I like to work alone. Really alone. In my bedroom with the door closed, Veronica on the bed beside me–she never interferes–a Diet Coke, and my laptop. Bliss.
Except I couldn’t figure out how to get the dishwasher to work, so I dragged Pat Gaffney into my kitchen to show me. She’s the one who helped me put my lawn furniture together, too. And an end table. And her husband Jon helped me by putting my living room bookcases together on his own so I could get my books out of the garage. And then there’s Bob Mayer, typing his half of our story. I love that, I love it that I get to read parts of my book that I’ve never seen before.
So I like to work alone, but my life is definitely better and I am happier when somebody I trust helps. Thank you, Pat, Jon, and Bob.
Did anybody help make you happy this week?
(Also, below is the second scene of Rocky Start, courtesy of my talented, helpful partner, Bob Mayer.)
My dog, Maggs, and I had been shadow-walking the Appalachian Trail for months, and today we’d headed for the town my old boss Herc had sent my boots to. It was a pretty little place, spread out for a half mile covering a bend in the river away from the highway. When we got into town, I heard some shouting from a store, and then a guy stumbled backwards out of the door, dragging a crazed lady swinging a black statue. And then there was the big black Mercedes with the subtle but important modifications indicating it was armored, engine running, parked across the street.
All of that seemed odd, but none of it was my problem.
But then he backhanded her. I don’t care who started it or who was in the right or wrong, you don’t hit women. You might have to kill one if she’s trying to kill you, but that’s a different scenario. I went closer, noting that the woman was a furious, middle-aged version of the girl-next-door, all curly dark hair and flashing eyes. Cute in a she-demon kind of way, but then I’d been on the trail for months, some trees were looking good to me. I didn’t know who the guy was, but he had a telltale bulge under his jacket on his right hip.
He was reaching for that bulge as she swung the statue toward his balls, so I grabbed the guy’s collar and pulled him backward and behind me into the street to save both of them, just as a middle-aged Asian woman in a suit came bursting out of an office behind the SUV, yelling something about a pike.
The guy rolled to his feet while the crazy lady bitched at me for saving her, and then she said, “Look out,” and I had to deal with the jerk as he charged me. I got him with a leg sweep but he handled it like a pro, going with the fall, rolling and immediately back on his feet.
We were squaring off, when a woman in the Mercedes called out for Oswald Junior and brought him to heel, and he left, so he probably had some mother issues. Those are the worst. The SUV drove off, smooth on jacked up suspension to handle the weight, the powerful engine rumbling, so that problem was gone.
Two more women had come out of the shop, so I moved on down the street, away from the quartet of females ready to inflict pain: a blonde teenager who was obviously not afraid to use a shotgun; an older, stacked woman in the big black hat who was carrying a small version of the classic Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife held in a way that showed she knew how to use it; the middle-aged Asian-American woman in the sharp suit with a taser in her hand and a look on her face that said somebody was going to die; and weirdest of all, the feisty, grown-up girl-next-door, swinging what appeared to be the Maltese Falcon.
Definitely not going back there.
I headed down the main drag. There was no sign of the Mercedes; it had turned, probably heading out of town if the people in it had any sense. All I could see was a handful of folks going about their business, most of them middle-aged or older, which made sense. Rocky Start did not look like the kind of place that kept its young. The trees were just beginning to turn at the higher elevations, and it was going to be a beautiful fall here in a week or two, but it would also be beautiful miles down the A.T. where I planned on being shortly, where there would be fewer armed women.
The guy bothered me. He was definitely hinky. The woman must have caught him by surprise—who expects a Falcon as a weapon?—but he’d recovered nicely and the stance he’d assumed to face me spoke of someone who’d had training.
The armored Mercedes also bothered me. It did not belong here. Very Important People rode in those, particularly VIPs who were worried about threats to their well-being.
Still, not my business.
I checked my map app and found out there were two post offices because the town was bisected by the state line between Tennessee and North Carolina. That explained the blue line running down the center of the appropriately named State Street and evidently up through the building called Oddities behind me. Two post offices seemed extreme, but I’d done contract work for the government and knew redundancy and stupidity were built into all elements of the bureaucracy. It had kept the country running this long through a lot of shit, so who am I to complain? Plus it had paid me pretty well for many years.
There wasn’t much of a town outside of this main drag, perhaps a block or two on either side. None of the buildings were higher than two stories, most of them old and worn brick, the ground floors small mom and pop shops. They dated back at least a century when these mountains had been harvested for timber before that same bureaucratic government stepped in and made things like National Parks and National Forests. Score one for the bean counters.
The two POs were directly across the street from each other, and North Carolina had a CLOSED sign on the door. Tennessee won by default, although I had little doubt that my boots had been shipped to the North Carolina side because that was my life.
