But the phone call was just the beginning. He could not have known what it would do to me.
The parking lot was pure dirt, the building long and low. I killed the engine and entered through a filthy glass door. My hands found the counter and I studied the only wall ornament, a ten-penny nail with a dozen yellowed-out air fresheners in the shape of a pine tree. I took a breath, smelled nothing like pine, and watched an old Hispanic guy come out of a back room. He had finely groomed hair, a Mr. Rogers sweater, and a large chunk of turquoise on a leather thong around his neck. His eyes slid over me with practiced ease, and I knew what he saw. Late twenties, tall and fit. Unshaven, but with a good haircut and an expensive watch. No wedding ring. Scarred knuckles.
His eyes flicked past me, took in the car. I watched him do the math.
Yes, sir? he said, in a respectful tone that was rare in this place. He turned his eyes down, but I saw how straight he kept his back, the stillness in his small, leathery hands.
Im looking for Danny Faith. Tell him its Adam Chase.
Dannys gone, the old man replied.
When will he be back? I hid my disappointment.
No, sir. Hes gone three weeks now. Dont think hes coming back. His father still runs this place, though. I could get him if you want.
I tried to process this. Rowan County made two kinds of people: those who were born to stay and those who absolutely had to leave. Danny was the former.
Gone where? I asked.
The man shrugged, a weary, lips-down gesture, palms turned up. He hit his girlfriend. She fell through that window. We both looked at the glass behind me, and he gave another near Gallic shrug. It cut her face. She swore out a warrant and he left. No one has seen him around since. You want I should get Mr. Faith?
No. I was too tired to drive anymore, and not ready to deal with my father. Do you have a room?
Just a room, then.
He looked me over again. You are sure? You want a room here? He showed me his palms a second time.
I pulled out my wallet, put a hundred dollar bill on the counter.
Sí, I told him. A room here.
For how long?
His eyes were not on me or on the hundred, but on my wallet, where a thick stack of large bills was about to split the seams. I folded it closed and put it back in my pocket.
Ill be out by tonight.
He took the hundred, gave me seventy-seven dollars in change, and told me room thirteen was open if I didnt mind the number. I told him that the number was no problem. He handed me the key and I left. He watched me move the car down the row to the end.
I went inside, slipped the chain.
The room smelled of mildew and the last guys shower, but it was dark and still, and after days without sleep, it felt about right. I pulled back the bedcover, kicked off my shoes, and dropped onto the limp sheets. I thought briefly of hope and anger and wondered which one was strongest in me. Nothing felt certain, so I made a choice. Hope, I decided. I would wake to a sense of hope.
I closed my eyes and the room tilted. I seemed to rise up, float, then everything fell away and I was out, like I was never coming back.
I woke with a strangled noise in my throat and the image of blood on a wall, a dark crescent that stretched for the floor. I heard pounding, didnt know where I was, and stared wide-eyed around the dim room. Thin carpet rippled near the legs of a battered chair. Weak light made short forays under the curtains edge. The pounding ceased.
Someone was at the door.
Excerpted from Down River by John Hart. Copyright © 2007 by John Hart. A Thomas Dunne Book for St. Martin's Minotaur. All rights reserved.
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No Man's Land
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Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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