The rumble of Harleys died. I caught a glimpse of the riders through the screen door as they dismounted and parked their bikes outside the Hogs Waller Saloon. I shaded my eyes against the bright security light as Big Bart stomped his feet on the mat and strode in with his two dogs, Sadie and Benjamin, at his heels. His leathers creaked, and a long braid hung down his back from the red, white and blue bandanna tied around his head. His biker boots made a loud clopping sound on the old wooden floors, which dipped under his weight with every step.
Members of his gang trudged in behind him, 'Justice Enforcers' inscribed in red on the backs of their leather jackets. They nodded at us and headed for the bar, the smell of cigarette smoke and engine oil following them.
My dog Scratch stood up from under my legs, and stretched.
Bart stopped at our table. "Well, if it ain't the fat girls' club," he bellowed. He clamped an oversized hand on my shoulder and I stared at the cut-off black leather glove before I looked up and glared at him through narrowed eyes.
"Who are you calling fat? I'm not fat, and neither is LaMercy or Ena." I turned my gaze to each of my companions and nodded. They both nodded back. Fat was a word that's always pissed me off, but this was a delicate situation. You don't want to get on the wrong side of Bart Drummond.
He held up his hands in front of him, palms facing me, and my eyes followed the inked wolves climbing up his muscled arms to his shoulders. "Oh, no. Don’t get me wrong, Twila. Fat is good. What man doesn't like a little padding? I meant it in a good way." His gaze strayed bald-facedly from my boobs, to Ena's and then to LaMercy's. "You ladies all got curves where women are supposed to have 'em," he growled in his deep baritone voice. "Fat girls rock, man."
I was at a loss for words, which is unusual for me. Luckily, Scratch grabbed the limelight when Sadie growled and snapped at him. "Yeah, good girl. You don’t need no-one sticking their cold nose there, do you?" Bart rasped. He turned towards the bar. "What's a man got to do to get a drink around here?" he said.
"Coming right up!" Gasser, an annoying grin on his face, slid a 24oz glass of draft beer across the pitted wooden counter top. Bart crossed the room in three strides, grabbed it and swallowed half of it down in one gulp. He swiped a hand through his beard and licked the foam from his moustache.
Despite the open ducting in the high roof, the Hogs Waller Saloon had a cozy feel about it. Stuffed animal heads and deer antlers hung on the walls, together with old photographs of Quisby, home-made wooden plaques with redneck words of wisdom on them, a couple of old guns, and other unrecognizable objects. The dusty bottles on the shelves almost hid the mirror behind the bar, and glasses hanging from their racks reflected the yellow beams from the low lights. Frying smells from the kitchen hung in the air, and the old air conditioner rasped and groaned as it struggled to cool the room in the still sweltering Alabama summer night.
As usual, Jimmie Lewis, the town's most dedicated drunk, slouched in the corner on a bar stool, and coyote ugly Lilly Belle Groat, the town's most recognizable working girl, stood beside him, hoping for some action.
LaMercy, Ena and I were parked at a table in the restaurant side of the wide room, our drinks in front of us on the red and white checked plastic tablecloth. We hadn't ordered dinner yet, because we were waiting for Aunt Essie.
"Maybe we have put on some pounds," LaMercy, always the practical one said. I didn't like the way she was gawping at me.
"Maybe one or two," I conceded. "But no more than that." I frowned and looked down. My baggy navy blue T-shirt still fit comfortably, although I had to admit to myself it had been a struggle to get into some of my jeans and shorts recently. In fact, now that I thought about it, the jeans I had on were hurting my stomach. I figured they had shrunk in the wash.
I checked out LaMercy. Had she put on weight? I always thought her face was more angular, but with her big Afro hair it was difficult to be sure. She almost always wore dresses, as she was doing now, so a little extra padding wouldn't be so easy to see.
"Yeah, but fat. That's a big word," Ena said. Her boobs had definitely gotten bigger. How come I hadn't noticed that before? They bulged out of the sides of her pink tank top. Was that all boob or could it really be fat rolls? I remember thinking she was buying her shorts a size too small, but I couldn't confirm that while she was sitting down.
