Practical demonkeeping, p.1
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       Practical Demonkeeping, p.1
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         Part #1 of Pine Cove series by Christopher Moore  
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Practical Demonkeeping


  PART ONE

  SATURDAY NIGHT

  Like one that on that lonesome road

  Doth walk in fear and dread,

  And having once turned round walks on,

  And no more turns his head;

  Because he knows a frightful fiend

  Doth close behind him tread.

  -  Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

  1

  THE BREEZE

  The Breeze blew into San Junipero in the shotgun seat of Billy Winston's Pinto wagon. The Pinto lurched dangerously from shoulder to centerline, the result of Billy trying to roll a joint one-handed while balancing a Coors tallboy and bopping to the Bob Marley song that crackled through the stereo.

  "We be jammin' now, mon!" Billy said, toasting The Breeze with a slosh of the Coors.

  The Breeze shook his head balefully. "Keep the can down, watch the road, let me roll the doobie," he said.

  "Sorry, Breeze," Billy said. "I'm just stoked that we're on the road. "

  Billy's admiration for The Breeze was boundless. The Breeze was truly cool, a party renaissance man. He spent his days at the beach and his nights in a cloud of sinsemilla. The Breeze could smoke all night, polish off a bottle of tequila, maintain well enough to drive the forty miles back to Pine Cove without arousing the suspicion of a single cop, and be on the beach by nine the next morning acting as if the term hangover were too abstract to be considered. On Billy Winston's private list of personal heroes The Breeze ranked second only to David Bowie.

  The Breeze twisted the joint, lit it, and handed it to Billy for the first hit.

  "What are we celebrating?" Billy croaked, trying to hold in the smoke.

  The Breeze held up a finger to mark the question, while he dug the Dionysian Book of Days: An Occasion for Every Party from the pocket of his Hawaiian shirt. He flipped through the pages until he found the correct date. "Nambian Independence Day," he announced.

  "Bitchin'," Billy said. "Party down for Nambian Independence. "

  "It says," The Breeze continued, "that the Nambians celebrate their independence by roasting and eating a whole giraffe and drinking a mixture of fermented guava juice and the extract of certain tree frogs that are thought to have magical powers. At the height of the celebration, all the boys who have come of age are circumcised with a sharp stone. "

  "Maybe we can circumcise a few Techies tonight if it gets boring," Billy said.

  Techies was the term The Breeze used to refer to the male students of San Junipero Technical College. For the most part, they were ultraconservative, crew-cut youths who were perfectly satisfied with their role as bulk stock to be turned into tools for industrial America by the rigid curricular lathe of San Junipero Tech.

  To The Breeze, the Techies' way of thinking was so foreign that he couldn't even muster a healthy loathing for them. They were simply nonentities. On the other hand, the coeds of S. J. Tech occupied a special place in The Breeze's heart. In fact, finding a few moments of blissful escape between the legs of a nubile coed was the only reason he was subjecting himself to a forty-mile sojourn in the company of Billy Winston.

  Billy Winston was tall, painfully thin, ugly, smelled bad, and had a particular talent for saying the wrong thing in almost any situation. On top of it all, The Breeze suspected that Billy was gay. The idea had been reinforced one night when he dropped in on Billy at his job as night desk clerk at the Rooms-R-Us motel and found him leafing through a Playgirl magazine. In Breeze's business one got used to running across the skeletons in people's closets. If Billy's skeleton wore women's underwear, it didn't really matter. Homosexuality on Billy Winston was like acne on a leper.

  The up side of Billy Winston was that he had a car that ran and would take The Breeze anywhere he wanted to go. The Breeze's van was currently being held by some Big Sur growers as collateral against the forty pounds of sinsemilla buds he had stashed in a suitcase at his trailer.

  "The way I see it," said Billy, "we hit the Mad Bull first. Do a pitcher of margaritas at Jose's, dance a little at the Nuked Whale, and if we don't find any nookie, we head back home for a nightcap at the Slug. "

  "Let's hit the Whale first and see what's shakin'," The Breeze said.

