by Ann Roberts
Contractor Quinn O’Sullivan has traveling in her blood. Her aunt is a famous travel writer while Quinn herself moves from one apartment complex to the next as her team remodels them.
When dear Aunt Maura kicks the bucket on her beloved Route 66, she leaves a dying request for Quinn—to take her on one last adventure.
Suda Singh is the total opposite of risk-taker Quinn. As an emergency room doctor, Suda is calm, methodical, and intuitive. But most of all, Suda is safe.
When the two women are thrown together by Quinn’s latest injury, Suda offers to accompany Quinn on the adventure of a lifetime.
Can Quinn and Suda find love, three cats, and the mysterious woman named Rain, all on America’s fabled highway—Route 66? Join Ann Roberts on this adventure of a lifetime in Vagabond Heart.
Lambda Literary Awards
Vagabond Heart, Finalist, Lesbian Romance.
The story starts off with a bang and kept my interest all the way through. It's been forever since I picked up a book that I had trouble putting down. This one could easily make it into my read-again pile. Both Quinn and Suda are interesting characters and their interactions didn't feel scripted or overplayed.The author managed to weave in several real-life xenophobic/bigotry issues which just made the characters feel like they were operating in real life without detracting from the story. In fact, I'd say it enhanced the story because we need to call more attention to these things. I've never been on Route 66, but based on the descriptions and the adventure it's on my bucket list moving forward.
“Do it, you damn son of a bitch! Make my wife a rich woman!”
Quinn O’Sullivan charged out of her ground-floor apartment and looked up at the unfolding scene. Her construction foreman, DD, hung over the crumbling second-story railing. The electrical subcontractor, known only as Buzz, hovered over him, ready to shove him off. She raced up the cement stairs. Other members of her crew ran to help.
She reached Buzz first. His small black eyes dared her to do something. While she wasn’t a petite woman, Buzz had her by at least a hundred pounds, much of it muscle in his arms. If she tried to attack him, she’d probably wind up over the railing with DD. Emboldened by the appearance of Rod, her drywaller, she grabbed a nearby nail gun. Just as Buzz let go of DD, Rod grabbed DD’s hand—and Quinn fired a nail into Buzz’s foot.
He wailed in agony and fell to his knees. Quinn and her crew circled DD to make sure he was okay. He nodded and glared at a moaning Buzz.
“What happened?” Quinn shouted.
DD ran his hand through his thick brown hair. He was wiry and muscular, but his soft features betrayed his lack of masculinity. “He asked if I had a real dick. I said I did and I knew my penis was bigger than his because I’d ordered an extra large. Then I compared his to a Little Smokey sausage.” Buzz started to shout as the rest of the crew laughed, but DD held up a hand to hold their attention. “Actually, that’s not correct. First I compared his to a Vienna sausage, but he didn’t know what that was.” The crew howled and Quinn couldn’t stop the chuckle that burst out of her. While her crew had no problem with DD being a transgender male, some of the subcontractors couldn’t get past it.
“My foot! Do something!” Buzz wailed.
“Shut up!” DD ordered. “It doesn’t hurt half as much as it will when they pull that nail out,” he gloated.
“I got it all on film,” Ward said.
“Good,” Quinn said. “Send it to me.”
“On it, boss.”
He was the youngest and most tech savvy of the crew, barely eighteen, with dark Filipino good looks.
Quinn crossed her arms. “All right, Buzz. Time to go to the ER. Since the elevator isn’t working yet, you’ll have to hobble down these stairs. I imagine it’s gonna hurt like hell.”
When they lifted him up, he emitted a horrific cry, and the crew scowled at him. Crying was frowned upon by the construction trade in general, but Buzz was crying at a level reserved only for those who accidentally saw off a limb or pierce their lung with a piece of rebar. She followed behind them, checking her Dropbox account for Ward’s video footage. They pushed Buzz into the passenger seat of her company truck, ignoring his pleas to be gentle with his foot.
She turned to Rod and said, “Hero man, you come with me. DD, get everybody else back to work. And get Buzz’s wife’s name from his emergency contact sheet. Call her and tell her we’re going to St. Joe’s.”
“Yes, boss,” DD said.
Rod puffed out his chest and smiled before he climbed into the cab’s backseat.
Quinn ran back to her apartment for her keys. She glanced at the display on her phone. Her sister Fiona had called as well as Michelle, her funder and sometimes lover. And her Aunt Maura had shared a video in Dropbox.
“Wow.” She couldn’t believe her seventy-year-old aunt could navigate video sharing. That could wait. Michelle could wait. She hit speed dial and hoped Fiona didn’t need her immediately. But since she was calling instead of texting, it probably meant there was a problem.
