Naughty Follies: Short Stories

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Shady Grove Ch. 8

Not surprisingly, an emergency T&A meeting was held the following night. Abigail didn’t want to go, but did, if for no other reason than to learn what the others knew. The room was crowded but not at full capacity, and Gerald leaned casually against the back wall with nothing to do. Quinn was already there, but when Abigail tried to take the seat next to her, Quinn reached across it, saying, “Sorry, Abby, I’m saving this for Clint.” A shunned Abigail took a seat behind Quinn.

As if Marty’s gavel were a starter’s pistol, arguments between residents broke out immediately. “Walls talk, honey,” Charles Davis said, to Claire Winston of course.

“If it were me, do you think I would keep coming to these meetings, moron?”

“Hiding in plain sight.”

“What if the culprit doesn’t even live here?” Another woman asked. “Maybe she’s just a visitor?”

“Maybe it’s you, then!” Charles said, finally laying his eyes on someone other than Claire. More than a few squinty eyes beamed at the woman from across the room.

“Me? How dare you?”

“You’re out of order, Chuck!” Marty shouted, banging his gavel again. “If everyone can settle down, we can hear from our highly-trained tactical surveillance team, the Night Watch. Let’s begin with Captain Madeleine Embers. Captain Embers? Are you here?” All heads swiveled in unison, except Abigail’s. “Perhaps Captain Embers is conducting important business at the moment.” Yeah, you bet she is, Abigail muttered to herself. “Embers can report out whenever she arrives. So let’s move on and hear from Captain Chalmers.”

Glenn Chalmers, an awkward forty-something man with a patchy beard, strode to the front of the room carrying a paper bag, the contents of which clanged as he walked. He put on his reading glasses and read from a small notebook: “On Monday the sixteenth, at approximately twenty-one hundred hours, which you laypeople refer to as nine o’clock, my subordinate and I detected a disturbance at Building Three. We approached from the northwest corner and began our covert recon. What we found was troubling.”

Building Three was Madeleine’s building, and Abigail winced.

Captain Chalmers picked up the bag and continued reading. “This bag contains evidence that someone in Building Three is mixing aluminum cans and other recyclables in with their regular trash.” Chalmers shook the bag and rattled the cans for effect. “My partner and I removed the improper—”

“Oh, come on!” someone shouted.

“Thank you, Captain,” Marty said, “but do you have any intel about disruptive fornication?”

“No sir.”

Each of the patrol captain’s reports ended more or less the same way: disturbances that proved to be birds or squirrels, someone moving furniture, or, in one case, someone vomiting from a bout with the summer flu. Throughout, Marty tried to rub away the migraine settling in behind his forehead.

Several disappointed residents left the meeting before the presentations concluded. Abigail watched Quinn fidget in her seat, repeatedly snapping her head toward the door each time it opened, only to not find who she was looking for. Abigail had been doing the same, wondering if Madeleine would dare show her face. It was now after 9 p.m., and Abigail realized Clint had stood Quinn up, and patted her softly on the shoulder.

As the two women sat in their chairs, lost in their thoughts, the jangling of keys caused them to turn their heads to the back of the room. Not much was happening, other than Gerald leaning against the back wall, smiling at them. Both women thought he was gazing into their eyes, not the other’s, and both felt the same inexplicable patter in the chests. When Gerald set his floppy, brimmed hat on his head and nodded, as if to say, Good evening, Ladies, neither woman could pull their eyes away, even as he sauntered toward the door and disappeared from sight.

But matters would soon get worse—for both women—because by the next morning, news would circulate that the fornicator had struck again. Around 9:30 p.m., she squealed into the night sky while Abigail and Quinn sat through the conclusion of the meeting.

All of Abigail’s phone calls to Madeleine, and Quinn’s texts to Clint, went unanswered for the next two days. Even after news spread about the fornicator’s latest romp, Quinn didn’t harbor a single thought that Clint could be involved with it in any way. But Abigail, who once championed leaving private lives private, was now trying to out-sleuth her Night Watch friend, or more likely, former friend. Quinn’s self-confidence, which soared after meeting Clint, had dipped once again. For this she scolded herself: I don’t need a man to feel good about myself.

Quinn woke too late for a morning run, but set out in late afternoon. When she passed Gerald watering a newly planted maple tree, she smiled and, without intending to, winked. “Hi, Gerald,” she said. She intended for it to sound indifferent, meant only to diffuse her wink, but it came out too friendly, even suggestive. He smiled back, but, as usual, didn’t say a word.

Quinn found it charming that Gerald was still watering the same tree when she returned forty-five minutes later. She smiled as she passed, but then stopped, and said, “Gerald, I’m sorry I’ve never introduced myself. I’m Quinn.” Hearing the smokiness in her voice, Quinn wished she had first taken a moment to catch her breath. Gerald smiled again and tipped his cap. “Do you like sushi?” Quinn asked, realizing she was no longer in control of her voice. She was afraid of what else she might say, and for good reason. “I was thinking of getting some take-out tonight, and was wondering…if you’d like to join me. Maybe in the grove?”

