I awoke the next morning a little before noon. The house was blessedly silent, which helped soothe my throbbing head. I shuffled to the kitchen and found a note on the counter, propped up against a bottle of Tylenol.
“Took the kids to Dylan’s soccer practice and lunch. Be home around 2:00.
P.S. Hope you had fun last night.”
The kids had scribbled X’s and O’s around the outside edge to make a loving border of hugs and kisses. I gratefully swallowed a few pills and trudged into the bathroom. I was just stepping out of the shower when I heard the doorbell ring. I hurriedly yanked on my favorite jeans and a t-shirt, and answered the door still towel-drying my hair. Heather bustled past me, talking a mile a minute. She seemed completely unaware of my own tentative movements and pounding head, despite the fact that my face was as green as my shirt.
As I listened to her, a snippet of the night before popped into my head: I’d made Heather and Bethany promise me we would sleep at Mrs. Matilda’s house tonight in hopes of catching her intruder. In broad daylight, my drunken plotting from the night before seemed absurd. Had I really come up with such a hair-brained scheme?
Apparently I had, I realized as I listened to Heather prattle on. My sour stomach convulsed and I swallowed hard in an attempt to calm it. I desperately struggled to find a monkey wrench to throw into the works. All I could come up with, though, was to wonder aloud how we would keep Mrs. Matilda out of her house; especially if she saw our suspicious presences there.
Heather was quick to shoot me down. She’d gone to Ms. Gertie’s house before mine and had a talk with Mrs. Matilda. Heather got side-tracked as she told me about her unexpected arrival at their home.
“You’ll never guess what they were doing!” she said.
“What?” I asked, unsure if I really wanted to know.
“Ms. Gertie was plucking the old gal’s eyebrows!” Heather snorted with laughter. “And she got Matilda to wax her lip and chin, and she still had the telltale red welts to prove it. They said they were just giving each other facials but Matilda looked just like a rodeo clown! I lied pretty convincingly, if I do say so myself, and told her with a straight face how lovely she looked.”
We both laughed for a minute before she went on to tell me she’d “put a bug in Matilda’s ear,” and told her that I’d seen a cockroach in her kitchen the last time I was there.
I was incredulous. “Me?”
Heather nodded with wide-eyed innocence. “I told her we would do the neighborly thing and fumigate her house tonight.”
“I can’t believe she’d even care. Roaches are the least of her worries.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, other than she did.” Heather shrugged. “She gave me the go-ahead and her house keys.”
I was impressed by Heather’s deceit: it would not only explain our presence in Mrs. Matilda’s house, it would also keep her out of it for at least twenty-four hours. I knew Heather had truly thought of everything when she provided me with a cover story for Bill.
“You just tell him we’re having a farewell slumber party for Mrs. Matilda.”
I was still reluctant to lie to Bill, though. But after mulling it over for a few minutes, I decided it was the best course of action. The excuse Heather had provided me with was close enough to the truth for me to not feel too guilty. I knew I couldn’t just tell Bill the truth; he’d never let me go through with it. He loved me too much to allow me to put myself in such a potentially dangerous situation. I was suddenly galvanized by the prospect. Perhaps, I mused, Heather wasn’t the only one who had been secretly yearning for some excitement in her mundane life.
Before Heather and I could scheme any further, I decided to call Officer Jackson. His voice mail picked up after one ring and I left him a message. I simply requested there be extra patrol cars tonight, “because I think something’s going down.” It wasn’t until after I’d hung up that I realized I hadn’t left my name. I hoped he took it seriously. Bethany arrived just as I hung up the phone.
“Come on,” Heather said before Bethany could sit down. “Walk me home and we’ll talk along the way.”
Heather and I updated Bethany as we walked and by the time we’d reached Heather’s driveway, Bethany agreed to go along with our lies. She promised to keep them straight: as far as Bill knew, we were having a slumber party and according to Mrs. Matilda, we were fumigating her house.
