Home Stretch

The author has less than a week to go. She’s been working on a couple things, but it looks as though LAC 24 is damn near done. For the shortest book in the series (excluding half-books), it sure as hell took her the longest.

Anyway, here’s another chapter for you.

Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving tomorrow, if you celebrate. Happy Thursday, if you don’t. Either way, know that we are thankful for those of you who are still hanging in there with us. Twenty-four and counting. (She damn well better still be counting.)

Chapter 4

Claudia took her frustration out on the GPS chick, demanding directions to Elmwood Drive. As she followed the given instructions, she pondered what possible totem thing could be made of elm. She seemed certain that she couldn’t identify an elm tree even if her life depended on it. I told her I could only if it had Dutch elm disease, owing to a lengthy article I had written a few years back. I did remember, though, “Elm leaves are serrated, like a bread knife.”

That little ditty had her stabbing repeatedly toward the glovebox. “That wood cutlery we took camping,” she said. “I have a set in there.”

“It’s bamboo,” I said with a laugh, “and how the hell does a knife represent anything about us?”

“Your sharp tongue,” she answered.

“It sure couldn’t be your sharp wit,” I retorted and muffled a laugh—just in case.

Very loudly, she gasped just as the GPS told her to turn left. She hit the blinker and ordered, “Find the knife in there and put it in the backpack. We’ll figure out how a knife is a totem later.”

I did as instructed, zipped the stupid backpack, and tossed it into the backseat.

I had just glanced out the passenger window when another glorious lightbulb buzzed to life in my head. “Stop there!” I screamed as I rapped my index finger on the window. “Let me run into that convenience store.”

“You can’t wait to see whether someone’s selling coffee at the farmer’s market?” she snottily challenged.

“Red pine,” I told her. “I have an idea, a brilliant idea.”

She made the breakneck turn into the parking lot, and I was out the door before she even had the car in park.

Not three minutes later, I hopped back in the car, completely coffee-less and sadly so. I tossed a pack of wooden matches into her lap. “Those have to be made of pine, plus they have red tips,” I reasoned, and when she pointed out that it would be obvious to everyone that we had not taken them from a tree, I explained, “I say we screw the whole picking things from trees idea. It’s stupid anyway. I mean, come on. A stupid-ass baby backpack filled with twigs? Who thought of this shit?”

She cracked me a good one and told me I was brilliant. “Remember the scavenger hunt and the violets at the state park? Maggie felt terrible when she figured out they weren’t supposed to pick them. Do you really think she’d send us out to hurt trees?”

I didn’t think so, but then I scolded her for interrupting my explanation. When she gestured for me to go ahead, I continued, “I think we should go with the whole totem idea, and even more so, now that you mentioned that about Maggie. We keep the could-be-birch alphabet guys, the elm-not-bamboo-knife, and we throw in two could-be-red-pine matchsticks, and say it’s because we were a perfect match.”

She laughed, but she nonetheless nodded as she shoved the car into drive.

I explained, “So, we could either lose outright by lack of twigs, or we at least garner a bit of sympathy for being sentimental and creative.”

“Except, we still have no explanation for the knife.”

“Why the hell can’t I use my phone? How does ignorance about elm not constitute an emergency?”

“And what, pray tell, would you look up?” She slammed the heel of her hand against the poor steering wheel. “I wonder if actual totem poles are carved out of elm.”

“Oh yeah, we’ll just buy a full-blown one.” I laughed. “Honey, I think that may be a bit bigger than a board.”

“Fine,” she said. “What were you going to look up?”

“Idioms,” I answered. “Idioms about knives. You know like: put a knife in it; cuts like a knife; knife in the back. There’s got to be something that makes a knife a good-totem thing.”

“About us? Hmm.” She took the next right and then very seriously said, “If it has to do with either of us, we’d have to go with ‘not the sharpest knife in the drawer.’”

“Well, that’s just frickin’ twisting the knife.”

We laughed despite knowing how bad the jokes were. At least, I hoped she knew.

Eventually, we arrived at Elmwood Drive, and the lack of an open parking spot told us something was astir. Chances were damn good that it was a farmer’s market.

As Claudia cruised for a place to park, I tried to spy Ginny and Kris’ van, to no avail.

Finally, we were on our feet, following the people without bags and moving out of the way of those carrying them. As long as we didn’t end up at a flea market or a rummage sale, going with the flow seemed the logical thing to do.

At one point, we decided to shadow a small group heading down an alley, and thankfully, the farmer’s market was indeed their destination.

It spanned a good two blocks on both sides of the street and was barricaded at either end. It was, after all, August in the Midwest, when produce was aplenty.

Claudia said, “If we’re only supposed to be collecting tree samples, then the cash they told us to bring was probably for this.” She advised, “Keep your eyes peeled for ideas about what we’re supposed to do, but let’s shop, too.”

Conveniently, though, the third shop was a diner, and someone was at an outside table in front of it selling coffee and pastries. I expressed my caffeine need and asked whether she wanted me to find water for tea. She declined, and I hurried off.

By the time I was next in line, Claudia caught up to me. She had already bought cucumbers, green beans, and a purple tomato.

