Maddie Baker Mystery
February 22, 2022
I tapped my finger nervously on my steering wheel. Where was this guy? I knew I shouldn’t have accepted an Uber request out at the industrial park after six p.m. on a Monday night, but desperate times meant taking risks.
I picked up my phone and sent a message to the guy who’d made the request. I’ve been here five minutes. If you’re not out here within the next sixty seconds, I’m leaving.
I’d be good and pissed if I made the trip seven miles outside of the city limits on a cold November night for nothing, but I’d seen enough horror movies to know when something was a bad idea. And this reeked of it. I was hoping he’d tell me to get lost.
A door flew open in the metal warehouse I was parked next to, and a short man hurried out, shuffling down a few concrete steps and then rushing over to my car and opening the back door.
The first thing that hit me was the smell, and I fought the urge to gag. The older man who’d just climbed into the backseat reeked of a three-day-old egg salad sandwich and BO. I wasn’t sure the can of Febreze in my trunk was going to get that stench out of the vinyl seats.
Why hadn’t I just left?
Forcing a smile, I glanced over my shoulder at the balding man and hesitantly asked, “Marty the Man?” Which, now that I thought about it, seemed like a pretty sketchy nickname. “Going to 1435 Walnut Street?”
“Yeah,” he grunted, looking out his side window at the warehouse. “Go already.”
So I did.
I could hear my friend Mallory’s voice in my head. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times, Maddie, do not to pick people up from shady places, especially after five. Why would someone at an industrial park need an Uber? This man is up to trouble with a capital T.
But I was still in the midst of those desperate times, and they often called for risks with a megaphone, and truth be told, there weren’t many calls for Uber rides in Cockamamie, Tennessee, with a population of around twenty thousand. A fact that failed to impress the Middle Tennessee Teachers’ credit union the last time they called about my late car payment.
So here I was with a rank older man who looked nervous as hell sitting in the back seat of my Ford Focus, which I was still fourteen payments away from paying off.
“Can’t this thing go any faster?” he asked, looking out the back window for the fifth or sixth time.
“Making a fast getaway?” I half-teased as I pressed harder on the gas pedal. The industrial park had a twenty-five-mile-per-hour speed limit, but hardly anyone was around this late, so I pushed it up to thirty-five. Still, it was hard to believe this old fart was making any kind of getaway that didn’t relate to finding the nearest shower. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.
“Ha,” he said weakly. He seemed to settle back in his seat and set a brown paper lunch bag on his lap.
I knew it was none of my business, but I couldn’t see how he could be carrying his lunch around, knowing how badly it smelled. My Aunt Deidre had lost her sense of smell a few years ago. Maybe his was gone too. “You might want to toss out that sandwich,” I said, looking at him in my rearview mirror. “It smells like it went bad a couple of days ago.”
His gray eyes, which were partially obscured by his drooping eyelids, met mine in the mirror. Confusion registered on his face for a few seconds, then he shot me a glare as he tightened his grip on the bag. “I ain’t payin’ you to tell me what to do. I’m payin’ you to drive. So how about you mind your own fuckin’ business?”
I gasped in shock and tried to tell myself that maybe he was lashing out because he was embarrassed. I mean, some people didn’t take well to humiliating suggestions, no matter how well-intentioned. I pressed my lips together and pulled to a stop sign at Highway 75, the two-lane highway leading back into Cockamamie. Thank God I had power windows. I used the buttons to crack all four windows in the car before pulling out.
I turned left and noticed he was looking out the back window again. Did he think someone might be following us? I’d been sort of joking when I’d asked if he was on the run, but what if he really was making a getaway?
A man who looks like he’s in his seventies? Carrying a smelly sandwich bag?
No, this was what my mother used to call my wild imagination.
Still, when you put two and two together and came up with four, it didn’t hurt to pay attention.
He leaned forward and gripped the headrest on the passenger front seat. “We need to make an extra stop.”
“Okay,” I said, “but that’ll cost you extra.”
“That’s thievery,” he grunted in disgust.
I squared my shoulders. “Hey, time is money, and extra mileage means more gas. I’m not doing this for funsies.”
