the story begins...
Duncan opened his eyes from the half sleeping state he had allowed himself. Looking around at the people jumping from their seats trying to beat everyone else out the door, he waited. He was in no hurry. In fact, he could stay on the bus a while longer and see how far it would take him before the driver realized he had passed his stop. But, he’d told Ev he was coming.
He took a deep, slow breath before grabbing the things by his side and moving into the aisle. The duffel got carelessly thrown over his shoulder, but the only possession, well, one of the two possessions he cared about, went ahead of him.
The sun burned into his tired eyes as he stepped down onto the crowded sidewalk. Pulling the dark sunglasses from atop his head, he pushed them in front of his face. When his pupils had adjusted, he surveyed the area. Same as any city, he mused; blank cement walls, graffiti, cigarette butts specking the dirty curbs, bodies moving in both directions around him. The damn pigeons included, daring to swerve around unaware passers-by while searching for hand-outs. A constant breath of cool air broke the heat of the sun, making his second most-treasured possession – a black leather vest – not entirely unnecessary. Though honestly, he didn’t need the extra warmth. He rarely did, but the vest had become a part of him.
A sudden, hard pressure against his shoulder jostled the realization that he was still standing in the unmarked path of the bus entrance. He looked back at the offender, his glance pushing the boy to hurry through the small bus door.
Heading out of the congestion, he let the guitar case drop against his left leg. He always kept his right hand free.
So what now? He was in his friend’s city and Ev was waiting on his call. But he needed some time, and maybe coffee.
“Excuse me.” He tried to stop one of the passing locals. The guy barely looked at him before swerving to move away. Duncan stared a moment, irritated by the rudeness, then searched for someone willing to give him directions.
After more of the same, he gave up and chose a direction to start walking, ignoring the looks he was used to getting. They were different here, though. In Chicago, they had been warning him to stay away, as if he’d intended to cause trouble. Here, they were looking down at him, or not even bothering with a glance. He supposed Ev’s buddies would be the same. Well, that would give him an excuse not to stay.
The rain-and-mud-streaked cement walls gave way to red brick buildings; some with bright green ivy crawling up their sides, others with wrought-iron gates protecting them from intruders. One had a large portal with two Romanesque columns supporting each side. It looked out of place among the plainer office buildings. He wasn’t sure whether it was an office or a residence. There was no sign on it advertising its business, but it was too large to be a private home. Anyway, Duncan couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to live in something so overdone.
Approaching a corner, he stayed on the outer edge of the sidewalk, watching for what may lie beyond his present vision, and was hit with the aroma of baking bread as he turned. His stomach knotted. He hadn’t eaten in … roughly twenty-four hours. Maybe more. The events of the past few days were a blur by now, with little food and not much more sleep. He still had a few bills in his pocket, and Ev would most likely insist he stay with him, but he wasn’t going to count on that. Coffee would hold him a while longer.
A shapeless girl standing in the doorway under the café sign watched him walk closer. The tight orange sweater and red mini-skirt did nothing to enhance her figure. The hairy man she was hanging on pulled a cigarette from his lips. Threading a line of smoke from the side of his mouth, he leered through narrow slits. Duncan would have to push through them to get inside if they didn’t move voluntarily. He hoped they would. He didn’t have the energy or the will for a confrontation. But he was ready to sit down, and about ready to find a phone.
Studying the girl, Duncan knew she couldn’t tell where his eyes were focused behind the opaque black lenses. She was still watching him. Her eyes drifted up and down his frame, showing no concern about the other male noticing. A fleeting thought of temporary companionship took hold of him, but she was too fake. He didn’t want another prima donna fussing about him messing up her hair or smudging her lips. And what was she trying to hide behind the dark pink rouge, caked-on blue eye shadow and bright red lipstick? Most likely, nothing he really wanted. It sure wasn’t worth a fight.
Pausing in front of the large man, Duncan didn’t speak. They knew he wanted through the door, and he didn’t want to reveal his accent to this guy.
As a show of power, the man waited several seconds before moving aside, just enough.
Duncan pushed the wood-frame screen door out of his way and returned the sunglasses to the top of his head, throwing a glance around the room. The café was nearly empty, except for three men in blue work uniforms who eyed him as he entered. The place was small and needed some modernization, but it was clean.
