The Salamander Conspiracy

By Donald All Rights Reserved ©

Scifi / Thriller

Chapter 4

By the time Knox finished securing the new reproductions in the back of his truck, Levinthia’s real assistant, Gail, arrived. When Knox warned her about the Polynesian woman pretending to be Levinthia’s assistant, Gail leaned against an empty glass display case which she was preparing to dismantle.

“And you say she didn’t try to get any money off you?” Gail slipped a pair of safety glasses onto the top of her head.

“No, in fact, she gave me the phone number for Levinthia’s shop up in Blowing Rock.” Knox scratched his cheek with his truck key. He was mildly irritated that Gail made no move to call the police. After all, the woman had been inside the shop when he arrived. “You ought to check your cash register.”

“Levinthia already took it up to Blowing Rock.” Gail squatted behind the display case, pulled a socket wrench out of the purse lying beside her, and adjusted the safety goggles over her eyes.

From the casual efficiency with which she unscrewed the first bolt in one of the metal braces, Knox guessed the woman had been transplanted from a furniture factory. “Sometime in your life, I bet you worked in a cabinet room.”

“Fifteen years at Consolidated.” Gail pulled out the first bolt, fished around on the shelf until she dislodged the nut. “Then nobody wanted to sleep in our bedroom suites anymore.” She twirled the nut back onto the bolt and dropped it into a quart-sized plastic storage bag.

“I got hit the same way.” Knox felt a little jittery. He wanted to eat something, but his favorite late lunch stop was a Steak and Ale on the southern outskirts of Charlotte, about two hours away. “I sold for Consolidated back when times were lush, south Georgia and north Florida.”

Fitting the socket wrench over another bolt, Gail looked up through the glass case at Knox and squinted. “Do you think if you had tried harder we could have kept our jobs?”

“I tried so hard the year before they went out of business that I came home every night with skid marks in my underwear.”

Gail bobbed her head once, emphatically, and snorted. “Then you deserve my gratitude and my sympathy.”

“Don’t you want to call the police?” Knox realized that he hadn’t locked the back of his truck. But he was more disturbed by the idea of Levinthia’s shop having been invaded by a woman who had no business there.

“Because of your skid marks?” Gail dropped another bolt in the bag.

“No. Because you’ve had people who don’t belong poking around the place.” Knox wondered if Gail would be acting so casual if she had met the Polynesian woman, who had to be three times Gail’s size.

Leaning inside the counter to reach the third bolt in the brace, Gail twisted her mouth to one side. “Did she look dangerous?”

“She was big. Like a woman wrestler.” Knox had to admit that when he was talking to the woman, he didn’t feel threatened. In fact, he had thought he could like her even if she was a little aggressive and slightly mocking. He knew that in a town like Hibriten, mocking often indicated an underlying affection. “The conversation I had with her made me think she and Levinthia were close friends.”

“Well, there’s no money here. And after you drive off with all those pictures, and I collect all the oil paint on the shelves, the shop’s inventory will be pretty much gone.” Gail leaned back out of the case and balanced on her haunches. “If she had come to plunder, she probably saw she’d come to the wrong place.”

“But she acted like she knew Levinthia.” Now, Knox felt the first pinch of doubt.

“Levinthia could spark just about anybody’s interest even if they stopped by for a few minutes to buy a tube of cobalt blue.” Gail wiggled the brace she’d been loosening. “You fell under her charm yourself.”

Only half listening to Gail, Knox felt his doubt taking a deeper hold on his stomach. “What if the woman wasn’t here for merchandise but to find Levinthia?”

“Seems to me if she was looking for Levinthia here, then she doesn’t know where Levinthia really is.”

“Will she be coming back down to Hibriten anytime soon?” Knox hoped the small splash of relief provided by Gail’s reassurance would last long enough to get him to Atlanta. “I need to get a check to her.”

“I’m going up tomorrow.”