She piled into the cab just as Fiona answered. Her sister was treated to Buzz’s moaning.
“What the hell is that?” Fiona asked in her thick Irish accent.
“Nothing? Are you crazy?”
“Little accident at work. What’s up, Fi?”
“It wasn’t little!” Buzz screamed.
“Pipe down,” Quinn snapped.
“Just a reminder that you’re coming over to stay with the boys tomorrow night, right?”
“Yes. I haven’t forgotten.”
“I just wanted to check. You get so busy with these flipping projects that you forget a lot.”
Quinn didn’t disagree. She was deep in an apartment renovation that ate most of her time. She was also her sister’s go-to babysitter. Her two pre-teen nephews were always plotting mischief and no sitter had ever agreed to a second visit. The last one had run screaming from the house after Fiona and her husband Steven had returned from a movie and found the sitter bound and gagged in the living room. In true O’Sullivan fashion, the boys were forever making up games. That one had been called Kidnap.
Quinn went over a speed bump and Buzz wailed.
“Oh, my God, Quinn,” Fiona exclaimed. “That man sounds like he’s dying.”
“Not yet,” Quinn said mildly.
“Since I have you on the phone, I want to talk about your birthday party.”
“No, no birthday party.”
“I want to come!” Rod interjected. He leaned forward on the seat and pointed at himself. Quinn shook her head.
“I promise it’s not going to be a large party,” Fiona clarified. “Just family and a few of your interesting friends.”
“Why don’t we just keep the party to family?” Quinn whined. Her family disliked several of her close friends and they felt the same about her family. The O’Sullivans were truly an acquired taste. Any new person had to survive an initiation that bordered on hazing.
“I’m not up for an evening of playing referee,” Quinn said. “It’s my birthday and I should decide.”
Fiona sighed. “You really don’t want anyone else at your thirtieth?”
“No,” she said sharply. “Just tell me when and where.”
“Hold a sec,” Fiona hissed. Quinn heard her sister’s back door open and she pulled the phone away from her ear. Fiona shouted, “Boys! Get Mr. Squeaker out of the pool! You can’t teach a guinea pig to swim!” Quinn heard her nephews protest, but Fiona shouted over them. “Right now!” The back door closed again and Fiona said, “Where were we?”
“You’d just canceled my birthday party.”
Fiona laughed. “Fat chance.” A huge wail blared through the phone from her youngest nephew, baby Donnelly. Fiona cooed at him and eventually said, “Small party. Just family. Fine, I’ll get back to you. Please don’t forget about babysitting—I mean watching the boys.”
Quinn knew her nephews hated that Fiona still used the term babysitting about them. “Of course,” she said.
She looked at Rod in her rearview mirror. He’d slumped dejectedly on the seat, pouting. He was the most sensitive of all the guys on her crew, and she suspected he had significant learning disabilities. He never got the jobs that required great thinking, but he was the best drywaller she’d ever seen. “Hey Rod, don’t be mad. The party is just for family. If we have a get-together for friends, you’ll be first on the guest list.” He nodded. “Are we good?” she asked. He nodded again, but he wouldn’t look at her. “C’mon, Rod. Give me a smile. He finally obliged. “Great.”
She pulled into the ER parking at St. Joe’s and glanced at Buzz. His eyes were closed. She hoped he hadn’t passed out—or died. When she squealed into a spot and slammed on the brakes, his foot thumped and his eyes bugged out. Not dead.
He turned to her and cried, “You did that on purpose!”
She smiled. “I did. Before we go inside, we need to come to an understanding.” She opened Ward’s video on her phone and held it up so Buzz could see. “Okay, here’s what we’ve got. A great image of you attempting to kill DD. Look how clear that is!” He watched but his whole face telegraphed agony. “So you need to tell me how you wound up with a nail in your foot.”
At first he seemed confused until Quinn waved her phone at him. He hung his head and mumbled, “Accident.”
“It was an accident!”
“That’s right. If you don’t want DD to call the police, it damn well better be an accident. The fact that you attempted to kill DD because of who he is, makes it a hate crime. That adds time to your sentence. Are we clear?”
She knew what had happened was a gray area. DD might have provoked him, and she doubted Buzz understood the finer points of law. It was better if the whole thing just disappeared. Her insurance would cover the emergency room visit, and she’d never allow him on a project again.
He nodded, and when he looked at her, his face was a puddle of pain. “Please help me.”
“Of course,” she said sweetly. “Let’s go, Rod.”
