Henry's was a rowdy place most nights, but Fridays were the wildest by far. Something about a live band charged the atmosphere, and riled the spirits of even the oldest patrons. David Daugherty was not prepared.
"Let's get a drink 'fore I need to start settin' up!" Geordi clapped him on the shoulder, shouting right in his ear to be heard over the general din of the place.
"I don't really drink," David yelled back, trying for Geordi's sake to sound somewhat enthused to be out on the town, "It gives me a headache,"
"What've you been drinkin'?" Geordi quirked an eyebrow, looking unshaken in his belief that David would indeed get flat-out drunk that night.
"Red wine," David shrugged, assuming the information didn't matter. The look on Geordi's face told him otherwise.
"You're drinkin' tonight," Geordi disappeared with a final, "You need it!" David shuffled in place a moment before sliding in to an open table in the corner. Faster than should have been possible Geordi was sitting across from him with two large glasses of something amber and fizzy, "It's mostly Coke," Geordi assured him. David took a sip and nearly gagged on the concoction. It tasted like sugared gasoline.
Geordi laughed and clapped his hands together, "Alright, so there's whiskey in there too," He took a deep swig of his own drink and jumped up from the table, "I gotta get the equipment goin'. You stay put. Don't start any fights, and try not to talk to any of the ladies here. They're all taken," He winked and as quickly as he'd arrived, he was lost in the crowd. David took a slow look around the place, daring another sip of his drink. It was vile, but this time he'd been prepared for it, so it went down easier. In a town as small as Kept Creek, he'd seen most of these people before. He didn't know any names to assign to the aged faces, but at least they all seemed familiar. He took a slightly larger sip of his drink, focusing more on the sweetness than the burning aftertaste.
It wasn't long before the juke-box got unplugged, and a fast-paced guitar riff broke the silence before it had chance to take root. David turned to face the tiny stage on the far wall, and saw four men gathered up with instruments. Front and center was Geordi Raines, smiling like a maniac. He went from upbeat and hyper to an inhuman excitement level the second the spotlight came on. David had read once that extroverts not only thrive, but actually gain energy from being around other people. He'd never seen a better example than this particular co-worker. Raines had the stage presence of a rock star as he introduced the Last Rodeo Band to the crowd.
David had to admit, the men were all very talented. He'd never enjoyed country music, but he could appreciate the skills required to play. Geordi was an excellent guitarist, and the drummer and bassist were putting their hearts and souls into every song, but it was the lap steel player that captured David's attention. He'd never seen the instrument before, but the precision and focus written on the old man's face as he coaxed the metal strings into making music was the rare sight of true, life-long passion. That alone would have made it wonderful, but Geordi's banter with the crowd between songs was so easy and natural, and the heartfelt lyrics all worked together to make it one of the best performances David had ever seen.
"My boy's got some talent, don't he?" The words made David jump in his seat in surprise. A tall, thin man with patches of white in his curly, black hair had sat down next to him. The old man laughed at David's reaction, "Didn't mean to give you a start," He shook his head and grabbed Geordi's unfinished drink from across the table.
"You're Mr. Raines?" David could see the resemblance of features, though Geordi had a much lighter complection, this had to be his father.
"Nah, that's his momma's name. I'm Malcolm Wilson," The man extended a gnarled, arthiritic hand and David shook it. Almost immediately Malcolm's attention was diverted back to the stage, "He sure can sing. Get's that from his momma too," He laughed. David had to admit the man's opinion went beyond fatherly bias. Geordi had a strong, clear voice that turned to soulful gravel on the low notes. He nodded his agreement and Wilson hummed happily to himself.
"So you're the one jus' lost your girl, right?" There was no hesitation or embarrasment on the old man's face. David dropped his gaze from the band into the amber depths of his half-finished drink. Every cell in his body was vibrating and his tongue was heavy in his mouth, but at that question the empty pit in his center had reopened.
"Brooke," He said her name out loud, more to hear it spoken than to correct Wilson, "Yeah, I, uh," he cleared his throat to keep his voice from breaking, "I lost her," He fidgeted with the sweating glass in his hands.
"You asked her to marry you, din'cha?" There was a strange mix of accusation and deep sympathy in his deep brown eyes.
"...yeah, yeah I did," David couldn't face the man's stare any longer, so he turned his focus to the scratched surface of the wooden table.
"You couldn't a known," He felt a hand patting his shoulder.
"Known what?" David's gaze shot back up to the man.
Malcolm gave him a hard look, as if sizing him up, "You gonna live here, or you goin' back to where you came from?"
"I'm not going anywhere," David wasn't as sure as he sounded, in fact he completely intended to leave once the murder was solved, but still the words came flying out.