We all stared at Bart's definitely-not-fat ass as he ambled across the room to join the others in the smoky haze that hung over the pool tables. No one was supposed to smoke in the bar, but who was gonna tell one of them to go stand outside with the humidity and bugs? It sounded like it was drizzling out there now, anyhow. Someone had closed the solid wooden door, but I could hear the clank of raindrops hitting the metal roof over the buzz of conversation.
"That is one heck of a man," Ena, the only one of us who was truly single said. "No fat there. It's all solid muscle. He is built."
I knew LaMercy was thinking it too, and so was I. He surely was a delectable mountain of maleness. "Why don't you go make a play for him?" I said to Ena. When I say Ena is 'truly' single, I mean although I am not married, and have no plans to ever marry, Harland O'Connor is my man. He has a special place in my heart—and other parts of me that I will not mention here. Just thinking about him makes things happen to those parts.
Ena's eyes went wide and she fanned herself with a napkin. "I am in the market for a man. I'm totally, epically ready, and just thinking about doing it with him is making me all hot and bothered. Do you think he's as big there as everywhere else?"
LaMercy, the only one of us who was married, smiled and shook her head. "Only one way to find out."
"And I want to find out, but . . . He's just so scary."
Gasser, with his coffee-colored skin and dark dreads, stepped around from behind the bar to our table, pulled out a chair, and dropped into it. He still wore that shit-eating grin on his face that meant one of two things. Either he had just farted, or he thought something was amusing.
I sniffed, and didn’t detect anything. "What do you think is so funny?" I asked.
"Fat girls' club," he glanced across at Bart to make certain he couldn't hear, and laughed out loud.
Scratch, who must have been done with tonight's butt-sniffing, came back, licked Gasser's hand, and curled up under my legs again. "Shut the . . . Just shut it," I said. "And get us more drinks."
He was laughing so hard by this time I was ready to kick his ass, but he jumped up too quickly. "It's because of all the free chow from Pam," he said as he headed for the safety of the bar. "That's why you guys are getting fat." He emphasized the word and let out a hoarse laugh again.
I stood up, ready to do battle. LaMercy pulled at my T-shirt. "Sit down, Twila. He won't give us our drinks if you do anything to him. What are you gonna do, anyhow?"
I dropped into the chair again, but my teeth hurt the way I had 'em clenched so tight.
"There you go, curvy ladies," Gasser said with a chuckle as he placed the drinks in front of us. "More calories. Yummy." He scooted back behind the bar counter in record time and busied himself washing glasses.
"He’s still as lean as he ever was. Do you think Bart was right?" I said to LaMercy.
"When did you last weigh yourself?" she responded, after taking a ladylike sip of her rum and coke.
I ignored the question and turned my gaze to Ena. She grimaced and shrugged. "I know I've put on some pounds. I've been meaning to start running in the mornings, but you know how that goes." She turned and glanced across at Bart.
"Maybe he wouldn't want you to lose any weight," I said.
"Maybe we should tell Pam we don't need any more of her pies and stuff," added LaMercy.
I took a hit of my beer and chased it with a shot of Jack Daniels and waited while it burned all the way down to my stomach. "I don’t think she'd be too happy about that. She feels the need to keep rewarding us for getting her off that murder charge. And Gasser never puts on any weight. He eats more of that stuff than any of us."
The door opened and Skeet stumbled in, speakers and other equipment that he used for karaoke piled high in his arms. It must still be drizzling outside, I thought. Drops of water beaded on the equipment and Skeet's dark ponytail hung limp and ragged, his clothes patchy with wetness. He dumped the armful of stuff on the band stand in the corner, and went outside for more. I could smell the rain when he opened the door, and took a moment to enjoy the storm-cooled breeze that blew in.
