The Ring Bling, Part Two: The Situation
Want to re-read Part One? Find it here.
My Grandma gave directions while I drove. Fifteen minutes later, we sat in a small diner called Moe’s. The view of the water from our table just about had me convinced I should give up on Fort Worth and join my G-ma in her Florida high life.
“Isn’t it great here?” G-ma put down her menu and gave me a huge smile from across the booth.
“If by ‘here’ you mean Key Largo and this amazing view, then yes, it’s great. If you mean this restaurant, I’m not so sure.” Peeling the menu from my fingers, I hoped the sticky residue was something benign, like syrup. The place wasn’t very full, which never boded well for a diner on a Saturday around lunchtime.
“Moe’s isn’t much to look at, but they’ve got great food, you’ll see. It’s not very busy right now on account of there’s a big fishing tournament over at the Mackerel Club. Everyone’s probably over there.” G-ma swung her head toward the sea and her dangly jade earrings swooshed along for the ride.
I hadn’t remembered her having this much style before. I wouldn’t say it was my style, or even good style, but it was definitely style. Her hair usually had a purplish tint, but now it was snow white and cut short. It stood up on the top of her head, obviously mussed into place with styling product.
I certainly wasn’t winning any fashion awards myself. My dark-brown hair was currently pulled back into a ponytail. I had to wear it that way, otherwise I’d look like Monica in the episode of Friends when they went to that tropical island and her hair got so frizzy it was on the verge of being an international diplomatic incident.
In addition to jade earrings, G-ma had on Ray-Bans and a red-and-white floral jumpsuit that looked surprisingly good, considering how loud it was. Her nails had recently been painted red and she wore matching lipstick. When she turned back to smile at me, I caught a glimpse of a jade pendant necklace nestled in her décolletage. It was a circle with a hole in it, like a green donut. It had to have been fake because something that size in real jade would have cost a fortune, and I knew my grandma didn’t have that kind of cheddar.
A server brought us a carafe of coffee and two cups. “What’ll you be having?”
“I will have the ham and cheese skillet and Griffy will have the bleu cheese burger with extra onion rings.” G-ma interlaced her fingers and placed her hands on the tabletop, looking up at the waitress with an air of expectancy.
“Sure thing, Marge,” said the server, and she walked off toward the kitchen.
“But I was going to get a kelp smoothie,” I said, irked that she’d ordered for me like I was still a little kid.
G-ma frowned. “Oh Griffy, you don’t come to a greasy spoon like this and get a kelp smoothie. That’s a rookie move.” I looked confused and she winked at me. “Just ’cause it’s on the menu doesn’t mean you should order it. Besides, you’re looking a little thin. We need to fatten you up!” She stood up in the booth enough to lean over and pinch my cheek.
I felt another set of eyes on me and looked to the door to see a man about my age walking into the diner. He’d seen what had just happened—his head was turned away, but I could tell he was trying to stifle a laugh. Then he looked around as if strategizing where to sit. He was quite tall, and not too bad looking, if I was being honest. He wore jeans and a navy-blue T-shirt, both of which fit him well.
He took a seat at a two-top along the wall across from our window booth. As he settled in, he inspected his menu but kept checking out our table and I felt my cheeks redden. Something about him reminded me I had a giant princess-cut diamond in the left pocket of my chinos. I’d forgotten about it, and now that I’d remembered, I wasn’t sure what to do. I said nothing but continued with my internal debate.
“Did you like our beach house?” G-ma looked at me with wide, hopeful eyes.
“Who decorated it, Liberace?” Her face sank with disappointment and I felt bad that I’d gone too far. “It sure was … blue!” I said in a peppy tone. “Did y’all have a party last night? The place looked kind of a mess.”
“A celebration,” she said. “Although honestly, it’s that messy all the time.”
“Doesn’t that drive you nuts?” I asked.
G-ma slapped her palms on the linoleum tabletop. “Darn tootin’ it drives me nuts! Those women are slobs. I mean, I’ve never seen anything like it!”
“The stove was awfully clean though.”
