‘W hy sport, haven't you swam in the raw?’ Smirking, Laura let her
spangly bikini top slip into the reservoir. Her bottom piece had landed
at Frank Johnson’s feet.
Johnson refused to let his gaze dwell on her nude body vamping no less
toxic caught in the high beams. ‘You lost the damn key?’ he repeated.
‘No wonder. Your ratty jeans look like Swiss cheese.’
Ignoring him, Laura dove off the concrete apron, floated a moment on her
back for show, flipped over to dog paddle up to him. ‘Babycakes,
relax. Two keys are issued for bus locker rentals.’
‘For an ace insurance investigator,’ Johnson said, ‘you like skating
close to the edge, huh?’
Hoisting herself from the pool, Laura stretched to wrap a beach towel
about her. ‘Break in, snatch this key, bop out. Like before, a walk in
the park, sport.’ She wrung water from lank blonde hair, retrieved her
Johnson raked fingers through cropped hair. ‘I can’t keep pilfering the
Colonel’s keys. He’ll soon smarten up.’
Laughing, Laura piled her hair inside a towel turban. ‘That’s why we
should move fast. Do it tonight.’
‘Look, I’ll go on owing you a favor,’ said Johnson. They were now
walking to the car. ‘Turn this over to the police. Forget the finder’s
fee. Let them nab the Colonel, recoup the swag.’
‘I’ve busted my hump for ten years.’ Gripping his lapels, she tugged
for emphasis. ‘If I recover the ruby glass slippers, I net 10% of their
value. That’s $20,000.’
‘I know, I know. Otherwise, it’s a paycheck, just another Eatta boy.’
After starting the engine, Johnson grabbed reverse.
Her window down to inhale the hazy night’s honeysuckle, Laura glanced
over sideways. ‘Your cut remains a cool grand,’ she reminded him.
‘You say that as if I’ll then be flush.’ Johnson jutted his bearded
jaw; his eyes were glued to the broken lines. ‘Hell, I can earn that
for two nights on stakeout.’
Laura's hand snaked over his thigh, fingers worming deeper. ‘True,
Frankie bird,’ she whispered. ‘But while playing detective, don’t you
Grunting, Johnson released the steering wheel, toed the brakes. Tires
skid off pavement, lost velocity plodding along the sandy shoulder. Her
towels unsheathed. While kissing, Laura undid his belt, clawed at his
fly. Peering over her wet head, Johnson piloted the jouncing car to a
halt. Pressed to hot, sticky vinyl, he shifted to kill the ignition.
Gasping, Laura wrested away the key ring to fling out the window.
* * *
Following dinner the next day, Johnson drove by Colonel Tom Wingo’s
manor located at Joppy’s main crossroads. He nodded back to the Colonel
puffing on a cigar, rocking in the porch swing. A Chihuahua dubbed
Hercules guarded the brown bag where the Colonel concealed his bourbon
bottle. Natives claimed he could splurge like Elvis Presley, but the
Colonel was too busy moving merchandise appearing on his auction block.
Nobody asked questions about ownership.
Turning right, Johnson slowed to inspect the back entrance to the
Colonel’s manor. That first theft had been a snap. Clad in black, he
operated slick as a professional cat burglar. Slicing a credit card
between the door crack to trip the hasp, Johnson picked the lock. Gloves
left no prints. The penlight clenched between his teeth illuminated
just enough. The Yellow Bird Bus key dangled by a girlie calendar.
Within the hour, after making one quick stop, he had met Laura in a bar,
slid the key down her black lace bra.
Continuing around the lazy bend in the road to the bridge, Johnson
pulled up behind a pickup truck bearing ‘FARM USE’ license plates. The
decrepit black man hailed him in the rear view mirror, limped back, and
leaned his forearms on Johnson's window.
‘How’s the cat-fishing, Homer?’ asked Johnson.
‘They ain't had no bites all afternoon.’ Spitting, Homer gestured down
to his cronies holding bamboo poles. ‘Channels running muddy.
