Deadly Storm: Chapter Four
“She’s a liar.” Mac Storm’s tone was matter-of-fact.
The younger Storm shoved his hands in his pockets and said, “You say that about every woman, Dad.”
Carl “Mac” Storm looked up from his desk, staring at his son through the lenses of his headband magnifier. “And I’m always right.” It was a statement of fact.
Mac Storm turned his attention back to the miniature chair he was holding with a pair of tweezers. Storm couldn’t tell for sure, but it appeared that his father was trying to glue a tiny seat pad to the straight-backed wooden chair he was working on. He watched as his father deftly adjusted something on the seat of the chair with a small pair of needle nose pliers.
Storm let his eyes drift over to his father’s work bench, where Mac Storm’s latest project was laid out. What to the untrained eye appeared to be an intricately crafted dollhouse was, in reality, a carefully designed and meticulously constructed diorama of some piece of his father’s past life. This one seemed to be a small Cape Code, with an expanded second floor. Storm could see that, as usual, the house was fully furnished down to the last foot stool and throw rug.
He turned his attention back to his father. “She knew about you,” he said mildly.
Mac carefully stood up from his desk and walked gingerly across the basement floor, bearing the tiny wooden chair before him. “Of course she did,” he responded without looking up. “She’s CIA.” Mac reached for the glue gun on the table next to the Cape and expertly applied three dots of hot glue to the legs and back of the chair. “She’s also a liar and she’s working you over.”
Storm watched as his father carefully placed the chair on its back in the middle of the miniaturized kitchen. He noticed, for the first time, a tiny pool of blood on the kitchen floor near where Mac had placed the top of the chair. He knew from experience that, by the end of the day, his father would have a little corpse placed between the chair and the blood stain exactly as his father would have seen it, whenever that had been.
Mac held the chair firmly in place for a few seconds before carefully pulling the tweezers away. Satisfied, he finally looked up at his son, studying him for a moment before asking, “What did she say?”
Storm shrugged. “She said, ‘Say hello to your father.’ I assume that means she knows that you’re ex-FBI and that I come to you for my hard-to-finds.”
Mac looked at his son with an expression that Storm recognized as the “Well, duh,” face he’d seen all too often when he was growing up. Masking emotions was not his father’s long suit. “Of course that’s what she meant,” Mac Storm said as he walked back to his desk. Then, he turned and faced his son. “Leave town.”
Storm stared at his father in surprise. “What? Why?”
Mac sat back down at his desk and spun his seat to face his son, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “Because you’re involved in something.”
Storm raised his hands in protest, “No, I’m not!” This was not the first time he’d had this same argument with his father, albeit under different circumstances. Growing up as a teen-ager with a single-father who also happened to be an FBI agent meant that he was always guilty until proven innocent.
Mac crossed his arms and looked at Storm with his patented stink-eye glare. “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Almost reflexively, Storm shoved his hands back into his pockets. “Dad, she wants to hire me. She wants to work with me.” Storm saw amusement in his father’s face; he pulled his hands out of his pockets and crossed his arms. “Why can’t she be hiring me because I’m good?”
Mac tried unsuccessfully to suppress a snicker. “Oh, okay.” He sat down at his desk and began drumming his fingers on the desk top. He studied his son, his amusement still evident on his face. “So, on a scale of one to ten,” he began.
Mac arched his right eyebrow knowingly. “How hot is she?”
Storm felt the blood rush to his face. As was almost always the case, a conversation with his father had once again brought on a familiar hand-in-the-cookie-jar feeling. “A nine,” he said, “But that’s … that’s not why I have the…. You know — ”
Mac held up his hand. “Stop talking.”
Storm opened his mouth to respond, thought better of it, and clamped his jaws shut. After a beat, he decided to change tack, and asked, “Why is she a liar?”
Mac looked at his son and smiled sadly. “Because she’s intelligence.” He leaned forward in his chair, placing his elbows on his knees. His tone became that of a patient teacher explaining a mathematical concept to a student who was a bit slow on the uptake. “To be good? She has to be a liar. Absolutely.”
