Momentum from the missed swing to the nuts kept me moving and I staggered a little, but I could see Junior sprawled out in the street now, courtesy of the new guy who turned to look at me with no expression at all: Middle-aged, dark-hair with grey at the temples, tall, weather-beaten, tired-looking and gaunt as all hell, dressed in dusty black, a man who looked like he’d traveled far and hadn’t enjoyed it and hadn’t eaten much on the way. And he had a dog with him that looked like a big black wolf.
“I had that,” I said, annoyed because I do not need to be rescued—I learned early that rescue does not show up so you have to get on with it yourself—and I’d really been looking forward to nutting Junior.
“You did not have that,” he said, calm as all hell, which irritated me further, another one of those Master of the Universe guys, but then I saw Junior get up off the street and charge him, and I yelled “Behind you!” and the dog barked, and the new guy took a step sideways and did a leg sweep and took Junior down again.
Okay, I was beginning to warm to him.
Junior went with the fall and rolled to his feet. The two of them spent a moment looking at each other, sizing each other up, the dog baring its teeth by the good guy’s side, and they subtly changed positions and I thought, This is getting dangerous. Then I saw Lian running down the street with her taser, and Coral was at my side with a long, skinny knife in her hand.
“Pike’s on his way,” Lian yelled, and I looked at Junior.
“Pike’s the local law, and you hit me in front of witnesses,” I called out to him. “I’d leave if I were you.”
Junior ignored me, staring at the good guy who stared back, looking bored. I could tell Junior was trying to make a decision and having problems with that. Before he could, a window in the rear of a limo across the street powered down and a woman’s low voice called out. “Oswald. Enough.”
I couldn’t see who it was, the interior of the big car being dark, which was odd. Limosines didn’t come to Rocky Start because rich people didn’t come to Rocky Start. No point, really.
After a long moment, Junior nodded and stepped back. “I’ll be back for what’s mine,” he said, and walked off. He opened the middle door in the stretch limo and got in. It was moving before he’d even shut the door.
“Fuck you,” I called after him. I know, not clever but I was not at my best.
Lian reached us, breathless, taser at the ready. “What the hell, Rose?”
“I don’t know.” I watched the limo roll down State Street, the main road that dead-ended into Ozzie’s shop behind me, wishing only bad things for him. “Did you really call Pike?”
“Yes, I called Pike, that was battery.” Lian looked at the good guy. “And you are?”
“Just passing through.” He motioned to his dog. “You ladies have a nice day.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, feeling guilty now. The guy had helped and I’d snapped at him, the least I could do was . . . something. Offer him a drink? Lasagna? My body?
He really was attractive, if you liked dusty, underfed men.
He nodded to me and walked away with his dog down State Street, the same route the limo had taken, his back straight, and his stride strong. He looked good, but the dog was limping. If Poppy saw that—
I turned around and saw Poppy standing in the doorway with Ozzie’s shotgun which she’d grabbed from behind the counter. It was a nice gesture but useless since I’d taken the shells out a long time ago. She said, “That dog is hurt,” put the shotgun down on the stoop, and came down the steps to look after the good guy and his limping wolf.
Coral stuck her very thin knife back into her hat—apparently it had been holding that monstrosity in place—and I rethought whether it needed a crow. A knife was better. From now on, all my picture hats were going to have skinny knives. Of course, first I was going to have to get a picture hat. And a skinny knife.
Coral turned to me, her hat bobbing, and I decided that it still needed a crow. The thing was huge. Room for a crow, a skinny knife, and probably a bat and an automatic weapon.
“I’m losing my mind,” I told Coral.
She looked at me, serious as all hell. “You tell Pike what happened when he gets here, Rose. This is real trouble.”
“That really was Ozzie in the picture?” I asked.
“Yes. Tell Pike we’ve got Outsiders.” She shot a glance down the street where the stranger and the big limo had gone but had now disappeared, and then shook her head and went back to her shop next door.
I pulled Junior’s wallet out of my apron pocket and went through it. Lots of cash, no credit cards, a condom (bleah), a keycard to the best hotel in Bearton (which wasn’t saying much), and a driver’s license that said, “Oswald Stafford,” address in DC.
The side of my face hurt from getting hit, and I was suddenly exhausted. Two days starting with finding Ozzie motionless on the floor of the shop and then an ambulance and the hospital and the grim faced doctor and the morgue and competing funeral directors (Ozzie wouldn’t want a funeral, but the two funeral directors in town were desperately vying to give him one anyway) and terrifying uncertainty about our future, and then Junior had shown up and I’d gotten hit and my ears were still ringing, and then there was a good guy who showed up just in time, which was a little suspicious, and who needed food, and I just wanted to lie down and sleep. Or maybe die. I was so tired of fighting my way through life. I didn’t expect it to be easy, but did it have to be so damn difficult all the time?
I know, stop whining, Rose.
“Thank you for coming to tase Junior,” I said to Lian.
She frowned at me. “Do you know what’s going on? Because that was bad.”
“No,” I began, but then Pike pulled up in his beat-up pick-up truck.
We don’t know if Pike is officially the law. He supposedly has a badge, but I understand you can buy those online. He’s one of those guys who’s not so much elderly as seasoned, as if the years have worn away all the weakness and just left this teak-tough ancient force of nature that nobody messes with. He and Ozzie definitely ran Rocky Start together, so whether or not Pike is official law enforcement is kind of moot. It’s his law and he enforces it.
Pike got out of his rust-bucket and came up the steps.
“Somebody giving you trouble, Rose?” he growled.
