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Peaches and the Gambler 24


  Slowly walking towards those bales on trembling legs, with a bit of effort, she was able to rip open the tough plastic, her eyes disbelieving as white powder trickled out, falling to the hard, cement floors. Obviously this had been the reason for the visit from the riff-raff she had spotted in the private room earlier.

  This was what Lenny had seen. This was what he had lost his life over. Fucking white powder.

  All of a sudden filled with rage, she turned around, intent on alerting the police of her findings. She stopped short, blood running cold at the sight behind her.

  Ms. Eileen, the cold end of a small handgun gripped very purposefully in a disconcertingly steady hand, was smiling at her, her gleaming teeth like little fangs.

  “Hello, Mona, or whatever your name is. I’m sorry to say this, but it seems you’ve danced your last dance.”

  “But I love dancing!” Peaches shrilled, eyes flicking around for any exit.

  “There is no easy way out for you, my dear.”

  She grinned without humor, that gun still trained directly on Peaches heart as she ambled closer.

  “To answer your question, when you were here earlier you pretended to answer your phone. I knew that wasn’t possible because that room, as well as The Suites, are equipped with cell signal blocking devices. Custom made so only my signal gets through. See? Four bars.” She held the phone up so Peaches could get a good clear view of her strong, glowing signal. “I knew right then you were up to something. My instincts are never wrong,” she said, snickering arrogantly. “Plus, you were a little over the hill for a stripper. But I chalked that up to being desperate.”

  Well, that was mean.

  “You own this club, don’t you?” Peaches asked, buying time.

  “Aren’t you perceptive?” she said, viciously. “I guess it won’t hurt for you to know now. Yes, I do. Woman owned and operated since its opening ten years ago.”

  Well, that explained why it was run so efficiently.

  “Is this why you killed my friend Lenny?” Peaches asked, coldly.

  “Oh, you were that little blackmailing bastard’s friend? Is that why you’re here?” she asked, appearing genuinely surprised.

  “Yes,” Peaches said, slowly. Something was wrong here.

  “I didn’t kill him. Much as I wanted to. No—he was blackmailing me. He was down in this room, too. But he crashed into one of our ‘products’, splitting it wide open. We thought he was too high to remember anything, so we let him go. Our mistake. The son-of-a-bitch came back a couple days later and got me for ten grand.”

  “Ten grand?” Peaches, gasped.

  “I know. That’s what I said,” she agreed, waving the gun around like it wasn’t a deadly weapon. “He had some nerve. But we were forced to give it to him. He told us he had shared information with someone else and that if anything happened to him this friend would go straight to the police. You can thank him for me having to dispose of you today. Oh, that’s right,” she said, snapping her fingers. “The little weasel’s dead.”

  Peaches mind was reeling. So if they hadn’t killed him, who had? She was saddened to realize she wouldn’t be able to find out.

  She was even sadder when she realized she wouldn’t be able to kill Monte.

  “So you’re going to kill me?” Peaches chirped, throat dry.

  “I don’t have much of a choice,” she said, almost apologetically.

  Just because she had a gun didn’t mean Peaches had to make it easy.

  Quick as a sprinter on the home stretch, she ducked behind the bales, Ms. Eileen cursed, shooting wildly. To Peaches heightened senses the shot was loud in the tight space, booming like a cannon.

  Thank goodness Ms. Eileen had been drinking. It had clearly dulled her senses. They played Ring Around the Bales, running round and round until they were both tired.

  “Just give up,” Ms. Eileen panted.

  “Never!” Peaches wheezed. Without their usual industrial support, her boobs were sore, the tassels’ attached to her nipples swinging like pendulums.

  She really should have started The Cabbage Diet. At least then she could’ve been beautiful and slim in her casket.

  Just as they were making their tenth panting go around the bales, the wall panel burst open, police, headed by Detective Mendoso, swarming the place.

  Peaches nearly fainted with relief. She fell, sobbing in Detective Mendoso’s arms.

