CHAPTER 10 - Sizzzling
It's a hot summer night. Mom shuts down the engine and we turn off our phones so there's nothing to give us away. Five-hundred yards down the street sits the ruined house, silent in the night.
A few years ago, when the digital clock in the dashboard gave up, Mom bought a small, analog replacement. It's a two-inch flat disk, stuck to the dash with a piece of adhesive tape. The slow-moving hands tell me a full hour has passed. The grey sky became night black, a few cars and one late jogger passed by, and a large bird delivered its part of the nightly entertainment on our front window. That's about it.
The clock shows sixty minutes have passed.
The flower on the dash just sits there.
The clock shows sixty-one minutes have passed.
"Nothing's happening," I say. I've said the same thing on the fifty-ninth-minute mark, the fifty-eighth-minute mark, the fifty-seventh-minute mark, the fifty-sixth… I can be really annoying if I have to. Besides, the first forty-five minutes I've been a good girl, merely brooding in silence. "I need my sleep and prepare my stuff for tomorrow," I complain to Mom.
She sighs. "I was expecting some response. You triggered an alarm of some kind when you entered. It got even stronger when you took the flower, then it disappeared."
I look at her. "You didn't think it might be useful to tell me? What kind of alarm?"
Mom starts the car and checks her mirrors. "Would it have made a difference? Hold the flower."
I grab the flower before it falls off the dashboard. "It might have. You could have told me one hour and two minutes earlier. Make that one hour and three minutes. Do you even know what time it is?"
She only nods and pulls away, barely missing another late traveler. The oncoming van swerves in time, so all they'll have to do in the local hospital is treat me for cardiac arrest, no broken bones and shattered internal organs this time. Mom never lets me drive when we're together, but sometimes I think she should. She either stole or magicked up her driver's license, and mine came from the same source, but at least I spent some time learning how to drive. We reach the hotel just before midnight, not hitting anything worth mentioning. Mom's about to park when she stiffens up.
I recognize her behavior. "There's someone up there?".
She nods. "Is, or was."
I'm not waiting for her to come to a full stop but open the door and get out as soon as I can. There's an emergency stairway on the right side of the hotel. The gate to the stairs is supposed to be one way, exit only, but the lock is flaky. I know because I examined it when we returned this afternoon. I pull it open and run up to the second floor where our rooms are. The door to my room is open. I stop to listen, then carefully enter. Nobody, it's deserted. Next I check the bathroom and the single build-in cupboard. Once I've made sure there are no unwanted visitors I investigate the mess. On the ground lies uncle Charlie's suitcase, its contents spread over the bed. On top of my clothes lies my gun case. Whoever was in here didn't manage to open it, or was interrupted.
Mom arrives a little later, taking the regular stairs and not in a hurry. When she walks into my room and sees the mess she raises an eyebrow. "Love what you did to the place."
"You're so funny," I grumble and check the gun case. It seems to be untouched. I carefully open it. A quick check shows everything's still there.
"Missing anything?" Mom asks. In her hands she holds the red flower, wrapped in a handkerchief. She carefully puts it on the rickety table.
I look at my clothes. "If they were looking for some panties or underwear…" I shrug. "It seems nothing is missing."
Mom shakes her head and closes the door to the hallway. "They wouldn't have gone through all that trouble to take nothing. Check again."
This time I start with the guns. Mom has taught me to leave little telltales in place, clues that tell me if someone touched my gear. I examine the case, the packing, then the weapons themselves. Nothing. As far as I can tell nobody touched my weapons. Satisfied I put the gun case aside, then repack my clothes. In the mess I encounter the photo that Sweets hid in the book. Mom's not paying any attention, so I shuffle it in with the rest. And then I realize what is missing. "The book. Sweet's book. It's not here."
Mom frowns. "They took a book? That seems… weird. Who has any use for a romance novel? Must be a burglar with a very poor taste, or an evil aunt who wants to poison her niece's mind, or..."
I throw her the foul look she deserves.
Mom raises her hands apologetically. "Well, they didn't take anything from my room. And certainly not a romance novel."
I'm not asking how she knows nothing's missing without even entering her room. She, well, she just knows. That's just one of those things she does.
"I want it back," I mumble, swiping the remaining clothes into the big suitcase, then slamming it shut.
"I think you'll have your chance," Mom says. She takes a letter out of her back pocket, walks over then hands it to me.
Inside I find a sheet of paper. Elegant handwriting greets me when I unfold it. "Where did you get this?"
"Someone left it at the reception." She shrugs. "Read it."
'Dear Miss DeRidder,' the letter says. 'You took something of value from me, I took something of value from you. May I suggest a parlay at the witching hour soonest, where we'll beat the drums and play the pipes, until daylight comes. Yours sincerely, the Wicked Witch of the East.'
"Is this a joke? How do you know it's for me, and not for you? How do you know it isn't a joke?"
"Well, I'm not sure, but seeing as you're the one who took the flower, you're the one whose book got stolen, and it's your room they broke into… Also, your room number was written on the envelope." Mom shrugs. "Well, what time do you have to be at school tomorrow?"
"Early afternoon. It would be quicker to walk from the hotel, but we have to gather at Nuttley's first." They have this thing for team building by traveling in groups. At least I can sleep in, I tell myself. After I've got my book back.
"Take a nap," Mom says. Set your alarm. We'll be out at two."
"So, I skip school?" That's pretty good news.
Her smile is outright evil. "Two o'clock in the morning, dear. That's why they call it 'the witching hour'. And come prepared, I think you have nothing to fear, but still... Sleep well." She kisses me on the cheek, then walks out. "See you in two hours."
* * *
Of course I can't sleep. Instead, I clean up my guns, put on a pair of black jeans and a matching Jimi Hendrix t-shirt. My shoulder holsters go over the shirt. I'll bring two extra clips, just to be sure. The Five-Seven is big and unwieldy and hard to conceal, but it doesn't take much effort to bring a lot of ammo with you. A pity I won't be able to hide them under a coat.
I check and reassemble my rifle as well, just in case. It seems Mom is planning to go somewhere. It's probably a personal encounter in some enclosed area, so the rifle might be useless, but it's always better to prepare for anything. Once done I swap a few messages with Sweets. 'Small job on the first night. What happened to sleep?'
She's still awake and texts me back. 'Big job. Swimsuit's a little tight. Drinks are cold and BBQ is on. Meat's sizzzzlling. Not just on the BBQ. Miss you. Be careful.'
Four 'z's... Must be hot indeed. 'Keep some for me. I'll text you when I'm done,' I send back.
'By then the meat has walked off your plate, but if that makes you happy? Seriously. Be careful. C. Ps. Check your mail. Let me know what you think. C.'
I could walk down to the reception and use the hotel's Wi-Fi, but they might object to my holstered guns, so I switch on mobile data. I'm happy I didn't go downstairs. The image of blonde Sweets in her new baby blue swimsuit is so scandalous it makes me blush. I look away, then can't help myself and look again. Damn. I think my ears must be glowing in the dark by now.
'Going out to kill some people?' I text her. Her reply is a row of smileys and a thumbs up. I shake my head. The things she gets away with… Mom would never let me wear something like that. I would never let me wear something like that.
I wait. Now and again, I peek through the curtains at the world outside. It's past midnight and the bar is still busy. Another black SUV has joined the row of motorbikes. When Mom knocks, I quickly close Sweet's image. Like all parents she sends me the odd look whenever I eye a particularly good specimen of the other sex, and a contemplative one when it's the same as my own.
No need to confuse her any further.
The next chapter (11) is also available as sneak preview! Continue with chapter 11.