Welcome to the beginning of a brand-new serialized short story! Did you have a chance read the previous one? If not, you can find it here. Enjoy!
The Big Cheese, Part One: Wheel of Fortune
The heavy, dark-blue fabric of Delphine’s dress floated out around her body as her partner, Reginald Shipley, spun her in two tight circles in the middle of the dance floor. It was a feeling she would never tire of—the precision of the movements which, when timed just right, came together with those of her partner to create one seamless flow of actions. It was pleasing to the eye, but thrilling to be the dancer. It reminded her of the time she’d spent as a field agent for the Falls.
Those were the days, reminisced Delphine as Ship continued to lead her around the floor. All eyes had been on her back then too. She’d been considered the best agent of her generation, back in the day. She’d traveled the world in secret, her true identity known only to a handful of family, handlers, and fellow agents. But now, in her seventies, life had slowed down a bit since the hectic days of the apex of her career. By design, naturally.
Ship moved in close for their finale. Yes, believe it or not, ballroom dancing was like being a secret agent. Making everyone think you were going to do one thing, but surprising them all with something completely different. One wrong move and disaster could strike. One false step, and it could be all over.
In the old days, “all over” had referred to imprisonment or torture. Maybe death. But these days, it meant a broken hip or ankle. She’d never made a misstep then; the wasn’t about to make one now.
Ship made eye contact with her and they began their last set of moves. No, there would be no more secret missions for the Falls, an agency that was so secretive and mysterious it made the CIA look like … ballroom dancing. She technically still worked for the Falls, but more in an advisory capacity than anything else. They wanted her back—and kept asking—but it was time to have more fun in her life and a little less danger. Just because she missed it, didn’t mean she wanted to go back.
“Better than sex,” Ship whispered in her ear as he pulled her out of a deep dip and the music ended. “Almost.” They looked at each other and he flashed his perfect, white teeth before winking at her.
If he wasn’t the best male ballroom dancer in their club and therefore her only logical choice as partner, she would have broken his kneecaps then and there. Instead she rolled her eyes. Leave it to Ship to reduce everything to sex. She remembered the one time they’d worked together on a mission for the Falls. He’d been an agent too (but seven years ago had been made redundant instead of leaving of his own accord). On their one assignment together, he’d made her so mad with his constant innuendo that she flat-out refused to work with him again. Management had complied.
So now the only maneuvers they did together were on the dance floor. However, sleeping with him after last year’s club Christmas party had probably been a mistake, and ended up making everything worse. Blame it on the Pineau des Charentes.
“Go stick it in a blender,” she said, smiling at him with menace in her eyes. He laughed.
The onlookers in the room clapped in appreciation as they left the floor together. Movement caught Delphine’s eye, and her gaze was drawn to a buxom, dark-haired young woman in a tight-fitting dress that was the same color as her own. Only this woman’s sleek gown was covered with sequins. And showed a lot more cleavage. The woman was clapping her hands and jumping up and down, and it had been the momentum of her cleavage that had caught Delphine’s attention. And Ship’s too, because he ditched Delphine faster than you could speak the words “boob job” and headed in the clapping girl’s direction.
Another song started up and four or five couples began to make their way around the room. Delphine went to stand with her friend Marvis, who offered her a cup of punch.
Delphine took one sip of the red, syrupy liquid and winced. “When are they going to stop serving this abhorrence?”
“As soon as people start ponying up more money for something other than value containers of powdered Fruit Smacko,” said Marvis. She took an FDA-warning sized gulp from her own cup and shrugged.
“Who is that?” asked Delphine, nodding at the woman who was holding Ship’s attention so … fully.
“No idea,” said Marvis. “But she started coming a few weeks ago, while you were on vacation on the east coast.”
“Hmm.” Delphine watched Ship fawn over the woman, who now tossed her head back and let out a loud laugh, her hair bouncing almost in slow motion, like the women in those shampoo commercials. It was the kind of loud laugh someone emits when they know the whole room is watching them. Which it was. “Hmm,” she said again.
