Sunday morning came and went in a blur. After pounding the pillow until well past ten, Dixie took Dann to breakfast and then to the grocery. They bought a carload of food, things like ginger root, which she couldn’t imagine eating, and parsley, which she thought was used only as plate clutter.
By afternoon, the smells from the kitchen convinced her Dann knew what he was doing — pasta with shrimp, coffee made from freshly ground beans, and homemade pecan pie. He’d found her pecan stash in the pantry, the fifty-pound bag she saved out of each year’s crop, and had spent the morning shelling pecans while she slept. She didn’t have the heart to tell him about the automatic sheller in the barn.
“So,” he said over coffee. “We get started first thing tomorrow?”
He had shaved, and she was still getting used to his new face. He looked younger, friendlier, less sinister.
Mud lay with his muzzle on Dixie’s foot, faking sleep. She could feel his gentle pulse thrumming up her leg. Comforting.
Dann sat across from her in the breakfast nook, a diner-style booth barney had built after Dixie and Amy went off to college.
“Forget that ‘we,'” Dixie told him. Legally, she was treading a fine and hazardous line between illegal restraint and harboring a criminal, proving she could get in plenty of trouble without Dann’s help. “Your part is to stay put and fix whatever’s broken.”
He rose abruptly and carried their coffee cups to the counter, his face turned determinedly away from her. “Show me something that’s broke. I’ll fix it,” he said curtly. He took a long time refilling their cups. Then his broad shoulders relaxed and he turned, set the cups on the table and settled back into the booth. “Meanwhile, I cook and keep the place picked up, right? So you can concentrate on finding evidence to clear me. That’s our deal.” His voice had lost its edge. He gazed at her with wide-eyed innocence.
The high-backed benches were padded in imitation leather, cadet blue, exactly the color of Dann’s eyes. She hadn’t realized until now that his eyes were the same shade of blue as Barney’s.
True blue. The color of loyalty, royalty and robin’s eggs.
Barney had been trustworthy, but Dann was still a suspect in at least one killing. Dixie couldn’t afford to forget that. She looked at his mustache instead of his eyes. Definitely the mustache of a scoundrel.
“There’s no guarantee I’ll find anything,” she said. “Or if I do, that it will help your case.”
“Can’t blame me for hoping, can you?” He wiggled his eyebrows.
Dixie hated that. When he wiggled his eyebrows, she couldn’t help grinning.
“Hope is okay. But writing down everything you can remember about that night would be even better.”
He groaned. “We’ve already been over it –“
“And the tenth time around you remembered something important.”
“The salesman with the butterfly? Think he might be important?”
“You never said he was a salesman.”
“I didn’t?” Dann frowned, thinking about it. “He asked questions about selling, but like he didn’t have much experience. Said he was working on a big deal.”
“You said the Hornet was full of computer techies that night. Was he one of them?”
“No, he was talking land… or development… or something. Is that where you went last night, to talk to Augie?”
“Your friend wasn’t working last night.”
“Where the hell was he? Augie always works on Saturday. Big tip night.”
“Sick with the flu, according to his replacement.”
“That’d be the day man. Luke. So that’s all? You were gone half the night–“
Dixie slammed her cup down. “Cripple that horse, Dann, and walk it by me real slow.”
“You’re here because I have a soft spot for justice. And because I think maybe justice is being thwarted in your case. It’s my call. This is my house. I’m not in the habit of reporting my every move.”
For an instant his blue eyes flashed anger, then he blinked it away and looked embarrassed. “Sorry. Your personal life is none of my business.”
Personal? He thought she was out with a lover? She felt a flush of color rise in her cheeks. This situation was getting damned complicated.
Mud had jumped to attention and stood watching them beside the table. Dixie patted the dog’s side to reassure him.
“Okay, here’s what I found out. There were no local car theft rings working Spring Branch the night before the accident — which doesn’t rule out a solo–“
“Someone just picking up wheels? That’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Possible,” Dixie said, not believing it.
“Gets in a hurry. Tears around a corner and boom! Hits the kid. Then he’s scared. maybe drives around, realizing how much trouble he’s in. Sneaks back. No cops yet, so he parks the car in my driveway and beats it on foot.”
Dann studied her face, and she could see some of the hope go out of him.
“We have other angles to work,” she said. “We have the guy with the butterfly tattoo, and we have all those techies to check out.”
The blue eyes brightened a bit. “We do, don’t we?”
Yeah. And only six days to find a lead that Belle Richards hadn’t found in seven months.
