Excerpt from “A Nice Set of Wheels” by Kathy Waller appears in MURDER ON WHEELS: 11 TALES OF CRIME ON THE MOVE, published by Wildside Press, 2015
When the stranger stepped through the door, everyone in the store looked up. Old men playing dominoes at the Formica-topped table beside the front window. Farmers sitting in metal lawn chairs, their boot soles propped against the cold pot-belly stove, cussing Khrushchev and the Russians. Teen-aged girls wearing shorts and white blouses, pink hairnets protecting their pin curls, looking at the makeup shelf.
They checked out the worn jeans, the frayed collar on the plaid shirt, the scuffed boots. The beat-up old black suitcase he carried. The black hair close-clipped but with a lock falling across his forehead. The scar on his cheekbone. The eyes like pale blue ice.
In those few seconds he stood in the doorway, with the sun shining through the screen door behind him, they sized him up.
He didn’t look to left or right, just walked straight to the counter. I should have asked how I could help him, but I didn’t. I was holding my breath.
“Are the Coca-Colas cold?”
I nodded at the cooler half hidden by a rack of chips. He opened the lid and pulled out a king-sized bottle, shook it a bit to get some of the water off, and brought it to the counter. I took it from him and dried it with a clean terry cloth towel I kept behind the counter, then gave him the towel to dry his hands. When Uncle Harry sold Cokes, he let the bottles drip. He said if customers wanted them ice cold, they’d have to put up with a little water. But I like to make things nice.
I handed him the Coke and pointed to the bottle opener nailed to the end of the counter.
“That’ll be a dime,” Uncle Harry shouted from behind the meat counter at the back of the store. “Seven cents if you drink it here and leave the bottle.”
The man pulled a dime from his pocket and dropped it into my hand. “I’ll bring the bottle back tomorrow.”
Uncle Harry left the meat counter and walked up to the front, still holding a butcher knife. His apron was stained with blood. “Where’d you come from?” he said.
That was none of his business, but the stranger didn’t take offense. “Shreveport, last stop. Working my way west. Been hitching rides, decided to stop here and look for work. You know anybody needs odd jobs done, or farm work?”
The girls hiding behind the makeup shelf giggled and shushed each other, except for Wanda Patterson, who looked directly at the man and smiled. Uncle Harry’s eyes narrowed. His frown told me he was about to say “No,” like he always does when men from outside talk about hanging around, but before he could say anything, Old Brother Fisher, who always tried to help people, slapped down a domino and called out, “Try the Conrad place. Frank Conrad owns several hundred acres the other side of the river. Heard him say the other day he needs some fences repaired, and three of his hands got caught in the draft and left for the Army. Bet he’d take you on. Might keep you to haul hay, maybe pick cotton.”
The stranger raised the Coke bottle and nodded at the old man. “Much obliged, sir.”
“Go up the road about a half mile to where there’s a gap in the fence on the left. Go on through—it’s private property, but nobody’ll care—and follow the old wagon ruts down to the river. Cross the footbridge. Other side belongs to Conrad. Big white house at the top of the hill.”
The stranger picked up his suitcase and started toward the door. Every eye followed him.
“Wait.” The eyes all looked my way. “What’s your name?”
He turned around and smiled right at me. Just at me. “Campbell. Campbell Reed. What’s yours?”
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Rosemary.” Still smiling, he pushed through the screen door and was gone.
Uncle Harry grabbed my arm and jerked me around to face him. “What have I told you about talking to strange men? That one’s trouble. Leave him alone.”
I pulled away and ran through the storeroom and out the back door, past Uncle Harry’s house and the outbuildings, up the footpath and onto the gravel bar that lay along a stretch of the river bank. Wading in to where the water was clear, I bent down and splashed some on my cheeks, then straightened up and let the slight breeze cool my face. I was fifteen years old, and I’d had enough of Uncle Harry treating me like a baby. I would stay down here till time for supper. If Uncle Harry wanted me back at the store, he could come find me.
I recognized the looks the men had given Campbell. Except for Old Brother Fisher, they thought the same as Uncle Harry: he was trouble. I knew what Wanda Patterson and her friends thought, too: not trouble, but a good-looking man to take them out on Saturday nights, to park with in the cemetery after dark, to beg their mamas to invite for dinner, and, if they were lucky, to marry and have babies with.
But when I looked at him, I didn’t see trouble or fun or babies or anything like that.
In the time it took Campbell Reed to tell me his name, I looked at him and saw a savior.
Join Austin Mystery Writers for the launch of MURDER ON WHEELS at 7:00 p.m. on August 11, 2015, at BookPeople Bookstore, 6th and Lamar, Austin. Authors will read and sign. Refreshments will be served.