Corey Gardner managed to get his big black Dodge Ram to Limpid without having to chain up, but it was close. Between the deepening snow and driving one-handed, the other set of digits busied alternately with tipping the fifth of Jim Beam back and reaching across the seat to massage Julie Carlton’s thigh, it was a true contest. He made it, though, thinking, Touchdown! as the three quarter ton truck came to a halt, parked with perfect precision. Just like he did everything with perfect precision…except hang onto his spot on the Grizzlies football team. Or stay on his feet when that little Terrio witch sucker punched him. It was kind of hard to tell which of those two things hurt the most.
Fortunately, he wasn’t really feeling any pain at the moment. Not drunk, not him, just a pleasant alcoholic glow. Okay, still a little irritated, but only a little. Julie was three times better looking than that tall Paula anyhoo. “Ready to wow the natives, babe?”
He didn’t wait for an answer, just climbed out and went around to help her down from the jacked-up rig, but he could feel her smile. They were getting to know each other pretty quickly, these past few weeks, and liked what they were finding out.
Paula had the better angle, spotting them as they stood at the table by the door, forking over the necessary dollars for admission. There had been others since she and Cherry had arrived a good hour ago; Hall Bannister was smiling as the money continued to add up. “Gardner’s here,” she said, loud enough for her paramour to hear, “and with a date, too. Don’t recognize her; do you?”
Cherry Terrio’s view was blocked by a couple on the dance floor, but Kandace Wilkins happened to be sitting on Paula’s other side, and Kandace was the undisputed Champion Gossip of Limpid. The fifty year old Sunday school teacher also had batsonic hearing, picking up rumors and titillating tidbits and passing them on faster than the National Enquirer. Didn’t seem to be worried about the Ninth Commandment, either; Mrs. Wilkins believed every tittle-tattle tale she broadcast to be absolutely true, so she couldn’t possibly be bearing false witness against her neighbors, now could she?
“That’s Julie Carlton,” she informed them, faded blue eyes alight with pleasure in her pudgy face. “She’s the new music teacher at Granite Crag High School.”
Coming from any other source, that would have been an innocent, factual bit of information… but with Kandace Wilkins, innocence wasn’t in it. There was so much more, unspoken but lying just below the surface, waiting for her listeners to swallow the hook of implication. Older music teacher dating teenager! Scandalous! There will be repercussions!
Cherry and Paula, who as New York City natives had been around the block a time or three, weren’t about to be sucked in that easily. They simply nodded, giving Kandace nothing more. Paula hadn’t noticed the older woman take that seat right next to her or she wouldn’t have said anything in the first place. For a while, they kept careful watch on young Corey, knowing he might just be ornery enough to try stepping on their toes or something as a way of getting revenge for being knocked out by a mere miniscule female. It looked like he had a little more class than that, though; as the admittedly attractive couple hit the floor for dance after dance, Gardner kept himself and his date well away from the Small Things Incorporated pair.
He did wink at them once from about twenty feet away as he twirled Miss Carlton expertly through a song Cherry was positive she should recognize. Something out of the fifties; she was sure of that much. The young music teacher’s cheeks were happily flushed. Whether from sheer joy at the proximity of her alpha male date, the exertion of the dance moves, or both…whatever. She was clearly enjoying herself and Corey didn’t seem to be holding a grudge for his glass jaw.
Not openly, anyway.
The hours went by quickly enough. Paula accepted occasional dance offers from those local lads bold enough to ask, including one old pervert who leered a lot but wisely kept his hands to himself. That old coot could really cut a rug. Cherry didn’t dance unless it was in the boxing ring, but she truly enjoyed people watching.
It was during a lull between songs that the door opened to admit the last attendee of the night. Paula was politely pretending to listen to the gossip woman. Cherry’s attention, on the other hand, focused sharply on the newcomer. She’d seen her around town somewhere. Not at the café; this lost soul didn’t look like she had two nickels to rub together, let alone the price of one of Marvin Terrio’s gourmet cheeseburgers. In her sixties at a guess, though life had clearly ridden her hard and put her up wet. A lyric from the Waylon Jennings version of Will the Wolf Survive popped into mind: Lines etched on an aging face…. She was wearing a ratty old camel’s hair coat that must have dated back to World War II at least. Dull green slacks. At least she had work boots on her feet, capable of keeping her from frostbite on a night like tonight.
