I recognized Millie’s work when I saw the tattooed spider web that radiated out from Mona’s quarter-sized areola and covered her entire left breast.
“Where’s the spider?” I asked.
A coy smile tugged at the corners of Mona Peterson’s lips.
I found the spider later, tattooed at the edge of her bikini line, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair. By then, I was trapped.
Before then, though, I could have walked away. I probably should have.
She first came to my office on a wet Tuesday afternoon, her college T-shirt glued to her like a second skin, and it was obvious she was both cold and braless. I tried not to stare at the dimpling of her thin gold T-shirt as she stood on the other side of my desk and dripped on my carpet.
Her hair hung in a sodden black mop and she tucked it behind her ears before she looked around my office. When she spied a stack of business cards on the corner of my desk, she pried one off the top. Neatly thermographed on the front of the card were my name—Morris Ronald Boyette—and my contact information. She held the card close to her face while she read. When she looked up, she asked, “This you?”
I’d just deposited a few thousand in my bank account—the final payment from a philandering spouse case I’d wrapped up less than a week earlier when I’d caught the husband on video sticking it to my client’s sister on top of a picnic table in Cameron Park—and I didn’t feel charitable. I said, “Yeah, it’s me.”
She dug into the front pocket of her tight-fitting jeans and dropped a wad of green on my blotter. I carefully peeled the wad apart, discovering five waterlogged Benjamin Franklins.
“I want to hire you.”
Millard Wayne Trout—Millie of Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings—listened to the story over tacos and beer after he closed his tattoo parlor that night.
“She walked all the way from the university in the rain?”
“That’s what she said,” I told him between bites.
“Did you carry her back?”
Millie wore a gray sweatshirt, leaving only the tattoos covering his hands, fingers, and shaved head visible until he pushed the sleeves up to his elbows and exposed his thick arms.
“She said no.”
“You see where she went?”
I shook my head. My office is a single room in the back of the building, behind Millie’s
Tattoos and Piercings. The empty suite across the hall from my office had once been occupied by a finance company too legitimate for the neighborhood and, in front of it, facing the street, was Big Mac’s Bail Bonds. Without leaving the building, I could only see the alley behind the building and the empty lot to the side.
Millie drained his beer and opened another.
Someone tapped on the window and we both turned. Standing on the sidewalk outside were two young women—blond, bouncy, and probably wasted. Millie walked to the front, unlocked the door, and pulled it opened. He stood in the open doorway to prevent the women from entering.
“No, please. Open up for us,” said the taller of the two. “My friend wants a tattoo.”
The shorter one reached in her pocket and pulled out a wad of money. “We can pay cash.”
“Come back when you’re sober, ladies,” Millie said.
“She won’t do it when she’s sober,” protested the taller one. She looked at her friend. “Show him where you want it.”
The shorter blonde pulled down her tube-top.
“She wants it to say ‘Got Milk?’”
“When you’re sober, ladies,” Millie repeated.
“We’ll just go somewhere else!”
Millie eased the door closed. The two young women looked at each other while the shorter one pulled up her top. They staggered away.
Millie returned to the counter where we’d been eating. “Sober clients don’t have regrets,” he said. He poked through the wrappers and found the last taco. “I hate it when they come back crying.”
The next morning, after a quick Internet search and a few phone calls, I drove to the university and parked in one of the visitor lots. I hadn’t been on campus in months and it took a while to wend my way through all the new construction. I finally found Mona’s English professor in his office, half-hidden behind a pile of books.
He looked up when I closed the door behind me. “May I help you?”
I settled into the only unoccupied seat, rested my elbows on the arms, and steepled my fingers in front of my chest. “That depends.”
“How well you know Mona Peterson.”
Color slowly drained from his face. “You related?”
I nodded. “We can trace our relationship back to Benjamin Franklin.” Quintuplet Benjamin Franklins.
His eyes narrowed. “What did she tell you?”
“What matters is what I tell you,” I said. “You don’t contact Mona again. She gets an A in your course. I hear different, I come back to visit you.”
He sat up a little straighter. “You can’t do anything to me,” he said. “I have tenure.”
“You might keep your tenure,” I explained, “but you won’t keep your balls.”
I let myself out of his office and returned to my Chevy.
