Keisha sipped at her wine, put the glass on the coffee table, and sank back into the couch.
Keisha is my office manager, confidante, trouble-shooter, and general all-around angel. She came to my office through a work-study program at an alternative high school, and I’ve blessed the day ever since. Big and black, Keisha is a style show unto herself, specializing in colorful, loose, flowing outfits, spike heels, and equally spiky hair, often tinted to match the outfit of the day. She and her new husband, José, are in their late twenties, whereas Mike and I are pushing uncomfortably close to forty. The age gap makes not one whit of difference in the closeness of our families.
I had taken a day out of the office, even though nowadays I was mostly back there, taking twelve-month-old Gracie with me. She had her own Pack ’n Play and almost a complete nursery in one corner of the office. After the kidnapping scare when she as an infant, I still couldn’t bring myself to trust anyone else with her care, except occasionally Keisha and her husband, José. I’ve never left my baby with my mom, who lives just blocks away. That, as you can imagine, is the source of some bitter comments.
Today, I just wanted to stay home with my baby. I knew the baby days would pass too quickly. Keisha was reporting on a young man who wanted to rent a house. It was property we managed for a client, not something I would have ever added to our company holdings.
“He came in, took one look at me, and asked, ‘Where’s the boss?’ Polite as I could, I said you were out for the day, but I could help him. He looked real displeased, but he told me he and three other ‘men’ wanted to rent that house on Alston. Saw our sign.”
I knew the house only too well. It was a square box, two-story, four bedrooms upstairs, living, dining, and kitchen down. The owner was a good client, who had bought and sold much more costly residences through our office, and I didn’t want to alienate her. My suggestion that she sell this property fell on deaf ears, but she did paint and update the kitchen and bathrooms. Still it wasn’t charming or old or Craftsman, not one of the houses that distinguished our historic neighborhood.
“I whipped out the form, asked him to fill it out, told him we’d check his references and get back to him, and that we also needed references for his roommates. All this time he stood in front of me like a statue, no smile, no introduction. I indicated the chair by my desk, but he stayed standing. When I said we’d need to meet the other tenants, he looked disdainful.
“‘I’m sure that won’t be necessary,’ he said. ‘I’ll discuss it with the realtor when he returns to the office.’ I told him the owner was Ms. Kelly O’Connell, and he got that sour look on his face again.”
“I wonder what his problem is,” I said idly. Honest, I was more interested in watching Gracie’s efforts, so far unsuccessful, to pull herself up. It wouldn’t be long, and she’d be standing . . . and then walking. I sort of hated to see my baby grow up.
Keisha’s next words pushed Gracie and kidnapping right out of my mind.
“Kelly, you know what his problem was. It was me. I’m black. I bet he’s one of those supremacist folks or something. I got a bad feeling about this.”
“We don’t have any supremacist organizations in Fort Worth,” I protested. “I’m sure, but I’ll check with Mike when he comes home.”
Mike Shandy, my husband and Gracie’s father, is the division head of the downtown Fort Worth police district. He’s wary of my inquiries and worse into police business, but sometimes I can’t help myself. At least this would be an innocent question, just to prove Keisha wrong. And I made a note to call the young man. “What’s the tenant’s name?”
She giggled. “Whitehead. Tom Whitehead. Fits, don’t it?”
* * * *
Me? I’m Kelly O’Connell, proud mom of Maggie, who turned seventeen just before this school year started and is, gulp, a junior in high school. She’s a star on the basketball court and a good student, a bit shy around the boys, which is why that evening was a big occasion. She was bringing a boyfriend for supper, a new experience for all of us. Maggie’s popularity had grown exponentially when Mike and I gave her a used Honda for her birthday. It wasn’t smart, showy, or any of those things, but it was reliable, safe, and low maintenance. She was thrilled.
Then there’s Em, thirteen, and in her first year of high school. Em is a sweet, protective child—and I use that word advisedly. While Maggie shot into high school and its supposed sophistication, Em remained the child who loved to be home. Now she dotes on her baby sister. I dread the day she’ll discover the outside world.
Maggie and Em are the children of my first marriage, which I would write off as a total disaster, except that it gave me these two amazing daughters. Their biological father no longer walks this earth, and I am sorry for him that he is missing seeing the girls grow. My husband, the wonderful Mike Shandy, adopted the girls with love in his heart, and he is the only father they know.
Baby Gracie got off to a rough start in this world, though she’d never know it. Someone who I’d crossed in my sometimes-misguided efforts to protect others and defend my neighborhood decided to take revenge by threatening to kidnap Gracie. Of course, we didn’t know who it was at first, and for agonizing weeks we lived in a cloud of fear. Mike increased the security system at home, doubled the bolts on the doors, and even asked occasionally for police surveillance. José brought a guard dog, and we prayed a lot. We are out from under that threat now, but it had been a rough patch for me as a mother and for us as a family. It taught us the color of fear, the fact that fear can make the closest families turn on each other. I bless Keisha for holding us together and upright during that ordeal.
