The Ring Bling, Part Three: The Escape
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By the time I’d located a hotel I could afford, I was looking at a Travel Lodge in Florida City. But G-ma insisted on picking up the tab and made me a senior-rate reservation at some super-fancy place that had both the words “Resort” and “Spa” in the name. She also insisted I borrow her E350 for the night, so who was I to argue with her? I couldn’t get her to stay at the hotel with me though; she demanded to be dropped off back at her beach house.
We decided to meet the following morning and take a drive down through the Keys, so after a breakfast of eggs Benedict, fruit, and coffee, all on the balcony of my swanky hotel room, I picked up G-ma and we drove down Highway 1 with the moon roof of her beautiful German car open to the Florida elements. Which were sun, sun, and more sun.
I’d had the presence of mind to put the giant diamond in the safe in my hotel room, shoved into a pair of sport socks (like that wouldn’t be weird or obvious to find sport socks in a safe). At first I’d tucked the rock into my suitcase, inside my UCLA sweatshirt—a gift from my Grandma Delphine who lived in Southern California and was an alum—but then thought better of it. Surely the safe would be the best place to leave the gemstone while I was gone.
I didn’t know what I was going to do with the diamond. If I gave it back at this point, it would look strange. Why had I kept it so long before returning it? I could give it to my G-ma and she could cover for me and say she’d found it, but I didn’t want to accidentally get her in trouble either. If I held onto it, it could still be anywhere, right? Still lost somewhere. Unless Vern had seen me pick it out of the carpet ocean and just hadn’t said anything.
We drove in silence most of the way, G-ma only chatting sporadically when we saw something interesting. Neither of us knew much about the area. I’d never been to Florida before and as far as I knew, neither had she. However, I was starting to realize my grandma led a more interesting life than any of us had suspected. I wondered if her silence was because she was stressed about something, or just had another Natty Light hangover.
My own silence was due to stress, and I couldn’t decide if I was more concerned about the diamond or the mysterious situation my G-ma had gotten herself into. Frankly, it was a toss-up.
Our lack of talking didn’t get in the way of our appetites though, and around noon we stopped for lunch at a seafood restaurant. Neither one of us wanted to eat at a completely unknown place, so I had G-ma check the Google reviews before we decided to go in. Turned out the reviewer calling themselves “PunkinSpice82” was dead on—the lobster was terrific.
We sat outside in the shade of a large overhanging tree, finishing our iced teas. I’d tried to be patient and let G-ma tell me the real story behind that sorority beach house she was living in, but she hadn’t said a word.
“Your friends are into some questionable shit, aren’t they?” I said.
“Griffin! Watch your language.” She looked around to make sure no one had overheard, which elicited an eye roll from me. “But, well … Yes, they are.”
“Which means you’re involved in that sh—”
“One more word like that and I’m calling your mother.”
“I’m not eight anymore, G-ma.”
She hung her head and sighed.
“We need to leave Florida tonight. I don’t know what you’ve gotten yourself into,” I said, although I was pretty sure I did know what she’d gotten herself into. “And I guess you don’t have to tell me, but we do need to get out of here.”
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m on a new canasta team! We have a big game coming up real soon and I can’t just up and leave them.”
“Sure you can,” I said. “Your ‘canasta team’ will do just fine without you.” I used air quotes on the canasta team part because I could smell an innocent-sounding cover story standing in for something nefarious from a mile away.
“No,” she said. “I’m not leaving.”
“So it’s not that you can’t leave, it’s more that you won’t leave?”
She didn’t answer. Oh my lord. My grandma was living a life of crime and enjoying it.
“I just got a new Mercedes!” she whined, as if reading my thoughts.
I loved my grandma, but I still wanted to bonk her head into the picnic table. “Are you nuts?”
“Maybe,” she said, and let out a loud burp, followed by a giggle. “Anyway, I probably have to get back.” She pulled a brand-new iPhone in a rhinestone case out of her Kate Spade purse and checked the time. “Oh shit!”
That elicited another eye roll from me. “What now, a hair appointment?”
“No, canasta club. We have a strategy session this afternoon. Come on, let’s go—I can just make it if we put the pedal to the metal. I’m driving—you drive like an old lady.” She held out her hand and I begrudgingly dropped the keys into her palm.
That could have been one of the worst mistakes I’d made in my life, but as luck would have it, we made it back to my hotel safe and sound, only having cut off four cars and a truck, and narrowly missing one bus. G-ma dropped me off at the entrance to the resort since it was on the way to her house.
