At the table, Dawes asked his destination.
"Wedding in Salinas," he explained. "Old Army friend of mine. I picked this hitchhiker up about two miles from here. He seemed okay."
"Never can tell," Dawes said placidly, munching egg. "Hey, Ma. That why you were so late comin' to court last night?"
"That's right, Pa." She poured the blackest coffee Sol had ever seen. "Didn't miss much, though."
"What court is that?" Sol asked politely, his mouth full.
"Umagum," Sally said, a piece of toast sticking out from the side of her mouth. "Don't you know nothin'?"
"Armagon," Dawes corrected. He looked sheepishly at the stranger. "Don't expect Mister--" He cocked an eyebrow. "What's the name?"
"Don't expect Mr. Becker knows anything about Armagon. It's just a dream, you know." He smiled apologetically.
"Dream? You mean this--Armagon is a place you dream about?"
"Yep," Dawes said. He lifted cup to lip. "Great coffee, Ma." He leaned back with a contented sigh. "Dream about it every night. Got so used to the place, I get all confused in the daytime."
Mom said: "I get muddle-headed too, sometimes."
"You mean--" Sol put his napkin in his lap. "You mean you dream about the same place?"
"Sure," Sally piped. "We all go there at night. I'm goin' to the palace again, too."
"If you brush your teeth," Mom said primly.
"If I brush my teeth. Boy, you shoulda seen the exelution!"
"Execution," her father said.
"Oh, my goodness!" Mom got up hastily. "That reminds me. I gotta call poor Mrs. Brundage. It's the least I could do."
"Good idea," Dawes nodded. "And I'll have to round up some folks and get old Brundage out of there."
Sol was staring. He opened his mouth, but couldn't think of the right question to ask. Then he blurted out: "What execution?"
"None of your business," the man said coldly. "You eat up, young man. If you want me to get Sheriff Coogan lookin' for your car."
The rest of the meal went silently, except for Sally's insistence upon singing her school song between mouthfuls. When Dawes was through, he pushed back his plate and ordered Sol to get ready.
Sol grabbed his topcoat and followed the man out the door.
"Have to stop someplace first," Dawes said. "But we'll be pickin' up the Sheriff on the way. Okay with you?"
"Fine," Sol said uneasily.
The rain had stopped, but the heavy clouds seemed reluctant to leave the skies over the small town. There was a skittish breeze blowing, and Sol Becker tightened the collar of his coat around his neck as he tried to keep up with the fast-stepping Dawes.
They crossed the street diagonally, and entered a two-story wooden building. Dawes took the stairs at a brisk pace, and pushed open the door on the second floor. A fat man looked up from behind a desk.
"Hi, Charlie. Thought I'd see if you wanted to help move Brundage."
The man batted his eyes. "Oh, Brundage!" he said. "You know, I clean forgot about him?" He laughed. "Imagine me forgetting that?"
"Yeah." Dawes wasn't amused. "And you Prince Regent."
"Well, come on. Stir that fat carcass. Gotta pick up Sheriff Coogan, too. This here gentleman has to see him about somethin' else."
The man regarded Sol suspiciously. "Never seen you before. Night or day. Stranger?"
"Come on!" Dawes said.
The fat man grunted and hoisted himself out of the swivel chair. He followed lamely behind the two men as they went out into the street again.
A woman, with an empty market basket, nodded casually to them. "Mornin', folks. Enjoyed it last night. Thought you made a right nice speech, Mr. Dawes."
"Thanks," Dawes answered gruffly, but obviously flattered. "We were just goin' over to Brundage's to pick up the body. Ma's gonna pay a call on Mrs. Brundage around ten o'clock. You care to visit?"
"Why, I think that's very nice," the woman said. "I'll be sure and do that." She smiled at the fat man. "Mornin', Prince."
Sol's head was spinning. As they left the woman and continued their determined march down the quiet street, he tried to find answers.
"Look, Mr. Dawes." He was panting; the pace was fast. "Does she dream about this--Armagon, too? That woman back there?"
Charlie chuckled. "He's a stranger, all right."
"And you, Mr.--" Sol turned to the fat man. "You also know about this palace and everything?"
"I told you," Dawes said testily. "Charlie here's Prince Regent. But don't let the fancy title fool you. He got no more power than any Knight of the Realm. He's just too dern fat to do much more'n sit on a throne and eat grapes. That right, Charlie?"
The fat man giggled.
