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Mrs. Donnelly, sometimes wife of Philip C. Donnelly, was the most recent volunteer for the Midway Souvenir shop. It was actually called Cruickshank's Amusements, but since the unlikely death of Mrs. Alvarez a few years ago, and Mr. Alvarez's slow withdrawal from social life, it became less of a place to buy amusements and more a museum of the curios that seem to slowly wash up on the tides of transience. Where the parking lot collected the flotsam of abandoned tankers, the souvenir shop picked up the jetsam of the wanderers and travellers like some kind of cosmic Lost and Found.
Those in a hurry would go right by the official postcards, the stand near the window showing a variety of views of the Midway Trucker's Paradise. The cards were faded by the sun and a veneer of thin dust indicated that these were not the attraction that Mr. Oberst or one of his many assistants had hoped. Another collection of cards showed more access, these on a revolving display near the counter, prints of famous paintings, local artists, sometimes birthday cards or special occasion pieces were sold, complete with envelopes. You could buy stamps at the register.
Mrs. Donnelly thought she hated this place. She hated it with the passion born of fear and anger against the unknown. Yet...she was not the kind of person to let hate get in the way of opportunity. Trident Shipping had gotten its tines in several places because she had speared a possibility. Letting her personal feelings interfere with profits would have seen her divorced before this, after all.
"Phil." A phone call during the evening.
Did a smile play across either of their features? If so, it wasn't audible.
Philip sighed, when it became obvious that his wife, having initiated the phone call, had no intention of continuing the conversation, merely letting the silence ask for his report. He tried to sidestep it. "How's Lei-lei?"
"Practically ignorant, not entirely oblivious. Will they sell?"
"Hardball. Anyone responsible for the Avalon Group might as well be as hard to find as the mythical isle." He sighed again.
"There has to be somebody you can pin down. They're butterflies, and we're collectors." Her interview had been over the phone, her volunteering got her no closer to the administration. She had gotten close to Mr. Woczak only through his staff, only to find out he was still low in the heirarchy.
There was maybe a ghost of a smile.
A ghost, anyway.
Which one spoke it? The speaker was irrelevant, as was the dismissal. The silence took its accustomed place, filling the time before the next interruption. Mrs. Donnelly sighed. This place ground her down. Too many secrets and not enough of them spilled to sate the thirst of her curiosity, or even her reasonable greed. The only fluids in abundance were coffee and blood.
She turned one of the postcards around in her elegantly manicured fingers. Bleached by the sun, you could almost imagine shadows in the most unlikely places against the buildings, as if the photographer was making a statement. Something besides, "Wish You Were Here," for certain.
She preferred the coffee, anyway.
"It can't be faith if you've got proof," said the man using the phone. "And it can't be love if you don't believe." He could have been having a philosophical conversation, or he could have been trying to break up a relationship. Slip a bunch of photos (the missus in a compromising position?) in that manila envelope he had in front of him, and he was a private detective on a case. Slide in some receipts, and he was an accountant. A couple of the postcards and he was a family man. Make it a holy book, and he was a preacher. Eavesdropping only gained you a piece of the story.
A representation of Colonel Thadeus T. Rutherford stood woodenly on the concrete porch at the front of Cruickshank's Amusements. Woodenly, because he was the unknown totem that seemed inevitable at the time, better than a dimestore "Injun" or fiberglass lion. He stood straight and tall, if weatherworn and smoothed by countless childrens' hands atop a carved crate marked "Whiskey." Around his neck was a tray that held various local advertisements and business cards.
And always a hand of cards. Not the full deck, but a poker hand. A carving of the Three of Clubs and the signature, "Gladstone" showed up like graffiti on the Whiskey crate a while ago. Some joker, no doubt. It wasn't Rutherford's legacy, but things like that were magnetically drawn together, words and places woven like the intricate black lace of the fan that was displayed behind the register.
There are books on the shelves. Coloring books, cookbooks, tall tales of the history of the area ("The Visions of Dustwind Gulch!"), local authors, they inhabited a small library composed of about four shelves with some chapbooks prominently displayed on small black wire holders on the top. On the side are a bunch of maps laid out below a sign that says "Traveller's Delight." Some wag had pinned a "Ask Me About Our Pies!" button from a chain restaurant below the sign, and, well, no one had bothered to remove it.
A disumbrationist painting shares the wall with a bunch of silver and turquoise jewelry.
The sound of Fat Mac opening and closing the door to the back is somewhere between a "thumph!" and a "fwoosh." The air moves across the kitchen. A puff of flour floats for a moment, like a faint powder. A faint smell of apples and ashes wafts back and forth into the shop.
The moon rises, blissfully unnoticed by most.
"If you cast nets for darkness, sometimes you'll catch something." Mr. Navarro was talking with The Professor. Old Man Jenkins was idly pretending he wasn't listening in. Doctor Morris sat near, wrapped up in the second piece of cherry pie he'd ordered. "The deals they make are with devils."
The Professor shook his head. "With the infinite," he corrected. He didn't want Mr. Navarro arguing. Navarro's breathing was weak at best, and arguments often showed the whites of his eyes. Still, they hated to miss a baking night. "Why would one insist on consecrating their hopes and dreams to darkness? Why not to light?"
"Why would an angel bargain? What could we have that they would want?" Mr. Navarro seemed skeptical.
"Besides the daughters of man?" The Professor chuckled. "Knowledge. Mortal experience. Did any angel eat from that apple tree? Of course not. Angels served the Will." He waved his fork tellingly. He had dimples.
"Does Earth not pale in comparison to the delights of Heaven?" Mr. Navarro shrugged, mostly conceding his point.
"Which Heaven? Gan Eden? Who harvests the tree of Knowledge? Really, sir, can you have a meaningful discussion of eschatology in a truckstop diner?" The Professor retaliated with a laugh.
Old Man Jenkins shook his head and leaned back, listening to the angel on his guitar.
"Ever hunt a Unicorn?" Mr. Donnelly asked the man who sat in shadow. He admired the man's charcoal tie, but the amethyst dress his companion wore would look outrageous on the Missus.
The man said nothing, a flickering of darkness dancing across his face.
"I presume you mean something figurative? Representative?" the woman asked. Her smile was odd, as if it extended farther back than most peoples', showing too many teeth.
"Perhaps." If they weren't going to play, neither would he. "Do you know a Ron Oberst? I drove to this godsforsaken place for an appointment. He's stood me up."
The man said nothing, although perhaps he winced at the "forsaken" phrase. "Dreadful breach of hospitality. Did he have an excuse?" His companion picked up her glass, but did not drink from it, merely bringing it up to her lips, and then setting it back down.
"A Unicorn hunt. He amended it, suggesting that he was in the process of intense business negotiations, and seeking something `nearly impossible to find.' That it would be at least a week. I was told..." Mr. Donnelly's voice wavered on this. He doesn't remember who told him, or even how he got in contact with these two, but he continues on with the confidence of someone whose Fate nudges him regularly. "I was told that you two could find something for me. Maybe a Unicorn. Maybe Mr. Oberst."
"Perhaps." This time she did take a sip.