Cotton crossing, p.1
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       Cotton Crossing, p.1

           Lilith Saintcrow
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Cotton Crossing


  Cotton Crossing

  Roadtrip Z - Season One

  Lilith Saintcrow

  Copyright © 2017 by Lilith Saintcrow

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

  * * *

  Print ISBN: 9781522006954

  For Papa

  Contents

  1. Say Hello

  2. Optimism

  3. Number Hasn't Changed

  4. Flu Shot

  5. A Normal Monday

  6. Trained for This

  7. Look Her Best, Thank Jesus

  8. She's Got People

  9. Hard to Find

  10. Ham's Hunting

  11. Mixed Nuts

  12. Get You Home

  13. Do Any Good

  14. Ring Again

  15. Price Tag Hidden

  16. Third Reformed Fish Fry

  17. An Hour Left

  18. He Talks Straight

  19. Stay With Me

  20. No Secondaries

  21. A Whole Lot Less, and a Whole Lot More

  22. Old Miz Clampett

  23. Uptown

  24. Is It Usual?

  25. Fixed to Hit Concrete

  26. First Aid

  27. An Operation

  28. Past Polite

  29. Lady to the End

  30. Keep Him Company

  31. Wolf

  32. Second to a Bottle

  33. Argue With Grief

  34. Under the Shade

  35. Familiar in the Past

  36. Son

  37. Hard Money

  38. Utilitarian Argument

  39. Pink Bedspread

  40. Goin On Touchy-Feels

  41. Bad Dodgeball

  42. Ice In Its Belly

  43. Dimestore Novel Cowboy

  44. Coast to Coast

  45. Once or Twice

  46. Good at This

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Say Hello

  That bright late-autumn day, Lee Quartine got in his big red-and-white Chevy with every intention of talking to her. He took a minute before he cranked the engine to stretch out his fingers against the steering wheel, to settle his lean ass in the seat just right, and to look at the freshly washed walls of his yellow manufactured. The pressure washer was a good deal, even if he’d had to outfit it with new nozzles and clean out the tubing. Not to mention tune up the innards a bit. People were goddamn wasteful, but at least the pressure-washer hadn’t been dump-dandruff. Just a chunk of metal and hose sitting patient as a turtle on the side of Route 12 with a cardboard FREE sign attached. Looking a bit lonely, to tell the truth.

  Getting the last junked hulk out of the meadow was going to be a bitch, but he had the flatbed trailer and could probably ask Bobby Dorff to come by and lend a little muscle. If Coop’s Wreckers wouldn’t take the old blue Ford shell to go with the other heaps Quartine Senior had left his loving son, there was always the quarry. He might even have some fun out there after he dropped off the junked frame, take along a .22 and plink in one of the dry scars left by digging for this, that, and the other.

  Yessir, the old place was looking pretty good. The dead-grass rectangles where the other rusting cars had crouched—one day Imma fix em up, Lee’s granddaddy had mumbled on the porch once or twice, clasping his cuppa joe or a jolt of rye—would fix themselves next spring. Nonna, if she happened to hear, would sniff, the sound that meant then get your ass to it. Poppa Quartine always pretended not to hear, because picking a fight with Nonna was bound to get a man six things he didn’t want and a half-dozen more he didn’t like either.

  Through Lee’s half-open window, the trees whispered. All the shameless ones were pretty much naked for the season, bare branches thrusting into deceptively rich golden sunshine. Indian summer-sun, but the shadows held little sparkles of frost. The staid and starchy trees, the ones that kept their high collars and long sleeves even in summer, looked sideways-smug at empty, shivering branches, at least until snow laid a coat over all, great and small. The ruts were going to be frozen stiff soon; Lee thought it was damn likely there would be some ice before the snows moved in.

  But not yet. Today the sky was a deep, aching blue, Lee had the keys in the ignition and the paper Landy’s bag sitting on the passenger side of the bench seat. They weren’t due until next week.

