A couple of hours later, before I had a chance to rotate to his table, the Stalkin’ Starer lost all interest in poker. While I sorted out the side pots of two all-in bets, he cashed out and left, but not before he practically bored holes right through me.
I might think I’m sexy, even if Shade didn’t. And Dante, well, who knew what he thought. He was smoke in the wind, long gone. But even I didn’t think I was sexy enough to be stared at all evening without so much as a smile.
Looking back across the room at my original table, I saw Shade stand up as Angelina, Whitey’s girlfriend, came in carrying a huge platter of enchiladas and tacos. It looked delicious and I couldn’t wait to get at it ─ after Sloppy and I went to the bathroom. Players can get up anytime they aren’t in the action but the dealer has to keep up the pace of the game. No time to even pee. Guess that’s another reason why they call it Hold’em.
I stood up and arched my back. I’d been sitting all evening and the stretch felt good.
“I’m taking Sloppy for a walk,” I announced to nobody in particular. Truth was, Sloppy and I both needed to move around. From the looks of things outside, the clouds were beginning to break. Maybe, just maybe, the rain was over for a couple of days.
Sloppy made for the patch of grass behind the cars. I gave him a couple of minutes to do his business, then called out to him.
Nothing. I called a little louder. “SLOPPY!”
“SLOPPY!” I yelled even louder.
“Where is that stupid mutt?” I mumbled aloud. I started walking to where I’d last seen him, calling his name again. “SLOPPY.”
A hand suddenly slapped over my mouth, painfully pressing my lips against my teeth. A muscular arm encircled me from behind. My right hand was trapped at my side but the left was free and I clawed at the palm across my mouth.
A low, menacing voice whispered into my ear. “Yes, darlin’, very sloppy of you to come out alone in the dark. Where’s Runt?” He said the words slowly, dragging out each syllable.
The hand loosened its grip on my face so I could respond, but as I drew in a deep breath to scream, his arm crushed me into stillness. I struggled not to pee on myself.
“I asked you where your brother is,” the man repeated. His voice was a gravelly growl. “You got his dog. You must know where he is.”
He jerked me upward with his hand and pain shot through my neck. A muffled squeal escaped from under his fingers and I used my free hand to hold onto his arm, pulling it downward, trying to keep him from wrenching my neck again.
Just as quickly as the hand appeared, it jerked away from my face, yanking off an earring in the process. The arm across my breast slid away, leaving only my wobbly legs to hold me up. They weren’t enough.
I fell to my knees, then down on all fours, and vomited in the grass. It wasn’t just my legs shaking now. I was so scared everything shook. I could hardly breathe. My heart beat so hard I could feel it from my temples and to my toes.
Behind me I could hear fists hitting flesh, bones crunching. Or maybe it was just feet scrunching in the gravel. I was too busy hurling to really tell.
When my stomach decided it had no more to donate to the cause, I dared to turn my head to see what was happening. There was Shade and a man in a ski mask, dressed completely in black, circling in a fighter’s dance. The masked man threw a solid punch but Shade avoided it easily. The sidestep cost him his footing, though, and he plopped on his butt. The other man took one step towards the downed Shade, then paused. Abruptly, he turned and fled into the darkness.
Shade pulled himself into a sitting position, feet wide apart, arms crossed on his knees. He shook his head like he was trying to clear his mind from the punches he’d taken.
I was still on all fours a couple of feet away. As I started to crawl towards him, a movement twenty feet beyond his shoulder caught my attention. At first I couldn’t make it out.
And then it hit me.
It was Sloppy, stretched out on the grass.
“Damnitall,” I said as I clumsily pushed myself off the ground and wobbled over to the dog.
“Oh, Sloppy.” I cried, squatting down beside him.
The dog opened his eyes and looked up at me. His tail gave a half-hearted lift in a partial wag, then limply flopped back down on the grass. His eyelids slowly closed. The rise and fall of his chest stilled. Sloppy just laid there, a knife sticking up from between his ribs.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I stroked Runt’s favorite dog.
Shade dropped to my side. “Damnit to hell.” he said, unclipping the cell phone from Sloppy’s collar. “Damnit to hell.”
“Hey, you guys.” We heard Whitey holler from the doorway. “Break’s over. T.R., I need you upstairs.”
“Be right there!” Shade yelled back roughly. Then he turned to me. “T.R., you OK?” His voice was soft and sweet.
“No,” I said. I was afraid to say anything more, fearful I’d bawl like a baby.
