Peaches and the Gambler 6

  She headed over to her father’s house with one thing in mind: Viviana.

  Her father had shifted from the porch and was now sitting alone in the living room. Seated on the recliner with a pair of large headphones over his ears, he strummed a silent tune on his electric guitar. When Peaches walked inside he removed them, smiling. His smile slowly turned into a frown when he saw the expression on her face.

  “Where’s Viviana?” she asked, tersely. “Let me guess? Getting her beauty rest?”

  “They flew in late yesterday afternoon and stayed in a hotel at the airport. Said she and the girls were real tired. Look--,” he said, carefully placing his guitar in its stand. “I don’t want ya’ll fussing.”

  “Why would you think I was going to raise a fuss?” she said, stalking down the short hall and noisily shoving open Vivian’s old bedroom door. Felt like old times.

  “See, daddy--,” she said, gesturing to Viviana who was reclining on the bed with an iPad balanced across her lap, a bored expression on her face. “People like Vi-Vi don’t have time to sleep. They’re too busy networking and generally being fabulous.”

  “Hello Peaches,” Viviana said, still busy too busy tapping on her iPad to bother looking up. “Nice to see you, too.”

  “What was up with you being so rude to Ms. Penny?”

  “I wasn’t rude. I waved,” she said, picking up her bottle of mineral water and taking a sip.

  “You waved?” Peaches spat, disgusted. “Ms. Penny’s son was killed and all you could do was wave?”

  “What do you want?” she asked, finally raising her eyes, not even the tiniest bit of sorrow floating in their cool depths. However, there was defiance by the boatload. “I’m not good at consoling people, Peaches.”

  “Nobody asked you to console anybody, Vi-Vi. How about a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’?” she demanded, angrily. “After that, if you had wanted to skip all the social niceties with the country townsfolk, you could’ve. But to not even bother speaking to the woman who just lost her son, after that rousing performance I assume you did for her benefit, is just plain old rude. Your ass could’ve stayed in Italy for all that.”

  “Whatever, Peaches,” Viviana said, dismissively. She powered the iPad she had been fiddling with down, placing it on the nightstand. “I’m tired. If you’re done with your little speech I’d really like to get some sleep.”

  With those words, she calmly dipped her fingertips in a bowl of ice water, lifted out two slices of cucumber and placed them on her eyelids. She lay back on the pillows, evidently finished with their conversation.

  If Peaches had an inch less self restraint, she would’ve snatched those cucumber slices from her sister’s eyes and smacked the bejesus out of her complacent face.

  But instead, steam shooting out of her ears, she stormed back out the way she came, stopping only when her father called her name.

  “Peaches--,” he implored, looking anxious. “Don’t be mad at your baby sister. You know how she is.”

  “Yeah, I do. That’s the problem.”

  Chapter 10

  Having steamrolled out the front door past her distressed father, Peaches stood on the front porch, chest heaving angrily as she stared with unseeing eyes at slow-moving cars meandering past.

  Why did she always allow her younger sister to get under her skin? It was the same dog and pony show each and every time Viviana came to visit. Perhaps it was because she had always felt a strong sense of responsibility towards Viviana because of the mother neither of them had ever had. She had always been protective of her younger sister, there to aggressively defend her against any bully, to patch up her wounds when she fell. But in middle school, as Viviana began displaying her ability to be completely self-absorbed, pulling away from her older sister’s guidance, the rift had by degrees grown into what it was today.

  Perhaps it was time for Peaches to give it up.

  Gradually becoming aware of the faint sound of sobbing floating out the open window of Ms. Penny’s house, Peaches heart went out to her elderly former neighbor.

  Shoving her own irritation to the back of her mind, she walked next door, knocking lightly at the door.

  Ms. Penny answered the door, a handkerchief clutched in one hand, her eyes red. Peaches hugged her wordlessly, walking her back inside.

  “He was my only child,” Ms. Penny said, sitting down heavily at the dining room table, Peaches opposite her on a chair with wobbly legs.

