"Really," I say, trying to fit as much disbelief and sarcasm as is possible into those two syllables.
I stare at the 16-year-old boy for a good while, before allowing my eyebrow to lift.
"You're visiting your girlfriend whose last name you can't quite recall at this time, whose first name is either 'Stacey' or 'Shelly' depending on when you're asked; and you're not sure what her address is, but it's -- and let me quote this: 'On a street'."
"Umm ... yeah?"
"Ah. And as far as romantic gifts go, your lady is perfectly happy with a gym-bag packed with," I pull each object out one at a time, "A ski mask, a pair of leather work gloves, and -- goodness -- a crowbar."
The kid is looking at everything except me.
"We all need to be honest here, so let me be the first: You, sir, are a thief. Ah! Let me finish. The fact that you do not have a criminal history attached to your name merely tells me that you are a here-unto-for lucky thief. You're not here to visit your girlfriend, because any girl young enough to be dating you will be at tonight's Homecoming football game. Where -- coincidentally enough -- much of the rest of the town is located. Which leads us to yourself, wandering the empty streets all by your ownsome with naught but a bag of burglars tools to keep you company."
I can hear him swallow, so I take a step forward, crowding his personal space.
"So, there's two ways this is going to settle out. The first is that I take you, and your stuff, back to the office, I call the football stadium and when a member of West Podunk High School faculty shows up, I tell them what I think is going on, give them you and your bag of goodies, and wave bye-bye."
I don't think he likes that idea.
"The second way is that I hand you this receipt for your bag of burglars tools, you take your self back to the stadium and I don't see hide nor hair of you outside of that stadium for the rest of the evening. Tomorrow, you bring that receipt and a parent to the office, and I give you back your crowbar, your gloves and your ski-mask."
I'm guessing from the nodding that the second choice is a bit more palatable.
"Five blocks that way. You can't miss the lights. Scram."
Hopefully, he's taken enough of a scare to persuade him that the critter life isn't for him. Yeah, and as long as I'm hoping, can I get a long-legged lingerie model with a bag of grapes? I file the fink card -- excuse me "Field Interview Card" in the Bloody Idiots file in my briefcase and clear the call.
It's one of those lovely fall Panhandle evenings, so about ten minutes later I park the Super Scooter at the end of Second Street, get out, and start checking doors on what passes as the Main Business District of Bugscuffle, Texas.
Three doors later, I smile slightly as a roar echoes lightly around the front porch. A moment later, the sounds of musical instruments played maybe with a little more enthusiasm than skill follow. Sounds like the Bugscuffle Fighting Rednecks are doing well this evening.
I push gently on the door I'm facing -- and it swings open.
"Car 12, County."
"Go ahead, 12."
"I've an open door at 1201 Second Street. Public service the Williams and see if they can put an eyeball on Dot."
There's more than a touch of amusement in Dispatches voice as she replies, "10-4, 12. You want me to roll you some back-up?"
"Negative, County," I say, as I step into the front hall of the Conroe and Conroe Funeral Home, "I'll be on the portable."
A dollar will get you a doughnut that I'm going to find the same thing I've found the last umpteen Open Door calls we've gotten here, but I'm well aware that Murphy hates my guts -- personally. So my P7 is hidden behind my leg, finger indexed along the frame as I shine my Surefire through the business office, the guest rooms, multiple viewing rooms, the Icky Room (brrr), casket storage, finally to be slipped back into the holster as I find the small, slim figure sitting all alone in the chapel.
Dot Williams is dressed in her standard uniform of hot pink sneakers, blue jeans and Hello Kitty sweatshirt, one foot swinging idly as she gravely regards the awful plastic gold-painted, flower-adorned abstract sculpture stuck to the wall behind the altar. In honour of the evenings football game, a red-and-black football is painted on one cheek, and red and silver ribbons have been threaded into her ever-present pony-tail.
