I didn't know which was worse, being an ‘out of work’ writer like me, or being an ‘over the hill, out of work’ movie star like Lois. Lois was her real name by the way. Her stage name was Marietta Miles. Some hack agent had given her the name when she arrived in the Dream. She had stopped going by it the second year after she stopped working in the flicks. She had gone back to Lois Nelson of Hastings Kansas. Why she didn't go home to her family was beyond me.

It was just as well for me, since she was my companion of sorts. We were not exactly lovers though we had slept together on occasion. Lois was actually more of a friend. Yes a friend who lived in the same apartment. That little postscript, came about after my last screenplay got turned down. I wound up on the edge of starvation. Lois was about ten yards behind me, so we decided to share a small apartment in the Dream.

The apartment wasn't even in Hollywood, or legally in L.A. It was located over a three-car garage outside L.A. proper. There were so many little towns on the edge of L.A. that I was never sure exactly where it was located.

The apartment was like a railroad tunnel. Each of the three rooms was exactly the length and width of the car bay beneath it. The walls rested over the posts between the bays. The building was old enough to have been built solid.

I supposed, even then, that the rent was cheap because Lois had fallen from grace long before me. She had rented the place when it became evident that she was no longer a rising star, or any other kind of star. Lois was finished in the business, but in the Dream anything was possible. She could site you a dozen stars who had risen from the ashes.

I hated to wake her but I needed to crawl out of bed. I didn't have to crawl over her but I would wake her just the same. Lois was a very light sleeper. The need in me became so overwhelming that I had no choice. I slipped from the bed as gently as possible, then into the bathroom. I have no idea if the flushing toilet woke her, or my movements. It made no difference Lois was awake.

"You working this morning?" she asked it in a sleep induced mumble. Lois would not mumble at all an hour after waking. When fully awake, the years of acting lessons would give her the voice of a newscaster.

"No, I just had too much to drink last night. I always wake up early after I drink." The work she referred to could be the new screenplay, but most likely she was asking about my job as an airport limo driver.

"So, what time do you go in today?" She asked that as she pulled me back into the bed with her. She didn't exactly have to overpower me either. I never knew exactly what she had in mind, but at forty-four I was still young enough to enjoy morning sex.

"Two p.m,". I said as I slipped my arm around her.

"Then lover you should go write, but not just yet."

She wiggled even closer to me. I didn't speak, I just lay there enjoying the feel of her. I waited too long, Lois fell back into a deep sleep. I gave a sigh then joined her.

When I awoke again, I barely had time to shower then dress. At least I don't have to decide what to wear, I thought. It was simple, the black slacks and white shirt, with black tie of course, were the universal limo driver's uniform.

I was on the way out the door when Lois said, "Don't forget I have that party in Bel Aire tonight. I wont be home at all." That made her sound like a hooker. She might have been for all I knew. Her explanation was, that rich men like to have a star around their parties, and she liked to go where the food and drinks were free. What ever she did it kept her off welfare and home to answer the phones.

Fortunately, since I had again forgotten to cover the seats in my Jap Jeep, it had not rained over night. The cloth top was ragged, the body was rusty, and the windshield was broken, but it ran like a dream, okay like a child's bad dream. Still, it got me most anywhere I wanted to go. That day it got me to the office of Airport Taxi. It was a descriptive name, though lacking in imagination.

Martin the more than slightly overweight dispatcher glanced at me as I entered. "Good thing you are on time Welch. The boss said, if you was late again I was to send you home."

"I still don't get it. He pays us on straight commission, then bitches if we are five minutes late."

"Come on Welch, you know those cars have to be running all the time. We have to have people standing around just in case somebody wants a pickup. We don't have no way to know how many are gonna want a ride."

"You got that company line down real good Martin. You didn't feel that way when you were driving."

"No, and I wouldn't feel this way if I was you either." He smiled as he picked up the Krispy Kreme donut. I noted that he didn't offer me one though there were at least a dozen of them. I hoped it was because I never ate sugar, not because, I was not part of the 'on the way out' list. A.T. was a lousy place to work but it beat not working at all.

"So, what you got for me Martin?" Nobody ever called him Marty. He just wasn't the type for it.

"Take 211 and go pick this guy up. He needs to be at the port by three."

"Okay, you got the fee figured?" I asked it even though I knew he had it figured and given to the customer. All I had to do was drive him to the port, take his money then deliver most of it back to Martin at the end of the night.

"Yes the fee is on the back of the ticket, and Welch before you hear it from the rumor mill, one of our guys got taken off last night." I looked at him with a curious look. My look said, go on. "He didn't get hurt but he lost the whole day. So be careful about picking up cruisers."

Picking up cruisers is how we made the most money. The incoming calls just weren't enough to give every driver a full night's work. Even picking up the passengers waiting on the curb didn't really do it either. Some nights they helped to fill a driver's almost empty trip ticket though.

"What is that three in the last month? Was it the same guy?" I asked it because the first two robber's descriptions were close enough alike to have been the same man.

"It could be Welch, Just be careful."

"How the hell you gonna be careful out there?" I asked it as I went to the coffee lounge with my Delta cup. The cup was not named for the airline, but for the design. It was one of those small top, large bottom things, shaped like a space capsule. I could walk with it in my hand, as well as drive with it on the floor beside me.

Inside the small room I found another driver. That particular driver was a woman named Sherrill. "Hey Welch," she said in her West Texas drawl. Sherrill was famous for that drawl, and her late night adventures with other drivers. She had been warned to limit it to the drivers. The passengers were not to be included in her amorous adventures. With her pay being so meager, I would not have been surprised to find that the only slightly attractive redhead was making deals on the side.

"Sherrill, what is this I hear about another ripoff last night?" I was filling my cup of coffee with a liquid reminiscent of the motor oil, taken from a taxi after four thousand miles.

"You need to work more Welch. David, the kid from up north got hit last night. The guy took his days receipts and got his dinner money too."

"What time did it happen? Must have been early if he still had his dinner money?"

"It was late. He got the kid's whole week's worth of dinner money."

"Damn shame, you know the company will file their insurance and keep all the money. The kid lost not only his night's pay but his own money too. Damn, I hate that." I said it as I walked to the unit 211.

All the A.T. units were mini vans. The company had finally gotten enough of them to replace the fleet of cars. Any driver could go on any call with them. There was a special mini bus but it never left the yard. If there were too many people for one van the dispatcher sent two or even three on occasion. My three o'clock fare stiffed me on the tip. It happened way too much, I was of the opinion that it was because the fare was so expensive. People had a figure in mind and we got the difference between the fare and that figure as a tip. The problem was that the fares were so high there was no room left for a tip. You could add to that, the fact that most fares were in even numbers which made for lousy tips.

I saw the man who fit the description of the taxi bandit, but what could I do. If I ignored him, I would be in trouble. The airport authority did not go for that kind of behavior. Then again, I also needed the money. Getting stiffed on the first one was a sign of things to come. I had to change my luck or it would be a miserable night for me.

I resigned myself to the inevitable as I pulled to the curb. The man just looked wrong from the start. He was dressed in workman's clothes but carrying a briefcase. The briefcase was the same type as the robber carried his weapon in. The cops had decided that he was not from a flight, since almost all passengers with guns got stopped. The almost made me want to avoid air travel.

"Hi there, need a lift?" I asked it through the open passenger's window.

"Yes please," he said.

"Where are your bags? I can load them up for you."

"I left Dallas in a hurry. All I got is this case."

"Okay, I need to put it in the back." He looked at me without saying a word and without handing over the case.

"I am sorry, you need to put my case in the back?"

"Yes sir, it is a new company rule. No luggage is allowed in the passenger compartment. It is an insurance thing." Insurance my ass, I thought. It was a brand new Freddie Welch rule.

"I don't think I want to have this that far away." He really did look good for the armed robbery gig. I gave some thought to calling the cops. Then figured, get him away from the case. If he was for real, it would be okay. If not, he wouldn't take my taxi, which was just fine with me. He gave it way too much thought before he decided.

"How much to Torrance?" I gave him a good look before I answered.

"Thirty-three bucks," I replied. The trip was thirty on the books, but I figured my tip on top. I didn't think he was the kind to tip me anyway.

"It is too much, but okay. I would never pay that if my cousin isn't late again. I can't be bothered standing out on the curb." I didn't even pretend that I was interested. I was still concerned about being held up. The only thing that the man had going for him, as far as I was concerned, was that the sun was still up. Just barely, but I could make it to Torrance before it was dead dark. His accent bothered me some. I couldn't remember anyone mentioning an accent. Then again, like everybody else, I had been only half interested the first couple of times. The second time I was getting the info at least third hand. It might even have been filtered through more than three.

About half way into the ride, I began to worry about other things more than him being an armed robbery specialist. I began worrying about him stiffing me completely. His lack of luggage still bothered me. I was about two or three blocks from the address he gave me, when the cop pulled in behind me. Like everyone else, I hated cops till I needed one. I was very glad to see the car that day.

When I pulled to the curb, the cop walked up to my door slowly. It was a female. That was about the extent of my observation. You can tell little from the seat of a van. She looked grossly overweight but that could be the bullet proof vest she wore. I hit the switch to lower my window. I guess I should have locked the doors at the same time. The passenger waited until the cop was completely blocked by the van before he popped the door. He did what, back home, we would call a jack rabbit. He took off through the lawn between to houses. The cop was at a loss. She didn't know whether to follow him or to stay with me.

"He hasn't paid me damnit. Do you want me to chase him?" I asked it angrily. She pulled her pistol and pointed it at me.

"Get out of the car and do it slow," she demanded.

"Lady, I am here, he is in the wind with my thirty bucks." I was getting really pissed.

"You just stay put, I will call for backup. We will get him soon enough."

In a pig's ass, I thought. Instead of complaining I stood quietly trying to think. If he was the bandit they weren't going to catch him anyway. I figured, I would just keep his damn pistol. It would be easy. I knew just enough law to get in trouble, but one thing I knew was they couldn't open his bag, if I said it was mine. I didn't have to open it either. It worked out even better than I thought. After the cops had cleared me, I was able to open the rear door. I found that his attache case had slid under the rear seat during my drive through the L.A. traffic. It wasn't all that hard for them to overlook the hidden case. They had him in mind, not me. They figured like me that he was the bandit from the last two robberies. I was getting my jacket from the rear, when I pushed the bag even farther under the seat. The jacket I was supposed to have been wearing all along, I might add.

The blonde cop I discovered, once I had time to give her a thought, was almost as tall as me. That put her, a hair under my hair, under six feet. The vest, I noted with some kind of kinky satisfaction, fit her much tighter at the top, than the bottom. I also noted that her hair was a bit stringy. It might not have been washed recently, but my guess was that she had done something to work up a sweat. Even if, that something wasn't chasing down my fare.

As I expected, they did not find my errant fare. I expected that he was inside one of the many apartments in the area. With that mild accent he could probably get away with telling them he didn't speak English. The blonde kept giving me a look that told me she wasn't quite ready to let me go. She had my drivers license, so I hung around till everyone left.

"You through with me?" I ask at the door to her patrol car.

"For now. Can I reach you at this number?" She was indicating the number I had given her. She somehow knew that it was the taxi number, but then she was a cop. It was plastered all over the door to the minivan. No wonder the LAPD took so much grief.

"Here, let me give you my home number too." I tried to take the clipboard with the report. Instead of releasing it, she gave me a business card.

"Put it on the back of that. Do you really write for the movies?" She was all smiles.

"Well I haven't for a while, but I still crank out screenplays. One day I will sell another one."

"What did you write? I mean, that I might have seen, I love movies?"

"Last thing that I sold to the movies that got made was Shrimper." I didn't expect she had seen it. When the independent film maker finished, it was a lower than 'B' film.

"Not sure I saw that one. So what are you working on now?" She seemed not at all concerned that I needed to be working.

"Give me a call and we will discuss it. I need to get back to work now."

"Oh, sorry. Okay, I will call you sometime, or you could call me." She scribbled a number on the back of her card, then slipped it to me.

I was in a church parking lot at least two miles away, before I felt comfortable enough to open the case. When I did, it took several minutes to breath. The case was filled with hundred dollar bills. I figured there were twenty-two bundles of ten grand each. It was the most money I had ever seen. Hell, it was the most money anyone I knew had ever seen in cash.

Drug money, was the only thing that crossed my mind. If it was drug money, they were going to be looking for it just as soon as the cops were gone.

I had about as many thoughts running through my mind, as there were bills in the bag. I was trying to think while I sat listening to Martin trying to find me. "Are you there Welch?" he asked over and over. I was lost in a 220k fog. If I kept the money, i would have to run. I would have to sever every possible tie to the Dream. I had no family, so that part would be easy, or I could give the money to the cops.

Yeah right, I was gonna hand some cop 220k. Not only could I not explain why I had kept it, but he was likely to kill me so he could keep it himself. It took me twenty three minutes to come to a decision. The decision was to run like hell. I had written about cops and drug dealers, so I had a pretty good idea how much trouble I was in. I had about decided to turn in the van, tell Martin to kiss my ass, and not even go home.

The thought of home brought me back to Lois. I couldn't leave her to pay for my problems. I was headed to the office to dump the van when it struck home to me. Life on the run would eat the money up. I would not enjoy living in cheap hotels so as to avoid the drug dealers.

Since I was a movie writer I hatched a plot worthy of the Dream. It was all based on a few suppositions of human nature. The first was that the courier would not want to go to his boss without the money. It would probably mean his life if he did. If that were the case how hard would it be for him to find me. The answer was simple, not hard at all. Limo drivers were not all that well paid. Plus the company had their contractual agreement with the airport. If he called to say he left something in the cab, they would give him my name in a flash. Just to dump on me. They would probably even draw him a map to my place.

I figured he would be coming to my place and coming alone. If that were a fact, I could set up an ambush for him. I knew just how I would do it too. I just needed two plans. One nighttime, and one daylight plan was the answer. I fully expected the owner of the brief case to be on the deck waiting for me when I got home. I was tempted to call Lois, but I couldn't explain it over the phone. It was much too complicated.

"Martin, I got to go home early. I got kind of an emergency." I said it as I dropped the keys to the windstar on his desk.

"Come on Welch, I need you to work until you shift ends at two a.m."

"Sorry Martin, call in one of the standbys. I got to get home."

"You know I got to write you up for this?"

"I know Martin, you do what you have to do. I will see you tomorrow."

I figured that if I killed the owner of the case, it would all just go away. But only, if I did it quietly enough, so that I could dump the body. I schemed, all the way home. I parked the toy jeep in the drive as I checked for Lois's car. Lois's five year old Toyota was nowhere to be found. The money for her car came from a syndication deal on a tv series. One she had done years before. The show had been an almost ten year old doctor show. She had a feature part so she got a large check. Not large enough to pay for the car, but enough to put a sizeable down payment on it.Since I didn't have Lois to contend with, I set about my distasteful chore. I walked around the corner of my deck, then found the softest spot on the hard wooden deck to perch. It was well after midnight, when I heard the steps on the stairs. I waited until I was sure he was trying to break in before I slipped quietly behind him. I flipped the knotted clothesline around his neck then pulled. It was a lot harder than I had expected but it worked better than I thought.

The man did not make a sound. He merely slumped to the floor. I held his head up with the garotte or he would have slumped over. He had struggled but there was really nothing he could do. I had never killed anyone, nor had i ever imagined that I would do so. The garotte was especially gruesome, as it put me behind the man and in contact with him. I had learned how to do it for a screenplay I wrote about the French resistance. It was a favorite method of execution for them.

Fortunately for me, the gentleman with the accent hadn't done his research. He simply struggled a little at first then seemed to simply relax and let it happen. I expected the bones in his neck had been crushed early on. The reason for the Garotte was simple, no blood evidence to contend with. Catching him on the deck had been the plan to avoid fiber evidence. I had pretty much managed to kill him without a fuss. Nothing to connect us at all, I thought. The only thing left was to dump his body back in Torrance

Even at two a.m. the body under the tarp in back of the Samurai worried the hell out of me. I pulled into the community center parking lot. The parking lot was used by parents for the athletic field events. They were mostly kid's soccer and the like. I had a good feeling about two a.m. being quiet there.

I wrestled the man from the car, laid him out by the dumpster, then took his wallet. I removed the money before I threw it inside. With all my prints wiped off everything, I was ready to leave.

"You do nice work Welch," The voice was quiet but very strong. "I don't think you have a gun, but if you do, don't make any moves for it."

"No gun, So officer you been waiting long?"

"Not really, just long enough for you to finish dumping Ramon. He looked the most peaceful I ever saw him. There will be a celebration at the substation. You really should have made it look like a drug hit though."

"I couldn't, too bloody. So how did you know?"

"I have been following him for a year. I knew when he made the sale. I planned to stop him and make the biggest bust of my career. When he rabbited on me, I didn't chase him, because I knew the money was still in the van. When you didn't give it up, I had some real soul searching to do. I decided to let you run with it, since I could reel you in at anytime.

"Letting me run to the point of murder is going to really screw up your career. They are going to wonder, why you didn't stop me."

"Stop you hell, I just stumbled on you dumping Ramon."

"Ain't gonna fly. You don't have the cop car. You got off at eleven, it is 2 a.m."

"Damn Welch, you do seem to do your research. I guess I could try to make a deal with you, but it would be easier to just kill you." The tall leggy blonde cop had the Glock pointed at me. She lowered the pistol.

"There is one other possibility. You could take the money and walk away. I can't talk, after all I killed him."

"Yes but you are capable of murder. I know that now." She was thoughtful for a long time. Oh hell, tell you what. You go back home, dump that broad you live with, and I will dump Evan. Then we can move in together."

"So, then you won't kill me?" I made it a question because she still held the Glock even though it was pointed to the ground.

"Let's say I want to see how good you are in bed first." She broke into a most unladylike laugh.

I passed the test, but talk about performance anxiety.

Wanda the cop and I lasted about three months and twenty grand. By that time it was a toss up as to whether she would shoot me or throw me out on my ass. She decided to split what was left of the money and send me packing. I wasn't shedding any tears as I drove my beat up Jap Jeep to Lois' house.

"Hi sweetie," I said as Lois opened the door. She tried to slam it in my face. "Lois, what is the problem."

"You are the problem. You come back here with your suitcase in hand. I swear to you Freddie if you don't get out of my house I am gonna kill your sorry ass."

"Lois, I sent you my half of the rent every month."

"And now you think that is going to make things all right. You are a total jerk."

"Come on Lois, we hardly ever made love. It was more like roommates and you know it. If I sent you the money we should still be friends. You know I always sent it right on time."

Lois stomped away.

"If you were going to act like this, you shouldn't have taken the damn money."

"So, since I took the money, I should let you walk back in? Well, no way, Freddie. You are on your own."

"Then you are too, Lois. No more money from home, sweetie."

"Then get out, you prick."

I made it to the door without her stopping me, then I made it to my clunker. Then I made it out of the drive. In fact, she never did stop me.

I am not an especially bright guy, but I figured that the 100k wouldn't last long if I paid a huge rent. I began looking for a cheap place to live. Since I had a little money, I had a couple of things in mind. At least one of them meant I was going to have a very nice car in the drive. That being the case, I couldn't put my ass just anywhere. It had to be someplace safe. Even places in questionable neighborhoods were far too expensive in the dream. I moved my search outside the official limits of the dream and into the smaller towns nearby.

I found the one bedroom studio apartment in a little town about twenty miles north of the dream. Even that far away, the price was a grand a month for a place so tiny it didn't even have a bed. Well, I could either have had a bed or a sofa but not both. I opted for a bed from the Salvation Army thrift shop.

A couple of tiny tables came from yard sales in the neighborhood. It was a poor neighborhood, so by the time furniture made it to a yard sale it was truly junk. The tables I bought were in need of repair. I put them into a higher state of junk with some wood glue and screws. In the end I gave up on the wood look. It was a can of black spray paint to hide the screw heads.

The housing thing took about a week to straighten out. While it was going on, I slept in a roach motel for a couple of days, then on the floor of the studio apartment. The telephone had to get installed before I could do much of anything job wise. The phone was a nightmare. It took three appointments before the technician could find my place. Then it took a return trip because he wired it wrong. I had a dial tone that was a permanent addition to the phone. I could dial until my finger ached, if I had been that stupid, and still had the dial tone. I ran cold water over the finger while I waited for the return of the phone man.

I hung around making calls until Saturday morning. On Saturday morning I drove to the auto auction. The auction was named for the guy who started the place. He was a Russian I think. Whatever he was, neither I nor anyone I knew, could pronounce his name. The auction was called "Bandit's" by one and all. It was sort of an Americanization of the name, but also a kind of black humor.

I was in the line waiting to enter the Bandit at eight a.m. Why anyone would be awake and moving about that early was totally beyond me. My excuse was simple. I wanted to take a hard look at the cars. I knew, from having been to the Bandit before, that there would be damn few of them that would fit my needs. Dealers would be bringing cars all during the auction, but I had a suspicion they did it so that the cars could not be inspected for defects prior to the sale. I had already decided to buy nothing that I could not inspect for at least ten minutes. I knew so little about cars, any longer would be a waste of time.

I picked three cars to inspect. I looked them over before I moved to stand by the check-in window of the Bandit. If anything came in before my three came up for auction, I might be able to take a look at them before they reached the block. No matter how good my intentions, I wound up buying a five-year-old Lincoln town car. The body and interior were perfect and the price allowed for some mechanical repairs.

I blew just under ten grand on the car. It kept me just shy of the money-laundering requirement of the auction. Ten big ones and I would have had the Feds on my ass. As it was, I was going to have to float a loan to explain the car to the IRS.

Monday found me in the executive taxi business. The town car got me onto the list at two different limo services. I could expect some back up work from them. Mostly I figured to get my business from the Airport Taxi service. While I had been gone they had sold their minivans to the drivers then leased them back. It was a way for them to share the profits and the risks with the drivers. I knew, because I knew the owners, that they planned to screw the drivers royally. It was the way of businesses everywhere.

I had absolutely no desire to be leased to them, so I went on what they had determined would be a contractor's list. When anyone requested a fancy limo, they would get one of us who had sprung for the deluxe model. Because I was their contractor I could also cruise the gates of LAX.

"Freddie," the voice on my cell phone groaned. "Marty here. Make yourself a sign and go to the Golden West Gate. You will be picking up a woman named Shannon Meyers. She is going to be wanting a drive to some kind of lodge up in the mountains. She has the directions. Before you start to bitch, she is paying us - and therefore you - plenty for the ride."

Plenty to a fat ass on the phone, and plenty to a driver is not usually the same. So I asked,

"What is my take exactly, Marty? I want to know before I give up the whole day." It was 10 a.m. and the drive was most likely going to take at least a couple of hours each way.

"Your take is gonna be three bucks and change." He said it like I should be grateful.

"Sorry Marty, get yourself somebody else. I can't afford to make the trip for that small amount. I knew Jake. If he is going to offer me that, the trip is worth five."

"Well, you are mighty picky all of a sudden."

"It ain't all of a sudden Marty. I got some big expenses here. You call around and find another driver if you can. If not, we will negotiate the fare."

I figured he had a just a little time to do the checking. The way Jake spread the work out and his general dislike of me meant I usually got called last. I doubted Marty had any other big cars to call.

He made a show of it at least. I had started to cruise for fares up and down the concourse. When I gave my rate to a couple of businessmen, I thought they would choke. They obviously weren't as successful as they would like people to think. A thousand-dollar suit does not translate to a fifty-buck ride into town for some guys.

"Freddie, boss wants to know what you want for the trip?"

"If you offered me three, you got six at least. I want four and a half or I don't go and that is the bottom line, Marty."

After a few minutes for them to fake thinking it over, Marty said, "You gonna have to hustle."

"Not too much. I am sitting outside the terminal now."

I picked up the tiny little kid's blackboard and wrote her name on it. I held the board up for the exiting crowd to see. The woman who approached me was at least twenty pounds too thin. She carried her lack of an ass well, but she should have been told by someone who cared not to wear the tailored slacks of her suit without the matching jacket. The concentration camp survivor look was just overdone. The pleated slacks she wore did not have any reason to spread. If she had been any more flat chested she would have been concave.

She walked to me with that "I am an important person" stride. It was the kind of walk that was more to impress people than to move her along, although it was a very efficient walk. I waited until she got close before I spoke.

"Ms. Meyers, I am Freddie, your driver."

"What company are you from?" she asked abruptly.

"From my own company, but you booked the job through Airport Taxi Services. I am a contractor for them. My company is called "Classic Limo and Executive Car Service." I handed her a card. The card had the license number for my little company and the bonding info required by the airport. It was all supposed to put her at ease.

I shouldn't have been surprised to see her whip out the cell phone. Everybody was paranoid even in those days. Still, I was a little since she obviously planned to check up on me. I was tempted to walk away. Just let her find out that I was okay, then try to find me. I chuckled at the thought. It would serve her right to stand around while AT tried to find a driver for her. One with an executive car at that.

Since I knew what would happen if she complained to the LAX authority, I waited. She could easily get me banned from the place, and she was obviously just the bitch to do it. She turned her back on me while she checked me out with whoever had booked the limo.

"You really should have a sign on the car or something," she suggested as she pointed to her luggage. It was her way of telling me that I passed her examination.

"Well ma'am, where you want one, other people call for a car like mine so that people think I am a full time employee of the passenger. Not just an over-priced cab driver. A sign on the town car would destroy the illusion, wouldn't you think?" I was trying real hard to be nice but it seemed to be a losing battle.

"Well, I don't understand people like that. I am not in the least pretentious."

I should not have smiled. I definitely should not have allowed her to see me smile, but I did both. She turned what for her was red-faced I am sure.

"What is your name?"

"Freddie. Freddie Welch," I informed her.

"Well, Mr. Welch, I do not think I am going to want your services after all."

I wasn't all that surprised and certainly not shocked. Hell, I wasn't even disappointed. It would have been a long drive with very unpleasant company.

"Very well, Ms. Meyers." I remained pleasant even in my anger.

"I am required by my contract to remain until you make other arrangements. That is, in case you change your mind. I can't leave you stranded, as it were."

While I spoke to her, I was opening my cell phone.

"Marty, this is Freddie. Ms. Meyers changed her mind. I think she might want another driver. I am going to stay until she makes arrangements. I want to make sure I don't wind up behind the airport eight ball." What I really said to him was that I didn't want the bitch to lie to the LAX authority and get my ass in a jam.

"Let me talk to her," Marty said.

"Not on my dime, Marty."

I turned my attention to Meyers. "If you want to talk to the dispatcher, Ms. Meyers, I can give him your cell number or I can give you his number." She shook her head.

"Marty, she don't want to talk to you. I would say write this one off." She looked at me angrily.

"Hold on Freddie, her personal assistant is on the line now." I waited for the inevitable lies to come from Marty. "Were you rude to her, Freddie?"

"No more than usual, Marty. You know I never get a complaint. Ms Meyers is probably a little stressed out." I made sure she heard me.

"Well, I told her assistant that I didn't have anyone else. Just give it five minutes then blow out, if she don't come around. You could try to make nice, you know?"

"Marty, that is why I bought my own car service. I don't have to make nice for you."

Ms Meyers had heard it all. I didn't much care because in my mind she was already a lost cause. At that moment I was looking at my watch. Marty had given me a time limit to blow out. I was not so patiently waiting for the time to pass.

Ms. Meyers had been on the phone while the deadline crept ever closer. I made the very first muscles move as I began my turn to the car. She must have read my mind because she spoke as I moved.

"Mr. Welch, we seem to have a problem. My assistant tells me that I will have a two-hour wait for another car. That is unacceptable."

"Since you are not pretentious, ma'am, you can hail an Airport Taxi. You can get one in a couple of minutes."

I knew that if she had been willing to do that I would not have been standing on the curb. My car cost double the fare, so she had requested it knowing the score.

She looked hard at me but controlled her voice.

"Yes, as you might have guessed I chose the town car as opposed to the minivan. It is a long drive to where I need to be. Yes, I would like to arrive in as much style as possible. You have not been kind, Mr. Welch, but you have been correct. I suppose we should try to work this out. If you leave me here, I am most definitely going to lodge a complaint with the airport authority. We could still come to some kind of arrangement."

"Ma'am, you do not want me as a driver and frankly I do not want you as a customer. How are we going to get past that?"

"By agreeing to be civil to one another. I am civil to people I don't like all the time, and I am sure you are also." She hadn't backed down an inch but she had given me a way out. I still needed the money so I took it.

"I suppose that there is something to be said for civility."

I moved to lift her two bags as a punctuation mark to the sentence. We had both made the decision without backing down, so the next few hours were going to prove interesting. We were in the car when I spoke again. I had turned to the rear seat so that I would be looking at her not the rear view mirror.

"So, are you going to tell me where we are going?" I asked it as pleasantly as possible all things considered.

"The name of the town won't mean a thing to you. Why don't you just let me give you directions one leg at a time."

"Ms. Meyers, I would never do this for anyone else, but since you were not in a hurry to ride with me, I figure you are not a carjacker. So I will follow your directions."

Like most people, her directions were awful. She waited until almost the last minute to tell me I needed to be in another lane of the expressway. It happened so often that I prayed none of them motorist following had a gun. I was surely adding to the road rage in California that day. The morning turned into early afternoon before we reached the end of the road. I do not use that expression lightly. The road just ended in front of a fake log ranch-style house.

"Freddie, I will try to make this quick."

Other than driving directions it was the first thing she had said to me. Between giving me bad directions, she had buried herself in folders from her briefcase.

"No problem, but am I supposed to be driving you back to LA?" I asked it because I had planned to drop her ass that very minute.

"I am not sure. If I need to go back, I can negotiate a price with you, can't I?"

"I suppose so."

Suppose so my ass. I had her money mentally in my pocket already. The ethics of selling the AT customer would have to be resolved before I got home. I was pretty much an honest guy.

Ms. Meyers stepped from the plush town car onto the dirt drive of the mountain cabin. It was a cabin for sure, but it wasn't made of logs. It was made from fake timbers. I had seen that type construction before. It was solid enough and expensive enough to rival log build homes but it wasn't - not by a long shot. Each log was cut into three pieces shaped like a slice of pie. The pieces were nailed to the wood skeleton of the house only after the Styrofoam blocks were fitted between the bones of the house. It took only a third the number of trees and was only half the cost of a real log home.

Meyers walked onto the porch of the house. I expected her to go inside, leaving me with my laptop. I could write, if I had an inspiration. Of course, I was running short on them in those days or I wouldn't have been driving a limo. I looked up from my laptop as the voices of Meyers and the man rose. They had opted to scream while standing on the porch. I opted to continue ignoring them.

My decision was based solely on my wanting to get home with all my body parts in place and functioning. Besides, I didn't think Meyers wanted my help. By her silence during the drive she had made it pretty clear to me that I was just an employee or maybe a little less than that. Still, the voices were escalating to the point where violence would soon follow. I had no idea what the etiquette of the situation would be, but I was sure at the least I would find AT less than pleased if I stood by while Meyers got her skinny butt whipped.

I got out of the Lincoln. I realized that the man she called Don was not really bigger than me, but he was more imposing. He seemed to be a rough character in his red and black lumberjack plaid shirt. As they say in the dream, he had presence.

"Why don't you both take a step back and calm down," I suggested in a firm voice.

"Just who are you, faggot?" Don asked in an almost scream.

"I am the faggot who is going to kick your ass, if you don't calm down."

"Stay out of this, Freddie. Don will just hurt you."

Meyers looked scared but she was trying to protect me. That was the first nice thing she had said to me, period.

"Well Ms. Meyers, I really can't let this thing that walks like a man harm you. You see, you are my responsibility."

I had no idea what my legal responsibility to her was. I knew I liked her only a little, but Don not at all.

When Don stepped off the porch, I knew I had no options at all. The look in his eye warmed me and it was a damn good thing that it did. Don tried one of those roundhouse karate kicks on me. I lived in a pretty bad neighborhood before I met Lois. I did it a little for the experience, and a lot because it was all I could afford while still having a phone in the dream. I knew half a dozen ex-cons from those days. They all worked out in the courtyard of the apartment building. They were mostly karate nuts too. A couple of them showed me a few countermoves that were not karate. They were, as Max told me while beating the shit out of me, simple street-fighting techniques from Brooklyn.

When Don started around, I recognized it and stepped fast into it. I would have stepped back and made him look like a fool but the fight would have continued. Max's advice had been end it quickly. The slight advantage you have by knowing what to do will be gone quickly.

I almost thanked my dad for all the beatings I took as a kid. When Don's knee hit my ribs the pain was manageable. He was shocked to find himself falling. His perfect karate balance had been knocked all to hell by his own momentum as he came up short. He was on his way to the ground when I rescued him temporarily. I grabbed at his shirt in time to keep him on his feet, though off balance.

He hadn't expected to be face to face with a madman, but there he was. Before the shock wore off, I head-butted him on the bridge of his nose. Jesus, he bled fast and hard. I had it all over the twenty- five buck white shirt. I should have beaten him a little for the shirt, but I decided to let him slip to the ground.

I turned to Meyers, who was in shock.

"Well Meyers do you have a plan or should I bring the asshole around so that you two can fight some more."

"Let's go find my daughter."

She said it as she hitched up her pants. I noted with approval that she kicked Don in the ribs as she passed. Meyers might turn out to be okay after all.

"Freddie, you need to get the hell out of here," Meyers said it with real concern in her voice. "Nobody has ever done that to him. He might shoot you."

The heavy Lincoln made a mess of his soft front yard as I turned it around. I didn't much care.

"That is all the incentive I need to drive this car over him."

I smiled, hoping she would think it a joke. I didn't need or want her to think I was capable of murder.

"So where to now?" I asked it, getting a little more involved in her life than I wanted to be.

"I don't know what to do now. He said Sara is at camp. That means she is at that stupid place in the woods that Don and his buddies built. They go up there to play soldier. What Sara is doing there I can only guess. I never should have let her come out here to visit." Her voice trailed off to a mumble with the last words.

"So if you have custody of the kid, let's get the Sheriff," I suggested.

"If the law comes up there, they just take to the woods. They have a few things to hide up there."

"So what are you suggesting?" I asked it knowing it was not going to be anything in my best interest.

"Could you drive me up there? They just might hand her over without a fight. It would be better for her and the other kids."

"If the others are anything like this Don, I doubt you are going to get her that way. It is your nickel though."

She gave me directions to yet another mountain road. I explained that she was going to have to foot the bill for damage to the Lincoln. She agreed before we got too far up the road. The tree limbs growing along the side of the road were beating shit out of my car. It was the only thought I had as I drove along. The brat was her worry, the car was mine.

"There was one guard on the gate when we arrived. The man looked way too soft to be a survivalist but he was one anyway. I was standing by her side when Meyers demanded that her child be handed over.

"I can't do it without Don saying it is okay, Mrs. Meyers. You know how it works up here. You was one of us once."

"Simon, you are going to give me my child or I am going to bring the FBI in here."

"If you do that, you will never see her again. We would all just disappear. You know the plan Shannon."

"While you two talk, I am going to get a coke from the cooler. You want one, Meyers?" She shook her head in disbelief. "How about you Simon?" He also shook his head.

I walked to the car. I reached inside to push the trunk release. When I was leaning inside the trunk, I lifted the mat where the donut tire should have been. Since I had no plan to ever change my own tire, the donut had been replaced by the emergency road kit. There were flares, a flashlight, one of those plastic tarps used for a blanket, and of course Lucy. Lucy was a sawed off double-barreled shotgun. It had belonged to a gentleman who wanted to pay me a midnight visit once. The gentleman was surprised to find me waiting for him. He owned a new piece of real estate, six by six by three plot, and I owned his shotgun. It was a fair trade I thought. I had no idea how he felt about it.

With Lucy in hand I walked back to the gate. I have no idea how Simon felt staring into the twin eyes of the shotgun but I know he put down the M16 clone. He was also very helpful in telling us where the child was being taught. The nuts had created their own school. I could only imagine the trash being taught in it.

Shannon Meyers, in her only slightly muddy but still fashionable business suit striding down the hall of the bunker-type building while carrying the AR15, was a scene right out of Terminator Two.

The teacher, upon seeing two heavily armed individuals - one of whom was a furious mother - decided to just hand over the brat. I was surprised when on the way out Shannon broke down the rifle, then scattered the parts on the ground just outside the fence. She was no novice to the ways of the survivalists, I decided.

We were in the car and headed down the one lane drive when she asked, "So Sara, how was your vacation?" I waited for the ten-year old's reply.

"It was really boring, mom."

I never liked sundays much. Oh the business was okay but I just didn't like the rush it required. I tended to drink too much of Saturday night, so ended up more than miserable, by lunch on Sunday. My promise had always been to be at LAX by two p.m. on Sunday. The AT needed drivers to bring in the businessmen trying to get an early start on their Monday morning appointments.

That particular Sunday was pretty much like any other. I called from outside my tiny apartment to let the office know that I was ready to work. Since I owned my own car, I didn't need to report to the office in person. I headed to the airport even though odds were I would have to turn around half way out.

The pickup calls began before I got outside my neighborhood. It was a shame that I lived in such a poor neighborhood. Odds were that I was never going to use the town car to give anyone in my neighborhood a ride. People seldom take limos to jail that seemed to be the most logical destination for my neighbors.

The executive car business was spotty at best. I was forced to work for the Airport Taxi service, as a contractor, just to fill in some of the gaps.

The man standing outside the upscale hotel sure a hell looked like my kind of pickup. He acted like one as well. I put the set of matched luggage into the truck of the town car before I asked him how he intended to pay.

The 9mm he put in my face convinced me that he had a payment plan in mind. He didn't seem to care that I didn't accept that particular payment method. He held the pistol on me over the roof of the car. I don't know if he thought I might run off and leave my car for him or not. If he had a thought that I might, he was a total idiot. It was the only thing of value I owned, not only that I really did own it. The bank did not have a share in the luxury automobile. That being the case, I wasn't about to have it wind up wrapped around a pole somewhere. At least not unless I was the one who wrapped it.

I sat behind the wheel why I waited for him to decide what he was going to do next. I was the one who finally spoke. "I don’t suppose you want to go to the airport.

"If you want to get out of this alive, you probably should keep the smart ass to a minimum."

"Well friend, we can sit here as long as want but eventually somebody is gonna notice that pistol. See, even Lincoln’s can't sit here all day."

"Okay, then move this heap. I want you to go to the parking lot of the first restaurant or shopping center you see, then stop."

"Long as you got the piece, you are the boss." I knew it wasn't exactly the right thing to say but it was at least in the right area. It was just defiant enough not to make me a total victim, but not enough to get me killed. At least that was my plan.

I found a grocery store parking lot only half full on a Sunday afternoon. I parked away from the shoppers while I waited until the man with the gun to let me in on the plan. He didn't seem to be inclined to do so right away. I grew impatient quickly.

"So Charlie, what are we waiting for?" I asked it not sure the flip question was a good idea.

"My name isn't Charlie, and you are waiting until I get a call. When I get it, I will let you know what we are going to do, in the meantime just shut up."

"Like I said before, you got the gun, you got my full attention”. The man didn't seem all that dangerous, so I decided that if got a chance I would try him on for szie. If I was wrong, I might just not have to worry about paying my rent at the end of the week.

When my cell phone rang, I thought he would lose it. The guy was definitely nervous for all his bravado. I had a feeling he wasn't really comfortable in his role. He might even be less comfortable then me.

"Don't answer it," he demanded.

"If I don't they are going to come looking for me. That is the dispatcher."

"Okay answer it but if you say anything about me , I am going to kill you and take the car."

"Aw not you don't want to move up from car jacking to murder. That isn't a very good plan at all." I clicked on the phone before he could answer."\

"Eddie, where the hell are you that guy at the Marriot is screaming his head off."

"I got car trouble Marty. Better find somebody else to do the pickup. Before you ask I got no idea when I will be back in service."

"Well Eddie, I am gonna make sure the boss takes you off the list you should have called me."

"Do what you got to do Marty. I got more to do than I can handle at the moment." I snapped the phone shut.

"I am surprised. You didn't try to get help."

"Friend I own this car. It is all I have in the world. Have you seen what the LAPD does to cars in a hostage situation?"

