He went downstairs to the basement, turned on the single hundred-watt lightbulb, and fetched a piece of plywood from behind an ancient rattan patio set dating from the fifties. He boarded up the window in his bedroom, Mackie padding at his heels, not making a sound, his ears forward. Mackie was on alert, rightfully so.
Ethan didn’t think he’d sleep with all the questions ricocheting around his brain, and the gnawing concern that Blessed might still be out there, waiting, but he did, Mackie curled up against his neck, his whiskers twitching against his ear.
Ethan smelled coffee. For a moment it surprised him because he never programmed the coffeepot before he went to bed. Was he imagining it?
He sat up in bed. No dream; it was coffee he smelled, real and rich and sinful.
Then he remembered. He leaped out of bed, dislodging Mackie, who gave a pissed-off meow, and ran toward the door. He realized he was wearing only boxer shorts, grabbed his jeans, and jerked them on. He stopped to pull on a sweatshirt and paused in the kitchen doorway. He saw Joanna standing in front of his brand-new Kenmore stove, an egg carton, a quart of nonfat milk, onion remains, and a depleted bag of four grated cheeses he used to sprinkle on his tacos lined up on the counter next to her. He watched her whip the mixture with a fork, then pour it into a heated skillet. The sound of the sizzle, the smell of the butter, made his stomach growl. He realized he hadn’t eaten since lunch the previous day—well, not counting the pizza slice with Autumn. He smelled the turkey bacon microwaving and inhaled deeply. Big Louie and Lula sat on the floor, staring fixedly at the microwave, not moving, waiting for the ping. Mackie threaded through his legs to join his sister and Big Louie in their vigil. Autumn was setting the table. She was saying, “I like these plates, Mama, they’re cute.”
They were a Mexican motif, bright and cheerful, presented to him by his mother three years ago when he’d moved back to Titusville. He’d packed his own very nice Italian service away, and thanked her.
“Don’t forget the milk for the coffee, sweetie.”
Autumn lifted the carton of nonfat milk from the counter and set it on the table. She began folding paper napkins, placing them carefully beside each plate.
It was such a domestic scene, so very normal. It reminded him of years ago when there were three yelling, laughing children banging around the kitchen, ready to eat every scrap their mother served up. It was remarkable. He said from the doorway, “I hope you made three extra slices of turkey bacon for my anorexic pets.”
Joanna dropped the wooden spatula and made a frantic grab for Ox’s Colt, six inches from her hand.
He held out both palms. “It’s okay. It’s me, please don’t shoot me in my own kitchen.”
“Not a problem,” Joanna said. “The clip is empty.”
Autumn froze at the sound of his voice. Then she gave him a huge grin. Big Louie barked, Lula meowed, and Mackie never looked away from the microwave, which pinged a half-second later.
“Good morning, Sheriff,” Joanna said. “I hope you don’t mind our taking over your kitchen.” She opened the microwave door, pulled out the covered plate of bacon, dabbed off the extra grease with a paper towel, and looked down at the animals. They were talking nonstop, at full volume. Ethan took down paper plates from the cabinet and crumbled a single crispy bacon slice on each plate, set them in a straight line on the floor. The barks and meows died, the silence instant.
Her fear was still palpable. How was he to get information out of a woman who was still so scared, still so on edge she’d have shot him? He said, “I’m tempted to join my varmints. Everything smells great.”
“I took coffee and peanut-butter toast out to Glenda and Harm. What a name, where did it come from?”
“Her dad really liked The Wizard of Oz, but her mom insisted on the normal spelling.”
A laugh spurted out. “No, Harm’s name, not Glinda the Good Witch.”
“His granny was always preaching at him to never get ‘In Harm’s Way,’ always spoke it with capital letters. It stuck when he was about twelve. He doesn’t use his real name. Thank you, Joanna, for feeding them.”
She nodded and picked up the spatula, went back to the eggs while Ethan opened cans for the animals. He petted each of them. “Okay, guys, you’ve had your dessert, now go over and eat your main course. That’s a nice name you’ve got, Joanna. Where’d it come from?”
She was weighing how much to tell him; he saw it clearly on her face. He’d love to get her in a poker game, she’d lose her knickers.