Which brings us to one of the few marriage obligations I hate so much, I would rather hang from the ceiling by my testicles than go through with it, although I would never openly admit it to Joanne. While Sean drives home (or to a bar) in his Volkswagen hatchback, Joanne and I head for the Anne Lee Home for the Aged and Infirmed in my aged and infirmed minivan. We’re driving a busy Central Avenue, the main East/West artery that connects the downtown to the suburbs and beyond.
Joanne isn’t saying much of anything, like she’s got something on her mind.
I decide to speak up first.
“You and Sean,” I say, “you’re getting awfully friendly, Jo.”
She turns quick, sets her hand on my hand since it’s holding the console mounted transmission stick.
“Whatever do you mean, Bradley?”
I shoot her a quick look, then focus back on the road.
“Oh, Sean darling,” I say, mimicking her delivery from earlier. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
We pass by a Jeep dealership on our right-hand side. The lot is full of brand new two and four door Jeep Wranglers. I’ve always wanted a Jeep Wrangler but could never afford one. Jeeps to me represent individuality, freedom, and what do the French call it? Joie de vivre. People take notice of Jeeps. They also take notice of Jeep drivers. Nobody cares about the poor jerk who’s driving a beat up old rusted out minivan. But then, that’s been the story of my life hasn’t it? Not being noticed. Fading into the shadows of humanity. Doing what I was told to do, and when to do it.
But not anymore. I’m a new man. Now, I’m shaping my own destiny. Apparently, Joanne is too, beginning with her new body, new wardrobe, new hair, and new attitude. She’s also doing it by lying to me about Sean. Scratch that. Maybe lying is too strong a word for what’s going on. Maybe she’s just playing coy—plausibly denying she’s the kind of woman who would have anything going on with Sean. But then, is the woman who ordered the execution of two innocent people really the woman I took to be my lawfully wedded wife, in sickness and health, till the day I die?
“Oh that’s just what happens when you work as closely as I have been with Sean,” she says. “To be honest, you haven’t been down in the trenches with the funeral business like I have been with him. He’s always with me these days, or so it seems.”
“But calling him darling?”
We’re well past the dealership now, but I can still see the red, two door, Rubicon that has my name on it. She squeezes my hand but then crosses her arms over her chest.
“Really, Bradley,” she says. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous. I call all of my friends, darling. It’s a term of affection.”
So, this is one of those damned if I am, and damned if I’m not type situations. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how to feel about my wife paying that much attention to a drunken tool like Sean. One of my postal worker buddies once told me, for every hot woman you see, there’s a man who is sick of fucking her. It’s not that I’m sick of fucking Joanne, if I can be so crass. We haven’t had sex in a couple years, and even that was the first time in three or four years. In the beginning we had sex all the time. But that’s the thing about marriage, especially a marriage neither party can afford to get out of. You end up living not as partners, but simply as roommates. You don’t live in harmony. You cohabitate.
“Forget I brought it up,” I say. “I’m just tired from a long day. Heck, a long few months.”
“That’s more like it,” she says, staring out the side window. “How long have we been friends with Sean? Four decades? My God, we were friends in high school.”
“You’re right,” I say, now feeling sort of bad. “My apologies. I was just overreacting.”
I tap the brakes, listen to them squeal, and pull onto the side road that will take us to the Ann Lee Home.
“Might I remind you that in the course of those few months,” Joanne adds, “we’ve already become millionaires.”
Just hearing those words kind of sends a chill down my spine.
“But what good is all that cash if we can’t spend it, Jo?”
“You know the rule, darling,” she says. “Sean has already spelled it out plainly enough for us. We have to be careful with what we spend. We can’t suddenly go on a lavish spending spree until we’ve laundered enough of the cash we’re bringing in through the funeral home. It’s going to take some time.”
I feel a slow burn when she mentions Sean again. But I guess, in the end, she’s right. All we need is the IRS investigating us on top of what could potentially be another FBI and APD investigation, of which our only real defense (again, according to fucking Sean) is plausible deniability.
We pull into the lot of the Anne Lee Home and park in one of the vacant visitor’s spaces available along the long wall of the old, five-story, brick and stone building. I kill the engine, get out and take notice of the leaves on all the old trees that surround the property and how they’re turning from green to brilliant fall colors. Red, orange, and yellow. While the cool air slaps me in the face, a feeling of dread always washes over me when we make the climb up the old marble steps to the front, wood and glass doors of this old age home. It’s not the cold, institutional, insane asylum-like atmosphere that gets my BVDs in a tizzy. It’s knowing that Joanne’s mother will spend most of our visit berating me for being a life-long loser.