Lester Beeson had taken over Big Mac’s Bail Bonds twenty-seven years earlier when a disgruntled client emptied a shotgun in Macdonald Pearson’s face. Lester was sitting behind his desk thumbing through a stack of file folders when I stepped into his office. He looked up, saw me, and pulled a folder from the middle of the stack. He tossed it across the desk.
“This guy’s become a pain in my ass.”
I flipped the folder open and looked at an average Joe, the kind of guy who worked every minute of overtime the company offered so he could pay for the bass boat he used as an excuse to get away from some shrew of a wife.
“His name’s Carl Weaver. He lives with his wife in Hubbard.” Lester gave me the address.
“He don’t answer when I call, and the employer I have listed in his file says he ain’t shown up for work in a month.”
“I need to see him in my office. I want some reassurance that he hasn’t skipped.”
Millie left his shop in the capable hands of Alice Frizell, a wisp of a tattoo artist he’d hired a year earlier, and he rode with me to Hubbard, a small town about thirty miles northeast of Waco.
Weaver lived in a one-bedroom frame house near the cemetery, and only one car occupied the driveway. I dropped Millie in the alley where he could watch the back of the house, and I found a convenient place to watch the front.
Weaver arrived home nearly an hour later, parked his pickup truck next to the car, and went inside. Thirty minutes later, his wife exited the house, climbed into her car, and drove away.
I called Millie’s cellphone. When he answered, I said, “He’s alone in there. Let’s go get him.”
“About time,” Millie responded. “I’m freezing my ass off out here.”
I went through the front door and Millie came in through the back. We met in the living room and quickly realized we were alone in the house. We discovered why when we found the clothes Weaver had been wearing strewn across the bed, three wig stands—only two of which held wigs—on the dresser, and a selection of women’s clothes suitable for a large woman or a man of Weaver’s size.
“Think he’s really married?” Millie asked.
Although we found a lot of make-up, we found no feminine products. “If he ever was,” I said, “he isn’t now.”
Millie and I left things pretty much as we found them and walked out to my Chevy. We drove to a small cafe, ordered cheeseburgers, fries, and coffee. While we ate, a young couple sat at a table near us. The woman wore low-slung jeans that exposed the T-bar of her thong and the tramp stamp above the crack of her ass.
Millie jerked his thumb at the woman’s tattoo. “Whoever did that should break all his needles and quit the business. I do better work when I’m blind drunk.”
“Why do they do it?”
“People get tattoos for all sorts of reasons,” Millie said. “I do a lot of ugly people who would be better off spending the money on dental work and plastic surgery. And I do eighteen-year-olds rebelling against their parents who will probably regret it when they grow up to be soccer moms and Boy Scout dads.”
I looked at Millie. Every part of his body that I had ever seen, except his face and his palms, was covered with tattoos. I wondered where he fit in.
After we finished dinner, Millie and I returned to Weaver’s house. We waited in my Chevy until Weaver’s return at half past midnight, and we were tired and not in the mood for subtlety.
For a second time, Millie went through the back door and I went through the front. We caught Weaver standing in his bedroom wearing only a bra and panties. He tried to resist until Millie planted a fist in his gut. We threw a blanket over him and grabbed some clothes. We walked him to my car, where he sat in back next to Millie and pulled on the clothes we’d grabbed for him.
On the return trip to Waco, I phoned Lester and told him we had Weaver. I said, “You could have told me he’s a cross-dresser.”
Lester laughed. “He must be one ugly woman.”
“You don’t know the half of it.”
The bail bondsman met us at his office fifteen minutes later.
“How’m I going to get home?” Weaver asked.
“Not our problem,” I told him as I left with Lester. I knew the guy probably wasn’t going home, and where he was going his choice of underthings would not work in his favor.
After we left Lester’s office, Millie slipped into his car—a 1965 Mustang he’d rescued from a
junkyard—and I went home.
Mona Peterson returned to my office at the beginning of the Christmas break. She carried a backpack and said she had no family with whom to spend the holidays. She said she wanted to thank me for taking care of her problem earlier in the semester.
I told her that the quintuplets had already shown their appreciation.
“The university won’t let students stay in the dorms during Christmas break.” I waited while Mona’s gaze traveled around my office before settling on my face. “I can’t go home and I can’t afford a motel. I gave you all the money I had.”
