“Come on, twenty more yards, you can do it, baby. Don’t quit on me now.”
Annabelle Nunn coaxed her aging blue Ford pickup further down Crimson Creek Drive. Crimson Creek was a small town in northern Texas. It was named for the meandering creek in town filled with jagged red volcanic rocks. Belle thought when the creek was high and water flowed over all those scarlet stones, it looked like blood.
“Come on, sweetie. Just a few more feet,” she purred at the steering wheel.
Most days she spoke to the vehicle like a lover, as though her sweet talk could somehow keep it on the road. Maybe it did. So far, it’d kept her up and running…well, chugging along, anyway.
She glanced at the gas gauge which hovered over the red “danger zone” area. She needed Big Blue to make it a bit further into the Lickety Split parking lot, a local gas station and convenience mart.
Belle had moved to the Creek after accepting a job offer from Catherine’s House, a domestic violence shelter in town. They’d come to her college campus recruiting for two new counselors and she’d snagged the third shift position a couple of years ago. She’d minored in women’s studies while she pursued a psych major. Then got her master’s degree in community counseling. Working with domestic violence survivors had been very rewarding.
Sure enough, Big Blue lumbered into the parking lot and she parked next to gas pump. Next came a humiliating pat down of her pockets as she scrounged for spare change like she’d done as a kid and she’d wanted to buy a candy bar at the store. Anabelle even upended her red purse and picked up the stray change that’d sunk to the bottom. Altogether, she had four dollars and thirty-six cents.
Belle vaulted out of the truck and slunk inside with a palm full of coins. The stores colors were red and white, with a dash of blue. Texas state flag colors. Inside, they had a row of antique gas pumps for decoration and kept an old steel cooler in the front, stocked full of Dr. Pepper and Coke. It had a quaint fifties feel to it.
Lickety Split had a couple shelves full of snack food and other useful items like cold medicine and motor oil. Things a traveler might need. Along with a wall of refrigerators full of drinks and dips. There was also some convenience foods wrinkled red wieners impaled on spikes and Cheetos-orange cheese flecked with red, ready to squirt on tortilla chips.
Normally she’d have turned up her nose at that kind of junk, but it made her stomach rumble. Belle only had a half empty container of peanut butter in the cupboard at home, along with a half-eaten sleeve of saltines. At this minute, she only had ten dollars and thirty-three cents to her name. Not counting the change in her palm.
She handed the coins to the pimply teenager at the cash register with a sheepish smile. “Pump number two,” she said. A man in a flannel shirt stood behind her and from the corner of her eye, she saw him check his wristwatch and let out a breezy sigh.
The cashier rolled his eyes and counted off the change as he plunked it down on the counter. The kid wore a red uniform speckled with Texas stars in white and blue. According to the badge clipped to the lanyard around his neck, his name was Mike.
Tamping down on any vestiges of pride she had left, she asked Mike for the unthinkable. “Do you have any job applications?” After four years of college, three years of graduate school, and a hefty sixty-five thousand dollars in student loan debt, she would take a job working for minimum wage.
But it would keep the wolf from her door.
She’d reached the end of the line. If she didn’t get a job in the next few days, she’d be up shit creek without a paddle, as her father used to say. And now wasn’t the time get picky either. She’d wasted six months pursuing a job in her field and hadn’t gotten past a first interview.
“Uh, yeah.” He finished counting the change and tossed it in the cash register as it opened with a ding! He grabbed one from a clipboard and tossed it to her. And then he looked at Flannel Shirt behind her. “Can I help you, sir?”
Belle scurried out the door and pumped her gas. As she carefully watched the numbers change, she caught sight of a man two lanes over pumping gas into a brand spanking new black F-150. He wasn’t looking at her. But something about him bothered her all the same. Had he been watching her, just before she glanced over? He wore a weathered Carharts jacket, a trucker hat with the brim pulled low over his eyes, a pair of blue jeans, and muddy work boots.
He seemed to be any other blue collar worker, stopping at the Lickety Split on his way home from a construction site or an oil field. Yet, something was different about him. Belle could feel it. Sense it. She couldn’t see his eye or hair color. The only distinguishable feature was a scruffy blond beard which obscured the lower half of his face.
The gas pump stopped and she shook her head to clear it. Or maybe she’d finally lost it. All the months of job hunting and worry had taken its toll on her. Apparently, she was now paranoid in addition to being desperate. Goody.
When Belle pulled out of the gas station, she couldn’t help but glance in the rearview mirror. The creepy man had vanished. Seemingly into thin hair.
As soon as she got in the door, her long-haired tuxedo cat, Quaxo, ran toward her at a gallop. She scooped him up and petted him. He closed his blue eyes in hopeless pleasure and started to purr. If only it were so easy to make her that happy.
She’d named Quaxo after a lyric in the musical, CATS. Belle had been a choir kid in high school and loved Broadway shows and show tunes. She’d listen to the music again and again until she memorized the entire catalog of songs.
Belle slumped down on her secondhand couch and snuggled the cat for comfort. She petted him, relishing his affection. There was something calming about stroking a cat – the soft fur, the low rumbling purr. Right now, he was the only good thing in her life.
Belle had a one bedroom apartment on the first floor at Blackwood Apartment Homes. It wasn’t much to look at. The space had a seventies feel to it with the popcorn ceilings and burnt orange closet doors. She’d gotten all of her furniture from the Goodwill, so it was a little shabby.
There was another complex in town, Magnolia Arms, but the rent was a couple hundred a month higher and she couldn’t afford it on her tiny social services salary. There was also a rumor going around town that the Arms was owned by the Dixie Mafia.