The intake clerk gathered a few basic facts, took one look at Buzz’s foot and had a nurse get him into triage immediately. As much as Quinn would’ve loved to drop him off and resume her day, she wanted to make sure his story about the nail gun remained the agreed upon version. The nurse wheeled him into a room. She took his vitals and was asking him about the accident when the curtain opened and a doctor joined them, reading her iPad. She was petite with dark brown skin and long black hair held back by a gold clip. Despite her stature, her presence was powerful. The room felt as though the air had changed.
“Hello, Leslie,” she said to Buzz in a quiet, but commanding tone. “I’m Dr. Singh. Let’s take a look at your foot.”
Leslie. Quinn immediately understood his need for a nickname. DD would love that piece of information.
He nodded and she gently turned it left and right. “Oh, my.” She looked at Quinn for the first time and stumbled over her words. “I’m sorry. Are you Leslie’s wife or girlfriend?”
“No!” Buzz shouted, glaring at Quinn.
“No,” she said mildly. “He was working on my construction project.” She put out her hand. “Quinn O’Sullivan.” She gazed into the doctor’s rich brown eyes until she introduced herself.
When their hands met, Quinn grimaced. Dr. Singh’s hand was delicate and soft, whereas hers were rough and calloused. “Sorry. Consequence of the trade.”
“Nothing wrong with hard work.”
“Hey, doc. A little help here,” Buzz pleaded.
Dr. Singh had Buzz lie back while she elevated his foot. “How did this happen?”
He glanced at Quinn before he answered, an action not missed by Dr. Singh. Her face grew wary as he said, “Workplace accident.”
She gave Quinn a hard look before removing his work boot and starting a morphine drip. The staff asked him questions as his treatment proceeded, but Quinn tuned it all out and focused on Dr. Singh. Her movements were fluid and her expression remained focused. The lab coat was slightly too large for her petite frame, and she continually pushed up the three-quarter length sleeves with her long fingers. She wore no rings, only a necklace with a gold emblem and diamond stud earrings. And she smelled lovely, a floral scent that wasn’t overpowering or obnoxious.
The examination over, Dr. Singh said, “We’re taking you down to x-ray, Leslie. Once we see where the nail lodged, we’ll develop a course of treatment. Okay?”
“Great, doc,” he slurred. The morphine had taken over.
The nurse and an orderly wheeled him out. He actually waved at Quinn as he departed and she chuckled. Once his gurney disappeared, she felt Dr. Singh’s stare. She stood to meet her gaze at eye level. It was a great excuse to be close and study her face, particularly her lips. Sultry was the word that instantly came to Quinn’s mind. She wondered what it would be like to kiss her.
“As a doctor,” she said slowly, “I must follow up when I notice suspicious behavior.”
“Did Leslie’s injury—”
“He goes by Buzz, just so you know.”
She lost her train of thought and blinked. There was a long pause and only after she took a breath did she continue. “Was Buzz’s injury really an accident?”
Quinn hesitated. She wanted to say something cryptic, something that would prolong the conversation and keep the good doctor from floating away to her next patient, because she seemed almost ethereal. She was lovely. Exotic.
She suddenly remembered Dr. Singh was waiting for her to answer. She swallowed and said, “Yeah, it was.”
Dr. Singh lifted her chin, debating whether or not to believe her. Quinn sensed she was prolonging their meeting as well. Something was happening. The energy in the room shifted. She leaned toward her…
“Are you Dr. Singh?” a woman blurted as she threw open the curtain.
She immediately stepped away from Quinn and greeted her. “I am.”
“I’m Buzz’s wife, Shirley,” the short, plump woman announced. It was difficult to see her facial expression underneath the red Make America Great Again cap.
Quinn stepped behind Shirley and slipped through the curtain, but not before she took one last look at Dr. Singh. Her beauty was unique, perhaps because Quinn didn’t know anyone of Indian descent. She wanted to remember her. For a split second, Dr. Singh glanced at her, as if she were trying to do the same.
Quinn quickly left for the waiting room and reclaimed Rod. Her phone, which she’d set to vibrate, now had five voice mails and three texts. The chance meeting with the beautiful doctor floated away as she plunged back into her chaotic life.
All Quinn saw was an eyeball. Nothing else. It seemed to jump out from the laptop’s screen, and she reflexively leaned back in her desk chair.
“Don’t have a damn idea if this fuckin’ thing is even working,” the eyeball’s owner muttered.
She immediately recognized the speaker as her Aunt Maura. After a few more curses, Aunt Maura sat back on the tiny plaid seat of her Airstream camper. Behind her were the familiar bright yellow curtains with smiley faces that Quinn had chosen years ago.