Maggs and I stopped at the Tennessee PO, and I signaled for her to wait outside the door and went in. There was no one behind the counter, but there was a bell. Before I tapped it, given the weirdness I’d already seen here, I surveyed the place, noting a pair of expensive cameras in the far corners of the room. Pretty high tech for a small town. Then I leaned over the counter to take a look. Nothing suspicious to see except a M1014 Benelli semi-automatic shotgun with a collapsible stock in a specially made sheath behind the counter, ready for quick deployment. Not standard post office issue. Last I’d seen one, it was issued to Special Operations close quarter battle teams for clearing rooms with a half dozen blasts as fast as one could pull the trigger. I hoped my package wasn’t postage due.
I lightly tapped the bell. It took several seconds, then an older fellow in USPS uniform—blue shorts, white shirt, plus gray hair and bushy white eyebrows—came out. He looked me up and down, then nodded and swallowed, dabbing his lips with the napkin tucked in his collar.
I tensed, half-expecting dark figures to lunge out of the shadows. “Yes.”
“We got your package yesterday.”
I had to ask, although I didn’t want to. “How do you know it’s mine?”
“The wife and I know everyone in town and the package was sent care of the post office to someone we never heard of. Max Reddy. So we figured it was a stranger passing through. We don’t get many strangers. Passing through. None staying. You are him, right?”
“I am he,” I said, for lack of anything else and noting the emphasis on ‘none staying’. So far, this wasn’t turning out to be a friendly town. I waited for Postmaster Ferrell (according to his name tag) to produce the package, but he just stared at me.
“The package?” I finally prodded.
“Oh,” he said, as if surprised. “It was sent to Rocky Start, North Carolina. Across the street. My wife has it there.”
“That post office is closed.”
“Yes,” he said. “Post mistress is out doing the route. We flip every morning for that. She lost today. Made her none too happy, not that she’s ever happy. A dour and grim woman, she is.”
“Could you perhaps get it for me?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nope. Not my jurisdiction. The United States Post Office is a branch of the federal government, son, and as such we are governed by very strict laws regarding the storage and delivery of mail.” He said this by rote, bored.
The door opened behind me and the young shotgun blonde came in, sans weapon, looking like she owned the place. Maggs padded after her from the porch. Which Maggs isn’t supposed to do. I waited for Ferrell to throw a fit about the dog being inside. I was, of course, wrong.
“Hiya, Poppy,” Ferrell said, changing demeanor in a flash.
The girl smiled at him. “Hiya, Mr. Ferrell.” Then she transferred her big eyes to me and lost her smile. “You’re not taking care of your dog. She hasn’t been groomed in a long time and she looks underweight. What’s her name?”
She shook her head. “Let me help clean up Maggs and feed her, I’m good at that.”
“Yep,” Mr. Ferrell agreed. “Poppy’s pretty much the town vet these days since that moron Alfie ran off to Peru with his assistant. Louise.” He said the name with loathing, and shook his head. “I give it six weeks and he’ll be back, tail between his legs, poorer and no wiser. No Louise, neither.” He looked at me. “She’s a dangerous woman, that Louise, with her womanly wiles.” He shook his head. “Women. They’ll turn on you in a second. No offense,” he added to Poppy.
“None taken,” she said, cheerfully.
“I’ll take care of Maggs,” I said, irritated by the accusation that I wasn’t taking care of my dog, even though the girl was right about the lack of grooming, although the same could be said of me. I turned back to the postmaster. “Could you unlock the door across the street so can I get my package?”
He shook his head. “The wife doesn’t like me messing with her stuff. She doesn’t like me much in general right now. That woman can carry a grudge. She should be back before dinner.”
I sighed. “You want me out of town? Get my package and I’m gone.”
He looked at me keenly. “You here because of Oz?”
“Not what,” Ferrel said. “Who.”
“Who is Oz?”
“Friend of ours.” He nodded at Poppy. “Died two days ago. Terrible thing, but he was getting on in years. Just keeled over. Message there for all of us.” He pursed his lips. “I hear tell there’s some stranger in town claiming to be Oz’s son, giving Rose at Oddities some trouble. That you?”
“Nope,” I said, and beside me Poppy shook her head vigorously in support, which helped alleviate some of my irritation.
“Good,” Ferrell said. “Don’t like vultures winging into town. Not much for strangers either.”
No shit. “Could I just get my package?” I pointed at my toe sticking out of the boot. “It’s boots. I need them.”
Poppy made a small distressed sound as she looked down.
Ferrell’s chin went up. “I also hear there’s a fellow who ran off the man claiming to be Oz’s son. That you?”
“Yes, it’s him, he’s the good guy,” Poppy said firmly. “But now I need to clean up and feed his dog as a thank you.”
I said, “No,” but the door opened again, and this time it was Feisty, out of breath and bosom heaving, her cheek red from where that jerk had hit her. “Hi, Stanley,” she said cheerfully, and Stanley said, “Hiya, Rose. Looking good.”
“Thank you, Stanley,” she said, practically twinkling at him. Just a cute woman in an apron who’d tried to beat up a guy with a Maltese Falcon and was now holding a taser.
And smiling at me.
I really needed to get out of this town.