She was also on-board with my plan, which was quite simple really. We would lay in wait to ambush the intruder when he arrived. Then we’d call the police and wait for them to catch him and they’d get to take all the glory. I didn’t mind if the police took credit for the apprehension because I wasn’t in it for the fifteen minutes of fame. I was doing it because he’d violated the sanctity of my home, therefore making it extremely personal to me. He needed to go down and I wanted to be the one to take him down, it was as simple as that.
We huddled on the sidewalk in front of Heather’s misshapen house as we talked. A few dogwood blossoms drifted down around us like snowflakes. We agreed to meet at Mrs. Matilda’s vacant house at six o’clock that evening and Heather began walking up her long driveway. Bethany and I headed back the way we’d come, and by the time I got home I had a list in my mind of the supplies I would need for the night ahead.
Bill and the kids were home when I arrived. I felt incredibly guilty about missing Dylan’s soccer practice, especially in light of my impending sleep-over. I listened attentively to him talk about all the balls he’d blocked as the goalie. Apparently, kicking was the only thing he sucked at; he sounded quite good at getting hit by balls.
I waited until he was finished before telling them about my slumber party plans. Katie Nicole was unusually obliging about the idea, probably because of her own slumber party at Kiley’s house. Bill thought the farewell slumber party was a terrific idea, and in typical form, he suggested we hire a stripper for Mrs. Matilda.
“Looks like it’s just you and me tonight,” Bill said to Dylan.
Dylan promptly suggested a slumber party of their own. Bill promptly changed the name into the more masculine-sounding “camp-out under the stars,” and they were both satisfied. Before I knew it, the guys were rummaging through the garage, looking for the pop-up tent. They had it pitched in no time, and I crouched in it for a minute before heading inside to start some laundry.
I saw the mailman walk by just then, so I checked our box before sorting the laundry. There was an official manilla envelope from Lenore and a stack of bills and junk mail. I ripped open the one from Lenore and let out a “Whoop!” when a check for ‘A Puppy’s Tale’ fluttered down to the counter.
I suddenly remembered the check Heather had also given me the night before. I threw away the junk mail and took the bills and my new check to the bedroom. I began to dig through the hamper, wondering how so many dirty clothes had piled up in just a few days. I found the shorts I’d been wearing, and was glad I’d been too hung-over to start laundry first thing in the morning like I usually did.
I added Heather’s substantial check to my growing stash in the jewelry box. It occurred to me that I’d been extremely lucky the burglar hadn’t gotten into my jewelry box yet, like he had Ruth’s. I decided to pay the bank a visit on Monday morning, and finally open a Neighborhood Watch account with the check I’d been given upon my presidential nomination. While I was at it, I decided to open a safe deposit box for the valuables Mrs. Matilda and Ms. Gertie had given me. I also needed to deposit my personal checks into another account. I had a check from Heather, another from Ruth, and still another from the sale of ‘Celestial Flight.’ Plus, the one I’d just received for ‘A Puppy’s Tale.’ I would deposit all of those checks into a special account I’d opened years ago; mentally labeled: Kids College Fund. Do Not Touch with a Ten-foot Pole.
I drove Katie Nicole to her own slumber party before I prepared to leave for my own. My preparations included changing into a pair of comfy shorts, pulling my hair back into a ponytail, and packing my toothbrush into my purse. It only took me a few minutes to run across the street to borrow Amanda’s stun gun.
It would have taken less time, but Amanda insisted on knowing why I wanted to borrow it. I hadn’t prepared a lie, so I simply blurted out the truth. Surprisingly, Amanda would only let me borrow her stun gun on the condition she could accompany me to Mrs. Matilda’s house. She never failed to catch me off-guard, and I agreed with a condition of my own: she had to keep it a secret for now, because I hadn’t told Bill what I was really up to. She handed over her stun gun without any qualms about lying to her own family, and we agreed to meet out front in a few minutes.
