A Bad Day for Mercy
Jogging home from the Freshway at sunset on a sultry evening in late May had been a fine idea. Trying to carry home a box of frozen taquitos, a carton of pistachio ice cream, a family size bag of Fritos Scoops, a tub of french onion dip, two cans of vegetable soup, a three-pack of Dove Beauty Bars, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black in her backpack had not been a very good idea—even if the pack was a BlackHawk Raptor model, cleared for special ops use. The heavy load bounced and jostled against Stella Hardesty's spine as each step brought her closer to her little white house on Poplar street.
She hadn't had much of a choice, anyway—her Jeep was in the shop for a suspension problem that she suspected was the result of too many fast drives down too many bumpy dirt roads, an ill-advised habit that she enjoyed to an unseemly degree for a middle-aged woman.
Stella considered slowing down to a walk, but she'd decided to train for the Bean Blossom half marathon in Casey which was less than three weeks away, and that meant she had to stick to a strict and grueling schedule. Today's entry read "5m run + strength" and while Stella had given herself a two-mile advantage due to the added weight she was carrying and credited herself for assembling a Quilter's Dream 2140 cabinet using only hand tools, she figured that fiftyish ladies burdened with a few extra pounds were probably not good candidates for creative tweaking of the recommended regimen.
Not to mention the fact that she was planning to take the day after tomorrow off to observe a certain minor milestone. Or ignore it. She wasn't certain yet, and she wasn't entirely sure that an extra generous serving of junk food and whiskey would be exactly clarifying, but either way she wasn't about to put herself through any contortions of the physical fitness variety on the day she began her fifty-second year on earth. Besides, her daughter Noelle was coming over to give her a birthday mani-pedi and she didn't intend to risk messing up the polish by putting her sneakers on afterwards.
No, she definitely needed to get her huffing and puffing and muscle-augmenting and stamina-building in today, or it would be that much harder to pick up the pace on Sunday, when she was due to go for a leisurely nine-mile jog around Homer Reservoir with Camellia Edwards, her good friend Dotty's energetic half-sister who was pursuing an associate's degree in exercise physiology and would surely know if she'd been slacking.
A startling little tremor at her waist caused Stella to break stride until she remembered that she'd tucked her phone into the pocket of her shorts. Stella didn't like to be without the device, since one never knew when a potential client might call, and Stella's clients weren't the sort one wanted to leave hanging too long. She dug the phone out and was pleased to see her sister's number. Never, in the quarter century since Gracellen had moved to California, had she missed Stella's birthday.
"You're a couple days early," Stella said by way of an answer. "Not that I'm complaining."
"Oh eee ep!"
"I'm sorry, Gracie, I can't much hear you," Stella interrupted as her sister's faint voice blipped in and out of static. "Y'all up at the cabin?"
Gracellen and her husband Chess owned a cabin up near Lake Tahoe that was about twice as large as Stella's house and ten times fancier. It had fake log rafters and wall hangings featuring bears cavorting with moose—despite the fact that Stella was pretty sure there were no moose in California—and a leather sectional sofa and a 55" wall-mounted TV, but for all that you couldn't get a lick of cell phone reception. Chess liked to say that he'd paid extra for the phones not to work, since he was so besieged by underlings and customers and whoever it was he dealt with on a daily basis that he had to drive three hours just for a moment's peace.
Chess had been a stuffy red-faced soft-palmed overdressed young executive of thirty-two when he happened on Gracellen waitressing in a St. Louis pub. Over his parents' strenuous objections, and despite the eleven-year age difference, he'd whisked her off to Sacramento a week later, stopping briefly in Vegas to get married. Now Chess was a stuffy red-faced soft-palmed overdressed middle-aged executive of fifty-eight, and Stella never could find anything to talk about with the man, but he kept her sister in designer duds and nice cars and cabin weekends so Stella couldn't help but overlook his incredible boringness, especially since her sister didn't seem to mind putting up with him too much.
