This week I conclude The Grandma Caper. As it turned out, my characters became talkative, so the story is a bit longer than usual. As readers may recall, PI White’s grandmother is being pestered by a strange noise. White and Wong travel to Grandma’s place with the possible threat of her unruly neighbors in the back of their mind.
Enjoy. Thanks for stopping by.
The Grandma Caper: Part II
Still second-guessing, but unable to come up with one legitimate reason why he shouldn’t be along, Wong had little to say on the two-and-a-half hour drive to Grandma White’s place.
Upon our arrival, Wong and I stood outside of the car and listened for strange noises but came up empty. Standing on the stoop, I rang the doorbell. My third and fourth attempts to get my grandmother’s attention included banging on the front door. Moments later, the deadbolt unlatched, and the entry swung open. Grandma’s determined scowl crinkled her face. A tattered copy of Gone with the Wind was clutched in her hand.
“Took you long enough to get here,” she said. “I’ve been sitting by the window for, umm… Well, dang it! Somebody must be messing with my clocks, too.”
Unsure whether she’d ever actually finished the Margaret Mitchell novel, I was pretty certain that any time lapses––real or imagined––were due to her nodding off while trying to accomplish that feat again. That and she’d probably forgotten to wind the old mantel clock in the living room––again.
I smiled. “Well, hello, Grandma. Nice to see you, too.”
She bent forward at her waist as her eyelids narrowed to slits behind wire-rimmed glasses. Her brow furrowed deeper. Her lips pursed so tight they seemed to disappear. She turned her gray-haired head and scanned Wong as he climbed the concrete steps.
Peter stopped dead in his tracks, prepared to perform an about-face.
“This your China man friend?” she said.
I nodded. “My partner, Peter Wong. So, did you choose a restaurant you’d like to go to? After the long drive, Wong and I are kinda hungry.”
She swung her intimidating gaze my way. “A meat and potatoes sorta place. He okay with that?”
“I’d love a good steak,” Wong said and ended the discussion.
It was after dusk by the time we returned from dinner. Wong grabbed our overnight bags from the trunk of my ’54 Dodge, while I helped Grandma up to the porch. As we approached the front door, she dropped her keys and jerked her head back. “You hear that?”
I stood still. A cool breeze whisked past my ears but otherwise nothing. I glanced at Wong. He shrugged and shook his head. Oh boy. Either Grandma’s hearing rivaled most canines, or her mind was playing tricks on her. Considering she was nearing her eighth decade, I was leaning toward the latter. I grabbed Grandma’s keys, then unlocked the door and escorted her inside. After switching on the lights, I said, “You stay here while Wong and I search the premises.”
Grandma’s brow squeezed to crinkle mode again. “Promises? Promises for what?”
“Premises––oh, never mind. We’re gonna have a look around.”
Wong set our bags in the foyer, then we stepped into the brisk evening air. The door closed behind us. The deadbolt clicked and thunked into place.
As Wong and I ambled toward the sidewalk, he said, “Did you ever question why your grandmother’s neighbors aren’t raising a stink about the mysterious noise?”
I shrugged. “She believes they’re responsible. So…no, I never did.”
I rolled my eyes, nodded, and then looked to my right. Windows on that neighbor’s house appeared black as a mortuary after midnight. No vehicles were parked out front. Either the residents were out, or they’d parked their one and only car in their garage and turned in mighty early. It was a weekday. Maybe the bread winner worked third shift and had everyone on his schedule. Then again, maybe they were skulking in the darkness, waiting to launch more antics that rattled Grandma’s nerves.
A yellow-white glow pierced the night through gauzy drapes hanging in the living room of the house to the left. Light also spilled from two of its upstairs windows. A no-frills Ford sedan was parked at the curb. A portrait of bold demons who failed to see the need to hide in the shadows, or merely everyday folks doing their best to live the American dream? I was thinking my last concept was true.
Because no weird sounds whined or screeched from either neighbor’s abode, Wong and I performed the detective’s two-step down the gangway between houses toward Grandma’s back yard. Hinges squeaked as I opened the gate. Wondering whether the unlatched, wood-slat access dancing in the wind might be the noisy culprit, I swung it back and forth several times. Wong’s arched eyebrows indicated his thoughts mirrored mine. A little lubrication and this banshee would be subdued.
I latched the gate, then Wong and I crossed the small yard to the garage, and another gate that led to the alley. Similar to its counterpart, this barrier squealed, too. We were definitely on to something.
“Think there’s an oil can in the garage?” Wong said.
“Hard telling what’s in there,” I replied. “Grandma quit driving a long time ago. I told her to sell the car, but I doubt she did. You’d like it––a 1940 Buick Special sedan, with an inline eight-cylinder engine. Grandpa loved driving his Buick…’til he disappeared.”
“Ever find out what happened to your grandfather?”
