Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 11
Connie followed the signs to the entrance ramp of the interstate. She pressed down hard on the gas to merge into the rush hour traffic. Eight-to-fivers used this interchange for their downtown commute. She blended seamlessly into the horde of cars and was soon miles away from the strange events at the motel.
The driver of the sedan following her car pulled down the front of his hat and merged into the stream of traffic behind her. He flicked his spent cigarette out of the open window where it bounced once before the next car snuffed it out. With practiced skill, he managed to stay within eyesight of his mark.
Cars sped by the autumn beauty of the trees lining the road while the sun never made itself fully visible, peeking occasionally through the gathering darkness on the horizon. The weather forecaster had suggested a possibility of tornadoes making the drive treacherous. Connie gripped the steering wheel tighter and held steady against the random wind gusts that pushed against the car.
Storms on the Horizon
With the events of the morning behind her, she tried to imagine how Jeb’s gun wound up in her suitcase. She couldn’t recall seeing it when she’d packed clothes and the dogs’ necessities inside. Of course, she had been in a hurry afraid he would come home before she could hide the suitcase in the garage. It had been her ace in the hole as a last resort if things got worse. They had.
She thought about the news last night with his picture and the partial headline, “Police Searching for Clues in the disappearance of …” It left her guessing. He would never report her missing. His pride would stand in the way. What if something had happened to him? She toyed with the idea of calling the house to hear who answered before hanging up. She hoped to get to her next stop in time to catch more news. During her next fill-up she would buy a local newspaper.
I'll be Watching You
The miles stretched on. In the darkness and gloom, her mind drifted to the day she first met Jeb at a dog show in Branson. Connie was in the middle of a crowd gathered to congratulate them on Queenie’s first place win in the agility competition. Jeb’s rugged good looks and dazzling smile set him apart from the rest. With effortless charm, he talked her into having dinner with him that night.
“You have to eat sometime, right?” he’d asked flashing a toothy grin. “Why not share a meal with me?” It was the first and only time she could ever remember him picking up the tab. That might have been a red flag had she cared about traditional roles.
They’d dined at Montana Mike’s Chop House where he’d treated her like a queen ordering cocktails and appetizers, T-bone steaks, baked potatoes and all the trimmings. For desert, he ordered seven-layer chocolate cake, her favorite. Later they’d two-stepped their way across the dance floor to work off the calories. She’d forgotten how much fun it was to dance and to laugh. Her travels around the country as a dog trainer and competing with Queenie kept her on the road most of the time.
Dog Agility Competition
From there, they’d run into each another at three more dog shows in different cities. Each time Queenie won, he’d appear in the circle of strangers celebrating the joy of winning an event. Their chance encounters turned into steady companionship with their activities centering on the training, preparation and travel.
After a whirlwind courtship, they married before a Justice of the Peace in Abilene following a long weekend of events and appearances with Queenie. It seemed like a light had switched off in him when the schedule ended and they headed to his home town.
He told her his parents were both dead and he had no sisters or brothers.
“I can’t help being an only child to late-life parents.”
“But you must have some photographs of them,” she said, hoping to gain insight into his past and understand his sudden mood swings.
“What about high school albums?” He deflected her probing questions.
“All those burned up in the fire,” he told her when pressed for details. “What difference does all that make anyway?” He managed to turn her questions into a personal affront on his privacy. They grew more distant with each passing day.
She tried to remember when the midnight phone calls had begun. The hushed tones and whispers had turned into a regular event only months into their marriage. When she questioned Jeb, his reaction had been anger.
“What is so important that it can’t wait until morning?”
“Don’t you start trying to suffocate me,” he told her abruptly after she asked who had called. It was five minutes after midnight. They’d been asleep for about an hour.
“Whatever it is can wait until morning.” She tried to convince him to return to bed as he slipped into a pair of worn jeans.
“I won’t be gone long,” he told her.
“But where are you going?”
“That’s really none of your business,” he said buttoning his shirt. She heard the front door slam and the car start up in the garage. That was how it started before her suspicions turned into fear and doubt, then anger. The times he left the house late at night became more frequent, returning hours later with no explanation.
She was sorting laundry when something fell out of Jeb’s pocket. Scribbled on a piece of scrap paper was a phone number she didn’t recognize. She memorized the number and when curiosity got the best of her, she dialed it. It rang ten times unanswered before she hung up. When Jeb came in from the garage at lunchtime, she confronted him.
“What’s this?” he asked picking up the note she’d put next to his lunch plate.
“You tell me,” Connie retorted. He flew into a rage.
“You’re nothing more than an old snoop,” he shouted. She bit her tongue to keep from saying something she'd regret.
From that point forward, things grew progressively worse. Looking back now, Connie realized how little she’d really known about him when they married. When she’d moved into his house, he’d had few personal possessions, no verifiable history to speak of other than his conveniently vague stories.
She was glad to be on the road again, just her and the dogs, the way it had been before Jeb. The puppies lay fast asleep in their box as the car bounced along. Connie checked her speed and noticed the fuel gauge was getting close to empty. Queenie trained her golden eyes on her mistress’s unusually tense form, glancing occasionally out of the passenger’s window at a passing car.
“We’ll have to stop for gas before too long,” she told Queenie. The next billboard she passed showed several icons for food, gas and lodging with a warning.
“Last gas station for the next 55 miles,” she read aloud. She moved into the far right lane and prepared to get off at the next exit. She wanted to take no chances of running out of fuel on this deserted highway. It was only a couple of hours since they left the motel but she knew the dogs were eager to take a walk. At the end of the off ramp there were green signs pointing in either direction for food and fuel. She took the cross road to the right towards a service station brand she knew. Slowly creeping to a stop, the car that had been following her waited patiently until she was nearly out of sight before turning right. He watched her pull up next to the bays and turned in a few seconds later, parking next to the convenience store.
© 2017 Peg Cole