“Come on. Let’s go in,” he said as he stood up.
“But….” I swallowed hard.
“In. Now. I don’t know where that guy went or if he’ll be back.” He turned his head this way and that to make sure no one was around, then took my hand, pulling me to a standing position. He led me towards the building. “Don’t worry. I’ll walk you in. Then I’ll come back and take care of Sloppy.”
Whitey met us halfway, his whiteness a beacon in the blackness of the parking lot. My tears told him we had bad news but our grim faces didn’t reveal the details.
“What? What?” he asked. “What the hell happened out here?”
“T.R. was attacked.”
“ATTACKED! In MY parking lot?” he exploded. His white face immediately flushed red in anger. He took a couple of steps past us, looked around, and quickly came back to my side.
“Are you all right?” he said, looking at me. “Are you hurt, T.R.? Shade?” Whitey didn’t know who to question first. It was obvious Shade had been socked in the jaw and my ear was dripping blood.
I gave Whitey a weak smile and nodded my head.
“Yeah, she’ll be OK.” Shade did the talking. “So am I. Can she go up to your apartment?”
“Of course. Come on, honey. I’ll take you up. I’ll send security down for a look around.”
“With a shovel,” Shade said.
“A shovel, hell! More like a gun!” he responded.
“The dog,” Shade said, jerking his head Sloppy’s way.
Whitey craned his neck to see what Shade was referring to. “Crap!” he said. “Who’d do a thing like that? That was a good dog. Damnit. I’ll send Vee down too, after I take T.R. up to my place.”
“Go with Whitey,” Shade said, giving me a gentle push on the small of my back. Even I couldn’t believe I did as I was told.
It dawned on me on the way to the apartment that we couldn’t call the police. Whitey couldn’t have them nosing around his illegal poker room. And anyway, what could the police do? I’d been frightened urpy and a dog had been killed. And it wasn’t even our dog. Sure, Shade had gotten a few good licks from and into an unknown, masked assailant but the guy was nowhere around now. And until I knew what Runt was mixed up in, I wasn’t so sure I wanted the police involved anyway.
I washed my face in Angelina’s bathroom and tried to pull my thoughts together but I didn’t get very far. In the movies, violence is expected and life quickly goes on as if nothing happened. In real life you vomit, you shake, you cry, you vomit again. At least that’s what I did.
I sat down on the vanity chair and cried some more, face in my hands. I cried for being scared. I cried for Sloppy. I cried for me, for not having the presence of mind to kick the bastard in the balls.
And I cried for Runt. What was he messed up in now?
My eyes puffed, my face splotched, and my heart felt like it might beat right out of my chest. My mind played a nasty game with itself, replaying the details of the event from all angles, complete, unfortunately, with smells and tastes.
In the middle of the third re-run, it hit me even harder. Runt must be mixed up in something pretty big and really bad if someone was willing to kill his dog and harm his sister. If they caught Runt, what would they do to him? I leaned over the toilet bowl again and started dry heaving. Shade came in and ran cold water on a cloth and put it on the back of my neck.
I was a lovely sight, I’m sure, with urp drool running down my chin and a swollen, colorful face. It had to be one of my best looks. Good thing it wasn’t my mission to impress Shade like all the other women in town tried to do because I’d be drawing dead for sure.
I looked at Shade and said Runt’s name. “I thought it might be something like that,” he said, as he wiped my chin with yet another wet cloth. “Vee and Whitey are takin’ care of Sloppy. Wasn’t nothing Vee could do for him.”
I started to cry again and Shade put his hand on top of my head, patting my spiky hair. I moved away from the gesture. A pat on the back I could have handled. A pat on the head made me think of Sloppy. The dry heaves started all over again.
“Damn,” said Shade, sounding frustrated. I didn’t get the feeling he was exasperated with me for crying or heaving, more like he was frustrated with the situation in general, and maybe wondering what he was going to do with me now.
Eating and poker came to a cutting horse halt across the hall. Whitey shut the game down. I imagine some of the players called it an early night but others probably found another poker room.
As Shade walked me to the duelie, Vee stopped me for a hug and to offer condolences about Sloppy. Whitey told us he was having his security men watch over the parking lot. Where were those rent-a-cops when Sloppy and I needed them?
Earlier this evening ─ well, technically last night ─ I had scrambled eagerly into the vehicle, hallucinating about bad men with guns. This time I tumbled in like a wet possum, knowing full well I had met up with the criminal element in town.
