Chapter 27

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The plan had been for Barlow, Caroline, and Irv to return to Columbus after touring the New Bloomfield construction site. Things had gone awry as a result of Pet's accident and they started late. By the time they finished the tour, it was nearly dinner time.

Caroline wasn't brooding anymore. In fact, it seemed as if a strange calm had settled over her.

Instead of driving directly back to Columbus after the inspection tour, they decided to grab a bite to eat at The Dancing Bear before hitting the road together. Depending on traffic, the drive home could take seven or eight hours, so they weren't going to arrive until well after midnight.

They decided to sit at the bar instead of a table. The place was moderately busy, but Anson, the night bartender, waited on them right away. Irv ordered a beer and club sandwich, Caroline wanted a water and taco salad.

"I'll have a burger and a black coffee," Barlow said. "Long drive tonight. I'll need to stay awake." That made him think of Pet's accident. He couldn't imagine how she messed up so badly.

Jill Dunne popped into the bar from the kitchen carrying a stack of beer mugs fresh from the dishwasher. Steam from the mugs trailed in her wake. She saw Caroline and approached, set the rack of mugs on top of the bar. "Thanks again for helping out last night. You made a big difference."

"No problem. It was fun."

"Are you sure I can't pay you for your time?"

Caroline waved her off. "You let me keep my tips. That's payment enough."

Jill picked up the rack. "If you ever want a job, come and see me."

"Thank you. I'm flattered. Don't take this the wrong way. It's beautiful country around here, but I'm a city girl. I'm more comfortable in Columbus."

Jill walked to the other end of the bar and started putting mugs back on the shelf. "If you ever change your mind..."

"It really is pretty around here," Irv said, "the trees and mountains, but I'm afraid I'd soon get bored. How are we going to do this, Barlow? Are you thinking about relocating back to PA to be closer to your half of the business?"

He was torn. Les Cunningham could certainly manage his father's business without him. The man was capable enough. Barlow would have to put in an appearance once a week or so. He could handle that. He also admitted to himself how much he missed Perry County, and he could occasionally drop in on Pet.

"I don't know, Irv. Let's take it a step at a time and see how it plays out."

"Fair enough."

Anson returned with their drinks. He set a steaming cup of coffee in front of Barlow. Too hot to drink right away.

Barlow remembered the unfinished business he had with Irv. After Petronia's accident, identifying the man in the photo had seemed less important. Now was a good time to bring up the subject again. He pulled the photo from his pocket and slid it down the bar to the big man.

Irv picked it up. "Yeah. It's him."

"Who?" Caroline asked. Her wide eyes displayed genuine curiosity.

"Howard Collier. They call him Howie Boy."

Barlow and Caroline both sat there looking at Irv. Caroline broke the silence. "Is that supposed to mean something to us?"

Irv chuckled. "Probably not. You would have to be a college football nut like me to remember this guy. He played defensive end for Penn State about ten years ago. I remember how he ruined the Buckeye's season by intercepting a fourth quarter pass. Cost them the game and their number one ranking."

Barlow turned that information over in his mind but could make no sense of it. He remembered from the obituary how Neil Mantener had been a Penn State student. Is that where he and this Howie Boy character met?

He took a sip of coffee. Still too hot to drink. "Whatever happened to him?"

Irv shrugged. "Once these guys leave college, I can't keep track of them. He never went pro as far as I know."

Howie Boy Collier. Barlow now had a name. If he could find this man, he might finally get to the truth. He'd have to proceed with caution though. The man had committed a crime by robbing the convention center, and maybe he had something to do with the death of Neil Mantener.

"What's it all about?" Irv asked.

Barlow didn't want to get into it and was saved from doing so when their food arrived. "I'll tell you later."

By the time they finished eating, it was fully dark outside. The cup of coffee had been a good idea. A long drive at night was never Barlow's idea of fun. "You ready to hit the road?"

Irv and Caroline both agreed. Barlow paid their bill.

"You going to wait for us while we pack?" Barlow asked Irv. "We can caravan together."

Irv and Caroline exchanged glances. "Yeah, I'll come up to the room with you and wait."

As they climbed the staircase, Barlow halted and took another look at the bar and restaurant below. Nice place. He'd be back. Maybe over the weekend, to visit Pet. He promised he'd visit, and after witnessing how depressed she was, he was plenty worried about her.

There really wasn't much to pack. He and Caroline had been living out of overnight bags.  Barlow took one last look around. "Well, that's it."

Standing by the door, Irv asked, "Are you ready, Caroline?"

"Be right with you. Can you give us a minute?"

Irv nodded and left the room.

Caroline picked up her bag. "Barlow, I'm riding back to Columbus with Irv."

"What? Why?"

"Because you need to stay."

His head spun as he tried to decipher what she was trying to tell him.

She approached and kissed him on the cheek. "I know you care about me, but you will never love me the way you love her."

"Caroline, I'm with you."

She shook her head. "You don't mean that. Not really. You're just being gracious and don't want to hurt me. It's okay, Barlow. Your place is with her. The love you two have for each other." She stopped. Barlow thought she might cry, but she took a breath. "It's beautiful, the history the two of you share, in love with each other since childhood. It may sound corny, but you were made for each other. It's so plain to see."

"Look, Caroline—"

"—Don't argue with me. God, Barlow, you nearly killed a man over her. I hope someday I'll find someone who will love me that much. Stay. Go to her. You need each other. Be happy."

He didn't know what to say.

Caroline went to the door. "I'll see you back at The Eight Ball."

And then, she was gone.

And then, she was gone

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Caroline surrendered. Do you feel bad for her?

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