He could now smell coffee and greasy food and thought again about getting something semi-nutritious while making his way through the stares. Claiming a table in the corner, he threw his duffel over the back of the chair against the wall and propped the guitar case holding his Fender Mustang against the one next to him. The waitress was there as soon as he sat down.
She grinned shyly. “Would you like a menu?”
“No, thank you. Just coffee, black. And a phone?”
“Over there.” She glanced to her left, then moved away.
She was a pretty thing. Just round enough to look very feminine, with a round face and dark brown eyes. Her hair was fairly plain, though – a mousy brown, pulled back into a high ponytail.
The workmen stopped her before she could return with his coffee, and she refilled theirs first. But she didn’t waste time getting to him.
“This is a little strong. Would you like to wait for a fresh pot? It won’t take but a few minutes.”
“It’s fine.” He was careful to pronounce his words correctly, though it was always more of a struggle when he was so dead-tired.
She nodded and poured the steaming liquid into the heavy white cup. She wouldn’t have needed to warn him about its strength. He could smell a slight scald within its natural aroma. That was fine. He’d had worse.
The cropped-hair work suits were still watching. Duncan kept them in his vision without looking directly at them and stopped the waitress from escaping. “You know the city well?”
She hesitated. “Yes. Do you need directions?”
“No. How long have you been here?”
Now she glanced back toward an open doorway behind the counter. But she didn’t walk away. “All my life. I was born here.”
“You haven’t wanted t’ leave?”
Her eyes showed fear. “I have to check an order.” Abruptly, she pulled away and soon disappeared through the door.
What had he said? He wasn’t used to women who were so jittery. Most of the girls he had met in the last five years had been very … well, not jittery. But then, most he had met in bars. He couldn’t see this one in a bar, unless she was with a boyfriend and sipping wine. He could see her with his buddy. Ev hadn’t cared for the girls in the little dive Duncan had been playing in when they had met. He would have to have someone classier, or at least more subdued. That girl he’d been dating, though … she wasn’t his type, either. What had he said about her? “Her parents pay her tuition and send her money.” Well, he hadn’t stayed with her long, though that was partly Duncan’s fault. Once Ev had started hanging around with him, many of the Thiel College students, including the rich girl, had pulled away. He still didn’t understand why Ev would have chosen an expensive private college when he couldn’t really afford it. He’d said it was because it was close to home, and he had to be there for some girl his mom was helping to raise if she ever needed him. But, she wasn’t a girlfriend; just a kid they were babysitting from the way it sounded. He hadn’t said much about her, except that she had lost her mom and her dad was away a lot. And he’d written that she had moved with him, or followed him. Anyway, he was still looking after her.
The waitress returned to warm his coffee, which he had barely touched. “I’m making more. Do you want me to dump this?”
He shook his head. So she added to it and left again.
It was strong, and bitter, but he could feel its warmth from inside. The men in work clothes paid their bill while chatting with the waitress, then threw him a look. He needed to call Ev, but now, just as they were leaving, was most likely not a good time. So he let his thoughts wander while swallowing the dark liquid.
Sam’s Shack, the little dive in Greenville, Pennsylvania where he had met Ev, crawled back into his mind. It hadn’t been the worst place he’d played, or worked, and he liked the owners, Joe and Mel. Mel was short for something; maybe Melanie or … well, Joe’s wife was always just called Mel. They had offered him a job hauling and shelving their supplies, since Joe’s back wouldn’t allow him to lift anything heavier than a beer mug, and had given him a small room in their home and a small salary. It had been enough, with the band fees, since Mel had insisted he eat with them, as well. They had never had children and lived next to their bar, “adopting” their favorite patrons. For some reason, they had taken an instant liking to Duncan when he’d started playing with their regular band. ‘Sam,’ he’d eventually found out, had no meaning. Joe just liked the sound of it.
The little bar was a local hang-out for the younger working class. Saturday night at Sam’s was a ritual for the same general crowd every week. Occasionally, though, a few Thiel College students would drop in. None ever went there alone, and for good reason. The strife between the Thiel kids and the locals had been obvious the first time Duncan had played. Generally, they left each other alone, sometimes exchanging words, but a couple of times, Duncan had helped one of his band mates through a fight, only from a sense of honor. He would rather have had the college kids just stay away, until he had met Ev.
