I jumped into the driver's seat of my little car and pulled back out onto Elm Street, slipping under the huge shadow cast by the First Presbyterian Church. I knew what I'd find if I went home. My new friend would be waiting. There was really only one option left.
heard Harmonica Jack before I saw him. Jack lives in a converted warehouse on the edge of Greensboro's business district, teetering on the line that divides the gleaming, multistoried office buildings and funky antique shops from the broken-paned abandoned shells of older, once useful warehouses.
I pulled off Elm Street, turned down the narrow alley to Jack's parking lot, and stopped in front of the loading dock Jack uses for a front door and living-room window. I cut the engine and heard the gentle lisp of his harmonica float out into the crisp fall evening. He was playing something slow and sweet and incredibly sad. For a moment I couldn't move, but he saw me, stopped playing, and began to walk toward the car.
His wiry, blond hair stood out in spikes from his head, as if taking off in different directions. He was wearing a faded green-plaid flannel shirt and jeans. Even fully clothed, Jack looked too thin. And he was barefooted. It's being barely sixty degrees, he was begging for a cold.
"Didn't your mama teach you no better?" I called out, pointing to his feet as he stepped closer to the car.
"My mama figured I'd get cold at some point and take care of myself," he said. He peered in the window at me, squinting in the glow of the streetlight that illuminated his tiny parking lot.
"What happened to you?" he asked. "Maggie, your nose is all puffy and it looks like your eyes are turning kind of black."
I tried it one more time. "I ran into a door at the police station," I said wearily.
Jack leaned back, cocked his head to one side, and sighed. "I knew you'd get up with him somehow. I just never figured him for the type to use violence."
I leaned my head against the steering wheel. "He didn't," I moaned.
Jack pulled open the car door and patted my shoulder. "Those doors can take their toll on you, can't they?" he said. "Yep. Gotta keep your eye on 'em. You never know when they'll take it into their heads to attack! Come on inside. I've got just the thing for a door whuppin'."
I didn't even bother to try and explain further. Sooner or later, Jack would pull the whole tale out of me. He always did, after a lengthy session of New Age breathing and transcendental meditation to realign my karma. Jack seems to think I'm uptight. On the other hand, I figure he's spent a little too much time smelling incense and assuming convoluted yoga positions. But he's trustworthy, and he's my friend. He's also a good seven years younger than me. I only mention that on account of sometimes he seems to get ideas, and I have to remind him that a relationship between the two of us would never work.
Jack pulled me up onto the loading dock and into his living room before hitting the door opener that brought the rusty metal bay door sliding down on its hinges. He wandered over to the counter in his tiny kitchen, pulled two wineglasses down from a rack, and grabbed a half-full bottle of red wine from a cupboard.
"There's more to this than meets the eyes," he said, chuckling to himself. "Come on over here."
We walked across the echoing loft, crossing the wooden floor to his living room area.
"Have a seat," he said, motioning to his battered old sofa. He put the wine and glasses down on the coffee table then walked over to the tiny potbellied stove that pumped out heat like a furnace. He fiddled with a knob on the front of the stove, then, when it satisfied him, moved back over to his place next to me on the couch.
"You're in trouble again, aren't you?" he asked. He reached past me for the wine and started to pour it into the glasses. He moved slowly, as if we were having a casual conversation, without a care in the world.
There's something about Jack. Something that makes me tell him the unvarnished truth, something warm that makes me want to curl up inside his confidence. And something else, I just can't quite put my finger on it. It's a feeling I get, every now and again, like there's something I'm missing about him. I don't know. I just know now isn't the time to go looking for trouble.
I looked at the ceiling, then reached for my wineglass. "Jack, I'm in a load of trouble, I think." I looked over at him. "I can't go home tonight, and maybe not for a while. Do you think I could… I mean, I don't mean, but what I need is…"
"Maggie," Jack said, "of course you're staying here. What about Sheila, she coming too?"
I guess sweetness turns me to mush. I spilled it all right then and there: how Vernell was missing; how Marshall did me, and finally, I told him about the Shadow.
"Something's bad wrong, Jack," I finished. "You believe me, don't you?"
Jack set his wineglass down on the coffee table and reached over to take my hand.
"Of course I do, Maggie. Why wouldn't I?"
I sighed and curled my fingers around his. His hand was warm and dry, his grip gentle, yet strong. He believed me, I knew that much.
"We need a plan, huh?" he said.
I nodded and reached for my wineglass, staring out the windows that flanked Jack's stove. Something had moved in the parking lot. I stared harder, trying to isolate the area where I'd seen movement, then shook myself. Maybe it was only a dog, looking for food in the trash can.
"So?" Jack said.
"Don't we need a plan? Don't we need to start talking to people Vernell knows, see if we can find out what's up?" Jack was twirling his wineglass slowly between his fingers.
I saw a flash of dark out of the corner of my eye again. "There's something out there," I said. "Look!"
Jack turned and peered through the window. The parking lot was empty. The streetlight cast a perfect moon of yellow light onto my Beetle. Nothing moved. He stood and walked over to the window, staring hard into the night, then glancing back at me.
"Maybe it was the wind," he said softly.
The "wind" chose that moment to begin banging on Jack's loading-dock door.
"Maggie," Detective Marshall J. Weathers said, "I know you're in there. Please open the door."
Jack sighed and shook his head, then looked at me. "Well?"
I stood up and nodded, facing the huge cargo-bay door. Jack punched the garage-door remote and the heavy metal began to rumble.
The fact that Marshall Weathers had tracked me down to Jack's house was not at all unusual. At one time he had made it his business to know the ins and outs of my life. He knew I'd come to Jack. So that part didn't bother me. What bothered me was that he'd said "Please open the door." Please. That sent a little tingle of alarm moving through my body. Marshall Weathers knew something and it wasn't good. Why else would he be so nice? Nice wasn't usually his style.
The door rose with creaking uncertainty, catching on the cogs and hesitating as it shook its way open. Marshall stood there, still wearing his suit, frowning.
He ignored Jack and stepped onto the ancient wood floor of the warehouse. He looked instead at me, his frown softening.
"Maggie, I'm afraid I have some bad news." My stomach flipped over and a cry tightened my throat. "They've just found Vernell's truck out at the airport. Honey, I'm sorry, but there's a body inside and the description fits Vernell. I'm on my way out now."
I stood there in stunned silence, tears welling up in my eyes and spilling over. Jack stepped up to my side and rested his hand on my shoulder.
"You want me to come look, don't you?" I asked. My voice wouldn't raise any louder than a whisper.