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Five miles from the exit she’d taken off the interstate, Trixie Collier Blake slowed her Jeep Cherokee for a closer view of the salmon pink stucco structure set some five or six yards from the narrow road. Flashing blue lights illuminated a sign with faded letters spelling out Moonlight Tattoo Parlor, prop. Rudy James.
She mulled the name. The Rudy James she’d known in high school would own a tattoo parlor. The class clown, he mostly inhabited the principal’s office where Trixie’s mother Lucy worked as the school secretary. She could picture him—long, lanky, a thatch of spiked carrot-colored hair, pale and freckled, a perpetual smile crinkling the corners of his light blue eyes. Oh, yeah, she could see Rudy James running a place like she’d just passed, although she might have wished something better for a popular classmate.
Forcing her attention back to the road, she considered that according to the sign just before the exit, twelve miles remained between her and the place where she’d been born and lived until just past her fourth birthday. Though no particular bad memory lurked around her hometown, she’d felt weighed down almost since leaving North Carolina two days earlier.
“It’s just an empty building,” Lucy complained. “Daddy’s lawyer can handle the sale without you going all that way. I don’t know why he left it to you anyway. He didn’t even leave your brother a half-interest in it, which seems wrong to me. So just sell it. It’s money in your pocket, and you can use it now that you’re starting over.”
The remark rankled Trixie, but it was useless to argue with Lucy. She couldn’t remember ever getting her own point across to her mother, at least not without paying a high price. Lucy could sull like an old possum forever. Even though her parents’ divorce when she was four had affected Trixie only minimally, she knew as she grew older that her father was better off alone—or at least not married to Lucy. Clark had been a good father to Trixie and her older brother Bill, even with the almost prohibitive distance between Little Rock and New York City.
So why am I on my way to Dreamland when I’m going to end up selling the Quimby Building anyway? I barely remember the town, and I sure don’t know anyone there. I didn’t even know Grandfather since Mother never took us back to see him, and he never came to see us. Of course, Bill said it was because he and Mother had that huge fight just before we left. I never knew what that was about. I never asked, so I guess I didn’t want to know.
She hadn’t known what it was about, but she’d heard the fight. Part of it anyway, and one word had stuck in her mind. Later she’d seen it scrawled on a bathroom stall in a store in Little Rock when they’d gone there to shop. Daddy had told her, when she spelled it out for him, that nice little girls didn’t say words such words, and she should forget it. She’d heard another word she’d looked up in a dictionary at school the next day. It had something to do with somebody born without a father, but she and Bill had one, so she didn’t really understand why Grandfather Quimby was yelling at her mother. Something told her not to ask Daddy about it either.
That almost forgotten long-ago day played out in her mind as she entered the city limits before she realized the highway had run out smack in the middle of town. The courthouse loomed a dull gray in the dusk, and the dark bulk of two dozen other buildings stood like silent sentinels around the square. Only the lighted signs of the Lloyd House Hotel and the Twilight Bar and Grill suggested some possibility of life.
Trixie parked at the curb and entered the hotel through a glass and brass revolving door. Above her, crystal drops from half a dozen chandeliers shimmered as if awaiting some momentous event. Behind the semi-circular wooden desk, a man stood with his back to her, only turning around when she said, “Excuse me.”
“May I help you?”
“I’d like a room, please.”
“Certainly. How long will you be staying?”
“I’m not sure.”
The clerk glanced at her, then back at the register he’d just moved across the desk. “I’ll need to see some identification.”
She laid her driver’s license and credit card on the desk and signed the register Beatrice Collier Blake. The clerk glanced at her signature, ran her credit card, but then seemed to hesitate before he took a key from one of the boxes on the back wall.
Trixie smoothed her curly-cropped ginger-red hair. “Is there any place I can get something to eat?”
“Our coffee shop is closed for the day, but you can go across the street to the Twilight.”
“It’s not exactly a bar, and it’s very popular with the locals.”
“There’s nothing else?”
“Not unless you want to drive out toward the bypass.”
“Oh, well, I guess I don’t.”
“We don’t have a bellboy in the evenings, but there’s a luggage trolley by the elevator.”
Trixie nodded. “No problem.”
Somewhere far away a telephone rang, and the man disappeared through a door in the back wall.