I shrugged. “Nobody knows for sure. According to Grandma, he went for a walk one evening and never came home.”
“He just vanished?”
“Pretty much. Local police searched the neighborhood and beyond but never found a trace. They even contacted departments in neighboring states, plus the FBI, but none of them came up with any leads.”
“Was he sick or…”
“Or mentally unbalanced? No. From what I recall, Grandpa was fit and sharp as a barber’s razor.”
“What if he was keeping some kind of illness from everyone?”
“You mean like an old dog that knows when it’s their time and wanders into the woods to die?”
“Well, I didn’t mean to be crude, but…”
I frowned. “It’s been a shade over five years. Someone would have found his body.”
“Unless he was murdered, and the killer stashed his corpse.”
Though I never liked that option, the thought had often crossed my mind. After four years, my father was convinced something terrible––fatal––had happened to his dad and had suggested a wake to provide closure for the entire family. Without proof her husband “of more than fifty years” was dead, Grandma wouldn’t hear of it.
Wong sensed my uneasiness. “So, what about that oil can?”
“Huh? Oh, right.”
We walked to the garage’s side entrance, and I twisted the doorknob––unlocked. Suspecting that Grandma hadn’t been inside for quite a while, I pulled my snub-nosed .38 from its shoulder holster. Wong did likewise. Better safe than sorry. Easing open the door, I flipped on the lights. The bulb up front glowed, while the one at the rear of the car shed flickered, then died.
“Anybody in here?” I hollered.
Wong squeezed between the bi-fold garage doors and the Buick’s rear bumper. Once he was in position on the passenger side, we crept forward. At the front of the car, neither of us had found any humans lurking in the shadows.
“Guess Grandma needs a reminder about security,” I said. “At least we found this.” The dim illumination highlighted an object resting on Grandpa’s homemade workbench. I holstered my .38 and grabbed the oil can.
Wong holstered his weapon, then pointed toward the wall. “What’s that go to?”
I spotted the glint, set down the can, and snatched a mighty familiar ring and key hanging from a nail that was driven into a wall stud. “Pretty sure I know what it fits.”
Sitting in the driver’s seat, I stuck the key into the Buick’s ignition switch and turned––no problem. “Dammit, Grandma. How can you be so careless?”
Wong snickered and leaned on the front of the car. His almond eyes narrowed as his brow scrunched into a V.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“The hood’s warm.”
“Double dammit. C’mon, we’re going back to the house.”
“Want the oil can?”
“It’ll wait ’til tomorrow.”
After convincing Grandma it was really Wong and me, she let us in. I escorted her into the living room for a chat about door locks and keys, and why all locks should be used and keys kept secure.
“But I always leave the garage open,” Grandma said. “In case I’m out or taking a nap, Billy can get in and take the Buick out for some exercise.”
I nearly screamed. “Who’s Billy?”
Grandma glared. “He’s a man from church. Nice fella. Says driving the car is good for the motor and driveline––keeps things from sticking and leaking. Takes it out at least once a week for me.”
“And what’s to keep anyone from sneaking in and stealing the car?”
“Don’t get snarky with me, Barnabus. If your daddy was still with us, he’d swat your backside. I’m not so old I can’t do the same, ya know.”
I flopped in a wingback chair, my head in my hands. Why me?
Wong came to my rescue. “So, how long have you known Billy, Mrs. White?”
She eased onto the sofa and thought for a moment. “Nearly two years, I suppose. He’s a handyman. He understood that I lived alone and said that if I ever needed anything, to give him a holler.”
“He help with anything besides the car?”
Grandma glared again. “What are you implying, sonny boy?”
Wong straightened and stepped back. “Uh…nothing. I was just curious whether Billy…”
My turn to toss a lifeline. “How often do you see Billy, Grandma?”
Her scowl relaxed a bit. “Usually once, sometimes twice a week. After taking the car out in the afternoon, he stops by to let me know it’s running fine. I brew some tea, we chat for a bit, then he goes home.”
“Where’s home? Does Billy live alone, too?”
“Billy’s the church handyman. Pastor Mayweather lets him stay in the basement.”
I slowly inhaled and exhaled. “Okay, look, if you and the pastor trust Billy, I suppose I can, too. But tomorrow morning, I’m getting duplicate keys made for the garage and the Buick.”
“One set for you to keep in the house, and one set for Billy. That way nobody else can get in and steal the damned car.”
Grandma leaned forward, her don’t-sass-me face in perfect form. I took the hint. “Okay, okay. I think we’ve resolved enough for tonight.”
“What about my damned noise?” Grandma snarled.
“Pretty sure Wong and I discovered the culprit. Now––”
“I’m confident, okay? Now, how ’bout we all get some rest and start fresh in the morning?”