And she was arguing with Hall Bannister at the table. Hm… Cherry leaned over to murmur in Paula’s ear. “Be back in a minute.” If the woman needed a dollar to stay, even if just for the warmth of the dance hall…have to be careful, though. Sticky pride and stiff spines….
It didn’t come to that. “Just the person I wanted to see!” The woman’s countenance lit up. Even then, Cherry couldn’t have called the worn woman pretty, certainly not beautiful, but her smile wasn’t bad. Not bad at all.
“Oh?” A cocked eyebrow did wonders for interrogation. She turned her attention to the ever proper Hall Bannister. The man wouldn’t break a rule to save a life, now would he? “You need the dollar for her to say whatever she’s got to say, Hall?”
“Nah.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Go for it.” Quite a difference, dealing with somebody other than the vagrant. Bannister apparently would bend a rule or two, depending on who was asking. Typical.
Memory kicked in. She did know this woman, though only a little, and only from a distance. The Kandace Wilkins gossip train had its uses after all. “Your name is Lisa? Glad to meet you.” She stuck out her hand. “I’m Cherry Terrio, but I guess you knew that?”
“Uh…yeah….” The older woman stared at Cherry’s outstretched hand as though it might bite her if she touched it. No, wait. Not that. Her hands were not exactly free of grime–and wrinkles, so maybe she was older than sixty. Could be she was afraid to shake a clean hand.
Well, then. “It’s kind of loud in here. Hall, could you loan me the key to the side room for a few minutes?”
The caretaker didn’t look overly thrilled at that idea, but he did remove the key from the sizeable ring clipped to his belt. Without comment. Cherry looked over to catch Paula’s eye, palm-flashed all ten fingers twice–twenty minutes–got a nod in return, and they were good to go.
Thankfully, the side room was blessedly quiet. Relatively speaking. With a light flipped on, the two women found seats across from one another at the nearest table. “Lay it on me, Lisa,” Cherry said, figuring this might take a while.
She was right.
The words came out in a rush, gushing forth in hopeless denial of the rejection the veteran of many a dumpster dive clearly expected. “My full name is Lisa Lanthorpe. Took back my maiden name after I got divorced. I’m, uh, I’m an ex con. Did twenty years for murder. Got out three months ago. Been all over western Montana–I was incarcerated at Billings, but grew up outside of Kalispell. So I came home, been looking for work all over, and…nobody will hire me. Nobody. Just…nobody. And now winter is here, and I’m about half froze to death, and I ain’t about to go on food stamps or welfare. I just ain’t.”
She stopped, drawing in a shuddering breath, looking Cherry right in the eye, daring her to give her the brushoff. Expecting it. What she did not expect was the nature of Cherry’s questions. “Do you have a place to stay? Four walls and a roof? With heat?”
“Not here. A room at Granite Crag. Ain’t much, and it ain’t for long, neither. Rent’s due next week, I’m behind already, and old Benjamin…he’s okay, but he can’t leave me there forever without being paid.”
“Granite Crag?” This was interesting. “How did you get here tonight? Catch a ride?”
“As if. Walked. Ain’t nobody gonna give the likes of me a ride. I might murderize ’em or something.”
“Hm. That’s a lot of miles to cover on foot. Specially at this time of year. Tell me about the crime.”
“Long story short? I killed my husband. End of story.”
“Did he have it coming?” Cherry asked quietly, zero judgment in her tone.
Lisa scratched her grimy chin with a grimier fingernail. “At the time, I sure thought he did. Now, twenty years hindsight, I don’t know. He beat on me one too many times, and finally I hauled out his service weapon–he was a cop, doncha know, so I’m a cop killer–and blew three holes in him. But could I have done something different? If I’da knowed then what I know now, yes. Could have run, left him, found a place for battered women. But then? Couldn’t even think of anything like that. Would have had to leave Montana, probably. I never been outside the state. Just couldn’t see any other way out.”