Don’t get me wrong. The eighty-something woman isn’t all there anymore. Most of her physical and much of her mental faculties having split the scene years ago. But she’s still got a sharp tongue and she enjoys nothing more than stabbing me with it, once and a while. Naturally, Joanne doesn’t do anything to stop her. She just chalks her mom’s bullying up to her being an old lady who isn’t long for this world. But what about when she was a younger lady? I don’t recall Joanne ever defending me then either when her mom would pass a sly comment or two across the dinner table.
We enter into the facility, grab our visitor’s passes from the kind young man behind the Plexiglas covered reception counter, and head for the elevator which takes us up to the third floor. Getting off, we head down a brightly lit corridor that’s outfitted with thick plastic safety rails for the old folks who will surely do a face plant if left up to their own sense of balance. Or what’s left of it, I should say.
We pass by a TV room where a dozen or so residents are seated in wheelchairs, or on a long couch, their faces aimed at a wall mounted high-definition TV that’s broadcasting the Shopping Channel. Each and every one of them is chin against chest asleep, a couple of them producing long drool streams that dampen their thick wool cardigans. Sucks to get old, I guess.
Passing by the TV room, we stop at a door that’s identified with a piece of rectangular cardboard shoved into a small aluminum frame. When the old lady passes on, the frame will be outfitted with a new black-letters-on-white-background name. Joanne knocks on the heavy wood door even though it’s partially open.
“Ma,” she says. “You awake, Ma?”
My wife walks in and I reluctantly follow. I’m immediately hit with part body odor, part Lysol disinfectant, part stale, my-body-is-slowly-disintegrating from the inside out, aroma. The room is simply outfitted with a hospital style bed, the upper portion of which can be raised or lowered at will. There’s also a recliner facing the big wall-mounted TV that Joanne bought for her mother last Christmas. The walls are decorated with pictures of the family. Mostly of Joanne, her sisters, and her brother, taken at various stages of their lives including their weddings.
Our wedding is represented too, but get this: it’s only a picture of Joanne looking young and beautiful in her wedding gown while standing under a giant oak tree at the family’s country club where we had our reception. But then, my brother in laws ended up being doctors and lawyers while I was already a mailman. There was a price to be paid for choosing to become a low wage mail slinger. At least Brad Junior has made us proud with his becoming an MD. But what I want to ask Joanne is this: Why are we the ones stuck paying the monthly bill for the old lady’s stay? Because I’m the oldest daughter and I have the power of attorney, she’ll tell me. I guess it also means she’ll be in charge of the estate when the time comes for her mom to leave this earth. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain.
Speaking of the old lady, I see her seated in the recliner. She’s got a head full of tall gray hair that looks like it was just done up at the facility beauty parlor. She’s wearing a gray skirt, and a blue cardigan sweater over a button-down blouse and brown slippers on her feet. By the looks of it, she’s just waking up from one of her all-day naps. When she sees her daughter, she smiles.
“Hi, Stacey,” she says, her voice sort of groggy and sleepy.
“It’s Joanne, ma,” Joanne says.
“Oh let me put on my readers,” the old lady says, using both her hands to set the pair of half-glasses hanging off her neck by a thin chain onto the crown of her nose.
She’s watching the local Spectrum news in between naps, which tells me she’s no doubt seen the FBI wanted poster that’s once again got Joanne and my likeness printed on it. Looks like she can’t see that well with or without her readers on, which is a good thing. Still, my confidence in Sean’s plausible deniability defense is eroding by the second knowing Joanne’s mother is paying attention to the news. Why can’t she just watch Lawrence Welk reruns like other old people? Maybe she’s not all there anymore, but eventually, if she sees the wanted poster enough, she’ll start to make a connection between the killers and her own daughter and son in law.
“Oh, silly me,” she says. “Yes, it’s you, Joanne. You and Stacey always did look so much alike. Did you hear that William has been promoted to full partner of his law firm? Stacey is over the moon about that one. So proud of her husband.”
Here we go…
“That’s terrific,” Joanne says. “I’ll have to give her a congratulations call.” Then, “Are you going to say hello to Brad, Ma?”
“Oh, hello, Bradley,” she says, with all the enthusiasm of undergoing a rectal exam. “How’s the post office these days?”
“I’ve retired, Esther,” I say with a broad smile. “And I’m a fucking millionaire now that Joanne killed two gangbangers and we took their money, their drugs and started our own money laundering and drug running business, so how’s about them apples. And by the way, William made full partner fifteen year’s ago and not only is he still a dick, Stacy’s been cheating on him with a freelance writer for ages now, and everybody knows it.”
Okay, I don’t say that last bit, but it’s exactly what I wish I could say.
“Retired,” the old lady says, her face going tight. “However will you live on a federal pension?”
“Oh, don’t you worry, Ma,” Joanne steps in. “We’ll get by just fine. In fact, we’ve managed to invest part of Brad’s very generous pension on a new business venture.”
Esther pretends to perk up a bit.
“What kind of business, dear?” she asks.