“You need to get yourself a husband,” he said, gesturing to my ringless hand on the steering wheel. “A woman your age shouldn’t be driving strange men around in the dark for money. People are gonna think you’re a hooker.”
I nearly pointed out that he was gesturing to my right hand, but I was stuck on something more important.
“A woman my age?” I asked in a huff, shooting him a glare in the mirror. “How old do you think I am?”
“Over thirty,” he said. “A spinster.”
What era had this guy teleported from? Was he a time-traveling agent on the run?
“No one has used the word spinster unironically for about a century now,” I said. There was no point arguing with him about the over thirty comment. My recent thirty-fourth birthday found me guilty as charged.
“You’re still unmarried,” he said, clutching his bag to his chest. “It ain’t right.”
This guy was starting to piss me off. “Some of us don’t have a say in the matter,” I snapped. “In fact, if I had my way, I’d already be married, but Steve had other ideas.”
Great. Not only was I thinking about my asshole ex-boyfriend, but I was sharing my shame with this cranky, smelly old fart.
This car ride just kept getting worse.
“Women are meant to be meek and mild,” he retorted, glancing out the back window again.
“You got in the wrong car if that’s what you’re looking for,” I muttered, then asked, “Why do you keep looking behind us?”
“I told you—none of your fucking business,” he snarled as he turned back around. “Just drive.”
I really wanted to stop the car and drop-kick this guy to the curb, but I needed the money, and although I seriously doubted he was a good tipper, or any kind of tipper, I had to start being nicer. I was oh-so-close to having enough to make my car payment and pay my minimum credit card balance. Every dollar counted at this point.
“So do you want to make that extra stop?” I asked.
“Not if you’re gonna rob me blind.”
Depending on how far off the route he wanted to go, I suspected his stop would have added a dollar or two at most. But I didn’t love the idea of spending more time with this guy than necessary, so I kept that to myself.
We drove in silence for several minutes, and I darted glances at the map on my phone, realizing his destination was in the Bottoms, a.k.a. the old and mostly abandoned part of downtown Cockamamie, not the newer section. If I’d realized that, I never would have accepted the job. The sun had just set, and his destination wasn’t exactly in the nicest part of town. The sooner I dropped him off and got home to Aunt Deidre, the better.
I started to pull up to the dark doorway of 1435 Walnut, which looked to be an abandoned building sandwiched between several other abandoned buildings. Other than a run-down convenience store on the corner on the opposite side of the street, there was a whole lot of nothing around us.
“Drive around the block,” Marty the Man said, waving his hand forward next to my head.
His hand smelled like rotten eggs, and I tried not to gag. “This is the address.”
“Go around the block anyway,” he said more insistently.
“Just know that the app’s gonna charge you extra.” Especially if he kept waving his stinky hand in my face.
“Fine.” He waved his hand next to me again.
I wanted to kick him out anyway, but if I were him, I wouldn’t want to go in there either, so I tried to breathe through my mouth and drove around the block.
Old Downtown Cockamamie had been pretty much deserted after Briny River flooded about twenty years back. I’d been in middle school at the time, and I remembered Uncle Albert, Aunt Deidre, and my mother helping build sandbag walls to save downtown. It hadn’t worked. For whatever reason, the town’s forefathers had chosen to build the town in the low area by the river, and it had been covered in six feet of water. Since it hadn’t been the first major flood and was sure not to be the last, the city council had offered incentives for businesses to move about six blocks to the east of the river bottom, an area at least twenty feet higher in elevation. A few businesses refused to make the transition, and some had managed to stay open, but whatever business they were in now was likely shady. Which meant I needed to drop off my passenger and get the heck out of here.
Once I drove up to the curb the second time, I put the car in park, told the app the ride was done, then turned back to give my passenger a big smile. “You have a good night, Mr. Man.”
He glanced at his phone and grunted. “That seems unlikely after you charged me an extra dollar to go around the block.”
I didn’t tell him that if I’d had my way, the app would have charged him five.
He opened the back door and looked down both ends of the sidewalk. He hesitated and dropped his bag onto the floor of the backseat.
“Shit,” he grumbled. “Can you turn on the light?”
“It’s already on.” But I’d be the first to admit it wasn’t very strong.
