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Peaches and the Gambler 10


  Stick’s friendly warning about her having to perhaps go undercover as a stripper had been eye-opening. Shocking, even. Hopefully things wouldn’t have to go in that direction. Though she was certainly no goodie-two-shoes, just the thought made her cringe. Peaches had never been sure how a woman could take her clothes off for cash, cash a man stuffed deep into your panties…that is, if you were wearing any.

  A friend back in college regularly bought in a grand or more a night sliding up and down poles. For Peaches, as for many college-aged girls, stripping had been a tempting idea. Loads of money and short hours definitely beat minimum wage and long hours. But the idea of bearing her body to lusty, groping men just didn’t seem worth the humiliation.

  But another part of her, the part which acknowledged investigating oftentimes included getting your hands a bit dirty, realized Stick was right. Lenny had frequented strip clubs. It was inevitable that she would end up there asking questions. From what she understood—at least from television—people in the sex industry were notoriously reluctant to talk to those asking questions in an official capacity. So it wasn’t too far-fetched to believe that she might have to go undercover as a dancer to get the answers she needed.

  Peaches shivered. It would be a last resort. She would try every single avenue in sight before going that route.

  She still wasn’t sure how Cynthia would react to seeing her on her doorstep after the wild comments she had made the last time they had seen one another.

  Too late to back out now because the door was opening. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

  “Is your mother home?”

  It was Twiddle Dee.

  He was dressed in a white shirt and red jean shorts, his feet shod in brand new Jordon’s. A state of the art Smartphone was balanced in one chubby hand, a super jumbo blow pop jammed in his mouth. His eyes bored insolently into her own. He seemed shorter and plumper than in their previous meeting.

  Twiddle Dum was probably inside killing something with a video game controller.

  Peering past the boy, Peaches saw neatly stacked cardboard boxes in the living room. A pile of well-tended house plants had been carefully placed at the foot of the stairs. Looked like they were moving. Apparently Cynthia had received that big insurance payout.

  “Well—is your mother home or not?” Peaches demanded, crabbily. The kid hadn’t said a word, just continued to stare at her.

  On the verge of elbowing him aside and knocking on the screen door, the kid finally opened his mouth, turning around and yelling past his gigantic lollipop and up the flight of stairs in that high, squeaky, weird voice.

  “Mama, lady that said you killed Lenny is here!”

  “I didn’t say that!” she heatedly protested. Being the strong silent type, he didn’t respond, preferring to glower instead.

  Peaches heard Cynthia thundering heavily down the stairs. She came into view moments later, an expansive frown upon her face.

  She had changed her hair color and texture. It was a bright, crayola crayon red and lustrously curly and long. The Diana Ross-esque hair clashed with the billowing pink house dress that did little to conceal her lumpy shape. Of course, her nails and pedicure matched. A cigarette dangled between scarlet, rhinestone-studded nails.

  “What you want? We busy.” She took a healthy puff of her cigarette, held it, then blew it spitefully in her direction, eyes cold.

  Peaches narrowed her eyes against the toxic onslaught of cigarette smoke, steeling herself as she tried to figure out the best angle for her questioning, then said, “Ms. Penny wanted me to ask you what this is.”

  She thrust the paper she was holding into Cynthia’s free palm, waving a hand in front of her face in a futile attempt to disperse the thick cloud of cigarette smoke swelling around her.

  Cynthia glanced at the paper, then handed it back. Both Twiddle Dee and Twiddle Dum were lurking behind their mother. Twiddle Dum was dressed like his brother, but the colors of the shirt and shorts were reversed. He was, as she had suspected, holding a wireless video game controller in one chunky fist.

  Peaches wondered if it were coincidental that their clothing matched their mother’s newest hair color.

  “Why ain’t Ms. Penny ask me ‘bout this when I spoke to her last night,” Cynthia asked, suspiciously.

  “I don’t know,” Peaches said, scrambling. “Maybe she forgot. She does have a lot on her mind.”

  Cynthia eyed her for what seemed like an eternity. Evidently deciding her response suited whatever mechanisms she had to divine truth from lies, she nodded her head.