Silence hung between them and with it, the familiar sense of awkwardness that was the undercurrent to most of their conversations. Finally, Storm cleared his throat.
“Are you going to help me or not, Dad?”
His father shrugged slightly, and spun his chair back to his desk. Storm watched as his father grabbed his tweezers and plucked a tiny figure out of a box in one of the pigeon holes on the desk top. “You should leave town,” he repeated, his attention now focused on the shirtless figure he’d placed on the tiny kitchen floor.
Storm stepped towards his father’s chair, crouched down beside him, and asked, “And go where? Do what?” His father remained silent and studiously kept his attention on his work.
Storm stood up but didn’t move from his father’s side. Too often, when trying to have a serious talk with his father, he found himself reverting back to the tone and tenor of the arguments they’d had fifteen years ago. Sure, his father helped him when he needed it, but not without making him pay for it. But this time, it wasn’t about tracking a license plate or an old address. This was . . . something more, and he wanted his father to understand.
He made sure to keep his voice calm as he said, “I want to do this, Dad. This could make me.”
Mac Storm stopped what he was doing and turned to study his son’s face. Storm met and held his father’s gaze. Finally, Mac said, “Give it to me.”
Storm smiled. “Same guy.”
“Yes. Only, his real name is Sanchez. Daniel Sanchez.”
Mac Storm turned and jotted the information down on the pad next to the phone on his desk. “What are you going to do?”
Storm headed towards the front door. “First, I’m going to visit the wife. Then, I’m going to visit Miss Trailer Park.” As he headed for the stairs, he looked back over his shoulder and called. “Thanks, Dad.” He’d learned over the years not to bother waiting for an acknowledgment when he left his father’s house, but as he took the first two steps, he thought he heard his father say something, and he paused. He looked back at his father and asked, “Did you say something?”
His father spun his chair. “What are you, deaf? I said, ‘Be careful.’”
Storm smiled “Aw, dad. Don’t be getting all mushy on me.”
Mac Storm glowered at his son. “Go on. Get outa here.”
As he started up the stairs, Storm chanced one more peek over his shoulder. He was rewarded with the tiniest of smiles on his father’s face as he bent over the little body on his desk.
The post-rush-hour traffic was light, and Storm made it to Scarsdale in about a half-hour. As he climbed the steps of the front porch of Grout’s house, he steeled himself for what he knew was about to come.
No way this part goes well, he thought. But I’ve got to talk to the wife, and if I call her first and she doesn’t want to see me, she will find a way not to see me. Better to do it face to face.
He’d found over the years that face-to-face was the best way to close out a case. When breaking bad news, which was almost always the case when dealing with a missing spouse, he also had to present a final bill. He’d learned that it was much harder to ignore a final bill when the bill collector was sitting in the living room sipping coffee.
“I have some good news and some bad news, Mrs. Grout,” he said aloud as he walked across the porch. “The good news is, I found your husband. The bad news is, take your worst nightmare and realize that that’s your reality. Oh, and here’s my bill.” Okay, maybe not the best approach.
He stood before the door, waiting. I’m about to tell this woman that her life as she knew it is pretty much over. This is exactly the kind of moment for which the phrase “kill the messenger” was invented. Now there’s a happy thought.
He raised his hand to knock, then paused, playing back in his head the highlight reel of past moments like this. He’d gotten slapped, more than once. He’d had cups thrown at his head — twice with and once without coffee. He’d also ducked a rose-filled vase, a laptop, and a lit Yankee candle.
And they say that there’s no glamour in this profession, he thought.
He raised his knuckles to knock, and paused once again. Does she know he’s a CIA agent? He pondered that thought for a moment. Surely, as a CIA agent, he’d been away from home before. So what was it about this time that made Mrs. Grout come to me? That is a little odd, he conceded, but then shrugged. I guess I’ll just have to ask her.
He raised his knuckles for a third time, and paused once more. What if Mr. Jefferson Grout has come home and he pulls a shotgun to thank me for ruining his life? Or, better yet, he uses his CIA training to pinch my neck and kill me in a way that doesn’t show up on an autopsy.
