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3 - Mel's Bar & Grill

The dinner crowd was heading out of Mel’s just as the sun set over Bayou Bonhomme, which meant that the serious drinking crowd was already there to stay or else on their way. Mel was short for Melissa, but the bar had originally belonged to her daddy, whose Christian name had been Elmer, but had always gone by Mel. When Melissa’s father died back in that weird summer in ‘98, Melissa, who had hated being called Mel, took the name anyway as a tribute to her daddy, and ran the place as good as he ever did; maybe better. It took a while before the locals afforded her the same respect they did her father, but after she broke up a skirmish between the Fontenot brothers and some poor tourist with nothing but her fierce disposition and an empty bottle of Jack Daniels, people stopped referring to her as Cute L’il ‘Lissa and started calling her Mel. She didn’t stand but five foot nothing, but when she was in a mood she seemed to swell to almost six foot five, at least.

She was in a mood that night, and there were a few causes. The heat, for one – if ever there’d been a summer like this one, Mel had no recollection of it, and even the faint breeze coming off the Bayou wasn’t giving any relief. But it wasn’t just the heat – or at least, not the temperature. No, there was something in the air – something sickly and uneasy, and nobody talked about it, but it showed in the faces of everyone who walked in her doors. They still hadn’t found that boy, or his dog. Not a trace was the last word she’d heard. She was growing tired of hearing about it – oh, she wasn’t unsympathetic – she was deeply concerned. But each and every one of these sad sacks that walked into her place was talking about it, and while they could walk away and go somewhere else, Mel had to hear it all. All the gruesome theories, and the conjecture and innuendo – it was making her feel ill.

Then there was Victor – Varney, the locals called him, on account of his… condition. Varney worked only evenings, and then cleaned the place up after everyone cleared out. A town this small, with his special needs, it was lucky he’d found a job at all, but Mel’s father had felt sorry for the boy and Mel didn’t have the heart to cut him loose, even if he was generally unreliable, and a little creepy, to be honest. As usual, he was late, and Mel tried to understand, but tonight Leroy was supposed to be coming by to pick up his weekly cases of beer, and Mel had no energy to deal with that scoundrel.

Mel had always known that her daddy did business with Leroy Angell, but she also knew her daddy never trusted the man.

“Somethin’s not right with that one,” Mel Sr. told her once after a meeting with Leroy. “I can’t rightly say what, but I don’t trust a man who talks with one voice to some and another when he’s at home. Nossir.”

Mel thought there was more going on with Leroy Angell than her father ever suspected. For one, she’d never known any woman (nor man, for that matter) that’d taken up with Leroy, and for a town as small as Bonhomme, well, that just wasn’t right. It’s not like he wasn’t good looking – he wasn’t bad. A mite thin for Mel’s taste, but then, she always did like a little squeeze to her man.

Then there was that BBQ shack of his – people came from miles around just to eat at that shithole, and Mel couldn’t get her head around that for the life of her.

Mel was interrupted from her reverie by the very devil she’d been thinking of calling her name from the open front door.

“‘Ey Melissa, you wanna send ol’ Varney out back so’s I can load up?”

“He ain’t here yet, Leroy,” Mel said, hoping the man would go away. “Why don’t you come back tomorrow night?”

Leroy wandered into the bar and sat down in front of Mel. He looked at her not unkindly and told her he’d wait if it were all the same with her.

Mel nodded and poured him a beer and placed it in front of him.

“I ain’t got time to chit chat, Leroy, sorry ‘bout that – ‘til Victor gets here it’s just me behind the bar.”

“That’s okay, cher,” Leroy said, slipping into a bit of Creole like it was a pair of slippers. “I’ll just sit a spell and enjoy the… heh… ambiance.” He pronounced this last word the way his great-great-grandfather might have.

Mel knew when she was been poked fun at, and she didn’t appreciate it. She just smiled and went about her business, ignoring Leroy. Mel’s wasn’t much to look at to be sure, but it was her name over the door, and more importantly, on the deed, and she never had any complaints about the food or the service.

“When are you gonna hire another bartender, Mel?” One of the permanent residents of Mel’s barstools asked. “No one wants that ghoul behind the bar.”

Leroy stifled a little Chuckle, and added, “I hear the Chief’s daughter’s looking for work.”

“Ah, shit, Leroy,” the man responded with a laugh so hard he had to spit out his beer. “That girl’s dumber’n a toad!”

“Ah, be fair, you!” Leroy said, hamming up his secondhand Creole.

“The girl’s a bonne a rienne, that’s all I know,” the old barfly said between gulps of his beer.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Leroy said with a lascivious grin, “I can think of a couple of things she might be good for.”

The other man seemed to consider this, and then laughed in agreement.

“Y’both are pigs,” Mel said. “And you ought to be ashamed of yourself, Vic. Your own daughter and Celine were in diapers together.”

Vic, the old barfly flushed in mild embarrassment, and then downed the rest of his beer and motioned for another. The moment had passed, and Vic would leave a larger tip than usual. He respected Mel’s father, and he saw the same grit in his daughter.

“Any word on that lost boy?” Leroy asked. Mel figured it had taken him long enough.

“Why are you asking me?” Mel replied. “Way I hear it, you’re on the suspect list, Leroy.”

“Zat so?” Leroy asked mildly, and then shot her a thin smile that reminded Mel of a gator she was unfortunate enough to meet face to face one night when she was just a teenager. She was lucky to escape with her life, if not her looks. Men said it gave her character, but Mel knew that the five-inch scar that nearly missed her left eye and traced her cheekbone wasn’t likely to land her on the cover of Pretty Girl magazine any time soon. Leroy looked at her just like that gator had, and Mel knew in her bones that this man was just as cold, just as dangerous.

“Ah, the Chief’s got his head up his ass,” Mel said, trying to turn her remark in her favor as just an off-hand joke. “Plenty o’ room up there, anyway.”

Leroy just smiled that cold, thin smile, and Mel nervously smiled in return. The sound of Varney’s seemingly ancient Buick pulling up around back saved her more discomfort. There was no mistaking that bucket of bolts, held together (in some ways quite literally) with elastic bands and duct tape.

“I’ll tell Varney you’re waiting,” Mel said, and turned to leave the thin man’s chilling glare.

“You do that, cher,” Leroy said, still grinning and glaring. “You do that.”

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