Dinner at Royal Taj was not only delicious, but educational. The owner personally made recommendations on which dishes to order and how to best enjoy the cultural experience. By the time the final glass of wine was poured, Granny Bert had a new favorite cuisine.
“I bet this would be even better with a little of my homemade salsa on it. Throw in a pot of red beans and cornbread, and you’d have a real feast.”
“This isn’t a red beans and cornbread kind of meal, Granny.”
“What’s wrong with red beans and cornbread? Use a little fatback for seasoning, and it’s hard to beat a good pot of pinto beans. This naan is good, but there’s nothing like cornbread to go with beans. Many a night, that’s all we had for supper.”
Knowing the subject would soon turn to walking five miles to school each day—through the snow, no less—and doing chores before dawn, Madison gently turned the topic toward Genny’s upcoming wedding.
Midway through the conversation, Madison had the uneasy sensation of being watched. She subtly turned her head, pretending to work a crick from her neck. She didn’t see anyone, but the feeling persisted. She asked Genny about the flowers for the ceremony as she shifted in her seat and peered deeper into the restaurant. She didn’t see anyone returning her gaze.
“Are you okay, girl?” Granny Bert finally asked. “You act like you have ants in your pants.”
“I think I’ll find the little girl’s room.”
“It’s right around the corner,” her grandmother supplied.
“I’ll be right back.”
She spotted him on the way back to the table. He sat in the far corner of the restaurant, at a small table near the front. Ready to dash out the door, no doubt. The man from the airplane looked no more relaxed now than he did then. His eyes met hers for the briefest of moments, before he looked hastily away. Not before she felt their heated intensity.
“You look pale,” Genny noted when she returned to the table. “This spicy food hasn’t upset your stomach, has it?”
“It’s not that. Granny, remember yesterday when you thought someone was following us?”
“You mean when I said, ‘don’t look now,’ so you craned your neck around like a nosy giraffe?”
Madison made a face. “So, here’s your chance to show me how it’s done. Don’t look now, but I think our friend is following us again.”
“Okay,” she said slowly. “Where is he?” To her credit, the older woman didn’t as much as cut her eyes.
“Small table against the front wall. Near the door.”
“I know Genny doesn’t want dessert,” Granny Bert abruptly changed the subject, “but
the owner said they had a fabulous rice pudding here. I think I’ll have some.”
For a moment, Madison thought her grandmother had lost her mind. Here she was babbling about dessert, instead of worrying about the potential danger of a stalker. When Granny Bert tossed her hand into the air and looked around for their waiter, Madison understood.
“Yoo-hoo,” her grandmother called.
Dozens of diners looked up from their meal, including the lone man at the table near the door. Shattering the quiet murmur of the upscale eatery, Granny Bert continued, “Yoo-hoo, maître d. Hello. Can we get some dessert over here?”
Madison wanted to sink beneath the white tablecloth, but her grandmother’s antics worked, yet again.
“Yep, that’s the guy,” Granny Bert chirped to her companions. “Same bulb nose and beady eyes.”
“That’s why that description sounded so familiar,” Madison realized. “I saw that man on the plane. He wasn’t at all happy about the delay we caused.”
“He doesn’t look too happy right now, either,” Genny said. She was the only one with a direct line of sight to his table. “Why would he be following you, though?”
“He was seated near the bin where the attendant put my bag,” Madison recalled.
“So, do you think he’s the one who took your suitcase, and you have his?”
A flash of hope soared within her chest. It crashed just as quickly. “Maybe. But why wouldn’t he approach me, instead of just following us around? He deliberately avoided my eyes just now.”
“And he’s leaving,” her friend reported.
“Yep. Didn’t even wait for the ticket. Just threw a wad of bills onto the table and is walking out right now.”
“I don’t like this,” Madison admitted. “Something doesn’t make sense.”
“Maybe he’s embarrassed.” Genny rolled her hands as she talked out a scenario. “He took the wrong luggage, now he’s shy about approaching an attractive woman. He’s afraid of looking foolish. He knows you have the suitcase with his dirty underwear, he—”
“You can stop right there. First, there isn’t a shy bone in this man’s body. He has that take-charge attitude about him. Second, there weren’t any dirty underwear. In fact, there weren’t any clothes at all, just a bunch of junk. It looked like the bottom of someone’s work locker.” She shared with them her theory of someone’s last day on the job.
“That’s it, then. He lost his job and he’s in a fowl and antsy mood. Now he has to go home and tell his wife why he has some other woman’s unmentionables and how he lost not only his job, but his personal effects.”
