by Lina Gardiner

Grevellia Ward stood in the shadows and watched the house currently under her surveillance.  She sighed and wished she’d thought to bring along a thermos of tea or coffee and something to eat.  She’d been here for hours and not one person had shown up.  Her stomach growled and she dug into her backpack for an old mint or a stale piece of gum.  Nothing.
Why the hell had she been hired to watch this empty place, anyway? The client who had come into her office yesterday had paid in cash.  He wanted an update on who showed up here tonight.
She leaned against the oak tree at the edge of the park, directly across the road from the house under her watch.  A perfect location for surveillance.
Last year at this time she was making a decent wage.  But now?  Okay, so she needed the money.  Sue her.
She cringed at that thought.  Bad choice of words.  The reason she was in this mess was because she’d been taken to court by a citizen.
She’d been a damned good cop.  And the worst part, she’d done nothing wrong.  But evidence had been found that implicated her.  She gritted her teeth too hard and felt her jaw twinge in pain.  The so-called innocent citizen had said she’d taken a bribe and had threatened their life if they didn’t keep on paying.  Luckily the case had been thrown out, but fiction or not, the department didn’t like that kind of cloud hanging over them.  She didn’t actually have to quit, but things got so uncomfortable she finally decided it wasn’t worth it any more. 
The worst part, she’d just bought a new house.  She’d met a guy who seemed a perfect fit.  And she had a little bit of savings in the bank.  Whammo!  Everything was pulled out from under her.  No job meant, no way to pay her mortgage.  She’d hung on for about six months, but then had to declare bankruptcy.  She lost everything.  Including Beecham Laramy.  Apparently, he had a thing for women in power, and when she’d become more or less powerless so he lost interest.
At least she’d found out what a jerk he was before it was too late.  Hell, she’d been hoping he’d propose before the shit hit the fan and landed all over her.
She felt like a fraud in some ways.  Mostly because she’d had little respect for PI’s before she’d become one herself.
She had no idea how difficult this job could be.  Well, more to the point, how damnable boring it could be. 
But the client paid her a thousand dollars in cash to watch this house tonight.  She needed the greenbacks.  Who was she to complain if no one showed up.  Made the job that much easier.
            A twig snapped to her left and she stepped further in the shadows of the tree.  Had that been a footstep, or a roaming cat or dog? 

            Another snap in the shadowy cover.  Gravellia didn’t like carrying a weapon but she’d grabbed it on her way out of the office without even considering why.  Since, she’d resigned from the police force she’d stopped carrying a gun.  Normally it was nothing but a paperweight in her locked gun case.  But, tonight, something felt off.  She had no idea what the hell was up.  Maybe she shouldn’t have taken that envelope of much needed cash for a simple one-night stakeout when it didn’t feel right.  This gig reeked to the sky, but her curiosity got the better of her.  Now, she wanted to know what was going on here.
 Yeah, she was packing tonight, and now with some clumsy oaf trying to sneak up on her, she hoped she wouldn’t have to use it.
            She slipped around the trunk of the large tree and pointed her revolver at the shadowy figure in front of her.  “Who are you, and why the hell are you following me?”
            “Holy shit, Gravellia!  Don’t point that thing at me.  Is it really loaded?”  the familiar teenaged voice said breathlessly.
A long stream of silent curses echoed inside Gravellia’s head.  Had to be silent, because she never swore in front of her niece, Verbie.   “Verbena Ward, I told you to stay at home tonight.  You shouldn’t be here,” she hissed.  “It could be dangerous.”
Worse, If Verbena could find her this easily, had she been spotted by whomever she was supposed to be watching.  Is that why the lights remained out in the house she was watching?  They’d spotted her?
Her shoulders slumped and she felt like kicking something.
Verbie huffed a dramatic sigh.  “Believe me, I’d rather be at home Aunt Gravellia.”
“But…?”  Gravellia shoved the revolver back into her holster and flicked a quick glance at the bungalow still in total darkness. 
“But, I’m doing a report on you for my final world studies class.”
“Verbie, what the hell….” She bit her lip against the unwanted curse.  “What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
            “I’m supposed to job shadow a local business person.   It’s worth half of my class mark, Auntie.  If I don’t do this, I’ll fail.”  Her eyes caught some light and flashed in the darkness.  “And mom won’t be very happy if I fail.”
Garvellia pursed her dry lips.  “You can’t use your mother as a threat, Verbie.  She can’t manipulate me the way she does other people. Now, you go home and we’ll talk about this when I get back.”  Damn it, she shouldn’t have said that to Jo-ann’s daughter.  But the kid was savvy.   Maybe more savvy than she should be at thirteen.
Verbena’s head lowered and Gravellia felt a weight in the pit of her stomach.  Damn it, the poor kid got shifted from relative to relative whenever her mother found a new boyfriend and flew off to God-only-knew-where.
Verbena had started stumbling her way back out of the stand of trees.  “Verbie.  You can shadow me, okay.  But not tonight.  Not on stakeout.  Tomorrow, you and I will go to my office and put in a full day. How’s that sound?”
            “Boring,” the teenager said.  “This is the exciting stuff.”
An engine roared down the street and a car lurched into the driveway of the dark bungalow.    Several men got out of the SUV.  Light went on inside and curtains were instantly drawn.
“Go home, now, Verbie.  This is NOT the place for you to be.”

