Penelope unlocked the door of her office near the square in McKinney, Texas, just north of Dallas. The office for her publishing company was a small house originally built in 1883. She had painstakingly renovated it over the past few years, keeping all the Victorian charm.
She loved her office and thought she might even live there someday, if she ever got tired of her two-story brick home with it’s perfect pool and spa and huge yard for Cassandra, her German shepherd, and Socrates, her chihuahua mix, both shelter rescues. Her little rabbit also had a large enclosed pen for playing outside on nice days.
The coffee table book from Rock Pounder’s round-the-world trip was proudly displayed on the table in the sitting area. The full-color photo essay still took her breath away, especially the pictures from Mongolia and St. Petersburg. From what she understood, there had been some kind of scandal involving Rock and a brothel in Amsterdam, with even Interpol involved. She didn’t even want to think what that might have been about! Rock was perfect for her publishing company, but he was definitely not the kind of man she was looking for.
His motorcycle book had been well received, and she was excited about doing a sequel. He was traveling to Mexico for the Baja 1000, so she was thinking he could travel to some of the exotic areas, maybe taking pictures with the locals in unusual settings. All the news reports lately said it would be dangerous to travel in certain parts of Mexico, and she’d heard there were even travel advisories in some areas. All the more reason the book might sell. She could just imagine Rock Pounder in drug lord territory. Maybe he could even take a picture in front of a known drug lord’s house. As if anyone actually knew where drug lords lived, and, anyway, wouldn’t that compromise his personal safety?
She’d have to give that some thought, but it still sounded like a good idea for the book. Oh, well. Mexico seemed promising, and Rock was supposed to be here in about in about fifteen minutes to discuss the details, the only reason she had come back to the office after running late afternoon errands. She had broached the subject before, but now would be a good time to iron out the specifics. The office was peaceful, and the quiet felt nice.
Penelope sat down at her desk. Her private office had at one time been the dining room, and it looked out toward the front door and reception area. She picked up her new box of stationery. Penelope Dickens Frost Publishing, in dark green letters on an off-white paper. She thought about how her name related so well to the publishing field—Dickens, like Charles Dickens and Frost, like Robert Frost, whose poetry she loved. Then her initials were PDF, like a pdf file, the format in which so many manuscripts came to her. As if that weren’t enough, her friends quite often called her “Pen.” And then there was Penelope from the Odyssey. Well, who knows? she thought. Enough daydreaming. Time to get back to work.
She checked her bank account and sighed. Overall, she was surviving financially, but that was about it. She had gotten her house in the divorce ten years ago, and she owned her office, also. The company did better than just break even, but overall it wasn’t easy to make ends meet. Publishing was an expensive venture with small profit margins, and it all depended on the book. Rock was an asset to her company, no doubt about that.
The door chimed as someone walked in. She wasn’t expecting Rock for at least ten minutes and felt a twinge of annoyance at the disruption to her peace and quiet. “Rock is never early!” she thought, as she looked up from her computer.
It wasn’t Rock. Two Hispanic men she didn’t know were walking in. They looked the same, probably brothers, she thought, both muscular and tattooed, in button down shirts and khaki pants that didn’t seem to fit quite right. One of the men was carrying a briefcase. She stood up and walked toward them.
“Hello,” she said, as she extended her hand. “I’m Penelope Dickens Frost. Can I help you with something?” She looked at the briefcase. She was suddenly feeling a little uneasy. The tattoos on their necks seemed to be a combination of weird symbols and numbers.
“Yes, señorita,” the one with the briefcase said.
“I’m Gus Martinez, and this is my brother Ernesto. We’re friends of Rock Pounder, and we’ve written a book. He suggested we come see you.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but we’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts right now,” she said, as she looked at the briefcase. Something was definitely not right about this, and she immediately felt apprehensive. “However, I’d be happy to give you the names of some good self-publishing companies.”
