The Dark Man


Scene 4

...tap...

Mel opened her eyes and screamed as a face loomed at her passenger window in the darkness. She pushed off the floorboard and tried to scoot away in a panic, but something held her in place.

"Hello?" said the face, showing its teeth. "I'm sorry to startle you."

Heart pounding, her hand found the seatbelt release just as reality settled in to relax her brain a little. She looked at the middle-aged woman with short, dyed-black hair and thick-framed glasses smiling in at her. Mel blinked, looking around her. The rental car, the tree-lined street. Her phone sat in the middle of the passenger seat, next to her purse. She looked in the rearview, saw her suitcase. Running her tongue around her mouth, trying to get rid of the sleepy taste of panic, Mel rolled down her window.

"Hi," said the woman with a slightly strained smile. "I don't mean to interrupt... you. But you've been here for a long time, more than an hour. And it's cold. Are you lost? Is there someway I can help you?"

"I..." Mel didn't know what to say to this. How long had she been asleep? It was dark now, streetlights glowed in the twisted branches overhead. She looked back at the woman, who appeared to have on a bathrobe with furry winter boots. Could the day get more confusing?

"I know, I'm being a buttinsky, but we just don't get that many rental cars on this street." She gave a self-conscious laugh. "In this town, really." Her head tilted toward the open window, a conspirator's joke in her voice. "It's just that small of a town."

"How do you know this is a rental?" Mel snapped, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

"The Enterprise licence frame?" the lady said simply. "Look, I don't mean to presume, but... are you my reservation for today? Are you checking in to the Green Eaves Inn?" She shivered. "It's just that, it gets cold at night, and standing out here. Maybe we could do better inside? Where it's warm." She clasped her pudgy arms around her and gave a showy shivver.

Mel nodded. "Do you have a kitchen? I mean, is there somewhere I can get something to eat?" She looked up at the woman, eyes huge and raw. "I'm so hungry. Plane peanuts just don't do it, you know. And the McDonald's is closed."

The woman pursed her lips, looking down the street, and then back at Mel crouched pathetically in her oversized rental and gave a small nod. "Come, let's get you checked in, and I'll call my nephew. Maybe he'll keep the diner open a little later than usual."

Weak-kneed at the potential of food, diner food, tumbled Mel right out of the car. She trailed her purse, and gave only the smallest of protests as the woman man-handled her suitcase out of the back. Down the street, up the walk, ascending a few steps onto the wide, white-washed porch, and in through the front door. The low light in the front room shone in gleaming hardwoods, primarily an old-timey reception desk and two fancy-scrolled chairs nestled around a table.

The woman ducked behind the counter and turned on a small banker's lamp at the desk. She handed Mel a single page of paper and pointed at a jar of pens. "Please?" she asked with a smile. "And I'll just go call Tad and see if we can catch him before he leaves."

Mel turned her attention to the form, typical boiler-plate stuff: address, phone number, so forth. And then she came to the clincher: how long would she be staying? "Um...? I'm sorry, I don't know your name."

The woman hung up the phone with a winning smile. "That's my fault. I get ahead of myself. I'm Samantha Kersch, owner and manager of Green Eaves Inn." She held her hand out for the form. "And you are M. Reed, according to my reservation bot."

"Melissa," Mel supplied, handing over the form. "I checked off a week on that, because it will probably take at least that long. But, do you think it will be a bother if I need to stay longer?"

Samantha's eyebrows lifted and curiosity dripped into her eyes, but the proprietess kept her lips carefully under control. "Well, let me see. Our township's Spring Festival is in two weeks, and I think we're booked for that. But other than that," she clicked around on a computer carefully concealed in the wood expanse. "Nope, you're room is not booked for the next two weeks."

"Cool. I mean, I don't know if I'll need it that long." And her stomach interrupted with a loud, gurggling protest.

Samantha gave a polite chuckle. "That reminds me, Tad said he'd wait for you. The sign will say closed, so he doesn't get hit with a rush, but just come in and tell him I sent you. The diner's two blocks up, on the right. Main Street Eats. But it's actually on West Street. That doesn't matter, really." She giggled. "I get too much into our town's history, sometimes. Just give a holler when you come back, and we'll get you settled in your room."

Mel turned to go, but paused in a flash of guilt. "I'm keeping you up?" she nodded at the woman's bathrobe.