G-ma looked happy again. “Yup! No one cooks but me. I tell them to keep their filthy pizza box collection off my tidy stove. It’s the only space I insist on keeping clean, except for my bedroom.”
“Good for you for taking a stand,” I said. “What were you celebrating?”
“Smitty’s an artist,” she said. “She just sold a couple of pieces.”
“Oh, is she a painter or sculptor or what?”
G-ma cleared her throat. “Performance art.”
Before I could ask who Smitty was and how she could manage to sell a piece of performance art—maybe they were NFTs, I reasoned—my grandma changed the subject and started telling me about her cruise.
“It was just the most funnest thing ever! At first I was kind of scared, see, on account of I was all by myself and didn’t know anyone. Dinnertime was kind of a drag … You know how much I hate small talk. But on the second night the Blingsters found me, and things have been nonstop excitement ever since!”
“What the heck is a Blingster?”
“That’s the name of the little gang my roommates are in. Oh, I mean group. Group, not gang. Yeah. Elva, Laverne, and Smitty. They call themselves the Bling Sisters, or the Blingsters for short.”
“That’s a weird name,” I said, taking a sip of my coffee. Pretty good—I was surprised.
“Oh, I know,” lamented G-ma. “Totally lame. But they were great fun. We got into all kinds of capers—I mean escapades—on the ship. And when we got back to Miami, they asked me if I wanted to stay longer. They said they’d just lost their senior-senior member and told me I could move in with them since they had a spare bedroom.”
“What’s a senior-senior?”
“Yeah, she was the oldest and she’d been in the group the longest.”
“What happened to her?”
G-ma looked down at her hands. “I’m not sure I should tell you,” she said.
I’d assumed that “losing” a senior-senior meant said senior-senior had passed on to the great retirement condo in the sky. But maybe not. The more G-ma spoke, the more questions I had.
“It’s okay,” I said. “You can tell me.” And whether or not I reported back to my parents with the answer remained to be seen.
“Well …” She looked like she wanted to tell me something, but no explanation seemed to be forthcoming.
As I waited for her to continue, I watched the server place a tall glass full of a thick, green liquid in front of the good-looking man. A spoon stood straight up in the center of the glass. He moved it aside, took a drink, and winced.
“Cop,” said G-ma.
“She was a cop?” I asked, swinging my gaze back to her.
“No,” she said. “Him.” She tilted her head toward the guy I’d been ogling.
She’d been watching me watch him. Her facial expression indicated she knew what I’d been thinking too. I opened my mouth to defend myself, but never got the chance to.
“Don’t even think about it,” she said.
“I’m married!” I exclaimed, putting one hand on my chest in mock astonishment. “And what’s wrong with cops, anyway? I worked for the FBI. Wait a minute! How do you know he’s a cop?” I eyed my grandma carefully, making sure she hadn’t been replaced by some kind of little old lady mob boss. Or a politician.
“You can just tell. See his clothes? Too fancy for the beach. And who else would be dumb enough to get a kelp smoothie at Moe’s?”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
The server brought our food to the table. The cheeseburger smelled heavenly and even though I didn’t eat burgers but every couple of months, I was glad my grandma had ordered for me after all. I took a bite and was in heaven.
“Great, right?” G-ma held a forkful of cheesy, hammy, egg scramble. I just nodded since the speech part of my brain seemed to have stopped working.
“Well, look who it is!” said a voice coming from over my left shoulder.
It took great willpower, but I turned my gaze away from my pile of onion rings to find a group of three women my G-ma’s age had come into the diner and were standing at our table. I recognized them all from the house—they were her roommates.
“Hello, gals!” said my G-ma. “Let me introduce you to my granddaughter, Griffin!”
I had to look up to see them. While their faces seemed friendly to the untrained eye, I got a different vibe. Perhaps it was because they had to look down their noses at me, but they seemed to be judging me, and judging me hard.
G-ma pointed to the woman who had chatted up my boobs when I’d first arrived at the house. “Griffin, this is Laverne DePew.”
Laverne smiled that benign smile at me again. “Hello, dear,” she said. Her left eye squinted slightly, and I knew right away that was her tell. “You can call me Vern.”
