She’s On the Money – Excerpt

She’s On The Money

She's On The Money Cover small
Wednesday, September 7 – 5:05 PM

There are some days when it just doesn’t pay to get up. On a Wednesday in early September, things started out lousy, but I assumed the worst of the day was behind me by nine o’clock in the morning. I was wrong. Way wrong. Bad luck and funky karma followed me, growing exponentially with every hour that passed. By late afternoon, I was shell-shocked by just how sucky one day could be, and I’d had enough. I decided to retreat to the sanctity of my small apartment and spend some serious downtime with a pint of Bluebell Cookies ‘n’ Cream. At ten minutes until five, I left work and headed for the grocery store.

By the way, my name is Whitney Pearl, but most everyone calls me Pink. I’m a CPA, which is an acronym for Certified Public Accountant. Or Constant Pain in the Ass, depending on who you’re talking to. On the day from hell, it seemed everyone I came into contact with considered me the latter.

I pulled in at the Allbright’s on Loop 250, and with no list or real idea of what I needed, except for the ice cream, I grabbed a basket and began my long trek through the supermarket.

After wandering around the store for quite some time, I was alarmed when I realized someone was following me. In the canned fruit section, while I checked the labels on peaches, looking for something without fifteen pounds of added sugar, I noticed this guy was sort of lingering behind me, just to the right. It dawned on me, in a weird, light bulb moment, that he’d been close by on the spaghetti aisle. He’d been hanging out at the deli when I ordered a quarter pound of shaved turkey.

I’m convinced we all have some secret, inner alarm, that goes into alert mode whenever something isn’t quite right. Mine began to go off, right there in the canned fruit aisle. I didn’t look directly at him, but tossed a can of peaches in my basket and shoved off, headed for the cosmetics aisle. If he showed up there, I’d know for sure he was following me.

As I wheeled across the store, it occurred to me he might be a cross dresser, in which case I guess he might logically be buying make-up. But from what I could gather out of the corner of my eye, I didn’t think this guy was a cross dresser. He was tall and kinda gnarly, with a crew cut and work boots, and his skin was a shade darker than mine.

A few minutes later, I felt relieved when he never showed up. I tossed some mascara and a new tube of lipstick in the basket and strolled off toward the produce section to look for salad stuff. I was kinda looking forward to having some real groceries at home. The past few months, my diet had mostly consisted of fast food and frozen dinners.

After I nabbed a bag of lettuce, I went to find a decent tomato. There, while I searched for one that wasn’t too ripe, the man moved just next to me, reached out one tanned, rough hand, and grabbed two tomatoes. When he pulled back, turned his basket and left, I saw he’d dropped something in the middle of all that red. With my hair slowly rising, I picked up the small piece of paper and read his note.

I was told that you would help me. If you want to aid your
country, meet me in the bakery.

Now my mama didn’t raise no fool. A gnarly guy follows me around, leaves this cryptic note in the tomatoes, and I’m supposed to go meet him? Yeah, I don’t think so.

I hauled ass for the checkout counter, convinced he was a bigger nutcase than the wannabe client I’d had a run-in with earlier in the day. It appeared to be a day for nutcases. Maybe it was National Nutcase Day and nobody told me.

At the front of the store, just my luck, there were only two lanes open, and each had at least five people in line. I debated leaving the basket and hitting the road, but I really wanted those groceries. It was the first time I’d picked up real food in over two months, and after spending all that time shopping, no way I wanted a repeat anytime soon. I hate grocery shopping. It’s on my Top Ten List of Things I Hate To Do, between filing my taxes and having lunch with boring Aunt Dru. No, I definitely needed to buy the groceries, so I decided to take my chances on the nutty guy finding me. If I was in line, he couldn’t do anything, could he?

I had my answer about thirty seconds later. He came right up behind me and said conversationally, “Boy, what’s with only two lanes? This time of day, with so many people stopping in after work, you’d think they’d have more check-outs open.”

