Polcum’s Pulpit by Edward C. Lynskey
At 2:30 AM, Sharon Knowles hand rubbed tired, burning eyes. The red taillights hovered four hundred yards ahead, right lane. She pedaled the gas at a steady 75-mph clip. Tail jobs were doubly difficult when you were half-asleep. Or a state cop pulled one of them over for reckless driving.
The girl, Leanne Swallowtail, had traveled on I-81 for almost six hours. Twenty minutes before, she’d veered off at a Hess gas station, pumped $22.42 of 94 Premium, and purchased a carton of Salems. The Lebanese clerk inside the bulletproof glass booth confirmed it. Sharon offered him five dollars for the information. No, ten dollars. Fingers on both his hands emphasized the sum. As she wheeled to walk off, he started talking. It was her first, perhaps only, victory of the evening.
Earlier at noon, Leanne’s mother had telephoned Sharon. It was a bad time, what with trying to wolf down a grilled cheese sandwich, pay her bills online, and type out a client’s final report. At the climax of this juggling act, she managed to bark "hello, Knowles here" into the receiver. Mrs. Swallowtail identified herself. She spoke with a sorghum accent Southern beauty queens like to pour over their words.
"I’m worried about my daughter," said Mrs. Swallowtail. "Leanne works nights at a photo copy center. Mr. Porter, her boss, called me last week, then again this morning. She has left early two nights. He’s had it with her and, frankly, so have I."
Puzzlement intensified Sharon’s frown. "How old is your daughter?"
"A very immature seventeen," Mrs. Swallowtail replied. "She graduated from high school last spring. This is her first real paying job. But not for much longer."
Sharon felt silly at having to ask the obvious. "Have you talked to her?"
Mrs. Swallowtail sighed. "I have, Ms. Knowles. More times than I care to recall. I lecture her over and over. What happens? I get the same stony stare, sullen silence, and pissy attitude."
Sharon tucked the handset between the side of her mouth and shoulder, licked the envelope shut. Damn, no stamps. "Look, most likely your daughter is partying with her friends."
"Wrong. I’ve ruled out those possibilities," Mrs. Swallowtail said. "Leanne is a loner. She has no real friends, male or female."
"Has she been in trouble before with the law?"
"Yes. Arrests for shoplifting and marijuana possession." Mrs. Swallowtail paused. "Leanne is hacked off at the world. We’ve all been there, right? Growing pains, we called them. Except she’s not outgrown hers. She may never. I want you to find out where she goes, what she does."
"Spy on your daughter?" said Sharon. "A cheating spouse, sure, I do it all the time. But a teenage kid? That’s where I draw the line."
"I've an ominous feeling," said Mrs. Swallowtail. "Why all the secrecy? Try it for two days. Please. Stake out where Leanne works. If she takes off, follow her. That’s the extent of it. I just need to know she’s not in any serious danger or trouble."
Making a face, Sharon shut down her computer. "It’ll cost you. I charge $350 a day plus expenses. Also, thirty-two cents a mile. I’ll fax you a contract, if you like."
Mrs. Swallowtail’s retort was brittle. "I expected to pay for your services. This isn’t a charity case. Fax me your precious contract. Start tonight."
Sharon jotted down Leanne’s information. She was employed at the Qwik-Copy Hut across from the university between 6 PM and 12 midnight. At 5:30 PM, Sharon locked her office above a storage locker facility and activated the security alarm. She was running late. Arriving at the university, she eased into a numbered stall next to a plain white van. The vantage point afforded unobstructed sight lines into the Qwik-Copy. Sharon focused her binoculars and worried if Campus Police patrolling the lot might stop and ticket her.
When Leanne puttered up in a Nissan Sentra at least half her age, Sharon saw how the girl might get under an adult’s skin. Chomping gum, Leanne unfolded her lank frame to stretch and yawn. Her bare midriff showed a pierced navel. Eyebrows and upper ears bristled with similar hardware. Her hair, dyed a streaky green, was raked into three ponytails harnessed with ribbons and feathers. Her clothes, torn and baggy, was Goth black. Teenage rebellion, circa 2002. Sharon’s instant memories of her own youthful excesses included Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. Same stuff, different era.
Sharon brought up the binoculars again. The storefront, a broad expanse of plate glass, provided excellent visibility. A portly man in a lavender tie, yellow shirt, and red suspenders puffed up to Leanne. She was no more than three feet inside the door. Watch out. He trembled, shaking an angry finger, his livid face a study in Managerial Authority 102.
Sharon pegged him as Mr. Porter, Leanne’s boss. Asshole, she thought.
Tossing him a terse nod, Leanne shouldered past. That only further antagonized Mr. Porter. His jaw was working, his florid features animated. From what Sharon could cobble together, Leanne was guilty of nothing more serious than punching the time clock a few minutes late. Mr. Porter stirred stubby arms in the air, whipping himself up into a frenzy.
