Monday December 27th, 5:15 pm
“You forgot that perfume set here at the house, honey. The one Uncle Lance gave you.”
I sighed into the phone and rolled my eyes. Momma meant well, I knew, but now wasn’t the time. An approaching cold front blew a frigid wind across the desert flats and sent a fine mist of sand hissing across the side of my rental car while the loose strands of hair that escaped my wool beanie whipped around my face. A bulky cast on my left wrist provided a measure of warmth, but the cold sliced the exposed skin of my fingers like an invisible razor. I squeezed the handle on the gas nozzle harder, thankful when it clunked full.
“I didn’t forget it, Momma. It smelled like potpourri.”
I raised my voice, feeling silly. “It smelled like potpourri.”
“But you said such nice things ‘bout it when he gave it to you?”
“Heaven’s sake, Momma.” During my visit home for Christmas I’d started early my New Year’s resolution to curse less. Normally I use the F-word like a comma. “The man was sittin’ there watchin’ me unwrap it. What was I supposed to do?”
“What? Pumpkin, I cain’t barely hear you over all that noise. Sounds like there’s a stampede behind you.”
“Shoot. Hang on.” I replaced the gas cap and ducked into the vehicle. Out of the wind’s rumble I could hear the steady snip of scissors in the background. Momma did hair and nails in her kitchen, a lucrative little side line that’d really taken off after I showed her how to get Murder, She Wrote on demand for the television next to the toaster. Those small town Texas ladies did love them some Jessica Fletcher.
“Who you got in your chair?” I asked as I started the car.
“Miss Janice.” A brief murmur. “She says 'lo.”
“Give her my best.”
“I will. So you want me to mail that perfume to your apartment?”
“No, Momma, don’t do that. It made me smell like the lobby of a whorehouse in Laredo,” I grumbled, then winced as I meant to think that last part rather than say it out loud.
Momma tsk’ed, then said, “Well, what should I do with it?”
“I don’t care. Anything except send it to me.”
Momma changed topics. “You know, Missus Wade and I were talkin’ right before you called. She was just tellin’ me her daughter Amber met a young man doin’ that internet datin’. He’s goin’ to school to be a mortician. His people own a funeral home over in Luling, I think she said.”
“La Grange,” Miss Janice corrected in the background. Snip, snip.
“La Grange, then. She said Amber told her it was nice’n easy to set up, too. You want me to have her call you to talk ‘bout how it works?”
“Don’t start, Momma.” The sky behind the front’s leading edge had turned a gunmetal gray. Shadows had disappeared so with my headlights on I pulled out onto the desolate highway and headed north, trying to outrun the weather.
“What? I’m just sayin’ maybe it’s somethin’ you oughtta think about is all.” Momma shifted gears again. “You know yet when’s the next time you might make it back home?”
I put the phone on speaker then held the car straight with my knees while I scratched under my cast with a pen. “Depends on if Rulo’s finished the book. If he’s got it for me today like he said he would, we might could be looking at starting his junket around, oh, maybe June-ish? Whenever we get it rollin’ though, I’ll make sure he does something in Austin.”
“How long you gonna be over there in Amoret?”
“Just the one night. Hopefully here in just a bit I’m gonna be packin’ Rulo up. Tomorrow mornin’ I’ve got a meeting with his lawyer, then heading to the airport right after.”
“Flyin’ outta San Antone?”
“Midland. Look Momma, I gotta get goin’. You lose a signal pretty quick once you get outside town here.”
She sighed. “Okay, Pumpkin. We love whenever you get a chance to break away and come give us a visit. You good for money?”
The fact that I hadn’t needed financial help since I’d gone from Abby Huxford, unpaid intern, to Abby Huxford, associate literary agent five years before never stopped my parents from asking. It was just one of the many things I loved about them. “Yep, I’m fine. Save y’alls money for somethin’ important. And don’t let Daddy be clicking on any more computer ads, m’kay?” I’d spent so long debugging their computer on this last visit I debated just throwing out their ancient desktop and buying them a lap top.
