Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Young adult or teen  ➡  Adventure

Perfect Imperfection - The Lost Songs

 

 

 

Imperfect Imperfection

 

 

Richard C. McClain II

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition

Copyright © 2017 by Richard C. McClain II

All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

 

 

All my attempts to see through the darkness failed. Any effort to move my body met with the same resistance. Stuck in the thick blackness, I experienced feelings of fear and loneliness.

You are not alone.”

I didn’t hear the words through my ears. It was as if the sound passed through my bloodstream delivering the news to every nerve and tendon in my body. After receiving the message, the words brought comfort though the darkness remained.

In the faraway distance, my eyes picked up the beginnings of a light storm. Opaque colors filled the black space until their eternal brightness replaced the darkness altogether. At my first exposure to light and color an overwhelming sense of awe and gratitude appropriated my thoughts. I dropped to my knees in obeisant posture and offered thanks.

Nice.”

I’m glad you like it.”

Two creatures approached and pulled me towards the light. Their burnished bronze skin reflected a warmth that sunk deep into me. I examined the angelic apparel. Both creatures displayed dazzling white garments with a sapphire trim bordering the hems. Exquisite jewels stones, sewn into the fabric, glistened as they moved.

All praise and honor goes to the Most High. He is worthy.” The chorus of voices sounded from within the rainbow of light that now emerged.

Compelled to join them, I sang along my voice loud and melodic.

Another creature, with long white covering, flew towards me with a golden horn and placed it into my hands. Never had I seen such a lovely instrument. I placed the mouthpiece to my lips and blew adding to the choir of blissful voices. Unparalleled music filled the light and for a moment everything was perfect. Just as quickly, the sacredness of the moment stunned me and I returned the instrument aware of my acute unworthiness.

That pleased me.”

The beings and I flew through the waves of light and music. Each color, each note penetrated deep within and again filled me with unspeakable joy. I wanted to ask where I was but the question was unnecessary. Instead, I embraced the moment happy just to be.

The creatures and I entered another voluminous expanse of darkness. My eyes were slow to adjust. In the distance I saw mountain and hill formations. A winding river nestled at its base. Then as if out-of-place, an intense beam of light penetrated through the dimness. I stared into it unafraid yet troubled by its meaning. The beings released me then flew away disappearing high into the vastness.

Where are they going?” I asked.

You must travel the rest of the journey by yourself.”

You’re leaving me?”

I promise you will never be alone.”

Where am I going?”

To a place I have selected for you.”

Will it be as perfect as this?”

Silence.

The voice’s stillness bothered me.

I want to stay here with you,” I pleaded.

One day you will return. For now, you must make this journey.”

What am I supposed to do?”

You’ll understand in time.”

While he spoke a blanket of contentment encircled me. Fear and alarm retreated, and I asked no further questions. I walked with anticipation to the beam of light. My feet slipped from underneath me, and falling headfirst, I proceeded into the lighted canal.

The voice called after me.

For I know the plans I have for you Jason. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

The darkness, the circuit of colored light, the beings, and my conversation with the voice dissipated from my mind till I remembered nothing. I struggled through the dark to make it through the constricted channel.

Mr. and Mrs. Drayper, you have a baby boy.” The anguished woman cried for joy. Right away the nurse cleaned the squawking baby. She cleared the mucus from the baby’s throat, weighed and swaddled him, and handed him to the mother.

Isn’t he beautiful?” She said to the man standing next to her. As she passed the baby to her husband his gown fell off revealing a black suit, white shirt and tie. He took the baby boy from her and held him with two hands at arm’s length afraid of contaminating this perfect being. A nurse took a picture of the surreal yet holy moment.

What name did you choose for him?” asked the doctor.

Answering, was the lady who had just spent fifteen hours in labor. “We’re going to call him Jason, Jason Kyle Drayper.” Her lips curled into a smile as she pronounced the name for the first time in her son’s hearing.

You’ve picked a powerful name. The lad will have huge shoes to fill.” The woman sent a questioning look the doctor’s direction. “I have a book I’ll drop off later. It explains the origin and meaning of Jason.”

Later that afternoon as the baby lay in his cot, the woman opened the book and located the name of her son.

Jason.

Healer or the LORD is my salvation.

Chapter One

 

 

Happy Birthday to me;

Happy Birthday to me;

Happy Birthday to me;

Happy Birthday to me.

 

White knuckled, I gripped the armrest of the dining chair and sat in discomfort as I mouthed the words of the song. Overhearing me vocalize the recognizable melody would cause World War III. Mom was in the kitchen overseeing the dinner arrangements while my dad attended to his early evening ablutions.

For reasons I am incapable of explaining, my dad hated birthdays. No such aversion existed for New Year’s Day, Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving or Christmas. Throughout the year it was allowable for me to receive presents on these days of celebration, never on my birthday. He called them a contrivance of a society to extort money from hardworking parents. I have no recollection of ever opening an actual gift on my birthday.

Mom’s compliance with my dad’s mandates did not mean her acquiescence was altogether unconditional. In fact, she found subtle ways to let me know she remembered the day of my birth. The dining room table, for instance, was set in exquisite fashion for the non-celebration. An indigo colored tablecloth with deep cobalt edges hand sewn into the fabric covered the cherry wood table. Three place settings with silver cutlery, grey porcelain salad and dinner plates, soup bowls, and crystal glasses punctuated the meal with a festive lure. Even the dark blue colored napkins in their Fleur de Lis design commemorated the ordinary event.

I expected my dad’s eyebrows to raise and hear one of his infamous huffs. At once his moodiness would evaporate, because on the non-birthday menu his and my favorite dish of orange chicken, headlined the sundry banquet of egg drop soup, pork dumplings, Szechuan Beef, Garlic Shrimp, and combination fried rice.

He entered the dining room a few minutes later dressed in his proverbial black Gucci two-piece suit accompanied with starched white shirt and thin charcoal tie. My dad never altered his style and always wore the same outfit. He sat on the chair and destroyed the Fleur de Lis in one fell swoop snapping it open onto his lap. He raised his eyebrows and huffed once while waiting in anticipation for the small catering crew Mom hired for the night to serve us.

“Jason, after dinner we’ll meet in your office. There are important financial matters we need to discuss.” Statements like this, albeit spoken between bites of a dumpling macerated in soy sauce, did not startle me. It was his way.

“Yes Sir,” I replied excited for his acknowledgment even though it fell short of a birthday recognition. My dad loved to explicate his knowledge of all matters. The topic he loved to speak on most, the one that steered and consumed him, was money. Multimillionaires many times over, his fascination with money was unequaled except by my obsession. I knew the secret to getting his attention meant discovering new ways to increase my net worth. With my allowance of seven hundred dollars a week since the age of seven, I had made several successful investments. My bank account exceeded four hundred and fifty thousand dollars.

“Five minutes is all I’ll need.”

“Sir,” I answered in dutiful fashion. My dad expected me to show respect in and out of the home. Acknowledgement of others older than me held to the courteous Sir, Mam, Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. Refusing to oblige my dad with his deserved title of “Sir” violated the worst kind of statute subjecting me to the severest of punishments. I never addressed him as Dad.

“Your mother and I will be away this weekend.” His fork dropped from his hand as he spoke and bounced several times clanging against the Italian marble floor. He and mom both ignored it. I reached to retrieve it. A caterer appeared at my side and motioned for me to hand her the defiled utensil. I placed it into her gloved hand. She thanked me, then manufactured a sterile replacement fork from mid-air and placed it on the table to the left of Dad’s dinner plate.

“Where to this time?” I asked my dad in an innocent voice far from guiltless.

“Business,” he replied with a full mouth of tangy chicken. He choked and washed down the fiasco inside his throat with a healthy swig of the urine colored Riesling.

“Traveling overseas or is this a stateside mission?” I watched the silent intensity brew between them as their eyebrows lifted at the mention of the word ‘mission’. As master specialists they were skilled in avoiding answers and divulging information. I smiled. My interrogation of them was far from finished.

“Jason.”

My dad only spoke one word, but there was so much more implied than just the rendering of my name. He was telling me to back off and abandon my current line of questioning because it could only lead one place, severe punishment. I pushed further ignoring his warnings.

“Do you have a return date?”

“When we get back.”

My dad’s abrupt manners no longer disturbed me. I was well used to it. What aggravated me most was the excessive time my parents spent outside the home. They stayed away fifty percent of the time. My suspicions entertained their involvement in something sinister. There were half a dozen things that forced me to conclude this: the black and white headshots of men and women with faces circled in black and crisscrossed with a red marker, the all too frequent impromptu trips which kept them out of the home for elongated periods of time, the late-night phone calls they did not think I knew about, the dropped conversations when I entered the room, the room in the garage which had a series of heavy duty dead bolts and locks on the door, and last but by no means least was the not so small selection of guns and knives I found in a locker in the back of my dad’s closet one day while snooping.

By age twelve every detective and spy novel from Sir Author Conan Doyle to Charles Cumming sat on my bookshelves. This led to my increased fascination regarding my parent’s work. I often fantasized about what consumed their time. Four possibilities came to the forefront of my mind. I wrote them on a list.

 

What My Parents Do for a Living

1. Detectives

This explained the late night escapades and photographic equipment they carried with them on their secret trips. They could be involved in divorce cases or spying on a spouse to discover if infidelity existed. They were targeting insurance fraud. Investigation of murder cases clarified the number of guns in their arsenal which they needed as protection.

2. Drug Dealers

They were working with the Mexican Cartel and dealing drugs on American soil. I had seen the Mexican tags on their luggage. Since they traveled the world, their trafficking was not limited to Mexico

3. Assassins

Why else have black and white head shots with a red X drawn through the faces and so much firepower in my dad’s closet? The locked door in the garage was, I assumed where they housed their more expensive and heavy-duty sniper equipment.

4. Something else.

I will wait to see what new information surfaces.

 

Each scenario had merit and seemed plausible. Difficult to believe Mom and my dad sold drugs that led to the addictions and death to kids my age especially when they were avid exercise buffs. I shuddered to think they could, at will, end the life of another person by putting a bullet through that person’s brain. Detective work or undercover covert spy activity explained things except for the copious sums of money they acquired. I cannot imagine them making much money as detectives or a parsimonious Uncle Sam compensating them with such large sums of cash. So I have resigned myself to believe my parents are without question involved in something illegal.

“We’ll be leaving early Saturday morning. Do you want me to get you a sitter?” Mom asked with a ritualistic deference to my larger-than-life ego. She knew how I would answer.

“Are you serious?” I exclaimed.

I learned to fend for myself since the age of ten infused with the perplexing methods of cooking Italian and Mediterranean cuisines. Years later my culinary skills burgeoned into a love for Cuban dishes. With plenty of meats, starches, and vegetables in the house, if I went hungry, I had no one to blame but myself. No one needed to hold the hand of Jason Kyle Draper, self-sufficient aficionado.

“Glad to hear it,” added Dad finishing up the small bits of rice eluding his chopsticks. “We raised you to become independent.”

Yes, they did. That was me, Mr. Independent. The aphorism which best described me came from a quote by Henry David Thoreau, “I never found a companion that is so companionable as solitude.” I, Jason the loner, enjoyed living in aloneness.

For dessert, the menu tempted me with two different ice-cream choices: Green Tea ice-cream or fried ice-cream. I opted for the sweltering ball of cold grease while my parents went green. Once we completed dessert and belched in approval of a sensational meal, my dad and I excused ourselves from the table and traversed our way to my office.

Our family lived in a non-gated community, a seven-bedroom palatial estate positioned on seven acres overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. My bedroom, one of the smallest, boasted a space of a thousand square feet. In addition, it showcased a magnificent view of the Atlantic Ocean. I conducted most of my business in the area designated as my office. If ever an opportunity arose to entertain guests, which had been few, my comfy lounge room sufficed for those non-business or intimate conversations.

The workout area contained a small boxing ring with kicking bag and a grappling dummy where I took out much of my frustration. Two shelves held the rest of the gear; nunchaku, sticks, batons, swords, a target which allowed me to practice throwing ninja stars, darts and knives.

The music area charmed me the most. Per my directions, builders came in and erected a reasonable size stage where I kept my grand piano and other instruments. Though I had a top-of-the-line king-size mattress in the sleep area, I slept little.

“What is this meeting about Sir?” I asked during the long walk from the dining room to my abode.

These talks between my dad and me were commonplace. Rarely did I find them productive or opportunities where we could explore new and creative ideas suffused with edifying communication. I hoped for the best while expecting the worse. We sat on opposite sides of my desk in comfortable black leather seats. He sat in my seat making his point as usual. My dad never acted without purpose so the irresoluteness I saw in his eyes surprised me.

“As you know birthdays aren’t a big deal in our home.”

News Alert! My dad hates birthdays.

I ached to speak the words, but I knew better. A verbal altercation with my dad always found me on the losing end. When that happened I had no choice but to spar with him in the ring.

“Today you turned fifteen, a kairotic moment in your life.”

Most of the time my mom and my dad spoke in one hundred and seventy-five dollar words. At fifteen, I knew many big words. Kairotic was not one of them. I watched as my dad reached inside his left jacket pocket and retrieved an envelope. For a moment, I imagined receiving my first birthday card in fifteen years a hallucination short-lived. I refused to let my obvious miscalculation of the envelope’s contents show on my face. Instead of a card, I exposed a check that incorporated my dad’s signature. The sum was for fifteen dollars.

Are you kidding me?” I wanted to yell, “fifteen dollars that’s all I’m worth to you.”

I thought of ways to destroy the rectangular piece of paper. Douse it with gasoline then light it. Rip it up in front of my dad, toss it into the air, and use a pellet gun to mangle the individual pieces even further while avoid shooting him in the face. Before I reached an internal agreement on what to do, a voice in my head reprimanded me for my irksome miscalculation of the number of zeros. I reviewed the check and counted six zeros. Not fifteen dollars.

“Fifteen million dollars?” I ejaculated unable to restrain my surprise.

“Happy Birthday,” uttered my dad.

I turned towards him, my arms open, hoping for my first hug, but like most comic book superheroes he disappeared from sight. The single sheet of paper accompanying the check listed comprehensive instructions. I was permitted to do whatever I wanted with the fifteen million dollars as long as I received unanimous approval from his personally handpicked team of financial advisors.

A few days later I met with the five consultants. Upon their advice, I invested money in the stock market, gold, foreign currency, and real estate, the latter which I found ridiculously intoxicating. I purchased several dozen bankrupted and foreclosed properties rehabbed the majority of them while holding onto the rest. The first half I sold for a profit while the second half I turned into rental properties. Drilled into me by my advisors no less than a dozen times a day, was the necessity of having residual income. Thus, I purchased an apartment complex, and a shopping mall located in my home city of Vero Beach, Florida.

I doubt I will ever forget the day I turned fifteen. There was no cake, no party, not even the slightest recognition of my coming of age other than a million dollars for each year of survival on this earth. On that day, I took full advantage of my dad’s gift and struck out to build an empire that would make me the richest boy in the world, and force him to love me once and for all.

 

 

 

A Year Later

Chapter Two

 

 

Happy Birthday to you;

Happy Birthday to you;

Happy Birthday dear Jason;

Happy Birthday to you.”

 

For the first time in my life, Mom sang the song out loud. Sixteen-year-old boys should never cry, but I failed in my attempt to fight the onslaught of tears perforating my tear ducks. The inaugural moment moved me. Mom and I were home together. With my dad gone on one of his spontaneous trips, she explored the birthday event in-depth. After we consumed the full plates of catered Cuban cuisine, Mom brought out a small German chocolate birthday cake to the table. The decorated cake contained festive accoutrements including my name written in cursive dark chocolate icing and sixteen teeny candles which glowed red and orange. Larger than a cupcake but not as big as a traditional dessert, I understood without prompting, my birthday dessert needed to be eaten in one sitting. Any leftovers indicated a formal celebration had taken place in my dad’s absence. I smiled at her through the rising inferno.

She smiled back.

“Make a wish.” Bizarre words from Mom.

In the Drayper household, we did not make wishes certainly not on candles or the anterior evening star. Instead, we set goals and developed strategic formulas to achieve them. In my universe, this was how it worked, and for all intents and purposes would always work. To please Mom, I closed my eyes. Unsure of what to do next, I lamented my fate. Most kids my age performed this action more than fourteen times in their lifetime. Not me. I sat there hating every moment. The impromptu exercise aroused feelings of anger, and I grieved what I believed to be the loss of an innocent childhood. After a few seconds, I opened my eyes keeping them focused towards the floor. I felt humiliated that I, Jason Drayper, financial extraordinaire, struggled to carry out a straightforward task.

Embarrassed, my eyes focused on the waxy globs forming on the cake. Seconds before the cake ignited I blew my hardest extinguishing half of the candles. Two more attempts snuffed out the roaring flames.

“It’s simple, wish for what you want.”

I assumed the stimulus of the wish became invalid if I blew out the flames before making the wish? No matter.

“I have everything I want.”

“Do you now?” Mom asked.

As rich as I was it did nothing to repudiate the incompleteness and poverty of the relationship with my dad.

“This exercise is childish,” I replied. “Sir would not approve.”

Mom ignored my snit. “Jason, do me a favor and humor me.”

With reluctance, I re-closed my eyes. During the silence I recognized this was not my first wish. In fact, this exercise of Mom’s exposed the regularity of which I performed this ritual. Each night I restated these exact words, “I wish my dad loved me.”

A description of my dad’s and my relationship can be accomplished using a single word: dissatisfying. I disappoint him and conversely he never ceases to frustrate me. Every cent I have I would give up to experience his love just once. I dream for the day he reaches out and touches me; a hug, a kiss, a slap on the shoulder; a physical realization that clues me into how important I am to him never leave me. Until that day comes I will continue to appease my dad by making as much money as I can.

Today as I met with my advisors I discovered good news regarding my net worth. In three hundred and sixty-five days from when Dad conferred upon me the fifteen million dollars, I’d added just under seventeen million more. My net worth stood over thirty million dollars. How was that for fiduciary acumen? Guess who refused to show up and celebrate?

My temperament should have exuded delirious excitement. Sixteen year olds with this kind of cash rule the world. Imagine a child standing in a candy shop surrounded by the satisfying smells and sights of rainbow colored sweets having Mom’s permission to buy whatever they desired. This was my situation. Rather than jump for joy, I bemoaned the one unfulfilled need in my life.

“Jason.” Mom repeated my name several more time before I turned to acknowledge her.

“I am fine,” I lied. “I was thinking how wonderful it will be when school starts. I wished for world-class instructors, innovative educators who will challenge me.”

“Come now Jason, is that what you were thinking?”

“Mom, stop reading my mind. I hate when you do that. I was thinking about Sir okay?”

“So why lie?”

“Certain rituals demand privacy. Make a wish, remember?” Mom’s uncanny way of picking up on my brainwaves and transforming them into intelligible words often made me hesitant to be near her. “Sir and I are like oil and water,” I sighed. “Despite our familial association the fusion of our differences will keep us separate no matter how much I wish.”

“That’s not true,” replied Mom wanting to defend her man, but knowing deep down her soulmate had unresolved issues.

Never having met my grandparents, I could only assume my dad’s parents were as dysfunctional as my folks, otherwise the parenting manual they used was as worthless as a chewed piece of gum.

“He’s changed since you were born.”

“Not enough for me.”

I stared outside the window. Even though the time on the clock read eight fifteen p.m., daylight savings time meant at least another hour of lingering sunshine. Young children raced along the beach while parents shoved blankets and plastic toys into straw baskets, filled coolers with scattered trash, and folded lounge chairs bringing to climax another perfect summer day.

“Give it time.”

Give it time. Words uttered to placate my anger. They meant nothing anymore. I could, quote unquote, wish her words to be true. My reality was different. History showed me the pointlessness of wishing. After I excused myself from the table, I kissed Mom and thanked her for a wonderful birthday.

“I love you,” she offered.

Quick strides brought me to her in an instant. We hugged as I lifted her off of her feet. “I love you too,” I replied my heart filled with a bout of joy.

Careful to grab my dessert, my hand cupped underneath the cake to prevent crumbs from dive-bombing to the hallway floor. Once I reached my room, I sauntered over to the entertainment area and devoured the dessert. Mom told me she made it herself from scratch. It made my top-ten list of succulent sweets.

A few minutes later I donned my gi and hopped into the ring and worked out for an hour and a half. The sweat cascaded from my body and created a small pool of water on the mat.

I took to the shower and let the water cleanse my soiled body. I watched as the light brown water swirled into the drain. Regrettably, my anger, my hurt, and my loneliness did not rinse away. Major scouring of monumental proportions would be needed to erase that pain. It upset me that my dad did not think it important enough to call me on my one special day. This last year I went beyond the call of duty to please him. And my prize? Nothing.

Before grabbing my new copy of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and heading to my bed, I surfed the net. My dad is a staunch believer in filling up the entire twenty-four hours and convinced that sleep is one of life’s greatest distractions and resource-busters. Till this day I close my eyes for a maximum of four hours a night. Additional time beyond that is mis-employing my time. When I sleep, dreaming is rare and never in color.

Fifteen pages into the novel my eyes drooped. I sat up abruptly hoping to put the sleep at bay. Three minutes of uninterrupted reading followed until my eyelids betrayed me. Time for war. Purposefully I slapped my face. Ouch. This move generated another five minutes of semi-consciousness, so I repeated the move twice more with triple hopes. The aggregation of sleep deprivation won out and my exhausted body sagged into the mattress.

Several years before, I installed a tiny camera and alarm outside my door to alert me to any directional movement towards my room. When the alarm sounded I had ten seconds to be somewhere else in the room other than my bed. So far, my parents maintained their distance endorsing my ardent need for privacy.

Unable to resist any longer, I closed the book, and tossed it on the table beside my bed. I glanced at the clock. It read 1:00 a.m., an hour earlier than when I usually surrendered to sleep.

Chapter Three

 

 

It proved to be one of those atypical mornings in Vero Beach where the stubborn sun refused to fulfill its obligation to the sunshine state. The mixture of white and dark low level clouds fashioned a depressive gray drizzle and coated the entire city. Disappointed tourists altered plans. Students waiting for the bus pronounced curses upon Mother Nature. Outdoor activities around the county would be postponed. For the average Floridian who felt impervious to the rain, either concede and carry an umbrella or suffer the ramifications of that ill-advised stance.

That morning my world turned evil.

Four days into forced summer school the rickety yellow bus dropped me off at the usual stop. I refused to carry an umbrella, so I held my backpack above my head and ran to the portable hoping to avoid soggy shoes as I leapt with grace over the puddles. That is when I saw the three twelfth grade bullies leaning back against the portables waiting for me. On the first day of school unbeknownst to the other students, I bought lunch for the entire sophomore class. Word leaked about my generous gesture and these bullies viewed me as an easy touch. For three days they goaded me, hoping for a response. I had no problem ignoring them. Today their quizzical stares suggested the consideration of a different approach.

These boys grabbed me and forced me to a secluded space behind one of the portables. The biggest boy put his arm around my neck and applied a chokehold limiting the flow of blood to my brain. The second boy severed the straps of my backpack as he ripped it from my torso dumping the contents in haphazard fashion onto the ground. A thorough search revealed nothing more than a few school supplies and a brown-bagged lunch. Boy three, forced his hands into my jean pockets expecting to find cash. His hands came back with a dollar in loose change which he threw to the ground in disgust.

Urged by the leader, the boy with his arm around my neck released his grip and formed a triangle around me with the other two. I was the David amongst a triad of Goliath’s. I stooped to gather my scattered belongings when the leader of this disorganized gang of juniors kicked my unzipped pack high into the air. Notebook sheets fluttered at random littering the ground like snow on a wintry day. Next he stomped on my lunch forcing the contents of the bag to blend. He kicked the soiled bag towards me. I moved out of the way and the bag splattered chicken salad, chocolate pudding, and kiwi onto the pants leg of one bully.

“Drayper,” said the leader, “each day when you come to school you will pay us a fee.”

“A fee for what?” I asked.

“Protection.”

“Protection from what?”

“Bad stuff that might happen to you. Your head could be forced into the toilet or shoved into the lockers or somebody kicks you in the hallway. Ever been hung upside down on the second floor stairwell.”

“How many guys are under your protection?” I asked.

“Somewhere around seven.” His tone wreaked with an air of supremacy. We’re looking to expand our enterprise and increase that number.” His toothy grin showed two rows of off-color teeth. His northeastern urban drawl made him sound tough.

“Not interested,” I replied and headed to class. One boy pushed me back.

“I don’t think you understand Drayper. You will pay us a hundred dollars each day or you’ll wish you were back in middle school.”

My initial feelings of amusement fumed into minor annoyance until I smoked with full-fledged outrage. Invisible puffs of heated smoke rose from my nostrils. Had I been a dragon a single breath would have consumed them. Even before attending high school these guys’ reputations, if you can call it that, preceded them. I tolerated their antics.

Not any longer.

“If I pay you five hundred dollars a week you promise to protect me, and if I refuse you will make my life unbearable? Is that the gist of it?”

“You’re pretty smart for a rich sophomore. What’s it going to be Drayper?”

“In truth, I am surprised you yielded to five hundred dollars. You know my net worth is over thirty million dollars.” I watched as surprise mushroomed across their faces. “Had no clue huh?”

“You mean you’re going to pay us?”

“No, you idiot. I wanted you to know you should have asked for a lot more.”

Shocked by my response, the boys’ confidence shrunk. Inwardly they expected me to comply and pay them money. Infuriation propelled their actions. They moved in towards me rhythmically pounding their fists into their hands. What, was this Westside Story? In the next few seconds they would execute retribution for my insolence. I welcomed it and felt adrenaline discharge throughout my body. My blood heated and moved with a rush raising my core temperature. My muscles enlarged.

No one could blame me for what happened next.

I watched as the leader nodded to the bully behind me. He grabbed me from the back circling his hands around my chest leaving my head and his face wide open for a rear assault. With a quick snap, I hurled my head backwards and felt the cartilage of his nose give way. He released his grip and yelled out in agony. The boy who had given the orders rushed towards me with his arm out prepared to take a swing. I caught his hand in midair, bent his wrist back, and forced him into a kneeling position. I took my knee and shoved it into his chin. His body lifted from the ground before descending and hitting it hard. He could only scream through clenched teeth. I had broken his jaw.

The last boy tackled me to the ground. I used both of my elbows and head and flung them backwards paralyzing him enough to get back on my feet. Obvious facial wounds and bruised bodies refused to roadblock the three boys who kept coming after me. I admired their fight. For the next few seconds, I punched and kicked never once losing control. I was heading to the principal’s office of my own volition when the group of security guards and teachers arrived to break up the fight.

The seniors were taken by ambulances to Indian River Medical Center in Vero Beach.

The principal suspended me on-the-spot rebuffing me an opportunity to tell my side of the story. Summoned to the school, Mom met with the principal. She dressed in a dark blue two-piece business outfit with white blouse and yellow scarf swathed around her neck her usual clothing of choice. The principal gave her a one-sided recap of the fight. I objected out loud to his biased narrative. His splotchy complexion reared red. He barked at me, and Mom howled back.

“Why aren’t the other boys facing suspensions,” she asked with suspicion?

“I have an eyewitness who claims Jason initiated the brawl,” replied Principal Grogan.

“That’s absurd. I want to talk to this eyewitness.”

“That won’t be possible.”

“Then maybe you can explain how my son subdued three twelfth graders, forced each to the back of the school grounds, and beat them senseless?”

“Have you seen your son fight? There are three seniors in the hospital right now. One has a broken jaw; another a broken nose, not to mention their body-laden bruises at the hands of Jason’s ruthless attack. I’ve got a football coach out there steaming mad. I’ve got parents ready to sue.”

“The only reason my son fights is to protect himself.”

“From what?”

“From the bullies who run this school and the middle school before that. You’ve done nothing to allay the problem. You can’t think the parents or the community for that matter are oblivious to what happens here. If you took one moment to listen to Jason’s side of the story, you’d see they accosted him. And you can add extortion to their list of indiscretions.”

“Mrs. Drayper, if your son hadn’t been throwing his money around in the first place we could have avoided this entire incident.”

“So that’s what this is about? He bought lunch for the entire tenth grade class as a gesture of goodwill. He came to you before the school year began and informed you. If I remember correctly, you conveyed delight by his generosity and approved the request. Someone at the school leaked the information.”

Mom’s eyes darkened.

“Other than being the principal, what’s your relationship to the three seniors?” Mom asked.

“That’s none of your business.”

There were words one could say to my mom and words better left unsaid. His words settled into the latter category.

“I beg your pardon?”

Mom got up from her seat and stood in front of the principal, a showdown if I ever saw one. My heart pounded with pride as her verbal assault laid into him. When my mom stood at full height she reached six feet. High heels only made her a more formidable adversary. Somewhere during her scolding, the principal admitted making a mistake by misappropriating the information. Too late for reconciliation, Mom enrolled me into a brand new high school, later that day.

The moment we arrived home I jumped on the leather couch in the living room and laid back with my feet draped over the arm rest. Silk drapes retracted from the open window allowed the vestiges of the cool drizzling morning air to ventilate the house. Mom sat on the loveseat opposite me. Now I waited for the verbal lashing. Instead, she sighed with a breathy drone.

“Sorry Mom, I screwed up.”

“You couldn’t help it Jason. There’s no place for bullying in the school, the internet or anywhere else. Between you and me they got what they deserved. Now you see why your training is so important. They might have hurt you. Your reactions need to be quick, decisive, and involuntary.”

The smile from her lips ushered warmth into my heart.

“Sir will see it differently.”

“Jason, you know his rules when it comes to fighting.”

Implacable guidelines made my dad different from other dads. Besides financial instruction, he made sure I received training in martial arts. By the ninth grade I earned a fourth degree black belt in taekwondo. The problem with my fighting is that my dad forbade it unless it was within the confines of a supervised dojo. His concern was for the others I might hurt. With unrivaled skills at my disposal, I could kill eight different ways. That did not include throwing a person off a cliff, incapacitation using a throwing star or blood-forced trauma by running them headlong into a wall.

“No way to keep this from Dad?”

“Don’t ask me that.”

“He will react decisively.”

“And you’re a big boy now. You’ve been trained to handle yourself.”

“Not against Dad,” I yelled.

“You could if you tried.”

And there it was. Every miscalculation on my part or on the part of others targeted me as the culprit. Rare were the occasions when my parents accepted responsibility for their part in my emotional and physical development. Once again Mom invaded my private thoughts.

“Seventeen years your father and I have been married Jason. Our parenting style is unorthodox, but I’ve no doubt your father wants the best for you. In the long run we believe, you’ll thrive from the training. He’s trying to prepare you for…”

Another dropped sentence. What was my dad was grooming me for? Pushing Mom on the issue never worked. She shifted into a frozen silence. That was my cue. I needed to prepare for my dad’s return. Infuriated from my expulsion, my punishment would entail entering the ring with him where he would through the pretext of character building beat the living crap out of me.

Chapter Four

 

 

I let the waves of the music wash over my spirit as I lay on the bed. This worshipful experience transported me to places the real world refused to take me. Most nights as a ritual before bed, my mp3 player delivered the fusion of harmonic and melodic compositions Mozart, Bach, Schubert, and others through my wireless headset. In the morning, I awoke refreshed, equipped to confront the physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges head-on for one more day.

Tonight’s standard routine fell to the curb. Precisely at two a.m., just as I had turned off the light and flicked on my music preparing to go to sleep, my dad entered the room unannounced. He turned on the brightest light, the one which illuminated the entire room and walked to the bed. I readied myself for a conversation where there was no upside. As I pressed the pause button eclipsing what would have a good mood, I speculated at the glitch in my sophisticated alarm.

I need to replace it first thing tomorrow.

“Everything okay Sir?” I asked knowing why he had come.

“I understand you were in a fight.”

Like always, my dad avoided small talk and shot straight to the point. I went on the defensive.

“It was not my fault. Three twelfth graders jumped me.”

“Jason, you know my views on fighting.”

“I know, and I did my best to avoid it.”

“What should you have done?”

“Come on Sir, give me a frikkin break.”

“What did you say?”

“Ah…” I mumbled, “I should have walked away.”

“So why didn’t you?”

Gee I wonder, could it be that three of them were bent on pounding my head into the ground?

I contemplated the words for several more seconds.

“I wish it had it been that simple,” I said. “They came after me. What good is learning martial arts if defending myself, something you have trained me to do I might add, ends up with me in the ring?”

“Defend yourself. Is that what you call it? You nearly killed those boys.”

“They are only alive because I let them live.”

I knew the comment was out of line, but pride got the best of me. I tossed the covers back, jumped out of bed, and entered the ring. My gi was hanging on a hook next to the cabinet which held my martial arts gear. I put on the two-piece thick cotton wrapping and tied the black belt firm around my waist. When my dad entered my room, he was wearing his black colored gi. It did not matter what verbal defense I offered, he planned on teaching me a lesson.

The ring resembled a traditional wrestling ring only smaller. Three ring ropes formed the square boundaries held together by padded turnbuckles. High-grade foam made up the mat to absorb the shock of what would soon be my falling body.

Between the ages of five and fourteen when I entered the ring with my dad I wore protective gear: a helmet, and chest and thigh pads. The arrival of fifteen saw the wayside of padding. Now when my dad and I fought, it was a full contact free-for-all display. We entered the ring from opposite sides.

“I can’t believe you had the audacity to disregard my rules.” He grabbed the top rope with both hands and squatted several times on the pretense of warming his body. Thirty seconds and he would have me immobilized.

“Sir,” I said, “suggest an option I did not consider.”

Instead of elongating my muscles as any good athlete should, I leaned against the ropes waiting for him to finish his warm-up ritual.

“Make better choices.” He turned to face me.

I wanted to strangle him.

“Right, because you’re so perfect.”

“What was that?”

“Forget it. Nothing I say will change your mind.” I weaved through the ropes into the ring. “I hope you find comfort in humbling me yet again.”

“Jason, whatever you think of me I don’t enjoy this.” The smirk on his face told a different story implicating him in his colloquy of deceit.

“The hell you don’t.”

He flew from across the ring and landed his right foot on my left cheek. I did a full twist and fell back against the flexible ropes and back towards him. I offered no defense as he pummeled my body. Application of the submission hold forced my hand to tap the mat. He did not let up right away. I wanted to cry. Not in front of him.

“I’m glad we had this talk,” he said releasing me. “In the future, I’m sure you’ll do things differently.”

He left my room. The clock read two thirty which meant I had four and a half hours before I had to leave for school. I crawled to the bathroom and filled the Jacuzzi tub with water so blistering I had to add cold water to get it hot. Every muscle in my body pulsated with pain; my mind abounded with shame. Even with a sixth degree black belt I was no match for my dad. Thus, in my mind, it made no sense to fight him. I poured half a box of Chinese minerals into the tub. It attacked the pain right away, and I fell asleep to the comforting sound of bubbling water.

Morning came early. I awoke to the sound of my alarm, a locomotive train passing through an intersection with its horn blaring. My hand reached out to strangle my nemesis and tapped the snooze button. My body ached. I must have hit the screen several more times without knowing it because when at last I focused on the clock, I had just thirty minutes to be in my seat when the bell sounded for first period. To make it on time, I skipped my morning shower and dressed.

Excitement simmered in me as I contemplated a dream come true. The music program in my previous school suffered from poor quality teaching to dismal music choices. Mom enrolled me in a school whose orchestral instructor was renowned for his time in the Philharmonic.

Made to take piano lessons at the age of four. I had no choice but to follow my dad’s intense practice regime. In short order I learned to read notes and appreciate the complex nuances of music. At seven he bought me a Gibson acoustic guitar and told me I had a year to master it. Every year after that he introduced another instrument. I had become a classical expert at the guitar, piano, trumpet, and saxophone.

At the age of eight, I made a personal goal to write at least one song per week. By the tenth grade three hundred songs filled my repertoire and I learned to play a dozen instruments.

When I arrived in class Mr. Oswald, the advanced orchestra teacher, introduced me to the students. My audition, if you will, was to sight-read a piano concerto by Composer Dmitri Shostakovich; Concerto in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and String Orchestra. He handed me the music and waited as I perused it. A trumpet player joined me at the grand piano. This was a composition she knew from heart as she brought no music with her.

The class stilled as I played. Halfway through my mini recital, Mr. Oswald waved his hands. The trumpeter and I returned to our seats. Without another word he continued with class. I suppose I passed the audition albeit his eccentric methods. His differences were not limited to his classroom etiquette. He dressed unconventionally. His hair was long, braided, and blonde with white twinges just around the sideburns. He wore copper metal frame glasses with circular lenses which accentuate his round hazel colored eyes. A light colored suit with a pastel colored bowtie made him seem more peculiar. His disregard for more acceptable dress styles could not nullify the musical genius of this man. He spent two decades traveling around the world playing in orchestras until he decided to share his knowledge of music with students.

“Today class we delve into something different. Mr. Drayper,” he asked looking at me, “what can you tell me of the technique of compositional extemporization?” Unaware of the term, I did understand the individual meaning of both words.

“Musical Improvisation allows a musician to take any composition and individualize it to fit his or her style. The creative act is spontaneous pitted against the structure of the composition.”

“That’s correct Mr. Drayper. In classical music there is no variation from the written notes. But if you’re familiar with jazz and blues you’ll discover much of what you hear is music improvised on the spot. This is not to say these artists are classically illiterate. On the contrary, many learned classical music at an early age before switching genres.

“Today, we deviate from our classical roots and will delve into the genre of jazz.”

A vacuumed hush followed the groans of the class. I concurred. The note was on the page because the composer wanted it there. Imagine if in an orchestra, violins suddenly improvised at will. I say leave well enough alone. Time signatures, notes, and accidentals were what mattered in music. If you could perfect that, then you were an accomplished musician. Improvisation meant stepping out of the box and no longer hiding behind the systematic scattering of quarter, eighth, sixteenth, thirty second, and sixty fourth black notes not to mention the incumbent accidentals smattered throughout the composition.

Mr. Oswald ignored our objections and continued.

“You’ll notice in your folders I have included a simple jazz piece to explore in our time together. For the rest of this semester we will consider jazz and other genres.” More groans. Mr. Oswald sat on his desk. His feet dangled in front of us. I heard this man was not only a genius at his craft, but possessed the ability to lure students into a challenge to shake their foundation and make them better musicians, if they so choose. “For twenty years I played classical music. And by chance I happened by a street band where I observed a young lad no older than fifteen strike that cello willing whine whatever sound he wanted. None of the musicians had music and yet I found the composition so delightfully entertaining. That night I went home and did something I’ve never done.” He paused as the memory filled his mind.

“What was that Mr. Oswald?” a student asked.

He looked up from his muse, “I played non-classical music for the first time. My first instrument was the piano. Over the years an uncle of mine sent me compositions, non-classical compositions which I refused to play. That night I pulled out a piece called The Entertainer composed by Scott Joplin. I played the notes without the smoothness Joplin intended. To the trained classical ear, it sounded harsh as if my fingers had become the hooves of Clydesdales.”

“You stomped all over that music Mr. Oswald?” another voice called from the back of the room.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“So what did you do?”

“The same thing you’ll be doing after today.”

“Practice.” The voices behind me ached into a sigh.

“That’s right class, practice. I’ve heard it said the greatest impromptu artists have the music breathing inside of them. Destiny sought them out from birth to play or sing without boundaries. That’s a load of hogwash.” Laughter erupted from the class. “Granted the world is full of musical geniuses born with superior abilities. Most musicians, and that includes me, had to practice. Even to this day I attend jazz clubs every week. And if I’m fortunate, a combo will let me sit in.”

His modesty took me back.

“You play jazz Mr. Oswald,” another voice asked in surprise.

“I dabble,” he smiled. “Take a second and scan the music. Then internalize it.”

We obeyed and ran through the music in our minds.

“Let’s play it through a few times then we’ll commence with today’s exercise.” The first run-through was excellent. No surprise there. Every student in the class proved mastery over sight reading.

“Okay,” said Mr. Oswald, “now we’ll play it again and this time when we get to measures twelve through thirty-six I’m going to point to one of you. You can play whatever you want as long as you’re not reduplicating the exact notes on the page.”

A deeper groan swept throughout the classroom. As the band played Mr. Oswald pointed to a student. I learned Brooklyn was the top violinist in school next to Mr. Oswald. The moment she forced the bow across the strings the entire class knew something was wrong. It sounded as if this was her first time on the violin. The nasal twangs of the notes made every hair on my body stand erect. During my turn, I tried my best to attack the keys alternating between six different notes. My playing fizzled.

This rudimentary exercise frustrated me because I had no mastery over it. It also emboldened me. Ninety-five percent of the music I wrote throughout the years was non-classical. I had termed it as contemporary compositions or arrangements. I never realized how similar my musical voice was to that of jazz. That afternoon when I returned home I listened to a plethora of great jazz and big band artists. Each musician brought his or her own uniqueness to the music. I practiced hours a day playing note for note what they played. When I became comfortable with their style, I began improvising. From that one exercise, my entire appreciation for music shifted focus. No longer was I driven by the classical masters. A new found inspiration and appreciation erupted from within me as I immersed myself into the new sounds of jazz and big band music.

According to Mr. Oswald jazz musicians were always coming to Vero Beach to perform. Since that class, I visited many jazz and blues clubs, and attended the performances at the art center where I observed the greatest jazz musicians and vocalists in the world. This percussive exposure to something different changed my life.

Over the ensuing weeks my love for music continued to intensify until it was difficult to distinguish between my love for money and my love for music. Ideas tempted me as I entertained ways to merge my desire for both. It needed to be something grandiose, something innovative, and something to make the world sit up and take notice. I opened my mind hoping fresh thoughts might take root and birth an unprecedented idea. Nothing came to mind. I decided it best to table this dream until the right plan presented itself.

One day a new girl appeared in class. Mr. Oswald gave her an opportunity to audition. I think his reasoning for this was twofold: to make sure the student retained superior music ability and in addition, to countervail the all-embracing vanity that students of this caliber carried with them as an impervious mantra. Astute listening, especially to a gifted musician, minimized feelings of superiority and highlighted one’s imperfections. It could propel the listener to new heights as they extracted bits and pieces from that performer which could advance their on gifts.

“What instrument would you like me to play?” she asked with the innocence of a young child. A quiet murmur circled the room. I ignored it. This girl exuded a buoyancy that excluded the self-exaggerated opinion of herself.

“How about the guitar?” Mr. Oswald asked intrigued with her assuredness and extreme lack of fear. He placed sheet music in front of her. It was Joaquin Rodrigo Vidre’s Fantasia Para un Gentilhombre. She looked the music over for a few seconds. In the front of the room, on individual stands, stood two guitars. One was for a righty the other for a left-handed player. When she picked up the left-handed guitar and held it as a right-hander my breath halted. I heard more murmuring. The new girl would crash and burn in a matter of seconds. I cringed desperately wanting to call out and warn her. She stared at me with glazed eyes that focused in seconds.

The second her fingers strummed the strings music emerged. The girl was playing the music on a left-handed guitar as right-hander. She strummed the guitar from the bottom up and her fingers reversed the fingering of her right fingers. Prolific silence permeated the room. No one breathed now.

Mr. Oswald stepped toward the new girl. “Thank you.” He said nothing more.

To top off her music the new girl had a smile that melted me into chocolate. Even in her simple dress style of white shorts and a pink blouse she could not have looked any more elegant. If she wore makeup, I did not notice. I could not take my eyes off her the entire period. Perceiving my penetrating gaze, she looked my direction several times. Afraid she might catch me staring I turned away, but it was too late. Her eyes synched with mine establishing a connection. My heart beat faster; the rest of the day I struggled to concentrate in any of my classes.

Something was wrong with me.

Later that evening I spoke to mom in respect to my physical condition.

“What you’re going through is normal for a boy your age. Your body is changing…”

“…Mom, I know the particulars of sex.”

“Jason, I’m not talking about sex. I’m referring to the miraculous event when a powerful connection occurs between two people.”

I started to interrupt.

Mom asked, “Do you like this girl?”

“Nowhere near ready to have babies if that is what you mean.”

Mom ignored my snide comment and smiled. “Do you like her?” she asked a second time.

Sure, I liked her, but if she did not return my affection, what good were my feelings? Even at my age I knew love could not be just one-sided.

“Yeah, so what?”

Mom looked into my eyes understanding my dilemma. “Do you want to share what’s really bothering you Jason?” I knew what was troubling me and so did Mom. I needed to be more careful projecting my thoughts her way.

“You don’t trust her,” do you?

“I trust no one.”

“Not everyone is after your money Jason.”

“I will tell you when I meet one of them,” I responded in haste.

“You won’t meet any unless you’re willing to dismantle the wall you erected first.”

“No way Mom. Remember what happened last time.”

Six months’ prior a boy named Karl and his family moved in across the street. As natives of New York City they struggled with the insouciant lifestyle. Karl’s father was a scam artist and wanted my dad to team up with him in a Ponzi scheme. The five-million-dollar payout meant defrauding others of their hard-earned cash. Karl and I spent a great deal of time together. What I did not know was that his sole reason for befriending me was so his father could have access to my dad.

For a short time in my life, I was a kid until Karl and his father decimated any semblance of youthfulness. The impenetrable wall I created as a consequence encircled me. I swore myself away from hurt again. The only person I let in my life was Mom and now Mr. Oswald. I could not shake the sensation this girl had come into my life for a reason.

“Jason, I’ve never seen a girl affect you this way.”

“So what do I do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Pursue the relationship,” I said surprising myself.

“That’s great Jason,” my mom replied. “So if you decide a relationship with this girl is something worth chasing, give her an opportunity to earn your trust, but remember to take baby steps. You can’t trust someone right away, it takes time.”

“How do I trust her?”

“When you were young, I offered you worthless bits of information. If you shared it with your dad or someone else, it didn’t matter. When I knew I could trust you with small things I trusted you with larger things. It took to age nine before I trusted you implicitly.”

Not implicitly, I wanted to say, but now was not the time to go into the disquietude that overtook me when my parents were the topic of conversation. At the moment, Colby was the foremost thing on my mind. Adherence to Mom’s advice in relation to trust made sense. Colby needed to earn my trust. One opportunity is all I would give her. First, I needed to meet her.

Chapter Five

 

 

I continued to watch my investments and bank accounts burgeon until in my pretentiousness I made a purchase without permission from my advisory team. One day my dad entered my room for one of our scheduled talks. Sundays, were his day of choice if he happened to be in town. A text message listing the time and topics of our meetings for the following week beeped like clockwork.

He sat on the purple leather couch. His body as rigid as our relationship. Our talks were never lengthy. Precise decoding of his facial expressions were my only method to judge whether he was coming to praise me for my business savvy or reprimand me for one of my many personal shortcomings.

“I understand you bought two wave runners the other day.” Often he initiated a conversation by questioning a financial decision of which he did not approve.

“You should see them Sir. One is turquoise with these deep magenta stripes. The other is…” He interrupted. My mouth shut in disgust. The tone of our talk was indisputable.

“You’re making ill-advised purchases.”

“Sir, we live on the beach.”

“Jason, what have I told you about money?”

Unsure how to respond, I kept silent. My dad and my conversations always centered on money. The correct answer resided somewhere within a million possibilities.

“Jason?”

Shrugged shoulders implied disrespect. Better to sound ignorant. “Give me a hint.”

“You’re unbelievable sometimes.” His retort stung. “I’m referring to the deceptiveness of extreme purchasing. Acquisitional procurements for purposes of making you feel good about yourself are never appropriate. I’ve told you time and time again what happens when feelings and money become intertwined.”

As I blinked, a slideshow of every money talk we had flipped forward. Eventually one image stopped as if jammed in the projector. It was somewhere after my seventh birthday. Now I remembered.

“Emotional attachment to money is the beginning of financial ruin,” I replied.

“Jason, when you become an adult and reach financial independence there will be plenty time for fun and frivolous spending. Now is the time…”

He paused for me to finish the sentence.

“…to get as much knowledge and preparedness as I can.”

“Good. I’m glad we had this talk.”

He stood and walked away. I took a deep breath. I had something to ask him though I had a good idea of his response. My internal struggle continued until he was right at the door.

“Sir,” I said, “want to try the wave runners out on the beach this afternoon?”

His stinging reply will forever be catalogued into the archives of my mind. He lifted his arms up in frustration. The frown encompassed his entire face from forehead to chin.

“Jason, what have I told you when it comes to wasting time?”

“We could do it together.”

“Jason, I’m getting ready to go out of town. I won’t be back for a week. Okay?”

In deference to my dad, ditching an answer was imprudent.

“Jason?”

“Yes sir. Where are you going this time?”

“I can’t discuss my work.”

I waited. Now came the moment where he switched the conversation and focused on me.

“Have you practiced your instruments today?”

“Not yet.”

“Then get to it. I want forty minutes on each instrument not a minute less?”

“Yes sir.”

I waited till he left before I ran over to the ring and began like an out-of- control man punching and kicking the bag. This hatred for my dad was taking over me. With each attack at the bag I thought of him. After a while, the anger started to dissipate. Before I exhausted myself, Mom buzzed me on the intercom asking that I join her in the kitchen.

I walked the long picture-filled hall in ear-splitting silence. The walls abounded with photographs of Mom and me, pictures of Mom and my dad, and individual pictures of the three of us. Only one picture captured me with my dad. A photograph of the day Mom gave birth to me. Even in that photograph he refused to hold me close. Instead, He held me away from him afraid I might sabotage his dark Gucci suit.

When I reached the kitchen Mom, and I sat at the handmade cherry-wood table a project of my dad’s. She pushed aside the ceramic vase of languishing long stem white roses he had given her for their seventeenth anniversary and handed me a cup of steaming cocoa. On the small table next to the wall, I noticed several black and white pictures circled with a black Sharpie. Only one of them had a red X crisscrossed over the face. My mom noticed me staring and in unperturbed fashion got up and placed the pictures into a drawer which she locked with a small gold key that hung around her neck. She returned to the table. Desperate to ask her about the photos, I held back. There were more pressing things on my mind.

“Jason,” she mused, “is everything okay?”

“Of course,” I replied my voice abrupt.

“Upset your father is going away?”

Again mom pinpointed my discomfort. For a moment, I wanted to karate-chop the table and kick-throw the vase through the bay window. Instead I kept my composure. My dad was still in the house. I did not need him walking in on the middle of an adolescent temper tantrum.

“Why is he always too busy for me?”

“Jason, we’ve had this conversation so many times.”

“Mom, I cannot get my head around it. Does he love me?”

“Of course he does.”

“Are you sure? I never hear the words come from his mouth.”

Mom blew her breath in exasperation. Her lips fluttered until the final bit of carbon dioxide expelled from her mouth. Surely she encountered irresoluteness as she ruminated on the man she married and the father he had become. Her loyalty to him or me was never in question. She reached forward to take a sip of her cocoa. Her long hair fell in front of her shoulders. She pushed it back. Her hair showed early signs of grey. Mom looked forward to aging gracefully.

“You don’t understand Jason. Your father’s a very complicated and busy man. His job just won’t allow him to…”

And then the infamous mid-sentence-stop. They were too common in my family. My parents wanted me to discern a truth while simultaneously declining to trust me with the information

“…but he wants what’s best for you. You’ve got to believe that.”

I put my hands around the large ceramic cup warming them. The design was of an aboriginal hunter using a boomerang to disable his prey. Made of basic colors: brown and red pigment, it had become my favorite cup. My parents bought the set of handmade mugs on a recent trip to the Northern Territory in Australia. I took a sip of the murky colored drink inside not sure what to say next. The scalding liquid burned the tip of my tongue.

Ouch.

I ran my tongue across the backside of my teeth hoping to offset the discomfort. I knew how this conversation ended. “Give it time.” Then she would promise change. My mom mirrored my thoughts with a sad smile. I took another sip of cocoa hoping to swallow the hurt and anger. This time a soggy marshmallow slid into my throat. I regurgitated it back up into my mouth and mashed it between my tongue and teeth and swallowed again.

“I’m leaving now,” said Dad surprised to see me in the kitchen.

“Be safe,” Mom said. She got up from the table and kissed him passionately on the lips as if it might be their last time together.

By my dad’s response and the re-response from my mom, this was not an act for either of them. They loved one another. How come love for me wasn’t expressed with a similar connectivity minus the kissing?

My dad looked at the little table. “Where’s the…” He stopped mid-sentence.

Wow, two within two minutes of one another. This must be a world record.

“Shouldn’t you be practicing?” he asked me.

“Yes sir. I am going right now.”

I left the kitchen but hid around the corner.

“It’s time you trusted him,” said my mom.

“He’s not ready yet,” my dad replied.

Ready for what I wondered?

“He’s asking questions.”

“What kind?”

“He’s curious why his relationship with you is so exasperating.”

“Jason needs to grow up and take on the reigns of manhood. I don’t understand why he’s still holding back. I have given him every opportunity, but he refuses to take advantage.”

“Give him time,” said my mom.

What advantage I said to myself?

On the way back to my room, my mind saturated with confusion of a soaked sponge unable to hold one more drop of water. A thought of ripping off every single picture of my dad whirled through my head. The truth is I did not need him. I had my own life to live? Not once did he ask what my dreams entailed. I was more than just this financial machine he created. I dreamed of greatness, accomplishing that one thing that would make the world sit up and take notice. Did dreams matter if my dad was always around to crush them? I went to my whiteboard and angrily crossed through the goals written there.

 

Buy an island

Find my soul mate

Own twenty malls by age eighteen

Create a way to push my music forward

Explore the possibility of creating a friendship

Take a trip to New Zealand

Take a trip to Fiji

End world hunger

Eliminate homelessness

Tackle poverty

Support a team of scientists and help develop a cure for cancer

Triple my net worth by age eighteen

 

Underneath the list in large capital letters I wrote my one new goal. Attainment of this target would force my dad to love me once and for all. That day in my room I vowed to do whatever it took to reach this goal.

 

Make one billion dollars

Chapter Six

 

 

A week later Mr. Oswald asked me to stay after school. I entered the sizeable chorus room to find Colby seated at the piano. My heart skipped a triad. Mr. Oswald motioned me over and I took the empty seat next to him. The next few minutes hijacked my mind. Colby played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. For a moment, I thought the deceased pianist, was sitting in front of me. Awesome is the only word to describe it. When the song finished, I wanted to stand and applaud, but Mr. Oswald motioned me to sit still. The Cheshire smile on his face told me he knew something of which I was oblivious. Colby picked up the acoustic guitar next to the piano and played another jazz piece.

“This is one of her compositions,” said Mr. Oswald leaning over towards me beaming from ear to ear. I caught the unevenness of his breathing. Mine was just as erratic.

“She’s fantastic,” I told him.

“Do me a favor Jason. Join her on stage?”

“Mr. Oswald, thanks for inviting me. I am happy sitting and listening.”

“Jason, humor an old man.”

It was not embarrassment that hoisted my resistance to join her onstage, but this girl was exceptional, and I felt intimidated. I obeyed and eased onto the bench at the ebony stained grand.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi yourself.”

“Mr. Oswald asked me to join you. I hope you are okay with that.”

“Please.” Her uneven smile warmed me more. “He told me you’ve become quite the jazz enthusiast.”

“He said that?” I asked with genuine surprise in my voice.

“Uh huh.”

I stared at Mr. Oswald who returned a half-smile of his own.

“Have a song in mind?” I asked.

“How about one of your compositions?” I stole another look at my orchestra class instructor. “Mr. Oswald told me you’ve written over three hundred and fifty songs.”

“You seem to know a lot about me.”

After my breathing and libido equalized, I played a song I had written a week ago. It eased the tension right away.

Colby joined me on the saxophone. Her eyes closed as she jammed to the unfamiliar song making it approximate one of her compositions. I was drawn deep into the music and farther yet when she changed to the clarinet. I cannot explain my response to the variance in tones she made. In that instant, my mind targeted a fresh melody. The song was no longer my composition but ours.

Overcome with the rawness of our music I braked the tempo. The ballad I chose circled the life of a young girl and man from different parts of the country seeking love. The words I had written remained inside my soul. Colby sat on the piano bench next to me. I have no explanation, there was no plan, this, I supposed, was improvisation at its highest level. She slid her left hand underneath my fingers and I removed it. Without a lag in the beat or a dropped note we played together as if we were the same person. Her intensity equaled mine. When my expressiveness in the melody changed, on cue, her rendering of the song took on its own phrasing. She slipped her right hand underneath mine and appropriated the song. I slid off the bench and wrapped my fingers around the brass trumpet. Cool metal soon became hot under my breath. Familiar with the songs intricate nuances Colby changed keys partway through adding what I can only describe as il respiro della canzone, the breath of the song.

Mr. Oswald could no longer contain himself and joined us adding his cello and violin into the mix. For another hour, the three of us entered a world of unsullied imagination. We were unselfish and greedy as we played, took the lead, and fell back when the spirit of the music rested upon one of the others. When the music within us took a rest, Colby, and I retreated to a set of chairs.

“I’ve been at this school for five years,” said Mr. Oswald, “and I have experienced nothing on par with that. Absolutely incredible. I’ve nothing else to say.” He exited the room contented.

Left alone in the huge room with the girl of my dreams I became tongue-tied and indecisive on what I should say next. Colby brushed away the awkwardness making it easy for me.

“Hi, I’m Colby Shire,” she said extending her hand towards mine.

By now I knew her name.

“My name is Jason Drayper.”

She extended her hand. I shook it.

“You’re good.”

“Thanks.”

“How many instruments do you play?” I asked.

“Competently?”

“Yes.”

“That’s a tricky question.”

“What do you mean?”

“Trumpet and French horn are similar instruments. So are the flute and piccolo. Other than the fingering a saxophone and clarinet are comparable. The euphonium and trombone produce different sounds but are compatible instruments.” My eyes widened. She noticed and cut her exchange short. “Twelve, but only five with competence.”

“That’s ridiculous.” She brandished a puzzled expression. “Ridiculous in a good way.”

“Oh.” Colby reached up with her hand and pushed the hair out of her face. It was the sexiest thing I had ever seen in my lifetime. This creature mesmerized me. “You’re excellent on the keys, and the way you owned that trumpet…You have a gift.”

“Thanks.”

“How many instruments do you play?”

“Competently?”

She smiled.

“Four,” I said embarrassment clearly evident on my face.

“That’s great.” Her reply radiated honest enthusiasm. “We should hang out and jam sometime.” My eyes bulged, and my throat constricted. I swallowed hard. Now it was Colby’s turn to feel self-conscious. “I have to be careful. Mom says sometimes I’m too forward.”

“Where is home originally?” I asked ignoring her comment.

“California born and raised. We lived in Modesto. That’s north of Los Angeles but just south of San Francisco to give you a perspective.”

“So what made your parents make that move from sunny California to even sunnier Florida besides the weather?”

“My dad lost his job. He spent months searching and sent applications across over the country. He had savings and bought a luggage store in Florida. Even though he’s an owner now, it pays less. He spends a ton of hours at work. The good news is we’re not on the street.”

“Where is his store?”

“In the Palm Meadows Mall. Five miles that way,” she said pointing.

I knew the mall well because I owned it. I did not tell Colby this. Changing subjects, I asked, “Where did you learn to play so many instruments?”

“Mom used to be a musician. Before she had a mild stroke, she taught me how to play the piano and the guitar. The others I picked up on my own. My dream is to get into Julliard. I hope I can secure a scholarship because there’s no way my parents can afford to send me. What about you?”

Her last question left me mystified. For some reason I thought she was asking me to fund her college tuition. The wires to my defense system were tripped and forced the walls up.

“I have to go,” I said standing.

“What’s wrong? Did I say something?”

“Forget it.”

“Forget what?”

I turned and faced her. “Do you know who I am?”

“Jason Drayper,” she giggled. “Why, did you steal someone else’s identity?” Determined not to be sidetracked by her smile, I continued.

“What have you been told?”

“Nothing other than you rock on the piano and compose terrific music.”

Now I realized a mistake on my part may have been made. Colby knew nothing concerning me. I needed to leave before I stepped into it any deeper.

“Forget it,” I said and walked off.“I don’t think so,” Colby yelled after me.

I turned towards her.

Excuse me?

“Don’t walk away from me. Say what’s on your mind.”

Colby’s forwardness stumped me.

“Colby, I have no intention of complicating the issue.”

“Dude, what issue?”

An ASUS laptop sat on a table near Mr. Oswald’s desk. I pointed towards it.

“Do me a favor and Google the name Jason Drayper.”

She looked at me with a perplexed look but followed my prompt. I sat on the stage floor and waited for her. She sauntered back a few minutes later.

“Wow, I didn’t realize you were so famous.”

“I am worth over thirty million dollars.”

“Yeah, that’s what the article said.”

“And you have no issues with that?”

“Should I?”

Stumped. This girl made me experience strange things inside my body. The way the conversation was going I was on the verge of destroying any opportunity I might have with her. I took a chance on being honest.

“My mom says one of my greatest faults is my inability to trust people.”

“I imagine people befriend you for selfish reasons all the time. And you’re worried I might want something from you?”

“I have to protect myself,” I said in a weak attempt at apologizing.