We are recovering and trying hard to once again be the happy, cohesive family we had been before fear took over our lives. We still occasionally snap at each other, and I’m not sure when I will ever feel safe with Gracie out of my sight, but little by little we are clawing our way back to normality. That bit of history is one reason I was overly cautious about Maggie’s new boyfriend.
Those three girls sound like enough to keep me busy every day, but I am also the owner of Spencer & O’Connell Real Estate. The Spencer was my late husband, proud of what he claimed were aristocratic English ancestors and always a bit scornful of my Irish roots. We specialize in renovating Craftsman houses—I use that pronoun proudly, but it’s just Keisha and me, and we both like it that way. Of course, there’s also my construction manager, designer, and carpenter extraordinaire, Anthony. The three of us focus on the Fairmount Historic District in Fort Worth, Texas and we’ve done enough houses to leave our mark on the neighborhood, in a positive way. But there are plenty of houses left that need our attention—some classic beauties suffering from deferred maintenance, some that have been “updated” in a way that hid or distorted the wonderful features of Craftsman homes. You might call me a lady on a mission.
We also buy and sell other properties that come our way in Fairmount and surrounding neighborhoods, and we do property management for a few select clients. That’s how Tom Whitehead landed in our laps.
As I watched Gracie and listened to Keisha, a part of my mind was even then on supper. Cooking is not my forte but I’m getting better, and I wanted to fix a special meal. Maggie asked for Doris’ casserole, a dish Keisha had taught us that was meat and tomato sauce, and noodles with sour cream, cream cheese, and green onions, all topped with grated cheddar. One friend calls it American lasagna.
By the time Keisha arrived with her tale of woe, the casserole was ready to go in the oven, the salad crisping in the fridge, and bread ready to broil at the last minute. Em had set the table, so I was ready and more than willing to sit for a quiet glass of wine.
Keisha declined to stay for supper, though I knew she was busting out of her panties to see the boy Maggie had invited to meet the family. “That’s a big deal,” she said, “when you bring a guy home for dinner. I don’t want to intrude, but you tell me every detail, don’t forget nothing.”
“I don’t want to think about a big deal, Keisha. She’s only seventeen.”
“Oh, she won’t marry him. Don’t worry.”
“You’re welcome to stay for supper, since José is working. You know that.” José is the night patrol officer in our neighborhood, commonly called the NPO for Neighborhood Police Officer. He usually works from three to eleven or thereabouts.
She laughed, that deep, hearty laugh. “Baby girl would think I’m spying on her. Naw, I won’t ruin your dinner party.”
Before I could ask if her sixth sense had kicked in or not, she turned serious. “And, Kelly, let me handle Mr. Tom Whitehead. You don’t be running interference.”
My mouth was still open when she waltzed out the door.
* * * *
Dave Tucker was, at best, a nice looking but unremarkable young man, and I couldn’t understand why Maggie chose him. But then I remembered some of the boys I’d subjected my folks to and the fact that I chose from a limited field—boys were much more interested in cheerleaders and party girls than in the shy bookworm that was me. Of course, I saw Maggie as neither shy nor overly studious, but who knew how she came across at school. Besides, who can understand teenage attractions? Not me.
Maggie buys her clothes, with my approval, mostly from online boutiques these days. Dave’s shirt and jeans looked like they’d come from J. C. Penney or Sears, and while they were clean, they were rumpled and wrinkled. His hair was just a bit too long, but his face was scrubbed and his fingernails clean. Yeah, I notice details. If he’d worn glasses I would definitely have classified him as nerdy. Maggie was wearing glasses these days, because she finally confessed she had a hard time seeing the blackboard at school. She wore what she called her “geek glasses.”
When Maggie and Dave came in after school, I gave them lemonade and sent them out to the yard to play with Clyde, our dog. It was a smart move, because they were still outside when Mike came home. Em and Gracie were in the living room, so I corralled Mike in the kitchen.
“Remember, Maggie brought a friend home for supper tonight.”
Judy Alter is the award-winning author of three mysteries series: Kelly O’Connell Mysteries: Skeleton in a Dead Space, No Neighborhood for Old Women, Trouble in a Big Box, Danger Comes Home, Deception in Strange Places, Desperate for Death, and The Color of Fear; three in the Blue Plate Café Series: Murder at the Blue Plate Café, Murder at the Tremont House, and Murder at Peacock Mansion; and two Oak Grove Mysteries: The Perfect Coed and Pigface and the Perfect Dog. She is also the author of historical fiction based on lives of women in the nineteenth-century American West, including Libbie, Jessie, Cherokee Rose, Sundance, Butch, and Me, and The Gilded Cage, and she has also published several young-adult novels, now available on Amazon..
Her work has been recognized with awards from the Western Writers of America, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the National Cowboy Museum and Hall of Fame. She has been honored with the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement by WWA and inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and the WWA Hall of Fame.
Judy is retired as director of TCU Press, the mother of four grown children, and the grandmother of seven. She and her dog, Sophie, live in Fort Worth, Texas.
Follow her at (Amazon) http://www.amazon.com/Judy-Alter/e/B001H6NMU6/ref=sr_tc_2_0?qid=1377217817&sr=1-2-ent;
her blog: http://www.judys-stew.blogspot.com;
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