The smell of cotton candy
competed with that of popcorn, and the milling crowds chattered. Mouse
ears were evident everywhere, and the brassy sounds of a distant band
playing “It’s a Small World” echoed out.
At a wrought iron table near Home Town U.S.A., a family of three sat
under the shade of a striped awning.
“Mom, I have to go to the bathroom,” the young girl whispered. Her mother looked at her, and then shot an anxious look at the man next to her. He gave an indifferent shrug back.
“So take her to the can already. I’ve got us a table here for the parade; just don’t take TOO long. If I have to come and find you . . .” he left his threat unspoken but lingering in the air, taking some of the joy out of the Happiest Place on Earth.
Nodding, the mother took her daughter’s hand and together they slipped off through the crowds, towards Adventure Land, and the nearest facility. The mother herded her daughter closely, and looked over her shoulder a few times. Her daughter tightened her grip on her mother’s hand and kept quiet—a habit cultivated over the last four years, and occasionally reinforced by bruises for both of them.
They reached the ladies room and stepped inside; it was empty, and the girl looked around fearfully. “Mom?”
“It’s okay Nina,” her mother soothed. At that moment, the door to the janitor’s closet at the far end of the long washroom opened, and a tall brunette woman in a Magic Kingdom janitor’s uniform stepped out. She looked at them and spoke softly.
“Claire Podansky? Nina?”
“Yes?” the woman’s voice quavered, caught between fear and hope. The janitor gave a little nod, and moved past them to lock the door they’d come through.
“I’ve been sent by your mother, Harriet, and your brother Dave to escort the two of you out of here. Are you ready?”
Mrs. Podansky bit her lips and nodded; slowly at first, then with more emphatic energy. Confused, her daughter’s nostrils flared and she shot panicked glances back at the door.
“But what about Dad?” she whimpered. The custodian squatted for a moment to see eye to eye with the nine-year-old. She spoke softly, her husky voice low.
“Nina, my name is Sara, and I know a lot about you. Your grandma told me how brave you are. About how you were SO brave you told her the truth.”
The girl’s eyes widened and she blinked, but Sara spoke on, smiling gently.
“All three of us know the truth, and it’s that your dad is not well. He hurts you and your mom, a lot. He needs help but before he can get that, you and your mom need to be safe. Right?”
The girl nodded. Sara spoke again. “Your Grandma and uncle want you and your mom to come home with them for a while.”
Nina looked from Sara to her mother, a flash of fearful hope on her face. Her mother nodded back at her. “Yes. We’re going to stay with Uncle Dave and Grandma while Dad . . . gets help.”
“But he’ll yell—“ came her miserable whisper. “And then he’ll hit us again.”
“No hon. That’s all part of your dad’s illness, and we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen ever again.” Looking up at Mrs. Podansky, Sara flashed a quick smile. “So—are you two up for a little adventure?”
Nina looked confused, but a little more relieved. “Adventure? Like California Adventure?”
Ten minutes later, Ted Podansky stormed through the park, his glare heavy. He moved through the crowd, not apologizing as he impatiently pushed patrons out of his way, his thoughts on the world of hurt he had planned for his little ladies oh yes indeed when he got hold of them . . .
Passing by the photo spot where a group of tourists were snapping pictures of a costumed Winnie the Pooh and Piglet, Ted moved to the very edge of the woman’s bathroom and yelled so loudly that several people, including Piglet, flinched. “CLAIRE? NINA?”
“Yo! What is your problem dude?” A girl with cornrows and sunglasses demanded as she leaned against the wall. Ted scowled at her briefly, then tried to sigh.
“Sorry, got a little worried about my family. They’ve been IN there a while.”
“Whatchu mean? This bathroom’s closed.” The girl pointed to the sign on the outside of the door. The laminated card had a sad looking Minnie Mouse on it, directing traffic to New Orleans Square. Ted squinted.
“Are you sure?”
“Dude, like yeah. They probl’y went over to the one by Pirates, you’all know what I’m sayin?”
“So this john’s been closed all this time?”
The girl in cornrows shrugged, eying Ted cautiously. “I guess.”
He broke into soft cursing; the girl gave him a disgusted look and moved off, fishing for her cell phone. Ted glared at the sign, then shoved one meaty palm against the door, hard.