“I guess you do.” She stood. Just before leaving she turned to face me. “My dad told me something once I’ll never forget. He was quoting Hemingway. The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.” She exited the room.

The warm westerly breeze forced the horizontal blinds to clang at irregular intervals against the windows leaving me chilled to the bone. I shuddered at my social gaffe.

“So what do you think,” asked Mr. Oswald startling me?

“Colby is phenomenal.”

“You are both amazing. The two of you have something special. The Italians call it un cuore or one heart.”

“I understood.”

“It means the music that comes from inside of you and the music that resides inside Colby is the same. It’s as if the individual songs you’ve composed were co-written by one another. I’ve only seen this one other time in my life. It is an incredible occurrence. You and Colby need to collaborate.”

I screwed that up.

“You are serious?”

“Very. I can’t even imagine what lies in store for the two of you in the music world. Whatever it is, it’ll be breathtaking.”

That night as I lay in bed listening to Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis I examined my feelings regarding Colby Shire. She satisfied my criteria for a girlfriend, and for a wife. Too soon to go that direction. Kindred souls developed at a snail’s pace. Any faster and I could ensnare myself in a field of amorous landmines. As I drifted off to sleep, I took both Mom’s and Colby’s advice to test the trust.

Chapter Seven

 

 

I endured an entire week without speaking a single word to Colby. We saw each other in school. Smiles exchanged between us comprised our only interaction. By Thursday my self-imposed estrangement made little sense. When Sunday came I caved and called her.

Hello, Colby Shire here.” The softness of her voice ambushed me through the phone. I paused doubtful how to proceed. “Is someone there,” she asked?

Hi, Jason here. You know, the man who keeps thinking about you. Phlegm traveled down the wrong windpipe suffering me into a coughing fit. I cleared my throat and swallowed. “Hi Colby.” I expected her to slam the phone so my ear ached.

Hi Jason,” she said pleased to hear my voice. “How are you?”

Fine,” I lied.

What can I do for you?”

I stumbled over my words. “I was wondering, um what I’m trying to say is what about coming over to my house?”

What for?”

To play music,” I squeaked out.

After an eternity of waiting she still had not answered. The seconds ticked, ticked by in my head. Management of the elongated gap of silence proved too difficult. It was painfully obvious I made a mammoth mistake by calling her. I swiped the screen terminating the call. The moment I tossed it on the bed it quivered. Colby. Unwilling to embarrass myself anymore in one day I refused to answer it. My breaths came easier when the vibrating stopped. Mom knocked on the door a minute later and entered my room.

“Jason, a young lady named Colby Shire is on the phone for you.”

“Mom, tell her I left the house.”

“Jason Kyle Drayper, I will not lie for you.”

“If you yelled any louder,” I whispered through clenched teeth, “Colby could take notes.”

Unamused, she stood with the phone in one hand holding it towards me while the other stayed firm on her waist. I did the only thing that made sense and exited the house leaving Mom holding the phone. Mom understood my infatuation with Colby. What she did not understand was how much Miss Colby Shire intrigued me. I returned home an hour later. Mom was sitting at the table with three cups of steaming cocoa.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

What an asinine question to ask.

“Mom, do I look okay?”

“Is there a reason you’re avoiding Colby? From our conversation the other evening, you had me believing you were interested.”

“I am.”

“You have a strange way of showing it.”

“Mom, stop, you are the one to blame for this.”

“I’m at fault?” she replied her face brazen with disbelief.

“I followed your advice and created a trust-test for Colby.”

“A trust-test?” I watched as she stood and tipped her cocoa that still had steam rising from it into the sink. She rinsed out the cup and refilled it with more cocoa from the saucepan on the stove. Her silence bothered me. She returned to the table and lowered the cup, but before she took her seat she opened the bay window and let the ocean breeze sweep throughout the room. “What do you mean when you say trust-test?” Her facial expressions appeared misshapen; her eyebrows lifted, her lips pursed together forcing her cheeks to sink in, and her eyes squinted.

“I ignored her last week.”

“What?” Mom’s face twisted out of shape for a second time.

“I stopped speaking to her.”

“Why did you do that?”

“I thought if I she was wanted a relationship with me, she needed to take the first step.”

In animated fashion, Mom expressed her astonishment for the orchestration of such a nonsensical plan. She dumped another cup of cocoa into the sink.

“Do you remember my advice to you? What steps did I tell you to take?”

“Baby steps,” I said whispering again.

“Sometimes Jason Kyle Drayper I wonder where you come up with this stuff. You just met this girl and giving her the cold shoulder was your idea of endearing her to you? How does that equal a trust test?” Mom never equivocated with the truth when it came to something inexcusable. Her statements attacked with the same abruptness and potency my dad’s kicks and punches did when trapped inside the ring.

Crap,” I uttered in my mind realizing how ineffective and calamitous my tactics had been. “I guess I screwed up this time.”

“That’s an understatement Jason.”

“You know Mom, I hear a little sympathy goes a long way.” Sometimes my mom was as soft as a feather mattress resting on a marshmallow frame. Today she was as tough as an undercooked brisket. The doorbell rang. “Mom, I have no clue how to undo this.”

“Well,” she continued, “you can start by answering the front door.”

I left the kitchen, considered my actions as I traversed the hallway, and opened the door. Oxygen intake failed as I stared at Colby. She wore white shorts, a hot pink tee-shirt, and matching pink flip-flops. Her hair was up in a bun and tied with a pink ribbon revealing the curvatures of her neck. The sun radiated from behind Colby creating a celestial glow. An angel stood at my door. I envisioned myself falling to my knees in awe and committing myself to indomitable worship before this creature. It would not have taken much. My knees wobbled uncontrollably. I held firm onto the doorframe hoping to keep my upright position. I tried to speak, but the words coagulated in my throat.

“Hi,” my mom interrupted extending her hand, “I’m Madeline Drayper and please excuse my rude son.”

“It’s nice to meet you Mrs. Drayper.”

“Colby, please come in.”

“Hi Jason,” said Colby glancing my direction.

I could proffer nothing more than a small nod of the head. I hoped it sufficed. She and Mom walked to the kitchen. I lagged behind, then snuck up to the doorway. When I peeked around the corner Colby and Mom were sipping on cups of hot cocoa profoundly engaged in conversation. For twenty minutes, neither one of them left the table. Mom got up and excused herself and squeezed my arm as she moved past me. I walked towards the table and took a chair opposite to Colby.

“Your mom makes a great cup of hot cocoa.”

I played the mute. Had this been a financial matter, for example, if Colby asked me if it was wise to take out a loan on a new vehicle, I could discuss the impracticality of financing a depreciating asset. If her question called for knowledge of German composers, my familiarity with Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruck screamed Impressive. Here and now putting two intelligible words together proved impossible.

“You hung up on me,” Colby continued.

Straight for the jugular.

I replied with quickness. “Battery died.”

“And leaving the house when I waited for you on the phone?”

“Queasy stomach.”

She held up a pad of paper. “I took notes.” A scowl did nothing to mar her face though it did guilt me.

“I deserved that. By the way how did you find out where I lived?”

“Your mom gave me directions.”

“She what?” I asked irritated. Tepid cocoa spilled from my fallen mug onto the table.

Colby stood. “Jason, if you don’t want me here…”

It was the way she said it as if we were enemies instead of friends or whatever it was we were. I stood to match her, but while avoiding the brown river hustling toward me I knocked the chair back. As it toppled, I turned to catch it and slipped on the liquid gathering on the floor. My feet shot into the air and I fell in ungraceful fashion onto my back. I stared up to find Colby towering over me.

“Flat on your back Jason Drayper you are still charming.”

Palpitations in my chest pounded while thundering in my head.

Colby extended her hand. Soft flesh and the smell of honey disabled my legs.

“You’re cute when you’re nervous.” She sat next to me avoiding the puddle of cocoa still dripping onto the floor.

“I need to apologize to you Colby.”

“Yeah, you do.”

“Not going to make it easy for me are you?”

“Not on your life.”

“I treated you unfairly.”

“You sure did.”

“Come on Colby, trying to apologize here.”

“Then apologize already.”

“I am sorry.”

“You want to explain?”

I shrugged shoulders and avoided the question. She scrunched her face comparable to Mom’s a few minutes earlier. The conspicuity of her wrinkles served as a disincentive. She would not settle for a superficial answer or a weak genuflection of my shoulders. I debated for a few moments in my mind the repercussions of refusing to lower the wall erected by me. The answer was simple, a relationship with Colby needed complete transparency. Colby waited while my mind contended with itself. I had no choice but to trust her now.

“You can trust me Jason,” she said as if reading my thoughts.

Great, another mind reader.

“Friends do not come easy to me. Years ago a neighbor child befriended me so his father might get close to my dad. The whole thing sucked, and they moved away because of a pending lawsuit. Money drives people to do all sorts of things. My reaction to you was juvenile, a knee-jerk response, but childish. I needed to make sure I could trust you.”

“And can you?”

I watched as she pulled at the ribbon letting her hair fall to her shoulders. The movement played in slow motion and the images replayed in my mind several more times. This woman mesmerized me. Her wide brown eyes were perfectly spaced from one another. Her nose was neither flat nor pointed and fitted her face with flawless perfection. Opened lips unveiled an unflawed smile. Blemish-free skin was a rarity these days. Even with a close up view I still was not sure if she wore makeup. Comfortable sitting next to me, Colby exuded a spirit of warmth and care. She was here not somewhere else. That meant something to her and to me. If I circumvent her trust, then who?

“I trust you Colby,” I replied after the short film ceased playing in my mind. “This has been the longest week of my life.”

“Mine too,” she laughed.

“I like you,” I blurted out fearful of her response.

Here was a small test. Colby’s smile intensified. “I like you just as much Jason Kyle Drayper.” Rockets in my chest launched lifting my spirit.

“Colby, when I heard you play the other day something happened inside me. Mr. Oswald said our music was un cuore, a song coming from one heart. You understand what he was saying?”

“Sure,” she nodded. “When you played your compositions on the piano, it reminded me of music I’d written. I didn’t need to learn it because it was inside of me living and breathing. Weird, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“Want to play?”

She smiled full. “I thought you’d never ask.”

Without thinking, I grabbed her hand and led her through the ‘picture hall’. When I opened the door her eyes widened. Before the week of silence, I purchased a number of instruments, ones she played. They stood on stands placed around the stage. Colby’s skittishness caused me second thoughts about the purchases.

“You play the clarinet,” she reacted.

“What makes you think I do?”

“You have one on the stage.”

I turned to view the stage and acted surprised when I saw the clarinet.

“I am more of a brass man.”

“I’ll bite Jason. Why do you have a clarinet on stage?”

“Because Colby, you play the clarinet.”

“And the other instruments?”

“You play those as well.” My tantamount response fashioned a look of horror upon her face. “Are you upset?”

“Yeah Jason, I am.” She sat dispiritedly on the couch bringing both of her legs up to her chest and clamping her arms around them. Her response surprised me.

“I can’t accept these gifts Jason. I’m sorry.”

“Not to worry. The return policy is great,” I declared as I hunched over my fist under my chin imitating Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker Statue. “This is how I see it. No instruments on the stage means lugging them from your house to mine, down the long hallway, into my room, and upon the stage. What a colossal pain. I know your parent’s will not mind helping you haul this stuff in here when they drop you off and again when it’s time to return home. The added chores might tire them out, but it’s their job to see to it you have everything you need. I wish there was an easier more effective way to manage the logistics, you know another usable solution.” I clipped the tip of my tongue with my teeth when I looked at her. It took everything to keep a straight face. When I sampled the taste of salty blood, I stopped.

“You’re good,” she said.

“What?” I smiled back while swallowing a small mass of O negative. “Then you have no problem if I keep them here?”

The flushness in her face settled. “It’s fine Jason.”

“You take the keys,” I said picking up the acoustic.

“What do you want me to play?”

Here came a larger trust-test. I reached into my drawer and pulled out a piece of music I wrote during the longest week of my life. When I handed it to her she came close to falling off her seat.

“It’s titled Colby’s Theme,” she exclaimed.

“I had tons of inspiration last week.” I tried to read her body language. When I sat next to her she slid closer, a promising sign. Inspiration took over her fingers, and she played the song taking me to places I had never been. I joined her—Colby and me, the only two people in the world. Parallel likes in music stitched our souls together. When she stopped playing the music continued in our spirits.

In the lingering quiet, my need for honesty intensified. During the previous week, I resisted the urge to communicate. Now I yearned to share my inmost secrets. I wondered if Colby felt the same. She turned to look at me. I yearned to give her my complete and undivided attention. She appeared to be rehearsing in her mind what to say or how much she should share—signs of internal sparring I recognized right off.

“In Modesto, I had a close friend. His name was Danny Stevens. We were in the same grade, lived on the same street, our parents were friends and we did everything to together.”

I must have given off an unsolicited vibe because she touched my leg reinforcing they were only friends. My breath left me.

“Late one afternoon, when returning from the doctor he told me he had been diagnosed with a soft tissue cancer. Broken hearts are what makes love palpable, so they say. Mine tore apart because the only prognosis given to him was death. I wanted to help. The doctors gave him no hope. What was I going to do?

“Depression took over, and for days I lived in a dense fog. In less than six months, without a miracle…,” she paused the emotion still fresh. “Not once during Danny’s illness did he complain of his circumstances or grumble that life had treated him unjustly. He spent more time at the hospital and became instrumental in lifting the spirits of other kids who suffered from cancer. I joined him on his crusade and watched as children developed positive and winsome attitudes relative to life no matter how short or long theirs might be. Danny changed me. He died over a year ago. It’s because of him I have a high value of life and live with exuberance.”

Colby’s honesty floored me. Two conversations, not including the phone call, and here we sat on piano bench hunched together closer than any other people in the world. Honesty tugged at my chest. My stuff paled in consequence alongside her story.

“And you?” Colby asked.

“What about me?” I replied afraid of what I might tell her.

“You want to tell me something.”

“Not important,” I said attempting to wave off the conversation.

Colby stared at me with indulgent eyes making no pretense of how important my stuff was. She waited for me to respond.

“My history regarding money is a sordid tale of euphoric highs and agonizing lows. My dad gave me fifteen million dollars on my fifteenth birthday.” I waited for Colby’s reaction. Nothing. “The luckiest day of my life right? I returned to my room and made a silent wish. You know what it was?” She shook her head. “I only wanted one thing for my birthday…” I paused not because my monologue derailed. A sudden wave of emotion engulfed me. I turned in embarrassment hating myself for my adolescent behavior in front of Colby. She touched my shoulder. I wiped the tear out of my eye before turning. “Allergies,” I offered hoping to obfuscate a rare weak moment.

She offered a comforting smile.

I paused.

“Jason, tell me what you wished for.”

“You met my mom. What do you think?”

Without hesitation Colby replied, “She’s great and I like her.”

Wow. In that one response, Colby exhibited a love and compassion for others I have never possessed.

“Deception comes in the form of a mom and dad,” I replied the dispassion in my voice less than a crescendo. Colby picked up on the annulling vibe, yet refrained from interrupting. “My parents are a rare breed. For my dad, everything is money-driven. He ensures I make the right investments while developing my physical, emotional, educational, and musical abilities. But you asked me what I wished for. If you were to ask me the last time my dad and I did something together or the last time he told me he loved me or the last time he showed any physical response besides beating the crap out of me… I have no memory is my answer. And what kills me,” I said my voice escalating, “Mom stands by and lets it happen. You see that ring over there?” I asked pointing over my shoulder. “When Dad has a problem with me or if I have done something wrong I am forced to go in the ring with him and fight. He calls it sparring, another term for punishing my imperfections.”

“Jason, I’m so sorry.”

“To tell you the truth, I could handle everything else that goes on around here if for just once he’d put his arm around me and told me he loved me. If he did that, everything else disintegrates.” An extended period of silence followed. The time allowed my feelings to ebb and for me to regain my composure. “Sorry ‘bout’ that.”

“Don’t apologize. I’m glad you told me.”

The weight of my battle lifted from my shoulders briefly. Colby reached over and picked up my hand and brought it to her mouth. She kissed it. Medical problems resulted: Knees went weak. Heart stopped pumping. Joy planted in my spirit. Should I reciprocate? After a lengthy internal struggle, I leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.

When Colby left later that evening I called the manager of the Palm Meadows Mall and told her to gift Mr. Shire’s store with ten years of free rent and not to volunteer my name. Before I retired for bed and listened to Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington, I emailed my real estate agent and asked him to buy an island I had my eye on located near St. Thomas, and to put Colby Shire’s name on the title and enter the property into a trust.

As I drifted off to sleep to Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train the clock read 2:00 am.

Chapter Eight

 

 

Incomprehensible hypersonic streaks of horizontal and vertical lighting crisscrossed forming a conglomeration of tic-tac-toe outlines in the endless sky. The thunder accompanying the electric-charged rays of light reverberated together without the customary sound delays. Nebulous clouds painted the sky with their silvered pillow-soft compounds. Saturated with hail and torrential rain they remained steadfast refusing to unleash their wrath until commanded to do so. The hurricane-force winds traveled from the four corners: north, south, east, and west and swirled together on the vast plains creating a funnel cloud incogitable in magnitude and might. It too restrained itself awaiting instructions.

I stood on top a small mountain watching the impressive omnipotent display. Several times the conflagrant bolts came within yards of my position on the mountain and constrained me to tremble with fear. When out of the unilluminated sky a cannonade of voices bellowed towards me I dropped to my knees in veneration. I remained in obeisant posture until I heard the voices cease and felt a hand touch me on the right shoulder.

He stood over eight feet tall covered in a dazzling white garment. His bronzed head, hands, and feet emitted an amber glow warm to the touch. The eyes of this creature burned crimson penetrating my disconsolate soul. Fear gripped me while in its presence and my eyes could not look directly into his. To do so meant death.

Come with me,” the being commanded in a firm tone. “Come with me. Come with me. Come with me….” His words echoed in the distance.

Growing fear overwhelmed me. I had no past and no future only the present. The creature and I traveled through time and space until ostensibly we reached my destination.

You must make the rest of the trip on your own,” said the creature and released me disappearing from my sight.

I descended without difficulty landing on the shores of a quiescent ocean. As I placed my hand into the cerulean water and swished it back and forth several times. I realized it possessed the consistency of water but without the wetness. I repeated my movements several more times. Why did this phenomenon intrigue me so? Though no answer appeared, I understood the water should be wet leaving my hands dripping but this body of water exhibited a contradictory composition.

If this concept of water was not foreign to me, were there other things I fell short of remembering? I searched my mind attempting to uncover a single thought outside my present notion, but I could not budge the restrictive limits which prevented me from thinking.

Surrounded by water on one side and a mountain on the other, I found no place to go. I sat on the shore with a feeling that I was not alone.

Do I have a past?” I uttered out loud.

You have a past, a present and a future.” The voice emanated from the ocean. With each word, waves formed and splashed below me.

Then why prevent me from having access to it?”

Your past is unimportant.”

Then why conceal it from me?”

It’s your future I want you to contemplate.”

But my thoughts will not allow me to think beyond this moment.”

In the coming weeks, you are going to arrive at a precipice; the largest decision you’ve ever faced. You can move forward in a precipitous manner or you can choose to respond with conscientious scrutiny. Either way you will have a decision to make.”

By bring me here you are cognizant of the choice I am going to make.”

I know all things.”

Why not tell me?”

Silence.

If you refuse to tell me, then what is your reason for bringing me here?”

Because I want you to realize that I love you.”

Why not force me to make the correct decision? That way everyone, including you, will be happy.”

I will never step in and supersede your ability to make decisions. This choice has to be yours and yours alone. But remember this, I promise to be with you always. I will not let you flounder on your own, but you will need to trust me and not rely on your own knowledge and wisdom.”

The deluge of thoughts long, long ago filtered through my mind. I remembered a voice telling me that I would never be alone.

Do I know you?”

I know you.”

You gave me a message.”

I told you,” the voice seemed pleased to repeat, “I have plans for you. They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Now I remember.”

After a long period of silence, I realized I could think outside the governed parameters. I surmised the only reason for bringing me here was because I was going to make the wrong choice. This was, effectively, being in the penalty box prior to committing the foul. The disappointing revelation spurred a wave of despondency within me.

Why do you look so dejected?”

Fear has a hold on me.”

Do not be afraid. Just do what’s right. Realize this, if you choose to go your own path you will set in motion a set of cataclysmic events that cannot be undone.”

The dated proverb says being forewarned is forearmed. I rejoiced that I was worthy of such a supreme visitation. Yet I still feared the ineptitude of my being able to cultivate right choices. I needed to trust help was not far from me, and these were plans orchestrated for me.

Are you still there?” I asked.

I am.”

Will I remember any of this conversation when I leave here?”

You will remember that I am with you.”

May I ask you another question?”

Of course, ask me anything.”

I laughed as this person obviously knew the question I was going to ask. Why does the rest of my future hinge upon this single moment in time? Do you realize how problematic that is?

Silence.

Do not refuse me this request,” I asked. “Step in and tell me when the big moment arrives. Make it clear to me. Then you can relax knowing I will make the right choice.”

You are my masterpiece and I have equipped you to do good works.”

What if I disappoint you?”

Jason, I love you.”

Yeah, got that, but what if I mess up?”

My love for you is unchanged.”

I needed clarification on so much, but I was out of time.

Goodbye Jason, remember I will be with you always.”

The entire ocean rose high its water churned and swooshed towards me. I ran toward the mountain, with no time to climb, I could not avoid the tsunami. My eyes closed and waited for the raging waters to engulf me. The music of Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train played in my headset. I glanced at the clock. It read 2:00am. Time to get some shut eye.

Chapter Nine

 

 

“Get up Jason. You’re coming with me.”

The earth quaked underneath me. I ran for cover until I realized I was dead smack in the middle of a rare dream. My dad shook my shoulder until I opened my eyes. “Get up, we’re leaving.”

His words jolted me into a sitting position. I arose excited and in less than a half hour later we were on the road. He drove his Ford 450 towing a huge trailer. This was the first trip I could remember taking with my dad. He did not tell me our destination till we had traveled through the entire state of Georgia. I discovered he took periodic trips across the country and bid on abandoned storage units.

“Do you make a living doing this?”

“Are you kidding me?” He replied with a menacing laugh. “We make a ton of money Jason and I mean a ton.” His sinister response aroused my curiosity. Was he privy to information the other bidders lacked?

We arrived at the auction site not far from the city center. A handful of bidders were in attendance. I could not help but notice the old man in the group. His unkempt hair was long and grey with flecks of the original brown color dispersed throughout. He wore patched jeans and a long-sleeved shirt frazzled around the edges. His non-contemporary cowboy hat was several sizes too small and his corn colored teeth showed signs of decay and tobacco damage. Confirmation came when spitting a thick brown glob our direction. Dad rose in stature, and his muscles flexed. He wore his black two-piece Gucci suit with white shirt, black tie and black porkpie hat. Up next to the other bidders he eclipsed them in style. I refused to fault him for wanting to dress well. My dress style mirrored his minus the jacket and hat.

“We’ll start the bidding at five hundred dollars. Who’ll give me six hundred? Five hundred dollar bid, now six…”

The auctioneer chanted in a prestissimo tempo difficult to understand. I kept my eye on Dad. He weeded out the auctioneer’s filler words and concentrated on the amount of the current bid.

“I have six hundred dollars. Who’ll give me seven?”

Dad motioned to the auctioneer by clamping the edge of his hat. A slight move. Enough to grasp the auctioneer’s attention.

“I have seven, how about eight? Tobacco Man bids eight. I have eight who’ll give me nine?”

The shed in question hunkered in the middle of identical rows. It proved a tight fit for the bidders and auctioneer. Though the sheds boasted a variety of sizes, the roll-up doors shared the same color. Heat from the sun beat roasted the units. Reflective heat from the aluminum units, and the sweltering waves rising from the asphalt created an incalescent bubble causing participants to sweat. Moments before the bidding started, participants’ enthusiasm and dreams of good fortune radiated through the crowd. As bids soared past their maximums, they turned ill-tempered. A minute fifteen seconds into the auction the bid stood at twelve hundred dollars. Two bidders remained in contention. Tobacco Man and my dad.

Television was something I never watched though I had heard of storage wars. From memory, few if any valuables were uncovered. Money was important to my Dad. Yet, bidding on a storage unit did not have the profitability of a real estate portfolio. So why do it?

Tobacco Man spit our direction more than once creating a collage of slimy brown blotches on the oil-stained asphalt. I watched as they sizzled like small meat patties on a hot grill.

“I have twelve, who will give me thirteen?” The old man pointed towards the auctioneer.

“Three thousand dollars,” yelled my dad to the auctioneer. I cannot be positive, but my dad’s facial expressions and relaxed body language, suggested he knew what was inside the unit. Pure speculation on my part. Tobacco Man lifted his hands in exasperation and spit our direction once more before leaving.

“First call, second call, sold to the man in the Blues Brother’s suit.”

A man with bolt cutters appeared and snapped off the lock. Inside the twenty by twenty-five foot shed, stood three covered concert grand pianos. Two of them bore the Steinway label while the third bore the name of Mason & Hamlin. Dad estimated the haul at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars. A local moving crew packed the pianos deep into the trailer.

For the first time in my life, I watched my dad in action. I marveled at his tenacity to stand toe to toe with an opponent and maintain his implacable confidence. One day on the road with him and I understood what drove him. He loved money and remained relentless in his pursuit of the almighty dollar. I avowed are likeness. Those traits resided in me.

At the next auction there were three times the numbers of participants. My dad did not appear fazed. I watched his demeanor. His relaxed state and domineering style unnerved me. In investing, risk always presented itself. By unknown means, he appeared to have eliminated it. How was this possible? I saw him step away from me and take a call. He nodded his head several times as the auctioneer raced on. He laughed to the person on the other end. After concluding the call, he moved back into the group a piranha ready to devour his prey. That precise moment it dawned on me my dad had insider knowledge. I stood there dumbfounded. My dad was a cheater. With his unlimited resources, and knowledge none of the bids fell to another. I watched to see if my assumption possessed any merit. It took only three minutes for him to win the fifty-five hundred dollar bid. He paid the money to the clerk and waited for a hired handy man to cut the lock. The door lifted revealing a single bookcase with fifteen books stacked on the top shelf.

Just like I thought.

“Be careful with those,” my dad cautioned the packers without taking time to glance at his newfound treasure.

The packers gingerly boxed each of the books into its own private cushioned box and packed them next to the pianos. We took off to our next destination.

“Why are these books so special?” I asked.

“Each one is a first edition. The two Moby Dick’s by Herman Melville are worth a hundred and sixty thousand a piece. The haul netted us a half a million dollars.”

“You have got to be kidding me,” I replied fabricating my surprise. “And you discerned that without glancing once at the books. You are good.”

No retaliatory comment came from my dad. I would have given anything to be inside his brain.

“Sir, I want a go at the next auction?” I figured if he learned how to eliminate failure I could only succeed.

“Bidding wars are risky Jason.”

What risk? The purpose of him traveling around the country bidding on units baffled me. Something bigger was at play?

“Explain the risk? You appear very accomplished.”

“I’ve been doing it for a while.”

I bet.

He did not want me mucking around with his fraudulent money-making scheme. “Come on dad, just this once.” I shuddered at the sound of my caterwauling voice reminiscent of a mollycoddled toddler.

“Jason, maybe on the next trip we take.”

“Is that an invitation for me to join you on further father son excursions?” I could not resist.

He said nothing.

I continued. “Why not just say you prefer I not intrude upon your racket?”

“Racket. What in the world…”

“Come on Sir, tell me the truth,” I said venom behind my words.

“What truth are you referring to Jason?” My dad feigned ignorance, but I refused to buy his act for a second.

“I am not stupid Sir. This bidding is a win-win for you. You have prior knowledge of the contents. I am still a turtle when it comes to understanding how you do it. No one is that lucky. Which leads me to my next supposition: You and Mom are lying to me.”

“Jason, you’re talking crazy?”

“Explain what you do for a living?”

“I don’t see the relevance of that question.”

“The question is simple Sir. With the time you spend away from home, you are either an incredible salesman or a…”

“Or a what,” interjected my dad with a loathsome stare?

I did not want him knowing the clandestine activity at home that included late night phone calls, black and white pictures with the red crisscrosses through the faces, and the frequent trips away led me conclude they were assassins. Bidding on units financed his hits. Inside I hoped I was wrong.

“Nothing,” I replied.

“A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing Jason.”

“It is also a terrible thing to waste.”

“Don’t push me Jason.” The words comprised the rudiments of a threat. “What is it you think you know?” Before I could answer, he jerked the steering wheel to the right shoulder forcing the wheels to screech while creating a small dust storm behind him. He jumped out, walked to my side, and opened my door. “Get out.”

I obeyed and exited the car. We hurried over to the nearest field and leaped over the barbwire fence. The massive number of trees concealed us from the bulk of cars on Interstate 95. I watched as my dad removed his hat, took off his coat, undid his tie, and placed them on the ground. He rolled up his sleeves.

“Come now Jason, unburden yourself.”

My dad approached prepared to fight. He chose the ginga stance, a capoeira technique which included rocking back and forth with the body. As he continued to warm up swinging his body from side to side I removed my tie and rolled up my sleeves. Countering his move, I used a horse stance. This move prevented him from sweeping my legs and my arms in position to deflect hits and administer them. He cartwheeled towards me and I took a brutal hit in the shoulder which forced me to the ground. I flipped my body back up before he could resume his assault.

“You called your mom and me liars. Where’s your proof?”

Our savage battle on I 95 confirmed my suspicions.

“Forget it,” I said as we circled one another.

This fight could only end one way, with me on my back. He altered techniques and approached me with a forward stance and for a split second left himself open. Either this was a mistake on his part or a set-up. Either way, too much thought might impede me from capitalizing. I spun around and launched my body into the air leading with my feet. As my dad protected his head, I connected with his chest. The force sent him stumbling backwards a few steps. I stood frozen unable to move, paralyzed by the shock. For the first time in sixteen years I challenged the omnipotence of my dad and landed a conclusive blow.

“The iron butterfly spin move, very nice. It’s bloody time you took an advantage.” He surprised me with his ingenuousness. My stupefied look provoked him to speak again. “Jason, your life is going to change.”

What did he mean? And wham, like a ton of bricks it hit me. My dad was preparing to tell me the truth. I was in such shock I refused to believe the evidence at home that linked him and Mom to crimes around the world. We appropriated our clothing and walked back to the car. Thoughts gyrated out of control, and my head spun with an incalculable number of questions. For one, how did I happen to born into an assassin’s family? Since my dad killed people for a living was I at risk? Was everything that happened in my life up to this point part of some malevolent strategy to prepare me to take over his job? Was his inability to show affection his method of forcing me to manhood sooner? What was Mom’s role in this?

“Jason, I’m not sure what you think you know but I will neither confirm nor deny your suspicions.”

I took this as confirmation.

“Suffice it to say, we won’t have this conversation again.” I affirmed with a quick nod. It was the first time I trembled with a dread-type fear around my dad. His next words surprised me. “The last two auctions are yours. You may keep whatever’s inside.”

The word ‘payoff’ surfaced to mind. He wanted to buy my silence. We drove to the next auction site. True to his word, my dad stayed in the truck while I handled the bids. I did just what he did and kept upping the amount until at twenty thousand dollars the bidding stopped with me as the winner. I was not disappointed. Inside the units were five of the most expensive cars in the world totaling a cool four and a half million dollars.

Later that day, my dad gave me exclusive access to one of his private jets and pilot, and a car that came with a driver. More bribes I assumed. Without question, the greatest surprise was that my dad and I never sparred again. A good outcome for sure. Yet the one thing I wanted from him that could erase the past and solidify our future as father and son languished as a fleeting gust of wind.

At the last auction I won the bid with ease. The unit contained the components of a professional sound studio, each piece top of the line. Part of the equipment included a first-class voice synthesizer not on the market. I did not understand the last piece of equipment until I took a closer look. It was a machine that produced old-fashioned vinyl records. I knew in recent years they made a comeback. And I grinned realizing this was more than a great conversation piece. It was a money maker waiting to shower dollars upon me, but how? That part eluded me.

Chapter Ten

 

 

Duty, drugs, death or disaster drove my parents from the house to an unknown location somewhere in the world. I readied to embrace the loneliness. Arrangements I made the previous day solicited the help of specialty movers. When the trucks arrived later that afternoon, they unloaded the cars and drove them to the large empty shed. Adept movers carried the studio gear to an open space in my bedroom.

I ogled the cars. Lined up next to one another. An equal space between them allowed me to open doors, hoods, and trunks without fear of denting or scratching the paintwork. I removed the coverings and tossed them to the side. After getting into each car and listening to the engine’s roar, I sat on the stool scrutinizing my treasures. Selling them, beyond any doubt, fattened my bank account. Schooled in the science of investing I understood the car’s long-term potential. I held onto them.

Vehicles in our family were rare. Other than the limousines available to my parents, and now me, the only cars on the property were the four causing the drool to exit my mouth. A sixteen-year-old kid with cars worth over four million was a mind-trip no matter the worth of his or her portfolio.

I replaced the car coverings and trekked back to the house. Before going to my room, I decided on lunch. Online I found a quick recipe for Ropa Vieja. Fifteen minutes later I sat to the table with a steaming plate Cuban hash and consumed every bit.

I made a call to a construction foreman who worked on many of my rehabbing projects. I explained to him my wish to have a sound studio built in my room and needed a team to work on it at once.

Completion of the project took seventeen days. I hired a sound studio engineer who oversaw the installation. During the following two weeks, I used his service and learned the inner and outer workings of each piece of equipment. My training left me far from the skills of a sound engineer, but more than an inspirited novice.

Intrigued by the capabilities and specialized features of the synthesizer, my free time before and after school and on the weekends, I spent studying and mastering the module. The unit could alter the timbre and quality of a mediocre voice and make it studio quality. Any synthesizer had those capabilities. What made this synth unique from the others was its ability to take any voice, trained or untrained, and interchange it with the voice of another artist.

I sang into the microphone and recorded the first two verses of a song I had written. Upon completion, I attached a chord from my smartphone to the synthesizer then played one of the ten Sarah Vaughn songs I downloaded earlier. Once I captured her voice, the real work started.

With the music phased out, I replayed her lone voice. The synthesizer tagged her voice copying the essence of it. To get the best tuneful representation, I repeated the process using five more of her songs. The computer adapted giving me the fullness of Sarah’s voice.

Overriding my recorded voice, I flipped a switch and listened in wonderment as one of the best female jazz singers of all-time sang one of my creations. Fierce thumps attacked my chest, tears welled up in my eyes. It was if this was her song its heart culminating from her lifetime of highs and lows.

Keen on continuing my experiment, I skipped school the next day. I selected a multitude of vocal artists from different genres and recorded their songs into the machine. I switched Travis Tritt’s voice with Lena Horne and laughed out loud as both artists sang songs from different genres.

For the next three days after school, I rushed home spending my time downloading more recording artists. This exercise improved the competency of my abilities and mastery of the synth. The following day I recorded another of my compositions. Happy with the rendering, I inserted a plethora of artist’s voices who ably sang my song transforming it into their own creation. Inside my chest the palpitations pounded out of rhythm, and excitement swarmed throughout my body.

You are my masterpiece.”

I stopped and turned thinking my dad had returned and wanted to meet. My first-class alarm had not sounded.

“Who is it?” I called out loud. No one responded.

Distracted, I ran to the door to discover an empty hallway. I chalked up the episode to an overactive imagination, closed the door and ran back to the equipment.

I have equipped you.”

“What?” I replied to turning to see who had spoken. I moved my head from side to side and cracked my neck. Sharp cracks in my neck and back released the pressure and tension of sitting on a stool for so many hours. With my fingers, I pulled on my earlobes and popped my ears. Just as I returned to the synthesizer I the voice spoke again.

To do good works.”

“Colby is that you?” I yelled. Nothing.

A few minutes later the alarm sounded coupled with a video image of Mom moving toward my room. I stepped out of the studio to greet her.

“Jason, are you here?”

“Hi Mom,” I called out pleased to see her.

“Hi there,” she replied and moved towards me to offer a hug.

“When did you get back?” I asked.

“A second ago. You’re my first stop.”

“Did you call out a few seconds ago?”

“No, why do you ask?”

“Oh it’s nothing. Are you alone?” I silently bet ten thousand dollars my dad had not returned.

“Jack is still away. He’ll be home next week.”

Since I acquired the sound equipment, my necessity for my dad’s affection had taken a backseat. The new music creations had captured my attention.

“How’s the new studio coming along?” she asked.

“Fine.”

“How’s school?”

“Fine.”

“And Colby?”

“Fine.”

“You’re not very talkative today are you?”

“I’m focused on a new project.”

“What is it?”

“Something for school,” I lied.

“Any schoolwork that keeps you this focused is a good thing. What’s the class?”

“Music.” She waited for elaboration. I needed to keep my lies to a minimum.

“I had an idea for dinner tonight.”

“Yeah,” I replied.

“Why don’t we go out together?”

“Okay.”

“A new restaurant opened in the mall. They serve Cuban cuisine.”

How is it she knew this new restaurant existed in my mall and I was clueless? I was the king of Cuban cuisine.

“Let’s say around seven thirty.”

“Fine, I will meet you at the bottom of the steps.” She leaned over and gave me another kiss before leaving.

“I love you,” she said on the way out.

“I love you too,” I replied eager to get back and record.

Later that evening, we visited the Palm Meadows Mall walking past the surfeit of clothes, cosmetic, and accessory stores to arrive at Plantanos Maduros. As we stood awaiting seating, I appraised the fresh titillating atmosphere. The mottled mustard walls up against a cobalt ceiling created a culture warp into another country and era. Paintings and artwork created by artists within the local Cuban community adorned the walls. The booths could seat either four or six patrons. The high backs made sitting in a semi-enclosed space comfortable and private. Painted tables in discrepant shades of auburn and avocado welcomed patrons. On each of the tables a candle intensified the intimate ambiance. The music of Manuel Cantero played in the background.

The hostess escorted us to a booth for four. Our waiter appeared as we sat.

“Welcome to Plantano Maduros,” he said, “my name is Damason and I will be your waiter.”

“Hi, Damason, my name is Jason, and my mother…”

“Madeline.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you both. Can I offer you a drink?”

I waited for Mom to order.

“An unsweetened ice tea please.”

“Do you carry cranberry juice?” I asked.

“We have cranberry grape,” replied Damason.

“I will take one with lots of ice.”

“I’ll return in a moment with your drinks.”

Memories of eating out with Mom seeped from the archives of my mind. I could not remember the last time we did this. Older is how I saw her now. She always looked tousled when she returned from a day trip. The five-day excursion exacted its toll on her.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

“Fine.”

“Now who is being uncommunicative?”

She forced a smiled.

“Mom is everything okay? You look tired.”

“I am exhausted.”

“You should be at home resting,” I said standing. “We can do dinner when you are up to it.”

“Jason I’m okay. I need to talk with you.”

“Did something happen?”

I did not utter his name, but she read my mind. “Jack is fine.”

“Then what is it?” I asked. She had me worried now.

“While I was way,” Mom continued, “You slipped away from me.”

Damason returned with the drinks and placed them on the table with an elegant flair.

“Thank you,” we both responded.

“Do you need help with the menu?”

Mom was in no state to peruse the menu let alone order. I ordered for us both.

“Yes. For an appetizer I will try the Papas Rellenas and the Camarones al Coco. Mom, do you want soup?”

“Soup is perfect,” she sighed.

“A bowl of the Caldo Gallego for my mom. For the main course…” I paused deciding between two dishes. “My mom will have the Filete de Tilapia a la Plancha. I will try the Chuletas de Puerco.”

“Thank you sir, your appetizer will be up in no time.” I watched as he typed our order into a smartphone that sent the order directly to the kitchen.

“Thanks for ordering.”

“No problem. Now what do you mean when you said I was slipping away?”

“I have to ask Jason, is everything going okay with you?”

“Mom, look at me.” She stared deep into my eyes trying to execute a Vulcan mind meld without the use of hands. “I swear things are great right now.”

“You’re sure?”

“Mom, talk to me.”

“I had a weird dream. You were in a car driving on this winding road.”

“I like it already,” I interrupted.

Mom smiled.

“Ten miles later you came to a fork in the road. I know this sounds weird but in my dream you should’ve gone right. Instead you shrugged your shoulders and took the opposite path.”

“Something terrible happened?”

“No,” she said needing to allay my concern. “But as you continued driving the more lost you became.”

“Directionally?” I asked.

“No, it was more like you lost your way in life. It’s hard to put my finger on it. It kept me up last night.”

“No wonder you are so worn-out.” I signaled Damason over and asked him if we could make the order to go.

“Yes sir,” he replied. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything is fine,” I replied but before I could get the rest of my sentence out Damason signaled the owner to our table.

“Mr. Drayper,” he said, “it’s a pleasure to have you in our restaurant. I’m Ian Stabler the owner of Plantano Maduros.”

“The pleasure is mine Mr. Stabler. I do apologize for not visiting sooner.”

“Not a problem Mr. Drayper and please call me Ian.”

“My mom is not feeling well. We will take the order to go.”

“Of course. Is the order ready?” Stabler asked Damason.

“Ten minutes and it will be boxed and bagged.”

“Good.”

I pulled out my wallet to take care of the bill.

“Please Mr. Drayper there’s no cost.”

“Not necessary,” I replied.

“Please.”

“If you insist.”

“I do.”

“That is a very nice gesture.”

“My pleasure.”

Damason brought the two large bags of food to the table eight minutes later. I slipped a hundred in his hands. The driver drove us home.

I unhoused the food and transferred the scrumptious looking dishes from the cardboard box containers onto real plates. We ate in silence.

“Mom,” I said before I left, “everything is fine in my life. You need to know that.”

“Are you sure Jason?”

“I kid you not.” I waited an extra second for her to read my mind.

“Okay.”

I leaned over and gave her a kiss. “Hope you feel better tomorrow.”

“Food and rest is what I need. Goodnight Jason.”

“Good night Mom.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” I replied eager to return.

Hours later as I mixed, remixed, and intermixed songs and voices, an idea shanghaied me. Once the thought took root it proved impossible to rip out of place. When lightning struck a few seconds later, I knew with calm certainty the great thing I needed to carry out. My dream of making money while at the same time using my music transported to the forefront of my mind. This one idea could potentially make me the richest teenager in the world compelling my dad to love me.

“Jason, I am with you.”

Chapter Eleven

 

 

Imminent realization of the largest financial enterprise in my life hovered within my grasp. I struggled to keep my excitement in check. Because of the capricious nature of the next stage in this venture, I needed the help of another exceptional musician: one willing to jump at the chance to delve into a musical project somewhat avant garde, one who loved music, and one capable of following directions without asking a profusion of questions. I got on the phone and called the only person I knew who possessed these characteristics.

“Hi Colby.”

“Hi Jason how are you?”

“Fine, and you?”

“I’m good. What’s up?”

“Colby, I have this project that needs your musical genius.”

“My musical genius, huh? Must be important. You’ve never sweet-talked me before.”

“Do you think you could give me a hand?”

“I’m free now will that work?”

“Now is great,” I exclaimed.

“What is this project?” she asked.

“Tell you when you arrive.”

“I’ll be right over.”

Each time I saw Colby my heart stilled a little more. I believed anything possible when she passed through my world. I appreciated the simplicity she brought to the relationship—no pressure to conform or change meant I was in ownership of me. For the first, time the partitions I created to separate myself from others came tumbling down like the walls of Jericho.

When she arrived I pulled out the sheet music to a new song and played it for her.

“When did you write that?” She asked.

“A few weeks ago.”

“It’s fantastic.” The shrug in my shoulders coerced her into reaffirming her appreciation. “I’m serious Jason.”

“Thanks,” I mumbled in low tones.

“So why’s this project so important?”

“A record producer asked me to send him two of my songs to gauge their marketability.”

Colby expressed joy at the prospect.

“I’ve been waiting for this day. Your music will change the world. How can I help?” she asked with genuine delight.

I hated lying to Colby, but it was only a grey lie, and my guilt dissipated in short order.

“Let me record the keys first then we can add the other instruments.”

The immoderate software program I purchased captured the notes and transliterated them into proper musical notation.

“That’s so cool,” Colby said.

“It beats having to score it the old-fashioned way.”

We went at it making a few manual notational changes on several of the recordings. I lost track of the hours we spent perfecting the song. What should have taken a few days to complete ending up taking seven days of laborious effort. At the end of the week we had a rough recording to show for our travail.

Colby recorded the alternate parts on each of the brass instruments, while I spent hours editing and adding in the percussion and strings. Because this song needed big band voicing, I recorded each trumpet part ten times and merged the melodies and harmonies together. I repeated the procedure with the other instruments till the song took shape and created the big band sound I needed.

Completion of the song took several more days. The recording sounded as good as a Sinatra original. My move to exclude Colby from the next part of my project was not an unfavorable treatise on her abilities as a musician. By excluding her I protected her from any potential backfire.

Throughout the week I experienced half a dozen nightmares. In each of the dreams, my parents and Colby’s parents circled us. While in the middle, we sank in a pool of quicksand. We screamed for help, but our parents turned away and let us drown in the thick sandy mixture. If something unforeseen did occur as the result of these recordings, I did not want her anywhere near the fallout.

Four of Sinatra’s songs downloaded into the computer as the vocal synthesizer captured his voice. A few simple adjustments filtered out the music. Next I took a microphone and sang the words of my song into the unit using the inflexions and vocal bents of Sinatra to the best of my ability. The recorder captured my ordinary voice. Next I inserted Frank’s voice into the mix. Instantly supplanting my voice were the mellifluous tones of Blue Eye’s himself. “How cool is that?” I asked out loud.

I made the final recording when I established I could not enhance the song further. The next chore I tackled was to take the digital recording and record it onto a blank vinyl disc. My reason for using obsolescent technology centered on the resurgence and collection of old records and record players sweeping the country. Retro may have become a bygone word, and yet the public gravitated to the ancient even if only decades old.

With the antiquated machinery I owned, manufacturing of my own record would be simple. Better yet, using the song Colby helped me construct, I could submit this recording as an original find. It took two days of internet surfing, purchasing the right chemicals, paper, and printing implements for the next step.

With tedious work and fastidious craftiness, I transformed the record into an antiquated disk. After three long days I held in my possession the lost recording of Frank Sinatra. I inspected it against the records I had purchased from a retro music store—impossible to tell them apart.

Ever before me the goal of making a billion dollars hung like a tempting carrot always slightly out of reach. It motivated me to soldier on.

I played the single on a record player packed away in the storage room. Silly, I know, but I crossed my fingers. Everything in my life hinged on this one creation. When Sinatra’s voice broke through the quiet, millions of goosebumps and tremors chilled my body.

“Yes,” I yelled at the top of my lungs. The recording was perfect.

This success led me to make another recording. Since Colby and I knew what we were doing this time, we condensed our time by half. On July 30th, I retained two recordings: one of Frank Sinatra and the other of Nat “King” Cole.

The field trip with my dad earlier in the month set my ingenious plan into motion. I needed an avenue to make the two singles appear legitimate. With the help of the internet, I located a man with few scruples and paid him handsomely to break into a storage unit I was bidding on later in the week and plant my songs.

Several days passed, and I flew out to Arizona for the auction. Over twenty bidders were in attendance. Before the bidding started, I gauged my competition. It was impossible to tell on appearance alone. Most, I gathered, were novices. The auctioneer started the bidding at three hundred dollars a few minutes later the bidding was at two thousand dollars. I decided it was time to advance my cause.

“Five thousand dollars,” I yelled to the auctioneer weeding the fledglings out.

“Ten thousand dollars,” said a husky voice from behind me.

As I turned to eyeball my competition, a stream of brown liquid spurted onto the cement ground inches from where I stood. It was the same man from the first bidding war I attended. He walked past me and stood three feet in front of me. His clothes were the same. His disheveled hair appeared less gray. Another tawny colored blob exited his mouth as he turned to acknowledge me. I kept my face stoic. On the inside, my intestines churned into butter. I had the oddest sensation when his eyes met mine, he knew what valuable treasures lay hidden inside.

“Twenty thousand,” I offered to the auctioneer.

Voices from the ex-bidders now spoke in hushed tones.

The old man replied with a cultivated confidence. “Forty thousand.”

Little did he know I was prepared to bid ten million or more to get those records. I knew the goldmine lying dormant inside the unventilated shed. “Eighty thousand dollars,” I yelled. No need to spend the entire ten million up front.

The man turned again to face me. He stood within eighteen inches of my face. I expected to pick up a whiff of stench but Hugo Boss’ scent of Baldessarini drifted back at me. The greenhorns congregated to gaze at the battle of fisticuffs. This was a true bidding war no doubt.

“One hundred and sixty thousand.”

No legitimate reason existed for this man to bid in this manner. There was no way he could have known the contents of the unit unless the guy who planted them talked and even he remained clueless.

“The bid is one hundred and sixty thousand dollars to you sir,” said the auctioneer looking my direction.

“Two hundred thousand,” I said. The dry heat from the Arizona sun rained hot, and I retrieved my handkerchief from my pocket and wiped my face.

“Nervous are we?” asked the old man.

“Not particularly.”

“Son, you badly want what’s in that unit.”

“Looks like you do to old man. Step out anytime you’re ready.”

“I’m here for a different reason.”

“And what is that?” I asked condescendingly.

“To talk you out of bidding on what’s in that unit. I’ll give you a million dollars right now to walk away.”

Dubious of his intent, I searched the man’s face. His eyes were dark and unmoving. Sunken cheeks were heavy with whiskers. I checked his mouth, no quivers at the crevices of his lips. While drops of sweat collected on my face his skin remained moisture-free. This man was a cool as a cucumber and serious about his offer.

“No deal.”

“Four hundred thousand.”

“If you keep doubling my bids, you are going to run out of money.”

“I have a wealth of resources.”

“And so do I,” I replied. “Five hundred thousand.”

“Six hundred thousand,” yelled the old man still facing my direction. “Do you know what’s in that unit?” he asked spitting more tobacco.

“That’s a disgusting habit.”

“So is lying and cheating.”

“Not sure I follow you.”

“You follow just fine Jason.”

Burning liquid raced through my unobstructed veins elevating my core temperature when he uttered my name. Short, cool wind bursts did little to assuage my discomfort. This guy knew more than he should about me and the prize inside the shed.

“Seven hundred thousand.”

“Won’t give, huh?”

“We can play this game as long as you want.” I commented, “I am not leaving here without the contents of that shed.”

“There’s no way you’ll consider letting this go?”

Calculated steps, four in all, took me till our faces were within inches of one another. I leaned over and whispered in his ear.

“Either bid up or shut up.” I stepped back refusing to say another word or I might go Chuck Norris on him. He read my thoughts and lifted both hands preparing to karate chop me. I braced myself when he released a smile so frosty my insides fell below freezing.

“So be it. You’ve brought this upon yourself.” The finality of his words echoed in my ears akin to the minor chords and inflexions of a Celtic war song.

He looked toward the auctioneer and crossed his hands back and forth several times showing his unwillingness to bid further.

“Going once, going twice…sold to the young man for seven hundred thousand dollars.”

From Arizona, I flew straight to New York transporting my discoveries to well-known record producer, Stedwick Marks. He and his team of experts, over the next two weeks, planned to confirm the recordings’ authenticity.

Stage one accomplished.

Two weeks later I visited Stedwick. He was a man in his early sixties with a devilish grin. Unnerved I wondered what was happening behind those noncommittal eyes of his. He sat in an expensive crimson-colored leather seat behind his huge Parnian customized desk.

“Jason, I’m going to be upfront with you. Neither of those songs you discovered exists.”

Like wax in a roaring fire my heart melted within me. My pulse shifted into neutral. A bead of sweat trickled onto my left earlobe causing the back of my neck to itch. I refrained from scratching and maintained composure.

“What do you mean?” I asked feigning a surprised look.

“I can’t locate a history of these songs anywhere. And when I say no history, I mean no frikkin history.” His face remained circumspect.

I shrugged my shoulders gauging my response. If Stedwick was going to accuse me of falsifying the songs, I had better give him something more than just upper body gestures.

“This is not the first old recording ever discovered,” I offered my voice faint.

“Due to the assiduous nature of my team members I half expected them to come back and inform me the records were fake and that someone duped you.”

Half expected?

That one little opening elicited a new ray of hope. I took in several deep unnoticeable breaths and braced myself for the news to come.

“I received a thumbs up from every one of my team members. Jason, do you realize the rarity of such a find?”

I took a conspicuous breath this time. “From what you are telling Mr. Marks, extremely rare.”

“Time to time in a studio a discovery’s made, but not in a storage unit in godforsaken Arizona. Jason,” he took a visible breath, you’ve stumbled upon recordings of two of the greatest artists who ever lived. What are the odds of that?”

Two out of two.

I kept the mathematical accounting to myself.

“You’ve stumbled onto a goldmine. The Sinatra recording alone could net three hundred million dollars and the Nat ‘King’ Cole single could pull in even more.”

“Wow,” I said stupefied.

“Jason, you’ve hit the mother lode with this discovery. The boomers will gobble up these singles. Include generations x and y, defined by their eclectic tastes chiefly their predilection for diverse music styles, and these singles will sell faster than hotcakes. If we get these songs into the stores by Christmas, sales could quadruple.”

“Wow that is amazing.” Excitement seized my insides. I forced calm into my chest. “What is our next step?” I asked?

“Before we move forward, I have one question I need to ask you.”

My comprehensive research on Stedwick Marks exposed a man who was an atypical record producer. As a musician himself, lust for money was never his modus operandi. In this venture of mine, I needed someone who paid attention to the minute details and refused to get caught up in the frenzy these recordings were sure to create. Stedwick topped my list of candidates hands-down.

He sat back comfortable in blue jeans and a long-sleeved solid olive business shirt untucked at the waist with his Timberland shoes and naked ankles resting on the edge of his desk. Though he dressed too casual for his CEO title, one couldn’t overlook the Hublot’s Black Caviar Bang watch priced at a million dollars clasped to his left wrist.

“Why did you choose Gamble Records?” Stedwick asked.

“I did my research on you. You’re a true musician at heart. Though you make a lucrative living producing in this cutthroat business, you’ve never forgotten the essence of music. I suspect if the sums you mentioned were not at stake you would still go forward because of the rich history this duo of songs represents.”

For the first time, the guarded man unveiled a charming smile which stretched from ear to ear and I knew I had read him to perfection.

Stage two accomplished.

“Jason, I’ll have my lawyers draw up the contracts and have them hand delivered by a courier to you on Friday.”

I replied, “I will have my lawyers review them and deliver them back to you by the following Wednesday. Once both sides have ratified the contract, how long before production starts?”

“Provided we’re hiccup free; we’ll release the songs on Black Friday.”

Stage three accomplished.

I got up from my plush leather seat and extended my hand to Stedwick. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you Mr. Marks,” I said to him meaning every word.

“Likewise and please call me Stedwick.”

I left his office floating in the atmosphere above the heavens. I admit there were a few moments when I considered the duplicity of my actions, in particular my exploitation of Colby’s talents, my deception to Stedwick, and the lies to the American people. Observations of my dad pushing the boundaries in his financial ventures only reassured me my actions adhered to mainstream deportment. I talked myself into believing I was being irresponsible if I refused to follow his lead and not take advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity. I stood outside Stedwick’s office leaning back against the varnished mahogany wood door and took in a deep breath. I could reach out and touch the carrot.

One early summer evening Colby came by for a visit. She wore a tan colored pair of jeans with a yellow top and her signature pink ribbon tied in her hair. As mesmerizing as she looked her countenance betrayed her looks. She made her way to the music room without the trivial chit chat and sat on the love seat while I sat catty-corner to her on the leather couch.

“I can’t believe you did this,” She blurted out.

I did not know how to respond to Colby’s off-the-wall comment. No way could she have discovered my secret. It was not public news. Still, the tone of her voice and folded arms provoked extreme guilt.

“My dad received a call from the mall manager today. Every year the names of the store managers get put into a drawing and the first name pulled out wins a car. The drawing was today. Guess who has a new car?”

“Your dad?” I asked simulating surprise.

“That’s right.”

“That is great Colby,” I said. “I think you told me he wanted a BMW.”

“How did you know it was a BMW?”

Oops.

“Malls pretty much work the same way everywhere. I have heard similar stories.”

“Twice now this has happened. Earlier this year an anonymous donor paid for ten years of rent for my dad’s store.”

“Your dad must have a guardian watching out for him.”

“He must.” Colby turned to face me. Unable to look her in the eyes, I excused myself.

At my desk, I busied myself with a neat stack of papers.

“After five minutes of research, guess what I discovered?”

“What?” I replied, mouthing her next six words.

“You own the Palm Meadows Mall.”

“I own a dozen malls.”

“But don’t you think it’s ironic that since I met you we’ve been the beneficiaries of several extravagant gifts from a mall you own?”

“Not so much,” I replied. “As I said, it happens often in this business.” My concentration at the table increased in intensity. Colby stood up and walked behind me. She put her arms on my shoulders and turned me around. Nary a word left her lips, but I could not oppose the undeniable need inside to confess my sins.

“Okay, okay Colby I bought the car.”

Surprised to hear the truth from my lips, the shock settled.

“Why?” Her lips puckered, her eyes glazed with shock, her face begged for answers.

The following words erupted from my mouth before retrieval became possible. “Because I love you.”

I forced both hands over my mouth reminiscent of the kid who, by accident, uttered his first curse word in front of his parents. Even though the words were factual I had not meant to eject them from my lips. I half expected Colby to slap me and winced when she moved her hands towards me. Instead of a whack, she placed a warm hand on each of my cheeks and pulled me closer to her. She kissed me on the lips a first for me. We floated back to the sitting area holding each other. The earth’s axis stopped rotating. I could not recall a comparable moment.

The raucous sound of my phone’s ringtone filled the room killing the ambience. I did not lower my ringtone nor try to preserve the mood and answered the call.

“Excuse me a second Colby,” I said getting up from the couch.

“Hello, Jason speaking.”

“Jason, its Stedwick Marks. Do you have a second?”

“Sure Stedwick,” I replied.

Stedwick informed me everything was on schedule. The releasing of the recordings commenced at midnight on Black Friday. I sank into my chair and breathed heavy when he told me we could capitalize on the releases if I agreed to do television interviews. He believed the media exposure could quadruple the sales. We talked figures for a moment. My excitement became uncontainable when he tossed the figure of eight hundred million dollars as a baseline for sales and that was with the subtraction of Gamble Records cut.

Realization that a single prime-time interview could increase sales, I agreed to let him arrange it. I thanked Stedwick and ended the call setting the phone to vibrate. Colby sat on the couch with her hands resting in her lap. The moment we enjoyed minutes ago could not be resurrected.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said with a slight distortion in her voice revealing her recalibrated mood.

“Who was on the phone?”?

“A business associate.”

“What business?”

“The kind that will make me a ton of money,” I said. An invisible veil dropped from the ceiling between us.

“Money is still very important to you isn’t it Jason?”

“Money is a tool to help me reach my goals,” I replied.

“But an important tool.”

“I suppose.”

“You suppose? Come on Jason.”

“Okay so it is important. Why does my fascination with money bother you so much? You knew my predilection for money when you entered this friendship. Your eyes were not closed.” I made the statements with a twinge of surliness in my voice. She picked up on the virulent tone and I got a glimpse of the veil separating us.

“Jason, what is it you want in life?”

The question’s enormity did not escape me. Up to a month ago Colby and I enjoyed the perfect relationship. Now we found ourselves tossed into the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost.

“Answer the question,” Colby pushed.

“I want world peace and an end to hunger and poverty. I want crime and violence to stop.”

“Jason, I’m serious.”

“I am serious.”

She threw her arms up in exasperation. Her face turned pomegranate in color.

“I want to be happy Colby, and I want the pain to stop.”

“And you think money will do that?”

“Money and happiness are synonymous with one another.” I could taste the sourness of my voice on my lips. The rancid acidity made me choke.

“Preoccupation with money is suffocating you Jason.”

The incongruous statement angered me. Ten minutes before she loved me for blessing her father. Now my money was causing me to sink into a sunless abyss. “Why do you blow everything out of proportion?” I asked.

“Jason, what’s happened to you?”

“Nothing,” I replied.

“Are you telling me you can’t see we have a problem?”

“No, just not sure all the blame is mine.”

“You blame me?” Colby asked.

“No, but I have a full plate, and I need space.”

My words stung her. Self-centeredness never allowed for others’ hurt feelings. Colby went quiet, and I rejoiced to have the solitude back.

She spoke after a long silence.

“Jason, you mentioned pain earlier. Want to share it with me?”

“No.”

“What bothers you bothers me.”

“Trust me Colby this does not affect you.”

“We should talk.”

“Why can you not get this? I do not want to talk.”

“Okay Jason, okay.”

Discussion of my pain had the potential to accelerate the anger yearning to take over me. The moment the old man in Arizona pulled out of the bid fierce changes cropped up in my behavior. I refuse to go on record and say its diabolical charm inveigled me, but a subtle viciousness crept into my attitude previously uncultivated.