“Will you give this to her?” Knox handed her the check he’d written after he had loaded up the paintings.

After she’d folded the check and slid it into her purse, Gail picked up her socket wrench and tapped it across her palm. “It wouldn’t hurt your divorce any to go up and visit Levinthia.”

Briefly, Knox’s concern about the Polynesian woman was obscured by concern about his own self-respect. After all, he was renting reproductions from the back of a truck. And there was Levinthia setting up an antique shop in western North Carolina’s most exclusive village. He could tolerate her betrayal. But he didn’t want to risk being bathed in her contempt. Those little touches she’d added to some of the paintings suggested that she was still working out some resentment of her own. Had he really made her feel like a cat on a leash?

“I know what you’re saying, but after seeing all those little nasty additions Levinthia made to some of these reproductions, I think we still need to acquire a little more maturity.” Knox shrugged and tossed his truck key in the air. “Besides, I still have to get all these new pictures inventoried when I get back to Atlanta. It’ll take me hours to get labels on all of them.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want my silly opinion to keep a man from putting labels on his merchandise down in Atlanta.” Gail pulled her safety goggles over her eyes again then adjusted the strap over her ears and along the back of her head.

When Knox reached the outskirts of town, he realized he was too hungry, practically to the point of jitteriness, to drive almost all the way to South Carolina before eating. But that Steak and Ale was his favorite restaurant along that stretch of I-85. Trying to decide which Hibriten restaurant would be worth missing the opportunity for a meal that would most definitely soothe his nerves and his conscience, Knox saw a large, rambling fruit stand set off beside the road, slightly encroaching into the thick forest behind it.

Knox had grown up going with his father mostly to various fruit stands around Lenoir. In childhood, Knox had always found going to such produce markets slightly unsettling. Some of them seemed to spring up overnight in an improvised shed that was only slightly more substantial than cardboard with the transient mood and texture of mushrooms. Often, these more temporary fruit stands sold only two or three types of produce according to what was in season: apples, peaches, pears, cantaloupes, watermelons, green beans. On more than one occasion, Knox’s father would bring home some extraordinarily sweet cantaloupe or tangy pear, and his mother would insist that he go back the next day and bring home another bushel of the produce. However, when Knox and his father would return to the wide place by the road where the two brothers or the old man and his freckled grandson had been sitting beside their pile of melons or crate of cherries, no sign would remain that people in overalls had been there the day before. Maybe Knox would notice a dark stain in the dirt where someone had spit tobacco for ten or twelve hours. But at those impromptu fruit stands, they never saw the same merchants twice.

The fruit stand that had caught Knox’s attention was a much more substantial place of business. Although he couldn’t recall if he had actually stopped at this fruit stand before, it looked and felt familiar. The building, perhaps fifty feet long and fifteen feet wide, had a tin roof and slightly warped, weather darkened plank siding. Stretching along the full length of the building and adding perhaps eight more feet to its width was a heavy-gauge chicken wire porch where the owner of the fruit stand displayed his freshest produce: tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, honeydew melons, and cantaloupes.

As Knox approached the front of the store, he noticed for the first time a truck very much like his own parked at the opposite end of the lot from where he’d parked. The trailer door was open. Scattered around inside the trailer were several pieces of mismatched furniture, three or four tables, wooden chairs, several disassembled beds. Knox wasn’t sure if the disorder in the back of the truck was the result of a looting or a sale that had petered out. While he was certainly not in the market for used furniture, Knox found himself nursing a desire to get a closer look at the contents of that trailer. But he wanted to get back to Atlanta. The odor of peaches and bananas from inside the fruit stand insinuated that he had already delayed attending to business long enough. He thought if he ate two or three bananas and maybe a couple of plums, he could treat himself to a real lunch at the Steak and Ale.