  The Nuked Whale was San Junipero's premier college dance club. If The Breeze was going to find a coed to cuddle, it would be at the Whale. He had no intention of making the drive with Billy back to Pine Cove for a nightcap at the Head of the Slug. Closing up the Slug was tantamount to having a losing night, and The Breeze was through with being a loser. Tomorrow when he sold the forty pounds of grass he would pocket twenty grand. After twenty years blowing up and down the coast, living on nickle-dime deals to make rent, The Breeze was, at last, stepping into the winners' circle, and there was no room for a loser like Billy Winston.

  Billy parked the Pinto in a yellow zone a block away from the Nuked Whale. From the sidewalk they could hear the throbbing rhythms of the latest techno-pop dance music.

  The unlikely pair covered the block in a few seconds, Billy striding ahead while The Breeze brought up the rear with a laid-back shuffle. As Billy slipped under the neon whale tail and into the club, the doorman  -  a fresh-faced slab of muscle and crew cut  -  caught him by the arm.

  "Let's see some I. D. "

  Billy flashed an expired driver's license as Breeze caught up to him and began digging into the pocket of his Day-Glo green surf shorts for his wallet.

  The doorman raised a hand in dismissal. "That's okay, buddy, with that hairline you don't need any. "

  The Breeze ran his hand over his forehead self-consciously. Last month he had turned forty, a dubious achievement for a man who had once vowed never to trust anyone over thirty.

  Billy reached around him and slapped two dollar bills into the doorman's hand. "Here," he said, "buy yourself a night with an Inflate-A-Date. "

  "What!" The doorman vaulted off his stool and puffed himself up for combat, but Billy had already scampered away into the crowded club. The Breeze stepped in front of the doorman and raised his hands in surrender.

  "Cut him some slack, man. He's got problems. "

  "He's going to have some problems," the doorman bristled.

  "No, really," The Breeze continued, wishing that Billy had spared him the loyal gesture and therefore the responsibility of pacifying this collegiate cave man. "He's on medication. Psychological problems. "

  The doorman was unsure. "If this guy is dangerous, get him out of here. "

  "Not dangerous, just a little squirrelly  -  he's bipolar Oedipal," The Breeze said with uncharacteristic pomposity.

  "Oh," the doorman said, as if it had all become clear. "Well, keep him in line or you're both out. "

  "No problem. " The Breeze turned and joined Billy at the bar amid a crunch of beer-drinking students. Billy handed him a Heineken.

  Billy said, "What did you say to that asshole to calm him down?"

  "I told him you wanted to fuck your mom and kill your dad. "

  "Cool. Thanks, Breeze. "

  "No charge. " The Breeze tipped his beer in salute.

  Things were not going well for him. Somehow he had been snared into this male-bonding bullshit with Billy Winston, when all he wanted to do was ditch him and get laid.

  The Breeze turned and leaned back, scanning the club for a likely candidate. He had set his sights on a homely but tight-assed little blond in leather pants when Billy broke his concentration.

  "You got any blow, man?" Billy had shouted to be heard over the music, but his timing was
off; the song had ended. Everyone at the bar turned toward The Breeze and waited, as if the next few words he spoke would reveal the true meaning of life, the winning numbers in the state lottery, and the unlisted phone number of God.

  The Breeze grabbed Billy by the front of the shirt and hustled him to the back of the club, where a group of Techies were pounding a pinball machine, oblivious to anything but buzzers and bells. Billy looked like a frightened child who had been dragged from a movie theater for shouting out the ending.

  "First," The Breeze hissed, waving a trembling finger under Billy's nose to enumerate his point, "first, I do not use or sell cocaine. " This was half true. He did not sell since he had done six months in Soledad for dealing  -  and would go up for five years if he was busted again. He used it only when it was offered or when he needed bait when trolling for women. Tonight he was holding a gram.

  "Second, if I did use, I wouldn't want it announced to everybody in San Junipero. "

  "I'm sorry, Breeze. " Billy tried to look small and weak.

