I was taking my usual walk in the cool morning of late April. The azaleas were still in bloom, and the fledgling birds were hopping on the shoulder of the road. As I topped the last hill and was heading for home, I noticed something lying on the grassy shoulder, something leathery--sort of a large wallet that zipped on three sides. At first, I thought it was just one more thing someone had thrown away. I was regularly surprised by the items abandoned along the road--not only gloves and wool hats, but also shoes, overcoats, sweatshirts, and any number of ladies' undergarments. I was going to leave the leather case where I found it, but decided it might be of value to someone and picked it up. Inside, I found several credit cards and a bank card. Each card was in its own little pocket, and none of them had reached its expiration date. In yet another pocket, there were six identical business cards, surely those of the owner of the leather case.
There was a telephone number, and the business shown was located in Bedford, a nearby town in Crabtree County. I had to wonder how that card case reached the shoulder of an obscure road in Brightown, North Carolina. Anyway, pausing beside the road, I pressed the appropriate keys on my cell phone.
"Good morning," a woman's voice responded. "Erica's Cake Shop."
"Hello--I found a leather case. It apparently belongs to you."
"Wait one moment," she replied, and then spoke to someone else. "Erica--somebody found your cards."
I heard hopeful sighs and then a new voice. "Hello--did you find my cards?"
"Yes, I found the leather case on a shoulder of the road--that's Stanly Road here in Brightown."
"Oh, good grief--my purse was taken from my car last night. Did you find any money?"
"No--there was nothing in the fold."
"Well, I'm grateful for your call."
"Can I bring it to you?"
"I'd hate to put you to that trouble."
"No trouble at all. I go to Bedford to shop and check my properties. I own some rentals near there."
"Are you familiar with the Village Shopping Mall?"
"Yes--I know where it is."
And so, that afternoon, after taking some rental checks to the bank, I drove my VW Beetle onto the Interstate and, twenty-five minutes later, was in Bedford and approaching the Village Shopping Mall. It was an average mall with boutique businesses in the middle and big stores on either end. I found Erica's Cake Shop in one of the smaller suites. It was lined with glass counters, their interiors arrayed with cupcakes, birthday cakes, wedding cakes, all with luxurious icing.
I spoke to an unusually tall woman behind one of the counters. "Erica Webb?"
"Erica," she called to a woman at another counter. "Gentleman here to see you."
Erica had just returned from the kitchen--she was the one who did the mixing, baking, and applied the icing. At the time, she seemed a pleasant, attractive woman in her forties. She wore a white jacket and white trousers appropriate to a baker, and a white hat that barely covered her tied-back auburn hair. She had good teeth, showing nicely when she smiled, and a firm face that suggested serious purpose behind that smile. I had noticed, sometime ago, that people in business for themselves often displayed an outward good nature, accompanied by an inner toughness. I admired this combination of qualities and thought she might well possess them.
I presented Erica with her missing card case, and she laughed and shook her head in amazement.
"I think you deserve a reward for this."
"No, no--it was my pleasure."
"Well--I was about to offer you one of my cakes."
How could I refuse? It would mean disdaining her art. "I must say--you've hit upon one of my weaknesses--an over-developed appetite for cake with lots of icing."
"Then by heaven, that's what you shall have."
She slid open the door to the nearest glass counter, chose one of her masterpieces, and put it in a box, and, for good measure, tied string around the box.
"Ah--thank you, Mrs. Webb."
"Call me Erica," she said quickly.
"Very well--thank you again, Erica."
And so, my good deed done, my reward in hand, I drove back to my home in Brightown. I carried the cake inside, anxious to sample this delectation with its sugary airplane on a blue-icing runway, atop a thick white icing spread on all three layers. I made coffee to go with it, and then took my first slice, which was a rare delight. The icing was a perfect complement to the golden cake and sugary decorations. I felt more than satisfied. My sweet tooth became quiescent. And more than that, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of utter serenity--the world was suddenly a piece of cake.
Then it occurred to me that I was feeling a little too serene. It didn't make sense--that a cake should have such a mood-altering effect. What was in this cake? Examining it carefully, I noticed that my knife had cut into a paper packet--inside the cake. It contained a powdery substance, possibly dope of some kind. What to do now--should I call the law?--perhaps get Erica a trip to jail? Or should I wash the stuff down the drain? I disliked the idea of harming Erica, an attractive woman. Such women tended to gain my sympathy, my admiration, especially those involved in the business world. I myself was a consulting engineer with my own office.
On the other hand, my curiosity was nagging me to identify that stuff in the cake. I happened to know a chemist working at a local pharmaceutical firm. And so, I carefully cut the packet out of the cake, repaired it with mending tape, and took it with me when I visited the chemist and described the effects of the white powder. He agreed to examine the powder, keeping a "representative sample." Hardly a day later, he called me.
"I identified that stuff you gave me," he said.