“Go for a swim or get a massage,” she said. “I hear those hot rock thingies are great. Remember, it’s all on me, so have a good time, okay, Griffy? I’ll call you later and maybe we’ll do an early dinner. The Down Home Buffet and Car Wash has a great senior special from four to four-thirty.” She peeled out down the street. She was going to need new tires pretty soon.
She’d just torn out of the circular drive when I realized that now I didn’t have a car. Technically I didn’t need one, but still. I liked to have options. My rental was still at her beach house. Great, more money down the drain as I ordered an Uber to pick me up to go get my car.
I had a twenty-minute wait so I hung out in the lobby, checking email on my phone. Brian hadn’t even texted me to ask me how I was doing. Lately I’d had a strange feeling that he was cheating on me, but I had no proof. It was probably just all the stress from me losing my job, and the fact that we were in the middle of buying a new house. I hadn’t wanted to buy it. It was beautiful, but too far out of my comfort range as far as the cost was concerned. Plus, it was kind of McMansiony—a little over the top. I was a firm believer in living at or below one’s means; Brian liked to live large. We were one of those couples who fought about money … among other things.
So yes, it was probably just stress.
I sighed and looked up from my phone, since the app said my driver was almost to my location. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a man behind the wheel of an early ’90s Crown Victoria, parked in the lot across from the resort entrance. He looked a lot like the guy we’d seen in Moe’s Diner the day before. But he ducked down behind the wheel before I could get a good look at him. Huh.
My Uber showed up, and thankfully Amita was a much better driver than G-ma. As she slowed down to approach the beach house, I noticed a group of ladies standing outside by the carport.
“Can you stop here?” I asked Amita.
She let me out a few doors down and drove off, and I crouched behind a parked car to watch the Blingsters, my grandma among them.
I heard a car behind me and turned to look—that same car from the resort. That kelp-smoothie-drinking cop was following me. What had I done? Besides take that diamond … But he couldn’t know about that. Right?
The ladies down the street all laughed loudly, then piled into two cars and drove away. Once they were gone I ran to my rental, got in, and took off after them. My tail would have to fend for himself; my grandma’s safety was my main concern.
I followed the Blingsters and the cop followed me. We all ended up at a Cheesecake Factory in Palmetto Bay.
I went to the bar after the ladies entered a private meeting room. They left the door open, and from my stool at the counter I could halfway keep an eye on them. I suspected I might even be able to hear what they were saying if I passed by on my way to the bathroom at a slow enough pace.
The cop took a seat at the other end of the bar, and I had the bartender send him a Budweiser. If he’d been trying to be discreet, he’d done a lousy job. He looked up when the beer was placed in front of him and I raised my water glass in greeting, which he must have taken as an invitation to join me because over he came.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, him sipping his beer, me sipping my water.
“For future reference, I like imports,” he said, not taking his eyes off the polished wood bar top.
“You’re welcome,” I said.
“Do I want to know what your role in all this is?”
I looked at him. “Do I want to know your role?”
“Watch my purse,” I said, and placed it on the bar before heading to the restroom. Only after I was halfway there did I realize what a stupid, stupid, move that had been. Usually I did okay under pressure, but I’d never had to surveil my own grandma before. I sure did hope he was a cop and not a thief, and I sure was glad I’d left the diamond back at the resort.
I slowed down as I approached the open door of the meeting room, then walked by as slowly as I could without stopping and prayed that my grandma wouldn’t notice me. All four of them were sitting hunched over a table, looking at a big piece of paper. It looked like a set of blueprints.
I was so focused on them I almost bumped into a server carrying a large tray of fried foods, which she was about to take into the room for the Blingsters. It seemed that with whatever other questionable activities they were into, high cholesterol was a lesser concern.
When I made it back to the bar and sat down in front of my water glass and purse, my new friend asked me, “Where did you go?”
“To the bathroom, not that it’s any of your business,” I snapped.
“It’s just that you didn’t actually go to the bathroom.”
“Oh.” I took my purse and began to riffle through it, pretending to look for something but in reality making sure everything was still there. Seemed like nothing had been touched. What a gentleman. I pulled out a pen and acted like I wanted to write something, then pretended to change my mind and shove it back in my bag. I was sure I fooled exactly no one.
