O is for Outlaw Page 82


TWENTY.

I cruised through the parking lot across from the Honky-Tonk and miraculously found a space about six slots down. It was not quite nine, and the Saturday night boozers were just beginning to roll in. The Tonk wouldn't start jumping until ten o'clock when the band arrived. I crossed the street, pausing while a red-and-white panel truck idled near the garbage bins. No sign of the driver, but the logo on the side read PLASSTOCK. I could see that second-floor lights were on in the building. Shifting shadows suggested someone moving around up there.

I continued on across the street, approaching the bar from the rear. Idly, I tried the back door, but it was locked. I guess it would be hard to insist on a cover charge out front if wily patrons could go around the back and get in for free. I moved to the front entrance. The bouncer remembered me from the night before so he waved off my ID and stamped the back of my hand. This was the third night in a row I'd checked into the place, and I was feeling like a regular. During the period when Mickey and I were married, we were here four nights out of seven, which didn't seem odd at the time. He hung out with other cops, and that's what they did after work in those days. I was with Mickey so I did what he did as a matter of course. The Honky-Tonk was family, providing a social context for those of us without any other close ties. Looking back, I realize what an enormous waste of time it was, but maybe that was our way of avoiding each other, bypassing the real work of marriage, which is intimacy. I'm still lousy at being close, having so little practice in the past umpteen years.

I found a stool at the bar and ordered a beer. I sat with my back to the mirrored wall of glittering liquor bottles, one elbow on the bar, a foot swinging in time to whatever anonymous music played. I spotted Thea at just about the same time she spotted me. She held my gaze for a moment, her features drawn and tense. Gone was the leather vest that had exposed her long bare arms. In its place she wore a white turtleneck and tight jeans. Her belt was silver, the buckle shaped like a lock with a heart-shaped keyhole in the center. Preoccupied, she took an order from a table of four and then crossed to the bar, where she chatted with Charlie briefly before she moved toward me.

"Hello, Thea," I said. Close up, I realized she was pissed as hell. "Are you mad about something?"

"You can bet your sweet ass. Why didn't you tell me about Mickey? You knew he'd been shot and you never said a word."

"How'd you hear?"

"Scottie's father told us. You talked to me at least twice so you could have mentioned it."

"Thea, I wasn't going to walk in here cold and make that announcement. I didn't even know you were friends until you asked about his jacket. By then, I figured there was something more going on."

She shot an uneasy glance at a table near the poolroom door where Scottie was sitting, facing two men who had their backs to us. He'd apparently been watching us across the room. As if on cue, he excused himself to his companions and got out of his chair, then ambled in our direction with a beer bottle in his hand. I couldn't help but notice the change in his appearance. His mustache was neatly trimmed, and he'd shaved his goatee. He was also better dressed, nothing fancy, but attractive, cowboy boots, jeans, and a blue denim work shirt with the sleeves buttoned at the wrist. I thought he'd cut his hair, but as he drew near I could see he'd simply pulled it back and secured it in a rubber band.

Thea murmured, "Please don't say anything. He'd kill me if he knew."

"What time are you off? Can we meet and talk then?"

"Where?"

"What about that twenty-four-hour coffee shop over by the freeway?"

"Two A.M., but I can't promise By then, Scottie'd reached us and we abandoned the exchange. His smile was pleasant, his tone mild. "Hi. How are you? I understand you're a friend of my dad's. I'm Scott Shackelford." He held out his right hand and we shook. I saw no indication that he was stoned or drunk.

"Nice meeting you," I said. "Tim told me who you were, but I didn't have the chance to introduce myself. "

He put his left arm around Thea's neck in a companionable half nelson, holding the beer bottle just in front of her. The gesture was both casual and possessive. "I see you know Thea. How're you doin', babe," he said. He kissed her affectionately on the cheek.

Thea's eyes were on me as she murmured something noncommittal. She was clearly not all that crazy about the choke hold.

He turned back to me, his tone now tinged with concern. "We heard about Mickey. That's a hell of a thing. How's he doing?"

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