“Tryin’ to buy boner pills from Puerto Rico. Lord, what was that man thinkin’?” My parents, the over-sharers. By then I was used to it but their collective lack of a filter hadn’t made my adolescence any easier, such as the time in seventh grade when I was hosting a sleep over and Momma entered my bedroom to warn my friends to steer clear of the hallway bathroom because Daddy had just clogged the toilet.
I hung up, then seeing I still had a few bars decided to try one more call.
“Rosenbaum and Kurtz, how may I direct your call?”
“Hey, Nadine. It’s Abby. Miriam in?”
“She’s just finishing up a Zoom. Hang on for a second, let me see if she’s available.” Some Chuck Mangione, then my boss, Miriam Goldberg, picked up. Slim and elegant and shrewd, when the light was just right she looked for all the world like Judge Judy. She talked about her two dachshunds as though they were human in that charmingly eccentric way of the very wealthy.
“Tell me something good, Tex. You got the manuscript in your greedy little hands yet?” Miriam had given me the nickname during my internship at R&K, a stylish Manhattan literary agency known for cultivating in-house talent, and it hadn’t taken long to catch on. I know there are those who say assigning nicknames is a subtle form of bullying, but I didn’t mind. In fact, I’d leaned into it, making it part of my brand. I’d been one of five hungry interns, you see, each of us wanting the job of associate agent so badly if Miriam had said she’d award the position to whomever brought her enough human ears to make a necklace, we’d have fought over the blade from the paper cutter. And I’d come out of that Lord of the Flies-style scrum with the job.
“Not yet, but I’m heading out to the cabin now. In fact don’t be surprised if the call drops. I just wanted to check in beforehand ‘cause there isn’t any cell signal out there.”
“Oy. ’No signal.’ For the life of me I’ll never understand why anyone would want to live in such a place.” Her comments about my home state could have landed hard, but she said them with a light humor.
I laughed. “Well, they’d all say the same about you and living in the city.”
“Point taken. So how was the visit with your parents?”
“Fine. Good for the soul, comin’ home.”
Her tone grew serious. “How much did you tell them about last week’s unpleasantness?”
She couldn’t see me cringe. “You kidding? I didn’t say anything to Momma ‘bout it. She would’ve been sending movers to pick up my stuff and come back home. Daddy’s easier to talk to, though, so I told him the whole deal.”
“And, so he’s not pushing me to move home, but he talked me into buyin’ a gun when I get back to the city.” Even after all the years, I still didn’t refer to Manhattan as “home.”
I expected her to reflexively pooh pooh any suggestion of a firearm, but she surprised me by saying, “Probably not the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in light of everything. I read in the Times yesterday that NYPD’s average response time to a nine-one-one call in Midtown is up to eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes,” as though I needed convincing. “Fat lot of good your restraining order’s going to do you if that jackass decides to do something crazy.” She sighed. “How did our little prodigy take it when you told him about Cain’s threat? Did he freak out?”
“I just got into town so I haven’t seen Rulo yet this trip to know. But right after we got the call from Cain’s lawyer tipping us off I had the sheriff swing by and give Rulo a heads up just to be on the safe side.”
“You think it’ll interfere with his finishing the manuscript? I mean, if I was told that a druggie assaulted my agent and threatened to kill me before he disappeared, I’d kakn my pants.”
“No, I think he’ll be okay.”
“You sound awfully sure.”
“Well, the cabin’s in the middle of nowhere for starters, so even if Cain actually tried to pull some sh—,” I caught myself. “—Stuff, I don’t know how he’d go about finding the place. Plus, worse case scenario, Rulo’s got a couple guns out there with him and he knows how to shoot.”
“God forbid I should be allowed to have one thing in my life be simple.” I heard the crinkle and pop of Nicorette gum popping from its foil. “Listen, just text me as soon as you know something. We need to get this moving along.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, purposely exaggerating the drawl before disconnecting. And with that, I unknowingly set in motion the chain reaction of the next few weeks’ horrible events.