Sweet Thyme Baby – 26

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

26

(Start at the Beginning of Sweet Thyme Baby)

(Click here to read Section 25 first)

 

The Cabrillo Inn was a complex of renovated two-story bungalows surrounded by a stone wall blazing with pink and purple bougainvillea. On the interior side of an elaborately curlicued iron gate, a flagstone patio curved around the largest bungalow which housed the kitchen, dining and reception rooms downstairs and the owner’s suite above. It was pricey at the Cabrillo Inn, and Lance had never been there before. He opened the front door and a brass bell jangled in the back of the house. He heard a voice and then a door slam. On the tile counter in the vestibule there was a blue ceramic pitcher filled with red and white flowers.

 

The owner, Marilu Barger, came through the door talking. “Aren’t those dahlias gorgeous? I got them from Ryan’s Nursery and this is their third day. I don’t know how Dee manages with flowers the way she does. I don’t think dahlias are meant to thrive in this climate, but she’s got ‘em like weeds. And last spring we had peonies. I know they shouldn’t grow down here. Pastor Whitby, this is a rare surprise. What can I do for you this afternoon?”

 

“You’ve got a guest staying at the Inn, Mrs. Barger. A good looking man. Maybe forty years old?”

 

“You mean Mr. Detroit.” Her voice dropped. “He’s from Las Vegas.”

 

“What’s his first name?”

 

She looked in her registry. “Victor.”

 

“Victor Detroit.” The sound of the name in his mouth gave Lance great pleasure.

 

“You know him, Pastor?”

 

“We have a friend in common.”

 

“You want me to call him for you? He’s in his room.” She lowered her voice again. “I told him we have some nice shops and Dante’s makes good coffee – better’n mine, I have to admit. But all he wants to do is stay in his room. I brought him breakfast on a tray this morning and I could tell he’s a smoker even though it’s a nonsmoking room. He’s a good tipper, though, I’ll say that.”

 

Given a chance to talk, most people would. Lance had always known that but until today he had not thought how he might use that trait to his advantage. He supposed Joel must have known such things all his life and this had given him an advantage. But I can catch up. With the conference center, I can get ahead.

 

Marilu Barger rested her elbows on the reception desk and leaned forward. “Went to see Dee yesterday and came back mad as a tomcat. Then she was over here last night.”

 

“Dee was here? Is that so?”

 

“You want me to ring him? Frankly, I’d like to get him out of that room for an hour so I can straighten up in there, air it out. You’d be doing me a favor.”

 

Lance turned away, smiling.

 

“Tell him I’ll meet him on the patio. At the table there, behind the ficus. And send out a bottle of wine, Mrs. Barger. A good one.”

 

*

 

“So what’s on your mind?” Victor Detroit asked when he had settled his tall thick frame into one of the Inn’s wrought iron patio chairs. Lance watched him cross his right leg at an angle over the left and flick a bit of lint off his silken knee. “I’m leaving Delight’s when you’re coming in and now you’re buying me wine. Is it love?”

 

“Do you know who I am?”

 

“Should I?”

 

“I’m Lance Whitby, pastor of the Cabrillo Community Church.”

 

“And is this some kind of new conversion technique? Buy me a drink and I follow you into church?”

 

“Would that do it?” Lance asked. “I’ll try anything to fill the pews.”

 

Victor did not laugh. “Okay. Now we’ve established your ethics, what do you want?”

 

Lance looked away, back at Victor and then away again. Let Victor Detroit take him for a pious sap. He could hear Joel saying that sometimes it suited his purposes to be underestimated.

 

“I’m not sure. But I’ve got a hunch –.”

 

“I know about hunches.”

 

“Well, good, then you’ll be disposed to listen a minute.”

 

This was the delicate part.

 

“Victor – do you mind if I call you Victor? – I could run you some kind of line but I don’t think I’d get away with it.” Lance grinned. Sharon called it his boyish look. “I’m just going to tell you straight out. Okay?”

 

Victor refilled his glass. Lance cleared his throat.

 

“My guess is, you know Dee Larue pretty well. Am I right?”

 

“You might be.”

 

“She’s kind of a mystery around here.”

 

Victor folded his arms across his chest and tipped his chair against the stucco wall. “And you want me to solve the mystery for you.”

 

Lance signaled stop with his hands. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m not asking you to break any confidences. But speaking as a pastor, I’ve been concerned for Dee for a long time and I was hoping you might help me get some…insight? Would that be the word? I think so. Yes. She seems so…cut off from people?”

 

“She’s very beautiful, my Dee. Don’t you think?”

 

This was unexpected. Lance didn’t have a response ready.

 

“You should have seen her before. When she was fifteen. Twenty.”

 

My Dee.

 

“She leads an isolated kind of life and that troubles me. As a pastor?”

 

“Of course,” Victor said, smirking. “As a pastor.”

 

“I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but for the last several years Dee’s been helping out the old couple who owned the garden and the nursery and now they’re dead –.”

 

“You think she killed them?”

 

Lance blinked – the thought had never occurred to him – and took a sip of wine.