Verbena sniffed and was possibly crying when she dashed out of the woods in the opposite direction of Gravellia’s surveillance, at least.  Damn it, she really hated disappointing the kid, but she had no idea what this assignment could turn into.  She’d make it up to the kid tomorrow.
Sucking in a deep breath one hand felt for the loaded revolver in the holster under her jacket.  No need for it now, but things could change.
Glancing back to make sure her niece really was on her way home, she forced herself to focus on the task at hand.  Did she really need that money?
            The honest answer.  Yes. 
            She gritted her teeth.  She’d been a damned good cop.  Someone had it in for her, and she hoped someday she’d find out who.  She’d been doing her own research ever since she’d been framed, but so far nothing concrete had turned up.
            In the meantime, this job would pay a few bills.
            A breeze tinkled through the leaves above her and from across the street the sounds of male laughter flirted on the breeze.  Someone had opened a window in the house.  Bonus. 
She edged out of the woods and did a fake bout of stretches then jogged down the sidewalk toward the house.  Making sure no one was nearby, she ducked behind a hedge and crept to the side of the building where the window had been opened in the kitchen.  She saw a lot of empty chip bags and beef jerky containers but the men were in another room.  Their muffled voices were accentuated with an outburst of raucous laughter every now and then.  She thought they must be plotting something heinous when she heard one man say, “Just try to beat this!”  Everyone groaned.
“A damned royal flush. How’d you get so lucky?” he asked suspiciously.
“It’s the dozen extra cards up my sleeve.”
“What sleeves?”  The complainer asked.
“Exactly,” the winner responded.  Shuffling and cards being played sounded, and everyone chatted normally again.
Grevellia leaned her back against the wall.  “It’s a poker game? Damn it!  Why would someone hire her for this?  She frowned.  Yeah, why would someone hire her for this?  This stank to high heaven.
She’d been distracted.  But why?
She crept around the corner of the house and took down the license plate number from the vehicle before going to the front door and ringing the bell.
 A minute later the door opened.  The man answering the door had a cigar in his teeth, and a bottle of beer in one hand.  “Yeah?  What?”
            She smiled at him.  “Hi, is Mary in?”
            “Who?”  The big man with a brush cut and grease under his fingernails frowned at her.
“Mary.  I’m here to visit my friend, Mary.”
“Ain’t no Mary here, lady.”
            “Are you sure,” she asked, glancing past him to the group of men playing cards at a card table in the living room.  It certainly wasn’t an underworld gathering. 
“Yeah, I’m sure,” he said and started to shut the door in her face then halted long enough to say,   “Sorry, but, I can’t help you.  I just bought this place and I don’t know the neighbors.”
“Thanks, anyway.”  She stepped away from the door and listened inside.  There were no surreptitious whispers, just the sound of the men going back to their gambling.
Angry and a little more than suspicious, she made for her vehicle down the street. 
It hadn’t escaped her yesterday, when the man had hired her that he’d looked nervous.  And, in hindsight, probably not the kind of man who’d have money to pay a PI to do surveillance on a house.  She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket.  Immediately, she knew the number he’d given her would be a fake.  It rang about three times before she got the message from the operator.  “This number has been disconnected.“
“Of course it has.”  She frowned.  “What the hell is going on?”    

