Following the stilted British intonations of the GPS, Lilli turned off the interstate and made a left at the light at the bottom of the ramp. Another five miles or so down a lazy, neglected stretch of macadam, nothing to either side of her but farmland, and she passed a wooden sign offering her a “Welcome to Signal Bend!” She figured the sign had once been quaint, brightly painted, with a vaguely Scandinavian aspect, but it had been some years since it seen any upkeep. The welcome it offered seemed weary.
She followed the GPS into Signal Bend, Missouri. The whole town seemed as weary as its welcome sign. Lilli supposed it was a typical Midwestern town, just far enough from the limits of a city to be rural, but just close enough that the suburban spans of superstores, megaplexes, and gallerias drained the life from the local economy. A geographical limbo that meant a long, slow, weary death for most towns.
She could see that it had once been bustling, and a few blocks of the main drag were making an attempt to capitalize on its quaint history, with antique shops, a couple of cafes, and an actual ice cream parlor lining the street on both sides. But there was a grimness under the pastel surface. Lilli had come to know towns like this pretty well.
She pulled up in front of a small green bungalow with a large picture window dominating the front of the house. The door was mostly glass; a sign proclaiming “Come In, We’re OPEN!” hung from a suction cup in the middle. Painted in gilt on the picture window, the words “SIGNAL BEND REALTY, MAC EVANS, BROKER” told Lilli she’d arrived at her destination before the GPS figured it out and announced the same. She turned off the portable unit and slid it into the pocket of her leather jacket.
As she closed the door on her black 1968 Camaro SS, she was startled by a thunderous roar of engines behind her. Three men on huge black Harleys turned the nearest corner and headed down the main drag—which was called, appropriately, Main Street. They wore basic black helmets, black sunglasses, and black leather kuttes. The rider in the lead, bigger than the others, with a dark full beard and a dark thick braid running down his back, noticed her ride, then noticed her, and nodded, giving the throttle a little goose, all in the span of time it took to roll past her.
Patches covering the backs of the three men’s kuttes declared that they were the Night Horde Motorcycle Club, of Missouri. Their emblem was a fiery, rearing stallion. Lilli smirked. Subtlety did not tend to run deep in the MC world.
She turned back and headed into the realtor’s office.
The office was obviously a converted house, with the living room apparently serving as the reception and main work area. It still had the air of a home, with floral wallpaper and a dark green, sculpted carpet that had been around awhile. There was a small desk right inside the door; Lilli assumed it was for the receptionist, or the secretary, or the assistant, or whatever they called the likely underpaid, likely young woman who usually sat there. It was empty now. She didn’t see anyone, in fact. There were two other desks deeper in, but neither was occupied.
“Hello?” she called out.
From even deeper in, she heard a man’s voice call, “Yeah—one sec!”
In more like 60 seconds, the owner of the voice trundled into view. “Hi—Lillian, right? I’m Mac.” He held out his hand.
Lilli shook it. “It’s Lilli. Hi.”
She had never met Mac Evans in person, so she took him in now. He was average in almost every respect: say, mid-40s, about her height, so five-nine or so. Slightly balding, light brown hair, cut in a classic, conservative style that had been around since at least the middle part of the last century. Rimless glasses over brown eyes. Little beer gut forming. Wearing khaki Dockers and a pink oxford shirt. Lilli saw a navy blazer hanging on the back of the largest chair behind the largest desk in the room. The only feature by which Mac might leave any memorable impression at all on most observers was his nose—large, long, wide, and hooked, with nostrils probably an inch long. It drew one’s eye, to say the least.
“So, Lilli. Why don’t we sit. I’ve got a few papers for you to sign, and then I can hand over the keys to the rental. You’re sure you don’t want me to head over with you, do a walkthrough, make sure everything is as promised before you sign?”
She was sure. She was signing regardless, and she wanted to get the keys and get started. She sat in the chair facing his desk. “Nope, I’m good.” She smiled at him. “I trust you.”
He smiled back, charmed. Guys like Mac were easy to charm. “Well, that’s refreshing. The world needs a little more trust, if you ask me. And you won’t be sorry, I promise.” He passed the few papers she needed to sign to finalize her rental agreement, and, when she signed and passed them back, he handed her two keys on a ring with a glow-in-the-dark plastic fob. “The brass key is the house key, the silver the garage.”
Lilli took the keys and stood. Mac walked her to the door. “Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“Actually, yes.” She smiled again. “I’d love a recommendation for a good place for breakfast. I didn’t even see a McDonald’s as I was coming into town.”
“Nope, no McDonald’s. Not a lot of those chain places here in Signal Bend. We have the A&W; that’s about it. Oh, and the 7 Eleven, for gas and sundries. Where you really want to go for breakfast or lunch is Marie’s. Good pies, fresh baked daily. And the fluffiest waffles you ever will eat. For dinner, there’s the Chop House. Those are my recommendations.” He gave her what Lilli figured was his best flirty smile. “In fact, I’d be happy to buy you dinner at the Chop House tonight, welcome you to town.”