“Hi, Vern,” I said, smiling but not making a move to shake her hand. Both of mine were covered with burger and onion ring grease. I did look at her hand though, and noticed not one or two, but three diamond tennis bracelets on her left wrist.
“And that over there is Elva Fiorini, or Big El to her pals.” G-ma pointed to a woman who was as round as a beach ball and, if memory served, was the woman I’d seen in the first bedroom doing unspeakable things with someone I hoped was at least a friend.
Big El had coppery hair and wore an all-white Adidas retro track suit. She had a brand-new pair of Stan Smiths on her feet, and huge rings on every finger. A few were sapphires set in platinum. One was a giant ruby, and another appeared to be an emerald. Her arms must have felt so heavy under the weight of all those rocks.
“Hi there, Griffin!” she said in an assertive voice. I gave her a weak smile in return.
“And that’s Daiyu Smith.” G-ma pointed to the last woman, the one with jet-black hair who’d taken a face-plant on her bed the night before. She was a head shorter than the others (if that could even be possible), and had on a loose peasant blouse, culottes, and black flats. Gold earrings in the shape of Chinese dragons hung from her unusually large earlobes.
“Smitty,” she said, bowing. “Pleased to meet you.” Her voice was so soft I had to strain to hear her over the hum of the diner’s noisy, and probably broken, ice machine.
All three women stood there looking so darned sweet. Almost. But not quite. Menacing was more like it.
“Thanks for watching out for my grandma,” I said to them.
Vern laughed. “Oh sweetie, she watches out for us.”
I quirked an eyebrow at her cryptic response and glanced at my grandma, who had suddenly turned a subtle shade of green. She almost matched her jade jewelry.
“Well, we’ll leave you two to catch up,” Vern continued, giving us a little wave before leading her friends off to a table on the other side of the diner. I was pretty sure that Big El gave my grandma a stern look of some kind, and my grandma nodded slightly in response.
As soon as they sat down, I leaned over my burger. “Okay, G-ma, what’s going on?”
“Nothing, dear. Finish your onion rings.”
As we ate in silence, I kept looking between the cute guy and his untouched kelp smoothie and the table of bling-laden women who appeared to be deep in conversation. Very quiet, serious conversation.
“Are you going to tell me what their deal is, or am I going to have to march over there and ask?” I hated to give my grandma such a lame ultimatum—it sounded so … parental. However, I wasn’t so sure that my grandma didn’t need a little adult supervision.
“Shh!” she hissed at me. “Big El has frightfully powerful hearing aids. Let’s just finish and go for a walk.”
After I’d hit my grease quota for the next six months, I excused myself to go wash my hands in the bathroom. I stood at the sink and pumped a second helping of hand soap into my palm when Smitty came in. I watched her in the mirror as she let the door close, then stood in front of it, arms crossed. She was so small I could have sneezed and blown her out of my way, yet she was one of the most imposing figures I’d ever been in a bathroom with.
I turned the water off, reached for a paper towel, and smiled at her as I dried my hands. Her face remained expressionless except the right side of her mouth crept upward into a crooked sneer.
Was she blocking my way, or waiting for me to move? I couldn’t tell.
“We know,” she said in a low voice.
My mind raced as I tried to work out my next move.
“We know,” she repeated, arms still crossed. She looked me over from head to toe. “About what you did.”
“Oh, that.” I had no idea what she was talking about, but whatever it was, I felt really, really bad about it. And also a little scared.
Maybe I did know what she was talking about. I wanted to reach for the diamond in my pocket to make sure it was still there, but it would have been too obvious.
“Yes, that. How did you do it?”
“I don’t know. I just … felt around for something big and there it was.”
Smitty tilted her head. “Could you do it again?”
“Except maybe in reverse.”
“Could you remind me what we’re talking about?” I asked.
“Marge said that you found a whole lot of missing money for the government one time. So could you do that again, only in reverse? We could make it worth your while.”
G-ma must have told her new friends about the Quintanilla case from three years earlier. My team and I had recovered some funds that a notorious ring of fountain pen smugglers had been trying to hide. I’d gotten an award and everything.