She stepped off the elevator into the dimly-lit second floor corridor and wondered if any of the other rooms were occupied. Her own room, just a few steps away, smelled stale as if it had been unoccupied for a long time, but on inspection it appeared clean. She hefted her bags off the trolley and pushed it close to the wall.
She took time to unpack but decided against changing clothes. Her standard jeans—a good brand but faded now—and the loose white cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up—were good enough. It wasn’t like she was going to see anyone she knew. Even so she took time to put on some lipstick and silver hoops in the second hole she’d recently had put in each ear. Ned had laughed and called her a floozy, but then he’d gone out and bought the silver hoops.
She retrieved the trolley and pushed the elevator button again. The doors slid open without delay. She frowned at the thought she might well be the lone guest.
Outside the hotel, she hesitated before crossing Main Street to the Twilight Bar which from the facade resembled a retail establishment, perhaps a dress shop, with display windows on either side of a single glass door. Inside, soft music blended with muted lighting around mismatched Formica tables and wooden chairs from another era. Along the wall to the right, a massive bar spanned the length of the building. Behind it, a wavy mirror reflected a variety of bottles between elaborately-carved pillars which reached the ceiling. Five booths upholstered in red vinyl occupied the left wall under a series of framed watercolors showcasing what appeared to be the town square in its earlier days.
A waitress wearing faded jeans and a yellow tank top that rode up above her waist set a menu in front of Trixie almost as soon as she slid into the back booth. “Drink, honey?”
“Just water, thanks.” Trixie opened the menu. “What’s good?”
“Oh, well, I’ll have a club sandwich then, no chips.”
Trixie watched the woman walk away and considered there was something familiar about her. That’s ridiculous. I was four years old when I left here, and she’s got to be ten years younger than I am.
She had to cut the halves of the club sandwich into pieces to get her mouth around the thick ciabatta bread. She was working on the last quarter when someone said, “Trixie Collier, is that really you? The same old green-eyed, red-headed busybody of Carter High?”
The man’s infectious grin elicited the same from Trixie. “Rudy James as I live and breathe, Carter High’s answer to Emmett Kelly.”
He slid into the booth across from her. “Well, well, it’s been a long time, and it’s a long way from Little Rock.”
“Only forty-two miles.”
He laughed. “You were always a literal old soul. What in the world are you doing in Dreamland?”
“I was born here.”
His well-shaped sandy brows went up to his hairline. “Were you now?”
“Lived here until I was four, almost five, when my parents divorced. Mother took my brother Bill and me to Little Rock, and Daddy moved to New York.”
“That’s one place I never got to, not that I didn’t try.”
“So where’ve you been for the last twelve years?”
“Everywhere I could go.”
“Okay, so how did you end up here?”
“My grandparents died four years ago and left me a nice piece of change. I was ready to settle down. More or less.”
“Why did you pick Dreamland? From what I could see of it as I drove in, it’s dead. Or dying anyway.”
He grimaced. “Almost all the businesses have moved out toward the bypass in the last eighteen months, and if those weasels Parker Aiken and Guy Langley have their way, everything else will be gone before Christmas.”
“I don’t understand.”
“They’re the front for some development company that wants the whole downtown area and a few residential blocks on either side.” He signaled another denim-clad waitress, who brought him a bottle of imported beer without his asking. “But that’s not your concern.”
“It might be.”
“My grandfather left me a building on Main Street. The Quimby Building.”
“The what? Your grandfather was John Quimby Lloyd?”
“Yes. Did you ever meet him?”
“Once or twice. He was sort of the ‘grand old man’ of the town.”
Trixie leaned across the table. “Really?”
Rudy’s brows went up again, but he waited for Trixie to go on.
She felt inexplicably embarrassed. “I didn’t know him very well. He and my mother fell out over something about the time of the divorce, and I never saw him again.”
“Your grandfather was forty-two miles away, and you never saw him?”
“After a while I just sort of forgot about him, I guess. I know it sounds bad, but…”
Rudy held up his hand. “It’s none of my business. The key point seems to be he never forgot about you and left you the Quimby Building. Have you seen it?”
“I just got here a couple of hours ago.”
“Well, it’s one of the last few buildings Aiken and Langley haven’t swept up, but I’m sure you’ll be hearing from them soon. They want this place, too, but they’re not going to get it if I can help it.”