Aunt Maura tucked her shoulder-length gray hair behind her ears and tugged at a chin hair. She’d already forgotten the video was recording her every move. Quinn watched with amusement as her finger and thumb plucked the intruder. She smiled after the victorious pull and wiped her hand on the sleeve of her faded purple sweatshirt.
A mysterious stain that looked like jelly sat above her left breast, and Quinn guessed she hadn’t noticed it. Maura was religious about working the crossword puzzle each morning while she had breakfast. Pieces of egg, toast, or pancake routinely dropped en route to her mouth as she analyzed the horizontal and vertical clues. Crosswords were just one type of game Aunt Maura enjoyed. She also loved travel adventures and had passed on that love to Quinn.
“Okay, I’m ready,” she announced, smiling into the camera. “Hi, Quinn! It’s me, Aunt Maura. You’re probably surprised to receive this, but I got this newfangled Mac laptop with a camera.” She shook her head in amazement. “Who da thunk you could make a movie with a camera the size of a pinhead on a machine no bigger than a heating pad? I know your generation is all about technology, but for me it’s as much a pain-in-the-ass as it is helpful. I’m not sure you’ll ever get to see this movie, but what the hell. When I’m done, I’ll get it on that Dropkick thing.”
Quinn snorted a laugh.
Suddenly the screen went black. Quinn reached for her keyboard, but then she heard Aunt Maura say, “Eleanor Rigby, get your fat ass off the new Mac!”
Quinn laughed heartily. Eleanor Rigby was one of Aunt Maura’s three cats that shared the camper with her. Eleanor had a penchant for being the center of attention. When the screen remained covered in fur, Quinn knew Eleanor had stretched across the keyboard, ready for a nap.
“Not now,” Aunt Maura scolded. Her liver-spotted hands wrapped around the cat and disengaged her from the laptop. As she vaulted off the table, she howled in protest. Maura sat back and scratched her head. “Where was I?” She looked down and saw the glob of jelly. “Son-of-a-bitch. Hold on,” she said, and disappeared from the picture.
Quinn shook her head and used the time to click through several emails, most of them solicitations to volunteer or donate money. She gladly volunteered for multiple organizations, but she didn’t have money to contribute to anything except the Fund to Care and Feed Quinn O’Sullivan. Her small construction company, FaceLift, sucked all of her time, money, and energy—as did her family. She found an email from Fiona. The subject line read Your Birthday.
Quinn groaned. Her hyper-responsible sister probably wanted to remind her about the damn party at her parents’ house. She deleted Fiona’s email without reading it as Aunt Maura returned wearing one of her many Route 66 T-shirts.
Maura made her living driving across the fabled Route 66. She wrote monthly columns for various travel magazines, and every two years she updated her immensely popular travel guide, Mother Road Travels. Gift shop owners routinely bestowed clothing and trinkets upon her in hopes of a favorable review. Quinn knew what they did not: Maura O’Sullivan’s opinion couldn’t be bought.
Maura sighed as she looked into the camera and tucked her hair behind her ears again. She smiled and her face emanated kindness. Her wrinkles were the well-earned result of constant smiling and laughing during her seven decades. She’d told Quinn many times that the secret of life was attitude. Hers was always positive, and her approach, combined with her talent for storytelling, ensured her success as one of the most popular travel guide writers in America.
“Take two,” Maura said with a sigh. “So, you’re probably wondering why I’m taking the time and trouble to make a movie. Well, I’m not getting any younger. I have to start thinking about what the future holds and the inevitable possibility that I won’t live forever. Because I probably won’t.”
Quinn sat up straighter. Was Aunt Maura making a dying declaration? If the next sentence included the word cancer, she’d scream. Aunt Maura was her favorite relative and the one person in the world who understood her. And, according to Quinn’s mother, there was a lot to understand.
“I know you’re busy,” Maura continued, “and you have your own life, although your father has offered to draw you a map because he doesn’t think your life is going anywhere.” She quickly held up a surrendering hand and said, “At least not in the direction he would pick.”
Quinn automatically rolled her eyes. Aunt Maura frequently broke confidentiality with her brother Shane, Quinn’s father, to update Quinn on his comments or plans. He was Maura and Quinn’s opposite. While Maura was focused on happiness and freedom, Shane lived for prosperity and success. He was the oldest and remembered the long journey to citizenship he and Maura had endured after they left Ireland.
Aunt Maura folded her hands together and looked solemnly at the screen. “Next week I’m going in for some tests that are probably long overdue. You know me, Quinnie. I don’t like doctors. I’ve never liked anyone telling me what to do, least of all your father. I’m expecting this doctor might give me some bad news,” she stated simply. “Regardless, I wanted you to know you’ll be getting a package soon. So this video is like a preview. I want you to be on the lookout for it.”