  A box of Lenny’s belongings was perched upon the table. Old trophies, childhood drawings and other odds and ends littered the table. Other boxes were strewn about on the floor. Peaches truly couldn’t imagine the nightmare of losing an only child. Of knowing you would never see them smile again, of knowing the grandchildren you had hoped for would never be.

  Reaching out, she grabbed Ms. Penny’s hand, quietly holding it until her tears subsided.

  “I was looking through all of Lenny’s old things—don’t know why I kept half of them,” she said with a slight laugh. “I just couldn’t believe my baby was gone. Can’t believe it.”

  “Neither can I, Ms. Penny,” Peaches agreed.

  “You know, when he got back from Iraq he was a changed man,” Ms. Penny said. “I knew he had problems and I told him to get some help for them. But a mama can’t do too much when her son’s a grown man. He self-medicated with his drinkin’ and avoided his problems instead of facing them.”

  “So what did the police say?” Peaches asked.

  “Oh--,” she said, waving her hand with disgust. “They haven’t said much at all. I ask questions and they don’t have answers.”

  “They don’t have anybody in mind that might have done this?”

  Ms. Penny shook her head mutely.

  Peaches wasn’t surprised. Scathingly dubbed ‘Little New York’ by its black citizens, Durham saw more than it’s fair share of violent murders each year. Loosely organized gangs had nestled in the poorer parts of the city and with that, unsolved murders had risen precipitously. The police were kept too busy trying to keep the gangs under control to spend valuable police time investigating an alcoholic’s untimely demise.

  “Had a friend died a few months back,” Ms. Penny said, unconsciously wringing her handkerchief. “Her son was murdered a couple of years ago. She went to her grave with no answers. Died not knowing who killed him.”

  Peaches didn’t know what to say. There was a good chance Lenny’s murder would go unsolved. She had read somewhere that if police didn’t get a hold of solid information within the first forty-eight hours, there was a good chance the case would go cold.

  “Do you mind helping me out, Peaches?” Ms. Penny suddenly asked.

  “What do you mean?” Peaches asked, slightly taken aback.

  “I mean, maybe ask around. See if you can find something the police couldn’t,” she said, her voice hopeful.

  “Well…,” Peaches demurred. “I don’t know what I could do. Or if I would even know where to start.”

  But even as she said this, her mind was whirling, thinking how interesting it would be to dive into the case. She had always been thrilled with the idea of amateur sleuthing. She was unemployed and had nothing better to do with her time. What would it hurt to ask a few questions?

  “Do you remember when you found Mrs. Franklin’s little poodle Rosie? The one that went missing back when you and Lenny was in the eleventh grade?” Ms. Penny asked.

  “Yeah,” Peaches laughed, recalling the day. “I also remember how piping hot Alizeé was when I charged into her house and snatched that dog out of her bed.”

  Alizeé was a mean little girl that had moved into the house just behind her father’s many years ago. She used to stick her middle finger up at Peaches, and then would scamper into the house. Peaches had hated that little bitch. She had probably been so mean because her mother, a bit of a drinker, had named her after her preferred alcoholic beverage.

  “Yes,” Ms. Penny said, smiling a little. “It took you t
hree days, but you never gave up. You were determined to find her little dog because Rosie was all Mrs. Franklin had left. How’d you manage to find her again?”

  “I remembered Rosie loved children,” Peaches said. “I also remembered that once Rosie went missing, I didn’t see Alizeé playing in the yard anymore.”

  “You were always good at seeing things everybody else missed. Maybe you could do the same for Lenny?”

  “Well, I don’t know…,” she said again, words trailing off. “There’s a big difference between finding somebody’s missing dog and finding a criminal. Besides, I was in high school. I was younger, smarter…,”

  ‘Thinner’, she thought looking at her thighs.

  “You’re smarter and more mature. You have life experience now,” Ms. Penny said, firmly. “You might find something out that will help the police move in the right direction.”