It made a loud slamming noise and people passing by paused momentarily to look at Ted. He glared back at them, his teeth grinding as the implications of his situation grew.
That bitch. They had to be somewhere in the damned park, probably hiding out. Well fat chance of them getting ANYWHERE—he had the tickets, all the money, the driver’s licenses, the credit cards, the motel and car keys. There was no way, no Fuckin-- Ted paused for a moment, and then the wave of rage rose up so red and hot within him that he could FEEL his pulse hammering now.
MotherFucking shit. Harriet. Harriet had to be around here somewhere! Ted twitched and looked around, eyeing the crowds moving along the thoroughfare into Adventure Land, trying to see if he could spot anyone vaguely familiar, but it was impossible to get a focus on anyone. Too many tourists, too many carts and characters and cameras around. Growling, he kicked at a trash can.
“Sir—“ Came the soft chide of a tall man. He wore a Stetson, aviator sunglasses, a crisp white shirt and a badge that read Phillip, Park Security. Ted looked up and him and suddenly smiled.
“Thank God you’re here. My wife and daughter are missing—I’m pretty damned sure they’ve been kidnapped—“
“Sir, may I have your name?”
“Ted. Ted Podansky—“ he volunteered impatiently, still looking around. The man with the badge unclipped his walkie-talkie and spoke into it too softly for Ted to hear, then he stepped closer.
“Mr. Podansky, if you’ll come with me we can get this all sorted out—“ his tone was flat, and unsoothing; suspiciously Ted glared at him, but the man gestured towards an unmarked door along the cut-through between Adventure Land and Frontier Land adding in a lower voice, “It’s this way to the Security Office—“
Ted Podansky reluctantly followed the officer through the door and through it, down a flight of metal stairs. The underground corridor was cement, and huge, wide enough for golf carts to travel along. “Jesus.”
“This way—“ came the rumble. Ted Podansky hesitated.
“Where the hell are we going?”
“Main office, Security. It’s under the Home Town U.S.A. bank,” came the calm reply. “Quicker than pushing through the crowds.”
That made sense, and seeing no alternative, Ted began walking alongside the officer down the corridor. “My wife—her name is Claire, and my daughter’s Nina—they were supposed to be back from the bathroom twenty minutes ago, but when they didn’t show I went to find them. This park is too damned big, you know? I didn’t really want to come here, but I won the tickets at work and figured what the hell, it was all paid for . . . “ he stopped speaking, a new wave of rage washing over him as a new realization hit.
Fucking setup. It HAD to be.
The officer looked at him curiously, and Ted shook his head, forcing himself to calm down. They reached a pair of glass doors with the words “Park Security Alpha Station” etched on it. Beyond the glass were desks, counters, and holding cells. Ted followed the man through and the sounds of phones, computers and conversations made a pleasant background hum. The officer took him to an office off to the left and motioned to a chair in front of a desk.
Reluctantly he sat. Somewhere overhead, his two little ladies were getting away, helped on by that bitch Harriet and he had to make fucking NICE down here . . .
“My wife and little girl are MISSING,” he growled impatiently. “Don’t you think you ought to be DOING something? Don’t you need a description of them?”
The officer sat down and opened a file. He held up a black and white photo, that showed a little girl’s bare back, the welts showing up darkly against her pale skin. The watermark in the left corner read Fountain Valley Hospital. He pushed it across the desk towards Ted.
Another followed of a woman’s bare torso, with huge bruises blooming like a Rorschach across her ribcage and stomach. The same watermark was on this one, along with a date only a few months prior.
“I think we’ve got plenty of photos of them, Mr. Podansky,” came the flat, hard reply.
Sara climbed out of the taxi and paid the driver, then took a deep relaxing breath as she looked down towards Grace Marina. Her flight out of Anaheim had been on time, and in the warm afternoon sun, Lake Mead looked wonderful. She wondered if she had time to unmoor the Bohemian and try for a quick shakedown cruise before checking in at the Shop.
It had gone well. Personally Sara loved these particular types of missions, and felt a warm glow of satisfaction at the thought of Claire and Nina out of the reach of Ted. It had been a tense moment to have him pass by so closely and never see his wife and child standing right there . . .
--and of course Nina had been thrilled to be Piglet.
Sara had escorted the two of them, mother and daughter, through the park, stopping with them to let tourists take photos and ask shyly for autographs. When they’d reached the last kiosk by the main gates Sara had herded them in to the back room there and helped them out of their costumes. Harriet and Dave had been waiting, and oh the reunion had nearly made her cry.