No matter how I tried, I could not control the boorish feelings. This maleficent host not only capitalized on my dissatisfactory behavior but unearthed within me my truest feelings in regards to my dad. I have to admit it blindsided me. My anger for him had turned into a severe case of loathing.

Colby sat there on the couch with her legs crossed away from me and her arms folded, the classic closed-off position. Several times she opened her mouth to speak, but each time choked back the words.

“For Pete’s sake Colby say what is on your mind.”

“Everything is different between us. Our relationship is splintering.”

“Come on Colby speak English.”

“We’re two ships in the ocean traveling different directions.”

“English.”

“Jason, you’re pushing me away.”

“Have I pushed you away?” I was not expecting an answer.

Her non-response might as well have been typed in CAPS, translated into every known language and transmitted across the World Wide Web. Colby was right. Intentional or not, I never meant to hurt her. Driven by money and the power which accompanied it, I let her slip from my grasp. I needed to regain control of myself and this situation now. Several deep breaths over the course of a minute changed my mood for the better.

“What do we do Colby?”

“I don’t want to lose you Jason.”

“Then why are we fighting?”

“We’re not fighting we’re having an impassioned discussion.”

“This is a fight, and it scares me because it reminds me of the violent conversations my dad and I used to have. Is it too late for us?” I asked.

“No Jason.”

Like steam venting from a hot kettle sadness escaped my heart, a rapid burst at a time released the pressure in my spirit. Colby circled her arms around me while resting her head in the crevice just beneath my shoulder.

“I love you too Jason.”

My mind, however, was on the three quarter of a billion dollars’ payday.

Chapter Twelve

 

 

Stedwick arranged an interview with New York’s Sandra Devant of NBC two weeks before the releasing of the Cole and Sinatra singles. They asked for fifteen minutes confirming the shows live prime-time broadcast. Nerves combined with excitement incited my heart into a scurry. Three days before the interview the palpitations settled.

To mark the occasion of my first televised interview I traveled into town and bought a charcoal-colored suit. Help by an older salesperson reassured me as he took detailed measurements. From the rack he retrieved a suit. A perfect fit. The trio of jacket buttons glimmered as did obsidian glass on a moonlit evening. The accompanying white business shirt and power tie transformed me into a trustworthy, knowledgeable, and enterprising young man a long way from the devious lying scumbag wanting control of me.

Colby accompanied me to the store to make sure the suit suited me. Through other sources she learned of my spectacular musical find. This set off a surplus of fireworks between us. How could I ever expect her to understand my enigmatic behavior protected her from imaginable harm? In part, to smooth things out, and reignite a relationship that had been fizzling for weeks, I invited her to New York to attend the interview. My dad was away on business again. Thirty trips so far this year.

Prior to the interview I received interview questions in my ‘in box’. This gave me plenty of time to prepare my responses in between school, my business, and music matters that took so much of my time and energy.

The night before the interview I struggled to sleep. Any fourth grader could recognize my tussle with catching z’s revolved around my Rolodex of lies. During a random doze, I saw my body lying half clothed in a deep grave. Above me were a small group of people, the recipients of my lies. Each person held a shovel in his or her hands and chucked shovelfuls of dirt on top of me screaming “liar.” I tried to scream, but someone taped my mouth shut. The weight of the dirt on my body allowed for staccato breaths. My lungs inhaled the earth, and I choked to death. Before the vision ended, I saw a phrase burning through the dirt towards me. The acute heat of the words singed my face.

 

THIS WILL BE YOUR END

 

I made one final push. The blanket slid from off my head allowing fresh air to enter. I gasped until my lungs filled with oxygen. Moments later I awoke from the nightmare soaked in a sea of sweat.

My life of deceit was not the only issue keeping me awake, disintegrating in front of me was my relationship with Colby. Every relationship will reach a plateau, a flat space to endure until the next mountain or valley appeared. The vivacity which defined our early days together no longer ran wild. The downgrade of our soulmate connection rested on my shoulders. Colby, God bless her, did everything to rescue me from myself, but I hid deep inside myself. I refused to let her or anyone else penetrate the invisible veil.

I loved Colby. That was never in question. The thought she might find out what I had done ate away at my spirit. Each day I died a little more.

Somber pleas for a decent night’s sleep settled among deaf ears. My body turned back and forth until the sheets mummified me. Tired of the bed wars, I struggled to my feet and stripped tossing the soggy sheets onto the floor. Thirsty, I traipsed to the kitchen. Low wattage lights let off a dull glow. I turned the corner surprised to see Mom sitting at the table with two cups of steaming cocoa sitting in front of her. The woman was more than a mind reader. I sat across the table from her wondering what preoccupied her thoughts.

“Is everything okay Mom?”

“No Jason. I’m worried.”

“Did something happen to…?”

“No, Jason. He’s fine.”

“Then what is it?”

“You’re worrying me,” she said then took a short sip of the cocoa.

“Mom, I told you, everything is okay.”

“Don’t you think it’s time you stopped lying?”

“Do you have something on your mind Mom?” The last thing I needed at 2:00 a.m. was one of those deep and meaningful conversations which never ended well after eight at night.

“Mother’s intuition tells me you’re in in trouble.”

“Consider an intuition realignment,” I said to make light of the matter.

She took another sip, put her cup on the polished wood, and reached for my hands. I leaned forward and offered them to her. She took hold of my hands as if trying to learn the secrets they held.

“Jason, tell me what’s bothering you.”

Business ventures, of the sort I was involved in, never included conversations with one’s mother. Her lines of questioning led me to believe she might have lines on the truth. I worked hard to throw her off the scent.

“Mom, my mind is jam-packed with stuff, this interview and the Black Friday releases. This is huge for me.”

“Is that it?”

“Yeah.”

“There’s nothing else?”

“No,” my voice routed.

Mom caught the tone. “Something tells me there’s more to this than a frantic schedule. Why have you stopped trusting me?”

Because you guys have been lying to me for years.

The secrets that reverberated within the walls of our home made truth telling an ineffectual exercise. Why lie to me and then insist I be forthcoming with the truth? Where was the balance? When Colby entered my life I talked less with Mom and no longer confided in her. My actions hurt her. Confidant restitution was no easy job not when my advisors position on truth-telling was as enigmatic as mine.

“Worry less,” I said.

“No matter what you’ve done Jason I love you.”

Angry, tired, exasperated, an unwilling to sit under the hot lights of her inquisition any further, I stood and pried the mug from her hand. I took both cups to the sink and tipped out the remaining liquid. After rinsing the cups, I turned them over on the tea towel to dry overnight. As I reached for the light switch. Mom sneaked up behind me and placed her arms around me and squeezed. Instead of comfort, my heart bubbled with the years of hurt she and my dad had caused.

“Goodnight Jason,” she said. “I love you.”

It was the first time I can remember shunning her affection. Did she notice? Back in bed, I lay on the bare mattress. Somewhere between the hours of four and six I fell asleep because the sound of my alarm jolted me upright. The feelings of disorientation subsided after a few minutes and my body crawled out of bed non-stop to the bathroom.

Water, on the hottest setting, scalded my body for twenty minutes until my mind cleared. Dressed in my new suit, a look in the mirror revealed a fake instead of a smart dressed young man. On my way to check on Mom, the doorbell rang. I opened it expecting to see Colby.

“Why did you ring the…”

A strange man faced me. Dressed in casual clothing I guessed him to be in his thirties. His clothes were nothing special: faded blue jeans, a brilliant mustard-colored polo, and brown Timberland Docksiders without socks. A 911 Carrera S Porsche convertible sat in the driveway with an open top. Inside a woman with platinum blonde hair faced away from me in the passenger’s seat. The man gave me the once over.

“What do you want?” I asked affronted by his conduct.

“Jason Draper?”

I learned early not to respond when asked the two-word question. A court summons always followed.

“Who are you?” I asked my curiosity growing.

“My name is Regis Dexmyer Junior,” he said.

“Good for you. Now what are you doing on my property?”

Regis pulled an envelope out of his shirt pocket. “See that young Draper gets this.” He slapped it against my chest. I snatched his hand, and in less than a second forced him into a kneeling position on the entryway. With his free arm, he tried to swing at me. I applied more pressure. He grimaced in pain. The platinum blonde woman exited the car and ran our direction.

“Please don’t hurt him,” she pleaded and wrapped her hands around him.

Was I overreacting? Dexmyer could have been making a simple delivery. I released his hand. He took it and massaged it. When he lifted his shirt to show he carried a Glock 42 tucked into his waistband, without spinning, I took my foot and clapped him around the ears. He fell to the ground groaning once again. I moved towards him. The lady fell to the ground and covered his body.

“Please, don’t hurt him,” she pleaded tears in her eyes.

“Lady, you need to find a new friend. Leave now or the police will be my next call.”

She helped him to his feet, but he pushed her away out of pride and embarrassment. I reached into my pocket and pulled out one of my ninja stars just in case Dexmyer wanted to reach for his gun a second time. If he did, he would not get a third chance.

“You’ve made a big mistake Drayper, a big mistake.” Before he sped off, I made a mental note of his license plate number. I picked up the envelope which had fallen to the ground and slipped it into my inside jacket pocket. I turned and discovered Mom standing at the door.

“Who was that?”

“Just someone asking for directions.”

“Is he okay? I thought I saw him fall.”

“He slipped on the pavement on his way back to the car.”

“You’re sure he’s okay?”

“Fine Mom.”

I shut the door behind me. As Mom turned, her eyebrows raised and her shoulders shrugged just enough so I knew she had seen the whole thing. Why the charade? This same question I could ask myself. Colby arrived not long after wearing a smart two-piece avocado suit with cream colored chiffon blouse and the pink ribbon in her hair. She gave Mom a hug first. We air kissed afraid of the other’s fragility.

“You look great,” I told her.

“And so do you,” she replied. “Nervous?”

“I had trouble sleeping.”

“So did I,” said Colby.

“I did too,” replied Mom coming from the kitchen. “It’s not every day your son goes on national television.” Mom had the nerve to pinch me on the cheek. I hated the fuss. Black Friday was my point of convergence. The other bits and pieces were unwanted distractions. I needed to get through this Devant interview, then I could breathe.

In the car on the way to the airport, jazz music played. Few words were spoken. My private jet flew us to New York City. We made the trip under three hours. During the flight, I noticed Colby and Mom spent the bulk of their time conversing in hushed tones. I filled my time reviewing the questions.

We landed at JFK, and a limousine whisked us away to the studio. The producer and several other employees introduced themselves. I said my goodbyes to Mom and Colby and grappled with my nerves as I waited in the green room.

The makeup artist entered. I removed my jacket and laid it on the seat while she took a wafer thin towel and tucked it inside my collar. Next she opened her case and spent a few seconds deciding which base and colors to use. Convinced of the exactitude of her choices, she applied a base, then rouge, eyeliner, and lipstick. She asked me to close my eyes as she dabbed my face with a powder that kept my face from glistening with perspiration under the hot lights. I did not recognize myself when I glanced at the mirror. That was no huge secret, no one else did either.

“Thank you,” I said just before she exited the room.

“My pleasure,” she replied.

I stood from the seat and picked up my jacket when the envelope I received earlier that morning slipped out onto the floor. I picked it up and checked both sides. No outward markings. I slid my index finger through the closed flap tearing at the seal. The message inside petrified me.

 

I know you faked the Sinatra and Cole singles.

 

Terrorized by nine words, I cried out, “Oh God!” It was too late for divine intervention.

I jumped up at the knock. The stage manager peeked in. “Five minutes.”

My nervousness skyrocketed. Lightheaded and nauseous I cried out again. “Oh God, what have I done?”

Still no answer.

The stage manager escorted me to the stage. Monitors positioned throughout the hallway allowed me to see everything taking place on the set. Sandra brought the current conversation to a close, and the screens blackened at the commercial break. Sweat seeped through makeup caked pores. Ushered to an empty chair, I honed in on the bottle of water. I drained it in one go. The hydration did nothing to replace electrolytes or upgrade my disposition.

Sandra Devant walked over and introduced herself. I told her how happy I was to meet her.

“Have you done a television interview before?”

“This is my first time.”

“You’ll do great Jason. No need to be nervous.”

Studio music played. The lights on the set brightened.

“We’re going live in five, four, three, two….,” I heard a female voice say. She then pointed to Sandra.

“We’re back. If you’ve been keeping up with the news, my next guest is no stranger. He discovered two lost recordings. One of Frank Sinatra and the other of Nat ‘King’ Cole. Experts have labeled these records as the finds of the century.” Sandra turned to face me. “You’re a modern-day Indiana Jones, Jason Drayper, a real hero.”

“Please,” I held my hands up, “I am no champion. I was fortunate to make a discovery and pleased to share it with the world.”

“If what the financial prognosticators say is true, you’ll make over three hundred million dollars from discovery.” The question took me off-guard and not because the sum was short by five hundred thousand dollars.

“Ms. Devant I will make money on this deal, so will the record company, and the many others hands involved to bring this music to the public. This find allows the American people and those beyond our borders to listen to what purports to be these two artists’ greatest works. Somewhere along the way the money becomes irrelevant.”

My heart pounded out of control. Still, I kept the semi-smile plastered on my face. Sandra asked a few more questions which I thought I answered well.

“Jason, does it bother you being so rich?” An actual smirk seeped through her plastic makeup-coated face.

That was not on the sheet of questions.

“Ms. Devant I often get asked that question.”

“Please call me Sandra.”

“Certain people have a talent for playing sports or for teaching English Literature or for cooking. I have a talent for making money. Embarrassment over this has taken years to overcome.”

“What is your net worth?” It was obvious Sandra was having a go at me. Her eyebrows joined in the middle forming devil horns. In my mind I watched as her red lipstick engulfed her whole face. Now I saw who she was, Satan in disguise. The question was a potential minefield. If I gave a figure, viewers might think me an arrogant sixteen-year-old prick. Evade answering, and they would assume I was hiding something even with the charcoal suit and vibrant power tie I wore. In a millisecond, I had to make a decision.

“Ms. Devant I cannot believe you’re embarrassing me this way,” I replied mocking a smile. “I have always believed financial matters should remain confidential. Imagine if a coworker told you they were making seven hundred thousand dollars a year, and you were making only half a million. You see the problem.

“Humans are wired to grow, to seek, and to create. This in itself is a catalyst for increasing growth in a number of areas including finances. Concentration on the monetary when other areas have higher priority is akin to attacking the outcome when the method is the most relevant. You invited me on this show to discuss the singles.”

“I’m not willing to let this go Jason,” continued Sandra, “Let’s talk tax laws.” I gulped.

Did the camera pick the movement in my throat?

“Do you think it’s fair the tax laws favor the rich over the middle and lower class?”

Leave it alone Devant.

The moment you get into politics you alienate half of your audience. I needed to be cool. Hundreds of millions were resting on the sales of these conspicuous singles.

“I was not aware our discussion included politics Ms. Devant. I am by nature a private person. Let’s talk Black Friday singles.”

“So you’re saying it doesn’t matter that your net worth increases while ten percent of our population is unemployed?”

I looked straight into Satan’s eyes. Behind them was a deadly look the kind I was unaccustomed to seeing. Over the years, I dealt with people who hated me because of my wealth. This was different. Sandra had taken advantage of me to boost ratings.

Sit and take it.

This was the reason I stayed away from politics and television interviews. A person of means was a prime target for anyone with a grudge or in this case a chip on her shoulder. I saw the invisible chip on Sandra’s shoulder. It was the size of a large dung heap.

I scrambled to resurrect myself.

“Ms. Devant, I own many malls around the country. Instead of upping the rent this year I lowered it to give struggling storekeepers a hand. I have bought upwards of fifteen apartment complexes. The rents are reasonable, and if someone has a problem paying, my team works with those in hardship. I support the arts in schools and have given large dollars to make sure these programs become a mainstay of the curriculum. When I eat out I tip thirty to forty percent because I understand how hard the wait staff works. My business ventures employ over two hundred people and ensure each employee receives a performance-based bonus at the end of the year. I am doing my part. Is there more I can do? Sure. One person can only do so much. If I gave away every cent I have, poverty still exists. At that point no means exists for me to help others.”

“We have to take a commercial break. We’ll be back in a hundred-and-twenty.”

The lights on in the studio faded, and the same makeup person came and retouched Sandra’s makeup.

“Will you be in New York long Jason?” Sandra asked oblivious to my mood. Some reporter.

“What are you doing,” I asked?

“I beg your pardon.”

“So far, you have asked one question of the twenty you emailed me.”

“A good interviewer thinks on her feet.”

“How far journalism has fallen if bullying a sixteen-year-old on national television is your only method to increase your ratings? In the long run, you sacrifice integrity for cheap TV.” She turned away ignoring me.

“I’ve been in the news business for over twenty years. Kid, I give the public what they want.”

I hate when people refer to me as a kid.

“And I made more money by fifteen than you will make in your lifetime. That still does not give you the right to screw with my life Sandra. I am telling you if you refuse to stop this line of questioning I will…”

“You’ll what?” she asked her voice heated.

“Your search for dirt will net you nothing but grief Devant.”

She snickered.

“One of my sources tells me your goal is to make one billion dollars.”

“What is it to you?”

“How much money is enough Mr. Drayper?”

“Why put limits on it? Make as much as you can while you can. That is my philosophy.”

“No matter how you make it?”

I smiled. “What do you think?”

“You’re a raving capitalist.”

“And I know all about your socialist leanings. End this now Devant while you can save face or I will destroy you.”

“You rich types think because you have a few dollars you can run this world.”

“You’ve been warned.”

“One minute,” called out a voice behind the cameras. We parted ways and walked back to our respective seats. I pulled out a sheet of paper from the outside jacket pocket. It included information a friend, an associate named Marty had given me on Ms. Devant. After reviewing it for several seconds, I crumpled it up and threw it on the studio floor and waited for the eruption of lights.

“We’re going live in five, four, three, two…”

“We’re back and we’re talking to Jason Drayper the young kid…” Sandra enjoyed taunting me. “…who discovered two lost recordings. Before the commercial break Jason, I was asking if you had a problem making so much money. You gave me a list of charitable things you do with your money. You said you could do more. Expound on that for our viewers.”

I warned you.

No doubt the cameras held my face in a tight close-up prepared to capture my expression. I kept the same semi-smile plastered on my face.

“Before I answer that let me ask you something Ms. Devant. When you left CBS to take the nightly news position on this station, sources tell me the executives made the move in hope your presence might boost ratings. That did not happen.” I continued before she could interrupt. “Three weeks in and the ratings sunk to an all-time low. Could it be your job is in jeopardy?” No doubt the cameras zoomed in on her face. “Earlier, you targeted my net worth. You used to have a two-million-dollar salary. Now you’re making half of that now. My, that is a huge cut and still you make eight times more than the average person who watches this show. What are your feelings on that?” I stared at her waiting for her to respond. She appeared to be at a loss for words.

“While you consider your answer: Your contributions to charity were much less last year than you led your viewers to believe. I know you push charities often on your show. Have you informed your viewers that two of the charities you push are under investigation by the IRS?”

Sandra tried to interrupt. I refused to budge.

“Were you aware of this?” Sandra was sinking fast. She was two questions away from being unable to resurrect this interview. Mercy, not my strongest suit, kept me from digging her grave. I asked one more question.

“Your viewers have got to be scratching their heads wondering what in the world is happening on your show. Before we let them in on it, what do you say to a charity challenge Ms. Devant? I support a group in Connecticut making an ardent search for a cure for cancer. You have a close relative diagnosed with Stage Two cancer I understand.” There was no need to reveal to the viewers it was her mother. “Ms. Devant I am offering you a challenge; I will double whatever gift you give including the donations that come in during this broadcast by viewers”

Devant’s hands were tied. Throw out a dollar figure too small, and her viewers would eat her alive. Write a check too big and people would turn against her for having too much money as she did to me earlier.

“I’m willing to pledge a hundred thousand dollars to your cause,” Devant answered her voice having lost part of its natural vivaciousness.

I turned to the camera and spoke to the audience. “Thanks to Ms. Devant we raised three hundred thousand dollars and for a very worthy cause. Ms. Devant thank you so much.” After my hundred-thousand-dollar extortion. I let her off the hook. “Do you think it’s time we let your viewers in our little secret?” Cameras from every angle captured the smiles on both our faces. “Thank you for allowing me to try out my investigative skills. I have always dreamed of becoming a reporter. Do you think I have what it takes Ms. Devant?” I asked with a boyish grin.

Sandra faked a laugh.

“You might be readier than you think Jason. We should get back to the reason you’re on the show today.”

“Ready whenever you are Ms. Devant,” I said returning a fake smile of my own.

“So Jason, do you believe more lost recordings are hidden out there?”

You can bet on it.

“A find this monumental is rare so my answer is doubtful though not impossible. I am glad these two recordings did not stay buried. The world should have an opportunity to listen to evocative songs from two music giants. The singles are going on sale next week at major stores around the country at midnight, Thanksgiving evening.”

“Jason, I want to thank you for coming on the show and spending time with us. Perhaps one day we’ll see you in this seat.”

Not on your life.

“You are too kind Ms. Devant.”

“Kirsten Braise, star of the new reality series Backyard Battles, will join us in one hundred and twenty.”

Nimble fingers removed my microphone and walked me from the set. My personal homing missiles closed in on me, Colby from the left and Mom from the right.

“You alright?” they voiced in unison.

The adrenaline-laced resolve I needed to go on the offensive with Devant drained from my body. I understood the saying being hit by a train. Inside, my body weakened while mind and soul jostled to preserve any vestiges of sanity.

I greeted Colby with the same forged smile I had given Devant during the final minute of the show.

“No more interviews,” I said.

Mom said, “Let’s get out of here…” The tone of her voice reflected a terseness uncharacteristic of someone usually reserved, “…before I give that Devant woman a piece of mind.”

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

It rained as we took off from the JFK reversing our course to Florida. My mood equaled the dreariness of the pungent pewter sky. I feigned exhaustion and closed my eyes pretending to be asleep, not in the mood for conversation. Thirty minutes into the flight the jitters left me. After landing, we dropped Colby off at her home, and the moment I got to my room I called Marty Johnson.

Marty was a resourceful man and a close associate of mine. One of my financial advisors recommended him. If I needed a job done, a job not handled through normal channels, I called Marty. For example; the lowdown on a potential business associate, Marty was able to mine that info in short order. Neither of us questioned the other’s loyalty.

“Hey Marty, Jason.”

“Hey my friend.”

“I need you to do me a favor and run a check on a guy named Regis Dexmyer.”

“Sure Jason. Something special you want me to highlight?”

“He came to the house brandishing a gun. I took care of it but I expect he and I will cross paths again.”

“No problem Jason, I’ll get right on it.”

“As always Marty, thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

I pulled out the pithy note Dexmyer slammed against my chest and examined it. The moment I read the message it branded my heart. Who told him the truth? The aggregation of Christmas shoppers on Black Friday, commenced the world’s introduction to my music. Until then, Stedwick’s impeccable security team placed an impenetrable blanket over the singles. If Dexmyer listened to the music, Gamble Records had a leak.

The next morning, I put a call into Stedwick Marks. His secretary took the message. His marathon meeting meant no return calls till after six. I considered what my next move should be? My dad taught me the best thing to do when you were unsure what to do was wait. It was amazing the number of things I had learned from him and now practiced. I prided myself in being proactive but for the moment I was at a loss so I took his advice and waited.

I skipped school and flew to Miami for the day. For lunch I stopped at a Cuban restaurant I frequented when in the city. The intermixture of Spanish, Caribbean, and African cuisine appealed so much to my sense of taste I ordered three main courses. I returned home before six. Mom was out, and my dad had not returned. I glanced at my cellphone. A message awaited me. It was Colby asking to see me. I detected a mournful tone in her voice. At the moment I preferred solitude. Yet Colby, despite our divergent paths of late, lifted my spirits. While I waited for her arrival, the phone rang. I looked at the number. New York.

“Stedwick, thanks for calling me back.”

“Monster meeting,” he said. “I saw the interview with Sandra Devant.”

“She’s a tough little interviewer.”

“Forty million viewers saw you go toe to toe with her Jason. Word on the street is she wants to sue you for that stunt you pulled.”

“Sandra and I parted as enemies.”

“Sandra doesn’t have friends.” Stedwick’s hearty laugh shifted me from my funk until I remembered what I needed to discuss with him. “I’d love to know how you scooped her on the charity stuff.”

“I have my sources. Hey Stedwick, sorry to switch gears. I called to check on something. I saw the specs but never discussed your security protocol to keep the actual songs under wraps.”

“Security is tight Jason. Our current group’s been together for over a decade, four of them have been with me for twenty plus years. It’s a tight team. I ran another security check on my guys vetting each one after the validation of the singles. It came back clean. A fly with a tiny camera strapped to its back couldn’t breach the net we’ve created in our studio. Why has something happened?”

Yes.

Stedwick served as a pawn in my elaborate scheme. The less he knew the better. How do I tell him of the leak without alerting him to my activities?

“No nothing has happened. I guess I am getting jumpy the closer we get to launch.”

“That’s understandable,” replied Stedwick. “I assure you everything on our end is running as smooth as a duck’s backside. We’ve streamlined the distribution so each store will receive the merchandise at the same time across the country. East Coast at twelve midnight, west coast at nine and the Midwest, respectively. The stores are under tight security unable to sell the merchandise till midnight Thanksgiving night.”

“I’ve got information you’ll find interesting Jason. My marathon meeting included a brief from a top economist. He believes Christmas will be stellar for small and large business owners. I’ve been reading the papers and watching the news. This find of yours has changed the mindset of the American public. Even with a down-turned economy, encouraging signs signal this discovery will boost American confidence.”

How was it possible for two recordings to cause a stir of this magnitude? If the American people discovered the truth, might the converse be true? The destruction of the U.S. economy bore heavy on my shoulders. This moneymaking scheme of mine was turning into a runaway train. A shiver ran throughout my body.

“How can I not applaud that bit of news,” I said before sliding into my next question. “Stedwick, ever heard of a guy named Regis Dexmyer?”

“You’re kidding me right?” replied Stedwick? “Dexmyer works for me.”

I choked and my face dropped to the floor, but my voice kept its steady timbre.

“What does he do for you?”

“A bit of everything. Dexmyer was a huge record producer in his day.”

The world was much smaller than I gave it credit.

“He worked with Perry Como, Tony Bennet, Dean Martin and many of the great crooners but his largest star was Frank Sinatra. And he was part of Sinatra’s inner circle. I’m told Sinatra never made a recording move without him.”

“Great.”

“How did you happen upon Regis’ name?”

“In my investigation of Sinatra’s recording history I think.”

“The man is a genius.”

“Any family?”

“One son. His name is Regis Dexmyer Junior.”

“Thanks Stedwick, I will call you next week before the launch.”

“Jason, I expect you’re as nervous as the rest us. I need you to believe me when I say you shouldn’t worry.”

I had plenty of worries. “Thanks Stedwick.”

I ended the call surprised to see Colby standing behind me.

“Hi.”

“We need to talk.”

“This sounds serious.”

“It is.”

We need to talk had only one connotation I was aware of; Colby was breaking up with me. I prophesied the coming of this moment. When your soul mate is no longer your kindred spirit, you part ways. My heart raced to catch up with my thoughts. She sat on the couch. I took the seat opposite her just as nervous as the first time she came over to my house.

“Is everything okay?” I asked my voice timid.

“A fire at the mall destroyed my dad’s store.”

“What,” I said in shock moving next to her on the couch. “What happened?”

“Sometime this afternoon when the rest of the staff was at lunch a man walked in interested in purchasing leather luggage. He paid for the items with a fake credit card and asked my Dad to brand the three pieces with his initials. While taking care of the order in the back the man set off an explosive device Dad suffered minor smoke inhalation.”

I moved over and put my arms around Colby. “I am so sorry. Is he okay?”

“The hospital released him three hours ago.” Starting to tear. “Jason, why on earth would someone want to kill my dad?”

While she spoke I connected the dots.

“Did anyone see who did it?”

“The mall security cameras caught a man speeding off from the parking lot in a sports car.”

“Did they get a description,” I asked?

“They’re going through the security tapes at the mall to see if they can identify him and the car. It makes little sense Jason. My dad’s done nothing to anyone. Why hurt him?”

It made perfect sense. Regis Dexmyer was behind this. His next move, extortion. The best way to get my attention was to attack the people I love. That meant Colby was in danger as well as my mom and dad and now Colby’s parents. The pit in my stomach increased in size.

“Which leads me to the reason I’m here.”

Here it goes.

“Dad called his old company in California. They’re interested in hiring him back.”

“What?” I asked feigning calm despite my frenetic demeanor.

“Dad says it’s the only choice. By the time the insurance pays up and the store’s rebuilt, it will take three to four months. It’ll take time for the insurance to pay, plus the merchandise is a total write-off. On top of that, he’s got a family to provide for and salaries to pay. He talked tonight of laying off the employees.”

I paused as if considering her words and waited another beat before speaking. I knew what action I needed to take.

“Colby, listen to me for a second.”

“We can’t accept your help,” she said stealing my thunder.

“You have mind-reading skills now? Let me finish.”

“Jason we can’t accept your help. If my dad were to find out you paid the lease on his store or bought him the BMW, you might see fireworks inside your house tonight. Second, his pride won’t let him. He doesn’t believe in taking help from others.”

“There are other options.”

“I believe you. I’m not sure my dad will.”

“Colby, please let me help? I need to make this right.”

Oops.

In haste, I articulated the thoughts in my mind. The cogs turned with purpose in Colby’s mind.

“What do you mean?”

Time to deflect.

“I understand your dad’s position, but a separation is the last thing we need.”

“I don’t want to leave either Jason, surely you can understand my need to stand by my family.”

The notion meant nothing to me.

I paused thirty seconds more to let the drama build.

“Colby, I need you to listen. This idea of mine will allow your family to stay here and keep your father’s pride intact.”

She leans towards me. “Go ahead, I’m listening.”

“I got a call from the manager of the Palm Meadows Mall yesterday. She has agreed to manage a mall I own in Chicago. I need to fill the vacancy straightaway.”

Colby’s eyes widened. “You’d do that for my dad?”

“Sure, but I am not doing it for him.”

“Why Jason, why?”

“You need an explanation?”

As the seconds ticked by her awareness of my reasons became apparent.

There was a pause. Colby’s cellphone buzzed just enough to destroy what might have been our first intimate moment in months.

“Sorry, it’s Dad. I need to take it.”

“Of course,” I say and walk away from the palpable tension.

Her father couldn’t understand why in the midst of the families’ turmoil Colby was at my house. This upset her him. They argued back and forth, her father wanting to move back to California and Colby wanting to stay in Vero Beach. Other than me, the school was her greatest drawcard. Mr. Shire’s disinterest in her feelings regulated more shouting. Only one thing to do now. I reached to take the phone from Colby.

“Dad,” Colby said, “Jason wants to speak with you.”

“Colby, I have no intention of speaking with Jason.”

“I’m putting him on the phone.”

He uttered something I did not understand. French maybe. I took the phone from her hands. Colby was more nervous than I had ever seen her.

“Hello Mr. Shire.”

“Hi, Jason, I don’t mean to be rude. We’re going through a difficult time at the moment…”

“Mr. Shire, you and I have not formally met. My name is Jason Drayper.”

Cogs turned in his mind. Wheels skidded to a halt. “You can’t mean Jason Drayper the owner of Palm Meadows Mall?”

“Guilty,” I replied. “I planned to give you a call tomorrow. Excellent reports have crossed my desk regarding you from Candice Willows, the current mall manager.”

“That’s great to hear Mr. Drayper,” he said his voice softening.

“Mr. Shire, please call me Jason.”

“Only if you’ll call me Thomas.”

“I wish I could oblige you. At a young age my parents drilled into me the importance of respecting for my elders. Any violation, no matter how minute, could lead to a massive coronary and I might keel over and die. Over the years, they led me to believe this, so I hope you can understand my dilemma.”

“Well Jason,” Mr. Shire laughed, “I do understand. Colby received similar guidelines from her mom and me.”

“Good. First, let me say how sorry I am to hear of your ordeal today. Ms. Willows is leaving the mall in two weeks. This creates a vacancy for a mall manager. This is the reason I wanted to speak with you. I am rather in a bind and could use the services of someone of your caliber to fill the position.”

He paused. Colby’s eyes filled with tears. I imagined Mr. Shire was experiencing a similar emotional outburst.

“Jason, that’s a wonderful offer. And yes I’d be honored to accept the position.”

“Great. Now I have one less worry. I will send you a formal offer by courier tomorrow morning…early. I believe you will find it appealing. Review it at your leisure. We can discuss any questions you might have over an early breakfast on Tuesday say at the Marriott at seven if your schedule permits.”

“I’ll see you there,” said Mr. Shire, “and Jason thanks, I appreciate this opportunity more than you know.”

“No thanks needed Mr. Shire. You are the one who saved my life. I look forward to our first meeting. While we are on the subject, your staff will continue to draw paychecks as the store is being rebuilt. And if you’re worried this offer is only good through the rebuilding, you will retain complete ownership of the luggage store, though you may need to find someone else to manage it. You will have your hands full I expect.”

“I’m at a loss of words.”

“I am handing the phone back to Colby. Talk to you soon.”

“Dad,” she said in disbelief, and for the next few minutes cried and laughed with her father. At the call’s conclusion she sat next to me on the piano.

“How come you never told your dad about me?” I asked as my fingers pressed white and black notes to create a melancholic chord that colored the conversation.

“He knows we’re seeing each other. I never told him you were thee Jason Drayper.”

The music became intensely sadder as I lumbered through a D minor chord progressions. “Are you embarrassed to be around me?” A sudden wave of insecurity rolled over me. My chords were doing their job.

“No Jason,” Colby said strong-arming my cheeks and turning my face towards her. “I love you.”

“I love you,” I replied contemplating the words before saying them.

We hugged for several long minutes before I drove Colby home on my moped. I returned home and prepared for an early night when the phone rang. Marty was on the line. He forwarded an email earlier on Dexmyer and wanted to make sure I had received it. Before he could continue I alerted him to a monumental task.

“I have five tigers out of control.”

These words were code for trouble. Five individuals needed around-the-clock protection. “Marty, please see to it they know nothing of your presence.”

“Names?”

I gave him the name of Mr. and Mrs. Shire, Colby, and my parents. A weird pause followed before he answered.

“I’ll get on it right away Jason.”

“Marty, I want you to put your best guys on this. Money is no object.”

I hung up the phone and turned on my tablet and located the email he sent me. I spent several hours reading up on Dexmyer. Next, I called a courier who picked up the contract for Colby’s father I had written a few days earlier. I sealed it in a manila envelope and dropped in in the special lock box positioned on a secure post near the mailbox. I closed my eyes at two a.m.

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

Flagrant clamoring intruded my sleep. I ignored the call letting it forward to voicemail. The clock read 5:00 a.m., too early for a coherent conversation on my part. For ten minutes I wrestled underneath the sheets. It was no use. I was awake. When the same ringtone shrieked for a second time I glanced at the display. It was a (718) area code originating from New York City. Since Stedwick Marks was the only person I did business with in The Big Apple, it could only be one person. I picked up the phone.

“Mr. Dexmyer, I have been expecting your call.”

“I hope I didn’t wake you Jason.”

“If that was your concern, perhaps you should have called at a more suitable time.”

“I think it’s time we meet Drayper,” the voice demanded.

“Time and place,” I said matter of fact. A cool disposition is what I needed.

“There’s an abandoned warehouse on the corner of West 69th Street and Amsterdam Avenue. Let’s say tomorrow at noon.”

Who was this guy kidding?

“I will meet you at the Sbarro Pizza in Times Square at four p.m.,” I said and threw the phone on my bed.

I looked at the calendar on the wall just above my desk, two days before Thanksgiving. It was no coincidence Dexmyer called on the eve of Black Friday.

Showered and dressed by five thirty, I entered the dark kitchen. From the refrigerator I retrieved sausage patties, five eggs, a carton of milk, an onion, and a handful of banana and cherry peppers. In the pantry, I pulled out a box of pancake mix and four large potatoes. In twenty minutes I prepared the meal and enjoyed fried eggs, pancakes, and hash browns. As much time as I spent alone in the house I never liked eating alone. Mom left the night before to join my dad on business making the meal in the kitchen less pleasurable.

After breakfast, I worked on a new song. When my phone chirped, I knew I was running late. Colby was waiting for me. I rushed out of the house. I side straddled the moped to discover both tires flat. Upon further inspection, straight slits, six inches long, punctured each tire. No accident. The squeal of tires caught my attention. I looked up and saw the back end of Dexmyer’s Porsche. The car sped away and exited the neighborhood.

Dexmyer was pushing the wrong buttons. I entered the garage and drove out another moped. It was one I’d purchased weeks ago for Colby. My plan was to wait till her sixteenth birthday which was only a week away and give it to her then.

I pulled in front of Colby’s house and knocked on the door. Mr. Shire met me in the doorway. He was a tall man with a charming personality. We stood and talked for a few minutes before Colby came downstairs.

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning at seven Mr. Shire.”

“I look forward to it.”

“You’re missing school again?”

“I have a breakfast meeting with your dad, and then I have to fly to New York on business.”

Colby looked disappointed.

“I will see you on Thanksgiving.”

Colby looked at the moped then back at me. “What happened to your other ride?”

“Flat tires.”

“I didn’t know you had two.”

“Not mine,” I said. “It belongs to you.” I started the engine. “Happy Birthday.” I roared from the driveway and felt her arms tighten around my waist.

My meeting with Colby’s father proved successful. His experience in California and my mall made him suitable for the vacated position, and the fact he was the father of the woman I loved did not hurt. He freaked out at the salary arguing it was too much. I ignored his protests and left him in the capable hands of Candice Willows. His official first day started on Black Friday.

Fueled, the plane and pilot waited for me at the airport. We took off and landed three hours later. I reviewed the file Marty emailed me on Regis Dexmyer Senior. Not long following his record producing days he had gotten involved in questionable investments. Most of his holdings were dispossessed following bankruptcy forcing him to find legitimate work. His current job at Gamble records he received through the help of a friend. Stedwick’s investigation should have uncovered this ancient history.

The driver dropped me off at the front of Macy’s. Individual snowflakes fell upon the Manhattan skyline too few for there to be any accumulation. For a moment, I stood on the sidewalk, looked up to the heavens and opened my mouth. I waited for a flake to land on my tongue. The few New Yorkers who passed by my agape mouth did their dandiest to ignore me. I did catch several of the straight-lacers walk by with amused looks. A respite in a wonderland of flakes. The calm before the storm.

With time to spare before the meeting, I shopped. Few places can outdo New York’s fondness for Christmas decorations The myriads of lights, tinsel, and garnish make the over eight million strong city appear warm and intimate. In Florida, we get a few lights and such but in the twice-named city they do it right.

Two hours later, laden with packages, my arms ached as I walked to the limousine. This obligatory move to shop for presents in no way suggested I retained the Christmas spirit. My driver helped me with the loading of packages then dropped me off in Times Square for my meeting with Dexmyer.

There were several abandoned tables in the pizza shop. I chose the one that allowed me to see my nemesis when he entered. Marty’s report included a photo. I saw Dexmyer exit the limousine. He stood six feet tall and weighed somewhere around three hundred and fifty pounds. Even with the extra-long dark suit coat his heavy frame remained visible. Though he walked without a cane, he moved as if at any moment his feet might slip from underneath him. On one hand he wore a pinky ring with a two-carat diamond, a large sapphire stone in a twenty-four carat gold setting on his middle finger, and a plain gold band on his index finger. The other hand was naked of jewelry except for the platinum Rolex watch which appeared to squeeze the circulation around his thick wrist. When he reached the table, he extended the hand with the jewelry. I refused to shake the hand of the man here to shake me down.

“I’m Regis Dexmyer and we’ve important business to discuss.”

“What is it you want Mr. Dexmyer?”

The fat man struggled to sit in the tight booth. He placed his arms on the table clasping his pudgy fingers together.

“Thirty million dollars.”

He waited for my face to turn into contortions and my breathing to elevate, but I rebuffed him of the satisfaction. His stratagem was of no surprise.

“Care to explain?”

“Because I know the truth. You faked those songs.”

“The experts disagreed with you and I am sure you have no way to substantiate your claims.”

“Sinatra and I were friends. Every song he recorded, I was there, even the ones that didn’t make it onto the LPs, tapes or CD’s. This song you claim you discovered will plunge into history as his greatest hit no doubt, but Sinatra never recorded it. Since you faked the Sinatra single, it’s not a leap to believe Cole’s is an illegitimate recording. Imagine, two lost recordings found in the same storage container. Reeks of chicanery don’t you think? Mind you, both songs are brilliant, I really don’t know how you did it and I don’t care. They’re fakes.”

Dexmyer was good, and I had to give him credit for being current with his facts but thirty million dollars? I needed to be careful how I traveled forward. He had an extensive reach through his son who had access to the people in my life.

“For arguments sake, let us say you are right.”

“I am right.”

“What makes you think you can extort thirty million dollars?”

“I never used the word extortion? Think of it as a friend giving another friend a gift, Christmas is around the corner. With the release of the singles on Thursday at midnight, prognosticators say you will make anywhere from three hundred to four hundred and fifty million dollars. I’m not a rapacious individual. Thirty million is a nice gift for one friend to give another. Think of it as a tithe to your favorite charity.”

“For keeping quiet?”

“Silence does have its own rewards.”

“So let me get this right; if I pay you thirty million dollars you will leave me alone and I never hear from you again?”

“That’s right friend.” Dexmyer’s demeanor bothered me: his inelegant body language, rehearsed vocal inflections, and insuppressible facial tremors shouted the man was lying. Without even knowing it, my mom and dad had made me an expert at recognizing a liar. Why stop at thirty million? Why not sixty million or a hundred and twenty million?

“How do I know I can trust you? Once you get your thirty million what prevents you from extorting another thirty million dollars and another and another?” I wanted him to believe I was contemplating paying.

“I guess the only thing I can say is that you have to trust me.”

That and seven bucks will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks in Manhattan.

I laughed out loud. “I’m sorry Mr. Dexmyer. Someone has given you an erroneous impression of me. First, I have less than a handful of friends you are not one of them. Second, the number of people I trust are even less than the friends I have. You do not fall into either category. So please do not sit there with your condescending tone and spout friendship and trust rhetoric. I would not trust you as far as I could throw you.”

I expected less than his amused smile. He unclasped his hands and reached into his inside jacket pocket, and with careful deftness, using only the edges of his fingers, retrieved a six-inch by nine-inch manila envelope. Using tremendous care, he placed the envelope on the table then slid it towards me.

“What is this?” I asked irritated with his circumspect manner.

“Take a look inside,” he commanded teeming with confidence.

I took the envelope, turned it over in my hands twice, then opened it. Inside were black and white photos, four in total. They were pictures of me with a lady I had seen only once before, the platinum blonde that fraternized with Dexmyer Junior. We were both unclothed and in compromising positions. They were fakes of course. Repudiation upon their release, no matter my claim of innocence, made me look guilty. The hastening breaths, a rise in my blood pressure, and the knots in my stomach vied for control.

“You’re not the only one who knows how to make a fake.”

“So let me get this right. You are going to use counterfeit pictures to extort thirty million dollars from me? Laughable. When my lawyers get through with you, you will not have two nickels to rub together.”

“You’re blowing smoke Drayper, you don’t want these pictures surfacing. After all, you’re the wonder boy who found the lost recordings. Think of the goodwill the American people have entrusted to you. If they discover the truth, they’ll turn on you as fast as a pack of hyenas.”

Dexmyer was right. No person wanted publicity of this magnitude certainly not me.

“I…,” my voice cracked. Dexmyer heard it.

“I’m purchasing a beach house in St. Croix. I want to close escrow by the first of February. You have two months to get me my money.”

Dexmyer stood extending his hand. “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

I looked away. He brandished a smirk then sauntered back to the car. My pulse subsided until my heart beat normally again. I turned to see Dexmyer enter the black town car. The rumblings in my stomach began without warning. I made it to the bathroom just in time. I opened the door to one stall slamming it behind me. It rebounded and hit me in the rear. I lifted the lid and vomited my earlier breakfast and one slice of pizza into the defiled toilet bowl. Dry retching continued for a few more minutes. When the episode stopped, I grabbed a handkerchief and wiped my mouth. I threw the square fabric in the toilet and flushed. I felt much better.

My driver waited for me outside the CVS where I purchased a toothbrush and mouthwash. I spent the drive to Gamble Records depurating my mouth. Calmer now, I reached inside my jacket pocket and pulled out a digital tape recorder which had recorded the entire conversation.

Each year at Thanksgiving, a group of us including Mom, my dad, and me helped with the serving of the Thanksgiving meal. This year Mom invited Colby’s parents. Surprisingly, my dad showed up for the celebration. Three hundred homeless men and women, many with children, attended the lunch. Our job was to keep the plates and glasses full. By the time the last person waddled away, exhaustion overtook me. Back at the house a meal awaited the six of us. Caterers in black tuxedos served, their focus the same as ours: Keep the plates and glasses full. Colby watched as I picked at my food.

After the meal, the adults retired into the living room for coffee. It was nice to know both sets of parents got along with each other. While Colby played one of her latest compositions, I sat on the couch letting the music flow through me and in minutes I drifted off to sleep.

I was in a large room filled with long tables. On each of these tables were large stacks of money. I had just finished counting the billion dollars when Dexmyer Senior and Junior with a team of their men busted in knocking the door off its hinges. They tied me to the only chair in the room and I watched in horror as they stuffed the money into large canvass bags and carted them away.

“No,” I cried out. “Leave the money. You will ruin everything.”

“Jason. Jason.”

Dexmyer Senior with his evil grin stared at me but it was not his voice I heard. It was the soft inflections of a woman.

“Jason. Jason.” Colby shook my shoulders until I opened my eyes.

“What’s wrong,” I asked disoriented?

“You were having a nightmare.”

“Not sleeping well at night,” I mumbled at last.

“I don’t know how you keep going with that hectic schedule of yours.”

“Dreams wait for no one. You have got to subdue them and take lead.”

“Speaking of dreams, thanks for giving my father the mall job. He’s leaving in a few minutes.”

“Good.”

I shook my head hoping to disentangle my mind from the after effects of the nightmare. Colby sat next to me. Our relationship remained on a plateau, but at least it was stable though my emotional state remained in flux. The war within continued to rage. Anger won more battles than lost. Colby reached out and touched me on the leg. There was something in the way she looked dressed in a black and white zebra striped skirt and teal blouse which stimulated me. Though my original intent was to wait till her birthday to give her my gift. Her song, her voice, her presence had lifted my spirit.

I opened the drawer of my desk and pulled out a box wrapped in elegant gold and white quatrefoil paper. Amber lights, without the sirens, emanated from the yellow envelope holding the obscene pictures that lay beneath the gift. What if Colby saw them? Coming clean meant killing our trust and halting our relationship. It was important our alliance remained steadfast.

As I contemplated my next move, I told myself this action was not for purposes of soliciting her loyalty. She loved me and I loved her. I handed her the box.

“What is this?” she asked excitement teeming from her voice.

“I brought this back for you from New York.”

“What is it?”

“Open it.”

With great care she pulled the bow and paper apart revealing a small jewelry box. I took the box from her hands and kneeled to open it. Inside, an engagement ring blinded her eyes. The diamond was four carrots set in an exquisite setting of twenty-four carrot white gold.

“Colby Shire will you marry me?”

Colby fell to the couch in shock.

“I know what you must be thinking. You and I are too young to consider something so permanent.”

Her mouth no longer worked.

“Listen, before you answer.” She nodded to show she understood. “I love you more than anyone could. If you were able to look past my mistakes and faults…” Even the ones I am in the middle of committing as we speak, “…you will make me the happiest person in the world. I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”

No pause. No delay. No absence of words. “Yes Jason, I’ll marry you,” Colby replied.

I put the ring on her left ring finger. She smiled from ear to ear and held it up to the light to inspect it. Fragments of jittery light swirled around the room as she danced. The lightning struck and her joy converted to intense apprehension.

“Our parents won’t approve this.”

Colby brought up an excellent point. No parent in their right mind consented to a couple as young as us to marry. I was sixteen going on seventeen. She was fifteen going on sixteen. Even in the eyes of the law we needed parental permission to get married this early. I spurned the thought of being that person who caused difficulties between Colby and her parents.

“You make an excellent point.”

“So what do we do?”

“It will be our secret. When we graduate high school in a year and a half you and I will get married that is if you can wait that long.”

“Wait? Yes, I’ll wait.” She paused. “It’s the ring. If my parents see this,” she held up the ring for me to inspect, “they’ll know.”

“That’s an easy fix. A second box with a different wrapping sat on my desk. I gave it to her. It was a platinum ring with engraving on the inside which read, Colby and Jason forever. Wear this on your right ring finger instead of your left. Only you and I will know the truth. Just make sure you hide the real engagement ring in a place where your parents will have no possibility of finding it.”

She rushed towards me responding with a kiss. I reciprocated.

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

Black Friday arrived.

Gorged clouds covering states from Washington to Maine created a moisture blanket so thick a googolplex of the crystalized six-sided particles buried the country. From around the nation, reported record snowfalls did little to dissuade ardent shoppers from remaining at home. In the north, skiers and snow enthusiasts welcomed the assault, while in the south the amassment of snowplows and salt trucks worked with vigor to open pathways for early Black Friday shoppers. Even Florida was under a freeze warning.

The lone state of Hawaii called for unadulterated sunshine and temperatures in the high seventies, making marginal to devout cold haters long for an elongated winter vacation in the fiftieth state.

Excitement led the charge as shoppers, wanting to be the first to get the recordings, lined the malls and braved bitter winds on sidewalks to walk away with no doubt the number one gift under the Christmas tree this year.

Projections had both singles selling out. Stedwick and I estimated that if twenty million people purchased only one single priced at sixteen dollars, a mild projection, sales would gross over three hundred and twenty million dollars. Suppose that number of consumers doubled or tripled, the numbers became mind-blowing.

Stedwick said something else which escaped my consideration. Prior to the sale and before hearing the songs, five top-selling artists approached him asking to record the songs. Unable to ferret out the original producers or songwriters, copyright laws named me as next in succession to receive royalties. Only fitting.

Stedwick believed in the long-standing method of sales. I chose him for this very reason. Even with the unlimited volume of music able to travel through the world-wide web Stedwick didn’t race the route of Pandora, ITunes or Mp3 Music Download. PIS, Product in Stores, was his main priority. Make people a hard copy. This way they have something to give as gifts. Avoidance of the internet made little sense as it promised to burgeon sales. Once Christmas passed, inundating the net stood as his next step. At least four ways existed to make money off this deal.

I wrestled to keep my enthusiasm under control dying to share my secret news. Colby joined her dad at the mall while my parents embarked upon an impromptu luxury trip to Cancun. In the meantime, I tried to catch up on sleep, but my body refused to commit. By seven o’clock I was in the ring working up a tremendous sweat. I showered made breakfast and checked the news reports.

After a few hours of surfing the net and listening to the cable news stations, it saddened me to discover a security guard suffered permanent injury as people stomped and elbowed through doors to be the first to purchase a severely marked-down gift. Maybe his injuries, it occurred to me, resulted from the mob scurrying to buy my singles. This hourly waged man had a wife and three children for which he was responsible. Incidents of this sort were becoming more common. Though it did not happen at one of my malls, I needed to make sure he and his wife never had money worries.

At eight a.m. sharp, Stedwick made his first call. “Jason, I hope I didn’t wake you but you will want to hear this,” he shouted unable to curb his excitement. “We sold out in under three hours.”

“Awesome Stedwick. How are the restocking plans going?”

“You misunderstood what I said Jason. That includes triple restocking of our largest retailers.”

“What?”

“That’s what I’m trying to tell you. For the exception of the west coast which I expect will deplete their stock in an hour we are out of product. Congratulations Jason, not only did you bust through the ceiling, you obliterated it. You are a very lucky man.”

Luck had nothing to do with it. I had a dream, put legs to that dream, and saw the dream to fruition.

“Speechless is what I am.”

“Jason, I’ll call you later I should have hard numbers to crunch with you.”

“Thanks Stedwick. How was your Thanksgiving?”

“Are you kidding? I won’t celebrate Thanksgiving till after Christmas. This train you’ve got me on won’t allow me. Talk to you soon.”

He ended the call, and it vibrated in my hands. I answered without screening the call assuming it was Stedwick. “What did you forget?”

“Nothing,” said the unwelcome voice.

“Dexmyer. What do you want?”

“I guess you know the singles sold out in record time. The first projections were rather modest.”

He wants more money.

“I meant to call you yesterday but you and your family were entrenched in feeding the homeless which I found touching by the way, I thought it more proper to call this morning. Now with your parents out of town and your girlfriend at the mall, you could make time for my call. I wanted to wish you a belated Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Really?”

“Enjoy the weekend. It’ll prove to be profitable for us both. Triple sales means my take is ninety million.”

“What?”

“Relax Jason, the ten percent tithe is the same. I’ll be in touch.”

Dexmyer hung up the phone. His knowledge of the whereabouts of Colby and my family worried me. Marty assured me the protection details were working full time. Armed and prepared to move in at a millisecond’s notice if a situation turned threatening.

I called Marty and asked him to locate the Dexmyers and to put a similar detail on them while double checking they had not countered with their own surveillance team.

“Trust me,” Marty said, “if he did I’d be on it. My guys are that good. Dexmyer doesn’t have the resources to watch everyone on your list. Junior drove by the shindig you had for the homeless and stopped by the mall this morning. I’m not sure how he got the info on your parents but I’m on it.”

Marty and I had a unique relationship. I paid him well, and he did the jobs without asking questions. He knew personal things regarding my story ignorant to my parents.

“Marty, call me paranoid, from now on, contact me on the list of burn phones I sent you. The numbers are in code.”

“You can never be too safe Jason.” The inflexions in his voice intimated he believed every word.

Hungry, I opted for leftovers and created a Goliath turkey sandwich. I took two pieces of seven grain bread and smothered both sides with Miracle Whip smoothing the white cream to the outer edges. Then I lifted out a sizable helping of dressing, first warming it, and placed it on the white blanket. Next, I placed thick pieces of moist turkey breast on top. It took two hands to hold it. I chased it down with a bottle of cranberry grape juice and took it back to the lounge room where the only television in the house sat.

The reports of the single’s sales had become a widespread news story. Every major and local station was commenting on it. In between programs anchors gave updates on the sales. Humored by events I sat comfortable in the knowledge of my actions until I received a call from Red Forman the agent Stedwick assigned me. He told me interviewers around the nation wanted time with me.

“Red, after that blindsiding with Devant, I am hesitant to grant further interviews.”

“That’s your call but the next shipment of singles will go on sale a week before Christmas. The exposure could enhance the numbers.”

Who knew I could milk this much money out of this scam?

“Fine, Red. Do it, but make sure you screen these interviewers well. I do not want to appear on national television with my pants around my ankles again.”

“I’ll call you back.”

From my backpack I pulled out my Galaxy tablet and entered the information. My schedule for the rest of the year was crazy. Little free time existed in my calendar. Four days were blocked out to attend Colby’s surprise birthday in the Bahamas. No free time between that and Christmas. The phone vibrated. I checked the number.

“That was quick Red.”

“You’re telling me. Everyone wants you. They’re a pack of wolves…”

“…Drawn by the smell of blood. Yeah, I get it.”

 

“Wolf Blitzer from CNN, Sean Hannity of FOX, and Oprah want you. Oprah suggested an hour show to broadcast the week before Christmas.”

“Give me dates and times.”

“Hannity wants you on his Monday night show. Blitzer’s open. An interview with Oprah means a Wednesday taping in her studio next week.”

“Go with FOX and Oprah. You have access to my calendar. Ink in the interviews. Where is the Hannity interview?”

“Hannity will conduct his nightly broadcast from the studio in Orlando.”

“Thanks Red.”

“I’ll update your schedule and email you the changes.”

Straightaway my cellphone rang with a familiar tune, Colby’s Theme. “Hey Colby,” I said taking a breath, “How is the shopping going?”

“The mall is chaotic,” she said her voice teeming with excitement.

“No kidding.”

“This place is jammed. Dad is having a blast I haven’t seen him this happy in years. I tried to get one of your songs. They sold out before I woke up this morning.”

I swallowed hard. “No kidding.”

“Aren’t you listening to the news?

“It never occurred to me.”

“Why don’t you have a copy of the songs?”

“Well gee Colby Shire, maybe I was waiting till your birthday so we could listen to it together for the first time.”

“I love that idea.”

In fact, Colby liked it so much she promised not to listen to the radio or YouTube and wait a few days. I breathed easier as lying got the better of me. This moment could not have been avoided.

“Any luck with that special gift?”

“Jason Drayper, my lips are sealed on the matter.”

“So you got it?”

“Yes I did.”

So much for sealed lips.

“You forget I own the mall and have access to every camera. A little investigation…”

“You wouldn’t.”

“You give me little choice Colby.”

“How about I give you a hint?”

“Okay, you have my attention.”

“One hint and then you drop this.”

I already knew what she bought because Marty’s team forwarded me the details of her every move. Her purchase of a Movado watch sent my head bonkers. She must receive a hefty allowance because this watch retailed at over fifteen-hundred dollars. My first piece of jewelry. The impeccable team of professionals assigned to Colby kept tight surveillance on my fiancé. Marty emailed me daily reports. My purpose for having Colby followed never entailed prying into her personal life…protection only.

“Deal,” I replied.

“Okay, here you go. It has two arms but won’t give you a hug.”

“A stuffed animal, a mannequin, oh forget it. I guess I will have to wait till Christmas.”

“What a novel idea,” she said tongue-in-cheek. “Dad is staying till the mall closes. Do you mind if I swing by tomorrow?”

“No problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive.”

“I’ll call first.”

“Enjoy the rest of your day.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” She paused and took a deep breath. “I know you’ve been preoccupied of late.”

“I have…”

“This isn’t a guilt trip. I promise.” She paused. “I love you. Who knows, I might be the only one who tells you that today.”

No doubt there.

“And I love you.”

“You don’t understand Jason. Everything is so perfect right now. I never want it to end.”

Everything was far from perfect. In fact, things were turning more imperfect.

“I will see you tomorrow Colby.”

Gorilla growls changed my focus. Marty’s ringtone.

“Hey Jason, I got the 411 on the Dexmyers.”

“Find something?”

“I have a team on Dexmyer Jr. He’s staying at the Hyatt not far from you. We cloned his phone. Junior is with a woman.”

“Blonde?”

“Platinum blonde. Sending pic.” It was the same woman. “Senior Dexmyer is in New York, staying at place on 66th St. He’s always with his bodyguard slash driver. For the exception of a little Christmas shopping he did earlier, everything is quiet. Anything else you need?”

“Not at the moment.”

“While we’re on the subject Jason, thanks for the gift basket. You didn’t need to do that.”

“I did, and it was my pleasure Marty.”

“Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Thanks.”

I took the phone with me to the garage and donned a pair of thick gloves. Then I opened a container of acid and let the phone slip to the bottom. The silent sizzle lasted only a few seconds. Gray blobs from the melted remains floated to the surface until it dissolved leaving no evidence. I closed the lid and tossed the gloves onto the shelf. I watched as the soft whisper of air caused the dark plastic covering on the top shelf to lift. Something colorful took my attention into custody. Further investigation exposed a large plastic sealed package of cell phones. Three hundred in total.

This made little sense. No one in their right mind needed that many cell phones unless…and then pieces of the puzzle interconnected and a picture emerged. I berated myself for not seeing it sooner. My parents were not assassins. They were drug dealers. This hypothesis explained why my dad abstained from rubbing shoulders with the elite in Florida and kept a low profile. It explained my parent’s secret trips away and their odd behaviors at home, and their many impromptu trips to Mexico. The black and white pictures had to be of Cartel members or other drug lords though it withheld the reason for the black circles and red x’s. It explained how my parents became so stinking rich, and why my dad was so tough on me. He was preparing me to take over his spot in the Cartel. Black Friday took on a new meaning

Chapter Sixteen

 

 

Colby left for the airport on Thursday morning. She and her parents sat in economy class. An announcement by the stewardess acknowledged Colby’s sixteenth birthday. When the flight attendant arrived at her row, she invited Colby to join her in first-class. Escorted to the front of the plane Colby followed the stewardess who seated her next to a much older and distinguished looking man. She turned and introduced herself to the stranger.

“Hi, I’m Colby Shire.”

“Matt Dupree,” the man said in deep bass tones. “First time in the Bahamas little lady?”

“Yes, I’m celebrating my sixteenth birthday with my parents.”

“How exciting.”

“I’m sure it will be.” Her voice jilted her true feelings.

“I detect a twinge of sadness in your voice. Not in a fun mood.”

“My parent’s surprised me with this trip. Unfortunately, a good friend of mine wasn’t able to make it.”

“No matter. You will love the Bahamas I dag-gone guarantee it.”

