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Authors: James P. Blaylock

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BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
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He headed back outside. “I think I’ll grab the ferry into town,” he said to his aunt. “Need anything? Something from the Safeway?”

“Pick me up a bag of those peppermint stars. They’ve got them in the produce section, in bins. Couple of pounds.”

“Sure,” he said. “Say, do you know a character from hereabouts named Bob Postum?”

“I won’t touch the stuff,” she said. “If a body’s going to drink coffee, then drink coffee, not boiled dirt. Grab a two-pound can of Folgers.”

“Easy as pie,” he told her.

“Apple,” she said, “unless there’s something you like better. The Safeway makes a good pie.”

“I’ll get those peppermint stars, too,” he said, and walked back into the house, switched off the coffeepot, and went in after his shoes and socks.

AT THE COZY DINER

O
n his way down to the ferry dock Calvin detoured to Main Street and looked into the Cozy Diner, but Uncle Lymon wasn’t among the customers eating breakfast and drinking coffee. A man nodded at Calvin over a stack of what must have been half a dozen tire-size pancakes, and then raised his coffee mug in a sort of salute. Anyplace else in the world Calvin would have assumed he knew the man, but here in New Cyprus it wasn’t at all certain. Calvin was apparently a celebrity of sorts, Al Lymon’s prodigal nephew. It was comforting in a way, but disconcerting in an equal measure.

They were good-looking pancakes. Buckwheat, unless he was very much mistaken, which he wasn’t. He had always been a big pancake man—none bigger. And there appeared to be about a pound of bacon on the man’s plate. …

He looked at his wrist out of habit and realized that his watch was still in the glove box in the car along with
the phone. But what was the rush? This was New Cyprus, where time had no dominion, as the poet said. As far as he was concerned, time
rarely
had any dominion when there were pancakes involved. He spotted a table against the wall and sat down, idly settling in to listen to the conversations going on around him, none of which had anything to do with him. After a moment a server approached the table carrying a coffeepot and a menu. She stopped to refill a cup at the adjacent table, and then turned his way again, and his first thought was that she had an interesting face, both pretty and comical, although that didn’t quite do her justice, and she smiled at him in a way that made him aware that he was staring at her. But it was a friendly smile, as if she recognized him.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Yes. Please.” He smiled back at her. She had the light skin and freckled complexion of a redhead, and she had probably gone trick-or-treating as Pippi Longstocking somewhere back along the line. Now her strawberry-colored hair was pulled back in a pony tail like something out of the 1950s. He took the menu from her and laid it on the table without looking at it. “Pancakes,” he said, noticing that her name tag read “Donna.”

“We’ve got several kinds,” she told him.

“Buckwheat for me.”

“You want the Million-Dollar Plate?”

“Million-Dollar Plate? What would that be?”

“Little bitty ones,” she said. “About the size of quarters, but a
lot
of them. We’re famous for them in these parts.”

“I think I’ll go for the standard size this time,” he said, “with bacon on the side. I’ll save the Million-Dollar Plate for tomorrow morning.”

“Okay, with bacon. Anything else?”

“Peanut butter, if you’ve got it.” He shrugged at her, as if he knew it was a lot to ask.

“We can do that,” she said, apparently having no problem with the idea of peanut butter on pancakes. That seemed to him to be a good sign, but then he wondered why he was looking for signs—signs of what? She might be twenty-eight, he guessed, maybe thirty, maybe his age, but young-looking, and he glanced at her left hand, which was ringless, then looked up hastily. She was smiling at him again, and he gave her a weak, senseless grin.

“You’re the Lymons’ nephew, aren’t you?” she asked. “They were telling me all about you. The whole town’s buzzing. From L.A., isn’t it? Birdland, or something. Big Rock.”

“Eagle Rock,” he said. “I’m Calvin Bryson. Pleased to meet you.”

“We’ve already met,” she said, “but you don’t remember. I used to spend a lot of time here when I was little.”

“You have a heck of a memory,” Calvin told her.

“Traumatic memories last forever. We were running around in the park, and you pushed me and I fell into a picnic table.” She pointed to a scar on her cheek, and suddenly Calvin recalled the incident clearly, although what he remembered was sitting alone afterward, filled with shame. “Oops, I’ve got food up,” she said, and she moved away toward the kitchen.