“Mostly scared. I got mad at him after, for him putting me in that spot. Then I got mad at myself for being dumb enough not to find a different way out. You know, something that wouldn’t have put me behind bars for the next twenty years of my life. One of my friends inside, she talked to me all the time about it probably being karma. If so, all I can say is, karma sucks.”
Cherry chuckled. Who could argue with that kind of logic? She’d seen a bit of rather sucky karma herself, though nothing like Lisa’s experience. The dangers of dealing with anyone who’d been through what this woman had been through were obvious, but she liked her style.
A surprising amount of time had passed by the time they finished their conversation. Lisa headed back out into the storm without a backward glance while Cherry returned the kitchen key to Hall Bannister’s protective custody. Midnight already? Must be; some big-voiced fellow was up on the stage, bellowing cheerfully into the microphone, announcing Ladies Choice.
Oh no. Sure enough, blonde Paula bounced right up out of her chair, crossed the room in a hurry, and fake-curtsied to none other than Corey Gardner as she asked him for this dance. Right in front of Julie Carlton! The girl was good. Not only did the derriere-grabbing young hulk rise to accept her invitation with an ear to ear grin; his music teacher date was laughing as her man was stolen away.
Cherry shook her head, hastening to reclaim their seats before somebody else took them. Only Paula. The go-either-way-in-a-heartbeat blonde had been at least half of the reason for the family’s need to get out of New York in a bit of hurry, but you had to admit, there was nobody else like her. Her impulsive moves didn’t always work out, but they weren’t ever boring, either.
The rush to reclaim their sitting spots wasn’t quite rushy enough. By the time Cherry got back to her own seat, Crazy Randy was already plumping his overweight carcass down where Paula had been sitting. Sigh. Silver lining, though; Gossip Lady launched out of her seat like the thing was on fire. Nobody could clear an area like Randall McThorsen. Two hundred pounds at five-four, soft brown eyes buried in lard, but mostly as Looney Tunes as Wile E. Coyote and Daffy Duck combined. And let’s not forget P-p-porky Pig. He turned his ever eager gaze her way–of course–and started right in.
What the hey. She’d just finished a sort-of job interview with a convicted murderer and her partner was out there cheek-to-cheeking with the last guy on Earth she should be entertaining. The whole town would be talking before the café opened on Monday. Why not be seen happily conversing with the community’s premier nutcase? “Black River?” She inquired politely, knowing this would really open the floodgates. Responding to Crazy Randy had predictable consequences.
“One hundred and sixty trillion particles!” He nodded enthusiastically. “Magnetite! Black Tourmaline! Garnet!”
“Garnet? Isn’t that a ghost town in Granite County?”
“Rainbow clock! Ten thousand people’s spaces! Rainbow clock!” Randy wasn’t quite spitting with excitement. Close, though. It wasn’t every day another human being–presuming Randy was human, which might be a bit of a stretch–deigned to actually talk to him. “Mental body! Etheric!”
“People generally think you’re a mental body, all right. How old are you, Randy? Thirty-five? Somewhere in there?”
“Divine love! Lawgivers! Genetic breaker! Infections!”
Cherry glanced around. Yep, more space was clearing out around them; she now had three empty seats to her right, while Crazy Randy had four empties to his left. One thing about the boy, he could clear a fair portion of a room in a hurry. Legend had it they’d kicked him out of Warm Springs because he drove them crazy. Drugs didn’t work, and shock therapy had been outlawed in Montana for some time now.
“Tire flat off the rim!”
And so it went. Strangely enough, Cherry realized she was starting to find the man’s nonsensical outbursts entertaining. What did that say about her life? Bemused, she didn’t even realize the Ladies Choice dance was over until Paula stood right in front of her and asked if maybe she was ready to go home.
Home? Yeah, she was ready. “Take care of yourself, Randy,” she said, rising to go.
“Rancher’s choice!” He responded. “Cable car!”
