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Whos there? Chester asked hopelessly.

O.J., Mellon said.

O.J. who?

Orange juice sorry now?

Yes, Chester said truthfully.

Time for lunch, Mellon said. Turn in up there, the restaurant in theres good and its always empty.

Having left the town of Mellons last appointment, they were now out in the country again, driving past a mall where the tallest and most impressive construction was the sign out by the road: MIDPOINT MALL. Which, come to think of it, was probably the goal for every mall, wasnt it?

Turning in at that giant sign, seeing in truth acres of parking lot with only a few dusty vehicles, mostly pickups, huddled close to the glass fronts of the line of stores, Chester said, How come its so empty?

They lost their anchor store. What we want is down at the end, past where it used to be.

Driving straight ahead, ignoring the white parking-space lines painted all over the blacktop, Chester said, How come they lost it?

Went bust, Mellon said. It was one of those big box housewares places, but there was an even bigger one about ten miles farther on. Killed them. Now theres nothing in here but the little satellites, the photo developer, the liquor store, cell phone store, restaurant. Its just past where the anchor used to be.

Driving by the onetime anchor store, Chester slowed to look at the place. Large windows were blankly open, but showed little of the cavernous interior because there were no lights on in there. A chain was looped through the six door handles and padlocked. Above the entrance, the faint ghosts could be seen where the letters of the stores name had been removed: SPEEDSHOP.

Making out those letters, Chester said, Theyve got other stores, dont they?

Oh, sure, Mellon said. These big chains, if they make a mistake where they put one of their places, they just walk away from it, cut their losses.

The restaurant was next, and last. Chester said, Would you mind, before we go in, we drive around and take a look at the back?

The back? Whadaya want the back for?

At the corner of the building, where the large restaurant windows showed mostly empty booths, the blacktop continued on around, and Chester continued with it as he said, Some friends of mine and me, were gonna steal some very big things pretty soon, and well need a place to stash them. If theres a big enough back door, this place could be fine.

Mellon looked at him, a half-smile on his lips. Chester, he said, youve got one dry sense of humor.

Yeah, I been told that.

Chester took the next corner, and here was a lot more blacktop, because deliveries were made at the rear of the stores. Three big wide segmented iron garage doors were closed in the area where the Speedshop must have been. The doors stopped about three feet up from the ground, at the level of the floor of a big tractor-trailer, but that shouldnt pose too much of problem.

Yeah, Chester said, looking it over. Thatll do just fine. And he made a U-turn to go back around to the restaurant.

Mellons look had turned quizzical. It is a gag, he said, not as though it were a question; but it was a question.

Chester grinned at him. Sure. You think youre the only one can tell a joke?

Mellon laughed like a fool, all the way to the booth.

| The Road to Ruin | c