The flooring of the chicken wire front porch was pine sawdust. The mild turpentine scent cradled the sweet golden smell of the cantaloupes. Knox ran his fingers over the burlap texture of the fruit’s skin. It reminded him a little of Levinthia’s hair when she braided it. Back when she was betraying him, he would have said it was the texture of her heart. But now, he didn’t want to think about leaving her alone up in Blowing Rock. Not when he was heading back toward Atlanta. Most likely, she would resent a surprise visit from him. Although Knox had always thought of Blowing Rock as a fairly snobbish place to live, he had seen enough of high society in south Georgia and north Florida to know that even snobs could be sociable, especially with other snobs.

With her new antique shop and her art training, Levinthia could pass for a snob if she wanted to. For at least five years out of seven, she had convinced Knox that she was a dependable wife. He wondered if he had detected the salesmanship of which she was capable could he have adapted to her as a business partner? Well, she hadn’t given him a chance. Instead, she’d used her powers of persuasion to keep him ignorant. Still, he couldn’t help but worry about her, maybe mixed up with a large Polynesian felon.

Knox’s anxiety about his ex-wife instantly dissolved as soon as he stepped inside the main section of the fruit stand because he was overwhelmed by the conviction that he had been in this place before. In addition to bins and tables of produce crowded together, the fruit stand apparently catered to people who liked cheese with their fruits and vegetables. Wheels of cheddar and Swiss cheese had been stacked side by side on a large table next to the entrance. Without needing to look, Knox was absolutely certain that two large cheese slicers with dark wooden handles hung from a nail driven into the end of the table. On the counter that ran along the wall opposite the entrance sat a row of five gumball machines. Although Knox couldn’t swear that these machines were the same ones he’d fed pennies to when he was four and five, he did know for a fact that not since his childhood had he seen gumball machines that contained, among the regular spheres of bubble gum, what were called “lucky balls.” These were gumballs decorated with a paisley design rather than the single color of the unlucky candy. If a child got a “lucky ball,” he won a nickel. For nearly three years, Knox had been addicted to this type of gambling. Eventually, his obsession with “lucky balls” had alarmed his mother and he wasn’t allowed to set foot in any fruit stand that provided lucky ball machines.

“Try a piece of this cantaloupe.”

Knox felt a nudge at his elbow. When he turned around, he first saw a plastic platter stacked with slices from no less than seven or eight cantaloupes. Glancing up from the platter and the large hand pushing it toward him, Knox had to take a shaky step backwards to steady his brain. Smiling down at him stood a dark-haired man, the second Polynesian Knox had met that day. Keeping his eyes on the man, Knox picked up a slice of cantaloupe and balanced it across his palm like a tumescent crescent moon.

“You want some salt?” The dark-haired man shuffled to the side, toward the table of cheese, and rummaged through the wheels, chunks, and slices of cheese. He continued to hold the platter level with Knox’s upper abdomen.

“How much does a slice cost?” Knox glanced all around the fruit stand, wondering if he might be surrounded by escaped Gauguin models. In the back corner of the building, behind a table displaying bananas, coconuts, and pineapples, a narrow door stood halfway open. Given the width of the Polynesian man’s torso, Knox thought he could get through the door, should the need arise, before the other man could work his way through the narrow aisle between the display tables.

“It’s a free sample, brother.” The dark-haired man found the salt shaker.

Turning slightly toward the back door, but keeping his eyes on his host, Knox took a cautious bite from his slice of cantaloupe. The sweetness swept through him like some spice-scented wind through a caravan. Briefly, all of his thoughts melted into scarves on the arms of belly dancers. All he could remember was spring when grass and weeds smelled as sweet as Easter. Knox finished the rest of the slice in three bites. He felt as if “Song of India” had taken over his mouth. Vividly, he recalled those long afternoons beside Lucy’s Field, practicing “The Indian Love Call.” The sweetness of the cantaloupe reminded him of his half hidden wish that Cheryl would hear him practicing and come to listen.

“Take another piece.” The man nudged Knox again with the platter, offering him the salt shaker as well.

