The story so far:
Bill Garzell wasn’t my first choice for company. He wouldn’t have cracked the top ten most days, but N.R.A. membership had its privileges. This evening, it meant free steak and beer for my ex-brother-in-law. I fired up the grill in my driveway and waited for his pickup truck to arrive.
Parents chaperoned trick-or-treaters up Hickory Avenue. Sheila Kerrigan, my elderly next-door-neighbor, sat on her porch and handed out candy apples. She waved and offered me one.
“Thanks, but I don’t want to ruin my appetite.”
She shrugged, then scooted her patio chair towards the railing. “What was all that commotion earlier?”
“Big misunderstanding, that’s all.”
“Wasn’t there an ambulance?”
“Precautionary measure. Everybody’s fine.”
“Who got hurt?”
I pointed at the barbecue and poked at a ribeye. Still pink. “Nobody you’d know.”
Moments like these made me thankful I kept my shades down.
A young mother nudged her two pirates up the stairs to Sheila’s porch, where they begrudgingly accepted their treats and returned to the sidewalk. I shook my head and saluted them with a Budweiser; the trio continued towards their next bounty.
“Do you need help with anything?”
“No, Sheila. I’m good. Really. Happy Halloween.”
I turned my back to her and inhaled a face full of smoke as I flipped the meat. Sheila called, “There’s not as many kids around anymore for trick or treating.”
My two certainly weren’t. God, she was dense.
A breeze swept charcoal fumes up my front and caused my eyes to tear; I wiped them clear with a forearm, then sucked on my beer. Bill’s Toyota mercifully pulled up to the curb, country music cranking from the open windows.
Bill killed the engine, threw the door open, and joined me by the fire. “Shee-oot, mister, yer gonna burn all the flavor out of it!”
He tipped his head at me, noticed Sheila staring and repeated the gesture in her direction. Embroidered lassos crossed the front of his denim shirt and his tight jeans were tucked into polished cowboy boots. On top of his head, a bath towel was wrapped tightly.
“Let me guess. You’re a rodeo clown?”
“I’m Keith Turban!”
He guffawed something like “Truck or Trait,” and Sheila laughed along until I shut him up with a beer. I didn’t see anywhere he could conceal a gun; was that the point? If it was inside his pant leg, how would he retrieve it? I couldn’t believe the Preacher would wait while he yanked off his Justins. Either he had the weapon in his truck or I was wasting a perfectly good steak.
“I’m empty. Can you snag me another one? They’re in the basement fridge.”
Susan hated it when I stored beers where the kids could see them. We want to raise them in a wholesome environment, she’d preach. Good fathers didn’t wallpaper their sons rooms with Playboy centerfolds, and they don’t get their kids drinking before they’re twenty-one. Though I believed Megan and Andrew would find a way to sneak a Bud in the seclusion of the basement, I didn’t argue with Susan. It was one habit I hadn’t broken since they were gone.
As the screen door slapped closed, I hurried to the Toyota. Sheila inquired, “What are you doing?”
Lacking a satisfactory answer, I remained silent as I opened the driver’s door and rooted under the seats; in the glove compartment I found a soft CD case. The tackle box behind the passenger seat was suspiciously heavy, so I opened it. Jackpot!
I closed the van door and held up fishing lures for Sheila to see from her perch. “Didn’t think I’d ever see this again.”
I replaced the hooks, set the box next to the barbecue and turned the steaks one last time. Bill emerged with two bottles and his towel draped over his shoulders. “Be careful going down those steps. It’s a good thing I was wearing this.”
Ignoring Sheila, I plopped our ribeyes onto a plate and brought them inside, along with the loaded tackle box. If I was going to have a showdown with this hypnotist-Preacher, I wanted some backup. And a full stomach. And a couple more beers.
I felt like such a rube. What would happen if not-Susan ever regained her memory – the way I examined her naked body? Thank God I only sliced her thumb. To think, I was willing – no, preparing – to murder the man earlier today. The police had taken his knife as evidence, and so they could check it against some corpses. I hadn’t seen a cop car all day, but the sheriff assured me they’d be patrolling. Maybe they picked the Preacher up elsewhere?
Worst case scenario, if he was a better hypnotist than I imagined, I had soul number one.