"Yeah the last one they filled with fire foam."

"Yeah, and I can't for the life of me figure what I would tell my insurance company."

"So, I don't have to keep this on you?" He waved the 9mm at me as he spoke.

"Sure you do, first chance I get I am gonna shove it down you throat." I wasn't risking much since he already knew it.

"I thought so. I just wanted to see if you would lie to me."

"I will, but not about anything that obvious." I couldn't help it. It wasn't that I was so brave, it was more that I was not going to feel like a victim even if I was one.  I sat quietly waiting for the cell to ring. I was trying to come up with a plan to save myself as well as my car. I had to be at least a little concerned that I worried as much about the car as I did about me. A man should not own anything more important to him than his own life. Then again life has less value to a man who is starving than a millionaire. So the car meant a great deal to me. I watched while the man whispered into the phone. I had no idea what he was saying but I sure as hell wanted to know. I wished at that moment that I had spent my young more with books than rock concerts. I couldn't have heard him speaking in a normal voice. I was the ideal limo driver. The only way I knew if a couple was getting it on in the back was if I happened to see them in the rearview. Believe it or not that happened once in a while in L.A. Couples hired a stretch I am told just to make it in the back. I wished I had the spare change to buy a stretch. Driving couple around while they make love at 200 bucks an hour appealed to me.

"Hey man what do they call you?" the gunman asked.

"Freddie, what about you?"

"Why don't you call me Lynwood." He grinned convincing me that it wasn't his real name.

Probably the name of his trailer park, I thought. "So Lynwood do you know where you want to go yet?"

"Yeah Freddie, I know. I just ain't ready to tell you just yet.

"I get a hundred an hour to wait." I figured that wasn't going to make him hurry. What I expected to happen did happen. He laughed.

"Freddie, the money is the least of your problems."  It was at that point I decided it was going to be a life or death situation before it ended. At that moment, in spite of my bravado earlier, the car slipped completely from my mind. It had gotten down to stay alive at any cost. Well almost any cost.

Even in the deepest fear there was always the hero option, it was a card I tried at all cost to avoid playing. In a situation where I was allowed to out think or even our run a guy I would do it before resorting to violence, but it was hard to out think or run a 9mm slug. It appeared that was what Lynwood had in mind for me. I really didn't have a plan when the phone rang again. Lynwood spoke into it in whispers again, then said, "Freddie, I want you to drive me to this address. Lynwood handed me a piece of paper with an address written either by type writer or dot matrix printer. Being a failed screenwriter specializing in murder mysteries I recognized the print of a striking key rather than ink laid on a page. I had always thought that I would one day use it as a clue in a play. I had no idea the thought would come to haunt me in real life but it had. Of course, it had no real significance.

The address was vaguely familiar and I just about knew where it was. "I can get you close Lynwood then you are going to have to help me."

"You mean I grabbed the only limo driver in LA that can find the Grandview Golf Club."

"Oh that is where you want to go. Hell the street number didn't tell me that. Usually a client tells me he wants to go to The Grandview not a street name and number but hell it did at least sound familiar That ought to count for something. Surely Lynwood if you are a guest there you can afford a cab ride out there."

"Freddie don’t try to think. You are a limo driver and you seem to be a pretty incompetent one at that."

"Since you got the piece, I am going to just agree with anything you say. I have to tell you though, people usually say I am a competent limo driver and an incompetent screenwriter."

"You write for the Movies?" Lynwood asked.

"Not so much as I would like, but yes I have written a couple of plays they bought."

"You must not be too good if you are driving a limo."

"Well there isn’t any sense in defending myself Lynwood. You have to understand the business to appreciate how many people trapped in the dream pump gas. Hell man it is a cliche."

I am through with crap like that Freddie. I am going to make this score then I am out of here for life.

"What is the score Lynwood."

"You will know when we get there Freddie."  It wasn't long before I knew. After I left what had once been a country road, I drove down the tree line drive until it turned into cobblestones. Then I drove down the cobblestones until the circled into the portico of the large building. It had been designed to look a hundred years old when it was finished twenty years before. That morning it looked two hundred years old.

"See that guy standing outside on the curb. The one with the bags." I nodded with a smile. "Do you recognize him Freddie?"

"I sure do. He is the guy who last week told me how much damn money he had then didn't tip me for the ride."

"Well we are going to take him for a ride. He won't see me till you open the door for him, then it will be to late. Now Freddie understand I am going to keep this piece on you. If you warn him or run, I am going to kill you."

"Are you kidding, I risk my ass for no one and that prick ain't got a chance in hell that I would risk it for him."

"You were the perfect driver for us. You can't imagine how happy we were when he got you for a driver."

"Well Lynwood, unless you plan to kill him in my car, I got no problem with whatever you do to him."

"I knew it would sound good to Lynwood but it wasn't at all true. I was a witness and Lynwood had pretty much warned me I was on the hit list as well as the prick from NY. I just didn't plan to let him know that he had warned me. Most people didn't read people as well as I did. I wasn't really sorry that the time wasn't right to try ole Lynwood. Seeing how the rich NY exec reacted would be kind of interesting. If I lived, there might be a story in it.

The windows in the Lincoln were blacked out completely. They were probably a little more tinted than the law allowed in the front but the back was totally black.

"Freddie, good to see you." It was the greeting I got from my fare.

"Good to see you again," I replied with more conviction than I would have had if Lynwood and his 9mm hadn't been in the car. I was looking forward to seeing the fare sweat. That doesn't speak well for me I know. Then I never said I was a nice guy. Hell I was living and trying to work in the dream called Hollywood, that automatically made me a sleeze.

He started to object when I opened the door and he saw Lynwood. He might well have if Lynwood hadn't spoken to him.

"Get in Harry or I will gut shoot you."

"Well if you two know each other I will just leave you alone." Well, I did hope it would work but Alas. and alack Lynwood would have none of it.

"Get in Freddie or I will drop you where you stand." "If you fire that gun here the cops will be all over you before you clear the drive." I suggested.

"And you Freddie, will still be dead." His words did have the desired effect on me. I walked around the car even though I felt that I could have run. Why didn't I run, I had no idea. I would like to think it was to help the creep Who I had just put into the car. Truth was I hoped Lynwood would ice the prick. I suppose it was to protect my car from the ravages of an LAPD swat assault on my car.

"Lynwood," I said when I returned to the driver's seat. "Where exactly do you want to take this gentleman?"

"Freddie, I want to go somewhere quiet." From him the words were ominous.

"402 this is dispatch what is your status?" I reached for the mic.

"Don't do it Freddie," Lynwood demanded from behind me.

"If I don't we are gonna have cops up our collective asses. They know the only reason I wouldn't answer is that I have lost control of the car. There is a locator beacon in this car. Before you ask, I can't disable it. It is welded under the trunk."

"Don't get cute Freddie, just answer them."

"Status is 1030." I held my breath to see if the new dispatcher knew what that meant. I hadn't used the 1033 emergency code because half the people who watched tv knew that meant man with a gun. 1030 meant I had an unruly passenger. It should get me a code requesting my location since I had lied about having a locator.

"10-4 402, what is your eta and 20."

"Leaving LAX headed north on the freeway. eta?" I looked at Lynwood who shrugged. "Eta, about thirty minutes." I shrugged my shoulders at Lynwood.

"10-4 I will scratch you from active till you call in." The new dispatcher was good. I had to give her that. I pulled onto the freeway headed north. I had gone about half a mile when the cop passed me. He glanced over he didn't seem especially interested in me. I might have tried to get his attention had I not made the radio call. I knew or at least hoped that the cops would be on their way. I really would have wished to avoid the confrontation but it looked inevitable.

The two men in the rear seat had been mumbling so low that I missed all of the conversation. I did catch a couple of stray words but they meant nothing to me at all. The mooch who had stiffed me seemed to be speaking in a voice a couple of octaves higher than he had used when telling me how rich he was only a couple of days before.

"Lynwood, why you want to do this. I can give you money you know. I know who you are."

"So you know who I am. It ain't gonna make no difference what you know." I caught that alright.

The implication was that the mooch wouldn't be telling any tales. It stood to reason that Lynwood didn't plan on me doing any talking either. Everything pointed to the need to make some kind of move before we arrived at the quiet location.

I gave some thought to catching up with the cop, then sideswiping him. I figured that was a little to obvious, not to mention suicidal. If worse came to worse I was just perverse enough to take Lynwood and the Mooch with me.

Without any warning the traffic began to slow. I watched as the my speed dropped from 65 to thirty. The creeping was not my doing. Speed and the moving car were my only weapons. I didn't like the idea of coming to a stop on the freeway but it appeared it was in the cards for me.

"Freddie, I am not going to be able to watch you both if you are not occupied with your driving. Since I need you to drive, I guess I should ice your friend here."

"Do what you got to do. He ain't no friend of mine. The mooch stiffed me on my tip the last time."

"Now that just plain sucks Freddie. How much should he have given you?"

"The low average is ten bucks for that trip." I said because it actually was about that. I realized immediately that I should have lied.

"What is the most you ever got on that trip?"

"Fifty, but it was a group of four."

"Then would say twenty would be a fair tip?"

"Yes that would be a high average."

"Then Fork it over Harry. You will feel better for it." Harry made a production of handing me the double sawbuck. "You know Harry, my mom was a waitress when I was a kid. I got my lunch money from her tips. When she didn't get any tips, I didn't eat. Hell Harry, I should kill you just for that. What do you think Freddie?"

"Well if you do Lynwood, he won't be stiffing any other waitresses or cabbies."

"Not to worry Freddie, Harry has stiffed his last anybody."

It was at that point that Harry broke. I could have thought it was the sad waitress story I suppose. I was not feeling generous enough to do that. Harry was a pure coward. Hell most everyone would be. He planned to go out on his knees begging for his life. I might have joined him in it, except Harry the mooch would have seen me begging and that thought was more than I could stand.

"Lynwood why don't you just hold off on icing anyone until we get of the 405. Shooting inside the car is going to make me nervous. I am a bad enough driver anyway."

"If you do anything stupid Freddie, it would make me very unhappy." Lynwood didn't seem to understand that I knew he planned to kill me anyway.

"Well, Lynwood I never want to see a man with a gun unhappy. It strikes me as a really bad idea."

"I tend to agree with you Freddie. You do not want to see me unhappy. You might be surprised how things turn out."  I nodded. I didn't trust myself to keep talking. I really wanted to think but Harry wouldn't stop whining. I didn't think that hitting a bridge support would be a good idea. Sure it might take care of the unbuckled passengers, but it would more likely kill me. If not that it would definitely total my car. It the car had belonged to Airport Taxi I would have been more inclined to at least give it a try. I didn't think I had the courage for it anyway. I had to think of something else and I knew it.

No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get anything to come out of the mire. I looked at Lynwood in the rearview. He shifted his gaze between Harry and me. If Harry weren't a wimp I might could get Lynwood's attention riveted on me. Even if I did, Harry wouldn't do anything but stare at Lynwood open mouthed. He might even give him the gun if he dropped it.

"Slow down Freddie, trust me you can't afford a ticket."  Well there goes plan a, I thought. I hadn't heard anything from the dispatcher so I had given up on her. It looked as though I was on my own after all. Just about the time I was ready to give up and march into the oven, a three hundred pound cowboy driving a pickup truck pulled onto the expressway. He flipped me the bird as he cut in front of me. He just looked like the type to have a .44 under his seat.

If I had given it a little more thought I probably wouldn't have done it but then I didn't stop to think. I simply gained speed slowly hoping Lynwood wouldn't notice. I was beside the fat man in the pick up before Lynwood paid any attention. I cut in front of the pickup way too close. I clipped his bumper on the mooches side. When I did I kicked hell out of the Lincoln to get in front of the pickup. I pulled the wheel hard enough to roll the damn limo.

I didn't think I had much of a chance to survive either way. The heavy Lincoln didn't roll but the violent movements scared hell out of even Lynwood. He was scared enough that the pistol flew from his hand. I managed to pull the car to a stop the limo without too much more damage that was just before the pickup hit the rear of the Lincoln. The airbags deployed on the pickup's impact. I was penned to the seat by the airbags. I was at the mercy of Lynwood and the mooch. The impact had pretty serious it seemed. Lynwood had been knocked senseless. I pushed the drivers door open. I was out alive and feeling pretty good about it. Just about as I expected the fat red neck was on the street dazed. He was also holding a rather nasty looking revolver.

"I tore the rear door open. Lynwood and the mooch were both trying to find the pistol. "Cover them, they had kidnaped me." I said ti tot he fat man. He didn't seem to get it but he pointed the pistol more or less at the rear seat.

In response Lynwood and Harry stopped dead. All of them looked bewilder. I waited for the Chippies to show before I explained any more to the red neck about to turn hero.

When he began to look as though he wanted to question me, I told him to smile he would be on CNN any minute. The airplanes or the news helicopter pointed us out. I would have used my cell phone but I had no idea where it ended up. It was somewhere in the car and I didn't want to look for it. I also didn't go looking for the 9mm. I figured a good search would turn it all up but only after the other two were out of the car.

The Chippies came. I never did find out who sent them. The arrested both Harry and Lynwood. Both had fugitive warrants. Harry was a white collar criminal something like a world com executive but not world com. Lynwood was a petty criminal who had invested a chunk of drug money. He didn't like losing it so he went after the man responsible. That was of course Harry the mooch. I was expecting at least an 'attaboy' if not a medal of some kind.

What got was a citation for making an unsafe traffic maneuver. Just before the tow truck left with the pickup on the hook, I also got some good advice. "Freddie, you need to get out of town." The advice came from the fat red neck. He made a pistol with his fingers then shot me in the heart. I decided at that moment to leave the dream.

Was I worried about the redneck who threatened me?  Not really, but then again he added something to the stew that was called Hollywood, aka the dream.  I had about all of the dream I could stand when I woke up that next morning.  The Limo was trash, but the insurance check was gonna be more than I had in it.  The rusty old Samurai sat in the drive of the duplex I called home.  The rent was paid, but I wouldn’t be working until I bought another car.  I gave some though to driving for the A.T. till the insurance money arrived.  That thought caused my stomach to turn over a couple of times.

A thought had been sloshing around in my brain since the ‘accident’ the day before.  I had tried for five years to write screenplays with less than roaring success.  I had in fact been a monumental flop.  I knew in my heart that I was a good writer but maybe I was writing the wrong things.  That was at least my thought that morning.  I knew one thing for sure, I had been driving in reverse during most of my time in the dream.  Once in a while I took a step forward but most of them had been either side steps or backward moves.  

The realization that I was the male, writer version of Lois, minus the parties, made me a little weak in the knees.  Would I have written commercials to stay in the dream?  Yes I would have in a minute.  I had found her somewhat pathetic, then for me to realize that I was no better that  was the final straw.

I began to shove clothes into a large plastic trash bag before I changed my mind.  The decision was still up for grabs when I put the computer into the Sammy.  It could have gone either way as I pumped the tank full at the nearby convenience store.  I was still wavering as I crossed over the Los Angeles county line.  I was on the east bound interstate about a hundred miles from the dream when I began to believe I would really do it.

I was still on shaky ground, when I stopped for lunch at a McDonalds.  Since they all looked alike, it gave me no clue as to my progress.   I made it only about four hundred miles from the dream that first night.  I put the Sammy on I40 east only because you can’t go far headed west from the dream.  My plans were so vague I just drove.  I hadn’t bothered to tell the landlord I was leaving probably because I didn’t believe it myself.  Not even when I pulled off the highway in Winslow Arizona.  I also hadn’t realized that it was winter until I saw the snow on the sides of the highways.  

I stopped mostly because I needed gas and I was hungry.  I probably could have continued a hundred or so miles farther down the road but I was whipped.  It had taken a long time to start that morning and LA is not the easiest town to leave.  It is like a conspiracy to keep you in the dream.

It was well after dark when I arrived in Winslow.  The convenience store clerk, a woman of about fifty or so, directed me to a café no more than three blocks away.

“You better hurry, they close at nine,” she informed me.

I made it through the door only minutes before they began cleaning the dining room.  I ate my dinner, chosen from an abbreviated menu, to the sounds and sights of a restaurant being put to bed.  The stew wasn’t bad but the cornbread made the meal.  It was a flat white fried piece of bread.  It could have been a Mexican bread of some kind.  The only think I was sure of, was that the bread was delicious.  The stew itself would have been a bit gamey for my taste had it not been spiced to the point of removing the top layer of skin from ones mouth.  The combination along with a generous supply of Coors beer seemed to do the trick though.  I might have gone back on the road, even though I knew better, had it not been for the motel across the street from the diner.  The motel was one of those mom and pop things from at least the fifties possibly the forties.  It looked to be about half filled at nine on a Monday night.  The kicker was to be found in the type of vehicles dotting the parking lot.  Most seemed to be service trucks of one kind or another.  The motel was obviously the choice for out of town workers trapped in Winslow.

As I expected, the motel was about half the price of a chain type place.  Also as I expected the clerk was from some middle eastern country.  I really didn’t care where the money ended up at that moment.  The food and the beer had caused my body to crash.  I knew for sure that if I didn’t lay it down soon, it would just stop functioning period.

“Hi got a single for tonight?”  I asked the clerk.

“36.50,” was his only reply.  It might have been the extent of his English for all I knew. It was the only thing he said to me before placing the numbered key onto the desk.  I didn’t even try to get directions to the room.

The furnishings inside the room were shabby but clean.  It was typical when a motel ran as far down as the Winslow Inn the owners put no money into the business.  At least no more than was necessary to keep them in safety compliance.  Sometimes I wondered about that, because the metal stairway to the second floor had rusted through in spots.  I am sure somebody must have inspected it at some point but I was very, very careful where I put my big ass feet.

Since there were no movie channels on the TV, and since I hoped to get an early start the next morning, I fell into bed immediately.  The sleep was troubled since I was still not certain that I had made the right decision.  I awoke from a foul night’s sleep and pretty  much as tired as I had been before I fell into the well, worn bed.  The shower and room departure where accomplished quickly.  I was across the street and at a table in the diner before eight then next morning.

"What can I get you hon?" the waitress with the false teeth asked.  The waitress asked it while I was still standing trying to kick the new fallen snow from my shoes.  I was not dress for the winter and certainly not for the five inches and still piling up snowfall.

“Couple of scrambled eggs and some bacon would be nice.”  I replied.

“Coffee to drink?” she asked. I nodded to her.  “Any potatoes?” I shook my head to that one.

I am not usually talkative in the mornings.  That particular morning I wanted to eat and be on my way not to socialize.  I had most of the snow off my dress shoes and was seated waiting for my eggs.  I was looking at the bowl of vegetables in hot sauce wondering if I should risk it on my eggs before the long day’s drive, when she came into the small café.

“Is that no good Samuel in here?” She asked it even though the petite blonde could see everyone in the place.  I couldn’t help but notice that she wore what only be a night shirt tucked into her jeans, and under the leather bomber jacket.  It had the look that the maker of a plain cotton night gown used to try to fancy it up.  The little embroidery flowers simply made sure everyone knew it was a night gown not anything else.  It appeared to have been haphazardly stuffed inside her jeans.  She must not have had much of an ass cause she looked about normal with the gown inside her jeans.  Of course it also might have been a very short gown.  I suppose it was the wide straps visible under the coat and the soft saggy bodice that made me think night gown hell it could have been a blouse for all I knew.

“Ain’t seen him today Lori do you need a tow?”  The waitress asked it seeming to enjoy Lori’s predicament.

“Ran my damn car in the ditch again.  I have got to get me a four-wheel drive.  I must have run into that damn ditch a dozen times since I moved here.”

“I would help you Lori but I got to be to work in ten minutes.”  The remark was made by a man who looked happy not to be helping her.

“Sure you would George.”  The woman they called Lori looked disgusted.

I had bought the Sammy cause it was fashionable to have a convertible and a SUV in the dream even a cheap one like the Sammy was better than a nice sedan.  I expect I offered because I didn’t think she would accept.  “If you got a chain I can pull you out I expect.”  I added as an after thought, “That is if I can leave a couple of things here to make room for you in the Sammy.”

What the hell, I thought.  I was in no hurry to get anywhere.  Besides who knew what might come of a good deed.  Even if Lori wouldn’t make it worth my while, I would still be doing a good deed.  They seemed to have a way of coming back to me now and then.  It was just possible that Lori would be one of them.

“Have a cup of coffee first Lori and warm up.”  The waitress didn’t smile for Lori as she had for me.  Lori didn’t seem to be all that popular.

“Miss, I have a Samurai and a few minutes I could help you I guess.  I am parked over at the motel, I would need a few minutes to unload enough junk so that you could have a seat on the way out.  What I don’t have, is a chain or rope to pull you with.”

“Mister, if you will help her, I got a piece of chain you can use.  Just leave it out back when you are done, I can get it later.”  The voice belonged to the man she had called George.   I suppose her withering stare had made him helpful.

“You don’t need to make room for me Mister the car is about a block behind this place.  Just get in the car and drive down the street behind the restaurant, you will see me about two blocks that way.”  She pointed south.  Without another word she turned for the door.  

“Lady what kind of car?”

“White Crown Vic, you can’t miss it.” She looked defiantly at the crowd as if daring anyone to speak.

She was out the door when George spoke, “Come on out mister, I will get you that chain.”

We were outside when I asked.  “What is the deal with her?  She doesn’t seem to be very friendly.”

“Hell Mister, Lori is a piece of work from back east.”

“Freddie, they call me Freddie,” I said it with a smile.

“Well Freddie, she don’t like us and I guess we sense it.  I expect she feels superior a bit since she lived in New York City before.  After that I guess anyplace would seem boring.  She never stops reminding us how dull this town is.”

“Why don’t she just go back then?” I asked.

“Well Freddie, I think she has nothing to go back to.  That is just what I think.  She inherited her daddy’s business and I guess she was working some menial job in New York, cabdriver or something like that.”

I swallowed hard to keep from commenting.  I really was dying to make some stupid remark but reminded myself that I was just passing through.  “So what kind of business is she in here?”

“Why, you thinking on staying?  If you was, I would drop the thought.  Lori has way too much bitch in her to make a decent wife.”

“Trust me marriage is not in my plan.  Still if she has a business, she might need some help I am kinda between jobs right now.”  I had the chain and George wanted to leave for work.

“Well you can ask her, her daddy had a couple of delivery trucks.  I got to be going, just leave the chain by the back door I will pick it up later.”

I found a bit of room for the chain on top of the passenger seat, actually on top of the tool box, on top of the seat.  Did I mention the Samurai was way over filled with my junk?  I found the baby crap yellow Ford mostly in her drive but the rear forth tilted downward.  She had missed clearing the drive on her way out.  To cut her some slack, the ditch was covered in snow.  It was probably hard to see.  To be perfectly honest she knew it was there since she had run into it before.

I stepped from the Sammy so that I could take a good look at the Ford.  All it really needed was a little help and it would be out of the ditch.  I looped the chain over my built in rear trailer hitch bracket, then found a spot to hook to her ford under the body pan.  It took a little re engineering of the chain but I finally had her hooked up and ready to pull.  I gave some serious thought to putting the Sammy into four-wheel drive but then decided to give it a try without it.  Frankly it was cold as hell.  I was afraid the hubs might be frozen.  I really did not want to fight with them first thing in the morning.

I put Lori behind the wheel of the Ford after reminding her to put the car in reverse and to keep the wheels straight.  I also told her to ease it out when she felt me pull on it.  I explained what would happen if she came out too fast.

I wasn’t surprised at all when the Sammy inched forward pulling the Ford along behind.  The Ford was helping a great deal, since Lori was gunning the engine.  I tried to top her but it was too late.  She popped out of the ditch with the engine revving.  She couldn’t stop it.  Just as I predicted the heavy Ford ran hard into the Samurai.  

I jumped from the Sammy, then ran back to her.  “What the fuck are you doing.  I told you not to rev the damn engine.”  I swear if she had been a man I would have popped her in the mouth.  I walked from her car disgustedly.  Yes I was mumbling something about stupid women drivers.  I probably mentioned her being in the ditch in the first place.  I am sure the ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ axiom was running through my mind if not out of my mouth.

The damage wasn’t as bad as it might have been.  The heavy ford was bent up some, but the thin metal of the Sammy absorbed most of the impact.  The bumper was fucked period.  The tailgate door was ruined.  When the ford stuck the spare tire, bolted onto the rear the tailgate, both of them bent severely.

“Damn it, I told you not to rev the fucking engine.  Look what you have done to my car.”

“Look, I’m sorry I will pay for it.”

“Damn right you will.  That is what I get for trying to help.  I should have minded my own damn business.”

“How about I just write you a check and you can be on your way.”  She acted as though that were all there was to it.

“Lady, I don’t know how far I am going to be driving or how much damage you did to my car.  I am not going a damn place till this is fixed.  I expect you to pay my expenses while they fix my damn car.”

“In that case fuck you mister, I will just call my insurance company and let them work it out with you.”

“Good plan.  If that is the same company that has the insurance on the delivery vehicles you are in for a real shock at how much this little mistake in judgement is going to cost you.”  I could help it I smiled.

She slowed down took a deep breath and gave it some thought then asked, “Okay, what is it you want.”

“I want what is right, lady.  I am not trying to hold you up no matter what your paranoia tells you.  I want my car like it was before I tried to do a good deed.  I want you to pick up all the expenses of me being here till it is. I don’t care how you do it.”

“Let me go dress, then we will work something out.”

“No way, first we get a police report in case I need to take you to trial for the money.  Then you go do whatever you need to do.”  

She nodded.  Obviously she had dealings with the cops before.  The young woman who came to write the accident report seemed to enjoy writing the report as dramatically as possible.  She even helped my case when she quoted the good Samaritan law in the state.  Loris was truly advised that she was responsible for the incident even though no criminal charges were brought.

“I am going to go get dressed now.  The office of where I work is on forth street.  The name of the company is Dillon Transfer.  Meet me there at ten.  If you want you can begin getting estimates on the repairs.”

I nodded.  “Check out time at the motel is one, they can’t fix this in a day.  Do you want me to check in again now or wait?”

“Find a shop first then we can decide.”  I almost mentioned the we thing, but decided to let it go for the time being.  My first stop was dropping off the chain.  I laid it neatly beside the door to the kitchen of the café.  I went back inside immediately to drink coffee and to find a body shop.  The recommendations were many, but the one that got mentioned twice by the regulars was close by.  Hell everything in Winslow was close bye.

“Damn the metal in these things is really thin.  The bend it like the cardboard in a box to stiffen it but hell, it is still paper thin.”

“So if this had been a jeep it wouldn’t cost as much to fix?” I asked it not really caring one way or another.  I didn’t have a jeep so it was as moot point.

“Hell, it would cost more.  This thing is gonna be all junkyard parts.  I would probably have to get real factory parts for a jeep.”  He began to walk around the Sammy with a clipboard and marking pen.  I noted it with the pleasurable thought that he would not be using a sharp pencil for the estimate.  I figured Miss Lori deserved it.  That is when I realized I that I was thinking like the locals.  Lori was an easy woman to dislike.

Dillon’s transport was located inside what had once been a service station.  Her dad might have actually used the building to service the vehicles but by the time I got there it was all offices and temporary storage.  The woman who met me at the door was much older than Lori.  She had a similar look but it was much softer.  She wasn’t quite old enough to be Lori’s mom.

“Hi, my name is Freddie Welch.  I have an estimate for Lori Dillon.”  I said it smiling my best smile.

She smiled back then shouted for all the world to hear, “Lori, that California cock sucker is here.”  She turned her smile to me and shrugged.

“Damn Lucille any chance I had to settle this amiably just went out the window.  Thanks one whole hell of a lot.”  Lori said that as she stepped through the door.  “Do you have the estimate?” she directed to me.

Instead of an answer I gave her the yellow copy of the estimate.  I was happy to watch her face turn white.  The man at the body shop did a number on her when he found out who it was.  Lori was not a popular woman in Winslow.

“I am sure as hell not gonna pay this.  The damn car will total out for 900 bucks.  I did some checking while you were gone.”

“It might if I were willing to accept that.  I am not.  I have receipts for a new motor and  transmission.  They will run you three grand.  You are not going to drop nine on me, not even nine and the junk.  If you want to do a court think I will just take your ass to small claims court.”

“What are you gonna live on while you sue me?”  She thought she had me and she would have if the phone hadn’t been handed to her by Lucille.  “Yes,” she snapped into it.  She listened then spoke again in a much nicer voice.  “I can’t get a pickup Mike, I don’t have a driver.”  She paused again then, “Come on Mike I need that contract you know I would if I could.”

I could have made up his side of the conversation from then on.  “It don’t matter none what your problems are I have to get this out.  I would like to help you but I can’t.  My guess is that was followed by some kind of ultimatum.  Lori handed the phone back.

“Well Freddie, the insurance is going to be the least of my problems.”  She turned her attention to Lucille.  “If I don’t get a truck to the transfer hub by noon we are finished.”  She turned back to me.  “See Freddie, you are out of luck all over today.  Nothing to get if you sue me but debts.”

I hated myself for it but I asked. “What kind of truck and what kind of load.”

“GMC 35foot bed with a sleeper.  Got some machine parts going to Billings Montana.”  Her look was more curious than anything.  

“Is that the truck outside?”  I asked it knowing that the repainted u-haul was indeed the one.

Lori nodded.

“Give me the damn keys.”  It was a demand she took only a moment to think about.  She didn’t even want to see my D.O.T. physical ticket.  I had one that I kept current but she didn’t care at that moment.  “This is twice I saved your ass today.”

“Freddie, I appreciate this I swear I do.”

“Just fix my car so I can get out of here.”  I said it even though I knew I wasn’t in a hurry.   I had no where to go anyway.

The drive north was miserable at first.  When I finally got off highway 191 and onto the interstate system it was much better.  I drove all night to get to Billings by noon the next day.  I used the company cell phone provided by Lucille to call the office.  Lucille directed me to the delivery point.  

“About damn time you got here,” the dock worker said.

“I did the best I could friend.”  I replied smiling up at him from the box I sat upon while his crew unloaded the truck.  I didn’t bother to explain that his company didn’t pay my ticket, or restore my driving record if I got stopped.  I just smiled at him.  I had long ago figured out that I would never see the jerk again so I just smile and let him think whatever he wanted to think.

There was a restaurant within a block so I parked the truck on his yard, then walked to have my first decent meal since the diner.  I ate way too much.  Enough so that I was a zombie from lack of sleep when I left the restaurant.  When I left the yard I was way past able to drive again.  I found a rest stop and even though it was daylight I unpacked the sleeping bag.  With the truck empty I managed to stretch out in the covered van.  The sleeping bag was warm and the pad made it almost bearable.  It didn’t matter I could have slept on a piece of plywood, which is pretty close to what I did.

It was pretty close to the five o’clock sunset when I awoke.  The three hours sleep got me on down the line but not to Winslow.  I stopped, in a rest stop, just long enough to cram in four more hours sleep, it was somewhere before I left the interstate system.  The drive was miserable enough to remind me why I had chosen to stop driving trucks.  I had never driven the so called big rigs but I had driven them the size of the one I was pushing that night.

When I pulled into the Dillon Transport yard I was feeling about as spaced out as I dared be while still behind the wheel.  I found the Sammy before I realized I had no where to go.  Getting into the yard had been by means of a key on the ring which held the truck’s ignition key.  On a hunch I tried the others and found one for the office door.  The office I remembered ha a sofa.  I slept fitfully that night on the sofa wrapped in the heavy duty sleeping bag.

The smell of coffee brought me back from the dead.  “Thought the coffee might get your ass moving.”  It was Lucille who spoke to me.  

“We the only ones here?”  I asked it trying to get the awful taste from my mouth.  It had been three days since I brushed my teeth.

“Yep what you got in mind?”

“A shower and my tooth brush,” I replied.

“If you got your stuff, there is a bathroom with a shower in the shop.  Won’t be nobody to bother you for at least an hour.”

The shower was a rusty steel cabinet.  It wasn’t really dirt as much as mill dew that dotted the walls.  I figured I was gonna have something by the time I finished.  Not only did I get clean, I also got reasonably good smelling breath and body.  Not being a smoker meant it would last a while.  At least till the next spicy food did a number on me.

I poured a cup of coffee from the office pot without asking.  The cup I used said, ‘Boss’.  Hell, I figured she owed me.  Lucille grinned at me while I drank the slightly weak coffee.  It was coffee made for a woman’s taste.  I reached into my pocket for a cigarette that hadn’t been there in three years.  Every now and again I did that.  

I was thinking about driving my Sammy to the diner when Lori staggered through the door.  Lori looked more than a little hung over.  I knew the look all too well.  It was something between nausea and being dead tired.  Her hair was almost right but one spot in the rear she had missed completely. That spot betrayed her shaking hands.  Lori looked at the coffee cup in my hands then at me.  The look she cast on me could have been murderous if she had been in less of a muddled mind.

While she watched me angrily, I turned the coffee cup up, finished the last drop, then handed it to her.  She took it without a word as she walked to the to the shop.  I presumed she intended to wash the cup before she used it.

“She always like this?”  I asked it of her aunt Lucille.

“Since she come home from New York City.”

“Anybody else in her family drink serious?”

“Daddy was fifty when he died from liver trouble.”  It was enough of an answer for me.  Lori was definitely in trouble but it was nothing to me.

“You gonna cut me a check for the billings run?”  I asked it of Lucille when Lori came into the office.  Lori looked up at Lucille then nodded.  I didn’t smile though I wanted to.  “How about the repair estimate?”

“Friend of mine came by to look at it.”  I watched as Lori began to waver.  I reached to catch her but she braced herself on the counter.  She took a drink from the coffee cup.  After she composed herself she went on, “He is gonna fix it for you.”

“You mean he is gonna fix it for you.  Hey I don’t care as long as he does it right.”

“I need to talk to you about that but not right now.  I don’t feel very good.  It must be the flu.”

I looked at Lucille neither of us smiled.  “Fine you gonna foot the bill for my motel and food?”

“We need to talk about that too.  How about you go to breakfast and come back around ten.  I will probably feel better by then.”

“Sure, why not?”  I looked as disgusted as I felt with her.

The food in the café was very good.  It had to do in a large part with my not looking forward to getting back into the truck after.  I could eat with no rush at all.  As a matter of fact, I needed to kill a couple of hours.  I did it by walking through the closed stores of Winslow.  The walking tour took only a few minutes.  Like most downtown sections Winslow was a contradiction.  Rundown building within sight of a renewal area.

Ten found me back at the office ready for the meeting.  “Hey Lucille, is the boss ready?”  I asked it in a quiet conspiratorial voice.

“Yeah, she is fine Freddie.  You don’t mind me calling you Freddie, do you?”

“Why would I? It is my name.  Everyone calls me that, not sure I have ever been called Mr. Welch.  Maybe at the doctor’s office.”

“Hold on Freddie, I will get her.”  With that Lucille went into Lori’s office closing the door behind her.  I was surprised by the closed door and the ten minutes they consulted before Lucille returned.  “Go on in Freddie.”  Lucille actually smiled at me.  It was a real smile,not the office manager smile, I had gotten before.

“So, you got my check ready yet?”  I asked it without any warmth.  It was business and worse yet business with a drunk.

“Let me explain a couple of things first.”  I nodded.  “You only had one estimate so while you were gone I had a second one done.  The estimate I got was for half the one you had.  It is what I am willing to pay you.”

“The estimate you got wouldn’t happen to be from an old drinking buddy would it?”  I asked it just as nasty as I could.

“Here is the check, take it or leave it.”  I looked at the nine hundred dollar check then turned to the door without touching it.

“I will see you in court, Miss Dillon.”  

I got as far as the door before she said, “What are you trying to do hold me up?”

“No, I am trying to get my car fixed.  If I take that, I got no guarantee your boyfriend will actually do the work for that amount. I would rather go with the guy I know you don’t know.”

“You think I am trying to cheat you?”

“All I know is that you wont pay the legitimate estimate I have.  I think that speaks volumes.”

“Where is the compromise here?” Lucille asked.  She obviously was used to double teaming the customers and employees.  It was so quick that I knew it was a setup.

“Look I want my car fixed.  You get it fixed to my satisfaction and pay my expenses while I wait and I don’t give a crap who does it.”

“That sounds fair to me Lori.  You did wreck his car after all and he did do that Billings run you couldn’t get covered.”

“Well, I never meant to cheat anyone nor do I intend to be cheated.  You take the car to my guy and leave it.  He will fix it then you inspect it.  If you are satisfied, I will pay him direct whatever it costs.”

“How about my living costs while I wait.”  I didn’t know how long it would take.  Since the first man had informed me it would be done with junk yard parts, I wasn’t expecting a quick fix.

“Now that is a problem.  If Bobby can’t find the parts locally, it could take a while.”

“So, that is why you wanted to settle it for peanuts.  You didn’t want to foot the motel bill.  You planned to leave me screwed.  I got to hand it to you it was a good plan.”

“Truthfully I figured you would take the car to where you were going to have it fixed then nobody would have to pay a motel bill.  It is drive able you know.”

“Yes and I would be two thousand miles away should they find some hidden damage not covered by the nine bucks.  You are a piece of work Lori.”

“Okay since it will only be a couple of days at the most you can stay at my place.”

“No offense but I don’t much like the sound of that.”  I said it to what must have been a shock for both of them.

“Don’t worry you won’t be.  My dad built me an apartment over the garage.  You can stay in it till the car is fixed.”

“How about loaning me a car while it is in the shop.  I don’t think I want to be stranded for what could be several days.”

“This is not a car rental agency.  I don’t have a car that you can drive.”

“Lori, we have the old Ford van.  He can drive it.  He did seem to do okay with the Jimmy.”  Lucille said it again too quick.

“What are we going to do about local pick ups, Lucille?  You know we use that van locally.”

“We shouldn’t have any for the next day or so.  If we do, we can give Freddie a beeper and a map.  He can take care of it for us.  I am sure that since he don’t know nobody, he can find the time.”  

I knew right then what the ten minutes had been about.  It seemed that Lori was going to recoup at least some of her money.  I smiled showing Lucille that I understood, then I said, “Fifty-five percent of the haul and I see the invoice.  I want to be paid at the end of the day, since I will be leaving town on short notice.

“You are so paranoid, how do you survive in LA?”  

Lori didn’t really expect an answer, I did it anyway.  I couldn’t help myself.  “That is exactly why I managed to survive in the dream.”

“Since it is unlikely that you will be driving for me, I can agree to that.”  She nodded to Lucille who handed me the keys and beeper.  I didn’t care at all for her smile.  “Leave your car key with Lucille, Bobby will come by for the car tomorrow.  In the meantime go to the house and unload your things.”  With those works Lori handed me a key that she ‘just happened to have in her purse’.

“On the way to her house I stopped long enough to look up a phone number.  I made the call from my cell phone.  It was the one I had upgraded to a call anywhere, from anywhere, at no additional charge kind of phone.  The local call would go against the expensive minutes in the call plan, but hell I was only on the phone a couple of minutes to get an address.  

I was surprised how quickly I got the car unloaded.  I had been less than trusting of Lori’s friend, so I put everything inside her garage.  “Since it was a one bay garage, I had a feeling the apartment was no more than a small room, .even a two bay would have been small.

I carried my travel bag and the clothes which I had left on hangers up the outside stairs.  The room was as small as I expected.  Given the fact that it had a tiny bathroom stick in a rear corner it was pretty small.  I was a little surprised at the finish of the place.  It had been built like the cabin on a small boat. At least as how I imagined one to be.  There were drawers under the bed.  The bed was high enough for there to be two layers of large drawers.  On testing the mattress I found it to be an inner spring thing laid on the top of the drawers below.

The roof was barn-shaped so the walls went up four-feet then angled to the ridge line.  The bathroom was tucked in the low walled corner but extended out enough to allow for a stand up shower.  The bathroom might have come from a boat or a camper.  The toilet was low and sat against the short sidewall and the shower stall another metal cabinet stood against the taller portion of the wall against the end wall section.

The quick look is all I cared to give the place.  I need to get the Sammy back to the truck company lot.  I would be driving a long wheel based ford econovan home.  It was a monster but unlike Lori I was sober.  I wouldn’t run it into the ditch.  At least I hoped not.