Calvin studied the menu, half listening to the conversation between a man and woman at the next table, and then startled to hear the man say, “Apparently Warren Hosmer got word to …” But then someone laughed loudly nearby, and he couldn’t hear the rest. He looked sharply at the couple, but the man had finished his sentence and was drinking coffee now. The woman waved at Calvin
and smiled—a little wiggly-handed wave, very coy. “I’m Wilma Du Pont, dear,” she said, leaning toward him, “and this is my husband, Henry.” She winked at him.

‘They call me Downriver Du Pont,” her husband said, “on account of a boating accident I had. Not to be confused with Upriver Charlie Lakeview. He’s a Cherokee. How do you like our girl Donna?”

“Fine,” he said. “Just fine. Glad to meet you folks.” This beat all.

Donna was heading toward him, carrying the coffee. “Calm down, brother,” he told himself, having come to the conclusion that she was actually gorgeous. Not all men would think so, but then most men were fools who had no imagination when it came to women. She hurried away again, and he dumped sugar into his coffee and then picked up his spoon to stir it with. The spoon was heavy—apparently silver, which was high-toned for a place called the Cozy Diner. Million-dollar pancakes and million-dollar spoons.

Donna moved among the ten occupied tables effortlessly, setting down plates, refilling coffee. He drank his own coffee and sketched a plate of million-dollar pancakes on his napkin—an enormous plate of them with steam rising into wavy dollar signs and with a little bitty rendition of himself looking at them wide-eyed. Donna came back and set down the plate of pancakes and ajar of Skippy.

“Was my uncle Lymon in this morning?” he asked. “Early?”

“Nope,” she said. “Haven’t seen him. He might have caught the sunrise ferry. Tomorrow’s barge day, so maybe he went into Bullhead City to order supplies for the Temple Bar. Maybe down to Needles, if he needed something in particular.”

“Barge day?”

“The barge comes across with supplies from Bullhead City every Thursday and Monday. Big doings on the wharf:”

“Maybe that’s it, then.”

“Your pancakes are getting cold,” she said. “Especially if you want that peanut butter to melt. Do you do peanut butter and syrup both?”

“On one-third,” he told her. “One-third syrup alone and one-third only peanut butter. Everything in threes.”

“Combination plate,” she said, and then laid the check on the table. “I’ll be back with more coffee.”

“I’m already afloat,” he said, quoting his aunt, and then immediately regretting it.
Don’t talk like a nut
, he reminded himself. That was paramount. Most women weren’t amenable to nut talk, especially right away. He had found that out once or twice. Abruptly he remembered why he had chased Donna into the picnic table, and the memory made him blush. She had kissed him, right out of nowhere, and he being what?—maybe five or six years old? He wondered if she remembered that part.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Downriver Du Pont and his wife Wilma stand up and head for the door, taking their secrets with them. He ate pancakes and sketched a cartoon on another napkin—a centipede in a shoe store. The befuddled clerk was saying, “Maybe when the barge comes in …” It wasn’t bad, although outside of New Cyprus it would be obscure. He would leave it for Donna, who, ideally, would get a laugh out of it before she threw it into the trash. He found that he was suddenly in a hurry to be moving. The pancakes were as good as he had hoped, but he shoveled the rest of them down hastily, and he ate half the bacon with about half the attention it deserved.
Somehow the out-of-nowhere mention of Hosmer’s name had put an edge on the morning.
And so had Donna
, he thought, although in a completely different way.

He put a twenty-dollar bill on top of the napkin with the cartoon and stood up, but he realized that it amounted to a psychotically high tip, and he looked into his wallet again for something smaller so that she wouldn’t think he was trying to impress her with his high-roller Birdland sensibilities. But he had nothing but twenties out of the ATM. He left the twenty and made his way to the door and onto the sidewalk without looking back.

In the trailer park people were out gardening and hanging clothes and getting things done before the day really started to broil. There were kids running around and dogs meandering from one trailer to another. The big lawn was trimmed and green and was shaded by lines of trees planted strategically to block the sun as it moved across the sky. The trailers were old Airstreams and single-wide mobile homes with built-on verandas and carports. Flowerbeds were lined in river rock and seashells and glass fishing floats and broken-open geodes and old glass insulators from telephone poles. He saw big cylinders of gray metal here and there, set in the borders. Silver again—the same as Uncle Lymon’s bookends and the flatware at the diner.