Clients always have sad stories or they wouldn’t need to hire guys like me. “I don’t give refunds.”
“No,” she said. “I suppose not. I wouldn’t ask for one.”
“It’s just that—” She sucked her lower lip between her teeth and chewed on it.
I knew where Mona was headed, and I let her lead me there.
“Do you know any place I might stay?”
I did. I had a two-bedroom brick ranch just off of New Road and I took her there. The second bedroom had become a large walk-in closet filled with storage boxes and dust bunnies, so I prepared a place for her on the couch while she showered. I used floral print sheets and a pink blanket I hadn’t removed from the linen closet since my divorce.
After I finished preparing the couch, I retrieved a beer from the fridge, sat in my favorite chair in the living room, and nursed it.
When Mona stepped from the bathroom, she was wearing a white bath towel wrapped twice around her and was drying her hair with a second towel.
She looked at the makeshift bed and at me. “That’s not what I had in mind.”
Mona dropped one towel. Then she dropped the other. That’s when I saw the spider-web tattoo that covered her entire left breast. I gagged on my beer. When I recovered, I asked, “Where’s the spider?”
A coy smile tugged at the corners of my client’s lips as she crossed the room.
I shifted position but couldn’t hide my reaction to her nakedness. She straddled my lap and gyrated her hips ever so slowly.
One hand still held the beer. The other held tight to the arm of the chair. I said, “We
shouldn’t do this.”
Mona continued gyrating her hips as she leaned forward and pressed her lips against mine.
They were soft and parted easily to allow our tongues to meet.
I dropped my beer, wrapped my arms around her, and carried her into the bedroom.
When I buried my face between her thighs, I saw the spider, its eight little legs caught in her curly black pubic hair, so small I could only see it close up. Before I had a chance to react, Mona grabbed the back of my head and thrust her pubic bone against my nose.
I had not been with a woman her age since I had been a man her age. I had forgotten how energetic they could be, and we found several ways to pleasure one another. When we finished, Mona turned away, curled into a fetal ball, and fell asleep.
After I slid out of bed, I padded barefoot and naked into the living room, where I picked up the half-empty beer bottle I’d dropped before carrying Mona to bed. I used an old towel to soak up the spilled beer. Then I opened a fresh bottle and drank it while contemplating the meaning of Mona’s tattoo and the web she had spun for her English professor.
I returned to the office three days later, did nothing most of the morning, and accepted Millie’s invitation to lunch at the wing place down the street.
Millie stared hard at the blonde seated two tables away. “That’s the perfect canvas,” he said. “Smooth alabaster skin, nearly hairless.”
I told him about Mona’s spider web and that it seemed like his work.
“The spider web?” Millie said. “I’ve only done one like it, must have been a year ago, maybe two. The girl looked so young I made her show I.D. She came alone, paid cash before I started, and never once complained about the process. Some of those college girls can be real whiners.”
“Ever see her again?”
“She came back once, a few months after I did the work, said she needed a place to stay during Spring Break. I was shacked up with Bridget at the time or I might have offered her the couch at my place.”
“She’s not satisfied with the couch.”
“I wouldn’t think so, not a girl like her,” Millie said with a smile. Then the smile faded. “You
I nodded. “I’ve seen the spider.”
“Moe Ron, Moe Ron, Moe Ron.” Only Millie called me that, and this time the nickname fit. “She’s not much older than your son. You should know better.”
“Where is she now?”
“I left her at the mall,” I said. “There’s no way I’m leaving her alone in my house.”
“At least you got that part right.”
I needn’t have bothered. Mona was waiting for me when I returned home that evening, sitting in my favorite chair with an open beer in her hand, wearing one of my shirts and nothing else. Only a single button kept the shirt closed.
“How many people did you rough up today?” she asked.
“None,” I said. I didn’t bother asking how she’d gotten in because the back door key lay on the coffee table next to the day’s mail, and I knew if I checked my key ring I would be short one key.
“Well, you did all right by me,” she said. “I checked my grades this afternoon. Straight A’s.”
Mona’s English professor had come through. How she’d earned her other high marks I hadn’t a clue until she undid the button and let the shirt fall open.
“I think we should celebrate.”