 

Victor laughed. “I beg your pardon. I thought human nature, greed and all, was pretty much the same the world over. I didn’t realize Cabrillo Point was different.”

 

“There was nothing suspicious about the Ryan’s passing.” Not only had this thought not occurred to Lance, it offended him to hear it introduced in a polite conversation. Now Lance knew himself to be in the presence of a true sinner and the hair on his arms stood up like soldiers in the army of God. Jesus must have felt exactly the same when he encountered the whores and money lenders. “They were old and feeble and probably would have died years ago if they hadn’t had Dee to help them. What concerns me is Dee herself. She seems to have no friends, no family –.”

 

“For starters, her name’s Delight. As in: De light of my life.”

 

Victor Detroit was like the serpent in Eden, oily and insinuating and duplicitous. Lance told himself to get up and leave but he stayed right where he was and – this was odd, he thought in passing – after another minute or two, he began to relax and enjoy himself. There was something fascinating about Victor Detroit.

 

“And once upon a time, Dee and me,” Victor held up a hand, index and middle finger crossed, “we were close.”

 

Lance remembered a film he had seen on television a long time ago. A religious sect in India kept cobras in its temples, encouraged the creatures to come and lay their eggs there generation after generation. He recalled them wriggling over the stone idol like maggots on a carcass. The point of the snakes had been to put the pagan priests to the test. Supposedly if their minds were focused on their heathen god whoever he was, they were in no danger from the snakes. They could walk among them, pray and even sleep without being harmed.

 

He thought he heard Joel’s voice in his head, reminding him that to achieve great things a man must risk.

 

“We had some good times, Dee and me. You know what I mean?” He emptied the last drop of Chardonnay into his glass. “So I know her pretty well. I know things you might want to know. But what’s the quid in the pro quo?”

 

Lance looked confused: a forward tip of the head, a slight wrinkling of the brow, a tickle of a puzzled, boyish smile. It was so amazingly easy to pretend, to mislead. It gave him a rush to play Victor’s game.

 

“What’s in it for me, Pastor?”

 

“Oh. Well. It’s quite simple and straightforward really. I want to help Dee.” Without consciously trying, Lance blushed.

 

“You’re not answering my question, Pastor.”

 

Victor’s large rugged features made a handsome impression, but by the rays of late sunlight that filtered through the ficus, his Las Vegas tan yellowed, and Lance thought it might have come from a bottle. Obviously, he was not an outdoorsman. And the tan did not conceal the lace of broken veins on each cheek. While Lance sipped his wine, Victor had drunk most of the bottle. So. In Las Vegas he was a drinker and an indoor man in an expensive sport coat: almost certainly, Victor Detroit was also a gambler.

 

“To tell you the truth, Dee doesn’t seem to like me. Anything you can tell me that would help me minister to her, I’d be grateful. I think if she could just hear, truly hear, the gospel message –.”

 

“Don’t bullshit me.”

 

Lance swallowed and waited.

 

“You want something off her. Same as me. The question is, what, and can we help each other out.”

 

Marilu Barger seated Janet Wexler and another woman at the table on the other side of the ficus. Lance moved his chair a little to one side to avoid being seen.

 

Victor watched him. “You want the land.”

 

Surprised, Lance forgot to either act or lie. “Only as a means toward an end. For the glory of God.”

 

“Sure.” Victor stared over Lance’s shoulder, pinching his nostrils between his thumb and the knuckle of his index finger. “Those old folks, all they left her was the land. No money?”

 

“None, and the rumor is, there are taxes owing.”

 

“No kidding. How much?”

 

Lance raised his eyebrows as if he knew and as if it was a lot.

 

“You have to love the government sometimes, don’t you?”

 

“She really has no alternative but to sell to me. She’ll put up a fight, but she’ll do it.” Lance heard power in his voice and toned it down. Was it the wine that made him lightheaded? Or had he found something of himself in Victor Detroit and was there a harmony here so completely unexpected that it excited him? He thought of his mother and the roses she kept on the piano, his father’s suit that had been old forever, of Sharon on their wedding night and of Hamish, two minutes old. And then he forgot them all.

 

Victor asked, “How much you gonna give her?”

 

“A fair price, good terms. God knows I don’t want to cheat the woman. But the Cabrillo Community Church is not a wealthy institution.” Victor Detroit would call Lance crazy if he said the conference center wasn’t about money. It would exist for one reason only and that was to glorify God and raise up righteous men and women. It would be a beacon for holiness in a world full of evil.

 

“Victor, let me ask you a personal question. Does Dee owe you money?”

 

“In a manner of speaking.”

 

“If I knew more,” Lance said, “I’m sure we could work something out that would benefit all of us. Dee too, of course.”

 

Victor scratched his ear and gazed into the middle distance. An oceanic patience filled Lance. He sat back and waited.

 

“Okay,” Victor said, “let me tell you a story.”

 

Copyright © 2012 by Drusilla Campbell. All Rights Reserved.

 

Click here to read Part 27 of Sweet Thyme Baby

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