  He’d shined his boots, even. Combed his sandy hair carefully, and gave himself a once-over in the bathroom mirror. A sly devil with blue eyes had winked back at him.

  Right on time, his stomach tensed up.

  “It’s just fine,” he told his windshield. “All you gotta do is say hello ma’am. Just walk right on up and say it. Natural like.” Just like he said hello to Maye at the drugstore, just like he said evenin’ Percy to Sheriff Blotzer every time their paths crossed. It wasn’t any different than the girl at the bank when he took his paycheck in on Friday, not trusting that direct-deposit bullshit. A check was paper. A check was real. Not as real as cash totted up when the whistle blew, but times had moved on. At least he put his money in a bank, unlike Poppa Q.

  That big old bastard had never trusted what he couldn’t shoot. It was a wonder Nonna had married him, but she had and he died thinking she shat rainbows and pissed sunshine, which was pretty goddamn near the truth. Certainly she was the most patient woman put on earth; her patience muscle got a workout each and every day keeping Big Daryl Q on the straight and dry.

  Lee was stalling, and he knew it. He twisted the key, and the engine caught. Running along like clockwork, that beast. He’d checked the chains yesterday, too, in between the pressure washer and considering the meadow in front of the pretty yellow manufactured, clean and snug and ready for winter. His arms ached a little, but the grim snarl of barbwire in his stomach was worse.

  “Just got to say hello,” he told himself again, but it didn’t sound so good this time. He popped the brake, dropped it into gear, cut the wheel, and got going.

  * * *

  The drive was so familiar he could’ve done it blindfolded—well, maybe, and if there was no drunken asshole on Slatter Curve—but today it was also pretty, and anticipation boomed under his ribs, high on the left side of his chest. An ironed chambray shirt, sleeves folded up just so, his daddy’s prized leather vest worn so often it conformed to Lee as well as it ever had to the old man, his best jeans, and well-shone boots. Even a dab of that Vetiver stuff a blue-vested girl at the WalMart halfway between Lewiston and Cotton Crossing said was the best-smelling for her money. If she thought he was strange for asking, well, he didn’t have to go back for the pharmacy, he could get anything else he needed in the medical way at the drugstore in the Corner. The VA was on the other side of Lewiston, too, if he took sick.

  Yeah, he was as ready as he could be. Except that barb wire in his stomach, rolling up like yarn caught on a kitten’s paws.

  His mouth turning to a thin line and his hands tensing on the wheel, Lee drove on.

  Optimism

  Ginny Mills overslept, which meant no time for a leisurely cup of tea. A hurried shower, a wriggle into the skirt she liked least, a quick wrap-and-pin of her dark, braided hair around her head, and jamming her fingers in the car door when she half-tripped on the cracked pavement of the duplex’s driveway was what she got instead. It was distinctly unreligious of her to swear so viciously on a Sunday, and no doubt plenty of the people in the county she served would look askance—if they knew what askance meant—but thankfully, none were in the vicinity to hear her. Her neighbors, the McCoys, were already
at their small Baptist church halfway to Hatchie Ground, since Amy McCoy ran the Sunday school there. They had invited her a total of eight times since she moved in, but she had an excuse for each and every one.

  Where do you church was a constant question around here, and her standard answer was in Lewiston. It was the county seat, stuffed to the brim with both taverns and holy rolling places; if someone pressed for details she could pretend to be distracted and escape.

  It was her day to work at the Cotton Crossing mini-branch, by far her least favorite location. If it wasn’t the teenagers making out in the stacks or damaging the books, it was the idiots who expected her to hand-hold through their internet surfing, or the dry-box busybodies glowering in judgment of everyone else had the misfortune to be in their vicinity. There were a few quiet old men who sat down with the newspapers, by far the most inoffensive patrons, and some of the housewives had reading tastes that were actually pretty respectable.