It came into his mind that for ten cents and a doughnut he would pull up stakes and move out here. Or at least he would consider it. New Cyprus was a long way from designer coffee and freeways and easy access to ten thousand other bits and pieces of popular culture that he had no abiding interest in. He thought about Donna again, and whether he should have asked for her telephone number.

He crossed the bridge to the Temple, which was dark and locked up tight. He saw through the window that there
was a dim light coming out from under the closed door of what might have been the office or storeroom. It could as easily be sunlight shining through a window behind, illuminating the room. He knocked on the door and waited, then looked through the window again, and then knocked a second time, but there was apparently nobody stirring inside.

At the rear of the building there was a little trail through the willows—something he had missed seeing in the darkness last night—and he followed it down onto a short stretch of beach, where he could see the groove in the sand where the rowboat had been pulled high and dry so that the river wouldn’t tug it free of the shore. It was interesting, but it meant nothing he didn’t already know. He spotted the ferry upriver, a couple of minutes out, and he hurried back around the Temple and down the path to the dock, where there was already a woman waiting near the gas pumps, a Mrs. Lazlow, who had a little wire cart on wheels and was on her way across the river to shop at the Safeway. He stood making small talk with her while he surveyed the far shore downstream.

There was another narrow beach opposite, maybe a hundred and fifty yards distant—a good place to pull a rowboat out of the water. There were a couple of clearings upriver, too, and it would be a simple thing for a person to drop a rowboat at the edge of the river upstream, drive downstream a half mile and park the car, and then walk back up to the boat, put it into the water, and row across to New Cyprus in the dark of night for some moderately foolproof spying.

There weren’t any downstream passengers on the ferry when it arrived. The pilot was a middle-aged woman dressed in a sort of leisure suit, who immediately told
Calvin that he was Al Lymon’s nephew, which didn’t surprise him at all now. “Betty Jessup,” she said. “You can call me Betty.” She held out her hand for a shake, and he saw that she was wearing red fingernail polish.

He shook her hand. “Cal Bryson,” he said. “Did my uncle take the ferry this morning? Sunrise run, probably.”

“Nope. Haven’t seen him,” Betty Jessup told him. “The Cozy’s a good bet.”

“He wasn’t there.”

“I see him now and then shopping in the Coronet, on the highway. It’s as close as we’ve got to a five-and-dime.”

“I’ll take a look,” Calvin said.

“Nettie’s not in trouble, is she?” Betty asked.

“No, not at all,” Calvin said. “In fact, she’s raring to go this morning. New lease on life.”

“Well, that’s a blessing,” Betty said. “I’ll stop in to see her when my old man takes over at noon.”

He nodded and sat down in the shade of the canopy, watching the Arizona side spin past. The boat ride to the landing above Holiday Shores took about twenty minutes. He got off there along with Mrs. Lazlow and her cart, the two of them trudging up the hill toward the Safeway. Bullhead City was wheezing in the summer heat. He looked back to watch the empty ferry angle away, farther upriver toward the final landing, where another, more active ferry ran gamblers across to the Nevada side, to the landings in front of the Riverside and the Colorado Belle and the Nevada Club.

Calvin found that he was starting to sweat despite the dry weather, and he wished he had a hat for shade or at least had rubbed on some sunblock. He headed straight for the phone booth in front of the Safeway. If this one wasn’t a secure line, then they would all have to be insecure, because
he couldn’t tell one line from another. There weren’t any suspicious characters lurking, unless you counted a blue-haired old woman sitting on a bench up the way and two younger women pushing baby strollers into the store. He checked the parking lot for the green pickup truck before punching the Gas’n’Go number into the phone. He listened to the phone ring a dozen times, giving Shirley plenty of time to come in from the gas pumps or to take the hash browns off the fire. A recording picked up. “Gas’n’Go,” Shirley’s voice said. “Leave me a message.”

“Hello,” he said after the beep, “this is Cal Bryson, Al Lymon’s nephew. I was in the store yesterday on my way out to New Cyprus. I wanted to tell you that I got a call this morning from the man who sent the package, our mutual friend in Iowa, and he said to let you know that they were
turning up the heat
. I don’t know what that means, but the man says that he’s going south, and that I should let you know just in case. I hope all this makes sense to you, because it doesn’t make much to me. Anyway, thanks for your help yesterday. Aunt Nettie says hello. She’s doing pretty well.”

BOOK: The Knights of the Cornerstone
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