“Do you travel a lot?”

“Every chance I get.”

“Doesn’t it get old?”

“My wife died years ago, and since we had no children going home to an empty house…well you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I appreciate that Colby Shire, really I do.”

“My fiancée,” slipped Colby, “I mean my best friend travels around the country too much. I can tell it wears on him.”

“You said fiancée?” Colby turned embarrassed. “Forgive me for saying, but aren’t you a mite young to be considering marriage?”

“We’re not getting married till we graduate from high school.”

“Still premature for a girl your age? What if you meet someone else in high school who’s better looking and richer?”

Colby discomfort dampened the conversation. She did not want to be talking to a complete stranger about Jason. The captain interrupted the conversation and asked the flight attendants to prepare for takeoff. The plane waited in line until given the green light for takeoff. Reverberations echoed as the plane surged forward. The old man reached over and touched Colby’s arm as if he was bracing himself for impact.

“Sorry little lady but I get terrible air sickness on takeoff.”

Colby turned when she recognized my voice. “Jason?” she asked.

“In the flesh,” I responded after removing the fake beard and hat.

The punch in the shoulder was worth the surprised look on her face.

“You said you weren’t coming.”

“Do you think I would miss your sixteenth birthday?”

“Were my parents in on this?”

“Duh. Surprise.”

The next hit was harder and more appreciated. Since the day I met her, this was the most excited I had ever seen Colby. “It’s a shame your parents couldn’t join us.”

A real shame.

“Mom is flying in tomorrow night and my dad might even join us. Birthdays are not his cup of tea.”

She saw the hurt and anger on my face.

“I can’t understand why he doesn’t see the pain he’s causing you.”

I wanted to tell her why. Because he was consummate evil selling drugs to kids who overdosed and adults who abdicated their parental responsibilities because of ongoing addictions. No need to spoil her birthday vacation with my rant.

The plane hit turbulence. Colby grabbed my hand, and we cuddled the rest of the trip. The flight landed in Nassau and we caught up with Mr. and Mrs. Shire at the luggage carousel. We gathered the suitcases and walked to one of the many waiting taxicabs. A member of Marty’s team lifted his shades. Dexmyer’s reach did not extend this far. Still, I was glad Marty’s team was here.

The cab drove us to a luxury villa on the north side of New Providence. The mansion boasted six luxurious bedrooms each with a separate bathroom and spa. Each of the bedrooms had an unimaginable view of the multi-blue ocean. Stocked shelves hosted an abundance of food and drink. Fresh hampers of fruit placed around the villa rivaled the baskets of colorful native flowers.

A path from the lower level door led to the ocean. I opened my suitcase and dressed into a pair of shorts a tee-shirt and flip flops. When I raced downstairs Colby was waiting for me. She wore a pink and grey bikini with a matching pink cap to keep the sun off her head. We sprinted to the beach while Colby’s parents ignored our giddiness.

Tied to the private wharf were six wave runners, and a boat equipped with water skiing equipment. I asked Colby to choose. She opted for the boat. Fueled with the keys inside, I undid the line and started the ignition. Roars from the motor thundered. I pushed the throttle forcibly propelling the boat forward. As the boat hit the waves, it raised into the air and landed hard on the water. Colby fell on her backside several times unprepared for the forcible jolts.

I could not remember the last time I enjoyed something as frivolous as a boat ride. If moments of bliss touched my world, they were usually contingent upon the size of my portfolio.

Dolphins raced alongside the boat a mile and a half from shore. They swam under the water then leaped through the air covering long distances before diving back into the water. I slowed the boat till it floated with the current. The dolphins swam to the side of the craft welcoming us to the Bahamas. We pet them. I pulled out a camera and captured pictures of Colby.

“Aren’t they incredible?” she asked.

One dolphin bobbed its snout spraying water on Colby. She laughed wiped the water from the contours of her face and leaned back preparing for second assault. Oh how I yearned to be that innocent and carefree. The dolphins posed for photos in their natural habitat. After an hour and a half and seventy digital pictures later, most of them of Colby, I turned the boat back to the island.

On the day of Colby’s birthday, I departed around eight in the morning to check out the venue where the celebration was being held. Sometime during the late night both of my parents arrived. On my way out, my dad asked if he could speak with me. Pressed for time I promised to speak with him later. Plus, I was in no mood to confront him with the information I learned.

Descriptions of the party room meant taking expressive words and reconfiguring them to fantalicious, spectational, and marvesome. Far beyond amazing. Adorned on each of the tables was a fuchsia colored tablecloth Colby’s favorite color. The cloth napkins were a lighter shade of pink and folded into the shape of a bird of paradise, Hawaii’s state flower. Gold cutlery and authentic crystal glasses completed the place settings. Gift bags sat at the apex of each setting and included exquisite gifts for the guests to take home. Pink and white entwined flowers sat in the middle. Three pink candle holders with white candles spaced around the circular tables.

Expansive yet intimate, the large room included a medium sized stage, a dance floor, a separate table for gifts, and a super-long buffet. Sharply dressed waiters would be around to take drink orders and offer silver trays with various types of appetizers not available at the buffet while a ten-piece band play music throughout the evening until the entertainment started. The evening’s celebration culminated with a local deejay and plenty of dancing.

Draped in an assortment of white and pink sheets reminding me of sails, the ceiling and walls completed the festive mood. The party coordinator assured me everything was on schedule. When I returned home my mom and dad sat underneath the cabana. I jacked up to full alert.

“Sir, you said you wanted to talk? Is something wrong?” I asked taking a deep breath.

“While your mother and I were in Cancun vacationing.”

Right.

“We ran across a friend of yours.”

Great. Dexmyer had gotten to them.

“What makes you think I knew him?”

“The tiger is out of control. You don’t think I can spot a tail? Your mother’s intuition has been raging for months. What haven’t told us?”

My only reply was silence.

“Jason.”

How in the world did they find out? As I scrambled for an answer, telling the truth made the best sense. Instead of unloading, I shared a smithereen of the facts.

“Before Mr. Shire became the manager of my mall someone blew up the store he was managing. I thought it prudent to put a surveillance team on him Mrs. Shire and Colby.”

“And the team following us?” asked Mom.

“I guess I was being cautious. No telling the rough clientele you find out there.”

Priceless. Both their faces sunk until their cheeks disappeared.

“I wish you’d informed us,” said my dad making a bad recovery.

A team watching you could mess up the drug trade. Yeah, I never thought about that.

My dad asked, “Are they after you?” Mom stared.

Careful to keep my face blank I fought the urge to twitch my eyes. Mom was an excellent interpreter of body language. I uncrossed my legs to show my openness. I doubt she fell for it, but her questioning ceased.

“No.”

“Do you think you should get the police involved?”

“No,” I replied with too much fervor. “No more attention needs to be drawn to the situation. Colby and her parents are unaware and I want it to stay that way. I will pull the teams off I have watching you unless you’ve already informed Marty.”

“Marty is a good friend of ours,” said Mom.

“Great,” I replied with chagrin.

“Jason, Marty didn’t betray your confidence.”

“So what are you going to do?” My dad asked.

“Nothing more at this stage.”

“You shouldn’t handle this alone? I can help.”

I knew the help my dad had in mind. It entailed taking a black-and-white photograph of the perpetrator and crisscrossing though it with a red x.

“I can handle it unless you want me to against your teaching.”

My dad made no pithy response to my statement. I think my words may have hurt him.

Good.

“Anything else you need to tell us?” Mom asked.

“Mom, I am through discussing this. Okay?”

“Okay?”

The six of us left the villa and drove into Nassau to the hotel where the party was being held. Decked out hosts escorted us to the birthday room. Colby wore a long white dress with diamond earrings and a complimentary necklace borrowed from her mom. Graced on her shoulder was a pink corsage. Colby did not normally wear makeup, but a makeup artist I hired transformed her into an incomparable beauty.

Before opening the door, I put a blindfold over Colby’s eyes. She entered the quiet room not knowing what to expect. Once I removed the blindfold, her knees weakened. The band played Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Colby’s screams of rapture could be heard over the band. Friends from her previous school in California and family members from both sides of the family tree attended the party. She was at a loss for words.

“Go,” I told her.

Breaths left me in quick succession when she planted a moist kiss on my lips. Mr. Shire leaned over and extended his hand to shake mine.

“I don’t how you did it Jason, but you have made this birthday one she’ll remember forever. You’ve got a wonderful son there,” he said to my parents who were standing alongside me.

“We’re proud of him too,” Mom said and then she came over and hugged me. “You nailed it.”

Mrs. Shire leaned over and gave me a hug. “You’ve given my daughter a thrill of a lifetime.”

My dad said nothing and moved on to join the others.

Would it hurt him to say something nice just once? He never changed. His way of highlighting disapproval, as it related to my frivolous spending, in this case Colby’s party, culminated in quiet. Dare I say I miss those days when the two of us fought against one another in the ring? As much as I disliked the sparing at least he and I were interacting.

For now, Colby and her happiness seized my attention.

Soft jazz music played as people moved to and fro from their seats to the buffet a smorgasbord of Colby’s favorite foods. Conversations overlaid the music creating unique melodic nuances never to be heard ever again.

At the meal’s conclusion, an emcee, a former English teacher, spoke about Colby while pictures of Colby from birth to her dolphin experience the day before shown on the screen behind him.

“Colby, ladies and gentlemen the night is young. As the festivities continue we have with us tonight, a special group, a trio of the finest vocalists who have come all the way from Philadelphia.”

Colby turned. “You didn’t,” she shouted as her movements became even more animated.

I leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. “Surprise.”

“Without further ado, please give a warm welcome to Boyz to Men.”

The crowd stirred to frenzied excitement but none more than Colby. She was on her feet screaming and jumping. I had never seen Boyz to Men in concert before and sat in awe at the tightness of their acute harmonies. For their last song they invited, Colby up on stage. Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, and Shawn Stockman were the current members of the group.

“Colby Shire we want to wish you a Happy Birthday. Our last song is one specially written for you.”

She sat on a stool as they sang. I can say emphatically I had never seen her so happy. When the song ended, they invited the audience to stand and everyone joined in a rousing refrain of Happy Birthday. A huge cake with sixteen oversized candles moved on wheels pushed by the staff in front of the front of the stage. Colby leaned over and after two attempts blew out the candles. The crowd cheered.

“Ladies and gentlemen please thank Nathan Morris, Wanya Morris, and Shawn Stockman. Boyz to Men.” The crowd stood and cheered while the three men took their bows. Each gave a kiss to the birthday girl then headed backstage. Colby called after them.

“That last song you sang…” Her words dropped. “It captured the essence of who I am. I wanted to thank you. I never heard it before, did none of you write it?”

Nathan Morris leaned over and whispered in her ear. “The songwriter is right over there,” he said pointing my direction.

Colby turned, and I offered a weak wave.

Surprise.

While the festivities continued Colby stood frozen her feet glued to the floor. I sidled up next to her.

“You wrote that for me?”

Meek and mild, and suddenly overcome with a bout of nervousness, I lazily nodded my head.

“It was the perfect song.”

“I am glad you liked it.”

“You don’t understand,” she said gripping me to make sure I comprehended. “Like I told Nathan, that song captures the essence of who I am Jason. It exposed my passion, my heart, even my limitations, everything that makes me who I am. I will always love you for what you’ve done for me tonight.”

While plates with large pieces of birthday cake passed from waiters to guests, the deejay informed the crowd the dance floor was open. Loud music blared inviting teenagers and adults alike to boogie. After a handful of upbeat songs, the deejay did something unexpected. He asked everyone to step off the dance floor and invited Colby and me to take our spot on the dancefloor for the birthday dance. I hated dancing but sucked it up for Colby’s sake.

“I hope you don’t mind,” said Colby, “I asked for this dance.”

“Fine, but I have two right feet.”

“Two left feet,” she corrected, “and you’ll be just fine. I’ve wanted this moment to be perfect.”

“What moment,” I said as we moved to hold one another.

“The one you promised me,” she said smiling and pulled me closer until our cheeks touched.

Nat “King” Cole’s lone voice preceded the orchestration. My heart which had soared higher than the empire state building took a leap off into the bottomless abyss. It was God who said, “Your sins will find you out.” My private life, my hidden secrets, my overt lies manifested in public to my fiancée. The song played, and we danced together. Multiple cameras flashed until the deejay invited the rest of the crowd to the dance floor. I clung onto Colby and held her close so I did not have to face her. There was always the off chance…

Somewhere before the song ended Colby stopped and stared at me.

“Jason?”

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

Unable to disremember the look on Colby’s face, it haunted me the rest of the evening. We concluded the dance without a single word voiced between us. She kept her composure throughout the rest of the party, attending to her guests pretending as if nothing had happened. The party finished somewhere around four a.m. While guests sauntered to their rooms in the hotel, we took a taxi back to the villa. My mom, and Mr. and Mrs. Shire relieved the party the entire drive back to the villa. Colby remained a tight-lipped statue. We exited the car. The walk to the door was relatively calm considering the impending storm to strike when Colby confronted me.

“Mom, dad, Mr. and Mrs. Drayper, thanks for a wonderful evening.” She gave each one a hug. “If it’s okay with you, Jason and I will sit on the beach and watch the sunrise.”

“Enjoy.”

“Jason,” she said, “I’ll meet me you downstairs in five minutes.”

It took longer than normal to change. My choices were to wear shorts or body armor. Ten minutes later I walked downstairs where Colby stood waiting. With her flashlight she led the way to the beach. When we reached the spot where our fierce conversation was to take place she placed the blanket on the ground and sat. An accumulation of clouds moved in front of the full moon obscuring the light but it was still not enough to hide me or camouflage my sins. I sat on the opposite side of the blanket afraid to move.

“I won’t bite,” said Colby. She moved closer, and with little enthusiasm I met her halfway. Next, she took my hand in hers surprising me. She leaned into my chest. “Before you say a word, thank you for tonight Jason. You blew my world. I can’t believe what you did to make this day, this trip so special for me. I won’t ever forget it. Now,” she paused, “we need to talk.”

Reserved by nature, I needed to push out of my mental fortified castle. As we sat under the soft moonlight, the warm island breeze eased me into talking. Unburdening my soul, I told Colby everything including why and how the idea of the singles had been birthed.

“Colby, my pride got in the way. I focused on nothing but dollar signs. I will make upwards of eight hundred million dollars on this deal. Can you believe that?” I said then realized my burst of enthusiasm was ill-advised? The mood called for more self-condemnation and contrition on my part. “I realize it was wrong but never did I expect such an explosive outcome.”

“What is that you’re not telling me?”

I paused.

“Jason, what is it?”

“When I was in New York, I met a man who can prove the songs are fake. He threatened to expose me if I refused to pay him. Ninety million dollars is the price of his silence.”

“My God Jason, ninety million dollars? What have you gotten yourself into? I can’t believe you didn’t tell me?”

“I thought I could handle it on my own.”

“What else is it you’re not telling me?”

So far she handled the news with patience and grace. I considered full disclosure and went with it. “Because of my indiscretion you, your mom, your dad, and my mom and dad have become targets.”

“Targets?”

I took a deep breath. “This guy in New York, Dexmyer, is the one responsible for blowing up your dad’s store.” I cringed as I said it.

Colby sat there in shock. “And you knew this?”

“After I found out you and your parents were never in danger.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“Since the explosion, I have had a separate protection detail following you and your parents.”

“You what? Why? I don’t understand you Jason Draper,” she said after a long silence.

Colby stood and plodded away from me kicking at the water as it rolled onto her feet. I killed the urge to follow. If she returned great, if not, Colby and I were history. I breathed a sigh of relief when thirty minutes later she strolled back my direction. Her silhouette danced in the moonlight as she moved towards me. Colby fidgeted. I couldn’t tell if I was talking to the understanding Colby or the intolerant Colby.

“This is a heck of a birthday present to give a girl on her sixteenth birthday.”

The intolerant Colby.

“Surprise.”

“Jason, you must have known I’d listen to the songs. You’ve made me a co-conspirator; do you realize that?”

A simple answer was out of the question. My complex issues needed time to explain. I told her of the day I narrowed my goals to just one, my vow to make a billion dollars. I told her the reason for the change, and for my intense focus to make my dad love me.

“If my dad is happy Colby, then I can be happy.”

“Come on Jason, you can’t believe that.”

“I have to.” I fought hard and kept the tears from falling.

“Jason, I’m sorry.” The understanding Colby was back.

“Not your fault.”

“Forget your dad for the moment. How are you going to handle Dexmyer?”

“I have a team following him and his son.”

“Jason?” Her voice was soft and just audible. “Could you go to jail?”

While I composed the songs it never crossed my mind. When I recorded those songs, it never crossed my mind. When I faked the records, it never crossed my mind. At the storage unit it never crossed my mind. When I submitted them to Stedwick it never crossed my mind. Now it occurred to me going to jail was a distinct possibility. Making eight hundred million dollars under false pretenses was marginally more than a misdemeanor.

She sat up and forced me to slide next to her and put my head in her lap. With her fingernails she massaged my scalp. If the definition of peace was sitting on the beach waiting for the sun to rise, then we were smack in the middle of it. We both watched as a star dropped from the sky pulling a long vein of white light with it. Neither of us made a wish.

“Sometimes when I look at you I see a much older person,” Colby said. “But the reality is you’re just a young boy who just hit puberty a few years ago.”

“My actions will incur adult-sized consequences.”

An indiscernible streak of tangerine brilliance broke through the horizon transforming the evening into morning. The moon paid obeisance to her brother the sun and retreated to a darkened firmament taking the wishes and my peace with her. I conceded to myself how volatile this situation had become and there was Colby smack in the middle of it because of me. Now I needed to protect her whatever the cost.

“We cannot be involved anymore.”

“It’s too late for that.”

“I am not speaking of the recording.”

“What are you’re saying?”

“You need to keep your distance from me, because if this thing blows up anybody near me will suffer.”

“Forget it, you’re not going this alone.”

“Colby, listen to me,” I said my voice scorched and commanding. “I have to do it alone. No one else can get hurt.”

Swoosh-swoosh.

Sounds of a bird flapping its wings passed overhead.

“You must be exhausted.” Colby said.

If I could travel back in time…” I thought. Would my actions differ? Of this I could not be sure and that scared me.

Colby listened seeming to understand.

“When will we see each other again?”

“Listen to me Colby. After you return stateside, our communication will cease.”

“Jason, you’re scaring me.” I watched as a shiver ran through her body then leaped into mine.

“I mean it. You and I need to keep our distance.”

Her eyes shifted. “What about school?” When my response stifled in my throat, she read my body language. “You’re quitting school?” Her breaths came heavy as the truth became clearer. “Jason, if you’re asking me to stay away from you, you can forget it.” Her voice sailed over the rippling waves. “I won’t allow you to push me away.”

“Colby…”

“I mean it Jason. You made this mess, now figure out a way we can see each other.” This time the wind returned the heat of her words.

I considered her hurt and her demand. Was I willing to exclude her from my life for the sake of protecting her? Was it possible I was overreacting? Once I paid Dexmyer, this should blow over unless he continued to bleed me.

Colby’s question and my introspection triggered a memory of a book I read many years ago of a foolproof way of communicating. My dad’s collection of rare books gave me an idea. If I took two of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and gave one to Colby, our secretive communication could continue unheeded. I could text Colby the page number, line, and space the word is in the sentence. Communication this way took time, but was foolproof. I explained my idea to Colby.

“It’s a lot to comprehend.” She nodded having ingested the information. “I want you safe.”

“Ditto.”

“Colby, I will be fine.” We pulled close, conscious today might be our last for a long time.

“You’re leaving tomorrow. What will you do?”

“Not sure yet.” We sat and watched the sun conquest the night sky. “Colby, one more thing I need to tell you. I hesitate to even mention it.” Her eyes widened at the urgency in my words. “There are unflattering pictures of me in circulation.”

“What pictures?”

“The kind you don’t want your parents to see.” Even in the early morning light I could see the change of color in Colby’s face coupled with a tinge of a frown. “The woman and I are nude and posed in intimate positions.”

“How intimate?”

“Intimate.”

“Jason?”

“Colby, I swear I have never been with her. Dexmyer thinks he can blackmail me into paying him the money. If something happens and the pictures surface, I wanted you to know the truth.”

For the first time in my relationship with Colby, I felt completely transparent with her. It was a great feeling in spite of the reason for our tête-à-tête.

Exhausted from a long day and night we fell back onto the blanket and fell asleep until the tide saturated our feet. Still asleep, Colby and I walked back up to the house arm in arm. I dropped her off at her room and went to mine and fell into the bed and slept till three o’clock that afternoon.

When I got up, I showered and dressed. Colby left earlier to take her parents out on the boat to show them the dolphins. So I was alone with my parents. I found them sitting outside at the table. Though the sun was still semi-high in the sky, there was enough shade from the large umbrellas to cover and keep us cool. There were three cups at the table including a steaming cup of hot chocolate. I grabbed the cocoa and sat unsure of how to start the conversation. I took a sip. Mom spoke first.

“That was a fantastic party last night. Don’t you think so, honey?”

“It was a festal affair.”

Other than praise for making large sums of money, I cannot remember my dad ever saying something positive to me except for maybe that day off Interstate 95 when we sparred, and my life changed.

“Thanks,” I marveled, “I enjoyed it.”

“On the ride home, I noticed Colby’s tolerable preoccupation.”

I needed to move to another country to get away from my mom’s psychogenic abilities.

“It was a big night of surprises.”

At no point during the talk with my parents was the conversation smooth and easy going. Instead it was replete with spasmodic syncopations and uncomfortable pauses.

“And how are you feeling this morning,” asked my mom?

“Are we going to pussyfoot around the issue?” My dad turned to face me. “Something you want to tell us?”

Statement or question I wondered.

The increased decibels of his voice penetrated deep into my ear canals. Who told them? I swore Colby to secrecy.

“Yeah, I have something to tell you.”

“Finally.”

Neither of my parents interrupted me as I told my story. After my explanation, I expected more fireworks.

“You lack surprise,” I said.

“We knew,” Mom replied.

My mouth must have dropped to the ground. Short streams of tepid drool dripped from my mouth. I put my hand to my mouth to catch it.

“During our discussion yesterday you had this information?”

“Part of growing up and becoming an adult Jason is admitting your mistakes,” commented my mom. “Every human being has faults. If we pushed you, you may not have arrived at this juncture on your own. Mind you we had no clue you faked the records. As for Dexmyer and his son, we had the intel on them.”

More drool left my mouth. Better to keep my fist under my chin to hold my mouth shut.

“Now I don’t want you to think Marty betrayed your confidence. I called him when I recognized the guy tailing us in Mexico. He gave me the scoop. You’ve got yourself in a tight spot.”

“I will handle it,” I said.

“How do you plan to do that?”

No longer would I take the grating tone.

“Difficult to say but I am resourceful….”

“I can see that,” he said with sarcastic inflections.

“Sir, if you have something to say, don’t hold back for my sake.” I detected the redolence of disappointment and exasperation permeating through the pores of his skin.

“We gave you everything Jason. Faking a record for the purposes of making money is the most asinine thing I’ve seen you do.”

I very nearly vomited in my mouth.

“I will make over eight hundred million dollars.”

“So what?”

“You should be doing backflips. Money is what drives you.”

“And when you get arrested for this volcano of stupidities how happy do you think I’ll be then Jason?”

Mom reached over and covered my dad’s hand. The move only served to increase his irritation.

“Like I said, I will figure it out.”

“When?”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to stop wallowing in self-pity and man up Jason.”

“What do you call this? No matter what I do it will never be good enough. What more do you want from me?”

“For once show some backbone. I shouldn’t have to bail you out.”

“How do you propose to do that?”

“We’ll do what families do; we’ll stick together.”

The words come from his mouth but they are not his. Who was my dad kidding?

“We will do what families do,” I mimicked. “Is that so? You have no clue what a family’s supposed to resemble.” It bothered me that Mom sat there having to listen as I chastised her husband. “What is that families do Sir? Let me see: they go to the park; they throw the football. Wait a minute, they swim in the frikkin ocean that sits right in their backyard. Oh yeah, when their son asks them to go wave-running together they do not come up with a frikkin excuse. Let me see what else do they do Sir? Oh yeah, they build each other up and refuse to keep secrets. They tell the truth concerning their clandestine meetings that call them from the home at odd hours of the night. They encourage one another.”

“I encourage you,” my dad interrupted.

“No Sir, you have never encouraged me. Oh let me take that back. You praise me when I make money. As long as my bank account is growing or I am getting better than good returns on my investments it pleases you. But I cannot even get you to touch me. When was the last time you gave me a pat on the back or kudos for a job well done? My memory fails. Can you remember? You treat me as if I have contracted the black plague. Do not sit there with that haughty attitude and dare tell me we will do what families do. I no longer want to be part of this family now that I know the truth about you two.” I glanced at them hard.

“Whatever you think you know I can promise you’re dead wrong.”

“Prove it and tell me the truth.” I shifted in my seat, folded my arms and waited.

“You want the truth?”

“How refreshing.” The irascibility of my answer was a telltale sign to my parents no longer would their enigmatic behaviors, superfluous patronizations, and stonewalling work on me. I understood the hefty pause that followed. If I told my son I had been grooming him to take over a drug empire, a few seconds to collect myself might be necessary.

“Jason,” my dad said, “when we get home, I’ll tell you everything.”

I’d been praying to hear these words for a lifetime.

“We’re leaving right away,” he said.

I packed in five minutes. A cab had transported us to Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau. Dad’s plane and pilot waited for us to arrive. We boarded the plane and sat plush in leather seats that swiveled three hundred and sixty degrees. A flight attendant appeared at my side with a cranberry grape juice. I thanked her and downed it.

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

Monotonous whirling sounds shuddered me from a doze. My eyes wanted to open yet struggled to let what I knew to be sunlight through my closed lids. I peeked into the sun. Powerful rays scorched my retina forcing my eyes closed. This game lasted for fifteen minutes until I overpowered the sun by placing both hands in front of my face. The slits became wider and my eyes adjusted even though the price for success was another fifteen minutes.

Above me the fan continued its short circular path. If it was pushing air, the overwhelming warmth snuffed it out. The room quaked at my first attempt at sitting. It revolved at such a frantic pace I jolted backward into the feather pillow. Again, fifteen minutes later, I gave it a second try while shoving my feet off the bed at the same time. Success came at a price. Dizziness struck hard at my equilibrium and I slipped on the slick floor knocking my head into the wooden frame of the bed.

I yelped in agony not caring if I was alone or not. It hurt. When no one came to my aid, I assumed I was on my own. While on the floor I noticed shoes stacked underneath the bedframe. Seconds passed before they registered as my shoes. What were they doing here? There were six pairs of shoes in uniformed space. When I packed for the Bahamas I brought flip-flops, docksiders, and a formal pair. An explanation is what I needed.

With my right hand, I gripped onto the frame squeezing as hard as possible and pulled until my left hand joined the exercise. Wedging my fingers in between the mattress and the frame I pulled harder this time inching further. My leg muscles seized and scrunched into a fetal position. I rolled on my side and with the force of my hands and arms pushed myself up until I stood next to the bed. Afraid to take a step lest I make contact with the bed and floor again I held onto stationary fixtures, and with much deliberation exited the small room.

More sunlight struck. This time I mocked its weak assault and entered into an open kitchen and lounge. Bright colors, oranges, lime greens, fluorescent blues, and bold purples were incorporated in the color scheme. Not my taste, but certainly not vulgar looking. I ignored the decor and ventured outside.

Fierce beams braised me the moment I stepped out. A harsh icy wind pushed me back into the unit. I held my hand high above shading my head and took in the expanse. I was in the middle of nowhere and it was freezing outside. My abode was a small house surrounded by similar units and a forest that bordered each side. I counted over a hundred residences. My spirit brightened, help was around the corner. A long dirt pathway extended from one side of the development to the other. Since it served no useful purpose, as far as I could see, for navigation through the town, I ceased wondering at its utility.

With each step I was coming out of my drug-induced therapy. That is what she called it. Mom, when I was younger, pumped me full of good drugs when the flu or the kissing disease dropped anchor in my bod. For a day or two, my world floated. No it was the converse, I floated over the world. What I hated most about being sick occurred as my body started to heal. Mom weaned me from the potions leaving me with feelings of lightheadedness and lethargy. My body contained the consistency of rubber, my mind liquefied slime. I needed to attach a big stick or a piece of metal to my spine to keep upright. That same sensation I experienced now. Had I contracted the flu?

Not wanting to give the drugs in my system free reign I walked the perimeter wishing I had a jacket and counted out loud. After circling the house forty-seven times, my skin tingled from the winter air, and my head started to clear.

Hungry, I reentered the house overlooking the other units. Before opening the fridge, I skulked the cabinets. Each held boxes and cans of various items: Cereals, crackers, cookies and other snacks along with canned vegetables, chili, beans, etc.

A smile reached my lips when I opened the fridge and discovered fresh fruit, vegetables, and meats. The ingredients on a rack underneath the cupboards held the spices I cooked with when at home. Memories of Cuban recipes filled my mind, and I made Shrimp Asopao. Satisfied with my concoction, I belched and placed the bowl in the sink. Cases of cranberry grape juice, my favorite drink, sat on the floor of the tiny pantry. Once I filled the glass with ice and poured the juice over cubes, I waited while the liquid chilled.

Moby Dick, a book unfamiliar to me, sat unopened a few inches away. The book appeared old. When I opened it to find it was a first edition, I considered reading a chapter or two, but first downed the glass of juice. Not long after, I succumbed to exhaustion. I shut the book then walked into the bedroom and sunk into the mattress and closed my weary eyes. A few minutes rest, then back to reading and exploring the other houses and then…

Sounds of airplane engines taxing nearby pulled me into a mild state of consciousness. Heavy eyelids and an even weightier body prevented quick movements. I dozed drifting in and out of sleep. Blurred images of someone coming in and out of the room were real or imagined I cannot be sure. The banging and crashing in the other room unsuccessfully roused me from bed and I fell back asleep.

Drained from this recurring nightmare it took every ounce of energy to force my eyes open. Bright sunlight penetrated my eyelids. Hues of red and orange tempted me to rouse. I opened them. Sharp shooting pains made my eyes ache, but I refused to close them again.

My body was heavy with sleep yet I needed to rise. For a long time, I talked myself into standing before doing so. When I made it to my feet and felt steady enough, I raced to the bathroom. A long shower later my faculties straightened. In the tiny closet, clothes covered with paper and plastic hung on wire hangers. I fought in vain to remember if they were here before.

In the kitchen, I opened the fridge. It contained fresh fruits, vegetables, and meat. Recipes from around the world sifted through my mind until it settled on a Mediterranean potato salad.

A book, Moby Dick, sat on the table. My fingers perused the pages. Memories tried to push through the logjam of my conscious, but nothing crisp I could hold onto surfaced. Not willing to part with the book I took it with me.

I walked outside smashed by a harsh wind. I remember the jacket hanging on the hook by the front door and stepped back inside to retrieve it. Back outside, I noticed for the first time the rows and rows of similar houses. Mother Nature’s icy breath winded me. Empty streets and driveways meant the cold kept the people inside their homes. Yearning for company, I planned in my mind to meet my neighbors once I had eaten. I was famished.

Not in the mood for an extravagant meal I created a butter chicken and a side of Jasmin rice. Feverish eating made me thirsty or maybe the curry was to blame. The small pantry held cases of cranberry grape juice, my favorite. I removed a glass from the cupboard, filled it with ice, poured the purple-red liquid over the cubes and waited for it to chill. I downed it and placed the soiled dishes into the clean sink. Tiredness mugged my body without pity and I opted for rest. A few minutes rest then…

I awoke to the whirls of a fan above me. Darkness filled the room, and I had no idea where I was. Blood chugged unhurried through my body as if it had taken on the characteristic of dense maple syrup. Unable to see in the night I made careful and methodical movements. When a wave of lethargy overcame me I fought it by breathing through my mouth. Inhale. Exhale. It took several attempts until I sat and dangled my feet over the side of the bed.

Without thought, I stood placing my arms in front of me, palmed my hands against the wall defining the dimensions of the small bedroom. My fingers touched a light switch. Instant bright chased the dark away casting an eerie glow over the room. I surveyed my surroundings and discovered a bathroom which I visited. Once I completed my ablutions, I charted the rest of my surroundings and discovered I was in a small house. On the single table rested a copy of Moby Dick. I could not remember if I had read Herman Melville’s book before and tucked it into my waistband.

Near empty cabinets, and a full garbage can suggested I had consumed the food though my memory failed me. The bare fridge housed half of a gallon of milk, five eggs, a block of sharp cheddar cheese, onions, and wheat bread wrapped tight in a plastic bag.

Tempted to make an omelet with the smattering of ingredients, I killed the idea when the lime curtains lifted. A wintry breeze pushed through an open window. Stepping outside the front door, I welcomed the cool wind on my face and breathed deep letting the air oxygenate my weary body. Exhaustion was not far from me. No reasonable explanation for the lethargy existed in my mind other than I suffered from the flu or glandular fever. I fought the urge to return to bed and stopped in amazement as thick clouds unveiled a complete moon lighting the surrounding grounds.

Dozens of houses lined the adjacent streets. Where was I? The hour was late or early. Which one? The houses were indistinguishable from one another. I searched for a house with life inside its brick and mortar. I needed to talk with someone.

My hands crunched into fists and pounded on the nearest door. I waited for someone to answer. Nothing. I walked to the next house and knocked, and the next house, and the next house after that until I knocked on every door. One hundred and thirty-five dwellings were unoccupied. It appeared I was the only inhabitant in this community.

Tired from my night journey and shivering from the cold, I opened the door to the last house and entered. Alike décor as my house. Unlike my place the cupboards and fridge were completely empty. Unwilling to venture back to my house I lay on the couch and drifted…

~ * ~

Sunlight beat through the window shocking me awake. I sat straightaway. Thoughts in full sentences while others in abbreviated phrases pointed to three questions. Who was I? Where was I? What was my reason for being here?

I stood and opened the front door. Cold greeted me. The rows of cookie cutter houses greeted me. My eyes brightened as I neared answers. A knock at the nearest door exposed no one. Neither did my visits to the next seventy-nine abodes. I listened for the sound of cars, children playing, any noise indicating the presence of another person.

Had I always lived alone? How did I come to live in a town by myself?

Engines sounds from the air stole my attention and I looked to the sky. I observed a Gulfstream G150 off in the distance. Shivers coerced me into the nearest house. Ten minutes later I watched the plane land on the strip located near the edge of the woods then waited.

Three men, two burly, one thin, dressed in dark parkas, walked the street passing the house where I hid. My memory fought to recollect the name of the lean man and failed. I watched as they stopped at the last house on the street. The heavyset men pushed hand trolleys loaded with what I presumed were cases of supplies. The thin man carried dry cleaning. They entered then exited, their faces befuddled with dissatisfaction as they fanned out looking for me I thought.

“Search inside the houses,” a voice called out.

Sharp tinny sounds and feedback echoed through the walkie-talkies. Careful with my movements I hid myself in the bedroom and waited. The long pause allowed my thoughts to merge onto an empty highway. One by one each thought became the foundation for the following thought until…

Jason.

I stepped into the bathroom and used the mirror to stare at myself. My face assumed a hollow appearance resulting from malnourishment or illness. Could it be the doctors placed me here to keep me from spreading whatever disease I carried? No, if so, the men would wear masks, gowns, and gloves to prevent contamination. No, they were here for another reason one that cut short the clarification I needed.

When I heard the door open, I lodged into stealth mode finding the best and yet most obvious hiding place in the house. Heavy footsteps followed as the door creaked shut. The man said nothing but his heavy breathing suggested he had worked up an increased pulse searching for me.

Jason Drayper.

The name brought a smile to my face. It was short-lived as the steps came into the bedroom. A closet door opened, and I heard him kneel and search under the bed cursing as he did. He entered the bathroom not expecting to find me there. The needle in his hand caught my attention. What happened next I cannot explain. My body tensed and thoughts of moves and holds to incapacitate my pursuer sank into tendons and muscles that acted on instinct.

As his hand reached for the shower curtain to pull it back, I grabbed it at the wrist and bent backward forcing him to his knees. With my other hand I snatched the needle and jabbed it into his palm before he could use his other hand and strike at me in the tub. He stumbled backwards out through the bathroom and onto the bed. The drug worked fast. His eyeballs rolled up, up and away until nothing remained but off-white and thin-river of blood sockets. I covered his eyes and brought the lids to a closed position. Unlabored breathing meant the drug was a depressant and not deadly. Again, unwitting information I possessed.

I grabbed the walkie-talkie just in case. A static song played over the unit, two short blasts followed by one long burst. Without a predetermined response from man one, I assumed man two started the search for his partner. What I did not expect was how fast man two located me. I watched as he turned on the street. He held a tracking device in his hand.

“Jayson,” the man said standing outside at least a hundred feet from the door.

Exposed, and without the element of surprise, I opened the front door and walked out. A man six feet three inches tall with square shoulders focused his gaze and flexed his hands.

“It’s freezing out here, I need you to come with me,” he said his voice soft yet in complete control.

“What am I doing here?” I asked.

He smiled. “I’m sure you have questions. If you’ll come with me, you know longer have to be in the dark.”

His eyes flickered untruth.

“Now is good a time as any. Tell me why you have me exiled here.” The words rolled off my tongue.

During my investigation of the town and the run-in with man one, images of me, Jason Drayper, and my life, sped across the circumference of my brain. My eyes blinked as if in REM sleep. Muddled by pictures of two individuals with contrasting identities and purposes, I understood there was more to my being here. As the drugs dissipated from my body, clarity, in small slow increments, started to return.

He approached me, his hands pushed into the jacket pockets of his dark suit.

“Jason,” his smiled etched deeper, “my name is Karl. Your father sent me.”

Instant anger welled up inside of me at the mention of my dad. This I could not explain. Too many unknowns persisted in fighting through the clogged matter in my head until one thought stood out amongst the others.

Chapter Nineteen

 

 

Two occurrences disturbed the stillness. A breeze as if someone shifted the surrounding air fanned against my face. The second came from the broad-shouldered man standing across from me. He betrayed his training. A slight drop of his shoulders and the near imperceptible quiver at the bottom corner of his lip stirred me. My reaction was visceral and exact. I ducked my head as the arm of man three, the pilot, purposed to circle my neck. His body leaned over mine for a second enough to lift and grab him. With one arm around his neck and the other across the back of his legs, I launched his body and heard it collide into the doorframe. I listened for more movement on his part. Nothing

Man two never moved and my eyes never left his even during the brusque contest with man three. From his pockets he retrieved a gun. His movements, timed and methodical, allowed ample reaction time. In one fluid movement, I retrieved the walkie-talkie from my back pocket and flung it at man two. Though his eyes never left mine, his hands raised, the result of superior training. He was too slow to deflect the projectile that smashed into his temple. He slumped to the ground, his knees turning to jelly.

I tied the hands and feet of both men and left them in the house where I was imprisoned. I assumed they were skilled enough to free themselves when the drug wore off.

Man three I carried on my shoulders and walked to the dirt runway situated between opposite ends of the woods. After emptying his pockets, which included a sealed syringe, I placed him in the cockpit and waited for him to awaken. A thorough search of the plane uncovered five unopened packages of nondescript phones, throwaways. A case of cranberry grape juice, my favorite, sat on the floor. I ignored it and continued my exploration. Hidden in a leather case tucked underneath a console in the rear of the plane were ninja stars. I emptied the case and threw them into a small duffle bag along with the phones. A metal file glimmered as the cloud shifted from in front of the sun. I tossed into the bag unsure of its use.

A single streamlined parachute lay on the floor near the tiny lavatory. My mind processed and concluded within seconds my need for this piece of apparatus.

Man three stirred. I entered the cockpit and sat next to him.

“Jason…”

“Where are we?” I asked. He kept silent. I expected this. “No matter,” I continued, “you are going to take me to…”

I fell short of giving him an answer. Where was I planning to go? And my plans once I got there? The drugs continued to disperse from my body but my mind remained trapped in its tranquillizing grip. To break free from its control, I needed to leave this place.

“Let’s get in the air,” I told him. He stayed froze in his seat. This action I anticipated.

Without speaking, I retrieved a phone from the duffel bag, tapped in a number and dialed. On the console in front of me was a map. I picked it up and perused it. I laughed to myself as I put the phone on speaker.

“Washington Post, how may I direct your call?”

Man three’s eyes eased from the squint until they opened wide.

“The investigative department,” I said.

“Just a moment.”

Information on a secret compound I figured a reporter might find too juicy to ignore. While we waited, music from Frank Sinatra played on the line. I sobered with instant recollection. Man three bowed his head in resignation accepting the futility of continued defiance. He began the preflight sequence, and I ended the call with the Post. My bluff worked.

“Jason?”

I shook my head in bewilderment as the story of the past two weeks unfolded in my head. “You work for or with my dad,” I said. “When I left the Bahamas my dad drugged me. I remembered the drink the stewardess served me and the bottles back in the house. Again, I shook my head helping the fog to disperse. What were your orders, to keep me drugged and make sure I never left this compound?”

“Jason?”

“Stop,” I said. “Take me up now.”

The plane taxied to the end of the passable runway. Thirty minutes later we cruised at an altitude of ten thousand feet.

“Where to?” Man three asked.

“Winchester Virginia.”

I watched as he adjusted the plane’s speed and attitude and set the new course.

Hidden within the Allegheny National Forest outside Johnsonburg, Pennsylvania the compound spread out over many acres. From the air I saw the high electrified fences surrounding the complex.

Flight time from our current position to Winchester was forty-five minutes. With my senses attuned to our altitude and direction I left the cockpit and suited up. The plane flew over Maryland and West Virginia. When we reached Virginia, I readied myself.

“Do you want me to land at OKV?”

I wasn’t interested in setting the plane down at Winchester Regional Airport or any other airport. My intended landing included approaching the ground with my own two feet. I opened the door clinging onto the duffle. Cold stabbing wind rushed at me destabilizing my stance. I jumped from the plane. As my body dropped I felt exhilaration surge through me as the remnants of my fog disappeared for good. I landed in a field not far from Interstate 81. A call to a taxi that arrived fifteen minutes later whisked me away to Crystal City, Virginia.

~ * ~

I reserved and paid for a room at the Ritz Carton on Hayes Street under an alias. To avoid interaction with staff and guests, I asked for the door to be kept unlocked. Glass doors slid apart as I entered. Elevators were busy and full so I opted for the stairs. Paranoid is how I felt after my time in the Pennsylvania compound. On the fifth flight of steps I opened the door and headed straight for the room. The door was unlocked, and I walked in unobserved.

After emptying the contents of the duffel bag onto the bed, I reached for one of the burn phones. I punched in the number from memory and waited. The call advanced right away to voicemail.

Hi, you’ve reached Madeline Drayper. I’m not available at the moment. If you’ll please leave your name and number, I’ll return your call as soon as I can.” Before the beep sounded the phone gave me the choice of leaving a callback number.

As if.

The date was December 12th, thirteen days before Christmas. For two weeks my dad orchestrated events to keep from acknowledging the truth of his involvement with the Cartel, thus the drugged isolation.

Acid from my stomach seeped into my throat and I belched. It was as revolting as the feelings I now held for my parents. No parent gets the right to treat their offspring this way. After taking several deep breaths, I prepared to leave my message.

“Mom, believe it or not you have been a stabilizing force in my life. You know that I love you though with our screwed up family it’s impossible to know what love is or how it should behave. Perhaps I will learn this on my own.

“By the time you get this message you will have figured out I escaped. Were you aware of Sir’s plans? If so, how could you, my mother, allow me to stay imprisoned for two weeks? I never understood your reasons for giving him a pass, and realize you are just as complicit in his crimes against me.

“Memories of our times together are few but fond. Dozens of cups of cocoa later you had your finger on the pulse of my heart even to the point of knowing my thoughts. That scared me from time to time. When I tried to get close you kept me at arm’s length. I remember once we spoke about a trust test. I wish you could have trusted me enough to be honest.

“Mom, this will be my final communication with you. It saddens me because I love you and that makes no sense. Please do not contact me.”

I ended the call and at once punched in my dad’s number. As it rang, I chose my words with care. I wanted no misunderstandings. At the beep I spoke.

“Sir, I am sorry to have been such a disappointment to you. I never verbalized these thoughts before but sometimes I wish I had a brother so you could have the son you wanted. Our incompatible differences left us with no room for maneuvering in our relationship.

“What saddened me most was not the beatings. It was how you allowed each punch, hit, kick and hold to steal away the part that makes me, me. When will you understand that I am not you?

“In the Bahamas the all-knowing and ever-wise Jack Drayper redirected my life once again. What power you have over me. Even now I shake my head hoping to wake up from this never-ending nightmare.

“I lived with the hope of one day being allowed to place my arms around you and for you to reciprocate in kind. Whispers of ‘I love you’ escaped from your lips for the first time, and I felt secure in our embrace. Not to be. Oh well…I am sure with your resources my location will become clear in short order. Do not come looking for me. If I see someone from your team, I will hurt them. If you come after me, I will…”

I removed the battery from the phone, destroyed it and waited. Aloneness engulfed me. Dazed by the memories of recent and past events, energy and passion leached from my body. Once my life was predictive and full of order: Construct a plan. Choose a course of action. Correct errors along the way. Complete plan. Cherry-pick next task. Now my life hung in that balance of insecurity and ambiguity where no person wants to exist: a world where dreams and desires no longer dominate the psyche, but have been replaced by a world of indescribable dullness and listlessness.

In the olden days of Japan, samurai warriors wanting to save face ended their lives in a dignified and costly manner by spearing themselves with a sword. I considered the wealth I created in my sixteen years and any impact I may have had on my small part of the world and realized it was worthless garbage. Aftershocks from this unearthing paused my thinking. Never had I considered taking my life, but the thoughts circled in my mind approximating gorged vultures picking at the final bits of flesh on a carcass. Was there any dignity or honor in remaining alive?

I dumped the contents of the bag. Four phones, a file, and twelve ninja stars lay there. Sir had people that answered to him and if his Cartel goons came after me I needed to be ready. Thrown with accuracy the stars could wound or kill. Not everyone deserved death. Using the file, I dulled the edges so a forceful throw would wound or incapacitate a target.

I turned on the television, then grabbed the remote and ordered room service. My last meal was more than twenty-four hours ago. A black and white Cary Grant movie droned on. Not interested I turned to the news. Next week the singles were scheduled for a second distribution. What must Stedwick be thinking? Did Dexmyer give up his plan to squeeze me for money?

The image caught my eye right away. I lay on a bed with a platinum bombshell next to me. Pictures fuzzed on the screen left little to the imagination. Police were looking to question me I supposed my age may have had something to do with it. Plastered over the news, newspapers and internet my picture made headlines. Armed and dangerous was how they described me. I sat dumbfounded planning my next step when I heard the knock at the door. I snapped the TV off and answered the door.

With a huge smile, the waiter entered and placed my tray on the small table with great fastidiousness near the window. I assumed the show was for the purposes of securing a sizeable tip. The image of the newscast fresh in my mind I wanted him gone.

I signed the check leaving a thirty-dollar tip for a twenty-five-dollar meal. His eyes widened, but it was not the money that drew his attention it was me. His demeanor changed, and he itched to leave the room. As he touched the doorknob, I debated what to do. Geared into survival mode, I reached in my pocket for a star. I assumed him to be waiting at the elevator. His feet moved towards the stairs.

A flick of the wrist sent the star twenty yards. It connected to the back of the waiter’s calf. He dropped without a scream. No longer hungry, I left the tray untouched and exited the room with my bag and took the opposite set of stairs. Behind me the waiter still lay on the floor.

Taking one of the remaining phones, I punched in another familiar number.

“You know who this is,” I said when he answered the phone.

“Yes.”

“Can I trust you?” My ears strained to hear signs of untruths.

“My relationship with your father has nothing to do with you and me. I’m your friend Jason, and a man of my word. You of all people should understand that.”

The words were crisp and cut me. Wanted by the authorities and with nowhere to go I needed to plunge forward.

“Marty, I need your help.”

His calm voice never eased panic.

“Where are you Jason?”

I waited a beat then answered. “Crystal City. I need a team here ASAP. One of the waiters in the hotel made me, and I fear things may get dicey. I need a quick exit out of the country.” This time the terms were mine.

“I’ve got a team in D.C. ETA is twenty minutes.” He paused. “I sent the coordinates. Meet them there.”

As I stared at the screen, the address appeared.

“Thanks Marty.”

I removed the battery and smashed the phone.

I exited the hotel and walked into a wall of chilled air. My rendezvous point, two streets over required I walk to the end of the block then cross over and work my way up the block. Warmed by a down jacket I removed from the compound, I braved the subzero temperatures.

Out in the open I felt exposed. There was a time when passerby’s ignored those they walked within inches of them. Times changed. Now people looked for the next phone camera scoop, the attack they could get on video, the person leaving a package unattended, the suspicious odd-looking person who made them uncomfortable. In the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area, everyone was paranoid. A few eyeballed me. Without a hood on my jacket I stood out. There were a couple of interested nosy busybodies who took it upon themselves to weed through the onslaught of potential malefactors and gazed at me with mistrusting eyes. When fingers pointed my way, and the plethora of phones emerged, I acted fast.

My feet picked up pace and scooted across the street evading traffic. I made a right and moved up the street to my coordinates. Sirens as loud as tornado warnings sounded at the bottom of the street behind me. Red and blue flashing strobes reflected off storefront windows. Three police cars followed by two local news vans screeched to a halt. I increased my speed. Two more squad cars parked at angles at the intersection in front of me.

Trapped, a lesson from the past taught me that panic dulled the senses. I choked on the ice air as I breathed deep. White puffs from my exhaustion sent up a smoke signal of my position. Alert and focused, I approached the lobby entrance of a posh hotel and went in. A man dressed in run-of-the-mill clothing approached me. I searched for an avenue of escape. There was none. I assumed him to be an undercover police officer though he showed no gun nor identified himself as one. I could give up or fight. From my pocket I pulled out another star. The man was to near to make its blow effective.

“Please come with Mr. Drayper. I’m Stan, Marty sent me.”

Stan was tall and muscular. One did not get a body this toned by accident. His earpiece told me he remained in constant communication with other team members. He took me past the elevators and through a door which led to a long hallway. Through a partially opened door his comrades waited. Outside sat four taxicabs with the engines running. I entered the third car. Stan shut the door and got in the driver’s seat. The cars took off leaving the lot in different directions. The police with their prompt arrival did not block the necessary streets. Stan headed for the opening. Someone on the other end of Stan’s headset fed him directions. A police car sounded its siren and sped up to catch us. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the six wheeler refrigerated truck coming toward the intersection. I braced for impact but Stan sped up while the truck crossed behind us stopping to thwart the progress of the car chasing us. He turned the corner and stopped the car. Stan jumped out and opened my door. I was ready. We entered a common Ford with tinted windows. Exhaust blew from the running engine. Stan and I took off just as police car approached our direction from the opposite side of the road to inspect the taxi. It occurred to me there might be issues with finger prints only to discover Stan was wearing flesh colored latex gloves.

He traversed several roads and sped toward a semi-trailer with metal ramps leading into the back. Stan drove up the ramp with ease and braked before hitting the front part of the truck. The ramp lifted, and the doors slid shut.

“Sorry to have to move so fast Mr. Drayper.”

“Thank you Stan. Where are we headed?”

“There’s a small private airstrip forty minutes from here. Ed, your pilot, will to meet us there.”

“You guys acted with great speed and skill. I appreciate it.”

“We’ve been monitoring the news.”

Monitoring it for what reason? Was it as simple as, “I’ll turn the television and watch the news?” or “Jason Drayper is a hot commodity and, his face is on every major network,” type of monitoring.

These men worked for Marty. No reason not to trust them. Stan knew more than he let show.

“I appreciate the help.”

“Not a problem Mr. Drayper. We have a dozen or so crates up front with plenty of food and water.”

Stan left me alone sitting in the truck. I was grateful for the help. The disconnect was how those pictures of me and Platinum Blonde Woman warranted sending half of the D.C. police after me. What of her? Were the police trying to locate her whereabouts? Had she claimed I assaulted her?

As the eighteen wheeler’s engines rumbled through the floorboards, Dexmyer underwrote my thoughts. Why did he release the photos? We had a deal. What did he gain by allowing the photos to go public? I pondered these and many other questions as the truck made the forty-minute drive.

When the truck stopped, the doors opened flooding the inside of the truck with blinding light. Stan appeared behind me and jumped to the ground. I did the same. A team of four men boarded the truck. The ramps slid out and someone other than Stan backed the car out. A forklift appeared and drove up the ramp returning with full crates. I shook Stan’s hand and thanked him for his help.

After boarding the plane, I popped into say hi to Captain Ed Loughton When I asked him for fight details he informed me of the flight plan he filed to Colby Island? Other than my five financial counselors, no one else knew of this acquisition.

Chapter Twenty

 

 

Colby Island was not far from St. Thomas. Complete with a bungalow and airstrip it proved the perfect getaway or retreat while I contemplated what my next move should be. Ed landed and assisted me with the unloading of crates. Fifteen minutes later he took off to St. Thomas to refuel before heading to Florida. Ed had been my dad’s private pilot for many years. That infamous day when I overpowered my dad in the field off Interstate 95 Ed became my pilot. Prudent in private matters, I never feared him sharing my whereabouts though someone had told him about this place.

Despite its rundown appearance, Colby Island had undue potential. Complete with electricity, a well, and a two-bedroom bungalow, I bought the island with plans to clean up the foliage, redo the airstrip, build a dock and boathouse, and erect a house.

Other tasks took priority.

For the next few hours, I dragged crates to the bungalow and left them outside while I cleaned the inside of my new dwelling. Assured of its cleanliness, I re-sheeted the disinfected bed. Happy with the outcome I opened crates. There were enough can goods to last me four or five months. One crate held several emergency kits. Another crate contained large blue bottles of spring water.

Vegetables, fruit, bread and other perishables lasted five days for maximum freshness. The refrigerator and freezer extended their shelf life. Now I needed to cook with frozen ingredients. In the event of a power outage, a generator with ten, twenty gallon Jeri cans of fuel sat undercover in the shed. I discovered an envelope with a message from my mom at the bottom of the last crate. With a single match, I torched it.

Early in life I learned how to defeat boredom. Detailed schedules with little flexibility kept my focus from waning. My first week on Colby Island I awoke at 5:00 a.m. and jogged through the sand making sure to keep my heart rate at optimum peak. An hour and a half later I completed the circuit. Breakfast consisted of eggs, bacon, and pancakes from a mix. This allowed me to conserve my fresh carbohydrate foods. Following breakfast, I swam for an hour. None of the exercising lessened my somber mood.

Surplus hours included reading dated magazines and newspapers and watching movies and semi-current events downloaded to a laptop Ed gave me before leaving. No internet meant no updates on any of my financial investments. I was closed off from the rest of the world.

Inside the shed were tools which allowed me to work on the upkeep of the island. For six days straight I spent twenty hours a day keeping myself busy.

Four o’clock p.m. on day seven I heard the engine of Ed’s plane and watched as he landed on the unfinished upgrade of the airstrip. Without doubt, Ed would bring the latest updates on everything from newspapers, books, info on my financial matters, fresh food, and of course the latest on the authorities’ search for me. When he opened the door and stepped through the opening, he sported a large smile.

“Hi Jason.”

“Ed,” I replied with genuine excitement. “It is good to see you.”

“How are you?” he asked shaking my hand.

“The quiet is killing me.”

“I can help with that. Inside is a box of the latest bestsellers, newspapers, recordings of newscasts, and a box of DVD’s, and don’t forget food.” His words reached a crescendo.

“That is great Ed. I appreciate everything.”

“Why don’t you help with the crates?”

Fewer crates came on this trip, but the essentials were there including milk, bread, and fruits and vegetables. Ed helped me carry the crates to the shed and then reentered the plane.

“You’ve done a great job with the place.”

“You can tell?” I asked.

“Looks real nice Jason.”

“Ed, can you stay and join me for lunch?” The questions corresponded to a plea. I covered the weak moment with a smile. How successful I was I am not sure.

“I’d love to Jason, but I’m on my way to Florida to take care of an errand for your father. He and your mother are taking a trip to the Virgin Islands. By the way your mom sends her…”

“Ed,” I said stopping him in mid-sentence. “Please.”

“I understand.”

“Thanks. See you in seven days.” I shook his hand with more gusto than usual. He noticed. I was at the door to the bungalow when he spoke.

“Oh I almost forgot, there’s one more package in the plane for you. It’s from your mom.”

“Ed, keep my mom’s gift. I do not care what it is.”

I turned to walk away.

“Are you sure?”

Colby stood at the top of the portable steps dressed in a white sundress and a straw hat. A pink hibiscus behind her ear accented her outfit. She climbed down the steps as I ran toward her.

If you have ever watched those movies where the lovers run in slow motion into each other’s arms and create their own tornado gust, well we nearly collided and became roadkill. I hugged her hard.

“What are you doing here?” I asked unable to contain my enthusiasm.

“Your mom came by the house a few days ago and asked me if I wanted an early Christmas present. How could I say no?”

“Mom handled this?”

“Un huh.”

Ed drew up the staircase and pulled the door shut while Colby and I continued to hold each other. We watched the plane take off into the sunset.

“Did she tell you what happened between us?” I asked half-expecting she did.

“Your mom and I are close. She told me about the messages you sent her and your dad. And you have every right to be angry.”

I turned her to face me and put my arms around her waist. “Thanks for coming.”

The time for words expired the moment she stepped off the plane. I brought her to my body and kissed her long and slow. With our hands entwined, we walked to the small bungalow. The poor trappings and limited décor did nothing to deter her spirit.

“This place is breathtaking.”

“That is love sick talk,” I said

“That may be but I love it.” She took off her hat and threw it in the air. It caught the wind and sailed for a few seconds before landing on the small couch. This was one of the reasons I loved her so much. Expensive things never turned her head. The unpretentious things of life contented her.

“Is this your mom and dad’s island?”

“No,” I replied holding back.

“It’s yours?” Her voice topped the excitement Richter scale. I shook my head. “Then whose?”

“Yours,” I said without pretense walking away from her.

“What do you mean it’s mine?” She reached me in seconds, turned my body around, and placed her hands on my shoulder.

“I bought this island for you. I call it Colby Island.”

Colby shook her head from side to side in unbelief.

“An entire island?” I shrugged. “It’s one thing to buy a girl flowers or candy or even a ring but an island?”

“You said it was breathtaking.”

“Jason, I’ve never seen a place so magnificent. Can we walk the beach?” Colby asked?

“Of course.”

“Let me change first.”

Once dressed, I grabbed her hand and showed her the cool spots on the island: the coconut grove which boasted a total of four trees, the flower patch where dozens of diverse colored flowers made their home together, and the fishing hole where fish got trapped when the tide rolled out. We explored the island together for the next several hours. As we neared the bungalow, I surprised her and pulled her into the water. We body surfed riding the small waves into shore. Exhausted, we sat on the sandy beach.

“I doubt your parents blessed your trip here.” I mentioned in passing. “Imagine their little girl alone with a sex-crazed boy on an island together.”

“Is that what you are?”

I ignored her question. Sex was something we never discussed, mostly because my focus included making money, music and nothing else.

“Dad wasn’t keen on it at first. It only took a day for mom to soften his heart. I told him how much I loved you and that I couldn’t bear to be away from you so long. Then there was the considerable pleading on my part.”

“What brought him to his senses?”

“When I was fitted for a chastity belt.”

We laughed long and hard, but the fun-loving atmosphere decreased as we walked around the island.

“So tell me Colby what is the fallout back home?”

“When the pictures surfaced, the police wanted you bad. They came close to getting you in Crystal City I guess you know that. They figured you’d surface in Florida. Your mom handled them.”

My disposition turned choleric.

“I know you don’t want to discuss your mom. When the police arrived to question you, she made it sound as if you’d run away. My parents flipped when they saw the report and the pictures on television. They called me into the lounge room when the story aired and grilled me. I told them the truth. Back at school, everyone thinks you’re guilty of something and ready to see you thrown to the wolves.”

“Are you taking any flack?”

“Not much.” I could tell she was hedging the truth and decided not to press. Colby’s heart was bigger than her shoulders. I loved the fact that she had an inner strength that extended far enough to encompass me and my weaknesses. “Mr. Oswald sends his best wishes.”

Pause.

It will only get worse from here,” I said.

“I know.”

Colby paused to find the right words. “How are you holding up here on my Island?” she asked changing the subject.

“Bored out of my brain.”

“Maybe my being here will change that.”

“No doubt it will.”

“I brought a dozen newly released DVD’s. Maybe we can watch a movie tonight.”

“I will fix you dinner when we get back to the bungalow.”

“No, dinner is on me tonight,” she said.

She escorted me into the shack. A large brown paper bag which evaded my earlier focus sat in the fridge. Colby retrieved the bag and placed it on the table. There was sesame chicken, mooshi pork, beef and broccoli, combination fried rice and a handful of fortune cookies. We heated the meal in the small microwave.

