Today's Reading

'And what was going on this morning? Were you at your hotel?' 

'No, no. We were at a show. Breakfast Buckaroos. On the Strip.' 

Hank hadn't heard of that one. Which didn't mean anything. Like most locals, he avoided the Strip  that traffic-saturated four-mile stretch of Country Boulevard packed with theaters and kitsch as much as he could.

'And how was your husband feeling when you left for the show?'

'Just fine. Everything was fine. Everybody got on the bus we're always the first ones on, due to Milt's wheelchair and all. And I didn't take any food.'

She suddenly started to cry, tears blurring her already rheumy brown eyes. She took off her glasses and swiped at her face as Hank scrambled for a napkin. She took it with a sniffle and shaking hands. By the time she collected herself, her soup was cold. She dropped her spoon onto the tray with a moan. The poor woman had no reserves left. He'd planned to ask about her husband's diabetes and who made the decision to call the ambulance, but that now seemed unwise. Instead he concentrated on easy details: the name of the hotel, the tour company, their hometown.

They were from Wichita. Most folk on the bus were, too, not that they knew them before or anything, she said. The Breakfast Buckaroos show was a regular stop on the tour, as far as she could tell. So she couldn't figure out why they made such a mistake with the timing and took so long to feed them.

'Wait so you didn't get breakfast?' That seemed a reasonable expectation to Hank. After all, the show wasn't called the Mid-Morning Buckaroos.

'That's why he got sick. His blood sugar... I should have brought his snacks...' She trailed off, in need of another napkin. Hank got her one, waited for her to mop up her face, and coaxed her into finishing her soup. Then he asked about family. They had a son in Harrisonville, south of Kansas City. Helen hadn't called him because she couldn't find the number. She pulled her phone out of her purse and helplessly handed it over. Hank took it and scrolled through her contact list.

'I think you just made a little typo there "Saron" instead of "Aaron".' He pointed at the small smartphone's screen, and she started sniffling again.

He assured her that people made that kind of mistake all the time and dialed the number. Once she started talking to 'Saron', which was going to be at least a three-napkin conversation from the sound of it, he leaned back and considered things. He had meetings all afternoon but would get to the hotel and the Breakfast Buckaroos theater as soon as he could. First on his list, though, was the tour operator, with whom he'd be having some strong words. You don't sell a travel package to two old people this unable to manage for themselves and then abandon them at the first sign of trouble.

They always met in the park after work. Once every week or two, arriving from different access points to the Lakeside Forest Wilderness Area and rendezvousing by a rock outcrop that shielded them from views in all directions but one. The dark winter evenings had helped as well, but now it was staying light later. At least the spring foliage was coming in. That provided a little bit of cover at the one angle through which they could be seen. They never spent more than five minutes together, but it was enough.

Earl Evans Crumblit would bring along birdseed, which Sheila had to admit was brilliant. He wandered around like he'd taken it upon himself to ensure that the entire population of squirrels didn't starve. She had no such props. She was a fifty-two-year-old Black woman in Branson County, Missouri. There was nothing she could possibly carry that would make it look like she belonged.

She got to the outcropping and watched as the department's civilian jail clerk scattered stuff everywhere as he walked toward her. She suspected he was doing this less for the welfare of the department and more for the chance to act out a white-man Cold War spy novel. That was fine with her. She'd take the information any way she could get it.

She had scheduled this evening's meeting a little bit ago, when she thought the new recruits would have a few days under their belts. But Hank, the damn softie, had given the kids those days off after their academy graduation. So now they'd been on the job less than a day too soon for much scuttlebutt to have developed.

'Oh, Lord, that ain't the case, ma'am. All those boys had to do was get a look at them.'

Sheila pinched the bridge of her nose, but it had no effect on the ache starting to form there. 'What exactly do you mean by that?'

'They were sizing them up. Chitty-chatting about it as they were leaving work. And I just happened to be on my break out by the back door.' He grinned. Despite her creeping headache, she smiled, too. It didn't last long.

'They figure they got a bead on all three,' Earl said. 'The little guy will be easy to intimidate. Stevenson was laughing  saying that it'd take three of the small fella to equal Bubba. They should just push him around some, let him know who's the real bosses.' Sheila sighed. Should she deliver a specific warning to poor Gillespie? It might just scare him and a scared mark was an even more inviting target.

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