Knox took a second slice. “Let me pay for this one.” He raised the fruit toward the Polynesian man as if toasting him. “I have to tell you this is the best cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted.”

“It’s got more than flavor, wouldn’t you say?”

Nodding, Knox took a large bite. After he’d let the sweetness flood through all his physical and mental systems, he inhaled deeply. “It’s like the juice irrigates all my best parts.”

“Like good art.” The man ate a slice of cantaloupe in two bites.

“Only this is great art.” Knox finished off his slice.

“Do you have a long way to drive?” The man picked up another crescent of melon.

“Atlanta.” Knox expected the sweetness to settle into fatigue or dread of the drive in front of him. But the flavor continued to pulse through all of his soft tissues. He wondered if he might be turning orange from the inside out. “Let me pay you for the two slices I’ve eaten.”

“Pay me by having another piece.” The man raised the platter until it was almost level with Knox’s nose. “You have to be driving that other truck in the parking lot.”

Taking another slice of cantaloupe, Knox nodded. “Yep. Been driving it for three years now.” He took a bite of the fruit and had to consciously hold his breath for a few seconds to keep from gasping with pleasure. This time the sweetness plummeted from his mouth all the way down through his groin and into his knees. If a chair had been close enough, he would have collapsed into it from sheer sensuality. For a moment, his voluntary muscles seemed to have dissolved while all of his involuntary muscles had changed into cantaloupe.

When Knox gained some control over his reaction to the fruit, he tried to appear casual. He had to breathe through his mouth in order to dilute the sweetness, but all he succeeded in doing was sucking the flavor deeper into his throat. “That truck with the furniture in it must be yours.”

“Yeah, old man Wingate, who runs this fruit stand, lets me park over in the far corner of the parking lot and sell direct to his customers.” The man tilted his head back and lowered half a slice of cantaloupe into his mouth. “People who buy fruit in a basket like to look at furniture.”

“From the little bit you’ve got left, seems like you had a lot of people doing more than just looking.” Knox took a few steps toward the front of the fruit stand to get a better view of the man’s truck.

“I still got a couple of good pieces.” The man stepped up beside Knox but kept the platter between them. “You need a table? I got this table that a man could use for just about anything, work table, hobby table, card table, dining room table . . .”

“Don’t know where I’d put another table.” Knox glanced down at the slices of cantaloupe. Deep in his stomach, he knew just one more piece would carry him comfortably to the Steak and Ale. “I got to have one more slice of your cantaloupe. Let me buy one last piece from you.”

“It’d make me happier to give you a piece of cantaloupe, but just go take a look at that table. You might decide to buy it, and I’ll add the price of the cantaloupe to the table.”

“What if I don’t buy the table?” Knox went ahead and took the cantaloupe without waiting for the man’s answer.

The dark-haired man set the platter down and wiped his hands on his hips. “What’s private enterprise if a man don’t like to gamble?”

Trying not to look too suspicious, Knox studied the man’s face. He had broad, rather bland features, but they made him look honest—or at least not engaged in any conspiracy. Then, Knox hadn’t felt any need earlier in the morning to doubt the intentions of the Polynesian woman in Levinthia’s shop. Still, just because he knew meeting two Polynesian people in Hibriten on the same morning couldn’t be a coincidence, that still didn’t mean he was wading into a conspiracy. Besides, this guy did have his truck out there, with the trailer open, carting around used furniture. Just in the few minutes that he had been calculating the odds that this man might disappear like the woman did, Knox was mildly surprised to notice that his hunger for the cantaloupe had begun to grow once again.

The man caught Knox’s eye roaming back down to the platter. “If you’ll just inspect what’s left of my merchandise, I’ll let you take the rest of the cantaloupe with you.” He handed the platter to Knox.