“We stopped in St. Thomas. I’m not sure if it’s up to your usual standards,” said Colby her stomach grumbling as loud as mine.

“It will be great.”

We devoured everything but the rice and fortune cookies. After dinner I booted up my laptop and we sat on the couch and watched a thriller. My mind snubbed the movie and fixated on Colby. My breathing was as erratic as that day I had seen her in the chorus room. I fought to keep my hormones in check. We watched a second movie to which we both fell asleep. Somewhere during the night, I awoke with Colby’s head in my lap. I carried her to bed, tucked her in, and closed the door. I skulked to the other bedroom and had my best night’s sleep on the island since my arrival.

In the morning, I opened the bedroom door. Colby was still deep in the throes of unconsciousness. I decided it was an opportune time to catch up on the news. There were copies of the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, New York and the L.A. Times. None of the front pages included pictures of me. I breathed a brief sigh. But the picture appeared on page three in the New York Times. Ed had dropped off several tabloids as well. Those publications had my face on page one. They blurred out the indecent parts of the images. I read the article struggling to digest the words.

Multi-Millionaire Teenage Playboy Jason Drayper Sex Scandal was the title of one of the articles. Tabloids refused to honor due diligence. Fabrications and untruths lined the article. Forget innocence. Guilt now became my first, middle, and last name. The article angered me generally because it made me appear as an adolescent degenerate. It was one thing to know those pictures were in my possession and a different thing to realize the entire country was viewing them.

Anyone who knew me, understood my proclivities did not lead to one night stands. On top of that why take pictures of my tryst and leak them to the police and press? It made no sense. Less sense was why Dexmyer leaked them in the first place. How did he plan to collect on his ninety million now?

When the door to Colby’s room opened, I stuffed the papers under the couch. Why spoil the day musing over what the world believed or chose not to believe regarding Jason Draper?

I refused to ask Colby how long she was staying and she never volunteered it. A week at the most, I thought.

“Good morning,” I said, “how did you sleep?”

“I don’t remember you carrying me to bed last night. I guess I was out of it.”

“Rested?”

“Yeah.”

“Breakfast?”

“No.”

“Beach?”

“Better,” she said with a long yawn.

Six days later the sound of a plane’s engines coerced my heart to leap. Colby informed me the night before she needed to go back. I bordered on losing my temper. Her leaving meant me staying back, while she, my parents, and others dealt with the fallout of my actions. Mom’s words of me running away stuck with me. I know it was a ruse to confuse the police, but I did not run away, I organized a great escape so I might gather time to figure out my next step.

Semantics.

On day seven, I had come no closer to solving my problem. A perfect week soured by the acrid cloud that hung over the island.

The plane landed. Signs of unpleasant news etched Ed’s face as he disembarked. Spasms erupted in my stomach. What now?

“They arrested your parents in Miami before I could get them to St. Croix.”

“What, I said?” My reaction unnatural as I reached for my head to cradle it.

“They’re accused of impeding a police investigation.”

“How?” Colby asked.

“Stashing Jason away prohibited the authorities from interrogating him.”

“This cannot be playing out this way. Where is their proof?”

“It’s circumstantial. Your dad and mom’s lawyers had them out in no time because of their connections with…”

The infamous dropped sentence. It was the purple elephant in the room, the subject to be avoided. Ed was part of this tight-knit conspiracy. Over the next few seconds, I spent an eternity determining what those connections he referred to might be.

“The judge forced them to surrender their passports. You can imagine the kerfuffle this has caused back home.”

“Are they back in Vero Beach?”

“No, they’re confined to Miami. The police staked out their hotel and have teams following them.”

“Ed I need to go back and clear my parent’s name.”

“No,” said Ed. “Your father and mother gave me strict instructions and forbid you to return. They can handle whatever the authorities throw at them. Now as a result of what’s happened, I won’t be able to fly back to U.S.”

“What will you do?”

“Your father set me up with a nice place in St. Thomas with a house and private airstrip.”

“Ed, I am so sorry.”

“Jason, I’ve been a friend of your family for twenty-five years. I flew for your father and now for you. You never need to apologize to me. Okay?”

“Okay,” I replied.

“Okay no more of that. Colby, I’m afraid for the moment you’re stuck here. I got word to your parents.”

Ed said his goodbyes. Colby gave him a kiss on the cheek. Ed’s face turned a rosy pink. He climbed the stairs then hoisted them into plane. “By the way,” he yelled, “I’ll still bring supplies every week.” He shut the door and started the engine. He taxied to the end of the runway, turned the plane around, and zoomed towards St. Thomas.

Instead of being thrilled with more time with Colby I bemoaned the thought of Mom in trouble with the authorities.

Chapter Twenty-One

 

 

A family of bananaquits flew by as Colby and I walked the bleached shoreline. They settled in a grove of palms where hibiscus plants grew wild. Amongst the dark green foliage their yellow underbellies made them appear as if they were overripe bananas that someone forgot to pick. The sugar birds fluttered to the light coral and plum colored flowers stealing small drops of nectar before disappearing to the opposite side of the island.

A day and a half later Colby and I swam and searched for sea biscuit shells when drones of an engine drew our attention. Ed was not due for another five days which meant he brought unpleasant news. Waterlogged, we waddled to the landing strip. Ed’s contrived smile greeted us. His sad eyes concealed something terrible. Colby sensed the hesitancy.

“What’s wrong Mr. Loughton,” she asked?

Underneath Ed’s arm he held a newspaper. He handed it to Colby who scanned the front page. Unable to hold the paper any longer, it fell from her hands. Colby’s reaction stole away my breath and my final repository of hope and peace. My fingers trembled as they reached for the paper. The tips burned with the news of death printed on its pages.

Two articles seized my attention. The first article read, ‘Parents Jailed for Abetting Fugitive Son.’ I breathed a sigh of relief as I discovered Mom was safe. She and my dad were picked up by the police on the trumped of charge of kidnapping. They were being held without bond in a local jail in Miami.

On Ed’s previous trip, he said the police released them. Something terrible must have happened for the police to re-arrest them. The second article answered that question, Manhunt Tightened for Jason Draper.

I scanned the story holding my breath until I stumbled upon the words that had frightened the two people next to me. My mouth fell. The authorities wanted me for murder of the woman in the pictures. I swallowed hard. The saliva did not slide easily and the scorching pain of a sore throat discomforted me. I swallowed again needing to say something to react in an appropriate manner. How does one act when they are responsible for the death of another person? What is the protocol for that?

Choices define us. Daily we face them at such rapidity we fail to realize their implicative potential. One good choice can lead to a life of prosperity while an unwise decision can manufacture an identical outcome. That journey of right and wrong, the path of enlightenment versus the walk on the dark side is impossible to avoid. How we choose is the important factor. I realized my decision to fake the records was wrong, but never once did I expect it to end this way. What oracle could have predicted an outcome of this enormousness?

The video played in my head.

Son, you badly want what’s in that unit.”

Looks like you do to old man. Step out anytime you’re ready.”

I’m here for a different reason.”

And what is that?”

To talk you out of bidding on what’s in that unit. I’ll give you a million dollars right now to walk away.”

No deal.”

I watched with cinematic vividness as the blob of tobacco spewed from his mouth and landed near me. I heard the sizzle as it cooked on the sunbaked asphalt.

That’s a disgusting habit.”

So is lying and cheating.”

“Not sure I follow you.”

You follow just fine Jason.”

Seven hundred thousand.”

Won’t give, huh?”

We can play this game as long as you want. I am not leaving here without the contents of that shed.”

There’s no way you’ll consider letting this go?”

Either bid up or shut up.”

So be it. You’ve brought this upon yourself.”

Going once, going twice…sold to the young man for seven hundred thousand dollars.”

And there it was, my chance to walk away from a future tainted with deceit and death. And yet the powerful force which undergirded me in my decision promised me something different—riches and fame were my reward not the death of a young woman.

“I need to go back,” I told Ed.

“Not going to happen Jason.”

His remark startled me. He had never been this forceful.

I balked. “You can’t keep me from going back.”

His body straightened as if preparing for a fight. “Jack wants you here.”

Even though my father was in jail, his arms reached as far as Colby Island.

Before I could continue, Ed said, “I won’t go against his wishes.”

I recognized the finality of his statements and turned to keep my disgust of Ed from revealing itself.

The deluge of anger and antipathy swelled; stopping it was no longer possible. Akin to feet anchored in hardened cement, I waited as the storm in its relentlessness hastened towards me.

Stifled breathing divulged the scope of my emotional slide. I took deep breaths to control my gasps for air but it only got worse. Unsure of what to do I tossed the paper and ran until I felt my lungs on the verge of implosion. I fell to the ground crying, pounding, and screaming into the sand.

You deserve everything that is happening to you.”

The apathetic voice inside me kept telling me what a terrible person I was and how my abysmal behavior had put the lives of people into jeopardy, and that I did not deserve to live. After a barrage of mind-blowing assaults from this unknown enemy, I agreed with its valuation. I deserved to die.

The idea of killing one’s self is different from the actual act because humans have this instinctive want to live and I was no different. I forced myself to sit on the beach and lay back on the sand and waited for the tide to roll towards me. My body stiffened when the waves began to splash against my face. I thought by erasing myself from the picture a new conclusion might right itself. In minutes the water covered my head. I fought hard not to move and held my breath.

“What are you doing?” Colby had sneaked upon me and grabbed my arm trying to pull me out of the water.

“Leave me alone,” I yelled jerking my arm back.

“Jason, we can get through this together if you just let me help you.”

“How Colby? A woman is dead because of me.”

“But you didn’t kill her.”

“I might as well have.”

“Jason, come back to the bungalow. I have dinner waiting.”

“No.”

She reached for me but I shoved her hand away. I got up on my own and stood facing her.

“Please come back with me Jason. I’m begging you.”

“Colby, leave me alone.”

“Jason, don’t do this to yourself.”

She moved towards me and put her arms around me. I pushed her way out of instinct. The force sent her to the ground. She sat dumfounded in the wet sand. Her face showed the same shock when I had proposed. She stood to her feet without my help or an apology.

“Jason, I can’t begin to understand what you’re going through but I know ending your life is not the answer.”

I heard the sincerity in her voice as she pleaded with me but it was too late to turn back now. With the dye cast, the darkness enveloped me ordering me forward. To carry out its demands, I needed to give Colby a final push.

“Let me help.”

I ignored her.

“Jason…”

“Colby, do I have to spell it out for you? I-D-O-N-O-T-W-A-N-T-Y-O-U-H-E-R-E. Now go!”

The words struck quicker than the deadliest viper. Her look of dismay told me I succeeded in hitting my mark. I was unprepared for the sudden wave of remorse that followed. I wanted to reach out and heal her pain. In one moment I hated her, she mirrored everything opposite me. In the following instant, I ached for her as a drowning victim to a lifeline. Discordant feelings disorganized my thinking. I assumed by following the prompt in my mind a measure of peace would return. The darkness toyed with me leaving me with feelings of betrayal and loneliness.

I ran from Colby leaving her to nurse the hurt unaided. When my legs tired, I propelled my body into the ocean making more splash than distance. Lactic acid burned inside my legs. My muscles ached. On arm strength alone, I swam out as far as I could manage. I looked back to see my distance from the beach. Too close. Adrenaline etched me farther into the deep. Muscles pleaded for rest. My heart rate reached its peak, and I swam no further. For a few seconds, I treaded water before sinking into the wet void.

At that precise moment my views on death changed. My body struggled, refusing to go in quiet. I fought with a depleted energy reservoir for ten maybe fifteen seconds and I knew I was going to die.

“Help,” I cried but only God and a scattering fish heard my final words.

I choked on saltwater and tasted it as it traveled to my lungs. Why was life now so important? Drowning was an awful way to die. I hated how the darkness had suckered me. I imagined Darkness standing on the shore cachinnating as another of his victims fell in defeat. No one could undo my inextricable mistake, yet I fought against him albeit in my mind. I realized too late my deadly mistake.

Final thoughts focused on Colby, my mom, Mr. Oswald, and at the end, my dad. My wish to have a friendship with him ended with my death. As the last seconds of life escaped my body so did my hopes and dreams. In consequence to my impetuousness, I died.

I have no way of knowing how much time passed but when I opened my eyes, it surprised me not to be in heaven or hell. Instead I was in the bungalow.

Later I learned Colby and Ed followed me and both dived into the ocean before I sank. Ed got to me first and pulled my body to shore Colby assisting him. Ed performed CPR on me until I breathed and regurgitated the water trapped in my lungs. They carried me back to the shack and put me on the bed.

Shock waves rose from my feet and traveled through my body as I tossed my legs over the side of the bed and touched the cool floor. I waited a few moments to gather my faculties before walking out of the bedroom into the lounge. Empty, thank God. A face to face with Colby equaled swimming with man-eating sharks.

In the fridge sat a plastic-wrapped plate of food. Last night’s dinner I assumed. It did not take long to devour the cold rice and stir-fry. After swallowing a bottle of water, I walked back into the bedroom and closed my eyes for a few more hours. While I slept the pain abated.

Violent shaking of my shoulders forced me to wake. I opened my eyes. Colby stood there staring at me. Now the shame I avoided by sleeping surfaced making me turn away. She sat on the bed and began to hum. I recognized the tune as one of the compositions I had written ten months ago. The song Don’t Give Up was a song in respect to a dreamer who was being faced with difficulties beyond his control. He had the choice of turning away and discovering another dream or persevering to see his present dream through to fruition. Of course in the song he makes the right choice. All is well that ends well. Why she had chosen that song was self-explanatory. My options were to lie there and play comatose or face Colby.

Ed was outside when I entered. I sat on the couch opposite of Colby. She was reading Moby Dick. The moment breathed awkwardness. Colby closed the book and placed it by her side.

“Are you okay?” she asked turning to eyeball me.

I mumbled my response. “I think so.”

“Do you want to talk?”

I considered the topic of conversation and took the easy way out.

“No.”

“Okay.” Colby reached over and picked up the book and opened it to the saved page and read. I grunted. My aggravation must have shown because this time she snapped the book shut and tossed it onto the coffee table. It landed with a firecracker bang. “I asked you if you wanted to talk. You said, ‘no.’” Replacing the softness of her voice was a harsh more exacting tone.

“Are you mad?”

“What the heck were you thinking Jason Drayper? Did you give any consideration how killing yourself might affect me?”

I assume that was a yes.

“I was trying to protect you.”

“Well thank you very much.”

“I do not expect you to understand.”

“I understand you were looking for an easy way out?”

“You think killing myself was easy? That is not fair.”

“What’s not fair Jason is the selfishness you’ve allowed to absorb you. You’ve thrown away everything once important to you because life hasn’t gone the way you wanted. That makes no sense. How was your death going to help your parents or my parents? It certainly wasn’t going to bring Yvonne Cymbal back to life.”

That was her name, Yvonne Cymbal. Without my control, the image of the blonde woman played through the reel of my mind. Unable to shake it I closed my eyes. This made the cinematography more vivid. I needed air and walked towards the door.

“Jason, you walk out that door I’m not going to follow you this time.”

I kept walking.

“You can take this ring with you.”

I turned to see her holding the platinum band in between her fingers. The image of Yvonne Cymbal advanced from screen to screen overruling Colby’s threat. I walked out the door and seconds later heard the ring clang against the wall behind me. I reentered the bungalow locating the sparling band.

“Fine, if that is the way you want it, forget you and forget the marriage,” I said as I picked up the ring.

I slammed the door behind me and ran. In a fit of rage, I threw it into the unsympathetic ocean. It swallowed the ring without a gesture of appreciation. Out of breath, and overcome with sorrow, I fell to my knees and for the first time I can remember I yelled out to God criticizing Him for my screwed up miserable existence. Did my pitiful life not fall within his purview of concern?

If I had been born into another family, this quagmire of confusion… And then the blame game started. Had my dad loved me…had Mom been more honest…if only God had prevented this in the first place. I wanted to curse the triad, but resisted the urge. Something inside of me still yearned for legitimate peace and happiness, not the counterfeit the darkness had charmed me with so easily.

The reels in my mind changed and now I saw individual frames of Colby. Instead of her fun-loving smile and sweet disposition, she appeared to have bathed in anger. She was right of course. I ignored her feelings and those closest to me when I sought to end my life.

Perhaps it was the way the sun infiltrated my eyes or the grains of sand the wind swirled towards me which settled underneath my eyelids. Whatever the reason I was in tears. As I stepped forward, I tripped falling to my knees. I was in the classic position of repentance. I balled. Instead of blaming God this time I asked Him to forgive me for the mistakes caused by my actions. I waited in the sand, my spirit broken, to experience forgiveness, but nothing happened. I stood disappointed.

As the sand trudged under my feet, the images of Yvonne ceased their incursion and my mind cleared. I felt the equalization of my breathing and purpose return. I fell to my knees again this time on purpose.

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

 

Walking the plank might have been easier than a face to face with Colby and Ed.

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

My choice to stop living, however imprudent, wrested chunks of emotion from my two visitors. Their sorrow, fears, anger, disbelief brought to the surface because of me. No longer was I the only person hurting and living this nightmare.

As the sun descended a line of a song generations old took hold of my thoughts. The sun will come out tomorrow. The red-hair freckled-faced little girl who sang those words had no clue of the factual hurt and misery in the world. It was a musical for Pete’s sake, and yet I considered my rash judgment to measure the degree of a person’s pain against mine. Pain was pain, and no matter its severity people it affected others. Colby hated me. No telling Ed’s feelings on my insensibility.

My emotional quotient over the past twenty-four hours swung pendulumlike from desperate to die to longing to live. Bet your bottom dollar that tomorrow they’ll be sun. Though the sky above abandoned me to the darkness, I was not weakened by the sun’s absence since the song guaranteed its return.

This out-of-the-blue revelation energized me. I needed to figure out a way to fix the brokenness of my life. For months I had been adrift, and in this moment I wanted, I needed clarity and direction. That was a lie. As far back as I could remember my life spun like a top: fast and furious but powerless to plot its path. Manifold issues with my dad and mom kept the top spinning. Time to take control of my life.

For the next two hours I dreamed, strategized, and plotted how to fix my life. No simple feat. I recognized three avenues of pursuit and each needed the help of Ed and Marty and a presumptuous dose of God’s forgiveness. I reached the door of the bungalow and placed my hand on the doorpost inhaling the warm island air before pushing it open. Colby and Ed looked up as I entered. Neither vocalized surprise. Their faces betrayed them. A full plate of food sat at the empty seat.

“I’ve got work to do on the plane,” said Ed as he stood. He looked beat.

“Ed, please stay.” He smiled weakly and sat with his hands folded. “I need to apologize. I am grateful the two of you were alert enough last night not to trust me on my own. You saved my life and I will always be indebted to you both. I have been doing a lot of thinking. I cannot change what happened to Yvonne Cymbal, but there are some things I can change. One is not allowing my parents to suffer for something that is my fault.

“I understand you’re close with my father and don’t want to betray his confidence. Believe it or not, I’ve found a way to do what I need to without compromising your relationship with my dad.”

Ed’s ears perked up. “What do you have in mind?”

“Ed, do you have a map of North America?”

“Yeah, in the plane,” he said color returning to his face. I’ll be right back.”

When Ed left the bungalow so did the air in the room. I considered walking over to Colby, but she shot me a look that said, ‘stay back.’

“Colby, I am sorry.”

“For the moment.”

It was a low blow. I deserved it.

“Please do not give up on me.”

“It’s too late for that.”

She sat on the couch with her arms folded and her hands balled into fists. The wall between us stood tall and as threatening as a trust test. When Ed moseyed back in, I moved the plate aside and unfolded the massive map. I needed to see what non-USA land masses existed between St. Thomas and Florida. The best place to enter Florida came from the Atlantic side. I grabbed an impermanent felt marker Ed brought with him and circled the Bimini Islands and St. Thomas. I drew a line between the two.

“This is where we need to enter,” I exclaimed reinforcing my point by stabbing the map with my index finger. Ed sidled next to me.

“What are you thinking?” he asked his voice a whisper.

“Not now,” I whispered back. “I will tell you later.”

“What’s going on?” asked Colby coming to life.

“My return to Florida. I am going to turn myself in to the authorities.”

Later, after Colby retired for the evening, Ed and I went for a walk on the beach. The moon was full and bright lighting our path. To talk we needed to be out of ear shot of Colby.

“I need you to fly me to Port Royal or Bailey Town. My contact Marty can help me get into the U.S. from there.” Ed’s eyes widened in the moonlight at the mention of Marty. “You know him?” I stated.

“Very well,” Ed replied, then interjected, “I have a contact that could take you by boat and then underwater into Miami. Once you’re on U.S. soil, you’ll have to watch your back. You’re the most sought after man in America.”

“I have that covered. A disguise similar to the one I used in the Bahamas will keep me from getting arrested in the short-term.”

“Now what exactly is your plan? You don’t need a flight to Bimini if your plan is to give yourself up.” His smile warmed me his spirit more so.

“Not yet Ed. I need the use of the internet first. And in order to get access I will need you to fly me to your place.”

“And what about Colby?” he asked.

“Colby will stay here out of harm’s way.”

“You can’t do that to her Jason.”

“Ed, are you saying I should take her back?”

“No but you can’t leave her hear on her own. She’s not wired that way. Colby needs others around her to survive. Jason, you and I embrace the isolation. It’ll kill her to stay here.”

“Then what do you suggest?”

He rubbed his chin as if considering numerous options.

“We take her to my place, I fly you to Bimini Island, and I come back and watch over Colby.”

It was a plan and I needed Colby out of my hair so I went with it.

Back at the Bungalow, flipped on the light switches and banged on Colby’s door. She opened a few seconds later.

“Jason, what’s wrong?”

“Pack your stuff, we’re leaving.”

When I’m stuck with a day, that’s grey and lonely; I just stick up my chin and grin and say…

If the sun did indeed return tomorrow, I doubted the elimination of cobwebs and sorrow.

Twenty minutes later the three of us soared above the ocean headed for St. Thomas. Ed flew by instruments only. When we arrived, we went straight to Ed’s place. Antisocial Colby made her excuses and disappeared into one of the guestrooms. The hurt written on her face was impossible to miss. I understood the metaphor regarding two ships going in opposite directions. My eyes watered and I stood to follow.

“Let her be Jason,” said Ed. “She’s a might hurt right now. Nothing you can say or do is going to change that.” His words stung. “Give her time. She’ll come around. I’m no fortuneteller, but on the island she spoke of you with great fondness.” His words melted into my pours giving me my first ray of hope in days.

“Now down to business. If you aren’t going to Florida to give yourself up, what are planning to do in Miami?”

“My return to Florida is twofold: First, I question Dexmyer Junior. I am betting he’s the one responsible for killing Yvonne Cymbal.”

“And if he did kill her?” Ed asked.

“I kill him. Second, I break my parents out of prison,” Ed said nothing. “You think I am making a mistake?” I asked him.

“Taking the life of a creature made in God’s image is no easy matter even if he is the scum of the earth. It’s something that stays with you forever.” I considered his words. “When a person takes the law into their own hands and becomes judge and jury, it’s not long till they become a law unto themselves.”

“What are you saying Ed?” I asked as confusion settled into my spirit, and he prepared to squash my plan.

“You’re an adult Jason,” I was still a month from turning seventeen, “and I won’t tell you what to do.”

As he spoke I got the feeling he preferred I not take this course of action.

I wanted to pout.

“Do you think breaking my parents out of jail is just as ill-advised?”

“It’s not for me to say Jason. Your disdain for Jack and Madeline is headline news. The message you left your father did not pull any punches what you would do if you saw him again. Why not leave them there to figure it out on their own?”

Ed made sense. I hated my dad. A face to face with my dad ended with one of us down for the count. After my encounters with the men at the compound, I came to believe my skills could match my dad’s blow for blow. He was right about me not taking advantage. I viewed our fights as the only way for us to connect. My reason for holding back stemmed from my belief if I did take advantage, it might end any contact I had with him. That is exactly what happened after our short fight on Interstate 95, I had not seen but once when he came to the Bahamas for Colby’s birthday.

Now with no relationship with my dad something inside me did change. And that advantage or killer instinct I squashed for years had emerged as nonintrusive as summer supplants spring. I feared what it could do to me on the island and tried to kill it by killing myself.

“Your dad,” said Ed breaking into my thoughts, “doesn’t want you to put your life in jeopardy. He would rather suffer than see you hurt.”

The words were as empty as a stuffed animal, filling with no substance.

“The only thing my dad cared about was money Ed. You never saw him at home. He never made time for me. The things that fathers and sons are famous for doing together we never did.” The emotion was fresher than a new cut. “And to top that off…” I caught myself. “This stays between us right?”

“Of course.”

“Never once can I remember him ever touching me. They have done studies with children who have little physical touch. If the percentages are right, few if any turn out well.”

While I spoke, Ed was thinking. I could not read his mind—something hidden he would not or could not divulge.

“Just because you can’t remember doesn’t mean those moments didn’t happen.”

What a weird thing to say. I remembered proposing to Colby. I remembered the beatings in the ring. I remembered being introduced to jazz for the first time. I remembered beating up three seniors who wanted to extort money from me. I remembered a whole lot. Nonexistent were those other memories. I assumed their absence meant they never happened.

“You know your father loves you,” he said out of blue.

I hid my bewilderment.

“Now you sound like my mom.”

“I’m sure Jack never told you this. He and I were in the military together.”

“My dad was in the military?” This new information stalled my thinking and every circuit temporarily shut down. My only recourse was to archive it in an empty compartment in my mind and revisit it at a later date once the system rebooted.

“He and I were in the Navy, both of us seals.”

The surprise appropriated my face. That explained the ferocious beatings. None of this altered my position or my feeling about him.

“Thanks Ed, I know what you are doing. Please do not make excuses for my dad. He was never there for me when I needed him. To him love was something to duck and weave around which way he did extremely well. Whatever my sins, he refused to show me forgiveness, kindness or warmth. Years of his dislike and distance placed us on opposite sides of the fence. My parents lied. They kept secrets. I can never trust them.”

“Jason, I know you’ve hostility towards your parents. You’ve every right. I’m not here to excuse their behavior. I will say, supposition without corroboration leads to indisposition.” He paused to take a breath making me think the next words to come out of his mouth had the potential of changing my feelings. “Your dad and I were on a mission in Indonesia when a team of local guerrillas captured us. They tortured us for weeks before rescue came. If it weren’t for your dad, I might never have made it. He saved my life more than once.”

So,” I wanted to say out loud.

Ed stood up and unbuttoned his shirt and removed it from his muscular body. As he turned a hundred and eighty degrees, I saw the stripes and gashes marking his body. His back rippled from gouges made by a whip. I gasped in quiet at the horrid sight. After he put his shirt back on, he let me digest the dyad of verbal and visual information.

“What does my dad do?” I asked Ed.

“Jason I can’t tell you that, but I’ll answer what I can.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. I tried to think of a single question. Somewhere in eons past thousands of questions lived on the surface of my thinking. The images of my dad suffering stayed with me. It might explain part of his behavior but it did not make clear its entirety.

“Is my dad’s body as torn as yours?”

“Worse.”

My dad always dressed in a suit. I surfed through my neural net and realized I had never seen my dad in shorts or a tee-shirt and never swim trunks. I shuddered to think how much worse his body could be.

“Why does he go away so often?”

“Your dad is the best at what he does and because of his great skills he is in high demand.”

“Has my dad ever killed anyone?”

“Yes.”

“More than one?”

“Yes.”

“Do my mom and dad work together?”

“Yes.”

The threads of my life’s tapestry were unraveling at an expeditious speed while in concert weaving an original pattern that broke new ground on my familial history. A time when my emotions enjoyed inactivity loomed in the background.

“Why is my dad so hard on me?”

“You never did meet your grandfather Drayper.”

Was he awaiting my answer? When he continued, I realized the preface to his following words.

“Grandpa Drayper was in the military and fought in Nam. The anger of the American people, those who believed the U.S. should have never entered the war, exploded as our soldiers returned home. They lined the streets in protest with signs and jeers of hatred. Many an American spit on Grandpa Drayper. These were the people he’d gone to war to protect, and now upon his return they saw him and the military as the enemy. He never recovered from their treatment and became an intolerable man following the war.

“Annabelle his first wife left him after only six months. He married less than four months later to another woman named Vanessa. She got pregnant within the first year and your dad was born soon afterward. But there were complications during the delivery and your grandma, God rest her soul, died.” Ed made the sign of the crucifix; forehead, heart, left shoulder, right shoulder. “Your grandfather became a recluse after her death. However, he did have the presence of mind to hire several live-in nannies. When Jack, your dad, was thirteen he saw his father for the first and only time. It was on Jack’s birthday. Your grandfather gave him thirteen million dollars. The money came from his father before him. He told Jack to spend the money as he liked as long as he used his father’s team of advisors.”

This could not be my dad’s story because it was a mirror of my existence.

“Grandpa Drayper died a few days later. Not once during the entire thirteen years did your father receive a kiss on the cheek, a warm pat on the back or hear the words ‘I love you’ from his father.”

A sudden bout of uneasiness and I shifted my numb cheeks. Everything was a little too real. Ed saw my discomfort.

“I know the inflammation my words may cause. I can stop…”

“No Ed,” I said curious to hear more.

“Your father vowed if he ever got married and had children he would do things in a different manner.”

The words did not ring true, and I needed to pace before it became too much for me. A cool breeze rose off the ocean pushing the curtains open and inviting me to take a look. I obliged and walked to the edge of the balcony grasping the railing. The impromptu composition orchestrated by the robust breezes and the macrocosm of marine and wildlife cheered as the moonlight and waves intertwined into an intimate pas de deux that projected to continue long into the evening.

Ed strolled over placing his hands next to mine. “You okay?”

The extended pause did not dissuade either of us from continuing to stand and gaze far into the darkness

“If what you say is true,” I said, “Why is my dad so unapproachable? Explain his reasoning for alienating me…?” I paused as years of emotion welled within me.

“Especially when he made a vow to parent better than his father?” I nodded. “There are no easy answers Jason. Let me tell you a story that may help you understand better. Your father and I were on vacation in Seoul, Korea. This is before you came along and before he met Madeline. We had spent a month there and were planning on extending our furlough for another month or two. The family that we stayed with had a young boy the age of six. Your father took a liking to Dae-Jung right away and the two of them became inseparable. Where your dad went, Dae-Jung was right by his side.” Ed smiled. I watched it fade in front of me.

“One day, marauding soldiers attacked the family hosting us. Jack raced to retrieve Dae-Jung, just as he entered the room a gunman from outside fired through the window killing Dae-Jung. Jack leaped through the shattered window and tackled the gunman to the ground. He whaled at him with both hands until I had to tackle your dad to get him to stop. The death of Dae-Jung was too great for your dad to handle. He vowed right then in front of me never to get married and have children.

“Life’s full of rash decisions and promises we never intend to keep.” For the first time since our discussion, Ed flashed a smile. “He fell in love with Madeline the first time he laid eyes on her. She was good for him in a lot of ways. Then you came along,” He paused, the smile no longer present. “Now Jason I’m not a psychologist but just maybe there’s a reason for the distance between you two. I’m not saying it’s right. Sometimes complications simplify themselves in the light of…”

“… information and understanding,” I said. “I never wanted anything more than that.”

As I pondered Ed’s words, the tapestry took shape. Appreciation of this new information registered in my mind as insufficient data. Years of pain and hurt could not be erased in a single conversation no matter what Ed shared. Nothing in life was that simple. There had to be a more profound reason for my dad’s inharmonious behavior. Yet in those brief seconds, and without my permission, my hardened heart inaugurated a softening. Total forgiveness meant letting go of everything I knew. That would never happen.

“My parents are not drug dealers or killers are they Ed?” I half-expected shock or a genuine look of surprise or deep gaze exclaiming the truth. Ed’s face remained impassive, making me wonder if maybe I had struck gold on my assessment of their career choices.

Ed’s aim to steer me away from my assessment reeked of flagrancy.

“My God, no Jason. How could you think such a thing?” May I ask what led you to that conclusion?” Ed asked flabbergasted at my comment.

I shared with him the clues I found at home: the cases of cell phones, the multiple trips to Mexico, the dropped conversations, and the black and white photographs circled in black with a few xed with red. Ed’s gaiety looked out of place.

“I don’t mean to laugh Jason but I have to ask is this the bulk of your vexation with Jack and Madeline?”

My face reddened as I nodded in affirmation. “A large part,” I replied.

“Let me allay your fears Jason. Jack and Madeline are serious health nuts. They won’t even take aspirin for a headache. No way are they dealing drugs.” He never blinked as he spoke in a monotone reminding me of someone regurgitating information by rote.

Even with Ed’s clarification which I assumed sprinkled with a smattering of grey untruths and outright lies, I felt right back where I started.

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 

I weighed Ed’s disingenuous comments and pushed harder for answers, since he appeared willing to divulge first-hand information.

“You’re lying to me,” I said with the calmness of a Tibetan monk.

Within seconds his non-reaction unleashed inside me a lava-flow of irritation which I directed at the him.

As a former prisoner of war, Ed had endured the worst and survived. Coupled with the exhaustive training he received as a Navy Seal, my chances at getting him to volunteer information unaware bordered on impossible to not a snowball’s chance. This did not dissuade me from trying.

“You said my parents were not involved with the drug trade.”

“That’s right.”

“Yet your carefully worded response fell short of answering the second part of my question.”

“Which was?”

“Come on Ed, isn’t the time for games and non-disclosure past due?”

“Jason, you want something from me I can’t give you.”

“Ed, lies, deceits, and half-truths is what I know of my parents. You told me more than anyone has and I am grateful, but even a greenhorn can tell when someone is holding back bits and pieces. What my parents consider as camouflaged truth no longer works for me.”

My voice hovered around loud. Ed lost none of his cool. He left and returned a few moments later lugging a large crate.

“What is this stuff?” I asked perplexed at the bulk.

“I won’t go against your dad’s wishes. Painted against the backdrop of what you are considering, you have bigger problems than your parents. If you are going to kill Dexmyer and break your parents out of jail, you’ll need more than good thoughts and wishes. I may be able offer you guidance.”

“I have a plan,” I replied my voice deliberate and brusque as I spoke, revealing youthful ineptitude.

“To escape authorities and police?”

Ed’s statement leveled reality in my face cutting through my protestations.

“Look in the box,” Ed replied, but his expression exuded no satisfaction.

“What’s in it,” I asked?

“Open it,” he said again mysteriousness riding his voice.

I took the crow bar from his hands and jabbed it into the crevice and pulled back. Nails squeaked, and fragments of splintered wood fell to the floor. I removed the cover and placed it against the wall. The box contained items that on the surface revealed no connection. The first item I pulled out was a simple cane. It stretched thirty-four inches in length and curved at the handle. Deceptive in its weight, I twirled it in my hands feeling the smooth texture of wood wondering its intended utility in helping with my parent’s retrieval. Ed reached over and squeezed the handle twice. The bottom part of the cane slid up until it was only eight inches in length.

“A lever underneath adjusts the length.” He turned it over showing me a brass clasp. “The handle is pressure sensitive. Squeeze it once and it will fire a twenty-two caliber bullet. Contained in the chamber are three bullets. You see, the black line on the top?” He waited for me to respond.

“I see it.”

“Use this as the sight.”

“Accuracy?”

“Textbook perfect.”

For a second time I held the gun. It fit into my hand as if it had been designed for me alone. A bright flash exploded in my mind. The accompanying image was of me shooting at a range. Next to me on a long table were dozens of guns: revolvers, semi-automatics, automatics and assault rifles. In my flashback, I fired each of the guns exhibiting perfect accuracy. Then the image disappeared like wheat in a plague of locusts.

“The bullets,” he emphasized, “are special made. Once you fire the third bullet, you render the gun’s use ineffective.”

“Why are you showing me this?” I asked.

“Because Jason, I have a code, and that won’t allow me to send a greenhorn into the field of battle unprotected and unprepared.”

I reached into the box and retrieved a book. I inspected it concentrating on the thin strip of white plastic comprising the binding.

“C4,” I commented uncertain how I arrived at my conclusion.

“That’s right,” said Ed. The upturn of his lips did not escape my observation.

“I guessed.”

“It’s more than that.” He stopped, and I realized he let slip something important.

Without allowing me interrupt, or ponder further, he pulled out an expensive looking watch and clamped it on my left wrist. Two colored raised buttons, red and blue, sat near the wrist.

“The blue button arms the explosive. The red button initiates the countdown. You will have fifteen seconds to get away once you activate the timer.”

“What is the range?” A natural follow-up question I thought. Ed seemed pleased at my acuity

“Fifty yards.”

“And the blast radius?”

Another satisfied look.

“Small, the C4 is more of a decoy, a distraction to allow you to escape. It’ll cause lots of smoke. But don’t get me wrong it’s an explosive and the potential for bodily harm is present.”

I inspected the timepiece. “No way to deactivate it once it’s set.”

“That’s right.”

His satisfied guise reminded me of a proud teacher. And yet slipped from my memory was a history that prepared me for such a moment. Ed saw the query in my eyes.

“Problem Jason?”

“I have familiarity with the items in this box suggesting previous training.” Once the statement left my lips, I realized it made no sense. How does someone with careful training lose total memory of his past?

At Ed’s side sat a dark backpack. As we sifted through the box’s contents, I put each item into my pack and lockable duffel.

“These,” he said showing me a container of colored pellets, “are going to be your best friend. I’d encourage you to keep them in a spot where you can access them at a moment’s notice. Throw them onto the ground and they will rupture into a green gas that will incapacitate anyone within a fifteen-foot radius. It’s harsher than teargas and will cause the person to experience severe eye burning and choking and will incapacitate them long enough for you to get away. Whatever you do, don’t inhale.”

He reached into the crate and pulled out two sets of glasses with a nose attached to it. It reminded me of a Groucho Marx mask.

He ignored my smirk. “Trust me you’ll want to be wearing one.”

“Do you have more?” I asked.

“How many people are part of this soiree?”

“Three.”

Ed stood and returned with another pair of Groucho glasses and a single pair of shoes. “What’s this?”

“We’ll get to that in a second.” Ed took out three thin square black cushion looking devices. “If you find yourself up high and in need of a quick exit, these parachute packs will help you get to the ground quick and safe. It will hold up to two hundred and fifty pounds of weight.” He handed them to me. “You have one sewn into the fabric of your backpack. The packs are sensor activated and will open upon descent.”

Now Ed focused on the three sets of shoes. “The black pair will fit Jack, the blue Madeline, and the white pair is expandable. Underneath the shoes are wheels the same kind you find on roller skates. On the back of the shoe is a tiny jet pack which allows the skate to travel up to fifty-five miles an hour for no more than fifteen seconds. Once you activate the jetpack, the shoes become useless,” Ed offered.

I picked up a bottle of water. At further inspection, I noticed two separate liquids inside the container. A firm squeeze united the liquids to form an agent that ate through any substance including solid steel. I could use the substance as many times as possible over a ten-minute period before it became nothing more than non-potable liquid.

The fourth to last remaining device in the box was a simple innocent-looking credit card.

“This will open any electronic lock. I placed it in the backpack.”

A silver emblem the size of a fifty cent piece grabbed my attention. Crafted into the middle of the symbol, was a blue stone. When pushed it activated any alarms within a fifty-yard radius.

Ed tossed me the third to last item. A pair of bolt cutters the size of a pair of large scissors could cut through metal with ease. The last two items were disguised within a similar looking cane. I lifted them.

“Grappler hooks,” I said matter of fact. The canes contained two hundred feet of wire. The small but powerful motor lifted at ten feet per second. Ed left and returned with a thick envelope containing twenty thousand dollars and credit cards. There were driver licenses for me from varying states. Photographs to be added by Ed in the morning. If checked by authorities, Ed assured me they linked to the DMV’s database in their respective states.

Now that the crate was empty, Ed and I stared at one another.

“More is going on here than I comprehend Ed. As I said, I have an unconscious familiarity with these items. Thank you for showing them to me whatever your reasons. Though I am resolute in my wish to rescue them, my ineptness may have made things worse. Again thank you.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Ed,” I asked, “I have one more question.” He waited. “Can you go over this plan with me to eliminate any gaping holes?”

“I can.

I laughed. “Will you?”

“I’d thought you never ask.”

We talked well into the morning.

Colby was up before either Ed or myself. She sat on the crate next to the backpack and locked duffel bag.

“What is this stuff?”

No good morning?

“I told you Colby, I am going to Miami.”

“To give yourself up, isn’t that what you said?”

“Yes, my parents are suffering for something of my doing. I do not want them in jail any longer than necessary. We discussed this on the island.”

“And when are you planning to leave?”

“Early tomorrow morning.”

“Right.”

Colby’s question resembled an interrogation more than a wish to foster conversation. She patted the crate.

“And this stuff?”

“Ed’s flying me to Miami. Just gear he needs for the plane.”

“I see,” Colby said.

Throughout the entire conversation she never once lost her composure or raised her voice. The understanding Colby was back.

“Would you like breakfast?” I asked.

“Are you sure you have time?”

Then I heard it. The biting tone that said she was far from placid.

I swallowed hard. “Is everything okay?”

She smiled from ear to ear reminding me of the villainous Dastardly and Muttley.

“Well if you’re so concerned about your parents and can’t wait to turn yourself in, why worry yourself over cooking me breakfast or waiting an entire day to fly to Miami?”

She had a point.

“Now do you want to tell me the truth?”

After breakfast, Colby and I went into town and bought various disguises. Though I was one of America’s Most Wanted, an elderly man could evade the stringent surveillance. Coupled with a same-age old woman meant complete anonymity. We purchased makeup to transform ourselves. Ed took our pictures and completed our identifications.

Colby demanded to go and Ed could see no reason for her not to considering the team of support we were to receive. What I lied to Colby about were my reasons for going to Miami. I told her I wanted to visit them and discuss what my next step should be. She bought the story, but the wall erected between us maintained a twenty-four seven perimeter.

The rest of the day I reviewed the plans and shored up loose ends. I conversed with Marty whose team of specialists were at the ready. Midnight arrived; I pulled Ed aside.

“Ed, on the island…”

He waved his hand breaking the air and the tension I believed still stood between us. “Jason, you don’t…”

“…It was stupid; I know that now.”

“You had a moment of weakness. Every one of us has to face it. The point is you’ve learned how to move forward. I’ll never mention it.”

“I wish Colby could be as understanding.”

“She’ll come around. Just …”

“I know Ed, give her time.”

“We need to grab some shut eye. We have an early start tomorrow.”

“Ed, thanks again for everything.”

“Don’t mention it Jason. I only wish I could do more.”

“You have done more than enough. You are a trusted friend.”

I could see moisture starting to appear in his eyes and not wanting to embarrass him further I said a quick good night and headed to my room. We were in the air by six o’clock. We landed on a private airstrip not far from Bailey Town. Ancelmo, Ed’s friend, met us. After saying our goodbyes to Ed, Ancelmo drove us to the ocean where we equipped ourselves with wet suits. We stored our gear in large waterproof bags and loaded them onto Ancelmo’s oversized speed boat.

When we were three miles out, he slowed and the middle of the boat slid back entrancing me with the blue sea below us. Colby and I put on our scuba gear and tied the plastic bags around our ankles. We entered the water and waited for Ancelmo to join us. He led us to a spot where another scuba diver waited with three under water crafts in his possession. Several large fish and sharks passed alert to our presence.

Another diver approached us and took control of the underwater crafts. We entered through the false bottom of our transportation to Miami. This yacht stretched seventy feet from bow to stern. We removed our gear and were escorted to a room where we donned our disguises transforming ourselves into senior adults.

The trip to Miami took a half hour. I ventured outside the cabin during the jaunt. The breathtaking view of the Miami coast held no appeal for Colby who stayed in the room having lost any yearnings to communicate. I left her to disentangle her thoughts and feelings.

The forecast for the next several days called for intermittent periods of rain coupled with fierce lightning storms. I embarked upon a personal storm of my own. Small waves helped to usher the yacht forward. As we approached the eastern coast of Florida’s most popular city I had an eerie feeling I would not see an ocean again for a long time.

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

 

Colby and I stayed at a hotel in Fontainebleau not far from Miami. I sent Marty a text asking for Dexmyer Junior’s location. He replied in prompt order and informed me Dexmyer stayed on twentieth floor of the Promenade Hotel. My plan included breaking my parents out of prison and taking out Dexmyer. With him in the same city as my parents, I took it as a good sign. Marty provided me one of his best transporters.

Need vehicle with an open back. Quick exit possible.”

I forwarded him the details and time.

Understood. Good luck Jason.”

Tx M.”

I ran my finger across my droid and touched the red off button, removed the battery and sim card and flushed them in the toilet. Colby and I stayed in our rooms the remainder of the day politely ignoring each other. Around four o’clock I called a cab to take us to downtown Miami. The driver stopped two blocks away from the hotel. The black truck was in plain view. Wafts of exhaust lifted from the tailpipe and disappeared into the Miami cityscape.

“Colby, I need you to listen to me and please refrain from asking questions.” She gave me a glaring look but said nothing. “Do you see that black pickup?”

I pointed. She nodded.

“I want you to go to the truck, open the passenger’s door, get inside, shut the door, and wait for me. I will join you in ten or fifteen minutes.”

She exited the car without a word. Darkness loomed in the heavens preparing my cover of escape. The driver dropped me off at the hotel. I exited the cab with my backpack and cane. I walked into the massive lobby and approached the nearest elevator overlooking the water features and artwork on display.

While alone on the elevator I contemplated my next action. On the island, the thought of taking out Dexmyer settled on me without peril. The man was evil and needed eliminating. He killed Yvonne, an innocent woman, and had targeted those closest to me coming close to killing Colby’s father. Yet Ed’s words reverberated in my mind, and I knew taking a life cemented something in me I might not be able to return from. The opposing thoughts battled until the bell on the elevator sounded. I made my decision.

Outside the elevator, a brass plaque indicated the direction of Dexmyer’s room. From what Marty told me, Dexmyer had no security with him. I knew he carried a piece and vowed vigilance. I prayed for a simple killing as I walked towards his door.

Ed’s words and the later images that floated through my mind since our conversation hung out for the next few moments. I was an excellent marksman. No one told me that, yet I knew it to be true. My hand-to-hand skills were superior. This came from the constant battles with my dad.

Back in Pennsylvania I incapacitated two guards and commanded the help of the pilot to aid in my escape. Martial arts I knew. Mastery at parachuting without prior instructions was as exhilarating as watching the sun rise on the beach. Maybe I jumped many times before though I stalled at recalling a memory.

Above everything else, this plan to take out Dexmyer and break my parents out of jail stemmed from somewhere deep within me. I needed to do this. Who in their right mind concocts such an abstruse plan? Only one answer surfaced—an extensively trained operative. I tabled the thought making my mind quiet as I approached the room.

I stood outside the door and listened. It sounded as if Dexmyer was watching television.

“God, please forgive me for murder.”

My fruitless prayer choked in my throat. Could I conjure upon God’s forgiveness before consummating the sinful act? Plus, if I knew my actions were wrong, what good was asking God to forgive me? It stunned the mind to think I, Jason Drayper, was going to murder a man. This was a cardinal sin in God’s book. It was one of the Big Ten: Thou Shalt Not Kill. I stopped the fruitless debating. My mind was made up.

The television blared a close scoring basketball game. I waved the card in front of the lock and rushed in before Dexmyer reacted. The pulled backed curtains revealed a magnificent view of Miami’s cityscape. Dexmyer’s lay in the bed wearing jeans and a tee-shirt his gun on the table fifteen feet from where he reclined. His focus changed from the game to me. He sat up and swung his legs to the side of the bed putting himself closer to his weapon. He stood.

“Sit,” I said.

He started to make a move when my cane shrunk in front of him. His feet froze in place as he watched me point the shortened walking stick at his chest.

“I don’t owe you money do I,” he asked?

“I am here on a different matter.”

“And what’s that?”

It took all my restraint not to shoot him right away, but there was vital info I needed to get from him first. Dexmyer’s eyes darted back from me to the gun. When he moved for the piece, I squeezed the handle of the cane and a bullet shot out of the cane with a whizzing bang shattering the mirror on the wall behind him. Dexmyer sat his deportment unruffled. I watched as the sparks sizzled on the wall. I focused back on Dexmyer.

“You killed Yvonne Cymbal.”

“Who?”

“You strangled her to death. Tell me why.”

“Why should I tell you anything?”

I was not a newcomer to guns. That fact was obvious to me as I sat with Ed. A memory of me on the range stifled my breathing. I remembered learning and shooting. How had that memory been squashed?

My composure intact, I aimed at Dexmyer’s lap and lowered the disguised piece by two inches and shot a second time. It landed between his legs. Again the lightshow of scorching electrical wires and fiery sparks startled me. The bullets in my gun were not for killing. They were Taser bullets. Ed’s furtive involvement into my plan, I realized, kept me from murdering a man in cold blood. If I shot Dexmyer point blank, the worst that might happen is a massive electrical charge to his chest with a potential to cause cardiac arrhythmia pending his health.

“Okay, okay,” he said drawing his legs towards his body. I killed her so what?”

“She was a witness to another crime.”

“What crime is that?”

“Those fabricated pictures that showed up in the newspaper.”

It took Dexmyer a second as he put the pieces of the conversation together.

“Drayper,” he said without any pretense of sorrow or remorse. “I didn’t recognize you.” He smiled for a moment. “And I didn’t kill Yvonne, you did. Every paper in the country says so and every cop in the country is looking for you. Good luck beating that rap.” He laughed, and I moved the gun back towards him aiming at his head. He stopped talking. “Yvonne had a change of heart. When the media ran with the pictures of you both she told me it wasn’t fair what I’d done to you. She wanted to save your life Drayper. I couldn’t let that happen and so I killed her.”

My hands shook at the realization of his merciless attitude. He and I were nothing alike. Ed knew that and protected me from committing an unspeakable crime. I let go the breath I had been holding and eased the gun to my side.

“I bet her death disappointed your father.”

“That’s an understatement. I told him she was going to talk. He said I should have spoken with him first. Then I got this brilliant idea and told him if he paid me half of what he was going to get from you I’d keep my mouth closed.”

“You extorted your own father?”

He said nothing.

I shook my head in amazement and thought my eyes were going funny when I saw two red dots jiggle across Dexmyer’s chest. When one settled onto his heart and the other on his forehead I knew. Dexmyer saw my widened eyes and stared at his chest.

“Dad?” He questioned and went for his gun. I leaped at Dexmyer needing to save his life. He could testify against his father and prove my innocence. Before I landed on the bed, two shots pierced through the window killing him instantly. I rolled on top of him soiling my clothes with his blood. No need to check for a pulse with the amount blood and brain spatter. I rolled off the side of the bed vomiting. Did the snipers want me eliminated?

I slinked to the side of window on hands and knees until able to appear across the street. No telling which window the shot came from. Police sirens blared below on the street. Intensive pounding on Dexmyer’s door flooded my racing heart.

“This is the Miami Dade Police. Open up.”

The shots occurred less than thirty seconds ago and had come from silenced rifles. For the police to have arrived this fast suggested a sniper twofer. They called it in before killing Dexmyer. How economical, I thought.

Caught in the room with a dead man did not necessarily implicate me in his death. As a sought after fugitive, evading the authorities was my only play. With a tiny reaction window, I grabbed the colored spheres from my pocket and ripped off the bedspread. My feet backed up halfway towards the door and threw the explosives behind me while rushing towards the window. The police entered just as I smashed through the glass. I heard the choking and an injudicious shot from one of the men in blue whiz by to my right. Dazed as I broke through the thick glass, I was glad for a pressure activation. The small chute opened. Part of the blanket got caught into the chord and I swirled faster towards the ground. Once I untangled the blanket, my flight smoothed.

I pulled on the directional chords and aimed for the vehicle as if I had done this a thousand times. Bright lights from within the truck bed lit up allowing me to position my landing much like a landing strip on a runway.

At my current speed and altitude, I was going to pass the truck by fifty-feet or more. The transporter pulled out of his space and moved into traffic. Colby yelled directions to him stalking my movements. He sped and slowed as needed. I drifted lower falling at a quick pace. I tumbled in smashing into the back of the cab. The drag from the wind filled the chute pulling me from the truck. I slid back and hit my head on the tail gate. From an ankle holster I retrieved a knife and cut the chords. The chute blew onto the windshield of the car behind us. The car honked and rolled upon the sidewalk. I sighed not from relief, but distress realizing the parachute was no good to me any longer.

Speed and evasive maneuvers hindered my progress as I worked my way to the passenger’s side of the truck. Colby opened the door and reached for me. I ignored her hand and grabbed onto the door but the swerving made the door fly back and forth. My grip slipped and my feet skated along the asphalt road. Friction heated my feet in seconds. The driver slowed, my feet found traction. As soon as I entered the cab he picked up speed. Aware of our location red and blue lights raced up from behind us.

The driver whose name I never learned turned his beams off and drove effortlessly along the lighted streets. He passed cars using lanes from both sides of the road. Horns blared as they swerved out of his way. He turned in front of one the cars and made a hard right turn. I heard the car’s brakes screech before coming to an abrupt halt. Sirens saturated the Miami air as more police cars joined the chase.

“You’re going want put your seat belts on now,” the driver said as he drove across the medium strip lifting the car two feet into the air.

When it landed I expected the jolt to be worse. He made a left turn into an alleyway and sped towards an intersection. The fear of a collision was real. Colby gripped the seat preparing for the worst. Two semis blocked the road from either side. We raced crossed the road without incident and breathed again.

He navigated from road to street to alley and back to road. The next thing I knew we were on the highway headed west to Fontainebleau. Marty’s driver dropped us off at the. We entered the room. Colby, who had been silent the entire trip, exploded with a verbal assault.

“What have you gotten me into Jason Drayper?” In her face I searched for the woman with whom I fell in love. This stranger, a facsimile of the real Colby, lacked empathy, love, and patience.

“Nothing,” I replied sidestepping further conversation.

“Jason…” Colby took a look at my clothes and the cogs in her mind began to turn. Her voice reacted in fear. “You’re hurt.”

“Not my blood,” I said.

“What happened back there?”

As an alternative to shrouding the truth, I gave Colby the facts.

“Dexmyer is dead.”

She pulled back at once as if my skin morphed with leprosy.

“You killed him?” she accused.

I saw the shock, the same astonishment I felt when I fired two bullets from my gun at Dexmyer in the hotel. Had the bullets been real I wonder of my plan to kill Dexmyer’s son. Shudders rustled through my body at the thought. Is this the person I had become, making life and death decisions? Did my judge and jury mentality know no end?

“Someone else killed him.”

“What?” she asked her breath stunted as she awaited my answer.

“I went to his hotel to kill him; I mean question him about the murder of Yvonne Cymbal. He told me he killed her because he knew my innocence rested upon her eyewitness account of the events. Then he told me she had a change of heart and wanted to go to the police and come clean. That prompted Dexmyer to kill her. He blackmailed his father promising to keep quiet regarding his father’s extortion of me. When I saw the infrared dots scurry across his body, I surmised his father authorized the hit. I tried to tackle him but the snipers got to him first. One bullet hit him in the chest and the other in the head.

“Alerted by the snipers the Miami Dade police arrived at the door within seconds of the shooting. My only recourse was to break through the window and parachute to freedom.”

“Where did you get the parachute?”

“Ed,” I replied.

“Ed?”

“I discussed my plans with him.”

“Ed? Wow Jason”

“Give me a break Colby. Since the incident on the Island you have barely said two words to me.”

“Is that what you call it now an incident?” She paused to gather breaths. “Jason you surprise me. I can’t believe you tried to kill someone.”

“I told you, someone else murdered him.”

The venom in her words struck at me. “Tell me you weren’t there to do the same thing?”

I held my tongue.

“How could you?” she said her face pale in the obscured light of the hotel room.

“You think I killed him,” I said realizing where she was going with the conversation.

“Do you have anything or anyone to corroborate your story?”

The heat in my body exploded staining my skin from the inside out crimson until I burned with feverish rage. Colby saw the transformation and stepped back increasing the distance between us. From inside my jacket pocket, I pulled out the tape recorder I used to record the conversation and threw it at the couch. She recoiled.

“What is that?” she asked biting her tongue.

“My frikkin corroboration.”

“I’m going to bed.”

“You do that.”

She locked herself in the bedroom. I slept on the couch.

As I lay there I wondered what happened to the sweet girl who loved music, who could play a left handed guitar upside without difficulty, whose dream was to go college on a scholarship, who made me weak in the knees, and who had an unlimited reservoir of love and compassion for others.

I squashed that spirit in her when I chose to make her party to my greed. And now she paid the price: isolated on an island with a monster, on the run from authorities, not knowing what the next day might bring, unable to return home, and separated from her parents. The day after tomorrow I would ask her to do the ultimate and break the law. Dissection of my thoughts brought momentary clarity, and I punched myself in the thigh at my obvious neglect. All the while Colby stayed with me, I never gave consideration to her feelings or, I saw now, the feelings of her parents.

It was one a.m. I called Marty. He picked up on the first ring.

“Marty it’s me. Sorry for the late hour.”

“Everything okay Jason?”

“My nerves are on full alert.”

“I imagine they would be.”

A gulf-sized paused followed. Marty waited for me to speak.

“Am I being foolish Marty? Is breaking my parents out of prison the right play here?”

“You know Jack is a close friend of mine. He saved my life once when we were in the Navy.”

Another Navy and savior story with my dad as the hero. What he did for others he rebuffed for his own son. I let his comment melt into the miasma of ambiguity that made up my thoughts.

“Life can be boiled down to the individual choices we make on a day to day basis. Live your life in such a way you don’t allow your actions, those choices, to impede the freedoms of others. When you’ve made that choice my friend, you must also be willing to accept the consequences that follow.”

Another pause ensued.

“Is there something else Jason?”

“Two things actually,” I said refocusing. “I’m concerned the authorities might discover incriminating evidence at my parent’s house. I need a team to store their belongings in a safe location.”

“Already done.”

Why am I not surprised? My dad would have seen to that the second authorities got close.

“Vero Beach may not be safe for the Shires right now. You need to move them. They might resist at first so use Colby in as an incentive. Have Ed fly them to Colby Island. They will be safe there.”

“Got it.”

“If something goes wrong on Christmas Eve.”

“You’ve got a solid plan Jason. Everything will work out.”

I ended the call wishing I had Marty’s confidence.

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

 

I slept long into the afternoon having wrestled throughout the night. After a long hot shower, I dressed. Colby I assumed to be in her room. No evidence of her having eaten wafted in the rubbish bins. Once I donned my disguise, I left the room to search for food. Not far from the hotel I discovered a Chinese restaurant which made near-authentic Cantonese cuisine. Forty-five minutes later I carried a heavy bag of Lun Guy Lichee, lobster and chicken dish, Tow-Goo, mushrooms and sliced beef, Shrimp Foo Yong, and the Dowloon Combination Special into the hotel room. The ambrosial aroma did nothing to rouse Colby from her room or alter her mood.

Marty texted me later that evening informing me of the Shire’s safety. Ed saw to it they had everything they needed for their undetermined length of stay. I thanked him and destroyed another phone.

The movement in the bedroom was impossible to ignore. Colby was knocking, banging, punching, and kicking things. When the storm stilled, she exited the room and made herself a plate. If I did not know better, I thought she might have snuck someone into her room by the size of the mound. I waited as she approached her room before speaking.

“Your mom and dad are on Colby Island.”

She stopped in her tracks and turned back the plate unsteady in her hands. “Did something happen to them?” She asked afraid of the answer.

“Nothing. I felt with you being out of school and your connection with me the police would put two and two together.” The satisfied look on my face ignited Colby’s anger once more.

“Why do you get to decide what happens in another person’s life? Who made you God? You’re responsible for the death of Yvonne Cymbal. Yesterday you got yourself involved in another murder plot. You’ve messed up your life, mine, your parents and now you’ve tossed my parents into the mix. Thank you very much.”

“Colby…”

“Tell me Jason, how many more lives are you going to destroy?”

“Their safety was my only concern. This is my mess to clean up.”

“And it’s a heck of a mess.”

“You know, I get how upset you are with me, but this is not a cakewalk for me either. You could show a little mercy Colby.”

I deserved the daggers being thrown my direction. What bothered me was that not so long ago she and I were inseparable. Nothing could have come in and torn our relationship apart not even the songs I faked. I did this to her to us.

I sat on the couch feeling awkward and disgraced by the woman who once promised her heart to me. Colby took her plate and set it on the table and came to sit next to me.

“Jason, I’m sorry.”

The first kind words she had spoken in weeks created an opposite affect and lit a fire underneath me. Was she sorry for being purposefully cruel in her words or was she sorry her alienation of me pushed us so far apart reconciliation loomed as impossible? Afraid of what I might say I stood distancing myself. There was no way to merge the juxtaposition of feelings invading my body.

“What do you want from me?” I hollered out.”