  "Third," The Breeze shook three stubby fingers in Billy's face, "we have an agreement. If one of us scores, the other one gets cut loose. Well, I think I found someone, so cut loose. "

  Billy started to shuffle toward the door, head down, his lower lip hanging, like the bloated victim of a lynch mob. After a few steps he turned. "If you need a ride  -  if things don't work out  -  I'll be at the Mad Bull. "

  The Breeze, as he watched the injured Billy skulk away, felt a twinge of remorse.

  Forget it, he thought, Billy had it coming. After the deal tomorrow he wouldn't need Billy or any of the quarter-ounce-a-week buyers of his ilk. The Breeze was eager for the time when he could afford to be without friends. He strutted across the dance floor toward the blond in the leather pants.

  Having wafted through most of his forty years as a single man, The Breeze had come to recognize the importance of the pickup line. At best, it should be original, charming, concise but lyrical  -  a catalyst to invoke curiosity and lust. Knowing this, he approached his quarry with the calm of a well-armed man.

  "Yo, babe," he said, "I've got a gram of prime Peruvian marching powder. You want to go for a walk?"

  "Pardon me?" the girl said, somewhere between astonishment and disgust. The Breeze noticed that she had a wide-eyed, fawnlike look  -  Bambi with too much mascara.

  He gave her his best surfer-boy smile. "I was wondering if you'd like to powder your nose. "

  "You're old enough to be my father," she said.

  The Breeze was staggered by the rejection. As the girl escaped onto the crowded dance floor, he fell back to the bar to consider strategy.

  Go on to the next one? Everybody gets tubed now and then; you just have to climb back on the board and wait for the next wave. He scanned the dance floor looking for a chance at the wild ride. Nothing but sorority girls with absolutely perfect hair. No chance. His fantasy of jumping one and using her until her perfect hair was tangled into a hopeless knot at the back of her head had been relegated long ago to the realm of fairy tales and free money.

  The energy in San Junipero was all wrong. It didn't matter  -  he'd be a rich man tomorrow. Best to catch a ride back to Pine Cove. With luck he could get to the Head of the Slug Saloon before last call and pick up one of the standby bitches who still valued good company and didn't require a hundred bucks worth of blow to get upside down with you.

  As he stepped into the street a chill wind bit at his bare legs and swept through his thin shirt. Thumbing the forty miles back to Pine Cove was going to suck, big time. Maybe Billy was still at the Mad Bull? No, The Breeze told himself, there are worse things than freezing your ass off.

  He shrugged off the cold and fell into a steady stride toward the highway, his new fluorescent yellow deck shoes squeaking with every step. They rubbed his little toe when he walked. After five blocks he felt the blister break and go raw. He cursed himself for becoming another slave to fashion.

  Half a mile outside of San Junipero the streetlights ended. Darkness added to The Breeze's list of mounting aggravations. Without trees and buildings to break its momentum, the cold Pacific wind increased and whipped his clothes around him like torn battle flags. Blood from his damaged toe was beginning to spot the canvas of his deck shoe.

  A mile out of town The Breeze abandoned the dancing, smiling, and tipping of a ghost-hat that was supposed to charm drivers into stopping to give a ride to a poor, lost surfer. Now he trudged, head down in the dark, his back to traffic, a single frozen thumb thrust into the air beaconing, then changing into a middle finger of defiance as each car passed without slowing.

  "Fuck you! You heartless assholes!" His throat was sore from screaming.

  He tried to think of the money  -  sweet, liberating cash, crispy and green  -  but again and again he was brought back to the cold, the pain in his feet, and the increasingly dismal chance of getting a ride home. It was late, and the traffic was thinning to a car every five minutes or so.

  Hopelessness circled in his mind like a vulture.

  He considered doing the cocaine, but the idea of entering a too-fast jangle on a lonely, dark road and crashing into a paranoid, teeth-chattering shiver seemed somewhat insane.

  Think about the money. The money.