Picking up the van put me in the office shortly after 4pm.  I hoped to just pick it up and be gone.  I was forced to go in to drop off the Sammy keys for Lori’s body man.  I meant to drop off the key then swing by the dog house for some take out.  I had spotted it on the return drive to Lori’s house.

“Come here a second,” Lucille demanded as she walked to the hallway between the office and the one mechanic’s bay in the rear.  The one bay I presumed was for light repairs and the regular oil changes.  “Freddie, do me a favor, will you?”  She asked it then went on before I could answer.

“I don’t want Lori driving.  Would you take her home?”

“Sure, but I have to make a stop on the way.  She might not want to tag along.”

“She knows she has no choice if she wants to get home anytime soon.  I won’t be leaving till around seven.”

Lori looked just fine as she came from the office.  Well, she would have looked fine to anyone else.  I knew what to look for.   I watched her walk through the office without speaking.  She walked across the parking lot on legs just the slightest bit unsteady.  I knew no one else would have even noticed.  I could tell that Lori was well on her way to being in the bag.  

I helped her into the passenger side of the tall van.  When I got in, I locked the doors as a precaution.  “Lori, we have to make a stop on the way home, it is going to take a few minutes.”

“Can’t you take me home first?” It wasn’t really a question it was more of a demand and I recognized it.

“No I am afraid not.  I can’t afford to be late.  Don’t worry I won’t force you to come in.”

“In where, you don’t know anyone here?”

“Actually I do.  You’ll see.”  There was no mystery to it. I carried her to a small recreation center housed in a metal building.  The building had a basketball court, with three meeting rooms tacked onto one side of it.  In one of the rooms a class in knot tying was being held the center room was empty while the third held my friends.  We were all friends of Bill’s.  A common code for alcoholics in the program.  The program being Alcoholics Anonymous.  I wasn’t in desperate need of the meeting.  Oh there were times when I had reached the meetings only because it geographically came before the liquor store.  If the liquor store had been first,  I honestly don’t know if I would have made the meeting.

“What are we doing here?  You surely are not going to play basketball?”  Lori asked it as we walked into the gym.  I spotted the meeting room by the look of the men standing outside the good with paper cups of coffee.

“No I am going over there.  Now you can stay her if you want, but I am going to a meeting.”  I turned my back on her.  She knew what kind of meeting it was and if she didn’t all she had to do was follow.  I didn’t look back.  She would come in or not it was her call.  No drunk ever got cured by anyone else.

I shook hands with men who owned soft hands and men with grease under their nails.  Women in dresses that cost as much as some of the cars I had driven as well as with women in Wal-Mart chic.  There were a couple of dozen people, it was a large meeting for early afternoon.

The man in the three-piece suit began with, “Hi I’m George and I’m an Alcoholic” line.  Everyone said hi George.  I held out and didn’t speak.  I was prompted to speak only because Lori was leaning against the back wall. She looked as though she was going to crawl out of her skin.

When George called for anyone who wished to speak I walked to the front.  “Hi. I’m Freddie and I am an alcoholic.”  I didn’t wait.  “I have been sober five years now and I still want a drink every day.”  I heard the mummers.  “And every day I ask God to help me make it one more time.  I lost a promising career to alcohol.  I was a writer one day, a drunk the next, then a sober drunk who couldn’t find any way to write garbage.  I don’t know how to say what I want to say not yet anyway.  The one thing I do know is booze will not make it easier to write.  Booze made it easier to fail as a writer though so now I drive for a living while I try to get it all straight in my head.  God willing, one day I will figure it out and I will be sober on that day.”  I sat down without another word.  There was the customary recognition that I had done the right thing.

I sat through the stories a lot worse than mine, then I collected Lori.  I had her in the van before she said a word.  “You know you really are a bastard.”

“I am, but why this time.”

“You took me there because you think I am an alcoholic.”

“No dear, I took you there because you are a drunk.  I don’t know if you are an alcoholic or not but I know you are a drunk.”

“Bullshit, you don’t know anything.”

“How many times have you been pulled from that ditch?”

“That doesn’t mean anything.  That ditch is .....” she let the sentence end incomplete.

“How many times do you think your mom and dad had to be pulled from it.  You are just damn lucky to have a driver’s license at all.”

She was quiet a few minutes then asked, “Did you lose yours?”

“No, I lost everything else but not that.  I was even luckier than you.”

“So why did you drink?”  She seemed to have a genuine interest but I knew better.  She really wanted to find a weakness to probe.

“I drank to fail.”  That one must have confused her or maybe it just struck a chord.

“So that when you failed, you could blame it on the whisky?”

“More even, I drank because I knew I wasn’t good enough and the booze was not just a crutch but a handy excuse to hide why I really failed.”

“Well, I am not that kind of drinker.  I drink because I like the effect no matter what you say.  It helps me to relax and sleep at night.”

“So does sex, do you screw ten times a day so you can sleep at night?”  I asked it and was sorry that I did.  She drew back her arm as if to slap me.  However she did it slowly enough so that it was obvious to everyone looking that she wanted me to stop her.  I caught her arm on the forward swing. It was interesting to see that she wasn’t in the least off balance.  She probably would have fallen, if I had allowed her to swing, then simply stepped back.  She was definitely expecting me to stop her.

“You are making a scene lady,” I said with a grin.  I enjoyed her discomfort.  It was perverse I know, but I did.

“Take me home you son of a bitch,” Lori said.

“That is the best idea you had all day.”

“Don’t be a smart ass Welch, just drive me home.”

The drive to her place was boring since she did not say another word to me.  Lori was in a foul mood it seemed.  I could remember my life as a drunk.  I  knew she had already lost interest in, if she could even remember, the argument.  Drunks either have very long memories or almost none at all.  They either never forgive you or just are to out of it to be offended at all.

Leaving Lori in the house was easy.  I had about all of her I could stand.  Trying to help a drunk was one thing, but putting up them on a hour by hour basis was quite another.  That much I knew from the dream.  It seemed like three fourths of the people in the dream were on one thing or another.  Higher sense of awareness my ass, it had to do with dulling the sense of rejection.  When you have ten thousand jobs and a hundred thousand people looking for them, it is easy to figure that most are going to get a of experience dealing with rejection.  That might or might not be Lori's problem but escape into booze was a learned response.  That much even I knew.  Whatever the reason I did not want to deal with Lori anymore that night.

I climbed the outside stairs leading to the tiny apartment.  The first thing I did was to open the faucet on the sink to get a glass of water.  At first I was surprised to find the sink dry.  Then after a second to reflect, I realized that the water would be off to prevent burst pipes.   I suppose the fact that the apartment was freezing gave me the clue.  

I looked for first the heat source, which turned out to be a Franklin gas fireplace.  The apartment was small enough so that the fireplace would do a first rate job heating it.  The fireplace was old enough so that there was no automatic ignition.  I determined that by reading the directions.   That being the case I searched for a match.  I found them in a kitchen cabinet, at the same time I noted that the cook op was gas.   It was also the vintage of the fireplace.  It seemed that everything had been installed long before Lori would have needed the place.  I didn't give that anymore thought as I set about heating my little home away from home.

With the fireplace roaring my mind turned to first water then food.  I looked in vain for the water valve.  I went into the garage below where I found the valve minus the handle.  It looked as thought a wrench would be needed to turn the valve.  I was just bout to go to my toolbox for one when I noticed the round handle on the cross brace in a wall stud.  Turning the water on was simple a that point.  

Since I was already outside the apartment and dress in my fleece lined bomber jacket, I climbed into the van's driver position, then took it to a grocery store.  I didn't think I would be over Lori's garage long so I bought a couple of frozen dinners and a box of breakfast sandwiches.  I also bought a pound of coffee and a small box of coffee filters.  I was headed to the checkout counter when I passed the Coke display.  I tossed a couple of their largest bottles into the basket.  I figured the fifteen bucks was a good deal, since I would spend at least that much on one meal at a diner.

I was in bed by nine that evening.  I slept like the proverbial dead.  I might not have woke up till noon if Lucille hadn't called.  

"Freddie, I wouldn't call you but I got nobody else.  Could you run by Samuel's junkyard out of Silverstream road and pick up an engine.  It goes to Luther's garage over on forth street."

"What is my end of the trip?"  I asked it just to make sure she remembered our deal.

"Twenty-five."  It definitely wasn't  much, but then I wasn't paying anything to live at that moment either.

"I don't touch the engine for the twenty-five.  I will chauffeur it around for that but I sure as hell ain't loading it."

"I understand.  Nobody expects you to lift and engine Freddie.  I am pretty sure you couldn't anyway."  Lucille's laugh was very unladylike.

Thirty minutes later , I pulled the Econo panel truck into the junkyard parking lot.  As Lucille had promised you couldn't miss it.  It was an almost teenager who met me at the office.

"I'm from Dillon Transport here to pick up an engine for Luther's Garage."

"Well, I can get someone to load you in about thirty minutes."  The kid's words in and of themselves, might have upset me.  His attitude definitely did.  He obviously planned to sit and watch the small television on his desk while I cooled my heels.

"Tell you what kid, why don't you just call me when you get it ready to go.  I don't know who is paying this bill but I am gonna bill them for the wasted trip."

"Just hang loose man, we will load you out when we can."

"Kid, they might pay you to watch TV, but they don't pay me.  I am sure as hell not gonna sit here waiting.  I will just bill your dad for the wasted trip."  I had guess correctly that he was the son of the owner.  Who the hell else would watch TV on company time.

"Daddy, ain't gonna pay."  The kid said it with that smart assed attitude that only youth can get away with.

"Then kid to save twenty bucks he is gonna sit in small claims court for a day while I sue his ass off."  I grinned at him as I turned to the door.

"Hold on Mister, I will get the truck and bring it around."

"Don't try to stall me kid.  You better be at the back of my truck in ten minutes or I am out of here."  The kid was there in eight.  He also had a V8 engine hanging from the hoist on the rear of the old pickup.  The pickup smoked so badly I wasn’t sure it would make the final ten feet to the rear cargo door of the van.   

The drive to the garage was short.  I found the older man who seemed to be in charge working on a Ford Police cruiser.  I learned later that his little garage did the oil changes and minor repairs.   

“Hello there,”  I said as I stood in his doorway.

“Howdy, what can I do for you?”  The clean shaven gray haired man asked.

“Well, if you could get this motor out of my truck, I would appreciate it.”  I smiled as I spoke.

“Oh, you got the engine for Wilson’s Merc?”  

“If you ordered it from Samuel’s Salvage Yard, then it is what I have.”  I smiled at the older man.

“That’s it let me get Sonny and we will get it out of there.”  

Not only did he bring Sonny out, he brought a Cherry Picker.  Hooking the engine then swinging it out was a simple chore.  It did leave an oil spot in the van.  The old man loaned me some oil absorber and a broom.  In just minutes the Van was clean.  It did however smell of motor oil and gasoline for a while.

When I arrived at Dillon’s office, Lucile wrote me a check for my share of the fee.  I drove home to work on my laptop.  I managed to write a few pages before Lori was knocking on the door.  She was standing in the cold and I was tempted to leave her there.  Instead I opened the door which proved to be a mistake.

“Damn it I had old man Samuel on the phone for ten minutes.  He chewed my ass out royally.  Did you really threaten to sue him?”

“Well good to see you too.  You bet your ass I threatened to sue them.  That damn kid of his wanted to watch TV while I cooled my heels in the office.  I am not going to sit around waiting without being paid.”

“I am surprised you got away with a bluff like that.”

“What the hell makes you think it was a bluff.  I told the kid we were going to bill him for keeping us waiting.  I was dead serious I planned to bill somebody and if he refused to pay, I planned to sue his ass off.”

“You didn’t have much chance of winning.”  Lori looked more curious than angry by that time.

“Yes but let me tell you something.  No businessman wants to spend a day in court over twenty-five bucks.  It is a legitimate charge.  He would have paid and the kid knew his dad was gonna be pissed so he loaded me up.”

“You should have checked with me first.”  Lori was trying to be the boss.  It didn’t seem to suit her all that well.

“Well, you can tell him I am just passing through.   If you are really bothered, you could always fix my car and send me on my way.

“I am trying Freddie.”

“So what is the word?”

“Come on Freddie, he has had that piece of crap only one day.  Give him a chance will you?”

I gave him a chance okay.  I gave him all that day and the next as well.  I swung by on my way to the airport to deliver a couple of boxes of some kind of hybrid seed grain.  The label told me it was headed for Mexico.  Well at least it was super secret computer parts.

“So how is the blue Samurai coming?”  I asked it at the body shop where my car had been taken.

“Is that thing yours?”  I simply nodded.  “Well, I run into a lot more than I expected.  Tell Lori that we are gonna have to renegotiate the price.”

“So, you are not going to have it finished tomorrow?”  I asked it with a large portion of sarcasm lacing my speech.

“Not much chance I can have it finished this week.”

“Terrific,” I observed as I turned to the door.  Once outside I was pretty disappointed but then again not as much as I should have been.  I guessed that it was because it was a pretty nice apartment and I wasn’t going to go hungry.  The town was small and I already felt as though I knew half of it from the one small diner.  It could have been that I adapted to small town life way too easy.  If that was the case, I had truly wasted ten years of my life.  

It was more likely that I was trying to get into Lori’s pants.  She did kind of, owe me.  Then again she was a drunk.  Anything more than a roll in the hay was out of the question.  Love affairs with drunks are almost impossible to maintain.  They are absolutely impossible for an alcoholic to maintain.  On second thought I couldn’t even sleep with her the thought of dealing with a drunk was just too depressing.  

I could sober her up first, I thought as I walked to the van.  I left the body shop for the airport in the early afternoon.  When I finished at the airport, I drove back to the office.  I passed a big black Mercedes pulling out of the company parking lot.

“Hey Lucille,” I said it before I looked around inside the office.  Lucille was in tears as she picked up papers and personal things from the floor.   “What the hell is all this?”

“Long story Freddie, you don’t want to get involved.”

“Try me after all until I get my car fixed I am involved in this place.”  I have a feeling I already knew.  Not the details, just the broad strokes.

“It isn’t my place to tell it.”

“Sure it is Lucille.  You don’t think Lori can tell it, do you?  Come on, spill it.”

“There were some debts when Lori took over and some taxes to be paid.  It looked as though she might have to sell the place.  One of the local businessmen offered to make her a loan.  She secured it with a chunk of the business.  She is behind in the loan and wants his money.”

“Did he do this?”  I asked it looking at the minor damage.  If he did, then he isn’t much of a strong arm loan shark, I thought


“No one of his employees came over.  Lori lost her temper and he lost his.  My desk seemed to take the worst of his frustrations.”

“I can see that.  So how bad is it?”

“Oh, she will come up with it, She always does.”

“Lucille, it is just a matter of time, until the booze gets her.  She will be so soft headed she won’t even remember the loan.  This place is as good as gone.”  I gave it a lot of thought before I went on.  “By the way, what kind of banker has his collection department, do a thing like this?”  I waved my arms about.

“He is no banker.  He just showed up one day as owner of the old Lewis place.  I thought he loaned Lori the money to score with her.  You know she is a pretty young thing.”

“Does he want the company then?”

“No, he doesn’t seem to want Lori or the company.  It looks as though he wants the money plus the high interest.”

“He is telling her to sell the company to pay him.  He is even threatening her.”

“And what exactly is she doing about it?”

“She is afraid to call the police.  Anderson warned her not to do that.  If she does, he will just call his high-priced lawyer and force her into bankruptcy.”

“That is what he can, and should do.  If all he wants is his money.  So, he must want something else.”  I gave it some thought.  Lori was a fairly good looking woman.  Probably very good looking if she was sober and fixed up.  He could be after her on a personal basis but why the semi rough stuff.  It didn’t figure to be the way to get her into his bed.  Well it might be but she probably wouldn’t be much fun.  

I don’t really know why it struck me but it did.  It hit me like a lot of revaluations do.  It probably came from the years as a hack in the dream.  I have tried writing about everything under the sun.  If I met some new king of twisted soul at a party, he or she was featured in a story the next day.

Anderson’s actions reminded me of a freak producer I met at one of those cast parties.   I was there as a friend of a friend.  It is how you sold scripts they tell me.  I never had much luck at it, but then hell I never was much of a social animal either.  The producer could easily have any starlet he wanted.  Well not any, but there was a large pool of them.  Starlets without enough talent and some with plenty of talent made their way to producers beds regularly.

The thing that made that producer different was that he liked to beat the women down first.  He had to have them come begging for him.  If not to have sex, then at least to beg for something.  My guess is he had them doing a lot of things they swore they would never do.  Watching Lucille clean the mess, that producer flashed in my mind.  To prove it I would have to speak candidly with Lori. Then so what if I proved it, what would I do about it.  Even if I could fix it what did I care.  Lori was just another drunken business person.  There were thousands if not millions of them.

I shook my head before I asked, “Where is Lori?”

“Locked in here office with a bottle of course,” Lucille replied angrily.

I nodded, since I didn’t trust myself to speak.  Her door was locked so I knocked.

“Go away,” Lori had no idea who it might be so the, go away was generic.

“It is me, Freddie open up.”

“I don’t want to talk to anyone especially you got the fuck away.”

“Can you afford a new door?  If you can fine, cause I am going to kick this one in.”  I listened closely for the scraping of a chair.  I heard none.  I am not a believer in bluffs, so I kicked her door.  It swung open with a bang as it struck her book case behind it.

“What the fuck are you doing?”  Her choice of words betrayed just how upset she was.

“I was going to try to help before you became so abusive.”

“Unless you have fifty thousand dollars you can’t help me/”

“The money isn’t want you need.  What you need is to toss that bottle and come with me.”

“Do you mean AA will cure what ails me.”  She gave me a very nasty laugh.

“AA doesn’t cure you.  That you do yourself.  AA is like a tool in the hands of a carpenter.  The first few days or weeks he is just trying to figure it out.  One day somewhere down the line he begins to understand how it works.  He still has to watch the new guys try to make it fit them for a while.  He can’t just explain it to them.  So, I am not going to waste their time till you are ready to go willingly.  I am going to dry you out though and then together we are going to save this place.”

“Why are you going to do this?  You can tell I am not very trusting.”

“Come on, you are going to take the tour.”  I pulled her from the desk.  She didn’t even resist.  She had been drinking plus she was desperate, so she followed like a puppy.  It looked as though Anderson was on the verge of a victory.

I led her to the time clock.  Beside it in a holder rested the cards representing eleven men and women.  “Those cards are people.  Some of those people are retired.  They will have a hard time finding anything else.  Your Aunt Lucille is there too.  Now you want to trash all of them for the sake of that liquor bottle?”   I waited but she didn’t answer.  She even looked defiant.

“You are a piece of work you know that?  You are going to sell all of them out because you are a weak person.”

“No I am going to give Anderson what he wants.  He just wants what all men want.”

“Bullshit, if he just wanted a piece of ass, he wouldn’t have paid forty grand for it.  He wants you to crawl to him so he can humiliate you for a while.  You think you have problems now, when the asshole finishes with you, you will hate your own image in the mirror.”

“How do you know so much?”  It wasn’t a pleasant look, that she thrust upon me.

“Trust me I know the type.  He is going to make you crawl and beg for him to use you.  Then when he has enough, he will toss you out and take this business anyway.  Because you won’t be able to run it in the drunken state he is going to keep you in.” I watched as it all come to her.  She hadn’t been able to see past being forced to go to him.  She hadn’t let herself think about how it would be.  The booze and the emotional impact hit her all at once.

“What can I do?  Like you said, if I resist he will shut me down.  Then I and these people will have nothing.”

“You are going to get clean, then we are going to work this out.”

“I can’t get clean.  I have tried.  I am just not strong enough.”  Tears and sniffles did not make it easier for me to see.  If I hadn’t seen it a hundred times, I might have been impressed.  “The one thing you have to do is ask for help.  You have to ask for and accept help.  You do that and I can help you get clean.”

“So you want me to beg too?”  The words were spiteful.

“You know where I will be.  If you want to clean up and beat this prick, you can do it.  You just have to want it.”  She didn’t try to stop me as I left the office.  I had her insurance company’s name and I had the police report.  I could get the car repaired so I couldn’t fool myself into thinking that I was doing it for that reason.  Lori had lost her sex appeal once I knew she was willing to sleep with Anderson.  That amounted to prostitution.  What she didn’t want to do was to beg.  That at least was a point for her.  The bit about destroying her, then taking the business was a fact.  I didn’t know Anderson, but I knew the type.  Screwing her wouldn’t be enough, he had to completely break her.  When he grew tired of her, he would toss her out.  It was a story as old as the dream itself.  This one looked as though he wanted to make sure she had nothing to go back to when he was finished with her.

I sat reading a book from the second hand store while I waited.  I had no idea what Lori would decide and I had about lost interest.  The others at her courier company really meant nothing much to me.  The chair was comfortable enough and I did want to sleep but I fought it.  I was about to give up for an early to the bed kind of thing when the knock came on the door.

“Hello Lori come in,” I didn’t need to be reminded that it was her place.

“Before I sign on for the trip, tell me why you are doing it.”  Lori rightly seemed skeptical.

“For the employees?”  It was a question and she knew it.

“I don’t believe it.  You don’t care about anyone else.”

“If that were true, I would just call your insurance company file and claim and be out of her in a few days.  No, like it or not I am involved in your life now.  You have to decide what you want Lori.  I can file that insurance claim and be out of it instantly.  Just tell me what you want.”

“I know I drink too much.  I guess I need to cut back.”  She looked at me hopefully.

“Well, I can be out of here in the morning and back into the Motel.  I do wish you luck with Anderson.”  I returned to the chair where I opened the book.  I had dismissed her, more or less.

“Do you want me to beg too?”  She was on the verge of tears.

“No, I want you to be honest.  You know it isn’t that you drink a little too much now and then.  You know what you are and what you need to do to get your life in order.  If you want I can help you with that.  The other will fall into place.”

“He is going to foreclose next week.”  She had tears in her eyes.

“No, he isn’t.  He is going to keep threatening you as long as you appear vulnerable to them.  The reason is simple.  Once he does the actual foreclosure, he has no more power over you.”

“If I quit drinking, won’t he just foreclose anyway.”

“It isn’t you drunk that he wants Lori, it is you on your knees.  He has to have you submissive to his every desire, to be whatever he wants you to be.  So, the short answer is no.  He will continue trying to beat you into submission.”

“What if you are wrong?”

“You mean to tell me you think that by giving in to him he will let you keep the company.  In effect give you 40k to be his part time toy.  Oh no hon.  He is gonna want you to be his full time toy until he tires of you.  The business is history the second you go to him.”

“So what do I do?  I am going to lose it either way.”

“There is a way to save it all.  The problem is you will just lose that as well.  You have to clean up and stay clean to keep it.”

“If you know how to save this what difference does my drinking make?”

“That is my condition for making this go away.  You put down the bottle right now.  If I smell liquor or see it around you then this is over.  You lose it all and become his toy.  He will be the only game in town if you lose this business.”

“So I quit drinking till you leave town.  I can do that.”

“You are a trip lady.  You just stood there and told me you were not going to clean up just pretend to clean up.  Go on back to your house, I will file the insurance tomorrow and be gone by noon.”

She was angry, but she was also desperate.  “Okay, I promise to quit.”  She smiled at me.

“Well sweetie, you are going to have to go to the meetings.  I mean at least one a day, Probably two.  You are going to have to work the program, and I mean seriously work it.  That is your job for the next couple of weeks.  I will take care of the rest.”

“Okay Freddie, I will give it a try.”  She looked skeptical but also frightened.

“Do more than that, and by the way who is your lawyer.”  She gave me a name after I refused to explain my plan.  I knew better than to expect a drunk to keep a secret.  

For the next two weeks things were pretty stupid.  Lori grudgingly went to meetings, I worked on a business plan based pretty much on what most of the taxi companies were doing.  My samurai sat in the same place day after day while the shop awaited parts.  Interspersed with all the minor activities I drove one or another of the company trucks.  Most of the runs were trips nobody else wanted to take.  I couldn’t blame them.  The company didn’t pay for the  night’s sleep down.  They expected the driver to come right back, even if the trip ended at two a.m.

Things began popping with the arrival of the collector.  I had been expecting him.  He went first to see Lori.  I could hear their voices through the door.

“I told you I don’t have the money but I expect to have it soon.  Tell Raymond I will get it to him within a month.”

“That is what you said last month.  Either pay up or the boss is going to start attaching your assets.  You can’t do much business without any trucks.”

I moved to stand by the door.  He more or less passed me on his way out.  He raked his hand over the counter.  In doing so he dragged everything onto the floor.

“Excuse me friend,” I said it pleasantly.  “I think you need to pick those things up.”

“Why should I?”  He was really not a good judge of character.  Evidently he was a truly bad guy in his pond.

“Because it is the right thing to do?”

“And if I don’t?”  He was smirking at me.  I suppose he had a big reputation in the small town.  The problem was, nobody had bothered to tell me.

“Then I am going to have to call your boss.”  He smiled, no doubt thinking I was a jerk.  “And tell him to send someone over to carry you to the hospital.”

“Oh really,” He was fuming because everyone in the office was waiting to see what would happen.  He strode to me to make some kind of tough guy remark.  Just as he got in range I stepped forward and sucker punching him to the larynx.  He went down like a stone.  He was totally out of air.  “You know friend, if I had hit you just a little harder you would be dead now.

He was still gasping for air while I watched him flop.  “Now stay calm and your breathing will get better quicker.”  He was still gasping when I pulled a chair up beside him.   I had been kind enough to lean him against the counter.  He looked pretty blue but was getting his wind back.  I knew from being on the other side of that shot in the throat, that he wouldn’t be in a hurry to come back for more.  At least for a day or two I would be safe.   “You about ready to pick up that trash?”

He looked at me with disbelieving eyes.  “Surely you don’t think that little shot nullifies your responsibility for your actions.  Tell your boss, I said that this matter will be resolved  in three weeks.  In the meantime don’t come back here again.  If you do, I won’t be so understanding.”

“Holy shit Freddie, where did you lean that?”  Lucille asked it with admiration in her voice.

“Misspent youth,” I said as I returned to my desk near Lucille.

“The problem is I can’t have his money in three weeks.  I don’t plan for you to have it.  Like all those control freaks he never thought you could out think him.”

“And how did I do that?”

“The government can take your house for taxes, but the courts will not take it to settle a debt.  He will put a lean on it.  Someday when you sell, you will have to settle with Anderson but he saved it for you.  Not only that, he didn’t put a second mortage on the house.  You are going to declare bankruptcy, it will save your personal property.”

“What about the business?”  

The business is gone.  What we are going to do in the next three weeks is make damn sure he doesn’t get much for his Effort.  You are going to do what almost all the taxi companies in the country have done.  You are going to sell the rolling stock to the drivers, then put them all on contract.  When Anderson takes over he gets nothing but the name.  You spend the three weeks changing them over to a different company, my company.

“So I am just trading Anderson for you.”

“Here is the deal Lori.”  I opened a cardboard folder then placed the several pages of documents on the desk in front of her. “Read them carefully.  If you want, you can take them to your attorney.  In the end you will see that it is your only choice.”

I sat quietly while she read.  “You are going to let me run the place for 90% of the profit.”  She smiled at me.

“There are some conditions.  You cannot borrow any money without my signature as owner and I promise you I will not sign.  You must take a drug test every month.  If you fail just one of them, you are gone.  I do not intend to lose my good credit because you are a lush.  You are not indispensable to this company.  Lucille has been running it while you drank yourself to death so it is your choice.”  There really was no choice for her.

“So do I ever get it back?”  Lori asked it not seeming to get the significance of all the provisions.

“You stay clean till the bankruptcy ends and I will sell it to you for one dollar or whatever it takes to make it legal.”

“If I fail a drug test?”  She seemed finally to get that part of it.

“One failure and you are gone.  Don’t think you can fool me Lori.  I will be checking and I will be in contact with the testing company.  If you try any funny stuff, it is the same as a failure.  Read the contract carefully cause I will cut you absolutely no slack.  I am not going to deal with an active drinker.”

“So, I stay clean for seven years.”  She didn’t look upset enough.  She had a scheme in the back of her mind most drunks were cunning.  Then again I had been there so I thought I could stay a step ahead.

“Lori, listen to me real good.  If you try get slick on me, it is going to cost you everything.  I am a drunk myself, I know what is going on in your mind at any given moment.  You are going to think about drinking then stopping a few days before the test.  You won’t make it and you lost this place.  Or you are going to send Lucille or take in somebody else’s pee.  Then one day a nurse is going to show up at your door and demand that you go in a bottle that she brings with her.  It is pretty humiliating but it will happen.  So make sure you want to clean up.”

“I am going to have this checked out.”

“Please do.”

“Call me from your attorney’s office.  I plan to have Lucille go over to your place and dump all your booze. Your drinking days end when you sign that paper.  I want you ready for the six o’clock AA meeting.  I will pick you up.”

“Anderson might be a better deal,” Lori said it and she seemed to be weighing it.”

“He could indeed be a better deal if you like the kind of life he is offering.  At least you won’t have to quit drinking right away.  He will be happy to feed your addiction until it gets in the way once.  Trust me that won’t take as long as you think.”

Lucille spoke once Lori was out the door.  “She looks pretty depressed.”

“She is about to have a lifestyle change thrust upon her.  Wether it takes or not is another thing entirely.”  I tossed the second copy of the contract on the desk for Lucille to read.”  To her credit she read it all before she commented.

“Will this work?”

“It will work only if she stops boozing.  If not, nothing will work.  I could bail her out a dozen times but she would lose it each time.  Anderson isn’t her problem the alcohol is.  If it was just Anderson, she could go to the bank and borrow enough to pay him off.  Nobody in their right mind is going to loan a drunk money.”

“So that’s why the elaborate scheme?” Lucille asked.

“That is exactly why,” I replied.

Anderson for some reason backed off for the next three weeks.  It was unexpected but I was grateful for the breathing room.  During that time Lori fought off the effects of too many years inside a bottle.  She stayed home a few days to sweat and sleep.  He sleep was interrupted by nightmares.  She commented on how many times she had to change her soaked sheets.  I forced her to take a complete physical before she returned to work.

Lori was a bundle of raw nerves that first week.  She would jump out of her skin at the sound of a pencil dropping to the floor.  She had zero concentration, but Lucille kept at her until she began understanding again.

The second week she called in all the drivers.  She explained the plan to them.  To some she even explained the need for it.  She promised them, some on her father’s grave, that they would make at least as much profit as before.  She used my plan with a local bank to have all the drivers approved.  The plan had to purposes one was to guarantee that the drivers could buy the trucks but was also designed to deprive Anderson of as much money as possible.

Dillon owned eight trucks.  The total reasonable market value of the eight was only 21,000 and that along with a thousand dollars worth of office furniture was the total value of the company’s assets.  Lori and Lucille managed to switch all the accounts over to the new Welch Freight Company.  

After everything was in place, a sober Lori called Anderson to tell him to fuck off.  He first sent a demand letter to the empty office of Dillon Freight Company.  The demand letter made its way to Lori’s home.

Lori took it to her attorney, who in turn took it to the courthouse.  There he filed bankruptcy for the company which was more or less already defunct. The Available assets were the office furniture which had a value of less than a grand.  The petty cash account had something less than two hundred bucks and there was a bank account with 21k in it.  The account was however frozen until the 5 year loans on the trucks were paid off.  Anderson, for all his trouble, received less than a thousand dollars.  

When he finally sorted through the tangle of legalisms, he showed up at my office.  The office was a former gas station.  We were operating from the tiny office part, while using the two bays, minus their lifts, as an oil change facility.  

“You son of a bitch,” he said to me.

“Lucille did you notice that he said that like it was a bad thing.”  I laughed then turned my attention to him.  “Now what in the world seems to be your problem.  You are going to get the exact same things you would have gotten if you had forced Lori into bankruptcy before she was ready.  It is just going to take you five years to lose twenty grand instead of over night.  Then again you don’t get to use her before you put her out of business.”

“What are you talking about?  I wanted to marry her.” It was crap and everyone knew it.  I could have let it pass but then I wasn’t about to let him off the hook.

“Then ask her now.  She will probably take you up on it.  She isn’t thrilled with my deal.”

Lori just stood staring.  She didn’t know wether or not he was serious.  I had called his bluff.  He obviously thought it up on the spur of the moment.  He had no choice but to turn and walk away.

It was an almost perfect day.  The paint was drying on my Samurai and I would be out of town in two more days.  Lori was in a hurry to see me go.  She probably had some ideas on how to drink secretly.  I looked at her and smiled.  I had a plan to replace her if she failed a drug test.  One, I was going to have run by a nurse who was on call to a former cop turned private eye.  The nurse would show up in the office the morning after I left.  It would be a very nice surprise for my partner.  If she celebrated my leaving, it was going to cost her, If not it would be a warning.

 I didn’t leave Winslow nearly as early as I wanted.  The goodbyes took a lot longer than I expected.  Even though it was nice to be cared about, it slowed me down some.  I thought about it and then I realized I had just had a very cynical revelation.  Leaving L.A. had been fast and easy, since I had only the one friend.  Whereas in Winslow it took much longer since I had so many, if not friends then well-wishers, to whom I had to say goodbye. The revelation was simple, friends slow you down.  So maybe the value of friendship is overrated.

 Either way it was eleven before I cleared the city limits of Winslow.  I 40 is a most monotonous road.  It stretches for miles with little or no change in scenery, especially headed east through the desert landscape.  As was my habit from years of driving, I checked the gauges every few miles.  The quickest way to blow and engine is to ignore the gauges.  

 I was well into New Mexico when the temperature gauge began to slip up.  I had a pretty good idea that I was in trouble even though it did not reach critical.  What I knew was that the water system had a breech.  The air rushing over the engine was keeping it cool.  The water jacket was for cooling when the car ran at slower speeds or idled.  Knowing that I began looking for a place to stop.  I figured I had one stop before it damaged the engine.

 There is an unwritten set of laws which I call the laws of perversity.  If you need a gas station close to the interstate, when you turn off, it will be ten miles down a secondary road.  If you don’t really care, it will be right on top of you as you make the turn.  The law held true.  I saw the BP sign just before the next exit.  I slipped down the exit hoping I could pull right in before the engine heated up.  The next sign informed me that the station was two miles, after I made the left turn.

 Before I could make the turn, the gauge slipped into the red.  Instead of a gas station, I slipped into a fast food restaurant’s parking lot.  The restaurant did not appear to be a national chain so I could only hope they would loan me some water.  Rather than crack the block, I decided to have a cold drink first then to restart the engine once I finished the coke.  I could remember the old adage my dad had passed on to me as a teenager.  Never, but never, pour water into a hot engine unless it is running.

 I thought for a second that I had caught a break.  A garden hose lay by the restaurant’s door.  It lay in the grass, so I reasonably expected it to be attached to an outlet.  I found that indeed it was attached but that there was no handle on the outlet.  I was not a bit surprised, since a handle would have served as an invitation to mischief for the neighborhood kids.

 The teenaged girl who was alone in the restaurant had no idea where the handle might be found.  She did inform me that if I managed to make it would I was welcome to the water.  I paid for the coke, then filled the cup with ice and cola.  I carried it outside before I opened the hood.  When an engine overheats as much as mine had, it is best to let it cool before opening the radiator.  I had a pretty good idea that the radiator was dry.  If it was dry, it would be safe to open.  If not I was likely to get a nasty burn.  All things being equal, I decided to work on the water outlet first.  

 Trial and error determined that a socket wrench would open the outlet.  It did not appear that it would do too much damage to the square post.  I turned the water on then off again, before I opened the radiator’s cap.  

 After I started the engine, I added water while looking for the leak.  The water poured from the water pump housing.  It appeared that the water pump would have to be replaced before I did much more driving.  I kept adding water as it drained slowly from the pump.  I could see that the pump was leaking steadily.  Once the engine had cooled, I shut it down.

 Back inside the restaurant, my question to the clerk about an auto parts store was answered by her handing me the phone book.  Since there was only one customer at three in the afternoon, I didn’t feel that I was bothering her much.  She did manage to give me directions to a small town by the name of Indian Springs.  It seemed to be the closest parts house to the restaurant.

 She also brought me two large plastic jugs along with my burger.  I had decided to eat since I had no idea when I might get the change again.

 After the burgers, and with the Sammie full of water, I began my quest for Indian Springs.  I could only hope that the auto parts store in the middle of the one intersection would indeed have the water pump.

 Just as the waitress had said, Indian Springs was nothing more than a one stoplight town.  The population seemed to be in steady decline, since there were empty buildings all over town.  Any hope I had for a quick exit ended when I found the automobile parts store.  It shared a small building with a ‘Radio Shack’ store.  

 “Good Afternoon,” The oldish woman behind the counter said in greeting me.  She did not inspire confidence.  Still I had no choice.

 “Good Afternoon,” I echoed. “I got a little problem.”

 “I specialize in problems.  What can I do for you?”  She asked it with a smile anyway.  I figured I was gonna get screwed but at least I would get it with a smile.

 “It appears that the water pump on my car is gone.  I don’t suppose, there is any chance that you have one in stock?”

 “We don’t keep a lot of stock, but we might you never know.”  She moved to her computer.  She didn’t need to ask, I had been in enough parts houses to know the drill.

 “It is a 1990 Suzuki Samurai, four wheel drive,” I suggested.  She looked a long time before she spoke.

 “I don’t have it, but I can call in.  It will be here the first thing in the morning.”  She looked at me before she went on.  “You are passing through right?”   I nodded.  “The next town of any size it a lot of miles down forty.”

 My mind worked furiously.  I might get the car along the highway alright, but if I had to go through a town I would be screwed for sure.  Plus I would have to find and then get to the parts store before closing or I would be no better off.  That is, unless Indian Springs had no place to stay, which seemed likely.  If that were the case, I would do better to move on down the line.  I actually thought all that in the blink of an eye.  “Anywhere I can spend the night?”  I asked it hoping for the best but not expecting much.

 “Sure go down this road about two miles.  You gonna see a restaurant called ‘ TJ’s Kitchen,’ stop there.  Explain to Terry what you need and play on her sympathy.  She can put you up if she wants to.”

 “You mean she don’t always want the money?”  I smiled not believing it for a minute.

 “Mister, how much business do you think there is for a motel here?  The lodge is closed.  It has been for years.”

 I was thinking a lot of things, not the least of which concerned abandoned motels, begging for a room, and my luck.  I found TJ’s Restaurant after running about half my supply of water onto the pavement.  Finding the T in TJ’s was a bit harder.  

 “Hi, is Terry around?”  I asked it of the gum chewing waitress.

 “Gone to the egg man, she will be back in a couple minutes.”  I had a feeling she meant small town minutes.  I nodded without answering.  I turned back to the Sammie, I knew I had zero alternatives so I dug through my things till I found the old ‘Dreamwriter’.  The Dreamwriter was probably the first of the laptops.  It was nothing more than as portable word processor.  I could write on the dinosaur but that was about it.  Still, it was admirable for that purpose.  It weighted nothing and it operated on AA flashlight batteries which were cheap and easy to find.  I had an AC adapter someplace but never bothered with it.

 I returned to work on my screen play about Winslow.  I was still looking for the twisted ending that marked all my pieces when a woman of about thirty years entered the restaurant.  From the bags in her hand, I guessed that Terry had arrived.

 She and the gum chewer held a conference before she came to stand by my booth.  I stood as she approached.  I did it as much because I needed a favor as from good manners.  “You wanted to see me?” she asked..

 They told me at the burger joint that you might rent me a room in an emergency.  My car has blown the water pump and I am stuck here till they get a new on into the parts store.  It is going to be over night at least.  Then I have to install it and with my luck have it towed to somebody else to fix what I mess up.”  I smiled to show that I was one of the good guys.

 “All that on a Friday afternoon.  Mr.?”

 “Welch Ma’am Freddie Welch,” I informed her/

 “Mr. Welch even though I have a few cabins, I don’t rent them anymore.  It was just too much trouble for the little income they brought.”

 “Well Ma’am I don’t need much.  Just a roof over my head for the night.”