Thunderstorms pretty near every night, it seems.’
‘Guess what? I need to pry back into Wingo’s.’ Johnson watched an
exasperated Homer snort through his splayed nose.
‘Another day bumming around that terminal and I’ll fling a fit,’ he
said. ‘You said you were set yesterday.’
Johnson gazed a full second beyond the treetops before replying. ‘Laura
lost the key.’
Homer’s knobbly knuckles tapped Johnson's chest. ‘Do us both a grand
favor and ditch her.’
After Johnson did not respond, Homer scowled. ‘Tell me you ain’t
muzzy-headed enough to think you’re falling in love,’ he scoffed.
‘That girl sure floats my boat,’ replied Johnson.
‘I knew it. Oh Christ, you’ll never learn. Okay loverboy, I’ll give
you two days more. Then I quit. Hire another lookout.’ That uttered,
Homer pivoted on his heels, stalked back to his truck.
Johnson sat whistling between his teeth to bluegrass music on the AM
radio, its reception fuzzy with approaching dusk. He had nagging
doubts. The ruby glass slippers were the real deal, he told himself.
Laura had a Xerox of their provenance -- a typewritten correspondence
signed by Judy Garland thanking the shoe manufacturer for making her
rich and famous. Miserable came knocking later. Dorothy’s ruby glass
slippers from The Wizard of Oz were priceless icons, according to
Laura’s Hollywood client.
Something else vexed Johnson. Again, he tried to rationalize what he
was doing. It wasn’t a crime, was it? He was stealing stolen property
to return to the rightful owner. Whatever money he secreted in the
bargain was irrelevant. It was that simple. Laura had laid it out for
him. Strike while the Colonel stashed the slippers in a bus locker.
Laura was one sharp cookie. Johnson sighed. Keeping her happy, though,
was a full time job and more. Homer had a point.
When the tinsel bugs fired up, Johnson flipped off the radio. Rifling
through the glove compartment, he tugged out the full-face black ski
mask and gloves to put on. Getting out of the car, he knelt and fumbled
beneath the seat. Yes, the shoebox was still there. After hoofing it
cross-country, he emerged at the back end of Colonel Wingo's manor.
Unlike the previous break-in, Johnson now fended off a rising attack of
nerves. He hunched behind a chinaberry tree, scrutinized the windows.
The lights burned. The Colonel had probably nodded off watching Tora,
Tora, Tora showing on Channel 5.
After a time, Johnson's anxiety settled to a dull apprehension. No
traffic appeared. Moonrise was a silver sliver. The night bugs
serenaded the bullbats. Johnson gave it five more minutes, then raced
over. Peering through the lit pane, he noted the blaring television.
Only his boots sticking out visible, the Colonel had extended his
recliner flat out for sleep.
Reprising his former triumph, Johnson skittered unseen into the
Colonel's office. Aiming the penlight, he rummaged here and there. A
car swished by outside causing him to duck. One second before scrapping
the mission, he found the duplicate Yellow Bird Bus key taped underneath
the telephone. Tiptoeing in socks down the corridor, Johnson mashed
against the corner wall to gawk around at the Colonel. He was the
perfect picture of a man’s day-end leisure. He drew closer. The Jap's
delivered bombs were smashing Pearl Harbor to smithereens. Somehow, one
stray bullet had drilled the Colonel plumb dead center in his forehead.
Johnson did a doubletake. Yep, it was certain. The Colonel was dead as
a dodo. No derringer or suicide letter was evident. Huddled in a
hairball, Hercules whimpered beneath the hi-fi. Sirens wailed.
Something had fouled up. Johnson’s heart a gong banging his ribcage
interrupted his trance. The sirens reverberated shriller. Scooping up
Hercules, Johnson backtracked to stuff on his loafers and sprint to the
woods. By the time he was fumbling into his car seat, every deputy and
yahoo owning a police scanner within a twenty-mile radius had descended
on the Colonel’s manor.