"Maybe it's our age. We're all over thirty and Gasser's still in his twenties. I never put on weight before I turned thirty. You don't have to invite me for lunch anymore," Ena said with a sigh. "But I'll miss those scones and strawberry jam and that thick Devonshire cream." She gulped down her Mojito as if it was Kool Aid. Her words had begun to slide together. She's my cousin, blond, a single mom to thirteen-year-old Joel, and . . . curvy. She was also my unofficial snoop. She worked behind the bar at Manconi's—the oldest bar in Quisby, which was located at the far south end of town. Alcohol loosens people's tongues, and she passed on any bits of gossip or info she thought I could use in my business as a private investigator.
She caught up on her sleep at home in the mornings, and came to hang with us for lunch every day when Pam Taylor sent food over from her British cafe, Piccadilly Tea Room. There was so much of it we sometimes had to force ourselves to eat it all.
My office assistant and right-hand woman, LaMercy, was always more controlled than us. She was black with a big Afro hairstyle and a hearty laugh. Her husband, Robert Howard, who was quite a hunk in his own way, was always real quiet and kept a low profile. He didn't ever seem to mind LaMercy coming to the honky-tonk for ladies' nights out.
The door swung open and Great Aunt Essie tramped in. You wouldn't think she was in her eighties by the way she walked, although she was a little stooped. She definitely wasn't fat. I always chuckled at her skinny little legs when she got onto her Harley. Somehow they seemed to look funnier there, like they didn't fit. She brushed the raindrops off her bare arms and patted her gray hair to make certain the bun was still good. "Why didn't you call me earlier?" she accused. "I was sleepin' but I woulda come over right away." She pulled out a chair and flopped down into it, took off her Coke-bottle glasses and rubbed them with her shirt. "Did you know it's rainin' out there? I had to drive Pops' truck over."
Gasser set a double Jim Beam, no ice in front of her. "There you go, Antie," he said. "Anyone else?" He'd always called her that instead of Auntie. We all shook our heads.
"Is this some special occasion?" Aunt Essie took a swallow of her drink.
"Nope," I said. "We all just felt like a girls' night out. I'm hungry. Gasser!" I yelled. "Get your ass over here with menus."
"And we wanted to check if there were any hunky strangers in town," Ena added.
Gasser dumped a stack of menus in the middle of the table. "What? You gonna add more fat?"
I jumped up and swatted him on his head with the menu, and he retreated back behind the bar, that grin stuck on his face.
"What's all that about?" Aunt Essie said.
"Big Bart over there," I chin-cocked the pool tables, "said we were fat. Gasser thinks it's funny. He needs a major attitude adjustment."
She sniffed and looked me up and down through the thick lenses. "Come to think of it, you are gettin' fat." She turned her gaze to the other two. "All of you."
I thought again about what Bart had said. Fat. Okay, so maybe I had put on some weight, but I never thought of myself as fat. I'm tall, with red hair and more freckles than I would like. I've always taken a size 14 to 16, and I was sure that hadn't changed any.
I couldn't take the pressure on my stomach anymore, and undid the button of my jeans under the table and slid the zipper down. Whew. That felt so much better.
LaMercy passed by my office door, an oversized, flat cardboard box in her arms. "Lunch is here," she said. She wore a green and black dress and green sandals. I couldn't remember it being so tight on her ass before.
She didn't have to tell me the food had been delivered. I could smell it the minute whoever delivered it came through the front door.
I hauled myself up, stretched, and looked down. My yellow and red striped tank top was well-filled out in front, but I didn't think any of that was fat. Maybe my shorts were a little tight, but not that much. Scratch followed me down the hall. The office building used to be a little old house, and it sure came in handy having the kitchen, which we used as a break room.
LaMercy ripped the aluminum foil off the top of the box, scrunched it up, and tossed it into the bin. She tore off a square of paper towel and helped herself to two of Pam's famous scones with strawberry jam and thick yellow cream on the top before she sat down and slid the box into the center of the scrubbed pine table.
I used to think of scones as biscuits, and I ate them with gravy, but Pam changed all that. When she started the Piccadilly Tea Room in our small town of Quisby, Alabama, everyone thought she would see her ass. I was born and raised there and I know. It's a blue collar, gun-toting, deer hunting, biscuits and gravy kind of town.