 “Mr. Welch there is no power or heat in those cabins.  The summer is gone so it is going to be cold at night.”

 “Ma’am, I will sleep on the floor in my own sleeping bag.  I just need a roof over my head.  Someplace to pitch a tent would do I guess, but I really would prefer a roof.  If I pitch a tent, I guarantee you that it will rain.”  I slipped the boyish smile in again.

 “Terry, he can use the heater we got back in the storage building.”  The gum chewer, for some reason, decided to cast her vote with me.  “And we got those kerosene lights out there to.”  

 Terry cast an evil look to the gum chewer but said, “It seems you are a hit here Mr. Welch.  If Louise wants you to stay, not much I can do about it.  Finish your coffee, I got a couple of things to do.”

 I had time for the coffee and a couple of more pages of the play before Terry showed up again.  I felt her approach as much as saw her coming.  “So, we ready?” I asked it with that smile again.

 “Can you bring the heater?” she asked.

 “Sure where is it again?”  She had never really told me where the storeroom was.

 “Come around back and we can pull it from the storeroom.  I followed her out the door then around to the rear of the building.  The storeroom proved to be an attached shed.  The heater was located just as far from the door as it was possible to place it.  Between the heater and the door rested about every trip hazard known to modern man.  I threaded my way to the rear of the shed, being careful no to bang my head on the exposed rafters.  The ceiling was something under six feet I noted.


 With the heater in hand, I threaded my way out.  “Okay, anything else?”  I asked it trying hard to keep the sarcasm out of my voice.

 “Actually do you see that white plastic pail with the lid.  The one on the right, down there.”

 “You mean the one I passed while I brought the heater out?”  I couldn’t help mentioning it.  If she caught the sarcasm, she didn’t show it.

 “Yes that one.”    I started back into the low shed.  “While you are in there, you might want to get the blue can over there, the one marked Kerosene.”  She said it while pointing even deeper into the litter.

 I left the shed with one bucket which proved to have five kerosene lanterns and an empty can, marked Kerosene.  Terry took the bucket and Kerosene can, which left me to struggle with the heater.  The heater was heavier and harder to carry than either.  She led the way across the parking lot to the closest cabin.  It was a tiny frame duplex.  Inside the door she opened for me, I found a bedroom larger than most Motels.  The room was furnished with a small sofa as well as the bedroom furniture typical of those places.  The rear wall covered a small bath, dressing room and closet area.

It would have been a reasonable studio apartment in the dream.  It would also have rented for much more than the price of the motel room.  Even with the make shift heater, the $25 price was a steal.

 I placed the heater a safe distance from everything.  Upon checking I noted that the tank was empty and the wick dry.  Someone had probably emptied it then allowed the wick to dry before storing it.  I had hopes that it would work.

 “Well city-boy, you look like you know a little about those things.”  Terry smiled to soften the city-boy crack.

 “Just about enough to keep from burning the place down,” I replied.

 “That is a good thing for us both.”  Terry had dropped the phony smile.  I nodded my agreement.  “You want to drive down to the station for Kerosene or want me too.”  I could tell her desire was for me to go.

 “I hate to drive the Samurai with the leaky pump, you never know what might happen.”

 “In that case why not drive  my car.  That is if you don’t plan to make a day trip of it.”

 “Trust me, I have absolutely no plan to stay longer than it takes to pump the kerosene and pay the clerk.  I don’t think they will have dancing girls there.”

 “If Lippy dances for you try to get a video of it.  I think that would make you rich.”  I had a pretty good idea that she was joking.  I expected Lippy to be either a man or an old woman.

 I put about two gallons of Kerosene into the five-gallon can, then went inside the very old, very dirty concrete block walled service station turned convenience store.  Lippy hadn’t even bothered to remove the overhead doors.  

 What had once been the work area, sported a green, grass looking carpet.  I knew, from having lived at the epicenter of the hug a tree culture, that the carpet was made from recycled plastic coke bottles.  I didn’t even go into that part of the store, I waited for the clerk to finish with the customer ahead of me.  

 The customer wasn’t much to look at but the clerk was.  The very first thing I noticed was why they called her Lippy.  She had those lips that only plastic surgery could create.  If she had been black, they still would have been too thick, though not nearly as noticeable.  Something about her bearing told me that she was trying to rebel against whatever there was to rebel against in Indian Springs.  Hell, it was probably just rebelling against being in Indian Springs.  I knew that I sure as hell would.

 “Need to pay you for the Kerosene.”  I said it handing her a five-dollar bill.

 “You are a stranger, so where you from, and what are you doing here?”  When she spoke, I noticed a kind of twinkle in her mouth.  My first reaction was a gold tooth.  Then I realized it was a gold ball on her tongue.  Lippy wasn’t just a one dimensional rebel she had at least two kinks.

 Well, let me see how I do with all that.  I am a stranger all right.  I am from L.A. and I am headed east.  My car broke down, so I am staying at the old tourist cabins up the road till I can fix it.”  I paused to take an exaggerated breath.  “Do you question everyone like this?”  I smiled.  I didn’t want to appear rude.  Why I cared, I have no idea.

 “Okay, but if you were going the other way, I might hitch a ride.”

 “If I was going the other way, I might have room for you.”  I smiled again.

 “If you are gonna use that stuff in a heater, be careful.  I wouldn’t want a guy from the big city to get burned up in this burg.  It’s killing me, I would hate to see it kill you.”

 She had my money but she continued to talk.  If I had asked, “Why don’t you just leave.”  I expect I would have been in for a half hour conversation.  At that moment I understood Terry’s admonition.  I was about to turn away when I remembered the video remark.  I wanted to ask Lippy about it but I felt I pretty well understood.  The value of the video would not be in her dancing but in her other piercings.

 I arrived back at the motel slightly before the sun went down.  What heat there had been was quickly disappearing with the sun.  Terry came out of the restaurant as I unloaded the Kerosene can.  “So, you really were able to resist Lippy’s charms?”

 “Of course, where I come from, she wouldn’t even get a second glance.”

 “Even her piercing?”  She asked that thinking I might have missed the gold ball on her tongue.  

 “Half the kids in LA have those or worse.”  I smiled to make her think I knew all about the worse.  Actually I couldn’t think of anything more painful than a hole in my tongue.

 “Let me set the heater up, I don’t want you burning down my cabin.”  She didn’t look all that worried.  She looked more like a woman who wanted to satisfy her curiosity.  “So Freddie, what do you do in LA?”

 “I am a screenwriter,” I replied without any hesitation.

 “If you are a screenwriter, why are you leaving LA.  I would think that would be the place for you.”

 She had me treed and I knew it.  “I never said I was a successful screenwriter did I?”

 “So what did you do to live?”

 “I drove,” I replied.


 “Limos mostly, some cabs, and some trucks, but mostly it was a limo.”

 “So, what you gonna do when you get to where you are headed?”

 “Oh, I don’t know for sure.  I will for sure write, but I will probably have to work too.”

 “Did you ever tell me where you were headed?”  She seemed to be genuinely interested.

 “No, but I can tell you this.  I am headed to the ocean again, I don’t like being landlocked.”

 “Are you in a big hurry to get there?”

 “Evidently not, it has taken me months to get this far.  What exactly do you have in mind?”  I looked at her seriously.  “Surely this isn’t a personal thing?  You didn’t want me here at all half an hour ago.”  I smiled.

 “Hardly personal,” she said without a hint of good humor.  “In the morning you will know why I asked.”  She did smile at her last statement.  She also made it just as she turned to leave.  Since the heater was putting out a nice warm glow, I tried to ignore it.  I really hadn’t realized how chilled I was until I began to shake from the change in temperature.

 The room had to get warm before I was comfortable enough to notice the little things.  Things like a huge draft from the window.  Then, after the water in the bathroom had been on a while, I noticed the constant drip of the faucet. A closer inspection of the bathroom revealed a couple of missing ceramic tiles.  The little cabin was in a state of disrepair.  Even worse, I had a feeling that I was in the best of them.  


 It appeared that Terry was in need of a handyman.  It would explain her sudden change in attitude.  While I was gone, someone probably explained to her that I was a man at loose ends and not really a drifter.  I might be the ideal man to spend the winter working on her cabins, she probably thought.  She had no idea that I was not the man for the job.  I could probably do most of the work with a lot of questions at the home improvement store.  However, I did not intend to do any of it.  I intended to install my water pump, then be on the road for the east.

 I slipped into the restaurant just before it closed.  As a matter of fact, I had my dinner to the sights and sounds of the staff cleaning the place.

  “Do I need to rush?”  I asked it of Terry as she wiped tables.  An owner doing the dirty work of cleaning seemed unusual, but I determined to stay out of it.

 “No, we will just do your table after we finish with everything else.”  Terry didn’t seem to be all that happy with me.  She seemed to move back and forth like a pendulum. I simply nodded.

 “Terry, the dish washer just stopped,” It was the toothless waitress, the one they called Louise.  I watched as Terry just sat down, put her head in her hands and began to cry.  I don’t care what they tell you, men are genetically programed to respond to a woman’s tears.  To make matters worse Terry didn’t cry ladylike she gasped and choked on her tears.  

 I cursed myself but I stood, then walked into the kitchen.  It didn’t take many questions to find out that the dishwasher just stopped in the middle of the cycle.   Let me tell you first that I have no experience with dishwashers at all.  About the only thing I know about commercial ones is that they throw a lot of boiling hot water around.  In order to throw it around, there has to be an electric pump which would seem to be the most likely culprit. That is about as much expertise as I have.  I found the circuit breaker for the unit.  To my astonishment, all it had to do was flip the breaker and it started again.

 “There you go, Louise.”  I said it as I walked away.  I was back at my table chewing away on the roast beef when Terry next came to the table.  I expected some form of  thank-you from her. It is a good thing that I don’t disappoint easily.

 “So tell me Mr. Welch, are you on a tight schedule?”

 “Not really, I am the perfect murder victim.”  She looked surprised by my choice of words.  “Nobody knows where I am going or when I will arrive.  Hell, I don’t even know.”  Let me tell you honesty is not always the best policy.  

 “I could use a man of your talents for a few weeks,” She said it not looking me in the eye.

 “That is flattering but I am not a Mr. Fix-it.  I am a driver.”  I knew what she had in mind.

 “I am told that most of the stuff I need is simple and anyone with mechanical ability could fix it.  What you couldn’t do you could get someone and make sure I am not getting screwed.”  She looked at me with a slightly come hither smile then added.  “At least not by them.”  The veiled promise was there but I knew it was for real.  She wanted a handyman and knew who to land him.  She figured she could stall me for a few weeks.  Just long enough to get her placed repaired.

 “To be perfectly honest, I don’t need the money and I really am keen or getting down the road.”

 “Okay, how about a week.  Give me one week.  You said nobody was expecting you, so a week longer is nothing to you.”

 “So what is the pay going to be for this job?”  I smiled.  She was on the verge of tears again.  I really did not want to see those again.

 “Room and board plus $200 for the week.”  She said it as though it were a good deal.

 “If I leave, I won’t need your room and board, and $200 is an insult even to me.”

 “Well, you did say you weren’t a real handyman.”

 “I think we are having our first disagreement.”  I smiled at the switch in imagery I had made.  She had started it with the hint that there would be more than the $200, I had merely turned it back on her.  Very subtle, I thought.

 “So what do you want Freddie?”  She had suddenly changed her demeanor she was no longer soft and promising.  She had become hard and all business.


 “I see the promise of your beautiful body is off the table, pity.”  I said it smiling.

 “There was never any such promise.  So what is the price?”  She must have been desperate to have continued the conversation.  I almost expected her to slap me and order me out even without the water pump repair.  It was at that point that I realized I was being stupid.  It was hard on me to make the discovery.

 “Okay here is my deal, I do not work for less than ten bucks an hour.”  She started to speak but I raised my hand.  “That is eighty a day, I figure that the roof over my head is really worth ten bucks a night, not the thirty you are charging me.  The food at two bucks a meal would seem fair.”  She was about to object but I stopped her again.  I am willing to round that off to twenty a day combined.  So that would leave you owing me $300 for the work.  For that you get 40 hours of labor.  I also count drive time and standing in line at the home improvement store.”

 “In that case we do a survey after you finish your dinner.  You and I will decide on the work and then I will get the supplies.”  Terry obviously knew how to get the biggest bang for her buck.  

 “Okay, while I work on the water pump, you can go to the home improvement store.”

 She nodded her agreement.  The conversation reminded me of something I needed to do before I started to work on the Samurai.  I stopped by it on the way to my cabin.  After I lifted the hood, I sprayed the bolt heads of the water pump liberally with WD40.  I hoped that by morning they would have penetrated the threads.  Water pump bolts are notorious for breaking.  I wanted to give myself every chance for an easy fix.  I also figured to break them loose while the engine was hot from the drive to the parts store.

 Terry stopped by the cabin about an hour after I finished my dinner.  We walked from cabin to cabin while she made notes on her pad.  Most of the repairs were minor.  They ranged from broken tile, and drippy faucets  in the bathroom to loose carpet in the bedroom areas.  Even a couple of broken headboards.  Those I put down to overly enthusiastic lovers.  

 We also made a list of tools needed to do the jobs.  She had most of them in her storage shed.  I personally had my doubts but let it go anyway.  It was around 10 p.m. when she left, sleep came easily that night even in the strange bed.  

 I was up early the next morning, but not early enough to beat the restaurant crew.  After my breakfast I drove the leaking Sammie to the auto parts store.  The damn water pump should have been made of gold, it cost me over fifty bucks. 

 I have no idea whether it was the penetrating oil or the hot engine, either way the water pump bolts came off easily.  The repair took only minutes, which was very unusual.  When I checked, the damn thing didn’t even leak.  That was also a first for me.  I almost always have to reinstall it at least once.

 Terry showed up at 10 a.m. with a truck filled with material and tools.  It had been agreed that it was her job to fine the tools I needed.  If she was sure that the storage room housed them, let her find them, I thought.

 The next two days passed quickly.  If I had been on the road several days, it would have been a nice break.   As it was, I was dying to get back to the road.  I don’t love to drive or anything like that.  However, when I put my mind to it, I want to get on with it.

 If I had stayed to finish that last piece of tile on the third day, instead of going in to lunch, I could have avoided the whole damn mess.  I was sitting at the table by the door because Terry insisted that I use it.  None of her customers would use that table she informed me because of the draft.  Terry didn’t mind reminding me of my place at very opportunity.  I would have objected but I really didn’t have a preference.

 I had to be at the table at exactly the right moment to be involved in the hold up at all.  I saw the long-haired kid pull into the parking lot.  I made note only because the old dodge charger from the sixties was in such bad shape to still be running.  Most muscle cars get restored or junked.  His was just rolling junk.

 When he entered, he went right to the register as if he was ordering or picking up take-out.  I really didn’t pay any more attention to him.  That is until I heard him speak in a voice way too loud for his words.

 “Put all the money into the bag,” he demanded, handing Louise a plastic grocery store bag.  He turned then headed for the door.  I could have done a lot of things or even nothing.  What I did was to use my foot to slide the chair on the door side of the table out.  I timed it just right, which I couldn’t do again in a hundred years.  He was moving fast and waving the gun around.  The chair tripped him, then dumped his ass on the floor.

 I stood over him with my foot penning his right hand to the floor.  The rusty old wheel gun fell from his fingers.  He tried to move as if to stand, so I not so gently kicked him in the head.  He decided to stay down.  I felt like it was a good decision, since I planned to kick him every time he moved.  By that time I was also holding the revolver and pointing it at his head.

 I should have been the hero and I guess I was to Terry and Louise.  The sheriff didn’t see it that way though.  He brought all the other petty stuff into it.  Even though I never got arrested, it seems that the LA cops had made notes in my dossier.  It seemed very unfair, since it meant I had to spend two hours at the sheriff’s office explaining my life.

 When I returned to the restaurant, Terry informed me that she was docking my pay for the two hours I had been with the deputy.  She acted as though we had been to the movies.  I didn’t mind since I was planning to leave anyway.  No, the work wasn’t finished but I had been a handyman long enough.  I needed to get on the road.  

 The decision was aided by the fact that the kid, who was out on bail, promised to kill me.  I wasn’t all that worried, but then again it wasn’t my restaurant and motel either.  I was in the process of telling Terry when the idiot came back.  I had no idea who the man he brought along might be, nor did I care.

 “You son of a bitch, I am going to kill you,” he said to me.  Terry and I were standing in the parking lot behind the restaurant.  He must have felt it his lucky day since it was unlikely that anyone would see it happen.   If he had a gun, I would have died on the spot.  If I had been acting in a movie, I would also have died.  

 “He had not finished the sentence, when I hit him in the head with the hammer I was holding.  I must confess that I didn’t hold back either.  I should have kept an eye on the man behind me.  He had me in a bear hug and I think he was trying to decide the best way to kill me when he suddenly let go.  He just sat down in the parking lot behind me.  It seemed that he should have kept an eye on Terry.  She dropped him with a piece of leaky water pipe from cabin six.

 “I am going to dock you for the time you spend in jail,” Terry said.  “Well unless we get adjoining cells.”

 “Nobody saw this, and they are going to be out a while.  Would you like to slip into my cabin for a bit of pinch and tickle?”

 “You have no idea how appealing that is at the moment.  If we delay calling for help, do you think there is any danger of them dying?”

 “Could be,” I replied honestly.

 “Then I’m your girl,” she said with a grin.

   Leaving Indian Springs wasn’t possible until the arraignment of the would-be assassins.  It took three weeks, what with their short hospital stays, and the public defender’s moves.  In the end they pled guilty, since I made it clear that I would stay till hell froze over jsut to see them in jail.  During those three weeks I finished the chores around the motel, I even managed to repaint the sign that said simply ‘Tourist Cabins’.  

 My last night in cabin 3 Terry and I went to bed early.  We made love, then I fell into a deep sleep.  When I awoke early the next morning, there was a note on the end table.  

 “Dear Freddie,

 Please do not say good-bye just leave.


 I hadn’t planned to say goodbye again  anyway.  We had said out goodbyes in a much better way the night before.  The Sammie was loaded, and pointed east on interstate 40 by seven a.m.   I drove through all of Oklahoma, and almost all of Arkansas before I stopped for more than fifteen minutes.  I pulled off the high way within a mile of the Mississippi river.  I stopped on the west side of the big muddy.  The town was called West Memphis but it was not in Tennessee.  It was the very easternmost town in Arkansas, at least it appeared to be on the map.  

 The waitress in the West Memphis Diner gave me the name of a locally owned motel.  She also provided me with the directions to it.  The Pioneer Motel probably got its name from the fake log siding.  I was supposed to look a few hundred years old, but looked like some ‘decorator’s’ idea of old.  The siding might have been right but the design was all wrong.  In any event, I checked into the motel with a view of the local strip mall.  I had no idea what kind of  view there might be from the rear rooms.  I didn’t care either, since it was after dark, my only desire was for a long night’s sleep.

 When I opened my suitcase inside the generic room, I realized what day it was.  The gaudily wrapped box screamed Christmas at me.  I found to my dismay that Christmas had slipped up on me.  I had not intended for it to happen but it appeared I would be arriving home on Christmas Eve.  I knew that the highway had been packed with traffic and I also knew in the back of my mind that it was close to Christmas.  How could I not know since the radio was filled with Christmas music.  It just hadn’t really hit me until that very moment.

 I propped myself up against the headboard to consider the ramifications of it all.  My only family in Asheford was an older sister, who I hadn’t seen in ten years.  She wasn’t expecting me, and I wasn’t at all sure that I wanted to spend the holidays with her family.  If I remembered right, she had a house filled with a couple of divorced kids with their brats.  I figured I could do without that. The reality was that I would have to rush around to buy presents for them all.  It would cost me a couple of hundred bucks for a ten-buck turkey dinner.  To the best of my recollection,  Sissy was a lousy cook anyway.  If I followed my original plan, I would arrive in Asheford sometime in the afternoon of Christmas Eve.  Christmas Eve in West Memphis didn’t sound all that bad but Christmas day would be a bitch I was sure.  I fell asleep without much of a plan at all.

 I was awake and dressed early on Christmas Eve.  I packed my bag while I tried to decide what to do.  Since I hadn’t decided on anything, I went to breakfast at the West Memphis diner.  While I waited for my eggs, I eavesdropped on the conversations going on around me.  The diner was close to the highway, so the conversations revolved around the traffic and the weather.  Traffic was heavy, and the snow that had begun falling over night in the eastern part of Tennessee was light.  It sounded like I should just find a hole and crawl into it.  Even thought I knew there was a chance that both the traffic and the snow would be heavy before I got into North Carolina, I decided to take a chance.  I put the Samurai on the road before 8 a.m.  

 Traffic was miserable all morning.  I suffered being cut off repeatedly, getting and giving the finger often, and sharing shouted curses now and again.  On that day, if you tried to leave a couple of car lengths between you and the car ahead, three cars would pull into the space.  Since I wasn’t in much of a hurry, I just kept moving back in the line of traffic.  It was kind of like dealing with a strange animal.  I was afraid that if I continued to be timid, it would eat me alive.  I couldn’t justify driving over the seventy mph speed limit.  The car wasn’t up to it and I wasn’t in a hurry to get home anyway.

 The snow began to affect my vision around five.  I was close enough to Knoxville to begin thinking about stopping for the evening.  It was only another four hours to Asheford, but it was also snowing like hell.  I had lowered my speed to sixty and was began getting pushed off the road for my caution.  Also, the rag top on the Sammie leaked some, which made the drive less than pleasant.  After I cleared Knoxville, I began looking for a place to spend the night.  I had decided that the next town I saw was gonna get my business.  I looked until I saw an exit for a town that looked as though it might be large enough to have a hometown motel.  Since the weather was bad, I would probably settle for a chain cracker box, but it would not be my first choice.  

 For the last hour the road had been deteriorating.  Even the interstate had large piles of snow between the lanes.  The off ramp into Newport was pretty rough going.  Even the large tread of the Sammie’s all terrain tires lost their grip.  I slid to a stop just inches before going into the feeder road.  The feeder was a four lane, so should have been packed on the late afternoon before Christmas. It was instead remarkably clear of traffic.  That could have been the result of the state police's warning for people to stay home.

 The four lane road had tracks in the snow instead of lanes.  Most small towns had decided not to clean their streets, so the sand and salt trucks ran all night.  Few, if any, scrapers were to be seen out and about that afternoon.  Most likely they would not be seen till the snow stopped falling.  Christmas Eve hadn't closed much of anything, it looked as thought the merchants were expecting people to be shopping hard.  I suppose they would have been, if not for the rapidly deteriorating weather.  The snowstorm might not have come out of nowhere, but according to the radio the amount of snow had caught everyone off guard.

 The number of cars sitting just of the road was increasing with every mile I drove.  It appeared as though the drivers in the mountain town were not much better than the drivers in the dream.  Cars had entered the deep snow on the edge of the road in a lot of very strange angles.  Almost to a car they were front wheel drive.  I had always thought that front wheel drive cars were impossible to slide.  Just goes to show how wrong I can be.

 The almost new Ford, which I was following at the time, joined the stranded motorist as I watched.  The bright red mid-sized car began heading to the side of the road almost in a drifting motion.  Then the driver did the worst thing possible, he tried to stop.  The car left the road sideways.  I watched it hit the curb at just a few miles per hour but it was enough to almost turn the damn thing over.  The car didn't roll it just rocked dangerously on its passenger side wheels.

 Traffic had been reasonably light since I left the highway, so I slowed down even more.  I stopped the sammie in the ‘old man’ lane which was covered with the white stuff.  The ‘hotrod’ lane was the one with the tracks, it being used by everyone at that moment.  

 I was on the verge of opening my door to check on the driver's condition, when the Ford’s door opened.  A young man, probably less than twenty-five got out of the car.  I was just about to ask his condition when I noticed the phone growing out of his ear.  At first he waved that he was fine, but then he held up his hand in that traffic cop kind of way.  He ran to the passenger side of the sammie.

 “Thanks for stopping, you got to help me man,” the kid almost shouted.  Anyone under thirty had become a kid to me, when I turned forty the year before.

 “I don’t have a tow chain, so I am not gonna be of much help.”

 “No, I am taking my wife to the hospital, she is mighty sick.  She is throwing up everywhere.”

 “Son, I don’t have anywhere to put her.”  The sammie was full.  Even the passenger’s area was filled with my plastic tub of tools, in the foot well, and three duffle bags of clothes over it.

 “Mister she is mighty sick,” he was almost begging.

 “Open your trunk,” I said as I opened my door.  Emptying the passenger compartment took only a couple of minutes.  The kid was helping his young and very pale wife into the seat before I had the trunk lid closed.

 “I am gonna stay here and get the car out.  I called a tow truck.”  The kid was talking to his wife.

 “How do I find the hospital?”  I asked it of them both.

 “Straight ahead ‘bout a mile or two on the right.  You can’t miss it.”  

 He was kissing her as if it might be the last time when I started the sammie.  “Close the door kid.”  I said it firmly, but I hoped kindly.

 The Kid was trusting me with his wife, and I was trusting him with my tool kit and most of my clothes, it was a fair trade I felt.  The hospital was only one puke stop away.  After she finished emptying her stomach, I gave her a fairly clean towel from under the seat.  I had used it to wipe my hands after I checked under the hood.  The tiny grease spot on her nose was cute so I didn’t tell her about it.

 Since it had been snowing for hours in Newport, the hospital was pretty much empty.  I expect that the Hospital would be no more than a clinic in most towns.  They did have an emergency room, even it was pretty much empty.  

 “Hi there,” I said to the receptionist.  “This lady is awfully sick on her stomach.”  To prove my point the woman in my care tossed her non existent cookies onto the floor.  “See?”  I couldn’t help saying it.  I had been in hospital waiting rooms before and knew the crap she was gonna get.  The stomach turning, upchuck helped to get her seen quickly.  It was to save the floor mopping more than to save her, I suspected.

The receptionist pressed the panic button, which brought at least a nurse.  The nurse saw the mess on the floor, then led the young woman away.  They disappeared into a set of double swinging doors.

 “Is she your wife?” The receptionist asked handing me a clipboard with some papers.

 “Not a chance, I am just a good Samaritan so keep your papers till her husband gets here.”

 “And where is her husband?”  The receptionist seemed curious in more than a professional way.

 “Trying to get his car out of a snow bank.  I stopped to make sure everyone was okay and wound up being the competition for the country ambulance service.  By the way what should I charge for this?”

 “Considering it is Christmas probably nothing.”  She was quickly losing her sense of humor, if she ever had one at all.  “So, do you know her name?”

 “No, I just call her puking woman.”

 “Insurance company’s name?”  I shook my head in amazement.  She was going down the list of questions even after she had heard my story.  “Where she works?”

 “Lady, is there some reason you can’t grasp that I am a stranger in your land.  I don’t even know her bra size.”

 “You don’t need to be a wise ass mister,” she said jerking the clipboard from the counter top.

 “It seems that I did, since you finally seemed to get it.”  I said those words as I walked out the door.  I got exactly three paces from the door when I remembered my tools.  Like it or not, I was going to have to wait.  I considered waiting outside, but it was just too cold, especially since I didn’t drive in a coat.

 I took a seat in one of the many conversation nooks created by the furniture arrangement.  As was the case in most hospitals the reading choices were limited by the doctor’s interests.  They ranged from sail boats to the family circle with a smattering of fashion magazines.  I did hope the latter came from either female doctor’s or the nurses.  Then again, did I really care if the doctor sewing my cuts wore a teddy under his scrubs?  I thought about that a couple of seconds then decided I might have been in the dream a little too long.

 The woman who approached must have been close to eighty at least.  She didn’t bother to even look around she walked right to me.  I thought at the time that she must have been a hospital volunteer, one who had come to tell me the young woman had been admitted.  Instead of speaking to me, she took a seat across from me.

 Once seated, she began to sob quietly.  I tried to ignore her but I am a man.  Tears bring on the instant genetic urge to make the reason for the tear go away.  In the case of a younger woman, it would probably take the entire contents of my wallet to make it happen.

 “Ma’am are you all right?”  I asked it hoping she would say yes so that I could go back to my thoughts.

 She sniffled and nodded, then shook here head.   She was obviously in some distress.  Considering where we were, it was pretty obvious what was going on.  Who was the only question, but I didn’t ask, I was determined to wait her out.  It took about five minutes with me looking curiously in her direction.  She finally spoke.

 “My husband,” was all she said.  It was as if she read my mind.


 “I am so sorry.”  I waited a moment then went on.  “Is there someone I can call for you?”

 “That is very kind of you, but I am afraid we outlived our only child.”  She dabbed at her eyes.

 “Surely there is someone.  You really should not be alone right now.”

 “Actually, I am not alone I am with you.  Alone with a stranger is the best for me, I think.  Someone who doesn’t know about me and Herb.”

 I had the feeling she wanted to tell it to me.  I suppose that is what she meant by, a stranger who didn’t know.  I supposed even then that she planned to relive it by telling me.  “Well Ma’am, if there is anything I can do, you just name it.”

 Her face was more composed as she began without even a nod from me.  “It was 1943 when I turned eighteen.  High school was over and I was filled with patriotic zeal.  You know there was a war on in 43?”

 I nodded not wanting to break the trance she was working herself into.

 “My parents lived in a little town in Connecticut.  There were very few jobs there before the war.  The small local clock company got a defense contract so suddenly there were more jobs than workers. The old five story brick building was too small, so a metal building like an aircraft hanger got put up in the parking lot.  Loss of the parking spaces meant nothing, since the workers mostly lived close enough to walk or take the new trolley that got added to the route.”

 “I was graduated from the local high school on Friday.  I went to work on Monday of the next week.  It was just what you did in 1943.”

 “That first day was one hour of paperwork, then seven hours of standing by a machine watching it stamp out parts.  The woman with me explained it all to me.  My job was to feed the flat pieces of metal into the machine.  If there hadn’t been a war on, I would not have lasted the first shift.  It was a miserable job, not to mention dangerous.  I forget now how many pounds of pressure it used to stamp the parts but it was a lot.  They tell me it would be easy to lose a finger to the monster.”

 In spite of hating myself for it, I was beginning to see a really nice movie coming from her grief.  Too sweet for the theaters but for a lifetime tv movie it might work well.

 “Not only was it dangerous, it was hellishly noisy.  I had been standing there for several minutes shaking my head at the noise when he walked by me.  He caught me staring at him.  The reason was simple, he was the best looking man I had ever seen.  He was tall, thin, with slicked back hair.  He looked nothing like the boys from my school.  He was all man in his brown shirt open to show his white tee shirt.  He also wore those pleated khaki work pants that were so popular with men.”

 “I didn’t really think he noticed me until he came back with a large piece of cotton.  He handed it to me.  When he saw my confusion, he wadded up a bit then put it into my ear.  I realized that the cotton would help with the almost painful noise.  I was grateful for his help but more than that I was flattered that he had noticed me.”

 I didn’t have much time to think about Herbert, his name was provided by Judy my trainer.  She also provided me with some unsolicited advice about him.  “Stay away hon, that one is trouble.  He goes through women here like blue berries through a goose.”  Of course I giggled as I was supposed to do.

 The advice had to be delivered over dinner, since the machine made conversation impossible.  Nobody left the plant grounds so the half hour for dinner was more than enough to eat and to gossip just a little.

 When the shift ended, I was almost too tired to walk to the bus stop.  As I waited with Judy, my new best friend, Herbert drove by in his 1935 chevy.  The car I noticed smoked some but then most older cars did at that time.  It was not even something that I would have noticed if anyone else had been driving.

 “Judy, what does he do at the plant?” I asked it since I didn’t think she cared about him at all.

 “He is a fixer.  He repairs the machines that breakdown.  This place is running so fast that one machine down can cut the production by a hundred timers an hour.  The real maintenance is done at night after the second shift leaves.  He is just around to do emergency repairs.  If he can’t fix it then the second shift guy works on it, then the whole maintenance gang works on it at night.  If the two day shift guys can’t fix it, they usually put in a new one at night.  There is a warehouse with a spare machine for each one that is working now.  The fixers keep those ready to go too.  This plant never stops honey, not even for anything.”

 “Not even for holidays?”  I asked it knowing instantly I should not have.

 “We work two hours overtime every day for a week before a holiday.  Those ten hour shifts allow us to take a day off.  If the accidents didn’t go up on the long shifts, we would do them all the time. If the machines didn’t require so much maintenance, we would work three shifts a day.  This plant is making war materials and we promise that no man would die because we took a day off.  These timers might be the hold up in making a shell.  The hold up might cause a shortage which could cost a life.  That is what Mr. Inman said when he spoke to us last year, so we work ahead before we take off.”

 “So what happens if someone is out sick?”  I asked it remembering the flue epidemic only a few years before.  I hadn’t been sick but whole towns were.  At least that was the rumor.

 “Mr. Inman told us that he would not set a policy about absentees.  He would leave that to the worker’s committee.”

 “Wait, what is a worker’s committee?”  

 “There is a representative from each department on the committee.  We look after the interest of the employees.”  I nodded thinking that was a good thing.  “But, we also look after the interest of the plant.  This plant is too vital to allow a single person throw a wrench into the works.”

 “Are you on the committee, I mean you are so serious,” I asked.

 “No Jen, but I have a brother in the Pacific.  Most of us have someone, a father, brother, or husband out there.  Yes, I guess we do take this very serious.”

 “I am so sorry, do you know where your brother is now?”  It was a question that I knew had no answer.”

 “He doesn’t tell us, just somewhere safe.  That is at least what he tells momma.”

 “I will pray for him.” I just got it out when her streetcar arrived.  I was left standing at the stop waiting for the eighth avenue trolley.  It would take me within two blocks of my house.  If the Trolley was on time, I would be home by four p.m.

 I went directly to the kitchen, put on my apron and began working on dinner.  Mother was resting as she did most afternoons.  Mom wasn’t lazy she had been quite ill the winter before.  Dad said that she was still battling to regain her strength.  It left me with a lot of her work since I was an only child.  It would have been nice to have a younger brother or sister to do the house work, since I was working at the plant.

 “Don’t you dare,” Mother said as she moved into the kitchen from parlor.  “I will not have you working all day then coming home to work in the kitchen.  You go sit in the parlor.  I am quite capable of fixing the dinner for my family.”  Mother was determined to cook dinner and I thought it was a good sign.  It was my opinion at the time that she was pampering herself far too much

 After dinner Mother took to her bed leaving me to clean the kitchen.  I was a job I had done for years.  After dinner I went onto the porch to read while there was still enough light.  Instead of the book filling my mind, it was filled with thoughts of Herbert.  If only Judy hadn’t told me that he was a bad boy.  I smiled at that thought even back then.  I wasn’t sure at the time what the great attraction was, about him being a bad boy.  Now I know that all women are dying to reform one.  It is kind of a ‘look what I can do’ thing I think.

 The next day I started my real job at the plant.  The day before I had been taught how to run the machine in case Judy happened to be out sick.  It was going to be my job to smooth out the nicks in the levers the machine stamped out.  I had a soft grinding wheel so that I could run the edges of the levers over the wheel.  The wheel cut off any burrs that might cause it to hang up.  

 “If we were making clocks they would adjust the machine and throw these things out,” Judy informed me the next day.  Since they only have to work once, we just clean them up and send them on.  

 It was during that day that I heard the soft explosions for the first time.  “What is that?” I asked Judy I am sure with a little apprehension in my voice.

 “The army is here to test the shells.  The check to see that the detonators fire.”

 “If they blow up the shells, what is left.”

 “Jen, they take three shells from each shift each day to test.  If they have too many duds they begin checking to see why and maybe even who.  I am afraid everyone is not as careful as they should be.”

 “So what happens if you find someone being careless?”  I asked it because I was curious not really concerned for myself.

 “They get fired on the spot.  These shells can be life or death.  The committee does not take kindly to sloppy work habits.”  She noticed my look of concern.  “Honey, don’t worry, you will be fine.”

 “I nodded but I kept thinking about it during that first day.  Lucille was our supervisor and a real bitch. I hope you don’t mind me using that word.”

 I shook my head so she continued.  “She came by me every hour.  She checked the number of levers in my bucket then looked at her watch.  It was obvious that I wasn’t doing as many as she thought I should be doing.  I worked as hard as I could until lunch.  We took a thirty minute break at lunch.  Judy and I went into the yard to eat our lunch.  My lunch that first day was a small piece of the meat left over from dinner, a slice of bread, and an apple.  Everyone had a similar lunch it seemed.  I was glad to fit into the group of women who made up Judy’s circle of friends.”

 “I was a little surprised to note that all the women looked fit, even those who were a few pounds over weight.  It must have been the constant standing or walking, since it was the only difference between us and the housewives outside the gates.”

 “Would you like a cup of coffee?” I asked the older woman.  She shook her head no so I decided I didn’t need one either.  When she realized that I wasn’t going to move she continued.

 “Herb came by that day to speak to one of the women in our group.  He smiled at me as he walked away.  His remarks seemed to have been about a machine which the lady operated, but Judy told me it was some kind of secret code between them.  She also assured me that if Herb and the woman were caught, the worker’s committee would take action.  The complaint seemed to be that the woman was married.  Not only married, but married to a Marine who was somewhere in the south pacific.  The lesson I learned that day was that one needed to be very careful about who knew what.”

 I had been watching her expression as she spoke.  I think the old lady was reliving the events.  Her face was still eighty but at that moment her eyes were eighteen.  “So how in the world did you get Herbie to change his wicked ways?”  I asked it with real interest.

 “Well, Judy invited me to the picture show after work on Saturday.  I went along even thought I seldom went to the movies.”

 “So Judy, what is playing?”  I didn’t really care since I was just going to be with Judy and her friends.  I was flattered that the older crowd had invited me.

 “Oh some second rate movie with Humphry Bogart.  I think it is Alexandra or something like that.”

 “Oh okay,” I should mention that the movie was Casablanca.  It went on to win a best picture Oscar that year.

 “I have heard of it,” I replied smiling.  “It is just about the most told tale among Hollywood writers.”  It was her turn to look curious.  “Yes it was a hack movie, that just happened to bring everything together by accident.   The cast was perfect, the story just sappy enough and the direction just good enough to make it to the top.  Of course it didn’t hurt that it was a timely story.”

 “I don’t know about any of that but it was what I needed that night.  I was already in puppy love, the movie convinced me that it was real enough.  You know how that goes?  You want something so you go out looking for a sign.”

 “Sure,” I said it not at all sure that I had ever experienced it but I could understand on an intellectual level.

 She nodded then continued.  “When Judy and I left the theater Herb came around the corner in his smoking chevy.  He found a parking space since not many people used their cars for such short trips.  The blonde on his arm, when he finally got all the doors opened then closed, was cheap looking to say the least.  Her dress was too tight, and I was sure her bra was stuffed with cotton.  Her breasts just didn’t look exactly right to me.  She was also the wife of that Marine in the Pacific.  He must have had a thing for her, since he was out in public showing her off.  It was a dangerous thing to do.”

 “Judy didn’t mention it, but she had a look that could have killed.  I didn’t say a word.  We walked a couple of blocks to the local café.  Judy and I had agreed to have pie and coffee after the movie.  I had never really liked coffee but it made me feel older to drink it.  I remember the pie was cherry.  I remember because I thought it odd to have cherries in the summer.  How the café got them I had no idea.  I mean everything seemed to be going to the war effort.”

 “About Herb,” I reminded her.  I was not so much impatient as intent on hearing the details.

 “The first thing that happened of any real significance was that he offered me a ride home after work.  I declined of course.  It was far to public.  I did not want to be lumped with his other tramps.  I remember how angry he got when I told him that.  I used those words too.”

 “Herbie didn’t speak to me for a week.  When he did speak to me, it was all about the plant.  I mentioned to the girls that the plant must be a fire hazard since it smelled of oil all the time.  The comment must have struck a chord, because one of them mentioned it to Herb as he walked by during the lunch break.  Since the woman told Herb that I had been concerned, he answered me.”

