Love As Sweet As A Lemon Drop: A Short Story Featuring Prospero 'Whip' Stark

Opal Sanchez was missing, snatched away by romance. I got the news after returning home late that afternoon and can't say I was surprised. Opal was a runaway from the Tohono O'odham Reservation, so getting gone wasn't exactly out of character.

And only a fool would discount the determination of a teenager in love.

But the man she'd left with was all wrong, an appalling runt with a goatee, thumb rings, and a doo rag who'd roared into Double Wide in a stolen red Camry.

Wearing some kind of wrap-around silk shirt, he propped himself up on the stoop of Opal's trailer like some latter-day-Kerouac-maharaja and ran his game for three straight days before they declared for each other and off they went, only two hours before.

"She was a smitten girl like I never seen, Whip," said Charlie O'Shea, one of my tenants.

"Over this tiny dharma bum?" I said.

"He might've had an inch on her, no more. He wore a big gold watch and called himself Little Mike."

Opal stood five feet tall in her favorite derby hat. She had a trucker's build with wide shoulders, big legs, and duck feet. She had long straight black hair and a pretty face.

"I left you in charge, Charlie. I can't believe you let someone like that take off with her."

"I couldn't stop her," he said. "But she wanted me to give you a message. It's weird, like a poem."

As Opal was getting into Little Mike's car, she'd turned to Charlie and said, "It's love, it's love, I gotta hop."

Before she could say anything else, he'd shouted at her to get inside and she obeyed. Then she stuck her head out the window and whispered the next line, as if she didn't want Mike to hear it. But Charlie couldn't remember what it was.

"I haven't had my nap today," he said. "It'll come to me." He was past 50, had white hair and a belly like a sofa. When he could find work, he painted houses.

"The name's a good place to start," I said. "We need to find Opal before she's gone for good."

Opal Sanchez first arrived at Double Wide, the trailer park I owned, saying she needed a place to stay for a few nights. That was two years ago. There'd been several shoplifting episodes, but lately she'd promised to get her life together. She'd even talked about taking classes at Pima College.

Looking back on that first day, I could've told her to move on, but then what? She'd have hitchhiked into town and who knows what trouble she'd have found. Now Opal was a fixture, one of us, and we looked after her.

Charlie and I went inside my Airstream. Sometimes the wind swirls off the mountains and shakes the trailer. But all was calm this night. I sat at my kitchen table with my laptop and called Benny Diaz, a cop I knew.

"It's Whip Stark, Benny," I said. "I need a favor and fast."

"How are things in paradise?" Diaz said. "I don't know how you stand it out there."

Double Wide consisted of eight trailers set on remote desert west of the Tucson Mountains. It was all saguaros and sky, just the way I liked it.

"You know the rattlesnakes will be active soon," Diaz said.

"I like a rattlesnake," I said. "He's got a point of view."

Diaz agreed to see if the Pima County Sheriff's Department had anything on a Little Mike. While I waited, I searched on my laptop under that name and found nothing. Half hour later Diaz called back. A friend on the fugitive task force had seen a BOLO out of Colorado for an Ike Reardon, nickname Little Ike.

He was a con man, a real pro. He'd ride the rails into a city, steal a car, use it to do his business, then ditch the car and hop a train to the next town. The physical description matched.

"I'm sure he's your guy," Diaz said. "I'll have more in an hour or so."

"Can't wait that long, Benny. Thanks." I looked across the table at Charlie. He was sipping a gin and Coke. "It's Little Ike, not Mike."

"Yeah, that's it. Sorry, Whip." Something occurred to Charlie, and he snapped his fingers. "Hold on, I remember the poem now. 'It's love, it's love, I gotta hop, Love as Sweet as a Lemon Drop.' That was Opal's message for you."

"I think I know where to find them," I said. "Let's go."

"Go? Where?"

"Downtown."

"But I have my evening all planned," he said. "I can't miss Joe Kenda. I love that show."

I got my Glock 19 out from under my mattress and handed it to Charlie. He backed up a step. "I'm no good with them things."

"You're the one who let her leave," I said. "Stick it under your shirt."

Charlie wore a Tommy Bahama. He had a source at the Goodwill Store. Whenever a triple X Bahama came in, he'd get a call. Charlie put the gun under his belt. It was barely visible beneath his hanging belly.