"It's heroin--diacetylmorphine. It was mixed with something else, possibly lactose. Anyway, I extracted it with water, purified the residue, and got a good melting point and infrared spectrum. Heroin--no doubt about it. We could both be arrested for possessing this stuff."
"Don't worry. I'll keep your name out of it. I'll take the matter up with the person who baked the cake."
"It must have been put in the cake after it was baked--otherwise it would have melted."
"Thanks, Bill, I'll keep you posted."
"Better keep the police posted."
Well, well--what have we discovered here? The bag of dope was put in the cake after it was baked--its inclusion was no accident. Here I was, stuck in this bothersome dilemma and all because I found that leather case lying near the road. I decided simply to let it all go. I washed the white powder down the drain, and returned to my professional task of the moment--a report I had to write for a client. The building he bought was settling downhill, and things were coming apart. He likely had a legal claim against the former owner.
But my curiosity about that white powder and about Erica Webb was still there. Perhaps it was a kind of fascination that led me to visit her shop again. The kitchen was separated from the store by a glass wall. I could observe Erica, wearing her white ensemble, and putting the final decorations on an enormous wedding cake. Judging by the two figures atop the cake, the wedding was the traditional kind--that of a man and a woman. Seeing Erica, so jolly and industrious, gave me an unexpected feeling of affection.
Anyway, I chose a dozen cupcakes, and Lydia, the tall woman behind the counter, bagged them and accepted payment. I was ready to leave, but stopped to wave at Erica, still in the glass-walled kitchen. She moved her lips to tell me she would be ready in a few minutes. I waited those minutes, and she appeared at the counter.
"Are you busy for lunch?" I asked.
"I'm afraid not--lunch hour is prime time for business."
"Perhaps when it's more convenient."
"Would you like to come to dinner?"
"Oh, well--that would be fine."
"Tonight at seven--I live on Corley Road. The address is in the white pages."
"Thank you, I'll see you at seven."
She was smiling as we parted, and I had half-forgotten that little packet that had been preoccupying me. I suddenly had a date for the evening, with all its potential pleasures. I rode home to my two-bedroom brick ranch house. It stood on a double lot, nearly an acre-and-a-half, with a number of trees. My onetime wife got the value of the house in money and so I was allowed to keep the house with its old-fashioned American looks.
I worked in my study for a few hours, and then showered and dressed, putting on a decent pair of khaki trousers and a dark green blazer. I drove to Corley road and found Erica's house near Bedford, but far enough away to be in the country. The house was big, wooden, and squarish and built on what was once a farm. Now, most of the surrounding land was covered with woods and scrub. There was a long driveway, and I finally parked near the house, walked to the front door, and knocked with the brass ring. Erica appeared, not in her white ensemble, but wearing a blue satin dress that set off her auburn hair. No longer tied back, her hair flowed over her shoulders. Her high heels accented her fine figure and posture. In short, she was attractive to the point of alluring.
"Come in, please," she said, smiling, and perhaps a little embarrassed.
"You look wonderful," I said, effusing honestly. "You should be on the stage--or in the movies."
"I was once inclined in that direction. I've studied acting--so my appeal wouldn't be just skin deep."
She led me to the dining room with its big mahogany table. There were two place-settings, including wine glasses, and as we sat down, the tall woman who worked at the bakery entered the room carrying a roast duck under glass. She set out vegetables, carved the duck, and, as a finale, brought in the wine--a Bordeaux of some sort.
"Would you care to pour the wine?" she asked.
"Yes, of course," I replied, noticing the label.
It was a fine Pomeral--not Petrus, of course, but very good and bottled near the much-pricier chateau. I sampled the wine and poured for her and then myself.
"Thank you, Lydia," Erica said to the tall, blond colleague, who nodded and returned to the kitchen.
"Does she cook?" I asked.
"She helps when I have guests. I pay her accordingly."
I was wondering about that bag of heroin, wondering how I could tactfully mention it. The subject seemed so inappropriate to the atmosphere--the dimly lit dining room, this attractive woman, more attractive because she had made herself so, just for our dinner together. It was after the sorbet and sweet champagne that the subject came up--but not through my initiative.
"Now," she said, folding her hands like a school teacher, "about that little bag you surely found in that cake I gave you."
"Oh--you know about that."
"Yes, after you were gone, I realized I had given you the wrong cake. It was to go to someone else."
"I hope you're not addicted."
"No--of course not. I'd be throwing away my capital, the source of my considerable profits. Do you still have that little bag?"
"No, it's washed away--gone to the river."
"How did you know it was dope?"
"Accidental ingestion--chemical analysis."
"Who did the analysis?
"I'd rather not say."
It occurred to me that I might be sitting in the presence of a drug-dealing Dragon Lady. Her manner was suddenly serious. She began to look annoyed, angry. She blinked often, and her lips were curling and uncurling.
"I could hire a private detective to find him."
"Don't worry. I never mentioned your name, or the name of your business."
"Well--I hope so for his sake," she said with a smile that made me uncomfortable. "Lydia--bring it in now."