Samantha smiled, turning her round doudy face into something almost beautiful. "Nonsense. I'm usually up reading quite late. I'm re-reading all the old Woodiwiss novels." She gave a jaunty wink.

Mel blushed, because her mom had loved those old romance books, too. But her grumbling stomach forced her out the door with the promise to hurry back. She decided to just walk the two blocks, rather than risk trying to park that rented behemoth in a tiny lot or something. Bundled as best she could, her breath blowing white puffs of steam, she scurried down the street.

The air felt thick with water, the humidity a cold blanket on any exposed flesh. Within a block, she was rosy-cheeked and determined that her first errand tomorrow would be a decent coat. It was supposed to be springtime, people! But then her stomach grumbled, and she forgot about the cold and rushed the next block as fast as her little flats would slap the sidewalk.

The diner, looking much like any other diner in the world with wide windows and chrome decor, also looked decidedly closed. Although light from the kitchen illuminated the bartop, all else faded into shadow. Horror movies could start in this diner. But the nice lady from the B & B promised there would be food here, and at the moment Mel was ready to fight Jason for a PB & J, so she walked up to the door.

Despite the "Closed" sign on the door, it pushed in without protest. Mel peeked around the opening as the bell overhead rang softly. A head full of curly dark hair popped out of the kitchen window, and then back in.

Mel frowned, and came all the way in, pulling the door closed behind her. "Hello?"

The curly-haired man came out the back, smiling. "Are you the hungry little stray my Aunt Sam took in?" he asked, the smile heavier in his voice than on his face. He had that cool, intellectual rebel look about him. She half expected a rebellious paperback to poke out of his back pocket.

"I would argue the point, but my empty stomach would strangle me." She stepped forward, hand out. "Hi, I'm Mel. Feed me, please?"

He stepped forward, shook her hand over the counter top. "Hi, Mel. I'm Tad Kersch." He had intricate tattoo work all up his arm. She didn't get much of a chance to look, but it seemed like a battle scene with axes. She definitely saw a couple of axes. Nice work, probably a couple of thousand dollars worth of ink. She didn't know that they did that sort of thing in the Midwest; perhaps they were too polite, she thought. "What would you like to eat?"

She grinned. "You probably don't have anything vegan and organic?"

He caught her vibe, tossing a towel over his shoulder, shaking his head. "Maybe a lettuce leaf?"

"Then I guess I'm going to have to ask for a cheeseburger and fries." She slid onto a seat at the bar, her stomach loudly announcing approval of her choice. "If it's not too much trouble?"

He laughed. "You might want to consider a double, with that rumble."

Her smile so wide it hurt her cheeks, she leaned over the counter like a little girl. "Well, if you insist."

"Bacon?" he asked, disappearing back into the kitchen and turning into just a head through the window.

"A must for any proper vegan-associated person on the loose."

"What about a milk shake?"

"Oh, heavens, yes!"

"Strawberry? Or chocolate?"

She gave a sinful laugh. "I now understand the term food porn. Strawberry, please." Her body began to relax in the warmth of the diner. "Any chance you'd make two meals and join me? Let me buy you dinner, for feeding me? Is that too weird?"

He glanced at her, in the thru-window, one dark eyebrow arched high into dark curls. And then he shrugged. "Okay, but you gotta work for it. Get your butt over here and set this stuff up."

She giggled, thinking that food should always be this fun, and ran around the end of the counter, setting up two places at the bar. After a moment, he slid two frothy shakes through the window. "Whipped cream's in the cooler under the counter. I like two cherries on mine."

Mel popped a couple of extra cherries in her mouth while finishing up the deed, sending her poor empty stomach into gleeful childhood memories of sugar and artificial colors. The world was a happy place, right at that moment.

Soon enough, she ran back around the counter to dangle her feet from the barstool and dig into a huge, greasy burger of wonderfulness. Tad preferred to stand and eat, a thing curious to diner workers, he claimed. He watched her tear into the bacon cheeseburger while trailing a few fries through a trough of ranch dressing.

"So, who's the vegan?" he asked with a grin. "Cause it's obviously not you."

Meat dripping heedlessly down her chin, both hands gripping the source of happiness, she mumbled, "Boyfriend. Oh, God, this is good." And tore in for another big bite.