Thinking fast, Johnson motored even faster the opposite way. Hercules
nestled in his lap, quivering but hushed. A screaming ambulance,
cherry-top atwirl, rushed by them. Yanking off the ski cap and gloves,
he struggled to focus on the present moment.
Concentrate, he kept muttering. Okay, let's see. He was to rendezvous
with Laura in the parking lot behind the old vinegar works located on
the other side of town. Manoeuvring through a maze of back roads,
Johnson arrived ten minutes late.
His headlights stabbing the darkness, Johnson circled the gravel lot
desolate and empty as a moon crater. Even the night bugs and bullbats
had forsaken the ruins. He checked the luminous dials on his
wristwatch. Perhaps Laura was goofing around on him again. No, the
stakes were too high. She may have decided to wait in the warehouse --
he dared to honk once. That solicited no response.
Waiting there with lights doused, the engine idling, a thought stirred
his mind before near panic swept in. Suppose Laura had been apprehended
or gunned down? His face contorted into a grim mask. Violent, lurid
images bobbed up. Johnson twisted the radio knob on as if to glean some
news. A restless anxiety seeped into his bones.
Homer, Johnson happened to remember, bunked just across the railroad
tracks, a route that didn't necessitate navigating through town.
Squirming away from him, Hercules climbed over to the passenger side,
perched his puny paws on the dashboard, and wagged his rattail. His
three yaps bugged Johnson.
‘All right, big fellow, I can find my way,’ Johnson grumbled. He petted
a wet, cold, friendly nose.
Before crossing the tracks on Homer's meandering lane, Johnson caught
sight of the piercing eye of orange light bearing down on him. The
midnight express let loose a squall. Rows of windows clattered by.
Scrunching beneath the sun visor, Johnson squinted into the coaches
gleaming with sleek brass and teak. Capped porters were serving seated
passengers sipping champagne. A few were smoking big cigars. Johnson
could have sworn one tall blond powdering her nose was the spitting
image of Laura.
"The Hell you say.’ Slouched beside the kitchen stove outfitted in a
Star Wars nightshirt, Homer stomped his bare foot on the buckled
‘I didn’t know what else to think,’ Johnson sputtered.
‘Say what? Me and that skanky white woman?’ Feigning displeasure,
Homer waved his hand in a shooing motion. ‘Scram before I blast you
through with buckshot.’
‘Hitch up your bibs,’ countered Johnson. ‘Let’s travel. I have an
ominous hunch Laura is in trouble.’
Homer switched the radio off. He didn’t cotton to the bluegrass music
Johnson had tuned in. Too damn many men dying and hounds howling.
While cursing in protest, Johnson failed to observe the roadblock until
Homer pointed to it.
‘Trouble at twelve o'clock,’ he said. ‘Exchange places, then hunker
under that tarp in back. Take that moth-eaten mutt, too. Don’t even
breathe a noise.’
Homer slowed to a crawl into the blinking bluish arcs of light.
Uniforms in orange vests reading ‘DEPUTY’ flagged him down to a stop.
One was shining her flashlight through the rear window before stepping
up. Homer held out his driver's license.
‘Isn’t this Frank Johnson's crate?’ she quizzed him.
‘Why, yes ma'am, it is.’ Homer’s smile broadened. ‘I left him tonight
fishing under the old Joppy bridge.’
The stout deputy remained stern-faced. ‘Fishing?’she wondered.
‘Why, yes ma’am. Channel cats are best snagged at night,’ explained
Homer. ‘You see, first we impale these stink baits on a trot line to
drop . . .’
‘What are you doing with it?’ The deputy was loosing interest.
‘Well, ma’am, I am running home for calamine lotion,’he replied, still
smiling. ‘Frank has a vile case of chiggers.’ He demonstrated by
pretending to itch.
‘Yeah, okay, so hop along,’ she ordered Homer after recording the plate
number and his name on a clipboard.
