Previously our hero Ella moved into a calm and peaceful neighborhood but murders, and mysterious noises next door, drive her to sleuth on her own. To escape police arriving at a murder scene she takes shelter in the handyman Joe’s rundown cottage.
So, that’s how Red Riding Hood’s grandmother felt in the wolf’s belly. Joe was standing in shadow next to a kitchen sink. He waved his hand toward a metal folding chair. “Stay still,” he whispered as he watched the street. I blamed myself for not running home with Dave, but I wanted to know why the police arrived without our calling. Did Joe phone in the murder? Or was a runner in Falk’s pack the killer? My head throbbed. I rubbed my neck and felt my pulse racing.
I crumpled into the chair Joe pushed toward me and looked around. The whole house was dark except for late afternoon light framing curtained windows. Joe’s hood covered most of his face but I stared at his long, tapered fingers in silhouette against the light. He had what I liked to call musician’s hands, able to reach with ease beyond a piano keyboard octave. His hoodie shaded his face, but his other hand, tightly knotted in a fist, betrayed his mood, which was, what? Anger, anxiety,—or murder.
Afraid to speak, I waved to get his attention and pulled my phone out of my purse. Opening the Notes app, I typed: what’s going on? He read it and, pushing his palm down, he shook his head as if to say, don’t ask me now. I relaxed a little. If Joe wanted to hurt me, he would have done so by now. I stiffened again. Or maybe not. Maybe while the police were near, they would hear my screams, so he was waiting until they left. I stood up and turned toward the door. Joe grabbed my sleeve and said in a low growl, “Sit!…Please. And be quiet. I won’t hurt you.” He looked out the window again after I sat.
We must have stayed like that for more than an hour—I, clutching the seat of my chair, Joe, peeking from behind the curtain.A shout came from the trash-burner site, and I jumped. Someone was pulling a gurney, probably, across the gravel and another man’s deep voice—not like Pinscher’s oily tone at the station house—cut through the rest: “Watch it, Price. Keep it covered. Chaparro, check out the house.” Running footsteps crunched toward Joe’s cottage and up the front steps. Joe stepped back from the window and crouched next to me. Warning me with a finger to his hidden face, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled toward the front door one room away. He braced his back against the door before Chaparro pounded it a few times. A big piece of furniture, hard to see in the gloom, sat in front of half the door, next to where Joe was sitting. Why had he started to barricade the place? Chaparro’s footsteps bounced down the stairs and he walked around the house. He beamed his flashlight at the windows.
“No one home, sir,” he yelled. His superior must have called; and I could hear him running back to the site. Joe returned to the kitchen and peered out the window again. “They’re leaving,” he said and sank to the floor in front of me, his legs crossed like a first-grader.
“Okay, ” he sighed as he pushed the hood off his head. “It’s time we had a talk.”
His head was in shadow, thick, long curls silhouetted against the street-lit curtains, but his hands… “I should be going really.”
“No, you shouldn’t.”
Now the accumulation of all those little insults I’d been feeling since I met up with that nasty dog burst out. I raged, “Who are you? What do you want with me? You know something about 2A, don’t you.” I stood and backed my way to the kitchen door. “I just wanted to move into a nice, quiet place. Leave me alone.”
He stepped closer and put his hand on the door. “Please stay. We really have to talk.”
That hand—familiar, but his shadowed face, so hard and—scarred along his left cheek—yet, the contours…
I went back to the chair and sat, leaning forward, with my hands on my knees. I would see this through. “Alright, whoever you are, talk.”
His head bowed, Joe sat cross-legged on the linoleum floor, a small battery light in his lap. His thick beard glowed blue-black, but shaggy curls shaded his eyes. He cleared his throat and after wiping his mouth with a shaking hand, he said, “First of all, my name isn’t Joe.”
“What? I mean, I don’t understand.”
Wiping his eyes, he muttered something like, “This is so hard,” and his head sank lower.
“Joe, or whoever you are., please look up. I can’t hear you.”
“It’s me, Lonnie.” He raised his head and shined the light on his face.
Those soft brown eyes, like my son’s eyes, but the scar, the beard? My head was spinning. “Lonnie? How can you be? He lives in London. What are you…? I do know these hands…but your face…where have you been? How did that happen?” I was breathing fast and words struggled to pass my lips.
He flipped off the lamp switch and we sat in dark silence for a while until he scooted back against the wall and spoke. “I’ve been here for years. Right here. For too long.” He snorted and dropped his chin.
“Before I moved into the neighborhood? In this house?”
I could not organize my thoughts. They skipped from Lonnie’s lies to the odd chance that I’d moved close to him to the wild idea that maybe Randy wasn’t dead. And if he was alive, where was he now? As if in response to that last thought, I heard footsteps thumping down the stairs. They weren’t Randy’s; they weren’t even human. The dog that menaced me on my first walk down this block was standing in the kitchen doorway.
The chair fell back as I jumped up. It clattered to the floor but the dog paid no attention. He padded over to Joe, I mean Lonnie’s side and lay down next to him. Raising his big, shaggy head he stared at me with large dark eyes. Quivering from a surge of adrenaline, I could barely stand and I leaned against the wall. Did my short breath mean a heart attack was on its way?
After patting the dog’s head and telling him to stay, Lonnie righted the chair. He steered me by my shoulders and sat me down again. “I can explain all this, but it will take some time, time you don’t have right now. Straybill will be looking for you, so you’d better go home.”
“No ‘buts.’ I’ll make like I’ve come to fix the hole in your kitchen and we can talk in your place, when Straybill’s not around.”
With an image in mind of Fanny Katzer peeking round her apartment door, I asked, “What about Fanny? She has her eyes on everything that goes on.”
“Fanny, yes. I can distract her. It’ll be fine.” Walking me to the back door, he added, “How about ten a.m.? I’ll let myself in?”
Those last words chilled me. “Let yourself….I mean, have you been able to…” I squeezed my temples. “Lonnie, I don’t know what to think.”
Hesitating at first, he patted me on the back, like a falling leaf grazing my spine. “I haven’t done what you’re thinking. Use the chain if you’re worried.” He opened the door slowly and looked out. With a glance at the dog whose head-bob resembled a nod, he showed me out and urged me to go along the alley. I patted his scar and grieved for whatever had happened to him over the last ten years, then left without looking back.