“So you want me to help you hide some money from the government,” I said.
“Something like that, yes.” Smitty uncrossed her arms and walked toward me. She kept clenching her right hand into a fist, then letting it go again. My eyes darted around, looking for an escape route. There wasn’t one.
“I’m kind of busy right now on another project,” I said. “But how about I let you guys know when things have quieted down, and we can talk then?”
Smitty nodded. “I suppose that is acceptable for now. But don’t forget our offer.”
“Oh, I won’t, I promise!” I nodded once in return then took a quick step to my left and made a beeline for the door.
“Griffy, you look like you’ve seen a ghost!” said G-ma as I sat back down on my side of the booth.
“No, just a miniature ninja,” I said.
“Oh, yeah. Smitty is kinda scary.”
Just then a woman came and set our check on the table. She was thin as a rail and had skin that looked like those photos of the parched, cracked dirt in Death Valley.
“How was everything?” she asked. Her voice sounded like sandpaper that had been sitting in that Death Valley sun for a month.
“Oh, hiya, Moe,” said G-ma. “Everything was simply delish, wasn’t it, Griffy?”
This was Moe? I’d pictured someone more … man-like. Okay, I’d pictured a man. There, I said it. To her credit though, she did sound like one, so I was partially right.
“Yes, really good.”
“Great, great,” said Moe, nodding. “You gals need anything else?”
“No thank you,” I said.
“Actually, yes,” said my grandma. She looked around the diner, then motioned for Moe to lean in closer. “See that feller over there with the kelp smoothie? Don’t everyone look all at once!”
I stared at my empty plate while Moe turned her head to look at the hot guy. “Yeah,” she whispered.
“Could you make him a cheeseburger and onion rings? Griffin will give you money to cover it.”
I glowered at her, but she conveniently didn’t notice.
“Sure,” said Moe. She smiled without showing any teeth—possibly because she didn’t have any—and went back into the kitchen.
Perhaps my grandma had forgotten I’d just been let go from my decent-paying accounting job. I wasn’t made of money, for cripes’ sake! My husband, Brian, did make good money at his accounting job with a private-sector firm, but I’d always insisted on paying my own way. However, paying the way for a stranger, even if he might be a detective and definitely cute, was not in my budget for this trip.
“Stop glaring at me,” said G-ma. “He looks hungry.”
We left the diner and walked toward the ocean instead of going back to the car. At the end of the main street was a pier, so we bought ice cream from a nearby shop and started walking out over the water.
“That guy must like his burger,” I said. “He didn’t follow us.”
“He wasn’t there for you and me. He’s watching the Blingsters.”
We walked on, eating our ice cream.
“You need to come home with me,” I finally said, trying to slurp up a bit of melted chocolate ice cream that dribbled over the side of my wax-paper cup. They had given us scoops the size of Texas.
“I can’t,” said G-ma. “I’m kind of in the middle of something right now.”
I stopped and when she turned around to see where I was, I gave her my best disapproving look, which I’d learned from my mom when I’d been a teenager. I’m not sure how I managed it, but also at that moment my Texas-sized scoop of ice cream fell out of the cup and onto the weathered boards of the pier.
“Oh, Griffin,” she sighed. “I see not much has changed.”
I huffed and rolled the ice cream back into the cup and tossed it in a nearby trash can.
“This is not the time to rehash my childhood,” I said. “Explain what’s going on.”
“I can’t do that, sweetie. Well, okay, I can explain a little, I guess.”
“I think I already know why you call them the Blingsters,” I said. “They had on enough gold to start their own jewelry store. They must be serious collectors.”
“Well, they don’t exactly collect jewelry, per se …”
My stomach tightened up. “G-ma, what have you gotten yourself into?”
“Let’s just say the ladies have some interesting hobbies.” She looked out at the water, squinting against the bright sun. Then she took another bite of her ice cream and continued down the pier.
I had the distinct feeling that neither she nor I would be heading back home on the evening flight. I got out my phone to look for a nearby hotel and text my dad.
Ready for Part Three? Read it here!
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Copyright 2022 by Andrea C. Neil