My Pops always said it was a well-balanced town because it had four churches and four bars. I don't know about that, but it's a typical small Southern town, with most of the stores on either side of Main Street and two gas stations, one at each end. My office was at the north end. The pavements in town may have been old and cracked, with a few weeds managing to grow through the cracks, but it was home.
My Uncle Pervis owned two real estate offices, one in Quisby and the other in Grover, which is a bigger town twelve miles away. When I graduated high school, he only had one office in Grover, but he told me he would open a second office in Quisby if I agreed to work for him. My family didn't have money for college, and my grades weren't good enough for me to get any kind of grants, and so I figured I had nothing to lose.
I had to do some training and pass the state license exam before I could actually sell any properties, but I followed my uncle around and observed. Once I was licensed, Uncle Pervis said I was a natural at it.
Aunt Essie―she's really my great aunt―beat me to the kitchen. She opened the refrigerator and took out the jug of sweet tea. Water beaded on the outside, and the ice tinkled against the glass as she stood it on the table. "Who wants?" she said, setting out a few plastic glasses in front of her. She had been working in the other room, which was kind of her unofficial office. I didn't know what she did in there, but if it made her happy I was okay with it.
"Yes, Ma'am," I said, and watched her pour. She always wanted to be the one who handled the sweet tea, but her hands shook, and most days she managed to spill some on the table. She slid the glass toward me and stared at LaMercy with a raised eyebrow.
Selling real estate isn't that difficult, but it takes a certain type of person who can understand what the customers really want. It's also a good idea to know the state laws that relate to selling real property. Most importantly, you need to know all the inventory of properties that are available, and I was at a distinct advantage, since I grew up there. One time an outfit from another town tried to set up a competing real estate office in Quisby, but people in small towns don't take kindly to strangers, and they ended up closing down and leaving. I, on the other hand, made good money, and it wasn't long before I could move out of my parents' double-wide trailer and get my own place.
I tested one of the wooden chairs to make sure it wasn't the wobbly one, slid into it, and reached for my favorite―Cornish pasty. I made a mental note that there were five others, so the chances were good that I would be able to have seconds. I bit into it and closed my eyes. It tasted that good. No one spoke again. We were all too busy stuffing ourselves.
I once had to leave Quisby. When the great recession came along, everything changed. No one could buy homes or land because so many people lost their jobs. Even the pulp and paper mill near Grover, where most people in Quisby worked, had to lay off some of its workers. I was totally screwed. Didn't make a single sale for six months.
Jane, my best friend from high school, had moved up north to Boston, Massachusetts, and got a job at a company that did stuff with computers. She knew that my other uncle―the one who lived in a fancy house in the city―had taught me to do some high tech and maybe not totally legal things with a computer, which impressed the geeks at high school. Jane was in the boss's pants in a major way, and easily convinced him to hire me.
The problem was, Jane's boyfriend and those Yankees up north had no sense of humor. All I did was show one of the computer nerds my boobs, and I found myself without a job—again, and in Yankee territory. Talk about being up shit-street without a paddle.
That was when I hooked up with hunky Harland O'Connor, private investigator, and started working for him. He's hotter than a honeymoon hotel―was then, always will be.
I pulled a piece off my pie and tossed it to Scratch, who was sitting below me drooling at the mouth.
Somehow, Pam Taylor had managed to make her British tearoom work. People loved it, maybe because it had that fancy 'international' feel about it, and everything else in Quisby was home grown. She was also smart enough to include some favorite Southern dishes on her menu, like pecan pie and Mississippi mud cake.
When she started the tearoom, she only made sweet dessert kind of stuff, but one of the prisoners she met in lock-up convinced her to try some savory foods, and a couple of months ago, she had started messing around with what she called 'light lunch meals.' She added Southern food like Georgia caviar, hush puppies, and fried green tomatoes to her menu. Then she introduced meat pies. All my life I had thought of pies as something sweet with a pastry crust on top, as in moon pie, apple pie, blueberry pie. I didn't like the sound of a meat pie. They were made of some kind of crusty pastry and filled with ground or chopped beef or chicken and vegetables and gravy, kind of like a chicken pot pie without the pot. Aunt Essie was brave enough to try one, and she said they weren't half bad, and offered me some of hers. Just one bite and I was hooked. Now we all liked them, and Pam didn't bother sending us much of anything else except scones.
