They had streets, too. They were only paths cut into the dirt, but they had been laid out deliberately in a grid pattern between the rows of buildings. The paths were lined with rocks to lessen mud on wet days.
"They've built a city," Phil said, watching people shuffle around, pushing bicycles or pulling carts full of who-knows-what.
"Yep," Rodger said. "Folks around here call it Lowtown, but Simon calls it Fort Promise."
"Sounds awful militant."
"Well, the man is building an army."
"You guys just let them stay here?"
"Look," Rodger said. "Like I told you, Partain's family isn't complaining, and as long as they're staying off the streets at night, public opinion is live and let live." His voice was patronizing. Phil knew he had said these same lines countless times. "Now I know what you're thinking. This can't last forever, right?"
"Right." That was what he was thinking.
"And it won't," Rodger said. "But for now, we leave them alone. At least here they have each other. Winter is an awful hard time to be homeless."
"That's for sure," Phil said.
Movement caught his eye from outside his passenger side window. He turned. Not far from the truck was a small boy, dressed in too-big clothes, dirt smudges crusted under his nostrils from which snot ran freely. The boy caught his eye, held it a moment, then turned and ran.
"What do you say we get out of here?" Rodger asked. "You got your look. This place gives me the creeps."
* * *
"I can't believe you're going through with it," Rodger said.
"Are you telling me you're not curious what's going on down there?"
"Of course, but the stories coming out of there," he said, his voice a little too loud. "It's not just theft anymore, Phil. People have been reporting missing animals."
"Rodger, would you please stop scaring my clientele?" A middle-aged waitress in a sky-blue uniform appeared before them with a steaming carafe in hand. "What can I get you, hon?" Dorothy asked Phil as she topped off the sheriff's coffee.
"I'll have the special," Phil said, closing his menu and sliding it across the counter.
"Good choice," Dorothy said. "My Charlie's stew is just to die for." She looked over the top of her glasses at Rodger. "Sheriff?"
"I'll just stick with coffee."
Phil's eyes scanned the bulletin board behind him. There were a couple ads, cars for sale, a handyman service, but most of the space was reserved for lost pets. It was unnerving how many flyers for missing dogs there were, at least ten, one overlapping the next.
"How did you get the invite?" Rodger asked.
"I found a guy digging through the dumpster at my hotel. Gave him a twenty, said I wanted to talk to Simon."
"Yeah, well, just be on your guard."
"You're really worried about this," Phil said.
"Damn right I am. Used to be the worst thing that happened around here was a couple of kids necking in a car by the highway. Now we've got so many reported thefts we don't have time to investigate."
"And you're sure it's them?"
"You saw how many of them there are down there. They aren't saints. That's for sure. And they’ve got to get money somewhere."
"Well, they can't do anything to me. I've told everyone I'm going."
"I hope you're right." He grew quiet, watching pedestrians pass.
A few minutes later, a bowl of something thick and brown and hot front of him, Phil asked, "Why haven't you done anything about it?"
"What would you do?" the sheriff asked. "Roust them from the land? Drive them out of town?"
"Something like that, yeah."
"Think about it. Where would they go? Ever since the packing plant closed, unemployment's never been higher, but that doesn't account for all of them. There's hundreds of them. Hell, there could be a thousand. You think I want them on the streets of my town?"
"Of course not," Phil said. "Anyone ever think about helping them?"