Delphine held the cup of Fruit Smacko at arm’s length and walked to a nearby folding table, where she exchanged the sugary death liquid for her stainless steel water bottle. Water, hydration of champions.
There was no mistaking the bottle for anyone else’s—her granddaughter Zooey had covered it with stickers. Sayings like Sparklepower! and Shine Bright! written in pastel-colored, sparkly, bubble letters took up most of the surface area. She couldn’t even remember what color the bottle was.
A moment before, all she had been wondering about was whether or not she should dance with Ship again. But now there were bigger things to wonder about, like why her former boss was standing by the front door of the dance studio.
Richard Dere. Manager of the Southern California branch of the Falls. His plaid jacket wasn’t doing him any favors, and neither was his waistline, which was bigger every time she saw him. Approaching sixty, he was clearly pretending to be younger. Maybe it was the obvious dye job that gave it away.
Delphine winced. She should stop thinking things like this about Richard. She didn’t like him, it was true, but she should be a kinder person. Maybe tomorrow.
It was a wonder he’d been promoted so highly in the organization. Sure, he was the overseer of one of the most prominent regions, but even so, and even with all the awards he’d won for outstanding service, Delphine was still certain he was a complete idiot.
So it was no surprise when he walked over to the blue-dressed woman and planted a big wet kiss on her face. Of course. His latest wife. Delphine began to get that feeling in the pit of her stomach. The one she relied on so heavily whenever she found herself in dangerous situations. The one she relied on to stay alive.
Delphine turned away from the door and scanned the rest of the room. Should she try to sneak out to avoid possible engagement? Ignore the situation? Grab Ship and start dancing?
Too late to choose.
She turned around to face Richard, who reached out to shake her hand, not quite making eye contact. Not in the same way her granddaughter Griffin didn’t always make eye contact—she was a touch socially awkward, or whatever they called it nowadays. No, Richard avoided her gaze because he never liked the way she could see right through him and all his administrative banana oil.
“Always a pleasure, Richard,” she said, smiling and accepting his limp handshake. Just because she didn’t trust the man as far as she could throw him (which was still a surprisingly far distance, given her age), didn’t mean he had to ever know that. “What brings you here?”
He looked to his left, at the woman in the blue dress, who still had a Ship stuck to her, and spoke without looking at Delphine. “Juliette loves ballroom dancing, and I told her this was the best group in California so naturally she wanted to join.”
“But she’s not dancing,” said Delphine.
“She says her ankle hurts tonight.”
They watched as Ship led Juliette to the dance floor and took her in his arms. Ankle schmankle, thought Delphine. After twenty seconds it was clear that the woman knew nothing about ballroom dancing. Or walking.
“She’s a natural,” said Delphine. Richard beamed. “Is she number five or number six?”
His smile drooped slightly. “Five.”
“I’m sure this one will stick. Anyway, I’m surprised to find you out and about,” she added.
“Yes, well, they don’t want me staying so late at the office anymore so I guess I have more free time.”
“The higher-ups want to see me retire,” he said, following with a sigh. “After I gave them the best years of my life.”
“Retirement’s not so bad,” said Delphine. She’d been able to spend time with her granddaughter, and do a little traveling for pleasure. Although her last “vacation” ended up with her having to bail Griffin’s other grandma out of jail. “Most of the time.”
“I’m going to try to stay another year or two,” said Richard, his eyes never leaving Juliette as she stomped her way across the dance floor using Ship’s feet as cushions.
Delphine said nothing but noticed a look of concern cross Richard’s once-handsome face. It looked like he’d been doing more worrying lately.
“Well,” he said, lifting onto the balls of his feet for a second. “I’m going to go get some of that punch everyone’s been raving about.”