  It was all Billy Winston's fault. And the guys in Big Sur; they didn't have to take his van. It wasn't like he had ever ripped anyone off on a big deal before. It wasn't like he was a bad guy. Hadn't he let Robert move into his trailer, rent free, when his old lady threw him out? Didn't he help Robert put a new head gasket in his truck? Hadn't he always played square  -  let people try the product before buying? Didn't he advance his regulars a quarter-ounce until payday? In a business that was supposed to be fast and loose, wasn't he a pillar of virtue? Right as rain? Straight as an arrow. . . .

  A car pulled up twenty yards behind him and hit the brights. He didn't turn. Years of experience told him that anyone using that approach was only offering a ride to one place, the Iron-bar Hotel. The Breeze walked on, as if he didn't notice the car. He shoved his hands deep into the pockets of his surf shorts, as if fighting the cold, found the cocaine and slipped it into his mouth, paper and all. Instantly his tongue went numb. He raised his hands in surrender and turned, expecting to see the flashing reds and blues of a county sheriff cruiser.

  But it wasn't a cop. It was just two guys in an old Chevy, playing games. He could make out their figures past the headlights. The Breeze swallowed the paper the cocaine had been wrapped in. Taken by a burning anger, fueled by blow and blood-lust, he stormed toward the Chevy.

  "C'mon out, you fucking clowns. "

  Someone crawled out of the passenger side. It looked like a child  -  no, thicker  -  a dwarf.

  The Breeze blew on. "Bring a tire iron, you little shit. You'll need it. "

  "Wrong," said the dwarf, the voice was low and gravely.

  The Breeze pulled up and squinted into the headlights. It wasn't a dwarf, it was a big dude, a giant. Huge, getting bigger as it moved toward him. Too fast. The Breeze turned and started to run. He got three steps before the jaws clamped over his head and shoulders, crunching through his bones as if they were peppermint sticks.

  When the Chevy pulled back onto the highway, the only thing left of The Breeze was a single fluorescent-yellow deck shoe. It would be a fleeting mystery to passers-by for two days until a hungry crow carried it away. No one would notice that there was still a foot inside.

  PART TWO

  SUNDAY

  All mystical experience is coincidence;

  and vice versa, of course.

  -  Tom Stoppard, Jumpers

  2

  PINE COVE

  The village of Pine Cove lay in a coastal pine forest just south of the great Big Sur wilderness area, on a small natural harbor. The village was established in the 1880s by a da
iry farmer from Ohio who found verdant hills around the cove provided perfect fodder for his cows. The settlement, such as it was  -  two families and a hundred cows  -  went nameless until the 1890s, when the whalers came to town and christened it Harpooner's Cove.

  With a cove to shelter their small whaling boats and the hills from which they could sight the migrating gray whales far out to sea, the whalers prospered and the village grew. For thirty years a greasy haze of death blew overhead from the five-hundred-gallon rendering pots where thousands of whales were boiled down to oil.

  When the whale population dwindled and electricity and kerosene became an alternative to whale oil, the whalers abandoned Harpooner's Cove, leaving behind mountains of whale bone and the rusting hulks of their rendering kettles. To this day many of the town's driveways are lined with the bleached arches of whale ribs, and even now, when the great gray whales pass, they rise out of the water a bit and cast a suspicious eye toward the little cove, as if expecting the slaughter to begin again.

  After the whalers left, the village survived on cattle ranching and the mining of mercury, which had been discovered in the nearby hills. The mercury ran out about the same time the coastal highway was completed through Big Sur, and Harpooner's Cove became a tourist town.

  Passers-through who wanted a little piece of California's burgeoning tourist industry but didn't want to deal with the stress of life in San Francisco or Los Angeles, stopped and built motels, souvenir shops, restaurants, and real estate offices. The hills around Pine Cove were subdivided. Pine forests and pastures became ocean-view lots, sold for a song to tourists from California's central valley who wanted to retire on the coast.

  Again the village grew, populated by retirees and young couples who eschewed the hustle of the city to raise their children in a quiet coastal town. Harpooner's Cove became a village of the newly wed and the nearly dead.