 “If we didn’t use all the oil, then the place would be a fire hazard.  When you cut metal there is a lot of heat.  The oil keeps the friction and the heat down.  The place smells of oil because we use a lot of it out in the open.  The plant is really careful though, and there are fire buckets everywhere.  But don’t use the red ones on the oil, use the yellow ones.  He smiled at me as he delivered the lecture.  The woman could tell there was a feud brewing.”

 “It wasn’t a feud at all but they didn’t know that.  The next move came when I was leaving the ladies room after work.  It had become my habit to clean up some before I caught the bus.  Mostly it was because the bus came twenty minutes after shift change.  I hated to just sit and wait, so I began washing up at the plant.  I carried soap and a cloth in my purse.”

 “As I left the room, Herbie passed me in the hall on the way to the men’s.  He smiled and I smiled back.  Frankly both smiles were flirting.”

 “So Jen, you gonna forgive me for offering you a ride.”  His smile told me that he wasn’t really asking for forgiveness at all.

 “There is nothing to forgive, the ride wasn’t ever the problem it was the reputation you have managed to get around here.”

 “Why would that bother you?  You are not married are you?”

 “No Herb, but I also do not sleep with men.  I do not want people to think that I do.  I plan to marry one day.”

 “So you are telling me that if you accepted a ride home with me people would think that we were sleeping together?”

 “‘Yes they would, now I have to leave or I will miss my bus,’  He allowed me to pass him in the hall.  I had to pass him closely enough to smell his aftershave.  There wasn’t much left of it after a full shift.  It also did little to cover his male smell.  He had worked a full shift after all.  My heart pounded as I slipped by him.”

 “Herb was not from out town.  He had moved in order to work in the factory.  Some said that he had been recruited from California by old man Inman.  The point was that his reputation was at the plant, not the town.  When he showed up after dinner at my house that night, my parents thought it was sweet.  They had no idea that he was a scoundrel.  They thought it was time that men began to pay attention to me.”

 “As was the custom at our house, we all sat on the porch after dinner.  Herb just showed up while we were visiting.  Mom had me get him a piece of the cake I had made the day before.  He even rated a glass of milk with her.  Herb was a charmer, no doubt.  Since he had a trade, being a fixer, daddy even liked him.  I doubt that either would have approved, had they known the gossip on Herb.  I didn’t tell since I was flattered that he showed up at the house.  The truth is Freddie, most women love a bad boy.”

 “Late that night, after my parents went to bed, I got my first grown up kiss.  It came complete with his tongue in my mouth.  That kiss so took my breath away, that I felt his hand cover one of my breasts.  I didn’t even know which one I was so befuddled nor was I able to stop him.  I think if we had not been in a public place I might have done something very foolish.  I know that I was squirming and trying to get even closer to him.  I tried to pull away but he held me tight.  I gave in to him again.  I just couldn’t find the strength to resist him.”

 “I felt his hand on my leg, then it was at the edge of my panties.  I honestly willed him to stop but I could not find the strength to say, no.  His fingers crept inside my panties at the crotch.  He broke the kiss and I gasped for air.”

 “Open your legs,” he said as though he were in complete control.  The tone of his voice surprised me.  I could only manage to shake my head.

 “Do it, or I will tell everyone at the plant just how far I got with you.  I will tell them that all it takes is a kiss.  They know me and know that I don’t lie.  I don’t have to lie.  Now either open your legs girl, or get ready to have every man left in this town on your doorstep.”

 “I was a lot more in control of myself when I opened my legs.  I did it with tears in my eyes.  Herb pulled my head to him then began to kiss me.  As he kissed me, I resisted the power of his kiss for a while but eventually I began to feel the heat and the fog.  Before I knew it, he had his hand between my legs again.  He pushed my legs apart and I did not resist that time.  I gasped for breath when he touched my lips.  I could feel just how slippery I had become.  His finger glided over me.”

 “My hips began to move without my control as he spread the lips with his finger.  He moved his finger up and down my slit.  He touched my clit only a few times before I exploded into my first orgasm induced by another person.  I grasped his hand with both of mine to stop him.  The feelings were just too intense.  He continued to work on me against my will.  He slipped his finger deep inside me.  I moaned even as I knew it was wrong.  He worked his large thick finger inside me, Even though it was slightly painful I responded to it.  The response was purely animal. It was not something I wanted to do in my brain, in the end I had two more orgasms.”

 “I was a limp dishrag when he finished.  I was surprised when he did not go any farther.  He simply moved over to another seat then he just looked at me for a long time.

 “You do know what this makes you?” he asked.

 “No, what?” I asked in a voice I did not recognize.

 “‘It makes you my woman.  You will do what I say when I say it.’  He noticed my look of concern.  ‘Don’t worry, no one will ever know that we are together.  This is the last time that I will visit you here.  At the plant I will act as though we are still fighting.  I don’t want any of the others to know about my new whore.’”


 “The word assaulted my ears.  I couldn’t believe the man who had just given me three orgasms was calling me a whore.  Worse yet, I could not believe the effect it had on me.  I wanted to please him for some reason.  I had done nothing for him but I wanted to do something I didn’t know what just something.”

 “Please don’t call me that,” I begged.

 “But Jen darling, only a whore opens her legs the first time she is kissed.  You either do as I say, or I tell everyone about your sweet little body.  How hot and ready a kiss can make you.  Oh, you will have plenty of attention but it will be from the guys who have reputations worse than mine.”

 “Now just so you understand open your blouse and show me your breasts.”

 “But Herb, we are on my dad’s porch.”

 “I know where we are now open your blouse, I want you to show me you breasts or I am gonna leave.  If I do, you know what I am gonna do.”

 “I was confused I guess.  I didn’t have time to think or I might have told him to go to hell.  Years of being a girl child who was obedient to her parents, and the thought of what would happen if he told, and the excitement of what he was asking all pulled together to defeat me.  I slowly unbuttoned my blouse.  I did not look at Herb, I couldn’t.  When all the buttons were open, he motioned for me to continue.”

 “I lifted the bra over my breasts.  My breasts were not especially large but they were firm and stood up.  My nipples I knew had betrayed me, they would be hard and pointed.  I had no idea what he would do at the sight of them.”

 “Very nice now replace your clothes,” he demanded.

 “I was so grateful that I said, ‘thank you’.  He simply nodded.”

 “‘You were very good with those buttons, come here and open my trousers.’  I shook my head.  ‘Jen, do not force me to repeat everything, just get up off the glider and come over here.’  He had moved from the seat beside me to the chair my dad had occupied before he made me open my blouse.”

 “I got up and went to him.  I stood over him with my eyes locked on his.  He reached up put his hand on my shoulders and then pulled me down.  I could not believe that I was on my knees between his legs.  He even took my right hand and placed it over his crotch.  I felt the lump there.”

 “‘Now undo the buttons and take it out.’  My stomach was weak at the thought of what he wanted me to do.  Still I was in too far to back out and somewhere deep inside I wanted to do it.  I worked one button open then two.  It was difficult since his pants were tight over his tool.  As I got lower it got easier, I guess it was because the pants were pleated.”

 “Once I had him outside his trousers he said, ‘Now wrap your hand around it.’  I had never seen a man’s penis before and it was too dark to see well.  I felt it though.  Long and wet and soft while still hard.  My hand would not cover even half of it.”

 “‘Now move your hand up and down on it.’  I didn’t understand so he put his hand over mine.  He moved it up and down until I understood.  When he pulled his hand away, I continued to move mine up over the head, then all the way down to the base.  He began to squirm.  ‘Don’t stop bitch, I am going to cum.’  The words should have been like cold water in the face but they weren’t.  They just made it all better for him and for me too.  I had no idea what to expect when he had his orgasm but I found out quickly enough.  The thick hot cum landed on my hand.  So much that it ran over my hand and down onto his pants.”

 “That was good, baby.  Why don’t you clean me up.”

 “Honey, I don’t have anything to clean you up with.”


 “Sure you do baby, you can lick me clean or you can take off your panties and wipe it clean.  But do something before it gets everywhere.”

 “When I hesitated, he took a glob on his finger then smeared it on my face.  I knew it would get worse so I took off my panties. I used them to wipe him and my hand.  I also used them on my face.  I noticed that they smelled from all the times I had orgasmed.”

 “He kissed me then.  ‘Can’t have Mom finding these,’ he said taking my panties.  He placed them into his pocket, stood then left without even a goodbye.”

 I wondered why she had told me such an intimate story and in such detail until I saw her face.  She had told me the story for the shock value as much as the information.

 “Things took a different twist a couple of days later.  Herbie had hardly spoken to me at all since the Sunday night on my front porch.  When he did speak, it was accompanied by a smirk.  I had decided there would never be a repeat of that Black Sunday as I came to think of it.”

 “I was headed to a bible study class on Wednesday night two weeks later when Herbie pulled to the curb in front of me.  I was in plain sight of any of my neighbors who cared to look when he spoke to me.  ‘Get in the car Jen.’”

 “I considered resisting but that would have caused a scene, something I did not need.  Besides my neighbors most likely did not know whom it was driving the Chevy.  I did know that I had to go to church.  If I missed church, eyes would be raised and questions asked.”

 “Alright but I have to be at church in ten minutes,” I replied. 

 “‘Not enough time, tell you Dad, that you are going to the movies tomorrow.’ he said then drove off without an answer.  All through church I told myself that I would not lie to my parents.  Of course I lied that very night.  I told them both, that I was going to the movies, and afterward to the café for a bite.  The smiled thinking I was finally getting a social life.” 

 “Herb was supposed to meet me at the park one block off my route to the trolley line.  I walked to the park feeling deliciously wicked.  It was part of the whole experience I suppose.  I sat on the swings to wait for Herb.  I waited an hour when he didn’t show I threatened to leave over and over again.  If I returned home early, my parents would ask why.  I could fake an illness but that would worry them.  What I did was sit in the park until the time was right to go home.”

 “The plant was all abuzz with rumors the next day.  The rumor. Judy told me, was all about how Kay, the Jean Harlow blonde was on Herb’s arm at the movie, had been found dead.  Something or someone had hit her on the head.  The opinions seemed to be leaning toward Herb.  Herb tried to catch my eye all morning.  I tried to avoid his gaze.”

 “After work he caught me in the hall by the bathrooms again.  ‘Jen, I am sorry about last night the car broke down on the way.  I couldn’t get it running until after midnight.’  Herb looked desperate for me to believe him.  He was hardly the confident man who had talked me out of my panties a few days before.  Herb was worried and from the rumors I knew why.  He expected to be interviewed by the police.”

 “‘Jen, it looks like they are going to try to pen Kay’s murder on me.  You know I didn’t do it.  I was on my way to see you that night.’  He looked awfully concerned while my mind raced.”

 “‘Well Herb, I don’t really know that now do I.’ It must have been the tone of my voice that got to him.”

 “‘But you know I was trying to get to you.’  He was almost pleading with me.”

 “‘So you want me to lie?’  I waited while he tried to find a better way to put it.  ‘Or do you want me to tell them you just never showed up.’”

 “He hung his head when he said, ‘Lie.’”

 “This is going to cost you.  My price is high.”

 “‘What is your price?’ I thought he would refuse, but he didn’t.  Herbie stopped all that nonsense and settled down.  He got respectable and married me.  Our sex life was a little strange but not all that much by today’s standards.  I would like to think that we were just ahead of our time.  But then again the good Marque was before us.”  She grinned at me as she finished.

 “Was this all some great confession or is there some reason for the story?” I asked.

 “You are very perceptive.  I am trying to decide if I should tell Herb before he passes away, that I helped someone get away with Murder, and it wasn’t him.”

 “Judy?” I asked.

 “My, you really are perceptive.  So should I tell him?”

 “Hell no, he deserves to think of you as his savior.”

 “I have thought that way for fifty years, I don’t suppose telling him would make his dying any easier.”

 “No and since you told someone, you conscience should be a little better.  Oh yeah,” I said as an after thought.  “There is no statue of limitation on murder.”

 “I know, but Judy died years ago.”  Just then the kid came through the door.  I got him while he waited for the doctor.  Fifteen minutes later I was on the road with the knowledge that Herb would die without knowing his wife had lied for fifty years and that the kid’s wife was pregnant.  All in all a good day.

 All except that it was dark, cold, icy, and I had been wrong there were no homegrown motels in Newport.  It was a Holiday Inn Express or drive all night.  Not much of a choice.  I filled my thermos with coffee before I returned to the highway in search of a mom and pop motel

 It was a long trip from The Dream to the small North Carolina town of my birth.  The layovers made the trip even longer, but I hadn’t minded.  There wasn’t much waiting for me anyway.

 “So Sis, you gonna let me in or what?”  I asked it of the woman who looked much older instead of slightly younger than my forty years.  Having a house full of kids early in life does that I expect.  

 “Why didn’t you warn me you were coming Freddie?” she asked.

 “Truth is Sissy, I been headed this way for a month.  It was probably a good thing that I didn’t warn you each time I started home.”  I looked around the small three bedroom house, that had once belonged to my mother and father.  Even with the joint ownership, it had always been momma’s house.

 “So what brings you home, I didn’t think you would ever come back after the funeral.”  She meant my mother’s funeral, which had been almost exactly a year after my dad’s.

 I took a look at the two grand kids pulling at her house dress, then made a spur of the moment decision.  “I am not really here for long.  I am actually just passing through.”

 “So where you headed?  You going back to California?”  She at least tried to look curious.

 “No, I think I will head to the coast.  I didn’t want to pass through without stopping to say hi, so hi.”

 “You gonna stay for dinner ain’t you?”

 Sissy was not all that enthusiastic I noted.  I couldn’t say I blamed her either.  Cooking for a visitor might just be all it took to push her into a breakdown.  I declined as gracefully as possible. Sissy tried to be forceful in her reassurance that it wouldn’t be any trouble, but I was stronger.  In the end, I push a handful of money at her, then left.  I left without even a cup of coffee.

 I got the coffee and a meal in the pancake house I remembered from my early dating days.  Pancakes for dinner seemed reasonable enough to me, so I had a large stack with link sausage.  Lots of real butter washed away by syrup from a dispenser, marked blueberry, completed the plate’s contents.  It also completed my month’s calorie limit.  

 I could have found a motel near the restaurant but I was interested in making a few more miles before dead nightfall.  I had decided to go on to the coast, since I had enjoyed the California beaches so much.  I drove until well after nightfall.  It was an easy drive down I40.  It looked as thought I would drive all the way from one ocean to another on that same ribbon of concrete.

 I stopped at a chain motel since I had driven past the time I should have stopped to look for a place.  If there was even a town around the Motel, I didn’t know it.  I checked in, fell onto the bed, then awoke at seven the next morning.

 I checked the map over a breakfast of eggs, bacon and grits.  The blob of grits was as tasteless as I remembered them.  I covered it with butter, then salt and pepper, but nothing helped.  Way over half the blob remained for the dish washer to sand blast off the green rimmed plate.

 I reached Wilmington North Carolina, which had been my destination all along.  I drove through the town, which in my memory was still a sleepy coastal village.  It seemed that over the years the town had grown in reality, but not in my memory.  My plan to live the quiet life was shattered by the traffic, the car horns, and the cluttered view of the place.  Even the island, a few miles away, was badly over built.  It had all become the dream in a minor key.  

 I sat down to an early lunch in the first diner that appeared to have real food.  “So what happened to the Wilmington I knew as a kid?” I asked of the waitress.  She at least looked old enough to know what I meant.

 “It moved on up the coast,” she replied seriously.

 “You are kidding right?”  I asked it because I didn’t really understand.

 “Nope, nobody much visits those river front towns along the waterway.  They still are like this town used to be.  Ain’t much in the way of jobs though.”

 “So these towns, where are they.”  I noticed her curious look.  “I at least ought to check them out.”  I smiled my best lost stranger smile/

 “You mighty young to be retiring but you can take a look at New Bern, or Washington, maybe even Hertford.  Last time I was up that way they still had some room to stretch in them.  Course, like I said, ain’t gonna be no jobs to speak of up there.”

 “Okay, but how do I find these places.  It’s been a long time since I was here.”

 “Just go north on highway 17.  You will find them okay.”

 I am such an optimist that I left her a tip equal to the price of the meal.  I hoped her information would prove to be worth the tip.  I figured if worse came to worse, I would head back to Wilmington and sit down with a local map and newspaper.  I was hoping for a better life than the congested cut rate beach town seemed to offer when I pulled onto highway 17 headed north.

 The two and a half hour drive put me into downtown New Bern in the early afternoon.  I took the driving tour in less than fifteen minutes.  I was enough to convince me that the town had definite potential.  The river was huge with large four lane concrete bridges that seemed to run for miles.  They reminded me of bridges in California, but on a smaller scale.  The river front park seemed newer than anything in the town except for a couple of the large motels.  The motels seemed to strike both good and bad gongs in my ear.  On the one hand it meant people visited the town on the other it meant people visited the town in large numbers.  I had no idea what my new life would be like but the number of motel rooms in a sleepy town did not bode well for the cost of living index.  Visitors out spent residents in every case.  That simple fact drove up the cost of living in any given town.

 The second thing that struck a note of discord was the historic district downtown.  On the second day after Christmas it should have been filled with shoppers but it was empty.  I realized why after a few minutes parked on the main shopping street.  All the shops were cutesy little yuppie gift shops.  Those that weren’t still catered to the rich tourist and retirees.  That I learned for the woman who sold me a very fancy cup of coffee in a small deli on Middle Street.  At a buck fifty a cup, I knew that I couldn’t afford New Bern, well not if I had to earn the money that I spent.  

 In the spirit of giving it a chance, I drove the tour of the older poorer part of town.  I found lots of that for sure.  It was like there were two different towns all crammed into one space.  I might have given the town a second chance had I not stopped in a fast food restaurant.  It seemed to be run down enough to be local so I stopped.  

 “So what’s the best thing you have,” I asked the young black woman who was working the counter.

 “Everything is about the same.  Best is supposed to be the steak and cheese.”

 “Then give me one,” I replied with a smile.  I looked about the almost shabby restaurant.  I noted that at three in the afternoon, I was the only customer.  I supposed that everyone else had enough left over turkey to last for a while.

 The sandwich was good enough, though small.  What sent me looking for another town was that the price which seemed to be based on some other economy.  It was either a New York or an L.A. menu for sure.  I had been away from the dream long enough to know that things did not have to cost as much.  If you had L.A. prices, the economy had to support those kinds of wages.  I had already determined that the New Bern economy was based on large retirement incomes from the Yankee transplants.  The locals were being squeezed out of their own town.  It wasn’t anything I wanted to change so I just decided to move on.

 I returned to highway seventeen which crossed the large bridges.  The drive to the next town on my list took one hour and small change.  I pulled into the town of Washington.  The town looked smaller and older than New Bern.  I had the exact same river front park as New Bern.  The view however, didn’t include the giant bridges, but it did have a smaller bridge across the waterway.  The small marina was part of the downtown park or at least attached to it.

 There didn’t seem to have been a Yankee invasion of Washington so I was tempted to buy a paper and look for an apartment.  The only thing that stopped me was the number of new motels on the bypass just outside town.  Something about that strip of congestion bothered me, even though I didn’t know what it was.   I even checked into one of the older motels to try to get a better feel for it.

 “So, what is the big draw in this town?” I asked the clerk who checked me in.  She was a middle-aged lady with a streak of white in her hair.  For all the world she looked like Lily on the munster’s T V show.

 “It used to be the half way point for east coast drivers headed to the South Carolina beaches,” she replied.

 “That explains the older motels, but why the new once do people still drive this road?”

 “They must, I can’t think of any other reason for all the motels.  There isn’t any real draw except for the one big summer festival.  If they were built for that, somebody is losing his ass off.”  She grinned.

 The room in the older motel was about average.  It was either too hot or too cold all night long.  I watched the cable TV until I fell asleep.  I could not find anything during my tour either that night or the next day to recommend the town.

 After an early breakfast I headed north on highway 17 again.  I drove about an hour until I came to another river front town.  There seemed to be plenty of them along the inland waterway of North Carolina.  The little town of Edenton would have been perfect, if the historical district had not been designed by someone with a flair toward the flamboyant.  The storefronts looked for all the world like a gay decorator’s nightmare.  I stayed just long enough to make one sweep through the town.  I didn’t even stop to ask a waitress or clerk somewhere about the towns life, instead, I moved on to the next little town.

 My tour of Hertford began like all the others.  I started with a quick drive through the river front section.  It had the obligatory concrete walks and abutments everywhere but the similarity ended there.  The very few renovated buildings were all done differently.  The town did not have the high school prom theme look about it that Edenton had, nor did it look as though someone had changed the look of the town to impress some out of state carpetbaggers.  Instead it looked like an old historic town with a couple of building renovated, but not gussied up.

 I found the dark and greasy looking diner/bar across from the courthouse by accident.  I stopped to look at the old courthouse that was at least a hundred and fifty years old.  In order to take the look I needed a parking space.  I found a parking space between two diners.  One had a fairly modern interior patched onto the original building which was probably seventy-five years old.  The other one’s Bandaid patch was at least fifty years older.  I chose the older greasier one of course.

 If left to my own devices I would have moved into the bar area for my lunch, instead I had a table pointed out by a gum chewing teenager who stood behind the modern cash register.  I was busy looking at the menu when the big man in the cop’s uniform came in.

 “That Jap Jeep out there belong to anyone in here?”  He asked it as if the Samurai had committed some crime worthy of the death penalty.  Truth is the death penalty would have been a mercy killing for the thing.

 “Yeah, it is mine,” I replied with a smile that I did not feel.

 “You didn’t plug the meter so I had to put a ticket on it.”

 “Sure why not,” I replied still smiling.

 “Well now is that a smart assed comment?”  He didn’t look like he was in a good mood.  While he spoke the waitress came to stand beside me with her pad.


 “Well officer, the comment was what it was.”  I wasn’t about to escalate it or to back down.  I was just too stubborn for my own good sometimes.  “You are going to take it any way you want no matter what I say.”

 “Well you know what, the inspection sticker is expired on that thing.”  He had a really mean look.

 “Oh really,” I replied.

 “Yeah it had a big old 11 on it.”  I noted with some satisfaction that he was removing his ticket book from his pocket.  It was one of those books about the size of a third sheet of paper.  I had never seen a cop carry one in his pocket before.

 “So you work for the state of California now?”  I asked the with a wicked smile.

 “No, I don’t work for the state of queers.”  There was a soft mumble of laughter.

 “Regardless of what you think of California that sticker is part of my California registration which is still good by the way.  I have been outside California since October so inspecting it has not been possible.  I also have a set of receipts showing that I am not a resident of this state.  At least not yet so there is no North Carolina violation subsequently nothing you can do.”

 It was obvious that he was at a loss.  “Well how about I just go out and check that car over real close.  I bet I can find a broken tail light or something.”  It was the cops turn to smile.

 “Why don’t I just go with you two?” a young woman asked rising.  She was young and would have been very attractive without the freckles and the extra twenty pounds.  As it was she was moderately attractive.

 “Amber this don’t concern you,” the cop said.

 “Sure it does, I got a feeling things are going to happen to this visitor’s car and I am a member of the chamber of commerce.  We are promoting tourism.

 “Not likely that the Chamber would let you join.  You ain’t exactly a pillar of the community.”

 “Maybe not, but the magistrate does know me.  If you carry this gentleman there, I am going to be with you.”

 “Come on Amber, why you want to get involved in this?”

 “Because Edgar, I love to screw over you. It is my second favorite past time.”

 “Yeah, what is your first?”  Everyone seemed to hold their breath waiting for the answer.

 “Why, registering new voters of course.  If I get enough, I get a gold star and your job.”  It was probably not a good thing that everyone in the place laughed.  I know it was not a good thing that I did.  It looked as though I could scratch Hertford from my list of towns.  It was a shame too since I liked the little town already.  I mean, where else in the whole wide world would you find Barney Fife.

 The cop walked away with his head held high, but I don’t know how he did it.  “Thanks,” I said to the woman he had called amber.  “Are you a lawyer or something?”  I asked it because she had stood her ground with a cop.  There were not many people who would do that.  Almost every sane person gives cops a lot of room.

 “Worse,” she replied.

 “What is worse than a lawyer?” I asked without thinking how it sounded.

 “I am what Edgar would call a flaming liberal.”

 “Well this may be the first time I ever said it to a liberal, but thanks.”

 “Why? you were doing just fine.  I expected you to whip out an ACLU hand book.”  She smiled up at me.  It was up because she was short, real short.  Not the most attractive woman I had ever met, but she had a spark in her eyes that made her gorgeous.

 “Not me, I belong to the Jim Burch Society,” I said smiling.

 “That’s John Burch,” she said grinning.

 “No it’s Jim, we believe in free love and nudity.”  I grinned at her and the waitress.

 “You gonna eat Mister?” the waitress asked.

 I turned to the woman called Amber, “Could I buy your lunch?”

 “No, but you could buy me a cup of coffee.”  She grinned at me.

 The coffee was on the table before either of us said anything, then it was me who spoke.  The woman, who the cop had called Amber, was even better at the waiting game than I was.  “So the cop called you Amber?”  It was a question and she knew it.  She chose to smile at me as an answer.  She made me nervous suddenly.  Worse yet she seemed to enjoy it.  I sat quietly trying to think of something intelligent to say.  I found out then how hard it was to be bright on demand.  For the first time I had empathy for those men who can’t get it up the first time they are in bed with a new woman.  I could not for the life of me get it up, intellectually.

 After running through different openings in my mind, I finally asked, “Is there a local newspaper?”

 “Not really, the paper is regional.  It covers about three counties, I think.  Don’t matter really there isn’t all that much news here anyway.  We all read USA today.”

 “Oh I see, well I had the classified in mind actually.”

 She laughed before she went on.  “The classified section here is the bulletin board at the Food Lion store.  It isn’t all that well organized but that is where all the things around here are posted.”

 “Okay, then is there a motel around.  I need a place to stay while I look around.”  I had at that very moment decided to give the town a try.  I mean I had met what appeared to be an eligible woman in the first thirty minutes I was in town.  Since I believed in omens, I took it as a glimpse into the future.

 “Not an open one, the local one is closed for a couple of months.  The closest motel is down in Edenton.  This town just doesn’t get that many visitors.  There are no plants or anything else of the sort for salesmen to call on.  This is just a sleepy little village, so they close the motel for vacation over Christmas.”

 I tried not to look disappointed, but that part I could not play well at all.  I could not imagine what kind of work I could find to do in the small town.  Fortunately with my stake from the Dream, I wouldn’t need too much.  Still, the town sounded  too small for anything at all.  The drain might be less, but there didn’t seem to be anyway to replace even part of the money I would need to spend jsut to live.  That was on first glance, but in my heart I knew better.  With a few bucks and the willingness to be flexible one could always make a buck.  You might not be able to get rich, but you could make a buck.

 I didn’t notice but all that thinking took about ten seconds.  “Hey Linda,” Amber said as the waitress passed by.  “Where can this gentleman stay for a couple of days while he is out house hunting.”

 “All the folks who have rooms to rent want to rent them for more than a couple of weeks.  You know Thomas Simmons is back from Florida.”

 “He is back early this year,” Amber replied.

 “Seems like his daughter’s children got on his nerves.  That is what he said anyway.  Most likely it was her husband.”  The waitress smiled knowingly.

 “So you think he will rent this Gentleman one of his places?”

 “Wouldn’t be surprised.”  She turned her attention to me. “You want me to call him?”

 “What will I be getting into?”  I asked it without too much concern.  I had lived in some pretty sleazy places in the Dream.

 “Thomas runs a fishing camp.  He’s got about ten cabins he rents in the spring and summer.  After October he usually goes to Florida till spring.  He came home before Christmas this year.  So do I call or not?”

 “Sure call him,” I replied.

 Linda was gone before Amber spoke,  “Linda is the other classified section here by the way.”

 “Can she get me a job too?” I smiled.

 “Probably but I am not sure you are up to the kind of work there is around here.”

 “Oh, what kind is that?”

 “Real work mostly,” she replied.  “Farm work, or maybe construction on the roads.  Jobs are pretty scarce around here.”

 “I had heard that.  I can probably find something.  It just might take a while.  So what do you do?”

 “I am self employed.”  She surely saw my curious look, but she didn’t answer it.  Hairdresser, I thought.

 “Well then maybe I can come work for you.”  She burst into laughter.  It was most unbecoming on her.  The freckles darkened and her slightly chubby body jiggled a little.  “No, I don’t think I could use you.”  She looked at her watch then stood abruptly.  “I have to be off now, by the way what is your name?”

 “Oh damn, I’m sorry my name is Freddie Welch.”  I extended my hand to her which she too.

 “Amber Hartley,” she replied then hurried away.  I finished the coffee while I waited for word from the waitress about the fishing camp.  I waited for my lunch as well.  The food came first.  I was happily devouring the meatloaf with mashed potatoes when she returned.  

 “Tommy said for you to come by the camp this afternoon.  He is going to be doing some work out there so he will be around.  Mind you, he didn’t promise to open a cabin for you, just to talk to you.

 For the next several minute she gave, then edited directions to the fish camp.  In the end one of the customers gave me directions.  He also explained that I best begin looking for a more permanent place as the fish camp wasn’t going to be very comfortable.  “No cable TV, hell no TV at all,” he said with a roar of laughter.

 “Now the place does have indoor plumbing?” I asked with a laugh.  I was trying to join in the fun.

 “Good question, this time of year I am not sure.  I mean the damn pipes are probably froze up.  I expect Thomas drains them.”  The customer’s response and my look of complete disbelief brought another round of knowing smiles and laughter from the eavesdroppers around us.

 I nodded as I turned stood to pay the bill.  I had a good sized chunk of time to kill so I drove to the Food Lion store.  I figured if the camp was as primitive as the restaurant patrons suggested, I might want to keep looking.

 I found the bulletin board just inside the automatic doors.  It was so close to the door that they would not stay closed.  Every time I move a couple of inches to my left the doors opened again.  I did a quick look for rooms to let but moved into the store quickly because the opening and closing of the door was maddening.

 I left the store five or less minutes later with a package of clone chocolate, chocolate Orios and a diet coke from the cold storage area.  Since I had still more time to kill, I drove to the riverside park.  I sat in my Samurai with the heater going full blast while I drank the coke and ate two of the cookies.  The others I returned to the plastic bag.  Staying slim was a big deal in the Dream, so habit forced me to return the cookies to the bag.

 The Samurai had a really nice stereo system, so I played music while I tried to write something entertaining about my road trip.  The portable word processor I used would not have helped Custer at the little big horn.  The only thing it would do was to record like an electronic typewriter.  It had no computer functions at all.  The reason I used it was simple, it operated on AA flashlight batteries.  With them I had no problem keeping it powered up.  The fancy laptop, which I also carried in the Sammy, was always dead.  The battery for it cost over a hundred bucks, so it worked only on wall current.  I refused to replace the worn out battery.  Before I knew it the time had come for me to search out the fish camp.

 As was my habit, I arrived fifteen minutes before the appointed time.  I found Thomas Simmons with a paintbrush in his hand.  He also had a small amount of the dark-green trim paint on his hands.  Since he did not offer to shake hands, I hoped the paint was the reason.

 “Mr, Simmons, My name is Freddie Welch.  I think the waitress at the diner called about me.”

 “Yeah Linda called, she is a busybody always trying to help people.  I don’t rent during the winter, too much trouble.”  He turned back to painting the right door on one of his three cabins.  The balance of the land in the fish camp appeared to be used as trailer spaces.  I was just about to blow him off when he spoke again.

 “She said you was lookin’ for a place to live permanent?” His voice made it a question.

 “Well Semi permanent anyway, I plan to move her for at least a little while.”

 “Got family here?”  It was the kind of question that turns the questioned person defensive.  I fought against it.

 “Nope, just like the water.”  I smiled the best smile I could find in my smile file.

 “Okay, you can stay in cabin four but I warn you it ain’t the Hilton.  It’s open go on down and take a look.  Take the left side, it is probably the best one.”


 Simons wasn’t kidding.  The fish camp cabin was definitely not the Hilton.  Hell, it wasn’t even Bangladesh west.  There was nothing in the room save four beds and a homemade rack of shelves with plastic boxes upon them.  One of the beds was full sized the other three were twins.  The cabin must have been intended for a family or a group of men come to fish.  The bathroom was off the entrance way.  It was shared by both sides.  Against the outside wall sat a small but heavy steel firebox, from it rose a stovepipe which passed through the wall by means of a concrete collar inserted into the dry wall.  It appeared to have been in the room about a hundred years so I figured it was safe.  

 The firebox was no larger than the box a pair of boots might be shipped inside.  I had no idea what could be burned inside so small a firebox.  A common fireplace log would be twice the size of the box.  The room was cluttered and dirty but it also appealed to my sense of adventure.  I did some quick calculations and figured I cold manage for about five days in the room before I ran to the motel in the next town.

 “Okay, if you don’t want too much, and can tell me what kind of fuel that stove burns, I will take it for a week.”  I decided I could push it two more days.  I had completely forgotten that Simmons wasn’t crazy about renting in the winter.

 “In the summer I get seventy-five a day for that place.  Since it is winter, how about you pay me for a day and stay the week?”

 “I can live with that,” I replied.  “Now about the stove.”

 “Well son, the camp store is closed for sure, but go to the Food Lion and get yourself a bag of charcoal.  Before you ask, it is perfectly safe.  You can even cook on it.”  He chuckled at what he must have thought was a humorous remark.

 The small charcoal fired stove made perfect sense, when I gave it some thought.  It gave the fishermen some morning heat as well as a way to make coffee.  If mom came along, they could probably have some rudimentary home cooking as well.  As long as the charcoal stove was vented, it wouldn’t pose a health risk.

 I left the fish camp with a feeling that I had better find a real place soon.  I didn’t think the cabin with its open stud walls would be very warm.  I was never good with cold.  After I unloaded most of the bags, I drove back to the Food Lion for a better look at the bulletin board.  I didn’t see a single thing of interest.  I mean, nothing to rent or buy, no jobs or business ideas.  I was beginning to think I might need to move on.  I would stay for a week, but I decided that if it was cold in the cabin, I would forfeit the money and move on.  I bought one ten pound bag of charcoal.  If i moved on the next tenant could have it.

 When I returned to the fish camp, Thomas came out of his office to greet me.  He had a cardboard box for me.  Inside the box I three several lightweight plastic tarps, along with a hammer, a handful of roofing nails and several pots pans and containers.  

 “You gonna need this stuff if you plan to stay a week,” he informed me.  The idea he informed me was to use the roofing tacks to hang the tarps.  The tarps would cut down on the air infiltration.  Hell, it sounded good in principle and it even worked somewhat.  The room lost the drafty feel between the tarps and the small fire.  It just never got really warm, but it also wasn’t really cold either.  There was a plastic milk jug to carry water from the bathroom sink to the room.

  “For coffee,” he informed me.  There was no coffee pot, but then there were others capable of boiling water.  It appeared that the rag tag assortment of metal had been left behind by summer tourists over the years.  I didn’t even try to imagine who all they might have been.

 “So now I have pots and pans, are you gonna supply the food?” I asked it smiling.

 “No but you better get some coffee at least.  It is gonna be cold in the mornings and you are going to need it.”

 “I just got back from the store,” I replied.

 “Up to you Welch, but coffee makes a place home.”  He gave me one of those, ‘I know best’ smiles.  I’m going to fill up your hurricane lights.  If you need them filled again, I am gonna have to charge you.”

 “I know I am going to be sorry that I asked, but why do I need hurricane lights?”

 “Freddie, when you looked around, didn’t you notice that there was no electricity in the cabins.  This is a fish camp Freddie, not a motel son.”

 “How ‘bout opening the store for me.  I really don’t want to make that drive again.”

 “Nothing left in the store, everything is packed away till spring.  I might have a couple of coffee bags though.  Let me look.”  Thomas was gone for several minutes.  I noted that he did not invite me into the store while he looked.  What he came back with was a couple of those foil pouches that hold pre-measured amounts of coffee for a commercial coffee maker.

 “I don’t think they will be stale since they are in the foil things.”

 “So how much do I owe you?” I asked.

 “Oh hell, give me two bucks.”

 Since I felt it was a fair price, I gave him the two.  I also went back to the cabin, since I didn’t have anywhere else to go.  I had a feeling not much happened in the little town after the diner closed.  I remembered the sign which informed me that it closed at 7pm.  I was absolutely sure that it would be cold and dark as hell by seven.  Small towns didn’t have a lot of lights on at night.  

 The cold turned out to be a deep damp chill.  The small charcoal stove did a reasonable job of keeping it at bay.  It would not do enough on a truly cold night but then again it wasn’t really bone cold.  The coffee made from water boiled in a sauce pan helped to keep me warm.  Even the kerosene hurricane lamps added some warmth to the room.

 All of the warmth disappeared as I slept.  When I awoke, it was cold in the room.  I dressed quickly, then shivered while the fire caught.  It burned several minutes before it seemed to put out any heat at all.  I awoke not only cold but hungry.  I found the Oreo clones in a bag on one of the many shelves.  Coffee and cookies seemed as good a way to start the day as any other.  I began to wonder if getting a little chubby would be such a bad thing.  After all I wasn’t living in the land of beauty queens anymore.  I could afford a few extra pounds I supposed.  With that in mind, I had one more cookie.

 I realized that I had slept later than usual.  It was almost ten a.m. when I began thinking about job hunting again.  I knew that the search of the bulletin board was useless since I had checked it twice the day before.  I had a feeling that I was destined to move on to one of the larger small towns.  I really did like the feel of the tiny town where everybody knew everything about everybody else.  Why that appealed to me, I had no idea.

 It was noon when I pulled into the downtown diner.  I chose the same one as the day before.  I might have been hoping to meet Amber again, but I don’t think so.  Either way I didn’t.  I sat alone at the table with my roast beef and mashed potatoes.  Before I finished the waitress brought the check.  I asked her about possible jobs in town.

 “What kind of jobs honey?” she asked.

 “Well, I am mostly a driver but I guess I could do something else.”  I smiled to let her know that I was a nice guy.  Okay, it was a lie but she didn’t have to know about me at that particular moment.

 “When summer comes the farm co-op will probably need drivers.  Can you drive a tractor or harvester?”

 “If it had wheels, I can drive it.”  I didn’t smile that time.  I wasn’t being evil, I just took it all seriously.

 “If you got experience with a bulldozer, the county could use you I expect.  You might go on up to Edenton to see about a job with them.”

 “The man doesn’t want to work for that bunch of thieves,” the remark came from the woman standing in the doorway.  I had no idea how long Amber had been listening.

 The room was suddenly tense.  I tried to break the tension, “Hell, one bunch of thieves is about the same as another.”   Everybody laughed and Amber even smiled.  “Truth is I might just wait for spring and the farms to begin hiring.”  I absolutely did not intend to work on a farm.  I had just been talking to calm everyone down.  Amber had a way of starting the temperature in a room to rise.

 I thought that it was pretty obvious when she pointedly went to sit alone at a table.  I had joined the ranks of the rabble which she could not be bothered with.

 “You could always go to work for Amber there,” one of the men at the counter suggested.

 “Oh really?” I asked.

 “All you would have to do is learn to talk like a woman,” he continued.  From the leer I thought he meant that Amber was les.  She didn’t look les but then a lot of them didn’t.

 “Well the work is a damn site easier then the farms,” she replied.

 “Can I ask what you do?” I said to the woman seated a couple of tables away.  Since everyone in the place seemed to be in on the joke at my expense, I didn’t see that it would hurt.  Amber’s jaw muscles seemed to tighten.  She didn’t answer or even acknowledge the question.

 “Amber is self employed,” the man went on.

 “It doesn’t look as though she wants to talk about it, so let’s just drop it,” I suggested.  I thought I said it pretty much in a normal voice, but the hometown bully must have been the one doing the talking.

 “Oh come on stranger you know you are curious.  Amber, tell him what you do for a living hon.”

 Amber looked down at her plate while ignoring us all.  I had a feeling it wasn’t her usual way of handling a smart ass.  I had to wonder who he was in relation to the normally outspoken woman.

 “You know what cowboy, I don’t really care anymore.  Now why don’t you be a good man and drop it.”  I looked hard at him so that he and everyone else would know I had an evil side in addition to the nice guy.

