SISTER GYPSY MOON
by Karen Leabo
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Copyright 2003 by Karen Leabo, all rights reserved. No part
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SISTER GYPSY MOON
by Karen Leabo
The house was purple.
Reeling from surprise, I shut off my Cherokee's engine and stepped out into the 90-degree heat. I took a few steps closer to the plum-colored monstrosity, then a few steps back, but it was definitely purple. With yellow trim. Not even the hippie commune where I'd grown up had sported such a ghastly color scheme.
Well, who cares, I thought. For the next three months, the house was all mine.
I glanced up and down the street. My house wasn't the ugliest. A sagging two-story in the middle of the block was painted lime green, and some of the others were so faded and peeling it was hard to tell what color they once might have been. And I did have a huge magnolia tree.
My new home was in an obscure Dallas neighborhood unofficially known as Psychedelic Heights. Ninety years ago it had been quite swanky, but it had fallen on hard times. Hippies had taken it over in the sixties, drug dealers in the eighties. Now the urban pioneers were staging a comeback for the eclectic neighborhood. The house across the street from mine, a stately gray with white trim, was obviously one of the area's success stories.
I stared longingly at the gray house. In its front yard, a woman in a polyester housecoat watered the well-manicured lawn.
Well, hell, I was stuck with purple. Might as well make the best of it. It was only for three months, at which time Darryl, my darling ex-boyfriend, would go on trial for trying to turn me into a human shish-kebab. The good citizens of Tulsa would throw him in what I hoped would be a very nasty prison, and I would not have to hide like a beaten dog.
I crossed my own brown, weedy lawn, noticing that all of the shrubs were dead except one small, apparently drought-resistant rose bush. The sight of its pale pink blooms cheered me. I stepped into the welcome shade of the wide front porch, then tried to get the door open. But the lock was frozen with rust.
"Yoo-hoo!" a voice called from behind me.
I jumped a foot. No one was supposed to know me here. Who would be calling me? I jerked around, then relaxed a couple of degrees. It was the woman from across the street, the one with the nice lawn, scurrying toward me, waving and grinning.
I managed a return the smile, though I was hardly ready for company. I just wanted to be left alone--safe and alone. I gave the stubborn key another twist, but no dice. I peered through the wavy beveled glass window in the door--like I expected someone to let me in?--but all was dark.
"Are you having trouble there?" The woman mounted the steps to my porch. She was a mousy thing, with thinning brown hair streaked gray and cut in a conservative, no-frills bob. She wore not a housecoat, as I'd first thought, but a loose polyester dress, support hose, and flat brown shoes. "Are you our new neighbor?"
I nodded and held out my hand. "I'm Gypsy Larabee."
"Gypsy," the woman repeated, smiling uncertainly and ignoring my outstretched hand. "What an unusual name. I'm Merrilee Haglin. Oh, there's Wade, my husband. I'll bet he can help you with that stubborn key."
A fifty-ish man came out the front door of the gray house, dressed in a badly cut three-piece suit. No one wore suits in Dallas in July.
"Yoo-hoo, Wade, over here!" Merrilee called, waving frantically. "Come meet our new neighbor." He waved back and started across the street.
Merrilee returned her attention to me. "You bought Ruby's house?"
"No, not exactly." I struggled with the stubborn lock some more. "The bank foreclosed on it. I've been hired to dispose of the contents and prepare the house for sale." Hired was a bit of a stretch. I was actually being offered free rent and a commission on the proceeds from selling the house and its contents. Which meant, until I'd actually sold a few things, I was dead, flat broke.
Merrilee clapped her hands together gleefully. "That sounds like fun! I bet this house is just chock full of interesting things. Ruby was such an odd character."
"I have no idea what's in here. Yet," I said, bringing home the fact that I really needed to get on with my day--preferably alone.