Mid-block, a hotdog vendor caught her eye, and a woman selling Hmong egg rolls stole mine. After our quick purchases, we met up again and stood there nibbling while we scanned for clues and characters from the 1930s.

The next booth sold honey from a local beekeeper, and she just had to have some. Earl liked honey on rare occasions, you see. She passed off her possessions and left me standing there looking like an overly gluttonous pig: egg roll sticking out of my mouth, coffee in one hand, a hotdog in the other, and a bag of produce hanging from the crook of my arm. Dollars to donuts, I had to have looked like a totem pole in my own right.

Upon her return, she added another bag to the mix, and we moved on.

By block’s end, we had added peppers, raspberries, and more tomatoes to our haul. Only halfway through the market, we were soon going to need a wheelbarrow. And still, we had no clue what the hell we were supposed to be doing, and no elm.

We were crossing the street when I spied a white van with green lettering on its side: Mama Earth’s. Maggie’s store! Its presence had to have something to do with whatever the hell kind of hunt we were on, and I told Claudia as much as I madly pointed.

“Maybe Maggie’s here,” she said. “Maybe we’ll finally get some answers.”

I hoped so, too, and that would’ve made sense because the only Mama Earth’s store in the area, the one she managed, was in Granton, not Athens. Why else would it have been there?

As we approached, I scanned not only for Maggie, but for Susan, Walt, the professors, and the other four caught up in some wild-ass goose chase. No one.

We rounded the back of the van, and a young, lanky man with a ponytail sat on the edge of the open back end. His legs seemed a mile long. 

“Is Maggie around?” Claudia asked.

“Just me,” he answered. “But, I might have something for you, depending on who you are.”

“Kate and Claudia,” she told him, “but we’ve been known to answer to Heady and Alberta, too.”

That made him smile. He stood and introduced himself as Harold, and he towered a good foot over us. He leaned into the van and came back out with a brown paper bag with our 30s names scrawled on it. “I’m supposed to give you this,” he said, handing it off to Claudia.

She thanked him, and then my busybody reared its head.

I asked, “So, you’re just hanging out here waiting for us, or are you selling, too?”

“Actually, I’m waiting for the market to end,” he said. “We get a deal on what doesn’t get sold. But, until then, I’m here waiting for you and your friends, which means I got the van today, too. I usually come in my pickup.” His tone told me that getting the van was a big damn deal.

I couldn’t resist. “How many of our friends have you seen today?”

“I only gave away—” He cast a glance into the van before narrowing his eyes at me. “Samantha and Carolina?” After I nodded to acknowledge the dick and the artist, he said, “I have two more of the bags left, and I’m assuming ‘the mayor’ isn’t the actual, real-live mayor.”

I assured him it wasn’t and thanked him for the information.

Then, Claudia told him to have a good day.

“See you later,” he said and casually saluted, which, I know, sounds like an oxymoron.

We hadn’t walked three steps away from him before Claudia asked, “How the hell did Holly and Laura get ahead of us?”

Those three steps, though, had afforded me enough time to think, and I said, “They must’ve staggered our start times this morning. We assumed we were first. Maybe we were second.”

Or, as someone always points out, it’s not fair to give clues when one of us is a detective.”

That was a good point, but I still figured they had to have staggered us. Yet, that would’ve made it not a race, and it sure as hell felt as though a clock was ticking. They made it tick by putting times on the clues. But, that got me to thinking even more.

As she tugged me out of the sidewalk traffic, I said, “Maybe they rotated locations. Like maybe we got sent to the farmer’s market while Holly and Laura got sent to the motel or the mall.”

She seemed more concerned with what was in the bag than making sense of our nonsensical morning.

We squatted and leaned against a storefront. I set the shopping bags down and sipped the rest of my coffee as she nearly climbed into the bag.

“Two bags of potato chips,” she announced. “Two sub sandwiches. Uh, roast beef and… Ham, maybe? Two bottles of water and an ice pack.” She tore further into the bag. “And a note!” She pulled it out, pushed the bag aside, and slid down, from squat to sit.

We read.

Enjoying the farmer’s market? Woodn’t it be nice to hang out for a while? You have until 1:30 to find what you’re looking for—if it’s not obvious by now. Then, talk to Harold again. 

“Find what we’re looking for?” Claudia challenged. “I thought we just did.” She slumped.

“You need some tea,” I told her, and I desperately needed a smoke, but I did not tell her that. Smoking on a crowded street wasn’t something I’d do—no matter how desperate.

She jumped to her feet. “I do need tea,” she said. “Guard our stuff, and I’ll see what I can find. Then, we’ll figure this out.”

I watched her beautiful backside disappear, and then I stared through the sea of knees trying to figure out whether we had missed anything on the other side of the street. I didn’t get very far when Claudia reappeared.

“There’s a bar two stores up with a deck where the smokers are hanging out.” She reached a hand down to me. “Let’s get you there. Then, I’ll find coffee and tea.”

We lugged all our stuff, and admittedly, my need for nicotine increased tenfold at the prospect of being able to have some. Our arrival at the bar, though, told me it wasn’t quite as simple as the “Sutter! Cigarette?” scenario to which I was accustomed.