Storm laughed at himself. I do watch too many movies, he thought. Enough.
He knocked hard on the door.
He peered through the front window; no movement, no lights. He looked over his shoulder to confirm what he already knew. There was a car in the driveway, so someone had to be home. He knocked again, harder this time.
“Okay, fine.” He hadn’t wanted to call, but he wanted to get this done. With a sigh, he reached for his cell phone and the slip of paper with Penelope Grout’s number. He punched it in and waited.
He heard the staccato sound of her ring tone through his phone. Three rings; then four; then five. No voice mail? Odd. Maybe I misdialed. He disconnected and punched in the number again, making sure he hit each number precisely. One ring. Two rings.
After the third ring, he pressed his ear against the front door. From somewhere inside, he heard a phone ringing.
At least her phone is home, he thought.
He tried the front door knob.
He let the phone continue to ring as he stepped off the front porch and circled across the well-manicured yard to the back patio. He crossed the brick pavers and stepped up to the sliding glass doors. He pressed his ear to the glass; the telephone ringer was much louder back here.
Storm flipped his phone closed and looked in. On a cafe-sized round table in the eat-in kitchen, he saw an open purse and a half-eaten bagel on a plate next to it.
He peered through the glass again, trying to see anything past the kitchen, but with no lights on inside, his view was limited.
He turned his attention to the sliding door. He reached for the handle, tried the push-button latch and felt it click open. He took a quick look around the back yard; it was still empty. He took a deep breath and slid the door open.
The smell of pine-scented lemons wafted out from the kitchen as he remained standing on the back patio. He leaned into the darkened kitchen.
“Hello?” Louder this time, but still no response.
He looked around the still empty back yard once more. Well, we’ve done the breaking part, he thought. Might as well complete the set.
He entered the kitchen.
“Mrs. Grout?” he called. “It’s Derrick Storm.” He listened. He heard the ticking of a clock from somewhere down the hall leading out of the kitchen, but nothing more.
He walked slowly into the kitchen and approached the table. He looked at the red leather purse in the center of the table, its flap open and its contents partially on display. He hesitated for a moment, then thought, In for a penny, in for a pound. He picked up the purse and looked inside.
It was a surprisingly empty purse. He pulled out a rabbit’s foot key-chain with a single, unmarked house key. He saw a couple of Tootsie-Pops, and a cell phone, and that was it.
She emptied her purse, he thought. Switched it out? Or did someone do it for her?
He slipped the cell-phone out of the purse and flipped it open. The screen showed seven missed calls. He hit the green button to open the menu and was met with a password screen. Damn, he thought, and flipped the phone closed, dropping it back into the purse.
Storm headed down the hall towards the front of the house. He made his way to the well-appointed living room, complete with a leather sectional unit and projection TV. He took a quick look around. Everything appeared to be in place.
He worked his way through the living room to the center staircase leading up from the front door. “Mrs. Grout?” he called up the stairs, hoping for a response but not expecting one. He slowly climbed the stairs, craning his neck to get a look at the second floor. At the top of the stairs, he found a den to his left, a work-out room to his right, and the master bedroom straight ahead, where his attention was immediately drawn.
“Wow,” he said aloud. Either Mrs. Grout is the world’s worst housekeeper, he thought, or someone really tore this place up. He took a quick look around; all of the dresser drawers were half-opened, with clothes sticking out of them. The three drawers from the bedside table were scattered across the floor along with their contents. The bedding looked as if it had been poured from a blender.
“What the hell?” He took a quick look in the den and the work-out room; they were as immaculate as the living room had been. He stepped back into the bedroom and looked around. Maybe she just threw a bag together in a hurry and bailed? He considered this for a moment, and shook his head. And pulled out all of the drawers? And left her purse, and phone, and a half-eaten bagel?
He took one more look around, and started back down the stairs. Someone called, or came in, and rushed her out the door, he thought. But who? He stopped when he got back to the kitchen, and took a seat at the cafe table. Grout came back and got his wife?
