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The patrons of Bill’s Bar and Grill stared in astonishment at the stocky figure of Morris Saddlethwaite. He stood in the front doorway waving one arm; his normally florid face was ashen. The sleeve of his jacket was thickly smeared with something resembling dried blood. “I don’t think you can move your car, Jack,” he said to a man sitting at the nearest table. “I just brushed against your fender and this stuff came off on my clothes.” The arm-waving became frenetic. “The goddamned metal’s rotting!”
Jack Reece raised a sardonic eyebrow. “What’s this, Morris? Some joke you found in the bottom of a bottle?”
“It’s not a joke and I’m not drunk, I wish I was. A couple minutes ago this grunge on my arm was part of your fuckin’ fender. If you didn’t make a habit of parking that old heap so it blocks the sidewalk—”
“That old heap,” Jack interrupted, “is a vintage Ford Mustang convertible, a certified classic car that’s worth more than your whole miserable carcass.” His pale gray eyes were like shards of ice. “If you’ve damaged it in any way—”
“It’s damaged me, more like. How’m I s’posed to get this shit off?”
Seated across the table from Jack, Shay Mulligan brushed a lock of coppery hair away from his eyes and leaned forward for a look. “It doesn’t look like shit to me,” he said, “and it appears to be falling off on its own.”
“Onto my clean floor,” Bill Burdick complained as he tossed a towel over his shoulder and stepped out from behind the bar. “Stop waving that mess around, Morris; you’re gonna have to mop it up. Why’d you bring it in here, anyway?”
“What else could I do? Have a little sympathy, will ya?”
“Sympathy for what?” asked Gerry Delmonico. “Is that stuff burning your arm?”
Saddlethwaite looked at the arm in question. “Well, no. I mean not yet, not exactly, but—”
“Then what happened?”
“You tell me,” the afflicted man said piteously. He lowered his arm but held it as far away from the rest of his body as possible, as if the limb were a snake that might bite him.
Tables, booths and barstools were evacuated in the rush to examine the novelty and offer opinions. A babble of voices vied for supremacy. One phrase above others was frequently repeated.
Jack Reece stayed in his seat and said nothing. During the recent crisis his steadiness had given his friends courage. When others experienced a temporary loss of sanity as profound as if they had seen the law of gravity repealed, Jack had been scared too.
But he never let it show.
Orphaned young, he had been raised by his mother’s unmarried sister. Beatrice Fontaine was devoted to the boy. She was intensely self-reliant and had encouraged the same quality in her nephew, together with a determination to keep personal matters private. These strengthened his natural tendency to be a lone wolf. They also gave him an air of mystery that others found irresistible. Many women—and not a few men—gazed at him with a speculative expression in their eyes. He had learned to recognize the signs early on, and to discourage them, if he chose, without any hurt feelings.
In this way Jack Reece had reached the dawn of his fourth decade as a confirmed bachelor. Then came the Change. The unexpected, inexplicable and worldwide disintegration of most plastic.
Still watching Saddlethwaite, Jack automatically reached to give a comforting pat to the shoulder that should have been next to his.
She wasn’t there.
Only Lila Ragland, sitting beside Shay Mulligan, noted Jack’s hastily aborted gesture. In the list of names she carried in her brain a checkmark was erased from one column and added to another.
The third time he heard someone say “change,” Jack Reece pushed back his chair and stood up. Without raising his voice he could command attention. Tall and sinewy, with a hawkish nose and thick black hair starting to go silver at the temples, he looked like a man who could handle himself in a fight—which was why he rarely had to fight.
“Hold on, everybody,” he said, “there’s bound to be a simple explanation for this, and it isn’t the Change.”
“Didn’t a drunk run into your car a while back?” Burdick asked. “Did a lot of damage? As I recall it was in the garage for weeks. What if—”
Copyright © 2019 by Morgan Llywelyn