Resting the platter along his left forearm, Knox picked up another slice of cantaloupe and took a bite as he turned his attention back to the truck out in the parking lot. The sweetness deployed like a silk parachute inside his mouth. He felt a soft but distinct jolt through his abdomen and shoulders. Knox wondered just how sinister a conspiracy could be that relied upon a cantaloupe to distract the victims. When he was selling furniture in the good times, he’d run into plenty of conmen—among the salesmen and among the store managers. Even in the art reproduction leasing business, he ran into scam artists running banks and building frames. He could smell flim-flam artists across a crowded room. No such odor had attached itself to the Polynesian man.

“I’ll look, but I’m not in the market for any used furniture.” Knox slid the rest of the cantaloupe into his mouth and firmed up his grip on the platter. Raising the platter so he could slip between two bins of cabbage, Knox headed toward the parking lot.

Before Knox passed through the front door, the Polynesian man said, “I’ll make a special deal for you.”

“As soon as you started feeding me this cantaloupe, our deal got special.” Knox aimed his body toward the truck with a resignation more in keeping with a man sighting on a mountain as he tries to walk across a desert. Then he glanced back at the Polynesian man. “You’re not one of my imaginary friends who’s grown up and moved back to Hibriten after all these years, are you?”

“I’m not imaginary, but I have moved to Hibriten.” The Polynesian man belched as he raised the tail of his shirt to show Knox a large tattoo on his stomach. In the very center stood a Tiki figure, its eyes closed. Radiating from the Tiki were clusters of large spirals that broke into smaller spirals, then even smaller spirals, until the tiny spirals on the outermost ring looked like ambitious commas.

“Well, that’s all the proof I need that you’re reliable.” Knox turned back toward the parking lot and found himself sauntering toward the open truck trailer. A song had distilled itself from the flavor of the cantaloupe: When I call to you-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou/Will you answer true-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou-ou. The melody settled into his hips and knees. Usually, he needed about three drinks to feel rhythmic.

Without hesitating, when he reached the truck, he placed the platter carefully on a battered, mission style chair that had probably been used all morning as a step ladder by customers. He picked up one then two slices of cantaloupe to keep him company, but he had to hold one slice with his teeth as he climbed into the trailer. Through the cloud of pleasure that rose from his mouthful of fruit, Knox still took a moment to slide a couple of chairs, mates of the one on the ground holding his platter, against the metal track where the door to the trailer would travel if somebody tried to shut him inside the trailer. By the time that person had pulled both chairs out of the door, Knox figured he could get close enough to the exit to escape. Just a few feet beyond where he stood sat a fairly large toolbox, the lid open, and its top tray loaded with a hammer, three large wrenches, screwdrivers, and a package of hacksaw blades—which meant the bottom compartment of the toolbox probably held a hacksaw. Even if the Polynesian man did plan to trap him inside this trailer, Knox estimated he could improvise some sort of exit with the tools available to him.

Allowing himself only small bites from his second slice of cantaloupe, Knox inspected the few pieces of furniture scattered inside the trailer. They were all pretty basic pieces, nothing exotic, except all the furniture was much older than Knox had expected. Not old enough to qualify as antiques, but too old to appeal to anybody who actually needed furniture for their home. He stooped in front of a four-drawer chest. Like the other stray pieces, the chest was cheap but durable, the way most of Hibriten’s factories used to make furniture. Basically, the chest was square with a raised back cut in a scrolled pattern to give the piece a touch of character, but the design, when cut on laminated wood, carried about as much conviction as a moustache painted on a five-year- old to make him look like a pirate.

Ordinarily, cheap furniture depressed Knox. He’d grown up with second and third best furniture. As a matter of fact, taking a second look at the furniture, Knox realized that the sense of familiarity this furniture stirred up in him wasn’t merely casual and nostalgic. He almost recognized the chest. He turned around, nearly tripping over an end table. Leaning against the side of the trailer were the headboard and footboard of a bed. Knox tilted the footboard toward him and inspected the top edge. From one bedpost to the opposite one, a series of shallow notches scarred the redwood stain. When Knox was in the fourth grade, he’d had bouts of nervousness that led him to chew on the collars of his shirts while he was at school. At home, late in the evening, he’d turn on his transistor radio and stretch out on his bed with his head at the foot. If he’d had a bad day or if he expected to have a bad day, he’d start raking his teeth on the top edge of the footboard.

