The door opened and out waddled Lymon Culpepper, all gussied up in a tan suit with sweat stains at the armpits. His cowboy boots had extra tall heels, but he still didn’t quite measure up to my eye-level.
“The lovely Miss Brooks.” He gave me a thin smile with tobacco-stained teeth, assessing me with his cold, flat eyes.
“Mr. Culpepper.” I nodded.
“Call me Lymon.” He brought a hand to the small of my back and instantly it stuck to me, as if the sweaty heat had glued it there. I let him guide me back to the office, forcing myself to take each step.
“Great space here, don’t you agree?” He grimaced another dark smile, keeping me a fraction too close to his side. I looked around at the mildewed walls and ceiling missing a plank. “Mmm-hmm,” I managed, non-committal.
“I’ve got big plans for it,” Lymon assured me. What kind of business would thrive there? I had a feeling I didn’t want to know.
“Right this way.” He led me into the back office. I didn’t want to go in. It felt like being led into a trap, but politeness won out. I gulped down my panic and allowed myself to be enclosed into the room.
Over in the corner a man stood with his hands clasped together in front of him. He had to weigh about 300 pounds, his shirt bulging and gigantic over the waist of his jeans. He nodded when I came in, but Lymon didn’t introduce us and he didn’t say a word. The henchman, I guessed. But what legitimate businessman conducted business with a bodyguard in an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town?
Lymon got right down to the task at hand. He had a stack of papers on his messy desk and he sat me down next to him in front of the pile. So much paperwork.
I started signing and signing and signing some more. He watched me the whole time, licking his chops like I was preparing a meal. Or I was the meal.
The room felt too hot, too close, like I didn’t have enough air. There weren’t any windows and the pages seemed to go on forever. There was plenty of time for something to intervene, someone to rush in and say, “Wait, stop, you don’t have to do this!” Or even a natural disaster. I’d take a small tornado over signing everything over to the likes of Lymon Culpepper.
But nothing happened except my pen moving from one stack of papers to the next. Finally, I made it to the last page. Tired as I was of scratching my pen around, I still wished it wasn’t over. But it was. The deal was done.
A small part of me had honestly expected something else. Declan to sweep in. The earth to stop turning. Neither happened. The ranch now belonged to the Toad Man. I looked at the stack of paperwork and felt numb.
“You’ve done the right thing, Kara.” I didn’t like hearing my name come out of his mouth, as if it created some sense of intimacy that wasn’t there in the least. “You had no other options.”
“Yup.” Nothing like adding salt to my wounds. I put the pen back in my purse and gathered up my strength to stand up and leave.
“What’s next for you, Kara?” Lymon examined me with flat, beady eyes. The lighting in the room shone too bright like a doctor’s office. The light reflected off of his sweaty, bald head.
“I’m not sure.” I shrugged, feigning nonchalance.
“Where are you going to live?”
“I’ll figure something out.” I needed to get out of there, quick, before I started crying. Why did I feel like he’d enjoy seeing my weakness?
“I can help you out,” he continued, his voice oddly devoid of emotion. “I might have some ideas. Now that you have nowhere to live.” He looked at me like he was going to eat me up. I nodded out of automatic politeness, but eyed the door.
“There are many ways a woman like you could do very well for herself.” He reached a finger out and trailed it along my bare arm, just beneath the short sleeve of my dress. His eyes fixed on my breasts.
“OK, well then.” That got me moving. I stood up. “I need to head out now. Bill’s waiting for me.” Suddenly I wished Bill was waiting for me, that I’d given him the address here and he knew exactly where I was and when to expect me back. The giant goon in the corner took a step forward, the monster sprung to life. Lymon watched me, then glanced over at Frankenstein and nodded him off. Almost as if he were saying, ‘not yet.’
“We’ll check in on you in a few days,” Lymon said to me, rising to his feet. “We’ll come see how we can help.”
“That won’t be necessary,” I assured him, sternly, suddenly feeling naked in my small, tight dress. Why hadn’t I put on a cardigan at least? He seemed to look right through my clothing. He stood between me and the door as if enjoying his power and wanting to feel it a few moments longer. Staring at my cleavage at the top of my dress, he licked his lips.
“Oh, but it is,” he insisted. “I’m obligated. Now that I own…” He waited a moment, fixated heavily on my breasts before adding, “your ranch.”
I could feel the big guy behind me, a step closer. This wasn’t a large office and I stood sandwiched between two men. I’d been stupid to meet them there. I hadn’t been thinking clearly, not at all. My eyes flitted to the desk to see what I could use as a weapon if I needed one. I saw a big stapler, the old fashioned kind that weighed a ton. If I could grab it and clock Lymon over th
e head, maybe I’d have surprise and speed to my advantage and I could get the hell out of there.
“I need to—” I tried, hating the way fear made my voice tremble.
“Yes.” Lymon interrupted me, bringing a hand to my arm, the arm I was going to use to grab the stapler. Holding on tight, he took a step closer. “I’m going to keep an eye on you, Kara. Make sure you’re all right.” Oh, God I wanted to get out of there. I knew I was shaking and I wished I could stop. I could almost tell he was getting off on it, enjoying my vulnerability and desperation.
“I have some work for you.” His eyes took me in, glittering and cold.
“I’m leaving now.” I broke free of his hand and pushed past him. He could have stopped me, stuck out his foot and grabbed hold of me. He weighed a lot more than me, plus he had his goon there behind me to do his bidding. But he let me go.
“We’ll check on you soon,” he called out after me.
I didn’t respond, didn’t look back. Out in the fresh air I promised myself to never be so stupid again. I was on my own now, really and truly, without even the safety and security of my home. I needed to stop being so trusting and start seeing danger. Sometimes people wanted to do you harm. I could tell that was the case with Lymon Culpepper. I didn’t know what he was about, but I didn’t trust him, not for a second.
I’d talk to Bill about keeping Lymon off the property over the next couple of weeks. And maybe I’d aim to pack up sooner rather than later. I had four weeks until I had to vacate the property, but maybe I could wrap it all up in two.
I could still feel the pressure of his hand on my arm. I shook as I started up Bessie and drove off. The patch of skin where he’d gripped me stood out red and angry. He’d made me feel cheap, like a piece of meat. I hated the way he looked at me, like somehow he thought he hadn’t just bought the ranch. He figured he’d bought me along with it. I didn’t know what would happen next in my life, but I did know I never wanted to see Lymon Culpepper ever again.