  After handcuffing a cursing, struggling, Ms. Eileen, Peaches clothes were procured from the dressing room, a relief considering the eyes of every officer in the basement were focused below her neck.

  Detective Mendoso explained that Stick had made a frantic call to his direct number, telling him she had gone undercover in the club and that he hadn’t been able to contact her for more than five minutes. After putting a call out, he and more than half dozen additional police officers had converged on the place.

  “Do you know what a huge bust this is for us, Peaches?” Detective Mendoso asked after getting a brief statement from her. A more extended version would be required when she went downtown.

  She shook her head, still subdued from all she had been through that evening.

  “Millions. It might be the biggest bust we’ve ever had in the department,” he stated, shaking his head in amazement. “You did good.”

  “But—but she said she didn’t kill Lenny, Detective Mendoso. I didn’t do good enough,” she said, tears trickling down her face.

  “She was probably lying,” he said. “Clearly she had something to do with it. She wouldn’t want somebody disrupting an operation of this magnitude.”

  “No, she wouldn’t,” Peaches said, resolutely. “But when she told me about the blackmail I knew she wasn’t lying.”

  “Well, there’s no need for you to worry about that right now,” he said, gruffly. “Go home and get some rest. You can come in to the station tomorrow afternoon to give your final statement. Don’t talk to any press,” he pleaded. “They’re swarming around outside and they’re hungry for a headline.”

  She nodded her head, wiping her face and sniffling.

  “I wouldn’t advise you to do this again, but you did an amazing job here, Peaches. The police department thanks you.”

  When she got outside, Stick was waiting for her. She leaned against him, and he elbowed his way through the press hordes, passing a slew of police cars, their lights flashing bright red and blue, and made her get in the passenger side.

  She had solved one crime, but what about Lenny’s?

  Chapter 34

  Stick stayed with her throughout the night, snuggling warmly against her back. Feeling a much needed sense of safety, she slept like a stone, waking late the next morning.

  After cooking a breakfast of bacon, eggs and French toast, Stick headed back to his place, promising to call later that evening.

  “That was some amazing work, Peaches,” he said, standing at the threshold to her apartment door. “I’m proud of you.”

  Smiling and waving him off, she was pensive, a niggling sense of unease marring an otherwise triumphant moment.

  **

  The day was a busy one.

  Between fielding a million and one phone calls from curious family and friends and being put through a vigorous questioning session at Durham police headquarters, she was mentally drained and physically exhausted. Afterwards, she was asked to testify against Ms. Eileen in a case the prosecution was furiously working on. She agreed without question.

  Inquiring minds wanted to know if Monte had been locked up for attempted solicitation, but he had unfortunately been released after complaining that a stripper had locked him in the room after robbing him. An accusation which Peaches vehemently denied. Not wanting to be bothered with the additional paperwork, to Peaches consternation, Detective Mendoso had let him off with just a stern warning.

  Fudge.

  “I still can’t believe you busted Demetrius Perry, Peach,” Polo was complaining late that afternoon. “What the f
uck is the New Jersey Nets gonna do without their center? Teams shitty enough as it is.”

  “I didn’t bust him, Polo. Durham’s Finest did that,” Peaches said, sipping from a huge Styrofoam cup of Coca-Cola.

  They were sitting in Polo’s van in the parking lot of the CookOut, pigging out on double cheese burgers and Cajun seasoned fries. It was a culinary switcheroo Peaches was already regretting.

  “Same difference,” Polo griped. “Wouldn’t have busted nobody if it hadn’t been for you. Who would’ve known Demetrius and his mama was headin’ up one of the biggest drug rings in the South? Wasn’t he makin’ enough money ballin’? Damn! How much money a nigga need?”

  Peaches rolled her eyes. What a hypocrite. In Polo’s world, no amount of money ever seemed to be enough. This was a man who would hustle all night after having already made a couple grand during the day.

  “Evidently a lot more than he made playing basketball. I still can’t believe Ms. Eileen is his mother. She’s Durham’s very own Tokyo Godmother.”