“Look,” he said as he scooted his barstool closer to mine. It made a horrible noise as it scraped along the sticky tile floor. “I don’t know who you are and I don’t know how you’re involved in all of this, but for your sake you should really take off and not look back.”
“I’m Griffin Beckett,” I said.
That stopped him cold for a few seconds, but he recovered well and shot me a nice smile. “Roland Magnussen.”
“Come here often, Rolly?”
“No one calls me Rolly. And no. You?”
I motioned for the bartender to come over. “Rolly here will take whatever German beer you have on tap. I’ll have a G&T. On him.”
The bartender nodded and moved off to get our drinks.
“Thanks for the burger yesterday, by the way. Beat the pants off that damn smoothie.”
“You’re welcome,” I said with a slight smile. “You should have seen your face when you took that first sip.”
We got our drinks and just to be sure, I asked him if his kelp smoothie at Moe’s had gotten any better after that first taste, and it turned out my grandma had in fact saved me from a very bad decision. We continued our small talk for another forty minutes, and I only excused myself from the bar three more times (remembering to take my purse with me). Every time Roland tried to ask me a personal question, I deflected it with either a question of my own or a trip to the bathroom.
From what I could tell, the Blingsters were making some sort of important plan that included not only blueprints but also a few maps (who used paper maps anymore?) and a whole bunch of fried appetizers, plus an entire chocolate raspberry cheesecake.
The pit of my stomach was filled with worry, and it was not a good feeling. When I sat back down next to Roland, I sighed.
“You should really see a doctor about your small bladder,” he said.
“Are you married?” I asked.
“Well, I just figured if we’re going to get up close and personal with each other I should at least find out if you’re married.”
“Looking at that rock on your finger, I take it you are,” he said, and maybe I heard a bit of regret in his voice. Maybe just as much regret as I was feeling. Then I felt bad about that too. “And no, I’m not.”
Roland’s observation about my ring made me think of the diamond again. “Rolly, why are you following these little old ladies?”
“Three of them are dangerous criminals,” he said. I wondered if the imported beer had gone to his head already since he was being so forthcoming now. Because he didn’t really seem like the sharing type.
“Oh come on,” I said, followed by a laugh intended to show him how ridiculous I thought he was being. “They’re ancient! How dangerous could they be?” I shook my head at the thought.
“They’ve got criminal records as long as your arm,” he said. We both looked at my arm and I wiggled my fingers. “And that one in the culottes? She may look frail, but she’ll break every bone in your body given half a chance.”
I knew he was talking about Smitty, but it still wasn’t computing. “Please,” I said.
“The fourth one, I don’t know about. She’s either an innocent who they’ve pulled into their orbit, or she’s a brilliant mastermind who they’ve brought in as their fixer.”
A wave of dread came over me; he was talking about G-ma. Based on what I’d seen since I’d arrived in Florida, I wasn’t sure which one she was either. But seriously. Smitty had to be pushing eighty, Big El too. Whatever they were doing with blueprints had to be something benign, like maybe some kind of prank where they were planning to sneak into a retirement village and kidnapping one of their friends to take them out to breakfast in their pajamas, like kids did in high school. Not that I was ever popular enough to have that happen to me personally, but I’d seen movies.
“So is one of those women in there your mom?” he asked.
The disappointment at once again being mistaken for G-ma’s daughter turned to low-level anger. But as I said before, that question never surprised me much anymore.
“Yeah,” I said. “And I have to leave soon to pick up my grandkids from school.”
His head snapped in my direction and his eyes went wide.
“No, Rolly. No one in there is my mother.” I looked toward the meeting room. “They’re on the move.”
Roland swiveled in his chair to check for himself. “Oh yeah.”
“Could you be any more obvious?” I asked. “Is this, like, your first week on the job?”
He mumbled something that I couldn’t hear, which was probably just as well. I picked up my purse and dug around for some cash to leave as a tip.
“Just be careful, okay?” said Roland. “Those women are extremely dangerous.”
I looked at him, and his brown eyes seemed even darker now. I nodded once and left.
After following the Blingsters back to their beach house, I sat in my rental car, hoping a Super Great Plan would magically come to me. Roland hadn’t followed us, so he must have thought things were okay for the moment. But I wasn’t so sure. This had to come to an end, right now. I listened to the waves for ten minutes, and no magical plan popped into my mind so I got out of the car, pulled up my pants (metaphorically speaking), and began to climb the stairs to the front door.