  Peaches thought of all the many small and large things Ms. Penny had done for her over the years. Lenny and she had been like brother and sister growing up and now he was dead, murdered as though his life had meant nothing. Growing up, her father had been a wonderful role model, but he was no substitute for a woman. Ms. Penny had been the womanly shoulder she leaned on when her father just didn’t get the mysterious mechanisms the female teenage years were fraught with.

  If asking a few questions could lead the police down the right path, she figured it was the least she could do. The most that could happen would be she learned nothing, which would put her right back where she was.

  “Ok. I’ll do it.”

  “Thank you so much!” Ms. Penny said effusively, grabbing her hand.

  “But don’t expect too much,” Peaches warned.

  “I have confidence in you, Peaches.”

  That was what was making Peaches so nervous. She didn’t want to disappoint Ms. Penny. She looked at all the boxes of Lenny’s stuff stacked around the room.

  “Alright, well, I’m gonna start by looking through his things, if that’s okay?” Peaches said.

  “No, be my guest. Most of his clothes are in those three boxes,” she said, indicating the boxes on the floor. “Figured I’d give ‘em a good wash before droppin’ them off at the Salvation Army.”

  Tackling the largest box first, inside she found an assortment of books. There were some heavy hitting titles in there: Culture and Imperialism, Edward Said, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality?, Cheik Ante Diop, Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James and many others, most to do with mathematics and the sciences. She flipped through them, thinking she might find some clue or other, but after more than an hour thumbing through books, she saw nothing strange. The second box was much the same, with nothing untoward hiding inside of a secret cigar box, nor did she find a false lamp bottom she could open and say ‘Aha!’, while holding up the damning evidence.

  The third box was all clothes: old suits, ragged denims, shoes and stained polo’s. It was hard to believe all of his clothes could be packed in one large box. Certainly it would take at least twenty of the same boxes to squeeze her clothes into.

  Using her fingers, she carefully felt along collars and inside shirts. Nothing there. She used the same method for the socks and tennis shoes. Still nothing. It was as she was feeling along the inside seam of a pair of dingy jeans that she hit pay dirt.

  Feeling something hard and round that wasn’t in the front or back pocket, but instead was closer to the crotch, she was stumped. What was it and where was it? She sat back, sipping from a glass of sweetened iced tea Ms. Penny had given her earlier. Maybe it was on the inside? She had once found more than three hundred dollars trapped in an old purses lining via a small rip behind the change pocket. Over the years, money had been siphoned through the hole. Money she had thought more than a few times had been pinched by Nina. Maybe it was the same with pants? It was worth a try.

  Turning the pants inside out, she inches along the seams until she felt an irregularity. She forced her fingers inside of what appeared to be a small, hand-stitched pocket. Probably something Lenny had done to keep certain something’s from his wife. Maybe that was why his clothes were dirty. He didn’t allow her to wash them. She withdrew two tokens that looked similar to the ones used in slot machines or video games. They had the Initials S.D. etched on the face. There was monetary value attached to each. One was worth one dollar and the other was worth ten. She turned them over in her fingers, wondering what they were used for.

  There was also something else.

  Shoving her fingers back inside the small pocket, she stretched until the tips could just feel the rough edge of what felt like a piece of paper. Finally managing to get a grip, she edged it out. Unfolding it, she peered at the paper, just able to make out faded lettering that spelled what looked like: Big Pete’s. The rest of the piece of paper was too faded to be legible.

  She quickly looked through the rest of the clothing and found two more tokens, but nothing else.

  “Ms. Penny?”

  “Yes?” She asked, coming to the door. She had changed into an old flowered robe and was holding a blue coffee cup.

  “Do you know what these are?”

  She held her hand out. Ms. Penny opened the door a crack and plucked one of the tokens from her palm, peering at it.

  “No,” she said, shaking her head slowly. “I don’t have no idea.”

  “What about this?”

  Ms. Penny returned the token, replacing it with the small piece of paper. She shook her head again and handed the paper back, eyes sad.

  “I didn’t really know what Lenny was into half the time.”