 “Now stranger you started this.”  The piece of trailer trash stood up by his seat at the counter.  “I think maybe you should leave.”

 “Why on earth would I do that I haven’t had a piece of the pecan pie behind you.”  I smiled but there was no humor in it.  People began following my eyes, then his.

 “Oh hell Jarret, everyone knows I run a phone sex line.  So now the stranger knows it to, so fucking what.”  Amber suddenly had her voice.  I had no idea at the time what took her so long to speak.

 “Is that all,” I said it with a laugh.  “Do you have a card?”  The crowd broke into laughter.  Jarret seemed rather unhappy about it all. 

 “Sure honey, you might be the one that I finally get off on.”  Amber was all smiles as she looked at Jarret with a wicked smile. 

 “Nice Amber,” he said pushing past me.  I could have made an issue of it but figured he had been hit hard somehow that I didn’t understand.

 “My ex,” Amber said returning to her food. 

 “Any little bullies running around?” I asked it loud enough for everyone to hear.  Some laughed, some just shook their heads.

 “No little Jarrets,” Amber replied smiling at me.

 I finished my roast beef first, but couldn’t bring myself to go back to the camp.  I could have gone one down to New Bern to see about a job I thought, then I discarded it.  It was a day for me to rest.  The last leg hadn’t been all that far, but I needed to regroup and try to think logically.  

 The sun beating on the while canvas top and coming through the windshield made the Sammie warm.  Warm enough for me to park in a sunny spot by the river.  The river at Hertford is wide like it is at most of the early coastal towns.  That river was the reason that the town was as old as it was.  When water was the only means of transportation in colonial times, almost all of the towns were built along the large rivers.   From there the settlers branched out till they covered the land like ants at a picnic.

 I sat with the dream writer on my lap making notes about the café incident.  I tried not to make me sound like a hero but then what the hell it was my version.  I am quite sure in Jarret’s version he was the hero, and Amber probably was in her version.  

 The sporty black car that pulled up beside me was old and faded.  It was the muscle version of the cars manufactured a few years earlier.  The damn thing had turbo written on the side, though I doubted seriously that it actually was equipped with a turbo charger.  The car looked more show than muscle.  

 Inside the car sat Amber.  I still couldn’t decide whether the freckles and few extra pounds made her homely or not.  She was for sure striking and memorable, if nothing else.  Even more so since I knew she operated a phone sex line.  She looked over at me while waiting for me to make the move.  I put the dream writer aside, opened the door, climbed down for the short walk to her car.  I slipped in beside her.

 “So, what brings you to the park today?” I asked it smiling over at her.

 “I was going to ask you that,” She replied.  Her smile didn’t quite look out of place so much as a little forced.

 “I came to the park to reflect,” I replied.

 “I meant that in a larger sense.”  Amber looked curious but somehow not quite interested.

 “If you mean what brings me to greater downtown Hertford well that is pretty simple.  The highway runs by it.”  I went on to explain my drive up from Wilmington and the town I found in between.  I even got around to my failed career as a screenwriter.   Before I knew it I had pretty much given her my life story

 “Sounds like you are lost Freddie.  Maybe you need this little town to replace the family.  I can tell you one thing, it is not going to replace the glitter.”

 “I am living in a fishing cabin.  One with a stove only large enough to heat the bedroom.  I pretty much got the glitter thing figured out.”  I was smiling while I spoke.  “So tell me what is going on with you and this town.  How did they all find out you run a phone sex line.  I can’t imagine even you being that arrogant that you would tell.”

 “What the hell do you mean arrogant?”  She appeared to be just a little angry at the suggestion.

 “Oh come now, you are bound to have a clue that you are an arrogant bitch.”  I said it smiling so she would know I didn’t mean it harshly.

 “Oh hell, I know that.  It is just that I am right all the time.”  Her laugh wasn’t sweet or light like the ringing of a lady’s tinkling dinner bell.  I was more harsh and from the gut like the sound of the bell calling farm hands from the fields.

 “Well if you were really married to Jarret, I can see how that might happen.  It would be hard not to feel intellectually superior to him.”

 “Now, now.  I hope that isn’t jealousy.”  She was ginning so I knew it was a joke.

 “Not sure, you didn’t give me the phone number yet.”  I smiled back at her.  “So tell me how did the town get wind of your proclivity for the Amechi?”

 “The my shameful secret came out to Jarret during the divorce.  He and his lawyer quickly spread it around.  He denies it but I know he did it.  Herfort has the courthouse but there wasn’t anybody else in the room when the judge asked me how I was living.”

 “Why the hell would he do that?”  I asked it truly curious as to why he would want to hurt her.

 “He needed for the town to take his side.  Make them feel sorry for him.  The fact that I began doing it because there were no jobs here, didn’t seem to register with them.”

 “And did they?”  I asked it seriously.

 “For a while I didn’t leave the house.  Then I finally decided to hell with Jarret and the rest of them.  I wasn’t going to hide anymore.  It is when I became outspoken about everything.  I just decided that if they hated me, I would give them a real reason.  Funny thing though people gradually began to accept me.  I am sort of the town character now.

 “Well every town needs one of those.  So how is the phone sex business anyway.  I mean, maybe I could do it for woman.”  I figured it was time for a change of subject.

 “Cute Freddie, real cute.  The business isn’t much frankly.  I have a few regular customers and the cost of starving here is pretty low.”

 “So tell me how do you get your customers?”  I had no idea how one did that.

 “On the Internet in the sex chat rooms.  I am at least pretty honest about it.  I tell them that it is a phone number with charges some the women don’t bother.  It cuts down of my take but it also keeps the FBI off my ass.  Somehow the selling of phone sex is a federal crime or is it phone fraud.  I forget which but they check it out anyway.”

 “It is called wire fraud, if you don’t disclose it all.  The laws go back to the time before telephones were used to make transactions or computer either.”

 “Are you a lawyer?”  She looked curious again.

 “No I told you I write for the movies, or I did.  That comes up in the research sometimes.”

 “Anyway enough about me, what are you going to do here?  You are going to stay?”

 “It is not enough about you but yes I am staying.  As for what I am going to do, I have no idea.  Maybe I will go into the phone sex scam.  I could get someone to teach me how to do voices.”

 “Trust me you would be bored to tears.  I am trying to get out of it.”

 “So are you planning to move?  I mean you did say it was all you could do.”

 “I was all I could do two years ago.  Since then I have been preparing myself for a new career.”

 “Oh really, in a massage parlor?”  I asked it with that smile again.”

 “No Freddie, I am going to open an antique shop.”

 “Well you must have lied, I know for a fact that it cost big bucks to open one of those.  Plus you better know what you are doing.”

 “Freddie, you are pretty old fashioned for a writer.  I would have thought writers were more into the Internet.  I have been teaching myself about antiques for years.  I just really got serious when Jarret left me.  I know just about enough to begin now.”

 “So you gonna leave the sex business behind before I even get to call.  Damn, just my luck,” I said.

 “Well, I have to get a bank loan first.  I need a few things to really get into it.”

 “Ah and the bank doesn’t think you can do it.  I mean move from phone sex to antiques.”

 “Worse, Jarret’s dad is on the board of one bank and head of the town council.  Makes it real hard to do business here.”

 “Then leave and go somewhere else,” I suggested.

 “No way, this is my home to.  They might have all the money, but I have family here just like them.”

 The wheels began to turn slowly in my head.  I looked out at the water then tuned her out.  She talked on about her family and life in the small town, while I thought about her and the antique business.

 “Tell me Amber, have you sold anything on the net yet?”  I asked it seriously.

 “Sure, I sold a few items on Ebay.  I even made a profit overall.”

 “Which means you lost on some of them?”  I looked hard into her eyes.

 “A couple of bucks on one of them.”  I saw that she wasn’t being truthful.


 “I few more on a second.  Okay I sold five items and overall I made fifty bucks.  I know. I am not going to get rich that way.  I do have a plan though.”

 “Okay let’s hear it.”

 “Why, so you can steal it?”  I looked at her scornfully so she went on.  “The secret to making money on antiques is to have the right location and this aint it.  The Internet is my only hope.  If I can get the right merchandise, I can make some money, I know that I can.”

 “So you know where to get the merchandise?”  I asked it with more interest than I had at the beginning of the conversation.

 “Yes I do know how to get it.  Unfortunately it takes money, and a few other things I don’t have.”

 “How much money, and what other things?”  I could tell she was biting her lip not to ask me why I was interested.  She was operating on the hope that I was in a position to loan her money.  She wanted to keep that hope alive a little longer.  

 “The problem is in order to make enough money to even exist here I would have to turn a huge amount of merchandise.  To do that I would need a warehouse.  I can devise an inventory and shipping plan for myself.  See, all that would mean that I couldn’t really do much of anything else.”

 “You mean not much time to haunt the chat rooms?”  I said it just to let her know that I understood.

 “Yes and I do have to eat.”

 “How big a warehouse, I see empty barns all over the place.”

 “Since some things wouldn’t turn as fast as others, they would accumulate.  That would mean a pretty good sized storage area.  Might as well do it all at first.”  My mind absorbed that idea before I nodded for her to continue.  “Then I have to have the means to transport things home. Sometimes,  you would need to move real furniture as well as small collectibles.  I am not going to be able to find enough in Hertford to sell.”

 “So best I can figure you need a truck and a storage warehouse.  That is in addition to operating capital.”

 “Yes and money to live on while I get started.”  She looked at me hopefully.

 “Well, buying a truck is no problem.  I had that in mind anyway.  I need a place to live so I could pay a few bucks extra for a place with a room large enough for storage.”  I had learned, while living in the dream, to take advantage of offers that come my way.  Even to take advantage when the offers had to be manufactured.

 “So you won’t just loan me the money?”  Amber looked a little upset.

 “No, but I doubt that a bank will either and it has nothing to do with Jarret.  It has to do with reasonable risk.  You don’t have that good a chance of success with your track record.”  I could see that she was hurt so I went on.  “I am sure you will be successful but the bank isn’t going to loan their depositors money on a hunch.  I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news.”

 “Don’t be it is what they said too.  I had just hoped it was Jarret and that I could somehow make it work.”  She almost had tears in her eyes when she continued.  “So what are you offering me?”

 “Nothing just yet.  I want to do some research on the subject, then I will see if we can’t find a way to work together.  Let me tell you up front, this is pure business.  If I don’t think it will work, then I am going to have to pass on it.”

 “Then follow me to my place, I have all the information about it there.  You can take it home to read.”  I nodded my agreement.  “How soon?”

 “Depends on how much you have for me to read.  Get enough that you think will convince me, but not so much that I tune it out.”

 “Okay, I got a couple of things that I downloaded.  You can get a feel for it from them.”

 “That’s fine, let’s get them.”  

 It was two thirty when I began reading the E books.  The books were on disk so it took me a few minutes to set up the laptop.  I read them while sitting in the cabin’s one comfortable chair by the small charcoal stove.  I simply went to the stoop of the cabin for coke every now and again.  A refrigerator wasn’t necessary that day.

 As advocates do, the book painted a rosie picture.  The problem was that a lot of it was best case scenario and some of it was pure bullshit.  I had no idea whether Amber knew that or not.  I strongly suspected that she did.  I didn’t have a phone line to get to the net, but I was pretty familiar with Ebay.  Anyone who owned a computer had been there at least once.  I had been there several times looking for one thing or another.

 One thing I knew for sure, if you lived in a large town with discount stores, it was possible at times to buy the items cheaper there.  It was the shipping that ate buyers up.  For those who lived in remote areas or small towns Ebay was a marvel.

 The information made it seem as though it was a can’t miss proposition.  I knew better.  The only can’t miss proposition was selling food at half price.  It was before dark when I knocked on the door to Amber’s house trailer.  She answered dressed in jeans and a thick turtle neck sweater.  The sweater was more a turtle neck sweatshirt since it was cotton.

 “So what do you think?” she asked.  I was about to answer when the phone rang.  She held up her hand to me.  “I wondered when you would call.  Pause...  I enjoyed talking to you on line too....pause....Of course I don’t mind.  I am wearing a black teddy and black stockings...Oh yes I love those.”  

 At that point she made a face.  The face showed her disgust with the caller.  I smiled then moved from the livingroom to the kitchen giving her some privacy.  I heard her end of the conversation, but frankly it was a bore.  Oh she said all the right things but seeing her in dirty jeans and a sweat shirt didn’t give me the same  illusion that the caller had.

 “Sorry about that but I just paid the electric bill.”  She smiled again.  Her smile was sad not humorous.  Amber wanted to retire, I cold tell. “So, what did you think?”

 “How much of that did you expect me to believe?”  I kept the serious look on my face.

 “Well, I hoped all of it but realistically I believe about thirty percent.”

 “Good, then do you have a business plan in writing?”

 “No, I don’t.  Do I need one?”

 “Yes, but it doesn’t have to be fancy or even complete.  This is what I need to see.  I need to see where you plan to get your product.  What you reasonably need in start up, that is if you keep on working to pay your living expenses.  Also what kind of time you can devote to it.”

 “Is that all, you are asking me to do, give you the keys to the business.”  She sounded cautious and I was glad.  It meant she was taking the thing seriously not just a lark.

 “Let me tell you this, I am seriously considering going partner with you.  If I do that, I will be putting up most, if not all the money, so yes, I want the keys.”

 “I see, well, what if I don’t want a partner?”  It was at that exact moment that she got a better answer than any I could have given her, the phone rang with another customer.  I left her to think it over while she was still in the middle of giving him a mental blowjob.

 I sat with the dream writer in my lap while I dozed by the fire.  It was after eight when the knock on my door came.  I answered it to find Amber standing on the stoop wearing one of those fake sheep skin coats, her longish hair was a mess.  “Well, come on it.  It is cold out there.”

 “It really isn’t cold you know,” she replied.

 “Says you,” I replied smiling.  “So, did you bring the plan?”

 “Yes, it wasn’t as hard as I thought.  But, it will be easier if I tell you first, then let you read it.”

 “Sure, would you like a diet coke?”  I asked it for two reasons.  One, it was what most of my friends drank in the Dream, and Two, it was all I had.

 “Diet drinks are dangerous.  You need to stop drinking them if we are going to be partners.  Either that or buy me some key man insurance.”

 “I think, I will just leave you the business outright.  But let’s see if there is a business first.”  That one might have sounded a little cruel.

 “Okay,” She didn’t seem to notice my skepticism. “The biggest problem.”

 “First take off the coat.  I mean, since it isn’t cold.”

 She removed it to show the same sweatshirt as before.  “Okay, getting the stuff to sell it the problem.  The best place to get it is estate sales.  You can pick up a lot of stuff cheap there, and you don’t have to take all the crap.”  I wanted to ask about taking all of the crap but decided to hold off..

 The next best think is to buy from the mini storage warehouses.  Their forfeit items are a good deal but you have to take the whole storage locker to get a really good deal.  Sometimes you can get a whole room full of stuff for the price of one vase.  Then again you can get a room full of junk too.  I also plan to go to yard and garage sales.  

 “I see the shark approach, but can you keep up the enthusiasm?  I mean, if you don’t make enough money to quit your night gig, can you stay with it anyway.”  Her answer really didn’t matter at all.  She had hit on most of the important points.

 “Yes I can do that, eye on the prize,” she replied.

 “And you will make all the contacts with the storage people, track the sales, the auctions,  select and map out the garrage sales.  In other words, if I do this. I want to put up the money, pick up the merchandise, maybe do the shipping but that is it.  I do not want to be the expert, I do not want to track the auctions or do the paperwork.  However, I do warn you that I can do it all, so don’t think about cooking the books on me.”

 “I am going to let that remark pass because you don’t know me.  However dear, it is more likely that you will find a way to screw me, and I do not mean that in a good way.”

 “Aw, you say that just because I am a man?”  I made it a question.

 “Well duh, of course.”

 “I see your phone is quiet, does that mean I have to pay for the coffee while we formalize this tomorrow.”

 “You do indeed.  Of course, I am the one with the job.”

 “One last time this is not like selling hey is it?”

 “I don’t understand,” she replied.

 “There once was a man who sold hay.  He bought on one side of the river for a dollar a bale.  He rowed it across the river then sold if for a dollar a bale.  When it was pointed out to him that he wasn’t making any money he replied, ‘I see that now, but it’s all about volume’.”

 “I see,” she said.  “No, I plan to make money.”

 “Good, then meet me tomorrow at the diner about nine.  When can have a cup of coffee and I can give you an answer.  Bring a pen and paper and we can sign something, not that it is going to matter.”

 “Why not just come to my place?”  She obviously didn’t know what I had in mind.  How could she I wasn’t sure myself?

 “Well, win lose of draw, I would like to poke Jarret in the eye.  Let the town see that somebody can tolerate you.”  I laughed quietly.

 “I should be offended but I like the idea.  You do know that pissing in Jarret’s soup is not a good idea?”

 “I get that feeling yeah.  I also know that I had nothing when I drove in and if I leave the same way, I can handle it.  In the meantime, I don’t mind rattling his cage a bit.  I am just a little on the vindictive side.”

 “I think, I like that about you.”  She smiled slightly showing the age in her face.  It was probably because she wasn’t wearing makeup.

 “Good then I will see you tomorrow.”  I almost pushed her out the door.  I planned to keep business as business.  Amber was not at all unattractive, but she also was not someone I would want to get involved with.  I saw her bait that cop, and then share her opinion on a couple of other things as well.  It appeared that she and I were diametrically opposed in out views.  Then again she probably did not want to get involved with me either.  Fortunately I did not have to feel any attraction to her at all in order to work with her.  It was the story of my life actually.  People who I went into business with inevitably became people I wanted to see even less often than I had before.  Since I didn’t care for Amber much to begin with, it should be interesting to see how it worked out.

 If I was less than thrilled with her, you might ask why I bothered.  I did it simply because I needed the work.  There was absolutely no other reason, okay I also wanted to thumb my nose at Jarret.  I had become a bit of a bully myself it seemed.   I smiled as I prepared for bed as night fell on the empty fish camp.

 Morning two at the fish camp found me washing in a pan of water heated on the stove.  I knew for sure then that I wouldn’t want to stay past my week there.  I was about as clean as I was going to get until I found a shower, so I headed off to the diner and my meeting with amber.

 Since I arrived first, I found a table by the window.  I wanted to make sure that word got back to Jarret.  Hell, coffee with Amber might not have any other good point, but it would serve to let the bully know that I was still in town.  I took a perverse pleasure in pissing him off.  

 When Amber arrived she was dressed better, which included the sparing use of makeup.  The dressing better managed to hide the excess weight which the jeans showcased.  It seemed an equal amount of the weight had moved to her breasts.  On that morning she did not look as out of proportion as she had the day before.  Along with the tan cotton pants she wore a tighter fitting sweater.  It was not tight, nor were her pants tailored, still she seemed to be dressed business casual.

 I felt underdressed in my khaki work pants and faded blue shirt. I could have dressed a lot better but I didn’t plan to do much that day.  I was getting closer to making the decision to base my new life in Hertford but I wasn’t quite there.

 “Read this,” Amber said placing the sheath of stapled papers onto the table beside my coffee cup.

 “Good morning to you too,” I replied.  I saw the dark look cross her face before she realized that I really hadn’t cared that she began right away.  The papers were her business plan with some kind of strange partnership agreement.

 “I recognize the business plan, but not the other.”  I said it as I read them.

 “It just says that in exchange for your financing and labor in the pickup and shipping, I agree to pay you one half of the profits.”

 “Amber honey, I think you need to change that a little.  I don’t mind the fifty-fifty split, but I draw the line at the, ‘I agree to pay you’ part.  This is going to be a fifty-fifty ownership enterprise  or I am moving on down to New Bern to find a job.”

 “In other words you want half the company to give me the startup money.”  She didn’t seem all that upset.

 “Or, I am giving you half the company for your secretarial skills, plus your expertise.  I am still not sure how much of that you have.”  I smiled when I said it.  My smile was pretty much like hers. Even with our voices low the nearby patrons heard parts of it I am sure.

 “Okay, I will rewrite it as a partnership thing.”  She took a sip of the scalding coffee the spoke, “So what should we do today?”  She said that loud enough so that anyone who cared to listen could easily form an opinion.  I had a feeling she enjoyed sending a message to Jarret.

 “I expect we should find a place today.”  I matched her volume I also kept it vague so as to allow any interpretation the hearer chose to place on it.

 “I hoped you would say that.”  Her smile explained her business attire as opposed to the soiled jeans of the day before.  “I made a couple of calls.”

 “So, what did you find?”

 “If you want, I can confirm a ten o’clock appointment with a realtor.  She wants to show you a building downtown.”  

 “I will look but I have already decided that I don’t want to pay the rent for a downtown building when we are not going to be able to use it for retail.  We might as well be out somewhere that is cheaper.”  I thought it made perfect sense.

 “Well do you want to just skip talking to her?”

 “No we can look.”  I said it noting that she went to her ever-present cell phone.  I supposed that it made sense for her to have it with her.  I did note that she had to turn it on.  She either did not do business that early in the morning or more likely turned it off in difference to the locals.  Phone sex with breakfast might be a bit much for them.

 The conversation between Amber and the Realtor was nothing more than a stereotype business call, pleasant but with no real significance.  I knew without a doubt I would be hearing a lot more of the, ‘nothing’ conversations as time passed.

 She closed the phone, took a last sip of the coffee, then said, “Time to go.”  After I paid the bill and the tip, we were almost out the door when she asked,  “Do you want to drive?”

 “Sure why not,” I replied.  Since almost everyone hates to ride in the Samurai, I figured it would be the last time she asked.  I followed her directions even though they were delivered a couple of beats too late to make the turns safely.  If she had been chattering I would expected it, but she was silent almost as though she were not even in the car.

  Her silence was broken by the sharp, “Take a right here.”  Which would require me to make  a sharp turn.  I didn’t bother to explain that sharp turns in a Samurai were not a good idea.  I planned to save the information for a time when the directions could not safely be followed.  The building was old and dirty.  The brick needed cleaning and the trim needed to be painted.  I could tell without even going inside that it would be dark even with all the lights on.  There was something about those older buildings that ate up all the light leaving them in perpetual gloom.

 It was just as I expected when we went inside, dark, chilly and smelly.  I walked through the entire building, even the upstairs storage area, before I smiled and walked away.   Oh, I did take the Realtors card, after thanking her for the tour.  She asked that I call her if I saw anything else around town.  She assured me that she had more properties.

 “Ma’am, the town isn’t so large that I am going to miss looking at your other places.  Besides I really want to be out some.  It is hard to maneuver a truck around in the downtown areas, even in a town as small as Hertford.”

 “Why didn’t you tell me the downtown was out of the question.  We could have saved the time to look somewhere else.”

 “Are you an agent for that company on the side?”  I asked it almost seriously.

 “Of course not why?”

 “If you are not an agent, tell me why you wanted me to see a building in a dead downtown on a one way street yet.  I am sure that the rent on this building is twice what I would pay for a storage barn.”

 “Because, I thought we could do some retail here.”  She said it defensively.

 “Who are we going to sell to, each other”  This place is too small for a store of any kind, at least one with any real overhead.”  She looked more than a little upset, so I went on.  “What we need is a storage building that is easy to find.  If people want to come to our place to look, we can make them a deal from a building like that.”

 “Well, it’s your money.  I plan to make mine from ebay anyway.”

 “You have the right idea.  So, let’s get to looking unless you have something else you need to do.”

 “Where do you want to look?  I mean you have been here a couple of days.  I am sure that makes you the expert.”  She did have a smile, even it was a smug one.

 “Well Thomas suggested we look along state road 1110,” I informed her.  “He said to stop along the way at the country stores and ask.”

 “Thomas doesn’t realize how times have changed.  Those stores are gone, now they are mini marts.  Still, they might have bulletin boards.”  She seemed at least willing to give it a try Amber directed me down Grubbs Street which turned into the Center Hill Highway.   

 I slowly drove out the road checking both sides for anything that looked like storage building for rent.  I didn’t see a thing.  We stopped at the only two convenience stores along the way but the clerks weren’t even from that area.  According the them they were kids just working in the stores.

 There was something comforting in the small town feeling.  I saw everything there was to see that morning.  When I stumbled on the old abandoned church, I knew it was the one.  The reason was simple, there wasn’t anything else that would do.  Unlike a big city where it was possible to have several choices to agonize about, in Hertford it was the church or the retail building.

 The church was one story with a meeting room in front and a Sunday school room attacked like a tumor to the side.  The whole building was white wood siding with a metal roof.  I would have looked through the windows if they had not been frosted glass.  Instead I made note of the two propane gas cylinders at the rear of the building.   The cylinders were about four feet tall and as big around as a large mop bucket.  They were connected by a valve on top which spanned both outlets.  The church appeared to have had a good paint job, I wasn’t sure exactly when that had happened but I approved.  The trappings which would have marked it as a church were gone but there was no doubt about what it had been.

 There had once been a brick sign at the entrance to the gravel parking lot.  The letters were gone but the faded spots on the sign board told me that the building had once been home to the New Hope Baptist Meeting.  From the size I assumed it had once been a small congregation.  The area was too small to have supported a church any larger.  The Sunday school room was a clue to its financial status, most small churches were simply the sanctuary.  New Hope Meeting probably had a small but prosperous congregation.  I had no idea what had happened to the church.

 A small faded paper sign stapled to the door listed a number to call for information.  Amber and her cell phone made the call for me.  We sat in the cold for fifteen minutes while the building’s owner came down.

 The man who drove the largest Dodge truck ever made, wore bib overalls and chewed tobacco.  I approached him with my hand extended.  “Hi, my name is Freddie Welch, I am the one who called.”

 “That seems to be pretty obvious,” he said in a voice way out of character for the bibbed overalls and truck.  He was certainly old enough to look the part, but he didn’t talk the talk.  His voice was strong clear and sounded educated.

 “I guess it is at that,” I said pulling my hand back.  “Sounds like you are a man with little time for small talk, so let’s get to it.  I need to rent this church.”

 “Church ain’t for rent, it is for sale.”

 “Churches ain’t easy to sell in the country,” I suggested.

 “Well stranger, it don’t eat.”  His eyes locked on Amber early in the conversation and shifted only briefly to me.

 “Well, I don’t suppose you would change your mind if I offered to pay six months rent in advance in cash.”  He didn’t look as though he cared.  “I will agree to you showing it without notice and to move if you sell it.  How is that?”  He still didn’t take his eyes off Amber.

 “You involved in this Amber?”  He was old enough to be her father but hell I had no idea their relationship.

 “I didn’t know you owned a church Ev, it seems out of character for you.  Yeah I got a chunk of what is going on.”

 “Is it on the up and up?”  

 Amber looked at me then said, “Well Ev, it aint my usual business, if that is what you mean.”

 “That’s what I mean.  Millie would spin if I let you use her church for that.”  

 “Ev, we are going to deal in antiques.  Use the Sanctuary for storage and maybe a little retail.  That is if anyone wants to look at the merchandise.  I will probably sleep here too.”  I said it so that no matter what he did, he wouldn’t be able to say that I hadn’t warned him.

 Ev didn’t answer me he kept his eyes on Amber.  “Tax on this place is five hundred a quarter.  I farm right up to the parking lot and sometimes I park my equipment in the lot when I work this field.  You got fifteen days to vacate if I sell the place.  You do any renovations you want, but they stay.  If the new buyer doesn’t want it that way, you got to put things back like they are now.  Give me a grand now to cover the deposit for damages just in case you move out in the night and to pay the first quarter taxes.  Then I want two hundred a month starting in march.  If I don’t have it by the fifth, you are gone on the sixth.  I don’t wait one day for my money, and I won’t be coming to collect, so you need to find out where I live.

 “Do I get the other five back if the place is acceptable when I move?”

 “You put it back like it is when you move, you get the five back.”  He smiled at me as he spoke.  He seemed to think the place wouldn’t be the same.  He didn’t know me and my off beat life style.  He probably expected me to turn the place into a house.

 “Okay, but I haven’t even seen the inside yet,” I said smiling.  He knew that I was more interested in the business details than the look of the church.  I had no preconceived ideas and it was a good thing.  There was no carpet on the floor, nor was there any finish on the pine boards.  Ev saw me look at him questioningly.  

 “The meeting didn’t leave on good terms.”  I nodded to him.  The raised platform at the back of what had been the sanctuary was not more than a few two by eights with a plywood deck.  The sanctuary was probably 18 feet wide and thirty feet deep.  The thing it really had going for it was that there was no ceiling.  The two by sixes that would have been the ceiling joists had been painted white.  The space above them was open to the metal roof.  The roof had no insulation and the walls didn’t either.  There was flex pipe running along the walls then capped off at the ends.  I looked again at Ev for an explanation.

 “They stripped the heaters, there were three at one time.  Seems the congregation found a use for them.”

 “So you didn’t have the same clause with them as you do with me?”  I asked it smiling cause we both knew I was taking the hit for the church.

 “Man has to learn from his mistakes Mr. Welch.”

 “That makes perfect sense to me.”  I said it as I smiled at Amber.  “If I go Ev, I am not going to have any problem returning it to this condition.

 “You will note that they left the pipes.  If you attach it, you leave it or repair the damage.  They decided to leave the pipes and repair the holes in the studs from the screws that held the heaters.  I expect you to do about the same.  If you do then you get all the deposit back, that is fair.”

 “It is fair.  If you two will wait right here, I will get your money.”  I left the two of them to talk, or whatever, while I went to the Samurai.  From the metal box filled with tools, I removed the metal handled clawhammer.  The rubber grip came off easily to my tug on it.  Inside the hollow handle were tightly rolled wads of one hundred dollar bills.  There were three rolls of ten bills each, I took one of the rolls back into the church.

 “Here you go,” I said handing the money to Ev.”

 “You did say you would pay me in cash each month?”  Ev had a deal and he planned to continue negotiating.

 I offered you six months in cash, you pretty much have that.  I would like to pay you with paypal.  That is, if you are in the twenty first century.”  I had a feeling that he was.

 “Oh hell, I can do paypal.  Why don’t you just set it for a monthly draw but make it two hundred and twenty dollars.  You are going to have to pay the fee.”

 “In that case I think cash is in order.”  I smiled to let him know that I wasn’t anymore an idiot than he was.

 Ev smiled at my remark “You need a receipt?” he asked.

 “Sure why not, my partner here takes all that stuff serious.”  I turned to Amber then smiled.  She did not appear to be amused.

 Ev took my money then left us alone to explore the building.  On closer inspection I found a lot wrong with the building but then I also found some thing right with it.  The open roof and exposed stud walls would make heating the sanctuary almost impossible, but then I planned to use it for storage, so I didn’t expect a problem.  The one room attached to the rear of the building seemed to have been some kind of meeting room.  It was about twelve feet by eighteen feet or the size of a room and a half in a house.  The other part of the addition was actually two bathroom stalls with a sort of waiting area.  It was a pretty strange arrangement but I knew I wouldn’t be making any changes.  I tried to keep in mind during the tour that anything I did would have to be undone before I left.

 “Poor Freddie, still no place to take a shower.” I was not sure that I liked Amber laughing at me.

 “A temporary problem I assure you.”  Even though I said it, I wasn’t positive just how temporary it would be.  I had a pretty good idea that a metal shower stall could be hooked up in one of the existing bathroom stalls without too much trouble.  Since I had two of them, I didn’t expect it to make too much difference.  It looked as though the small lobby area might wind up being a galley kitchen of sorts.  I took a really good look and thought I might be able to manage a sink and hot water heater but surely no more.  The slightly oversized room would have to be the rest of my home, at least for a while.

 “I don’t suppose you know a plumber, do you?”  I asked it smiling.

 “No but I know a guy who can do plumbing and a little of everything else.”  Amber smiled as she opened her cell phone.  She reached the man on the first try.  He agreed to a meeting at the church in one hour.  “So Freddie, what next?  By the by, I like the way you get things done.”

 “Not so sure that I do the right things all the time but I pride myself on doing something.  I found out living in the dream that you grab the brass when it comes around or you go round in circles.”

 “Is that supposed to mean something?”  Amber had a blank look on her face.

 “Just that agonizing over a decision doesn’t make it any easier.  In fact it can paralyze you.”

 “I can relate to that alright.  So like I asked before, what is next?  I mean, after Flimflam leaves.”

 “Hold on, you didn’t tell me that my plumber was named Flimflam.  Is there more I should know?”

 “Not really, he used to be in the aluminum siding business.  He got out because of his conscience, or so he said.  Folks who heard his story began to call him Flimflam behind his back, then it kind of went public.”

 “Wonderful,” I said with a wry smile.

 I was running plans around in my head when Flimflam showed up.  He was an older man probably close to sixty.  Since he looked fit, and I didn’t have to pay his hospital bills, I had him give me an estimate on the shower stall, a hot water heater and the installation of a kitchen sink.

 “You wanna buy your own shower stall and have it here for me?”  I knew he really would prefer to buy it himself.  Since I had that option, I chose to buy my own.  He did explain that I needed to get a free standing one.  Of course, he would be happy to build one in but it would cost a lot more.  I knew that I would be in trouble with Ev as well if I had it built in.  The same for the sink and hot water heater he informed me.

 “And of course Freddie, there aint a lot of room in there.  I expect I am gonna have to take everything else out of there and put it somewhere.  Since we don’t have to tell nobody, I can kinda make things work.  Might be a little inconvenient but we can make do.”

 I wanted to ask what he meant by ‘we’.  It looked as though I would be the one ‘makin’ do’.  I kept quiet because his price seemed reasonable.  He agreed to begin work on the project with only a couple of days notice.  As far as I was concerned I had done a full day’s work, I had made the commitment to stay in Hertford.  Not only that, I had a place to live.  I could probably have rented a warehouse and apartment for less and had a nicer place to live too.  Still once all the work was done the monthly outlay would be minimal.  I had always heard that a business was successful on start up, if it was well financed, or the overhead was low at startup.  I hoped that in out case both were true.

 “Okay Lightning Freddie, what is next?”  Amber said it with a kind of lilt in her voice.  I had my doubts as to whether she was in awe as she pretended, or was laughing at my foolishness.

 “This is all on hold until I get the plumbing supplies, so I guess we call it a day.”

 “Why Lightning? There is still sunlight.  I figured you would have fields to plow, or something.”

 “What is your problem?”  I had no idea why she felt hostile.”

 “My problem is....I don’t know what my problem is.  I only know one man who was bigger than life.  He turned out to be a jerk and a bully.”

 “Back off lady, I am not Jarret.  I am nothing like Jarret.”  I knew what she meant.  I had decided when I met him, that Jarret was a bundle of energy waiting to explode.  She had just had the misfortune to have met the other side of me first.  Jarret could have been my evil twin.

 I thought back to the days since my finding the case of money.  I might have gone over to the dark side myself, which might be the reason that I had taken an instant dislike to Jarret.  I liked to think that I was just taking care of my new friend.  Hell, it was all too complicated for me so I gave up on the twists and turns.

 “Aint nothing we can do now Amber.  I need a truck to haul up the supplies for the church.  I am going to need one for the business anyway, just a matter of doing it.”

 “Where the hell does one get a truck.  You don’t plan to drive to New Bern to buy one from the Ford Dealer do you?”

 “Not for a start up business, I don’t.  On the drive down here I saw a field full of yellow trucks large and small.  I expect it was the Ryder truck surplus lot.  I guess I will make a couple of calls to find out.  But it is almost too late for that today.”

 “The hell it is, tell me who to call.”  She made the mistake of turning on her cell phone.  It rang immediately.  “Oh hell,” she said in a totally different voice, then said, “Mistress Sheila speak to me bitch.”  She went on to have a very graphic conversation with someone.  The conversation ran several minutes during which she looked at her watch often.  It was obvious that several times she said things to prolong the conversation.

 “Are you always Mistress Sheila,” I asked grinning at her.

 “No smart ass, I have caller ID.  I have a couple of regulars who like the Domme bitch Sheila.”  I nodded since I didn’t know what to say.  “So who do I call?”

 “Get on the net when you get home.  Find the number for the rider truck rental place in Kinston, then we will call them tomorrow.”  

 Kinston was the town I had passed through where the field full of Ryder trucks without decals was located.  I figured that if I was careful, I could find one with a few miles left on it.  I didn’t plan on any long haul, so it might last a while.  The most pressing decision was, if I had a choice, what size would I buy?.  The bigger the truck, the more it cost to operate and the harder it was to manoeuver.  But it was also one of those few places were size does indeed matter.  In the end I decided that it would be cheaper to occasionally make a second trip than to haul around too much truck.

 Amber had to more calls before I got her back to the diner.  I was treated to phone sex without charge.  Since I only heard half the conversation, it wasn’t all that erotic.  Then again, I had never tried it at all.  I might have found it boring even if I had been on the other end of the phone, or not.

 I went inside for dinner before driving back to the cold cabin.  Somehow cooking in the cold didn’t appeal to me.  The little cool night stove just couldn’t keep up with the temperature at night.

 As luck would have it I found Jarret sitting at the counter again.  He seemed to have been waiting for me, though it would have meant a long wait since we had been gone several hours.  The voices in the restaurant feel to loud whispers when we entered.  I was almost sorry that Amber had come along.  She would be both the catalyst and the referee for the incident if there was one.

 “I was beginning to wonder if the stranger had killed you and chopped up the body,” Jarret said to Amber.

 “The man must have seen Fargo.”  I said it in a whisper to Amber, one meant to be overheard by everyone in the place.

 “Hey, if I want anything from you, I will pull your chain.”  He was in my face again.

 “Jarret, get something straight.  I speak when I want and I say what I want.  Now if you think you can scare me, think again.  If you think you can stop me, please give it your best shot.”  I stood toe to toe with him.  He looked as though he was about to explode.  It didn’t matter to me if he did.  I could take a punch and there were a thousand weapons lying about the café.  Everything from a serrated steak knife by his plate, to one of those heavy crystal sugar shakers was to be found within easy reach.

 “Take it outside Jarret.”  The woman who spoke probably was the manager.

 “He ain’t takin it nowhere,” Amber said. “This is nuts.  For one thing Jarret it is none of your business where I go or who I go with.  For another get used to it, Freddie and I are going into business together.”

 “Tell me you didn’t talk him into putting the money up for that half assed antique business you want to start.”

 “Sure she did Jarret, I am going to be your new neighbor.  Get used to it man, I am going to be around a long time.”

 “Not unless you got lots of money.  She is going to spend all you got.  I should know.”  He waited for the snickers from the crowd none came.

 “Well, I have enough to stay long enough to give you an ulcer.”  He looked as though he was going to speak.  I held up a hand.  “Don’t thank me, it is the very least I can do.”  I waited a few seconds then added.  “Trust me, there might be more that I can do.”

 “You keep threatening me and I am going to have to kick your ass.”

 “You got a cell phone Jarret?”  I smiled and evil smile.

 “Sure but you can’t use it.”

 “Oh not to worry, I just wanted to make sure we could get you an ambulance.  I sure as hell aint gonna pay for the call.”  I got the snickers he couldn’t.  I could see in his eyes that the wanted to pound on me.  I hoped that he could see in mine that it would be a very, very bad idea.

 “You two might want to be the floor show in this dump but I don’t.”  With those words, Amber hurried from the room.  Jarret looked at me as though he wanted to speak, changed his mind, then followed Amber into the gloom of the winter twilight.

 “Kids, what you gonna do with them?”  I asked it the crowd who seemed to chuckle or at least smile at the thought.  “Hi there Thelma.” I got it from her name tag. “Could I have a menu please?”

 Afte the a rather uninspiring meal from the diner’s limited offerings, I drove to the fish camp.  Thomas came out to meet me.  I noticed that he didn’t look comfortable so I figured it was trouble.  It seemed that trouble had latched onto my ass and was following me everywhere.  I probably should have taken it as a sign and left town but I was stubborn as well as stupid.

 “Freddie, how long you gonna be stayin?”  Thomas asked it looking away.  I figured Jarret had either called or had one of his small town friends do it.

 “I arranged to rent a place this afternoon.  I am gonna need a few days to make it livable though.”

 “We agreed to four more days Freddie that is all I can do.  If you would leave now I would give you half your money back.”  Thomas was a nice guy put in a bad situation.  I didn’t really blame him but I also had no intention of leaving early.