Sometimes working for the Shop had benefits that paid the soul, Sara decided.
Harriet Callen had taken her children and granddaughter out to a waiting RV and assured Sara that they’d be traveling for at least a month, to their new home.
“Thank you, Miss. I don’t know your real name but I know your real heart and I thank you and your organization for helping my family out of their nightmare!” the old woman had told her forthrightly.
Sara grinned. Given the amount of evidence against Ted Podansky in the hands of the Anaheim police—affidavits, photos, medical records—she doubted that he’d be free to pursue them for quite a while, even if he did have any idea where Claire and Nina had gone.
Best of all had been Nina’s little hand squeeze to her, and her whisper of thanks; that made up for a lot of things.
Suitcase in hand, Sara made her way down the dock towards her yacht, feeling a glow in her stomach. Life was good, she decided. She’d pulled off this mission on her own, and now it was time to consider another major step. As she deactivated the motion detector with her remote and climbed onto the Bohemian, Sara thought long and hard about a car.
Mr. Peppermint was right—she definitely needed transportation, and the marina was far enough out of Las Vegas that it cost her extra for every taxi trip. For a while she’d been tempted to get a motorcycle; the speed appealed to her, as did the compactness, but common sense spoke up and reminded her of all the luggage and props she needed to haul on occasion. As she was unlocking the doors, Sara noticed the little note taped to one of them. She frowned.
The motion detector hadn’t gone off, and yet here was a note . . . addressed to her, and under that, a small drawing of a Hershey’s kiss.
Sara blushed, the heat rising up from her neck and along her face even as she grinned. It had to be him; only Mr. Peppermint would have the skill and puckish sense of humor to take on the challenge of her motion detector just to leave her a note—and one with a flirtatious drawing as well. She pulled it from the door and flipped it open, scanning the few words there.
Congratulations on your latest; there is no greater satisfaction than to right a longstanding wrong. All confectioners are invited to tea at four.
No signature, but a little drawing of a red and white candy ended the note, along with a question in smaller cursive.
Have you been keeping count?
Seeing it, Sara blushed all over again, and tucked the paper into her pocket as she opened the door and climbed down the stairs to the cabin. She flicked open the curtains and set her suitcase down, sighing shyly.
Of course she’d kept count. Sara hadn’t meant to—the arrangement had been just a whim on both their parts during the Harrington con—but the sweet secret of it had gotten under her skin. The last kiss she’d shared with Mr. Peppermint had been nearly nine days ago, and not a morning since then had gone by that she hadn’t looked at herself in a bathroom mirror and thought of it.
Nine kisses owed, including today’s.
Sara looked at her answering machine, noted the blinking lights and pressed the play button, letting the messages sound out while she unpacked her suitcase.
“Hello Ms. Sidle, this is Melanie Grace, your landlord. I need you to stop by the dock office when you get in from your trip and pick up your safety deposit key and registration. I should be in until four this afternoon. Glad to have you back, bye.”
Sara nodded and added that to her mental To Do list.
“Ms. Sidle, this is Clementine St. Croix, secretary for Doctor Marazek with a reminder that your next therapy session is tomorrow at ten o’clock. Please call me if you are unable to make the appointment, thank you.”
Sara bit her lips, and added that as well. Progress. She WAS making progress . . .
“Hello, this message is for Ms. Sara Sidle. Are you suffering from keel rot? Do you have more barnacles than ballast on your boat’s backside? We here at Sandy Bottom Boat Sanders are having a special this week. Let us get our hands on your bottom, and we’ll give you a hull of a deal!” came the teasing chortle of Jelly Bean’s voice. Sara laughed out loud, and came back out into the main cabin to listen to the rest of the message.
“Seriously, Sara, just checkin’ to see if you’re around. I’m going to be out of town for a few days, and wanted to know if you’d like anything from Des Moines. Not that there’s really anything IN Des Moines besides corn and the central offices for Wells Fargo . . . maybe I’ll bring you a John Deere hat. See you—“
The answering machine announced that that was the final message, and Sara flicked it off. She felt a little sad not to have heard Mr. Peppermint’s voice, but remembering the note in her pocket, she smiled, and checked her watch, realizing she had just enough time for a shower before tea.