Again, neither of us said a word during the ride between home and poker room but this time for a much different reason. The truck smelled faintly of wet dog and felt empty without Sloppy. All I could think about was that dog, and the fact that someone, a lowlife who thought nothing about murdering a good dog, was after Runt. And therefore, by association, after me.
“Stay in the truck while I look around,” Shade said when we pulled into the driveway at my house. He took my house key and stepped out of the duelie, engaging its automatic locks. A couple of seconds passed and I saw lights go on in the kitchen, then the living room. The spare bedroom and my room were next. I knew he was looking under beds and through closets, searching for men in black.
I was beat even though it was only three a.m. On a normal night I usually didn’t even get off work until four at the earliest. Then there’s a drink or two, dealer chatter, clean up, and maybe I could crawl into bed about eight thirty in the morning, the same time I’d start work at a normal job.
Heck, there have been Saturdays when I didn’t even leave the card room until noon the next day. But tonight, the adrenalin crash had me wrung out even though the night was still young by gambling standards.
Shade came back to the truck and walked me to the door. “Spend the night,” I whispered. It wasn’t a question or an invitation. And it wasn’t sexual. It was a statement.
I didn’t want to be alone.
“You betcha,” he said as he opened the door to the house. The words were smart-alecky but his brown eyes showed concern. Tonight I knew he was all talk and no action. I wouldn’t have anything to worry about with him at my side, not from bad guys nor from Shade himself.
I walked from room to room turning off the lights that Shade had turned on. He watched me from a central point in the kitchen. It reminded me of half the country/western songs I’d ever heard.
“Do you want the bathroom first?” I asked as we walked into my bedroom. Neither one of us even bothered to turn on the television.
“No, you go ahead,” he said, as he laid down fully clothed on my bed. He took off his cowboy boots in respect for Grandma’s quilt lying across the sheets.
Grabbing warm ups and a tee, I headed for the shower. There was no way I was climbing into bed still covered in evidence from this horrible night. I turned on the water. When the bathroom started to fog up, I stepped in. Hot water soothed me as it poured over my body. The smell of soap in the steam was so much better than urp. Reluctantly, I turned off the shower, toweled dry, and got dressed. I felt like I was working in slow motion. As I brushed my teeth, I heard a tap on the door.
“You OK in there?” Shade asked, his voice thick with concern.
“Uh huh. Out in a sec,” I attempted to say through a mouth full of brush and paste. Maybe I was working in slow motion if he felt the need to check on me.
By the time I got out of the bathroom, Shade was lying on the bed again. I went over and joined him. We were both on our backs on top of the covers, fully dressed. I didn’t know what to say. He reached over and took my hand.
“We’ll start looking for Runt first thing tomorrow,” Shade finally whispered, but we both knew first thing would be hours of sleep away. I knew for a fact Shade hadn’t slept in almost twenty-four hours and I had only slept in spurts since my last shift in the poker room. We were both exhausted and in shape to do something about nothing tonight, let alone trying to do that something in the dark.
“Whitey said to call him when we wake up. He’ll help us.”
Lying there with my eyes closed, I didn’t even have the energy to murmur a reply.
“He also said to tell you that me and him are your hole cards, and mighty good ones at that.”
I managed a smile as I tried to drift off to sleep. The vision of my hole cards ─ Cowboy Baldy and Hulk, the Albino ─ replacing the terror of my thoughts about Runt.
Minutes ticked by but sleep wouldn’t come. My mind was racing behind closed eyelids. The night replayed. The terror returned. I needed a distraction.
“I can’t do this!” I said, moaning in frustration.
“Do what?” Shade asked, sitting up quickly. “We’re not doing anything. I’m innocent.”
“No, not that! Only you would think I meant that. I mean I can’t go to sleep without a book.”
“Yeah, it’s still in the Runt’s truck,” I replied, turning on the reading lamp. Shade looked at me like I had my boots on the wrong feet.
“It’s true. I can’t fall asleep without reading a little something. It’s been like that ever since I learned how to read. Could you go get it for me? Please?”
Without a word, Shade rolled off the bed and headed for the truck, shaking his head all the way, I’m sure.
Within minutes I was once again caught up in the steam of the navel-twitching novel, temporarily transported to another place where I didn’t have to worry about my brother. Three pages in, I was asleep, book still erect on my chest.
I barely noticed as Shade pulled it from my hands and turned out the light.