have geysered out of my ears. “You see?” I said. “This is why we aren’t married anymore. No matter how many times I tell you what I’m doing, you don’t seem to remember. Could it be that what I do is of no importance to you?”
“Could it be that you don’t do anything that’s all that important? Anyway, since you barely make enough money to keep body and soul together, this … this private consulting business of yours”—he said it like it was a disease—“shouldn’t be important to you either.”
Hands on hips, I glared at Bud. He glared back at me. Finally, he sighed and said, “What do you say we skip the oldies but goodies. Just tell me how a damn snake got in your car.”
“Fine.” I crossed my arms over my chest, regained my composure, and continued. “Honestly, I don’t have a clue how it got in there.”
Bud pondered the question only about two seconds, then said, “Well, considering all the places you take that Jeep, it probably just crawled in. Where have you been today? Besides this Gladys person’s house.”
My eyes narrowed and I squeezed my lips together until I had control of my words. “I haven’t
to her house yet, and just for the record, she owns the land I have an option on. I was headed there to prepare for test drilling. The only place I’ve parked since last night is my house and McDonald’s in Goldsboro this morning. I was only inside a few minutes.”
“Did you lock the doors?”
“Probably,” I said, looking to the clouds for clarity. “But just as probably not,” I conceded.
Bud was quiet for a few moments as he stared at the Jeep, chewing the inside of his cheek—an irritating habit I shouldn’t have to put up with anymore. Then he pointed. “Whoa! Looks like that snake’s feeling right at home.”
I looked and sure enough there was the rattler, stretched out on the dash enjoying a little sunbath.
“Bud. Are you going to help me out here or not? I’m kind of pressed for time.”
He looked at me, tilting his head. “You going to feed me dinner tonight?”
“Sure,” I said without a trace of guilt, despite the fact that I knew I wouldn’t be back home in Raleigh for several days.
“You throwing in some dessert too?” He asked as he slipped an arm around my waist and leaned in to nuzzle his nose behind my ear. “I mean, it is a rattlesnake … ”
I pushed him away, giving the same little smile that was second nature after twenty years of marriage. It committed me to nothing. It left the door open, though, and okay, I know—that was bad. So was the fact that since our divorce was finalized almost five years ago, we’ve both slipped up and slid back together from time to time.
But in my defense, old habits are hard to break and I was very young when I married Bud, only twenty years old. I’m forty-five now, but that doesn’t mean I’m not human. Moreover, every time a slip-up has happened, some type of unusual situation was involved. And I’ve been very stern with myself afterward and made stronger resolutions never to let it happen again. And seriously, no way was I was going to deal with a rattlesnake on my own if I didn’t have to.