“You own it?”
“It was originally a variety store. When I bought it two years ago, it was in pretty sad shape, but it turned out real good. I had to bring in that bar in pieces. It’s over a hundred years old.”
“Everything looks great now.” Trixie glanced around. “And you’re doing a booming business.”
“People like the Twilight. It’s comfortable. “
“Do they like the Moonlight as much?” Trixie bit her lip to keep from laughing at how Rudy’s mouth gaped like a fish out of water. “Sorry. I passed it on the way in and wondered if it belonged to the same Rudy James I knew.”
He shook his head. “It’s not mine. Rather, I own the place. I bought it cheap when I first moved here, but I didn’t stay long. I let a buddy of mine live there. We were in service together, and he was down on his luck, so I let him live in the back and run his tattoo business out of the front. It pays for groceries. My name on the sign…it’s sort of a joke.”
He caught the fingers of her left hand as she pushed away her empty plate. The wide gold band caught the light. “Who’s the lucky guy?”
The tears Trixie thought she didn’t have any more of blurred her vision. She jerked her hand away.
Rudy frowned. “Hey, Trix, I’m sorry if I touched a sore spot.”
“It’s not a sore spot,” she said. “More like an open wound.”
“Want to talk about it?”
“You may as well know, I guess.” She pressed a paper napkin against her eyes and took her time laying it aside while she got control of her voice. “I met Ned at Henderson when I was studying pre-law, and he made me a better offer—be an Air Force wife. We married during our senior year. After we graduated, he did a tour in Japan and another in Guam. He’d just made captain, and we’d been posted stateside. He…” Her voice trailed off. She wondered if it would ever get any easier to talk about what had happened.
“Take your time,” Rudy said.
She nodded and reached for the napkin again. “He was killed in a routine training accident three months ago.”
Rudy reached for her hand again and squeezed it. “That’s rotten.”
“I hadn’t even unpacked everything in our new apartment.”
“So you’re back in Dreamland looking for a new billet?”
“I don’t really know what I’m doing here. Mother said my grandfather’s attorney, Lawrence White, would handle everything, so I didn’t have to come.” She shrugged. “But crazy as it sounds, I didn’t know where else to go.”
“Maybe your roots were calling you.”
“Maybe. I guess I’ll end up selling the building though.”
“What else would I do with it?”
Rudy sat back a little. “There are three hold-outs—me, Candace King who runs the historical association out of her home just off the square, and Glen Ellard, the mayor, who has the hardware store on the south side. You’d make four.”
“Why would I want to be number four?”
“Well, maybe you’ll find out. How long will you be around?”
“Until I decide what to do, I guess.”
“No strings anywhere? Kids?”
Trixie felt her eyes mist again. “We tried, but it never happened.”
“That’s rotten, too.”
She blotted her eyes again and pasted on a smile. “What made you come to Dreamland of all places?”
“Five years ago it looked like a good place to put down roots. I went to community college after I got out of the army, and then I got my insurance license. I have an office in the old bank building. It’s about empty now, but I’m hanging on. And I opened this place a year ago.”
“Are you married?”
His mouth twisted. “Yes and no.”
“No, it’s okay. I married Delores Jefferson. Remember her?”
“Sure I do. We sort of drifted in different directions in high school, but we were good friends before that. Her daddy died about the time we hit junior high, and her mother worked at least two jobs. And I remember she had a brother who was disabled or something.”
“Danny has Down Syndrome, but he’s a neat guy. He works for Martin’s Grocery Market all week, and on Saturdays he works at the library shelving books and helping in the children’s section. Everybody likes him.”
“Kids like him were sort of invisible in school. I’m glad he has a good life.”
“Edith, Dee’s mother, had a stroke a couple of years ago, so I moved Danny and her down here. She can’t work, but Danny brings home grocery money, and I’m lucky enough to be able to cover their rent. But Dee…well, after we lost the baby last year, she got this wild hair she ought to be working to help out with expenses, and when I got bent out of shape over her working for Parker Aiken, she moved in with Edith and Danny.”
“I’m so sorry, Rudy.”
“I’m crazy about Dee. Always was, even in high school. I don’t care if she works, just not for that sleaze-ball Aiken.”
