Penny threw a longing look back at the Cezanne and reluctantly let Charlotte lead her away from the oil painting. Charlotte could tell Penny didn't believe her about the work being a copy. Penny shivered slightly and tried to focus on why she had come over to talk with Charlotte. She audibly sighed and said, "There was a strange man outside your place the past two days."
"Strange how?" Charlotte maintained her grip while directing Penny to the kitchen. Once inside she pushed Penny to the counter and automatically started fixing coffee. She figured Penny for a coffee drinker; besides, that was one of the few things she actually did keep stocked at home. One of her few holdovers from being human. While caffeine didn't do anything for her metabolism there was something familiar about making and drinking the brew she wasn't ready to give up.
Penny sat on the stool at the kitchen counter and took inventory of Charlotte's possessions while thinking about her reply. There wasn't much to see since it wasn't like Charlotte exactly did much cooking. Still, part of living among the humans was making sure to keep up the appearances of normalcy. The best that could be said about Charlotte's kitchen style was "sterile." Heavy use of brushed steel and white fixtures added into the look.
"Well, first off, he didn't belong to the neighborhood. It wasn't anyone I had ever seen on the block." She began while fussing with the spoon Charlotte had placed in front of her with a sugar bowl and some creamer while the coffee finished brewing. Charlotte leaned against the counter and waited. There had to be a complication, so she couldn't rush Penny. She needed her information and didn't want to taint it with leading questions.
"Okay," Charlotte replied as if bored. It wouldn't help to push either. Penny had her own annoying way of telling stories. The tapes needed to be burned and she needed to fly the coop but the mystery man was an unknown that had to be explored first.
"You know how I'm in the yard daily, so when I saw that man in a suit walk to your door I was curious. Second off, you rarely have day visitors and lately you haven't had many visitors at all." Here she was faulting Charlotte for not having a more visible life. Like that was going to happen. Dragging meals into suburbia was not a good idea and obviously Penny did constantly watch her house.
"No, I haven't, it's been a hectic year at work," Charlotte said by way of apology. Penny nodded like she understood what that was like but Charlotte knew Penny hadn't worked a day in her life. That was one of the first things she had told Charlotte when meeting her a half dozen years or so ago. She claimed her yard work was all she ever had done. Her yard was stunning but Charlotte didn't much care about all of that since flowers and shrubs weren't exactly a meal to her.
"So I called out that you weren't home and asked if I could help him. Well he was certainly quick to leave without a word back to me. I just figured he was a salesman or something. But that expensive suit bothered me. I watched him walk up the street and waited to see what car he had. He didn't get into a car at all but continued to walk until he turned off our street. That was very odd to me. But I was in the middle of mulching so I couldn't run after him exactly." Here she seemed ashamed that she hadn't got a license plate or vehicle description.
"And it isn't that I haven't seen men with suits, it was just with the dark sunglasses and his walking away not hopping into some expensive car parked at the curb that I thought it was pretty odd." Penny paused to mix in three heaping spoons of sugar into the cup of coffee Charlotte sat in front of her. It was all Charlotte could do to not slap Penny's spoon away from the sugar bowl. The coffee was a delicious Kona blend she had sent to her that needed nothing.
Penny slurped noisily and declared, "Not bad. A little strong but good enough I guess." Like she even tasted the coffee? All that sugar had to be coating Penny's mouth denying her the exquisite flavor. Charlotte took a sip savoring the strong blend.
"Thanks," like there was anything else she could say to the halfhearted compliment.
"This morning I was out trimming the roses, they need so much attention you know," she looked at Charlotte with a raised eyebrow. She didn't bother explaining again the lack of gardening skills much less any desire to know such things. Penny missed her deep sigh and continued with the story, "The aphids were fierce last summer and I was making sure we hadn't got any more since I had sprayed."
Still Charlotte was absolutely clueless what Penny was talking about but figured she would get to her point sooner or later. Charlotte again drank the unsullied coffee while waiting for her neighbor to finally get to the reason for the late night visit. After all she did have tapes to burn, packaging to do and plans to make.
"I looked up and there he was at your front door. And he was trying the handle this time. He hadn't seen me sitting down on the ground with the pruning shears getting to the roses. Mind you, I hadn't heard him drive up. I took a peek and there still was no car out in front of your house." Here she paused while gulping more of the coffee, after adding another spoonful of sugar to the gritty mess. Charlotte didn't offer to refill her cup since she was getting weary of Penny's delaying tactics of stretching the tale. How she kept her figure drinking sugar like that was beyond Charlotte, then it dawned on her that Penny would just go to her plastic surgeon anytime she began to show wear and tear. She could see evidence of botox in the face of her neighbor. It wasn't a few more years before she would be getting facelifts and tummy tucks. It always amazed her that humans aged so quickly.