Storm reached for the bagel; it felt fresh. He sniffed it, then took a bite. Both the butter and bagel smelled and tasted fresh, so whatever happened had happened this morning.
Storm tore off another piece of the bagel and popped it into his mouth. “Yummy bagel,” he told the empty kitchen. He chewed the bagel thoughtfully.
“If Grout came back for his wife,” he asked the kitchen, “What about the trailer park girlfriend?” The kitchen remained stubbornly silent.
He finished the bite of bagel and put the rest back on the plate. “Well,” he told the kitchen, “I guess there’s only one way to find out about Miss Trailer Park.” He brushed his hands off over the bagel plate and headed for the sliding door.
Daylight did nothing to improve the look of Costa Mesa Mobile Home Park. As Storm maneuvered his car along the narrow roadway past the tiny yards carefully marked by plastic picket fences, he shuddered involuntarily as he played back his hasty exit barely twelve hours before.
He parked between a ceramic fire pit and a gas grill, about fifty yards from Marian Kynde’s trailer. He grabbed his faded Yankees cap from the front seat and pulled it low on his head as he got out. He hadn’t seen any of his buddies from the night before, but there was no sense taking a chance that he might be recognized.
He walked up the steps in front of Kynde’s trailer and rapped on the screen door. There was no answer from inside.
Not a good day for catching people in, he thought.
He leaned towards the window to the right of the door and tried to peek in.
“The whore left.” Storm turned in the direction of the woman’s voice, which came from across the road.
“This morning.” The red-head in Daisy Dukes and lavender tube-top stared at him over the frames of her pink sunglasses. She was sitting in a lawn chair in front of Blondie’s trailer, her feet propped on a Coleman cooler and a glass of iced something in her hand.
Storm gave her a big smile, hopped down the steps and strolled over to where she was sitting. She set her glass down on the inverted milk crate beside her and watched him as he crossed the road.
“Was she a friend of yours?” he asked.
The red-head snorted. “No. I don’t have whores for friends.” She looked him up and down. “You the asshole who was sneaking around here last night taking pictures?”
Storm checked the vicinity for company as he maintained his smile before returning his gaze to the woman.
“Kinda,” he responded carefully.
She snorted again and pulled her sunglasses down lower on her nose. “My boyfriend got arrested for chasing you around with that shotgun of his,” she said, her voice pouty. Before he could respond, she smiled and added, “So I guess I owe you a thank you. Nice to have the day off from him.” She let her gaze drift from Storm’s eyes, down his chest, and fix at about his belt buckle. She then tipped her head back, extended her long legs and stretched her arms over her head, arching her back. Storm grinned; he could see he was getting the full show, and he couldn’t help admiring how well she filled out the tube-top.
The woman bent down for her glass and took a long, lingering sip on the straw in her drink, watching him over the rim. Finished, she licked her lips slowly and returned the drink carefully to the milk crate. She pursed her lips and extended her hand, making a show of examining her sequined nails.
“So, whaddaya snooping around for, anyway?” she asked without looking at him.
He realized that he’d gotten slightly lost in her little show and mentally smacked himself in the back of the head. Much as he would have liked to see what her next act might be, he did have more pressing matters. “What’s your name?”
She nodded. “But my stage name is Crystal Cleavage.”
“Of course it is,” he said. “Dancer?”
She smiled and nodded. “Heard of me?”
He thought for a moment, then shook his head slightly. When he saw the disappointment cross her face, he added quickly, “Can’t imagine why I haven’t, though. I’m sure you’re excellent.” He watched her expression brighten. Better talk while she’s in a good mood, he thought.
“Hey, let me ask you a question,” he began, keeping his tone light. “This girl,” he said, nodding towards Kynde’s trailer, “Did you know her?”
“You ever talk to her?”
“No. Just watched the parade of losers. I mean, really,” she made a sweeping gesture with her arm. “There’s kids all around here. What kind of message does that send?”