“We bought a funeral home,” Joanne says.
Esther seems to be a little confused by this. Because who buys a funeral home in their middle-aged years?
“A funeral home,” the old lady repeats with a sour puss and scrunched brow. “Well, I guess you’ll never run out of business.”
“Oh, ma,” she says, “you’re still as sharp as a thumb tack.”
Esther slowly gets up from the recliner.
“Whaddaya say we go have a cup of tea in the cafe, Jo,” she says. “You can tell me all about your new business venture. I’m sure glad at least one of you is a go-getter.”
“Sure, ma,” my wife says.
Both of them slip past me and out the door into the hall.
“Oh, and you are welcome to come too, Brad,” Esther says.
I feel the burn slowly slide down my backside.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world, Esther,” I say.
Begrudgingly, I follow them to the Anne Lee Home café.
We spend the better part of a half hour, talking about how a funeral home is run. Rather, Joanne talks about it to her mother who, at her age, seems more than a little interested. Joanne also casually mentions our casket company investment which further peaks her mother’s interest. I sit and quietly sip my rusty tasting coffee and politely listen to them. But all I keep thinking about is if Esther knew the truth about our business, she might stroke out on the spot.
“Well, it looks like I know where I will be having my send off when my time comes,” the old lady says after a beat or two.
Joanne reaches out, places her hand on her mom’s thin, almost frail claw. Excuse me, hand.
“Don’t say that, ma,” she says. “You have a long life to live yet.”
Bite your tongue, Joanne…
My wife sips her tea.
“You keep telling yourself that, dear,” Esther says, while her focus shifts from her daughter to one of the several flat-screen televisions mounted to the café walls. “Can you believe what’s happening?” she goes on. “Those young gangsters murdered in cold blood and they still can’t find the killer or killers.”
My stomach cramps while I shoot Joanne a look. She returns my glance, but only for the briefest of moments.
“Yes, ma,” Joanne says staring down into her coffee cup. “I did hear about that. It’s frightening to know something like that can happen in our peaceful city.”
The TV is broadcasting pretty much the same report Lurch sent to Sean’s phone earlier. Here’s what I know right now: In just a matter of seconds, they’re going to be broadcasting Joanne’s and my likeness all over the café. Maybe we shouldn’t be so public. Maybe we should be in hiding. Or maybe the likenesses only seem to look a lot like us. Maybe we’re just being paranoid. Whatever the case, Esther is going to see them. Unless we distract her.
Detective Danish is speaking to reporters from the steps in front of the South Pearl Street Precinct.
“Gee Esther,” I say. “It’s getting late. How about some dinner. I can go up to the counter grab us some burgers and--”
“Shush,” she spits, making a sour puss. “I’m trying to listen to this.”
She makes a gesture with her right hand like I’m an insect she’s shooing away. Then, on the multiple TV screens, Danish is pulling out the FBI Wanted Poster. I feel the panic building up in my sternum, like it might split down the middle. I can’t prevent my mother-in-law from watching the news on her own, but I can do something about it right now.
Instinct takes over. Standing abruptly, I also manage to knock over Esther’s tea. She shoots out of her chair like a woman half her age.
“Oh no, Esther,” I say. “I’m soooo sorry. Let me get you another one.”
Joanne also gets up and immediately grabs a handful of napkins from the dispenser set in the middle of the table.
“Christ almighty, Bradley!” Esther barks. “This is my favorite sweater and now it’s soaked.”
“Let me help, ma,” Joanne says coming around the table.
I glance at one of the televisions. The wanted poster is now safely back inside Detective Danish’s jacket. All’s well, at least for the moment. Although I am going to have hell to pay for spilling Esther’s tea in her lap. My wife goes to work on patting her mother down with the paper napkins. But the paper is thin and cheap and it’s just making matters worse since it’s shredding all over the sweater.
Patting her daughter’s hands away, Esther says, “Don’t worry about it, Joanne. I’ll take care of it in my room. Let’s head back. I’m tired and it’s almost dinner time.”
The old lady starts for the door.
“We’d be happy to take you to dinner, ma,” Joanne offers. Why? I don’t know since she knows full well Bradley Junior will be arriving at the house soon.
“Not tonight,” Esther says. “Maybe next week you can take me to dinner.”
Oh, so that’s why Joanne asked her mother about dinner. She’d knew the old lady would say no since I’m present.
“What about me, Esther?” I ask anyway, just to be a dick.
“I’d like to enjoy the company of my daughter on her own, Bradley.”
Have a good dinner, Esther, I say to myself. Hope you choke.
Thanks for reading. For a FREE novel, go to WWW.VINZANDRI.COM
Grab the brand new release: Desperate Measure: A Short Thriller Collection!
Grab the first novel in the bestselling, award winning Chase Baker Thriller Series: The Shroud Key!
NOTE: Book links are Amazon affiliate links