I nodded. “He claimed he was Ozzie’s son, and he tried to throw Poppy and me out of the store. I shoved him out and he backhanded me, but he can probably claim self-defense since I hit him with the Maltese Falcon.” I took Junior’s wallet out of my apron pocket and gave it to Pike. “I got his wallet. You can give it back to him, tell him you found it on the steps, after you check him out.”
Pike shook his head as he took the wallet. “Ozzie didn’t have a son. Where’s this asshole now?”
I pointed down State Street. “He went thataway in a big limousine, shouldn’t be hard to find if he’s still in town, but he said he’d be back. But there was another guy, another stranger, who threw him into the street for me. So make sure you get the right stranger. The bad one.”
Pike nodded. “Tall, thin, around fiftyish, with a big black dog?”
“That’s the good one,” I said. “How did you know?”
“The boys ran into him,” Pike said. “I was coming in to town to look for him.”
I frowned. “Pike, you can kneecap Junior, but do not maim the good guy. He helped.”
He frowned. “What’s this Junior look like?”
“The bad guy? Pretty much what the license says. Five nine or so, slick, shifty eyes, expensive suit, Rolex, no respect for women or tenant rights. A smirker. Definitely not related to Ozzie in any form.”
“Did he give a name?”
I gestured to the wallet in his hand. “His license says Oswald Stafford. From DC.”
“Stafford?” Pike looked taken aback, something I’d never seen in him before.
“Yes. Does that mean something to you?” When he didn’t reply right away, I said, “I think Coral might know something. She said both of these guys were outsiders.”
“She used that exact term?”
“Yes. She told me to tell you that. And there was a woman in the limousine. I couldn’t see her, only hear her voice. She called the guy Oswald, so . . .”
Pike looked grimmer than usual, which is pretty grim. “Lock your doors until I get rid of them.” He stopped. “In fact, now that Ozzie’s gone, just lock your damn doors all the time.”
“Yes, Pike,” I said, not telling him I’d been locking doors since I’d arrived, pregnant and alone, nineteen years ago. One thing Ozzie and I had shared was a keen sense of the importance of locking out the unknown.
He paused. “Ozzie’s still in the morgue in the Bearton hospital, right?”
I blinked at the change of subject. “Yes. But I’ve got no idea what his wishes were for his body. I’m hoping there’s a will or something.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Pike said. “I know what he wanted. I’ll take care of it. I’ll let you know when it’s ready.”
I wondered what ‘it’ was, but Pike was moving his truck up to park in front of Coral’s Ecstasy, and I had enough on my plate without dealing with Ozzie’s corpse. If Pike said he’d take care of it, it would be taken care of.
Pike went into Ecstasy and came out a minute later, moving with purpose.
Lian and I looked at each other. We were both survivors of bad relationships and single motherhood, and that builds a bond, and we were also both good at seeing trouble when it was coming right at us.
“What the hell is going on?” Lian asked. “Pike knew that name. Stafford.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I don’t like any of it.”
“What did that creep want in the shop?” Lian asked. “Why was he in such a rush to evict you? He wanted you out so he could do something. What’s in there?”
“Everything.” I closed my eyes. “Ozzie has a lifetime of stuff in there. He’d been collecting it for decades, over thirty years since he came here, and some of it is from before that. You think Junior wanted to search the place?”
“I don’t know.” She smoothed out her frown, calm but still worried. “Pike will sort it out. What did he mean about Ozzie’s body?”
“I have no idea. But if anyone knows how Ozzie wanted to be buried, it’s Pike.”
“Do you want to stay with Lu and me tonight?”
“And leave the store empty so that asshat can break in? No.” I felt Poppy come to stand beside me. “You want to spend the night with Lu, baby?”
“No,” Poppy said, her voice low. “I want to spend the night here and use the shotgun on that guy when he breaks in. Where did you put the shells?”
“My daughter,” I said to Lian. “Armed and fabulous.”
“Mother,” Poppy said.
“No, Poppy. We are not going to shoot people.”
“Then I’m going to go find out why that dog is limping,” she said, and went down the street in the direction the stranger had gone.
“You know,” Lian said, watching her go, “the good guy was attractive in an experienced Johnny Cash man-in-black kind of way.”
“He didn’t look anything at all like Johnny Cash.” I frowned down State Street. Poppy was stalking a stranger’s dog, and the stranger did not look mild-mannered, plus there was Junior out there, somewhere, about to discover that his wallet was missing.
“No, the vibe,” Lian said. “Like he had been interesting places and done dangerous things. I find that very attractive.”
“Then stop dating younger men.”
“They’re the ones who ask me out,” Lian said.
“They’re the ones you say yes to,” I said. “You have older-man-phobia.” Which was men our age, come to think of it. We were Older Women. Like I needed that depressing thought on top of everything else.
Lian ignored that, which is a talent of hers. Focus. “What are you going to do now?”
“Go after Poppy so she doesn’t annoy the stranger. Try to find out who the good guy is and why he was in town just in time to interfere with Junior because two strangers here in the same fifteen minutes is suspicious. Maybe lift his wallet. Men keep such interesting things in their wallets.” I looked at Lian. “Thank you for coming to tase the enemy. You are a good, true friend.”
“Here.” She handed me the taser. “In case a stranger gets ugly again. The second guy was not ugly, but if he catches you in mid-lift of his wallet, that might change.” She looked off down the street. “No, he still wouldn’t be ugly.”
“He’s too old for you,” I said and went down State Street after Poppy and the good guy.