Storm followed her gaze, trying to imagine the influence of Sassy, Marian, Blondie, and the Burly Man on the children of Costa Mesa. He shuddered before turning his attention back to Sassy.
“You said ‘parade.’ Did she have a lot of guys in and out?”
Sassy closed her eyes as she thought for a moment. “Okay, maybe it wasn’t a parade,” she allowed. “But there was some creepy old guy always hanging around, and he was in and out at all hours of the night.”
Storm reached into his pocket for his notebook and pulled out the wallet-sized photo of Grout. “This the guy?”
She looked at the picture and nodded. “Yup. That’s him.”
He put the picture and notebook back in his pocket. “Anyone else hanging around her trailer over the past couple months?”
Sassy shook her head. “Just him. Mostly he’d come at night, and sometimes he’d stay til morning.” She lowered her voice and leaned towards him, giving him a breath-taking view of the basis for her stage name. “I think he might have been getting a little on the side here, if you know what I mean.”
Storm smiled. “Oh, I think I got you.” He looked back over at Kynde’s trailer. “So, what time would you say you saw her leave?”
She pushed her sunglasses back up on her nose and sat back in her chair. “You a cop?” Her tone was slightly defensive.
“Figured.” Sassy reached for her drink again and sipped it, this time with far less fanfare. “She in trouble?”
“I don’t know.”
“Some wife sent you looking for her man?”
Storm brushed off the question. “Do you know what time?” he repeated.
Sassy shrugged. “I don’t know. Like nine?”
“Did someone pick her up or did she have a car?”
She looked at him, her defensiveness now giving way to exasperation. “You think I sit here all day recording the world according to whore?”
“Just asking,” he said mildly.
Sassy Monroe stood up suddenly and whipped her sunglasses off. “Listen,” she said as she took a step towards him, pointing an accusatory finger at him. “I don’t like this. I don’t like these . . . these questions.”
Storm took a step back. “I’m just — ”
She placed her hands on her hips and glared at him. “You know, if my husband sees you around here again, he’ll kill you. I mean, for real.”
“But — ”
She leaned closer to him. “He will. He kills people.” The smell of musk and rum flavored her words.
“Okay,” Storm said calmly.
“Okay,” she echoed.
She glared at him for a moment, but as he held her eyes, her glare softened, and he could almost see the wheels beginning to turn inside her head. She bent down and scooped up a pack of Newports from beside the cooler. She pulled one out, fired up the lighter she pulled from the pack, and took a long drag as she studied him through narrowed eyes.
“So, how much you charge?” she asked.
Storm looked at her. “For. . . .?”
Storm cocked his head questioningly. “You need one?”
“Depends on how much it costs.”
“You think your husband is cheating?”
“No. My boyfriend.”
Storm blinked twice. “Your . . . .?”
The tinny strains of music suddenly emanated from inside Sassy’s trailer; it took him a moment to recognize it as the Hall and Oates song “Maneater.”
“Hold on,” she said in exasperation. “That’s my phone.” She started towards the door. “It’s probably the fuckin’ jail.”
For more reasons than one, Storm was happy to watch her walk up the stairs and into the trailer. As the door slapped shut behind her, he pulled out his notebook again and started jotting notes:
Parade of men or just Grout.
Kynde left at 9 am. To where?
He stopped writing when he heard the sound of a motor approaching. He looked up and saw a white jeep with the familiar Post Office eagle on the door. The jeep parked behind his car and the mailman hopped out. Storm watched as the man worked his way up the road, dropping mail in the boxes on, by, or near the trailer doors, all the way up to the mailbox attached to Kynde’s trailer. The mailman finished this section of the trailer park, returned to his jeep, and pulled away.
As Storm watched the jeep drive off, he could hear Sassy’s voice from inside the trailer, and it was getting louder. Whoever it was, the conversation was not going well. That made the next decision easy.
Looking both ways, Storm casually walked across the road towards Kynde’s trailer. He nonchalantly lifted the lid of the mailbox and snagged the envelopes inside. Then, without a backward glance, he hurried towards his car.