But there was no escaping from Merrilee, or her husband, who had made it to my porch, breathing hard and perspiring. Wade Haglin wasn't fat, exactly, but he had that jowly, pale look of someone who needed to exercise. His hair was a peculiar dark gold color with the texture of a Brillo pad. I suspected if he hadn't cut it so short, he would look like a Pekinese with a perm. His collar was buttoned so tight that his fleshy neck bulged over it. His beefy hand gripped the crook of a plain wooden cane.
"Hello," I said cordially.
"Wade Haglin, nice to meet you," he said, giving me a critical once-over.
"That's Reverend Haglin," Merrilee clarified. "He's the pastor at the church down the street--Lambs of the Good Shepherd?"
I nodded as if I'd heard of it.
"We like to get to know all of our neighbors, and to let them know that our doors are open for anyone in need of spiritual guidance."
I needed a lot of things--a can of WD-40 topped my current list--but spiritual guidance wasn't one of them. "How nice of you," I said blandly. As a child I was dragged to one weird church after another by my hippie parents, churches with names like, "Disciples of the Sun" and "Holy Temple of the Orange Blossom."
The last time I'd been baptized, at age thirteen, the preacher had held me under the water so long I'd inhaled a half-gallon of scummy pond water and two tadpoles. I was now a confirmed non-church-goer, and I did not want to be saved. Not this afternoon, anyway. I still had to unload the back of my Jeep.
"Well, we're certainly pleased to have you," the Reverend said. "Ruby wasn't the kind of neighbor decent people appreciate."
I sighed, frustration rising in my throat. Just what I needed, bigots for neighbors. I didn't know much about Ruby, but my sister, Petal, who had set up these living arrangements for me, had mentioned Ruby was black. I held my tongue and jiggled the key some more. I was too tired and it was too hot for a debate on racial equality.
Then Merrilee tittered with laughter. "Oh, Wade, that sounded terrible! What must Gypsy think?" She touched my arm. "We aren't prejudiced. We have lots of African-Americans in our congregation. Hispanics, too. No, we had a problem with Ruby because she was a fortune-teller."
"She did the Devil's work," Haglin clarified. "Her so-called business was an evil blight on the neighborhood. Good riddance, wherever she is, that's what I say. Oh, here, let me get that for you." He reached for the key in my hand.
Still reeling from the Haglins' leap from fortune-teller to devil-worshiper, I let Wade try the stubborn key, though I couldn't imagine him having more luck than me. His hands looked soft and weak, even for a minister. But with one determined twist, the lock gave and the door was open.
"Thanks," I said, stepping into the dark, musty interior. "It was very nice meeting both of you."
I thought they'd take the hint, but they followed me right inside. "Need any help with Ruby's things?" Merrilee asked.
Oh. My. God. I didn't just need help, I needed the EPA to check the place out for bio-hazards. My new employer, Texas Fiduciary Savings, had warned me Ruby's place was "cluttered" and needed a bit of TLC. In my mind, that meant crowded bookshelves and too many junk drawers. "Cluttered" did not mean boxes stacked ten feet high in every corner and rooms so full of dusty, grimy, filthy, spider-infested debris a body could barely get through.
"Dear Lord, protect us," Wade Haglin murmured.
"Are the walls ... brown?" Merrilee asked in a tremulous voice.
"With moss green trim," I confirmed.
I wandered through the downstairs, moving furniture as I went, stepping over tools, broken appliances, stacks of Christmas decorations, and a rusty bicycle, with the Haglins trailing behind. Five main rooms made up the downstairs--a large foyer, a living room with fireplace, a dining room, and an extra room my grandmother would have called a parlor, plus a long, thin kitchen running along the back--circa 1950 appliances. Some walls were brown, some half-covered with peeling, flower-power wallpaper. Smelly shag carpeting in various nauseating hues covered the floors.
"The light fixtures are sort of interesting," Merrilee offered, her busy eyes darting here and there, taking it all in.
"The wood trim is probably salvageable, if you strip it," Wade added. "And this bay window is nice."