"Here's the Sheriff," Dawes said.
The Sheriff, a sleepy-eyed citizen with a long, sad face, was rocking on a porch as they approached his house, trying to puff a half-lit pipe. He lifted one hand wearily when he saw them.
"Hi, Cookie," Dawes grinned. "Thought you, me, and Charlie would get Brundage's body outa the house. This here's Mr. Becker; he got another problem. Mr. Becker, meet Cookie Coogan."
The Sheriff joined the procession, pausing only once to inquire into Sol's predicament.
He described the hitchhiker incident, but Coogan listened stoically. He murmured something about the Troopers, and shuffled alongside the puffing fat man.
Sol soon realized that their destination was a barber shop.
Dawes cupped his hands over the plate glass and peered inside. Gold letters on the glass advertised: HAIRCUT SHAVE & MASSAGE PARLOR. He reported: "Nobody in the shop. Must be upstairs."
The fat man rang the bell. It was a while before an answer came.
It was a reedy woman in a housecoat, her hair in curlers, her eyes red and swollen.
"Now, now," Dawes said gently. "Don't you take on like that, Mrs. Brundage. You heard the charges. It hadda be this way."
"My poor Vincent," she sobbed.
"Better let us up," the Sheriff said kindly. "No use just lettin' him lay there, Mrs. Brundage."
"He didn't mean no harm," the woman snuffled. "He was just purely ornery, Vincent was. Just plain mean stubborn."
"The law's the law," the fat man sighed.
Sol couldn't hold himself in.
"What law? Who's dead? How did it happen?"
Dawes looked at him disgustedly. "Now is it any of your business? I mean, is it?"
"I don't know," Sol said miserably.
"You better stay out of this," the Sheriff warned. "This is a local matter, young man. You better stay in the shop while we go up."
They filed past him and the crying Mrs. Brundage.
When they were out of sight, Sol pleaded with her.
"What happened? How did your husband die?"
"You must tell me! Was it something to do with Armagon? Do you dream about the place, too?"
She was shocked at the question. "Of course!"
"And your husband? Did he have the same dream?"
Fresh tears resulted. "Can't you leave me alone?" She turned her back. "I got things to do. You can make yourself comfortable--" She indicated the barber chairs, and left through the back door.
Sol looked after her, and then ambled over to the first chair and slipped into the high seat. His reflection in the mirror, strangely gray in the dim light, made him groan. His clothes were a mess, and he needed a shave. If only Brundage had been alive ...
He leaped out of the chair as voices sounded behind the door. Dawes was kicking it open with his foot, his arms laden with two rather large feet, still encased in bedroom slippers. Charlie was at the other end of the burden, which appeared to be a middle-aged man in pajamas. The Sheriff followed the trio up with a sad, undertaker expression. Behind him came Mrs. Brundage, properly weeping.
"We'll take him to the funeral parlor," Dawes said, breathing hard. "Weighs a ton, don't he?"
"What killed him?" Sol said.
The fat man chuckled.
The tableau was grisly. Sol looked away, towards the comfortingly mundane atmosphere of the barber shop. But even the sight of the thick-padded chairs, the shaving mugs on the wall, the neat rows of cutting instruments, seemed grotesque and morbid.
"Listen," Sol said, as they went through the doorway. "About my car--"
The Sheriff turned and regarded him lugubriously. "Your car? Young man, ain't you got no respect?"
Sol swallowed hard and fell silent. He went outside with them, the woman slamming the barber-shop door behind him. He waited in front of the building while the men toted away the corpse to some new destination.
He took a walk.
The town was just coming to life. People were strolling out of their houses, commenting on the weather, chuckling amiably about local affairs. Kids on bicycles were beginning to appear, jangling the little bells and hooting to each other. A woman, hanging wash in the back yard, called out to him, thinking he was somebody else.
He found a little park, no more than twenty yards in circumference, centered around a weatherbeaten monument of some unrecognizable military figure. Three old men took their places on the bench that circled the General, and leaned on their canes.
Sol was a civil engineer. But he made like a reporter.
"Pardon me, sir." The old man, leathery-faced, with a fine yellow moustache, looked at him dumbly. "Have you ever heard of Armagon?"
"You a stranger?"
Sol repeated the question.
"Course I did. Been goin' there ever since I was a kid. Night-times, that is."
"How--I mean, what kind of place is it?"
"Said you're a stranger?"
"Then 'tain't your business."
That was that.