“Wow, Mac, that’s really great. But I’ve been driving all day. What I really need is a quiet night. Rain check?”
He took the rejection in stride. “I’ll hold you to it. You have a good night, now.”
Thus released, she went back to her car and drove to her new home.
It was a prefab, a glorified double-wide trailer, elevated from trailer park status by the fact that it was attached to a foundation. She had rented it without seeing it in person, because the satellite photos she’d found online showed it was tucked back into woods, with the nearest neighbors a good half mile away. It was rented furnished. It had a large, detached garage. And it was in the right location.
She parked her Camaro in front of the garage doors. No remote opener. So she got out, unlocked the door, pushed it up, and drove in. She pulled her duffels out of the trunk and headed in to check out the digs.
It was clean, and smelled as if it had been recently aired out. Mac had had the place prepped for her. She was impressed, she had to admit. The place was sparsely but adequately furnished in a random style that Lilli immediately thought of as 1970s garage sale chic. She took her duffels and dropped them in the largest bedroom. It had a small en suite ¾ bath. Must be the “master suite.” Funny.
There were linens and blankets stacked at the foot of the bare queen-size mattress. But no. Lilli would not be using linens for which she didn’t know the history. Sheets she had packed, but she was blanket-poor. She’d pull her bedroll out of the car for tonight, and she’d find a place she could buy a couple of blankets, maybe a bedspread, tomorrow. She needed to stock the kitchen anyway.
Tonight, though, she meant to drive around a little, find a burger—not at the Chop House—and start getting to know the town. Maybe find a bar. Even the shittiest towns at least had a bar. The shittier the town, the livelier the bar, in her experience. People with shitty lives liked their beer on tap.
She went into the en suite bath and gave her face a quick splash, then checked her look. She’d do.
The GPS was no help to her finding local businesses. If it could have shrugged at her, it would have. So Lilli simply drove around, got to know her surroundings the old-fashioned way. It was better, gave her bearings much more quickly.
She found a couple of diners and cafes, but at 9:30 in the evening, they were already closed. She found the Chop House, but wanted to avoid that in case Mac Evans had kept his taste for steak even after she declined his invitation to dine with him.
There wasn’t a lot of traffic on the roads. This was the kind of town where the few traffic lights still swung from wires strung across the intersections. These people mostly kept farmers’ hours. 9:30 was the deep dark of the night. Even the streetlights seemed dim and sleepy.
Eventually, though, she came upon a brightly-lit building that screamed old-style honky-tonk. It had the clever name of “No Place.” The gravel lot was more than half full on this mid-week night, and there was a line of bikes, all big, black Harleys, arrayed near the front door. When Lilli stepped out of the Camaro, she could hear the music coming through the walls: high-steppin’ country. No surprise. Didn’t sound live—that was no surprise, either, on a weeknight in the sticks.
She ran her hand over her long, dark ponytail and strolled on in. Hopefully, they had a kitchen that stayed open to feed the hungry drunks, but at this point, Lilli would be content with a bowl of stale peanuts.
The music was coming from a jukebox, a huge Wurlitzer in the far corner. Lilli was sort of impressed by the sound quality, as if someone had figured out a way to juice it up. Garth Brooks was singing about his friends in low places.
The setup was pretty standard: wood floor, wood walls, country-style wood tables and chairs. Long, dark, L-shaped bar, scratched and gouged from years of hard use, darkened by years of spilled booze. Big mirror on the wall behind it, the booze arrayed on glass shelves on the mirror. Straight off the Universal Studios lot. Add some swinging louvered doors and a spittoon, lose the Wurlitzer, and sit back and wait for Wyatt Earp to stroll through.
Well, except for the big, hand-lettered sign on the mirror that admonished: “This Is A CASH ONLY Establishment: Save Your Fucken Plastic For The Mall.”
The place was doing some brisk but not overwhelming business. Most of the tables were occupied, mostly with the typical farmland types—grungy John Deere caps, dark red, lined faces. Not a lot of women, Lilli noticed. Those around were, on average, fuller figured and dyed. Lots of plaid and denim. Lots of draught beer. This was definitely not a pick up joint. It was a place for hard-working men to get drunk. Lilli noticed sandwiches and baskets of fries on several tables. Score.
She went to the bar, which was crowded with the owners of the Harleys out front—a row of six men, all wearing kuttes with the same patch: the Night Horde MC. Three of the men were leaning with their elbows on the bar; the other three were leaning back against it, keeping an eye on the room. One of those was the man she’d noticed riding down Main Street with a couple of his brothers earlier in the day.
He was watching her.