            Grevellia strode along the sidewalk randomly dotted with pools of illumination underneath ancient streetlights.   She’d parked her car far enough away not to be spotted, but right now she regretted that.  This wasn’t the best part of the city.  Yeah, she was packing but she didn’t want to use her gun ever again.  She’d had to use it on the force once, and that person’s death hung heavy on her soul.  Always would.  It didn’t matter that the guy had every intention to shoot her, and he’d been a sleezeball who’d perpetrated more crimes than anyone should ever be allowed.  Didn’t matter; she hadn’t wanted to be the person who exacted his death sentence. 
            Ground fog flirted across the patchy grass in the wee hours of the morning.  Except for the occasional barking dog, not many other sounds broke the darkness.   Why hadn’t she noticed the state of these houses earlier?  Garbage lined the street and junk piled up.   Shadows became more prevalent because some of the streetlights were out.  Not just broken, but burned out she noticed.  Obviously even the city didn’t care much about this section.  Or they gave up trying to fix it.
            Her guard went up when she saw someone coming toward her on the sidewalk.  Obviously a man.  He had a strong, steady gait.  He didn’t appear drunk or otherwise inebriated.  She pushed her shoulders back and monitored her situation.  A quick glance around proved there was no one else sneaking up on her from behind. 
            “Grevellia, is that you?” The shadowy stranger spoke the second she stepped under a streetlight. 
She recognized that voice.  Vince Gregory, one of the cops she’d worked with a few years back.  He’d left to go undercover downtown.  What the hell was he doing here?
            “Vince?  That you?”
            “Yeah.  Funny meeting you here at this time of the night.”
            She could see him more clearly now.  He’d always had it going on in the tall, damned good looking arena, though she really thought he didn’t know it.  His shoulders were broad and he could handle himself in any situation.  Not only was he quick, but he was strong and he knew how to handle himself in hand-to-hand combat better than anyone she’d served with.  He’d won lots of competitions while he served at her precinct. 
Dressed down, in grungy jeans and a tattered T-shirt, she figured he was on the job.  Even so, the look was good on him.  Several of the female cops had had the hots for him, but not her.  She liked him, though.  He was all cop, and was rarely swayed by a pair of big….. eyes.
            Vince quickly monitored the street. 
“What going on, Vince?”
            “You’re in a bad place, here, Grevellia.  Whatever brought you to this part of the city?”
            “I’m a PI now.  I was hired to monitor a house a few blocks back.”
            Vince’s gaze narrowed on her.  “Anything going on there?”
            “Nah, just a few guys playing poker.  I think I’ve been sent on a wild goose chase.”
            “Sounds like it.”  He paused and cleared his throat.  “Hey, I heard about your bad luck.  You should’ve stuck it out in the force, Grev.  You had lots of people who’ would’ve backed you up.”
            She felt heat prick the back of her eyes and forced it stop by blinking several times.  “I decided it wasn’t worth taking anyone else down with me, Vince.  Whoever set me up had some powerful connections.  I didn’t have a hope in hell to prove myself with the amount of evidence continually stacking up against me.  Hell, if I hadn’t gotten out when I did, they might have made some of the false evidence stick.”
            “Shit.  I didn’t realize it was that bad!”
            “Not many people did.  I thought it was best to get out and keep that information on the down low.”
            “You still in the same field?” She didn’t mention what that job might be in case someone was listening.  She didn’t want to blow his cover.

                        His gaze shifted left then right.  “Yeah, I’m still into computers,” he said.  “Hacking mostly.”

            She nodded.  The tone of his voice told her he was on a job.
            “I should have hired you to help me find out who set me up before I had to leave my job, “ she said.  Why hadn’t she thought of that? Purportedly a wizard at computers, his undercover work usually had a computer connection one way or another.
            “I’d be happy to do that, Grev.  When this job is done.”  He touched her arm and leaned in as if to kiss her cheek.  “Get the hell out of here!  Now!  You’re in big-time danger here, Grev.”
            She smiled at him.  Didn’t give him away.  “Call me some time, handsome,” she said and made a show of looking at her watch.  “Look, I gotta go.”
            She turned and walked away.  She had no intention of getting herself into any more trouble.  She had Verbena to consider.  If anything happened to Grevellia, Verbena would have to go back to her hard-assed, nasty grandfather.  No way she’d let that happen.  Plus, she didn’t want to give Vince’s cover away.  His eyes had been pleading with her to go.  Whatever he was working on had to be nasty.
            Hell, she hoped he wasn’t in trouble because of her showing up.  Maybe she should have stayed and helped him?  No.  He’d had every chance to tell her he needed help when he’d whispered in her ear.  He just wanted her out of there.
            Grev made it to her car quickly.  She keyed the ignition and pointed her vehicle in the direction of home.  She thought about lack of dinner and figured Verbie hadn’t eaten either.  She pulled into a Pizzeria on the way and grabbed an extra large pizza with the works. 
The pizza smelled so good.  She hoped Verbie was extra hungry because if not, they’d be eating it for days.        
            Turning off the car she looked at her place and frowned.  The lights weren’t on in her townhouse.  She glanced at her watch.  Yeah, it was late, but Verbie had only left her to go home a short while ago.   It was only a couple of streets over, she should’ve made it home safely.
            Grevellia dropped the pizza on the kitchen table.  “Verbie!  Verbie, did you go to bed?”
            It felt like her voice echoed back when no one answered.  Verbie wasn’t here.  She knew it the minute she saw the house with no lights. Holy shit! No!  She shouldn’t have let Verbie go home alone.