Although Grandma’s squint-eyed expression indicated her confidence didn’t match mine, she stood and led us upstairs to our bedroom, then shuffled to hers and closed the door
“I’ll take my dad’s old bed. You can have Uncle Harry’s.”
“So why isn’t your uncle here instead of us?” Wong said.
“You’ve met him. Just a tad unstable, remember?”
Wong stared at the quilt and pillow on my uncle’s old single.
I grinned. “Don’t worry, he’s not contagious. Good night.”
Despite enduring the verbal toe-to-toe with my grandmother, I settled into the saggy mattress and drifted into la-la land. Maybe it was Dad’s spirit that comforted me as I dreamed of a sunrise and church bells gonging in the distance. Then my grandmother invaded my vision.
“Wake up, Barnabus!”
The bedroom lamp stabbed my eyes. I blinked to awareness and spotted Grandma banging a wooden darning egg on my grandfather’s pewter mug.
After licking the paste from my mouth I mumbled, “What? Why all the racket?”
“It’s that noise again!” she said. “What’s he doing on the floor?”
I sat up to find Wong had curled up on the area rug, under the spare blanket off my bed, and had used his jacket for a pillow. Guess my reassurance about Uncle Harry wasn’t convincing.
“It’s a Kung-fu thing,” I said, then reached for the window that faced the back yard and yanked it open. Several squeals pierced the cool night air. Then the melodious sound of a harmonica playing Beautiful Dreamer floated through the screen.
“See,” Grandma said.
I nodded. “We’ll check it out. Mind giving us a moment to get dressed?”
Once Grandma left the room, I swung my feet to the hardwood and stood. Wong stood, too, still fully-clothed.
I smirked. “Really, Peter, Uncle Harry’s bed doesn’t have cooties.”
Wong’s eyelids narrowed. “Like you said, ‘a kung-fu thing.’ Let’s go find the musician.”
Artillery and a flashlight in hand, Wong and I quietly left the house through the front door, wound through the back yard of the neighbor to the right, and then into the alley. Beautiful Dreamer continued. We padded toward the tune.
Wong clicked on the flashlight. “Hold it right there.”
The performer jerked backward and dropped his instrument onto the cobblestone. The man’s bugged blue eyes stared in disbelief. Slicked-back gray hair topped his head. A bushy gray beard surrounded skin well-tanned by the sun. A pair of opera glasses hung from a cord looped around his neck.
I poked my .38 at him. “Who are you, and why are you bothering my grandmother?”
The musician’s eyes squinted as his head crooked forward.
“You heard the man,” Wong said. “What’s your name?”
“B-B-Billy…Billy Goodnight. Honest, I––”
“The same Billy that lives at the church, drives Grandma’s Buick, and stays for tea?” I said.
He nodded. “Honest, I don’t mean to cause any trouble.” His focus on me continued.
I picked up the harmonica, a Hoehner Echo Elite, just like the one my grandfather used to own. I flipped it over and noticed the tiny initials scratched into the paint––WAW. Grandpa’s name was Wilbur Alan White.
“What’s with the opera glasses, Billy?” Wong said. “You a peeping Tom, too?”
He turned toward Wong. “No…I mean, not the way you––”
“Why, Wilbur?” I said.
His head jerked my way. “What did you say?”
“Wilbur Alan White. That’s your real name, isn’t it? Why, Grandpa? Why did you leave?”
His head drooped to his chest. “Can we go inside? Your grandmother should hear this, too.”
Once Grandma had been properly introduced to her handyman, then demonstrated the bevy of human emotions and downed a shot or two of bourbon, we gathered in the living room for a family pow-wow––Wong, too.
Grandpa’s explanation was filled with apologies, along with some pretty good stories. He’d married Grandma when he was eighteen––she was twenty-two. Up to the point when he up and left, his entire life had been based on working hard and providing for his wife and family. He’d moved up the ranks in the company that had employed him. He’d invested well. His house and car were paid for when he retired. But he’d never taken the opportunity––a young man’s opportunity––to learn about life at sea, hoboing on the railroad, or doing odd jobs in order to earn enough cash to move on to the next adventure. That hole in his life had remained in the back of his mind until, one day he decided to fill it. After several years on the road––routinely thinking of home––he’d returned. But with the way he’d departed, he knew his reasoning wouldn’t play well––with Grandma or the cops. Billy Goodnight was his way to stay close, without disrupting the lifestyles everyone had adapted to because of his absence.
Following his teary-eyed confession, he said, “I’m so sorry, Gladys. Guess I’d better be on my way.”
“Just a minute,” Grandma replied.
She slapped him hard, then smiled. It was the first time in a long time that I’d seen her smile. Then we all went up to bed––Grandma and Grandpa shuffling and giggling into their own room.
In the hallway Peter said, “You’ve got a wacky family.” He glanced at me, shook his head and walked toward our room, glad to be Wong not White.