“You’re pathetic, Connie. Tell me why I should keep doing business with you, huh?” came Bruce Eiger’s disgusted rumble over the phone line. “Honest to Christ, you’re very quickly outliving your usefulness to me, you know that?”
“I have the report on the Richmond shooting,” Ecklie sighed. He paced the living room, nearly barking his shin on the extra low coffee table, and turned away, trying not to wince. Across the room, Melanie hid her grin and went back to knitting.
“Okay, I take back what I said—for the moment,” Bruce warned. “What’s the story? Miller got any leads she shouldn’t have?”
“No matches in Ballistics, no eyewitnesses or hard evidence from the scene. According to the trajectory, the shots were fired down into the restaurant from the fifth story, most likely from behind one of the big potted palms sup there. Right now they’ve got nothing, but given the number of hard timers in Portia’s past, I’d say it was somebody from O’Neil’s circle.”
“Ha! So the cops are pissing in the wind on this one. Good. I might keep you on after all, Connie boy. Give my love to the little lady, huh?” With a roar at his own humor, Bruce hung up, and Ecklie stared at the phone for a moment. Then, in one surprisingly fluid movement, he snapped it shut and threw it across the room; it hit a framed picture of the Eiffel Tower, knocking it off the wall.
“Conrad—“ came the warning rumble, a low, sweet sound. He sighed and glanced over at Melanie, then moved towards her, leaning down.
“I can’t help it. Bruce Eiger is the boil on the ass of Las Vegas, Mel. I can deal with just about any other scum out there, but Eiger’s a basket case all his own.”
Melanie Grace put down her knitting and looked up at Ecklie, her smile soft. Carefully she patted his face, then leaned up and kissed him gently. “I know, baby, I know. In the meantime, we’ve got to go find you a car.”
Ecklie managed a small, twisted smile. “You sure you want to be seen with me?”
She laughed. “We do make a pair, don’t we? Well I say if anyone has a problem with it, I’ll . . . head butt them in the balls.”
Ecklie laughed, and kissed her once more, his normally sardonic expression softening slightly. “Jesus, you WOULD, too. All right, we’ll go see if we can pick up a deal at Harrington’s.”
Melanie nodded and climbed down off the couch; Ecklie watched her go, feeling the twist of love and desire flicker through him once more at the sight of her dark hair and rounded hips. For all of her four feet three inches, Mel was pure woman, and certainly never had a problem in showing him exactly why the two-foot difference between them didn’t matter.
He’d met her on the set of a skin flick Bruce had been backing; she was there to keep the books—lucrative as porn was it still needed to be balanced—and they’d hit it off from the first day. Mel didn’t care that he was Bruce’s flunkie, working a minimal day job as a janitor around the police lab. She didn’t care about the bookie rounds, or the gun running, or even the required snitch work.
Conrad Ecklie couldn’t figure out exactly WHY Mel loved him; he was nobody’s idea of handsome, and while he managed to make a living he wasn’t really getting ahead. Before, money hadn’t really mattered, but now—
He slowly went over to where the fallen phone was and picked it up, wondering if he still had Portia Richmond’s number.
The table was set for five, Grissom noted as he walked into the garden. The teapot was the cheery ceramic one from the Thirties, decorated with lollipops and candy designs; that made him pause. Miss Lollipop only brought that particular pot out when she needed to rally the troops; therefore the mission she was about to propose must be exceptionally distasteful or difficult.
Grissom was proud of being able to spot that tiny tell—it wasn’t easy to see the little signs of Miss Lollipop’s human side sometimes. He looked around the garden to see if anyone else—a specific someone in fact—had arrived yet.
Miss Lollipop and Licorice were standing near the rose beds sharing a joke of some sort. Jaw Breaker was talking on his cell phone to someone as he wandered over the manicured lawn, his attention focused on his conversation.
Neither Jelly Bean nor—
“Hi,” came a low husky purr from behind him. Grissom swung around, hoping he didn’t look overly anxious. Miss Chocolate was there, fresh and cool in a pale pink sleeveless turtleneck and green slacks. Around her neck she wore a chunky stone pendant of malachite set in silver, and the striped shades of green and black looked striking.
He smiled at her; risking a full one before toning it down and shifting slightly to stand in profile to her. “Welcome back.”