Grevellia raced through the house.  After she checked every room she tore outside again.  Her heart raced while she surveyed the perimeter of the house.  Shit!  She strode to the side of the house and found fresh footprints in the soft earth near the living room window.
Big feet.  Definitely a male.  Her stomach twisted.

Someone had been standing here looking inside.  Goddamn it!  A freaking peeper?  Or someone worse?  Hair curled at the nape of her neck.
Barely keeping herself from panicking she squeezed her hands so tightly her fingernails bit into the palms of her hands.  It grounded her enough to figure out what had happened to Verbie.
She’d known something was off all day.  But she expected anything but Verbie being kidnapped.  Why?  Why would someone do that?
She stared down their quiet street.  
Hell, she’d moved here because it was a good neighborhood.  She’d even checked records at the precinct and had found out there’d been less calls from this location than anywhere else in the city.  She’d promised herself she’d give Verbie a good home.  A place where she could feel loved.
Energy built inside her until her body felt like it was on a low hum.  She needed to do something! Whipping her cell phone out of her pocket she started to dial.  Her hands were shaking, she could barely hit the buttons.
“Aunt Grev?  What’s wrong? You look like you’ve been run over by a Mack Truck.”  Verbie walked along the sidewalk toward her, hoodie over her head and her shoulder scrunched up around her ears as if it was below freezing.  
Relief rushed through Grev, then anger.  She shut off her phone and rammed it back into her pocket.  “Verbie, oh my God, kid, I thought you’d been kidnapped.”  Not holding herself together now.  She knew she was losing it, but had a hard time getting a grasp on her shattering fear.
“What?  Why?” Verbie asked.
“You weren’t home.  I found footprints outside one of the windows. Someone was watching from the side of the house.  I thought they’d taken you.”
“Crap.  I had the feeling I was being watched earlier, but put it down to being nervous at home alone.”  She looked suddenly guilty.  “That's why I followed you.  I didn’t want to be alone, Aunt Grev.”
Verbie never called her Aunt unless she was being extra honest.  That bit Grev to the bone and her gut twisted again.  She glanced down and saw a pizza box in Verbie’s arms.  The same pizza place she’d just left. “How’d you get that?  I was just there. I didn’t see you.”
“I went to the bathroom.  Just came out when you were leaving, I tried to catch you but I was too slow, you were driving away before I got outside.  So I headed for  home right away.”
Grev’s shoulders slumped.  “You should have called me.”
“I tried.  You didn’t answer.”
Grev glanced down at her phone.  She’d put the ringer on mute when she was on surveillance and hadn’t turned it back on again.  Grev had royally frigged this up.  As it was, the poor kid had separation issues thanks to her nearly non-existent mother.  Verbie constantly needed to know someone would be there for her.  Grev wanted to give her that stability.  But damn it, she’d failed Verbie tonight.
Grev reached out and wrapped her arms around Verbie.  Not easy to do with a pizza box between them.  “Oh doll, I’m sorry.  I wouldn’t have even gone out there tonight if I didn’t need the scratch.  I have bills due, and this gig covered the lot.”
“Sorry,  Grev.  I didn’t want to make you feel like you can’t do your job at night time.” Verbie’s voice came out squeaky like she wanted to cry but was holding it back.
“Oh hon, it’s my fault.  Next time I do night surveillance, we’ll make sure you can stay over with one of your girl-friends.  I won’t leave you home alone again.”
She felt a shudder go through her niece.  “Good idea.”
Grev pulled Verbie toward the house.  “What kind of pizza did you buy?  We’ll be eating pizza all week.”
Safely inside, Grev eyed the street before locking the front door. Someone had been outside their house.  But who?  And why?

1 comment:

  1. I love it ! There's supspense and I can just picture want was going on . I really love to read more. Great work Lina Just like all your books !