  In the 1960s the young, environmentally conscious residents decided that the name Harpooner's Cove hearkened back to a time of shame for the village and that the name Pine Cove was more appropriate to the quaint, bucolic image the town had come to depend on. And so, with the stroke of a pen and the posting of a sign  -  WELCOME TO PINE COVE, GATEWAY TO BIG SUR  -  history was whitewashed.

  The business district was confined to an eight-block section of Cypress Street, which ran parallel to the coast highway. Most of the buildings on Cypress sported facades of English Tudor half-timbering, which made Pine Cove an anomaly among the coastal communities of California with their predominantly Spanish-Moorish architecture. A few of the original structures still stood, and these, with their raw timbers and feel of the Old West, were a thorn in the side of the Chamber of Commerce, who played on the village's English look to promote tourism.

  In a half-assed attempt at thematic consistency, several pseudo-authentic, Ole English restaurants opened along Cypress Street to lure tourists with the promise of tasteless English cuisine. (There had even been an attempt by one entrepreneur to establish an authentic English pizza place, but the enterprise was abandoned with the realization that boiled pizza lost most of its character. )

  Pine Cove's locals avoided patronage of these restaurants with the duplicity of a Hindu cattle rancher: willing to reap the profits without sampling the product. Locals dined at the few, out-of-the-way cafes that were content with carving a niche out of the hometown market with good food and service rather than gouging an eye out of the swollen skull of the tourist market with overpriced, pretentious charm.

  The shops along Cypress Street were functional only in that they moved money from the pockets of the tourists into the local economy. From the standpoint of the villagers, there was nothing of practical use for sale in any of the stores. For the tourist, immersed in the oblivion of vacation spending, Cypress Street provided a bonanza of curious gifts to prove to the folks back home that they had been somewhere. Somewhere where they had obviously forgotten that soon they would return home to a mortgage, dental bills, and an American Express bill that would descend at the end of the month like a financial Angel of Death.

  And they bought. They bought effigies of whales and sea otters carved in wood, cast in plastic, brass, or pewter, stamped on key chains, printed on postcards, posters, book covers, and condoms. They bought all sorts of useless junk imprinted with: Pine Cove, Gateway to Big Sur, from bookmarks to bath soap.

  Over the years it became a challenge to the Pine Cove shopowners to come up with an item so tacky that it would not sell. Gus Brine, owner of the local general store, suggested once at a Chamber of Commerce meeting that the merchants, without compromising their high standards, might put cow manure into jars, imprint the label with Pine Cove, Gateway to Big Sur, and market it as authentic gray whale feces. As often happens with matters of money, the irony of Brine's suggestion was lost, a motion was carried, a plan was laid, and if it had not been for a lack of volunteers to do the actual packaging, the shelves of Cypress Street would have displayed numbered, limited-edition jars of Genuine Whale Waste.

  The residents of Pine Cove went about their work of fleecing the tourists with a slow, methodical resolve that involved more waiting than activity. Life, in general, was slow in Pine Cove. Even the wind that came in off the Pacific each evening crept slowly through the trees, allowing the villagers ample time to bring in wood and stoke their fires against the damp cold. In the morning, down on Cypress Street, the Open signs flipped with a languid disregard for the times posted on the doors. Some shops opened early, some late, and some not at all, especially if it was a nice day for a walk on the beach. It was as if the villagers, having found their little bit of peace, were waiting for something to happen.

  And it did.

  Around midnight on the night that The Breeze disappeared, every dog in Pine Cove began barking. During the following fifteen minutes, shoes were thrown, threats were made, and the sheriff was called and called again. Wives were beaten, pistols were loaded, pillows were pounded, and Mrs. Feldstein's thirty-two cats simultaneously coughed up hairballs on her porch. Blood pressure went up, aspirin was opened, and Milo Tobin, the town's evil developer, looked out the front window to see his young neighbor, Rosa Cruz, in the nude, chasing twin Pomeranians around her front yard. The strain was too much for his chain-smoker's heart, and he flopped on the floor like a fish and died.