  There was one in particular—a pale-to-transparency woman so skinny her cheekbones were past model-shapely and into frankly alarming—who was slowly but surely working her way through Dickens. That particular patron warmed Gin’s heart and broke it at the same time, seeing the shadows of black eyes and split lips on her with some frequency. A librarian couldn’t do a damn thing about that, except forgive any overdue fines that came that particular client’s way.

  You could tell a lot about people by what they ordered in a small-town diner. Gin’s sample of the Corner’s oddities was limited to the literate, and it often occurred to her, with a great deal of grim amusement, that such a self-limiting data set was unusable for any serious academic.

  The good thing about Sundays was the ten-minute commute. She made it to the Crossing branch at her usual time, her stomach growling from lack of breakfast and her mood taking several turns for the worse when she saw the strip of parking lot—shared with the closed-down Elks Lodge and the laundromat on one side and the tottering-but-not-quite-dead Just In Tyme Antiques, which limped along by fleecing summer tourists, on the other—was, as usual on Sundays, full of broken glass. Nothing to do in the Crossing but break bottles and tip cows.

  The glass meant street parking, and there was a line at Motton’s Coffee, so there wasn’t even the prospect of a substandard bagel.

  At least there was no snotty nose pressed agains the branch’s plate-glass door. The papers were on time, and she raced through setting them out, getting everything turned on, and muttering imprecations at the dank chill. The heat was old and cranky; it would be noon before it warmed up in here, and she’d only have a couple hours of decent temperature before she closed up early.

  At least there were a few English Breakfast teabags left in the breakroom, and a forgotten box of stale granola bars in the very back of a cupboard. Sundays were half-days, and she was lucky to have a job at all. Library science majors were the forgotten of the academic tribes, like Moses, barred from the Promised Land. You didn’t go into this field for the money, that was for damn sure. And she’d thought a season or two of small town life would be romantic.

  The coffeemaker spat out sour, mineral-smelling water, which would ruin the flavor of the tea. It didn’t matter. Soon she’d have blessed caffeine, and she stood little chance of being mugged on her way to her car at night, even in Lewiston. Her coworkers were reasonable enough, the volunteers were by and large genuinely helpful, and after she closed the doors here at two o’clock she could go home and spend the afternoon with some chardonnay and Netflix.

  “That’s right,” she told herself, making sure the Times was set just where old Elmore Creary would look for it, on his favorite table in front of his favorite chair—of course, it was the creaky one, and several times she had wished vengefully for it to splinter and dump him on his wide, sexist keister. “Optimism. You’ll hear from them soon.”

  And that put a smile on her face, even while her tongue dug at bits of ancient granola stuck between the teeth her sainted parents had paid for a decade of braces on in addition to college so she could waste herself in a tiny town miles and miles away. Never mind that it was temporary, which her mother gamely mentioned almost every time Gin picked up the phone. Never mind that she was sneakingly grateful for the distance, especially when it came to things like the grandchildren question. Her sister was answering that one quite nicely.

  “Optimism,” Gin repeated. Because last night, she’d pressed send on eight separate applications, and several years of hard work and self-denial were going to pay off. Seniority, even in a county system like this, counted as Experience, and that was the only thing lacking from her resume. She’d be back in New York or Boston soon, handling fragile and precious texts in the land of decent takeout, high crime, and smog dyeing the snow gray instead of white on the pines cupping the Crossing and frowning at Lewiston.

  She even had time to run another round of hot water, and that meant two cups of tea and a much improved temper by the time blonde-bobbed Philly Lou, her Sunday helper and cheerleader for the Crossing Guards football team, burst in with a breathless excuse for being late and one eye constantly on her ubiquitous, pink-jacketed smartphone.

  Which reminded Gin she’d left her own goddamn phone at home.

  Some days you just couldn’t win.

  * * *

  “I don’t understand.” Madge Harmon blinked blearily at the glowing screen. “I thought you had the password.”

  Ginny took a firmer hold on her temper than she had ever believed possible. The blue-haired biddy probably remembered the days of scrubbing with washboards, which had no doubt lingered in this benighted stretch of the country. “No, Mrs Harmon. The password is your special code for when you want to sign into your email.”