I rushed home and made sure my cell phone was fully charged, then I added it to the rope and stun gun to my bulging purse. I took a minute to calm my breathing before saying goodbye to the guys; it wouldn’t do to look too excited about going to a slumber party.
The guys were already set up in the backyard with a small bonfire blazing in readiness for the hot dogs and marshmallows yet to come. The “No Girls” rule was lifted long enough for me to kiss them before I hurried to meet Amanda.
Although we were punctual, Heather and Bethany were already seated in the formidable living room. I immediately turned on a stained glass Tiffany lamp. It immediately responded by buzzing and flickering before the bulb blew with a loud snap. I turned on a different lamp and it buzzed, as well. But it remained lit with a minimum of flickering, and succeeded in illuminating a small circle of the room. It was better than nothing and I settled myself into an armchair closest to the patch of humming light.
Mrs. Matilda’s house had been closed up for so long that the cellar-smell I always associated with it had turned into something else altogether. It now reminded me of the stagnant water in the bottom of an unused wishing well. We were supposed to be exterminating, so we couldn’t open the windows, and we sat in the stifling room, amongst stacks of boxes, and looked at each other. I felt my scalp begin to dampen with perspiration and I was glad I’d put on shorts.
“So, what’s the plan?” Bethany asked me.
“Subdue him, call the police, and detain him until they arrive,” I said.
“Subdue him? Detain him?” she asked. “I thought we were just going to call the cops!”
I shrugged. “We are. They just might not get here in time.”
Bethany reminded me of their “surprisingly rapid respond times to the nicer neighborhoods in town.”
Heather rolled her eyes with contempt. “They might not be rapid enough.”
“Subdue him how?” Bethany demanded. “Detain him how?”
“I have Mace,” Amanda offered.
I grabbed my oversized bag from between my feet and plopped it in my lap before answering. “Subdue him with this,” I reached into my purse and withdrew the stun gun. “Then call the police with this,” I showed her my cell phone. “And detain him with this,” I pulled out a coil of rope.
“And if that doesn’t work, I’ve always got this,” Heather added, pulling a pistol out of her Gucci handbag.
Bethany gasped, and I looked at Heather with a new-found respect.
“Put that away before you shoot yourself,” Bethany scolded.
Heather was indignant and explained how she always carried a gun. She even had a concealed weapons permit. Bethany and I must have still been staring at her blankly because she said, “I grew up a gun-toting mama in the Lone Star State.”
Bethany finally acquiesced to my relentless determination. I forced all of the bravado I could muster to look her in the eyes and answer all of her questions. She eventually ran out of protests and catapulted to our side. For the rest of the long evening, she mostly sat quietly in the corner.
Even I had plenty of time to reconsider my plan during the remainder of the evening. It occurred to me that the intruder could be armed with a weapon of his own. Or he could take Heather’s gun away from her. Or he could use my borrowed stun gun on me! When Bethany voiced similar concerns, though, I was the first to try and allay her fears by pointing out the odds were definitely in our favor.
“It’s four against one. Besides, the guy Mrs. Matilda described was scrawny,” I said.
By the time darkness descended, it was too late to change our minds even if we still wanted to. A part of me hoped the intruder wouldn’t make an appearance at all. But the bigger part of me hoped he did.
“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” I said from the peculiar-smelling confines of Mrs. Matilda’s four-poster bed linens. The mattress beneath me was hard and lumpy, and squeaked loudly every time I shifted my weight. The wool quilt atop me was heavy and itched, and smelled like it had come from the geriatric ward of a hospital.
“You cheated,” I said a little louder, so Bethany could hear me from inside the cramped armoire across the room.
“You can’t cheat at a coin toss,” Bethany’s muffled voice said before we both fell silent again.
I stretched, causing a loud squeal to emit from the box springs below, and I knew I’d gotten the better of the two deals. At least I wasn’t huddled on the floor of the armoire, concealed amongst Mrs. Matilda’s mothball-scented clothes.