Cornish pasties were my favorite kind of meat pie. I wiped the gravy off my chin with a paper napkin and knocked back a long drink of sweet tea. I glanced out the window. "Looks like it's gonna rain again," I said.
Aunt Essie swallowed hard. "Yeah. It's hotter 'n the devil's dick out there right now." She wore long blue shorts that came down to her knees, a brown T-shirt that hid the tops of her spindly little arms, and her favorite once-white high-top tennis shoes. She always smelled of lavender. Or was it moth balls? "What was Ena doin' out so early this morning?" she said. "Coots started barking, and when I looked out the window, there was Ena trying to run down the street. She had on sneakers and shorts that were too small, and her face was all puffy and red."
Aunt Essie once helped me out with one of my cases, and that was when she hired herself on as my unofficial investigative assistant. She's one bad-ass old lady. She smokes weed, drinks Jim Beam straight up, and she once went Goth. She also peed on me one time, but it wasn't really her fault. We were at a haunted house in the middle of the night and we had no clue Tanner had followed us. I smiled at the thought.
I took another long drink and crammed the last of the pie into my mouth. "She said something about wanting to run in the mornings," I said through the mouthful, and reached for another Cornish pasty. I also took a scone―the one with the most cream and jam on it, because I was afraid the other two would eat them all.
In Boston, I found that I was good at being a private investigator. I didn't fit in too well with the Yankees or the city life up north, though, and I got real homesick. Then my mama was murdered. I knew right away what I had to do. I moved back to Quisby and started my own P.I. business―The Redneck Detective Agency. My first and most important mission was to find the person who killed my mama and send him to prison for the rest of his life.
Uncle Pervis was real happy to have me back, and he agreed to let me share the refurbished old house we used for the real estate office, so long as I agreed to work real estate again as well as being a P.I. He even agreed to pay an assistant to sit up front and answer the phones.
That was when I met and hired LaMercy. Uncle Pervis approved. He always said the first person customers talk to in a business was the most important, and she had a nice manner with them. Right from the start, she did a lot more than just answer phones.
I stopped in mid-chew and blinked, thinking about what Aunt Essie had just said. Ena had been running. And now she wasn't here for lunch. "What kind of betrayal is this? She obviously wants to get thin behind our backs." Is she really gonna make a play for Bart? I would like to know how good he is in the sack, just in case I ever break up with Harland again. I finished chewing, and said, "We should all be exercising, and we shouldn't eat all of this food every day." I took a big bite of my scone.
"The trouble is," said LaMercy, "it's so hot outside." She licked strawberry jam off the tips of her fingers.
"And this is too good to waste," I added. "I mean, what would we do with it if we didn't eat it all?" I tore off a piece of scone and dropped it on the floor for Scratch.
The doorbell jangled. Although Gasser worked as the bartender at Hogs Waller, he was also a computer wizard and master hacker, and I hired him on whenever I needed his services. He strolled in and slumped into one of the chairs. He wore a white T-shirt, and his camo cap, which was always on backwards. His jeans hung low on his hips so his black and white boxers showed at the top. He smelled of soap, and I figured he must have only just woken up and showered before he came over. Despite all the food he ate here every lunchtime, he was still lanky and wiry. He took a square off the paper towel roll, laid it on the table, grabbed the biggest meat pie left in the box, and bit into it.
"I left you the biggest one," I lied. He nodded and made some sort of noise which I figured meant either fuck you or thank you. Gravy and juices squished out onto his lips and he licked it off. I stared at his tongue for a few seconds. He had a reputation with the ladies of Quisby and I just wondered . . .
"We could tell Pam we don't need it anymore," Aunt Essie said.