 “Sorry Thomas, I have to hold you to our agreement.  I have to turn a church into a place I can live.  It doesn’t even have heat yet.”  I gave it some thought while watching the older man.  “I will try to get a heater in tomorrow.  Whenever I get it working, I will move out that next day.  In any case, I will be gone by the time my advance is used up.”

 “I would prefer you go now but that is all I can do.”  After he said that he seemed to feel better.  I supposed it was because he could call the person who called him, with the news.

  “I tried you know, he just wouldn’t leave.  He is going as soon as he can get his place fixed.  I can’t make him leave I have his money.”  That is surely how it would go.  I shook my head before I slipped inside the cold fishing cabin.  

 Fifteen minutes later the room wasn’t heating up but the fire was going.  I didn’t wait for it to begin heating the room, instead I slipped between the mound of covers.  I guess the fire caught then burned out because it was ash the next morning.  I didn’t build a fire that morning.  I just dressed, then drove off in the Samurai.

 Not quite an hour later found me inside the Lowe’s home improvement store in Elizabeth City.  The town wasn’t much but it did have a wide range of shopping facilities.  I had decided not to wait for a truck of my own.  I could buy what I wanted, then arrange for it all to be delivered by the store.  It would cost me a few bucks, but it would also free me from rushing into a truck purchase.

 The only thing I had to have, was a heater of some kind.  The heater I could carry in the back of the Samurai.  The rest could be delivered anytime.  The heater was a quandary so while I considered my options, I made my other choices.  I bought a cheap free standing shower stall which came with a curtain.  It was one of those do it yourself packages.  It was the kind you stick in a fish camp.  Sure, I thought of that because the cabin where I was staying had one.

 Instead of a kitchen sink, I bought a deep, gray fiberglass janitor’s sink.  The open stud walls of the bathroom would make it easy to install, it or anything else for that matter.  What I was going to end up with would be a bathroom with three rooms.  One with a toilet, one with a shower stall, and the outside communal lounge with a large janitor’s sink.  The lounge area had the only hand sink in the bathroom anyway.  When I finished, there would be no hand sink at all.  I figured with the janitor sink, I could wash my hands as well as to fill a large pot if I needed it.  The janitors sink seemed to be ideal for me though it would be lousy for anyone else.  For a water heater, I decided to go with the bottle gas fired.  It seemed the easiest and least expensive way to go.  I had seen the electrical service in the church.  I knew it would never hold an electric anything.

 Those decisions settled my heater problem.  It seemed as thought propane would be the fuel of choice.  Again the ‘do it yourself kits’ came to the rescue.  I found a small high energy heater kit which contained all the necessary fitting need for installation.  That was the package’s advertisement at least, but I knew for a fact that it was bullshit.  I supposed that if it were the only appliance, it might be enough pipe and fittings.  Since I would be using the propane for the heater, the hot water heater, and probably the cookstove, I knew that I was going to need more pipe for sure.  Still the flex hose would get me to the main line I expected.  I could have bought a cook stove but I just wasn’t into appliances at that moment.  At that moment I needed to make the church livable, but not necessarily comfortable.

 I arranged delivery of almost all the items the next afternoon, so I loaded the heater into the rear of the Samurai.  I had remembered the propane tanks being set on the spot where the Sunday School room met the Sanctuary.  It would have made for the shortest run to connect the space heaters in both rooms.  All the way from Elizabeth City to the church I agonized about hooking up the heater myself.

 When I arrived, I found it so easy that it was anti-climatic.  The heater fit right into the space occupied by the previous heater.  When I was finished, I had used none of the parts from the installation kit, except the wall mounting bracket and the flexible vent pipe.  The vent pipe wound around a couple of inches so that it lined up with the opening in the wall used by the previous heat source.  I was surprised how easy it was until I tried to light it.  That is when I found that there was no gas.  The tanks had either been emptied by the occupants or they had been pumped dry.  I couldn’t see Ev doing that so I assumed the valves had been opened or more likely there was a leak in the line where the previous heaters had been removed.  I removed the junction from the tanks, then used the flex pipe to attach the tube from the heater directly to the tanks.  If there was a leak in the other line, FlimFlam could find and deal with it.  I wanted heat before anything else.

 I called the number on the tank to have them filled.  When the man came, he checked both joints for leaks before he left.  I was comfortable in my safety and in the fact that the heater actually worked.  The ‘do it yourself’ stuff wasn’t nearly as hard as it looked, but I also knew I was far from ready to tackle the plumbing.

 Flimflam agreed to work on the plumbing the day after the parts arrived.  I was to call him again after I had the fixtures on the site.  Flimflam was not a man to waste time.  His stated policy was, “I walk in the door and I begin working.  I don’t wait on nothing, unless you want to pay me a hundred bucks an hour to wait.  I know, I only charge twenty bucks an hour to work, but I hate to wait.”

 Since there was nothing more I could do, I left the church.  I drove to the café for a late lunch or early dinner.  I got as far as the burger in front of me when she came into the place.  “Where the hell have you been?”

 “Nice to see you too.  I have been working at the church this afternoon.  This morning I was in New Bern buying plumbing fixtures.”

 “I thought you were going to wait till you had a truck?”

 “That was before Thomas asked me to leave.  It seems he has had a change of heart.  Prefers to have the place empty after all.”

 “Jarret?” she asked.

 “Seems that way to me.”

 “You should have called me,” she demanded.

 “Hell, I figured your line would be busy.”  I smiled to lighten the blow.  “After all, you are a popular lady.”

 “Yes but I always have time for you.”  The malice was thick in her voice.  “Besides I can give you a non business number.”

 “That would be nice.  By the way what did you find out about the trucks?”

 “They have an auction to dispose of them.  The woman said the next one is going to be a month away.  You might not want to wait that long.”

 “I don’t see any problem with the wait.  I have plenty to do around the church.”

 “Maybe you don’t, but I sure as hell do.”  Amber was beginning to redden slightly.  It appeared that she was losing her temper.  I was far too great a reaction for the exchange.  “I want to begin work now.”

 “You look like you are about to blow a gasket hon.  Why don’t you just take it easy.”  I was trying to calm her down but it had the opposite effect.  She was climbing even higher up the, I am pissed, scale.

 “Are you serious about this business or just playing games?”

 “Hold it just a damn minute.  You had nothing before you met me so take it easy.  The business will be there in a month.  In the meantime just fine things small enough to fit in the back of the Sammi.  Those are really the ones you want to sell on Ebay anyway.  If you need a truck to transport it, then the shipping will be prohibitive.  So go find items I can carry and we will do business right now.”

 “I don’t need you for that.  I can carry them in my car if I am going to work that way.”

 “Then that is what you should have been doing all along.”  That one took the wind out of her sails.  It wasn’t about the truck, and we both knew it.  It was about money pure and simple.  It took all she could make on the phone to pay her bills.  There just wasn’t enough left for her to gamble.

 “Okay you have a point.  I am going to make some calls to see if I can’t find a dealer’s auction somewhere nearby.  In the meantime would you please go to the state tax office tomorrow.  You need to buy a wholesaler’s license so that we can buy from the auctions.

 “Okay, but only if I can do it by noon.  Sometime afternoon the guys are bringing my plumbing fixtures.  I have to be there to sign for them.”

 “Here is my phone number, the one that nobody else has.  You can call me if you need me to wait at the church while you get the license.  We can’t buy without that license.”

 “Hell Amber, we need a name for the business.  If I have to buy a license, I need something to put on it.”  I was sipping my coffee between sentences.

 “Hell Freddie, I don’t care.  Call it anything you like.”

 “Oh no, you pick the name.”  I wasn’t about to piss her off over something so trivial.

 “Then how about Eastern Carolina Outlet?” she asked.  I was tempted to let it go but decided to speak up.

 “Too complicated but like I said, I don’t really care.”

 “Then if you don’t care shut up.”  She was really on a roll.  “You decide then, I don’t care either.

 “How about Acme Auctions, in honor of my favorite cartoon character.”  I smiled at her since I didn’t really think it was a viable name.

 “Why not, one is as good as another.”  She had a disarming smile.  “Then Acme Auctions it is.”

 I noted with satisfaction that she had calmed down.  It might really have been just frustration over the business’s lack of movement for a day.  “Okay then tomorrow, I get the tax number and we begin?”

 “Good, I will make the calls to find some places to buy product.  Call me at this number if you need me to babysit the church.”  I took the calling card she offered me.


 “I thought nobody had the number?”  

 “Nobody does yet, the cards are from my printer last night.  I wanted to have something real to use for this business.”  She was rising to leave as she made the last statement.  She turned her back on me, then walked out the door.  She appeared to be in a much better mood by the time she stepped into the quiet street.

 I gave her time to clear the area before I paid my bill.  The Samurai was cold by the time I turned the switch, even so it started easily.  The drive to the fish camp wasn’t especially long but it was long enough for the heater to begin putting out warm air.  It was also long enough for me to get lulled into a minor stupor.  Both of those, and the fact that I wasn’t getting much sleep in the cold room probably accounted for my lack of attention as the car passed me.

 At first I thought it was a rock that hit my windshield.  I instinctively put on the brakes.  I should have chased the car since it was obvious that the rock came from him.  I didn’t because it was futile his insurance company would never pay.

 It wasn’t until the next morning that I noticed the hole in the rear canvas.  The hole was a perfect circle and it was new.  My knees almost gave way when I realized that it had not been a rock that shattered my windshield.  It appeared as though somebody had taken a shot at me.  Of course I had no idea why but my first instinct said Jarret.

 I wanted to pay him a visit but I was stopped by two things.  One, I had promised Amber that I would see the tax department and two, I had no idea where to find Jarret.  Also, a couple of words would make our little altercation even more public.  Calling the Sheriff was not really an option either.  I didn’t like anything about me being on file with the law.  A busted windshield wasn’t really enough reason to light Jarret up but it put him on the watch list for sure.

 I tried to remember the car that had held the shooter.  It was old and small, but hell most os the cars in the area were. It really didn’t seem like the kind of car Jarret would drive, but then I had no idea what Jarret drove or what he did for a living as a matter of fact.

 The tax office was located in the county courthouse.  I had expected to have to go to some far off town to find one, but it was right in my back yard.  Plus I found that I could have bought the license and got the wholesaler number from a toll-free number to the state capitol.  The state had not made into the twenty first century at the time, so no Internet purchase was possible.

 I had finished all my fee paying and was in the church by ten.  I turned on the heater to cut the chill while I waited.  At exactly 12:30 the truck arrived.  It departed at exactly ten minute till one.  I had the merchandise and they had my signature on the bill for three hundred, sixty-seven dollars and twelve cents.

 Flim Flam even made it over the same afternoon.  I wasn’t surprised that he had everything done by five thirty.  Since the building had no interior walls, his work was easy.  I was the one who suggested that he run the pipes along the floor inside.  Running them inside cut down on his crawling around it the dirt,  and also got the pipe inside where the heat would presumably be running.  I didn’t think that the pipes froze often in that climate, but even once was more than I cared for.  In exchange for allowing most of the work to go on inside he insulated the hell out of the pipe running from the ground into the church.

 He wasn’t happy that I insisted on the cpvc pipe, but he did install it.  The reason I insisted was simple.  Unlike any of the other types, I could do my own repairs on cpvc pipe.  He even left me a bag full of fittings and a couple of short pieces that he had left over.

 By six p.m. I was  ready for dinner and the drive back to the fish camp.  Getting in the Samurai for the return trip to town made me a little apprehensive.  I wished that I had taken time to buy a weapon of some kind.  Even the sawed off shotgun, I had carried after the incident with the drug peddler, would have made me feel better.   It all went without incident which didn’t really surprise me.  He would most like come back for me when I was least expecting it.  It was how those things worked.

 Thomas gave me an evil look as I pulled onto the gravel parking area beside the building.  I almost didn’t tell him that I would be leaving the next day.  It would serve him right to make him worry about whatever was the hair up his ass.  I have a feeling that he knew somebody had wicked plans for me.  Even more, that he didn’t want his fish camp involved in them.

 I slept cold yet another night.  Somehow, since it was the last one, it was even more miserable.  I supposed it could have been because there was a warm room waiting for me at the church.  The weather wasn’t really cold, it was just chilly at night.  However, in a room with almost no heat it seemed to be very cold indeed.  I guessed even in my misery that cold must be a relative thing.

 The next morning I loaded my meager possessions into the rear of the Samurai, then departed the fish camp for the last time.  Thomas was nowhere to be seen.  Since I left the padlock key on the bed, in very clear view, I didn’t need or especially want to see him.  

 I stopped at the diner for breakfast since it might be a full day with no other time to eat.  I read the regional newspaper while wolfing down the eggs and bacon.  I had gotten a huge appetite since my arrival in Hertford.  There was absolutely nothing of interest in the local paper.  I supposed that if you lived in the next largest town you might find something of interest in who died since the last edition of the paper.

 I called Amber from the pay phone located on the street outside the diner.  Even though it was 9 a.m, her voice sounded as though she had been sleeping. All I got was a sleepy hello and a promise to meet me at the church in the early afternoon.  I penned her down to a time, since I planned to be shopping off and on that day.

 When I unpacked, I found that I had over looked just about everything.  I had no place to hang my clothes, I had nowhere to store my folded clothes, and worst of all I had no place to sleep.  The fact that I had no kitchen wasn’t really a big deal at that moment.  It seemed as though I had heat and a shower but nothing else.  Since Ev had made such a big deal out of me not doing anything permanent I began thinking in portable terms.  Actually the challenge was kind of interesting to my off center mind.

 I had seen clothes bars that stretched across cars.  Traveling salesmen used them to carry large amounts of clothing.  I doubted seriously I had as large a wardrobe as most of them carried.  The bar should be easy enough to find.  I figured I could stretch it across the corner of the room.  The open stud walls would make it easy enough to hang a couple of hooks to attach it.

 There had been a couple of clear plastic boxes at the fish camp.  It seemed to be a good idea to me.  I could use them under the hanging clothes to save space.  If I found furniture later, I could always use them in the business somehow.  I was in no position to haul a bed to my house, but I probably would be in a few weeks.  Once I got the truck, all kinds of things would begin happening.  That much I knew for sure.  In the meantime it was going to be make do with whatever I could find.

 The twenty-minute drive north to Elizabeth City didn’t give me much chance to make plans. I had the bed problem on my mind the whole time.  That problem proved to have the easiest of solution of them all.  I bought an egg crate foam mattress cover for a queen size bed.  I planned to use my utility knife to cut it in half.  The two halves, one on top of the other, should make a comfortable sleeping pad.

 The plastic boxes created a quandary in the decision as to size.  Otherwise, the shopping was easy and relatively inexpensive as those things go.  I would have been home well before noon had I not stopped at the home improvement store again.  I was no carpenter by any means but I bought a hammer, several different kinds of nails, and some two by fours.  The two by fours required that I buy a circular saw and square to cut them to size.  I also purchased a hundred foot roll of lawn chair webbing, yellow in color.

 On the walk back to the Samurai, pushing the cart filled with junk ahead of me, I decided that I had better make some money soon.  I wasn’t likely to run out anytime soon, but I didn’t like the constant hemorrhage to my funds that the move had proved itself to be.

 When Amber arrived at the church in the early afternoon, I was happily butchering wood.  “What the hell are you some kind of white trash gypsy?”  She was at least smiling when she asked.  I noted that she was looking at the bar filled with clothes in one corner of the room.  The four large plastic boxes, which filled the space under the clothes, were filled with underwear, socks and folded shirts.

 “I suppose I am at that.  So what have you been up to?”  I asked it doing no more than glancing up at her.

 “If you can drag yourself away from your toys, there is a salvage auction in New Bern tonight, truck damaged merchandise they say.”

 “Yeah I know about that stuff.  Sometimes it is no more than the forklift bruised a box but sometimes it is a dropped item.  Those things can be a good deal or a total waste of money.”  I knew all right because every freight carrier’s insurance company at one time or another cried about paying off on the stuff I had damaged.

 I didn’t deal with freight often, but whenever I did, I always regretted it.  I decided that I would humor Amber and go to the auction.  No since bursting her bubble so soon.  Amber waited while I finished the thirty-inch wide cot.   She was antsy but she did manage to control herself.  

 The frame was quick to build because it was so simple.  The dimensions didn’t even have to be perfect.  Once the frame with its legs was assembled, I stretched the plastic webbing over it.  After folding the ends over a couple of times I nailed them to the frame with roofing nails.  The cot with the two layers of egg crate foam looked pretty comfortable to me.

 “Finished,” I said.

 “You know if you painted the frame, and covered it with some nice fabric it would be a pretty nice little sofa seat.”  

 She was just being a woman, I told myself.  “Oh, I might just do that.”  She obviously could tell that I had no intention of ever doing it.  At least I didn’t at that moment.

 “Forget the damn thing, let’s go take a look at the merchandise before the auction.”

 During the drive to New Bern I managed to find out that Jarret’s family owned a used car business as well a couple of other things.  Jarret was involved in all of them, including the local funeral parlor.  That would make a nice cozy relationship for him, if he was trying to off me.  If it wasn’t Jarret, the odds were about fifty-fifty on that, then there was no chance that I would ever know who it was.  Random shooters almost never get caught.

 The best I could manage for lunch was a hamburger at the drive thru of a Hardee’s restaurant on the way to New Bern.  Amber had drive but she, sure as hell, didn’t have any patience.  I just rode with it that time.  I had a pretty good idea that we weren’t going to be buying much at the auction.

 The warehouse, where the quarterly auction was to be held, actually was located several miles from New Bern on highway 70.  When we arrived, the parking lot was about half full.  I wasn’t surprised that we were the only ones walking around inside the building.  Even though the parking lot had cars the building was almost empty.  Obviously the cars belonged to the drivers working from the warehouse.

 The roped off area in the center of the warehouse held the items to be auctioned.  They were mostly pallets filled with similar merchandise.  Most of it was of absolutely no use to us for resale.  There was one pallet that might be useable.  It held ten pumps, the type used to pump water from a flooded basement, from a swimming pool and about ten other uses, at least it was what the ragged boxes said.  It appeared that the boxes were damaged by water.  It was an irony that the pumps had been left in the rain.  The public would never buy a pump with such a damaged box.  They would figure that the pump had been a retail returned item and not working.  Since they would fit in the rear of the Samurai, I made a mental note.  In one corner was a computer box with a huge dent in it.  There could be no doubt that the computer inside was damaged.  How badly, I could only guess.  The box listed the features of the computer inside.  At least the features that the computer would have had going for it, if the box had not been attacked by a forklift.  Nobody even bothered to open the box since the client wouldn’t accept it.  

 Amber was excited about a large box of open toys.  “A couple of those are hot items right now.  I wonder why they are here?”

 “Somebody probably dropped the original box and it broke open and a toy went home to some dock worker’s kid.”  I smiled to let her know that it wasn’t a big deal.

 We passed several pallets of truck tires and commercial equipment I did not recognize.  On almost the last pallet were twenty-two black and white TVs with five inch screens and an fm radio.  They looked as though they had been out in the rain as well as the water pumps.  I wasn’t sure how much damage water did to a solid state tv but depending on the price I might just find out.

 After out observations we had two hours to kill.  We stopped into a restaurant for coffee.  It wasn’t a home style place.  Instead it was one of those things that God only allows on a major highway.  They tended to sit side by side as if God knew what crap they were.  In his wisdom he segregated them from the real food lest they taint it.  The coffee was about as good as one could expect from one of those places.  It wasn’t as bad as it might have been.  That, in such a place, was a compliment as far as I was concerned.

 Amber had us return to the warehouse a half hour before the bidding was to start.  I checked in with the clerk.  She took the number from my wholesale license.  Since I didn’t have a copy, she went onto the web to verify it.  She smiled at me as she gave me my bidder forms.  I liked the smile, even if she was far too young for me.  Amber on the other hand did not seem to like the smile she received from the young woman.

 I had a feel for how the bidding went before the auctioneer reached the pumps.  He would attempt to start the bidding at a ridiculously high bid.  After the futile attempt he worked his way down until someone was willing to make a bid.  Since I had no idea of the value of the other items, I did not know how the bids were going.  The pumps were another story altogether, I knew what retail for the pumps was because it was marked on the box in bold letters.  I figured that on ebay we might get half that.  It was a conservative guess I thought.  So to make any money we had to buy them a no more than twenty percent of the box price.  The pumps could not be bought for more than twenty dollars each if I planned to make any money on them.

 The auctioneer tried for full retail, then went for wholesale, then got down to ten bucks a pump.  When nobody else bid at a hundred bucks, I did.  A second bidder came in so I was forced to set a mental maximum in my head twenty bucks a pump was my limit.  I bought them for eighteen a piece or one eighty.

 Nobody would bid on the computer at all, so I bought it for ten bucks.  Amber convinced me to pay 30 bucks for the toys even though I had no idea of their value.  When the TV sets reached, almost wholesale, at ten bucks each I dropped out.

 The Samurai drove like crap on the way home, too much weight.  It was almost nine thirty when we arrived at the church.  During the drive back I was ‘treated’ to amber’s heavy breathing and mumbles as she serviced a couple of her customers.  Afterward she said the car noises added to the illusion.  She pretended to be engaging in oral sex while the caller drove down the road.   It did seem that my Amber was quick thinking and adaptable.  Those traits might come in handy in the business.

 I had the merchandise on the floor of the sanctuary, before Amber spoke.  “We need a table so that I can make pictures of this stuff.”

 “I will nail you something together for now.  I don’t have room to get much of a table into the Samurai.”

 “Okay, I need to at least inventory this stuff.  How you want to handle the computer?”  

 “I’m not on the web yet, how about going to the maker’s site and download the specs on this thing.  I will just strip it for parts and sell them on ebay.  No wait, the manual might have all that lets just let it lay till tomorrow.”

 “Freddie, don’t you have a cell phone?  I need to call you now and then.”

 “I dropped it while I was in Arizona.  Anyone who wanted to call me had to made a long distance call to California.”

 “You need to get a phone of some kind.  I can’t run out here every time I want to speak to you.”

 “So, how is the local land line service?”  I really had a lot of questions before I did anything.”

 “I don’t use it much to tell the truth.  I have it for the answering machine.  By the way if you ever do call me and get the machine leave the message.  I check it most of the time when I am on the road.  If I am home, I answer it of course.”

 “So what kind of ISP do you use?”  I really wanted to know what advice she could give me.

 “The cable company’s road runner.”

 “Oh how do you like that?”

 “For me it is a waste, but the alternative is AOL.  I refuse to pay them for their lousy service.”

 “So where is the closest dial up that isn’t AOL? “

 ”Hell, I don’t know they are all too expensive for what you get.”

 “I don’t think I want to pay fifty bucks a month to check ebay auctions,” I replied.

 “I guess you are right but I can do a lot of other stuff.  I expect that will come in handy.”

 “I guess, tell you what.  Why don’t you come by in the morning and bring your camera and a floppy?  You can do the writeup here on my computer, then take it home.  In the meantime I will do some checking on a phone.”

 “Build me a table and I will bring a white sheet.”  It was very much an order.

 “Excuse me, don’t you mean, ‘Please build me a table’?” I thought I would embarrass her into being a little less hard.

 “Not at all, I mean, build us a table.  Is that better?”  I had to admit that she had a point.  I wasn’t doing her a favor at all.  She had just reminded me that we were partners.  She really did need a lesson in manners though.  It seemed that I had chosen the wrong time to begin them.  I wasn’t sure if there ever would be a right time.

 “Fair enough,” I replied not sure who had won the round.  It seemed immaterial since she had acknowledged that we were in it together.

 After Amber left, I realized that it was late.  I also realized that I hadn’t eaten since lunch.  I had no idea where to go for any kind of food, so I went to bed hungry.  The kitchen, which had not previously occupied my mind at all, suddenly took on new significance as I drifted off to sleep.

 A hot shower in a warm room was my reward for getting out of the warm sleeping bag.  It was a surprise to me that I had slept so well.  I started the day with wet hair but I didn’t care.  It felt so good to be totally clean.  The water heater, though the smallest one made, held up well to the demands of the long shower.

 On the way to breakfast, I stopped for gasoline in the Samurai.  The convenience store was on hwy 17 the heavily traveled coastal road.  I would have put my credit card through the machine if I hadn’t needed coffee so bad.  It turned out to be a good thing that I did go inside.  There within a mile of my home, I found a hotdog cooker.  The store evidently had a good number of workers stop in for a hotdog lunch while working in the area or possibly the whole chain had cookers.  The reason made no difference to me I was thrilled to see it.

 Even though I wasn’t interested at that moment. I knew I would be later in the day.  I found myself in downtown Hertford yet again.  I decided to give the second of the courthouse restaurants a chance.  It was the fancier and cleaner of the two, so I wasn’t expecting much.

 Breakfast was hard to screw up so I felt safe enough.  I was right about the menu.  It was filled with things I wouldn’t have eaten on a dare.  When people toss French words into the roast beef description on a menu, I know I am in the wrong place.  I had all that I could stand in the Dream.  Out there, everything had to be something pretentious.  It was some kind of insane rule.

 In the restaurant I chose that morning, a scrambled egg became an omelet.  Yes I mean a plain scrambled egg was called a plain omelet.   There were no biscuits, and toast had to be ordered either buttered or au natural.  I wanted to barf before the food even came.  In a town the size of Hertford there were really people who bought into that crap, the idea amazed me.  

 It was at that point that I noticed my fellow diners.  Almost to a man, or woman for that matter, they were dressed in business suits.  I realized that the customers of this restaurant were the lawyers and businessmen having their day or days in court.  The diner, where I had taken all my previous meals, must have been for the locals, or the common people out for their portion of justice.  There was a definite class line even in Hertford.  Of course, it might have been the just the view looking in.  The locals might have had a totally different view.

 After my overpriced but adequate breakfast, I drove to Elizabeth City to check out cell phones.  The first stop a the mall proved to be the only one I needed to make.  The kid behind the counter was a gadget geek.  We worked out a plan which gave me unlimited local calls for 30 bucks.  The phone that he tossed in had a data link so it could be used to connect to the Internet.  What the kid did next, was to pull out the cable and software from under the counter that would allow me to use it as a modem.  Unfortunately he didn’t give me that.

 I had in effect eliminated the need for a house phone, and got service for the area which I was pretty sure would be large enough to find a cheap Internet provider.  The cell area covered the whole eastern part of the state.  The kid even gave me the dial up number for a couple of low cost providers that were in the cell area.  

 “I never heard of any of these,” I suggested.

 “I know but hell, they work okay according to my customers.  Give one of them a chance.”

 “So which one is best?”  I asked it trying to sound like I had some idea how all the stuff was going to work.

 “One is probably pretty much like the other.  The one circled there is an unlimited service for sure.  The others I don’t know about.”

 I simply nodded knowingly.  Hell like he said, one was as good as another to an idiot.  I left the place a bit lighter in the wallet but with everything I needed.  He had even been kind enough, after I had refused the extended area plan, to explain how to use the low cost prepaid phone cards for long distance calls.  The twenty bucks I saved in only one month would buy me more time on a calling card than I would need in five years.

 I had the cell phone plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter when I drove off toward home.  It was to charge the damn thing I told myself.  I decided that since the cell phone purchase had been so fast, I had time to shop for a kitchen.   I decided against buying a stove since I really had no intention of cooking complicated enough to need a stove.  What I did need was a coffee pot and some way to heat a bagel or make toast.

 I arrived back at the church with a labor intensive coffee maker, an electric tea pot, coffee cups, and a toaster oven all courtesy of the thrift store I found by accident.  I saw Amber’s car at the same time that I remembered my promise to build her a table to shoot pictures.  I expected to catch hell when I went inside.

 Amber was busy arranging a toy tea set on a platform covered with a white sheet.  “Hi, I see you brought a table?”  I was expecting the worst.

 “No, I just pulled out your plastic boxes and piled them on top of each other. It works just fine.  I don’t need the table after all.”  She seemed to have taken it a lot better than I expected.

 “Good, I’ll make coffee.”  I turned to walk away.  I wish I had been able to make it to the kitchen with my hands full of bags before she spoke but I didn’t.

 “Don’t ever promise me things you don’t intend to follow through with because I get pissed easily.  And  Freddie, this is your only warning.”  She didn’t raise her eyes from the display as she spoke. Her words were ominous.

 “Well Amber, sometimes things get in the way.  You wanted me to get a phone first thing, so I got a phone.  Now I am sorry about the table but you made do.  It is what I expect of a partner.  If you were a lover and I broke a promise, I might forgive you for being pissed.  I expect a business partner to do what it takes, not to whine.”

 “Freddie, if you leave me hanging out to dry on this thing, you will know why Jarret left me.  Now, I got nothing left to say.”

 “So far Amber, we have spent my money, and a whole lot of it.  I think I should be the one to worry about hanging out to dry.”  I did not intend to back down from her.

 “Just so you know Freddie, my dad taught me well and his motto for life was, ‘Never give an inch’.  So you remember that and we will do just fine.”

 “Sounds like good advice, I will keep it in mind.”  The conversation was about to take a really bad turn because neither of us wanted to back down.  I thought I just might be able to make that the last word.

 “Long as everyone knows,” she said to my back.  She didn’t intend for there to be an answer.  I shook my head and let it go.

 The problem with making the coffee was that I did not have a place to do it.  I was about to curse and throw up my hands when I noticed that amber had used only two of the large plastic containers.  I stacked the other two up to use as a table of my own.

 “The coffee was a pain as I had expected it to be.  I enjoyed the work so I didn’t mind.  What the thrift shop had sold me was the glass pot and filter basket from a broken Mr. Coffee.  From the electric tea kettle I poured boiling water into the filter lined basket sitting atop the glass pot.   After it was finished, I washed the coffee cups I had purchased at the same place.

 “Okay, if you want coffee it is ready.  It probably won’t stay hot so you might want to come get it.”

 Amber finished the coffee and her work at the same time.  When she left for the day, I had almost nothing to do.  She took her floppy, and the camera with the pictures, home to write the ads. I spent my time getting the Internet server hooked up correctly.  That in itself was a master stroke.

 It had been a week since I had checked my email.  Maybe it had only been a week since I checked it but a Lot of things had happened in that week.  I was settled in a new place and was involved in a new business.  It all sounded like a lot more than I felt it was.  Even with all the moves, I still felt like nothing was being accomplished.  I guess it always feels that way no matter what you do.

 During the next week, with the notable exception of new years day, Amber kept me hustling around.  From dealer auctions on Wednesday at the national guard armory, to answering newspaper adds for household  sales.  I had no idea how good her knowledge of antiques was but she had me buy a couple of things everywhere we went.

 I kept an eye on the first auctions, it was depressing since they were doing miserably.  We were going to make a buck just because the shipping charge added a little extra for us.  During the last hour of the last day things started to happen.  There were two pumps up for sale that day.  Amber staggered the start dates so that they would not all be up at the same time.  Each pump went for over fifty dollars, so I was happy about that.  The toys likewise made money over all.

 We certainly were not going to get rich but we did make a buck or two that first day.  It was better then the next one.  On that day the pumps made a few dollars but not much, and the toys just broke even and in one case lost a buck.  


 Amber and I continued to buy expecting things to get better and they did.  The one black cloud was that the little TVs I refused to buy at ten bucks each were selling for thirty on ebay.  It appeared that possibly the guy who outbid me had checked on ebay before he bid.

 When I mention it to Amber she went ape.  It had never occurred to her that she could check the net for the marking on china and such.  From that day on she traveled with my laptop and cell phone.  

 On Wed of the third week we pulled into the Café to celebrate a really good day.  We had bought some things right and sold some for a fair profit that day.  A barbeque dinner seemed like a fair reward.  In honor of the occasion Amber turned off her phone before we left the church.  I wasn’t subjected to her imaginary sexual feats.  They had begun to bother me the last few days even though I had no idea why.

 As luck would have it Jarret was in the place.  Amber wanted to turn around just inside the door but I refused.  We picked a booth in the quiet side of the restaurant.  It was the side used as a beer bar at night.  Jarret could have ignored us, or even come in and spoken to us in a low voice.  Instead he came into the bar just to make a scene.

 “I hear you are doing okay with that mail order thing,” he said to amber.

 “Jarret why don’t you leave?” Amber asked.

 “Why should I leave it is a public place.”

 “Let it go Amber, I like to see a blowhard make an ass of himself.”  I was surprised to see a man standing in the door watching.  I recognized him at once.  Ev came into the bar side of the restaurant.

 Jarret looked at me and then at Ev.  “You know, I heard you was living in Ev’s old church.  That place is a fire trap.  It would be a shame to see anything happen to the church he built for his wife.”

 “Jarret, let me tell you something.  If that church so much as has a window broke out while I am living there, I am going to take it out of your ass.”  I smiled as best I could with my mind racing.  I was trying to stay several moves ahead of jarret.

 I saw when he tried to make the quick move to grab me.  I was expecting that or something like it.  I quickly picked up the heavy clear glass ashtray.  It was a staple item in restaurant in North Carolina.  I swung it hard toward Jarret’s head.  He saw it coming and tried to move.  I had also expected that so I kicked his knee cap.  His mind could not cope with all the threats so he did nothing.  

 The ashtray opened a two-inch gash in his skull.  He went down as if he was a balloon figure in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade with a bullet hole in it.  He was at least dazed as he lay on the floor.  “You want to call him an ambulance?” I asked it of Ev.

 “He’s an ambulance,” Ev said without any particular expression.  He turned his attention back to the menu.

 Amber was the one who went to the bar for a towel.  She was the one who covered his bleeding head with it.  She was the one who made the call to 911 on her cell phone.  The only thing about the whole incident that really upset me was that I didn’t get to eat before the town cop showed up.  

  He seemed quite pleased until he heard all the witness’s stories.  I expected that Jarret would tell if differently but everyone else said I was acting in self defense.   He advised me not to leave the area since the detective would want to speak to me.

 “Don’t worry officer, I got no place to go.”  After it all calmed down the owner of the place refused to serve me.  She actually told me to never darken her door again.

 Amber and I celebrated with overcooked hotdogs on stale buns.  I rather enjoyed it, since we ate in the church sanctuary surrounded by the clutter we were accumulating.  After dinner I broke out the cookies and we sat in my room by the fire for a while.

 “Have you ever really done the stuff you talk about on the phone?” I asked quietly.

 “No but I am game for all the ones that won’t send me to hell or to jail.”  Her look told me that she didn’t have any of that in mind at the moment.  She still looked concerned about Jarret.  “Freddie, I hope this won’t upset you, but I need to check on Jarret.”  

 Since she had the phone in her hand, I nodded.  The call first was to the hospital, then to his house after she found that the hospital in Elizabeth City had not kept him.  She spoke to Jarret’s sister.  From the one way conversation, I learned that Jarret would live but was out for blood revenge.  I smiled to myself.

 “What the hell is there to smile about.  You certainly don’t think I was impressed with that bullshit do you.”

 “I have no idea what it is that impresses you, but I expect from your tone that you are not thrilled.  I also gathered from the call that you are on his paranoid enemy list.  Is that going to be a problem?”

 “No he will get over being pissed at me.  After all, you are the one who suckered him with the ashtray.”

 I was grinning broadly when I said, “And a damn fine job it was.”

 Even Amber grinned when she replied, “I suppose it was at that.”

 Amber didn’t have much more to say before she left me alone.  I saw her drive her little econobox off into the night.  I turned back to the cluttered sanctuary, took a good look, then stepped onto the porch, locked the door, and then drove away.  I just couldn’t face the emptiness another night, I needed a break from the solitude.

 The break came after the twenty five-minute drive to the lounge inside a tourist cabin motel.  The lounge should have been mostly empty but wasn’t.  Even on a weeknight the lounge was filled with commercial travelers and the local woman who enjoyed their attention.  I do not mean to imply that the room full of women were loose.  They were just local women who enjoyed having men with a few bucks pay some attention to them.  Most knew, in their hearts, that love was out of the question.  Marriage was an even more remote possibility.  There was a case to be made for a few laughs and a nice dinner.  I arrived after all the women were taken or so it seemed.

 The short, slightly over weight blonde sat down the bar from me.  “You always come to a beer joint to drink coffee?”  She asked it with a deceptively casual smile.

 “Truth is I love bars but liquor does really bad things to me.  So these days, yes I drink coffee.”

 “I guess that makes some kind of left-handed sense.  So what brings you to beautiful Elizabeth City?” 

 “Oh, I just live down the road a piece.  I have a place in Hertford.”

 “That accent is not Hertford,” She sounded curious, not rude.

 “Well, I am new to the area.  I’m from the dream called Los Angeles.”

 “The dream?”  She asked the question I always got asked.

 “Sure, I lived in Holywood for ten years.  I was a screenwriter.”

 “Did you really write for the movies?”

 “Not as much as I would have liked.  If I had, I would still be there.”  After that the conversation rambled.  She was a little drunk and I was a little amorous.  It was a truly bad combination.  She let it be known that she ran a small business of her own and was due to take a day off.  She hinted strongly that the next day would be fine.  Since the cot in the church would never do, I spent forty-five bucks on a tiny duplex cabin.  In that cabin I made love to a woman whose name I either never asked or I forgot.

 The only way that I ever knew was that she left a note on the pillow beside me.  It read, Thanks for the nice time here is my number if you want to call me.  I considered tossing the note but thought better of it.

 The sounds of the maid on the other side of the adjoining unit woke me.  After reading the note, I threw the inside chain lock then took a shower.  As I am sure Amber would point out, going home without my underwear probably made me something of a slut.  The drive home was filled with smiles and good humor.  The bleach blonde had fortified me for another round with Amber.  It was a shock to realize that I felt that way, but I most surely did.  The why I couldn’t figure out, but I realized that it didn’t change the fact that dealing with Amber was a chore.  That puzzle kept my mind occupied, all the way home.

 I found an envelope thumb tacked to the church door.  The envelope contained a disk which contained a copy of all our auctions pending and all those complete.  There was also a note giving me the time of Amber’s arrival to help me pack up the sold items.

 Amber arrived at three to give me a hand packing and labeling.  It took us a couple of hours during which time Amber said hardly a word.  It seems that she had arrived early enough to figure out that I hadn’t come home the night before.  I didn’t think that she was jealous more put out that about here drive to the church for nothing.  Before she finished packing, her cell began to ring.  I got to listen to her whisper trash while I packed up the merchandise for shipment.

 Almost every time I heard her do her thing, I also heard her refuse to give her address or any other personal information that was true.  She seemed to either sidestep the question or lie.  That I was sure was the best thing for her to do.  I didn’t think she needed to be playing hostess to some pervert.  Well at least not to some other pervert, I reminded myself about the night before and the stranger whose name I didn’t get.

 Amber not only helped me with the packing but she had set up several more buying excursions.  I decided to sit back and let it happen for the most part.  I did the grunt work and she did the buying and selling.  I stepped in when I thought she was making a big mistake or I saw a deal she didn’t recognize.

 Jarret left me alone, but I didn’t figure he had learned his lesson.  I figured he was laying low and planned to come for me when I least expected it.

 It was a month to the day since we started, when Amber brought the report to me.  According to her records we had spent 2200 of my money and sold 3500 worth of merchandise.  The real problem was that we had a ton of it left.  It was either unsold or in her opinion not worth wasting the price of the auction listing.  

 I convinced her to list it for a penny with a shipping and handling charge to make a couple of bucks.  Two weeks later I found that we actually lost money on the listings.  Only a few people would pay even the penny for our junk.  Mostly it was the shipping I thought at the time.  Either way I still had the junk in my sanctuary.  I filled the samurai three times to get rid of it all.

 “Freddie, you promised me that you would buy a truck.  We need it if we are going to buy from the wholesale auction.  We can make a fifty per cent return on the money but only if we continue to buy merchandise in volume.  To do that we need to have a truck to haul it away.”  Amber was in a mood again.  Why I had no idea.

 “When is the auction?”  I asked it thinking that I might have missed it.

 “Tomorrow night in Kinston,” she replied.

 “Okay stop by early enough and we will have dinner on the way.”

 “Sure but I am driving,” she suggested.