Quinn sat up straight, frowning. She rewound the video, having missed several seconds after Aunt Maura announced she was having tests.
Maura smiled and leaned toward the camera. “I love you, Quinn the Mighty.”
She left the couch while Quinn wiped tears from her eyes. She knew Maura had a flair for the theatrical, but she really would miss her terribly when she was gone. They were so alike. Maura had dubbed her Quinn the Mighty as there was little Quinn wouldn’t try. She’d learned to ride a bike at two and a half, skied at four, eaten chocolate-covered ants at her ninth birthday party, and skydived at eighteen.
A loud bang from the computer screen made Quinn jump. “Oh, my God!” she cried. She never would’ve imagined her aunt would kill herself. She fumbled with her cell phone. Should she call 911? What good would that do? She’d received the notice of a shared Dropbox video three days before and just hadn’t made the time to view it. I’m a terrible niece! She pictured the sheriff finding Maura’s decayed body. Should she call her father? She stared at the computer screen, stricken with shock and grief.
“Wait, wait!” her aunt shouted as she returned to the couch. “Lousy timing for a car backfire. Had to hit the john. One of life’s joys when you get older, stealth pooping. Sorry to scare you, Quinn.” She pointed a finger and said, “Don’t worry about me. When it’s my time, God’s gonna have to personally scoop me up, and I promise to be as ornery and prickly about leaving as a jumping cactus.” Aunt Maura scanned the keyboard. “Now if I can just figure out which button stops this damn thing…” She flashed one more smile. “Bye, Quinnie.”
Neither could know it at the time, but those words would be the last Quinn would hear from Aunt Maura. Until the Indian arrived.
A knock on Quinn’s door woke her. Why didn’t she hear saws buzzing and hammers pounding? Then she remembered it was Saturday. Six a.m. The crew came in an hour later. Another knock, this time louder.
“Coming,” she called as she poured herself off her futon bed and made sure she was semi-clothed before she opened the door. Standing on the stoop was her best friend Disney, her arms full of stuff. Disney had been conceived on It’s a Small World. Her parents had been Disneyland employees at the time. Unfortunately their after-hours copulation on one of the little boats had been captured on video. They’d been summarily fired, but not before they’d disproved the title of the ride and enlarged the world by one life.
Disney was the least “Disney-like” person Quinn knew. Her hair was maroon and she had a pierced eyebrow and nose. Today she wore a pro-choice T-shirt emblazoned with Donald Trump’s face and the question Don’t you think his mother should’ve made a different choice?
“Happy Birthday, Quinn!” she shouted.
And it’s my thirtieth birthday.
“Thanks,” she said, as Disney pulled her into a bear hug with one arm. Quinn motioned for her to come inside. “What’s all this you’ve brought?”
“A few gifts. First, here’s your customary Disney offering.” She always gave her something from the Disney store. This year it was a Tigger backscratcher.
“Feels good,” she said, testing Tigger’s paw on her back.
“And this.” Disney handed her a lesbian porn video titled Lezzies with Lube.
She nodded. “I don’t think I’ve seen that one.”
“Fine filmmaking at its best.” Her expression turned serious. And this.” She waved a small white flag in Quinn’s face before handing it to her.
“What’s this for?”
“I’m waving the white flag. I give up,” she announced. “I surrender. I’ve tried to set you up for the last ten years. I admit defeat. As you move into a new decade, you’re on your own.” She kissed Quinn on the cheek and turned to go. “Don’t forget your party tomorrow night at the Stonewall Club. It promises to be a crazy-ass time.” She was halfway out the door when she turned to say, “And I hope you survive your family party tonight.” She made the sign of the cross. “Go with God.” Her face brightened and she said, “Toodles!”
Quinn chuckled. She loved Disney. She stared at the white flag. She didn’t blame her for giving up. She wanted a girlfriend, but her relationships usually fizzled within five or six months. The women either couldn’t stand her family or the fact that she didn’t have a normal career. They always had the same complaint: Quinn and her living space were always under construction.
She was a flipper. She bought run-down places and turned them into profit. With few houses left to flip in Phoenix, Quinn had latched onto a new trend. When the apartment and condo market flourished after the recession, she saw an opportunity to rehab the old apartment complexes in Central Phoenix. Many had been built in the sixties and seventies, and while they needed a huge makeover, their structure was solid. She’d found two silent partners, her father, who knew how to run a company, and Michelle, a woman with cash and an interest in Quinn—at least some of the time. She’d also found a construction crew of unique rejects, headed by DD, a man who used to be a woman. As a team they’d flipped two complexes successfully and were working on their third.