But Ev wasn’t like the others. He’d been in his second year of a two-year business degree, but had worked full-time for the first two years after high school to save money first. His mom had divorced years before and they’d had no help from his father ever since, so he had started working at an early age to help support his family. He had lost a brother during his teen years and had often treated Duncan as a little brother, though they were only a year apart.
He didn’t mind, except that he’d figured once Ev had graduated and moved back home, that would be the end of it. And this guy was the only person Duncan had been able to be himself around. He would have missed him.
Ev, however, didn’t intend to let the friendship end and had invited Duncan to go with him and stay at his mother’s home until they found an apartment. He hadn’t let himself accept, unwilling to become that attached to anyone. He did take Ev’s address and phone number and promised to let his friend know whenever he moved.
That had been two years ago. He hadn’t seen Ev since, but they had exchanged quite a few letters and several phone calls. His friend had moved, from Eastern Pennsylvania to Eastern Massachusetts, and was in a band that wasn’t half bad, from the way Ev talked.
“Can I get you anything else?”
He turned his head with a start from where he’d been staring out the large ceiling-to-floor windows.
The waitress stepped back. “I’m … sorry. I just thought … maybe you were hungry? Mom just pulled a fresh loaf of bread out…. She wouldn’t mind if…”
“Thank you. It sounds fine, bu’ I will pay for it.” He wasn’t about to accept charity. And he couldn’t turn her down.
Beginning to argue, the girl decided against it and again refilled his cup. The coffee smelled fresh this time. Her nervousness seemed to be mixed with … something else … concern, maybe? He knew he looked like hell. Besides losing weight, he hadn’t shaved in the last couple of days. And she obviously assumed he didn’t have much money.
But she didn’t say any more; just glanced at him again, then left. Yes, he could see his buddy with someone like this.
And he needed to call.
With a careful swallow of the steaming coffee, he stood and grabbed his guitar case. He figured it was most likely safe to let it sit where it was while he used the phone, but keeping a hand on his possessions had become ingrained. He did leave the duffel, however, to show that he was returning to the table.
The coins in his pocket rattled as he pulled a few out, found a dime, and dropped the rest back in. The dime clinked noisily inside the machine and he dialed the only number he knew. Well, he still remembered Joe and Mel’s too but hadn’t called them in a long while.
He stood facing his table, where he could see the door, and waited for an answer.
Wrong voice. “I was lookin’ for Evan Scott. Do I have the wrong place?”
“No. He’s here. Well, not at the moment, but … is this Duncan?”
He paused. How the hell did this guy know who he was? “Y’ know when he’ll be back?”
Silence. “Depends. Can I tell him who’s asking for him?”
The guy was offended and probably a friend of Ev’s. “Yeah, it’s Duncan. He said t’ call…”
“In that case, yes, he just stepped across the hall. I’m supposed to find out where you are and he’ll be right there.”
“An’ you are?”
A slight chuckle came across the line. “Well, I was warned. I’m Mike, his roommate.”
Warned? Mike… “Y’ are the band’s lead.”
“That’s me. So … you wanna tell me where you are, or hold on ‘till I pull him back over here? You are in town by now?”
The band’s lead, and good friend of Ev’s if Duncan remembered the letters well enough. “Yeah, uh … hold on.” Damn, what was the name of the café? He caught the waitress’s attention and she came right over. “Sorry, but, what is the name of this place?”
She glanced back to the small door again.
Was she always so nervous? “I have someone comin’ to pick me up. He lives here.”
“Oh. Well, maybe I know him then. Tell him it’s the home of the best doughnuts in town.”
Was that a test?
He put the phone back to his ear. “I do no’ know the name, but the waitress says…”
“I heard her. Tell Allison I said hello, and Evan will be right there.” The phone clicked.
“Did he know?”
He returned the receiver to the cradle. “Are you Allison?”
She smiled, a beautiful smile. “I guess he did. Your bread is on the table, and I put some butter and jams there. Let me know how it is.”
With that, she left again to greet other customers.
Duncan returned to his table. What had he just walked into?