 “Okay by me but why?”

 “I am not going to ride in that piece of crap you call a car.”

 “It isn’t a car, it’s a suv of sorts,” I said with a smile.

 The auction was held out of doors.  We walked from truck to truck.  I had picked out three of them and had a price in mind for each.  I found out very quickly that I was bidding against a truck reseller.  He was going to buy them as cheap as possible but so long as he made a profit he would take the bid up.  

 After I lost the first two, I cornered him.  “You can back off and let me have this one since we are doing all the bidding, or I will continue to run the bid up until I get the last one.  You can save a lot of money to just let me have it.”

 He made no indication of his intentions at all.  He just did not bid on the next truck and I got it at a reasonable price.  I nodded on my way to the office to pay the clerk.  He nodded back.

 The truck had a twenty-four-foot bed.  It seemed as though it would be enough for anything we would buy in a day.  Over the next couple of days, I found out that Amber was enjoying my money, well spending it anyway.  The Sanctuary filled up again quickly.  We bought two complete estates not just bits and pieces.   They were from condos so at least there wasn’t any farm equipment involved.

 While I spent my time running here and there picking up junk for the company, Amber spent most of  her time on the computer logging it all into her system.  She somehow keeping track of it all.  Just about the time I thought we might get out of my money, Amber struck a deal with the Flag storage and transfer company.

 “In the deal, I paid them for the right to clean out the storage buildings that were foreclosures.  Okay, I did get the items in the buildings so it wasn’t one sided.  Amber it seemed did not trust anyone.  We were buying a pig in a poke, but she made sure we got all the bacon as well as the crap.  The company had agreed to cut the lock only while I was present.  In other words they were not allowed to take the good stuff for themselves.  We paid the back storage charges, it was a  premium price.  We based our decision on the fact that we didn’t think people would pay to fill a storage building with junk. It turned out to be an only marginally profitable situation.  By summer our trail period was finished, so we dropped the contract in favor of more lucrative use of the money.

 Summer on the coast of North Carolina was beautiful.  It was neither too hot nor too cold for me.  I was forced to listen to Amber’s complaints about the sanctuary not being air conditioned.  For listening to her complaints, I was amply rewarded by the sight of her thinning body in very short shorts.

 Amber did not say why she had been gradually lost weight over the previous six months, but the abbreviated clothing season showed her well on her way to an attractive if not fabulous body.  It would always be the tiniest bit soft no matter what she did, I expected.  Nonetheless she was becoming quite lovely in almost every way.  The ‘almost’ had to do with her continued work on the phone line.  The lovely and somewhat shy Amber would often get a call.  She then turned into a very hard verbal prostitute.  The image of her huddled in the corner, getting some stranger off had begun to bother me some.  Since I knew that it shouldn’t, I said nothing.

 On that mid June day, there were a couple of junk shoppers in the sanctuary.  Word had somehow gotten out that we had a building over fun with odds and ends.  Used furniture and just plain junk sat around waiting for me to dispose of it.

 “Mr. Welch my wife and I like the lamp over there, the large brass one.  Could you give me a price on it?”  The man must have been well over fifty possibly even sixty.

 “Sure,” I said loud enough for Amber to hear.  She brought the old beat up laptop out to the showroom.  Showroom was hardly what the sanctuary warehouse was in reality but it sounded good to both of us.

 “That lamp is a by Rosenheist.  It was manufactured somewhere between 1954 and 1963.  The company that made it went out of business at that time.  The base is heavy brass and the shade is original to it.  The lamp was probably meant for a hall table or a nook of some kind.”

 Even I was impressed with the information.  Amber had become quite the researcher over the last few months, I thought.

 “If the lamp had been made in 1963, the last year, it would have sold for over a hundred of those dollars.  That would be about two hundred and fifty of our dollars.  The starting price for the lamp on ebay will be one hundred and twenty five dollars.  If you wish to buy it now and save me the listing hassle, you may purchase it for one hundred dollars.

 “Tell you what ma’am that is a little more than we think the lamp is worth.”

 “That Sir is up to you.”  The man was trying to save a couple of bucks but also it was a macho thing.  I didn’t want to see the lamp get away when even at seventy-five it would pay for the whole mini-warehouse contents from which it came.

 “Sir, what do you think it is worth?”  I asked it smiling at Amber.  She had been present several times when I did the same thing.  I almost never let a buyer leave without the item in tow.

 “Frankly, for our purposes at the cabin, I would think fifty dollars.”  Amber laughed, I gave her a stern look which the couple noted, I am sure.

 “Well, that is way to far from what the lady thinks it is worth.  I think we could reach a compromise at eighty.”  It was my final offer and they knew it without me explaining it.

 “I think not,” the man said.  He either didn’t want the lamp or had missed the signal.

 “In that case look around.  If you find anything else you like, let me know.”  I turned away.  

 The truck sat at the side door to the sanctuary.   Inside it was a very large barrel of children’s clothes.  The clothes would be washed by Amber then sent to a consignment shop in New Bern.  

 I had the barrel down and was rolling it along the gravel walk when the man cornered me.  “I will give you seventy for the lamp,” he suggested.  I made sure his lady wasn’t within hearing.

 “I wouldn’t sell you the lamp for less than a hundred bucks now.  You are an arrogant jerk but worse than that you are also stupid.  You couldn’t take advantage of the deal I was making you because you were too arrogant to let me have the last word, so now the price is a hundred bucks.”  I knew something about human nature he didn’t seem to understand.  He had committed himself for whatever reason to buying the lamp.  His wife might have nagged him by saying what a good deal it was at eighty.  No matter the reason, he was going to lose a lot of face, if he went back to her without the lamp.  He would pay the twenty extra and never say a word about it.  I wasn’t a bit surprised when he did just that.

 Amber was good with the computer and it was a good thing, since we had items all over hell.  I could never have kept up with them.  Amber could, and often did, go to the consignment shop to inventory our merchandise.  It was amusing that she would spend an hour to make sure we didn’t lose a quarter.  I never let her know that I found her amusing.  I had a feeling that if I did, she would kick my worthless ass.

 I managed to go along at the drudgery for over a month longer before I got the itch.  The itch would only be subdued with a complete change in my life, or by getting laid.  Since I wasn’t sure how Amber would take either, I didn’t tell her.  I just slipped off to Elizabeth City after I called Shannon.  Shannon, I found from the note in my wallet, was my mystery lady from my last overnight trip there.  With the prearranged date, I was able to take her to a movie.  The bar thing for a reformed drunk is not a very good regular hang out.

 After dinner and the movie, she invited me back to her apartment.  I found from the moment that I entered her apartment, that we had a lot in common.  Her apartment was in the downtown section.  It was a portion of the converted store room of a business.  The old five and dime’s downstairs had been converted into three small stores with stockrooms in the rear.  The unused stockroom had been converted to three apartments.  Shannon had the front apartment.  Her two large windows made me feel as though I was standing on the street watching the night scene unfold around me.  We sat in the dark until way past midnight just watching the street below.

 Shannon threw me out early since she had to work that day.  I found a biscuit restaurant before the short drive home.  I was in a very good mood when I slipped into the rear of the church.  As it would usually happen that time of the morning, Amber was in the sanctuary doing paperwork.  It was obvious that her trailer was too small for even the tiny office space we needed.

 “So where you been?” she asked as I entered the sanctuary.  There was a definite angry edge to her voice.

 “I went into to Elizabeth City last night for dinner.  I got a little sidetracked.”  I didn’t plan to confirm her suspicions.

 “Same slut as before?” she asked smiling.

 “I suppose so, but she really is a nice lady,” I replied.

 “Freddie, what would a nice lady want with you?”  Amber didn’t even try to lighten it with a smile.

 “I suppose that there is something in that,” I suggested.

 “While you were out tom catting around, I got us an offer on some of this junk that we can’t sell.”

 “Oh really?” I asked.

 “Jersey supply will but a load from us every month.”

 “Why would Jersey Supply want our junk sight unseen?”

 “Because we are going to be carrying some of their merchandise in the truck with it.  They buy our junk for a ridiculous price as payment for the transporting of their merchandise.”

 “Two questions, how did you set it up and what is their merchandise.”  I was pretty sure of both answers.

 “It isn’t drugs, I know how you feel about that.”

 “It has a great deal to do with the amount of jail time for transporting drugs,” I replied.

 “Yeah I know, this is just a tax scam not really even definitely illegal.  All you are doing is taking a load of cigarettes to New Jersey.  As to how I arranged it, one of my clients is a high level official with Jersey Supply.”

 “Amber, I am not sure this is a good idea.  I know it is illegal.”  I also knew I didn’t want the cops to give my background too good a look.  I wasn’t sure I cold handle it.  I had kept Amber’s buying in check, so it didn’t look too much like I was spending outrageously.  Still, I had always kept my desire to make money in check.  I preferred to skirt the law not to break it.  This smacked too much of breaking it in a big way.

 “Freddie, we can do this.  All we have to do is to pick up their product, cover it with the stuff from the Sanctuary, then drive it to New Jersey.  Besides I don’t have a problem screwing any government out of money they will throw away.  If that tax money went for something important then I probably wouldn’t do this.  Hell Freddie, we will just keep them from being able to use the money to screw some poor devil.  Poor being the operative word.”

 “You keep saying we, but it is my ass on the line,.” I reminded her.

 “I should go along.  He don’t know you.”

 “Hell, unless you are doing some hooking on the side, he don’t know you either.”  I was trying to get it all straight.  After six months, I didn’t think that Amber was planning to screw me.  I also didn’t think she had any reason to distrust me.

 “Freddie, my number can be traced, Mike reminded me of that.  I am the one who can be found not you necessarily.”

 “Unless they are paying a ton of money up front, we can both be found.  However, I can accept that they are paranoid.  My question is why?  The trading company seems to be doing okay.  Why do we need this trouble?”

 “There isn’t going to be any trouble, and the company is not doing okay.  Our draws won’t even pay my expenses, let alone be enough for me to quit the phone business.”

 “Well, if you get us in jail, your expenses will go down for sure.  Amber, there is a lot that can go wrong.”

 “Like what?”  She genuinely did not see it.

 “Let’s see.  They could mix drugs in with the cigarettes.  We could get stopped for a broken tail light that wasn’t broken.  Drug sniffing dogs can find that shit from the outside.  They probably sniff for cigarettes now as well.”

 “Well I want to do it.  Freddie, I really need the money.”  She did seem to be in distress.  I looked at her fidget while I thought about it.

 “Here is the deal, he finds himself an agent down here.  The agent leases the truck from us, I still have the ‘for hire’ license plate.  He makes the purchase from us, and then I will deliver it to the location of his choice for him to finish loading it.  After that time I will drive whatever he puts in there to New Jersey.  We will unofficially check that load to make sure it is not anything more than cigarettes.  They will seal the truck and lock it with their own locks.  I will then complete the transaction by delivering the freight, complete with the billing papers.  If I get stopped, I am just delivering the leased truck, period.  I will not carry drugs though.  I want you to understand that if they put drugs in the truck, I will drive it out onto the road and call the cops.  I will roll you, and them up.

 “You do and they will kill you,” she replied.

 “If drugs are what you had in mind Amber, forget it.”  I walked back to the bedroom part of the church.

 “I told you no drugs, but if you roll on them they will kill us both.”  She looked concerned.

 “Then the answer is no.  I won’t work for people who are going to screw us.  If they are truly bad guys, they plan to screw us to the wall.  They also expect us to stand still for it because we are afraid.  Well sweetie, I am not going into a deal that has trouble built into it from day one.”  I knew for certain that she was playing with, what she at least thought, were heavy hitters.

 “Do you really want to be involved with these people?”  I watched her struggle with an answer.

 “Freddie, I need the money.  I don’t think Mike will screw me.”

 “Then buy me out and you do it,” I suggested.

 “Where would I get the money?” she asked seriously.

 “Stay with the phone business for a while.  Just pay me what I have in it plus a thousand dollars and it is yours.  

 “Can I rent the church?” she asked.

 “No you can’t, what you can do is rent the sanctuary from me.  You pay me what I have in the junk at this moment, plus the draw from the profits on hand, then you can rent the sanctuary for what I am paying for the whole church.  But I warn you right now, if you store drugs or illegal cigarettes on this property, I will turn you in.  You might want to find another place.”

 “I will give it all some thought and get back with you tomorrow.  In the mean time help me pack up this stuff please.”  

 I smiled innocently as I began packing boxes for shipment.  The boxes piled up, but the inventory shrank only slightly as we prepared the sold merchandise for shipment.  I drove the shipment to UPS while Amber schemed to buy me out.

 When I returned, she started again.  “Freddie, the only way I can do this is for you to agree to make a few of those trips.  I can take my share to pay you off.”

 “Keep thinking.”  I looked at her miserable face for a few minutes before I put a match to the burner of the old gas stove we got in an estate sale.  I heated a can of beef stew as a late lunch, while she schemed again.  The chunk of bread I tore from a loaf, came from a French bakery in New Bern.

 I ate and Amber schemed some more.  She just wasn’t going to let it go.  “How about you financing the sale for me.”

 “I had already figured that I would have to do that,” I replied.

 “So what do you need to haul the junk for me?” she asked it quietly.

 “First of all a bill of sale and a finance contract.  I want to be free of the transaction totally.  I will do your deliveries on a contract basis.  “A flat-rate no matter what I haul.  I leave the truck with you, you load it with any legal thing you want.  Then you seal it, put a lock on it, and give me a bill of lading.”  You will just be a contract, nothing more nothing less.  If they catch me, I give you up as the owner of the contents.  I don’t know or care what I haul cause you are certifying it as legal.”

 “Okay, then I can have it all.  I just have to pay you to haul the stuff away.”

 “Yes, I will finance the sale for you, but it has to be a real deal.  It can’t be a sweat heart deal or I’ll look guilty as hell.  If I turn on you, then you have the decision to make about turning on New Jersey whatever they are.”

 “Jersey Supply, and I know the rules.”

 “Then just give me my share of the money, and figure what the rest is worth.”

 It was late in the day when she brought in the printout.  “This is the best I can figure.  You can check the numbers yourself but I figure.  I owe you eight thousand dollars and change.  That is for the inventory and the money in the bank.”

 “Does it include the money in transit from Pay Pal?”  I knew more about the business than she expected.  The light in her eye told me she was surprised.

 “Yes, and the unsold items still being bid off.”

 “So how do you want to pay it?”  I can’t give you all the money in the account.  If I do I wont have anything to buy merchandise with.”  

 “Honey, this is business.  I am not interested in what you can’t do.”  It was cold but I wasn’t in the mood to be charitable.

 “I can give you three grand and my share of all the trips and sales you make for Jersey Supply.”

 “No, that won’t do.  That makes me a partner.  I will take seventy-five cents a mile for the trip up there.  It is a fair price I am sure.  As for the business, give me a dollar amount you can pay monthly to get the five-grand paid.”

 “Okay, five hundred a month.”  She looked serious.   It was at that point that I realized she was going to act as the agent for the cigarettes. She was going to buy them herself, then resell them to the distributor in New Jersey.

 “Don’t get too greedy Amber.  That is my best advice to you.”

 “Thanks for the advice, I would feel better if you were in this with me.”

 “It looks to me like you have plenty of advice on how to set this up.  So how often are you planning to make the trip north?”

 “Every Friday,  if you are willing.”

 “Well, I better take the money you are giving me to get the truck worked on.  I am pretty sure that it won’t stand up to that.”

 “Can you make a trip this week?”  She looked as though she were on a schedule.

 “Sure, I can do that.  I do not plan to be involved in any of this.  So let me know when you get the truck loaded and we will leave with it.”

 I had no more responsibilities with the company that I had helped to form.  I was suddenly a free man again.  I realized quickly how tied down I had been.  I could sleep when I wanted, and I could go to Elizabeth City to see Shannon as often as I wanted.  I became bored before Friday.  

 I was past ready to leave before the truck was ready.  I had no idea where Amber took the truck but she drove it herself, something she really hated to do.  Even with the three days training, I expected the truck to be dented when she returned.  It wasn’t, but it was locked up tight.

 I left the church for the almost seven hour drive.  In a car it would have taken seven hours.  In the truck which I did not want to get inspected, it took us eight.  The small warehouse building was closing when I pulled the truck into the gravel yard.  It had pretty much been the plan I expected.  The fewer people who knew the better.

 “Put the stuff here,” the man with the heavy Jersey accent said.

 “Put what there?” I asked it knowing shit was about to happen.

 “The stuff you brought.”  He looked at me as a door opened across the room.  The man who walked from the office was in a suit that probably cost more than the trip would pay me.  Amber looked frightened as we stared at each other.

 “I don’t touch the load friend.  You got the key, you open it, and you unload it.  I am going to take a walk.  I should be back in about a half hour.”  I pocketed my keys and turned to leave.

 “Hey bubba, we don’t have no workers here after five.”

 “Then you got a problem friend.  Cause when I come back, in about thirty minutes, I am taking that truck home, even if I have to get a cop to help me get it clear of here.”  I had a feeling they didn’t want a cop to even hear the address of Jersey Supply let alone be inside the building.

 “That’s mighty unfriendly of you Bubba,” the man in the suit added.  He was looking at Amber as he spoke.  Her eyes were darting here an there but not really focused.  Amber was terrified and I should have been.

 “I suppose it is at that.  You know what, I think I am going to just take this load home now.  And Jack, there won’t be any more to follow.”  I climbed back into the truck with Amber doing the same.  She moved as if in a fog.  They obviously thought I was bluffing until I started the engine then drove away.  I was almost clear of the lot when the workman caught up to me.

 “Hey wait, that load is paid for.”  

 “You know what Jack, that ain’t my problem.”  I started to pull away.  The asshole pulled a rather small automatic pistol on me, but he didn’t step back.  The engine was running when I forced the door into him.  It knocked him flat.  The truck cab was high and he had been off balance in order to get the pistol in my face.  

 As the ex cons who were my neighbors in the dream said, “You don’t have to be strong or smart man, you just got to have the balls to so it.”  I jumped from the still running truck and took his pistol.  I had it just in time to see the suit rush up. He was digging inside his jacket when he noticed the pistol pointed at him.

 “Jesus what assholes,” I said aloud.  I was also making a mental note to kick Amber’s butt when I her home.  “Now gentlemen we have two choices.  I can kill you both and drive off.  Or you can walk back into that building and close all the doors while I drive off.  Just to show you what a good guy I am, you get to choose.”

 “You know you are way over the top,” the suit said.

 “Well hell Jack, I am a teamster.  You should have respected my contract.”  I said it as I reached carefully inside his coat for the pistol.”  He didn’t have the balls to make the move. “Maybe I should just kill you two with your own guns after all.  Make it look like a falling out among thieves.  I am sure the cops wouldn’t even look for me.”  I waited but the did not comment again.

 “I am going to dinner at that restaurant down the street.  You guys unload this truck and bring it there.  If you don’t have it there by the time I finish, I am going to call a cop to come get it.  And if it don’t act just right, I am gonna arrange for a thorough look at your warehouse back there.”

 I was not feeling all that confident even with both pistols.  I was pretty sure the warehouse was filled with spares.  Still, I was satisfied that I had done as much as I could.  A shoot out in the restaurant wouldn’t be in their best interest.  My treatment would rankle for a while, the next time I came up they would probably kill me.  With that in mind, I decided that I had actually made two trips in one, my first and my last.

 Amber calmed down over her coffee.  She still wouldn’t say a word to me, but she was looking less terrified.  I couldn’t blame her I was probably just as frightened.

 The man who stopped at our table was also well dressed.  He stood out in the sandwich shop filled with mostly working class patrons.  His appearance was the reason I held one of the nine millimeter pistols under the table.  He sat down as he dropped the keys in front of me.  He turned to smile at Amber.

 “Sorry for the misunderstanding friend.”  He smiled a very oily smile.

 “Not much of a problem for me.  It is the last trip for me though.”

 “I can assume this tale doesn’t get around?”  

 “If you are finished, I am finished.”  I meant it too.  I was completely finished.  Somehow I knew he was Mike, but I held off saying it.”  I suppose it was the look in Amber’s eye that told me she recognized the voice.

 “Well, have a nice trip home,” he said trying to stand.  

 I caught his hand and held him down.  “You know what would be real friendly of you?”

 He tried to pull away before he spoke.  He suddenly realized that I had not moved my left hand from under the table.  When the realization hit him, I smiled.  

 “No what?” he asked.

 “If you was to start my truck,” I smiled.  He didn’t look at all nervous.  If he had it rigged, or something else planned for me, he was being cool about it.  As I stood, I suggested,   “Why don’t you put a twenty on the table for the waitress.  Just in case she has a lot of clean up to do.”

 Not only did he start it, he drove it the half block to the driveway entrance.  As he left the cab he said, “You know I could use a man like you.”

 “No thanks I don’t play well in group situations.  Nice to have met you though.”  I drove away with my eyes on the mirrors.  When we were clear of the neighborhood, I looked over at amber.  

 “So, are you out of the smuggling business?”

 “Oh yeah,” she replied quietly.

 It would have ended fairly well, If Amber had kept her resolve.  When she got back home and put some distance between herself and the incident, Mike began working on her to do it again.  First of all he told her that all was forgiven, then he waved the money under her nose again.  I hoped that she wouldn’t weaken but of course she did.  The lure of easy money, once you have tasted it, was just too great for her.

 She came to me just over two weeks later.  “Freddie, it was just a misunderstanding.”

 “Honey, a misunderstanding is when two people have loud words.  It is something altogether different when they pull guns.  Now we were damned lucky to get out of there alive, I am not going to push my luck.

 “Then what can we work out?”  I should have known the partnership had been dissolved before the trip north.  It was a shame but a fact of life like a slowly developing storm.

 “If you are determined to do this, I will lease you the truck for all your business.  You can’t afford to buy it.”

 “No, but I will as soon as I can,” she snapped.  Amber was beginning to show her irritation.  I didn’t much care.

 “Be careful who you hire to drive for you.  If they know what is going on they can blackmail you or just take over.”

 “I should probably just do it myself,” she suggested.

 “Did you ever ask yourself, why Mike doesn’t just come for them himself?”  I asked her while watching for a reaction.

 “To spread the risk, or so he said.  Frankly Freddie, I don’t much care.”

 “You should, he is in a high risk business and this is a job he doesn’t want.  I would suggest to you that there is a reason.  That reason should be very important to you.”

 “As long as he pays me, I could care less.  Since you are not in, I am going to be able to pay you for the business a lot sooner.”

 “Good, and Amber, keep up the other parts of the business.  Don’t get yourself into bed with Mike and his friends.”

 “I got a nephew who can drive the truck.  He don’t need to know about the cigarettes.”

 “Bad idea, he is bound to find out something is wrong.  Nobody doing real trucking refuses to tell the driver what the load is.”

 “I will tell him that it is this junk,” she said opening her arms to encompass the contents of the sanctuary.  “He will be thrilled not to unload.

 “That is up to you.  You should probably start looking for a place to store you merchandise other than here.  I am probably going to do something myself.”

 “I saw Amber almost every day for another month, then once a week.  The smuggling had almost emptied the sanctuary.  I knew from gossip at the diner that she had bought three acres of land with a barn.  They say she planned to build a house on the land.

 She made the final payment for my part of the inventory that no longer existed.  She also bought the truck from me outright.  

 It took me about a week after Amber took over the business solely to get bored.  I began looking for something to do while she still had merchandise in the Sanctuary.  I drove to Jacksonville N.C. to attend a city surplus auction.  The advertisement had listed a three year old, high milage truck.  I went just to see what a city auction would be like.  

 In addition to the items which had been listed in the newspaper, the city police had a list.  Most of it was miscellaneous junk.  There was however a note at the bottom.  The note explained that the police would be taking bids on for the purchase of its arsenal of handguns.  The city was moving from the Glock 10mm to the Smith and Wesson handguns.  I had been under the impression that the city traded them in on the new weapons.  It surprised me that they didn’t.

 I didn’t have enough information to bid, nor did I have a gun dealers license.  I couldn’t have bid without one, even if I wanted to do so.  It was something to be filed away for another time.

 After the auction, I began pursuing the gun license.  It wasn’t the money since I had no idea how much money was in it.  I just liked the sound of being a gun runner.  Well; something like a gun runner.  I decided that I would deal out the backdoor of the church.  That also had a funky feel about it..  I got hooked up to buy weapons wholesale, then went into the buying and selling of guns.  The business in general was awful.  No way a guy would make a honest buck at it.

 “The real money appeared to be in stolen gun purchases, then the resale of them to criminals.  Since I couldn’t find that in my heart, I was about out of business.  At the last moment I was approached by a man with truck full of well-worn weapons.  They had been sitting in a warehouse belonging to a militia group.  According to him the weapons were clean but very old.  The group had moved on to newer weapons he assured me.

 He almost gave me the rifles and older model pistols. I bought them because they were cheap.  I had no idea what I would do with them.  I bought one hundred M1 carbines and one hundred worn out .38 caliber wheel guns.  In addition I purchased 100,000 rounds of .30 caliber ammunition for the carbines.  They had already found a buyer for the .38 ammo.  After I unpacked the rifles, I found a smaller box inside one of the crates of rifles.

 I had to research the machine parts pretty hard before I determined that they were kits to convert the carbines to fire on full automatic.  I knew enough guns to convert them.  I also knew that it would make selling them almost impossible.  I could however sell them as semi automatic rifles and then sell the kits.  It was legal but it was just a dodge to get around the law.  I converted a half dozen for my own use and sold the rest.  I sold the kits on ebay.  I made enough on the kits to pay for it all.  It seemed that the kits were a big hit. The rifles got sold as replicas.  To do that required no more than removing the firing pins.  As replicas, They could be shipped to anyone.  There was no license required to sell replicas or firing pins either for that matter.

 It turned out that I sold very few firing pins.  People really did want the replicas since they were cheap.  Something to hang in the den seemed to be in demand.  So much so that I began selling mounted replicas.  The pistols had three different styles of mounting hardware and the rifles had two.  I even went out and found some bayonets for the rifles to make a better display.

 Everything was rolling along as it should.  I stayed busy and I suppose Amber did as well.  I was spending a little time with Sharon, so Amber really didn’t get into my thoughts often.   I did see her now and again for breakfast but she just passed from a business partner into being irrelevant.

 I didn’t even know amber was gone until I got the call from her.  I suppose that even if I had noticed, I would have assumed she was off smuggling cigarettes.  “Freddie, I need you.”  Those was the words on the phone.  Those words definitely lose their punch on the phone, not nearly the same meaning as in a warm bedroom, or even cold one for that matter.

 “Amber?” I asked.  I sort of recognized her voice but then again she woke me from a sound sleep.

 “Freddie, I should have listened to you.  I am in real trouble.”

“Where are you?”  It seemed the logical question since she sounded far to frightened for it to be a broken down truck.“I am at my trailer but just long enough to pack a few things.  You need to get   

out of the church too.”

 “Why is that?”  I didn’t understand what she could have done to put me at risk.  

 “Mike called, there is a contract on us both.”

 “Why would there be a contract on anyone especially me?”

 “I let everyone think you were still involved.  It made the negotiations easier.”

 “That wasn’t very nice or very smart either.  So why are they upset enough to put a contract on us.”

 “I sort of sold some cigarettes to their competitor.”

 “I thought they were competing with the government.”  Okay I really did know better but I couldn’t help it.

 “Somehow a middle eastern gentleman found out and wanted to buy a load now and again.”

 “Oh how did he find out?”  I knew the only way anyone could find out was for Amber to get greedy.

 I met him on line.  He runs the motel where I stay after I unload the merchandise.”

 “So Rasheed bought a few cigarettes why the problem?”

 “I thought he was just going to supply his neighborhood motels.  It seems he tried to sell some to one of Mike’s customers.”

 “I see so Mike doesn’t believe in free enterprise.  Isn’t this over reacting even for those clowns?”

 “No I guess not, and I don’t find an ice pick in the eye very clown like.”

 “I don’t suppose you can kiss and make up?”

 “If it was Mike maybe, but this goes a little higher.  It seems they are going to do it because I never joined their phone sex union either.;”

 “But what has that got to do with me.  I have been out of the business for almost two months now.”

 “Like I said, I neglected to tell them that part.”

 “Why, the hell, would you do that?”  I was angry and it showed.

 “Dealing with them was easier when they thought I had a partner.”

 “I suppose they know where to find me?”

 “Yes,” It was a simple one word answer that gave me a sinking feeling.

 “How long to I have to settle up things here?”


 “We need to be in the wind now.  Mike said they had a team on the way.  He also said they would kill him if they knew that he warned me.”

 “Then we need a place to lay low and plan.  You are the local, do you have any ideas?”

 “Actually I thought we would just take off.  You know, go to some south sea island.”  Amber didn’t sound all that serious.

 “That would probably work, but then I don’t have that kind of money do you?”  I knew she didn’t.

 “If you aren’t planning to stay long, I know a place we can stay for a couple of days.”

 “Where is that?”

 “Jarret has a tenant farm.  Nobody is living there just now.”  It was winter for all intents and purposes.  The weather had taken a turn for the better but March could still be a bitch in North Carolina.

 “Give me directions, but I am going to try to think of something else.  You are the one who seems to be in the most danger, why don’t you go on out there?”  She agreed to leave immediately for the tenant house.  She also gave me detailed directions to it.

 I was packing the last of my replica guns when they drove into the parking lot.  Lest you wonder how I knew, I would remind you that I dealt in firearms.  It tends to make one a bit paranoid.  I had a couple of passive inferred sensors in the parking lot.  When a car pulled in the engine’s heat set them off.  I was at the front of the church with a .30 caliber carbine set for full automatic before they had the car doors open.

 The three of them might have had a chance, if Amber hadn’t called, or if they weren’t driving a Lincoln town car with Jersey plates, or if they hadn’t been carrying shotguns.  The one thing they did not expect was to have the air filled with the thirty rounds from the banana clip attached to the carbine.  The steel jacketed slugs landed all around them.   It was my warning to get into the car, then drive out.  It wasn’t very subtle and it didn’t work.

 Instead of retreating as any sensible man would, they tried to return fire while standing in the open.  The next banana clip cut them into pieces.  I expect they thought the amount of fire that they laid down would intimidate me.  It might have if they had been firing where I was, instead of where I had been.

 I loaded as much firepower as I could into the Samurai before I drove to Jarret’s tenant house.  I knew I had just killed a complete assassination crew so my life was pretty much over.  I didn’t think that I could negotiate my way out of that bind.  My last job at the church was unenviable.  I checked to see if anyone was still alive.  One of the would-be assassins was still hanging on.  I debated finishing him off but decided to send a message instead.

 “You tell whoever sent you that we can call this finished, or we can continue the dance.  If he decides he hasn’t had enough, the next dance is at his house.”  I used his cell phone to call the emergency services people

 Jarret's tenant house had been painted white at one time.  When I drove into the dirt yard there were a few traces of paint left but damn few.  I parked the Samurai beside the economy version of the sports car that amber drove.

 She met me at the door.  It was the only time that I had ever seen her looking lost.  Her eyes were dancing.  She did not seem to be focused at all.  It might not have been the best

time to tell her about my visitors but she got me into it so I figured it was only fair that she knew the extent of her problems.  The fact that I took pleasure in telling her just goes to  show how immature I was.  I wasn't doing it as a look at me but as a look what you got me into kind of thing.  

    "Holy shit Freddie, what are we going to do?"  She looked terrified, as well she should have been.  I was pretty scared myself.  I had gotten lucky at the church.  They had expected to have the

element of surprise, but I had it instead.  There would be no more easy kills.  If it came down to it again, I expected to die.

 The conversation for the next few hours centered on how fast and how far to run.  We had not even considered fighting.  Amber found a coffee pot but no coffee.  I drove to the closest store to buy a pound.  I knew for a fact that the hit team was gone so I wasn’t worried.  We had at least a day to regroup but not necessarily any longer.

 When I returned the pickup truck with the tires made for a much larger vehicle sat in the dirt yard.  Jarret had arrived was my guess.  He might have driven bey and spotted his exwife's car

or he might have been called by her.  I was leaning to the latter.  In spite of all their bickering, I had always felt they had unfinished business.

 "Why am I not surprised to see you Jarret?"

 "Why would you be?  I own this place."

 "Did amber call you to save her?"

 "|She did.  Looks like I need to save you too."

 "I dont think so.  You might need to save her from me though.  She seems to have gotten me in the middle of this."

 He smiled.  "It is what Amber does best.  Freddie, I could have warned you.  Amber is a walking hazard."  He was smiling so that she knew he wasn't serious.  It seemed the two of them had

softened some in the midst of danger.  It was probably the common enemy thing.  If it worked for countries, why not for people.

  Then again why would it?  Jarret was not involved in Amber’s plight.    “Okay Jarret, how about telling me where you fit into this puzzle?”

 “Amber always calls me when she is in trouble.  I have no idea why but I always come along to bail her out.  This time though you have gotten her into something money won’t buy her out of.”

 “You got that backwards, she got me into it.  At the moment that is irrelevant.  The only relevant thing is how do we get them off our ass.”

 “It is going to be harder since you killed three of them.”  Jarret didn’t look very upset about it.

 “I thought that was better for me than letting them kill me.  I really didn’t consider it’s effect on Amber at that moment.  I might have tried to reason with them, but I have my doubts that it would have worked.”

 “Oh, I expect that is all true.  The question still is how do we get her out of this?”

 “Jarret the only reason I have the least bit of interest in getting her out is that I will get out at the same time.  My first inclination is to just take off.  I don’t think I have enough money to get far enough and stay away long enough for it to die down.”

 “What if you get straight with the cops?”  Jarret asked it like an honest man would.

 “Oh let’s see.  I killed two maybe three men and Amber is up to her ass in smuggling cigarettes to commit tax fraud.  All going to the cops would do is get us jail time and make a nice sitting target for Mike’s friends.”

 “I wish I had known about this earlier,” Jarret said.

 “I wish I had known about it all myself.  I might could have worked out a deal with the Jersey Supply company.  As it is now, all I can do is try to find a way out of this mess.”

 “So Freddie, do you have any ideas?” Amber asked nervously.

 “I could give you to them and explain.”

 “That might have worked before you killed the trash team.”  Jarret said it and I didn’t like the way he was talking all of a sudden.  He realized that he had said too much, so he tried to cover it.  “That is what it is called isn’t it?”

 “Jarret, you might as well spill it.  You are in this up to your ass.  It is the real reason that Amber called you, isn’t it?”

 “Not up to my ass Welch, just like you I am on the edge.  This is Amber’s little project.  She didn’t want me involved in her life after the divorce so she started the phone sex line.”

 “What, one little woman talking dirty on the phone is no big deal.”

 “I figured that is what she told you.”  Jarret looked pleased to inform me of the real truth.  “Amber has four of five of the military wives around Kinston on the phone at any given time.  She wasn’t getting rich, but she didn’t need the smuggling business either.  That came about because the southern mafia wanted to take over.  She worked out a deal with them.  They took the phone line, but she got the smuggling business.  You just happened along to help her set it all up.”

 “What about the antique business?”  I asked it feeling totally stupid.

 “It was a dodge.  A cover for the cigarette business.  She never had any intention of doing more than pulling you in.  When you set up those ridiculous rules for staying separate from the business, you had to go.  Then before she could ease you out, you pulled that crap in Jersey.  That put little Amber on the spot.  She would have handed you over to them, but they didn’t seem interested.  They decided it to let it ride.  As usual Amber got her ass overloaded with the Pakistani motel owner.

 Mike’s boss just decided to take you both out at the same time.  There are hundreds of people who are willing to run the cigarettes up there.  They just gave it to Amber to get her phone sex line without a fight.

 So Amber turns out not to be a victim but a nasty little piece of work?”  I was surprised that she sat listening without making a comment.

 “Pretty much.  It always amazed me how she managed the phone sex business when she is frigid.  You did know?  That was why she never tried to get to you with sex.  Sex is a powerful motivator, but she finds it repulsive.”

 “So what is your motivation for being here?”  I asked it but I had a pretty good idea.

 “Oh, I love her.  I just can’t live with her.  When she called telling me she was in trouble I came running just like always.”  Jarret waited a long minute before he went on.  “So what do you think Freddie?”

 “Why ask me?  Amber sure as hell didn’t bother to ask.”

 “Well Freddie, I figure you are in this up to your ass.  You got it worse than Amber at the moment.  If you are telling the truth, and I have no reason to doubt it, you have bodies laying in the church parking lot.  Since you called 911 the Sheriff knows about them now.  So what are you going to do?”

 I need a plan that wraps it all up in one neat package.  Something to get everyone off my ass, that will also get them off Amber.  I am gonna tell you the truth Jarret, at this moment I wouldn’t walk across the street to piss on her if she was on fire.  However to clean this up, I have to get her off the hook as well.

 “That’s how I see it.  Do you need any help?”

 “When I get an idea, I might.”  Jarret nodded then let it drop for the time being.  I took a walk outside.  I sat on the back steps after my walk to work out the details of my plan.  I also longed for a cigarette.  It was hard for me to break the old habit, It came back to haunt me in times of stress.

 “So?” Jarret asked.

 I didn’t answer him I turned to Amber instead.  “Does the guy who sent the killers have a boss?”

 “Maybe somewhere but not in this business.  He makes the decisions according to Mike.”

 “Then I need to talk to Mike,” I replied.  

 While Amber made few calls hunting him down Jarret asked, “What are you going to do?”

 “If you can’t go over a man’s head, you cut it off.”  Jarret looked questioningly but I shook my head letting him know that I wasn’t going to answer.

 When Amber had Mike on the phone, I carried it into the chilly bedroom.  Without a pen and paper the information from Mike was going to tax my memory.  I mentally jotted it all down in broad strokes. One of us struck a deal with the devil, but neither of us was sure which one it was.

 I hadn’t unpacked the Samurai so I drove straight to the warehouse.  I waited outside until I saw the silver grey Mercedes arrive.  When the man was safely inside, I stepped clumsily from the big Ford.  I must have looked a lot like the Pillsbury dough boy,.as I waddled inside the warehouse.  The hard men did exactly what I expected.  Once the shock wore off, they brought their pistols to bear on me.  It took a lot of nerve to let them shoot.  I returned the fire but only enough to pen them down.  I walked into the office after laying down a great deal of steel jackets high into the room.  The bodyguards were happy to drop their weapons when it was obvious they were having no effect on me.  The surplus full body amour was as effective as it was touted to be.  I hadn’t killed anyone until I put three .30 caliber slugs into the man who had ordered my death.

 Getting out was simply a matter of keeping their heads down while I walked to the rented car.  I trusted Mike to make sure that nobody remembered the license plate number.  It was to Mike’s advantage that I never be found.  It was also to his advantage to forget who the contractors, who lay dead in my parking lot worked for.

 I could never convince the Sheriff that I had no idea who the would-be killers where, but the D A refused to prosecute.  So it all worked out in the end.  As I always said, “Any miss is as good as a mile.”

 No Jarret and Amber never got back together.  She kept banging around Hertford trying to make a living without Jarret’s help.

 As for me, the church proved to be too big after I left the trading post business so I moved.  I got a deal on an old service station with no gas tanks.  The EPA took it over after the owner died.  Nobody would remove the leaking gas tanks, so they condemned it.  They had the tanks removed, then sold the building and half acre of land outside down toward New Bern for a song.

 I gave some thought to retiring at forty-one, but I got a really good offer.  The offer was to take over an abandoned movie house in New Bern.  The offer was simple, I leased the building and equipment from the arts council for one dollar a year.  My end of the bargain was to run movies in it at least once a day.  I could charge no more than three dollars a ticket, and the movies had to be artsy.  I managed to slip a couple that I had written into the mix.  I wasn’t getting rich, but I did love the business.  I expect that I had Jarret to thank for it.  He never mentioned it, and I never asked.

 Oh yeah, Sharon turned out to be one hell of a lady.  She worked her new office job during the day, then come over to run the concession counter until I closed at nine p.m.  It was a good life finally.  

 Of course being back in the dream, sort of, didn’t hurt either.  The bonus was that I began writing again.  I had a whole new idea, original stories on cd.  You guessed it, this is one of them.

The End