They were trying to be optimistic, but it was hard to appreciate a window when the glass was so filthy a Texas summer sun couldn't penetrate it.
A wide, curving staircase led upward to more unimaginable horrors. Overwhelmed, I sank onto one of the steps.
"Will you be all right here?" Merrilee asked, her face wreathed with concern. "We have some emergency supplies at the church for, you know, people in crisis. And I can help you dispose of some of this junk, if you like."
Kind as Merrilee's offer was, I didn't want her help, and I really didn't want anything to do with another homeless shelter--I'd just left one. I wanted, needed to be alone. In solitude, I could appreciate the fact that I was in a safe, quiet place with doors that locked and no squalling babies or smelly diapers nearby. I could sleep here without lying on top of all my earthly belongings to prevent them from being stolen. If and when I bought food, I wouldn't have to share it with a dozen hungry roommates.
Fortunately Wade saved me the awkwardness of turning down Merrilee's help. "We'll be late for our shift at the homeless kitchen," the Reverend reminded her.
She sagged. "Yes, dear."
Finally they left, promising to invite me over for iced tea and cookies once I was settled. Feeling a little guilty, I hoped they didn't follow up. They seemed nice enough, but Bible-thumpers always made me a bit uneasy.
Anyway, I hadn't moved here to make friends. My objective was complete anonymity. I would cheerfully live in a cave, I reminded myself, so long as it had indoor plumbing and no Darryl.
"Well, thanks, Petal," I said aloud. It was all my sister's fault I'd landed in this garbage dump. Desperate to rescue me from the Tulsa women's shelter where I'd been hiding from Darryl, Petal had found this ... situation for me. "No, I haven't seen the house," she'd blithely told me. "But I've met Ruby. She seemed nice enough."
Nice enough for a complete and total slob. Ruby Casserly, former owner of this purple pig sty, was not only hygienically challenged, but she had a nasty habit of never paying taxes and running up credit cards and gambling debts. After years of successfully ducking authorities, she'd finally been caught, and had fled to parts unknown to avoid prosecution. The bank had foreclosed on Ruby's house.
Petal, who was a lawyer, had somehow gotten wind of the situation and had offered my services. No wonder the bank had agreed so quickly to the deal she'd suggested. No one would buy a house that made living under a bridge look good.
My initial plan had been to liquidate Ruby's belongings first, then slap on a little paint and put the house on the market. I'd figured a couple of weeks of concerted effort would take care of it. Now I realized a couple of years wouldn't be enough. And I only had three months.
I decided then and there, staring at red-and-yellow carpet surrounded by hideous lamps, moldering boxes, and things that moved when they shouldn't, that my first priority would be to make one room livable or I would go insane.
I unloaded my meager belongings from the back of my Jeep, then headed for Builder's Corner, where I opened a charge account and bought some spackle, masking tape, brushes, and four gallons of eggshell paint.
It was a start.
Three days later, I was in a slightly better frame of mind. I'd found a bedroom upstairs that was moderately livable, once I'd cleaned the inch of dust off every surface and put clean sheets on the bed. Then I'd started in on the living room. I'd cleared everything out, hauling several loads of trash to the alley. I'd pulled up the carpet, pleased to find hardwoods underneath, though they needed work. Three coats of eggshell paint took care of the ghastly brown walls, and the house's charm started to reveal itself.
If I could just get this one room to shine, some urban pioneer would be inspired by the home's obvious potential and snap it up as soon as I listed it, I thought optimistically.
So, there I was on a ladder slopping white enamel on a window frame when the doorbell rang. Eager for a diversion, I hopped down from the ladder, headed for the foyer, and swung open the door, having forgotten for the moment that I lived in a neighborhood where most folks thought nothing of three dead bolts and a pit-bull.
A pretty Latina girl stood on my front porch. Tall and gangly with just the hint of impending womanhood, she had long, almost-black hair hanging loose and windblown.