Outside, the silence struck a nearly physical blow. Nothing like stepping into a crisp Montana night full of snow to realize just how loud the dance hall had been. On the way home, she carefully refrained from asking her girl what on Earth she’d been thinking when she asked Corey Gardner to dance. Paula, however, felt no such inhibition. Inhibitions weren’t her main thing, to put it mildly.
“So,” the leggy blonde asked, “how’d it go with the bag lady?”
“Her name is Lisa,” Cherry snapped, “and she’s not a bag lady. She’s a murderer who offed her husband for being a jerk. Which maybe you should keep in mind before setting out to stir up more trouble with the guy I clobbered no so very long ago, you think?”
This struck Paula as hilarious. Her laughter rang out, a sound that made the corners of Cherry’s mouth turn up in spite of herself.
“What? You think it’s funny?”
“Nope!” She stifled herself, albeit with some effort. “I think you’re funny, boss lady!”
“Oh, do you, now?” Visions of whips and chains and handcuffs flitted through her mind. Unfortunately, this girl enjoyed those far too much; they simply wouldn’t work as punishment.
“Sure do.” Sobering, she explained. “Honey, we all know this is a teeny tiny town. I could see half a dozen heads turn when you and Lisa went into the kitchen and locked the door behind you. Part of my move on Corey was to distract those busybodies, give them something else to gawk at. But more than that, our young Mr. Gardner is in my opinion a fine young male with a self image problem fueled by truckloads of testosterone. By letting everybody see him and me dancing together, him minding his manners, the two of us enjoying ourselves, we got a couple of things accomplished. Now he doesn’t have to worry about folks thinking he might be scared to dance with me after what happened last time. The gossip mill will still tsk-tsk! at the music teacher dating him, I suppose, but sweetie, we now have an alliance. Or at least that’s how Corey’s going to see it, him and his Julie and me and you against the smart-mouths of the town. Plus he’s got the idea that two beautiful women want him, even if I am taken. I helped him tonight!”
Cherry thought about that. “You sound mighty sure of yourself. Of course, you usually do. But what about his date? You made her laugh when you stole her dude for that dance. How did you make that okay with her?”
“Oh, that was easy. I just said, Miss Julie, how be I dance with your guy just this one time and really give the smack-talkers something to marvel at? It worked, as you saw. But the real question, Cher, is what about Lisa? She looked like something the cat dragged in.”
“Close enough. Indomitable spirit, that one. She’s wounded, though. I’m going to talk to Dad tomorrow, see if he’s willing to give her a shot at dishwasher. He’s been figuring we wouldn’t need a full time dishwasher until tourist season starts in the spring, but if she worked out, it could be a win-win. As long as she doesn’t get a key to the place and we all keep an eye on the cash register, at least until we get to know her better. She doesn’t have a phone or anything, so she’s going to stop by on Monday, talk to me–and then to Dad, if he’s open to it.”
Paula’s brow furrowed. “What about between now and then? Where’s she going to stay? Eat? Whatever? She’s not from here, is she? I don’t remember seeing her before.”
“I had seen her once and Kandace Wilkins has her on the gossip train, but no, she’s not from Limpid. She walked a bunch of miles, right through the storm, to get here. We decided she’d hit the dumpster out back of the café. Dad had us dump some pretty good stuff before we closed, remember? With this weather, it’s not going to spoil any time soon. As for a place to stay, she already had that figured out. The Jarvos ranch is a couple of miles west of town. Henrik Jarvos and his wife are snowbirds. They won’t be back until spring. In the meantime, the barn isn’t locked–according to Lisa, anyway–and there’s hay in the loft where she can burrow in. She said she stashed her backpack near the edge of town and has a bedroll, so….”
Paula nodded, thoughtful. They both knew it was better to let the woman find her own way; opening their home to her was simply not an option. It might put them at risk, and/or it might weaken Lisa’s resolve to make it on her own. Not to mention World War Three that would erupt if Marvin and Bridget…no. A hand up, then, not a handout…if Marvin Terrio could be persuaded to change his mind about hiring a dishwasher during the slow season.