At last, Mr. Porter had let off enough steam. Combing his moppish hair, he sauntered through a curtained entryway. Meantime, Leanne crossed the shop floor and perched at a Mac computer. From what Sharon could make out, she was running desktop publishing software. So, the troubled girl did more than run Xerox machines.
A fireball sun dipped to just over the treeline. Sharon waited. Shadows swarmed. Sharon plugged the new Natalie Merchant and Sheryl Crowe CDs into her player, gave both several listens. Top-rate albums, both. On occasion, she lifted the binoculars to check her subject, but Leanne remained camped out working in front of the Mac computer.
Darkness chilled the air. Sharon cranked her window handles, tugged on a knit sweater. White lights glared on the bustle inside the copy shop. An old geezer schlepped in toting a cardboard box. Mr. Porter waited on him, gave his troops a pep talk, and strutted out to the spaghetti house next door. From the look of his overfed belly, he’d made the trip before.
Right the, Leanne leapt up from the Mac, snagged her drawstring shoulder bag off the chair, and charged for the door. It was a few minutes after nine. Sharon watched her lunge inside the Nissan and throw on its headlamps. After backfiring, the engine coughed to life. A spark glinted over the steering wheel. Leanne was igniting a smoke. Sharon started her car, backed around. The troubled girl was in flight to more trouble.
They cruised south on I-81 down the Valley of Virginia, past Stuart’s Draft, past Lexington, and past Roanoke. After the pit stop at Hess, Sharon made a mental bet that Leanne would branch off at one of the Virginia Tech exits. Some sharp-looking college fellow motivated her impulsive, spontaneous flight. Young, immature girls fell for them, fast and hard.
Sharon was wrong. Leanne continued on in her Nissan, never breaking stride. Mountains cropped up on either side of them. Sharon’s ears popped from their gradual ascent. They crossed the Appomattox River Bridge.
Managing her auto with one hand on the wheel, Sharon trickled coffee from a stainless steel thermos into a mug with the other. Sleep deprivation was dulling her alertness. The black coffee, amazingly still hot, streamed down her throat. Sharon reared back, tightened her grip, and waited for the caffeine jolt to kick in. When it didn’t, she clattered down the windows, opened the vents. Crisp air threshing her short hair revived Sharon.
Leanne had accelerated, stacked additional distance between them. Passing a tractor-trailer, Sharon stood on the gas. Her car in the right lane just creeped. Only then did she realize the grade bogged down her power. Double damn! Leanne’s lights burned nowhere in sight. Had she lost the reckless girl in the Nissan?
Plucking out tissues from the box on the console, Sharon wiped her damp windshield. Through the dark, it looked no cleaner. Just then, Leanne’s mysterious tail-lights sneaked up. What was the girl up to? Sharon cracked a grim smile when something occurred to her. Had Leanne been studying her rearview and grown suspicious? It was a time-honored PI trick, speeding up and slowing down, to elude and baffle a tail job. Sharon began having second thoughts about the seventeen-year-old girl.
On a flat, straight stretch, Sharon took advantage to buzz her client on the cell phone. One of the newer models, the gadget was Internet-enabled as well. Punchy, Sharon laughed. Who the hell ever surfed the Internet with their cell phone? Check email messages, maybe. She thumbed in Mrs. Swallowtail’s home number she’d committed to memory. The indigo digital readout of the dash clock was 4:45 AM. Her client was racking up a pile of debt.
"H-h-hello," slurred a cotton-mouthed voice, the hallmark of an alcoholic.
"This is Sharon Knowles."
"Huh? Who? Yes, oh, where is my daughter?" A rising panic heightened Mrs. Swallowtail’s stern projection. "She’s run off again! Her boss called me! Are you on it?"
"Yes, I am. At the moment, Leanne is in her Nissan on I-81, approximately 35 miles south of Blacksburg," Sharon said. "She’s been driving all through the night. Stopped once for gas and cigarettes. Any idea why?"
"Blacksburg! Good Lord!" Mrs. Swallowtail’s outburst compelled Sharon to hold the cell phone away from her ear. "I’ve no clue what flew into her head to pull such a stunt. Is she alone?"
"For the moment," said Sharon.
"Mr. Porter sacked her. Yep. Just like that. Now she has no job. We’ve no money. She’s goddamn irresponsible. Tell you what. I’m going to back that car. Fast as you can say Jack Sprat. You watch me."
"Calm down, Mrs. Swallowtail. Please. Issuing dire threats doesn’t help. Does your daughter have any friends or relations in this part of the state?"
"Of course not. I told you already she has no friends. Where are you? On Hell, I feel a migraine coming on. I’m calling the state police. That car is registered in my name. She took it without my consent. I’m reporting it as a stolen vehicle."
"That doesn’t strike me as fair or prudent," Sharon replied.
Mrs. Swallowtail sniffed her disagreement. "By the way, you should know I keep a .32 handgun in my nightstand. Only I go to look tonight and guess what? Gone. Leanne swiped it. She’s a drug addict, a shoplifter, and now a common thief."