Amanda had chosen to act as our back-up, and was stretched out on the floor under the spare room’s bed. Faintly, I heard her sneeze.
Heather had gotten the best, or worst, deal of all of us, depending on how you looked at it. She was downstairs, perched on the landing of the staircase by the front door. She was our first line of defense because she had the only real gun. In case the intruder got around her, or entered through a different route, Bethany and I were waiting in the bedroom, with Amanda right across the hall. Mrs. Matilda’s bedroom had been breached repeatedly by the intruder, so it stood to reason he would return one last time.
I fluffed the goose down pillows surrounding my body, trying in vain to plump up my appearance to look more like Mrs. Matilda’s massive girth. Hopefully, no one would get close enough to notice, I thought. The stun gun gouged my belly, and I hoped I wouldn’t accidentally zap myself with it. When I tried to adjust it, the bed squealed like a stuck pig. Sweat trickled down my face, neck, and chest. My armpits stuck together. Sweat even ran down the crack of my ass.
I dozed off eventually and awakened sometime later with a jolting twitch. I peered around the dark room. Through the fringe of my lashes, I saw a man’s silhouette lurking in the open doorway. The only thing I could clearly make out was the burning ember of his cigarette. He took a drag, and the inhalation caused the cherry to brighten, but instead of illuminating his face, it turned it into a grotesque mask of horror.
He stood there for a few minutes, not moving a muscle. Then he stealthily picked his way across the darkened room. He moved in a familiar way, reminding me of a blind man moving about in his own bedroom. I waited until he was at the foot of the bed, squarely between the two posts, before making my move.
Screaming like a banshee, I leaped across the bed in a single bound. I intended to land on his back and knock him flat. Then I would stun gun his ass; or whatever body part I could get to. Unfortunately, my legs tangled in the suffocating quilt and I fell considerably short of my mark. I landed on the floor by his feet and the stun gun went clattering across the floor.
I heard the sharp discharge of a pistol over the sounds of my piercing shrieks. I grabbed the intruder around his ankle and jerked with all my might. I hoped to throw him off-balance, but only succeeded in dragging myself up close and personal to his hairy shin. I bit his Achilles tendon just above the top of his Converse sneakers and he dropped like a stone, landing on my head like a boulder. My chin crashed into the floor and I saw stars. My teeth clicked together on my tongue and I tasted blood. Heather fired her gun again just as the intruder scrambled to his feet.
“Stop shooting and call the police!” I screamed.
Bethany chose that moment to pop out and grab the intruder’s newly-acquired bum leg. He struggled to break her grasp, slipped on the quilt, and thudded to the floor again. I rolled over and straddled him the second his back hit the hardwood floor. The quilt was draped around us like a lover’s embrace, casting his face in deep shadows. He grabbed my upper arms and tossed me aside like a rag doll. For a scrawny guy, he was surprisingly strong!
“Hey!” I yelled at him.
The quilt remained steadfastly wrapped around him as he ran out the door. I heard a solid thump, like a hefty bag of laundry being dropped, followed by the receding sound of running footsteps. I sprung up and hauled Bethany to her feet. I promptly tripped over Heather, who was sprawled on the hallway floor. I stumbled, but regained my balance and grabbed Heather’s hand. I pulled both of them along behind me like they were my kids. Amanda scrambled out from under the bed and joined us in the hallway.
“How’d he get by you?” I chided Heather.
“I don’t know,” she panted as we ran down the stairs. “I guess I fell asleep.”
We pounded to the bottom of the stairs, and I noticed his cigarette glowing on the landing. I was amazed he’d managed to hang onto it during the struggle but had somehow lost it when he’d jumped the bottom steps.
We raced onto the front porch and could clearly see by the light of the full moon the intruder charging across the street. The quilt was still entwined around his shoulders and it trailed behind him like a cape. The Super Intruder, I snickered to myself, with a near hysterical giggle. He ran straight to Heather’s gate, placed one hand on the post, and bounded over it like a deer. He quickly disappeared into the blackness of her backyard.
