what am i doing here, billy wondered, when the countess told choffo to stop at the crossroads. had he heard too much?
"get out. walk in any direction," the countess told him. "you'll get there." billy had nodded. like a lot of her cryptic utterances, it wasn't that mysterious. the house he was going to would be on a circle or a square toward which all four roads led. he couldn't miss it.
choffo gunned the pierce arrow and the countess disappeared into the night. it was dark. the road was dark.
there was an abandoned looking general store with a gas pump on one of the four corners. it was dark too. billy was in no hurry to get to the house so he walked over to it.
he took off the scarf the count and countess had given him when he was more in their favor. he wrapped it around his left hand and smashed the glass on the front door and reached in and opened the door.
he didn't expect to find anything worth taking. if he found something, good. if he didn't, he would just smash things up. billy was filled with rage - always, through good times and bad. he liked to smash things up.
there was more on the shelves than he expected. a lot of clothes and blankets. but no food that he could see. there was a big old fashioned cracker barrel, but it was empty and he tipped it over.
at the back of the store he found several shelves filled with toy soldiers and animals. he took a gold cigarette lighter out of his pocket and flipped it open to look at the toys. he found a little bulldog that he liked. maybe he would bring it to life later. he put it in his pocket and closed the lighter.
but there was still some light, coming from under a door behind him.
the door opened and a little blond girl, wearing a nightgown and rubbing her eyes, stepped out. she didn't seem surprised or scared by billy's presence.
"can i help you?" she asked in a whiskey and cigarette voice. she came out of the shadows and billy saw she was about fifty years old - her hair was white, not blond.
"i was helping myself to some stuff."
he took the dog out of his pocket and showed it to her.
"good choice. you know how to bring it to life?"
"i know how. "
"that's a good dog. when he barks, you'll know something is up. here, take some more stuff," the little woman took some toy soldiers off the shelf and stuffed them in billy's pocket. 'these will stand you on good stead."
"they're just sitting there." she looked around. "how come you tipped the cracker barrel over?"
she nodded. "my name is liona - liona, with an "i".
"i don't care how things are spelled."
"i can't read."
she looked him in the eye. "i wish i couldn't read. you headed up to the house?"
"know how to get there?"
"just keeping walking in any direction."
liona laughed. "i'll show you a faster way. wait here while get my coat."
billy looked around the store. "i was thinking of busting this place up."
"you can do that when you get back. wait here." she went back into the room she had emerged from.
billy looked back at the shelves while she was gone. he took a cat, a monkey and a napoleonic hussar and put them in his other pocket.
liona came back wearing a yellow raincoat and yellow oilskin hat.
"it's not raining."
"this is my favorite coat."
they went out through the front door. liona kicked the broken glass out of her way unconcernedly.
she started walking up the road heading north and billy followed her.
"i would have gone the other way," he told her.
"you got a good sense of direction?"
"that's what not reading will do for you. but this part of the woods will mess up the best of them. you'll see."
they walked in silence for a while. it was very dark, even though there weren't that many trees.
"these people at the house." billy finally asked. "what are they up to?"
'i figured that."
they kept going straight north. there were no curves in the road or any other roads. billy didn't ask how far away they were because he didn't care.
"the countess bring you here?"
"and the count."
"i used to have rage myself."
billy considered this. "but no more, huh?"
"nothing lasts forever. even these people in the house, they won't last forever."
billy didn't answer.
"or everything lasts forever. take your pick."
"that's my pick. everything lasts forever."
they came to a t intersection and liona turned left. they came to the house almost immediately. it wasn't as big or as far back from the road as billy expected. but it was dark. two rooms on the third and top floor were lit, the rest was dark. it was hard to make out the front door.
liona didn't go up to the front porch. instead she led billy around to the stables.
the stables were dark and quiet - no horses?- and as they approached a tall thin personage emerged from their shadows. he was dressed in blue coveralls and a raggedy black stetson hat. his black boots looked clean.
billy looked at the clean boots. "no horses in these stables?" he asked the man.
the man looked down at billy for a long time before answering. he had a thin yellow face with big freckles. "no horses, just duesenbergs and rolls royces and such."
"'this boy might be hard to stare down, stack," said liona. "can't you feel his power?'
'no. i can't say that i particularly do."
"are you the stable hand?" billy asked the man.
"he's the lord of the mansion," said liona. "this is mean old stagger lee."
'is that your name," billy asked. "mean old stagger stagger lee?"
"it's the name on all my deeds," the yellow man answered. "my friends call me stack, or stag. you don't even have to be my friend. you can call me anything you like." he smiled, showing big teeth.
"as long as we don't call you late for dinner," liona added.
"that's right. especially if we have roast duck."
"are we having roast duck tonight?" billy asked.
"no, it's the cook's night off. so we have cucumber sandwiches."
"i'll take a cucumber sandwich," liona told him.
stack looked at her but made no move toward the house.
"this must be the young man the countess sent over."
"so what are you doing here?"
"i'm taking him under my wing."
he laughed. "bored down at the crossroads, are you? a store with no customers. a gas pump with no cars."
"exactly," liona answered.
"but it's better than the lake of fire."
"maybe! well, i'll let that be known." he laughed and his laugh echoed against the stable and the house. "i'll surely let that be known." he moved toward the dark house and liona and billy followed him.