The lady in front of me nodded and added, “Last week, I had to take my own groceries to the car!” She said this as though carrying her groceries out ranked up there with superhuman efforts like swimming the English Channel, or climbing Everest.

“The bakery’s kinda falling off too, if you ask me,” the gnarly man said. He stared at me as he said it and I felt my scalp tingle again. Then he picked up the National Enquirer and studied the front page for a time. I kept my focus on the chewing gum selection until he tapped my shoulder and held the paper toward me. “I’m always pretty skeptical about their articles, but they are sort of intriguing, don’t you think?”

The lady was still looking at us, and I couldn’t ignore the guy without appearing boorish. Miss Manners took over, and I glanced at the cover. He’d attached another note to it.

I understand you think I’m crazy. Santorelli gave me your name – said I could trust you if I got in a bind. Just give me two minutes.

Santorelli? My Santorelli? The senator from California who could kiss like nobody’s business, who had an off the wall sense of humor and awesome suits? I looked up, into the man’s eyes, and couldn’t miss the sincerity there. Along with a small amount of fear.

“You know,” he said to no one in particular, “it seems to me that with this many shoppers, they’d have more people working. There’s a whole crowd over on the pickle aisle, sampling some new kind of olives.”

“I tried those!” the lady in front of me said. “Stuffed with garlic and jalapenos and the like.” She looked at me. “Did you try one?”

“No, I guess I missed that.” But I didn’t miss the stranger’s point. The store was crowded. I wasn’t in any danger, and what could it hurt to hear what he had to say? Sighing because I knew I was gonna regret it, but my curiosity was killing me, I pulled back my cart. “I’ll check it out.”

The stranger said, “Yeah, I think I’ll pick up a jar of the sardine ones. Gotta love sardines.”

I pushed my cart toward the pickle aisle, uber-aware of the sardine loving guy right behind me. I slowed down next to the kosher dills, several feet away from the small crowd gathered around the olive company representative, a short guy who was giving away ceramic olive boats. They were pretty cool, and I decided maybe I’d get one too, as soon as Mr. Gnarly explained how he knew Santorelli and how I could aid my country.

While the olive rep went on about the olives as he passed some around on toothpicks, the mystery man angled his big body toward me, bent his head as if he was studying his grocery list and whispered, “I don’t have much time, so I can’t give any explanation, but I need you to pick up a cake in the bakery and deliver it to someone. It’s imperative that you get it to the right person, that you not allow anyone else to get it. Make everyone believe it really is a birthday cake for a little boy.”

I consider myself a quick study, but I was thoroughly confused. The guy coaxed me to the pickle aisle to tell me about a birthday cake for a pretend little boy, to be delivered to one particular person? What did this have to do with aiding my country? Or Senator Santorelli? Maybe I was having a blonde moment, but I didn’t think so.

He retrieved a jar of sweet gherkins from the shelf and studied the back while he whispered, “I’m with the CIA, and my cover’s blown. I’ve gotta get out of town immediately, but I have to get the information that’s in that cake to the right people. I can’t take it myself because I’m being followed, and I’d lead them to my contact, which would blow his cover as well.” He cast a quick glance over his shoulder, then continued, “I waited for you to come out of your office, then followed you. I’m trying not to be obvious, but at this point, I believe they’re watching every move I make. If their guy sees me talking to you, they’ll think I passed the information off to you and you’d never get out of here with it. That’s why I put it in the cake. Nobody would think to look in a cake.”

For the very first time, I started to believe maybe he was on the level, that maybe he wasn’t smoking crack. “Where is their guy?”

“I don’t know. He could be anybody in this store, or I may have lost him and he isn’t anywhere near here. Don’t trust anybody and don’t give the cake to anyone but the man whose name is in the cake. It’ll be ready in half an hour.”

“How do you know Santorelli?”