Cursing under his breath again, he sat up with his bag clasped to his chest and got out, slamming the car door harder than necessary. He scurried across the sidewalk and stopped at the front door. I was pretty sure it had been a full glass door at one point, but now it was boarded up with graffiti-covered plywood. Uncertainty covered his face, and he looked around the block again before finally deciding to knock.
I started to pull away from the curb when my phone dinged with a message that Mr. Smelly Pants had not only given me zero tip but had also given me a one-star review.
Bitchy feminist who robbed me blind.
I slammed on the brakes, threw the car in park, then got out of the car.
“Are you fricking kidding me?” I shouted over the roof of the car.
He was about twenty feet away, still on the stoop of the address he’d given me, staring at me with a look of oh shit.
“A one-star review and no tip after I had to endure that smell and your paranoia?” I shouted, striding around the back of the car toward him, holding up my phone screen as though he could read it from that far away. In the back of my head, I knew this was the worst decision I’d made in a year, possibly several, yet I couldn’t seem to stop myself.
“Do you have any idea how hard my life is right now?” I shouted. “Two months ago, I lived a quiet, happy life, and then boom! My whole world imploded! Do you think I like driving crabby old men with rotten-smelling brown bags around in my car? Do you have any idea how long it’s going to take me to get that smell out of my upholstery?” I flung my hands out at my sides. “Because I sure don’t!”
“I’m going to report you!” Marty the Man hissed. “Leave me the fuck alone!”
“Go ahead and report me!” I shouted, pointing my phone at him. “But you’ll regret it!”
It was then I noticed a man standing next to his car at the gas pumps at the convenience store across the street. He gave me a wary look as he got into his car.
Great. Now I’d officially turned into a public spectacle. How much lower could I fall?
I mentally shouted to the universe. No. Don’t show me! The last thing I needed was a game of chicken with the cosmos.
The door behind Mr. Smelly Pants opened slightly, the person behind it invisible, and he slipped into the darkness behind the crack.
I usually kept all of my angst and anger bottled inside and let it stew, but all those Brene Brown podcasts I’d been listening to were helping me take control of my life, so I’d really let him have it. Too bad it hadn’t felt as cathartic as I’d hoped.
No, now I just felt like a first-class bitch.
I sure as hell wasn’t to go inside and apologize, though, so I headed back to my car.
“They make that deodorizer stuff in a can now,” a man said from the shadow of the building next door. He was sitting on the sidewalk with his legs extended in front of him, a large black trash bag next to him. “And if that don’t work, try baking soda.”
He’d startled me, but then I realized it was Mr. Ernie, a homeless man I’d seen around town several times since moving back two months ago.
From what I’d seen, most people ignored him, but I decided to make up for my bad karma and headed over to talk to him. “Thank you, Mr. Ernie. I’ll try that. Are you hungry? Can I take you somewhere in my stinky car and get you something to eat? Or maybe see if they have a bed at the Methodist Church Shelter?”
He held up a to-go cup of coffee. “I done got me some food a short bit ago. And I don’t much like staying at Methodists’ shelter. They always steal my stuff.”
“Who steals your stuff?” I asked in concern.
“Some of the shifty people there.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “There are some not-so-nice people in this town, Miss…?” He looked up at me expectantly.
“Maddie,” I said. “Maddie Baker.”
He squinted up at me. “Miss Andrea’s girl?”
My eyes widened in surprise. “Yeah. Did you know my mother?”
He gave me a warm smile. “That’s a story for another day.” He cast a glance at the door Mr. Smelly Pants had gone through. “You best get on out of here. There’s seedy things happening in these parts. Especially after sundown.”
“Then why don’t you let me take you somewhere else?” I asked, reaching my hand out to him.
He chuckled. “Don’t you go worryin’ about me, Maddie. I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. Go on now. Git.”
I started to head back to my car, but then I turned around, tugging a business card out of my jeans pocket. Squatting in front of him, I handed him the card and looked into his eyes. “If you ever need a ride or food or anything,” I said, “you call me. Okay, Mr. Ernie?”
He took the card and looked it over, then glanced up at me, giving me a wobbly smile. “Thank you, Maddie. You’re a sweet one, just like your mother. You have a good night.”
The remainder of my mother stung, but I smiled and said, “You too.”