"Odd. Why would Leanne need a handgun?" Sharon asked.
"She’s a stinking thief. I’ll also tell that to the police . . ." Sharon plunged under a bridge. Mrs. Swallowtail’s message garbled into a patch of static.
"You’re breaking up on me," said Sharon. She was grateful to escape the lady’s drunken tirade. "I’ll notify you the minute anything changes," she shouted into the phone. "Don’t call the state police on your daughter."
Just then, Leanne’s right signal blinked. Sharon slipped the cell phone into her jacket pocket. While talking, she’d missed the road sign for the off-ramp. They hadn’t reached the North Carolina state border. Her Nike slid off the pedal. If given enough cushion, Leanne wouldn’t notice Sharon’s lights behind her. Braking at the intersection, Leanne halted a second or two, then made another right to cross the overpass. A tractor-trailer hauling SUVs zoomed underneath it. No other traffic populated the roads except for Sharon now pulling into the same intersection.
5 AM. Well past moonset. Sharon let the engine idle. Sleep wanted to have its way. She watched Leanne’s taillights fork on an immediate left. The wild teenager was headed up a steep incline. When she’d disappeared around the first, Sharon hammered her accelerator to give chase. Right turn, then a sharp left. The narrow dirt road swerved by a clapboard chapel. Amid pre-dawn’s luminosity, its bell tower threw out a gaunt, defiant shape.
The road cut into a series of switchbacks. Bottomless chuckholes created a bumpy obstacle course. Sharon’s gas tank grated bottom twice. The four-cylinder engine in first gear rocked and clattered over roadway. Sharon spotted no sign of Leanne. Her heart pulse bucked up another notch. Sheer curiosity about the crazy girl’s designs far outweighed any fear. The missing .32 added a new, dangerous wrinkle. Teen-age suicide? An icy shiver circuited through Sharon.
The Nissan was nestled behind a boulder. Sharon slid to a halt, yanked on the parking brake. She hiked to the road’s edge and toed out a shoebox-sized slab to chock under the right rear tire. Overkill, perhaps. The Nissan doors were locked. Peering inside between cupped hands, Sharon noted sandwich wrappers, soda cans, and straw wrappers, but no .32. A bandana tied in a loop and graduation tassel dangled from the rearview.
A trail skirted beside the boulder. Sensing Leanne had struck out that way, Sharon did likewise. After a few steps, she stooped down to retie her shoelaces. A sudden breeze rattled rhododendron branches budding white blooms. Lifting her arms, Sharon waded through the blizzard of petals. The path soon veered up in an almost vertical ascent.
Sharon went on, her breath short, abrupt, and gasping. Her hands gripped lichen-clad rock and roots. Her shoes scuttled for traction and balance. Somehow she avoided any nasty spills. No doubt the smaller girl was more agile and fleet. Although physically fit, the athletic Sharon had to pause twice bent over with hands on her knees. Her chest labored for oxygen.
Leanne lurked near. Her tobacco smoke washed over Sharon. She prowled up, shifting from bush to rock. The image of Mrs. Swallowtail’s .32 weighed in her mind. Tripping on a root, she stumbled onto a narrow ledge. Several feet away, Leanne leaned against a stony obelisk. Staring out between ragged puffs, she was transfixed by the unfolding phenomenon. Sharon switched her attention to it.
Sunup. Breathtaking. Indeed. Soft hues of gray, red, yellow, and purple streaked fishscale clouds.
"Holding up?" Leanne spoke with a smoker’s rasp.
Sharon lifted a sheepish glance at the girl. "Quite the workout, isn’t it?"
"Yep, even for a skinny runt like myself. I can only imagine for you. But in my book, it’s worth the sweat." Leanne butted the cigarette. "I don’t mind sharing my view, but who the hell are you, lady?"
Sharon had no choice but to play it straight. "I’m a private investigator. Your mother engaged me to keep tabs on you. She’s worried about you."
Leanne laughed. "Mom’s worried I’ll leave the nest. My paycheck ain’t much but it’s more than she pulls down. Her unemployment ran out months ago."
Sharon winced. She’d misjudged the girl. And the mother. "Your mom is broke?"
"As a doorknob," said Leanne. "Look, I don’t know what shit she fed you, but you’re wasting your time. Fact is, you’ll never get one red cent from her. It all goes to the booze. The drunker she is, the better she lies."
"How do I know you're not lying?"
Leanne’s shrug was casual. "You don't. But think about it, why would I?"
"No reason really," said Sharon. "Are you carrying her .32?"
"I pitched it going over the river," Leah said. "With Mom’s temper and drinking, no good could from it."
"Sounds like you babysit her."
"You got that right." Leanne turned to depart. "And I can’t do it anymore. I’ve come here for the last time and thought out my decision. I’m moving out. Yep, to a place of my own. I ain't saying where either."
"You go on ahead, girl," said Sharon. "And we never talked."