She always lived in the complex currently under renovation, and she hauled her stuff from one apartment to another as the remodel occurred. She owned little furniture, but stacks of books lined a wall. One day she would own a large house with a vast library, but for now she settled with the stacks. She’d given up on shelves, realizing that hauling the books from place to place was hard enough. She usually read a few books concurrently, and right now that included a book about Gettysburg and a biography of Jane Austen.
The under construction label also meant that any woman who spent the night faced constant hazards traversing to and from the bathroom. Her last real girlfriend had punctured her bare foot on a nail after a rigorous night of lovemaking. The tetanus shot in the ER had ended their relationship.
ER. Dr. Singh. She smiled as she remembered the lovely Indian doctor who’d treated Buzz. She closed her eyes and imagined her graceful movements around the triage room. She was assured and poised, completely at ease in her competence. Quinn felt her heart rate slow. Thinking of her had a calming effect. She was part of a world Quinn knew nothing about.
There was nothing lovely or calming about working in construction with male employees all day. There was belching, too many views of plumber’s crack, profanity, and dirt. While she reveled in the daily craftsmanship of her trade, and she loved remodeling buildings that otherwise would be destroyed, Quinn rarely had the time to immerse herself in the finer things life had to offer. She could only read about them in her books.
She sighed. For now it would have to be enough. She scratched her head, thinking about her family party. The only member of her family who was attending her “real” birthday party was her totally cool brother, Ronan, the only person she completely trusted—other than Aunt Maura. She sighed and looked at her computer. She’d meant to call Aunt Maura about her intriguing Dropbox video but hadn’t had the chance.
She threw on her work clothes and grabbed her hard hat. She opened her front door just as Bart and Ward approached. They carried a box of donuts. It was a Saturday morning tradition among the crew that someone brought donuts. Since Bart and Ward did everything together, they counted as one person on the rotation.
Ward held out the box to her and she saw that Bart held a dirty piece of notebook paper in his hand. She pointed at it. “What’s up?”
Bart cleared his throat and pushed up his glasses. Quinn pictured him in a suit and tie. His appearance screamed geek, and the crew often joked that he looked too smart to work construction. “We used our break yesterday to think of some new names for the apartment complex.”
“Great,” Quinn said. She’d offered an extra hundred bucks to whoever came up with the best name for the remodeled complex. “Hit me.”
Bart looked up and said, “What about the Crystal Met? You know, since we’re building a bunch of fountains? The water is like crystal, and met is for metropolitan.”
Quinn pursed her lips to keep from laughing and offered a serious look. “I’d worry people might think the name was crystal meth. That probably wouldn’t attract tenants, at least not the ones who’d pay their rent.”
“Oh,” Bart said, recognition on his face. “Gotcha.”
Ward pointed at the next one and Bart nodded. “How about The Garden of Eden?”
“Hmm,” she nodded. “Possibly too religious, although I know where you were going with that.”
They both shrugged, and it seemed they’d already thought she wouldn’t like it. Bart looked at her hopefully. “We’ve saved the best for last. How about Retro?”
Quinn had been prepared to shoot down their last idea but she blinked. “That’s pretty good, guys.” They turned giddy smiles on her and she laughed. “Let me take that one under consideration. I’ll share it with our funders.”
“Thanks boss,” they said in unison. They handed her the paper and high-fived each other as they headed back to work, almost skipping down the sidewalk.
She really liked the five guys she called her “skeleton crew.” Three of them she’d found through friends and the other two had dropped—one literally—into her lap during a drunken party. They didn’t have any problems with each other or a female boss. There were only issues with subcontractors like Buzz, and she tried to employ those guys only when necessary. They were often the epitome of the construction stereotype, and they struggled to listen to a female—or DD.
She glanced at her Mickey Mouse watch, a gift from Disney. She’d agreed to pick up a bartending shift at Fiesta South around noontime, not because she needed the money, but because Ronan had asked for her help. His head bartender had a family emergency and Ronan was stuck.
She sighed. It was like that with her family. Since she worked for herself and not in the family business, they assumed she could switch her plans at a moment’s notice. And most of the time, like today, she could—because DD was a great supervisor.
Her parents, Shane and Gemma, owned Fiesta Mexican Restaurants, LLC along with their partners, a Hispanic couple they had met years before through friends. Oscar and Lupe Martinez had dreams of owning a restaurant and had brought several of Lupe’s mother’s recipes with them when they’d crossed the border. The two couples now owned twelve restaurants throughout Arizona and New Mexico, but Oscar and Lupe had lost interest in the day-to-day operations and were content with reaping profits and allowing Shane and Gemma to make the decisions.