  “Most parents don’t, Ms. Penny. Look--,” she said, standing up and stretching. She immediately realized two things at once: she was exhausted and her muscles felt like tight rubber bands. “Let me take this with me back to Durham. Maybe the police can shed some light on it. Maybe it’ll help them get a little closer to figuring out who did this to Lenny.”

  Peaches couldn’t bring herself to say ‘murdered’. It still felt too harsh, too real.

  “Here’s a picture to show around,” Ms. Penny said, handing her a wallet sized photo. “I figured it might help.”

  “It will. Thanks.”

  The photo was at least ten years old. Lenny hadn’t looked that healthy since his early twenties. But she supposed he had still mostly looked the same. Carefully placing the picture in her wallet, she had severe doubts it would do much good.

  Peaches gave Ms. Penny one last hug and was walking down the stairs to her car when she said: “Are you gonna find out what happened to Lenny the same way you found Mrs. Franklin’s dog Rosie?”

  It was on the tip of her tongue to gently remind Ms. Penny that she would only be asking a few questions. After all, who was she to attempt to find out who murdered someone? Finding Mrs. Franklin’s dog had been a bit of dumb, young luck and that was it. Hell, she could barely find her cell phone in the morning let alone solve a murder. No—she was just going to drop the things she found off at the police station and move on with her life.

  But the tentative expression of innocent hope on Ms. Penny’s face made her change her mind and she found herself saying:

  “I’ll find out who killed Lenny if it’s the last thing I do.”

  Chapter 11

  “You promised who what?”

  It had been a full forty-eight hours since Lenny’s funeral. More than enough time to experience some serious regret about wild promises made in the heat of a sympathetic moment.

  She was on the phone with Lynn. As usual, a mistake when it came to discussing sensitive topics.

  “I told Ms. Penny I’d find out who killed Lenny,” she mumbled, cringing as she said it. She resisted the urge to tear open the freezer and rip into a Dove ice cream bar. She really could use some support right now and sweets were just the support group she needed.

  “Pure fucking madness, Peaches. I mean--,” Peaches heard an audible slurp. Lynn was deep into The Cabbage Diet and was eating one of her
breakfast veggie soup rations. “—Boo, you can barely find your cell phone in the mornings. How the hell do you expect to find some drunk’s killer?”

  Lynn knew her way too well.

  “He was troubled, Lynn. Stop calling him a drunk.” A derisive snort came from the other end of the line. “And you don’t know this about me, but I’ve always been good at figuring things out. I’m pretty sure I can do this.”

  Peaches cracked open the freezer as amused laughter cackled down the line, peering at the Dove pack hungrily.

  “You’re certainly good at pickin’ triflin’ assed men, that’s for sure.”

  “Go to hell, Lynn.”

  Peaches gave up and grabbed an ice cream bar. She figured with all this verbal abuse she deserved it. She’d start The Cabbage Diet tomorrow.

  “Peaches, listen to me. This guy got mercked. Murdered. Dead. Done. For real. It’s not some joke. You could get hurt if you try to find this thug. I don’t think you should do it. Call Ms. Penner--,”

  “Ms. Penny.”

  “Whatever. Call her and re-neg on your promise. Hell, she’ll get it. People always re-neggin’ on somethin’. Case in point: have you started the diet?”

  Peaches remained mutinously silent.

  “See what I mean? You’re gonna stay chunky and I’m gonna be sleek and sexy.” An exaggerated slurp followed this ridiculous claim. “Call and tell her you temporarily lost your mind and that you aren’t gonna do it.”

  “I made a promise. I can’t do that,” she said, quietly. Plus, a part of her refused to allow Lynn to boss her around again.

  “Peaches, you serious, ain’t you?”

  “Yep. Out of a job. Don’t have anything better to do right now. Why not do some good?”

  She polished off the rest of her ice cream, regretfully tossing the wrapper in the garbage.

  “Well—I need to be the last chick you call if somebody got a gun upside your head.” Her tone was hard, but Peaches could hear the worry just beneath the surface. “And how the hell does someone who doesn’t know a thing about investigating get started?”