She met my welcoming smile with a solemn expression. "My grandmother sent me," she said timidly. "I'm Lupe Silviano?"
I opened the door a little wider, figuring Lupe was no threat. In fact, her granny was probably the nice little lady who'd welcomed me to the neighborhood with a Frito-chili pie. "I'm Gypsy," I said in return.
"Oh, a gypsy!" She sounded pleased.
"Not a gypsy," I clarified. "Just 'Gypsy.' My parents were ... never mind." The girl was far too young to understand why babies born in hippie communes ended up with names like "Sunshine" and "Waterfall," so I dropped it.
I didn't want to be rude, but I had work to do. I was about to ask Lupe to excuse me when her eyes teared up. She grasped both of my hands. "My brother. My brother Jorge. He's only four and he's been gone since last night--"
"Whoa, whoa! Slow down."
She blinked owlishly at me. "Aren't you the crystal-ball lady? The one in the purple house? My grandmama told me you could help. She would have come herself, but she's laid up."
The girl thought I was Ruby.
How in the world was I going to explain to this grief-stricken girl that I wasn't a fortune-teller or crystal-ball reader? I mean, I'd already admitted I was "Gypsy," and didn't gypsies tell fortunes?
As Lupe prattled on hysterically about how her brother had wandered away, I closed my eyes a moment, trying to imagine how frightened she must be--and that little boy! Wherever he was, he had to be terrified. I had no particular affinity for four-year-olds. I'd discovered that at the Wee Luv Daycare Center, the last job I'd been fired from--not my fault. But I wouldn't want to lose one.
"Can I come in?" Lupe asked.
I opened my eyes and shook my head. "Paint fumes," I said. "They're terrible." Needing a break from the fumes myself, I stepped out on the porch and closed the door, though first I checked up and down the street, automatically looking to see if anyone was watching me. I'd become extraordinarily paranoid after coming so close to being incinerated.
"I wish I could help you," I finally said.
"Why can't you?" She studied me a moment. "My grandmama said you were a colored woman."
"I think she has me mixed up with the lady who lived here before ..."
Lupe's gaze dropped. I could tell she was trying not to cry. "You mean you can't look in your crystal ball and tell me where Jorge is?"
"Oh, well ..." I shrugged. "No."
Lupe frowned. "You're not a gypsy? You lied?"
"My name really is Gypsy," I said wistfully.
Eyes downcast, Lupe reached into her jeans pocket and handed me a crumpled ten-dollar bill. "Grandmama says I have to pay you, no matter what information I get."
"Oh, no, I couldn't--" I began, but she tucked the bill into the bib pocket of my overalls.
Lupe turned and bolted from the porch, grabbing her battered bicycle, which she'd left leaning against the steps. She wheeled it around, hopped astride, and took off like a slingshot--right through my little rose bush.
"My roses!" I howled, but I don't think she even noticed. The poor little bush was cleaved in two, some of its blooms hanging forlornly in the heat.
I took the hose and watered it, hoping it would come back. It was the only thing besides the magnolia tree still alive in the whole front yard, and the Purple Palace needed all the "curb appeal" it could get.
I felt bad the rest of the morning, though when I finished the trim in the living room and saw the overall effect, I rallied a bit. Once I refinished the oak floor, the living room would look pretty good. I had one tiny spindle-legged table and an English teapot, left to me by my grandmother. They were the only two items I'd been able to rescue from the fire Darryl had set in my apartment. I would put table and teapot in the middle of the room, and I would come in here whenever the rest of the house got to be too much.
I was poring over the Yellow Pages, trying to figure out where I could rent a floor sander with my pathetic, maxed-out Discover card, when the doorbell rang again. I approached the door a bit more cautiously this time.
I peered through the wavy beveled glass, and for a moment I had to gasp for breath. Standing on my front porch was the most gorgeous god of a man I'd ever seen, the epitome of "latin lover." His dark, heavy-lidded eyes stared back at me with utter confidence--and how could any man with those looks be anything but confident? He wore a jacket and tie despite the building heat, and he hadn't even broken a sweat.