“You have nothing I want.” Her reply astounded me and the darkness which I assumed had taken a permanent leave of me on the island returned. Blackness invaded my body eclipsing my spirit. She got up from the couch and retrieved the plate of food from the table and dumped the contents of her plate onto my head. It might have been comical had anger not consumed me. I breathed fire and spit lightning. The pungent odor of Chinese invaded my nostrils activating my gag reflex which converted into a pertinacious spasm. I raced to the bathroom and fell to my knees in time to watch the torrent of vomit splatter into the toilet bowl. What once had been a titillating meal now filled the porcelain bowl with an irresolute backdrop of variegated chunks and pieces of undigested food. On the upside, after the regurgitation of my meal, the darkness disappeared.

Fifteen minutes later I stripped and took my second long shower for the day. I dressed for sleep. Colby must have cleaned up the mess while I showered. She had even gone as far as to fix the couch for me with pillow and blanket.

I turned on the television surprised to see Dexmyer talking to a reporter on CNN. I assumed he spoke to discuss his son’s death. Instead, my breathing stopped. Two days before Christmas Dexmyer decided to tell the world of my music forgeries.

On the lower part of the television screen ran a ticker broadcasting in large letters that fugitive Jason Drayper, millionaire boy, faked the Sinatra and Cole singles. It was the bombshell of the century. It took precedence over the murders. Too dumbfounded to speak I punched the couch. It was the worst time to break the news. Not because of the money losses. This story could taint Christmas for many people especially those who stood in massive lines to buy the singles.

After sharing his impeccable credentials with the reporter Dexmyer vilified me and exposed the forgeries. I turned to see what FOX was saying, and they were interviewing people in a music store who stood in line to buy copies of my music.

“What is your response to the reports that say Jason Drayper is a fraud?” asked the reporter.

“What fraud?” asked the woman?”

“Reliable information has surfaced implicating Jason Drayper. He is allegedly responsible for defrauding the public claiming the music he discovered was from the original artists, when in fact, he faked this whole thing to make money.”

“I don’t care said the woman. Have you heard these songs?”

“They’re forgeries.”

“Like I said, I don’t care. This music has changed my family.”

In the media, it has been a long time since reporters were unbiased spectators reporting the news as they viewed it instead of basing it on their own personal or political bents. This reporter could not help himself from souring his face.

“Please tell me how this music has changed your life?” He asked his tone sodden with sarcasm.

“Are you making fun of me on live television?” the woman said

The reporter stumbled. “No mam. I want to know and so do the American public,” he said staring into the camera, “how this music has changed your family.”

“My husband and I have been having problems.” The lady aired her dirty laundry in front of thousands perhaps millions of listeners. “In fact, he filed for divorce just before Thanksgiving. While he was staying at a friend’s house he heard the Nat ‘King’ Cole song and something inside him changed. Him. He’d left before, and a few days later would return saying he was sorry so I didn’t trust him. Each day he sent me a card or had flowers or candy delivered. Women want to be wined and dined you know. This was not in his nature. Two weeks ago he took me to dinner and asked if he could home. And boy I can tell you our lives haven’t been the same.”

The woman raised her hand to halt the reporter from asking another question.

“I know what you’re going to ask. How long do I expect this to last? I hope forever,” the woman replied. “My husband enrolled us into marriage counseling and our relationship is soaring.”

“So you attribute this change in your husband and your marriage to one song?”

“Have you heard the song?” questioned the woman. “Maybe you should listen first before reporting on something you know nothing about.”

The camera showed a sheepish reporter then followed the woman going up to the register and purchasing duplicates of the Nat “King” Cole recordings. I sat in awe. Realization of my wrong doing I wore like armor. Recognition my music may have saved a marriage, no words existed for that.

As the news continued, it became clear the public did not care the songs were forgeries. The popularity of the music superseded their creative history. This woman’s story preceded the hundreds if not thousands to follow. FOX was the first to put a poll on their station asking people to vote if they cared that the songs were fakes. Every hour updates were made. Ninety-five percent of the people polled did not care.

My spirit lifted.

Reports surfaced on how the economy bettered since Black Friday. In those weeks, consumer confidence had reached an all-time high unlike any year over the previous decade.

Economists expounded on their reasons. Most attributed it to the discovery of the songs. Nothing else made sense. Others of course argued the resurgence of the American economy had begun its upwelling long before the introduction of the music. I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning watching the interviews.

At 4:30 a.m. after tossing for an hour I considered my life. Marty’s words rang true. At a young age I became aware that every choice or decision I made accrued consequences. Each time I entered the ring with my dad it resulted from a poor decision of mine. This circus I created, stemmed from a lust for money resulting in a devastating number of consequences.

The early morning introspection led me to brood on other issues. My talk with Ed raised new questions about my dad. Had I misjudged him? Even if the truth behind who he was and what he did was not so sinister, his horrible treatment of me made it difficult to square the past.

With Ed’s fine-tuning and Marty’s help, the plan was solid. I did not foresee any problems with the escape. For Colby, her parents, and mine, life on Colby Island or a country with non-extradition treaties could not restore completeness no matter how much money I had. I wished for another choice.

There was one. A final card I could play to right the wrongs. I pondered the idea for several more hours.

Hot water scalded me for fifteen minutes. I put on my towel when I came out and knocked on Colby’s door to borrow toothpaste. Stunned to find her gone, I panicked. When the door to the room opened and she entered I breathed easier. Dressed in her old lady costume her mood seemed to have improved.

“Did you have a good rest?” she asked.

“Fine thanks.” I wanted to ask who had stolen the mean, parsimonious, venomous Colby.

“I picked up breakfast and a newspaper. You should read what they’re saying.” She handed me the paper. “I’ll fix you a plate?”

“What is this Colby?” I asked uncomfortable with the charade.

“A peace offering.”

“Does that mean you have forgiven me?”

“I’m tired of fighting.”

“Answer my question.”

“No Jason, I haven’t forgiven you.”

I huffed. “Then why bother?”

“Do you want breakfast or not?”

“No.”

“Whatever.”

I took the paper to the couch and on the front page was a picture of me. A photo taken in my earlier youth, not the most flattering. Next to the picture in bold writing were two four-word questions, ‘Friend, Foe, or Fake? Murderer, Manipulator or Mastermind?’ The article reckoned my supposed finding of the lost recordings was a ruse to make money. They listed the amount I made. It was staggering and embarrassing. The article reported I murdered Yvonne Cymbal and was a person of interest in murder of Regis Dexmyer Junior.

I threw the paper aside and snapped on the television. The stores peddling my music sold out of stock and held rain checks for more than a thousand customers. FOX and CNN continued to interview people from around the country.

One man they interviewed was a pastor of a local church in Portland. He made what I thought was an insightful observation.

“The way Jason Drayper maneuvered the public to buy his music was underhanded and wrong. No doubt. But look around you, crime has dropped four percent. Couples are choosing to work on their relationships. The economy is doing better. Let’s be honest aren’t these the things we hope will happen? If you ask me, this young man has done this country a great service. He is a hero, a godsend.”

“You’re not saying God supported this venture of Drayper’s are you,” asked the investigative reporter.

“No, what I said Jason Drayper is a blessing. The reports are going to malign him and target him as a man out to take advantage for profit. We’ve seen good emerge from his misplaced goals.”

As the television droned my mind sailed a million miles away. Was it true what they said as regards to my music healing lives? Was my calling in life to awaken the world with song?

For a long time, I lay there full of regret.

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

 

Colby exited her room. Her face looked paler than usual.

“Can we stop fighting and come up for air? I want to talk to you.”

“So talk.” I said, cordiality no longer part of my demeanor. She ignored the acerbity of my remark.

“I had a bad dream about you last night,” Colby told me. “You, your parents, my parents, and I were racing horses on the beach. A giant octopus emerged from the water and extended one of its long tentacles. We got away, but the monster dragged you into the ocean where you drowned to death.”

“What happened to my horse?”

“It’s not funny Jason. I have a terrible feeling.”

“Today is Christmas Eve. Nothing terrible ever happens on Christmas Eve.” I swallowed to keep astonishment from showing on my face.

“What was that?” Colby moved closer.

“What was what?”

“That look you just gave. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“Jason, what is it you aren’t telling me?”

During our prolonged argument, I had forgotten how perceptive Colby was. Lies served no useful purpose considering the shortness of the hour. I needed to tell her sooner than later. So why not now?

“On Colby Island, I came up with a plan. When we stopped off in St. Thomas Ed, Marty and I refined it.”

“What plan?”

“A plan now requiring your help since you crashed this party.” She folded her arms across her chest with a look of disdain as if to say, “What have you gotten me into now Jason Drayper?”

I took a deep breath to gather courage. “In less than five hours from now, I am going to break my parents out of jail.”

“You’re what?” She moved backwards until her back hit the wall, her bum hit the floor, and knees smacked her chest. She wrapped her arms around them hoping to find protection within her fetal positioned cocoon. “You have got to be kidding me?” She said after an indeterminable pause.

I said nothing.

“You’re serious?”

“As a heart attack.”

“And you’re just now telling me? Why did you wait until…?” Colby glanced at her watch. “…ten o’clock to share this news with me?”

“Because initially I was going to do it on my own.”

“And now?”

“I need your help to pull this off,” I lied.

Colby gasped as she rose from the floor. She traipsed to the bathroom shaking her head out of disgust. I knew she needed time to process the information. She had one hour to ponder it. If things eventuated the way I planned, Ed would whisk her and my parents away in less than seven hours.

My mind traveled back to that moment on the beach when in a fit of anger, I tossed Colby’s ring into the ocean. The hours after that I conceived my plan. Only two plans made sense to me: First, kill Dexmyer. Second, break my parents out of jail. In St. Thomas, Ed helped me locate blueprints of the police station holding my parents. Locked in a minimum security facility made this jail break simpler than digging a tunnel into federal lockup. In addition, Ed hacked into the transportation schedule and found out their transfer was taking place on Christmas Eve, five hours from now.

Familiarizing Colby with her role in the break out needed prompt attention. Doing it without her meant having to involve another team to aid in her escape. Working with me made it easier.

Ten minutes later she returned from the bathroom. She sat next to me with her arms folded and her legs crossed away from me.

“Your job will be simple,” I said speaking first. “Throw and grapple.” I waited for her to bite.

“What the heck is throw and grapple?”

“When you are ready to hear the entire plan, we can talk.” I said my tone upsetting.

“I’m ready now. The sooner we do this the sooner this nightmare ends.”

“Right. By the end of the day you will be sitting on the beach sipping on mai tai’s with pink umbrellas.”

She held her frown.

“For Pete’s sake give me something Colby.”

“Jason, tell me what you want me to do.”

We spent the next hour going over and over what needed to happen to make this happen. Colby asked questions which indicated interest and digested the information. By the time it was noon she understood her role. All I needed to do was get into my disguise and wait. The place they were holding my parents was only twenty minutes away by cab.

At 1:45 a taxi arrived and transported us to downtown Miami. A coffee shop across the street gave us an excellent opportunity to survey the building. The local police station, a two story complex was a minimal security building making it an easy target.

The information Marty sent me listed a fifteen passenger van as my parent’s transport. Through the large spotty glass windows, I saw the van. The report said a small company of four guards, two for each, intended to escort them to a more secure facility.

I watched a red car pass by the police station several times. On the third pass, the driver parked, got out of the car and walked into the coffee shop. He bumped into me as he passed our table.

“My bad,” he said.

“Could happen to anybody.”

“It’s a perfect day in paradise.”

“Only if you love the sunshine,” I replied.

“If you’re in Miami, then it’s mandatory.” He continued onto a table and sat with his back to us.

I smiled. Everything was in place. Colby and I ordered lemonades though our stomachs were in such frenzy neither of us could eat nor drink. A quick glance at my watch showed fifteen minutes before Operation Free Parents took effect. I opened my backpack and pulled out the book leaving it on the edge of the table and excused myself to the bathroom. When I returned the man was gone and so was the book.

Colby said, “He whispered good luck, and took the book. You have a huge team working with you?”

Derived from fear, Colby’s question expressed doubt. She needed reassurance she and I had not embarked upon this adventure alone.

“More than I care to admit.”

“That’s good news because I can’t contain my nervousness.”

“Your body is producing large amounts of adrenaline. You will feel better once the mission begins,” I promised.

Her face inferred doubt in my assessment of the inner workings of her respiratory and nervous systems. But I was right. That single thought swept away any vestiges of nerves.

With minutes to go, I took a hard look at Colby. Dressed as a sixty-five-year-old woman did nothing to detract from her pleasant appearance. I wished to turn back the hands of time, and meet her again for the first time. She floored me on so many levels, beauty, talent, and a personality that accepted me for me.

Now we were enemies. We worked together but for a common purpose. I knew once I achieved the goal of freeing my parents our war-torn relationship could not survive. No last minute resolutions, no final parting ‘I love you’, no hope existed for us.

In order to make our separation more tolerable, I needed to display a harsh exterior to keep her from stymieing my plan. I prayed for her safety even as fear and hate seeped into my bloodstream.

Colby’s senses were on high alert.

“Is everything okay Jason?”

“Fine,” I lied.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

The alarm on my watch beeped.

Perfect timing.

“Come on, we have got to go.”

I dropped a twenty onto the table and left the shop.

“We have three minutes till they exit. Make sure you place yourself near the front of the van. I do not want you being affected by the blast.”

Outside the favorable temperatures proclaimed another perfect day in paradise. Dressed as senior citizens we traversed the road in a believable manner. Several cars, their drives full of the Christmas spirit, slowed allowing us to make it to the other side. I saw the book on the ground near the door. I checked my watch and pushed the blue button to arm the device. Colby was on the sidewalk fifteen feet from the front of van. Precisely on the hour, the four guards appeared with my parents in tow. Both wore hand and ankle restraints. The distance between the door and the van was less than a fifty feet. A quick push of the red button activated the C4 giving us fifteen seconds till the fireworks started. I watched as my parents walked towards the vehicle. The guards carried batons attached to their waists.

A fifth policeman, non-uniformed, exited the door. Conscious of the explosion and his safety I ran towards him leaping into the air before he could unholster his gun. My foot made contact with his chest knocking him to the ground. I dragged his body from the explosion and covered his body.

The blast took out the door. The four guards examined their surroundings looking for the perpetrators. Colby took a huge handful of what I termed as candy drops and tossed them into the air. I moved from the downed officer and corralled my parents placing the Groucho Marx gas masks on their faces one at a time. Guards fell to the ground overcome by the massive cloud of green smoke. From nowhere, the man in the shop with us jumped in the van and hot-wired the engine. I moved my parents into the seat and Colby sat next to them. The van sped away from the station.

Confidence soared at the miniscule success. I secured the bolt cutters from my pack and cut through the metal restraints attached to their arms as if slicing through a dill pickle. I stooped and cut the shackles from their legs with minimal effort.

“Jason?” they shouted in unison having removed the gas masks.

Colby turned “Hi, Mr. and Mrs. Drayper,” and removed her mask.

“Colby?” My dad uttered. Then to me, “What is she doing here? You put a civilian in the line of fire?”

“You’re welcome,” I said biting my tongue.

“Put these shoes on your feet.” I watched as surprise hit their eyes and traveled to their mouths.

“How is Ed?” my dad asked.

I ignored him.

Without prompting, they tied their shoes. I handed them the chutes which they donned as pros. Colby dressed earlier. The sirens of multiple cop cars threatened behind us. Other police were involved in the chase. The van’s engine was slow and could not outrun them.

A mile later I saw the glimmering of lights as they gained on us. I saw a semi-trailer pull into the intersection just as we entered. The driver of the van swerved to avoid it. A truck horn blasted from the driver as the eighteen-wheeler jackknifed blocking oncoming and following lanes.

On both sides of the street the buildings reached high into the cloud-free sky. Unconcerned about the police following the van, the driver sped decreasing the distance to the Ozark Hotel, our destination: Brakes squealed at the abrupt stop.

“Get out.” He pointed to the hotel to our left. The four of us jumped from the van as its wheels continued to roll. Colby held the canes in her hands and gave one to my dad. A crowd formed wondering at the spectacle of orange jumpsuit absconders.

“Sir, mom, please go with Colby. I will meet you up there.”

Colby moved closer towards the building. My mom took the cane from Colby and pointed the cane towards the nineteenth floor where a big black ‘X’ marked the target. She squeezed the handle and the grappling hook shot out a long metal line and arrow-like grappler. It broke through the window clamping hard to the window ledge. My mom and Colby slithered from the ground—two snakes advancing towards their prey. My dad followed seconds later.

The grappling hooks could only carry two hundred and fifty pounds which meant an alternate method for me. My adrenaline pumped as swift as the blood in my body as I ran up the stairs to the nineteenth floor. I stopped in front of a room on the west side of the building. Vacationers stepped outside their rooms. Our location, no longer secret. From the window, in the bedroom, I saw the arrival of police and the local S.W.A.T. team. They fanned out reminiscent of worker ants searching for food.

“We need to go.”

“Get back in your rooms,” I yelled to the nosy busybodies as we entered the hallway. Some were slow to respond, so I pulled out a knife and wielded in front of me as I traversed the hall. Doors slammed on my left and right. I led Colby and my parents to a room on the east side of the building and busted through a vacated room. We entered, and I slammed the door behind me. I sat on the bed trying to catch my breath.

“We had lawyers preparing to get us released tomorrow. You’ve messed up everything.”

“If you want, you can sit here and tell them how I incapacitated you and forced you to escape with me. It should make for an animated interrogation. Your choice.”

“Fine, what’s your plan,” my dad said.

“Imagine a child whose parents feed him disinformation and cultivate a perpetual atmosphere of mistrust. How can that child meet the expectations before him when the benchmark is based on erroneous data? He learns that survival in this world means coloring outside the lines. Will this please his parents? He can never be sure because his parents disallow certain familial rights such as love and acceptance in favor of estrangement and chastisement.

“You can be sure when he comes of age his perception of life will pattern that of his parent’s cold indifference rejecting those closest to him.”

“Jason, you don’t understand.”

“I think I do Mom. The only reason I am here was to save you. You,” I said to my dad, “can rot for all I care.”

“We can talk. We can fix this,” she pleaded.

Shaking my head, I said, “Not interested.”

“Jason, don’t do this.” She looked towards my dad with hopes he would step in and fix this—fix me.

“All my life I languished at the thought of my mom standing by while my dad tormented me never once stepping in to save me. Was I that terrible of a son?”

“No Jason,” she said shaking her head. The conciliatory act meant nothing to me.

“You made me plenty of cocoa, but the discrepancy between your support for dad and your love for me was always incongruent,”

“What are you saying?” Mom asked.

“You are a very cluey woman Mom, I bet you can figure out all on your own.” Her eyes widened. “I hold you accountable for screwing up my life. This I will not forgive.”

“Jason,” Colby interjected provoked by my tone.

“And you shut up, Colby. You lost your right to interfere in my life when you made me a freak to avoid.”

“Jason?”

I ran my fingers through my hair as if the move might keep my addled thoughts at bay and wiped the sweat from my face. “I want nothing to do with any of you anymore.”

The facial expressions and the silent gasps told me my words had found their targets.

“The police are close. We need to go.”

I motioned for the others to step out of the way and lifted the bed. I retrieved the bottle from my backpack. After removing the cap, I squeezed the bottle. The substances began to mix and turned rosy pink in color. I poured the substance on the floor making a three-foot-wide hole. The substance began to eat through the floor and within a few seconds the floor fell away to the room beneath it. Marty made sure both rooms were empty.

The knock on the door surprised no one. From my pocket I pulled out a handful of gas balls and rolling half towards the door while tossing the remaining pellets. My parents and Colby jumped to the eighteenth floor, landing on the bed. Before jumping, I pulled the bed on the twenty ninth floor to cover the hole to give us precious needed seconds. Popcorn blasts sounded as the police entered upstairs. The ceiling pounded as the green gas did its job. We ran out into the hall thirty yards from the end of the hall. Outside the window a fabulous view of the Atlantic Ocean beckoned. Someone on Marty’s team removed the glass earlier. This opening was their escape route.

“Now what?” My dad asked.

“A hundred yards outside that window in front of you is an orange boat that will take you to safety. I have it on good authority the chutes will carry you the entire distance. Now Move!”

Mom activated her skates. She opened her mouth to speak.

“Save it,” I said.

She soared at a high speed crouching as she leaped up through the opening. The hallway filled again with nosy onlookers—cameras and phones captured the escape.

“My lawyers can help you,” said my dad.

“How timely. In the thirteenth hour, you want to offer assistance.” My anger spiked. “Where was this help Sir when I needed it? Get out of my face.” I turned refusing to watch his exit.

Too little too late Colby realized the gravity of this moment. “You’re coming too aren’t you?”

“I’ll be right behind you.”

Colby face turned bleach-sheet white. “You’re lying Jason.” I said nothing. “The whole time I’ve known you, you’ve never used a contraction.”

She was right of course. Contractions were sloppy and a gross misuse of the English language. People should be able to convey their words without retrograde speech. I corrected myself.

“Colby, you need to go now.”

“I’m not leaving without you.”

“Activate your skates.”

“Jason?”

“You don’t get it do you? Activate your skates.”

“Jason please,” she pleaded, “don’t do this.”

“You’re just like them Colby,” I said and turned away.

Too frozen to move, I lifted her in the air and slammed her feet to the ground. Sparks shot out the back not giving her choice. I watched her journey through the hallway into the outside never to see her again. Not far from the alternate set of stairs I ran towards the door.

“Police. Halt.”

There was no way I was going to let them apprehend me here I needed my parents and Colby to make a clean getaway. At the stairwell, I heard the gun and felt my pack thrust me forward as the bullet found its mark. I expected pain and figured Ed forgot to tell me pack was made of Kevlar.

Traversing stairs at tremendous speed, I raced to the fourteenth floor. I grabbed the key out of my pocket and ran to the closet at the end of the hall. Within a second, I unlocked the door. Its self-closing hinges forced the door to shut and lock behind me. The windowless room was small. On the ‘X’ painted on the wall, I applied the remaining acid and waited as the substance ate through the brick and mortar. I pushed the remaining fragments of the building out that fell to the ground in a cornered off area.

Through the hole I stopped and watched my dad and Colby make a safe landing onto the stern of the boat. Mom, now standing with her parachute unleashed reached toward Colby and helped her extricate herself from the chute. The boat sped off into the deep.

Marty had one of his guys set up a zip line that connected the fifteenth floor to an established pole on the beach. I grabbed the handles and held on for dear life. I must have reached a top speed of seventy miles an hour. Forty feet from the end automatic brakes slowed my progress. When it came to a stop, I jumped the remaining ten feet ducking and rolling.

A crowd, including the police, had been watching. My feet trudged through the heavy sand as I ran towards another hotel. The police were not far behind and stuck in the same quagmire. My adrenaline levels peaked as I reached the edge of the beach.

I passed through the parking lot to the street and raced along the sidewalk. Inside my shirt I fetched the chain and pushed the blue button. Car alarms sounded on parked and moving cars alike. It created the massive traffic jam. Good for me, not so good for the police.

Other alarms beside car alarms suffered affects. The proprietors and customers of the many small businesses exited their establishments in panic as multitudinous security alarms sounded. I removed the backpack and pushed a small button on the pack and shoved it into a garbage can. The explosion seconds later intended to incinerate any incriminating evidence.

Hundreds of people filled the streets with cameras and phones out as if embarking accidentally upon a film shoot. The alarms pierced the afternoon air causing many to cover their ears. My trek paralleled me to the beach. In the large open space between hotels I observed the orange boat lead the hot pursing police boat by a hundred yards. I watched in pride as my plan unfolded without impediment.

Now that Colby and my parents were safe, it was time to enter the Xavier Hotel where another team waited to transport me to a private island in Southern Europe, far from anyone I knew.

When the orange boat exploded depositing pieces in a three-hundred-foot radius short breaths escaped my lips. The debris floated a hundred feet above the water until creating a brownish-orange color on the ocean. My heart stopped beating, and I fell to my knees lightheaded. Electrical impulses in my mind fizzed out. I heard the police behind me and forced myself up stumbling as I ran. Instead of the hotel, I raced towards the ocean screaming for Colby and my parents. I arrived the water’s edge and dived into the tepid water. I swam. My arms moved like propellers launching me forward to the wreckage. I knew Colby, my dad, mom, nor the driver of the boat, survived the blast, still I needed to be there for them.

Several of the police, still uniformed, were in the water yelling for me to stop. I kept swimming until a hand grasped my foot. I turned over assuming a backstroke position and kicked the officer in the face. As his feet treaded water his hands reached for his bleeding nose.

More police surrounded me. I punched and kicked. The police boat no longer pursued the orange boat and sped towards me drifting as it closed in. Two of the officers dived in and managed to grab my body. We sank to the ocean floor. Using pressure points, I broke their grips, rose to the surface to take a deep breath and submerged myself deep into the water. With clothing that blended with the water, the police kept up their heedful search.

Depleted both emotionally and physically as the adrenaline waned from my body, I swam into the shallow water and stood. Thirty angry police with thirty loaded guns surrounded me. I walked towards shore. Two officers approached me. This time I offered no resistance. Unimpressed with my sudden act of submission they tackled me in the shallow water making sure to keep me submerged until the thick plastic strip could bind my wrists together. Right there on the sandy beach as I choked on saltwater and sand they read me my rights.

Like most people, I have thought about things that made little sense—time wasting activities with no apparent upside. When I was younger I considered if I ever posed for a police camera I would smile. The dreary pictures, in black and white, always made the alleged perp look guilty of something. Despondency held my face in check.

Next, they fingerprinted me and escorted me to the interrogation room. The news stations had gotten wind of the jailbreak and sent teams of reporters to Miami. I entered an interrogation room where over the next twenty-four hours the police questioned me. Good cops and not so good cops played their roles to perfection. I refused to utter a single word not even to break character and ask for a lawyer.

Somewhere in a distant place in my mind I reminisced of my and Colby’s past. I remembered that day in Mr. Oswald’s class when Colby surprised me by showing how proficient she was in playing a slew of instruments. My mind shifted to the times she came over to the house and we played music together. Then there was the day I knocked her off her feet when I proposed to her. But the greatest memory was watching how excited she was at her birthday party when Boyz to Men came out on the stage to entertain her. That was in my dreary past now.

“She was only sixteen,” I cried in private. “So much life to live. Gone just like that.”

I wished now I had taken those final moments at the coffee shop or the hotel to make things right with her. And my parents, God rest their souls, had good qualities impossible to explore any further. Death stole them from me.

I reviewed the accident. Something went terribly wrong with the plan. At this venture, playing the blame game made no sense. All my good hopes and wishes, as Ed called them, could not resurrect them. Constrictions in my heart accelerated. It would not be long until it stopped for good.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

 

On Christmas Day, I sat noiseless in my cell dressed in an orange jumpsuit, white socks, and grey non-laced shoes. My prison attire reflected my mood a paired mixture of anger and despondency. On a day that should have been filled with joy and excitement there was no adulation welcoming in Christ’s birth, no moments of merriment or satisfaction as loved ones and friends exchanged and opened gifts, no smells of hot apple cider sprinkled with cinnamon, not even an opportunity to reminisce over the previous year and draft goals for the following New Year.

Arraigned on seven separate charges I took it in stride. Two counts of first degree murder, one count of making false claims that netted me hundreds of millions of dollars, one count of destroying police property, two counts of destroying public and private property, and resisting arrest. I could have afforded the best lawyers money could buy but knowing I was responsible for Colby and my parent’s deaths. I felt listless.

How apropos. On the island I wanted to die. The only thing facing me now was a dishonorable death. In Florida, the electric chair prevailed as the method of execution.

In addition to my vow of silence, I refuse to eat. My hunger strike was not for the purposes of drawing attention to a political or religious protest. I cared no more. The best part of my life now over made living moot. I overheard one of the guards say the prison chef prepared a special meal of turkey and dressing, sweet potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie for dinner.

At five thirty-one of the guards delivered the meal to my cell pushing it through the thin slot. I slammed it against the bars splattering a terrible mess on the cement floor and guard.

My pathetic court appointed lawyer exuded little confidence. I learned later this was his first murder case. I had to smile. Justice was sweet was she not? He encouraged me to talk but gave up disheartened. I could tell he wished to abnegate his responsibility because he petitioned judge to assign another attorney to the case. The judge denied his request.

On top of that, the district attorney, who was trying the case, got a court order to have me fed intravenously. He wanted me healthy enough to stand trial. The judge agreed. The day after Christmas guards took me to the infirmary. I refused to make the needle stick easy for them. Arms and legs twisted, hips lifted, and legs stretched to keep them away from me.

Six guards restrained a sixteen-year-old kid, and the doctor inserted the needle into a luscious vein. Straps from the side of the bed swathed my body starting at my feet, then my knees, waist and chest. As I lay back, my eyes searched through the barred window and watched as birds flew random patterns. I breathed more easily watching them.

The guards never allowed me to read a newspaper or watch television or listen to a radio broadcast thus limiting my exposure to the media. I did overhear the guards say parked news trucks lined the streets outside the jail waiting in anticipation for updates. Fascinatingly enough, the news reporters were not the only ones bordering the streets. Many of the people who bought my fabricated songs joined the throng in support while others joined the charge to have me fried. It got so unstable the county assigned extra police to the Miami street to guarantee order.

The judge set my court date for June Twenty-Fourth, six months to the day Colby and my parents died in the explosion. For one hundred and eighty-two days, I went over and over the accident in my mind. I had plenty of time to take a microscopic view of my life. In the beginning I blamed everyone else for the things that had gone wrong in my life. A truthful accounting of my past meant unlocking the archive of my own foibles. Once unleashed, it did not take long to conclude the one person responsible for my actions sat in a cell.

Whether my feelings regarding my family’s dysfunction were correct was debatable—no hiding what the prison guards thought of me. I had gotten greedy and as a result five people were dead.

Though I had still not spoken a word to the lawyer representing me he was gracious enough to purchase a suit for my court appearance. They removed the needle and restraints. Because of my desultory behavior in the jail the guards made sure to flank me from every side. We left the cell and exited the building. Spectators and media lined the streets. Tons of signs, those supportive of me, labeled me a superstar. Far less compassionate banners scolded me for dishonesty.

“I love you Jason,” a female voice yelled from the horde of spectators. “Marry me.” And then the crowd chanted my name over and over. “Jason, Jason, Jason, Jason…”

This moment was as surreal moment as any I ever experienced. The undulation of the crowd resembled a flock of lost sheep without a shepherd to guide them. I shook my head in sorrow and in embarrassment.

The van drove to the rear of the building where courthouse staff members and officials gathered to steal a glance at the Billion Dollar Murderer; that’s the name the media bestowed upon me. As I exited the van, the officers whisked me through a back door entering a very wide and sterile hallway. I sat on a chair in a holding room and waited until it was time for the trial to begin.

My lawyer came in dropping his briefcase on the table unprepared and ill-tempered. He paced back and forth talking to himself.

“You know Mr. Drayper,” he said in exasperation, “I can’t help you if you refuse to let me. I will give you a vigorous defense but without your cooperation I don’t hold out much hope.”

I continued to ignore him staring ahead my mouth shut. My own team of lawyers could have defended me. As I weighed the facts, I asked myself if a guilty man deserved a vigorous defense?

“Have it your way Mr. Drayper,” he uttered in a huff.

A clerk came to the door inviting us to join her. I rubbed my wrists and ankles as the officers undid the shackles clamped around my feet and hand restraints and escorted me to where twelve people and a judge would orchestrate the rest of my life.

The courtroom was just as grandiose and meretricious as I expected. Every eye turned to gawk at me as I entered. Even the lenses of the three cameras allowed in the proceedings zoomed in close. The murmuring sounded like a thousand little crickets chirping for attention. Bursting at the seams with every seat taken, I glanced at the crowd to take in scene. Stedwick Marks, the record producer, was there. He saw me and turned his head. I refused to blame him for being disgusted. I scammed him with my furtive motives. He appeared as a witness for the prosecution I surmised. Dexmyer Senior, who sat next to Stedwick, also refused to give me eye contact.

When the judge entered, the bailiff shouted for everyone to stand. “The honorable Judge Reginald Bentley presiding.”

I stood amazed at the civility of courtroom decorum. Inside these walls everyone obeyed, afraid of the man in the long black robe. When the judge sat so did the rest of us.

My ensemble included a blue suit, an over-starched white shirt, no undershirt, and an inexpensive striped tie. Allergic to the starch, my body reacted. At first the itching was mild, then it grew worse until large welts rose vehemently on my skin. Scratching meant news stations would procure experts to dissect, in distinct sound bites, what the scratching meant. Did the itching prove my innocence or guilt?

I could not control the discomfort anymore. As the judge spoke I removed my jacket and then grabbed the front of my shirt with both hands and ripped it off. Buttons landed on the courtroom floor. By the time guards subdued me the ripped shirt lay next to my lawyer. My actions gave the broadcasters plenty of fodder for the next twenty-four hours. The judge ordered me removed and delayed the opening remarks till the following day.

Back in the holding room, they cuffed and shackled me. One of the guards struck the butt of his baton into my midsection forcing me to double over from instant oxygen deprivation. The other guards acted as if nothing happened. This painful gave me an idea. Next morning the same contingent of guards stood outside my cell.

“Step back,” one of the guards commanded.

I ignored his command. Batons were drawn, and I prepared myself for the onslaught. The guards entered swinging and forced me to the floor. Even after subduing me one of the guards exhibited his anger by whacking my backside. It was my dad and me in the ring again, him wailing away at me for a mistake I made. The officers escorted me to a room where a suit lay on the table.

“Get dressed,” the familiar voice said.

Etched at the corner of my mouth a smile appeared. If I refused to comply back in my cell, what made them think I would listen now? Once again I succumbed to their restraint. As they dressed me, one guard took the tie and tied it around his neck then loosened it and put it around my neck. He tightened it so much oxygen stopped flowing to my brain.

“You will follow directions.”

Gasping breaths fought to take in oxygen when he loosened my tie. If looks could kill, his life ended seconds ago. He deciphered my look and smacked me across the chest with his baton. The edge of it hit my right cheek bruising the skin.

I stood defiant before the guards unwilling to move. A smattering of batons against the back of my legs forced me to the floor where I stayed. Two of the guards grabbed me by the armpits and dragged me across the floor to my transportation to the courthouse. I kept my body limp the whole time forcing them to manipulate my every move. From the van to the holding room, they dragged me. My lawyer entered later and found me still handcuffed and shackled. He was appalled.

“I want the restraints off now.”

“He’s been belligerent and uncooperative.”

“I don’t care if he beat you senseless, remove them now.”

He watched as the guards undid the restraints and noticed bruise marks.

“What happened to Mr. Draper’s face?” He asked the guards.

“He slipped.”

“Right,” my lawyer replied his face turning the same shade as my bruises. “From now on, I want him dressed here at the courthouse and he better not slip again or I’ll have your jobs.”

Requested by the clerk to enter the courtroom, I stood on my own and walked with my entourage. I sat in my seat. When the judge entered, I remained seated. He looked over at me and two of the guards moved my direction and lifted me to my feet. Anxious reporters made notes on their tablets and smartphones. I continued to stand when the bailiff told us to sit. The guards pressed down on both of my shoulders. My face reddened as my muscles fought against them. A third guard came to their aid, and my knees bent.

“We will hear opening arguments today. Mr. Becker,” the judge said indicating to the prosecutor.

I slid from my chair underneath the table and ran towards Dexmyer and leaped into the air towards him with my hands open ready to strangle him. I made it as far as the partition only inches from his oversized neck before being apprehended. The guards grabbed me and forced me to the floor. Cuffed with my hands behind my back, I made a terrible scene. People shrieked in the room and though the judge pounded his gavel, the noise increased.

“Order,” he yelled. “Bailiff, clear this courtroom now.”

The guards led to the van and back to jail. This time they made no pretense of accidental hits. By the time I reached my cell my pummeled body stumbled through the open door. A push from one of the launched me into the wall. With no energy to stop my body, my head crashed into the stone wall. When I crawled into bed, I suffered in silence.

Later that night in the infirmary, ten guards restricted my movement on the bed. It took five tries to get the needle into the right vein. Each time the needle pierced my ski my body lurched shifting the guards’ resolve.

Back at the cell the four guards took their turns walloping me. Still, I refused to yell out. I wished my dad could see how courageously I took the beatings.

Sleeping through the night proved impossible. My body ached too much. No matter which way I turned on the bed comfortability evaded me. I sat instead. My stomach grumbled from hunger. The intravenous fluids giving me sustenance just sustained my life. Fatigue and loneliness beset me as close companions and confidants.

God please let me die.

The next morning, I knew the routine. Instead of acting out at the jail I complied with all the guard’s commands even up to the moment they took me into the courtroom. I sat in my chair without movement. It was easy to see with my peripheral vision eyes were on me. They wondered what antics I planned for day three of the trial.

In my cell, while I waited for dawn, I unscrewed a bolt from my bed and hid it under my tongue.

As the judge entered I stood with the others. He made debasing remarks on my behavior and council’s need to control his client better. My dejected lawyer took the rebuke like a man.

The moment he invited the prosecution to make opening arguments I swished the screw from under my tongue into my throat and swallowed. Stuck in my throat, my face reddened, my gag reflex kicked in and I started choking.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury—”

Vomit combined with foam and saliva defiled the courtroom floor. To make the episode more believable, I waved my arms and let my eyes roll up into my sockets. Words concocted on the spot sounded fierce and purposeful. Crazy is how I spoke. Spooky is how I acted. The guards subdued me after donning latex gloves and masks. The hysterical crowd in the courtroom cheered, and the judge shut it down for another day.

That night the guards did not touch me except to remove my restraints. I needed a plan. Next morning before loading me into the van, the guards fitted me with a straight jacket. To get out meant dislocating my joints. I declined the effort. They inserted a metal contraption into my mouth forcing my mouth to open against its will. A guard took his gloved finger and ran it around the inside of my mouth looking for foreign items. When he completed his search, he placed a mouth guard over my mouth. My leg restraints remained clamped as I shuffled into the courtroom.

A gasp traveled through the crowd like the Mexican wave. My comedic career had come to an end. This let the air out of their enthusiasm, I turned in my seat and faced the crowd. Many smiled, others offered me a thumbs up, and even a few avoided eye contact altogether.

An elderly woman in her seventies, dressed in old person’s clothes, nodded at me. My mind recalled a lady from a local church who visited my mom on occasion. How nice of her to come and support me.

The judge entered. Though I stood immediately, my mind refused to let of the old woman. I turned to stare once more. She peered straight into my eyes. Now my brain played tricks. Not willing to trust my mind’s mirage I needed a sign to be sure. Before I turned to sit, she smiled again and held up her left hand. Sparkles from the jewelry on her left ring finger illuminated the smile on her face. My heart leaped.

I had done everything I could to let my heart die. In a single moment everything changed. Now I wanted to live. The paradoxical nature of what transpired did not escape me. Life thrived in a dichotomy of single moments which could catapult you to the gates of heaven or sabotage you into believing you deserved hell. That was the irony of life. I turned back to the front of the courtroom with the image of Colby tattooed on my retinas. If Colby was alive, my dad and mom were alive as well.

The straightjacket allowed little movement. When the bailiff asked those in the courtroom to sit, I made my move. In retrospect, I should have given it another second or two of consideration. Holding my feet completely still I fell backwards hitting my head on the wooden partition. I heard the shrieks of the crowd and felt the break in the back of my scalp discharge a warm liquid. The pain lasted for a second or less before…

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

 

Moments later I awoke, though awake may be a gross misuse of the word, to a world shockingly dark and void of time and space. Swallowed by a nothingness, I no longer saw, heard, smelled, touched or tasted. Can a person without the five senses exist? This question debated by philosophers for centuries I believe I can answer with undisputable decisiveness. The answer is yes, because I, despite my lack of senses, could imagine, ponder, fear, and regret.

Unable to control the assiduous activity erupting in my mind, darkness takes me in a sudden gulp, and I retreat to a place where I’m void of thought and memory.

Faces stare down at me as if surprised by my alertness. Words of surprise and encouragement ring in my ears. Hands reach out towards me welcoming home a weary traveler. Lifted to my feet, the slick floor makes for easy travel. My back lies on the hard courtroom floor. What precipitated the fall I cannot recall. I do recall I’m on trial for murder.

A gaggle of doctors hovers over me like mother hens tending their chicks. The bright lights penetrating my pupils send shock-waves from head to toes and back again. I’m surprised by the large number of physicians and shocked to see them wearing white jackets. After all, I only hit my head a few moments ago.

“He’s coming out of it,” a voice says.

I imagine the judge is anxious to continue the trial seeing as I’ve done my best to disrupt the proceedings. Another delay will only increase his palpable disgust of me.

“How many fingers am I holding up?” a voice asks me.

Conscious of the two fingers right in front of me, I observe her other hand. Three fingers rest upward against her cheek. She’s trying to trick me.

“Fi, fi..” I stop my attempt at speaking, clear my throat, and start over. “Fi, fi, fi…” I say frustrated I can pronounce no more than the first consonant and vowel of the word five. I give it one more try. “Fi, fi, five,” I say mentally applauding myself for a job well done.

Faces that once registered looks of encouragement dissolve into warning, before stiffening into we’ve-got-a-new-problem-to-solve gapes.

“Can you tell us your name?” The female doctor asks me.

Jason Drayper, duh. I take a large breath just in case and let my words flow. My inability to pronounce the word moments ago is nothing more than a response to hitting my head on the partition.

“Ja, Ja, Jabson.” Exhausted by the effort, my tense body releases and I take in quick huffs of air afraid I might run out.

The hand on my shoulder placed there to reassure me serves only to increase my anxiety and dread.

“Do you know what the date is Jason?” the same doctor asks.

I search my memory. It’s day four of the trial. I slipped and fell hitting my head. Wait. The hovering doctors in white coats means I’m not at the courthouse.

“Wha, wha,” I struggle. “Wha, what,” I take a deeper breath than before, “date?”

I fold back onto my support tired from the exertion of speaking. My abdominal muscles tighten as I speak requiring a strength I’m unable to manufacture.

She pauses, steals stares from the other doctors, and takes in her own deep breath before speaking.

“The date is November 24th.”

I consider her words for a moment. There must be some mistake. The trial started six months after the accident, the before Thanksgiving. That would mean…

“You’ve been in a coma for six months.”

On Thanksgiving day, I sat in my cell in deep contemplation. How was it possible a simple hit to my head could send me into a half-year coma? Sometime later, after a scrumptious lunch of turnkey, dressing, and pumpkin pie, a guard stood in front of my cell accompanied by two older women. He procured two chairs. They remained standing as he took out the heavy circular key chain and inserted the right key into my cell door lock. He moved the bed closer to the bars and told me to sit. I obeyed. He exited the small space and locked the door behind him.

“Jason,” the guard said, “These two women are from a local church in Vero Beach. They want to talk with you. Any objections?”

No objections, I said to myself delighted to have company.

“I’m sure how much you know, but the fall he had in the courtroom last year damaged his brain. Jason’s motor skills aren’t at a hundred percent. His memory at best is skittish.”

“What do you mean?” said the younger woman.

“For example, Jason understands why he’s on trial. But he couldn’t tell you the name of his lawyer. Don’t get me wrong. Jason’s mind is as sharp as a butcher’s knife. The doctors have tested him and he’s fine. He’s challenged by verbal speech. He says little, and if he does speak, it’s a single word or short phrase.”

I thought I heard the younger woman gasp.

“Is the damage permanent?” the older woman asked.

“Only time will tell. But it’s possible he hasn’t had the right stimulation who knows.” The guard waved his hands. “Being here is a good thing for Jason. He can use your support.”

“I’m glad we were able to come.”

“What I mean,” continued the guard in a whisper, “with the charges against Jason, he’ll be lucky if he doesn’t fry in the electric chair.”

The older of the two women placed her arm around the shoulders of the younger who procured instant sorrow.

“Thank you.”

“If you want, I can keep guard here during your conversation?”

“That won’t be necessary.”

“Okay then. You have twenty minutes.”

“Thank you,” both women replied.

As the guard sauntered off I returned my focus to the women. Each wore navy blue pants with dark stockings to cover their ankles. Their blouses set them apart. One wore a multicolored print while the other a solid color. Both women wore beige cardigans, carried large hand bags. And wore wedding rings. Tied in the hair of the younger was a pink ribbon.

I nodded towards them. They returned pitiable smiles.

“My name is Colby Shire.” the younger women said.

“And my name is Madeline, Madeline Drayper.”

She waited as if that news was important. Then it hit me. She and I had the same last name.

“We understand you lost your memory.”

I nodded my head to affirm her statement. At least I remembered that much.

“Do you recognize us?”

“N, n, n, no.” I faltered.

“It’s these getups,” said the younger woman.

The woman with the pink ribbon, who called herself Colby Shire, started to tug at her hair.

“No Colby,” the other woman said grabbing the young woman’s hands and placing them firmly into her lap. “They’ll arrest you, is that what you want?”

Colby struggled to compose herself. I wondered at the sudden stream of tears. Was I so deplorable it hurt her to look at me? After a few moments she settled.

“I’m sorry Jason,” she said, “seeing you like this is difficult.”

Where else should I be sitting? I killed two people I deserve jail and worse.

“You didn’t kill those people,” she said as if reading my mind.

“Ten minutes,” said the guard as his heels skidded across the dreary gray painted concrete walkway. He stopped standing behind them. They stole awkward looks from one another.

“Dear Lord,” the older woman prayed, “we beseech you to watch over Jason.”

The guard removed his cap and bowed his head. I closed my eyes.

“As he prepares to stand trial next week, I ask that you give him the strength to make it through the proceedings. I pray that you will help him to recover his memory. We ask this in Jesus’s name amen.”

“Amen,” said Mrs. Shire and the guard together.

While the older woman left to engage the guard in private conversation the younger woman came closer to the bars. She held a book in her hands and passed it through the bars to me. Moby Dick.

“The guard said I could give it to you. You’ll love the story especially the part on page seventy-two.”

I opened the book and flipped through the chapters. Mrs. Shire reached through the bars with both hands and closed the book.

“You can read this later,” she said, “when you have more time.”

I wanted to speak. I needed to speak. So much information bubbled inside me right below the surface. Turning them into words demonstrated an impossible task.

“Co, co, come…ba, ba, back,” I stammered.

The woman’s eyes dripped tears.

“I will visit you again Jason real soon,” she sniffled.

The book remained closed in my hands. I opened it to chapter one. Mrs. Shire, I remembered, said her favorite part was on page seventy-two. A small piece of paper fell out onto the bed. On it were numbers, dashes and commas. I crumpled the sheet and threw it underneath my bed.

The book was tolerable. Ahab’s avid pursuit of the white whale scorched his soul. How could a man follow something as elusive as Moby Dick with such blinded devotion? At the end, the quest exacted his life. I wrestled with those thoughts wondering how someone could become so entrenched into a hunt they ignored the destructive signs visible to everyone else around them.

Late that night when most of the hallway lights were out four guards entered my cell unannounced. I stood as they entered shading my eyes from the bright beam of the flashlight. One of the guards carried what appeared to be a heavy protective covering. The two other guards held baseball bats. The guard with the covering wrapped it around my midsection holding it and me from the back. I had no clue what they were doing until the guards swung the long wooden clubs into my midsection.

“Don’t think your six-month stint in the hospital changes a thing.”

I tried to place the faces of the guards, but they remained strange faces.

The first hit stopped my breathing. I fought for oxygen, but the more they hit the more deprived I became. Lightheadedness won out, and I fell back onto my bed hitting my head on the metal bed frame. The last thing I remember is hearing the door to my cell clang shut and a discharge of warm liquid from the back of my scalp.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

 

I trudged through the dark nothingness fighting for each step while struggling to inhale full breaths. I reached out and touched the thick blackness. Single light molecules appeared before me illuminating my vision. I watched as the minute particles began to take on shapes and figures until a substantive formation appeared a long way in the distance. My feet moved. I was being taken on a journey. With every step towards the growing mountain, its distance decreased by twice. I arrived in a few short seconds.

Distorted light traversed in rhythmic surges around the mountain top. I fell to my feet as the all-consuming light penetrated every pore of my body. Though there was no physical pain I cried out in fear. A scroll dropped from the top of my line-of-sight and fell hundreds of miles below me. Calligraphic writing in large red letters incorporated sentences, phrases and words. As I moved closer to read them I shuddered with shame. The list contained every mistake I ever made, every unkind word uttered, every unsound and spurious thought, and every wrongful action from birth to present as it pertained to my life. I only needed to read a few lines to realize my mistakes were grievous, plentiful, and demanded punishment.

I had no choice but to bow in shame and fearful deference to the entity that brought me here. A voice of thunder and waterfalls spoke out forcing my body to shake until I lay prostrate. I was afraid to speak out for fear something terrible might happen. The voice continued to roar beckoning me to talk.

Why would you let my story end like this?”

The thunder roared.

Can I have another chance?”

On the waves of the thunder, surfed a simple question, “Why”

Because I am not ready to die.”

You don’t get to decide that.”

I have a lot I still want to accomplish.”

For yourself?”

The question penetrated like thousands of acupuncture needles stuck into me at one time. The voice was right. My greed set a new design for my life. Beyond question, I bulldozed myself into a wealthy arena. But now standing here between the precipice of life and death my will to live edged past my desire for wealth.

I made mistakes,” I said.

Silence.

I hurt others in the process.”

More silence.

Please give me a chance to make it right.”

For what seemed like hours, I pleaded for my life. An interminable silence followed before the voice responded.

I still have works for you to complete Jason. The very works for which I created you. Don’t forget you are my masterpiece.”

Even with my scant understanding I postulated the voice was giving me a second chance. I could hear the beeping of machines and voices yelling at me to come back. The light which had forced me into obeisant posture became fashioned into a tunnel of light. Before I entered the passageway, I turned to look at the mountain one final time. The image was gone.

Awakened later that night by a pain in my head, I reached to find dried blood caked onto my hair. I remembered exactly how it got there. Anger suffused with revenge crept little by little till I knew I would not let them hurt me again.

Due to the months of lying in the hospital, my body needed exercise. Unused muscles near atrophy yearned to grow, to thrive. I lay on the floor prepared to do a couple of hundred pushups. After I had completed fifty my arms yelled for me to stop. The floor was cool, and I stopped sweating in short order. I heard the guard coming with the food and started to get up when I noticed a crumpled up piece of paper underneath the bed. I reached my hand and retrieved it.

After dinner, I examined the paper surprised to see a smattering of numbers and dashes. It was a message from Colby. How did it get here? As the coagulated mess of mind began to thaw my memory came flooding back. Moby Dick sat unopened on the makeshift shelf. I jumped up, grabbed the book, and returned to the bed. Paper whistled as I flicked to page seventy-two searching for words, lines, and letters. The message took shape.

 

J everyone is alive and okay

Time to launch proper defense

Council is standing by

Love C

My demeanor changed and I became the model prisoner.

I received the surprise of my life one day when Colby visited. For the first time in over a year, the woman I loved stood in front of me. I wanted to yell out and grab her, but I knew better.

She wore a wig, this I was sure of because the color, length and style had changed. With the makeup I put her somewhere around thirty-three. Colby claimed to be part of an organization whose purpose was to support prisoners awaiting trial. A guard provided a chair for Colby and disappeared. We sat and stared at each other for a long time.

I remembered our early days together, the music which drew us to one another and knitted our souls. I remembered her first visit to my house and our first kiss. I recalled her sixteenth birthday party. Our relationship disintegrated soon after. As the unfavorable memories flooded in I realized their towering presence over the good remembrances.

Stalling my thoughts was my last conversation with Colby. Unkind words machinegun-fired from my lips intended for harm. Hurt like that is not easily forgotten or forgiven.

“Hi Jason,” she said her voice soft as if mentioning my name was an exercise in emotional restraint.

“Hi Colby.” My voice carried her name through the bars with the same gentle tone.

“Are you okay?”

“Fine.”

The conversation felt forced and contrived. Our separation, lasting for an entire year, hindered our speech, but something else corralled our words. The past, when reviewed and dissected, was not as rosy as humans deem to make it. The saying, ‘you can never go back,’ merits consideration. My choices and my mistakes when calculated weighted too much for Colby to forgive and forget. We were strangers.

“How are you feeling?” She asked. “I visited you a few weeks ago when you suffered from retrograde amnesia.”

“Memory bad.” Words, once fluid, stumbled through the pathway from my brain to my tongue. A loose connection kept me from explaining.

“They say it might never come back.”

“Everyone alive?”

She nodded to affirm the truth.

“What happened?” I asked with interest.

Light from my cell cast lined shadows across her distressed face.

“After your parents and I parachuted from the window, we drifted to the boat, entered a cabin and put on scuba gear. We escaped into the ocean through a hidden passage. Men with underwater crafts on the ocean floor met us transporting us to another boat a half mile away. Marty had a lookout on the beach who detonated the boat.

“We boarded the new boat which sped us to shore where we entered a car that drove us to Key West. A plane ride later we joined up with my parents. Your dad installed a satellite connection on the island so we could follow the news and keep in contact with the world. He and your mom disappeared every couple of weeks. They never told us where they went.

“When the trial started, we watched you in court.” She smiled. “You were entertaining. It occurred to me the day you tried to strangle Dexmyer, you didn’t know the truth of our escape. Your mom called Marty and discovered the details of the escape other than landing on an orange boat were never discussed. I pleaded with our dad to let me go to Florida and let you know we were still alive. Your mom made the arrangements. We got here as soon as we could.” She paused and fought back the urge to cry.

“I’m sorry you suffered so many months thinking the worst.”

The rhythm of our talk was arrested as I tried to speak.

“Brain mis, mis, mis…”

“Misfires.” I nodded. Tears traversed her cheeks. “I should never have left you.”

“Mess mine. No place for you.”

She protested. I glanced at the engagement ring I had given her a year ago. It triggered a host of memories singling out a specific question I needed to ask and would mean revisiting the past. I considered for several minutes how to broach the subject. Feelings of downhearted reflected in my face.

“What’s wrong Jason?”

“Won, won, won…”

“Wondering about us?” Colby interjected

“Ring on finger.” I sighed, breathed hard, and continued. “Mean you forgive me?”

There, I said it. Reconciliation now rested with Colby. If she chose to end our relationship, could I handle the rejection? Technically a year separated us, even though it was not that long for me, for her it would have been an eternity. Maybe time decides what wounds to heal while allowing others to fester. I read her face and body language but she gave off no vibes.

“I’ve done a lot of soul searching this year. Surrounded by my parents and yours filled an emptiness in me. Their presence never did take the place of you.”

“Forgive me?”

“I hated you for trying to end your life. When you walked off that night. Ed and I followed you. I sensed something wasn’t right. We saw you swim out on purpose so you could drown. You the dreamer who stresses the importance of sticking with something until you see it realized were willing to give up just like that. It was the worst betrayal.” I gulped in silence the mood eerily cool.

She was right of course and there was no defense I could offer for my actions. While she talked, I paced in my cell and eased into pushups.

“Pain still fresh.”

The doctors said the five-month gap in my memory might never return. While Colby talked an image of myself prostrated on the ground pleading for mercy appeared. In the dirt and the filth of my sins I had received it. I recalled a voice telling me that there was still much for me to carry out. If Colby and I parted as friends and fiancées a new path would be afforded me.

“It not fresh Jason,” she replied without delay. “I need you to understand what I was feeling, why it was so hard for me. I never understood your agony, not really. This was the first bridge we crossed in our relationship of this magnitude. I assumed, and I know it was wrong for me to think this way, you would address the problem and move on, but not this time.

“None of us responds to pain in identical ways. My pain threshold is different than yours. I judged you versus how I managed mine. That night on the beach I saw a different side of you I’d never seen. It took me a long time to come to turns with that distortion.

“My parents watched my internal struggle. Dad pulled me aside one afternoon. We strolled around the island together. He told me of the pain he suffered after losing his job in California and again when the store burned in Vero Beach. He shared his personal demons with me Jason. At one point in California he considered ending his life. When I asked about my and Mom’s life without him he told me the life insurance would’ve taken care of us. He saw the shock on my face or maybe it was for the first time I saw him as a failure. My own father willing to kill himself what an eye opener. Then he said something that didn’t make sense till I remembered our conversation. He said he was doing it for mom and me. That was the very thing you told me.”

“Colby,” I moved closer to the bars. My chest became heavy and I had to dig down deep for each breath. “Forgive me?” The deep scratching tones of my voice propelled her to look me direct in the eyes.

Deafened by the silence, I braced myself for her answer.

“When you jumped out of the window in Miami I didn’t know you couldn’t use your parachute again. Even though you were angry at your parents and livid with me, I expected to see you on the boat. You knew from the start you weren’t going to make it. You saved your parents and me. That was very heroic.”

“Hero? Not me.” My plan to live on a European Island died when the boat exploded. I was running away.

“Let me finish. You were willing to end your life to protect me and you sacrificed your life to save mine. You must think an awful lot of me to keep putting your life on the line for me.”

“Love you Colby.”

“I know Jason and I love you too.”

“We okay?”

“If you’re asking me if I’ve forgiven you, the answer is yes.”

This was good news, yet my heart stalled needing MORE fuel to revive it.

“And the answer to the next question you’re afraid to ask me is yes. I will still marry you.”

In a single convalescent moment my world catapulted upright.

“That item you told me to hold for you,” Colby said, “is in a safe place.”

My sullen eyes brightened as new life breathed in me.

“Call Marty. Two more jobs.”

The unmistakable sound of the guard’s shoes moved our direction. Colby stopped talking until he was well out of ear shot.

“Five minutes,” he yelled back.

“What do you want me to tell Marty?”

“Need pen paper.”

With no short circuit between my brain and hand, I wrote in point form the elaborate plan to unveil Dexmyer’s role in the murder of his son. She read it through, thought me crazed for concocting such a plot, but agreed to contact Marty.

“One week to real trail,” I pounded out. “Bring raincoat on Monday.”

She stood, and after looking left and right, she winked. I puckered my lips and blew a mock kiss. My plan would take careful preparation and come at the expense of my attorney. Compensation would come his way down the road. For now, I had to paint him as incompetent addlebrain attorney.

The rest of the day the idea of destroying another person needled at me. Later that night as I drifted off to sleep, I saw a scroll unfurled from the sky with a list of my wrongs written on it. At the top of the list was the name of my lawyer and next to his name were the injustices I had committed against him. The more I considered this new strategy the more I believed it was at too high a price tag. So if I truly wanted to play by the rules, my approach needed an upgrade.

I petitioned a guard to call my lawyer.

Bart Stumps, what kind of name was that for a lawyer? One hour after the call Bart showed up at the jail. We met in a small room set aside for that purpose. It was made of glass so the guards who stood outside could respond quickly if a client wanted to practice Bruce Lee moves on their lawyer. I extended my hand to shake Stumps. He refused.

“Thanks for coming.” The rest of the message I wrote earlier on a sheet of paper.

I want to apologize for my sore mistreatment of you. My thinking has changed since the last time we were together and I would like to discuss my case.

Even though half a year had passed. Bart was having no part of it. He waited until I sat, then took a chair across the table from me far enough away that if I lurched for him, he could slide away with ease. I extended my hand a second time. He shook it with the briefest of touches afraid I might give him cooties.

“Believe in my innocence?” I asked.

“I’m defending you as if you were innocent.”

“Thanks.” I said and continued. “But innocent?”

“No,” he said truthfully. “I don’t think you’re responsible for the murder of Regis Dexmyer Junior or Yvonne Cymbal. There is enough proof to suggest you orchestrated the plan that deceived millions of people into thinking they were buying legitimate reproductions of Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole. We can’t ignore the destruction of the police station not to mention the jail break. And then the damage you caused at the hotel including destroying two floors and a broken window on the fourteenth floor. Don’t forget the fender benders that you caused using that device to activate every alarm in Vero Beach and resisting arrest. Have I missed anything Mr. Drayper?” he asked with a bit of cheekiness.”

“No.” He covered it very well. “Burned your trust.”

“That you did Mr. Draper.”

“Make amends?”

His shoulders relaxed, and color returned to his face.

“How can you help me?” he asked with a genuine spirit.

Over the next few minutes, we discussed the case. I nodded, grunted and forced in a phrase now and then. I told him who was responsible for the murders of Yvonne Cymbal and Dexmyer Junior. Hesitant to give him the proof of my innocence, I informed him the proof existed.

“Mr. Drayper my job is to give you the best defense I can. I’ve heard the stories around the water cooler. People say you have more money than God.” His tone turned serious. “You could afford the top attorney in the country. Why not petition the judge for new council?”

“I need you.”

“Why now?”

“Someone I thought dead alive again.”

He pondered the statement. “I see. That still doesn’t answer my question. Why me?”

“Things not what they seem.”

“Cryptic.”

“Case not easy. Charges numerous.” I hated the fact my brain and tongue refused to cooperate. “Together we tackle this.”

“We,” said Stumpy?

“Problem?”

“I’ll need help on this one Jason. The prosecution’s star witness is Regis Dexmyer? And Stedwick Marks is testifying against you.”

I wrote.

When I was evading the police I watched news reports explaining how my deception helped to heal marriages as well as boost the U.S. economy. You may want to tackle that angle and drum up witnesses to refute the claims that I deceived the people of the United States.”