Lester Beeson caught me on my way to my office the next morning. “Weaver skipped again,” he said. “He’s in the wind.”
I walked up front to find Millie collecting payment from a biker with a face like a Shar-Pei and a fresh tattoo depicting a winged unicorn flying over a rainbow. After his customer walked out the door, Millie explained, “Said it was for his daughter.”
“Can you get free? Weaver’s on the loose again and Lester’s not happy.”
Millie called to Alice and told her to take care of things. We were walking around back of the building to our cars when Mona showed up. She said, “I’m lonely.”
“I have to go,” I told her. “We have a job.”
“I don’t like being left alone,” Mona said. “Let me go with you.”
“You’ll get in the way.”
As she sucked on her lower lip, I glanced at Millie. He shrugged.
I said, “Get in the back.”
She did, and soon we were headed north out of Waco. As we passed through Bellmead, I glanced at Mona in the rearview mirror. “Millie says he did your ink.”
“How do you think I found you?” Mona said. “I saw your sign that night.”
We followed Weaver’s trail until we found him sitting in a well-lit diner in Corsicana, dressed as the ugly broad he’d been when we first encountered him. When he saw us push through the diner’s front door, he dashed into the women’s restroom, a place Millie and I dared not go with so many people watching us.
“I’ll go out back,” Millie said, “make sure he doesn’t climb out a window.”
Mona didn’t say anything. She just pushed past us and marched directly into the women’s restroom. We heard a rather guttural scream of pain, and she came out a moment later with Weaver’s blond wig in one hand and his scrotum in the other. On his tiptoes, Weaver minced along behind her.
The other patrons of the diner stared at the four of us, but none of them interfered as Millie grabbed the back of Weaver’s neck and marched him out to my car. Mona followed. I grabbed Weaver’s purse from the booth where he’d been sitting, dug through it, and tossed some money on the table next to his half-eaten meal. Then I joined the other three outside.
Mona sat in the passenger seat and Millie sat in back with Weaver. After I slipped into the driver’s seat, I turned and looked at our collar. “You’re costing Lester a lot of money,” I said. “I won’t be surprised if he tries to revoke your bond this time.”
“He can’t do that.”
Weaver didn’t deserve a response, so I started the car and pulled out of the parking lot, headed home to Waco. None of us spoke until we handed Weaver off to Lester Beeson, and we walked out of Beeson’s office as he began reading Weaver the riot act.
Millie returned to his tattoo parlor and Mona followed me into my office. As I settled behind my desk, she perched on the corner and did that thing with her bottom lip.
After a bit, she said, “Christmas is coming.”
“What are you getting me?”
“A place to stay isn’t enough?”
“You haven’t even put up a tree!”
“How about we pick one out tonight?”
She liked that idea. “Maybe I should go home and rearrange the living room so we have a place to put it,” she said. “Call me a cab, Moe Ron.”
Later, over beer, I told Millie I couldn’t stay long because I was going Christmas tree shopping. Then we talked about what had happened that afternoon, about how Mona had walked Carl Weaver out of the women’s restroom.
“She’s got hold of yours, too,” Millie said.
I had been about to take a drink, but I stopped. “How’s that?”
“What do you know about Mona?”
“She hired me to—”
“To scare off the previous man in her life.”
“You think I’m taking advantage of her?” I asked. “I’m not in any position of authority. I don’t have any impact on her grades.”
“You don’t? How’d she ace the English class?”
I lowered my beer.
“Maybe you aren’t taking advantage of her,” Millie said, “but she’s sure as hell taking advantage of you.”
I stared at him.
“Christmas tree shopping? Really?”
I glared at him for a moment before I pushed my chair back and stood. “I have to go.”
He waved me away. “Make like an angel and bend over,” he said, “’cause you know you’re gong to take it up the ass when this is all over.”
Mona had moved some of the living room furniture, opening up space by the front window.
She said, “I think a tree will look nice right there.”
She was right, it did. That evening, after I had the tree secure in the stand, I dug through the closet in the second bedroom for ornaments I hadn’t used since my wife walked out. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my ex had taken all the good ones, and what remained was inadequate to the task of decoration. I said something to that effect.
“That’s all right,” Mona said. “I think the tree looks fine.”