"No. Do not tell her that. She would be pissed off." I feel kind of attached to Pam since I saved her from prison―and maybe even the death sentence. She'd been set up, and the evidence really did look like she had done it, with her fingerprints on the knife in the victim's blood.
"You could throw some of it away," suggested LaMercy.
"No. It's too good to waste like that," I said. "We need to find someone else to share it with. Someone who's hungry."
Gasser grinned and took another bite.
"I could take some home for Robert," LaMercy suggested, "but he's not partial to this kind of food."
"No, Pops don't like it either," Aunt Essie said about my father. Ever since my mama was murdered she'd been living with him and taking care of him. I had only ever seen Aunt Essie on special occasions when I was growing up, because Pops didn't get on with her, probably because she smoked weed. He got mad with Mama whenever she invited Aunt Essie to a family gathering. He wasn't totally happy when she decided to move in with him after Mama's death, but it seemed like he had gotten used to it now. "Give him meat and potatoes but he won't touch it if it's in pastry," she said.
Gasser swallowed, poured himself some tea and drank it all down at once. He burped and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Worried about getting fat? Or should I say fatter. Where's Ena?"
"Why don't you mind your own business? I am not fat, and neither is LaMercy," I said. I resisted the urge to take another scone. "Ena's started running and we figure that's why she's not here. Now there'll be too much food."
"We'll have to think about it. If we give some away, it'll have to be someone who won't talk to Pam," LaMercy said.
"We could give some of it to the band members," Gasser suggested. "Kids like that are always hungry."
"Yeah, but they would probably talk about it. And anyhow, they might not like this kind of food. People are always telling me how fussy their kids are about what they eat."
"Well, I'm heading back to the bar. That was good." Gasser stood up, burped again, and picked up two scones. He walked toward the door, stopped and said, "So when you start to run, take that mutt with you. He's also fat." He was out the door before anyone could throw something at him.
I looked down at Scratch. Gasser was right. He was getting a big stomach. LaMercy and I both reached for the last scone at the same time. I backed off. "You have it," I said.
"No. You have it. I'm fatter than you."
In the end we split it.
The door chime jangled and LaMercy stood up and patted her stomach before she headed to the front. I heard Ena's voice.
"Too late," I said as I entered the reception area. "We finished it all." I looked at my watch.
"I don’t want it, anyhow," she said. "I've started working out and I'm gonna diet as well."
"Yeah, about that. Why didn't you invite us?" I realized the button and zipper on my shorts were still open, and scrabbled to fix them. It wasn't easy to get the button to close.
Ena glanced from me to LaMercy. "You also want to run? Fine. I leave my house at six in the morning. It's too hot if we leave it any later. She was still wearing the clothes Aunt Essie had described. Short shorts, a bulging tank top and trainers. "What are you gonna do with all the food? You can't waste it. I could take some for Joel, but he's picky. He'll eat the sweet stuff, but I don't know about the meat pies."
"So what kind of diet are you going on?" I bent to stroke Scratch.
"I don't know yet. I just know I'm not eating all of the stuff you get from Pam. I think it's better to eat vegetables."
"So you gonna become a vegan?" I laughed.
"Maybe. Maybe I will. I'll see how I feel. Got any tea left?" She went into the kitchen and poured herself the last of the sweet tea.
"Isn't sugar fattening?" LaMercy asked when Ena got back with the glass in her hand.
"No. Maybe. But if I don’t eat all the other stuff it'll be okay," Ena said.
The phone rang and LaMercy answered it. "Redneck Detective Agency and Quisby Real Estate." She listened for a while. "Yeah, sure. I'll put you through." She pointed at me and I went to my office and picked up.
"Is that Ms. Taunton?" the woman said with a Southern drawl.
"Yeah. This is Twila," I said.
"My name's Susan Dougherty, and I'm calling from Beau Bradford's Law Offices in Montgomery. We have an assignment for you, if you're available."
I sank into my office chair and wheeled it backwards. "Tell me about it." I loosened my zipper again and breathed out.