“That’s good Mr. Drayper. Very good.”

“Call me Jason.”

“Alright Jason, and you can call me Stumpy.”

I did not want him to know I had taken that liberty.

“I could call a host of witnesses who’d raise the issue of reasonable doubt as it relates to your motives. There is the issue of money. You made a killing on the record deal. According to the latest figures you earned one point three billion dollars.”

My jaw dropped open. I realized my lifelong goal mattered not in the least.

“Funds not frozen?”

“By the time the court acted, the accounts were empty and new accounts opened in the Cayman Islands. Despite the attention the case fostered upon Gamble Records, Stedwick continued to send checks. The government was unable to track the accounts.”

“Who made that happen?”

Stumpy offered a weak smile.

“You? Thank you Stumpy.”

“Thank me when it’s over.”

“Will pay for damage caused.”

“That’s good. The prosecution may be willing to take that into account.” Stumpy stood. “Opening arguments begin on Monday. That doesn’t give me much time.”

I handed him another note.

Stumpy, when you leave here, a man in a black jacket will be waiting for you. He has twenty thousand dollars to give you. Buy me three descent suits? I want to look my best when I go to court.

Give William Fioravanti a call, it’s an appointment only store and tell him that I need three suits. The number will be included with the cash. Something in turquoise, black, and olive. William has my measurements and will match the shirts and ties for me. I will need three nice pairs of shoes to complement the suits. Tell William to rush the order, and I will settle any outstanding balances with him later.”

Stumpy gathered his briefcase and jacket then moved towards the door. He turned back before soliciting the guard’s help.

“How much of the twenty thousand do you want me to spend?”

“All of it,” I replied.

Chapter Thirty

 

 

Monday arrived after what was for me a marathon weekend. Escorted by the same four guards, who had warned me not to speak out, I gave them no cause to beat me. When we arrived at the courthouse, they took me to the holding room. Stumpy sat there waiting.

The hook behind the door held a designer suit bag. I opened it to find a turquoise suit with white shirt and a subtle striped tie. A shoe box on the floor contained a black pair of Amedeo Testoni’s shoes worth fifteen hundred dollars. It was out of character for me to wear expensive clothes, but this special occasion warranted the improvement.

Three guards lollygagged after removing my restraints. Stumpy dismissed them allowing me to dress in private behind a partition he had provided. There were no mirrors in the room. I used the reflection from the glass windows to make slight adjustments to my tie. I tied my shoes and sat on the chair waiting for the clerk to come in and call us into the courtroom.

“That suit makes you look very nice,” commented Stumpy. “I have the rest of your suits at my office.”

“Will be great day.”

“I’m glad you can be so positive. You know the prosecutor has a ninety percent conviction record.”

“Ten percent enough.”

By now it appeared as if I was going to let the justice system decide my fate. I would, but not right away. As much as I appreciated Stumpy’s efforts he was in a tight spot and needed more time to rally a vigorous defense. I planned to give him that time.

The clerk notified us and we followed her to the courtroom along with the entourage of guards flanking my front, back, and sides. Over five months had passed since the bannister incident. I observed the new replacement.

I sat without consideration for the dozens of eyes staring at me, for the exception of one. Dozens of eyes burned holes into my skull. The gawkers who looked forward to seeing me clown around in the courtroom abandoned the thoughts when observing my self-assuredness. Colby sat five rows back to my right.

“All rise for the Honorable Reginald Bentley presiding.”

I stood when the judge entered.

“Be seated.”

“Mr. Becker,” said the judge, “are you ready for opening arguments?”

“Yes, your honor, we have been prepared for months.”

“A simple yes will suffice Mr. Becker.”

“Yes, your honor.”

The judge turned to face us.

“Mr. Stumps are you ready for opening arguments?”

Stumpy shuffled through papers organizing them.

“Mr. Stumps.”

Stumpy looked up at the judge. This man was not an idiot. I believed his bumbling to be a ploy.

“Yes, I’m sorry your honor. We, I mean me. I’m ready for opening arguments.”

“A simple yes will suffice Mr. Stumps.”

“Yes, your honor. Your honor,” said Stumpy, “If the court so pleases, my client wishes to say something prior to the opening arguments? Impediments in his speech makes it necessary for me to read his statement.”

“Any objection,” the judge asked the prosecutor?

“Highly unorthodox your honor, but the prosecution has no objection.”

“Bailiff,” said the judge, “please escort the jury out of the courtroom.”

Twelve jurors stood and followed the directions of the Bailiff. They filed out one by one until the twelve empty seats stared back at me.

“Mr. Stumps,” said the judge, “we will hear the statement your client has written.”

Your honor I wish to offer my deepest apologies to you for the childish behavior I exhibited here in your courtroom. You have been extremely patient, and will have no further problems with me.”

Though what happened a few seconds after the jurors returned was in theory my fault, no one thought to blame me. I sat next to my lawyer keeping my back straight and my mannerisms inconspicuous.

“Mr. Drayper, thank you for your honesty. I along with many others are happy to see your health has returned.”

“Thank you your honor,” said Stumpy.

The judge called the jurors back in.

“Mr. Becker,” the judge said after the last the juror sat. “You may continue with your opening argument.”

“Thank you your honor.”

The prosecutor got up from the wooden table and stood making a show of buttoning his jacket. He strolled to the jury box. This jury of my peers included no one under the age of forty. Two older ladies and one man looked to be in their sixties. Their stern looks led me to believe they were not from the “Spare the Rod Spoil the Child’ school of thought.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury—”

The prosecutor’s penchant for rhetoric ended with those six words. The sprinklers above the courtroom sprayed water across the judge, the jury, the prosecution’s table, the television cameras, and the entire crowd which had come to see the trial. I turned and watched as Colby slipped on her rain hood as she left with the throng of others racing to get from under the torrent of water. The only section spared happened above our table. The judge ordered the near empty courtroom cleared.

Stumpy choked back a comment.

“Crazy,” I said.

“With the trial pushed back another day, it’ll give me more time to talk to witnesses and prepare rebuttal questions.” I nodded.

“Don’t you think it’s interesting none of the water touched our table?” He took his fingers and ran them across the top of the table revealing dry fingers.

I pointed to my suit. “William Fioravanti.”

What I did not discovery until later is that every courtroom office in the city center building suffered the same catastrophe. The rescheduling of postponed cases rested upon the assessment of the water damage. It took two weeks to complete the repairs.

Colby visited me on a regular basis. I understood the need for a disguise yet yearned to see the real her, the woman I fell in love with. Our visits only served to increase my agitation. I did my best not to betray my feelings to her but Colby, forever astute, sensed my despair.

“What’s wrong Jason,” she asked?

“Nothing.”

“I thought we promised to tell each other the truth.”

Ouch.

“Just low.”

“Is it something I said or did?”

It had everything to do with her.

“Want outside these walls.”

“I know you do. I’m not sure how I can help you.”

“May not get out.”

“You’ll get out.”

“Game must end sometime. Not fair you wait.”

Colby’s quickness to her feet caused her chair to fall backwards on the floor. It created a horrible crashing sound. The guards came running. After a litany of apologies, Colby sat. For half of our thirty minutes she said nothing.

“You see this ring?” she said breaking the silence.

I stared at the rock on her finger.

“It symbolizes commitment. My promise to marry you means I take the good and the bad. I’m a big girl. I’m not clueless to what lies in front of us. Get it?”

“Got it.”

“Good.” After adjusting herself she said, “You’re going stir crazy.” I agreed. “You need something to occupy your time.” Her eyes brightened. “Why not ask your lawyer if it’s possible to put a keyboard in your cell?”

The idea had merit.

In a surprise move, the court approved Stumpy’s request and guards brought a battery operated keyboard into my cell. I used a pair of cordless headphones for obvious reasons. The moment I applied my fingers to the keys the music transported me to a different world.

For the rest of the week I composed. I played well into the nights making sure to consume the meals put in my cell lest they take away my privilege. By the weekend I included four new songs into my repertoire.

On Monday the court building reopened and cases. I knew the routine and offered no resistance. In the waiting room, I dressed in another William Fioravanti suit this time the black one. The shirt was white and crisp and the tie that accompanied it fell somewhere in between magenta and purple, short of a power tie but dynamic.

“All rise,” said the Bailiff in advance of the judge’s entrance.

The judge’s moodiness showed. Many of his cases were pushed back due to the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the faulty water sprinklers. Today would upset him even more. He asked the prosecution if they were ready with opening arguments. There was an affirmative grunt. The District Attorney stood a scowl carved into his face. He followed the same procedure of buttoning his coat before speaking. He fabricated a realistic smile as he turned to face the twelve jurors.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury—”

The lights flickered in the courtroom until sparks shot out from the incandescent lamps making loud popping sounds.

“What now?” the prosecutor shrieked as panic cleared the room. I sat at the table with Stumpy his complexion pale awaiting my guards. Every light blew except the one positioned high over our table. He gathered his papers and shoved them into his leather briefcase.

“Crazy,” I said.

“It gives me even more time to prepare the case doesn’t it?” said Stumpy.

“Odd our light not affected,” I offered.

“It’s not so strange. You are wearing a William Fioravanti.”

Chapter Thirty-One

 

 

On Colby’s next visit, I read fear in her eyes. Cuts and abrasions covered her face and hands. I watched her body shake. One of the guards stayed close, so Colby pulled two pamphlets from her bag and handing one to me said, “I want you to read this to yourself then we’ll discuss it.”

By the end of five minutes the bored guard left.

“What’s wrong Colby?” I asked wanting to break through the bars to get to her.

“I was walking to the hotel when a car pulled up next to me. The back window on the passenger’s side rolled down. The man asked me to get in the car. I refused and started running. The car chased after me and cut off my path.”

“You run pretty fast for a woman in her sixties,”

Dexmyer.

“The driver stopped the car, chased me down, and forced me into the back.”

“The man identified himself as Regis Dexmyer.”

The temperature of my blood increased burning my skin.

“Are you alright? Did he hurt you?” I was afraid of the truth because if this man hurt her he would die. “Hurt you?” I pressed.

Colby took in a deep breath and held it several seconds before releasing it. She repeated it several more times. I know she was trying to gather herself and her thoughts but my calm absconded the moment she walked into the prison.

“Please.”

“Not in the way you think.”

Her response did not come close to answering my question. My hands raked through my hair as I paced waiting for her to speak again.

“He threatened me.”

“Please tell me.”

“He grabbed me by the arm.” She lifted up her sleeve and there was an awful bruise just above her left elbow. I clenched my fist wanting to hit the wall. Instead I pounded my fist into my mattress several times until I could feel the metal frame.

“Stop Jason, I’m okay really I am.”

“What did he want?”

“For you to stop delaying the trial. He didn’t believe the incidents in the courtroom were coincidences. He guessed I was your person on the outside. Before releasing me, he told me not to come to the courtroom anymore.”

“I can make it very bad for you Colby Shire,” he said, “and tossed a yellow envelope in my lap.”

I surmised the contents of the envelope and understood Colby’s dread. Nothing I said eased her troubled spirit.

“The car stopped and Dexmyer pushed me onto the road. That’s where I received these,” she said motioning to her face. “The car sped off.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” I listened as she tried to bring her breathing under control.

She read the question in my eyes.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Call Marty. Notify my dad.”

“Everyone thinks your dad is dead.”

“Ready stage three and four.” My brain seized.

“And what do you want me to tell your parents? Jason?”

“Time to clear names. Expecting call.”

“I’ll tell them.”

Her body shook violently again from a seizure-like eruption. I should have been there for her. Instead, I was inside a cell in an orange jumpsuit calling shots that may or may not save me.

“Tell Marty.” Colby glanced at me. “Tiger out of control.”

The cryptic message she allowed into her conscious without remarking.

“Make call now.”

“Okay.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise Jason.”

“Now. Go.”

“You’re trying to get rid of me.”

“No darling,” I stuttered. “Call Marty.”

“Of course,” she said.

“Love you Colby.”

“I love you more.” She called the guard who escorted her away.

Two days later, I received a visit from a stranger. Wary of the man’s disheveled appearance, dishonest eyes, and persistent cough, I asked the kind guard to hang back. The cough took an uncontrollable turn. He stopped coughing enough to ask the guard for a cup of water. His cough resumed until the guard disappeared. Then if by a miracle the coughing ceased. This man walked up to the bars. I stood more than an arm length distance from him.

“By your behavior I gather you know who I am.”

I shook my head.

“Oh, your girl didn’t tell you? While you were in prison she and I got pretty friendly. She really must show you the pictures.” The words chunked from his mouth like spoiled milk. I wanted to puke and strangle him in inverse order, but he was still three and a half feet away from me.

My eyes widened and I feigned fear while the thoughts of killing him prowled close.

“I can reach your girl anytime I want. You need to understand that. So listen clearly because I am going to give you instructions. You will follow them to the letter or your girl may turn up dead at the bottom of the lake. Nod your head if you understand.”

I nodded.

“Good. Call off your person on the outside, and stop delaying the trial.”

“What about Colby?” I spouted.

He ignored me.

“The trial starts next week. We may not be able to get to your family. I’m guessing you care about other people. Consider Mr. Oswald the music teacher for example. How awful it would be if he were to lose his fingers in a tragic accident? You get my drift?”

“Got it!” Anger bubbled under the surface. “What about Colby?”

Producing a phone from his pocket, the image showed bound hands and feet, and a handkerchief tied in Colby’s mouth. I could not get picture of her terror out of mind. Her blouse was torn, and her face streaked red and swollen. I could not tell if was because she had been crying or someone had hit her. In reality, the reason was superfluous. He put the phone back in his pocket.

“She’s a striking girl. The guys planning to have a party. She’ll be the center of attention.”

I moved closer to the bars and raised my hand. “Ask question?”

“Sure why not?”

I inched closer. I leaped to the bar reaching my hands through the openings in one fluid movement. I pulled the man’s head towards me. It banged again and again against the metal bars. During the first hit I saw the flesh sag as the cartilage in his nose broke. With the next hit his forehead took the brunt causing a cave-in in his forehead. Blood spouted out of his wounds but I was unwilling to stop and kept pulling his face towards me. Several uneven teeth fell from his mouth and bounced indiscriminately on the cell floor. His filthy blood covered me. I would make sure he never touched Colby a second time.

A whistle sounded and my favorite four guards appeared attempting to pry away my hands. I refused to let go. They raised batons and banged them on my hands. Flames ignited in my knuckles forcing me to release the filth. They carried his body straight to the infirmary. Too severe for the on-duty medic, the man was taken by ambulance to a hospital nearby.

The guards came into my cell to subdue me. Skunked by anger, I dared them to enter. As a sixth degree black belt, I understood the rationale for concealing my fighting ability. If not kept under strict control, people could get hurt or worse. My dad’s mandate against fighting was not to keep me from exposing my ability. Protection of others was always foremost in his mind when it came my fighting.

The violence to Colby drained the leniency and tenderheartedness from my soul. These men were going to pay for that and for the beatings I endured by their hands. I backed up against the wall until the four guards entered the cell. Batons were drawn and ready to strike. The room was small an advantage for me. When the largest guard swung at me, I clamped both of hands around his arm and pulled. He was strong, this I banked on, as I pulled down he lifted his arm propelling me upwards. A knee in the face was all it took for him to drop the stick and clutch his bleeding face.

Guards two, three, and four, met their fate in mere seconds. As they lay in pain, I took a set of keys and locked the cell door behind me. Next I sat on the ground with my back against the wall watching the four stooges crumpled into a tangle. When they came to they yelled for assistance.

A guard approached as I knelt outside the cell my hands on my head, and my fingers interlaced. He grasped his baton, and radioed for backup.

“You’ve really done it this time Drayper.”

“Call Internal Affairs. Have complaint.”

It occurred to me only later of the possibility the images on the man’s phone were fabricated. No way to know that for sure. I prayed Colby followed my directions and called Marty.

They took me to a new cell with padded walls and floors and put me under suicide watch. I could not help the feeling of amusement.

A woman doctor, built as tough as a Chicago Bears linebacker, entered my cell alone the next morning. I sat against the wall opposite her. The file she carried was too thick to be mine. But when she opened it and asked questions I guessed I made an impression during my time at the jail.

“Mr. Drayper,” Brian Urlacher’s sister said, “I am Wanda Spelling.”

“Doctor Becker, the prison doctor is out. I will be replacing him just for today.”

“What happened?”

“Bad clams.”

“What?”

“Seafood poisoning. He’ll be alright. I’m stepping in for him today.” She continued to stare at my file. “I see you have anger issues.”

“Misdiagnosed.”

“What’s your assessment?” she asked watching me.

“Irritated quickly.”

“We have classes to help get those anger/irritation issues under control.”

“Not interested.”

“Don’t be too quick to judge.”

“Why?” I asked unconcerned.

“In our first class we discuss the roots of anger.”

“And?”

“We give a picture to anger.”

“What picture is that?” I asked with obvious indifference.

“It’s the picture of a tiger.” My ears perked. “We discuss how it’s possible to control the tiger.”

“Tiger out of control?” I asked keen for the answer.

“The tiger is under control if you are the one to control it.”

Brian Urlacher’s sister never looked so good to me.

“You will be interested to know that we talk over the four stages of anger. Step four is fundamental to recovery.”

“How soon?”

“I’ll need to talk with Dr. Becker. He makes the final decision.”

“I appreciate it.”

She closed my file and started towards the door.

“Thanks Dr. Spelling,” I said.

Thank God, Colby was safe. Using my peripheral vision, I glanced at the camera in the corner recording the entire conversation.

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

 

After months of delay, the day arrived when the judge heard opening arguments. I sat at the table with Stumpy clothed in an olive-colored William Fioravanti suit. Unlike the plain suits he had worn before, Stumpy wore an expensive Dolce & Gabbana suit. Demeanor exuded confidence. His papers were in order and not in a disheveled mess. He even whistled a refrain from Sinatra’s classic hit, My Way.

“Wow, who won the lottery?” I asked.

“As if you didn’t know.”

“Know what?”

“Four days ago I got a call from a tailor at the Gucci store saying they selected my name for the grand prize.”

“Grand prize?”

“I’ll play along if that’s what you want. Two weeks’ worth of suits with accompanying shirts, ties, cufflinks, socks, shoes, and hats. There was jewelry thrown into including watches, bracelets, and rings.”

“How awesome is that?”

“Jason,” he paused for a few seconds. “Thank you.

“Clothes make the man.”

A quick perusal of the crowd and no Colby in sight. Dexmyer avoided eye contact. The judge entered. This time before asking for opening arguments he did choose to say a few words.

“Ladies and gentlemen I have no reasonable explanation for what’s happened in this courtroom during the last month. Chalk it up to a series of freakish events. I am confident we will get this under way today. Mr. Becker, for the last time I hope, are you ready for opening arguments?”

“Yes your honor,” he said while standing and buttoning his jacket.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury—”

The prosecutor paused as did the entire courtroom to witness the next catastrophic event. Nothing happened. “Jason Drayper is a thief, a murderer, and a low down rotten scoundrel.”

For the next half hour, he painted a picture of a poor little rich kid with nothing better to do with his time than concoct a plan to deceive millions. He claimed the murders were my attempt to cover up my deception. When he concluded his opening statement, I nearly believed him. He spoke of the preponderance of evidence against me and that they, the jury, needed to return a verdict of guilty. He sat, but not without first unbuttoning his jacket. The smug expression on his face bared his pleasure.

The judge turned to face Stumpy. “Mr. Stumps.”

“Thank you your honor. I’d like to reserve the right to make my opening statement later.”

“So be it,” replied the judge.

“Mr. Becker, is the prosecution ready for their first witness?”

“Yes, your honor. We call Stedwick Marks to the stand.”

Stedwick stood and walked through the swinging doors of the partition. He strolled the way an innocent man does. He sat on the judge’s left. With his palm on the Bible he promised to tell the truth.

“Mr. Marks, can you please tell us in your own words your relationship with the defendant?”

Stedwick looked nervous on the stand. He assumed he was entering a lucrative business deal. I made him and Gamble Records party to the worst scandal in musical history. I did not fault Stedwick for the story he told. It was true.

“Mr. Marks,” said Becker “how much money has Mr. Drayper made from this record deal?”

Stedwick pulled a piece of a paper from his jacket pocket and read from it.

“Up to date, Mr. Drayper has made one point three billion dollars.”

A loud hush hushed whisked through the crowded courtroom. The judge banged the gavel drawing everyone to attention.

“Order.”

“Now Mr. Marks, since the release of the two singles on Black Friday of 2011, have sales dwindled?” It was a setup question. The rule of lawyering was simple: Never ask a question to which you did not already know the answer.

“The hysteria around the trial has increased sales. After a year since the release, we continue to sell singles though most of the sales are internet and international purchases. In fact, international sales have continued to increase beyond any projections we’ve made.”

“So in your estimation how much more money could Mr. Drayper make from the fake songs?”

Stedwick chose his words with care. “I’m afraid I don’t have exact figures.”

“Give us a ballpark.”

“I suppose he could earn another two or three hundred million.”

“Did you have any idea that the defendant falsified the singles when he brought them to you?”

“No, I did not. I took his word when he said he found them lying in a storage unit. I had my own team authenticate singles. They passed our test.”

“Sounds like the ingenuitive Mr. Drayper made a ton of money at your expense.”

“Objection,” said Stumpy.

“Withdrawn.” Becker went back to his seat.

“Your witness,” said the judge.

I could see the questions circling through Stumpy’s mind, questions addressing the caliber of his team since they were the ones who authenticated the songs. Marks had been through the enough. I leaned over to Stumpy asking him to let this one pass. He growled.

“I have no questions for this witness your honor.”

“You are excused Mr. Marks.”

Stedwick could not help sneak a peek at me as he passed.

“Call your next witness Mr. Becker.”

“The prosecution calls Regis Dexmyer to the stand.”

The bane of my existence stood looking sharp in his hand tailored suit. He walked with the air of an untouchable to the witness stand and sat with flamboyant flair.

“Mr. Dexmyer what is your relationship to the defendant?”

“I have no relationship with Jason Drayper.”

“Then why have you come today to testify against him?”

“I am an employee of Gamble Records. I work with Stedwick Marks. Before my employment with Gamble Records, I was a record producer myself.”

“I’ve read your credentials. They are rather impressive.”

“Thank you.”

“For the court, name the most famous musical artist you produced?”

“Frank Sinatra.”

Another murmur rustled through the crowd.

“Order,” said the judge using his gavel. “I’ll not tell you again.”

“And what makes you an expert in this case Mr. Dexmyer?”

“I worked with Sinatra on every one of his albums. I remember the recorded songs and those trashed by the producers. Composers always wanted Sinatra to record their works. Frank was picky. If the song didn’t move him, he didn’t record it. There were many songs over his career he never recorded or sang.”

“So you’re testifying you were part of every recording Mr. Sinatra made in his career?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Is it possible a song may have gotten by you? Could Mr. Sinatra have recorded a song without your knowledge?”

“Anything is possible I suppose. That wasn’t Frank’s style.”

“What do you mean?” the District Attorney asked.

“He was loyal to those he worked with and even more loyal to his friends. I’m humbled and honored to have been included in both groups. If he found a new song or was approached by a producer, I was the first person he called.”

“What did you think when you heard Jason Drayper discovered a new recording of Frank Sinatra?”

“I was skeptical. Still, I reserved judgment till I heard the recording. I’ve got to say the song is right up Frank’s alley.”

“Considering your praise, one might think you’re a fan of Jason Drayper’s music.”

“The song is nothing short of phenomenal, but it’s not Frank Sinatra’s voice on the recording and the music wasn’t recorded by any orchestra I’m aware of during his lifetime.”

“Whose voice is it Mr. Dexmyer? Because I’ve got to say it has all the tones and intonations of Blue Eyes.”

“Objection. We’re not interested in what the prosecutor thinks.”

“Sustained.”

“I can’t say,” answered Dexmyer.

“What did you do when you heard the song?”

“At first I did nothing. Over time I became conflicted. The country was crazy gaga over the music. What would they think when they discovered Drayper duped them? I called the news media and told them the truth.”

“Thank you Mr. Dexmyer. No further questions. Your witness.”

Stumpy read my mind.

“Your honor I have no questions for Mr. Dexmyer at this time. However, I do reserve the right to recall him.”

“So noted. You may step down,” said the judge to Dexmyer.

He left the box and following Stedwick’s lead could not resist stealing a stare. I smiled back with a toothy grin.

The prosecution’s next witness, Mr. Gephardt, was an eyewitness to the murder of Dexmyer Junior. After swearing him in, he testified how he had been watching the sunset with a pair of binoculars. A flash caused him to shift the binoculars. He saw me with a gun in my hand pointed at Dexmyer Junior. He said I pointed the gun at the deceased delivering a deadly shot to the head. The testimony was damaging.

“Your witness,” Becker said to Stumpy.

Stumpy stood up leaving his suit unbuttoned. He looked good in the Gucci.

“Mr. Gephardt you testified you were staring out the window with your binoculars watching a sunset. Is that right?”

“That’s right.”

“There’s nothing as magnificent as a sunset in Miami Beach except maybe on Maui or in New Zealand.”

“I don’t know; I’ve never been there.”

“The amalgamations of oranges, pinks, and blues colliding with one another is a site to behold.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”

I could not follow Stumpy’s line of questioning.

“Mr. Gephardt, what if I told you that on the night in question rain clouds covered the sky from The Keyes to Orlando? There were no sunsets for three days that week, including the day you stated you were watching a sunset with your binoculars.”

The witness squirmed avoiding eye contact. Stumpy cornered him. I could see it now.

“I know what I saw,” said Gephardt.

“Let’s talk for a moment about what you claimed to have seen. You were staying in the Regal on the twenty second floor room number twenty-two fourteen. Is that correct?”

“Yes, that is correct.”

“Are you sure Mr. Gephardt, I don’t want any confusion on your part? Take some time to consider it.”

The prosecution squirmed appropriately.

“I don’t need to think. Everything you said is correct.”

“You told the prosecution you were in a different hotel. Is that true?”

“I was,” Gephardt replied with a hint of cockiness, “and showed them the receipt.”

“Ah yes, the receipt which confirms you paid for the room.”

“That’s what I said.”

“So your confusion about the room I just mentioned, and your confirmation of those details?”

“I was mistaken.”

“From the room on the twenty second floor the murderer had a great view. I’m betting you were the murderer.”

“Objection,” said the prosecutor as he stood up annoyed at Stumpy’s imputation of Gephardt’s character.

“I want to hear this. Objection overruled.”

“But your honor.”

“Mr. Becker are you going to offer another objection?”

“Yes your honor.”

“So noted. You may continue the judge said to Stumpy.”

“You killed Regis Dexmyer.”

“You’re wrong.” Gephardt’s thick smile showed yellow teeth accumulated from years of chain smoking. “Your client committed the murder.”

“Two bullets were recovered in the hotel room from my client’s gun. Care to guess the type of bullets they were?” Gephardt did not answer. “I’ll tell you,” Stumpy continued. “They were Taser bullets.”

“Taser bullets?”

“That’s right Mr. Gephardt. Do you understand what that means?”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Let me answer it for you,” Stumpy said smiling.

“It means my client couldn’t have killed Mr. Dexmyer because his bullets weren’t lethal.”

“Oh yeah, I get it now.”

Stumpy may have come across as bumbling or unfocused that was not the case. His technique of getting Gephardt to talk was nothing short of genius.

“Good, it had me confused for a while. The only bullets found at the scene were in Mr. Dexmyer’s body.”

“Okay…”

“…Fired from an assault rifle. You didn’t happen to see my client carrying one of those did you?”

“No.”

“So where do you think the shots came from?”

“Objection.”

“Withdrawn. Let’s look at the ballistic report Mr. Gephardt,” Stumpy said as he returned to the table to retrieve a piece of paper. “You’re aware of what that is aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I watch CSI, Miami and New York. I never could get into the Vegas version.”

“My question was about the ballistic report.”

“It tells you if a gun was used in a crime.”

“True, but it tells us much more than that.”

“Okay.”

“It tells us the kind of gun used in a crime.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I know crazy right?” I fought to hold back a laugh. He gave the paper to Gephardt. “Hold onto that. I’ve got another report I want to discuss.” Stumpy flew back to the table and picked up a second sheet.

“Guess what this report is Mr. Gephardt”

“I have no clue.”

“I’ll tell you. It’s a forensic analysis of everything that has to do with the bullets that killed Mr. Dexmyer, too much technical stuff if you ask me.”

“If you say so.”

“It tells us the exact placements of the guns used in the shooting.” Stumpy held the sheet high as if needing the light to see through the paper. “Guess what?” asked Stumpy. “It says the shots came from your hotel room you confirmed earlier.” Gephardt said nothing. “Cat got your tongue?”

“Objection.”

“Mr. Gephardt,” Stumpy continued, “do you own an AK47?”

His eyes ballooned at the question. “I own a lot of guns. I used to be in the military.”

“What branch?”

“Army.”

“And I salute you,” Stumpy said with acute seriousness, “for the service you gave to this country.” A pause ensued and the tension in the courtroom eased for a few seconds. “Now back to my question, do you own an AK47?”

Gephardt searched his memory. “Maybe, I can’t be sure.”

“That’s interesting Mr. Gephardt. Anytime I ask that question of a gun enthusiast they can tell me the make and model of every weapon they own including what they hunt.”

“Okay,” said Gephardt. Sweat formed on his face and he reached up to wipe it away.

“Hold that,” said Stumpy handing Gephardt the forensic report. He returned to the table and took another sheet. “This report,” he said waving the paper, “is a list of your registered firearms.”

“No kidding.”

“Nothing’s private these days. This made for some interesting reading.”

Stumpy’s interest peaked Gephardt’s, but he stopped short of asking a question.

“You own twenty-one different firearms. No AK47 shows up on the list.”

“That means I don’t own one,” Gephardt said with pride.

“That’s true,” Stumpy replied, “If that was the only report I used.”

He returned to the table and snatched a blank sheet. My heart dropped.

“The report I’m holding in my hands is one of those where you have to know somebody who knows somebody.”

Gephardt said nothing.

“Three days before the murder of Mr. Regis Dexmyer Junior, you purchased an AK47 from a Federico Caurentas.”

Gephardt’s guilt swooshed through the courtroom. The gasps were silent.

“Can I see that report?” Gephardt asked.

“I’m sorry Mr. Gephardt, I can’t hand it over to you.”

Gephardt raised the two sheets in his hand as if to indicate, ‘I have two in my hand right now.’

It surprises me the prosecution never objected.

“I told you this was difficult to come by.”

I was sure the prosecution should have, ahead of time, submitted any of the people’s evidence to opposing council vice versa. I figured he was too worried about the beating his witness was taking.

“Did you buy an AK47 three days before the murder of Regis Dexmyer Junior?”

Agitated, Gephardt fidgeted in the witness box until the judge ordered him to answer the question.

After a moment of hemming and hawing, Gephardt replied. “Yeah, I bought it for a friend.”

“Objection,” Becker finally bellowed. “The prosecution has not had opportunity to view this report.”

I gulped.

“Mr. Stumps?”

“Approach your honor?”

The judge waved Stumpy up and the prosecutor and his team approached the judge.

Muffled voices argued back and forth. Animation from both sides told a story of deception, prowess, and anger. The most egregious from the prosecution. “Step back,” the judge said after an elongated discussion.

Stumpy returned and shot me a quick smile

“You may continue Mr. Stumps.”

“Thank you your honor,” he said turning to Gephardt who continued to squirm as if ants were in his pants. “Mr. Gephardt, tell us the story of this gun you purchased.”

Gephardt glanced at the judge hoping for mercy.

“Answer the question Mr. Gephardt,” ordered the judge.

It took a few seconds for Gephardt to concoct a story. “A friend of mine wanted to hunt. I didn’t want him using any of my guns so I bought him an AK47.”

Gephardt believed his answer to be succinct and stood preparing to step out of the witness box.

“Not just yet Mr. Gephardt. I have a few more questions.”

He glared at the judge who scowled back.

“What animals do you hunt with an AK47?”

“Deer, bear, wild boar possum, squirrel…”

“Men?”

Gephardt looked to be having a stroke. His face paled and he looked tired.

“Objection.”

“Withdrawn. Let me get this straight Mr. Gephardt. You didn’t want your friend using your guns, so you bought him an illegal rifle. Is that your testimony?”

Patches of sweat soaked through Gephardt’s shirt.

“Mr. Gephardt?” Stumpy pressed.

“I bought him the gun, so what?”

“Here’s the two-fold problem. You just testified that you purchased the rifle with less than dishonest means. That’s a crime punishable by time in prison. Any person in possession of a fire arm by law must have a license to carry that firearm.”

“I’ve got a license.”

“Yes, I have a copy of that. What I don’t see is a license for your friend, the one for whom you bought hunting rifle.

“You can’t prove I bought the rifle.” Gephardt said as he tugged at his shirt collar.

“Mr. Gephardt, do you think I’d ask questions I couldn’t answer? I might need to find another career if that were the case.”

No answer from Gephardt but plenty of squirming from the prosecutor’s table.

“I have a sworn statement from Federico Caurentas stating you purchased this rifle.” Back at the table, he winked and reached underneath and retrieved a rifle. “Is this the hunting rifle you bought from Mr. Caurentas for your friend?” Stumpy asked.

He handed it over to Gephardt and allowed him to inspect it.

“Yeah, I bought it. So what?”

“How can you be sure?”

“That scratch you see on the barrel,” he said inviting Stumpy to follow his gaze.

“Are you referring to the j-shaped mark?”

“Yeah, right there.”

“Mr. Gephardt, guess what we found in a dumpster less than three blocks from where Mr. Dexmyer was shot?”

“I have no clue.”

“An AK47. What do you say to that?”

Gephardt did not miss a beat. “A ‘dag-gone’ waste if you ask me.”

Quiet laughter constrained the judge to keep his gavel lowered.

“This rifle you identified as the rifle you purchased was the same rifle used to put a bullet in the heart of Regis Dexmyer Junior.”

Gephardt paled at the words. He could see it coming.

“I had nothing to do with that?”

“Here’s the problem. You bought a rifle used in a crime. That makes you other than a lawbreaker an accessory.” Stumpy let the words sink in. “But here’s what I don’t understand.” Gephardt tried to appear interested. “The ballistic and forensic reports show this rifle was used to kill Mr. Dexmyer from the hotel room you said wasn’t yours. Coincidence?”

“Well maybe your client put a hit out on Dexmyer.”

“I did consider that a possibility he certainly has enough money to do so. I think it makes more sense that you purchased the gun, lied about giving it to a friend, rented two rooms, and killed Dexmyer yourself.”

A slight murmur shuffled throughout the crowd.

Gephardt resembled a boxer stumbling onto the ropes. His pulse beat at peak levels. He needed to clinch his opponent for a quick rest. The only thing Stumpy would give him now was a knockout punch.

“Mr. Gephardt there were two rooms rented that night on the twenty second floor of the Corporate Suites Hotel: Your room and the one next to yours. Roscoe Bates, who I understand is a work associate of yours, rented the room next to yours.”

“I have no clue what Bates was doing there.”

“Ballistic reports prove the two bullets that killed Regis Dexmyer were from two different rifles. It’s too much of a coincidence that you and Mr. Bates were in adjoining rooms at two different hotels and that right after the murder of Regis Dexmyer you both checked out?”

Gephardt’s complexion, reminiscent of a sleeping Snow White, turned translucent.

“Camera footage shows the two of you leaving the hotel at the same time carrying long parcels. Now let me ask you again Mr. Gephardt, you were in the room that night and killed Dexmyer Junior didn’t you?”

Stumpy trapped Gephardt in a lie impossible to escape. It was obvious to everyone in the courtroom even the prosecution. I appreciated that feeling but my reservoirs of mercy for a man who was willing to throw me to the dogs ran empty. He looked at Dexmyer who refused to return his gaze.

“Your honor, please instruct the witness to answer the question?”

“Mr. Gephardt, please answer the question.”

Mr. Gephardt refused the judge’s command.

“If you don’t answer the question Mr. Gephardt, I will have no choice but remand you into custody for contempt of court.”

Gephardt sat glued to his chair.

“Bailiff, will you please escort Mr. Gephardt out of my courtroom?”

The bailiff who stood near the witness box, grabbed Mr. Gephardt’s arm and turned him over to the deputies standing at the side of the courtroom. I was so proud of Stumpy when he returned to the table I high-fived him. Even cooler was his reciprocal slap.

“Mr. Stumps, please control your client?”

“Yes your honor my apologies.”

Stumpy proved I didn’t kill Dexmyer. Still a long way to go.

“Mr. Becker, call your next witness.”

“We call Detective Heathrow to the stand.”

I’d never met this Heathrow, but he stood six four and commanded the surrounding space. Decked out in his uniform he intimidated onlookers including me. More than a few medals dangled as he walked to his seat. The bailiff swore him in.

“Please state your name for the record?”

“Detective Ted Heathrow.”

“And how long have you been with the Miami Dade Police Department?”

“Twenty years.”

The prosecution asked him to share what happened the night of the murder of Yvonne Cymbal. Detective Heathrow testified he was the first one on the scene and discovered the body. She was strangled. The Medical Examiner confirmed this later during the autopsy.

“What was your interest in the defendant Detective?”

“Two months before the murder of Yvonne Cymbal pictures surfaced on the internet showing Miss Cymbal and the defendant in intimate positions.”

“Your honor,” said the prosecutor, “We would like to offer these pictures into evidence: Exhibits Three through Exhibits Six.”

“So ordered,” replied the judge.

“When Miss Cymbal’s body was discovered we put a bolo out on Jason Drayper. He eluded us until his failed attempt to break his parents out of jail.”

“Was there any evidence to suggest that Jason Drayper murdered Yvonne Cymbal?”

“Yes. We found a set of clothes that fit the size of the defendant scattered around the bed. Miss Cymbal appeared to have had sex before her death.”

“And what did this lead you to conclude Detective?”

“Upset the pictures of him and Yvonne Cymbal had become public, Jason Drayper paid Ms. Cymbal a visit. We have been working on the theory that she was blackmailing him. He went over to her place, they got intimate, and then he strangled her to keep from having to pay her.”

“What if anything did the DNA evidence show Detective?”

“Other than what I’ve already mentioned, nothing.”

“No further questions your Honor.”

“Mr. Stumps your witness.”

Stumpy stood up seemingly excited to cross examine Detective Heathrow.

“Detective,” Heathrow asked, “You just testified that the Miss Cymbal had sex before she died?”

“That’s correct.”

“But you said you found no evidence to implicate my client.”

“We believe he took the evidence with him.”

“You also stated he strangled the deceased.”

“That’s right.”

“How do you know she died of strangulation?”

“As I told you before, The M.E. confirmed it, but there was petechial hemorrhaging and significant bruising on her neck.”

“Let’s discuss the bruising Detective Heathrow.”

Stumpy picked up a black-and-white photo I had not seen. He took it to the Detective to peruse.

“Your honor, we would like to enter this as Exhibit Seven. Detective Heathrow can you tell what I’m looking at in this picture?”

“It’s a picture of the bruising on Miss Cymbal’s neck.”

“Did you match these marks against my client’s hands?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“If you study the picture, you can see imprints of the finger marks around her neck.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Did you match these marks against my client’s hands?”

“No, we did not.”

“May ask why you didn’t?”

“With the staggering evidence against Jason Drayper, it wasn’t necessary.”

“What is this preponderance of evidence you collected?”

“The clothes we found crumpled next to the bed.”

“Did you find any DNA or epitheliums of my client on the clothes?”

“No.”

“So what led you to conclude that these clothes were the defendant’s?”

“They fit the size of Jason Drayper and we had several anonymous reports he entered her apartment wearing the clothes we found.”

“How many anonymous witnesses called in to report Jason Drayper in Yvonne Cymbals condominium?”

The detective thought for a moment. “I don’t have the exact number on me but it was over six.”

“And you don’t find it odd you received so many calls in such a short span of time?”

“No,” said the detective feeling that he no longer lay against the ropes. “Mr. Drayper was a person of interest after the release of the pictures.”

“And so you sent a team to apprehend Mr. Drayper?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

“As I told you, Yvonne Cymbal was dead, and Jason Drayper was in the wind.”

“Let me paint a picture for you Detective. You saw the clothes crumpled on the floor and the medical examiner has confirmed that the deceased had sex before her death. It’s safe to assume that Jason Drayper came over to the house, threw off his clothes before having sex with the defendant then strangled her.”

“Yes, that was our conclusion as well.”

“Then how do you explain the absence of DNA?”

“I can’t,” the detective replied.

“Wouldn’t it have been impossible for my client not to have left any DNA or epithelia’s since he tore off his clothes? Certainly hair, skin cells, dandruff, you name it, should’ve have shown up on his clothes not to mention the bed.” The detective gave a non-committal nod. “And the question I’m sure everyone is asking,” Stumpy asked with cheek, “why did my client leave the scene without his clothes? Did he flee the scene naked?”

“Objection.”

“Objection sustained.”

“Detective, how did my client escape the hotel where thousands of guests, at least six of whom reported seeing him enter Yvonne Cymbal’s room, without clothes, and manage not to leave a single trace of DNA?”

The detective took a deep breath. “I can’t answer that.”

“Detective I have another photo to show you.”

Stumpy came back to the table and picked out another black-and-white photo. This one I’d seen before because it was of my hands.

“Your honor, we would like to enter this as Exhibit Eight your honor.”

Stumpy handed the picture to the detective.

“Now detective I want you to compare the imprints of the first photo I showed and compare it to this second picture I have given you. Do you notice any differences?”

“Objection your honor,” the prosecution said, “the defense is asking the detective to eyeball a picture and make a decision on the cuff without use of the technical equipment needed.”

“I’ll allow it.”

“Your honor.”

“Objection overruled Mr. Becker. Please answer the question Detective.”

“Your honor.”

“I’ve noted your objection. Continue,” said the judge.

“It appears to be two different sized hands. The second one you gave me is larger than the first.”

“You’re absolutely right detective. What does that tell you?”

“This second set of hands did not make the bruising on Miss Cymbal’s neck.”

“Who do you think the second picture I showed you belongs to?”

The detective appeared unsure.

“You don’t have to answer that question detective.”

Heathrow breathed relief.

“Did you search for any other perpetrators to this crime?”

“No, we were sure Jason Drayper was the right guy.”

“And how sure are you now detective?”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Did you print Dexmyer’s hands?” Stumpy asked.

“No we didn’t.”

“Well I did. His hands matched the ligature marks discovered around Yvonne Cymbal’s neck.”

“Objection your honor. Defense is testifying.”

“No further questions for this witness,” your honor.”

“You may step down Detective.”

Stumpy came back over to the table.

“Good job Stumpy,” I said in a deep whispered tone.

“Mr. Becker,” asked the judge, “do you have any other witnesses.”

“Your honor I would indulge the court to listen to a recording of an interview that Jason Drayper made on the Sandra Devant show.”

“Objection, you honor. This message was a private conversation between my client and Sandra Devant. My client had no way of knowing the audio was still on during their short dialogue.”

“Your honor,” said Becker, “this tape goes to the dubiousness of the defendant’s character and shows at what lengths he would go to make money.”

“Objection overruled. Proceed with the recording,” the judge ordered Becker.

A tablet, hooked up to speakers, rolled in on a cart to the front of the courtroom. Becker spoke before playing the cut. “This recording will show just how important money is to the defendant.”

Will you be in New York long Jason?”

What are you doing?”

I beg your pardon.”

So far, you have asked one question of the twenty you emailed me.”

A good interviewer thinks on her feet.”

Bullying a sixteen-year-old on national television will not increase your ratings in the long run.”

I’ve been in the news business for over twenty years. Kid, I give the public what they want.”

And I made more money by age nine then you will make in your lifetime. That still does not give you the right to screw with my life. Sandra. I am telling you if you refuse to stop this line of questioning, I will…”

You’ll what?”

Your search for dirt will net you nothing but grief Devant.”

One of my sources tells me your goal is to make one billion dollars.”

What is it to you?”

How much money is enough Mr. Drayper?”

Why put limits on it? Make as much as you can while you can. That’s my philosophy.”

No matter how you make it?”

What do you think?”

You’re a raving capitalist.”

And I know all about your socialist leanings. End this now Devant while you can save face or I will destroy you.”

You rich types think because you have a few dollars you can run this world.”

You’ve been warned.”

Silence filled the courtroom.

“It looks as if Jason Drayper didn’t care what it took to make a buck even if that meant deceiving the entire United States.”

“Objection,” said Stumpy.

“Withdrawn,” replied Becker.

The judge glanced at the wall clock. “It’s four o’clock,” he stated. “We’ll recess until ten tomorrow morning. Court is adjourned.”

“Everyone rise,” said the Bailiff.

Stumpy didn’t exude the same confidence when he sat.

“That recording hurt us. We need to go on the offensive. At what point are you going to give me the evidence you have against Dexmyer?”

“The very second after you question him on the stand.”

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

 

After a grueling day where the prosecutor presented me as a person with tremendous greed and a destructive behavior bordering on pathological, Stumpy got to call his first witness. Stumpy wore his second of fourteen suits. He looked as relaxed as I had ever seen him.

“Is the defense ready Mr. Stumps?”

“Yes your honor,” he replied. “I call Maggie Ramsey to the stand.”

Maggie was the lady who had gone on television and told the world how my songs healed her marriage. I considered the power of music and the written word or in this case the sung word, straining to comprehend its curative effects. Could one song induce such a dramatic change in a person? A year later she and her husband were still together. By the time she finished with her testimony, I swear jurors had tears in their eyes. When afforded the opportunity to question her, the prosecution politely declined.

“Your honor I call Andrew Peterson to the stand.”

Andrew was in prison for robbing a gas station. The night before listening to the song he sat at the table with a bottle of cheap whiskey and a gun. His plan was to drink until he couldn’t feel anymore then end his life. He put the Nat “King” Cole song into the cd machine. The music and words reached a place in his heart long padlocked by hate. Minutes later, filled with remorse for what he had done, he went to the authorities and turned himself in.

For the rest of the day, Stumpy paraded witness after witness changed by the songs. He called expert economists who spoke at length on the upturn of the U.S. economy

“And to what do you attribute this growth in consumer confidence.”

“Objection, the defense is asking for an opinion.”

“Your honor we stipulated earlier just how qualified Mr. Cason is. We can trust his answer to rest on the facts rather than hover around opinion, supposition or speculative analysis.”

“I agree Mr. Stumps.”

“We had a team analyzing the data weeks before the release of the singles up to the present day. Our findings show a substantial increase in consumer confidence. The American people are buying and investing at rates three times as much as the snail growth of the previous ten years. The lost recording jumpstarted the economy.”

“It can’t be that simple Mr. Cason.”

“Customarily many factors contribute to the growth of the economy: human and natural resources, as well as capital goods, new technology or entrepreneurship. What we’ve seen over the last decade is a housing market debacle, a market collapse and a complete slowdown of the U.S. economy.”

“With the release of the Lost Recordings on Black Friday last year, Christmas spending was up sixteen percent. This year it continues to rise and sits just at ten percent. Those other factors I mentioned that contribute to the growth of an economy have also increased.” Cason couldn’t control his excitement. “In my expert opinion, it was the songs that turned our economy around.”

“Thank you Mr. Cason. No further questions.”

“Mr. Becker?”

“On question your honor. Mr. Cason do you agree with Mr. Drayper’s methods?”

“Objection,” Stumpy said quickly. “This calls for the witness’s opinion.”

“Overruled.”

“I can tell you no single event in our recent history, and I’m going back a hundred years, has had the impact these songs have. I applaud Mr. Drayper for his bravery to make a change in our world even though his method was less than ethical.”

“Objection,” said the prosecutor.

“You’re objecting to your own question Mr. Becker. Overruled.”

On Day Four Stumpy called Harper Weston, to the stand. I knew him only by reputation. Weston was the guy Marty had planted into Gamble Records to watch Dexmyer. He testified that he took a job with Stedwick as a favor to a friend. During a phone conversation overheard by Weston, Dexmyer spoke of extorting money from Drayper.

“Did he say how much money he was going to extort from my client?”

“Thirty million.” A rush of low whistles rushed through the courtroom.

“And what did you take this mean?”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Mr. Weston, did you see Mr. Dexmyer do or say anything that led you to think his involvement in Gamble Records or his personal life that something was amiss?”

“I followed Mr. Dexmyer one day. He met with his son and the deceased Miss Cymbal. It wasn’t until the pictures of Mr. Drayper and Miss Cymbal appeared in the newspapers that I suspected something.”

“And what were your suspicions?”

“Objection. Defense is asking the witness to speculate about a one-sided conversation.”

“Sustained.”

“One more question Mr. Weston. Did you ever see Mr. Dexmyer meet with my client at any time while you worked for Gamble Records?”

“No, I did not.”

“Thank you, your witness.”

Mr. Becker stood up again and of course the suit coat was buttoned.

“Mr. Weston, why did you get a job at Gamble Records in the first place?”

“As I said, I was hired to keep an eye on Mr. Dexmyer.”

“Who hired you?”

“I can’t divulge that information.”

“Come now Mr. Weston it’s a simple question. I asked who was it that hired you to spy on Mr. Dexmyer.”

It was obvious Weston didn’t want to answer the question. His conundrum either implicated Marty or betrayed my confidence. I stood.

“I did,” I blurted.

“Mr. Stumps you will need to keep your client in order.”

“Yes your honor.” Stumpy fumed and glowered at me. I shunned his concern. I did not want any more people taken to the woodshed because of me.

“Will you please answer the question Mr. Weston?”

“The defendant, Jason Drayper, hired me.”

The fidgety crowd fought to keep its composure lest the judge bang his gavel at them.

“Why do you think Mr. Drayper wanted you to spy on Dexmyer?”

“You’ll need to ask him.”

“I’m asking you Mr. Weston.”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“No further questions for this witness.”

“Redirect your honor.” Stumpy said standing “Mr. Weston, at any time did my client ask you to do something unethical?”

“No, my job was to keep an eye on Dexmyer and report anything unusual.”

“Thank you.”

“You may step down,” said the judge.

Stumpy returned to the table and told me his next witness was going to be Dexmyer.

“Go for it.”

“Your honor, the defense recalls Mr. Regis Dexmyer to the stand.”

Dexmyer stood up with the arrogance of Pharaoh himself and strolled to the witness box.

“Mr. Dexmyer,” said the judge, “remember you are still under oath.”

“Yes, your honor.” he said his voice loud and authoritative.

“Mr. Dexmyer, Mr. Weston testified about a phone call he overheard.”

“Yes.”

“He said you were extorting money from my client.”

“He’s a liar. I’m on the phone all the time talking figures. He misheard or misunderstood.”

“So the thirty million he said you wanted to extort from my client was a misunderstanding?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Mr. Dexmyer have you ever met my client.”

“No I haven’t.”

“And you’d swear to that in a court of law?”

“I’ve already done that. The prosecutor asked me the same question on Day One.”

“That’s right. Thank you for reminding me.”

“Mr. Dexmyer, what do you think about the discovery of the Lost Recordings?”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“Did it bother you my client falsified claims of the music he purportedly discovered?”

“It bothered me, but that’s not motivation for extortion.”

“Explain to the court again your reason for blowing the whistle on my client. You said you were conflicted.”

“The songs were fake, and the country needed to hear the truth.” His voice, robust with bass qualities, raised as he spoke.

“Now I’m assuming you read the financial reports and saw the news reports—you even heard testimony in this courtroom explaining how the music was responsible for the spike in the economy.”

“Yes.”

“But you felt you so conflicted inside that you decided to come forward and tell the truth?”

“That’s right.”

“It didn’t occur to you that your move could do more harm than good?”

“Harm to whom?”

“Harm to the U.S. economy Mr. Dexmyer and ultimately to the American people. That’s a lot of power in one person’s hands.”

“Objection.”

“Sustained.”

“So you gained nothing from telling the truth or keeping quiet?”

“I’ve answered that.”

“So why tell the truth?”

“It was the right thing to do.”

“Isn’t it true that you met with my client and told him to pay you thirty million or you’d inform on him to the cops…?”

“That’s absurd.”

“…And that you called him after Black Friday to extort an additional sixty million from him.”

“Sixty million dollars? That’s ludicrous. Check my phone records. You’ll see that I never made that call.”

“We did. The call came from New York City from a throwaway phone.”

“And you want to pin that on me?”

“No Mr. Dexmyer, we’re just trying to get to the truth.”

“Tell me about the pictures.”

The change of tactical momentum decelerated the heart-thumping crowd. It surprised me.

“Like everyone else, I saw them when they surfaced on the internet.”

“You’d not seen them until then?”

“No.”

“Interesting.” Stumpy returned to the table returning with a yellow envelope.

“Do you know what I’m holding in my hands?” Stumpy asked.

“An envelope.”

“Order,” the judge called out at the snickering.

“Do you know what’s inside this envelope?”

“How could I?”

“We dusted this for prints and found your personal driver, Cal Stevens, handled it. Care to explain this?”

“My driver often hands me papers and documents. It means nothing.”

“In addition to your driver, we lifted prints of your son from the envelope.”

“Regis had a relationship with Yvonne. I guess it’s possible he was responsible for releasing the pictures.”

I could not believe Dexmyer threw his son under the bus so easily.

“To what end Mr. Dexmyer?”

“I don’t understand the question.”

“If your son took these pictures, what did he gain by releasing them?”

“I can’t answer that.”

“Want to know what I think?”

“Objection.”

“Mr. Dexmyer, you said a few seconds ago the first time you saw the pictures were when they appeared on the internet. Is that correct?”

Dexmyer nodded. “Yes.”

“How do you explain the third set of fingerprints we found?”

Dexmyer patted his forehead with his handkerchief. The courtroom was warm and getting warmer.

“I can’t comment because I don’t know who the third set of prints belong to,” Dexmyer added.

“They belong to you Mr. Dexmyer.” Stumpy said matter of fact.

Dexmyer patted his forehead again.

“We’ve covered this earlier.”

“Oh,” Stumpy paused, “perhaps I wasn’t clear. The third set of prints, your fingerprints were found on each of the four pictures inside the envelope.”

The smack of the gavel brought the gasps to a close.

“I will have order in this courtroom.”

“Your honor, I’d like to enter these into evidence as exhibit nine though twelve.”

“So ordered.”

“I’m interested to hear how you’re are going to answer this question Mr. Dexmyer.”

“Objection, badgering the witness.”

“I have no explanation.”

“Mr. Dexmyer are you an upstanding citizen?”

“Objection,” said Becker as he waved his hand.

“Goes to the character and credibility of this witness.”

“I’ll allow it.”

“Forgive me for tooting my own horn, but my integrity speaks for itself.”

“I’ll ask you one more time, have you at any time had contact with my client.”

“No.”

Stumpy slowed the train for a second time. I thought he had Dexmyer on the ropes several times and pulled back letting Dexmyer catch his breath.

“Let’s talk about the death of your son. Who do you think killed him?”

“It was Drayper,” he said pointing to me.

“You heard Mr. Gephardt trap himself in a lie regarding the bullet that came from his gun.”

“Yes, I remember.”

“It bothers me when witnesses lie. Sometimes you don’t know till after the fact a witness has perjured themselves. Often you never know that’s the luck of the draw. On occasion you do know because you have the answer right in front of you. That’s what happened to poor Mr. Gephardt. I had the truth, and he dared to lie in this courtroom.”

“Objection. Is there a question in there?”

“Mr. Gephardt is an employee of yours Mr. Dexmyer?”

Now I saw where Stumpy was going.

“Many employees work underneath me.”

“But don’t you work for Gamble Records?”

“Yes.”

“So what employees are you referring to?”

“I own a consulting business.”

“And how many employees do you utilize in your consulting business?”

“A dozen or more.”

“Wow, a whole dozen.”

“Objection.”

“With only twelve employees Mr. Dexmyer, how is it possible that you don’t know if Mr. Gephardt is one of them?”

“We subcontract most of our work so technically he could be working for me. I’ve never met him.”

“I see. Would it surprise you that Mr. Gephardt is willing to testify that you hired him to pull the trigger on your son?”

“Side bar your honor,” said the prosecution.

I watched as the prosecutions team of five went up to stand before the judge and Stumpy alone. They stood there for a considerable period. I had no clue what the discussion entailed. Stumpy appeared to be holding his own with the rest of them. The judge made his decision and asked them to step back.

“You can continue with the questioning Mr. Stumps.”

“Your honor, I’d like to treat this witness as hostile.”

The judge nodded. “So ordered.”

“Mr. Gephardt is willing to testify that you put the hit out on his son. What do you think about that?”

“You said before sometimes witnesses lie. You can’t trust what Gephardt says.”

“And yet you have him on your staff. In earlier testimony we established my client was in the room when the sniper executed your son.” Dexmyer reacted to the execution word and sat straighter in his seat. His voice bellowed.

“That’s because that scoundrel killed my son.”

“We found Mr. Drayper’s gun in your son’s room. Two of the Taser rounds were found in the room; one in the wall and the other in the bed, and the third non-lethal bullet still in the chamber of my client’s Taser gun.”

“Your point?”

“Well if Mr. Drayper was in the room soliciting a confession from your son how did he make the shots from outside the window?”

“Maybe Drayper hired Gephardt and put the hit out on Regis. He had the funds to make it happen.”

“True, my client had means. Why didn’t he just bring a real gun and shoot your son? Why the charade with Taser bullets?”

“You’ll have to ask him.”

“I’m asking you Mr. Dexmyer. We’ve already established there were two gunmen, Gephardt and a Roscoe Bates.”

“Okay.”

“Mr. Bates is also an employee of yours is he not?”

“Yes, but I can’t control my employee’s actions or prevent their associating with less than reputable people.”

“On the day before your son’s death, Mr. Bates and Mr. Gephardt both deposited fifteen thousand dollars cash into their accounts. If we checked your accounts, would we find corresponding withdraws in those amounts? Before you answer that, I want you to know we did.”

“I deposit and withdraw large cash amounts all the time. I pay the subcontractors in cash. There’s nothing illegal about that.”

“Is that a question or a confession?”

“Objection.”

“Mr. Stumps,” the judge called out.

“Withdrawn.”

“Mr. Dexmyer I’m going to ask a final question. It’s a three-parter. When I’m done all you need to say is yes or no. Understood?” Dexmyer nodded. “To the best of your recollection you have never met my client nor did you attempt to extort money from him, and you have no knowledge of your son’s killer.”

“That is what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Yes or no?”

“No.”

“Thank you Mr. Dexmyer, you have been extremely helpful.”

“No further questions for this witness,” said Stumpy.

“Cross?” asked the judge.

The prosecutor stood up without buttoning his jacket. “We have no further questions for this witness.”

“You may step down Mr. Dexmyer,” said the judge.

Adhered to the underside of the table a metal plate with a single button awaited activation. As Dexmyer stood, I pushed the button that would change his and my life forever.

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

 

Mini cameras in furtive positions around the room paraded pictures of Dexmyer on the surface of the courtroom walls while speakers blasted out a conversation between Dexmyer and me. Dexmyer sat in the witness box in utter disbelief.

 

I’m Regis Dexmyer and we’ve important business to discuss.”

What is it you want Mr. Dexmyer?”

Thirty million dollars.”

Care to explain?”

Because I know the truth. You faked those songs.”

The experts disagreed with you and I am sure you have no way to substantiate your claims.”

Sinatra and I were friends. Every song he recorded, I was there, even the ones that didn’t make it onto the LPs. This song you claim you discovered will plunge into history as his greatest hit, but Sinatra never recorded it. Since you faked the Sinatra single, it’s not a leap to believe Coles is an illegitimate recording as well. Imagine two lost recordings found in the same storage container. Reeks of chicanery don’t you think? Mind you, both songs are brilliant, I really don’t know how you accomplished it and frankly I don’t care. They’re fakes.”

For arguments sake, let us say you are right.”

I am right.”

What makes you think you can extort thirty million dollars?”

I never used the word extortion? Think of it as a friend giving another friend a gift, Christmas is around the corner. With the release of the singles on Thursday at midnight, prognosticators say you will make anywhere from three hundred to four hundred and fifty million dollars. I’m not a rapacious man. Thirty million is a nice gift for one friend to give another. Think of it as a tithe to your favorite charity.”

For keeping quiet?”

Silence does have its own rewards.”

So let me get this right; if I pay you thirty million dollars you will leave me alone and I never hear from you again?”

That’s right friend.”

How do I know I can trust you? Once you get your thirty million what prevents you from extorting another thirty million dollars and another and another?”

I guess the only thing I can say is that you have to trust me.”

I’m sorry Mr. Dexmyer. Someone has given you an erroneous impression of me. First, I have less than a handful of friends so please do not refer to yourself as one of them. Second, the number of people I trust are even less than the friends I have. You do not fall into either category. So please do not sit there with your condescending tone and spout friendship and trust rhetoric. I would not trust you as far as I could throw you.”

What is this?”

Take a look inside.”

You’re not the only one who knows how to make a fake.”

