Ray, who was in his mid-fifties, kept his head shaved clean, but his most defining feature was a handlebar mustache, which he kept waxed and curled up at the ends—the kind of mustache not seen much anymore. Ray crossed his arms over his chest, looking confident that his assessment was correct.
“Why do you say that?” Levi replied.
“Levi, don’t bullshit a bull-shitter,” Ray said with a chuckle. “I’m a trained observer with more than twenty-five years experience. Little gets past me, as you should well know. When I pull over a teenager, I can tell by his mannerisms if he has beer in his trunk. I’m so good, in fact, I can usually guess how many.”
Levi grinned. Ray was good. He was often mystified by his friend’s powers of observation. He’d often thought of himself as Watson to Ray Billings’ Sherlock Holmes.
“You’re a wise man, Officer Billings. What gave me away? What little hint did I give you that something is wrong? ”
The giant man smiled broadly. His size and demeanor were intimidating, but when he smiled, all that melted away in an instant. He had a face people instantly trusted, a trait that served him well in his job.
“It was pretty easy, actually. You probably could’ve figured this one out yourself,” he said, chiding Levi.
“Really? So easy even I could’ve figured it out? Oh, please, share.”
The great observer thought for a moment about how he would reveal the answer.
“How long have we known each other, Levi?”
“I met you shortly after I moved to Savannah ten years ago.”
|Gryphon Tea Room trademark orange chairs|
Levi grinned. “Nothing, thanks to you.”
“I believed your story.”
“That’s what you say now, but it sure didn’t stop you from running me in back then. And, by the way, I maintain the same story I told you then—I had no idea that young lady was a hooker.”
Ray shook his head, smiling at the memory, and continued, “And on that following Monday, I run into you here.”
“And I was thrilled to see my arresting officer again so soon. Of course, you invited yourself to join me at my table,” Levi said, sarcastically. “And you ate all my damned scones.”
Ray ignored him. “We get talking, and we become friends. And since then, we’ve met here just about every Monday”
“True,” Levi said. He had no idea where Ray was going with this.
“I’d say we’ve missed maybe one or two Mondays a year when you’re off on speaking engagements or frying chicken with Paula Deen on her show or signing books somewhere.” Ray often teased him about his celebrity. “So we’re talking about what? Five hundred Mondays all told that we’ve met here at the Gryphon?”
Levi nodded. “You’re pretty close.”
“And yet, when I came up behind you today and said ‘good morning’ as I always do, you jumped a damned foot. You didn’t expect to see me here on our regular meeting day. Now I know you come up here a few times a week, but your reaction means either you didn’t know it was Monday, or you are so preoccupied with something else you forgot it was Monday.”
As with Holmes and Dr. Watson, when the answer was revealed, it was always more obvious than expected.
“True,” Levi said, smiling and shaking his head.
“So what’s bothering you?”
|Savannah Scottish Rite Temple looms above|
Gryphon Tea Room
Levi’s smile faded. There were few men on earth he trusted more—maybe none. Ray had started out as a jack-ass cop, but he’d wound up as a friend and later a brother. Levi glanced down at his gold ring which featured a red stone with the gold square and compass emblem embedded in the stone. Ray wore a Freemason ring just like it. In fact, two stories up from where they were sitting at the Gryph, in a lodge room in the Savannah Scottish Rite Temple, Ray had raised his new friend a Master Mason. Levi had since become a 32° Scottish Rite Mason as well.
“I think life is about to change for me,” Levi said. “I’m forty-two years old, and I’ve been successful, but I’m hemorrhaging cash, and I think the cash cow is about to dry up.”
The strength of their friendship was based on the fact there were some things they never discussed. One topic that seldom came up was Levi’s books. Ray always got the feeling Levi wasn’t completely comfortable with his celebrity. Even upstairs, amongst his Freemason friends, Levi didn’t want to be known as “the famous writer.” He bristled every time someone introduced him that way or brought up the fact he was a published writer. Ray didn’t understand Levi’s reaction, but he respected his privacy.
Levi’s past was another topic they never discussed. Levi was very adept at steering conversations away from his history. Ray had picked up a few things over the years since Levi had occasionally let comments slip. For instance, Ray knew there were problems with his parents, and that Levi hadn’t been home in nearly two decades. And, of course, there was a ten-year gap between the time Levi had graduated from the University of Illinois and when Ray had met him—a blank slate about which Levi had never dropped even one hint. Ray knew he could find out more if he wanted to, but again he respected Levi’s privacy.
Ray leaned back in his chair, sipping tea as he listened to Levi’s story about the declining quality of his three books. He knew Levi was getting to the crux of the problem.
“The book I just published, Thou Art with Me isn’t very good. My agent tells me it will sell, but another crappy book will put me out of business for good.”
Ray finally leaned forward and looked Levi square in the eye.
Ray nodded. “You’ve been half-assing it because you never really believed that first book was anything but a fluke. You’ve been riding that success for all it’s worth. That’s why we don’t discuss your success—you don’t think you deserve it. And now that you’ve ridden it as far as you can, you realize it’s time to either put up or shut up, and you’re scared shitless. You don’t have another idea, and you aren’t convinced you’ll ever have one.”
Levi was stunned. Ray had nailed it.
Ray leaned forward and took a scone off the table. He took a large bite, then leaned back and chewed it as he eyed Levi. There was a long pause as Levi waited for more, but Ray had said what he wanted to say.
“So what do you think I should do? You can’t buy book ideas at Wal-Mart.”