From a distance you couldn’t be sure how old the girl might be—sixteen, twenty-six—no way to tell. She could have been any of a hundred, a thousand displaced and forgotten young women who wander around the shabbier streets in America’s cities. Only this wasn’t the city, unless you believe Picketsville, Virginia, population sixty thousand, more or less—lately, less—qualifies as urban. And she was not wandering. She stood perfectly still, staring at the earth at her feet. The usual accumulation of leaves and plants seemed askew, unnatural in their arrangement, and recently turned dirt lay in places where it didn’t belong. A stand of hardwoods, untouched for a century or more, filtered the early summer sunlight and softened the lines on her face, but not the anger in her eyes. She stood a little straighter, but her eyes never left the ground. Her lips moved as if reciting a private litany.
“We used to come here back before all that. Like, we had picnics over by that old spring. A long time ago and what was I? Six or seven—maybe a year away from the hell you put me in. I don’t know, maybe I don’t remember things so good anymore. Too many of my days are out of focus because of all that shit you shoved in your body and mine. There’re things that I can’t pull out of my head anymore.”
A vehicle sounded its horn from the road fifty yards behind her. The girl stopped mumbling and dropped a scraggly bouquet of wildflowers at her feet. She took a breath, wiped her nose on her sleeve, and walked away.
Sometime Later That Month
A breeze disturbed the otherwise sleepy afternoon. Andy Lieux decided to walk his dog in the woods by the old spring. This was a special spot, known to only a few, or so he thought. In fact, the small rivulet-and fern-laced area was a spot most of the long-term residents of Picketsville also thought of as their special place.
In the springtime, after the area’s scant snow melted and the rains came, the little mountain spring would gush and the low area beside it would become a marsh. Skunk cabbage and bluets and quaker-ladies would poke through the soft loam. By late May, the ground would dry a bit and the rank earthy aroma of the naturally composting detritus would abate. Ferns would poke through and unfurl their fronds, eventually to cover the entire quarter acre or so of the site. By late June the skunk cabbage gave way to a by-now impenetrable carpet of ferns that helped hide the smaller fauna from the ever-present predators—the circle of life. The spring water flowed at a more sedate pace, slowed by wild watercress lining its short course, into a larger creek ten yards away. There its crystal water mixed with the more turgid creek. The dog drank noisily from the spring and, its thirst slaked, began its ritual zigzag exploration of the area, pausing here and there to mark its territory and occasionally pawing at the soil beneath the ferns in search of…who knows what? He snuffed here and there and paused at some newly turned earth. His nose twitched, he let out a small yip, and scratched at the one place not covered with leaves, moss, or verdure of one sort or another. When a gray-green hand surfaced, Andy pulled his dog off, and at that moment Picketsville, Virginia, would have another murder for the sheriff’s office to solve. Two murders, actually, but that would be discovered later. Identifying the remains of Ethyl Smut and finding her killer would be problem enough.
Too many people believed she deserved it.
Ike Schwartz jerked back the blinds. White hot Nevada sun streamed across the room and, laser-like, assaulted Ruth Harris’ eyelids. She grunted, sat up, and forced them open a millimeter or two. Big mistake. She groaned, closed them, and eased her throbbing head back against the pillows, vaguely aware that Ike stood grinning at her at the end of the bed.
He waggled his fingers. “Good morning, Sunshine. And how are we feeling this fine morning?”
“How are we…what’s with the we? You are the cop, Schwartz. I assume you got the license number of the truck that ran me over.”
“Sorry, not this time. The pain you feel this morning is all self-inflicted. I’ve ordered breakfast, by the way, toast, eggs, orange juice—” Ruth groaned again. “But first I think you need to drink a lot of water and spend about fifteen minutes in a very hot shower. You probably should open your eyes. I don’t want you bumping into things and falling down.”
“If I open my eyes they will fall out of their sockets and probably get lost under the bed. That could be very inconvenient. Just coffee, Ike. I need a gallon of coffee and a straw to drink it with so I don’t have to move. My God, even my hair hurts.”
“Wages of sin.”
“Shut up and get me coffee or I will kill you. It will be self- defense and no judge in the world will convict me.”
“Yes, of course, but first listen to the sweet voice of reason. Most of the pain in your head is due to the fact that alcohol, a substance you should be familiar with after last night, dehydrates. You are dehydrated and your brain is protesting. Coffee also dehydrates, but more slowly. You do not want coffee yet. You may think you want coffee, but you’d be wrong. You need water and a few aspirin. I have put several bottles of water, thoughtfully supplied by this hotel at an outrageous price of five bucks a pop, in the shower with a bottle of aspirin which I discovered in your makeup bag. Drink and sluice off. Then, you may have coffee and breakfast.”
“Water first, inside and out.”
Ruth eased out from under the sheets and stared at her bare knees. “Where’s my nightgown?”
“You never got that far. It was all I could do to get you out of your other things.”
“What did I…? Wait a minute.” Ruth frowned and forced herself to remember. “Okay, after our latest fiasco…I will kill Charlie Garland the next time I see him…we flew to Las Vegas and booked in this hotel what…three days ago, right? Right. Three. We toured the city. We admired the fountains at the Bellagio and played blackjack, took in a racy show, and had dinners at all the expensive restaurants we could manage. We witnessed the dumbing down of American culture in the streets, as people who should know better did their best to look like thugs, or hookers, and then awkwardly attired tourists when they weren’t taking pictures of the ones who were trying to look like hookers or whatever, gawking. We gambled. Then, last night after we had dinner and a few drinks, we played the slots and…Hey, I won two thousand dollars last night. Is that right? It is. Where’s my money?”
“As to that, a substantial portion of it went to pay for the party.” “The party? We had a party?”
“You really don’t remember?”