She made eye contact with him, and he nodded and lifted his beer bottle. No beer on tap for him, it seemed. She wasn’t sure whether he was acknowledging that he recognized her from earlier, or whether he was simply letting her know that he’d noticed her. She supposed she did stand out a bit in this crowd. She walked to the end of the bar, where there was an empty stool. The bartender, a curvy, very-not-natural redhead showing a huge rose tat on lots of cleavage, came right down and asked for her order.
“Any chance the kitchen’s still open?”
The bartender looked over at the old, animated beer sign on the wall. It would be “vintage,” except Lilli was pretty sure it had been hanging exactly there since it had been brand new. There was a clock embedded in it. “Fifteen more minutes. What can I get ya?”
“Just a cheeseburger and fries. And a bottle of Bud. Thanks.” The busty bartender offered an approving nod, popped the top on a Bud, and handed it to her before she went back to push the swinging door to the kitchen open and yell in her order.
Lilli took a long swallow of the cold, soothing brew. Bud might not be the smoothest or the fanciest beer around, but it was the King of Beers, after all. She felt a tingle up her back and turned quickly to find the Biker Man coming up on her. Despite his general mien of menace, he wasn’t casting an especially aggressive vibe, so she leaned back on the bar and watched him come. He stopped directly in front of her and took a pull of his beer. He was wearing black leather cuffs on his wrists and three big silver rings on each large hand: thumb, middle finger, ring finger.
He was tall—really tall, at least six-five, maybe more. Broad shoulders, with the firm swell that indicated real definition under his kutte—a kutte with several patches on the front, one of which, on his right side, read “President.” Top of the food chain, then.
His beard was dark and full; his hair, in that thick braid halfway down his back, was also dark and full. Vivid green eyes. Long scar running up and across the left side of his face, from just under his nose to his temple.
He had her attention, definitely.
“You set?” His voice was deep and rumbly. Of course it was.
Lilli lifted her bottle and waved it a bit. “Yep. But thanks.”
He winked. “I’ll get the next one, then.” He took another swallow, killing his beer. Leaning in on her to set his empty on the bar, his head near her ear, he said, “I’m Isaac.” Lilli could smell the leather of his kutte.
When he stepped back, she smiled at him. “Hi, Isaac.” Without saying more, she drank some beer.
Isaac grinned. It was lopsided, lifting the right side of his face. Lilli liked a lopsided smile. “You know, when someone introduces himself, it’s customary to return the favor.” Still smiling, she raised her eyebrows, but said nothing.
“That how you’re playin’ it, huh? I guess I could call you Sport. That was you today, in that Camaro SS, right?”
“It was.” It would be silly to prevaricate here; the town wasn’t big enough to try to stay under the radar. But she wasn’t about to do more than answer his questions as minimally as possible until she had gotten a good read on him.
“Nice ride. Lotta car for a girl. You were at Mac’s. You movin’ to town?”
Lilli now understood that this was more than small talk going on here. He wasn’t just trying to get into her jeans—though she was sure he’d do that, too, if he could. He was feeling her out. His town. New resident. He was trying to understand why she was here, where she’d fit. Whether she was a threat.
“Not many people move to Signal Bend. If you’re looking for work, won’t find it.”
“Damn, girl. You got a two-word limit on your sentences or something?” Just then, her burger and fries came out. The bartender brought the food out in two red plastic baskets lined with red-and-white checked paper. She set ketchup, salt and pepper on the bar as well.
“Get ya anything else?”
“Get her another Bud, Rose. And me. And put it all on my tab, hon.”
Rose—the busty bartender with the big rose inked on her chest—gave Isaac a knowing grin. “You bet, Ike.”
Ike, huh? Lilli turned back to him. “Thanks, Ike.”
“It’s Isaac. Some around here call me Ike. Never liked it, but it stuck young. You call me Isaac.” Rose brought them fresh Buds as Isaac sat down on the stool next to hers and shook salt, pepper, and ketchup onto her fries. When she shot him an incredulous look, he grinned. “Hey—I paid for ‘em. You’re sharin’.”
Lilli conceded with a nod and proceeded to share her dinner with the tall, dark, and menacing biker who’d bought it for her.
“This your version of a Welcome Wagon? You share fries with all the new people in town?” She took a bite of her burger. Oh—it was really good. Just rare enough in the middle, nice and juicy. The bun was soft and fresh.
He grinned around a mouthful of fries. “Oh-ho! She speaks in complete sentences!” He finished chewing. “No, Sport. This is special, just for you.”
“And I warrant special treatment because . . .?”
“I like the look of . . . your ride.” With a shrug, he took the burger out of her hand and had a bite.
She looked down the bar at his MC brothers, all of whom were watching the show. Apparently their President sharing a nosh with the new girl in town was some kind of noteworthy. She’d known staying off the radar would be impossible, but she had hoped to keep a lower profile than this.
Looked like she was going to have to play things another way.