  On another hill, Van Williams, the tree surgeon, had reached the limit of his patience with his neighbors, a family of born-again dog breeders whose six Labrador retrievers barked all night long with or without supernatural provocation. With his professional-model chain saw he dropped a hundred-foot Monterey pine tree on their new Dodge Evangeline van.

  A few minutes later, a family of raccoons who normally roamed the streets of Pine Cove breaking into garbage cans, were taken, temporarily, with a strange sapience and ignored their normal activities to steal the stereo out of the ruined van and install it in their den that lay in the trunk of a hollow tree.

  An hour after the cacophony began, it stopped. The dogs had delivered their message, and as it goes in cases where dogs warn of coming earthquakes, tornadoes, or volcanic eruptions, the message was completely misconstrued. What was left the next morning was a very sleepy, grumpy village brimming with lawsuits and insurance claims, but without a single clue that something was coming.

  At six that morning a cadre of old men gathered outside the general store to discuss the events of the night before, never once letting their ignorance of what had happened interfere with a good bull session.

  A new, four-wheel-drive pickup pulled into the small parking lot, and Augustus Brine crawled out, jangling his huge key ring as if it were a talisman of power sent down by the janitor god. He was a big man, sixty years old, white haired and bearded, with shoulders like a mountain gorilla. People alternately compared him to Santa Claus and the Norse god Odin.

  "Morning, boys," Brine grumbled to the old men, who gathered behind him as he unlocked
the door and let them into the dark interior of Brine's Bait, Tackle, and Fine Wines. As he switched on the lights and started brewing the first two pots of his special, secret, dark-roast coffee, Brine was assaulted by a salvo of questions.

  "Gus, did you hear the dogs last night?"

  "We heard a tree went down on your hill. You hear anything about it?"

  "Can you brew some decaf? Doctor says I've got to cut the caffeine. "

  "Bill thinks it was a bitch in heat started the barking, but it was all over town. "

  "Did you get any sleep? I couldn't get back to sleep. "

  Brine raised a big paw to signal that he was going to speak, and the old men fell silent. It was like that every morning: Brine arrived in the middle of a discussion and was immediately elected to the role of expert and mediator.

  "Gentlemen, the coffee's on. In regard to the events of last night, I must claim ignorance. "

  "You mean it didn't wake you up?" Jim Whatley asked from under the brim of a Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap.

  "I retired early last night with two lovely teenage bottles of cabernet, Jim. Anything that happened after that did so without my knowledge or consent. "

  Jim was miffed with Brine's detachment. "Well, every goddamn dog in town started barking last night like the end of the world was coming. "

  "Dogs bark," Brine stated. He left off the "big deal"  -  it was understood from his tone.

  "Not every dog in town. Not all at once. George thinks it's supernatural or something. "

  Brine raised a white eyebrow toward George Peters, who stood by the coffee machine sporting a dazzling denture grin. "And what, George, leads you to the conclusion that the cause of this disturbance was supernatural?"

  "Woke up with a hard-on for the first time in twenty years. It got me right up. I thought I'd rolled over on the flashlight I keep by the bed for midnight emergencies. "

  "How were the batteries, Georgie?" someone interjected.

  "I tried to wake up the wife. Whacked her on the leg with it just to get her attention. I told her the bear was charging and I have one bullet left. "

  "And?" Brine filled the pause.

  "She told me to put some ice on it to make the swelling go down. "

  "Well," Brine said, stroking his beard, "that certainly sounds like a supernatural experience to me. " He turned to the rest of the group and announced his judgment. "Gents, I agree with George. As with Lazarus rising from the dead, this unexplained erection is hard evidence of the supernatural at work. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have cash customers to attend to. "

  The last remark was not meant as a dig toward the old men, whom Brine allowed to drink coffee all day free of charge. Augustus Brine had long ago won their loyalty, and it would have been absurd for any one of them to think of going anywhere else to purchase wine, or cheese, or bait, or gasoline, even though Brine's prices were a good thirty percent higher than the Thrifty-Mart down the street.