Normally I would not just throw my door open to a strange man, especially in this unfamiliar neighborhood. But somewhere in the back of my mind I figured, what's the worst that could happen? Rape and ravishment? Even if he killed me, I'd die happy just staring at him as the last of my lifeblood trickled out onto my unfinished oak floor.
I opened the door, only then remembering my own disreputable, paint-spattered state. My long, curly hair was pulled back in a bandanna do-rag, and my baggy, cut-off overalls gave me the approximate shape and size of an automobile air bag. Too late to do anything about it, though.
"Yes?" I croaked, pleased that I could get even that much out. It wasn't often that I got this close to a Hispanic Adonis.
He aimed his piercing black eyes at me. The way he stared made me forget my distinctly unglamorous attire.
"You must be Gypsy." His voice was velvet smooth with a touch of sting to it, like a real expensive tequila. Though his words weren't insulting, his tone was ever-so-slightly insolent.
"That's my name," I admitted cautiously. "And you are ...?"
"Santiago Ramone. Dallas Morning News. May we come in?"
A reporter? And worse, a photographer. A brassy-looking blonde weighted down with a camera bag trudged up my walkway.
My heart started up a panicky staccato. How had a reporter found me? Surely the press wasn't still interested in me. It had been almost a year since the unpleasant incident at Wee Luv involving a toilet and a certain obnoxious pre-schooler's head. Said incident had prompted a wave of embarrassing publicity, ending my short-lived daycare career and almost landing me in jail. Thank God for Petal's legal skills.
Well, whatever the reporter wanted, I wasn't going to cooperate. I'd spent a good deal of time and energy hiding myself from Darryl. I didn't need my picture in the paper.
Quickly I stepped outside onto the porch and closed the door behind me. "No pictures," I said sternly, giving the blonde a quelling look. "What can I do for you?"
Ramone pulled a notebook from the back pocket of his jeans and settled onto my porch railing. Just watching him move, bend at the knees and elbows, made my own knees go weak. With that glowing bronze skin and those full, sensual lips, he was so beautiful, yet somehow dangerous.
"This morning you consulted with a customer, a ..." He read from the notebook. "... Lupe Silviano, is that right?"
"She wasn't exactly a customer," I hedged. I didn't know whether to be relieved or on full alert. Apparently Santiago didn't know anything about Wee Luv Daycare. But this business with Lupe ... I didn't want it getting around that I'd posed as a psychic to defraud a young girl out of ten dollars.
"But you did talk to her."
"Yeah. She mistook me for someone else." I decided not to mention the ten bucks.
Santiago stared at me, pen poised but still above his notepad. He looked utterly confused. "You don't want any publicity?"
That really threw him for a loop. He studied me like a bug under a microscope. "You are Sister Gypsy, right?"
I couldn't help it; I laughed. Where had the "Sister" come from? I started to deny the moniker, but just then, Lupe came roaring up the street on her battered bike, hollering like my house was on fire. "Sister Gypsy! Sister Gypsy!"
At that point I closed my mouth. It was going to be a little difficult to argue my identity now.
Lupe got her bike halfway up on the sidewalk then leaped off, letting it clatter to the concrete. She barreled toward me like an out-of-control bullet and grabbed my unsuspecting self in a fierce embrace. "Oh, Sister Gypsy, thank you so much."
"Did you find Jorge?" I asked, tentatively returning the hug.
Santiago rolled his eyes. "As if you didn't know."
"I didn't!" I protested, just as the bimbo-ish photographer started furiously snapping pictures of Lupe's and my hug.
Why didn't I just take out an ad: Darryl, here I am, come get me and bring matches.
This concludes the first chapter to SISTER GYPSY MOON by Karen Leabo. If you enjoyed the chapter, why not buy the entire novel for only $3.99? Visit www.booksforabuck.com or click the Buy Now button now.