"Yes ut err ett!" Gracellen's voice, at least the little bits of it that came through, seemed highly excitable.
"Mmm hmm, darlin', thank you so much for calling but how about you call me when you get back to town where the phones work?"
"Onnn aim uh—"
"Nice talking to you too, sweetie," Stella said and snapped off the phone. She loved her little sister, but a conversation with Gracellen was likely to go on for hours, and Stella figured it was just as well not to have it in the middle of Hickory Street with her ponytail stuck to her sweaty neck and her running shorts riding up her behind.
She gave her shorts a little tug and tried in vain to shift the contents of her pack to a more comfortable position, but as she set out down the street again it felt as though the soup cans were fighting for space against her vertebrae, and she had just allowed herself a lengthy stream of colorful curses when a car pulled over and idled along next to her, maintaining her pace.
Not just a car, Stella realized with a flush of embarrassment as she glanced over to see who was acting as her pace car—BJ Johnson's tricked-out Ford 250. Even without the custom curlicue sparkly decals in a sort of vaguely cresting-wave design along the side, Stella would have recognized the big, sleek truck—there weren't too many folks in Prosper, Missouri who had the ready cash to spend on fog lights and a winch mount and sport exhaust and fiberglass bed cover. But BJ's bar did a steady business and, since he lived behind the bar in an old garage that had been converted into a tidy bachelor apartment, his expenses were low, so he had the money to spend lovingly tending to his prized possession.
"Evenin', Stella," BJ said, his bulky forearm resting on the driver's side window. "How are you?"
Stella rolled her eyes and tugged at her shorts again, wishing she'd worn the cute ones that Noelle had given her recently to replace the ragged ones Stella usually wore and was in fact wearing tonight. The cute shorts were folded carefully in Stella's drawer, waiting for Stella to lose just a few more pounds, along with the darling matching fitness top.
Stella knew about how she looked. She had put in half a day at her shop, Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales, assembling the Quilter's Dream display table and stocking a shipment of Gutermann thread while her assistant, Chrissy Shaw, hunted down an error in the billing from the Viking folks and harangued their customer service folks into making it right. After lunch she'd paid a visit to a gentleman over in Harrisonville related to her other business, the one she did under the table and outside the shadow of the law and, whenever possible, out of earshot, and while the gentleman was far sorrier than he had been when he woke up in the morning, Stella had pulled or twisted or otherwise abused a muscle in her shoulder and broken a couple of nails and smudged her makeup in the process of settling their differences. A big chunk of her hair had escaped her ponytail and hung in her face, and her T-shirt was several sizes too big and bore the phrase "Only My Hairdresser Knows," an obscure reference to a hairstyling product carried by the salon where Noelle worked, a freebie she'd given Stella.
Not expecting to run into one of the few appealing and eligible bachelors in Prosper, Stella had thrown on not only the butt-crack-wedgie shorts but an old pair of socks that came up over her ankles and made her legs look shorter and dumpier than they actually were. Still, she managed a pained smile and a little wave. "Evenin' yourself, BJ."
"Now what-all are you up to?" he asked, as they continued their slow process down the street. BJ was not a thick-headed man, only painfully polite and rather shy, so Stella resisted pointing out that his query belied the obvious.
"Oh, you know, out for a little run."
"You're lookin' real good there, Stella," BJ observed without actually meeting her eyes, his gaze focused carefully and politely somewhere around her collarbones, well above any regions that might be considered inappropriate or lecherous. BJ was about a thousand times more gracious than the average customer in his bar, who tended to include folks who weren't well dressed enough or flush enough to drink anywhere else and who rarely bothered to filter or censor their conversations, especially as the evening wore on. He didn't hold anyone else to his mild-mannered standards, welcoming all comers with equanimity, which Stella appreciated. Among the lessons of middle age was an abiding distaste for folks who thought their bank account made them better than other folks, especially as Stella's side business seemed to prove over and over that aside from the minority of folks who were genuinely and irritatingly and sometimes profoundly mean, most people were basically just as flawed as everyone else no matter how many zeroes were on their paychecks.