“It’ll work out.”
“Oh, sure it will. We’re not talking divorce or anything.” Rudy glanced at his watch. “I close at 9:30 and then go in the back and tally up the day’s take. Let me walk you back to the hotel first.”
“I need a ticket.” Trixie reached for her purse, but Rudy waved his hand.
“It’s on the house tonight. You can leave a couple of bucks for Kimmy though. She’s got a baby and no husband.”
Trixie laid three ones on the table and slid to her feet. “The hotel is just across the street. I don’t need an escort.”
Rudy let her go ahead of him. “Maybe and maybe not.”
Almost as soon as Trixie stepped through the revolving door and into the lobby, a man wearing khakis and a sports jacket over an open-necked oxford cloth shirt rose from one of the large leather arm chairs. He was tall with dark hair brushed white at the temples, and a strong, well-shaven jaw line. “Trixie Blake?”
Before Trixie could reply, Rudy had moved in behind her. “It’s a little late at night for making deals, isn’t it, Langley?”
The man’s jaw tightened. “Rudy James, what brings you here?”
“I had a feeling you’d be waiting for Trixie like a spider spinning his web to catch his prey.”
“This doesn’t concern you.”
“Sure it does. You want all the buildings on the square, including mine, and now the Quimby Building which Trixie happens to own.” Rudy took Trixie’s arm. “I’ll see you upstairs.”
“Why don’t you let the lady speak for herself, James?”
Trixie frowned. “I just got to town,” she said. “I don’t know anything about what’s going on, so I can’t discuss anything with you until I do. That’ll be after I see Lawrence White tomorrow morning.”
The man inclined his head slightly. “I’m Guy Langley by the way. A friend of your mother’s. She thought I could help you navigate the sale of the building.”
“You just take it for granted she’s going to sell?” Rudy asked.
Trixie glanced around at him. “It’s okay, Rudy. I can take care of myself.” She looked straight at the other man. “You’ll have to give me some time to get oriented. Then I’ll be ready to talk to you.”
Guy Langley’s smile seemed more like a smirk as he looked past her at Rudy. “Of course.” He took a business card from his shirt pocket and held it out. “You can reach me here whenever you’re ready. I’ll be around.”
Rudy urged Trixie toward the elevator. Only when they were inside with the doors closed did he speak. “Watch out for him, Trixie. He’s crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
“He said he was a friend of my mother’s.”
“He may be, but that doesn’t make him honest.” He held out his hand for the key to her room. “I’d like to take a look around if you don’t mind. I’ll sleep better tonight.
“Why? Do you think Guy Langley has mysteriously apparated up here?”
“I wouldn’t put it past him. Can I take a look?”
Trixie stood back. “Be my guest.”
Rudy made the rounds of the room, checking the closet and bathroom before motioning Trixie inside. “Keep your door locked, and don’t let anyone in without knowing who it is first.”
“Where have I heard that before?”
“Sorry—but forewarned is forearmed.” He handed Trixie her key. “Stay in touch, Trix. Anything I can do to help…and I’ll give Dee a call and let her know you’re here. She’ll want to see you.”
“I’d like to see her, too. Thanks, Rudy. You were a pal in high school, and you still are.”
She looked for his quick grin, but it didn’t come.
“Just watch yourself, huh?”
Trixie flipped the deadbolt on the door. The upholstery of the chair she moved in front of it was faded and frayed. Then, leaving on all the lights, she showered and got into bed.
For a fleeting moment she considered calling her mother just to let her know she’d arrived safely but discarded the idea. It wasn’t that Lucy didn’t care about her safety, but she cared more about having things her own way. She’d just argue again for selling the building and moving on.
Trixie closed her eyes. The relationship between Guy Langley and her mother was another stray piece of the whole puzzle. His good looks and suave manner would appeal to Lucy, but he was tied to Dreamland, and she’d shaken the dust of the little town from her feet years ago. Why would she be involved with someone who hadn’t?
Pulling the covers closer around her, Trixie sighed and burrowed into the thin pillow. Tomorrow wasn’t that far off. Plenty of time to think about all of this then. Plenty of time to deal with her mother—and with Guy Langley. Plenty of time to try again to pull together the torn fabric of her life.
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