  “Yeah, probably so. She ain’t doin’ so good.” She stubbed her cigarette out on the door jamb, tossing it carelessly in the few strands of grass that had somehow managed to survive years of pedestrian homicide. She gazed unhappily at the piece of paper Peaches had jammed into her palm. “Lenny used to go to Big Pete’s International Sweepstakes Café and gamble soon as he got a check. We like to fought about that shitty addiction of his all the damn time!”

  “I’ll bet,” Peaches said, anxious to keep her talking. “I’m sure his friends’ll miss him like crazy.”

  “Friends? He ain’t have no friends,” she snorted. “All he had was his sweepstakes and his bar. Wasn’t room for nothin’ else.”

  “He used to have a lot of friends. People loved him in high school.” A bit of an exaggeration, but in light of the situation a little white lie seemed appropriate.

  “That was high school,” she said, her voice hard. “People change and Lenny changed a lot.”

  “Oh. So you didn’t know about the two guys that came to visit Lenny a few days before he was found?” Peaches asked, her tone light.

  “What two guys?”

  “I came over here to see you the other day and one of your neighbors told me two big guys in an SUV came to see Lenny a few days before he was found. You know who those guys might be?”

  “No, I don’t. Like I said: Lenny didn’t have no friends. And he knew better than to have strangers all up in my house. But I was at my momma’s house so I really wouldn’t know. Who told you that? Mona?”

  Peaches shrugged noncommittally. Who the hell was Mona, anyway?

  “Probably, the bitch,” Cynthia said, nastily. “She always up in somebody bidness. Lord knows she’s probably eatin’ this up. Probably done Facebooked my husband’s death to all her friends.”

  “So it was just the bar and sweepstakes, huh? You don’t know anything about any visitors Lenny may’ve had?” Peaches pressed forward, guiding Cynthia back in the direction she wanted her to go. So then, she hadn’t known about Lenny’s strip club excursions. Not surprising. Most women don’t know their men are frequenting strip clubs. Well, she definitely wouldn’t be the one to inform her.

  “Yeah. That was all that fool did. There was a few sweepstakes places he liked, but his favorite was Big Pete’s. Damn near sent us to the poor house a few times. If I ain’t love him so much I’d’a kilt him myself!”

  “I understand.”

  Cynthia paused, reaching inside a fold in her mu-mu. She extracted another cigarette, lighting it with a bronze lighter, the words Hot Mama spelled in flames. She inhaled, then exhaled a curling plume with a tiny little pleasurable sigh. Soon enough Peaches was again swaddled in smoke.

  “And if the sweepstakes wasn’t enough for him, he’d go on over to That Place and spend more money on cheap liquor n’ beer.” She angrily stubbed out her cigarette, seamlessly lighting another.

  “That place?” Peaches asked. “What place?”

  “That Place,” she repeated. “It’s a bootleg bar off Pettigrew. Don’t serve no respectable folk. Only barflies and ho’s lookin’ to make a quick buck. I tried to get him to stop drinkin’, I did! But he just wouldn’t stop. Now he’s dead…If I was home that night maybe none of this woulda happened. I don’t know what I’m gonna do.”

  Then to Peaches horror, Cynthia’s eyes welled up with tears, and she burst out with a wail so loud, the heavily pregnant youn
g woman sitting on her stoop three doors down, got up and scurried inside.

  The two boys shuffled around nervously, then slowly backed away, making their escape. Soon afterwards, the carnival like sounds of a video game commenced.

  “It’ll be okay.”

  She awkwardly patted Cynthia’s heaving shoulder. Peaches was terrible at offering condolences in general, especially to strangers. She often had the habit of babbling when forced into a position when she had to do so. This is probably why she blurted out: “I told Ms. Penny I would do what I could to help find who did this.”

  The waterworks shut down instantaneously. Two beady eyes glared at Peaches malevolently.

  “You know,” she said, squeegeing her face with a floppy sleeve. “Ms. Penny mentioned somethin’ to that effect and I just assumed she was havin’ a senior moment. After all, I don’t remember her saying you was a policeman. Are you a policeman?”

  “No, but--,” she began before getting cut off with the quick wave of a scarlet taloned hand.