I was expecting coffee and perhaps a touch of brandy, given the dinner, the wine, and the desert. But when Amazon Lydia answered the call, she was carrying a big revolver--the kind Clint Eastwood carried in those Dirty-Harry movies.
"Shall I finish him here?" Lydia said.
Just what the hell was going on here? Were we rehearsing a movie? I had left my own pistol, a Glock 19, at home, of course, hoping for nothing more than an evening of friendship and a bit of romance. And here was this out-sized female ready to shoot me on command from her employer, the lovely Erica Webb.
"May I go now?" I said, forcing a smile.
"Not quite yet," Erica replied.
"Where did you get the heroin?" I asked--showing the recklessness of the doomed.
"I'd rather not say."
But was Erica really going to have me shot? Was Lydia going to pull the trigger on that hand-held cannon? They knew that if I escaped the premises, they were at risk for a long stay in prison. And now, the question was: How could I accomplish an escape and avoid getting shot by Erica's henchperson? I could set the house on fire or pull the main electrical switch, disarm Lydia somehow, run to Corley Road and scream and shout. With it all, I was still wondering whether I was participating in some sort of reality-game show.
"Lydia, please escort the gentleman to the woods," Erica said, gesturing toward the back door.
Lydia smiled, but said nothing. She simply put a hand on my shoulder, pointed in the same direction, and we both journeyed through the kitchen and into the yard.
"Keep moving," she said, pushing the gun barrel into my back. I had hesitated, uncertain in the darkness.
"Where are we going?
I wasn't made happy by her reply. We reached the edge of the woods, and Amazon Lydia issued more instructions.
"Keep going--straight down the path."
Picture my concerns--it was now dark, with perhaps a vague light at the western horizon. I was about to have my interview at the Pearly Gates. What the hell was I doing here? The time had come to act--but how?
"Right here," she ordered.
She was about to put the gun to my head, moving it in that general direction. I had to assume her actions weren't meant to further my existence. But the weapon was now in my personal space. Lydia was an amateur--she didn't know that in holding someone at gunpoint, the one thing never to do was to invade that space. With a fast upward move, I easily grabbed the weapon, stepped backward, and pointed it at her. She stood wide-eyed at this turn of events--big Lydia, with frightened blue eyes, and long limbs sagging.
"On the ground," I commanded. "Nose touching the pine straw, or whatever it is."
She stared at me, but then obeyed. "You're not going to take advantage of me, are you?"
"All I want from you is information--like what the hell is going on here?"
"Well--you were a threat to our enterprise."
"And you were about to shoot me?"
"Of course--killing a man is great sport. Some women do it with words. I prefer bullets. They're much more efficient."
"What about that enterprise?"
"You probably guessed some of it. We deliver heroin hidden in cakes--by truck, mail, UPS--you name it. Erica said it couldn't miss--we could make enough to retire, leave the country--see the world."
"Anybody else involved in all this?"
"Yes--our supplier. He's a Mexican named Ramos."
"By the way--where does this path lead?"
"To the lake," she replied with a laugh. "I was going to throw you in."
"Lydia--where are you?"
The call came from the edge of the woods. It was Erica, perhaps expecting to hear a gunshot and worried by its absence. I hated to hit a woman, but I needed to prevent a reply from Lydia--so I gave her a tap on the head. Then it was time to sneak away from this awful place. I moved lightly through the underbrush, circling around Erica who made several more calls to Lydia. The woods became scrub, and in the dark, I could make out my car sitting in the driveway. By now, I was certain Erica had come upon Lydia in repose. I felt myself in danger, thinking that Erica might have an arsenal at her disposal--as did the drug dealers I had thrown out of my rentals. I was about a hundred yards from my shiny little Beetle and decided to make a run for it--from the scrub trees across the fescue lawn.
I got halfway there, before I heard shots and the crack of bullets. I could feel the warm breeze as they flew near me. At last, I reached the car and, keeping low, managed to climb inside. I groped for my keys, worried that I had lost them in the run, but found them and started the car--and then flew off and away down the road.
By the time I arrived home, I was exhausted and in no mood for an interview with law enforcement. But the next morning, I traveled back to Bedford--not to Erica's Cake Shop, but to the Crabtree County Courthouse. There I found Sheriff Ben Elmwood, a man grizzled and tough, and with a long tenure as sheriff. I placed a bag on his desk. It contained a large pistol and a handful of bullets--souvenirs of the previous night's adventure.
"Sheriff Elmwood," I said, addressing the gruff figure behind the desk. "You're not going to believe this."
"Well, tell me anyway," he replied.
And so, I told him the whole story, about Erica Webb and Amazon Lydia, and even mentioned Ramos, the drug connection. But when his deputies arrived at Erica's Cake Shop, they found it closed and locked, with Erica and Lydia nowhere in sight.
They have yet to be brought to justice. As for myself, I'm now wary of knocks at my door and strange cars passing in the night, and much less inclined to be of service to mankind--or to womankind.