“Maybe. Crap, Ike, I never do things like this. Even when I was a pain in my parents’ collective rear end and acting out big-time—”
“Shut up. Even then, I never behaved like this. I’ve never been more than moderately tight, and that was a special occasion. What happened?”
“Well, as you just now retrieved from your addled cerebral cortex, you won a substantial sum at the dollar slots and proceeded to buy hooch for a group of folks who came to congratulate you and soon became your new best friends. It grew into a party.”
“Did you try to stop me?”
“Yes and no. To be honest, I was feeling pretty relaxed myself after all that we’d endured lately—guns and explosions, to name but a few of the most significant. I figured we deserved to blow our tops and, after all, it was found money. It didn’t take much in the way of hooch, by the way. Either you have a low tolerance for tequila or your body just needed a little shove. You popped some of your painkillers before we went out, so maybe you had some help flying your plane.”
“Oh, Lord. I’m going to shower. When I come out you can tell me where the rest of my money went, and you’d better offer coffee. Maybe I will find a better excuse for what my head is going through while trying to keep the soap out of my eyes. Is there anything else I should know?”
“Oh, yeah. Say, do you like my robe? The hotel gave it to me. It even has my initial on it, see? A big red S on the pocket. The S is for Schwartz.”
“Ike, the S stands for Sheraton.”
“No, I’m pretty sure it stands for Schwartz. You have one, too. It’s hanging on the bathroom door.”
“Right. I have a hotel robe with an H for Harris and not for Hilton on it, or is this joint a Holiday Inn?”
“No, it’s an S, too. So, go shower and see how much comes back to you as the gremlins in your head shut down the jack hammers they’re using in their attempt to escape.”
Ike led her to the shower. Sooner or later she would remember.
When she did she’d need something stronger than coffee.
Room service arrived and he had breakfast laid out in the sitting area of their suite when he heard her scream. The previous night’s gaiety had finally been located in her memory’s lost luggage department. The scream was followed by a series of groans and a very loud, “yaaahh!”
The bathroom door flew open and cloud of steam billowed out followed by a very wet and naked Ruth.
“We’re married!” “Yep.”
“And you didn’t try to stop me?” “Nope.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Several of the nice people whom you declared earlier were your new BFFs tried. Two policemen had a few words on the matter as well. Do you remember Officer Hornick?”
“Officer Hornick. You insisted on calling him Ossifer Horney.” “My God, I did? What did he do?”
“Remanded you into my custody—professional courtesy, you could say.”
“And then…when did we get married?”
“That would be shortly after you had finished discussing your First Amendment rights with Ossifer Horney. By the way, the Constitution does not guarantee your right to stand on the middle of the Las Vegas Strip and sing, ‘I’m too sexy in my shirt.’ Anyway, before he finished Mirandizing you, you invited him, his partner, and the aforementioned BFFs to be in your wedding and we all traipsed down to the Budding Rose Wedding Chapel where, for a small fee, we got hitched.”
“Oh my God, no!”
“In the case of the Budding Rose Wedding Chapel, God had very little to do with it. You should be very thankful for the Budding Rose. We almost ended up at the local McWedding.”
“Precisely. Now wrap a towel around yourself and have some breakfast. It’s our honeymoon.”
“But why didn’t you stop me?”
“The party business—I did try. You were spending your winnings like a drunken sailor or college president with a government grant, the latter of which, of course, you are. But stop the wedding? Sorry, no, you made a solemn promise—well a promise, I’m not sure about the solemnity of it—that if we survived being shot at and generally abused by friend and foe alike last week, a wedding date was a certainty. We did survive and I, assuming the sincerity of that declaration, acted on it. I figured I might never get you that close to an altar ever again.”
“So we’re a couple.”
“We have been a couple for years. Now we are now a married couple. I’m as sorry, as I suspect you are, that it happened this way, but you were insistent and the cops were losing their sense of humor, not to mention patience. The term drunk tank came into play several times. Besides, as I said, who knew when?”
Ruth wrapped the towel into a sarong and sat. “Let’s face it, we are the ‘odd couple,’ aren’t we? About the only thing we agree on is that we are better people together than apart. Given that, this escapade isn’t even unusual, is it?”
“Don’t answer that. Ike, you have been amazingly patient with me about turning an engagement into a wedding. I don’t know why, but for me the finality of it always seemed so…I don’t know…help me out here.”
“Exactly. I expect there is some Freudian worm wiggling around in my subconscious somewhere that suggests that I deliberately got falling-down drunk in order to do what I really wanted to do, but was afraid to do sober. Does that make any sense?”
“Probably, but who the hell cares?”
“Not me. But first I have to say it, I am not regretting this at all, Ike. I am happy to wear the customized robe with the big S on it and be Mrs. Sheraton, okay? I’ve wanted this, I think, since the night you smooched me up in the mountains. I just never had the nerve to…you know. So now what?”
“We eat this ridiculously expensive breakfast and pack.” “No, that’s not what I meant. We need to have a real wedding when we get back, Ike. You know, cake and reception and rice and all that. I need to brace up my mother. You have your father and Dolly to think about, and all those folks who love us and also give us heartburn will be upset. We owe them something formal—official.”
“Right, we need to formalize the irrational. Got it. We have a plane to catch in three hours.”
“Okay, eat and pack without passing GO and collecting… rice in your cuffs. You have to make good on your end of the deal too.”
“My end? What’s that?”
“No more Charlie Garland and your old CIA buddies. No more international shoot-outs, bombs, conspiracies, or missed meals.”
“Right, no more Charlie et al. Just local murders, mayhem, parking tickets, and breaking up underage keggers in the woods. Done. Now, eat your breakfast and pull that towel up or your eggs will be cold before you get back to them.”
“You are such a romantic, Ike.”