The grove was the wooded area beyond the apartment complex that had once been an orchard. The family that farmed it long ago sold it to the real estate developers who built the Shady Grove apartment complex. When Quinn first moved in, she avoided the woods, assuming they were overgrown or populated with critters, or worse, creepy humans. But eventually she worked up the courage to explore, and found them to be the opposite of what she expected. Tall hemlocks towered over what remained of apple and peach trees, some of which still bore fruit. Quinn didn’t know much about trees, but always thought that nothing grew beneath hemlocks. Finding fruit-bearing trees under the open and airy canopy had a magical quality, Quinn thought, and since discovering it, made a point to run through the grove every day.

“It would be my honor, Miss Quinn,” Gerald said.

He speaks! Quinn exclaimed in her head. “Great. How does seven-thirty sound?”

“Whenever you wish, Miss Quinn.”

“Gerald… just call me ‘Quinn.’”

Gerald nodded, and said, “I assume you’d like to meet me there, at the grove?”

That wasn’t what Quinn had imagined, and wondered why he said it. Does he think I’d be ashamed to be seen with him? “No, let’s meet right here. We’ll walk there together.”

They gazed at each other for a long while before either did anything else. Quinn felt strange, as if hypnotized. Finally, Gerald tipped his cap once again and turned his attention to the maple tree, the ground around which was now thoroughly flooded.

Quinn walked back to her apartment, thinking, What the hell just happened? Inside, she rummaged through her drawers and closets, thinking, What the hell should I wear? Considering Gerald’s vocation, she didn’t want to overdo it—nothing too fancy. Nor did she want him to think she’d considered his vocation when choosing what to wear. She chose a just-above-the-knee, light blue, floral dress, and hung it in the bathroom to let the wrinkles fall out as she showered. Afterwards, Quinn lightly spritzed perfume into the air and walked through the mist. Then, to her surprise, she added a half-spritz directly to her breastbone. Once fully dressed, Quinn had a brief encounter with panic. What the fuck? What the fuck! You don’t need to do this! You don’t need to prove anything to anyone!

The episode passed, and Quinn thought, I want to do this. It’s just getting to know someone over take-out…no big deal. Someone who might be able to teach me something about the trees in the grove.

Quinn left her apartment, drove to pick up her sushi order and returned with ten minutes to spare. Abigail was outside in her garden, snipping rose buds. “Oh my!” she said, looking Quinn up and down. “I’ve never seen you all dolled up. Ooo-la-la!”

Quinn thanked her for the compliment, but desperately wanted the woman to go inside. “No Entertainment Tonight tonight?”

Abigail’s face soured. “I hate to miss it, but I’m…” She leaned in close to Quinn, shifting her eyes from one end of the courtyard to the other. “On the lookout.” Then, she added, “You smell so nice.”

“Thank you. On the lookout for whom?”

“Madeleine,” Abigail said eventually. Observing Quinn’s puzzled face, she added, “I think…I’ve cracked the case.”

“What? You mean… No! That’s impossible—”

“Think about it. She’s nowhere to be found whenever there’s a…you know, incident. And she’s told me some tall tales recently. And…she knows I’m on to her and won’t return my calls. So, that’s why I’m on the lookout and not watching Deborah Norville.”

Quinn knew Gerald would arrive any moment. “Guess what, Abby? I am having dinner with Gerald tonight!”

“Gerald? What about…” Abigail didn’t finish her question, recalling Clint no-showing Quinn at the community meeting. “Gerald?”

“Yeah, Gerald. It’s not like a date or anything. I have some questions for him about trees.”

Abigail studied Quinn’s beautiful dress and breathed in her perfume. “Well, he’d be the one to ask, I guess.” Abigail suddenly felt jealous. Was Gerald gazing at me or Quinn the other night? Then she felt angry. You fool. Of course he was looking at her.

“Well, I should be going,” Quinn said. “I hope things go okay with Madeleine. Congratulations on your detective work. We all owe you a debt of gratitude.”

Abigail grew impatient waiting for Madeleine. She strolled leisurely to the parking lot, confirmed that Madeleine’s car was not there, and double-timed it heel-toe back to the front door of her friend’s building. Her brief vision of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible was quickly replaced by that of an old widow with an arrhythmic heartbeat. Get the sweater...get the funk out! Abigail breathed deeply, then thought, No, I’ll do the job...inside.

Returning to her own building for the scarlet “F,” and a needle and thread, the tightness in Abigail’s chest as she climbed a flight of stairs could have been caused by any number of things, among which were exertion, fear and guilt. Or the one she didn’t consider: heart attack.

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