  Could the pimple-faced clerks at the Thrifty-Mart give advice on which bait was best for rock cod, a recipe for an elegant dill sauce for that same fish, recommend a fine wine to complement the meal, and at the same time ask after the well-being of every family member for three generations by name? They could not! And therein lay the secret of Augustus Brine's ability to run a successful business based entirely on the patronage of locals in an economy catering to tourists.

  Brine made his way to the counter, where an attractive woman in a waitress apron awaited, impatiently worrying a five-dollar bill.

  "Five dollars worth of unleaded, Gus. " She thrust the bill at Brine.

  "Rough night, Jenny?"

  "Does it show?" Jenny made a show of fixing her shoulder-length auburn hair and smoothing her apron.

  "A safe assumption, only," Brine said with a smile that revealed teeth permanently stained by years of coffee and pipe smoke. "The boys tell me there was a citywide disturbance last night. "

  "Oh, the dogs. I thought it was just my neighborhood. I didn't get to sleep until four in the morning, then the phone rang and woke me up. "

  "I heard about you and Robert splitting up," Brine said.

  "Did someone send out a newsletter or something? We've only been separated a few days. " Irritation put an unattractive rasp in her voice.

  "It's a small town," Brine said softly. "I wasn't trying to be nosy. "

  "I'm sorry, Gus. It's just the lack of sleep. I'm so tired I was hallucinating on the way down here. I thought I heard Wayne Newton singing 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus. '"

  "Maybe you did. "

  "The music was coming from a pine tree. I'm telling you, I've been a basket case all week. "

  Brine reached across the counter and patted her hand. "The only constant in this life is change, but that doesn't mean it's easy. Give yourself a break. "

  Just then Vance McNally, the local ambulance driver, burst through the door. The radio on his belt made a sizzling sound as if he'd just stepped out of a deep fryer. "Guess who vapor locked last night?" he said, obviously hoping that no one would know.

  Everyone turned and waited for his announcement. Vance basked in their attention for a moment to confirm his self-importance. "Milo Tobin," he said, finally.

  "The evil developer?" George asked.

  "That's him. Sometime around midnight. We just bagged him," Vance said to the group. Then to Brine, "Can I get a pack of Marlboros?"

  The old men searched each other's faces for the right reaction to Vance's news. Each was waiting for another to say what they were all thinking, which was, "It couldn't have happened to a nicer guy," or even, "Good riddance," but as they were all aware that Vance's next rude announcement could be about them, they tried to think of something nice to say. You don't park in the handicapped space lest the forces of irony give you a reason to, and you don't speak ill of the dead unless you want to get bagged next.

  Jenny saved them. "He sure kept that Chrysler of his clean, didn't he?"

  "Sure did. "

  "The thing sparkled. "

  "He kept it like new, he did. "

  Vance smiled at the discomfort he had caused. "See you boys later. " He turned to leave and bumped straight into the little man standing behind him.

  "Excuse me, fella," Vance said.

  No one had seen him come in or had heard the bell over the door. He was an Arab, dark, with a long, hooked nose and old; his skin hung around his piercing gray-blue eyes in folds. He wore a wrinkled, gray flannel suit that was at least two sizes too big. A red stocking cap rode high on the back of his bald head. His rumpled appearance combined with this diminutive size made him look like a ventriloquist's dummy that had spent a long time in a small suitcase.

  The little man brandished a craggy hand under Vance's nose and let loose with a string of angry Arabic that swirled through the air like blue on a Damascus blade. Vance backed out the door, jumped into his ambulance, and motored away.

  Everyone stood stunned by the ferocity of the little man's anger. Had they really seen blue swirls? Were the Arab's teeth really filed to points? Were, for that moment, his eyes glowing white-hot? It would never be discussed.

  Augustus Brine was the first to recover. "Can I help you with something, sir?"

  The unnatural light in the Arab's eyes dimmed, and in a humble, obsequious manner he said, "Excuse me, please, but could I trouble you for a small quantity of salt?"

   

 
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