As I got closer, I could hear a thumping bass line coming from the house. It sounded too funky to be rap and too fast to be R&B. By the time I made it to the door I could also hear the glass windows rattling in their frames and more of the music’s melody. I got out my phone to Shazam the song. “Give Up the Funk” by Parliament. These people were serious about their funk! Right then and there my apprehension turned to dread. The Blingsters weren’t to be messed with, and I needed to watch my step more than I’d realized.
I knocked on the door, but of course no one answered. Again it was unlocked, so I peeked my head inside. “Hello?”
Vern and Bird Poop Man sat on one of the couches, playing Grand Theft Auto on a large TV that hadn’t been there the last time I’d visited. They turned to look at me.
“She’s in the kitchen!” yelled Vern over the music.
More red cups littered the floor and I spotted half a club sandwich floating in the blue carpet as I made my way through the living room. Two seniors I’d never seen before sat on the other blue floral couch. They were both vaping, blowing that weird smoke-but-not-smoke toward the open patio door. The air smelled of peppermint, pot, and pepperoni pizza. I wanted to be home so badly I thought I might cry.
G-ma stood in front of the stove, her back to me, butt wiggling in time to the bass line. She turned toward the sink and I saw she was wearing an apron and yellow latex gloves that were big enough for Shaq. She could have worn them as waders.
“Oh, hi Griffy!”
“Hi, G-ma. Are you cooking something?”
“No, just cleaning. The stove is my happy place.” She smiled at me, old toothbrush in one hand, bottle of Super Industrial Strength Kitchen Cleaner in the other.
“Well, we’re going to take you to your other happy place. Come on.” I took the cleaning supplies from her and set them on the counter before leading her to her bedroom. “Where’s your suitcase?”
“I don’t want to clean my suitcase!”
Was she being obtuse on purpose? “Never mind, I’ll find it.” I opened her closet and threw a few outfits on the bed as I searched through a pile of shoes and purses, finally finding her bag.
“What on earth!” she said, still standing there in her giant latex gloves.
“I’m taking you back to Oklahoma. Put a few things you want to take with you in there.” I pointed to the suitcase. When she didn’t move, I shrugged. “Fine, I’ll do it.” I picked up some of the things I’d tossed on the bed and dumped them in the open bag.
G-ma let out a huff and took an armful of jumpsuits from me. “Fine.” She spent a few minutes folding up some clothes and putting them, plus an assortment of undergarments (I tried not to look but what I saw made me blush—not even I would wear stuff that racy), shoes, and one purse into the suitcase. “There. Now what?” She glared at me with her gloved hands on her hips.
I walked over to her and gently took her hand to remove the glove. “Grandma, this isn’t you. None of this is right. Why are you doing this?”
I took off the other glove and she grabbed them from me and put them in the suitcase. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. “And I’ll have you know this is practically kidnapping.”
And here I thought maybe I was getting through to her, that I could make her see reason. I sighed, closed the suitcase, let G-ma gather up a few more things, and then led her out of the room.
“Griffin is kidnapping me,” announced G-ma to everyone in the living room. Now Smitty and Big El were out there too.
“I’m not kidnapping her,” I said. “We just have to be back in Oklahoma tonight. She’s got a dentist appointment in the morning.”
“We have dentists here,” said Big El, looking confused.
“I’m a dentist!” said Bird Poop Man.
There was no time to explain or argue. “Bye, y’all,” I said.
I managed to get G-ma and her bag out the door and to my rental car, and we drove off. No one stopped us and from what I could tell, no one was tailing us as we left. That was easy!
We made a quick stop at the fancy resort, where I made G-ma wait in the car (without the keys—I hoped she hadn’t learned to hotwire a vehicle lately) while I got my own bag. Never did get that hot stone massage.
Then we were off to the airport, where we returned the car and headed for the terminal.
“This is for the best,” I said as we waited in line to buy two last-minute tickets. They were going to cost me a fortune, I lamented.
“What about my Mercedes?” G-ma asked.
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Hmph,” she said, standing with her purse over one shoulder and her arms crossed.
When it was our turn at the counter, I said hi to the ticket agent and hefted our bags onto the big stainless-steel scale. “We’d like two tickets to Oklahoma City please, via Dallas.”
“And who will be traveling today?” he asked.
I set my passport on the counter. “Me and my grandma.” When I turned around to ask G-ma for her ID, she was gone.
Ready for Part Four? Find it here!
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Copyright 2022 by Andrea C. Neil