"I decided to follow him and take a few pictures so you would have a chance to see him. I usually have my cell phone with me. So once he gave up he walked back the same direction as before but this time I was able to follow him. I have to tell you it was one of the scariest things I have ever done." Penny glowed with the remembered fear and happiness at having followed him successfully. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a cell phone. Laying it between them on the counter top she began punching at buttons and clicking through menus until she found what she wanted.
Slowly she spun the screen towards Charlotte. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the screen size and colors. She knew it was one of Kenyon's top enforcers. Jim Arnold. If he was knocking on her front door it could only mean Kenyon was suspicious. She hadn't been around the club for a while but then that wasn't unusual. What was unusual was Kenyon sending Jim to her home. It begged a few questions, like why hadn't he called? Was Kenyon aware of her stealing from the banks and wanted his cut? Or something worse?
"So do you know who it is?" Penny eagerly asked while switching to shots of Jim getting in and out of his SUV. The black vehicle had darkly tinted windows and she couldn't see if there was anyone else in the car. Penny had been lucky Jim hadn't noticed her or she would have been lunch.
"No, I don't. He looks like a lawyer," Charlotte said while feigning disinterest. "I get them showing up at all hours at the office. This one looks a little stupid so maybe he got the wrong address?" She tossed that out.
Penny bit, "Well, now that you mention it he certainly could be an attorney. So what do you want me to do about him if he comes over again when you aren't home?"
"Absolutely nothing. I will take care of this if need be when I get back. Since you're here, I should mention that I have to head out of town for a few weeks. I would like to think that he won't be coming back." Charlotte was fairly positive he would be following her rather than hanging around waiting for her to reappear. But this offered Charlotte a new opportunity to escape without a trail.
"Penny, do you still have that station wagon for sale? The gray one that you had parked out front last month?" She redirected her nosey neighbor while her mind quickly saw the possibilities.
"Well, yes. One of the Hess kids was going to buy it but his mom got him a newer gently used BMW instead. Why, do you know someone who wants it?" Penny tapped her finger on the rim of her coffee cup indicating she wished a refill. With a smile Charlotte poured more into her mug and said, "I think it would be a good purchase for me. I really hate leaving my car at the airport. I am always finding unexplained scratches and dents. With all my travel it would be smarter to have a more useful car. Do you think perhaps I could buy it from you?"
"Sure, but it has over 50,000 miles on it," Penny said in horrified tones. Most of the neighbors traded in their cars yearly or every other year so to Penny her three-year-old station wagon was completely ancient by their harsh standards.
"Penny, it is perfect for trips to and from the airport. How much are you asking again?" Charlotte guided Penny towards the sale.
It took nearly the whole pot of coffee and most of the hour but the sale was made. Penny was quite pleased to accept cash. Penny offered to leave the station wagon with the keys in it out front later since Charlotte was heading out of town very early. She even offered to help put the boxes in the back that Charlotte mentioned she was shipping with her. Charlotte declined gracefully; since those boxes would be stuffed with cash, she didn't think it was in her best interest to have anyone helping. Penny reluctantly left with her money having nothing more to impart, saying she would keep an eye out for that lawyer. Charlotte let her out and wished her a pleasant evening. She had to hurry, having no desire to find out why Jim was looking for her.
The next few hours were a blur as she took care of the loose ends. The money was packed into boxes left over from the last move. She tossed the jewelry boxes into an overnight bag along with a few bands of the twenties and fifties. She was really happy to see that the bills were mixed new and old and obviously part of some sort of money laundering operation. She wasn't going to have to worry about any of it showing up on a treasury list of hot money. Had to hand it to the vampire stalkers, they were pretty organized even if stupid in their choices of banks. Some of the bands were stamped with local casino logos. That was when she figured out they had taken whatever money they had and passed it through the casinos first 'cleaning' the money for use and distribution. So they must have stolen it before she had.
Finally, she gave in to her curiosity about the jewelry boxes while the tapes burned in the fireplace. She had stacked some wood in with the media to make sure the ashes were not useful to anyone after she was gone. She slid the overnight bag stuffed with velvet boxes in front of her while she sipped more coffee. Feeling like it was Christmas she popped open a deep blue box first. She felt her pulse surge. She knew this piece. It belonged to one of Kenyon's old mistresses.
The vampire stalkers had stolen from the vampires. She snatched open another box to see another familiar ring. Each box was an expensive piece of jewelry once owned by vampires. No wonder they had hidden them away. Charlotte kept opening boxes. Once she no longer could remember or recognize who the gems and gold had been stolen from, she knew that she had to get the hell out of town immediately. There were plenty of angry vampires out there looking for all the loot she had stolen. Even if she could, she never considered returning any of it to the vampires. Finders keepers, after all, was a good motto. She only hoped she would be able to live with such a dangerous choice. Time would tell.