"When I give the word, lift the shirt and show Little Ike the gun," I said.

"What's the word?"

"Huh?"

"The word you're gonna say?"

"Lift the shirt."

"That's three words."

"For chrissakes, Charlie."

"Okay, okay," he said. "I lift my shirt and say, 'Freeze, you polecat.'"

"No, no, no polecats." I said. "Just lift the friggin' shirt.'''

"Good idea. Keep it simple. Then what?"

"Don't even touch the gun. Just show it and act like a bad man."

"I can do this." Charlie's hands were shaking. The ice cubes rattled in his glass. "I can be a bad man."

 

On the drive into town, I explained the Lemon Drop to Charlie. It was one of the oldest cons going.

The grifter carries a gift-wrapped box with, say, a decorative pot inside, the cheaper the better. He picks out a well-off couple strolling along and accidentally on purpose bumps into them. The box crashes to the sidewalk and the pot shatters.

Heartbroken, beyond consolation, the grifter says the pot was worth thousands. The couple feel horrible, apologize, and ask what they can do. That's what the grifter wants to hear, and negotiations begin.

I figured the best place to run the Lemon Drop was outside a ritzy restaurant, and I had one in mind. Oscar's on Congress Street had just opened and was the hottest spot going. Winter visitors with too much disposable loved to be seen there.

It was a bustling Saturday night in March, music from the clubs, somebody beating on bongos, moonlight on the sidewalks, and there was Little Ike working out on two white hairs like they were a speed bag at Johnny Gibson's old gym. Opal stood nearby, leaning against a newspaper box.

Charlie and I crouched behind a Mercedes three cars down to watch the proceedings.

Ike had an elderly couple on a cliff, but they weren't ready to jump. Not yet. He opened the box and pulled out several pot shards. They were painted in bright, zigzagging colors and elaborate Indian design.

"This pot belonged to my Navajo grandmother, late departed," Ike said.

"You're Navajo?" the elderly man said, suspicion creeping into his voice

Little Ike was light-haired and light-complected and his nose made a straight run down the middle of his face.

"There was a terrible sheep-shearing accident," he said. "I had to have work done."

Opal started whimpering and crying over by the newspaper box. She was in a state.

"I don't how much more of this my sister can take," Ike said.

Opal's tears sent the couple off the cliff, and they handed over $300. They were Canadian and very nice.

Ike gave the money to Opal and she put it into a pouch and stood by her newspaper box. Ike crossed the street to the stolen Camry, got another gift box from the backseat and shook down two more lambs before ending his shift for the night.

Opal put that money into the pouch, too. Ike went back to the Camry to fetch his backpack and rejoined Opal. He took the pouch, unzipped it, looked inside, smiled, and stuffed it into his backpack. The two of them hustled down the sidewalk toward the railroad tracks.

Charlie and I fell in behind them.

"Why don't we grab her up now?" he said. "He won't even see us coming."

"Let's wait," I said.

We followed them behind the warehouses where the tracks ran. In the distance we heard the far-off rumble of an oncoming train. There wasn't a lot of time. I called Ike Reardon's name and he spun around in surprise.

But not too much surprise. By the time he was facing me, he had a knife in his hand.

"It's best we do this civilized," I said.

"There's many a crook in these parts, men with four hands and no soul to speak of." He waved the knife like he knew how. "It's handy for trimming me whiskers, too."

"That blade's not going to help you tonight, Ike," I said, and nudged Charlie. He didn't move. I elbowed him a second time and he just stood there.

"Lift the damn shirt," I said between my teeth.

Again, nothing, a corpse standing up.

"Polecat," I said, louder.

"Oh." Charlie yanked up the shirt and sucked in a breath to make sure the gun was visible.

Ike adjusted his attitude accordingly. "That earns you one question. What is it you want?"

"We're here to take Opal home," I said.

"I hardly think so," Ike said. "This dark-eyed beauty is all mine."

The train got closer and louder.

 "We've got enough money to start our lives together, Mr. Whip," Opal said. "I love Little Ike with all my heart."

Ike cooed like a tabby and nuzzled her. Opal draped her arm around Ike's shoulder. He reached up to hold her hand and the runaway lovers smiled and bobbed heads. Ike's gold watch gleamed under the watching moon.