So let me get this right. You are going to use fake pictures to extort thirty million dollars from me? It’s laughable. When my lawyers get through with you, you won’t have to nickels to rub together.”

You’re blowing smoke Drayper, you don’t want these pictures surfacing. After all, you’re the wonder boy who found the lost recordings. Think of the goodwill the American people have entrusted to you. If they discover the truth, they’ll turn on you as fast as a pack of hyenas.”

I…,”

I’m purchasing a beach house in St. Croix and want to close escrow by the first of February. You have two months to get me my money. It’s been a pleasure doing business with you.”

 

The dimmed lights returned to full illumination. The look on Stumpy’s face revealed shocked excitement. Dexmyer’s had grown twenty years.

The judge banging his gavel. “What is this,” he bellowed throughout the courtroom? No sooner had he said the words another recording played.

 

Sit.”

I don’t owe you money do I?”

I am here on a different matter.”

And what’s that?”

You killed Yvonne Cymbal.”

Who?”

You strangled her to death. Tell me why.”

Why should I tell you anything?”

Okay, okay, I killed her so what?”

She was a witness to another crime.”

What crime is that?”

Those fabricated pictures that showed up in the newspaper.”

Drayper, I didn’t recognize you. And I didn’t kill Yvonne, you did. Every paper in the country says so and every cop in the country is looking for you. Good luck beating that rap. Yvonne had a change of heart. When the media ran with the pictures of you both she told me it wasn’t fair what I’d done to you. She wanted to save your life Drayper. I couldn’t let that happen and so I killed her.”

I bet her death disappointed your father.”

That’s an understatement. I told him she was going to talk. He said I should have spoken with him first. Then I got this brilliant idea and told him if he paid me half of what he was going to get from you I’d keep my mouth closed.”

You extorted your own father?”

Dad?”

This is the Miami Dade Police. Open up.”

 

“I object your honor,” said the prosecutor.

“Mr. Stumps,” said an irate judge, “are you responsible for this charade?”

“No, your honor.”

“I want an explanation and I want it now.”

Dexmyer stood.

“You’re not going anywhere Mr. Dexmyer. You sat here under oath and lied in my courtroom. Bailiff, take him away.”

The bailiff reached for the elbow of Dexmyer’s left arm, lifted him from his seat, and escorted him from the courtroom. The judge asked that council approach. Stumpy jumped up and made it to the judge first. The prosecution appeared restrained in their approach.

“I’m going to have to declare a mistrial.”

“No, your honor,” said Stumpy. “My client wants to see this through.”

“Have you spoken with him?”

“Yes your honor. I have explained to him. He’s adamant to have a ruling.”

The judge looked my direction. I offered him a weak smile in return.

“In light of this new evidence Mr. Becker…” The judge’s inference rang as loudly as a school bell.

“Yes your honor,” the prosecutor said while nodding his head.

“Your honor, a charge against my client’s parents needs to be dropped,” says Stumpy.

“I was under the impression they were killed in a tragic accident.”

“No your honor,” Stumpy said without additional discussion.

“Any objection Mr. Becker?”

“No, your honor.”

“Then let’s step back and make it formal,” said the judge.

The prosecution’s team walked back dejected.

“Your honor,” said the prosecutor, “we withdraw the charges of two counts of murder leveled against Jason Drayper. In addition, we drop the charges against the defendant’s parents. In light of this new evidence, it’s plain they were not coconspirators.”

“Mr. Stumps I’m assuming you don’t have any objections.”

“No your honor.”

I high-fived Stumpy. The judge ignored our celebration.

“Mr. Stumps do you have any other witnesses to call?”

“No, your honor. The defense rests.”

“We’ll hear closing arguments on Monday at ten o’clock. Court is adjourned.”

The news reporters ran outside to begin live feeds to their respective cable and network stations.

“Awesome job Stumpy.”

He beamed from ear to ear. “Thanks for the help. Why did you wait so long to bring this information forward?”

“I have a desire for the dramatic.”

“We haven’t beaten this yet.”

“I know. At least now the murder charges are gone. More than that my parents are free.”

Four new guards escorted me back to jail. I sat in my cell worried how quickly the jury might arrive at a verdict. It came down to the evidence. Stumpy had put forth a ton of witnesses that supported my cause. Would that be enough? I had broken into a police station, and destroyed property, as well as make a ton of money in the process. Needless to say it was one of the longest weekends of my life.

When I arrived at the court, the guards took me to the holding room. Stumpy had a surprise for me. Colby was sitting on one of the seats. With my feet in restraints I could not run. I waited for the guards to undue my handcuffs and shackles. They left the room.

“I’ll give the two of you a few minutes,” said Stumpy.

When he left the room, I ran to Colby and pressed my arms around her. She put her head in my neck and we hugged.

“Missed you,” I managed to get out.

“I’ve missed you too.”

Something was not right with Colby.

“What’s wrong?”

“I’m worried.”

“Need to have faith.” I leaned over and kissed her on the lips. It had been a long time since I felt the earth move underneath my feet. Stumpy came in excusing himself. Colby hugged me one more time before leaving.

“See you inside,” she said and blew a kiss.

I dressed in a new suit that Stumpy bought for me. It was from my tailor in New York. Never a fan of brown, the metallic chocolate suit reminded me of rich ice-cream. I put on the shirt and tie and the pair of brown shoes that accompanied the rest of the wardrobe.

“Your father paid me a visit this weekend. He offered me a job on his team of lawyers. In addition, he paid me for representing you, the fee worked out to be fifteen hundred and hour.”

“Deserve it Stumpy.”

“Thanks Jason.”

“Worried about verdict?”

“Any lawyer worth his salt worries.”

The clerk poked her head in the room informing court was convening. We left accompanied by two guards. If possible, the crowd in the courtroom appeared even larger. I searched the audience surprised to see my mom and dad, sitting next to Colby and her parents. After we were seated, he asked if we were ready for closing arguments. The council at both tables shook their heads in affirmation.

“Mr. Becker,” the judge said.

The prosecutor stood up with his jacket buttoned. He picked up a stack of papers and carried them with him as he made his way to the jury. He took the stacks and divided them into three separate piles. I was unsure of what he would do next. Visually, the move was powerful.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Jason Drayper is guilty of making over a billion dollars by lying. If I’m not mistaken, presidents have resigned for less. He hit the first stack and said the word, ‘deception.’ Not only did he deceive Gamble Records he deceived you. With a show of hands, how many of you bought one of those singles believing them to be real?”

I could tell Stumpy wanted to object. Instead I cleared my throat telling him to stay put. Eight of the jurors raised their hands.

“Not only did he deceive you he deceived three hundred million people in this country not to mention the numbers around the world. Jason Drayper is guilty of destroying private and public property.” He hit the second pile with his palm making a strong sound. “The hotel he damaged had to close several floors so they could repair the damaged the defendant caused. If someone destroyed your house, you’d expect recompense? Why should we expect any less from Jason Drayper because he’s a teenager?”

Jason Drayper broke into a prison and helped his parents escape. He smacked the last stack of papers. “I understand the circumstances under which he made this happen. I ask you, is that enough reason to find him innocent? This is not a reality cable show we’re watching. This is real life with real people and real consequences. Any of those officers could have sustained injuries in the car chase to apprehend them. Aren’t their lives worth something?”

The prosecutor took the stacks of paper, combined them together, and threw them up into the air. His flair for the dramatic impressed the jury. “If you don’t come back with a verdict of guilty, what happens to all of this?” He pointed to the papers that were still fell to the courtroom floor and took his seat leaving his jacket buttoned.

Stumpy’s breathing never altered. His calm stayed trued.

“Mr. Stumps,” the judge called out.

“Your honor, foregoing closing remarks, I will conclude with an opening statement.”

“You reserved your right to do so. Continue Mr. Stumps,” said the judge.

Stumpy stood with confidence. He walked over to where the jurors were sitting.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, during this trial you are going to hear much said regarding Jason Drayper—some of it’s true—some of it false—some of it good, and some of it not so good.” While he spoke, Stumpy knelt and picked up the individual pieces of paper tossed earlier by the prosecutor. He placed a stack of papers on the table. “Some of it helpful.” He smacked the pile then placed a few sheets next to the pile emphasizing the difference. “Some of it not helpful.” He smacked the pile sending a reverberating ring throughout the courtroom. “It’s going to be up to me to guide you through the labyrinth of evidence and misinformation.”

Stumpy continued to pick up papers. As he bent to the floor jurors leaned forward listening and watching with compelling intensity. The prosecutor and his team sank in their seats.

“You will come to learn my client made over a billion dollars selling records purported to be the lost recordings of Frank Sinatra and Nat ‘King’ Cole. Helpful or not helpful?” He waited and one of the jurors nearly spoke. “Let’s see before we respond the wrong way. My client lied about the originality of the two songs. Not helpful.” He placed two pieces of paper on the pile and smacked it. Jurors blinked and jumped at the sound.

“We’ve read and watched the thousands of stories of lives being changed as a result of the Sinatra and Cole singles.” Placing a thick pile of papers on the largest pile he said, “Helpful,” then smacked it. This move met with reactions around the courtroom.

“We listened as experts told us the turnaround in our economy tracked back to these songs.” He placed more papers on the pile. “Helpful,” he said then smacked it.

“In addition, crime around the country is down. We listened as top law enforcement personnel and a member of congress attributing the downturn to the lost songs.” I held my breath as he placed more papers on the pile. “Helpful.” Smack!

“During this trial you’ll learn my client used force to break his parents out of jail. Helpful or Not Helpful.”

As I observed the jurors and others, I saw them weighing in their minds the answer to Stumpy’s question.

“Mr. Drayper caused destruction to a local police station as well as put the lives of officers in danger.” Stumpy placed ten sheets onto the pile and smacked. “My client aided in an escape.” A collective inhalation occurred as everyone guessed the correct pile. “Not helpful.” Bang! “The breakout released two innocent people from wrongful imprisonment, Jason’s mother and father. Helpful,” and he smacked the pile. “The surprise evidence that we listened to last Friday suggests my client had a noble reason for wanting his parents spared. As you remember the District Attorney dropped the charges.” He added papers to the pile and smacked. “Helpful.”

Only a few papers continued to litter the courtroom floor. Anxiety built in the courtroom like Lego creations—piece by piece. What next?

“You’ll find out my client destroyed public and private establishments in his effort to free his parents. Damage occurred at the hotel not to mention several fender benders.” He placed the remaining papers in the Not Helpful pile and smacked it. “Restitution has been made to everyone who suffered damage.”

“Objection your honor, he’s introducing new evidence.”

“Mr. Becker,” the judge glowered and lifted his index finger pointing it at the prosecution.

With no papers left in his hand the air in the courtroom breathed with concern. Stumpy returned to the table and reaching into his briefcase retrieved a pack of computer paper, five hundred sheets in total. He ripped open the pack. Breaths freed and anxiety lessened. Stumpy pinched a stack placing it on the Helpful pile, and smacking it.

“During this trial you will hear that my client was responsible for the death of two people. As you know Jason Drayper was being extorted by Dexmyer who we heard on tape making threats to my client. We know thanks to the recordings my client was not responsible for the death of Regis Dexmyer Junior or Yvonne Cymbal. The District Attorney dropped those charges He took over half the pile and place it on the stack.”

“Helpful,” someone in the courtroom shouted as Stumpy smacked the pile.

“Order,” called the judge with an imperceptible smile.

“A few moments ago the prosecutor divided a stack of paper into three piles and tossed them into the air. Now that the storm has cleared it’s obvious that only one stack matters.” He picked up the Helpful Pile and carried it to the table placing it on the sheened surface. “This,” he said returning to the short pile, “is nothing more than smoke and mirrors to get you to miss that pile.” He took the remaining sheets in his hand and tossed it into the air. “Thank you.”

For a long moment the court was quiet as everyone watched the straggling sheets of paper float to the ground.

Stumpy returned to his seat. I said and did nothing as I sat in awe of the lawyer I once considered burning.

The judge spent the next half hour talking to the jury discussing the importance of not voting with their hearts but with their heads, and dismissed them.

The guards took me back to my cell. I paced back and forth contemplating my end. My resolve, though strong, wavered with each passing day. How would my ‘peers’ vote.

For five days, the jury spent twelve hours a day deliberating over my case before arriving at a verdict. Instead of reading the verdict on Sunday, the judge pushed it to Monday morning at ten o’clock. News broadcasters from around the country swamped down on Miami Beach. Additional police flooded the streets to control the crowds which up to now had been peaceful.

No doubt the drive from the jail to the courthouse was longest of my life. When I got to the holding room Stumpy met me. His mood was positive. He had given his best shot, and I admired him for that. The good news if any was that I was seventeen. This meant a year in a juvenile holding facility. This brought little comfort. The idea of being confined added to my anxiety.

I balked from changing out of my orange jump suit but Stumpy refused to let me give in to my despondency. We both waited, ready for it to be over. When the clerk arrived to get us, I shuffled though my feet were no longer shackled and just made it to my seat. I abstained from looking behind me to see my supporters not even the one I loved the most.

The judge entered and Stumpy needed to help me to my feet. I felt everything I knew coming to an end. The choices we make in life have consequences attached to them, every single one. Sometimes those consequences are immediate other times they can take years to surface. Mine were coming now.

I feared the worst as the jury marched in and lowered my eyes. I did not want to see my guilt on their faces. I focused on a spot on the table.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the jury,” the judge said, “have you reached a verdict?”

“We have your honor,” replied the foreman of the jury.

The bailiff walked over to the foreman, retrieved the small piece of paper to decide my fate and handed it to the judge. The judge opened the folded sheet of paper took a moment to glance at the verdict. Onlookers scrutinized his face searching for signs. He handed it back to the bailiff who returned the same piece of paper to the foreman.

I felt Stumpy lift me to my feet again, but there was no weight to my body. If he let go, I would have floated up through the ceiling into the atmosphere to disappear forever. The somersaults in my stomach refused to stop creating a touch of nausea. My current headache had lasted three days and was far from receding.

“On the first count of…”

A dark blackness, thick and foreboding covered me. As much as I tried I could do nothing to fight it. My last thoughts were on the media. They would have a field day with this.

You wuss.

I had no choice but to surrender to the darkness.

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

 

I sat, my back rested against the polished bark of a tree. My feet pointed towards the river. Tense muscles relaxed. Anxious thoughts faded into oblivion—no pressure to concoct an image or compose an idea. Blood flowed uninhibited throughout my body with each beat of my heart spawning unbroached energy. My eyes, open, took in this world’s delights.

Near me a river flowed. It stretched for hundreds of miles in either direction winding in conformance with the fertile viridian hills and mountainside. I gauged the distance between the opposing sides of the river to be no longer than the length of three football fields.

Tall prosperous trees, heavy with fruit, lined the banks of the river. Planted systematically each tree boasted a surfeit of ripe fruit. There were white sapote, kaffir lime, pistachio, and cherimoya trees. On my side of the river I observed star fruit, Cara Cara oranges, and kumquats and a divergence of trees whose names I did not know.

I paid special attention to the ground beneath the trees; no overripe or spoiled fruit lay on the pristine grass. This proved to be the same as my eyes turned up river. The tree above me awaited inspection—a lychee tree of unconventional proportions. My mine halted as I tried to remember the last time I enjoyed such an exquisite prize. I speculated on the height of the tree and how to reach the fruit. As I stretched my arm towards the branches, the distance between my hand and the limb minified allowing me to reach the fruit with ease.

I tugged at the round ball, detached, it with little effort, and brought it toward my nose. With slight inhalation, the scent penetrated the nasal cavity traveling throughout my body until the fragrance permeated my entire being. Fingers tugged at outer layer removing the skin with the ease of peeling back the yellow flesh of a ripe banana. Eager, my tongue touched the meat of the fruit before taking a bite. The tingling on the tip of my tongue traveled throughout my body preparing me for the new sensation.

Psychedelic explosions of taste superseded my wildest expectations during my first bite. It was as if every piece of the fruit separated into individual atoms and then further dissected into the atom’s respective protons, neutrons, and electrons. My body savored the entirety of the fruit. Added vibrations of ecstasy ensued as the next mini explosions danced over me with each crush of my teeth. The smooth brown oval seed never appeared. Distressed at disfiguring a perfect environment, I took the skin, gambling it to be edible, and ate the rest.

No concept of time existed here. Nighttime never arrived, and I saw no sun though the sky showed bright. The cloudless cerulean sky projected calm and peace. Curious to the other incomparable features of this world I traversed the river stopping when I saw a white palace standing in front of the large sage mountain.

The structure appeared to be made from highly polished marble but the more I stared my eyes penetrated through its exterior revealing only more magnificence. Gold streets glistened with gleams so bright I closed my eyes.

The noises behind me registered calm. I turned, to see a pride of lions and a herd of sheep gathered behind me. They reversed directions beckoning me to follow. I obliged. We traveled through a prairie of tall green grass. Lions and sheep ran at equal speeds, I matched their tempo and slowed when the grass diminished in size. The run culminated five hundred yards from a single tree planted in the middle of an expansive field. The deep purrs of lions and the mild bleating of sheep intertwined forming a melody I understood. I hummed along. The animals refused to move any further towards the tree and bowed paying homage to an unseen being. They turned and dancing to the beat of a new song and abandoned me.

I attempted to follow, but my feet held fast. As I considered my choices, heat from the ground singed my shoes until I removed both shoes and socks and watched as they disintegrated into nothingness. My feet cooled at once, and no further restrictions impeded my progress towards the tree.

A man dressed in white appeared in the distance. A garment bleached beyond earth’s standards forced me to turn away much like the sun if I stared too long. My feet trudged heavy towards him.

I want to talk to you,” I blurted.

The man walked away from me.

Please,” I pleaded. “Do not leave me here alone.”

You’re not alone Jason,” The baritone vibes of his voice were soothing and echoed in my mind. My attempts to get closer proved fruitless. He walked increasing the distance between us.

My mouth opened to plead for him to stop. He turned to face me. His bronze coloring, bleached hair, and fiery eyes pressed me to look away as I underwent his scrutiny of me. A vision of my parents surfaced. I strained to think of something pleasant, but the images of my parents displayed on my cerebral cortex refused to recede.

Is that why you brought me here?” I asked the apparition.

Feelings of rage rose without summoning as if they floated on the surface of my mind. Specific images of my past and present hurled into my conscious—memories of hurt. The ring of discipline where my dad and I fought. Black and white photos with red. X’s crossed through them. I remembered the locked room, the guns, the clandestine activity around the house, I recalled my mom’s reluctance to stand up for me. No erasure of the deception to prevent me from discovering their secrets, I remembered everything.

My eyes downward, I noticed an amber glow emanating from my clothes.

What is happening to me?” I asked.

You need to forgive your parents.”

Never,” I yelled as if no other possible answer existed.

As the heat increased, I removed my shirt.

You must.”

Why?”

Otherwise you’ll never be able to experience the good works I have planned for you.”

Referenced in my mind was a similar conversation. I recalled standing in the dark and a warm authoritative voice correcting or challenging me.

This is too much to ask anyone. I am only seventeen.”

No restriction with age subsists when it comes to forgiveness.”

I paused not sure what to say next.

Have you run out of excuses?” The voice asked.

My pain is worse than most,” I said my voice heated. “You should understand that.”

Silence.

I just wanted someone to love me.”

You are loved.”

Not by the person who counts most.”

You mean your dad?”

Yes, my dad. Why not bring him here instead of me?”

Your father’s not perfect.”

You are preaching to the choir.”

Neither are you perfect.”

I wanted to unleash my anger in full onto the man who spoke because I was not sure of his response, I restrained myself.

I am an abused byproduct of my dad’s unfortunate upbringing.”

Your father did his best to care for you.”

If you are referring to money, I need his touch, to experience his love. What is wealth without love but familial anarchy?”

I never mentioned money.”

Then get to the point.” The heated material of my pants adhered to my skin. I tore my pants standing in nothing but briefs and a body flush with an elevated temperature.

Your ability to think and make decisions for yourself, you much yet to carry out.”

The trial? I will soon be sentenced for my wonderful accomplishments.”

Your methods were wrong.”

See.”

It doesn’t mean that the idea didn’t have merit.”

You are talking in riddles. My life has been a wasted exercise, an experiment gone awry. Everything around me has turned to rubbish.”

It should mean something Jason. Your parents are largely responsible for how you turned out.”

And I stand as their sole accuser.”

You can’t blame your parents for the mess you’ve gotten yourself into Jason. Your choices are why you’re on trial.”

Wait a minute,” I yelled.

What is it Jason?” His voice rumbled compelling me to cover my ears. The explosion of light sent shockwaves of terror through me. The amber glow refashioned into crimson. Pain accompanied the change—a mild case of sunburn to tolerate.

My dad’s seduction of money, precipitated my poor choices.” Pain from the stickiness of my burning shorts I could stand no longer. With no choice but to remove them, I stood naked before my accuser. I yelled out in pain.

Is that what you think?”

I replied writhing from the heat. “Why do you think I deceived the world with my songs in the first place?”

Jason you can’t blame that on your dad?”

Why not?” I asked loathing my dad as the words left my lips.

You think you have it figured out don’t you?”

By the tone of the voice, I knew he disagreed with my assessment.

What is it you think you know about your parents?”

I know they lie to protect a vile secret.”

What if you’re wrong?” The man asked me.

Not on this,” I uttered my spirit as haughty as my voice defiant. Heat from unknown sources attacked my body until my only recourse was to scream. “You’re hurting me.”

What you’re experiencing is a direct result of your unwillingness to forgive your parents.”

I brought this on myself?” I cried hopping around because the bottoms of my feet were painful. “You are lying.”

I can’t lie.”

The pain increased. Every part of my body suffered the torrid attack. “Please help me,” I cried.

Silence.

I beg you,” I pleaded.

I can’t Jason until you’re willing to forgive your parents.”

I just wanted was for them to love me.”

They do love you.”

I do not expect you to understand. Did you have a father who turned from you? My dad never once put his arms around me and complimented me for a job well done. We never fished. For Pete’s sake we live on the frikkin ocean…sorry I never meant to swear….and the fuss he created over the wave runners. He beat me up when it suited him or if I did or said something that contradicted his philosophy and Mom just stood there and let it happen. You have to understand why my hatred for him is so great.”

The pain doubled. “Ahhh,” I screamed with tears in my eyes. “I will do whatever you ask if you remove this pain from me.”

I need you to forgive your parents.”

Why make me suffer what should be their torment?”

Because you are the one who needs to change.”

I looked for relief from my pain. None was forthcoming.

Are you willing to endure this terror just so you can cradle and nurse the hate you have for your parents?”

I resisted saying yes, but He knew my thoughts. The pain continued to afflict me. I thought the end to be near, but the pain remained constant. To eradicate it meant humbling myself. Instead I geared to toughing it out until I could stand it no longer.

Wait please,” I cried as the man walked away. My heart heaved with sorrow but no tears came.

Silence.

Had I waited too long to cry out for help?

Help me,” I hollered. “Please show mercy.”

The man continued to walk away until in the distance he walked up into the sky and disappeared from my sight. I screamed in horror afraid this was my end, and because of my selfish resistance to forgive my own flesh and blood. I rolled on the ground looking for relief praying for the mountains to crush me. The colors and iridescence of the day dimmed until the darkness enveloped every part of me and while in the pitch blackness I suffered alone.

The physical pain coupled with the loneliness proved unbearable. I watched in dreadfulness as a scroll-like list of my faults fell from the sky. Each infraction, proclaimed in a thunderous voice the inflexible “guilty.”

The weight of each wrong could not stand up under this supreme scrutiny. In anguish I cried, wishing for a change but it was far too late now. I saw flashes of my parents and realized that any justification for behavior no longer mattered. They were not the ones in in agony. My hatred did nothing but hurt me.

My mind traveled back to the day when I asked for Colby’s forgiveness. I pressed her because it meant so much to me. She had freely forgiven me allowing me to experience newness of life. I fell to my face in deep sorrow understanding what the voice was asking of me and why.

I think I understand now,” I bellowed not from irreverence but from sheer knife-stabbing heat-blistering pain.

Silence.

Please.” My chest heaved in and out with no hope for relief. I pounded my fists into my palms until they ached. “Help me,” I hollered as I fell to my knees. “God,” I cried, “Please forgive me. I made a terrible mess of my life.”

It occurred to me the irony of what I had done. I was willing to ask God to forgive me but resistant in offering that same forgiveness to someone else. Even I knew the hierarchy in heaven prevented such injustice. The fire consumed me without destroying my body. Every wrong sinful thought, word, and action flashed through my mind sapping my remaining resolve.

Help me to forgive; I cannot do this on my own. Please,” I begged desperate to hear the voice once more.

Silence.

Please, I forgive them.”

More silence followed. I resigned myself to my fallen state bemoaning my woes and hating the waste I had made of my life. Whatever my life from this point on it stemmed from my own choices.

I cried out, “I need you.”

I’m here.”

The pain continued without relief. As I opened my eyes, I found myself at the river with the fruit trees on both sides. I turned to see the lions and sheep huddled together watching me, this time accompanied by other animals the menagerie of melodic and harmonic voices sang a song so wonderful no descriptive words exist to explain it.

I dove into the river experiencing instant healing. I continued underneath the water until a bright light caught my attention. I followed it.

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

 

I swam through the watery tunnel of light unaffected by the distance. Fifty feet in front of me the tunnel came to an end. Curious as to my next move I reached to inspect the pliable wall. Seconds later my fingers pushed through the jelly-like substance encapsulated in a prismatic bubble that hovered above a sizeable unfamiliar room. The caliber of the equipment and technology made the technology on CSI Miami appear antiquated.

Several lines of servers stretched from one end of the room to the other. An excessive number of desktop computers and banks of monitors sat in strategic positions throughout the massive room. I wanted to take a closer look. Almost as if I had willed it a slit appeared in my enclosure dropping me to the ground.

I walked to the bank of monitors closest to me and observed live images of kitchens, bedrooms, lounge rooms, closets, school classrooms and auditoriums, the interior of cars, offices, as well as many other outdoor locations. Each computer was labeled with locations in Mexico, and other major cities in South America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia, and the U.S.A.

I moved towards another bank of monitors. On top of each screen a digital clock showed the current time of the respective zone.

I caught a glimpse of the large elevator at the end of the massive room and investigated. Metal doors, reminding me of Star Trek, opened upon proximity. I read the numbered panel and realized this huge complex had three separate floors. “Floor Two,” I called out. The swift movement was undetectable. Again the doors opened right away revealing a gym. Housed inside were walking and running machines, elliptical, and an assortment of specialized weight machines.

Stacked against the wall were various free weights. The focus of the room was the large wrestling ring in the middle. It reminded me of the one in my bedroom that served as both workout space and discipline zone.

Voices, a smattering of them, captured my attention. I exited the elevator and hurried myself towards them. Unsure of how to explain my presence, and shocked at the company of people, I shuddered as they walked through me oblivious to my presence.

My dad, my mom, Ed and Marty dressed in shorts and tee-shirts. I caught a glimpse of my dad’s arms and legs. Welted stripes covered every inch of his skin. I remembered Ed’s narrative as it related to the torture my dad received. I wanted to turn in embarrassment. His wounds held my gaze fast. Unashamed he bore his marks as if each stripe was a badge of honor. Up to this point in my life I had not a single ounce of mercy for my dad. These easily understood images of his pain gave me pause. In a single moment my frozen-hearted interior thawed.

Mom entered the ring and performed a Jujitsu warm-up. After fifteen minutes, my dad entered the ring with her and they spared until their bodies were saturated with sweat. My mouth dropped. Madeline Drayper, my mom, flew around the ring as if she had invented her own school of martial arts. I knew she was fit, but I never understood what she did to keep her body so toned.

She blocked hit after hit from my dad and landed several punches. I watched him fly back several times. The surreal image in front had no explanation. Mom, the soft one, raged like a beast. When their mock fight ended, my dad moved towards my mom and picked her up by the waist and swing her around several times. When he lowered her they kissed passionately and long. I shook my head in amazement.

After their showers, my dad wore his normal black Gucci while Mom donned a charcoal Burberry London jacket and pants, coupled with a dark long-sleeved shirt that made her look tough. They jogged up the stairs to the top floor and branched off into different directions.

“Meeting in five,” yelled my dad.

I followed Mom to see what she did in this place. She sat at her impressive looking desk and typed on her keyboard. The site she visited was one of our family’s favorite Chinese restaurants. I took a double take when I glanced at the bottom of her computer screen to check the date. It read August 9, 2014. My fifteenth birthday.

“Madeline,” my dad called, “can you please bring Jason’s Report?”

What report?” I wanted to ask out loud.

Mom opened a drawer and reached inside retrieving a file phonebook thick. I yearned to see what was so important about me it took hundreds of pages to answer. Step in step, I semi-jogged with Mom and waited to the side as she entered a room with a large mahogany table. My dad, Ed, and Marty, already seated, stood as she approached the table. Mom placed her file on the table and together they recited something from memory.

“As members of the W.A.V.E., Warriors Against Violence Everywhere, we pledge to stand for the rights of every human being to enjoy freedom. We will fight against any power or force that exerts their power over the rights of any individual. We will stay true to our bylaws refusing to follow private crusades no matter how unconscionable the act unless we are united to target such an individual or organization. As a team we put our lives on the line, without fear of reprisal, for imprisoned souls who yearn to be free.”

Each person extended their hand and placed them on top of each other. I marveled as I stood in the presence of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and D’Artagnan. For a brief moment, they bowed in silence.

“Amen.”

They sat in unison.

“Now for the first order of business; Today is a great day.”

Smiles and cheers filled the room.

“This is Jason’s fifteenth birthday,” said my dad.

The elongated applause stunned me. Birthdays were a non-mentioned event avoided at all costs. Everything inside me opposed this revelry. A person unknown to me entered the room carrying a birthday cake and ice-cream. Fifteen candles pushed deep into the thick double fudge dessert flared and shot bursts of dazzling flames into the air. Mom cut the cake into large heavy pieces and scooped equal sized portions of double chocolate fudge ice-cream. I watched in shock as they ate and laughed in good spirits.

“So this is where it begins.”

“Where what begins?” I wanted to ask.

“He becomes a man today,” replied my father.

“You must be excited?” commented Ed.

“I can’t contain it,” my dad hailed.

Who was this person impersonating my dad?

He picked up a small remote and the multiple screens filled the room with virgin pictures of me. Videos and collages of me and my dad chronicled my life from birth up to the trip in the Bahamas. There were video clips of my dad and me together: holding me up above his head and swinging me around, roller-blading on the sidewalk, sitting behind home plate at a Major League Baseball game, downing a dozen tacos together, on our backs watching a DVD while stuffing popcorn into our mouths, sitting in church, surfing in Hawaii, scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, biking in Spain, mountain climbing on Everest, and racing Wave runners in the Indian ocean. The pictures continued until I could no longer watch. Smiles and laughter generated from genuine delight coerced the sorrow to the edge of my eyes. I sank to the floor confounded by the images. None of them was a memory in my mind.

“This must be a difficult day for you both,” uttered Marty. “Why don’t you break with tradition this once and celebrate the day with him?” he added.

“I won’t countervail W.A.V.E. bylaws. I have been grooming Jason to take over for me when Madeline and I retire. Even the minutest alteration to this plan could potentially worsen matters.”

“What will you do for his birthday?”

“I feel him slipping away, and yet his training is more important than any misgivings I have. It pains us this hatred and distrust he has of Madeline and me. It’s exploded to volatile levels. And yet we pay the price with gladness. Today I’m giving him the fifteen million.”

“What a mind job,” said Marty. “He is not going to know what to do with such a large sum.”

“I don’t think Jason’s tempted by money. He’s driven by something totally different.”

“What then?” Ed asked.

“Music. Jason is a musical genius. He’s written over two hundred songs. I wish I could tell him how proud I am of him. The challenge will come as he melds his love for music and his role at W.A.V.E.”

Prevent of the moisture pushing through my eye ducts proved impossible. The salt bath unleashed upon me like a waterfall and I sobbed. This was information I yearned my whole life to hear. Though it fell short of total explanation, my dad shared enough information to give me a brief glimpse into his heart and his love for me.

“How much longer can you tolerate his opposition?” Ed asked.

“I don’t know, but I don’t foresee any change in his temperament towards me for a few years yet. My main concern is not pushing him beyond his threshold of pain. Push him too far and the whole plan goes south. My schedule is so full over the coming year I’m worried he may fall or jump over the edge. That’s why I need you guys to step up and intervene for me; just make sure to keep it balanced.”

“How is he handling himself in the ring?” asked Marty.

“You’ve seen the tapes, he’s as beastly as Madeline. He always stops short refusing to go for the kill blow as if he’s afraid of something.”

“We need someone with his skillset,” Marty offered.

Up to this point Mom sat quiet. After my dad’s statement she coughed; not from a tickle in her throat, but because she did not agree with the others. The men waited.

“Jason is extremely strong both physically and emotionally but this plan of yours has the potential of backfiring and pushing him to the edge.”

“What are you saying Madeline?” asked my dad.

“I have had enough cups of cocoa with him to gauge his mental state…”

I could attest to that.

“…and I believe he is heading for an emotional collapse. I wish I could offer a solution. At the moment we need to hope and pray something or someone will come into his life to pull his focus from his natural and rightful obsession with your love.”

The others nodded in agreement.

“Let’s not rush into anything yet; let’s see how he handles the cash he receives tonight that should adjust his focus somewhat. Any further discussion on this point?” No one responded. “Okay then let’s move onto the next order of business. Take a look at the dossier in front of you.”

I watched as they opened the folders and inside I saw a black-and-white photo of a Thai man. His file paled in comparison to mine. The specs on him were specific including: facial features and identifying marks, likes and dislikes, favorite hangouts etc., and why he was being targeted.

“Tomorrow morning I am going Bangkok. Mano Chamrueangdej is one of the key players in the slave/sex trade in Asia. He is responsible for stealing the innocence of over three thousand underage girls and boys. As you know he’s been red xed.”

“I can’t think of a better person to receive one of your final makeovers,” said Marty. “Will the kill be up close?”

“Getting close will be difficult so I’ve decided on a head shot. He’s eating at the Baan Rim Pa Restaurant in Phuket. I’ll take him from a boat.”

“How many yards are you guessing?” asked Ed.

“Six hundred. I’ll use the Accuracy International AS50 sniper rifle…”

“Designed by the Brits; semi-automatic, nice,” said Marty.

“Mano is traveling with two other minor players as you can see.” My dad pulled out two more black and white photos. The others retrieved their copies.

“Three for the price of one.”

“Something like that. Madeline tell me what you have.”

“Mano has a total of ten residences around the world including a monstrosity in Connecticut. Marty and I will hit the house and retrieve the painting.”

“We have a buyer in place who is willing to pay fifty-five million dollars for it,” added Marty.

“Good. What about you Ed?”

“After I drop off the team in New York, Danny and I will see to it he becomes the latest victim of identity theft. His cash reserves total over eighty million dollars. We will transfer those funds into our Cayman account.”

“This is going to be a great payday

“The belongings for the new mansion he’s building in The Keys are in a storage unit,” said my mom.

Marty laughed. “It never ceases to amaze me how many affluent types think they can evade the authorities by storing stuff in a shed to shield their belongings.”

“Ain’t that the truth,” replied Ed.

“I’ll be flying south to the auction we arranged. We have lines on most of the bidders and I don’t foresee any problems. The stuff in the shed is worth about five mil.”

“Good.” My dad maneuvered his tablet to the calendar portion. “We’ll meet in three days. Marty have you gotten the gear for our trip to North Korea?”

“We’re good to go.”

“Unless somebody has something else?”

They stood and recited the W.A.V.E. motto one more time and prayed. While Ed and Marty remained on the floor tending desk work my dad and mom exited the room taking the steps to the bottom floor.

The emptiness of people on the top two levels drew a distinction to that of the lower level. Hundreds of W.A.V.E.’s employees crowed the room. Each person sat in front of a powerful computer and wore a headset that blocked out peripheral noises. They spoke with contacts from around the world targeting and gleaning information on the top one hundred most sought after individuals from around the world. The list did rank the individuals in terms of the severity of their crimes against humanity but more over when their names appeared on the Final Makeover List.

Not every individual scrutinized by W.A.V.E. was targeted for death. Often times they had to endure the loss of funds, empires, and associates or imprisonment. Those selected for a final makeover had to meet punctilious criteria. This meant they were responsible for the deaths and abhorrent treatment of countless others and included members of the drug cartel, war lords in the battle worn Third World countries, the perpetrators of the slavery and sex-trade as well as any others who violated the rights of human beings.

An oversight group of fifteen members which included the Draypers, Ed, and Marty met monthly or as needed to decide whether not an individual needed pursuing and if so the guilt prescribed for that individual. This clandestine non-government company imposed multiple checks and balances which prevented lone rangers from venturing out on their own using W.A.V.E.‘s resources to settle personal scores or vendettas unpermitted by the creed.

I followed my dad. He tapped five people on the shoulder. They stopped what they were doing and joined him in a private room. He waited till everyone entered then shut the door. I walked through the wall excited by new found skill and keen to hear my dad.

“As you know, today is Jason’s birthday.”

Once again the smattering of claps and praise surprised me.

“Thank you,”” spoke my dad humbly. “Because of your business acumen I have chosen the five of you to help mentor and direct Jason as it relates to his finances. Tonight I will give him a large sum of money and I ask that the five of you take a hold of Jason. He’s not ignorant of money. However, I want you to mold him and teach him money’s importance, and assist him in making wise decisions. My goal for him this year is huge. By his sixteenth birthday I want the money I’m giving him tonight doubled. It’s going to take each of you prodding and challenging him to see the purpose and potential of money. Because of the role I must play in his life I can’t take on this responsibility.”

“You honor us Jack,” said one of the two men in the group. The others nodded in agreement.

“You don’t know how much I appreciate this.”

“What if he supersedes the goal?” asked Tanya a thirty-something single woman.

“With every hundred thousand over his goal this group will receive twenty percent of that sum to be split amongst the five of you. Thanks everyone we’ll talk later.”

Clancy, Adrianne, Henderson, Mary, and Toby, my five financial counselors, exited the room to plan their strategy to formulate my financial future. My dad chose them well. Because I had exceeded his goal by a million dollars not including the sales from the lost songs.

My dad remained behind and sat in the comfortable leather chair placing his arms on the oval table which had similar workmanship to the table located in our kitchen. He placed one had on top of another and then bowed his head allowing it to rest on his wrists. I listened as he spoke in whispers.

“Dear Lord, give me wisdom to know what to do. I’m not sure of this path I have chosen for Jason. I fear because of my actions he will turn his back on me and he and I will end up estranged as father and son. Forgive me for taking such drastic actions to shape him as I prepare him to take over for me. He won’t understand but I hope one day he will tell me just how much he appreciates me even if he is unaware of the sacrifice Madeline and I have made to so he can fulfill the plans you’ve created for him to complete.”

The emotional pleas from my dad reverberated from the table back up to my ears. He sobbed for a few minutes before ending his prayer.

“That’s it for now. Thanks for listening God. Amen.”

Fear and surprise harnessed with confusion, remorse, joy, and self-loathing culminated in a frenzy of uncertainty and understanding. Now I knew the truth. Those years of hating my dad believing him to be the enemy were not only ill-founded but erroneous and futile. I fell to my knees as my dad stood to his feet and exited the room.

Why have you brought me here?” I yelled out.

I wanted you to know the truth.”

Why now, why like this?” I asked with the dreariness of a full-fledged Florida tropical storm.

Forgiveness alone is not enough.”

Please tell me what you want me to do?”

You know what to do?”

Thunder echoed around me and my body rose from the ground until I had become re-encased in the bubble. Instead of approaching a tunnel of light I was jaunted into a cloud thick and black. I pushed through the darkness. My back was cold and my breathing erratic as I came to.

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

 

Revived, I lay on the courtroom floor for a few minutes to gather my bearings. The crowd looked horrified at the ghastly sight in front of them. Two of the guards helped me to my feet. What a wimpy way to checkout. I stopped myself from searching for Colby’s face afraid of what I might see.

The charges were read one by one and on each count I received a guilty verdict. Much of the crowd gasped while others stood adamant the jury had endorsed the wrong verdict. The judge called for order. Stumpy pulled the jury, and without facial tick or discomfited posturing each of my peers annunciated their verdict of guilty. The judge thanked the jury and set the date of sentencing for a week.

Guards transported me from the court back to the holding room where I changed into my orange jumpsuit. Visitors who appeared at the prison to see me I refused to accept. Bathed with the knowledge my actions were wrong despite my inward hope of skating by on the charges isolated me from those who cared.

Food disrupted the inner-workings of my stomach preventing me from digesting any solids. I attempted to settle my stomach with ginger ale and seltzer water the guard procured for me making the gastric explosions more manageable.

On the day of sentencing, Stumpy gave no pep talk nor did he utter any trite sayings. I arrived at the courthouse and dressed without conversation. Today culminated the trial and my life. I stood as the judge strolled into the courtroom. With a verdict of guilty, I’d been told by one of the guards being seventeen didn’t mean I couldn’t incur more years in jail. I awaited the magical number of years to be incarcerated for my crimes. My eyes lowered powerless to look his direction. His voice boomed as he reiterated the reason for these proceedings.

Before pronouncing sentence, he asked if anyone wanted to speak on my behalf. Person after person came forward asking for the judge’s lenience. When no further supporters came forward the judge asked, “Is there anyone here to speak against Mr. Drayper?”

To my shock and relief no one stood.

“Mr. Stumps, before I sentence your client does he have anything he wants to say?”

I stood, not out of deference to the judge’s plea but because throughout my time in prison I never apologized to the American public. Weak and confident, I faced the judge. I hoped they understood the feelings behind my stunted words?

“Your honor, ladies and gentlemen,” I marveled at my loosed tongue, “George Bernard Shaw said, “A life spent making mistakes is not only more honorable, but more useful than a life spent doing nothing.” It’s apparent to me as I stand in front of you today that the last year and a half of my life I spent making my share of mistakes. Unlike the honor Shaw mentioned, not a single shred of principle attached itself to my accomplishments. My deception of the American people stemmed from an untamed lust for money. This selfish appetite for more led to clouded judgments on my part”

“I am sorry to have deceived and misled so many of you. Any sentence the judge hands out will be a fair and impartial.” At my conclusion my eyes directed towards the judge.

“Mr. Drayper.”

“Yes, your honor.”

“There are three questions I want to ask you before pronouncing sentence.”

I took an obvious deep breath and waited for him to speak.

“Mr. Drayper if you had the opportunity to go back, I assume you’d try your hand at something different?”

“No, your honor,” I replied right away.

The breeze from the collective gasp of the crowd rushed upon me. Cameras tightly focused on my face zoomed in further. The perplexity of my answer created an incalculable concern on the judge’s face. He shifted in his seat in obvious discomfort before speaking again.

“Is this your final answer?”

“You misunderstand your honor. If not for this trial and the subsequent guilty verdict, I may have whisked through life completely devoid of the reason God created me in the first place. Embraced within this heart of mine are many loves. Should I be ashamed that I have an ability to make money? Is this not a gift I am destined to unwrap, and what of music? I love taking single notes and joining them with other notes to create a composition to unravel hardened hearts, subdue the spirit of those living lives of franticness. And I have other dreams? Should I bury them because people shiver at my abilities? I have been running from myself for a long time and I refuse to anymore.

“I have learned during this ordeal, your honor, there are legitimate ways to carry out my dreams and fulfill God plans rather than resorting to deceptive and disingenuous methods.”

The judge appreciated my prolonged explanation and jotted notes before asking his next question.

“Mr. Drayper, what sentence should you receive you for your crimes?”

The complexity of his question left little room for lollygagging and yet its paradoxical nature did not escape me. If I told him to throw the book at me, might he take that as a sign to give me the maximum? If I told him to show mercy, what did that say about my contrition? It was a no win, lose-lose question.

“Your honor, I am reminded of another quote, this one by Abraham Lincoln, ‘I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.’ I realize I deserve the harshest punishment the law allows, but I importune upon you to allow me a second chance. These mistakes have forever marked my life and as a result I am no longer the same Jason Drayper who embarked upon this journey. I cannot in good conscious repeat my errors when the magnitude of what I have done stands alert ready to accuse me.”

Once again the judge leaned forward and wrote something.

“This will be my final question for you Mr. Drayper. It is appalling to me that your actions were intentional and deceived the entire country, the good hard-working Americans. And though I am glad to have heard in this courtroom that much good came out of your misplaced actions, along the way you broke the law and hurt people. What do you have say to the people whose lives you’ve buffeted with your actions?”

I ran over the list of people in my mind. Its extensiveness was short: there were my parents, Stedwick, and the American people.

“Your honor, you are correct when you said I hurt others on this quest to become wealthy. I want to take this opportunity to apologize to the American people.”

I turned and faced the camera.

“My fellow American’s,” I said without thinking as if I had been in political office for years. “There are no words I can say that can alter my actions or fix the hurt you have experienced as a result of my greed and selfishness. I have not only marred my name, my family’s name, but the names of the artist whose records I claimed to have discovered.

My lawyer and I have discussed a plan to reimburse those of you who return your records. You will need to go to the retailer where you purchased the single and the store will refund you the entire purchase price as well as an additional amount of fifty percent. In no way does this excuse my deplorable behavior, but I hope you will have it in your heart to forgive me while letting me make this right at the same time.”

The smattering of cricket murmuring around the courtroom forced the judge to bang his gavel procuring their attention. After they quieted, I turned to face Stedwick Marks and continued.

“Mr. Marks I entrusted to you something extremely important to me. In good faith, you believed and supported me throughout this entire enterprise. I lied to you and I am sorry. The reason I chose you was because you are the best at what you do not because I saw you as an easy mark. I hope you will forgive me for tarnishing your name and the integrity of Gamble Records.”

Stedwick eyeballed me the entire time. Though he made tons of money on the deal, we forged a friendship. I hoped this explained his despondency. He offered an anemic smile. Maybe there was hope we could resolve our differences and continue our friendship. Instead of being back in New York, he was here. That was something.

I turned to face my parents.

The last real time I saw them was in the hotel prior to their parachuting out the window. My final words to them were unkind and unleashed from a wrath few relationships could recover. Now they stood to my side. The uncertainty I saw in their faces had nothing to with weakness. They had no idea what I might say on live television. No, it was something else. They raised me to embrace moments of momentousness. They doubtless thought it was too late for me.

When they stood which I took as a sign of respect. I expected the moment to be an emotional one but my heart chose to soar over dive bombing.

“Dad, Mom,” I said wondering what those present in the courtroom and those watching the sentencing live thought about my impromptu apologies. “I find myself needing to expand my vocabulary. Sorry is so trite. Sorry for bumping into you. Sorry I put my Brussel sprouts in the plant box.” Slight giggles filled the courtroom. “What do you say when you lied to your country? No words exist for that.”

My head bowed, and quietened for a few seconds. I needed to tell them I knew the truth and that it no longer troubled me.

Since my revival from the fainting spell, a buzzing in my head refused to stop. The low hum increased until it became as loud as a ships horn. Only for me the sound remained continuous. As I stood standing facing my parents, my mind locked wanting to break free. While squinting my eyes I forced my brain to remember what it had forgotten. I continued to press until a thought of a fishing trip at the age of seven broke through the imposed prison. As the memory unfolded before me I reiterated it verbatim to my parents.

“I think it must have been somewhere when I was around the age of seven, eight, no seven…we were on a fishing trip Arizona, no, the Colorado River.”

Intermittent pictures of the event splintered in my mind till they spun like a revolving Rolodex.

“We were on a houseboat for a week.”

My ability to read facial and body language narrowed against my parents’ abilities, but I watched as they refrained from staring at each other. I was the only one who could interpret the surprise written across their faces. The message was loud and clear, ‘How in the world does he remember that?’

“I longed to brag about the seven-pound catfish I caught. You used that moment to teach me every creature had a purpose, even the catfish. On my own I made the choice to release it back into the river. You taught me many life lessons along the way and now I remember them.”

The multitudinous thoughts flooded back into my mind as is if they were returning after a faraway trip accompanied with worn postcards. Thousands of thoughts no more than that made their intrusion into my consciousness so many I was unable to keep count.

“When I turned ten, we traveled to India. For six months, the three of us lived in the poverty stricken country working and living alongside them. You wanted me to understand that the money we enjoyed came at a price. More than that, the responsibility I had to my fellow brothers and sisters around the world could not go unheeded.”

Their composure sagged as I reiterated yet another memory.

“At thirteen, you caught me in the middle of a huge lie. I remember the turmoil grinding my every breath and confessed to you the wrong I had committed. I did not grasp that lesson then, but I understand it now.”

“What has happened here is my fault, not yours. And I will bear the responsibility of my actions.”

He glanced at my mom without making it obvious to anyone in the courtroom. The emotion of the moment and the torrent of thoughts galvanizing themselves into my mind pushed me over the top and I had to take a second to gather myself. The fear of seventeen years obliterated in an instant.

Conversations between my parents and me still needed to happen. The force behind them eased in their volatility. Today for the first time in my life I understood my dad loved me. A cocoon of love enveloped—warm and safe. I sat next to Stumpy and waited for the judge to pronounce sentence. Whatever he threw at me, I could handle it.

“Mr. Drayper, for a seventeen-year-old you have demonstrated tremendous maturity, courage, and resolve in my courtroom today. I must say I am delighted you took it upon yourself to make restitution. I’m pleased you took the opportunity to apologize and have shown remorse for your actions. Regrettably you did commit crimes, and a jury of your peers found you guilty. It is my job to sentence you. Will the defendant rise?”

Stumpy circled his arm around my waist as we stood side by side.

“Jason Drayper the jury of your peers has found you guilty. On the count of destruction of a police building, I sentence you to one year.”

My heart jumped into my throat choking the life out of me.

“On the count of destruction of private and public property I sentence you to six months.”

Eighteen months for the first two counts. I imagined hearing him say the words, ‘twenty years.’

“And for the last count, defrauding the American people for the purposes of making profit I sentence you to…”

Stumpy squeezed.

“Four and half years. Sentences will be served concurrently in a juvenile facility. I will take into account the year you have already served and subtract that from your sentence leaving you with five years.”

The news of five years did not debilitate me. Amazing how quickly you can adapt to what life throws at you. You either roll over, die or you stare it down, and I was done rolling over. Five years could not beat me. I prepared to turn to the guards who were standing there prepared to take me to back. I held up my hands waiting for the handcuffs to secure my wrists.

“Just a minute Mr. Drayper,” said the judge. “I’m not finished.” Our eyes connected as I turned to face him. “I’m going to suspend your sentence and give you opportunity to make restitution by committing yourself to five thousand hours of community service to be served after you take time to reacquaint your family with the new Jason Drayper.

“And Mr. Drayper,” the judge continued, “None of us is perfect. Do not let your imperfections define you. Court adjourned.”

The sound of the gavel made me jump. I was more surprised at the cheering crowd.

“What happened,” I asked Stumpy?

“The judge suspended your sentence.”

“You mean…?”

“You’re free Jason. Congratulations.”

“Thank you Stumpy.” I grabbed him and lifted. We hugged for a long time. “I’ll never forget this.”

My parents approached as I pulled away from Stumpy. I ran toward them and we enjoyed a much needed embrace. In the quiet, without words, we communicated.

“We hate to leave so abruptly,” said Dad, “we’ve got urgent business in Nicaragua.”

“W.A.V.E. keeps you busy. I understand.”

No attempt made by either of them to keep their faces from showing surprise.

“We have quite a bit to discuss when we return.”

“That we do Dad.”

For the second time in as many minutes, we hugged. I watched them leave no longer angry over their sudden departure. Pride of their work and accomplishments swelled in my chest and welled in eyes.

“Are you okay?” asked Colby.

“For the first time.”

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

 

Explanations of forgotten memories paced at a slow rate. My parents clarified their reasons for and how they kept me in the dark. In line to take over Dad’s leadership, W.A.V.E.’s bylaws stipulated I be groomed, trained, and provided the necessary challenges and discomforts for leadership appropriation. Those same regulations demanded the candidate’s memory of training in areas of black extractions, hand to hand combat, weapon expertise, communication underlays, covert impersonation, language mastery, and leadership training stay hidden from that aspirant until they reached the age of eighteen.

To make sure such training remained buried in the subconscious, Ceasolex, a drug developed by the military to help active duty soldiers returning from combat to expunge many of the harrowing memories and become a curative for post-traumatic stress was administered. Ceasolex’s ability to conceal memories was administered to me through my Mom’s cups of cocoa and often in my drinks.

I learned my hours of shortened sleep came at the expense of the intense training I unknowingly participated in on a daily basis, sometimes up to eight hours a day, more on the weekends. My perfected skills equaled those of Navy Seals though my body had six months to a year before reaching my full height and stature.

Now that the cat was out of the bag so to speak and the drugs no longer necessary, my training resumed until I reached the caliber of a honed agent. At the facility in Pennsylvania, Dad, Mom, Ed, Marty, and Consuela, the top communications expert in the known world, trained me personally. I could not become an official member of W.A.V.E. until I completed a successful op.

With no contact from the outside world, I returned to Vero Beach four months later a changed person. Fallout from the faked singles died not long after the trial. Fifty thousand record consumers requested refunds. My portfolio, which had at one time been an all-consuming focus burst at 1.7 billion dollars.

For the next year, besides my continued W.A.V.E. training, community service hours, and completion of high school, my hectic schedule left little room for music. Creative passion for my art burned inside of me, but now I understood the bigger picture.

Graduation day came. In attendance were Colby’s parents, mine, and a smattering of my W.A.V.E. family. With diplomas in hands, questions from non-family members focused on college and summer plans. Adept at altering a conversation and refocusing on the questioner, I continued conversations without discussion or revelation of the truth.

Graduation parties around city filled the ballrooms of lush hotels. Colby and my party included half-a-dozen of Colby’s friends from her old school, my parents, Colby’s parents, Stedwick Marks, and Mr. Oswald the orchestra teacher. It was held in our home in Vero Beach.

When the festivities began I arrived dressed in a black tuxedo. Dad and I walked in together and the small crowd ceased its chattering. They stood when Colby entered dressed in a long white gown. The vision before me could only be described as heavenly. Mr. Shire handed me her hand, and I took it from my soon to be father-in-law. She smiled, the veil never eclipsed the beauty beneath.

After the judge rescinded my sentence, I took his advice and reacquainted myself with my parents. Colby and her parents joined us on the one-month excursion. During our time in New Zealand I informed my parents of my decision to marry Colby. I am not sure what I expected to hear from them but their overjoyed expressions left me speechless. It bothered them not one iota the shortness of our ages. Later that afternoon, I took Mr. Shire aside and asked to marry Colby. His and Mrs. Shire’s response reverberated that of my parents. When I found Colby and told her of the good news, we settled on the soonest possible date we could.

Now as I stared at her and prepared to say my vows I realized the orchestration of events in my life though miscued by my actions settled into the plan God certified for me. I could not be happier. When Colby said the words, “I do” breaths left me in quick succession making me lightheaded enough I held tighter onto her hands to steady myself.

Pronounced as husband and wife, I kissed her feeling my former world realigning with the new.

We honeymooned on Flinders Island in Tasmania.

Day Four of our trip emerged with a foreboding gray sky. The weather coerced me to sleep in late. I obliged. Colby kissed me deeply before venturing out for her daily walk. The weather was cold, the air crisp with the moisture of a promising snowfall. I awoke an hour and a half later. Without venturing into the lounge I showered then dressed. I exited the bedroom and stopped. My training with W.A.V.E. meant highly attuned observations skills. The slightest item out of place sent off alarms in my head. They blared as I stared at the kitchen table. A nondescript single piece of paper lay on the table with an unfamiliar cellphone near it. I moved and read the note making sure not to disturb the evidence.

If you want to see Colby again, you will bring us one billion dollars in cash. Someone will contact you in five days. Have the cash ready. We will not accept any delays. Don’t involve the local police or Colby will die.

Panic and terror never wrapped its tentacles around me. Instead, a steadiness, a result of my training overtook my emotions. I made a call. In less than eighteen hours, team members from W.A.V.E. arrived. Since the assumption was the airport was being watched they arrived under the cover of night emerging from a submarine a half mile offshore. Small inflatable boats transported the team of to a secret location on the northern side of the island. When the team settled I spoke.

“Thank you for coming. As you know by now Colby was abducted yesterday somewhere between eight and nine thirty a.m. Her captors have asked for a ransom of a billion dollars, in cash to be paid in cash five days from now. The only clues we have are the piece of paper and the cellphone they left to contact me still in place where I found them. Whoever did this has been planning this for months and knew of Colby’s and my marriage and honeymoon location. They could not have known of my intention to sleep in. They had to be good, because I never saw them. I cannot even tell you how many of them there are.”

“Can you think of anyone with a grudge?” Dad asked. He sat next to Mom with Ed, Marty, Consuela, and Paris on his right, respectively.

“They’re either dead or in prison.” They knew I spoke of Regis Dexmyer and his deceased son.

“Do you think this is related to the Sinatra and Cole singles?” asked Marty.

“I find it difficult to believe someone who purchased a fifteen dollar single wants to exact revenge by kidnapping your wife and demanding a billion-dollar payment.”

“Why a billion dollars?” Consuela asked. “Why not a million or ten million?”

“All good questions,” I replied. “No good answers.”

“It’s common news you made over a billion dollars from the sale of the singles. I don’t believe in coincidences. The figure is too precise.”

“I agree Ed,” I said, “if you are right, that increases the suspect pool to well over sixty-six million. Though I believe we can scale that number down to make it more manageable. We need to follow the money trail. This kidnapping was financed by someone with means. I imagine a team of ten were hired for this gig. Check and see what pops up.”

“I’ll get on it right away,” Consuela said.

“Do you want me to set up the command post here?” Paris asked. As the resident forensic expert in W.A.V.E. he knew the importance of scouring the island for evidence—the location of Colby’s abduction purposed to yield important information.

“I need you to blend. If a team is keeping a close eye on me, we cannot tip them to outside involvement. Running an op on foreign soil presets its own difficulties. The Australian Government can have no knowledge of our presence. I bought a property in a small town south of Ballarat, Victoria. I lifted the phone that connected me with the other W.A.V.E. members and texted them the address; RMB 2076, Creswick, Victoria 4322. Consuela, set up the command post there. Meet there tomorrow by ten p.m. that should give you enough time to collect evidence here.”

No one questioned my decision as being juvenile, self-promoting or ridiculous. One by one they left the room. I never questioned their methods of travel to the mainland of Australia. By ten o’clock the following night I had no doubt everyone would be present for our first meeting. The group stood, and we recited the pledge.

“As members of the W.A.V.E., Warriors Against Violence Everywhere, we pledge to stand for the rights of every human being to enjoy freedom. We will fight against any power or force that exerts their power over the rights of any individual. We will stay true to our bylaws refusing to follow private crusades no matter how unconscionable the act unless we are united to target such an individual or organization. As a team we put our lives on the line, without fear of reprisal, for imprisoned souls who yearn to be free.”

One by one the members of W.A.V.E left for the exception of two.

“You okay?” Mom asked. Even in the darkness her face burned with a rage I had seen it once when she castigated the principal who expelled me from school. There was fight in her eyes. She approached and hugged me tight before leaving to make her own exit off the island. That left Dad.

“You realize this qualifies as your first mission,” he said.

I smiled.

“Harder when family’s involved.”

He nodded.

“We’ll get her back Jason.” He hugged me and walked to the door. “I love you son,” he said then disappeared into the early morning darkness.

At daybreak with my and Colby’s belongings packed, I called for a taxi to take me to the airport. My decisions henceforth not only affected me, W.A.V.E. and my wife, but the Australian residents. Whoever held Colby ignited an all-consuming fire in my soul. I would not pray for them or show mercy, for I knew the wrath they were destined to face.


Perfect Imperfection - The Lost Songs

Jason Drayper longs for the love of his father, Jack Drayper. On his fifteenth birthday, Jack gives Jason fifteen million dollars. By his sixteenth birthday, Jason has emerged into one of the most successful teenagers in the world. However, hopes that his financial acumen will fuse the estranged relationship with his father fizzles as he suspects his parents are involved in something illegal. Sixteen-year-old Colby Shire, a California native and musician extraordinaire, attends Jason’s school mesmerizing him with her incredible abilities. Unwilling to commit himself to a woman he's head over heels for but hardly knows, Jason puts Colby through a ‘trust test’ that generates a contradictory response. Still seeking the love of his father, and prompted by Colby’s musicianship, Jason embarks on a crooked plan that will make him a billionaire and ultimately force Jack to love him. When Jason’s plan backfires and a woman is found dead, Jason escapes to a private island to avoid arrest. After a failed suicide attempt that ends in the loss of Colby's respect, and the apprehension of his parents by authorities, Jason returns to the U.S. to stand trial and address the deception of the American people that earned him over a billion dollars.

  • Author: Richard C. McClain II
  • Published: 2017-03-21 20:20:23
  • Words: 105658
Perfect Imperfection - The Lost Songs Perfect Imperfection - The Lost Songs