Suddenly the night was filled with strobing red lights and yodeling sirens. Three police cars screeched to haphazard stops in the middle of the street. They simultaneously blocked our path and kept us from tracking our prey any further. Uniformed officers, with guns already drawn, spilled out of the cars and charged to the rear of Heather’s house. We glanced at each other before stepping around the cars and joining the action in her backyard.
Blazing, high-powered flashlights illuminated the scene before us. A dark-haired man’s thin frame was stretched out face-down on the grass with his sinewy arms handcuffed behind his back. Officer Jackson’s foot was planted squarely between his bony shoulder blades. Mrs. Matilda’s quilt lay in a heap nearby. His head was mere inches away from the stone foundation of Heather’s house. Just then a light flicked on from the window directly above him and he struggled to raise his head. The yellow glow shone brightly on Chavez’s upturned face.
“Where were you running to?” asked Officer Jackson.
Tiffani’s frightened face appeared in the lit window. Another police officer, who was hovering nearby, looked from Tiffani’s questioning look to Chavez’s back. The officer’s mouth turned down into a sneer of contempt.
“Don’t tell me we just caught ourselves a rapist,” he said.
“I’m no rapist,” spat Chavez, squirming around to face his accuser. He looked exactly like the oversized worm that he was.
“What were you doing here, then?” Officer Jackson demanded.
Chavez wriggled some more and his foot struck the house with a metallic clank. Officer Jackson aimed his flashlight at the sound, and at the same instant I noticed the crawl space door was ajar.
Yet another policeman joined the fray, and popped off the door with gloved hands. A bulging burlap sack rested on the dirt. The officer extracted the bag and peered inside. A few more officers crowded around and began to exclaim over the contents.
“I did it all for you,” Chavez shouted at Tiffani’s window. “So we could be together. I love you. . .” he managed to choke out before he began to sob.
Between the officer’s broad backs, I caught a glimpse of jewelry, antique knickknacks, silverware, and more; so much more all jumbled together in the burlap bag. Tiffani opened her window a few inches.
“So, you weren’t just coming to see me all those nights I caught you sneaking around my window!” She slammed the window closed and drew the blinds.
Officer Jackson jerked Chavez to his feet, and successfully blocked my view before I could see anything else in the bag. He read Chavez his rights and patted him down. A cell phone and a set of keys were tossed down onto the ground. I was relieved to see Chavez hadn’t been armed with a weapon.
“Those are my spare keys from underneath the flower pot on my front porch,” Mrs. Matilda’s familiar throaty voice bellowed.
“Guess that explains how he got in,” Heather said in my ear.
“Back it up, everybody!” an amplified voice blared from behind me. I turned and saw a young policeman holding a bullhorn up to his lips. Beyond him, I could see half my neighborhood gawking around in sleepy confusion. Ms. Gertie, who was standing a few feet away, was talking to a harried-looking policewoman. I heard her say they’d responded so quickly because a patrol car had been at the end of Rain Lane when the first shot was fired. I began to retreat, trying to disappear amongst the shadows and the crowd.
“That’s my mother-in-law’s silver serving platter,” Amanda was saying as I walked by her.
“I didn’t know it was missing,” Jeremiah said.
“Oh, not now,” Amanda sighed.
“And that’s my mama!” Mrs. Matilda wailed.
I turned in time to see the bullhorn-toting rookie’s left foot bump into the urn I had sketched. As I watched, it tipped over onto the grass amidst a cloud of sooty powder. Ms. Gertie stepped forward and wrapped her arms around Mrs. Matilda as she began to weep.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake!” Officer Jackson began chewing the rookie a new ass.