“As the chairman of the senate finance committee, he gets briefed about money-laundering. This has been an extremely dangerous assignment, and at the beginning, he said if I got in a bind, I could trust you to lend me a hand.”

About that time, before I could ask more questions, a fat lady with a wee dog in her bag parked her cart next to him.

Acting as though we’d been chatting it up all along, he said in a normal voice, “What kind of cake are you picking up for your friend?”

“A birthday cake, for her son. They said it would be ready in about thirty minutes, so I’m killing time.”

The man nodded. “My nephew just had a birthday and his cake had a Spider-Man action figure on it. He loves Spider-Man because he always gets the bad guys.”

The fat lady chuckled. “Spider-Man’s not just for boys. My little girl is crazy for him.”

The gnarly guy smiled at her then said to me, “Interesting name your friend’s son has. Can’t think I’ve ever heard of a boy named Santa. I bet the kids tease him about that.”

Santa? What the hell? Couldn’t he have dreamed up a better name for the pretend boy? I cast about for an appropriate come-back. “It’s a nick-name, actually.” Leaning closer to him, I pointed at a block of fresh mozzarella in his basket. “Is that brand any good?”, I asked aloud, then asked beneath my breath, “Who’s laundering money?”

“It’s excellent,” he replied, “especially with a ripe tomato, fresh basil and a bit of olive oil drizzled on it.”

“I like it with balsamic vinegar as well,” Big Mama said.

Mr. Gnarly nodded in her direction, then focused on the olive dude. After a few moments, he whispered, “Al Qaeda.”

Maybe I sucked in a breath. Or perhaps I actually made a small noise in the back of my throat. I admit, it’s all a bit fuzzy now. But I know I must have made my shock and horror known, because the man looked panicked and his expression warned me to be cool. I swallowed back the lump of fear in my throat and began to back away from him. That’s when I saw the logo on the back of his khaki shirt.

North Face. My memory kicked into overdrive and I knew I’d seen this man earlier in the day.

Al Qaeda? It was so surreal, and I wanted to cry with fright. Suddenly, the simple task of picking up the cake and delivering it to someone became very dangerous. Was I up for it? Did I really have a choice? I was keenly curious to know more, and most especially, to know what was hidden inside the cake. Only one way to find out, and that was to agree to deliver it.

“You know, I don’t really need more stuff in my apartment, even an olive boat. I think I’m gonna head for the bakery. It was real nice talking to you.”

He’d been staring at the big lady, but when I spoke, he turned and his dark eyes crinkled at the edges as he smiled at me. I had the fleeting thought that he was a lot better looking with a smile on his harsh face. “Hang on and let me give you something.” He shot a quick look at Big Mama, who appeared to be absorbed in the olive rep’s schpeel, then reached inside his right jeans pocket. But before he could withdraw his hand, the lady’s little dog went ape-shit and started barking its head off. Well, barking is a little strong. Did I mention the dog wasn’t much bigger than a rat? Its barks were more akin to yips. High pitched little squeaks. In the middle of his conniption fit, his tiny body convulsing with hysterical yips, he scrambled out of the bag, hit the floor, and took off.

Big Mama bumped into Mr. Gnarly as she ran after the dog, her long caftan billowing out behind her. The olive crowd parted like the Red Sea, but the olive rep wasn’t fast enough to get out of her way. She upset his tray as she rushed past and suddenly, olives skewered with toothpicks rolled drunkenly across the shiny linoleum.

Mr. Gnarly leaned down and I swear to God, I thought he was going to pick one up and eat it. I was just about to be grossed out, when I realized why he was bent over. The handle of a knife protruded from his chest! In the ruckus caused by the yapping escape artist dog, Mr. Gnarly had been stabbed. While I watched in stupefied horror, his big body crumpled to the floor. I rushed to kneel beside him, yelling at the top of my lungs, “Call an ambulance! This guy’s been stabbed!”