“Thanks. Got your note—“ she replied in a low voice. The others had spotted them and where coming across the lawn towards the table now. Miss Chocolate murmured playfully, “Eight.”
“You miscounted.” Grissom corrected her, and then Miss Lollipop was upon them, her gaze sweeping over them keenly.
“Welcome back. Come, sit—“ gracefully she moved to the seat closest to the teapot; Jaw Breaker pulled her chair out for her. Once she was settled, the others moved to various spots around the spotless linen-covered table. Miss Lollipop smiled at them all.
“Thank you all for coming. Normally I wouldn’t ask the two of you to consider another mission so soon after the last major one—“ Grissom nodded for himself and Miss Chocolate; Miss Lollipop continued, “—but a case and an opportunity have converged today and I thought I’d present it to you. Should we decide not to involve ourselves, the evidence will be handed over to the local authorities in due course. However . . . “ she paused.
“It’s serious,” Licorice finished for her. She nodded. Jaw Breaker pursed his mouth.
“Life, limb or property?” came his thoughtful question. Miss Lollipop sighed.
“Life. Murder to be precise. Tea?”
Receiving nods, Miss Lollipop carefully accepted each cup handed to her and poured the steaming fragrant tea. The scent of ginger floated around them, and when they were all settled, Miss Lollipop spoke again. “I’ve been given a piece of evidence of a murder. Since it comes from a patient of mine, I’m loathe to involve the local authorities yet, especially in light of my patient’s particular station in life. However, I believe we have the resources here to investigate whether or not this evidence is real, and if it is, to make sure the police have enough to open a full investigation.”
“Pardon me, but you said it was murder?” Jaw Breaker asked politely, adding a few sugar cubes to his tea. Miss Lollipop nodded.
“Yes. A snuff film, and from what Bubble Gum and Gum Drop can tell me so far, it seems to be genuine—the poor victim was in fact strangled and disemboweled. Cookie anyone?”
The group looked at her; Miss Lollipop met their slightly appalled gazes serenely. “They’re lemon biscuits—quite tasty.” As if to prove it, she took one herself. Licorice sighed and followed suit.
“A snuff film,” Grissom repeated. He had an idea of where the evidence had come from, but merely nodded. “I assume the snuffing came at the end of . . . other things?”
“Quite astute, Mr. Peppermint. Yes, it was a pornographic film,” Miss Lollipop agreed, “and that is our one advantage here. Macy MacDonald is currently in Europe, visiting her mother. She’s given us permission to use her persona to investigate this situation if we choose to take it on. “
“Macy MacDonald? Who’s she?” Miss Chocolate asked uncertainly. Miss Lollipop smiled.
“Macy MacDonald is an acquaintance of mine who happens to be a director of adult entertainment films. A retired star, she’s made a name for herself behind the camera as well, and by great good chance, you have the same body build and height and coloring that she does. You’ll need to wear glasses and cap your teeth, but with the right wardrobe, you would easily pass for Ms. MacDonald, Miss Chocolate.”
Grissom watched the woman next to him grin, dazzlingly. “I’ve always wanted to direct,” she commented, making both Jaw Breaker and Licorice grin.
“Adult films . . . “ Jaw Breaker mused uncertainly. Grissom understood his trepidation and looked to Miss Lollipop.
“Since none of us plan to be stars, how else will we be going in?”
It was an unfortunate choice of words; Licorice coughed over his tea and Miss Chocolate snickered. Miss Lollipop kept her serene smile. “Miss MacDonald will have her favorite cameraman, Laird Donovan, and because she’s got a new production she’s planning, she needs a few set builders and electricians as well. But this is all contingent on the four of you agreeing to take the mission. I don’t want to make light of the danger here, and I don’t want to commit to this without consensus.”
The confectioners looked around the table at each other for a long moment, then Grissom nodded for the group. “We’ll do it.”
“Very good,” Miss Lollipop smiled, “It should prove to be . . . educational.”
“I’m not sure it will be educational, but it should be entertaining,” Jaw Breaker announced, sipping his tea. Miss Lollipop smiled.
“Well, considering your script is for a gay porn musical . . . “ she replied.
Grissom felt his eyes widen; he noted that Jaw Breaker had fumbled with his tea cup and Licorice was starting to scowl. Only Miss Chocolate seemed unfazed by this latest revelation.
“I can’t wait for auditions,” she purred.