Not bad for two Irish transplants. They’d already passed the baton, or rather the shillelagh, to Quinn’s older brothers, Ronan and Patrick, who served as CEO and CFO respectively. Her sister Fiona periodically stepped up as a fill-in manager when flaky staff abruptly quit, but Shane and Gemma had excused her from daily operations. She was the mother of their grandchildren, a baby and two boys who needed constant supervision.
Quinn was the only O’Sullivan who had not accepted a role in the Fiesta empire. She’d worked at Fiesta West throughout high school as a hostess and busgirl, but the countless evenings she’d spent cleaning salsa spills, interacting with boorish diners and sweeping up tons of complimentary chips had prejudiced her against a career in the food and beverage industry. Also, the smell of jalapeños would forever make her gag.
But they counted on her to help out occasionally, so today she would hang only half of the cabinets in unit nine so she could bartend at Fiesta West in the afternoon.
The morning passed quickly and by eleven she was getting ready for the bartending gig. She threw on her standard uniform of black pants and white button-down shirt. Her short red hair needed a trim, but that would have to wait. She checked her figure in the mirror, as the black pants were a little tighter than they’d been on New Year’s Eve, the last time she’d bartended. Nearly four months later it didn’t surprise her that she’d put on a few pounds during the winter.
While she wasn’t thin, she wasn’t really overweight. She had the benefit of a long waist that tended to spread out the extra pounds. Most notable, though, were her large breasts, a genetic gift from her well-endowed Irish ancestors. She’d seen the pictures going all the way back to the 1860s. Her maternal forebears all had an ample bosom, to quote her mother. A few women had been instantly attracted to her boobs, and she strategically unbuttoned an extra button of her shirt. She’d learned the key to big tips from women and men was displaying a bit of cleavage.
She scoured her cluttered desk for her keys. She suddenly remembered Aunt Maura’s comment about having tests done. She quietly swore, chastising herself for not following up. Maura would never discuss the results if they were bad, and since Quinn hadn’t heard from her recently except in video form, she guessed Maura was avoiding her. She grabbed her copy of Mother Road Travels. Maybe she could call her on break. She found her keys under some unopened bills and headed out.
She hurried to her car, a restored VW Thing. Since the complex was a construction area, the chain-link fence wrapped around it. She had a hard rule about company vehicles being the only cars allowed inside the construction zone, so she had to walk to hers just like everybody else.
She usually parked on the street but sometimes was forced to park in the vacant lot on the next block. The neighborhood was still rough, and she was always conscious of her surroundings—even in daylight. There had been a carjacking two blocks away, so she weaved her keys between her fingers like a weapon. As she reached her car, she saw movement to her right. A man emerged from behind a large truck and walked swiftly toward her. He wore jeans, a Western shirt with a bolo tie, an overcoat and a black cowboy hat. She couldn’t see his face from such a distance, but she guessed he was Native American.
She jumped in her car and threw it in reverse. She’d seen enough episodes of Criminal Minds to know nothing good ever happened with strangers in parking lots. She glanced in her rearview mirror. He stood where her car had just been and watched her leave. She shivered and took a deep breath certain she’d just escaped being kidnapped or chopped into little pieces.
By the time she’d shaken her third martini, she’d forgotten the encounter. It was the NCAA semifinals, and the Fiesta West bar was packed with University of Arizona Wildcat fans. Each time the team made a basket, a cheer erupted. She didn’t follow sports regularly, so she had little interest in turning toward the televisions behind the bar. Since her co-bartender Luis was a die-hard basketball fan and had organized the March Madness pool, she found herself doing double duty while he continually swiveled around to follow the game.
It was fine with her. He was a good guy and a great worker. Her extra effort made the time go faster. She’d also expect the bulk of the tips to come her way at the end of the evening. She barely noticed the faces of the patrons, her attention completely focused on the orders and the pours. Her father was a stickler about the alcohol. He knew the bulk of Fiesta’s profit depended on alcohol consumption, not on the relatively cheap menu options. Generous pours were not tolerated.
She’d just filled up a tray with drinks and turned back to the bar. The man from the parking lot stood in front of her. He was indeed Native American, and up close she could see the fine turquoise and silver of his bolo tie. His jet-black hair cascaded down his back, and he’d removed his hat as a courtesy. Her eyes widened but she was emboldened by the crowd and the bar separating them.
“Why are you following me?” she asked in a raised voice. He opened his mouth to speak just as the crowd cheered again. He shook his head and pointed to the exit sign.
She mouthed, “No.”