The rest of the evening went well. Delphine danced one more number with Ship, at the end of which she “accidentally” stepped on his foot with the heel of her shoe. She danced once with Marvis’ husband Franko, and once with Richard, at his insistence. He was a little bit better than his wife.
When the last of the punch had been used to clean the drain of the kitchenette sink and the money had been collected from donations and entry fees for non-members, Delphine, Ship, Richard, and Juliette closed up the studio with Marvis and Franko.
The parking lot was still full, since the strip mall also contained a 24-hour laundromat-bar, a small improv studio, and a regional office of ScriptDoctor, an international chain that helped everyone from waiters to investment bankers write their film scripts. Even though this was Pasadena, the LA office was often mistaken for a pill farm, so there were always interesting people milling around outside. It was sometimes hard to tell the pillheads from the script writers, they were all a little jittery.
Ship waved goodbye to everyone and headed toward his Buick.
“Darling, we’ll walk Delphine to her car,” Richard said to Juliette.
Juliette gave Delphine a once-over. “I’ll wait in the Jag,” she said with a thick French accent, and left in the opposite direction Ship had gone.
“I don’t need you to do that,” Delphine told Richard, out of politeness. Inside she was seething. He must have forgotten that she could kill a man as easily as she could reapply lipstick. Chivalry could kiss her senior-citizen butt.
“Oh no, it’s my pleasure,” he said. “We wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”
She wasn’t so sure that was true, but gave in to his attempt at politeness.
“I’m parked over there.” She pointed in the direction Ship had gone.
They were silent for a few steps and Delphine could hear Richard’s trademark uneven gait as his custom-made leather shoes tread lightly on the asphalt.
“Do you still see Kenji?” he asked.
“From time to time.” It was partially true, anyway. She thought about using that as a jumping-off point for some small talk, but noticed Ship standing next to his car a few rows over. A few rows down from that, two dark figures stood by a parked car. Her parked car, from what she could tell.
Delphine picked up her pace and made a beeline for her Mercedes E Class, forgetting Richard was with her.
“What is it?” he asked from a few steps back.
“Not sure.” She felt for the outline of her handgun in her purse—her Colt King Cobra snub nose .38 was still there. Technically illegal, but reassuring nonetheless. Richard caught up with her and so did Ship, who’d noticed them speed by.
They got close enough for Delphine to confirm the two men were standing by her Mercedes but seconds later, they ran down the row of cars and into a black Mustang waiting by the street. The car sped off with a throaty roar.
“What was that about?” asked Ship, when they’d all arrived at her car.
Richard was out of breath, Delphine and Ship were not.
“No idea,” said Delphine. She checked the driver’s side of car—no sign of damage or forced entry.
“They … were probably trying to steal it,” said Richard, still panting.
“It is a sweet ride,” said Ship.
“If either of you make another joke about how I get paid too much, you will regret it for a very long time to come.” She fished through her purse for her keys. Over the years she’d heard it all. A woman who was good with her money and got paid a decent wage was so unusual it was often considered suspicious, under the guise of a joke of some sort.
Ship lifted his head and wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”
Delphine paused and sure enough, a pungent, almost musty smell wafted through their immediate vicinity. “Maybe someone’s got some dirty clothes they’re too drunk to take into the laundromat,” she said.
But that didn’t seem to be good enough for Ship. He began to walk around the car. “It’s stronger back here.”
‘I’m sure it’s nothing.” Delphine wished the two men would leave her be so she could go home. Whatever the mystery men had been up to had been thwarted and all she wanted was to have a snack and take a bath.
The three of them went to the back of the car, where the smell was in fact stronger. Ship pointed to her trunk and looked at her. Delphine found her keys and popped the trunk. And there in the back of her nice clean Mercedes were four, 100-pound wheels of honest-to-goodness French Beaufort d’Alpage.
Which could only mean one thing.
The Big Cheese was back in town.
Ready for Part 2? Read on!
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Copyright 2022 by Andrea C. Neil