Knox ran his finger along the footboard propped against his thigh. The marks felt very much like what he’d done to his bed all those years ago. Could his childhood bed have been circulating around Hibriten for this long? Then the memory struck Knox. His bed with the teeth marks had burned in their house fire. This couldn’t be his bed. Lots of kids had nervous disorders. Surely, gnawing on some piece of furniture had to be a common symptom of that preadolescent anxiety. Under certain types of stress, Levinthia used to chew the wooden tips of her paint brushes.

Still, this used bed looked disturbingly familiar. Knox stooped down and dragged his front teeth across a two or three inch path across the wood. At first, the taste came up mostly as dusty. But as his tongue began to unravel the shellac and stain from the wood, a bitterness emerged. It was a taste of old factories, reminiscent of how fresh cement smells when it’s locked up in someone’s basement. It was a taste that made Knox think of fungus and elementary school homework that he wouldn’t do. All the drab flavors of his childhood. But comforting, somehow. Sometimes, he’d absorb enough of the shellac from his bed, that he’d start feeling nauseous. All he could do was get outside. Most often, he’d wind up at Lucy’s Field. The next year, when he started band, he avoided gnawing on his furniture by practicing his trumpet instead.

Backing away from the bed, Knox wondered how much the Polynesian man knew about the merchandise in this truck. If it really was merchandise. How could anyone have restored the bed after it had been reduced to ashes? More importantly, why would someone go to the trouble? Well, the man who needed to be asked these questions was standing less than a hundred feet away.

As Knox turned toward the open end of the trailer, out of the corner of his eye he saw a heart of pine dining room table. The Polynesian man had specifically mentioned tables. This particular table was remarkable for just how ordinary it looked. For a few seconds, Knox tried to hide behind how common such tables had been when he was growing up. Yes, his parents had a table exactly like this one. He slid the table to the center of the trailer so he could circle around this piece of furniture. But at least five other families in the neighborhood had identical tables. Certainly, they had different scars and blemishes, different wood grain, different configurations of stains. But Knox hated to admit that every whorl and wave in this tabletop struck him as familiar. He tapped the wood with his knuckles. The same fire that burned his bed had also destroyed his family’s dining room table.

He had never been back in the house after it burned, but in the front yard where the firemen had piled the charred contents of the house, Knox had found one of the table legs. Although it held its shape, the leg was by no means solid. When he stepped on the leg, it had crumbled under his weight. Although he was eighteen at the time, Knox picked up a small chunk of the table leg and put it in his mouth. When he was four or five, he went through a phase of loving the taste of burned match heads. Both of his parents smoked at the time, so he never had trouble finding a used match. He would nibble off the blackened bulb at the top of the match and crunch the grains of carbon between his front teeth. It was a bitter sweet flavor, much more pleasant tasting than the foot of his bed. The burnt residue of the table leg wasn’t quite as sweet as a spent match, but it did remind him of his friendship with Cheryl. Although they hadn’t been close since they were in the seventh grade, Knox still felt disappointed about her disapproval of him. She’d never been openly critical of him, but he had always liked her and had never fully accepted her conviction that he wasn’t her type. As immature as he knew it sounded, especially to a girl like Cheryl, Knox had assumed that being her neighbor should have granted him some special consideration.

One of his plays for her affection involved this very dining room table. No, Knox reminded himself, not this table but one very much like it. He leaned against the table until one side raised from the floor. Continuing to push against the table, Knox grabbed its edges and lifted it carefully all the way over on its side. He didn’t really expect to find his scratched love note to Cheryl. It had been an odd day, but given time, he believed it could be explained—even the notches on that bedstead.

