November 5th, 1974.  7:50 PM

I had never been in Jackey-Boy’s Diner at night, and it seemed like a different place altogether.  The first thing I noticed was it was much quieter.  Instead of the clinking of silverware on plates and the incomprehensible chatter of dozens of locals telling highly-embellished stories, the only sound was of a muted easy listening song coming from a portable radio in the back.  Gone were the shafts of sunlight streaming in from the two large front windows, stabbing into clouds of second hand smoke and the rising steam from ceramic cups of coffee.  Instead everything was bathed in an eerie green light from the overhead fluorescents.  The chalkboard at the front entrance that had reminded me several times before that I should wait to be seated had been erased, and even though it didn’t tell us to seat ourselves, I knew that’s what it meant.
            Our waitress was also new to me.  A slim brunette of about 40, she looked as if she had been born to work the night shift at a place like this.  Her smile was genuine, though not overly large, and she introduced herself as she handed out the menus.
            “My name’s Carlotta,” she said.  “We have a special on fish sticks and mashed potatoes tonight.  Can I get you all something to drink while you decide?”
            Sage, Celia and I ordered coffee, and Lenny K. asked for a cola, but then quickly changed his mind when he saw a picture of an ice cream float towards the back of the menu.  Luckily for us, underneath his robes and dozens of strands of beads, Lenny K. had kept his work clothes on so he looked somewhat presentable.  At first he refused to remove the ostentatious, decorative outerwear, claiming that if Moondagger was near, he may not be able to sense him.  Somehow Sage had convinced him that it was for the better; we should take this time to just sit down and enjoy a meal, and if his mentor were to drive into the area of Lenny’s extra sensory perception, there would be plenty of time to feel his presence later.
            “All right, Mr. Louviere,” Celia said.  She had taken almost no time to make her decision, and pushed the laminated menu towards the edge of the table.  “So is this where you have the bead hidden?”
            “I haven’t hidden the bead, Celia,” I said.  “When I got rid of it, I had no idea it was worth anything to anybody.  We’re close to the bead, I’ll admit that, and we’ll get it when we get it.”
            “You gave it away here, though, didn’t you?  I can see it in your eyes, the way you’re looking around.  This isn’t just some greasy spoon you happened to know of.  You were, and maybe still are, hoping to leave here tonight with that bead.  You may be a good salesman, Samuel, but don’t bother denying it because you’re a lousy liar.”
            “As far as I know, the bead isn’t here.  If I’m wrong, and it is, you’ll be the first to know.”  That seemed to relax her a little, but I almost laughed out loud because I had just lied to her and she didn’t realize it.  Not that I thought the bead was there, Annie Slocumb, the waitress who I’d given the bead to, didn’t seem to be working.  But if she were, or even if I found the bead in a saltshaker, Celia wasn’t going to be the first to know.  My plan was to get the bead and trade it for Sarah, and I had no intention whatsoever of letting Celia get to it first.
            When Carlotta came back to take our order, Lenny K. went into a minute-long soliloquy, ordering at least five courses – three or which were dessert.  Sage and I asked for the club sandwich, and Celia, much to everyone’s surprise and disgust, got the fish sticks and mashed potatoes.