"What we have here is a bond no one can break," Ike said. "Certainly not a cur like you and your tubby companion. Have you no understanding of true love?"

"One way or another, she's coming with me, Ike." I stepped toward Opal.

"I'll never let her go!" Ike declared. "Expect blood to be spilled!"

The train was close now, a mere hundred yards down the tracks.

"Here's your choice, Ike," I said. "I take Opal and that pouch in your backpack, or I just take Opal and leave you the money."

Charlie was still holding up his Bahama to show the gun. The train's headlamp made shadows of us, and the ground shook under foot.

Ike turned to Opal and said, "Love flies in on the back of an eagle and off it goes on a sparrow's wings. I'm back on the road, my sweet bird."

The train thumped and banged behind Ike. He ran after it and grabbed a railing on the last car and jumped aboard.

Waving, he shouted, "May the road rise up to meet you!" He paused as if thinking. "There's more to that Irish ditty, but it escapes me at the moment. I'll just add a so forth and so on and leave it there. Adieu, dear Opal."

The last we saw of Little Ike he was hanging off the train blowing kisses.

Charlie put his arms around Opal to comfort her. "It'll be okay. He was a skunk and you're better off without him."

"Navajo," she said. "I never met a Navajo. What do they look like?"

The three of us walked back to my Ford Bronco, got onto Speedway Boulevard, and drove west toward the mountains and Double Wide. Opal sat beside me, Charlie in back.

"You were never getting on that train," I said.

"I knew you'd rescue me, Mr. Whip. You always do."

"Hope you cleaned him out."

A sly smile crept across her lips. She pulled a fat wad from her pocket and held it up. "I knew he'd look inside the pouch so I seeded the top with a few bills," she said. "Underneath there's nothing but torn-up newspaper."

"Charlie wanted to grab you on the sidewalk, but I figured you had more work to do. Let's see it."

From the same pocket Opal fetched Ike's gold watch and held it up proudly. "Once I got my arm around him it was easy."

Charlie got excited in the backseat. "Hey, do I get a cut? I was in on this caper, too."

"Caper?" I said. "All of a sudden you're Sam Spade."

"We can hawk that sucker," Charlie said. "I know a guy."

I said to Opal, "Do you realize you just slicked the slickest operator on the west coast?"

"He wasn't such a hot chimichanga," she said. "You know how I got him to fall for me? Other than, like, my major cuteness? Told him he was tall."

"He was a shrimp, a peewee. He was an inch taller than you."

"An inch is all it takes," she said. "A guy like that, what does he want more than anything? To be tall, right? I made him tall, 'cause next to me he was."

"It scares me you can think that way," I said. "How old are you?"

"On my next birthday I can get my license," Opal said. "Can you teach me to drive? Please, Mr. Whip, please!"

Charlie was reliving his triumph in the backseat. "Did you catch the way I stared him down? Showed him the heater and he melted."

"The other thing," Opal said, "men aren't very smart to begin with. Except you, Mr. Whip. You're, like, a serious genius. You figured out my poem."

She recited the words as she thumbed the roll of bills.

"One of these days I'm going to quit getting you out of jams," I said. "You owe me for two months."

 "Paying rent is first on my list," she said. "There's so many things I want to buy. I hear everybody talking about Lululemon. They've got great workout clothes."

"You've never worked out in your life."

"If I had the right outfit, duuuh."

Charlie poked his head between us and said, "Hey, how about this for a bad-guy look?" He wrinkled his lips, made his eyes crazy and squeezed his face into hamburger.

We drove along. The night was warm and lovely, full of bright stars. With the season winding down, that kind of weather gave snowbirds a happy memory to take home. Even the Canadians could feel good, guilt-free that they hadn't just walked away.

"You know what I'm thinking right now?" Opal said. "Dairy Queen. Can we stop at Dairy Queen, Mr. Whip?"

"Brownie Blizzard for me," Charlie said. "Extra-large."

"My treat," said Opal.

Leo W. Banks is a longtime contributor to the Weekly. His novel, Double Wide, received two Spur Awards from the Western Writers of America for Best First Novel and Best Western Contemporary Novel. Champagne Cowboys, the second in his Tucson-based series featuring Prospero "Whip" Stark, received a starred review from Publishers Weekly. The magazine called it an "intelligent, pleasurable Western noir."

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