I continued retreating, hoping to avoid Officer Jackson and anyone else I knew. I managed to reach the corner of Heather’s house without being recognized, and I paused to lean against it and heave a sigh of relief. Now that the excitement was over, I was left with shaking legs and frayed nerves. I bent over, hands on my knees, to take a few deep breaths in hopes of calming myself. On my second inhalation I thought I smelled something unusual. I stood up and sniffed the air. I walked to the front corner of Heather’s house and stopped in my tracks.
Down Heather’s sloping lawn and across the street sat Mrs. Matilda’s house --- completely engulfed in flames! I remembered Chavez’s dropped cigarette, all the cardboard boxes and hardwood floors, and the total lack of rain we’d recently been experiencing and I opened my mouth to shout, “Fire!” But before I could, someone beat me to it.
“Fire! Fire!” I heard the same childish voice holler.
I squinted around in the darkness and finally saw Dylan and Bill standing in the shadows at the end of Heather’s driveway. Henry stood a few feet away, completely mesmerized by the sight before him. They were watching the fire raging throughout the entire downstairs, and were so engrossed in the spectacle that they didn’t notice me approaching. I was practically upon them when Officer Jackson, followed by two rookie cops, ran past me. Officer Jackson was struggling to talk into his shoulder mike as he ran, and he paused right beside Bill to catch his breath and assess the inferno before them.
“Officers already are on the scene,” he snapped into the mike at the squawking voice emitting from it. “Along with most of the volunteer firemen. They’re heading back to the station now for the trucks. Over.”
I turned as I heard the familiar sound of Mrs. Matilda’s shuffling gait, punctuated by the thump of her cane. She stopped beside me and stood with her mouth hanging open, and the reflection from the flames danced on her glasses. I leaned against her to whisper in her ear.
“Looks like your prayers for a natural disaster were answered.”
Before she could respond, Officer Jackson asked in a loud voice, “Does anyone know who’s house this is?”
Mrs. Matilda stepped forward. “It’s mine.”
“The fire department is on the way,” he assured her, patting her on the shoulder as he spoke.
“Tell them there’s no hurry; it looks like it’s a goner to me,” Mrs. Matilda said.
We studied the flames as they climbed to the second floor and the downstairs windows began to explode. As they did, flames and smoke poured out into the still night air. I could hear the approaching sound of sirens, growing louder and more frenzied-sounding by the passing second. The three of us turned to face one another again.
“Judging by the looks of it, I have to agree with you,” Officer Jackson said. “It probably is a complete loss, but the fire fighters can at least keep it contained. We don’t want the whole neighborhood to go up in a puff of smoke.” He turned to give Mrs. Matilda a sharp look. “Is there anyone in there? A pet or anything?”
She began shaking her head before he’d even gotten the last word out of his mouth. “In fact,” she said, “I just moved out and had an auction planned for Sunday.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that anymore,” I said.
“I hope you have insurance,” Officer Jackson said.
“Oh yes,” Mrs. Matilda smiled smugly and gazed at her house as it burned like a torch.
I patted her hand reassuringly before turning to go, but Bill was blocking my path, wearing a scowl on his face.
“I should have known,” he said in a low voice, taking me by the hand before leading Dylan and me away. I felt like an errant child and I glanced over at Dylan to see his reaction. I was reassured to see a happy smile on his face.
“Should have known what?” I asked when we reached the sidewalk.
“That where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” he said. He stopped walking so he could look me in the eye. “Or in this case, where there’s smoke, there’s Cami Jo.”
“I’m sorry,” I said sheepishly.
“For what?” he snapped. “For lying to me about what you were really doing tonight or for scaring the shit out of me?”
I shrugged. “Both, I guess.”
He sighed. “Are you okay?”
I thought about it for a second, and was surprised to realize I was. My chin was sore from bashing into the floor, but that was about it. Bill sighed again and shook his head at me before his face softened. He pulled me into his arms, inadvertently crushing my bruised face against his strong chest. We held hands as we walked slowly home. We were on our front porch before Dylan felt the tension between us completely evaporate.
He looked at me, his eyes sparkling with glee. “Dad said the ‘sh’ word.”
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