Madison rolled the theory around in her head before promptly discarding it.
“Nah, I didn’t believe it, either,” Genny admitted. “But there has to be an explanation.”
“There is,” Granny Bert said in her matter of fact manner. “He was doctoring the books, and you have his second ledger. He didn’t report it to lost baggage because it could get him in trouble.”
She hated to admit it, but her grandmother had a point. “Actually, that makes sense.”
“If he knows you found the ledger, it could put you in a dangerous spot,” Genny reasoned. “So how do you approach him with a switch, without letting him know you saw it?”
“I could say I recognize him from the plane and act like I’m terribly embarrassed, but does he happen to have my bag? I have someone else’s bag full of folders. I don’t have to mention the ledger or the light or the—” she stopped mid-sentence as another realization hit her “—pens.” She twisted toward her grandmother. “Granny Bert, how much do you know about your poker pals back at the hotel?”
She shrugged her bony shoulders. “Not much. They’re from Chicago and are in town to close a business deal. Maury is a widower and lives across the street from his daughter, who was a big fan of Home Again. She’s the one he wanted the autograph for. Barton is divorced and doesn’t have any kids. I’m not sure if that’s his first name or his last, but he sure knows how to deal cards. Back in the day, he was a dealer in Atlantic City. He has a tiny hint of an accent, too, but I can’t quite place it… And he has a thing for that Jamaican music. You know, the kind that makes you want to get up and dance.”
“Calypso music?” Genny guessed.
“Yeah, that’s it. He kept on about it, asking me if I liked it and watching me real close to see my answer. Oh, and he’s allergic to latex. The kind they use in personal protection.”
Madison’s mouth fell agape. “Really?” Sometimes, her grandmother was unbelievable. “How did you… oh, never mind. I don’t even want to know. But did you happen to notice the pen he had in his pocket, the one he gave me to sign the autograph?”
“Yeah, he kept fiddling with it. It was one of his tells. Every time he bluffed, he’d click the top of it.”
“Did you notice how it was a vibrant shade of orange? And quite expensive?”
“I didn’t exactly see a price tag hanging from it like on old Minnie Pearl’s hat, if that’s what you mean.”
“It was hand carved from wood, and the metal was gold plated. That translates to pricey.”
“Which is why I buy those stick pens from the dollar store. When they run out of ink, you just toss them away.”
Genny tried to speed the conversation along. “Why do you ask, Maddy?”
“Because I saw those same type of pens, or at least their wooden cases, inside that rolling bag. Both men having an expensive pen like that, in that color, can’t be a coincidence.”
“Unless that’s the company Maury and Barton are closing the deal with. Did you ever think of that?” her grandmother asked smartly.
“Actually, no. I didn’t.”
The waiter appeared at their table. “Your rice pudding, Madame.”
“Could you wrap that up to go?” Granny Bert asked with a wave of her hand. “Guess my eyes were bigger than my stomach.”
Maintaining his composure, the waiter forced a tight smile. “Certainly, Madame. As
Genny looked worried. “What if that guy is outside waiting on us? What do we say if he approaches us?”
“Don’t worry,” Granny Bert said. “I got this.”
Maddy was almost afraid to ask. “What now?”
“Leave it to your old granny. I’ll see that we get to our car safely. It’ll be up to you to see that we get back to the hotel.”
The waiter returned with her takeout bag and the bill. After leaving him a generous tip, Granny Bert led the way to the front, where she asked to speak to the owner. Despite having made quite the scene earlier, the sly older woman was nothing but charming as she profusely complimented the man for the fine meal and the wonderful introduction to his native cuisine. They chatted for several minutes and to Madison’s surprise, it was the gentleman himself who suggested walking the ladies to their car.
Madison scanned the parking lot but didn’t see their stalker. She wasn’t taking any chances, however. After engaging the locks on the car, she deliberately turned in the opposite direction of their hotel. Genny’s GPS could guide them with a different route to Peralynna.
“Granny, that was quite a performance back there,” she said as she took a side street, her voice filled with a touch of awe. “I don’t know how you do it.”
“Finesse, my dear. Finesse.” She patted her granddaughter’s arm. “Don’t worry, dear. Another thirty or so years, and you’ll have it down, too.”
“You do realize my grandfather was a saint, putting up with your shenanigans for over fifty years.”
Granny Bert smiled at that. “Maybe Willie Nelson will write another song about me. He could call it The Angel and her Saint.”
“I’m thinking more along the lines of The Swindler and the Saint.”
“I’m thinking you should turn here,” Genny broke in. “Because I think someone is following us.”