"Boyfriend?" He asked, looking at the large diamond perched on her hand. He was really good at the suggestive eyebrow thing. It would likely annoy her, if she was actually going to be here long enough for it to become a thing.

"Oh, yeah, that." She set the burger down on the plate and used a couple of napkins to wipe her hands clean. A wash of guilt ran through her, but then she decided to squash it with honesty. "I don't know. He's blonde, and pretty, and he comes from a great family."

"Doctor?" Tad asked.

Mel shook her head. "Lawyer."

He nodded, and paused to take a bite of his burger. "For you, I'm guessing art student at Berkeley?"

She laughed. "UCSF, and I graduated a couple of years ago."

"Masters?" he asked.

She nodded, back at the burger. The bacon was perfect. She didn't ever want to put it down again.

"And what kind of gig did that get you?" He sucked on the straw, blinked, looked down at the shake, sucked again. "I made these really thick," he laughed, digging them each out a long iced tea spoon. "Sorry about that. Shakes aren't usually my thing. I do the burgers."

"Yes," Mel said with a grin around a mouthful of beautiful meat. "Yes, you do." She swallowed. "I'm one of about a dozen assistant curators at a minor museum. So, you know, I get to look at pretty things. And do a lot of paperwork. A lot."

"So," he paused to swallow his bite of burger, dabbing at his mouth with a surprisingly dainty gesture. "What is an assistant curator from California doing all the way across the country in the frigid MidWest, with little more than a jean jacket, falling under the oh-so-protective wing of my Aunt Sam?" He pushed back from the counter and peeked through the window. "Wanted to make sure I turned the grill off. Anyway, not that I'm complaining? I've spent my fair share of time under that wing. It works well. I'm just curious."

The burger mostly limp lettuce dribbles and a little bit of bun, Mel leaned back against the low stool back and patted her full and happy belly with a satisfied little burp. "That was amazing, Tad. Really." She belched again, and took a spoonful of shake to help it all settle down. "My mom was from here, originally," she said finally.

"Oh, really?" he said, pulling his head back with surprise.

"Yeah, I mean, I don't know much about it. She never really talked about it, you know, other than the vague term of MidWest. Usually to explain her overly polite tendencies." She chuckled.

Tad laughed, understanding on his face. "Is she here with you? Is she with Aunt Sam? I can make her something and send it with you."

"See?" she laughed and pointed at him. "Overly polite tendencies. No, she's not here. It's just me."

"No boyfriend?" he hit on the word perhaps a touch too hard, and Mel winced, and sat up a little straighter in her seat.

"No, just me. Mom passed away recently, and it turned out there was some business here that needed to be resolved for her estate." That moment of bonding, that connection between them over the breaking of bread and yummy meat, had evaporated. The world came crashing down in Mel's mind, with a lot of painful jabs in the soft parts of her brain.

"So," she tapped the table. "What do I owe you? Can I stay and help you wash up the dishes, or something? I really appreciate you staying open just to feed a starving stranger."

He opened his mouth, a quick answer visible on his tongue. It was going to be smart, and witty, and belittle the moment just slightly. And then he closed his mouth and smiled. "Don't worry about it. Chalk it up to overly polite tendencies."

"No," Mel had her wallet out. "Come on, I actually have cash on me for once. When do you know an artist to have cash and be willing to spend it?" She laughed.

He tossed a towel over his shoulder, dumped their plates and glasses into a bus tray. "Nah." he shook his head of dark and dangerous curls. "Come on, I'll walk you out." He hit the light switch and all but the faintest yellow lights showed the outlines of the diner furniture. "Where did you park?"

"Oh," Mel gasped, feeling a little rushed as she pulled her purse strap over her shoulder while tucking her wallet back into said purse. "I walked. My rental car is so huge, I wasn't sure there would be room to park it."

He laughed, holding the door open for her. "Of course you did. In that tiny jacket." He shook his head. "Let me give you a ride? It's just a couple of blocks."

He smelled warm, as she walked past him out into the night. And that warmth had a warning in it, one that turned the big diamond ring into a solid band of cold pinching her finger. She shook her head. "I can walk it. It's just a couple of blocks." Backing away, holding her jacket closed over her chest, she gave a little wave. "Thanks again, for the burger. It was amazing." And then she turned, and scurried away, before anything else could be said.

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