He frowned and her level of fear instantly dropped. He wasn’t dangerous. Now she was curious. She signaled for him to wait while she crossed the bar and talked to Luis. She whispered that she needed to step away for a bit and pointed at the three people waiting for drinks. He hopped to it, and she motioned for the man to follow her. While the bar was crowded, the dinner rush was over. She found a two-seater table, and he squeezed his long frame into the chair opposite her.
“I’m sorry I scared you in the parking lot. I’m Zeke. I have a last name you wouldn’t be able to pronounce,” he said in a low but strong voice.
“I’m Quinn, and it’s okay about the parking lot,” she said with a shrug. “I’m sorry if I rained gravel on you by squealing away.”
“You didn’t,” he said plainly. He withdrew an envelope from his jacket and set it in front of her. Scrawled across the front was her name, written in Aunt Maura’s distinct handwriting. “I’m your aunt’s attorney in Flagstaff.”
“Should I open it?”
He held up his index finger and said, “Before you do, there’s something you should know.”
Quinn instantly knew. “She’s dead.”
His stoic expression cracked slightly and revealed his surprise. “Yes.”
“She sent me a video about a week ago and mentioned she was having some tests done. She didn’t think it would be good news.”
He shook his head slightly. “She didn’t mention any tests to me. I’m not sure what health issues she may have faced, but she was killed in a car accident two days ago. I’m very sorry.”
The bar crowd erupted with a cheer, and she winced. She covered her face and tried not to cry. She couldn’t believe it. Aunt Maura was an exceptional driver, logging nearly twenty thousand miles a year.
“What happened exactly?”
“The accident occurred on State Route 24, a two-lane highway between I-40 and the Four Corners. It was past dusk.” He paused and asked, “Are you familiar with the road? It has many hills.”
She tried to picture it. She and Aunt Maura had traveled most every state road, as well as the roads owned by the various tribes. She remembered a few roads that were quite hilly, and as a teenager she’d loved the drive. “Sort of, maybe,” she replied. “I think Aunt Maura and I drove it once or twice.”
“When you crest, you have no idea what’s on the other side.” He angled his hand upward to make his point. “Apparently, there was a drunk driver in Maura’s lane. She wouldn’t have seen him until she reached the top of the hill.”
Quinn closed her eyes, imagining the look on her aunt’s face as the drunk driver’s headlights suddenly blasted her. “Oh, my gosh.”
The bar patrons cheered again, and she almost screamed at them to shut up. She needed to pull it together until the end of the shift.
“I know this is a lot to take in,” he said. He gently nudged the envelope toward her. “But she wanted you to have this.”
She couldn’t touch it. She still had more questions. “What about the drunk driver? Has he been charged?”
He bit his lip. “Unfortunately, no. I’m assuming you’re aware that many of the roads in northern Arizona cross tribal land. The driver was a young Hualapai Indian. While he’s answering to the elders, they believe there are some mitigating circumstances.”
She cocked her head to the side. “Like what?”
Zeke sighed deeply. “His father is on the tribal council.”
She threw up her hands. “That’s not right,” she cried.
“There’s more,” he said calmly. “The elders actually knew Maura and liked her. The head of the council personally asked me to send you his condolences. However, it seems Maura contributed to her own death. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt.”
“No,” Quinn said, shaking her head vehemently. “Aunt Maura always wore her seat belt. She wouldn’t start the car until everyone buckled up.”
“I’m guessing she unbuckled it for a reason. Perhaps she was reaching for something, like her Cool Ranch Doritos? She would’ve unbuckled her belt just for a moment, but that was when she crested the hill.”
Quinn wiped her eyes, dissolving the picture of her aunt flying through the windshield of her Dodge Charger like a human cannonball. She nodded, acknowledging that it could’ve happened that way. Aunt Maura loved to snack on Cool Ranch Doritos and a Mountain Dew while she drove, a combination for which she would compromise her safety. It was her driving fuel.
She glanced into Zeke’s steadfast gaze. She saw wisdom in his eyes and it comforted her. She thought about Aunt Maura’s video. She’d need to watch it again. Aunt Maura had mentioned dying…and an envelope. She picked it up and opened it. Inside was a note written on a piece of stationery from the Hotel Monte Vista in Flagstaff, one of Maura’s favorite places to visit.
I’ve asked my friend Zeke to deliver this to you. I know you tend to be naturally suspicious of strangers, which I believe is due to your ridiculous consumption of serial killer and murder shows. Anyway, you can trust him. He’s one of the finest men I’ve ever met. He’ll help you with what I’m asking you to do.
I want us to have one last adventure. I’ve put together a little game, following a piece of the Mother Road. All you’ll need is time. Zeke will provide the rest.
Take care, Quinn the Mighty. I’ll see you on the flipside.
P.S. Feel free to bring someone along for the ride. I won’t mind.