  “That old broad is a thug, for real!” Polo heartily agreed.

  The newspapers were having a field day with the story. Besides being juicy fodder for the gossip mills, it was the scoop of the week, maybe even the month. A drug dealing, strip club owning, mother; her silent partner her famous basketball playing son? It was a bona fide Lifetime movie. Despite having very little information from the police, reporters had somehow managed to piece together enough decent speculation to thread a storyline. But the one major thing they were missing was the person in the center of this huge drug bust. One newspaper had speculated about a shadowy business rival blowing the whistle. If they knew the real truth no one would believe it.

  “You got my favorite strip club shut down, Peach,” Polo mourned. “What the hell’s a nigga ‘sposed to do now?”

  “You barely even went there!” Peaches exclaimed.

  “No. But a nigga had dreams,” he groused.

  “Well, I saved your tight ass a lot of money. That should make you happy.”

  “I’ll tell you one thing, Peach,” Polo said, tossing a fry in his mouth and chewing voraciously. “You done taken away a lot of money from a lot of dangerous mutherfuckers. I hope you know you done made enemies for life.”

  Peaches, burger poised midway to her mouth, was chilled by those casually ominous words.

  **

  On Sunday, the girl’s returned, their intersession school break over. The Ex arrived at one on the dot. That was his usual way: late to pick them up, on time to drop them off.

  What a jewel.

  They barely spoke, which was just fine with her. After catapulting the girls suitcases in the trunk of Peaches car; the pale-faced woman sitting in the passenger seat of his car darting furtive glances at Peaches the entire time, he had given her a terse nod and sped off.

  Sly’s hair was absolutely lovely. Cornrowed to perfection, the parts were neat and evenly spaced, the braids themselves tiny and immaculate. Peaches mentioned this, touching Sly’s hair admiringly. Had daddy taken her to a salon? ‘No,’ Sly trilled, ‘Daddy’s new girlfriend Raven braided my hair.’

  This admission led to a slew of bubbly, Raven-centric chatter. Sly’s voice, imbued with undisguised adoration, extolled the extensive virtues of Raven’s formidable culinary skills, excitedly adding that she was a doctor for babies, a profession Sly now wanted to be her own.

  By the time they arrived at their apartment, Peaches was filled with unwanted new girlfriend information and an odd sense of mommy possessiveness. Whoever the hell this Raven was she was annoyingly perfect, a magical fairy if Sly’s flowery descriptions were anything to go by.

  Nina, by comparison, was fairly silent. More likely than not attempting to lay low after her outrageous deception.

  Determined to outdo this Raven’s heavenly persona, Peaches went overboard for dinner, cooking a four course meal that was far too five star for their two star palates.

  After plating the food up, the portions so tiny they were birdlike, they each pecked at the food, after which Sly stridently announced she preferred Raven’s Shrimp Alfredo.

  Fuming, Peaches did the only thing she could under such taxing circumstances: she dove in the freezer and pulled out a Dove bar, tearing into it with uncustomary viciousness.

  **

  Monday hailed a much needed return to normalcy. The girls went back to school and Peaches began her new temp job.

  She was fairly eager to begin.

  “It’s on the Westside of Durham, darlin’,” the gravelly voice of the churlish receptionist over at Landmark Temporary Agency announced. “It’s a big, ugly, gray scab of a building. You’ll know it when you see it.”

  With so many negative adjectives to describe her new temp job, Peaches couldn’t help feeling a tad apprehensive. Especially when the receptionist threw her one last sympathetic look as she was walking out the door. She imagined a similar look probably followed soldiers heading to wars they were destined to lose.

  Arriving at the factory ten minutes before her assignment began, she parked next to an ancient Honda Accord. After locking her purse in the car, she hurried towards the entrance, eager to make a good first impression. The name Sunshine Magnets was posted on the buildings brick siding, a gaily smiling sun its cheerful mascot.