"Well, if you're plannin' on stayin' there's some things you need to hear," Malcolm set his drink down and turned in his seat to face David, looking incredibly serious, "You mighta noticed, you might not, but people in Kept Creek don' get married. We got our reasons, good ones too, but 'fore I tell you I need you to promise me you won' go runnin' to the internet with this," He scowled down at David, "Last thing we need is crazy people comin' from all corners of the world, pokin' and proddin' at things that ought not be messed with," David nodded solemnly, wondering to himself if the man was crazy or just overly dramatic. Either way he wanted to know what Malcolm's point was.
"This town's got secrets. They're bloody and old, but so long's you stick to one rule, jus' one, it can't hurt you," Malcolm spoke quickly, and as quietly as their loud surroundings allowed, "Somethin' happened here, left it's mark," He nodded, as if willing David to understand, "See, there was-"
"Daddy," A curt voice interrupted Malcolm, "Whatcha talkin' 'bout?" Geordi sat down in his seat across the table, still sweating from the performance and staring wide-eyed and worried at his father.
"The Hell d'you think we're talkin' 'bout, boy?" Malcolm responded gruffly, a smile playing on his mouth as he looked at Geordi, "Y'all did good up there,"
"Thanks," Geordi nodded, "But Dave don't wanna hear local gossip," He added, turning to David, "You're still nursin' that same glass, ain't you?" His face slid back into a smile, but it seemed a little forced.
"It's pretty strong," David tried to defend his slow drinking.
"And you're prob'ly drinkin' it on an empty stomach, too," Geordi jumped from his seat, leaning forward, "Tell you what, I'm fixin' to go up to the bar and get myself another drink, and they got food up there too. Why don't you finish that off and come with me?" David hesitated, torn between wanting to put distance between himself and Wilson, and wanting to know answers the old man was clearly willing to provide. His head felt like it'd been filled with crackling rice cereal, and it made cognitive decisions harder. He took a swig of his drink to stall for time, and wound up finishing off the glass. That made his choice seem easier. He felt heat rush to his face, and knew he needed to eat something before the whiskey wreaked havoc with his system. He wrangled his facial muscles into some semblance of a smile and nodded at Geordi that he'd follow.
The bar food was greasy and overly salted, but it was the first hot food David had eaten in almost two weeks.
"Are these pickles?" He nearly spit out a mouthful at the unexpected taste.
"Don't tell me you never had fried pickle chips before," Geordi seemed incredibly amused by the thought. The bartender put down two fresh drinks, and Geordi handed one to David, "So you want me to talk, or d'you need to?" His tone softened. It struck David that Geordi was giving him two options: He could try to take David's mind off the pain, or he could sit and listen while David laid his heartache out on the bar. David had never been a social butterfly, he'd basically just kept to himself and his books. Brooke had been his best friend, his only friend, for years before they started dating. It was too much to talk about, the hurt was still too fresh. He shook his head, and Geordi immediately began spouting more words than he could keep up with.
The night began to swirl. David felt pleasantly numb, and though his brain struggled to convert the sound of Geordi's voice into meaningful words it was nice to just sit and listen. Things were going better than he'd thought they would. He couldn't bring himself to laugh along with his new friend, but he managed a tortured smile. Altogether better than expected.
Later in the night Malcolm came over, very drunk and intent on telling David something. He nearly caused a scene, but others at the bar jumped up and pulled him away. At the last second Malcolm threw a napkin at David, who calmly placed it in his pocket. Even inebriated, David knew the likelihood of vomiting was high. He thought he might need the napkin later, though it'd do little good.
As the night shifted into early morning the people began to shuffle towards the door. First they left in ones and twos, and later in large groups. At closing time Geordi half-carried David back to the SUV, quietly accepting David's barrage of unprovoked apologies. When David woke up the next morning, lying on the couch still wearing his clothes, his mouth was dry and rancid and his stomach felt like it'd just gone through serious spasms. He shuffled quietly past Geordi's sleeping form splayed across the armchair towards the bathroom. Before he pulled his clothes off to shower, he emptied his pockets. There was a crinkled napkin that he had no memory of getting. As he moved to throw it away, his eyes caught the dark smudge of bled ink in the thin paper. His heart stopped. What had he done last night? Was this a girl's number? What sort of horrible person picks up a woman's number while grieving his lost fiance? Had there even been any women younger than retirement age there? He uncrumpled the paper to see if there was a name, only to find that it wasn't a number. It was dark, scribbled handwriting that took up most of the space. The words were large and hurried, forming a single stanza of a poem. It was immediately burned into David's memory, but he pocketed the napkin anyway. The people of this town continued to confound him. Instead of finding answers, he got half-truths and riddles, or nothing at all. The police said they had nothing, none of the locals seemed shocked by a young woman's death, and Malcolm Wilson had said the town had old, bloody secrets. He should have listened, had he been sober he'd have listened. Instead he was left with yet another riddle.
They'll find her 'neath the dogwood tree
One question ends in agony
Son, please beware
The Devil's there
Listenin' in the dogwood tree