Eleven-something years ago, a college kid with a one-ton Western Hauler pick-up truck and a Blood Alcohol Concentration of 0.22 packed the Chevy S-10 driven by the hugely-pregnant Mrs. Williams into a little bitty mangled ball and bounced it across Main Street. The Bugscuffle Volunteer Fire Department earned their Christmas hams that evening in as deft a display of the Fine Art of Power Extrication as any department – paid or no – could hope for. Couple of hours after the Jaws of Life were cleaned and stored, Dorothy Elise Williams was born.
I scrape my boot heels on the carpet as I walk around the end of the pew, careful not to startle the little girl – although, truth be known, I have no idea if Dot has ever been startled in her life. Or if it's even possible to startle her – then I sit gently on the bench just within arms reach and ponder the sculpture.
Yeah. It's bloody awful.
I reach into my vest and pull out a pack of chewing gum, unwrap a stick and chew for a bit, before taking a second stick out of the pack and – careful not to look at Dot – casually lay it on the bench midway between us. A couple of breaths later, equally casually, and without taking her eyes off the plastic abomination on the wall, Dot reaches out and takes the sweet, unwrapping it with ferocious concentration and putting it into her mouth one quarter piece at a time before meticulously folding the foil wrapper into little squares and laying it on the bench mid-way between us; where, after a couple of breaths, I gently pick it up and stick it in an inner pocket of my denim vest.
Dot is ... odd.
Probably not very long after I sit down, but considerably longer than I would like (I'm sitting in a funeral home, after dark -- I've seen this movie) Dot slides a battered something or other that was probably once a stuffed giraffe ... I think ... along the pew towards me, maintaining a firm grip on one of it's appendages with her left hand.
Careful not to touch the little girl, I grab ahold of a fuzzy limb, and then carefully stand up. A beat later, Dot stands up, and we start walking towards the exit.
Dot doesn't like to be touched, matter-of-fact the only sound I've ever heard the wee sprite make is an ear-splitting shriek whenever someone who isn't her family touches her. Learning that lesson left my ears ringing for days; however, as various and sundry gods are my witnesses, I swear that if this little girl turns and waves at the altar, I'm carrying her out the door at a dead sprint -- probably emptying my magazine over my shoulder as we go -- banshee wails and damage complaints aside. Like I said: I've seen this movie.
Fortunately anything Dot might have been communing with seems to lack an appreciation for social graces -- or simply wishes to spare my over-active imagination -- and there is no waving.
When we step out onto the front porch, an elderly man who has been leaning against the guard-rail, clears his throat. Not really necessary, but polite all the same.
"Bert," I say to the owner of Conroe and Conroe Funeral Home, "Thought you'd be at the game instead of listening to the scanner."
He grins, "I was. Sitting next to the Sheriff on the fifty-yard line when I heard the call over his radio."
"I doubt that anything is missing or damaged ..." He raises a hand, cutting me off.
"Of course not. Dot would never be that crass." He gives a formal, Southern nod off to my left, and I realize that I'm the only one holding on to the stuffed wossname. Bloody hell.
"Miss Dot. How are you this evening?"
Dot, who is intently examining a mimosa branch at the end of the porch, ignores him. He smiles, then moves to shut and lock the door.
"Dorothy Elise Williams!" On the street, a Suburban has pulled to a stop, catty-wampus, before disgorging Mr and Mrs Williams, the latter of whom is heading for her youngest at full speed. "What have I told you about wandering off, young lady!"
"'Dog, Bert, I'm so sorry," Cody Williams has taken off his Stetson, and is wringing the brim. I'm a little shocked. "We were talking to the new pastor, and just took our eyes off of her for a second ..."
I wave the stuffed whatsit at him, "Cody. Put your hat back on. You look weird without it. No blood, no foul."
Albert Conroe smiles at him genially, "We've had this talk before, Cody. It's quiet, she likes it, and she's a very courteous guest. I don't have an issue."
At the end of the porch, Mrs Williams has taken her daughter's chin and gently turned her for eye-contact. There's finger-shaking going on, and then Dot reaches out and very gently pats her mother on the cheek, before turning her attention back to the branch. I hand Cody the stuffed thingie, "Take your family back to the game."
Bert and I stand on the porch as the Williams climb into the Suburban and take off.
Bert chuckles gently, "Small towns."