“Sorry to bother you then, miss,” Gus said, but neither one of them made a move to leave. Now they were starting to make her nervous.
“So can you tell us where Rock might be right now?” asked Ernesto.
“Why don’t you ask him, if you’re friends? Why come here? I’m not his confidante, just his publisher.”
“We’ve tried, but we can’t seem to reach him. Oh, by the way, Rock also mentioned that you were the Hashimotos’ neighbor. Have you seen their nephews around lately? We heard they might be staying at their uncles’ house for a while.”
“Well, you’ve come to the wrong person. I don’t keep tabs on Rock Pounder, and I don’t know the Hashimotos’ nephews. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you with any of this. I was just leaving, anyway, so if you don’t mind, I’d appreciate it if you’d leave now, too, so I can lock up.”
She walked back toward her desk and reached for her purse. These guys were not who they said they were. She knew she had to think fast. The Hashimotos had turned out to be nothing but trouble, even though they had seemed like such nice neighbors.
“Aren’t the Hashimoto brothers both in prison now, anyway?” she asked as she put her laptop into her messenger bag. She was just trying to buy some time.
“Ms. Dickens Frost, is it at all possible that the Hashimoto brothers might have left something with you before they were arrested?” Gus asked.
“Why is that any of your business? I think it’s time for you to leave. You don’t sound like friends of Rock’s to me.”
Ernesto took a step toward her. His eyes glinted, and his expression changed.
“We need information, Ms. Frost. Just tell us what we need to know, and we’ll go away.” Gus set the briefcase down on the floor and reached his hand into the pocket of his pants. They suddenly looked serious and scary, any attempt at a friendly manner behind them.
“I’m closing the office now, and I already asked you to leave.” Penelope’s heart was pounding, but she tried to remain calm.
Why were there never any clients when you needed them? She glanced out the window. No one was even walking down the sidewalk, and the streets were empty. She was completely alone. The only weapon she had were the spiky heels of her black leather boots, and she didn’t think she could take them off fast enough. She almost wished for a second that she had a gun, but there was always a way out. The men were just about five feet away from her, and Gus had pulled out a small knife. She reached down and slid open the desk drawer. Her hands closed around a pair of scissors as the men walked toward her. It still wasn’t clear what they wanted, but they weren’t going to get it easily. With the scissors in her hand, she started to back away. She would give them enough of a fight to try to make it to the back door. They were in the kitchen, closing in on her. She backed into the screen door, pushed it open, and yelled, “Cassandra!”
Just as Ernesto was reaching for Penelope, a streak of black fur threw itself into the kitchen, jaws bared, throwing the full weight of her German shepherd body onto Ernesto with all her might, clamping her teeth into his neck. Cassandra knocked him to the floor and stood over him growling. Blood was dripping onto his shirt. Just then a high-pitched yapping filled the air, as Socrates jumped onto Ernesto and started biting him between the legs.
Gus looked at the crazed German shepherd and yapping chihuahua and took a step backwards. Ernesto was screaming, “Get them off of me!” but he couldn’t get away. Gus reached into his pocket, pulled out a gun, and pointed it at Penelope.
“Call the fuckin’ dogs off,” he said.
“Back, Cassandra,” Penelope said, without hesitation. “Come here, Soc.” The dogs obeyed. Gus kept the gun pointed at Penelope.
“Come on, Ernesto,” he said. “Let’s get the hell out of here. This was supposed to be a quiet operation.”
Ernesto pulled himself off the floor and limped toward the door. He was bleeding from his arm and neck, as Gus picked up the briefcase and helped him out onto the porch. As soon as they were off the steps, Penelope ran and locked the front door. She watched from the window until she heard the engine start up. She tried to see the license plate as they pulled away from the curb, tires squealing, but the sun was just beginning to set. As they turned west onto Virginia Parkway, the light from the bright Texas sunset glinted off the shiny black paint of their oversized SUV, and the glare blocked the numbers.
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