  “Oh, Charlie took care of that.” She adjusted the reading glasses on her snub nose. Once, Mrs Harmon had probably been a fresh-faced dairymaid-looking lass, and her round cheeks had probably been extremely attractive. Now, though, with her blue eyes sunken and her cheeks quivering a little, she looked like a perpetually startled Ewok. “And it just always opens up on my computer. He said, and I’ll never forget it, we’ll use our most favorite word.”

  “Great.” Ginny moved the cursor to the password box. She had the strong suspicion she didn’t want to know what that favorite word was. “You just type it in there, and it’ll let you look at your email.”

  “Oh, good. I want the pictures my daughter sent me. She’s in Canada, you know.”

  I know. You’ve told me eight times. The urge to pinch the bridge of her nose was rising. “Okay. Well, you can send her an email from here.”

  Mrs Harmon peered at the screen. “But what about the password?”

  “Just type it in.” Ginny shifted her weight; her back wasn’t aching yet, but it was only a matter of time.

  “But…” A faint hint of color rose on Mrs Harmon’s cheeks. “I don’t know how to spell…oh, dear.”

  “Spell what?” Thank God she’d stepped into her favourite shoes this morning. They were heels, yes, but they were reasonably comfortable, and as soon as she got home it would be yoga pants and the biggest, comfiest socks she could find. Hold that thought, she told herself grimly. Just another hour and a half.

  “But it’s our password!” Mrs Harmon looked scandalized. “I can’t tell you. Can’t you use yours?”

  Ginny suppressed a small, granola-scented burp. “You mean, to get into your email? No, my password only works for mine.”

  “Well, that’s a damnfool way to do it. Librarians should have—” Mrs Harmon began to mutter, and Ginny straightened as she heard a cough from the circulation desk.

  It was him again, one of the Sunday regulars. An extremely unlikely savior, but she’d take what she could get. “I’m sorry, Mrs Harmon. I really wish I could help. Maybe you could check your email at home?”

  “But I want the pictures now, to take to the bingo with me.” The old lady sucked on the front of her dentures, a quick habitual slurp. “I want Betty to see them.”
<
br />   Ginny decided against telling Mrs Harmon the public computers couldn’t access the branch’s office printer, and the pay-as-you-go copier was far too ancient to speak wireless either. Maybe the old lady thought the pictures would flutter out of the screen in a nice paper packet. “Try to remember how to spell your password. I’m sorry, there’s someone at the desk.” She patted the old lady’s soft, talcum-scented, padded shoulder before she walked away, though.

  Hip-checking the ancient, swinging half-door that led behind the checkout was so habitual she barely noticed it. “Hi there.” Her smile was wide and unfeigned, mostly because you had to have a sense of the absurd to work this kind of job. Philly Lou, all the way over in the children’s section, cracked her bubblegum, and a shiver of irritation went up Ginny’s spine. “You’re back early. Worked your way through everything?”

  The man—she’d dubbed him Military Felon, because his sandy-darkish hair was too short for the leather biker vest with the too-faded-to-be-deciphered patches on the back, but the tattoo peeping out from under his left sleeve looked faint and blue like jailhouse work—nodded. He was built rangy, and had a pair of dark, piercing eyes. He carried a black baseball cap just as ancient as his vest. On Sundays he came in, spent about fifteen minutes in the quite considerable Westerns section on sagging pasteboard shelves, standing under a John Wayne movie poster, and brought an armful of them to the checkout. He didn’t seem to understand how the book drop worked, so Gin checked his former week’s bounty in for him. Each time he brought them back in the same creased but still serviceable paper bag from the tiny Crossing grocery store—Landy’s, where you could buy a sticky container of cinnamon Red Hots that had probably been on the shelf since the first Bush administration. You could also get milk in glass bottles, and bring them back for the deposit.

 
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