  “We don’t need your help!” she hissed, leaning close and pointing her finger. “The police—professionals—got all this--,” She waved her hand around to encompass everything under the sun. “--under control. I don’t want you messin’ shit up!” She stood back, rolling her neck and sucking on her cigarette. “You know—I didn’t like you from the minute I first saw you. Girl’s like you always think they better than somebody else. Well, do me a favor; keep your nose out of the murder of my husband before you end up screwin’ some shit up!”

  She threw Peaches one last simmering look before slamming the door so hard the screen door bounced on its hinges.

  Peaches stood rollicking on her heels. Her trip here had told her three important things: one, Cynthia was more likely than not uninvolved in the murder of her husband; it was hard to fake tears that ugly, two; she now knew the origin of what she was fairly certain was a receipt or a stub; and three, Cynthia knew nothing about the visit the two mysterious men had paid to her husband.

  **

  She still had a few hours to burn and wouldn’t need to pick up the girl’s for a few hours hence. Thank goodness for that because she would have to deal with The Ex later that evening. The longer she could put that off, the better.

  She would start at the sweepstakes place and if she had time, go to the bar. Why would somebody name a bar That Place? What the hell kind of name was that?

  Cynthia’s dramatics had derailed Peaches from asking for the address of the sweepstakes place. She had typed the name into the GPS, but nothing came up. Luckily, there were a million little convenience stores on this side of town. She would ask around. Big Pete’s shouldn’t be too hard to find.

  Thirty frustrating minutes later, she was still unsuccessful at locating the address of what in her mind, had transformed from a run-of-the-mill, storefront betting spot, into an elusive, high-stakes gambling operation where the women wore sequined evening gowns and the men bet no less than a hundred grand.

  Hoping this last stop would be her lucky charm, she pulled off Fayetteville Street into the parking lot of a small, mustard colored convenience store with the name Poppy’s In and Out painted in white block-style letters on the side of the building. She parked next to two other cars, taking appreciative note of the trash free, freshly laid blacktop.

  A lone young man with deeply sagging jeans and a tee-shirt that spelled Fcuk You, was busily scattering the contents of a Philly Blount not into the plastic trash can right next to him, but rather on the ground beside the trash can. Another unopened Blount was tucked behind his ear.

  Peaches opened the door and walked inside a clean, well-organized space. Multiple brass bells dangling from a frayed rope, tinkled as she entered. The pleasant odor of burning incense permeated the air.

  A bespeckled, thirty-something man with shoulder length dreadlocks was sitting behind a low counter reading The Qur’an.

  Tall, spindly sticks of incense, neatly stacked piles of candy, fruit flavored cigars and jars of pickled foodstuff covered the surface in front of him. Peaches was sorely tempted to buy a pack of cherry Now-n-Later’s situated in a colorful heap next to the cash register.

  “Can I help you?” he asked.

  “Yes. I’m looking for Big Pete’s--,” she began.

  “Hold on a sec.” He held one finger up, peering behind her at the young man in the sagging jeans. “What the fuck?” he exclaimed, frowning and standing up. He strode around the counter, the heavy scent of body oil surrounding him like a cape, and shoved the door open. The bells issued forth an agitated jangle. “Pug, why the fuck are you dumping that shit all over the ground and the trash can is right next to you?”

  “Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, man,” the young man named Pug whined. “You know my nigga Eddie just got kilt up the way. I’m too young to pour some liquor out like I want and I wanted to show a li’l respect, so I used this tobacco instead, ya dig?”

  “No—no, I don’t fuckin’ dig. I don’t fuckin’ dig at all!” The dreadlocked guy turned around, looking at Peaches and saying, “Hey—you mind grabbin’ that broom and dustpan in the far corner over there?”

  “Me?” Peaches asked, moronically.

  “No, the Angel standing next to you,” he retorted, sarcastically. “Yeah, you.”

  Peaches huffed, biting her tongue to hold back the smart aleck, storm of replies any self respecting woman always had in her arsenal. She needed information, not enemies. Stalking to the corner he was pointing to, she fetched the items and handed them over. He snatched the broom and dustpan, unceremoniously tossing them at the feet of the now petulant Pug.

  “Now clean that shit up, Pug, and the next time you want to pay respects to a nigga, go to his funeral!”