I strung the only two strands of twinkling lights that still functioned, and we sat on the
couch staring at them.
As she snuggled into the crook of my arm, I asked, “Why are you here? Why couldn’t you go home for the holidays?”
“My father doesn’t want me around. He says I get in the way.”
“What does your father do that you get in the way?”
Mona didn’t answer my question, but asked one of her own, “What about your son? Why isn’t he here for Christmas?”
I had told her about my divorce, but not about my son. His absence was not by my choice, and I had long since come to terms with our non-existent relationship. I didn’t let her question distract me from my questions. “And why couldn’t you afford to go somewhere else when the dorm closed for the holiday?”
“I don’t get my allowance until the first of the month.”
“I have a trust fund,” she said. “My expenses are paid directly by the trust, and once a month I get some walking-around money. This month, all of it walked around without me.”
“What about friends? Couldn’t you have spent the time with friends?”
Her hand slid up my thigh. “I thought you were my friend.”
Lester Beeson caught my attention as I entered the building two days before Christmas.
“Weaver hung himself.”
“I thought you had his bond revoked.”
“I did,” Beeson said. “Jailers found him in his cell this morning. He was scheduled for sentencing today. He was looking at three to five inside.”
“A man like him wouldn’t last long.”
“He must have known it.”
I had never bothered to ask what Weaver had done because I wasn’t paid to care. Even so, hearing of his suicide put a damper on my day, and my trip to the jewelry store later that day wasn’t as exciting as I had hoped.
The next afternoon, as I prepared to head home to spend Christmas Eve with Mona, a man built like a defensive lineman pushed into my office, interrupting my examination of the Christmas gift I planned to give her. When I saw the butt of a semi-automatic hanging in a shoulder holster beneath his unbuttoned jacket, I shoved the gift in my desk drawer.
He asked, “Do you know Mona Peterson?”
“Humor me,” he said. He closed the door behind him. “Let’s say you do.”
“So now you forget her.”
“Her father insists.”
“And who’s her father?”
He rested his knuckles on my desk and leaned in close enough that I could smell the onions on his breath.
“Mona likes to toy with stupid fucks like you,” he said. “You get a piece of that young stuff and you think you’re in love. She’ll chew you up, spit you out, and replace you with another stupid fuck. I’m saving you the grief by taking her off your hands now.”
I didn’t appreciate being told what to do, so I made a move. I thrust my hand under his jacket and grabbed the butt of his semi-automatic.
Before the pistol even cleared leather, my visitor drove a fist into the center of my face, smashing my nose and driving me backward. If my office hadn’t been so small, I might have crashed to the floor. As it was, the chair tipped backward and caught between the wall and the desk, leaving me waving my arms and legs in the air like an upended spider.
“I guess it’s already too late for you.” He peeled five Benjamins from his wallet and tossed them on my desk. “This oughtta cover your pain and suffering.”
He was gone before I could right myself, and by the time I reached the front of the building he was nowhere in sight.
Millie stepped out of his shop and joined me at the curb. He looked at the blood still streaming from my nose and put the pieces together. “Your visitor left in a stretch limo.”
“You catch the plate number?”
He shook his head. “No, but when the door opened I saw Mona sitting inside.”
He named a state senator whose last name didn’t match Mona’s. Before I could grasp the implication, he added, “Come into the shop. I’ll get a wet towel and we can clean you up.”
When I returned home that afternoon, Mona’s backpack was gone. So were half the Christmas tree ornaments. I hung her gift from the tree—a ruby-eyed gold spider on a chain—and stared at it as the twinkling Christmas lights reflected eerily from its eyes. Then I drank myself to sleep.
The Friday after Christmas, Millie and I were discussing tattoos and sharing nachos at George’s, half-empty Big O’s in front of us, when Mona’s English professor stopped at our table. I said, “Yeah?”
“Was she worth it?”
I couldn’t answer his question, not then, so he turned and walked away. I watched him take the arm of a woman closer to his own age as they pushed through the door.
Millie and I resumed our conversation about tattoos, specifically about Mona’s.
I said, “That spider was pretty small.”
“I’ve done smaller.”
“The smallest tattoo I ever did was for a writer,” Millie said. “He had me tattoo a period on his ass.”
I didn’t want to know why.