To speed up his inspection of the underside of the table, Knox stooped down, the pressure on his knees making him feel a wave of dizziness as he scanned for his declaration of love for Cheryl. There, incised with what . . . a nail?. . . was Knox’s message. But no, it wasn’t his message. Knox puffed a breath of relief that was almost a laugh. Then his mind pulled the full meaning of the message together. It didn’t say Knox Loves Cheryl. The message scratched in the wood announced Knox Loves Levinthia.

Knox read the message several times. It could be his childhood scrawl. For that matter, it could be anybody’s childhood scrawl. While it could be his handwriting, although it couldn’t be, Knox was absolutely certain that the message wasn’t his. He hadn’t known who Levinthia was until high school. Cheryl was the only girl whose name he had committed to the wood of his dining room table.

Regardless of how old or authentic the message scratched on the table, what struck Knox was the realization that someone knew him and knew Levinthia. He scrambled to the door of the trailer, jumped to the ground, completely ignored the platter of cantaloupe, and ran across the parking lot to the fruit stand. Only mildly surprised to find the Polynesian man gone, Knox was startled by an old man carrying a roll of toilet paper and a Reader’s Digest, shuffling through the back door. He opened the lid of a wooden chest under one of the vegetable bins and stored his bathroom supplies.

Taking a second to adjust the waist of his pants, the old man studied Knox’s face. “You Knox?” he asked.

“Yes.” Knox let his head sink closer to his shoulders. “How’d you know?”

“The Hawaiian feller told me.” The old man pointed loosely behind him, his thumb curving over his shoulder.

“He went out the back?” Knox took a couple of steps toward the back door but stopped when he realized the old man was blocking his way.

“Looked like he was taking the path down to the city pool.” The old man half turned to look out the back door and rub his chin. “I think he might have told me he’d parked his car down there.”

Knox felt slightly dazed. Looking through the back door, through the trees, he caught a glimpse of the sapphire undulations of the city pool. He’d spent all of his summers trying not to roast his feet and butt on the concrete deck of that pool. And he’d wound his way down from the highway through these same woods, probably following the same path as the Polynesian man.

“But I thought that was his truck out there in your parking lot.” Now it was Knox’s turn to jerk his thumb over his shoulder.

“Not that one you’re pointing at.” The old man leaned over a table loaded with acorn squash to verify the truck. “That truck with the furniture in it belongs to my nephew.” Leaning now in the opposite direction, his hip resting against a bin displaying paper baskets filled with tomatoes, the old man pointed at Knox’s truck. “I don’t know who that other truck belongs to.” He squinted. “It’s got Georgia plates.”

“That one’s mine.” Knox took it as a sign of his growing anxiety when he glanced at his truck just to make sure.

“Did you see anything in my nephew’s truck that interested you?”

“There’s a table out there . . .”

“Your buddy said you was looking for a table.” The old man slid behind the display of squash and followed a narrow aisle toward the front of the fruit stand. “Let’s go work out getting you and that table together . . .”

Only half listening to the old man, Knox started to follow, but he wondered if he shouldn’t be trotting down that path toward the pool. “Did that man really tell you my name is Knox?”

“How else would I know it?” The old man turned back to inspect Knox a little more closely. “He said he was supposed to meet you here. I thought he wanted to consign some fruit with me. He carried in the biggest cantaloupe I’d ever seen. Didn’t offer to sell it, though. Just asked to borrow a knife. While he was peeling it, I had to go to the toilet. He offered to keep an eye on the produce while I was gone.” For a few seconds, the old man looked around his fruit stand. “Seemed like a feller who could be trusted, and I say that about as often as I fry an egg in my armpit.”

“What else did he tell you?” Knox wanted to shout his question, but both of his lungs felt fragile, less substantial than the old man’s toilet paper.

Clearly convinced that this conversation was not leading to a furniture sale, the old man leaned against the door jamb and crossed his arms. “I believe he said he had some business up in Blowing Rock.”

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