Once the roadblock ebbed from view, Johnson sat up front again with
Hercules curled on his lap. Wiping his brow with a sleeve, he spoke
‘At least my alibi is established,’ he half-joked. ‘Flimsy as it
‘It would behoove you to start catfishing,’suggested Homer. ‘That and
smearing on gouts of calamine lotion for a week. Where to next?’
‘Red Deer Motel,’ replied Johnson. ‘Ease up to Room 7.’
The oval neon sign outside the Red Deer Motel sizzled with ‘NO VACANCY’
in spearmint green lettering. The motel parking lot was crammed with
out-of-state tags except the space in front of Room 7 was vacant. Mrs.
Hodgkins, the proprietress, lay sprawled across the stuffed chairs in
the bright lobby with a magazine propped over her head of curlers. The
motel filled to overflowing, she could afford to catnap.
Homer nosed into empty space, extinguished the headlamps. Johnson
ordered Hercules to stay put, then followed Homer who held the screen
door for him to unlock the steel door. Inside, the reading lamp next to
the bed was ablaze. The sheets had been slept in. There were soppy
towels and a discarded feminine razor. An off-the-air picture froze on
the television; its volume muted.
Laura was missing.
‘Whoa, your lady friend indulged expensive tastes.’ Gloating, Homer
tipped the trashcan for Johnson to notice empty demijohns of imported
A hollow rap on the door prompted both men to turn. Mrs. Hodgkins
ambled up to Johnson. She fished from her blouse pocket a lodging
bill. ‘You owe this innkeeper $160, plus tax and gratuity,’ she
Bending over with hands planted on knees, Homer launched into braying
laughter. ‘Man, you’ve been screwed, blued, and tattooed.’
Without a word, Johnson produced his credit card that Mrs. Hodgkins
carried off to process and return for his signature.
In a display of sympathy, Homer draped his arm around Johnson's sagging
shoulders. ‘You ain't the first guy made a total fool of by a devil
woman.’ He steered Johnson by the elbow from the motel room.
Johnson shook his head, refusing to believe a word of it. ‘You’ve
judged Laura plain wrong. She's not a tramp. You just despise her
‘Whatever you say,’ agreed Homer. ‘But you're packing the locker key,
right? Suppose we mosey on over, sneak a peek.’
Back on the road to Joppy, a coming rain spattered the windshield before
torrents assailed them. Neither man bothered to crank up his window.
Refreshing, cool sprays hosed their faces. Lightning slashed, thunder
crashed. Their progress decelerated to a terrapin's pace. Twenty
minutes later, Homer signaled a right onto Fitzwater Drive, edged the
car alongside the Yellow Bird Bus terminal open 24 hours.
‘I’ll do it,’ Johnson insisted. His voice was slurred and leaden.
Sloshing through the front door, Johnson surveyed the deserted
terminal. The ticket clerk, a kid engulfed by black-framed glasses,
watched him pass the soda and cigarette machines to invade the corral of
pale blue lockers.
Wedging fingers down his wet trouser pocket, Johnson extracted the key
he'd appropriated earlier from the Colonel’s office. It opened Locker
354. As he inserted the key, Johnson prayed to be wrong. All thumbs,
he managed to drag out the shoebox. Lifting its lid, he stared at
nothing except a note printed on the back of a dry cleaning receipt.
The devil woman's words hit like a left hook to the gut.
Barnum said it best: There's a sucker born every
minute. Should I call you ‘All Day,’ as in sucker?
Hahaha! You were a swell sport, though.
See you in the funny papers, All Day.
Johnson trudged back outside, the rain having slackened. Reaching
across, Homer kicked his door ajar. Crumbling the note, Johnson slumped
down inside, his face buried in cupped palms.
‘That bad, huh,’ Homer said at last.
Nodding, Johnson groped under the seat. Out came the other shoebox.
Homer whistled. Hercules barked.
Inside, the ruby glass slippers, these being the genuine articles,
glistened in the semi-darkness.
‘There’s a sucker born every minute,’ Johnson repeated. His voice was
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Today, we don't know anything at all about Ed Lynskey. If you know this man, please help us.