"Why, thank you, BJ," Stella said. "You're looking, um, very nice, too."
Only then did she take a closer look at him, slowing down to a halt at the sight of his rather surprisingly shiny shirt, which in the slanting last rays of sunset appeared to be a bright pink. His name was stitched in a fancy script over his pocket, with tiny hearts instead of periods after each initial. While the shirt did look nice against his neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair and smooth-shaved, square-jawed face, it was an unexpected fashion choice for a man whose taste usually ran to faded golf shirts and Levis belted a little lower than his gut.
As she watched, BJ's surprisingly boyish face took on a hue not unlike his shirt. "I. Um. This. You see...I'm going bowling. League Night."
"Oh." More polite nodding. Tuesdays and Fridays, the Prosper Bowl did a brisk business with the many club teams from all over the south half of the county, since the only other bowling alley in Sawyer County was up in Fayette.
"Yeah. See, the little gal from Seagrams...she...er..."
"Oh," Stella said shortly, suddenly feeling even more self-conscious. While she was far more buff than she'd been a few years ago when she devoted her time to basic housewifery, she was still a robustly shaped woman of a certain age, and no amount of sugar-coating was going to allow her to compete with the sort of tight little package that was the domain of most females who hadn't yet counted out three decades.
"Junelle...why, she's like a little niece or something."
"Oh," Stella repeated, brightening.
"And she and her girls, they weren't going to be able to compete in this tournament if they didn't come up with a fifth, since one of em's out having a baby. And now I got Jorge helping out nights, I figured..." BJ gave a sheepish little shrug that looked positively adorable. "Which is why I'm now a Seagrams Sister."
For a moment they beamed at each other, BJ peeping out of the corner of his eyes and Stella sneaking yet another tug at her offending shorts. There was something about a bashful man—she half wanted to pat his brush-cut head, and half wanted to...well, enough of that.
Stella had been carrying a torch for a particular man for over three years. Unfortunately that man was the local sheriff, a fellow by the name of Goat Jones. He was about as bashful as a firecracker, as hesitant as a bull, as unassuming as a July marigold. And while it was evidently a permanent condition that Stella ran out of both breath and inhibition around the man, she was a little tired of the way their careers conspired to keep them apart. Him being a lawman, and her being...well, a lawless woman. By necessity of course, and for the good of the downtrodden...but all the fiery principles in the world didn't much help when one of them was trying to observe the capital-L Letter of the law and the other of them, that being Stella, was trying to thread her way through it like silk through a straw needle.
In May, Goat had brought her a gift that other women might not have found romantic, it being a waterlogged photo of Stella beating the shit out of a local loser who'd abused his wife once too often until Stella got wind of the situation, but to Stella it beat a big box of candy and a truckload of roses. There was nothing that said "I Heart You" like destroying evidence that could send a person to jail, after all.
She'd hoped that little keepsake might be followed up by some vigorous hay-rolling, or at least a night at the movies, but Goat had been keeping his distance. Stella supposed she could understand: after all, the man had broken his most solemn oath by handing over evidence. Still, she was getting a little restless waiting for his conscience to settle itself down enough for him to indulge his inner bad boy in her new direction.
"Say," she said, aiming for an off-hand tone. "The tourney play don't start until later in the evening, isn't that right?"
BJ blinked at her from under long fringe-y lashes. "That's so."
"Well, I was just thinking, I mean I understand you might have dinner plans already, but I could fix us a little something, I mean nothing special but- "
"Yes," BJ said quickly.
Stella smiled, deciding she wouldn't point out that she hadn't got around to actually laying out the terms of her invitation. A gentleman's enthusiasm in the face of one's flat-out womanly mysteries was a powerful thing.
BJ's blush deepened. "Lemme do a U-ie and come around so you can hop on in."
"Don't be silly," Stella said, as she crossed daringly in front of the truck, not even trying to dislodge the tight lycra fabric from her ass and adding a little sway to her step.