  But her first impression when she walked through the double metal doors was anything but cheerful.

  Turgid heat slapped her in the face when the doors opened. The factory warehouse she viewed beyond the glassed in windows housing the administrative offices looked like a scene straight out of Dante’s Inferno. Teeming masses of people moved about the large space below, each going about mysterious tasks involving impossibly fast moving assembly lines and sheets of what she assumed were magnets.

  “Are you Peaches Donnelly?”

  She tuned, facing a heavily perspiring man of average height who stood blinking startlingly green eyes, a clipboard clasped in his hand.

  “Yes,” she said, holding out a hand. He took it, shaking it hard enough to make Peaches grimace.

  “My name is Phil Ericson. Forgive us, but our AC is on the fritz,” he apologized in a rehearsed sort of way that told Peaches the AC hadn’t been in working condition in a while. “Here’s your badge. You’ll need it to get in and out.”

  She took it and they were off, racing around on a five minute whirlwind tour of the factory facilities.

  “And here is your station--,” he began, his voice loud to compensate for the noisiness of the assembly line.

  “Wait a minute,” she protested, staring in dismay at the tight little space she would be crammed in alongside more than a dozen other workers all lined up side by side, each sweating more profusely than the last. “I thought I was doing administrative work upstairs,” she said, jabbing a thumb for emphasis towards the cool looking glassed in admin offices overlooking the hell below.

  “No,” he said, consulting his clipboard, brow puckered. “This position is for an Entry Level Magnet Inspector. You will inspect the magnets as they come off the assembly line for any flaws. If they’re flawed, you will toss them down this chute,” he said, indicating a large hole situated to her right. “Unflawed magnets will continue onwards and will be processed by machine.”

  Peaches, already sweating like a fat man in a sauna, was tempted to turn around and walk out. She had applied for positions of the administrative variety, not work which qualified as little more than indentured servitude. The conditions were nearly unbearable. They had tried to offset the heat by placing several gigantic, industrial strength fans in each corner of the room, but they only served to swirl the heat and humidity equitably throughout the warehouse.

  Peaches swallowed her pride, fiercely reminding herself that she was jobless. The unemployment payments wouldn’t last forever. With the job market being what it was, for the time being she had to take what she could get.

  She forced a smile saying, “Sounds easy enough.”

  Introduc
ing her to the two people she would be sandwiched between at her ‘station’, he walked away, clipboard held jauntily under one arm as he spoke to employees on his way back to the gloriously cool looking edifice above.

  As soon as he walked away, the rotund, bespeckled girl he had introduced as Shawna, swung to face her, her expression compassionate.

  “Let me guess: Landmark Employment Agency, ‘Where boundless employment opportunities are just around the corner’?” she sing-songed, mockingly.

  “You work for them, too?” Peaches asked, the sinking feeling of being had in the pit of her stomach.

  “We all do,” Shawna declared, swiping damp hair away from her face and turning back to the mindless task of magnet separation. “Welcome to Sunshine Magnets, the sweat shop of ‘brainless employment opportunities’.”

  **

  The week went by at an impossibly slow rate, by the end of which, Peaches had lost a whopping three pounds compliments of the sauna-like conditions.

  On Friday, the AC was finally repaired. This, she learned from Shawna, after more than six weeks of being down. The much cooler atmosphere filled employees with the spirit of celebration. Lighthearted chatter accompanied assembly line work; people worked faster and without their usual grim-faced resignation. Feeling magnanimous, management decided to order Krispy Kreme doughnuts for its long suffering staff.

  “Only one per person,” Phil Ericson sternly announced as the glazed, fragrant deliciousness was carried into the break room.

  Feeling this gastronomic restraint was more than he could bear, one employee shot up out of the folding break room chair he was seated in and stormed out, muttering the whole way about OSHA violations and cheap-assed management who can’t even provide employees with two doughnuts each.

  Peaches herself felt the same way, but that didn’t stop her from grabbing her single allotted doughnut and savoring each and every bite.