Stacy didn't give Rick another glance, just went upstairs. A little while later she heard guitar music. Too tense to wait any longer, she crept downstairs, pocketed the door key, grabbed her coat, and left by the front door. It was a long walk to the Slocum's, but she couldn't chance Rick hearing the car and following. Not until she knew whether he was connected to Lloyd. She doubted Cobb was aware of Rick.
Walking also eliminated the need to hide the car. The moon had risen over the eastern peak and lent plenty of illumination to guide her down the short cut, or, should it become necessary, through the woods. Moonlight, in conjunction with the brilliance of crusted snow, created an easy path on the road, glittered from thick groves of evergreens and reflected off leafless hardwoods. Her nervous hurry had taken her a quarter mile when the ever-present cold made her realize she'd forgotten her hat and gloves. She hesitated, then a shrug sealed her decision to keep going.
But she had miscalculated how long it took to walk to Cobb's. And badly underestimated how far the mountain temperature dropped at night. Long before she neared his house she acknowledged continuing without them had been a mistake, but walked on, ignoring increasing warning signals from her body.
In the driveway, beside the open doors of the Bronco and the black Chevy, were Lloyd and Cobb, engaged in a violent argument.
Now as annoyed with moonlight as she'd been appreciative, Stacy moved along the tree line, but stayed near evergreens. Preoccupied with chest-pushing, Lloyd and Cobb were unaware of her, but their argument ceased abruptly when headlights preceded an aging brown pickup down the driveway. The truck was left idling, lights on, but a nervous-looking Dougie Ray Stocker walked to the Slocums.
Unable to distinguish words, Stacy moved closer, until she stood in the shadow of an ancient spruce. Here she could see all three men, hear every word.
Dougie Ray kept his hands in the pockets of his tweed coat, and spent most of the time looking at the ground. "I tried to tell Lloyd I couldn't afford that rocker. He talked me into buyin' it anyways."
Cobb smiled. "You don't got to apologize, Dougie Ray. Me and Lloyd was just discussin' it. Bring it back and we'll forget the whole thing."
Dougie Ray shook his head. "No. I'm keepin' the--my chair."
Cobb cocked his head. "How's that again?"
Dougie Ray's eyes grew round and wide, and he stared at Lloyd, then blurted, "I seen what you did."
Lloyd glanced at Cobb, then leveled his gaze at Dougie Ray. "What are you talkin' 'bout?"
The fat man's hands stayed in the tweed pockets, and his gaze dropped to the ground, but his tone was defiant. "Last night, outside Dixie's. I was there. I seen you give that green bag to that man. I heard what you told him."
Stacy's heart hammered in her chest as she remembered the noises preceding the cat running from the parking lot.
Lloyd spat to the side. "You didn't hear nothin'."
Dougie Ray's gaze lifted from the ground only a second, but his head bobbed. "I did, Lloyd," he insisted. "I heard it. And I seen who that man was."
Silence. Silence that dragged on with nothing happening but the nervous shuffling of Dougie Ray's feet.
With a hard, intent stare at Dougie Ray, Cobb jerked his head toward the Bronco. Lloyd nodded and walked away.
One huge arm around Dougie Ray, Cobb steered him toward the woods, his voice comforting. "We been friends too many years to be threatenin' each other."
As they came in her direction, Stacy knelt, moving deeper into blue-green boughs until she contacted the trunk. Her hands, ears and face felt close to freezing.
The heavy man hung his head. "I just want the chair. I should'na took it in the first place. I'll forget what I seen if you give me that rocker. Free and clear."
Cobb laughed, and it seemed to comfort Dougie Ray. "If I didn't know you better, I'd think you was tryin' to blackmail Lloyd."
Dougie Ray looked horrified, and vigorously shook his head. "Oh, no, Cobb. It ain't nothin' like that. But Lloyd ought not to be takin' my money when he knows I can't feed my young'uns, neither."
Stacy was so intent on Dougie Ray volunteering more of what he'd seen and heard she didn't see Lloyd until his sudden appearance behind Dougie Ray.
Lloyd's arms came up so fast the heavy man didn't have time to turn. "Like I said, Dougie Ray, you didn't hear nothin'." Cobb stepped to the side just before the muffled shot echoed through the trees.
When the blast from the rag-covered shotgun barrel found its mark, the back of Dougie Ray's head exploded.
Speechless with terror, Stacy's sight riveted on the gore-covered face of the man who dropped three feet from where she hid. One shock-filled eye stared at her. The other was missing, now a gaping socket. One slow, final hiss of air escaped the open mouth. Sprays of dark red blood, chunks of bone and gray matter littered everything in front of her. She crammed her fist into her mouth to stop the scream.
Cobb nudged the body with his toe before turning on Lloyd. "Don't go makin' side deals, no matter how dumb your pigeon. Everything goes through me first."
Lloyd shrugged and bent to examine the results of his shot.
Stacy held her breath, and somewhere in the back of her stunned mind she realized the thirty-eight, instead of in her pocket as planned, was in the green satchel beneath her bed. Much worse, if Lloyd turned even an inch he would see her.