They had a foothold in Crimson Creek. Why criminals would choose tiny little Crimson Creek for the base of their operation was a topic of much debate among townies. Belle thought the mob probably liked the lack of scrutiny a small town afforded them. The town only had a sheriff and a part-time deputy. From what she saw, the two men spent most of their time ticketing people for speeding.
After a few minutes, Quaxo wiggled out of her grasp and trotted over to his food bowl in the kitchen. He meowed loudly until she filled his stainless steel bowl. She only had a half bag full of kitty kibble left. Last week, she’d run out of the wet food she gave him every morning and he never let her forget it either–yowling his complaints as she stumbled out of bed each day.
Belle washed her hands and pulled six saltines from the package of crackers. She placed them carefully on a paper plate. Then, slathered three of them with peanut butter before topping them with the other crackers, creating peanut butter sandwiches for dinner.
She’d had a couple this morning, too, before her interview with Aransas County Behavioral Health. The interview had only lasted twenty minutes…which wasn’t a terrible sign. Actually, none of the interviews she’d had over the past few months had gone well. Belle wondered if her former employers had blackballed her. What if she’d never be able to get another job in mental health in the state of Texas?
That was a sobering thought.
She didn’t have any money left in her savings account to search for a job out of state. So, she put on big girl panties, munched on a peanut butter cracker, and filled out a Lickety Split job application.
And she’d worry about how to live on minimum wage later.
A couple hours later, Belle laid in bed and stared at the ceiling. Quaxo curled up beside her, soundly asleep now that he had a full belly. It was only seven o’clock, but she’d gotten rid of her satellite television a couple months ago as a way to save money. She had books to read, but that’d require using lights. Belle tried not to turn them on once it got dark. Yep, things had gotten that frugal.
Somehow, she’d ended up starring in her very own version of the musical, Rent. Without the hunky co-stars and the peppy dance numbers. With a sigh, she curled up with Quaxo and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Suddenly, there was a loud banging at the door.
Belle sat straight up in bed, blinking as she glanced around her. Quaxo leapt off the bed and scurried beneath it. She wished she could crawl under there with him. Grabbing a ratty robe from the bedpost, she slogged into the living room. She wondered if it could be creepy bearded guy from the convenience store. God, she hoped not.
Peering through the peephole, she saw two men standing outside her door. Neither of them had a beard, so they couldn’t be Trucker Hat from the Lickety Split.
That was good news, at least.
But Belle didn’t recognize them and they looked…intense. The younger man had a leather jacket and she spied a bulge beneath his arm? A gun-shaped bulge. He kept shooting glances at the parking lot behind him. Was he looking for witnesses?
The older man in a suit seemed relaxed, confident. And implacable. While she had no idea why they’d come rapping at her door, it was a safe bet they weren’t here for something innocuous like selling Girl Scout cookies.
Her rent was up to date, for this month anyway. And last time she checked, MasterCard didn’t send men in expensive suits when customers stopped making payments.
Holding her breath, she slowly tiptoed away from the door. The older man leaned against the door, at least she thought it was him. Suity seemed to be the boss. “We can hear you in there, Ms. Nunn. I suggest you open this door. Now. While you still have a choice in the matter.”
Oh God. He knew her name?! How? Belle had never done anything bad in her entire life. Surely nothing that’d been bring what she suspected were two bad guys to her door in the middle of the night.
Her heartbeat picked up, pounding in her chest and her palms began to itch. She wanted to get out of here, but the two of them stood in front of her truck outside. And she wouldn’t get far on foot.
Belle mentally counted down from ten, centering herself. All of her years of counselor training had taught her to remain calm and collected in a crisis situation. This was no different. Only this time, she was the one having a crisis.
“What do you want?” At least her voice didn’t shake when she said it.
“We want to talk to you. Open this door.”
“Dixon Wolf. He has a couple of questions for you.”
Dixon Wolf. She’d heard the name. He was a local business man rumored to be connected with the mafia. In fact, he owned Magnolia Arms and had a huge mansion/compound on the edge of town. What could he possibly want with her?
And here she’d thought her life couldn’t possibly get any worse than it was already. She should know better by the now. The world was a dangerous place and had a way of keeping the hits on coming.
She slipped the chain on the door in place and opened it a scant inch or two to study the older man in the suit. He was tall and broad-shouldered with blond hair and big blue eyes, along with a cocky grin. Belle put his age around mid-thirties judging by the slight lines around his eyes and mouth.
“Well, hello there, Ms. Nunn. Good to finally put a face with a name. What little of you I can see, that is. ” He smirked after he said the name as if he found it amusing. Not that he was first guy to do that. She’d had quite a reputation in school as being a goody two shoes.
“I’m Byron Beauregard and my silent partner over there is Rebel Jackson.”
“What does Mr. Wolf want with me?”
“You’ll have to ask him that.” And then his Southern gentlemen manners disappeared. “I don’t have all night. Open up.”
Just like that, his friendly blue eyed gaze turned crisp and clear. Like ice. “If you don’t open this door, I’ll plant my foot in the middle of it and snap that chain like it’s a piece of spaghetti and you’ll come with me anyway.”
She gasped. “I’ll call the police.”
“Go right ahead and while you’re at it, tell the sheriff I said hello. Frank and I had lunch just the other day.”
Good God. She was right, the Dixie Mafia had the police in their pocket.
In other words, she was alone in this. Screaming for help was the only other option. Belle lived between an elderly man and a woman raising two little girls by herself. They wouldn’t be much help against two possibly armed men.
Why, oh why hadn’t she bought herself a gun for protection? Everyone else in Texas had one. Hopefully, she’d still be alive to recriminate later.