  He stalked back inside, ignoring the continued whining of the young man as he swept up the mess he made, dumping it in the garbage can. In one final act of rebelliousness, Pug threw the broom and dustpan forcefully to the ground, then hurriedly departed.

  “These young nigga’s don’t respect shit!” he raged, going back around the counter and slamming his Qu’ran shut. A wooden Ankh—an Egyptian religious symbol—was draped around his neck, a silver one worn on the index finger of his left hand. “How you gonna just dump shit all over somebody’s property? Little nigga’s like him is the reason we don’t have shit as it is!”

  “That’s true,” she chimed.

  “Exactly!”

  He grabbed a bottle of water and took a swig, seeming to calm down. He looked at her in a new light, seeming to sense an ally. He took in her form-fitting skirt, short sleeved, cream-colored, blouse and neat ponytail with great appreciation.

  “What I need to know,” Peaches said, trying her best to ignore his roving eyes. “Is where is Big Pete’s International Sweepstakes Café?”

  “You gamble?”

  “No.”

  “Then why you lookin’ for the place?” he interrogated. “All they do is rob us and keep us in the poor house. They’re about as bad as those check cashing places that keep popping up.”

  Peaches, having quickly learned from her encounter with Detective Mendoso that when investigating, a lighter touch was sometimes in order, tried a different tack.

  “You are so right,” Peaches agreed, fluttering her lashes. When she looked back up her eyes were swimming with suppressed emotion. “My daddy. My daddy is the reason I need the address. You see, he’s been going through his pension so fast. I’m scared my mama and he won’t have anything left at this rate. I need to find him and I know this is where he likes to go. Can you help me?”

  “Damn. I’m—I’m sorry to hear that.” His tone was contrite. “They fuckin’ up our community, man!” He began rising from his stool in his excitement, then he checked himself, sitting back down with a slight shake of his head. He quickly gave her directions, ending with: “You can’t miss it. Big Pete’s is in that strip mall where the movie theatre used to be.”

  “Thank you so much,” she said, sm
iling softly.

  “No problem.” He smiled foolishly into her limpid brown eyes. “You got any other questions, just ask. Name’s Marcus Pettigrew.” She shook the hand proffered. His palm was moist.

  “Nice to meet you, Marcus.” She edged toward the door, surreptitiously taking a tissue out of her purse and wiping her hand.

  “Good luck finding your father.”

  Peaches nodded, opening the door and making a beeline for her car.

  Marcus, watching her backside as she left, shook his head saying to no one in particular, “God damn, she fine as hell!”

  The only response he got was the soft whirr of a half dozen beverage coolers and the jangle of bells announcing another customer.

  Chapter 16

  Standing in the doorway to Big Pete’s International Internet Sweepstakes Café, Peaches blinked, adjusting her eyes to the dim, smoky interior.

  She had finally found the damn place.

  After driving around aimlessly for more than fifteen minutes, she had pulled past a long abandoned K-Mart, into a generously potholed parking lot. She discovered Big Pete’s tucked into an obscure corner of a half empty strip mall that had probably reached its peak in the sixties.

  Despite the absence of slot machines, it sounded like midnight in Vegas. The clamor of bells and the unmistakable clicking sound of multiple slot machine handles being pulled down and released, rang loudly throughout the badly lit room. The occasional flash of multi-colored lights burst forth from a half dozen or so strategically placed strobe lights.

  Laid out beneath the intermittent halogen strip lighting were four rows of ten computers each. Five if you counted the computers shoved up against the far wall flush with a broom closet. All save a handful were occupied.

  The ‘international’ part must’ve been the dozens and dozens of small plastic flags hanging limply from cobweb encrusted corners. The soft glow of computer screens shone against tense, anticipatory faces. The new state law making it illegal to smoke in public obviously hadn’t made its way down into this Den of Iniquity.

  Disposable ashtrays, normally complimentary, were being sold for a dollar a pop by the cheap bastard that owned the place. Several players had purchased them, occasionally tapping ashes into their trays, then rapidly dragging glowing cigarettes back to their mouths for another quick draw, eyes never moving from their monitors. A few were tippling from paper bag covered beverages.