After dinner, Dixie marshaled her resolve for a duty she could no longer put off. Christmas gift in hand and embittered feelings firmly set aside, she visited her mother. The Flannigans had always encouraged Dixie to forgive and forget.
Your mum’s no saint, child, Kathleen had told her. She’s your blood mother, all the same, and you’ll do right by her. We can’t let wrong beget wrong, can we? Remember the good times. Remember she had a hard life. Kathleen had combed Dixie’s hair with her strong fingers. To whelp a child sweet as you, a mother can’t be too bad, now, can she?
The first few years after her adoption, Dixie had lost track of Carla Jean completely. Then the year she graduated high school, a card came, “To my darling daughter on Graduation Day,” postmarked Dallas. After that, Dixie received a postcard once a year, usually from somewhere in Texas, but once as far away as Phoenix. The cards stopped abruptly about the time Dixie joined the DA’s staff.
The next communication was from a hospital. Carla Jean had been found wandering along Interstate 10, bruised, bleeding, and confused. She’d been riding with a friend, she told the paramedics who picked her up. The friend was angry, and Carla Jean told him to stop the car and let her out. He opened the door and shoved her; her head hit the pavement. By the time the ambulance reached the hospital, she’d slipped into a coma. She never told anyone who the “friend” was. On an ID card in her mother’s handbag, Dixie was named as next of kin. Two weeks later, Carla Jean awoke from the coma remembering nothing about the accident and only bits and pieces of the past. Her motor skills were drastically impaired, but after a while she recovered enough to manage a walker. The doctors were encouraged. Then little by little, she lost all the ground she’d gained, along with her speech.
Now she lay in an oversize baby bed with chrome rails to keep her from falling out. The nurse had dressed her in a pink gown and brushed her thinning hair, gathering it back with a pear-encrusted comb.
Carla Jean’s green eyes sparkled as they had when she was young, but there was no depth to them. The doctors said she wasn’t blind or deaf, but she no longer responded to people in the room. She could eat when someone fed her, soft foods, which required no chewing. She could hold her hand up if someone raised it, and she wouldn’t know to put it down until someone lowered it.
“You want some juice, Mama? It’s apple, your favorite.”
Dixie held a straw to the withered mouth, watched the liquid slowly climb to the top, watched the neck muscles work to swallow. She hated seeing her mother like this. In the old days, nobody could cheer up a room like Carla Jean. And during the brief weeks following the coma, when she had seemed most like her old self, she’d brought joy to the entire hospital, turning the simplest gathering into a party.
Carla Jean had spent her whole life dancing from one party to another, waiting for her dream lover to show up. She needed people, hated being alone. Dixie wondered now if her mother was alone in her mind. Or had her imagination created a dream world filled with love and laughter and handsome men?
“Your hands look dry, Mama. Let’s put on some lotion to soften them.” Dixie opened the Christmas package she’d brought and poured creamy perfume-scented liquid into her own hand to warm it, then rubbed it gently into the papery skin. “You always had such pretty hands.”
She hated believing that Carla Jean knew some of her men friends had visited Dixie’s room.
“Mama doesn’t notice things,” Dixie had told one of the older girls at Founders. “She’s kind of dreamy, always imagining these wonderful things are about to happen. Then when they don’t, she gets onto another idea, forgetting the first one, as if it wasn’t important, anyway.”
“Sure, hon, you go on believing that,” the older girl replied. “But I’ve seen women who flutter their eyelashes and wiggle their butts at anything in pants, then play dumb like they’re oh, so innocent. Won’t take honest pay for sex, like that makes it dirty or something, but it’s all right if a man drops a gift on the dresser afterward, a token of affection. Some men give especially nice gifts for kiddie poontang.”
Dixie wasn’t sure Carla Jean ever really understood she had a daughter. She treated Dixie more like a sister, was barely seventeen when Dixie was born. Only fifty-six now, but looking eighty-five. Had she ever come close to finding her white knight? Or could no man measure up?
“You want to eat now, Mama? The nurse brought some nice vegetables.” When Dixie touched the spoon to Carla Jean’s mouth, the thin lips remained closed. Dixie coaxed with a slight pressure of the spoon but got no response.
She buzzed for the nurse, then gathered up her coat and gloves. As she was about to turn from the bed, Carla Jean blinked. A tear slid from the corner of her eye.
Dixie grabbed a tissue and blotted the moisture away. Then she snatched a couple more tissues for herself and hurried from the room.
Join me right here next week for another Bitch Factor chapter, and if you’re just tuning in, you can find chapters 1-24 below.
Meanwhile, grab a Copy of Slice of Life, another Dixie Flannigan thriller. Here’s a quick, fun preview: