Homesick –Part IV

As soon as he was unpacked, Lonnie went to the station and sat down with the arson file. He was looking over the information concerning the most recent fire when Bubba came in.

"Hey, look who's back," said Bubba. "How was Chicago?"

"I'm relieved to be home," said Lonnie. "Let's just say that leather pants and dance clubs aren't exactly my scene."

"You look tired," said Bubba. "Didn't you get any sleep up there?"

"Hardly," Lonnie replied. "I'll tell you about it later. I'm going over to see Parker now."

"It was nice of Crystal to offer the house for Parker," said Bubba.

"Yeah, well, I doubt she'll be needing it again," Lonnie said.

Lonnie left the station and drove to the estate. It was strange to be there without Crystal being there too, but Lonnie figured he would have to get used to that.

"I guess you're pretty comfortable here," he said to Parker.

"It's a nice house," said Parker, "but it's not like home. The size of it makes it feel kind of lonely."

"Crystal says that too," said Lonnie.

"She didn't come back with you," Parker said.

"No," Lonnie sighed. "I don't expect she'll be back here for a while. Let that be the end of it. I just want to concentrate on catching this arsonist. What happened to your house is definitely the work of the same guy."

"You'd think that with all the people around that night, somebody would have seen something," said Parker. "My next door neighbors were having some sort of party."

"Do you think anybody might have been drinking brandy at that party?" Lonnie asked.

"I couldn't say," Parker replied.

"I'll go by there today and talk to your neighbors," said Lonnie. "Then I'll check all the liquor stores and see if they've been selling an unusual amount of brandy lately. You just stay here and enjoy your day off, and I'll come back by tonight, okay?"

"Okay. Thanks, Lonnie."

When Parker heard the front door opening that evening, he assumed that it was Lonnie. He was quite surprised to see Crystal Collins in the doorway.

"Hey, Parker," she said. "I'm glad you decided to stay. It's nice to come home to somebody."

"Home?" Parker echoed.

Crystal smiled, but she was not her usual cheery self. Neither was Parker, so the two made an appropriate pair. Crystal took her things up to her bedroom, then she came back down and sat with Parker on the sofa.

"Lonnie talked as if you wouldn't be coming back," Parker said.

"I'm sure he thought I wouldn't," she said. "He probably wishes I wouldn't, but I couldn't stay away."

"What happened between you two?" Parker asked.

"The inevitable, I guess," Crystal said. "Inevitable because I'm such a damned fool. I hurt him, Parker, but I swear I didn't mean to. I guess people like me never mean to, but we do anyway.

"I'm sorry, I'm talking in riddles. What happened was that I led him to believe that I wasn't serious about him, when all the while I've been crazy about him, and I was running scared from it."

"He's supposed to come by here tonight," Parker said. "He could be here any minute."

"How am I going to face him again, Parker? What am I going to say? How can I convince him that this time is different?"

She moaned in frustration. She was tempted to go upstairs to her room and hide, not even let Lonnie know she was here, but that was just the kind of behavior she was trying to combat.

"I went over this in my mind so many times on the plane, and on the drive from Jackson," she said, "and it just never seemed to come out right."

"Just be sincere," said Parker. "Tell him the truth. You really can't do more than that."

Lonnie visited Parker's neighbors and the liquor stores, just as he had said he would, but these avenues turned up no new information. He talked to both Chief Forbes and Sheriff Gillespie about the case, but they were as frustrated as he was. At the end of the day, he would be forced to tell Parker that they still had nothing.

It was close to 8:00 p.m. when he drove back to the estate. He noticed the second car in the driveway, but he didn't recognize it. He wondered who it could be. Parker answered the door when he rang and asked if there were any new developments.

"I'm sorry to say it, but no," said Lonnie.

"Well, we'll keep looking," said Parker. "There's somebody here that wants to talk to you."

Parker gestured to the room where Crystal was still sitting on the couch, and he let Lonnie go alone. When Lonnie entered the room, his face looked even more surprised than Parker's had. Crystal had butterflies in her stomach at the sight of him. She was much too nervous to stand up.

"Hey, Lonnie," she said.

"I didn't expect you back so soon," Lonnie said.

"Neither did I," she said, "but here I am."

Lonnie went and sat next to her on the sofa, but not as close to her as he used to sit.

"I don't even know how to begin to apologize to you," she said.

"I thought we finished this in Chicago," he said. "If you're in Sparta to take care of the house, you don't owe me an explanation."

"I'm not here because of the house," she said. "And if by 'take care of', you mean 'sell', I don't want to get rid of the house."

"Your partner said you did."

"Peter is sitting back in Chicago now with his foot in his mouth," Crystal said. "Whatever he said to you, he was wrong. He's known me for a long time, but I'm not the same girl that I was before I came here."

"You could've fooled me," Lonnie said.

"I deserve that," Crystal said, "but I'm telling you, Lonnie –Sparta changed everything. You changed everything. I didn't want to face an upheaval in my life. And I know that's no excuse. There's no excuse for the way I've treated you, but I will do anything to make it up to you."

"What are you saying?" he asked.

"I'm saying I want another chance with you," she said. "I want to move to Sparta for good and start all over."

"How do I know you won't run back to Chicago at the first sign of trouble?" Lonnie asked.

"Fair enough," she said. "You don't know, and you won't until you give me a chance to prove it to you."

"Can I have some time to think about it?" he asked.

"Of course. Take all the time you need. I'm not going anywhere."

"I need to talk to Parker before I go," he said.

He got up and started to leave the room.

"Lonnie, wait," she called.

He stopped and turned around.

"There's something I have to tell you," she said.

She stood up so that she could be on eye level with him. She hesitated for a minute because what she was thinking was difficult for her to say.

"I'm willing to leave behind everything –my job, my friends, the place I've called home all my life," she said, "all for you. I'm in love with you, Lonnie Jamison, and if I don't accomplish anything else here, I hope I can convince you of that."

It was hard for him to walk away from that, but he really thought he needed time to think this thing through

"I'll take that into account," he said.

Crystal was feeling a bit lightheaded, so after Lonnie was gone, she decided to go to bed early.

Lonnie had a great deal weighing on his mind when he went into work on Monday morning. He tried to put his personal concerns aside, but it was difficult to do so, especially since the first thing Parker said to him that morning was about Crystal.

"She's in bed sick today," Parker told him. "She's come down with a pretty nasty cold."

Lonnie was thinking that maybe he should send some flowers to her when Chief Forbes called for him.

"There's been another fire," said Forbes, "on the county line. I told Bill we'd meet him there."

Lonnie took Officer Covey with him, and Chief Forbes rode with Dee Shepherd. Bill Gillespie was already waiting for them when they arrived at the scene.

"It was the rain that put this thing out last night," Bill said.

"This is an abandoned house, with no close neighbors," said Lonnie. "I would have thought that he would strike in a more prominent neighborhood; he seemed to be getting bolder."

"Either he's playing games with us," said Forbes, "or we're dealing with some kind of psycho."

The officers searched the grounds very carefully, and to their surprise, they came across something this time. In the mud behind the house there was what appeared to be a partial shoeprint, surrounded by broken glass.

"Looks like he slipped up and dropped his bottle of brandy," said Lonnie.

Very carefully, the pieces of glass were taken from the scene, and they were sent off to the crime lab in Jackson. It would take some time to get results, so there was little they could do now but wait.

Crystal stayed in bed until noon. She was feeling miserable, but she somehow got herself out of bed and dressed. She didn't have much of an appetite, so she sat down and ate a bowl of oatmeal, then she drove to the nearest store to pick up some cold medicine. She was feeling even more lightheaded than she had the night before, and she accidentally bumped into a guy at the counter.

"I'm so sorry," she said. "I'm clumsy today. It's this cold."

"No problem," he said.

He was buying a pack of cigarettes and matches.

"You know those things will kill you, don't you?" Crystal said.

"That's what I hear," he said, "but it's too late to stop now."

"It's never too late," she said. "Ever try nicotine gum, or nicotine patches?"

"Nah. I enjoy lighting these up far too much for that."

She noticed that there was a series of cuts on his arm.

"What happened to your arm?" she asked.

"Broken window," he said. "You take care of that cold, Ma'am."

"Thanks."

She went back home after that and took the medicine, then she collapsed onto the couch and fell asleep. She didn't wake up again until Parker came back from work. He had brought her some soup.

"You're a sweetheart, Parker," she said.

"How are you feeling?" he asked.

"Terrible," she replied. "How was work?"

"We got another arson," he said. "And this time, we may have some evidence. We're just waiting for the results."

He told her about the broken glass. It reminded her of the man she had seen earlier in the store, but she was still too groggy to think of really connecting the two.

"Is there anything else I can get you?" Parker asked.

"Can you sit here and talk for a bit?" she asked.

"Sure."

"So what's the latest gossip in Sparta?" she asked.

"Well, Bubba and his girlfriend just broke up recently," said Parker. "I guess he'll be going to the Policemen's Ball alone on Friday night."

"You're having a Policemen's Ball?"

"Yes, Ma'am," said Parker. "Planned out by Harriet Gillespie, Sheriff Gillespie's wife. It's to collect money for charity."

By Friday, Crystal was still not feeling in top shape, but she was much better.

"I know just what you need to cheer you up," said Parker.

"Oh yeah? What's that?" she asked.

"You need to get out of this lonely house and have a good time," said Parker. "Why don't you go with me to the ball tonight?"

"I don't know, Parker…"

"Come on, Crystal," he said. "Lonnie will be there."

"Which could be a good reason for me not to go," she said.

"Or," said Parker, "it could be exactly the reason that you should go."

Ultimately, she agreed to go. She had not had much company since her return to Sparta, and she very much wanted to see everyone again. She did not have much time, but she went out shopping for something to wear. She decided on something black; she figured you couldn't go wrong with the classic little black dress.

At close to 7:00, she got in the car with Parker, and they rode together to the ball. The first person she ran into that she knew was Sheriff Gillespie. He welcomed her back to Sparta and introduced her to Harriet.

"It's nice to finally meet you," said Harriet. "You've been the talk of the town for quite some time now."

"Well, I hope I'll give them occasion to keep talking," Crystal said. "I'm considering moving to Sparta permanently."

"You certainly have a wonderful house to move to," said Harriet.

"Yes, it is beautiful," said Crystal, "but to be honest with you, I think it's a bit too big for me. I've been thinking over an idea, and maybe you can help me with it. I was thinking of donating the house to be used for an orphanage."

"That's a very generous offer," said Harriet.

"I think it would be a better tribute to my parents than my moving in there," said Crystal, "and of course, the issue of orphaned children is one that touches me personally."

"Why don't you stop by my office one day, and we can discuss it?" said Harriet.

"I will," said Crystal. "You've done a lovely job with the ball, by the way."

"Thank you," said Harriet. "A lot of people worked very hard to put this together."

Just then, Crystal noticed that Lonnie was walking in the door. Immediately she felt the butterflies return to her stomach. He had sent her flowers while she was sick, but she had not spoken with him since the night of her arrival in Sparta.

"Would you excuse me?" she said. "It was lovely meeting you, Harriet. I'll definitely come by your office one day soon."

Crystal left the Gillespies, but instead of going to see Lonnie, she retreated to the bar and got herself a drink. She had been at the bar for about twenty minutes when Bubba came and sat next to her, pulling at the collar of his tuxedo.

"Evening, Miss Collins," he said. "What are you doing back here? There are a lot of people interested in seeing you."

"I'm hiding," she said.

"Well, if you want to do that, you should get behind the bar," said Bubba. "You're hardly inconspicuous, even sitting way back here."

She smiled.

"Would you like to dance?" Bubba asked.

"Sure, why not?"

Crystal took to the dance floor with Bubba. When the song was done, someone else asked her to dance, and for the next few songs, she shuffled back and forth between partners. Lonnie was watching from across the room. He couldn't hear anything that she was saying, but he thought she looked as if she were having a good time. Finally, she told the men she was tired and wanted something to eat, and she walked to the tables with Bubba and Parker. Here she finally came to face to face with Lonnie.

"You look good in a tux," she said.

"Thanks, but I can't wait to get out of it," Lonnie said.

"You want some help with that?" she asked. "Ooh, did I say that? I think I've had a little too much to drink. Excuse me while I go to the ladies' room. Don't go anywhere, okay?"

"Are you out of your mind, son?" asked Bubba. "If you leave that field open for too long, there's plenty of guys that would be happy to step in."

"Looks that way," said Lonnie. "The question is whether or not she would be happy with that."

"She's not having as good a time as you might think," said Parker. "She may look confident, even wreckless at times, but there's a scared little girl in there."

Crystal returned to the table a few minutes later. One of the guys from the catering service came to the table at the same time to set down a cake that he had been late in bringing.

"Didn't I see you outside my house last weekend?" Parker asked. "You were at a party thrown by my next door neighbors."

"I did work a party last weekend," said the man. "Are you the guy whose house caught fire?"

"Yeah, that was me," said Parker.

"I'm sorry about that," the man said.

"You know, I think I recognize you too," said Crystal. "I bumped into you in the store a few days ago. We had a conversation about smoking."

"And you had a cold. Right, I remember."

"How's your arm?" asked Crystal.

"Fine, thanks."

The man smiled at them all, told them to enjoy the food, and left the table.

"What's wrong with his arm?" asked Parker.

"He said he cut it on a broken window," Crystal replied.

Lonnie and Bubba looked at one another.

"Don't chefs sometimes use brandy in cooking?" Lonnie asked.

"Yes, they do," said Crystal. "They light things on fire with it, like plum pudding…"

"Like barns and houses," Lonnie said.

Lonnie left the table and went to find the man to take him in for questioning. He didn't see the guy anywhere, but he saw the head chef.

"Do you guys use brandy in any of your cooking?" he asked.

"As a matter of fact, we do," said the chef. "It's a funny thing, a big part of our supply seems to have gone missing."

"Do you have a young guy working for you?" asked Lonnie. "Dark hair, a little shorter than I am, has some cuts on his arm…"
"You must mean Jake," said the chef. "He hasn't been working for me long, but he's an excellent cook."

"Do you know where I can find him now?" Lonnie asked.

"He's here somewhere, but I couldn't say where exactly. You might try the kitchen."

Lonnie went back to the kitchen, and sure enough, there was Jake at the stove.

"Jake?" he said. "I think you should come with me down to the station. I have a few questions for you."

"What kind of questions?" asked Jake. "I'm working here."

"I'm sure your colleagues can handle it," said Lonnie.

Suddenly in a panic, Jake grabbed up a bottle of brandy and held it over the stove.

"I'll drop it," he said. "This whole place will go up in flames, and everybody in it."

Lonnie realized that the man was in crazed state now, that he was going to drop the bottle anyway; he knew he had to move quickly. He lunged, and he tackled Jake to the ground. The bottle crashed to the kitchen floor.

Bubba and Parker came in and helped to subdue Jake while they waited for some on-duty cops to come and arrest the man. Lonnie's first instinct was to go back to the station to question the suspect, but he decided to let others handle it this time because there was something else that he needed to do.

Crystal was standing by the kitchen doors, and he went and stood in front of her now.

"Every guy in this place has danced with you tonight except me," he said.

"And yet, you're the only one I wanted," she said.

"I'm afraid I smell like brandy now," said Lonnie.

"No more than I do," she replied.

They walked to the middle of the floor, and though Lonnie felt awkward dancing, he also felt proud to be holding this woman so close in front of everyone, to be the only man in the room that she cared for.

"I've made a decision about the house," she said. "As soon as Parker is able to move back into his house, I'm going to donate the estate."

Lonnie pulled back from her a bit.

"I'm going to look for a smaller place for myself," she said. "I want to donate the estate for use as an orphanage. I'm meeting with Harriet soon to discuss it."

Lonnie breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at her.

"So you plan on sticking around," he said.

"Yep. You can't get rid of me this time."

"Good," he said, "because I don't want to."