An Excerpt From Thanks To Mister Merrydown

  1. Blue Angel Stuff

  I don't blame Lee for dropping me in the toughest, lonesomest block of Fayetteville, North Carolina at midnight, and getting out of there. It was a creepy place with a bad and accurate reputation. She had Bethany sleeping in the back seat, and Bethany had a big day coming: graduation from the second grade, with a recitation and free cookies. It made no sense for them to wait there with me for a train that could be hours late whatever Amtrak claimed. She glanced back at Bethany and leaned out to give me a goodbye peck, which I was glad to have. Lee was my top priority, as Bethany was hers. I sent her home. I didn't know the station would be locked.

  A worn 3 by 5 on the door said STATION OPENS 30 MINUTES BEFORE TRAIN TIMES. That gave me 45 minutes to kill in a neighborhood that looked like the minutes could take care of themselves. There were no other passengers on the platform, or the benches, which meant I had no competition for a place to sit. But not much inclination to sit, either.

  In the shadows at the far end of the station a shape that was either a shrouded pair of skis or a mugger stood very still. I put down my suitcase and turned sideways, giving the skis a chance to declare themselves. He didn't take the bait. I bounced on my heels and looked at my watch. Two or three bats made a pass at the bug party around the lights over the empty parking lot.

  I tried not to stew about Lee's coolness toward this trip, which was to pick up my son Taylor in Washington for a summer of visitation while my ex, his mother, disported herself in Italy with her very good friend Janet. And while I was at it to deliver a packet of stuff my boss had given me, to some law firm on K Street. Lee had no grounds for coolness, no claims on my loyalty, and the hell of it was, I wanted her to; she was such a huge improvement on my ex. Well, Taylor could be charming. He might do better at charming Lee than I had.

  A nightjar gave his lonesome, buzzing call, probably trying to warn off the bats. A long block beyond the parking lot a bunch of guys from Fort Bragg laughed like hell and broke something. Maybe feeling a little underappreciated on this June night in a year when the merry afterglow of Desert Storm had long dissipated from this army town. I could see them over there, swaggering and staggering and looking for another wafflebutt civilian to harass before they turned in. I'm a wafflebutt civilian.

  Half a block beyond them a line of bars and strip joints glittered in the hot night. A door opened and three words of country music ushered out a pair of white helmets looking for soldiers looking for trouble. Headlights swept the empty parking lot, lighting the hanging dust of Lee's departure. A cruiser proclaiming Cumberland County Sheriff rolled into the scene, making me feel a little safer, maybe. It stopped, and a guy got out of the back seat. A suspect being released for lack of evidence, an informer who would stand next to me and be gunned down in a drive-by. He was short and square, hunched like a prizefighter, though I could see no opponent. Even on this warm and starry night, he wore a shapeless raincoat. He leaned on the driver's door and chatted, voice and answer dark against the whisper of the V-8. I got the idea the driver was in charge, the prizefighter maybe licensed to lean on the driver's door and make small talk, not as an equal. I heard the tones that signal the end of a conversation, and I glanced back at the skis; they'd gotten into a little more comfortable position.

  There was a time when I'd have been just as glad if it wasn't skis, would have gone into the shadows hoping for trouble, because of the way my daughter died. After that, I figured I had nothing to live for anyhow. Now, I was shakily reconnected to a world of people I cared about. Taylor, for one, out of my reach for six hungry months; I had a job I wanted to succeed at; and there was Lee Morgan, my reason for being down here in the first place. I slipped across the tracks and onto the parking lot before the sheriff could add his dust to Lee's.

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