November 5th, 1974.  8:30 PM

The always calm, cool and collected Celia Andrews tore into her meal with the voracity of a starving prisoner.  Even Lenny K., who ate with more enthusiasm than I’d yet seen him display, wasn’t through his first plate of pancakes when Celia leaned back from her empty plate and used a napkin to silence a very feminine belch.
            “Now if you’ll excuse me,” she said.  “I have to go powder my nose.”
            “Sam, I can tell you have a lot on y our mind right now,” Sage said after Celia left.  “But can I ask you a question?”
            “Of course,” I said.
            “Just what the hell is going on?”
            Sage is one of the most patient people I have ever met.  Her store is broken into, she’s kidnapped, then a friend of hers is abducted when she’s dropped off, and after several hours in a car with Lenny K., a complete stranger, and myself, she waited for the right time to ask – rather off the cuff, I might add – what it all meant.
            I gave her the annotated version, both so I could get it all out before Celia came back, and so I could skip over the more dangerous facets of our adventure so not to worry her.  Sage listened as if I wasn’t telling her anything more interesting than the items on my grocery list.
            “She’s very pretty,” she said when I had finished.  “Is she in love with you?”
            I about choked on my sandwich.  “I highly doubt it.”
            “I think she is.”  Sage said.  “Either that or…”
            “Or what?” I asked.
            “Or she genuinely dislikes you.”
            “That’s probably a lot closer to the truth,” I said.
            “And I’m thinking about ordering a lot of those ceramic beads you were telling me about, but I’m not quite sure.  Maybe I should just double up on that order of Czech glass beads, what do you think?”
            At first I couldn’t figure out why Sage had suddenly broken into the second half of a conversation for no reason, but a moment later, when Celia rejoined us, it made sense; why give Celia any reason to think we’d been talking about anything other than boring business in her absence?
            “If I were you, Sage, I’d do both.  Double up on the Czech glass, still get the ceramics, and dig into the till and order some of those Bali style toggles.  Trust me, you won’t regret it.  Oh, back so soon?” I asked Celia.  “I was just telling Sage here that I think you need a hobby.  You’re always too tense.  She suggested beading, which, since I’m a bead salesman, I readily agreed with.  Now, I think you should start off simple, maybe make something that’ll look nice your first time out.  Well, I guess technically it would be your second attempt.”  I pointed at the faux pearls she had around her neck.  “But regardless, maybe something with turquoise, onyx, and a little splash of silver.  You know, something even a person with no eye for the art of beading could make look nice.”
            Celia didn’t think I was funny, but Sage and Lenny K. did.
            “Are there any hotels in the area?”  She asked, stern-faced.
            “Yeah, just on the other side of town there’s a roadside place.  It’s not The Ritz, but they have a vending machine with toothbrushes, toothpaste, and all of that.  I figured we’d check in there and get started in the morning.”
            “Sounds good, maybe watch some TV?”  Lenny K. chimed in.
            “I have a better idea,” Celia said.  “How about we get that hotel room, drop Sage off so she can get some rest, and then we’ll put the funny clothes back on Lenny K., drive around town, and see what he comes up with.”
            I didn’t want to go with her plan but I had no logical reason to shoot it down, so I was happy when Carlotta interrupted us.
            “Can I get you folks anything else?  Some desert?”  Then she looked at Lenny K. and corrected herself.  “Or some more desert?”
            “I think we’re fine here, thanks.”  I said.
            “Alright then,” she said, ripping the check from its pad and placing it in front of me.  “You can take that up front when you’re ready.  You all have a nice night, now.”
            “I’ll get this,” Celia said, looking at the check before reaching into her purse and taking out a twenty.  As she started to get up from the booth, I stopped her.
            “Allow me,” I said. 
            “Why thank you,” Celia said, a genuine smile appearing on her face.
            “No problem,” I said, quickly taking the twenty from her hand, and heading to the front register.  I heard Lenny K. snort a laugh as I got up.
            As I waited for Carlotta so I could pay the check, I glanced over just in time to see Celia giving me a scowl.  She then turned her back to me, and went on with her business of completely ignoring Lenny K. and Sage.
            “How was everything tonight?” Carlotta asked, sounding as if she really cared, though I was well aware she’d asked that same question to thousands of strangers before me.
            “It was very good, Carlotta, the food was excellent.”
            “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” she said as she punched the keys of the register.
            “Hey listen,” I said, speaking softly as I leaned closer to her and shot a glance to make sure Celia still had her back to me.  “Does Annie Slocumb still work here?”
            “She sure does.  Morning shift.  You a friend of hers?”
            “Actually, I’m a relative,” I lied for the second time since telling her the food was excellent. 
            “Oh, well how nice.  You in town visiting her?”
            “Yes I am, but there’s a slight problem.  You see, it’s been months since I’ve been to her house, and I’ve forgotten where it is.  Do you know where she lives?  Could you tell me?”
            “Oh, I’m sorry, sir, I couldn’t do that.  It’s probably against company policy, or something.”
            “I understand, but, as I said, we’re related…cousins, we’re cousins…and I’d like to surprise her.”
            “Well why don’t you just give her a call?  I’m sure she’d be surprised to find out you’re in town and she’ll tell you where she lives.”
            “Call her!”  I said, clapping my hands together.  “What a great idea.  I’ll call her!”
            Carlotta just smiled politely as she handed me my change.
            “You wouldn’t happen to have her number, would you?”
            “Oh, yes, I have it.”
            “Great.” I said.
            “But I can’t give it to you.”
            “Why not?”  I asked.
            “Because of that company policy we probably have.”  Carlotta said.  Then, after a pause, “You’re her cousin, and you don’t have her telephone number?”
            “I lost my address book.”
            “Oh, well, there’s still one thing you could do.”
            “And what’s that?”
            “Come back tomorrow.  Her shift starts at six.”
            “You sure you couldn’t just give me her phone number?”  I said, smiling the most dashing smile I could muster.  It had no effect.
            “I’m really sorry.”
            “Thanks,” I said, deflated, and I went back to the table.  After putting down a generous tip – after all, it was Celia’s money – I told the group we were on our way to the hotel.

November 5th, 1974.  9:10  PM

The neon sign for the hotel gave no proper name for the place, unless its name was simply Hotel.  It looked exactly the same as it had the last time I’d stayed there, and as a matter of fact, it looked exactly the same as most other hotels I’d stayed in.
            Celia told the desk clerk we’d need just one room.  I can guess her reasoning was if we’d gotten two we’d split up as boys in one, and girls in the other.  And Celia wasn’t about to let me out of her sight for an entire night.
            After we’d found the room, I collected all the change I could between the four of us and went to the vending machines to buy what little supplies they offered.   When I got back to the room, Celia was waiting outside for me.
            “Let’s go for a little walk,” she said.  When we were far enough away from the room that she was sure we wouldn’t be overheard, she said, “So, is it Annie Slocumb, Jane Reynolds, or Paul Crow that has the bead?”
            “What are you talking about?”  I was doing my best to pretend that none of those names meant anything to me, but she had taken me by such surprise that my best wasn’t cutting it.  Boy, she was good at her job.  She unfolded a slip of paper taken from her purse.
            “What’s that?” I asked.
            “It’s the work schedule from that diner.  When I went to the restroom I made a side trip to the kitchen.  Gave the cook a flirtatious smile, pretended I was lost, looked around and found it.  There are three people working at that diner tomorrow morning, and one of them is the person you gave the bead to.  I’d be willing to bet it’s one of the women, so I’ll ask again, this time a little more directly.  Who has the bead?  Annie or Jane?”
            I didn’t say anything.
            “Fine,” she said.  “It’s one of the two, for crying out loud.  I can track both of them down and be back in an hour if I decided to come back.”  She turned and headed back the way we had come.
            “Celia, hold on.”  I said, jogging a few steps to catch up with her, and grabbing her arm to get her to stop and listen to me.  “I understand how important this is to you, but for God’s sakes, these are nice people.  I don’t want any more of my friends’ lives to be upset by this thing, can you understand that?”
            “I can, but I don’t care, Mr. Louviere.”
            “Listen, if you go ahead and get that bead, you’ve still six others to get.  Now, if you wait until tomorrow morning and do things my way, I’ll help you get the rest of them.  I swear.  I’m only interested in Sarah, I don’t give a damn about those beads.”
            “Wake up, Samuel,” she said.  “I don’t know how many times I have to tell you this, but Sarah has not been kidnapped by bead-seeking mercenaries who are holding her ransom until they’ve completed their bead collection.  She hired the men she’s with.  It’s Sarah who wants that last bead, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get it.  She gives less of a damn about you than I do.”
            “Well until that’s proven to me beyond any doubt, I refuse to believe it.  But for right now, the point is moot, isn’t it?  If you wait until tomorrow, and let me get that bead without causing a ruckus or upsetting anyone, I’ll stick around, even after I have Sarah back, and do what I can to help you get the rest of them.  But if you go snooping around this town, interrupting the lives of my friends, then I’m on the side of the men with Sarah.  Even if what you tell me about her is true.”
            There was a change in Celia’s face at that moment.  She looked at the ground, and nodded in agreement.  I’m not sure how or why, but it seemed that she was conceding for me.  Not because it made sense to do it that way, and not because she needed my help.  But because it was the way I wanted it, and she cared enough about me to give in.
            Maybe Sage was right, maybe she was falling in love with me.
            God, I hoped not.  That was the last thing I needed. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 ..................to be continued

 

2007 Brightlings Beads and M. Robert Todd